Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Foreign Foods in Far Off Lands

I suppose that Vermont doesn't really count as a far-off land.
An eggplant calzone probably doesn't really even count as foreign food either, but a post titled "Eggplant Calzone in Vermont" simply didn't have the right ring to it.

Part of my job as an author and illustrator is to visit schools and talk to kids about writing and illustrating books. I enjoy this part of my job immensely as it gives me the dual pleasures of being able to visit lots of different places and pay my mortgage.

I don't write about too many of my school visits, but that's simply because so few of them involve eggplant calzones or the coveted Green Slime Ribbon.

Yesterday's visit to Central Elementary School in Bellow's Falls, Vermont included both.

Kate Kane, the wonderful librarian who arranged my visit, lured me westward with promises of eggplant calzone for lunch. I was unaware, however, that I would have to pass a series of tests before being allowed that lunch.

The Connecticut River, the moat-like border that keeps Vermont from invading New Hampshire, was my first test. Sybil, the annoying voice who yells at me from my GPS, tried to convince me to drive across a bridge that was no longer there. I did manage to find a non-aquatic crossing point and was allowed to enter Vermont. Sybil was irate and refused to speak to me for the rest of the ride. I managed to find the school without her.

That challenge surmounted, I was next tested with finding a parking spot at the school where–to be delicate–parking is at a premium. When eggplant calzones are involved, there is no challenge I will not meet. I found a parking spot and strode triumphantly into the school. Ms. Kane greeted me enthusiastically.

"Where is my eggplant calzone?" I demanded.

She smiled, ignored my demand, and took me on a tour of the school. It was enough to wipe all thoughts off eggplant from my mind. Everywhere we went, children gaped and stared and whispered, "That's Martykelley!" "Is that Martykelley?" "Hey! Look! Martykelley!"

It made me feel all famous and stuff.

Ms. Kane had obviously done her work getting the kids ready for my visit.

My tour included many points of interest, such as the bulletin board rebutting my book, Summer Stinks.
And, although the kids did manage to come up with some compelling arguments, I still do not agree with them. Summer still stinks.

Next on the tour was the wall covered with messy desks drawings.

There were some truly inspired pieces of art displayed here.

I was flattered and humbled by how much effort and hard work had obviously gone into preparing for this visit.

"So where is my eggplant calzone?" I asked again.

Ms. Kane smiled and presented me with my next challenge: "You must judge the messy desk pictures. It was a contest to create the messiest desk. The winners will be awarded the coveted 'Green Slime Ribbon' award."

I strolled up and down the hall, my mind weighted with this heavy responsibility. It was a very hard decision, but I was eventually able to choose three favorites.

I chose Wyatt's because he included, among the detritus in his desk, a bottle of "Stress Reliever". This kid is obviously a future teacher.

Carver's desk had a brilliant attention to detail that I couldn't help but admire. The scope of junk he included in the desk was awe-inspiring.

And, lastly, Andy's desk went straight to the heart of humor. He didn't bother with subtlety. His desk was filled entirely with underpants of every imaginable cut and style. He also included the caption, "Now which one is my underwear?" implying that there are undies from many people in that desk.

"I have judged the desks, Ms. Kane," I cried, "Now where is my eggplant calzone?"

"It's only 8:15, Martykelley," she answered, "You have presentations to do now. And, we have one more contest for you to judge."

There had been an ongoing Martykelley trivia contest at the school last week. Every student who correctly answered every daily trivia question about me was entered into a drawing to win a free, autographed book by... ME!

Some kids, I was told, had spent many, many hours studying for the Martykelley trivia questions, poring over my website for hours each night. I am hoping that I will soon become a part of the regular curriculum in Vermont schools.

My part in this contest was relatively easy. I merely had to draw the winning name from a basket.

After drawing the name, I gave my first three presentations, the thought of my eggplant calzone looming large in my mind throughout. At the end of the third presentation, my mouth was watering and my stomach was gurgling. But the fourth graders were not returning to their classes. "Go away!" I wailed, "I want my lunch!"

But the fourth graders had other things in mind.


They had created an amazing song to share with me. They had taken the Super Cool Punk Rock Version of Summer Stinks and rewritten it to accompany their bulletin board rebuttal of my book.

Their version, Summer is Stupendous, was incredible. They rewrote the entire song and recorded it and it was amazing. I'm sure that they will all grow to become famous rock stars and I will be jealous. You can check out their website and click on a link to hear the song here. (Because I can't figure out how to post the song on my blog...) It was excellent enough to make me forget about lunch.


When they returned to their rooms, I threw myself at Ms. Kane's feet. "Now may I please have my eggplant calzone?" I begged.

"You may," she answered, "But you will have to eat it... IN THE CAFETERIA WITH THE STUDENTS!!!"

There is no obstacle I will not conquer for an eggplant calzone, but surely, this would be my greatest test.

A lunchroom full of kids eating is, at its best, not the most relaxing place to enjoy a quiet lunch.

I timidly opened the doors, clutching my precious, well-earned lunch, and was greeted with a thunderous "IT'S MARTYKELLEY!!!!!! SIT WITH US!SIT WITH US!SIT WITH US!SIT WITH US!SIT WITH US!SIT WITH US!SIT WITH US!"

Ms. Kane cleverly blocked the exit and I made my way to a table to eat.

I enjoyed myself immensely at lunch, primarily because I was able to taunt the kids with my delicious lunch.

"Oh," I'd say, "How are your canned beans? Because my eggplant calzone is DELICIOUS!!"

We chatted of this and that, the primary topic of conversation seeing to be "How old are you?" Many of the kids were kind enough to inform me that I am much, much older than their parents.

And too soon, lunch was over. I had managed, through great personal willpower, to reserve one last hunk of calzone for later. I returned to the library for my last presentation.

When my day was through, I packed up and thanked Ms. Kane for a wonderful day. I grabbed my stuff and tucked the eggplant calzone away safely so I could enjoy it when I returned home.

The calzone's delicate scent wafted through the car and gave me the strength to carry on even when Sybil, my evil GPS, tried once again to send me plunging into the river.

I finally arrived home and while I was telling Kerri about my amazing day in Vermont, she ate my leftover calzone.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A New Portrait

This one is 12" x 9". Pencil and chalk on toned paper. I have another photo on the easel, ready to go. Tori walked into my studio, looked at it and said, "Whoa. That's going to be HARD."

So it may be a while before you see the next one...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Virginia Vacation Journal: Day 8 - Home again!

You know when people tell you not, under any circumstances ever to do a certain thing?

And then you do it?

We did that today.

“Never,” we were warned, “Never, ever, EVER, under any circumstances, should you take I-95 through New York City.”

We were told this by innumerable people, all of whom had learned from hard experience and were eager to help us avoid a similar fate.

I am reminded of a similar situation on another vacation when we were warned about a visit to a local tourist attraction called Six Gun City.

We didn’t listen then, and we didn’t listen now.

At Six Gun City, our punishment for failing to listen was a full day of crappy rides. Our punishment today was much more severe.

We were headed home today and, fearing whatever calamity would surely befall the car next, we were eager to get home as quickly as possible. We decided, against all the advice we had ever been given on the matter, to travel the most direct route–through NYC–rather than spend an extra half hour driving around the city on the Tappan Zee bridge.

“We’ll get to see Washington D.C. and NYC,” we cheerily told the kids.
“Isn’t this the way that everybody said not to go?” Tori asked.
“Yes. But it’s Sunday, so the traffic shouldn’t be bad today,” I answered in my omniscient father voice.

And I still think that if there hadn’t been a Yankees game and a bike race happening in New York, the traffic wouldn’t have been quite as bad as it was.

We zipped through Washington D.C. The fleeting glimpse of the Capitol Building was not as spiritually fulfilling as the kids had anticipated. The densely packed 2 lane highway we traveled left little time for me to sightsee, as I was preoccupied with not driving off the road.

New York, however, afforded me, as the operator of the vehicle, plenty of time to sightsee. We spent much of our time in and around the city, parked on the highway, leisurely surveying the decaying tenements that lined the road and breathing the heady clouds of exhaust fumes that swirled around us.

I suspect that those same exhaust fumes were 100% responsible for my calm, relaxed state of mind as we crawled, inch by inch, toward the Washington Bridge, where my suffering could develop into full-blown rage and panic..

I have never handled dense, aggressive traffic well. We live in a small town where one blinking, yellow light serves as the entire traffic infrastructure. When suddenly confronted with 12 lanes of homicidal drivers squeezing through toll booths and then cramming into two lanes, I am not at my best.

I managed, through deep, exhaust filled breaths, to remain calm until the toll booth one lane over from us suddenly changed its light from green to red. The 20+ cars already lined up there suddenly had to make other arrangements. Mostly, they decided to get in front of me. I wasn’t keen on the set-up and explained to the other drivers, in word and in gesture, that they should consider other plans.

We did eventually get through the toll booth and were then free to race along at a brisk, invigorating 2 or 3 mph for the next hour or so.

Traffic was oddly clumped in places for the entire ride through New York and Connecticut, but our choices were limited at that point.

We were treated to one delightful moment of nostalgia when, getting gas in Connecticut, we found ourselves at the same gas station where I had purchased brake fluid on the first day of our trip.

And then, after a mere 11 hours in the car, our vacation was over. We returned home safely, suffering only numb butts and the loss of a few hundred thousand brain cells due to inhaling so much exhaust. As long as I still remember how to replace a muffler, I’m sure everything will be fine.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Virginia Vacation Journal: Day 7 - Nausea, Horror, and More Waffles!

Guess what! More waffles for breakfast!
And then, after waffles, we risked becoming social outcasts for the entire southern half of the country by skipping the Richmond NASCAR race and heading off to King’s Dominion Amusement Park so my children could drag me onto terrifying rides that were designed with the sole purpose of making me wish I was back on the highway with no brakes where things seemed safe.

The park was large and loud and smelled like equal parts cotton candy, corn dogs, sweat, and fear. It was everything an amusement park should be.

 First we had to rush to The Dominator so we could wait in line. We stood in line for about 5 minutes before a warning type of horn blew and a recorded announcement ordered everyone to leave the area because they were “testing the ride”. Not wishing to tempt fate too far, we went off in search of other thrills.
We soon found them; pushing ourselves to the limits of human endurance by waiting 80 minutes in line for The Volcano, a ride that lasts about 45 seconds and, in that time, can reduce you to a quivering pile of human jelly. It begins by going from 0 to a bajilliondy miles per hour in an eighth of a second, then it whisks you up a vertical run and out the top of a stone volcano, upside down. Then it really gets exciting. But I think I successfully suppressed most of it, so I don’t care to go into it again.

 (part of The Volcano)

It was delightful, and as soon as my legs stopped shaking, we raced to yet another roller coaster, this one featuring things that caught on fire. I love a great big ball of fire as much as the next guy, but this was just weird. The ride stopped about half way through and you sat for a moment, listening to recorded gunfire and admiring the view of a helicopter and some gas pumps. Then, flames woofed out of a few places and we were whisked into a black tunnel for the remainder of the ride.
After that, it was Tori’s turn. She had thus far refused to go on any roller coasters, but she had her eye on a cute little number called The Crypt. There are two things I do not like. Spinning and heights. This ride managed to brilliantly incorporate both of them into something so fiendishly awful that I suspect it could actually be classified as cruel and unusual punishment.
I watched a dizzy, disoriented lady on the ride just before ours step from her seat and pitch forward to her knees, bumping her head on the metal gate in front of her. Tori chatted amiably with me as we awaited our turn. She cannot be my daughter.
I will try my best to describe its unparalleled horror. Imagine a very large swing set with only one large seat running all the way across it. maybe 40 people sit on this bench, back to back in 2 rows of 20. Then the swing starts swinging just like a big, friendly swing at the playground. Except it goes 40 feet in the air. Then it swings all the way over, upside-down. Then the bench that you are sitting on spins around, independently of the other spinning. Then it keeps spinning. Then you wish for a sudden cardiac arrest so the suffering will cease.

  (The Crypt, aka the Pukilator)

The ride was the only one that had its own viewing area so spectators could gather and watch other people suffer. I’m sure it was delicious fun.
Kerri tried to take pictures, but claimed they didn’t come out too well because she was laughing too hard at the frozen terror on my face.
Then it was time for lunch!
I ate lightly, hoping that less food would led to less violent vomiting later.
We made our way back to The Dominator, which, it appeared, that they were finished testing. It was a great ride. Fast and furious, not too high, not too spinny, but wonderfully invigorating.

 (The slow, relaxing part of The Dominator)

After that, Alex decided that he was ready for the big one. He had done a bit of online research (by research, I mean watching promotional videos) and was insistent that we should go on a roller coaster called The Intimidator. It’s a roller coaster based loosely on Dale Earnhardt, the race car driver.
I’m not sure what the connection is, but I must commend them on their name choice. “The Intimidator” is a much more effective name for a thrill ride than “Dale”.
“Want to go ride Dale?” seems to lack something.
The Intimidator lacked nothing.
My fear of heights is not a casual, relaxed, offhand sort of fear. It is a deep-seated, fully-bloomed pathological terror of heights.

 (The first hill of The Intimidator, please note that it is too tall to fit in one picture.)

The Intimidator supplied me with a lifetime of material for nightmares that will certainly haunt me long past my death and into whatever afterlife might await me. It begins with a perilous climb to 305 feet above a cozy concrete pad. The air got a bit thin at that altitude, but I wasn’t even allowed the pleasure of passing out before our climb was over and we slipped past the summit and began a leisurely descent down an 85 degree slope at 94 miles per hour. The rest of the ride was something of a blur. I remember going really fast up and down, then turning and then turning some more and then it was over and I was able to crawl away to find a quiet place where I could lay down and whimper and cry for a few hours.
Actually, I really do enjoy roller coasters. I did not enjoy peering over the edge of my seat into the cloudy oblivion below at the crest of the hill, but the rest of the ride was a lot of fun.
We finally convinced Tori to try a roller coaster and once she did, she was hooked. She and Alex spent the rest of the afternoon racing from one coaster to the next and I was able to spend the remainder of the evening sitting quietly with Kerri, enjoying the flashbacks from The Crypt that I kept having.
As an added bonus, nothing fell off the car on the ride home.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Virginia Vacation Journal: Day 6

After our excessive joy at finding a hotel with a pool that did not resemble human skin flake broth, we were somewhat disappointed when Tori and I both had some terrible ophthalmologic reaction to the salt solution they used to sanitize the pool.

Tori was lying on the bed crying about how badly her swollen, red eyes stung. I blindly groped my way to the car to find a store that sold eye drops at 10 p.m.

Returning to the hotel, I dosed us both with eye drops and spent the rest of the night tossing and turning and hoping that I wouldn’t awaken to find that I had been stricken blind.

Kerri, in my absence, had slipped down to the front desk to alert them to the fact that their pool chemicals might be blinding customers and that many people might be reluctant to return to a hotel that permanently disabled them.

This morning, I awoke and was delighted to be able to see the Oreo cookie race car truck in the parking lot. It wasn’t the truck so much as the fact that I could see at all.

I slipped out of the room to grab some coffee from the Earthly Paradise of Eternal Breakfast downstairs.  As I sat, slurping coffee and reading my book, the hotel manager (the same manager who had directed us to a delightful Italian restaurant yesterday) came and asked me if I was the person who had had a problem with the pool.

“If, by a problem, you mean that I was reduced to tears by the horrible, burning in my eyes, then yes. I am the person.” She apologized profusely and said that she would give us a free night to compensate us for any inconvenience.

“If I go swimming again tonight and it burns, can I get tomorrow night free, too?” I asked.

“I would suggest that if you swim tonight, you keep your head out of the water,” she answered.

I thanked her and zipped up to the room to share the glad tidings with my family. Awakening them from a sound sleep by shouting about a free room was, in retrospect, a poor idea. They did eventually recover and after a hearty breakfast of waffles, we headed off to Colonial Williamsburg.

Tori, at 10 years old, is enamored of ”the olden days” in a way that you normally don’t see in people who are younger than 95. She loves to read stories of colonial times, she sews her own dolls, wears a sun bonnet, and even made a sleeping cap like the kind she read about in Little House on the Prairie.

Colonial Williamsburg was a place she REALLY wanted to go. We were told by several knowledgeable friends that a visit to Colonial Williamsburg was interesting and should cost no more than the price of a new home. We were told by the same knowledgeable friends that Colonial Williamsburg is open to the public for walking around, absolutely free. Only a few buildings required tickets.

Fresh from the victory of scoring a free night at the hotel, it seemed that we might also spend a free day at Colonial Williamsburg. We wandered through the streets, feeling triumphantly brilliant, having beat the system, enjoying all the sights for free.

(The Governor's Palace)

Except for the sights that Tori really wanted to see. Like the palace. And the weaver. And the play. And the dressmaker.

While it is technically free to wander through the streets of CW, you are limited to wandering the streets and peering over hedges. They do allow everyone full, free, unfettered access to their many fine gift shoppes, but if you want to see anything besides the outside of buildings and the insides of gift shoppes, you need a ticket.

Alex and Kerri had no pressing desire to visit the dressmaker or the weaver or the palace, so they opted to wander around and drink $50 sodas. Tori and I got tickets and had a wonderful time touring the palace, visiting the copper and the weaver and the jail.

(Colonial Williamsburg's free babysitting service.)

The cooper spent lots of time explaining his craft to us and, as interesting as it was to listen to him, I was even more intrigued by how skinny he was. He was like a human skeleton. His ribs looked like those rollers that they use to display horrid hot dogs in gas stations and convenience stores. It made it hard to pay attention to his talk.

(The famous Drooling Oxen of Colonial Williamsburg.)

I learned many fascinating facts throughout the day. The most alarming was that when you were put in the stockades, your time actually locked in might be for only an hour or two, I always assumed that you were locked in for an entire day or more. But while you were locked in, the sheriff was obligated to nail your earlobes to the stock itself. To release you, he was required to cut your earlobes off. Hence the origin of the expression, “Earmarked”.

Don’t say you never learn anything reading my blog.

After a very fun day at CW, we headed back to the hotel, detouring slightly to take a ride on the Jamestown Ferry. The road between Jamestown and Scotland is bisected by a river, making driving difficult at best. Rather than choose the easy, obvious solution of building a bridge or redirecting the road, the brilliant engineers at the Virginal Department of Transportation came up with a wild, unexpected idea. A ferry. A ferry that runs 24 hours a day, every day of the year, ferrying cars across the river for free.

(The Pocahontas - used instead of a bridge in Virginia.)

We happily waited in line for the ferry and, when our turn came, drove on to the boat (we were on The Pocahontas). We spent 15 minutes tootling across the river, enjoying some delightful scenery. There was an upper deck that was accessible via a stairway. It was a bit treacherous going upstairs because you had to step over all the DOT employees who were sprawled out across the “NO SITTING ON STAIRS!!” warning painted on every step.

We enjoyed our trip so much that when we disembarked, we got right back in line for a return trip.

It was getting late and we were all hungry. We found a terrific little Mediterranean restaurant and enjoyed many kinds of kebabs and rices.

The soft scents of lemon and oregano wafted through the car on the ride back to the hotel. I was smiling contentedly, reliving the dinner in my mind.

My joyous revels ended abruptly when the muffler dropped off the car.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Virginia Vacation Journal: Day 5

Today began with more waffles and more of the ceaseless news coverage of The Royal Wedding, an event that, in my mind, cannot possibly compare with the spectacle and the drama of The Natural Bridge’s 15 kinds of hot dogs.

After a surfeit of waffley goodness, we packed up the car and headed off across the state to Richmond. We politely asked Sybil, our GPS, to find a route that avoided highways and we were pleasantly rewarded with a 3 hour trip through some of the most beautiful, winding countryside I have ever seen. It was lush and green and hilly.

What has frequently surprised me on this trip is how high the speed limits are in Virginia. Our route today had a posted speed limit of 55 mph, but the winding, curving, twisting road terrified me at 40 mph. I had to pull over several times to let other drivers zip past us on onward toward oblivion.

We eventually arrived in Richmond and found the hotel. It was about 10 minutes away from Richmond International Speedway where, it appears, there will be a huge NASCAR race on Saturday. I’m glad we have other plans, because I’m reluctant to join the throngs of people who have set up chairs along the side of the road so they can sit in the baking sun, holding up homemade signs that say “Need Tickets”.

(Many, many Porta-Potties are available for the NASCAR fans at Richmond Speedway)

It was heartbreaking to pass a father and son, dressed in matching tank tops, seated along 6 lanes of heavy traffic, begging for tickets. Especially since it was the middle of a school day.

More upsetting than red-necks in tank tops begging for race tickets was the realization that we really didn’t need to come on this trip.

The outskirts of Richmond looked no different than the outskirts of Boston or San Diego or Denver. They are entirely homogenous and indistinguishable. Chain restaurants, fast food, and gas stations squatting along six lanes of traffic is the norm all across the country. There are slight regional differences, but is there really a big thrill in seeing a Hardees versus a Burger King on every corner?

This unpleasant phenomenon is precisely why I revel and delight in small, outlandish tourist attractions like The Natural Bridge Garden of Earthly Delights. There is nothing like it on the entire planet. Little tourist traps go out of their way to do everything they can to get you to unbelt some money and the results–while sometimes tragic, like the Wax Museum–are always sincere and memorable.

They are unique, and I love them for that.

Our hotel, while not unique, and most definitely a chain, is the one place I deviate from my rigid “No Chains” rule. Judging by the squalid horror of many of the hotels we passed along our way, I’m okay with this slight variation from my self-imposed exile from Homogenous Nirvana.

(You know it's a good hotel if the Oreo Racing Team stays there!)

After settling in, we took a ride through Richmond, because 3 hours in the car just wasn’t enough for us! My hope was to find a nice spot downtown and get out, stroll around, and find a great place to grab some dinner.

My plans were foiled by the fact that there is no downtown and we most certainly did not find many places where we felt like getting out and going for a leisurely stroll. Several neighborhoods we passed through inspired us to hunch down in the car, lock our doors and find the speediest escape route.

Of Richmond, I can say only this, based on my 45 minutes spent in its borders: Avoid it.
I’m sorry, Richmond, but whatever shining delights you may hide, they are outweighed by the depressed, dilapidated street scenes you presented to us at each new corner and around each new bend.

My thoughts on Richmond were echoed by the waitress at dinner tonight. We were talking with her about our trip through the city and she gasped. “You went INTO Richmond City? Oh, dear, God. Well, at least you were there during the day. Whatever you do, don’t go back there at night.”

The warning was kind, but entirely unnecessary.

We finished our dinner and returned to the hotel to swim. It seems that race fans are not terribly interested in swimming. We had the pool to ourselves and played a boisterous game of Marco Polo. We had a wonderful time splashing and laughing in the warm, clear water.

It wasn’t until we returned to our room that the screaming and crying started.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Virginia Vacation Journal: Day 4

Last night was a non-stop thrill ride of street noise, temperature extremes, and cramped combat for valuable bed real estate on a too small mattress. So, really, anything that came after last night should have been marvelous by comparison. Odd how things don’t always turn out like you might expect.

We began the day with yet another all you can stomach breakfast spectacular. This one was tended to by two women. The elder of the two spent most of her time sitting at a table, gabbing with the maintenance guy and coughing into the damp rag that she used to half-heartedly swipe at any spilled milk on the counter. The younger girl stood around, scowling at texts that she continually received and picking her teeth with her finger. A finger, I realized, that she was also using to arrange the bagels and pastries.

 The kids again enjoyed the waffles.

Our plan for today was to hit a local geological wonder called The Natural Bridge, then, time permitting, maybe go to a nearby zoo and gawk at the animals and wonder how their breakfast was.

The internet changed our plans somewhat. Reviews for the zoo we were considering included entries like, “For the love of God, do not go here.” and “The animals are crammed in cement boxes. I’m ashamed that my money helped support this horrible cruelty.”

So, we decided to simply make a day out of The Natural Bridge Entertainment and Shopping Complex of Endless Joy. It actually wound up being a good idea, because with all the gift shops we were forced to exit through, we had little time left for anything else.

Our tickets included admission to The Natural Bridge, The Nature Trail, The Indian Village, The Toy Museum, The Wax Museum, The Wax Museum Factory Tour, and The Natural Bridge Caverns.

Overwhelmed by our seemingly limitless opportunities, we began our day at The Toy Museum, located conveniently directly on the way to The Natural Bridge.

The Toy Museum was a delightfully whimsical trash heap of dusty, dilapidated displays. Your tour begins with this subtle suggestion that touching the displays will result in immediate, high-tech death.

This threat may be responsible for the cleaning crew's reluctance to dust any of the displays or to even replace any of the figures which have toppled over the years.

I spent most of my time in the museum waiting to see some child unwittingly touch a GI Joe doll and then stare in mute horror as the giant death rays dropped from the ceiling and vaporized him. I guess the threat worked, however, as nobody was vaporized.

Many of the displays showed historically accurate reenactments of famous battles. Like the Battle of Gettysburg, as fought between Smurfs and Playmobil knights.

We wandered, awe-struck, through the seemingly endless display cases of junk. Music from a local pop music station blared from a tinny overhead speaker, enhancing the mood and making me seriously consider self-destruction as an appealing alternative. All I had to do was touch a display...

After we had seen all the terrifying dolls, nightmarish clowns, and chewed up He-Man figures we could tolerate, we exited through the dark, deserted gift shop.

It was so dark and deserted that I refused to believe it was actually the gift shop. Kerri had to drag me back to the sign that said, “Gift Shop. Ring bell for service. Area is monitored by closed circuit security cameras. Shoplifters will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Thanks for coming!”

We slipped outside and shook the odor of stagnant decay from our clothes before heading down the path that lead to The Natural Bridge. The path ran along a beautiful, cascading waterfall and ended at the snack bar “With 15 Kinds of Hot Dogs!!!!!” and “The Natural Bridge’s Famous Nacho Chips and Cheez!!!!!”

Somehow, we escaped the siren song of cheez and wandered toward the bridge. The Natural Bridge is absolutely stunning. Vaulting walls of carved rock soar skyward in an amazing display of geological architecture. We spent quite a bit of time wandering around under the bridge, craning our necks to view the majestic, scarred rock.

You can see what are alleged to be George Washington’s initials carved into the rock. Our first president was, evidently, also a vandal.

I was even more enthralled with the natural stone Buddha I saw in the rocks. This far below the Bible Belt, however, Buddha gets no mention.

We followed the footpath along the river for about three-fourths of a mile. stopping to check out Lace Falls, a beautiful, serene waterfall that tumbles slowly over the corrugated rocks that line the river bed.

We also took time to see the Indian village, but the lack of spicy, curried delicacies saddened me and I had to leave.

Despite our collective hunger, we somehow managed to once again avoid the tempting Natural Bridge Cheez in favor of a short drive to The Pink Cadillac Diner where authentic, tattooed, pierced waitresses–just like the one’s from the 1950’s–served us our food.

Our drive back to The Natural Bridge Entertainment Complex of Sorrow and Despair was briefly interrupted by a detour to Foamhenge, a mysterious full sized replica of Stonehenge, made entirely of styofoam.

Time, the elements, and vandals have eroded the styrofoam so that the entire area is covered with a thin, swirling layer of tiny pellets of styrofoam. The terrible environmental impact of the sculpture is dwarfed, however, by the very real threat that its creator may be lurking in the bushes nearby.

We raced back to our car and returned to the safety of The Natural Bridge Touris Trap Extravaganza. Next up were The Natural Bridge Caverns, “The Deepest Caverns in Town!”

When our tour began, the guide arrived and immediately captured our attention with his introduction, “Th’ nex toah bouttah b’gn so anyone gutta ticket, y’all line up ovah heah now an’ we git goin.”

It was all said in one breath and at the level of a low mumble.

The guide hurried us  hrough the caverns, occasionally flitting his flashlight across some alleged point of interest for a half a second and mumbling, “Dis heah wheah th’ firsplorer of th’ caverns git stuck fo bouttah daynahaff till he gut rescued.”

Trying to decipher his authentic, redneck mumblings added a delightful thrill to the tour, which Alex had already pronounced, “Weak.”

The weakness of the caverns paled in comparison to the absolute and total weakness of The Wax Museum. The various tableaus presented at the museum all depicted some  aspect of the history of The Natural Bridge. It was a history lesson that was brought to life by the dedicated artists and craftspeople who managed to make every person they depicted look like a horribly mutated Bill Cosby–a Bill Cosby affected by extra chromosomes, leprosy, and mange.

The self-guided factory tour showed us the painstaking processes involved in making all these likenesses of Bill Cosby.  We all agreed that our favorite part of the tour was the cheery, red Exit sign that heralded our release.

We raced back to the hotel so the kids could once again frolic and play in the pool and Kerri could once again scramble to find us yet another hotel for tomorrow.

Another quick overview of online reviews had again changed our plans. Reviews for the hotel we had planned on staying in had a marked tendency to dwell on the unpleasant fact that the hotel is apparently built five feet from some very busy railroad tracks.

Comments like, “I was really tired, so I didn’t find all the trains rumbling by nearly as disturbing as some reviewers did” seemed somewhat mild compared to the spicier “The pool needs to be condemned by the heath department” and “The entire hotel shakes every time a train passes by. All night long.”

Kerri did manage to find a new place near Richmond. When I told the kids about the change of plans, they both hugged and thanked me.

“Will there be Make-Your-Own-Waffles at the next hotel?” Alex asked.

We honked down a hasty dinner of pizza and raced back, once again, to The Natural Bridge All Encompassing Diversion to view a spectacle billed as “The Drama of Creation” wherein, according to the promotional literature, The Natural Bridge is bathed in a brilliant explosion of multi-colored lights, choreographed to music and a narrative describing the creation of the bridge.

“So we’re leaving the pool and going all the way back there to watch them shine lights on the bridge and play some music?” Tori asked.

It sounded less appealing when worded that way, but our only real option was to risk contracting Dengue Fever or cholera by hanging around in the human skin chowder of the hotel hot tub.

So we raced back to The Natural Bridge Complex of Forbidden Pleasures and found an empty parking lot.

“Oh Boy!” I cried, “We get a private show!”

“Yeah. Because everybody else in the whole world is doing something that doesn’t suck,” Alex muttered.

But we will never know.  I ran into the building where the clerk, busy polishing the death ray protecting the toy museum, told me that the show was out of order. “It’ll be up again by Friday,” she said.

“We’ll be gone by then,” I whined.

“Mhmmm,” she muttered, “Well, thanks for coming.”

Both kids were cheering wildly as we drove back to the hotel.

So I sent them to bed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Virginia Vacation Journal: Day 3

The problem with the reservations was the amusement park. We arranged our trip so we could make a sort of U shape through Virginia. We planned on entering on the western side, heading south and east and ending up at the beach for a couple days. Everything was fine until Kerri found a great deal for amusement park tickets for the middle of the week. King’s Dominion promised thrills, excitement, and absolutely NO REFUNDS for any reason ever.
Even if the park happens to be closed when you are in Virginia.
Which it is.

Actually, they are open one day that we will be here.
The day we will be at the beach.
Several hundred million miles from King’s Dominion and its twisty, turny fun.
So, rather than lose the money that Kerri spent on the absolutely non-refundable-for-any-reason tickets, we have rearranged our schedule.
Now, we’re going to spend two nights in Lexington and three nights in Doswell, right next to King’s Dominion and Richmond.
No beach.

Today, after waffles, we packed up and headed off to Skyline Drive, a beautiful 105 mile road across the tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I stopped by the front desk to double check my directions and there was a lady in front of me doing exactly the same thing.

“What’s the best way to get to Skyline Drive?” she asked the desk clerk.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been there,” the clerk answered.
“Isn’t it like a half an hour from here?” asked the incredulous woman.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been there. Let me check.”

The clerk ducked behind the desk for some time. Just when I thought that she had effected a stealthy escape, she popped back up holding a large binder full of pre-printed Google maps.

She looked over two maps thoughtfully before offering one of them to the lady in front of me. “Looks like this one will get you to Skyline Drive.” Then she held out the other map. “So will this one.”

“Which one would you recommend?” the lady asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been there,” the clerk answered. She looked at the maps again. “Looks like this one will take you over the mountains through Luray,” she said, pointing to the first map, “And this one will just get you there on the highway.”
“Will the way through the mountains be all hilly and twisty?” the woman asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been there,” the clerk answered, “But since it’s through the mountains, I expect it will be hilly and twisty.”
“I think I’ll take the map for the highway. We were on a hilly road yesterday and it made us all carsick.”

Avoiding the hilly road to get to a 105 mile mountain pass seemed a bit shortsighted and I predicted spectacular carsickness on a grand scale for this family. I tried to get a peek at her vehicle so I could look for them on our drive today, but she raced away too quickly.

I confirmed our directions and we set off. We opted for the hilly, twisty road as a sort of appetizer for Skyline Drive.

It was a beautiful ride. We got on Skyline Drive about 30 miles along the way, but since the speed limit was 35 and the views were spectacular, the 75 miles we were on the road took us almost four and a half hours.

We stopped at many scenic overlooks to enjoy the scenic scenery.
 (Scenic scenery.)

We crossed the Appalachian Trail more than once and were spared the olfactory ordeal of actually coming within smelling distance of any thru-hikers.

(Hiding from smelly thru-hikers.)

After Skyline Drive, we finished our drive along The Blue Ridge Parkway instead of hopping on the interstate. It probably added an extra hour to our drive, but although my rear-end is sore, my eyes are happy. It was another gorgeous drive through the mountains.

(More scenic scenery.)

The timing of the drive today meant that we missed lunch, so we arrived in Lexington hungry. We checked in at the hotel, a Country Inn & Suites, and went out in search of dinner.

After dinner, we returned to the hotel so the kids could swim. The only reason they wanted to come on this vacation in the first place is because we booked hotels with pools.

The lobby of this hotel is brown. I mention this because my mother is a frequent traveler and has developed an odd theory about travel. Brown lobbies are an unmistakable, irrefutable sign of a lousy hotel. If she goes into a hotel to book a room and the lobby is brown, she turns around and leaves.

The pool area in our brown lobbied hotel is dark and somewhat disreputable looking. If the hotel has a bad section of town, the pool is it. Sitting in the dim, moribund lighting sapped my will to live and I had to leave the area lest I become terminally depressed and cast myself into the pool’s turbid depths.
The kids would have been happy to splash around in the murky pool all night, although Tori expressed a fear that there may be a crocodile hiding in the deep end.
“It’s 4 feet deep and I can’t see the bottom,” she whispered to me.
Whispering was unnecessary. For some odd reason, we were the only people at the pool.

I’ll be sure to check the lobby color of the next place we stay in.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Virginia Travel Journal - Day 2 - April 25, 2011

Today began with an all you can possibly gag down breakfast buffet of industrial strength, commercial grade food-like substances. Alex and Tori were both greatly enamored of the “Make Your Own Waffle” attraction featured in the hotel feedlot.

I waded my way through some coffee and even rashly attempted a waffle before setting off in search of an auto parts store for more brake fluid and some brake cleaner. It seems that having a car that stops on demand will be desirable when driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I eventually found what I needed and got busy making the hotel seem even more attractive by jacking my car up and fixing the brakes in the parking lot. An angry, sweaty guy doing auto repair in the lot can’t help but class up any hotel.

After I was sure that the car would stop, we packed up and headed off to spend the day underground exploring the caverns that all of Virginia seems to be built upon.

We began at Shenandoah Caverns (“The Only Caverns in Virginia with an Elevator!”), part of a sprawling entertainment complex so tacky that it made me tingle with joy. Our guide through the caverns–Cleatus or Cooter or Jeb, or whatever his name was–seemed intent only on getting through the caverns as quickly as possible. Early in the tour he asked a visitor what time it was.


“Well, that ‘splains it,” he drawled, “If’n I was at school now, ‘steada here, I’d be at lunch.”

I don’t know what that explained exactly and I really had no desire to probe the matter any more deeply.

We saw some very cool rock formations including the Bacon Formation. Sadly, it looked much better than the waffle I had eaten at breakfast.

(Bacon rock!)
As we wound our way through the incredibly beautiful caverns, the guide snapped off the lights in each room as soon as we left it, no doubt in an effort to remind us that this was his lunch time. He seemed to hesitate at one intersection.

“Usually we go that way next,” he said, indicating one passageway, “But shoot, I been doin’ this here tour for like two and a half years. It’s boring. I think I’m gonna mix up a little today.”

He then ushered us down the other passageway.

Throughout the tour, Kerri was pursued by a slightly creepy guy in sweat pants who was insistent upon telling her about his experiences climbing through the sewers of New York City in his youth. He seemed to find some parallel between the sewer systems of New York and a network of stunningly beautiful natural caverns in rural Virginia. If that parallel exists, I have been grievously misinformed about New York’s sewers.

When our tour ended and we finally released the guide so he could have his lunch, we slipped over to the other attractions included in our ticket price. Main Street Parade USA was a sprawling warehouse of parade floats “From ACTUAL Parades!!”
 (creepiest parade float ever.)
We wandered around for a bit and then went to The Yellow Barn, which did not have a motto or a slogan, but I will happily supply one for free. “Lots of cheap, Chinese crap for sale at unreasonably high prices!”

We slipped away for lunch before heading off to Luray Caverns, alleged to be the largest caverns in the eastern half of the country.

What these caverns lacked in elevator service, they made up for in sheer volume of people crammed into the caverns. The caverns were breathtakingly gorgeous. They went on and on, each room opening into another, even more amazing spectacle. We went on a 1.4 mile stroll through the most gorgeous rock formations I have ever seen. They were even more beautiful than I can possibly imagine New York’s sewers to be.

We meandered through the caverns, listening to the self-guided tour and allowing hundreds of people to race past us. They all seemed to be in a terrible hurry to get to the gift shop so they could buy a souvenir from the caverns they barely saw. They raced from point to point along the path, listening to the self-guided tour headsets at ear-battering decibels.

“Did you hear that?” a wife would yell to her husband.
“What?” he would yell back.
“It says that the formations grow one cubic inch every hundred and twenty years!” she would yell.
“I’m not at that part yet!” he would yell back.
I saw one lady ask one of the many guides posted throughout the caverns, “How many more rooms are there until we can go to the gift shop?”
“A lot,” he answered.
And she seemed disappointed.

The only person who didn’t seem to go whizzing past us was one old man, tastefully bedecked for a day of caving in a three piece suit. He pottered along near us, seeming to match his pace to ours solely for the purpose of irritating me. He struck up random conversations with everyone he passed. He began a few conversations with me, but the tour headphones gave me an excellent cover for pretending that I did not hear him.

(Me ignoring the creepy old guy.)
He eventually gave up on me and turned to another man nearby. “The air seems remarkable pure down here,” he observed. Then he chuckled and added, “But I just polluted it a bit.”
We ran a little then.
In the caverns, we saw some amazing sights. My favorite was Dream Lake, a shallow pond so still and smooth that it gave an amazing illusion of depth by reflecting the stalactites above it.
 (the stalagmites on the bottom are actually reflections of stalactites!)
There was also a small pool that served as a wishing well. Our audio tour explained that it was nearly six feet deep, but typically it was filled with up to four feet of coins. Last year–because whenever people see water, they feel compelled to throw coins in it–they shoveled over $50,000 from the well and donated it to charity. I’m considering installing one of them in my front yard.
Or applying as a charity.
After the caverns, we exited through the Olde Tyme Gift Shoppe and managed, somehow, to resist buying the ubiquitous polished rocks that seem to be a staple of every gift shop in the world.
We went across the street to the Historical Museum. It was sadly devoid of people, most of them were busy to buy huge foam hats at the Gift Shoppe cross the street.
The museum had some fascinating displays, including an actual Civil War field shower so amazingly complicated I realized that the south lost the war because they were too busy trying to figure out how to set up their showers.
There were also old clothes, ice skates, weapons, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a dog-powered butter churner. For real.
And then there was another Gift Shoppe. Sadly, they did not sell replica dog-powered butter churners, but I asked to be put on the waiting list should they every start production again.
Satisfied with our subterranean exploits for the day, we headed back to the hotel so the kids could swim and Kerri could spend the rest of the evening scrambling to change all our hotel reservations for the rest of the trip.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Virginia Vacation Journal: Day 1

Day 1 - April 24, 2011

We made it all the way to the southern part of Connecticut before the brake light came on. The sphincter-puckering terror caused by that merry, twinkling, little light was actually helpful, as my bladder had been dangerously full for some time.
We managed to get to a rest area without incident (automotive or scatological) and I hopped out to inspect the car. There was a wet, arcing spray of brake fluid splashed in a delightful rainbow across the wheel well.

Anticipating that our vacation to Virginia would entail butt-numbing amounts of driving, I had the brilliant foresight to do a bit of necessary work on the car last week. I had changed the oil and replaced a sticky front brake caliper. Evidently, I had failed to properly retighten the brake line.

The jack was conveniently buried under everything we had packed. The delight of unpacking everything was enhanced by the steady stream of slack-jawed gawkers who stopped to watch the spectacle of me unpacking everything we owned and jacking up the front wheel of the car to remove the tire.

Several passers-by offered helpful, inspirational comments like, “Oh, my. What a shame.” and “Whoa. Dude. That totally sucks.”

While I appreciated their kind words, they did little to actually elevate my mood and bring me good cheer.

To humanity’s credit, two people did, in fact offer to help. Evidently their winningness to be of assistance did not extend to trading vehicles with us or even chauffeuring us around the eastern seaboard for the next eight days, so I was forced to continue working on the car.

I was eventually able, through the combined disciplines of Patience and Profanity, to staunch the flow of fluid using the rusty pair of slip-joint pliers that I had seen fit to outfit the car with in case of emergency.

We piled our belongings back into the car and, with the show over, the crowd parted and allowed us to begin a frantic search for someplace where we would be able to buy brake fluid on Easter Sunday.

Although the highway had seemed crowded with gas stations up until this point, we spent a slightly tense 30 minutes searching the rural back roads of Connecticut before finding an open gas station. I bought a quart of brake fluid and the clerk asked if I wanted a bag.

“No,” I answered.
“Oh. Dumping it in here?” she asked, “That sucks. Happy Easter!”

A mere six hours later, we pulled into the hotel parking lot–sore, hungry, and tired. We were immediately faced with yet another Easter-based problem.


I would rather eat a bowl of toenail clippings than eat at a fast-food chain, so our choices were somewhat limited. I did manage to locate a Chinese restaurant that was open and I ordered a lavish, opulent feast. The food was delicious and we enjoyed the meal despite the fact that I neglected to get plates, forks, or napkins, so we were forced to grab food from the containers and shovel it directly into our mouths with our hands.

After dinner, we slipped down to the pool to wash up before bed.

I spent the night tossing and turning, trying to decide what would be the easiest way to perform a brake job in the hotel parking lot in the morning.