FAMILIAR SHORES, VIEWED THROUGH ALIEN EYES
After 10 days awestruck by alien terrain, our quickened pulses slow as the first filaments of Spanish moss appear in the oak boughs and humid air envelops us like a sticky comfort blanket. We cross the Texas-Louisiana state line, and the surroundings look familiar again, although home is still another thousand miles away. From this point forward, there will be no new birds for our life list, no more blazing suns sinking behind Sedona’s red sandstone cliffs or the Painted Desert’s green crevasses.
Our journey is near its end.
In 13 days, Debi and I covered eight states and 3,500 miles, the last third of which stretched through a flat, watery landscape not much different from South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
Along the way, we saw 27 species of birds we’d never seen before. We ticked them off so rapidly at the outset — at least one new bird every day for the first 10 days, and usually more than that, even when most of our waking hours were spent in the rental car.
Nothing new followed the roadrunner, though. And truth be told, seeing that bird brought more relief than elation.
Debi and I were far too nonchalant about the prospect of such a sighting. In studying the species we might encounter on our trip, we looked at the region shaded periwinkle on the roadrunner’s range map. Someone might as well have thrown a net over the very area we’d be traveling. Seeing a roadrunner? Piece of cake, we thought.
What’s more, our Texas hostess, Cathy, regaled us with the story of a female roadrunner that regularly visits a client’s lodge where her husband manages the habitat. “Penelope” is practically tame. At night, she sleeps in a stirrup on a shelf above the lodge wet bar. During hunting season, she hangs around the skinning shed, where the guides feed her meat scraps.
Hearing this, we assumed stuffing a roadrunner or two in Debi’s purse and taking it home with us would be a viable option, were we so inclined.
But by Day 9, we hadn’t seen a single roadrunner. With only a day to spare before we’d be traveling out of range, we finally spotted one during a sightseeing drive a few hours before dusk. Forty yards ahead of us, on the shoulder of a gravel road, scurried the bird that made our trip complete, though not quite perfect, as it turned out. Cathy’s husband slowly brought the SUV to a stop, and I exited the rear driver-side door, being careful not to slam it as I checked my camera settings.
I’m pretty good at stalking, but with nothing much between me and old Meep Meep to shield his view of me, I decided to shoot a few photos before trying to get any closer. Good thing: No sooner had I resumed my creeping than the roadrunner began a slow retreat behind a fence line before disappearing out of sight.
So I had a picture, just not a great picture — nothing more than a snapshot, really. I climbed back into the SUV with an all-too-familiar feeling, the same one I had two summers earlier in the Galapagos Islands when all I could manage was a wide, grainy shot of a blue-footed booby, those islands’ iconic bird.
At least we didn’t get skunked. That would have been terrible. No self-respecting birders can travel a couple of thousand miles through the American Southwest and return home without seeing a greater roadrunner.
While crossing into Louisiana two days later, Debi and I laughed at the thought of coming home empty-handed. Now, with familiarity overwhelming our windshield, we looked to the rearview mirror for amusement, killing time by ticking off our favorite meals, our favorite sights, our favorite new birds.
We also kept the travel spicy by going off script. Through the first week, we stuck faithfully to an itinerary set months in advance, but we more or less chucked it into the San Saba River after arriving at Cathy’s. We stayed an extra night at her house, lodged in Austin rather than Houston after departing, and turned Mobile into a day trip so that we could overnight instead in the Florida panhandle, so that we’d be a little closer to home for the journey’s final leg.
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We also passed on Baton Rouge and instead stayed in Breaux Bridge, La., which bills itself as the crawfish capital of the world. Were shrimp the burg’s marquee crustacean, we might as well have pulled into a slightly scaled-down version of Beaufort. It, too, has a historic downtown full of galleries and restaurants, a landscape defined by a river, and an iconic, old bridge.
The streets were nearly empty on this weeknight, as was the dining room at Cafe Sydnie Mae. That meant the doting attention of our waitress and our pick of tables. We took seats near the front window so that we could watch the golden hour pass over Breaux Bridge.
The next morning, we toured Lake Martin, a nature preserve that includes approximately 9,500 acres of cypress and tupelo swamp. It didn’t look much different from Ebenezer Creek, a place we like to paddle back home. We boarded a boat with a half dozen other tourists and spied herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills, through our eyes and those of our fellow passengers. We chuckled when a family of Midwesterners recoiled from a hissing alligator, an animal we’ve more or less forgotten to be afraid of when encountered in our kayaks.
This tour was our last hurrah. When we were back on land, I flew the drone from the landing parking lot, but the Mavic 2 didn’t come out of its bag again until we were home. Once we got back into the car, there was nothing but a day-plus of serious driving ahead.
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I woke up the final morning of our trip next to Debi, much as I have most every other morning for the past 20 years, except that we were in a motel in Marianna, FL, instead of our bedroom. A morning ray evaded the blinds, and I knew she’d be awake soon. Light just won’t let her sleep. Back home, we have to shut the bathroom door before bed so that the little green light of my charging electric toothbrush is out of sight.
Debi begins to stir, and I think of the night we first met, when she told me how much she longed to travel. At that time, she’d never even been in an airplane. We’re not exactly jet-setting it, but I think that, mostly, we’re living as we intended.
Over breakfast, we begin looking forward again — we’ll be back in this vicinity in a few weeks for a camping trip to Ichetucknee Springs. Nine hours later, we coast into our driveway, riding fumes of elation with what we’ve just experienced and anticipation of what the springs might show us next.
As happy as travel makes us, though, we’re just as glad to see our cat, sleep in our own bed, and fill up our bird feeders again. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but it does not. Not if you’re in the right place, with the right person.
And I am.
One for the road: Our best dining experiences between Arizona and home
Adventuresome eating is part of any good travel experience. I wouldn’t call Debi and me foodies, but who doesn’t love a good meal after chasing roadrunners and soaking up sunrises? Here are our nine favorite eating restaurants from our trip, listed in the order in which we ate there. Click on the photos to pop up information about each stop.