Mardi Gras translated from French means Fat Tuesday.  In New Orleans it is both a season and a day.   The celebration is a ramp-up; parades and parties start shortly after New Years Day and continues for over a month.  Activity increases in intensity until the culmination on the Tuesday before Lent.

Mardi Gras Day, that final Tuesday, is the biggest party day of all.  It is a daytime event that starts early and ends early.   Some locals pride themselves on starting the party at a very early hour, say 6:00 AM.    Most of the party is over by 5:00 PM.   Parades go on all day.

One of the most mysterious parts of Fat Tuesday is the Mardi Gras Indians, African-Americans who dress up like American-Indians.    Supposedly they do not actually “parade; ”  they just appear, usually in poor African-American neighborhoods, unannounced, to do symbolic battle against other “tribes” of “Indians.”  The Indians are men that have spent a year or more sewing their own costumes.

I had never seen a Mardi Gras Indian on Mardi Gras Day.   The only time I ever saw these MG Indians was at a funeral for one of them back in 2015, which we learned about from the local alternative newspaper.   I took this photo at that 2015 event.

 

 

The first parade of Mardi Gras Day is Zulu, run by the elite of the New Orleans African-American community.  Zulu starts at 8:00 AM in an African-American part of the city but soon joins the usual parade route through Uptown New Orleans.

I was in New Orleans with my wife Tootie and her sister Kathryn.    We of course wanted to see the Zulu parade, but also wanted to catch a glimpse of Mardi Gras Indians, if possible.   Maybe if we bicycled into that neighborhood we might see an Indian?   We would have to put on our costumes as well.   Mardi Gras is much more fun if one dresses up, “masks.”

Driving a car in the city on Fat Tuesday is pretty much impossible so a bicycle can be quite handy.    We were staying in our friend’s upstairs guest apartment near Louisiana Avenue and Magazine Street.    It was 6:15 AM as we put on the sheep outfits that Tootie had designed and constructed.

We had three bicycles, two of which our friend graciously allows us to store permanently in New Orleans under her house.   Mardi Gras beads were draped over her fence.

We decided to start in only partial costume, and add the fluffy sheep fur later in the day.

On our way bicycling to The Hood we passed through the much wealthier Garden District where at 6:45 AM we stumbled onto this impromptu appearance of the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies; already dancing through the cool morning, accompanied by a loud and raucous brass band.

 

 

Led by this guy.

We crossed St. Charles Avenue and bicycled on into neighborhoods areas I have hardly ever visited.    I had felt scared to go in these African-American neighborhoods but it all seemed welcoming on Mardi Gras morning.   At 7:15 AM I followed Tootie and Kathryn up Jackson Avenue as people were staking out their spot to watch the Zulu parade.

 

 

All was great except we had two problems.    We did not see Mardi Gras Indians anywhere,  and both Tootie and Kathryn felt somehow incomplete without an entire Sheep costume.    We hurriedly biked back to the apartment to put on the full costume.

We were disappointed in not seeing any Indians, but the full Zulu parade awaited.   We biked back to a spot on the corner of Jackson Avenue and St. Charles.    The parade had about forty floats and lasted almost three hours.  The parade organization is over a hundred years old and continues to mock those who mock African-Americans, circa about 1910.   Black doctors and lawyers in blackface and wigs of fuzzy hair with jungle attire like grass skirts.    They toss coconuts from the floats.  Only in New Orleans.

 

 

The St. Augustine Marching 100 is the most famous high school band in New Orleans and is  from the city’s most prestigious historically black high school; Catholic and all boys.

The Zulu parade was immediately followed by the Rex parade, run by some of the city’s white social elite.    We were hungry and only stuck around for one or two floats.

There would be about four more hours of parades on St. Charles Avenue, but we wanted to skip that and bicycle the three miles past the downtown high rises to the French Quarter.

 

There is a restaurant we like at the far end of the French Quarter, near French Market and Esplanade Avenue.  It is called St. Cecilia and luckily it was open.  They had a limited menu for Mardi Gras Day;  Tootie got red beans & rice, Kathryn and I got quiche.   Everybody was in costume.

 

After lunch we locked the bicycles and walked over to nearby Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny, then back to the French Quarter.  There were no organized events,  just general crazyness.

 

 

Tootie

 

This eleven second video taken on Frenchmen Street pretty much sums it up.

 

New Orleans East, Feb. 8, 2018

Posted: February 23, 2018 in Louisiana trips

I wanted to see what would happen if I just pointed the bicycle east from Uptown New Orleans and started pedaling.   I had heard of an abandoned amusement park on the eastern fringes of New Orleans, I picked that as a destination.

It was a beautiful day.    I left our guest apartment Uptown and bicycled downtown, through the Central Business District and into the French Quarter.  Bicycling on one-way streets like Burgundy is quite easy.

 

Down from the French Quarter is Faubourg Marigny.

 

I turned up Franklin Avenue, going away from the river.   This was a direction I had never bicycled before.   I knew things were quickly going to get less picturesque.

Franklin Avenue blends into Almonaster Avenue.

Almonaster Avenue peters out underneath the Interstate 10 high rise bridge over the Industrial Canal.   Google Maps showed another smaller bridge here.

But there were obstacles.

There was no one around, and it was easy to walk my bicycle across this bridge.

Almonaster Avenue continues for many miles the other side of the bridge, passing through partially filled-in swamps, separated from the rest of New Orleans East by railroad yards.    In The Godfather this would be a good place to dump a body.   It looks dangerous to bicycle but there is essentially no traffic on this four line divided highway.

I knew I was getting close to my destination, the amusement park, so I turned north across the railroad tracks, into residential neighborhoods of New Orleans East.    This area was first developed in the sixties and seventies and was mostly white.  Now it is where many wealthier African-Americans live.   According to Wikipedia, both Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas live out here somewhere.

Six Flags New Orleans opened in 2000 but was only open for five years.  They were not really making money, and then Hurricane Katrina heavily damaged it in 2005.     It never reopened.    It is surrounded by locked fences but I could see a rollercoaster off in the distance.

I turned to go back home, bicycling through miles of subdivisions.

Yes,  New Orleans East was heavily flooded during Katrina, but it appears dried out now.    I can only blame the collective racism of the real estate market that so little retail has returned.  There are very few restaurants and grocery stores out here.  This is where Lake Forest Plaza shopping mall used to reside.

I bicycled back across the Industrial Canal, this time on the Chef Menteur Highway bridge.

On the other side, in the Gentilly neighborhood there was this apparently African-American owned coffee shop.   I sat for quite a while, drinking a latte and reading The New Yorker on my Kindle.

This was still Carnival season.   In the Ninth Ward / Bywater some kind of brass band was assembling.

 

 

One more thing.   Did you know there is a First World War monument in a park in Bywater?   White soldiers and black soldiers are listed separately, white solders on the front, black soldiers on the back.   And those not killed in action, what did they die of?   Wounds?  The flu?

 

South Florida, Jan 22-25, 2018

Posted: February 2, 2018 in Florida trips

Despite the fact that I try to travel as much as possible, I actually hate to fly.   Turbulence weirds me out.   Nevertheless $ 127.00 round trip Raleigh/Durham to Fort Lauderdale was too good a deal to pass up.   And it was nonstop, only about two hours on Southwest Airlines.  My friend Lyman had a similar deal from Austin TX to Fort Lauderdale, also on Southwest.  Both of us could take our folding bicycles in a suitcase for no extra charge.

I had a seat on the airplane near the front.  Southwest is a great airline.

 

It was only eight-thirty in the morning when I got off the plane into the warm humid embrace of South Florida air.

I was prepared right away, in the airport, to photograph the multiculturalism that is the Miami / Fort Lauderdale / West Palm Beach area.   However these people really just look like America.

 

Fort Lauderdale is the rare airport that has luggage storage where Lyman and I could leave our empty bicycle suitcases for four days.  I picked a spot in the terminal and put the bicycle together.

 

I bicycled off from the airport to look around.

 

I took about a three hour bike ride, to kill time while I waited for Lyman’s flight to arrive.

 

 

Just south of the Fort Lauderdale airport were a series of neighborhoods exclusively of double and single wide trailers.   They were actually quite nice.   The most predominant license plate on cars parked there,  other than Florida, was Quebec.

A few of the “houses” were a little more colorful.

After leaving the neighborhoods of mobile homes, I bicycled straight west for over an hour, hoping to get as far as the Everglades but I had to turn around because of time.  I bicycled back towards the airport on a bike path that followed a freeway and a drainage canal.

Tootie and I lived in Miami for one year in 1983.  We never saw a wild iguana, not even once.    Now they are everywhere in the petri dish that is South Florida.  They have, as I understand, taken off in just the past ten years.    Along this canal they were more common than squirrels in North Carolina;  I saw an iguana every minute or so.    Most were about three feet long, if you include the long tail.

 

 

Yes, I have bicycled Los Angeles and I swear that South Florida has more freeways per square mile than even Southern California.   One normally takes these walking/bicycling “trails” for peace and quiet, but not in this instance.

 

Part of the “trail” actually went right along the freeway.

I did finally get back to the Fort Lauderdale airport.   Lyman had arrived and we were now ready to go.

The two of us had a pleasant bike ride the five miles into downtown Fort Lauderdale.    I had made a reservation with an Airbnb near downtown Fort Lauderdale in a 1920’s house;  a room with two single beds in a couple’s home.   There was a dead Volkswagen van in the back yard.  They offered us the van for free if we would just take it away!

This is a really nice neighborhood; the only real problem is these tiny houses are worth close to a million dollars and are surrounded by giant condo buildings.    We walked to the restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard for sushi that evening.

 

 

 

Our trip the next day would be to bicycle from the Airbnb on SE 1st Street, Fort Lauderdale to  South Miami Beach taking the inland route through Little Haiti.

 

 

 

We had only gone about three miles when, in a nondescript industrial neighborhood there was a small sign noting “auto museum.”    We would not have seen this except that we were on a bicycle, it was not on a main road.     Of course, we had to stop.    There was a unique doorbell, “please pull cord and wait.”

A woman about our age answered the door.  She was quite nice and said admission was ten dollars, cash please.   We stayed there over an hour and were the only visitors.   We had stumbled onto what has to be one of the largest collections of Packards in the world.  Packard was a luxury car maker from about 1905 until they went out of business in 1958.  There were also collections of anything Packard: miniature Packard cars, Packard child’s pedal cars, Packard hood ornaments, Packard engine parts, it went on and on.

 

Me and a 1938.

Lyman and a 1958, one of the last ones made.

Art Deco hood ornament.

 

Back on the bicycles, we cycled through miles and miles of middle and lower class neighborhoods.

 

I like the look of modernist tract housing.   But what does it look like fifty or even sixty years later?   I speculate these houses with the new wave front porch were built about 1960.  When they were new these houses looked exactly alike.  Not now.

 

 

 

 

 

This neighborhood has the uniquely American situation where even though a city has high housing prices there are some areas where apparently no one wants to live.    It probably has a lot to do with race.  This is a pretty house that needs a lot of love.

 

We stopped for lunch at a colorful Nicaraguan/Cuban place where we split a barely edible Cuban sandwich.

 

Little Haiti is not really much to look at, and we bicycled on through the “Miami Design District” and then downtown Miami.   Downtown Miami is NOT easy or gentle bicycle riding.   It is mostly huge wide roads with fast traffic, intersected by freeways.

On the other hand, the Venetian Causeway, one of several bridges across Biscayne Bay from downtown Miami to Miami Beach, IS gentle and inviting to a bicyclist.    Lyman stopped and helped a guy with a flat tire.  This view is looking back over the area just north of downtown Miami.

 

The causeway connects several residential islands and the roadway has a toll, which keeps car traffic to a minimum.

I really like the section of Miami Beach called South Beach.  It is a street grid, and one of the few places in South Florida that one can blissfully noodle around on a bicycle.   What confirms it is a safe bicycling space?  It is where you see women bicycling around without helmets.

 

The Art Deco architecture is lovely.

Lyman and I stopped at an Irish bar for a beer and pondered where we would stay that evening.   On Hotels.com we found a room with two double beds for just over a hundred dollars including tax.   The “hotel” was a little unusual, however.

 

The room was fine, just like any motel room.   You entered from an outdoor walkway.

 

Although thankfully it was quiet in the sleeping area of our room, right outside our bathroom window was the courtyard of the hotel.  It had Spanish language music blaring and partiers staying up until about five in the morning.   When we went down for the free outdoor breakfast the next morning, the music was still playing

 

 

The next day our plan was to bicycle back over Biscayne Bay,  then over to Calle Ocho/Little Havana, and then to the Hialeah Market Tri-Rail station.

 

 

From there we would take the Tri-Rail commuter train up to West Palm Beach.

Lyman commented that this older Cuban-American neighborhood near Calle Ocho really does look like current parts of Havana!

 

Back in 1983 when we lived in Miami,  Tootie and I used to get stoned before going out to eat at the big and flashy Cuban restaurant Versailles; we got off staring at the mirrors.

 

Versailles is still there.  Lyman chose Versailles as a place we could connect and have a late breakfast / early lunch with his old friend Jaime, who lives in Miami.

After a nice meal we had about another forty-five minutes bicycle ride up to the Tri-Rail station in Hialeah.  You can wheel the bicycle onto the train, and the ticket for the almost two hour ride to West Palm Beach only costs $ 6.90.   While the train itself is fine, the stations and other infrastructure looks beat up and done on the cheap, and the train goes nowhere near downtown Miami.

https://farm8.static.flickr.com/7327/16424029012_62430d6e8e_b.jpg

 

We got off the train in downtown West Palm Beach in early afternoon.    We now had a day and a half to bicycle the sixty miles down to the Fort Lauderdale airport, where we had flights leaving the following evening.   Along the beach on A1A the bicycle ride from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale is really one of my favorite bicycle rides in America.    You should plan it like we did here.  Check out the weather, then take the commuter train against the wind and bicycle with the wind at your back!

 

 

 

 

We noodled around Palm Beach on bicycles for a while, before turning south on highway A1A along the beach.   Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh live in Palm Beach.    There seems to be an appreciation for showy wealth.

 

 

The beach road passes between Mar-a-Lago and the ocean.   From the beach side you can see that Mar-a-Lago is really a huge house that was converted to a club.  Gross.

 

 

Once south of Palm Beach communities vary in their displays of wealth, and change from town to town.    The bicycle ride was really pleasant.

About five in the afternoon we crossed a small bridge from the barrier island to the mainland, and looked for a place to get a drink and find a place to spend the night.   This tropical looking restaurant in Boynton Beach overlooked the inland waterway.  We had a good time talking to this guy in the blue shirt.   He lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.   His late parents had bought a small condo years ago here in Boynton Beach and he and his adult siblings inherited it.    He was now trying to sell it because they do not use it enough.

Surprisingly there are not many hotels in this area.   It is all condos.   And the hotels we found on Hotels.com were really expensive, like  $250.00+    From Google Maps we learned of the Tiki Hut Motel, only about a mile from this bar.   Google reviews were positive.   The place did not appear to take reservations over the internet.   I called them on the phone, and while a woman said they had one available non-smoking room with two double beds, they did not take reservations over the telephone either!

Lyman and I quickly finished our drink and got back on the bicycles in the dying evening light.   The Tiki Hut is on the old highway just south of Boynton Beach.   A South Asian looking guy (we presume the owner, we presume that woman’s husband) was blatantly rude to Lyman as he registered and paid.   The price was good, $ 90.00 plus tax.

It is a weird motel.   The room was clean and quite nice.  The windows were openable.    The beds were pleasantly firm.  There was unusual art on the walls.

They had unique figurines around a courtyard.

Later on we walked down the highway (US1) about half a mile to an Italian restaurant.    The food was fine, but not memorable.

We ate at the bar, our server said it was fine if we took her picture.

On the walk home we stopped at a Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins for an ice cream.   South Florida is populated by people who came there from somewhere else.  People have to find community where they can.  Here at Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins at 9:00 PM these people were doing crossword puzzles.

The Tiki Hut Motel glowed in the dark.

 

The next day, Thursday, was a great day.   We had about forty miles left to the airport for our early evening return flights home.  We bicycled along the coast with a strong tailwind.

 

 

The best meal of this trip was a late lunch on Thursday in downtown Fort Lauderdale.  Just by looking at this place I conjectured from the people standing outside that there was serious eating going on.

Sitting outdoors on the patio, we both got their version of salade nicoise, which was delicious, even though the fresh tuna was totally and unapologetically raw and cold.   Deviled eggs.  Arugula. Deep fat fried green beans.

After lunch we biked the five miles to the airport and caught our flights, stopping on the way to look at the Brightline train station.

 

Postcript from a train nut:

After lunch we biked over to the Fort Lauderdale Brightline station.  Yes, we had taken the Tri-Rail commuter train the previous day.   Brightline is a new service, more or less parallel to the Tri-Rail but on different tracks.   These Florida East Coast Railway tracks go directly to the downtowns of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach.   It is the first significant privately run passenger rail service in the United States in fifty years.   They appeared to have made a major investment.   We bicycled by the station in Fort Lauderdale.   The service had just starting running two weeks ago, but for now only from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach, a train every hour.   The ultimate idea is to run from Miami to Orlando in three hours.   We had not taken this train because we did not know it was operating.   Amtrak always looks beat up and cheap.   This definitely does not look this way.  The station and the train are lovely.

Charleston is a fascinating city.   It has a big imprint of very old buildings; it was one of the very few relatively large cities in the South prior to 1860. (In the 1860 census,  New Orleans, Charleston, and Richmond were the only Southern cities in the top 25  by population in the United States.)  Charleston stood relatively still for the next hundred and some years.  More recently, Joseph Riley was mayor of Charleston from 1975 to 2016 and managed one of the great American city reinventions in our era.   Riley espoused civil rights and for Charleston to reinvent itself with tourism and higher education.   Charleston in the 1970’s I imagine was a stuffy place, just a little too Southern.  Its architecture was like nowhere else in the world and its society was so conservative that unlike other places (like my father’s hometown of Norfolk), relatively little got torn down in 1960’s “redevelopment.”  Charleston had always had unique food but it was served mostly in private homes and clubs.   Now in 2018 it is one of the top restaurant destinations in America.   Unlike Catholic Savanna and New Orleans, Charleston traditionally was Protestant and certainly not known as a festive place.   Its motto was “City of Churches.”   It had always been military friendly;  local hotheads started the Civil War!  Now people are coming from all over the world just to BE in Charleston.  Someone told me it is where Republicans go to party.     Its biggest problem now is its success.  People who buy houses here are often so rich that they rarely live in them, and the houses sit empty, with their porch lights on.   Is there room left for the locals?

Tootie and I have been to Charleston four or five times in the past thirty years and we agreed that we had seen Charleston; it was not first on our list of destinations for a weekend getaway.   However, I had cabin fever following almost two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, and I plotted for a reason to drive by myself down to Charleston for twenty-eight hours.

I drove the four hours from Chapel Hill and parked thirty miles out of Charleston near the town of Summerville, of course in a Walmart parking lot.

My plan was to bicycle from the Walmart to downtown, spend the night and ride back the next day.

The Charleston area actually got more snow in this blizzard than Chapel Hill, and even though it was sixty-five degrees outside there was still snow on the ground in places, and even in the streets.

 

While Charleston is generally beautiful many of its suburbs look really awful.   Summerville was an exception, it was built as a summer resort for people from Charleston.

I would be heading into town on state route 61, along the southern shore of the Ashley River through the town of Ashley Forest.    To get there, for about five miles there was a nice bike path along some kind of drainage canal.  Note the snow melting on the right.

Further on I arrived at the crossroads for state route 61.  The enumeration seemed romantic, even if the Dylan song is about US 61 in Mississippi!

While the two lane road winds through about twenty miles of woods and swamps, it was too narrow, with no shoulder and too much SUV and pickup truck traffic.  As a bicyclist I did not feel safe.   There was not much to do but press on.    There were live oaks and Spanish moss everywhere.    I passed the entrances to several large plantations, two of which claimed to still be in the hands of the original owners from the 1700’s.     I wonder how families can hold onto so much land in 2018, so close to a major city.

I stopped for a latte at Charleston Coffee Exchange in a strip mall.   I do compliment the developers, they have lots of native trees growing in the grocery store parking lot.

Back on the bicycle I pressed on through ugly suburbs with the occasional interesting tidbit.

 

 

 

Crossing over the Ashley River bridge, I was deposited me in a poor neighborhood of Charleston proper.   Charleston is on a peninsula, pretty much limiting its core city to a small defined area.  The most prosperous areas are the southern parts of the peninsula, the poorest and traditionally African-American areas are to the north.   These more northern areas seem to be gentrifying or have already done so.

 

 

When you actually get inside the city of Charleston the eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture is impressive.   On previous trips I had seen Charleston’s singular use of a fake front door, blocking public view of a side porch.   The porches almost always open to the south or west, to catch prevailing breezes in the hot summers.    I had seen these doors in the wealthy neighborhoods south of Broad Street.   Now I know these doors are all over the city, including these smaller houses in more recently gentrified areas.

In the smaller houses in the northern neighborhoods just shown,  I find out on Trulia that they can sell for upwards of $600,000.00.

South of Broad,  houses now cost in multiple millions of dollars.  Charleston is becoming La-La-Land.

Charleston is a great city to noodle around on a bicycle.   Nationally, something like eighty percent of urban bicyclists are male. Most experts think this is because men are more likely to be risk takers.   To me and several others a good indicator of the health of a bicycling culture in a city is the sight of women riding bicycles without a helmet.    It indicates that bicycling feels safe.   In these transitional neighborhoods near College of Charleston I saw this in spades.

 

 

I still did not have anywhere to stay that night.   I sat on a bus stop bench and cruised hotels.com on my phone.   I found a room for not much more than a hundred dollars at the Francis Marion, a large red brick 1924 hotel that I remember from previous trips as being closed and abandoned. It is fixed up quite nicely now.   This was the view from the eleventh floor at dusk, looking south down King Street.

For dinner I sat at the counter of Stella’s, a relatively new Greek restaurant a couple of blocks from the hotel.   The two young women sitting next to me were discussing how air fares to Aruba this spring are really low.   After those two women departed, a young couple took their seats and were discussing their experiences with travel to Nepal.    It felt like a different planet from the Walmart back in Summerville where I started the bike ride earlier that day.   I worry about the divisions in this country.

 

I biked back to Summerville the next day.    I saw more parts of the north end of the   Charleston peninsula.

After I left the peninsula that comprises the older city of Charleston I bicycled through a much larger area, about ten miles of continuous unattractive and poor to lower middle class neighborhoods in mostly what is called North Charleston.

The last five miles into Summerville were on this narrow highway, not the most pleasant bike ride.

My wife Tootie’s sister Kathryn had been given a gift certificate to the restaurant Chef and the Farmer, one hundred twenty miles east of Chapel Hill, in Kinston.    The three of us drove over there, ate a grand meal at the restaurant, and stayed one night at the Mother Earth Motor Lodge.

We enjoyed it so much that I drove back by myself two days later to take a bike ride.  Eastern North Carolina is called Down East, a vast flat coastal plain in some places as much as two hundred miles wide.  It is the poorest part of North Carolina.   Some towns like Kinston seem far away from “anything.”  Kinston is not near Raleigh or Charlotte or Wilmington, not even all that close to the beach.   New Bern is almost the oldest town in North Carolina and has long been a draw as a historic place.    I decided to bike from the Walmart near Kinston to New Bern and back, on two consecutive days.

 

I drove our white Honda over there on a Saturday morning.   If downtown Kinston seems abandoned and depressed, one reason might be that almost all retail activity has moved almost five miles east, to where the new US70 bypass meets the old US70.     In the Walmart lot I figured they would not bother my car for 28 hours.

The Walmart and other large chain stores in this newer strip mall out near the Bypass have clearly taken their toll on older sprawl closer, maybe only a mile or two from downtown.   The Kinston Mall, on this Saturday afternoon, was essentially abandoned.

Kinston clearly has issues, with manufacturing and agricultural jobs lost and not much to replace it.  Two newer businesses downtown have helped in a small way to put Kinston on the map.   Both were started by Kinston natives.

The first is the Chef and the Farmer and the adjacent Boiler Room restaurants,  and the accompanying reality TV show of chef Vivian Howard.  I ate lunch this day at the more informal Boiler Room.   After miles of semi-abandoned commercial buildings, here in a downtown alley,  on just this one block was activity.    Most of the rest of downtown is empty storefronts.   Life!

Blueberry barbecue chicken sandwich.

The other entrepreneur downtown making waves is Stephen Hill, owner of Mother Earth Brewing Company, almost next door to the two Vivian Howard restaurants.   There was this line forming at the brewery when I went in the Boiler Room for lunch, and when I came out it was still there, only longer.  I asked one guy what was up; he said they were waiting for a “release” of some exotic kind of beer at Mother Earth.

Stephen Hill (of Mother Earth) has done other stuff besides running a brewery.   According to a recent article in the Raleigh News & Observer he has been buying up low cost real estate downtown, fixing it up, and and then renting to artists, usually from somewhere else, who apply to live there at his below market rates.    He also bought this motel two blocks away and beautifully renovated it in 2016 in mid-century modern style.   They fixed up the swimming pool and added a mini-golf course.   Tootie and I want to bring our friends and stay here in the summertime, hanging around the pool.

Biking east from downtown Kinston I rode through at least a mile of depressed and semi-abandoned poor neighborhoods.

Taking the back roads it was thirty-eight miles further to New Bern.   Most of the way the two lane highway was lined with farms and occasional houses across the absolutely flat landscape.

interrupted by swamps and woods.

New Bern is very different city than from Kinston and is slightly larger with a population of 30,000.    New Bern, founded in 1710 by Swiss settlers and named after the Swiss capital, has had second-home visitors and tourists coming to its historic center for many years.    Yachts stop by here on their New York to Florida transfers on the Intracoastal Waterway.  Downtown at night people seemed dressed up.   New Bern also is quite close to several large military bases.

I had booked an Airbnb for the amazing price of thirty-five dollars; fifty-seven including tax and cleaning fee; a bedroom on the second floor of a house owned by a Dutch guy, not exactly in the historic area but only about a mile away.

Despite the fact that his pickup truck, boat, and Honda Civic were in the driveway, he was not home. He was out of town in Detroit, of all places.    I learned from his very cordial and interesting neighbor and caretaker (who lived next door) that he was about sixty years old and lived here because his daughter’s husband was stationed in Fort Bragg (130 miles away, next to Fayetteville.)   He did not want to have to live in Fayetteville.    Sounds reasonable.   He had given me the code to unlock the front door.   So I had the entire house, if I really needed that much space.  Furthermore, he was clearly a neat-freak, so my bedroom and the rest of the interior were spotless.

At dinnertime I biked to downtown in the dark, a nice ride through residential streets.

I had a nice dinner (it cost about as much as the Airbnb!) downtown, and I walked around a little.

I biked back to downtown New Bern the next morning to take pictures and eat breakfast.

I had to have a big breakfast because I knew there would be nowhere to eat until I bicycled about forty miles back to Kinston.    I felt lucky to find a nice downtown non-chain restaurant, crowded on a Sunday morning, with patriotic slogans on the walls.

I rode back to Kinston on a different route, a lot of it on Old US70, paralleling the newer four lane highway.    I nominate Old US70 as the longest straight stretch of road in North Carolina; seventeen miles without a curve.   It had very little traffic; I would ride for ten or fifteen minutes without having a car pass in either direction.   I worried about dogs out here but none gave me much of a chase this day.  I pack two kinds of dog “heat”:   pepper spray and a loud air horn.   In all my rides over the years I have never had to use the pepper spray.   But it feels good to know it is there.

I passed by cotton fields.

While not an authority on the subject, I know there has been a generations-long reduction in the number of small farms.   Out here Down East I keep going back to that VS Naipaul quote about this area:   It was a landscape of small ruins. Houses and farmhouses and tobacco barns had simply been abandoned.   The decay of each was individual, and they were all beautiful in the afternoon light.

 

Driving the rental car back from Florida to North Carolina,  I stayed overnight in Atlanta and had the opportunity to bicycle a little around.

On I-85 I stopped at the Welcome to Alabama rest area.   This is an impressive piece of modernism for what is essentially a bathroom facility.

I found this plaque weird and unsettling even if this is their state motto.

I had departed Florida much later than planned and I did not get to Atlanta until about nine at night.  I had booked an Airbnb, a studio apartment in a neighborhood called Inman Park.  It was spooky driving into an unknown inner city neighborhood in the dark, with few street lights on heavily wooded lanes.   Google Maps had guided me to this address through an impoverished neighborhood where I did not feel safe.   The neighborhood looked slightly wealthier when I got close to my destination.   It was a 1920’s apartment building, the second floor long hallway cluttered with bicycles.

I walked down the hall to door number twelve where I punched a code the owner had emailed me.     Seventy-nine dollars including tax, cheaper than a hotel and way more interesting.   It took me a long time to find where she hid the towels.

Since I had been in the car so long I was not about to drive around further.    Yelp showed a restaurant three blocks away, I walked over there through a neighborhood of large older homes, on dark streets where trees had buckled the sidewalks.

The restaurant stood alone in the dark.

 

It was nine-fifteen on a Monday night but a few people were still eating here.   Food was good but expensive.   Neo-Southern, of the style essentially invented by Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.  The big deal here was apparently fried chicken, although, of course, they were out of it.

The next morning I decided to take an hour to bicycle around the area, maybe go as far as downtown Atlanta.  I pulled the bicycle out of the trunk of the car.

I could finally see “my” apartment building in the daylight.

The immediate neighborhood was mostly constructed around the turn of the twentieth century.    Being Atlanta, the houses were large and gaudy.   I read that by the 1960’s and 70’s most were chopped into small apartments and the buildings were falling apart.   The area has now indeed gentrified but mostly it has not descended into cutesiness, it still retains some funk.    This house was one of the fanciest.

 

I biked west towards downtown through a mix of commercial and residential buildings.  I was not the only bicycle on the road, commuter bicycling in this part of Atlanta seems endemic.

Martin Luther King was born in this house in a nearby neighborhood.     A large visitor center about MLK is just a few blocks away.

The church he preached in.      Some event was going on.

Clearly these neighborhoods east of downtown are gentrifying.

This 1930’s looking building seemed Art Deco.

Just a little further west I found the Eastside Bicycle Trail, a former rail line.  In a really nice way it is totally yuppy.  It is lined with not only houses, but brewpubs and coffee houses.   The houses shown here are faux old, they are actually quite new.    I could actually see ourselves living here, if we accepted the uniquely American notion that one can move anywhere, settle in, and somehow be happy; damn family connections, friends, etc.    (It is less than twenty minutes to the largest airport in the world!   You would never have to change planes to go anywhere!)

 

 

I had to get home, however.    I bicycled back to the car and drove the six hours back to Chapel Hill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gulf Coast beaches of northwest Florida and Alabama are the prettiest beaches in America.    The sand is blindingly white, the water crystal clear.  Amazing.

 

The human built environment here is more variable.   While some areas are quite nice, a lot of the development is astonishingly ugly.

This is a completely different part of Florida that what many people know.    Pensacola is seven hundred miles from Miami.   Also, these northwestern beaches are primarily used in the summer, so in early December this was low season.

I was here following a family reunion of sorts, a memorial service for our beloved Aunt Barbara, held at a beautiful Episcopal church in the old part of Panama City.   Barbara and her husband had retired to Panama City Beach and lived here almost thirty years.

The day after the service my plan was to bicycle the ninety miles to Pensacola in two days, then drive back in a rental car.

I parked my car in a Walmart lot and took the bicycle out.   As I left the parking lot I could see the beachfront high rises in the distance.  I bicycled the several blocks toward the beach.

I turned right onto the highway closely following the coastline.

This area is not all high rises; those come in clumps.   Other areas had miles of older beach houses.    I bicycled past this place where Alex and I had eaten breakfast the previous day.

The breakfast had been fine if you could ignore the bumper stickers above the grill.

At one point I had an opportunity to see the beach as the road turned slightly inland.

The next ten or fifteen miles comprised a series of “towns” constructed in the last twenty years or so.   I put that word in quotes because while these places try to mimic a town, they are really real estate developments masquerading as towns.   An actual town has a government and is populated by people who actually live there.   Very few people live in these “towns” full time and they are are ruled by homeowner associations and real estate companies.   My brother Alex has written extensively on this subject.

Still, these “towns” can be appear quite nice.   Instead of high rises, most have dense “neighborhoods” of mixed use buildings.   The first “town” we passed through was Rosemary Beach.  By my calculation, it looks to copy St. Augustine, Florida.    While these places look old they are actually new.

Each “town” along the way had its own architectural personality.   This one was Seacrest Beach.

Sandy Shores was gated to keep the riff-raff out. (What are they so frightened of?)

Alys Beach, where every building is white.

The last “town” of this stretch is the most famous.    Seaside was about the first planned community in America that tried to build a new “town” masquerading as an old town.   It was designed by the Cuban-American architect Andres Duany who was instrumental in the New Urbanism movement.  While my views have become more jaded over the years, if someone had asked me in about 1990 who my guru was, I would have said Andres Duany.    Duany at that time was more than an architect.   He wrote and put out videos showing the failure of postwar American urban planning and how ugly the shopping centers and cul-de-sacs of suburban America were.   He said we needed to go back to copying the small towns of 1920’s America, where streets were in a grid and houses had front porches that came relatively close to the sidewalk, and kids could walk to a corner store.  Mixed use.  In 1985 these ideas were new and controversial.

Seaside was much smaller than I expected.     Since parts of it are almost thirty years old, it is pleasantly overgrown with live oaks and some buildings look almost genuinely  “old.”     Most houses have front screen porches and grass yards are prohibited.    Lots of picket fences.

I grew up in Virginia Beach.   Parts of Seaside looks like an idealized version of what the north end of Virginia Beach would have looked like circa 1955.

And Seaside has a “downtown.”    Yes this all is contrived.   And elitist.  And no person of color was within miles of here, except maybe working in the back.     But the “downtown” was quite nice.   There is a line of trailers converted to food trucks.   They were uniformly all old Airstreams, I am sure there is some regulation requiring that!

Beyond Seaside route 30A winds through a state park and state forest land.

Unfortunately there was a bridge out, and I had to detour onto on the main highway US98.

I needed lunch.   In the middle of a pine forest along this wide highway was a strip mall that included something called Music & Coffee.

It was staffed by one woman.  There were signs promoting singer-songwriter nights at this venue.   She makes an excellent chicken salad croissant.

Back on the road towards Destin I was able to ride on this sidewalk much of the way.

Destin was a tiny fishing village surrounded by white sand dunes until about 1985.    Development went immediately to high rises without bothering the usual steps along the way.

Some areas did look nicer than I expected.

I stayed this night at the Sea Oat Motel, a motel that the woman behind the desk claimed was an original, built before the 1980’s boom, back when she said one had to drive seventeen miles to Fort Walton Beach to go to the grocery store.  Ground floor Gulf front room, ninety dollars plus tax.

For dinner I chose to bike in the dark out to the highway, in a sea of huge strip malls. (Yes Betsy, I have bike lights.)

 

One ethnic group that has done quite well all along the Gulf Coast are the Vietnamese.   I guess the hot and swampy climate reminds them of where they came from.     Two of my favorite food writers R.W. Apple and Anthony Bourdain both have said that Vietnamese food is their favorite cuisine in the world.   And both writers crow about pho.    The Baguette Bistro in Destin advertises themselves as French/Vietnamese.   The waiter recommended the pho.   This was the first time pho really blew me away.    Intensly flavorful broth, very fresh condiments, lots of beef.   I am learning that pho is like a hamburger in that how one uses the condiments is a large part of the experience.

There were Vietnamese families eating there as well.

 

The next morning I biked seventeen miles west to Fort Walton Beach, a faded beach town with an old school downtown lining US98.

In this strip of mostly empty storefronts was the quite nice locally owned Maas Coffee.   I stopped for breakfast; latte and a roll.   The pastry was surprisingly good.

I biked about fifteen more miles down highway 98.  It was none too glamorous.  I got off the main highway onto parallel roads when possible.

I was looking forward to the Navarre Beach Causeway, which would take me out the the Gulf Islands National Seashore.    Google Maps showed the barrier island as entirely green colored, meaning all of it should be parkland and I assumed very little traffic.   I would be able to follow that highway all the way to Pensacola Beach.

When I got to the top of the Navarre Beach Causeway bridge, this barrier island looked much more developed than the map had indicated!

Thankfully these high rises only extended for a couple of miles, and after that I enjoyed about sixteen miles of an almost traffic free road through undeveloped dunes of white sand.

As I got near Pensacola Beach there was a bike path along the beach highway.    It led up to these displaced looking high rises, the first buildings along the beach in many miles.

The national seashore ended abruptly at those tall buildings.   I cycled a few miles through residential areas of Panama City Beach filled with normal size houses.   I was hungry for lunch, but I did not want to stop at just anywhere.   Meals on these bike trips should be an experience.  I was running out of options and I settled for Flounder’s, a large crowded indoor/outdoor restaurant on the docks facing the water.    I sat at one of the several bars.

It was two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Lunch was fine.   I felt sort of guilty for taking this picture as I was walking out.

Downtown Pensacola was less than ten miles further, much of it across bridges.    I found a decent renovated motel downtown.   I walked around later in the evening.   There were nice Christmas decorations.   Pensacola is older than New Orleans but parts have a New Orleans look.

The next morning I biked around the older parts of Pensacola.

This modernist house mixed nicely into the same neighborhood as the 1920’s bungalows.

While Pensacola does have some lovely older neighborhoods, it reminds me of those other Navy towns Norfolk/Virginia Beach and Jacksonville, with miles and miles of almost poor 1950-60’s neighborhoods thrown across the sandy landscape.

When I arrived for my car, Enterprise refused to rent to me because I already had one Enterprise car on my account.   I was forced to bicycle across Pensacola again so I could rent from Budget at the Pensacola airport.    Still, I had an easy drive back on I-10 to my other rental car at the Walmart in Panama City Beach.