Viva Las Vegas

The first day of October, Honey and I loaded up the car and headed for Las Vegas. This was the first trip that far west for either of us, and we decided to drive and enjoy the scenery along the way.

The first leg of our trip was to Oklahoma City, but we were up early the next morning to head for our friend’s home in Albuquerque. We arrived early enough Sunday afternoon to enjoy dinner with him and a couple of his family members. The view from his apartment complex was insane. The International Balloon Fiesta was being held that weekend and we were hoping to see the launch of the hot air balloons the next morning, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate.

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We headed for the Grand Canyon the next day, and although we were dismayed at the nearly 80-mile trek down a two-lane road to reach the park, we were completely blown away by the view from the canyon’s edge. It was incredible, and there is simply no way to describe it or capture it with a camera. You simply must visit in person to grasp the immensity and beauty of it.

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We headed back the interstate and made our way to Vegas, arriving at our hotel (the Bellagio) just before dark. We were both completely exhausted. The crowded streets that were nearly impossible to navigate, cigarette smoke was everywhere, and we were hungry and irritable. We couldn’t figure out where to eat, so we decided to return to our hotel for the enormous buffet. After standing in line for 20 minutes and paying $90 for 2 plates of mediocre food, we both decided we hated Vegas.

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The view from our room was fantastic though, and we could see the fountains erupting every few minutes.

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Things seemed much better after a good night’s sleep, so we got back in the car Tuesday morning and went to visit the Hoover Dam. Talk about amazing! We ventured onto the bridge that crosses the river via a pedestrian walkway that has interstate traffic zooming by just a couple of feet away. That, combined with the vertigo, made for a very harrowing experience, but the view was breathtaking.

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After crossing the top of the dam by car, we were blown away by how low the water level was compared to the clearly visible water mark on the cliff walls behind the dam.

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We had tickets to see Michael Jackson One by Cirque du Soleil at Mandalay Bay at 9:30pm on Tuesday evening. We arrived a little early and checked out the MJ store attached to the venue. There were also displays of some of Michael’s clothing – including his glitter socks and loafers.

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Given the time and day of the week, I had low expectations for how many people would be at the show, but, man, was I ever wrong! The earlier show had sold out, and ours was completely packed. It was phenomenal in every way. The sound, lighting, dancing, costumes, and attention to detail was some of the best I have ever seen in a live performance, and it was the ultimate tribute to the greatest entertainer of all time.

By our third day in Vegas, we were starting to get familiar with our surroundings and finding decent places to eat. We might have even started liking the place a little.

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The catalyst for the trip was seeing Celine Dion, so I was beyond excited that the time for the concert was quickly approaching. We spent the afternoon walking around, shopping for souvenirs, and even wasted a few dollars on gambling just because we felt like it was kind of appropriate given our location.

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It wasn’t long before we were in line to see Celine, and she certainly didn’t disappoint. Our seats were fantastic, and she sounded even better than I had imagined. She talked quite a bit and was her usual goofy self, but the best part was when several audience members rushed the stage (myself included) for her performances of “River Deep – Mountain High” and “Purple Rain.” She loved the attention, and even told us to stay put while she did a dance routine by the drummer.

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Celine’s spine-tingling performance of “My Heart Will Go On” had her standing inside a ring of falling water. Truly majestic.

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I recorded this short video from our hotel room window on our last night in Vegas. It really captures some of the excitement of the Strip.

We started home Thursday morning, and the leg of the trip between Las Vegas and Denver turned out to be the most beautiful. Utah is probably the most lovely state I have ever been through. As a tree lover, I didn’t know how I would feel about the desert landscape, but it is just amazing. You can see so far that you lose your perception of distance, and there are far more mountains than I expected.

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We began our trek through the Rocky Mountains later that evening. The temperature dropped to around 30 degrees, and it was even snowing/sleeting in the higher elevations. We arrived in Denver around sundown.

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Friday, we drove from Denver to Kansas City, and after a quick stop at the Truman home on Saturday morning, we drove home.

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It was a very long trip, and I don’t ever want to drive that far again, but it was really enjoyable and something I hope to remember for the rest of my life.

Length of Vacation: 8 days
Miles Driven: 3,500+
Hours of Driving: 50+
States Visited: Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois

Celebrating 10 years

A couple of weeks ago, Honey and I celebrated our 10th anniversary. Because we aren’t married (and can’t get married in our home state of Kentucky), we annually recognize the day we first met.

We wanted to travel somewhere special for our big year, so we decided on Savannah, Georgia. This was a first visit for both of us, but some of our friends have been there and highly recommended it. We settled on a condo in Tybee Island, which is about 20 minutes from historic downtown Savannah, and made reservations at a few restaurants that looked promising.

Our condo was beautiful and inviting, with floor to ceiling windows facing the Atlantic Ocean. We could sit on our balcony and watch gigantic commercial freighters slowing going out to sea, before they dropped out of sight on the horizon.

View from our condo on Tybee Island.
View from our condo on Tybee Island.

We visited Paula Deen’s Lady & Sons restaurant for lunch on our second day in town, and it was just as delicious as expected. We walked off some of the buttery goodness with a long trek to Forsyth Park to see the famous fountain filled with mermen.

The Lady & Sons restaurant in Savannah.
The Lady & Sons restaurant in Savannah.
Fountain at Forsyth Park in Savannah.
Fountain at Forsyth Park in Savannah.
Live oaks with Spanish moss in Savannah.
Live oaks with Spanish moss in Savannah.

The weather was overcast and rainy for the first two days of our vacation, but things changed dramatically when the day of our anniversary arrived. I snapped a photo of a beautiful sunrise from our balcony as my heart almost exploded from contentment.

Sunrise on our 10th anniversary.
Sunrise on our 10th anniversary.

We learned of a movie being shot on the beach about a mile from where we were staying, so we walked there to do a little snooping. Zac Efron’s character takes his grandfather (Robert DeNiro) to spring break in Daytona Beach, Florida, but they chose Tybee Island for filming because it wasn’t as crowded.

Movie shoot starring Zac Efron and Robert DeNiro on Tybee Island.
Movie shoot starring Zac Efron and Robert DeNiro on Tybee Island.
Another view from our condo.
Another view from our condo.

We chose Alligator Soul as our dinner spot for the evening, and it was the nicest restaurant I had ever entered. I felt slightly out of place as our waiter completely reset the table between courses (and even used a crumb scraper on the table cloth), but it was a lovely experience with incredible food.

Lamb chops from Alligator Soul in Savannah.
Lamb chops from Alligator Soul in Savannah.

The next day was our final full day in Tybee Island, so we decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather with a dolphin tour. I didn’t really have high expectations, but Captain Derek’s Dolphin Adventure knew exactly where to go to get the amazing creatures to interact with the boat. It was definitely one of the high points of our trip!

For our final dinner on vacation, we gorged ourselves on seafood at The Crab Shack. Our “Dinner for Two” included snow crab legs, shrimp, crawfish (yuck), mussels, potatoes, corn on the cob, and sausage. It was pretty amazing. We enjoyed seeing the baby ‘gators outside in the lagoon.

Dinner at The Crab Shack.
Dinner at The Crab Shack.
Young alligators at The Crab Shack.
Young alligators at The Crab Shack.

It is amazing how fast ten years can go by. I am so proud of our relationship, and so thankful to be sharing my life with such an outstanding person. I am looking forward to the future with great hope (here’s looking at you, Supreme Court!), and I feel like one of the luckiest people alive.

Vacation in the Smokies

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We spent this week in Gatlinburg, TN, enjoying the beautiful colors that autumn painted across the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was gorgeous.

The condominium we rented was just a five minute walk from the main street that winds through town, which gave us easy access to great food and entertainment. The condo also had all the comforts of home, so it made for a nice oasis when we wanted to escape all the tourist-traps that line the downtown area of Gatlinburg.

We arrived on Monday afternoon, so we didn’t do much besides walking around and eating dinner. We did manage a ride on the chairlift that overlooks the town, but I made the mistake of looking at how our “chair” was attached to the cable and spent the remainder of the ride with sweaty palms and a prayer on the lips.

Tuesday morning, we got dressed and went to stand in line at the famous Log Cabin Pancake House. Thankfully, they got us in quickly and we enjoyed an amazing breakfast complete with peanut butter for my pancakes. Yum!

Later in the day, we drove into the mountains and burned off a few calories by taking a half-mile hike to Clingman’s Dome. I had to stop to rest a few times during the steep climb, but I managed to get to the top for the amazing view. Even though it was breathtakingly beautiful, it was also sad to see all of the spruce and fir trees that have died due to pollution and insects.

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On Wednesday we traveled to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. It is the largest home in the United States with 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. It was something to see, but it was hard to miss the absurdity of it all. The gardens that surround the home are absolutely gorgeous, and although it was quite windy, the weather afforded us a wonderful opportunity to explore some of them.

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Thursday was our last full day in Tennessee, so we decided to take things easy. We visited the Log Cabin Pancake House again for breakfast, then just relaxed until our dinner reservations at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it was great fun! The evening started off with entertainment from a bluegrass band, then we entered the main arena for dinner and a show. The food was very good, but served without utensils. Thankfully, they provided warm, wet hand towels afterwards. The entertainment was fantastic and funny. Dolly appeared via video at the end to sing a patriotic song, and even though I am not too keen on that sort of thing, I teared up a little at the sentimentality of it all. It was a great way to conclude our vacation.

Our trip to New York City

We left home on a beautiful Saturday morning, swung by to pick up our friend Betty, and headed for New York with Liza Minnelli’s ode to the city playing on the radio. We stopped for the night after 12 hours of driving, but we were up bright and early the next morning, and we arrived in the Big Apple shortly after noon. The traffic wasn’t too bad, even though our GPS routed us right through the heart of midtown to meet up with Betty’s daughter, Lisa, at our hotel.

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We stayed at Affinia Gardens on W. 64th St., which is a fantastic little building full of micro-apartments in a great location. We quickly unpacked and headed out on foot to see Central Park and Rockefeller Center. We also visited the gorgeous St. Patrick’s Cathedral before heading back to the hotel for the evening.

Monday turned out to be quite warm, with the high near 90 degrees. We purchased bus passes from GrayLine which enabled us to hop on any of their tour buses for the next 48 hours. Our first trip took us downtown as far as Battery Park, and we saw Macy’s, Ground Zero, Wall Street, the Pier, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, the United Nations, and hundreds of other fascinating buildings.

After arriving back in Times Square, we headed to Rockefeller Center and rode the speedy elevator to the top of the building. Sixty-seven floors might not be the tallest rooftop in Manhattan, but it certainly provides one of the best vantage points. Central Park stretched out on one side of the building, while the Empire State Building loomed on the other side. We could even make out the Statue of Liberty in the distance!

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We wound up walking everywhere the first couple of days until Lisa’s daughter, Lauren (who is attending school in NYC), showed us the ins-and-outs of the subway system. Armed with the HopStop app on my cell phone, we were able to take advantage of New York’s amazing public transportation over the remainder of our stay.

Tuesday morning started with a trip to Battery Park for a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The statue was closed for repairs, so we didn’t stick around very long. Once we arrived back in Manhattan and grabbed a bite to eat, we headed for the 9/11 Memorial.

I knew visiting the memorial would be an emotional experience, but I don’t think I realized how much it would hit me. I was actually shedding tears before I ever even got through security. Walking into the open space surrounding the two pools was akin to entering a sanctuary, and everyone was quiet and respectful. The thousands of names engraved around the outside lip of each pool were overwhelming, and encountering the name of a woman and her unborn child brought even more tears.

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The new building going up at Ground Zero, One World Trade Center, has already reached 100 floors. Its beauty and size was a reminder of the continuation of life. The sound of ongoing construction was the only distraction in an otherwise peaceful setting.

Honey and I took another bus ride that evening that started in Times Square and drove across the Manhattan Bridge before circling through Brooklyn and back. Seeing the city light up was such a treat, but nothing compared to the view from across the river. We could see from the Statue of Liberty all the way past the Empire State Building (which was lit up in red, white, and blue).

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We rose early the next morning to take yet another bus tour – this time around Central Park and through Harlem. Our bus stopped in front of Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment building, and our tour guide recognized him standing outside the front door with his wife. He was courteous enough to wave and smile as we all snapped photos like the paparazzi.

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Wednesday night was the first time either of us had seen a Broadway show, and Wicked was certainly a great way to start. Our seats were very good, the acting and singing was phenomenal, and I loved the way the story-line tied everything in with The Wizard of Oz.

Thursday morning, Honey and I went to see an exhibit titled Bodies. The displays were real human bodies that had been donated to science and were in various stages of dissection. Some bodies were intact, but stripped of flesh so that the muscles were revealed. Others contained only bones, or sections of muscle pulled back to reveal implanted medical devices. Body parts were labeled to explain various cancers and diseases, and we could easily see the difference between healthy lungs and those of someone who smoked.

One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit was fetal development. They actually had a sign warning that some people might be uncomfortable with this particular part of the exhibit, and reminding us that all the fetuses had died in utero. It was amazing to see a blob of white matter no larger than one-half inch and learn that it already had a heartbeat.

After leaving the exhibit, Honey and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was a beautiful day, and the city looked absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t have my camera with me, but did manage to capture a few shots with my cell phone.

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Speaking of cameras, I took around 800 photos while we were in New York City. Honey’s mother gave me a zoom lens for my Nikon that enabled some amazing shots from the top of Rockefeller Center and from the ferry that carried us to the Statue of Liberty.

After making our way to Times Square one last time, we ventured through Central Park and made our way back to the room to get ready for Lauren’s dance recital. She was fabulous, and her performance was the only breath of fresh air in an otherwise dark and depressing program.

We left Friday morning to drive home, and decided to whiz through Washington, D.C. on our way since neither Betty or Honey had ever been there. It seems one is unable to do anything quickly in D.C. (we should have known, right?), so we wound up getting stuck in traffic for around two hours. We did get to see portions of the Capitol building, the White House, and the Washington Monument as we drove through, but we were very surprised at how “locked down” the city was in terms of it being almost impossible to get anywhere near the White House due to barricaded streets and police cars. Most of the public parking lots were even blocked off by police cruisers.

Needless to say, New York City is one of my favorite places on earth. Actually being there on 9/11/01 made it hold an extra-special place in my heart, but this trip enabled me to really fall in love with the city. It might sound a little cheesy, but I actually felt like I was home while we were there. It felt like being at the center of the universe.

And I miss it already.

2009 in review

This year has been both terrible and wonderful at the same time. That’s probably typical of every year, but this one had some exceptionally low lows; the kind where you know you’ll be a changed person when you finally recover. On the other hand, I’m blessed beyond measure. I have a wonderful partner, a great job, a comfortable home, friends who love me, and three fluffy kitties to cuddle up with on cold winter nights.

Here are some of the highlights from my life over the last year:

  • We finally had central heating and air conditioning installed in our home.
  • Michael Jackson died, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. I cried practically every day for a month and still tear up occasionally when I listen to him or watch videos. I wish so badly that he was still with us, but I’m also thankful to have been alive during the time that he made history and for having the chance to see him perform live.
  • We gave the inside of our home quite a makeover, which included ripping out the old doors and trim, painting, and a completely new color scheme in the living room and bathroom.
  • We upgraded to HDTV and bought a 46″ Samsung that is beyond amazing.
  • We joined our church – over three years after we started attending.
  • We met Barb.
  • I cooked my first Thanksgiving meal.
  • I moved my blog from WordPress.com to self-hosted.
  • I stopped keeping up with the news.
  • I bought a new car.
  • We went to Florida on vacation.
  • Honey graduated from college and I met his parents for the first time.
  • An ice storm disrupted our lives for eight days.
  • We got a Wii.
  • We went to see Kathy Griffin in concert.
  • Finally made it to Holiday World and thoroughly enjoyed the Voyage roller coaster.

All in all, a pretty good year. Here’s hoping our next trip around the sun is filled with joy, prosperity, and love. Happy New Year, kiddos.

Back to life, back to reality

We spent our last day in Florida walking on the beach, sitting in the hotel watching it rain, and eating seafood. My coworker and his girlfriend arrived for vacation early Friday morning and stayed in the room right next to us. It was nice to see someone familiar after a week away.

As soon as the rain had moved out, we all went for a walk along the water’s edge and saw several stingrays swimming so close to the beach that the edges of their “wings” would pop through the top of the water as the waves rolled in and out. We also spotted a pufferfish lying on the beach. Unfortunately, he was deceased, but still in good condition and an interesting find nonetheless.

We all went to the pier to watch the sunset on what would be the final night for Honey and I. It was glorious. I seriously almost heard angels singing.

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We were up early on Saturday morning to start our trip home. It took forever! A traffic accident forced the closure of I-65 and resulted in an unbelievable traffic jam. It took an hour to creep a couple of miles, but eventually we were clear of the traffic and on our way.

When we arrived home and opened the car doors, we were shocked at how chilly it was. The low last night was around 40 degrees, which was a huge difference from where we had just spent the week. Home always feels a little less familiar to me after several days away, so that can be an adjustment. I’ve also noticed my allergies are going haywire, as they got progressively worse the closer we got to Kentucky.

I’ll miss the sound of the waves, the white sand, the dolphins, and the magnificence of the sky over open water. But, still, I’m glad to be home.

Dolphins, sharks & parks

There is something captivating and almost spiritual about dolphins, which made today extra special. We got to watch them frolicking in the waves for most of the day; bouncing along the sea’s surface in groups, bobbing with their heads exposed, or playfully leaping completely clear of the water. Their joy was contagious. I took several pictures, but seemed to only be able to capture their dorsal fins as they slipped below the surface. At least we’ll have the images stored in our brains for quite some time.

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Another exciting part of the day was watching a fisherman haul a small shark onto land. I excitedly asked if I could snap a picture as he explained he had been able to catch almost nothing else for two days. We figured where there are small sharks, there must be large sharks, and this greatly added to our hesitancy about getting in the water. We did manage some cautious wading later on in the day.

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If you ever get a chance to visit St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park in Florida, jump on it. The park contains nine miles of award-winning white sand beaches and gorgeous natural dunes, and is virtually devoid of humans. You can plant your beach umbrella so far from other visitors that you would need binoculars to see them clearly. That’s a definite plus in my book.

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