Summer storms are the best. My wife and child worry about my sanity sometimes, I think. A veteran of way too many things that have been blown up or destroyed by lightning, I always unplug everything and switch off certain breakers when I hear a storm approaching. Then I rush outside with my camera on a metal tripod and stand out in it hoping for some really nice lightning.
Such was the case last night when I started seeing flashes outside the window not too long after dark. I look at the Radarscope app on my iPhone showed me that storms were quickly approaching, so I grabbed the camera and headed out.
Thankfully I could get a good view of some of the action right from my driveway and didn’t have to go far. If they are approaching from a different direction I can run a few hundred yards down the road and point out over my neighbor’s field. I probably would have had some better shots that way, but the wind kept whipping around and I didn’t want to get suddenly drenched.
So, here are the results:
This last one was the scary one. It actually happened about the middle of the shoot. Most of the stuff was going off to the north, but in storms you never really can tell where something will happen. So this shot happened when lightning came out of the clouds almost directly over me. It spiderwebbed out in all directions, what you see is just a little bit of it. I just closed my eyes because I figured I was about to be toast. Thankfully it didn’t hit the ground, most everything I was seeing was cloud-to-cloud and “anvil crawlers” which just come out the cloud base and run along the bottoms of the clouds. So far it’s been a pretty slow season for storms with anything visible, I was glad to at least get this much.
The colors vary a lot in these shots because I take a little artistic license and play with the color temperature, contrast, highlights and shadows trying to bring out the lightning the best I can. When I’m letting the lightning make the picture, usually everything is black, the lightning is there for an instant, and everything is black again. There’s no real way for my eye to see what the sky actually looked like during that fraction of a second. Is it grey? Purple? Blue? Orange? When I used to shoot film, the brand of film had a big part to play in the final color, but with digital, just choosing a different white balance (flash, tungsten, sunlight, clouds) can change it a lot.
You may see some green/red/white specks in the pictures that resemble stars. The way I take these pictures is by pointing the camera in the general direction of a storm and using a cable with a button on it to hold the shutter open. I may hold it open for 15-20 seconds, and then let go and start over. Holding the shutter open like that for long exposures causes some parts of the sensor to get “confused” or register false positives, as I understand it, so some pixels light up when there’s nothing there. Hence the red and green spots.
The best shots happen right after the shutter opens, and then I can let go and start over. Less extraneous light. This storm was SO active, the sky kept lighting up to the side even when I couldn’t see any lightning. It makes for interesting storm watching, though. Different parts of a storm seem to react to the others. Lightning in one set of clouds may seem to set it off in other clouds. Watching for a while, you can even start to guess correctly where the next blast of lightning will come from. One of my favorites ever came from a cloud that was putting out little bolts from the bottom, and started flickering WAY up top. I moved the camera to that area and BANG, got one of my most impressive shots ever.
It just goes to show you, there’s always a risk involved. But it’s exceptionally thrilling to watch. I’ve jumped up and down and shouted when I see an image like that pop up on the camera when I let the shutter go.
A few years ago we decided Thanksgiving at Disney World would be a good idea. After all, what better way to give thanks than to avoid cooking, cleaning, feeding people, having people fight over where we were to be and when, maybe having people over to our house, Spending $45 on peanut oil to fry two turkeys, and then having to clean up AGAIN when everyone leaves. Then, the next day, I have to suffer through traffic and the anxiety that goes with after-dinner shopping. Why the Hell can’t the people I know join the present, and shop online? No, they have to spend every weekend between turkey day and the Winter Solstice Holiday in a damn mall somewhere.
If you want a turkey dinner, go to Bi-Lo and get your own bird. I’d rather let someone else do the cooking and the cleaning and just relax and do something different. So, we went to Disney World because my wife always wanted to see the decorations. A good time was had by all, therefore we decided to repeat the event.
There were a few differences this time.
Last time, the economy was just a hair away from teetering over the edge. Gas was expensive, people were losing their jobs left and right, and the idea of blowing a thousand or two over the holiday to ride a roller coaster and see a guy in a mouse suit wasn’t a priority. So, the interstates weren’t so bad, and the crowds were smaller than we expected.
Since then, the government has falsely propped up the economy by printing billions (and I suspect the Bitcoin scam has something to do with it), gas is cheaper because the arabs and the oil companies figured out if they gouge us too much, we may finally push to develop cheap, clean energy and they’ll be out of business, and evidently it was half-price ticket time for the latinos. I’m used to the Brazilian Tour Groups (The Scourge of any Disney Facebook group!) but the crowd of native Spanish-speaking people was unbelievable. I felt like a minority of some sort.
The first indication we may be in for began about an hour into our trip. We left after school, intending on arriving at the House of Mouse around 11:30. The trip to Georgia normally takes about two hours. After coming to a complete stop twice on the interstate, we finally got off I-95 and drove through such hamlets and Hardeeville and Ridgeland. Unfortunately there’s no easy way to Savannah from SC, so we had to brave I-95 again for a few miles.
People from the north talk about hating the Carolinas on the trip to Disney, and I can see why. North Carolina is a LONG way across, and since you follow the coast, South Carolina isn’t much better. Plus, I-95 is TWO lanes all the way through, and somewhere about 60 miles from the border with Georgia, I-26 joins up, so you have northerners from two directions coming in, all trying to go south. The last few miles into Georgia you slow to a crawl, and then it opens up into three lanes, and normally that goes well. Nope. I’ve never seen so many back roads in different places before. It is pretty bad when you spend time looking for country roads so you can go faster.
We finally made it to Disney World at 2:30 in the morning, 3 hours behind schedule. Normally we like getting there near midnight. There’s no one there, and you can whisk through check in. This time? A “Magical Distress” (Magical Express) airport bus dropped off a load as we arrived, so the lone employee had thirty of us to deal with. There’s nothing quite like a ten hour car drive, followed by people that ask stupid questions like “how does the dining plan work?” as kids scream in line.
So, off to bed, early to rise. Disney has automated the A/C systems in their hotels, if you aren’t moving they shut off, or so it seems. I would turn the fan on, to drown out random hotel noises and help me sleep. It would run for 30 minutes, and then switch off. Damn it, if I’m paying for the room, let me control the air. So three times I wake up to shut the fan back on.
Up at 8, we’re off to Hollywood Studios for our first day. We wander through the day feeling hung-over and exhausted, and then back to the room for an early bedtime.
The next day, we get up and hit the Magic Kingdom. By this time I’m still exhausted, and after a few incidents with confusion and misdirection, plus some miscommunication between my wife and daughter, I’m ready to go home. I’d rather be at a shopping mall at this point, suffering through the endless trying on of jeans and ties, than at this crowded, noisy, pushing, shoving, anxiety-ridden introvert’s nightmare. Somehow I get through it without swearing at anyone, and it’s off to the hotel room for more blissful sleep.
Thankfully it gets better over the next two days, and we are able to enjoy all the things we came to do, including the Osborne Lights (xmass lights programmed to dance to music and turn on and off to the songs. really cool), the Lighting of Cinderella Castle (Elsa was supposed to ‘freeze’ the castle, but she was in the bathroom Letting it Go), and the Wishes fireworks display. We also checked out most of the Hotels’ gingerbread houses, they do some pretty nice stuff for “the Holidays”.
We only had to ride one bus back and forth to Downtown Disney, and of course we wound up on the one with scooters. I’m not sure if our planning failed, or what, but it felt like we spent a lot more time in the car than normal. We did figure out a way to use the monorails to our advantage and leave the car at one point, but we almost missed the final tram that evening, which would have led us to a LONG walk.
Sunday morning we had a quick breakfast (Mickey Waffles!) and headed out of town. All seemed fine until about forty-five minutes into the trip when everyone stopped on I-4. Two idiots ran into each other right in front of us, blocking one lane, so it took forever to get by. We saw 8 wrecks on the way home, and several ALMOST wrecks where we all had to stop quickly, and cars were flying off into the median to avoid rear-ending the guys in front of them.
One wreck was really funny, though. This guy in a white SUV almost hit someone, and I said, “That guy is going to crash into something if he doesn’t slow down”. There was a wreck, so we got off the interstate, went around it, and got right back on. ten minutes later we come to another wreck. Guess who’s car was all bashed to pieces? Yep, crazy SUV guy.
We finally get back to South Carolina, and creep along for miles until we can escape I-95. Thanks to side roads we drive along until we hit I-26, and go around the crowd, and for the rest of the ride home, there’s a small crowd, but nothing terrible. In the end, I can say that other than the car ride, we enjoyed ourselves more than not.
But I think next year I’m going for a hike, and I’ll just take a turkey sandwich.
Well it’s fall, and officially it became time for one of our meetup group’s members to host “backpacking 101”. I’ve been on about every one of these since my first trip back in 2012. He’s gracious enough to allow alumni to return and go on the trip as well, and this time there were five of us that had been a time or two. Because the group had gotten so large (20 at one point – but dropped to 14 by the morning of the trip), Mark the group leader decided to split us up. The alumni decided “hey we’ll all go a new way and meet at the camp site”. Thus the exploration of hitherto unknown areas of P-Town began.
True wordpress style, my uploaded pictures are all out of order, so instead of a cohesive story with pictures I just have random pictures interspersed with my tale. So look at the pictures and enjoy, then read the story…
The first step was the drive. It was early morning and still not fully light when we all met at our favorite spot, the parking lot of a large chain store, which allows us to use their parking lot for nights on end, as long as we park waco in the back. People divvied up their cars, and this time I wound up driving alone, because I planned to take a side trip on the way out.
I forgot how long and boring the trip can be alone, but was soon trying to keep up with Jason, in front of me with the rest of the Alumni Group. Jason liked driving a few MPH faster than I normally do, and I was trying to keep up and yet scared of getting a ticket. Within ten miles of getting on the interstate they hit McDonalds.
Long drives in big groups are often like this. Someone always needs to pee, get gas, or get coffee, or feed some other addiction, or get breakfast because they were running late. Usually with the BP101 crowd we stop at LEAST three times on the way there. I was glad to have my own car. I bypassed mcDonalds and soon the speed demon caught up to me and we were off to the races again.
Finally at Panthertown (after a stop at SubWay – because the rest of the Alumns didn’t know the plan Kim and I had come up with excluded subway and they should have BROUGHT their first day’s lunch) we got parked and unloaded. Panthertown has no real parking lot. Its a wide dirt road and you park on the shoulder wherever you can find a space. I wound up at the entrance, right off the side of the road. It didn’t bother me much, since the “out” trail would put me out by the car.
We headed off, the six of us. Me (Taco), Kim (Sunshine), Jason (?), Thomas (Cowboy), Rudy (Chef) and Bob (Rainfly) went exploring some areas that Rudy and Kim had done, but I had never seen. We first went up towards Warden’s falls, but missed a turn somewhere. We wound up skipping it, and then going over to Jawbone falls. After pushing through the break in the trees and going down hill, we were stuck with the idea of going across a small stream and then downstream to the waterfall. Thankfully it was only around calf-deep. Sunshine at first said “no no no – this is NOT fun, I’m not doing this”, but since everyone else was already halfway across the creek, she gave in to the mutiny and headed off. I followed, being the slower and clumsier one on the trip. I figured, no reason to take out everyone when I fall.
Jawbone falls was very nice. It was about 40 feet high, but mainly a slide, and it didn’t take up the whole rock face, so we crossed the stream above the falls, and then worked our way down the angled face of it. Finally at the bottom, we crossed the stream again the other way, which was just over knee deep (but I didn’t get my kilt wet!) and the water was really sluggish, so there was very little current.
After a brief stop to put shoes back on, we headed down the path to the next falls, but I don’t know their names off hand. It was pretty, but not as impressive from the top. It was mainly a low slide, tumble over a jumble of rocks, more like a rapids than a true falls, and went on around the corner out of sight. After that it was up the blackrock mountain trail.
Oh, I forgot to mention something. During some of this, it was RAINING. It would come and go in fits and starts, and we put on and took off our rain gear once. There’s a point when you realize that you will get completely soaked, and grab the rain coat. Hiking in slight rain is okay, because under the raincoat you’ll sweat just as much as you would get wet, but there come a point where you just don’t want to be soaked and cold, and finally get the rain gear out.
We passed a real, live hornet’s nest on the way up the blackjack trail. I’d never seen a real one hanging in the trees, it was interesting to look at from a distance, and thankfully it was raining, so the hornets were mostly inside, instead of trying to chase us away.
One down from Blackrock and onto Carlton’s way, which was a twisting, turning, near-bushwacking trail in places, we made our way to the shelter area. The shelter is in the midst of a large, open area, and looks like the tin roof attic section of an old house or barn, with no ends. Its a very weird structure to come upon in the middle of nowhere. It was unfortunately occupied for the night. There were no people, but there was gear everywhere.
Chef Rudy knew of another site a few hundred yards down the trail, so we headed off and began setting up camp, intending to ditch our stuff and go exploring. Someone had a cell phone with service, and they texted the 101 group. By the time our camp was set up and a water run to the creek completed, the other 8 people showed up and started picking out spots. Mark (the Hobbit) had brought his manual chainsaw, and we cut down a dead tree. Me and jason were in charge of lumberjack duties, And dropped it right where we wanted to, right between two other trees. It hit the ground and broke into several sections. Chef Rudy got a slow-mo video of it which was really awesome. I’ll share it if he posts it somewhere.
After spending a good deal of effort moving my bear bag (because someone chose to camp under it), I was met with howls of derisive laughter, after which I was asked to hoist up around 80 pounds of food and cooking gear (being sarcastic, but it WAS heavy). I finally gave up and found the only limb capable of holding our load, which was sort of low, but I just went with it.
After a snack, and watching the second group set up camp, one of our group figured out he had left his rainfly at home because he brought the wrong tent. I had enough room when I spread my hammock tarp out, so I let him camp under me. His tent stuck out just a little, and he threw a poncho over the end. Some of the group decided to go ahead and eat before the night hike. Chef Rudy made Pad Thai in the woods, from scratch, including scrambling an egg after cracking it one handed on his knee, and dicing garlic. He also cooked a bacon-wrapped filet mignon that Kim Sunshine had brought with her. As I had forgotten my steak, a bite of hers was pretty tasty.
The next event, which about 8 of us participated in was the hike up Big Green Mountain for the sunset. It turned out to be very nice. Big Green is a pain to walk up, as you have to go up around 300 feet up the side on a twisting, turning, muddy path, and then continue up an incline and finally out onto the edge of the Great Wall. I felt a little like I was in “A Game of Thrones”, without the snow.
The group settled down and watched the sun set, and then walked back in the deepening darkness, only to find out some had forgotten their headlamps. We called out obstacles such as mud and roots and stumps, and everyone made it back safely. After retrieving the food, it was time for supper, a fire and bed. I used my Snow Peak canister stove this time, instead of my alcohol stove. It was different, easier, but I still like the fancy feast stove.
Mercifully, the rain waited until after bedtime, but the group of “Christian” students down at the shelter whooped and hollered and played music like a drunken spring break group until around midnight. Finally the rain started and they quieted down. I woke up once at 1:30 to a good hard, but straight down, rain, and went back to sleep. I slept pretty well until a surprising 7am. It was still raining, and I lay around until 8am and finally decided someone had to get the group up.
I collected our food, and distributed it to the masses like some campground “meal on wheels” vendor, and went back to pack up my stuff. With no shelter, cooking and eating was going to be tough, so I packed my pack first, leaving only my rainfly tarp out. I stretched it out as flat as I could, leaving the rain to run off the corners, and my activities woke Rainfly Bob from his tent. Several of us cooked breakfast under the Tarp and hung around waiting for the rest of the group to finish packing.
It was at this point that we all decided to mostly stick together. The original plan was to split up again and hike different directions, but I think the rain may have hampered us a little bit. We walked out along Big Green trail and up the mountain again, this time with packs on. That was quite an experience but its always nice to do that AFTER doing it the night before, otherwise you have no idea when it will end, its just one long slog up the side of a damn hill. The core of the alums somehow wound up out front, Me, Rainfly, Jason, Cowboy and Chef. I’m not sure where Sunshine went, I never saw her again.
Our group in front headed on down and across the ridge to Greenland Creek trail, and dropped packs at the campsite near the falls. Chef Rudy stayed behind, intending to head on back to the car by himself. I started ahead of the other four, figuring I would meet everyone else at the falls. Thomas, Jason, and Rob caught up with me and passed me, as I was struggling with mud in my open-sided shoes. Greenland Creek trail will ruin shoes… which is usually why I go barefoot down this one.
I finally made it to the end and the falls were beautiful, and not running too hard. Chef Rudy had told me about a path up to the top of the falls. The falls are around 40 feet high I guess, from the main trail to the top. I found the side trail and started up, and it was steep. Before long it was REALLY steep. Even though I was in the trees and not out on rocks, I was still handholding and scrambling up. Finally I decided it was too high and too steep, when I was almost level with the top of the falls. I turned around to come down.
Have you ever gone up a ladder to the roof to fix something? Its a little scary, but then you make it to the roof, fix whatever, and turn around to come down. Now it’s REALLY scary. I was thinking, “how the HELL do I get down? Where is the trail, did it fall off the side of the cliff while I was contemplating whether to go up?” Needless to say, I made it down, as I’m not typing this in the woods. But it took me about twice as long to go down as it did to go up.
Now normally, I don’t have to crap in the woods on an overnight. But halfway up that trail I really started to feel sort of an urge. Thankfully I didn’t have to go on the side of that hill, and by the time I got down, the urge was gone all together. Back to normal hiking mode.
I decided to try and make it up as close to the underside of the waterfall as I could. I’d done it once before, and was pretty sure of the route. It was easier than I had remembered, even though I was wearing shoes. I took it very slow and deliberately. There’s one section where you have to cross the flat section of the rock, and it can get slippery. I made it up to the falls and was rewarded with a great view and a roaring white noise and cold mist.
The other guys motioned that they were going back, and I waved them off. I worked my way back down and back to the little campsite we were using as a base for Greenland Creek falls. When I got back, the rest of them were moving on, and Mark, Lorenzo and Ann were just arriving. Mark reported that everyone else had headed back to the cars, and he wanted to show Lorenzo and Ann the falls. I told him I would wait, and they took off.
I took advantage of the break, and sat down to eat a little. I still had food left in my pack, why not eat something? I wish I had a nice hot drink at that point, but although I had my stove, I was fresh out of drink mix of any sort. My bad. I reorganized a few things and found my dry socks from the previous day, and made sure I could find my keys and my wallet. I went through my pictures from the hike and deleted the crappy ones, and laid my head back for a nap against my pack, leaning against the tree. Before long Mark, Ann and Zo came back, and we walked on out, ending our hike.
My daughter spends a few weeks each year over the summer with her grandfather in Pensacola Beach. It’s a lot like summer camp, without the exorbitant costs and child molestation. Just a short, 11 hour drive across three states, and she’s there. Really, people I know hear Florida and think, “Disney World”. That’s only 7 hours away from us (which is why you see so many Disney World posts on here). Miami is 11-12 hours away. You wouldn’t think that Pensacola Beach would be so far, but it’s practically Alabama, the bit of Alabama that sticks down on the ocean… To put it in perspective, I can drive to Miami in 669 miles. Pensacola, when I go down I-95 instead of around Atlanta, is 682 miles. So – it’s more like driving to Key West… Hey now THAT’s an Idea!
Despite the distance, however, I do love the area. Clean white beaches, interesting places to eat, generally not as crowded as Myrtle Beach (which is only two hours away), and free lodging. There’s a pool there as well, which seems silly since the ocean is 200 yards away, but sometimes there’s jellyfish, which seem to have an affinity for my daughter, and which we have never found in the pool.
The only time the place gets REALLY busy is July, between the 4th, which for some reason they shoot off lots of fireworks and traffic is terrible for hours afterwards, and the following week, the Blue Angels hold a series of practices and ultimately an Air Show, so if you want to go anywhere at all for about 3 days, it better be on foot. On Saturday, There is not a parking space on the island to be had, if there is dirt without a roped off section, there will be a car on it.
Thankfully there is plenty to entertain yourself with, and the Condo my father lives at is close enough to the main drag that we can see some of the airshow without dragging ourselves down to the crowded main viewing area, and the planes fly right by, rather loudly.
And when, as it happens in Florida, sudden thunderstorms come up, you don’t find yourself running for the car only to sit still in traffic for three hours like some people did. The airshow presents a unique set of problems for those just visiting, mainly the lack of public toilets on the far end of the beach from the pier. While watching from the balcony, my stepmother saw a group of people wander over to the condo property’s gate and try to get in. They didn’t appear to know the code, and someone wandered over to the gate, punched in the code, and let them in. There were a group of adults and about five kids, and once inside by the pool, they didn’t know the code for the lobby door, either, and sent someone to the front to let them in from the other side. We went to the first floor to see what was going on, under the pretense of getting something from the car. The group was hanging around in the lobby and using the first floor pool area bathroom. When they went to leave, they didn’t know the gate code to get out, either.
Someone let them out, and they watched, rather intently, as the gate code was punched in. About ten minutes later two of the group returned with more children and adults in tow, and tried to get back in the gate. My step-mother was understandably distressed at all the random people coming in, as people leave things a mess, break things, leave water running, and damage things. I shouted down from the balcony, “Are you staying here?” The response was, “No – we are coming to use the bathroom.” I told them, “This is private property, not a public restroom, you can’t come in unless you stay or rent here.” The results were some dirty looks, and a couple of the girls taking photos of me with phone cameras as they left. I understand their plight, but as a matter of course, you don’t just wander into private property to use the bathroom. Hopefully the people in charge of the island put out some port-potties for next year.
But when the weather is nice, there’s one thing Florida has in abundance, and that is SUNSHINE. They don’t call it the sunshine state for nothing. So we brought out our tent (the same tent that Myrtle Beach has made illegal, take that Myrtle Beach!) and set it up a couple of days before and after all the airshow antics. Diligently I sprayed my arms and legs with sunscreen. intending mainly to sit under the tent and enjoy the views and look for the odd shell or two. We also played a game, called “oh no they didn’t”, which is a lot like I-Spy, only a LOT more judgmental. Mainly it involves people in inappropriate attire, or barely there attire (thong bathing suits are legal here, another point for Pensacola that Myrtle Beach makes illegal). The first person to see, for example, someone in a bikini that is mostly covered by their fat rolls says “oh no she didn’t!” discreetly, pointing with their eyes. Its best to play discreetly, avoiding the chance of getting your ass kicked. Other than that, the water is gorgeous, and recently beach erosion has shaped the coast into a series of sandbars and little tidal pools great for people that don’t like waves or don’t swim well.
My fearless daughter kept pestering me to come swimming, having gotten bored burying my feet and looking at the same people standing around. So I stripped off my shirt and headed to the water. It is at this point I will remind you that I sprayed my arms and legs, with the intent of staying under the tent, or getting shells. So I float around on her boogie board for 30-45 minutes, with the full expanse of my white pastiness exposed to the radiation on a burning thermonuclear explosion only 92 million miles away, possible causing someone else to score a point in the “oh know he didn’t!” game. We returned, hot, tired, and jellyfish stung (the stings we got were unpleasant, but not terrible, going away after only a few minutes). Putting away the tent and going inside didn’t take long, and my wife said, “your back is burnt”. Oops, at this point I realized the error of my ways.
So, the following morning we returned, all 11 hours, to home with our stuff, my back itchy and uncomfortable. Along the way she gets invited to Myrtle Beach to see other family members. I have to work, and having had enough of sitting on a beach in the sun for a while, I offer to drive her, since she doesn’t like traffic.
Oatmeal baths become my friend, and after a four hour trip (2 each way) to Myrtle Beach, I take another one, and try to rub down my itchy reddened back. Why is it that sunburns look worse two days later?
The following day I go back to Myrtle Beach to pick up the wife and kid, and on the way back a discussion ensues that goes down as one of the weirdest in history. My daughter starts relating the tale of how my sister-in-law’s new cat crapped on the carpet. Not only did I not need to know about that, that was one thing I prefer NOT to hear about. It’s one reason I hold dogs and cats in disdain, and prefer to stay away from people who have dogs and cats in their house. I don’t want to hear, see, or be around animals that routinely poop where they aren’t supposed to, namely inside. So they go on and on about this cat and it’s bowel habits, and finally, sunburned and exhausted from driving 11 hours, then 4 then 4 more over the course of a few days, I tell them, “can we please stop discussing the cat shit? I’ve heard all I ever needed to know about cat shit, I never needed to hear the first thing about cat shit, and yet here we are, five minutes later, discussing the cat and its shit on the rug”. My wife asks me if there’s a contest I am in to see how many times in one minute I can say “cat shit”. Then she makes the mistake of taking a long drink from her coke can.
In response to her query, I reply: “No, but it’s just that every time you mention it, I picture this turd on the rug, and that’s a visual I just don’t need while I’m driving in traffic.”
Her response is to spew out about half a cup of coke all over herself, the car seat, her jeans, and her feet. Oh well, at least we stopped talking about cat shit.
It’s been quite a while since I have been able to photograph any decent storms. Last year was just sort of Blah. We got a lot of rain, sure, but nothing really awesome in the way of lightning storms. However, last night, that changed. I wasn’t able to get a really good position, because the trees are in my way, and the wife and kid don’t like me driving to an empty field and standing out in the open holding on to the metal tripod. Something about electrocution and fried brains and such… But, I can still go out in the driveway, so here are some of my halfway decent shots of lightning from last nights’ storm in our area.
So, I went on my first cruise in ten years or so. I had been on three, back in the 90s, and since then my vacations have mostly centered around Disney World, Pensacola Beach, and one odd Washington DC thrown in there for good measure.
Disney World, first of all, is a no brainer. We’ve been so many times now, there are no unknowns. We know exactly what to expect, from the crowds to the attractions to the traffic. The thing about Disney World though, is it is NOT a vacation. “Vacation” to me means something relaxing, somewhere you get away from the hustle and bustle of life. Disney World is more hustle and bustle than everyday life. In fact it makes work look easy. You take a “Trip” to Disney World, NOT a Vacation.
Cruising is fun, but always contains some unknowns. Where are you going to go, when, where to stay, and what to do. Now that a kid is involved, it gets even more difficult, because some activities aren’t kid appropriate, so what do you do? The price of a cruise, per day, is abut the same as a Disney trip, once it is all said and done, so there’s no real advantage one way or the other. The biggest difference is, during a cruise, the people begging you for money aren’t wearing mouse ears.
So we booked a trip on the Carnival Conquest to San Juan, St. Thomas, Grand Turk, and Nassau. The first obstacle to any trip is deciding what to take. Thankfully my wife has learned as she has matured, what to pack for a trip. I know when I backpack (if I’m ever allowed to go again), I can put my entire life on my back for several days. My wife is of the opposite extreme. Several years back, a few days away required at least six suitcases, averaging thirty pounds. On our first trip, we brought one bag just for shoes. Walking around shoes, beach shoes, flip flops, pairs of shoes for each elegant night… This time? Two pair each. One set for dress up night, one set for everything else. We pack smaller now. Travel size everything… And disposable where possible. Some stuff that goes down doesn’t come back.
The trip to the boat is another issue. It’s a long damn way to Miami to get on a ship. We leave from the northeast part of SC, drive six hours to Jacksonville, Florida. We’re half way. Hitting the Florida border and seeing the signs saying “Miami 365 miles” or whatever, is really disheartening. “why don’t you fly?” you may ask. For what I would pay for 3 tickets, plus baggage, plus parking and aggravation going through security and sitting on a plane with other assholes, I can drive. It takes longer, but even staying overnight I come out ahead. Port Canaveral or even the port in Fort Lauderdale is better than going to Miami. We drove to Port St. Lucie where we had reserved a hotel room, and stayed overnight before continuing the last two hours the next morning.
Boarding the boat was a little confusing. There has been a lot of construction since our last visit. Last time there seemed to be acres of parking, through which we had to drag our 700 pounds of bags (including shoes) to the terminal. This time there was an actual parking garage, making the trip to the terminal short and easy. Plus One to the Port of Miami! Unfortunately, the porters that were so eager to help last time were sort of hidden, and one had to find us while security seemed incredulous that we didn’t check our bags. There were no signs, no instructions, nothing. Just, cross the street from the garage and you’re on your own. Once inside it was a logical, if silly, method. Just like boarding a plane.
Finally, time to go. We packed half the house in five small bags, drove twelve hours, bought 60 dollars worth of gas, and stayed in a swanky hotel with a golf course for less than the crappy place at the ski slopes.
Like the song says: “I’m on a Boat!”
Okay, it’s another big ass cruise ship. That hasn’t changed much. They’re all big ass cruise ships. They’re decorated differently, they go different places, but they’re all pretty much the same thing. A couple of restaurants, a big open deck with a swimming pool, several residence decks, spa, theatre, etc. One new edition that wasn’t there last time was the poolside movie screen, above the deck. TV shows during the day, movies at night. It was all pretty nice. The one thing that really hasn’t changed is the people. You get the same mix of people that I remember from last time. They range from the very young to the very old, although I was disappointed to see the scooter crowd has infiltrated cruise ships too. I guess all those TV ads for “the scooter store” paid off. There are the spring breaker college kids, the parents that let their kids run wild, the quiet groups, the average middle-aged, the former veterans… Pretty much a good cross section of every day society. Some people were a bit wild for my taste (damn it settle down and talk quietly on the stateroom decks – dont be so damn loud), which we really didn’t have a problem with on Royal Carribbean. Those people seem more genteel and less party-hungry. On the last night of the trip, some young teens were cackling and shouting in the hall outside our room after midnight. I yelled at them in English and Spanish. A good “people are trying to sleep, you need to shut the hell up”, goes a long way.
The activities have definitely increased since last trip. The shows were pretty good, like usual, but last trip seemed built around getting more money out of you. Other than gambling, the only real activity was bingo, which you had to pay for. This time there were plenty of no cost things to do. There was trivia of various kinds several times a day, interactive lessons (we learned to do the Zombie dance from the Thriller video), arts and crafts, and several things we couldn’t do while we were off the ship. I was really pleased at this new improvement. I could do as much or as little as I wanted.
Nassau was a disappointment. I had heard it was somewhat dirty and nasty. I concur on this opinion. We decided to take a walking tour on our own instead of paying someone 50 bucks each for the same privilege. Coming off the dock, everyone is hawking something. Hair braids, scarves, purses, taxi rides, horse carriage rides…almost as bad as Salvation Army bell ringers, they persist in trying to bother you into something. Walking around, while it looked like a good idea from the map, was a bit more difficult than it appeared. There aren’t many street signs where there should be, and sidewalks are evidently a luxury in a lot of places. Add to it the persistent graffiti, and the whole thing gives a tourist the idea that we are in the wrong part of town. We did see the Queens Staircase and Fort Fincastle, both of which were impressive.
San Juan was better this time around. More stuff was open for us. Last time they did a nighttime tour, so by the time we got off ship there wasn’t much open that we wanted to see. This time we toured two forts and downtown. The forts were interesting but it was sunny and hot and we got tired, and retired to the boat. One fort would have been plenty (el Morro was the best).
In St. Thomas, we headed off on a boat tour to St. John, and had an island tour on an open sided tour bus thing. Although interesting, it would have been nice to get out more at a few beaches. The place was beautiful however. It was almost impossible not to just point the camera in any random direction and take a photo that looked straight out of a travel magazine. There was the standard tour bus operator kickback agreements… He stopped at two places, one which just closed and the other where his friend was selling soursop juice at sort of a lemonade stand.
Grand Turk was a little like Nassau. It was obviously a poorer area that was dependent on tourism and shopping, and had been heavily damaged in the past ten years by a hurricane. The people didn’t beg us for the most part, they just stared, as if we were a roving band of circus performers. The most interesting part of the trip was the sea life. Our “coast to coast safari” tour guides had some starfish and sea urchins they passed around and let us hold. He then pulled out a conch shell and showed us how they turn conch into food. No PETA morons allowed on this trip. He knocked a hole in the shell and cut the creature loose. Then he peeled it and cut it up and passed pieces out. It tasted like overcooked shrimp, slightly crunchy and salty, but good. You don’t get fresher than that. Grand Turk has a donkey problem. They run wild everywhere. At one inlet we visited there was as much horse poo on the shore as shells. I guess it floats and washes up. There was a constant horse stink on the breeze. The island is only a few miles long and two wide. One guy with a rifle could solve the wild donkey issue, yet they would rather build fences around all the properties and just live with the donkeys. Strange culture.
All too soon it comes to an end, however. Seven days goes by really quickly. But, we’ve already decided that it’s been too long since our last cruise. They had a future cruise desk set up during the voyage, and we signed up for another one.
I had the chance to broaden my dining horizons over the last week. Having paid for all you can eat, a cruise provides an opportunity to try new things. Carnival offered us a “didja” item on every menu, as in “did you ever want to try…”
Normally you wouldn’t go to a restaurant and order something out of your normal range of likes, especially if you didn’t know if you liked it and would have to pay a lot for it.
The first thing I tried was crawfish, which wasn’t even on the menu, it was sitting on some rice on a buffet. Easy enough, it’s a lot like a big shrimp. Passed that test.
My next Didja was alligator. It was in fritter form, which pretty much killed any flavor. Fry most anything hard enough and add enough breading, and it will be edible.
Shark came next, in a sort of egg roll form, diced up with some other stuff. It was okay, not entirely to my liking but okay.
I had sushi, which I have had before, but this was some different fish in different forms. Very tasty.
My strangest Didja on the ship was frog legs. Not very good. Greasy and oily, like dark meat chicken with less flavor. So he brought me a crab cake, not exactly weird, but a first for me.
Probably my oddest off ship eating adventure came from a tour operator. He pulled a conch from the water, removed it from the shell, killed it and peeled it right in front of us. After cutting it up he passed it out. It was mildly pleasant, like an over cooked shrimp.
Of course, no cruise is complete without a drink or two. A nice 12 year Glenmorangie single malt went very well with dinner one night. Another first…