Sunday, December 15, 2013

Roadside Attracting

Have You Ever Stopped?

Road trip participants typically fall into two categories: travels where the driver stops at all the quirky roadside attractions, or vacations where the driver powers through to the final destination with only minimal breaks when urgently necessary.  Anyone who has voyaged up Interstate 95 through the Carolinas has been beckoned by the innumerable billboards for South of the Border located in the most obvious of locations on the North and South Carolina state line.  When exiting Florida via Interstate 75, and with five more states to traverse, Frankenmuth, Michigan beckons visitors to celebrate the holiday season at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland.  Driving the opposite direction the need for mile markers could be obsolete in thanks to the barrage of billboards for Ron Jon’s Surf Shop.

Through Georgia and Tennessee, passersby are encouraged to visit Rock City, which may be as well known for its red barn used to prompt travelers than the site itself.  For tourists crossing the northern tier enroute to Mount Rushmore, while the Corn Palace may tempt travelers across a portion of the state, Wall Drug applies a heavy-handed bombardment to see the most famous of all drug stores doubling as a tourist attraction.  Imagine how overwhelmed Dakota drivers would be if the four faces carved in granite campaigned so ferociously for visitors.  No doubt every length of open highway features its own roadside attraction, and its survival depends heavily on those stretches of signs egging and inviting passersby to not pass them by.

We Stopped

Florida may be known for its world-renowned theme parks, but for those seeking an alternative to the higher price tags and dense crowds, a variety of kitschy spots show the older, smaller, sillier side of Central Florida.  Marineland, the original sea-themed home to ocean mammals, still opens its doors to the travelers headed to Miami.  Weeki Wachee Springs State Park boasts the only city in America with mermaids, and Silver Springs State Park showcases its waters via glass-bottom boats.  Baseball World and Cypress Gardens have faded into history while Gatorland and Dinosaur World still stay in business with as much local traffic as tourism dollars.

When a weekend allows, I make a point to take Son Number One and Son Number Two to the low-end Jurassic Park near Plant City, Florida.  The signs for Dinosaur World, as well as the life-size sculptures along the interstate, target young boys and mine had begged me to stop for years.  We prepare for a close encounter by packing a picnic lunch, venturing into the colorful world of fake prehistoric creatures.  Like all who have come before us, and all who have yet to visit, the boys stick their faces through the back access point of a tyrannosaurus rex’s mouth and appear to be at the end of the viscous creature’s snack time.  While it doesn’t compare to the natural grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the crafted architecture of the National Mall, or the inspirational, historical reach of the Statue of Liberty, two little boys enjoy the simple detour.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sweet Home Alabama

Little Planes

Son number two’s first flight in a private aircraft began with the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles flight experience, which led to several classes at the small executive airport near our home.  The final class ended with the youngsters riding shotgun in the co-pilots seat of a private, four-seat aircraft, flying and landing at three different airstrips in the region.  Small aircrafts do not frighten me, but I also rarely travel in them.  In fact, his two flights (technically four flights counting each taxi and landing) are two times (or is it four times) more small-scale aircraft flights than I have experienced.
In fact, for all my travels, I have only flown upon two aircraft that could even remotely be considered “puddle jumpers.”  The first one, on Christmas Day, counted the shorter of two flights to get to Minnesota for the holiday.  In my personal opinion, any airplane that still operates with the assistance of propellers, regardless of how many passengers occupy the aircraft, is a small plane.  The flight wasn’t terribly long, but nonetheless, when the ground crew at Hartsfield International Airport wheeled steps up to our plane, I knew that counts as either a small plane or a small airport.  And anyone who has flown through the Georgia capital knows, the airport does not qualify as petite.
One By Two
I consider myself quite knowledgeable about my home airport.  I know where the best parking is, I dine where I can grab the tastiest or fastest food, and I tend to move through security swiftly without much delay.  Knowing the busy season and the hectic times, and by avoiding them whenever possible, certainly helps my travel routine.  But on one occasion, I arrive near my departing gate only to discover that the number I need is not down any of the three hallways to my right, my left, or straight ahead.  Instead, an elevator descends to a hallway tucked under the tramway guiding me to the smallest of planes to take me to the largest of cities in Alabama.
My assigned seat, while being the most forward on the plane of any other passengers, by no means lands me in first class, however, on the upside, my seat offers me both a window seat and an aisle seat.  Yes, the Embraer plane features one seat wide on the pilot’s side of the plane, and two seats wide on the co-pilot’s side of the plane.  A southern gentleman greets me as I board; he’s a one-man service crew, literally.  But as we land in Birmingham, he welcomes us to our destination, he rises to begin the deplaning, and he places a compact disc into a mini music player. The entire cabin fills with the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd singing proudly about “Sweet Home, Alabama,” providing entertainment all the way to the gate.  Sometimes smaller is sweeter.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Change Of Plans

My first visit to British Columbia’s largest metropolis,  as a stepping-off point to my first Alaskan cruise, offered me the opportunity to taste unique cuisines, stroll through the port’s nearby architecture, and meet west-coast Canadians.  Arriving midday, midsummer, and midway through my marital separation, life in Vancouver offered a glimmering escape, a chance to window shop without children in tow, and  a long stretch of afternoon into evening as the sunlight lingered well into the evening.  Traveling with friends for the first time offered a vastly different view of travel than I had ever experienced.  No family, no car, and no planning on my part marked my second soiree into Canada and the opportunity of a lifetime.
Fifteen years later, when finally returning to the northern nation’s western shore, the early days of autumn may not have offered as late a sunset, but the spectacular city again would be the place where my cruise ship moored.  Despite the detailed planning for ninety-five percent of the vacation, Vancouver remained an open day of strolling and shopping.  Much like San Francisco, the city’s greatest growth straddled between its port and railway connection, so I knew I could find plenty of curious locations to visit in my post-cruise excursion.  At the very least, I did map out the nearest Tim Horton’s location  (see “Brock University,” January 2012) to our hotel.
The Mountain Is Calling And I Am Definitely Going To Go
Socked in by a summer haze of heat and eastern brush and forest fires, Seattle stretches its drought far past the one one-hundredths of an inch of rain received a few days prior.  As I drive south on Interstate 5 towards SeaTac, the effects of the fifty-three-day rainless stretch loom obviously as the horizon disappears into an off-color smog typically reserved for pollution-laden valleys, the industrial core beneath the Great Lakes, and the dense humidity of inland Florida.  In less than a day, I will be on my way to the clear vistas of tranquil and breathtaking Alaska as soon as I drop off this rental car and get back to my hotel for a last night of landlubber sleep.  Suddenly, with a gentle curve to the left, rising above the layer of smoky gunk, Mount Rainier appears like a massive spacecraft hovering and drifting towards Puget Sound. My jaw drops.

I walk from the rental car garage at the Seattle Airport towards the light rail station with an urgency not tapped since my vacation began more than two weeks ago.  From the time I arrive at the station until the train departs for my return trip towards the Space Needle, I busily dial the phone numbers necessary to alter my departure from the Great White North immediately upon stepping off the Norwegian Pearl.  I cancel one hotel night in Vancouver and add another night in Seattle for the following week.  I move my shuttle across the Blaine border crossing to twenty-four hours earlier.  I tap my smart phone for a one-day automobile rental for the following week, all without asking my travel companions.  I fully understand one of John Muir’s most famous quotes, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”