When the Power Goes Out at the Beach, Hit the Mountains

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Who doesn’t love the beach? Our family is no exception. Every year the extended bunch hits the Outer Banks in North Carolina, renting several houses and meeting up to enjoy the sun, water, and one another’s company in a beautiful setting. The vacation is planned a year in advance, and my sons, Corey & Mason, look forward to this time to play in the sand with their cousins,Sydney & Evan, and extended cousins – and yell at me in protest that they don’t really need any sunscreen – all year long. (Above is a shot of our alternative vacation – Deep Creek Lake, in the mountains of MD.)

So you can imagine the devastation we all felt when a bridge construction accident led to the severing of the power to Ocracoke Island as well as Hatteras Island (where our rented house sat, unoccupied, beckoning to us) a mere two days before our vacation was set to begin. Lights out, my friends!

A flurry of activity began the moment the lights went out. A mandatory evacuation of Ocracoke Island was announced, and ferries ran non-stop to take the tourists off the tiny remote island. Only residents and employees were allowed to remain. I thought, okay, well, there goes our annual trek to Howard’s Pub, our favorite restaurant/bar on Ocracoke, with its huge welcoming screened-in deck and wonderful food and draft beer selections. But! Perhaps the rest of Hatteras Island would not suffer the same fate, and we would be able to go, even if there was limited power supplied by generators and we had to forego A/C and rely on charcoal grills to cook our food. Glamping sounded pretty good to me, considering that the weather was supposed to top out at a high of 81 degrees, the house we rented was gorgeous, AND the beach access was the same, with our without power.

With this hope in mind, and considering that the car was already packed for our vacation, we set off for Kill Devil Hills, which is not as remote as Hatteras Island, even though it is still part of the Outer Banks. We had pre-paid for a room at the Quality Inn (it’s a dump – don’t go there – and that’s all I’m going to say on that subject), and we were still hopeful that the power might be restored before our vacation was set to begin. We left at 4:30 AM and reached the Outer Banks by 10:30 AM, giving us almost the whole day to enjoy.

And we did. We visited the Wright Brother’s Museum – a place we’d always wanted to see, but in the past had just driven by as we powered our way all the way out to Hatteras Island. It was really fun. We listened to an informative speech by a park ranger and then meandered around the site, seeing the marked take-off and landing spots the Wright Brothers used, and taking in the spectacular views after we hiked all the way up to the memorial. This is a shot of us up at the memorial. As usual, I’m not looking at the camera.

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Afterword we did lunch at Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar. The sky lounge, where we had appetizers and drafts as we looked over the ocean, was my favorite part, but it was a nice little lunch spot. Then it was on to the beach! The best part of our hotel was that it’s beach front, and we got ready and hit the beach for a few hours, making the kids wildly happy and allowing us some time to relax.

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After cleaning up, we hit Goombay’s for dinner, and the seafood was wonderful. I had red snapper in a creamy but still light sauce and some delicious chardonnay, and it was a hit with the kids too. Plus we could walk there from the hotel – nice on the way out, but not so much on the way back, because a storm was threatening to blow my hair into a fashion that would only have been acceptable in the ’80s. We opted for Uber instead.

During our stay in Kill Devil Hills, we learned that our trip to the Hatteras Island house was officially canceled (boo!), but my wonderful mother-in-law (who we had rented the house with, along with my BIL and his wife) had spent the better part of the day booking us a back-up vacation in Deep Creek Lake, MD. The only minor issue with this plan for us is that Deep Creek is 400 miles from Kill Devil Hills, but we thought – who cares? We’d never been there before. And if the boys had been denied their week with the cousins, we might have found ourselves in a tenser situation than the current nuclear stand-off between the US and North Korea. Would you want to go there? Me neither.

We scarfed some breakfast and then meandered back to the beach to dip our toes in the sand….

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……for about 20 minutes before throwing our suitcase back in the car and hitting the road, Jack. I was personally really excited for part deux of our vacation adventure, and while it was a boatload of driving, I’m not sorry we did either part.

We drove in via the West Virginia route in order to avoid 95 traffic horrors, and that was the right choice. We saw all sorts of beautiful scenery along the way, and lost our beach chairs off the roof on a back road rather than a highway (oops), which possibly saved somebody’s life. The strap holding them up there snapped after hundreds of miles of my driving. Rossen Reports has already phoned me about filming a reenactment of the incident.

But we made it safely, after about 8 hours of travel, in time for dinner with the rest of the family. The house was gorgeous, high up on the mountain, and offered a spectacular view of the lake below (the first picture in this post is the view from our house). Here are the kids, looking down at us from their loft:

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The next day we pretty much hit the ground running, and we took advantage of the many activities that Deep Creek offers at the resort. Here are the 10 of us before our adventures began:

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First, we hit the mountain coaster, which is a no joke thrill-ride down the mountain that had me swearing and vowing to never do it again, while Mason (who drew the short straw and got stuck with me as a partner) yelled “Mom! Don’t hit the breaks! Here comes another turn! WOOOOHOOOO!” He was terrified to do it beforehand, and then he was a total maniac and wanted to hit it 10 more times after he did it. Typical Mason. Corey also loved it, and, since he’s 12, he was old enough to drive one of the coaster cars himself. Nobody died during this event, so I guess it was a success.

This is Amanda & Sydney (with Shawn) on the coaster before going up on the mountain coaster:

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And then a shot as they were heading up the mountain (scenic chair lift on the right):

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But that was by no means the scariest event of the day. Not. Even. Close.

After the mountain coaster, eight of us, including the four kids and their parents, hit the Spider Monkey obstacle course. Here we all are, thinking “This is gonna rock!” Idiots.

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This course ends with a 200-foot zip line, and that was a lot of fun, but the rest of it turned me into a terrified shaking weenie. The course is maybe 20 feet up in the air, but it felt like about 200 feet when I was up there, and I’m not even afraid of heights. It starts with a 40-foot spider web that you have to pull yourself through, stepping on wildly moving ropes and grabbing onto ropes with your hands, and the ground looks mighty far down as you swing all over the place and pray your arms don’t give out before you make it to the other side. Here is Evan, showing us how it’s done:

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Then you make it to the other side platform. Where another obstacle awaits you. A rope bridge that swings all over the place. Sydney demonstrates her agility here:

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Then it’s a skate board attached to some ropes, just floating through the air. I don’t want to skateboard on the ground. I don’t know why I thought it would be fun to skateboard through the air. The hardest obstacle for me was the next one – a bunch of long boards, spaced at angles, dangling from ropes, so that your balance was all over the place and the next foothold/rope to grab was always just out of your reach, forcing you to jump/grab for it to advance.

It ain’t over yet.

Before the zip line course conclusion, a balance beam awaits you. With a huge gap in the middle and nothing to hold onto. At this point I thought, well, that’s all she wrote. The fire department is going to have to come and rescue me with a ladder. Or maybe they can just knock me off with the hose. But either way, I was pretty sure it was over.

Until it wasn’t, and I pretty much just ran across and then hugged the pole on the platform at the other side. I thought about kissing it, opted to retain the tiniest shred of dignity,  and instead jumped off and did the zip line to the end, where I also considered throwing up. I did not throw up. Amanda felt the same way, but she too managed to do it. Girl power!

Where were the kids during all this, you ask? All four of them just beasted out and did the course before any of the adults even started. They were out of their harnesses and cheering (or jeering) us on from the ground. Stinkers. Fearless stinkers. But still – stinkers. Here’s Corey doing the zip line like a boss:

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From there we recuperated with the 30-minute scenic chairlift up the mountain, and it was spectacular. Deep Creek is not only home to summer lake fun, but also winter activities with the Wisp Ski Resort.

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We hit Honi Honi for a fun happy hour and views of the lake, including a mama with her baby ducks in tow, afterward. I’d go there again in hot second, despite the fact that the server got all our drink orders wrong. That speaks to the ambiance, for sure. The crab dip and fresh guacamole were delicious, too. The kids found this massive chair at Honi Honi:

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The next day featured mini golf and Funland for the kids, plus a trip to the lakeside beach. There is sand there, and roped off swimming, but there are also rocks galore. The kids really liked it, but we needed swim shoes and giant floaties to really enjoy it. Next time.

The next day the event was a relaxing and informative pontoon boat tour. The listed time was an hour, but our tour guide was clearly on island time, because we cruised calmly around the lake for closer to 90 minutes. This was a highlight for me. It was just so beautiful and serene out there, plus it was fun to look at the houses on the lake as well as the other people enjoying water sports from speed boating to wave runners to water skiing to tubing off the back of other boats. Here are some shots from the pontoon boat:

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We decided to do a morning hike the next day, and we hit Swallow Falls State Park for a gorgeous trek through the woods. The kids loved it. The adults loved it. The temperature was great in the shade of the forest, and we did the whole loops, taking some side paths and wandering onto the rocks right next to the various waterfalls in the park. There were moments when I thought I might slip on a rock and find myself swept away by the rapidly churning water, but luckily this didn’t happen. Swallow Falls pictures:

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After our hike, we rewarded ourselves with a visit to the Lakeside Creamery, where they make all their own ice cream, and it is delicious. We made our selections and then sat at a picnic table and enjoyed the lake views while we ate. Mason and his ice cream cone (birthday cake and cotton candy in a waffle cone):

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Damian, Corey and I decided to hit the lake the following morning for a wave runner adventure. It was SPECTACULAR! The best wave runner experience of my life. We had total freedom on the lake, and since it’s 65 miles around, we had a TON of ground to cover. And cover it we did. At break-neck speeds that made me think I might go flying off the back while my husband tried to reenact the motorcycle scene with Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.” I didn’t really object, though, until we started doing donuts. At which point he said, “We have to show our son a good time.”

Uh huh.

The rest of the family was set to kayak that afternoon, but there weren’t enough kayaks. This was sad for the adults, but good for the kids, because we ended up at Inflatable Water Park, which none of us had ever done before, and they just LOVED. They climbed up these huge inflatables – think bounce houses made for the water – jumped or slid off the tops, swam/ran around water obstacles, and just generally got crazy for the duration of their time. During which the adults enjoyed margaritas and a lovely view from the picnic table. Until a lightning bolt caused immediate evacuation, but there was only about a minute left on their time at that point, so who cared? The inflatable water park shots:

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We also found a fun little bar/restaurant right at the water park called Ace’s Run with a spectacular balcony overlooking the lake:

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Damian took the boys back to Wisp the next day to re-do the mountain coaster and also to do the next-level zip lining course, the hour-long canopy tour, and hit Ace’s Run for a late lunch afterward with his brother, Amanda, and the cousins. After the Spider Monkey, there was no way I was going to try the canopy tour, and it sounded intense from what the boys said. High atop the trees, with rope bridges, huge zips, and two crazy 20-year-old guides who tried to shake them off the challenges. No thanks. I like my book.

In between all these wild activities, we ate some excellent meals, drank some really good wines, and played a lot of corn hole and cards. Overall, it was an excellent adventure. Damian and I are considering buying a lake house and retiring up there. If we do, you should come and visit us. Here we are on our last night, looking stupid-happy considering we were about to roll out. I guess we had a good time!

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The Night We Ate a Whole Duck

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That’s right! I ate a whole duck. Or rather, I ate about half a duck, since my husband gets credit for sharing the duck with me. I think this vastly improves my street cred. Above is a shot of us as we were heading in to dinner from Parasol Down (a gorgeous spot for a drink) at The Wynn.

What is she talking about? I’m talking about Wing Lei, Las Vegas, located in The Wynn Hotel, which is the first Michelin-rated Chinese restaurant in the country. They offer a chef’s tasting (with wine pairing, if you like) menu that features several courses made with – you guessed it! – one perfectly-roasted Peking duck. But who wants to eat that much duck? I didn’t. In fact, when Damian suggested we embark on this culinary adventure, I said, “That’s a lot of duck.” But adventure is the right word for it, and it was absolutely amazing.

When we sat down, I was struck by the lovely decor, and then taken completely by surprise when I tried to hang my purse off the side of my chair only to be offered a chair for my purse. And this was no extra chair they had lying around. It was a gorgeous little mini affair that looked like it would be really comfortable if I were either a two-year-old or a purse. This is the kind of luxurious detail that I never would have anticipated, but really appreciated. Who wants to put their purse on the dirty floor? I need a purse chair!

We were greeted, confirmed that we wanted the Peking duck tasting with the wine pairing, and then our adventure began! First, our duck was brought to the table, looking perfectly roasted and whole, with a white towel wrapped discreetly around its head. This nearly sent me into a fit of giggles, but I guess the alternatives were not great. Either they wave a headless duck in front of your face, at which point maybe you decide to bail or potentially become a vegetarian, or they offer Daffy with his dead eyes staring at you and his beak sadly flopping open with his tongue lolling out the side. “I’ll just have the fish. Thanks.” We approved our duck (I wonder what happens if you say, “I don’t like that duck.”), and we began our adventure.

Out came the sommelier with our first wine, which was a lovely port. The first course of duck was served table side. Bits of crispy and tender duck were sliced off in neat, thin strips and served on delicate pancakes with thinly sliced cucumbers and spring onions, topped with a hoison sauce. The richness of the meat was perfect with the crispness and slight sweetness of the port. This was my favorite course, though I enjoyed them all.

Next we were presented with a duck salad, perfectly plated, and a Chardonnay. It was not overdressed, and I’d never had duck as part of a salad before. Delicious.

After the salad came duck soup. This was paired with a white wine made from a grape that I am completely unfamiliar with, and sadly I can’t remember what it was, but it was once again the perfect choice with the soup. Bite-sized pieces of duck, along with noodles and some other flavorful items were brought to us in the bowls, and then the server poured a thin, not-too-salty broth over top of this at the table. I love that kind of a presentation with soup.

Then it was the main course, which was a wok-fried duck, served with a rich and delicious rice full of exotic mushrooms on the side. I could not finish this part, but each bite I took was delectable. This was paired with a German red wine. The fact that it was German and red took me by surprise, as I’m more familiar with the white wines from that country, but it was quite good and matched up with the course very well.

Finally, as I was considering waving my white flag of surrender, dessert appeared along with a dessert wine. The dessert was some kind of a mousse topped with a hard white and dark chocolate domed shell served over a chewy brownie. The brownie portion was a little dry, but the mousse was light, smooth and creamy – a nice way to end a very rich meal. We were also brought little truffles and mini pineapple upside down cupcakes to go.

It was a fantastic experience, and I’m so glad we went. The sommelier was knowledgeable, friendly, and attentive, and while I am often disappointed in the small pours that come with a wine pouring, I was not at all disappointed at Wing Lei. There was enough wine in my glass to have a sip with each bite, if I wanted to, and a bit left at the end of each course to linger over. The meal was perfectly paced, also. I really can’t say enough good things about it. It’s crazy expensive, but worth it. Just don’t shoot craps after you’re full of everything the sommelier offers you – if you’re like us, you’ll have a great time, but it won’t go well…….

We did not take any pictures of our food. What were we thinking? Clearly, we weren’t. But here are a couple of shots of us dressed for dinner, once again at Parasol Down, and then one of me at the end of the meal at Wing Lei, with my eyes closed, holding up not a white flag of surrender but a little “happy anniversary” chocolate, since this was our (belated) anniversary celebration.

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You can see the restaurant’s decor in the background of this last shot. I had a great time taunting Damian for his pink drink in the previous shot. It had lavender in it. If you asked me the very last drink I’d think Damian would ever order, I might say, “A pink fruity drink with a purple flower in it.” Guess I was wrong about that. After I took his picture with the foo-foo drink, I then managed to take about 15 shots of my own drink (a glass of Trefethen Chardonnay) on the table. Oops.

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And finally, this is the view from our hotel room at The Wynn:

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Not too shabby. We had a marvelous breakfast at the lovely Terrace Cafe the next morning, but that is a story for another day….

Alcatraz!

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Alcatraz. “The Rock.” One of the world’s most famous prisons, located in the middle of the choppy but beautiful waters of the San Francisco Bay, California, was home to some of the most infamous prisoners in US history from 1934 until it closed in 1963. We visited the island last week and were transported back in time by the imposing sights of the prison itself as well as the voices and sounds presented in the impeccably crafted audio tour. Before I continue with our experience, here is some information on The Rock’s most famous prisoners as well as The Great Escape (click on the links below for more information).

Famous Inmates: The most infamous inmates on The Rock included Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud (The Birdman of Alcatraz), just to name a few.

Al Capone, otherwise known as Scarface, was of course the famous Italian-American gangster who rose to notoriety in the Prohibition era in Chicago. He was a violent bootlegger with a profitable relationship with Chicago’s mayor, which gave him protection from the law. Until 7 rival gang members were killed in public during the 1929 Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, at which point he became “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Capone was eventually captured, tried, and sent to Atlanta US Penitentiary at the age of 32 in 1933. He suffered from syphilis and cocaine withdrawal. After rumors of special treatment there, he was subsequently sent to Alcatraz, where he would serve 4 1/2 years.

George “Machine Gun” Kelly. This is the guy I think of when the picture of a Prohibition era gangster, tommy gun in hand, comes to mind. At the age of 19, Kelly was married with 2 children, but found himself unable to support his family on his meager taxi cab driver wages. He split from his wife and started down the path to his bootlegging career. By 1927 he’d already begun to earn a reputation as a tough underground gangster, but it was Kathryn Thorne, who he met and then married in 1930, who is believed to be the true mastermind behind his reputation.

It was Thorne who gave Kelly his signature tommy gun, and she masterfully marketed her husband by passing out the spent cartridges and calling her husband “Machine Gun” at every opportunity. His crime sprees, while small time before Thorne entered the picture, soon rocketed him to the status of “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Eventually Kelly was caught and imprisoned in Leavenworth, but he bragged that he would escape and break his wife out of prison as well. These boasts were taken seriously, and led to his transfer to Alcatraz in 1934, where he remained until 1951.

 

Robert Stroud, The Birdman of Alcatraz. In 1909, Stroud murdered a bartender who didn’t pay for the services of one of Stroud’s prostitutes, then raided his wallet to pay the girl and take his own cut. After being tried and convicted, he was known as a violent and unruly prisoner, and he eventually stabbed a prison guard to death in front of over a thousand other prisoners in the mess hall. After this incident, he was kept in solitary confinement.

While at Leavenworth, he developed an interest in canaries, and he was allowed to research them during his 30 years at the prison. In 1942, he was transferred to Alcatraz, where he spent the next 17 years.

 

The Great Escape: The worst of the worst were sent to Alcatraz because it was believed to be impossible to escape from The Rock. Even if a prisoner could get out of a locked cell and escape the prison walls, how would anyone be able to swim the frigid, rough waters and manage the swift currents of the San Francisco Bay? Still, several escape attempts were made in the history of Alcatraz.

Frank Lee Morris masterminded Alcatraz’s most famous escape alongside accomplices Allen West and brothers John and Clarence Anglin. The complex plan included lifelike dummies made from concrete blocks, paint from prison art kits, and even human hair from the barbershop. When prison guards passed by to do head counts after lights out, these dummies were good enough to fool them into thinking the prisoners were still in their cells. Additionally, over 50 raincoats were used to fashion life preservers and a life raft for the escapees.

On June 11, 1962, after lights out, Morris placed the dummies on the bunks, and along with the Anglin brothers, climbed 30 feet of plumbing to the roof, made the way precariously over 100 feet of rooftop, then climbed down 50 feet of piping to the ground. West was left behind. Morris and the Anglin brothers were never seen again.

 

Our Visit

Alcatraz is a national park now, and we visited on July 7th, 2017.  Our family went with my brother and his wife and children. I loved it. The kids loved it. We all loved it. All four of the little ones were all in for the entire event. Here’s a shot of us during the audio tour:

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We got up that morning, ate a light breakfast, and then we drove a mile to the ferry dock. The ferry ride was about 25 minutes to San Francisco, and this is how my brother commutes daily. He rides his bike the mile to the ferry, rides the boat over the gorgeous bay, and then bikes the last 5 miles to work. The ferry ride to San Francisco was a big event for my kids. They loved it. And really, all of us seemed to enjoy it. Here are the kids on the ferry:

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To get to Alcatraz from San Francisco, you have to take another ferry. Tickets for this must be purchased well in advance. The day we went, people were trying to buy tickets for that day only to be told that the next available excursion was not until August 19th. Yikes. Our tickets were for the 12:30 ferry, and at noon we were in line and prepared to board.
Although the ferry ride over to the prison was really pretty, the prison itself was wickedly imposing, from a distance and particularly so close up. Such a stark contrast to the beauty of both the bay and the city. And they pointed this out a couple of times on the audio tour – that these prisoners were forced to see all that is good in life, just out of their reach, every day. Here is a shot of the bay and the city beyond from Alcatraz.
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We landed on The Rock, were greeted by an employee of the park who offered us some general instructions, and then set out on foot for our tour. We started with a 17 minute video on the history of the place, after which all 8 of us picked up the audio tour equipment, which the workers synchronized for us, and that was wonderful. This allowed us to hear the tour at the same pace, even though we all had individual head phones. The way it’s organized is fantastic too. Everyone on the island doesn’t start the tour in the same place. When we began the audio tour, other groups went right or straight, so we weren’t a giant mob of krill working our way around together. Very well done.
The cells themselves were all individual. Just a bed and a small table and a toilet. We also saw the D block cells – solitary confinement. I walked into one of those cells and walked right back out. I can’t imagine being in a cell like that, in the pitch dark, 24 hours a day. We also saw the mess hall, the guard’s station, and each of the different cell blocks.
When the tour took us outside, we saw incredible views of the bay from up on high, and we saw the ruins of the warden’s home. That place, though it’s just a shell now, looked pretty amazing. Brick, with fireplaces, and just unbelievable views of the bay and city. I was surprised to learn that the prison workers lived on the island with their families. It was a whole little community, and the wives that were interviewed as part of the audio tour said raising their families on the island was amazing. I think I’d be a little freaked out by the level of scary humans in such close proximity to my kids. But the place is remarkably beautiful. The kids are just next to the ruins of the Warden’s house here:
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In all of Alcatraz, the thing that Mason wanted to see most was the concrete heads (mentioned above in my description of The Great Escape). Just to quickly reiterate, a few of the prisoners, for an escape attempt, used concrete and carved it out to look like human heads, so that when the guards came by at night to do a head count, they saw these dummies in the cells and thought they were the actual prisoners.
And, last but not least, we met an actual prisoner from Alcatraz! William Baker. He’s 83, and was finally released from prison at the age of 80. He wrote a book, and he was there signing books. We bought a copy and got it signed, along with a picture alongside Damian and Mason. Here’s a little snippet of what Baker said about his 3 years in Alcatraz. “A human being can adjust to just about anything. We found happiness comes in small packages. To a junkyard dog, a bone is pure heaven. The food was alright and once we got a job, we could get out of our cell during the day and go to work…I don’t regret the experience because I met some really great people there. People who I thought were great anyway. They just liked to rob banks.”
Here’s a picture of Damian and Mason along with actual Alcatraz prisoner William Baker:
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Overall, an excellent experience, and another item to cross of of my bucket list! Photographs courtesy of my talented sister in law, Jen Huff, from Jen Huff Photography.

Walt Disney World!

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     We have just returned from a fabulous vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida. Corey’s and Mason’s grandparents, Conni & Tom (AKA Nanny & Papa) were kind enough to take all of us, including Aunt Amanda, Uncle Shawn, and cousins Sydney & Evan, on an absolutely amazing 5-day adventure. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for their kindness and generosity. It was the trip of a lifetime for our family, and none of us will ever forget it.
     We stayed at Port Orleans in the French Quarter, which was lovely. If you haven’t been there, it’s supposed to feel like New Orleans. I’m not sure how much it really felt like NOLA, but it was very pretty, and I had some yummy spicy gumbo there. Also, the bus rides/ferry rides to the different parks from the FQ were perfectly reasonable, and the rooms were very nice, so we were quite happy. The kids, of course, were just excited about the pool and arcade. Pools and arcades are everywhere in the world. Epcot and Magic Kingdom, not so much. This logic escaped them.
     We had park hopper passes, and the plan was Monday to visit Epcot, then Tuesday at Animal Kingdom, Wednesday at Magic Kingdom, Thursday at Hollywood Studios, and back to Magic Kingdom for Friday with some hops between during the days if we had the time.
     Monday we arrived in Disney at 9:30, checked in, and then headed out to Epcot. Our first fastpass of the day was set for 11 AM. We took the bus from the hotel (Disney does have transportation down to a science), and when a woman with a baby got on the crowded bus, Tom stood up to offer her his seat. Mason said, “Papa is so nice.” What a good example of kindness and consideration for others to set for the boys. Here are some of us at the Epcot bridge. Spaceship Earth is in the background.
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     When we arrived at Epcot, it was obviously already open, and there was a huge line to get through security. I expected Disney to be busy, but that was an eye opener. As we waited for the fastpass, we walked around and found the only fast attraction, which was a terrible movie about man’s destruction of the environment, complete with all sorts of horrifying pictures of what our country looked like before the EPA, which should be playing on a loop in the White House for the current administration. It was a good lesson for the kids, but man was it depressing.
     Luckily the day went very well after that! We hit our first fastpass, which was for Spaceship Earth. Which I loved. I’m a big, big fan of rides that you sit in and are taken through as you look at beautifully detailed animatronics, and this ride did not disappoint. It was a journey through time on our planet, the evolution of man and technology, told through these lovely scenes with lifelike cavemen, ancient Egyptians, Renaissance painters, 1960s families, culminating in a breathtaking view of Earth from space and personalized with some computerized choices about what you’d like the future to be. Loved it. Mason loved it too, and we ended up riding it twice more as the week progressed.
     We spent the rest of that day riding whatever we could cram in. We all loved Soarin’ – it was a long wait, but well worth it. Sitting in a roller-coaster type seat and then being lifted into the air as though you were flying, feet dangling below you as you watched a massive screen and flew through the plains of Africa while smelling grass as the animals trampled it – just awesome. The kids’ faces were adorable. Frozen Ever After was a major hit – Elsa and Anna and ice castles. Can’t beat that. We also discovered a little hidden gem – in Mexico there’s an indoor restaurant that also has a ride tucked inside it that I’d describe as It’s a Small World, but for Mexico. Here’s the building:
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     Dinner was in the Bier Garten in Germany. Sign me up for the Bier Garten!  I had a beer flight and enough sausage and weiner schnitzel to feed a small village. And there was a potato/leek soup that was SOOO good. Not to mention the perfect bite-size desserts, such as black forest cake and cheesecake. Yummy. Add to this fact that there was live entertainment that enraptured the kids, and now we’re cooking with gas. They ate and enjoyed while the adults sipped, ate, and enjoyed. Tom’s beer was the size of a keg, and really I’d go back there again in a hot second. Except that Corey may be banned for attempting to eat all of the salmon in the restaurant. I think he had 5 servings. Check out the live talent:
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     When we were finished dinner, we spent time wandering around the countries of Epcot, taking in their beauty and trying some of the wine/beer. Mason and Sydney wanted to meet Snow White, and Conni was kind enough to take them while the guys were off riding Test Track.
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     So Amanda and I went to Italy and had a wine flight. Man I love a good wine/beer flight. And it’s so beautiful there – the details in all of the countries are breathtaking and so quaint. Italy is behind us in this shot:
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     Tuesday we hit Animal Kingdom and started out with Expedition Everest. That coaster is LEGIT. The entrance to the ride is decked out with so much wonderful detail that you feel as if you’re preparing to climb Everest yourself. It’s amazing. The coaster itself climbs to the top for you, where you discover broken track that was broken by the Yeti, at which point you find yourself flying backwards into the dark depths of the mountain. I don’t like backwards and dark. Neither did Mason. The photo we got from this ride is a clear statement of how Mason felt about it.
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     The African safari ride was AWESOME. We loved riding in the big 32-person JEEP and seeing the animals so close up. Rhinos, giraffes, hippos, elephants – all right there, not in cages or enclosures. Even lions. One day a Disney guest is going to be stupid enough to whip out a bloody roast beef sandwich and get eaten on that ride, at which point it will close permanently, so I’m glad I got to ride it before that happens. The driver had to threaten the guy behind us about 10 times as he lifted his kid up like bait.
     We also rode a river rapids ride which resulted in my complete soaking due to poor seating choice. Well unlucky seating choice, anyway. Damian and I went down a hill sideways together and just got pummeled by a wave. BAM! So I was wet for most of the day. But Corey loved it, and the weather was really good, so it was slightly uncomfortable, but no big deal. When we wrapped that park up, we went out for drinks with Shawn & Amanda at Disney Springs, where there were Corona-ritas involved. Luckily there is pictorial proof of the 1950s car that was cruising around in the lake, or I might have thought I’d imagined it.
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     Tuesday night we had a wonderful buffet dinner to celebrate Shawn’s birthday, then it was off to Magic Kingdom on Wednesday morning! We hit the 8 AM bus to be at Adventureland at rope drop. That was the right choice, because we were able to hit Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain (twice!) and the Haunted Mansion before our first fastpass opened up. Mason was terrified to ride the Haunted Mansion. So Damian and I smashed him between us in the seat, he wailed and complained the whole time about what evil, horrible parents we were, and then promptly announced that we had to do it again, preferably that very second, and that it is, in fact, his favorite ride.
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     We spent the whole day in Magic Kingdom, enjoying everything from the Peter Pan ride to the Jungle Cruise to It’s a Small World. Lunch was enjoyed at Be Our Guest, with a Beauty and the Beast theme that fell absolutely flat as far as ease for patrons to get their food and sit down to relax. Even with a reservation we had to wait in line for 40 minutes with a bunch of hot hangry people to order our food while standing at a kiosk like we were checking our own bags at the Southwest kiosks in the airport. Not a good setup. Apparently it’s different at dinner. However, the food was fantastic. I had a salad Nicoise with rare tuna and the freshest vegetables, paired with a potato/leek soup and capped off by a lemon mirangue cupcake. The kids loved the ambience, which was Disney.
     Thursday we started out with a breakfast with Mickey that the kids just loved. They got to see all the characters while chowing down on cinnamon buns.
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     After breakfast, we hit Hollywood Studios for a fun tram ride through Hollywood sets. This is my kind of ride – sitting and cruising through an air-conditioned ride, appreciating all the beautiful colors and sights that are made as only Disney can. We saw movie sets from Singin’ in the Rain, Fiddler on the Roof, Mary Poppins, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, Casablanca, and the kids favorite – The Wizard of Oz, the perfect picture of Munchkin Land, complete with a visit in a puff of smoke from and animatronic Wicked Witch of the West. The other adults hit the Tower of Terror while I took the kids on a less-terrifying 4-D adventure with the Muppets, which they (and I) all loved. Everybody enjoyed grabbing a beer and sitting down in the shade to watch the Indiana Jones Stunt Show, which was very well done – interesting, exciting, and funny, complete with audience extras. Mason did yell at me for not volunteering to be an extra, and to be fair, it’s the kind of thing I normally would go for. But who would hold my beer? Here we are in Hollywood Studios:
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      A few of us took the ferry back to Epcot after that, where I split off with Sydney and Mason and made them stop for every possible photo opportunity. They were good sports about it, and we rode Spaceship Earth together once again.
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     Friday we bid adieu to the cousins and spent the morning back in Magic Kingdom where we used the skills we’d learned previously to get in a few more rides before the crowds descended. It was a great way to cap off a beautiful vacation, including one last go-round on our favorite, the Haunted Mansion.
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     Thanks again to Conni & Tom for being the best grandparents (and in-laws!) any kid could hope for!
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Let’s Go to Vegas & Rock Crawl in a Jeep

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     Yeah, we did that. Forget gambling in Las Vegas. We went for the full-on adrenaline junkie outdoor adventure with Las Vegas Rock Crawlers on the Logandale Trails. And those trails were no joke. Owners Tim and Quinann let us know that the difficulty level of these trails on a 1-10 scale is a 7. If Logandale is a 7, then I don’t want to see a 10. Ever.
     Here’s what I’ve learned. When my husband says, “Yeah Honey, we’re going to have a little adventure together,” I say, “You have fun with that. I’ll be at the spa.” It’s not like I don’t know Damian. The man jumps out of planes and bungee jumps off bridges. What was I thinking? Apparently I wasn’t, because we pretty much lost our minds and decided to jump in that red Jeep Wrangler. Las Vegas Rock Crawlers is an apt name – those Jeeps literally crawl through the most amazing and terrifying rock obstacles. We crawled that Jeep through some beautiful red rocks – it was totally insane. And while it was terrifying, and I am apparently a rock-crawling weenie, we did love it, and I can’t say enough good things about Las Vegas Rock Crawlers.
     But let me back up and begin at the beginning. We started the tour by meeting several other groups of people (who were also driving that day) on the rooftop deck of The Wynn Hotel at 7:30 AM. There were 2 other couples and a family of 4. The family drove a 4-door Jeep, the rest of us had 2-door Jeeps. We signed some forms and then headed up to Moapa (which is a Native American reservation) to begin our adventure.
     We drove 60 miles in a caravan up to Moapa, and it was FREEZING COLD. We were the last to sign up, so we got the oldest Jeep of the bunch. It’s from 1998, open in the back, and temps were running in the thirties that morning. I had myself wrapped up in a blanket with the heat blasting, and my toes still felt like ice cubes by the time we got there. Not to mention how loud that thing was. Damian and I literally had to yell to hear each other when we were blasting down the highway toward our destination. I must say, being in that caravan was pretty bad ass – people all along the road craned their necks to look at us. It’s not something you see every day – a caravan of red Jeep Wranglers with massive tires barreling down the highway together.
     Before we reached the trail, we stopped at a gas station to let the air out of the tires and flip the Jeeps into 4-wheel drive. From there, it was about 2 miles out to the trails. Once we reached the trail head, there were no other people around. It was amazingly isolated and quiet, and it struck me then that, if any of us got stuck, it was going to be up to us to get unstuck. Or rather up to the rest of the caravan, because I’d probably be busy quaking in fear and/or crying in a bush somewhere.
     Tim instructed all of us to get out of our Jeeps and then showed us the first obstacle. When he said, “So your left front tire is going to drive over this rock right here” – and that rock was straight up and down, I thought he was joking! He was not joking. Tim doesn’t joke about rock crawling. He explained, in terrifying detail, the way to navigate the first obstacle, then I watched with my jaw hanging open as he then demonstrated with his Jeep. Guess who got to go next? Us! And we had the oldest Jeep! Which meant the one that would be hardest to navigate through the obstacles.
     Great. We’re gonna die.
     I got in the Jeep, belted myself in, and white-knuckled my way through that obstacle. Tim stood outside on the rocks and talked Damian through it over my screams of protest. No I am not kidding. I was literally screaming. The Jeep was tilted so far to the right that we were pretty much sideways and my face was about 5 inches from a rock. I thought Damian was going to flip us for sure. I can’t believe we didn’t flip. But Tim was totally calm, and that kept Damian totally calm. I was not calm. My heart was hammering in my chest and I was so scared that I scared the crap out of the rest of the wives. Well, 2 out of the 3 – the family of 4 were totally fearless.
     I got out of the Jeep after that obstacle and did not ride through the next one. I hiked it on my feet. Feet that I trust, unlike my rookie husband driving that ancient Jeep. Damian who said, “Yeah, we might flip,” like he was saying, “Yeah, we might get a steak later.” Nonchalant. Gah! Roll bar or not, I did not want to end up upside down or rolling down the side of a cliff. Thanks, but no thanks. One benefit to my screaming-banshee escape from Jeep was that I was able to get some great photos. Like this one of Damian manning his way through the second insane obstacle. That’s Tim on the rock talking him through/taking his picture.
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     Take a look at his left front wheel. Not. On. The. Ground.
     After that, I rode with the company owner. Really. I knew that Tim wasn’t going to flip his Jeep, and even though going through the obstacles was still going to terrify me, I wasn’t going to die. Though there was a chance that Damian was going to bite it, but I figured that was his choice. Here he is, grinding his wheels and slipping while not biting it. Like a boss.
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     So I asked if Tim’s wife, Quinann, would switch with me, and she kindly agreed. She was awesome – so laid back and friendly. Just the perfect personality, along with her husband, for guiding a bunch of rookies through a really difficult course and keeping idiots like me from losing our heads. She was also helpful for Damian, because she could help guide him through the obstacles from the passenger seat. The more difficult obstacles Tim guided each Jeep through one at a time, but Damian still benefited from her experience for the easier crawls. She’d say, “Hug that bush!” – and Damian would hug the bush with his wheel, which is not something he otherwise would have thought of. Damian got his man card punched. I got my weenie card punched. I’m okay with that. I didn’t stop the production or ruin anybody else’s trip, so who cares? And now I can say that I did it. Here’s some proof that I did it, in case you’re really not sure at this point.
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     We crawled through those rocks for hours, and then we hit some dunes. That’s what I’d initially thought we’d be doing. Blasting around the dunes – weee! Nope. We did that for about an hour, and it was fun, but it was almost like an afterthought following the harrowing red rock journey. Here’s a shot of us in the dunes. The landscape was breathtaking, however, and not to be missed.
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     One other highlight was gunning the Jeep up a steep dirt hill. Tim did this maneuver without giving me any warning, and we were about halfway up the hill before I even knew what was going on. Which was good – less time to freak out. At the top we parked, got out, and enjoyed one of the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen. Just gorgeous sun and red rocks all around us. That part was really peaceful and nice. I think my heart rate returned to normal for that portion of the trip. This is the hill – and that’s Damian gunning it with Quinann in the passenger seat.
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     When Damian and Quinann crested that hill, she gave me a look of faux fright and said, “Get me outta here! He’s a maniac!” Cracked me up.
     Another benefit to riding with the owner was listening to his tales of previous tour guests as well as other off-roading experiences he’s had. He talked about a place called Cliffhanger in Utah that even had him rattled, and this guy doesn’t rattle easily. He also shared stories of other people who were frightened by the experience – some who made it happen, some who saw the first obstacle and flat out refused. I’m glad I didn’t quit – it was an unforgettable experience, and one that I don’t regret. Maybe one day I’ll have the guts to go back and do it again and actually stay in the Jeep. Or drive the Jeep. On the highway.
     We stopped at a park area and ate lunch together – sandwiches, chips, and water, which was nice – I was so busy fearing my imminent death complete with several broken bones that I didn’t consider the fact that I was actually really hungry.
     After that, it was back to the strip. We dropped the Jeep off at the Wynn and headed off for adventures that are more my speed. At the Beer Park.
     If adrenaline is your thing, and you like off-roading, do this. I’d love to hear about your adventures from the comfort and safety of my couch.

Free Ebooks!

There is a big summer promotion going on at Smashwords, the largest distributor of electronic books outside of Amazon.com. Many authors have offered their books at deep discounts, including free! I’m offering my book for free during the month of July. If you haven’t read about what it is like to raise a child with tricuspid atresia, a major congenital heart defect, you can do so for free for the next month by using this link and then entering the coupon code SFREE at checkout.

Raising a Heart Child

But my book isn’t the only free book! Check out the other authors who are offering cheap/free books for the month of July here:

Smashwords Summer Ebook Sale

#Smashwords#SummerWinterSale2016

Happy summer reading!

Top 21 Worst Baby Names of 2016

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You named me WHAT?!

According to http://thestir.cafemom.com/, these names were voted the twenty one worst baby names of 2016. Thus far. We still have some time, people! Some of these are head scratchers, but they are also real names that parents gave their children. If you find yourself thinking, “Wait, that’s a beautiful name!” – look again. You might have missed a letter. And no, they are not typos.

21. Britney Shakira Beyonce

20. Melanomia

19. Yunique

18. Gotham

17. Appaloosa

16. Reighleigh

15. Panthy

14. Jerica

13. Merica

12. Baby

11. Abcde

10. Colon

9. C’andre

8. Nevaeh

7. Beberly

6. Little Sweetmeats

5. Danger

4. Mhavrych

3. Aliviyah

2. Meldor

1. Elizabreth