The weekend after Labor Day, the little town of Sisters in Eastern Oregon flings open its doors to host the Sisters Folk Festival. It’s a three-day extravaganza of Americana roots music—folk, blues, bluegrass, and music that can’t be easily defined. This festival is so good that we’ve been two years in a row.
We won’t be going this year—and I’m already feeling a bit sad about that. One of the gifts and challenges of fulltime travel—well, of life in general—is that there are so many choices. Unfortunately, at least in my somewhat limited understanding of physics, we can only be in one place at a time.
This year, we’ve made plans to visit Glacier National Park in September. We’re thrilled about finally getting to Glacier (we tried several years ago but were shut out during the government shut-down). Still, I regret that we’ll be missing the amazing Sisters Folk Festival.
The sweet little Western-themed town of Sisters rolls out the red carpet for festival attendees. Although there are several nice campgrounds in Sisters (including our favorite, the city campground, where you can bike to all of the venues) you’re welcome to set up your rig anywhere in town during the festival. The music is fabulous, the venues are unique (open air stages, wine bars, coffee shops, big tents with hundreds of chairs, little tents with grassy lawns) and the vibe is the perfect combination of festive and mellow.
What makes it even more fun for us is meeting up with friends from our hometown of Ashland, a mere three hours away. We swung by the festival on our way home from our summer on Lopez Island and met up with friends we hadn’t seen in a year. As an extra bonus, we also finally managed to meet up with fellow fulltime travelers Lisa and Hans (Metamorphosis Road), who were staying nearby in Bend, and shared a delightful afternoon of hiking and lunch.
Should you be interested in the Sisters Folk Festival, I wrote in detail about it last year, including lots of insider tips for attending the festival (you can read about it here). We’ll be back!
Acouple of years ago, we discovered the French Quarter Festival—a four-day celebration that takes place the second weekend in April in New Orleans. With more than 20 stages scattered throughout the Quarter, upwards of 1,700 local musicians performing throughout the day and evening, and small plates offered by the best neighborhood restaurants in lovely outdoor venues, it’s like a huge neighborhood block party.
This party, though, just happens to be in a neighborhood world-renowned for incredibly talented musicians and fabulous cuisine. We drifted from one venue to another, enjoying jazz, blues, zydeco, gospel, and people watching. We picnicked on savory shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake, crab and artichoke salad, crawfish crepes, and smoked duck po’boys, accompanied by local ice cold Abita IPA. Despite the fact that this is a huge festival, it has a mellow, friendly vibe. We had an absolute blast, and came away with even more affection for “The Big Easy.”
In keeping with our attempt to rein ourselves in a bit (not an easy feat when New Orleans beckons), we stayed five nights at Bayou Segnette State Park, but spent only three days in New Orleans, followed by one day on the trails at nearby Barataria Preserve for a different kind of wild. Adding to our enjoyment were our new friends Ed and Diana, whom we met on Dauphin Island—they decided on the spur of the moment to accompany us to New Orleans for a couple of days.
Bayou Segnette SP is perfectly located for visiting the city—it’s an easy 12-mile drive to the ferry landing in quaint Algiers Point with its plethora of adorable candy-colored 1800’s cottages, and a five-minute ferry ride across the Mississippi, landing in the French Quarter. No driving in the city, no parking issues, and only $2 for the ferry ($1 if you’re over 65). Couldn’t be more stress-free.
On our last visit to New Orleans a couple of years ago, we realized that we needed a guided tour to get the most out of our visit. In general, we avoid tours, preferring to just wander on our own, photographing and exploring at our leisure. But we were interested in learning a bit more about the city without the frustrating experience of “self-guided” walking tours. Trying to read from a brochure of tiny print while stumbling along city streets in search of landmarks is not my idea of fun. But I’m also less than enthralled with the idea of an expensive tour on a crowded tour bus with a bored or overenthusiastic guide delivering corny jokes.
Luckily, we discovered Free Tours by Foot. It’s a pay-what-you-like arrangement, with local freelance tour guides who are highly motivated to deliver excellent tours. I booked reservations for tours of the Garden District and the French Quarter, and we were delighted with both (next time, we’re going to do the Voodoo Tour and the Food Tour). The guides were well informed, engaging, and humorous—we learned a lot about the history, architecture, and culture of New Orleans—including some of the local dirt.
There truly is no other place in the world like New Orleans. A melting pot of culture, religion, ethnic groups, food traditions, and music, it’s one of the oldest cities in the United States and one of the most fascinating. We still have no desire to visit during the insanity of Mardis Gras, and although the Jazz Festival in mid-April is mighty alluring with an incredible line-up of performers—it’s the French Quarter Festival that calls us to return. (All of the locals we met told us that the French Quarter Festival is their favorite, and that they hide out during the other events.)
A few tips for visiting the French Quarter Festival, should you decide to go:
• It’s FREE! The festival is supported by food and beverage purchases, so no coolers or outside food or beverages are allowed. Water is the exception, and you should bring plenty because it’s generally hot in early April. (And you probably don’t want your only beverages to be beer and daiquiris.) The food is terrific, and for the quality, it’s reasonable at $5-8 per small plate.
• Thursday is the mellowest day, with the crowds and events ratcheting up throughout the weekend. Saturday and Sunday at the big waterfront stages you can expect wall-to-wall people. Go early in the day and even the waterfront is manageable.
• Our favorite stages were the smaller ones, especially the Jazz Stage in Jackson Square with its lovely grassy lawn surrounded by billowing white tents of our favorite food vendors, and the Zydeco Stage on Decatur Street (with the lovely courtyard of the National Historical Park French Quarter Visitor Center available for a shady, quiet respite from the crowds and a bathroom that’s not a porta potty being used by thousands. Shhh. Don’t tell!)
• Wear a broad-brimmed hat or bring an umbrella for sun protection. There’s not much shade at many of the pavilions, especially those along the waterfront.
• Bring a folding chair and set it up in a prime location early in the day. You can wander away at any time and come back when you’re ready. If your chair is unoccupied, someone will likely enjoy it while you’re away, but no one will take issue when you return. Locals told us this is expected; it’s all part of the neighborly vibe.
• Don’t miss just wandering the streets of the French Quarter. You’ll find plenty of entertainment—and fabulous musicians—on every corner. It’s also a delight to escape into an open-air coffee shop and watch the crowds go by.
About the campground:
All of the sites at Bayou Segnette State Park are spacious and paved, with grassy lawns and a backdrop of lush green wild shrubs. Water and electric hook-ups, free laundry in the restroom complex, and good Verizon coverage; $28 per night. The big draw for us here is the location—we love being near New Orleans, but with the benefit of returning to a peaceful spot in nature in the evening.
Bonus tip: Don’t miss the wonderful seafood market adjacent to the park—a dozen vendors offer excellent fresh shrimp, crab, and crawfish for some of the most reasonable prices we’ve seen anywhere ($3.99 per pound for beautiful Gulf shrimp).
“There’s one!” I call out to Eric. An enormous grey blob rises slowly to the surface of the crystal clear river, exhales loudly, and sinks again to the sandy bottom. It’s a West Indian manatee, a roly-poly aquatic mammal that seeks the warmth of Florida springs in the winter.
We’re kayaking the Ichetucknee River in northwest Florida. It’s one of our favorite spring-fed river kayak trips, in part because we usually have the opportunity to commune with a manatee or two. And in the winter or early spring, there are few other people around. We wait patiently, and the gentle giant decides to investigate our presence. It floats to the surface, exhales again, and swims lazily toward us.
With an overstuffed sausage of a body, a flat paddle-shaped tail for propulsion and small front flippers for steering, the manatee is an engagingly awkward creature. The wrinkly face and the wide, whiskered snout merely add to its appeal.
Closely related to elephants (the family resemblance is easy to see), manatees are enormous creatures—the average Florida manatee is about 10 feet long and weighs around 1200 pounds. One could flip our kayak in a heartbeat. But these docile herbivores seem incapable of doing harm. By nature, they’re curious—even friendly. The manatee sidles up to our kayak and floats beside us for a bit. It swims beneath our kayak a couple of times, and then moves back to its shallow turquoise pool, where it proceeds to perform a series of leisurely rollovers before sinking back to the bottom and resting.
Even if we didn’t see manatees, we would still love kayaking the Ichetucknee River. It’s a beautiful three-mile paddle from the headspring to the southernmost takeout point. Our favorite way to kayak the river is a six-mile round trip paddle—if you do this, put in at the south end, so that you have the current helping you on the way back downstream. (If you don’t have your own kayak, there are several good outfitters in the area.)
About the campground:
Because Ichetucknee Springs State Park is a day-use park only, we stay at nearby O’Leno State Park, just 15 miles down the road. Situated on the banks of the picturesque Santa Fe River, the park offers thirteen miles of hiking and biking trails that we put to good use. There’s always something fun going on at the park—while we were there this time, we enjoyed a wonderful presentation on owls given by volunteers from a local wildlife rehab facility and a free afternoon bluegrass concert given by musicians visiting from New England.
There are two loops in the campground; we much prefer the Magnolia Loop. The sites are more spacious and level, the road has fewer potholes, and it’s walking distance to the river and the start of the hiking trails. Water and electric hookups and decent Verizon coverage for a very reasonable $18.00 per night (gotta love the awesome Florida State Parks).
There are a handful of places we’ve discovered in our travels that immediately feel like home. Cedar Key is one of them.
A cluster of tiny islands just off the Nature Coast of northwest Florida, Cedar Key is an unpolished gem. And that’s just the way we like it. (Although a good grocery store would be a welcome addition.) Rustic fishing shacks overlook acres of oyster beds, gaudily painted shops and cafes line the main drag and waterfront, and a low-key vibe prevails. It’s a little slice of Old Florida that we find immensely appealing, and we return every winter that we’re in Florida for at least a couple of weeks.
Our favorite location for our visits to Cedar Key is the colorful and quirky Sunset Isle RV Park. This is probably the most crowded park we’ve ever stayed in. One must be reasonably social to be happy staying at Sunset Isle. Our slide-out extended to the edge of our neighbor’s awning, and people gathered behind our site every afternoon to enjoy the sunset. But it’s perfect for us—we were lucky enough to get a waterfront site this year, where we enjoyed watching herons, egrets and pelicans collect every morning for low-tide parties. Each evening, the sun puts on a fiery show as it sets over the water. With a campground full of friendly folks, frequent music jams, a tiki bar next door, easy biking into town, fabulous kayaking, and excellent birding everywhere we go, we always have a blast in Cedar Key.
More posts on Cedar Key from our previous visits:
Cedar Key (Our first visit to Cedar Key; staying at the Low-Key Hideaway)
Given our love of music, Memphis has been on our short list of places to visit for several years now. From the birth of the blues in the early 1900’s to the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll and soul in the 50’s, Memphis has long been a music mecca.
We strolled down legendary Beale Street, enjoying the sensory overload: neon lights, blues tunes spilling out of the bars and cafés, and the enticing aroma of smoky barbecue. We spent hours exploring the history of blues, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll in the excellent Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum at the corner of Beale and Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway.
We had a blast on a high-energy tour of tiny Sun Studio, reliving the day when 19-year old Elvis Presley walked through the door and cut his first record. Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records, basically didn’t give a rip about Jim Crow laws—all he cared about was the music and providing equal opportunities for musicians. His work helped to break down racial barriers in the music industry. Phillips introduced not only Elvis, but also Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis to the world—and music has never been the same.
We took a break from our music immersion to spend an afternoon at the superb National Civil Rights Museum. Poignantly housed in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, the museum takes an unflinching look at the struggles and victories of black Americans. Alternately heartbreaking and triumphant, the Civil Rights Museum is one of the most inspiring museums we’ve visited.
Memphis has had a difficult past, rife with economic problems, racial issues, and most tragically, the assassination of Dr. King. Many people say that the racial lines are still strongly drawn here. Memphis consistently ranks as one of the poorest big cities in the country, as well as one of the most crime-ridden. There’s an abundant police presence in the downtown area (including Beale Street), which is both disquieting and reassuring.
As for our personal experience, we found Beale Street to be clean and remarkably well behaved (we were there mid-week, which undoubtably contributed to the mellow vibe), we loved the music, the downtown area is attractive and clearly on the upswing, and the museums are some of the most interesting we’ve visited anywhere. We’re looking forward to a return visit to catch the things we missed our first time around—and we’re still in search of the perfect barbecue. For those who might be wondering, we bypassed Graceland—it’s ridiculously expensive and painfully tacky, just like Elvis’ sequined jumpsuits. However, we did stop by his modest birthplace in Tupelo on our way out of Memphis.
About the campground:
In Memphis: T. O. Fuller State Park is convenient (about 10 miles from Beale Street) and attractive. The sites are large, level, and paved, with electric and water hookups. Extras include several hiking trails, a coin laundry, and an ice machine. Verizon coverage is decent. Here’s the best part: Tennessee State Parks offers a senior discount in the late fall and winter, so our site was a mere $11 per night ($22 if you’re not old, haha).
In Tupelo: Just five miles outside of Tupelo, Mississippi, Tombigbee State Park was a perfect stop as we headed south. It’s a lovely small park with only 20 sites. Full hook-ups, excellent Verizon, and $14 per night with the senior discount ($20 otherwise).
We looked forward to this festival for months. Nine months, to be exact. In early January, we bought our tickets for the Sisters Folk Music Festival and reserved and paid for a prime RV site at the Creekside Campground, located in the heart of Sisters. We were committed.
Spontaneity is more our style, particularly since we’ve started our full timing life. We’ve grown quite fond of a lifestyle that allows us to change our plans according to the weather, interesting diversions that we find along the way, or to adjust for the unexpected. But some things are worth planning for, and this was one of them.
For the past twenty years, on the weekend following Labor Day, the little town of Sisters in eastern Oregon gives itself over to the Folk Festival. It’s a three-day celebration of roots music, from blues to bluegrass and everything in-between. We planned this adventure with our dear hometown friends Leslie and Steve, and after getting settled into our adjoining campsites, we walked into town and picked up our schedules for the event. This was the most challenging part of our weekend—with 10 different venues, 45 artists/groups, and more than 80 events, the logistics of plotting our strategy were mind-boggling.
From Friday evening until Sunday afternoon, we made our way from one music event to another, delighted with the choices we made, and inspired by the music and the positive energy of the musicians, the crowd, and the festival volunteers.
We had a blast. The combination of fantastic music choices, excellent venues, superb organization, the cool vibe of the town, the beauty of the surroundings—well, it really was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that we’re seriously considering going again next year. And next time, we’re going to spend a few extra days in Sisters because it’s such an extraordinary little town.
Here, a few tips should you decide to go:
• Book early, especially if you want to reserve a campsite in town. (One caveat about the Creekside Campground: it’s the best location, but you pay in full when you make your reservation, and there are no refunds, nada.) Then again, if you don’t care about staying in a campground, you can park virtually anywhere on the streets of Sisters. The residents actually welcome you to park right in front of their homes. All manner of RV’s lined the streets of the town throughout the festival.
• Get there one day early to get oriented, especially if this is your first visit. We arrived on Thursday afternoon, and on Friday morning, walked into town to pick up our programs and wristbands—and most importantly, to take a look at all of the venues. The locations range from small stages at wine bars, restaurants, a coffee shop, and bakery (most have outdoor gardens) to large tents that can hold 1,000 people. We prefer small venues when possible for a more intimate experience, and booked reservations for dinner at one of the venues we liked best to ensure good seats for a coveted performance.
• Take the time to check out the performers on YouTube before the festival begins. The Sisters Music Festival has an excellent website with links to all of the performers—it was a great way for us to decide who we wanted to see.
• Don’t bother driving anywhere. Sisters is very walkable and bikeable—the venues are mostly grouped within a few blocks in downtown Sisters (the one exception that’s a half-mile away has a shuttle bus, but we biked to it). Once again, the town makes it easy for attendees—the local bike shop offers free valet parking throughout the festival venues.
• Bring food with you or grab a bite at one of the vendors in between shows (high quality, yummy food truck cuisine). You won’t have time to go back to your rig in between shows (except for the 4 to 6 p.m. dinner break, which is far too early in my opinion).
• Go early to shows that you really, really want to see. And be flexible—you might not get in to every show, but because every musician performs several times throughout the festival at various venues, you’ll have the chance to see them, probably more than once.
Following our music festival extravaganza, we drove 54 miles to LaPine State Park, about 20 miles south of Bend. (It’s a lovely park on the Deschutes River, with electric/water hookups and decent Verizon coverage.) We spent several days biking and hiking the trails in the park along the river, made a couple of trips into Bend to explore (and had lunch twice at Spork, best carnitas ever!), visited the excellent High Desert Museum, and met up with former Ashland neighbors and friends at Crux brewery for dinner and catching up on the past several years. Bend deserves a lot more time and exploration, but we were ready to head home to Ashland for several weeks. There’s always next time!
If you enjoy hiking, biking, kayaking, birding, art, music, quirky towns, good food, and good friends—you'll enjoy traveling with us. Join us as we explore the backroads of North America—we love company and comments!