Russell Cave National Monument, AL.

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Down few winding roads, on a lovely spring day, we stopped to visit Russell Cave National Monument. The beautiful setting looks like a lovely spot for a picnic and a nice spot to linger, and I suppose that must be what many, many, many generations of people before us thought as well. Russell Cave is just this, a spot many chose to stay and live from prehistoric times through early Native Americans. We are talking 10,000 BC to 1650 AD. Excavations reveal ample tools, supplies, and details to the daily lives of many on these very grounds.

As always, the boys participated in the Junior Ranger program. We ran into a fellow Junior Ranger-er who had a vest chock full of badges. Thumbs up gal! What we did find was this was one of the most detailed, intense booklets we’ve encountered yet. I suppose with SO much history they wanted to cover it all, but phew, the boys were getting a bit restless with this one. In fact, said Junior Ranger gal’s mother and I were puzzling and pouring through our pamphlets trying to assist with downright detailed questions. I did mention this to the Ranger, and of course it’s no harm done. We just feel we really earned those badges this time.

The spring dogwoods were blooming, the caterpillars were everywhere, and the water was flowing. It was such a peaceful place, but the Ranger told us there will be much activity soon. They intend to excavate again, now. We were just shy of their start date. I’d love to have seen that in progress, but again, the quiet we enjoyed was so appealing, too.

 

Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, MS.

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I learned a lot about the Civil War while volunteering at Stones River National Battlefield. I’m not so great at recalling exact maneuvers, tactics, or names. Instead it’s the stories of survival that stick with me. I’ve read about a soldier so weary from battle and bad weather, he went inside an old house to sleep. Wondering why those inside didn’t argue him off for lack of space, he awoke to find them all dead. I read a story of a soldier so excited to find a chicken, he stashed it while fighting, elated to return to it and cook it for dinner. Also of a soldier running by an enemy soldier who stopped and tried to repair his battered legs and return his boots to his feet for protection from the cold. It’s those singular stories that stick with me.

Vicksburg National Military Park had more of these stories. The civilian stories were memorable here for me. There are stories of women and families who relocated to nearby caves to avoid getting hit from cannons and debris. Families who stood on a town road overlooking the river in fear of attack. Those who starved for lack of supplies.

This park is quite different from Stones River in that it has stone monuments along a long driving path from each state commemorating their soldiers’ service. We stopped a bit longer at the Illinois Monument (the white dome photographed) which had a reflection for peace engraved around the top exterior, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us have peace.”

We also visited the USS Cairo which was about halfway through the drive. It is an iron clad steamship that was sunk trying to pass Vicksburg during battle. Did you read that final photo? Sunk in 12 minutes and none aboard perished? Intrigued? It was built in a few short months during the Civil War, sailed down the Mississippi with a few other sister ships, sunk, sat underwater until about 100 years later when they raised and eventually reassembled and made museum worthy. Inside the museum features loads of recovered artifacts as well.

We enjoyed half a day at this park and ship museum before heading north some more.

Key West, FL.


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We drove to Key West three times. It is about an hour drive from Marathon, but is such a hub of shopping, eating, and activities, that it was worth it. Not to mention, it’s THE southernmost point. It would be silly to not go the extra distance to make the claim. (My deepest apologies, this post is ridiculously long, but I can’t figure out what to trim. I tried to bundle it by topic in the order we did them. I just thought three separate Key West posts would be overkill.)

Pie.

Our first trip we booked an evening glass bottom boat tour. We arrived a bit early so we could stop in for Key Lime pie (dipped in chocolate and on a stick to boot). I’m not really a Key Lime pie sort of person, but the chocolate gives it a nice sweetness, and frankly the pie was very good. The employee (owner?) was incredibly nice. He came over to ask what we thought and explained how Key Lime pie must have a certain tang. He then took time to answer our question about how to get to the “90 Miles to Cuba” buoy. I bet that poor guy gets asked the same thing time and again, but he was nice enough to not act so. We headed on foot, in a bit of a rush, to make that 14 block jaunt.

Chickens.

On our “hurry up let’s try to get there now” mission I noticed chickens…. out front of the post office. I giggled, looked around to see where they belonged, and tried to keep pace with Dear Husband. I noticed more chickens, and we noticed chicks. It started to dawn on me that chickens are wild here. I’ve never been to Key West before and didn’t even do research before we headed in, so they surprised me.

I did read locals can get annoyed and humanely trap them for relocation on the mainland at ranches where they act as pest control. I’m not going to mention how odd that is, considering the amount of chicken most likely shipped in as FOOD for the restaurants and hotels in Key West, but I digress. Anyhow, I liked seeing them alive, for sure. They add a very unique feeling to the bustling town full of traffic, people, and bicycles.

Glass Bottom Boat Tour.

We started to realize we couldn’t make the 14 blocks. So we turned around and hustled back to the dock for loading. Too early. We had 45 minutes to wait, so we meandered around the docks, through Mallory Square (saw more chicks) and had some pizza. We thought it would be good to invest in some seabands too. Finally, we docked and looked down through the glass bottoms. That was truly interesting.

The weather was rainy for a short stint, but we got lots of dry time on top of, in front of, and in back of the main boat inside area. It was beautiful looking at the turquoise water ahead, waiting for our glimpse at the third largest coral reef in the world. When we stopped, we sort of drifted across the coral as the tour guide pointed out the names of the fish we saw (and someone mentioned they spotted a cell phone, to which the guide replied that was not funny!, to which they replied, it was NOT a joke), why we need to save coral, and so on. The boys dangled their feet and listened to the presentation. Well, little fella didn’t make it all the way to the end, but he did pretty well. Meanwhile, Dear Husband was feeling a little, shall we say, seasick? Then, I was feeling a lot seasick. I did NOT hear the whole presentation, instead I hunkered down in the back of the boat and tried to pretend the boat and my stomach weren’t spinning out of control. I’m so happy my poor children didn’t feel what we felt. It was miserable and didn’t go away until after we docked and I sat down for a bit. Dear Husband ran and grabbed some Dramamine, which tasted so completely awful it shocked the seasickness right out of me. I did see some coral and enjoyed at least half of the tour so I call it success.

Parasaililng.

The second trip to Key West was to get on another boat. It scared the living daylights out of me. I took two pills to prevent seasickness and the coral reef misery feeling.

We are not a thrill seeking sort of family, however, little fella decided we should parasail when looking through our local “things to do” guide. I read it was the lowest price in the whole country, which made me think, well, if we were EVER to parasail, now is that time. We told him we’d go for it…. before that first boat ride. After, we asked him if we could pass to save our stomachs, he cried. I wasn’t about to have everyone blame me for not trying, and truly I thought it would be fun. We booked it.

Parasailing is awesome. I have never felt like time stood still more than the moment we were up in the air. It felt like we were on a  gentle swing. I felt like we weren’t moving at all, but saw the boat below zig zagging madly back and forth while we floated like a bubble above. Little fella and I got to ride together and go first, Dear husband went with older son, last, after a few others.

I hate this, but Dear Husband and I were very sick, again. I held it together for a long time, and took another pill while on the boat, but yup, it didn’t work. We vowed we needed a break from ocean vessels for a while. It was still worth it. (Oh, and we did snap that “90 Miles to Cuba” pic before the boat ride.)

Air Show.

Our last day in the Keys was on a hot tarmac at the Navy base for an air show. (Dear Husband read the show coincided with our final day there and it was free! Heck ya.) We saw the Budweiser Clydesdales, a woman standing on the exterior wing of a plane IN FLIGHT, (YES, she was!), the Firebirds, and the Blue Angels. It was hot, there was a sliver of shade where everyone elbowed each other for room, and the boys asked when it would be over. Then the Blue Angels wrapped it up and impressed happiness back into us all.

Key West is beautiful, bustling, chicken-filled, bicycle-busting, high-end shopping filled, people-loaded, and full of things to try. I loved it. I didn’t want to leave. Then I remembered we had reservations at a fun place where dreams come true….

Grassy Key RV Park, Marathon, FL.

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After that mosquito ridden festival in Everglades it petrified me to open the windows in the Keys. Seriously. I worried that just across the water the mosquitos couldn’t be any different. Fortunately I was wrong. In fact, we spent a few nights outside playing games by the bay. Perhaps that is why I love the Keys so much, because I came off a terrible experience, but I’m thinking it has a lot to do with the Keys just being so beautiful and unique.

My first impressions were good ones. Slender islands lend to beautiful views while driving, on both sides in fact. The businesses are beachy but not particularly worn out or run down, something I see a lot of in beach destinations. Plus, with so little room for buildings and stores (that whole slender thing), it’s not overly crowded with shopping. All this is fantastic because that water is turquoise marbleized with deep blue and mesmerizing. It’s all I wanted to look at.

Our campground, Grassy Key RV Park, was around $100 per night (off season its half that.) We knew we’d have to pay out because the state parks here book out a year in advance and we of course booked in February when we sold the house. Frankly, after Everglades, I was okay with that. Having a little wifi, water, a swimming pool and great laundry facilities was a-okay by me. It very much helps when the facilities are top-notch and clean. The distance to the pool was mere footsteps and with so few campsites in the whole campground it felt quite like we owned the place. Money well spent.

The pool sucked us in. After one visit to Sombrero Beach, we decided we quite preferred the non-grassy/non-rocky bottom of the pool anyways. With so much pool time the boys became super swimmers. We’ve done our share of swim lessons, but this week in the pool just made it all click. They both progressed so quickly that they were happily swimming the width of the pool and underwater by the end of our visit. Maybe it’s that broken air conditioner that had us in the water more often than not. The swimming progress was a fine development.

We also spent time waterside playing ladder ball and reading under the tiki hut. We discovered iguanas and cormorants and happily watched them watch us. The campground was tiny, and oddly all rock, but so pleasant I was grouchy to leave. Apparently I rambled on too much about our campground. Yikes. Expect more Keys from me, I’m not done praising this fabulous destination.