Sunday, July 27, 2008

Branson, Missouri

Still catching up on events I never got around to blogging at the time . . .

Warning: this is a long post.

From June 29 through July 6, I took a wonderful vacation to Branson, Missouri, with my family (Mom, stepfather, stepsister, her husband, and their twins). They'd all been before, but this was my first time.

We stayed at a resort right on Table Rock Lake. The scenery was incredibly beautiful, although the water levels are extremely high. At that time, the lake was 13 feet above normal, which meant all the islands were submerged, with only the tops of trees sticking up like tufts. Boaters had trouble because they couldn't anchor--the ropes weren't long enough. Also, fishing was bad because the fish had so many more places to hide.

At the State Park Marina, the flooding goes well into the parking lot. The handicapped parking spaces were submerged halfway up the signs. The public telephone was almost completely under water, as were several park benches. Several of the docks were inaccessible because they were completely cut off from shore. The main dock had several extensions chained together to reach dry land.

We had quite a few thunderstorms come across the lake, especially later in the week. On the worst day, July 3, the weather started out hot and humid, but pleasant. After a while, I heard distant thunder, and the skies clouded. Then the storm swept across Table Rock Lake very, very swiftly. First the wind picked up, and whitecaps began to form on the water. All the boats, except for one houseboat, hightailed it for the harbor. Then in the distance, I could see rain on the hills. When it hit the water, a sharp white line crossed the lake. Everything behind the line was a mass of indistinct gray. Ahead of the line, the waves kicked up higher and higher. Then the wind hit us, just head of the rain. Our screened-in balcony was drenched in seconds. The fake potted tree blew over. Looking out the window, I watched that houseboat blow hundreds of feet from where it had been parked, then evidently the people inside woke up and got the motor started, and they began to very slowly creep against the wind. I can't imagine how terrifying it must have been for them to be out on the lake in those conditions.

I went out in the boat on one of the nicer days. We went all over the lake, stopping in several places. I got out to swim twice. Keep in mind that I do not swim. I flounder about. But the life jacket kept me afloat, and I had fun splashing and floating around. I went tubing, towed behind the boat. It was my first time doing anything like that. It was fun and exciting, but I got a lot of water in my eyes and I bruised the bejezzus out of my knee bouncing on the waves.

The trees were very different than we have around Nebraska. I wasn't familiar with most of the species. Seeing mile after mile of verdant, thick, impenetrable forest was absolutely breathtaking. So many of the trees have sheaths of vines wound around them, completely obscuring any bark on the trunks or branches.

For a great view, go to Inspiration Tower and ride the glass elevator to the top floor, a glassed-in observation deck. By stairs, you can also go one level down, to an open air deck. You can see all of Branson, all of Table Rock Lake, and Ozarks as far as the eye can see. What a spectacular view.

The Ozarks are full of rock formations jutting from the land, some natural, others blasted out to make room for roads. The ground was so saturated that water was seeping from the cracks between the stones, so it looked like the cliffs were weeping.

Saw a lot of turkey vultures. They're everywhere! And I mean everywhere. I don't think I ever looked into the sky without seeing a vulture, or typically several of them, circling over some point in the distance.

My second most frequent bird sighting was the great blue heron. Every day, I saw several of them at Table Rock Lake. They travel singly, and they are majestic as they fly low and strong near the surface of the water, crossing the vast lake. One morning, sitting out on the balcony with my coffee, I saw a great blue heron fly by very close. This sighting was unusual because had his neck stretched all the way out so he could croak his creaky cry. Incredibly cool! It sounded prehistoric, like I imagine a pterosaur might have sounded. When he finished talking, he pulled his neck back to normal flight position.

There is a lot to do in Branson. It's kind of scary to think that the actual population of the town is barely over 6,000, but the city has 18,000 hotel rooms available. And unlike business travelers who tend to be solo, a touristy place like this attracts couples and families, so rarely would any of those rooms have only one person staying in them. So you could conceivably have six or more tourists to every resident at any given time. I suspect tourism is the town's only industry. But they do it well. It was tremendous fun.

The Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery was pretty cool, and had the added benefit of being free. They have a nice little nature center with live snakes, turtles, and, of course, fish. The runways outside are full of trout. Nerd that I am, I love seeing how stuff works, so seeing the fish farming operation was pretty cool for me. We also saw a young beaver running through the hatchery. He obviously knew where he was going, since he trotted up the hill then ducked under the fence.

Another worthy find was The Fish House, a restaurant in downtown Branson at the end of the Branson Landing shopping area. It's down on the river itself, not visible from the road. You can't see it except from the Bass Pro Shop parking lot. The decor was hunter-rustic, with canoes hanging from the ceiling; mounted fish, animals, and antlers on the walls; and artificially distressed wood and metal furnishings. The mounted heads included everything from a boar to a moose. Their fish, of course, was excellent, but the kicker for me was the jalapeno corn bread that came with every meal. They brought it out piping hot from the oven, still in the small cast-iron skillet it was baked in. It was absolutely fantastic, and the jalapeno was not overwhelming--just a little zingy. Heaven!

Also at Branson Landing, every hour on the hour, they have a show at the fountain. A series of fountain jets shoot high into the air in patterns timed to the music piping from the loudspeakers. Behind the water jets, a series of fire jets punctuate the music with flame spurts. The fountain jets were occasionally augmented by popping blasts of air that shot the water extra high. It was only ten minutes long, but well worth it. Very, very neat.

Branson Landing is otherwise not that exciting, unless you love to shop. The majority of the stores were major chains that I expect to see in any mall, so that seemed pretty boring to me. I'd rather go to places I can't find around home.

Besides the Fish House, the other restaurant I'd strongly recommend to anyone visiting the area is on the campus of the College of the Ozarks. Students at the college pay no tuition, but they are required to work on campus. So the restaurant is staffed entirely by students in white coats and black ties. The decor is all wood, copper, and stone--very classy and well built. The food was excellent. I had the special of the day, a cajun ribeye sandwich on ciabata bread. Fantastically wonderful. Creme brulee for desert.

But the single best meal I had wasn't in a restaurant. On our last day there, the fish were finally biting. The guys wanted to stay out longer, but the lightning crashing down all around the lake forced them to come in. But they brought with them a large, beautiful black bass. Within minutes, the bass was in the frying pan with a little butter and a light dusting of crumbled crackers. Oh. My. God. It is no stretch to say that was the best fish I've ever tasted. Certainly the freshest, but also so tender, yet firm; succulent, with a gentle, mild flavor; savory and just a touch salty from the butter and cracker, and a hint of underlying sweetness. Absolutely amazing.

Another activity I'd recommend is the Veterans Memorial Museum. They had artifacts from every 20th century war, labeled with not only a description of the object but some history about the soldier who had owned it or donated it to the museum. Among the many interesting things was a display of "trench art," which soldiers had made from spent shell casings.

The centerpiece of the museum was a life-sized bronze sculpture by Fred Hoppe. Fifty soldiers from World War II charging forward, two by two. Each soldier's face was modeled on a real American who had fought in the war, one from each state, their names inscribed on brass plaques by their feet. The level of detail was phenomenal. Not only their faces, but their physical builds, their gear, their weapons--every soldier was truly an individual. Some were carrying specialized equipment. Some were missing the knives or shovels from their packs. If you looked closely, under the feet of the running men was a small, unexploded shell. Elsewhere in the line, one of the soldiers had just been shot, captured at the moment of death with his knees buckled, his back arched, and his face slack. His rifle hung suspended mid-air as it dropped from his limp hands, and his buddy reached over to catch him. The sculpture was powerful, and the subjects very human. This was not merely a statute of some random soldiers, but truly real men. One of the best memorials I have ever seen.

Branson is most famous for all the live entertainment. I went to two shows. The first was Noah: the Musical, at the Sight & Sound Theater. The animals, both live and animatronic, were pretty cool. The set was absolutely amazing, with the inside of the ark wrapping around the sides of the theater. We were right in the middle, so we had a fantastic view. The performers were enthusiastic and had good, strong voices. Unfortunately, the script was kind of cheesy and glurgy, and the score very forgettable. Yes, I know its an adaptation of a Biblical story, but it was excessively heavyhanded and preachy. They brought Jesus Christ into it at the end. The story of Noah is important to other religions, too, but they made this an exclusively Christian version. Which is fine, since the Sight & Sound people's expressly stated mission is spreading Christianity, so it's not likely that anyone who wasn't already a Christian would even go to that theater. But the play was too long. The boys (age 10) got bored. And while I liked the giants in the corrupt city, with their voice amplifiers, dreadlocks, and log-like legs concealing stilts, I don't remember any giants in the Biblical account of that particular event.

The theater itself was enormous and fancy, very elaborate and lavishly decorated. However, the paintings and sculptures all seemed a little off. The proportions, expressions, and poses were not realistic. So it seemed pretentious but not polished. I probably wouldn't go to another Sight & Sound show.

The other show I went to was the magician Justin Flom at the Imaginary Theater. He is apparently one of the newer acts in Branson, so he doesn't have his own theater yet. His theater is a small section of a former steak house that also houses a museum and probably some other things. The building is large, old, and very elegant.

Justin Flom's magic show was tremendous fun. I saw the seams on one or two of his tricks, and could probably replicate them with the right equipment, but for the most part, the magic was, well, magic. He put a woman in a box, cut the box into pieces, and she waved out of a tiny hole from a small piece of the box. Of course, he reassembled her so he could put her in a different box, then fold it down to the size of a milk crate and run it through with swords. Then later, he put her in yet another box and ran her through with spikes. These kinds of illusions, I can't figure out. The card tricks likewise were very impressive, as was the levitation.

He was really nerdy in a charming, self-depreciating sort of way. His enthusiasm and energy were on par with a golden retriever puppy, in other words, boundless. And best of all, he picked both my mom and my stepfather out of the audience on separate occasions. He made a mouse appear out of a box of cards for Mom, and then asked if she liked the magic tricks with the big white tigers. When she said yes, he replied, "That's good. We're going to do a card trick. We're on a budget." He had Mom pick a card out of the deck, write her name on it, then he shuffled it many ways, and in the end, the one card that was reversed was of course the one she'd written her name on. He let her keep it.

When he called up my stepfather, he did a rope trick with a sliding knot. The trick itself was pretty transparent. I could probably do it myself without any additional instruction. But it was hilarious watching him put different wigs on my stepdad and asking him to dance like particular popular singers, from Stevie Wonder through Michael Jackson. My stepdad doesn't dance, and his knees are bad, so he wasn't able to mimic the moves. The magician commented that it looked like my stepdad was doing Stevie Wonder no matter which singer's name he was given.

Anyway, the magic show was awesome. Well worth the time. Flom is very young, so he'll only get better. I hope he makes it big, so I can say, "I saw his show back when . . ."

Really, I can say only two bad things about the whole trip:

Wasps everywhere around the resort. No one got stung, but my stepsister is allergic, so that was a real worry.

Brown recluse spiders. In my bed. In my stepsister's bed. On the ceiling above my mom's bed.


But I think the wonderful things about the trip outweighed the multiple incidents of spider panic.

But since I'm a home-body by nature, I was glad to return home to my kitties. I could tell they missed me, too. After I took my dirty laundry out of my bag and carried it down to the laundry room, when I came back upstairs, I found a green mouse cat toy in my bag. It had to have been Murphy's way of telling me, "I'm here. Don't leave me again."

My Life Lately

I haven't blogged much lately. Sorry about that. I've had too much real life in the way. I'll try to catch up now.

In June, I had my first mammogram, the baseline. They found an abnormality, so on July 15 I had a breast biopsy which included a lumpectomy. The piece they removed was 6.9 x 6.8 x 1.2 centimeters, and thankfully, it turned out to be benign. The long wait from the beginning of June through mid-July was quite stressful, so you can imagine my relief once it was all over. I'll have a nice two-inch scar to remember the experience by. And the knowledge that the "twilight" anesthetic makes me sick as a dog.

That's all I'm going to say about it here, but I kept a private journal (17 pages) so I wouldn't forget all the details. That's my biggest piece of advice to anyone facing any surgery--keep a journal! Record all the names, phone numbers, appointment dates, technical details of everything the doctors and nurses tell you, and progress in your physical condition. No one can remember all that, so writing it down is extremely helpful. And never be afraid to ask the doctors and nurses to repeat something or to spell a technical term. You need the correct spelling so you can look it up later.

And thank you again to all of my family and friends who supported me through it all.

My Cat is an Overachiever

My cat Murphy tried to jump up onto my lap this morning, and he lost his balance when I yelped at the sharp claw in my thigh. He slid off my lap, trying desperately to regain his footing (with his claws, of course). I now have a nine inch cat scratch on my leg. I'm pretty sure that's a record, at least for me and my cats.

At least it's very shallow. Very little of it broke through all the layers of skin, so there's only about four blood spots along the line. Still. Nine inches. I'm impressed in a twisted sort of way.