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June 2002

    We left out of Minneapolis around 1:30 on June 5th and started our journey south. Gwen snatched the kids out of school a day and a half early but they didn't put up much of a fight. They did forget to take all of their school backpacks out of the van so we had to constantly move them around all during the trip. Gwen picked me up downtown and we got on our merry way. We headed south out of downtown and made our first crossing of the Mississippi River and drove through the University of Minnesota campus. We headed east on IH 94 and reached Wisconsin in about 25 minutes. One state down. We crossed the rolling hills of Wisconsin and all of it's lush greenery. 

    Late that afternoon we crossed into Illinois and a few hours later we stopped in Rochelle for the night. We headed for a truck stop for dinner since they always have good food; at least that's what I believed until I ate at the one in Rochelle. I won't make that mistake again! It was filling though. We went back to our room and the kids went swimming. If it ain't got a swimming pool we can't stay there. The swimming helps wear out all of that pent up energy. 

    We turned in for the night and I slept for about 20 minutes before the noise started upstairs. I have no idea what was going on but someone was pacing, VERY loudly, from one end of the room to the other, non stop. This was punctuated with occasional clanks and clangs. What were they doing? I dozed in out until midnight and then I had had enough. A nice polite call to the front desk assured me that all would be taken care of. This only added fuel to the fire. Another ten minutes and a not so polite call to the front desk got the job done. This seems to happen to us on a fairly regular basis. I am getting better at making my point.

    The next morning we headed south; past St. Louis and across the Mississippi River. I had purchased a 7 cd set about the life and times of Mark Twain for the trip and had been listening to it all morning. It was appropriate since Twain also liked running up and down the Mississippi. Only he preferred to do so in a paddle wheeler. I also thought about the late, great John Hartford as we crossed over the Mississippi. John used to play banjo on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He wrote a little tune called "Gentle On my Mind" and made an album named "Mark Twang." He was also a riverboat pilot. We crept along through lots of road construction. We crossed the northeast of Arkansas and crossed the Mississippi River again as we headed into Memphis. We checked but Elvis was not at home. Some folks said that he had left the planet. Some folks said that it was rumored that he had been seen at Burger King the day before. We weren't biting on this because we had a secret source that said he was hanging out in St. Louis. We rolled on down the road to Jackson, Mississippi and called it a night after a meal of some fine bar-b-que.

    The following morning we got up, grabbed some KrispyKreme donuts and headed south. It was only a few hours to Debbie and Junior's house. We got there and the kids checked things out. They have a pool! Now we had permission to stay. 

    After noon Marshall and Junior headed down to New Orleans to pick up Gwen's mom at the airport. She was joining up with us for another vacation. We found her, loaded her up and headed back across the swamps to Juniors' house. She was fascinated with all the water and cypress trees.

    That night we headed to a little place called Seafood World; an all you can eat place and eat we did. Lots of cousins and spouses; Debbie, Junior, Ben, Dianne, Kathy and Charlette. We ate crabs, oysters, shrimp, crawfish, frog legs, alligator and all kinds of other great stuff. The oyster stew was fantastic! My sister and her husband, the sometimes famous Reverend Rick Vacation, had flown in and finally found us after a few phone calls. Thank goodness for cell phones. We ate until we couldn't stand it and then we had some bread pudding and some ice cream. After crying "uncle" we retired back to the Stanga's home and called it a night.

    Saturday morning we ate a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and grits. Ah, fine southern food. We had a little family reunion at noon at the Bedico Community Center and no, you can't find Bedico on your Rand-McNally's but Google can locate it for you. My brother and his bunch showed up and we all reunionized for a while. More fine food including a wonderful jambalaya, great white beans, blueberry pie and more bread pudding.

    After lunch we loaded up in a fine motor home and Marvin (whom we found after losing him in New Orleans on the birth night of the illustrious Reverend Rick Vacation, but that's another story in itself) chauffeured us to yet another reunion in Baton Rouge. Rick and Junior conned Marshall into playing boo-ray for points and glory. For the uninitiated boo-ray is a card game that is big in Louisiana and parts of Texas. It is possible to lose large amounts of money in a short period of time. Marshall had not played in over 15 years but remembered enough to score as many points as Rick and Junior combined. Boy that was glorious! Of course he would never gloat about it or lord it over them.

   There wasn't much of a variety of food in Baton Rouge. Just pot after pot of boiled crawfish. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. My grand daughter, Amber, had never tasted crawfish before. After the first one you could not get her away from the table. Marshall got to see cousins that he had not seen in over 30 years. After a few hours we headed back to Bedico in the motor coach. Rick and Junior ganged up on Marshall to narrowly, like 1 point, defeat him at boo-ray.

    After we got back to Bedico, Marshall once again showed Rick and Junior that just because he hadn't been living in the south for almost 5 years, didn't mean that he had forgotten how to play cards! Notice the facial expressions of the serious and intent card players in the photo. It sure looks like a lot of lying going be going on there!

    Sunday we headed over to the Oak Alley Plantation. We crossed over the Mississippi River again and headed up the Great River Road looking for those 300 year old oak trees. We found them and took the tour through the old plantation home. The one story that stuck with everyone was about how you told house guests that they had stayed too long. You put a pineapple at the foot of their beds when they had over stayed their welcome. How quaint, but I guess it beats finding your luggage in the front yard though.      

    After wandering the grounds, in the horrid heat and humidity, we loaded up and headed for New Orleans again. We had worked up an appetite and were getting thirsty. It was time for beignets and coffee au lait! We had to cross back over the Mississippi River for the fifth time. Junior lead us to a fine little coffee shop and we ate until our eyes bugged out. We then headed north across the causeway over Lake Pontchatrain. It's a mere 24 miles across the lake and the longest bridge in the world. Junior took us on a little side trip down to the Coast Guard Station on the lake. The tides, wind and rain had moved the lake up over the road so it was just a bit damp. 

    After we got home we polished off the jambalaya and chased it down with some of that fantastic Blue Bell ice cream imported all the way from Brenham, Texas. The finest ice cream in all the land, hands down. I love their slogan, "We eat all we can and we sell the rest."

    Monday Amber got up and checked the foot of the bed; no pineapple. We opted for a trip down to New Orleans for the day. Junior took us in through the garden district and we viewed some fine old homes. The kids had heard all kinds of stories about the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. We wandered over into Jackson Square and the park. We stumbled across the Jackson Square Players blowing up some fine New Orleans Jazz. We listened for a while and Marshall picked up a cd. Imagine that! We wondered over into the French Quarter and down Bourbon Street for a few blocks. Alan wanted to know what that "smell" was. I told him it was Bourbon Street; puke, piss, and stale beer. He wasn't all that impressed. Neither was I. We got "beaded" by a gal on the streets. Debbie asked what the beads were for. She said, "Beads for fools but not you guys." Yeah right. After taking a picture we all managed to escape with our purses, wallets (mine was in the car) and watches, even though we were a few bucks lighter for a "donation" for the beads . No fools today? We wondered down into the French Market and Alan's brain was put on overload. Look at all that stuff! Aisle after aisle of all kinds of trinkets and neat stuff. He was more impressed here than he was on Bourbon Street. Good boy!

    We wandered back up to the Cafe Du Monde for another round of beignets and cafe au lait. We were double dippin'. What a bunch of fools; hot coffee on a hot and humid day. "Beads for fools." We wondered down to the Riverwalk and watched the ships and boats going up and down the Mississippi. We headed back across the lake.

    Tuesday and still no pineapple. Junior treated us to a boat ride in the swamp and up the river. It was wonderful as long as we kept moving. That way we had a nice breeze. We floated past some of the wonderful camps along the river. I know of no other place in the world that people build camps in swamps along the river. It is a unique part of America. We traveled up the river and ran across the infamous Shelby Stanga. He is a whole story by himself but we don't have near enough time to go there! He's a purveyor of cypress logs from the bottom of Lake Pontchatrain and local rivers, loggerhead turtles, catfish and anything else that he can come up with that will make a buck. Gwen's mom, Artilla, had heard many stories about Shelby and watched as he pulled fish into the boat with one hand while paddling with the other. No sissy troll motors for the crazy swamp man. (Update: Now known as the "Swamp Man" on "Ax Men" and he will have his own show next month: The Legend of Shelby the Swamp Man" July 2013)

    After we got back home, Artilla mentioned that she hadn't had boiled crabs in many years. This sent Junior and Marshall in search of crabs. They located a bushel of crabs, a boiling pot, a watermelon, and crab boiling fixin's. They got out in Junior's front yard and proceeded to boil some crabs. Marshall provided mostly moral support while watching Junior work his magic with salt, potatoes, garlic, lemons, crab boil and anything else he could lay hands on. He boiled up the whole bushel of crabs and we once again proceeded to pig out. We ate crabs until we could not stand it and then we chased them down with a big ol' slice of cold watermelon and big ol' bowl of Blue Bell ice cream. Ah, contentment.

    Wednesday we decided we were pushing our luck on that pineapple thing so we loaded up and headed north. Junior and Debbie were both wonderful hosts. As we drove through Jackson, Mississippi again, we grabbed a few more KrispyKreme's and headed on north. Back through Memphis and still no Elvis. Our sources were still solid though and St. Louis was still the spot. We crossed over the Mississippi for the sixth time, up through Arkansas and over to Park City, Missouri. We were in pursuit of holes in the ground. Big holes. We had dinner at an all you can eat place. Imagine that.

    The next morning we made our way over to Onodaga Cave. Neat place. A big cavern with lots and lots of big formations. I've been in close to 40 commercial caverns and this is one of the best ones I've seen. Our tour group consisted of us and a family of 3. Nothing like a personal tour. We had lunch at the Chat 'n Chew in Leesburg. A little hole in wall local spot with good food. We went on up to Meramec Cavern. A huge group of folks and a total of three rooms worth looking at. Go to Onondaga cave and bypass Meramec.

    Gwen's nephew, Artilla's grandson, Scott, had reserved us rooms in St. Louis with a nice discounted price. He had recently started working as a Sales Manager at the hotel there. He said it was a fine hotel. I wondered though because I had never stayed in a hotel with it's name and I only stay in the finest motels. Adam's Mark? Across the street from the Arch? It does have location doesn't it? Nice digs. The pools were on the roof on the 18th floor. One indoor one outdoor. The kids gave it their blessings.

    We rested up until Scott got off work. We loaded up and headed out for a night on the town with visions of Elvis dancing in our heads. We whipped into a Jack In The Box for a quick dinner. For once we ate reasonably. We would have to fix that. After dinner we headed off to Dave and Buster's. For the uninitiated, Dave and Buster's is like a big kid's Chucky Cheese. All kinds of great video games. Car racing, snowmobile racing, jet skis and motorcycles. You have to climb on an ride in order to move your self on the screen. Great shoot 'em ups, boxing games, and loads of arcade games. Boy can you run through some bucks in a hurry in this place. We even got Artilla to ride a few games. We spend about three hours and umpteen dollars in there before we cashed in all of our tickets that we had won and redeemed them for some fine stuff. As we were leaving and walking across the parking lot, there he was! Bigger than life! It was Elvis in all his glory! Amber is a huge Elvis fan even though she's only 10 years old. We got a picture with him even though he was traveling incognito. That was a pretty good Mexican accent he was using to throw people off ya' know but we weren't fooled.

   The next day we did the Arch of St. Louis. Out the front door and across the street with Jonelle, Scott's wonderful wife, as our guide. How convenient. Scott did good. We went down under the arch and underground. Marshall purchased tickets and we headed for the line. Not too bad. About a ten minute wait and we climbed into our "capsule". It was a little round car with 5 sets. Jonelle stayed behind and waited on us. They locked us in and away we went. Up 630 feet. A mere 63 stories. We climbed out of our capsule into a narrow stairway and walked the steps into the top of the Arch. It is narrow, with a low ceiling, and a few narrow windows. You have to lean over and lay against the wall to see out. One side is the city of St. Louis, the other is the Mississippi River and the surrounding area. After about ten minutes, the thrill was gone, the photos taken, and our curiosity was satisfied. We headed down and found Jonelle outside. Artilla sat down on the steps, looked up at where she had been and reality set in. I was where! I thought she was going to pass out!

    We headed back to the hotel and picked up Scott and we headed into the park for lunch. We grabbed some hotdogs, bratwurst, and other goodies, from a vendor that Scott knew and we sat on the steps next to the fountain and had lunch. What a glorious day! Mid 70's, low humidity and a gentle breeze. We wandered into a museum and looked around before taking Scott back to work. Poor guy!

   Marshall, Gwen and Artilla headed out to the Cahokia Mounds while Jonelle graciously took the kids swimming. They are now sprouting gills. The Cahokia Mounds were built in 900 -1200 a.d., a few miles east of current day St. Louis. The biggest mound is 110 feet high. The population of these people is estimated at 30,000. No city in the US reached that number again until the mid 1800's. There is a great museum and you can walk the grounds. The entire area is mapped out and there are all kinds of mounds in different shapes. Neat place. 

    That night Scott led us waaayyyyy out in the country in Illinois in search of food. We found it. All you can eat. Country food. Seafood. Desserts! Ah, cheese cake with chocolate frosting and an Oreo crust. We're all going to pop before we leave here.

    The next morning we loaded up and left Artilla behind. It wasn't because we were tired of her. She was going to spend a few days with Scott and Jonelle and then fly back home. Out of all the trips we have taken together I have never seen Artilla smile as much as she did on this trip. We crossed the Mississippi River once more and headed north. Through Illinois. Through Wisconsin. Into Minnesota. Across the Mississippi River for the eighth time. We arrived home in Maple Grove south of the Mississippi River. South, you say? Yep. Look it up on your Rand-McNally's!

                                                                                                            ~ The End ~