Sunday, November 15, 1998

Orlando, Florida

 Saturday, November 15, 1998: The Drive Down 

I am writing this in room 101 of the Quality Inn off of John Young Parkway in Orlando, Florida, a mere 480-something miles from my own driveway. It is around midnight, so I don't know whether to call it Saturday or Sunday.

This time I made the whole trip in one day; last year when I made this same trip, I drove most of the way on Saturday, spent the night south of Gainesville, FL, and finished the trip Sunday morning. Due to my tendency to stop at every rest area, shopping mall, and bookstore on my path, my effective driving speed on road trips is about 50 MPH, though I keep my cruise control set at 75. This year, however, I skipped the Macon mall and spent only a few minutes in the weak excuse for a mall they have in Valdosta, and so made it all the way to Orlando in one day.

When I drive alone, especially at night, I get even more pensive than I usually am, and this trip is especially conducive to that. I didn't reach Florida until an hour after sundown; I had forgotten about the peculiar dark quality of the stretch of I-75 where Georgia becomes Florida, where there are no streetlights and few lights of any kind save the headlights of your own vehicle and those around you; where the luminescent dashed lines of the three-lane interstate stretch ahead of you and come together to disappear into the horizon, but the land to the left and the right of you is so dark as to be invisible, and you can imagine that the world ends where the highway does, and if you drift too far out of the outside lane you run the risk or driving over the edge and falling into outer space; where the stars in the sky above you look as lonely as you would feel without the comfort and companionship of your radio and pack of Starburst fruit chews.

Tomorrow I will spend most of my day at Epcot, one of my favorite places on the planet. The conference proper begins at 7:00 tomorrow night (TechLearn 98; it is the main reason for this trip), and I will spend the rest of my stay getting my head crammed full of important computer-related stuff.

 Sunday, November 16, 1998: Epcot 

I spent most of Sunday at Epcot. At first it was disappointing; I enjoyed it so much last year (I'd never been before that) that I realized only minutes after entering the park that this visit couldn't possibly live up to the experience I had last year, when it was all new to me. Spaceship Earth, while still entertaining, was exactly as I remembered it. Last year I rode it seven times. Sunday, once was enough.

Waiting to enter The Living Sea, I heard a young British woman admonish her father, who was following his family with a video camera, by saying, "If it's running now, you're only taking pictures of our bums. What's the point?"

Once I was in the "research lab" area of the Living Sea, I was disappointed that the manatees didn't seem to recognize me. I spent a good fifteen minutes watching them eat last year; I thought we had developed a real rapport. Maybe they're just shy.

It wasn't until I entered the World Showcase that I recaptured some of my old delight in Epcot. The different areas of the World Showcase are staffed by people actually from the countries they represent, and the cute young women of the UK section made me light-headed with their British accents and their beaming smiles and their tendency to describe everything as "lovely." I briefly considered proposing marriage to the young woman at the cigar counter, but in the end I didn't even buy a cigar from her. At the Rose & Crown pub I bought a pint of Bass Ale and gulped it down in the space of 15 minutes, which normally would have knocked me on my butt, due to the infrequency with which I consume alcohol; fortunately, I had eaten a huge chicken fajita baked potato only a few minutes earlier, so the ale only contributed slightly to the light-headedness the English lass had already inspired.

In the French area I ate the most incredible chocolate cream pastry, sharing part of the crust with the little birds outside the cafe. They were genuine French birds, I know because when they flitted down from the trees to fight over the bits of crust I dropped, they said, "Le tweet, le tweet."

I may return Wednesday afternoon after the conference proper is over to buy a bonsai tree in the Japanese section. I may not. I'll deal with that thing then.

I am now in the Coronado Springs Hotel inside the vast Disney World complex. It is, as you can imagine, considerably nicer than the hotel in which I spent Saturday night, though I was happy enough with the Quality Inn. Wherever I lay my hat is home.

 Tuesday, November 18, 1998: Back to Epcot, Going Home 

It is Tuesday night, nearly midnight. On BET on Jazz, a cable television station they get here and which I would love to get at home, Dizzy Gillespie is blowing a tremendous solo over his own "Night in Tunisia" while the narrator talks about Dizz's infectious love of life and his unique ability to spread joy through his music. If I have a hero after Louis Armstrong, I think it is Dizzy Gillespie.

The conference ends tomorrow. Tomorrow night I will have dinner with my friend Laura, who I have not seen in nearly half a decade and who I am very much looking forward to seeing, and then begin the long, contemplative drive back to my home. I have had a good time over the last few days, and it's been good to see my friend Rick here, but it's also kind of lonely here, in a way. I've enjoyed it and am glad I came, but it will be good to get home.

On Monday evening I returned to Epcot for a few more hours. I enjoyed it much more than I did Sunday. On arriving I went immediately to Spaceship Earth, but spent most of the rest of my time in the World Showcase. There I indulged nearly every vice which I can claim as my own, smoking a Macanudo cigar I purchased in the UK while sipping a glass of Fonseca Ruby Port from the Portugal kiosk nearby, later drinking a cafe latte, and finally stuffing myself with a chocolate-covered pretzel from Germany; later, still light-headed and slightly tipsy and buzzing from the alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and chocolate, I sat on a stone bench to write these words on my palmtop computer.

In the Japanese area I bought a Bonsai tree and in China I bought a meditating Buddha, complete with swastika, to add to my collection; with those two purchases I captured nearly all the qualities I admire: quietness, growth, cuteness, contemplation, wisdom, perhaps even wit.

(This message was sent as an e-mail message to many of my friends at ExecuTrain, where I worked back then. I added it to the blog on October 10, 2017--almost twenty years later.)

Wednesday, August 26, 1998

Chattanooga, TN

I am writing this in room 128 of the Rivergate Days Inn in lovely downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. I arrived here a little over an hour ago, after a 90 minute drive from the campus of Kennesaw State University in lovely Kennesaw, Georgia.

Have I ever told you how much I love hotels? I love everything about the hotel staying experience: checking in and getting my room assignment; getting the key to my room (and I'm sure I don't have to tell you about the air of wonder and mystery that surrounds THAT minor transaction: What kind of key will I get--a regular metal key, a card key, or will there be some sort of James Bond-like retina scanning device that will not only let me into my room but weigh me and give me my fortune?); unpacking (and yes, I do unpack, hanging my pants and shirts on hangers, putting my socks, underwear, and T-shirts in drawers; I may be here for only a few days, but while I'm here, this place is MINE!); settling in for the first night in an unfamiliar yet comfortable place; going down in the morning for the "deluxe continental breakfast" (and I still don't know what that means here yet, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it includes Cap'N'Crunch and those plastic-wrapped microwaveable cheese Danishes); returning to my room after a day at the Tennessee Aquarium or Rock City or the local mall and finding that, in my absence, the cleaning staff has vacuumed, made my bed, and left me clean towels.

Too, I love the fact that I am limited in dress to only the four pairs of pants and five T-shirts I brought with me, and in reading to the three books or one magazine I brought. I love my home and all my things, but sometimes choosing from the seventeen or so pairs of pants I own, the sixty-something shirts, the one-thousand-plus books, can be awfully draining. Sometimes, the more you confine yourself, the more liberated you feel.

And now I am going to go to bed in this King-size monstrosity that tomorrow someone else will make up, and sleep the sleep of the vacationing.

 August 27, 1998 

I'm happy to report that the free "deluxe continental breakfast" here at the Rivergate Days Inn in lovely downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, includes English muffins, donuts, waffles, mini-bagels, Rice Crispies, Raisin Bran, Froot Loops, coffee, milk, and juice, and the dining area is well stocked with syrup, butter, jelly, cream cheese, sugar, creamer, napkins, Styrofoam plates, and plastic silverware (or silver plasticware, if you prefer), and also contains toasters, toaster ovens, and a microwave. It also afforded me enough privacy--though there were several other people around--that I could read a chapter in my novel while I ate.

After a delightful repast of two English muffins with jelly, three mini-bagels with cream cheese, and two cups of coffee (yes, I did manage to avoid the temptation of the donuts and cereal) I got in my car and set out on my day's adventure.

I drove 70 miles north to Sweetwater, Tennessee, to The Lost Sea, where I took the guided tour through the extensive caverns leading to North America's largest underground lake. The whole thing was great fun, but the best part was riding in the glass-bottom boat across the four-and-a-half-acre subterranean lake. The feeling of being underground on something resembling a sea was vaguely Tolkeinish; I could imagine Gollum across the water, his bulbous eyes glowing in the dark, hissing, "We hates it! Baggins!"

On my way back, I passed through a long stretch of roadwork in Athens, Tennessee. A large orange sign announced, "Workers Present When Flashing." Fortunately, through the whole six miles or so of the work, not a single worker flashed me, though the driver of an 18-wheeler with Texas license plates did stick his tongue out at me when I passed him.

As I neared Chattanooga I saw another sign; this one said "Chattanooga -- 25 mi or 40 km." I thought, Heck, that's a no-brainer: I'll take the 25 miles. 40 kilometers is too far to drive.

 August 28, 1998 

Another great vacation day. I arose promptly at the crack of noon, brushed my teeth, brushed my hair, put on my clothes, and went back to bed. I awoke again at 1:30, just in time to have what I thought to be a tastefully phrased proposition rejected by the young woman in the crisp blue uniform who had awakened me by bringing in fresh towels.

She suggested that I attempt the proposed activity as a solo affair. You can't get good help anymore.

* * * * *

Actually, the truth is that I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. I watched some TV (Animal Planet shows both Flipper and Lassie in the middle of the night, by the way), read, watched some more TV, wrote some e-mail, and finally gave up on going back to sleep around 6:00, which is when the deluxe continental breakfast starts.

Today's breakfast was nearly identical to yesterday's breakfast except that I had a bowl of Bran Flakes (not Raisin Bran, as I mistakenly identified it yesterday) in place of the mini-bagels. I also realized that in my list of breakfast items yesterday I neglected to mention the apples, oranges, and bananas that were only a platter away from the donuts and bagels, but then, anyone who knows me well knows that I get all my fruits from the filling in Pop Tarts, so you can probably understand the oversight. If they ever start making broccoli or string bean or carrot Pop Tarts, maybe I'll start getting some vegetables in my diet, too.

After breakfast I walked up to a used bookstore called All Books, which is on Broad Street a few blocks up from my hotel, and bought a couple of things. Then I came back and had breakfast again. When I went in for my second breakfast (one more English muffin with jelly and two more cups of coffee), I saw a middle aged man who wasn't any more overweight than I am (I dare any of you to touch that!) put BUTTER on a GLAZED KRISPY KREME donut! In fact, he buttered TWO donuts, microwaved them for about thirty seconds, and ate them with a fork and knife. I felt a strange combination of disgust and envy.

I spent the first half of my day at Rock City, always a delightful adventure, then I came back, rested a bit, and went to the Tennessee Aquarium, also always a delightful adventure. I spent half an hour in the Delta Country exhibit, possibly the single most humid 50 square feet on the planet. My glasses fogged up the moment I walked in, and within 10 minutes I was starting to evolve gills. But I just can't get enough of those ducks and turtles (not to mention the alligator!), so I stuck it out until I was nearly soaked.

Near the end of the aquarium tour I was looking at a huge ugly fish (an Arapaima, as it turns out, which is indigenous to the Amazon Basin and grows up to fifteen feet long) when a young boy, probably about four, came up to me, cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered confidentially, "Turtur," and pointed. I looked at the large swimming sea turtle and nodded. He pointed at a passing carp and whispered, "Fish." I nodded seriously, understanding the importance of knowing the Names of Things, especially large things that live in the sea, and of being four and curious.

 August 30, 1998 

In a few minutes I will check out of my hotel room and return to my boring life in Lawrenceville, GA. Before I go, I'd like to leave you with these closing thoughts:

Life should be like a Days Inn. In life:

* you should know how long you're staying.

* somebody else should change your sheets and give you fresh towels everyday.

* there should be a free, deluxe continental breakfast every morning from 6:00 until 10:00.

* HBO should be free.

* you should be able to choose your checkout time.

* when you leave, you should be able to take all your stuff with you.

That's my new philosophy.

(This message was sent as an e-mail message to many of my friends at ExecuTrain, where I worked back then. I added it to the blog on October 10, 2017--almost twenty years later.)

Tuesday, March 10, 1998

The Anniston Museum of Natural History

I’m writing to you from the lovely LaQunita Inn in Birmingham, Alabama, only a couple of miles down the road from the ExecuTrain of Birmingham office. I had a lovely drive here, averaging about thirty miles per hour due to my tendency to stop frequently at anything the catches my interest. (I should tell you that my actual average travelling speed was probably about 80, lest you think I’m a spineless, slow-driving wimp.)

I took a detour at the Anniston Museum of Natural History in (guess where?) Anniston, Alabama. It was very interesting, and well worth the $3.50 admission charge. I must admit that at first I was a little disappointed; I'd gotten the impression from the photograph on the front of the brochure I picked up at the Alabama welcome center that the museum had actual, live dinosaurs, but it turns out that they are merely dinosaur statues rather than the real thing. (Imagine my disappointment!) Once I adjusted my expectations I enjoyed the museum and learned a lot of interesting facts -- for example, floods are deadly not only because people drown in them, but because the flood waters drive rats from their natural homes, allowing them to spread diseases more rapidly and widely than they otherwise would. I also learned that at any given time, there are an average of 1,800 thunderstorms going on somewhere on our planet, and lightning strikes the Earth about 100 times every second!

I also learned that among the group of sixth graders who were alternately behind me, with me, and ahead of me, depending on how motivated I was to avoid them, was a young man who would, given the opportunity, "shoot everything in here" -- everything consisting of stuffed elephants, buffaloes, zebras, baboons, gazelles, skunks, tortoises, timber wolves, and, I assume, me, his classmates, and his teacher. "But they're already dead," his teacher pointed out, overlooking the obvious fact that she would be included in the ‘everything’ he would shoot. "Well, if they wasn't, you better believe it, buddy, I'd blow them away."

I then learned that his teacher is not very amused when her students call her 'buddy.'

It’s 4:17 Alabama time, but 5:17 Georgia time, which lends credence to my general feeling that things in Alabama are just a little behind things in Georgia.

Have a good day, everyone, and I will see (some of) you Thursday.

Christopher Brian Burdett

(This message was sent as an e-mail message to many of my friends at ExecuTrain, where I worked back then. I added it to the blog on October 10, 2017--almost twenty years later.)