In which we are nearly led astray by buzzards

CLERMONT & ONA, Fla. – Of all our planned roadside attractions, the monster-truck eco-tour was the one I was most looking forward to: a 45-minute tour of a cattle and citrus farm, seen from the world’s largest 4×4.

I’ll spare you every delightful detail (“We have 350 cows and just seven bulls, each of them named L-L-L-Lucky.”) through mud and sand and across cow paths, past gators and banana spiders and into an angry thunderstorm that nearly drowned out our chipper guide, Chris.

Florida is all about the thunderstorms. As on the Prairies, you can see it coming. You have a few minutes or half an hour to prepare, tighten your seatbelt or take cover. Often you can see patches of lbue sky in the black cloud and you just hold on and hope the wind is in your favour.

* * *

Solomon’s Castle appealed to each of us. Trevor, because he’s pretty much up for anything, Melani because it’s a castle, and me because it’s made from discarded objects including old printing plates.

Our GPS, Alpha, loved it because it meant he could take us on back roads and threaten to get us lost.

The rain tapered off as we pulled away from the monster truck. We drove along the wide highway for a bit, past fruit and gator-meat stands, a gas station and a strip mall before turning left onto a well-maintained side road. Citrus groves were interspersed with fields of cattle. I’d never thought of Florida as cow heavy, but with 1.1 million head of cattle, this is the third-largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi.

Trevor spotted the herd of deer in some scrub on the other side of the ditch. “I bet the citrus farmers love these,” I said sarcastically and wondered whether the fences were good enough to keep them at bay. Moments later a deer with huge black eyes nodded as we went past. She was on the orchard side of the fence. Farther along, two wild boar dodged out of the ditch and into the tall grass.

“Ahead, turn right,” Alpha instructed, putting us on a narrower road where the trees creeped closer to the asphalt. The clouds had somewhat lifted and we couldn’t see lightning any longer, but the low growl of thunder penetrated the closed windows. The car was very quiet.

The trees fell away, opening to an empty field ringed by an uneven fence and more than a dozen dark silhouettes.

“Buzzards,” Melani breathed.

My foot lifted from the gas pedal. The buzzards turned as one to watch us approach. One lifted his head, as though he were about to speak. We were almost past them, my head turned sideways because I would not look away.

“Turn right now!” Alpha commanded and my foot, which had hovered over the gas, came down hard on the brake. The buzzards lifted, disappeared.

“Umn, yeah,” I said as I threw it into reverse. “Let’s go where the buzzards hang out. Because that’s a good idea.”

And, yes, the next road was narrower still, pitted and uneven. Branches hung over us from both sides, Spanish moss reached toward the windshield; the road curved. A faded sign promised Solomon’s Castle just ahead and – here! – the white gates. We finally approached.

Solomon’s Castle. Reopening in October. Bet it’ll be spectacular.


Ducks, trucks and muck in the Outer Banks

ORCACOKE, N.C. – Orcacoke, like most tourist towns, isn’t overly friendly, and the carpet – red or otherwise – is rolled up promptly at 6 p.m. Getting there is a blast, though.

A two-lane highway cuts through the dunes of the narrow Outer Banks and high tide covers parts of the road, making driving wet and wild and crazy-laugh-inducing.

There’s so much to do here, it easily merits its own week-long vacation. The Outer Banks are home to one of our favourite Monster Jam trucks, Gravedigger, making for some kind-of-awesome photo ops. We played at Flippers for nearly an hour on $10 worth of tokens, flipping a few of the 51 pinball machines and trying to remember how to win at Ms. Pacman. Trev played Tron and Space Invaders and a couple of games designed in this decade.

We took two ferry rides – 45 minutes for the first crossing and nearly three hours for the second. That nearly three hours is exactly what I need at this point in the trip: Quiet, with nothing to do, not behind the wheel, not worrying about anything beyond catching up on a couple of blog posts and looking through our pictures. There are only two other cars on the boat. The moon is nowhere to be seen, but every star created is there for us and the Milky Way meets the wake of the boat at the ocean’s horizon. There is no way to blog how beautiful that is, no way to Tweet or Instagram the quiet.

I need the break after nearly wetting myself giggling so many times today, like when we saw the sign for the chain restaurant: “I got my crabs from Dirty Dicks,” or when Trev and I had this conversation after leaving the beach:

“I’d better put a shirt on.”

“What? You’re a Sherpa?”

“Yes, Mom. I’m a Sherpa. I’m going to go live on Everest. Goodbye, world.”

“Well, it’s cold there. You’d better put a shirt on.”

I don’t want to call today perfect, because as I write this the day still has a little more than hour on this ferry, then two hours of driving to the hotel.

But we played pinball and watched a truck being built. We walked across dunes and were smacked by Atlantic waves. We met baby ducks and watched a Medevac helicopter take off. We did it all under cloudy skies, so we aren’t sunburned, and we boarded the ferry at sunset.

The Monster (not so) Spectacular

The view from our seats in the nosebleeds.
The view from our seats in the nosebleeds.

I wish I’d had a camera the time we went to the Monster Spectacular in Quebec City.

Everyone – and the Colisée Pepsi has a capacity of about 15,000 – was wearing blue jeans. There were different shades and different styles, but they were all blue and they were all jeans. It was truly something to see in a packed hockey arena.

Generally we go to the rally at the Olympic Stadium. It is always within a thousand seats of sold out (and has a capacity north of 65,000). Because it’s held in October and April, we’re often competing with the Habs.

It works, though, because every time a goal’s scored at the Bell Centre, they flash the score at the Big O and the crowd – high on motor oil and jet fuel and pot fumes – goes crazy. Crazier. It was all about hockey in Quebec City, too. A dirt bike team in Habs jerseys raced a team in Nordiques jerseys. I’m sure it wasn’t fixed, but … the blue won.

We were at the home of the Senators last night. They reminded us of that … once. The arena was about two-thirds full (it holds about 19,000). The announcer tried desperately to get everyone worked up. Trev and I are pros. We yelled. And every time we yelled, we got flustered or downright dirty looks from those around us, even from the kids.

Lest we forget (there was a danger) that we were in the Home of the Sens.
Lest we forget (there was a danger) that we were in the Home of the Sens.

But I really knew we were out of our element in the Ottawa crowd and in for a completely different truck-rally experience when the MC said: “I want you all to be very quiet,” and they were. They were silent.

It took a jet car to get the crowd going (after the intermission). Older children finally screamed, in joy. Younger children screamed in terror, overcome with jet-fuel fumes. It was great.

Other than screaming children, it was just like being at home: I had to get up to get my own beer. No skinny teenagers hawking lukewarm draft in the aisles. I mean, my Canadian tasted better but – I had to get it myself!

What really suffers at an arena when compared with a ball field is the freestyle. The trucks have a strip of five cars to blow over. No school buses, not a lot of room to build up speed. There’s no chance to show off finesse and style. So what a driver has to do is, like Avenger, go nuts with donuts and flames or, like Brutus, flip over and need to be rescued by a peer. What’s great about a show in an arena are the parts that have nothing to do with monster trucks. We saw cycling stunts (link goes to my YouTube video) for the first time, and for the first time in an arena, Demo Dave performed a Wall of Steel Crash. (Link goes to my YouTube video)

I’d say last night’s Spectacular is the quietest show I’ve ever been to, and I’m including that mime I saw on the street last week. What was great about our trip was the journey: Me and Trev in the car with Vinyl Café on the radio and miles of road before us, heading to one of my favourite cities in the country. There will be more on that, and on friends and architecture. But not tonight.

This is what we live for: a truck going over. Last night it was my favorite truck, Brutus.
This is what we live for: a truck going over. Last night it was my favorite truck, Brutus.

The road to Ottawa is paved with kittens

I was almost asleep last night when Melani said: “I think you and Trev should go see the monster trucks.”

Going to the Monster Spectacular is a tradition with my son and I. We’ve seen every show – fall and spring – for the past four years. Except we missed them at the Big O in October. When we missed it again in April, I told him we’d see about Ottawa in June.

On Monday, against my wishes, he and Melani rescued a kitten. Now, I’m not against rescuing kittens. I’m pro kitten. But we have a (small) house full of animals and so when our older cat found a scrawny, dirty, seven-week-old kitten in our garden, I called Melani at work.

“No,” I said.

She said: “What?”

“Thud has found a kitten,” I said. “He’s looking after it outside, but he may not bring it in.”

“Oh …”

“Do you understand?”

She assured me she did. I tried to catch the kitten anyway; if I could get my hands on it, I could bring it to the pound, as I’ve done with countless strays over the years. I failed.

They tell me the kitten was howling and they could hear it all the way on the second storey. I was unmoved. Then it started to rain. I came home to find Melani and the children had already fallen in love with a pound and a half of filthy feline.

His name will probably be Boom, complementing the other cats, Thud and Splat.
His name will probably be Boom, complementing the other cats, Thud and Splat.

And did I mention sickly? By Thursday we were at the vet, where we spent (because this tangent has a purpose) exactly the amount we would have on two tickets to the Monster Spectacular. The monster trucks were off.

Saturday – the day of the rally – friends left for a three-week holiday in Alaska, leaving Trevor to care for their cat (why does my life revolve around cats?). We popped over there late in the morning to make sure everything was in order and … they had left Trevor his money in advance. It was just the amount we needed for tickets and gas and parking. He gleefully handed it over (“I am this family’s saviour!”) on the understanding that he gets it back in the form of a DSI.

We hit the highway an hour later.