We headed back to San Carlos, Mexico from Atlanta on July 27th, traveling in the only major item we kept after selling the majority of our belongings last year and moving onto our boat: a 10-yr old Toyota Tacoma…hauling a brand new SeaFrost refrigerator.
Why, again, are we doing this? Because we don’t trust FedEx Mexico to deliver such an expensive piece of equipment into Mexico without it getting “lost”. And, we didn’t exactly feel like lugging such a heavy, awkward item on a plane and a 10-hr cross-border bus ride. Plus, do YOU want to try and explain carrying hazardous refrigerant to suspicious TSA or border agents? We could have shipped it to a Mailbox Etc. in Tucson, bussed up there to pick it up and bring it back on the bus; still a lot of trouble. We considered the possibility of bringing the truck down here as a huge bonus. But it’s ALL the way over in Atlanta. Eh, what else do we have to do? So here we are…
We’ve driven the southern route along I-10 several times. But the Marine Corps dictated our every move and always required Brian’s presence ASAP. Rush to Corpus Christi, hurry back to P’Cola, ‘stomp on it’ to California. This time, there was no one telling us when we had to be where.
From Atlanta, we purposefully traveled circuitously throughout southern Alabama to see if there was potential for settling there later on, AB (After Boat). Yes, there will come a time when we don’t want to live on the boat and we are already planning. This was a quickie day-long drive-by through a line of towns from Auburn to Tuskegee to Dothan to Opp just to get a sense for the area. Dothan and Enterprise, Alabama are high on the list due to Ft. Rucker. But so is Pensacola/LA (lower Alabama) Daphne/Foley area due to Pensacola Naval Air Station and nearby Eglin Air force Base.
Access to the VA is key for us, as is no state income tax - both FL and AL accomplish this requirement. FL has no state tax period and AL does not tax military retirement income. (Neither does Michigan or Wyoming, two other top states, but it’s so COLD there.) But we wanted to see if we would still like the area after 20 years away before we do more research on property tax and building codes (yes, most of you are not surprised a ‘tiny house’ and pole barn shop is in our waaay distant future).
We were surprised at how comfortable we felt back in Pensacola. I mean who doesn’t like sparkling white sugar sand beaches and a low-key, Jimmy Buffet style vibe. We had lived there in 1995 and again in 1997 while Brian attended flight school.
Young and broke, newly married and madly in love, when Brian wasn’t studying (rarely), we went to the beach for fun because we could afford to do nothing else. Waffle House was a rare treat from my usual Hamburger Helper dinners (yeeaah, my cooking skills were in need of some major help). I used to open the window of our first, cheapo, cockroach-infested apartment on Pensacola Bay just so I could hear the surf crashing against the rocks outside…while the air conditioner was running. What’s wrong with that? Brian anointed me “Bill-Czar” after that discovery and I learned real quick. Ah, to be 23 again and clueless. Good times.
We spent the night at the Pensacola Naval Air Station hotel and visited the newly reconstructed base marina. Walking the docks, we spoke to a fellow retired Marine who informed us about the marina rate of $6/ft/month (great deal), there are no liveaboards allowed (bad for us), and that the entire place was swept away during the last major hurricane in 2005. Not a single boat survived. Hmmm, maybe we DON’T want to put the boat here eventually.
Bucket List Item #1: The French Quarter
The next morning we headed out to check out Perdido Key, Foley, Fairhope and Daphne, Alabama before getting on the I-10 to New Orleans. Though we’d driven past it several times, we’d never stopped...rush, rush, rush to that next duty station. We stayed downtown on the west side in a district that looked like it was in the middle of a renaissance: old and tired storefronts and apartments mingled with new and upbeat eateries and hotels. The hotelier gave us directions and a map on which she pointed “Oh by the way, for your safety, don’t go past this street.” Great. Enough said.
We hopped on the crowded, standing-room-only bus to the French Quarter and spent 5 hours into the evening just walking downtown. We scouted the infamous Bourbon St. and decided it was like a Frenchie Southern Las Vegas. While interesting for an evening out, more than one day in this place would make us crazy. Bourbon St. is rife with strip clubs, bars, street performers and hustlers. One such hustle goes a little somethin’ like this…
Hustler: “Hey, I like your shoes. They’re cool man.”
Brian: Semi-surprised, “Uh, thanks.”
Hustler sidles up and touches him on the shoulder like he is an old friend: “I’ll bet you I can tell you where you got them?”
Brian: “What?” This is a strange statement. It takes a moment to process…
Hustler: “I’ll bet you I can tell you where you got your shoes.”
See, at this point we were supposed to say “Ok where ”, meaning where did we buy them, thinking to ourselves, “Hell, even I don’t know where I bought these shoes, how’s HE going to know.” But what they are trying to do is catch you on your grammar. What? I know. Weirdest thing ever. I immediately tried to move Brian away thinking this was more of a hustle than it really was, but Brian nailed it and we veered off: “I GOT them on my feet.” Smile. “Thanks, anyway.”
We hear Mr. Hustler claim his next victim (laughing congenially at tripping the guy up): “You GOT them on your FEET bro’!” And said hustler now implies he deserves a bit of a tip for catching you off your game, right? No, no you do not. If you’d like a tip, perform something semi-useful! See those children drumming on overturned plastic buckets? Or how about that guy dressed as a gold statue, or the animation dancers, or those girls I keep passing with small squares of clear plastic in their mouth… encasing another piece of colored, round, rolled-up, rubbery plastic… whaa, OK, still… useful. Look, I just don’t tip for poor grammar. It’s against my upbringing. We heard this same spiel 4 times so it must work. At least it’s a benign encounter; Brian didn’t get his wallet lifted.
The Good Stuff
Regardless of the craziness of Bourbon St., we enjoyed walking down the quaint, cobblestone streets and inhaling the enticing aromas of shrimp, catfish and Old Bay Seasoning. We loved the beautiful, old-world architecture with its intricate wood and wrought iron dressings, brightly-colored, hanging flower pots and genuine flame lanterns lighting the alleyways.
The food was amazing and so was the music. We walked to the jazz district where we were practically run over twice by a mad bohemian woman bicyclist. Artists and hostel-types are everywhere. We spent 2 hours sampling local beers while listening to a blues band with a harmonica player who could play without using his hands…just moved it back and forth with his mouth. That’s talent. Then we went back to Bourbon St. where every other restaurant featured a live band; we just walked from place to place, listening from outside. Then picked up the local fav for dessert to take home: warm beignets coated in literally a half pound of powdered sugar. Yum.
By 10pm, sensory overload had set in and we high-tailed it out of there, back on the bus, listening to 2 crazy people shouting at each other the whole way home. Good Night New Orleans. 5 hours was enough. We love your music and your food. But you are exhausting.
We drove to Austin the following day, a long 500 mile trip. I would have liked an extra day there since Austin is also famed for its music, but we needed to keep moving. Who knew this was the 12th largest city in America. Somehow, I thought it would be more like Ann Arbor. It’s not. It’s big. We had no desire to tackle another big city tonight, so we had dinner at the adjacent hotel bar. Lucky for us, it was Open Mike Night with a surprisingly good Texas blues guitarist/singer who looked and sounded like he belonged in ZZ Top. It was exactly what I imagined us finding downtown anyway. Perfect.
Barren West Texas
Then we drove the worst part of the trip. West Texas. It’s the fastest though… you can go 80 mph on the highway, and thank God for that, because it is the most boring area, visually, of the country except for maybe southwest Wyoming. (No disrespect to all you El Pasoans out there.) No trees, no mountains or hills or rocks or even farm fields. Just brown dirt and scrub brush. Guess who got to drive it? Me. I’ll admit, it’s the first time I had driven in a year. (Brian did all the driving in San Diego in April.) I was worried that my eye floaters would interfere with my driving ability. Driving requires constant, rapid eye movement of which, ordinarily, one is not cognizant…. until you have spider webs that continually bob and weave as your eyes move. Super irritating, especially in bright sunlight or dusk, but I did OK. By the way, we thought Fredericksburg, TX was a cute town, wine country…the Temecula of West Texas, I suppose. We could live there, if it wasn’t in West Texas.
Bucket List Item #2: Carlsbad Caverns, NM
Another one on our “been wanting to see… had passed just a 100 miles from several times on the way to or from California… but never had time for just a one day side-trip”…list. This time, we made it happen.
Carlsbad Caverns is a must-see wonder of the world. The rangers estimate it takes 3 to 3-1/2 hours to walk the cavern; it took us 5. Yes, I stopped and took like a thousand pictures. It was amazing. From the steep and switch-backed, mile-long trek into the dark unknown, to the enormous (and appropriately dimly-lit) cavern, large enough to fit 8 football fields, the overwhelming sensation is: this place is ‘not of this world’. Like I just stepped out of Dr. Who’s” Tardis” and into another time.
Everywhere you look, countless strange creations surround and surprise, above and below: intricate stalactites and stalagmites, smooth, ribboned draperies and pockmarked, bulbous popcorn shapes. Mirror-clear, undisturbed pools opposite puddles with a single, constant drip from above… like a leaky faucet… rippling its’ surface. Towering, ribbed columns of melted ice-cream… fat, conical beehives… kryptonite daggers… porcupine-spiked ceilings and low, flat-topped mushroom seats. Formations that took thousands of years to build into these beautiful, natural sculptures. Unbelievable. How lucky we are to have access to this dreamscape.
We had lunch outside the park and drove the half hour back to the hotel for a nap. We were tired and actually sore from slowly walking in awe for 5 hours straight. Then we went back… for the bats! Yes, there are approximately 300,000 to 400,000 Brazilian bats that live in the cave. Carlsbad Caverns was discovered because one guy noticed what he thought was a cloud of smoke coming from the area. He went closer to investigate thinking it was a forest fire, discovering the smoke was actually thousands of bats exiting the cave at once. This phenomenon happens every night at dusk and is one of the park’s main features; so they built an outdoor amphitheater at the cavern entrance… strictly for evening bat-viewings.
We arrive before dusk to get a seat; the place is packed. A ranger gives a half-hour talk about the bats. No cameras are allowed. Why? The ranger makes great a joke: “How would you feel being bombarded by flashing lights when you first wake up?” Geez, now I feel bad for even thinking about it; I’d be sooo irritated if Brian did that to me. Also, no talking once they start coming out so as not to frighten them. A ranger will ask you once to stop talking or taking photos; the second time they will escort you out. Nice. Once Ranger Rick is done with his presentation, we wait for the bats to wake up and start hunting. Silence fills the air.
Then one comes out and flies overhead. A scout? I don’t think they do scouts like ants, I think he was just the first one out of bed. Then another… then a few at a time. They slowly come out in a protracted dotted-line… tiny and quick, with hand-size wingspan bodies. Black specks against a fading cobalt sky, they are fairly difficult to see. The crowd whispers. A few circle directly overhead. Some fly out all at once in a thick bunch, but most retain their lengthy line, heading toward El Paso for Bug Trap Diner or The Mosquito Bistro. Not the dense cloud of whirling smoke I imagined, but pretty cool and worth it nonetheless. Mother Nature is truly amazing. (As long as they stay in their own house and don’t try to come into mine, we’re good.)
Last Stop: Tucson.
We arrived in a thunderstorm and were treated with a spectacular lightning show. Boulder-speckled mountains surrounding this valley made one heck of a back-drop. We spent two full days here resting and getting our mojo back after driving across the country. We got up late. We ate at Panera and Cracker Barrel and Olive Garden. Made a Home Depot and Walmart run.
What did I buy at Walmart? Stocked up on everything canned of course: chicken, roast beef, salmon, ham (I’ve not tried this yet). Canned tuna is everywhere in Mexico… the rest, not so much. Armour brand dried beef in a jar (yup – thanks for this tip from my father-in-law), pouches of tuna and salmon (because they are easy to pack in corners), Nutri-Grain and Rice Crispy bars (for easy snacks), a few pre-packaged Lipton or Knorr meals like Fried Rice and stroganoff, oatmeal packets (available in La Paz but I couldn’t find in San Carlos), chopped pecans and almonds, and individually packaged powdered drink mixes (Gatorade, iced tea, lemonade, etc.). Mexico sells a multitude of powdered drink mixes, but I wanted certain types. Individual packets are better - larger packets or tubs get crusty. Looking forward to using my fridge once again for cold drinks!
We went to 3 movies in 2 days: Mad Max (at a theater that only shows older flicks) and Mission Impossible and Vacation. MI was a must-see. And Vacation, well, it is also a must-see if you enjoyed the old National Lampoon’s Vacation movies. We had recently seen all of them so HAD to see the new one and while it could have been better, it was still good. Critics hated it, but we laughed. Not suitable for children. Some awkward scenes. Warning: You will have the “Holiday Road” theme song in your head for DAYS. Crap, now that I wrote that, I’ll have it in my head for another 4 days.
Border Xing: Tucson to San Carlos
It took us 6-1/2 hours to drive to San Carlos from Tucson (only an hour north of the border). We used the Mariposa truck crossing border entry off exit 4, not the downtown Nogales entrance. It was too easy - no town to maneuver through, no stopping, they waived us right through. Well, that is because the real checkpoint is not even at the border, but at Kilometer 21 (that’s what it is called, the checkpoint is named after the number of km it is from the border). Here you go through the “red light/green light challenge”. We got the Green Light! No stopping, no trunk or baggage searches. Not even a passport check. You don’t need to register your car if you are only going as far as Guaymas in Sonora: it’s in the Free Zone. Any farther south or east… yes, you do. We also didn’t need to renew our visas yet. We’ll do that again later. So this time…no paperwork, no hassles = sigh of relief.
There was something palpable about arriving in San Carlos with our own mode of transportation - we felt significantly different. More upbeat. Brian felt it and voiced it while I was thinking the exact same thing. The town didn’t feel as depressing as it did when we had to bum rides from cruisers or use the bus or walk. San Carlos suddenly turned into a sleepy little beach town from a mildly depressing, rather run-down, vacation hot-spot wannabe.
How do I feel about San Carlos? Meh. It’s just not La Paz. Or Loreto. People seem happier on the Baja side. Here… It’s hotter than a habanero pepper. Not much to do or see. There are only a few nearby anchorages, and those appear subject to uncomfortable swell, so we haven’t left the marina. Some folks love it. Many expats live here – I would not. I can’t really put my finger on it - it feels lonely somehow. I would not recommend it as a vacation destiny. But… it’s different having your own ride. It’s a whole new level. We are now not cruising; we are temporary liveaboards in Mexico… with a truck. While we didn’t care to have a car in La Paz… here, it’s freeing. We’ll see if it changes our perspective. For now, time to get this fridge installed!