Richard and Suzanne's Big 1999 Road Trip
Stage 1: Blasting Eastward
Phoenix, AZ to Orlando, FL
This grand adventure began the way most grand adventures do - late. After a brief stop by Richard's office for some absolute last minute stuff, we rolled out of Phoenix about 11:00, and traveled non-stop to "The Thing?", a classic tourist trap just east of Benson. After viewing this amazing oddity, and many other "things" as well, we headed east out of Arizona just ahead of an ugly storm front that closed down I-10 behind us for hours with blowing dust and winds. The stretch of I-10 between Lordsburg and Las Cruces, NM, is infested with Stuckey's and Dairy Queens, and we made sure to investigate our share of them. We then enjoyed a nice relaxing stroll around the historic plaza in Mesilla, NM, followed by a relaxing sunset drive along scenic, tree-lined NM 28 into El Paso. A few misadventures ensued in El Paso, mostly involving that peculiar freeway feature known as the "Texas turnaround". We'd think we'd be making a left turn onto a cross street, and the next thing we'd know, we'd be heading in the opposite direction on the other side of the freeway! Our day then finished with an interesting meal at Chico's Tacos, and a not very quiet night at an inexpensive motel along Montana Street. This motel was so inexpensive, you had to unplug the TV to turn it off, and many strategically placed light bulbs were missing. Although the shower curtain did say "Best Western", we suspect that this may be slightly misrepresenting the affiliation of the property. ;)
Ready to roll!
This wet and rainy day began early, as we cruised out Lee Trevino Drive toward I-10 and easterly destinations. We visited really big kitty cats at the Tiger Truckstop near Sierra Blanca, and picked up more cheap entertainment in the form of $1.98 cassettes. While traveling east on I-10, we admired the intricate tile artwork in the rest area rest rooms, and saw countless Texacows and one lost sheep. At Fort Stockton, we made a pilgrimage to see Paisano Pete, the world's largest fiberglass roadrunner (10 feet tall and 20 feet long). Also, here is where made the realization that some Texans' interpretation of "chili only" on a chili dog is unfortunately understood as "chili with lots of mustard". Overcoming this minor setback, we pressed eastward through the Hill Country, dodging occasional thunderstorms until we reached San Antonio in late afternoon. We then checked in at the best possible place for a Suzanne (and Richard) to stay - the Suzanne Motel! This nice lil' place was conveniently located just east of downtown, and the city cemeteries. We were then subjected to a recently induced local phenomenon - we believe the scientific term is "Spurs Mania". The symptoms include waving flags, yelling "Go Spurs Go", placing large banners on the Alamodome, and other such basketball-related activities. Should be harmless, except to New Yorkers, and should subside sometime after the NBA Finals. We then spent a nice romantic evening on the San Antonio Riverwalk, where Suzanne got a beautiful Korean wall hanging spelling her name in artwork, and we enjoyed a tasty meal (and much abuse) at Dick's, a San Antonio embarrassment. The evening ended atop the 750-foot tall Tower of the Americas, where a thunderstorm's display added to the spectacular view.
Double-decker I-10 freeway thru San Antonio
We slept in late at the Suzanne Motel, and then ventured onward through the continuing rain. We slid into the Houston traffic in early afternoon, and headed down to the Johnson Space Center, while watching an ominous storm cell develop over the Gulf of Mexico. The Space Center has many interesting interactive displays, and offers tours of Mission Control and other areas of the center. We will admit that these tours are very realistic, since we boarded the tram, got comfortable, waited, and then were asked to get off the tram before it even moved - just like a scrubbed space launch! (OK, the fact that a tree in the parking lot had just been struck by lightning, heavy rain was coming down, and these were open-air trams might have had something to do with it as well...) You'd think if they could land a man on the moon, that they could send folks out and return them safely, but not this time. We saw IMAX movies, shuttle & spacecraft tours, and other space-age distractions instead, and then tried to figure out how to get the full size Saturn V into the truck as a souvenir. Almost fit. The sun poked its way through the clouds as we headed eastward again, until we decided to set down in the small town of Winnie, where we obtained more bargain lodging and some down-home Texas cookin' at the Bar-B-Que Barn on TX 124.
The mighty Saturn V (some assembly required)
The rain has stopped (for the most part), and the sun is finally coming out, which means happier weather and... a bit of humidity. Just after MP 880 on I-10, we passed out of Texas (after 3 days) and entered Louisiana. At an official tourist info center in Jennings, we were introduced to our first real live alligator display, with additional snapping turtles included for that additional reptilian authenticity. After filling up at the Speedway in Lafayette, we turned off I-10, slapped some zydeco in the tape player, and headed straight into the heart of Cajun country on US 90. Stopped briefly to purchase a concrete turtle at a roadside pottery place/contractor's office along Highway 90 near Broussard, and crossed the Atchafalaya on a 1930's era cantilever bridge as we cut through Morgan City. Then, as we descended further into the swamps of south Louisiana, we discovered one of the highlights of our trip so far - Wildlife Gardens. As we were traveling along Bayou Black Drive (US 90, or was it old US 90?), we saw hand-painted wooden signs for this attraction about where milepost 194 should be, a couple miles south of the LA 20 junction. These signs intrigued us, so we went up the north bayou road a couple miles and found this great little place. We enjoyed meeting the numerous gators, wild piggies, peacocks, otters, bobcats, foxes, ducks, chickens, and other assorted animals, all shown attractively in an authentic family-run roadside zoo experience (though the baby gator pens can get a mite, um, fragrant). After this fun little side trip, we rolled through the Houma area while viewing the oil rigs, refineries, and other industrial institutions of south Louisiana. After a good dinner at the Huddle House in Luling, we drove up the Westbank Expressway into Gretna and settled in at the Rodeway Inn, just across the river from New Orleans.
Our new gator friend at Wildlife Gardens
We parked Truckasaurus at the Algiers terminal and took the free Canal Street ferry boat ride into downtown New Orleans. We strolled through Riverwalk, a shopping center built as the site of the 1984 World's Fair, and then rode the Creole Queen riverboat on a 2 1/2 hour tour (but not a "3 hour tour") down the Mississippi River waterfront to the site of the Battle of New Orleans. At the battlefield, a Park Service ranger described how the Americans repulsed this final attempt by the British to invade American soil (the Beatles and Austin Powers notwithstanding). On the way there and back, we saw a multitude of other vessels from many nations, including barges, oceangoing freighters, military ships, and many other boats of all shapes and sizes. After our return, we wandered into the French Quarter and took in many of the different styles of music offered in the, um, unique venues along Rue Bourbon. After a break for a nice burger and malt at Poppy's Grill (we were kinda Cajuned out by then), we continued our exploration of the myriad amusements of the Vieux Carre, keeping an eye out in the shadows for the steel masks, pads, and blue uniforms of the blood-sucking umpires said to frequent the area. We bravely ventured on until we finally hauled our sore bodies and bead-laden necks aboard the ferry for the trip back to Algiers and our room.
Giant pelican keeps his royal eye on New Orleans tourists
After a long rest after our rather late night, we loaded up and continued our eastward journey, beginning with a brief detour through New Orleans' Garden District. We chose to depart I-10 for this part of the trip, choosing instead to throw some Nanci Griffith in the stereo and travel on scenic (and slightly busy) US 90. While traveling along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, a small gift shop in Bay St. Louis yielded amusing yet inexpensive garden accessories for our home. Just east of there, we stopped along the bright white beaches that stretch along the highway. We wet our feet in the Gulf of Mexico, and picked up seashells and sand from this vast body of water. As we continued through the Dixie-meets-seashore-meets-Vegas (or maybe Laughlin?) ambiance of Gulfport and Biloxi, we bypassed the numerous floating casinos, instead opting to lose money (and gain stuff for folks back home) in bright pink souvenir shops with large fiberglass shark heads embedded in the exterior. Finally entering Alabama in late afternoon, we enjoyed a nice Italian dinner in Mobile at Peppacini's, then had a few amusing misadventures trying to find an open place in east Alabama that sold post cards (we're sending post cards from each state we visit). After successfully going postal in this manner, we entered the state of Florida at nightfall, and continued along on US 90 to find a place to rest. We finally ended up at one of the nicest places we've stayed so far (and the cheapest, too, at $23!) - the Crestview Inn, in Crestview, FL.
Gargantuan shark consumes the wallet of yet another poor tourist
Time to get to the final destination. We started off early on our long trek across Florida, continuing hundreds of miles nearly nonstop along I-10 through the forests and swamps of the Florida panhandle, and noticing the large change in traffic volume (and license plate colors) as we then turned south on I-75. In Ocala, we stopped briefly to pick up interesting truck (and bike) accessories at the I-75 Chrome Store, then made our final leg southeast along the Florida Turnpike into Orlando - just in time for a classic Florida thunderstorm. We inched along International Drive in the rain, viewing all the varied and odd attractions that line this very busy street - the interesting and fun architecture (and bumper-to-bumper traffic) rather reminded us of the Las Vegas Strip, only much more family-oriented. We got checked into the Extended Stay America near Sea World, which offered nice new kitchenette studios for less than $300 per week. (just don't expect personalized attention, though!). We settled in and rested until late evening, and then headed out just in time to see the fireworks over Universal and catch a late dinner. Fortunately, most Orlando-area restaurants and attractions stay open very late or are open 24 hours, so we were able to find both dinner and groceries even at this late hour.
Next Stage: Playing in Traffic - Orlando, FL
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