Our plans for the Gulf Coast region originally included two days in Pensacola, Fla. and one in Mobile, Ala. Instead, at this point, we found ourselves in Mobile a day early, chased in that direction by storms and, generally, the lack of non-beach-related activities that piqued our interests. In the meanwhile, our ascent north the following week was to include a rapid succession of six cities, from Memphis to Chicago, in a matter of just five days.
We know when we're wrong, and we're big enough to admit it. Our best course of action, clearly, was to pack up and make the trip to New Orleans one day early.
It was a short drive to this embattled city, where Spanish, French, African and many other cultures have all blended into a collective identity unlike anywhere else in the world. It suffered through the costliest hurricane in American history back in 2005, killing nearly 1,500 and permanently displacing tens of thousands - a national catastrophe that still resounds very loudly within the city itself and throughout the country.
The Big Easy is famous, among other things, for its terrific food and wild nights, the latter of which rears its head in grand fashion ever year at Mardi Gras. Sadly, we arrived a few months late for this great festival, but we knew we'd have little trouble having a good time.
We dropped our things at our hotel (including our car) and wasted no time in making the ten-block hike to Bourbon Street, home to countless historic embibing establishments and so much more. On the way, the streets were lined with tourist shops peddling all kinds of N'Orleans and Gulf Coast-oriented knick-knacks.
As I mentioned back in Savannah, N'Orleans is one of those rare, unusual destinations where people of proper age can consume delicious alcoholic beverages both inside the bar and out on the street. As such, most of these places were very open-air, easy to access and easy to leave with drink in hand.
This was my first time here, but Joey and Sarah had visited before. They directed our way immediately to the Jester
, where pre-mixed daiquiris of various flavors were dispensed into big plastic cups shaped, obviously, like jesters. Great way to start off, but expensive - considering the endless amount of competing deals on drink prices that lined the street.
Our appetites built at a terrifying rate, and we browsed through some menus from the street before settling into the Desire Oyster Bar. We took seats at the bar and met this lovely young lady, Kitty, who whipped us up some drinks and pointed our attention towards some of the best items on the menu.
While we waited for our food, I spoke at length with this friendly gentleman, Jeff, who worked nearby and had dropped in for lunch. He answered my questions about Hurricane Katrina and what it did to the city when it hit four years ago, him being a lifelong resident of the city and a witness to the carnage wrought. He told me of how deeply it wounded New Orleans, of the mass exodus away from the coast and the inability of many to return home.
I told him about what we were doing there, how we'd gotten there, and gave him a business card. His accent rich, his composure immaculate, I wondered if everyone down here was so eloquent.
Then our meals came, of which you're bound to be extremely jealous. I went with a bowl of Jambalaya, which featured shrimp, crawfish, beef, chicken and ham over rice in a spicy Creole sauce. The result is something of a thick stew that left me swooning over every bite.
Sarah went with Shrimp Scampi, highlighted by succulent Gulf shrimp amid a bed of pasta with a light, garlicky sauce. I've worked in restaurants that served their own version of this dish, and this one in particular left the others in its shadow.
Bravely, Joey dove headfirst into the most unique of our three meals with a plate full of crawfish. These little guys were essentially miniature lobsters, with far less meat inside but obviously far more on the plate. To eat them, you snap them down the middle, consuming the edible meat from the tail and sucking the flavorful juice from the front end. We'd arrived near the end of crawfish season, as Kitty explained - during the thick of the season, the crawfish were considerably larger, with edible meat in other places like the claws. All in all, this meal ranks (in my humble opinion) as one of our best eating experiences to date.
After we dropped into a few more establishments, the sun had grown extremely hot and our strides were slowing at a frightening pace. Against Joey's advice, we retreated to our hotel for a break, possibly a nap - after all, it seemed like we'd had a full day already.
But we weren't done yet.
We woke up at a motel outside of Pensacola. I had been pushing for more water attractions, and this was the day I had convinced Tom and Sarah that it was time to experience something new — parasailing. Not to be confused with hang gliding (Tom’s original guess), parasailing is when there is a winch on the back of a boat with a cable attached to a harness and a parachute — and the harness is attached to one or more people. Everyone is loaded on the boat and as it starts moving the parachute fills with air and lifts the harness and attached person(s) above and behind the moving boat. As the winch lets more cable out the parachute and riders go farther back and higher up. Think Benjamin Franklin and a kite with keys attached, only Ben is a moving boat, the kite is a parachute, you are the keys, and there is no rain or lightning. Well there isn’t supposed to be rain or lightning. On this day, there was.
The drive to Pensacola Beach was interesting. The buildings reminded me of a newer, fresher Daytona Beach, and the drive to the island vaguely reminded me of a much shorter island hopping Key West drive. We arrived about an hour early and watched the parasailing group right before us depart; I wasn’t sure if we would have been able to go as part of this group if we had been five minutes earlier, but in either case we missed the boat and walked over to the beach shack to start figuring out payment and filling out forms. I had arranged for a “triple” by calling ahead from the road; Tom, Sarah and I would be hauled up in the same specially designed harness sitting side by side.
I was especially resistant to any pricing shenanigans after the previous night, when we arrived at a motel to have an extra ten bucks tacked on to the price quoted on the phone. Along with Tom’s experience buying a laptop charger in Miami, this was leading me to believe that more folks in this area have a greater propensity to engage in questionable business ethics. The parasailing shack was no exception. Without previously mentioning it on the phone, they informed us that we were way over the weight limit for the three person parachute. It was 425 pounds. The rain was slowly picking up. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the toned body of a gymnast, but four hundred and twenty five pounds?! You couldn’t have mentioned that we might be over the weight limit before we came? Is it so odd for three adult Americans’ average weight to be over 140 pounds each? Normally, I would have been indifferent (or even happy) about the fifteen extra bucks we shelled out for an upgrade to two double rides, but I was tired of being jerked around. Sarah gave me a “don’t make a big deal” look and I paid the difference out of our road trip fund.
Sarah was the most squeamish about parasailing, so Tom and I quickly decided that she would be the one to go up in each of the double rides (once accompanying each of us). We waited for the rain to slow down. It started pouring. We went to Side Lines Sports Bar and Restaurant down the road for some food and beers.
I know. This is not the post you wanted to read from your cubicle—or wherever you’re reading from. You don’t come to this website to hear what a pitiful time we are having on a particular day (actually it wasn’t really that bad; we were on the beach and taking most everything in stride.) Well things get more interesting. Remember the title? “Fortunate bad weather” must mean something. Keep reading.
We were enjoying our plates and talking to the bartender. An old man at the bar kept talking about how Michael Jackson’s funeral wasn’t a big deal, and the news should be talking about our troops overseas instead. The servers were happy to point out that he was the only person in the restaurant making a big deal out of it. We got a good meal in us, had a couple laughs and, best of all, the rain slowed down dramatically.
We went back to the beach shack, and though it was still too rainy for parasailing, it had cleared up enough for wave runners. We happily selected two wave runners and got a refund for the price difference (including the extra paid for the weight issue). After a quick boaters safety course we were off.
This was easily the single most fun half hour of the trip for all of us so far. Tom got his own watercraft and Sarah hopped on the back of mine. Tom’s had a speedometer and got up to fifty one miles per hour; Sarah and I were going about the same speed. Let me assure you: fifty one miles an hour seems much faster on the water than it does in a car on the highway. Sarah screamed “Joey! Slow down! Joey!” and I stopped.
“Sarah, if you’re just going to scream the whole time, we’re not going to have any fun.”
As soon as I finished with the speed trials, it was time for some 360’s. I sped up again, and then let my hand off the gas. A second before the wave runner came to a complete stop, I turned the handlebars and gunned it. Water shot out of the back of the wave runner, and we suddenly transitioned from skipping across the water to being propelled into a leftward hairpin turn; our momentum carried us forward but this sudden new force spun us around at the same time. Sarah held on to my lifejacket for dear life. The rest of the half hour was more of the same.
About twenty minutes into our half hour, I asked Sarah if she wanted me to flip the wave runner and assured her that we would just flip it over us, not fling ourselves off or hit the water hard.
“Nonononononono!” was the quick response. She later informed me that that is something you do on your second or third wave runner ride.
By the end my thighs and knuckles were sore from holding myself in place in a semi-standing position for the tricks. Sarah was crazy to put up with all of this for the whole time she was on the back. I would have never ridden passenger for such a ridiculous ride.
The rest of the day saw us driving along the Florida panhandle coast for several hours, going shopping, and ending at an Extended Stay hotel in Mobile, Ala. We ate Sarah’s fabulous taco salads with beef, homemade guacamole (!), fresh salsa, and some cheese that my Aunt Denise was kind enough to give us before we left Atlanta.
What a day.
Hello America! Just a quick little aside here - I was asking Tom how I make one of our pictures on Flickr into a background on my desktop if I so desired. Currently I have this picture you see here as my background which is a photo Joey snapped while we were driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But say I feel like changing it sometime and putting up a sunset or something? Or for that matter say you feel like making one of our pictures your background to brighten up your cubicle- how would you? Well if you go over to that little sidebar on the right and click on our Flickr link (or just click this link
) you can check out a new album I made just now. It’s called Desktop Backgrounds, so if you want, you can have a little piece of America captured by our cameras on your desktop to make you smile everyday. Hurray!
My album has 64 pictures in it, but if you find a picture not in my set that you like never fear! These instructions work for any picture.
What you want to do is:
- click on any set you want and then any picture you like best
- once you click on the picture you’ll see a little toolbar at the top of the picture.
- click on the little magnifying glass button in the middle of this tool bar that says “all sizes”
- once you’re here, look up near the top of the screen and you’ll see a toolbar called “Available sizes”
- right under the available sizes you’ll see a little floppy disk with the words “Download the (whatever size you selected) size”
- download and enjoy!
Until next time America.
Following our lovely evening in Atlanta and comfortable stay with the Klines (thanks again, guys!), we ventured westward toward the great state of Alabama. I've always thought of this state as the real deep south, the only place where someone like Hank Williams or Forrest Gump could come from.
Our first stop - at a gas station - reinforced that sentiment for me. A brief venture by Joey into the convenience store therein offered us a look into true Southern wisdom with the "road beer." Now I've employed a few road beers of my own during my younger days back in Pa., but never like this. These beers were, first, sold in a gas station, which is generally only being used by people in cars. Second, they were sold on an individual basis - single beers for 89 cents apiece. And last but not least, they were displayed gracefully in a bin in of a pile of ice. It was, by far, the most encouragement to drink and drive that I've ever seen, even after having been through four years of college. Joey bought one for the look on my face when I saw it, but we stashed it into a cooler for later, stationary use.
We had two stops to conquer for the day - Birmingham and Montgomery. Coming from Atlanta, we arrived first in B-ham under rainy skies and went immediately to Vulcan Park & Museum
, which features the world's largest cast iron sculpture at 56 feet tall. I was very curious about this strange edifice - a Roman god seems somewhat uncharacteristic as a symbol of a city like Birmingham.
Nevertheless, we dropped in for photos and took another "walk to the top," as was the case back in Boston with near-nauseating results. I was cautious at best.
Thanksfully, the upward hike was considerably shorter than it looked from the bottom, and offered us some good views of the Birmingham skyline. Granted, they were obscured somewhat by the less-than-beautiful weather, but in cup-half-full-speak, they captured the gray, dreary conditions of the day in spectacular fashion.
Next up was Kelly Ingram Park
, which featured a circular walk that served as a short walkthrough of some of the more sordid events of the civil rights movement. This was the site of SCLC protests back in 1963, which resulted in Birmingham police and firefighters turning dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors, rolling them through the streets and inadvertently appalling the rest of the nation when the footage hit television screens. Today, the park is lined with statues to remind visitors of that terrible time in our history - a time that, according to a fellow sitting nearby who offered his opinion to Joey, should not be dwelled upon so much. I beg to differ.
With hopes for a clearing in the rain, we hopped back into the car for Montgomery, the state capital and home of the Rosa Parks Museum
, named for the woman whose refusal to yield her bus seat to a white rider, and subsequent arrest, led to the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
, and eventually to the end of public segregation. We'd managed to arrive on a construction day, meaning that the bulk of the center was closed - but the staff was more than happy to accommodate. One fellow brought us into the art gallery and sat waiting while we walked through, admiring the artwork and snapping photos.
Even better, the children's wing of the museum was still open for a minimal fee, and completely empty of children (bonus points). It featured a timeline, somewhat reminiscent of the National Constitution Center
in Philly, of the civil rights movement beginning with the Plessy v. Ferguson
case and continuing through the end of segregation in Alabama. It was accompanied by the same timeline and a plethora of interviews and other interesting materials on a slew of computers. I was very impressed, if not surprised, by the level of intelligence that even the children's section of the museum exhibited. It featured, among many other items, a blown-up newspaper from the day after the bus company caved and the boycott succeeded, in which interviews with white locals all but threatened violence against blacks for the recent social changes.
We also stopped off at the state capitol, where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America
, way back in 1861. More than a century later, George Wallace stood on the same spot declaring, "... Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
Today, however, it's 2009, and our president is a black man named Obama who lived in Indonesia during his childhood. Makes you feel goooooooood.
Before we took off, we poked our noses into our travel books and located a winner for dinner - specifically, Dreamland BBQ
. This was a local favorite that evolved into a chain, which might usually bother me if it weren't a regional thing. But with a delicious barbecue platter and a sloppy order of nachos between the three of us, we had full stomachs and no complaints after our gutbusting meal.
We slid back into the car and headed south for Pensacola, failing to bid high enough for Priceline
to accept and settling for an uber-lame motel that our GPS left up to us to locate. More on that crappy place from Joey very soon.
Following a terrific Fourth and a nice night’s sleep, we arose and bravely ventured out into the vast city of Atlanta. We’d discussed a few of our options in terms of how we’d spend our time, and we all seemed to agree that our most unique experience – and by that I mean something we hadn’t seen elsewhere – would most likely come from the CNN Center
. Off we go.
Right off the bat, we walked into the food court in the main concourse. Joey bought us tickets for the CNN Studio Tour, which would be starting about twenty minutes – giving me ample time to grab a bite, since Sarah and Joey had enjoyed breakfast without me (I’m usually not a morning eater). My eyes focused on a somewhat simple-looking spot, Gorin’s, where I decided on a delicious grilled Reuben.
But before I could finish my purchase, Joey came up behind me and noted that they serve beer on tap at this particular food stop. We ordered two Sierra Nevadas
, and the fellow behind the counter asked us, “32-ounce okay?”
Joey smiled and replied, more as a joke than anything else, “Well, unless you’ve got something bigger.”
So we each ended up with our own 44-ounce beer, and very little time to gulp it down. Sarah assisted us both to a small degree, but Joey and I were both left with about three bottles worth of beer apiece. We slammed them down, emptied out whatever we could from our bladders in the bathroom, and embarked on what was sure to be an entertaining tour of the original 24-hour news network.
The tour was a lot of fun, and not just because of the beer. As a broadcasting major in college, having studied and practiced in television and radio studios, I take a strong interest in television and its production, especially on such a level as CNN. The tour gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the goings-on inside this massive facility, including a view of the newsroom from behind the anchor as she spoke to the camera. For this reason, we weren’t allowed to shoot any pictures during the tour – a disappointment, but understandable, as it would look pretty unprofessional if flash bulbs were going off on TV behind the anchor’s head. But photos aside, it was an awesome experience, one that lasted just over an hour – giving me just seconds to sprint to the nearest urinal. I made it, but barely.
Leaving the CNN Center, we were around a busy area with plenty of sites to see. We began our walk toward the Georgia Aquarium, which we’d heard was the largest in the country. But before we got to the door, I spotted the admission fee – $27 per adult – which was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. Joey was pretty annoyed at my (and Sarah’s) unwillingness to throw the money down, which is understandable to a certain degree; he’s a sucker for the biggest of anything, whether it’s an aquarium, a boat, an airplane or whatever you can think of. If it’s big, Joey’s in. But you’ve lost your mind if you think I’m walking into an aquarium overrun with screaming children and paying $27 for the experience. I’d rather die, and decrease the surplus population.
So instead, we walked through Centennial Olympic Park
, a space developed for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Occasionally this serves as a location for public events, but nothing was going on for this particular day, so we moved on quickly.
We came next to Auburn Ave., home of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site
. This is the neighborhood where King grew up, and the site incorporates the Ebenezer Baptist Church
, where both King and his father served as pastors. The area was alive with tourists, many of whom came to pay respects to King for his service as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, were both buried on site.
Our last photo op came at Millennium Gate
in Midtown Atlanta. This iconic arch seems very similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only much smaller, much younger and having nothing to do with Napoleon Bonaparte. Regardless, it gave us some great camera fodder for a spell while the rain threatened overhead.
We joined Joey’s family for dinner, meeting at Annie’s Thai Castle
for our first full meal of Thai cuisine since the trip began. When I think of Thai, I think spicy, and this was no exception; the lemony soup that started our meal featured this strong, zesty flavor, which was brought forth by anise, a plant native to southwest Asia with quite a bite to it.
As for our entrees, I indulged in some kind of delicious combination of beef, greens and sweet sauce that left my cheeks sweating and my stomach bulging. Hats off to Denise, Mike and the gang for picking out such a fantastic meal – and of course, for buying it for us.
We parted ways with the fam and went looking for a drink, and on the advice of one Coleen Zoller
, who spent time living and teaching in Atlanta, found our way to the Righteous Room
on Ponce de Leon Avenue.
At first glance, the bar seemed to be a rather nondescript establishment, with a simple layout and a laidback clientele. But as soon as we ordered our drinks, we found our way near the back to an incredibly comfortable couch-type seating area next to the jukebox, wondering why nobody else had taken that spot until now.
The jukebox – I’d read some reviews online of the Righteous Room, and everyone seemed to have good things to say about the jukebox. I fed my curiosity and gave it a whirl, only to discover one of the most phenomenal selections of music I’ve ever found in such a contraption. Usually, you’ll either get a jukebox with a bunch of garbage music, like Billy Ray Cyrus or something – or a digital music machine that can order whatever song you want for a dollar or so. But today, I was able to play Radiohead, Jimmy Cliff and Bad Company all for the same dollar, without having to wade through an ocean of rap or easy listening. Hats off to you, Mr. Jukebox.
One bar was enough – we headed back to the Kline residence for the night, gearing up for the next day’s drive across Alabama. More on that very soon.
We woke up in Tampa and prepared ourselves for a long drive out to Joey’s aunt and uncle’s house in Atlanta, Georgia. The road was long but offered us a few fun pit stops, like the giant orange stand off the highway right across from a pretty delicious barbeque place and a quick jaunt down a famous section of highway 41, where two members of the Allman Brothers Band met their death by motorcycle accident about a year apart.
We didn’t spend a long time dilly-dallying though - we had Fourth of July burgers waiting for us at Joey’s Aunt Denise’s and then fireworks on top of the Coca-Cola parking deck courtesy of Joey’s uncle Mike (shown here), who is a lawyer for the company. You may recognize Mike from this YouTube video, it was a commercial put out by Coke where Coke Classic tried to sue Coke Zero for making the diet soda taste so similar to the real thing. Clever advertizing ploy, isn’t it? Mike also recently wrote a book about the first assassination attempt on Lincoln’s life called The Baltimore Plot. Tom and I, both being writers, were particularly interested in this and spent a few minutes talking to Mike about his process and how he got published. But that’s another story. This story is about Independence Day in Atlanta.
We pulled up to their beautiful Spanish-style house and were immediately greeted by Denise, Mike and their two children, Elizabeth, who is studying computer science in her third year of college, and Kevin, who is a junior in high school. We ate a delicious dinner of burgers, dogs, corn on the cob and Jell-o pretzel cake, then packed up some folding chairs and drove downtown.
The rooftop was full of people and little kids and while we waited for the sun to set, Denise and Mike pointed out different notable buildings like the stadium and the Coke building. A little girl toddled over and enjoyed some chips out of Elizabeth’s hand until something more interesting caught her attention. Her mother followed close behind her explaining that she was a very extroverted two-year-old and thanked Elizabeth again for sharing the chips.
The sun began to sink and my anticipation rose - I love fireworks. We watched the skyline unsure of where the first boom would explode from. One colorful blast erupted in the sky over to our left so we waited for another. The second exploded in a different spot than the first - this time coming from behind us with two fireworks going up in quick succession. Finally the show got going in a third spot over to our right and kept going so we happily watched all of the colorful light in the sky and ooh-ed and aah-ed to our hearts' content.
We headed back to the house and were treated to some of Elizabeth’s cobbler. I headed up to bed tired but happy and thoroughly impressed by the fireworks over Hotlanta.
Until next time America.
Thanks, everyone, for all your patience over the last few days. You may have been wondering, why in the world haven't the A100 folks been updating their site? Did they give up and drive home with their tails between their legs? Did their laptops all get stolen? Did they perish in a tragically romantic leap over a cliff in their car, a la Thelma and Louise?
No, none of those things happened. Instead, we've been frolicking around the Soo Pass Ranch in Detroit Lakes, Minn., for the 10,000 Lakes Festival. As such, our access to the internet was extremely limited - and yes, even we need a vacation.
So worry not, we're currently in the car and beginning the nine-hour drive across North Dakota and into Badlands National Park in South Dakota - giving us plenty of time to fill you in on what we were doing on day 35. Look for that to be up within the next hour or two.
It's time for another quick break from our road trip coverage, to talk about another of our fellow travelers out there in the world. In my never-ending quest to capture the many essences of our trip on camera, I've had some successes and failures from an amateur's standpoint, both of which you've seen here on America in 100 Days. It can be very frustrating when what I see and what the camera sees are two completely different things, and some of the muster of my experience gets lost in translation.
Enter Trey Ratcliff (at left), whose photography blog, Stuck in Customs
, features the most extraordinary collection of photographic art that I've ever encountered. Trey uses a method of shooting called HDR, or High Dynamic Range, which allows him to fuse together different exposures of the same scene, creating images like nothing I've ever seen before. Below are a few examples, which you can click to enlarge.
Trey, who is from Austin, Texas, has traveled the country and all over the world, snapping photos of countless incredible scenes along the way. We've featured some of his shots here before
, but more to the point, he was recently featured on KXAN, Austin's NBC affiliate, talking about his unique method of photography. Click here to watch the interview
After you've done that, check out Trey's site at StuckInCustoms.com
. Bookmark it, and every day (after you've checked on our updates here), grab a look at Trey's newest gems. Believe me, it'll make your day just a little brighter.
We woke up “bright and early” in Key West for a 9:00 snorkeling expedition we had scheduled the day before when we checked into our hotel. We were still a little groggy and hadn’t discussed if we were packing up before or after we were done snorkeling. The answer was before, as the snorkeling and boat ride combo would mean we would never be back in time for checkout. After quickly going through the motions of trying to get a late checkout we started quickly packing, hurried Sarah along getting ready (she was the last to shower) and jumped in the car. We later checked out over the phone from downtown.
We drove around looking for parking. It was 9:05 and we didn’t want to miss our boat. We drove past a pier and Sarah ducked and rolled out of the car at full speed (she jumped out at a stop sign) and started running to the pier for information. Tom and I found street parking a few blocks later, fed the meter, and ran. We found out where to go, but had lost Sarah in the small downtown/beach front/touristy area. Tom and I ran asked quick directions, put down our things and ran towards the correct snorkeling company. Sarah ran from behind us and informed us that we were going in the right direction. When we got there, we exchanged our receipt for tickets and started running down the docks. Someone yelled out “the boat doesn’t leave for fifteen minutes.” We resigned ourselves to walking the rest of the way and stood in line. They built a half hour buffer into the schedule.
After a leisurely boat ride with around fifty other people, getting gear, and sitting through the crash course on snorkeling, we arrived at a reef. We got into the water and swam towards the reef. I am a scuba diver and, while I knew that this would not be a world renowned reef, I expected more than a few rocks and dead coral. I lamented our decision not to get wave runners (a more expensive option).
Then the attack started. Though the jellyfish were small, there were more of them than I have seen in one place outside of an aquarium. I swam over to Sarah, who was not having a good time at all. She soon decided to swim to the boat. We high-tailed it back to the deeper, non-reef area and Sarah climbed on to the boat. I hung around, keeping an eye out for jellyfish while watching a school of fish that had collected under the shade of the boat. While I was killing time hanging around near the boat, I heard the punchline from one of the guides, “these jellyfish don’t sting.”
The crew of the snorkeling operation got bonus points for serving free beer on the ride back to shore. When we went to the southernmost tip of the continental United States, Tom had to use the bathroom pretty badly. He did a lap around the block, and realized this was a totally residential area, no bathrooms anywhere. Look how grumpy he looks (click to enlarge, ha ha).
Afterwards, we stopped at a gas station and got a huge fillet of catfish from a Cuban food roadside stand. On the ride back up the beautiful Florida Keys, there were a couple accidents and traffic that lasted forever. Thankfully for us, this was in the opposite direction and we had no problems.
On the drive to Tampa, we stopped briefly in Everglades National Park to check out the surroundings and snap some photos. We arrived in Tampa late and checked into our hotel, necessary because the southern heat was still too much to camp in.
One of the boys had found us a hotel so we made a beeline for the Days Inn. There were still a few hours before sunset so we planned on rushing to our room to get changed for the beach and then heading to the pier for the celebration. I was standing at the check in desk with Joey when I happened to turn around and see Tom talking with a woman at a desk behind us. The nosey girl in me started walking towards them to see what the buzz was and found out that Tom had located our very first hotel concierge. How cool is that? She set up a snorkeling trip for us the next morning and gave us a map showing the beach, Duval Street and the pier where the Sunset Celebration was. We hurried off to our room and after throwing on our suits we made tracks for the beach. We got side tracked by a quick Margarita and the band at Sloppy Joe’s (Hemingway’s old watering hole), a two year old girl being potty trained on a side street (yeah, it was really weird), and a dozen Conch Fritters at a stand after that. We asked the Conch man which way the beach was while he was cooking up our delicious treats and he told us the best was the State Beach and pointed off to his right.
We walked with greasy Conch Fritters in hand down to the State Beach with an hour to spare before sunset. We paid the nominal fee at the gate and walked what seemed to be a long way down to the shore. We had a nice quick dip and then called a cab to cart us over to the pier. Halfway up the long asphalt drive way from the beach to the front gate of the park Joey realized he forgot his Hawaiian shirt, and Tom, being the fastest among us offered to run back and grab it. What a trooper, thanks Tom! We all reconvened at the gate and jumped in the cab on the way to Key West’s coolest nightly tradition.
Now this next story may seem like it doesn’t quite fit but stay with me- my dad always gets my mom the most awesome presents, and one particular year for her birthday he flew the family down to the top of the Keys and rented a red convertible to celebrate her for a week of fun in the sun. See the Where We’re Going page for the details of my hideous sunburn, but regardless we got to do a lot of really fun things while we were there on that vacation, so I knew which hot spots I wanted us to see on this trip.
Photo by Rich Lovelace
The Sunset Celebration has been going on for a long time and is a really cool tradition. Everyday all year long any tourist that knows about it heads to the pier around 7:00. Sailboats lazily float by; their sails silhouetted as in a painting against the gloriously setting sun. Sunset cruises gently motor by the dock and the cruisers with drink in hand gleefully waive at everyone gathered on the dock. The beauty of the boats sailing back and forth against the bright orange sinking sun and the pink evening clouds make an amazing stage for all of the street performers who come out day after day. When I was here with my parents I was 17 years old; eight years later as Joey, Tom and I walked around the dock, two of the street performers in particular seemed very familiar. I stopped to watch one man up on a high wire and as he began yelling to the crowd gathered around him I realized he was the same guy I saw when I was 17!
The other guy I recognized because I had been in his show while on vacation with my family. He called us all up to the edge of his stage and my family was on the inside most wall of people. After awhile of jumping around and being pretty cool he started looking around the audience for a volunteer. I quietly shrank back trying to squeeze behind my parents but the guy saw me and grabbed my hand. I resisted for an instant but my dad gently pushed me forward and my mom and brother were cheering for me to go with the guy. He told me to get on a bike like normal but to keep my back flat and duck my head down. He pulled another guy out of the audience and had him hold a hula hoop on my back; he got the crowd all revved up for his trick and right before he got set he bounded over to me and whispered in my ear. “Don’t move, OK? Don’t move.” I nodded but my heart dropped to my shoes. I didn’t move, but you can bet I didn’t watch either.
Photo by Rich Lovelace
I felt a rush of wind over my back and heard wild applause from the audience. I barely opened one eyelid to look out and the man patted me on the back and had everyone clap for me again. “What did he do?” I asked my parents when I got back in the crowd with them. My dad told me the man had somersaulted mid-air through the hula hoop and landed on his feet safely clearing the end of the bike. I’m really glad I didn’t watch. Anyway this same guy was at it again! Tom, Joey and I made our way around the outside of each crowd surrounding the performers and watched from a safe distance.
We snapped pictures as the sun sank lower and lower into the clouds and started thinking about our next move. There are several cities in this great nation that have iconic streets basically made for partying. Key West is no different. Duval Street is home to many famous bars, Hemingway’s old watering hole for one (Sloppy Joe’s), so we made our way down the road starting at the famous Hog's Breath Saloon.
We got some mojitos to start and struck up a conversation with our bartender, Paul. Paul got interested in our trip and found out we’re headed to Chicago the same weekend he is going to be there with his daughter. He’s going for The Pitchfork Festival and told us all about the lineup which of course got us all excited that we’ve run into yet another cool coincidence on our trip! Thanks for the tip Paul!
Well America, this post has gone on and on, and while I could go bar by bar with you I’m sure you get the idea; beers and cool people having a great time on the very last days of June. We happily but sleepily made our way back to the Days Inn and dreams of coral reef and colorful fish danced in our heads.
Until next time America.