The Running Dan: US Edition

So it was, that in the last month of the year of our lord 2007, 14 months away from hearth and home, our hero did return to the loving bosom of his motherland.

Let it be know that in the vigor of long anticipated events, one can dramatically overestimate the limitations of the human body and mind itself. My exuberance led me to lay out a fantastic plan that allowed for a vacation filled to the brim. However, my plans left no room for the much needed rest and relaxation that should also be an important part of a healthy balanced holiday.

Our story begins only a few days before Christmas. I touched down at home and hugged the family I had been so long without. After a brief respite at the house, I proceeded to conduct the Christmas shopping I could not accomplish via the interweb before my arrival. A day at the mall after a time spent so far from the luxuries of civilization was a fantastic journey all to itself. I was lucky enough to be joined in the foray by a few of the guys. After some shopping it was dinner time. Everyone I could call joined me and the family for a delicious celebration of the bovine flesh. We drank, ate, and made merry until we were completely sated.

The merrymaking and masticating came to an end, and I was due for a road trip. After a brief and hurried packing session at the house I was on the road to meet up with another old friend whom I would be diving with in the Keys. I arrived at his residence but a few hours from dawn, and it was decided that a brief nap would do us well before continuing the journey. So a couple of hours later we were on the road.

The back-story on my buddy Chuck here is short but sweet. We used to work together. Not really together, but for the same company doing the same job about 100 miles apart. In the few brief meetings we shared it became obvious we carried the same threads of spirit for adventure, adrenaline, and danger. As a former adventure facilitator, Chuck is the go to guy for spelunking, scuba, mountain climbing, etc. He spent every opportunity trying to convince me that I had the time and means to get into SCUBA even back then. One of my few regrets in life is not taking him up on his offer and waiting nearly 2 more years before discovering the wonders beneath the waves. My only recompense is to take him up on the adventure possibilities post haste.

Barely 24 hours into our journey and your dear storyteller is already looking a bit worn. The open road, the salty air of home and the sea beckon him on, give him strength!

After a healthy McDonald’s breakfast that came with a free stomach cramp, we checked into a hotel and made out way to dock.

Our charter for the day was the HMS Minnow, run by the illustrious Captain Jeff Jarvis . Jeff had us rigged up and ready to roll in no time. A beautiful 25 foot boat, perfect for 6 or less people. This was a real change from the giant charters with 20 plus people scrambling around the deck trying to get suited and in the water at the same time. Check out his site if you are ever planning a trip to Key Largo.

Unfortunately I had no underwater camera this trip. As sad as I am not to have pictures, I don’t think I would have remembered to take pictures with all the fun! You see, the ordinary diving trip is something like going to a zoo/museum. Ooh Ahh, point and be amazed at least till the DPVs come out, then it becomes a roller-coaster. Still a strictly hands off affair. Actually being down with a purpose, actually doing something other than ogling the natives, was a different trip entirely. This trip we went Lobstering!

We were only down in about 30-40 feet of water. Crawling from rock to rock with a stick and a net bag. The stick is to “tickle” then out from behind and the bag is obvious. I never really mastered the “tickle” technique and usually resorted to the lunge and grab method. We were late in the season so there weren’t any monsters or even any worth keeping, but still a ton of fun chasing the little buggers around every rock and coral. Lobsters are amazingly strong, if you get a hold of them its a blast just hanging on. The refraction in the water made them seem huge till you see your hand closing in on one. Don’t let their size fool you, all that tasty tail meat we love so much is muscle after all. Used simply for kicking that little fin around with surprising ferocity when necessary. Our “one that got away” wasn’t a lobster this time, it was a HUGE grouper we saw hanging around an old piece of pipe on the ocean floor. Not quite a man eater, but good man eats for sure. With no sling in hand we settled for salivating into our regulators at the thought of it blackened and grilled.

Jeff’s knowledge of every nook and cranny of the sea floor in the area proved invaluable. He was able to point out unseen rock clusters, reefs, and forgotten wreckage from the surface and perfectly identify which would hold the most lobsters. Even going so far as to give us directions that made sense once you hit the bottom.

The lack of depth gave us a ton of time, but the unforgettable fun burned it off all too quickly.

So it was a harrowing day of chasing tiny creatures around the bottom of the ocean. And time for some well deserved food, drink, and sleep for we had another day on the boat to follow.

Our next stop was the Spiegel Grove, a 510′ landing-ship dock that was decommissioned in 1989 and scuttled in May of 2002. My buddy Chuck had the honor of being on the team that scuttled what is still the largest ship intentionally scuttled for recreational purposes. Currently, the highest post of the ship is around 60 feet down with the deck around 90 and on down to 130 off the side. I say currently because this is a recent change. Much to my buddy’s and his team’s dismay, the ship flopped when scuttled. She came to rest nearly keel up with most of the interesting bits tucked down against the sand. They later attempted to roll her straight but only managed to get her on her starboard side. Luckily a hurricane came along to set things straight. In 2005 hurricane Dennis did the dirty work and put her nearly perfectly upright with the interesting bits on top and the keel in the sand. How’s that for luck!

Why did I tell you all of this dear reader, when a link would have sufficed? Because when my buddy and his pals were sinking this ship, they affixed a plaque to the hull commemorating all of those who helped put her down. This plaque was on the face which was buried until Dennis came along and Chuck had not been back down since the realignment. So our mission today was more of a hunt than a sight seeing trip.

Our previous dive at such a shallow depth didn’t steal much our decompression limit, but expecting to be scanning the side of the ship at over 100 feet put us on tight time tables. For the record, this is a HUGE ship! Descending into the murky depths where she now resides is like entering a new city at dusk. Even with the exceptional clarity we found in the water that day we came upon the first mast almost by surprise and followed it down into an overwhelming melange of decaying steel and newly formed life. Being so young in the water there were no huge growths of life to cut the ominous feeling of morbidity. Any structure, be it rock or boat which stands apart from the surrounding landscape will attract life to it. The wonders of the sea will cling to every crag and mire, build a home in every hollow, or just swim the gauntlet of facets in search of food. But that takes time, and the Spiegel is still eerie in her youth.

Our eyes adjusted to the gloom and presented us with an amazing deck we could barely discern due to its immense scale. We explored several doorways and portholes, even a short swim-through. The map in my head gave me a sense of depth and distance from fixed points, but to overlay that information on my weak map of the ship was nearly impossible. No matter, every nook and cranny drew my attention. Each with all the promise of life to come. Algae and Coral building up on every surface. But our time was short and our exploration only served to get us to the outer hull to begin our hunt.

We reached the end of the deck in short order. Peering over the edge I was greeted with a sheer wall of steel pocked with spots of algae and coral dropping straight down into darkness. As we floated out and began to descend, the safety and warmth of the deck was quickly lost to the depth and cold currents flowing up from the bottom. As we reached the level we expected to find the plaque the chill of the water set in and we both had a laugh as we shook off the nitrogen we could feel suddenly hitting the brain. It can best be described as the feeling when you stand up from the bar after a few shots. Nitrogen Narcosis normally creeps up on you as your are descending much like drinking while sitting. But the moment you stand up, or in this case as the water temperature dropped so dramatically, it can all hit you as once. Its a normal part of diving at manageable levels as long as you keep it in mind, but in extreme situation (just like drinking) it can lead to problems. So we came up a couple of feet to offset the swimming head and began our search. Looking at a wall of steel that stretched to the outer limits of our sight in front and nothing but open murky depths to our backs I truly felt the eerie depths I was sitting in. The mind just doesn’t like wide open emptiness in every direction. There is something about cover, obstacles, and distinguishing marks that make us at ease even in the 2 dimensions we normally live at. Standing in the vast emptiness of a dessert at night can be the eeriest feeling. Add the 3rd dimension, lack of hearing and sight that comes from being under water, and the knowledge things there can eat you from any angle, and it becomes something entirely more terrifying. Would it really be fun without a little trepidation? So we scanned back and forth along the hull for 50 feet or so rising a few for each pass. Our hunt took the remainder of our allowed time at depth and proved fruitless, but it was still an exciting dive.

I will return to the Spiegel and find that plaque. I just can’t let that one go.

Back at the dock, we parted ways with our dear Captain, and set out on old US-1 bound for Key West. Along the road we stopped for lunch at one of the best places to taste one of Florida’s delicacies. The Cracked Conch Cafe has some of the best conch soups, fritters, and every other conch based food served in the state. It has been so long since I had tasted the animal I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed it. We ordered the lot and stuffed ourselves silly.

Being the experienced Halls NAUI SCUBA Instructor Trainer that he is, my buddy did me the honor of regaling my feats and failings during the dive. Apparently, he had been performing small tests throughout the dive to see how I would handle them. Reasonable, considering my grand total of 10 dives and the certainty that. at depth, your buddy is just as likely to get you killed as you are. The general consensus was good. Coming from such a seasoned vet of the sport I was most pleased with passing his standards for a dive buddy and look forward to many more ahead!

And then the long…..


LOOOOONG drive down to Key West.

Our adventure started with an attempt to find lodging, which proved most difficult. Oh sure there were plenty of rooms, but in my usual holiday style any old hotel just wouldn’t do. So after digging around the Island for half a day we managed to find a nice condo to rent for a couple of days. This was only facilitated so quickly because of Chuck’s intimate knowledge of his old stomping grounds. He worked here for many years I later learned.

We settled in and hit the town. I (as always) should have taken more pictures, but there were so many tiny points of interest that held one or two things worth looking at that by the time I thought to snap we were moving on. I highly recommend a trip down if you find the time.

We stopped into a wonderful dockside bar early in the evening. I will be the first to admit that everything down there tasted wonderful and seriously choosing the best seafood place would be a maddeningly difficult task. I can comfortably say that you will not be displeased with Alfonzo’s. We ordered buckets of Oysters and every other edible critter on the menu served in varying degrees and methods of cooking. The highlight of the day was my FIRST MOJITO! As terrible as it sounds, yes at 24 I drank my first mojito. Wonderfully refreshing and cool on a hot and humid evening on the docks, I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes rum and most that don’t as well! Rum being my poison of choice, this variant was quickly placed at #2 just below Captain and Coke.

In a subsequent Mojito tasting event at a different location, I was surprised with a very different drink. My inquiry with the bartender revealed his native cuban roots and his distaste for the “Americanized” Mojito which contained too much sugar and sprite (which is loaded with sugar as well) instead of regular seltzer water. He assured me that what I held in my hand was the authentic Mojito and anything else was just a drink. My love of the drink only grew with his education.

So as young men do, we greeted the setting sun with much furvor, put on our fancy duds, and went charging into the night to tear the town apart.

We were eaten immediately. Key West or Key Weird as its known is home to some fantastic parties and clubs. We bounced from place to place drinking our fill making completes fools of ourselves. A good time to be had by all. I am just lucky the picture at 12:52 (look at the clock to verify) the next day wasn’t of me curled up like poisoned rat awaiting its final release and praying for it to come quickly.

But there is no rest for the wicked, the next morning we were back on the road and headed back to the mainland.

GIANT LOBSTER! Its actually just a mascot for a school there. The school itself was plastered with signs saying something like “This is a school, not a tourist shop, children play here please be respectful”. But come on GIANT LOBSTER!

I arrived back at Mom’s somewhere around 4am Christmas morning. So after an all too short nap it was back at it with Christmas morning festivities. My mom even found me the perfect holiday decoration given my previous destination and new found addiction. SCUBA SANTA!

I spent the morning with family doing the things families do on Christmas morning, spent the afternoon visiting with other people and trying to say hello to all of my extended family in the area. For those I did not visit, I promise I will get you next time! My evening was a bit of a surprise, I was expecting to catch up on some sleep but the phone rang and parties were ensuing that I couldn’t miss for the world. Sleep would have to wait. On the floor of my friend’s apartment I was startled to see that I had only an hour till my plane boarded, and I was 45 minutes from the airport. Thank god it was a domestic flight, I made it with a few minutes to spare.

I flew up to Virginia to visit with my long lost brother Keith and his wife. I learned an important lesson that day. Taxi drivers don’t know where your destination is located if it isn’t in a touristy or otherwise frequently visited area. So if you don’t know the area or if your not headed to a tourist trap, print a map before you fly and keep it just in case. My driver was a nice enough guy, but it took half an hour to get him to pull out his dashboard GPS (which he apparently never uses) and look the address up. Always better to have a map you don’t need than a map you need but don’t have. So I arrived at where the GPS told us we should be. The complex my buddy lives in is huge, the numbers were confusing, it was hovering just above freezing, and raining just enough to to be annoying but not enough to soak through my ever so thin hoodie I had brought. I was lucky enough to find the number, but not so lucky as to find anyone home. Keith had cleverly written a note so steeped in our personal nerd lingo that no one else could cipher its meaning to let me know I had found the right place. The back door had a small covering and the dog inside looked oh so familiar ( Keith’s blog is useful for something after all). So I cowered on the patio trying to stay warm and dry while playing with the dog through the glass. I hate admitting the cold got to me, but when I left work it was 120. It was probably 40 on the high side and I was wet. So I will forgive myself the lack of adaptation on such short notice.

It wasn’t very long before someone came home and I was inside, but I will certainly remember to bring a better jacket should I venture so far north in the winter!

I was greeted with all the love one should expect from his “brotha from anotha motha”. We talked nerd for a while to the anguish his Mrs. and pulled out the PSP’s to duel Lumines into oblivion. Apparently this also disgusted the Mrs. She could be heard saying “You traveled all the way around the world, flew up the day after Christmas to play each other at that game?”. We were obviously perplexed as to why she might find a problem with such a desire but we continued playing unabated.

Some friend’s arrived and we all bundled up and headed for a palace of carnal delights. Buffalo Wild Wings!

Having been so far away from the dozens of deliciously sauced varieties of our favorite buttered, breaded, and fried poultry, I may have gone a bit overboard. I was unable to decide from the variety so I ordered the smallest amount they would allow of nearly every flavor. I think I ordered over 60 wings, but that is just because they wouldn’t allow me to order less than 6 of a single type. So we all drank beer and slopped down our vittles with reckless abandon.

The hunger was sated, the fact that I hadn’t slept more than the nap on the plane began to set in. I was crashing hard. But with so few hours left with so dear of friends, it seemed necessary to fight. I lost.

Luckily Keith was perfectly happy playing with my Nikon, and I can fill this time with pictures.

The Wife.
The dogs fighting

The dog losing.
The Dog
The Wife

My original plan was to spend a couple of days with the pair and make a weekend of it. However they had booked a flight to Paris the next morning. I rearranged the flight so we left the airport at the same time, and made a side trip down to see another brother from another brother , Colby and my Sister from another mister, Katie. My total stay in Virgina was a whopping 23 hours, 3 of which I slept.

We said our “goodbyes” and “fare the wells” in the split between the domestic and international flights in the Richmond airport and went on our separate ways. My flight was a short nap at only 45 minutes down to South Carolina.

I can always count on Colby to find the best General Tso’s in the town, and so he did. We dined on Chinese and waited around for Katie to get off work. We went back to Colby’s Mom’s place where they reside and made some small talk with my Mom3 who I grew up with but hadn’t seen in many years.

Once the sun went down we were back to our old antics. This is a most peculiar mixture of enormous cups, Slurpee big-gulp size cups, of Captain with a splash of coke added for color, too many cigarettes, and a table. At said table we become inebriated as quickly as possible and proceed to discuss, ad-nauseum, every little intricate detail of life, death, and everything in between that we stumble upon. Some might say this is an argument, but much like any great passionate discussions, its merely the process through which we share our minds and the emotional heat it produces is merely a bi product of the work being performed. During which Katie does her favorite thing, drink slowly so as to stay mostly sober and watch the fire burn. Occasionally poking at it with a comment or 2 to stir things up. The only new addition was the camera, which we passed around to capture the moment for prosperity.

Colby poured the drinks.
Katie smiling and observing.
I wasn’t kidding about the size of the cups.
Katie smiling and observing some more.
Katie caught me trying to be poingant when standing would have been problematic.
The bottle of captain was full when we started. The coke was not.

Shortly after this picture was taken I fell face first into a couch and slept all too little before my all too early flight to my next destination. Total time in SC was just around 13 hours. We were all disappointed at the ever so brief interval in which I was able to visit, but it was worth every second with old friends. Before the sun came up I was on my flight to Alabama.

The next stop was to see new friends. Steve had worked with me for 6 months or so before moving on to the same job in a different place. When I heard our state-side times overlapped, I had to stop in to meet the family and get a taste of that sweet Alabama life he had described to me so many times.

He picked me up from the airport with a cold beer waiting. How much better of a friend could you ask for! We chewed the fat figuratively in the car and literally when we stopped into one of the best BBQ places in Alabama, Dreamland BBQ. Which automatically makes it one of the best BBQ places anywhere. We ordered the left side of the menu and went to town. Lucky for us the waitress overheard our conversations about work and gave us the service man discount.

Our bellies full, we continued our drive out to Steve’s hometown. He drove me around to see his old highschool, his old neighborhood, and a bunch of other things I can’t remember. You see, I folded under the weight of the exhaustion and passed out against the window. We hit a bump in the dirt road leading up to his beautiful house and I was shook awake. This gave me time to make myself conscious and greet the family. I met his wife, kids, his sister or her sister maybe both, I can’t remember, before being pointed to a bed which I unceremoniously collapsed upon.

I awoke from my coma nearly 16 hours later feeling oh so much better. All of my sleep since Key West had been on couches, and here I had over half a day in a REAL bed. This wasn’t that “im not waking up” sleep where you keep your eyes shut till you pass out again. I remember being shown the room, falling forward, and waking up face down 16 hours later as if only a second had passed. The big joke was that in her ever abundant southern hospitality and kindness Steve’s wife had removed the child sheets and put out the good linens for me to curl up in and I hadn’t even bothered to move the comforter.I just passed out fully clothed on top of the perfectly made bed.

We went out to do some shopping, picked up some beers, and headed back to the house. A deck of Uno cards appeared and we proceeded to play a game of Uno so vicious that some participants were nearly hospitalized. Luckily Steve, being a medic, was able to patch things up and keep the game going.

Don’t let the smiles fool you. When cards are on the table, it’s no holds barred.

Steve surprised me with some belated Christmas gifts. Something about getting me uncitified with some real-tree and a proper hat. He also found me some bottles of Marie Sharpe’s habanero hotsauce he used to stash at work. This stuff is hot and flavorful, just don’t use too much. The jacket and hat nearly had me in tears. Though my stay was short, I would blend in.

See the game faces, It’s all business now!
Pickup truck…CHECK….Beer….CHECK….Shotguns….CHECK. Lets shoot somethin!

Then we did something I had long forgotten to be fun. We went to a family friend’s birthday party at a skating rink. I must remember to do this more often. We skated, or tried to, for hours and there was CAKE! Who couldn’t have fun doing that?

I noticed a disturbing trend of growing older while I was there. What was once the raver underground glow stick fad, was now mainstream. Tweeny girls were running around everywhere with light up pacifiers. I guess they aren’t just for Xers anymore. Of course I have to get one for Steve. Luckily they had them right there in a vending machine.

For future reference, low light plus a child hopped up on cake and ice cream requires a flash and a fast shutter speed.
Or a grown man with a glowing pacifier.

We headed out from the party and spent the evening at the b-day girl’s house eating some of the best Etoufee and watching the latest UFC match. Always a wonderful way to wrap up the day.

The next morning I was on a plane back to Florida. Often it was said that I was living the family life through my friend, and he was living the adventures of the world through me. I think he got the better deal. After meeting his beautiful wife, wonderful children, and staying in his beautiful home. I can say that he is truly a blessed man.

I had a couple of days before the new year, and really expected to catch up on that “quality time” that everyone mentions when it comes to family and friends. I was pleasantly surprised to do more of it than I thought possible. I spent my days with family, and my nights with friends. There was always some place to be, or something to do. As much as I wish I could say that I caught up with everyone, it just never added up, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. At one point my brother said to me “go to sleep, I will wake you if your cell rings I promise, but GET SOME SLEEP!”.

I always fancied myself a decent party organizer. I couldn’t let a new years in town pass at another party. So months in advance I ordered some the wonderful tequila I discovered in Tokyo, stacked up some pizzas, dusted off the beer pong table, and we even managed to secure a keg, though just barely, being so close to the event. My mates were also due to move out of the house in short order, so for me this was a bit of a send off to the place.

Sadly it turned out that most people are unwilling to partake of tequila, even when you attempt most passionately to explain to them how much better than anything they have ever tasted this is. I managed to convert a few lucky souls, and maybe word will spread and a few more might join in next time.

In the quiet words of Sukki. “So much Liquor….how are we gonna drink it all”
So they arrived…
and ate…
and more showed….
…and there was much drinking and merry making!

To explain this picture this picture you have to understand it was my fault. I, having secured a good supply of the finest tequila, went on a mission to create for my mother the finest edition of her preferred poison. I used the finest tequila, the finest grand marnier, and a twist of lime to fashion the penultimate Margarita. The potency hidden completely behind a smooth, fruity, and delicate flavor. My dear sweet mother never stood a chance.



Congratulations Eric, you can now kick the interweb in the balls.


We drank and played beer-pong late into the night just like old times. It was a wonderful return to the old ways. Here’s to living them again! A big thanks to all my friends that turned out.

Before I left, I found myself in a position of great comedy that I could not resist. Call me evil if you wish, but I know you’re laughing.

Mischief and Mayhem completed. Friends and Family greeted. I had completed my trip home. It was time for some well earned sleep on the way back to work.


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