Monday, April 21, 2014

New Orleans Trip Part One: The Never Ending Drive

As you may or may not have noticed, I haven't posted in a while. I've been off on adventures! (And then recovering from them!)

I had plans, y'all. My original plan was to leave my house early Tuesday morning, drive about halfway to Florida and spend the night, continue on the next day and then stay for a little over a week to hang out with my friends. I really wanted to drive this time because not having a car there last time really limited what I was able to do and the friends I was able to visit. The 17-ish hour drive didn't sound fun, but the freedom of having my own transportation to do my own thing while I was in town seemed totally worth it.

A couple of weeks before I planned to leave, I took my car in for an oil changed and asked that they give it a quick once over to make sure nothing major was wrong. They claimed that she had an oil leak, a water pump leak, 2 bad tires and that the air filter needed replacing. Oh... not much, then? I was pretty concerned since I knew there was no way I could afford to fix all of that before leaving. The water pump alone is around $300+ to replace. However, I did some good old fashioned Google-ing and looked up how to tell if you have a leaky water pump. My car fit NONE of the "symptoms". Did they lie to me about the problems in hopes I'd spend a ton of money? I still don't know. Anyway, it made me pretty nervous about the drive but I decided to continue on anyway.

That's my car Apple back when I bought her. After spending so much time together this week, she feels like an extension of my self.

Leaving on Tuesday morning just plain didn't happen. I didn't get to sleep until at least 4 a.m., partly due to trying to do last minute trip things and in part due to a 2 a.m. "OMG, this trip is a terrible idea" freak out. I'd set my clock for 7 with hopes of hitting the road by 8:30, but I either turned my alarm off without waking up or totally missed it because I didn't wake up until almost 9. By the time I finished doing all of those "little" last minute things I'd been convinced could wait until morning, it was already after 11. I was stressed and still had things I needed to do, so I finally admitted defeat and decided to postpone leaving by a day. SUCH a good decision! While I was finishing up things around the house, I got the idea to email a few hotels in New Orleans to see if any might be open to trading a complimentary night for some blog/social media love. NOLA is about 10 hours from my house (according to Google Maps, anyway... more about that later!) and I'd been planning to drive around 9 hours the first day, anyway (Orlando is about 17-18 hours) so spending a night or two in New Orleans wouldn't add that much time to my overall drive and would be way more fun than just stopping somewhere in the middle of Alabama! I heard back from one of my top hotel choices while I was out running errands and literally did a dance of joy in the car. SO EXCITED. I've been wanting to go to New Orleans for years! Plus, I was on a SUPER limited budget for this trip so having a hotel all set for the trip down was a big weight off my shoulders!

I woke up on Wednesday morning feeling much better about everything. Bags were all packed and already mostly in my car, household stuff was all taken care of, and I even knew where I'd be staying that night. I was hoping to leave super early, but actually ended up leaving just after 9 a.m. I figured that with about a 10-11 hour drive, that would put me in around 7-8 pm, which would be perfect: I could get checked in, nap for about an hour and then go out to see the craziness that is the French Quarter at night.

Here's the thing you don't learn in geography class: Arkansas will steal your soul. I remembered that driving through it on my way back from Florida when I moved had been totally hellish because it was mostly a tiny 2 lane road where I'd get stuck going 40 mph for hours on end, so when I planned my route I looked for as many larger highways or interstates as possible. In doing so, I noticed that once I hit Little Rock I could either take the fairly small highway south, or the big interstate over to Memphis and then head down from there. The 2nd route would add about 100 miles to my trip, but I figured out that being able to go 70 mph (Oh, who am I kidding... 85) instead of 55 for several hours would more than make up for the time difference. (Google Maps claimed 11 hours for the Memphis route, 10 hours for taking the smaller highway. I figured they were going by the posted speed limit though, so...)

I took it as a bad sign that the highway they wanted me to take totally disappears from the map after Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Also, I just realized that I screencapped wrong - pretend that the blue line goes all of the way down to Little Rock and then over via the yellow line. I'm way too tired to redo this.

Actual cities in Arkansas that I passed: Palestine, Scotland, Portland, Pickles Gap

Actual billboard I passed in Harrison: "Anti-racist is a code word for anti-white". I wish I was kidding. There's a Huff Post article about it here.

Getting to Little Rock took 4 hours instead of the 3 that it should have, mostly due to some construction, a quick stop for gas and getting behind slow cars. I was so thankful to stop for gas and a quick break - those first three (four) hours are awful. It's all small, windy, hilly roads with few places to pass. There's a lot of driving straight through small towns where the speed limit drops down to 30 or 40 for a few miles. Basically, a lot of the kind of thing that wouldn't be so bad if you were only traveling a few hours, but becomes very frustrating when you know how many miles lie ahead and you just want to get there asap. I usually almost never stop on long road trips, but since I was worried about my car this time I made a point to try to stop every 2 hours for at least 10 minutes to let it cool off a bit.

So by the time I stopped in Little Rock for gas and a good stretch, I was exhausted. Stress has had some negative effects on my body over the past few years, and one is that my energy level tends to be low and I get worn out quickly. Something about stopping made it all hit me like a brick wall, and I absolutely could not imagine still having at least seven more hours to go today. I was already wishing that I could just call it a day. I momentarily even considered getting a hotel room and just driving back home tomorrow. Thankfully I had a "Nope! New Orleans!" moment that gave me the energy to turn the key and get started again. Everything from here was on the interstate, so at least miles would pass much faster and feeling like I was actually making progress would make me feel better. Right?

LOL NOPE. I still can not believe the amount of construction I drove through on those two roads. Instead of zipping along as expected, I spent most of the next 500 miles either slowed down to about 40 to go through work zones, or stuck at a total stand still for 20-30 minutes at a time. So frustrating!

FINALLY, just after 11 pm (remember that I started at 9 am?) I was actually in the outskirts of New Orleans. I was so close I could taste it. And then... more construction. Three lanes of traffic bottle necked down to one. Judging by my map's estimate, I was 15 miles from my hotel and I was totally stopped in traffic again. It took about 20 minutes to get moving again, but eventually I finally made it to my exit, where I managed to accidentally take the ramp to go west instead of east.

You have to be kidding me.

Far away! So close! (image source)

My hotel was RIGHT by this highway, so if I'd taken the right ramp I would have only had to go about half a mile and I'd be there. The one I took popped me out by the Superdome and I had to look around for street names I recognized. I somehow ended up on Canal. I have a pretty decent map of the French Quarter in my head  (Canal runs along one border of the FQ) so I figured that I'd be okay, since I knew all I'd need to do was turn on Camp or St. Charles and they would lead me straight to my hotel. Except I wasn't recognizing any of the street names I was crossing. I quickly realized that I'd turned the wrong direction so I pulled into a gas station to turn back the other way, but while pulling out I hit a GIANT pot hole. Excellent. Sorry, Apple. (She doesn't seem to have gotten damaged in the process, whew!)

Now that I was going the right direction, I started recognizing street names, starting with Rampart (the upper border of the Quarter, which I'd read warnings not to go past. Oops.) I spotted Camp Street, but it was one way (the wrong one). The next street didn't have a sign. I realized after passing it and going a couple of blocks that the signless street was the one I needed. ARRGH. I did what was probably an illegal u-turn and made it back to St. Charles, only to find a no left turns sign at the light. WTF, NEW ORLEANS? I went up a couple of blocks, made *another* u-turn at the first light that allowed left turns, and finally got on St. Charles. VICTORY!

It was only about a mile to my hotel (more about it in another post!) and it was easy to spot. It's located on a roundabout so I planned to just pull up near the entrance while I checked in and then go to one of the lots I'd researched (Parking is crazy expensive in New Orleans). I got to the entrance and... nowhere to park. ARRGH again. Fine, I'll park and just carry my bags over. I was only taking in my laptop and a couple of small bags, so no big deal. I found one of the lots I'd come across in my online search for a way to avoid the $30 valet parking charge and pulled in. I need to do a whole post of parking in NOLA tips, but basically you stick money in the machine and it gives you a receipt with a time you can stay until. This one was something like $12 for 12 hours. I grabbed a $20 to pay and then saw the "no change given." Oh hell no, I'm not sacrificing $8! (I somehow missed that you could also pay by credit/debit card. I'd been driving all day, I was a zombie.) So I decided to just go park in the lot next to the hotel to check in, ask if they could give me change, and then relocate. Magically, this lot had a 9 hours for $6 option! And I actually had a five and a one! OMG THANK YOU I CAN PARK. Seriously, like 20 minutes had elapsed since I'd first spotted the hotel. I just wanted my room, please and thank you.

And thus, around 12:30 am, we end the day and this part of the story. It took me close to an hour to chill out enough to actually sleep. If I'd had any energy at all left I would have gone out to explore, but I was totally wiped out.

I'll post about the hotel next, then about my shenanigans while in town, and then the less horrible drive home. Thanks for sticking around through this novel of a post!

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