John W. Pinkerton

Most Americans seem to long for beaches when they dream of vacations.  Hawaii is the number one dream vacation location; most of these dreamers end up in Florida.

The top ten vacation destinations are Washington, D. C.; Hawaii; Orlando, Florida; New York, New York; Alaska; New Orleans, Louisiana; the Grand Canyon; Southern California; Yellowstone National Park; and Niagara Falls.

The idea of a vacation, a trip or journey for the purposes of recreation or tourism, hasn’t been around forever.  The concept of taking a vacation is only a couple of centuries old.  At one time, the idea of recreation or travel was a luxury of wealthy folks.  Not all Americans are wealthy, but almost all eventually take a vacation.

Most folks vacation in the summer.  School calendars until around 1840 varied greatly.  Summer became the obvious choice for a school break mainly because of the need of farmers to have their children available for work on the farms and the fact that schools were sweltering Hell holes in the summer months.   

A sabbatical, a time out, is what I’m on this week.  Not a vacation.  I’m taking a little break from painting. 

When I was growing up, vacations were few and far between.  Our vacation destinations from central Louisiana were either the mountains of Arkansas or the waters of the Gulf.  Summers, like most folks, were the time of our vacations.  Before air conditioned cars, the traveling part was a little uncomfortable in the South.  It was a mixture of sweat and anticipation.  I must not have cared for these trips because even to this day I have no desire to visit either location.

We, Linda and I, had been married for several years before it occurred to me that perhaps we should become part of the typical demographics and take a vacation.  It was an intellectual exercise more than a response to a need.  I, quite frankly, don’t care for travel.

I laid out our plans for this inaugural endeavor.  We would travel from Somerville to Marlowe, Oklahoma, for a visit with my sister and her husband; to Shreveport, Louisiana, for a visit to their arboretum; to Vicksburg, Mississippi, for a visit to the Civil War battlefield; Natchez, Mississippi, for tours of antebellum homes;  and New Orleans to attend the World’s Fair.  Six days altogether.   The two locations which have been repeated as vacation destinations are Natchez and New Orleans.  Natchez was spared the wrath of the North during the Civil War.  The city surrendered shortly after New Orleans fell and was spared damage, except for one heart attack, and was the headquarters of Ulysses S. Grant for a time.  Vicksburg, on the other hand, refused to surrender and was practically annihilated.  Other than the battlefield, there is not much to see.  I suspect there are still hard feelings between Vicksburg and Natchez.  Natchez still has its wonderful antebellum homes, many of which are open to tourists.  Natchez, being within sixty miles of my mother’s home in Louisiana, we have visited often.  Natchez is worth a visit.  Our trip to New Orleans was the real keeper.  It was just a day trip.  The World’s Fair was interesting in a world’s fair sort of way, but when we visited the French Quarter, I felt I had gone home.  This is a feeling I suspect many folks have once they’ve experienced the French Quarter.

I’ve heard a lot of vacation horror stories, but I only have one.  Mac, a friend and coworker, talked Linda and me into accompanying him and his wife on a “vacation” to Big Bend National Park.  In a moment of weakness, I agreed.  My instincts told me to never go farther west than San Antonio.  I should have trusted my instincts.

Mac and Cynthia, Linda and I, the widow Beckman, and a much younger couple piled into Mac’s van one morning and headed for Big Bend.  If you’re not from Texas, I might need to remind you that Texas is a rather large state.  From Somerville, Big Bend National Park is 548.55 miles.  What was I thinking?

Shortly west of San Antonio, I noticed that goats were eating green moss off of rocks.  We spent a night in a motel in Del Rio, a lovely town.  Yes, that’s sarcasm. As we drove across a seamless desert from Del Rio, I dozed off in the shotgun seat for two hours to awake to a landscape which looked just like the one I was witness to two hours before.  Our last stop before Big Bend was Marathon, another lovely village (again sarcasm).  We stopped off for a snack in a Marathon cafe that featured a roach wedged into a sugar dispenser.  Strangely, it didn’t seem to bother any of the regular customers.  After leaving Marathon, we crossed a desert that looked like one of  John Wayne’s.  Mac, a historian, narrated to his captive audience how a farmer had moved West and decided to farm in this desert but died there.  Although I didn’t say it aloud, I thought, “He deserved no other fate.”  As we left the desert, we began to climb a mountain road.  About half way up the mountain, the van stalled.  I sat in the shade of a tree while the “men” adjusted the carburetor.  Fixed, we climbed to the peak and began to descend into the Basin.  548.55 miles from home, I stepped from the van, surveyed my surroundings, and declared, “Hell, it’s Welch Park with mountains.” Welch Park is a Corps of Engineer’s park about six blocks from my house.  In other words, I was not impressed.

We set up our tents.  As the sun declined and the air cooled from its Hellish high, the widow, Linda, and I broke out the supply of wine which we had brought along for emergencies.  This may not have been an emergency, but it was cause for celebration: we survived the trip.  Our celebration was short lived: after the sun was down and the moon was up, our laughing and making other rude noises of celebration were hushed by Cynthia, Mrs. Mac.  It seems that campers in National Parks go to sleep when the sun goes down, and they must not be disturbed.  Crap. 

The next morning I awoke at about dawn and stepped out of the tent into relatively cool morning air to smoke a cigarette and wonder what horrors the day would bring.  All around me fellow campers were unzipping their tents.  In the quiet of morning, it is amazing how loud these zippers seem: ziiiiiiip, ziiiiiip, ziiiiiiip, etc.  I was suddenly aware that something or someone had moved rather abruptly behind me.  It was Linda still in her pink “camping” gown balanced on one foot, declaring for all campers to hear, “If I have to go to sleep when the sun goes down, the least these people can do is let me sleep in the morning.”  Not a happy woman.

For three days, we endured the horrors of Big Bend highlighted by a mile and a half  trail climb, not good for a smoker at the altitude of Big Bend.  On the second day, I realized there was a motel about a quarter mile from where we camped.  Nor did I learn until I got back home that there is a first class hotel in nearby Marathon.  Oh, no, I wasn’t told these facts; instead, we endured the discomfort of tents and the great outdoors for three days.

I managed to talk my fellow travelers into leaving a day early if I would break camp and pack up all our gear while most of them went on a water rafting trip.  I was pleased to see they were exhausted upon their return.  “Get in the damned van!” I thought.

After we reached Marathon, I asked if I might be allowed to drive.  Behind the wheel, I drove that van to the limit in spite of the danger of cross winds in that flat land pushing ones vehicle off the road and into the great unknown never to be seen again.

Some hours later, we reached Del Rio and quickly pulled into a Red Roof Inn, a sign of civilization.   As I drove up to the motel swimming pool, I was further reassured that civilization was nearby: a family was happily playing in the motel’s pool.  Civilization couldn’t be far away: this happy splashing family seemed to know that this watering hole was the last chance for happiness before reaching California.

After concluding our trip, the only thing I could say good about the venture is that our friendship with Mac and Cynthia survived the vacation from Hell.

On my second day at Big Bend, I realized why people go there: it’s cheap.  It’s a place one can take one’s family, no matter the number, and vacation for almost nothing.  Well, you get what you pay for.  All I know is that on our first night there, the widow, Linda, and I placed our hands atop each others and pledged, “Never again.”  I’ve never been farther west than the outskirts of San Antonio since then.

Now, let’s talk about what I consider paradise, the French Quarters of New Orleans.  Our visits to New Orleans began in 1984 with our prototype vacation.  We were only there for a few hours.  Other than the World’s Fair, the most memorable moment was when a 6 foot transvestite in high heels stepped suddenly from a doorway in the French Quarter and caused Linda to almost jump into my arms.  It was a brief visit, but our appetites for New Orleans had been whetted.   We haven’t been to New Orleans since 2003.  We would have been there in 2005, but a little weather system called Katrina cut those plans short when it came ashore in August.  Between 1984 and 2003, we visited New Orleans almost every summer, a twenty year stretch.  We always stayed in the same hotel, The Royal Sonesta.  It’s expensive but worth it.  From the main entry, one steps on to the famous Bourbon Street.  When we reach the hotel, we drive into the underground parking area beneath the hotel, park it, and don’t drive it again until we depart for home.  On our first several trips, we stayed for three nights: usually Wednesday  through Friday, departing Saturday morning after breakfast.  We became so familiar with the Quarter, we decided two nights was enough time to do what we wanted to do and see the things we wanted to see.

Mike Ditka said when he coached the Saints to two losing seasons that New Orleans had dirty streets filled with panhandlers.  And, Mike, it either ranks number one or close to it as the murder capital of the U. S.  It’s also below sea level and has a pretty iffy levee system.  It always ranks pretty high among corrupt cities.  But, Mike, it also has the French Quarter.  And, Mike, I love the smell of city sewage in the morning.

Morning is a wonderful time in the quarter.  By morning I mean before 10 a. m.  About the only activity at that time of day are folks hosing down their portions of the sidewalks and trucks delivering produce to the restaurants, and owners drowsily slipping their keys into their doors.  It’s pretty quiet and you can hear the clanking of mule hooves as tourists are paraded through the early morning Quarter in carriages while the drivers give them a history of every other building.  Before 10 it’s dang near impossible to get any breakfast except as room service in your hotel. 

Yes, Ditka, there are panhandlers and awful smells in the streets at times, but there are also street entertainers from groups of young musicians to solitary fellows with trumpets or saxophones and charcoal artists who will do a good job of producing a portrait of you in chalk on paper for very little.  You can have your palm read if you feel uncertain about the day. How about a Tarot card dealer? 

Back in the 30s, the Quarter was about to be torn down and replaced by modern structures.  A group of ladies saw the value of the old district and halted what would have been a sin.  The Quarter of course has become New Orleans’ greatest draw for tourists.  I like to think of it as Disneyland for adults.

New Orleans does have the reputation of being a dangerous city.  The first full day in New Orleans, we awoke early and Linda followed me as I walked every street in the Quarter, about a hundred blocks.  I was surveying the Quarter, measuring it for danger.  I made note of the places I did and did not want to be after dark.  My calculations, apparently, were pretty accurate.

I can’t say bad things can’t happen to tourists: of course they can and do.  Citizens of Somerville have had bad luck in the Quarter.  One had his wallet removed almost immediately after stepping from a cab that had delivered him from the airport to Bourbon Street; one couple was mugged in the Quarter for their valuables.   My favorite story of misfortune in the Quarter is the following.  A friend of mine, a manly and muscular young fellow, had to flatten a stranger who unexplainably kept harassing him on the street.  Having had enough, my friend hit the fellow hard enough that he slid across the pavement and stopped abruptly when he hit the curb.  Unexpectedly, he stood up.  While the deranged man was gathering himself, my friend sought out a policeman. He told the officer his situation and what had happened.  After he finished his story, the police officer offered this advice, “Son, if you’re not big enough to be in the Quarter, go home.”  Not the response he was looking for.  When my friend told this story to me, I told him not to worry about it because the next time he wanted to go to New Orleans, I’d go along as his body guard.  Well, I’m not certain he saw the irony in that remark.

Speaking of policemen, the Quarter probably has more policemen in the streets on patrol per square inch than any other place in the world.  The Quarter means bread on the table for New Orleans folks.  They cannot afford to let bad things happen to paying people.  In addition to recognizable uniformed officers, I suspect one in ten of the “citizens” on the streets, particularly at night, are plain clothes men.  I’ve seen it happen more than once when a “citizen” suddenly became Superman to become a swift avenger.  One thing you don’t get to see everywhere is a policeman on horseback pursuing a bad guy.  This happened while Linda and I were eating an evening meal at an outdoor area of a restaurant on Bourbon Street.  Folks barely looked up from their meals in spite of the clatter of hooves and pounding of feet.

Of course, the night is the main reason most folks go to New Orleans.  Although there is another entertainment area near the river, Bourbon Street is the main area.  At night the street is closed to traffic and  fills with tourists looking for a good time.  They don’t have to look very far.  If you want to stay on the street, vendors of alcohol are readily available.   A friend of mine when he arrived from Texas to New Orleans via airplane, fell in love with the city because as soon as he departed the aircraft and entered the terminal, alcohol vendors were readily available.   Walking down Bourbon Street for the first time is fun: it’s a combination of nightclubs from whose doors and windows live music variations compete with each other, gift shops, strip joints, restaurants, art galleries and the inevitable T-shirt shops.  Pretty impressive, particularly if your home is Somerville, Texas.  We tried most of the night clubs, but pretty well settled on two that satisfied our entertainment needs.  One is the world famous piano room at Pat Obriens and the other is the 544 Club.  The piano room is open 24 hours a day and has twin pianos facing each other with two talented pianists who play and sing.  They take requests and are seldom stumped.  They are practiced entertainers who know how to interact with the crowd and each other.  Then, of course, there’s Eddie.  I’m afraid I was envious of Eddie’s job.  Once a set, he would come on stage, be introduced to cheers and play thimbles against a metal serving tray.  When I was there last, he had been doing this for nearly 50 years.  As he accompanies the pianists, folk make contributions to his tray.  Not a bad gig. 

The other place of choice is the 544 Club, a dump with a modest cover charge and one of the best bands in New Orleans, Gary Brown and his band.  The guy is amazing and has a great personality.  He is so good I sometimes wonder why he plays in this dump year after year.  Maybe a deal with the Devil.

In the specialty shops, antique shops, galleries, jewelry stores, doll shops, and art glass shops you probably won’t find many bargains.  But other shops provide interesting items which most can afford.  But it never hurts to window shop the more expensive places.

The food in New Orleans?  Don’t worry about it; all meals are delicious.  My first meal is usually red beans and rice.

Before the hurricane, one thing I enjoyed each year was that the shops never changed and the merchants never changed.  Everything was always just where I left it.  I don’t know what it’s like now five years after Katrina.

One reason Linda liked visiting New Orleans is that she inevitably was carded each time we entered a drinking establishment.  Now, Hell, when we first married, she was only nineteen, but when we visited New Orleans she was much older.  Still they carded her.  I think the last time we were in New Orleans upon entering Pat Obriens, she was not carded.  After being seated at our table, I commented smiling, “He didn’t card you.”  Her response was, “No, but he took a good long look.”

We only had the company of friends on a few occasions when we visited New Orleans.  Joe and his wife met us there; they flew in; we drove in.  One evening we were sitting in a bar on Bourbon Street which faced a strip club across the street.  A stripper was in front of the club on the street hawking the services of the establishment.  Bourbon is a very narrow old world street.  The stripper took interest in Joe and suddenly opened her blouse revealing her ample bosom while staring directly at him.  Joe then did something which to this day makes me smile.  He immediately ripped his shirt open revealing his bosom to her.  I’m sure that was a first for the stripper.

The other fellow travelers were Bill and Beverly.  They seemed to enjoy New Orleans.  At least I think they did after Bill learned to be better tippers.  They still occasionally mentions returning to the French Quarter.

Each year as we approached Somerville on our return from New Orleans, I felt a little amazed that there are roads which actually connect the two cities.  Maybe that’s just me.

After years of vacationing annually in New Orleans, we decided to give San Antonio, the number one vacation destination in Texas, a try.  We got a reservation for a hotel on the River Walk, and three hours later we were there.   We visited the Alamo, the River Walk, Market Square, La Villita, the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and the McNay Art Museum.  One great thing about San Antonio is their bus system: for a small fee one can visit most parts of San Antonio in one of those buses built like a trolley car.  Now if you think you might want to visit San Antonio there is also Six Flags Fiesta Texas, Sea World, the Children’s Museum, El Mercado, Mission San Jose, the San Antonio Zoo, the Japanese Garden, and the Witte Museum.  We enjoyed our trips to San Antonio, but as Linda put it as we were driving back home from our first visit, “It’s okay, but it’s not nearly sleazy enough.”  New Orleans does set a pretty high bar in this regard.

It has been several years since we have gone anywhere on vacation: personal obligations have restricted us somewhat.  But the only place I really want to visit is the New Orleans’ French Quarters, my other home.


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