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Okay, okay. I know I promised that I would keep you all updated on our travels, but that was before I found out we would be going non-stop, all day, every day for the last four days. Any time we’ve been here at the condo since early Friday morning, it’s been to shower, sleep, and get organized for the next outing. This evening, after four full days of exploring the Big Island, we’ve come back early to re-group and get ready to fly to Oahu tomorrow afternoon. Finally, I have a bit of time to write and get you all caught up. I don’t have time to go into great detail, but I will give you an overview of what we’ve been doing.

Friday was our only truly leisurely morning on the lanai. Oh sure, we’ve eaten breakfast out there every morning because what kind of idiots would we be if we didn’t, but our morning meal has become more of a planning session than a relaxing repast. With maps, tourist magazines, and Fodor’s spread out before us, we plan our daily forays with a level of precision that would put most military strategists to shame. Our efforts have paid off. In four days, we’ve covered nearly every corner of this island. That’s not to say that we’ve seen everything. Far from it; however, we have gotten our money’s worth. That’s all I’m saying.

Because our door-to-door travel time getting from KC to Kailua-Kona on Thursday promised to be a nearly 24-hour affair, we agreed weeks ago that Friday would be a day of rest and relaxation. Ha! Excitement and adrenaline got the better of us, and we were out the door before lunchtime, headed into town.

Our first stop was a locally owned restaurant in the shopping district along the waterfront. While our noon meal was nothing to blog about, the quaint little oceanside city of Kailua-Kona is. Shops, galleries, and open-air restaurants line the narrow winding road that runs along the coast. Since few sidewalks exist, visitors and locals alike walk single file along the edge of the pavement as they go about their business while locals sit along the seawall watching the tourists parade by in their goofy hats and loud Hawaiian shirts. A few of the more industrious locals weave hats out of reeds or strum guitars as they watch the world go by, but most just sit and enjoy the show.

Downtown Kailua-Kona

After lunch we did a bit of wandering ourselves, stopping first in an art gallery, then the grounds of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and finally at the flea market where we loaded up on some exotic local fruits, including dragon fruit, rambutans, and papayas. After a quick run back to the condo, we returned to a well-reviewed restaurant (thanks to the restaurant-finding application on Carey’s iPod) in Kailua-Kona to enjoy dinner on their open-air patio perched on piers above the water. The drinking of fruity alcoholic beverages with little umbrellas ensued.

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Rambutans

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Dragon fruit

Our Saturday morning started early because we were heading across the island to see the volcano. To get there, we traveled south along the Kona Coast, stopping as we went to see Kealakekua Bay and St. Benedict’s Painted Church.

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Kealakekua Bay

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St. Benedict's Painted Church

As we rounded the southern tip of the island, we got off the main highway and headed even further south down a bumpy mostly one-lane road (Hertz is going to love us) to South Point (Ka Lae) the southern-most tip of the island which is also the southern-most tip of the United States. Talk about windswept and desolate. You feel like you’re literally clinging to the edge of the world, but, oh my word, is it beautiful.

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The road to Ka Lae (South Point)

At some point in the last twenty or so years, some enterprising soul thought to erect a wind farm to capture the gales roaring across the peninsula, but today most of the tall, ghostly white turbines are abandoned and rusting. Only one row of newer looking windmills still spin in the wind. We don’t know why, but there you are.

The rutted narrow road leading to South Point ends at a parking area more than a quarter of a mile up a rather steep incline from the water, so we all piled out and started hiking. I’m so glad we did. The sea was at low tide, so as we clamored over the hardened lava flow lining the beach, we found numerous tide pools full of small fish and tiny crabs.

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Ka Lae (South Point)

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Exploring the tide pools on Ka Lae

Our next stop was at a black sand beach on the east side of the island called Punalu’u Beach Park where we saw a big ol’ sea turtle sunning himself, doing his best to ignore all the tourists who were flapping around him, snapping pictures.

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Sunbathing sea turtle

After another hour or so of driving, we could see the plume of smoke rising from Kilauea and could smell the sulphur. Only a few minutes later we arrived at what the GPS was telling us was the entrance to the park. It was closed! In a bit of a panic, we tuned the car radio to the park’s information station and learned that the volcano’s sulphur emissions are currently two to four times levels considered safe, so the National Park Service had closed the downwind half of the road that runs around the rim of the volcano. Luckily for us and everyone else atop Kilauea that day, the upwind portion of the park was still open. Hazzah! We hurried to that entrance and to the visitor’s center. At this point, I could write forever about what we saw and experience at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park—I think all five of us would hardily agree that we enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience—but I could never do it all justice in the short time I have to write this post, but I will give you a short synopsis and then post pictures.

In a nutshell: we stood at the rim of the caldera where the plume we saw as we approached the park was rising hundreds of feet into the sky; we saw steam pouring from vents all around us and even got to stand right over a couple of the vents and feel the heat rising from the earth’s interior; we walked through the Thurston Lava Tube, “a lighted prehistoric cavelike tube”  where “several hundred years ago a river of red hot lava rushed through” on its way to the sea; and we walked nearly a mile across a hardened lava field in the pitch dark (aided only by dinky little flashlights) to see fiery lava flowing down the side of the volcano, through the vegetation where trees exploded in its path, and finally into the ocean where massive towers of glowing red and orange smoke rose into the night sky. It was spectacular. It was breath-taking. It was unbelievable. And, please note, when I say “we,” I mean all five of us. Ruth did it all. She’s a ROCK STAR!

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The Kilauea caldera

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A steam vent

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Thurston Lava Tube

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Lava flowing down the mountain

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Trees bursting into flames

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Lava spilling into the sea

It was nearly midnight by the time we got back over the mountains (volcanoes) and into bed, but we were up early on Sunday because Ruth, Janie, and Carole wanted to go to mass before we headed out to explore the Hilo side of Hawaii. While the three of them went into Kailua-Kona to attend mass at St. Michael’s, the nearly 160-year-old church we’d seen on Friday, a church where half the mass is done in Hawaiian, Carey and I did some research and mapped our route for the day.

They were back by 10:30 and we were headed to Hilo. This time, instead of going around the bottom of the island, we headed toward the top and crossed over on the north side of Mauna Kea, the tallest volcano on the island. Although it has not erupted in nearly 4,500 years, it is still considered an active volcano.

The Hilo side of the island is wetter than the Kona side, so it’s more tropical and lush. Hundreds of waterfalls flow from the mountaintops on that side of the island, many of which can be seen just driving down the highway. But we wanted to see a waterfall up close, so we stopped in Akaka Falls State Park to see one of the most dazzling and accessible falls (many require a strenuous hike or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to) on that part of the island. Spilling more than 400 feet to the floor of a steamy tropical rainforest filled with banyan trees, banana trees, two- and three-story tall bamboo shoots as thick as a weightlifter’s thigh, and hundreds of tropical plants and orchids of every shape and color, Akaka Falls is…is…well, shoot, I’m running out of adjectives. Some things you just have to see for yourself.

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Akaka Falls

After our stroll through the rainforest, we headed into Hilo with the intent of going to a botanical garden, but the garden was closed. We have no idea why, but this is Hawaii. Islanders seem to close things when it suits them. Guide books be damned. Probably a good day for surfing or fishing. Who knows. We weren’t too upset though. Short of having labels to tell us what we’d been looking at back at the Falls, we’d already walked through a spectacular botanical garden…even though—until a German tourist set us straight—we thought the blooms on the banana tree we were ogling and taking pictures of were some kind of an orchid. Somehow we missed the big bunches of bananas hanging nearby. Hey, give us a break. How many banana trees have you seen growing in Kansas!?

We noodled around with the idea of stopping to do some shopping in Hilo, but after the extremely late night the previous evening, we decided to make our way back to the other side of the island and eat dinner closer to the condo. Once again, Carey and some gee-whiz application on her iPod found us a great place to eat.

Monday, Ruth got a quick hit of Walmart and Target as we went screaming through both in search of aqua socks and sun hats. I don’t think she was very pleased about being rushed through her favorite haunts so quickly, but we were on a mission. We were heading to a local coffee plantation and then to the beach.

Compared to the other islands in the chain, there aren’t many sand beaches on the Big Island, but the ones that are here are gorgeous. For example, the Big Island has the only green sand beach in the world. Unfortunately, we were unable to go because it can only be accessed via an hour-and-a-half-long hike. Please note, if you plan on visiting the Big Island, rent a four-wheel drive and bring your hiking shoes. Many of the most raved about sites are hard to get to.

Anyway, for our outing on Monday, we chose a beach with easy access on the northwest shore called Hapuna Beach. It was glorious: white sand, rolling surf, and palm trees lining the beach. Because of the other activities we had planned for the day, we didn’t bring our suits, but we waded in as far as our capris, shorts, or skirts would allow. Not surprisingly, we walked out of the surf dripping wet from thighs down, smiling like idiots, sand between our toes. Even Ruth got in. Really. I have pictures. Look!

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Ruth ventures in...slowly

From the beach, we headed up to Kawaihae Harbor for a late lunch and a bit of shopping and then back to the condo to get ready to leave tomorrow…which is where we are now. If all goes as planned, Ruth, Janie, and Carole will be up and out the door early to cram in as much shopping as they can manage before we have to head to the airport. Carey and I will be holding down lounge chairs at the pool overlooking the ocean. Hey, someone’s got to do it.

Aloha!

My mother-in-law, Ruth, sisters-in-law, Janie and Carole, my daughter, Carey, and I departed for Hawaii from Kansas City on time Thursday morning with minimal flap. Oh, there was the requisite jostling of crap in and out of tote bags, digging in purses for IDs, and fumbling for Ziploc bags full of toiletries, but for this group of travelers, that can safely be called minimal flap. The flight itself was smooth and uneventful—that is, if you don’t count the coffee Ruth spilled on Janie—and we were even treated to a view of the Grand Canyon at no extra charge. Janie, Ruth, and Carole had a good view of the canyon from their side of the plane. Carey and I crossed the aisle for a peek. We touched down in LA 15 or 20 minutes early.

Thankfully, our layover in LA went very smoothly. I’ll admit, I jumped the gun on the airport shuttle, taking the shuttle that was headed to the parking lots instead of to the departure gates—Hey! the driver lied and told me he’d take us there—but we got where we needed to go with only minimal fuss, so no foul.

Once our checked luggage was safely on its way to whatever vortex checked luggage disappears into, we found a spot to sit and relax while we waited for Encounter, the restaurant atop the funky spaceship-looking building in the center of the airport complex, to open at 11 a.m. We had plenty to occupy us as we waited. LA is a fun place to people watch. I’m fairly the certain the per capita number of folks in sunglasses is at its highest in LA. Plus, Carey thinks she saw the guy who wrote and starred in Super Size Me, but we couldn’t be certain. I’m sorry to say, no other celebrity sightings occurred.

The spaceship building at LAX is under renovation, so we had to skirt scaffolding and union protesters as we walked around the perimeter hunting for the entrance to Encounter. The scaffolding was up when I went through LA in March, and it doesn’t look like they’ve made any progress to speak of since. Anyway, after much marching about and asking for directions from kind (and bemused) strangers, our little parade of five, toting sundry Hawaiian rolling bags, backpacks, and purses, finally found the entrance and made our way to the elevators.

The Entourage

The Entourage

An Elevator Encounter

An elevator Encounter

The elevators going up to Encounter are an experience all on their own. The small, capsule-like enclosures with wild-colored amoeba shapes climbing up the walls have psychedelic piped-in music that starts as soon as the doors close and that stops as soon as the doors open. Groovy, man. The doors open onto a bar area and a mostly unobstructed 360° view of LAX…and the LA smog. Cough. Cough.

The manager of the restaurant greeted us like we were long-lost relatives and, with a grand flourish, showed us to a great table with a view, indicating a spot along a nearby wall where we could deposit our plunder. We had a lot of time to kill before our flight to Honolulu, so the meal was a leisurely affair. We took the edge off our hunger with a plate of edemame before enjoying our salads and sandwiches. And, of course, we took pictures. Pictures of the food, pictures of the view, pictures of us, pictures of us with Duane (our waiter), pictures of the funky bathroom, and pictures of the elevator. Our time at Encounter was well documented.

Janie, Ruth, Carole, Mary, Carey, and Duane at Encounter

Janie, Ruth, Carole, Mary, Carey, and Duane at Encounter

Then it was back to the terminal and through security. More fumbling.

Our flight to Honolulu was delayed while mechanics worked to replace the pilot’s oxygen canister. Apparently, testing showed it was threatening to malfunction. I suppose if anyone on the plane needs an oxygen mask in an emergency, it would be the pilot, so we waited…and waited…and waited. Just over an hour after our scheduled departure time, we pushed back from the gate and were on our way.

We were on a 767, a plane with two seats on the outside of the aisles and three seats between them. When I booked the flight, I struggled with our seat selection because I knew that Janie, Carole, and Carey would enjoy having a window seat and that Ruth would want a seat where she COULDN’T see the water. I settled on the outside aisle seats in three consecutive rows, seated two, two, and one. On that flight, I was the one. My seatmate, Mike, was a very nice man whom I would guess to be in his mid- to late-50s, a nice man who was easily 6’5” and close to 300 pounds. He sat in the aisle seat and, after lifting the armrest, part of mine. I’m not complaining, really. Mike was as pleasant and as considerate as he could have possibly been under the circumstances, but I was still smashed against the window. And then, as is so often the case when I find myself of long distance flights, I was sitting behind a total tool who threw his seat back into my lap. Whop!

The tool was the same numb nuts who got on the plane with a “carry-on” that was just barely smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle and who spent more than 20 minutes trying to cram the aforementioned monstrosity into an overhead bin where it clearly was NEVER going to fit. Finally, in frustration, he began asking other passengers if he could move their bags to bins further back in the plane so he could get his stowed. He then had the gall to act indignant when they told him, “No!” I repeat. He was a numb nuts, a total jerk who sat down RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME! Within 20 minutes his Mohawk—yes, he had a Mohawk, not a faux-hawk, but a Mohawk and he was easily my age—was lying in my lap sound asleep.

Meanwhile, a few rows back, Janie and Carole were having their own adventures. Early in the flight, Carole tried to get her headphones plugged in. As she fumbled around trying to insert the plug into any hole she could find within arm’s reach, she unknowingly pushed the call button. Both she and Janie were surprised when a cheerful flight attendant appeared asking what they needed. After assessing the situation and their blank faces, he smiled knowingly, gallantly plugged in Carole’s headset, and headed off to assist other hapless passengers. Sometime later, he re-appeared—this time, not so cheerily—and reached over their heads to turn off the call light that once again had mysteriously come on. Then, without saying a word, he reached over Janie and punched Carole’s call button (probably to disable it) and left. Carole was mortified, Janie was amused, and the flight attendant was…well, I’m guessing he’s seen it all before.

Thanks to Janie’s forethought and Darrell and Janie’s generosity, we were greeted at Honolulu International Airport with orchid leis. Much picture taking ensued. Daisy, the lei lady—I kid you not, her name was really Daisy; how’s that for irony—was absolutely wonderful. Thanks to her kind and patient guidance, our plane change in Honolulu went off without a hitch. As an added bonus, the intoxicating smell of the leis totally masked the full day of travel stink we’d accumulated since our departure from Kansas City nearly 21 hours earlier.

aDaisy Greets Ruth at the Airport
Daisy greets Ruth at the airport
Of course we're smiling. We just got lei'd!

Aloha! Hawaii

After a pleasant and very short flight, we were at the car rental place in Kona by 9:00 p.m. While Ruth guarded the luggage and Carole squirreled around with the GPS that her husband, Paul, had so thoughtfully pre-programmed with many of our destinations, the rest of us stood in line to get our car. Well, actually, it’s a minivan, but let’s not split hairs.

After loading the minivan with our luggage, we took off for a Safeway to get a few breakfast supplies before heading to the condo. We wanted to be sure that we wouldn’t have to get out this morning if we didn’t want to. We didn’t want to. It was pitch dark when we got here last night, so we couldn’t see the view off our lanai, but we could hear it. This morning, the view took our breath away. We’ve been sitting out here pretty much non-stop ever since. As Carey so insightfully and eloquently pointed out at one point during our reverie, “This does not suck.”

I’ll post a running narrative of our Hawaiian adventures here on this blog (including more details about the condo), and I’ll post information about specific places we visit on P.S. Wish You Were Here. We hope you’ll tag along!

Aloha!

The view off our lanai looking north

The view off our lanai looking north

The view looking north

The view looking south

The shore 25 feet off our lanai

The shore 25 feet off our lanai

Now that Teddy has been living here for more than two months, I believe we have a clearer understanding of one another. At least I feel safe saying I understand him better. It’s not that hard. He’s a pretty straightforward little guy. No pretenses. No wavering. He let’s you know how he feels about something and then has no more to say on the subject. After all, that’s the way it is. End of story.

Teddy’s Tenets:

  • Salmon and rice will not be tolerated in any form–canned or kibble–under any circumstances. Amen. Pass the lamb.
  • Bodily functions can never be performed in the presence of any of the following: damp grass, wet cement or flagstone, drizzle, rain, thunder, lightning, or lightning bugs. Ever.
  • And while we’re on that topic, privacy is preferred during any and all nature calls. Decorous human beings will avert their gaze while bodily functions are being executed.
  • No tree, bush, flower, tomato plant, asparagus fern, strawberry patch, fence, or wood pile is sacred. Have a  pooper scooper and a plastic bag on your person at all times.
  • Glorious daytime weather must be savored with long periods of rolling in the grass, sneezing, and sleeping in the shade. Any attempt to force other behaviors during such times will be considered sacrilegious and ignored accordingly.
  • During thunderstorms–or any time lightning is within a 20-mile radius–a human being’s presence is required. Preferably mom’s. Snuggling welcome.
  • Snoring and farting are part of the package. Deal with it.
  • Belly-rubs, ear-scratches, and hugs are actively encouraged and always accepted.
  • Attempts at playing chase, catch, or Gotcha! will be met with a blank stare. A good brushing is preferred.
  • Walkers and bicyclists passing on the street out front must be acknowledged with a half-hearted woof. People in the backyard must submit to a full-blown bark or barks. All other vocal emanations are discretionary and meted out accordingly.
  • Ear cleaning and trips to the groomer will be tolerated only if extravagant displays of affection are provided afterwards.
  • Goofy neckerchiefs will be grudgingly tolerated for short periods of time.
  • Failure to extend invitations for all car and/or truck outings will result in The Very-Sad-Dog-Eyes Treatment and other guilt-inducing behaviors, as required. Consider yourself warned.
  • All humans, dogs, and cats must be welcomed as friends. Or ignored.

Like I said, straightforward. He’s a pip.

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I’m extremely fortunate and grateful to have enjoyed a number of beach vacations in recent years. Beach chairs set up on the warm sand by resort staff, cloudless blue skies, palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze, the soothing sound of the waves lapping the shore, and, on many occasions, cabana boys bringing me flavorful drinks with chunks of fruit hanging from the rim of the glass while I recline under the shade of a thatched umbrella reading a good book. Ahhhhh. Does it get any better? Well…actually, yes.

Last week, I had the privilege of going to the beach on South Padre Island with my sister, Amy, my niece, Elisha, and my two great-nephews, Jesse and Cameron, ages eight and three respectively. For an hour and a half prior to our departure, Elisha filled zip-loc bags with food; loaded and iced a cooler big enough to have its own zip code; gathered beach chairs, towels, and umbrellas; filled water jugs; chased two excited little boys into their swim trunks; and schlepped all the aforementioned stuff (excluding the boys) outside to tie down in the bed of her truck, insisting the entire time she didn’t need any help. I was worn out just watching her.

After driving just over an hour to get there, Elisha parked along a residential street that ran parallel to the beach. We clamored out, doors open wide as the truck was unloaded into the hot, muggy Texas afternoon sunshine. Squirmy little boys were slathered head-to-toe in sunscreen before chairs, umbrellas, beach bags, and inflatable beach toys were hoiked onto every available shoulder, arm, and hip for the quarter-mile-plus hike down the street, over the sand dunes, and across the beach to a spot which was selected solely for its proximity to the walkway back over the dunes and back to the truck. Hey, you try dragging the monster cooler through the sand!

Within minutes, we had umbrella stands screwed into the sand, umbrellas up battling the wind, chairs unfolded and situated–along with the cooler–in the shade of the umbrellas, and towels unfolded and ready for use, all to the tune of, “Can we get in the water now? Can we get in the water now?” My sister can be soooo impatient.

I was personally ready for a beach chair, a fruity drink, and a good book, but it was not to be. Jesse and Cameron had other ideas, and none of them had to do with sitting in the shade.

Here, it must be said, that I had never been that far south on the Texas coast, and it was much nicer than I had expected. Granted, I wouldn’t want to be in South Padre during Spring Break, but I will certainly look forward to going back with Elisha and her family at other times of the year. The sand was clean and beautiful, the water was clear, warm, and free of seaweed, and the beach was busy, but not crowded. On that particular day, the current had created what Elisha called–for lack of a better term–a wading pool. Between the shore and a sand bar approximately 50 feet out, the water was no deeper than 18 inches. Also, because of the sand bar, and another approximately 50-75 feet beyond the first, the waves were tamer than they would have been otherwise, perfect for cautious eight-year-olds and fearless three-year-olds.

South Padre Island

South Padre Island

For what seemed like minutes, but turned out to be hours, we bobbed in the waves, tried our luck floating in the inner tubes, watched for the tiny fish we occasionally saw swimming around our feet, tried to hold our breath the longest, practiced backward underwater somersaults, and looked for seashells along the edge of the water. Occasionally, when thirst or hunger could no longer be ignored, we would head to the shade for a bit of rest and to raid the cooler for goodies. During one such raid, Cameron grabbed the bag of trail mix and, with a conspiratorial look in my direction, began plucking the M&Ms from the mix, healthy peanuts and raisins be damned. I smiled and said nothing. The prerogative of a great-aunt, right?

Jesse

Jesse (They don't come any kinder or sweeter!)

Cameron
Cameron (Yes, he’s a pistol!)

When someone finally did think to ask about the time, we were shocked to learn that it was well past 7 p.m. Time to gather up our belongings, drag ourselves and our plunder back to the truck, and get as cleaned up as possible (thanks to the jugs of water that Elisha had thought to bring) before meeting Elisha’s husband, Jesse, at one of the local restaurants for dinner.

By the time we collapsed into the chairs at the restaurant, I was exhausted, slightly sun-burned, sticky from the salt water, and had sand hidden where sand should never be hidden. As I sipped iced tea and snuggled a sleeping Cameron on my lap, I marveled that at no time during the entire afternoon had I been near a lounge chair, a book, a fruity drink, or a cabana boy, but I had undoubtedly just experienced one of the best days I’d ever spent at a beach. All because two of the sweetest, most energetic little boys on the planet had reminded me how much fun a beach can really be.

As I type, Brian is heading north to the Twin Cities for the Minnesota State Fair. While his primary responsibility is to execute the assignment Department Zero and Toyota sent him up there to do, his–and his traveling companion, Kyle’s–primary off-duty objective is to sample every one of the 59–yes, that’s right, 59–fair food offerings on a stick, supposedly the largest food-on-a-stick menu at any state fair in this great nation. Cue the anthem.

For the next seven to ten days, these two brave souls will selflessly sacrifice their waistlines and arteries to bring us the details of such novel offerings as spaghetti-on-a-stick, fried-alligator-on-a-stick, hotdish-on-a-stick, deep-fried-candy-bars-on-a-stick, and Pig Lickers (chocolate-covered-bacon-on-a-stick), along with the more traditional corn dogs,  cotton candy, and frozen confections that, as it happens, also come on a stick. I’m so proud. My job is to chronicle the entire gastric extravaganza for you in all its crunchy, gooey, burbly, acidic detail (Brian has promised pictures).

So, if you have the stomach, please join us for the fun. Tom, who never fails to put his snappy-ass spin on any new adventure, got into the spirit of the thing by serving Brian an egg sandwich on a stick this morning before his o’dark thirty departure.

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Egg-Sandwich-on-a-Stick

Grab your Tums. It promises to be quite the ride.

Given the choice, I prefer to travel on anything but an interstate highway. I find interstate highways mind-numbing, with mile after mile of the same hideous fast food offerings and dirty gas station bathrooms, but sometimes I have no choice. Time and distance require that I get on the interstate and drive balls-to-the-wall to get to my destination. Such was the case on my recent trip to Texas, which began with a one-day, twelve-hour interstate dash from my house in Kansas City to my sister’s near Austin and ended with the same one-day, twelve-hour push to get back home.

To keep my sanity on such drives, I listen to audiobooks. For that reason–with the exception of the half hour or so it took me to drive through the glorious Flint Hills in Kansas, which would be absolutely impossible to ignore–I couldn’t tell you much of what I saw along the way. On the drive to Texas, I hung out in present-day Los Angeles the with characters in Jill Smolinski’s novel, The Next Thing on My List, and, on the drive back, I bounced back and forth between post-World War II London and the Channel Island of Guernsey while listening to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. With regards to the latter, if you have not read it yet, do NOT pass Go! do NOT collect $200! until you read it. Seriously. I’ve listened to it twice now, and I guarantee you I’ll read and/or listen to it again. Something I rarely, rarely do. It’s that good. I repeat. It’s that good.

Anyway, as you can well imagine, I was pretty wiped out after both days of driving–good books notwithstanding–and looked forward to a good night’s sleep. My sister had a bed all set up for me when I arrived at her house, and I wasted little time getting into it. About 3 a.m., I awoke groggily in need of a wee and immediately became alarmed. I couldn’t move. Where in the hell was I? The room was pitch black–seriously, not a single speck of light–and I was lying ramrod straight, completely surrounded…encased, really…by what? Where am I? Why can’t I move?

As the fog lifted, I remembered I was at Amy’s, and then I realized why I couldn’t move. I was sleeping on one of those double-decker inflatable mattress thingies, and the goofy damn thing had lost just enough air to turn me into a wiener on a bun. If I hadn’t had to pee so badly, it would have been funny, but I was stuck. Really stuck. You know how they tell you to remain calm in the face of adversity. Well, that thought never crossed my mind. After rocking back and forth a bit, I finally got my arms un-wedged from my sides enough to begin thrashing around like…well, like I don’t know what, but I guarantee you it wasn’t pretty. After a good deal of commotion and a few bad words, I managed to free myself and make it to the bathroom.

Problem solved, right? Wrong. It was only 3:30 a.m. I was still desperate for sleep, and my bed looked like it had given up the will to live. The electric air pump was sitting right there, but I’d never used it and had no energy or brain cells left to try and figure out how to get it attached, started, or stopped. Besides, if the mattress had a hole in it, it would just go flat again anyway, so I laid back down on the bed with my arms and legs spread wide. You know, like your childhood swim instructor told you to do when she was teaching you to back float, to increase your surface area on top of the water and all that…yeah, just like that.

The next morning, my sister popped her head in at o’dark thirty to wake me up–as if she really needed to–and said sweetly, “I think the mattress may have lost some air.”

You think?

I had really hoped to sit down and write today. I’ve had all these things rattling around in my head that I want to write about, but no time to give them form. I’m not complaining, really. Since I last posted, I’ve enjoyed a visit with a sister-in-law I rarely get to see; a few wonderful days of having Tom home on vacation; several fun outings with Tom, Carey, and Austin; a trip to a local farm for fresh sweet corn, green beans, peaches, and basil; lunches with good friends; and a couple of good movies. I’ve managed to get the dog groomed, the car serviced, a contract written for our fence project, an estimate for having some trees trimmed, the sweet corn and green beans from the farm frozen and stored, the laundry done, and my bags pseudo-packed for my trip to Texas tomorrow. Oh, and in the middle of all that I successfully crossed over to the dark side–chronologically speaking–without any major body part breaking, shriveling up, or falling onto the pavement. But today, I had really hoped to write…

It wasn’t meant to be. All good intentions evaporated as I flew around the house, arms waving, hair on fire, clock ticking, accomplishing…well, I don’t know what. In the middle of the chaos, as I’m trying to get out the door to meet a friend for lunch, I realize Teddy hasn’t been out to have a wee yet. Ye, gods! He’s normally not interested in going outside for any reason much before 9 a.m., but it was after 11! Surely, the poor little guy was about to burst, so I start clapping my hands and slapping my thigh, squealing, “Come on, Teddy! Let’s go outside, buddy!” and generally acting like I’d lost my mind. How could I be so distracted? And what was I going to do if he didn’t hurry up and pee? Holy cow, I was going TO BE LATE! After much effort, I got him heading down the stairs, out the door, and into the backyard. Whoops. Wait. I went running into the backyard, slapping and squealing; Teddy made it as far as the patch of liriope on the edge of the patio before throwing himself down in the middle of it with the biggest, most satisfied grin on his face you can imagine.

ARGHHH! Teddy and I have had a discussion about the liriope before. From my vantage point, it’s part of the landscaping–something IMG_0006[1]to be looked at, not sat on. From Teddy’s vantage point, it’s really thick, fluffy grass with little, smelly-good, purple flowers–a perfect spot for a pause in the sunshine. The first time he decided to park himself there, I fussed at him, and he reluctantly moved out into the yard. Since then, I’ve generally given up the struggle and allowed the indulgence. You have to pick your battles, right? But today, as he sprawled there grinning at me as I ran crazed circles in the yard, I had an epiphany. There was more to lying in the liriope than defiant behavior or ignorance of previous discussions. He was blissfully happy. I, on the other hand, was a raving lunatic. He was enjoying the glorious summer day. I was sweating like a whore in church. Even if he did have to pee, there was liriope to lie in. What was I going on about? He could whiz later. It could wait.

Oh, for crying out loud. Scoot over and let me sit down, will you?

This past weekend, we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday with a luau-themed open house. It was a terrific party. Friends and family came from all over the country to help her celebrate and to raise their glasses in toast to her.

Weeks before the party, one of my sisters-in-law  suggested the luau theme as a nod to my mother-in-law getting to go on her dream vacation to Hawaii this coming October, a start-the-celebration-early-whet-the-appetite type event. Brilliant. With the theme agreed upon, a couple of my other sisters-in-law and I sat down to plan out how we were going to turn a Midwestern suburban backyard into a Hawaiian island. Ideas flew fast and furious, and in the middle of the melee, I jokingly said, “I’ve seen Sandra Lee make a volcano cake that really smokes…I could do that.” Snort.

Apparently I didn’t snort loudly enough because the gals gathered around the table immediately jumped on the idea. “Wow, that’d be great! Can you do that?”

Wait…wait…I didn’t mean…huh?

For those of you who do not know who Sandra Lee is, she’s a tall, gorgeous, incredibly freakish, blond woman who has several cooking shows on Food Network. In a nutshell, Sandra’s a fruit loop. An entertaining fruit loop in an good-grief-I-can’t-believe-she-just-did-that kind of way, but a fruit loop, nonetheless, who dresses to match the curtains over her kitchen window and the color of the standing mixer on the counter behind her. A fruit loop who closes every show by sipping a cocktail as she goes through a long-winded explanation of the “inexpensive tablescape” she’s created that just happens to match her clothes, the kitchen curtains, and the standing mixer. The same tablescape that is taller than your average sixth-grader and easily more expensive than my first house. I can go on, but I won’t. If you don’t believe me, read what Anthony Bourdain wrote about her recently on his blog in a post called A Drive By Shooting. Anyway, Sandra’s schtick is “semi-homemade cooking” which means that most of what she “cooks” on the show comes out of a box or a package. She uses an expensive-looking chef’s knife to hack the boxes and packages open–which, I suppose, makes her feel justified in using the word “Cooking” in the title of her show–but the knife gets very little use otherwise.

Anyway, the aforementioned volcano cake is no exception to Sandra’s “semi-homemade” repertoire. Made from boxed cake mixes, canned frosting, and those aerosol cans of decorator icing, it truly is a pastry chef’s worst nightmare. It is, however, a five-year-old’s dream. It smokes. It’s covered in frosting. Lots and lots of frosting. And it smokes. Did I mention that? Tom wanted to know if I’d make one for his last birthday…but I digress.

The freakishness of its original creator aside, however, I have to admit the idea of a volcano cake as a conversation piece for a luau-themed party isn’t bad one, especially–I reasoned–if I made the cake and the frosting from scratch. All righty then.

The Friday before the party, I began baking the cake layers. Five in all: two 10″ round layers, two 9″ round layers, and a bundt cake. And here, I’m going to admit–after extensive searches through my recipes and a number of online recipes–I did make the cakes from a box. Or, more specifically, boxes. I’ve never been much of a cake baker, but of the cakes I used to make before going gluten-free, none seemed dense enough to withstand the weight of the other layers once they were all stacked atop one another in volcano formation. I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t have a lack-of-density problem with boxed cake mixes. All those artificial ingredients I can’t pronounce have to have some purpose, I suppose.

I did, however, make the frosting from scratch. I’m not a big fan of sweet frosting–plus, I really wanted to do something special for the big event–so I decided to do a cream cheese frosting instead of the typical butter cream frosting. Saturday night, I made nine cups of chocolate cream cheese frosting and six cups of white chocolate cream cheese frosting. The white chocolate frosting got divided up and colored red, orange, yellow, and green. Each color went into a pastry bag, and the whole lot went into the refrigerator until the next morning when I would take it to my in-laws where I planned to assemble the cake.

Before falling asleep that night, I began to worry that the masses wouldn’t like the cream cheese frosting. I fell  into a fitful sleep and woke the next morning at 5:30 to resume worrying. By 5:45, I was out in the kitchen trying to decide if it was worth the gluten-intolerant side effects I would experience if I taste tested the cake with the cream cheese icing on it. Luckily, Tom wandered into the kitchen about that time, offering to sacrifice himself for the cause, so I smeared a blob of the icing on one of the mutant 10″ layers I wasn’t using and asked for his thoughts. “It’s not what I was expecting,” he said sheepishly as he tried to lick the icing from the corner of his mouth.

Well, that’s all it took. If it wasn’t what he was expecting, then it wouldn’t be what my mother-in-law or any of her guests were expecting either. Within seconds, Tom was off to the grocery store for more butter and powdered sugar, and I was warming up my KitchenAid. By 9 am, I was showered, my car was loaded with the frozen cake layers and buckets of butter cream icing in all the required colors, and I was on my way to my in-laws.

I’m happy to say–after all the hoopla of getting the components of the cake assembled–the cake itself came together without much fuss. Most importantly, it was warmly received by the crowd for both its novelty (we did actually get it

The volcano cake (aka The Giant Chocolate Boob)

The Giant Chocolate Boob (aka The Volcano Cake)

to smoke) and its taste, and my mother-on-law seemed genuinely pleased. So, what’s the problem? Well, there was no problem until after the party when I saw the pictures of the thing. Viewed in person, it was a pretty respectable replica of a volcano. At least, I thought it was. In the pictures, it looks like a giant chocolate boob coughing up party streamers! Seriously. Take a look. Once again, just as I’m feeling pretty cocky about myself and my abilities, my ego gets side-swiped a la raisin on the white capris. I fear I will go down in family lore as the creator of the giant chocolate boob, particularly by anyone who didn’t see it in person. I can just hear future generations talking about the demented aunt who made the obscene birthday cake for her dear, sweet mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. What a freak.

I’m happy to announce that my aunt, the wickedly witty expat who’s lived in Australia for the last 30 years, the same aunt who took me sailing with her on the Queen Mary 2 this past winter, now has her own blog. Read about life Down Under–and lots of other places (she’s a world traveler)–on The Meandering Matriarch.  Tell her I sent you!

Eight years ago next month, Tom, Carey, and I loaded up Tom’s truck, my car, and Carey’s car with suitcases full of clothes; Rubbermaid containers full of bedding, power cords, school supplies, and toiletries; a computer; a stereo; a small refrigerator; and Carey’s bike before heading out to Lawrence to get her settled in the dorms for her freshman year at the University of Kansas. Like any other parent  moving his or her oldest off to college for the first time, I oscillated between feelings of elation and sadness. I was happy for Carey to be starting off on new adventures but sad because it felt very much like we were writing the first page of the last chapter of our lives with the kids as “kids.”

I distinctly remember noticing the Lawrence City Limit sign as we got to the edge of town that hot, muggy August afternoon and taking solace in the thought that we’d be making the trek to Lawrence for a long time to come. The way I figured it, Carey would be out there for at least four years and then Brian would be for at least another three or four after that. Geez. That would be nearly a decade by the time all was said and done. What was I being all gloomy about? It was going to be a long time before we would finish the chapter.

A long time, indeed. Last night, we wrote the final sentence when we moved the last load of Brian’s mountainous pile of stuff (I’m fighting the urge to use the word “crap” here) back home to Kansas City. I won’t lie. I did tear up a bit as we drove out of town. I reminisced about that hot August day eight years before and thought about all the fun times we’d had in Lawrence with both kids. Then I remembered what awaited me at home.

For the last three years, Brian has lived in a two-bedroom house with a two-car garage. During that time, he has amassed…well, he has amassed quite a collection of household goods, including–but not limited to–a queen-size bed, a large desk with an oversize desk chair, two TVs, stereo equipment, a washer and dryer, a side-by-side refrigerator, a small dorm-size refrigerator, a kitchen table with four chairs, an assortment of end tables, enough small appliances and kitchen paraphernalia to put any new bride to shame, a huge rolling tool chest, an air compressor, a shop vac, and enough neon signs to open his own bar. He also has lots of toys: a half dozen wakeboards and snowboards with bindings and boots, video games and accessories, boxes of DVDs, and a wakeboard boat. Oh, and then there are his clothes. Brian doesn’t like to do laundry, so he developed the habit of buying new socks, underwear, and t-shirts when the ones he had were too stinky to wear. I’m pretty sure he could go a whole semester without doing laundry. At least, he should be able to; we hauled home six huge plastic bags crammed full of mostly dirty socks, underwear… I tell you all this only because it’s NOW ALL IN OUR GARAGE! Well, not all of it. We did stack the bags of clothes in his bedroom and the boat is at the repair shop for a new part.

Before the weekend is over, Brian should have it all moved to the storage locker he’s rented, so our cars should only have to sit out on the driveway for a few more nights–and, if I’m lucky–I won’t need a shovel, or a hammer, or any of our other tools because there’s not a snowball’s chance that I COULD GET TO ANY OF IT. Okay, deep breath.

Brian called just a little bit ago to let me know he’d completed the check-out process with the leasing agent, and all had gone well. He also admitted to being more than a bit sad about saying good-bye to his home of three years. According to him, his years on 24th Street “were a blast.” In fact, he said, his entire college experience “couldn’t have been any better.” Well, what more could a mom ask for… except maybe to GET THAT CRAP OUTTA THE GARAGE!

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