Saturday, December 24, 2011

Math Apps - Carnival of fun

I've renamed our smartphone the funphone. It's really not any more smart than my past phone, it's just a LOT more fun (and more expensive to run) than the archaic model I set aside in August. Even the educational games I've loaded "for the kids" are fun. So fun, in fact, that the same girls who have recently taken an if-it's-educational-it-can't-be-fun attitude ask regularly to "play" with it. They know they're learning math, French and U.S. History, but they're willing to make that sacrifice in the name of entertainment.

In an effort to put my research of app sources in one place (and to share them with you), I thought I'd run a few blog carnivals here over the next week or so. I'll start with math-related apps today, then feature other subject areas in future posts. I hope this compilation serves as a good resource for other parents like me who hope to make these technological tool-toys equally fun, functional and educational rather than the complete time-wasters they could easily become.

Over at iEAR, they've got a few reviews of math apps. Most of the reviews include details about the featured program, including cost and links for download. Due to its layout, the site's a little tough to read (more paragraph breaks would help declutter the text areas and make them easier to read), but the basics of each game are there as are suggestions from the reviewers for program improvements. Not sure I agree with the reviews since the "two-thumbs-up" app looks a lot like worksheets that no one really thinks are fun - least of all my girls, but I'll keep watching the page for future reviews which will help me cull the herd before downloading to try them myself.

I like the reviews at Fun Educational Apps. The site is easy to navigate using the search tool that's available on the front page, or by clicking on age-level tabs near the top of the front page.

AppDictions is easy to read, navigate and search, but beware the tempting ads for "too-good-to-be-true" items. I read several of their reviews and came away wondering if they'd really run any of these apps or if they just regurgitated the sales info from the game developers. Much of the same information is available in the iTunes store.

TechLearning has aligned its app reviews with core standards for grades 9-12. Each app includes a very brief description including price and basic idea of the software, but there's no apparent personal review. Has anyone involved in the list actually used any of these apps?

I really like the Teachers with Apps blog in large part because it seems to include students' input about the apps. The reviews are informative, easy to read and include students' takes on the apps as well as teachers views.

Wonder if games are right for kids? Some food for thought:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Organizing Kids' Rooms

Organizing "stuff" is a chore for anyone, but with kids it seems even more difficult. Their collections of toys and clothes and, in some cases, animals, quickly add up while the walls of the family home generally remain fixed. Given the opportunity, they'll play with all of their toys at once, display all of their collections and reserve every ripped, torn shred of favorite outfit to which they've grown attached. So how do you organize your kids' stuff (and your stuff) so you don't step on toes, don't reduce beyond reason and still maintain a workable home? I've been doing some research in hopes of finding new solutions to our cluttered home, and while I'm finding helpful tips, I've yet to find a complete solution.

We live in a small house, by American standards. There are four of us sharing roughly 1,300 square feet. For down-sizers and folks who live in harmony with their rural communities or have a lot of outdoor room in which to stretch, that's probably grand. But in a suburban setting, it's not so hot. Do the math. That's 325 square feet per person in which we include the kitchen and bath facilities and inside walls. (Yes. They count. And the space they take is exponentially more noticeable in a small house than in a larger one.)

Sure, the Ingals family did just fine in their little home on the prairie with a shared loft bedroom for the girls. But times were different, and their home was surrounded by thousands of acres of open space, nature. Rural living brings with it, also, chores that help fill the day; chores that take moments these days given the automation. Wintertime would pose a greater challenge with more family members sharing the small space for more hours of the day and night. But still, there were winter chores and tasks to be done.

First step at our house is always sorting the closet and chest of drawers. It's an easy way to pare down the collection of clothes that have either been worn to threads or that the kids have outgrown. We divide the outgoing clothes between the recycling bin (ripped, torn or stained clothing), the local shelter-related thrift store (wearable, but not favorites) and friends who appreciate hand-me-downs (favorites that the girls would like to share especially with their smaller friends).

While we all love our stuffies, the menagerie has grown uncontrollable. We could pack half away and rotate the garage-packed half with the inside half now and again. In fact, that's an option with all of our belongings: pull out a segment and store the rest to be rotated in at some random time in the future. Certainly we do this with seasonal toys. (Christmas comes to mind.)

We already have a cute little shelving unit in the closet and it's great as a catch all for small things or sets of small things. But it's not ideal for larger items. It's probably time to redesign the closet with better shelving that can catch a lot of the bigger toys or sets without having to break them down for each storage session. For collections, I'm thinking about installing some display shelves for my older girls' dolls. She pulls them down to play with them, but also likes them to be on display for her full enjoyment.

I found some helpful hints here and here. This one is great if your kid only has one truck and doesn't care if he can access those boxes on the top shelf. And, finally, this one cracked me up. Step one: Toys outta there! Really? Where do you propose those toys go!? The KITCHEN? Garage? Backyard? Shed? Not entirely child-friendly, those.

No matter which article you find useful, be realistic. Be sure to take a look at the "end result" photos of any of these closet organizing places or bedroom organizing articles (especially those from commercial sites) and really THINK about what's in their room once all is said and done. Typically, there are no toys or stuffies or books in sight, and no apparent storage place that would accommodate a REAL kid's stuff.

What do you do to keep your kids' stuff organized, manageable while still accessible to the kids?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Travel Favorites Worth Mentioning

We're home, we're unpacked, we've recovered from the turkey fest and life is nearly back to normal. Nearly.

My desk, however, still hasn't entirely recovered. I have a stack of business cards and wrappers and fliers I collected throughout the trip to help me remember some of the most outstanding surprise stops along the way because I wanted to share them here. With you. Sure, this would be best divided between various articles specific to location or attraction type, but for the sake of getting my desk back to work (and because the Internet is now infinitely searchable regardless of the logic of a given blog) here we go:

Maple, Cinnamon and Raisin Bread from Ellmore Mountain Bread - We picked up a loaf of this crusty bread while visiting another great stop, Butternut Mountain Farm's Country Store, in Johnson, VT. The store carries all things maple - candy, various syrups, cookies, jams. If it's made with maple, it's probably in this store. The bread was an impulse buy. It was in a basket by the cash register. We were there shortly before lunchtime. Once we returned to the car, we ripped off little tastes. No need for butter or jam or, well, ANYTHING else. While crusty on the outside like a good homemade loaf should be, the inside was soft, moist, not overly sweet, certainly scrumptious. We ended up tearing the whole thing apart with our bare hands. It was that good! My understanding is that both businesses may ship, and their selections are ideal gifts, if you're willing to spread the love.

Major kudos goes to The Floridian in St. Augustine, FL. Had they such a restaurant here, I'd likely break the family budget. The food here is not only fantastically delicious, but the menu is loaded with healthy options. I was nearly taken by the Zucchini Casserole (featuring, among other things, pepperjack and chevre cheese sauce, heirloom tomatoes and salsa), but settled with great satisfaction on the Southern Belle Salad (peaches, Sweetgrass Dairy bleu cheese, roasted sweet potatoes, toasted pecans over a bed of local lettuce all topped with their own lemon-basil vinaigrette and drizzled with Florida honey). Not only was the main menu wonderful, but there was a long list of daily specials, many of which were quite compelling, and the children's menu involved - GASP! - real food! There was not a single offering of the common staples among children's menus. I applaud The Floridian for finally feeding kids what they WILL eat, and enjoy, if only given the opportunity.

Lei's Linens in St. Augustine, FL featured beautiful cut embroidery table linens, doilies, place mats, table runners and table cloths. If I had a nice table on which to display this during special functions I would have purchased one. Hmmm...wait...these COVER the table. Good thing they have a site! I confess I also balked at the purchase because, particularly when I travel, I like to buy gifts by locals. I'm not really sure where these are made, and we were in a tourist area rife with mass-produced, foreign doodads that would remind me no more of Florida than of California, or China for that matter. Still, these are beautiful works and maybe I should've just gone for it.

Koffee Kup, 1407 13th St., St. Cloud, FL, was a special treat the morning we dropped Mr. B off at the airport. From Orlando, the girls and I were headed south via the back roads. We stopped for groceries in St. Cloud and were directed by the cashier to a local breakfast place. I'd failed to listen well enough to his driving directions, so in the parking lot I asked another local for details. He provided them, but as we turned to go our opposite directions he said, "You could do better, though." Well, THAT's what I wanted to know. He directed us to "Cup O' Joe." We drove up and down the one-mile drag, but only spotted Koffee Kup. MUST've been what he meant. It was still early Sunday morning, but the place was packed. For good reason! I'm not usually big on traditional breakfast food, but they served it up hot and fresh with some specials that even had me grinning.

How we happened upon Carolina Cider Co. near Yemassee, SC I can't really figure. It was just one of those roadside stops you make on a long trip. The stand offered pies, first of all, and free tastes, and cider. I think it was the pear cider that got my attention, and the pies that got the girls'. We swung in and were rewarded not only with our free tastes, but with a complete restocking of our trailer pantry with tasty local goodness. Sure, they have all your basic fruit jams and preserves, and some fruit butters, too. But there were other flavorful surprises, among them: Black Bean and Corn Salsa; Sweet Fire Bread & Butter Pickles with Peppers; Dilled Green Beans; Picked Watermelon Rind; and various temperatures of Chow Chow Relish. Definitely worth a stop if you're in the area, or a cruise through their online catalog.

We enjoyed our afternoon of making VERY unique "snowflakes" with Marion Nichols, a paper-cutting artist at City Museum in St. Louis, MO. I made a snowflake of adjoined octopi. E made one featuring mermaids. V's featured dragons. Mrs. Nichols has penned a few books on the subject, including patterns. We picked up a pair of the books and the girls have had fun with them here at home. Our snowflakes will never be the same! Thanks, Mrs. Nichols! Her books can be ordered via or call City Museum at 314-231-2489 ext 127.

We were all but adopted by KT and Rusty of Windham Upholstery

Texas is, I'm told, FULL of fantastic barbecue spots. We found a few, and saw a few more along the way. The best we've ever had were those we found alongside the road in random spots, not widely advertised. It was the smell that drew us to both. I'm sorry to say I don't know where that first notable portable BBQ was back in 2008. My aunt and uncle and I found it on our way through the Texas panhandle. THIS year, however, I took notes! By far the best BBQ find on this trip was Joel's BBQ in Flatonia, TX. Now, I would LOVE to have stopped at more BBQ places along our route, but even with an unlimited budget, hitting them all would have been impossible. Joel's drew us in with its fabulous barbecue scent, and sent me away smiling with incredibly fast customer service and a perfect chopped beef sandwich. If you're headed across I-10, be sure to take exit 661, then turn north. You can't miss it.

And just about everything Oldtown Bay St. Louis, MO. This spot, just around the corner from Waveland, MO, is pure Americana at its best. Old-town feel, good eats, GREAT company! Sure, they get hurricanes and floods and the occasional Gulf oil spill. Yes, they get temps in the 90s with high humidity in summer, lows in the 40s with high humidity in the winter, and the bugs can be a nuisance. But the people. The PEOPLE here are so fantastic! Friendly, cordial to strangers, community oriented. I asked a couple of locals inside Sloppy Dogs Cafe why they've stayed even through all the bad news. Without a skipping a beat, one said, "Because we get to meet friendly people like you." Indeed, pick a spot to sit in any local establishment, sit back and watch. You'll see locals, long lost friends, and strangers greet each other cordially, even enthusiastically. Need coffee, hot breakfast, Internet connection or just a place to sit and watch? Try Mockingbird Cafe.

And, finally, a blog which we found useful after our FABULOUS shelling days on Sanibel Island, FL. Did you ever find seashells you just couldn't identify? Try for a photographic encyclopedia of the shells that roll onto Florida's western shore (and other parts of the world).

If you have some off-the-beaten-path, locally owned favorites, please share them with us! We LOVE 'em!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hey, It's Good To Be Back Home Again (Yes, It Is)

Sometimes, this old home feels like a long lost friend. Yes, and, hey, it's good to be back home again.

Welcome to the Smartphone Generation - Our First Apps

OK, I really should have made this change before we left home, but I put OFF the smart phone upgrade in large part due to the additional cost for bandwidth with my (or any) cell carrier. With this many miles to travel, so many places to explore, so much information to gather and so many potential weather issues, I really should have upgraded before the trip. It would have been fun to have (and likely beneficial) at Disney World, would have been less frustrating than those old, outdated Garmin maps in my "old" GPS, and would have kept us more closely connected with friends and family throughout the trek.

But we have it now, and we're use of it. First thing? The girls took photos of each other with it, recorded each other and, of course, I found a few apps to play with during these long car days. (Why not? They sure earned some fun with all the patience they've shown these long days.)

So which, you may ask, was our first app? The all important FLASHLIGHT, of course! Great for those times when you don't have a flashlight handy but need a little burst of light (or, in this case, a strobe). After all, isn't this why we carry a phone?! (Technology - ain't it grand?)

Other first-round additions to our new toy essential travel tool:

Weatherbug: all things weather related - input your location and it will give you current data, forecasts and radar imagery;

GasBuddy: a free app that depends upon users updating gas prices as they travel; as you approach your next potential gas stop, click on Gas Buddy to find the least expensive fuel in town - broken down by grades (even diesel);

Skyview Free: a guide to celestial bodies - point your phone camera lens at the objects in which you're interested and it will name the bodies and constellations and provide links to additional information about those items of interest;

OregonTrailFree: a simplified, cartoon version of a PC game the girls have enjoyed for a few years now;

Presidents vs. Aliens (NOT to be confused with the violent Aliens vs. Presidents): learn about the U.S. presidents and earn credit toward the arcade-style fight against invading green men from outer space. The more you learn, the more games you earn access to play;

Finger Paint: a simple electronic version of a relaxing pastime for the creative set;

Stickman Cliff Diving: determine the rate of spin and angle of entry for the stickman and hope he doesn't flop as he plummets from a cliff to meet the judges' demands. I never thought I'd laugh so hard at watching a stick figure do a belly flop from 40 meters above the pencil-drawn water line;

Bouncy Seed: a "lesson" in angles and physics - mindless arcade style fun;

Fruit Ninja Lite: now we're talking mindless - slash the fruit to earn points but don't slash the bombs;

PlayHome: E asked for this one when she saw it as we perused the App store. It was free, and sometime, you know, you just need to watch the baby jump on the bed;

RushHourFree: an electronic version of Rush Hour, the popular board puzzle game;

Monorail: a close-the-path puzzle challenge also available in its older, internet form here;

Cut the Rope Lite: a super fun, cute, entertaining physics puzzle game - we may have to shell for the full version of this since we keep running through the early puzzle set;

and Stack the States: answer the questions about the states to earn a puzzle piece, then stack them to meet a goal line to earn badges. Collect state badges to earn access to additional games.

Some of you are well ahead of me on the smartphone curve. What apps have you adopted? Which can't you live without now that you've welcomed them into your lives? Which should we avoid entirely?

Hueco Tanks - a treasure in the desert

Our hostess TOTALLY gets me. Today, she took us sightseeing through El Paso.

Then she and the kids took us out to what must be the coolest natural attraction anywhere within a hundred miles: Hueco Tanks State Park. What a beautiful, family-friendly place to explore!

The park, located about 30 miles east of El Paso, is named for the "huecos," or hollows in the syenite rock, a course igneous rock that's fantastic for climbing. When rain falls in most of our western deserts it percolates almost immediately through the porous soils. But here, where the rock has worn in dips and hollows, the water gathers, sometimes in relatively deep pools. Here microclimates support life that is unusual in most of the desert, and wildlife gathers to take advantage of the abundant vegetation and water.

The place had become incredibly popular with hikers as well as visitors in search of Native American artifacts and pictographs. But popularity comes with a price. In recent years, the majority of the park has been closed to the general public except by guided tours. There is also a daily access limit for the rest of the park (only 70 visitors per day). Before accessing the trails, visitors must watch an introductory video that explains the history of the region and its peoples as well as current rules and park uses. The video probably puts off some visitors, but I didn't mind the time out that gave us some insight to the area. The kids (and moms) had a great time exploring the park, and particularly following the treasure-hunt-like route on which rangers directed us up North Mountain, past a giant stone "rubber duck," a "crocodile" and into an enormous stone pedestal for fantastic views.

Welcome to El Paso

After a long day across the desert of central Texas we found refuge in the arms and home of friends made even more dear by this visit. I always enjoyed their company when they lived around the corner, but spending a couple of days relaxing and visiting at their new home and in their community further cemented the bond. Our four kids all play so nicely together, whether quietly in a corner or throwing their heads back and laughing at the top of their lungs as they dash about the house and property. And with them distracting each other, the adults actually had time to visit, catch up, carry on conversation only as (almost) uninterrupted adults can.

After our long day from Austin to El Paso (not to mention the other 10,000 miles of this trip), neither of the girls nor I was ready to venture out much during our first day in El Paso. The kids were perfectly happy to stay home and play: dress up, tag, Kickory (hide and seek in the dark), and crack pecans in the backyard as the nuts fell from the trees the kids were climbing.

Just before sunset, our hostess and I took a walk down to the Rio Grande, a shocking experience if you're expecting WATER. It seems that the river has long been dammed and is entirely managed for irrigation control. So, by this time of the year, you're unlikely to see water in the sandy riverbed. We did gaze at the New Mexico neighborhood on the other shore and wondered about a pair of private vehicles we saw meandering down the riverbed. The first desert sunset of our trip offered a beautiful return to the west as we walked back home where the girls and I enjoyed this family's nightly tradition of singing and game play between bathtime and bedtime.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Crossing Texas - a Whole Lotta Desert Fun

When folks asked us about our intended route home, none who'd traveled it had anything good to say about the stretch of I-10 that runs the width of Texas. Even Texas, known for the pride they have in their state, told us variations that summed up to this: "That is the longest, most boring stretch of nothing you'll ever drive."

I can see why folks who have never stopped or camped in the desert might say that. It is a long stretch and there aren't a lot of cities or shopping centers along the way. In fact, we swung in to Bakersfield for gas only to find that the "city" is defined by precisely one two-pump gas station. There's not a restaurant or home or store in sight. At its peak in the early 1930s, there were 1,000 souls living in this unincorporated community (aka dispersed community), eking out an existence in the oil fields. By 2000, there were 30 living in the area, according to U.S. Census data.

So we opted to cruise further west in search of lunch. (Our ice chest is cleaned out - no more bread in the pantry - forgot the peanut butter in Louisiana.) We used our new (yay smartphone!) to look up some local eateries in Fort Stockton which, on our paper map, looked like a significantly sized town. Our first three stops (two local BBQ spots and a local burrito spot) were all closed weekends, which led V to nickname this town a "Monday through Friday City." At a stoplight in town, I asked the driver of the vehicle next to us for a good lunch stop and we found our way to a BBQ spot really not worth spotlighting here.

Bellies full and gas tank topped off we headed back out into the desert.

I was really excited to see mountains again - rock mountains; piles of boulders! As we continued west, they grew more plentiful and prominent. Some just see these as obstacles in road building. I saw them as secrets to unfold. Those canyons and peaks hold fantastic natural secrets for anyone willing to slow down and take the time to see them. If I've learned nothing from traveling the Mojave Desert with my parents, I've learned THAT lesson.

But we didn't slow down any more than the strong headwinds required and we made it to El Paso before sunset.
Staying with friends (the neighbors who abandoned us - wait...these aren't the ONLY good neighbors who have moved on. Is it me?) for a couple of days of play and catching up before the long blast for home.

I suspect there will be a bit of a break in the blog upon our return home. We have a lot of cleanup to do once we get back home, plus catching up with Mr. B and friends and family back home. We're all very excited to see you all again!

Thanks for following our adventure. If you have questions, drop me a line. If you have comments, leave 'em at the end of the posts or drop me a line. With the new smartphone, I may even be able to answer e-mails in a timely manner!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Stadium, Springs and Trampolines - Austin, TX

We're on our run home now, with long days of driving broken up by stops planned to visit family and friends along the way. It's no accident we're making our homeward run through the nation's southernmost deserts. Friends and family members like these are too precious to pass up.

Next stop: Austin, Texas - home of the University of Texas Longhorns - where the rock n' roll hand sign for the devil becomes the horns of a longhorn, typically displayed by proud students and alumni who couple the sign with an enthusiastic cheer, "Hook 'em!"

This is cowboy country, even if this city is known for its countless coffee houses, shopping opportunities, incredible dining opportunities and trampolines.

OK, the city isn't known for trampolines, but my cousin, always a child at heart, knew JUST the place to give the girls their first introduction to Austin. Jumpoline reminded us a lot of Sky High Sports in Sacrament, CA. But Jumpoline was a much more compact, cleaner, more visually appealing spot for the family. My cousin (pregnant with twins so unlikely to jump on a trampoline ANYTIME soon) and I enjoyed a relatively uninterrupted visit while the girls jumped and rolled and flopped themselves sweaty.

Next stop - Barton Springs. I had no idea where we were heading. Had I an inkling, I would have packed towels and swimsuits. Austin's aquifer pumps out some 27 million gallons of water every day from this city center natural freshwater spring in Zilker Park. For $3/adult ($1/child or senior), visitors can swim in the cool (68 degree) water. A concrete deck (ala swimming pool) has been built around the natural spring and there are ramps and stairs that provide swimmers with water access. A diving board juts out over the deepest part of the spring. Many of the swimmers we saw here donned swim caps and goggles and swam the spring pool like any other swimming pool. The girls particularly enjoyed trying to catch minnows in the shallow end.

Our cousins also introduced us to lots of great eats for such a short stay, not the least of which was Sushi Zushi. The Tower is not to be missed - sashimi on rice served with four types of caviar, avocados, and wasabi mayonnaise all mixed at the table. Sounded not so fab to me, but I thought I'd give it a taste. Wow...good thing I'm adventuresome or I would have missed out. (The girls, as adventuresome as they are, weren't all that interested in caviar so opted out. E gave it a taste, but left the rest to us. V is opposed to eating baby anything, except chicken eggs.)

It was really nice to catch up and cruise town with one of the most-intelligent, funniest pregnant ladies I've known. Thanks, Cuzz, for your hospitality!

N'Awlins With Kids

After last night's (Halloween's) late night fun, we had a leisurely start to the day before we packed up the families to head into New Orleans ("N'AW-lins") for the day. First a stop at the local waterway, then a walk through the French Quarter ("the CAW-duh") for some history, treats and local eats.

We drove the few blocks to the banks of the Mississippi (can we call levies banks?) and dipped our toes in, threw rocks and kept our eyes peeled for snakes. The channel was much wider here than I'd expected. (It's tough for my brain to translate Google Map scale to Real Life scale. Hence the 10,000-mile road trips.) Sure, cruise ships and barges travel up and down the river daily, but I thought the river, with all of its improvements and dredging had been entirely altered to something more akin to the Los Angeles River. Instead, we found an expansive stretch of muddy water that looked nearly as serene as a lake, but we were assured the current here is not something to fool with.

On to N'Awlins where we were first greeted by the steam horn from the Natchez (steam wheeler) as it pulled off the dock for its next tour. We all had a delicious lunch featuring local favorites at "Gumbo Pot" - Jambalaya, Gumbo, Crawfish Ettoufee and, for some of the younger set, spaghetti with meatballs, of course. E really enjoyed her Jambalaya, and Our Hostess and I enjoyed the bartender's Bloody Mary and Hurricane, respectively.

Then it was off for a walk through the French Market where we had our first pecan praline (OH! YUM!) and some "shoe sole pastry" - a large, thin, light pastry oval with cinnamon and sugar - a fun, crumbly treat to share on a walk through the Quarter.

Our Hostess did a great job of diverting the kids' attention so they entirely missed the XXX shop we passed off Bourbon Street, and we skipped Bourbon Street per the recommendation of everyone we met along our way. With kids - not so great. Grandma Lynn had advised we hit up Cafe du Monde for beignet, so, with such a late, filling lunch, we opted for a dinnertime snack of the sopapilla-like, powdered-sugar-encrusted treat and, for the grownup set, coffee at the outdoor cafe before climbing on a carriage for a sunset tour of the Quarter.

Note to Grandma Lynn and Grandpa Doug - On your next visit, you might want to check out the wild animal park of yesterday's post, of course you'll head to Cafe du Monde, and try Miss Odessa's treats in the French Market, and check out the Blacksmith's (with kids in tow, the candle-lit tavern wasn't a stop we could make, but it looked very enticing).

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happy Halloween, Giraffes n' Zebras!

Have you ever fed a giraffe? I don't mean that one leaf of lettuce you can get for several bucks at some parks. I mean FED a giraffe while stroking its head, looking it in the eye, feeling its thick skin, petting the folds of its neck. Today, we did, and it was fantastic.

Our hosts here in Belle Chasse, Louisiana led us about 90 minutes north to Folsom, LA (home of the prison made famous by Johnny Cash) for a tour of Global Wildlife Center. It sounded like something that would be right up V's alley: ride in a vehicle and stop here and there to pet the exotic animals. Two of our hosts' three children also really enjoy this spot (the third came along for the ride in the Pinzgauer).

What a fantastically unique and fun stop! We hand fed a lot of deer, some oryx, camels, llamas, bison and more. Our driver, Brad, was knowledgeable, friendly, accommodating and informative.

Our giant lug of corn kernels spent, we returned to the house to prep for Halloween fun. V ultimately decided to wear her Hogwart's attire. She tucked her wand into its
special pocket, donned her robe and perched her owl on one hand. E was hoping to go as a dryad, but the weather wasn't conducive to the thin dress that was the base of her outfit. She didn't like the lumpiness created by wearing ANYTHING underneath it, so she went with her colonial dress. They were accompanied by: a witch, a ninja, Batman, a chef and a crazy Steelers fan. Oh, and me...I'm not sure what I was, but per our hostess's request, it involved pig tails, freckles and an apron.

When people think of New Orleans, they may think of Mardi Gras. But I'll tell you what: people down here don't save their good party habits for a single season around here. We joined some of our host family's friends for trick-or-treating in a neighborhood that KNEW how to throw a family friendly party: serious house decorations, streets closed to all vehicle traffic, plenty of kid treats at fairly traditional door-to-door tradition (they sit outside at tables here to hand out the treats), and a bbq setup ala local sheriff's office running in the middle of the street for all to enjoy - boudin sausages, chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, pasta salad, nachos, dips, chips, cakes, pies, brownies, ice cream, snow balls.

It didn't take the kids to make the neighborhood treat loop, grab a hot bite, test a snow ball and watch the grown people run into family and friends here. Then it was back to the house for The Big Candy Swap - six kids on the livingroom floor, their candy piled before them as they negotiated, their parents sitting behind them and coaching them for the "good" (ie. Mom's and Dad's favorites) trades.

We were all really sad that Mr. B wasn't here with us tonight. He was home alone, dressed in his newly created armor (made from years' of tossed CDs and DVDs) handing out candy to the 23 kids who tapped on our door. The worst thing about traveling is not having him with us - or not being home with him, particularly for traditional events like Halloween, or pizza night, or Mondays.

Ten more days, 2,000 more miles, and we'll all be together again. WOO HOO!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Halloween Prep

Today, we kicked around the Klanica house, watched the kids play and prepped for Halloween. Pumpkin' carvin', face paintin' and lots of gigglin'.

P.J. loves his big sister Molly
All the kids love Big Wave Dave
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We didn't know this would be the last time we'd see Molly. She was always such a great match for my girls, especially E. She was super patient with her little brothers, Ben and PJ, fun loving and adventurous. Both E and Molly rabid (beyond avid) readers at this point, and in their time together here in Louisiana and in Washington back in 2008, the girls really hit it off. Molly passed away in New Jersey in 2014 shortly before her family would move to Oklahoma.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Waveland Reawakens - Six Years After Katrina

Yesterday (Oct. 27) was a relaxing day at the beach for all of us. With no electronics or wallets or keys to worry about, V and I hit the shallow surf, body surfed, played with the sand and the waves while E read on shore and started her own sand sculpture. (I suspect that, after hearing about the local varieties of sharks, she wasn't interested in getting wet at all here, but she really wasn't willing to specify.) As we approached the water, V said, "What's that? In the wave?" She'd spotted a $20 bill and we hopped into the warm water to retrieve it. We stayed out of the deep water and had a great play time before heading to dry land.

There we sculpted a manatee, giant sea star, some baby alligators and forts before the tide came in and too, our manatee away, threatened the babies and our fort, and started a shallow pool that ran yards and yards along the beach for exploration and splashing fun. We stayed again 'til near sunset before heading back to camp for our last "in camp" meal of this trip - their favorite: walking tacos.

Today, we put on some miles toward home. We passed through Alabama at lunchtime, so we headed for Panini Pete's in Fairhope, Alabama. Our friends in Virginia loaned us Guy Fieri's "Diner's Drive-Ins and Dives," a guide to some of his favorite spots on the nation's byways. I was leery (I'm not a huge panini fan), but was rewarded with not only a fantastic lunch (the special of the day: cheeseburger cooked TO ORDER topped with a slice of grilled green tomato, light drizzle of barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese), but friendly, quick service and a busy, fun, friendly atmosphere. The girls shared a rosemary chicken panini which, after my taster bite, changed my entire attitude about panini. Then we all shared the cinamon-apple beignet pudding.

While walking through this lovely old town the girls spotted a consignment store dedicated entirely to teen and preteen clothing. (Youngnique). The sale rack out front ($1 for a girls' shirt, like new. Really?) drew us in. An hour and two VERY happy girls later we left with some nice, apparently new dresses for each girl and a nice dress coat for V. They danced, bags in their hands, out of the store and back to the van.

Then we pressed on into Mississippi for the night, and found ourselves at Buccaneer State Park. (Note to Mississippi State Parks: it's not the folks with full hookups who need the restroom facilities. You might want to add facilities to tent/no-hook-up sites for the sake of sanitation.) The park is just west of Waveland, Mississippi, the point at which Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005. Still, 6 years later, the effects are clear. Along the beachfront, no original homes remain standing. Most of the properties remain for sale. Several have been rebuilt, most on stilts (shoring) varying from about 8 feet to well over 15 feet. Ruins of previous homes remain - their shoring,their stairs, their driveways, bits of picket fence, someone's dream home along the Gulf shore. In the state park where once a thriving water park stood, now a waterslide to nowhere creeped out the girls. ("That looks dangerous," V said, before I told her about the events that took place here.)

After making camp, we took a drive east along the coast to old town Bay St. Louis. Here, all that remains of the old bank is the vault, its door reopened after the storm, the lot now for sale like so many others. The town's old brick structures have been cleaned up and reoccupied. It's a quiet, walkable, entirely friendly place where neighbors greet each other around every corner. We stopped two teenage boys on the street after dark (carrying coffee cup from Mockingbird Cafe) for a dinner recommend and they pointed us to Sloppydogs Cafe where we were fed, entertained and adopted. The owner, Aaron, entertained and occupied his own boys while feeding the masses, locals and otherwise, who wandered through his door. Great place for comfort food and a good beer, root or otherwise.

On our way back to camp (and after dark) we stopped to take a walk on the Garfield Memorial Pier in Waveland. It's a beautiful new bit of construction that juts out into the Gulf. The pier offers several fishing stations that extend from each side of the pier, nice evening lighting, shade structures, benches, fish cleaning stations, fish nets and, when the volunteers are on hand, fishing opportunities for beginners. We had NO idea, so when a couple on the pier asked if we wanted to try fishing, we were surprised when they led us back to the pier-base office, picked up rigged rods, a bag of shrimp and handed it all over. V, who loves to fish, was all over the opportunity and she and I fished for a little over an hour while E read the fishing guide and her own book. I caught the first fish - perhaps a young mullet about 5" long - and the second, a 12" catfish. V was next with a 12" Black Drum and finally with a 15" catfish. We threw back all of our catches. (The catfish are, reportedly, no good to eat. The mullet was too small, and the drum, while large enough we were told, will grow to some 3 feet, so we opted to let it develop for a fisherman of the future.) A GREAT opportunity along the glad we stopped for the walk.

With a few hours to kill in the morning, we returned to Bay St. Louis to walk the town and take part in Barktoberfest, the local animal shelter's autumn awareness and entertainment event. Dogs in costume. People in costume. Animal tricks. Animals for adoption. Bounce house. Good times. Relaxing morning in fine Small Town America.

We stopped in to Sloppy Dogs again before heading west to Belle Chasse, just south of New Orleans (who KNEW there were cities south of New Orleans?!) to visit good friends, good kids, great company.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dumb Luck Wins Again - Grayton Beach, Florida

I'd rather have dumb luck than no luck at all. More often than not, the first sort (certainly coupled with recommendations from well-meaning, enthusiastic locals) leads us to a great spot like this one.

We were headed for Wakulla Springs to camp and swim again today, but when we arrived at the state park (listed in the state's guide as a campground, among other things), we found instead that the only lodging here is a 27-room lodge. At $95 to $150 per night, it wasn't really what we were going for when we headed for a state park campground. Further, we discovered the springs wasn't accessible for our type of recreation, and the boat tour to the spring would be had only at additional cost.

The girls had the option to drive 30 minutes down the road to the next closest state park (which we were assured by the friendly ranger really does have camping) or press on 150 miles or so to the camp intended for the next night. The benefit of moving on, they agreed, would be that we'd stay at the beach camp two nights and have a day out of the car. Plus, they could continue listening to "Pollyanna," (again, ala

So, to Grayton Beach we headed on the resort coast of Florida, known better for the plush condo village of Destin. What a find. Beautiful state beach park, affordable camping, full hookups (for those who need them), hot showers, flush toilets and all 1/2 mile walk (or drive) from the park's own stretch of white-sand beach. Clean, green, warm, translucent Gulf water, and sand that, when tossed in wet piles or scuffed with bare feet, "barks" like shoes on a basketball court.

We built a fort and a mermaid, watched the mermaid wash back into the sea and enjoyed leaping and running as the sun set.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Water, water EVERYWHERE - Manatee Springs

Throughout this trip I've been AMAZED by the sheer volume of water on this side of the nation. The East Coast is tangled in a web of creeks, streams, ponds, lakes, swamps, bays and springs. It's absolutely incredible.

Nowhere in our trip has this been more evident than here in Florida where we've experienced not only lakes and beaches, rivers and streams, but tropical storms bringing buckets of water nightly. Today, we were introduced to Florida's freshwater spring system.

There are, in fact, more than 600 freshwater springs in Florida. More than 30 of those EACH pump 65 to more than 150 million gallons of water every single day of the year. No winter lull. No summer dry spell.

Here at Manatee Springs, the fourth-largest output of the first magnitude springs in Florida, the water wells out of the earth with enough force to push a grown woman downstream, nudge a boat to shore, float a child indefinitely. The water gushes up clear and cool (72 degrees) year round. And this clean, clear water is just too much for 'gators, so it's safe for swimming for 50 yards or so before a rope divides the generally 'gator-free zone from the 'gator visiting zone. The water runs downstream about 300 yards to join the tannic (tea-brown) water of the Suwannee River, which rolls on another 22 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. No one swims here except the wildlife including countless fish (freshwater and saltwater), turtles and, of course, 'gators.

We had a nice walk along the boardwalk to the Suwannee River where we checked out the birds and turtles on the serene water. Then we headed to the spring for a dip.

It was a little freaky to get in water that just bubbled up out from a dark ledge which may have housed a cave or just lacked sunlight. But I waited for other swimmers to hit the water, many with snorkels, then slowly and cautiously joined in. Once I swam over the ledge and looked at the bottom the first time, the creepy factor was (nearly) erased and V joined me for a swim into the current.

We had some fantastic neighbors at this camp. Friendly. Fun loving. There was a family-n-friend reunion going on over there, and their laughs and giggles were infectious. This afternoon, as we took a snack break at camp, they returned from their morning canoe/kayak paddles. Katie and Rusty invited us to use their canoe, which still rested on shore. They armed us with paddles and life vests and sent us on our merry way. We opted to keep with the clear spring water and stay within our ability there on the spring-fed tributary, but never pulled out onto the tidal-influenced Suwannee.

By the time we returned to the spring for our last dip of the day, the ocean tide 22 miles away had already raised the spring/river/creek water level a full foot. E joined V and me for a swim, then back to camp for baked potatoes and beans. (We're trying to clean out the pantry before we return to civilization - and kitchens.) Our neighbors invited us over for hot dogs on their fire. We brought over the s'more makin's, and a lovely evening was had by all.

While we didn't get to experience an up-close-and-personal visit with a manatee, we did get to experience camp robbers, Souther style, in the form of a late-night armadillo visit. Turns out they like pineapple cores, burned baked beans, Girl Scout cookies and potato skins.

Nice, clean, quiet, dark campground (great stars!) with hot showers, flush toilets and lots of recreational opportunities - would return here in a heartbeat.

Southern Hospitality

I can't tell you how many fantastic people we've met on this dip through the south. People who are quick with a smile, greet each other politely, and who want to share the best their communities have to offer. We have been all but adopted by more strangers here that I ever imagined would have welcomed perfect strangers into their lives.

In Florida we have standing invitations to Lake Okechobee and an annual family reunion by a gushing freshwater stream. In Virginia, not only have we been hosted by friends who relocated their from the Central Coast, but we have standing invitations to stay at a lakeside cabin, take a bateaux boat ride, stop in for laundry and the rejuvenation only a guest room on a permanent foundation can provide. In Mississippi, we have a standing information to back into local driveway, plug the trailer in for recharging and refilling while relaxing in the guest room while the kids (theirs and ours) play the days away.

It's a quick and easy welcome I haven't seen many other places. And it got me thinking: why?

As we were adopted in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Mississippi I started to wonder if this willingness to offer help and rest to perfect strangers didn't have anything to do with the terrible natural disasters people down here experience too often. When a community is used to banding together to weather the storm, or recover from it, I think they learn to see each other's needs earlier that those of us who don't face these events, to offer help before they're asked, and to give everything they have - because they know their neighbor will do the same for them when the time comes.

Maybe I'm wrong.

Maybe I'm wishin'.

But something amazing is happening down here. I like it. I want to can it and bring it home so I can share this practice across the country; to share the wonderful feeling of trust and love that exists down here in the practice of welcoming friendly, inquisitive strangers with warm, safe, supportive arms.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Morning Walks, Cedar Knees and Freshwater Paradise

Florida has certainly had its due this trip, and now it's time to press on toward home. Still, we don't want to push ahead and miss ALL the sites in the 2,800 miles between here and home, so we've planned some stops along the way.

Last night, we camped at Silver Lake in the Withlacoochee Forest. Though unfortunately located adjacent to the freeway, it's a beautiful lake surrounded by forest, home to countless 'gators and (I was told) good fishing. Our camp neighbors were friendly, inquisitive and helpful. We arrived early enough to take out our Sanibel shells for a good washing - WHEW! Did they stink up the car or WHAT?!

I woke early this morning, so while the girls slept in the locked trailer, I took a short walk by the shore. The light was nice as the morning mist rose from the lake. I never spotted a 'gator, but wasn't brave (or dumb) enough to stick my feet in the lake's dark waters. No telling how quickly it may drop off, where the holes might be and just how big nature's critters might be here. Oh, and water moccasins - I'm not a fan.

Then we headed toward Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of seeing the manatees. (Note to all: research in advance would avoid this kind of confusion - I confess I didn't do my due diligence before leaving home - but that's alright.) Thanks to the information radio station broadcast for visitors approaching the reserve, we learned the refuge is only accessible by boat. Instead, we were directed to Homosassa Springs wildlife State Park.

I don't know who names any of these parks in Florida "the nation's best." While I enjoyed our afternoon here, it certainly wasn't the best zoo, park, refuge or family destination of any sort I've visited in the nation. It was fun, the animals were fun, the docents were friendly and we did get to set eyes on some manatees that live full-time at the reserve. The highlights for me were the boat ride from the main visitors' center up Pepper Creek to the park's front gate (there's parking at the gate, too). Small children (say 5 and younger) would be much more impressed than my children, who were hoping for some hands-on experiences. In fact, even the spring itself is entirely inaccessible to visitors.

The park offers a nice walk through the grounds, interpretive signs, animals unique to the area (plus Lu, a hippo made honorary Florida citizen some years back), hand-scooped ice cream and a nice selection of raptors. You'll see the noses of manatees grazing, and one presentation per day allows visitors to touch an animal (in our case, a King Snake). There's also a small education center where visitors can do rubbings (again, great for those 5 or younger) and read a bit more about the animals.

We DID learn that it would be unlikely for us to see manatees in the wild this early in the season. They won't head in toward the clear spring waters until the coastal waters cool. Then the manatees will head to the constant 72-degree temps of clear, clean spring waters for the winter.

So we pressed on to our intended camp destination - Manatee Springs.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Captiva Island - meh...

After our beautiful day on Sanibel Island, we thought we'd check out equally storied Captiva, the neighboring barrier island to the north. In short, don't bother. Stick with Sanibel, avoid the drive time, the parking fees and the current.

The beaches we experienced at Captiva were far more weather beaten, so the shell hunting wasn't that great. Most of the beach access here seemed dominated by the beautiful, shorefront luxury homes. There is no street parking, and there are, apparently, only two public parking lots (both paid, both with very limited space) on the island. For residents here, I'm sure it's lovely, but unless you're shelling for a resort here, it's not really worth the hassle. We read about longer hikes to better coves, but with parking meters placing deadlines on our otherwise leisurely adventure, we opted to head back to Sanibel's lighthouse point for some beachcombing. But first, an entertaining stop at a local tourist trap to check out the trinkets and the hats.

Then I put the camera away. It's fun to take photos, but I find myself too often playing the role of family history recorder rather than participant. I wanted to get in the water, hunt for shells, wander like my 9 and 11 year olds and not worry about electronics. So, pictures of the great beachcombing at the lighthouse, but we'll have memories to spare (and have shells and stories to tell when we get home).

After an hour at the lighthouse, our paid parking time was up, and rather than pay the meter again, the girls wanted to head back to the known entity, so back to our hotel we went for a beautiful, wonderful day on the beach playing, resting and learning more about the creatures that crawl this shoreline.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sanibel Island, a Shell Hunters' Dream

Slept in this morning a bit, then had a hot breakfast before heading to the beach where the promised seashells lay awaiting pickers like us. The girls and I all put this island beach on our list of places to see after reading about the ample seashell combing to be hand. Because of the lay of the land, each tide sweeps countless shells up onto the shore. Still more lay untouched just a few feet out into the gulf.

We spent the morning beachcombing, E and I finding plentiful shells for a variety of projects. V focusing, as usual, on living beasts and creating her own aquarium in the sand. When we found live animals, we turned them over to her. All totaled, her aquarium included four sea cucumbers (two she named "Memory Foam" and "Hush Puppy"), several purple urchins, four sea anemones, three fighting conch, a couple of live scallops and a BABY OCTOPUS! THAT was the coolest animal she's ever found. We kept it in the pond for observation for awhile (and shared it with passers by) before finally walking it offshore a ways and releasing it.

A boy struck up conversation with E and in no time they were out on the sandbar splashing away and bringing more shells and live things to her sister. Austin, though a full head taller than her, is only one grade older than E, and was very pleasant, soft spoken, funny. They spent most of the remaining daylight together either in the ocean, on the beach or in the pool where we spent our afternoon.

As we picked shells, I couldn't help but think of all of our family members who so enjoy the beach, shell hunting, rock hunting. We know Grandma Ruth would have been in heaven here, and we're really sorry Aunt Kathy isn't here with us to pick up shells. A number of our finds, which we soon discovered were alive, reminded me of Auntie M. (Yes, we threw them back!) We made tidy little collections and look forward to sharing them with you all when we return.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Inside Everglades, and On to Paradise

Woke to a BEAUTIFUL, blue, clear sky this morning and decent morning temps in the low 70s. HALLELUJAH! After checking the ground for creepy, crawly, potentially fatal critters and discovering no mosquitos in the sunshine, I started breakfast for the crew. While the girls ate on the safety of the picnic table (over pavement), I unloaded the trailer cabinets and did a little repair. It seems the SINGLE SCREW that anchored the entire cabinetry system to the floor just wasn't enough. After 38 years and who knows how many miles (more than 20,000 with us), the wood into which it was screwed split and the cabinets have been pushing out into the walkway for the past few days on the road.

Fortunately, my dad provided me the tools (both literal and figurative) to deal with such a problem. On one of the keys, I found a hardware store where I hunted down some L brackets, screws and a cordless drill (we needed a new drill at home anyway, right Dear?). Unfortunately, the drill motor is too long to fit between the wheel well of the trailer and the support post I was repairing, so I had to resort to the tool bag. The regular screwdriver was too long, too. So for the first stage of the screwing I used the drill's screw attachment (two-ended so it was a bit longer than it might have been otherrwise) and a wrench to make 3/4 of that installation. But then I hit some hard wood and just couldn't turn it.

I dug deeper into the tool bag (emptied it) and came across a tool I suspect was left in one of my vehicles when Dad worked on it some time in the past. I don't think you can buy one of these, but it's a little screwdriver with the last inch or so bent at a 90-degree angle. PERFECT! Well, perfect enough to nearly complete the job. Turns out the head of the screwdriver was finer than the head of the screw, so with probably one full turn (or four quarter turns since that's how it had to be done in the confined space) later, the center of the screw was stripped. I think a short, chubby screwdriver will do the trick to finish it off next stop.

I finished just in time for the girls and I to make the boat tour into the heart of Everglades park. We'd considered renting a canoe, but given my limited canoeing experience, our limited knowledge of the park, the variety of hazards here and the true stories of people going missing here (NEVER to be found), we opted to take what we all felt was the safer route. It was nice to have a guide point out the sights, identify plants and animals and share some local stories.

There's an inland waterway that connects Flamingo to Everglade City that would be fun for a rugged outdoors type with canoeing skill and a lot of backcountry skills. It's apparently a 90-mile paddle, best done "downstream" from north to south. Since there's little dirt in the mangrove river, some platforms have been erected for the hearty ones who attempt the trek. I wonder what climbs on the platforms overnight...

Rather than test the post-storm recovery time of the mosquito storm (and play back at camp with the snakes which, we were told by our guides today, our always plentiful in the campground), we opted to carry on to the coast. We stoppped at Shark Valley for another walk with the alligators before heading out of the park. This paved, flat path along a man-made canal leads 7 miles to an overlook that beckoned me. But the girls, both opposed to bicycle riding for whatever reason, had made it clear they didn't want to ride on this trip (or ever), so I left the bikes at home. Note to self (and others passing this way): bring the bikes anyway. It would have been fun to make the overlook. Then again, at bike speed we would have missed a lot of the details our slow meander allowed us.

Our dilly dallying, though, meant a late arrival on Sanibel Island, about which I'd done VERY little research. I'd hoped to camp at the island's only "campground," but when we arrived the RV park (ala Grandmother's Park) was closed for the night. Visitors were asked to camp in any of three spots by the entry and register in the a.m. That was all fine and good, but I took a little hike into the darkness and couldn't find the restroom. I suspect the campground is intended for entirely self-contained vehicles. We carried on to plan B - a hotel for our stay. After the heat and rain and wind and dirt and poisonous critters, I felt this break was in order.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bahia Honda, Tropical Storm

We had a lovely day on the key, but a storm was brewin' and the water was far colder than anticipated after the warm beaches up north. The girls still toughed it out as we dug in the sand, chased birds up and down the beach and they contrived a "mermaid sleigh" out of a palm frond that had been blown down by the stiff winds. The girls spent no small amount of time designing and building a "mermaid kingdom" on the beach before we headed into the jungle for a hike the Old Bahia Honda Ridge Trail through the jungle tree/bush tunnel.

At 1:11 a.m. I woke up SWELTERING. The girls and I were spread like starfish on our shared bed, each of us clearly trying not to cross tendrils with the other. The outside sleepers were sticking closer to the cool insulation of the walls. There was no wind blowing through the trailer, but ample wind shaking the bushes and trees outside. It was time to move the trailer back into a wind tunnel. Moving wind would be better than none at all. Finding no access to wind in our site, I finally pulled out and backed into the site across the driveway from us, with our back door (screened) open to the Atlantic and a stiff breeze, albeit warm, blowing from the storm.

Then I crept back in the trailer and, for quite some time, watched the strobe show that continued for the remainder of the night. I've seen some pretty good electrical storms before, but nothing quite this spectacular. I'm surprised the girls slept through it. Between the lightning aloft flashing at intervals so close that counting wasn't feasible, the crashing wavelets (they were still only a foot or so tall, but they crashed right on shore about 25 feet from the trailer door), and the wind blowing through the trees it was a loud, disruptive night. I woke again at 2:30 when the faucet opened on the roof, and the rain began splattering through the screens. I closed some of the windows, but it was too hot to close them all, so I left those on the sheltered side of the trailer and at the back door open.

At 7 a.m., my heavy sleeper woke up and was ready to go. It would have been a great morning to stay in bed and read, what with the wind, rain and lightening, but it was just too hot to lock ourselves in, and nothing on the island (ie. nature center) was open, so short of hanging out in the restroom or sweltering in the trailer, there weren't many options. So we packed up (I got a freshwater shower in the process) and headed to Marathon Key where we happened upon "Stuffed Pig," a local favorite breakfast spot. Pecan pancakes and other treats hit the table minutes before the lightening FIRST struck just across the street. KABOOM! Midway through our meal, KABOOM again! Certainly the most EXCITING breakfast we've experienced.

We did opt to hang out in the restaurant a bit longer than usual rather than walk back out the rig and carry on. Who wants to stand in a puddle on a flat island in mid-ocean while lightening strikes around you? NOT I!

Then off we scooted for Everglades National Park - in search of birds, alligators, crocodiles and maybe a little dry spell.

On our way in to the park we were warned by several volunteers that the campground at the end of the road (Flamingo) was overwhelmed with mosquitos. But after our summer horse packing trip with Maddie we felt prepared. Plus, we had four cans of repellent and the screens on the trailer are good.

We took a hike on the Anhinga boardwalk where we spotted our first 'gator in the wild, and a variety of birds including the namesake. Like a cormorant, it flies under the water to catch fish. It's long, flexible neck also earned it the local nickname "snakebird." We checked out the visitors center, then looked for manatee in the marina (none sighted...murky waters) before heading to camp.

The scare tactic apparently works with most people. There were TWO RVs in the trailer loop. We were the only camper in the other open loop. That's it. Three crazy camper groups in a park with 300 sites. Clearly we hit it off season. But thanks to the storm, the mosquitos were knocked down. We had one in the trailer that night, and swatted a few on our runs to the bathroom, but otherwise the girls enjoyed a lovely evening outside while I made dinner which we all opted to enjoy inside the trailer.

Our pre-bedtime run to the bathroom was indeed our most interesting ever. With flashlights in hand and flipflops on feet, we each exclaimed something or another at the same time as we opened the bathroom door. What came out most clearly was E's, "Look! A scorpion!" I'd noted a large spider. V pointed out a frog just outside the door. The spider was notable for its size (though hardly a fraction of a tarantula - still interestingly large), but the "scorpion" was a crawdad/crayfish that had found its way into the girls' room. Freaky!

After we wrapped up our bathroom business, I dangled a piece of toilet paper in front of the crawdad which immediately attacked it and attached itself to the paper. I carried the weird creature out to the grass where he threw himself off the rescue tool and began hiding, tail first. Then we decided to turn back and look for the frog. Instead, we found a coiled snake which, I believe, was a pygmy rattle snake, one of the park's four poisonous snake species. GREAT!

And guess who got ENTIRELY dressed, complete with close-toed shoes, and carried a flashlight on that very early mornin' wake-up run to the loo...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hiking South Florida's Peak and Chasing Tropical Storms

Apparently, we've hit Florida at JUST the right time to do laundry by simply rubbing it with soap and hanging it out on the line overnight. Thunderous rain last night on the trailer. But the rain let up enough this morning to allow E and me to take the 5 minute walk to the top of South Florida's highest peak - Hobe Mountain. At 87 feet in elevation, it is lower than our house not all that far from California's coast. The view from the top offers miles upon MILES of flat land COVERED in varying shades of green vegetation - and a glimpse across the Atlantic.

Then it was on through Miami ( traffic, graffiti and LOTS of law enforcement apparent) to the Florida Keys.

I'd decided I didn't really need to go all the way to Key West. Looks like a very touristy spot, lots of shopping for the same ol' same ol' offered in so many touristy shops we've seen along the way. Oh, and bars of varying degrees of cleanliness. Sure, fun for grownups, but not really great for this particular trip.

So I reserved a spot at Bahia Honda State Park, a spot about which I'd heard from multiple sources in
no uncertain terms. It's in the Lower Keys, so the drive was still considerable, but it was worth it. The park is the only development here, and the sites were lovely. We had one of the inland (across the driveway from the beachfront) spots which was sheltered from ocean breezes by dense vegetation. The hurricane-tested plants came in handy that night when the winds picked up as a tropical storm approached.

But before the storm arrived, we managed to get in a walk down the shore. Thanks to recent storms, the water is murky, though green, even nearly-glacial blue in some places. Thanks to a very long shelf, not a lot of shells make it to shore in one piece. Still, we had fun exploring, finding shells to hang on the shell tree someone started (or was that a storm creation?) and battling the wind back to camp.

NEWS BREAK: But Why Graphic Images of the News?

We don't have cable at home. There are lots of reasons for it, but a top issue I have with television these days is the depths into which it has sunk in the name of "entertainment" or "news sharing." We used to watch sports - they're fairly safe - but then the ads for prime time shows started showing the graphic violence rather than just alluding to it. Really? Do you have to show the shootings and slashings and slayings for late-night shows during prime time viewing? During morning games?

But we're in a hotel tonight. We have cable. There's cable in nearly every restaurant or sports bar we pass. Images splash on screens whether we want to see them or not. Images are displayed on screen regardless of the audience at hand, with no thought to the people - particularly children, but we're all affected - exposed to them.

So, the news of Muammar Gaddafi's death was, certainly news, but it was in very poor taste for the mass media to project images of his body, for a butcher shop in Libya to set the body out for display and further image sharing via twits and tweets and posts. Where will it end? Why must we show these images (and not once, but repeatedly and at length in loop or otherwise)? My children certainly don't need to see it. I don't need to see it. You don't need to see it.


You don't.

When I was in journalism school, we talked about the ethics related to presenting in whatever format images of the deceased. As recently as the 1990s, if you wouldn't want to view the image over your breakfast with the family, they shouldn't be posted on the front page (or any other page). WERE there images of the dead published? Sure. Were they as graphic as our nightly news offers these days? Not typically. But that's gone out the window. In the name of what?

If your father, mother, sister, brother, best friend were killed, would YOU really want to see graphic images of that event? Would you want those graphic images displayed for all to see? Would you want his or her body displayed for all to photograph and share in any way the gore-mongers saw fit? Really? How about YOUR body?

When it comes down to it, Gaddafi was a man, a father, a husband, a friend (to someone at sometime surely). He was, at some time in his life, a lover, a boy, a son. He was a human being.

I know I have family and friends who think I've gone off the deep end in sheltering my children (and myself when possible) from the tragic images our news media and entertainment media (is there a difference anymore?) consider of value. I know they're wrong. I know that images of war, death, gruesome acts serve no purpose but to scar those who otherwise would not come in contact with it. We can be educated about these things without viewing them, considering them forms of entertainment, making games out of them. War, death, murder - they're not games.

Not now.

Not ever.

Book Review By E: "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare

"The Witch of Blackbird Pond" is a really great book! it is about learning to live with change.

When Kit Tyler leaves her home in the Caribbean islands to live in Connecticut Colony, she must learn to live a simple Puritan life. Then she is accused of being a witch! She learns what it is like to have judgement passed on you by people who don't know anything about you.

I read this while we were on our way to Salem, Massachusetts, the home of the Salem Witch Trials. We visited a museum that told all about the girls and adults who were involved in the trials. This book gave me a different view of the story. It was especially interesting because we got to see the places that the story talks about.

This book has been around a very long time. My mom read it when she was a kid, too. School Library Journal lists it among the top 100 books!

Boys would not like this book because it is about a girl and boys wouldn't understand it. It is for ages 9 and up. There are tense places and scary things.

Book Review By E: "Johnny Tremain" by Esther Forbes

"Johnny Tremain" by Esther Forbes is a very exciting book about the hardships of living in Boston during the Revolutionary War.

Johnny is a silversmith's apprentice full of pride and bossy to the end until he burns his hand on molten silver. There is no place in Boston for a boy with a crippled hand, so he must learn to live without a craft and swallow his pride. He tries to forge a bond with a long-lost relative by giving a gift of a silver cup he has made, but the craftsmanship is so great that the man accuses Johnny of stealing it.

Through the book, Johnny learns about honesty, leadership and patriotism. We learn about life during the U.S. Revolutionary War.

This book is for boys mostly because it is about one, but girls will like it, too. Ages nine and up. There is some violence, gory bits, and it has a mixed ending.

Book Review By V: "Fighting Ground," by Avi (Edward Irving Wortis)

"Fighting Ground" is an exciting book about a boy who runs away to be a soldier in the Revolutionary War. He gets captured by the British and has to work with the British to stay alive. He has two choices: remain a captive or become a patriot.

This story is, clearly, about war. If you don't like stories about war, then this is not for you. It was assigned reading for me while we traveled through the Colony States.

I would advise this book for people 8 and older who like adventure. (P.S. It is written kind of like a journal!)

Book Reviews By V and E: "Guns for General Washington," by Seymour Reit

V, age 8, says:
This books a really exciting story about the Revolutionary War. In this story, the British are about to attack America, but America does not have enough canons. A group of people go on an adventure across hundreds of miles of rough terrain in the snow to bring back canons that way up to two tons!

"Guns for General Washington" is very exciting. I think it's a good story for readers ages and up because I'm 8. The only bad thing about it is that it's about war and I don't know if anyone should really ever have to read about wars.

E, age 11, entirely disagrees:
"Guns for General Washington," by Seymour Riet, is a terrible book! It is not well written and not interesting.

It is about the Revolutionary War. A group of General Washington's men take the nearly impossible journey to bring 183 canons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boson in the dead of winter.

If anyone could take this book, it would be boys. Ages 6 and older.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Continuing South and back to the camping routine

After a week (plus) in "civilization," the girls and I continued our trek south toward the southernmost tip of the United States. On our way, we figured we'd make a few stops and see some more of the beautiful, unique spots our country has to offer. First stop, Dickinson State Park, east coast of Florida half a day's drive south of Orlando.

The park was a pleasant surprise. Though mapped directly adjacent to the highway (and with one of its campgrounds conveniently placed near highway for busy travelers), the park extends for 11,500 acres and includes waterways, woodlands and accessible parks with amenities including a swimming beach, 'gator culvert, canoe rentals, guided tours up the river (for groups of two adults or more - children don't count toward this number), boardwalks and picnic spots. We were originally slated to camp near the highway (through the reservation system - we hadn't picked our own spot), but when we talked to Ranger Robert Shuhr about the park, he gave me some other options, and recommended a site which was, indeed, much better for us. We were only about 150 feet from the Loxahatchee River, and even closer to a restroom with running water. Ranger Shuhr also assured us that swimming in the river's swimming beach was perfectly safe - no big current, no big drop offs, and 'gators only rarely.

While watching out for snakes (I never thought I'd be glad we have only one specie of snake to worry about in most of California) and spiders (big ones here), we followed the trail to the river where we spotted some boys our girls' ages playing in the river. I talked to their parents for awhile and learned the boys hadn't been sent out to swim with the 'gators as any sort of punishment. So, we donned our suits and joined the family in the refreshingly cool water as the gray skies grew darker and more forboding.

Just before sunset, we took the short walk back to camp for dinner away from the mosquitos (inside trailer) and a night of heavy rain. (More rain in Florida...go figure!)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Missing Mr. B

We dropped off Mr. B at the airport early this morning and have driven south to a Wi-Fi-friendly lunch spot to catch up with the internet (particularly blog n' photo uploads) on our way to camp. We're headed south along Florida's east coast toward the Florida Keys. For tonight, we'll stop midway down from Orlando at a state park, cutting our driving time and making for a simple day easing back into the camping life.

It's only been two hours, but I already miss Mr. B, and really want to turn for home. But we've made plans to visit friends and family on this southern stretch of the trip, and I also don't want to miss those opportunities which we likely won't have again anytime in the known future. So we'll stick with our plans, and be home in early November, and happier than ever to be there.

I know that sometimes Mr. B feels like he's just a sherpa to us all (don't so many dads and husbands?), but I really appreciated him sharing this week with us, holding my hand, encouraging us all along, and sharing All Things Mickey and Harry with us. And OF COURSE I appreciate his help holding things, carrying things, hooking up the trailer, parking the trailer, mediating between the girls and opening the occasional bottle I can't manage. I do a lot for myself, and I try not to ask for his help too often because I feel like he works hard to help us in every way he can - through his hours upon hours at work earning the living that sustains us all, and all the work he does at home. He is the hardest working man I know. So far be it from me to ask him to help when "I can do it myself."

Thank you, Mr. B, for coming all this way to share in the adventure, and for making the adventures here and at home all possible for us all.


A Week in the World of Disney (with a little Harry Potter added)

What a week! Five consecutive days in Disney parks, a day of “rest” at a Disney pool party and archery range, another day of exploring all things Harry Potter and then some at Universal Islands of Adventure. It especially was great because Mr. B was here. Together we experienced rain the likes of which we’d never seen before (REAL rain, for HOURS on end), a birthday (Happy Birthday, Baby V!), humidity, crowds, unusually short wait times, a food festival, and lots of memorable moments.

E’s favorite parts of the week were: having Dad with us; Harry Potter land; EPCOT center (especially SOARIN’) and the pool (and pool party). V’s favorite parts of the week were: having Dad with us; Harry Potter land and the pool. So there you have it. (My favorites were having Mr. B with us, Mr. B holding my hand as we zoomed through the lines to the big rides, Mr. B giving kisses voluntarily on our anniversary while we were serenaded in Animal Kingdom, riding the ferries, watching the girls watch the parades, performances and rides that made them especially happy.)

Before we send Mr. B back home, then continue our drive south and finally west, I’ll share a few pointers we learned during this, our first, stay at Walt Disney World:

1) Five days may be enough to get to most every ride in the four parks, but you’ll need another week to include the water parks, to have time to enjoy the performances, and maybe yet another week to enjoy the myriad other opportunities on the 28,000-acre property.

2) There’s lots of free entertainment on the Disney grounds. Start at the Boardwalk any evening.

3) The meal plan may be the way to go. I didn’t know how easy it would be to use, or how flexible, so opted not to bother. But we probably would have saved a small fortune given that we ate nearly every meal for five days on Disney property (no small coin dropped there).

4) If you want anything even closely resembling healthy food (and don’t want to do your own cooking) don’t bother to eat in Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studio. Head, instead, to EPCOT (we particularly enjoyed the cafeteria downstairs in The Land).

5) While Disney provides fun transportation options (bus, ferry, monorail) all free to its guests, it won’t save you any time or frustration. If you want to get to and from the parks in reasonable time, drive. Parking throughout the property is included with lodging, so there’s no additional fee to drive yourself to the parks.

6) Wilderness Lodge Campground is a great deal – very nice campground with resort amenities – pool, hot tub, wading pool, little kids’ splash zone, video arcade, archery range, shuffle boards, outdoor theater (with nightly showings of Disney films), horseback riding, carriage rides, dinner theater, restaurant and shops. Oh, and full hook ups, hot showers, and lots of trees (and SPACE between campsites)!

Waiting "patiently" for the bus
7) Just because the campground has wi-fi doesn’t mean you’re welcome to use it. Unless, of course, you’re willing to shell out a few more bucks for the honor. (Really? Even cheap hotels provide free wi-fi with their rooms. Coffee shops provide it in trade for the purchase of a three-buck cup o’ joe. Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t even REQUIRE purchase. Come on, Disney!)

Not a lot of time on the internet this trip, so perhaps more upon our return home in less than a month.

But also wanted to drop a few lines about today’s visit to Universal – Florida. The girls, who read aloud the first Harry Potter title on the way here, particularly enjoyed the Wizarding World of Harry Potter found at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

We spent half the day here riding its three rides, checking out its shops, tasting of the Butterbeer and dining at Three Broomsticks (then returning for more riding). Hogwart’s Castle and its related ride are really great (though I’m not a huge fan of simulators, so would rather have seen that bit run outside, or on real track). Still, well done!

Mr. B and I really enjoyed BOTH tracks on the Dragon Challenge. (The girls weren’t quite up to this type of roller coaster yet. I wasn’t sure I was, either, ‘til I completed the first ride. Nicely designed coaster that left me exhilarated without leaving me nauseated. So I had to try the second line – equally exciting and well-designed.)

We spent the second half of the day seeing what we could of the rest of the Islands park and the nearby Universal Studios park. Lesson One for those who follow us: Plan one day for each park.

And whether it’s Disney’s property or Universal’s, bring LOTS of cash. You’ll need it.

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