New Orleans

New Or-leans. New Orlins. N’Awlins. No matter how you pronounce it, this is one cool city. Tennessee Williams famously said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everything else is Cleveland.” We loved the Big Apple, we haven’t been to San Francisco (yet!), but we did love New Orleans! Street performers, Cajun food, the French Quarter, and the riverfront all combined for a great time in the Big Easy.

Our first night in the French Quarter we saw a popular street band with the very Southern name “Yes Ma’am” totally owning the crowd on Royal Street, a dramatically view-changing one block off of Bourbon Street. Bridger said, “There’s so much music here, it feels like my life has a soundtrack!” Indeed. Besides the various street performers, we visited the House of Blues, heard endless songs streaming from open doors and windows, and saw a wedding party parade led by a small brass band dancing down the middle of Bourbon Street.

Oddly enough, jazz band parades are also the local funeral tradition. The recently departed are escorted in festive fashion to the mausoleum-style cemeteries that dot the city. Since the water table is so high (and the city is largely below sea level), the traditional “six feet under” doesn’t work well, especially during heavy rains and flooding. What that means for tourists and residents alike is a great variety of beautiful, historic mazes of brick and cement resting places that tell their own tale of the life of this city. We explored the Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District and found burial dates as early as the 1700s!

Did we mention food? Mark Twain said, “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin,” and we put that theory to the test. We ate delicious powdered sugar covered beignets at The Beignet Cafe, fried crawfish tails with seafood gumbo and jambalaya at the French Market, and ended our trip with even better beignets at Cafe du Monde on Jackson Square. Surprisingly enough, some of the best Cajun food we had was in Baton Rouge. We stopped there for a wonderful visit with my cousin Marianne and her family and took the opportunity to head to Parrain’s one night down by LSU. Excellent! I could go on but that would just be mean.

I will add that early on in the trip John Cauffman sent me a couple of invaluable “Best of…” lists that we’ve used all across the country to find outstanding local places for food and drinks. Thanks, John! We still have all of the Rockies and the West Coast to go before we finally get back to Oregon – we welcome suggestions anyone else might have for us!

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USS Drum

From Florida we drove to Mobile, Alabama to visit the Battleship Memorial Park. This was a stop we had been planning from the start of our trip and I was pretty excited to get there. The park houses the battleship USS Alabama as well as the USS Drum, a World War II submarine. My maternal grandfather, Calvin Ruebush, served on the Drum from 1942-1945. He was a torpedoman on 8 war patrols in the Pacific theater. There’s a display on the Drum that includes many of his personal effects. He died when I was Bridger’s age so my boys only know him through stories and pictures. It was pretty cool to be able to show them the personal items on board the Drum that belonged to their great grandfather and show them their connection to history through his service. I loved my Poppy very much and of course I have always known about his time on the Drum. It was really great to actually be there, with the knowledge I have now of the military, and especially of men in the military. I could actually imagine him and 70 other young men in that small submarine, making their patrols, looking for trouble — young men at war. It gave me a whole new perspective.

It’s exciting when history and family history come together!    -Ayrril

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Meanwhile…

While Brian was “working” in the Northwest the boys and I spent the month here in Northwest Florida.

We took advantage of being parked and spent a lot of time on school. Carson worked especially hard. He took 4 mid-term exams when we arrived and was ready for finals in those same classes just 4 weeks later. Most days we did school in the morning with the goal of having time to play later in the day. Afternoons might find us in the hammocks with a book or at the marina with a paddle. We had some rainy days too – perfect for playing Xbox in the bus or watching movies. We’re loving the new Sherlock!

Our campground here is beautiful – filled with tall pines and live oaks and magnolias. We’re right on the shore of Santa Rosa Sound, within walking distance of the marina. There’s a nature trail along the sound that’s perfect for walking Sam or for running. We’ve seen snakes and turtles and toads and tree frogs. Lately the fireflies are out (we even had one in the bus!) and even though I know all about bioluminescence (thank you Museum of Natural History!) somehow they still seem kind of magical. For the last two weeks the honeysuckle and the magnolias have been in bloom and our nature trail smells amazing!

We only had one campground misadventure while Brian was gone. Carson stepped out to fill Sam’s water bowl at the spigot next to the bus. As he turned the handle the whole top of the water spigot came off the pipe and launched into the air. He yelled for help and I ran outside and saw a geyser of water, higher than our bus, just next to our electrical box. Carson and I managed to wrestle the cap back onto the pipe against pretty incredible water pressure. We were completely soaked! He held it in place and I called the campground office to ask for help. A few minutes later a fire engine pulled up in front of the bus. I’m thinking “Why would they send a fire engine?” but then… firemen! It was a Magic Mike moment and I can’t believe I didn’t get pictures! The very professional firemen called a utilities crew and they were finally able to get the water shut off and get the pipe repaired. It was a very exciting Sunday morning!

Due to parts delays it took all month for the Jeep to be fixed. We had a rental in the meantime but we really missed our Jeep. It’s finished now and good as new. Just in time too! Brian’s back and we’ll be headed for Mobile and then New Orleans. On the road again!

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Work?

So periodically on this trip we’ve parked the bus while I flew out to the west coast to work for a while. Sitting at intersections with a cardboard sign that says, “Need money for gas – anything helps!” sounds easy but it would take way too long to collect enough change to fill the bus tank. The work has actually been interesting, engaging, and rewarding but that’s a story for another day. In the spirit of our Great American Road Trip, I’ve also attempted to use what little free time I have here to explore new restaurants, new venues, and new horizons. After all, the northwest is going to be our home starting this fall so I figured I should check it out.

During a long weekend break from work, I drove up to Seattle to see a couple of my favorite comedians near the University of Washington. Doug Benson hosts a weekly podcast called Doug Loves Movies (and also happens to be a very funny comedian); Graham Elwood hosts the weekly Comedy Film Nerds podcast (and has toured with the USO – three times to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan!). They were both hilarious and totally cool after the show. When Graham found out I was a vet, he gave me a free copy of his album Palm Strike Dance Party and even autographed it right there.

I didn’t have much time to get outside, although I tried to exercise every day. I did get a chance for some hiking on the Oregon coast, though, taking a few hours to hike up Tillamook Head near Seaside. A large tree had fallen across the trail and I counted the rings where trail maintenance had cut through the trunk. It was massive! I circled back around and climbed up on top of the tremendous trunk. It was really incredible to look out on the Pacific Ocean while standing on a tree that was alive when Lewis and Clark explored the area over 200 years ago. I topped out on Clark’s Mountain after climbing 1025 feet from the trailhead, then headed back down thru the pines and ferns.

A few days later, I had a free afternoon and decided to hike Saddle Mountain, an area that Lewis and Clark referred to as rugged and uneven (although they spelled it “ruged and uneavin”). They were right! I climbed 1614 feet from the trailhead to the summit, which I had all to myself with spectacular views west to the Pacific Ocean and north to the Columbia River. A freak spring snowstorm blew in for about 15 minutes while I ate M&Ms under some sheltering pines on a nearby sliver of cliff. When the sun came back out, I headed back down through grassy meadows that reminded me of the long beautiful descent our family made from the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland a few years ago. True, the Saddle Mountain summit is only at 3283 feet, but it was very cool being there after having run at sea level on the Seaside beach the day before.

On my last night in Oregon, I walked the few blocks to the beach and watched the sun sink into the ocean as waves crashed on the sandy shore. It was beautiful, of course. I think we’re going to like this place.

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Snowbirds, pt. 4 – manatees

Our alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. Ayrril and I got up, started the coffee brewing, and began quietly preparing the bus for the road – unplugging from the campground electrical hookup, folding up our bed, stowing any loose items. At 4 a.m. I started the bus, removed the leveling blocks, and got ready to move out. Skipping out on a bill, you might think? Running from the law? Trying to avoid more “full-timer” tips from overly solicitous neighbors? All good guesses, but no. Despite temperatures in the 30s, we were setting off for a 6:15 rendezvous to snorkel with manatees in Crystal River.

Way back when we were planning this trip and talking with friends about our plans, we had a fuzzy idea of our route and what we’d like to do in our year on the road. When I mentioned heading for Key West in the winter, my friend Will said without hesitation, “You’ve got to swim with the manatees!” He gave me the basic details, I mentioned it to Ayrril, and then I tucked it away under the “Possibilities” section of my very cluttered mind. As we got closer to Florida, it came up again and we decided that it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Manatees, sometimes referred to as sea cows (although not to their cute pudgy faces), need warm water to survive. During the summer months, the water in the Gulf of Mexico is perfect but in the winter, things cool off pretty rapidly. Fortunately for them, Crystal River is fed by naturally warm freshwater springs that keep the water at a near constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit. This provides a natural haven for the manatees and a perfect opportunity to see these amazing creatures up close. March and a cold snap combined? Perfect. And while snorkeling tours to the springs go on all day, the early morning trip would get us there before a lot of other swimmers and manatees stirred up the water too much to see anything clearly.

The first order of business at River Ventures, our chosen tour company, was a thorough briefing on manatee encounter rules and regulations, all specifically designed to ensure that these endangered animals are not disturbed or harmed in any way. Next came wet suits and a short ride to the dock, where we met our boat captain, swim guide, and on board wildlife biologist Mike Birns. He is a founding member and president of the board of the Manatee EcoTourism Association. As we soon discovered, he’s also a fantastic guide! On the short boat ride to the springs, Mike briefed us all again on protocols for the swim – in short, interaction is allowed only at the surface of the water, only upon being approached by a manatee (no pursuit), touching only with one open hand, and don’t cross into the roped off area.

As soon as we dropped anchor, a young manatee approached the boat and began playing around the anchor line. Mike slipped into the water, eased away from the boat, and then it was our turn. Ayrril went first and almost immediately was approached by the young manatee calf for a snout-to-mask “kiss.” It’s hard to adequately convey how cool it was or how curious and playful the manatees are. You’re not swimming “near” them, you’re not just observing them from a distance while they carry on obliviously with their own lives; you are actually swimming with them. Everyone found themselves at one point or another virtually surrounded by manatees, both big and small, rolling over to be scratched on their bellies, grabbing you with their flippers, or coming close to look you in the eyes. One very small calf was fascinated with Bridger, swimming under and around him for a long time. It was incredible! Now we understand why it was included in the book “1000 Things to Do Before You Die” and why thousands of people come from all over the world to swim and kayak in these waters.

When it was time to go, we climbed out of the warm spring water into the incredibly cold spring air. Mike’s seemingly endless supply of hot chocolate was barely able to stave off hypothermia as we toweled off, added layers, and headed back to the dock. Fortunately we had parked our home right next to the shop, so warm dry clothes and a propane furnace were quickly in sight.

What a great experience! It was simply amazing.

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Snowbirds, pt. 3 – gators, birds, and bad drivers

Much as we hated to leave Key West, the road was calling. We had plans to see alligators in the Everglades, friends in Tampa, and manatees in Crystal River so we loaded up and headed toward the mainland. The mangrove forests, the skittering iguanas, the crystal clear waters, and the distant boats all seemed more familiar on the way north –  like old friends, warm and comfortable and known, far removed from the frantic hustle of life away from the sea.

Our first stop was Fort Myers, not a destination in itself but a good jumping off point for a day exploring Everglades National Park, a unique combination of ecosystems that covers nearly 1.5 million acres of southern Florida. We parked the bus at a great little RV park and headed out early the next morning for a guided tour. Our guide Linda, a native Floridian and incredibly knowledgeable naturalist, gave us a great overview of the park on the drive down to Monument Lake. Although we had seen quite a few gators in the water along the road, it was nothing like seeing them up close and personal from a flat bottomed air boat! Before we even got on the boat, though, we got to hold a baby alligator and a baby crocodile while our guide explained the difference between the two. Florida is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live in the same ecosystem. The air boat, which is essentially a wide boat with a giant fan on the back for propulsion, took off slowly from the dock before gunning it out across the lake to skirt the grassy shoreline. The variety of wildlife was amazing! Tons of birds, from nesting bald eagles to long legged herons and diving cormorants, plus of course the stars of the show – gators! We saw alligators hunting, sunning themselves, swimming, and even one pretty small gator dragging a big fish out of the water.

After a drive through the Big Cypress Swamp (with more gators, of course), we stopped for lunch with gator tail appetizers. Yum! (I wouldn’t really say yum. -Ayrril)  Then we hit the water again on a much bigger boat, a National Park Service sponsored ferry tour of the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. We saw lots of birds, of course, and the islands themselves are beautiful, but the most remarkable part of the trip was watching the dolphins play around the boat. A very playful pair rode the bow wave for a long time, essentially surfing along in front of the boat, leaping and diving right beneath our noses. At other times, dolphins would head to the back of the boat to cavort in the wake, bursting out of the white trail to crash back down with an enormous splash. It looked like fun!

The next stop was Tampa, where we met up with some more old friends for dinner. Mary and Madison and Tyler were very good friends from our North Carolina days. Carson and Madison were playmates as babies and now they’re 15!  We made plans to meet at Busch Gardens the next day for roller coasters and, well, roller coasters! Unfortunately, the excitement started before we even got into the park. As we were waiting at the light to turn into Busch Gardens, we got rear ended by a big van. Luckily he swerved at the last minute so he didn’t hit us dead-on. He did crush the back right corner of the Jeep and sent us smashing into the car in front of us, which bent our tow bar. Luckily no injuries, his insurance is covering all of the repairs, and the Jeep was still drivable, so we headed in to Busch Gardens just a little later than expected. Carson rode his first looping roller coaster, Bridger rode his first real roller coaster ever, and we all left happy.

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Snowbirds, pt. 2 – Key West!

We’ve been looking forward to Key West since we were parked on Lake Michigan north of Chicago in January, enduring single digit wind chill just after an ice storm.

Heading south, we stopped in Miami to catch up with the Urbecs, some of our very best friends from back in the Fort Bragg days. They made us feel so welcome we parked our bus in their yard and stayed for a while. The boys loved having other kids to hang out with – they had so much fun. Carson was invited along on a sleepover that included forging knives in the backyard! The adults had a pretty good time too. There was much wine and conversation and laughter. And knitting… Man, we love those guys.

We finally dragged ourselves away from Miami and headed south on US Highway 1, known as the Overseas Highway, one of the most scenic stretches of road in America. It traverses the Florida Keys for over 100 miles, ending at Mile Marker 0 in downtown Key West. The water was crystal clear, iguanas scurried across the road in front of the bus, and people along the way were often fishing from both sides of the road. Very cool.

I think when Jimmy Buffet sang about “Changes in latitude, changes in attitude,” this is exactly what he was picturing. One week stretched into two, we started to have favorite hangouts, and everyone started to relax into the island life. We soaked up the sun, snorkeled the Florida Reef (third largest in the world), SNUBA-dived just off the island (imagine a cross between snorkel and SCUBA), para-sailed, drank rum drinks, walked Duval Street, toured Hemingway’s house, kayaked through mangrove tunnels, flew in a seaplane out to the Dry Tortugas islands to snorkel the most western end of the Keys, and wrapped it all up at the end with a spectacular Key West sunset from Mallory Square.

Key West, we will definitely be back!


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Snowbirds, pt. 1 – Space Coast

Wow, time flies when you’re lying in the sun! We hit Cocoa Beach, Florida in mid-February intending to visit some friends stationed there (tough life!), see family in Orlando, and hit a few major attractions before heading further south. We ended up staying nearly a month – visiting with the Orlando branch of the Boggess clan, sharing great meals with Miguel and Christine, enjoying the beautiful beaches, and seeing the sights.

The Orlando Science Center is a great little hands-on museum with a lot of different activities from dinosaurs to astronomy to physics and mechanical engineering. Oh, and they also happen to be hosting a special traveling exhibit called Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination. We’re a family of Star Wars fans — we call our bus the Millennium Falcon — so we were really looking forward to the exhibit. Real costumes and props from the movies along with discussion, exhibits, and experiments about the science behind the movies. The boys got to build a maglev craft and a programmable robot. Bridger, our resident Star Wars geek and scientist in training, was in heaven!

Since we were just south of Cape Canaveral, we continued the real world space exploration theme with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center. We recently watched Apollo 13 and the excellent documentary series “When We Left Earth,” so it was really cool to see the Mercury and Apollo rockets up close. There’s even a Space Shuttle launch simulator that almost makes you feel like you’re in space!

Ayrril and the boys settled in for a couple of weeks of school while I flew back to Seattle for work, then it was time to load back up and get on the road again. I think we could get used to this snowbird life!

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You know you’re retired when…

– it’s March and your feet have tan lines
– instead of asking what time it is, you find yourself asking, “What day is it?”
– wearing the same clothes for three days doesn’t faze you
– your kids think getting up at 6 a.m. to swim with manatees is an adventure, but getting up before 10 to do anything else is “too early”
– instead of asking “How are you?” your family and friends ask “Where are you?”
– you promise to update your blog regularly, then realize that over a month has gone by without a post

Seriously, how’d that happen? We’re parked at Fort Walton Beach, Florida now. Ayrril and the boys will be staying here while I fly back to Oregon for a month. So, prepare to be inundated (or at least fully updated) in the next week or two.

Coming up next: Snowbirds, part 1, in which the Boggess family hits the Sunshine State and begins to thaw out under the influence of warm sun and cold drinks.

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The South

We left D.C. just ahead of an approaching cold front, driving south on I-95, a very familiar road for us from our years in North Carolina. First stop – Fort Bragg, birthplace of both Carson and Bridger, home of 3rd Special Forces Group (my first assignment in SF), and our home for over 7 years. It was great to catch up with friends who have either moved there or never left. We stayed with Jason and Amy and charming Ava, saw Frank at “work,” and went to dinner at the Mash House with Rob and Kim, Chris, and Matt for an old school Bad Boys reunion! Our boys got a full-on Green Beret history tour, from the JFK SF museum on Fort Bragg to the Airborne and Special Operations museum downtown to dinner with team guys. Perfect!

Driving south from Bragg, we took the kids even further back in time, continuing the reunion tour with Jason and Alis, our amazing friends from back in my infantry days in Baumholder, Germany. We had a family Super Bowl party and spent hours catching up. Carson, Bridger, and Erin spent hours playing Xbox and laughing at us laughing at our own stupid inside jokes. We all took an evening to visit historic downtown Savannah, drank Wet Willies on the riverfront, walked through a few of Savannah’s squares, and ate at the Moon River Brewing Company. It’s hard to believe how the years have flown by. Adrienne’s in college, for Pete’s sake! We have such great friends.

After studying so much American history in the past six months, it was very cool to visit Fort Sumter, site of the first battle of the Civil War. We drove from Savannah up to Charleston, South Carolina for a day and took a ferry out to the island fortress-turned-monument. They still have some of the original guns in place along with Confederate cannonballs lodged in the brick walls. You can literally touch the history here! The enormous US flag (20′ x 36′!) that flew over the garrison during the initial battle in 1861 is in the nearby museum. It was raised once again on April 14, 1865, four years to the day after it was lowered when US troops withdrew from the fort. President Lincoln didn’t attend the flag-raising, knowing he was unpopular in South Carolina and not wanting to invite unpleasantness. Also, he had theater tickets that evening…

Back in Charleston, we spent the rest of the day just enjoying the city. While walking on the waterfront in the evening, a couple asked us to help them send off paper lanterns to mark a 50th birthday. We were more than happy to help and pretty soon those beautiful glowing lanterns were floating high over the Charleston Harbor. We waited until they were out of sight then headed back to Savannah.

The next day, with the cold front following us once again, we turned the bus down I-95 and made a beeline for Florida. Next stop – Cocoa Beach!

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