It was also the cheapest vacation we will probably ever be able to construct.
Wednesday I hopped on the Greyhound from Pitts to Columbus. Met a few characters along the way, as always. I had with me a manuscript from a fellow writer in my workshop class. He is a comedic writer, who writes slapstick, in-your-face, electric-paced fiction. I was cracking up in line as we waited to board. A guy who calls himself "Dreadz" to commemorate his disgusting chunky hair (I always think dreadlocks look so depressing and deliberate on white people, but that's another story), wanted to read it. So I gave it to him when we took our seat. I carefully chose my spot in the next row and one seat behind him so I could record the pages on which he laughed and could report back to Dave. He read the entire thing (it's exhausting, really, that kind of charged writing), laughing aloud several times. Then I handed it to Nancy next to me, a Californian travel agent who happened to have worked for McGraw-Hill for 19 years(!) She tsked and handed it back to me after reading to page 6, saying, "I'm just not the market for this. If this guy tried to date my daughter, I'd hang him." Tough crowd. Well, the story did delve into some sexually graphic territory, and the main character is a narcissistic buffoon, but it really is funny. Somehow. Anyway, I arrive in Columbus after my guerilla book-agent experience, at around 6 PM.
First we drove to Nashville to my friend Chris' new place. He's one of the few friends from high school who has reciprocated effort to keep in touch, yet I haven't seen him since '05. It's tough now that my parents have moved away from Knoxville, the place I most identify as a "hometown." Luckily we saved an hour due to time zones, though still arrived later than I'd hoped, at 10:30 PM. I finally met the love of Chris' life, Leah, and promptly fell in love with her myself. We chirped away about our common obsessions: recycling, organic food, the environment, and changing the world through teaching, while our boyfriends nodded along and stole side glances at each other. After a few glasses of wine, we hit the sack.
Next morning Leah had to leave early for work, and Chris took us all around Nashville, excitedly pointing out areas of interest like an expert tour guide. He's totally in love with the city, and completely in his element with all that country music. We went to an indy music store, which reminded me of the one Brandon dumps all his money into in Columbus, and the boys were in heaven. We also strolled downtown, the club areas, past music halls, and drove by Vanderbilt University and the strip of town where all the record labels and recording studios are. Then we ate some BBQ beef for lunch (unfortunately the place toted all plasticware and styrofoam).
Next stop: the beach! We drove about 7 more hours to arrive at Pensacola beach at dusk. It was beautiful, and we were so excited to actually be there. We had brought sleeping bags and figured we'd sleep in the car, or, perhaps, on the beach. I was a little nervous about the second option. It was spring break time, so we figured obtaining a hotel room might be tough, and we wanted to be adventurous anyway. Plus we didn't want to spend a bunch of dough. So we called the police and county sheriff to see if beach bumming through the night was illegal, and surprisingly it isn't. We found a pocket of coastal America that allows vagrants, I guess, since most places strictly forbid this. So, we smoothed out our bedding and watched the stars, the gleaming moon, and matched our breathing to the lapping waves. I was a little jittery when the occasional person would stroll along the dark beach, but the place was harmless and eventually I fell asleep.
We awoke covered in ocean mist, though Bean referred to this (in a mechanical voice) as "condensation." Not sure why I found this so hilarious. So, we hung our two wet blankets and our towel over the wooden fence railing, put on our bikinis, and began to play on the beach. Finally! The sun was partially covered by foggish cloud, so we didn't think to put on sunscreen at 8:30 AM, though later we regretted this. I layed out for about a half hour, before Brandon's attention span expired and he pestered me into getting up and helping him dig a moat in the sand. A moat around a nonexistent sandcastle, mind you. Then we went running. I immediately realized that I was dehydrated (not wanting to drink much on the road of course), and had to stop after about a mile. Superstar Olympian had to keep running, of course, but that was fine. I had to get some water. So I meandered into one of the big hotels near our section of beach and found a bathroom accessible from the parking garage. I filled our water bottle and retreated, but not before noticing the pool on my way out. Brandon was done running shortly after, and we ate sandwiches and grapes that we'd packed for lunch. I realized that my face was red even after cooling down and decided we should lather sunscreen. It was too late. By the end of the day we were complete lobsters. Sad, really.
After lunch we went to the pool at the hotel, following a family as they entered the key-access gate. The woman asked me if we had a key, to which I told her no. She said, "That's okay--we'll let you in." Soon after we realized that we definitely didn't fit in. Everyone there had money spilling out their ears, and there was no one close to our age there. It was all yuppie, suburban families, complete with skinny wives with manicured nails and 2.5 kids each. But we didn't mind. Until a woman came up to me and with a venomous, hushed tone said, "I know where you slept last night, and I know you're not staying at this hotel. You are stealing resources, and it's not right. I suggest you leave quickly and quietly before I call the authorities." Whoa. I was shocked, embarrassed, mortified. I gathered our things and told Brandon we had to leave. Now. He begins barking "Why? Why?" and I'm shushing him and trying to leave quickly. We get outside the pool area and I tell him what happened. Did she work there? he asked. I didn't know. All I knew was that she terrified me, her threat, especially that she knew we'd slept on the beach. I felt a rush of shame, of being put in my place. Brandon wished he would have heard her or had known what was going on so he could jump to my defense. I pondered how these things happen to me individually. Slimy threats, racial slurs-- they never happen when anyone else is around. Anyway, Brandon and I could eventually laugh at this pathetic woman who obviously had paid a lot of money to be removed from lower class people like us. Her world is small and unimportant. Does she care about the election? Does she care about Darfur? Does she concern herself with international acts of genocide? Doubt it.
After that we went to the entry of Pensa Gulf beaches to a Sea-Do rental and motored along the ocean for a while. I drove for part of the time, and it was surprisingly easy. Then we went out for seafood at Peg-Leg Pete's. We had raw oysters for the first time. Brandon liked them, but I'm still deciding. Eating them with Saltines and cocktail sauce makes it difficult to distinguish the mild fish taste, but what bothered me was the consistency. Slimy things give me the creeps. Then we had our first lobster. It was yummy, but, as I'd experienced once before, there's not a lot of meat on the thing, so we broke down and ordered fries to fill us up.
Much to dragon lady's disgust, we enjoyed a peaceful night's sleep on the beach again.
Then Saturday morning we got up, ate our packed yogurt, and went to the local YMCA for free showers (paid $2 to rent towels). By now we are thoroughly impressed with our frugality.
On to New Orleans, a surprisingly short distance of 2.5 driving hours. We arrived at Bob and Mary Jo's house around 1:00. Bob is my birth mother Patti's brother. So they are my aunt and uncle by birth (yippee!). We ate sandwiches and chips for a late lunch. Note to self: sunflower-seed bread is amazing! Then they took us all around New Orleans--showed us hurricane damaged areas that are still waiting for repair, BradJolina's new house, and the downtown/French Quarter area. The downtown is so unique. Brandon and I commented on the beautiful Victorian and plantation houses. Apparently right now is wedding season because we saw several different weddings in progress at the many large houses. All the houses had wraparound porches and balconies, with French black metal railings. We went to Cafe du Monde, a popular coffee shop, where we ordered Bob's favorite coffee. Chicory coffee is what it is, and it was indeed delicious. I looked over at Brandon and we shared a moment: Look at this, you could run a coffee shop like this one day. Then Bob and Mary Jo's middle daughter, Beth (my cousin!) met us. She is pregnant and totally cute. And sweet. It's exciting to meet beautiful people and know that you are related to them.
We walked around the French Quarter a bit more. There were street performers and music everywhere. I figured it was only alive like this during Mardi Gras, but they said it's like that all the time. Wow. What a fun city.
Then we went home and Mary Jo made an amazing jambalaya soup. Beth came over later with her dog Roxie--an adorable boxer that made me want to go out and buy a dog right this second. Then Amy and her family came over. She's the eldest daughter who has two kids. Her youngest, Nicholas, looks so much like Justin (my half-brother) it's uncanny. He is literally a mini-Justin. We ate and were merry, then Brandon and I crashed in an incredibly comfortable bed. Not that the sand was terrible--it was more like a very firm mattress.
Next morning we woke up and began the loooooong, 14-hour drive back home. It wasn't terrible until the last 3 hours or so. Then we were both ready to be out of the car, not driving, and asleep in bed.
Let's deracinate the cheapness of this vacation, which made it all the sweeter:
Lodging: beach, friends, and family $0
Food: family and friends: $0; groceries: $25; BBQ with Chris: $15; seafood dinner: $60; Burger King: $8; Cracker Barrel: $18
Entertainment: Sea-do rental: $45; beach fun: $0; touring cities: $0
Showers: family and friends: $0, YMCA: $2
Quality time with each other, Chris and Leah, and the Johnsons: $0, and better than anything we could buy
Total: $343 ($171.50 each)
That's what I'm talkin' about.