To Orlando or bust

While I have mostly lived in small, rural towns in North Carolina, I have also lived in the large cities of Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. They all have extraordinary amounts of traffic. If you’re impatient and have a lead foot like myself, traffic can be one of the most insufferable aspects of life. That vehicular congestion and long commute times to destinations only a few miles apart are probably why I only lived in Raleigh for a summer and Greensboro for a single college semester. Charlotte was always a fun destination for activities while my family lived in the quiet suburbs 30 minutes away.
Based on my experience in those cities, I thought I knew what traffic was.


From when I lived in Raleigh in 2011

Then, I drove to Orlando for a day.
My cousin is an accomplished dancer, and one weekend, she participated in the Orlando Ballroom Showcase at the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the International Airport. My cousin has lived in Melbourne all her life, and since I’ve been in North Carolina, I’ve missed many of her great accomplishments, such as dance performances, her high school graduation, etc. When my aunt told me about the showcase, I thought it would be worth seeing even though I’d spend four hours in the car that day driving from Arcadia to Orlando and back.
Setting out, I wrote down directions from Google Maps so I wouldn’t have to use my cell phone data for a map app until I got to Orlando. I figured at that point I’d need an electronic voice talking me through the many red lights and lane changes as I was driving through them. My first mistake was opting to leave U.S.-17 to cut through Avon Park to avoid the toll roads. FL-64 E wasn’t bad, but once I turned left onto U.S.-98 N in Avon Park, the red lights, congestion and headaches started. I got stuck behind so many trucks, U-Hauls and other slow-moving vehicles that by the time I got up to speed from the last red light, I’d hit another one and would have to brake. I kept driving and driving, and I thought I’d never make it through the stop-and-go traffic lights. Finally, I saw a big green sign with that familiar blue and red logo.


Bindi is usually my co-pilot (although normally in the back seat)!

“Please, be I-4,” I begged.
Sure enough, it was the merging lane for I-4 to Orlando. Now, the directions from Google Maps told me to take Exit 72 for International Airport and Cape Canaveral. Instead, I decided to turn on the GPS on my cell phone, which is not Google Maps, just to make sure. My cell phone had very different directions. It had me take an exit 10 miles earlier than Exit 72. I trusted the phone. It hadn’t led my wrong before.
I ended up on International Boulevard, the road where I knew the hotel was located. Then, my phone told me to cross a highway and get back on I-4. Wait, what? I was just on I-4. I followed the phone’s instructions, which involved crossing the highway at a place that was not safe for me to cross. What my phone thought was a crossing on both sides was actually the end of turning lane for the other side of the highway, and I was nearly T-boned by another car trying to turn in my direction as I skedaddled across two lanes like a clueless tourist.
I got back on I-4 right in the middle of stop-and-go traffic for Disney World. When my phone told me to exit for Sea World, I said no. I wasn’t falling for that again. I drove on to Exit 72. Turns out Exit 72 is also an exit for Sea World, the more popular of the two if trying to get to see Shamu and all his friends. I nearly crunched the front of Little Honda into the back of a huge van because the exit ramp was backed up at a complete stop up to the highway as people tried to turn left to Sea World. Mouth open, I gaped at the blocked intersection under the ramp I was sitting on. Never had I come to a complete stop while on an exit ramp for traffic.
I eventually made it to the Hyatt and saw my cousin dance in four heats of the competition. Unfortunately, I missed her receiving a third place medal for her dances earlier in the day, but still my family was delighted that I attended the competition. My cousin was awesome, and we took a bunch of silly pictures together with the showcase’s logo in the back. I don’t regret being there, but now I know to never take “just driving up to Orlando” lightly.
Just so you know, I did make it safely home by taking I-4 to U.S.-17 through Bartow and Wauchula. As my luck would have it, I drove through two major thunderstorms. I’m proud to say that I did not pull over like a North Carolinian but powered through them like a true Floridian. Now, people may have been passing me on the left as I crawled forward at 25 mph, but … I didn’t pull over!


Tara, left, and I being silly at the Orlando Ballroom Classic!


Tackling the legendary Publix sub

Since my arrival, all I have heard about is the new Publix opening.
OK … and?
I completely understand that having a large grocery store chain comDSC_0078e to town is important to the community’s growth and development. It really is a wonderful step forward and should be celebrated.
But, people here seem to focus on that fact that it’s a Publix store specifically, and I was confused by that.
In North Carolina, Publix stores are few and far between, but they are finally starting to make their way across the state. As I was packing up my apartment to move here, the City of Hickory (which was about 30 minutes south of my coverage area) announced Publix was coming. It was met with mild fanfare and excitement. But, when the newspaper I worked for in Lenoir announced Chick-fil-A was coming to town, our Facebook page swarmed with comments, likes and shares. We started getting phone calls at the office about where people could apply for jobs, etc. Construction hadn’t even started yet! We received more Facebook traffic that day after the announcement than we did when the county school board made major decisions affecting their students, or even when murderers were convicted. We get seriously pumped about Chick-fil-A. (Sadly, I never got to experience the Lenoir Chick-fil-A. After listening to rumors for two years that it would be built, I left for Arcadia just a few months before construction began! And, it was only two minutes from the newspaper office, too!!)
So, when I was assigned to tour the Arcadia Publix before it opened, I had no idea what awaited me. Brian West, public relations manager for Publix, greeted me at the door and welcomed me inside. He said that it probably didn’t look like what I was used to since not everything was stocked yet.
“Well, I’ve never been in a Publix before,” I said plainly.
West’s mouth dropped, and he started to laugh. “Are you serious? Really? You’ve never been in a Publix before? That is amazing!”
He then proceeded to say that this was my first time in a Publix every time he introduced me to an employee along the tour. He was delighted that my first Publix experience was at Arcadia’s before it has even opened. He promised that if I returned for the grand opening, he would buy me a Publix sub.
“I’m a really picky eater,” I said. “I’m just warning you now. So, it’ll be put to the test.”
West assured me I would love it.
In the days leading up to the grand opening, the buzz around DeSoto County was evident. It seemed like everyone was talking about it on Facebook, and in some cases literally counting down the days. Even if I hadn’t been promised a sub, I would have been there out of pure curiosity.
It was exciting to see the long line of people standing outside waiting for the doors to open, filming the cutting of the green ribbon and watching people hustle into the store with a grocery cart.

As soon as I got my pictures of the mini stampede, West took me to the sub counter. It was 8 a.m. — not normally the time one eats a sub sandwich — but West was so excited to have me try one. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m really not a sandwich person. Slap some peanut butter and grape jelly on two pieces of bread and I’m set. West explained to the woman behind the counter that this would be my first Publix sub.
“You look scared.” she laughed. “What do you want on it?”
“I like turkey,” I said.
“You’ve got to have Boar’s Head. And what kind of bread?” she asked.
“White,” I answered.
She put a big wad of turkey on a beautiful white loaf of bread, which is baked fresh each morning in the bakery. “OK, so we have mayonnaise and lots of different sauces and condiments,” she said.
I smiled. “That’s it.”
She blinked. “That’s it?
“Meat and bread,” I said.
West burst out laughing, slapping his knee. “Oh my gosh! Meat and bread!”
I grinned. “I told you I was picky,” I said.
The lady wrapped up the sandwich and handed it over. For the rest of my visit, West laughed and told everyone we met about my meat-and-bread sub. I’m used to it. At least he didn’t make me eat it in front of him. Instead, I waited until I got back to the office. As I uploaded videos of the ribbon cutting that morning to the Arcadian’s Facebook page, I unwrapped my sub and took my first bite of the legendary Publix sandwich.
You know what? If you’re a sandwich person and love diving into two pieces of bread loaded down with flavor, meats and veggies, it lives up to the hype. It was pretty darn delicious.
So now I can proudly say I’ve eaten a Publix sub, and I can cross that off my “New to Florida Bucket List.” I think next should be baking and eating a Florida orange juice cake. Sweets are more my style!


My Publix sub – meat and bread!

‘The weather, very peculiar’

In my first month as a Florida resident, I’ve learned the weather changes in a heartbeat here. It literally can be pouring buckets on the left side of a road and be sunny and dry on the right.
In the mountains of North Carolina, it can rain quite a lot, too. The Blue Ridge Mountains are actually a temperate rainforest, meaning it can rain for days on end, especially in the summer. And, we always know when it is coming. The weatherman will predict 10 days of rain, and it will rain … and rain … and rain. If it’s not rainy, the overcast clouds make you wonder if you’ll ever see daylight again. Every two weeks, though, there will be a brilliantly sunny day that makes the green in the leaves look like something out of a movie. You’ll soak in the sun and think, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.” The next day, it will pour rain again.
When I first took this job, Arcadian Editor Steve Bauer prepared me for the move by telling me numerous tips and quirks about the area. One of those things was that it would rain daily during the summer. Although it hasn’t been as constant so far as he described, when it does rain, it pours — as in it’s time to invest in an ark pours — but then stops in about 20 minutes. The sun comes out, and the water evaporates so quickly you would think it never happened.
To me, it’s a crazy phenomena. This past weekend, I drove down U.S. Highway 17 toward Punta Gorda, and it was dry. The other side, however, was soaking wet from the recent rain. I’ve also had it pouring rain on my back windshield but not the front.
It reminds me of that scene in Disney’s “The Lion King” after Mufasa appears to his son, Simba, in a giant cloud over the African plain. Before, it had been a clear night, and then suddenly a giant roll of clouds filled the sky. Rafiki the baboon makes a joke after the clouds and Mufasa disappear: ‘What was that? The weather, very peculiar. Don’t you think?”
A similar phenomena with the weather happened here when I took my boyfriend Jonathan, who was visiting from North Carolina, on a sunset cruise in Charlotte Harbor. As the cruise started, we were wowed by how clear the sky was and how we had the perfect view of the sun. The boat captain even commented how the conditions were beautiful and that the sunset would be worth $1 million that night.
At the time, it was quite warm under the sun out on the harbor, and I think all of us were wishing it would hurry up and sink below the waves. The captain took the boat down the several canals, showing us fancy houses and telling us a lot of history about the area. He pointed out two dolphins that appeared, and his assistant came around the boat and took pictures of everyone.
By the time the sun was ready to set, we were all so distracted by the enjoyment of the trip that no one noticed what had been happening in the sky. As Jonathan and I were passing the time talking, I heard a fellow passenger gasp.
“Where’s the sun?” she asked, pointing in the direction of the sunset.
I turned and looked. The sky was suddenly much darker than before.


Sneaky clouds

The top sliver of the sun was still visible, but the rest was hidden by a huge bank of clouds that seemingly appeared out of nowhere. No one had noticed any clouds anywhere on the horizon during the first hour of the trip, and now, the sun was gone. Even the captain was baffled as to how the clouds just popped up so quickly. He sadly announced that the sunset wouldn’t be as beautiful as he believed it would be and apologized for how incorrect his guess was. But, that’s just how the weather works in Florida. “Very peculiar.”
Even though our view of the sun was blocked, the sunset still cast amazing colors against the clouds, turning them into pink, purple and orange swirls. The surrounding sky morphed from light blue to a sea of orange and pink hues.
No matter the weather, I have been amazed by the beauty and power of Florida’s climate. I have never seen such brilliant sun nearly every morning or felt the power of thunder shake a house before. I will admit, however, that I’m ready for the summer heat and humidity to end, and am excited to see what fall and winter wonders are in store from the Sunshine State.

A toast to Rameses the cat

You had to have guessed that I would be writing about Palmetto bugs again soon.
After my first ordeal with the Palmetto bug, I realized that I had the courage to face my fears but that I certainly didn’t want to do it again.
Well, for my second ordeal, I had a little help in bug-killing.
Rameses is an orange and white cat, who weighs in at nearly 15 pounds even though he is only a year old. He’s not fat. Hardly! He’s just a big-boned cat packed with muscle. He got this way by being the most rambunctious of his litter, bowling over his sisters and climbing anything he can sink his claws into around the house, including my legs. He goes by a lot of names, such as Ram or Rammer Jammer, but most of my friends know him as “Rameses the Destroyer.” This is because, aside from the chinchilla I owed for two years, Rameses has done the most destruction to my house and belongings out of all the other pets I’ve had.

PHOTO BY LEX MENZRameses wreaking havoc on some newspapers.

What Rameses thinks of my work!

At first, I was surprised when we arrived in Florida that Rameses did not seem interested in helping me kill Palmetto bugs. Chasing something small that scurries across the floor seemed right up his alley. However, I soon learned it wasn’t because he wasn’t interested but because he hadn’t noticed.
One morning, I woke and went into the kitchen. I toasted a bagel and sat down to eat. Halfway through, I noticed Rameses having the time of his life with some object on the floor. I froze.
“That’s not a cat toy,” I said with suspicion.
I approached my cat as he continued to bat away at the object. When I got close enough, I jumped back with a gasp. It was a huge Palmetto bug, twice the size of the first one I smacked with a shoe on the wall. It was on its back, legs waving frantically in the air.
“Good boy, Rameses. Good boy!” I cheered and ran off to grab a shoe.
When Rameses noticed I was going to destroy and take away his new “toy,” he grabbed the bug in his mouth and raced across the living room and into the kitchen. In a panic, I started chasing after him, yelling for him to stop. I just knew he’d drop the bug, it’d escape and end up under my bed!
Rameses finally dropped the insect in the bathroom, and as I swung to squash it, he brought his face down next to it. I accidentally bashed him in the nose with my flip flop instead of the Palmetto bug. With a look of horror and betrayal on his whiskered face, Rameses picked up the bug again and dashed behind the bathtub so I couldn’t reach him. As I continued to shout at him, he pawed and played with the Palmetto bug behind the tub.
“Come on, Rameses! I’m sorry. Give me the bug,” I said.
Eventually, it was able to scuttle away from his paws and headed straight for me. Shrieking, I lashed out with my flip flop, flapping it over the bug again and again.
I stood up to fetch the vacuum to once again suck up the remains (I don’t even want to touch the dead carcass through a paper towel). When I returned, I found Rameses munching happily on the freshly killed, crunchy snack. What a good kitty! Sparta, the other cat, was too busy licking the butter off my bagel to assist.
Rameses received an abundance of treats that night in gratitude for saving the household from yet another Palmetto bug. Everyone I spoke with for the next week heard the daring tale of Rameses putting his life at risk for the rest of us by capturing and eating the gigantic insect.
Now, here it is for all of you. Laugh as much as you’d like!

Beating the heat

North Carolina gets hot. That may sound funny to you all here, but I promise you my home can become sweltering, especially in July and August.
However, in the mountains, the breezes are cool, and there isn’t near as much humidity as there is in Florida. I enjoy being outdoors, and so my dog Bindi and I would go hiking in the mountains and Foothills even in the middle of the summer. If you needed to cool off, you just dipped your toes (or your whole body if you’re my dog) into a cool mountain stream or lake. Paradise! In all my times hiking throughout the summer in North Carolina, I never had a problem with the heat.
I stupidly thought I could do the same here. One weekend, I was tired of unpacking, cleaning and sitting around my new house. I Googled some places to hike that would take longer than a time or two around a walking track at a park. I found Myakka River State Park in Sarasota. The Web site told me I’d get to see alligators, birds, deer, raccoons and all sorts of wildlife. I was particularly excited about the alligators because I hadn’t seen one yet since moving here. So I packed up a bag of two bottles of water, snacks, sunscreen and rain ponchos for both me and Bindi then set off in my car, “Little Honda,” with Bindi in the backseat.
As we entered the park early in the morning, we stopped by the attendant’s shelter to pay the entry fee and get a park map.
“So, where are the trail heads? I’ve never been here before. We’re here to hike,” I said.
He grimaced. “Oh! It’s a bad time for hiking.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve gotten so much rain that everything is flooded,”  he responded.
At first, I thought he meant I was going to have to go back and find something else to do. My heart sank with disappointment.
“All the trails are underwater, but you can walk along the paved road,” he added.13403346_10154256003117500_7355071886824491563_o
I thanked him and continued into the park. I decided to drive along the road until I reached the center of the park where there’s a restaurant, air boat rides and equipment rentals. Then, Bindi and I could continue walking along the paved road through the scenery. Sure enough, water was lapping both sides of the road from all the rain. There’s something unsettling and eerie about seeing dark water along the sides of the road, which snakes between thick trees, bushes and Spanish moss dangling down. I felt like something big with lots of teeth was watching me from the murkiness.
When we reached the large parking lot next to the general store and air boat rides, Bindi, who was already panting, and I got out of the car and set off on our hike. Not two minutes down the road, I was sweating. My short-sleeved shirt was stuck to me, and the backpack was like a heating pad on high pressed against my back. We stopped after 10 minutes for a water break. Still, it didn’t feel too terrible, especially in the shade.
The thing with dehydration is it sneaks up on you. One minute, I was walking along thinking, “Hmm, it’s really hot out, but wow, that prairie is beautiful.” The next minute, my legs were shaking, my brain felt like it was pounding against my skull, and I could barely keep my eyes open. As I described it to my boyfriend later, “There could have been an alligator sitting right there and I still could have curled up and fallen asleep on the road.” Bindi, the poor dog, had her tongue hanging out nearly to the grass. While there was lots of water around and Bindi desperately wanted to go swimming, I wasn’t taking the risk of letting her cool off in one of the flooded pools! Just because I didn’t see an alligator didn’t mean there wasn’t one hiding under the deep brown surface of the overflowing lakes. Bindi is the perfect gator-sized snack!
We stopped for another water break, and I poured water all down Bindi’s back and over her ears. Bindi and I are used to hiking uphill over rocks, wooden stairs and fallen tree trucks to the top of a waterfall every weekend for an hour to three hours. Now, a flat, paved road had us beat in 30 minutes. It was embarrassing, but we turned around all the same. If Bindi decided she couldn’t walk back because of the heat, I knew there was no way I could carry a 55-pound dog down the road.
As we stumbled into the parking lot, I thought maybe stopping at the general store would be fun. Little Honda’s air conditioning isn’t great, so I knew we’d at least have a nice, cool reprieve in the store. Sure enough, it felt like Canada in there! Bindi collapsed on the cool floor while I looked around at the hats, shirts, snacks and postcards. The guy behind the counter was very friendly.
“Would you like some ice cubes for your dog?” he asked.
“That would be great!” I answered.
He handed me a small plastic cup of ice cubes, which Bindi lapped at while laying on the floor. The man just loved her funky patterns on her coat and engaged me in conversation for nearly the entire half-hour we hung out at the store. His conversation alone was worth the drive.
I must say that to any newcomers, like myself, Myakka River State Park is definitely an enjoyable place to visit. From what I hear, the trails — when they’re not underwater — are incredible and packed full of wildlife (we did see four alligators on our drive out). That day, Bindi and I learned the hard way that not all heat is the same.


Bindi in Myakka River State Park