Key West, Key Lime

It’s a 13-hour drive from Florida’s northwestern state line to the southernmost city, Key West. But from where I live in Cocoa Beach, it’s about six hours, and with three carefree travel companions, it promises to be a great destination for a weekend getaway.

After cruising at breakneck speed past Miami the highway bottlenecks into a narrow two-lane highway funneling traffic through the Southern Glades Wildlife Preserves. Bumper to bumper vehicles inch south, well below the posted speed limit. I imagine that most travelers are like us, anxious to get off the mainland and onto the northernmost Key (Largo), which makes this traffic jam even more stressful and slightly irritating. But just about when I think I’ve had enough the bridge to the island is in sight and within minutes we’re in Key Largo. Ahhh, I hear the Beach Boys and feel the southern tropical winds blowing.

Here we stop to decompress, enjoy a leisurely dinner, spend the night and wake refreshed for our short 97-mile cruise to our destination tomorrow.

We pass on the restaurants the hotel staff recommends and eat at Snapper’s where the fish is fresh and our patio table is right at the water’s edge. When dessert is offered I order a piece of Key Lime pie. And, caught up in the Islanders’ easy-going spirit, I suspend my calorie-counting habit and declare this to be a Key Lime Pie Challenge Weekend.

I’m intrigued by this pie. Such an odd combination of tart fruit in a creamy substance. As a foodie, I’m curious how the lime mixes with the cream without curdling it. And I’m never quite satisfied with the amount of pucker I get out of a bite. I always want more. I hope the Challenge will finally satisfy my desire.

Months ago I purchased a bottle of Key Lime Juice from a Florida citrus grower so I could make the pie at home, but after researching the ingredients and the calorie count per slice (a whopping 553!) I decided against it. The juice is still in my refrigerator, used to freshen a gin and tonic when a real lime is not readily available.

image-of-key-lime-pie-at-snappers-restaurantSnapper’s Key Lime pie is average. The lime flavor is sufficient, the graham cracker crust adequate and the garnish (a dot of whipped cream) is imitation. I’m hoping the next pie will be worth the calories.

The next morning we hit the road again. I’m grateful that I’m a back-seat passenger. Driving is tedious and slow through the small towns on each island. But the scenery between the islands is stunning. We cruise through Plantation Key, Windley Key, Islamorada, Long Key, Duck Key and Marathon Island after which we reach the Seven-Mile Bridge. Seven miles long. Views from the bridge are like the finale of a fireworks display — unexpected and ever-changing colors spilling across the shallow sea on either side of us. Dotted with mangrove islands and hemmed in with a century-old defunct railroad bridge that parallels the highway the waters are clear blue, turquoise, and gilded-gold by the shallow sandbars off the islands’ coast.

After passing through several more small Keys we arrive at our destination, the Casa Marina Waldorf Astoria Resort. It’s the only hotel on Key West Island with its own private beach — and what a beautiful beach it is! Eyeing it from the resort’s lobby I’m tempted to lounge there all day, but we have plans. (There’s a Pie Challenge happening and I’m the judge!)

We quickly drop our bags in our rooms and head downtown to walk Duval Street (the main drag) from one end to the other. Key West feels like a smaller and slightly calmer version of New Orleans. We do the normal tourists things — window shop, pick up a few souvenirs, and eat dinner at a recommended seafood restaurant. They entice us to try their Key Lime pie but we opt to return to the Resort where we can enjoy dessert at a comfortable table…by candlelight…on the beach.

key lime pie casa marinaCasa Marina Key Lime Pie is made with a pistachio crust and served a la mode, with Key Lime ice cream. I taste the ice cream first. Delightful! My mouth puckers. It’s the tartness I’ve been looking. But when I follow that spoonful with a spoonful of pie I’m disappointed again. The filling falls flat. The pistachio crust is unique but doesn’t enhance the pie’s flavor enough to warrant it’s expense. Another average Key Lime Pie, but with really good ice cream! That’s a plus. We turn in for the night with visions of a better Key Lime pie in our travels tomorrow.

The next morning we’re running on a schedule. We’re tripping to the famous landmarks — the Southernmost Point on the island, the Route One Marker, and Hemmingway’s House. But first breakfast. Rumor has it that Blue Heaven has the best Key Lime Pie of all the islands. We’re hoping to find our winner.

key lime pie blue heavenOur benedicts are delicious and the Key Lime pie is exceptionally delicious. Topped with inches of meringue (most likely for presentation and perceived value), the pie is as tart as I’d been dreaming a pie could be. In addition to naming it a winner, I’m elated to put an end to consuming the excessive calories in each piece we’ve tasted.

Now, time for some walking, starting with the 3 blocks to Hemmingway’s House where we encounter 6-toed cats, an old urinal converted to the cats’ watering dish and a “wall of wives”. No wonder he was such a great story teller!

p.s. Each link in this blog is worth clicking. The Florida Keys are rich with natural beauty and fascinating personal histories. 

 

 

Hayward, after the Flowage

Day 2 in Hayward Wisconsin begins with a stop at Hayward Bakery & Cheese Shop, the local bakery where they still bake doughnuts every morning from scratch! It’s rare to find a freshly baked doughnut made with real ingredients so I must indulge.

Live-the-swanky-life-wht-swanky-stuff-and-Dakota-cigarsWe munch down our treats then wander through downtown, window shopping the local merchants including Dakota Cigars and Swanky Stuff. (Swanky Stuff — gotta get me some of dat!)

A few hours later we’re standing at the door of the Moccasin Bar…and Wildlife Museum. We step inside and are instantly captivated by fine specimens of cougar, lynx, bobcat, and bear in their taxidermal states. We stroll to the bar and order beers — $2 beers. Yes, we already like this place.

Like 3 periscopes we twirl in our seats, eyeing all the taxidermy exhibits around us. Birds, ducks, geese, pheasant, otters, beavers, badgers, more small furry animals than I can name or remember, trophy-sized muskie, and pike, walleye, bass, and sturgeon.

Most intriguing were the dioramas of chipmunks and other small critters depicting, well, as far as I could tell, the life of Wisconsin hunters, fishermen and trappers.

I leave you with these to decipher on your own.  You MUST click here!

 

The Flowage Trifecta

My work schedule lands me in Minnesota days before the Fourth of July weekend so I hit the first and nearest attraction prior to meeting up with my brother and his wife who live in the area.

Mall of America. Ehh, same ol’ shops with a few amusement park rides thrown in, most likely a draw for parents cooped up in the house on sub-artic winter days. I skip the rides, cruise the mall floors for an hour and purchase some squishy balls (which I paid way too much for) from a kiosk vendor. Turns out the squishy balls provided hours of entertainment for my Colorado grandaughter. They were worth every penny.

A quick look around at the artwork at the Mall’s entrance, a snapshot at the “Star” and I’m on my way to my brother’s home where I spend the night. Next morning the three of us hop in the car and head up to their cabin in Hayward Wisconsin.

Their cabin sits on the banks of massive 191-acre Hayward Lake, the waters of which are deep, clear and cold. But cruising on it would come after sightseeing on the Flowage.

The Flowage? Yes, the Chippewa Flowage, a 15,000+ acre controlled water flow. Basically a humongous man-made lake with 233 miles of shoreline.

In the mid-1900’s developers built small resorts along this shoreline — clusters of cabins with a “clubhouse” for the semi-isolated guests. A generation later the resorts were split apart, the cabins sold to individuals, and the clubhouses converted to bars to give fisherman and other outdoors enthusiasts places to eat and drink.

Recognizing their relative isolation along these 233-miles of shoreline, bar owners have joined together to create cross-promotion incentives to their visitors. Visiting three or more of these bars and enjoying a beverage at each will earn you a t-shirt touting your accomplishment.

But there is one resort that operates as a lone wolf, proudly offering its patrons the opportunity to earn a drinking t-shirt without ever leaving the premises. That resort is the Tiger Musky Resort and the Trifecta is their claim to fame. It’s a simple combination of three shots — brandy, tequila and bourbon, each with an over-the-top garnish. The shot of brandy is served with a live minnow swimming in it. A trifecta winner cautioned me, “You have to keep your hand over the glass while drinking it so the minnow doesn’t jump out.”

Tiger-musky-trifecta-on-the-famous-chippewa-flowage
A Proud Trifecta Winner

The shot of brandy is served with a live minnow swimming in it. A trifecta winner cautions me, “You have to keep your hand over the glass while drinking it so the minnow doesn’t jump out.”

Next shot, tequila, garnished with a live leech. The same fellow comments, “Yes, get ready because the leech balls up in your throat.” (Good sign, at least it won’t stick to your throat!)

Shot number 3, bourbon, served with a live earthworm. “That one’s not bad, except for the dirt that comes with the worm.”

 

Female Tiger Muskie Trifecta
Apparently this challenge appeals to all genders and generations.

Surprisingly none of that enticed me to head out to the Tiger Musky Resort but I was impressed by the creativity of these northerners. Amusement parks in malls and critters in their cups. Those are the results of living in the northern climates where winters are long and hours are spent hunkered down with your best buds in your favorite watering holes.

 

 

I’m not tough enough to earn the three-bar visit t-shirt and the Trifecta is way out of my league. I’m happy to enjoy an outstanding Bloody Mary…served with a snit of beer?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blank Slate

When people ask me what my book is about I tell them, “It’s about the first year of my life on the road in my RV by myself.” It sounds simple, but the steps it took to get in that RV and drive away were anything but!

Living the RV life was a dream of mine for decades. At times, long before I owned one, I would share it with others, “I can’t wait to get in my RV and drive away.”

They would laugh at me. I’m not sure if they were laughing at the fact that I was dreaming an impossible dream or that it was ridiculous to give up my very comfortable life to become what some call “trailer-trash”. But deep down I knew I’d be happy if my RV ever materialized. I stashed my dream in the back of my head and continued living my life.

And then it happened. A blank slate.

Have you ever had a blank slate experience? You know, that moment in time when some big change happens and life as you knew it ceases to exist?

It’s scary.

But it’s also a great time to hatch a dream.

I filled my blank slate with a monstrous motor home.

I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about buying a motorhome or driving one or living in one. All I knew was that if I didn’t make it happen then I probably never would.

I was terrified to take my vehicle for a test drive let alone drive it home through rush-hour traffic. As soon as I got behind the wheel I knew I was in way over my head. And when things went awry as I picked it up from the previous owner all I could think of was how people would laugh at me for making such a foolish and grand mistake.

But within days my decision turned into creating my new future.

Isn’t that the way it is with everything?  With the job you have? With the spouse/lover you have? With the children you have? If you had known before what you learned after you made your decision would you have made that same choice? Maybe not, depending on the day, or your mood.

With any change, any blank slate, be it large or small, there’s an opportunity to practice what it takes to live our dreams. It’s just facing the unknown with bravery and persistence. It’s what we all do every day of our lives.

Chapter 1 of my book is about how I lived through the first step in living my dream. I hope it gives you the courage to live yours.

Lions, Dragon and Fairies, oh my!

What do a 200-ft-long dragon, a half-dozen lions, and a few fairies have in common? They’re all handcrafted life-sized fabric and light structures on display at the Chinese Lantern Festival in Franklin Square in Philadelphia.

What do a 200-ft-long dragon, a half-dozen lions, and a few fairies have in common? They’re all handcrafted life-sized fabric and light structures on display at the Chinese Lantern Festival in Franklin Square in Philadelphia. I came across these glowing lanterns on an evening walk around the city in early June.

Not one for crowds I debated whether it was worth the 20-minute wait and $17 admission fee to enter the gates. But as I stood in line and listened to the Asian music flowing over the Square’s brick walls and peered through the trees at the tops of the massive displays I decided that I couldn’t walk away from such an unusual event.

There were displays of zodiac creatures, and mythological creatures, and monkeys and even a glowing ocean display. Amidst the displays, food vendors served traditional Chinese cuisine, and Chinese dancers, acrobats and plate spinners entertained Festival attendees.

It was well worth the $17 and the 20 minutes.

Click here to learn more about the Chinese Lantern Festival.

 

One More Stop in Little Rock…The Clinton Presidential Center

Balance is the key to everything. One day a hike, the next a museum.

The William J Clinton Presidential Center & Park is so much more than a museum though. Oh sure it has the usual stuff — exhibits about his vision and accomplishments and displays pertinent to life in the White House.

I also learned about Bill’s upbringing, his family life and how he decided to pursue the presidency in his pubescent years! He blazed his own trail to the white house from that day forward.

I walked through a reconstructed model of the staff room and the Oval Office. I saw pictures and documents, historical data and political data. All in all, it was a lesson on the struggles and victories that anyone might encounter on their way to and while living in the White House.

But who knew I’d encounter the Xtreme Bug Exhibit there? Apparently, Mr. Clinton is an avid fan of bugs’ abilities to leverage the power of cooperation. See the ClintonFoundation.org’s full article on the exhibit and why it’s a natural fit for the museum.

“According to the Pulitzer Prize winning biologist E.O. Wilson, ants, termites, bees, and people are among the most successful species on earth because they are the greatest cooperators,” said President Bill Clinton. “Insects are a window into how our world works, and show us how species thrive through cooperation – whether a colony of ants, or a community of people working together to make the world a better place.”

And, who knew I’d be awed by the beauty of Clinton Park? Thirty acres of reclaimed land (previously a run-down warehouse district) that is now a stunning public recreation area and a prime example of urban renewal in our country.

Who knew I’d find the Choctaw Train Station, also situated on the Clinton Presidential Center Campus? It’s now restored and home to the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, the first school in the nation to offer a Masters Degree in Public Service.

And, most surprising, who knew I’d find the headquarters for Heifer International, with a school and animals right here as well? (Check it out, one of my favorite non-profit organizations, all about promoting self-sufficiency.)

And who knew I’d find a garden that recognizes Anne Frank among others on the very same ground, with words that humble me and remind me that my life is blessed beyond measure.

“From my favorite spot on the floor, I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind…As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this last, I cannot be unhappy.”

Hiking Pinnacle Mountain (or, a lesson in Time Management)

Hiking a mountain requires preparation and time management.

Location: Little Rock, Arkansas

Target Attraction: Pinnacle Mountain

On my way from the airport to the hotel, I ask my Uber driver,”What’s the best tourist attraction in Little Rock?”

He pipes up right away, “Pinnacle Mountain! It’s the highest peak in the state, right next to the river. There’s a great hiking trail to the top, not too strenuous either.”  (Hmm, what’s the “not too strenuous either” part about. Do I look old to you sonny?)

The next morning I google “things to see in Little Rock” and Pinnacle Mountain State Park topped the list. A good hike is a rare find on any city attraction list and with two recommendations I plan my outing for Sunday prior my 3 pm work start time.

Shoulda… set my alarm.

Normally I don’t sleep past 6:30 am but this Sunday morning I roll over in my bed, grab my phone from the bedside table and do a double take when I check the time. NINE FoRTY Zeven? I haven’t slept that late in years!

Woulda…had a leisurely breakfast.

But, keeping my 3 pm deadline in mind I do a few yoga stretches, dressed and popped into the car a quick 30 minutes later with a plan to grab a coffee to go on the way.

Coulda…skipped the Starbucks stop.

The closest Starbucks is inside the Target store down the street where I need to return some items so I decide to kill two birds with one stone.

Shoulda…skipped the returns.

There’s a line at the Returns Counter. And, when it’s my turn I decide to exchange instead of just return. Now, in order to stay on schedule, I have to beeline through the store to grab the size I need. Silly me gets side-tracked looking at 10 other items on my way between the counter and the new shirt. Back to the Return Counter 15 minutes later.

Woulda…loved a Starbuck’s Protein box.

I got hooked on these perfect to-go snacks in Philadelphia, but they don’t sell them here. Oh forget it, I really don’t want the coffee and I’m sure I can pick up a water at a gas station on the way.

Now it’s noon. I have 2.5 hours to get out to the park, hike, and return to the hotel in time for my work shift. I’m still committed.

The drive out to the park traverses quaint suburbs as it winds into the Pinnacle Peak Valley where the obviously wealthy Little Rock-ians live. Massive mansions border the Parkway, even one oversized horse farm that I’d expect to see in Lexington, not Arkansas.

Thirty minutes later I enter the park where a lush forest canopy blankets the road. It looks and feels like the gentle backwoods of North Carolina. I’m really excited to get out and hike, but first, a stop at the Information Center.

Shoulda…gotten a trail map online.

The Center’s volunteer offers me a trail map and describes the two routes up the mountain. She focuses on the gently ascending east side that is an 800-vertical foot climb but I ask her about the west side trail which looks a tad bit longer.

She warns, “They’re both about the same distance, but the west one is a strenuous hike through boulder fields. You’re climbing over rocks almost the entire time.”

I know she’s trying to discourage me, but, she couldn’t have excited this Colorado girl more! I haven’t been through a boulder field in years!

But by the time I get the trail map and make it to the trailhead I’ve used up another precious 15 minutes. Now I’m down to 90 minutes of free time. I climb out of the car and look up at the rather extravagant trailhead marker.

Woulda…taken the easy route if I didn’t feel like that was the “old person’s route”.

Pinnacle-Mountain-Little-Rock-Trailhead-225

TWO HOURS for a mile and a half hike? Hah! I know I can do it in half that. I start my brisk walk up the trail but soon am entranced by the quiet green forest, the gentle breeze through the trees, and cautiously stepping through the rough rock trail. I remind myself with every step, “It’s the journey, not the destination that matters.”

Within minutes I reach a dead end. I look around. Not a trail marker in site. Not even in 360 degrees of sight. I retrace my steps, still no markers. I continue to retrace my steps. Still no marker.

Coulda…made it to the top if I was willing to stretch my limits.

I continue backtracking to the main trail where I have a decision to make. I’m now down to an hour of time and while the trail is not strenuous for me, it is challenging my coordination. (I can trip on flat ground!)

I surrender and head toward the trailhead. I’m disappointed, knowing that I’m missing a surely spectacular view at the top.

Shoulda…managed my time for success, especially when it’s my own I’m spending.