Friday, January 28, 2011

Austin and Beyond...

It was sunny and warm as we headed up the I-35 to Austin. We pulled into the Austin Lone Star RV Resort, had lunch, and set out for Sixth Street, the live music strip. Sixth Street is not much by day but we wanted to see if we might get a feel for what was going on by night.

Pictured is a shot of Sixth Street by day.

Of course, Austin has grown a lot since we were there sixteen years ago. It now boasts a population of 1.4 million, about the same as Vancouver I believe. Besides being the Live Music Capital of the World, it's also the State Capital and is home to The University of Texas, Austin State University and a whole host of colleges. It’s a happening kind of place.

Pictured is the city of Austin from the Congress Street Bridge. You can see the Capital Building way up at the end of Congress Street.

Despite it's size we could still find our way around the downtown pretty easily. We even got a parking spot right on Sixth Street, but, like I said, it's pretty quiet in the daytime. We did find one store where I could have spent thousands of dollars on everything from guitar lamps to drum sticks that light every time they're struck. After spending about twenty minutes in there, we walked up to the Capital Building for a look.

Pictured is the Capital Building, from inside and out.

Because we couldn’t find out much about what was going on musically from the street, when we got back from driving around the city a little, I got on the internet and found where I found everything I needed.

One thing that has changed since we were in Austin last is that the live music is spread all over the city now. We decided though that there was enough happening on Fifth and Sixth Streets that we would just go back there and stroll around, sticking our heads in doors to see what we liked.

I wasn’t keeping track of all the performers names and I never took any pictures of the musicians, but I can tell you that the first bar we went into had a kickin’ seven piece R&B band that did all original material. Next door we saw an acoustic trio led by the very talented and unassuming singer, songwriter, Chris Ruest.

Next, we strolled down to Evageline’s on Fifth where the Mark Gouduin Trio was playing. They had been the house band at Antoine’s for a number of years, the club where Stevie Ray Vaughn got his start, and where we'd seen an amazing gospel troup on our previous stay. It turned out to be the high roller spot in town though, which we weren’t dressed for - nor did we want to spend the money on high priced drinks.

Every three doors, or so, there’s another band playing and there are no mediocre musicians. Actually just about any one of them would fit in the ‘Monster’ category. The guitar player for the seven-piece R&B band mentioned earlier had just come back from a gig in Vegas.

A little later, when we found our way up to a rooftop bar that we’d noticed some music leaking from, there was a trio playing a Doors tune - to just four patrons. Cover tunes were not what I came to hear, so, we were just about to turn around and look elsewhere when I mentioned to Janice that the guitar player, who was a lefty playing an electrified acoustic, was amazingly talented, getting incredible sounds out of his set-up. I'd never heard someone get those kinds of sounds out of an acoustic guitar, playing rock music. You could tell it was totally effortless to him too.

As they finished the tune he announced that, “My electric guitar’s in the shop, because I’m going out on the road and I need it to play like it’s supposed to.” The bass player then added, “Ya, on the road with Kenny Chesney.” We listened to them play a couple more tunes by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. They explained they wouldn’t be playing any country music this night. Fine by me. The reason being though was that the guitar player's contract with Kenny Chesney states that he can’t play any country music, publicly, between gigs. I guess because he might leak one of the licks he plays when with the big show. Like I said, monster players.

Pictured are a couple of night shots from Sixth Street.

Maybe I'm just getting old but, despite the quality of the musicians, the trouble with the scene is that the new state-of-the-art PA systems, which the operators use to the max, were wearing us down. We stuck our head into one more bar where a hard rockin’ blues quartet was playing. Despite hiding behind a post we came out with our ears bleeding - well almost. We decided to call it a night.

Like I said, things have changed. If you’re planning a trip to Austin for the live music, do some careful research and pick a couple of shows you’d really like to see - and enjoy some incredible music.

In the morning we took advantage of a $2 breakfast at our RV park and then hit the road for Hondo, a small town not far from San Antonio. After setting up at The Quiet Texas RV Park we toured the town a little and then washed the RV. The park is run by an entrepreneur named Kevin, who also runs a ranch and has a business installing wind power generators. This whole park is run by wind generators. They’re not that big, or noisy, and cost about $18,000.00, all in. There's no bank of batteries required, they'll easily run an average household and they have a about a five-year payback on one of them. Me thinks he's on to something.

At dusk we invited ourselves to the neighbour' campfire. We knew we were probably pretty safe because earlier, we’d noticed her t-shirt that pictured three glasses of wine with the caption: Group Therapy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Beaumont, Victoria and San Antonio, Texas

As promised, we stopped at Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant on the way out of Louisiana. We had the Turtle Picante, that the New York Times described as the best anywhere. It was really good. Turtle meat is dark and lean. If asked, I’d bet that most people would guess they were eating beef. We also had Texas Toothpicks - deep fried strips of jalapeno and onions, as well as Pistolette, a bun injected with crawfish and then deep fried. It all came on one big dish, accompanied by a small helping of potato salad and a small piece of chocolate cake too.

People were lined up, mostly duck hunters, for both take out and eat-in, the whole time we were there. You’ve never seen so much camouflage clothing in one place.

Pictured is the lineup at Suire’s. It doesn't give much idea of all the camo clothing, but try to imagine that this lineup never goes away.

As we followed Highway 82 along the coast we witnessed a lot of destruction left behind by 2008’s Hurricane Ike. Any rebuilt structures, including mobile homes, look kind of silly elevated on ten-foot stilts.

Arriving at Beaumont Texas around three o’clock, we checked into Hidden Lake RV Park under cloudy skies. The huge puddles everywhere were evidence of a lot of rain, and there was more in the forecast.

I saw the second half of the Packers beating the Bears in the NFC final and then the Steelers beat the Jets in the AFC final. While I didn’t mind the results, they were both poorly played, boring games. Those multi-million dollar coaches for the Jets should all be fired. Here’s hoping those games weren’t any kind of harbinger of this year‘s Super Bowl - two weeks away.

Monday morning we took a drive around Beaumont in the rain. We saw some of the grand old houses from the age of the oil boom and shopped for groceries at a mega-store named H. E. Butts. The best part was the 7 Deadly Zins priced at $11.00. The same stuff that we pay $28 for at home.

Most of the afternoon was spent hunkered down in the trailer, attempting to plan some kind of itinerary. We knew San Antonio was on the list. We loved Austin when we there years ago, but we know that will cost a bunch of money because we’ll want to see lots of the live music. Big Ben National Park has also been recommended but it’s a long way from anywhere, and it borders Mexico. Hmmm...

It continued to rain heavily all day. We decided on driving to Victoria, Texas, about two hours from San Antonio. We didn’t get on the road until about 10:30 because we slept in until 9:00. It was still raining when we left - I had to put on flip flops to hook up the trailer, otherwise my shoes and socks would have been soaked in the deep puddles.

By the time we got to Houston, the clouds had parted. While eating my tomato, red onion, basil and Provolone cheese sandwich, lovingly made by Janice at a mall outside of Houston, somehow I bit down too hard on a bottom tooth. The pain was so sharp I thought I had broken it. It was still in place when I checked, but it was too sore to wiggle it enough to see if it was loose.

Pictured is Janice's drive-by shooting of Houston.

We got to the Lazy Longhorn RV Park in Victoria about 3:00. My tooth was still sore so we walked to the grocery store and got some ice cream and eggs. There was already a Yam on board so, considering the tooth problem, Janice had planned to make Yam Soup for dinner. The ice cream was for later, the eggs for the morning - scrambled. I did my best not to whine too much, so, when we got back from the walk, she poured me a big Scotch on ice and we went and sat in the sun by the pool. Nice.

It was the next day when we were leaving Victoria that it revealed some of it's beautiful architecture, pictured below.

The drive to San Antonio took about two-and-a-half hours and was Texas-like. That is to say, scrubby, with the odd ramshackle abode stranded on an otherwise desolate landscape.

We pulled into the Mission Trail RV Park, just outside of San Antonio around 2:00 and then took the five-minute drive to the city. The RV park is right next to the highway and, believe me, ther's nothing special about it but, it turned out to be just five minutes from San Antonio's River Walk. It made getting in and out of San Antonio a breeze.

I'll stick my neck out here, without Googling it or anything - The River Walk must make San Antonio one of the most livable cities in America.

Pictured are some shots of the River Walk in San Antonio. Also pictured is The Alamo. You might notice one building cropping up a lot. It brings to mind one of Vancouver's most grand pieces of architecture, the Marine Building.

We thought we might drive southward, hoping to ensure some warm weather, but the draw of Austin is just too strong. We know it might cost us some money but, after all, it's the Live Music Capital of the World - gotta' go, ya' know?...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Heart of Cajun Country - Don't Mess With My Tu-Tu...

We took Highway 90 to Abbeville, not far from Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country, where we pulled into Betty’s RV Park. We had heard about Betty’s from a neighbor in New Orleans. They said it was a fun place to stay and it was just as they had reported - only seventeen spots and a gathering place attached to her house called Betty’s Louisiana Room, where she hosts a happy hour everyday at 4:30.

Pictured are a couple of shots that give an idea of the eccentricities of Betty. She sells t-shirts that read: You’ve Been Caught in Betty’s Web.

We explored the quaint and historic town of Abbeville and then attended the happy hour where we met people from: upstate NewYork, Oklahoma, Australia, Washington State and Texas. Everybody brought appetizers and there was a lot of lively conversation.

I learned that the main crops in Louisiana are Cane Sugar, Crawfish and rice. We saw a lot of evidence of both on our drive from New Orleans. What I didn’t know was that the rice fields are flooded three times, each time a little deeper, and then the heads of the rice plants are cropped before chimneys (ABS pipes) are stuck into the mud below. Crawfish traps are then placed over the chimneys and the Crawfish, which live in the mud, kind of like worms, are baited and crawl into the traps. They look like small lobsters.

The next day, while our laundry was going round, we asked some local shop owners where we could experience some local flavour. We decided on lunch at Shuck’s Restaurant where we split a cup of Smoked Duck and Andouille (spicy) Sausage Gumbo and a Shrimp Patty Burger. The shrimp patty had surprisingly large pieces of shrimp in it, and just the right amount of heat. The restaurant was one big, square room, but was full at 11:30 and had a lineup at the door when we left.

Pictured is Shuck’s restaurant.

After lunch we drove to Avery Island, the home of the Tabasco Sauce factory and store, where we bought some east Asian Style Chili/Tabasco sauce. We had actually been to Avery Island in 1995, on a six-week road trip we did right after we sold the newspaper. We were motelling it that time.

Pictured is Janice contemplating a theft at the Tabasco store.

We made a quick appearance at the Happy Hour that afternoon. Quick, because everyone else was going to a restaurant for crawfish. We declined because we’d already had lunch out, and because Janice had Pork Necks in the crock pot. Pork Necks? Yes, they’re very common in the stores here so we decided to give them a whirl. When slow cooked they‘re as delicious as the locals had claimed.

On Friday we drove to Lafayette, the hub of Zydeco music. I had my mind set on picking up one of those stainless steel, vest-style, washboards. They call them Rub-boards here. We had been offered one for $100.00 by the percussionist at The Bayou Club in New Orleans but I didn’t know if that was the going price or I would be paying way too much - after all it was the French Quarter. Maybe I should have jumped on it because it was made by Waylon Thibodeaux’s dad, whom, it turns out, is more famous than I had realized. You can check him out at

As it turned out however it was probably best I didn't buy it from him. After scouting all of the pawn shops in Lafayette by phone, I found that the Acadiana Pawn Shop had a couple of used Rub-boards. We took the twenty minute drive to go and look. It turns out that this pawn shop is the major dealer for musical instruments for the Cajun and Zydeco musicians in the area.

When we were there the guy who had been Buckwheat Zydeco’s guitar player for many years came in, accompanied by a couple of other younger Zydeco musicians. The owner introduced us to all of them but I can’t remember their names. They were all very friendly and accommodating and told us about the hot spots around town, where we could find the kind of music we were looking for. One even gave me a demonstration on the Rub-board that I was looking at. They were headed to a gig in Texas somehwere.

The board had been well used and when I offered the owner $40 he said, “Sure” and then threw in a CD by Buckwheat’s current guitar player, Lil’ Buck Sinegal.

According to one of the Cajun’s who we spoke to at Betty's happy hour, Zydeco is the Africanization of Cajun music. Could be. Whatever - we love it.

On the way back to Abbeville we stopped at Richard's Butchery and bought some Boudain (cooked pork and rice, wrapped like sausage, which Janice deep fried and took to happy hour) and Cracklin,(fried pork fat). These are both local delicacies. Janice loves the Cracklin - I can't handle it - too greasy.

Pictured: Me, back at Betty’s, with my new purchase.

Later in the day we walked around Abbeville.
Pictured are: The graveyard, (in the south they call them Memorial Gardens) at St. Mary’s church - almost all the older graves are above ground - maybe because of flooding? Also, St. Mary’s Church, which is enormous for a town this small.

Just before happy hour, we took a drive to Suire’s Grocery & Restaurant. It’s a tiny place on a very rural crossroads but has been written up by several major publications, including the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle, for having the best and most authentic Cajun food anywhere. We’re going to stop on our way out of town to eat there.

Pictured is Suire's Restaurant.

On Saturday morning we drove to the small town of Breaux Bridge, just outside of Lafayette. Our destination was the Café Des Amis, one of the recommendations of the Zydeco musicians we'd met at the pawn shop. Starting at 8:00am they seve breakfast, accompanied by a live Zydeco band. In this case it was Corey Ledet and his Zydeco band. Amazing. He has a new CD that I bought for $10. They're playing one of the tunes from it on the radio down here. The band literally had the place jumping. If you've ever been to the Commodore Ballroom and experienced the suspended dance floor, that was what this felt like. Upon arrival, patrons are given an electronic coaster-like-thing and, when your table is ready, the thing flashes and buzzes - it was a great idea because there's no way you could hear the hostess's voice over the din - a combination of the music, the shuffling of feet, tapping of toes and the overall excitement of the crowd. Our table never came up until an hour after we got there but the food was excellent. I bought a t-shirt too and the entire bill was $27.96.

Pictured is Café Des Amis. The band had the place rocking, at eight in the morning! Well, that's what they told us anyyway - we never got there until ten. When we got seated we enjoyed Shrimp with Honey Aoli and Pecans as well as Corn Bread Smothered with Crawfish Etouffe.

When we left Cafe Des Amis we looked around Breaux Bridge a little, where I spotted the laughing lady, (which I probably would have bought had it been a lamp that glowed from within) and, some typical rustic looking Breaux Bridge buildings.

We drove back to a small town called Erath to take in the annual Gumbo Cook-off. One of the contestants is pictured below. We paid $2 and got to try a couple of samples. Mmmm...

Later we went to the jam session at Calvin Touchet’s at Maurice, another small town five munties from Abbeville, where they jam strictly Cajun music every second Saturday. The weeks in between the jam goes to Erath. Drinks were ridiculously cheap - a red wine and a beer coast $3 for both, and, there was free beef stew and salad later.
Pictured is Tim jamming with a bunch of regulars at Calvin Touchet's.

We love Louisiana. It's not much to look at but the food and music make it truly memorable. According to Betty, the people from the north observe this about the Cajuns's. "You Cajun's don't sit around counting your money like we do. You're too busy living it to save it." She claims, "Dat's da truth - fo sho."

Anybody wanting to take a unique week-long holiday should try flying to Lafayette, picking up The Times or visiting the Acadiana Pawn Shop to see what's happening, and then visiting with some of these colourful characters in their unique hangouts.

This being Sunday morning we're hitting the road again - destination southern Texas. We'd love to stay here some more but Janice claims it's going to make her fat if we do...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The French Quarter and, some very sad news...

On Sunday morning we took a drive to Gulfport and walked along the boardwalk there before going to a Waffle House for breakfast. We thought we’d better try a Waffle House because there’s one every mile or two down here.

Pictured is a wharf along the boardwalk at Gulfport and, inside a Waffle House. These places are about as busy as a Tim Horton’s is 24/7 in Canada. The food is cooked in front of patrons, the coffee's good and the meals are reasonably priced and decent.

We left Biloxi under sunny skies on Monday morning. Normally we stay off the interstates but it didn’t look like there was much to see along the way so we made New Orleans in an hour-and-a-half on I-10.

Settling in at Ponchtartrain RV Park, we had lunch and then went to get the oil changed on the truck.

At 3:45 we took the $5 shuttle from the park to the French Quarter - what a deal. Strolling around Bourbon and Royal Streets, we took in some sights that wouldn’t be seen anywhere else. Of course the architecture is typical of what you’d expect to see. The art galleries were very interesting though - not your usual run-of-the-mill variety where the art is the same in Mississippi as it is in Manitoba. There were some very unusual home décor shops, Voodoo shops and, of course, restaurants, bars, strip clubs and souvenir shops. There’s a hustler at very corner and barkers at almost every doorway doing their best to draw unsuspecting neophytes into seedy nightspots.

Pictured are: A river boat on the Mississippi at dock in New Orleans; some shots of Bourbon street and some of the shops.

As recommended by the people at our RV park, and the shuttle driver, we went to The Oceana Grill for dinner. We had been told that you can get ripped for up to $25 a drink at some clubs, and that most restaurants are vastly over-priced, so it was a nice surprise to find we could get a decent bottle of wine for $24 and our entrees, Crawfish Etouffe for Janice and a Crab Cake Platter for me, at $20 each. With tip we were out of there for $75.00.

After dinner we went to the Bayou Zydeco Club and saw Waylon Thibedeaux and his band entertaining a small but lively crowd. They had a lot of fun getting patrons to strap on the washboard and trying to play along with the percussionist.

In the picture below the real percussionist is on the right - the girl enjoying herself so much is just drunk. In the next picture the guitar player on the left looked remarkably like a guitar player I used to play with - same hat and everything.

The shuttle picked us up again at 8:00pm as scheduled. When we got back to the park there were about ten people partying at the outdoor Tiki Bar there. We went to have a look. It turned out they were all from a small company that paints locomotives and are staying at the park while they complete a contract here. The boss, Jimmy, was buying Las Vegas Bomb shooters and insisted we join them. Ok, just for one. A couple of shooters later we decided to join Tom and Mary Beth back at their trailer for a night cap. Tom looked like our friend Jack Young from Barriere and Mary Beth was a Sissy Spacek look-alike. We left about midnight and Tom had to be up at 5:00 to go to work. Ouch.

The morning after, Janice and I took a drive around New Orleans and had lunch at Zydeco’s restaurant. Janice had crab-filled-egg-roll-kind-of-things and I had corn and crawfish chowder. If you were to ask us, besides the French Quarter, there's not a lot else to see in New Orleans. Mostly it's run-down and dirty.

Pictured is the Superdome and downtown New Orleans.


One of the prime motivators for us taking this extended trip in the first place was the loss of our long-time friend Dave (Big D) Jenneson, to cancer. His ex wife, Charlie, was also fighting her own battle with cancer. Janice’s dad died of cancer last year too and, although he was seventy-six when he died, that age doesn’t seem so far off when you’re sixty years of age yourself. A couple of other acquaintances of ours had also died that year.

We decided that it was better to travel now, while we still could - damn the expense.

When Bill, (Janice’s dad) was on his death bed, he asked if we wanted any last words of advice. Sure we did. “Travel now, pay later,” he said. While it’s not our style to do things we can‘t afford to pay for up front, we got the drift.

On June 1st we hit the road. We hadn’t been on the road a month when we discovered that one of my colleagues at CFIB, Bruce Grimes, had come down with cancer. That was July 1. We had been going to try and meet up with Bruce at his summer place at Lake of the Woods in Ontario, but the timing didn’t work out and we missed him by a couple of days. Man, did I regret not having hung around a few more days to make that happen when, a month later, we got news that Bruce had died suddenly as a result of treatments he was undergoing.

We couldn’t believe it. He was fifty years young, and so vibrant.

I never reported on Bruce’s death in my blog for a couple of reasons. One: Most people on my contact list that receive my blog didn’t know Bruce. Two: Charlie regularly reads the blogs and, because she was undergoing cancer treatments herself, I didn’t want to scare her.

I had only known Bruce for a couple of years but it felt like more because we got on so well. He was an outstanding individual. A natural born leader with great people skills, a ready sense of humour, an incredibly wide knowledge base and a keen interest in just about any subject. He made a big impression.

Because I hadn’t reported on Bruce’s death I thought it inappropriate to report on another momentous occasion: The marriage of our good friends Debbie MacArthur and Peter Gilmour. They got married on October 10 last year. I’m sure they probably found it strange that there wasn’t a peep about it in my blog, especially because we had been hanging out with them more than anyone else before we left on our trip. Peter and Debbie, my reasoning might have been misguided, I'm not sure, but now you know why.

Now, our long-time friend, Charlie, who’s been unbelievably courageous and upbeat while fighting several bouts of cancer over the past seven- year stretch, has been told she has several large brain tumours.

Thankfully we got to see Charlie when we went home for Christmas. Janice had time alone with her and then we all had Christmas dinner at Janice's mom's.

We love you Charlie.