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.

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