Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Wandering Minstrel, I

Last Friday, I flew down to Florida to retrieve the old car we left down there for the winter to avoid the ridiculous rental car fees.  Unlike my husband, who is inclined to glue his butt to the driver's seat and drive non-stop to his final destination -- I prefer the scenic route.  After I landed in Orlando, I picked up the car and drove an hour and a half to Crystal River, Florida and checked in at an inexpensive hotel. 

Some of you may know that Crystal River is the product of about 300 hot springs that flow ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico.  Even in February, the water temperature is in the low 70s and here lies the crux of my tale.  As warm-blooded animals most closely related to the elephant, manatees don't like their water any colder than 68 degrees, so they congregate in the winter at Crystal River to enjoy the warm springs.  Where the manatees go, people follow, and in a unique and rare opportunity -- and under carefully monitored conditions -- you are allowed to actually swim with the manatees and interact with this endangered species.  It's so COOL!  

Here I am in my wet suit
I donned a wet suit and was given a snorkel and a whole boatload of us took the 10 minute trip up the Crystal River to where the "Three Sisters" springs enter the river.  I had done this tour before about 10 years ago, so I was prepared with a disposable underwater camera.  I didn't get any great pictures, but I did get to pet the manatees.  Four of them approached me at one point and one of them had his face about a foot from mine.  They allowed me to pet them and scratch their backs.  On my trip 10 years ago, one of the manatees even rolled over and wanted me to rub his belly.  It's amazing that such a large endangered wild animal is so curious and gentle with humans.  It was a wonderful experience.  

Lots of humans in the water looking for manatees

The Crystal River is aptly named -- very clear water
A manatee passes under me
Two manatees swim by
I swam up a narrow channel with very strong current to reach the source of the springs.  The narrow channel opened out into a small bay with amazingly clear water and you could see the warm water bubbling up from deep holes in the bottom.  It was an idyllic place. 

We had a cold wet ride back to the dock and it was great to get back in dry clothes.  I dropped off my camera at Walgreens to be developed and checked out the local thrift shops for an hour or so.  Then I hopped in the car and headed up the road to my next stop:  Stone Mountain, Georgia, near Atlanta. 

When I was a child, we went to Stone Mountain several times and camped out.  It was a very happy memory.  I can't believe I've never taken my girls there.  Visiting as an adult and having been to Ayres Rock in Australia, I was amazed at how similar the two huge rocks are.  There are at least two different ways to enjoy Stone Mountain.  First, it's a natural wonder -- a huge granite boulder with a circumference of five miles.  It's also surrounded by acres and acres of parkland with paved walking trails and enormous old growth pine forest.  It's lovely. 

The second and, to me, less attractive focus is Stone Mountain as a Civil War Memorial.  In the face of the granite a huge carving has been made of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, all on horseback. Although the carving is actually much bigger than Mount Rushmore, it looks miniscule on the face of the huge granite boulder.  In my opinion, it mars the natural beauty of the stone.   Nevertheless, I couldn't help but be inspired by the story of Helen Plane, the confederate widow who set the memorial in motion. 

"Helen Plane was born into an affluent family, received a college education and married an attorney with a prominent career.  She inherited plantations and enjoyed the status of wealth and privilege afforded the planter class.  But by the middle of the Civil War, she was a widow, raising her infant son and her half-brother's two orphaned children.  She kept three plantations operating.  She contributed to the war effort by making clothes for her husband's infantry company and selling handmade shawls to raise money for the troops.  She wrote of this time:  ' Think of a woman as patriot, planter, manager, financier, treasurer, druggist, chemist, doctor, florist, spiritual comforter, teacher, muse, seamstress, weaver, shoe-maker, and sometimes artist and musician, all at once, and you have a true picture of a Southern woman on a plantation during the war.'"  

Helen's husband, William, was shot in the chest as he attempted to pull a wounded soldier out of the line of fire. He was taken to a makeshift hospital at a farmhouse and wrote one last note to his wife:
After the war, Helen moved to Atlanta and spent her time lobbying for a war memorial dedicated to preserving the memory of the confederate soldiers who died.  And she succeeded.  
 It's a story of love and bravery and fortitude.  And, frankly, I think William got the better deal.  Helen was left alone to rebuild her world and support three children.  

After going through the museum and walking around the grounds a little, I rode the skylift up to the top of the mountain.  Unlike Ayres Rock, which is deemed sacred so people aren't supposed to touch it, Stone Mountain has always been a tourist attraction.  The top of it looks like the surface of the moon and it's pocked with shallow depressions that fill with water and support small ecosystems.  The view is lovely and you can easily see the Atlanta skyline in the distance. 

The surface of the moon?

The Atlanta skyline
These kids made up their own game

A pool of water on top of the mountain

After spending the day hiking around the park, I hopped back in the car and headed for Danville, Ky.  I had received a call from Kate.  Surprise!  She has mono.  I spent the night in Danville, checked in with the campus infirmary, spoke with the dean of student affairs, and scooped Kate up and brought her home.  Back to the real world.  My wandering days are over for the time being.  But I had a great time.