Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Wonderloss

"Left," Jason says from the back seat.

I flip the turn signal and make the next left. The beams of the headlights of my Ford Taurus slice through the jet black darkness as the road bends and curves under a canopy of trees.

After we pass a half dozen intersections, Steve jumps in with a "right."

I flip on the turn signal again and we wind deeper into the unknown, my friends alternating in giving instructions.

We didn't do it that often and the three of us didn't spend a lot of time together. I was the shared friend between the two of them - Jason, with whom I went to the same high school and Steve with whom I had grown up. I seem to recall that the three of us had just finished a new issue of Dharmacation, which was the successor to Driftwood, the magazine that Steve and Geoff and I had had started together - a local zine/literary magazine (possibly one of the very first to include online submissions). Geoff had moved on to other projects and Steve and I had continued our endeavors under a new name, and brought Jason in. It didn't have the same dynamic, but it worked well enough, for a while.

Our goal that particular evening was just to get as far from what we knew as we could, while still being "responsible" enough to get back home at a reasonable time. I was living with my dad at that point and he may or may not have been traveling in some other state or country, so "a reasonable time" was pretty loosely defined. Generally I interpreted it to mean at least a couple hours before sunrise.

The few times we tried this activity/experiment or whatever you want to call it, we seemed to always end up in Morrisville out around New Hope and the New Jersey border. The challenge was to get to some place we had never been before, and then see if we could retrace our route back to those roads and streets that we knew like the back of our hands.

It was a weird bonding activity, but hey, we were weird kids. While some kids drank or smoked or played with drugs, our form of rebellion manifested itself in trying to get lost - something that each of us had been advised to do on a fairly frequent basis. And as we attempted to get lost and then unlost, we listened to punk rock and alternative music, or we just turned the radio on and listed to the Princeton college radio station. I think REM's album, Automatic for the People came out around that time - maybe that's what we were listening to.

There was a sense of satisfaction when we finally realized that we had achieved our goal and nothing looked familiar anymore. And there was an equal sense of accomplishment in getting back to our small known world. Manufactured stress and artificial relief - but to us it was real enough.

And now, nearly 30 years later, Steve is gone, Jason is somewhere, and I find that I'm doing something similar to what the three of us did together as teenagers. I go for long drives, hours some times, looking for something I haven't seen before. It's different now in that I always know where I'm going - I have a specific destination in mind. And you can't really get lost anymore - not with seemingly every point on earth now mapped out in a smartphone application. I don't have to stop and ask for directions, unless what I'm looking for is really hard to find - a miniature roadside monument, an abandoned cabin deep in a swamp, an enigmatic gravestone or something to that effect. It's never because I don't know where I am.

Having to pull into a gas station and have someone behind the counter pull out a map and puzzle over how the hell we ended up wherever the hell we did - that's probably not an experience that teenagers today or at any time in the future will be able to relate to. We've lost our ability to be lost, and with it, I think, something important, a kind of wonder. Or rather, the potential for wonder. We don't puzzle over what's around the next bend in the street - we can see it all on google maps. Where to stop for a snack, where to fill up with gas, where to take the best picture - it's all right there at our fingertips. But once known, once the route is planned and plotted and mapped, it cannot ever again be unknown. There are some things that can only be found when you're not looking for anything. And for all the big, ten dollar words I've so carefully accumulated and collected over the years, I have trouble articulating quite how that makes me feel - trying to hold onto a shared memory when those you shared it with and when even the very world in which you shared it have all vanished. Wonderloss, I guess; a very specific type of nostalgia heartache, and it's heavy on me tonight as I write this.

I feel rather than hear that familiar, silent voice whispering, "go on, get out of here. Get lost...

...if you remember how."



Saturday, May 16, 2020

Exploring the Future: Nuevo Rio Station


Nuevo Rio Station

As Jeth waited for his aqua martini to arrive and help take the edge off the grav lag, he scanned the small, crowded bar at the Nuevo Rio station. Diaz, the entrepreneur he had been assigned to cover, was sitting across from him sipping contentedly on bourbon plasma. The bio-luminescent algae garnish cast a spectrum of colored light through the murky fluid and refracted off the rapidly melting ice cubes. As Diaz tilted the glass to his lips, a miniature aurora borealis spread and swirled across his pinstriped grey suit.

It made Jeth contemplate luxury. Ice cubes.

From over Diaz's shoulder, he saw another table of two young men with shaved heads and tribal scaring, ragged, tilted hashtags on their right cheeks. Both clad in tightly fitting dark suits, they appeared to be twin Latino-Asian hybrids. Cloned, no doubt. The smaller one locked his glittering dark eyes with Jeth, smiled menacingly and nodded. Suddenly he reached up with his left hand and made a phone-shape. With his right hand he raised it in a reverse fist and turned it slightly, like he might use it to pound on the table.

"What's he doing?" Jeth asked.

"Hmm? Who?" Diaz turned to look and then turned back slowly and stared at the table. "Dammit. Better let me handle this." He turned back and nodded to the two men, making two phones out of his hands and then letting them go flat, palm up. Diaz's dexterous hands became a flurry of motion, making rapid chains of indistinguishable signs, several of which included pointing to his head, what looked like typing on a tablet keypad and raising a fist and rotating it back and forth. He finished with mock-typing and then a motion that looked like he was signing something.

The eyes of the two men at the other table widened. The smaller of the two, who had initiated the exchange showed his palms and bowed his bald head slightly. It seemed to Jeth that whatever had just happened, Diaz had clearly emerged as the Alpha.

Diaz shook his head and chuckled, then turned serious as he inspected Jeth. "Corporate gang signs," he said quietly. "Try not to make eye contact with anyone else until we reach the office compound."

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Treasury Street

Since I recently  shared my St. Augustine Adventure List, I thought I would delve a bit deeper into one of the locations mentioned in that post (The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here).

St. Augustine's record-setting narrow street was designed to protect against pirates.



Measuring just seven feet wide, St. Augustine's Treasury Street may be the narrowest street in the United States. And the lane is skinny by design. 

Treasury Street connects Bay Street on the waterfront with what used to be the Royal Spanish Treasury. Local legend says the street was built just wide enough for two men to carry a chest of gold to and from ships docked on the bay, but not wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage to squeeze through and ride off with the money. In the former Spanish port, piracy was a serious concern, especially in the walk between the bank and the bay.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Insectile Orgy of Death

When I started writing Secret Tampa Bay, I wasn't sure how I could possibly fill 206 pages. After several months of work though, I ended up not with too little content, but rather with far more than I could possibly include. Deciding what to omit was difficult as I'm proud of the research and writing I did on each chapter - consequently I'll be sharing here some of that extra content here with you.

This particular piece I decided not to include for two reasons: 1) with so many things that readers might want to explore in the Tampa Bay Area, I didn't think it was the right choice to include something that they would probably rather not experience, and 2) the phenomenon known as "lovebug season" isn't really specific to Tampa Bay - the nasty little things can be found in multiple states throughout the southeast and along the Gulf coast. They are presently out in force, so it seemed like the ideal time to share this with you.

Insectile Orgy of Death

What are all those nasty-looking little things stuck to everyone’s front fenders and windshields?

The subject of this chapter highlights not something you’ll likely want to rush out to experience for yourself, but rather something you might prefer to avoid, if you can. And it revolves around the two words that makes motorists, visitors and even long-time residents consider an indoors activity: lovebug season.

The first documented reference to lovebugs (Plecia Nearctica) along the Gulf Coast can be traced to Louisiana in the early 1900’s. At the time their known habitat included Florida, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Since then they have spread to Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere.
Most years see two lovebug seasons, each lasting a few weeks. Typically the first season occurs sometime in April and the second around late August. During these periods, millions of these sex-crazed insects will mate and remain conjoined, even after one of the pair has died, and take to the sky. Clouds of lovebugs will then hover lazily over any light colored or light-reflective surface (including highways and cars).

They don’t pose any threat to humans as far as bites or stings – although they do cause plenty of individuals to swat at the air and themselves as if suffering from a fit of the world’s worst dance moves. They are also a nuisance to drivers against whose windshields they tend to splatter, and due to the acidity of their body chemist, if not removed fairly quickly from automobiles, their remains become exceedingly difficult to wipe away.

Despite evidence of natural migration, there remains a persistent myth that lovebugs were genetically modified and introduced to the area (either accidentally or intentionally) by the University of Florida or some other research organization in a failed attempt to curb mosquito populations.


Lonely lovebugs: Why do we hate them? | Explore Beaufort SC

Know your amorous insects: Lovebugs are annoying but harmless. Kissing bugs, on the other hand, are nocturnal, bloodsucking parasites that carry an inflammatory infectious disease which can be deadly.

Public Display of Annihilation
What: Lovebugs
Where: Everywhere you least want them to be.
Cost: None, unless you factor in the cost of a good carwash
Pro Tip: Bug repellant won’t keep away lovebugs, but it will help with mosquitos and biting flies. Always keep some handy.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Stranger than Fiction

This blog has been an interesting experiment for me thus far, and I hope you are finding as much pleasure in reading it as I am in creating it. It's more planned than journal writing - I keep a running list of potential subjects - but far less structured than typical story telling. This stands to reason, since the end of this particular story is unknown to me - I'm directing and documenting it as it occurs. Consequently, there is from time to time a plot twist, which catches me by surprise every bit as much if not more than it likely does you.

Specifically, I'm thinking about my forthcoming book "Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure," which is tentatively scheduled for release in the early fall of  2020. Five years ago, writing an offbeat travel guide is just about the last thing I would have expected to do, but it seems that digging deep into my surroundings and my own past has inadvertent revealed a path forward.


Without realizing it, I had been lining up the pieces and doing the work long before the shape of it became clear. It happened about a year ago while I was flipping through the pages of "Secret Philadelphia: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure." I had purchased the book for a trip to see my family in suburban Philly, but the short vacation never actually happened. While Jen and I were waiting to board the plane, which had been delayed, we got a call from her mother informing us that her dad had been taken to the hospital. So after a short discussion, we left the airport and went straight to Sarasota. It was unquestionably the right thing to do and I am glad we could be there for her parents, but I was understandably a little crestfallen about having to postpone a trip I had been looking forward to. So I immersed myself in the hidden history and little known locations in and around the place I grew up.

At the same time I was just beginning to notice some things changing in my professional life. For seven years I'd enjoyed a very steady flow of work as both a resume writer for Your Signature Resume and as a contractor with the proposal writing team at Grant Thornton. It could have just been the usual fluctuations that all of us in the "gig economy" become accustomed to over time, but something about it felt different. Rather than wait and find out, I decided to start actively seeking out an additional stream of revenue.

That's when it occurred to me - I could write Secret Tampa Bay, maybe. The website Atlas Obscura had already published many of my submissions and I was already well into writing this blog. So I went online and looked through the catalog of Reedy Press books to see if they already had a volume on Tampa Bay. They did not. Next I made a mock table of contents based on locations and local objects of intrigue that I could write about (only about half of which actually made it into the book). I called to inquire about it and was directed to the owner. I left a message and he promptly called me back and asked if I could share some writing samples. I complied and again he responded swiftly asking for a marketing plan. I constructed one based on the guidelines he had given me, and within just a week or two I was looking at a contract.

Once everything was signed, I redoubled my efforts to seek out and discover all that is peculiar and fascinating in the area. I set for myself a radius of 1 hour from downtown Tampa, which allowed me to cover not only Tampa, St. Pete and Clearwater, but as far north as Weeki Wachee, and as far south as Sarasota. Initially I wondered how I could possibly fill more than 200 pages, but as I near the final, published product, I find that I have almost twice that much material and that the greatest challenge has been not what to include but rather what to exclude. Some of that excess material will no doubt appear here in future blog posts.

I'm excited. I'm exhausted. But mostly I am profoundly grateful; to Reedy Press for providing me with the opportunity; to my wife and family for their support of my project; to all of those who let me in on their local knowledge and secret worlds, and especially to my old friend Steve. Had his passing not shaken me awake and altered my trajectory, nothing over the past few years in my life would have turned out as it has. I wish he could have been the first one to look at my initial draft - a role we always played for one another, the friend able to offer a frank but thoughtful critique. This time it has been not his presence but his absence that helped shape the work. His shadow falls across the book as it does this blog, and on any of the occasions where I've uncovered or stumbled across something that made me drop my jaw in awe, he's with me then. I believe he would be proud of what I've done.

As kids we adopted as our own a line from the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, "No matter where you go, there your are." I have since amended the saying slightly to reflect his current, posthumous role in my ongoing adventures: "No matter where I go, there we are."

And now, reader, you too are there with us. I appreciate that, and I thank you for joining me in all that has passed and in all that is yet to come.

#SecretTampaBay


Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Saint Augustine Adventure List

Of all the places Jen and I have traveled within the state of Florida, St. Augustine is hands down our favorite. As the oldest continually occupied city in the country, there is no other place in the Sunshine State, or all of America, for that matter, that makes me feel more like I'm wandering through the vestiges of the Spanish empire. From the 17th century fortress built from coquina to withstand cannonballs to the pirate museum, the myriad ghost tours, the Ponce de Leon Archaeological Site and a slew of fantastic restaurants, every time we visit we discover something new, or old, rather. Here is the adventure list we composed for our first visit three years ago. It is by no means comprehensive, but it was enough to keep us busy for a few days.



  • Item #1: Casablanca Inn - Our mini adventure began at the Casablanca Inn, which was a charming B&B that appealed to both Jen and I for different reasons. Casablanca is one of Jen's favorite films; I was more interested in the fact that some consider the 1914 building to be one of the more haunted spots in one of America's most reputedly haunted cities. 
  • Item #2: Pirate & Treasure Museum - With artifacts and treasures recovered from various pirate ships on display and histories of some the area's most infamous buccaneers, this was a must see for me and it did not disappoint.
  • Item #3: Potter's Wax Museum - The first established wax museum in America, set inside the country's oldest pharmacy.  
  • Item #4: Villa Zorayda - An Alhambra-inspired building that houses a fantastic collection including possibly the oldest rug on earth said to be woven from Egyptian Nile cat hair (The Sacred Cat Rug, as it is called, is the subject of another blog entry).
  • Item #5: Ponce de Leon Hotel (Flagler College) - Once an opulent hotel, now home to Flagler College and the subject of a blog post elsewhere.
  • Item #6: Ghost Tour - St. Augustine is said by some to be the most haunted city in America. For our first visit we went on the Ghosts and Gravestone Tours which is probably the largest such tour operator in town.  
  • Item #7: Treasury Street - The narrowest street in the United States by design as a defense against pirates. 
  • Item #8: The Great Cross - Standing 208 feet high, this cross is said to mark the approximate spot where Christianity found a permanent foothold in the new world in 1565. It is part of the Shrine of Our Lade of La Leche and when it was first erected in 1966, it was the tallest cross in the world. 
  • Item #9: Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museum - Robert Ripley surely ranks among the patron saints of offbeat travel. As a model and inspiration for me, how could I not spend time among the more than 800 odd and unusual items on display there?
  • Item #10: The Fountain of Youth - First explored by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, the archaeological site includes the remains of native people and a fountain you can drink from. It may not grant you eternal youth but it will certainly leave the taste of sulfur in your mouth for what will seem like forever.


Castillo de San Marcos 

  • Item #11: Gator Bob's - if you're looking for the obligatory St. Augustine souvenir, this is where you will find it.   
  • Item #12: Wolf's Museum of Mystery - This quintessentially St. Augustine experience was part curio shop, part demented house of horrors. Sadly it burned down in 2019 but the proprietor has relocated his wares to Friendship, NY.
  • Item #13: The Lightner Museum - This meta collection housed in the former Alcazar Hotel includes a mummy, Sir Winston Churchill's Lion ROTA (stuffed), and an awe-inspiring collection of 19th century fine and decorative art. 
  • Item #14: Old Town Trolly Tour - Hop on, hop off and get some quick historical facts along the way.
  • Item #15: Love Trees - St. Augustine's love trees are composed of two different types of trees that have grown into and through one another in an eternal, symbiotic embrace. Local lore says that a kiss under such a tree will produce an equally unbreakable bond between lovers. 
  • Item #16: The Oldest Wooden School House - Complete with a Harry Potter-esque dungeon under the stairs.
  • Item #17: Andrew Young Crossing Site - where a famous civil rights leader was knocked unconscious during a protest. You can follow his footsteps up the point where his forward motion was arrested for a time. He has been back several times since to complete his intended path.
  • Item #18: City Gates - the original entrance way to the city remains partially intact and is the site of many supernatural tales including a frequently encountered "woman in white." 
  • Item #19: The Old Jail - Of all the supposedly haunted sites in town, this certainly was the creepiest. It was included as one of the stops along our ghost tour.
  • Item #20: Old Spanish Trail Zero Milestone Marker - A small monument at the Atlantic end of the Old Spanish Trail (US 80), the other end of which terminates in San Diego, California.


The Lizzy Borden room inside of the Wolf's Museum of Mystery.

  • Item #21: St. George Street - My agreement with Jen is that any trip involving pirates, ghosts and oddities must also include shopping. Seems pretty fair to me.
  • Item #22: St. Augustine History Museum - located next to the Old Jail, it provided a nice overview of the history of the region including a deeper dive into the life and origins of the Florida Crackers.
  • Item #23: Castillo de San Marcos - When most people think of St. Augustine, this fort is most likely what they envision. It represents the oldest masonry and only 17th century fort still standing in North America, unique not only for its design but also for the material (coquina) which was used in its construction.
  • Item #24: The Oldest Store Museum - Here you'll find interactive displays and a look at the "good old days" when you could purchase your meat, farm equipment, general supplies and snake oil all at the same place. 
  • Item #25: Huguenot Cemetery - Every ghost tour Jen and I have been on stops here, as there are many tales including those of the Yellow Fever which decimated the city and the story of Judge John Stickney who is said to appear from time to time seeking his stolen gold teeth. 
  • Item #26: St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine - A lesser known spot in the city, which provides a history of the early Greek settlers in the area and a reliquary containing bones from 18 different saints, making it one of if not the largest such collection outside of the Vatican.
  • Item #27: Fort Matanza - A smaller lookout fort south of the city which was crucial in the defense against pirates.
  • Item #28: Scarlet O'Hara's Bar & Restaurant - The way I feel about Star Wars, Jen feels about Gone with the Wind. And, like virtually every other building in St. Augustine, it's rumored to have a ghost or two. The only spirits we encountered there were those we imbibed, and frankly that's just fine by us.
  • Item #29: Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church - Built by the train and hotel magnate that made St. Augustine a tourist destination, in honor and memory of his daughter.
     

The main entrance to what was once the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College).

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Exploring the Virtual World: Seeking Wonder in a Pandemic

I'm fortunate in more ways than I can count. I and all of my immediate family and loved ones are healthy and safe. I hope the same is true for you and those you love, and for those in less fortunate circumstances I share my condolences. Collectively and to varying extents, with varying degrees of success, we've all been finding ways of adapting to the changes that COVID-19 has brought. For some of us, this means learning to work from home and spending more time than we're used to with family, children, pets and partners.

In my own case, for the most part, it has required only minimal changes - I've been working remotely from my home for going on ten years now (I was only surprised to learn that apparently another name for my lifestyle is "quarantine"). But one of the key components that has made this lifestyle work for me, is that it has up until recently afforded me the ability to pause throughout my day or week and choose a new local spot to explore, be it a unique restaurant, a hidden monument, an oddly specific private collection, a natural wonder or something else that intrigues me. That, of course, has gone largely by the wayside and I worry that many of these smaller, lesser known sites may not be able to reopen as they are often far more dependent on the money from offbeat tourists than the larger and better known attractions. But until I can continue my exploration in person, I too have had to adapt, and I've been quelling my wanderlust to the extent possible through virtual museums and tours.

No, it's not the same as being there in person, but it's as good as I imagine it will get for some time yet. And so through my screen I've been wandering the hallways of art museums in Spain and London, listening to the sound of arctic glaciers underwater, learning about the endless construction undertaken by the heiress of a gun manufacturing company and viewing an array of medical oddities. All of these tours are different, but I generally think of them in four categories:

Static Tours:
The Museum of Broken Relationships falls into this category, with a pinterest-style display of items and the stories attached to them. Visitors can scroll through an astounding assortment of trinkets and objects (the most memorable of which may be a 27-year-old scab) that tell the sweet, sad, surprising and sometimes laughable final chapters of different romantic relationships. While the collection is truly fascinating, I would love to hear some of the stories narrated or be able to have a 360 degree look at the objects, perhaps those are features already in the works. In the meantime, what it lacks in interactivity it makes for in content.

You can explore the Museum of Broken Relationships here.

Guided/Recorded Tours:
Both the Winchester Mystery House and the Mütter Museum fall into this category and I enjoyed both of them a great deal. I have not yet visited either one in person although I've read about both of them and the knowledgeable guides do an exceptional job of bringing both to life. Just a few highlights from the Mütter Museum tour (which takes less than a half hour) include the Soap Lady, the skull collection, the world's largest colon, the death cast of Chang and Eng (who were the first to be call "Siamese Twins), and slides of Einstein's brain. The Winchester House tour is equally fascinating, delving into Mary Winchester's compulsion to keep building, even if it meant stairways leading to nowhere and other such architectural oddities, possibly in an attempt to confuse the spirits of those slain by Winchester weapons. Although the tour of this labyrinthine abode no longer appears to be offered for free on the site, the $5.99 seems like a very reasonable and worthwhile price. 



You can see the Winchester Mystery House here.

360 Degree / Self-Directed Tours:
Both Bran Castle in Romania (famously connected to Vlad the Impaler, who was supposedly the inspiration behind Dracula), and the Paris Catacombs are accessible via this type of self-guided tour. While I enjoyed both, I do think they would have benefited from more background and narration. The ability to have 360 degree views was a benefit, but I would have traded that functionality for more insight via recorded or even text information. I know that the technology will continue to evolve and perhaps eventually arrive at an easily accessible form of true VR, but that seems a ways off yet and in the meantime, the clunky navigation ultimately just made me more acutely aware that I'm not  able to visit them the way I would like. Still, both are worth exploring, however you are able to get there. Bran Castle does have a video tour version with music in lieu of narration.

You can experience Bran Castle via Google Maps here.
Visit the Paris Catacombs here.

Hybrid Virtual Tours:
Several of the tours I've explored thus far online combine both interactive and guided elements, none more effectively, in my opinion, than the National Parks. The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks provides interactive as well as guided components of five different parks. So far I've just explored the first two (Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Hawaii Volcanoes) but I plan to check out the other three as well (Carlsbad Caverns, Bryce Canyon and Dry Tortugas here in Florida). The technology behind these is sharp and seamless, the content is very engaging. Overall I think these have been the most enjoyable stops in my online exploration.

You can experience the National Parks here.

I'll continue to seek out wonder in the world and online, and I'll share my perspective in the days to come. Even though some states have begun to ease restrictions, I think it may be quite some time before we're all traveling about in anything resembling the way we did prior to 2020. And while visiting unusual places from my desk isn't my preferred means of experience them, I am thankful to be able to visit them at all - a hundred, or fifty, or even thirty years ago none of this would have been possible. So I'll keep focused on that, and while I'm at it, I'll think of something more compelling to call it than virtual tourism - digital out of body travel perhaps? Technology enabled astral projection?