Palatka Pride

On the surface, Palatka, FL appears to be an antiquated town that time has left behind. As the county seat of Putnam County, there is legal commerce aplenty,

Putnam County Courthouse1 (2)

but Main Street bears the battle scars of a once-vibrant retail scene.

Offices for Rent

Far too many vacant store and empty sidewalks along St. Johns Avenue suggest that downtown Palatka’s panache has been replaced by big-box retailers like Wal-Mart (only three miles away)–jokingly confirmed by a hand-painted directional crossroads sign beside an empty storefront.

In fact, it would seem that much of Palatka is FOR RENT…

Kiddie Kampus

or simply un-rentable…

Texaco Service Station

Palatka sits on the west bank of St. Johns River offering strategic access into Central Florida, which is what made Palatka a once-thriving pre-Civil War trading post after land-hungry American settlers eliminated the Seminoles, driving them west of the Mississippi.

Bird's-eye_View_of_Palatka,_FL (2)

Equally important to Palatka’s economy at the time was its mild sub-tropical winters–extending farmers’ growing season and making the area a popular tourist destination for the hoi polloi, whose wealthier counterparts enjoyed a luxury haven in nearby, coastal St. Augustine (read The Poshest Campus in America, and Otto’s Collections).

Unfortunately, a historic fire in 1884 and deep-freeze in 1894 sealed Palatka’s fate as a favored destination, as most tourists migrated South. The city rebuilt, and eventually re-emerged as a manufacturing hub, with Georgia Pacific currently holding title to the largest private sector employer.

But what of downtown today for its nearly 11,000 residents, and how can they possibly compete with St. Augustine to the North, Orlando to the West, and Daytona Beach to the South?

The city, when considering its redevelopment needed a gimmick–something to breath new life into it.

Dragon on a roof

It needed a serious makeover, or maybe some divine intervention.

St. Mary's Church

Driving traffic back to the beat of the city was important. The Bingo Palace added some well-deserved blue-collar cache and shabby chic to the area, and preserving Angels Diner for future fans of Guy Fieri has also become a go-to venue.

One look around the interior of Angel Diner, and it defies the gravity of its standing as Florida’s oldest diner.

Angels Diner exterior

By any law of nature, it shouldn’t be standing, but this tin-skin dive is a testament to the wire and glue that seemingly holds its walls from caving. Stepping through its Hobbit-like entrance is like being transported back to a time when shiny greasy spoons offered up Happy Day burgers and shakes, while we listened to the jukebox soundtrack of our Growing Pains.

Angels Diner interior

Leah and I shared a hefty order of Fish and Chips. The check came to eight bucks, and it was tasty! 

fish and chips.jpg

A walk around downtown after our meal left the impression that Palatka is much like a collection of rusty charm pieces; although it boasts a historic district with a melange of classic architectural styles, it’s still fighting to remain relevant.

While there is ample nostalgia here, and a story to tell of old Florida, perhaps all that’s really needed is a broom and a fresh coat of paint.

Enter the Conlee-Snyder Mural Committee in 1998, which has opted to:

…accurately depict the historical, cultural, and natural riches of Palatka and Putnam County in larger-than-life murals.  In sharing these pictorial renderings with visitors and citizens, appreciation of the heritage of the community will be enhanced and developed.

The city’s plan of commissioning a plethora of tribute murals over the past twenty years has given rise to a tourism rebirth, notwithstanding the city’s longstanding and dedicated art scene and attention to local culture.

Arts Center

Self-described as the City of Murals,

City of Murals legend (2)

Palatka now boasts a swath of bright colors depicting lively time capsule markers, and always helping to defib drab building back to life.

What follows is a photo essay of just a few of them in no particular order:

William Bartram
William Bartram, c. 1774
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue

Wildlife
Putnam Treasures 
on South Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue

Tightrope Walker
High Time in Palatka, c. 1872 
on South Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue

Those Who Have Served
War Veterans Memorial
on North Eighth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Palatka Station
Old J T & K Railway Station, c. 1886
on City Hall, Reid Street at North Second Street

Native Flowers
Putnam County Wildflowers
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue

Mary Lawson Hospital
Mary Lawson Hospital
on Ninth and St. Johns Avenue

Hiawatha
Night Passage, c. 1884
on North Fourth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Harlem Nights
Harlem Nights in Palatka
on North Seventh Street at St. Johns Avenue

French Balcony
Bygone Days, c. 1880
on South Fifth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Cowboys on the River
Cattle Drive to Paynes Prairie, c. 1930

on North Tenth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Columbine
Battle at Horse Landing, May 23, 1864
on South Third Street at St. Johns Avenue

Billy Graham
To God Be the Glory, 1937-38
on South Fourth Street at St. Johns Avenue

Bill Pearce Highway
Senator B.C. Pearce
 on St. Johns Avenue between North Tenth and Eleventh Streets

Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley
on South Eleventh Street at St. Johns Avenue

All Hotels Depots
The Putnam House, c. 1891
 on North Second Street at St. Johns Avenue

Other merchants have joined in, beautifying the exteriors of their retail establishments…

Peace mosaic

with mixed messages.

Pizza Boyz

After canvassing the town with my camera for the afternoon, I dropped my work façade,

3-D Saloon.jpg

knowing it was definitely time for a drink!

 

Becoming My Parents

Hiking along New Jersey State and County Park trails the day after Thanksgiving made a lot of sense to Leah, who orchestrated our first return to New Jersey since moving to St. Augustine five months ago. She promised a whirlwind week and a-half of personal appointments and commitments packed with a variety of doctors, friends and family members, all laced with an emphasis on over-eating.

And so, during the course of our visit, as advertised, our food-centric itinerary always included a meal punctuated by scintillating table conversation on family history and folklore–touching on recipes, obituaries, and kin outcasts, with politics and religion occasionally creeping into the dialogue.

But mostly, everybody seemed to be preoccupied with their health. And God help the person who would innocently ask, “So, how are you feeling?” Because this question would open the floodgates for respondents to freely reassign their HIPAA proxy on the spot so they could casually discuss their current condition down to the last agonizing ache and pain, notwithstanding the severity surrounding their prognosis and course(s) of treatments, always followed by a couple of random doctor-horror stories.

It seemed like everyone had a health-related story to tell–whether it was about themselves or someone they knew–not unlike my parents and their friends, who would gather at holiday occasions to compare notes about their medication intake. It was uncanny that the of crux of nearly all of our relationships was now firmly rooted in our faded glory and eventual demise.

Any outsider, after eavesdropping on any of our sessions of non-stop kvetching might be surprised to learn that we are still breathing and have more than one day to live.

And so, it was predictably refreshing to carve out some time to clear our ears of prescription patter, and find an activity that combined friendship and calorie burning. Of course, our opportunity to hike was completely weather-dependent, considering the prior Nor’easter and the Arctic chill that had settled on the Atlantic states.

Like many Northern transplants to Florida, Leah and I had become preoccupied with weather-watching, so we might bask in the warm glow of knowing that we had finally escaped the unfriendly winters by relocating to St. Augustine. But now that we were back in Jersey, it was time to face the hard cold facts of winter; Ramapo Valley Reservation (NYNJTC_RamapoValleyCountyReservationMap-2017) was 18°F at the Reservation trailhead, and expecting to peak at 23°F by the afternoon.

MacMillan Reservoir was partially frozen and dreary…

lake (2)

with the exception of distant water reflections.

frozen reflection

Trails were camouflaged… 

blue trail (2)

by crispy fallen leaves–densely packed and slippery–despite the assortment of Skittles-colored trail blazes nailed to forest saplings.

cut logs

Brooks were running fast and high…

brook flow1 (3)

making each water-crossing challenging and hazardous.

We continued our four-hour excursion with the winds picking up across Campgaw Mountain.

panorama looking east

And it became clear to me that marching through the New Jersey woodlands was not the best birthday present I could have given myself. The cold had already taken its toll on Arlene’s arthritic fingers. Leah, who had recently succumbed to lower back pain and acute Achilles tendonitis was now complaining about her knees.

My knees were also aching from sliding down one too many slippery slopes. Even Doug, the youngest of all of us by at least eleven years had to admit that his right knee was locking up occasionally. The ladies cut their hike short, taking a quick detour to the parking lot, but Doug and I wore our intrepid hats. We continued to the feature waterfall along the Brookside Trail with few delays or complaints…

waterfall

giving us bragging rights to a 7.5 mile accomplishment,

frosty rocks

and leaving me more than ready for my true birthday present to myself: a one-hour Swedish massage at a local day spa, if only to rub my aches and pains away for another day.

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving Dinner

Beware!…
the Thanksgiving meal that takes days to prepare,
and the ease of slipping into a digestive coma
just from the aroma–
of roasted turkey, the stuffing, the cranberry relish,
and all the assortments designed to embellish.

But the moment our family sits down to feast
the hunger takes over
with no time to savor
the melange of food flavors,
and sooner than later,
there’s none left to eat.

family dinner (2)

Happy Thanksgiving!

Philadelphia Freeze Out

The Frontier flight was 15 minutes early, arriving from Jacksonville to Philadelphia in under 1½ hours–

Welcome to Philadelphia

just ahead of the Nor’easter that would ultimately drop 6 inches of snow and ice on the region, creating a classic commuting catastrophe.

airport

Yet despite the nail-biting adventure of driving through icy lanes of traffic moving sideways, and the total disregard of STOP sign awareness, there was a calmness to the city that I had never noticed before, giving the illusion of Walking Dead abandonment.

First order of business was food. Move over Pat’s and Geno’s, because there is a rival cheesesteak to adore at John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. Fortunately, the lousy weather short-circuited the out-the-door line that is almost always guaranteed during lunchtime.

John's Roast Pork1.jpg

My son, Noah ordered two 12-inch sandwiches with mushrooms and onions that could easily feed a family of four, but proved worthy of two consecutive lunches for each of us.

Then, we were off to his apartment in Fishtown, an up-and-coming gentrification project that is locked between empty lots boasting scattered mattresses, and hastily-erected, fresh-bricked row buildings that contradict the broken sidewalks–all within viewing distance of Ben Franklin bridge…

Franklin Bridge1

and walking distance to Reading Market.

Iovine Produce.jpg

After an overnight stay in Germantown, a walk around the neighborhood revealed only remnants of the shot of winter that overwhelmed the area during the past 48 hours.

alley

In fact, the signs of fairer weather…

single rose

unexpectedly eclipsed the season’s first storm…

moving leaves (2)

and reminded Mother Nature…

nesting vine

that while the first snow may have melted…

oak boughs

the signs of autumn…

pumpkin arch (2)

were slowly fading…

autumn door

to green and blue.

arch room.

 

Old Bagelsides

While enjoying my morning breakfast, and catching up on some classic poetry, I decided on a mash-up, which seemed entirely appropriate at the moment.

Inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Old Ironsides*

So, eat my toasted bagel now!
Soon may I reach thru wrap.
‘Cause many a tooth awaits to chew
this morsel from the sack;
Inside, I whiffed the buttered carbs
And yearned the content’s nut;–
But the paper bag in my eager hand
Revealed a tear somewhat!

My meal, once hot from oven’s heat,
Which baked the risen dough,
Where yeast was bubbling through the mix,
And grains were ground. Ergo,
Constant kneading the rubb’ry mass
And proof the crusted skin,
The bagels of the batch shall rise–
The essence of a win!

Oh, woeful that my ragged bag
erodes against my touch;
Construction dooms my marv’lous meal,
And so, becomes my crutch;
Drops through the rip, my toasted roll
Damn every filthy crime!
And gift it to the trove of germs—
The goodness and the grime.

*

 

Uncertainty: Chapter Fifteen

Uncertainty: Chapter Fifteen

The towering Tannenbaum on the snow-dusted platz was a magnificent specimen to behold. The balsam fir rose twenty-five meters to the heavens and stretched fifteen meters across the plaza to form a perfectly proportioned arrow. All its weighty boughs pointed upwards, carrying full and fluffy branches, making it a remarkable holiday centerpiece for the city plaza from any angle–especially the approach to the Hauptbahnhof. However, the Tannenbaum, despite its natural beauty, was infected with garish red lights and glistening Nazi ornaments from bottom to top,

Nazi ornaments

and crowned with a giant Germanic sun wheel–transforming the setting into a propaganda postcard.

Tragically, the accompanying nativity scene of baby Jesus and the Magi was replaced by a winter solstice display of heather, hay and holly, with candles arranged in the shape of a giant swastika. Boys from Hitler Youth and girls from the League formed an outside circle around the tree, serenading family, friends, and bystanders with their harmonious rendition of Exalted Night of the Clear Stars. It was a disgrace.

There was a time as a young boy, when my favorite holiday of the year was the day before Christmas. Papa always waited until the day before Christmas to cut down a tree of our own, because “the customer always comes first!” he would say. On the day before Christmas, I would wake early and wait for Papa to walk with me into the wald, although I was usually one step behind him, struggling to carry an axe as tall as me.

We would cross the empty patches of forest together in search of the perfect tree that would satisfy Mama–not too big, and not too small. If I came upon a tree that I liked, I would drop the axe and run to it. “Is this the one, Papa?” I’d ask. At which point, Papa would indicate his answer with either a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down.”

I figured Papa to be a very particular man, because most of my early choices were often rejected. But he taught me what to look for when selecting the perfect Tannenbaum. Papa would eventually approve my pick of tree, and always gave me the first whack at it with his axe–although in the beginning, I hardly ever made a dent in the bark.

When we got the tree home, the house would smell just like a Bäckerei1, because Mama was usually in the middle of baking her special Bethmännchen2. But she always stopped whatever she was doing at the time to evaluate our selection and deliver her ruling, even though she always awarded Papa with a “thumbs up.”

Once Papa secured the tree, he could retire to his chair by the fire for a snooze, while I sipped hot cocoa and glazed the cookie tips with shokolade–deliberately managing to get my fingers as dirty as possible, just so I could lick them clean. Then it was time to string garlands of popcorn and cranberries together until my fingers were sore from being pricked so often.

An hour before dinner, Papa was usually awake, which gave our family plenty of time to trim the tree. When the last ornament was hung and the final garland was draped across the tree, it was my job–sitting astride Papa’s shoulders–to place the Star of Bethlehem atop the tree.

After enjoying Mama’s amazing Christmas dinner of roasted squabs stuffed with apples, dates and sausage, and served with giant helpings of sweet red cabbage and spaetzle3, we would attend Christmas Eve vigil at St. Lambertus, where I was an altar boy, and sang carols in the choir. And when we returned from church, Mama would serve her Christmas Stollen4 with spiced cider for dessert, and I would open presents.

But today it’s completely different–to the point where I no longer crave the need for a family tree–realizing that the sanctity and meaning of Christmas has been replaced by Hitler’s hatred of Jews. Collectively, the Aryan nation has effectively and systematically stripped Christ from Christmas. For Christ’s sake, they even rewrote the words to my favorite and most sacred Christmas hymn:

Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Only the Chancellor steadfast in fight,
Watches o’er Deutschland by day and by night,
Guiding our nation aright.
Guiding our nation aright.

“That fir may have come from one of Papa’s earliest seedlings,” I lamented to Ilse.

“If he only knew what the Nazis have done to his finest tree, he would roll over in his grave,” answered Ilse.

Heil, Hitler!” I heard from behind.

Riding horseback and approaching on my right was Oberpräsident Terboven, astride a stunning black gelding with an oversized swastika button on its bridle.

Ilse greeted him with a cautious nod. “Frohe Weihnachten5, Herr Terboven!”


1bakery
2marzipan cookies
3dumplings
4traditional fruitcake
5Merry Christmas

Tied Pools

Henry Flagler’s Hotel Alcazar opened its doors in 1888 to fête the upper crust who rode his rails to St. Augustine to escape the harsh northeastern winters.

Designed in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style, the hotel was an elegant getaway that boasted every convenience and amenity for its guests, including the world’s largest swimming pool at 120 feet long by 50 feet wide, and depths ranging from 3 feet to 12 feet.

pool history

The pool was constructed as the centerpiece of the hotel casino annex that also featured a workout room, therapeutic baths, a steamroom, and bowling lanes. An artesian well fed a constant flow of fresh sulphur water to the pool to sustain moderate temperatures and assure clarity. The roof featured louvered glass panes that opened for ventilation.

bathing-pool-casino_0 (3)

The hotel was shuttered in 1932, and laid dormant until Otto C. Lightner purchased the building in 1947 to showcase his extensive Victorian Era arts collection.

Today, the Lightner Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the pool is home to Café Alcazar, a subterranean eatery serving lunch off the deep end.

deep poolside (2).jpg

The moment I entered the room, I felt I was in the middle of a Downton Abbey episode. It was easy to imagine a tony troop of aristocrats parading in their top hats and arm length evening gloves.

After surveying the room, I had a notion to create an Escheresque puzzle that could tease the viewer into questioning whether the following composition is a mirror image of itself, or a pool reflection, or both.

Or is it just a deception?

There are subtle clues in plain sight that may aid in deciphering the composition. The proof is in the putting.

fool pool1a (2)

Happy hunting!

Tourist Attractions

When showing family the sights of St. Augustine the first time around,

there are so many tried and true options that abound.

Naturally, driving onto Vilano Beach becomes the main outdoor attraction,

where short legs wade long lengths across silky, sandy satisfaction.

wading out

The Alligator Farm is another familiar and likely choice,

where eager grandchildren are apt to rejoice…

Alligator lagoon.jpg

at a place where rescued reptiles and denizens…

Maximo (2).jpg

Galapagos tortoise1.jpg

albino alligator.jpg

savor a seasonal delicacy,

so good!

yum!.jpg

and feathered friends…

heron

are likely to take up full-time residency.

pretty bird

stork

The Castillo de San Marcos gunnery platoon…

soldier and kids.jpg

castillo model

provides a cannon blast from the past very close to high noon.

cannon blast

And Anastasia Beach State Park’s estuarine channel

egret on the shore1.jpg

offers a vigorous workout with a kayak paddle.

Carrie, Devin, Dan and bird

The Aikens, Grammy, and Kayak

Or how ’bout a free ferry crossing Matanzas Bay…

ferry crossing.jpg

to inspect Fort Matanzas,

inside out

and its cannon array.

Fort Matanzas gun station.jpg

Then again, not withstanding the two-hour drive to Kennedy Space Center,

Kennedy wall.jpg

there’s a universe of exhibits to explore,

a walk on the moon

ISS.jpg

and The World’s Largest Space Shop to enter.

spaceman and kids

But when summer’s heat and humidity just…won’t…allow…another…step,

and when it’s subsequently rainy–as most afternoons are likely to get–

the chosen activity must absolutely meet

the standards of two curious kids, and satisfy their sweet teeth.

hairnet family

Happily, such a happening exists for the young and the grown,

and can be found at the artisan chocolatier, Whetstone.

Whetstone greeting.jpg

The tour informs you of its elaborate process and technique…

chocolate process

But realistically, we came for the chocolate samples we could eat.

Yet unlike the follies of Lucy and Ethel…

our guide served five tastings,

and each one was special.

 

For seven days our family wandered throughout St. Augustine town,

with plenty leftover to experience for the next time around.

Catch of the Day

Leah and I travelled with fishing rods strapped to the Airstream’s interior for one-year, cross-country. The constant sight of them was a nagging reminder of the possibility of learning a new sport together, and the unrequited taste of something “fresh” to grill, for we never found an opportunity to cast a line. However, now that we’ve become middle-aged Floridians, we felt the timing was right to immerse ourselves–hook, line and sinker.

After closing on our St. Augustine house in February, our realtor presented us with a gift certificate for a half-day charter with Captain Robert, his son, but our date on the water would have to wait four additional months to fulfill until we returned as full-time residents, and eventually settled in.

Leah had two immediate concerns with being out on the water: what to do for her new-founded sea sickness, and what kind of potty provisions would be provided. I, on the other hand just wanted reassurance that there would be space for my son Nate, who was temporarily residing with us in Florida after his apartment lease and job contract in suburban Albany, New York expired at the end of May.

A phone call to Captain Robert two weeks ago reserved our place, and addressed Leah’s anxieties: taking one tablet of Dramamine the night before and the day of the boat ride should allay her nausea; and a toilet seat placed atop a five-gallon Western Marine bucket should provide maximum comfort and embarrassment. And yes, bringing Nate along would be fine.

On the day of our trip, a newish Pathfinder 2500, a true fishing machine was waiting for us dockside…

our ride1 (2)

at the Conch House Marina…

Conch House Marina

at daybreak.

daubreak

We headed out on a picture-perfect morning…

Yamaha 300

with sea swells gently lullaby-rocking us in our search for bait a couple of miles from shore. Robert pulled up near a flock of diving birds in search of breakfast, and cast a net.

casting for bait

Moments later, he emptied a bulging swarm of pogies…

bait for the day

a delicious snack for lurking king mackerel.

bait on deck

We cruised about nine miles out from shore to an area already brimming with half a dozen fishing boats.

neighbors

I wondered about the wisdom of competing with the other boats, but Robert had a hunch. He set up three lines–two shallow, one deep, and we waited…

setting the lines

but not very long. In an hour’s time, we each took turns reeling in our target. First, Leah and me,

our catch

and then Nate,

Nate reels in a king

bringing his trophy home.

Nate with his fish

We pushed out another three miles in hopes of landing a sailfish, or wrangling a redfish, but after a couple of fights, we came up short–minus the bait and hook. Robert postulated that it was probably a shark or a barracuda making a meal of what was already on the line, but we’ll never know.

We trolled around for another hour looking for activity, but the sonar was quiet,

sonar

and Leah was pensive…

Leah on the Atlantic

perhaps wondering how awkward it might be if she needed to use the bucket.

“Do you need to go?” I wondered.

“I can hold it in,” she asserted.

It was decided that we should start back, but stop mid-way and resume our search. Again, the kings were biting, one for me,

reeling in (2)

and one for Leah,

Leah and her 2nd king

but we had already agreed that we had enough meat for the day, so both were released. Nate was determined to even the score by catching his second fish of the day, but his time had run out, and we headed for shore.

safe harbor (2)

Yet there was no need for disappointment, since Nate had reeled in the biggest catch of the day.

Catch of the Day

Robert was equally adept with a knife, making short time of filleting our king mackerels…

making fillets

which generated about 20 pounds of steaks.

Egrets of all sizes were standing by, ready to take advantage of all scraps that might come their way.

waiting for scraps

On Robert’s advice, we ate grilled mackerel that night.

I prepared a marinade made of: ¼ cup orange juice, ¼ cup soy sauce, 2 tbsp. canola oil, 1 tbsp. lemon juice, 1 tbsp. ketchup, 1 clove of garlic, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper and soaked our fillets for 2 hours, which rendered a rich and smoky taste when cooked.

Kudos to our Skipper, and thanks for a meal fit for a king mackerel.

At Your Service, 3

It’s hard to imagine going away to a resort to relax, and then being sidelined because of a cold. But after a day of Ubers, planes, and transport vans, we finally arrived at Hacienda Tres Rios–north of Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya–for a week of fun,

by air (2)

and all I could muster was a trip to the hotel convenience store for antihistamine pills before I was ready to collapse. It seems that running around the continent for nearly ten months had compromised my resistance, and was now threatening to compromise my vacation.

Saturdays at the resort have always been a busy day of transitioning, as the staff warmly welcomes new arrivals with chocolate-covered strawberries and mimosas, while firmly ushering last week’s guests through the check-out process and out the door.

After checking in, we killed time at the buffet, waiting for our room to be ready. It was an excellent opportunity to people-watch and predict who among us would be the chosen people we see again and again throughout the week. Of course, it’s always the loudest guests who make a lasting impression, and this week would be no exception. Sitting at the farthest end of the room, three overweight, middle-aged woman were easily heard above the dining room din, kibitzing with the waiter, and on their way to getting shit-faced with yet another round of drinks.

Eventually, a bellman escorted us to our accomodations–a top floor room with an ocean view, or so we were told.

1st terrace view (2).jpg

Standing on the balcony, I strained my eyes past the clearing where the last building stood, and that’s when I discovered the deception; the hotel had determined that the miniscule ribbon of gray beyond the mangrove canopy qualified as a view of the ocean.

But I was in no shape to argue. All I could think about was getting into bed with a small hope of shaking this nasty hand that was reaching past my scratchy throat and squeezing my sinuses. That’s when our next-door neighbors arrived, and headed straight for the balcony. I immediately recognized the drunken cackling and the pitchy singing. Standing on my side of the dividing wall, I peered around the other side unnoticed to have a peek, and sure enough, each one held a drink in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, confirming my worst nightmare.

“This can’t be happening!” I quickly re-entered the room, and shut the terrace door to keep the cigarette smoke from seeping through the opening. “With 272 other rooms spread out through the resort, this is where they’re staying?” I moaned in resignation.

“Well, not if I have something to say about it,” declared Leah.

She grabbed the phone, and dialed the front desk downstairs.

“Tell them about the smoking,” I coached, “because obnoxious is too subjective.”

Leah asserted, “I’m calling from 1307. We just arrived, and already the cigarette smoke from the people next door is drifting into our room from the balcony, and it’s intolerable. So you need to find us another room.”

“I’m very sorry that you are being inconvenienced, ma’am” the desk clerk regretted, “but we are unable to accomodate you because of the volume of registrations at the moment. However, if you could be patient with us, we should be able to make other arrangements tomorrow after check-out time, when we’ve had a chance to review our room inventory,” the advised.

“What time, tomorrow?” Leah zeroed in.

“If you come to the desk at 9:00 am, we will be happy to help you,” she elaborated.

Meanwhile, a slurred rendition of Shape of You vibrated through the shared door between the rooms.

“Damn! I used to like that song,” I aired, “and now it’s ruined forever.”

The clatter of their high heels on marble floors resonated throughout the night, and imprinted on my sinus headache. As I lay awake in bed with a box of tissues by my side, I wondered how many costume changes they could go through in one evening, and cursed the day Ed Sheeran had become popular.

A new day for a fresh start, Leah and I packed the last of our belongings and shlepped our bags to the front desk. We previewed a room on the top floor of another building and unconditionally accepted the exchange.

Not too shabby–an ocean view with a whirlpool tub on our new balcony, and a chance to reboot our vacation. Ahhhh…

…choo!

terrace 1 (2)

Feeling sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, Leah and I consulted the concierge to schedule enough activities through the week to balance my boredom with my recovery.

After settling into room 4302, we met up with Salvador, our trail guide who escorted us through the Nature Park on mountain bikes.

bicycles and nursery

We wove our way around the mangrove forest through a labyrinth of sandy trails recognizing white, red, black, and buttonwood mangroves–the four distinctive varieties that flourish in this tropical environment. On the way to the many cenotes,

cenote pathways.jpg

we identified a plethora of termite burls, several songbirds, a vulture and an iguana.

iguana and orchids.jpg

Of the ten cenotes on the property, we visited Cenote Tortuga;

cenote tortuga.jpg

Cenote Hondo;

cenote viejo.jpg

cenote Hondo.jpg

Cenote Viejo;

cenote river.jpg

and Cenote Orchideo…

cenote orchideo1.jpg

cenote orchideo.jpg

where we were greeted by a small school of Garra Rufa,

getting a pedi.jpg

eager to perform ichthyotherapy for free.

guppies and foot.jpg

On Monday, we spent our morning with sales agent, Ricardo (At Your Service, Too), and our afternoon with Manuel, who guided us from Cenote Aguila,

kayaking1.jpg

down the Rio Selva…

kayaking.jpg

to the ocean.

palapas (2).jpg

On Tuesday, we took a behind-the scenes-tour of the kitchen with Celia, the kitchen supervisor. She invited us into her casa to showcase the operation and preparation of all food within the hotel:

guest capacity.jpg
by the numbers…
walk-in
Walk-in
cleaning shrimp
Fish Prep
butchering
Butchering
carving garnishes
Deli and garnish
bakery
Bakery
soup prep
Soups
pasta station
Pasta
grilling veggies
Grilling and frying
bartending
Bartending
china and crystal
China and crystal

Celia’s staff works hard–six ten-hour days every week–and is committed to ensuring a healthy and tasty experience with fresh ingredients and a variety of international cuisines. She acknowledges us by placing her hand on her heart–a sanitary salute of sorts to thank us for the opportunity to serve.

On Wednesday, we travelled by hotel shuttle to Playa del Carmen,

Playa beach.jpg

for a stroll up and down 5th Avenue–a pedestrian marketplace stretching 20 blocks, and lined with fashionable shops,

Where's Leah.jpg
Where’s Leah?

eateries, tequilarias, t-shirt mills, modern malls, massage stations, tchotchke kiosks, tourist stands, Mom-and-Pop Mexicana, and pharmacias, etc.

drugs and deli.jpg
I’ll have a week’s worth of Cialis, and a half-pound of hard salami, por favor.

By Thursday I was dying. After five days of dosing Sensibit D (an antihistamine decongestant), my body had betrayed me, turning my free-flow nose into a gripping sinus headache.

But that didn’t stop me from touring the Cancun Brewery with Leah and The Ed Sheeran Trio. Hiding behind the green wall of an unassuming building,

green wall brewery (2).jpg

a shiny brewery has taken shape in the middle of Tres Rios jungle. According to Brandon, brewmaster from Michigan,

Brandon

a Sunset Group partner bartered a warehouse, utilities and unlimited clean water in exchange for craft beer supplied to all Sunset Group hotels.

diesel

Additionally, production runs of Pale Ale, Hefeweizen, and Pilsner are crafted in short batches of kegs and cans to satisfy Riviera Maya’s thirst from Cancun to Tulum.

brewery

To some extent, I felt sorry for Brandon, as he was peppered with ridiculous comments, questions, and suggestions from my ex-neighbors, yet good-naturedly responded to everything that came his way. Then I stopped myself when I realized that here is a guy who otherwise, would still be living in Michigan, but instead comes to work in shorts and flip flops, and gets to drink cerveza for a living.

Adios, Cancun Beer.

tshirt.jpg

Friday was a good day to lay low and do nothing in preparation of an early departure on Saturday.

Lounging by the pool, I reflected on the past week, thinking about the activities I’d missed out on: snorkeling at Yal-ku in Akumal; diving Santa Rosa reef at Cozumel; and exploring the ruins of Coba or Tulum. While all of that would have made for an exciting itinerary, it wouldn’t have made for a relaxing vacation, and maybe that’s what my body was really craving.

Every day discovering something brand new

The sun felt good on my face, as I moved in and out of consciousness–half awake, half-asleep–my body floating through a cenote abloom with fragrant orchids,

white orchid.jpg

In the distance, a hypnotic song was playing–a lilting melody of love that grew louder and louder with every new verse–until I snapped awake. The Three Little Mermaids were at it again, wading in the pool with a drink, and killing me softly with an execution of Shape of You.

No matter. It was time to rise, and the perfect segue to a late-afternoon hot-stone massage we had scheduled as our reward for enduring Ricardo’s two-hour spiel (At Your Service, Too).

By evening, we were totally relaxed and ready to celebrate our mock 13th anniversary over a langoustine dinner and a special treat from the pastry chef.

dessert.jpg

It was everything I needed to forget about the miserable cold that plagued me through this vacation.

Many have asked, “Why on earth do you call it a vacation, when you’ve been on a vacation for the past ten months?”

To which I answer, “Who cares what it’s called!”

Come on now, follow my lead
I may be crazy, don’t mind me…

Cheers.jpg

Cheers, from Mexico!

Eco-Beer

It seems odd to consider that drinking beer can also be good for the environment, but after touring the Sierra-Nevada brewery in Mills River, North Carolina, I’m convinced that raising a pint of porter is a sacrifice that I am more than willing to make for the sake of our planet.

John was our tour host for the afternoon, and he was aleing to tell us the hoppy story of Sierra-Nevada’s humble beginnings in Chico, California while we sipped a sample of pale ale, and listened to his silly puns.  He narrated a slide show detailing how homebrewers Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi rented a tiny warehouse in 1979,

warehouse
First brewhouse. Photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada archives

and barley cobbled together a 10-barrel Frankenbrewer made of discarded dairy equipment and scrapyard plumbing with $65,000 seed money borrowed from family and friends in order to produce their first American Stout in 1980, followed by a hop-forward Pale Ale. Surprisingly, first year sales reached 950 barrels, and doubled the second year.

By 2012, world-wide thirst for Sierra Nevada’s craft beer had exceeded their manufacturing footprint in Chico–which was capable of producing one million barrels a year after expansions in 1988 and 1997–and eventually led to construction of the North Carolina brewery that now offer tours with John.

Brew vessels

Ground-breaking began on 90 acres of oak and hickory forest in Henderson County, adjacent to Asheville’s Regional Airport. In line with Grossman’s ecological sensability, fallen trees from the property had been milled to provide lumber for the brewhouse and the rainwater cisterns that presently irrigate the landscaping and flush the facility’s toilets.

Additionally,

  • on-site solar panels and microturbines fulfill 32% of the brewery’s energy requirements;
  • surplus COemitted during the brewing process is recaptured to pump beer to the taproom;
  • used cooking oil from its restaurant is processed into bio-diesel for its delivery trucks;
  • discarded yeast is converted into high-grade ethanol fuel;
  • spent grain is fed to company livestock;
  • spent water is recycled to the brewery’s own water treatment plant, where it is used as drip irrigation for its estate gardens;
  • culminating in 99.8% of the brewery plant’s solid waste being diverted from landfill.

Because of Sierra Nevada’s commitment to sustainability, the Mills River facility has been certified Platinum in 2016 by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)–its highest award, and first-ever bestowed upon a production brewery.

But none of it would matter unless the final product tasted good. With that in mind, John took us on a walking tour, identifying the four main ingredients, and how they all come together to produce an award-winning beer.

The purest water drawn from North Carolina’s mountains is filtered until rendered chemically inert.

Indian Creek Falls

The finest barley is milled on site.

malt silo

malt mill

to produce the finest wort.

lautering tun

Several varieties of whole cone hops are harvested with the flowers intact,

hops room

and added into the brew kettles in different combinations to produce complex tastes and flavor profiles–

fermenters

–under strictly regulated temperatures according to specific beer style.

temp guage

Whereupon, the finest yeast is added…

mash tank

to initiate the fermentation process.

fermentation room

Quality control oversight guarantees a safe and consistent product throughout each production cycle.

quality control

After testing, the beer is chilled and bottled…

bottling

…and ready for packaging.

packaging

Or in our case, it’s ready to be poured and tasted in beautiful surroundings.

tasting room

We sampled eight different beers–

beer tap samples

–each one served in its own style of glass to enhance the tasting experience–

glass display

and the experience leaves little stout why craft beer, at the very yeast, deserves a bitter place at the table with the beer conglomerates.

Ken Grossman’s brewing philosophy of using pure and fresh ingredients…

beer chandelier1

…coupled with his unwavering attention to detail at Mill River, will surely tripel Sierra Nevada’s output and sales, securing its place as the nation’s lagerest private craft brewer, which gose without saying.

 

 

Supreme Ruler of Beers

Growing up, I was never much of a beer drinker. But on the odd occasion that my underaged friends and I would sneak a beer in the woods by our homes, it was always an Iron City beer, ’cause that’s what Pirate fans drank in Pittsburgh. Besides, it was high treason to drink anything other than Iron City, and still be part of the cool kids’ club.

Had I been born in St. Louis, I’m certain that things would have gone differently. I’d be a Cardinals fan, and my “go-to” beverage would be Budweiser from the beginning, because Budweiser beer, introduced in 1876 by Aldolphus Busch dominated the St. Louis market, on its way to becoming the first national brand in America, thanks to pasteurization and a fleet of refrigerated rail cars.

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch (A-B) succumbed to a $52 billion hostile takeover by Belgium-Brazillian company InBev to become the world’s largest brewer, and cemented its global stronghold by merging with its rival, London-based SABMiller one year ago for $100 billion.

North American operations remain headquartered in St. Louis, where tours are  conducted regularly for beer aficionados interested in A-B’s time-honored brewing process, and for history buffs who appreciate the architecture and design that’s been selected by the National Register as Historic Landmarks.

stained glass

Leah and I arrived at Lynch St. for the 45-minute tour beginning at 3:10 pm. Upon entering the corporate complex, we were surrounded by tall Romanesque red brick buildings with elaborate flourishes and embellishments.

Beer House1

We entered the Welcome Center,

welcome center

designed to house its branded gift store, pub space, and exhibits.

A-B story

Soon after, we were introduced to our assigned tour guides, Tim and Andrew who spoke about sticking together amid the tight security surrounding the campus, before ushering our group of fifty outdoors to gawk at the Clydesdales in the exercise yard.

Clydesdale posing

These massive draught horses stand at 18 hands, and have been carefully bred by the brewery to retain their chestnut coloring and markings, making them the most identifiable mascot in beer branding and advertising.

From there, it was a short stroll to the Carriage House where we were split into two groups: those on a steamboat cruise stuck with Andrew, while the rest of us walk-ins aligned with Tim, a self-professed expert on all things beer, who dared to be challenged with any questions on Anheuser Busch.

After moving to Washington, DC to attend college, my beer drinking habits matured. Staying true to my roots, Iron City was quickly replaced by Rolling Rock, a more “premium” beer with a smoother taste in a green bottle imported from Latrobe, PA.

Once inside the Carriage House, we were introduced to Murry, who was being braided for the 3:30 pm parade.

grooming (2)

ready for parade

A peek inside the paddock, showed it to be far cleaner and neater than many major hotel chains across the country.

Harness room

In fact, the art-deco structure gleamed from ceiling…

carriage house ceiling

…to floor with nary a strand of straw out of place.

paddock

And that’s when things went awry. Returning to the carriage room, I noticed that everyone had left the building.

carriage room (3)

Running through the exit doors, I caught a glimpse of Leah up ahead and hurried to her side, only to realize once we returned to the Welcome Center, that she had followed the wrong group. We scrambled around outside to find Tim’s tour, but after pulling on a few secured doors, and with no one in sight, we were hopelessly lost.

Back at the Welcome Center, we approached a tour concierge to confess our situation.

“Not a problem!” she addressed. “Follow me!”

We backtracked to our last stop, before she led us into a building showcasing immense tankards–each one capable of Beechwood aging 3600 barrels of beer at a time.

Beechwood aging tanks

We continued our personal tour until we eventually rejoined Tim in an elaborate Tasting Room…

Tasting Room art

…during his lecture on the ingredients and the brewing process,

brewing process

while everyone sipped on a 6 oz. portion of chilled Budweiser.

A wacky summer abroad between my sophomore and junior year enlightened and refined my taste in beer, having sampled Grolsch in Enschede, Kronenbourg in Strasbourg, Carlsbad in Copenhagen, and Hafbrau in Bavaria. I loved them all.

But I must admit, that after finding our way back to the tour, my little cup of Bud tasted mighty refreshing.

The twenty-five of us rode the elevator up to the Mash House. The moment the doors closed the Bud jingle sounded.

“Do you know the composer’s name,” I inquired.

Without even thinking, Tim responded as the elevator doors reopened, “Steve Karmen, who also wrote the ‘I Love New York’ jingle.”

We spread out across the ornate wrought iron railing to take in the scene. No doubt, the Mash Tanks were impressive.

Mash House

And three hop vine chandeliers from the 1904 Worlds Fair were dangling from the five-story ceiling.

hops lite

Then it was outdoors again, this time near the clock tower–the second most photographed structure in St. Louis–

clock tower

where Tim revealed that business as usual during Prohibition years depended on the sale of Brewers yeast and a non-alcoholic malt beverage concoction.

“Any last questions?” intoned Tim.

I glanced at my watch, and true to form, it was 3:55 pm. We were precisely at the 45-minute mark, but something wasn’t right. I pointed to the tower, and got Tim’s attention. Here was my last chance to stump Tim.

“Hey Tim, did I miss daylight savings time, or did the clock master just get ahead of himself?” I surmised.

Tim looked at the tower clock and hesitated. “Well let’s see a minute. The clocks get turned back this weekend, so I’m pretty sure it’s been set in anticipation of the event… Well, that concludes our tour today. However, the best is yet to come, since we’ll now return to the Biergarten where you can redeem your wood token for a ‘cold one’.”

Biergarten

I lingered behind. I wanted another shot of the clock tower.

tower and eagle1 (2)

I finally caught up to Leah inside the Welcome Center, where deep lines had already formed in front of the bar. But another station beyond the crowd had fewer people standing, so that’s where we went. To my surprise, the bartender was drawing Stella into familiar chalices from the tap–my newest favorite, and one of A-B’s newest brands since last year’s merger.

I ran into Tim on my way to an available high-top.

“Quick question, Tim! What’s the significance of the ’33’ on the Rolling Rock bottle?”

“I get that question a lot,” he began, and rattled off, “Rolling Rock – from the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe, we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you.”

Tim was the real deal, and so was my Stella.

P.S. When editing photographs for this post, I compared the meta-data between the clock tower shots. Even though the two were taken 5 minutes apart, the times on the clock were exactly the same. Final analysis: THE CLOCK IS BROKEN!

 

 

 

 

 

Pikes Peak Pot

PART 1

We arrive at the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center on the edge of Colorado Springs, not quite knowing what to expect other than what we’ve read. Yes, it’s crowded, and it’s hotter than usual–that’s also to be expected.  But the park is free and open to the public, which probably helps explain why it’s so crowded.

Garden of the Gods is a 2 million-year-old geologic wonder of sandstone fins, fans and finials balancing in the presence of Pikes Peak, as if performing for an audience of one mountain’s pleasure. It is an impressive act, and beloved by the Colorado Springs stakeholders. But…having just arrived from Utah’s National Parks, and having seen miles upon miles of looming red rocks, it all seemed a bit underwhelming to me. We took a short trail to view the Siamese Twins with a keyhole view of Pikes Peak, but other than that, the hills left us flat.

Siamese soloSiamese Leah1The twisting road through the many park features and attractions carried us out to Manitou Springs, the gateway to Pikes Peak, and a pop culture village filled with hipsters, curiosity seekers, and wannabees.

Our drive to the top of town took us through droves of tourists filtering through the galleries, boutiques and juice bars. Leah and I found it hard to resist ice cream at Patsy’s, a local landmark on the edge of Amusement Arcade row.

Patsy's

We followed the rotary around, and u-turned out of town to tend to an errand, but we would return to catch the 5:20 pm cog railway to the top of Pikes Peak.

PART 2

The parking lot was overflowing, as was the overflow lot, but I managed to shoehorn the F-150 into a compact car space as per the instructions of the gun-toting parking attendant. It’s as if I was required to undergo a motor vehicle coordination exam to determine my customer-worthiness. If I can park a big truck in a small space in a crowded lot, then I get to buy weed.

Maggys farm (3)We were warmly welcomed at the service counter by effusive Eddie. “How’s it goin’ today? Are you guys first timers?,” he asked, taking our IDs.

“We’re visiting from New Jersey,” answered Leah.

“Welcome to Maggie’s Farm,” he gushed. “We’re here to take good care of you.”

“Is it always crowded like this?,” I wanted to know.

“It’s the weekend, and it’s summer, and the tourists are coming,” he responded. “This won’t take long,” referring to our driver’s licenses. “I just need to record these, and you’ll be on your way.” While typing, “By the way, we only accept cash. There’s an ATM by the wall if you need it. Okay?”

When he was finished, he handed back our IDs with a paper stub–the same kind of numbered ticket you’d pull at the deli counter in the supermarket. “Hold onto your number, and move to the next room past the door. Then take a seat, and wait for your number to be called,” Eddie advised. “And have a high time.” were his parting words.

We were number 57. We sat on a foam bench waiting our turn with six other people sitting on both sides of us, all of them different. I noticed three generations of women from the same family, a millennial on his phone, a middle-aged man who had to be a tourist since he was wearing a Tilley hat, and a tattooed Vet who seemed to still be fighting in the war.

A perky forty-something with a fire-red pixie haircut, pushed open the “employees only” door to announce, “Our budtenders are very busy, and the checkout line is backed up, so please be patient.” Then she disappeared, back behind the door. All we could do was stare at the wall four feet in front of us. There was a closed door marked “ROOM 1” and a closed door marked “ROOM 2” separated by a LED-TV monitor broadcasting the marijuana menu–breaking it down by strain, THC content, and price per weight. One could choose between flowers, concentrates, edibles, or patches. At the bottom of the screen was a tax disclaimer, breaking down the percentages taken by city (9.03%, and 6%), and state (10%). I couldn’t believe I was surrendering 25% of my purchase power to the government.

A tap on the glass by a bearded face peeking over the wall above “ROOM 1” beckoned us into the inner sanctum. “Me?” I mimed. He nodded and we stood ready to accept his religion.

The other side of the wall revealed an emporium of earthly delights displayed the way a candy shop would showcase their variety of fudges. “Buddy” asked for our IDs and scanned them with a UV pen. Looking up, he grinned and proclaimed, “Congratulations! They’re real.” Handing back our IDs, “So what would you like to do–smoke, eat, or vape?”

Leah and I glanced at each other, but I decided that smoke was the way to go.

Buddy popped open several containers of THC-laden buds of different shades of harvest green, and aromas ranging from musky to fruity to diesel fuel. Dropping our noses into the jars for a full-blown whiff gave us enough of a heady bouquet to prepare us for an anticipated revelation.

“These buds are huge and seedless,” I exclaimed, reaching in and extracting a jaw-breaker sized nugget of Triple Diesel Sativa hybrid.

“Uh, that’s a no-no,” Buddy cautioned. “No touching. Here, use these,” he suggested, handing me mini tongs to more closely inspect the wares.

“You’re looking at about 2 grams there,” Buddy advised.

“Looks good to me. I’ll take it,” I asserted.

“Sorry, you can’t buy this,” Buddy interjected. “These samples are just for display, but I’m entering your order now…[a few key strokes by Buddy at the computer], and it’s ready at check-out where those customers are standing. Thank’s folks, and have a high time.”

We joined the lengthy line where customers from both rooms converged against the far wall. Buddy was already engaged with the next customer ushered inside the room. “So what would you like to do–smoke, eat, or vape?,” I heard him ask.

The line reduced quickly. Finally, one of three cashiers motioned for us to approach the counter. “Got your number?” Money Man asked.

I fumbled around inside my pockets, but came up empty. “I must’ve left it on the other counter,” I apologized. “But it’s ’57’ if that helps.”

Money Man called out “57” to the pharmacist behind the wall, and soon returned with a plastic vial, offering it for inspection. Uncapped, it smelled as pungent as before. The transaction was finalized. I handed him cash, and he inserted a “Consumer’s Guide to Responsible Recreational Marijuana Use” in my paper sack before stapling it shut.

“Remember to wait until you’ve left the lot before lighting up, and have a high time,” he exclaimed.

The ride back to town had thinned, as most of the visitors had withered and wilted under the heat. But Leah and I were prepared with sweatshirts for our cog-way assault on Pikes Peak, the second most visited mountain in the world behind Mt. Fuji.

PART 3

The rail cars were packed except for two seats directly facing us, giving us flexibility to change our inclined perspective between looking up the mountain or looking down.

Leah on train

The pull to the top was slow and steady at a 25% grade. The rail car cut through a trail of boulders and evergreens, climbing up the mountainside, eventually reaching Inspiration Point…

at the top

a sight so inspiring, that Katharine Lee Beats was compelled to pen “America the Beautiful” after seeing it for the first time.

America the Beautiful

Once we cleared the tree-line, the vistas opened on all sides, providing views of distant peaks,

above the treeline

and the valley beneath us.

garden from peak

It also exposed us to an uncommon drop in temperature, with shades of winter resting on the rocks,

snow field

and gusting gales blowing across the barrenness,

windy point

causing marmots to wonder what happened to Spring.

Marmot

At 14,115 feet, Pikes Peak ranks as Colorado’s 30th among 53 fourteeners, but it remains more famous than all the other fourteeners put together, thanks to breath-taking panoramas on the summit,

peak panorama
enlarge to appreciate

and a cog railway that’s been bringing millions of visitors to the mountaintop since 1891.

cogAlthough the views are enough to distance you from the rest of the world, the cold is enough to bring you closer together.

20170609_184215

Dedicated to Leah, who thinks I never post enough pictures of her. I hope this makes up for it. Love you.

BTW, this marks my 50th post and my first fourteener.

 

Remembering the à la Mode

April 20 represented a milestone in my life. It was officially the first day of my retirement. It also coincided with a counter-culture connection to cannabis consumption (known in hippie parlance as “420”), and it was the carnival kick-off for Fiesta San Antonio. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a celebration without participation in both events, all topped off by fireworks.

I have worked at many jobs spanning many different careers and found all of them gratifying in one way or another. Each job seemed to prepare me for the next one, even though the steps in-between were uneven and varied, or complete leaps of faith. I suppose I attribute my jack-of-all-trades mentality to a restlessness that overcame me by travelling throughout Europe the summer after my sophomore year in college.

When I returned to school, I abruptly changed my major from political science to sociology and photography, hoping that an understanding of people and pictures would carry me to different places.

My last job/career as a special education teacher in New York City’s high schools for the past eleven years came close to realizing that dream, as I taught inner city teenagers about the world around them through words and images. But the time was right to put it all behind me, and resume my quest for some kind of redemption by reducing my footprint and refining my senses. It was time to travel again… although this time, in style.

At precisely 4:20 pm, the ceremonial lighting of a glazed metallic iguana pipe set the mood for what was to become an epic evening in downtown San Antonio, made easy via a VIA bus shelter conveniently located directly across the street from Traveler’s World RV Resort. (The bus runs every half-hour, and costs just $1.30 a piece to carry us to the party zone.)

Once there and navigating through the thick stew of resident revelers, it becomes apparent that three things matter most to fiesta folk: medals, eggs and hats. Sashes, vests and tallis-like scarves provide opportunities for collecting even more medals and pins on an already crowded chest. Bragging rights belong to the San Antonians who would collapse under the weight if wasn’t for the support of others to hold them up.

royalty.jpg
King Antonio and his Court

Equally as important are confetti-filled eggs (drained and decorated cascarones) available by the dozen for the sole purpose of smashing them over the heads of adoring neighbors, and showering them with good luck. Even the cops showed signs of confetti dandruff, making police assault okay for the day.

egg smash.jpg

Lastly, thematic hats of all shapes and colors are easily the most conspicuous sign of extroverted behavior at the Fiesta with a special nod to “size matters”. This is a post-Easter parade gone sideways, where the most ridiculous rule. Carmen Miranda awards for the day go to the following:

3 some hat.jpg

butterfly hat.jpg

flower hat.jpg

potato head hat.jpg

spurs hat.jpg

beer hat.jpg

phone man .jpg

Food is also an important part of any fair. Vendors with tents and trucks tempted the hungry with long lines for tacos, tamales and turkey legs.

turkey lady.jpg

taco man.jpg

Yet somehow, Leah and I managed to circumvent the lines by inadvertently crashing the Taste of Texas, a VIP event for those willing to shell out $100 per ticket for tasty tapas.

taste of texas.jpg

We noticed a sophisticated crowd of people in a courtyard behind a hedge who were enjoying themselves, and thought to check it out, unaware–until we crossed over an ivy walkway–that wristband entry was required. It was easy pretending that we belonged with our hands in our pockets.

T of T ariel.jpg

We even got the chance to mingle with Fiesta royalty.

king.jpg

The evening ended with a fireworks display in the presence of the Tower of Americas, San Antonio’s tallest lookout, which dates back to the 1968 World’s Fair. It was definitely the icing on the cake, and the cherry on the sundae.

FW 1.jpg

FW2.jpg

FW3.jpg

It was Alamo à la mode!

Some Like It Hot

Down on Avery Island–in the thick of Cajun country, just up some from the Atchafalaya Delta–is a place where mosquitoes explode if they bite you. At least, that’s what they tell you on the company tour.

tabasco museum.jpg

It’s where the McIlhenney family has been making Tabasco Sauce the same way since 1868.

early years.jpg

It’s an interesting process that has much in common with fine wine or Kentucky bourbon, but doesn’t require an ID to buy it or try it. Although, some common sense should dictate how much you pour to invigorate your étouffée or gumbo.

The sauce begins with a special strain of tabasco pepper seed that sprouts in a greenhouse nursery before it’s transplanted into rich and fertile alluvial soil.

pepper plant.jpg

A graduated color stick determines the precise shade of the ripened red pepper before it’s properly picked by Peter, and crushed into a mash mixed with salt mined from the family property.

salt mine.jpg

Company coopers prepare and sanitize 60-gallon white oak barrels reinforced with forged iron bands…

barrels.jpg

where the mash is stored and sealed with crusted salt, and left to age for up to three years for the traditional heat, and between eight and ten years for the “reserve” collection. It was dizzying, just standing by the storage shed to take a photograph and inhaling the pungent aroma of fermenting peppers.

wall to wall barrels.jpg

When the mash is “ready”, it’s sent to the production floor free of peel and seeds. then combined with pure white vinegar, and monitored for three weeks before quality control personnel determine that it’s ready for the bottling plant.

add vinegar.jpg

Automation will carry out the packaging under watchful eyes at a rate of approximately 220,000 bottles per day to keep up with world-wide demand,

bottling1.jpg

and a very demanding clientele.

queen crest.jpg

It’s been 150 years since Edmund McIlhenny poured his potent pepper sauce into recycled cologne bottles, but the five generations that followed have been loyal to the original recipe, and have grown accustomed to the savory taste of success.

Biloxi Bounty

“It will be forty minutes before I can seat you,” announced the hostess.

“So what was the point of making a 7 pm reservation?” I protested.

An entitled-looking woman strode up to the seating station, interrupting my conversation.

“Any idea how much longer?” she fumed. Residual cigarette smoke left a trail after her words.

The hostess was poised and ready with an answer. “I promise to text you as soon as your party’s table opens up.”

Emphatically, “Nevermind. We’re going to the Hard Rock location across the street,” she huffed, and strode away.

The hostess, not missing a beat, returned to me. “So your wait time has now been cut to thirty minutes. If I could just have your phone number?”

“Is it always this busy?” I asked, already anticipating the answer.

“Everyday and all the time,” she shrugged.

Leah and I are waiting to be seated at the Half Shell Oyster House in Biloxi, MS, the second of seven locations spread throughout the Gulf coast, and everyone says it’s well worth the wait. The shucker at the raw bar claims that on average, he will prepare eight sacks of a dozen dozen oysters for weekday diners.

When I briefly taught English at the New York Harbor School, I learned about the Billion Oyster Project launched on Governors Island, whose 20-year mission is to reclaim the New York Harbor habitat by seeding new oyster beds around the island in hopes of restoring a vibrant aquaculture to the area–a dream only made possible after passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which prohibited dumping raw sewage and toxic waste into the Harbor.

Since many Project volunteers are high school interns from the Harbor School on Governors Island, faculty staged an end-of-semester celebration where hundreds of oysters were opened for hundreds of curious inner city students, many who have never seen, touched, or smelled, let alone tasted an oyster. Watching the kids’ faces was priceless. For those who dared to try one, it was a warm and naked oyster. If they only knew there was a better way to enjoy a bivalve.

On the other hand, the Oyster House does it with culinary correctness. The half dozen half shells that arrived to the table were so plump, they were pushing each other off the icy plate. Each one was swimming in its briny soup, and glistening with freshness.

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“C’mon, Leah,” I advertised, “you’ve got to try this. These are amazing,”

Neal and oyster.jpgLeah was horrified. “Eww, no! I don’t know how you can eat that,” she objected. “It looks like it’s still living.”

“And that’s why it tastes so good,” I slurped.

The entrees were equally as tasty. We both had royal red shrimp different ways; Leah enjoyed a 1/2 lb. of peel and eat shrimp…

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while my shrimp were prepared Orleans style–in a hot Cajun butter sauce–with jalapeno hush puppies on the side. The beverage du jour was iced cold vodka and ginger beer. Wow!!

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Afterwards, we walked across the road to the Hard Rock Casino,

Hard Rock.jpgbut that’s another story.

For the whole enchilada on half shell info, check out:

http://www.inahalfshell.com/bivalve-curious/

and for more on the Billion Oyster Project, see:

https://www.billionoysterproject.org/

 

Smoked Meats

Memphis is the best thing to happen to ribs since Adam’s grand gesture to Eve. As one of the four great BBQ pilgrimages (including Carolina, Texas, and Kansas City) Memphis stands out among all the others given its sheer volume of first class BBQ eateries scattered throughout the city. Whether it’s a joint, shack, restaurant or food truck, the holy trinity of meats–pork, beef and chicken–are all represented here in Memphis and consumed in biblical proportion.

With so much to choose from, we went to the internet to narrow our options. Realizing our propensity for gnawing on bones, and weighing the opinions of the millions who came before us, we settled on a full slab with 4 sides from Central BBQ, a relative new-comer who has already expanded to 3 locations in its 15-year history, and a perennial favorite at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

We arrived at 7 pm to overflow parking and a lengthy line out the door. A covered outdoor dining room with family-style seating bustled with a blend of first-timers, students, families, and business types. Eventually, we approached a counter to place our order. We exchanged money for card #23 and sat ourselves, waiting for our food to be delivered 10 minutes later.

20170328_192658.jpgOur rack-for-two was prepared as 1/2 “wet” and 1/2 “dry”. The wet half was basted periodically with a rich tomato, molasses, and vinegar sauce laced with heat, while the dry half was rubbed in brown sugar and spices, rendering a caramelized crust during it’s 12 hour slow cook.

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Leah and I debated which half we liked better, and unanimously elected the dry rub as our favorite, which also gave us the value-added option of dipping our ribs in: Mild, Hot, Mustard, Vinegar, Hot Vinegar or Sweet Heat barbecue sauce.

Our sides included tasty mac ‘n cheese, coleslaw, baked beans, and potato salad with 4 rolls, all washed down with a pint of Ghost River Grindhouse, a highly regarded local Memphis brew.

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By 8:30 pm, the dining-in crowd had thinned, but the take-out window was still cranking out orders. It seems the local population knows exactly where to go for its smoked meat fix.