Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nuts! (Pecans in Georgia)

It's hard to drive through Georgia and not notice all the billboards advertising pecans and other treats.  We have stopped at a number of different places on our trips and have settled on the Ellis Brothers groves as our favorite.  Just a short drive off I 75 you will find their retail store set right among the pecan trees.  It is a few miles from the highway, but well worth the drive.  These people know their pecans!  Many different varieties are there for you to sample (shell your own - or try them already shelled). 

You can purchase nuts in the shell, shelled, chocolate covered, salted, candied and more.  They have other kinds of nuts and candies, fresh fruit, jellies, sauces, an ice cream counter and a small gift area.  There is a window into the factory area where you can watch workers making these great pecan items and you can sample all the items for sale! 

It's a nice place to stop if you are in the area.  There are picnic tables under the pecan trees and they encourage you to exercise your pet amongst the trees.  Rest rooms and cold drinks are available in the store.  A cotton field across the street is interesting to young and old alike (interesting to see how your T-shirt starts out!).  Whether you need snacks for the road - or gifts for friends and family, you will find it here at Ellis Brothers.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Monday, November 19, 2012

Digging for Treasures in North Carolina

5315 Bryson City Road, Franklin, North Carolina

What a thrill it is to find a gemstone!  We have dug geodes in Missouri, quartz crystals in Arkansas and wanted to try our luck at gemstones in Franklin, North Carolina.  We heard about the Cowee Gift Shop and Mason Mountain Mine from some friendly folks at a craft fair (thanks Moberlys!) and decided to stop by on our way to Florida. 

The mine has been open since 1965 and is said to be one of the most visited gem mines in Macon County, NC.  The Johnson family does a great job making everyone from novice to expert have a good time and learn something too!  No need to have special tools or equipment, they provide all you will need:  shovel, dolly, bucket, small trowel, screen and even a ziploc bag for your finds.  There is plenty of parking, picnic tables, restrooms and expert help to get you started and identify your finds.

The native material is trucked in from up the mountain - you dig in the pile

Brian at the mine site explained all of our options.  You can dig your own buckets of native material, buy already dug buckets or buy 'enriched' buckets that have added gems from other areas.  Families enjoyed the enriched buckets while we were there.  The kids get so excited finding gems and even arrowheads!   (Adults enjoyed this activity too)  Groups can share a bucket - Brian will give each person his own trowel and screen.  We have seen this kind of activity at other places (amusement parks, museums and campgrounds) but these buckets are definitely worth the cost.  Lots of fun and they guarantee at least a few pounds of stones to keep.  We opted to dig for 1/2 day in the native material which costs $20/pp.  It was after noon when we arrived and they close about 4:30 - so it was plenty of time for us to try our luck. 

Plenty of room at the sluice for everyone

After picking through our screens for about an hour with the first bucket, it became evident that we needed more help trying to decide what was a 'keeper'.  Brian gave us a couple of example stones to look at and compare to what we were finding.  Rhodolite, sapphire and ruby are what you will find - plus emerald, kyanite and probably more!  Once we started processing more material our finds were more frequent.  Brian identified some of stones for us and told us what was 'leverite' (as in leverite here, it's not a gemstone)! 

Now we know what to look for!

You may want rubber gloves if you have manicured nails.  The dirt is red and stains so wear old clothing and shoes.  Expect to get wet - the sluice can splash and even your shoes can get dripped on.  There is a covered area on the sluice to get out of the rain or sunshine and plenty of room for everyone.  If you plan on spending the day bring your lunch, it is a bit of a drive to a town for snacks & drinks.

A Rhodolite that Dennis found

At the end of the day we took our finds to the gift shop where Tom and Ginger Johnson helped us sort our finds.   Dennis found a couple nice pieces of Rhodolite - one we left with Tom to be faceted into a stone for jewelry.  We also had some sapphires and rubies.  You can have your stones finished by Tom and mailed to your home.  The cost is based on the finished carat weight.  The gift shop also has finished pieces, minerals, rocks and fossils from other areas plus lapidary equipment.  If you buy your lapidary equipment there Tom will give you a lesson before you take it home - great way for a beginner to learn how to cab or facet stones.

The sapphire and rhodolite in front of Tim are what we had Tom finish for us

We are already planning our next trip to the mine.  Franklin, North Carolina isn't far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg and camping/fishing areas.  Check out their website  and they are on facebook too, Cowee Gift Shop & Mason Mountain Mine.

Finished stones - 6.44 ct lavender star sapphire and 2.70 ct Rhodolite

Friday, October 12, 2012

Wings Over Whiteman Airshow - Knob Noster, Missouri

We were so happy to see this airshow return to Whiteman Air force Base this past May after being 'on hold' for a number of years.  This weekend event is free and a great way to spend a day learning about aircraft, watching precision flying and meeting a lot of great folks in our military and civilian air corps.

Kids photo op in a mini Stealth

A few tips when attending an airshow - read the fliers to know what is allowed to bring with you.  There are security checks and if you are informed ahead of time it will save you a trip back to your vehicle!  For this show there was plenty of parking on site - but outside the fenced perimeter.  There were free trams to take you into the show area after you cleared security and got a wristband.  We recommend bringing folding (umbrella type) chairs, a hat, sunscreen and a camera.  Coolers were not allowed but you could bring water bottles if they were clear plastic.  There were plenty of areas of food and drink sales to keep you fed and hydrated while at the show.

Great view of the flights no matter where you sat
This was the first time they have allowed private aircraft to fly in (with prior approval and registration) and there was a big area of those planes to view.  We enjoyed walking around and into the many different types of aircraft at the show.  The pilots and owners are happy to answer questions and tell you about their crafts.  Some have donation jars to help with the cost of upkeep and fuel to get to these events.

There were other displays  from Veteran's groups, colleges, armed services, businesses and more.  Included in this event was a kids area with a climbing wall, bounce house, other inflatable climbing/sliding areas and face painting to keep the kids happy.  A car show was also on site so there was something for everyone to enjoy!

WWII field unit set up

Custom motorcycle to honor the Stealth program

The flying craft part of this airshow goes on continually for both days.  We had a schedule of the approximate order - but bear in mind that weather can change this.  It was very windy the day we attended and the parachute jump by the Golden Knights was postponed. 

Bleacher seating was available along the runways, but no shade.  Some open hangars were used for shade so having your own chair makes it easy to take a break from the sun. 

This is a free event - no admission or parking fees, but remember to bring some cash for snacks, drinks and donations.  Many different Air Force squads also sell merchandise for their groups - Tshirts, dog tags, patches and more.

What a great day and of course you get up close to the Stealth bombers as they are based at Whiteman.

Tiny Tim with one of the Stealth pilots

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Copper Run Distillery - an Ozark gem!

An inviting place to sit and relax
A short drive off of highway 65 between Springfield and Branson, Missouri you is where you will find the Copper Run distillery.  They have only been open a few years, but already are a favorite with locals and visitors.  Small batch spirits - and the Ozark's first legal moonshine distillery!

A small rack of barrels and one copper boiler make up the process

When you stop in they are happy to show you the operation which is downstairs from the bar and tasting room.  It's like having a private tour of the process.  Up close and personal, Jim Blansit along with his family, will answer all your questions and explain what is happening on the day you visit.

Make sure to taste their wares and try one of their signature cocktails

Make sure to try their moonshine and other spirits. (Tours and tasting are free!)  You can get s drink to enjoy at the bar made of old barrels or sit on the porch of the building which was built with old beams and materials from a 105 year old barn.  You are welcome to bring your own snacks and live music is enjoyed on the weekends. 

Award winning spirits

Check out their website at and like them on facebook. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

New Orleans - The French Quarter

Music Legends Park

We stopped for a few hours in New Orleans to get a feel for the area.  This was our first visit to Louisiana and unfortunately time was limited.  The thing everyone thinks about when you mention 'New Orleans' is Bourbon Street and the French Quarter.  We chose this area as our destination for exploration and found it easily due to the signage on the highway and our GPS.  Finding the French Quarter is easy...parking is not.  After circling around the narrow, one-way streets, we opted to pay to park in a hotel garage close to Jackson Square.

Jackson Square with the statue of Andrew Jackson and the St Louis Cathedral

Our limited time gave us incentive to move along.  We didn't 'shop' or relax in the many bars and restaurants in this area, that will have to be done at another time.  First stop was Jackson Square.  There were many artists selling their wares along the fence and a few street bands.  ESPN had a large area with a stage as the Sugar Bowl was going to be played at the Superdome that weekend. 

St Louis Cathedral was beautiful!  Right on Jackson Square and open to the public, we took some time to explore the architecture and art.  There was a wedding rehearsal going on at the time - it was interesting to listen in that there are NO restrooms available, even to the wedding party!  (This is an ongoing theme in the French Quarter, use the facilities if they are available where you are.)

The main altar in St Louis Cathedral

Looking backward, toward the entrance doors

We focused our wanderings on Royal and Bourbon streets.  Royal has a lot of the art galleries, antiques shops and a few B&Bs.  Bourbon street has more bars, restaurants and interesting street performers.  There were police present on foot and in mobile units.  We were not in this area late and were told it gets more crowded as the evening progresses. 

Interesting tiny EMS vehicle

Wow - fun to look, but we weren't buying!

The architecture and history make this a very interesting place to visit - the street acts, drunks, trannies and hookers also make this a very interesting place!  Signs are posted all over to 'watch your valuables'.  We had no problems, but again we weren't there when it was very crowded.

The ironwork and architecture are great!

Ironwork balconies on Bourbon Street

Lafitte's Blacksmith Bar - supposed to be the oldest in the US and haunted!

New Orleans and Louisiana have so much more to offer - we will be back with more time to explore.  We would love to take a cemetery tour, visit some museums and more.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Astronaut Hall of Fame Museum

This museum is only a short drive from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.  Your ticket from the Kennedy Space Center will get you into the Astronaut Hall of Fame within 7 days of your visit.  You can spend a couple hours here and see it all, well worth a stop if you are in the area.

A collection of test pilot helmets from a few of the original astronauts

The building houses the world's largest collection of personal space memorabilia and great displays showing the history of the Space Race and the US Space programs.

There is an area with interactive displays where you can try to do some of the tasks the astronauts do in space and a G-force trainer!  If you are brave enough there is the opportunity to experience 4Gs in the trainer - but lines can get long for this as it only seats 2 people at a time (about 20 per hour can do this).  You can try your hand at the Space Shuttle landing simulation which is quicker and doesn't have the same effect on your stomach as the G-force trainer!

A wall mural by Alan Bean

A small gift shop is at this location but there is no cafe or restaurant so plan accordingly.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Kennedy Space Center, the 'Up Close' tour

We returned to the Kennedy Space Center after learning about the Up Close tour offering.  This tour now includes a visit to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) that has been closed to tours since the beginning of the Shuttle program.  This tour has an additional cost ($25) above the entrance fee to the Kennedy Space Center.  Season pass holders can save 10% on the tour and also save on food and purchases in the gift shop.  If you are planning to go on this tour and purchase entrance tickets, check out the difference between season tickets and the benefits vs single day tickets.

Part of the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center

During the Shuttle program we were lucky to be on site at the Kennedy Space Center for 3 launches.  The museum displays, IMAX movies and exhibits do change - so there is always something new to see even if you have been here recently.  We arrived in the morning when the center opened and had time to look around a little before our 10am tour.  You are given a sticker badge with your tour and time on it, so you just show up at the bus tour area a few minutes before your tour time.  Be prepared to have your photo taken and available for purchase after your tour.   We were given a tour booklet and a bookmark while waiting in line - both have great information about the Kennedy Space Center and websites to visit.

Our tour bus at a photo stop with the VAB is the distance

This tour was different than the bus tour which is included in a visit to the center.  Our guide was an employee of NASA and had a PhD in engineering.  He had worked on many of the space programs,  was a great speaker and provided a wealth of information.  It wasn't the usual memorized script of a tour, but real stories and anecdotes that made this a great time for us!  Some things he told us were fun to know - like how the Mars rover that is due to land in August 2012 has Morse Code in the tires.  The engineers originally built the prototype tires with the letters JPL in reverse on the tires would leave tracks on Mars that showed JPL (for the Jet Propulsion Labs).   NASA said 'no' to advertising on the Martian surface, so the engineers changed the tires to have Morse Code built in for JPL.  We saw the prototype on display- with no mention anywhere of unusual tires!  Without this tour, we would not have noticed this interesting part.  Our guide also told us where we could see recovered solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank that are being stored.  We were able to drive right up to the gate and take a look!

Mars explorer 'Opportunity'

External tank and solid rocket booster

The main reason we took the tour was to get up close to a Shuttle and to get inside the VAB.  Both events were great!  The Shuttle Endeavour was in the VAB at the time of our visit. The size of this building is hard to judge in pictures.  It is one of the world's largest enclosed spaces - 525 ft high, with four times the volume of the Empire State Building!  The Space Shuttles are being readied for their permanent homes on display around the country.  Atlantis will make it's home at Kennedy Space Center.  If you can go right now (Until Jan 30), Endeavour AND Atlantis are in the VAB to be seen on the Up Close tour!

Looking up in the VAB

Mission banners around the building were signed by workers

The main reason to be in the VAB!  This is shuttle Endeavour

Other stops on the tour included the A/B launch complex, views of the crawler transporters, mobile launch platforms and the Shuttle Landing Facility.  In addition you see the industrial area where NASA's headquarters are and the Operations & Checkout building.  The tour ends at the Apollo/Saturn V Center (the regular tours end here also).  You can spend as much time as you want here, buses run continually back to the Visitor Center.  There are a couple movies and displays to view here as well as a snack bar and gift shop.  This center is where the VIPs and family members watch launches from.

NASA rocket on a launch pad (inside the white covering)

One of the launch platforms

Launch Complex

Inside the Apollo/Saturn V center - you can see how massive these rockets are

When you visit the KSC make sure to check out the 'Astronaut Encounter'.  This is held in one of the small theaters and changes almost daily.  There will be an astronaut on site (usually the same one at the 'Lunch with an Astronaut' for that day).  The astronaut will give a presentation in the theater about their mission, job duties, show pictures and answer questions.  There is a photo op at the end - they take your picture to buy AND you can use your own camera too!  The astronaut is also available for autographs in the gift shop in the late afternoon - check the sign in the shop for times.  You can buy your photo, NASA stock photos or anything else you would like signed.  They will sign one item not purchased there per person.  Lots of kids had their ticket stubs signed.  Make sure you ask if there are any fees involved.  Some of the Mercury/Apollo astronauts get big $$ for signing items.  Most of the shuttle crews will autograph for free.  We were able to see Barbara Morgan STS-118 who was our 'Teacher in Space'.  She was the backup for Christa McAuliffe STS-51 and after the Challenger tragedy, it took 20+ years for her chance to fly.  She really enjoyed talking with kids and encouraging them to study math and science.  Lots of kids were happy to meet "a real, live astronaut"!

Astronaut Barbara Morgan STS-118

Time for visits and autographs