Wednesday, February 28, 2007

SWFLA Recap part 2.

"Take us to Busch Gardens! Take us to Busch Gardens!": SWFLA Trip Recap, Part 2

When we last left our intrepid traveler, she was crying in Everglades National Park. For interesting and peculiar reasons. Not because she stubbed her toe.

CannonballWe'd been in Florida three whole days and Geoff was getting antsy about the pool. He wanted to swim in the worst way humanly possible. The first day was too cold. The second day took us to the zoo. The third day far to the Everglades.

Here we were on the morning of the fourth day and he was begging to go swimming.

So I crammed my fat body into my swimsuit, slathered us up both with sunscreen to protect our pasty selves, and we went to the pool. The water was lovely and not quite all the way warm... but warm enough that I could get in it and not have my heart explode in my chest and kill me. The recent cold days had cooled it down. We had a great time swimming, and after a while I realized I was getting too much sun so I got out of the water.

One hour in the powerful Floridian sun and I was like bacon on a griddle. Geoff didn't burn, but I sure did. We used the same SPF 60 lotion. I guess I've just grown sensitive to the sun in years of not going out in such a fashion and Geoff is still in the throes of childhood and gets a tan every summer.

We finished up and went back to the house to clean up. Our next destination was the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium in Ft. Myers (I just now realized I've been spelling Ft. Myers incorrectly so I'll have to go back and fix that).

geoff the saturn expertIt was a nice little place, and incredibly affordable ($8 bucks for adults!). At first, the thought of sitting inside at a Planetarium on a gorgeous, sunny day was a bit weird, but the program was very interesting and I learned a lot. The woman running it was very funny. Jessica even went back and watched a second presentation on the Hubble Space Telescope because she found it that interesting (combined with the fact we were going on a mile or so hike through the nature preserve and she knew where she'd rather be).

And Geoff was happy to see his friend Saturn painted on the wall when we walked in.

We got to follow a handler as he went through the afternoon mammal feedings. He was interesting and the kids sure were interested in him and his job. They were all really cute. We met a possum, two raccoons (one albino), a bobcat, a couple of owls, a couple of hawks, a deer and a destinkified skunk.

The handler's last name was Timberlake, so I couldn't help but ponder if he was related to the famous one. But I didn't ask.

shell gameAfter shutting the place down (we stayed until 5pm closing) we thought a ride over to the beach would be nice. The Science Center was right close to 75, so we hopped on and scooted down to Bonita once again, where we parked for free, walked the beach, played with shells, wet our feet.

We left and decided we'd head home so Geoff could grab another swim before the sun went down. The pool has a strict dusk to dawn closure policy, so we knew we'd need to get him there quickly.

Ft. Myers Beach traffic and the one lane in and out had other plans for us. There was an accident on the main drag, and fire trucks and cop cars whizzed past with frightening regularity. And just before the bridge a traffic cop would stop traffic and WAIT FOR PEDESTRIANS to slowly walk anywhere NEAR the damn crosswalk in order to give them opportunity to cross the street.

I sat there watching this guy hold up traffic while three fat pasty women with ice cream cones moseyed slowly like tired cows in a hot sunny pasture, unsure if they would cross the road or head back to the barn for the evening milking. They walked ever so slowly towards the intersection, and then changed their minds about crossing.

I wanted to scream. I hate stuff like that. Why does a cop need to hold up traffic. Get a crosswalk button thingie. A cop doesn't need to stand there, hold traffic while people THINK about crossing the road.

Did you hear that? My head just exploded.

We finally made it past him, after sitting in traffic for over 45 minutes (reversing direction meant that we'd have to sit in traffic trying to get back to 75, and then we'd have to sit in traffic going from 75 through Ft. Myers to Cape Coral, so we were screwed either way) and there was no one on the bridge. No one. Not a soul. We were it. Where did all the cars in FRONT of us for 45 minutes go? Did they disintegrate? Did they go through a wormhole or a tear in the fabric of the space-time continuum? No. They accelerated and got going. End of conversation.

It's now dark and Geoff is heartbroken that we're still about 1/2 hour from home. We stopped for dinner. By now I was realizing that my sunburn was indeed horrific and I couldn't wait to either go home and take off my bra, or have a strong drink. We opted for the drink. Doug chose a really nice Mexican restaurant in Cape Coral where the Margaritas took the edge off of my discomfort, and the Fajitas kicked ass. We then went home, and I slathered myself in soothing ointments and we went to bed.

The only really good part about being trapped in Ft. Myers Beach traffic was that we got to totally check out all the buildings and storefronts, bars and restaurants. The tiny cottages on the east side of the road, and the humongous, elaborate mansions on the Gulf side of the road. The cottages probably were enjoying a nice view with similar cottages across the road at one point in time. But those were bought, and giant 22 room beach homes and hotels and night clubs were built on the Gulf side. I felt bad for the cottages.

There was an Irish pub where I bet a lot of rough trade goes down, and a block up the street was a proper English Fooddrinkery.

At the Irish joint, a pit-bull puppy was sitting on one of the plastic patio tables while its tattooed and obviously sloppy drunk owners slogged down another one. Doug thought that was my dad's kinda place, and that if Bart were here, that's where we'd have to stop for dinner. And then we'd throw down and yell "Oi!" and run up the street to kick those pansy tea-swilling Brits in their pompous arses!

We again built a whole little fantasy about what we were seeing. We do that a lot. Ft. Myers Beach is a whole lot less polished than Sanibel and Captiva. Borderline trashy, kind of like Hampton Beach in NH or York Beach in Maine if you're familiar. But with a lot more tropical colors.

It was what I had in mind when I think of beach resort towns. My kind of place. Even though we didn't stop and get out and drink at the Irish pub and buy shells and t-shirts at the beach shoppe, I knew that this was where it was at for the amusings clan. Thumbs up.

Rhino Race Car photo opUp early and out the door this day because we needed to make a run north to Tampa, which is 2-3 hours away. We were headed to Busch Gardens.

I'd called the info line and learned they were open until 7pm that day, but when we got there posted signs said 6pm, so that was kind of a bummer.

Again, we started pondering whether or not we could have planned this better and stayed the night in a hotel up here to get into the park at 9am, but... it was noon and we were there and we were bound to have a great time, no matter how much time we had allotted to us in the park.

Doug and the kids immediately got on the Gwazi coaster and loved it. It is an oldstyle wooden coaster, and it was fun to hear people screaming as it loudly whipped past my head.

Shei KraWe enjoyed watching people crap their pants on the Shei Kra.

We rode the slow train that moves through the park and checked out the safari and the animals. It was pretty awesome. A Rhino stood on the track and blocked our train for a while... and then lumbered up the hill to its family.

Geoff insisted we ride this water rapids thing, so we checked my bag and camera in a locker and got on the longest line we've ever experienced. We hit the ride at just the wrong time because there were seriously no other lines anywhere. We shouldn't have waited and burned a half hour or more by standing still, but Geoff really wanted this ride over all the other rides in the park.

We would have been better off to go check out a few other things and then come back. But. It is what it is. And in the end, the ride was wicked fun and we got soaked and the 50 cent locker was the best investment I'd ever made because my camera would not have survived.

the "family" coasterI did ride the "baby roller coaster." The park has a small coaster that goes 25 mph instead of 800mph, and it looked harmless. The little cars had four seats, so all of us could go together. Geoff didn't want to go because he was all about being cool and not riding a baby coaster. He rode a coaster that goes upside down and was all hard-core about his riding abilities. No baby coaster rider he!

Well, we all went, with him protesting. And it was honestly a lot scarier than I expected.

The little u-turn whips on the top level were shit-shakingly scary because you felt that you were just going to get flung off into the air as it cornered. It rode like air, without the jarring feeling of being on a coaster, so that was a tad disconcerting. Jess and I laughed and screamed in Doug's ear the entire time. I'm sure he loved it.

But the fact stands -- my ass rode a roller coaster for the first time since about 1982. And that was pretty awesome.

I'm so not a roller coaster girl. I kind of feel paying for admission into a park like this is pissing away money when I'm concerned. I went on three rides, one of them twice. Oh, and the skyride overlooking the park and the safari lands. But overall, I think I took enough photographs to justify going into the park, gawked at enough animals, and laughed really hard at Jess when she got soaked on a ride, that it was worth the price of admission.

Ha ha. You're all wet.There were two regrets this day (well, three if you count us pondering whether or not we should have stayed the night before in a hotel in order to maximize hours in park).

The first was that I didn't bring towels or a change of clothing for any of us. I didn't know we'd get soaking, positively to the bone, wet (twice) on the Congo River Rapids. Note to self -- always bring a towel. Didn't you learn anything from Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy?

Second was that this was an Anheuser Busch Park. And there is a hospitality house where adults get two free beers. And Doug and I didn't go get our two free beers. What. Were. We. Thinking. The phrase is "free beer," two of them as a matter of course ... and we didn't go retrieve any.

Damn. Instead we went on a ride where we got soaking wet, again. On the tram ride back to the car, Doug and I realized the sad truth, that there was free beer behind us and we didn't get to partake. It almost made me cry.

We still had a great time, and drove the long assed ride back to Cape Coral, ate at a Sonic at like Midnight, and all slept like the dead that night. Mmmmmm. Sonic. We don't have Sonic restaurants here in New England and it is a damn cryin' shame.

We did nothing. We stayed home. We needed a day of rest, and we got it.

Doug took an excursion off to a used bookstore. Jess did her homework. Geoff and I spent 4 hours in the pool.

Yes. Four hours.

I sat in the shade for a goodly amount of it and had a towel and shirt over my chest and shoulders. Geoff finished his requirements for Aquanaut for a Webelos badge by fulfilling some swimming stroke tests and the like. We haven't had a nice controlled space for him to swim 100 ft, so I made use of the pool to get him finished with a badge that he started this summer.

I took a nap. A nap to end all naps. I don't think I've slept like this since ... well, forever. The sunburn, the heat, the chlorine, the driving driving driving in the car, the roller coaster, the Everglades airboat, the huge fan above me humming and making a deep sensory depravation chamber.... it all combined to send me to places in sleepyland that I'd never been to in my life.

And damn, did it feel good.

Geoff wanted to swim again before sunset. So Doug and I took him to the pool once more, watched the sunset, and we all went back to pack and bid Florida adieu.

Saturday and Sunday
It is all so anticlimactic, isn't it? When a vacation is over and you have 20 hours of driving ahead of you it is sort of sad.

141/365 saturday at a NC truckstopWe got on the road at 6am and blasted our way north. We didn't stop at South of the Border. We got Gas somewhere in North Carolina. I only remember it because I was driving and I stopped and took this picture of me, starting to get cold because I was still in my shorts and it was about 45 degrees and I was not happy.

It grew to be dinner time, and we needed to eat. Doug's goal was to get us up into Virginia for dinner. So we got off the highway in Emporia, VA.

Let this be a cautionary tale for you, my friends. If you're ever driving up or down 95, Just Drive Past Emporia Virginia. Keep going. Find somewhere else. Do not stop here. Do not eat here. Do not even THINK about it. Just continue on your way.

First, it was about 8pm. There was a 25 minute wait at the Cracker Barrel. The folks were nice, but there was no way we were waiting that long. The place was mobbed, and we couldn't figure out where so many people were coming from, when there was hardly anyone on the highway.

We drove around the way to Shoney's. In a word... disgusting. Jessica and another woman who came in at the same time as us stepped into the ladies' room and immediately turned around and came out. Jess told me that someone had vomited all over the bathroom. The woman who went in with Jess told the hostess about the disaster, and the hostess said "oh. No one went in and cleaned that up yet? Huh. Okay. I'm sorry."

She then asked the girl who was about to seat us to go take care of it, but then told her to go ahead and seat us first. Then go take care of it.

The way the girl sat us, I doubted that she was going to go up in the toilet and clean out the vomit.

As we walked towards a table, we passed a woman who reached out to our seater girl saying "Miss? Excuse me. My sandwich?"

"Yes?" asked the girl taking us to our seat, continuing to walk.

"Is it ready yet? My sandwich?"

"Yes..." responded the girl, continuing to walk. I looked at the table, and the sandwich seeker's husband had fully finished his entire meal. I doubted this woman would ever see her sandwich. Ever.

Doug and I sat down, and there were no menus, no silverware, no nothing set before us. The girl walked away saying "Someone will be with you in a minute."

Yeah, if a minute means two hours I guess someone will.

People were staring at us like we had four eyeballs on our faces. It was really odd. It was like they all drank the kool-aid, and we didn't, and they knew we were going to survive the night.

"I'm giving this place fifteen more seconds," said Doug. But we got up and left before 11 seconds passed. No one acknowledged we were there, no one acknowledged we were escaping... they were like Zombies.

It was Zombie Shoney's.

We crossed the parking lot to this little Mexican Restaurant, and again -- crap service, no one making eye contact.

While we waited for our food, we watched a girl who could not have been more than 20 sit with a toddler on her lap, blowing smoke right down onto his little blonde head.

Now, I think smoking is pretty gross. But. Most of the people I know who smoke don't hold their toddlers while doing it. Or, if they have to, they do their damnedest to blow the smoke up in the air, craning their necks around to exhale up and behind them. Not this chick. Holy cow.

And I'm sitting there realizing I am such a New Englander. I'm such a Boston States girl. I am aghast that someone would exhale cigarette smoke on the top of a baby's head... and I'm probably the only one in the room who feels this way aside from my equally shocked (come to find out later when we trash talked the joint up the highway) husband.

I wanted to grab her and shake her and smack her in the head and scream "Did you drink a gallon of stupid this morning honey? What the hell are you THINKING!"

Top it off with the fact that it was the most bland, awful Mexican food ever. And there were like authentic Mexican Dudes working there, and they were watching Mexican Futbol on the Telemundo and everything. But there was no flavor to any of the food. No spice, no kick, no zest. The guacamole tasted like toothpaste. Doug's Enchilada was white American cheese wrapped in a tortilla and slathered with some brownish red, flavorless sauce.

We couldn't get out of there fast enough.

We burned an entire hour and a half when all was said and done, and only really intended on maybe 45 minutes at the absolute tops. We should have just gone to Wendy's or something. Or the Quiznos at the gas station. But we wanted a 'meal' and not fast food.

We shook the dust off our sandals and got back in the car and raced north again, making it all the way to Baltimore before just pulling into a hotel parking lot and crashing in a hotel room instead of crashing on the highway.

The hotel room was wonderful. Huge pillows, comfy beds, wicked nice shower heads. It was like heaven after the bad Emporia experience. Hell, a rock and a lice covered blanket would have been nice after what we just went through down the line.

We slept well. And in the morning, only being in Baltimore, we realized we had only about 8 hours to burn to get home. We also knew we would be racing a storm out of the area, and passed on a really nice breakfast at the hotel to hit the road fast, just as the flakes were starting to fly.

There was hardly anyone on the road. We made it home in no time with a minor detour around the George Washington Bridge and Cross Bronx Expressway, both of which had accidents on them. So we went a little further north and experienced the Tappan Zee and 87 to 684 to 84 in Connecticut. We were home in no time.

And then it snowed on us, and I was not happy. I was happy to see my dogs, happy to be in my house. Happy to fill the bird feeder and hear the guinea pig squeal. But I was not happy for the snow. Man. I wanted it to not snow. And it wouldn't do what I wanted.

Stupid snow. Stupid February. Stupid Winter.

All told, it was a grand trip. I think we did more than we've EVER done on a vacation in our lives. I think I enjoyed the NC vacation from 2 years ago a little more, but for different reasons. I would do things differently if I went back to Southwestern Florida, but I wouldn't do a single thing differently if I went to the Outer Banks again.

They were just different vacations.

Geoff was sad to go back to school. I have to say he was the best behaved, most compliant and happiest I've ever seen him while we were on vacation. I like Vacation Geoff a lot. I mean, I love Geoff. But Vacation Geoff is a lot of fun. More fun than you can imagine. He loves to DO things. Jess wants to sit in the house and watch the marathon of Dirty Jobs on Discovery Channel (who can blame her really, Mike Rowe... he may smell bad but he's hot and has a great sense of humor...). So Geoff is my kind of kid. He was all hands on, and all fun, and had a blast at the zoo and the nature center. I just loved being with him and spending time with him. I wish Jess was enjoying herself and loving it as much as her brother. But she is in a different place than he is. I wonder if he will become her when he's 14... something to ponder. For now, I'll enjoy the Geoff.

Getting back to work was interesting. Things are really moving fast at the office and there is a lot going on. It was like jumping off a Kayak and into an Acela train on Monday. And on that note, I'm exhausted and need to get off to bed. Doug started a fire in the woodstove so I need to go poke it before I turn in.

It's almost spring. I keep telling myself... and the sun will be sunny again, and my friends the Shorts and the Bathing Suit (even though it is rather snug) will come out again someday soon. Someday. Sigh.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

SWFLA Recap part 1.

I finally feel as if I've stopped moving. I'm ready to start the full fledged trip review, which is filled with personal ponderings and complaints about traffic. This entry will take you from Friday to Tuesday, and will bore you to tears -- I promise.

Worcester MA truckWe left at about 10am.

I still to this moment have no idea why we weren't fully ready to go the minute we rolled out of bed. I felt prepared. I really did. But. Getting up early and getting out the door early are not always things that go hand in hand. Suffice to say, the road welcomed us a lot later than we thought we'd meet her... and she welcomed us well. No one else was out there. We blasted through Mass, CT, NY and NJ at record speeds.

We hit Delaware and all hell broke loose. We needed gas, and got off the highway to get some, but ended up driving all over the Christiana Mall area looking for the gas station that was listed on the blue highway side of the road signs. We finally found a WaWa, a million miles away from where we wanted to be, and got back to 95 after about an hour of flittering around, trapped in horrible traffic in the middle of the day. Meh!

Getting back on the highway and going about 20 feet, there was a service area in the center of the interstate. Had we just stayed on the highway... but. Whatever. I know now that getting off I-95 at exit 4 is a bad idea, if you are in Delaware.

Delaware should take all of 10 minutes to go across. Jeesh.

We trucked onward down to Baltimore. The Key Bridge, the beautiful view over to the city and Inner Harbor at sunset. It was lovely.

Then we listened to the XM satellite radio traffic report for DC and found out that we were doomed. So we sought an alternate route. We went down to Annapolis. We went over on 50 to head west. We got on Rte 301.

Big. Huge. Mistake. I think that if we just got on the belt way, or the X95 whatever the route is that we would have gotten on to, eventually traffic would have eased up. But no. We got on 301.

133/365 Friday Night - Rocky Mount NCAnd it took for friggin' EVAH to get back to 95 south. Gah. Never making that mistake again. There had been some recent bad weather, and all around us were downed trees, light crews, cable crews, more light crews, tree removing crews... stoplight after stoplight. Jebus.

95 appeared on the horizon, and we beat feet to Rocky Mount, NC, where we spent the night.

It was quite the travel day as there were a million, bazillion people going to Daytona for the 500. Totally forgot that was going on this weekend. No wonder all the RVs with huge trailers attached and Race Fan Themed Stickers were surrounding our little Subaru. Jeesh.

So all of us got a good night's sleep. Well deserved.

Up around 8:30. I think in my mind I wanted to be up and out the door at 8:30. But we slept later than I thought we would. No worries. It's all good. We made the obligatory stop at South Of The Border once we crossed into South Carolina into Hamer.

Goin' Ape!!!Jess had been there once, when she was about 4, I think. Geoff's never been to South Carolina. His furthest trip south took him to Cape Hatteras in 2005. So this was new to him, and a refresher to Jess.

Both of them were truly confused as to why there was a giant Sombrero and huge crazy Mexican Hatted Pedro Dudes all around. But they enjoyed it and hammed it up for my blog-terrorism photo taking.

Thanks for playing along, kiddies.

We continued our trek southward and got into Florida knowing we still had like 6 hours to go to get to our destination.

We got down to the Punta Gorda area around 11pm, and I whipped out the mapquest directions, which sent us into Cape Coral along Burnt Shore, which is totally under populated and very very rural and dark. Dark for miles and miles, with tiny little lights in the distance.

I wondered what I was getting us into by getting us this house here for the week. Was our house going to be in a desolate spot like this, a million miles from nowhere?

My fears were unfounded, and we pulled up to our destination. A cute little house in a cute little gated community. Huzzah. Finally. It was very late. We were very tired.

Arriving at a house very late at night and not having the opportunity to really get to look things over is a surreal experience.

We found the house was sparsely but acceptably outfitted and decorated, furnished comfortably enough for us with two large overstuffed chairs and a comfy couch in the livingroom. There was a well appointed kitchen, two bathrooms, guest bedroom with two twin beds and a master bedroom with a full sized bed. Just right.

Jess decided she was too tall for the twin bed and slept on the futon in the livingroom. We drank a beer (the homeowner, my friend, has a neighbor who watches the house for her and he put some basics in the fridge for us, knowing we'd be arriving very late. Beer was part of the package. Hurray!)

We went to bed. We slept very, very well.

The houseIf going to sleep in a house that you've not had the opportunity to really explore is surreal, waking up in a strange house that you've not had the opportunity to really explore is doubly so. Per usual, Geoff was up first, but slept far later than I thought he would.

I heard him poking round and checking things out, it was fun listening to him explore the place. Eventually Doug and I got up, and got the coffee going, and started looking at the collection of maps and brochures laid out for us on the coffee table. My friend's neighbor, the one who bought us milk, coffee and beer, came over to offer to show us around. He was sweet, but we knew he'd slow us down. We asked for basic guidance on good things to go see and he advised willingly. It was a lovely visit.

We hit the road about noon and went over to Pine Island. We had a gorgeous and delicious lunch at the Sandy Hook, and soaked in the first real warm sunshine we'd felt in months... even though it was only about 60 degrees.

60 degrees is a lot more than 20. And it was a wonderful thing.

Pine Island was interesting and pretty, but kind of frustrating. There was nowhere really to park to go LOOK at the Gulf. All the parking up at the north end of the island Sanibelin Bokeelia was resident only or restricted to patrons of restaurants and whatnot. So we bailed from there and went down to Sanibel Island.

Toll bridges to get off of Cape Coral and onto Sanibel welcomed us. And we fed the meter and paid to park once we got to our destination at the end of the island. We went to the lighthouse and enjoyed walking on the beach, enjoyed some dolphins surfacing and blowing in the water, enjoyed just being out even if it was chilly.

There were tons of people, shelling and walking and wading in the water. All of us pale little snowbirds liberating our feet in the soft white sand and squinting up towards the glowing orb of sun above us. We watched as someone threw food up to seagulls in the air so a dozen photographers with big zoomy lenses could stand right underneath the feeding frenzy and take photos of the birds above them. I took photos of the photographers, and wondered if a gull would poop on one.

Sanibel Bird PhotographersGravity can be such a bitch.

We left Sanibel and drove out west to Captiva, why not. We're here. When we got to the end, the wind was vicious and sharp, and the sand was like tiny little bullets against our faces. The beach was much nicer than the lighthouse at Sanibel, but man... painful. We didn't stay long. We bailed and got back in the car.

It was also about 50 degrees now, and even though 50 is warmer than 20, it still isn't warm enough to go standing around outside on a sand-pelty beach.

We headed home, watching the sun go down over the gulf as we departed. Sat in traffic for an hour in Ft. Meyers just trying to get to the causeway to take us back to CaptivaCape Coral. Sunset was lovely. Traffic was not. It was frustrating and annoying. And I think it is all because of the toll booths. But that is just my opinion.

And while on the subject of my opinion, I think Sanibel and Captiva are just plain overrated. I don't shop. I don't care about special Sanibel Diamonds and fancy clothes stores and spas and facials and deep tissue massage and really expensive coffee shops.

I just wanted to park and walk on the beach, and had to pay to do that. Twice. And pay to get over there.

Pfth. Lame.

I think if one is staying there and enjoys little bike rides along the main drag and out to Captiva and whatnot it would be nice. But for a day visit, I just kind of felt 'meh' about the experience. Later in the week, I'd find my nirvana location... but for me... not sure if it is the same for you... Sanibel and Captiva aren't places I care to visit again.

We finally arrived home. Pizza, beer and wings for dinner. Yum. Sleep. Wonderful. Yay.

Slept in, got up, got in car. Went to the Naples Zoo. It took forever and a day to get there. Middle of the day, what the heck is up with all these people driving all over the place for crikey chrissake!

I've been in traffic before. I've been trapped in traffic, stuck in traffic, doomed to die in traffic. This was worse. Honestly. It took forever to get off of Cape Coral and across Ft. Meyers to the east to get on 75. Once on the highway, it was smooth sailing. Off the highway and it was a parking lot all the way to the zoo. I just don't get it. Don't people have JOBS around here? They all had Florida plates. There were few Outta Townahs like us around... and it was the middle of the day and insane.


Naples ZooWell, we got to the zoo and found out this is where all the Outta Townahs already were. The parking areas were all packed. The line was out the door and around the parking lot.

Luckily this zoo has a clue and sends people out to the line with animals to mingle with the kiddies and keep them entertained. Thumbs up on that front.

It was nice and warm and sunny, but still "too cold for the handlers to feed the alligators" for some reason. As I mentioned, the place was mobbed. We didn't get to take the ride on the Monkey Island boat the way Doug wanted to, but that didn't stop us from eyeballing the monkeys and enjoying all the other animals. Doug was particularly taken with the Hyena. I was particularly taken with the Lions. They were just gorgeous.

Bonita BeachWe left the zoo and decided to take a coastal route up instead of fighting the traffic to get back over the east and to I-75.

We ended up in Bonita Beach.

For as overrated and overcrowded as I found Sanibel and Captiva, and for as parking-deprived as I found Pine Island, Bonita Beach made up for it with free parking and tons of it in these little pull-outs next to the beach on Hickory Drive.

We got out and walked for miles (it seemed) enjoying stalking the gulls and wading up to our knees in the warm water. The sun was hot and welcoming, the shells plentiful, the beach lined with cute little cottages and huge mansions that evoked memories of the Outer Banks for me. Only with views to the South of Naples, and views to the North of Ft. Meyers.

This was my nirvana spot.

I think if I go back to SW Florida, as much as I loved having the free house in Cape Coral, THIS is where I'm staying. I'm renting a tiny cottage. I'm walking this beach three times a day. I'm sitting in a lounge chair with a good book and a beer at 11am. I'm here. This is it.

It was, for me, bliss.

I forget what we ate for dinner. I think it may have been pizza, beer and wings but without the wings. Slept like the dead, had sand between my toes when I woke up the next morning. And a smile on my face.

This was the day we should have gotten up much much earlier to get things done. As was, we were out the door at 10, but it would have been nicer to have more time where we were headed.

Airboat ride!Doug has told me several times that he had two wishes in life. One was to ride an airboat in the Everglades. The other was to shoot a fire extinguisher at an actual fire. He got to do the latter. He needed to do the former.

So we went down 75 all the way the heck down there to Everglades City, had lunch, and got on our airboat ride piloted (captained?) by Captain Blaine. Complete with pelicans that went with us and terrorized my children to my delight.

It was lots of fun. But we saw no gators (such the drag), and this tour didn't go through a huge field of swamp grass the way I envisioned it would. Doug had a great time, and having one of his boyhood dreams fulfilled was really fun for him.

As you can see, Jessica is afraid of Pelicans.

We drove down to Chokoloskee to see what there was to see. Again, Doug had told me that many a day in his boyhood years he spent studying atlases and maps and looked at that island and wondered what was going on there.

The answer is nothing. It was kind of a let down. There was nowhere to park really, and it is mostly residential. But there was a glimmer of hope of interestingness. We had seen signs the whole way down Rte 29 about the Smallwood's Store so we were looking forward to checking it out after finding there wasn't much for us to check out otherwise.

So we drove there, with great anticipation.

Problem is, it is only open May to November. We stood there feeling almost like the Griswolds in "Vacation" standing at Wally World's locked gates. Finding the destination closed when you've been looking at signs for a few hours is such a buzzkill.

Sunset over the EvergladesBut. The sun was starting to set, so we went back up to the Gulf Coast Visitors Center of the National Parks Service HQ building in Everglades City to see if we could obtain some info and stuff (they were closed too, again -- buzzkill) and sat and watched the sunset.

While we were watching the sunset, a man came over and stood near us with his digital camcorder. He began filming the darkening light, the ocean, the birds black silhouetted against the sky, and distant islands. He panned gently, back and forth over the water and the afterglow, narrating the scene lovingly.

"And another beautiful day in Florida comes to an end in Everglades National Park with this beautiful sunset. Here you see the birds flying. Where are they going? Who knows. They do..." that kind of thing.

Jess, Doug and I sat and kind of giggled a bit and almost couldn't believe we were witnessing this... I told Jess that she should jump up and yell something wacky. Or that we should feign a fight.

But we did no such thing.

After the sunset was over, it crossed my mind that this man does this kind of thing for some sort of reason. Like I do this for some sort of reason. Or I maintain my flickr sets for some sort of reason.

He makes his little movies, maybe for his grandkids or something. And when he dies, perhaps this is all they'll have of him.

Maybe they hate it and he doesn't know. Gah, here's another video of one of Grampa's vacations... they groan to themselves as he fires up the videos to show them. Just like when people whipped out their slide shows of their vacations back in the 70s. It is the modern equivalent.

Maybe he keeps them to himself, and they don't know he makes these movies. When he dies they'll find a box, or videos on his PC or something. They'll watch them and remember grandpa being such a big goofball. Maybe they'll cherish them, or perhaps they'll trash them and just not care.

I felt like I was going to cry as I kind of built this little mystery in my mind of this person and why he was narrating the movie the way he did. I wanted to go back and ask him. I really did. I wanted to know who the movies were for, the movies that he made. How many years of them did he have.

I am not sure what stopped me. Because you know how easy it is for me to walk up to complete strangers and open conversations like this. Hell, I do it here all the time. I do it in the grocery store. I walk up to people taking pictures of their friends and offer to take the camera so they can have a shot of all of them together in front of the giant Pedro statue at South of the Border. That very same day, I walked up to two older, almost matronly British women sitting on a bench in the park watching the sunset and offered to take their picture. They wrapped their arms around one another and one thanked me saying "we have so few pictures of the two of us together, it is usually one or the other in the shot... so thank you so much for doing that!"

I do things like this. I don't fear the stranger, or the answer, or the asking of the question. This time, I kind of did. I wanted to hold my little mini-mystery and not know... almost as much as I did want to know.

We started back to the car and I listened to Jess continue to make fun of him, narrating our walk to the Subaru just as he narrated his film. I listened to Doug talk about how guys like him end up in a nursing home and the family doesn't WANT the videos that he made on his vacation to Florida years and years and years ago. And that is just the sad truth in the end.

Then I really did cry.

Anyway -- my big regret this day is that we didn't get an earlier start. I would have liked to have gone back up to 41 and down to Loop Road through Chatham and Pinecrest and get a good look at the rest of the National Park where one can drive (the bulk of it is only accessible by water, by kayak or whathaveyou). Perhaps we should have planned it better and stayed the night down this end of things, to spend the following day exploring either by boat or by road.

Regardless, it was a good day, filled with fun, gator bites, conch fritters, scary pelicans and mysterious little old videotaping men. A day I won't soon forget.

Okay -- on that note, I'll stop for tonight. It's getting late, and I have laundry to finish. And you are bored. I know you are.

Coming up next, I get sunburned and we go to Busch Gardens.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wherein I Still Feel Like I'm In A Moving Car

"You've Never Sausage A Place. You're Always A Weiner with Pedro!"
-Billboard for South of the Border

Right. Hello. Nice to see you. We got home this afternoon, round 6pm-ish. Relieved the dog sitter. Spent a good hour with three dogs who literally were about to explode with joy. If you've ever had a dog, you know what that looks like.

22 sanibel seashellsI can't fall asleep, because I feel like I'm still in a moving car. So I thought I'd check in quickly and allow you to parouse the full photo gallery of shots in flickr. I haven't added descriptions or further detail to a lot of them, but, they're up there and you can go witness the joy that was our trip.

Click here to go see.
You know you want to.

A quick rundown of what we did, with further details to come:

Friday - departed much later than anticipated. Made it to Rocky Mount NC and got a hotel room. Slept deeply.

Saturday - drove the rest of the way to Cape Coral with minimal stoppage. One such stop was at South Of The Border. Nuff said.

Sunday - got up after sleeping deeply. Florida was freaking freezing cold, but that didn't stop these Yankees from hitting the beach. Along with a million other Yankee snowbird visitors. We witnessed natives in wool hats, mittens, and parkas. It was 50 degrees. We laughed. Visited Sanibel and Captiva.

Monday - Naples Zoo and Bonita Beach. Sat in more traffic than I've ever sat in during my entire life. More on that later.

Tuesday - Everglades City and an airboat ride. Woot! Tons of fun. Ate alligator bites and Conch Fritters. My daughter got frightened by a pelican, and it was the funniest thing I've ever seen.

Wednesday - Kicked it by the pool. Geoff swam like mad. I got sunburn. Good times. And yes -- I did use sunscreen. I'm not that big of a dumbass. Went to the Planetarium/Nature Center in Ft. Meyers. Sat in more traffic.

Thursday - Busch Gardens. Nuff said.

Friday - Kicked it by the pool. Swam like mad. Did laundry.

Saturday - Up before God, cleaned house, packed car, hit the road. Made it all the way to Baltimore by Midnight. Would have made it to NJ if we hadn't stopped for dinner in VA. Will never stop in that particular town again. More on that later.

Sunday (today) - slept later than intended but really needed it. Raced the killer death storm that ate Washington DC alive (according to the news this evening. whatever) up the coast and got home and .... well. Uploaded pictures to flickr.

I also managed to get a better Wisconsin plate for my licenseplate bingo collection. And... I got Nebraska and Arkansas. And I got Manitoba.

Now I believe the only plate I am missing is Idaho. And Washington DC and the US Government plate. Those are extra. I saw plenty of those two in the DC metro area yesterday and today, but the batteries in my camera had died and my cell wasn't making good captures at 90 mph up the highway. So I'll get those two eventually. Probably before I get Idaho. I was stoked to get Nebraska.

Doug invented a new game for licenseplate bingo. Florida has a bazillion tags that you can choose from for your car (see this PDF document for all the different types). In keeping constant look out for me for Idaho, he said that it would be fun to play licenseplate bingo with just Florida Tags.


We started.

I've set up a flickr set for Florida tags, and a flickr pool so others can play along. Because... I only have about 20 shots. Problem is, by the time Doug suggested we do this, the week was almost over.

I got several shots, but missed dozens of good ones that should be in the collection. Poop. Now that I'm up here in MA and I only got about a dozen of the possible bazillion plates, I'll want Florida residents or visitors to join in on the fun. Heh. Debby -- this means YOU!

Alright. I'm off to bed now. Still feel like I am moving so I may sleep on the futon with the puppy. I missed her.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snowblower and a trip to Saturn

"Now, Cupid don't draw back your bow, Sam Cooke didn't know what I know,
I'll never be your valentine, The sleepwalker in me
and God only knows that I've tried."
-The Wallflowers

Do you have your bread, batteries, eggs and milk? Is your arsenal stocked with weapons of mass destruction so you can fend off thugs and interlopers who impinge upon your stash? They did not plan for the storm. They didn't take the doomsayers seriously. But you did! No category four kill-storm is going to take your life! No effin' way, baby.

Because you know that there will never be a cow milked ever again, or bread levened and baked, or eggs harvested from the warm nests under plump chickens, you are prepared.

Your fridge is stocked with precious Milk and Eggs. Your pantry is full of Bread. You have Beer. You have batteries. You will survive. The other jokers? Tell them to take their complaints to Darwin.

(long time readers saw that whole bit above coming. You all know how I feel about the media frenzy that is storm reporting. I hope that you're all finding me somewhat entertaining this morning).

The category four death storm slipped in quietly sometime after midnight when I went to bed (Damn you Futurama for being funny and keeping me up!) I woke up this morning to Geoff squealing with delight when he saw our school district on the crawler at the bottom of the news screen.

There isn't a ton of snow -- but it is coming down really fast and the flakes are tiny. Which if memory serves me correctly means that this is not the end of things. The end is when the flakes get huge, like your head. The flakes are the ones you like to catch on your tongue and have dance on your eyelashes. These aren't flakes any more than they are water pellets on a mission.

On the news they are saying that a lot of this will get washed away, and then tonight it will ice over and be insanely slippery.

My world will look like a giant glazed doughnut.

We bought a snow blower (I call it a snow thrower, but my family thinks I'm a dingus for calling it that so I will call it snow blower hithertoforth) on Monday night.

After Geoff's class presentation, we went up to Sam's Club, plopped down the credit card and picked up a monstrous beast. It is huge. Far larger than I imagined. The snow eating portion of the machine is as wide as the back of the inside of my Subaru Outback. We know that because we lifted it up into the back of the Outback to bring it home.

It fit in perfectly width wise--but there was one problem. The snow shooter portion of the machine, you know -- the part that blasts the snow to other parts of the neighborhood and thus gets it out of your way... the part that rotates when you crank the doo-hickey so you can shoot the snow hither and yon. Yeah. That part. Well. That part was a fraction of an inch too tall to fit inside the hatchback. So we were faced with a crisis.

Doug tried to remove it. We didn't have any tools. He tried to remove the entire tube apparatus from the body of the beast, but again -- no tools. And, it is quite an intricate piece of machinery. I started to fear that he'd bust it in his efforts... so I suggested that we bring it back inside and leave it overnight.

Good thing I did suggest that because it was 8:26 and the store closed at 8:30. They gladly let us keep it there overnight. And then we got back into the car, feeling slightly defeated.

I found myself missing my pickup truck with a white-hot burning passion. The Quimby Mobile would have easily handled that snow thrower, I mean, snow blower, and maybe three others. It was so mighty. The Subaru may get twice the gas mileage that the truck got, but damn if there aren't times when you just need the mother humpin' behemoth of a pick-up. And I sat there in the parking lot regretting our decision to trade him in. We should have kept him just to have him. Doug said no... why pay for insurance and excise tax and what not. I said ... but we NEEEEEEEEED a truck at least once a month. It would be worth it.

We cut our car payments in half by trading it in... which is good. But it is also bad. Don't get me wrong--I love my Subaru. It kicks major ass. But when I have to transport three dogs and some camping gear -- it isn't going to be fun. And Monday night I longed for the beast in all his glory.

Luckily, My Girl C has a big huge giant pickup truck and was free to give us a hand last night. *Doffs cap to C with great thanks and love.

The snow blower is in my garage now. Waiting. And if the forecasting and prognostication is correct, we may not need it at all in the end. And we may not need it at all between now and December 2007.

But. We have it. It is here. It is in the garage. And it waits to do its thing.

I mentioned that Geoff has a presentation on Monday night. The fourth grade does something called Alien Fair every year. Basically, they break up into teams and research a planet. They then become residents of the planet, and emissaries to prospective tourists in kind of a tourist board sort of presentation. They dress up and try to convince you to come visit their planets. They tell hopeful vacationers what the weather is like on their planet, what the history is, what the geology is all about, and explain what kind of "adaptations" humans may have to use to survive on the planet and enjoy their vacation.

It is really cute, and the kids did a great job. Geoff and two buddies got Saturn, and Geoff designed the costumes. The boys on his team were like "That's perfect... thanks for doing all the work!" and then the moms (well, one boy's mom and I) bought the stuff to make their "adaptations."

They made jet packs and wore cool red sweatshirts that they painted with pictures of Saturn and a big letter S. They wore safety cones on their heads for hats... they were a total riot.

Check it out:

4th Grade Alien Night - Exploration of the Universe
4th Grade Alien Night - Exploration of the Universe
4th Grade Alien Night - Exploration of the Universe

top left - Geoff's jet-pak from the back. Do not imply that I made beer funnels for my boys. Or the adults for after the presentation.

top right - Geoff's teacher dressed up as an alien too. She oversees the Alien Tourism Board and I gotta say, the woman cracks me up.

direct left - Geoff with his Tri-board presentation and his welcoming hand signal to the masses. Nerd.

As we drove home, he broke my heart. He was dead silent and kind of droopy. I asked him if he was tired and drained, because he's had a horrible cold for a few days.

"No. I'm just sad," was his reply. I knew exactly where he was going and could feel why he was sad. I tried to throw him a bone...

"Why are you sad buddy -- Alien Night was a blast. It was so much fun, and you will have so many great memories of tonight," I tried to encourage him.

"I'm sad because it is over," he softly answered. "I waited all year for this. I worked so hard, and looked forward to it so much, and just like that... it is done and over," he sighed and actually I thought he was going to cry. Not cry like a baby or whine like a jerk. But honestly he was feeling so deeply sad about the loss of something being over that he'd shed tears about it. Which is rare for Geoff.

"I wish every day was alien fair. I can't believe it is done and I have nothing to look forward to for the rest of the year."

He's right. There is nothing to look forward to for the rest of the year except the year ending. I had nothing to give him for encouragement.

I had nothing to offer him to salve the sad.

"I can print out some pictures of you in your suit if you like. With your friends. I can put them in little frames and you can have those to look at on your shelf," I offered. "Would that make you feel a little better?"

He nodded. So I will do that for him. At least, it is something.

Anyway -- I need to hit the road. I have hung out here long enough. I don't like leaving the kids solo -- especially when Jess is in bed (you know when you get up at 6:30 and you are 14 you are SO going back to bed, even if you got fully dressed because you are SO smart and think they'll never EVER close school for this stupid storm). But I have a full day's work ahead -- and best get to it.

More later.