RIP: Little Sally (2004-2017)

Well, yesterday was little Sally’s last day. On our February trip to Florida, she developed a persistent cough, which was diagnosed several times as bronchitis, but which turned out to be a tumor above the palate. There was really nothing that could be done, and she was in pain, and we knew in our hearts that the inevitable course of events was too much for our little friend to bear. So, we elected to use a service somewhat akin to pet hospice: a vet came to the house and little Sally spent her last few moments here at home, in our laps, with her favorite toy (called “Purple Minky”). (It’s too complicated to explain unless you can recite most of Inspector Clouseau’s lines by heart).

Sally (on the left), AKA registered as “Sally Princess Buttercup LBD Byrnwyck.” The “LBD” stands for “Little Brat Dog,” a title she earned every day with her incredibly charming, but equally stubborn, dachshund disposition.

We tried several times to persuade Sally that she was a dog, and we were people, and therefore in the natural order of things, we told her what to do, not vice versa. It never worked and we just gave up.

Sally was generally a good sport when it came to things such as being made to pose as an elf, although you can see she’s pretty much exasperated by the indignity of it all.

So, with thirteen years of great memories, and a fondness for our little friend that will warm our hearts forever, we say goodbye.

20-26 February 2017: South Florida

In telling folks about our plans to conclude this year’s Florida trip at Lake Okeechobee, people kept saying things like, “I hope you like alligators…,” or “you’ll have some interesting experiences, that is, if you think snakes and alligators can be interesting…,” or, my favorite, “Lake Okeechobee is a great place to go fishing, well, except you really shouldn’t go near the water because it’s basically loaded up with alligators and besides that my dad was fishing there and found himself wading in a sea of water moccasins…” Oh good grief. The litany of dreadful, foreboding encounters was so extensive and constant, we seriously considered just canceling that portion of trip and going home.

It was fine. In fact, it was better than fine. It was wonderful.

And, once again, inspiring. Our first day at Lake Okeechobee was forecasted to be coolish and raining, so he drove over to Fort Pierce to see the Navy SEAL Museum.

A statue commemorating the rescue of Lieutenant Tommy Norris by Petty Officer Mike Norton. During a mission in Viet Nam, Norris was so severely wounded that he was presumed dead. Nevertheless, Norton braved a hailstorm of bullets, rescued Norris, and then, although badly wounded himself, put his own life jacket on Norris to swim Norris out to another SEAL vessel, acts of heroism and bravery so compelling that Norton received the Medal of Honor. Incredibly, though, after LT Norris recovered from his near-fatal wounds, he returned to duty and himself engaged in acts of heroism so compelling that HE won the Medal of Honor. Wendy and I are standing there, reading all this with tears in our eyes, and we’re not through the front door yet.

Inside, the museum was everything you’d expect. One inspiring display after another explaining the whole SEAL concept, from intensive BUDS training in San Diego (where two-thirds of the volunteers can’t take it and drop out), to specialization in various aspects of modern warfare, to samples of the equipment used, to the operations of SEAL teams. As you would expect, some of the most famous SEAL missions are illustrated, including the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates to, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the raid on the compound in Abbottabad and the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

The code of conduct for Navy SEALs, very similar to the Army’s Soldier’s Creed, or the Ranger Creed, although one should note one particular element: “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.” It is this principle that led to the condemnation and shunning of the SEAL (whose name I refuse to utter) who violated his oath and published “No Easy Day,” the account of the raid on Abbottabad. I know most people don’t understand why describing the mission was such an act of betrayal, but personally I give thanks that he was ordered to return all of the royalties he earned.

Nearby the campground we found another interesting attraction. As we learned last year, one problem faced by the Everglades is nutrient-rich runoff from farms, which leads to overly dense plant growth that actually chokes the wetlands. To counter that problem, local governments have built a number of treatment impoundments upstream of the Everglades to remove nutrients, and one such facility is located just a few miles north of the campground. That facility diverts about ten percent of the flow of Taylor Creek, retains that flow in a series of basins where overly rich plant growth is acceptable and intended, and then returns the water, now reduced in nutrient levels, back to the creek. These basins are, as one would expect, wildly rich in plant and animal life, and the county has actually built paths around the basins where one can stroll and enjoy the rich diversity of life that flourishes there.

One of the treatment ponds for Taylor Creek. It is remarkable that the county would take something as mundane as a treatment system and make it inviting and user-friendly, such as the thatch-covered gazebo where people can pause while walking around the area.

We saw birds of all stripes (herons, anhingas, egrets, ibises, ducks, cranes, songbirds), turtles, butterflies, and even an otter. (No snakes.) (At least none that I pointed out to Wendy.) (That was a joke.) It was particularly fun to watch the birds catching and eating fish, even if the fish did seem too large to ease down the gullet.

 

And yes, we did see alligators. Dozens of them. Mostly basking in the ponds, although a couple were sunning themselves along the path, something that Wendy found particularly disconcerting.

This six-footer slowly moved away from the path as I approached, although it was hard not to keep in mind dozens of youtube videos showing alligators spinning suddenly and charging hapless onlookers. As I was approaching to take advantage of this photo op, I just kept reminding myself that there are things in life worse than getting bitten by an alligator, although I must admit none actually come to mind.

One last thought. We found ourselves parked next to a couple from Pennsylvania, Herb and Mary Ellen Truhe. It turns out he is a retired policeman (27 years on the force) who comes from a family of wide-ranging police experience. And we found him to be one of the most friendly, knowledgeable, and decent human beings it’s ever been my pleasure to meet. Just one example to illustrate the point. He once had to arrest a drug addict on a parole violation warrant. As he picked up the guy, he noted that the addict looked pretty bad, obviously strung out. “When did you last eat?” he asked. “Three days ago,” the addict responded. So, incredibly, Herb brought him home, sat him down with his family, and gave him a decent meal, before carting him off to jail. “The only thing I ask,” Herb said to the addict, “is that you treat my family with the same respect I’m showing to you.” As it turns out, while they were having supper, the addict engaged with Herb’s teenage daughter, telling her at one point, “You need to stay away from drugs, or you’ll end up like me.” I don’t know how all that ended up, but it’s easy to imagine a story of redemption from a simple act of grace and a home-cooked meal. So there we have it: more inspiration from something as common as a neighbor at a campground.

Parked next to the Herb and Mary Ellen Truhe. The campground was very nice and, contrary to our fears before arriving, completely free from dachshund-eating alligators and snakes.

We’re not sure about a Florida trip next year. We’ve basically explored the state to our satisfaction, noting the areas we like (as well as those we’re not so fond of). We may return next year to a couple favorite places, or we may start exploring the options for other warmer climes. Either way, though, this was definitely one of the better Florida trips.

Whither postcards?

At every worthy stop we make, Wendy and I send off postcards to the grandchildren, aka Little Darlings (henceforth LDs), all eight of them. But lately it has become a formidable challenge to find postcards even at the most likely stops. Disney had precious few (maybe a half dozen), and only the same limited selection was to be found at all of the venues. Many other stops had none. Sometimes, we’d ask a store clerk if they had postcards and was greeted with an odd stare, followed by, “I think the place across the street used to have some.” I was preparing to add a comment to one of my travel posts about this strange phenomenon but coincidentally a post on the same topic showed up today on the RV Travel blog, describing postcards as a “relic of the past.”

The premise behind Woodbury’s conclusion is that picture postcards, as media of choice for sending off pictures of destination spots, along with the obligatory “wish you were here” message, have been overtaken by photo messages, Instagram, Facebook, selfies, and every other form of instantaneous electronic communication. True, true, and in many ways our ability to follow each other’s travels, see the sights, and participate vicariously in travels to new places is both more extensive and intensive than it ever was. But the replacement of the postcard with an excess of instantaneous photo updates, I think, like so much of the modern electronic alternatives, somehow loses something in the translation.

The difference between a postcard and a photo-feed, I guess, is firstly not so much in the adequacy of the communique, but in the generosity of the message. It takes considerable effort to hunt for just the right card, carefully write out (with a pen, of all things) a message particular to the recipient, address it, and find a place to send it off. At least with eight LDs, it’s hours start to finish. But that’s why postcards are more an act of thoughtfulness than a blunt, in-your-face info update. More than just saying, “wham-bam, here’s a picture, see you later” it says “You matter enough to me that I’m taking time out my travels just to let you know how much I care for you. You’re worth the effort.” And, secondly, the impetus for a picture postcard is, obviously, the picture. There are no “selfie” postcards, which is why they stand in stark contrast to someone who visits something as majestic as the Grand Canyon and thinks, “What a great place to take a picture of me.”

Oh well… I guess it’s to be expected that photographic relics of the past still hold appeal to living relics of the past (namely us). Next post will be back to reality…

16-19 February 2017: Space Coast

First things first: the campground was a dump. Now on to better things…

On Friday, we made a pair of inspiring stops. First we went by the Valiant Warbirds Museum. It has a very nice collection of warbird aircraft, such as this F4F (one of the aircraft that my dad flew in World War II).

An F4F, easily recognizable by the manually operated landing gear (29 cranks to get it up, 27 cranks to get it down) stowed in the fuselage side. My dad ended up flying F4U Corsairs by the war’s end.

But what made the museum particularly memorable was three aircraft in particular. The first was this B-25 Mitchell, memorable because one of the original pilots, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot in fact, COL Richard E. Cole, is still alive and is a regular attendee at the annual air show here. He’s 101 years old, but still mentally acute and physically fine (at least for a man of his age).

A B-25 Mitchell, still in operating condition and flying regularly at air shows around the country.

For those not familiar with Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo (and who haven’t seen 30 Seconds Over Tokyo), after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, along with a long string of Japanese victories in the South Pacific, when American morale was unbearably low, President Roosevelt decided that the American military needed to do something to give Americans cause for hope. The proposal was an improbable idea of launching bombers off of a carrier, flying to Japan to inflict tactically minor but psychologically devastating damage.

The attack was planned and led by Jimmy Doolittle, a famous military test pilot, civilian aviator, and aeronautical engineer. In April 1942, sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers under his command were launched without fighter escort from the USS Hornet, each with a crew of five men and carrying four 500-pound bombs, three with conventional explosives and one incendiary. Doolittle was in the lead bomber and had only 450 feet of deck in front of him. The plan called for the B-25s to bomb military targets in Japan, and to continue westward to land in China. Unfortunately, Hornet was detected by a Japanese picket boat and the bombers had to launch 200 miles before the planned launch point. After flying 650 miles at wave-top level, the bombers struck 10 military and industrial targets in Tokyo, two in Yokohama, and one each four other cities. Fifteen aircraft reached China, but all crashed, while the 16th landed in the Soviet Union. All but three of the 80 crew members initially survived the mission. Eight airmen were captured by the Japanese in China; three of those were later executed. The B-25 that landed in the Soviet Union was confiscated and its crew imprisoned for more than a year.

The second was this F-16, a special aircraft because it is the actual aircraft, one of two, on constant patrol over the skies of New York on September 11, 2001.

One of two F-16s flying patrol over New York on 9/11. The F-16 is also an important airplane for me because my dad was part of the team that designed the side-stick, fly-by-wire system that was revolutionary at the time.

And finally, my favorite. This C-47 actually flew in the D-Day invasion, flying two missions to drop paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, and then a third mission to tow a glider to Normandy. The initial drops consisted of soldiers from the 505th, 507th, and 508th Parachute Infantry Regiments. All of the paratroopers on D-Day suffered badly, but the 82nd was particularly hard hit. Forty-six percent of the 82 Airborne soldiers dropped in on D-Day were killed, wounded, or missing. Major General Ridgway’s post-battle report stated, “… 33 days of action without relief, without replacements. Every mission accomplished. No ground gained was ever relinquished.”

A C-47 (the military version of a DC-3) that actually transported 82nd Airborne paratroopers on D-Day.

I hate to sound sappy, but after walking around this place, and hearing these stories, and seeing these aircraft, Wendy and I were both emotionally depleted, both of us sensing that we really were standing on holy ground. Between the stories of Doolittle’s raid and D-day, it proved the truth of Eisenhower’s comment that there is no force on earth like that of a democracy enraged.

Then it was off to the Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum. The Memorial honors over 9000 police officers who have been killed in the line of duty. The current rate is that a police officer is killed every two days, and 2016 was a particularly tragic year, with 21 deaths in ambush-style shootings alone. I guess such is to be expected when government officials at the very highest level curry political favor by identifying police as the enemy and by declaring that ruthless punks and thugs are martyrs. This memorial honors those who bear the consequences of such political pandering, such as the five police officers killed in Dallas last year, shot down by a thug who said he was upset about the recent police shootings and wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.

The memorial to fallen officers. The walls contain the names of 9000 police officers killed in the line of duty. The statue in back shows a police officer with his arms around two children.

We did pause for a moment to honor Officer Mark Cross, the son of our good friends in Atlanta, who was gunned down by drug-dealing gang-bangers on April 23, 2005. He is survived by his wife and two children.

One section of the wall. Officer Mark Cross’s name occurs in the center of this panel.

Again, we found ourselves standing on holy ground. It’s hard to describe the emotional impact of spending a day immersed in the bravery and self-sacrifice of such great Americans.

And we finally got to see a launch. We tried to see a launch back in 2015, when the launch was scrubbed due to something about “down range tracking.” Then we tried again on Thursday, but the launch was scrubbed due to something involving “nozzle thrust thingies.” But on Friday, we finally got to see the SpaceX Falcon9 rocket take off, even if it did quickly disappear into the clouds.

A Falcon9 rocket lifting off from pad L39 to resupply the International Space Station.

On edit: Good grief. How could I forget to post this? We also went to the Kennedy Space Center. Although we had been here before, this time was a special treat. We went to the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. It’s hard to describe what one sees and experiences without spoiling the surprise of anyone who may go there in the future, but after walking through a lobby where there is shown a 360-degree film about the history of the Space Shuttle program, the wall in front turns translucent and there, right before us, tilted on one side, is Atlantis itself. The whole room broke into applause. And Atlantis is huge: about the same size as an Airbus 320, 125 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet, and weighing as much as 220,000 pounds at takeoff. Which is why it is lifted off under the power of two solid rocket boosters plus a main engine fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, developing in total an earth-shaking 7 million (that’s million) pounds of thrust. The screen then raises and reveals this:

Space Shuttle Atlantis, one of five that were built. Of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, Atlantis flew 33, including several to repair and upgrade the Hubble space telescope.

As you would expect, a portion of the Atlantis display recounted the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, and honored the crewmen on those flights, but the display really wasn’t about the cost of exploration, it was about the glory of exploration, the human need to go new places and learn new things, and the indomitable human spirit that allows to achieve the impossible. By this point, Wendy and I were really getting tired of being inspired!

Besides all of that, we also found time for a tour of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, made all the more memorable by the appearance if this little guy, swimming around in the middle of a salt marsh. Go figure.

A stingray near the shore of a lake in the middle of the salt marsh. He appeared to be scooting along the shore, flapping his little arm-things, maybe digging up little crustaceans?

On edit: Oops, I left off a couple interesting photos. First, this one of a Painted Bunting, a bird I’ve always wanted to see but never have.

Painted Bunting hanging around the Merritt Island NWR Visitor Center. I was one of about 10 photographers all trying to squeeze in to get a picture.

And, of course, one of these:

This guy was pretty small, maybe only 4 or 5 feet long. Even still, I kept my distance.

Next stop: Lake Okeechobee. We’re not sure exactly what to expect. Everyone keeps telling us to expect “experiences” with alligators and water moccasins.

12-15 February 2017: Disney Again

For the umpteenth time in the past three decades, we find ourselves back at the Fort Wilderness campground. And once again, here we are without any youngsters at a destination that is seemingly not conceived for unaccompanied old coots like us. So, what gives?

Part of the answer lies in our appreciation for the Disney commitment to excellence, something I’ve noted numerous times before. It is a refreshing break from modern tolerance of mediocrity to be somewhere where there is a singular driving force to do everything as well as it can be done.

And this instance of our recurring migration had a special objective: a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. What a place, even though we missed out on the one attraction we most wanted to experience: the Kilimanjaro Safari. It’s a weird story, but apparently the animals have free reign in the area where the tour meanders along, and Disney shuts down the excursion when the animals have congregated on the roadway along the designated route. At our scheduled time, several ostriches, of all things, had parked themselves along the pathway and, after an hour of waiting for those improbable but stubborn creatures to move on, the authorities decided the situation was hopeless, cancelled the ride, and gave us all bonus coupons good for priority admission to any attraction in any park. Not useful for us, but a nice gesture, even though it symbolized the perfect irony of the Disney empire thwarted by a cartoonish bird.

Even still, the Wild Animal Park provided a wonderful experience. The Lion King musical was as good as anything one would see on Broadway, and the encounters with the animals occurred in habitats that seemed strikingly natural and not at all “zoo-ish.”

 

There are too many pictures to post them all here, but these pictures of a Lowland Gorilla and a Sumatran Tiger (the smallest of all tigers at “only” 200-300 pounds) illustrate the point. As does this little weaver finch. I watched as this little guy carefully wove a nest: over the top, under the bottom, around the branch, over and under, over and under, again and again. Just like a human weaving a basket, except this little rascal is a bird! Who taught the bird to do that?

And I had a chance to do little “photography” in addition to enjoying the park.

One little bit of creativity that I enjoy involves using a special in-camera filter to grey-out everything but a single selected color. For this shot, I eliminated all colors except for orange.

This shot was done by taking three pictures rapidly using three different exposures, then using a computer program to combine them into a single picture, a process known as “high dynamic range” photography. The effect is that the image duplicates what the human eye can see, able to see both bright and dark areas simultaneously, something a camera cannot do without computer processing.

Back to Disney. I guess the one aspect of the Disney experience, and perhaps the one that most compels us to come back year after year, is the way it seems to elevate human nature. I noted in a prior post the comment made by one visitor that impressed me as a perfect summation of my sentiments: “I guess if you’re not happy here, there aren’t a lot of places you’ll ever be happy.” True indeed. Even after the Kilimanjaro Safari frustration of waiting for an hour, only to be turned away unfulfilled, something that one might think would create a flood of nastiness among those waiting in a crowded line, people were funny, and friendly, and good natured, and just adapted and moved on to other things. What if all of life operated thusly?

8-11 February 2017: Hamcation

One of my hobbies is amateur radio (call sign K4EAK). I have a nice little setup in the house in LaGrange, from where I’ve spoken to people in all 50 states and several hundred different countries. I even once spoke to guys in Europe by using special equipment to bounce a radio signal off the moon! Our local club assists first responders with communications during severe weather outages, as well as doing other public service tasks. I have a pretty good mobile setup in the truck, and from time to time I even play on the radio while we travel around in ACE. There’s an amateur radio chapter in our motorhome association, and a few times we’ve met up with them in various locations, like this trip back in 2014. All of this is pretty geeky, and most people would (rightly) assume that ham radio guys are mostly nerdish dweebs, who generally keep their noses stuck in various electronical gizmos,  and who for the most part have only marginal interpersonal skills. Think of Big Bang Theory come to life.

If you’ve gotten this far, this part of our Florida trip involved a descent into the deepest, darkest possible recesses of nerdism: the second-largest “hamfest” in the world, a place where thousands (literally) of hams congregate to buy and sell new and used equipment, attend seminars on various communications topics, and “socialize” (using a generous definition of the term).

A panorama view of Central Florida Fairgrounds (Orlando), where hundreds of RVs and thousands of ham radio guys have congregated for the 2017 “Hamcation.”

 

 

The “swap meet” (the indoor version, but there’s also an outdoor “tailgate” version with hundreds of sellers) and the vendor area (where dealers and manufacturers peddle their latest wares).

And since a couple dozen members of the motorhome club were in attendance, we also set up one night for a potluck supper:

About 36 members and guests from the “Family Motor Coach Association” Amateur Radio Chapter set up between a couple rows of member’s motorhomes.

I know what you’re thinking: what was poor Wendy doing during all of this, seeing as how she has a mostly normal personality and finds my ham radio activities about as dull as a fence post? My answer is, who cares? No, I’m kidding. That was a joke. I’m actually very grateful that she puts up with these little eccentricities of mine with little (well, mostly little) objection. She did spend one day visiting our son-in-law’s parents down in Lakeland, where she was able to do the Frank Lloyd Wright tour at Florida Central College, a college that has been described as the most beautiful campus in the United States. As the tour website puts it, “The story of how a Methodist college with no endowment – during the Great Depression and World War II – was able to not only convince one of the most sought after architects of the time to draw plans for their school, but was also able to afford to build them, is a wonderfully entertaining story.”

And we both enjoyed the evening get-togethers of the ham radio club. For all of the nerd-jokes that attend an event such as this, the people are actually friendly, welcoming, and interesting. Next stop: Fort Wilderness and Walt Disney World! Woo hoo!

 

3-7 February 2017: Cedar Key, Florida

We love Cedar Key. In fact, last year this was probably our favorite spot in the Florida tour. But twixt then and now, on September 2, 2016 to be precise, Hurricane Hermine made landfall at St. Marks as a Category 1 hurricane, with the eastern-side winds (the worst of the storm) making a direct hit on Cedar Key. The Weather Channel and other news coverage showed poor little Cedar Key being pummeled by waves and wind, with one scene, broadcast again and again, showing an entire dock breaking free and crashing into the shoreline. We were nervous as we left Topsail Hill Preserve and headed for Cedar Key. What would we find?

Nothing. Really. Except for the telltale color of a few new roofs, one would be hard pressed to detect any evidence of a hurricane.

So, what gives? Where’s all the death, damage, and destruction that we saw on TV? A waitress in one of the burger stops said that everything was patched up and businesses were operating and back to normal in eight days! Apparently, Florida has about a gazillion contractors who descend on hurricane-hit areas within days and start the rebuilding process (which was mostly minor patch-up here and there). And Cedar Key was doubly benefited in that Hermine hit a few days before the annual “Pirate Festival,” which as near as I can tell, involves thousands of nearby residents showing up in pirate costumes for a week of drinking, carousing, and saying “a-a-a-r-g-h” to each other, except that a large percentage of them work in building trades and they figured, I guess, that as long as they were there anyway, they might as well earn some drinking money.

Besides that, as the locals explained it, the damage wasn’t that bad anyway. We struck up a conversation with one of the guys who runs a local fishing charter, and who shed more light on the absence of any catastrophic destruction, something we should have known. Apparently the news folks, desperate for dramatic footage, would walk around, stand in a few inches of water, and zoom in on the water to make it look light an sea of wind and tsunamis. One guy even leaned sideways as he broadcast to make it look like he was struggling to fight the force of the winds and stay upright. The guy said he watched the broadcaster, wondering “what is this idiot doing?”

The explanation, of course, is that we were watching news stories. As Ken Myers points out, they don’t call them stories for no reason. The model for news coverage is not teaching, but fiction. That is, all of the elements that make for a great novel also make for great “news” and therefore drive the coverage: drama, tension, suspense, tragedy, and heroism. And like fiction, a connection to the truth is not an essential element. A degree of verisimilitude helps, but only to provide a backdrop of plausibility. And this is “real news.” “Fake news” is even worse. No wonder we’re all so stupid.

There was some damage in Cedar Key, to be sure, which is what one would expect from a 5.8-foot storm surge and an incredible 22.8 inches of rain! For example, one hotel had the ground floor flooded (but only in the area where it negligently failed to extend the sea wall), a falling-down building, not even open for business when we were here last year, fell down some more during the storm. Some railings and terraces had to be replaced and, of course, many of the roofs went bye-bye. As we drove around in the residential areas one day, we did notice a few, maybe a half-dozen, trees that had been snapped off near the top. Overall, much less damage than we feared based on the sensational coverage we had seen.

So, since everything survived just fine, what we do in Cedar Key? Everything we loved about this place last time. Toured around in the nature areas, ate at world famous Tony’s Seafood, and enjoyed the warm weather (mid-70s and sunny with light, trade-wind-like breezes).

A confederate soldier’s grave at the old Shiloh Cemetery, just a short bike-ride away from the campground.

We love to go on picnics, this time at the Levy County campground, near the “Mounds Unit” of the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge. It has nice little water/electric campsites, and costs only $15 per night.

Even a foggy morning is photogenic in its own way.

Nigel. His buddies, hundreds of them, are off diving head-first into the water, or skimming along the surface, or riding the updrafts near the buildings. Hard to believe that pelicans were once endangered.

So, Cedar Key remains one of our favorite places and a sure stop on every future winter trip to Florida. Next stop on this trip: Orlando for a ham radio thingie, then off to Disney World.

30 Jan – 3 Feb: Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

We started off this leg with a quick overnight stop to see two of our favorite people on earth, Harold and Jeneve Brooks, who recently moved to Dothan.

Dinner at the Brooks’ favorite local restaurant. And yes, we’re Presbyterians. Wine is not a sin, it’s a sacrament.

Then it was off to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Well, it’s not exactly a “state park.” It’s a former high-end RV resort that was turned over to the state, who operates it as a park. In any event, we’ve been coming to this wonderful campground for years, which caused me to wonder whether we ever get to the point where our assessment evolves to “been-there-done-that” and we look for somewhere else as a destination. Nope. In fact, we decided that next time we come here, next year I hope, it’ll be for an even longer period, like maybe a couple weeks. And here’s why.

There were a couple experiences, not guaranteed to occur from year to year, that can make Florida in the winter a wonderful destination.

Unbelievably perfect weather … crystal clear, blue skies every day, temperatures in the mid-70s, and white sand beaches for miles with very few people. Of course, last time we were here, we hit freezing temperatures, with snow and sleet.

Beautiful sunrises.

Sunrise over the dunes. Unfortunately (?), I was cursed (?) with perfect weather, which deprived me of a chance to take pictures with dramatic clouds at sunrise or sunset.

And a perfect day for a bike ride 8 miles down the Highway 30A bike path to Grayton Beach State Park.

 

But what occurred to us on this trip, and one of the main reasons we’ll be back, is that there’s an unlimited number of things to do that either we never grow tired of (like the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, something we didn’t get to this year), or nature talks by rangers, like this one on sea turtles:

“Ranger Nick” explaining that the Topsail Hill Preserve area is not only nesting grounds for three different species of sea turtles (Loggerhead, Leatherback, and the endangered Green turtle), this year it had more of them than any other area in Florida.

Or an infinity of little known, rarely visited places that are special for us, like these memorials to the soldiers and Marines who lost their lives in a helicopter crash near Navarre on March 10, 2015. We stopped here only because Wendy just happened to see a small blurb about the memorial in one of those dippy little magazines put out by the Chamber of Commerce.

A makeshift memorial along the roadside between the mainland and Navarre Beach island: flags, mementos from family and friends, and flowers. We met the city maintenance guy who said that, even though this “memorial” isn’t really a city display, he stops here every day to keep it neat. It’s his way of “paying his respects.”

The official memorial at the Navarre Park. The inscription lists the names of the four Blackhawk crewmen from 1-244th AHB, Louisiana ANG, and seven Marines from U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Eleven stars.

The memorial was especially important for us, not only because of a son who is a Blackhawk pilot, but because the crash occurred during a training mission in unimaginably terrible weather. When asked whether the weather was acceptable for a training mission, a military spokesman said, “Training in adverse weather conditions is not unusual for military personnel. We train as we fight.” Indeed. In a world where trepidation is increasingly common (this week featured a national news story where thirteen DC-area schools cancelled all outdoor activities, no kidding, because a 7-year old female bobcat named “Ollie” was discovered missing from its pen at the National Zoo), this memorial serves as a reminder that there are brave people who not only put their lives on the line when deployed to combat, they do it every day, day in and day out, to keep themselves ready to go if needed. And sometimes, even readiness demands the ultimate sacrifice.

Our only complaint? Florida seems to be unbelievably hostile to dogs. Dogs are banned from beaches, parks, picnic areas, and paths. Good grief. I guess it figures, though. Here in Okaloosa County, we learned that the word “oka-loosa” comes from the Seminole phrase meaning “no dogs.” Really. [I was going to insert something here about enhancing our travel options by having the dogs put to sleep, but since the last time I did that it caused people to line up in support of the dogs, I’ll skip it this trip.] Oh well, a small price to pay for a special place.

Next stop, Cedar Key.

January 2017: Back to Conecuh Springs

Every year, Cliff and I journey off to Union Springs, Alabama, for the Conecuh Springs Christian Springs charity hunt. I’m told that I was actually one of the first hunters, maybe the first, in the program. It all began back in the early 2000s when Robert and I were on a hunting trip in Alabama and decided to drive around and see the area. As we were driving along on some dirt road, miles back into the woodlands of the county, we saw some guy walking along the side of the road with a rifle slung over his shoulder. “Need a ride?” we asked. “Boy, do I ever!” [Digression for readers living in New York, Massachusetts, California, Washington, or any major American city: No–it’s not unusual to see a guy with a gun out in the woods, no–it’s not dangerous to stop and talk to such a person, no–he’s not going to shoot you, and yes–there are places in this country where strangers stop to chat and are friendly and helpful to one another. Now back to the story…] As we were talking, he asked, “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in doing a deer hunt, would you?” and then proceeded to explain the concept behind the first charity hunt that the local Christian school was putting together.

The idea is the local farmers would take you to their absolutely favorite hunting places on their own property, the places where they knew the odds were very good for seeing deer, and let you hunt there for three days, but at the cost of your making a nice contribution to the local Christian school. It’s a totally win-win situation. The cost is very modest compared to commercial hunts, and it’s not only great hunting, it’s a chance to hang around salt-of-the-earth, decent people who are as warm and welcoming folks as I’ve ever met.

So, this year is the umpteenth trip back to central Alabama, back to parking the motorhome at the same hunting plantation, and then back again to the farm of Don and Connie Jones for three days of hunting. The Joneses raise limousin cattle, a breed known for producing very lean and tender beef, commonly sold as “Laura’s All-Natural Lean Beef.”

Hunting always produces great stories (which, like fishing stories, are rarely true, but who cares?) but this year the stories were the best ever.

Day 1: Cliff saw a monster buck, but it was too far off for a shot, so he took a shot at a doe (or so he thought). The deer took off like it was shot out of a cannon, right for the fence at the side of the pasture. He heard a crash sound at the fence line and we took off to recover the doe. Instead of a deer piled up on the fence, though, we found this:

Seriously. In all my years of hunting I’ve never seen anything like this. In fact, none of the local farmers had ever seen anything like this. The deer was moving so fast that it actually blasted THROUGH the hogwire fence!

We eventually recovered the deer (it turned out to be a spike, not a doe) way back in the woods.

Day 2. That morning, Cliff took a shot at another doe (this time it actually was a doe) and once again it headed off like it was shot out of a cannon. (Cliff must be using rocket fuel in his hunting rounds or something. What’s the deal here?) Instead of blasting through a fence, though, this time the deer propelled itself over a cliff and down ten feet into a creek, where it promptly lodged itself under a log.

 

 

The extraction process took over an hour, but basically involved Cliff straddling two logs, muscling the doe out from underwater and then over the downstream log, tying a rope around its neck, floating it downstream to a place where the embankment was slightly less vertical, and then pushing it up the embankment while I pulled from the top. It was actually a fun, if somewhat muddy, endeavor.

Later that day, Cliff returned to the pasture where he had seen the monster buck the day before. For non-hunters, deer are highly unpredictable. Sometimes they show up, and sometimes they don’t. If they do materialize at some location, there’s no telling which direction they’ll come in from. The “home range” of a buck can range anywhere from 100 to 700 acres. Bucks, especially large bucks, are especially erratic. They didn’t get to be big, old animals by being stupidly predictable, and on top of that they have evolved over millions of years to avoid predators, such as humans. Although a deer’s hearing is not much better than ours, their sense of smell is up to 10,000 times better than ours (a deer can detect a foreign scent, and avoid the area, up to a mile away) and a deer will almost always enter an open area downwind of the woods, so that it is sure to pick up the smell of any danger lurking in the woods. The smart ones will even sometimes circle an area so they can enter it from downwind. They see about five times better than we do, and their eyes are particularly adjusted to detect movement. Plus, hunters subscribe to a code of ethics that requires one never to take a shot at a deer unless one is sure of a clean, humane kill. The result of all this is that even with modern-day camouflage, scent-suppressing chemicals, and long-range rifles, combined with the fact that most hunters are smarter, at least somewhat smarter, than woodlands animals, the odds of being able to get a good shot on a deer are very low. Just to illustrate the point, while Cliff’s hunts are proceeding as described here, good ol’ dad is sitting about a half-mile away, overlooking a nearly identical pasture, not seeing anything. Such is the nature of hunting. As the expression goes, “That’s why they call it ‘hunting’ and not ‘shooting.'”

So, Cliff decided to park himself overlooking the place where the monster buck had shown up the day before, hoping (against considerable odds) that the buck was following a routine that would compel him to show up in the same place again, that Cliff could avoid detection (he was hiding behind a fallen log, downwind of the buck’s previous path), and that all of this would come together in a way that would allow Cliff to get a good shot. Unbelievably, all of that actually happened and here’s the result.

A very nice buck (over 200 pounds), the largest Cliff has ever taken. We were told back at the Christian school later that night that this might be the largest buck ever taken on the annual hunts.

I eventually did manage to take a couple deer, but the real stories of this hunt are all Cliff’s. What a great and memorable weekend. We’re already anxious to come back next year.

31 October – 6 November 2016: Branson MO

OK, put a fork in it. We’re done. We are officially “elderly.” We got our toes into that status when we bought ACE and established ourselves as those kinds of little old people who creep along in their motorhome, with little rat-dogs sitting on our laps, backing up traffic for miles, and flipping the bird at frustrated motorists when they finally manage to pass us. And admittedly we took our senior discounts on Wednesdays, went to the 4 o’clock movies, and made sure we ate plenty of fiber. But we clung to a measure self-delusion because, in our minds at least, we didn’t otherwise generally act like “old people.” But that’s ended. We’re here in Branson. Really. Branson. We’ve come to the vacation spot of choice for those getting ready to inhale for the last time. Unlike Las Vegas (where there’s a sign at the airport that reads, “You are now leaving Las Vegas. Time to forget what you did last night.”), Branson is the place for people who forget what they did last night routinely.

And here’s the weirder thing: we really, really enjoyed it. But first, a message from our sponsors.

[Political commentary /on]

A friend recently sent me an article about the red-state versus blue-state divide, and made the oft-noted observation that blue people are mainly concentrated along the coasts, hunkered down in cities, and living in a few areas (like the northeast and places where crystal superstitions abound), while the vast geographical portion of America is essentially red. We’ve all seen the map showing that, while red and blue populations are about equal, the blue area is only about 9% of the country.

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None of this new. What hit me on this trip, though, is that I now understand why, as we travel around in ACE, we keep meeting our kinds of peeps: the red area denotes not only the politically conservative area of America, it’s almost our travel map! One doesn’t take a motorhome into New York or San Francisco, for example, but across the rural and small-town areas of the country that, frankly, blue people hate. And Branson, as the archetype of red constituencies, is just the kind of place we love. Just as a few examples:

  • We went to a Christmas show on our first day here (I know, I know, it’s early, but ignore that for now), and the show, in an auditorium filled with 700 tourists, began with the MC saying, “Before we begin, let’s not lose sight of why we celebrate Christmas in the first place: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ…” (!)
  • Many of the events began with an overtly Christian blessing before the meal (!).
  • Every event we went to, every one, had a tribute to veterans. Usually the veterans were asked to stand, while the audience applauded.
  • Many of events also carried an overtly patriotic theme (!), including the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem (often with a swipe at any “idiot” who takes a knee during the National Anthem) (!), America the Beautiful, or I’m Proud to Be An American. In most instances, the audience stood during the relevant pieces (!). Everyone always stood during renditions of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
  • We stopped by College of the Ozarks (also discussed below), a small (1500 students), Christian liberal arts college. Not only is the college the location of the Missouri Vietnam War Veterans Memorial (!), all of the students work 15 hours per week on the campus (!), plus two 40-hour work weeks (!), and up to 12 weeks during the summer (!), in exchange for which they attend tuition free (!!). The college’s vision is to produce graduates of “Christ-like character” who are, quote, “well-educated, hard-working, and patriotic.” Try to imagine THAT plaque at any Ivy League university, or actually any university in a blue area.

And so it goes: as we travel around, and in Branson especially, we find ourselves in a near-constant immersion in orthodox Christian convictions, hard work, traditional core values, patriotism, and military service. Not exactly blue-state dispositions, and it explains a lot about why we like travel in general and why I’m moving to Branson.

[Political commentary /off]

OK, where was I? Oh yeah, Branson. So, we got here as part of an RV tour group. It’s a long story, but we had a left-over deposit from the Alaska trip that we had to cancel, and decided that using it on a “rally” in Branson, a place we thought we would otherwise never go, made sense. So, now that I think about it, this trip started off doubly weird. Besides the fact that we ended up in Branson, the format was one of those things we all grew up hating: busloads of old people, waddling along en masse into and clogging up restaurants and show venues, all wearing name badges and sporting matching goofy tour-company hats. That’s us.

I’m off track again. Where was I? Oh yeah, back to Branson. So our week here included all of the major old people/touristy/kitschy activities you’d expect from someone in the throes of rapid-onset elderly status.

  • The trip started off on Halloween with a dinner, costume party (oh pull-eeze), and dance. Except for the eating part, we don’t do those things. Ever. Except we did. Proof positive of something. I’m not sure what. One indication, though, is that dinner and dancing started at 5:00 and ended at 9:00. And even worse, we didn’t make it to 9:00.
Peanut Butter and Jelly

That’s us: peanut butter and jelly. We thought our costumes were cute, but we were nothing in comparison to the other get-ups. We didn’t even make the quarter-finals of the costume contest.

  • Tuesday we did the Showboat Branson Belle, a recently constructed but otherwise authentic sternwheeler. That event provided our first suggestion that, so to speak, we’re not in Kansas anymore. It began, as mentioned above, with a startlingly overt Christian message. But then, during the salute to veterans (in which they not only recognized veterans by branch, they also got the order of precedence right!), the MC announced that one of the artists was a veteran, and it turned out to be the stunningly attractive violinist who, after graduating from Julliard (!), enlisted in the Army (!), and was introduced to the audience as former Staff Sergeant Janice Martin (!). Excuse me? We’re in a place where Julliard graduates, who aspire to a career in entertainment, first take time off to do their duty to serve their country?
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Getting ready to board the Branson Belle.

The Branson Belle auditorium, lunch served, waiting for the entertainment to begin.

Former Staff Sergeant (!) Janice Martin performing a classical violin piece.

That night it was off to show #2, the Presleys Country Christmas Jubilee. We didn’t know what to expect–I thought it was going to be an Elvis impersonator. Wrong. The Presleys (no relation to Elvis) are a family of entertainers who have lived in the Ozarks in Missouri and Arkansas for, I don’t know, hundreds of years and who put on one of the best and most popular variety shows in Branson. And besides being surprised by the gospel music sing-a-long going on upstairs before the show (!), this was our first exposure to another Branson tradition: the entertainers came by to greet our group, hang around and chat for a while, and thank us for coming. Overall: a great show. A.

The Presleys (no relation to Elvis).

  • Wednesday started off with the College of the Ozarks, mentioned above. I won’t go on and on about what an impressive school that was, but one more thing… The student guides we had (who were doing their mandatory work stints in the PR department) were both charming, articulate, and enthusiastic. They noted that CofO grads not only have zero debt when they graduate, they are highly sought after and essentially 100%-employed upon graduation because, in addition to a highly-rated education, they all have at least three years of actual work experience. Anyway, it’s worthwhile plinking around on the school’s website. As an experience, it got a grade of A+.

College of the Ozarks Chapel College of the Ozarks

 

That night, it was the “Shepherd of the Hills – Christmas on the Trail Dinner.” That was the only event during the week that Wendy and I really didn’t care for. In fact, we thought that the dinner was bad, the entertainment was worse, and the “Trail of Lights” was even worse still. Our evaluation: F.

“Cowboy” dinner and show, which was a major disappointment for us, although it was the only one.

  • Thursday started off with Clay Cooper’s Ozark Mountain Christmas. After the Trail Dinner we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were back to a truly outstanding performance, full of great music, lively performances, and (in my view) a charming and witty MC. (We both agree the musical performances got a grade of A, but Wendy thought he was a little rough on some members of the audience. For example, he asked one member of the audience his name. That guy kinda looked up with a blank stare and said nothing, to which Clay responded, “Your name is on that little tag you’re wearing if that helps.” I thought that was funny; Wendy didn’t. Sheesh. Girls.) Overall (for me): A. (Wendy gave him a B+.)

 

Then off to the Dutton Family Christmas Show. It’s hard to describe this show, or to convey what a remarkable performance we witnessed. The Duttons are a family of about 9 members who first gained fame as finalists on America’s Got Talent, where even the nefarious Simon Cowell raved about their performance. The music for the show is mostly instrumentals played on violins, guitars, violas, banjos, bass guitars and violins, with occasional keyboards and drums thrown in, combined with a style of engagement with the audience that had people laughing, clapping, and rockin’ out in their seats. Wow. A definite A++.

Then, that night, off to see The Haygoods, another performing family. After the Duttons, anything was bound to pale in comparison, but this show wasn’t really our style. The music was excellent, with wonderful closely-spaced harmonies and masterful instrumentals, but the presentation was too rock-concert’ish for us (light effects, loud music, the rock-style double arm wave, etc.) We enjoyed it, but the grade was only a B+.

Light effects up the wazoo, plus excellent music. But a bit too hip for elderly people like us.

  • By Friday, we were starting to get a little worn out, so the group had the morning off, but then it was off to see The Six, yet another family show. What’s with all of these musical families? They must be breeding in the Ozarks or something. Anyway, this is a group of six brothers (of ten brothers total) (!) (no sisters) (!) [Robert and Laura take note — if you keep trying for a girl, you’re likely to end up with ten boys]. What distinguishes them is that they use no instruments. Really. The accompaniment of instrumental sounds is all done with their voices. We had heard wonderful things about the show, and it gets great reviews, but somehow it didn’t quite measure up. Maybe our expectations were too high. In any event, only a grade of B.

We used to yell at Robert to stop making weird noises all the time. We should have encouraged him to go into show business instead.

Then off to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true. A friend, when she learned we were headed off to Branson (and after being convinced that we weren’t kidding) said, “At least please tell me you’re not going to the Dixie Stampede.” We did. The actual Dolly Parton extravaganza. The same Dolly Parton who once said, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap…” And if going to the Dixie Stampede is weird, get a load of this: we loved it! It was a terrific performance, with great music, and wonderful food. We both came out saying we’d love to bring the grandkids to the show, but frankly I’d go back even without the little darlings. Grade: A+.

 

Schmaltzy, but great. The Christmas music portion of the show was accompanied by a “living crèche.” We love that kind of stuff. Not visible, but the shepherds came in with sheep, the wise men came in on camels, and there were angels up in the rafters. More of the “I’m not ashamed of the gospel” stuff we’ve come to expect in Branson.

  • Finally, mercifully (it’s hard having this much fun), Saturday was our last day. And it started off with a breakfast and show at the Blackwood Singers, Grammy-award-winning gospel singers. I guess I never realized this, but I love gospel music. I love the foot-stompin’ Christian enthusiasm of the music, and the theology of the lyrics is just rock solid. Once again, we found ourselves in circumstances where we would have sworn the entertainment was not our style, and once again we came out of the performance having completely enjoyed ourselves. Grade: A.

I know this is getting monotonous, but after lunch we headed over to a performance by George Dyer, which turned out to be our absolutely favorite event of the week. Dyer is a classically trained, formerly touring opera singer. His show is a mix of pop tunes (Andy Williams style), Broadway music, and popular arias. The pop tunes are OK, but the show music and arias are beyond words. Wendy is a big fan of Josh Groban, and Dyer is sort of like Groban on steroids. Just a stunning performance. Definitely our favorite: A++.

Finally, it was the “Christmas Wonderland.” Eh. It was basically just dance numbers, with most of the vocals doing sort of a karaoke accompaniment to recorded music. The dancing was fine, fast-paced and creative, but after so many notable vocals and instrumentals, it was something of a letdown. I gave it only a grade of B-.

So, on balance, I’d say this was one of our best trips. Different, to be sure, than the grandeur of a trip through the western national parks, but a great way to spend a week. Think about it: of the 12 shows we saw, there 9 (!) A’s, 2 B’s, and only one bomb. In terms of a GPA, Branson is an honor candidate with a GPA of 3.9, which isn’t bad for a week’s worth of entertainment. If and when we ever have spare travel time, I’d certainly go back.