During our own version of Spring Training, if you will, there are times when Team WestEnders has to tackle its activities using a split-squad approach. This weekend, for example, Husband and Riley headed west to Asheville for a soccer tournament, while I stayed home to make sure Derek got his teenage butt up and at 'em at a ridiculously early hour for the SAT on Saturday morning--oh, and also to chauffeur him there, since his father's vehicle is the only one he is able to operate (my Subaru being of the "manual transmission" variety, ya know...).
So, the sports contingent got underway on Friday evening, loaded down with snacks, gear...and more warm clothing than you might guess they'd need for an event occurring in May, given that the forecast for their locale included rain, wind, and unseasonably chilly temperatures. (Whew--dodged a bullet on that one, y'all!) And speaking of good luck, when Derek returned to the homestead after spending some quality post-school time at a friend's house, he cheerfully shared this piece of news; "You don't have to worry about driving me to the test, because [anonymous pal who lives around the corner from us] is going, and can take me!"
"Oh, that's great!" I replied sincerely...but being, you know, ME, I couldn't help adding, "Do you recall when I quizzed you about whether any of your buddies were signed up for the exam? So you could carpool? And you shrugged and mumbled 'I dunno'?" He grinned, completely unapologetically, "Yeeaaahhh...what about it?" Unable to prevent my voice rising in both pitch and volume, I continued, "DID YOU EVEN ASK ANYONE?" He appeared to consider this for a second before frankly admitting, "Eh...probably not..." I swear, he totally does this to bait me, right? Because he derives great amusement from my little hissy fits? Ay yi yi...
However, I had to forgive his minor transgression when I basked in the profound pleasure of a silent, peaceful house for about 6 hours on Saturday....aaahhhhh. And did we appreciate the rest of our special bonding time, just my oldest son and me? Absolutely! Well...let's make that "mostly". There was the one tiny blip--when I came downstairs at around 11:15, just before starting my nightly preparing-for-bed ritual, and encountered Derek standing at the kitchen counter...munching on the bowl of fruit I'd cut up for his afternoon snack. Astonished, I ordered, "Hey! Go to bed! Why are you still up...and eating?" He laughingly replied, "I can't go to bed...I'm HUNGRY!" My own tired brain really couldn't come up with an argument for that, so I shook my head and walked away, muttering something along the lines of, "It's like trying to reason with a toddler..." (I could hear him snickering at my back as I retreated. Brat!)
Then on Sunday, while he slept in to make up for his cruel and unusual 6:30 wakeup call the previous day, I set off on a rare weekend solo...safari--and it was indirectly Derek's doing. You see, he'd taken a field trip with his AP Biology class a couple of weeks ago, to the Conservators Center, a site that houses and cares for a variety of wild animals that have come to them through donation, rescuing, or in some cases, being seized as illegal "exotic pets". He returned from the outing with such cool stories that I couldn't wait to check it out myself, so I booked a tour, which they only offer to the public on Saturdays and Sundays.
He warned me ahead of time that this place is "out in the middle of nowhere"...which to him was confirmed by the fact that, about 20 minutes before arrival, you lose the WiFi signal. (Gasp--the horror! Kids these days...) But to his credit, the website cautions you about this as well, suggesting that you actually WRITE DOWN your directions before setting out and attempting to navigate your way to them, since your GPS was likely to conk out somewhere along the road. (Okay, okay, duly noted.) Derek also emphatically advised that I bring food along, since "There's nowhere around there to eat. AT ALL." I reminded him that I'm not an adolescent boy with the metabolism of a hyperactive gnat, and therefore I would probably be just fine for a few hours without sustenance. He shook his head as though these words made no sense to him whatsoever and gave me one of those, "Okay, suit yourself" skeptical looks. (I ended up second-guessing myself and bringing some trail mix, just in case...better safe than...hangry....yeah?)
I left plenty of time in my self-imposed schedule for getting lost...or missing a turn...oh, and of course for obtaining coffee for the journey. However, my old-fashioned paper instructions served me well, and I found my way with no trouble...thus arriving 45 minutes ahead of my appointment. Oh well, that's fine--it gave me plenty of time to listen to the eerily beautiful howling (wolves?) and disconcertingly loud chuffing (lions? I seriously jumped and looked around the first time I heard it--they sound like they're RIGHT next to you!) coming from over the (reassuringly high and sturdy) fence surrounding the park.
Upon being ushered in through the gate, you begin with what they call the "smalls": creatures such as binturongs (also known as "bearcats"...who knew that was a real thing? I always thought the University of Cincinnati made it up...), lemurs, servals, jungle cats (which sounds insultingly generic, but actually is the correct name), fennec foxes, and lynx. The guide not only tells you about each species, in general, but often has a specific story about the individual animal--like how it came to live at the center, or how it likes to interact with the keepers. The narrative is utterly fascinating, and the critters are gorgeous--not to mention that, in most cases, you're only a few feet away from their enclosure and can observe them in a very up-close-and personal way.
And then...you head over to the "larges"--lions and tigers and...well, no bears, but leopards and dingoes and wolves! Remember my comment about the proximity? Um...let's just say you're reeeeaaaallly within chomping distance of some massive predators--who seem more than happy to prove it with an impressive display of teeth and claws. I just kept making an effort to send out...vegetarian vibes..."You wouldn't like me--I taste like lettuce...and sunflower seeds...and, um....blueberries! Yuck! Better try someone--I mean "something"--else!"
My pack got lucky and caught up with a "Treats and Toys" tour group making the rounds at the same time, in which an employee interacts with the big cats by getting them to stand up and lie down on command, for a reward (yes, these consisted of "hunks of raw meat"). They train the animals to do this so the vets can examine their backs and undersides on a regular basis, for injuries or any other concerns...without actually having to put themselves in danger by entering the enclosure. Right on cue, one of the tigers, when approached by the obviously familiar "lady with the bucket" immediately strolled over to the fence, made what she described as a polite greeting sound, and then--I'm not kidding--began to whine, anticipating being fed a morsel of something yummy. Adorable...like an enormous, fuzzy...albeit savage...housecat. I spent the entire walk thinking about how much I sooooo wanted to scratch all of their ears...
Anyway, besides that informative and entertaining display, we humans were also treated to a vocal performance--when the staff, by expertly approximating some of the lions' noises, got them to call back with their characteristic snorting sound. It was awe inspiring...and also a little bit terrifying, again, being right next to a 600 pound beast and hearing its powerful voice. Much less unnerving was the cute barking of the dingoes as they frolicked in their pen with the keepers--looking for all the world like little domesticated dogs. But the leopard stalked the perimeter of his cage, glaring out at us as we neared...and growling. Um...nice kitty? I don't know what had his spots all bunched up, but he settled down after a few minutes...and promptly went to sleep in the sun, like his feline nature compels him to do.
Finally we came to the end of the line: the stunning pair of wolves, calmly and regally gazing out at us from their shady space. It was an educational morning, for sure--and also captivating, with a wealth of knowledge being shared by the wonderful staff. Heyyyyy...since Husband and youngest son missed it this time, I have an excuse to go back, right? Yippee! Peace out until next time, wild kingdom!