A frog becomes a prince: Bowling Green, Florida

We have passed this smoker for years.

We enjoy fine food but on long road trips frequently settle for the known consistency of fast food.

Our wanderings take us through many small towns, often too small to even have fast food.  So we will try a local cafe.  Occasionally we find one with really good food — but not very often.  We usually say “you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.”

We have been taking U.S. Route 17 between Punta Gorda and Winter Haven for decades to avoid I-75.  And over the years, we passed a large barbecue smoker just south of Bowling Green.  Frequently the time was not right to stop.  Sometimes we ate at a McD’s just north in Hardee.  Often we just forgot it was there.  The smoker gets rustier each time we see it.

This month, we stopped.  It is called Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ Diner.  The paint outside is fairly new, but when we went in, it was pretty primitive.  We passed heavy wood chairs at plain wood tables with paper towels for napkins.  At the far end, a simple counter  sat between coolers for ice cream, soda and raw meat.  Tubs held plastic utensils.  Hand lettered “specials” offered ribs and sandwiches at prices I would expect in larger towns.  No one came out to serve us.

I said to Alie, “we can still go on to Hardee.”  She replied that after listening to me moan about missing the place over the years, we should try it.  When the lady came out, Alie ordered a pulled pork sandwich.

I have tried ribs all over the country and never found any I like as well the baby backs at Rib City back home.  I find big St. Louis style ribs tough and dry most of the time.

But as Alie said, I wanted to try Smokin’ Joe’s for years, so I went for broke and ordered a half rack of ribs.

Our food was brought to the table in large plastic take-out clam shells.  When we opened the containers, we discovered why the small town prices were more like big town prices. Alie’s sandwich was not on a normal hamburger bun.  It was twice as big.  But you could not see the lower half because the clam shell was filled with meat.  I had two sides, so my ribs did not fill the container.  But they did take up so much room a roll and butter had to be brought separately.

Alie’s favorite pulled pork is from Haywood Smokehouse in North Carolina.  But now she is not so sure.  Smokin Joe’s pork might be even a little more moist.

My ribs were meaty full size ribs, but the meat was tender.  It fell right off the bone.  It was moist.  And while there were four types of sauce on the table, the ribs did not need them.  The flavor of the rub and smoke permeated the meat.  It was enough.

There is just one thing we would change on our next visit.  We are not the truck drivers, ranchers or other working men we saw in the place.  The next time, we will just order one item and split it.  And perhaps we will bring some friends to share it too.

Click on photos to enlarge.

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City of Palms Classic Basketball Tournament

Moses Brown, #12 HoopSeen senior in nation

The City of Palms Classic Basketball Tournament should be written about next November or December when you might make plans to attend.  But I want to write while it is fresh in my mind.  Just mark your calendars.

For forty-five years, some of the best high school basketball teams in the United States and Canada have made their way to Fort Myers, Florida just before Christmas to play in a six-day basketball tournament.  They come to compete against the very best.

At the behest of a friend, I attended my first City of Palms game in 2012.  Among many outstanding players was the ESPN number one ranked player at the time, Canadian Andrew Wiggins, who became the number one National Basketball Association draft in 2014.  He now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

I painted Wiggin’s portrait although I learned later I could not sell it because I did not have his permission in advance.  This past year I decided to give it away as I am doing with other paintings.  [You can learn more about my paintings by writing to RalieTravels@gmail.com.]

Over the years, 99 players in the tournament went on to play in the NBA and currently one out of every 8 NBA players played one or more years at the City of Palms.

Many organizations besides ESPN such as Rivals, Scout, HoopScoop and others attempt to measure the skills of sports figures.  Thirty-four ranked players participated in 2017’s tournament.  Perhaps it is no surprise famous college coaches and media celebrities can be found in the audience.

Memphis East coach & former NBA star Penny Hardaway

I am not a great sports fan.  I rarely attend live sports events and do not attend all the games at the City of Palms.  But I enjoy the games I do see.  Seats are readily available during the day.  It was necessary to arrive early only in the evenings when top ranked teams were playing.  Out of the thirty-five games this time, seven were won by two points or fewer.  In the final championship game, USA Today‘s top ranked Memphis East High School coached by former NBA star “Penny” Hardaway was upset by University School, Fort Lauderdale.

Former NBA player [Pacers and Cavaliers] Brad Branson walks behind two ball boys having a one on one game during a break.

In 2017, $260 would buy a ticket for all thirty-five games in the first two rows.  A general admission ticket bought at the window would allow one to see all the games that day for only $15, going and coming as you please.  [The last two days are $20.]  Plus, when you are outside, you get to enjoy fabulous Florida weather — it was in the low 80s and sunny every day this year.

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Heights don’t bother me.  But one time I crawled on my belly in a narrow cave.  I’m still not comfortable in caves.  It was not a problem in Mammoth Cave National Park.  The name says it all.

You may recall we buy Christmas ornaments as souvenirs to reduce bulk.  Now we need two trees to handle them [a sign of how fortunate we have been].  So last year we started collecting national park pins.  They are even smaller.

Historic entrance to Mammoth Cave

We bought a pin in Great Smoky National Park in August.   It was in a package with pins from four other parks, three of which we had visited.  The fourth was Mammoth Cave.  No problem; we just decided we would see the cave on our next trip.  A four hundred and fifty mile detour is short compared to some we have taken.

Mammoth Cave was established as a national park in 1941.  But people have been venturing into it for four thousand years.

Beneath a sandstone capstone are over 365 miles of surveyed passageways looping much like spaghetti through a 350 million year-old limestone layer.  That is more than twice as much as any other known cave, and geologists think only about a third of the probable passages have been explored.

Artifacts show prehistoric people used the cave about four thousand years ago but stopped using it around two thousand years ago.  It remained unused until rediscovered in 1798.  It quickly became a tourist attraction.

Today’s park covers over eighty-two square miles.  There is no entrance fee, and the above-ground park offers boating, fishing, bicycling,  and camping.  There are trails to hike, drive and horseback ride.

“Deceptively strong for their small size,” O4-2T steam engine used to pull cars to Mammoth Cave from the Glasgow Junction of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.

There is a charge for a variety of underground tours.  Tours ranged from an easily accessible Frozen Niagara tour to a “physically demanding” Grand Avenue tour.  There are many choices.  It was late in the day and Alie’s RA prevents her from walking far, so we chose the relatively short Mammoth Passage introductory tour which begins at the historic entrance and passes through passageways so large I was prompted to ask if they had been mined out.  Along the way, we saw artifacts from both prehistoric peoples and early American saltpeter mining operations.

The spaces are huge; I had no claustrophobic reaction. Alie volunteered to take the next day off so I could take one of the more demanding tours, but I am still not a fan of caves, and we moved on.

No flash photography is permitted, so these photos are the best I could produce. Click on them to enlarge.

P.S.  Paraphrase of Rule 4 above: Choose to substitute curiosity for fear.  We have visited many caves over the years.  My favorite is Lehman Cave in Great Basin National Park.  It’s passages were narrow but the formations were very unusual.

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Lincoln’s Birthplace and Boyhood Home, Kentucky

The “Gollaher” cabin at Lincoln’s boyhood farm

We knew Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky but never gave it much thought until we wandered that way last fall.

Rule #7 above urges us to choose a direction not a destination and remain open to new opportunities as we travel through life.  We wanted to see Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park.  Lincoln’s Boyhood Home at Knob Creek near Hodgenville was just a little off the way, and Lincoln’s birthplace is not much further.  Well, we were still headed in the direction of the cave.

Inside a frontier cabin typical of the early 1800s

Lincoln’s grandfather [some family members used the name Linkhorn and his grave has both names] was a pioneer who brought his family through the Cumberland Gap in 1771 and was subsequently killed by First Americans [Indians] in 1786.

Lincoln’s father Thomas was a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker and listed among the top twenty percent of the county’s taxpayers.  By those standards, Lincoln was not “poor” but Kentucky “middle class” even though family lived in a one-room log cabin common there at the time.

The first memorial building to honor Abraham Lincoln was dedicated in 1911 on the site of Sinking Spring, the family farm where he was born in 1809.  Architect John Russell Pope [who later designed the Jefferson Memorial] incorporated the same neo-classical style later used in Washington, D.C.  Fifty-six steps, one for each year of Lincoln’s life, lead up a hill from the spring to a temple-like building that houses a log cabin.

Plat of the Lincoln boyhood farm

The log cabin’s authenticity was questioned when the Park Service took over the site in 1933, and it subsequently proved to be “only symbolic.”  In an interesting twist, it includes logs purported to be from the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, also born in Kentucky.

An 1895 entrepreneur purchased the land, some nearby land and a cabin in order to develop a tourist site.  That did not work out, so the cabin was sent on tour with the Davis cabin.  After more travel than many people do, the cabin logs were bought and reassembled by the association creating the memorial.  Finally examined by the University of Tennessee in 2004, it turns out not only were the “Lincoln” and “Davis” logs intermingled, the oldest only dated to 1848, twenty-nine years after Lincoln’s birth.

The first Lincoln memorial

It is hard to find the true story of what occurred so long ago in a then ordinary family. Lincoln, the successful railroad lawyer, probably did not boast of his humble background to his wealthy clients.  But the story of the poor “rail-splitter” was true and was publicized  in political campaigns.

Literature and signs suggested Thomas Lincoln moved to Knob Creek when he was sued over the land title to Sinking Spring.  But a volunteer at the birthplace said he believed the Lincolns moved because the land at Knob Creek was superior for farming and noted the suit was not adjudicated until three years after they moved.  It was over an undisclosed lien on the property at the time Thomas Lincoln bought it.  The judge gave Thomas Lincoln the opportunity to keep the land and pay the lien, but he chose not to do so.  They lived at Knob Creek until moving to Illinois in 1816.

Log cabin made of logs taken on tour as Lincoln’s birthplace — or were they Jefferson Davis’?

The cabin now at Knob Creek was built on the Lincoln property from logs on the Gollaher property.  Austin Gollaher, a boyhood friend of Abraham, rescued Lincoln from almost drowning.  Research is planned later this year to determine if the cabin dates from the period.

Of the two, Knob Creek was the more interesting to me.  Lincoln’s earliest memories were of Knob Creek.  There he got the little formal education he ever had.  There he likely witnessed slavery.  While there the family attended a church opposed to slave ownership.  Except for a building used as a tavern, gas station and tourist center, the property has not changed in over two hundred years.

It was interesting just to stand there and imagine the small Lincoln boy helping his parents, planting pumpkin seeds in the field and wading in the creek.

Click on photos to enlarge.

P.S.  For readers outside the U.S., Abraham Lincoln was one of our two most important Presidents.  Without Washington, the republic would not exist.  Without Lincoln, the modern unified United States would not exist.

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A gratitude attitude makes the season bright.

We wish all who read RalieTravels a wonderful holiday season whether you celebrate Christmas, are of another religion or no religion at all.  We truly do wish for “peace on earth, good will toward men.”

In some ways, it was a challenging year.  But we got through it with a gratitude attitude.

That attitude was made easier as we hung ornaments on the Christmas tree.  Alie may have seen much of the Caribbean from a wheelchair, but she did visit these places, and we saw them together.  Then, not only did we have the luxury of two cruises, we also had great road trips to see the eclipse in August and to a reunion in the fall.  We were very fortunate this year.

Our Christmas ornament collection is now supplemented by ribbons on which we hang National Park pins; this year we added a new pin from Mammoth Cave and some pins for parks we visited before we started the collection.

[For those of you who just started reading RalieTravels this year, we buy Christmas ornaments on our travels.  We are reminded of those trips each time we decorate our tree.  You can see ornaments from past years here, here and here.]

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In 1991 when arthritis made it too difficult to write Christmas notes, we started sending a printed annual letter and tried to add a little humor.  Although we have not met, I regard many of you who follow this post as friends, so I am sharing our 2017 annual letter  even though it is long.  You might note it refers to trips that became RalieTravel posts.

Dear Friends and Family,

We hope this finds you happy and well.  The same can be said for us even if the “well” part gets challenging now and then.  Alie’s October 2016 surgery went well — she says she is thrilled to have X-ray proof her head is screwed on tight.  Furthermore, recent X-rays have confirmed that, contrary to reports, she does not have a screw loose.

Unfortunately, the recovery process was long and may have aggravated her arthritis which complicated things into mid-summer this year.  This was followed by shingles in October and November.  Our GP is a delightful guy but always under control.  You know you have a problem when he takes a look and says “Oh S—-!”.

Nonetheless, we did get in a couple short cruises and a road trip to Pennsylvania for Ray’s 55th high school reunion.  Unable to drive in a straight line, we went to Hershey via West Virginia and returned via Kentucky.  By the way, C.J. Maggies in Elkins West Virginia has a terrific pizza and a “to die for” chicken pot pie.  Who would have guessed?  Ray took Alie to a glass blower who created a vase for her as we watched.

On one cruise, the average age was so old the Captain held his farewell party the first night — just in case.  We met a honeymoon couple from New Zealand who found each other on-line.  He was nervous about using his real name, so he used the pseudonym Justin Case.  It took his bride three months to catch on.  She married him anyway.

As always, we kept watch for interesting signs:

  • Americus, GA Hair Salon: Mane Street Salon
  • Cowboy Church sign: Free Horseback Rides Sunday at 4:30; Church Service at 6:00 (It turns out that there are a lot of “Cowboy Churches” around the country.  Who knew?)
  • Bar name: Fried Pigeon – presumably a secondary definition of fried.
  • Signs on I-75 advertise “low cost vasectomy” — is that really where you want to economize.
  • T-shirt in Paint Bank, VA: “End of the world, 9 miles; Paint Bank 12 miles.”
  • Sign on a septic tank truck: We’re #1 in the #2 Business.
  • Zephyrhills, FL bank sign: Herbal tea tastes so much better when it’s coffee.

As with the signs, we’re always looking for sayings:

  • Ray was taken with the wisdom (?) of Jimmy Buffet “…most are fine as oysters while some become pearls.” But he had his own addendum: “It takes a lot of irritation to make a pearl.”
  • The wife of a friend who likes to wander calls him a “meanderthal.”
  • But when someone asked what gift was appropriate for a 75th anniversary, Alie replied “marble — a tombstone.”

Friend Pat wasn’t expecting to see us when we ran into her after several years apart.  Then she exclaimed to Alie: “I didn’t recognize you until you opened your mouth.”

We had to buy a water heater this year.  It has a computer that studies our habits, uses less electricity in “off” times and heats the water up again when it thinks we are likely to need it — it is smarter than some people around here.  But perhaps computers have become too big a part of our life; a tired Ray tried to enter a password into the microwave.

A great thing about computers is that when a strange question enters our minds as we drive down the road, all we have to do is pull out the phone and say “OK, Google.”  One time this year, we wondered if any college had a team name the “Foxes.”  None do, but when we researched the subject, we found Marist Red Foxes and these others:  [We are not making them up!]

  • C. Irvine Anteaters;
  • Scottsdale Artichokes;
  • C. Santa Clara Banana Slugs; [a friend replied it is Santa Cruz.]
  • UNC School of The Arts Fighting Pickles;
  • USC Sumter Fire Ants;
  • Austin Community College Riverbats;
  • Richmond Spiders;
  • Mary Baldwin and Union Colleges are both Squirrels;
  • Wisconsin-Sheboygan Wombats; and
  • Akron Zips.

We wonder what a “Riverbat” is?  We also want to go to a U.C. Santa Clara/Cruz game so Alie can yell, “Go Banana Slugs!”

We like to travel in order to meet new and interesting people and see new and interesting places.  But time in the car together also gives us a chance just to talk without life’s daily pressures — and perhaps without pressure to be serious.

It was a busy Red Cross year for us both.  We helped respond to two wildfires, a serious flood and, of course, Hurricane Irma.  We spent Irma in what amounts to a huge garage listening to the walls bang.  We slept with 30 other folks, all about our ages.  This means frequent nighttime forays to the john, more snoring than you can imagine, the sound of c-pap machines and of  course the frequent passing of the incontinent dog we had in the shelter.  Alie was so tired, she actually fell asleep at the height of the storm.  Fortunately, our condo was on the other side of the storm and came through with flying colors.  We had a couple of ceiling leaks and power was restored in under 18 hours.

After some angst, Alie “retired” from the Red Cross this November.  (She was amused to discover that Red Cross computers do not actually allow you to retire.  You just go “inactive”.  Well, “inactive” is what she has in mind.)  We both began before 2004’s Hurricane Charlie.  While the Red Cross was perhaps not the source for many funny stories, the people we met along the way made it a very enriching experience.

We sincerely hope that as you travel through life this next year, many things will be enriching and many will give you a laugh — or at least a chuckle.

Happy Holidays!

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Christmas at Fishermen’s Village, Punta Gorda, Florida

Flip-flops on a tree.: click to enlarge.

Developer Isaac Trabue had Punta Gorda platted in 1885 as a typical Florida town to serve winter visitors, agriculture and fishing at the mouth of the Peace River.  For a brief period until the railroad moved further south, it was the leading phosphate shipping point in the world.

Fishermen’s Village opened in 1980 on the site of the 1928 Maud Street City Dock.  Two fishing companies built the dock out into the wide Peace River mouth emptying into Charlotte Harbor and Gasparilla Sound.  Today, the dock is a shopping, dining and resort complex.

A marina has slips for over a hundred vessels up to sixty feet long.  The pier has two levels with over thirty shops and restaurants on the first level and time-share apartments on the second.  Boat and kayak rentals and guided tours are offered as well as occasional free concerts.

We enjoy waterside dining, sunsets, and just browsing among the shops with their very aquatic Florida feel.

During the holiday season last year, we were amused at a Christmas tree decorated with flip-flops, so we went back to see what they had done this year.  No flip-flops were seen but it was a fun display of lights and decorations well worth a visit.

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PS: San Francisco has more to offer than Punta Gorda, but Fishermen’s Village was more fun than Fisherman’s Wharf.

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Blenko Glass, Milton, West Virginia

Blenko Glass 2009

October saw our third visit to Blenko Glass in Milton, West Virginia.  The company has been around since 1893 — we are old but haven’t been here that long.

Our first visit was while pulling a trailer around the country in 2002.  Alie, in particular, likes what she calls the “ballet” as the glassworkers’ hands swing or rotate the pipe.  She says she watches their hands more than the glowing glass.

Although William J. Blenko, trained in England, founded the company in Indiana in 1893, Americans felt European glass was better so he shuttled his business back and forth to Europe so he could sell Americans “imported” glass.

In 1921, he opened a factory in Milton for its abundant natural gas, good rail system and hard-working laborers.  He moved it to its present location in 1923.

An unusual architectural use for Blenko Glass

Blenko has produced stained glass since it was founded.  During the Great Depression, they expanded into household items such as dishes, bottles and vases.  They produce ornaments.  They have even produced the small glass discs one sometimes sees in pavements.

Their method is to blow the glass into molds before finishing it.  In some ways the operation is like a small production line.

Fine glass is a difficult business in a modern multi-national era.  Many small glass companies have gone out of business.  Even the giant public company Corning Glass no longer makes its Steuben line.

In 2002, we were told the business was on the rocks until a television documentary revived interest in the art.

I use the word “art” deliberately.  It is a craft that takes many years to perfect.  But in the hands of a master, it is an art.

Comments on last week’s post demonstrated many have seen glassblowers.  Nonetheless, if you have the opportunity to see one of these old masters, I urge you to take it before they are all gone.

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