Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Not All Who Wander Are Lost
October, 2017 - Mexico

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Back in December when I was making reservations for our trip along the Gulf Coast this winter, I tried to get a site at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama. I had read many wonderful reviews about the place on blogs and forums, but they were booked solid for the time we would be coming through. So, I booked six nights at another campground in the area. As the time got closer, we just didn’t think the other park sounded all that good, so I started looking for an alternative.

As I was searching, I came across Gulf State Park again. I gave them a call and got very lucky to get the only site they had open for five nights. I jumped on it, and made plans for the extra night at a Passport America park nearby. I’m so glad we got in. Gulf State Park is an amazing place!! They have almost 500 sites a few blocks from the shore. All of the sites are much larger than in any private RV park we’ve stayed. The roads and sites are all paved with patios, a picnic table a grill and full hookups. Quite a few of the sites are on a lake. There is a nature center, activity building, camp store, tennis courts, seasonal swimming pool, lots of paved bike trails and much more. They even have free wi-fi although with the park being completely full it has been hit and miss. During the winter months they allow booking for a month or more. No wonder the place is full. We’ve seen many people from the Midwest and Canada. This place is just awesome!

Here’s our site which is much bigger than it looks in the picture. There’s quite a bit more room on the left of the photo. The view out of our back window is the lake.

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We arrived on a beautiful Monday afternoon. While setting up, I spotted a pretty blue bird on the grill at our site. I snapped a quick picture through the window. It’s a bit blurry, but I have to share it as it’s a new bird for me. An Eastern Bluebird.

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Temps on Tuesday were in the low 70s. We road our bikes a little over ten miles on the trails in the park. Along the side of one of the paths we saw some people looking into the brush. An alligator was sunning itself. There are supposed to be some babies in the area as well, but we didn’t see them.

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Then we road to the beach and walked on the amazing white sands for about an hour.  A lady walking in front of us from the parking lot stooped down when she got to the water and came up with a starfish in her hands. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I looked and looked and never saw a single one. I did find some very pretty shells that I just had to take with me. There were also lots of broken sand dollars.

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The weather forecast for the rest of the week wasn’t very good, so after we rode our bikes back home.  I jumped in the truck with my book and a chair and drove back to the beach. I spent another enjoyable two hours sitting on the beach enjoying the sun and the surf. Kevin’s not that much of a beach lover so he stayed home.

Yesterday it rained pretty much all day. Those of you up north have once again been generous enough to share your polar vortex weather with us. We did some shopping and stopped at Billy’s Seafood where we bought three pounds of fresh shrimp. We had some for dinner. I’ve never cooked fresh shrimp before; and I think I overcooked them a little, but they were still good!

Today the sun is once again shining and temps are supposed to get into the mid 50s. A great day for bike riding!

Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Biloxi, Mississippi

Majestic Oaks RV Resort, Biloxi, Mississippi

This is our second visit to Biloxi. We came here for a 20th anniversary trip in 1997. Things have certainly changed since then.

Back then we stayed at the Grand Casino. Gambling came to Biloxi in the 1990s, but casinos were only allowed on the water. There were several huge casinos built on barges along the coast. You couldn’t even tell you were on water, that’s how big they were. Here’s a picture of a postcard I bought at the time.

Grand Casino Biloxi-we stayed here

Here’s what’s left of that casino today.

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On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina pretty much wiped out everything that was along the coast including the casinos. The Grand Casino has rebuilt, and is now across the road from this debris.

One thing that is very different between Biloxi and New Orleans is that there is no debris or boarded up buildings left in Biloxi. In fact, this debris from the casino is all that we’ve seen. They’re working on getting rid of it. Everything else is pretty much gone.

When we were here in 1997 the coast was lined with beautiful old mansions and estates. Almost all of them are gone. There are miles of vacant lots for sale. Some had prices listed between $500,000 and $600,000. No wonder no one is building on them. What a shame that all of those beautiful old homes are gone. All that remains are some retaining walls, foundations, sidewalks and landscaping. I don’t think this area will ever look the same. I have a feeling if any building gets done on those lots it will be stores or restaurants. How sad!

Biloxi has the only lighthouse that sits in the middle of a divided highway. It was built in 1848 and is made of brick lined cast iron. It’s survived over 20 hurricanes. It needed extensive restoration after Katrina, but it’s still standing.

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That’s the Beau Rivage Casino in the background. Twelve casinos have rebuilt in Biloxi since Katrina. A few of them are on the Gulf. Others are a little inland on a bay on the other side of the city. Mississippi changed its gambling laws about ten years ago so casinos no longer have to be on the water, but they still have to be within a certain amount of feet from the water. Weird laws.

The Beau Rivage is a beautiful casino. Here’s the fountain out front. There were pretty flowers planted all along the front.

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P1150491Next door is the Hard Rock Casino. We had a good time wandering around in a couple of the casinos. We’re not much into gambling, but it was fun looking around. I especially enjoyed some of the costumes on display inside Hard Rock. That’s sure a big guitar!! We continued our walk along Beach Blvd. in downtown Biloxi.

There is a Katrina memorial in the town square. It was built by the show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in 2006. The granite wall is 12 feet tall and symbolized the height of the water level during the storm. The actual storm surge was 35 feet. The glass case contains items recovered after the hurricane and made into a sculpture.

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There is also an awesome tree sculpture next to the memorial.

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We walked around the marina and saw lots of shrimping boats. Notice the name of the red boat. Too funny!

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Biloxi has the nicest visitor center we’ve ever seen. It was rebuilt after Katrina to look like a historic home that had been here. They have a 45 minute movie about the hurricane. Hurricane Camille hit this area in 1969 and was the worst storm ever to hit the United States up until that time. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina was even worse demolishing over 6,000 buildings in Biloxi and killing hundreds of people. It’s been really sad seeing the devastation caused by the storm.

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Some of the damaged trees along Beach Blvd. have been carved into statues just like we saw in Galveston. Here are just a couple of them.

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The first two days we were here it was very foggy along the coast as you can see in the visitor center picture above. The water temperature and the air temperature were close to each other creating the fog. Today the winds shifted, and we could actually see the water so we took a walk along the beautiful white sand beach. I love walking on the beach. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Temperatures have finally been warmer. Highs have been in the 60s and 70s since we’ve been here. Now that’s more like it!!

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Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Friday, February 14, 2014

New Orleans Bus Tour

Yesterday we took a three hour bus tour of New Orleans. This was another Groupon deal. We’ve done four tours using Groupon coupons, and have been very satisfied. Each of them was with a company that was not one of the most popular, but they were all very well done, and we saved quite a bit of money.

The bus tour was with Southern Style Tours. Our driver, who was also the guide, was very knowledgeable. Its amazing to me that he could navigate these small streets in the mini bus and keep up a constant stream of information.

We toured the French Quarter, The Garden District, downtown, one of the many above ground cemeteries, City Park, and several of the wards that had the most damage after Hurricane Katrina.

Many homes are decorated for Mardi Gras. Most have banners, ribbons, etc. with the traditional purple, gold and green colors. This was definitely one of the most unusual ones we saw!

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I didn’t take many pictures. It’s hard to get good shots out of a bus window; and to be honest, there wasn’t much I wanted to take a picture of. I just enjoyed sitting back and listening to all of the stories our guide shared with us.

Burial rituals in New Orleans are quite interesting. Because much of the city is at or below sea level, caskets are buried above ground in vaults. There is a whole complicated process of how the casket is placed in the vault for a year and one day, then taken back out so the remains can be cremated and returned to the vault to make room for the casket of the next member of the family that dies. Some families spend over a million dollars for their burial vaults. My thinking is why not just cremate them in the first place. However, we’ve learned in our travels that different cultures have very different ideas of how things are done. That’s what makes us all so unique, I guess.

We have been very surprised how many of the buildings have not been either rebuilt or demolished since Hurricane Katrina. As we have traveled around the city, we have seen many, many houses boarded up or falling apart. Our guide told us that there are over 25,000 houses still abandoned. There are also quite a few businesses and even public buildings such as schools still sitting empty. It’s been 8.5 years since the disaster. I would have thought these homes would have been demolished if the owner’s weren’t coming back.

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Part of the problem has been local politics. Just this week the mayor during the storm, Ray Nagin, has been convicted of twenty counts of fraud stemming from bribes he took with relief money. The news is full of stories about other trials still stemming from matters to do with the hurricane.

This sculpture in remembrance of Katrina is downtown across from the convention center.

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We’ve enjoyed learning about the history and seeing some of the beautiful architecture in the French Quarter. There is definitely a charm to the area, but mostly the city is old, run down and dirty filled with too many people and cars. Just not our cup of tea. It was an interesting visit, but I doubt very much we will ever come back.

Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mardi Gras World

Yesterday we toured Mardi Gras World, a family owned company that builds floats for many of the Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans each year.
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We had no idea what a big business Mardi Gras is in this city. There are over 50 clubs or organizations called krewes that host parades. Each parade must have a minimum of 14 floats to receive a permit from the city. The basic cost for an undecorated float chassis is $50,000. Once a krewe owns the chassis, they spend an additional $5,000 to $10,000 per float each year to have them redecorated.
Members pay dues of between a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand dollars to support the krewe. They fundraise and work year round to raise money for the parades. That’s a real commitment for one parade each year.
Mardi Gras parades started in New Orleans in 1857 and have continued to grow. The tour lasted for about an hour. It started with a chance to try on some hats and costumes. Then they gave us a taste of King Cake, a popular dessert during Mardi Gras. It tasted like a cinnamon coffee cake. Then they showed a short movie explaining the origins of Mardi Gras and this company which builds some of the floats.
P1150475Then we went out into the warehouse and saw the artists actually building props for the floats. It’s amazing what these people do with some wood, Styrofoam, paper mache and paint. They save all props from each parade each year and recycle many of them. They have numerous warehouses throughout the area to house all of this stuff. This company builds floats for sixteen of the krewes including all of the biggest with the most lavish floats. They also do some commercial work with fiberglass statues including the cows currently on billboards all over the country for Chick-Fil-A.
Here are some of the floats that will be in this year’s parades.
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P1150477They are absolutely beautiful. It’s amazing what can be done with some simple materials and lots of paint. This was my favorite. We really enjoyed this tour and learned a lot about the whole culture of Mardi Gras. Here are just some of the many props sitting around in the warehouse waiting to be used again in a future parade. Most of them are quite large.
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After our tour, we headed to the French Quarter to meet up with our guide for a walking tour. This was the tour we were supposed to do two weeks ago, but the guide never showed. She was there this time, but the weather was kind of drizzly so we were the only people on the tour. She was very good, and we enjoyed our private two hour tour. She told us lots of interesting information about the history and people of the area.
I saw this interesting sign on a condominium for sale. I wonder if the price is higher or lower for a haunted house???
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By the way, I was able to meet the German couple that was next to us in the unusual off road RV that I wrote about in my last post. We spent about five minutes conversing in German. It was fun to exercise my German language skills again, and we were able to understand each other. It cost them about $5,000 to have their RV transported on a ship from Antwerp to Halifax. Wow!! They are on a ten year world tour, but have to fly back to Germany every six months for a month to renew their visas. That’s adventurous!!!
Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

St. Joseph Plantation

Yesterday the sun finally came out and temperatures climbed into the 60s. We took advantage of the nice weather and took a tour of St. Joseph Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana, which is about 30 miles west of New Orleans.

River Road runs along the Mississippi River and has several plantations open for tours along it. In its prime, there were over 1,000 plantations along this stretch of the river.

I had another Groupon coupon for this tour so it was $15 for the both of us. Tours of a couple of the more popular plantations go for $120 per person if you go on a tour bus. I think we got a very good deal, and the tour was very interesting.

St. Joseph Plantation is still a working sugar cane operation. They have about 2,500 acres which are planted with cane. The plantation is still owned by family members, but no one has lived in the house since the late 1990s.

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First, we watched a short video about sugar production. It’s quite an involved process getting those sugar granules from the cane. Sugar is a big business in Louisiana and brings almost 2 billion dollars to the state’s economy each year and provides about 32,000 jobs. I had no idea.

The inside of the house has been restored pretty well. Our guide told us interesting facts about the area and the history of the property. Here’s the front entrance hall.

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The house was built in the early 1800s. In 1856 the land, house, slaves and all household furnishings were sold for $72,000. After the civil war, it was sold again at a sheriff’s sale for $25,000. Sounds like the housing collapse of just a few years ago.

The families that lived there were all wealthy and had the latest conveniences for their time. I’m glad I live now. Their conveniences didn’t look too great to me (chamber pot comes to mind).

There are still original slave quarters on the property. Here’s one of them. These houses were shared by more than one family. Notice the large live oak tree out front. There were several of these beautiful trees on the property.

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After our visit, we drove to the neighboring plantation called Oak Alley. This is the most popular tour bus destination.  I was happy with our choice of the less touristy house.

Here’s Oak Alley. Can’t you just imagine driving along that road in a carriage. It must have been pretty awesome!

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We have some interesting neighbors next to us at the RV park.

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This rig has German license plates and a web address across the top of the windshield. I looked at their webpage. They are a middle aged couple from Germany and are on a ten year world tour which they began a little over a year ago. They purchased a used municipal vehicle and had it rebuilt into this off road RV. The map on the side of the rig has a blue line which shows where they’ve been. So far, they’ve been in Europe, had it shipped across the Atlantic, traveled across Canada, visited Alaska, and toured many of the states along the western part of the US.

I haven’t had a chance to meet them. It would be fun to speak some German again, although their English is probably better than my German. They are traveling with another couple who are in this truck camper. They also have a world map on the side of their rig. I wonder how much it costs to have an RV shipped across the ocean??!! There are certainly some very adventurous people in the world!

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Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour

The sun was out yesterday and temps were in the low 50s. Although not the best weather for a swamp tour, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be much warmer for the rest of our stay in New Orleans, so we decided to use one of the Groupon coupons I purchased. The tour is $25 per person, but with the coupon we paid that for the both of us.
The Jean Lafitte Swamp Tour Company is located about 30 miles south of the city. On our way, we crossed over a couple of bridges. We had a great view of downtown New Orleans. That’s the Super Dome on the left. You can really see just how big it is from this viewpoint.
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There were 10 of us on the 90 minute tour. Our guide and boat driver was a retired man who has lived in the wetlands of Louisiana all of his life. He had lots of very interesting information to share.
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P1150424We saw lots of Cypress trees and learned that the knees are part of the root system. New trees don’t grow from the knees.






This picture shows the difference between a swamp and a marsh. The area in the back with trees growing in it is a swamp. The area in front with the grass is a marsh. Trees don’t grow in a marsh. Although it looks solid, we were told that if we tried to walk out into it, we would quickly sink in up to our chest, and it would be almost impossible to get out. No thanks!
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This shack is an original swamp shack that is more than 100 years old. It was moved to this location for the tour. The outhouse blew down during a storm, so they rebuilt it using new wood. That sure takes away from the authentic look.
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This shack was built by a movie company for a Burt Reynolds movie. I forgot what the name of the movie was. There have been quite a few movies filmed in this swampy area.
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We saw some birds, turtles and a nutria. This was a new animal for me. It looked like a big woodchuck. These animals were brought here by settlers for trapping, but are now considered a nuisance.
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These black vultures a/k/a buzzards were drying off and sunning themselves.
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We also saw an anhinga and some turtles.
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The turtles we saw were not the kind used for turtle soup. Our guide told us that snapping turtles are good for soup. He brought out the head and shell of a snapping turtle he caught and had for dinner.
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In the spring and summer there are many alligators in these swamps. However, it was too cold for them to be out yesterday. Our guide showed us the head of a nine foot alligator. Kind of creepy!
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At the end of the tour he brought out a live alligator that we were able to hold. The tour company rescues baby alligators who get separated from their mothers. They raise them until they are able to fend for themselves, and then release them back into the wild. In the meantime, they use the babies for the tours. The bottom felt just like leather. Good thing his mouth was taped shut!
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There was a cage with some alligators and turtles behind the tour office. A heat lamp was keeping them warm.
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I couldn’t resist being a tourist for this last shot :)
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Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cruise–Part 2

Our second day ashore was in Belize. There is a barrier reef that extends all along the coast of Belize, so cruise ships are not able to dock at the pier. Small boats called tenders are used to transport the passengers to the pier. This causes some delay, especially when the water is a bit rough as it was that day. Our ship sure did look spectacular sitting out there in the Caribbean Sea.

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We had booked our excursion of zip lining and cave tubing through the ship, so our bus waited for all of us to get ashore. It was an 80 minute drive to the jungle, but our guide Nuri did an excellent job keeping us entertained with stories of the history of Belize. Once we got to our destination, we were quickly outfitted into our ziplining gear by friendly and knowledgeable guides.

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Then it was a climb up a path and some steps to get to the training area. We were given instructions and then climbed to the first platform. Ziplining was a bucket list item for me. I was so excited to be doing it right up until I got on that first platform. Suddenly my heart was racing! But, I got hooked in, and off I went. It was so much fun!! We did five lines, and it was over all too quickly. All of us enjoyed it very much!!

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After the ziplining we were assigned to a new guide who took a group of eight of us tubing in the Crystal Cave, part of a large cave system under the island. We were each given a tube and led down steps to the refreshing water. We were also given helmets with lights on them. We hooked our tubes together and our guide led us through the caves. There are no lights inside, just our helmet lights and a flashlight the guide used to point out some cave features and some Mayan artifacts found in the caves. There were some beautiful formations, and some crystals created from quartz seeping through the limestone. What a great experience!IMG_1007

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At the end of the cave, we came to a lagoon that was about 30 feet deep. The water was crystal clear, and the most beautiful blue color. You could see all the way to the bottom. We were able to either swim or tube across, and then we got out and carried our tubes back to the top.

While we waited for the rest of our group to finish up, we had a chance to purchase our pictures, buy some lunch and buy some drinks. One lady did not show up at the prearranged time to leave, so our guide had to spend an extra ten minutes looking for her. Then, about half way back, several people who had too many beers at the bar, needed the bathroom. So, we were an hour late getting back for the last tender. Luckily, because we booked through the ship, they had a tender boat waiting for us, and we weren’t left behind.

We did miss the party Carnival had before dinner that night for cruisers who have reached the gold level or above. I went to guest services the next day, and Kevin and I were each given drink coupons for four drinks because we missed the party. That was sure nice!

Our last shore day was Cozumel, Mexico. We had booked an ATV Jungle Adventure excursion. This was our third visit to Cozumel, so we wanted to do something we had not done before. The guys thoroughly enjoyed this event. We were taken on a 20 minute bus ride to the ranch with our awesome guide Jamie. There was a short introductory video, we were issued helmets and then divided into groups based on ability.

I was in the beginner group as I’ve never ridden before. My three guys are all experienced ATV riders, so they were in the other group. The route was very rocky and bumpy. About half way through I had a blister on my hand. The guide gave me some gloves which helped a lot. We had a break where they gave us a snack and some water. Then back on the ATVs for a total of about 70 minutes of riding. This was another fun excursion. My guys totally loved it. I thought it was okay. A little too bumpy for me.

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After the riding, we were taken to a private beach where we could hang out for about 90 minutes. We enjoyed some lunch and refreshments. The margaritas were very tasty and potent. Back at the pier, we had another free margarita as part of our package. Can you tell I’m feeling no pain!

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My guys humored me with this picture.

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We took some pictures during the second formal night.

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Our last day was another at sea day. We pretty much hung out on deck and enjoyed the sun and warm weather. There were some deck games and events going on, but we were happy just to watch.

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That evening was another beautiful sunset.

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We were getting closer to the Gulf Coast, and we saw quite a few oil platforms that evening.

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Sunday morning we arrived back in New Orleans to temperatures in the 60s and heavy fog. We took a taxi back to the camper and spent the rest of the day watching Super Bowl events.

The next morning we were up at 4:00 am to get both boys to the airport for their morning flights. All flights went off without a hitch, and both of them are back home safe and sound. We’re taking a few days off to rest up, and then we’ll be doing some New Orleans sightseeing. The weather has turned cold again. I sure hope it warms up soon.

Don’t wish upon a star – Reach for one!