Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Recommended Reading

There's nothing quite like a major hurricane to put a crimp in one's exploration of weird and unusual places. Such is the case for me at the moment - with Hurricane Ian barreling towards the Tampa Bay area, my wife and I decided to heed the evacuation order. With our fierce and fluffy companion, Tinker Bell the Shih Tzu, we made our way up to Jacksonville, where we are currently hunkered down for the next few days. And even though I may not get a chance to check out Chamblin Bookmine, Sally Dark Rides or the pink dinosaur known as "Sexy Rexy," one thing I can do is catch up on some reading. Another thing I can do is write a blog post. In fact, I could write a blog post about some of the reading I've caught up on lately. And so I have. Here are just a few of the books I've been impressed with lately. I hope that you'll check them out and, if you feel so inspired, maybe leave your own review of a book that you enjoyed.

Book: Abandoned Florida: Sunshine Sentinels
By: Thomas Kenning
Originally Reviewed On: Amazon

The massive military fortifications of centuries past were no doubt intimidating and awe inspiring displays of might in their prime, but as Kenning reveals in words and images, they can become something far more wondrous as they quietly crack and crumble. Eerily beautiful in decay - such is the state of these seemingly impregnable behemoths designed to halt the marching of armies, but not the march of time. Kenning has done a really spectacular job of capturing and conveying that magic as nature conquers and reclaims these man-made marvels of engineering. Whether a seasoned or first-time seeker and explorer of modern ruins, this book will have you packing your gear, planning your route and pining to experience the desolate splendor of these places for yourself, long before you've turned the last page.

Book: Curveball at the Crossroads
By: Michael Lortz
Originally Reviewed On: goodreads

I went in without expectations and found a new twist on the old "deal with the devil at the crossroads" that was much more fun than I expected. As someone interested in vintage Americana, including baseball, blues music and especially America's unique modern mythology, Lortz's book appealed to be on multiple levels. But none of it would have landed for me without such clear, clever and entertaining storytelling - the style reminded me a bit of Christopher Moore. A fast read that relies on good solid storytelling; a modern fable that swings for the fences and delivers. Go read it already.

Book: Eerie Appalachia: Smiling Man Indrid Cold, The Jersey Devil, the Legend of Mothman and More
By: Mark Muncy & Kari Schultz
Originally Reviewed On: goodreads

I just finished reading Eerie Appalachia and the first (literary) foray outside of the sunshine state for author/illustrator duo Mark Muncy and Kari Schultz is a fast and fascinating deep dive that picks up where their previous works left off at the Florida state border. Their latest work expands the scope of strange encounters to include not only well-known cryptids like the Moth Man, the Jersey Devil and the Sasquatch, but also hauntings, hyper-local holler legends, UFOs and one of Muncy's own personal experiences on his family's land in Kentucky. As with their previous books, Schultz's illustrations were phenomenal and Muncy was able to construct concise and well written tales from reams of research and often conflicting first-hand accounts. Whether you're new to the world of cryptids and creepy creatures, a paranormal enthusiast or a seasoned legend-tripper with your gear already stowed and ready to go, this book will give you all the reasons you need to start planning your own excursion deep into Eerie Appalachia.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Sir Winston Churchill's Lion 'Rota'

This one is a bit older - one of the first of my published submissions to Atlas Obscura, but it seemed like a logical follow-up post to my recent one on Big Cat Rescue. Have we seen the tail end of such posts and puns? Maybe to the first part of that question and decidedly not to the second... after all, a leopard, as the saying goes, never changes its spots... 

Lions and Tigers and Servals, Oh My A lion given to the prime minister somehow got stuffed and sent to Florida.

What do you get for the victorious allied commander and British prime minister who has everything? A lion, apparently.

Rota, an African lion, was originally won in a bet by a London businessman. Once he outgrew his backyard cage, he was presented to Sir Winston Churchill to commemorate his victories in North Africa during World War II. Tame enough to let curious visitors reach in and touch him, Rota resided for a time in a cage outside of Churchill’s property, before finally being relocated to the London Zoo.

That wasn’t Rota’s last stop, however. It’s not exactly clear how the stuffed lion made his way to Florida, but travel over the ocean he did. He was first exhibited at the Lion Hotel in Saint Augustine, but too many visitors pulling at his fur led the owners to donate him to the avid collector, Otto C. Lightner.

Housed in what was originally the Alcazar Hotel built by Henry Morrison Flagler in 1888, the Lightner Museum showcases its original patron’s vast collection of pretty much anything and everything. It includes the second largest assemblage of American-made crystal in the world, a pipe organ-themed desk (which may have been used by Napoleon’s brother), Tiffany stained glass, Victorian-era scientific equipment, an Egyptian mummy, early automated music machines, and Rota, the lion who once belonged to Churchill.

Today Rota stands behind glass with his monstrous maw preserved in a permanent roar—or yawn, perhaps.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Tampa Bay Scavenger Storyline

At various times in my life, I've been a video gamer. One particular MMORG, Everquest, held my fascination for years. I recalled how every once in a while, a player or team of players, or guild, would unlock some new content, or there would be some special event, triggering a game-wide message. I decided to apply this to Tampa Bay Scavenger - whenever a player unlocked one of the four puzzle pieces and solved the final riddle, I posted a game update to the Facebook group ( Below are those updates, which essentially create a separate, interactive storyline.

Following the unlocking of the first puzzle piece by a player, this update was issued on October 14, 2021.

----------GAME UPDATE----------
All players and adventurers suddenly pause simultaneously, sensing a shift in the air around them. One by one they realize that it's the stillness, the silence, that has grabbed their attention. Everything has gone eerily quiet except for just one sound, which echoes out from the heart of the labyrinth. It is the unmistakable sound of metal against metal. It is the sound of a key opening a lock, setting something new in motion as hidden gears rumble to life and begin to turn...

...Somewhere, someone has unlocked the first puzzle piece...

Following the unlocking of the second puzzle piece by a player, this update was issued on November 18, 2021.

---------GAME UPDATE----------
The blind seer sits at the small, circular wooden table in the center of her cabin – close enough to the docks that she can sometimes hear snippets of conversation and quarrels, but far enough removed that no one stumbles upon her abode without seeking it. Moonlight pours in through the sheer curtains by the window and pools on the uneven tiles of the floor. She knows that the moon is full not by anything her eyes tell her but rather by the cycles within and around her, as she prepares for her nightly ritual.
From the creased and worn deck she draws three cards, running her weathered fingers over each one as she turns it over.

The first is the Ace of Wands, indicating that a fateful step has been taken, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead one to their desired outcome.

The second card she reads by touch is the Seven of Pentacles. The road ahead will be long and arduous, requiring patience and dedication.

The final card takes her just a moment to recognize as the Wheel of Fortune. It’s been some time since it last turned up in one of her nightly readings. She knows that it heralds change, but for good or ill she cannot say.

“Tell me witch, what does this bode?” The voice belongs to a figure who has until now been concealed in the shadows behind her. She cannot see him and does not know if he is a corporeal being, a shade or just some figment conjured from her own fragmented memory. She long ago ceased making any such distinction, as she has discourse with all of them equally. In this instance, however, her reply is simply a broad grin, for she understands precisely what the cards have revealed…

…Somewhere, someone has unlocked the second puzzle piece…

Following the unlocking of the third puzzle piece by a player, this update was issued on December 27, 2021.

---------GAME UPDATE----------
The water is calm and quiet, as the two men stand fishing side by side from the deck of their small vessel. They've been doing all they can of late to increase their catch as the nets have been nearly empty every night these last many. There's been talk and rumors that the waters have been cursed, that those adventurers who have of late descended upon the bay area seeking clues and treasure have unwittingly unleased something darker upon it.

The two fishermen are not immune to such superstition - each of them have been making extra offerings to their chosen deity in hopes of restoring harmony and good fortune. As they go quietly about their business, a thick fog rolls in and engulfs their boat. They turn towards each other in confusion as they realize that the fog is moving against the wind, towards the shore.

Before they can say anything, they notice a shape rising from the depths off the starboard side. They rub their eyes in astonishment, for what they see is clearly impossible. A rotted and decaying ship, rising from the depths without creating a sound or disturbing the surface of the water. Seaweed hangs and billows form the masts in lieu of sails, and as it passes alongside their craft, they feel chilled to the bone.

The crew is composed of skeletal pirates, reanimated and called up from their slumber at the bottom of the sea no doubt by that which is happening on land. At the helm, Gaspar the Undying points his rusted saber towards the port and urges his crew to make haste, lest they be beaten to their prize. The pirate captain's empty eye sockets glow red as if illuminated by embers and he lets loose a cackle that is the sound of nightmares as he speeds past the fisherman.

The fishermen wait for the ghost ship to pass, put away their gear and decide to call it a night. Neither one has any desire to speak of what they just witnessed or to be out on the water at night again anytime soon. The older of the two sighs, realizing that there will be no peace or normalcy until the hunt has run its course, and that for those competing to complete it, the dangers will only increase the closer they get to their goal. A goal, he muses, rubbing his grey beard between his fingers, that at least one seeker has just drawn closer to...

...Somewhere, someone has unlocked the third puzzle piece...

Following the unlocking of the fourth and final puzzle piece by a player, this update was issued on April 11, 2022.

---------GAME UPDATE----------
The wind that began as a mild breeze picks up and becomes a howl, bending and uprooting trees. Like a droplet of black ink, a roiling storm cloud spreads across the sky. It blots out the sun, turning afternoon into the pitch black of midnight, split by bolts of lightning so bright that they leave an afterimage in the eyes of those watching. The waters along the bay become turbulent, pounding the shores and docks, surging against stone walls. Waterspouts dance over the sea in the darkness. All man-made structures, even the ground itself, seems to tremble from the force of the tempest.

And then nothing. As quickly as it formed, the storm dissipates and when the late day sun breaks free from the clouds that confined it, it shines all the more brightly on one adventurer. Everyone throughout the land reaches the same conclusion...

...Somewhere, someone has unlocked the fourth and final puzzle piece...

Following the deciphering of the final secret message (once the four puzzle pieces were assembled) by a player, this update was issued on July 20, 2022.

---------GAME UPDATE----------
All enemies defeated, all clues solved, ZooTech stands before the ancient doorway that leads to the Keeper of Secrets, and of course, whatever treasure he has been guarding. She takes a deep breath and enters, winding through a maze of passageways, sometimes having to retrace her steps. At last she sees the flicker of torchlight up ahead. The passageway opens up into a circular chamber. At the far side sits a figure wearing a hooded cloak. Between them, in the center of the room are a series of letters and in the very center of the room, a massive wooden chest, bound shut with metal chains and a lock.

“Welcome,” the figure says. He rises slowly, as if he’s been seated there waiting to be found since the very dawn of time. “You have proven yourself courageous and curios in solving my riddles. Now there is but one final challenge.” He gestures to the letters throughout the room.

ZooTech notices that they seem to shimmer as she approaches. She studies each carefully, and then it comes to her – the final phrase. She whispers it to the figure and though she cannot discern his face, she has the distinct impression that he is smiling. He takes a key that hangs around his neck and places it in her hands. “Thank you for freeing me,” he says and then begins to dematerialize before her eyes, until all that is left is a dark swirling vortex of dust and the key in her hands.

Cautiously she approaches the chest and detecting no traps, places the keys into the lock. It springs open and the chains loosen and fall away. She lifts the lid and inside she finds… nothing! Wait, that can’t be right, can it? She looks again and feels around in the dark wood. This time she feels something in the corner and pulls away a false bottom, which reveals a ladder descending into the darkness below.
Determined not to have come this far without claiming the treasure, she climbs down into the unknown. At the bottom she finds herself in another circular room, but this one is lined with portals – dozens of doorways glowing blue, through each of which she can see a different path. Though this particular quest has ended for her, the adventure continues without end…

…And isn’t that really the best treasure of all?

Congratulation to ZooTech on being the first to solve all the riddles and the final phrase.

Now, who will be next?

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Lions and Tigers and Servals, Oh My!


Originally I planned to include this chapter about Big Cat Rescue. Jen and I had gone on a tour there previously - it's located in Citrus Park just about ten minutes from where we live. Unfortunately, in response to both the COVID-19 global pandemic and, as I was told by staff there, to a certain Netflix show, the organization decided to close its doors for tours out of concern for both animals and humans. Consequently this was one of the chapters I opted to trim from Secret Tampa Bay, as I felt it made more sense to focus more on things and places that people can see for themselves. Perhaps one day it will reopen to the public. Until then, you can visit the cats virtually and via my description here.

Lions and Tigers and Servals, Oh My!

Where can you find Tampa’s most unique and exclusive retirement community?

Founded in November of 1992 just miles from Downtown Tampa, Big Cat Rescue is one of the world’s largest accredited sanctuaries for exotic cats—including lions, tigers, leopards, lynx, servals, bobcats, cougars, ocelots, and caracals—who live out the rest of their nine lives peacefully on 67 sunny acres in the Citrus Park neighborhood.

A nonprofit 501(c)3 charity, Big Cat Rescue is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and includes full-time homes for big cats as well as rehab and medical facilities, a rotational “vacation” area, and a “kitten cabana” for socializing and supporting smaller cats.

Residents at Big Cat Rescue come from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances, some abandoned or abused by owners, others retired from performing acts or rescued from being made into fur coats. Still others, whose names have been changed, are there as part of what might be called “the feline witness protection program,” having been seized during raids or drug busts and now awaiting trial … as evidence.

Some of Big Cat Rescue’s more famous inhabitants include Zabu the white tiger, Kali the tiger, Cameron the lion, and of course Pharaoh and Tonga—the only two white servals known in existence anywhere on earth.

In addition to providing a home and care for its animals, Big Cat Rescue is involved in championing legislation to end the ownership and trade of exotic felines in the private sector. The bill, known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 3546) is currently in the US House of Representatives.

Other local animal encounters include the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, Golden Spirit Alpaca Ranch in Odessa, Gypsy Gold Farm for horses in Ocala, and ZooTampa at Lowry Park.

Paws and Appreciate

What: Big Cat Rescue

Where: 12802 Easy St., Tampa

Cost: In person tours are not currently being offered.  

Pro Tip: There are numerous ways to get involved and support Big Cat Rescue’s mission, from donations to email campaigns to volunteer and internship positions. Visit its website for more information.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Valhalla Can Wait

“Hey…. Pssst… Hey, are you awake?...”

It’s the voice of my friend Steve, cutting through the pre-dawn darkness. As kids, during any sleepover, I was usually the one, lying on the red fold-out seat, who could talk until the first shades of deep purple spread like a bruise across the sky, whereas Steve would be asleep and snoring like clockwork within a half hour lying down. Death, it seems, has reversed our roles and it is now my friend who possesses the sort of boundless late-night energy that he did not have in life.

“Hey… are you there?... Wake up.”

I mumble something along the lines of, “do you know what time it is?” but consciousness is seeping in, under my eyelids. Somewhere in the back of my brain an engine sputters a few times and finally kicks on to those two words.

Wake up.

Mmmuumph, hmm, what? I must have dozed off, my index finger still between the pages of a book I was reading. At some point during the night my wife must have turned off the lights and a small warm, furry creature, Tinker Bell, has relocated from being in the crook of my armpit to laying on her back with my left ankle as her pillow.

Some thirty years on from my childhood, it’s a lot harder to keep my eyes open. Sleep is no longer the enemy it was back then. It’s taken the form of a Valkyrie, ready to lift me gently from my body and carry me off to some version of paradise. The temptation to drift back off is so strong, all the more reason I have to ball my hands into fists, dig my fingernails into my palms and summon all my resolve. I swing my legs over the side of the bed, rise and stumble down the hall to my office, managing to bang my shins only a couple times before sitting back down in front of the computer, to stare at a blank page.

I consider anew just how easy it is to go back to sleep. Even as I start typing and working on an upcoming presentation, a big one, I know in some ways though I’m already sleep-walking again. That story of how grief became a catalyst and how I came to reawaken to the wonder of the world around me, after nearly three years has been refined and told so often that I could recite it in my sleep. Which means that I am probably doing just that - the story of waking up has itself become a sort of lullaby mantra, luring me back into a different version of the same trance I fought so hard to break free from.

I’ve made a start though. A good start. I’ve put three books on the shelf and I’m into a fourth. Wrote a ghost tour and working on others. But it’s neither the time nor the place to plant a flag, it’s just the first basecamp and the summit is a long way off in the distance. A start, even the very best of starts, is still just a start. Time now to stop starting and start in on the second act. The climb gets steeper from here, the oxygen gets thinner and there are fewer footsteps to follow.

The Valkyrie isn’t going anywhere. Over my shoulder, I can sense her disapproval of my efforts – she thinks I should just call it a night and be satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. And with what's left unfinished. She doesn't say any this, of course, she doesn't have to - she’s the strong, silent type. Though she is in virtually every way the inverse of my friend Steve, she is no less a member of my party; with me now for the duration of the journey.

Time to delve deeper, to push myself harder, to stay awake and stay focused. There are strange lands yet to traverse and wonders waiting to be revealed before I’m ready to cash in whatever cred I’ve earned as a seeker.

Valhalla, at least for now, is just going to have to wait.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Burger Museum

(The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

Memorial Day presents itself to me as a holiday with a bit of a multiple personality disorder: on one hand it's a time to remember the dead - those who lost their lives in active military service. Yet it's also the unofficial start of summer - beaches, pool parties, beer and yes, hamburgers. This last item has me reflecting not only on service members who have passed on, but also on wonders that exist now only in memory. Hence my post of this previously published piece on the Burger Museum.

Though the museum is no more, it served as one distinct stage of the evolution of "Burger Beast" who I've come to know and appreciate for his extraordinary and highly specialized expertise. He continues to blog, he has a book that you should check out, he's opened a restaurant and he keeps serving up the freshest burger-related wisdom anywhere on planet earth. Who knows - maybe one day the museum will return. In the meantime, you can always revisit it here.

This shrine to bovine consumption and all things fast food is a slice of culinary history both rare and well done.

In a 1984 Wendy's commercial, actress Clara Peller carved out a permanent place in pop culture by asking, “Where’s the beef?” Some three decades later, we have a definitive answer in the Burger Museum at Miami’s Magic City Casino.

The museum, created by Sef “Burger Beast” Gonzalez, began as a blog documenting and celebrating his lifelong passion for burgers. When a friend familiar with Gonzalez’s particular obsession sent him an old Burger Chef restaurant sign, it sent him on a path toward amassing an extraordinary collection of all things burger-related. When his collection outgrew his old, unused bedroom at his parents’ house, he pitched the city’s Magic City Casino on the idea of leasing him space to showcase his fast-food fascination. The casino agreed, and in December of 2016, the Burger Museum was born.

Today the collection includes over 3,000 artifacts and collectibles, not only from the larger chains such as Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s, but from lesser-known restaurants (including a sign from the failed Burger Queen chain—no affiliation with the King) and “mom and pop” shops as well. From vintage uniforms and menus to dishware, toys, and statues of mascots (the Hamburglar, of course, makes an appearance), the vast collection tells the story of America’s enduring love for the ground beef patty on a bun.

Update: The Burger Museum closed its doors on September 29, 2019.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Finding, Losing and Restoring Balance (My COVID-19 Experience)

It's a lesson you might think I'd be better at by now. Looking around at my peers for comparison (something I generally try to avoid doing), it seems like many, maybe most of them  have worked out some approximation of a balanced between work, family and leisure - although it's hard to tell how much of that is real and how much is illusion. It's also easy to forget that many of them have a very different life than I do - in middle age now, most of them probably have a somewhat clear picture of how things will unfold in their ideal scenario. I, however, just upended everything again over the last few years - out the window once again went all plans and predictions. And balance. Of course, I was never great at maintaining that in the first place - no doubt part of why I gravitated to a creative project-based lifestyle - as it allowed me to hyper focus, work like mad, and then move on to the next project.. For a good ten years or so I found, if not what most would call balance, than at least some lifestyle that was workable for me and one that gave me the time and space to discover, cultivate and indulge a passion for seeking out curiosities and wonders.

Now though, in a manner truly reflective of my current home, I've introduced some new species into the delicate ecosystem of my daily life. It started with the first book, "Secret Tampa Bay," which created a new pattern, alternating between creating and then marketing and promoting, my work. With one book that was pretty simple. "Tampa Bay Scavenger" made it a bit more complicated - now producing a new book started to overlap with promoting the first. As I near completion of "Oldest Tampa Bay," I can see how this will become increasingly complex. Three books, still manageable I think. But I'm also starting work on a fourth, and in early talks about a fifth... and bit by bit, word by word, page by page, I can just start to make out the shape of a new life as an author. 

The introduction of the first tour for the Clearwater Jolley Trolley opens up yet another new doorway, one that I am eager as ever to explore. Again though, this alters my trajectory and with each new opportunity, I need to go back and measure it against what's already on my plate. That's not a complaint, in fact, it really just serves to highlight the benefit of having a portfolio of endeavors rather than just one job with a clear, linear path and progression. I get to pick and choose, I just have to be smart and careful about what I commit to.

The factor that most blindsided me though, the one I didn't see coming, was COVID-19. Jen and I both got it back in March of this year, despite having been vaccinated and boosted. It wasn't too bad for us, no worse than a mean flu. Most of our symptoms resolved after a few days - some hung on for weeks (in the form of a secondary sinus infection), and one has continued to linger for months now. Exhaustion, fatigue, whatever you want to call it. I've been feeling like an old cell phone that suddenly has a smaller battery capacity, can't seem to fully charge anymore and loses that charge much faster than it used to. For the first time in my adult life, naps have become not just a regular feature but a necessity. 

I was starting to wonder if maybe there would be no bounce-back. Maybe old age just showed up early and I'd have to get used to it. Just when I was starting to give up hope, something amazing happened the other morning. I woke up feeling rested. For the first time in months, I actually felt my energy at a pre-COVID level. So there's hope that things will improve, but in the mean time, I've had to learn some new tricks: 

  1. Prioritizing projects and deadlines - I've been doing this for years, but now I've had to become much more accurate and realistic with my projections. In the past, if I needed to put in an extra hour, or three, or ten, with enough pitch black coffee I could get it done. That's no longer been the case and some things (this blog being one of them), have had to take a back seat.
  2. Managing my energy - As previously mentioned, this wasn't really an issue before. I've had to  think now not in 8, 10 or 12 hour days but rather in 2, 3 and 4 hour mini-shifts factoring in rest breaks. 
  3. Sometimes just saying no - This is maybe what I've historically been worst at. I juggle something like five or six very different streams of revenue and my nature, my inclination, is to keep on adding to them. But I've had to turn away projects more frequently - grit my teeth and bite back the frustration at not being able to bill every moment of my day. 

Making these changes has been tough, but I think I am ultimately better for it. As my energy level returns, little by little, I plan to hold on to what I've learned. It will make me more efficient, it will allow me to focus on fewer things, thereby increasing their quality, and it will also allow me to increase the quality of my own life. 

Certainly the experience could have been worse - I am, after all, still very much alive. I did not need to be admitted to a hospital or put on a ventilator. Every moment of every day, I count myself lucky in this regard. But it hasn't exactly been a walk in the park either. Its lingering effects have reshaped my world - and I'm still trying to get my head around that. I feel like if I can learn something of value from this, it will feel like picking the pocket of the armed robber that burst into the bank and made off with my wellbeing. 

It's my way to take back just a tiny bit of what was stolen. 

I hope, if you need to, that you can do the same.