Operation Caracal, part 3

Day 6, December 26

This was another quiet day, with very few things planned. Caitlin enjoyed her new Kindle, while Lisa went shopping for professional attire. At another point, Michael and I went to run some errands. Actually I ran the errands, and Michael was along for the ride.

We also went what I call “driveabout.” That’s rather like going walkabout, only using a car, and generally it only takes an hour or two as opposed to a few weeks or months. Recall that one of the objectives for this trip was to scope out the area for possible places to live and work, should the need arise. So after picking up the dry goods I had set out to acquire, I picked a road and followed it. We proceeded to drive along a country highway, enjoying the scenery, and generally trying to see what this part of Louisiana looked like.

We motored our way along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, which took us through the towns of Springfield, Ponchatoula, Madisonville, and Covington. Along the way, I was able to get a good sense of the lay of the land, what a typical regional house looked like, and what kinds of services were in the area. I would have liked going further, but I didn’t want everyone else to get worried. You see, I had decided to go driveabout on a whim, so no one knew where Michael and I were! Aboriginal tribes might say that one goes walkabout (or driveabout) when it is time to go, and not when you choose to go. Naturally when we got back to Hammond, I was understandably greeted with:

“Where the hell have you guys been?!?”

Exploring this little piece of the world, that’s where.

Later that day I explored online real estate listings for the area, and took a peek at regional career options. The real estate prices were pretty good, especially when compared to similar houses in the greater Washington, DC area. Unfortunately, the career opportunities were not as encouraging. They weren’t hopeless, but options were thin on the ground, and I suspect competition is fierce. Mr. Wayne said that such has been the norm in Louisiana for many years. A lot of professionals are trained in Louisiana, through the various colleges, universities and trade schools. So when a professional opening appears, competition is rough. But because of economic factors, such openings are uncommon, and few professionals actually remain in state. Even fewer are brought in. The upcoming change in the presidential administration wasn’t helping this situation, nor was the residual effects of recent weather.

The weather is a constant concern in Louisiana. Floods and hurricanes are part of everyday life. There are sections of the state, particularly in the greater New Orleans area, that never recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and that was over ten years ago.

photo by Richard David Ramsey

The one major plan for today involved dinner at a favorite regional restaurant, Mittendorf’s Seafood. This place is located on the shore of Lake Maurepus, in the village of Macanac.

One thing that I really liked about this place (in addition to the delicious fried catfish) was that it is in what looks like a true bayou community. Less than a mile away you can see traditional bayou houseboats and stilt houses, right on the water. Some of the houses had tiny canals instead of driveways, with boats instead of cars. Were it not for the power lines and satellite dishes connected to many of the structures, one might think they had stepped through a time tunnel.

L to R: Ms. Mary, Caitlin, Mr. Wayne

L to R: Lisa, me, Michael

Caitlin and Michael, camping it up.

Day 7, December 27

This day was a bit different. My mother in law, Ms. Mary, had made reservations to take her daughters and granddaughters to a formal tea at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans.

So, Lisa and Caitlin got into their best available clothes and set out. I understand the tea setting was great, but for some reason the place was extremely cold! After tea, Ms. Mary, Lisa and Caitlin set out to complete the upgrades to Lisa’s professional wardrobe. Apparently Caitlin was not happy with this portion of the day’s activities, if her mood upon return is anything to go by.

The tea hour was strictly a ladies affair. But you must admit, they all looked great!

L to R: Caitlin, Kathy, Ms. Mary, Michele, Mya, and Lisa.

I had jokingly suggested that while the girls had tea, that us guys should get several pizzas, one or two beer kegs, a case of imported cigars, and pipe in the loudest sporting event that ESPN could dish up. The plan didn’t fly, but only because both of my brothers in-law had to work. One of them said the idea “had considerable merit.”

Instead, Mr. Wayne and I took Michael to the Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center in Hammond. He’s always enjoyed interactive museums like this one, so he had a lot of fun.

I was also able to discuss some of our possible future plans with Mr. Wayne, which was good for me. It can be hard juggling so many issues at a time, and a fresh perspective can be a big help.

Day 8, December 28

The only plan for this day was a visit to the home of Lisa’s older sister, in the nearby village of Loranger. They recently acquired a new home there, after their long time house in Ponchatoula endured one too many floods. Lisa and I really like their new house! It’s a one-story house with a large, central living area, four bedrooms, and two full baths. In terms of total square feet, I think it’s about the same size as our house. But since our house has two floors and isn’t laid out the same way, it feels smaller.

When we got back to Hammond, I took another look at the real estate listings to see if similar houses were available on the market, and what their price range was. Surprisingly, houses of similar design are available in parts of Culpeper county, at prices that are a little high, but not totally unreasonable. If we end up remaining in the Culpeper area, and our career situations stabilize, we may look into this further.

But after everything I had seen over the course of the past few days, I concluded that if the fates decide it to be, I could learn to like this region of Louisiana. Even with the difficult weather.

To be continued.

A driveabout can run for several months, and there are some famous examples. William Least Heat Moon’s book Blue Highways describes such a trip.

Caracal travelogue:

  1. Operation Caracal
  2. Louisiana down time
  3. Driveabout
  4. Michabelle Inn
  5. Arrival 2017AD
  6. Dems good eats
  7. First transition

Operation Caracal

December 21, 2016 – January 3, 2017

Trip mascot

The year 2016 was very hard for the family. A lot of plans had to be curtailed or dropped, and several ideas went up in smoke. Even now, it looks like things are going to be difficult for a while. So we decided to end the year on a high note and take a trip.

When we started planning this, the future looked bumpy. By this time I knew that my job with the Library was coming to an end, and that the full extent of ADHD’s havoc on my life was worse than I first thought. As for Lisa, her future was going to get increasingly busy, because she was going to be returning to the work force after being a stay at home mom for almost ten years. With all of this in mind, we wanted Caitlin and Michael to have a good sized helping of fun before life’s troubles closed in with a vengeance.

As with some previous trips, this one had a silly animal name: Operation Caracal. This trip closely followed the route of an earlier trip, Arapaima. The primary destination was Hammond, Louisiana, where Lisa’s parents live, and not far from where Lisa’s sisters live. Partially because of this, we also decided to scope out this area for possible places to live and work. Because of the family connections, the greater New Orleans area would be a logical choice for us, should the upcoming life changes require us to relocate.

The plan for the trip was a very simple one. We would drive down, be total vegetables for almost two weeks, and drive back. We considered side trips to attractions in Atlanta and Chattanooga, but for largely financial reasons we stayed on the straight and narrow path.

Days 1 and 2: December 21-22, 2016

We left home on the afternoon of December 21, after dropping Dr. Watson at his pet resort. Our target for the night was Bristol, Virginia, roughly five hours away. On the whole this first leg of the trip was easy, except for some bad traffic on I-81.

Bristol is famous for straddling the Virginia/Tennessee state line. The state line runs right down the middle of one of the main streets, where there are little brass plaques every few yards. They read Virginia on one side, and Tennessee on the other. Geico recently featured these plaques in one of their commercials. We decided to have a little fun with them.

Bristol also has this historic rail station. In addition to still being a functioning train station, this building is used as an event venue, dance hall, and meeting location.

Front view

Back view

There are some other interesting sights around town. Bristol figures prominently in country-western music. My own musical interests lean toward folk and classic rock, but there is a certain amount of overlap. I would be curious to explore this town in greater depth at some point.

This is supposedly the largest (or one of the largest) playable guitar in the world. I don’t know how one would actually play it, though. It’s located in front of the chamber of commerce building, on the Tennessee side of town.


This sign straddles the street that serves as the state line. If you look carefully, you can see Caitlin and I near the base. This sign is pretty big!

As we continued southwest, we climbed in altitude, and the air became increasingly brisk. The stretch through Tennessee is the highest part of the route.

Lisa managed to grab this lovely image of the interesting frost effect that occurred in the high, cold Tennessee mountains between Bristol and Knoxville.

Not long after crossing the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, the altitude drops rapidly. Once out of the mountains, the route enters the long coastal plain of the Southeastern United States.

This part of the trip, the stretch through Alabama and Mississippi, has to be the dullest piece of road I have ever been on. I’m sure there are nice things to see and do along the way, but we were weren’t making any unnecessary stops. In hindsight, perhaps we should have. It might have broken up the monotony.

By the time we finally reached the Louisiana state line, it was after 9:00pm, and we were all good and truly sick of riding in the car. Also, my Adderall had worn off, so I was coming unglued. The last few miles were arguably the worst. When we reached Lisa’s parents house around 11:00pm, we were beside ourselves.

Once safely encamped in the guest rooms, all of us, even Michael, slept like logs.

To be continued.

We decided that for future trips we would try to time things differently. This drive, under the best of circumstances, takes roughly fifteen hours. Doing five hours one day, and ten hours the next sounded good on paper. In practice, not so much.

Caracal travelogue:

  1. Operation Caracal
  2. Louisiana down time
  3. Driveabout
  4. Michabelle Inn
  5. Arrival 2017AD
  6. Dems good eats
  7. First transition

Country Roads


On October 24, we attended the wedding of my cousin Derek in Charleston, West Virginia. The following day became a foliage trip, as we took the scenic route home.




These three photos were actually taken just before the wedding. Some interesting boats were traversing the river, so while waiting for the ceremony to begin, I took a few snapshots. The sailing ship is actually a replica of one of Christopher Columbus’ ships, the Niña.

We wanted to make a few stops on the way back. One was the New River Gorge Bridge. This bridge was built in the 1970’s, and for a time it was the highest span bridge in the world. It may still be the highest and longest in the western hemisphere. At one time, crossing this part of the New River could take up to three hours. The image at the top of the page is of the old bridge, down at the base. Today the gorge can be crossed in just under a minute.




We saw some amazing views of the regional topography. But as you can see, Michael wasn’t impressed.

Our second stop was for a late lunch in Hinton, West Virginia. You may find this hard to believe, but one of the best views of the New River, or at least this part of it, can be seen from the dining room of a Dairy Queen! Yes, it’s a bit out of the way, but the view is amazing.




These three photos were all taken from the dining room of this restaurant. The first time I visited this place was in 1995, when the family had a reunion at nearby Bluestone State Park. My brother, mom and I found this place sort of by accident, but never forgot it.

It’s a very popular place for bird watchers. At certain times of the year there are all types of bird feeders and bird houses attracting all manner of feathered visitor. The dining room has one way glass, so most of the visiting birds are unaware of the human spectators.



These last two photos were taken on I-66, in Virginia, as we crossed the Shenandoah Valley. This highway traverses the region from Covington to Staunton, and finally Charlottesville. Our final stop for this foliage trip was a restaurant in Staunton, Mrs. Rowes restaurant and bakery. I was introduced to this restaurant several years ago by some friends, and I’ve stopped here several times since. Sometimes we stop for a meal, while other times we pick up some things from their freezer. This time we did both. The view isn’t as nice as the place in Hinton, but the food is amazing. Most tour books describe the food as “Americana.” That is to say, it’s not exotic, and most of the dishes are familiar. That doesn’t make it any less delicious. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend it. Check their web site for hours and exact directions.

By the time we reached Staunton the frequent changes in altitude were starting to cause us sinus problems. We arrived home around nine in the evening, and all went straight to sleep. We didn’t unpack our bags until the next day.


Ohio wild life

Trumpeter swans

Operation Bandicoot, Day 11, July 20.

Our final stop for this road trip was the famous Columbus Zoo, in Columbus, Ohio. This is one of the better zoos in North America, and may be best known for being the home base of Jack Hanna, host of the syndicated television show Jack Hannah’s Wild Countdown. This zoo is located in Powell, Ohio, just a short drive from Dublin. We managed to get an early start this time, and arrived at the zoo around 9:30AM.

As with other galleries, I’m only scratching the surface of this great zoo. But I think I managed to get a good sample of the menagerie of animals this place has.

Pronghorn antelope



Bald eagles

Polar bear

Arctic fox

In hindsight, it was interesting to see so many cold weather creatures that day, given that it was hot as hell!

African lion

Spotted hyena


Wildebeest, Thomson’s gazelles, and some other savanna creatures that I can’t make out.

Giraffe. There are actually two species of giraffe, and this zoo has both. I can’t tell which one I have here.

Vervet monkey

Common (savannah) Warthogs

Malaysian giant fruit bat, also known as the flying fox.

Red panda, one of my favorites animals.

Pallas’s cat

Markhor antelope. Dang, these guys have presence!

Bengal (Indian) tiger

Amur (Siberian) tiger

Caitlin posing on a live-size bronze statue of an Amur tiger. It’s not until you see one of these statues that you realize just how big a tiger can be!

I think this is an Eastern Hellbender, a type of giant North American salamander. I thought it’s face reminded me of Toothless.

Giant Galapagos tortoise

Bonobo. This is one of the few zoos that has these elusive – and endangered – great apes in captivity. They generally don’t do well in captivity, but this zoo has managed to keep several, and even has a breeding program.

Red River hogs

Mandrills, both an adult and a baby. It was hard to get a picture of these guys.

Okapi, another creature not often seen in zoos. These relatives of the giraffe are highly endangered because of habitat loss.

A camera-shy orangutan.

Caitlin and I posing with a bronze statue of a lowland gorilla.

Komodo dragon

Red kangaroo. There is a small section of the zoo where the kangaroos and the humans are in the same space. Under the right circumstances, you could probably touch the creatures! Though I’m not sure I would recommend doing that, given their frequently bad temper.

Koala, also camera shy.

Florida manatee

Ridley’s sea turtle

Michael and Caitlin posing with a bronze statue of a manatee, the final photo of the trip.

This zoo is amazing. I strongly recommend it, though I’m not sure July was the best time to go. It was very hot and the humidity was oppressive. When we were finished, we limped our way to a shopping mall to have some dinner. The mall also had a play area where Caitlin and Michael were able to burn off some of their remaining energy.

I do remember deciding, however, that the next time we travel during the summer, I would try to find hotels with swimming pools.

Day 12, July 21.
We were also so tired that we slept very well the previous night. Even Michael went to sleep early. We left Dublin around 9am and started for home. We had considered making a couple of photo stops along the way, but never did. Truth be told, we were now all so tired that we weren’t in the mood for much of anything. We almost stopped for dinner at a pizza place we like in Front Royal, but since Michael was asleep, and none of us were very interested, we passed on that. We arrived home a little before 7pm. Recall again that the drive over the Appalachian ridge is perhaps the worst part of this entire route. We all went to bed early, and I had a lot of trouble getting out of bed for work the next day.

And with that, Operation Bandicoot, a highly successful family road trip, came to a peaceful conclusion.

I’m already jotting down ideas for the next family road trip.

  • Operation Bandicoot