A road trip to Orlando. That was our solution for these two opposing ideas – we wanted to be able to visit all of our siblings on this trip, including Brad’s sister Julie and her family who live in Orlando, Florida. But we also didn’t want to use up the valuable weeks upon weeks that it would take to pull Stumbo all the way down there and back. In a game of picking & choosing US locations to see in a limited amount of time, the southeast states weren’t a priority. So as a final excursion from Arkansas during our months based there, we loaded up in my mom’s Explorer to save a little gas money (thanks, Mom!) and drove 2,500 miles to see some family, some friends, and check 6 more states off the list.
Our first day took us across northern Mississippi and into Alabama, where we stayed with some Harding friends. Brad and Everett were even roommates one semester. In their home we enjoyed playing with some new friends and reading lots of good books.
The next morning we visited Unclaimed Baggage which is in their town – have you heard of this place?! They sell all the random stuff that is never claimed at airports, and apparently an occasional shipping container. I imagined row after row of giant suitcases that you just paid $20 for unopened to discover what treasures it might hold. Not so….this place was Goodwill meets Ikea, with whole buildings full of kids’ clothes and toys, a camping section, music, dvd’s, LOtS of suitcases and backpacks, a warehouse full of really nice clothes, and digital cameras & laptops for days. We had planned to just “take a peek” for less than 15 minutes, but we couldn’t help but meander around the entire place, finding treasures and deals at every turn. We could have spent all day hunting inside this place, but managed to get out in less than an hour and spent less than $30 on a new pair of jeans, replacement set of headphones, 3 kid movies, 2 kids books, a coloring book, a pencil pouch, a binder for school, and new shoes.
The next day took us across the state of Georgia to the very eastern edge where we stayed with more college friends. The extra special thing about these friends is that they include the only other person we’ve ever known named Sunny! Our Sunny was counting down the days until she could finally meet this wonderful person, although once we arrived, she was actually much more interested in sliding down the stairs with her children. Our kids played and played and played and played while we caught up on some of the past 12 years of each others’ lives.
The next morning we crossed the state line into South Carolina (just to say we did) and they showed us a park they love with walkways through a marsh where they have seen alligators on numerous occasions.
Day three took us south all the way to Florida, where we arrived at Julie & Orges’s house in time for dinner. As an added bonus, Brad’s Uncle Patrick and his family just happened to be in Orlando for the weekend, so we had one big happy family reunion dinner!
During our visit with Julie & Orges, they showed us some of their favorite things around Orlando – favorite beach at New Smyrna, favorite neighborhood park, favorite museum, favorite pizza place… It was such a wonderful thing to get to reconnect with family and peek into their everyday lives in a way we don’t usually get to do living all the way across the country.
Our museum pass was actually valid at the Orlando Science Center, which is a fantastic museum that Julie visits with her kids quite frequently. So Ian was eager to show off all of his favorite parts of the exhibits to Sunny & Coral.
When the time came to head back to Arkansas, we drove back a different way so that we could see some other new places and hit Louisiana. On the first afternoon we made it as far as Pensacola Beach, where a short drive down to the end of the island led us to the white sandy beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore. This is the first National Park that we’ve visited on the trip without doing the Jr. Ranger program…but we only had a couple of hours worth of daylight and we just wanted to spend it playing in the sand. Just as we walked up to the water we saw dolphins jumping in the waves. This makes the 3rd time on this trip we’ve seen dolphins!
That night we stayed in a HOTEL, which was the one part of this trip that Sunny had been excited about for WEEKS. They were so eager to swim in a hotel pool and watch cartoons in bed. Mission accomplished.
On our final driving day, we left the Florida panhandle to drive across southern Alabama, then Mississippi (where we stopped for the delicious lunch pictured below), and then into Louisiana.
Even though our stay in Louisiana was very brief, we found a wildlife refuge with the word “bayou” in the name near our route which seemed like a win. We stopped there and took our Louisiana geography page out on the dock to learn about the state with the sounds and smells of the bayou all around us.
It was a pretty fantastic road trip. I won’t lie, we all had our moments. (For example, in the picture above what you don’t see is that our papers kept almost flying away and it was way more frustrating than it sounds!) We try to keep pit stops to a minimum and when we do stop we are like drill sergeants urging everyone to “keep it snappy!” We mostly eat snacks and pre-made meals in the car to avoid the cost and time of restaurants, which means we mostly live off of raisins, tortillas with sun butter, fruit, and granola bars. And there’s only so many hours you can be squished in a car with 4 people without getting annoyed at them, no matter how much you love them. But we have all grown pretty accustomed to our specific manner of traveling, and overall I was wildly proud of how we all managed for the 30+ hours in the car. And even though we basically flew through much of this part of the world, we tried to be sure to bite off nibbles of culture, history, geography, and fun as we went along. We sang Sweet Home Alabama as we drove out of Scottsboro and learned about Rosa Parks. We listened to Georgia on my Mind as we navigated Atlanta traffic and ate Chilean peaches. We drove down Pensacola beach with the sunroof open singing “Surfing’ USA” at the top of our lungs. We ate crawfish and looked for alligators and saw lots and lots of turtles. As we drove around the Louisiana bayou we listened to jazz and read about the history of New Orleans. It was a short amount of time – just about 8 days. But the days were full, and they were sweet, and we are grateful.