The Greatest Travel Monkey Ever

It’s finally here—that wonderful time of year when my family’s crazy, busy, fun summer days wind down and my kids head back to school. My sons are in high school and middle school now, so we’ve done this a few times, but this year, of course, has been different.

Really, it just snuck up on me, because it’s been a strange summer. For one thing, the boys have been at home since early March. Also, there haven’t been a lot of traditional summer activities. Camps were cancelled, family get-togethers went digital, and time with friends slowed to a trickle. There wasn’t any baseball for most of the summer, and now that there finally is, it’s weird and a little uncomfortable to watch.

Steve chased a lot of waterfalls in Smoky Mountain National Park.

Even our long-planned family vacation had to get indefinitely postponed. But thankfully we did get the opportunity a few weeks ago to take a smaller trip together. We rented a fairly isolated cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, which isn’t a terrible drive for us, loaded up the family truckster, grabbed our travel mascot Steve the Sock Monkey, and away we went.

We had several good days of hiking and playing in chilly mountain streams. We did our own cooking, played games, and spent good family time together, because, you know, we’ve had so little time to spend stuck together as a family lately. So yes, it was pretty much like our routine at home, except with more mountains and a greater threat of bear encounters. It was a nice getaway.

After a few days of mountain exploration, we dropped down to Huntsville, Alabama to see the US Space & Rocket Center, which none of us had visited before. At the museum you can get up close and personal with the Saturn V rocket, walk through a replica of the International Space Station, and take small steps and giant leaps across a fake moon surface, pretending you are in league with Stanley Kubrick and the mass hallucination of 400,000 of the most rock solid conspirators in the history of the universe. The museum is well worth a visit, and at limited pre-ticketed capacity, felt very safe and spacious.

After exploring a replica of the International Space Station, Steve is ready to volunteer to become the first US sock monkey in space.

We all had our favorite parts, even Steve. If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you may have encountered Steve before. He got his start as a family travel mascot when the boys were small, and my husband and I left them with grandparents to enjoy a trip to Hawaii without them. We posted pictures of Steve’s Hawaiian Adventure for Grandma to share with the boys each day we were gone.

The monkey was a hit, not just with the boys, but with our friends and family tuning in on Facebook. Since then he’s been all over the place, telling the stories of our adventures, both when we travel separately and when we all travel together. He’s been to every corner of the continental United States and has left the country a few times.

But he’s never made it to space, and unbeknownst to us, this had apparently been bothering him a little. So on this trip to Huntsville, Steve was really excited to learn about the greatest travel monkey ever, Miss Baker.  

I’m pretty sure Steve just wants the fame and glory.

Baker was a squirrel monkey who, along with Rhesus partner Able, became the first US animal to successfully launch into space and return unharmed to the earth. Chosen from among twenty-five squirrel monkey candidates for her ability to remain pretty chill while confined to a small space connected to a bunch of electrodes, and because she looked really good in a tiny space helmet, Miss Baker went to space on May 28, 1959.  

When she landed, the slightly bewildered squirrel monkey was given a cracker and a banana before she took a well deserved nap. Then it was on to Washington DC for a press conference and fame. Along with Able, who sadly passed away a few days later during a surgical procedure to remove electrodes, Baker posed for the cover of Life magazine. Always gracious, she later received a Certificate of Merit for distinguished service from the ASPCA.

Steve didn’t know he was supposed to bring a banana. Next time he’ll be prepared.

After her big trip into space, she lived for about ten years at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida where she met and married her long time companion Big George. The happy couple moved to the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama in 1971, where Baker delighted scores of fieldtripping school children until 1984 when she died a very old squirrel monkey.

Today she rests on the grounds of the museum that was her home. Steve got to pay his respects to his hero, where admirers often leave a banana or two as a thank you for her service.

Steve does realize that as well traveled as he is, he’s unlikely to make it into space. But as he spends a lot of his time stuffed into a backpack, he’s pretty chill about small spaces. He also loves smiling for the camera. And he would definitely rock a tiny space helmet. Who knows? It’s been a strange year.

Fun with Elvis in the Toilet Paper Capital of the World

Between the hours of 1 and 7 am on August 8, 1977, about one week before his death, superstar Elvis Presley rode his favorite roller coaster back to back to back to back. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little sick.

I actually love roller coasters, and have since I was a kid, but I have my limits. Given the chance, my younger self could have ridden (and probably did) just about any coaster an easy ten times in a row, though I imagine six hours of mostly continuous riding would have been a bit much even then. At forty (the same age Elvis was in 1977), I’m confident my threshold would now be much lower. I can even admit that within the past few years this coolest of aunts has ridden a few coasters with enthusiastic nieces only to discover that I spent most of the ride contemplating the very real possibility of my own immediate death.

zippinpippin
The kind of coaster that makes you want to gyrate your hips a lot. Apparently.

But there are definitely some coasters I like better than others. I have a strong preference for the hilly, wooden variety, the ones that feel a little rickety, zip down big hills, squeal around the corners, and don’t require a rider to wear a five-point harness. So if I were ever going to ride a coaster for several continuous hours, I would gravitate toward one like Elvis rode.

Summer is winding down around these parts with only a couple weeks now until school starts. This past weekend we got back from our annual summer family road trip and a couple days ago we bought school supplies. It’s time, then, to reflect on the adventures of the season. One of those adventures involved a trip that my youngest son and I took to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I needed to do a little research and we have family in the area, so the two of us took off to Titletown (also, I recently discovered, known as the Toilet Paper Capitol of the World) to eat some squeaky cheese curds and ride Elvis’s Zippin’ Pippin roller coaster at the Bay Beach Amusement Park.

Elvis Presley
Something tells me this man never kept his hands on the lap bar. Image via Pixabay

In 1977, the Zippin’ Pippin was the coolest ride at Libertyland in Memphis and Presley was a frequent visitor, usually renting out the park to enjoy the ride unmolested by adoring fans. And that’s why he was there between 1 and 7 am, with just a handful of friends and family and plenty of time to give himself what I imagine was probably a terrible bellyache.

One of the oldest wooden coasters operating in the United States, the Pippin, which didn’t start zippin’ until the 70s, was built between 1912 and 1917. It’s 2,865 feet long and travels between 20 and 40 miles per hour, the ride lasting just 90 seconds. Its largest drop is seventy feet, and like most good ol’ wooden coasters, is best enjoyed with your hands in the air and a scream on your lips.

The coaster was dismantled after Libertyland closed in 2005. In 2010, the Toilet Paper Capital of the World purchased and refurbished the ride for $3.8 million. I rode it for a dollar. And it was money well spent. Though I don’t think it’s a six hours in a row kind of good, the Zippin’ Pippin is a pretty good ride. I’d go again. And maybe again. But after that I’d probably have a bellyache.

Also, only 35 days until publication day!