Where Have all the Gators Gone? (Long Time Passing…)

Traveling the Gulf coastline across Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana during the past week has brought us closer to Creole and Cajun cuisine, crawfish, casinos and country music, but alas, no crocodilia. Having driven nearly five hundred miles of state and county highways, and cruising endless back roads and bayou causeways, we have yet to see an alligator, which begs the question: Where have all the gators gone?

Not that we haven’t come close to spotting one. Mind you, there have been several vicarious sightings so far. For instance, yesterday we were driving/walking through Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre habitat on Avery Island with exotic palms, sculpted lagoons,


scores of majestic oaks with gnarled and expansive limbs draped in Spanish moss,

Leah pose.jpg

a 10th century Buddha housed in a glass-walled pagoda,


a bird sanctuary that hosts thousands of snowy egrets,


and purportedly a family of alligators that have bred on the property since Ned McIlhenny introduced them almost 100 years ago. By the time Leah and I reached Bird City on the tour, we were lucky to meet a woman who had already come across six alligators in two separate locations. It warmed our hearts to be basking in her reptilian aura.

Then there was the time we stayed at Davis Bayou National Seashore in Ocean Spring, MS. We walked a half-mile-long nature trail that meanders around a leg of swamp fed by the Mississippi Bayou. Posted at the trail head is an easy-to-read sign that prohibits all alligator snacks.

no feeding gators (2).jpgSurely, there must be gators here. Why else would they post a sign, we wondered. Yet we saw no alligators. However, another hiker told us that she was told by a park ranger who had heard from another ranger that a resident gator was spotted earlier in the day crossing the road in front of our campground–the very same road where we towed our Airstream, so that should count, right?

The next day, we pedaled to the boat launch where the same warning signs were posted, and Leah claimed to have seen a stick in the water that when hit by the sun at a certain angle during a specific time of the day closely resembled an alligator’s head.

We wondered if there was an art or a science to attracting alligators, so we created an alligator call just in case they were listening. It went something like, “Heeere, gator gator gator; heeere, gator!” Once, our calling was overheard by an older couple who gave us a strange look, but that’s because they probably didn’t understand English. Regardless, the gators never came; either they weren’t listening, or they were avoiding us.

We joked about going to an alligator petting zoo. It wouldn’t be too far out of our way, since we could easily see it from the road. But then we realized that it would be a waste of our time, surmising that it would be hard to decide who has fewer teeth–the alligator or the proprietor.

I know that alligators exist because I’ve seen them on TV and in zoos. And I can still recall that little boy who tragically lost his life near a Disneyworld lagoon while his father looked on in horror.

Yet the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and doesn’t lie: there seems to be a serious shortage of alligators interested in meeting us–making it painfully obvious to any amateur herpetologist–that gators are playing hard-to-get… or maybe they’re just shopping around for a better agent.



Sweet Home Alabama

Leaving Memphis at 9:30 am for a 285 mile jaunt to Coleman Lake in Talladega National Forest, AL was expected to take 5 1/2 hrs. That was the only thing certain about this leg of our trip. Where we would set up residence for the next three days was the biggest question mark.

Our design was to camp at the lake, and take advantage of the Department of Agriculture’s generous $10 site fee with electric and water hook-up provided. We monitored the vacancy prospects from the road, since there is no reservation system, unlike the Park Service, which operates through the Interior Department.

From the time we started out, we knew from Louise, a central office clerk that we were competing for seven coveted slices of real estate. Midway through our trip, a phone call confirmed that only five sites remained. And by the time we reached Birmingham–which was one hour away from our piece of Eden–the odds started working against us, when we learned that only 3 spots remained. It was time to consider contigency plans.

A quick scan of the internet was less than promising, considering we were looking to escape to an area that was off the grid with limited availability. Fortunately, we wandered across an obscure RV park with decent reviews just outside the forest within Heflin city limits that according to Lawrence still had three sites available for $30 a night.

We proceeded as planned, moving closer to staking our claim as we pulled into a Shell station off Exit 199 on I-20. A phone call to Louise produced a small panic attack; there was only one site left, and we were within striking distance. Could we, would we make it there in time? Gassing up the truck would put us behind by 15 minutes, but with 12 miles to empty, there was no doubt that this was time we needed to allow.

Once we started rolling again we were committed to the bitter end, now that cell service was interrupted by the beautiful forest scenery. The trees were filling in with seasonal green, and the switchbacks and narrow roads were becoming more challenging. We held our breath (not literally) during the last 10 miles of our journey up the mountain. We exhaled (literally) turning the corner into the campground; we had arrived to uncertain news. The campground steward met us at the truck.

“Are we in time?,” Leah blurted out.

“Are you the one’s been callin’?,” he wondered, “Cause last time I checked, I got one space left, B-37 I think, and you’re welcome to follow the road around ’til you come to it, and we’ll settle up after you get settled.”

Leah and I exchanged “we-just-won-the-lottery” grins, and chugged out in search of B-37. The site was almost a full circle around the ring road, up a steep embankment on the left with enough room to hold two trucks, a trailer, a pop-up tent, three bicycles, and seven interlopers. Gramps was busy hand-cranking the camper to a level position, while Granny was herding the kids.

“Are you shitting me?,” I asked nobody in particular.

We immediately resorted to Plan B, driving back down the mountain road while struggling with inputting a new GPS address. We got Lawrence on the phone when we were free and clear of our traitorous natural surroundings, and returned to 3-bar civilization.

“I got three spaces left,” he offered.

“We’ll take it,” Leah yelled. “We’ll be there in half an hour.”

An hour later, after setting up and rewarding myself with a cold beer while sitting in my burnt orange-colored travel chair atop a woven Navajo-patterned polyester mat, two massive 5th wheels with slide-outs pull in close on both sides of our Airstream, threatening to swallow us. While setting up on my right, Mr. Proximity turns to me.

“Hey, didn’t I see you at Tom Sawyer’s earlier today?”

As a matter of fact he did. We spent the last three nights trailering at Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi River RV Park in West Memphis, AR. But the only people we spoke to were a retired couple from Ringwood who saw my truck plates, and that led us to playing Jersey geography. It turns out their son, Jeff and Leah’s daughter, Carrie are Facebook friends who graduated from Lakeland Regional High School together. Other than that, I had no connection to the people moving in beside me.

“Wow, I’m impressed you remembered my Airstream. I hope you’re not stalking us,” I kidded. “We were on our way to Coleman Lake, but got turned away last minute, so now we’re here.”

“Us too,” he said. “Can’t beat the $10 fee up there. We was passin’ through Talladega last Monday. Pretty sites an’ all, but between the highway traffic an’ the train whistles, I’d just as soon stay here where it’s quiet. Besides, we’ll be gone by morning.”

I liked the sound of that.

Rig or Mortis

If looking at people’s pet(s) can tell you a lot about their personality, then it stands to reason that their RV rigs are no different. RVs come in all shape and sizes–as do their owners–and it’s a challenging game matching up who belongs to which rig, because looks are deceiving.

Fortunately, there are no shortage of contestants at Two Rivers RV Campground in Nashville, TN, just down the road from the Opryland, so there’s plenty of entertainment to be had.

To call this place a campground is ironic, as nobody looks like they’re camping here (no tents are allowed). Purists would call this cheating, as there doesn’t appear to be a close connection to the great outdoors, because everyone here is parking.

But it would be inaccurate to call this place a parking lot. Two Rivers RV Campground is really a make-shift community participating in a wonderful experiment called neighboring, where people are forced to live in close quarters and in close proximity to each other.

New acquaintances are made daily, but they are fleeting. Everybody says hello, and acts friendly, but “Here today, gone tomorrow” is our casual mantra.

Nevertheless, looking around, it’s easy to see people sharing tools, detergent, stories and most importantly, lots of advice: who to consult; what to see; when to visit; where to shop; how to fix something; and why to navigate on certain roads. Know-how is the most valued currency for those of us on the road, and it’s usually free for the asking.

People from all income streams participate simply by paying $42 a night at this location, which gets you a semi-level pad equipped with electricity, water, sewage, and cable TV provided you bring your own power cord, garden hose, flexible tubing and co-axial cable. Just in case you’re unprepared, there’s always Camping World for all your accessory needs, and it’s no accident that Camping World is right next door within walking distance.

Walking through the aisles of an RV supermarket can easily rouse a variety of deadly sins. First, there’s gluttony—that insatiable feeling that everything in the store would make life much better or easier if only I could fit it all in my storage-deprived Airstream.

Next, is pride—given the unlimited combinations of cleaning and polishing products on the shelves that will bring a super shine to your tiny home. In fact, my next-door-neighbor spent half the morning wiping down his 34 ft. 5th wheel toy hauler, only to watch it pour later in the day.

Lastly, it’s difficult to ignore the many expensive and over-sized rigs crowding the campground, creating little doubt that there is an RV pecking order associated with ownership, which could easily bring about a costly disease otherwise known as RVNV (RV envy).

It seems that RV living is trending higher every year. 2016 saw record growth in RV sales with 430,000 units (trailers and motorhomes) sold, and a 2017 forecast expected to exceed 500,000 units.

It seems that the dream of traveling has become more competitive.


Blogger’s Preamble

This trip has been in the planning stages for the better part of two years, but it’s been a vision of mine for over 30 years. Two things I realized early on: I’d have to wait until I retired, and I’d have to find someone compatible enough to join me on this wacky adventure. I’m happy to report that both conditions have been met.

Most importantly, Leah and I have been together for nearly 12 years because we forgive each other’s most embarrassing moments and tolerate each other’s most defining idiosyncrasies. We have become formidable collaborators regardless of our separate opinions and talents. Our curiosity knows no boundaries, and our appreciation of the “great outdoors” is a driving force to explore the outer limits.

We spent four weeks together last summer romping through Alaska and Yukon in preparation for this trip. Our objective was simple: to still be talking to each other by the time we returned home. While there were some tense moments along the way, it was always the laughter that eased every crisis. By passing this test, it allowed us to set our sights on bigger goals.

Of course, all of this became possible by my retiring from the NYC Department of Education after eleven years of teaching high school to students with special needs. Teaching Special Education was not a calling; it was an assignment. By enrolling and being selected into the 2006 cohort of the Teaching Fellowship, I was introduced to an urban population of teenagers that collectively knew the struggles of academic failure, the isolation of being different, the limits of parental/guardian support, and the epic challenge to be better than everyone’s expectations.

It wasn’t easy. There were a few victories along the way, but way too many disappointments made more disappointing by a system that lost its way. Too often, colleagues of mine were reminded by administrators that “It’s all about the kids,” yet the rhetoric always exceeded the reality. I’ve seen my share of budget misappropriations, bully pulpit principals, invisible discipline accountability, and city denial. I’m sure it wasn’t always this way, because I’ve met so many great teachers during my tenure who would do anything for their students, and leverage their students’ successes in order to continue teaching. Yet, it was enough to make me weary and yearn for more.

This trip is all about yearning for more. It’s about discovery, reflection and purpose.