Seven Months on Saint Catherines

For seven months, I found myself off the coast of Georgia, on St. Catherines Island, working as a zookeeper. I am currently blogging about my experiences on this private island on this site. There, you can read about ring-tailed lemurs, sandhill cranes, alligators, armadillos, cabbage palms, and more! A blend of personal stories and ecology, each week focuses on a different aspect of my life in this amazing place.

Eclipsecapade Day 6

I found Big Red!

It’s time to head home. When I open my eyes, my head still hurts, but it’s a dull ache instead of the migraine I had yesterday. The first words out of ELW’s mouth are, “we have to check out in thirty minutes.” I roll out of bed and pull my things together. Since I hadn’t really unpacked and a mishap on the stairs means half of our special Missouri eclipse beer was gone, it doesn’t take me long to be ready. I try to encourage the girls to get their things in order, but they just ignore me. Dealing with the seven-year-old this trip hadn’t been the walk in the park I’d imagined. But, I try not to let it bother me as I start making trips out to the car.

Once we’re all nestled in with blankets and notebooks and phone chargers, we pull away from Eureka and start the long trek back to Athens. Instead of a water park stop this time, ELW decides we’re going to motor on through and do the whole twelve hour drive in one go. This time, at least, I get to see St. Louis in the daytime. I ask ELW how often he got to the city when he was a Missouri resident and he starts to tell me about the free zoo and art museums. I’m delighted to see actual graffiti as we traverse a bridge elevated above the docks along the river. Athens doesn’t have proper graffiti.

Bye bye, St. Louis

It takes a few hours to pass out of Missouri and across the long finger of Kentucky. No stops for Derby Pie this time either. In Tennessee, we stop for gas and I get out to stretch my legs at a truck stop. Lo and behold, there among the energy drinks and the iced tea, I find Big Red! Next to Coco Rico (a coconut-flavored soda from Puerto Rico), Big Red is my favorite soft drink. I haven’t had one since I was last in Texas, years ago. I’ve heard people describe the taste differently. ELW thinks it tastes like cream soda. I’d say it’s more like bubble gum. Either way, it turns the tongue bright red.

ELW and I passed the time listening to a season of That Mitchell and Webb Sound, a British podcast we both follow. Then, we listened to another podcast that featured the elated sounds of people witnessing the eclipse in years past. I found the eclipse wondrous and astounding, but these folks were positively orgasmic. I was glad the kids in the back were absorbed in their iPads. Eventually, the GPS told us we were a mile from the turnoff onto our street.

All in all, it was a mixed journey, but one I’m glad to have been a part of. I did a lot of thinking. I didn’t do a lot of talking (for a change). I saw something amazing. For a second, as the celestial bodies aligned, I felt a sense of perspective. I don’t know what’s next now or where I’ll go. I don’t know what I’ll do or who I’ll do it with. I don’t know how this will change me or how it will affect my relationships. But I do know that this is another chapter in my story that won’t be forgotten.

Eclipsecapade Day 5

Hotel garden

Our new hotel is not the Bellagio. The carpet is filthy and squashed into a flat slick mass. The window dressings in the hallway are strangely elaborate. The pungent odor of someone’s cooking, sour and heavy with garlic, permeates the hallway and leaks into the room. There’s only one ice machine in the building and the pool looks out of commission. Still, we’re lucky to have anything. Talking with ELW, wondering what to expect in the way of crowds and traffic, he tells me he found an Air B&B charging $2,500 for floor space in a vacant house. I’m imagining hours of gridlock, bathroom lines a mile long, and vendors with t-shirts and glow sticks picking their way through a sea of bodies. I’m thinking Warped Tour, Mardi Gras, and Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Once I’ve packed for the day and outfitted the cooler with snacks and beverages, I go out and wait by the car for everyone else. While I’m looking around, I notice that the bright yellow flowers that had been winking in our headlights last night are now closed. I walk over to investigate and discover that there’s a small garden in front of me. There are corn plants, peas, and the yellow flowers are from a squash vine. I’m happy to find this little place; a little plot of land someone has tended. If only I had some skill at raising vegetables.

The world is black.

Today is the day. It’s eclipse day, the reason we’re miles from home out in Missouri. I’m excited not only to see the moon pass before the sun, but to witness this human migration. As we drive from Eureka toward St. Claire, I can see hand drawn signs advertising water, sandwiches, and parking space. At the gas station, a man in a utility vehicle goes by, five red gas tanks lined up in back, black nozzles all facing outward. It’s a small station, with a deli and liquor for sale. A short distance away, we pull into a school parking lot and ELW tells me this is where his father was a principle. I can see a small cluster of folks on the lawn in the shade and my stomach clenches. I’d forgotten all about meeting ELW’s family.

I’m awkward. I’m the odd one out, the only one not from this town, the only one not a part of this family. And I look like a weirdo. There are a few teenagers and three sisters. I wave and nod and smile at them all. One sister asks me where I live and I’m surprised ELW hasn’t told her we live together. It makes me wonder if he talks about me at all and I feel a little less important. But I soon forget about that as the two of us become instant friends. I know she’s worked with victim’s services and, as I try and thank her for being there for people like me, I get choked up and the words aren’t coming out.

Our Lucky Charms pinhole camera.

Thank god – one sister has brought beer. Social lubricant, conversation starter, and thirst quencher, beer is what my life has been lacking for the past four days. We don’t have to wait long before the first tiny chunk is starting to disappear from the sun. Through my eclipse glasses, which block out literally everything but the sun, I can see a cookie shape with a bite taken out of it. ELW shows us that, against a flat light background, the leaves act as pinhole cameras and little crescents will start to show amid the shadows. My mind is completely blown. And then, the sky starts to dim.

I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled to amazing places and have seen things I’ll never forget. Only a handful of them have been so beautiful as to bring tears to my eyes. The stars of the Milky Way reflected in the glassy surface of the Amazon River took my breath away. An ancient temple carved into the side of a mountain in Bali brought me to my knees. I never thought that the eclipse would be on my list. But, when I finally saw the corona form around the moon and the world around me was plunged suddenly into twilight, I felt magic. I think I can, at least partly, understand why people chase this event around the globe. Folks in Austin will find me on their couches in seven years for the next one.

Little crescents show through the trees.

There were no crowds, only a few cars at the school. When the sun and moon had gone their separate ways, we all went to a local restaurant and shared plates of fried food. It was a full house, but the roads to it were clear and the roads back to the hotel were empty. Completely anti-climactic as far as my worries for being stuck in traffic were concerned. As much as I’d been fretting about it, I was hoping for a little more excitement or at least a souvenir. Once we were back at the hotel, the little one went to the pool with daddy and I stayed behind and tried to learn how to play Town of Salem. That is until I was hit with a migraine.

Eclipsecapade Day 4

Signs direct us to the park’s attractions.

This morning, as I tried to shake off grogginess, I collected my still-wet swimsuit from the shower curtain rod and shoved it into my backpack with the rest of my dirty clothes from the day before. Thankfully, I’d thought to pack two swimsuits, because it was to be another day full of slides and splashes at Venture River. We had to check out of our hotel in Cadiz before heading on to the water park though, because we would be trekking further north tonight. I peeked at the weather forecast and started loading the cooler, hoping our cheese and other snacks would survive a day in our car with the 100 degree heat. Downstairs, the hotel’s ice machine warned that the ice was for rooms only and patrons were not welcome to fill their coolers there. I wish I’d known that before I’d lugged the damned thing down three flights of stairs.

It’s hard carrying anything heavy around when you can barely walk to begin with. During yesterday’s excitement, I neglected to mind my feet on the concrete walkways, which aside from being hot as hell, were textured like a cheese grater. Blisters, thick and throbbing, dotted the bottoms of my feet. Both heels and the tender wrinkles between the balls of my feet were adorned with them and I couldn’t take a step without wincing. As we pulled into the gravel lot again, I had resigned myself to sitting most of the day in our cabana when ELW came to my rescue and offered to get me a pair of water shoes at the gift shop.

As the shop was nearly picked clean, what I ended up with was perhaps the worst made pair of shoes I’ve ever worn. The zipper on the left shoe was sewn so that the left and right sides didn’t match up at the end. The zipper on the right shoe didn’t work at all. The stitching was already pulling out and the pink fabric was bleeding neon into the white trim. However, they did fit and they did save my feet from further damage, which was the important thing.

The Cliffhanger, one heck of a way to wake up.

The day before, I’d made the bold proclamation that the very first ride I’d tackle today was the Cliffhanger. This is by far the most adrenaline-inducing attraction at the park. Resembling a giant half-pipe, the Cliffhanger requires that you have a buddy and that one of you start the three-and-a-half story drop backwards. I couldn’t back down, but I could take someone down with me. ELW did not shy away from the challenge, although he did offer it to his daughter first. We went for another go immediately after having our hearts jump-started the first time.

One of the advantages to recreating in an area populated predominantly by churchgoing folk is that the giant waterpark was nearly deserted on a Sunday. The four of us rode together on a large inner tube down several slides without having to wait in line. Then, we paired off and rode double tubes down another set of slides. The teenager in our group pointed out that I screamed on all of the rides. I couldn’t tell if she thought I was a wuss or just weird. I explained that rollercoasters and water slides are two of the very few places where it’s acceptable for an adult to scream her head off. So, I was going to take advantage of that fact as much as possible.

The Lazy River, as empty as I would ever see it.

For most of the rest of the day, I wandered solo. I napped for a bit in our cabana by the wave pool. Then, I reapplied sunscreen before climbing the stairs of a multi-tube playground, nozzles spraying out from fiberglass surfboards, umbrellas, and sombreros. Despite the signs posted at every tube entrance, showing little stick figures with legs crossed and arms folded over chests, children launched themselves down every which way. The teenaged lifeguards barely noticed the two little boys ahead of me going down Superman style. I imagined a clog of skinny arms and legs wedged into the tube further down ahead of me as I prepared to scoot myself into the wet and inky blackness.

Eventually, I just parked myself on a tube in the wave pool and waited for the rest of my party to get sick of sliding. Ten minutes to closing, we collected our things, disposed of Icee and Dippin’ Dots containers, and made for the changing rooms. Settled into the car again, ELW shifted his Subaru into drive and directed us northwest, toward St. Louis.

Floatation devices.

I don’t think I’d ever been to St. Louis in the daytime and this trip was no exception. As I listened to the sounds of Charlie Parker from my headphones, I marveled at the Gateway Arch graceful and illuminated against the backdrop of skyscrapers. To its right, a brilliant display of LEDs glowed rainbow atop another tall building. We whooshed by with the rest of the traffic on the highway while the girls in the back seat speculated as to what the technicolor screen was for. Was it a stage for singers? Was it another tourist attraction? Was it a movie screen?

By the time we checked into our next hotel, I was exhausted, but not too exhausted to watch Game of Thrones. Every Sunday night, whether I’m on an island, in a Super 8, or at home snug in bed, I never miss the latest episode. After the screen went black and the end credits started to roll, I was still sitting at the edge of the bed with my jaw open. And that was about as much excitement as I could take in one day.

Eclipsecapade Day 3

“At the Copa…Copacabana…”

My eyes were already open by the time the girls started shifting around the hotel room in the dark. I was hoping I’d drift off again before it was time to really get started as I had a bit of trouble finding my way to dreamland last night. As soon as I remembered that today was somebody’s thirteenth birthday though, the day already started to look brighter. It’s not everyday one starts the journey into teenager-hood. So, I rubbed my eyes, took a survey of sore body parts, and stumbled my way into the bathroom to change clothes. I blinked furiously, hoping my pupils would adjust to the glare from the porcelain appliances. Once it was bearable to open my eyes, I pulled on my swimsuit and tossed a loose shirt on over it. Today was water park day!

Unfortunately, the breakfast options this morning were the hotel free breakfast or McDonalds. The hotel’s breakfast is fairly atrocious, but I’ve so many moral and ethical objections to the evil Mickey D’s corporation that I opted for a small bagel and some frozen cream cheese. It wasn’t bad, really, once everything thawed out, and it weighed much lighter on my conscious. In truth, my primary objection to the fast food chain is my tendency to projectile vomit after eating it. Ever since I was a child, their products never sat well in my stomach. However, knowing that McDonald’s is a major contributor to rainforest destruction doesn’t sit well with me either. Everything from the soy that feeds their chickens to the coffee they brew is directly linked to acres of Brazilian rainforest we will never get back. I could go on, but that’s another post (or five) for another time. Suffice it to say, if you love rainforests and hate climate change, you don’t support McDonalds.

The Triple Threat

Back to water park day. After another pleasant drive through rural Kentucky, our tires crunched against the gravel of the Venture River Water Park parking lot. We made our way swiftly through turnstiles and picked up the key to our little cabana. Two plastic deck chairs and a wooden lockbox waited for us in the shade under a wooden rooftop, where we unloaded towels and cell phones and flip flops. Diving right into the action, all four of us headed to a cluster of pink and purple pipes to pick up matching inner tubes. I can’t help being a little proud of the way ELW’s seven-year-old tackled the slides so fearlessly. I’m sure I practiced my rollercoaster scream on every single one.

Without delving deeply into politics here, I have to express that I’ve been a bit anxious about traveling with so much violence in the news lately. I’m afraid any large gathering is going to disintegrate into a race riot. But, today I saw people I would describe – for lack of a more fitting term – as rednecks being just as friendly to the park’s black patrons as they were with each other. I saw a number of Muslim women in line for water slides free from harassment, discrimination, and even the whispered derogatory comment. It’s a welcome sight. I have a little more faith now. Which is good, since I’m heading into what all signs indicate will be one hell of a gathering of people. Every hotel within 200 miles is booked up.



Eclipsecapade Day 2

The katydid who greeted us.
Today was a day filled with nature (that’s how we ecologists like it). It started the moment we left the hotel. The youngest of us was greeted by nature in the form of a katydid on her door handle. Being only seven, she was initially a little freaked out by the big green insect, but once I showed her there was nothing to fear, she came around. Even though they’re related to grasshoppers, I explained, katydids have smaller heads and look more like a leaf (more differences here). After letting it walk around on my hand for a bit, I released the katydid near a retention pond and joined my three traveling companions waiting in the car.

We headed due east and got a two-hour taste of rural Kentucky. We passed tobacco, corn, and soybean farms. We saw barns and silos and cows. I was surprised by the religious diversity we encountered. When I think of this part of the country, I usually think of Baptists. We passed a few Amish folks in their horse-drawn carriages, the tall gold minaret and crescent-topped domes of an Islamic center, and signs for a Shaker museum. I was hoping we’d pass a café with Derby pie, but it didn’t materialize.

Initially, we were going to visit the world’s longest known cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park. In a brilliant moment of forethought however, ELW took a look at their website last night and noticed that all of the tours today were sold out. So, we opted instead for a small cave with animal attractions. As we neared our destination, I could see billboard ads for it asking, “ever pet a kangaroo?” The childhood wonder part of my brain eagerly responded, “Nooooo!” The animal rights part of my brain recalled the horrors of roadside petting zoos and reacted with heavy skepticism. Soon, we pulled into the big gravel parking lot of the Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo and Onyx Cave.

Stationed at either side of the visitor’s entrance, a small army of chainsaw-carved animal statues greeted us. We strode past them, into a gift shop, and up to the admissions desk. While ELW was getting our tickets squared away, the girls and I surveyed our surroundings. Among the cheesy souvenirs and canned nuts, we found a large terrarium with a sleeping Woma python inside and some taxidermy – an emu and a kangaroo – which looked a little worse for wear. Given the all clear to proceed, we followed a winding road down to another gift shop and the cave entrance.

We had an hour and a half to kill before the next cave tour, so we headed further down the road, where we encountered gray parrots, blue and red macaws, a couple of cockatoos, an owl, and some sun conures. There were even three laughing kookaburras. When we got to the lemur enclosure, I nearly cried. Just a month ago, I left my job as a lemur caretaker, leaving behind 47 of the most adorable animals I’d come to know. It practically broke my heart. Now, seeing them again, that heartache was rekindled.

IMG_6499After grabbing a snack, we headed to the mouth of Onyx Cave to start our tour. Our guide, Chris, was a beefy fellow with pirate tattoos. He removed the padlock on a green wooden door and lead us several steps into the 58 degree coolness. Once we were all in, he pointed out an antique still, used at one time by old country moonshiners, trying to evade law enforcement. We headed deeper, trying not to bump our heads or slide down into the black pits on either side of the pathway. Eventually, we ended up 125 feet underground, but only changed our own elevation by 30 feet, the hill having risen above as we descended. It was likely the shortest cave tour I’ve ever been on.

Once outside again, it was finally time to visit kangaroos! I was positively bouncing with excitement. We paid for little cups of animal food before we were let into a large fenced-off area. Inside we found not only ‘roos, but wallabies, tortoises, emus (which were terrifying), and a Patagonian cavy or three. Yes, I got to pet a kangaroo! It was certainly the highlight of my day. Another high point was when we all went into the lorikeet enclosure and I was mobbed by eight or ten brightly-colored birds, fighting with one another for the tiny paper cup of nectar I was holding.

It was a great experience. All of the animals looked healthy and well cared for. There was even a sheep dog who gave us a demonstration of her herding skills. A zebra, and large pig, and fainting goats were hanging out, trying to stay out of the sun. Out near the parking lot, we saw some very bored looking bison. After snapping a few parting shots, we headed back west to find dinner.

Here’s that coatimundi I promised!

Eclipsecapade Day 1

We started the trip in Athens, GA which makes this sign a bit ironic, since it’s in Nashville, TN.

My friend and partner, ELW, has a degree in astrophysics. So, it makes sense that he’s got an interest in the happenings of the solar system. He’s also the father of two girls. So, it makes sense that he’d want to share the upcoming solar eclipse with them, especially since the path of totality this year goes right through his home town. And so it happened that I ended up on a cross-country road trip this week.

It’s no secret that my motherly instinct is…well, lacking. I’ve never dated anyone with kids, I avoid playgrounds like the plague, and the sound of a screaming child is enough to make me drop my shopping cart and vacate any establishment. Years ago, I was roped into watching the atrocious movie Four Christmases. The only part I enjoyed was the scene where the kid gets hit in the head. Quite possibly my favorite video on YouTube is the mock commercial for Nap Time.  You’re starting to get the idea. That being said, if I had to choose two young girls to have with me on a road trip, I’d pick these two. And so far, they haven’t let me down.

My favorite stop in Nashville. The buffalo tempeh strips are to die for.

Today, we made it up through north Georgia, cut across Tennessee, and are camped temporarily in Kentucky. We passed a lot of the typical sights one does in this part of the United States: there was a life-sized statue of a red elephant and an optometrist’s office with a clever name (Eye Site) in Gainesville; Confederate flags were proudly displayed at a trailer park in Dalton; and a blanket of kudzu devoured everything along the way. At one gas station, the persistent crow of a rooster issued from a parked pickup, but I was too chicken to go investigate. I learned a few things and remembered others. Gainsville, ELW tells me, is the poultry capital of the world. Dalton, I know from last May’s trip to Fort Mountain State Park, is the carpet capital of the world. And, I’m also told, one hour south of Nashville is the nation’s southernmost White Castle location.

Not a bad first day. Next up: caves and coatimundis.