Monday, September 25, 2017

Quick Trip to Philadelphia

It may have been a quick trip, but it was one I'd planned many months ago and was really looking forward to. I'd been to Philadelphia many years ago on business, but had no time while there to see the sights. So this trip I was determined to cram as much as possible into the limited time I had while there.

I registered for the Rock 'n' Roll half marathon and then booked my hotel room at the Marriott Courtyard downtown. It was a great location, a compromise in distance between the race start/finish line and the historic Independence Mall area. It was just an easy 2-block walk to the convention center and just a block away from the Reading Terminal Mall with it's iconic and historic food market. Oh, my! I could not wait!

Originally my flight was scheduled to leave Houston at 10:30 AM on Friday, which would get me into Philly early afternoon with plenty of time to get my race packet and maybe do a bit of sightseeing before dinner. But as always seems to happen when I book my airfare too far ahead of the trip, the itinerary changed and my flight was now scheduled for a 1:00 PM departure. Yikes! This was going to be cutting it very close. It's a 3 hour flight, and then there's that time zone change, plus the cab ride from the airport in evening rush hour traffic. The race expo closes at 7:00 PM, so not a lot of wiggle room in case of flight delays or traffic problems.

Philadelphia City Hall, right across the street from the hotel

And sure enough, though the flight was on time, even a bit early, the traffic getting from the airport to downtown was a parking lot on the freeway. The cabbie got off the freeway at the next exit and made his way to the downtown area on all surface streets. I didn't least we were moving. And it was actually scenic and interesting, riding through some older row house neighborhoods with their little corner grocery markets and storefront businesses.


Packet pickup

He got me to my hotel just a little after 6 PM and I'd already checked in to the hotel using the Marriott app on my phone, so I could quickly get my room key, get up to my room to drop my bags, and then boogie on over to the convention center to get my race packet and even do a bit of browsing before it closed. I really don't like cutting things that close, but sometimes life is out of our control.

Back at the hotel, I grabbed a mediocre sandwich and beer at the hotel restaurant for a very late dinner, then bought a container of strawberries and a cappuccino at the Starbucks in the hotel to bring back to my room. I laid out my running things for the 5K the next morning, set my smartphone alarm, and sprawled on the bed to watch TV. I was tired, more tired than I realized, and the bed felt wonderful.

Philosophical Society Hall
With a start, I bolted awake the next morning, realizing that I'd overslept and had forgotten to change my phone's volume from vibrate. Well darn! It was 6:45 AM, the 5K race starts at 7:00 AM, and it's about a mile walk away from the hotel. This race was going to start without me!  Well at least I had strawberries to eat with my Cheerios! I made a cup of coffee in the room and surfed my mail and Facebook while feeling sorry for myself for missing the race. But only for a little while, because I really wanted to get dressed and get over to the Independence Mall area before it got too crowded.

Commodore Barry, founder of the U.S. Navy

It was a beautiful morning and an easy 1/2 mile walk and I arrived at the National Constitution Center at 9:30 AM, just as they opened. I bought my ticket and then browsed the displays and gift shop a bit while I waited for the 10 AM performance in their theater. It was an interesting one-man monologue with visual effects, recounting the history leading up to the Bill of Rights and the constitution.
Independence Mall

That done, I walked down the Mall toward the visitor center to get my entrance ticket for Independence Hall. They're free, but are controlled, with timed tours given by the National Park Service. My ticket was for 12:15, so I had an hour to kill. On the way to Independence Hall is the pavilion that holds the liberty bell. I thought I might see that, until I saw the long line snaking through a Disney-like maze and then spilling out on the sidewalk for another 50 yards. No thanks!

I wandered the few small blocks that surround the mall and Independence Hall and took photos of some of the really old and historic buildings, like Library Hall and Philosophical Hall. But it was still too early for the Independence hall guided tour, so I headed back to the Visitor center where there was a little snack bar and got myself a snack of popcorn and a bottle of water and sat for a bit to kill time.

Independence Hall

Back of Independence Hall

The Independence Hall ticket said to arrive 1/2 hour before, so I got over there at 11:45. They were just letting the 11:45 group into the hall, and staging the 12:00 group into the cordoned off area. The park ranger noted the small handful of us who were there early for our 12:15 tour, and when it got closer to 12:00, and he had room for a few more folks, he let us in.

The judicial room with judge bench and jury box

We were ushered into a room adjacent to the hall itself, and given a lecture about the history of the building. We were then herded out that building and into the main Hall. On the right, was the judicial hall, and the guide told us about the history of this room, events that happened here, and about the furnishings (none original but all of that era) and decor (some original). Then we moved across the main center hall to "the room," the room where history was made and our nation was born! It was very inspiring to actually be in the room. The lecture was very interesting and informative, with lots of detail and interesting tidbits.

This is it! The room where our founding fathers hammered out a new nation

The tour finished, and with hunger overtaking my desire to perhaps see more museums in this Mall area, I started back toward my hotel, stopping at a Subway shop to pick up a sandwich to bring back to my room.

That afternoon I decided to walk back over to the convention center and take another spin through the race expo, buy one of the long-sleeve Brooks shirts in the official RnR merchandise area and spend a little more time browsing the vendors.

Then it was time to get back to the hotel, modify what I'd laid out for the 5K race with things I'd need for the half marathon, and start hydrating. Late that afternoon I walked down to Maggiano's to order take-out dinner - meatball lasagna - and again returned to my room, and ate my dinner in front of the TV.

Race day morning!! The smartphone alarm worked this time....yay! But I awoke about 1/2 earlier and used that time to eat my breakfast of Cheerios and strawberries, sip some water and check my emails before getting up.

The walk to the start line, though long, was pleasant as I joined the throng of other runners heading in the same direction. This particular race series uses a protracted system of corrals and waves so I knew that the race would have started even before I got to my assigned corral. I was about halfway to the start line when the first corral of runners zoomed past me in the other direction. I took my time getting there, found a bank of portapotties with no line and took advantage, then worked my way down the line of corrals to duck into one that was three or four corrals ahead of my assigned corral. This far back no one cares, and I knew this race attracts a lot of slower walkers, so I wanted to be ahead of them.

At the start line area, waiting to go

Behind me I could see the iconic Museum of Art with its bank of steps made famous by Sylvester Stallone in the film "Rocky." Our finish line will be right in front of those!

The race route was absolutely one of the best in the entire Rock 'n' Roll race series, second only to maybe Vancouver or Montreal. It ran down through the downtown area, past the gorgeous City Hall, then around Logan Square with its gorgeous Swann Memorial fountain then past the front of the Museum of Art. A few miles further and we turned right up a hill and past the old and spooky former Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary before retracing our steps back to Kelly Drive along the Schuykill River.

Race route, data captured with my Garmin GPS watch.

We ran right along the river, past rows of rowing club boat houses, past scullers out on the river until we got to mile 9, when we crossed the river on an old iron trestle bridge and then headed back toward downtown on the other side of the river.

Every mile was beautiful and scenic, especially the miles along the edge of the river! We had a nice cloud cover the whole way, giving us pleasant temps, though the humidity was very high. Every mile there was an energetic group of volunteers manning the water and sport drink station. The support was among the best of any RnR race I've ever done.

Close up of race route and finisher area

As we neared downtown, could see the skyline, we could also see the massive back side of the Museum of Art on the other side of the river.  It was a welcome site, because it meant I was getting close to the finish line.


Finish line!! I collected my finisher medal and passed through the finish chute, grabbing a bag of chips, a bottle of chocolate milk, and bottle of water along the way. Then I walked through the pretty park in front of the museum and found a curb to sit on, where I relaxed, ate my chips and chugged some water. Then I eased myself back up and walked back to the hotel. Sadly, the Starbucks espresso machine was down for maintenance (had I known, I would have taken a slight detour to get to the Starbucks on Market St). I returned to my room, drank my chocolate milk and nibbled on a granola bar.

Finisher medal

I had plans to join a friend for dinner later, but short-term I needed to find some food. So I showered and dressed and then walked the short distance to the Reading Terminal Mall, which is a giant indoor food market in the style of so many that are typical in the north and northwest. Aisle after aisle of baked goods, meats, cheeses, fish, sandwich counters. As soon as I stepped inside I came up on an oyster bar and immediately sat down and ordered a dozen mixed oysters on the half shell. Four different varieties from different regions along the east coast, and each tasted just a little different. So good and definitely hit the spot!

As I wandered the aisles, I came upon Old City Coffee and had the best macchiato I've ever had this side of the Atlantic. It was perfection! Served in a little paper cup, and with rich creamy coffee foam clinging to sides of the cup as I finished it. Oh my!! I picked up a salami on rye at a deli counter and then some sweets at a bakery counter - some macarones, whoopie pies, and a cupcake - and then brought it all back to my room. I ate the sandwich and the cupcake and saved the whoopie pies to bring with me to dinner with my friend that night.

Dinner with a friend after the race

My friend picked me up at the hotel and brought me to a pho noodle shop, a food I was definitely craving post-race. He is from Southeast Asia and I knew he'd know exactly where to bring me for a simple, family-oriented place with extensive menu and great food. It was perfect! And it was a very pleasant way to spend my last evening in Philly.

The next morning I packed my things and checked out, then took a cab to the airport for my flight home. It was a great trip with a very memorable half marathon and a chance to spend a little more time in this historic city.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Harvey Was No Gentleman

It's that time of year again. It's the time of year when all of us in the Southeastern United States start watching the radar maps of the Atlantic Ocean, dreading the appearance of those first storm systems spinning off of the Cape Verde Islands.

Then right on cue, a Tropical depression formed and began chugging its way west toward the Carribean, gaining strength and eventually "tropical storm" status as it crossed the Lesser Antilles. He lost some punch as he encountered land and wind shear, but began to strengthen as he crossed over the Yucatan peninsula, eventually reaching hurricane status once he entered the warm waters of the Bay of Campeche. The fact that it survived crossing over the Yucatan Peninsula and eventually became a category 4 hurricane caught many Texans by surprise.

Hurricane Harvey, photo image By NASA, NNVL 

Within 48 hours it made landfall just north of Corpus Christi, in Rockport TX. This gave very little lead time for residents to prepare. Then, to add insult to that injury, it lingered over S. Texas for hours and hours, feeding its rain bands with water from the Gulf of Mexico and dumping multiple feet of rain. There were no steering currents or weather systems to give it continued momentum over land, so there it sat, wandering around for a couple of days, inching northeast along the coast then turning north and moving toward Houston at an agonizingly slow pace of 2 mph!

Since I've lived in this house, I've survived one extreme rainmaker tropical storm (Allison) and one hurricane (Ike) before Harvey came ashore. Allison was an extreme rainmaker, also stalling and wandering over Houston for hours, dumping record-setting rain on the area. In my neighborhood we had street flooding and water levels that began to creep up onto lawns and driveways, but never really felt threatened with flooding homes.

But this most recent hurricane was worrisome because of its rain-making capabilities. I made a trip to the grocery store on Monday, just days before landfall, and stocked up on things I knew I'd appreciate having in case we lost power or were unable to get out for days after the storm.

We began to feel the outer rain bands on Friday, August 27.  Water was overflowing the curbs on our street and starting to creep up onto the lawns and driveways.

Friday afternoon, first day of outer storm bands

What I woke up to Saturday morning

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of sheets of rain rattling against my windows and the non-stop roars of thunder, while the lightning illuminated the darkness. I got out of bed and peered outside my sliding glass door. I saw some movement on my deck so ran back inside and grabbed a flashlight. Poor little raccoon guys! seeking shelter under my deck!

Raccoons crawling under my deck in the heavy rains.

Around noontime on Saturday I noticed that water was no longer flowing down the storm drain, which is right at the end of my driveway. I waded out into knee-deep water during a lull in the rain and, with a rake, pulled out a huge pile of pine branches and needles that had created a dam and was blocking the drain.

Giant wad of pine tree limbs and needles created a huge clot, blocking the drain
OG the cat was VERY concerned that I was out there in the rain, wading through knee deep water to clear that drain!

Example of the type of storm drain
we have in our neighborhood

We have vertical under-curb drains so this is really saying something about the force of the rain water flow and the debris it lifted off of neighbors' lawns and into the street! All day I watched the water advance, despite having cleared the drain, and worried all night.

Later that day on Saturday water was overtaking my front lawn and had crept up my driveway. I went back out to check the drain, but it was open and flowing, just not able to keep up with the sheer volume of rain coming down.

Water in my lawn on Saturday

On Sunday there was a lull in the heavy rain and by that afternoon we could see the water starting to recede down our lawns and driveways, and we could actually see sections of our cul-de-sac emerge from the water. But it didn't last long. It began to rain more heavily and the water levels began to creep back up as it rained heavily throughout the afternoon and evening.

Water had started to recede on Sunday afternoon. Line of debris left behind
marks the high water mark at that point

Water high point on Sunday, but not for long! It was even higher by Monday

Water high point on Sunday, but not for long!

By Monday afternoon my front lawn was nearly completely underwater. I was beginning to worry because it was starting to creep up toward the foundation plantings against my garage. That night, before going to bed, I planted a little US Flag at the high water mark on my driveway. Several times during the night, I peered out the front door to see if water was getting any higher, using that little flag as my reference point.

The highest point - Tuesday morning. Up to my garage foundation plantings
Water line Monday night was at the little flag. By Tuesday AM,
it had started to recede, ever-so-slowly

Thankfully, the water never rose any higher, and the rains began to let up. As Tuesday went on, the water receded little by little and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Water receded this much by Tuesday noon
By Tuesday afternoon, there was significant improvement as the rains stopped and the drains could start to catch up.

Tuesday afternoon

Tuesday afternoon - water is half way down the drive and lawn

Water at the curb - still almost to my knees

On Wednesday morning, finally, the sun came out and neighbors began to emerge into the streets to survey the damage. I tried to walk the 3-mile loop around the perimeter of our neighborhood, but could only get about 1/2 mile before high water in the street and on the lawns blocked my progress. Many neighbors with golf carts were cruising the streets to see if neighbors needed any help. We began to hear from other neighbors and to learn that other streets in our neighborhood weren't so lucky.

It was another full day before we could exit our neighborhood. The entrance and exit roads were still flooded as were surface roads immediately adjacent to our neighborhood. We could go neither east nor west on McHard Road.

Thursday morning - almost back to normal
Thursday morning I got out and did a 3 mile run, the first since before the hurricane hit. I was able to get a better sense of the water damage to some of the homes. A couple of the streets were still flooded and impassible. My heart broke for these neighbors of mine, many who are friends, almost all of whom are elderly and some are infirm.  I could finally get out in my car, and I made a trip to the grocery store and picked up some eggs for my neighbor. I'd checked up on her the day before, asking if there was anything she needed, and "eggs" was her answer.

Walking around the outside of my house, checking for any damage, and I could see just how high the water had gotten in my front yard.

Water line clearly visible. I guess that liriope on the left didn't like being
submerged for so long.

Water was right up over the lip of these foundation beds

I could also see that some critter - some say a skunk, others say an armadillo - had dug up huge portions of my now-very-soft front lawn in search of breakfast.

The work of a skunk or an armadillo, digging up my front lawn, looking for grubs

Our town and our little neighborhood all did a fantastic job of keeping us fully informed throughout the ordeal. I received emails and could see the frequent Facebook posts that Pearland was sending out to all residents, keeping us totally up to date, advising us of any threats or emergencies, and of access to services from the city and even from the businesses and stores in our town.

Our office manager, even though she was not at the Carriage House, was working from her home and doing a great job of communicating with us. She fielded questions, asked us all to send her photos as we took them, and sent out email notices at least hourly throughout the weekend, sharing others' photos with all of us and giving us updates on closings, city services, on street conditions, and on stores that were open once the flooding subsided. These communications had a great calming influence on many of the older residents and let us all know that we were not alone and were all in it together.

Within three days of the storm's passing, it was hard to tell that our street was under three feet of water! It will be a while before those neighbors whose homes flooded will get back to normal but the whole community is pitching in to help them recover.

Hopefully this will be our one and only hurricane for another long while.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Captiva Island - Our Last Full Day

All too quickly the days marched along toward the inevitable end of the week and our trip. We had one last full day on the resort and I voted for going to the beach. I'd not yet spent much time there and really wanted to drink a Sunset Cooler, enjoy the view, have a hot dog grilled right there on their open air pit.
The view from my balcony - South Seas Resort Marina

I did my last run, of course to Starbucks, then returned to my unit to enjoy my cappuccino with the last of my strawberries on my bowl of Cheerios out on my balcony. It was a gorgeous morning, and the view of marina was so peaceful. I sat there and watched the birds swoop over the harbor as I ate. Then cleaned up and got ready to go to the beach.

Breakfast on my last full day at the resort.

The kids headed out ahead with their mom. As I walked down the steps of the hotel, I saw my son walking toward the beach, so I ran to catch up and we walked together to the line of chaise lounges under umbrellas. I opted to order myself a drink and sit in the pretty little shaded seating area, while my son went on ahead to find his family.

View from Sunset Beach bar

He soon returned and joined me with a Sunset Cooler and we chatted until our drinks were gone and then he left to rejoin his family. I ordered myself that hot dog I'd been craving, and a Corona beer, and then sat in that Adirondack chair and just enjoyed the view, the food, the drink, and the tropical breeze under the palms.

Ice cold Corona and a hot dog!

Then I got up and went off to find the rest of the family, but not before buying two more Sunset Coolers and brought them to where my daughter-in-law was sitting in the shade. There we sat, enjoying the antics of the kids. She and my son alternated with the kids in the surf.

Family at the beach - last day

At one point my granddaughter came and got her beach bucket and ran down to the water. Soon she joined me with a bucket of sand and water that she'd scooped up at the shoreline. She was eager to show me something really cool! She started sifting through the sand in the bucket, pulling out a handful, examining it closely, then plucking something small out of her hand and dropping it back in the bucket.

"See, Grandma? They're little bean clams!"

I couldn't see what she was talking about, at first. But then I focused a bit and watched. And there they were. Little tiny white mollusks no bigger than a small bean. They'd hit the sand, pause a minute, then back themselves into the sand and disappear. It was fascinating to watch! In all the dozens and dozens of years that I've lived near the ocean with hours spent at the beach, I never noticed these. I learned something new from my 6 year old granddaughter!

So adorable!

The sun was getting high in the sky and the kids were getting tired of all that fun. So we walked back toward the condo. Marissa had to go to the bathroom, so she and I took a detour toward the bathrooms behind the Sunset Bar and then caught up with the rest of the family. They had a late lunch and despite being totally 'beached' out, wanted to go to the condo pool.

My son brought a six pack of Coronas poolside and we all sat and chatted, did laundry, made plans for dinner on our last night. The Harborside Grill for our last night seemed like a really good idea. We'd already had pizza at the Scoops and Slices parlor on of the nights, and had eaten home-cooked meals the other nights. This would be a treat on our last night on Captiva.

I was tired and headed to my hotel room after dinner, where I began to marshal my belongings, carrying a load of items I wouldn't need out to the car. It was sad that the week was over, but I was ready to get home, knowing I had a long two days' drive to get there.

The next morning I vacated my room and rolled my suitcase across the drive to my car next to my timeshare. I loaded my things then headed up to the condo unit where I could help everyone prepare the unit for the housekeepers (strip bed sheets, round up all the towels) then went through the food in the fridge and packed up what I knew I'd be able to get home in my car.

My son and I had frozen some bottles of water, and I wrapped everything that needed to stay cool in a tote-within-a-tote to insulate those items a bit, then tucked the bag in the back of the car under the beach towels for further insulation. I salvaged ketchup, mustard, and unopened package of deli turkey meat, two bottles of unopened wine, a couple cans of beer, several cans of sparkling water to keep cool, and had another tote filled with leftover crackers, cereal, granola bars and other items.

We drove to the south end of the resort, checked out, then headed toward Ft. Myers and the airport. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone, especially the kids since I don't get to see them very often.

One of my favorite photos from the week.

I managed to get onto I-75 toward home well before lunch, and made it to my planned stop for the night - a nice new Courtyard by Marriott in Daphne AL by dinnertime. A cold beer and simple dinner at their little bistro restaurant and I was done for the night.

I wanted to get on the road early the next morning and in fact managed to be underway by 4:30 AM. A delay due to a fatality accident on I-10 just west of Mobile resulted in a short detour - confusing with all the blue flashing lights, but I pulled over at the bottom of the freeway ramp, spotted a police officer, and he walked over to my car and gave me directions on local streets that would take me to the next entrance ramp. He was so kind, even cracked a joke about why anyone would want to be on that road at that hour.

So glad to be nearing home, driving a section of I-10 through LA and east TX that I was well familiar with, and to see the arrival time on my GPS actually improve as I made good time. I pulled into my own driveway just before 3:00 PM, glad to be home and to see my cats and give them good lovins' and lots of attention. The luggage could wait. The dirty clothes that crammed my suitcase could wait.

It was the best family vacation!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Captiva Island - Day Cruise to Cabbage Key

One of my favorite things to do when on Captiva is to take one of their day cruises out to Cabbage Key for lunch. It's accessible only by boat, and has a really great restaurant with a fun decor and good food. When we made the plans for this family trip together, it was one of the things my son said he absolutely had to do while there. So once we got settled in our units, my son called and made us reservations to go to Cabbage Key on Tuesday. Always best to get reservations made a few days ahead, just in case.

Tuesday came, and as we walked to the pier to wait, we made sure to peer down in to the water at the marina, looking for manatee. It's a favorite "haunt" for them, but we didn't see any and the grand-kids were really disappointed, since over the last three days we'd not yet seen any. Plenty of opportunities during the week to perhaps spot some.

Marissa eagerly waiting to get underway

We boarded the boat and my son headed downstairs to the bar to get us something to drink. Grandson Trevor immediately made friends with four other boys on the boat, all within 1 or 2 years of his age. So he was entertained for the duration of the trip to the Key. Granddaughter Marissa was sad that she had no one to play with.

On upper deck, waiting to get underway


We sat on the upper deck level, watching for dolphin. Whenever the captain spotted some, he'd rev the motor to attract the mammals to swim on the boat's wake. Within 20 minutes we had a couple of dolphin swimming and leaping in the air on the starboard aft side of the boat. It is always fun to watch them do this...I never get tired of seeing these lovely mammals playing and having fun. As we grew near to Cabbage Key we picked up another dolphin on our bow. He swam with us, getting pushed along by the bow wake for a very long time.

Trevor at bow, looking for dolphin

Once on Cabbage Key, we headed straight for the restaurant and were seated immediately. I was surprised at this and at how nearly empty the restaurant was. I can remember when we would often have to wait to be seated, and the place would be packed!

All that money! Several layers thick

Cabbage Key Inn is a very old place, and has survived several storms and hurricanes. All of the seating areas are nothing more than screened in walls with a roof overhead, tucked well under the thick canopy of trees. It's a tradition for visitors to write something on a dollar bill and tape it to the walls, the ceiling, the columns and joists...wherever they can find a spot.

Cabbage Key Inn Restaurant

The restaurant was made famous by Jimmy Buffett in his song, "Cheeseburger in Paradise." Several bills signed by famous people are preserved and framed. Of course I had to have the cheeseburger and fries, and then finish it off with a slice of key lime pie for dessert.

view of harbor and looking toward Useppa Island

After lunch, we walked around a bit, hoping to spot the tortoises that live here and are cared for by the staff. The rest of the family continued on exploring the island and I went down to the little gift shop on the dock and bought t-shirts for the kids.

We found one of the resident tortoises

Then it was time to board the boat and head back to Captiva. The captain took a longer way back and was perpetually on the lookout for dolphin. About halfway back, he stepped out of the bridge and asked granddaughter Marissa if she wanted to drive the boat. She was shy and refused at first, but her dad convinced her it would be a really cool thing to do.

Marissa steering the boat. Note her binoculars!

After a while the other kids got wind of the fact that a kid was driving the boat so they tore themselves away from whatever they were doing downstairs in the enclosed cabin and came up topside to have their turn. I wore my Garmin GPS watch so that I could capture our route. Here is our return route from Cabbage Key to Captiva. Easy to tell where on the route the kids were steering the boat. LOL!

Return route. data from my Garmin GPS watch

We were soon back in the channel toward the marina, then docking and disembarking. It was fun. I think the grandkids enjoyed it. I know I did!

Next up: Plenty of beach and pool time and then our last full day on the resort and spending some time on the beach!