Archives for posts with tag: New Orleans

The days roll by quickly and you don’t realize it’s that time of year again except for the sad feeling that comes out of nowhere. The winter months are my time of grieving, no matter how much I try to ignore it. I lost my husband in March one year and my son in January of another and my heart remembers and my brain starts unreeling memories when I least expect it.

It’s not that I sit around crying because there are so few tears left and I’ve developed a new perspective on life and death through the years. I understand that we don’t all have long lives and I’m grateful for every day, every year. But grief has no rules and we each do it our own way. I don’t criticize anyone, we all just get through it. When my husband died, a friend told me that it never gets better, it just gets more bearable. True dat. (I love that expression!)

So for the past couple of weeks, there’s been that nagging feeling and recognition of what it is and random memories, good and bad, that may happen at any time during the year, but that flood me at this time. I drive by the hospital almost daily and usually don’t think about it, but sometimes my brain fast forwards through a lifetime of memories of births and surgeries and deaths until I can stop it. Sirens will randomly trigger memories of 911 calls to try and save my loved ones. My cell phone ringing early in the morning next to my bed always makes me jump, remembering the call that morning, my son’s mother-in-law telling me he had died in his sleep. I can see my lost ones everywhere in this city where we lived and loved, memories are everywhere.

With all the triggers that could make me sad, there are so many others that make me smile. I still have a slide show of my son’s life that plays on my computer when it turns off so there are images that flash randomly from his life. There are his friends who keep up with me on Facebook and will post a picture or a memory, filling in a blank in his life, letting me see him again through other’s eyes. There are things around the house that he made or he gave me that I may walk by and not notice all the time, but when I do, I remember.

My son’s name was Clayton, or Clay, a family name, a name that pops up surprisingly often. The summer after my son died, I was driving into Clayton, New Mexico. As we got closer to the town, there was sign after sign, rushing by me in a blur, all with the word Clayton on them. It was a nonstop jolt to my senses. When we stopped at the light in town, I turned to my right and saw this window.

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There are towns named Clay or Clayton, street names, such as this one in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

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I stopped behind a truck recently with Clayton in large letters across the back. I went through a town in Texas with my daughter-in-law, past a company named Clayton, with banners along the road saying Clayton, Clayton, Clayton. I never fail to notice. I like to think he’s saying Hi.

If people asked me if it’s harder to lose a spouse or a child, I would hesitate. I lost both to cancer, so there was nothing too sudden about watching them deteriorate. I grieved greatly for my husband, my heart broke, but that loss taught me so much about life, death, and myself to prepare me for the next great loss, just as the loss of my grandparents and my parents and friends along the way taught me. It didn’t make it easier, it just put it more into perspective.

I’d like to get angry about it, but that would be pretty self serving. After all, I look around me every day and see others who have lost loved ones. If you live long enough, you lose someone you love. It’s the way life works, so gird up, girl. You’re just like everyone else and your loss is no greater than theirs. It just gives you more compassion, more understanding of how great our losses are. And, it gives you more gratitude for what we have.

Losing someone has a ripple effect in the lives of that person. I lost my son, his wife lost her husband, their daughter lost her father, my daughters lost their brother, their children lost their uncle, their husbands lost their brother-in-law, his friends lost a friend, and the world lost another soul, every loss great really in the scheme of things.

Last summer, I went to New Orleans for the first time in years, returning to a city with so many fun memories. My in-laws lived there for many years and our family spent time in the French Quarter as often as possible. The streets were familiar and full of my personal images, my own loving ghosts. I could see my son, when we visited for the 1984 World’s Fair, standing by a pole, dressed in one of his usual uniquely Clayton outfits. I’m sure he wanted to break loose from us and explore, which he was able to do in his teens. He loved this city, the place he honeymooned in later years.

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And there was the memory of my son and husband, poking each other and try to make each other laugh, as they posed for one of my favorite pictures, taken in New Orleans years later.

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I wish I had words of wisdom, words to comfort others. You take comfort in your memories, in the solace of others, in nature. You never know what words will be the ones that help. At my son’s memorial, one of his college friends commented, “He just burned so brightly.” She didn’t know how that comment has warmed me through these years. And helped me put his life into perspective. Funny how that comment leaped out at me, how I hung onto it. Irene probably doesn’t even remember saying it, although she’s a songwriter, so she may. We grab for whatever comforts us and hang onto it for life support.

I am comforted by my daughters and their families, by my daughter-in-law and my son’s daughter, now four. They breathe life into my life and keep me focused. He lives on through his family, his friends, and especially that little girl, so much like him in all his impishness and so uniquely herself. She’s hard to ignore and makes us all smile. We smile at her and for ourselves, because she helps us understand that we are all part of this earth and we have our time here with no way of knowing how long that will be. We need to cherish every day.

Dang it. I can try to be philosophical about it, but I miss my son, my husband. I miss hearing them, hugging them, laughing with them. Sometimes I do a double take when I see someone who has a slight resemblance or walks a certain way and there’s a dim flicker of hope before I remember. I wish they were here to see the family grow, to share with us. I wish they’d had more time with us. There are things I want to tell them, so I do. Why not? Grief is an everlasting process at best.

For those who are grieving, for those who have lost loved ones and think how lucky I am, you’re right. I’ve had so many happy memories and have so many loved ones near me and I’m very aware that for others, it’s not that easy. They may have lost the only person in their life and I can’t even imagine what that’s like. Some people on this earth live their life without a day of happiness and I have so much.

I’m not sure about that saying that God gives you no more than you can handle. There was a news story several years ago that stuck with me, that helps me put my whole life into perspective. After a horrific earthquake in Turkey, there was an image of a woman sitting by the rubble. She had lost 18 members of her family, her home and her business. I don’t think there was anyone left. I think of her often. How did she ever stand up? How did she ever put one foot in front of the other? Who reached out to her? Surely someone lifted her up. Her world died that day, but she didn’t. Where did she find strength? Or did she? I still think of her and hope that she somehow managed to survive that unbelievable loss, that she found a way to face the unimaginable. I wonder what I would have done, where I would be.

As I remember my own lost loved ones, I also try to remember I’m not the only one out there. None of our losses are greater than those of others. They all hurt. All we can do is always remember, always reach out, always love. Nobody ever said life was easy.

Coming home from the Gulf Coast, I remembered this piece I wrote at the time of Hurricane Katrina. It’s long, but it’s an experience I’ll never forget and we should all remember what these people had to go through. It was cathartic for me to write at the time…

Bear with me, guys.
 
My family spent a lot of time in New Orleans since my husband’s parents lived there for over 30 years, ironic for those strait-laced Yankees from Massachusetts to be transplanted for the final time into the deep South.  I’m not sure they loved living there, but we were taken with its uniqueness, its flavor, its sense of fun and the magic we felt when we visited.  We went to the World’s Fair with our kids and to Mardi Gras without them.  They grew up on Bourbon Street and Jackson Square, eating at Commander’s Palace in the Garden District and the alligator sandwich place in the French Quarter.  We walked to the Mississippi River levee two blocks from my in-laws’ house and climbed the hill to watch the ships go by.  We brought back pralines and shrimp and music.  Our kids grew up listening to me try to read the “Cajun Night Before Christmas” in my non-Cajun tones. As they got older, they explored the cemeteries and Marie Laveaux’s voodoo shop, which was much spookier on Bourbon Street than when they opened a branch in the mall by the river.  Catcalls from the strip joints and peeks into the clubs were exotic and probably stirred their imaginations, but they grew up unscarred.  My son and his wife went there on their honeymoon.  And we never never missed a chance to sit at Cafe du Monde for coffee, hot chocolate and beignets. 
 
Sure, we drove by neighborhoods of poor and met them on the streets and knew that our white skins were the minority.  It was a sad thing about the city that you didn’t ignore, but didn’t know what to do to change.  We were just visitors.
 
The hurricane and the ensuing disaster has been painful to watch and too riveting to turn off.  The images are haunting along that southern line, the worst being in New Orleans.  What can we do?  By Friday, I could watch no more.  I woke up and sent money to Red Cross online and packed up supplies for my grandson to send with his cub scout pack.  I kept thinking that there must be more.  I served as a volunteer at Red Cross for many years and worked there for two years, receiving all the training I could cram in, but barely got to use before they closed our department.  My hours, days, in classes were interesting exercises required by all, but my stack of certification cards was in a drawer someplace.  I was never going to go back there.  Never say never.
 
Friday, my friend called and asked if I wanted to go help.  She couldn’t stand it any longer.  She went to the shelter in Tulsa and saw some of our former coworkers who were thrilled to see her.  I said I’d go.  We met at the shelter in a church at Admiral and Harvard Saturday morning and worked in Family Services where they open case files on the people and start helping them meet basic needs.  It was quiet at first, a few kids in the playroom, people lined up at the medical station, more eating donuts and chatting with volunteers, telling their stories.  I filed their paperwork, trying to keep up with the stack.  I could read all the notes from the caseworkers.  These were the people who got themselves out and came to Tulsa to stay with friends and relatives.  They had some means although one young couple had spent all their money on gas and the motel.  Families walked out with diapers and pillows and voucher cards for medicines and clothing.  A family of twenty Asian people of all ages showed up.  A young family in that group looked very calm with their two small children, but he had lost his shrimp boat – not much call for that in Tulsa – and her nail salon had been destroyed.  Their annual income was under $10,000, but they were hard-working people.  It was orderly there with seasoned staff and volunteers who had worked countless disasters doing what they know how to do.
 
Around noon, my friend was sent to the Red Cross chapter and called me to join her team and go to Camp Gruber to meet the incoming buses with 2,000 evacuees from the Superdome in New Orleans.  I thought, sure, why not?  What possible excuse would I have not to go?  I hustled out to that familiar site, smiled at a few former coworkers, hugged a couple, got a new badge issued and we checked out a Red Cross van, which we filled with supplies donated by people stopping by.  We had water, baby supplies, personal hygiene stuff, toys.  Three of us took off, my friend who is half Muscogee Creek, an Hispanic woman who is a former Tulsa policewoman now working for Camp Fire (very fun woman), and lily-white me to meet 2,000 mostly black poverty sticken folk who have been stuck on a bus for God knows how long. 
 
Camp Gruber is where Oklahoma National Guardsmen are trained, so it is military to the hilt.  I’d never been there, but it’s close to Muskogee, near Braggs.  You know.  We found our way to the main place, a room that looked like it might hold one or two busloads, plus the Red Cross teams.  There were tables set up, snacks stacked around, and comfort kits for all groups.  One of the first things they would receive was an individual kit with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant, etc.  There were kits for men, women and children with the basics they need to clean themselves up.  This happens in every disaster.  They hadn’t received enough standard issue kits from Red Cross, so a group was assembling kits from the items donated by citizens.  We unloaded part of our load at a warehouse down the road where they were taking water, toilet paper, and food products.  Another location, air-conditioned, took baby supplies, toys and clothing.  They were sorting the clothes by sex and size.  The medical center took the allergy drugs we brought with us.  We passed the media center and saw trucks from all the local broadcasters and cars that probably had the print reporters.  I’m sure they were carefully controlled, knowing how all that works.
 
The main place was full of groups of people, some trained, some who showed up.  There were people in the mess hall with food.  Our building had the people who would do the first intakes and everybody was assigned a team.  The plan was to take these people to security first, search them and their buses, then triage the medical cases, then get their basic information and assign them to barracks, walk them there, then feed them.  They would be sorted by men, women, families, those 65+ or with special needs (there were one story buildings closer to the mess hall for them).  It seemed like a plan to me. 
 
I was on a Human Relations team, which basically is to make sure they were treated kindly and decently and to see if they needed a translator, be it a foreign language or a signer for the deaf, etc.  I was finally told I would be with the group that got on their buses, welcomed them, got them registered and rode to the main office where we would leave them and head back for another bus, etc.  Sounded simple to me.  Smile, pat them on the back, fill out a form, get their signature.  All the teams rehearsed over and over, ad nauseum.  There was a tv camera, almost in my face. I never saw the media later in the evening.
 
Now for the reality.  Many of the volunteers had been waiting for these buses since the night before.  The arrival time had been moved from 6 pm Friday to 7 am Saturday and I was there at 5 pm and nobody knew where they were.  These 2,000 people had been on the bus for days, literally, and we had no idea when they would arrive.  So we drilled on the routine, the leaders met, and the routine changed – over and over. 
 
In a disaster, there are many people who respond.  I call the main group Disaster Junkies.  These are the ones who will go to disaster after disaster for the three required weeks and then go back again.  These are the ones who make it their lives, whose adrenaline pumps at the news, who live for their pager to go off in the middle of the night.  Some are saner than others.  Some are wonderful, kind people, who want to give their time, skills, love.  Others are in it for baser reasons and live for the power, the sense of importance. They make friends with other Disaster Junkies across the country. Just like the rest of life.  So you get all kinds and, somehow, it miraculously works, God bless them. If you can stand it.  I’ve always thought it was a fascinating spectacle of human nature and loved it in small doses.  I’m not one of the junkies.  Just give me my job and let me help. Then I can go home.

Shortly after we arrived, the skies blackened and a thunderstorm opened up, pounding on the metal roof of our building. It cooled things off, but it left deep puddles and muddy places around the area. We thought it was a pretty sad welcoming sight for those who had been walking through worse. If they’d ever get here. You have to picture an ever growing crowd of Red Cross do-gooders, surrounded by the National Guard, Oklahoma sheriffs, officers from the Muskogee police, medical workers, and who knows who else, standing around for hours waiting to hear where these people were. First we heard they were still in Dallas, stalled by FEMA’s attempts to get Oklahoma declared as a stopping place so we could get federal funds. Why were they even in Dallas on the way from New Orleans? Nobody knew. We empathized with their feelings, whatever they would be. Tired, frustrated, angry, frightened, confused. Next we heard they were at the state line. But the clock ticked on and the plans changed. A couple of women were screaming orders, their blood pressure rising, making everyone else’s eyes roll. Calm down. I saw a woman whose heart was pounding so hard her shirt was moving. They reassigned her before she irritated anyone else. There were college students, people who drove over to help with no training, veterans of 9/11, and the military. Who the hell was in charge? The longer we waited, the more the plans changed. The room must have been reconfigured twelve times to see which way they could move more people through faster. It didn’t matter because it was all going to change again anyway. News came that one bus was having mechanical problems so all the buses slowed down. They must have been driving 15 mph – a caravan of 37 buses. Or 39. Or 32. Whatever. That too changed.

Finally, finally, we were told to go to our sites. There were two places the buses would stop first once they were on the base. I now had my own team – four women who showed up to help with no training. They were from Muskogee – normal people. We didn’t even have stick-on name badges for them, so I scribbled their names on a piece of cardboard so I’d remember. I can’t today. I told them they were lucky – they only had to come do their jobs and not go through all the changes of plans. I think it was another two or three hours after they arrived that we finally moved. We also had a greeter, who would enthusiastically welcome the busload to Oklahoma, tell them how happy we were to see them, and explain that we would be coming aboard to get them registered. We were down to taking their name and age and asking them if they had children with them. If they had missing family, we starred their form so someone could help them find the family or get them mental health professionals to speak with. We walked across a muddy field, sinking in the rainwater, walked a block and stationed ourselves to meet the people. There were men with drug dogs, a line of soldiers to meet them, the scanners like they have at airports, and a line of soldiers with hand-held scanners to run over their bodies. All their belongings were searched, as was the bus. There was a bathroom there, which they could use. There were medical teams and mental health workers. This was on a brightly lighted covered concrete pad. We were standing in the mud in the dark beyond to meet them as they got back on the buses to take them another block to start the process.

The news spread that they were at the gates, on the base. Not far. It took forever. In the meantime, we learned, from a Disaster Junkie mental health worker, who was a little mental himself and overly pumped for his assignment, that there was news of people who had died on the buses, and bleeders were sighted. There was rush to put rubber gloves on all of us. I was too hot & couldn’t get mine on & threw them away. I was only going to ask their names, not exchange bodily fluids. I used to teach this stuff and I wasn’t afraid of getting hepatitis from them on a block ride. How comforting for them anyway to think we were afraid of them. We were told what to do if they were hostile, what to say, how to react. We didn’t know what awaited. Some might be criminals. Who knew? Overkill. Where the hell were they? Someone in our two groups wanted to pray, which seemed appropriate, even for the least religious in the group – most of the people were anxious. A rough circle of former strangers formed, holding hands, and someone started the Lord’s Prayer. We stood in a circle in a muddy parking lot on a military base in the middle of Oklahoma late at night and hoped for the best. Help!

Then a line of lights appeared, an endless line of lights. Please, let these people off the damn buses. They had to be numb. It was around 10 pm.

My first image was a black family, dressed in very new, very clean white t-shirts. The children’s were oversized adult shirts that hit their ankles. The first face was a handsome young boy and, in the glare of the lights, he looked like an angel. Our first family was a group of angels. Not too threatening. I could feel the relief from our teams. And they looked exhausted. We weren’t allowed to get close to them, so we watched, taking in the faces of the people we would soon meet, a few inches from their faces. Many lit cigarettes (how do the poorest of the poor afford cigarettes – always a question), they stood around waiting one more time. There were elderly people put in wheelchairs, nurses talking to them. We watched the men remove their belts as the scanners went over them. It was pretty calm, everyone was too tired.

I met the National Guardsman who was in charge of this whole deal for the base, a pleasant young man with an Oklahoma drawl who told me he’d been up for 61 hours. Still smiling. He wanted a drink of water.

The bus pulled to our side and we helped them cross a patch of sloshy mud to reboard the bus. We smiled, not knowing what to do yet. I reached out to an elderly woman so she didn’t slip in the mud. The first team left with their busload, our team was next. Our bus unloaded. It’s hard to remember who we saw. A sea of black faces of all ages, all tired. A few white faces in the group. Varying kinds of dress. A guardsman told us the smell of the bus would knock us out. I think they’d been riding for 31 hours, maybe longer. I doubt they got off. My greeter was a nervous wreck, but my team was game. Good women, nice people. We were laughing as I told them I was not a very good leader because I had no idea what the latest change in plans was. I told them to do their best, the forms could get corrected later, these people mostly needed us to be kind. We welcomed the people crossing the mud path to the bus, our greeter gave her spiel and we boarded.

We had to lean down to hear their names, so we were inches from their faces. It was loud from the bus engine. The bus lurched, so I balanced myself against the seats to write and hear. I think I only had about four to do before we were there. That was fast. Our team was through, we waved goodbye and cleared the bus to return to the starting site for our next group. My people were grateful. A couple handed me ID so I could write their names. It was hard to hear the spelling over the noise and I was leaning across them to get signatures. Many apologized for smelling bad, but heck, I’d been standing around for 14 hours by now, so I wasn’t much of a flower myself. I was at the front of the bus – I heard the back was worse – by the bathrooms.

My friend called my cell phone from the other site. It was night and day from ours. The military people there were rougher, tougher. At our place, they were friendly, asked if we wanted chairs while we waited, seemed kind to the people. The other site was not so nice for anyone. Who knows why? Some gung-ho type over there. The first group at the other site included people who brought their dogs – a Great Dane and a German Shepherd. Red Cross shelters don’t take pets, mainly due to logistics & sanitary issues, although there are people who are trying to change that. Too many people die because they won’t leave their pets behind. Sheltering your pets, livestock, exotic animals is a huge issue and part of disaster planning. Who was going to tell these people “no” after they’d come through a hurricane like Katrina? Nobody.

We thought the process would speed up. They added another team to our site, which only meant we waited longer between buses. Later that night, I figured we were doing a bus an hour, although our part only took minutes. It was the search and medical assessment process that was the hangup. So we watched a lot. A bus arrived and I counted 7 dogs, all small. The owners were clutching them and the teams were petting them, admiring them. We would have dogs at this place, for sure.

My second group included a cute man with a Cajun accent who laughingly told us he would have to get used to our accents. He said he was getting us first. He was my first stop on the bus. The driver vanished, so we finished quickly and had time to visit with this group. My new Cajun friend moved to New Orleans in 1972, but left and came back many times. He was a jockey, race horses. He said he was single and liked to move around. Not a successful jockey, I guessed, but he was friendly and glad to talk to me. He said the bus was like heaven after the Superdome and apologized for not being cleaner. He asked me if I could imagine sleeping on a bleacher. I asked him what it was like when the roof blew off and he just said, “Oh, man.” He thanked us for our hospitality, but said he wouldn’t be staying long as he had friends who could get him a job in another state. He thanked us and said he wanted to get moving in a day or so to let us take care of the ones who were needier. Nice guy.

Mostly, the people were tired, hadn’t eaten since 7 am, wanted a bath and bed. None looked too threatening simply because of fatigue. While we waited, one man griped about the long wait for help. He said it was too little, too late, always too late. He was angry, but not in a bad way. One of my teammates, Lana Turner, a black woman from Tulsa who joined us late, and I listened. I told him I agreed with everything he said, which I did. He’d watched a baby die waiting for help. He had the right to be upset.

It was after midnight. We were waiting for our third?? bus. The line looked endless, headlights in the distance. By now, we were shaking hands with the people as they walked on the bus, welcoming them, smiling. They were smiling back, thanking us. My next group included a young mother with a sleeping two year old and a nine year old child with a different last name. She told me she had no idea where four members of her family were. I assured her we would do everything we could to help her get information. A woman on an earlier bus had been separated from her children. They were put on a bus that went to Houston, she ended up in Oklahoma. She knew who they were with, but not where. She was worn out.

I visited with a nice looking man, dirty but decent clothes. I’m not sure what his problems were as he could pass for normal on the street. I patted shoulders of worn out folks. Behind me a couple of rows was a baby, almost one year old. I think her name was Jediah, something like that. I could have eaten her up. Beautiful face, smile that lit up the night, happy baby. Clapping her hands, bouncing on the man’s lap. I played peek-a-boo with her. Her eyes were as shiny as could be, her hair pulled up in three little bunches. I would have loved to hug her. The family said she entertained them the whole trip. They were laughing.

This time, we had to wait when we got close to the building – some kind of backlog. I don’t know. I found my friend and she said she wanted to ride back with me. We found our van and she told me stories from the other side of the driveway. At her site, they had immediately filled four containers with contraband, drugs, knives, guns. One bus had more dogs than people on it. One bus had bags of feces and the smell was overpowering. The people had to resort to plastic bags. They found a drug addict and took away his drugs. One man told them he is HIV positive, another was mentally ill. Bodies were removed from the buses before we got on. There was a young woman with a three day old baby – the mother was bleeding. They stopped her for some reason rather than taking her to the medical unit. There was a deaf man, a blind man. Our driver said a man peed in the van. We could see people lined up to get a change of clothes as we drove. It was a surreal vision in the night. I could see people in the barracks, sitting on beds. Saw people wandering to the mess hall in search of food. They’d run out of lasagna early & had MREs for them. That’s military for Meals Ready to Eat – like in battle. They’re not bad. I had them in Alaska. These people said they were so sick of snacks, wanted real food. Not yet, sorry.

I heard the story of a man who said they were all taken to the Superdome and left there. Anarchy broke out and people began breaking into the concession stands, selling cigarettes for $10 a pack. Gangster types took over. Another man had been sleeping on a mattress in a factory in Algiers (a section of New Orleans across from the French Quarter) where his group had been taken and left. There’s an untold story, isn’t it? All these people were taken to evacuation sites and left to fend for themselves. They said sanitary conditions deteriorated. There was no way to clean anything or find help.

The stories abounded. The other landing site had turned into a mess because someone in the military started issuing insane rules, so those teams were through for the night, disbanding. Our site was running like the plan. Why the difference? We don’t know.

My friend told me I had to quit, 15 hours was the maximum for a disaster worker and I’d been going for over 17. I told her she had to come back, too. I told my team goodbye. I think there were only a handful of buses left all of a sudden. We found our friend and I stood there for my last look around the main center.

There was the young white couple with the hugest Harlequin Great Dane you’ve ever seen sprawled across her lap while he sat with the tiniest gray kitten in his. I think they had another dog, hard to tell. Dogs were sniffing dogs, trying to figure it all out. I noticed another category of barracks had been added – Co-Ed with pets. I heard there were more cats, a bird. Who knows. Can you imagine living in a non-air-conditioned barracks with pets of all types and sizes? Not to mention the people? Humorous. The four-legged animals all seemed to be getting along.

The room was a swirling late night blur of red disaster vests mixed with camouflage uniformed troops, tables with volunteers, people milling. Most had moved through the line of snacks and drinks to be registered, assigned to a barracks and assimilated into this new world. I wondered how it would look in the morning. One man said he knew he was in the middle of nowhere – he couldn’t see a Pizza Hut. I think he thought he’d been moved from one hell to another. Mostly they were grateful.

It was close to 1:30 am when we left, a thousand stories later. I drove, not well. The ex-policewoman in the back seat kept telling me to watch the speedometer in a pleasant voice as I sped along. I got home well after 2:30 am and hugged my dogs. I was too pumped to fall asleep, even after I stood in the shower and cleaned off mud, rain and the sweat of a hot day in August. My Cajun friend told me it was ironic that the hurricane hit in the holy month of August. I looked puzzled and he said August in New Orleans is so hot even the devil leaves town and we both grinned and shook our heads at the humor in that.

I didn’t go back today, although my friend called at 7 am. She was taking a new recruit. She gets into this more than I do and I could feel the fatigue in my bones. I couldn’t envision what today would bring and I could hear the rain. She’ll bring me more stories. I don’t know what will happen to these people who were put on buses, not told where they were going (two men said they had family in Memphis, but were put on buses going the opposite direction anyway), have nothing to go back to, no immediate help in the future. This is a stopgap measure, not a solution. This is not even a beginning for these people, just one small step out of their misery. I know it’s going to affect us all in many ways in this country.

For me, it was a day to assuage my feelings of helplessness. For these people, it’s one more day in lives of constant struggle. They said “God bless you” to us. God bless them.

All travel is enhanced by the people you meet along the way. You can look at photos, read books, study history, but it’s the people who bring it to life and give you a real sense of a region or country. I could write about the waitresses and waiters I’ve met along the way or the tour guides and just the people I’ve encountered through the years. Some of my favorites, some of the people who have made my trips the most memorable are the artists…performers, musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, photographers, and writers…the ones who stick in my mind because they bring places to life.

In Memphis, I met David Bowen while he was singing at the King’s Palace Cafe on Beale Street. He’s been playing there, or elsewhere in the area, for years, a backup player, whatever it took to keep playing the music. These guys are everywhere, playing for the love of the music whether they get rich or mildly successful or not. He just has Memphis written all over him and his playing.

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I watched plein air artists in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but they weren’t selling.

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When you’re in Charleston, you see the ladies (and gentlemen) with their sweetgrass baskets everywhere. Our tour guide warned us that the prices sound expensive, but not so much when you know how much work goes into the weaving and sewing of this traditional art, brought from Africa and seen in the Carolinas since the 17th century. I stopped by the tables of this sweet lady, Neantha Ford, just off the corner of Broad and Meeting to admire her work. She was all smiles, which made her a winner. She signed my basket, as all artists should…

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I don’t blame the ones who were so solemn because I’ve worked a booth and it’s not always fun to sit all day waiting for some tourist to purchase your work. I love the basket I purchased, which is a nice usable size or easy to hang on a wall. I stuck the sweetgrass flowers, called Confederate Roses, that I purchased in the handle for this picture. I bought several from a vendor in the market and then bought one from a young man standing in an alley making them and another from an elderly man who approached me in Savannah. Making these roses must be one of the first things learned in this area.

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Fairhope, Alabama is an artists’ haven, fueled by the creativity encouraged in the Organic School (similar to Montessori) that flourished there in the 20th century and still is active. I met several artists and it seemed they had all emerged from that background. It is a charming place to live along the Gulf across the bay from Mobile. I was enchanted with these bricks made by a local potter, John Rezek, that made up a walk in front of the Organic School and another one by the Fairhope Museum of History, a delightful small, well run and interesting museum of the area.

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John was working on one of the walks when I met him and I asked our hostess to take me to his studio, where I purchased a coffee mug…

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She then took me to the studio of Tom Jones, a studio made of bricks from the area, known as Clay City.

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He had a kiln from Clay City that most of my potter friends would covet…

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Karen with Tom Jones, potter - Version 2

Tom was another product of the Organic School. He was off to Italy so I was lucky to meet him…such a genuinely nice person. I would love to have one of his Halloween jack-o-lanterns, but they are sold out for the year. I’ll need to get an order in early. I did purchase one of his platters, which also celebrates Jubilee, an event that takes place annually or more often when shrimp, crabs and other fish swarm into Mobile Bay. When the call goes out, “Jubilee!,” people rush to harvest a seafood feast. Sounds crazy and fun!

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No surprise that New Orleans is teeming with artists. There are musicians on the streets from the man who plays for Jesus outside of Cafe DuMonde and starts your morning off with a smile…

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…to the three kids who looked like they were skipping school to play…and could they ever play!
That little girl on guitar was incredible…

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There are always performance artists by Jackson Square. I saw this guy change positions once during the day and saw several wannabes nearby who couldn’t begin to freeze in position like he did.

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Street Performer - NOLA

Of all the street painters, Sean Friloux was the best on that particular day. I walked by and came back, loving his images. He was working on a painting of the corner by Cafe DuMonde and I loved it. I came back to get it and he kind of posed for me. He was a quiet guy. Love my painting…

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You can find Sean’s work at https://www.facebook.com/sean.friloux. Enjoy!

You can see why I always stop for artists. I thank my mother who taught me to buy art when I traveled. Way back, you didn’t have to pay duty on it, so it was a good deal, another bonus for her. I’ve met artists all around the world, including in my own hometown, and love supporting them. They are entwined with my memories wherever I’ve been. I encourage you to make it a habit yourself to bring any trip to life!

I’m not a food editor, but it’s hard to come back from driving through the southern states of our country without acknowledging the food. I’m trying to think of another trip I’ve taken where what I ate played such an important place in the travel. Most of the time, I don’t think about it and am happy to have a good meal here and there while I take my pictures and read up on the history. In the South, the food is so tied to the history and the geography that you can’t ignore it. Besides, it’s so yummy!

Bear in mind that my friend and I weren’t looking for anything in particular, but did try to sample each place’s best. We started with our first meal on the road, looking for a catfish restaurant that had been a wow on another trip, a place off the beaten path. We looked it up on my iPad while we traveled and found that it wasn’t open for lunch, so we settled for another one that was mentioned. Nick’s was right beside the interstate, which made us a little doubtful, but there were cars and trucks and locals, which is always a good sign. Best catfish ever! And our first taste of the hushpuppies and cole slaw that were the staples of the menus from then on…

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That night in Memphis, we cruised Beale Street, looking for some of the famous barbecue. I’d asked friends, but we were so tired, we just wanted to stop. We peeked into King’s Palace Cafe, loved the music, liked the menu and tried it out. We were early and it was quiet…nice after a day of driving.

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The music was great, not so loud as to drown us out, and we visited with the singer. The fried green tomatoes were divine, the pork was melt in your mouth and the sauce was great. I forget what else was there, but it was all good. I had asked the policemen on duty which was their favorite and they diplomatically didn’t pick a favorite.

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We drove to Kentucky the next day and stopped at this little gem in Silver Point, Tennessee along the way. I’m not kidding when I say this meal was scrumptious. Absolutely perfect. I love the columns in front. Once again, there were workmen parked all over the place. I should have bought the t-shirt.

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On Sunday, we were in Owensboro, Kentucky, having slipped off the highway to find breakfast. Again, there was a group of policemen talking in the downtown and we stopped to ask them. It was Sunday morning and the whole town looked shut down, so we were very grateful to them. They sent us to Ole South Barbecue, which was stuck in the middle of a bunch of chains and near the highway and across from a mall…nothing that would have caught our eye. When we got in there, we knew it was the right place…a buffet with everything and lots of old people and large families, all local. I can’t even tell you how good the ham was, but it WAS Kentucky. The fried chicken was great because it is the South after all. And I can’t begin to tell you how many biscuits I ate on this trip. They also had Burgoo on their deli menu and I’m intrigued by Kentucky Burgoo, a soup made of whatever meats all the guests throw in. Here was my breakfast, which ended up filling me up for the whole day!

Ole South Cafe - Owensboro, KY

Before I go any further, let me tell you that I don’t eat like this at home, not every day, not even very often. But I felt a deep obligation to taste every biscuit I saw…my duty to my blog readers, I’m sure. I also don’t think there is anything the people of the South can’t do with a pig…bacon, ham, pork. All delicious. Maybe it’s my Kentucky roots speaking to me. I also didn’t gain any weight on the trip because I was walking all the time.

When we got to Nashville, we couldn’t find a local restaurant in the Broadway area. Everything was some kind of chain and they charged a cover if there was music. We were just passing through and finally settled for some great homemade ice cream! There was one barbeque place that would have been perfect, but they closed at 6 on Sunday. Too bad. Oh! We did get Goo Goo Clusters, which are from Tennessee. So are Moon Pies. Junk cuisine.

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The next day we drove to Gatlinsburg, Tennessee, doorway to Great Smokey Mountain National Park. We ended up walking the main street and having corn dogs. Did I ever claim to be a gourmet? It seemed right at the time.

The next day, we left the interstate in North Carolina and traveled a back road that took us through Saluda, a tiny town that actually has a thriving artist community. One of their local festivals is Coon Dog Day. We stopped at this place and had terrific barbecue because we were still in that mode and delicious Vidalia onion slaw. I think I could make that – marinated Vidalia onions with a slaw dressing.

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In Columbia, South Carolina, we ate at the only chain on our trip, and it’s local. The country breakfast was great and the southern drawls of the friendly waitresses started our morning nicely. I guess local chains aren’t too much of a compromise, really. The name was intriguing.

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By the time we got to Charleston, it was time to start looking for seafood. Our first meal was actually in a French restaurant on Broad Street that had been recommended by a friend. I bet it’s a local favorite with familiar atmosphere and a tasty Croque Monsieur, everything at reasonable prices.

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Later, after walking around the beautiful city, we stopped for seafood at Hyman’s, a few doors from our hotel. The hype was deserved. I imagine that the lines of people were tourists, but that’s ok. I think any restaurant or business that is 5th generation family owned must have something to offer.

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After the complimentary boiled peanuts, a Southern favorite that I was tasting for the first time, I ordered one of their signature dishes, Carolina Delight, which is fried grit cakes topped with crab cakes (there were other options) and covered in sauce.

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My friend had soft shell blue crabs. Along with the ever present hush puppies were some sides to die for. I even bought their little cookbook to get the recipes. There was the red rice, a special cole slaw, and a sweet potato soufflé that made us both stop and go YUM! I’ve already made it since I got home. It involves walnuts, raisins, butter, cinnamon… Suffice it to say we had a very rich meal.

Oddly, the next day, I was walking around town alone and stopped at a hot dog vendor on the street. Very friendly owners who asked where I was from. When I said Oklahoma, they immediately said, “Oklahoma State football,” which warmed this OSU grad’s heart. They were fun to talk to on the street. Very cool guys. Nothing fancy this day other than some more homemade ice cream along the way.

Oh, I didn’t mention the homemade popsicles that I saw in a couple of places. King of Pops. Look at the flavors…

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The last day in Charleston we ate breakfast at Toast. Don’t you love that name for a restaurant? It can be used so many ways. I had the special French toast that had been written up in the New York Times and it was unlike any French toast I’ve ever had – in a good way. I also snuck a bite of biscuit because, well, it was a biscuit. Delicious food and very friendly staff. Reminded me of one of my favorite places at home. I went by later and there was a line outside.

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By the time we got to Savannah, I had to eat something that wasn’t fried, even though there are hush puppies with every meal. We were invited to dinner on the river front at a place that was just casual and fun. I had very delicious and huge boiled shrimp, fresh from the sea. Of course, they were good! I’m sure all the places along there were similar, unless they were fancier.

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My next stop is just for atmosphere. This is where the local boaters from the islands around Savannah come to hang out. There was a band setting up for later. I guess there was a way to get there by car – we just boated in.

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Before we left Savannah, we grabbed just a bite at The Pirate’s House. Great place to take kids because they have a shop with every pirate thing you can imagine and there are pirates walking around to tell you the history of the place. Who doesn’t love a pirate every once in awhile?

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Turning west, we headed towards home. Driving along the Gulf coast was heartbreaking from Biloxi to Gulfport where Katrina devastated the area and I don’t know if it will ever recover. We wanted someplace by the water to eat and, after driving miles along empty beach with only driveways where homes used to be, we found this oasis in Pass Christian, Mississippi. Perfect in every way. We ate just before sunset, overlooking the boats, with a great seafood dinner. The blackened redfish was yummy, one of the night’s specials. Of course, there were the staples of hush puppies and slaw. Grits, hush puppies and slaw. You find them everywhere with lots of variations. Very, very southern.

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A walk on the beach followed dinner so I could sink my feet in the warm Gulf waters at last! The next night we had dinner on the causeway across Mobile Bay and the special was fried mullet. I hadn’t tried mullet yet, so of course…it deserved to be the all you can eat for Monday night.

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I’m starting to think I really did just eat my way across the South, but there were complimentary breakfasts in motels and snacks instead of meals and one or two meals a day sometimes. I just can’t believe how much good food we DID eat. And, just wait…

The next stop was New Orleans and what else do you need to say? We started the day at Cafe DuMonde with beignets and coffee and moved along from there. I’m familiar with New Orleans, but didn’t go to all my favorite places this time. How can you? There are so many.

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For lunch I had what may have been my favorite meal of the trip. We stopped at Pere Antoine Restaurant on Royal and had Barbeque shrimp with a special sauce and seafood gumbo. I usually go to the Gumbo Shop, but this was just incredible. The shrimp were…I’m running out of adjectives for all this food…look at them!

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We finished the day taking Muffelatas from Cafe Maspero with us. This was my father-in-law’s favorite place when he lived here and it became one of my husband’s favorites also. An Italian New Orleans sandwich, created at Central Grocery, is a true sign of the jambalaya of cultures in this city!

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After New Orleans, we were in Cajun country and ended up for breakfast at this unlikely place, recommended by our swamp guide.

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It was clean, homey, and the food was delicious. Drop biscuits instead of rolled, served by the cook herself. It was a combination gas station, convenience store, cafe near Gibson, Louisiana. The ladies were so sweet.

We still hadn’t tasted alligator. My son used to go to a place in the French Quarter, but I’m not sure if it was still there and I hadn’t looked for it. What do you do when you pass this sign outside of Lafayette, Louisiana?

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You turn in the drive and see this…

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You head further and go through these doors…

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and enjoy a delicious dinner of fried and blackened alligator and awesome boiled shrimp. I’m sure there were hushpuppies and slaw involved, but we got other vegetables and homemade rolls, too. Since it was the last night, we had key lime cheesecake that was beyond good.

So, we headed home after two weeks of eating the food of the south…ham, biscuits and more biscuits, corn bread, fried chicken, fried catfish, all styles of barbeque, hushpuppies out our ears, all kinds of slaw, shrimp every way we could, crab, grits, cheese grits, grits, okra in all forms, tomatoes fried green or fresh, barbecue, sweet potatoes, boiled peanuts, mullet, gumbo, beignets, muffalettas, alligator and homemade peach ice cream, homemade popcicles, bread pudding, and I forgot to mention that I tried boudin, a Cajun sausage, at a stand at the Tabasco store on Avery Island, Louisiana. And there was more homemade ice cream and the Goo Goo Clusters and Moon Pies. You can’t imagine how much more there was to try.

See what I mean? The South is rich in rich foods, plain foods, and plain good foods. My trip diary wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t take you on this tour. And I pay homage to the original cooks, many of them slaves, who brought these recipes with them and perfected them through the years until the food is part of the culture, part of the history, part of this beautiful region of our country. I can’t think of the South without thinking of something yummy to eat. It’s one of the unique things that keeps us coming back.

What was the first thing I ate when I got home? A hamburger! A famous Goldie’s hamburger from right here in Tulsa. Because this is definitely beef country! Try it when you pass this way…

My trip through the South a couple of weeks ago led me through several of the most important cities of the region, all of them located by water. Friends have asked me which one I liked best…it’s hard to say because they’re all so unique. There is definitely something about these places, something shaped by the flow of the rivers, the people who first settled on the banks or shores and all the stories that have flowed through history until now. My impressions are quick, not based on long stays, postcard impressions of cities, some seen for the first time, one of them much loved already. I had the advantage of seeing them all in two weeks, so my thoughts are fresh for each of them.

The first day, we drove to Memphis, crossing the mighty Mississippi to enter the city. I’d been there a couple of times before, but just passing through, not long enough to even have an impression. This time, we started at Mud Island, a peninsula with an incredibly creative scale model of the Mississippi River that you can walk along or in, seeing all the twists and turns, changing depths, and cities along its banks. There is also a museum with a history of the river that gives a good overview. Mud Island is a nice way to spend a few hours in a beautiful river park. You can think of Tom Cruise running through the tram in “The Firm” as you cross over to the park.

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I had seen the ducks at The Peabody, so we headed down to Beale Street, famous for barbecue and blues. We lucked into the last two days of Elvis Week, where fans come from around the world to pay homage on the anniversary of his death, the 36th this year. I don’t know how crowded it is normally, but it was a festive mood on this Friday night. Beale is bright lights and music in the air from the restaurants. Two small boys danced in the streets, then asked for money. We found a place to eat with delicious barbecue and a great guitar player, one who had worked this street for many years. He smiled and did his thing while we ate fried green tomatoes, ribs and pulled pork. It was nice and easy. When we left, the streets were lighting up and the action was just beginning. There was a party going on and I want to come again…

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This was my favorite neon sign of the night.

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Our travels took us to some smaller river cities with their own charm. Paducah, Kentucky is an important stop on the Mississippi and is working to populate their historic district. Owensboro, Kentucky is on the Green River and has one of the most beautiful river parks I’ve seen next to their historic district. We found it by accident while off the highway looking for breakfast on a Sunday morning.

Our next city stop was Nashville. This was really a stopover, partially due to curiosity after watching the views shown in the television show. It was Sunday night and there was definitely a party atmosphere on Broadway.

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We had driven around, very impressed by the city, and stopped to walk and find a place to eat. There were restaurants everywhere, mostly chains which we wanted to avoid. There was also a cover charge to eat when there was music. We found the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry.

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and walked up and down the street taking in the music coming from every bar along the way. My impression was that this really is music city with the happening street backed by the skyscrapers indicating the industries that thrive there.

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Nashville is cool, a fun place to visit and a beautiful city. We never did find a place to eat, settling for homemade ice cream at an old parlor on the edge of Broadway.

The next major city was Charleston, historic Charleston on the Atlantic coast. It was as beautiful as I imagined with a far larger historic area that is alive and thriving. There were the homes on Rainbow Row…

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…and elegant mansions in Battery Park…

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You can easily picture life in this city from Revolutionary times through the Civil War to now. Their historic preservation efforts are exceptional and well rewarded.

The City Market was fun to browse through the classy souvenirs…regional food, beautiful books, paintings, the ladies of the islands with their sweetgrass baskets, along with t-shirts and other fun things to remember your stay.

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We took the carriage ride around the historic area, a great way to get an overview of the history and the city. In the evening we walked to the pier, where there were porch swings and benches to watch the ships come in and the sailboats go by.

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Walking back to the hotel through the twilight streets, there was a quiet calm. Any parties in this city must have been private and inside on this particular evening. Charleston seems the most gentile of the cities we visited. It wasn’t formal particularly, as ladies wore cool cottons and linens with hats to shade their faces from the sun and heat. It wasn’t as hot or as humid as it could have been, lucky for us.

The next day, I toured the last remaining Slave Market Museum, a small but sobering visit. Among the others there was an older African American woman and her daughter. She was just sitting in front of one of the displays. I had great respect for what her thoughts may have been. The man at the desk had told me it was pretty brutal, as it was.

Slave Market

My memories of Charleston as a city are lovely. The food we ate was great, although we didn’t try any of the fancier restaurants. We took the trip around the bay, toured the city and I went to one of the plantations outside of town. Our two days leave me with visions of beautiful gardens, flowers and well-kept homes.

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I love the Charleston Hat Man, a painting that was uncovered and said to be painted in 1892 to advertise the haberdashery inside. There are 16 hats that make up the man.

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I love the steeples…

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and the alleys…

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Dueler's Alley

Broad Street and Meeting Street…

Broad Street

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Charleston is everything you ever imagined about Southern charm.

Our next stop was Savannah and we arrived late in the afternoon, in time to find a hotel and meet people for dinner by the river. This was a change from Charleston. The riverfront was busy with tourists and partygoers. I noticed that one of the popular t-shirts for sale was of all the pubs in town. There were batchelor party and batchelorette party groups one night. This was an old port town and the riverfront area is where they goods were purchased by brokers. Although you have to walk down steep ancient stairs and walk on cobblestone and old brick streets, it is a city that introduced itself to us as a fun place to be.

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Savannah

The next day, we were treated to a trip to Tybee Island, a stop at Ft. Pulaski, a boat ride along the coastal waterways with lunch at a small Jimmy Buffet-like restaurant, and a return visit to Bonaventure Cemetery before it closed. The cemetery was made famous by the novel and movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and it lived up to its mysteriously beautiful reputation.

Bonaventure Cemetery

We visited the graves of Johnny Mercer and his family and left before we got locked in for the night. Our hosts said they picnic and ride bikes there and have been to a Halloween event. I was beginning to see why the tour companies offered ghost tours of Savannah. With the pirates and specters of the cemetery, there was an edginess to the city.

Our tour of the city showed us the lovely homes built around 22 squares. Historic Preservation finally came in the 1950s or much would have been lost. There were homes from all eras with a large Victorian area.

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I left Savannah with mixed thoughts. I had thought it would be more like Charleston, but it has its own flavor and vibes. It’s a little darker, a little more mysterious when you see them both together. It’s a place to keep exploring, for sure!

Our final city was New Orleans. I have been to New Orleans many times. My in-laws lived there for a long time and we visited in different seasons, went to the World’s Fair, Mardi Gras, and always loved it. My kids grew up knowing this city. I hadn’t returned since Hurricane Katrina, so I was anxious to see how it looked.

I have found out since I had been there that my great-great-great-grandfather brought his family to live in New Orleans. He was a physician and died while treating people during a Yellow Fever plague. Maybe there is some DNA in me that makes me love this place. There is nothing like New Orleans. I loved all the other cities we’d visited, but New Orleans is just its own self. Some people don’t like the smell, but it’s just part of the place to me.

When we hit Jackson Square on a perfect day,

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and headed for Cafe du Monde for beignets and coffee, I felt like I’d come home.

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I like the musicians, the artists, and the street performers.

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I like the architecture,

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the home where Tennessee Williams wrote “Streetcar Named Desire,”

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Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street, a place that intrigued my son from the time he was about eight years old,

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and I like the mixture of all the exotic cultures, French, Spanish, Italian, Creole, Cajun, American Indian and European Americans, that blend to make this city and influence its food, its music, and its vibe.

I guess I have a favorite city of the South. New Orleans won my heart a long time ago as the most unique of all our cities. But, I’m so glad to welcome Memphis, Nashville, Charleston and Savannah into my places of the heart. They are all unique and interesting and are important parts of what makes this country such an incredible mix of regional voices and tastes. I have more to say about my trip to the South and all the beautiful things I experienced. I hope you get to head in that direction in your lifetime…