Destination: Charleston, South Carolina


Six years ago this week I traveled from where I was living in Tennessee to visit a friend in Charleston, South Carolina.  The drive there was the bad kind of eventful: that mysterious phenomenon peculiar to the coastal south where you’re just driving along, minding your own business, & out of nowhere it’s raining so hard that all you can see is the taillights of the vehicle in front of you.  Nothing to deluge instantaneously.  That trip was also the first time I ever saw an armadillo dead on the side of the road & I legit thought it was a dinosaur for a hot second.  My friend told me that Charleston doesn’t allow any buildings to be taller than the tallest church steeple, which gives the city a very open, down-to-earth feel since there aren’t any skyscrapers.

My first stop was to the history park at Charles Towne Landing, the site of the first English settlement in the Carolinas in 1670.  They have something for everyone – a reconstructed fort, a sailing ship, a historic home, & even a small zoo displaying native wildlife.  I was NOT expecting to see a huge alligator in the pond as I was exploring the gardens!

The next day I visited the South Carolina Aquarium and Charleston Museum, but my camera decided to completely break in between those two sites so I didn’t really get any pictures of the museum. 😦  The aquarium has this incredible ocean tank with a giant two-story window that their resident sea turtle likes to hang out in.  When I was there they had a special Madagascar exhibit with lemurs & they were really fun to watch!  Charleston Museum is packed with just about everything possible & keeps going forever, it would take multiple visits to even come close to absorbing it all.

On my last day I visited two historic forts – Fort Sumter & Fort Moultrie, both of which were in use for generations & saw many changes & renovations over several wars.  Fort Sumter was where the Civil War got its official start when Confederates drove out the federal troops stationed there.  It sits on a tiny island in the harbor, accessible by ferry for a 2-ish hour tour.  Its a really great museum, they even have the original flags that were flown over the fort in the 1860s.  Fort Moultrie takes you backwards in time – they’ve restored it to various periods, starting at the World War II entrance & going back to the Revolution-era log fort.  Most places like this are set in a specific time frame, so it’s really interesting to see these two forts actively embracing the changes & innovations that occurred.

Charleston is a very pretty city, & I wish my camera hadn’t broken so I would have better pictures of it!  My phone camera just couldn’t do it justice.  I was also sad to miss the H.L. Hunley museum – it’s only open on weekends.  There’s way too much happening in Charleston for a three-day trip to cover it all anyway so I guess I’ll have to go back!

This Week in Awkwardness

All but the latest trees have their leaves, the lilacs are starting to bloom, and the temperature has been higher than 45 for several days in a row. All of the sudden it’s summer.

SeaWorld has a new commercial out desperately trying to convince me that they’re doing a bang up job taking care of their whales. One of the points they made was some “government research” finding that orcas live just as long in captivity as they do in the wild. Ummmm. Hm. Right. EVERY sign on the side of EVERY zoo exhibit, EVERY article on EVERY animal I’ve EVER read it says like the name and where it lives, and under that ‘Lifespan: Wild – 1-3 years, Captivity – a gajillion years’ or something like that. Sooooo….I’m supposed to be impressed that your whales, being fed & generally taken care of & whatnot, don’t live any longer than wild whales who have to feed themselves, fight off predators, and get by without vets looking after them? Good job I guess?

Added to the Travel Map:

New River Gorge National River, West Virginia – seems to be littered with well-preserved ghost towns.

Destination: St. Louis


St. Louis is, weirdly enough, the only city I’ve ever been in where I saw an actual tent community on an empty lot.  It’s also the only city I’ve ever been in where entire buildings were painted with murals and Roman columns.

The Gateway Arch

For anyone unfamiliar with St. Louis, the Arch is exactly that: a gigantic steel structure randomly sticking up from the bank of the Mississippi, holding up nothing.  It’s actually part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which also includes the nearby Old Courthouse.  They’re doing some work on the museum underneath the Arch, so until that reopens the Courthouse is acting as the museum/visitor’s center/ticketing location.  I opted for the Arch + river cruise combo for $25 ($22 with a NPS pass).  After checking out the incredible dome and somewhat comical dioramas in the Courthouse I hopped aboard the not-so-imaginatively named Becky Thatcher for a narrated 1-hour trip up & down the Mighty Mississippi.  Our captain told us some of the history of the area and pointed out some interesting things along the way, including river traffic, abandoned buildings, and a casino that filled its basement with river water to comply with the law that all casinos must be “on the river”.  I guess it works.

Disembarking from the boat, I headed back up the Grand Staircase (being sure to find the 33rd one, the high-water mark of past flood) and headed down into the heart of the Arch.  Getting in here only costs $3, but while the museum is out of commission there’s really only the documentary movie.  The cool thing to do is to head to the observation deck on the weirdest elevator ride in town, up through the leg of the Arch itself ($10).  The elevators are these crazy little round pods with 5 seats that tilt & ratchet themselves along with the leaning leg of the arch, with windows in the doors that offer a great view of the inner workings of the building.  The visitor’s center in the Courthouse has a sample one set up for anybody who’s not sure if they can handle the confined space.  It takes 4 minutes to get to the top, but only 3 to get back down (yay gravity!), and they run about every ten minutes.  The view from the top is of course spectacular, with one side facing out over the city and the other across the river into Illinois.  I stayed up there for a long time watching people and cars, and looking for whatever little oddities I could spot.  Click here for a short video I shot on the way down.  (It’s not the greatest, but hey.)

St. Louis Zoo

The zoo itself is free, but they charge a huge amount for parking in the lots.  I was lucky enough to find a single open spot on the street that I didn’t have to pay for.  It’s a surprisingly nice zoo for not costing anything.  I only had time and energy to cover about half of it.  I really liked the insect house, although I was careful to avoid the employee walking around with a hissing cockroach asking people if they wanted to pet it.  One of the coolest things was a display of ants: they had the ant nest on one side of the box and the food on the other side, with a winding vine in between that the ants walked on.  I could have stared at them for hours, going back and forth with their little leaf pieces.  I also enjoyed the indoor penguin habitat (bring a jacket, the climate is for the penguins, not the humans!) and the seal tunnel.  There’s a train ride through the zoo ($5) that I didn’t go on but I’m sure it’s fun.

Destination: Out of Africa Wildlife Park


Out of Africa is a different experience from most of the zoos I’ve been to. General admission is $30 and includes all of the different shows.  For an extra charge they also offer small-group safari tours on unimog trucks ($20) and a zipline tour ($90) over the animal pens.


The first thing I did was the 10 o’clock safari tour through the Serengeti section of the park.  Getting on the bus our guide handed us each a stick of celery. We didn’t keep our celery for very long because Kivo the giraffe was waiting at the gate to take them from us. If you’ve never gotten a sloppy kiss from a giraffe, this is your chance. Stick that celery in your mouth and let Kivo slobber all over your face when he reaches for it with his 18-inch tongue (I declined this particular opportunity and held my celery in my hand like a normal person). The guide also had a bucket of treats for the other animals so there were zebras, an ostrich, highly endangered addax antelope, and others coming right up to the bus. We even got to see a tiny, week-old baby zebra.


After the safari bus I took a tram up to the main part of the zoo.  The tram circles the whole thing, stopping at a few different places before heading back to the gate every twenty minutes, so you don’t really have to walk farther than you want to.  This section is where you’ll find the large predators and smaller animals that can’t be in the safari pen.  There’s a reptile house & yard, a prairie dog habitat, a marmoset garden (which was empty the day I visited – boo, I love marmosets 😦 ) and several species of big cats.  The shows are held near tram stop #2, mostly at the Critter Court.  Go here for giant snakes and the Creature Feature, where you can pet whichever animals they bring out that day.  The day I was there the show featured a black & white tegu, an green & yellow hybrid anaconda, and a Patagonian cavy, which was about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.  Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they have the predator feed, where you basically walk along with the keepers while they throw big chunks of raw meat over the fences.  Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays they do the Wonders of Wildlife Show in the splash arena.


My favorite thing about Out of Africa was the Tiger Splash show.  Supposedly they are one of only two zoos in the world to do this (the other being Australia Zoo in Beerwah, Queensland).  There’s no training or schedule involved; basically, they let one of their full-grown tigers into a large pen with several zoo employees and they just play for half an hour.  The toys were mostly trash bags & shredded inflatable pool toys stuffed full of balloons.  That day’s tiger, a 340-pound white one named Chalet, had all of her claws so every time she tackled one of her toys all the balloons would pop.  The splash part of the show came into play when they held the toys out over the small pool in the middle of the pen, sending Chalet flying through the air and into the water.  I was surprised how similar the games were to ones you’d play with a house cat.  At one point an employee pulled out a long rope with a large ring on the end of it and started running around the pool trailing it.  His goal was to make it around two or three times, he almost made it before Chalet caught the ring, and that was it for him.  She didn’t budge during the tug-of-war that followed, even with two guys pulling on the rope and a woman trying to push her forward.  Chalet was very good-natured and the employees weren’t afraid of her at all, playfully pulling her tail and messing with her.  After the show everyone had the opportunity to go up and feed her ($5) through the fence with tongs.


Given the zoo’s emphasis on tigers & lions, it was funny that the very first animal I saw was a housecat. 🙂


Destination: Phoenix Zoo


Arriving at the zoo just after opening, I expected to spend a few hours, maybe get lunch and go to the botanical garden next door.  I ended up not leaving until closing time.  General Admission is $20, but I went with the $28 Value Ticket which includes the safari train ($5), stingray bay ($3), and 4D theater ($5).  The $36 Total Experience also gets you onto the carousel ($3) and a camel ride ($6).  Any of the added experiences can also be paid for separately.


The zoo is arranged with a savanna/desert section on one side and a tropical section on the other.  Going straight in from the entrance brings you to the African savanna exhibit, which contains several species all mingling together.  One of the giraffes seemed to have a crush on a common eland, he was following her around the whole time I watched them, while she smacked his legs with her horns.  From there you can turn left to continue with the savanna or right to head for the tropics.



The desert section has an exhibit of Arabian oryx and large display on the zoo’s efforts to rescue them from extinction.  Oryx are beautiful animals that were hunted down to just 10 individuals.  The Phoenix Zoo’s breeding program has been successful enough to release 300 animals back into the wild, in a sanctuary in Oman.  For some reason they keep the Sumatran tiger over here as well, but they’re building him a big new exhibit in the tropical section.  There are other big cats, a massive rhino, monkeys, a giraffe feeding station ($5), and plenty of other African animals.



Just off the main trail is the Arizona Trail, with displays of animals native to the area.  In the aviary I noticed a vulture sitting in a tree right above the prairie dogs.  I couldn’t help but wonder if he was contemplating eating one of them.  The Arizona section had more than it’s share of reptiles and nasty bugs.  There’s only so many sleeping lizards and coiled up snakes I can look at so I didn’t spend a lot of time in those buildings.  I always feel bad for them because they’re usually in such tiny boxes.  You’d think even a tarantula would notice that it really doesn’t have anywhere to go.



The centerpiece of the tropical section is a large lake with three islands where the lemurs and gibbons live, along with a menagerie of birds.  No doubt some were captive, but quite a few were obviously wild.  I saw one woman sit down with a bag of popcorn and immediately had two Canada geese trying to get it away from her.  On the Forest of Uco, the South American section, I watched an Andean bear trying to get comfortable on an extremely uncomfortable looking tree.  He had a nice hammock and plenty of other places to sleep, I have no idea why he wanted to be on that branch.  This was also the section with the most stunningly beautiful birds.  Parrots, flamingos, toucans, hornbills, numerous colorful doves, all just steps apart.  I stodd for a while watching the two juvenile orangutans play in their large habitat.  One of them kept running around with a sheet over his head, falling off of walls while bothering his friend.  The other half of the habitat holds the adult orangs and their 4-month-old baby.  He stayed at the top of a tower hidden by his mother, but the male one came down and sat by the window picking his nose.



One the other side of a second small lake is the Children’s Trail, but don’t be fooled, it’s not just for kids.  This is where they keep emus, bald eagles, more monkeys, and a couple kinds of smaller cats.  There’s also seasonal pedal boats to rent ($10) and a petting zoo (free) neither of which I personally checked out.

They had two movies going in the 4D theater, a documentary about grizzly bears and a shortened version of Ice Age 3, which is the one I went to.  They run every half hour so it’s easy to catch one of them and they aren’t very long.  You can go to both, the package tickets only include one so you’d have to pay for the other.  I had never heard of anything referred to as a 4D theater before, turns out it’s a 3D movie with seats that vibrate, water that sprays in your face,  snow that blows out of the ceiling, and a thing that pokes you really hard in the back, which I didn’t like one bit and spent the rest of the movie dreading that it would happen again.  It might be a little scary for young children – I was surprisingly terrified the first time a huge carnivore showed up and my seat vibrated along with its footsteps, and one little boy started flipping out when a dinosaur sneezed and water sprayed in his face.

The safari “train” was a bit of a disappointment in that it was really an airport tug pulling several trailers with benches on the same road I had already walked, but it was still a fun break and very informative.  Our guide seemed to know everything there was to know about the animals, their ages, names, when they arrived at the zoo, I was impressed but really she could have been making it all up and we’d never know the difference.  Still, kudos to her.  The kid in the back of our car kept asking his grandma if I was a “real cowgirl” because of the hat that I was wearing.  Fortunately they never asked me because I couldn’t think of a single witty response except to tell them it wasn’t really a cowboy hat, but that probably wouldn’t have gone over well because I don’t actually know what the style is called.

I’m not sure I’ve ever passed up an opportunity to pet a stingray.  Their skin feels so cool, I can’t get over it.  According to the stingray bay workers the rays actually enjoy getting petted and will headbutt your hands and slow down in front of you to get attention.  I found out as I was leaving stingray bay that they like to have the middle of their backs petted rather than their wings, which probably explains why so many of them seemed to hate and avoid me.  At least they weren’t splashing me, one guy got completely soaked, I guess they do it when something touches their tail and freaks them out.  At some times of day you can feed them ($2).

My favorite part was the monkey village.  There are several large aviaries scattered throughout the zoo where you can walk freely with various birds, but in the monkey village you share the enclosure with common squirrel monkeys.  You can’t interact with the monkeys at all but they’re an active species and it’s so much fun watching them without a fence to block the view.  Apparently it’s the only walk-through monkey exhibit in the country, but seriously they should do this everywhere.  Being surrounded by adorable yellow monkeys while they scamper around is the best thing ever.



By the time I left my pedometer said I had walked a hair over four miles, and I was way too exhausted to go to the botanical garden.  I had no desire to do that at all anyway because the lakes, creeks, flowers, and birds singing everywhere make the zoo so beautiful it’s basically a huge garden with animals.