Friday, 29 February 2008

A day in Biloxi, Mississippi

Here's a map update of our travels so far. The red line is where we have been, starting from Orlando Florida, and the black dots are the places we stopped along the way. So far we've been through the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Next we head on to Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico.

Today turned out to be a really good day. This morning we decided to take the self-guided walking tour of Biloxi's historic district. However, when we got to the street where the Visitors Centre is supposed to be (containing the maps we needed and the start point of the tour) we discovered it had been completely blown away by hurricane Katrina. It took us some time to locate the new temporary visitor centre. The walking tour took about an hour. Luckily it was a really pleasant day. Taking the walk really opened our eyes to the devastation that hurricane Katrina caused, as many of the old listed buildings were destroyed or just not there any more.

The tour started in the Biloxi Green, a patch of greenery that once housed the visitors centre. Here stood a memorial to the people who lost their lives in 2005 when hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Mississippi. The memorial is made of bits of possessions found in the buildings that were totally destroyed. The wall of the monument is exactly 12 ft high, to represent that the flooding in Biloxi Green reached 12 ft deep during the height of the storm. We took a photo standing next to it to help show how deep that really is.

The tour took us round the quiet old streets that were once the heart of this city. The buildings that remained were Victorian, as well as Creole.

At the end of the tour we stumbled across the huge Hard Rock Casino and Hotel. Dan couldn't resist going inside for a peek. Although children weren't allowed in the casino, we could see right into it and walk along the edge. The noise from the lines of hundreds of fruit machines was horrific. I'd go totally mad if I had to work there. The machines were lined with so many people, mostly extremely overweight I noticed, staring like zombies and filling slots with coins. It was a disturbing sight really. So many people, who looked as if they sat there every day of their lives, totally transfixed by a machine. Once we passed the casino, still inside the Hard Rock hotel, we discovered the best all you can eat restaurant on the planet! Had it been the evening we wouldn't have been able to afford to eat there, but it was still serving the lunch menu, and we were starving. For a cost of only 6 pounds per adult, and 3 pounds for the big kids (Barney was free) we were treated to the finest buffet in the land! A meat carvery, an asian and chinese section, proper huge shrimp, an Italian and pizza section, plus a huge bakery. I just don't know how they afford to make the food and pay the staff for that amount of money. Even the drinks were included. We all had a plate of chinese food to start, followed by meat from the carvery with potatoes and wedges, plus loads of shrimp and then deserts. We could hardly walk by the end of it. Barney ate his own weight in shrimp, and Annabelle suddenly went off of shrimp once she found out what it looked like unpeeled! I had to laugh at Barney who thought he was actually killing the shrimp himself to eat it. He sat with a plate of them, and a knife, and said to each one "I'm sorry, it's time to die now" before cutting off their heads and passing them to me to peel! Each time he picked one up he said "poor fella!" before stuffing them into his mouth. That boy really does like his shrimp!
After our mammoth feeding frenzy we headed to Gulport were I had discovered the most amazing discovery centre for children. Usually admission to the centre is $7 per person, whether adult or child (which, I have to say is good value now that I've been there), but on a Friday evening between 5-8pm admission is free, due to a local business who have sponsored for this to happen. Well, happy days! I love free stuff. This place was something similar to the play section of W5 in Belfast. My kids had the most amazing time there for three hours, and it didn't cost me a cent! It was packed with exciting things for kids, and Dan & I spent most of the time wondering why there was nothing like this when we were kids. Outside were some great tree houses, and inside were all sorts of things from climbing areas, to shrimping boats, to dressing up areas, a Mexican cafe, and a Winn-Dixie supermarket. We headed back to the RV at 8pm with three shattered kids, and two shattered but happy parents. And none of us were hungry!

Tomorrow we are moving on to another part of Mississippi (not sure where yet) before driving into Louisiana where we will be staying right in the heart of the French Quarter. as well as visiting the Mississippi River, touring a big sugar cane Mansion, and driving through the Bayou's.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Alabama and Mississippi

Today we arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi, an area hit badly by Hurricane Katrina two and a half years ago. It is still clear to see the devastation that was caused, although a lot has been rebuilt since then. But there remains many buildings torn apart by the winds along the shoreline, and many areas where buildings once were. We passed over a new bridge into Biloxi and were able to see the old bridge which had collapsed into the sea. I can only presume this was caused by hurricane Katrina, as I've seen images of many collapsed bridges in the area. The drive along the Biloxi coast line was strange. There are sandy beaches that go on for miles, with huge multi story hotels dotted about the place, but between each hotel are ghost-town type patches of destroyed buildings. The beaches themselves are desolate, and filled with tractors and construction workers who are obviously still working to rebuild the area. Pier after pier along the sea remain collapsed. We did manage to find a pier that had been rebuilt and walked out to it to watch the sun set this evening.

The RV park we are staying in has a lake and pedal boats to take out. The kids couldn't wait to try them, so not long after we got here we took them out to the lake. Jimmie wanted to be captain of his own boat, so the rest of us went into a 4 man pedal boat. Barney was a bit nervous about the whole thing but enjoyed it once he relaxed a bit. I think as he can't swim, floating on a large piece of plastic in a large expanse of water is obviously quite scary for him. There are some photos of this in the Mississippi link in the side bar. Or click here.

We have a theme tune now for Mississippi, thanks to Barney. On our journey here he made us play the song Nemo by Nightwish, over and over and over, and every one had to sing along! My 4 year old son, into symphonic metal (I am so proud!) He just loves the song. I had to laugh as he thought the chorus went "Oh how I wish, for souvenirs" (its actually soothing rain). This from the child that begs to buy souvenirs in every shop we go into.

Anyway, I didn't get to post much from Alabama as our RV parks had no wireless access. We spent two nights near the gulf shores. There we spent a day on the beach, and then took the kids go karting etc at a small outdoor place designed to bleed money out of parents. Daddy buried Jude to her neck in the sand on the beach, poor child. But she got her own back by beating the boys by three full laps in the go-karting race! Go girl! Jimmie surprised Dan whilst he was sunbathing on the beach, eyes closed, relaxed... with a huge bucket of ice cold sea water over his head! If he'd have done that to me, he'd be dead. But thankfully Dan thought it was funny and has promised to get him back when he is least expecting it.

On our last night at the Gulf Shores in Alabama we stumbled across a seafood restaurant called Hazel's, and because of it being my name we convinced ourselves to go and eat there. Amazingly I was the first known Hazel to have dined there! Dan bought me a mug in the restaurant with my name in it. Boy, I can't tell you how nice it is to drink tea out of a proper mug after almost a month of drinking out of plastic! Wow, that was one of the simple pleasures in life that I didn't even realise I enjoyed! The restaurant was having an all you can eat night, and it was buy one meal get one free. So we all eat for the cost of just one adult meal and one kids meal, as they didn't charge for Barney!

Our second two nights in Alabama were spent in a big deep south city called Mobile. We had no idea really what the RV park was like as it had no website. But it was cheap. Only $9 a night for us to stay there with our Passport America membership, and that included the cost of electricity, water and sewage. Mobile seemed to be a very industrial city. It wasn't pretty but I really enjoyed driving through it and seeing all the big ship building areas, and huge train tracks filled with trains carrying miles upon miles of cargo. We drove on an 8 mile bridge over water to get into Mobile, which was in itself an experience for us. We got totally lost trying to find the RV site (even with the sat nav) and ended up driving through an area of housing which looked a bit the worse for ware. Little run down mobile homes, on streets with pot holes. We could tell by the look on the locals faces that RV's don't generally drive through there. But they all waved politely at us. I kind of wondered for a moment if we were in some sort of dodgy gang land area! I asked one guy for directions and he seemed really uncomfortable talking to us in the street. In the end I told him not to worry, that we'd keep driving. But I half wondered from the look on his face if he was trying to work out if he could snatch our RV off us and make a run for it!

When we did eventually find Chickasabogue RV Park we were pleasantly surprised. It was as good (if not better) than many of the state parks we have stayed in (paying $28 - $40 a night) for just 9$ a night. The RV area was deep in the middle of woods, and the lots were well spaced apart. We couldn't see the other RVs from our site at all. Each lot had a table, fire ring, and access to the forest for fire wood. As well as that there was a kids park, lovely showers, a beach and creek for swimming in (although it was too cold for that while we were there). And the staff were friendly. A patrol car circled the entire park all through the day and night, and our trash was collected each morning if we left it out. All that for $9 was pretty good I think!

We spent an hour collecting so much firewood that we were able to have a fire all evening, as well as one this morning (we ate our breakfast outside in blankets by the fire!) and left some for the next visitors too. We all really enjoy sitting out in the evenings with a fire. I think I've spent more time outdoors on this trip than I have done in my entire life so far.

The highlight of our time in Alabama though, was the visit to the USS Alabama War ship and Submarine. Wow! What a day out. I can't recommend this place highly enough. It's possible to spend a full day here, and the cost is reasonable. Entry to the park costs just $2 per vehicle. In the park you can walk around the various war planes on display and view the submarine and battle ship from the outside. Steve took a photo of me sitting right underneath a B52 bomber! I sat between the huge wheels with the bomb hatch open in front of me. It was quite scary actually, to sit under such a huge aircraft! For an extra fee you can tour around the inside of the ships.

I won't write too much about our visit here as I know Dan wants to write a blog post about it. But the kids really enjoyed it, and even little Barney didn't complain once, despite walking miles around the ships. What I really enjoyed about the place was that everything could be touched, examined and tried out. Not much of the area was roped off, and that's great for kids (and nosey adults like me!) The walk through the submarine was awesome (if not a little scary!) We climbed down a hatch at one end of the Drum, walked the length of it through the various sections (torpedo room, engine room, cabins etc) and then up through the hatch at the other end. The hatches throughout the submarine were quite small and space was constricted. We were the only people in it at the time, much to my relief. If we had gone in the summer when it was busier then I wouldn't have been able to cope in the submarine at all. (You can see the rest of the Battleship photos in the Alabama Photo link).

Well, I will leave it there for now as I know Dan wants to write about the USS Alabama, and Annabelle also wants to write a blog post for her friends at school to read. Tomorrow we may be going shrimping on a real shrimp boat! But we haven't decided on that yet. Dan just wants to be Forrest Gump. He even bought the DVD in Walmart today. I am very excited about being in Mississippi. I know that Utah and Colorado have fantastic scenery, and I am really looking forward to seeing that. But the states of Alabama and Mississippi are two places I have always wanted to visit. I'm not sure why. Maybe because of some films that I watched as a child, or from the Minn of the Mississippi books that we read during home education with the kids. I don't know. But I just feel so excited to be here. We won't be seeing the Mississippi River until we are in Louisiana next week though.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

No wireless in Alabama

Just a quickie to let you all know we are alive and well but don't have wireless connection for a while. (Unless I sit in a Walmart car park like I am right now. We have headed inland to Mobile Alabama. Will be here two more nights before heading to Mississippi. Have found an amazing RV park in the middle of a forest to stay in for just $9 a night. Its as good as any of the ones we paid $43 dollars for. Will tell you about it when I write a proper post in a few days. Thats it for now though.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Sweet Home Alabama...

Sweet home Alabama! Well, it’s our home for 4 nights at least. Wherever the RV rests is home at the moment, and right now we are on the Gulf Shores in Alabama. Its 7.30pm and Dan & the big kids have gone to play pool at the recreation centre of the RV park. Barney is being amazingly quiet. He has a new puzzle, which he must have made at least 20 times in a row now. As soon as he has made it, he puts it back in the box and starts again. It’s a super hero puzzle. A jigsaw puzzle is so much more entertaining when you have not had any toys for three weeks. Actually, we have been without a TV since we left home too, but today Dan bought Luke a DVD in Walmart. It’s a 4 DVD set of old cartoons. And when I say old I mean really old. Half of them are black and white, and they are all extremely politically incorrect. They are the sort of cartoons that Barney wouldn’t sniff at normally, but today he has just loved them! He’s playing them on the old laptop right now while I type this.

If I don’t blog every day I forget what I’ve blogged about and what I haven’t. I’m having to look over my last few posts to make sure I don’t repeat myself. We are doing so much that if I don’t blog about it, it becomes one big jumbled blur in my memory.

So what have we been doing? Well, let me think. Since my last blog post we spent one more night in Mexico Beach, and then moved on to an area further west, still in Florida, near Denton. And now we have just arrived in Alabama. The last few days in Mexico Beach were filled with the most amazing thunder storms. We had one storm that must have lasted at least 6 hours. When I say storm, I don’t mean a storm like we get at home in Northern Ireland. I mean 6 hours of terrific full on lightening and clapping thunder, with torrential rain the just doesn’t stop. We had a lot of that for about three days, with sporadic sunshine in between. We took a drive to Panama City in the rain just to discover that there was nothing there to be seen anyway. So to avoid the rain we stopped for a lunch/dinner at one of those American all you can eat buffets. Jimmie just loves these places. Every day he begs us to go to one. He must be growing or something because he’s almost impossible to fill up. It’s amazing how much food they will let you eat for $7!

On our last full day in the Mexico Beach area we took a drive eastwards to St Josephs Peninsula. It was a lovely drive there and we got a full day of nice weather. The peninsula jets out into the Mexican gulf and gets quite narrow at parts, so that you are driving on land with sea at both sides. The area is filled with the most amazing (expensive) beach houses. We enjoyed just driving through it, but at the end was a state park. Almost as soon as we drove into the park we were met by three wild Deer grazing at the edge of the road. We stopped, wound down the windows and watched them. They didn’t seem to mind us at all. Dan gets so excited whenever we see real wild animals (as opposed to zoo animals, that is). The park had a nature trail and its own 9 mile stretch of white sandy beach. On the nature trail the kids discovered the remains of a huge crab which they examined, as well as many empty oyster shells scattered along the shore.

We spent the afternoon on the completely deserted beach. It was quite windy, hence it being deserted, but that’s not a problem for us Brits. It was still warm enough for the kids to play. The sand along this stretch of the coast is not like normal sand. Its extremely fine, and caster sugary. Its just so soft but gets everywhere. Even when its in your bed it isn’t itchy like regular sand, as its just so fine. Which is a good thing as I reckon there’s a few buckets worth of sand inside this RV now. Every night I have to sweep it out of the bed before I get in, just to discover its made its way back in before me. The sand is also really white, but this beach had stretches of black sand on it too.

That afternoon we took a drive further east, back to Apalachicola, where the lady in the seafood grill had told us to take the kids. We stopped at a ship docking area filled with old rusty fishing boats, many still in use, but many half sunk! All along the edge of the dockyard were empty oyster shells. Dan was filled with visions of running his own shrimp boat just like Forrest Gump! Next to the shipyard was an educational centre, which was free. We love free educational stuff for kids! On the way into it Jimmie noticed a small wild tortoise scratching his way into a hole in the wall. We all crowded round to look at the little thing, and then the kids each took a turn to pick him up before putting him back into his nest. He poked his wee head out at us and took a good look too. I was as excited as the kids to discover him, but then later on we found a big wild tortoise on a nature trail in the same area. The educational centre was fantastic, but we only had 20 minutes there before it closed which was a shame. It was full of free leaflets about Florida wildlife, for the kids to take away. There were all sorts of stuffed dead animals from the area (all of which had died of natural causes I hasten to add!) - so the kids got to touch real (dead) raccoons, foxes, otters, beavers etc. There were real whale bones set out that the kids could touch and stand next to, and we discovered that one whale vertebrae was almost as big as Annabelle! One of the scientific rooms has real bugs to look at under microscopes, as well as jars upon jars of pickled fish and reptiles from the area around the centre. Everything could be picked up, touched and examined, which was a real bonus. So often in these sorts of places its not possible to really examine the things on display. There was also a small aquatic centre next door with fish from the area swimming in large pools. Barney was particularly taken by a baby turtle that swam behind its Mummy wherever she went.

So that all must have been on Friday, as today is Sunday. Yesterday was spent driving from Mexico Beach to Denton, which was half the drive to Alabama. We took a detour off of route 98 to follow the coast road through some really lovely places. One of the small towns we drove through and stopped in was called ‘Seaside’ and it is the area in which the film ‘The Truman Show’ was made. The beach houses in Seaside are just awesome, and many have won architectural awards. We stopped and took a walk (I think we were lucky to find an RV parking space here as I’ve read in the tour books that RV parking is almost impossible here) and recognized some areas from the film. If you’ve ever seen the show you will remember that Truman lived in a perfect little world, everything was beautiful and pristine. Seaside is just like that. Oh, I could so easily live there. But I’d have to be a millionaire I think.

We also stopped at Panama City Beach before Seaside. It is the area where all the college students go for spring break. It’s very touristy and full of theme parks, water parks and crazy golf areas. We stopped and let the kids have a game of crazy golf in a place with a safari theme. They really enjoyed themselves, and even little Barney did well at it. He surprised us all by getting the first hole in one! We had no RV site booked for last night as we weren’t sure how far towards Alabama we would get. But just before 4pm, after coming out of seaside, we spotted a really nice looking state park with Rv’ers camped up. So we drove in, not expecting them to have any spaces left for us. Just as Dan walked into the reservations office he heard the woman on the phone saying “yes Maam, we only have one space left for tonight, and that’s for one night only” so he started waving frantically at the women. She said “hold on a moment” to the person on the phone, and Dan said “can we have that space for tonight?” so she told the person on the phone that the space had been taken already, and we got somewhere to park for the night. It was called Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, and it turned out to be a lovely place. There was a heated outdoor swimming pool, outdoor amphitheatre, tennis areas etc, and the place was just idyllic. It also had its own stretch of beach but we weren’t there long enough to use it.

So that brings me to today. The last stretch of drive to Alabama Gulf Shores was 2.5 hours. We didn’t leave until 10.30am as we decided not to wake Barney up and just let him sleep as long as needed, sine he’s been having so many late nights. I did this stretch of drive as Dan’s been doing so much of it lately. When we got to the camp site the man had accidentally given our reserved space to someone else with the same name as Dan who had just turned up! He was so apologetic and said he would find us another RV park to stay in. Then he decided that we could park in a spare spot that the owners often used themselves. He has given us use of their screen room and a discounted rate to make up for the mix up. He seemed like a really nice man, and had an amazing Alabama accent. I wish I could describe him. I watched him chatting away to Dan, and his face when he found out the cost of petrol in the UK! “Jeeeeezus”, he said “I’m a gonna stop me complaining now bout the price of gas here!”

Well there seem to be a lot of mosquitoes in Alabama. Despite having fly screens on our door and windows we seem to have spent all evening swatting mozzies. We are spending two nights here at the Gulf Shores in Alabama, then two nights at Mobile AL, before moving on to Mississippi, where we will spend four nights before going to Louisiana. At the end of Louisiana that will be the first quarter of our trip done! Doesn’t time fly?!

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The rough plan so far...

Here is a rough plan of our intended route. We are at the red cross. Everything in red we have already driven, and the lines in black we still have to do. We still have quite a way to go!

Mexico Beach

I haven't got too much to say today. I think I talked myself out with the death row blog post. Today is day 3 of our stop at Mexico Beach on the gulf of Mexico in Florida. We are staying at an RV park called 'Rustic Sands', which is 5 minutes walk from the beach. Its a nice enough park, although I get the feeling that most people staying here are here long term, whereas we are just passing through.

The drive from Thomasville in Georgia, to Mexico Beach in Florida was really lovely. Our satelite navigation system likes taking us cross country and missing out the freeways. It sometimes means it takes us longer to get places, but I'd much rather see the scenery than the interstate highways. The drive was 2.5 hours through logging countryside. We were one of the only cars on the road and we stopped to admire the views and stretch our legs at various points. We have now moved into another time zone and are 6 hours behind the UK, instead of 5.

Most of Tuesday and Wendesday (yesterday) were spent at the beach. We are staying in the least built up or touristy stretch of the coast, which suits us perfectly. There are a few small shops, and the beach is almost totally deserted. I just love deserted beaches. To be honest, as a child in England I hated going to the beach, probably because the beaches were always packed to capacity with every inch of sand space being filled. Because its still winter here the beaches are empty. But it feels like summer to us, so we enjoy having the place to ourselves. Don't empty beaches just feel so tropical and luxurious? The sand here on Mexico Beach is so white that you need sunglasses to look at it. The sea is really calm, no waves (much to the kids disappointement) which adds to the peacefulness of the place. Theres a lot of wildlife here, including the usual sea-gulls. The pelicans are particularly prevalent and Dan got some good photos of them.

I'm not sure what we will be doing today. Its almost 10am and Barney is still fast asleep. We are letting him sleep today as he is just so over tired. We are just chilling out in out PJ's and relaxing.

We discovered the cutest row of shops here on Mexico Beach, including an ice cream shop called 'Scoops Up'. (Where the kids had the bluest ice cream ever made, and ended up with blue poo's the next day!!!) Dan and I ordered a hot fudge brownie to share, which turned out to be a hot fudge brownie covered in ice cream, and cream, and walnuts and chocolate sauce. Wow, it was just heaven in a bowl!

We decided to take a drive to Apalachicola on Tuesday night. We wanted to get some seafood for dinner. Actually we didn't plan to drive that far but we missed a turning and ended up in Apalachicola, which had an area of restaurants which looked so pretty as they were all lit up with fairy lights. Barney thought it was still Christmas there. We went to a place called the Seafood Grill and had an absolute feast of a meal for half of what it would cost at home. The kids meals were as big as the adults meals, which was great for Jimmie who often eats more than the rest of us put together. He had fried oysters - yes oysters were on the kids menu! Annabelle had fried shrimp, Barney had fish, Dan also had the shrimp and I had a combo of fish, oysters and shrimp. Well, it was just delicious. I never knew oysters could be cooked (not that I've ever actually eaten oysters before). The woman serving us told us about some free educational places we could go to - we may actually do that today if Barney ever awakens.

On the way to Apalachicola though, I saw the sun was about to set and got Dan to drive the RV near to the beach. I had heard the sunsets on Mexico Beach were awesome, and thought it would be lovely to sit on the beach and watch it as a family. So we parked Thelma up under the moon, and headed onto the beach, where we all sat on a big fallen tree and watched the sun setting together. Barney was really mesmerized by it. I don' t think he's ever really understood why it gets dark at night before.

On the way back to the RV Jimmie saw a board with a big red button on it and just could resist pressing it. As we walked closer to him we heard the sound of a phone ringing and then "911 Emergency, which service do you require?" Well! The look of horror on Jimmies face as he realised that the big red button was an emergency button for anyone that may have been stranded on the beach! Dan raced over and appologised to the women on the other end of the call saying his "very young child had accidentally pressed the button" and she said "no problem sir". After a few minutes we all had a good laugh about it. The big red button looked so irresistable, and Jimmie had thought it would tell him something educational about the beach!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

A blog post written by Dan

A blog post from Dan...

Well it’s about time I wrote a little piece on this fantastic blog that my wonderful wife is writing.

This morning I woke early and went for a walk, a short distance away is Mexico Beach. At 7.30am this morning the sky was bright blue, the sea was in and the white sands are almost too white to look at without sunglasses. It does not get much better than this. Today we are just relaxing and enjoying the sun. We have no traveling to do for 4 days and even then we have allowed a further 11 days to see the gulf coast before we make a start on Texas.

Well there is no much point me writing about what we have been up to as Bree is doing such a wonderful job so I will just tell you what I have learnt so far on my trip and what’s been really good.

Luke was perfect on our 10 and a half hour plane trip, anyone that knows him will tell you he can be a real handful.

Everyone we have spoken to so far has been really nice and friendly, kind, and generous. Pat and Jim who met us at the RV rental place gave us the perfect start with help, hospitably and support. Others have invited us for dinner after talking for just a few minutes.

America is a beautiful place. We are in no hurry so we are taking the small roads and soaking in the countryside.

Our Sat Nav is the best buy I have ever made, without it we would have our heads in maps half of our journey. Now we type in the exact campsite and drive. Her name is Louise. She has only stopped talking to us once so far and we still did not get lost.

Food is really BIG over here. They advertise on the motorways all the fast food places just as you are turning off. In the UK they advertise the great things to see!

Also they have drive through mini supermarkets and even drive through ATMs.

We went to an all you can eat restaurant for just over a fiver including steaks! Luke paid 90p for as much food as he could eat. (And he did) the price includes deserts.

Driving an RV on a different side of the road for the first time was hard, Bree must have said a hundred times “ get over, get over” now it’s a lot better, we have done 1200 miles already.

You don’t need to keep any cupboards tidy in an RV because 15 seconds into your trip everything goes where its wants to anyway (even more so if I am driving)

The RV has cruise control, I have never used this before but it’s so cool. Just set the speed and the RV does the rest. You still have to steer though!

Emptying the poo (yes it has to be done and seems to be my job) is easy and nothing like on the Robin Williams movie”RV.”

I don’t want to come home.

I am trying to drink less fizzy drinks but Dr Pepper is as low 9p a tin.

When a shuttle takes off it burns half a ton of fuel a second.

The space shuttle flies at four miles a second once its picked up speed!

Going to a maxim security prison in America and visiting someone on death row is an experience I will never forget. My first memory is seeing the miles and miles of razor wire sparking in the sun.

All the parks and expensive things to do are waste of money, the best things, and the things that the kids will remember are all the free stuff we will do. There are so many state parks over here with outstanding views and educational things to learn about.

Monday, 18 February 2008

From Banbridge to death row

If you haven't read my general post about our Georgia visit, its right below this one, so don't miss it. Also, there are photo albums links from all parts of our trip over on the right hand side of the web page somewhere, so you can see all of the photos by clicking on them. I only put a very select few onto the blog.

So, Saturday was the big day. My first ever time inside a prison, and the first visitor E had received for years. His family stopped visiting once his Mum died. I think he has only had one or two visits in 12 years or so, both from his cousins who were passing by on holiday from another state. There are some things family just can't deal with I suppose. Some of his family chose never to visit him, I guess as a sign of their disapproval of his crime, or because they just couldn't deal with it. Others did visit at the start, but over the years they have forgotten him, in the business of their own lives. It happens to many of the prisoners, whether on death row or not. Family and friends promise to visit and write, but just as when people move away, they soon forget. They probably keep reminding themselves that they must write some time, but then they promptly forget again, and that's just the way it is. As with all families, sometimes enough is enough and people just can't deal with the pain any longer. E's Father never visited him in prison. I do understand this. I also understand that his mother did visit him. She had an unconditional love for him right up until her death, as he was her only child and she stood by him through right or wrong. His Father on the other hand, could not understand or forgive his crime and chose to walk away from him. I know that this hurt E, but I also see why it happened. Sometimes the people we love just go to far, and the only way to deal with it seems to be to walk away.

About 3 years ago, when Barney was young and I had nothing to do but housework and more housework, I decided that I needed to do something that was worthwhile, interesting, and beneficial to someone other than myself. At the time, the kids were home educated, and were trying to find overseas pen pals. I was looking through kids pen pal sites with them when we stumbled across the writeaprisoner site. We read some of the ads from men in prison and Jimmie asked me if I would write to one of them. I said I'd think about it, but really I was just fobbing him off as I had no intention of doing any such thing. A few days later Jimmie asked me again if I would write to one of them. And he kept asking me for weeks. He seemed to really understand their loneliness and felt for them. One night I sat at the computer and sifted through the hundreds and hundreds of ads. A lot of the ads were more like dating advertisements. But I soon realised that the ads from the men serving life sentences, or on death row, were heart felt and desperate. The ads from many of the men serving just a few years were simply looking for a girlfriend. So I started reading the death row and lifer ads. I thought about writing to some of them, but I was fearful of many things, some of them real fears, and some daft unfounded fears (like what if they escape from prison and come looking for me - across all that sea and land, lol).

So I set about making a short list from the ads of people I liked the look of, then I researched their crimes on google (nothing is private in the US, lol) and eliminated anyone who's crime I couldn't deal with. I certainly didn't want to write to any pedophiles, and I didn't really want to write to anyone who had murdered a young woman about my age. So I mostly chose people who had committed store robberies that had gone wrong, or that got caught up in drugs at a young age and ended up leading a life of crime. I wrote to four men. One wrote back several times and then stopped writing, one never replied, and one wrote back saying he had a good pen pal and thought someone else may need my letters more. The last man was serving his sentence next door to E. The morning that my letter arrived in the prison E was talking to R and saying that he just needed a friend, perhaps someone to write to. Minutes after that conversation my letter to R turned up. E asked R how he managed to get people write to him and he told him about the writeaprisoner website, but E just couldn't afford an ad on the site as he has no money and no one to send him any money. A few days later E asked R if he had replied to me, and he said No. So E said that if R wasn't going to reply then perhaps he could write to me instead. And so R gave him my letter, and he started to write to me.

At first I was a bit worried about receiving this strange letter from a person I had not researched and hand picked. The letter was very apologetic for bothering me, but also kind and friendly. I wrote back and before long we were writing to each other once a week. It was obvious that my letters were having a positive impact on the quality of his life. He had been in prison since the early 80's and had absolutely nothing to look forward to, only the eventual reality of his execution. My letters gave him something to think about, something to talk about, and something to do. Apart from reading and writing the prisoners on death row in Georgia get nothing to pass the time.

We have been writing now for over 3 years. I have a huge box of letters from E, as well as various other things he has sent me, including photos and his gold cross pendant. We spoke on the phone twice, but the cost for this was extortionate. Never, ever, did either of us think that we would ever meet. Not once did it cross our minds, as we live thousands of miles apart. But once this trip across the US was planned, and I knew we would be driving right past the border of Georgia, I knew it would be wrong to just drive on by and not visit. So with only 3 weeks to organise it I posted a message on writeaprisoner (WAP) asking if anyone knew how to arrange a visit. Thats when Leslie emailed me (see the post about Georgia for more on that).

With only hours to spare at the end, we managed to get our police checks mailed to the prison and our visits authorised. Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding we did not get permission for the kids to visit with us, which meant that Dan and I had to visit separately (as one of us needed to stay with the kids). I know E was disappointed not to see the whole family together. He wanted to see what sort of a Mum I was and how I dealt with the kids etc. He was looking forward to taking their sides if they were told off!

Strangely I didn't feel at all nervous about going into the prison. I was more worried about how claustrophobic I would feel being locked in rooms, than I was about meeting E. I had to sign in, outside the prison. Then I was taken inside and asked to empty my pockets. I was allowed to take in $20 (in $1 notes), a few quarters, and absolutely nothing else. This money is to buy the prisoners foods and treats from the vending machines. I had to walk through a metal detector, and then I was given a coin with a number on, and a piece of paper with E's details on, and told to walk up a long corridor & up some stairs until I'd come to a kiosk with a prison officer inside. I also had my hand stamped. So this I did. When I got to the kiosk the officer took the paper with E's details on and a message was sent to his cell to tell him he had a visitor. I know that E was sitting on the end of his bed, a ball of nervous energy, waiting, by this point. Then I was allowed through one set of big yellow barred doors, into an area with another set of barred doors. Behind these doors I could see people visiting. The officer asked me to put my hand under a machine, and I could see then that my hand had been stamped with an ultra violet stamper, with a date or some numbers on it. He told me to go through the next set of doors into the visiting area and wait until I heard E's name called.

The visiting area was like a crowded waiting room. I had expected desks with numbers on, and stern faced prison guards watching your every move. But it was nothing like this. There was only one guard in this room and she was a happy chatty little thing. However, the prisoners in this room were not on death row and this was not where my visit would take place. When I heard E's name called I expected to see him, but the guard told me to go through another set of barred doors, into an area surrounded by about 6 more barred doors! It was in here that I saw E through a window in a small room. He was waving wildy and looked so excited. I was so glad that I recognised him. A few barred doors and lots of keys later I was allowed into the room. What a strange place to have a visit. Obviously years ago prisoners had received non-contact visits through glass, and I was now standing in one side of that glass room. Except now, both the prisoner and the visitor were on the same side. The room was about 4 ft wide and about 50 ft long. There were four of these rooms, and prisoners from each death row block were allowed into the corresponding visit room. So, all the people receiving visits in that room were from E's block.

Surprisingly to me there was no prison officer in the room. I was let in, the door was closed behind me and locked, and then another door was closed onto that door and it was locked too. A prison officer watched all four of these rooms from a window at the end, but I noticed that the guard at the door took an awful long time finding the right keys when it was time to let me out! E's face was a picture when I was let into the room - huge smiles all round. We hugged each other and then sat down. There was no guard to say we couldn't hug as I had expected. All he could say for quite some time was that he couldn't believe I was really there! He kept looking at me, looking at my hair, at my hands, at my clothes, my eyes etc. I asked him what he was doing and he said he had to take it all into his memory as he would never see me again, and he didn't want to forget. We talked for four hours, and after every conversation he said again "I just can't believe you are here, I can't believe you came all this way to visit me". I said that I had never imagined I'd visit either and he said "I bet you never thought you'd be sitting on death row in a room with four murderers". Gosh. He was right. I had never thought in my life I'd be in that situation. Across the length of the visit I met about 6 other men from E's cell block. They all knew about me and knew that E had been expecting my visit. They all shook my hand and asked me about Ireland, and what sort of music I liked, or what I thought of America. I tell you this, if you ever met any of them in a supermarket or a restaurant, or at your work, you would never ever guess that they were dangerous men who had taken innocent lives. They were all polite, intelligent, seemingly sane and rational. I sat and chatted with them all as if I had just met them in a bar or something!

I think this is my problem with the death penalty. These men, no doubt, were once dangerous and a threat to society, and maybe they still would be if they were let out. But most of these men will be kept in the prison for twenty years or more before being executed. And by the time their execution comes they are not the person they were when the crimes were committed. I don't believe in the slightest that people should be able to kill and get away with it. But what is the point of reforming someone, giving someone time to see the error of their ways, and then killing them anyway? I saw how E communicated with the prison guards. They were almost like friends. Laughing and joking together. He told them "this is the girl I was telling you about, who came all the way from Ireland to see me", and they talked to me and knew all about me. But yet these are the same men who will one day come to E's cell and walk him to the room where they will kill him.

We talked about all sorts during the visit and I bought him burgers and chicken wings, and snacks and drinks. I also bought him a cherry pie type thing from the vending machine and his face lit up as he said it had been 19 years since he had seen or eaten one of them. We were able to get our photo taken by an official photographer (also an inmate). The photos were taken in the corridor. Much to E's disappointment they brought in a new policy that inmates had to be handcuffed during photo sessions. The prison guards apologised to E as they cuffed him, but he made no fuss and later told me that he didn't want to cause a fuss in front of me. But the other inmates were fuming about the new policy as they had been photographing un-cuffed for 20 years. I didn't see the point behind it, seen as I had been locked in a room with four un-cuffed inmates for several hours anyway. We took two photos, a sensible one, and a silly one. E has the silly one and I have the sensible one, as he really wanted the other.

We talked about everything. He described what receiving my letters and photos was like, and we talked a bit about his crime and how he feels about it now. He told me that his final appeal is over and it wasn't successful. He is waiting on some kind of ruling from a judge or something but his lawyer has told him to expect a final judgment in 24 to 36 months. He said that he didn't tell me this in his letters as he didn't want to worry me. He talked more to Dan about this. Dan had an hour visit after my four hour visit. He told Dan that we mustn't be upset when he is executed. He said that was is done is done and theres nothing to be done about it, and that Dan must make sure that I don't get upset. Dan told him "listen here mate, she will be upset, and there is nothing you or I can do about it, she will be heart broken". He told Dan that after his execution all his possessions will come to me. All the letters and photos I've sent will be sent back to me via his lawyer. His lawyer has my phone number, address and details and knows that if anything whatsoever happens to E, then he is to contact me. I feel rather sick just writing about it now.

But the visit was good. I know E will be smiling for weeks. I am glad that I got the chance to meet the person I have written over 300 letters to. To meet the person whose letters make me laugh out loud. And I'm glad to have made a difference in someones life. Someone who many people think doesn't deserve a friend, or comfort. Someone who the government of America will kill in cold blood. I don't deny that he once led a bad life and has committed bad and regrettable crimes, and I'm deeply sorry for the families that have been hurt through his actions. I don't condone it. But I just don't think that this is the right way to deal with it. When an inmate is executed it is not just him that suffers, but his family and friends too. The people who love him are also punished, in just the same way as the victims family. I think its all just crazy and I can't write about it any longer.


What an amazing few days we have had! And how frustrating to be without internet access and unable to tell you all about it. As most of you know, our reason for traveling up into the heart of Georgia was to visit my pen-pal who is on death row there. But I'm not going to talk about that yet, or I will get carried away and forget to mention everything else.

The drive from Okefenokee to the area of Jackson took about 4 hours, but as usual we made regular stops to eat and stretch our legs. It was a scenic drive through pecan orchards and cotton fields. I didn't get a photo of a cotton field, but I did manage to sneak a bit of cotton from one of them. The kids will stick it into their travel scrapbook. We traveled up on the Friday morning, but it was only on Thursday afternoon, after many phone calls, that we were finally authorised for our special visit with E. Dan made reservations at High Falls State Park, purely because it was near the prison and reasonably priced, but we didn't have much idea what the RV park would be like. The area around the park was pretty run down, but enthralling for any non-American, as every building looked so much like something from an old western film set. There were little shacks that would be condemned to less than garden sheds in England, that were selling boiled peanuts or hot dogs! The drive down into the RV park was very steep, completely wooded, with occasional glimpses of the Towaliga River. The area was originally inhabited by the natives who killed and scalped the first settlers to arrive here! But eventually it became a thriving industrial town until the late 1880's when a rail bypass devastated the the businesses and created nothing more than a ghost town.

The RV park turned out to be a beautiful, peaceful place. Full of trees and right next to the river. Once we had booked in and paid, we could drive round and pick a lot to park up in. We picked a spot opposite the river, with a large green area of trees behind for the kids to play in. I was really impressed with the park. It was spacious. Each lot was quite some distance from the next lot. Obviously the emphasis was on enjoying the area, rather than making as much money as possible, as they could have easily squeezed 5 times as many RV lots into that space. The people staying there were all quiet, respectful, nature loving people. No one made noise at night or early in the morning, and there were no trains! (Here is a picture of Thelma parked up with the grassy area behind). Each lot had a picnic table and a fire pit, as well as electric and water.

As soon as we got there the kids wanted to explore. I decided that Jimmie and Annabelle were old enough to be trusted by the river, whilst Barney and I took a walk up to the play area. I left them with a host of questions "how close to the edge are you?" - not close - "is it slippery?" -no- "is it deep?" - no mum, I can see the bottom - "if you fell in, is the edge too steep to climb out?" -no, but I won't go near the edge anyway. So off I plodded with Barney, after all there were plenty of children at the river, and plenty of parents too. However, 4o minutes later when I returned with Barney (yes, you've guessed it!) I discovered to my horror that Jimmie had fallen into the river and spent a good 20 minutes trying to clamber out! Annabelle had been desperate to get help, but Jimmie wouldn't let her as he was embarrassed. Poor Annabelle half thought he would be eaten by an alligator and was in a bit of a panic. The funny thing was, when I went to see how they were, Jimmie just tried to act if nothing had happened, despite being soaked to the armpits, covered in bramble scratches, and bathed in muddy orange slosh! In his desperation to get out before being eaten alive by a gator, he had had to grab onto a thorny bush and climb through it, as the silty edges of the river bank just kept coming away in his hands. Poor kid. I was none too pleased when I found him, but soon felt rather sorry for him.

Despite that initial mishap we had a great 3 nights stay at the High Falls State Park. The area was outstandingly beautiful, and the weather was pretty good (apart from the last night when the camp host came to tell us of a Tornado warning, and we sat through a 6 hour thunder and lightening storm!)

On both the first and second nights there we had a bonfire and BBQ. This was the first time in our trip that we'd been able to sit around a camp fire, so we really enjoyed it and made the most of it. All through the camp ground we could see the glow of various camp fires. The people next to us had their guitars out and were singing old American country songs. Although it was barely audible from our lot, but it added to the ambience of the camping experience. Dan tried to dry the trainers that Jimmie had fallen into the river wearing, by the bonfire. The steam was rising out of them and I kept worrying they would melt, but was told they were just fine. Moments later they burst into flames and were burnt to a crisp in front of our eyes. But not to worry, at least Jimmie had some flip-flops to wear. But no, the next day he fell into the river again (with his Dad by his side) and soaked his flip flops! So he put them on the fire grate to dry (the fire wasn't lit). Dan came along and lit the fire, and didn't notice the flip flops, so they melted! So Jimmie then spent three days wearing my spare (ladies) shoes!!!

Most of Saturday was taken up with the visit to see E, but I will write a post all about that. On Sunday Leslie came to visit us. Leslie is a very special kind lady and without her our visit to see E never would never have happened. She phoned the prison and organised our special visit. She sent forms, phoned the prison countless times, and basically nagged them until our visit was approved (with minutes to spare!) And all because she also writes to a prisoner, in another state, and understands what the letters and visits mean to them. She went totally out of her way to help us, and when she visited she even brought two HUGE boxes of real American do-nuts with her (which I have to say, I could totally get addicted to - so if I come home twice the size, you know what's happened!) Here is a pic of Leslie and I outside the RV. We sat for several hours and talked about prison life and the death penalty etc. She told me lots of stories about prisoners who were found innocent after years on death row. She is going to see her pen-pal in Texas this week who she has also been writing to for many years.

After she left we headed out for a bit of a nature walk with the kids. We walked down by the waterfalls and over the rocks. At the start of the walk there was a big sign saying that people had died on the rocks and water, climbing and dieing from falls or in flash floods. So I sat the kids down and told them that under no circumstances were they allowed to climb on the rocks, or go into the water. I shouldn't have worried about the kids, for it was Dan that immediately sprang out onto the rocks and started hopping from one to another across the river! My heart was in my throat the whole time while I waited for his certain death, and I gave him a good telling off when he got back to safety!

Today (Monday) we drove 4 hours back down to the bottom of Georgia, just close to the border of Florida. We are spending the night in a very cheap, not very nice RV park, purely to sleep and use their wifi access! In the morning we plan to drive down to Mexico Beach which is on the Gulf Coast of Florida and begin our 16-17 day journey across the Gulf Coast through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. It only takes 3 days to drive it, but we plan to relax lots along the way and take in a lot of scenery.

Georgia was a lovely state to visit. It reminds Dan of Ireland in some ways, but the soil is really orange (like in Australia). It is dotted with pecan orchards and cotton fields, with thousands of the cutest run down little farm shacks. A lot of the people we drove past lived in permanent mobile home estates and seemed to live a very modest lifestyle. There were gospel churches on nearly every corner, and everyone was kind and friendly to us. On our way out of the RV park this morning we were invited to dinner at the home of some other campers. I'm glad to have visited Georgia, to see the area from which my penpal and friend E comes from, and to understand his passion for the place more.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Okefenokee Swamp

Apparently we were all extremely tired last night, as despite the constant roar of hooting trains, we all slept until 10am! Little Barney hardly moved the whole night (I know this as he was sharing a bed with me). The Okefenokee RV Park is basic, but I like it here. I don't know if I could spend 2 weeks here with all the trains going past, but apart from that it is quiet, remote, and seems a nice enough place. The nearby town of Folkston is very quaintly American looking. There's not much in it, and I figure that most Americans wouldn't think much of it, but coming from Ireland it just looked amazing to us.

We spent the entire day today at the nearby Okefenokee State Park & Wildlife Refuge. It costs $5 for one weeks entry in a vehicle which is pretty good for the finances. I think our family could easily spend a week there, if we weren't moving on tomorrow. We took the first option as we came into the park, which was a scenic drive with various stop offs and walkways along the way. Perfect for our family, as it means we can take the home and food (and toilet) with us. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we completely lost track of time and didn't realise that the park had closed!

We spotted a few wild alligators in various parts of the swamp, which was exciting. Half way round the drive there is a short walk to a real old homestead house. The sign on the door reads "Dedicated to the Chesser Family, in honour of the character and lifestyle of all settlers of the Okefenokee". The Chesser family built the 5 bedroom house entirely from wood in 10 weeks. They grew their own vegetables, kept their own animals and made syrup to sell. They were entirely self sufficient, with their 7 children, but both parents also held down full time jobs. There was a guide sitting in a rocking chair at the door, and no other visitors were around, so he sat and told us all about the family and the house. Then we went inside for a walk around. We all really enjoyed this. The kids enjoyed looking in the bedrooms, whilst Dan liked all the outside barns and out sheds. We saw how the family made their own sugar from sugar cane, and maple syrup from the trees nearby. The house and gardens were just idyllic. I could so easily live there!

We drove on a bit and stopped at the board walk. This is a 2 mile round walk on a boardwalk through the swamp. The area we walked through was so deathly silent (when the kids stopped making noise long enough for us to hear the silence). There were various areas along the walk to sit and enjoy the view, but best of all was the tall viewing tower at the end. We passed a man who told us he had found two huge alligators in the swamp, and that he'd left the binoculars in the viewing tower pointing at them, so that we could see them too. And right enough, they were pretty big ones. The scenery at the top of the tower was breath taking. But the kids were behaving like wild things by this point, so I took them back to the RV and let Dan enjoy the silence up there for a while. It was at this point, when we got back to the RV, that we realised the time, and that the park had closed!

On the way back to the RV park we stopped at the Folkston Funnel to view the trains. However, despite one coming past our RV park every 3 minutes, not a single train came past the entire 40 minutes that we sat there!

Tomorrow morning we are heading up to Jackson, and staying at a gorgeous RV park there called High Falls State Park, for 2 nights.