Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trip 38: California (a.k.a. The Surprise of the Century)

State Parks visited: 31

How do I even begin to write about my trip to California?  Hmm.  Well, it started with an inspiration.  Holly, my best friend (and stalker), was inspired by my participation in the Warrior Dash.  So inspired, in fact, that she registered for the same event in Southern California at the beginning of April.  I was so excited for her!!  I had gotten the news a few minutes before clocking out for lunch at work.  By the time I walked to the break room, I had decided that I was going to support Holly's day in the mud...in person...and I wasn't going to tell her ahead of time!

Mind you, I'd known that Holly was doing the Warrior Dash for all of 10 minutes when I used my phone to look up the date.  Crap.  It was only a few weeks away!  On top of that, it was at the end of the week I was on vacation (for our Campiversary trip...see previous entry)...but I was determined.  By the end of the night I had found a great deal on a plane ticket, but it meant taking an extra day of vacation.  The next day, my extra day of vacation was approved.  That night, I emailed the best person I could think of as a co-conspirator, Holly's friend JoAnna.  The next night, Holly's mom got an email.

The plan was in motion.

JoAnna had the perfect plan for surprising Holly:  She told Holly her brother was flying in from Florida, which was completely plausible.  Holly agreed to come along to the airport, but only after her mom offered to pick up Ryan, Holly's son, from school.  Mind you, JoAnna and I had been emailing each other almost daily, and Holly's mom and I were keeping in touch as well. 

My first flight was delayed by weather, but I managed not to miss my connection in Phoenix.  The ride from Phoenix into Burbank was smooth, and I was surrounded by members of 80's hair band Skid Row (no joke!).  It was an entertaining flight, to say the least.

JoAnna and I hadn't agreed on any specific place to spring the surprise on Holly, but we stayed in constant contact via text message.  I knew they were waiting outside the exit door of the airport, and that's where I headed.  I saw them standing there, looking into the distance, and heard JoAnna mention something about waiting for Chris.  I walked right up to Holly and said, "I'm not Chris, but will I do?"

And then came the bear hug.  And the tears.  And the laughter.  And more hugs.  I finally got to meet JoAnna face to face and thank her for her help.  Holly was so surprised!!  It was amazing, seeing the realization cross her face that I was standing in front of her.  You can't pay to see things like that, and it was a priceless experience I will treasure.

I was traveling light, thankfully, so we skipped the baggage carousel (which was outside!) and headed straight for JoAnna's truck.  From there we went to The Cheesecake Factory in Pasadena and had lunch.  Then it was off to Holly's house.  I had my first experience with LA-area traffic and an interesting thing the highway patrol does called a 'traffic break.'  The traffic:

Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the traffic break.  However, it's something akin to reckless driving in a professional capacity. 

The drive to Holly's house was picturesque.  There were mountains and hills and terrain I'm not quite used to.  Eventually we got to the house, said goodbye to JoAnna, and went inside.  I finally got to meet Holly's parents, Dan and Mary Ann, and see Ryan, whom I hadn't seen in almost 4 years. 

Now let me tell you, my California wish list was pretty small and off the wall, I think.  I don't care for tourist traps and things like that.  I have enough of that where I live.  Instead, I wanted to see things on a much smaller scale.  My first request?  A grocery store.  Yep, I wanted to see Trader Joe's, and thankfully there's one right down the street from where Holly lives.  And so, my first night in California, with Dan as our 'goon,' we went to the store. 

Have you ever been to Trader Joe's?  Well, it's a Hawaiian tiki-themed kinda place, and I had been hearing about it for a few years from other friends.  I loved it!  I picked up a few things (including the best-ever snack, chocolate candy coated sunflower kernels)...maybe even some Two Buck Chuck.  Don't know what that is?  Let me just say, it's some of the best wine on the planet, and it was only $1.99.  And I GOT CARDED!! 

The end of my first afternoon in California was relaxing.  Holly and I caught up, relaxed, drank wine, and unwound.  It was really happening! I was in California...in Holly's house...on her couch!...and I had several more days to explore.

More later...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Trip 37: Anclote Key Preserve State Park (a.k.a. Our First Campiversary Celebration!)

State Parks visited: 31

365 days.  52 weeks.  One year.  Our year.  Our year...outdoors.  It has been one whole year since we started this adventure.  This thing.  This...whatever you want to call it.  Whatever it is, getting outside and seeing our great state in its most natural form, has provided my little family with a purpose we never had before.  A common goal, if you will.  I couldn't be more grateful for the experiences of the past year, or more proud of us, really.  We've grown as a family, as individuals.  We're better for the time we've spent together, and it's only going to get better.  For after this year, you see, are many more years to come.

To celebrate the first anniversary of the campout that started it all for us last year, we decided to take a Campiversary Celebration trip.  Clever, eh?  I love word economy (or, as Olivia says, word ecomedy).  But where should we go?  One park eluded us in the past year, and we decided we needed to conquer it:  Anclote Key Preserve State Park, 3.6 miles off the coast of Tarpon Springs.  Early one Saturday morning we loaded up our gear and headed to our launch spot, Anclote Gulf Park, and met up with Chris and Erika.

Our aborted trip from last fall was due to high winds and big waves.  We kept a close eye on the wind and wave reports before this trip and, as you can tell, we started out all smiles.  That didn't last long, however, once we got into the channel and the waves grew in size.  Much like our attempt to paddle up the Silver River, my fear of water had me in a death grip.  I screamed, I cried, I whimpered.  I almost gave up with each wave that crossed our bow.  Eventually, though, I calmed down and decided that I wasn't going to ruin the trip for everyone else, so I powered through.  For awhile I just paddled with my eyes closed.  Seriously.  Then we discovered that saying, "WEEEE!!!!!" really loudly during big swells actually helped break some of the tension.

Needless to say, it was a rough paddle.

That's what we look like when we realize the worst of it is over and we're pretty close to shore.

We were so excited to see land that we beached at the first place we could find, even though our journey wasn't complete.  If you look in this picture at the two tall radio antennae and see four white roofs underneath them, well, that's where we launched from.  Doesn't look like a great distance, but it felt like it.

Eventually we got back in the 'yaks and began the much easier trip around the tip of the island.  Since it was Saturday afternoon, there were lots of boats on the water!

Anclote Key is home to 43 species of birds, and it was immediately apparent that they were around:

Initially we paddled into a little inlet, with the main island to our left and a crescent beach to our right.  We were trying to decide where to land and set up camp when we looked across the dunes to the ocean.  Right then a dolphin swam into view, and we decided we wanted to be where the dolphin was.  So, that's what we did!

This was our little camp!  Chris and Erika each had nice, clean little spaces, while our Taj-Mah-Tent was covered with laundry.  Yep, I forgot to pack my and Olivia's clothes in plastic bags and everything got soaked on the trip over.  It really set the tone of the trip for me.  The trip over took something out of me, and when we got there I didn't have anything dry to wear.  I was freezing from being wet all day, and Rob and I were severely sunburned on top of it.  This is about the time I began to withdraw.  I finally warmed up after breaking in our new Jetboil and eating something warm.

  At least we were blessed with a gorgeous sunset:

Erika used our camera and got some great photos as well:

Our first night on the island was pretty miserable for me.  I had a hard time warming up after being cold all day, and then I had a hard time getting comfortable from the sunburn.  My knees were the worst, and by Sunday I was having a hard time moving around.  Unfortunately we didn't bring any aloe with us, so I did the best I could.  Rob, too.  We got up Sunday morning and had another visit from the dolphin.  In the distance was an entire pod of them playing and jumping.  It was an awesome sight! 

The shells on the island were amazing, and by the end of the trip each one of us had found at least one whole sand dollar (unless your name is Chris, and in that case you found about 14 of them).  Erika and Olivia spent Sunday using the shells we'd collected and built...well, it started out as a sand castle but ended up looking like a sand person.  Very cool!

Pretty soon the dolphin came back for another visit!  In that last picture I was pointing it out to Olivia.  It must have been feeding at that point because the lazy movements were replaced with frenzy and splashing.

We played in the water, relaxed in the tent, ate, went shelling, saw stingrays in the surf, and had a mostly enjoyable day.  Once I started moving, the sunburn didn't hurt so badly.  It finally began to feel like we were really vacationing.

Then Chris pulled up the weather report on his phone.

We bedded down that night, our last one on the island, knowing we were in for some severe weather.  We weren't really prepared for the lightning or gusting winds that came along with the rain.  Rob had put the rain fly on the tent before coming to bed, so thankfully we didn't get very wet.  I do remember the wind, though.  I was laying there in the tent, watching the ceiling get thrown around like a dog's chew toy, thinking the only reason the tent didn't fly off was because we were in it.  The lightning was pretty bad, too, and it didn't settle my nerves knowing we were the tallest thing on the beach.

Somehow, we made it through the night.  Rob snapped a picture when he first woke up:

We started to break camp knowing the worst was over, but more rain was still on the way.  By the time we loaded the kayaks with our gear, it was coming down pretty hard.  I had given up by then, not even changing out of my pajamas for the return trip.  The rain didn't help matters.  We decided to wait out the rain for a little while and ended up huddled up, on the beach, wrapped in a tarp.  A few minutes in, we began hearing a helicopter.  We peeked out and saw a Coast Guard chopper flying up toward us.  They hovered for a brief second, seeing we weren't necessarily in crisis, and flew off.  I wanted to cry.

I began to think about how ill-prepared I felt at this point in the trip.  I thought about being stranded or meeting some worse fate on the return trip that had yet to take place.  Why had we done this to our daughter?  Were we bad parents?  It was very emotional for me.  I was dreading the paddle back to the mainland.  I began to think about the movie 'Open Water' and wondered how people would interpret the pictures on our camera when they found it.  I sat there, wrapped in that tarp in the rain, watching the helicopter fly away, hoping we wouldn't end up as a Dateline Special.

And then Chris said it....."Let's just go."

We pushed off in the surf and got our bearings.  And then we just kind of settled in for the long haul.  Oddly enough, the rain stopped.  The sea was actually much calmer than it was on the trip to the island.  We saw our destination and just went for it. 

I'm sorry if I keep using this word, but this picture is very emotional for me:

It's very bleak, and it matched my outlook at the time. 

Defeated and ready to be done:

One person that was not bothered at all by then was Olivia.  She somehow found it in her to take a nap on the return journey:

Until then she had kept us in good spirits with songs she learned at school.  We actually started talking and laughing, but I think that's because we realized our journey was almost over.  And pretty soon, it was.  We pulled into the park and got out of the kayaks, and we were done.  Done.  I stopped some people walking by and asked them to take our picture.

I can't tell you I had a great time on this trip.  I don't think any of us would tell you that.  I did get an education, though.  I learned the value of sunscreen.  I learned the value of plastic bags to keep your clothes dry.  I learned that 365 previous days of outdoor adventures don't prepare you for things that are outside of your skill level.  I learned that my fears can be overcome.  I learned that my friends are the best friends I could ask for, and I am grateful to have shared this with them.  I learned that I love dolphins, stingrays, sand dollars,  and starfish.  I learned that I have many adventures ahead of me, because I didn't end up on a Dateline Special. 

Happy Campiversary!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Trip 36: Ravine Gardens State Park

State Parks visited: 30

Ravine Gardens State Park is not a new park for us to visit.  We've made a couple of trips here in the last year or so.  However, we had never made it to their annual Azalea Days festival, so we made it a point to visit.  The Boys were working on the day of the festival, so Olivia and I were instead joined by one of my coworkers, CJ, and her grandson Zane.  CJ is the Live Nursery Specialist at work and had never visited this amazing park, so it was exciting to see it with her.  Xandra met up with us at the park as well, and we had a great adventure!

I'll be the first to admit, this entry will be mostly pictures.  The azaleas were so gorgeous!  I can't help myself when it comes to taking photos.  I do it a lot.  Like this:

Babe Ruth?  You got it!  During the festival the park had tours, showcasing the history of the area.  Babe Ruth once played for the farm team here in Palatka...The Azaleas...and this reenactor came out and told us a little about 'his' time in town.  It was a very cool touch to the tour.

The azaleas I've shown so far are cultivated.  These are wild:

We had a really lovely walk down to the little spring inside the park, and then up and around the Azalea Trail:

My little tree hugger!

While Rob and Chris were at work, Rob, at least, was there with us in spirit:

Olivia striking the classic 'The Robby' pose...

....while she and Xandra looked for Robby's beach ball:

This tree was particularly neat-looking:

Eventually we worked our way to the upper rim of the ravine, where the kids (and by 'kids' I mean me and Xandra...and Zane and Olivia) had fun playing on the playground:

The walk back down into the ravine was gorgeous and shaded:

Ahem.  I know one day she's really not going to appreciate my humor:

Not long after this our visit was complete.  We grabbed snacks and drinks and relaxed on the lawn before heading home.  A couple of weeks later, though, The Boys were free from work and wanted a chance to see the azaleas for themselves.  And so Rob, Olivia, and I met up with Chris and Xandra for one more tour of the park.

The neat thing was seeing the stages of flowers in bloom from two weeks prior to this trip.  Azaleas have about a 3-4 week window in which they're the most vibrant, and our second trip was the tail end of that time. 

Even Chris has adopted 'The Robby'

This looks like a bird to me:

And Chris likes to climb things:

There was some debate over which of the following two pictures to post, so I decided to post both.  You decide which you like better and comment!

Pretty soon we began hearing from other hikers that there was an alligator out sunning itself next to the trail.  Hmm, maybe it's the Florida girl in me, but I have a soft spot for gators, and not just because they're tasty.  We headed down the trail to see what was going on, and we found this cute little guy:

Yep, walked right behind him...respectfully, of course...and moved on down the trail.  He let us know by hissing how displeased he was we were there, but that's as far as it went.

And just like that, we were done.  This visit, aside from the gator, was pretty uneventful.  We got to see some beautiful sights, although I'm sure Rob would argue that there were hardly any azaleas in bloom at all.  I could see the difference in blooms from the last visit to this one.  I did notice that despite going hiking each time I have visited the park, I have not hiked exactly the same trail twice.  There is always some new route to take.  I guess it goes to show you that our wonderful state parks bear visiting more than once.

Ta Da!!!