West Ward Bound Journal                                                                          updated as of 7/08/06

 

The idea for this trip came just about one week before leaving. A good friend of mine named Becky was moving to Nevada and her daughter Jamie was flying  to Houston so she could help drive the rest of the way. I heard Becky mention she was a little nervous about driving to Texas by herself, so I volunteered.

 

I told her that I really didn’t want Houston to be my “final destination” so what about me driving with them to San Antonio?  She asked, “You just want me to let you out?”  I quickly replied (for those who know my history), “well…AT LEAST come to a complete stop”.

 

I checked on “Google Earth” and looked at the San Antonio satellite map and saw the hotel I wanted.  I made reservations at the Hilton Palacio Del Rio located right on the River walk. My initial plan was to tour the city by myself, then fly to New Orleans on Sunday, stay just outside the city with friends and then fly home on Wed the 31st; the whole trip was SUPPOSED to total only 10 days.

 

There’s an old saying, “write your goals in concrete but your plans in sand”. In other words, my goal was still to return home BUT I had no idea about the experiences and changes to my travel plans that awaited me. It now reminds me of the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island…. “They went out on a 3 hour tour”.

 

Sunday 5/21/06 – Becky met me at the entrance of Old Burnt Fort road at 9am with a Penske truck fully loaded towing her SUV on a flatbed trailer.

We were able to cut out 30 miles by taking a short cut through Folkston, GA and then getting on I-10 in Maclenny. FL.

 

Driving down country roads brought us quickly to the Florida line but also to the VERY small Agricultural check point station, which was almost hidden by trees on the opposite side of the road.  WHEN I did finally see it, it was too late. I slowed down to about 10 mph but since we were towing a vehicle, it would have been too much of a hassle to turn around, so I proceeded on. All during this time, she kept telling me we didn’t have to stop but I said, “I think we did”. We each tried to convince each other of our own point (RN’s tend to do that) but I finally said if we get pulled over…she was wrong.  Well…we did.  I really didn’t want to be right (well kind of).  At least we only got a verbal warning (told you so).

 

We had another problem though....we needed a solution to our seating problem.   We just assumed there would be one long seat in the truck cab for 3 but we found out it only had 2 bucket seats. Things would be fine until Houston but when we left from there to go the 200 miles to San Antonio, there would be 3 in the truck. We came up with ideas from rental cars to hot air balloons....I settled for a flight from Houston.

 

Our goal was to reach Todd Gibbs place in Gulf Shores, AL and we got there around 7pm.  It was good to see Todd because we all used to work together in the ER in Brunswick. GA.  He decided to take us to the flora-bama bar (located on the Florida and Alabama state line…hence the name). On the way to this” historic landmark”, he showed us the continued devastation from hurricane Ivan that came across there in Sept 04.

 

When we got to our destination, we came across a lot of “happy” people and we took our turn in pursuing that emotion. After catching up on each other’s news, we went back and Todd cooked some of the best fish I’ve ever eaten (maybe it was due to the after-effects of flora-bama).

The next day (Monday) we went to a matinee at 1:30pm to see “The Davinci Code”. Forget the plot; I still can’t get over the fact that we only had to pay $10.30 for 3 adults!

Afterwards, we ate seafood at Lulu’s (owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister) and then walked on the sugar white beach of Gulf Shores.

 

Went back and watched some TV and after Becky went to sleep, Todd and I went out on his porch and solve the world problems until he had to go to bed to be ready for work the next day.

 

We left Tuesday morning around 8am and our next goal was to reach Houston, TX where Becky’s son, who is also named Todd (it can get confusing), lived.

 We estimated the moving van, fully loaded with vehicle in tow, was getting 11 miles per gallon. She factored in the total miles from start to finish and it came to a little over $900 just for gas; small price for a brand new adventure (very proud & even envious of her).

Arrived in Houston and got to Todd’s apt at 7:30pm very easily but ONLY with the aid of the “Co-Pilot” GPS system loaded in my laptop.

 

Becky and Todd went to airport at 11pm to pick up Jamie who flew in from Ohio.

When they arrived, we settled in and watched the harvesting of snow crabs on the Discovery channel until 1am (I know you watched it too).

Wednesday, for lunch, we ate at Stone Fish (Todd’s workplace) and in memory of last night’s show, I ate some crab legs.

That night, “Chief Todd” cooked hamburgers and oven roasted corn that was still in the husk….excellent!

 

Early Thursday morning the girls got off okay and Todd took me to George Bush airport by 8:30am.  I arrived at San Antonio airport with no problems but when I bought a hotel shuttle ticket….I only bought a one way ticket.  I have to admit, it really bothered me, “Why didn’t I buy a round trip shuttle ticket?  I could have saved 2 dollars!”

Not many days hence, I found out buying only one shuttle ticket was not only the best decision but perhaps, the ONLY decision to make.

 

The front desk staff at the Hilton Palacio not only allowed me to check in early at 11am, they also gave me a free upgrade from street side to a private balcony with river view. I could have jumped off my 7th floor balcony into the San Antonio River but since it was only 5 feet deep, I decided to put my energies to better use.

 

I ate at one of the many river street restaurants, fed the ducks and pigeons (people do that who travel alone) and then took the riverboat tour (that too) to check out the local hot spots.

 

My sister Debbi called and wanted me to get in touch with her brother-in-law who lived just outside of San Antonio. My first thought was a bit negative because I liked not having a schedule; little did I know what type of future was in store for me.  After talking with Billy and Sally, we decided to eat at one of their favorite restaurants Friday afternoon and then after checking out on Sunday, they would take me to see 3 of their horses race that afternoon. The last race would end a 5pm and then they’d take me to the airport for my flight at 8pm (remember me buying only one shuttle ticket?)

Things were coming together in great fashion and just think….I didn’t want to have a schedule ---- silly me.

Called Debbi back and sincerely thanked her for “interrupting my plans”.

 

Went for a night walk along the river, ate an appetizer, drank a very special margarita and found the Alamo….very impressive; especially at night when it’s all lit up. On the way back to the hotel I discovered a great jazz club so I went in and enjoyed the music and the people.

 

After the 2nd break I excused myself and continued my exploration. I’d been hearing bag pipes playing in the distance all through the evening and now after 11pm, I could still hear it. I first thought it had to be recorded music because it never stopped but the more steps I took, the louder the music got.  It sounded like it was coming from the street level so after walking up the stairs; there they were….dueling bag pipes!

Watched them ply their trade for about 15 minutes and then left a tip before making the short walk back to the hotel.

After taking a refreshing shower, I updated my virtual journal while a constant gentle breeze came through the open balcony door. Thursday was closing and Friday was eager to appear; it’s midnight and this beautiful city was calming down and preparing for a new day.

 

The pillow top mattress + down feather comforter + high thread count sheets + oversized pillows = a wonderful night sleep.  I rolled out of bed at 10am and had my morning caffeine sacrifice. Immediately after opening the balcony door, the drapes swayed in sync to the light breeze, the soft hum of city life, mixed with birds singing and the occasional voices from the boat guides below, gently filled the room.  While on the balcony drinking my last cup of morning coffee, gazing at the white clouds as they slowly marched across the stark blue western sky, a smile came across my face and I breathed a sigh of contentment….this was the life.   

 

I made it to the 1:30pm showing of “The Alamo” at the River Center IMAX about a ½ mile away from the hotel. After getting caught up on my Western history, I walked the short distance to the actual site of the Alamo. First impression is it’s not as big as you think it should be. The movie, of course, showed everything in its original state, including the outer walls, which have disappeared over time. What you mainly see today is the church/chapel that they used as their “last stand”; very impressive with plenty of artifacts to view. I would highly suggest watching the IMAX version of “The Alamo” before touring the memorial….it will put it in greater perspective, at least it did for me.

 

One thing that makes this city very appealing is the short distance between the numerous restaurants, bars and shops. If San Antonio is your only destination, you don’t even need a rental car; especially if you stay in the river district. If you want to expand your tour, the City has a trolley and conventional metro bus service that seems adequate.

 

Ate a late lunch watching the people and the tour boats pass by. Decided it was time to go shower and get ready to meet the “Western Watsons”.  Talked to Billy on the phone, he described the car that he'd be driving and confirmed the pick up time. 

The car he described pulled up at 6:30pm, I got in and then he asked, “Are you Rob?” I should have said, “No....I’m John” but I quickly decided not to…I didn’t know how he'd react to my little joke. We met up with Sally at one of their favorite eateries named, La Fonda’s. It’s a great Tex-Mex restaurant known for their margaritas but I personally found out they also should known for their hot peppers and boy do I mean HOT! I told the manager I wanted some hot peppers but I quickly discovered my southern definition of “hot” was VERY different from the western version.  I still think the roots of that pepper plant went straight down to Hell…it felt like liquid fire!!!

 

While my body was restoring its core temperature and the Texas state drink was healing my scorched taste buds, a friend of theirs named Bill joined us for dinner.  Drinks flowed and friendships were made.

 

I told them my short “to do” list included taking pictures of a Texas sunset. They said, if I would delay my flight until Monday, I could spend the night at their ranch after the race and see that sunset I talked about. As you could imagine, it didn’t take me too long to make the right decision.

 

After leaving La Fonda’s they dropped me back off at the hotel and I spent what was left of the evening on the balcony listening to an outdoor musical just around the river bend.

 

Saturday morning came in with a gentle nudge and I slowly started my day. For some reason I started watching the movie, Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Adventures.

After gaining my sanity back, I realized that I was “producing” my own most excellent adventure…I just didn’t realize how many “new stars” would be introduced in just over a 24 hour time period.

 

I loaded my laptop into my leather bag and made the short trek on the river walk to the River Center. The area was noticeably busier due to it being Memorial Day weekend but it didn’t take too long to find an open table. The River Center is like a cul-de-sac for the river boats to turn around and located here is the IMAX, shops, eateries, bars and live music.  While updating my journal, a wood wind band (across the water garden) played soothing new age music which added to the sense of being in another world.

The beauty I was experiencing would have been magnified by having someone by my side. Thinking back about it now, maybe being by myself allowed me to totally drink in the moment, without having to worry about ensuring someone else’s good time.

 

Spent the first part of the evening updating my photo journal and decided, since it was my last night on the river front, to join the music and the people down below. Went to the Lone Star lounge, listened to a live band, imbibed on the “local fruit” and met some of the locals. A light thunderstorm cropped up so I went back to my room and watched the waning festivities from my balcony.

 

I could hear the intermitted shouts of joy as different individuals made up their own “rain dance”.  After midnight, everything started to quiet down except the light rain…its time to sleep.

 

Sunday morning came a little too early but the snooze button became my best friend by helping me enjoy my comfortable bed just a little bit longer.

Sally called (noticeably out of breath), the light rain and wind I experienced last night was a totally different story on their ranch. She said they rarely have tornados but they have wind shears which are straight blast of strong winds….kind of like a rouge wave (Poseidon Adventure).  There was tree damage and the horses in one of the paddocks got spooked and broke through the fence…quarter horses were everywhere!

They were rounded up, the fence mended and my scheduled pick up time was moved to 12:30.

I checked out of a great hotel, ate a late breakfast and watched the tourist boats go by for one last time.

 

I thought to myself…“if I don’t, ‘Remember The Alamo’, I will always remember my San Antonio experience!”

  

The Watsons picked me up as planned, ate lunch and then drove about 15 min. to the Retama race track. These races were designed for the “locals’ to compete against each other and the Watsons had 3 of their horses running in 3 separate races.

The clouds from last night’s rain starting breaking up and the sun with its blue sky provided another beautiful Texas size day with other constant refreshing breeze.

This breeze finally compelled me to ask a local about it and she said it got hotter as the calendar pages peel off (their future demise, for some reason, made me feel better).

 

Most of the “Western Watson” clan gathered at the viewing paddock where the current horses about to race, were placed; it was great renewing old relationships and creating new ones.

I told them, this was “my first time” (at a horse race) so please be gentle with me.

                                                                                                     

Their first horse, Bronx bomber finished 3rd --- I lost $5

Girl gone wind finished 5th ---I lost $8

Cyclysm Six, after photo finish, won in a dead heat for 1st---- I bet 2 to win and 2 to place and won $25……yeah, I’m a winner, who’s your daddy now?!

 

After that race we all gathered inside the winner circle and had our picture taken with the winning horse and jockey. It couldn’t get any better than this….little did I know the events that would soon unfold.

 

After EVERYBODY in the family cashed in their winning tickets, we traveled about 25 miles northeast to their horse farm for a family cookout and, finally for me, to marvel at a western sunset.

 

When we arrive I have to say my expectations were not met, the best word to use was….exceeded.

 

What I saw was 80 acres of fenced green pasture surrounding the main house, workshop, horse barn and even a regulation skeet shooting range. There were, I guess, 15 horses distributed between the several paddocks.

 

After playing catch with ALL the dogs, eating great steaks and having conversation, most of us retired outside to not only drink “refreshments” but to drink in the sunset that awaited us. This family definitely followed the philosophy, “a stranger is only a friend we haven’t met yet”; they were impeccable host.

 

Billy started a blaze in the large stone fire pit as we watched the most beautiful sunset transform before us. I never realized orange had some many variations as it stretched its magnificence across the flat terrain.

 

As the night progressed, the family, one by one, started retiring for the evening but Drew, Tanna and I “stayed the course.”

 

We laughed, talked, drank Dos Equis, sang and took pictures by the glowing embers, listening all the while to true old Texas music through the outdoor speakers.  I have to admit I didn’t want this night to end; the stars were beautiful, a light breeze from the East and spending time with some “top shelf” individuals.

 

My oldest sister Debbi once told me, “We do not remember days…we remember moments (cesare pavese)” and since the early evening, I realized a “moment” was occurring. I paid attention to every minute detail because with the coming of tomorrow…..it would all be a memory,

 

We celebrated the setting of the sun….but we almost saw it rise.  Around 4am we called it quits and each fell quickly to sleep, in whatever bed we could find.

 

Monday morning came early with the smell of great food and conversation coming from the kitchen. True, last night was now a memory to be cherished but the Western sun and weather patterns would usher in their own new experiences.

 

After we talked about it, the decision was made for me (I wasn’t hard to convince) to call Southwest again and delay my flight till later in the day.

Since it was Memorial Day, all flights were booked to New Orleans until the next day at 4:45pm….booked it. Now I had time to enjoy the surrounding before me and take more pics for my journal. Called the Masons and told them I’d be a day late; they said it worked out better for them because they were exhausted due to hardly any sleep. They drove 2 cars with one towing a trailer filled with their last load of belongings from Burnt Fort, GA to Slidell, LA and they didn’t arrive to their new home until 3:00 that morning.

 

After breakfast, the girls went shopping at a huge western store (they really did) and the guys gathered around the large screen flat TV and watched the Braves get pummeled by the Dodgers and the rest of the early afternoon was spent recuperating. As the sun dropped so did the number of family members; gave hugs, goodbyes and promises of return were given.

 

 

All that was left of the crowd was Me, Billy and Sally so I decided to walk around the ranch and take pictures. Went to the horse barn and watched one of the fillies nursing as the dogs were diligently digging through the saw dust.

That afternoon we had a Texas size storm complete with strong winds, tree damage, lightening, hail, heavy rain and power outage.

The horses in the pasture made it through alright and they especially enjoyed the cool brisk air afterwards; they spent the next few hours running around and playing tag with the others in their paddock.

 

After the power was finally restored we went and ate at another great Tex-Mex restaurant and talked about the events from the night before and of course….horses.

 

I had a great night’s sleep, and then Sally and I met Billy and Courtney for lunch on Tuesday.

Got out of the car and recognize the entrance, we were back at La Fonda’s...I felt like a “regular”.

Great food and conversation always equals to a great meal but I have to admit that I’m looking forward to changing my diet to Cajun cuisine tonight. 

 

Final pics were taken outside of La Fonda’s and then Billy took me to the airport where the start of this great adventure began. Walked past the kiosk that sold transportation tickets to downtown San Antonio and smiled thinking, "glad I only bought one ticket and not round trip".

I relaxed with a Dos Equis in one of the eateries, remembering the trip so far and worked on my journal until it was time for my flight.

 

 

Judy and her daughter Kristen met me at the New Orleans baggage claim area at 7pm and had a very short trip to their new home in Slidell, LA.  It was good seeing Michael Mason and his family back together again; they had a complicated, time consuming move from GA to LA. I got them up to date on my trip so far, we exchanged stories, laughed, told taller tales and  remembered the good (and bad) times we’ve experienced together through the years.

It’s Thursday now and have spent most of my day calling family, friends, updating the website and just….well, relaxing.

We’re planning on going to the French Quarter Friday night, so I called Southwest Airlines AGAIN to change my fight to Jacksonville from Saturday until Sunday.

Since I seem to wait to the last minute, all flights were booked AGAIN till Tuesday….let it be.

Friday night came and we started the 30 min. trip to New Orleans. As the odometer increased in numbers, so did the devastation that served as a daily reminder of nature’s fury. The famous city is located on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, a huge body of water. Even before crossing the lake, the evidence could still be seen: trucks “parked” by Katrina were still in the creeks, boats upside down in fields, houses blown a part and FEMA trailers everywhere.

 

I’ve never seen anything like this and they’ve been cleaning up for 9 months!  All the TV coverage I watched concerning the devastation could not prepare me for what I was about to see when we got to the other side of the lake and entered New Orleans.

 

TV or text could not even come close to describing what we saw while driving down the interstate.  As far as the eye could see, there were abounded homes, housing complexes, restaurants and stores. It felt like I was at a tennis match, my head was constantly turning from left to right….it was impossible to take it all in. Every living quarter had a “X” spray painted on the outside door; the # placed in the upper quadrant equaled the people alive on the inside and the # in the left quadrant signified how many found dead.  

Since the French Quarter only received water damage of only about 2 feet of water and the backbone of the local economy, it was the first area to reopen.

 

Michael, Judy and I met some young relief workers from Katrina and took in the local flavor outside of a jazz bar in the French Quarter. They said the biggest things to get used to were the increasing number of rats, roaches and termites; in fact, one guy mentioned seeing a “small dark cloud coming closer and closer to him” and finally realized it was swarming termites looking for a new home.

We decided to stay off Bourbon St. due to Michael having to work the next day but there were still plenty of authentic jazz bars and great restaurants to pick from.

 

Enjoyed visiting the Mason’s church in Slidell and we ate lunch with their Pastor and his family…..great place & great people!

Monday came with a little surprise added to it; Judy had a doctor’s appointment in Atlanta on Tuesday and decided not to cancel it. Driving seemed to be the only option due to high flight cost, so I volunteered to ride with her and while there, sign “the papers” and pick up my pictures from Sigrid.

She would drive me home, after her last appt. on Wednesday, and see family while there and also on the way back to Slidell; it sounded good and I could save my flight ticket and use it within one year.

We left for Atlanta at 5:30 in the morning and during the 7 hour trip, she received a call from a girlfriend (located a few states away) that needed a place to stay for a while. Judy, of course, volunteered to open her house to her, it’s just Judy didn’t realize how fast she would be there  TOMORROW, knocking on their door.

 

We talked about options and decision was made that we would drive back to Louisiana after two appointments. I would use my ticket the next day to fly back to Jacksonville (I really didn’t look forward to back tracking another 7 hours).

 

Called Sigrid to see when we could meet and she said Tuesday because she was visiting family in Florida the next day. Something “clicked” in my brain and I told her I’d call back.

Brain wheels turning….let’s see --- 7 hours BACK to Slidell, then fly out of New Orleans to J’ville on Thursday, OR maybe ride back with Sig for 5 hours to within 15 miles of “home sweet home”; decisions, decisions.

I called her back and offered to pay for food and gas….she accepted (SOLD to the man with the receding hairline and beer belly!!).

 

 

 

We checked into a hotel near the Buckhead community at $90.00 per night. I listed the price due to all it included: close proximity to The Sheppard’s Center; free 3 mile radius shuttle service in the morning & evening until 10pm, free drinks made by bartender in hotel’s private bar from 5-7pm and free hot breakfast….can’t beat that!!!

 

Enjoyed being back in Atlanta but I had to admit it was a little strange. We took the shuttle to a great Tex-Mex eatery (in remembrance of San Antonio) and enjoyed the local atmosphere.

 

At 11:00 Wednesday morning, we met Sigrid at a coffee shop close to where we used to live (I always wanted to stop there but never took the time).

Gave Judy a hug goodbye and as in San Antonio, promised a return visit.

 

The trip from Atlanta to Folkston, GA was surprisingly pleasant, filled with updates on family and friends.

 

Jacob, my nephew, met us in Folkston and drove me back to Burnt Fort, 15 miles away.

 

Went inside the house and was greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by my little dog Bruiser.

 

Dorothy was right………THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME!