Sunday, May 19, 2019

Batty About Austin Texas -- Day 5 Cross-Country from Florida to the Pacific Northwest

Something along this lines of this Earl McGehee image  is what we were hoping to see in Austin Texas.
On Day Five of our semi-leisurely drive cross-country, we entered the vast state of Texas while the day was still young. 

In some ways, state lines seem like such arbitrary boundaries when traveling across the states. Yet there are some changes we notice immediately, and ponder what they tell us about the differences between these United States.

Entering Texas, for example, you are greeted by a large and well-appointed Welcome Station, and there is usually a noticeable improvement in the roads compared to Texas' less well funded neighbors, Mississippi and New Mexico, both of which are among the USA's poorest states.
This tractor slowed (viewed through our Prius windshield) our trip along a Texas highway.
Fortunately, we weren't behind it for long.
Tractors or not, our drive for the day was an easy one. We were bound for Austin, as Wayne agreed to indulge my curiosity. 
We had lots of good company there to see Austin's famed bats. Here, we looked up at the Congress Bridge
from below. The bats nest below the bridge from March through October.
It was about sixteen years ago when I met someone from Austin at a Portland Oregon conference who asked if I'd ever heard about Austin's massive bat population. At the time, I hadn't. It turns out, Austin is the home of the largest urban bat population in the world.
Other folks who shared our vantage point below Austin's Congress Street Bridge for bat viewing.
In more recent years, I'd heard Austin's job market was thriving and the city rivaled Portland Oregon's vibrant culture. Wayne has also never been to Austin.

We needed to spend the eve in Austin as that's when the bats emerged after dusk, in masses up to 1.5 million to help rid the city of its insect population. Austin's learned to capitalize on this bizarre natural phenomenon to the tune of $7.9 million annually in increased tourism, though at their peak the bats can still outnumber the residents. The Austin Bat Organization champions these furry winged mammals and does a terrific job of protection them while informing the public. The Austin Bat Refuge Organization also does a great job of informing bat viewers. For a great giggle as well as some pragmatic advice, be sure to scroll down the page to read "a semi-tongue-in-cheek rant by an Austin Bat Refuge docent."
This bat mural is one of many signs of Austin's capitalizing on the mystique of its seasonal furry flying population.
In our case, we arrived on a delightfully balmy night early enough to find a decent parking space and a good place to watch the action. Along the way we roller-coastered our way through Austin's hills, as we passed an inviting array of shops and restaurants. We chose the knoll below bridge level, where the Austin skyline light purportedly made the bat flight more visible as dusk shifted into darkness. Most notable of the building was a Gotham-like building, which we later discovered was the Frost Bank Tower
The iconic Frost Bank Tower,.. both lauded and reviled. It  is, however, a LEED Gold building.
Between those watching from our vantage point, the bridge and the opposite shore, my guess is there were 500 or so folks there to see the spectacle. While we waited, we got a kick out of meeting Andy, who was brandishing a red devil holding a mini mike for Andy's podcaster podcasting podcast. Appropriately, Andy was out for a podcasting convention, and of course, the bats, which he was also podcasting about. We joked about the delay in the show due perhaps to the bats securing an agent, requesting a bigger cut of the revenues they were bringing in. Or perhaps some tastier mosquitoes.
Are we part of Andy's podcaster podcasting podcast? Not sure if we were sufficiently witty.
Andy, however, most definitely is!
Eventually, the bats made their way out from under the bridge, first in a trickle, then a bit more. They were almost a mirage, in ghostly white. Not one of their better showings, but still a fun experience.
 Dan Pancamo's fantastic bat image captures the bat's flight with Austom's iconic
Frost Bank Tower in the background. 
We cruised Austin a bit by night after the show and agreed it would be worth a return visit, with a bigger budget and more time.
Kayakers clustered below the bridge for another fantastic vantage point of Austin's fames bat flight.
We did slip in a visit to the Zilker Botanical Gardens, to get a chance to see at least a little more of Austin before we hit the road. Not sure when we'll be back, but look forward to it.
The prehistoric portion of Zilker Botanical Gardens was my favorite part, complete with horsetails, ferns, cycads
and of course, a dinosaur.
We couldn't figure out what the mass of daddylonglegs spiders were doing beneath this rock in Zilker's
prehistoric garden. Orgy perhaps? They were vibrating. Seriously.
This waterfall was a welcome sight in Zilker Gardens after the weird daddylongleg spider mass.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Low Country: Alabama > Louisiana, Day 4 Cross Country

Rice fields, Louisiana. We didn't see any bird life until we stopped.
We ambled out about 9:30 am from our cush Mobile room. We knew we wanted to check out a Mobile marina, and figuried making it into Texas that eve was a bit of a stretch.  The marina folks were congenial, and the rates reasonable. Good datapoint for future planning. Other than marinas. there's not much else in the area. The nearest grocery store was about 4 miles away, but the kayak potential directly off the maraina looked good.
Related image
White sands and mansions in the Gulfport and Biloxi Mississippi area. Image liberated from WikiCommons.
We nipped the tip of Alabama and Louisiana, so it didn't take long before we were cruising Mississippi. Much as we could, we skirted the Gulf Coast, taking in its waterfront mansions, seafood and BBQ restaurants. It was cool. but we had miles to burn, so we whizzed past....
Restaurant in the Biloxi Mississippi area.
Somewhere in the Biloxi area was the weirdest food combo I've seen for a restaurant -- street tacos and dim sum Not that I have anything against either, but going to a place that claimed to specialize in both struck me as way too odd. Someone will probably tell me I really missed out by trying nothing more than a snapshot take while driving past.
Lake Arthur, Mississippi, showing signs of a recent overabundance of rain.
We finally stopped at Lake Arthur to stretch our legs and use the facilities. The other towns we passed through were either too big and busy, like Biloxi or blink-and-you'll-miss-'ems.
It wasn't even a town where we saw these guineafowl scuttling across the road.
We don't listen to the radio, or podcasts, or books on tape much if at all on long road trips. Instead we focus on where we are and just see what see. Like these guineafowl....
Bridge over Lake Charles, Mississippi, near the East Texas border.
Once again, we got lucky in our last minute lodging choice. When we're not sure how far we'll drive, we wait until we're two hours or less from calling it a day, then use Google maps to find a decent location and rate. I chose the Quality Inn because it was across the street from Lake Charles and close to downtown. It was a good choice. We had enough time to cross the street and watch the sun set over Lake Charles and the bridge that spans it.
Lake Charles' Ryan Street had good bones. There was some great 18th century architecture
for a couple blocks both sides this placard.
I got up at 6:30, grabbed a cup of tea and headed out to Lake Charles' downtown historic district. It started only two blocks from "our" hotel.
Bank, Lake Charles downtown historic district.
Most of the buildings in Lake Charles downtown historic district were built in the 1800s.
City Hall, Lake Charles, Mississippi.
This handsome City Hall (or was it the courthouse?) seemed like a logical turn-around point. I swung by the promenade next to Lake Charles. The area was taken over by pigeons (or doves, pigeons with better PR). I watched them get fed by locals who looked like it was not their first pigeon-feeding rodeo, then headed back to get ready to hit the road.
One of many pigeons hanging around the Lake Charles shoreline.
Still catching up on posts. Tonight we are in Roswell, New Mexico. It is our sixth day of travel.

Friday, May 17, 2019

From Malled to Mobile: Cross-Country Day 3 "Space Coast" FL to Portland OR

Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida's Panhandle.
We witnessed much more of hurricane Michael's devastation of Panama City Florida as we took off on our third day's travel. Major hurricanes, and Michael was a CAT 5 hurricane, provide an interesting study on community commitment. It was a wasteland of roofless gas stations,  empty malls and boarded motels. It looked like a war zone. Perhaps it was; maybe Mother Nature decided the area was due for a radical remodel. 

It seemed certain national chains, such as Waffle House and McDonalds made a major commitment to rebuilding. And a whole lot else, whether national chains or small businesses, over seven months after the hurricane were just non-existent, with no sense of when or if they'd return. 

The contrast between Panama City and neighboring Panama Beach was startling. Panama Beach appeared unscathed, a let-the-good-times-roll party place. It was Spring break mecca Daytona Beach all over again. From Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville to Purple Haze to Alvyn's Tropical Island department stores, to colorful skyrise condos and an abundance of adventure parks... all designed to part tourists from their dollars. 

Destin was more of the same.

In between, we aimed for the remarkably mellow white sand beaches and turquoise waters of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. We were amazed and delighted this quiet beauty was visited by such a small smattering of beach-goers.  We stepped out, stretched our legs, and got our feet sandy.

Mobile Alabama riverboat tourist cruiser. The paddlewheel inadequate to power the boat off the backside is not shown.
Our destination for the end of the day was Mobile, Alabama. It's an area where there's plenty of work for Wayne's skill set. If we choose to take our boat on The Great Loop, or even a portion of it, Mobile could provide a good place to part for a while. 

Bienville Square hints at Mobile's French roots. We heard drummers there when we hung out.
These oyster-shaped murals were scattered around downtown Mobile, AL.
Wayne's much more up to speed on Mobile than me. Its affordability, relatively mild winters and rich history and culture intrigued him.
One of many murals on Dauphin Street, Mobile Alabama.
Once again, we scored on our lodgings. Wayne found the Malaga Inn, a small, grand hotel in the heart of downtown Mobile for $79/night plus tax. The hotel was built in 1862, reflected the area's Spanish influence, and sensationally landscaped with classic Southern touches, like the fragrantly blooming gardenias. The rate included a free breakfast with traditional low country favorites like grits, biscuits and gravy as well as the usual eggs and sausage.
Ornate doors to "our" Malaga Inn, Mobile Alabama in the heart of downtown.

Our room was on the top floor of this three-story hotel. Each room opened off of a central courtyard with a fountain, garden, wrought iron tables and gas lights.
Great period decor of Malaga Inn. The bed was comfy as it as stylish.
But first, after passing a gazillion seafood places between Panama City and Mobile, I was determined to indulge in something fishy. While I rarely eat fried food, embracing the delusion that road trip calories don't count the same as eating in your hometown, I went for fried green tomatoes and a salad topped with fried oysters. At least I could claim I was getting my veggies. Yes, they were good!
Fried oysters and green salad, the entree after the less photogenic but equally tasty fried green tomatoes.
Wintzell's Oyster House, Mobile, Alabama.
I justified my piggery with a walk to check out the river and the downtown area, both after we arrived and in the morning.
One of the statues reminding visitors of Mobile's Mardi Gras.
The gentleman at Mobile's visitor center described Mobile's Dauphin Street as "a tame Bourbon Street." We did find a scattering of Mardi Gras beads. We also discovered the downtown area allows (and it seemed, encourages) folks to purchase and walk the streets with a drink. The drink must come from one of the local bars or restaurants and the prescribed walking area is a relatively small one.
This Mobile Alabama building reminded me of a wedding cake.

Here's a close-up of its tilework.
The architecture and art was amazing! Nearly every building on Dauphin Street, Mobile's "tame Bourbon Street" was a stunner. Most were buildings built in the 1800s, with terrific plaster and wrought iron details, well preserved or restored.
Mobile AL's Saenger Theater (in less than ideal light).

Just another cook place on Dauphin Street, Mobile Alabama.
Wrought iron lattice - didn't expect to see so much of this in Mobile Alabama architecture.
The one part that struck us both as odd.... As devastated as Panama City was, it almost seemed there were more folks there than in Mobile's downtown. Maybe we caught it at an odd time, mid-week. There were not many tourists, nor did it feel like a working downtown. We're just not sure where everybody went!
Where were all the people in Mobile Alabama's downtown?
And what is the store behind this one lone rose left on a park bench?
One of many anthropomorphized images in Mobile that made me smile.

This and the raccoon that proceeds this were in the window front of an optometrist.
The majority of trees (more of them than walkers or drivers) were enormous oaks.
Not sure what these were; their trunks and bark captivated me.

There were definitely more squirrels than people wandering downtown Mobile.
This is the first albino squirrel I've ever seen though!

Surely someone tended this downtown Mobile community garden and put books in its Little Free Library. But who?

Today we are in Austin Texas. Yesterday our stopping point was Lake Charles Louisiana. Post on those stops are still to come.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Cross-Country Day 2: Hunkered in Hurricane Michael's Wake

My favorite "historical marker" outside a Lincolnshire home in St. Augustine Florida, USA's oldest city, founded in 1565.
St. Augustine is a quaint town rife with history and proud of its well-preserved architecture. Seems everywhere you go, there's a historical marker.  Some architecture. like the Castillo de San Marcos, dates back to St. Augustine's early days, when Spain held sway and was compelled to build a fort after getting ransacked by English pirates.
St. Augustine's ample historical markers make it easy to brush up on the local history.
 St. Augustine was a great place to get in my morning walkies while Wayne and our hosts were not quite ready to be up, out and about. I did however have to covertly crash a local restaurant and no public restrooms are open in St. Augustine until 8:30 a.m.
This neighborhood cat seemed rat"er unperturbed about the "Beware of dog" sign.
There were several other cats equally undisturbed in the same yard.
1800s Florida developer mogul Henry Flagler made his mark on St. Augustine, where his buildings heralded a renaissance of sorts. Today those building still feature prominently in St. Augustine architecture. 
Flagler College was once one of Henry Flagler's St. Augustine opulent hotels

The Alcazar Pool and Cafe were once part of another Flagler hotel.
 There was a wide variety of picturesque private residences in St. Augustine, accented with lush subtropical growth.
 This was plainer than most  private homes in St. Augustine, but I loved its front garden full of edibles.
Much as we wanted to dwaddle and explore St. Augustine more, we needed to hit the road. 

We stopped periodically to stretch our legs. The Santa Fe River was a nice spot for that. The water was clear, likely due to the 72 springs that fed into it. We wondered in particular about how the name came about for one of them -- Naked Springs. 
One of several pretty spots at our brief rest stop along the Santa Fe River.
Note the cypress knees rising up like stalagmites. I hope to someday
wander a cypress swamp in the mist.
A bit further we crossed the Suwannee River, which we hope to travel by boat someday.
Suwannee River, viewed from the Frank R. Norris Bridge.
We were amused at the name of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Sopchoppy. Wayne theorized it had to do with Chinese food. I disagreed but didn't have a better sense of its origin, which you can learn about here. Upon reading wiki, I do wish we could've hung around to see the town's Worm Grunting Festival. Seriously - they do have one!

Carrabelle, where the intracoastal waterway disappears for a while, provided another pleasant spot to stretch our legs for a few minutes.
This brown pelican at Carrabelle seemed quite happy to pose for the camera.
We drove past Mexico Beach and Panama City to see how it was faring after being struck October 10, 2018 by Michael a CAT4 hurricane. While it's been over six months, time for significan clean-up, the area is still awash in blue-tarped roofs. Tyvek, boarded buildings and chain link fences marking devastated areas off temporarily or forever. 
"I feel like we're walking on someone else's graves." Wayne said. There were few fatalities but seeing what happened
to family homes like these was still unsettling.
This Mexico Beach home, with the picket fence partially erected,  appeared well on its way to returning to inhabitability.
As the day was drawing to a close, we realized given how few hotels and motels remained, and how many temporary workers were there for reconstruction, that we might have trouble finding a room.  What rooms were available in online checking, started at $170 for two star motels. We usually try to spend $100 or less on our rooms. On a longshot, thanks to Wayne's retired Air Force status, we pulled into Tyndall Air Force base to see if there were any rooms available. As we expected, they did not, but we got a hot tip from someone in their office at the time. "Check out Days Inn in Panama City," he suggested. "It doesn't look like much from the outside, but they're alright. Pre-tax; they're $99 a night."

We didn't see much else along the way. Indeed. Days Inn didn't look like much. But they did have a vacancy and after tax the room was still only $110, with a king sized bed, desk, tv, microwave. fridge/freezer and granite countertops in the bathroom. The street and noise from the other rooms left something to be desired, but given the option of horrendous prices, a long drive to find something else or both, we felt quite grateful for Days Inn.
Our Panama City motel, the Days Inn was not easily recognizable  as a place to stay.
The rooms were much better than the motel's outside appearance.

The sun was setting, we were in a new time zone, and ready to call it a day.