A Look Back at 2017

Been a year worth many Smiles! Smile Gas in Madison Heights, VA

I have to admit that my life is rich and joyful. This past year has been one very interesting and challenging year. There have been more ups and downs then a roller coaster ride in Kings Island.  But I made it through the year with a smile on my face!!

The year started off on a high note as we were in Maryland finishing up a Christmas vacation and I saw a beautiful sunrise. We had some nice travel and then I started a new contract job for PrecisionHawk, a company that manufactures drone software. I was very excited, though it was a contractor position, I was able to work from home which made it very nice. My contract was supposed to be for one year but later on in the year the company transitioned management and many decisions were made, including one to eliminate all positions outside of North Carolina, which included me. That was totally unexpected, but, those kinds of things happen in this economy nowadays so one has to just roll with the punches.

Sunrise as seen from Ocean City, MD on New Year’s Day 2017…that’s the Atlantic Ocean.

Visiting PrecisionHawk HQ in NC in early January 2017

In February my daughter Marissa and I made a trip to Houston to drop off a trailer to my son Seth and his wife Holly.  We took Missy’s kids and had some fun stops along the way there (in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) and back (in Texas, Arkansas and Missouri).  Road trips are always a blast, but are even more fun with Grandikidz!

Visiting Alabama with Landen, Lyla and Joselyn

The giant Saturn Rocket on display at the Welcome Center near Huntsville, AL

Lunch at Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, MS (see Roadside America Post abt Mammy’s Cupboard)

Stopover in Louisiana

Holding a baby gator at the Gator Chateau in Jennings, LA

They do get much bigger!!

Being Chunky in Chunky, MS

Having Fun with the Grandkidz at the Magnolia Market Silos in Waco, TX

Time in Houston was fun as well.  Found a great quirky burger joint that we all went to.  Pretty unique…

The Shack Burger Resort in Cypress, TX – a load of fun!!

After visiting the family we returned home, first with a stopover in Uncertain, Texas to see the swamps.  Though uncertain about things, we met Aaron Applebaum (Mystique Tours) who took us on a boat tour through the swamp.  Didn’t see gators, but this February morning was a nice ride.  The kids even go to drive the boats.

Uncertain, Texas

Joselyn and Grampz on the boat somewhere in the swamp of Caddo Lake, near Uncertain

Aaron Applebaum let’s Landen drive the boat in the swamp

from the swamps of Texas/Louisiana, we headed north through central Arkansas and Missouri — a route that brought both planned and unplanned adventures.  In the middle of Arkansas, we came across a massive flock of migrating Snow Geese as we crested a hill.  What an amazing sight!!  We went through Missouri and then had a super time in Metropolis, IL.

Thousands of snow geese take to flight in central Arkansas

Hitting Missouri with the grandkidz

Having a super time with Superman in Metropolis

Later in the month my wife and daughter had a trip to Indianapolis to attend Time Out For Women. Wanting a road trip, I went along for the weekend ride.  We went out of our way to visit Story, IN and the Story Inn for lunch.  While they were at their conference, I visited some places in Indy.  Always seeking adventure!

Story, Indiana

The Historic Story Inn offered some amazing food!

Nashville, Indiana

Welcome to Indianapolis!

Hanging with Anthony Snape after his fabulous show at the Lexington Opera House.

We didn’t travel in March at all, but I was thrilled to attend an amazing concert in Lexington, where I got to meet up with my old Australian musician pal Anthony Snape, who performed with the amazing Tommy Emmanuel.  I took Marissa and she had a blast!

Later in the year I also got to attend a couple of other concerts, which I’ll note below.

 

Visiting Shenandoah National Park on Easter 2017

Julianne’s sister had a time share reservation in Virginia and so they set up a three night stay over Easter Weekend. As always, I wanted to drive.  I would take Julianne up there and then drive back on Easter morning.  I had a spectacular Easter morning visiting Shenandoah National Park and celebrating my own Easter Sunrise Service.  Had a spectacular moon (and even got a photo of Venus!!!) and took a really nice shot of a deer.

Easter Moon (taken with a Nikon D5200 and Tamron 200mm-600mm lens)

Caught this deer at sunrise off the side of the road. It stayed long enough for a quick shot.

Easter sunrise from atop the Shenandoah Mountains

By July I was out of “full time“ work and was striving to make it on the two or three small contracts that I had for a number of years with Vype magazine. That made things very difficult.

A composite of me with all of my grandchildren in 2012 and then again, same pose in 2017 (minus the youngest)

Hanging with the Grandkidz at the Wigwam Village in Cave City, KY. Yes, we stayed there!

That said, it was probably fortuitous that my position was eliminated because in July one of the highlights of the year came along and that was being able to be with my entire family for the first time in five years. All of my children and all my grandchildren were gathered together here in Kentucky and we had in some cases up to two weeks of reunion with family members.

With the family reunion came some additional fun as we traveled with parts of the family to a number of diverse areas including Mammoth Cave National Park, New York to see the Hill Cumorah Pageant and along the way a couple of beautiful state parks with amazing waterfalls, then on to Cleveland where we had another huge family gathering with my Laurienzo family and most of my family that was with us on the trip.

With Grandkidz at Mammoth Cave NP

Mammoth Cave

At the amazing waterfall in Letchworth State Park in New York

One of dozens of waterfalls in the gorge at Watkins Glen State Park in New York

With my wife’s sister Laura and her husband Richard in the depths of the gorge at Watkin’s Glen

Got to see my good friend Corey White, who was performing in the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

Visiting King’s Island as a family – what fun!

Making a splash with my granddaughter Autumn

All of us enjoyed the view from atop Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh, PA

Cleveland!

With my sisters Nicole and Tina and brother Joe in Cleveland

My sister Sherry came up from Texas with her husband Brian and daughter Savannah to join us for a couple of days.  Had a thrill going with them to see the band Chicago perform in Cincinnati.  I hadn’t seen them since 1975!!

Traveling to Cincinnati with Sherry and Brian to go see Chicago

Chicago Live in 2017!

One of the many roller coasters at King’s Island

The two weeks in July was an amazing time and one which most of us will not forget too soon.  We even got some family pics, including this goofy one at Waveland State Historic Park near Lexington.  I was contracted by the park to do their official photography for websites and other materials.  It has been fun to do this throughout the year.

The whole family in prime form – July 2017!

The year also brought sadness for me as one of my very good friends, Joseph Higginbotham, got ill and eventually passed away. Joseph was a good man and he had no family, very few friends and really nobody there for him, so I made numerous trips to West Virginia while he was in intensive care, a nursing home and ultimately in hospice. I was with Joseph at his bedside when he passed away.

Remembering my good friend Joseph Higginbotham, who passed away in June 2017

I also had a dear sweet cousin pass away. Donna Shoemaker, a cousin of mine through my Laurienzo family, passed away this year. She was one of the sweetest and kindest souls I’d ever met. Knowing her added luster to my life!

With my cousin Donna in 2016.

Visiting with Charles Snow

During 2017 I was also able to visit in North Carolina with one of my very close friends from college days who had also worked with me at Nava-Hopi Tours in Flagstaff, AZ. Charles Snow has been a friend of mine for well over 36 years, and I was thrilled to visit with him in North Carolina. He too has had some major illnesses and it breaks my heart. My thoughts and prayers go out for him daily as he suffers and struggles from a rare disease and from congestive heart failure. This kind of thing brings sadness to my heart. Besides him, I have a few other friends who are struggling.

Happy Happy Happy

But, where there are downs, there are also upsides. And the year brought many wonderful and exciting things for me, some of which were lifetime thrills!

When you speak of the highlights of your life, it often centers around children being born, getting married or some big events like that. I have had many of those in my life, but this year I had three big “Once in a lifetime” type of rare events happen.

The first of these occurred in January when I had heard about the possibility of seeing the migration of sandhill cranes as they come through Kentucky. In mid-January ventured south to Barren River Lake to check it out during their sandhill crane event. I was excited as I saw 200 or 300 Sandhill Cranes far out in a field. I couldn’t ever get very close.

Got to be amazed by Sandhill Cranes in January…1000s of them.

But, I had also heard that there might be some near Cecilia, Kentucky, which is near Elizabethtown. So that morning I drove up I-65 to Cecilia and drove around a little bit. Soon I came across a flock of these tall, beautiful sandhill cranes. To my astonishment, I soon saw that there were thousands of them! They surrounded me in every direction. The eerie sound they make echoed in my ears while I saw the beautiful grace of these birds taking off and landing in massive numbers while many others stayed on the ground feeding on the leftover corn in the farmland that they were in.

Love the Sandhill Cranes!

I hung around for nearly 5 hours watching this beautiful event, all the way until sunset. It will always remain a highlight of my life, though I plan to visit and revisit again in future years, including this upcoming January (2018).  Ironically, in December of this year we went to Barren River Lake State Resort Park and stayed three nights.  I once again saw hundreds of this birds!

Sandhill Cranes in December 2017 near Barren River Lake State Resort Park

Viewing the Solar Eclipse near Hopkinsville, KY

Another event happened, also in Kentucky. The middle of the year there was the famed great solar eclipse of 2017. It was a full eclipse which is very rare. In my 61 years of life, I had never seen one. So I took the day off and I booked it down to Hopkinsville, Kentucky where it was supposedly the epicenter and perhaps the best place in the world for viewing the eclipse. Thousands and thousands of people gathered from all around the world to witness this natural event. I was one of them.

Many cars had things on them like this one to go see the Total Eclipse

Thousands were in chairs to see the eclipse

This kid was focused!

For a couple of hours I drove around witnessing the “circus“ atmosphere in Hopkinsville. People were dressed in eclipse T-shirts and many had their Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon“ T-shirts on. Of course, everyone had their solar sunglasses!

As the event got near, I sought to find a place away from many people. I eventually found a small church that had parking for $10 and I paid them and I went and parked and sat and watched the event with amazement. I tried desperately to find a good filter for my camera in the previous weeks, but was not able to, so I had to wait until the actual event occurred to get some photos, which are shown below. Talk about a wonderful highlight!

Total Eclipse as seen through my Nikon

I got the Diamond!!

The last shot with my camera before the sun came out. Didn’t have a filter.

The third big exciting event of my life happened just a few weeks ago as I published my first book. I plan on publishing another 11 in the series, but my first book, titled “Less Beaten Paths of America: Unique Town Names,” is a book that took thousands of miles of travel and a lot of visits to out of the way places. I had written many blog posts and taken hundreds of photographs to finally create enough content for this book and those that will follow.

Published my First Book in December. Available on Amazon…sold over 100 copies and over 150 Kindle downloads in first month

Another highlight and good note for me for the year was being hired as a full-time employee by the website ComicBook.com in October. This was my first hired position in over five years and I have to say that I was filled with joy and gratitude for the opportunity. I am currently managing their database, which is massive and includes movies, television shows, anime and many other things. It’s a great opportunity for me and it’s a blast to work with superheroes all day!

My Happy Place

My Happy Place

This year I spent many hours visiting the nearby Jacobson Lake in Lexington, taking photographs of sunrises, sunsets, nature scenes and lots of birds. It has become my “happy place” where I can seek solace and enjoy the wonderful variety of God’s creations.

I got my first good photographs of eagles in 2017. There are two bald eagles that are hanging around the lake and I was able to photograph them and experience that wonder.

Heron with breakfast

One of my many bald eagle shots

Not only did I get to see eagles, some of them close up as the photo below shows, but I also was able to witness a massive flock of Snow Geese in Arkansas as I traveled with my grandchildren, I was able to watch Osprey dive in the water and grab fish, I watched with amazement as a Baltimore oriole wove its nest in a sycamore tree over a number of days. This year became my bird watching year and it was wonderful.

 

Took this Bald Eagle shot near Cave Run Lake

My happy duckling

I am amazed at nature and the variety that it offers. It’s been wondrous to watch cormorants swimming in groups in the lake as they “herd“ fish into a corner and then feed voraciously! It has been interesting to see the unusual and curious looking merganser ducks swim in flocks together. It is always peaceful to watch the graceful flight of a great blue heron or a great white egret. Both of which I’ve been able to experience this year. (I’ll be doing a subsequent post on my best bird shots of 2017 — so watch for it.)

A Red-winged blackbird

This goldfinch apparently had a bad day

Great White Egret in Flight

An amazing bird – the Osprey

Then there are others….

Flying squirrel

Blue Heron with Breakfast

Despite the negative political climate that has evolved in America, the terrible hurricanes and earthquakes and fires that are devastated much of America, I have been very blessed to be in a lovely place and not be directly impacted by any of these things. I have been able to enjoy life to its fullest this year. I’ve been able to see God’s creations. Through my photography I have made many new friends. I am fortunate to get to see many of them at the lake. I’ve been able to have joy with my 10 grandchildren, my five children and my lovely wife throughout the year.

Some of my photographer friends….thanks to them for making 2017 a good year

Hanging with Eddie Flinchum at the lake

Jerome Keeler

Charles Gough

Hallie Faurest

The gang at an eagle shoot meetup at Taylorsville Lake

Finally, we finished off the year on a high note.  Earlier in the year I had been contracted to do the photography for Waveland State Historic Park in Lexington. Through them we coordinated an agreement with the Barren River Lake State Resort Park. We spent three days in a unit down there (read Staycation) between Christmas and New Years.  Saw some splendid sunrises and sunsets and got to revisit the Sandhill Cranes. There were thousands of them all over the sky.

Winter evening sky at Barren River Lake

Sandhill Cranes fly across the sky

Daughter Chelsea takes after her Dad, catching the sunset

Found Paradise Point nearby — what a kick (there will be a separate blog post about this)

Brilliant Sky over Barren River Lake

When I look back on the year 2017, it will be with joy and happiness and many many many fond memories.

Choose Happy

So, as 2017 comes to an end, my heart is filled with gratitude and joy and I look forward to a splendid 2018!

End of 2017 — sunrise near Barren River Lake

Countdown 365: #312 – Thanksgiving Day

TDay14Thanksgiving Day is THE day for gratitude and thanks.  However, I have been “counting my blessings” daily and so I want to use Thanksgiving Day 2015 as a day of gratitude for THAT specific day as it turned out to be a wonderful day from stat to finish.

The day would prove to be a very busy one, but one filled with joy points, family gatherings, and lots of food and fun.

Early Morning full moon on Thanksgiving Morning

Early Morning full moon on Thanksgiving Morning

The full moon glowed opposite the sunrise

The full moon glowed opposite the sunrise

I actually started the day off early to make an early morning visit to my favorite sunrise viewing spot at Jacobson Lake, only a few miles from my house. The skies were partly cloudy and still dark as I made my way to the lake. The moon was bright and full.  The air was crisp at about 46 degrees, but it was beautiful.

Behind me the moon was full and still glowing at 7 AM.  In front of me the sky was filled with dozens of shades of pink and orange at dawn.  The sun still had to make its way up above the

A jet streaks across the sky before the sun made its way above the horizon

A jet streaks across the sky before the sun made its way above the horizon

horizon, but, was already lighting the sky.  A jet streaked across the sky with its contrails glowing orange.  Canadian geese welcomed the morning…some took flight, others took a morning swim in the cool waters of the lake.

For me, this was a glorious and magnificent way to start off my Thanksgiving Day.  I stood by the side of the lake with a heart filled with gratitude for the beauty of this earth and for the blessing of being able to experience it with all of my senses.  And photos honestly don’t do justice.  But, here are a few from this early morning experience.

A panorama shot of the lake and skies just before sunrise

A panorama shot of the lake and skies just before sunrise

Geese in flight overhead at dawn

Geese in flight overhead at dawn

Geese hit the water for an early morning swim. It is wonderful to see them glide into the lake in tandem

Geese hit the water for an early morning swim. It is wonderful to see them glide into the lake in tandem

The early morning sky was filled with color

The early morning sky was filled with color

Geese swim by as they await the grand entrance of the sun

Geese swim by as they await the grand entrance of the sun

The sun finally makes an appearance as it peeks through the clouds on the horizon

The sun finally makes an appearance as it peeks through the clouds and trees on the horizon

Here comes the sun (I can hear George Harrison's sweet voice)

Here comes the sun (I can hear George Harrison’s sweet voice)

Glorious Thanksgiving Sunrise

Glorious Thanksgiving Sunrise

I sat in awe, as I often do, watching the glorious sunrise, listening to the cackle of the geese, watching the blue herons snuggle with the bushes to stay warm in the early morning cool.

I was physically and emotionally revitalized and ready to pursue the exciting family events of the day.  This solitary time with camera, wildlife, clouds and sun is something I crave.  Yes, I love music in my ears and I work in front of a computer all day.  But THIS is escape for me.  I love the open roads for the same reason. The world is glorious and God’s creations are magnificent.  And, on Thanksgiving morning, it was almost like a private worship service for me.

Sunrise on Thanksgiving

Sunrise on Thanksgiving

Turkey in brine getting readied for the Big Green Egg experience

Turkey in brine getting readied for the Big Green Egg experience

I left with a full heart and headed back home.  I had already put wood chips out to soak in preparation for grilling and smoking a turkey on my Big Green Egg. Originally, Julianne and I had planned to just go to a catered buffet for Thanksgiving this year.  No fussing, no dirty dishes, etc.  Julianne’s cousin Tregoney Shepherd, who happened to be in Louisville as one of the performers in the traveling Broadway production of “Wicked,” would be joining us for this brunch.  But our daughter Chelsea made it known that she was having a big get together and wanted me to smoke a turkey on the BGE.  Soon, Julianne had volunteered to bring a “few” things as well. So much for the “non-cooking” day.

Got the Big Green Egg smoking

Got the Big Green Egg smoking

We prepped the turkey the night before by brining it with numerous herbs, etc.  This has traditionally been our way of doing a turkey for a few years.  When I got home I warmed up the BGE and got it smoking good.  I actually heated up the grill to about 700 degrees to clean off all of the stuff that had built up and then cooled it back down to about 250 as we prepped for the turkey.

These grills are fabulous because they have what they call the convEGGtor™  which provides for indirect Convection Cooking on the Big Green Egg.  These allow heat to efficiently radiate within the dome while preventing the flames and heat from over-cooking the food.  I put this in the grill and added the soaked Pecan wood chips and the grill was ready for the turkey!

FireintheHoleThese get nice and hot and provide a great balanced method of cooking almost anything.  We have cooked pizzas, veggies, pork loins, steaks, Portabello mushrooms and even cantaloupe on them.

You can see by the photo on the left that they are flaming and warm.

It was ready for the turkey!!

 

 

Turkey on the BGE

Turkey on the BGE

I opened the grill for a great shot of the BGE doing its job smoking.

I opened the grill for a great shot of the BGE doing its job smoking.

At Copper Roux with Tregoney

At Copper Roux with Tregoney

Once we had the grill going, it was time to get ready to head out with Tregoney for the Thanksgiving brunch.  We made arrangements with Bayou Bluegrass Catering, which offered a Thanksgiving Buffet that started at 11 AM at their Copper Roux facility. It was a nice experience and NO DISHES AND CLEANUP!

The Thanksgiving Buffet had many traditional offerings, but there were also some southern accented dishes such as their green beans with bacon, collard greens, Cajun spiced turkey and gravy, corn pudding and shrimp with grits. There were also many amazing desserts.

Salads aplenty at Copper Roux buffet

Salads aplenty at Copper Roux buffet

Enjoying buffet at Copper Roux

Enjoying buffet at Copper Roux

Some of the amazing desserts at the Copper Roux buffet

Some of the amazing desserts at the Copper Roux buffet

We left the Copper Roux fairly full.  I tried not to overdo it and I avoided the things I knew I would get at Chelsea’s later in the day.  We hurried home where I checked on the turkey, which was basically done.  Julianne prepped a couple more things for Chelsea’s shindig and then we all took some brief naps before heading to Chelsea’s at 5 PM for their festive Thanksgiving affair.

Ugh...an undesired Thanksgiving tradition continues with a trip to Kroger

Ugh…an undesired Thanksgiving tradition continues with a trip to Kroger

Over the past three to four years it has become an unfortunate Thanksgiving tradition that I end up making two to three trips to Kroger for forgotten or needed items.  Due to our advanced preparations and our going to the buffet, I figured for sure that I would not have to make a trip.  But alas, I ended up keeping this unwanted tradition….

Seems like there is always something that gets forgotten or is needed at the last minute.  This time it was creamed corn, pumpkin pie spice and aluminum foil.  Thank goodness it was a nice day!!

Joined my granddaughter Autumn in the tradition of a Thanksgiving "Turkey Hat"

Joined my granddaughter Autumn in the tradition of a Thanksgiving “Turkey Hat”

After the naps we were off to Chelsea’s.  Ultimately, there were going to be 30-40 people show up for this one.  Her husband Jorge and his brother Luis have an extended group of Mexican friends that are almost like family.  We have gotten to know many of them.  This was a mixture of American tradition with Mexican flair.  We brought our smoked turkey and there was a Mexican spiced turkey there as well.  Along with the pumpkin, pecan and apple pies, there was also a tres leches cake.  Chelsea also made this tasty warm fruity Mexican punch called “ponche” which was wonderful.

Mexican Ponche was delightful.

Mexican Ponche was delightful.

Our smoked turkey from the Big Green Egg

Our smoked turkey from the Big Green Egg

Mexican spiced turkey

Mexican spiced turkey

Some of the spread, including spicy deviled eggs with jalapenos

Some of the spread, including spicy deviled eggs with jalapenos

Chelsea's famed Googleberry Pie (actually using an old family recipe from my wife's family)

Chelsea’s famed Googleberry Pie (actually using an old family recipe from my wife’s family)

Thanksgiving Hat Fun with Tregoney, me, Julianne and Chelsea

Thanksgiving Hat Fun with Tregoney, me, Julianne and Chelsea

Pot of Ponche with pineapple, apples, raw sugar cane, and more.

Pot of Ponche with pineapple, apples, raw sugar cane, and more.

There was fun and music (Jorge set up his DJ equipment and we listened to Christmas music on the back deck drinking the ponche and enjoying the festivities in English and Spanish).

It is always fun to join Chelsea and her family friends.  Though there is a great deal of Spanish being spoken, we are still able to communicate.  We have been to so many of these that many of the friends are almost like family, giving us hugs when they visit.

Julianne and I typically leave before the REAL fun begins. Many of them have a few beers or some wine and the dance music begins.  They party and dance late into the night with traditional Bachata dancing and perhaps some other kinds.  They all know how to party hearty and it is all in good fun.

As for Julianne and I, we returned home, put the food away and crashed.  It was a long, yet wonderful Thanksgiving day.  Friday would bring family to the house for more family feasting and fun as our three children and their kids would spend the afternoon with us.

Truly grateful for Thanksgiving and the opportunity to celebrate with family and friends.