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While I love the Ozarks as much or more than anyone I know, even I like to go on a vacation from time to time. My wife and I really like the beach, especially the Caribbean and the Riviera Maya (or Yucatan area of Mexico) and try to visit those areas every year or so. My wife says her favorite part of the ocean is that little strip of sand where it meets the land.

Our kids are grown now and for the most part out on their own. The oldest lives on his own hours away and will finish his studies this coming year and likely spend the next several years working abroad. Our youngest has spent the past couple months using our house as her home base while she spent the summer working or hanging out with friends, but in coming weeks she’ll head back to a university for another year of college dorm living. With both of them working jobs during the summer to help offset education costs it left little time for a family vacation this year.

So a couple weeks ago my wife and I spent a week traveling. We took a cruise to two places on our “bucket list” of locations we want to visit. The trip included stops in four countries, but one was someplace we had visited several times, and the other was simply an add-on because it was the fourth stop on this particular loop. We started by flying to Miami, then boarded the boat with stops in Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Cayman Islands, and then back to Miami.

Since this isn’t a travel story, and it’s on the outdoor page instead of the travel page, let me just say that we found each stop to be interesting in its own way. We always enjoy visiting Cozumel, Mexico. There’s a place called Mr. Sancho’s just a couple miles south of the city of San Miguel which offers a great stretch of beach, a nice restaurant, shopping and water sports if you choose, and just a relaxing way to soak sand and flush away the cares of life in some saltwater. We make it a stop each time we’re on the island, whether for a day stop on a cruise or an extended resort stay.

Belize and Hondurus were our targets this year for vacation stops. My wife’s research of watching House Hunters International, combined with reports brought back by our son on a trip to Hondurus a couple years ago, made it a definite “want to see”. Belize sits between Mexico and Hondurus, and seemed like a reasonable place to visit while we were in the area.

We found Belize to be friendly, accommodating but somewhat depressed feeling. Many of these countries are poor in available monetary wealth but rich in resources and beauty. It was nice to be able to mark Belize off the list of place we’d been, but I don’t foresee a return visit anytime soon. We did, however, travel some distance across the tiny nation to visit the Mayan ruins of Altun Ha. Having toured the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, in the northern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, many years ago when you could still climb the iconic pyramid, we found Altun Ha to be nearly as interesting and well worth the money for the transportation to get there.

A real treat of our trip was the time spent on the island of Roatan, Hondurus. We usually bypass the cruise line-promoted excursions and taxis in favor of finding a local driver to show us the “real” local area. In this instance the driver was a tall young man who reminded us of the actor Will Smith. He drove a ratty little mid-sized car which at first appeared questionable but later proved to be very dependable … and with an amazingly high ground clearance. We spent several hours exploring the island (43 miles long and five miles across at its widest point), including stops at the local grocery store and a drive through the city of Coxen Hole to see how the island residents live, and some zip lining off a hillside in the jungle. We stopped for lunch at a ramshackle roadside food stand with the promise that I could find iguana on the menu, but the timing was not right and we settled for chicken instead … which, by the way, tasted like chicken.

Our final stop on the trip was the Cayman Islands. Unlike most cities in Hondurus or Belize and similar small countries, the capital city of George Town is a bustling, expansive community. While nothing like big cities in the U.S. with high rise buildings and millions of people, George Town has obviously benefitted from years of “offshore banking” dollars being parked there.

For the beach-goers, Seven Mile Beach (which is only 5.5 miles long) is the picturesque place to hang out. The relatively tiny island has several smaller stretches of great sand as well. And visitors should take a taxi or public bus ride up the western peninsula to the end and the little community of Hell. Named after a field of black and gray coral stubs rising from the sand which resemble flames, the neighborhood of Hell offers a couple roadside “light-hearted, Hell-themed” stands and a post office. For just a few cents you can send a postcard which will be postmarked from Hell. You might want to include a greeting like “It’s really hot here,” or “I met some of the wife’s family,” or similar funny barbs. The island definitely warrants a return visit with more time to spend and explore. It goes back on the list for a later trip.

While seeing new places is all fun, it didn’t afford us any time to spend with the kids. So the following week (last week) we spent the week in and around Branson just hanging out with the young ones around their work schedules. We took in a couple shows, ate too much food, and took care of some business while in Springfield. Of course, Springfield is the holy city of bass anglers … home to Bass Pro Shops’ flagship location.

It’s hard for my redneck mind to fathom that there’s anyone left in the world who hasn’t visited a Bass Pro store, a virtual playground for fishermen which was founded by Johnny Morris in 1971. According to the company’s website, “Morris, frustrated by the lack of tackle in local stores, rented a U-Haul trailer and took off across the country filling it with the newest premium fishing tackle he could find. When he returned home to Springfield, Missouri, Johnny started in the fishing business with eight feet of space in his dad’s liquor store which became a popular stopping-off place for local and out-of-state fishermen on the way to the Ozark’s famous bass lakes. “A number of these anglers started calling when they got back home wanting Johnny to send them some of his specialized Bass Pro Shops tackle. In 1974, in response to this demand, he printed and mailed his first Bass Pro Shops catalog. In 1978, Johnny introduced the first professionally rigged boat, motor and trailer fish-ready package. The Bass Tracker boat “package” revolutionized the marine industry. Huge boat showrooms are featured in every Bass Pro Shops store.” Wikipedia claims that Morris began construction on the Springfield Bass Pro store, known as the Outdoor World Catalog Showroom, in 1984. Over the next few years additional buildings were added including the Wonders of Wildlife museum in 1991 and a clearance outlet where good bargains can be found. In 1988 Morris began construction on his Big Cedar Lodge on nearby Table Rock Lake, and in 1995 opened a retail store in Atlanta, Ga. A count on their map shows more than 60 stores across the United States and Canada at this time. According to the company’s website, stores range in size from “300,000 square feet down to 42,000 square feet. The decor of the stores includes taxidermy mounts native to the local area. All stores have an indoor water feature that showcase fish species that are indigenous to the area.” While I’ve been to several Bass Pro stores, and to the Springfield location a dozen times or more, it still amazes me every time I grasp the big bronze antler-shaped door pull and swing wide the massive entrance door to the store. Immediately you walk into an indoor world of outdoor flower and fauna, swamps and lakes, hills and streams, and taxidermied animals of all makes and models. While visiting this time I mentioned to my wife that the displays in the store are more elaborate and detailed than I even imagine when thinking of such things. It’s one of those cases where I don’t even dream that big.

While walking around we watched trout, bass, alligator gar, panfish, an alligator, turtles and snakes interacting in cages and tanks. And every time you visit there’s new construction going on. This time while visiting I had a long conversation with the worker in the knife shop, set inside a life-sized log cabin inside the store, about knifemaker Ken Richardson. I have a couple Richardson knives including a letter opener that sits on my desk at the newspaper office. I spent some time with and did a story on him a few years ago, and purchased a knife and was given the letter opener as a token of appreciation. Originally a blacksmith and farrier, Richardson eventually turned his skill for making quality knives into a full-time job. For a time he had an outdoor artistry shop in Steeleville, Mo., but in recent years worked from his farm and supplied his highly sought after knives to Bass Pro, Cabelas and other outlets. The man working behind the counter at Bass Pro said a high-profile actor (whom he named) recently purchased a Richardson sheath knife through the store, and that several top actors, athletes and outdoorsmen own and use Richardson knives.

I believe Bass Pro Shops should also carry the knives of local craftsman Harry Morris. I first met Harry at an outdoor show at the local civic center a dozen years ago. I quickly took a liking to his handmade knives – which are both practical and works of art – and bought a good all-purpose sheath knife. For the first few years I displayed it in a gun cabinet, but then I decided one time that it didn’t make sense to own something so well made if I wasn’t going to use it. In the years since I’ve field dressed, skinned and butchered game animals ranging from doves to deer with that knife. Harry only makes knives in very limited numbers these days, so finding one available online or elsewhere is a real find.

Anyone who likes the outdoors can spend hours on end walking the aisles of a Bass Pro and looking at the unique displays of live and stuffed creatures. And as I said, Bass Pro is known for carrying top name brands. The prices match the quality. There’s no bargain basement goods to be found among the moose, deer and largemouth bass of the Bass Pro shop. So I limit my buying to those items where quality really matters ... outdoor gear I intend to use hard and rely on for many years to come.

Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat. ( ... and is really relaxed coming back from vacation. He can’t wait to go again.)

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