True Adventure: Albany

TRUE ADVENTURE

Albany

I was sitting in my car listening to the raindrops patter my windshield, watching the view beyond gradually become more muddled until, swish swish, the wiper-blade smacked them away with a quick flourish. This patterned continued, like a monotone, as I sat there in the night time of parking lot of the Motel 6.

That morning I had been in the Massachusetts city of Lowell; a city wishing it had the elegance of Boston to the south. I was with a friend named Armando, a feisty Puerto Rican who loved Huey Lewis and could cook the best Hispanic food as far as I was concerned. We had been the best of friends since high school and here we were now in the northeast traveling to upstate New York from central Florida. As we rolled out of Lowell that morning the rain began and it followed us north to Maine, then west through New Hampshire and Vermont, down south back into Massachusetts and then finally west again where we stopped for the night in the capital of the Empire State- Albany.

The city of Albany has its roots in pre-Revolutionary America, founded by the Dutch and later incorporated into the British colonies. It sits on the Hudson River, two hours north of New York City, where it can stay as far as I am concerned.

Swish swish, the water flung off the glass only to start accumulating once more. Swish swish. I had decided to let Armando watch television in our motel room while I went outside to make a phone call to my girlfriend. Now as I listened to her drone on about another uneventful day at work I paid more attention to the metronome of the blades and the windows of my room directly in front of me. My car was stationed across the parking lot and the curtains were drawn, but I could still make out the blue glow of the T.V. and the occasional movement of my friend inside.

Driving through the city earlier that evening, we were like policemen on patrol, on the lookout for anywhere that could offer dinner at an affordable price. Suddenly, there it was: that bastion of American cuisine, Golden Corral, and we knew we had found our manna from heaven. As a young boy, I had been to the restaurant and could remember being wowed by the never-ending smorgasbord. Finding a new art in how to stack and arrange every bit of food onto my plate. Memories such as these were what drove my car into the parking lot. Armando was less romanticized but capitulated when it became clear there were not other choices.

Once inside those walls, the rose-colored glasses of my youth were smashed. Disorder reigned supreme as plates smacked, patrons pounded and children ran riot. We made our way to the buffet line and gazed upon the gruel and slop afforded to us. Slurping our lukewarm coffee and forcing down the Salisbury steak we left as quickly as we had entered and vowed to never do that again.

The next order of business was to find lodging for the evening and to that end, we found our Motel 6 and checked in. After we were settled comfortably in each of our beds I decided to step out and call my girlfriend. In the car, and only half listening to the voice on the other end, the rain began to gradually grow harder when a large black pickup truck pulled into one of the spots outside our window. It idled for a second before turning off its lights and something told me to do the same. In fascination I watched someone step out of the cab and despite the rain now free to accumulate on the window I could discern a tall man in a black coat. He wore jeans and would have passed as a cowboy if not for his hat-less head. The mas paced around the truck for a minute or two before approaching the window of my room. All I could do was watch this strange event unfold; the man peering into the window, the blue glow of the T.V. and Armando completely relaxed inside.

The scene did not last long, however, as the stranger quickly hopped back into the truck, backed up and sped away into the rain. I just as quickly ended my conversation, long since forgotten, and cautiously skipped back into the room. I alerted Armando to what had just taken place and I was met with a frustrating indifference! The actions of this man were too peculiar to take lightly so I took it upon myself to abandon the room and ask the clerk for another on the opposite side of the building.

To this day I contend there were drugs cached in that seemingly innocuous room of ours. That that man in the truck was a smuggler returning to reclaim his stash before a rival could beat him to it. This could be unfounded, but I was not going to stay and find out. The fact of the matter is that a weirdo peered into my motel room and there must have been some reason for it. I stated earlier that Albany could keep its distance from New York City and because of this man and the lackluster dining, I stand by it.

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To Portage or Not to Portage: PART II

Shingle Creek

Nevertheless, my mind began to fully take stock of the situation. Sure we could overcome the odds just as we had done that day, I did not doubt that, but I started to think that perhaps we had gotten lucky too. I mean, we had passed venomous snakes and literally waded and swam our way through a swamp. Although gators had not worried me, they had to have been there somewhere, and beyond that, what if one of us had simply taken a funny step off a log and broken an ankle? My phone was on life support as it was and if one of those things occurred we would be in real trouble. We did not have a first aid kit, let alone a GPS. We were completely cut off and our options were either press on and risk the aforementioned or just call for help.

I opened my eyes and asked Max if I should call 911 in the morning. With a tone to imply that he had been mulling over the same scenarios he nodded his head that it would be the common sense thing to do. But then I thought aloud should I call them now? Who knows if my phone would even work in the morning and that was a situation I wanted to avoid. Again he acquiesced and I did something I had never done before: I called 911 in an emergency situation.

In all actuality, it may not have been a real emergency situation. We had shelter with plenty of food and water. We just wanted to avoid a potential emergency situation. Also, we knew were not that removed from civilization (in central Florida you are never more than a few miles away at most) but that would have meant abandoning the canoe and all our gear and hiking for an unknown amount of time because, after all, we had no idea where we were at. Whatever the case, I decided to call for help and depend on those who know best to get us out.

I knew it sounded silly but I did not know how else to put it when the operator asked me to state my emergency. I said that my brother and I had gone canoeing down Shingle Creek and were now hopelessly lost. Which was completely true but I guess she did not believe because she then asked where we were… after reiterating the fact of the matter she was able to pinpoint our coordinates from my cell phone and only confirmed what I knew to be true. We were way off from where we had started. Upon finding out where we were she then transferred me to a county sheriff representative who proceeded to just ask me the same exact questions! Normally I would understand but I tried to stress that my phone was dying and then whenever I did try to tell him anything he would cut me off… also, he only laughed when I denied his request for a fire because our lighter had been a victim of the water… Nonetheless, he said that he would send a helicopter to come look for us.

A helicopter? Despite the situation I couldn’t help but think how awesome that was. Would we be airlifted out and given the ceremonial blanket and hot coffee? Our imaginations ran wild with excitement and we gathered up what valuable items we could carry in our pockets because for all we knew we would abandon the canoe and gear. Consequently, that also meant we had to get dressed again because once we had made camp we had quickly stripped off our drenched clothes. Now warm, the last thing we wanted to do was pull on freezing pants. Alas, it had to be done.

Meanwhile, David was on the island and I called him quickly for a debriefing. I said that we may get out to the island tomorrow but for now we were going home and that I was sorry for all the inconvenience. For all I knew the man did not even have a tent out there! Then after speaking with him I called my mother and told her to prepare herself and she took the news surprisingly very well. I had to squelch her questioning, however, because outside the tent I heard the unmistakable whirl of the chopper approaching our beacon of a tent. I met Max outside and like a scene from a movie we waved our arms madly in the blinding beam of the light. From then on the helicopter was always circling overheard.

Then I got a call from the same sheriff I had spoken to earlier and while he was somewhere on the ground, he was the liaison between us and the chopper. His plan of action, after speaking to the guys in the sky, was to have us follow the helicopter south to the Old Tampa Highway.

What?

To make sure I was not hearing things, I asked, “You want me to hike through the woods in the dark?”

“No, get in your canoe and go downstream.”

Map of Shingle Creek

 

I was shocked. Are you kidding me? Never mind the small hope of being airlifted, but how many times had I stressed that the creek was unnavigable? And when I once again told him that there were trees blocking our path he simply asked “Well, how’d you get over them before?” Two reasons, sir. It was DAYTIME and we CARRIED the canoe. “Well, the chopper doesn’t see any trees.” I had to hang my head at that. I thought they were supposed to help but at that point it seemed like he was trying anything but. The bottom line was that if we could boat ourselves out we would have. If not that night, then the next day but the creek simply was not passable, especially in the dark. Finally, I think we got the idea and told us to just hang tight.

From then it was a waiting game. I paced about our little sand hill, smacking mosquitoes, while Max sat inside the tent eating beef jerky and trying to get the most out of primitive camping that he could. As the chopper continued to circle overhead and illuminate the forest, I saw two new lights join the overhead beam. At first I was not sure if I had really seen them but eventually they were constant enough for me to recognize them as flashlights. I called for Max and together we watched as a small force of about five men, mostly police officers, appeared on the opposite end of the creek.

I yelled “hi!” and they yelled, “Get your stuff together, packed up the tent, and throw it into the canoe. Then paddle over here and we’ll attach it to the truck!”

Well so much for the airlift. I also quickly realized that we must not have been that mercilessly lost if they could hike here or even have a truck. A truck? What were we right by the road? Not exactly. After we haphazardly broke down the tent and carelessly tossed everything into the canoe, we still had to walk (with canoe in tow) quite a distance through the woods. One of the cops had a machete and was clearing a path just has I had done just a few hours before.

Don not get me wrong, I could not have more thankful for the police and search guides that night but I could not help but be amused at their country personas. Clad in cammo and with twang-laced accents, they were good ‘ole boys all right and as such I did not take their ribbing personally. Yes, we were young and yes, we should have had a map. We will not disappoint you next time, officers.

Subsequently, when we did get to the truck it was parked out in a cow field separated from the forest by barbed wire. Completely disoriented, it took me a little bit to figure that we were near the Kissimmee Municipal Airport. I total of about three miles down the road from where we had launched; an insignificant distance by car but by canoe through the swamp, quite impressive if I do say so myself. Anyways, from where the truck was located, it was a further distance then to the road itself. In fact, I would put it at least a mile trek from where we had been camped but at this point as I rode in the bed of the truck, all I could think about was how the journey was over. We were going home.

shingle-creek-00

The time now was around 9:30 and it still took more than hour then to actually get home. Max had to stay behind with the canoe as an officer drove me to Megan and Nicks to retrieve my car. Fortunately, as we pulled into the front yard so did they (I didn’t know they were not home) and after I gave the real short version, I jumped in their car and together we drove back to Max and fixed the canoe to their roof. As we worked they could not believe our adventure and seemed quite proud of what we had accomplished. In a sense, I would agree. We may not have made it to Makinson Island, but we did travel further than anyone had possibly gone on Shingle Creek before, and for that we felt a little pride. Very haggard pride.

Also, I just have to note that before the police officers left for the night, one did mention to Nick that “Those whirlybirds ain’t cheap, ya know.” As of this writing, we are not sure if he was joking or not. We will soon find out I suppose. Regardless, our main worries were over and I enjoyed a nice warm shower upon reaching home. However, the mud under my fingernails did not fully dissipate for another three days after.

As for David, though, he was still camped out on an island by himself for the night and we could not wait for the next day to hear his side of things. Turns out he had fortuitously packed his own one-man tent and beyond that, had befriended a group of campers who shared with him their food. Of course, the story gets better from here- those campers happened to be an excursion sponsored by a radio personality named Rodney Rogers, who specializes in the outdoors. Once he heard of David’s friends who were lost up the creek, he said he wanted us on his radio show to recount our story! We all thought that was the best ending this otherwise disaster of a weekend could have! Unfortunately, Rodney has not gotten back to us… but still, of all the people for David to run into.

Aside from that, the tale has no other ending. Except that once we actually had a map we saw that we were just a short distance away from where the creek did indeed “open up.” If we had followed our mantra of pressing on, or if we had gotten a much earlier start that day, we might have made it to Lake Toho. We were that close. But we had no idea at the time and everyone agrees we did the right thing.

And in the days since, Max and I have retold the tale to just about everyone as it will no doubt go down in the grand history of us both. A true story of grit, determination, ridiculousness, and stupidity that will (I hope) became a favorite at bars, parties, and campfires for the rest of my life. Funny enough, no part of this has been exaggerated but if you do not believe it that is okay; I can scarcely believe it myself.

THE END…

National Park Bucket List

Inspired by this magnificent advertisement for the “Mighty Five” national parks in Utah and my indomitable love for the National Park Service, here will be the list of national parks that I must visit someday in my life.

Bryce Canyon National Park- Utah

Zion National Park- Utah

Canyonlands National Park- Utah

Capitol Reef National Park- Utah

Arches National Park- Utah

Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park- Arizona

4008_5901_Badlands_National_Park_South_Dakota_mdBadlands National Park- South Dakota

glacier-national-park-wallpaper-nature-images-glacier-national-park-hd-wallpaper

Glacier National Park- Montana

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Acadia National Park- Maine

North-Dakota-Badlands-Overlook-Theodore-Roosevelt-National-ParkTheodore Roosevelt National Park- North Dakota

yellowstone-fountain-geyser_2018_600x450Yellowstone National Park- Wyoming

yosemite-national-park_16-jpgYosemite National Park- California

death_valley

Death Valley National Park- California

redwood-national-park-1

Redwood National Park- California

To Portage or Not to Portage: PART I

TO PORTAGE OR NOT TO PORTAGE:

The Desperate Account of a Failed Canoe Trip

Down Florida’s Shingle Creek

As told by

Vincent S. Hannam

Portage: Verb; To carry a boat or its cargo between navigable water.

As in: “They were incapable of portaging a canoe.”

              Always looking for the next adventure I came upon the location of Makinson Island: an island in Lake Tohopekaliga (Toho, for short) in Kissimmee, Florida that offers primitive camping to those willing to boat themselves there. The island itself is uninhabited but used to apparently host an exotic animal farm sometime in the past, and is now home to a population of marooned goats.

Upon reading this, I decided that this sort of thing was right up my alley and I conspired with my brother Max and good friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast, David Tillett, to spend the weekend camping on the island. The only catch, of course, was acquiring the boats necessary to make the trip but that was soon solved through some friends who were able to loan David a kayak and Max and I a canoe.

Now our cousin, Megan and her husband Nick (whose canoe we were borrowing), happen to live on a little river called Shingle Creek that flows south through central Florida and feeds into Lake Toho. In fact, Shingle Creek is the northernmost headwaters of the entire lake and river system that eventually finds its way to the Everglades.

As you can imagine, this added a whole new element to the plan, as I had the brilliant idea that instead of driving the canoe to the Kissimmee lakefront, we could just launch off of Shingle Creek and navigate our way to the lake that way. After looking at the maps I could tell the path was generally clear save for a stretch where the river seemed to disappear into a marsh-like environment. Brushing this off as an insignificant detail in the larger plan, Max and I made the plans that we would meet David (who would be setting off from the lakeshore) at Makinson sometime around nightfall.

At approximately 1:00 PM we loaded up the canoe and listened intently to Nick tell us off his own adventure on the creek where he had to eventually abandon the canoe after having to push the canoe through waist deep water. Again, I brushed this off as “no big deal” and set off from the creek bank more determined than ever to enjoy a truly unique and fun camping trip.

What happened over the next five hours was anything but fun. In fact, I have never experienced the kind of work that it takes to canoe a boat though unnavigable terrain; where the water would turn to muck and the path was blocked by enormous fallen trees determined to block our path.

Starting out, however, there was no way to tell just how bad it was to be. Where we launched the creek was wide and deep, and we had no trouble paddling our boat. We believed this was to be the case for most the journey until we came to a part in the stream where the water level dropped and we were halted by mud. To remedy the situation I would push the boat along with my oar as Max swung his grappling hook to the nearest tree and pull. This method did work but it was slow going and we quickly realized that we had come to the point where we would have to get wet.

Creek Narrows

 

Reluctantly I removed my socks and put my boots back on while Max just stripped down to his skivvies and together we took our first steps in the water where we sank into shin-deep mud. Knowing that there was nothing we could do, we pressed on and pushed the canoe until we finally broke from the mire and found ourselves back on a wider, deeper portion of Shingle Creek. After clamoring back into the boat, I took stock of just what exactly took place. The fact that we just waded through a swamp and how quickly our fears of alligators were abated in the face of “nothing else we can do.”

Rowing along, we soon ran into yet another obstacle in the form of a fallen tree in the water. Nothing too serious, it was practically a floating log, but we could not get around it and it was decided that we could put the grappling hook to yet another use by hooking it to one end of the log and pulling it away with our boat. At first we only succeeded in pulling ourselves closer to it, but after we stretched the rope to the other side of the creek and I clung to a tree, we managed to pull it away! Our path was clear once more and we reveled in our victory thinking that surely after such an engineering triumph we would be able to conquer anything Mother Nature could throw at us.

Continuing from here our travels were only occasionally hampered by mud, but nothing we had to get out for. When we happened upon a couple groves of water hyacinth (an invasive floating plant from the Amazon) we determinedly agreed to not wade through the water lest we risk a chance encounter with an alligator hiding in the weeds. Instead we took out the machete and simply cut our way through.

Water Hyacinth

It was at this point, however, that I first began to think about the time and the possibility that we may lose daylight. Carelessly we had forgotten to bring a watch and I would not waste my phone’s already low battery on simply checking the time. I knew we had maybe a couple of hours left before dark…

Pressing on, the creek became narrower until our travels became a pattern of paddling until we had to push and pushing until we could paddle. It was during this routine that the boat began to steadily take on water every time we jumped back in… It was also during that time when, in an interval of paddling, Max pointed out to our left, not two feet away, a good sized snake all coiled up in the rotten vegetation. Brown with black splotches, I knew it was not a copperhead (a species I am very familiar with from my travels in the Smoky Mountains) but that it was clearly a venomous snake of some kind. Passing this specimen, I spotted a baby one not long after. I worried that we might have been in some kind of territory of the serpents, that later were confirmed to be the very dangerous water moccasin.

As I stated before, the creek was steadily growing narrower and more overgrown until it became impossible to either paddle or push the canoe and because of the overgrowth and fallen trees, the water was making that distinguished rushing sound that only rivers make. It was also the clearest I had seen it; shallow with a white sandy bottom. This was our halfway point and we took this time to take a lunch break and I discovered that whatever paper products I had in my backpack were now water logged (but fortunately my most prized possession, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, had surprisingly minor damage). Subsequently, despite the natural beauty, I was now in a fight against the elements and I realized just how exhausted I was… the both of us felt stuck for the first time, but we knew we couldn’t turn back. We had come too far and gone through too much and after all, we wondered, the creek had to open up soon. It was this faith that led us to summon our strength and press on, yet despite this, doubt began to creep into my mind if we could actually clear the debris and make it to the open waterway before dark…

The river, however, was quite impassible and before we moved we had to assess the best route to take; either overland or over the logs. I struck out on foot wielding the machete and blazing a trail. I was also looking ahead to see if the creek would clear out soon. To my dismay, the brush seemed to choke the water even more as I progressed but I did notice that because of the natural ravine the trees that had fallen were laying over the water rather than in it. I returned to the checkpoint and decided that we would have to portage a little ways but then we could push the canoe under the logs, using the now fast flowing water to our advantage. With our second wind we did just that and began to make some real progress again.

Of course when I say we had to push the canoe I sincerely mean it. The fallen logs were still too low hanging for us to sit in the boat and as we pushed and pulled in chest deep water, all the rotten plant matter that was clinging to the undersides of these logs was being broken up and emptied onto our boat and gear. Huge amounts of dirt, leaves, vines, and sticks were just strewn about and with them spiders. Like, a lot of spiders. And not just the harmless spindly-legged ones, but I was seeing some bigger, stouter fellows who looked like they meant business. But what could we do? We just pressed on and hoped one of those moccasins would not be a part of the hodgepodge collecting in the vessel.

brown snake

This went on for a while actually and every time we yelled “1…2…3!” I could feel my energy depleting. A couple of times the boat was just too heavy with all our gear that we would have to unload everything just to be able to carry the boat over a log and then go back and fetch it all. That was so demoralizing because I did not have the strength anymore to haul a certain bag that contained our firewood (because foraging for wood on Makinson Island is not allowed, of course). Every time I just wanted to abandon that damn bag… just for the sake of my sanity. As this continued, the creek actually began to clear out and while there were still obstacles to overcome, it was by no means as bad as it had been. We could now begin to paddle again and the water began to meander around large white beachheads on the riverbanks. Silently I took note of these as possible campsites because as the sky began to grow pink I realized that we probably not going to make it to Lake Toho by nightfall.

Indeed we were losing light so I turned on my cellphone, which was thankfully safe inside a ziplock bag, and called David. Having just arrived at Makinson Island himself, he could not believe that after five hours we had not even gotten to the lake yet. “I know” I told him, “but we’re going to have to camp here tonight and join you tomorrow.” He understood, but I did feel bad because of course we had the tent and now he had his own situation to contend with… nonetheless, we had to make do and rowed to one of those beaches that formed a nice big hill overlooking the water. We tied the canoe up and set about to making the fire until Max discovered that his lighter was wet and would not start. In fact, everything was wet. I had not realized that how wet everything was; our clothes from swimming and our gear from the water in the canoe. Soaked. Drenched. Damp. Awful. And now we were on a beach so everything became sandy. It was the worst. So with no fire we turned on our LED lamps and with the help of the full moon began to assemble the tent, battling mosquitos. Typically in December I never deal with them, but leave it to being stranded in a swamp to bring the bloodsuckers out. We also took our clothes off and set them out on our camping chairs to “dry”. After that we gathered what food and supplies we would need and entered the tent for the night, resigned to the fact that we were indeed primitive camping. But with no fire.

As we sat inside in our underwear, we ate our cans of chili and beans and discussed our options for the next day. We knew that the river was getting easier but there was no telling if it would just descend into chaotic overgrowth again. We also knew that the forecast had called for some rain and if the trip had been hazardous before, that would make it down right stupid. Nonetheless, when we shut our eyes we had left it at yes, we would press on because surely we were over the worst of it, right?

TO BE CONTINUED…

Driving Through Dixie, Part III

“…Go on, I’ve had enough, dump my blues down in the gulf
She loves you, Big River, more than me.”

And as I drove on down through Mississippi further south towards the Gulf, I was accompanied by the soul enriching music of Johnny Cash, Elvis, George Jones, Roy Orbison and the Zac Brown Band. There is a reason I loved Memphis so much; why I am able to look past the crazy homeless lady who cornered me asking for $20. Because at the heart of the city is a beating heart of music. Blues, R&B, country, rock. It’s all there and it’s all so nice.

I did want to get the hell out of there though and when I left it was much later in the day than I would have liked. At two o’clock, I knew I would have to do some night driving in order to make up for lost time so I set my course for the only town I could think of on the coast- Biloxi. No, it wasn’t a completely random choice- I had just done Biloxi Blues last summer and thought it would be fun to send Armando a picture of me in the city. You know, life imitating art and all that.

Well I had to get through the rest of the state first, an eight hour trek from top to bottom. Surprisingly it wasn’t that bad, again, I had great music along the way bringing me back to my southern roots and remember, Mississippi is rather beautiful even with the trees and grass all having fallen victim to winter. As I am driving, however, my buddy Jay calls me to see how everything went with the tire. I told him fine and that I was looking to make Biloxi that night. This was followed by a cautious “really??” I said, “Yeah, what’s up with Biloxi?” And he reminded me that it’s a seedy casino-driven city and that even the nice hotels are apparently creepy and smell of smoke.

Well, come on, what was I supposed to do?

A solution! Jay actually offered his house in Pensacola, Florida for the night. Sure, it was an extra two hours but two hours was literally nothing compared to what I was used to at this point. I agreed and my course took a slightly different turn as I was headed back to the Sunshine State that very night. Making up for lost time indeed!

Before I move on, I would like to make a note about Jackson, Mississippi. It is the state capital and it is probably the smallest capital city I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember one skyscraper! Not that I’m knocking it, I’m just used to seeing any kind of population center have some tall buildings. But not sleepy old Jackson. Huh.

Okay, so moving on. I made Pensacola that night after driving through Mobile, Alabama and across the Mobile Bay- which I’m sure would have been stunning had been during the day (You’re welcome, Alabama!) By this time it was around 10 and I was quite tired. I had never met Jay’s folks before but they were super nice and just the best, offering me sweet tea and the best grits I have ever had. They’re called Nassau grits and they were crazy good! And I’m not the biggest fan of grits. But damn. Grits.

True southern hospitality, for sure, but I don’t even know if it’s because they live in the South. I think it’s just being a genuine human being and wanting to be nice to a weary traveler. If that’s unique to just the South then it shouldn’t be. It’s a lesson in compassion that we should all take away from. In fact, I would say that the thing I enjoyed the most on the entire trip were the warm personalities and good-natured individuals I got to meet. Actors, directors, and artistic producers all sharing a hotel and riding the shuttles together, but not letting any ounce of ego mar the relationships we were trying to build. That was truly wonderful.

The next morning I awoke to an empty house and after leaving the key under a rock and writing a thank you note, I bounded into my car and went to my last destination of interest. It was a place called Ft. Pickens right on the Gulf coast, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and as cool as the Civil War fortification was, it was nothing compared to what surrounded it.

For days I had been driving through freezing temperatures and basically feeling a true winter but that morning I could not believe the weather. It was as if I had finally reached the promised land. A perfect 65 degrees, hot sun, the turquoise water of the Gulf, and dunes of sand so fine it looked like flour. As I drove across the bay with my windows down and in a t-shirt with pelicans soaring overhead I couldn’t help but be overcome with a tremendous surge of love for my home state. It’s moments like that when you really do appreciate where you come from and boy, I had never been prouder to hail from Florida. Or be in it.

A couple outside the fort with the Gulf just over the walls.

After I ran around Ft. Pickens for a little bit in this paradise-on-earth, I decided that it was time, once and for all, to go back home. I knew I could make it that night, but I also knew that I could make it the next morning so I opted for the latter when my good friend, Lucas, said I could stay the night in Gainesville. So I again found myself at the receiving end of someone’s graciousness and I wasn’t spending the evening alone in a motel room. It was the perfect respite so he and I did what we always do in Gainesville, and that was get pleasantly drunk.

With home being just another two hours from there, I woke up at a reasonable time and pulled into town by noon of that day. I have to confess, however, it was not “home” in St. Cloud, but rather UCF. I had that untimely business to take care of. In fact, I spent a further two days in Orlando before finally get back to the Cloud and unpacking my car!

Whatever the timeline and however it ended, I still had an incredible time. I met so many wonderful and talented people in Memphis, including reuniting with old dear friends such as Terrance and Kevia. I got to once again see parts of the country that were completely new to me, and I’m constantly amazed at how truly ginormous, diverse, and beautiful this country is. Nassau grits in Pensacola, blues in Memphis, even snow in Alabama. As I often attest, the South can be a dirty place, but as a whole I believe it is imbued with a rare magnanimity that is nothing but infectious. In then end, it’s my home and I’m glad I got to see it.

P.S.

One of my favorite memories now of the trip was driving through rural Tennessee and seeing dogs just chilling by the road outside their homes. Like you see in the movies, like you see in pictures from the Depression. It really seemed like a place time forgot, but these dogs didn’t know anything about that; they’re just living their lives happy and free.

“…Tell that engineer I said thanks a lot,
and I didn’t mind the fare.
I’m gonna set my feet on Southern soil
and breathe that Southern air.”

Driving Through Dixie, Part II

The next morning I awoke in Tupelo and was greeted with freezing temperatures. These temperatures, in fact, loved me so much they stuck around all day.

Through rain or shine, snow and sleet I was on a mission that day and I had a lot to accomplish before even making it Memphis. That’s why I hit the road at around 7:45. Yeah, you get used to hours like that when you need to cram as much into the day as you can! But where was a heading? Well, fun fact, Tupelo happens to be the hometown of Elvis Presley and you know how much I love Elvis. Graceland, this is not. It’s literally a one room country shack and epitomizes the phrase, “humble beginnings.”

Yeah, it sounds pretty cool.

Wait. Sounds? What do you mean, sounds? Truth be told, I did not have time to visit his home and as disappointed as I was, I had a couple of other things to bear in mind; 1.) I was going to get plenty of the King in Memphis and 2.) I had so many battlefields to see! And the first one was 20 minutes up the road at a place called Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site. Now reduced to just an acre in size, the battle was actually quite significant. The nearby city of Corinth was apparently the railroad junction of the western South and consequently, the Union was always trying to wrest control from the rebels. Eventually they succeeded (duh) but at this particular battle, Brices Cross Roads, Confederate major general, Nathan Forrest, pulled off a stunning victory and sent the Feds reeling in retreat.

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That church was there at the battle too.

I didn’t know any of this and I wanted to learn even more. Scattered in the fields they have a bunch of plaques describing the maneuvers, tactics, etc. and I really wanted to read them all. But remember Old Man Winter? Yeah… I probably spent ten minutes outside my car taking pictures before my fingers were frozen. I did get some good ones though and what struck me as completely bizarre was the fact that the “cross roads” are still there. Albeit paved, but still looking exactly as they did that morning 150 years ago. Spectacular.

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The cross roads as they looked 150 years ago, outside of Corinth. I sure hope some bandits don’t show up… theatre joke…

As cool as Brices Cross Roads was, however, it was still chicken feed compared to what was next on my itinerary. A battlefield further up the road in Tennessee called Shiloh.

The Shiloh National Military Park is called such because in terms of historical significance, lives lost, and sheer size it’s right up there with Gettysburg. It was early on in the war, but the carnage was unparalleled in American history up until that point. There were more casualties at Shiloh than the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. Anyone thinking that this war was going to be over and done with was quickly shocked into the reality.

A monument to the boys from Minnesota who fought and died here.
A monument to the men from Minnesota who fought and died here.
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The Peach Orchard at Shiloh, and impromptu stage for me.

Today, Shiloh is remarkably well preserved and to walk its fields and actually see what the soldiers saw was rather poignant. Unfortunately like most things, I was rushed and had to take the whirlwind tour, but I will be back. To Tupelo and Corinth as well. I was left with a real good impression of the area- nice people and lots to do.

The morning flew by and it was now noon. I was feeling anxious and desired much to get to Memphis, unwind, and prepare for my audition. (I will tell you, standing alone in a field at Shiloh, I took the opportunity to perform my monologues. In a strange way, I felt I was doing it for the soldiers but I’m sure they were all laughing at me and not with me.)

Two hours later I reached that city on the Mississippi and checked into the Sheraton downtown. WOW. I am not a person used to the finer things in life like first class or huge hotels with glass elevators so color me naive, I was impressed! The place was teeming with theatre people and the air was electric. There was an excitement I could feel in my bones and I was completely in my element, the same as if I were running around an old battlefield. UPTA was off to a great start and would continue to be great that whole weekend, but for the sake of brevity, I have to move on. My audition experience is a blog unto itself and this one happens to be named “Driving Through Dixie”.

I will say, however, that I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Memphis. The music scene is infectious and despite the craziness that was UPTA, I did manage to steal away to Beale Street Saturday night with some good friends. Live music, tasty beer, and a delicious catfish po’boy never seemed so good. Woo hoo!

The morning after now, found me agreeing to take some friends to the airport which was not a problem. I did have one last callback at 11:15 but their flights were an hour earlier than that, so still no problem. I figured I would have plenty of time left to make it back and therein lied the problem. Well, actually, the problem was that we had neglected to figure in stuffing five people into a tiny car with all of our luggage. I have never felt so crammed into a vehicle and truly know what a clown-car feels like. Which is fine and dandy, but I was worried about the tremendous weight this was not putting on my car and wondered if we would make it to the airport was an incident…

The answer to that one is no. A mere mile from the terminal, I hit a bump and heard the unmistakable “flap-flap-flap” of a rear tire. I clambered out and sure enough, it was totally busted. Everyone else got out and really wanted to help me, but I understood they had a flight to catch. They called a taxi (but were eventually taken by some police because, apparently we were not in a very good part of town) and I changed my tire as the biting wind slapped my face and the cold metal of the lug wrench wreaked havoc on my fingers.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, I found out much to my chagrin, that tire shops in Memphis don’t like to be open on Sundays! What gives? I had an audition to get to! Whatever, I drove back to the hotel on my doughnut and survived the callback. It actually went quite, all things considered, but when I was done I was faced with how to solve this problem. I googled Tires Plus. Nothing. I googled Big Ten Tires. Nothing. I googled Jiffy Lube. Locations in my area! Things were looking brighter when I got to the Jiffy Lube, but quickly sank back into gloom when they informed me that they wouldn’t have my tire until the next morning… For several reasons I did want to stay another night in Memphis and shell out a couple hundred more bucks… But what could I do? I told him I would be back but that I had to make a phone call. I called my mom and as I’m explaining the situation, I noticed a used tire shop open across the street! It was a miracle! The clouds parted and a ray of sunshine beamed down. In no time I was back on the road home.

Er, well, to Arkansas.

Yes, Arkansas, because it was right across the river and in one fell swoop I succeeded in checking two things off my list- crossing the Mississippi and getting closer to visiting every state. Arkansas made 25.

It was funny though, because I drove as far as the visitor center and the real nice ladies behind the desk asked me where I was going. I told them this would be as far I could go. They asked if I had come just “to say I’ve been to Arkansas.” I told them, “that’s exactly what I’ve done!” As you can imagine, laughter ensued and we had a pleasant time. That was a good first impression of the Mineral State though, and I look forward to when the road takes me that way again.

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Ye old visitor center in West Memphis, Arkansas.

However, thanks to the tire situation, I was now grossly behind schedule. It was two o’clock when I left that visitor center and I knew I wanted to get as far as I could south. I bade farewell to Memphis and mused about the next time I would be back (in all likelihood next February for UPTA again!) and set my sights for the Gulf of Mexico, following that Big River all the way down.

Driving Through Dixie, Part I

Last Thursday I began a road trip from my home in St. Cloud, Florida (just south of Orlando) to Memphis, Tennessee. The reason for the trip was a huge audition festival known at the Unified Professional Theater Auditions, or UPTA, where I would hopefully land a job somewhere in the country far from my Central Florida base.

Now, of course, I had been planning this trip for months and while theatre was my main objective and focus, I immediately hit the maps and National Park website to determine what cool things would distract me along the way. Civil War sites being the primary concern. Of course. What did make this journey especially interesting, however, was the fact that I was doing it alone. All of my cohorts had flown to Memphis leaving me to my own wits. I packed light, with lots of canned goods and snacks, so as not to spend dough on anything I didn’t have to. Except coffee. I had to spend dough on coffee.

Anyways, at approximately 5:30 I rolled out of St. Cloud, onto the turnpike and headed north into the darkness with the rising sun as my friend. Along the way I noticed my car temperature plummet from a muggy 77 degrees to a cool 55 in only two hours. Donning my sweater and jacket, I would hardly take them off for the duration of the trip.

I'm actually quite proud of myself.
I’m actually quite proud of myself. Although my original itinerary included Arkansas and Louisiana, it was cut short due to some unforeseen crap that called me home.

My first stop along the way was Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Alabama, where General Andrew Jackson defeated the troublesome Creek Nation once and for all. History aside for the moment, I had to first pass through the hell hole that is southwest Georgia. I first traversed this wasteland in 2011 on the Andersonville trip and again last year for ACTF in Albany (see other posts, please!) and know what I am talking about when I describe it as a section of the country that God forgot. I’ve never been to the deserts out west, but I believe they have some grand majesty to them, framed by rising mountain peaks and a general mythology that speaks to the intrepid spirit of America.

And then there’s southwest Georgia. Desolate, hot, dusty, poor, uninspiring. Not the romantic vision of the South that you think of. No, coming from Florida, this is the back door to the Deep South and it isn’t very romantic. Well, whatever, I got through it and entered Alabama by way of Columbus.

*And for the record, I don’t mean to completely bash Georgia. The north country is beautiful and I love stopping in and around Atlanta when I can. Savannah is another place I would love to visit. Nonetheless, there’s no reason to visit the southwest corner of the state. Ever. Jimmy Carter left it and you should too.*

Now we’ll get to the history. Two hours later I reached my destination at Horseshoe Bend and learned a lot about something I really had never known about.

REAL QUICK:

We all know the War of 1812, but hidden in that larger conflict was another war being waged between competing factions of the Creek Nation (the major tribe in Alabama, and Georgia). The southern Creeks believe the only way to preserve their way of life was to accept the United States as a force they could never hope to defeat. The northern Creeks, however, were known as Red Sticks and were determined to drive the white man from their lands. Boom. Civil War. Eventually this war began to threaten US interests and since we were already used to fighting the British, we decided to send Andrew Jackson down south to take care of the mess. Note: this is pre Battle of New Orleans Jackson. Okay, so what ended up happening was that Jackson with his volunteers COMPLETELY CRUSHED THE RED STICKS. Like, no mercy type crushing. The kind where you burn the village and take no prisoners. (He did spare the women and children, thank God).

HS Bend

As an Andrew Jackson buff, I was enthralled by this history, yet supremely disappointed when I learned that the peace treaty signed by Jackson and the Creek leaders, forced them to surrender all their land (remember- Alabama, and parts of Georgia), including those allied with Jackson! He did not care and stabbed them all in the back… I knew his Indian policy was shitty to begin with, but now I really can’t defend him on that. Yeah… say it ain’t so, Andy, say it ain’t so.

Location of the cannon where they rained down upon the Red Stick in the field below.
Location of the cannon where they rained down upon the Red Sticks in the field below.

After this very enlightening sojourn, I hit the road again and knew I wanted to get as close to Shiloh, Tennessee as possible. Very quickly I realized I was not going to make Shiloh and decided to shoot for Tupelo, Mississippi instead. Essentially making a diagonal across Alabama, I saw most of the state and came to the conclusion that it’s as godforsaken as southwest Georgia! Exactly the same terrain, but with more road kill and covering the entire state! (I feel I can express all this now because I no longer fear Karma in the form of an Alabama state trooper pulling me over and dealing me a real-life My Cousin Vinny experience.)

Alright, alright, enough negatives. Surely something cool or whatever must have happened in Alabama? Well, when I drove through Birmingham it started to snow. Which as annoying as it was at the time, I think it was the kind of unique randomness you hope for in a road trip. Also, as I was exiting the state I was treated to a really nice sunset. And I think there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing a sunrise or sunset on the open road. Thank you, ‘Bama.

This pic doesn't do justice to the moment but I think you get the idea.
This pic doesn’t do justice to the moment but I think you get the idea.

Therefore, as the sun was sinking I was approaching that other pillar of Dixie, the State of Mississippi, and wondered what tomorrow would bring.

Or rather where was I going to stay for the night.

I entered Tupelo not long after dark and checked into an Econo Lodge where I was greeted by a pretty blond behind the counter named Tiffany. And truth be told, I decided on this motel because of her enthralling Southern lilt. It was a beautiful accent but alas, while she was very helpful, I could sense zero interest being returned. Ah well, perhaps I should have put on an accent? Either way, she will always be my Tupelo Tiffany.

Heartache aside, I got settled into the room. And while I traveled alone, this would be the only night I would spend by myself. In hindsight I am very thankful for this. There were a couple of moments that day where I felt pangs of loneliness. And I don’t mean it as angsty or as lame as it sounds. I just mean that when you’re experiencing something as cool as a battlefield you want company to share it with. That’s all. Jeez.

Anyways! I did get settled and realized that I would reach Memphis tomorrow and knew that I had to start focusing on my main objective. I didn’t want to be too distracted from all the awesome history!

TO BE CONTINUED