I woke up on top of a pile of pillows on the floor. There were white Styrofoam containers all around filled with last night’s Cuban food. I rubbed my eyes and made my way towards the shower. Izzy, well done, we had quite a night.
We braved the sunlight and heat and headed out of The Shelley. We each have a things-I-really-want-to-do-on-this-trip-list and one of Joey’s was on tap for today. He has really wanted to go on an airboat ride in the Everglades so he plugged Gator Park into Mrs. Wellington, my GPS, and we trundled off down the road.
The drive down wasn’t long; we hopped on a two lane highway surrounded by tall swampy overgrowth and drew nearer to Gator Park. It was a hot day. When we arrived at the park we bought tickets for the boat, a postcard, some alligator jerky and waited on a picnic table for our tour to be called. Birds were flying around everywhere, some of whom landed on the table tops expectantly and then darted off. After awhile a peacock strutted by and I followed like paparazzi trying to get the most glamorous shot of the beautiful bird.
Our boat was ready and we were called so we loaded onto the airboat with a mishmash of other tourists and our guide climbed up to the seat above us in the back. We had been given neon orange ear plugs but were told we didn’t need them quite yet. Our guide talked about alligators and the swamp lands and frequently interrupted himself to point out any gators that lazily floated by like logs, if logs could bite off one of your appendages.
We saw several gators on the way out; it was like being on a nature show. On all of these nature watching tours they tell you before you go out that you might not see anything. I guess the Provincetown Humpbacks and the Everglades Gators know who they’re putting on a show for. I’d probably make an appearance to be on the web’s most amazing travel blog too.
At the mouth of the stream we came to an open expanse of grasslands and water and our guide told us now would be the time for those neon orange ear plugs. He took off at top speed, whipping us around a corner then headed straight for a piece of grassland. But he didn’t slow down, he just kept accelerating toward this chunk of grassy land. He’s not really going to ram us into the shore I said to myself - and right as I was thinking that we ripped through the grass as though it wasn’t there at all. How weird.
Our guide jumped out of the boat (after stopping it…) into the mud and was only in water up to mid-shin. He grabbed some of the mud to show us how it was like clay and stuck together. He explained how the swamps are being dried out and talked about the importance of conserving the area. He jumped back in and sped us around a little bit more then headed back towards the dock.
On the way back in we saw several baby alligators which had brightly colored stripes across their backs and were pretty cute just hanging out around some lilly pads.
We idled back down the river and once we arrived at the dock jumped out of the airboat one row at a time. Once back on shore we waited around for an alligator show despite the sweaty hot heat. We eventually got to go sit on a small section of stadium style benches under a roof where we watched a crazy guy with a blonde pony tail and a camouflage bandana walk around with alligators. He pulled a tiny alligator out of a tank and wandered up and down the steps by the audience holding it towards anyone who wanted to touch it. He got a big kick out of frightening a few children - all right, it’s mean, but it’s kind of funny to see little kids sneak towards the baby gator and then when the guy turns around with it and roars their eyes bug out and they scream and run away.
The gator trainer put the little one back and got in a pen with a large gator. He called to the large gator that it was time to go to work but the gator didn’t flinch. He called again adding “get out here!” The gator indignantly blinked a large yellow eye. A few people gasped as he pulled the huge gator out by its tail and left it front and center. At the beginning of the show while he was walking around with the baby gator he picked a young British woman out of the audience and told her she would be helping him out with the show. Her eyes grew larger and the friend next to her let out a loud laugh and got her camera ready. The guy called to the young woman and told her to watch how to jump on an alligator’s back because she would be doing it in a second. He covered the alligator’s eyes quickly and sprang onto its back explaining that when alligators can’t see you, they don’t try to eat you.
The young British woman watched pensively. He jumped off it’s back and pulled it around by it’s tail so it was sideways to us in the audience. He tapped it on the snout until it opened it’s massive jaw and then he put his hand inside the alligator’s mouth very close to, but not touching, the rows of sharp menacing teeth. He drew his hand out of peril and showed us what would have happened if he had touched anywhere inside the alligator’s mouth. He picked up a stick and tapped the gator’s snout again so it opened up. As soon as the stick even slightly touched the inside of the gator’s mouth the gator snapped it’s jaws shut and left the man with a splinter to show us. The young woman flinched and he called up to her “see, all you gotta do is not touch the inside of his mouth! It’s simple!”
He called her down to the front and - after showing her how to hold it - handed her a medium sized gator with a rubber mussel around it’s snout. While he was talking about how the she was in no danger of being bitten because of the mussel he swiftly removed it and the young woman’s jaw dropped. He got a big kick out of that.
Joey leaned over to me, “You’re doing that.”
“Sarah, we’re getting pictures of you holding an alligator, it’s for the website.” He chuckled at his fake scolding and I willingly got in line to hold the gator. When it was my turn the man handed it to me tail first, then had me put an hand on it’s underbelly and Joey snapped pictures, “look at the camera,” he said, “look scared” and he let out another Joey chuckle.
Gator Park was really fun and very interesting, but it was hot, I mean really hot. It was also time to drive the length of the Florida Keys so that we could get to Key West in time for the Sunset Celebration so we hopped in the car, blasted the AC and started our scenic drive.
Bridges, water, clouds and sky made for an amazing hundred mile drive down the length of the Keys. We didn’t have time to stop though, I was determined to have our only night here kick off with the Sunset Celebration and really hammered it home to these guys but they didn’t argue, they were actually kind of excited to see what I was so jazzed up about.
I'll tell you all about it in my next post a few hours from now. Until next time America.
Technological difficulties have been a regular part of my life, generally due to laziness and improper care on my part. However, Gateway's products seem to be one step ahead of me, breaking on their own before I have a chance to do it myself. In this case, it was my laptop charger, which finally bit the dust after only a few months of pretty mediocre service to me. Note to self: Gateway products are for losers.
Unfortunately, I can't afford to scrap my laptop and start fresh with a Mac, as I would love to do. So as we coasted into Miami, I located a shoddy, corner electronics store downtown for a new charger. I didn't bother taking photos, but the place looked something like this.
I was greeted by a fellow behind the counter - here's a sketch of him at right. I'd called ahead and asked about a replacement charger, which they'd quoted at $79, which drew us here instead of Office Depot, where they were $99. I asked the guy if we could test it on my laptop, and it was good to go.
He then asked me for my credit card. I said I was paying in cash, and he kind of shook that off and said I should pay with a credit card.
My eyebrow raised, I asked how much the charger was. "249," he replied.
"No way, dude," I shot back. "You guys said 79 on the phone about ten minutes ago."
"Yeah, but those ones don't work," he replied.
My face twisted. "Why would you be selling something that doesn't work?"
At this point he doubled back, and asked, "You got cash?"
"Yes," I said cautiously.
"Hundred bucks," he said.
Rather than driving to Office Depot to pay the same price in more legitimate, less ridiculous circumstances, I forked over the cash and walked out, bringing Joey to a full belly laugh with my story. I'd love to see someone try to pull this on him.
Now we'd been expecting Miami to be an expensive city, both for lodging and daytime activities. So a few days before our visit, I jumped onto Priceline
and threw a hail mary. I named my price for a room in downtown Miami and the nearby area, setting it at a measly $28 for a two-star room for the night. The website threw a page at me saying my price had next to no chance whatsoever of being accepted, but I went ahead with it anyway, since we still had some time before our arrival. And sure enough, that price was accepted by the Hotel Shelley
in Miami Beach.
Needless to say, I had low expectations, but those turned out to be unwarranted. The main lobby was colorfully decorated and featured something we hadn't encountered during any of our hotel visits thus far - a lobby bar, open until 5 a.m. Joey, practically leaping out of his shoes, ordered three margaritas before we started bringing our things upstairs, so they'd be ready when we came back down.
Those drinks were prepared by our new friend Izzy here. He was a fun bartender, with lots of energy and an accent we couldn't quite place. He gave us a few hints and even offered us shots if we could guess his country of origin. Eventually we guessed Israel and got our shots, but it wasn't an easy guess, as his "Middle East" clue only left us trying not to offend him with a guess that was way, way off.
He informed us that later in the evening, the hotel featured a complimentary happy hour for guests. All three of us are ardent supporters of free drinks, so we made a mental note.
Given our location, the most reasonable course of action involved about a two-block walk to the beach. The skies were somewhat overcast but the temperature was perfect, and once again, the water was perfectly clear and blue. It's not easy getting used to.
We scampered onto the beach and waded in, eventually drifting further into the water than anyone in sight and letting waves smash into us incessantly. We probably could have stayed there all day.
Alas, we had prior obligations. We returned to the hotel for showers and headed back down to the bar just in time for their "free drinks" special. I found it to be rather hilarious that the $28 bid on Priceline (plus about $13 processing fee) got us a room for the night and an hour worth of free drinking, which we made the best of for sure.
...A little too well, in fact. I'm kind of surprised that we haven't encountered more of the Sleepy Joey Syndrome (SJS) on this trip, which is sometimes waiting to strike at even the most innocent of moments. Thus far, we'd done a very good job of pushing ourselves in order to experience the most of everything and everywhere we've been, knowing full well that we may never be back to enjoy what we might have missed. But tonight, Izzy's happy hour took Joey (and Sarah and I) out of commission. Sarah and I managed to walk two blocks away for some Cuban food, but beyond that, we'd reached the end of our night.
So we kind of missed out on Miami. Oh well. In doing so, we saved what might have been a bundle of money, and got very well-rested for the remainder of the drive south to Key West the next day. More on that very soon.
After waking up from our luxurious (yacht) sleeping quarters, we made our way up to Caitlyn and Ryan’s beautiful house. We were immediately greeted by parents and parents’ college friends who were waking up and just starting to prepare breakfast. We excused ourselves to shower and, once we returned, were greeted by the scent of leftover (but still fresh tasting) steak and mushrooms, as well as fresh fruit and a variety of toasts and bagels with whatever toppings we wanted. Thanks for everything, guys.
After departing, we drove for about three hours to Jacksonville. On the way we stopped at a gas station to buy some fresh Georgia peaches. These were outstanding: so fresh and delicate that almost no pressure had to be applied to bite one. If you are lucky, you can find peaches like this maybe once a year in PA; it was amazing to be able to pull up to a roadside stand and buy a few on demand.
We met a family of well-equipped travelers who were also stopping to sample the perfect peach. Their van had an “I’ve been everywhere” look to it with bumper stickers from top to bottom. After a quick discussion and exchange of stories, we presented them with an “America in 100 Days” bumper sticker, which they gladly placed in the coveted spot to the left of the “I ♥ Jet Noise” sticker. It was nice meeting you guys.
We continued the drive to the Jacksonville Landing. We didn’t plan our drive around Jacksonville; we planned Jacksonville around our drive. I am sure if we had shown up at a different time or to a different area, it might have been fun or interesting, but on a Tuesday at 3:00 pm Jacksonville landing was completely empty. To paraphrase a famous hobbit, “[we] don't know half of [Jacksonville] half as well as [we] should like; and [we] like less than half of [Jacksonville] half as well as [it] deserve[s].”
We were excited for Daytona anyway, so back in the car and off we went. The drive was nice and, once we arrived, we realized that it didn’t have to end just because we were at the beach. We could only go ten miles per hour and it was rainy, but we were still having a great time.
Halfway down our beach drive, we noticed the reoccurring theme of boarded up and neglected hotels, which we later learned was a result of hurricane insurance disputes. I thought it likely that it was just as much a symptom of declining tourism. Either way, they were a huge eyesore and waste of resources and the human productivity used to create the hotels in the first place.
We decided to stop for a drink and some advice as to where to get some food and go out that evening. As soon as we walked into the bar, we recognized that it was one of those tough looking places. The bartender, a tall guy who was friendly enough but looked like he could hold his own in a biker crowd, informed us that he worked at a beer bar because he didn’t like liquor-drunk bikers. When we asked, he gave us directions to some bar or nightclub venues but strongly suggested staying away from the biker-bars in the alleys. Tom asked if they would give us any trouble. The man pointed to Tom and I and said that they would probably give us no trouble. Then he looked at Sarah, nodded and said “You might get some.”
We decided on a less clubby beach bar, called the Ocean Deck, for dinner and a few drinks. Tom and I split a fried seafood platter with Mahi-Mahi, clams, shrimp, scallops over a bed of French fries. Sarah had a salad. We hung around for awhile and talked to the bartender. When I wondered downstairs to use the little bikers’ room, I noticed a couple parents with young children, who were just slightly too drunk among the meager crowd. I don’t know if they were locals or tourists but I quietly hoped that they were calling it a night soon and not sticking around for the band.
In either case, we were not sticking around for the band. For the third time in this breakneck-speed day, we were getting back on the road to stay at family (and personal) friends Dave and Amy’s beach house in Jupiter, Florida, for our second night in a row of excellent accommodations.
Our beach day in Charleston was everything we needed. Growing up outside Philly meant that a day in the beach was at the Jersey Shore, or in Cape Cod if I’d suffered through the eight-hour drive with my family. And I’ve never in my life seen a beach so clean and clear as the one here in Charleston.
We reminisced over a hearty breakfast, courtesy of the Sweetwater Café on Folly Road. I enjoyed a plate full of eggs, hash browns and country ham, which was a lot like a giant slice of bacon – a little tough and about as salty as beef jerky. The quickest way to my heart is with delicious meals like this, and I mean that in more than just cholesterol-related terms. Before we drove on to Savannah, Ga., we paid a visit to Market Hall, which served as a harrowing reminder of what Charleston used to be. This long stretch of stone buildings, four in total, was once the site of Charleston’s slave market, where thousands of African captives were held in shackles, torn away from their families and sent away into a life of servitude and abuse.
Today the buildings remain as a public marketplace, where locals set up stands with almost any sort of knick-knack you imagine. The same men and women whose ancestors may well have been dragged through this place against their will in the 1800s, sat casually weaving baskets beneath umbrellas to shield them from the hot sun.
I was astonished at the sheer size of the market, but even more so by the walls. The vendors here brought cheer and ambiance to the atmosphere, but use your imagination: take away the vendors, and look at what’s left. These buildings were hideous, sinister. It was as hot a day as any, but this place made me feel very cold inside.
Seriously, though, it was explosively hot outside. The previous night’s 90-degree camping experience left us with short tempers with regard to temperature, so on our drive into town we were already looking up a place to go for a cold drink. Looking over our WWG page for Savannah, I noticed I’d linked up to a place called Bernie’s for their bloody marys, which meant Sarah was on board (she’s quite fond of bloody marys).
Our brilliance impresses even me sometimes. Savannah gave us this big, fat kiss as a welcome, an ice cold bloody mary in a mason jar with pickled okra. Okra is an unusual vegetable – I’ve only ever seen it in gumbo before – that oozes when you eat it raw, but tastes a lot like a pickle in this case. Joey and Sarah peer-pressured me into a bite of it.
Refreshed, I went to the bathroom and when I came back, Sarah and Joey had three plastic cups with drinks of different colors in front of them. APPARENTLY, Savannah allows people to wander around the streets aimlessly, carrying alcoholic beverages with them – just so long as they’re in plastic cups. This also holds true a few hundred miles west, in New Orleans, which immediately got us in the mindset of using today as a practice day for our Big Easy trip about a week and a half later.
We took our road cups out the door, and quickly polished them off walking uphill in the sweltering heat. We found our way to a little Irish pub called the Rail, on the advice of our bartender at Bernie’s. Upon arrival, I was very excited to enjoy a delicious 40 oz., probably the first time I’ve done so inside a bar. The mood was calm, the floor was covered in peanut shells, and ashtrays lined the bar. Great place to beat the heat for a while.
Joey was wise enough to take notice, back when we were at Bernie’s, of a 25 cent raw oyster special that began at 4:00. Wouldn’t you know it, once the time was right we hustled our way back down the hill to partake in some of those little fellas. Sarah was kind enough to abstain from drinking, and between the three of us we polished off four dozen oysters. This was my first large helping of this unusual type of seafood, which entails using a special knife to pry open the shell and swallowing the slippery insides. I really dug in, possibly based on a ravenous appetite at that point in the day, and actually enjoyed the experience far more than I expected.
Before it got too late, Sarah took the wheel and we made a trek of about an hour to nearby Hilton Head Island, back in South Carolina. A friend of mine from the Pub, Caitlyn (at left), told me she was visiting her parents for the week and that her place was open if we needed to crash. We gladly accepted and met her (and her friend Amanda, at right) at a funky little spot called Remy’s, where we enjoyed the air conditioning and cheap Miller High Life before going to Caitlin’s.
Also present was Ryan, Caitlyn’s brother and a friend of mine for a long, long time. Ryan and I have enjoyed numerous jam band concerts together in the past, among other hilarious situations we’ve found ourselves in. Ryan offered us a choice of numerous bedrooms inside the house, or if we’d prefer we could sleep on his parents’ yacht. Pretty easy decision right there.
Thanks to Caitlyn, Ryan and their parents for having us stay the night in such glamorous fashion, resting up for the drive south through Florida. More on that very soon.
“So I was thinking that for our day in Charleston, since it’s going to be such nice weather we may want to make it a beach day. Your thoughts?” Tom tilts his head towards Joey and I in the passenger seats.
“Beach day! Oh man yes! Beach, beach, beach!” I yelled from the back seat.
“Joey?” Tom asks.
“Do you hear that back there? Dude, I can’t say no now.” He laughs and I have a huge smile on my face.
“Alright, beach day in Charleston. Good.” Tom claps his hands once to signal the confirmation of the plan.
I love the beach. Every summer for my whole life I’ve been on a beach for at least a week somewhere. I grew up without a back yard pool, air conditioning or cable TV. I know, right? But I survived it and here I am today GOING TO THE BEACH!!! Joey, Tom and I indulged in a bucket of Long Island Iced Tea last night with Greg and his lady friend, Amy, so I was prepared for the possibility of building a sand castle. Nice.
However, these buckets of L.I.T. made for a late start the next morning. We were glad for the extra sleep and took our time leaving not particularly excited for the three hour drive ahead of us. We are on a road trip though and sometimes you have to drive during the best sun tanning hours because you decided to stay up late the night before. But never fear! When we arrived at 5:00 the sun was still high in the sky and the water was very warm. Joey and I made it down to the beach and set up a place for the three of us to sit. Tom had to run back to the car to change so we walked down to the water to play in the waves and keep an eye out for him.
The further out you go in the water the more chance you have to let your body be pushed and pulled around by the waves. They weren’t giant waves and the beach was shallow enough that we could stand on the bottom and still be up to our necks so it was a ton of fun to try to ride the wave in and then swim back out just a little further than you were before. Joey and I spotted Tom and tried to get out of the water before he passed our spot, but getting out of the ocean is a little harder than running across a meadow or something. We chased him a little ways up the beach and then when we were all settled with our sandals holding down the corners of our orange beach blanket/tapestry we walked back out to the water and had a great time rolling in and out with the currents and waves.
The day was rolling on and it was time to head to a campground to get set up so we headed out of the water prune-y and covered with sticky salt and sand. We drove over to a campground we had heard was a good spot in a lovely gated park. As soon as we had showered we set up our tents then hopped in the car to head back to town. We were ready for dinner and had picked out a place known for its seafood called Crab Shacks.
We walked in and sat at a booth. These were no ordinary booths though, there was a big blue bucket in the middle of the table for all of your shells and lemon rinds and whatever else you might not want sitting in front of you at a dinner table.
We had checked out the menu beforehand so we had an idea of what we wanted. There was a beach style cornucopia filled with steamed oysters, crab legs, shrimp, corn on the cob and new potatoes they served in an overturned pail dumping it all out on the plate for you. We were torn between that and the barbeque platter which had pulled pork, chicken and beef on it. In the end we decided to order grits ‘n’ gravy, the bucket thing and fried shrimp which they made a big deal out of on their menu and it was all amazing.
They were trying to close up though so we finished our meal and headed back to the campground all tired and ready to hit the hay. When we had pulled in earlier and told the lady at the gate we wanted passes to camp in tents she laughed. None of us got what she was laughing at so she straightened her face and told us it was going to be really hot. We assured her the temperature must go down at night by some substantial margin and that we would be fine. She shrugged her shoulders and pointed us in the right direction. Come to find out, that lady was right, it was really hot.
Until next time America.
When we awoke in Charlotte it was almost lunch time, so we had breakfast. Greg made egg, cheese, and (he’s Italian) salami sandwiches. After eating, we left all of our stuff at Greg’s and jumped in the car to visit my cousin, Dustin, in Durham. After two and a half hours of driving, we were checking out his apartment and discussing late lunch/early dinner. Tom had been bringing up BBQ lately and it was on my mind by now, so I asked Dustin to look up a place. After reading some online reviews, he decided on The Q Shack.
This next part is a total non sequitur, so bear with me. While living in New Jersey for two years, I cut back on my fast food consumption quite a bit. Sarah doesn’t like eating it, and I really can’t defend it when she is cooking meals that are much better. Right before this 100 day adventure, she went home for a week to visit with her family. This left me in the position of having an opportunity—nay, a mandate—to drive around and try some of the places that I had been seeing for the past two years but had never tried. One of these was Chick-Fil-A; I (having been brain washed by movies like Super Size Me and people like Tom and Sarah) went with the “healthy option,” the Spicy Chicken Cool Wrap. Big mistake. Dry and bland, this was the worst wrap ever.
This is when Larry, my boss at work, introduced me to the fast food rule of thumb. After a long discussion, we expanded and clarified the rule. It states the following: “When ordering at an establishment where a number and a picture are used to describe the meal options, never go beyond first three the first time you order food. Those items, after all, are the ones that made the restaurant so famous to begin with. For the purposes of defining “first three,” different sizes of the same sandwich (like quarter pounder and double quarter pounder) count only as one option.” Live by it.
The menu at the Q Shack didn’t quite fit the number/picture rule, but by the layout, I could tell that it applied here, so I went with the first item, ordering the “Smoked Pork Butt [sic]” plate. Dustin got the same in sandwich form. Sarah and Tom didn’t realize it, but they inadvertently followed the rule by getting the second item on the menu, The Chile Rubbed Beef Brisket, which they got sliced on a “Texas Toast” sandwich (shown here). Not this time, smoked beef sausage. You are far too far down the menu for a first time experience.
Everything was excellent. I had a “Cheer Wine” a red soda that reminded me of Code Red Mountain Dew, and everyone had sides of hushpuppies - essentially just deep-fried dough. These were the first hush puppies that I have ever enjoyed, but they were still a little bland. We finished and went to see some buildings on Duke University, which had some of the most interesting masonry I have seen. The rectangle cut rocks were all different colors and sizes but fit together in a very orderly fashion. For the chapel, this came together to make an absolutely massive and beautiful building.
After checking out this corner of campus, we ventured over to The Sarah P. Duke Gardens. There were all types of trees, bushes and flowers. We thought it was particularly interesting to walk through the bamboo forest area. Tom was taking so many pictures we almost lost him.
After the gardens it was errand time. We went to a sport store for a new roof bag for our camping stuff, picked up some needed fuses to keep the electronics in the car up and running, and Dustin was kind enough to solder a new cigarette lighter adapter onto our spare GPS, getting it up and running once more. He used the opportunity to show off his multiple soldering irons, neither of which needed to be plugged in (and one of which didn’t get hot), some heat-shrink tubing, used in place of electrical tape for professional wire repairs, a free Iphone that was given to him when the screen broke (he repaired it) and some other odds and ends. Collecting these types of things and tinkering with them is a hobby of both his and mine, and has helped on the road trip immensely.
After this we said our goodbyes (thanks for everything, Dustin) and got back on the road towards Charlotte (stopping at a regional fast food spot, Bojangle’s, which left much to be desired), Greg called and said we would be going to a piano bar. We were ready to take it easy and agreed that it would be fine to sit back and sip cocktails while listening to some light piano tunes in the classic piano bar setting. This is not what we got.
We went to Howl at the Moon at the Epicenter and walked in to quite a scene. There were plastic pails of cocktails at many of the tables and Jell-O shots in oversized plastic syringes with a little whipped cream on the outside. Before long, Love Roller Coaster started playing the entire female wait staff climbed on a table in front of the stage and danced. Here are some of the songs that were played by the band throughout the night:
I’m Just a Girl – No Doubt
Summer of '69 – Bryan Adams
Baby Got Back – Sir Mix-A-Lot
Freebird – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye
Sexyback – Justin Timberlake
Several words in most of the songs were changed to make them more risqué. The whole night was punctuated by the bands antics with a bachelorette party and, Greg’s favorite, one of the guy performers was playing keytar.
On the way back to the car (Greg was kind enough to be designated driver) we got extra excellent sausages from a street vendor.
Let’s break from our coverage for a quick word about another guy with a passion for travel. Gary Arndt is a very cool travel blogger who has sold his business and has been backpacking around the world for over two years. Looking for a random act of kindness to make your day complete? See what he has to say and give him a hand:
“I need your help to send me to Antarctica! The bottom of the world, the last unspoiled place on Earth….Ant-freakin-arctica!
Quark Expeditions is searching for an official blogger to join a voyage to Antarctica. I’ve thrown my hat into the ring. When it comes to travel blogging I think I’m the guy for the job.
Getting to Antarctica is pretty simple. I need to have the most votes by September 30. I will probably need several thousand to win. If I win, you’ll get a front row seat to view Antarctica through my eyes and my camera lens, and as always, you’ll be able to ask questions and make requests to me directly. If I win I’ll even do a video of me doing snow angles in Antarctica.
All you have to do to vote is visit my page on the Quark Expedition contest site and click on the button that says “Vote for Me”. That’s it.
It does require a quick registration as a check against vote fraud.”
Thanks to everyone who helps Gary.
We woke up at our campground feeling ready to get on the road and finish out the drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Joey had lobbied for an early departure toward Charlotte the day before, but Tom and I felt it was pretty essential that we drive the whole length of the parkway. We were headed off to the Great Smoky Mountains at the end of the drive, and excited to see the beautiful parkway one more time. I tried somewhat successfully to whip up some eggs and pork from the night before for breakfast. We ate breakfast on a picnic table right next to a beautiful river where we had eaten dinner the night before and had gotten some amazing shots of the sunset. After we threw some pretzels to the ducks and packed up our gear, we headed out.
The drive was as gorgeous as the last two days had been; mountainous scenery stretched out in front of us as far as the eye could see. We only had eighty miles left to drive of the parkway today so we were done relatively quickly, arriving in the park and poking around for just a bit. A park centered around mountains loses some of its appeal after two and a half days driving through the Blue Ridge.
Before long we turned around to head back across the state towards Charlotte where our good friend Greg lives. Greg is Joey’s former college roommate as well as fraternity brother in Phi Sigma Kappa. We had to backtrack a little bit to get over to Greg’s so we ended up on the Blue Ridge for a little bit again.
We got to Greg’s right around dinner time and he greeted us with four shots of whiskey, four Bloody Marys and a steak dinner. Leave it to a Phi Sig to make you feel welcome in a place!
Greg’s neighbor Joe came by for a bit and talked politics with us but Greg had other plans besides sitting in the living room all night so we willingly followed him to a bar he had picked out, called the Thomas Street Tavern.We stayed for a beer or two, but it is hot outside in the south – really, really hot. Greg asked if we wanted to go to the pool and we made tracks toward a refreshing swim, which kept us up until the early hours of the morning.Until next time America.
It was a beautiful day for a drive. We woke up to the bright shining sun. The night before we had decided to camp under the stars using a huge tent Joey bought before we left. Instead of nylon sides it has bug netting for sides so we thought we could all leave our tents in the car and use this large supposedly bug free place as our communal sleeping space for a night. Joey and I have foldable cots that we use to sleep on instead of sleeping in sleeping bags on the ground, but ever since Tom’s air mattress developed a hole and was tossed back in Burlington he has been on the ground. Poor Tom had to deal with bugs crawling on him all night and after a few failed attempts at sleeping on chairs woke up with a crick in his neck and not much good rest under his belt (although there was a broken table under there). We carried on though, and the beautiful scenery we slowly rode by all day long left us all with a cheery disposition despite any fatigue.
We were headed to Ashville, North Carolina as slowly as we could get there. Outside of the car the mountains were stacked as far as the eye could see layer behind the next behind the next into the mist in the background. The trees that fell in the space between us and the mountains stood tall and gorgeous against the backdrop. I took probably as many pictures as Tom takes on a normal day and he took twice as many.
The day was serene. We drove the speed limit of 45 without complaint and pulled into every scenic overlook to see that was worth jumping out of the car for.
Before sunset we stopped at a small grocery store for dinner and headed toward our campsite so we could set our tents up in the day light. Joey helped me get a fire going and after the tents were set up, the coals were hot enough to cook over, so I threw on the pork sirloin, potatoes and corn on the cob we had bought.
We had decided to call a cab and go into town for the night so after we were done eating we did that and a large man with short blonde hair came in his yellow car and got us. We asked him which bars were best and he said Scully’s was our best bet. He was going to drop us there but we saw a bar with outdoor seating and awesome music coming from it called the Mellow Mushroom so we asked him to leave us there instead. He gave us his card and said to give him a call when we needed to go home.
The Mellow Mushroom was a pizza place, but we had just eaten all that pork so we got a pitcher between us and hung out for awhile. The crowd was young and the place was very cool but there weren’t many people there. Scully’s was just down the street so we thought we would walk around to try to find some other bar and make Scully’s the last place. We stopped to talk to some people our age outside the restaurant and they told us vaguely where to go. We tried to follow their instructions but ended up in Scully’s despite our plan to go there last.
Inside Scully’s Tom quickly struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to us at the bar. Andrew and Emily were celebrating their birthday tonight in style and we all had a great time talking to them about our trip and where they were from. Emily gave us a lot of great suggestions for Marathon on the Keys and Miami. Andrew was from Buffalo and got a big kick out of our day there when we had three meals worth of wings. It was getting late though and we had to get up early to finish the Blue Ridge Parkway and see the Great Smoky Mountains before heading to our friend Greg’s so we decided to call Jason for a ride.
We waved goodbye to our new friends and headed out the door to Jason’s cab.
“Do y’all mind if I drive a little fast?” He asked us as soon as we got in. He explained that he was on the way somewhere he needed to get to fast. We told him we didn’t mind and found ourselves at a break neck speed immediately. He cleared his throat once or twice then laid it on the line for us.
He had just found out. It was his sister. She’s a cabby too; last night she was driving a man home; they were having a great time laughing and talking; the man had recently gotten out of prison. Jason went on. He had seen his sister’s face. This man she had been driving home became another person all together at the blink of an eye; the ride turned nightmarish in an instant. Jason’s sister was blindsided by one punch then another then another and revived some moments later engaged in horrific assault on her body. Jason went on. A friend had just called right before he came to pick us up; they had found the man. Jason growled, “He’s a goddamn n----r.” My jaw hit the floor and both of my companions breathed in stiffly. Suddenly it became very clear to us that we were a long way from home.
A beautiful drive through mountains, a chance meeting with some awesome new friends and a jarring reminder of what lies beneath the surface of humanity; we stood outside of our tents after being dropped off, each in their own right floored by the story and the slur we had just heard. Each of us quietly considered what Jason’s story could warn us of. Joey and I crawled into our tent and I lay for awhile as close as I could get to him with my eyes wide open. It’s one thing when it’s on the news. It’s another thing entirely when you don’t know where it is, but you feel it close.
I hope very much that this is the only story of its kind we have to repeat to you.-SarahUPDATE: We've been informed by our friend and regular reader Bill that the culprit in the assault was arrested shortly thereafter on numerous charges. See the story in the Asheville Citizen-Times.
To say that we've been looking forward to this leg of the trip would be an egregious understatement. One of the defining moments in building both our itinerary and my anticipation for this trip, was a long conversation I had with Joe Jansen, my then-roommate's father. Joe and I scanned through a collection of photos he had taken during his own time on the road, and some of his most captivating shots were from Skyline Drive, which begins in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which continues the drive south into North Carolina. With some extra research, I discovered endless acclaim for this stretch of driving, and knew it was an endeavor we simply couldn't overlook.
We'd stumbled into town with a faulty recommendation from my campground book, which dropped us directly in the middle of nothing. Luckily we found a Budget Inn nearby, and rested up for an early departure the next morning.
Skyline Drive runs the entire length of Shenandoah National Park, carrying with it a $15 per car price tag, in return for the stewardship and maintenance of the National Park Service. We, however, found our way around this pesky price tag, thanks to our ultra-handy "America the Beautiful
" pass, which allows free entry for its holder (Joey) and three companions (Sarah and me, with room for one more). The fellow at the booth wished us happy driving, and the journey commenced.
I was literally giggling like a schoolgirl. This was the view from the first outlook point we encountered, not two miles from where we entered. And this was just one of more than 70 different outlooks on Skyline Drive. I pulled the car over, my camera came out of my pocket like it was on fire and a day-long marathon of photography soon ensued.
The magnificent scenery around us came courtesy of the Blue Ridge Mountains
, a section of the broader Appalachian Mountains
. We stopped at outlook after outlook to admire the colors and gaze into the distance, with layer upon layer of land in sight along the horizon. No houses or private land was present along the highway, only stretches of short stone walls along the highway in the more dangerous sections. The speed limit throughout the drive is a mere 35 m.p.h., due to some dangerous curves and stray wildlife here and there. All the more reason to slow down, open the windows and enjoy the scenery.
After three and a half or four hours of driving, we came to this sign. It was at this point that I realized that Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway were connected, but mutually exclusive. Skyline was not a section of the Blue Ridge, as I'd originally believed. Joey made sure to interject that he already knew that and that I was an idiot for thinking otherwise. It was about 1:30 and we were at mile 0 out of 469 on the Blue Ridge, so needless to say, our original estimate of spending just one day on this drive was way, way off.
Not that there was anything wrong with that. In this case especially, the photos will speak better than the words; here are some highlights from throughout the day.
We spent the bulk of the day either behind the wheel or stopping to snap pictures. But we did make a pit stop toward an attraction along the Parkway I'd seen photos of before - the Natural Bridge. Above the bridge was a welcome center, filled with absolute nonsense that ranged from $30 bottles of wine (preposterous to us, after seeing so many cheap, delicious wines on our Keuka Lake tour
) and "southern pride" items like a Confederate-themed coloring book.
There was also a ticket booth, selling all kinds of nonsensical services, among them, admission to the Natural Bridge. No way, we said - no way we're paying a combined total of about $50 to see a naturally formed geological structure. We walked to the bottom of the stairs and were asked for our tickets, at which point we told the guard we were only going as far as we could without paying, and we'd seemed to reach the end of that. So we turned around and left, slinging insults at this ridiculous money-making ploy. Notice I didn't even link to their website.
Always eager for some country flavor, we stopped off at this unusual place during a stop for gas. Inside we found a woman with the thickest southern accent we've heard yet, to whom Joey asked the question of what the sign outside that read "beer off" meant. She made a face as if she was about to say something clever, and replied, "Off the premises," in decidedly unclever fashion. We took some off the premises with us, including a can of Budweiser & Clamato Chelada
for Joey, which was a mix of Budweiser beer, tomato and clam juice. It tasted pretty much like it sounded.
As the sun sank on the horizon, we should have made camp at a somewhat earlier point than we did. But with so much more driving to do the next day (over 300 miles worth), we wanted to tackle as much as we could before we absolutely had to stop. We were treated to a sensational light show at sunset, as you can see here.
Our reward was a pitch-black camping setup, aided only by the use of the two working flashlights we had at the time. We were in a national park campground, so the fee was minimal and the grounds patrolled - but what a pain it was to set up in the dark. Lesson learned. We did manage to get a campfire going for a bite of dinner, which included Black Diamond steaks from Joey's mom and salads from Burger King we'd purchased earlier.
We used Joey's giant screen tent to save the trouble of setting up two different tents, but unfortunately, this thing comes without a floor. For someone like me, whose air mattress broke weeks ago and whose squeamishness around insects stems from deep, dark traumatic childhood experiences, sleeping on the bare ground was not an option. So I spent the least comfortable night of my life squrming around on top of an arrangements of unfoldable chairs and a table. I broke the table.
But oh man, those mountains made it all worth it.