Friday, July 3, 2015

Yoyo Mojo!

When a new generation of nieces and nephews began making their appearance in our family in 1995, four girls arrived first—more than five years before the first boy.  They were so cute and came at such a fast pace, we began calling them the yaya sisters.  To encourage bonding between these cousins, their older female relatives would take them on all-female adventures, which came to be known as "Yaya Trips."  

Since our nieces had been christened yayas, my brother decided the nephews must be yoyos.  After waiting for the boy cousins—the yoyos—to get old enough to go on a bonding trek, we seemed to have difficulty getting one off the ground.  They had a wild splash at the beach one year and helped their dads with home improvement projects another, but the momentum was lost and we had a long dry spell—until this week when we finally hit on a winning formula.

It all started with an offhand conversation in March.  Most of the kids were on spring break and a lot of us got together for some family time at Myles and Gina's house in Mississippi.  Some of the guys were praising AMC's The Walking Dead and Ken casually mentioned that the show is filmed near our home in Georgia.  Game on!

From there, it was just a matter of finding dates when everyone could be available, making arrangements and getting everyone here—from Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee.  Though it has had its share of problems (can you say teacher cheating scandal?), Atlanta is a great place to take kids on vacation.  There are enough activities in the area to fill a two-week trip—or however long the parents last.  We had five days.  Monday was travel day for David and Myles, bringing four boys with them from Mississippi. The others wouldn't arrive until the following day.  

Tuesday:  Six Flags Day

Batman was no match for the yoyos.  (Photo by Six Flags Over Georgia)
An amusement park was the way to begin this yoyo adventure, and the focus was on the coasters.  Alex.  Andrew.  Carson.  Steven.   These thrill-seeking yoyos never met a roller coaster they didn't like, especially those that turn you upside down, spin you through relentless loops and twists, or drop you from 20 stories at 70 miles an hour.  Rain was prominent in Tuesday's forecast but even it was intimidated by the boldness of these yoyos, timidly making an appearance only when the crew was eating lunch.  Carson had visited the park with a school group a few weeks earlier and, with his keen observation skills, devised a brilliant strategy that minimized the waits in line while optimizing the fun.  At the end of the day, the dads were a bit worn out but everyone was eager to see Clint, Joe and Grant that evening and plan what Wednesday would bring.

Wednesday:  Downtown Atlanta

With so many activities within easy walking distance, Centennial Park was definitely the starting point for a foray into downtown Atlanta.  And among this football-loving group, the College Football Hall of Fame was top choice and first stop.  Opened in August, 2014, the Hall moved from its original home near the Notre Dame campus.  Make no mistake, this is not a collection of tired exhibits trucked in from Indiana.  Filled with technology and interactive elements, the College Football Hall of Fame is 94,000 square feet of college football nirvana.

Three-story Wall of Helmets displays 768 mounted helmets—one for each college football team in the U.S.
For an admission fee below $20, every visitor enjoys a completely customized experience.  Each guest is fitted with a chip-equipped "All-Access Pass" to wear on a lanyard.  The first order of business upon entering is registering your pass with your first name, an email address and your favorite team—information that will be used to personalize your visit.

After registration is complete, a plethora of elements in the museum will read and respond to the chip in your pass.  For example, when you approach the helmet wall, a light is illuminated in the helmet for your team of choice.  Nearby is the Why We Love College Football media wall.  As you come near the 52-foot long, multi-user touch screen media wall, video footage of your team in action begins playing.  You can manipulate the videos by touch to move or enlarge them as you wish.

Clint and Alex watch some Mississippi State highlights on the media wall.
Before we could even think about moving on to the second floor, there was the Skill Zone area to visit.  Talk about an interactive experience.  This 45-yard indoor football field gives fans the opportunity to try kicking a field goal, running an obstacle course to catch a pass, and showing off their throwing accuracy.  Our yoyos, young and not as young, were up to the challenge, with some surprising even themselves with their skills.  All did themselves proud in this test of football prowess.

Able to score a hit even with eyes closed, Joe demonstrated his quarterback skills have not diminished.
When we finally made it to the second floor, more interactivity was waiting.  There the yoyos enjoyed being a virtual guest on ESPN's College Game Day and calling the play-by-play on famous events in college football.  And with the wonder of chip technology, all these activities were captured and stored as interactive takeaways, accessible with a simple login at the Hall's web site when the fan returns home.  The third floor enshrines the legends of the players and coaches who have broken records and established dynasties to become part of the fabric of college football lore.

After three hours, we finally dragged ourselves away from this exciting attraction and walked to nearby Centennial Park to check out the commemorative bricks placed there on the occasion of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.  Needless to say, none of the young boys had a brick, but the young men did, as did the parents of the yoyos.  For most, it was their first encounter with their Olympic legacy.

Checking out their bricks in Section 110
The lunch hour had come and gone by the time we left the park and there was no place more fitting and more quintessentially Atlantan than the Varsity.  Established in 1928, the Varsity covers two city blocks, earning it the title of the largest drive-in fast food restaurant in the world.  Moreover, it has long held the record for the highest annual retail Coca-Cola sales in the world. Paper hats of the type worn by Varsity employees are distributed to every customer, so after our greasy, cheesy meals, we had a great opportunity for a photo op Varsity style.

How much grease can ten guys consume?  The Varsity tried to find out.
Since we were so close to the Georgia Tech campus—a brief jaunt across the freeway—Joey suggested a stop at Bobby Dodd Stadium, located at historic Grant Field.  In addition to the football Steven had bought at the Hall of Fame gift shop, no self-respecting coach would be found without one in his car.  So we had plenty of pigskin to toss around.

Artificial turf let us stay off the newly sodded field and still toss the ball around in a college stadium.
Eager to avoid Atlanta's legendary rush hour, we all hotfooted it south to our hotel home in Peachtree City upon leaving Georgia Tech.  The hotel pool and Taco Mac awaited us, providing a welcome respite at the end of a busy day.  Steven's mom Kathy arrived Wednesday night just in time for tomorrow's Walking tour.

Thursday:  The Walking Dead

The compelling event of the trip began in the little town of Senoia (pop. 3,307) Thursday morning.  At 9 a.m., we met Melissa, a Michigan transplant and self-described Walking Dead geek, at the gazebo in town.  A few weeks ago, when we realized this yoyo trip was coming together, we walked into the Senoia Welcome Center one day, looking for information about tours in the town.  It was our lucky day because Melissa was volunteering in the center that day.  By the end of our conversation with her, we had hired this font of Walking Dead knowledge to design a custom tour and be our guide for the day.

Melissa points out a filming location.
As the fictional home of both "Woodbury" (season 3) and "Alexandria" (seasons 5 and 6), Senoia was filled with filming locations.  We took an hour-long walking tour of the town, during which our fans recognized spots where different events on the show had occurred, sometimes even before Melissa pointed them out.  One that resonated with the yoyos particularly was a place called the "pudding house," where Carl, a young boy of their age on the show, sat on the porch roof and ate from a can of pudding.

Yoyos at the pudding house-- (L to R) Grant, Carson, Alex, Steven and Andrew
When our tour of Senoia was complete, Melissa polled the guys to see whether they wanted to follow her tour as planned or head to the town of Hampton where active filming was occurring that day.  Oh, yeah, they went for the filming.  According to Melissa, there is a rather large contingent of "stalkers" who hang out near filming locations.  Hampton had its share that day, and we were happy to join in.

We had hired the car service that we take to the airport to drive us on our tour, and they came in a black Mercedes Sprinter van.  Conveniently, that was the very vehicle type that the production company was using to ferry stars around the filming site.  So when we arrived in the area, fans were poised outside our van when the doors opened, certain they were about to see some actors.  They seemed disappointed, but we were certainly amused.

We couldn't get close enough to see the action but did observe a lot of walkers moving around between sets.
It goes without saying that a tight perimeter had been set up around the area where the action was taking place.  After all, there wouldn't be much drama when the show airs next season if word leaked out about scenes that are being shot now.  The yoyos recognized a couple of major stars from quick glimpses as they moved from one set to another, and we saw a significant contingent of "walkers" (zombies, for the uninitiated).  Fortunately, none were interested in us, so after an hour of stalking, we moved on to our next destination in the tiny hamlet of Sharpsburg (pop. 341).

Hanging with the neighborhood zombies
Along our route, we stopped for a photo op at Southern Country Steakhouse & Saloon, whose front driveway hosts an aged truck used in Woodbury filming, complete with a few mannequin zombies.  As we were in transit to Sharpsburg, we pulled out our picnic lunches and got lunch out of the way.  In Sharpsburg, we visited the place where some significant events took place—at the "Carriage Bar" and "Steve's Pharmacy."

Joe and Grant in front of "Carriage Bar" (actually the Old Sharpsburg Auction building)
Next up was Grantville (pop. 3,041), an odd little village whose downtown is virtually deserted.  Like other small towns in Coweta County, Grantville once had a thriving economy based on the textile industry.  But after the industry declined and the town's last cotton mill closed in 1991, residents fled, storefronts emptied, and buildings began a slow decay that eventually gave the town a post-apocalyptic look that appealed to producers of The Walking Dead.  Grantville posed as Rick's hometown in one of the later episodes of the third season.

Ready to take on some walkers
By the time we left Grantville, it was almost 3 p.m. everyone was ready for a little break and a cold drink.  Our driver Ronald found us a McDonald's, and we all relished the icy beverages and chilled air.  Even though the weather was ten degrees "cooler" than the previous week, we were still dealing with upper 80s and a humidity level to match.

Woodbury Arena (a.k.a. water tank factory)
Before returning to Senoia, where our tour began, we had one more stop—the "Woodbury Arena," where a gladiator-style combat between brothers was ordered by the Governor in season 3.  Though it looks as if it might have been abandoned in the last century, this site housed a Caldwell Tanks factory manufacturing state of the art water tanks before it closed in 2013.

5 yoyos, 5 men and 1 terrific tour guide (Alex won the t-shirt in Melissa's Walking Dead trivia contest.)
Back in Senoia, we had a group photo with Melissa and thanked her for a great job before bidding her and our driver Ron goodbye and checking out the Walking Dead store and museum.  After some exploration and some purchasing, we headed back to Peachtree City for dinner at Mellow Mushroom, followed by a secret yoyo ceremony.

Secret Yoyo Ceremony
I would tell you what was in the ceremony, but I'm a yaya, so I was not invited, of course.  Suffice it to say, these dads and uncles knew what they were doing and took care of yoyo business.

Our Mississippi group (and Clint) had to return home tomorrow morning, but, hey, these dads had taken almost a week off work to make this yoyo trip happen.  Though we would miss them, we certainly couldn't complain.

Friday:  The Zippers

After we all had breakfast together at the Hilton Garden Inn, David and Myles and their boys packed up for home (Clint had left before dawn), and we headed off to a zip-lining adventure with Joe, Grant, Steven and Kathy.  Let the record show that—appreciating that this was a yoyo/guy trip— Kathy and I decided to take a step back and let the guys have the zipping glory.  (And, yes, there was also the fact that we are both height averse.)

When the yoyos first started talking about ziplining on Wednesday, we tried to figure out a way for everyone to participate.  But it just couldn't work out with the other things everyone wanted to do.  So when it was determined that we would pursue it Friday morning, we went for the nearest zipping facility, which just happened to be the "world's longest zipline," as certified by the folks at Guinness.  Ken, Joe, Grant and Steven opted for the two-hour canopy tour:  "Fly over 900 and 1000 foot-long zip lines at 200 feet high over the gorge. These are not baby ziplines! Get up close to Mother Nature with another 9 sky bridge walks that range up to 80 ft. in height. On this tour you will experience a total of 12 ziplines and up to10 sky bridges."

Suiting up to zip
As soon as they geared up for their zipline experience, the rain began to fall in earnest.  OK, it was pouring.  But we never saw these zippers waver.  They were ready for whatever the adventure brought.  And the photo above reveals who the ringleader was.

Traversing some slippery wet skybridges
Protected by our umbrella, Kathy and I hung with them until they climbed the first tower to begin their ziplining adventure, totally disregarding the dampness.  Two hours later, we reconnected with these valiant skywalkers, and oddly, they seemed none the worse for wear.

Our Zipper Heroes
At the end of the course, Joe and Grant had to depart for southwest Alabama, but we still had Steven and Kathy's company for another few hours.  In fact, we rather enjoyed the gradual nature of the goodbyes.  After dinner, Steven introduced us to the first episode of The Walking Dead—a brilliant idea that gave us another hour to enjoy with him and his mom.

Saturday morning, Kathy and Steven headed home and we returned to our regularly scheduled and sadly yoyo-less lives.  It had been a fantastic week with these awesome boys, their fathers, and their uncles.  We are eager to see the momentum continue.  Can't wait for the next adventure.  Yoyo!  Yoyo!  Yoyo!

More Yoyo Photos

The yoyo mojo begins
A little play-by-play at the Hall of Fame
Carson approaches
Game face!
Does Joe still have it?  (He does)
Registration at the Hall of Fame
Media Wall
David kicks
Grant Field group shot
Clint and Grant were wary of the walkers...
...but Joe seemed to want to make friends!
Alex and Steven were hedging their bets.
At the museum, Joe and Clint try to keep the walkers bottled up.
Hey, Mickey D!
Joe and Grant at the old cotton mill ruins in Grantville.
Alex checks out the museum.
Everywhere we went, it was all about Grant!

A Little Yoyo Football 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

End of the Maine Course

MAINE COURSE, DAYS 7-10:  Ellsworth, ME to Home

Wednesday, 24 June—Ellsworth to Portland

The sun shone brilliantly over a cloudless blue sky this morning as we finally left the Ellsworth/Acadia area at 7 a.m., driving west toward Augusta for a visit to the state capitol.  Just before 8, we recrossed the spectacular Penobscot Narrows Bridge and shortly stopped at Mt. Prospect Cemetery in Stockton Springs for our first letterbox of the day.

Penobscot Narrows Bridge
Continuing our letterboxing adventures into Searsport (pop. 2,615), we started at Bowditch Cemetery, the oldest in town.  We were on the hunt for a series of 14 letterboxes planted by local boxer Jiffy.  Next up was Elmwood Cemetery for two boxes, then an interruption for a trio of boxes not in the series.  Then we moved on to Village Cemetery, where we snagged two more but skipped two that were well guarded by poison ivy.

Moving on to Mount Hope Cemetery, we located three more.  At the time we arrived at the small Gordon Cemetery, the final graveyard, for the last three boxes in the series, preparations were underway for an interment.  With a single entrance/exit and no designated space for parking, there was a good chance we would be trapped until the end of the service if we stayed to find the boxes.  So we left and drove back to US-1.

Another Searsport captain lost to the sea
In every Searsport cemetery we visited, we noticed an unusual number of sea captains, as noted by the inscription "Capt." or "Died at Sea."  As we later learned, Searsport produced more shipmasters than any town of its size in the world, and was once home to one-tenth of the deepwater ship’s captains in the American Merchant Marine.

Connected Farm
On our way out of Searsport, we passed a connected farm along the highway that was for sale.  Featuring a big house, a little house, a back house and a barn, this type of architecture dominated rural Maine dwellings before 1900, and we had seen quite a few on our travels in the state.  With all the buildings linked, a farmer could go from house to shed to barn and complete all his daily chores without setting foot outside, a big advantage on a stormy day or in extreme cold.

Driving south on US-1, we tracked near the coast until we reached Belfast (pop. 6,660), a seaport popular with tourists, where we paused to check out the town and have lunch.  Our first choice from Yelp wasn't open today, which turned out to our advantage when we ended up at Darby's Restaurant and Pub.  Perfectly situated in an 1865 building that originated as a pub, Darby's boasts the same walls, tin ceiling and antique bar that were installed the year the Civil War ended.  I ordered their zucchini sliders—seasoned grilled zucchini slices with fresh mozzarella, bean sprouts, tomato and fresh basil mayo.  Delicious!  Ken had blackened salmon salad with beets and spinach—also excellent.

Darby's historic interior
From Belfast, we turned inland on ME-3 toward Augusta.  The temperature seemed to climb as we moved inland away from the coastal breezes.  After visiting the state capitol, we drove on to the Portland area and checked into a Homewood Suites for the next few days, happy to have a little extra elbow room.

Thursday, 25 June—Portland

When we left the hotel around 9 a.m. Thursday morning, the temperature was already at 72°, a preview of what is to come as we make our way back south.  But the sun was shining and the letterboxes waiting, so we set out down US-1 after stopping by the local Michael's to re-supply our ink.

Though we never could identify the species, we saw massive pines like this in several cemeteries.
We found some boxes in the Scarborough area in the morning—around the Eastern Trail and in some local cemeteries.  Local boxers are inclined to plant series—six to ten or even 20 boxes.  And the Portland area seems to be a boxing hotbed.  We found 14 letterboxes in the morning before stopping for what turned out to be a dismal lunch at Taco Trio in South Portland (who is rating them so high on Yelp?).

The afternoon turned in a better direction.  We started with a Tour the Fort series of six letterboxes around Fort Preble in South Portland—good carves, great background information, and well hidden.  Nearby was the campus of Southern Maine Community College, where Jiffy had stashed a series of 17 boxes related to the school's courses of study.  Finally, a series of five on a coastal trail in the area portrayed the options in the selection of a wedding dress.

Remains of Fort Preble
By the time we found the last box, we had amassed a total of 35 finds for the day while walking almost seven miles.  Glad that Homewood was offering its complimentary weeknight light meal, we dragged ourselves back to the hotel, ate dinner, and made plans for Friday, our last full day of the trip.

Friday, 26 June—Portland

In another episode to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, I managed to pull a crown off one of my molars while flossing my teeth Thursday night.  First I booked a restoration appointment with my dentist back in Georgia for Tuesday morning.  Then the interim plan for dealing with the issue until Tuesday was in play.

Plan A.  Go to CVS for some temporary dental cement to re-seat the crown.  
An hour after I started working on it, the crown was still in my hand and I had a new appreciation for the delicacy and precision of dentistry.  No matter how little of the product I inserted in the crown, it was too much and the crown would bang against my lower teeth long before the others made contact.

Plan B:  Find a local dentist to re-seat the crown.
Seventeen phone calls later, I figured this was not going to happen.  Most offices were closed or the dentist was off on Friday.  Others were booked solid.  

Plan C:  Re-seat the crown with Vaseline.
Yes, you read that rightVaseline.  After my abject failure with plans A and B, I called my dentist's office back for advice.  Should I just leave it out for three days?  The dental assistant I spoke with suggested cleaning and drying the crown well, filling it with Vaseline and putting it back in place.  Skeptically, I followed her directions precisely.  It worked!  (She also gave me a plan D in case I needed it...Fixodent denture adhesive.)

Finally with the crown back in its home, we left the hotel a little after noon and drove to Fort Williams Park.  Situated in Cape Elizabeth, the park is a popular tourist attraction, primarily because of Portland Head Light standing on its grounds.  Often cited as the most photographed lighthouse in the world, Portland Head Light was commissioned in the late 1700s by George Washington and is still operational today.

And the photogenic lighthouse award goes to...
We found three letterboxes along the hiking trails in the park and stopped to chat with Eric, a local resident who was tossing a tennis ball for his terrier Charlie to retrieve.  Later we followed his recommendation to drive to Higgins Beach and Prouts Neck for some scenic views, finding one more letterbox along the way.

With a 5:45 a.m. flight the next morning, we bagged the day early and returned to the hotel to unload the car.  Not wanting to deal with leaving enough time to return the rental car before that early flight, we drove it to the airport and made arrangements for Francisco, the driver of the hotel shuttle, to pick us up and return us to the Homewood.  A native of Angola, Francisco has been in the U.S. just three years.  He arrived speaking almost no English, just French and Portuguese.  With experience as a taxi driver in Angola, he was able to obtain work fairly readily in Portland.  But he said he finds the American accent quite difficult to understand since what little English he did know was learned from speakers of British English.

Located on the other side of the parking lot from the Homewood, Sebago's brewpub was an obvious choice for an early dinner since we no longer had wheels.  While we were there, we heard from cousin Pam that a couple of osprey chicks on Hog Island, Maine, had been snatched by an eagle.  We have been following this nest by webcam for a couple of years after Uncle Joe (Pam's dad) introduced us to it via his friend from Maine.  We had hoped to visit the site while here but it didn't work out.  Sad about the loss but knowing that it was just nature taking its course, we returned to our room, packed up and set our alarms for 3 a.m.

Saturday, 27 June—Portland to Home

Though our flight was booked for 5:45, it was on United, so we didn't expect to leave Portland until eight or later.  They surprised us.  The flight left a few minutes early and landed at Dulles in Washington, D.C. 14 minutes before the scheduled arrival time.  Then to really keep us confused, the flight to Atlanta departed on time and also touched down a few minutes early.  Just when we thought we had United figured out, they try to lull us into a false sense of security.

The moment we stepped out the terminal door for our ride home, we were assailed by the heat and humidity.  Not that we weren't expecting it, but it still provided a rude reminder that our Maine course was over.  And this felt more like desert than dessert.
Trip Stats:
  • Miles driven:  992
  • Air miles:  2,076 
  • Weather:  46° to 78°, sunny to rainy
  • Letterboxes found:  69
  • Lighthouses:  12
  • Bumpy miles of Maine roads:  988
  • National parks:  1
  • International parks:  1
  • Scenic views:  236
  • Sailboats:  6,130
  • Rocky shorelines: 875 

More Photos

In a park next to the Penobscot Narrows, a sample section of the bridge
Darby's might be an old restaurant, but they get new technology needs.
Spring Point Ledge lighthouse
Another view of the Portland Head Light
And another
Daisies decorate the Cliff Walk at Fort Williams Park.
A Drive on Maine Streets

A Drive on Maine Streets 

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