Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Trip 7: Newberry Watermelon Festival

State parks visited: 7

Rob and I were talking recently about our goal to visit the state parks. We were trying to figure out what we would do if Chris was unable to come along for a particular trip. Would we still go? Would we wait until he could make it? Chris has become such a constant fixture on our weekend jaunts that I have a hard time mentioning trips without bringing him into it. And I'm okay with that, honestly. He is, to me, a member of the family.

So when this past weekend rolled around and both Chris and Rob had to work, what were Olivia and I to do? Hit a state park? No! Instead, we drove to the city of Newberry...just a couple of miles down the road from Dudley Farm, our last trip...for the 65th Annual Newberry Watermelon Festival!!

Our trip to the festival, which was held at an equestrian center, was leisurely.  We took our time getting ready and driving there.  The weather was hot, but not unbearable.  It should have been a great day.  Don't get me wrong, because Olivia and I really did enjoy ourselves and our Girls' Day Out.  But...well, The Boys weren't there.  I guess I should explain this funny little tidbit:  When we took that first camping trip that started this whole thing off, nobody slept well the first night.  Especially Olivia.  At one point I looked over at her, seemingly asleep in her little Tinker Bell sleeping bag.  All of a sudden she sat up, looked around, and crawled out of the sleeping bag and over to me. "Mommy," she asked, "where are the boys?"

I could only assume she meant Daddy and Chris, so I told her Daddy was asleep next to me and Chris was asleep in his tent.  That seemed to satisfy her, because she crawled back across the tent, down into her sleeping bag, and passed out the rest of the night. Rob and Chris have been The Boys ever since.

So, The Boys weren't with us in Newberry.  I felt the heavy weight of responsibility for making sure Olivia had a good time at the festival. I had some seriously high expectations for the festival, too, since Olivia and I drove two hours to get there.  Our solo journey had to be worth it! 

So, we paid our parking and entered the otherwise free event.  I quickly spotted the table where they were serving all the watermelon you could eat.  We each grabbed a piece and started munching. I had a good laugh when I hunched over to keep the juices from dribbling down my shirt, only to realize everyone else around me was in the same position.

After enjoying our first couple slices of watermelon, we wandered around and got a feel for the place.  Off to the left side was a carnival.  Off to the right were food vendors (and let me tell you, they had some serious eats going on!).  Beyond the food vendors were community information booths and people selling goods ranging from cowboy hats to candles.

We tried on hats, smelled candles, picked up pamphlets, all of it.  It took us a whopping ten minutes.  After that we went back and picked up another couple of watermelon slices.  And that's when it hit me....where was the watermelon?  I mean, not the one table where they were slicing and serving it.  I mean, where was the theme?  Where were the people dressed up like giant watermelons?  Where were all the great contests that go along with such a wonderful fruit?!?  Where was the noise?  And why did I only find one...count it....ONE sign proclaiming the day??

I should have asked where the watermelon festival was.  'Cause this wasn't it.

Don't get me was a festival.  It was fun.  We ate the watermelon, we played, we shopped.  We just...missed the watermelon.  Does that make sense?  It was as disjointed a watermelon festival as one could possibly be.

So, I mentioned that this was an equestrian center.  I realized there were quite a few bulls inside the livestock arena, and so we wandered in there.  Ah, that's where the contests were, emceed from the back of a flatbed truck at the end of the corral.  We missed the seed spitting, but were able to hear the hog calling and see the watermelon pushing.  During our wandering I played with my new camera.  I took some cute photos using various shading:

That last picture is one of my favorites.  It speaks to me of Olivia's comfort, no matter the situation.  She is at ease, and I love that.

This was also around the time she inquired as to the 'pink things' hanging down on the back end of the bulls.  "Those," I told her, "are called testicles."  Upon further inquiry I simply explained to her that they are what makes a boy, a boy.  She was satisfied with that answer, which taught me a great lesson:  Be truthful, but go easy on the details.  There is time for those later.

So, that's about it.  We had a good time, but our Boys weren't with us.  We ate watermelon, but we didn't see much of it.  I hate to sound whiny about it, but I can honestly say I don't think we'll be returning to this festival.  Oh well, they can't all match the magnificence of the pie festival.

On a lighter note, I took a picture of Olivia that I'm particularly proud of:

I'm considering entering it into a photo contest held at our county fair later this year.

Furthermore, we saw royalty.  Yep, as we were leaving, I happened to notice a beautiful young lady wearing a crown.  Her sash declared her to be the reigning Watermelon Queen, though I didn't catch her name.  And so I stopped and asked if she would pose for a picture with Olivia, which she graciously did.  And from there she went and passed the crown along to the new queen.  It was a fitting end to the festival.

Just a note about upcoming events:  This weekend Olivia and I will be attending another Boy-less festival, the New Smyrna Beach Seaside (hot air) Balloon Fest.  We originally tried attending this fest in January, but it snowed that weekend.  While hot air balloons generally fare better in colder weather, it was also excessively windy, so they called the fest and rescheduled for May.  And next weekend, Memorial Day, all of us and then some will be enjoying a little thing I like calling Camp-ayak-o-rama 2010.  I won't divulge any more details right now.  Just that little teaser.  Enjoy!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trip 6: San Felasco Hammock, Dudley Farm, and Devil's Millhopper

State parks visited: 7

I was lamenting recently to my best friend/stalker Holly that I was afraid my blog was boring.  It always seems to me that the message is the same: We had a great day spent with great people.  The End.  And honestly, it really does seem like I type that a lot.  But it is true, and I'm happy to share the message.  What is *not* boring is our choice of destination on each outing.  With 160 state parks and countless festivals around us, even if we have a great day with great people, we're doing so at a new and interesting location.  And I'm okay writing about that.

Our destination last Sunday was the city of Gainesville.  Three state parks were all right there, waiting for us.  First stop on the journey: San Felasco Hammock Preserve.  Okay, here is where my smart parenting side joined forces with my lazy inner self:  Instead of doing a 9-or-so mile hike at the northern end of the park, we opted to do the shorter 2.3 mile jaunt on the south side.  Just short enough so that Olivia couldn't complain too much.  Besides, she got to see quite a bit:

A broad-headed skink

Neat looking caterpillar
Scarab beetle

And she managed to keep a smile on her sweet little face:

After San Felasco we headed down the road to Dudley Farm.  It is a working farm, owned by the Dudley family for several generations, and we were free to roam about the property.  The volunteers wear period clothing, too.  It could have been hokey, but they managed to create an interesting learning environment that kept our attention.  We...and I guess I should clarify that 'we' were Rob, Paula, Olivia, Chris, and Danielle...wandered around for a long time.  The map of the property is very informative and I think we had a very good time.

There are 18 buildings on the property, including a tobacco barn, homestead, chicken coop, and outhouse.  It was neat to see a glimpse of how life used to be, when you lived from the land and reaped what you sowed. 

Olivia really enjoyed seeing the animals on the farm, including hens, horses, and turkeys.

I enjoyed the beautiful flowers I found in the garden:

Finally, after a nice picnic lunch provided by Chris and Danielle, we made our way to Devil's Millhopper.  It is a 120-foot deep cavity that is always lush and green, no matter the time of year.  Going through my pictures later, I was surprised that this:

....was taken just a few steps before this:

Our trip down the 232 steps to the bottom was leisurely.  We had no real agenda other than see the sights and enjoy ourselves, and we were doing that well.  The trip back to the top was a bit more labored, being that we were at our 3rd park of the day, we were tired, and there were 232 steps that kept us from making our exit.  A few photo highlights:

And of course, what would trips to 3 different state parks be without stamps?

Okay, here it is.  We had a great time with great people.  I'm sincere about that.  I also have a rare treat:  a photo of all of us, thanks to Rob's camera.  It captures, to me, the essence of our adventures.  And a little bit of pineapple, too.  Thanks to Olivia.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Trip 5: Gatorland

Parks visited: 4

Gatorland is a Florida institution. A small-town, self-styled 'Florida Cracker' theme park in business since 1949, it has managed to draw crowds without having all the animatronics, gadgets, and gizmos of all the other local attractions.  Gatorland has one thing: gators.  Lots of them.  And I think maybe that's the draw:  Come see some of the things that make Florida unique, but without the risk of being eaten.

In business since 1949, right?  And yet none of us had ever visited...until May 2, 2010.

Our desire to get off the beaten path left us with a full carload:  myself, Rob, Olivia, Chris, and Chris's girlfriend Danielle.  No state park trips this time.  Instead, we took advantage of the final day of Gatorland's Florida resident discount.  The weather was sunny (read: extemely hot) and the park wasn't terribly crowded.  We made our way to the first show...the Gator Jumparoo...and got to see alligators jump out of the water to eat chicken:

Olivia saw it a slightly different way:

From there was saw white alligators...very neat...and then caught the next show, Close Encounters.  Olivia, I am proud to say, is kinda fearless.  She asked to do this:

Our next stop was the petting zoo...cuddly farm animals, mind you, not the aquatic reptilian dinosaurs the park is famous for...and then on to the observation tower.  On one side it looks down onto the petting zoo and on the other it looks onto the breeding marsh.

The park is also a bird sanctuary of sorts.  They also currently offer the Swamp Sunset Celebration, in which you get to observe the birds flying in to roost for the night.  We did not take advantage of this, however, but did get to see lots of birds in and around the park.

What does Olivia say when you tell her there are turkey buzzards around?

"Look alive!"

Thanks, Chris, for teaching her that.  I mean it.

We also got to see alligator wrestling, which Olivia also wanted to participate in (have her picture taken while sitting on the back of an alligator with its mouth taped shut).  When she found out I would not be able to go onto the gator with her, sadly, she declined.  She had to settle for this instead:

I like to consider this quality family time.

There were other things we got to see on our visit, but the most important thing was this: We got to see one of the off-the-wall places that makes Florida great.  It's a theme park without being a sell-out-to-the-almighty-dollar park.  It was another great day spent with great people.  We had fun.  Lots of it.  And, we came away with all our fingers and toes.  I count that a success!