"" Writer's Wanderings: February 2013

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Florida Everglades

A trip to south Florida isn't complete without some time spent in Everglades National Park. Over 1.5 million acres in size, it is an important habitat for many rare and endangered species. Originally, water flowed freely, albeit very shallow water, from the Kissimmee River south to the Florida Bay which is just at the top of the Keys.

When development in Florida took its toll on the land in the early to mid 1900s, an area was set aside to conserve the natural landscape and prevent more damage to lands, plants and animals. In 1947 the Everglades National Park was established.

Today, there is still a threat to the eco system with further development based on Florida's popularity as a vacation or winter escape destination.

While we have visited the Everglades often on trips to Florida, this latest trip amazed us with what seems like a population explosion of vultures. At Palm Court, they line the Anhinga Trail we love to explore and hop out of the way as you walk through them. Need I mention they have a face only a mother could love. Worse, they have a taste for the rubber gasket that runs around the windshield, the wiper blades, and anything else vinyl and rubber on your vehicle. The park provides tarps that you can use to protect your vehicle. We didn't use a tarp but parked in the sun which works too, according to the sign.

Apparently the vultures are one of nature's "snow birds" migrating south to Florida for the winter which probably explains the increased population when we visited in February. I'm a little more familiar with the turkey vulture which, in our neck of the woods are called "buzzards" and signal the coming of spring with their return to Hinckley, OH, every March.

Once you realize the vultures aren't interested in you--after all, you are still alive and moving, their presence isn't a deterrent to enjoying the other flora and fauna along the Anhinga Trail which is mostly a boardwalk that runs through a section of the park. Along the way you'll see plenty of alligators and all sorts of other interesting and prettier birds, many who will put on a demonstration of their fishing skills.

We paused at several places long enough to see a wood stork and several cranes and herons of different sizes as they worked their way along the water's edge, wading and waiting and making a lunge to grab a tasty morsel of fish. All the while keeping an eye on their own predator, the alligator.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Through My Lens - Key Largo Pelicans

These guys are always waiting for a handout from the fishermen who clean their fish by the water. Even if you  just go and stand by the cleaning station, they come scurrying. My goal is to photograph one in flight.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kennedy Space Center - The Shuttle and Beyond

Our visit to the Kennedy Space Center was a few months too early to see the space shuttle Atlantis which has its own special exhibit being prepared. A huge building right at the corner of the street where you turn into the space center is expected to be opened in August of 2013.

The Space Shuttle program known officially as the Space Transportation System operated from 1981 to 2011. The shuttle has the distinction of being the only winged manned spacecraft that not only achieved orbit but also was the lander and was the only reusable space vehicle to make multiple flights into orbit.

Walkway to shuttle at launch
When the vision for space included a space station, the shuttle idea became the key to its building and supply. Basically it was said to be a flying truck.

After watching so many landings in the sea with the earlier programs, it was exciting to see the shuttle actually land on an airstrip. Just as exciting was seeing the shuttle piggybacked on a 747 to be transported from a California landing strip to the Florida space facility.

The program lasted so long that the media rarely mentioned the launches, connections with the space shuttle and the landings. Of course they were right there for the Challenger and Columbia disasters where we unfortunately lost several astronauts and scientists and a teacher. As cable and satellite TV grew more popular, NASA came up with its own channel and true enthusiasts like my son and his son could watch every launch and every mission.

Vehicle Assembly Building
A few years ago our Florida son, Rob, was able to obtain tickets for us to go see a launch. Several members of the family went as we were at that time visiting Orlando. Unfortunately I was very ill with bronchitis and couldn't make the trip. Everyone came back with wonderful stories of their experience and I'm so glad they got to see the shuttle launched as the program was soon to be shut down.

Launch pad #39
As you tour Kennedy Space Center, the bus takes you by the Vehicle Assembly Building where the shuttle was prepared for launch. It was rolled out of the building in a vertical position thus many of those upper "garage doors" needed to be open as well. It would make its way down a gravel path to launch pad #39 where it was set in place and readied for take off.

While we couldn't see the Atlantis, up the road from Kennedy just outside the Astronauts Hall of Fame (included in your general admission ticket) is the Inspiration, a mock up of the real space shuttles. It was quite impressive and a good tease for what will be the real thing when the Atlantis exhibit opens.

Today the space station is supplied by private industry and other countries launching space vehicles. NASA is now gearing up for further adventures however. Exploring other planets and deep space is now a joint venture with some commercial companies.

We walked through a display that explained the use of robots to explore planets and outer space. The Hubble is sending back amazing pictures and the Mars rover is sending back vital information to help us learn if man can survive on Mars--all in preparation for some spectacular adventures, but a travel adventure I'll pass on for now.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Kennedy Space Center - Apollo Program

The Apollo space program followed on the heels of the Gemini program. The goal: a moon landing. The Apollo program ran from 1961 - 1972 (concurrently with Gemini which ran 1962-66). It got off to a rough start with its first planned mission when in 1967, a cabin fire killed the three Apollo 1 astronauts (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) during a practice run while still on the launch pad.

Several missions made it to the moon and back, orbiting it. Finally on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon while Michael Collins orbited in the command module. All three safely returned to earth a few days later on July 24.

I remember watching the landing on the moon on live television. Would the lunar module sink into yards deep lunar dust or would the surface support it? When man stepped on the moon would he disappear into a lunar hole? Or would his footsteps make him leap so far into the air it would be difficult for him to return to the surface? So much speculation. As many have seen, Armstrong took a step off the ladder and spoke his momentous words, "One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind." We sat in our friends' apartment, the coffee in our hands growing cold as we watched, thoroughly hypnotized by the whole experience.

Apollo 14 Module
The missions continued successfully until Apollo 13. Once again we held our collective breath as we watched  and prayed for the safety of the astronauts, Lovell, Swigart, and Haise, when an oxygen tank exploded and crippled the service module upon which the command module depended. Would we lose them in space? Then ingenuity took over and the astronauts along with NASA command decided to use the lunar module which was designed to land them on the moon's surface and return them to the command module, as a "lifeboat" and return to earth in that. Thankfully it all worked out well even though they didn't get to land on the moon as planned. And we all enjoyed a movie years later staring Tom Hanks.

During the landings on the moon, the astronauts collected over 800 pounds of lunar rock which were studied by a laboratory in Houston. The rocks are billions of years old and evidence supports a theory that the moon's surface was once entirely molten.

In the Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center, the huge long building houses a Saturn V rocket and shows the stages of the rocket from the engines and thrusters to the command module. It's size is amazing. A man could stand upright in one of the thrusters.

In a side room, you get a glimpse of the command center for Apollo and then move into a theater and watch a video of the history of the Apollo program. As you watch, the stage in front of the screen suddenly comes alive with a mock lunar lander and an astronaut with an American flag planted in the fake moonscape. Back in the days of the early moon landings, there were skeptics who thought that the live TV coverage was really filmed in a studio somewhere and made to look as though the astronauts were actually landing on the moon. As we sat there and watched, Bob poked me and said with a smile, "See. This must be where they filmed it."

The astronaut's ride to the launch pad
 Near the end of the Saturn V rocket was the astronauts' vehicle used to get them to the launch pad. Not very fancy--inside or out, but it carried many heroes of the space program. The pilots that faced the unknown and became our example of courage in action.

We wandered among the historical artifacts, a lunar module, a rover, spacesuits of several of the astronauts, and even peered at a couple of lunar rock samples. Having been a part of the generation that observed so much of the space programs, it was only a slight step back in time. But my, how far we've come in such a relatively short time. Next up would be the shuttle program and the space station. Things we'd only imagined in sci-fi books.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Kennedy Space Center - The Gemini Program

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. . ." President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, Rice University

NASA's Gemini program was the bridge between Mercury, the first program to put men in space, and Apollo, the program to land a man on the moon. The words of President John F. Kennedy moved the plans forward and the success of the early program earned the funding from Congress. We were aiming high and determined to reach our goals. Sadly, President Kennedy would not get to see the dream he presented fulfilled. 

Inside the Gemini capsule
The Gemini program launched men into space with ten missions from 1965-66. I was about to graduate from high school and spend my first year at college. Still, my interest int the space program didn't wane and I watched at each opportunity to see each launch and marvel at our progress. 

Gemini was the test platform to learning how to control the space craft more and gain valuable information on what travel in space did to the physical bodies of the astronauts. Of course strapping two men into such a tight space for as much as 14 days seems to be a physically taxing proposition even without going into space (think riding in a Smart car for fourteen days without stretching your legs). 

It was also important to learn how to make pinpoint landings, work outside the space craft, and be able to link with another craft in space. We held our collective breath at each stage, especially when the first space walks were done.
There was a lot learned and accomplished in those few years and soon NASA was ready to reach out to take one small step and a giant leap.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kennedy Space Center, The Mercury Program

In 1959, NASA began its Mercury Program. Its goal: to put a man in space and do it before the Russians did. I was twelve years old and very interested in outer space. In junior high school we were assigned a research paper and I chose to write about what a man would eat in space. Needless to say, I was very intrigued with the prospects of space travel.

I remember the big announcement of the first astronauts in April of 1959. The Mercury seven included Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton.

NASA chose the East Coast of Florida as its launching port for all human spaceflight missions. There were several good reasons. First, it was close to the Atlantic Ocean which provided a safe range for launching rockets without the worry of debris falling into populated areas. The area at the time NASA was begun consisted mostly of orchards, empty beaches, and two military bases that provided support to the space operations.

The last reason is because of Earth's rotation on its axis and how close Florida is to the equator. Because the speed of rotation is greater the closer you get to the equator, the space craft launched from Kennedy Space Center are given over 900 mph worth of additional boost which saves fuel and increases efficiency.

Mercury Control Room
While most of the original seven flew in the Mercury program, some went on to participate in space programs to follow. Alan Shepard was the first American astronaut to go into space. His flight on May 5, 1961 lasted 15 nail-biting minutes. The country was euphoric when it was confirmed that his module was found and he emerged unharmed.

As we walked around Kennedy Space Center on our recent visit, I could not help but wonder again at the courage it took for those early space explorers. The tiny capsule hardly seemed like anything to feel safe in at the speeds and force of launch not to mention the sea landing. One capsule was lost but thankfully the astronaut, Gus Grissom was found safely floating in a small life raft. (Grissom would later die in a fire during a practice run for an Apollo launch.)

Of course if you are an Ohioan, you definitely know of John Glenn's accomplishment: first American to orbit the earth. Imagine the planning of trajectory, re-entry, and recovery. Today we don't think much of it. The last space shuttles often got little fanfare or media coverage but those first pioneers. . .what courage!

The Mercury program ended in 1963 while I was in high school. It was replaced with the Gemini program where two astronauts would explore the possibilities of longer space flight. Our tour would show us one very large rocket that launched those capsules.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Florida's Python Challenge

This past weekend was the awards program at Zoo Miami for the Florida Fish and Wildlife's Python Challenge 2013. The Florida Everglades has been overrun with Burmese Pythons that were introduced through irresponsible pet owners releasing them into the wild when they became too large for them to keep. The snakes have enjoyed the environment the Everglades offers and have multiplied creating an environmental problem. It's not nice to mess with the food chain.

The Python Challenge ran from January 12 through February 10 and included about 800 registrants and their team members, some from as far away as Canada who spent time hunting the pythons in the Everglades for prizes offered for the most and the largest caught and killed.

It was not a free-for-all. Participants had to take a training course and follow specific rules for the harvesting of the snakes. Those snakes harvested were turned over to the University of Florida for study and data collection.

While everyone wished for a larger harvest (68 were actually harvested), they all agreed they had made a dent in future population. A female Burmese python can produce over a hundred eggs. The most snakes harvested was 18 by a group that was donating its prize money to a local girl who has a severe medical problem. The longest snake harvested was 14 feet 3 inches. Pythons can reach lengths over 20 feet.

The awards ceremony was interesting, especially to our son who had joined the challenge but didn't harvest a snake but the more intriguing part to me was in the displays set up around the awards areas. Booths featured all sorts of conservation groups as well as the entrepreneurial side of conservation: t-shirts, snake skin products, and other trinkets related to the environment of the Everglades. The conservation groups were trying to bring awareness of the other types of invasive animal, insects, and plants that upset the eco-balance when introduced to areas where they are not native.

One booth in particular fascinated us and challenged our palate. A gourmet outdoor chef was preparing green iguana on the grill and handing out free samples. There were several different types of marinades and sauces served over the grilled pieces. Some of us ventured a taste. The meat was tender enough but the piece was mostly bone. Taste like chicken? No, not really. It was a little like conch in that it really didn't have much of a flavor of its own. It took on the taste of the marinade and sauce. Still, I felt so adventuresome and now I know if I'm ever marooned somewhere there are iguanas, I'll know I can grill them.

All in all, I was quite proud of myself for attending the festivity. Nothing makes my skin crawl more than a snake and here I was surrounded by all sorts of specimens. Nightmares? You betcha!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Books For The Road - Traveling With Pomegranates

While searching for something to expand my reading circle ( I get too caught up in Jack Reacher type books), I ran across this title, Traveling With Pomegranates, and found that Sue Monk Kidd was one of the authors. Her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, was coauthor. I loved The Secret Life of Bees. This new-to-me book offered to take me back to Greece and France.

It's actually a travel book/mother-daughter story of discovery. Sue deals with trying to capture her identity now as she turns 50 and Ann, twenty-something, is trying to find herself as she is about to branch out and go her own way. The parallels are interesting as the two of them travel together several times throughout the book. It was also a glimpse into the making of the Bees book and the struggle a parent has with the realization that their child is striking out on her own.

The description on Amazon sums it up well: A wise and involving book about feminine thresholds, spiritual growth, and renewal, Traveling with Pomegranates is both a revealing self-portrait by a beloved author and her daughter, a writer in the making, and a momentous story that will resonate with women everywhere.

It was a nice diversion from what I usually read and I enjoyed revisiting with them some of the places I had already been. I added a few more to my list as well.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Five Tips to Finding Vacation Rentals

Several years ago we wanted to get together with all the kids and go to Disney World. It was a little pricey to house everyone at the World so we latched on to the idea of renting a house that would fit all of us. At that time it was only 9 adults and four kids. On the internet, I found a site called VRBO, Vacation Rentals By Owners.  (There is another site, Dwellable, but we haven't had occasion to use them yet). And on the site, found what we dubbed, The Mickey House.

The house had a pool, rooms for each family, and a large kitchen. We were able to save money by eating breakfast at the house, packing lunches, and eating dinner often there. The house was not so far from the park that we couldn't drive back for evening festivities. Needless to say the kids enjoyed the pool and hot tub almost as much as the World.

Our second venture to Disney a few years later, we rented a house a little closer to the park. Now there were nine adults and six kids. The house was not quite as nice as the first had been but still fit our needs and its location to the park made it even easier to get back and forth during the day giving the kids some nap time or at least quiet time.

We have used VRBO often for other ventures including a couple of trips to Florida and Hawaii. (This year's condo has been absolutely perfect!) So far it has worked out well.  But you have to do your homework.

1. Scrutinize all the amenities. Does it have washer and dryer, dishwasher, internet? Flat screen TV is always a plus for my husband especially if we are planning a long stay. Make a list of what you absolutely feel you need for your length of stay and look for those things. You might also want to see if the community/resort it's located in has a website to check out those amenities.

2. Check out the area where it's located. We use Google Maps a lot for this and once we locate the place, we go to satellite view and see what is around it. If possible go to street view and check it out as well.

3. Check references. Now this gets a bit tricky sometimes because it's hard to know if all the owners' friends are posting positive comments. For this I usually try to see if they are on TripAdvisor.com or just search online for the name of the house/condo and add the word review. 

4. Correspond with the owner. Ask a question or two and see what the response is. You might ask about availability even though that is usually marked on a calendar on the site or ask about how near it is to the places you want to see. Ask about the amenities in the resort or community where it's located and if renters have access to them. You might ask about cleaning services if you have a lengthy stay and if you are required to use them during your stay. You will get a feeling of confidence or no confidence from the answers that come.

5. Be sure you understand the rental agreement. Usually there is a small deposit with the balance due a few weeks before you arrive. You should not have to pay everything up front to hold the rental.

Those are a few ideas to get you started. I can't guarantee that you will always be absolutely satisfied with your rental. It's like any other place you book for a stay. A lot depends upon your expectations. Remember to give a good reference when you have enjoyed your stay and temper a bad reference with where you set your expectations. Someone else may think it was paradise.

Happy hunting!!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Flat Stanley - On the Beach in Key Largo

Tall palm trees with coconuts, blazing bougainvillea bushes of purple, hot pink, and red, and lots and lots of sunshine. Yay! We were finally in Key Largo, Florida. Key Largo is the beginning of a chain of islands that stretches all the way down to Key West which is only 90 miles from Cuba. The area thrives on tourism. Those who live here are mostly involved somehow in the tourist industry--restaurants, marinas, fishing charters, diving, hotels, and services that help to take care of the tourist while they visit.

Condominium complexes are more common than single dwelling homes. Condominium owners rent their condo-apartments on a weekly and/or monthly schedule. Most of the people drawn to this area of Florida are from the north. We see license plates in the parking lot from Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario, Canada. 

Our complex is called The Rock Harbor Club. It is a gated community with several buildings. The tallest is five stories and we are in that one on the fourth floor. The view is spectacular. We look slightly northwest into what is called Bayside. Lots of little islands dot the water in front of us. Our complex has a large dock for pleasure boats, a small sandy beach, tennis courts, and a nice heated pool. Believe it or not, the heated pool is necessary because the weather can be a little cool for swimming sometimes in the winter months.

Just to the north of us is Everglades National Park , a place we will have to explore again. There is always something new to see and do there. The wildlife is entertaining and this time of the year, the mosquito population is down. Close by is John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park, a state park that is a marine preserve and a great place to snorkel or dive. Lots of trails to explore as well. 

We have found several churches in the area for Sunday worship and passed by a huge school complex for the kids who live here year round. Publix is the place to grocery shop but if we want to see a movie we'll have to drive all the way north to Homestead where there is a large multiplex theater. For now, we just want to kick back and relax. We've driven about 1300 miles to get here and the sun and the sand and the water are just too inviting.

As we eat dinner, we see the fishermen come in for the day and take their catch to a special table to clean their fish. The parts of the fish they don't want to keep, they toss to the pelicans who have gathered around knowing that they will get lots of treats. It's hilarious to watch the pecking order among the birds. 
While the sunset is not directly in front of us, we can still see it from our balcony. The sun sinks into the water like a glowing red ball and once it has disappeared, the lingering rays illuminate the sky with pinks and purples. It's a very peaceful evening with a gentle breeze blowing in from the water. 

The next day, Stanley stretched out on the beach to catch a few rays while we learned a little about kayaking. He's had quite an adventure but it's almost time to pack him up for his return to Plain City. I hope it won't be too cold for him there. He seems to like being a Snow Bird.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Flat Stanley - The Rocketman!

As you can see, Stanley was suited up and ready to go into space by the time we got to the Kennedy Space Center. The KSC is located east of Orlando, FL, near Cocoa Beach. In the 1960s, when the space program was underway, the site was chosen because there was not much population around it. The wilderness area made it safer to test the rocket launches in case something were to go wrong. And in the beginning it did go wrong. Several rockets blew up, some even before they got off the launch pad. But eventually, scientists and engineers and some truly brave test pilots soon to be called astronauts were deep into a program that would take us to the moon and beyond.

At the KSC you can do lots of things. Since we only had one day, we chose to take the bus that makes a loop around the area and stops at a viewing point for the famous Launch Pad 39A from which the space shuttles were launched.  We saw the bus that took the astronauts out to the launch pad and left them while everyone else hustled away. You have to be a couple of miles away to view the launch safely.

The route took us past the Vehicle Assembly Building where the space shuttles were prepared for launch. You can see a wide door at the bottom that accommodated the size of the wings but as they moved the space shuttle out from the building to take it to the launchpad, they would have to open more doors higher up the building until it safely slid out on its carrier. Then it would be towed down a long graveled pathway to the launchpad--very slowly.

The other stop our bus made was at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, a huge building that houses a large Saturn V rocket like the ones that launched the Apollo astronauts into space for their trips to the moon. The thrusters on the bottom of the rocket are so large that a man could stand up inside one of them. Space capsules, landing modules, land rovers, space suits from the Apollo astronauts, and even some moon rocks were on display.

When we were finished exploring we went back outside near the stands that are set up for visitors to watch rocket launches and waited for our bus to take us back to the visitor center. There we could explore more exhibits, learn about the robots like the one exploring Mars and the Hubble telescope, and even experience what liftoff is like in a simulator that holds 40 people.

Our day at the center ended with a stroll through the Rocket Garden. Some of the earliest rockets are there like the ones that took the very first astronauts into space with the Mercury program and then the Gemini program where astronauts learned to survive longer flights as a step toward landing on the moon.

While the space community here is now changing, it is still very active. Private industry is now funding the research and providing the incentives to explore further. A new rocket is being developed that will be much heavier and be able to launch astronauts into space with the aim of exploring the planets starting with Mars. That is one of the reasons that a robot is exploring Mars now--to see if man can utilize the elements found there to be able to survive on that planet. It's an exciting concept and challenge. I remember wondering if landing on the moon was truly possible. It was. And now new generations will look toward new worlds of exploration. How exciting to think of the possibilities!
 Stanley was a little disappointed to have just missed a launch by a couple of days. The next wasn't scheduled until March 1 and by that time, he was due to report back to Plain City. Maybe next time, Stanley.

Our day ended with another beautiful Florida sunset. Tomorrow we would arrive at our destination--Key Largo!
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