Archive for the ‘Leg 3’ Category

Leg Three of our Year Long Adventure took us through the Southeast.  One of the unplanned perks of this trip was exploring the campuses of the last five College Football National Champions.  Thanks to the power of the Southeast Conference, they were all pretty close together.

The first stop on our “Tour of Champions” was Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide.  Alabama won the 2009 National Championship.  (Editorial Note:  Certain bloggers believe that this only happened due to a game-ending injury to Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy.)  The stadium is right on the edge of the bustling campus.

In a Ring of Honor outside the stadium are statues of each of the head coaches who have won a National Championship at Alabama.  The tribute to Nick Saban is still under construction.

Our “Tour of Champions” continued a few days later in Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida Gators.  Florida won National Championships in both 2006 & 2008 through the power of Gatorade and Tim Tebow.

Their stadium is nicknamed “The Swamp” and is also located right on campus.  Our kids liked the tall palm trees and the orange and blue Gator logo.

In Auburn, Alabama, we made our third stop at the home of the Auburn University Tigers.  Auburn is the reigning National Champion of college football having won the title in 2010 under Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.

On the March day that we toured the campus, we were surprised to find the stadium lights on and multiple television satellite trucks at the stadium. It turned out to be Auburn’s “Pro Day” when all of the NFL hopefuls from Auburn were working out for NFL scouts.  Dad missed his chance to show the scouts his blazing speed and ability to “throw a football over them mountains”.  Too bad.  We also visited the hallowed Toomer’s Corner while in town.  Toomer’s Corner is a street corner where students come after Auburn victories and throw toilet paper in two huge oak trees to celebrate the win.

A disturbed Alabama fan confessed to poisoning these trees after the annual Alabama- Auburn rivalry game in 2010. (See story here.) The trees do not look healthy, but there is hope that they can be saved.

Our “Tour of Champions ended in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home of the Louisiana State University Tigers.  LSU won the National Title in 2007 under Coach Les Miles.  This was the hardest of the four stadiums to get close to due to closed roads and construction.

All of these universities have a large student enrollment, huge stadiums, and vibrant campuses that are covered in majestic old trees.  Great coaches aside, the power of these winning teams just might be in these beautiful trees.  Luckily the University of Texas campus has its fair share of trees on the original Forty Acres, so there’s always next year!  Hook ‘em Horns!

You can read more about our adventures at Year Long Adventure on Facebook.

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We left Cherokee, North Carolina, on a rainy Saturday evening and headed south to Atlanta.  Driving in the dark while it is raining with a van full of tired people will always test the mettle of the driver.  We could not make it all the way to Atlanta, and decided to stop for the night in the suburb of Buford, 30 miles north of Atlanta.  We found the Wingate by Wyndham in Buford so enjoyable that we made it our home for the next three nights.

Our first day was a day of rest.  Dad and the kids went swimming in the pool for a couple of hours while Mom did laundry and enjoyed some quiet time in the room.  Quiet time is very hard to come by when you are with your family 24 hours a day.  That evening we met Mom’s college roommate and her family for dinner.  Dodie gave us the lay of the land in Atlanta and some suggestions of places we should visit.

The next morning we headed to downtown Atlanta to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Site.  We had been a little worried about the notoriously bad traffic, but we left around 10:00 and had no problems getting downtown.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site is a complex operated by the National Park Service and includes the home where MLK, Jr. was born and grew up, his tomb, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, an Interpretive Center, and the King Center For Non-Violent Social Change.  Luckily, we had a beautiful day and enjoyed the walks between the buildings in the neighborhood known as “Sweet Auburn”, where Martin had played as a boy.

Similar to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, you must have a ticket to tour the birthplace.  Tickets are free but limited in number and must be obtained the day of your visit.  We picked up tickets to take the guided tour of MLK, Jr’s birthplace and childhood home, and then visited the final resting place of Martin and Coretta Scott King.

The atmosphere in the courtyard is peaceful and serene.  The Kings’ tombs are set above a reflecting pool and an eternal flame burns in their memory.

We met our Birthplace tour guide on the steps of the beautiful historic house built in 1895.

Over the years, the National Park Service has purchased and restored most of the homes on the block where MLK, Jr. grew up, so you get a very accurate feel for what the street looked like at the time.

The interior of the home has been restored to look as it did back in the 1930s when MLK, Jr. lived there.  Martin and his two siblings were born in the house because their father did not want them to be born in a segregated hospital.  The tour was very interesting and helped give us a more complete picture of MLK, Jr. and the influences that shaped his future.  It was hard to believe that we were walking through the house where one of the most influential people of the 20th century lived, played, did chores, and studied, just as our kids do.

After touring the home, we walked through the neighborhood fire station a few doors down. MLK, Jr. walked past this station every day.  One of the few segregated institutions in this vibrant black community, it was a constant reminder of the need for change.  Andrew really liked the vintage fire engine inside, and it was interesting to learn about fire fighting in the 1930s.

A few blocks away from the Birthplace is Ebenezer Baptist Church where his father was the preacher and MLK, Jr. was ordained at age 19.  Unfortunately, the church is closed for a major renovation project, so we were not able to go inside.

In the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change, we saw many of the personal effects of Martin and Coretta Scott King.  It is really cool to see actual items from such an important part of our country’s history.  Our daughters found the wall of photographs very interesting.

This is the room key for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

In the NPS Visitor Center, we watched an inspiring film about children in the Civil Rights Movement and saw many multimedia exhibits about key events in the Movement.  Here we had an “putting the pieces together” moment.  Our 4-year old Andrew saw statues representing the “March from Selma to Montgomery” led by Dr. King in 1965 and stated, “Hey, that is the march!”  We were able to learn a lot about the Civil Rights Movement in the South, and the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site was a great way to wrap it up.  (You can read about the other Civil Rights sites we visited here.)

The next day we drove to historic Grant Park in Atlanta to see the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum.

This attraction teaches its visitors about The Battle of Atlanta in 1864 where General Sherman and the Union Troops defeated the Confederate troops, capturing the city of Atlanta.  The main attraction here is an oil painting depicting the battle in great detail, but this is no ordinary oil painting.  Completed in the 1880s, this panoramic painting in the round is over 40 feet tall and encompasses more than 16,000 square feet.  We sat in theater style seats that rotated in a circle, allowing us to see all of the painting as a narrator described the events of the battle.  It was really amazing, but even more so when you realize that the painting was done over 120 years ago.

A sample of the incredible detail in the painting

In the attached exhibit hall are many artifacts from the many Civil War battles fought in Georgia.  Our kids were amazed that the soldiers wore thick wool uniforms all year long, even in the 95+ degree heat.  Seeing the actual weapons coupled with the great detail from the painting helped them visualize and understand how terrible the battles must have been.  Also on site is the original steam engine “Texas” that was involved in the Great Locomotive Chase, a very interesting Civil War event we had never heard of before.  (You can read about our visits to other Civil War sites here.)

After the museum, we made the final and greatest stop on our barbeque tour of the south, Daddy D’z BBQ Joynt.  At first glance, this was the type of place that we would normally have been hesitant to go into.

Year Long Adventure declares this the best BBQ ever!

Luckily we gave it a try, and had the best meal of the trip.  The service was excellent and the food was even better.  We were still raving about it days later.  If you like barbeque and you find yourself in Atlanta, then you need to eat here.  We promise, you will thank us afterward.

You can follow our adventures at Year Long Adventure on Facebook.

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Our adventure made its way to Cherokee, North Carolina, for a visit to The Museum of The Cherokee Indian.  Mom confirmed her family’s Cherokee roots last year and was very excited to visit their ancestral home.  Cherokee is in far western North Carolina and borders The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Cherokee Indians have lived in this area for more than 11,000 years, and they are an amazing people.  The museum does a great job of telling the complete history of the Cherokee from the Paleo/ Archaic periods to the present using a combination of artifacts, life size displays, and multimedia presentations.  The tour begins with a movie illustrating some of the traditional tribal myths, and other stories are told throughout the museum in a variety of ways.

The kids loved this very cool holograph exhibit which told the Cherokee legend of how disease came into the world. It also explained the role of the medicine man once in the tribe.

Our eleven year-old and eight year-old daughters really enjoyed the exhibits and felt a strong connection to the Cherokee.  Mom enjoyed learning about her people and gave the museum a thumbs up.  We were all very affected by the section on the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of the Cherokee people by the U.S. Government beginning in the 1830s.

The town of Cherokee is a tourist town that seems to be active mainly in the summer.  We found this to be true with many of the places that we visited in the Carolinas.  About half of the restaurants and hotels in the area were not open and the town had an old kitchy tourist feel to it.

Many of the older properties in the town promote old stereotypes of the Cherokee.

Beginning in June, an outdoor drama called “Unto these Hills” and the Oconaluftee Indian Village (circa 1760) attract many more visitors interested in learning the history of the Cherokee.  All around town were placed fiberglass bears that were elaborately decorated.  The entire family enjoyed driving around “hunting” for these bears.

The Cherokee tribal lands border the southern side of the Great Smoky Mountains NP.  Located in North Carolina and Tennessee, this is the most visited park in the National Park System.

After we finished our tour of the museum, we decided to take a scenic drive through the park.  It had been raining all day, and the temperature was cool.  The road up the mountain winds along the Oconaluftee River, and the day’s rain had created many waterfalls on the mountain side of the road.

We drove through one of the campsites to find a few hearty souls trying to set up camp in the rain.  They were in for a LONG night.  As we approached the peak of the mountain, the temperature dropped ten degrees and thick fog covered everything.  Ice lay along the sides of the road.  We pulled over at a scenic overlook to find a view of nothing but the fog.

Our time in the Smokies was cut short by the worsening storm and limited visibility.  The park was really beautiful and was placed on our list of places that we would like to return to in the future.

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We spent the last four days traveling up the beautiful Carolina coastlines and our only regret is that the temperature never got above 55.

Our first stop was in Charleston, South Carolina.  We drove through the historic section of the city, marveling at the gorgeous old homes and stopped in their French Quarter for dinner.  We ate seafood at A.W. Shucks, and our 11 year old Allison had her first experience with oysters.  She tried both broiled and fried, and declared that  “the broiled one tasted like a nickel”.  We really enjoyed driving over all of the grand bridges connecting the city and viewing the hundreds of boats docked in the water.  The next morning we continued to explore the area.  On James Island, we found the offices of  “Trademark Properties” owned by Richard Davis and featured on TLC’s “Flip This House”.

Our second stop was a couple hours north at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  We had no idea of what to expect of Myrtle Beach, and what we found was similar to Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard on steroids.

The main road along the beach featured miles of hotels, restaurants, t-shirt shops, and miniature golf courses as far as the eye could see.  Myrtle Beach must be home to the most miniature golf courses per capita in the entire world.  We ate lunch at the Pier 14 Restaurant over the beach.  The food was very good and the view was spectacular.

A walk down the beach after lunch yielded some of the best (and largest) shells we had ever seen.  Needless to say, the kids requested that we take some back to Texas with us.  The beaches were incredible, and we left wishing we could visit on a summer day rather than the 55 degree day with 25 mph winds. It was COLD!

We then headed back to the main drag to play golf at Mt. Atlanticus.

Mom, who is a connoisseur of miniature golf courses, proclaimed this “the greatest miniature golf course ever!”  Challenging multi-story holes (some as high as 75 feet off the ground!) and an over-the-top theme make this course unique.  We played both the “Minotaur” and “Conch” courses and had a fabulous time.

Dad conveniently forgot to total the scores at the end of the day (thus not having to admit defeat to the obviously superior Mom).  At first glance, we assumed that Myrtle Beach was just a “beach town”, but leaving town we drove through the newer part of the city filled with luxury homes, golf courses, and more restaurants than could be believed.

Wilmington, North Carolina, was supposed to be our next stop, but much like Mary & Joseph, we were told there was no room at the inn.  Our intended hotel was being remodeled, so we moved 10 miles north to Wrightsville Beach and  proved once again that everything on this trip happens for a reason.  We loved everything about the Holiday Inn Resort on Wrightsville Beach.

The only bad thing was that we were only passing through and did not get to experience a three or four day stay here.  The morning included another quick walk on the beach, cut short due to the extremely strong and very cold wind.

The Outer Banks, North Carolina, was our final stop on the coast.  We arrived in Kill Devil Hills and were greeted with temperatures in the low 40s and gale force winds. Luckily Mom insisted that we bring our winter coats on this leg of the trip, so we were ready.

The Outer Banks is a small strip of islands on the North Carolina Coast and is home to the towns of Cape Hatteras, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk.  The next morning, we visited The Wright Brothers National Memorial,  the site where Orville & Wilbur Wright completed the first successful power driven flight in December of 1903.

Replicas of both the glider and first airplane the Wrights designed, built, and flew are on display here.  The park ranger presentation was really informative, and the kids thought it was cool to get to run the exact path and distances of the first four flights.  Another Junior Ranger Patch was earned and another notch was added to our history belt.

Later that afternoon, we drove south along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and we were struck by the isolated, unspoiled beaches.  Thousands of homes line the beaches of the Outer Banks, but once inside the National Seashore, the only buildings around are a few lighthouses and visitor centers.  The only things you see are miles and miles of sand dunes, huge crashing waves, and all types of birds.  Most of the time was spent in the car, but we did brave the cold to take a few pictures.

We really enjoyed the beauty of our trip up the Carolina Coast, and would love to visit again in warmer weather.  By the amount of hotels and retail establishments we saw, it seems as though much of the eastern half of the United States would agree that this is the place to be during the summer.

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After our great stop in St. Augustine, Florida (read about it here), we continued up the Atlantic Coast toward our next destination, Savannah, Georgia.  We did not reach our hotel until well after dark, so not much was accomplished on night one in Savannah.  Our unscheduled trip to St.Augustine, FL,  had bumped our scheduled trip to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, so we left Saturday morning to backtrack down to Jekyll Island.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is an education center as well as a rehabilitation hospital for injured turtles.  The center has a lot of great information, and our kids learned a lot.  On site is a “turtle hospital” where you can see many different species of sea turtles that are being nursed back to health.

We all enjoyed the interactive exhibits, including one very reminiscent of Frogger, which requires you to get a sea turtle across a road and back again.   Another activity lets you randomly choose one of four options at critical stages in a sea turtle’s development and see how each affects its life.

We headed back to Savannah and continued our Bar-B-Q tour of the South with lunch at The Smoking Pig in Pooler, Georgia.  Final ratings will be announced at the end of the tour, but we all left with smiles on our faces and sauce on our lips.

We then drove to historic downtown Savannah.  Savannah was founded by James Oglethorpe in 1733.  Oglethorpe planned the city by setting aside many different squares for parks in the city.  Twenty-two of the original twenty-four squares remain, resulting in a beautiful city filled with lush green spaces every few blocks.

We ordered “Savannah Safari” booklets prior to our visit as a guide to visiting historic downtown.  The guide leads you on a trek around the city looking for different animal related items in the architectural elements.  The kids really enjoyed finding all of the items on the tour, and it led us on a very informative tour of the city.

Sunday morning we headed back downtown to attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah.  We have been very fortunate on this adventure to visit many amazing Cathedrals across the country, and this one was one of the best.

One of the highlights was when the priest announced at the end of the Mass that Jim Caviezel (the actor who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”) was there.  The Priest had Jim recess with him at the end of the mass and greet the parishioners as they left.  This all lead to the surreal moment of our 4-year old Andrew having his head rubbed by Jim Caviezel, and then announcing to the priest that “We were going back to the Holiday Inn Express”.

After Mass, we walked back through downtown to find a couple of items that we had missed on our tour and then to the birthplace of the Girl Scout Founder Juliette Gordon Low.

On a tour of the Low family home, we learned about the life of Juliette and also the history of the house.  It was a very interesting tour and left us in awe of the quality of home that could be built 200 years ago.

We were very impressed with the beauty of downtown Savannah, with its mature, moss-covered trees, grand fountains, and magnificent old homes.  It is easy to be transported into the past while walking down these streets, and we felt the history come alive.

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Our daughters are HUGE FANS of Harry Potter.  Allison has read each of the seven books in the series numerous times, and her younger sister Audrey just finished the fourth book in the series.  A trip to Universal Studios – Orlando and a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was their first request when we started planning the Year Long Adventure.  David’s parents are also big fans of Harry Potter (and even bigger fans of their grandkids), so they met us in Orlando and joined us on the adventure.

The rest of this post will probably not mean a lot to you if you have not read any of the Harry Potter series or seen any of the movies, but if you consider yourself a “muggle” or fear “he who must not be named” then you really should consider a visit.  In a later post we will cover things we learned and helpful hints if you are planning a visit to TWWoHP/Universal Studios.

This section of Universal Studios – Orlando opened last year.  It is a small area in the back corner of the Islands of Adventure park.  TWWoHP is a recreation of J.K. Rowling’s town of Hogsmeade with all of the favorite stops for the Wizarding World.  The main shops located here from the series are Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Dervish and Banges, Honeyduke’s Sweet Shop, and Zonko’s Joke Shop.

You can have lunch at the Three Broomsticks or get a Butterbeer from a number of outdoor vendors.  This section of the park only has three rides, but the main attraction is walking through the town.  You truly feel transported into an old English town as you walk through the gates.  The architecture and attention paid to the smallest details is amazing.

The ride that all Harry Potter fans should not miss is “The Forbidden Journey”.  The line was incredibly long (and probably always is), but the payoff was well worth it.  We got into a mass of people that seemed to be “in line” about 100 yards away from the official entrance to the ride.  The left side of this mass of people were upset with the people on the right side because of wait times and proper line etiquette, and there was a dispute as to where the line actually started.  Eventually we crossed under the entrance gate, the sign informed us that there was a 75 minute wait from this point forward.  Even the line for this ride is well designed.  Most of it is in the shade, and although it snaked for at least a mile, it moved continuously so it did not seem bad.  Single riders can bypass this portion of the line.

The line eventually goes into Hogwarts, the castle that houses the wizard school in the series.  Another amazing recreation takes place here, but we won’t ruin the surprise for you.

David’s mom offered to wait with Andrew since he was too short to do the ride, but went through the line with us to see Hogwarts.  Once we got to the front of the line, Andrew and Mimi peeled off through the convenient exit and the remaining five Clays did the ride.  David thinks few things in life are waiting in line for over an hour, but this was one of them.

Another ride is “The Flight of the Hippogriff”.  This is a minicoaster that is billed as family-friendly, but Andrew (almost five) found it “some scary and some fun”.  The line here was also really long and the ride itself was REALLY short.

We did not ride “The Dragon Challenge”, a high intensity double rollercoaster, but we did try the Butterbeer.  Yummy!  We decided that the frozen variety tastes like a cross between a cream soda and a vanilla Coke float.  It really hit the spot when the temperature hit 85 degrees.

After a quick trip to Honeyduke’s Sweet Shop and a wand vendor, we left to explore the other areas of Universal.

To control overcrowding, once you leave TWWoHP you need a return ticket to re-enter this section of the park.  This return ticket is free, and assigns you a return time window a few hours later.

We chose President’s Week to visit Orlando not realizing that much of the East Coast gets this week off from school as a Winter Break.  It was 85 degrees in Orlando during our visit, and 3 degrees in Syracuse, so it was not surprising that there were what felt like “ONE MILLION” people with us in the park.  Despite the crowds and the insane prices, all of us really enjoyed the experience and would recommend a visit to all Harry Potter  fans.  A big thanks to Mimi and Papa for joining our adventure and making it all happen.

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While driving north along I-95 heading from Orlando to Savannah, Georgia, Mom made a very interesting discovery on the map.  We were going to drive by St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States.  St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spain.

She had read many positive things about St. Augustine while researching this leg of the adventure, but mistakenly thought that it was located in South Florida near Miami.  St. Augustine had not made the list since we had not planned on driving that far south.  A quick browse of the internet on the iPhone (seriously, how did we travel before smart phones) and we found many interesting things to see including making a last-minute reservation with St. Augustine Eco Tours to take a dolphin cruise.

We had a 12:30 reservation for our boat trip, and were able to park and walk up to the marina about 12:29.  We were met at the dock by Captain Adam and headed out onto the Matanzas River.

The Matanzas River is part of the inter-coastal waterway that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.  It is saltwater, and thus is full of all sort of interesting marine life.  The main goal of our trip was to see dolphins and we were not disappointed, seeing our first one about 30 seconds into the trip.

Captain Adam informed us that there are usually around 100 dolphins in the river during the Winter months and around 300 in the Summer.  We are not sure how the dolphins tell the difference since it was the last week in February and it was 80 degrees.  Later in the trip we got to float alongside a pair of dolphin swimming up river.  The kids and the parents thought this was pretty cool.

Captain Adam took us up into a canal in search of jellyfish, but unfortunately none were to be found on this day.  We then headed farther up river to see the bald eagles that have made their nest in a tree here for the last 17 years.  We were able to get a long distance shot of one of the parents, but the two chicks were not visible due to the fact that it was a very windy day.  The nest was about eight feet across in the top of a tree around 125 feet tall.  Quite impressive!

The boat also came equipped with a hydrophone (a microphone that allows you to hear under water).  We were unable to hear the echolocation of the dolphins we followed, but we were able to hear the sound of pistol shrimp on the bottom snapping their claws together.

We also got to view egrets, herons, pelicans, and seagulls. The trip was great and lasted around 90 minutes.  We would have enjoyed the boat ride even if we had not seen any of the wildlife.

After the trip, we headed next door to have lunch at the Santa Maria Restaurant.  The food was great, but the thing everyone enjoyed the most was feeding the seagulls.  Old bread is provided to feed to the birds through trapdoors they have installed on the window ledges.  The gulls obviously dine here often and know the drill.

After lunch, we walked through the old narrow streets of the town to see some really cool old houses and Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine Catholic Church built in 1565.

Next up was the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.  This is the oldest fort in the United States and was set up by the Spanish.  It has defended against pirates and seen action during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and many other skirmishes.

The kids enjoyed going to the top of the building to see where the canons were fired.  The National Park Service does daily canon firings, but we were too late to see one.

On our way out of the park, we ran into Ranger Fritz, who graciously gave the kids a 15 minute private history of the fort which we greatly appreciated.  The kids did not have enough time to complete the Junior Ranger books, but we can mail the finished books back and the Rangers will mail us the badges.

Once the park closed we headed onto our original destination of Savannah, thankful for the unexpected stop in St. Augustine.  It has been one of our favorite places so far on any of the trips.

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One of the stops we were most looking forward to on Leg 3 of our Year Long Adventure was in Crystal River, Florida – the chance to canoe with manatees.  Crystal River is home to many manatees, especially in the months between November and March, due to the 72 degree temperature of the water. Manatees do not like the colder Gulf waters and move up into the river for the winter months.  There are many different tour operators in the area where you can either swim/snorkle with the manatees or canoe/kayak with the manatees.  As we discovered, “with the manatees” is a relative term.

We chose to go with the canoe instead of swimming since we felt it would be more difficult to swim for a long time in the river with our 4 year old.  We rented canoes from Crystal River Kayak Company in Crystal River.  It was very convenient because we launched in the canal that was right behind their shop.  We began with a 2 hour rental with the option to continue to the 4 hour mark depending on how things were going.  Mom and Allison manned the first canoe, and Dad was at the helm of the second canoe with his helpers Andrew and Audrey.

It took a few minutes to get the hang of maneuvering the boats, but we were soon on our way.

It was about a ten minute paddle to the Three Sisters Springs where we had our first manatee sighting.  The pools and springs where many of the manatees hang out are protected by buoys beyond which  swimmers and boaters are not allowed.  Since we were there on President’s Day Weekend (poor planning), we were on the river with HUNDREDS of other manatee fans snorkling or watching from large pontoon boats, speedboats, paddleboards, sailboats, canoes, and kayaks.  It was difficult to watch for underwater manatees while trying to avoid all the other things in the water.  Most of the manatees wisely remained in the protected area, so we had to admire them from a distance.

We paddled on to the next spring where we hoped to find a better human-to-manatee ratio.  There we had better luck, and even had a manatee swim directly under one of our canoes.  Unfortunately, those manatees are much faster than Mom and the camera, so you’ll have to take our word for it.

After more paddling up the river and out into the bay, we beached our canoes on a small island to stretch our legs.

In total, we spent about three hours on the water and between the two canoes, we had close encounters with about ten manatees.  It was a beautiful setting and we could not have asked for better weather.  It was 80 degrees in the third week in February!

If you are thinking of coming to meet the manatees, be sure to make a reservation.  Our suggestion would be to avoid weekends if possible.  There was a LOT of traffic on the water with all of the tour boats and private boats, and would have been a much better experience without all of the people.  A second bit of advice would be to hit the rowing machine at the local gym before taking the trip.  It wore us out to paddle for three hours.  Despite the people and the muscle fatigue, we all loved it and would do it again tomorrow….as long as we can find some substitute paddlers.

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The kids completed a Civil Rights unit with Mom before our trip to the Southeast, so we were looking forward to visiting some of the places that they had learned about.  We had our first opportunity when we visited Birmingham, Alabama.  After filling up on pizza at The Mellow Mushroom (yum!), we drove to the 4th Street Historic District to visit the Civil Rights Institute in Downtown Birmingham.

Our 8 year-old Audrey found the institute very interesting and was impressed at the amount of artifacts here that had been saved from the 1960s.  Focusing mainly on the local people and events, the Civil Rights Institute uses a mixture of actual news footage, life-size dioramas, and interesting displays (including an actual bombed bus from the Freedom Rides) to illustrate the history of Birmingham before and during the Civil Rights Movement.  Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.  The Institute also houses a research center which has preserved the personal narratives of people who experienced these events first-hand.

Despite the hardships and inequalities caused by the Jim Crow laws, the black citizens of Birmingham built a vibrant community in the 4th Street area with strong businesses, churches, and schools.  Unfortunately, this city became known as “Bombingham” in 1963 because of all the bombs regularly set off  in Civil Rights activists’ homes and churches.  The park across the street from the Institute was the site of the May 1963 protest during which the Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered his men to use attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse the singing children who were peacefully marching.  It was these violent scenes televised across the country which helped turn the tide in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church where on September 15, 1963, a bomb was detonated in the basement that killed four young African-American girls.  The church is still an active congregation today.  It was really moving to stand in front of this church and to ponder all that happened on this block in 1963.

After Birmingham we traveled South to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.  Our focus here was learning about the famous 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965.  The National Park Service has declared the road between Selma and Montgomery a National Historic Route.  The NPS Interpretative Center in Lowndes County is located on this road halfway between Selma and Montgomery.

We learned a lot at the center, and the kids added another Jr. Ranger badge to their collection.  The march took place two weeks after “Bloody Sunday” when the Alabama State Police used tear gas and batons to stop the first attempt.  Under Federal protection, four thousand people started walking in Selma and the group had swelled to 25,000 when they reached the state capitol in Montgomery five days later.  The four spots where the participants camped each night during the march are marked along the route.  The purpose of the march was to bring attention to the fact that despite laws to the contrary, African-Americans were not given the same voting rights as their white counterparts.  Even attempting to register to vote had dire consequences.  The actions here in Alabama lead to President Johnson presenting the 1965 Voting Rights Act to Congress.

After our visit to the center, we headed to Selma and drove across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday”.  Allison, our 11 year-old, was impressed that the marchers were able to cover such a long distance in only 5 days.   The most surprising fact we learned was that despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of African-Americans in this county who registered to vote still lost their jobs as sharecroppers as a result.   With no place to live, they gathered to live in a large tent city for 18 months.  The Interpretive Center was built on the location of this tent city.

It is hard to believe that these events in the Civil Rights Movement happened only forty-five years ago.  Our children struggle to understand how these things could have happened, but they agree that it is important to remember and pay tribute to the bravery of those who stood up and demanded change.  Audrey put it quite well.  “If we don’t learn about history, it could happen again.”

To read about other Civil Rights Movement sites we visited on Leg 3, click here.

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Leg 3 of our Year Long Adventure has us touring the Southeast U.S. in hopes of avoiding snow and ice.  As usual, we took MUCH longer than we intended to load the van on Tuesday morning, resulting in our estimated departure time of 10 A.M. looking a lot more like 3 P.M..  As we pulled out of the driveway, we felt like we must have forgotten something big because there was so much more room in the van than on the first two trips.  The truth is that we have become a mean, lean, packing-machine.  If only we were faster…

We drove from Richardson through Louisiana to Vicksburg, Mississippi.  (We are touring Louisiana on our way home).  Nothing like a seven hour drive to get the family back into the traveling groove.  We checked into our room at the La Quinta in Vicksburg, and we were quite pleased with the accommodations.

Early the next morning, the adventure began with a visit to Vicksburg National Military Park.

We used our National Park Pass for free admission (a must if you plan on going to a lot of the National Parks), and headed into the Visitor Center to do some learning.  The adults of the group needed some of this education since neither one of us could answer with 100% conviction which side won the Battle at Vicksburg.  (Please don’t tell Mom’s AP History teacher!)

After viewing the standard NPS Visitor Center movie and obtaining our Jr. Ranger booklets, we headed out on the Audio Driving Tour of the park.  Each of the states that had troops fight in the battle have placed a monument in the park, and some of them are quite impressive.

This area of Mississippi is surprisingly hilly, making this site high above the Mississippi River very desirable to both sides.

The Union desperately wanted to capture Vicksburg to gain control of the river, but found it virtually impossible to invade.  In the end, it was keeping new supplies out of the city that won the battle.  After 47 days of brutal fighting and incredible numbers of casualties, the Siege of Vicksburg ended when Confederate General Pemberton surrendered the city to Union General Grant on July 4th, 1863.  The 5,000 Confederate soldiers who died are buried in a city cemetery in the city of Vicksburg, while 17,000 Union soldiers are buried here in the park.  Graves of unidentified soldiers, 13,000 in all, are marked with smaller concrete posts instead of headstones.  It is quite sobering to see the cemetery stretching out in front of you.

One of the coolest things in the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.  The Cairo was a Union ironclad gunship that was sunk in the Yazoo River by the Confederacy.  One hundred years after the sinking, the ship was raised and restored.  The restored ship is in the park, and you can actually walk onto the deck.

The entire driving tour took about two hours including stops, and is totally worth it if you find yourself in the greater Vicksburg Area.  (You can read about another great Civil War site we visited here.)

Our next stop after lunch was to head to downtown for lunch and then head to the Biedenharn Candy Store which houses a Coca-Cola Museum.  It was at this location in 1894 where Coca-Cola was bottled for the first time.  It was only sold in soda fountains before this.

The museum mainly shows Coca-Cola memorabilia from over the years, but it was pretty entertaining to show the kids some of the items that reminded us of our youth.  They were interested to hear about returning empty bottles to the store and getting the deposit money back.  We thought it was cool to get that quarter back in the late 1970’s for returning a 32 oz. bottle, but they had those same bottles on sale at the museum as collectibles for $20 each.  If only we had known at the time.

After leaving Vicksburg, we headed on eastward toward our destination of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (home of The University of Alabama – “Roll Tide”).  On our way in, we used the iPhone to search for good Bar-B-Q places.  We found that there were quite a few, and decided to visit Mike & Ed’s Bar-B-Q.

It was REALLY good.  Mom liked it so much that as we were driving to the hotel later she said, “Man, that was so good, I don’t even know what to do”.  Take that as a strong recommendation.

Feel free to check out our Facebook page for more timely reports on where we just ate or see pictures from State Welcome Centers…

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