You can take the boy off the farm, but you can't take the farm off the boy. I'm not 100% sure what that means, but I think it applies to me.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Day 5 Guitar pickin' and an Air Boat ride on the Withlacoochee

Rhonda woke up early and went into town and got us coffee and some breakfast from Sonic. We sat with our coffee on the dock in the beautiful morning light. As we sat there and enjoyed the natural beauty, I learned a few things to add to my wildlife biology knowledge - bluegill love tater tots. I tossed a few pieces into the tea-colored water and watched them slowly sink towards the bottom. Within a couple of seconds they would disappear with a splash. I know its probably just plain wrong to feed wild fish a bunch of greasy tater-tots, but after the first one, I couldn't stop.  I'm sure I left a couple of teenaged fish with pot bellies and acne.

Back home, we've been working on recording a CD of old Gospel songs with my friends that play at the Roots Music Gospel Jam. We brought along some recording equipment in hopes of recording a vocal track with Rhonda's sisters. We decided to go over to the Ocala Farm Ministry and record some guitar tracks with Rob, using the Reborn guitar I had sent him a couple of years ago.

We met him at their building as it was very quiet on Sunday. Well apparently Sundays are different than Wednesdays. Today there were couple of  a chainsaws working on the property next door. And a tractor mower...and a chipper...and a jack hammer. Ok, some of that is pure exaggeration, but it was rather loud. But it takes more than that to deter Rhonda. We set up and had a nice morning of singing and guitar pickin'. Rob's a pretty dang good guitar picker if you can get him to sit still long enough. I think we got enough material to take home and work with.

After we shook hands and said goodbye to Rob, we drove about 50 miles to Crystal River to see manatees. The majority of the remaining manatees in the world are concentrated in this area of rivers and lakes. But we got to the dock 5 minutes after the last tour departed. So, we bought a plush manatee toy from the gift shop and a post card. We drove to the post office and mailed it to Conner. We both remember how much fun it was as a kid to get mail. On Friday he'll get his first package from the mail man. The time will come soon enough when the mailman brings only bills and junkmail, so we've committed to send him mail every time we travel.

I got a phone call from Captain Bob, who owns an airboat and gives tours, I had contacted him a few days ago, but he'll only go out if you have 5 people. We were in luck as 3 folks from Scotland were wanting a tour at 4'oclock. We clinched the deal and would meet him at the Blue Gator dock.

We met Captain Bob and jumped in the front seat of the boat. For the first mile, we idled along through the 5 mph no wake zone. We passed by the little dock in front of the Bird House and continued along. This was the same route that Rhonda and I had taken in the canoe. I listened as that loud-mouth Captain Bob told about the hundreds of gators in the area, "See that big log? I saw a 12 footer there yesterday". bla bla bla bla...10-footer over there... bla bla bla... I was avoiding any eye contact with Rhonda, but even looking away, I could feel her icy glare.  A couple of days ago, when I had proposed we take a canoe ride, I had guaranteed her there were no gators in this part of the river. I made up all kinds of  believable sounding reasons why they wouldn't be here and cashed in all my clout as a professional wildlife biologist. Now, that babbling Captain Bob was really making me look bad. I finally made eye contact with Rhonda and gave her my eye-rollin'-head-shake look to let her know that Captain Bob was just spewing some BS to scare the 3 old Scottish folks. I was sure that after a couple of hours in the boat, we'd not see a single gator and I could reclaim my clout as a professional wildlife biologist.

Captain Bob eased the boat through a little opening between some trees. Rhonda and I had maneuvered the little canoe through the same opening 2 days earlier.  Well, as often is the case when you're hiding a lie, something big will rear its head out of nowhere to expose your secret. In this case, the ugly head was connect to about 200 lbs of Florida alligator and it flopped into the water with a magnificent splash.

It is well known that everyone pays some price for a lie. I'm still paying for mine with a lingering  and aching crick in my neck from spending the next 2 hours with my head cocked to the side to avoid having to look Rhonda in the eye. Given the nature of this PG rated blog, I'm not at liberty to recount the one-sided rant that took place in the car the moment the door slammed shut. But suffice to say, in all future endeavors, I'll be much more forthcoming about any potential risks associated with our activities.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Day 4 Rainbow Springs

I woke up early and decided to try to catch some fish. I have to say, Rhonda looked so cute sitting on the dock with a cane pole. The area around the big lilies was full of little bream, but we couldn't catch anything big enough to eat.

Later in the morning we drove up to the headwaters of the rainbow River Basin. Up until about 50 years ago, this area was a giant corny amusement park, complete with carnival  rides, rodeo grounds, zoo and glass bottom steamboats. Today it is a beautiful State park, with hiking trails, water falls and the most beautiful river I've ever seen. One look and you could easily see why it was named the Rainbow River! The water was so clear, the fish seemed to just hover above the ground.

There was wildlife at every step. Before we even got parked at the trailhead, we watched a pair of Pileated woodpeckers, the largest woodpeckers in North America. There were lizards crawling on rocks, and butterflies of every color. I spent over an hour on my knees photographing butterflies and exotic-looking moths on one giant Porterweed bush. 

Having spent all of our first few days here in the central Florida area, we decided to drive to St. Petersburg on the Gulf coast. It should have been a 1-1/2 hour drive, but there was construction on most of the highway and we got in the urban area just in time to take part in rush hour traffic. We didn't find much in St. Petersburg, so we drove back up the coast to the Tarpon Springs area. We found a nice restaurant on the beach with a nice view. We had a delicious rib-eye steak, scallops and stuffed crab while we watched a beautiful sunset on the Gulf of Mexico. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Withlacoochee and Crystal Rivers

This whole area of Florida is criss-crossed by rivers, but the cool thing is that these rivers flow right out of the ground. We are about 10 miles from the Crystal springs artesian headwaters where 600 million gallons of fresh water pours out of the ground each day. You can stand there and look to the left...nothing... but look to the right and there's a big ole river flowing by. You can rent a tube and float down the river, then a bus will pick you up in town and take you back to your car at the headwaters. The rive is classic Florida beautiful with Cypress trees, water lilies and every manner of beautiful birds and insects.

We are staying at the confluence with the Withlacoochee River which is a little cloudy. We found a canoe and some paddles under the cottage so we decided to paddle up the river to where it gets clear. Rhonda had never been in a canoe and was a little hesitant, but I assured her I had tons of canoe experience.

It was hot so we grabbed some wine, a couple of beers, some Gatorade and bottled water. I dragged the canoe down to the dock and got it in the water. It floated fine but getting in was a little tricky. After just a couple of tries we were inside and headed upstream. We quickly worked out a system for paddling - I paddle one side while Rhonda paddles the other side. Then when we were headed in the wrong direct, I switch sides and help Rhonda catch up. Canoes are long and sleek and designed to go in a straight line. But, somehow we managed to zigzag back and forth across the river. Seriously, we got a tour of both sides of the river on just one trip upstream.

After we got up the river a ways, we rounded a bend and within just a matter of feet, the water turned to crystal clear. It was beautiful! You could see the bottom down to 20' or more with fish and turtles continually swimming below the boat. We saw Ospreys sitting in the Cyprus trees and big turtles basking on almost every log.  There were egrets and spoonbills sitting in the trees and  cormorants chasing fish along side the canoe. We saw about everything we had hoped to see except a manatee.

We found a good shallow spot in the river to get out of the boat. The water was cold but it was a perfect place for a  swim. After splashing around and having a good time, we sat on the bank and watched the little fish nibble at our toes. I drank a beer while Rhonda sipped some wine. After a few minutes we picked up and headed further upstream to check out a sign we saw while swimming.
We eased up to the sign and read the following:
It then went on to list the various penal codes and potential fines.
I glanced down at the harmless little sack full of beverages which at that moment was transformed into a dangerous sack full of contraband. Yikes! That's all I need. I could just picture the cops roaring around the corner in a big speed boat and me jumping out and running through the swamp with the bloodhounds on my trail. I could already hear the loudspeaker from the helicopter yelling at me to give up.. "Come out with your hands up. We know you're in there. We have your Gatorade bottles!"

Ok, scary, but we hadn't seen but one other person in a canoe and not a single person in a boat. Still, we decided to play it safe and head back. The trip down river was easier as both current and breeze was headed in our direction. We eased along, talking and enjoying the river, when I heard a barely perceptible little Chug Chug Chug coming from behind us. I turned to look and just as my life's luck would dictate, there were 2 sheriffs coming up in a River patrol boat. I nodded for Rhonda to take a look and then gave her the "just keep cool look" and they'll pass right by us. But just like when I'm on the freeway and driving the speed limit - let a CHP get behind me and I can't keep the car on the dang road.  There's just something un-nerving about having the law behind you. Within a minute we were back to criss-crossing the river and rocking the little craft to the point of taking on water from side to side. The little canoe made at least one full 360 degree rotation and we were just about perpendicular to the river when they idled past us. Both of them smiled and one of them said, "keep at it, ya'll will get the hang of it".

Well given the choices of prison bars or a snide remark from a lawman that thought we were idiots, I'm glad it worked out as it did.

I was plenty happy to see our little dock come into view. We spent the evening sitting by the water, drinking wine, playing guitar and talking about the day in Florida on the Rainbow River when we got chased by the cops :)


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Church at Ocala Farm Ministry

A year or so ago, I got an email from Rob Senechal. He was working with Chaplain Bob Miller at the Ocala Farm ministry and needed a guitar. At that time, I had just purchased 4 damaged Fender T-bucket guitars. About a month later, my little Reborn Guitars shop sent him a beautiful guitar with a custom mother-of-pearl cross inlay, nice electronics, a hard case. As I was packing the guitar for shipment, I decided that someday I would pay Rob a visit and see what the Farm ministry was about.

This morning, that distant thought became real as I drove the 40 miles from Dunellon to Ocala. As I drove across this beautiful country, I passed miles and miles of white-fenced horse farms dotted with multi-million dollar homes and stately moss-covered water oak trees.
Most people don't know that a large portion of the Country's thoroughbred horses are born, raised and trained here before making their way to the famous farms and tracks around the country.  But for every million dollar home or horse, there are hundreds of workers involved, from stall cleaners to haybalers. These are the people that the Ocala farm Ministry serves.

The ministry's community center was tucked back off the road in a small building with an American and Christian flag flown proudly in the front. The little church welcomed me like family. They moved their monthly potluck ahead by a week so that I could taste some local cooking and even played my favorite gospel song during the service. The potluck was great, with food as varied as the community... Cuban, Mexican, Irish and others. I got a chance to meet and talk with  most everyone in the church. One of the ladies, Miss Annie, had made me a beautiful dreamcatcher out of an aluminum horse shoe and local feathers. Rob and Bob gave me some Elixer guitar strings, boxed and wrapped in used newspaper funny pages, in keeping with my Reduce-Reuse-Recycle motto.

I have to say that this little place embodies everything that is right in Christian ministry. They've invested as much in their playground equipment as they have in their building. They don't have a paved parking lot, but recently built a couple of lighted soccer fields which fill up with local Hispanic farm workers, even on their lunch breaks. Chaplain Bob and his son Jake run around with a trailer all week picking up donated furniture and appliances to deliver to folks in need and the Ministry is there with a check when a family is about to get the lights shut off. Bob speaks fluent Spanish and has no problem talking with a couple when things get tough in a marriage that is strained by long work days and limited resources.

After the potluck, Miss Sharon, one of the ladies from the ministry gave me a tour of her small horse farm. As we drove to her place, 15 miles from the Ministry community center, we passed farms owned by Reba Macintyre, Richard Petty, the owner of the Indy 500 track and other famous people. At one particular ranch I saw what appeared to be a small mansion with scaling walls and ornate windows and doors. I was told of the giant chandeliers and other items inside. But this wasn't a house for people - the Ranch's prized stallion lived inside those lavish  walls.

My host's ranch was modest but beautiful. Every piece of it, from barn, paddock to pasture had a charm about it that only hard work and a genuine love for horses can achieve. She spoke about their horses like she spoke about family. Each of them, a dozen or so, from brood mare to baby recognized her as mom and ran up for some petting and gentle words.

 Its been a while since I've patted a horses neck, but it was so nice to walk around a pasture with Secretariat's grandbaby. Thank you Ocala farm Ministry for the important work that you do in this area and for the genuine hospitality you showed to me today.

Ocala Florida Day 1

There's a  lot to complain about in this fairly rotten world, but the ability for a middle class country boy to travel is not one of them. I worked a 12 hour day on Friday, jammed home, took a shower and Rhonda and I headed for the airport. I typically travel to rural locales alone, but after the past few trips, I need to take someone along to verify some of my seemingly unbelievable exploits. Rhonda agreed to come along, as long as I let her drive the rental car, make the important decisions and pick restaurants.  I've given up far more for far less, many times.

We made it to the airport by 8:30 pm., flew all night and were  pulling into the muddy road at the Dunellon Florida Birdhouse the next day by noon.  I've stayed in some really cool backroad shacks, but I needed to upgrade a bit, since I was traveling with a beautiful woman, accustomed to marble and crystal when choosing accommodations. The Birdhouse has no marble or crystal, but the peaceful factor is off the charts. It is a small 1 bedroom cottage with an 18' ceiling. The whole little house is about 6' off the ground and on a beautiful property carved out of the bank of the Withlacootchie River. It's got a huge screened-in porch and a dock on the river. With  A/C and a bunch of ceiling fans, it is comfortable, serene and thanks to a few conversations with the owner, stocked with many of the finer accoutrements ... a bottle of  Barefoot Summer Red and a 6 lb can of Cajun flavored boiled peanuts!

One of the drawbacks of an all-night flight is it kind of saps your energy the next day. But thankfully the place has a nice hammock strung between some 100 year old cypress trees. That, along with a firm feather bed made catching up on the missed night of sleep and easy affair... up until the first raindrops. A few drops turned into a pounding rain. A pounding rain turned into thunder so loud it shook the whole cottage. Once you settle in that it's not the ending of the world, it was exhilarating to watch from the screened porch!

As night fell, a host of frogs came into the new puddles and cicadas and every manner of singing insect came out to cuss their neighbors. There was not a single human sound, but the night was as loud as any night I've ever heard. I'm not exaggerating here...the frogs sounded like a herd of angry sheep and the insect buzz was deafening. I sat out and listened well into the darkness. I may have sat and listened half the night but I got an uneasy feeling when the whole forest and swamp went suddenly and perfectly silent. My imagination of the only possibilities of the creature that could silence a whole forest got the best of me. I gingerly trotted back up to the cottage with my cell phone flash light. I've seen enough for today.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Day 10, Aurevoir Louisiana

I skipped breakfast and slept in until a bit. I packed my stuff and got ready to check out. Rocky, the "Cracklin King" of Louisiana came and invited me to lunch before I headed to the airport. He told me that Lisa had gone into town to buy BBQ lunch from he Volunteer Fireman's Association fundraiser and would be back any time. I finished packing and walked up to the cafe.

I sat and had BBQ chicken, a spicy homemade dippin' sauce, French bread and beans. They told me that when (not if) I come back, bring my wife and friends and when I book the cabins, they'll set up a concert and cook-out at the cabins. They had invited me to whatever heir family was doing, every evening that I had been there. These are genuinely good folks and really worked to help me accomplish and see everything I had hoped while in Louisiana.

I want to say thanks to John and Susan Ratcliff for all of their friendship and hospitality. It would not have been such a rewarding trip if I ad not met the two of you. Thanks you also to Anthony Brown for taking me to church and helping me around Morgan City. I want to send some encouragement to Angela Gautreau, who at this time next year will be the best left-handed right-hand guitar player in Louisiana :}

I've got 2 hours to kill in this little Layfeyette airport and another couple when I get to Houston. I've got a lot of random pictures that I haven't looked at, so I'll sit here and edit a few to post here today. When I get to Houston, I'll gret some tri-tip BBQ. I should be back in Sacramento about Midnight. I'm homesick and ready to see Rhonda!

I did my best learn about the Acadian culture and to share it here. I would encourage anyone reading this to spend some time on the web to read about this area and the history.

Aurevior Lousiana!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Day 9, Music til My Fingers Were Raw

Today started like most others - A Rocky Sonier Bayou breakfast of hot sausage and scrambled eggs. I may miss that breakfast the most. This is my 9th day and I still hadn't played much music, other than alone in front of my cabin. Well I made up for it today. I played Cajun music all day! First here then there.... I bet I've played 40 or more Cajun songs today and a handful of gospel songs.

I Started the morning playing with some folks in Rocky's porch room. It's a big room, about 40' long and 16' wide, with big windows all along one side. There are rough-cut Cyprus benches along every wall. The room is decorated with old signs, paintings and pictures of famous musicians.

About noon I drove 8 miles to Vermillionville for a Cajun jam. I got lucky as there were several of the area's top musicians there to play and some great Cajun singers, too. I was a little intimidated and decided I would just sit and listen. It worked until I met Miss Sheryl Cormier, the fist lady accordion player to be inducted into the Cajun Music Hall of Fame. She insisted I "Get that guitar and sit down here!" I retrieved the guitar from the car and a couple of guitar players opened up a spot in the circle for me to sit down. These folks were great - both of the guitar players helped me along for the 25 or so songs we played. Most of the songs were simple 3 chord songs in 3/4 or 2/4 time. But a lot of them had weird modulations where it shifted down or up a step for a bridge. Every song was led by a fiddle or an accordion or both. There were so many accordions and fiddles that they had to rotate into the circle. Afterwards we sat around and drank coffee and talked. They were all very interested in the Canadian built Reborn guitar and had a lot of questions. The guy beside me was really skilled. He was playing a nice upper-end Taylor. One of the other guitar players complimented him on the guitar and he said there was only one thing wrong with it "It aint a Martin!" I guess this is Martin territory.

I got back to the cabin about 5:00 pm. I went up to get some supper and Rocky told me there was a guy coming over that plays guitar and can sing French. A few minutes later I met Doyle Tauzin, a young guy with a strong voice. We passed the guitar back and forth until I felt comfortable with his version of Jole Blon. Miss Lisa filmed me playing while Doyle sang. Doyle had a strong and loud voice - my little guitar couldn't compete with it on the tiny tablet's microphone. But, I had done what I had wanted to do on this trip - get a recording of me playing Jole Blon. I had heard the song since I was just a small kid, and now I played it in Arcadiana - the heart of Cajun land. My dad would be proud.

Toward evening the place cleared out as folks went out to spend their Saturday night. I was so tired I decided to just sit around and do nothing but listen to the sounds of the trees, crickets and frogs. A couple of folks came up and sat down and asked about my guitar. I met Mr and Mrs Reverend Malcom Meyers. Reverend Meyers pastors a small Pentecostal church in southeastern Louisiana, a few hours away. They were here celebration their 47th wedding anniversary. He looked like the classic preacher, with wavy hair combed straight back. He was a gentleman in every way and had great stories. Mrs Meyers was also a treat to speak with. She had a comforting voice and a gentle, caring spirit.

After I told them about the guitar and my little guitar shop, he asked to check it out. He picked it up and guess what? The two of them started singing some old gospel hymns. The parson had a great old voice and you cold tell his wife had sang many songs at his side. She knew just were to jump in and how to pick the perfect harmonies. We passed an hour or so passing the guitar back and forth and talking about life in God's service.

We parted company with a good loud Pentecostal prayer.

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