When we finally put our "John Hancocks" on the 1040 for 2000, the refund was much more impressive than we expected, and we were surfing webs sites to find out what things cost and (in some cases) what times of the year they could be seen while waiting for the return to arrive in our checking account.
The timing was tight for being allowed to get away from work, as Avatar can't take time off during heating season in Maine - pretty much ruling out anything from the first part of October until the end of March. My workplace has bidding for one week at a time to get a vacation in June, July and August, but requesting two weeks together any other time of the year is fine. We put in for time off the week before and the week of school vacation (April 7 - 22, 2001).
Our requests were granted.
We were golden.
Deciding that we need extra space to carry stuff, Avatar uses a paid-off Sears card to get a bicycle-helmet shaped carrier to mount on the built-in roof rack. It looks silly, but proves to be an easy means of finding the car as we travel: We look for the van that looks ready to go mountain biking.
Discovering prior to leaving that a co-worker of mine is also going to Florida, we make arrangements to meet at Disney World on Wednesday to at least hear another Maine accent ("9:00 at the Mickey-face flowers by the train station"). We pack our bags, then hand them off to a second family member to be double-checked against a list that we have each used to pack by, insuring we all packed what we said we did. (These lists come along and are rechecked at each packing to make sure nothing is left behind - theorectically.) We race through chores, trying to leave the house as clean as possible to avoid coming home to something funky. The dog is prepped for two weeks at a kennel with a trip to the vet's office where he gets poked, prodded and stuck with needles.
The final few hours at work on Friday, April 6th are made easier by an email from Avatar stating that he has been able to get home early (for a change), and the dog is at the kennel already, allowing us to leave well before 8 a.m., which had been the "planned time" when making up a rough itinerary for the trip. The new departure time is 3:30 a.m., and we're all in bed REALLY early...
Time passes as we ride from state to state, pausing only for restroom trips, food or fuel. Maine becomes New Hampshire, which swiftly gives way to Massachusetts. We quietly skirt the greater part of Boston on 495, afraid to make too much noise, as the streets at this hour are still silent, but won't stay that way for long if the natives are stirred up.
After Massachusetts comes Connecticut, then a brief portion of New York before a long stretch of road (Route 84 to 81) that almost crosses the full length of Pennsylvania. (In order to make Virginia for the first night and be only moments away from Luray Caverns, the first official stop on this tour, we have opted to go inland rather than stay with Route 95 while heading south.) We pass Harrisburg, Pennsylvania close to noon and realize we are making great time, but don't dare to hope that we might actually be ahead of the itinerary by almost half a day. It isn't until the short span of West Virginia has passed beneath our wheels and we actually pass the sign reading "Welcome to Virginia" that we begin to feel the full benefit of the early start. We pull into the parking lot of Luray Caverns at approximately 3 p.m., eager for the guided tour that was promised on their website (Luray Caverns.com) if only to exercise our road-weary muscles and boredom-deadened minds. The caverns are truly mind-boggling, from Pluto's Ghost to the Stalacpipe Organ, and it proves to be just as entertaining as it is educational.
On leaving the Caverns (and after also touring the attached Car and Carriage Museum, which contains such beauties as Rudolph Valentino's Gray Ghost), we turn south again and seek a place in which to rest our weary bones for the night. The shabby room is disappointing for it's cost, but a local barbeque joint (Bar-B-Q Ranch, Highway 11 North, Harrisonburg, VA) where we go to find "some local color" while we eat proves to be perhaps the best find of the day. The home-made sauce all but has pigs lined up outside clamoring to be dipped in it!
Avatar and Madmartigan decide to test their skill on the tables in a pool hall across the street. They beat a swift retreat when they enter the room to be greeted by a bunch of swarthy mexican-looking faces and menus that are written entirely in Spanish, as Mad's Sesame Street Spanish seems a bit lacking, but we enjoy a peaceful night despite that.
(For pictures from Day One, click here)
Despite a couple of reports that Williamsburg was naught but a bunch of museums, we are fascinated by watching a woodcutter working with an apprentice who is learning how to use a crosscut saw, and awed by the rich decor inside the Governor's Mansion as well as the flowering beauty of the surrounding gardens. We laugh at the fact revealed at the dressmakers that boys as well as girls wore dresses (boys with buttons, girls without) until Mother decided they were at an age to be considered a man (in the case of a lad) or of age to be courted (in the case of a lass), and that buttons on the gown of a grown woman meant she was of loose virtue.
But perhaps our favorite among these and many other unmentioned stops is the dapper elder in a black frock coat who allows visitors to take pictures of him, but tells us that he has "heard of these Portrait Stealers" we hold, and goes on to comment that "it must have been sold to you by a Frenchman, who was pleased to take the money of a fool". When a visitor states they have come from Texas, he comments "Ah, the Spanish Colonies. You must be a missionary!" He is the one who is most in character, pretending not to know where one is from if not among the original settlements that would have existed in 1774 - and seems to be the one having the most fun of all those in costume on the grounds, though they all seem to be enjoying what they're doing.
At apx. 5:30 p.m., we trudge back to the car to gladly ride in air-conditioned comfort (as the day had turned out much warmer than the weatherman predicted, hitting a record for the season of mid-70's temperatures) until a room in the form of a Comfort Inn in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina and food in the form of an Aunt Sarah's attached to the motel can be secured. Already lightly sunburned at the edges by the warm sun of Virginia, we are, nonetheless, eager to reach Florida (foolish mortals that we are), and little realize that the unseasonably warm weather is only just beginning.
(For pictures from Day Two, click here)
After a good stretch and a trip to the restrooms, we continue on our way, with Avatar stating that we should be able to make Florida by 4 p.m., a full day ahead of schedule. Part-way across Georgia, TazGirl suddenly comes awake to the fact that it's after 3 p.m., and starts noting the numbers on the mile markers versus the number of minutes left before 4. The race is on.
The closer we get to Florida, the more excited TazGirl gets. Avatar is traveling along at 75 miles per hour (on cruise control, so it's a very steady 75), and she keeps looking from the side of the road to the clock. It's 10 minutes to 4 and 16 miles to go, then 5.5 minutes and 7 miles, etc. It feels like she's pierced my eardrums with her screams of victory when the marker for the Florida border passes my window at 4 p.m. on the button.
Jacksonville in the middle of rush-hour traffic proves to be less of a pain than we expect, and we pull into a Perkins Family Restaurant just off Route 4 in De Land at a reasonable hour to have a nice, relaxed dinner. Opting to make it an early evening rather than driving all the way into Orlando, we pull into a Day's Inn in Sanford early enough to allow the kids to take their first swim in Florida before the hotel pool closes at 9 p.m. After settling the kids in the room, Avatar and I celebrate our early arrival in Florida with a few drinks in Kelly's Bar (attached to the hotel) and watch a ladies' darts tournament that proves to be quite fun, as all the locals really get into the game by cheering for the ladies like spectators at a football game.
(For pictures from Day Three, click here)
After booking a room for a 4 night stay, we get into our bathing suits and take off, having already wasted mearly half the day in getting the room. Part-way to Daytona, I remember the one thing I wasn't able to find in Maine stores when preparing for the trip: sun screen. Avatar, sounding perfectly sensible, says "We'll just pack up when we start to turn pink." Bad mistake, as we don't realize (yet) that we have forgotten ONE IMPORTANT THING about the Florida sun: it warms the skin to such a degree that one continues to burn even after exposure to the sun has ceased!
As the kids and the hubby play in the surf, I make myself comfortable on a towel with Stephen King's latest novel, Dreamcatcher. When one side begins to feel warm, I flip over, and when that side feels warm, I flip back, not realizing that all I am really doing is making sure that I have a nice, even burn both front and back. As planned, we leave when our skin begins to show pink, but by the time we reach the mall in Altamont Springs to get something with aloe in it, our folly is painfully clear, as we are all a nice, bright red. Avatar stops for something alcoholic to help us sleep.
By the time we get back to the hotel in Orlando, we're still burning despite the aloe gel, and we get into the shower one by one to follow advice that we found priceless when living in Naples in 1983 - 1985. ("Take the hottest shower you can stand to open your pores and let the heat out, then rub down with aloe vera." - "Uncle" Larry B., longtime Florida "cracker"). With Madmartigan directing the video camera, Avatar and I mug by pulling on the edge of our bathing suit bottoms, joking "Look, we're the Copperton twins", and I compare one of Madmartigan's t-shirts to my thigh, asking "Which one is redder?" When we slide between the sheets at bedtime, the joking stops, as even the soft linen feels like sandpaper.
Avatar shows the first signs of a mild case of sun-sickness when he is possessed with uncontrollable shivers directly after his shower, but the rest of us go to sleep believing we'll be able to handle Disney in the morning. After all, we're not cold.....yet.........
(For pictures from Day Four click here)
After several quarts of fluids to replenish those lost the day before (negating the chills) and several layers of Solarcaine to relieve the pain of the sunburn, we opt to swap the plans for Thursday to Wednesday and go to Zephyrhills (near Tampa) to visit Avatar's father and step-mother. It's a nice visit, as they haven't seen the kids since before TazGirl could walk, and we take them out to dinner at a really nice restaurant before returning to the hotel.
(Sorry, no pictures from Day Five, as that would expose "the in-laws" on the internet. Don't want people bugging them with "You're Galadriel's in-laws!" *grin*)
Making our way down Main Street USA to go through (in this order) Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, Mickey's Toontown Fair, and Tomorrowland (only backtracking around dinnertime to go have dinner with the Disney characters in the Liberty Tree Tavern in Liberty Square), the kids soon come to realize why we arrived so early and told them to prepare for such a long day. The shortest line to get on a ride is 15 minutes, and more than one has a 90 minute wait. In between rides, we look through shops to be able to choose that one item to forever remind us of this day - and are shocked by the prices. (An example is the two 5 x 8 pictures with Tigger that set us back $22.21 - one of which is in the Day 6 photo gallery. One would think they were edged in gold!)
After the SpectroMagic Parade, in which all the characters march down Main Street or ride on floats that are totally covered in millions of tiny lights (a spectacle which we later learn is to be retired this summer, never to be witnessed again - and which we caught on video thanks to the state-of-the-art camera we bought just for the trip), we make our way to the Paddleboat/Ferry, which returns us to the main gate and our car. It is 11:40 p.m., we have blisters on our feet, and it's all we can do to stay awake long enough to reach the hotel, but it's a wonderful day that none of us will ever forget - and the price tag proves that we'd BETTER remember it forever! The one day (which later proves to be the most expensive day on the entire trip) has set us back a grand total of $435!!
(For pictures from Day Six, click here)
Actually dressing nice for our "fancy dinner out" turns out to be something of a mistake, as the meal is served as they ate during those days: without silverware! Vegetable soup is served in a pewter bowl with a handle so that one can sip it, followed by roast chicken (half a small bird), spare ribs, and a roasted potato half. Ale (the traditional drink for a man) or soda (substituted for the traditional wine, water or fresh milk for women and children) is served in a pewter mug, and a small pastry finishes the meal. But although the food is nothing spectacular to write home about, the entertainment is truly unique.
As the servants bring food to the hungry masses (seated at long tables the whole length of the inner arena, which appears to about equal a football field), we are entertained by the performances of fine Andelusian horses (both shown off riderless by the Master of the Stables and ridden in a show of dressage by the King's Quadrillion), a Falconer, and others. When a wizard warns of the approach of an enemy, six knights fight "to the death" in order to choose a champion to go against The Black Knight. Although we know that the jousts are choreographed and there is no gore to ruin our meal, we're still impressed by the force of some of the blows, as the weapons strike sparks when metal meets metal. At the end, the Champion wins out over The Black Knight (who, it turns out, is one of those who "died" earlier, just in a different costume), and Avatar and I bring home two lovely golden goblets plus three shot glasses, two gold and one silver (from the bar while waiting for the early show to finish so that we could be seated). Madmartigan and TazGirl have each purchased hats, and we all have photos in which our faces have been superimposed into period clothing.
(For pictures from Day Seven, click here)
Avatar tells us all to stay put, then goes to knock on the door. Dogs bark within, and the door is opened by a girl whom we've see pictures of over the years, but haven't seen in person since she was 5 (when we drove to New York to visit her family while they were visiting relatives there, it being so close to Maine). Knowing from the look on her face that SHE doesn't recognize HIM, Avatar asks for directions to Maine, at which point she gets "Daddy" to the door. It even takes Dad a moment or two to make the connection, but when he suddenly puts "Maine" and the face he's looking at together, we're greeted as the long-lost friends we are and invited in.
Before a single phone call can be made to the local hotels, we have lodging - in the family's camper out in their yard (which is referred to as "Hotel Hofacre" for the rest of the visit). Air conditioned and less prone to fire ants than our tent, we accept the camper as temporary housing and talk late into the night, catching up on all that's occured, renewing a long-standing friendship that almost feels like visiting family.
(Sorry - no Day Eight pictures, except this one of oranges on trees as we want to make sure that "Hotel Hofacre" doesn't become part of EVERYONE's itinerary! *grin*)
Riding through a series of interconnected salt water channels that run among mangrove "islands" brings back memories of when we lived in Naples, when a jaunt out to one of the many islands that run along the western coast of southern Florida was a common thing. The sight of ospreys nesting on the top of the channel markers or hunting in the sky overhead is as breathtaking as always, and we get a special treat when some bat-like rays touch the surface of the water, though which species of ray can't be told from this angle, and they dive again before we can get closer. Pelicans and sea gulls float atop the mild swells of the waveless channels, but a search for a manatee to show the kids a wild "sea cow" proves fruitless.
Eventually we make our way to a favorite island retreat called Keewaydin Island - and are shocked by the number of boats pulled up on the beach. Having been on the island when 5 boats were considered a crowd, we begin to wonder if there is any free beach space as we lose count of the number of crafts we see. Finding a space between two beached boats, we beach ours as well, drop a beach anchor to insure it doesn't come loose in the mild waves from other passing boats, and walk around the island to the Gulf side, showing the kids the large breakers that mark where the water of the channel meets the Gulf's waves. The beach along this side has no boats anchored along it, as the waves would batter the craft, and seems almost deserted despite the evidence of large numbers of people somewhere on the island.
In an attempt to get some fresh sand dollars for TazGirl to bring home and show her classmates, we go out onto a sandbar slightly offshore and "skuff" our feet along the bottom, trying to dislodge some of the small sea creatures. We have no luck, but the kids note the difference between the Atlantic and the Gulf as we do this: the Gulf has warmer water!
In the warmth, even I enjoy swimming in the surf, forgetting that although we were all coated with sunscreen when we left Uncle Larry's dock, we have now washed it all off. By the time we get done collecting shells, get back into the boat, and return to Uncle Larry's house, all exposed flesh has once again turned a nice bright pink, and we will later discover that we have some second-degree burn spots. At the moment, though, we have fun going into a neighbor's pool across the street from Uncle Larry's house, followed by a nice dinner, and topped off with the sight of sea bass gathering under the neighbor's dock light. The wild fish group beneath the light in such numbers that some are actually pushed above the water's surface by the fish below. (Unfortunately, we didn't think to grab a camera, so this sight isn't recorded anywhere except in our minds.)
By the time we make our way back to "Hotel Hofacre", it is almost midnight, the car smells like seaweed due to all the shells TazGirl gathered (and was given from Uncle Larry's personal stash), and we again feel like we've been crispy-fried - but we're happy to have renewed another long-term friendship. Oddly enough, what TazGirl seems most fascinated by from the whole day is Uncle Larry's blind cat, who wandered out into the kitchen during dinner, but didn't bump into anything or anyone despite not being able to see......
(For pictures from Day Nine, click here)
Due to a heavy drought, the water is mostly dried up, and we go through the better part of the walk in shock. The roots of the cypress trees show where the water line would normally be, but THERE IS NO WATER. Plants and animals that would normally be directly under the boardwalk are nowhere to be seen, and we wonder if there are actually going to be any of the alligators that we told the kids about.
It isn't until we get to the Lettuce Lakes (toward the end of the tour) that we actually see any water, but it is severely shallow. The kids, who have begun to lose interest by this point, are suddenly looking at alligators, just as we promised, close enough to touch (although most people walking along the boardwalk shy away from the edge as one 'gator draws near to it despite the large amount of air between the 'gator and the 'walk). One smallish 'gator sunning on a log actually opens his mouth in a large yawn as if trying to convince us that he's soooo sleepy, he couldn't POSSIBLY move fast enough to bite.....
As if the sight of the 'gators has given us new energy, we finish the walk in high spirits despite the hot day, and our final sight before reaching the building that marks the entrance/exit is a small herd Florida deer (much smaller than the ones we've been watching out our back door all spring) feeding on the grasslands. Despite the lack of water, Corkscrew Woodlands has wowed us again.
We finish the night with a dinner like the ones we prepare at a friend's camp all summer. There are at least three choices of meat, several side dishes, and many other tasty things to chew on, shared with great camaraderie. We miss the sight of watching the sun sink into the Gulf from Naples Pier (which we would have liked letting the kids see), but we are satisfied with our last day in Southern Florida.
(For pictures from Day Ten, click here)
Pulling into the parking lot at Busch Gardens at around 10 a.m., we board a bus to get to the main gate, as we opted to park in one of the remote parking lots. Planning to leave at around 6 p.m., we begin working our way around as we did in Disney: heading to the left because most of the crowd is going right. While "the boys" enjoy every roller coaster in the park, "the girls" enjoy doing things like standing on the bridge that goes over the Tidal Wave ride so that, when the ride hits the bottom of the final hill, the huge splash of water soaks us to the skin. We also hit the Congo River Rapids ride, which leaves us dripping - and TazGirl literally hopping with pleasure.
As it turns out, there is so little of the park left to see at 6 p.m., we finish seeing it. The animals are fascinating, the rides are great fun, and the day turns out to be the final day of unseasonably hot temperatures (though we don't know it at the time). After making our way back to the van, we head out to Zephyrhills for one final visit with Avatar's folks, as we don't think we'll be seeing them again soon.
After a very late dinner in Zephyrhills, we go back to Route 75 north, eventually pulling over in Ocala to spend the night in a Super 8 motel. Unpacking the few items we'll need for the night, we notice that the air seems chill, but write it off to having spent too long in the sunshine while at Busch Gardens and being over-tired. For the first time since reaching Florida, we actually run the heater briefly to take the chill off the room before crawling into bed.
(For pictures from Day Eleven, click here)
Trying to get into Virginia before stopping for the night, we stop only for necessities, with the only significant happening being the stop back into South of the Border. With more than we expected still in the checkbook, Avatar goes a little wild on the fireworks, coming out with three heavy bags that equal $164. I buy a bumper sticker for the van for 10 cents, a bright florescent sticker with a sleeping Mexican on it that I promptly lose before we get home - but which later turns up between two pages of the Road Atlas.
We fail in our attempt to reach Virginia about 50 miles south of the border, as we are just too darn tired to press on at 11:45 p.m. We pull into another Super 8, this one in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, as we were very impressed with the cleanliness of the motel the prior night, and it seems we are all asleep before our heads have a chance to settle on the pillows.
(Sorry - no Day Twelve pics)
Looking across the manicured lawn at the White House in the distance, Avatar lightens the mood again by joking "Get out the Bushes", and notes how glad he is that OUR lawn isn't that big. Madmartigan agrees, as he has to do most of the mowing during the summer on ours, and was complaining just last year that he hardly seems to finish with one mowing when it's time to start again. We load back into the van thinking that we'll be out of the city within about a half an hour - foolish beings that we are.
An hour later, when Avatar is about ready to jump out and start beating some of the people in front of us just to get traffic moving, I pull out the map and instruct him to take the next turn, which puts us onto a faster-moving roadway going west. We won't meet up with 95 again for a while, but at least we're moving....
The route we're on eventually brings us to Route 83 north, which in turn brings up back into Pennsylvania and eventually gets us back onto Route 81. It's the long way back home, but we avoid New Jersey and New York City traffic, so Avatar is happy, especially considering that we would have had to continue in the bumper-to-bumper traffic the whole way. Stopping in Harrisburg for dinner, Avatar states that he doesn't want to spend another night in a hotel, and that he is rested enough to try for an all-night drive. The kids, who once again have been sleeping off and on in the van all day, have no problems with this, and I, never one to sleep in the car, offer to "ride shotgun".
In Scranton, we get back onto Route 84. Going through the mountains of New York after dark is like passing through a magical land, as the lights far down in the valley twinkle like jewels in the blackness of the night. The miles pass under our wheels as hour after hour passes with very few stops. When we pull into a truck stop in Connecticut for gas, TazGirl wakes up and states she's hungry. We ask Madmartigan if he would like something to eat, but only get a grunt in reply and no movement, so we leave him sleeping in the locked van while we go inside for a very late desert. After the waitress has served us some coffee, but before she's taken our food order, Mad suddenly joins us to add his order, having awakened in the van to find himself all alone in a strange parking lot.
Fed and well-caffeinated, we get back on the road again and find almost no traffic on the Mass Turnpike when we turn off Route 84 to head back east to Route 95. Everything goes smoothly, and when we cross the final bridge into Kittery, Maine at about 3 a.m. on what is officially Day 14 of our vacation, both Avatar and I breathe a heavy sigh of relief. We're almost home!!
We pull into the driveway at 4 a.m. wanting nothing more than to turn on the furnace (as it's very cold still in Maine) and climb into bed. For the first time in the entire trip, we have a truly "bad time". We get inside the house to discover that, while we were away, the yearly spring flood began in the basement due to the melting snow, but the sump pump malfunctioned due to a frozen spot on the end of the plastic pipe leading to the outside. Cold water is everywhere (including into the bottom of the furnace)!
Avatar bravely goes wading into the water and gets the sump pump going while I get the kids out of the car and into bed, unpacking sleeping bags (rated to 35 degree weather, and it's about 45 degrees in the house at the moment) so they can get warm quickly and go back to sleep. That's when I discover another problem: two of the pillows we brought with us are missing - and they're the more expensive down pillows from the bed I share with Avatar, not the $10 couch pillows the kids brought along!! While Avatar gets the furnace going (which luckily took on a fairly small amount of water, and is thus able to be fixed only a few minutes after the pump problem is corrected, though Avatar has to stand in water to work on it for the first few minutes), I call the hotel and ask them to please call us should they find them. We don't get back into bed until almost 6, but sleep comes quickly.
(For pictures from Day Thirteen, click here)
TazGirl is already up (as is normal for her, she awoke about the time Avatar and I got to bed), and when we wake Madmartigan and tell him where we're going, he's up in a hurry, too. Both are dressed faster than they usually move even when food is offered, and we pull into the kennel between 10 and 10:30. We all crowd into the small office/pet store and wait for the attendant to bring our dog out to us, but it seems we aren't the only eager ones this morning!
Between the kennels in the back and the pet store in the front is a half door, approximately 32 inches tall. Behind the door on the kennel side is a large step down. Neither seems to stop Bear, as he leaps over the door to get to us, surprising the attendant so much that she brings him to an abrupt halt a few feet into the room as she is still holding his leash and standing on the far side of the closed half-door! When she drops the leash, he runs from family member to family member, trying to kiss everyone at once, and is wagging much more than his tail as he almost seems to be having some sort of spasm of joy.
He whines in the car as if urging "Dad" to hurry up and get us home. When we pull into the parking lot of a grocery store on the way home and "Dad" and "the girl" get out, he sits in the driver's seat with bright, eager eyes, watching every person that comes out of the building. Every once in a while, he whines as if begging for his humans to hurry it up. Whenever a face from inside the car comes into his line of vision, he kisses "Mom" and "the boy", but still keeps his vigil. When the faces he seeks come into view, he's ecstatic, practically shaking the car with his violent tail wagging.
On arriving home, he shows off his happiness with a playful run throughout the house, barking if anyone claps to encourage him, then racing around even more, behaving like an utter fool. When called to a human, he kisses every face again and again, letting us know he missed us as much as we missed him.
We make a heartfelt vow then and there that, if we ever do this kind of trip again, we will get a camper (either a Winnebago-styled one like the one our friends own or a tow-behind-the-van version) so Bear can come along and experience at least SOME of the fun, even if we need to leave the camper running all day to keep him air-conditioned!
(For pictures from Day Fourteen, click here)
The Vacation Odyssey of 2001 is a total success!!
Home again, home again