My First Car: the Legendary AMC Pacer

MichelinRVBThis is a sponsored post for Michelin’s #FirstCarMoment campaign to raise awareness about the important role tires play in driving safety. Opinions are mine.


First Car Moment

Sadly, no photos of the Bubble survive. But this Creative Commons image of a Pacer is sort of what it looked like. Imagine this, only MUCH bigger tires and a lot of rust where the paint should be.

My high school friends called it the Bubble. A grayish contraption of rusted metal, cracked plastic, torn fabric and glass — lots and lots of glass; 5,615 square inches of glass, to be exact. That was my first car: the 1975 AMC Pacer X.

It sat in the parking lot of our South Florida town home complex rusting away in the sun for months, a FOR SALE sign fading on the unnaturally enormous front dash. When I turned 16, my parents fronted $400 of the $500 purchase price, and I had myself some wheels.

Speaking of which, the one thing that actually looked safe on the Bubble was the set of HUGE racing tires that the previous owner had decided were necessary to complete the image of absurdity that was my first car. I doubt my parents would have allowed me to buy that car, frankly, if not for those tires.

The Pacer was a wide car. That was how it was pitched in the mid-1970s, in fact: the widest small car in the world. How wide? Well, check out this vintage Pacer commercial, which made much of the wideness.

My Pacer, the Bubble, was a rolling space capsule. I once fit 11 people into it, which I admit was not safe. But I was 16, and we all needed to get to whatever important destination we sought, and I remember feeling proud that the Bubble could accommodate so many. It was a rolling party.

Who cared if there was rust? What difference did it make that every time I drove through a puddle, the engine stalled until I detached the alternator cap and sprayed on a liberal amount of carburetor cleaner? How could it possibly matter that I could see the road pass below through small, rusted-out portions of the floorboard?

The car was mine, and so was the road. Simply, the Bubble represented freedom. And? According to a fairly recent documentary called the Unfortunate History of the AMC Pacer, my first car was revolutionary. Until it wasn’t.

I always thought, secretly, that I was ahead of my time behind the wheel of the Bubble. But I’ll be honest – like many teenagers, I abused that freedom a little. And I abused that car a lot. The bottom-heavy wideness of it – along with those huge, relatively new racing tires – might have been the only thing to keep me on the road at times.

Frankly, memories of myself as a teen driver are not sources of comfort as I contemplate the future of my own children behind the wheel. In retrospect, I should have been much more responsible.

My kids will certainly reap the benefit of my (sort of wild and crazy) first car moments, and Michelin has a few safety facts and tips to remind us about the importance of driving safety and to help me and other parents be sure our kids are as safe as possible on the road:

  • Automobile accidents kill more teenagers than anything else in America.
  • Driving on under-inflated tires or tires with poor tread can be hazardous; 12 percent of the 2.2 million accidents involving inexperienced drivers are attributed to under-inflated or worn tires.
  • Many of these accidents are preventable by paying attention to tire pressure and tread depth. Teach kids how to use a tire gauge and check tire tread depth, and have them check each measurement every month.

Summer is when millions of new drivers first experience the true meaning of the open road. So, it’s no surprise that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Safety Council say that statistically, the 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are the most dangerous time of year for teen drivers.

Now is the time to remind your kids that no matter how junky or rusty their first car might be, there can be no compromise when it comes to safety. The video below is full of moving moments that depict the rite of passage when kids receive their first cars. As important as that milestone is for a young driver, it is important that they understand that safety is the priority, and that starts with the tires.

Disclosure: I have partnered with Life of Dad and Michelin for this promotion. I have received compensation for my participation, but my first car memories are my own.

First Car Moment

Yes, Wayne and Garth’s Mirth Mobile was a Pacer. Party on! Images: Creative Commons

9 Tips for a Safe, Fun Summer with Kids

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Shriners Hospitals for Children

We learned about summer safety and had a good time at the Shriners Hospitals for Children® On Track for a Safe Summer campaign event in Tampa. All Photos: Carter Gaddis

Our family was invited to Shriners Hospitals for Children® in Tampa to learn about the On Track for a Safe Summer campaign. In this sponsored article about our experience, I share a few tips on how to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries this summer, while still having a lot of fun.

Thunder rumbled and late-morning sunshine gave way to fast-moving gray clouds. It happens like that in Florida during the summer. If you’re outside with the kids, you keep one eye on your young ones and the other eye on the sky.

Most of the time, an approaching thunder storm is the last thing you want to hear on the playground. Last week, though, as my sons romped and climbed and slid and ran around the fantastic playground at the Tampa site of the Shriners Hospitals for Children®, the timing actually was ideal.

Shriners Hospitals for Children

Moments later, a brief, passing shower (complete with occasional thunder) forced us inside for a few minutes. Lightning in the area? Get inside immediately.

We were there to learn about the summer safety message of the On Track for a Safe Summer campaign. The sound of thunder interrupting their outdoor fun was the perfect opportunity to reinforce one of the most important things to remember about staying safe during the stormy summer months in Florida:

With thunder comes lightning. And when lightning is in the area, get inside immediately.

Here’s what I loved about that moment: My sons, 9-year-old Jay and 6-year-old Chris, did not need to be reminded.

“Dad, I hear thunder,” Jay said calmly, stopping his basketball game to peer through the trees at the quickly gathering clouds. “We need to go inside. Right now.”

So, inside we went. We waited long enough for the brief and isolated storm to pass us by. Then it was back outside, where all the kids played and had a good time in the sun.

I love what Shriners Hospitals for Children® is doing with the On Track for a Safe Summer campaign, because it’s a great reminder that kids can have fun without increasing the risk of injury. We aren’t “helicopter” parents by any means, but we do practice common sense when it comes to giving our kids the freedom to explore and play and learn about the world.

Shriners Hospitals for Children

Summer safety tip: On or near the water, wear a life jacket.

Last week at the beautiful medical and rehabilitation facility adjacent to the University of South Florida campus, the boys got to be Summer Safety Superheroes as they earned badges by completing their training in how to stay On Track for a Safe Summer.

The tips already were in our family’s common-sense portfolio, but the activities were fun and the reminders were welcome. To reduce the risk of accidents and stay as safe as possible during the summer, Shriners Hospitals for Children® recommends the following safety tips:

  1. Sun: Apply water- and sweat-proof sunscreen thoroughly to all exposed areas of skin before going outside during daylight hours.
  2. Swing: Always stay seated while playing on a swing.
  3. Slide: Go down a slide feet first, never head first.
  4. Playground: Never push or shove others while playing at a playground.
  5. Swimming: Always swim with a friend.
  6. Water: Wear a life jacket when boating or otherwise near the water.
  7. Mower: Never play on or around a lawn mower, even if it’s not running.
  8. Fire: Keep a safe distance from open fires, and never play around or in a fire pit, even if the fire looks burned out.
  9. Weather: As mentioned above, keep an eye out for bad weather and seek shelter when lightning is in the area.
Shriners Hospitals for Children

Even if it seems to be burned out (or made of cardboard), stay well clear of fire and let a grownup light it and put it out.

Shriners Hospitals for Children® leads the way in specialty pediatric care, including surgery and rehabilitation provided for children with orthopedic conditions, spinal cord injuries and burns. Treatment is not dependent on families’ ability to pay, which lifts a potentially debilitating financial burden from parents and caregivers who already have more than enough to think about when it comes to taking care of their kids.

Jay and Chris were impressed with the Tampa facility, particularly the video game lounge, the peaceful indoor courtyard lit by soaring skylights, and the big playground. It’s a comfort to know that right here in our community, there is a warm, caring environment where children who need special medical care can go and feel safe, loved and well-treated.

It’s a comfort, also, to know that Shriners Hospitals for Children® is helping to remind parents and caregivers everywhere that a little common sense this summer will go a long way toward keeping their kids as safe as possible.

June is National Safety Month, a great time for reminders about ways to help kids enjoy an injury-free summer. For more information about the On Track for a Safe Summer campaign and additional summer safety tips, as well as fun and educational activities for children, visit the campaign information page at the Shriners Hospitals for Children® website.

Shriners Hospitals for Children

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Shriners Hospitals for Children®.

Bike Lessons


He’s afraid to fall, but he’ll figure it out. The training wheels are off.

We are going to ride our bikes around the neighborhood. It’s a nice morning for it.

A little muggy, maybe. We’ll have to keep an eye out for the puddles left behind by last night’s thunder storm. The sun is out and the occasional rivulet of sweat already can be seen to flow from under their helmets.

As I fill the tires with air, I think of the danger ahead.

Spills on the asphalt. A head-first flight over the handle bars. An unseen and unseeing car backing out of a driveway. A giant and angry dog off its leash, hunting for ankles to gnaw.

Wait … there’s a truck. It’s kind of big. It’s moving kind of fast. Looks dangerous. What’s it say on the side?

Charity Clothing Pickup

OK. They can stay.

I consider the danger and dismiss it. This is how we roll.

We pedal on.


Big brother is watching.

The older boy has dashed ahead in the impatient way of older brothers. He stops a couple of hundred feet down the street and holds his position. His helmeted head is turned toward us, his posture a picture of brotherly forbearance.

His younger brother is struggling. He will be 7 soon, but he has yet to commit to the bike. Training wheels still provide support – emotional, mental and physical.

I encourage and remind him to keep pedaling along the sidewalk. Don’t stop.

Keep pedaling.

Keep pedaling!


He’s off the sidewalk, in the grass, but still upright. His bike’s front tire faces backward. He struggles to right himself, but does not call for help. He is determined.

I park my bike, call for his older brother to return. He pedals back, all pre-tween grace and elbows.

“You control the bike,” I say to the almost-7-year-old. “Don’t let it control you. Keep pedaling. If you keep moving forward, you won’t fall.”

I tell him this knowing he won’t get it. Fear of falling informs him. It’s a powerful motivator, fear of falling.

I remember how it felt. I also remember that the worst of it wasn’t the jumbled result or the painful skinned-knee aftermath.

The worst of it was the anticipation of the fall. The second-worst was that eternal instant of helplessness when gravity took over and I knew my next sensation would be pain.

Oh, yes. I remember that.

I also remember lying there on the sidewalk after my first bike crash, scared and frustrated, but aware that it could’ve been a lot worse. In fact, I had expected a lot worse.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. A few scrapes here and there. No broken bones. No concussion-causing head trauma. I got up, rode off, crashed a few more times, and finally learned how to ride that bike. Then I built a ramp out of bricks and a board and pretended to be Evel Knievel.

He doesn’t know yet that the fear of the fall is worse than the fall itself, because the training wheels are there to keep him upright. I send him off down the sidewalk for a few test runs. He tries to balance without relying on the training wheels. He makes up a sing-song chant to remind him to balance: “Wiggle, wiggle. Stay in the middle!”



He’s doing OK. Maybe he’s ready. We wiggle back home.

Off come the training wheels. Out comes the lower lip. His eyes get big and moist. He’s not ready. He’s ready. He doesn’t want to learn. He wants to learn.

We try a couple of times up and down the sidewalk in front of the house. His older brother yells encouragement and I hold the back of his seat, a living version of his detached training wheels. Up the sidewalk we pedal – only, he’s not pedaling. He’s afraid he’ll fall.

And of course, he will fall. Then, he’ll get back on and … fall again.

He’s learning how to ride a bike. Falling happens.

He’s learning. Getting back up also happens.

He’ll get it.

We’ll try again tomorrow.

The First Day, the Final Day: Summer Beckons

Summer Fun

They look pretty much the same. I wonder how much they’ll grow this summer? I know they’re going to have fun.

On the first day, they stopped in the driveway and posed. The smiles were not forced. They were genuine expressions of excitement as the sun rose and the boys began third and first grades.

On the final day, they stopped again on roughly the same spot in the driveway. Again, the smiles were genuine. The excitement of ending third and first grades was every bit as palpable as the beginning.

Summer beckons.

I look at those photos of my sons side by side, beginning and ending third and first grades, and I notice that they look … the same. Nine months of physical growth no longer renders dramatic change.

As toddlers, even as preschoolers, a photo like this taken in August juxtaposed with one taken the following June would reveal profound physical differences. They’d be significantly taller in the later image, more angular, less round in the cheeks.

Most of the noticeable growth now takes place on the inside — although the shoe sizes do seem to change every week.

Here, we have two little people in the prime of boyhood. They look happy. They are happy. Yet, they do not understand how fortunate they are. We hope to instill an appreciation within them for all that they have, all that they enjoy, all that they call good.

An appreciation for family and a sense of place, a sense that even though there might be things out there on the periphery of our little world — big things, challenging things — those things can be kept at bay for a while. It’s safe here.

But safe only takes you so far in life. Sure, we could spend the summer huddled inside our air-conditioned house in Central Florida suburbia. Mine Craft and Netflix are powerful (and fun).

We could let the days pass uneventfully in June, July and August, just counting down to fourth and second grades. We could do that.

We will not do that.

We will go places. We will do things.

We will visit the Tampa Bay History Center and learn about our region. We will take a trolley from there to Ybor City for lunch.

We will head to Brooker Creek for a self-made scavenger hunt, using iPod cameras to capture and gather memories. We will learn how to edit photos and video using those iPods.

We will have lunch (Greek, naturally) at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks and run around on the beach at Howard Park. We will make the 90-minute drive north to Gainesville to visit the University of Florida campus and the Florida Natural History Museum.

We’ll drive over to Lakeland’s Common Ground playground one morning, then stroll around the Florida Southern campus and learn about Frank Lloyd Wright‘s architectural genius.

We’ll take a dad-and-sons trip up to North Carolina to visit family for the 4th of July. We’ll go to Homosassa Springs to see wild Florida. We’ll see more of wild Florida at Highlands Hammock park near Sebring, a city on a circle where I lived for a time in my younger days.

We’ll go back to the Ringling Museum and see the Circus Spectacular there. The boys will like that.

We’ll all go to Cape Cod again, because we always go there and always will.

Oh, but there will be “open” days, too. Days when we wake up with nothing on the calendar except a day ahead full of promise and sunshine. Or promise and rain. We’ll take both. We’ll take summer, and we will revel in it all.

Soon enough, they’ll stand on that spot in the driveway, backpacks full, arms draped around shoulders, genuine smiles beaming in the morning sun, posing for the photo again.

Soon enough, the summer will end.

But today … it begins.



Dad’s New Mealtime Wingman: Delicious, Convenient STOUFFER’S Fit Kitchen Entrees

Fit Kitchen

Me and my wingmen. After a day spent stomping around the theme park, STOUFFER’S Fit Kitchen is perfect for refueling. #ad

I have partnered with Life of Dad and STOUFFER’S® for this promotion. I have received compensation and product for my participation, but my opinions are my own.

I’m the dad. I work at home. I greet the boys off the bus after school.

I help with homework. I resolve the rare disputes. I shop for groceries. I cook supper.

And by that, I’m not only talking about grilling up a mean burger or whipping up a quick batch of macaroni and cheese. Although I do make a mean burger – just ask my sons.

No, when I say I shop and cook, I mean those things are primarily my responsibility at our house. I like to experiment in the kitchen, and I like to go big every now and then. It’s cool. I like to do it. I’ve even gotten pretty good at it, if I say so myself.

Again, don’t take my word for it. My sons brag about my cooking to their friends.

The 21st century equivalent of “my dad could beat up your dad” is “my dad’s omelets make your dad’s omelets taste like liquid cardboard.”

I’m the dad. I shop and cook, but I do much more.

We are out there, me and my boys. We hike through the Florida woods. We play soccer and baseball in the back yard. We swim. We ride bikes and scooters around the neighborhood. We walk for hours – and hours – through Florida’s theme parks under Florida’s hot sun.

Fit Kitchen

We could go out and buy all the ingredients for this delicious rotisserie season turkey entree at the grocery store, but it would take A LOT more time to prepare and there is NO WAY it would taste as good as this tasted.

As they’ve gotten old enough to roam, I’ve found that they have become the ideal wingmen for outdoor fun – and for grocery shopping.

Here’s where STOUFFER’S® Fit Kitchen meals make their entrance in our family’s little story. Our grocery list could include all of the ingredients necessary to make delicious rotisserie seasoned turkey with all the extras – turkey tenderloin medallions, diced red skin potatoes and sweet potatoes, cut green beans and gravy.

I could send the boys on a wingman mission to gather these ingredients in our neighborhood supermarket or farmer’s market. I could then spend an hour or more with the boys in the kitchen, prepping the food and baking it and hovering over the stove to make sure that all of the delicious and complementary flavors were combined in just the right way.

I could do all of that … if not for the fact that our family is busy. Like, so busy that even getting us all under the same roof long enough to sit down and eat dinner together is a challenge.

That’s why it’s nice that STOUFFER’S® has released its new line of protein-packed frozen Fit Kitchen meals. Every 14-ounce entree has at least 25 grams of protein, and it only takes five or six minutes to prepare in the microwave.

This is a substantial serving. I was pleasantly surprised to find that unlike with many frozen meals, the Fit Kitchen rotisserie seasoned turkey entrée tasted homemade – and didn’t leave me hungry after the last mouthful.

Now, will we eat these scrumptious meals every night? No. I sincerely love to get the evening meal ready for our family every night, and I enjoy showing the boys around the kitchen sometimes, too.

In fact, the six varieties of STOUFFER’S® Fit Kitchen meals inspire me to actually put the boys to work gathering ingredients and hanging out with me in the kitchen for meal prep.

That said, the reality is this: Like most families, our time is limited. Convenience wins at mealtime. As long as nutrition doesn’t suffer, that is. In that respect, these entrees are a win-win.

Plus, I doubt our turkey concoction would taste anywhere near as good as the Fit Kitchen rotisserie seasoned turkey. I mean … it really is tasty.

So, it’s nice to know that I’ll have STOUFFER’S® around as my new meal-time wingman when time is short but our family still needs a nutritious, delicious option to eat.

Fit Kitchen

I have a lot of fun with these guys, but I also feed them well. I love knowing that they will grow up with memories of me shopping for groceries and cooking, as well as hanging out and having outdoor fun.


Our Week with Kia Sorento: Road Trip Memories

I received a 2016 Kia Sorento SXL AWD on loan to drive and review for a week, courtesy of Drive Shop and Kia. Here are my thoughts.

The timing of the loan was ideal. What better way to really get the feel for a family car like the 2016 Kia Sorento than to drive that car hundreds of miles for a Memorial Day weekend excursion?

Kia Sorento

We made a lot of road trip memories during our week with a 2016 Kia Sorento.

We piled in on Friday afternoon and headed for Gulf County, a five-hour drive north of our home in the Tampa Bay area. A magnificent beach house awaited on Cape San Blas.

Our loaner Sorento had a 2.0-liter turbo gas direct injection, four-cylinder engine; independent front and rear suspension; and full-time all-wheel drive with lockable center differential.

Um … what?

I’m no car expert. I drive them, and I pay attention to things like how comfortable the seats are, how good the gas mileage is and how much space there is for packing. Our Sorento passed those tests with ease.

There also was the Kid Test, though. Would the boys like it?

Kia Sorento

The boys loved the backseat space and Kids Place Live on Sirius/XM.

Short answer: They loved it. The Sirius/XM radio was a huge hit — Kids Place Live became, in just that one week, an all-time favorite. They were fascinated by the navigation display and paid close attention to our progress on the real-time map. There was plenty of room in the back for them to be comfortable during our long drives up to and back from the Panhandle.

I can sum up the experience simply: By the time our loan period ended, the Sorento felt like our car. It took us to a place where we made wonderful memories, and we will always associate our family’s first trip to Cape San Blas with the car we came in.

I wasn’t asked to do this, and it isn’t associated with Kia or Drive Shop at all, but I felt compelled to commemorate our experience with the Sorento in video form. Forgive its sappiness. It’s not an actual commercial, just a genuine expression of how a family trip can bridge generations, and how lifelong memories are made on the road.


We Will Always Go Back to Gulf County, Florida

Visit Gulf County

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Visit Gulf County for IZEA. All opinions are 100% mine.

Sunset at Cape San Blas …

The boys leap in sync over the lips of low waves that bubble off the Gulf of Mexico. Peals of laughter drift up the beach and skip across the soft sand to fall lightly upon the dune grass.

Here and there across the sand, quiet islands of humanity stir under portable cabanas. The light of the setting sun angles in and illuminates the glowing row of blue and yellow and orange and red and sand-colored houses that stand sentinel along the ridge.

Visit Gulf County

Sunset at Cape San Blas.

She spots dolphins off shore. An occasional dorsal fin cuts a languid, westward arc above the smooth surface of the water. The boys leap the ambitious waves and sprint with the dolphins along the shoreline, racing the setting sun to the horizon, laughing as the sky transitions from bright blue to dark blue to purple and orange and finally to red-gold.

I watch the boys and my wife and the dolphins and the golden sky, and I resolve: We will always come back to this place. We will always come back to Gulf County, Florida.


Visit Gulf County

At Water’s Edge, Cape San Blas.

It was a sponsored trip, one of those rare and wonderful opportunities online writers are fortunate enough to receive every now and then. This one came via an out-of-the-blue email from a generous agency looking for a writing dad who could bring his family to this secluded place in the Florida Panhandle for a weekend in May.

Yes, I said. Absolutely, I added. We’ll go. We had been almost everywhere else in Florida, but never to Gulf County. It was time to remedy that.

Where. It is on the Gulf Coast, southwest of Tallahassee, east of Panama City. Its only population center is Port St. Joe, home of the 2014 Florida Class A state high school football champion Port St. Joe Sharks. The county consists of forest, marshland, gulf coastline and the scallop-rich St. Joseph Bay.

Visit Gulf County

The path over the dune from At Water’s Edge, Cape San Blas.

Getting there. From our home near Tampa, Gulf County and Port St. Joe are a five-and-a-half-hour drive north, through little Florida towns stuck in time – Spring Hill, Homosassa, Chiefland, Fanning Springs (at the Suwannee River), Cross City, Perry. Then west through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, along the edge of the Apalachicola National Forest, past Sopchoppy, Carrabelle and down Highway 98 where it hugs Apalachicola Bay.

Where to stay. We left on Friday afternoon and at 9 p.m. we pulled in at Cape San Blas, where we picked up our key and welcome packet from the after-hours check-in bin at Coastal Joe Vacation Rentals.

Our beach house was huge and yellow, like the mid-afternoon sun. It’s called At Water’s Edge, because that’s where it is – on the edge of the gulf, tucked behind the dune on Cape San Blas. There are five bedrooms and four bathrooms. There is a private pool, a wood deck in the back, and a wood porch that stretches the length of the eastern side of the house.

You can watch the sun rise over St. Joseph Bay from that porch. Later, you can sit on the other side of the house and watch the sun go down over the gulf.

Visit Gulf County

The At Water’s Edge pool was nice. Very nice.

There is a private path over the dune that opens onto a beach of white sand and gentle waves. It’s a place for sunsets, where dolphins dance with laughing children. When we left late Monday morning, it still was guarded by a mighty sand fortress of our design – not even the overnight tide had penetrated its walls.

I imagine that when we reminisce about this trip to Gulf County, we will think first of the house. Not because it was spectacular, comfortable and huge. It was all of those things, certainly.

What we’ll remember, I imagine, is the time we spent together at that house on the beach, in the pool, or sitting around playing cards or doing nothing. That, in the end, truly was what set this trip apart for me – the rare chance for the four of us to simply be together in a place where the cares and worries and schedules that waited back home could not intrude.

Visit Gulf County

Beth and Chris set out on our guided kayak tour of St. Joseph Bay.

Everything else fell away for a long weekend, and it was just our family and the house at Cape San Blas.

What to do. We had only one scheduled activity pulled from the extensive and detailed Gulf County Adventure Guide: an eco-tour of the St. Joseph Bay by kayak, with Dan VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost as our guide. The sun shined bright and the sky was blue on Saturday morning, but a strong wind blew from the south and east and made the going tougher than usual on the water for four novices like us.

Still, Chris (6) took to it like a natural. The next day, he asked if we could kayak across the entire length of the bay. By the end of our guided tour, Jay (9) was able to handle Dan’s sleek, pro-style craft on his own.

Dan, a former teacher who founded Happy Ours in 2000 with his wife, Debbie, taught us how to tell the difference between a St. Joseph Bay whelk shell and a conch shell. Dan also explained why male horseshoe crabs latch on to female horseshoe crabs in the water (yes, it’s related to procreation, but there’s more to it that we did not know).

Visit Gulf County

Dan VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak introduces us to a King’s Crown Conch.

He also asked us one at a time if we knew why a bald eagle is called that. None of us knew, but I won’t spoil it – it’s much more fun to hear it from Dan himself.

We saw starfish and hermit crabs and, as we drifted along a little saltwater channel, Dan regaled us with the unfortunate history of the original town of St. Joseph. We learned that at one time, the forerunner to the current Port St. Joe was the largest population center in the territory of Florida, and the state’s first constitution was signed there in 1838.

Events in old St. Joseph took several disastrous turns after that, but the misfortune of Florida’s early white settlers helped make Gulf County and the St. Joseph Aquatic Preserve what it is today – a pristine, secluded destination where “real” Florida flourishes still.

Visit Gulf County

We found a starfish in St. Joseph Bay.

Back on land, Dan introduced us to his seven chicken friends – his “girls” flock quickly to him when he calls, and that delighted the boys no end. We bid Dan and Debbie goodbye, and promised to see them again on our next visit.

Saturday evening, we enjoyed a tasty supper at the Sunset Coastal Grill in Port St. Joe before heading back to At Water’s Edge to swim in the pool, to hunt for unusual seashells, and to watch the sun set.

Sunday, we explored the 2,516-acre St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which takes up the outer tip of Cape San Blas. It was another windy, warm day, perfect for hugging the shoreline of St. Joseph Bay along the sandy Bayview Scenic Trail there at the park.

Visit Gulf County

Everywhere we looked at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, we found natural beauty.

We then made the 20-minute drive around to Port St. Joe, where we let our curiosity guide us to the base of the Cape San Blas light. It was moved to its current location at George Core Park on the Port St. Joe waterfront from the cape in 2014, along with two former lighthouse keeper residences.

There was so much more we could have done. We had the chance to ride horses on the beach, something we’ll definitely do next time. We also could have taken a shuttle out to St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge, a no brainer for a future visit.

Instead, we were drawn back to At Water’s Edge, where we ate hotdogs and chips for lunch and whiled away the afternoon by alternating between building sandcastles on the beach and cooling off in the pool.

Visit Gulf County

The boys on the beach at Cape San Blas.

At sunset, our collective sense of relaxation began to metamorphose into memory as we bathed in light refracted endlessly by airborne salt crystals and sea foam. We were lulled by the lapping low waves into believing it would never end.

And you know? It won’t end. It didn’t end when we drove away from Cape San Blas on Monday morning, and it didn’t end when we pulled safely into our driveway back home on Monday afternoon.

This was not how the story ends. It was how it began.

I know this, because we are resolved: We will go back. We will always go back to Gulf County, Florida.


A video diary of our Memorial Day weekend visit to Gulf County:


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How to Prepare for a Guided Kayak Tour of St. Joseph Bay in Gulf County, Florida

Visit Gulf County

There is no better way to introduce our kids to life on the water in Florida than a guided tour of St. Joseph Bay by kayak. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Visit Gulf County for IZEA. All opinions are 100% mine.

Our visit to Gulf County this weekend begins with an Eco Tour of St. Joseph Bay and its watery environs bright and early Saturday morning. It will be the boys’ first time in kayaks; their first time on a small boat of any kind, actually.

I can think of no better way to initiate them into Florida’s life aquatic than to trust in the experience and knowledge of Debbie and Dan VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak & Canoe Outpost in Port St. Joe.

Visit Gulf County

“It’s not staged, because the bay is different all the time. It’s fun to see what it offers that day and that moment.” – Debbie from Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

Because we weren’t sure what to expect from our tour, I called Happy Ours this week and got Debbie on the phone. She told me that Happy Ours, which opened on Jan. 1, 2000, has been around longer than any outfitter in Gulf County. She also told me that they are the only service with a dedicated launch directly into St. Joseph Bay, and they have accommodated parties of more than five dozen guests

Saturday morning, it will just be me, Beth, Jay and Chris. Dan gets most of the kid tours, Debbie said; his background as an educator comes in handy during such trips, and the kids seem to gravitate to him.

“I’m not going to give too much away, because there are surprises,” Debbie said. “The games we play with the kids, and spontaneity we provide – that makes it memorable.”

The clear, shallow water of St. Joseph Bay sounds delightful. We hope to come face-to-face with fish and other wildlife, but part of the appeal is the unpredictability.

“There is a lot of hands on,” Debbie said. “We don’t just talk, we get out and touch. It’s not staged, because the bay is different all the time. It’s fun to see what it offers that day and that moment.”

I’m pretty sure Jay and Chris will enthusiastically embrace the adventure. Pretty sure. There is always a chance one or both of them might get a bit squirrelly about doing something new.

If so, the VanVleets know what to do.

“We talk to them about their fears,” Debbie said, “and sometimes make them less scary.

“The kids love it, because there are no waves to knock you down. We pick depths you’re comfortable at. There’s a huge area just to walk along and pick things up, and to learn and to explore on their own. They feel comfortable doing that.”

We’ll be out for about four hours, and you can follow along starting at 9 a.m. on Twitter and Instagram. This is the kind of thing I dreamed about when Beth and I exchanged our marriage vows 11 years ago today – learning new things together, making memories, having fun as a family.

And here are a few tips Debbie and Dan passed along to us for our kayak tour of St. Joseph Bay:

  • Apply water-resistant sunscreen an hour before arrival.
  • Bring an extra towel to drape over your legs for extra protection.
  • Hats and sunglasses are permitted.
  • Wear a synthetic material long-sleeve shirt to protect your arms.
  • Wear water shoes, rather than flip-flops. (Happy Ours provides water shoes for rent if you don’t have your own.)
  • Freeze your water bottles overnight to keep them nice and cold throughout the trip.
  • Bring non-refrigerated snacks to eat.
  • Wear a watch to keep up with the time; Happy Ours is on Eastern Time, while northern Gulf County and Mexico Beach are on Central time. A mobile phone might pick up either Eastern or Central.
  • Arrive at least 15 minutes early to sign the waiver and settle payment before departure.

For other great ideas about how to create your own family adventure in Gulf County, check out the Gulf County Adventure Guide.

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7 Ways to Create a Family Adventure in Gulf County, Florida

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Sunset over St. Joseph Bay — the backdrop for any great family adventure in Gulf County, Florida. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Visit Gulf County for IZEA. All opinions are 100% mine.

As the day draws near for us to head north from Tampa to Gulf County, Florida, I’ve done what many veteran reporters do – I’ve put in the research to know our options.

The Gulf County Tourist Development Council makes that process simple for first-timers like us. Their website and Gulf County Adventure Guide provide a marvelous array of relaxing, educational and just plain fun experiences for families like ours. Creating our own adventure has never been easier.

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Horseback riding. On the beach. You can do that there? Yes. Yes, you can. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

Camping, fishing, endurance racing, serious hiking and watersports – it’s all there. One day, I’m sure, we’ll step out of our comfort zone for fun, and it already started with a non-theme park Memorial Day weekend in the Florida Panhandle.

Maybe one day we’ll charter a boat and head out onto the open water of the Gulf of Mexico and go in search of a basking whale shark (our younger son, who’s 6, has mentioned his desire to see a whale shark more than once this week). Perhaps someday soon we’ll go frog gigging or track a wild hog through the palmetto scrub (hey – it’s possible).

One thing we know for sure we’ll do is right at the top of my list of intriguing ways to create your own family adventure in Gulf County, Florida:

1. Take a guided Eco Tour by kayak.

This tops our agenda for this weekend, and we could not be more excited. Debbie and Dan VanVleet from Happy Ours Kayak & Canoe Outpost have set us up for a fun, safe and educational excursion out on the water, where we will experience up close all the shoreline beauty St. Joseph Bay has to offer. Look for more detail about this trip in a preview scheduled to publish here on Friday, and follow along during our kayak adventure Saturday at 9 a.m. on Instagram and Twitter.

2. Horseback riding along the beach.

Confession time – I’m 46 years old, and I’ve never sat on the back of a horse. My kids both have, and so has Beth. But I have not. The opportunity simply never arose. Where better to try horseback riding for the first time than one of Gulf County’s gorgeous beaches?

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Baby sea turtle? Maybe not this time of year, but we will keep an eye out for mama. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

3. Fishing (freshwater and/or saltwater).

Once upon a time, I was an avid freshwater fisherman. I still love to wet a line in search of bass every now and then in the ponds and lakes around our house in Lutz, Florida, and the boys have expressed an interest in learning the sport. Gulf County’s inland waters and the Gulf of Mexico offer some of the finest freshwater and saltwater fishing in the South.

4. Scuba diving and snorkeling.

With more than 200 artificial reefs at depths of 20 to 150 feet, Gulf County has something for the experienced diver and novice alike. All we’ve ever done is mess around with snorkels and fins in very shallow water at Cape Cod and Fort DeSoto Beach, but learning to dive – with or without tanks – is something we would love to try one day.

5. Shelling on Cape San Blas.

Fortunately, our home away from home for three days and nights this weekend is right on Cape San Blas, so we’ll be able to stroll across the dune and start hunting for beautiful shells. Our boys love to move along the beach, pails in hand, scanning the sand for natural treasure. You will, too.

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Shells. We love ’em. They’re up there at Cape San Blas, waiting to be found. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

6. Swimming with turtles.

It’s my understanding that turtle season begins in May around Gulf County, so we will be on the lookout for these beautiful animals. During trips to the aquarium or Florida’s ocean theme parks, our boys have spent hours watching the sea turtles and learning about their migratory habits (as well as the dangers they face from birth).

If we see a sea turtle during our trip, I guarantee it will be one of the great childhood memories for our sons. I know – I saw many turtles at Jupiter Beach and other South Florida coastal areas when I was a kid, and it remains a vivid and fond memory for me to this day.

7. Beach life – just let it happen.

With only one scheduled event for the weekend, there is an excellent chance that our primary activity Saturday afternoon and most of Sunday will be to play and relax on the beach at Cape San Blas. While my wife and sons are the true beach lovers in the family, you better believe I’ll be out there with them building castles, playing ball, and just lying back in the sand, taking it all in and enjoying the time with people I love.

One of the great advantages of living in Tampa is that we are only a short drive to a place like Gulf County, where there is far more to do than we could ever hope to experience in one long weekend. In addition to chowing down on some super seafood, we hope to see Dead Lakes, Indian Pass Lagoon, St. Vincent Island (home of the Sambar deer), and some of the great family-friendly parks in the area.

You know what, though? There’s always next time!

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Beach life. Photo: Gulf County Florida Tourism.

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Frozen on Ice: a Brilliant Memory for Mommy and Son

Frozen on Ice

Beth and Chris enjoyed a special day at the Florida Aquarium and Frozen on Ice at Amalie Arena. Photo: Disney on Ice.

My wife, Beth Gaddis, attended a performance of Disney on Ice’s Frozen on Ice at Amalie Arena on behalf of DadScribe last week. Here is her recap of that show, which was the perfect conclusion to a perfect day of mommy-son memories for her and our younger son. 

By Beth Gaddis

“Good morning, good morning, it’s time to wake up,” I sang off-key as I headed into my 6-year-old’s room. I turned on the bedside light, spent a few seconds figuring out how the blanket got so wrapped up around his legs, then started to tickle him. It was our usual morning ritual, but this was no ordinary day.

It was Thursday, and for the first time in a long time, I was taking the day off.

“Wake up, Chris!” I found Olaf half-hidden in the blanket and put on an impromptu puppet show with the stuffed doll. “Hi, I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs!”

Chris does not wake gracefully. Before the sun rises, he is a 6-year-old teenager, loath to stir without the proper incentive.

“No!” he shouted, squeezing his eyes shut tightly and rolling away from me, hiding his face in the pillow. “No! It’s not time to wake up yet. Just let me sleep.”

“Come on, Chris,” I said. “Today’s gonna be a great day. We’ve got the aquarium, and then we’re going to see Frozen on Ice!” I reminded him, engaging in a tug of war over the blanket.

That got his attention. Today was no ordinary day. For the first time in forever, this was a day for Mommy and Chris.


Mommy and Chris, together at Frozen on Ice.

Mommy and Chris, together at Frozen on Ice.

Chris is a champ. As the younger sibling, he has spent a lot of time going to his big brother’s soccer matches and baseball games. He wears a lot of hand-me-downs and loves the games, toys, and books his brother has outgrown. We do a lot of family activities, but it’s not often that Chris gets to do something first or alone with his dad or me. He never complains; honestly, I don’t think he even thinks about it.

That’s what made this day so special. I met his school bus at the Florida Aquarium and chaperoned Chris and several of his classmates as they explored life on the shore and under the sea. Chris veered from being an independent first-grader laughing with his friends, to a little boy who would hold my hand as he studied the sharks.

He proudly introduced me as his mom, and looked to me as the expert on sea horses, otters, and spider crabs. My cell phone stayed firmly in my purse other than to snap a few photos. I turned off my work cell phone and focused just on this rare weekday treat with my son.

Frozen on Ice

One of Chris’ favorites was Marshmallow the Snow Monster. Photo: Beth Gaddis

That night, he and I piled in the car and drove off for another adventure: We were headed to Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa to see Frozen on Ice. We’ve been to several Feld Entertainment productions and loved them all, but this one blew us away. Chris was spellbound as he watched one of our favorite Disney movies come to life, climbing into my lap and craning his neck so he could see even better.

He gave the show the greatest compliment a 6-year-old boy can: He gave it his full attention. He didn’t ask to leave. He didn’t ask to play on my cell phone. He just remained rapt.

As we walked back to the car, I asked him what his favorite parts were.

He had a long list:

  • Kristoff’s flips and “awesome tricks”
  • The scary wolves
  • Olaf singing and skating with bumblebees, birds, and flowers (I think he really liked the bright costumes)
  • Marshmallow the snow man growing to monster-sized proportions right before his eyes
  • The trolls

Then he asked if we could see it again.

The next morning, he talked non-stop through breakfast, describing the show for his 9-year-old brother and peppering his commentary with “you’ve got to see it!” It was a true tribute to the overall awesomeness of the show – and an affirmation that while it’s cool to do something alone with your mom, it’s even better when you can do something as a family.

Next time, all four of us will go. The boys can’t wait.

Tickets for Frozen on Ice were provided by Feld Entertainment for review purposes.

Frozen on Ice

Sven the reindeer was another big hit at Frozen on Ice. Photo: Beth Gaddis