A Drive from Florida to Utah

This post is slightly different from the norm usually found on this blog. While not wholly about an outdoor adventure along a trail or out in the backcountry, this trip did feature visits to some natural settings and landscapes with an abundance of wildlife and a gorgeous cave. However, it also included a lot of history and other sight-seeing stops throughout western and central Florida and across much of the country. I wanted to document it all just the same...

At the end of this last December, my wife, Jessica, and I flew down to Florida to take care of some family business and followed by a long drive back home to Utah.  My grandmother passed away a few months ago and unfortunately, my mother, who was an only child, had also passed away a few years prior, after a long battle with cancer.  So, as the oldest among my siblings, I took it upon myself to represent them and fly down to assess and retrieve many of my grandmother's possessions, mostly family heirloom items, for my siblings and I to divide up and share among each other.  Through the trip, Jess and I would also celebrate our twelve year wedding anniversary by taking advantage of some time to visit some Florida gulf beaches, a state park, and then a cave, and several other stops along the way back home.  Due to costs and logistics, we had to leave our kids behind who stayed back home with Jessica's parents.

- Day 1 -
Monday - December 26, 2016

Our destination was Fort Myers, Florida.  My late maternal grandfather (William "Buddy" Wade) who passed away during my childhood and now my late grandmother (Georgia) had made North Fort Myers their home to live out their retirement.  My great grandmother, that is, my grandmother's mother, had also lived in a home in their community before she passed on several years ago in my youth.  In addition, my grandfather's late brother (Eddie) and his surviving wife, Stella, also had a home in the same community.  So that leaves my great aunt, Stella, the only surviving member of my mother's family, if only by marriage, beyond my siblings and myself and our respective families at the present time.

To maximize our time without giving up time with our family on Christmas, we chose to secure a red-eye flight that would depart Salt Lake City just after midnight and ultimately land us in Fort Myers after 9 AM local time.  En route, we'd have a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Charlotte Skyline

From Charlotte to Fort Myers, we'd fly right over Disney World.  The Magic Kingdom with it's iconic Cinderella's Castle was veiled beneath a cloud, unfortunately, however it's neighboring park, Epcot Center, was clearly visible with it's iconic Spaceship Earth.

Epcot Center at Walt Disney World

Once landed at Fort Myers, we picked up our minivan rental.  We rented a minivan in order to load it up with the possessions from my grandmother's home that we would be taking back home to Utah with us.  With the rental, we drove out to nearby Marco Island and its beach and spent the better part of the day shelling.  It was incredible to think that not 24 hours before, I was shoveling 6 inches of fresh snow off my driveway followed by some time spent out in my backyard with my kids trying to build an igloo.  Now Jessica and I would get to enjoy sunny skies with temperatures in the low 80's and build a sand castle.

Marco Island Shells

Our sand castle

Gulf of Mexico at Marco Island Beach

Marco Island Beach

I plan to do another post with more pictures exclusively on our Marco Island visit.  From Marco Island we made the drive up to North Fort Myers where we got settled into our hotel and then went back outside to check out the waterfront along the Caloosahatchee River that ran right behind the hotel.  There, we met up with my great aunt, Stella, and my grandmother's good friend Margel and her husband, Terry to enjoy a nice seafood dinner at the on-site restaurant.

Waterfront outside our hotel

Needless to say, after an early AM flight, some fun in the sun, and a hearty dinner, we were exhausted.  It had been a very long day.

- Day 2 -
Tuesday - December 27, 2016

Some of our kids were eager for us to try and find some shark teeth when they found out that would be a possibility, so on Tuesday, we made an hour long drive up to the north and found a beach along Manasota Key to pull out and hunt down some shark teeth.  After about an hour or so of scooping and sifting through the sand where the surf hit the land, we ended up coming away with over 30 fossilized shark teeth.

Blind Pass Beach on Manasota Key

Blind Pass Beach on Manasota Key

Shark teeth and other small shells

It would have been fun to spend more time there but we were not just in Florida to have fun and do vacation activities.  We needed to get back so we could spend the afternoon at my grandmother's home, retrieving the possessions we'd be taking home with us.  But before that, we'd stop back at our hotel to shower up and then go out to lunch.  We chose a nice little British themed fish and chips shop.

Fish and Chips

Jess getting ready to dig in

From there, we finally made it over to my grandmother's home where we again met up with my Aunt Stella, Margel, Terry, and this time, a man hired to assist in the administration of my grandmother's trust.  

My grandmother's home was a place my family and I would visit a few times each year, including every Christmas, for several years, when I was a young child.  We were able to visit often then because we lived within a day's drive in Biloxi, Mississippi for a few years followed by a few years living much closer in Tampa, Florida.  Since moving away from Florida near the end of my grade school years, I was not able to return to Florida until nearly 9 years ago when I had flown Jessica and our oldest daughter, Willow, out here when she was just a few months old.  After that it wasn't until a few months ago when my brother and I flew out to say our goodbyes to my grandmother shortly before she passed.  At any rate, childhood memories flooded my mind as we toured the home and evaluated the possessions we wanted to take home with us.  

I slept out in this porch many times as a child.

I ate many breakfasts and lunches at this table as a child.

Jessica, my Aunt Stella, and me

After spending the better part of the afternoon at my grandmother's home assisting with a bit of clean up and loading up the van, Jess and I returned to our hotel to get in a swim before the daylight expired.  It was a thrill to swim outside in late December, something I hadn't been able to do since I was a young child when we'd often go for a swim in my grandmother's community pool during our Christmas visits.

Jessica on the poolside

Swimming in December

A flower just outside of the hotel pool area

Following our swim, we were treated to another spectacular Gulf Coast sunset.

Sunset from the hotel waterfront

Sunset over North Shore Park pier

- Day 3 -
Wednesday - December 28, 2016

On Wednesday, it was time to officially begin our journey back home to Utah.  Shortly into our drive, we swung out to Myakka River State Park where our objective was to view some alligators.  Unfortunately, when we first drove in and pulled over at one of the typical hot spots for viewing gators, there were none to be found.  

It's important to practice gator safety

So, we continued on down the road to check out a short little trail that led to a tower and a walkway suspended over 20 feet above the ground that took you through a stretch of the forest canopy.

Canopy walk

After that, we'd drive out to Myakka Lake where we were treated to the sight of a bald eagle swooping down to catch its breakfast.  There were still no gators anywhere along the shorelines, but we lingered around until the gift shop along the waterfront opened up so we could purchase some gifts and souvenirs to take home to our kids.

Bald eagle

It wasn't until on the drive back out of the park that the initial gator hot spot we found void of gators earlier that morning was now ready to live up to its billing.  We now found about a half dozen out and about.  I guess it took a while for the sun to warm things up enough for the gators to come out of their burrows and expose themselves to park visitors.  At other times there can be several dozen chilling out at the same spot.

That's a big gator behind me

Gator close-up

Same gator

A different gator out for a swim

I will also be doing another post with more pictures exclusively on our Myakka State River visit.  From Myakka River, we went a little out of our way to make the scenic drive through Saint Petersburg and then on into Tampa where I had spent a few of years of my youth growing up.  In Tampa we made a stop at Raymond James Stadium where my favorite NFL team, the Buccanneers, play.  Across the street was George Steinbrenner Field, where the New York Yankees play their spring games when in spring training.

Approaching Sunshine Skyway Bridge along I-275 leading into St. Petersburg

Sunshine Skyway Bridge along I-275

Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccanneers

George M. Steinbrenner Field, home to the New York Yankees spring games

George M. Steinbrenner Field, home to the New York Yankees spring games

George M. Steinbrenner Field, home to the New York Yankees spring games

We also made a stop at the building where my family attended church while living in Tampa.

Tampa LDS chapel

Lots of childhood memories going to church and other activities here

I climbed this tree with friends from church many times as a child

From Tampa we drove on out toward Orlando where we stopped at a popular place called Showcase of Citrus which featured rides on what they claimed were the world's largest 4x4 vehicles and a grove of a variety of citrus fruits where you could pick your own.  We came for the latter.

World's largest 4x4 at Showcase of Citrus

World's largest 4x4 at Showcase of Citrus

World's largest 4x4 at Showcase of Citrus

Orange blossom

Reaching for an orange

Got it!

Jessica picking some grapefruit

Small but yummy grapefruit

Some tiny mandarin oranges

Also sold here was fresh gator meat.  It would have been tempting to take some home had we a way to keep it fresh the whole way.  That and it was $16 per pound.

Fresh gator meat

Only $16 per pound

And then of course, we had to have a bit of fun with the giant "Jaws" replica hanging out front.


Jessica and "Jaws"

Fun with "Jaws"

After Showcase of Citrus, we made our way up into Georgia.  Shortly before crossing the border into Georgia, we made one more stop at a shop that had a tank with some baby alligators.  While there we would buy up a few more gifts to take home that we could not resist.

Baby gator

Baby gator

We had spent the majority of the day sight-seeing and now it was time to get going to our motel for the night.  We had to drive the length of Georgia, through Atlanta, and ultimately on to Chattanooga, Tennessee where our motel reservation was.  I had chosen Chattanooga for the night because there was a cave I had wanted to check out with Jessica right by the motel the very next morning.  Of course, that also meant a very late night arrival for us.  In fact, it was well after midnight when we got into our room.

- Day 4 -
Thursday - December 29, 2016

Thursday marked 12 years since I married my sweetheart, Jessica.  To kick off our anniversary, we splurged for a tour through Ruby Falls Cave.  I plan to do another post on our visit here as well, but suffice it to say for now, it was magical!  We were both blown away by the beauty.  The cave owners who operate the tours really did a fantastic job with the lighting to punctuate the geological wonders found within the cave.

Historic Ruby Falls tower

Ruby Falls entrance

Along the walkway through the cave


More stalactite formations

"Niagra Falls"

"Mirror Pool"

"Mirror Pool"

Ruby Falls

Standing in front of Ruby Falls

After the cave we left Chattanooga and drove on up to Nashville where we pulled over for a bite to eat at locally famous, Martin's BBQ Joint.  We were referred here by Debra Fotheringham, someone I went to high school with who now sings professionally and who's done some work in Nashville herself.  We were not disappointed.  The food and atmosphere was great!

Chattanooga Choo-Choo

At the entrance of Martins BBQ Joint

Inside of Martins BBQ Joint

Lots of decor on the walls

Throwback classic sodas

Jessica getting ready to dig in, again

The goods

The stage upstairs at Martin's BBQ Joint

With full tummies, we walked further into the heart of downtown, took a stroll along the Country Music Walk of Fame, and just soaked up a bit of the surrounding atmosphere.

Tim McGraw's #1 fan

Who doesn't love "The King"?

Johnny Cash's star on the Country Music Walk of Fame

The back of Johnny Cash Museum

Looking down the street at the front of the Johnny Cash Museum

Fountain outside of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Fountain outside of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Facade of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center

From downtown we walked on out to the pedestrian bridge that crosses over the Cumberland River and took in some of the views from there, including that of Nissan Stadium where the NFL's Tennessee Titans play.

John Segenthaler Pedestrian Bridge

Looking southeast down the Cumberland River

Nissan Stadium from the pedestrian bridge

Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans

Nashville Skyline

Overstaying our welcome in Nashville, it was time to hustle back onto the road.  We made Saint Louis our next stop.  Well, actually, it was the Gateway Geyser park in East Saint Louis.  I didn't know how much of a ghetto it was that we had to drive through to get to it, but thankfully, there were no signs of any suspicious people or activity taking place despite how dark and how run down the area was.  The park itself was nice and pristine with only one other vehicle there, that of another photographer who was out taking pictures.  It's a beautiful spot to look out across the Mississippi River and view the skyline of Saint Louis, including the iconic Gateway Arch.

Saint Louise skyline from across the massive Mississippi River

We then continued on to our destination for the night: Liberty, Missouri which lies just outside of Kansas City. 

- Day 5 -
Friday - December 30, 2016

Friday we spent some morning time checking out historic downtown Independence.  We had a delicious lunch at a little restaurant named after it's signature dish, square pizzas, and then walked around town and quickly became overwhelmed with all the national history that converges in this town.  Along with the Oregon Trail, California, and Santa Fe Trails beginning here, it was also the site of a civil war battle. There are also some notable chapters in the history of the Mormon faith (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) that took place in this area. 

And, it was also the hometown of U.S. President Harry Truman.  They sure love their Harry because his name was everywhere throughout the town.  His family home sits just a few blocks west of downtown and is now in the care and keeping of the National Park Service.

Historic downtown Independence, Missouri

Square Pizza

Old Jackson County Courthouse

Harry Truman memorial statue outside of old Jackson County Courthouse

Harry Truman memorial statue outside of old Jackson County Courthouse

General Andrew Jackson Statue outside of old Jackson County Courthouse

Where the Oregon Trail began

Where the Santa Fe Trail began

The site of a Civil War battle

Old firehouse converted into NPS Harry Truman Visitor Center

NPS Harry Truman Visitor Center

On the outside of the Gilbert and Whitney Store

Historical plaque outside of the Gilbert and Whitney Store

The family home of Harry Truman

By the time we were ready to leave Independence, it was well into the afternoon and we still had a good drive ahead of us to get across Kansas and into Denver where the last room we had reserved for the trip home awaited us.

Kansas City Skyline

Driving off into the sunset over the Kansas prairies

After a long drive through Kansas where nightfall came upon us, we arrived safely in Denver.  It was the first time we checked into our room before midnight.  Having another time zone change entering into Colorado certainly helped.

- Day 6 -
Saturday - December 31, 2016

When we awoke on Saturday, we were eager to just get back home and be back with our kids.  It had been a fun but very busy week and we were now less than a day's drive away from home from anything else worth stopping to see, so we did not load up the day with sight-seeing stops or other activities.  We just committed to finish the drive home as quickly as we could.  It was incredible how quickly the great Colorado Rockies rose up and swallowed us up.  Denver, surprisingly, had hardly any traces of snow, given how much we had gotten back at home in Utah and had continued to get over the week.  However, once we were into the mountains, snow was abundant.  Under clear blue skies, it was a blissful, breathtaking and beautiful drive.  Not only were the mountains impressive, but so was the Eisenhower Tunnel that stretched over a mile long through Central Colorado.  That part of the drive was something our kids would definitely get a kick out of.

Colorado Rockies

I had wanted to make one big stop to hike to a place called Hanging Lake though, just a few miles away from the Grizzly Creek Rest Stop along I-70, but again, we were really eager to get home.  He had also left our winter hiking gear at home so to not have to check in any bags on our plane flight.  So, we settled for just a brief walk around the rest stop and figured we could return at a future date to hike it and perhaps stay a night at nearby Glenwood Springs.  

It was neat to look upon the Colorado River with the mountains, covered in snow and trees, standing guard above and know that upstream lied the majestic mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park.  And it was even more fascinating to look downstream, and know that it was the same river that flowed on through the barren red rock canyons of Southern Utah, including those of Canyonlands, before feeding Lake Powell.  And yet it was even more fascinating to know that it was also the very same river that ultimately carved and continues to carve through the Grand Canyon before feeding into the great Lake Mead and on outward to the Pacific Ocean.  So much of the Western U.S. population relies on water from this very river.

At the Grizzly Creek Rest Stop

Looking upstream along the Colorado River

Looking downstream along the Colorado River

After Grizzly Creek, we stopped in Grand Junction for lunch and then cruised on home to a house full of excited kids.  It was like Christmas all over again as we brought in their gifts we had picked up for them throughout our journey back.  

As they get a little older, when they can understand and appreciate history a little more and can savor the memories a little more, I think it would be enjoyable to take the kids back out to many of the places Jess and I were fortunate enough to visit throughout this trip.

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