Monday, October 30, 2006

The Snowbirds Have Arrived - Day 4

'The Kids' had taken 2 days off work to spend time with us and we went across to their house shortly after noon. It was my first visit and as I'm a cat person, I loved that they had 2 of the little critters.

This is Delilah and she was quite friendly - after the usual period of waryness that comes with most cats when they meet someone new.

I go down on the floor when meeting cats as it's less intimidating to them. I also never make sudden movements towards them and slowly put out one hand so they can sniff it. Even then I let them move away and invariably they'll turn around and, with the inquisitiveness that cats have, they'll want to come back to you and allow you to pet them.

I'm no animal behaviourist but I did have my own cat for 17 years. This technique works for me and in no time, Delilah was purring gently and enjoying being stroked. Sadly it doesn't work for ALL females !!

Their other cat, Chester, was one of those timid felines that needs a LOT more persuasion to come and be friendly with strangers. He started off hiding in a bedroom closet and wouldn't come out for anything. I kept going in and talking to him and after a while he'd come to the closet door and peek out - but any noise or movement would have him scuttling back inside.

By the time we left, he was as you see him in this photo - out on the living room floor and totally happy with being approached and petted.

There is a good reason why the photo of Delilah looks natural (colour I mean) and the photo of Chester looks like a sepia print.

I quickly realised that I couldn't use the on board flash when trying to get up close shots of the cats. Their eyes are just too big and reflective. Someone should make use of this feature and design something clever like, oh I donno.........cats eyes !!!

Anyway, I had to turn off the flash to get decent photos and with Delilah being by far the more friendly cat, I got her photos taken early in the afternoon with plenty of natural light coming in to the room. By the time Chester came out of the closet, so to speak, it was 7pm and the living room lights were on and so they affected the shots. I should have used the white balance settings to compensate but hey, I was, and am, still learning.

We had a lovely time and I even tried a new meal for me - gumbo. It wouldn't be on my Top 10 fav foods list but then I am kinda picky.

After supper we headed back to our campsite and we arranged to meet with the kids the next day for some shopping and a couple of meals. The location for the first of those meals was 'interesting' to say the least and another first for me................................

The Snowbirds Have Arrived - Day 3

Talk about one extreme to another ! After the long day driving yesterday (21st), we only had a short few miles into Greensboro and to the campground.

It only took a half hour or so to set up and open out the 5th wheel for the first time since leaving Houghton Lake. With the truck released from it's towing responsibilities, we were free to go shopping and dining and we just relaxed for our first night in Greensboro. We rang and made arrangements to visit with my friends eldest son and his wife who had made the move from Michigan to North Carolina a few months previously and had prompted this stop off for us on the way to Florida and our winter campground.

The campground had only the basic facilities like water and sewer so we were concerned that we'd miss our Sunday tv shows - and especially The Amazing Race which we all love. But with the 5th Wheel's aerial raised, we got a very acceptable CBS picture and so we settled in for the night and watched tv. Not the most exciting of days and so not the most exciting of posts.

The Snowbirds Have Arrived - Day 2

We left our rest area early on Sat (21st) as after all, we'd little else to do after waking up. Personally it wasn't my best night of sleep ever and I was relieved to be upright again and able to move my limbs before rigor mortis set in.

Ohio isn't the most beautiful state in the union by any means but it had something Florida will never have - Fall colours !! If you have a long drive ahead of you, as we did, then it's good to have something pretty rto look at out the windows.

I had the (new) camera with me in the back seat of the truck and would snap pics from time to time as we went along. Taking photos when zooming along at 70mph isn't easy so most of them don't stand close inspection - but they still serve to remind me of the trip and after all, aren't memories what photos are all about ???

I guess if I'm being honest, I was wanting to come upon something 'exciting' like a large accident (with no one injured of course but with a few vehicles piled up) or a gun totting trooper approaching a motorist at the end of a long chase or even some critter crossing the road and coming to a sticky end under the wheels of the vehicle in front of us. I know......I'm one sick puppy.

So I'd sit for hours on end with camera and zoom lens at the ready - all set to get my award winning shot out the truck window. Sadly nothing much happened and the best I got was this shot of a group of police vehicles doing heavens-knows-what.

Probably the cops were stopped for an exchange of Krispy Kremes or Twinkies and hot coffee.

The plan was to drive south through Ohio and get well into West Virginia before finding a motel for the night close enough to our destination in Greensboro to make it a short drive to get there on Sunday. Why get a motel when we had a 5th Wheel ? A good question. Well we needed a night with mains power as we didn't want to sleep as we did last night - me all squished up in the unopened trailer and Deb/Den having to get into a bed with no room down the sides and stuff heaped on top of it. It was just cheaper and simpler to get a motel.

That was the plan - but events conspired against us. First of all in southern West Virginia, just as we started looking for a motel, we discovered there was a huge event taking place called Bridge Day and this brings in over 200,000 visitors every year and so every room within 100 miles of our route was booked. We drove on.

As a little aside, some of the scenery WAS quite pretty and almost spectacular but America has such awesome scenery that you tend to get a bit spoiled by the really 'good stuff'.

Even scenery from the interstates can fall into the 'good stuff' category and I've often wished I wasn't driving so that I could take photos. Now that I'm not the driver on these long trips, I can take photos but on this trip down to Florida, there really isn't that much to get excited about.

I continued to use the trip to get used to my new camera and zoom lens so that when the time came, I'd be ready to take THE photo I've always wanted to take.

Anyway, in Virginia, we found there was some NASCAR event taking place in a town near to our route,so again, every motel was full. We drove on.

It was getting late and we were now faced with entering North Carolina and being only a few miles from Greensboro. If we'd thought we'd have had this problem getting a room, we'd have just driven straight to our campsite in Greensboro and paid for arriving one night early. But we knew it closed it's gates at 8pm and we'd left it too late for THAT option.

We finally found a motel about 15 miles from Greensboro that was charging over $100 for a crappy room as it knew rooms were in short supply. We took it and fell into bed for the second night when we didn't really care how comfortable we'd be as long as we could get some hours of sleep.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Snowbirds Have Arrived - Day 1

It's been almost 3 weeks since my post (ok that sounds WAY too much like a Catholic confessional opening) but we've been busy and on the road.

I'll try and create a post for individual days since we left Michigan on 20th but with my limited memory, that might not be possible.

So back to Friday 20th and although we did our best to pack everything, including the kitchen sink, into the 5th wheel the day/night before, we still had a load to do that morning before leaving. Every possible space was filled with every possible item from the house and as things hadn't been fully downsized yet, there was plenty to take. I'll be flying back to the UK from Florida in January so I 'just' had to take ALL my stuff with me as I'd not be back in Houghton Lake again.

With a groaning and stuffed 5th wheel all hitched up, we set off around noon time and went ..........a mile down the road and pulled into a local restaurant !! Well, no point in overdoing things.

After a lovely brunch we REALLY set off and by night time we were out of Michigan and well onto the Ohio interstate. We stopped at a rest area on the toll section of I-80 and as we'd no mains power, the 5th wheel sides couldn't go out and so I had a tiny (and I mean tiny) space to try and go to sleep in. If I say that the sleeping bag didn't even have space to be laid out, you'll get the idea. There was definitely no room for even a partially inflated airbed so the padded sleeping bag was all I had to take me off the floor. It was fine and ok for one night. I lay on my back with arms pinned to my sides like some sort of living corpse - I actually thought back to those caskets I saw in Costco and realised there was way more room in them than I was getting in the closed up 5th wheel.

Day one was over and it was a case of so far, so good.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Spot On Weekend

We went downstate again last weekend to meet up with a few people before we head off to Florida for the winter. Sounds good, huh ?? As I may have said before, I'm only going for 3 months as that'll be my 6 months in America taken care of for this year.

The weather has taken a chilly turn for the worst here in mid Michigan so we're ready and raring to get going. We'll be leaving in 11 days time and not a moment too soon. I'm not sure what this global warming business is all about but it seems to have bypassed Michigan. I remember a couple of years ago coming here and playing golf in a t-shirt and shorts in the 2nd week of November (ok so I was getting odd looks from other golfers as we passed them with mutterings of 'there goes that mad Brit') but my t-shirts are only for indoor use right now.

There are many things to get sorted before we leave and I'm seeing first hand what is involved in winterising a house in an area which can get snowbound for months at a time. And I thought I had it hard enough coming here - all I do is turn off the water and drain the tanks and pipes by leaving the taps open for a few minutes. Easy peasy.

Anyway back to the weekend. Part of our 'wish list' was to visit with people that my friends will not see again till next April. One of these friends lives in Flint and so when we decided to go camping in the area and meet up with her on the Sunday, we also suggested that on the Saturday, we arrange a picnic in the same state park for a group of wonderful friends we've all made over the past year on the Weight Watchers site.

Hoping that I get all the names right, here is a group photo of those that met up. Along the back from left to right we have Barbara, Judy, Jacquie and her son Sean, Angela, Jenny, Laura, Rosanna and Debby.

Right at the front is Linda who as (self) proclaimed queen of the pack, just had to have a chair (throne) and a sparkling tiara (crown) although the bottle of wine was more in keeping with Princess Margaret than Queen Liz 11.

We had a great day and, as can be seen by the causal attire, the weather was awesome. We all talk online and so it was a treat to finally put faces to the names.

The next day we went the few miles up the road to visit with Deb's old school friend, Elaine. We'd arranged to meet up at her church as she sings in the choir and what a choir it was !! I love a good choir and don't often get to listen to one. It was also an opportunity to experience another Christian denomination and this was at a Resurrection Reformed Church. It was a huge impressive building with many rooms and meeting places and the main 'worship area' was very spartan compared to anything I'd experienced growing up as a Catholic. There was a banner on one wall and a large wooden cross on another wall and that was it.

The greetings were warm and very friendly and I really enjoyed the service. But the choir singing was the best part of all and I wish I could be there at Christmas time as the carol singing, assuming they do it, would be awesome.

I had another 'first' after that. We all went out to a local eatery called Logans and I highly recommend it. If you feel crunching noises under your feet as you get to your table, don't think the place is a mess - they have large tin 'baskets' of peanuts on every table and customers are encouraged to toss the shells on the floor. Different !

So what was 'the first' ?? Well for the first time ever, I ordered salmon in a restaurant. I know that's not earthshattering to most people but up until this last year, I'd never even eaten salmon, never mind liked it. Is was fish and I just don't 'do' fish. After my heart attack last year, I really wanted to get in my oily fish for their Omega 3 properties but couldn't face those tiny sardines and mackerel and so on. I decided to give salmon a try and wow........what had I been missing all these years ???!!!!! I now have salmon a lot at home but had still to order it when out eating - being the meat lover that I am. Yesterday I decided to go for it and had it with a baken spud and salad - almost a healthy meal for a change.

Well it was delicious and much better than anything I'd prepared myself so now I'm hooked on salmon (little fishing juxtaposition there) and will order it a lot more in future.

We'd booked 3 nights but when we got back from visiting with Elaine we decided there was no point in sitting in the trailer watching tv and then getting up in the morning to drive home - so we packed up and went home on Sunday at 5pm and had a lovely trip back upstate.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Steak & Storms

What a strange day it was. We woke up to blue skies and this lovely Fall weather lasted till about 11pm. At one point we all sat outside as the temps reached the mid 70's. We fancied a treat after a day of moving chairs to and from the 5th wheel, planting flowers for next year in the front and back yards and, in my case, getting out on the bike for some much needed exercise. So we decided to eat out for supper and headed off to our very favourite restaurant when we are able to push out the proverbial boat.........The Willow Tree in nearby West Branch. I have to assume their web site is still being created as little is in place after the main homepage.

I'd been wanting a good steak for some time and so when I was told that a porterhouse was on the daily specials menu, that was enough for me. It was the perfect way to spend an evening with excellent wine, fabulous food and wonderful company.

We got back home about 9:30pm and settled down with bulging waistlines to watch some tv. The shows kept getting interrupted by storm alerts so we knew they were headed this way - and sure enough the thunder/lightning started about 11pm and was a visual treat for many hours.

I decided to see if I'd learned enough about using my new camera to capture lightning images and so I headed outside to give it a try. I set up the tripod and attached the camera and with torch in hand, I attempted to read the manual and also use my 35 or so years of experience in photography. Nature wasn't helping as it was what we in the UK call 'sheet lightning' and not the more spectacular forked variety. All this did was light up the whole viewing area and so my photos just looked like the brightness was generated by the street lights. Only I will know that when it wasn't lit up by the lightning flashes, it was as dark as the insides of a Scotsman's wallet. I'm learning that a lot of photography is like that - only the photographer ever knows what it took to get the image.

Anyway, the best result is below and shows my point..........................

I'm glad the house has a porch as it was raining like crazy and I couldn't have gone outside without being protected by it's roof. As it was, I still felt the rain spray up on me from time to time and I called it a night, or more accurately a morning, after I saw the rain flares on the lens.

I'd really hoped some cars would've driven down the road while the shutter was open for the 60 seconds that it took to get this image as they would've created lines of colour from their tail lights, but it was 2am and this area is pretty dead by then.

I wanted to get this posted before going to bed but as usual the image was too large for upload purposes and I was too tired right then to mess with resizing it. I saved the text and have just now resized the photo and that's us up to date - 11:44am on Wed 4th.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Up From Down South

You could tell I wrote the previous post on location (in a hotel room) and in a hurry as it was only after I'd published it that I noticed several spelling mistakes and other typos in it - not up to my usual standards at all.

In my defence, not only was I being hurried so we could go out to eat, but the laptop was on battery and giving out serious warnings and dire threats that if it wasn't given a lifesaving 110 volts of juice pretty quickly, then it would explode or self destruct or some such nonsence.

I guess I buckled under this extreme pressure !!

Anywho, we had a fabby time and made it back safely late on Monday. Before I go on, here are 2 photos I snapped out the truck window on the way down and I was pretty pleased with them both - considering I had the new camera in one hand and the manual in the other. It sure takes a bit of getting used to compared to the much simpler Canon G2 I had before.

This 'hells angel' blasted past us and I used the camera's excellent servo focus feature to keep him in focus and get him pretty sharp despite the speed we were both going at.

I wanted the background to be a blur to show this speed but I hadn't got to that page in the manual !

Sadly it's captured the image so 'well' that it looks like he's stationary at traffic lights. You only have my word that we were going at 72mph and he was still overtaking us. Honest.

The next photo has been given a bit of an edit using Photoshop. I was really just messing with it as I didn't even want to keep it at all - but again I was pretty pleased with the sharpness considering our speed and anyway, it WAS a nice looking church.

We were just heading into some awful weather and the clouds soon blotted out the previously blue skies. It went as dark as night and the rain bounced off the road like wet bouncy stuff.

Then as we approached Grand Rapids it suddenly stopped raining, the sun came out and we came upon bone dry roads. We were able to unload our belongings into the hotel under a glorious warm sun and so began our weekend there.

Sunday was an even better day, weatherwise, and we shopped and ate and shopped some more.
One place we wanted to go to was Costco as I'm a member back home in the UK. My card caused a bit of confusion and could not be recognised by their system even though it has worldwide use AND their system is set up to access UK memberships. When queried, it kept saying 'SYSTEM BUSY' and never showed anything else the whole time we were there. As this had happened in Canada too, I have to assume 'SYSTEM BUSY' is Costco-speak for 'WE HAVE NO IDEA ABOUT YOU JOHNNY FOREIGNERS BUT WE'LL GLADLY TAKE YOUR $$$$'S ANYWAY'

This was all happening at the Customer Service desk and after being assured that we could shop till we dropped and that we'd have no problems at the checkout, we passed into the warehouse.

I immediately came to a row of little booths set up for special services and products - we have them in the UK stores too. There was a carpet area with a few carpet samples to look at, a tyre section with lists of the tyres sold by Costco.......but the one which really stopped me in my tracks was the one offering deals on coffins, or caskets as they are called here. I'd heard of one stop shopping but this took the prize.

Yes, dear readers, caskets. They even had corner pieces on display so potential buyers could see the quality, colour and craftsmanship of the units. No doubt about it, American caskets put our British coffins to shame. Many a homeless person would be more than happy to climb into one of these beauties every night as the luxury has to be seen to be believed. Talk about a right royal send off ! Seems a shame to send it 6 feet down to be recycled into pulp again.

I was all for going back to the truck to get my camera but I decided they might object to me taking piccies of such delicate and sensitive products - so I did the next best thing and picked up a brochure and later I took photos of a couple of the casket offers in this brochure.

I'm not sure how they decided on the names for these caskets or indeed why they felt that names were necessary in the first place.

I think I'd have been satisfied buying a 'black metalic effect casket with ornate siding and luxurious trim' without the need to refer to it by a name made infamous by Monty Python. I wondered if their naming department really did have such a wacky sence of humour.

In any case (or casket), it was a very nice vehicle for leaving this earthly domain and at a cent under $1100, I felt it was a steal.

There were several others but I've only included one more here - just to show that the previously mentioned naming department must've decided that a Brian was enough and even they didn't see the need to develop a Fred, Barney or Bambam. Praise the Lord.

Speaking of Him, I think this model below offers excellent value for money.

Not only has it been given a perfectly reasonable name (well for Christians anyway) but it even has the name embossed inside the lid in case the dearly departed 'comes to' a few months later and is DYING to know the name of his casket. Sick I know. I'd throw in the invoice to give him something to read, but that's just me.

For $800, I was tempted to get one myself but I didn't fancy getting it back home. You know what these new carry on regulations are like - no liquids, no nailclippers, no caskets. It'd be just too much hassle.

But we bought a few items and passed through the checkout with no problems. My membership card didn't register of course but they had been warned I was coming and unlike Eddie Murphy at a KKK meeting, I was warmly greeted and made to feel special.

On Monday we shopped a bit more but again the weather was terrible and the thunder and lightning were worthy of the end of the world. At noon it was like midnight and the roads were like lakes. Once we left the city, we saw blue skies ahead and for most of the drive home we were blessed with glorious sunshine.

A lovely end to the weekend.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Down South

I'm on location again.....this time using the wi-fi connection in the Grand Rapids Hilton in sunny downstate Michigan.

We drove down yesterday and had to 'endure' horrendous rain showers and generally nasty weather and as we approached Grand Rapids, it all stopped suddenly and we came to totally dry roads as if it had never rained here at all. Probably hadn't.

Anyway we are on a combined shopping and meeting-my-friends-kids trip. Well 2 of the kids and one wife to be precise. We shopped a bit last evening and ate at the nearby Outback - gotta love those No Rules burgers. They'll be the death of me.......literally.

This morning we slept in and are about to leave to lunch with one of the kids and his wife at a Cracker Barrel. Ok I know none of this is exactly exciting stuff but I like the idea of posting from a hotel room even though there is sod all to post about. In any case, I just know that visitors to this blog from far off places will be fascinated by my location ramblings !!!

I did bring my new camera (Canon Rebel XTi) as I played with it on the trip down taking.........well cars on the other side of the road ! no deer, no accidents, no police stops. Just cars. Well if nothing else I got to practice taking action shots. I didn't bring the download cable so the world isn't going to be able to share these stunning photos. Who said, just as well ??? Philistines.

It's a glorious morning with hardly a cloud in the sky - so different from yesterday. After lunch we're going to Costco and I'll see if my UK membership card works here. It's supposed to. we might go see 'Open Season' later too as we love those silly animated movies. we're simple folk !!

The battery low alarm has gone so gotta go.

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