• Day 1 of our week on Maui

    We landed Tuesday evening at Kahului airport, took the shuttle to Avis, and drove our Ford Explorer to Mama’s Fish House for dinner before...

  • Everglades National Park and the Florida Atlantic coast

    For over 30 years, I’ve wanted to ride in one of those “air boat” (or is it a “fan boat”?) things in shallow water,...

  • 1000 miles of California National Parks

    After our 3 days in Disney parks and L.A., we took our Kia Sedona for a 1000-mile road trip to explore some of the...

  • London

    We boarded the train in York and arrived at King’s Cross on July 7, briefly stopping at Platform 9 3/4 before depositing our bags...

  • Driving 1000 miles through Arizona

    The 5 of us took a one-way flight to Phoenix on Thursday morning, December 29th, picked up a 2017 Kia Sportage SX Turbo, loaded...

For over 30 years, I’ve wanted to ride in one of those “air boat” (or is it a “fan boat”?) things in shallow water, dodging alligators like a slalom skier with the wind blowing in my face. Last July, we drove from Atlanta to Florida Everglades National Park to do just that.

Our trip started at Delray Beach, FL, where my mother-in-law had booked a large house for her 2 daughters and their children to spend a week; I joined via a one-way Delta flight on Thursday morning.  That afternoon, our three children and their two cousins were swimming and snorkeling in the Atlantic when some folks on the beach started screaming and pointing to the water where we were, saying there was a shark.  My son was near me–it was about shoulder deep to me and fairly murky, so I couldn’t see anything.  I told him to just be still (not knowing if you’re supposed to be still around a shark or not, but I’ve been told that’s what you should do if you come upon a venomous snake in the woods, so I figured we’d just go with it).  Also, I didn’t want my daughters or bride to get upset, and they were not as close to the area where the shark supposedly was as my boy and I were, so I didn’t think they were in imminent harm anyway.  I didn’t think there were a lot of sharks in this part of eastern Florida, so I was really, really hoping these fools on the beach were overreacting at the sight of a dolphin or other large aquatic but innocuous mammal close to my son and me.

It was not a dolphin or otherwise innocuous mammal.  But, it wasn’t a shark, either.  Instead, we were just a few feet from 2 enormous, majestic manta rays gliding through the water surrounding us.  We weren’t being subjected to a threat; we were getting a treat.  I motioned for the girls to come to where we were, and for the next 20 minutes or so, the manta rays swam just at or below the surface, slowly circling us so that we were able to see them as easily as we would at an aquarium behind glass, but these were free…they were just friendly (or curious)!

The next morning, we headed to Everglades National Park via the Shark Valley visitors center. After exploring the visitors center and getting the children’s junior ranger workbooks, we took a tram tour through the everglades, where the object seemed to be to spot as many alligators and shore birds as one can possibly see in an hour or two’s time frame.

This was an enjoyable experience, but then it started raining a bit, and we were glad the cars following the lead tram car had roofs on them, but then the rain got harder, and a few minutes after that, the rain became so torrential that I felt like Forrest Gump when he was walking through chest-high water in the rain in Vietnam, and every inch of our clothing and skin was drenched, and it was kinda miserable (if “miserable” can be qualified).  We sought refuge under a covered observation tower during the tour’s only stop, but the damage was done.

The tour ended, and we immediately went to the gift shop to hunt dry clothes. Then we drove just down the road a bit to Gator Park airboat tours, so I could finally realize my bucket list experience of slaloming with gators.

While we didn’t so much “slalom,” we did speed through the shallow water and tall grasses, the wind in our faces, with gators and other wildlife surrounding us.

We headed back up to Delray Beach for seafood at Atlantic Grille (where we could also charge up the car for the next day’s trek north).

On Saturday the 15th, we went up the coast to St. Augustine, stopping to explore Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and get additional national park system passport cancellations and junior ranger badges.  All 5 of us enjoyed climbing to the tops of its towers and crawling through the depths of its dungeons.  We had a delicious dinner at Aviles Restaurant (where we could also charge the car) before exploring the “old town” area, including a cigar shop where I picked up a skull-shaped meerschaum pipe and a magic shop where the children bought tricks they can use to astound their friends and family.

We pulled into our Fairfield Inn at Jacksonville Beach about 10:45pm.  The next morning was Sunday the 16th, and my daughter’s 11th birthday . We went to Fort Caroline National Memorial at Timucuan Preserve just after breakfast. The children earned additional junior ranger badges and passport cancellations, and we hiked the ruins while learning how Native Americans in the area lived.

We crossed into Georgia and stopped to charge at Kingsland, which was next door to an IHOP, where the birthday girl wanted to have lunch, and lo and behold, they’d decorated the place for her birthday !

Okay, maybe it was IHOP’s birthday, but hey, it made her feel good and made for not only a good meal (to her), but a good photo opp.

We pressed on toward home, arriving just north of Atlanta at 10pm.

Another great roadtrip was complete.  Florida in July is hot like I’ve not experienced this side of Qatar  in August, but as long as the air conditioning is working or the beach is near, it’s tolerable.  We want to go back and visit the national parks farther south, like Biscayne and Dry Tortugas, but that will have to be a future trip (likely by air via Miami and inclusive of some time in the Keys).  It was great to spend time with family and see a new national park, in addition to the national monuments+memorials from the NPS system on the way home, and for as long as we have the time and willingness from all participants, we’ll continue to get our national parks passport books as full of cancellations as we can possibly get them.

When you shut the door to my office, you see 3 framed University of Alabama degrees on the wall that I didn’t earn.  One from 1939 for Jamie Waid; one from 1941 for Prentice Thomas; one from 1967 for Janice Thomas.  When the first 2 were being pursued, the Tide took a train to the Rose Bowl to win its first national championship under coach Frank Thomas, and it featured a player so tough, he earned a nickname for life by wrestling a bear at a carnival, and he played the UT game with a broken leg. When the 3rd degree was being earned, that player nicknamed “The Bear” was the coach, and his teams won 6 national championships.

I spent my childhood longing to see my grandparents’ and parents’ school win a national championship as they’d done.  There were a couple in the late ’70s that I was too young to remember, and then there was the one my senior year of high school that I watched on a portable TV in the locker room of a wrestling tournament, but there would be no titles when I was a 3rd generation student at the Capstone.  While we’ve been great the past 10 years under Coach Saban, obligations with the Air Force Reserves or an unwillingness to spend the required cash have kept me from attending any of the games live.  I finally attend the 2017 game against Clemson in Tampa, but we lost on the last play.

At 6:30pm on Sunday night, my phone rang as we were driving to Variety Playhouse for a “travel slideshow” with Henry Rollins. My friend Ben, a UGA grad, said something about having passes to go on the field when Good Morning America was to be shooting footage, and did I want to meet at the State Bar parking lot at 630am to get my wristband?  I almost said “no.”  I’d gotten up at 4:45am the past 2 mornings and worked 12-hour days for the Air Force, and I was on my way to a live show that ensured a late bedtime.  But I found myself saying “yes” as I tried to find a parking spot.  I texted my friend Jim Bob, who was on his way to my house so that he and his dad could attend the game Monday night; he was in too.  His dad balked at the time and said “no thanks.”

We got up the next morning at 5:25 to leave at 6.  Jim Bob’s dad appeared from the guest room dressed and ready to go.  We pulled into the State Bar at 6:31am, got our wrist bands, and entered the Dome, where we encountered the first of the “you don’t have permission to be here” Dome employees.  A few phone calls from Ben’s friend later, and we were heading toward a cargo elevator down to field level. Then we encountered the second “you don’t have permission to be here” person and again waited on phone calls to be made and conversations to be had.  We were down on the field.  A few minutes later, this happened.

And then this:

And we got to stand a few feet away as this was shot:

ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

And this:

ABC Breaking News | Latest News Videos

And then I got to spend several minutes talking to this dude who won the Heisman when I was 5 and is, I’m pretty sure, the greatest running back ever:

He was gracious and witty and kind, and he didn’t even mind that we were rooting for the wrong team.

Then we went upstairs to where ESPN radio was live broadcasting Golic and Wingo before deciding (after much debate) that I should not try to hide somewhere in the Mercedes Dome when they cleared it out to prepare for the President to come, as the place already had hundreds of Secret Service everywhere, and it was only 10am.  So, we exited the Dome and walked to Waffle House.

A couple hours later, I decided I wasn’t going to make it into the office (as had been my plan), and we were ordering our first round of beers at the Glenn Hotel bar, which was pretty full of Georgia fans but not so crowded that we couldn’t get a table.  I pulled up the StubHub app.  Single tickets up high in the corner of the endzone were $1375.  Surely they’d come down.

Hour after hour went by, and prices crept up.  $1450 for the cheapest single on StubHub.  $1500.  $1650.  $1800.  I texted every ‘Bama grad attorney I could think of to see if they were going and if they knew of anyone unloading an extra ticket.  $1900.  And this is for the upper corner of the stadium.

I accepted that I would be catching an uber home or walking to Stats sports bar whenever my friends left for the Dome.  At 4:55pm, Jim Bob looked on a listserv called TiderInsider and saw that someone had an extra seat in section 101 for $1500.  I texted the seller to see if they could do $1k.  They wouldn’t.  We went back and forth for a bit, and at 5:38pm, 12 hours after I’d gotten up, and 5 hours after I started looking, I had a ticket to the national championship game in section 101, 23 rows from the end zone, for $1200.  An hour later, we were through security, and I was making my way down to my seat.

On the way to row 23, I saw 4 friends from undergrad sitting together (2 of them I’ve known since childhood).  I walked closer to the field and made my way to the center of the row to sit beside the couple whose extra ticket I’d just bought via PayPal.  The stadium was electric, though it was probably 75% Georgia fans, so those clad in crimson were badly outnumbered.

The first half was extraordinarily frustrating.  There were signs of life and hope in the second half when the good guys were led by a new quarterback, but when time expired, and the score was tied 20-20 after a missed field goal by the Tide, I was beginning to regret buying a ticket and wondered if I was just bad luck for our team (being 0-1 at national championship games, and 0-3 at tournament bowl games).

I was wrong.  After the Dawgs hit a field goal, the Tide hit its receiver for a 41-yard touchdown  in overtime–from freshman to freshman.  The guys around me I’d annoyed every time I needed  access to the restroom were now hugging me and giving me “high fives.”  As streamers and confetti fell from the roof of the dome, I couldn’t stop tears from falling from the corners of my eyes.  It took 42 years, but I finally got to see my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide win a national championship in person.  And it was magnificent.

We left Atlanta on December 27th and headed north, stopping for soul food at Southern Star in Chattanooga, our borrowed Kia Sedona packed for 1,000 miles of exploration across the Bluegrass State.  A couple hours later, we were peeing at the Kentucky Welcome Center off I-65, and 45 minutes after that, pulling up to Mammoth Cave National Park.

Here’s what’s ridiculous about Mammoth Cave–it’s 80 miles from where I grew up in Hendersonville, TN. I loved exploring caves as a kid; we had a few within biking distance, and we had a couple more within short driving distance that we explored as high schoolers or college students, but we never went to the national park just over an hour to the north (despite visiting the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc. in the ’80s).  I’ve wanted to visit it for 30 years.  This was the year to do it.  We even primed the spelunking pump a bit by visiting Russell Cave National Monument a few days before Christmas while in north Alabama to see my parents:

The Mammoth Cave visitor center was only open until 4:30pm, but we had enough time to peruse the exhibits, let the children get their junior ranger workbooks, explore the gift shop, eat some fried chicken, and check into our little cabin/hotel room thing.

The next morning (the 28th), we were up early to begin our 2-hour/2-mile guided tour of the cave.  It was freezing outside, which meant the deeper inside the cave we went, the warmer it felt, and the more clothes I was carrying instead of wearing.  Once we’d looped back out, we walked down to the Green River, where we saw ice formations on the surrounding rock and at least 10 fairly tame deer (a couple of shy bucks and many less shy does).

We boarded the minivan and headed north to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, where the children secured yet another junior ranger badge, and we learned where our 16th President spent his first 7 years.

That night, we ate at the Merrick Inn, a suggestion from my friend Jim Bob’s father-in-law who’s lived in Lexington for several decades.  I had some fried chicken, and it was excellent (way better than the fried chicken I had at the cafe at Mammoth Cave, or anywhere we stopped subsequent to this dinner, including the original KFC).  Because it was fancy pants and we’d been hiking in or around a cave most of the day, we drove past valet to a dark area of the parking lot, parked the car, and then dropped trou to put on nicer clothes in the freezing darkness before pulling back around to valet and entering.  The food was worth it.

We woke early on the 29th for our Thoroughbred Heritage Horse Farm Tour, which meant climbing into a van with some strangers and heading to Keeneland.  We learned about horse racing and betting and jockeys.  We visited horse farms like Donamire, Hill ‘n’ Dale, and McPeek; we learned about horse breeding and stud fees.  We petted horses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and saw some worth tens of millions.  It was crazy.

After our time with the horses, we toured Town Branch Bourbon (part of the famous Bourbon Trail) and Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company and sampled many delicious beers and bourbons and whiskeys.  Then, we checked into the Beaumont Inn, an old finishing school built in 1845 that’s a B&B now (we learned about it from the 1000 Places book I consult before any trip).

Dinner was exceptional, and we enjoyed walking about the inn, looking at old photographs on the wall and playing checkers in the lounge.  And, they have lots of good bourbons, because Kentucky.

On the morning of the 30th, we enjoyed a large Southern breakfast and packed up for the Ark Encounter, a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, KY.  We arrived about noon.  It was freezing outside…like single digits cold (plus wind)…maybe the coldest temperatures I’ve experienced in 30-something years, including hunting and ski trips. But, the ark was warm and had tons of exhibits and information showing where the animals rode and how the process “worked” so many thousands of years ago.  We also rode camels and petted goats.

We stayed for the evening lights show on the side of the ark, huddling around a miniature bonfire the facility built for spectators.  That night, we stayed in Georgetown before heading back to Atlanta on the 31st.

We pulled over in Corbin, KY at the Colonel Sanders Cafe and Museum (birthplace of KFC) on our way to meet my folks in Chattanooga for a 3pm “Sunday brunch” at Easy Bistro and reclaim our dog Winnie from her week of spoiled adulation.  We got home about 5pm, and I put a pork shoulder on the smoker and (with significant help from my bride) prepared for 20-30 friends to come visit for the bowl games in our newly finished basement the next day.

All in all, a fun winter roadtrip, and the Sedona made for a wonderfully roomy, safe, and comfortable ride.  I’d love to go back and see Louisville (and attend a horse race!) and more of the Bourbon Trail establishments when it’s warmer and we have more time, but I’m glad we could have some time together exploring a new state (for the children), getting 2 more NPS junior ranger badges, and enjoying some fine fried chicken to close out 2017, the best travel year we’ve had as a family, from starting on Jan 1 at the Grand Canyon to waking up on Dec 31 near Noah’s Ark in snow-covered Kentucky.

Happy New Year, everyone.  Time to start planning 2018’s national park adventures!