To Panama City Beach … the Long Way!

The gulf at St. Andrews State Park

We were excited to be returning to St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach again this year, but it took something of a circuitous route this time.  You see our future daughter-in-law was having a wedding shower in Memphis just as our trip was to start, so we had to go west before going south. Turned out just fine, however.

We didn’t want to make the entire drive to Memphis all at once, so we made our way northwest through Huntsville, Alabama and stopped for the night at Joe Wheeler State Park along the Tennessee River.  We prefer state parks when we can, since it is reasonable and you discover some cool natural areas.

Not much of a campsite …

Jackie made the reservation for a pull-through site, since we didn’t want to disconnect the car and tow dolly, but we discovered this was more of a pull-aside site.  Maybe just a wide spot in the road, an extra bit of shoulder . . .  It was long enough, there was plenty of room between sites, we had full hookups and a nice view of the lake, but it had a few problems.  First off, we weren’t facing the campsite.

Sites are usually situated so your right side faces into the site, with utilities on the left.  In this case we faced the road, fairly tightly, too.  Putting the awning out was out of the question and we barely extended the bedroom slide – just enough to get around the bed and into drawers.  Stepping out the motorhome door meant looking both ways for sure. And if we had wanted to use the picnic table, well that was way off thataways.  But, it was only one night and easy to pull out the next morning.  Overall it was a very nice campground and Kodi enjoyed the evening walkabout to meet children and other dogs.

At least the site next to us was empty.

After driving across northern Alabama and into Tennessee, we pulled into our site at the Agricenter International RV Park, a multipurpose fairgrounds in Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee.  While it was a basic gravel lot, it did have full hookups and an onsite Farmer’s Market that was fun to wander through.  We met up with Alex, Bethany and her parents and they took us to Central BBQ for some Memphis-style ribs and barbecue.  I had a plate of ribs, half dry half wet (rub and sauce) that was fall-off-the-bone good and Jackie tried the pulled pork nachos with some good hush puppies to share.

Farmer’s Market

Next day Jackie’s sister and niece arrived from Nashville and the ladies went off to the shower.  Alex, Jim and I took Kodi and their two terriers to another part of Shelby Farms Park for some exercise, with a stop at a dog-friendly outdoor gear shop.

All the dogs …

Once again, Kodi was a hit with the kids (he is such a friendly dog).  Jim and Dawn hosted us all back at their home for a delicious (and I mean delicious) cookout and then it was back to the camper with Judy and Rachel for the night.  However …

Wow did we get a thunderstorm that night!  Everything was buttoned down tight, but the wind was rocking the van pretty good and the rain was quite loud on the roof.  We had the paddleboards strapped to the roof of the car, but while we are parked I usually loosen the straps a bit to let the boards relax and flex.  The wind was so intense I found myself peeking out the bedroom window to check on them, only to see them bouncing around more than I liked.  I had visions of them slipping out from under the straps and snapping or just blowing away.  I certainly couldn’t sleep with the thought, so I ran out to tighten them down and got totally, totally drenched.  But the boards were safe.  Unfortunately, the outside radio compartment popped open and I wondered how the speakers and radio would hold up when dry …

Just a spot for the night

Heading south through Alabama, we stopped at Birmingham South Campground for the night, again with full hookups and a pull-thru site.  Easy access to the highway and a rather nice park.  It was entirely full, since this was now Memorial Day weekend, and we were glad we made an advance reservation.

Nice spot at St. Andrews

Finally hit the road on the last stretch through Alabama and into the Florida panhandle to arrive at St. Andrews State Park.  Got ourselves settled into the campsite and took Kodi on a walkabout to check out dogs, kids, deer and everything else around camp.  While inside the van I suddenly heard loud voices outside and was a bit confused.  Stepping out I realized that the radio had turned on, muffled as it was behind the hatch door.  Odd.  It mysteriously turned on and off a few more times during the trip, so I guess the rain must have short-circuited something.  Just another project for back home.

Lagoon paddleboarding and watching for dolphin.

Let’s see, what did we do for the next few days?  Well, we paddleboarded in the Grand Lagoon out to the inlet, where there is a gorgeous spit of sandy beach and clear water for swimming.  We always manage to spot fish below us and a few dolphin around us.

Lagoon side beach and children’s “pool”

Gulf side beach (awesome)

At the St. Andrews Beach you have a choice of the Gulf side beach or the lagoon side, which has a great spot of water perfect for kids and jetty snorkeling.  Depending on the water conditions, you can snorkel the Gulf side jetty, too.  So we alternated between both, since the water was a refreshing 81 degrees, clear and clean.  Amazing.

Patches Pub Patio

One of the first nights in town we wanted to try a local spot that was always crowded and seemed like fun: Patches Pub.  The patio had live music (not as good as Blind Fate, mind you) and there was a nice selection of craft beer, but no open table.  We were asked to join a couple and promptly learned that they were regulars and were also staying in a motorhome nearby.  They headed out and we ordered a second round and some food, only to look up and see a few ladies who had come out on the patio and were without a table, too.  “Why don’t you join us” we asked, and we were soon sharing stories about the local scene and what was going on.

Peeps at Patches

One of the gals was from Kennesaw, — about 3 miles from our house!  Turns out, two were sisters in town to visit their mother Henrietta, who declared that at 92 she was ready to party.  Her condo sits next to the party spot LaVela, which bills itself as the largest nightclub in the US. Apparently she can catch the action from her balcony, some of which she described in pretty wild detail.  As we were chatting, she swapped her plastic glass of wine for one of her daughter’s glass stems (adding her red to the remaining white for a nice blush wine…) declaring “it’s just classier” and we all laughed and enjoyed our newfound peeps.

How was Kodi in camp?  He was great, and he certainly had his fan club.  Every walk around camp involved meet and greets with kids and dogs – he even got the hang of being walked/run on the leash while Doug was riding his bike (a disaster-in-the-making, according to my brother).  Later in the week we had folks saying “Oh there’s Kodi, Hi Kodi” around camp. Crazy that he became so popular.

Beach Buds

My brother Jeff and sister-in-law Vickie (you will recall them from our cruise posts) joined us for a few days and we had a total blast.  Our mission was a search for the best oysters around, plus some good snorkeling.  But first we had to hit our favorite beach bar Sharky’s for grouper sandwiches and drinks.  It was as good as ever, with a table at the rail along the beach.  So of course there is a bit of a story, too.  Jeff ordered a frozen margarita and was asked “large or small?”  Large of course, and it arrived in a big plastic beer stein with a lid.  Okay then.  I ordered a ‘Shark Attack’ for Jackie and I to split, large of course, and got the same plastic mug.  Cool.  Well, during dinner we learned that refills were cheaper if you had the mug, so heck, why not?  Even better, the mugs were good at two other spots that had the Fat Tuesdays bar setup.  So keep that tidbit in mind for later.

Beachside at Sharky’s

Jeff rented a pontoon boat from the park for a day and off to Shell Island we went.  Shell Island is just on the other side of the inlet and the lagoon side was waist-deep clear water along the jetty.  Amazing to see so many bait fish – clouds of them in the water, plus mullet, pinfish, tang, and others that we really couldn’t identify.  “I can’t believe we have this place to ourselves” was the refrain that morning, since it was indeed a quiet spot.

Thumbs Up for sure!

Oysters discovered!

Mmm, fish tacos

Lunch was the main event, however, and our quest for the best oysters took us to Old St. Andrews Marina and we tied up at the dock.  Within sight was our destination: Hunts Oyster Bar.  This local spot was busy, but we got a table pretty quick and put in an order for a pitcher of beer and two dozen oysters on the half-shell.  Bam! We had our oysters before we had the beer.  Cold, sweet and awesome beauties from the Apalachicola Bay.  Jeff and I worked through them pretty fast and ordered up another tray, while we also asked for their fish tacos.  I have to say that the tacos were really, really good.  Jeff and I marveled at the speed of oyster shucking and he determined he was going to get some for later.  Since we had the rest of the day on the boat, we decided to wait on the oysters to go.

Schools and schools of baitfish

Back onboard we returned to snorkel at Shell Island and then across the inlet to the sandy spit for a quick swim and then back to the marina.  A great day – and I recommend the boat rentals from the park.

Next morning Jeff was pondering the whole question of a box of oysters to take home.  “Dad’s gonna love them, but I don’t know if I want to drive around to Hunt’s to get them.”  Those oysters were calling our name, so we decided to try the closer Treasure Island Seafood Market and bought 100 fresh oysters (hey, they were a good deal), piled in a box and filled with ice.  Hmm, don’t have a clam knife in the van – guess we need to hit Winn Dixie.  Oh, and what about that bloody Mary mix over there?  Perfect!  Back in camp it was time to shuck oysters (Jeff’s job) and serve up bloodys (Doug’s job).  Ouch, that knife was sharp and the oyster was tight … well, 12 oysters and a bloody thumb later we had to rethink.  88 to go and “how exactly did they shuck those guys so quick?”  Ah well, time to snorkel instead.

Grilled oysters

Before he left for home, Jeff left me with about a dozen to fight with.  Grilling seemed to be the answer and that worked out for the next two nights – they were much easier to open when they had been steamed on the grill for a bit.  Jeff later texted from home that he also steamed them and Dad polished off most of them himself (maybe his secret for reaching 90 years old?).  Well done.

Oysters and Dad

I should mention that there was much boating activity that weekend, mostly due to the 3 day season for red snapper in Federal waters.  Best place to see them was at the fish cleaning station, where Jackie pretended that she caught a big one.  I recall those fish-cleaning days on the Jersey shore when we came back in with barrels of bluefish and I didn’t envy the guys who were filleting them at the dock.  But snapper is good eats!  Made me also think of the lionfish cleaning in the Keys from last fall (see the post: Island Hopping).

Did you REALLY catch that?

Fish cleaning

So what is left to say about the remaining week at the beach?  Let’s see, we changed campsites after a week and a visit to the dump station.  New site was closer to the water for a great view.

Dinner for two at the next campsite

Two days of rain – but that was really an excuse to have lunch beachside at Pineapple Willy’s for some amazing grouper po’boys (oh, and a refill rum drink using our special mugs).

Gotta get that refill on a rainy day

Pineapple Willy’s and po’boys

More snorkeling (and my GoPro, since I finally got the batteries charged) and great swimming, since the water was amazingly clear and the bait fish were all over the place.  A last refill rum drink in our special mugs (I mean, we just HAD to check out all the options) and grouper sandwich at Hammerhead Fred’s.  Good times.

Hammerhead Fred’s and the refills

So, despite the 8 hour trip home – never fun at the end of a vacation – we are all set to plan it again for next year.  Remember, those 8 hours include the time it takes to hook up and then unhitch the car and tow dolly and some traffic snarls in Dothan, Eufaula and Atlanta.

I have to start editing the pictures and video from my GoPro, which may take me a few days, so I’ll make them a separate post.  There are some teaser shots in the gallery below.  You can check back later for more of the snorkeling shots and videos.  I updated Happenings with news of our deer and Merlin says he made some comments on Mews, so be sure to give them a look.

And thanks again for following our adventures – we have fun with it and I enjoy writing the stories.

 

 

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Kodi’s First Camp

Jackie and I were just itching to get out on our first adventure of 2017, so we finished up the de-winterization of the motorhome and packed for a trip to the Georgia Blue Ridge mountains before Spring Break hit the area schools. Plus, we wanted to introduce Kodi to our camping adventures and be sure we had the camper truly ready for the season.

Getting the van all set for camping meant adding water and bleach to the main water tank, running it through the lines and letting it sit overnight, then flushing and filling again for a final rinse. Our leveling jack is repaired and a double-check of everything showed we were ready to roll. What we love is how easy it is to pack the fridge, stock the pantry, load the bedroom closets and drawers with clothes and fill the bathroom with essentials and BAM! we are set to go.

Since we were headed for Helen, Georgia, specifically Unicoi State Park, we opted not to hitch the car but have Jackie drive it with Kodi as passenger. Not his first trip in the car, but first time with a seat harness. He has a nervous stomach, so he and Merlin had to go without breakfast (oh… the pain and agony of the starving cat!), but the little puppy still was drooling for much of the trip. We are taking to calling this his “flip and spit’ behavior – and if you were in the car with him you would understand. Poor guy, but we all arrived safely at camp ready for adventure.

Unicoi campsite

We chose a full-hookup site that was an easy back-in and connection to electric, water and sewer. Our initial frustration was the lack of any information on the Unicoi State Park website about the available campsites, options, fees or even the choice of registering online. A couple of unanswered phone calls later and I finally reached someone to book a site, but it was first-pick of what was available once you got to the campground. That’s not too unusual for some state parks and Corps of Engineers campgrounds, but the lack of information online was disappointing.

Hmm, think we like camping?

Always at home …

Set camp and walked Kodi around to get his bearings, check out the lake, camp store and some of the trails. A dinner of grilled salmon was a nice finish to the day. Boom! Crack! and we had a good ol’ thunderstorm on our hands overnight. We were plenty high and dry and everything was out of harm’s way, but if you have camped in the rain, you know how noisy the raindrops can be – like lots of snare drums tapping. Not a peep out of Kodi, however. Oh, except a waaaaay early morning call of nature, once the storm had passed.

I hate plumbing . . .

Did I tell you how much I hate plumbing… toilets… water lines… all that? Oh, I manage to handle it just fine eventually, but water is such a pain when things go wrong. I mention this now because as I am having my coffee in the camper I hear Jackie remark that there is water on the bathroom floor. Not good. Something in the supply line for the toilet is dripping and of course the only option is to shut off the water. Hmm, maybe if I tighten the cap underneath? Nope, made it worse.  Well, shut off the water and tackle it later, maybe.  “Let’s go wander around Helen,” Jackie suggested, so I was all in.

It was a short drive into ‘Alpine Helen’ as it bills itself. and we went to take in the atmosphere of a German alpine community. Eh, maybe not so much, but it was kind of pre-season, so that may be why about half the shops and restaurants were closed. If you have been to Gatlinburg, TN, you just have to scale it back a little, add some German names and gingerbread to the buildings instead of logs and cabins and … well, you get the idea. But we had some bratwurst, kraut, corned beef and craft beer along the Chattahoochee River on a nice sunny day, so it all worked out just fine. Picked up some hearty bread and Danish at a local bakery and we headed back to camp.

The afternoon hike around Unicoi Lake was an easy trek for Kodi, but Doug didn’t find many blooming flowers or local wildlife to capture with camera, to his disappointment, but we did see the newest section of zip lines that were almost ready to use. Some pretty long runs across the lake. The course that was already in use looked challenging enough, so we decided we would try it tomorrow. Oh, and all that hiking let Kodi sleep through until 8:30!  Yay, that’s a lot better than his usual 6:15 am.

Hmm… water problem was still not fixed.  I turned off water, took the cap off, decided it must be a worn “O” ring and off I went in search of the nearest Wal-Mart (Cleveland, not too far really). No “O” rings, but Teflon thread tape and special rubber leak-stop tape might work. Nope, in fact even more dripping. So the solution was to put a pan under the leak and only pressurize with the water pump as we needed water, then letting off the pressure. Staying hooked up to the city water was just too much pressure (oh, yeah, wasn’t that the whole idea of full hookups though?). This fix will have to wait until we are back home.

Hiking to Anna Ruby Falls.

Our last full day was a beautiful, sunny and warm day, perfect for a hike up to Anna Ruby Falls. The senior pass came in handy once again, as we didn’t have to pay parking/admission. What a great easy hike up along the creek to the double falls. Wildflowers were blooming and kept Doug busy snapping pictures, while Kodi met lots of kids along the trail with no fear.

We grabbed a quick lunch back at camp, then signed up for our zip line adventure. The course was 11 zips and 7 cable bridges and as we suited up in our harnesses, we were reminded of our favorite TV show “The Amazing Race.” With Jackie in the lead, off we went with our two guides. Just the four of us, so it was a very personalized tour. What fun!   Here is a short video of Jackie on the zip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OR5Eobzro-s&feature=youtu.be

Navigating one of the 3-cable bridges.

 

Hanging on at one of the zip line high posts.

 

Stepping across one of the cable bridges.

Climbing up and across and zipping along the cables at treetop level was very cool. Our only other zip line experience was through a jungle in Guatemala, but that involved a lot more hiking up the mountain. Ahhh, back to camp for an adult beverage and a couple of strip steaks on the grill. Gosh, camping is tough work.

Kodi made it through his first camping trip just fine, adapting to the motorhome, the camping routine, up and down the steps and leash-walking around camp to meet kids and other dogs. He’s going to be a great adventure companion (we really think Benji is giving him some advice).

Back home I tackled the toilet water supply problem. Took the supply diverter off the toilet, unhooked the hoses and will run to Camping World for a replacement. That should do it for now. (Did I tell you how much I hate plumbing?)

Hey, thanks for reading about our adventures. Be sure to “follow” us so you get updates as they happen.

Here are some quick stats on how our blog has been received:

We have readers in 7 countries!
2015 we had 6,220 views and 503 visitors
2016 we had 5,712 views and 584 visitors
And so far in 2017 we have 508 views and 141 visitors
The most popular pages are: Zion “Straight Up Land”, Hike Inn, Hard Knock Life, Caribbean Adventure and Memories of Benji.

How cool is that?

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Plotting the 2017 Adventures!

The rather mild Georgia winter is almost over as we make plans to de-winterize the motorhome and hit the road with some new adventures.  I figured it would be a good time to update everyone and share the excitement of a new season of outdoor fun.

The motorhome got a cover for the winter.

Repairs and Diagnostics (skip if you aren’t much into RV maintenance)

First task was to correct the problem of our motorhome’s gimpy back leg, so to speak.  The leveling jack for which I replaced the springs and foot would not extend and it was more than my feeble brain could figure out, so we uncovered the van, drove it to our local RV shop and within days they made the repair and had everything back to order.  It seems a solenoid needed replacement.  Yippee – back to “four on the floor” when needed.

The leveling jack that needed replacement springs and foot. The wood wedges were needed to expand the springs enough to install.

Back in the driveway I ran the generator a bit, connected the shore line for electricity to charge the house batteries and did a bumper-to-bumper diagnostic.  The dashboard 12v power outlet (formerly known as cigarette lighter) had not worked since I replaced the radio, so this was a needed repair.  Simple, right?  Not so fast, buddy.  The nice thing about the Winnebago dash is that it is hinged, so you can swing it up to have access to all the gauges and connections.  But you also have to have enough flexibility in your wired connections not to unplug things when you do that.  The short wire on the 12v socket needed to be a longer one, so I replaced a longer negative wire and connected to a grounding screw in the frame.

Power to the positive was harder, since I couldn’t find a handy splice or available connector in the wiring nearby. It must have been spliced into the old radio power supply.  The remedy for this was to run a new wire from the fuse box way over on the left side to the outlet way over on the right side.  Hmm… how to best do this?  Let me remind you that I taught 6 years of technology and engineering, one unit of which was electricity and electronics – but that really doesn’t mean I have all the right wires, connectors and electrical understanding to just bang this out without thinking.  A hammer, nails and lumber — that I can do. Automotive… not so much.  

But after a few runs to several automotive supply stores I found a nifty add-a-fuse power splitter that let me connect to the radio’s slot on the fuse panel and we had success!  Radio works, power outlet works, and now we can conveniently charge the cell phones and such on the road.  Yes, we do have an inverter with AC outlet for just that sort of thing, but it is above the windshield and not within reach while driving.

Adventure Planning

So what’s next on our travel bucket list?  We want to do some more camping in the Georgia mountains and maybe nearby Alabama and Tennessee State Parks this spring.  We booked two weeks back at St. Andrews State Park, Florida in early summer, which is our time for snorkeling and paddleboarding.  But the big trip late summer and fall will be out West to visit Yellowstone, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks.

Just a wee bit ago (yes, that’s Doug) there was “The Great Camping Adventure of 1969.”

We researched and planned out the trip to do a southern route to Grand Teton NP, then Yellowstone NP and on up to Glacier NP before the snow arrived.  Booked the date in Yellowstone and were all set to book Glacier when … my, my, what do you know?  A little ‘ol 5 minute solar eclipse was scheduled to pass along the Tetons on the very day we wanted to stay there. Booked up full — the whole county. Nothing available until weeks later. We were told by park rangers that they had been getting calls about it 5 years ago! End of days? Nah, not for us, but it did require an entire re-working of the trip.

So I reversed our path to a northern route to Glacier NP first, then looping back down to Yellowstone NP and Grant Teton NP.  We made the changes in reservations and filled in the gaps. On the trip out, we will camp in South Dakota in the Badlands NP and Custer State Park, checking out Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and the Black Hills.  From there we stay in Bighorn National Forest, check out Devil’s Tower National Monument and then to Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton.  Lots of hiking planned and probably a rafting trip down the Snake River, too.  I bought a new lens for my camera to better capture the wildlife and scenery and we are looking into buying a spotting scope for more close-up wildlife sightings (wolves maybe??).

“The Great Camping Adventure of 1969,” probably in the Needles section of the Black Hills.

Some of this is revisiting places my family camped in when we pulled off “The Great Camping Adventure of 1969.”  Yes, during the most historic summer of the century, while hippies were hitch-hiking to Woodstock; Watts and Newark were burning from riots; Charles Manson and cult were murdering Sharon Tate and men were first landing on the moon, my family of six was packed into a Plymouth station wagon, pulling a Cox pop-up camper, speeding across the US on a 6-week grand adventure! No TV, no Internet, no cellphones or social media, just a poke-your-sister-in-the-backseat kind of entertainment.   

In Yellowstone we listened by car radio one night as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon.  Yep.  Missed that one live on TV.

New Traveler

Every good Shetland Sheepdog knows how to keep a close eye on the flock.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know about Kodi from the postings that Merlin (our cat) has been making on his Mews page.  Kodi is a few months old now and is somewhere between a toddler and a teenager, dog-wise.  He loves going for walks on a leash, fetching a ball, rope knot or any of his toys, and is just learning some agility.  He has made some new dog friends and visited lots of folks already.  But the best part is that he will soon be joining us in the motorhome on our camping adventures.  He has checked it out and it seems to work for him – although we haven’t rattled down the road with him in it yet.  Benji will always be our special Adventure Dog and travels with us in spirit, now Kodi is set to learn what it is like and joins Merlin in the motorhome as we head out into the world together.

Kodi trying out the agility tunnel.

So while we await the arrival of nasty yellow pollen and plan the final de-winterizing of the motorhome, we do what everyone else at this time of year does: we plan for the upcoming season of warm weather, sunshine, warm water and wild adventures.

We will report back from time to time, so follow along with us!

PS. Merlin says you should keep up with his Mews page, too.

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Family Cruisin’ – the Sequel

Christmas onboard Enchantment of the Seas

Christmas onboard Enchantment of the Seas

The family cruise last spring was such fun that Dad (Pop Pop) declared we should do it again … in celebration of his 90th birthday.  That birthday doesn’t happen until New Year’s Day, but that is also a tough day to schedule anything, so we booked the week before Christmas for a family cruise to the Bahamas, sailing out of Miami.  Perfect.  Should be a breeze and a lot of fun, right?  But one night at sea one of our party went missing:

The note had been slipped under the door and was written hastily on a scrap of paper promoting the next cruise.  “Happy Birthday, Pop Pop.  I am 19 and I am sorry that my friend who was drunk took him last night and I want to return him to you.  But he is in good hands and has a good home.  I hope you make 100!”   Just the note, not the missing party.  What was afoot?

Let me back up a few days and fill you in.  Family members were arriving pre-cruise to Miami on planes and in cars in an undeclared competitive rush to get on board first.  I thought we (Jackie, Alex, Linda, Norm, Chris and I) had the edge, since we flew in to downtown  the day before and were within sight of the cruise ship terminal.

Bayside Marketplace in Miami enjoying music the day before cruising.

Bayside Marketplace in Miami enjoying music the day before cruising.

But it seems my brother Jeff made better time driving down from South Carolina than we expected (with Adam, Vicki and Dad on board).  As we were making our way through the embarkation desk, we got a picture sent to our phones of the Perfect Patron Margarita.  Drats! They played the old-guy-with-a-walker card and were already onboard with drinks in hand!  We of course responded that we were still waiting for our taxi and tried to play off our pending arrival at their side, but they appeared to see through the ruse.  Soon we were all on the pool deck with drinks aplenty, sharing hugs and stories.  Well, you can see where this adventure is going …

I think the best day of a cruise is arrival day.  Everyone is excited, the drinks (if you buy the package) are flowing, and everyone is in a great mood to have fun.  We sought out our favorite bartenders from the last cruise (Yay! Livingston, Al and Dr. G were aboard!), booked our dinner table for 10 (near the front, no pole to obstruct, please) and just plain relaxed until the sail-away out of Miami. “Did you bring the drink list?  What should we have? Wanna find something to eat?  Let’s go up front on Deck 10!  Which is starboard?”  We were traveling aboard the Royal Caribbean Enchantment of the Seas, by the way – best pool deck ever.

Soon after we were checking in to our rooms and unpacking.  Just before dinner we marked the cabin doors with signs “Pop Pop’s Crew” and added crocheted Christmas ornaments that Jackie made.  Dad’s door now had a cute snowman with top hat and dangly arms.  While everyone went off to dinner, I decorated his room with colorful banners and such declaring “90” and “Vintage Dude” and posted a picture of Dad on the door with “Jack is 90.  Wish him Happy Birthday.”  Back at the dinner table we scattered the same “90” napkins and gave Dad a cap “Old Guys Rule – Aged to Perfection.”  Our servers Aries and Joan picked up on it and we soon had a cake with candle and singing.  What fun.

Vintage Dude indeed

Vintage Dude indeed

Celebrate 90!

Celebrate 90!

Next day was snorkeling, swimming and frozen drinks at Coco Cay, RCI’s private island.  Took way too long to get off the ship, onto a tender and set foot on the island, but the weather and water were perfect.

Back on board it was formal night and we managed to cajole the guys into wearing Christmas ties to dinner.  Wasn’t too hard to find 7 crazy ties in my collection from teaching and Jackie brought along blinking light-up necklaces for the ladies – so I think we might have been the most festive group that night.  Another cake with candle and singing for Dad (with much protesting on his part).

Oh, and did I mention the casino?  Blackjack and craps, with a little bit of roulette, were the games of choice and most of us had chips left in our pockets after a night or two.  On the way to the evening’s show Vicki and I escorted Dad (which took us through the casino of course) and he reaches over to the roulette table and plops down a chip.  Bam! His number hits, he scoops up the winnings and keeps on moving.  Just that lucky.

So our adventures took us to Nassau and a snorkeling excursion (not as good as we expected: too many paddle boarders and kayakers along with us), then to Key West for some bar hopping and conch fritters.

 ... a three hour tour ...

… a three hour tour …

Back on board we kept our bartenders busy and always had great fun at dinner in the main dining room (yes, a birthday cake with candle each night!).

But, back to the mystery of our missing party:

We noticed it on our fourth cruise day.  The snowman was missing from Dad’s door!  Some evidence was left behind, a broken piece of the clip, a snip of tape … who took him and why?  Should we alert security? Check nearby trash bins?  Who took snowman?

The following morning before breakfast, Dad found the note slipped under his door.  It seems that some late night revelers must have snatched him up, with one of their group later realizing the error of their ways and tried to make amends.  But the note did say he was in good hands and had a good home, so we hope he brings joy to his new family.  Jackie is going to have to whip up a few more, now, since everyone in our group wants one for their tree.

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One happy crowd at dinner

So did we have a great cruise and did Dad enjoy having most of his family with him for his 90th birthday?  You bet.  Speaking of bets, did we all come out winners at the casino?  Uhhh, not so much.  Better luck next time I guess.

Back home for Christmas with family.  Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our friends, family and followers.  Thanks for coming along on our adventures!

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Next Adventure?  Mostly local travels for the winter and fun with family and friends.  Look for updates on the “Happenings,” “Foodie” and “Mews” pages.

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Not So Smoky Mountains

Finally another posting and story to tell.

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Vogel State Park

Since returning from the Florida Keys we have been busy with family and friends this fall, including volunteering at the Acworth Craft Beer Festival (check out Happenings page).  But we did want to fit in one last trip before we winterized the RV, so we plotted an adventure to the Georgia mountains.  Trouble is, as you know we are in the midst of a drought and there are several big wildfires in the mountains of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina.  So the smoke haze that has been felt in Atlanta and the stories of evacuations in the mountains made us rather skeptical we should be heading into trouble.

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Smoky view of Vogel St. Park

But it seemed that our destination, Vogel State Park, was in-between the major fires and might be worth a visit.  Off to the mountains we went and what fun it was to drive the many switchbacks of the curving ascent to Neels Gap and Vogel State Park, the oldest of Georgia’s state parks.  There were maybe only a dozen campers in a gorgeous rhododendron-filled glen, but we definitely did see the haze of smoke as we walked around Lake Trahlyta and the campground to get our bearings.  Staff at the camp store warned us about the resident bear, so we were hopeful for a late-night sighting.

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Smoky view from the lake at Vogel St. Park

Next day’s challenge was to hike the 4.2 mile Bear Hair Gap trail between the campground and the base of Blood Mountain.  Parts of this loop were on the much longer (12.9 mile) Coosa Backcountry Trail, so we tried our best to watch the trail blazes to stay on the right trail, with a few head-scratching moments at the intersections.  We took the steeper route up and around, preferring to get the tough part over with first.  More than half the leaves were down so visibility was good but there was still a lot of golden brown color, with pops of yellow and red.

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Ohhhh Noooo, not Blood Mountain!

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The Vogel Overlook was a good spot to take a break and admire the view.  We passed several hikers on the loop, compared experiences and confirmed directions.  A quiet hike, with no wildlife spotting at all (unlike our crazy backyard refuge). Maybe tomorrow.

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View from Vogel Overlook

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Made it to the overlook!

Rested and refreshed after a good steak dinner in camp, we set out the next day to hike part of the Appalachian Trail from Neels Gap to Blood Mountain.  In our day packs we had water, light lunch, fruit and snacks.  What we forgot were our hiking sticks (argh!).

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Tree of hiking shoes at the hostel.

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Walasi-yi hostel

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Walasi-yi Interpretive Center

We drove up the road to Neels Gap and the Walasi-yi Hostel and Interpretive Center – a great old stone building constructed in 1937 and now an outfitter post with plenty of hiking supplies.  We spoke with the staff of Mountain Crossings about the hike:

  • 4.3 mile out and back trail
  • 1,471 feet elevation change (gain and loss of 3,000 feet elevation)
  • “You should be fine”

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Off we went to hike a section of the AT on a cool fall day.  With a shift in wind direction, the air was surprisingly clear and free of smoke haze.  The trail starts as a moderate slope upward around the mountain, but soon becomes a series of switchbacks and stone stairways that head up the slope at a steeper angle.  Lots of pauses later the trail seemed to level out a bit and even head downhill just a bit until we reached a section of boulder-climbing and more rocky ascent.

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Once past that section we were sure the summit was near, as the trees were more compressed and windswept and there were more patches of bald rock.  Passing several other hikers heading down we were told “it’s just 10 minutes more” or “just ahead.”  Yet the trail kept heading uphill.  Well, we did eventually make it to the rock shelter at the summit (a CCC construction that sadly had trash littered about) and looked for a spot to rest.

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The view at lunch

Facing west, we sat on a rock ledge to have lunch and enjoy the fantastic view.  Here we were on the highest point of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. It gave us that sense of wonder that helps put all things in perspective.  In the distance we could see smoke from fires in the Cohutta Wilderness and drifting further south.

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In other views we saw smoke to the east, but where we were was rather clear that day. Spoke with several others on the trail: a pair of college guys headed another 6 miles to Slaughter Mountain; another young man headed for the final 30 miles to Springer Mountain (he started at Mt. Katahdin in Maine); and a few young couples just hiking a version of what we did.  In all, we probably passed about three dozen hikers.  We recalled our own spring hike on the AT approach trail from Amicalola Falls to the Hike Inn lodge (and that’s a story worth reading if you missed it!).

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Summit of Blood Mountain

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The view southeast

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Panorama of Blood Mountain view

Well, on this hike up 1,500 feet, you also have to hike back down again, so down we went.  This part was where we really missed those hiking sticks, since they are a big help in keeping your balance on the rocky and root-filled trail.  But we made it back to Neels Gap just before the center closed for the evening and got ourselves some shirts and drinks.  There was a good crowd outside the hostel sharing stories about their adventures and demonstrating far more energy than they should have (ah, youth!).

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Lake Trahlyta at Vogel State Park

Back in camp we had a few adult beverages and took a hot shower, feeling much better and grateful that we had such comfy accommodations.  A six hour hike, not exactly a record-setting pace, but a personal accomplishment for us both.  Jackie felt that this one was a tougher climb that the ones we did out west last year, but it was cooler weather and not quite the altitude. (4,459 for Blood Mountain, 6,000 to 13,000 in the Rockies).  Another great adventure (but the bear was a no-show).

Notes about our motorhome for RV’ers:

You might be interested in our experiences with our motorhome, one that we feel has served us well.  Last time we reported from our Keys trip that we lost the foot and springs from one of the leveling jacks.  In the weeks since that trip we ordered a replacement foot and springs to install.

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Leveling jack mid-repair

The tricky part of the install was stretching the springs long enough to be able to place the foot over the bottom pin of the hydraulic cylinder.  I read that by inserting wooden wedges along the spring it can be expanded enough to do the trick (and then when the cylinder and foot are extended the wedges will pop out of the spring as it extends).  Our latest discovery, however, is that the cylinder is not extending at all, so the wedges remain for now and we ponder how to finish the fix on this jack.  Either we lost hydraulic fluid, blew a fuse for that jack or the cylinder is simply stuck in place.  We have been able to level the wheels and the recent site was very level to begin with, but it needs to be resolved.  Hmm, this one may need some professional help.  So it goes.

Next Adventure?  Well, the Winnebago is getting winterized (freeze warnings for the weekend already), so it may not be until March or April before we head out in it again.  But there are always plenty of other adventures that await (some of them covered on our Foodie and Happenings pages).  Stay tuned – and thanks for being a faithful reader.

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Reefs, Writers and Conch Fritters

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Adoption Day for our granddaughter!

It’s about 85 degrees early this morning, with bright sun, blue skies and a warm breeze as I sit outside facing the water and get caught up on our wanderings.  We are camping beachside at Curry Hammock State Park and it is indeed a quiet start to another hot Florida day.  It has been a week since we left John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, counting down the mile markers to the end of the road.  A highlight of the trip as we left Marathon was 7-mile bridge, which somehow has this magical attraction.  Parallel to the new bridge is the old one, a remnant of the East Coast Railway and later the original Overseas Highway.  But you may know it best, as we do, from the movies.  In particular, True Lies, where Arnold Schwarzenegger pulls Jaime Lee Curtis out of a speeding limo at just the right moment.  Is that the limo I see underwater just there?

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7 mile bridge

I should probably pause to say that I consider our adventures to be well planned – mostly because if you want to be in state or national parks, you have to reserve well in advance.  But sometimes you miss a few things, such as September is still really hot in Florida (90’s) and Bike Week in the Keys happens right now (about 10,000 or more motorcyclists).  We knew about the hurricane season and kept our fingers crossed, but somehow missed the Poker Run.

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Bike Week in Key West!

But it’s fun when the unexpected happens.  For instance, our next few nights were in Bahia Honda State Park and we discovered it was a really nice island with views of the overland highway and old Flagler-built East Coast Railway bridge. It is one of the few keys that has sand beaches that are nice to relax on or in (we sat the chairs in the ankle deep water for most of the day). We signed up for our second reef snorkeling adventure, only to learn that the boat was in need of a part for repairs and the trip was canceled.  Next day as we were awaiting the part – oh the part is in, but the mechanic is out – canceled again, there was a lot of buzz about “the movie.”

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Campground set of “The Leisure Seekers”

On the set for "The Leisure Seekers"

On the set of “The Leisure Seekers”

Down by the nature center there was a crew setting up for a shoot, complete with some vintage campers, tables, grills and such and lots of cameras and equipment.  Actually, this wasn’t even part of the campground.  Someone said it was a film with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren.  We watched and wandered about, got waved out of the shot and tried to figure the smoky scene, which looked like some grilling gone bad.  It is “The Leisure Seekers,” a story about a retired couple who set out in their vintage Winnebago RV on an adventure of a lifetime.  Hmm, sounds kinda familiar.  We probably saw both actors, but who could tell?  Shorter in real life and all…

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Reef snorkeling

As we learned that our snorkeling trip was canceled yet again, we quickly checked with the nearest dive boat and got ourselves on for a run to Looe Key – a marine sanctuary reef that was supposed to have reef sharks and goliath groupers and spotted rays.  Very clear water that was a different reef than Pennecamp, deeper and lots of fish and coral: parrot fish, French angelfish, barracuda, yellowtail snapper, sergeant major, blue tang, some grouper, fan coral, elkhorn coral and some low-flying frigate birds circling.  But we didn’t see the reef sharks (some folks did), goliath grouper or spotted rays.  We did see lots more moon jellies and just as we were headed back to the boat, Jackie got nailed along the neck by one.  Ouch!

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Reef fish

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Reef fish

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Reef fish

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Barracuda

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Christ of the Abyss

The boat moved to a spot where we got to see several large green sea turtles from the boat, one might have been a Loggerhead.  Overall great afternoon, despite the jellyfish sting.

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The beach at Bahia Honda

We really do like the Florida State Parks – they are clean and very dependable for hookups and campsite conditions.  Bahia Honda had some beautiful sunsets and we got to ride bikes along the shore, paddleboard and bird watch (no spoonbills or swallow-tailed kites yet, but a nice osprey).  The Keys are not really beach scenes. To appreciate them you need to get out on the water and fish, snorkel the reefs or paddle around.  They are rocky coral and pretty darn shallow and there is lots of weed at the water’s edge. And no waves – no sounds of the roaring surf, hardly even a ripple.  We got to chat with others about where they had been, and “you’ll love Key West, it was so quiet in town yesterday – even with 2 cruise ships in port.  Empty.”  Right.

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Sandbar off Curry Hammock

So off we went to check in at Leo’s Campground on Stock Island (the island used to be the stockyard for Key West), which is maybe a half-mile from new town Key West. Umm, not so easy to navigate back to the site.  We unhooked the car and pulled forward, but needed to do a K-turn, which just wasn’t happening without the tow-dolly getting tangled up with an old Dodge van (oops, sorry, did that leave a scratch?), so I turned around, started over and backed all the way in, with Jackie’s help. Usually the private campgrounds are more like wide-open parking lots, but Leo’s not so much. Well, the dino-sized iguanas were amused at least (and it seems our site was next to the official feeding spot for these 4 and 5 foot guys). Remember, always the unexpected!

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Key West awaits, let’s see what it’s all about.  We drove in and parked ($$) near Mallory Square and Duval Street, which was blocked off for the bike event, and tried to get a flavor for Old Town Key West.  Stayed for the sunset celebration on the waterfront along with a zillion selfie-takers and wedding photos.  We returned on Saturday, but this time we parked at Higgs Beach in free public parking and then bought a trolley ticket to get around.  So what did we find in two days in Key West?

  • Bike Week is a big event – best to avoid it if it isn’t your scene.
  • September is their off month, several restaurants post “Gone Fishing, back in October”
  • Upper Duval Street is much like Bourbon Street’s bar scene, but it was great for drinks and seafood.  Lower Duval has the art galleries and more expensive shops and is quieter.
  • Conch fritters were delicious – the Conch Shack had the best ones in my opinion.

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  • Sloppy Joe’s was Hemmingway’s watering hole, and this weekend just about everyone else’s.  Plentiful bar, though.
  • Everyone sells Key Lime Pie, but get the pie on a stick, dipped in dark chocolate!
  • Lazy Gecko had best craft beers, Key West Crazy Lady and Funky Buddah Floridian, and a delicious grouper mango taco

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  • Flying Monkey bar at Fogerty’s had a “uuuge” fish sandwich with some brain-freeze drinks that were very welcome on a hot day
  • Hemingway House is inside a wall of vegetation, a pricey tour so we didn’t go in to see the six-toed cats
  • Some beautiful homes, but for the prices (millions) you would expect a little better maintenance on some.  Fixer-uppers are still around a million bucks.
  • I would hate to see a cross-hybrid between kudzu and banyan trees.  Whole cities would disappear.

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The trolley tour told a little more of the local history of a town that has been one of the richest per capita more than once:

  • Salt ponds were used to gather salt for the North Carolina fish-packing industry (hurricane wiped it out)
  • Reef shipwrecks became a profitable salvage industry until better navigation and charts came along.
  • Flagler’s East Coast Railroad was to be the entry port for cargo from the Panama Canal, plus luxury hotels (hurricanes wiped out several bridges after a few years, then he sold it to the state)
  • Cigar industry using local Cuban talent thrived until the great fire (which then spawned the requirement that roofs be made of tin)
  • Finally tourism became an industry
  • Declaration of secession when the feds blocked US1 to stop the flow of illegal drugs and immigrants in the 70’s – the Conch Republic was born
  • The bars and latitude seem to inspire writers:  Hemingway and Sloppy Joe’s bar and the lighthouse that led him back home each night; Tennesee Williams and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (was it 6-toed?), and “Streetcar Named Desire.”

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So we did as many of the usual tourist things as we could all the while dodging the motorcycles.  Parked all down Duval Street, the lineup of bikes was crazy and the crackling motors and impressive sound systems let you know they were there. Since we forgot our tattoos and leather vests, and I have been shaving regularly, we probably stood out, but the crowd was really very friendly (but black leather in mid 90’s heat meant the watering holes were pretty busy). Our picture of the Southernmost Point in the US was a drive-by and it was crazy that there was a line of 50 or so folks waiting to take selfies with the cone.

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Sunset at Mallory Square

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Sunset at the end of the road…

 

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French angelfish

 

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Starfish on the sandbar

Still no spoonbills, although I did see a kite soaring over the waterfront while driving (darn!), and even though Big Pine Key had all sorts of warning signs about key deer (and as you know, we have quite the reputation with deer) we were for once disappointed not to see deer. But you never know.  We still have a few days left before we head out of the Keys and back home.

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It is just so tough paddling around the keys!

Oh wait! We heard about manatee being in the area today so we quickly grabbed the boards and got in the water.  After paddling around a bit, we were over and around five really big manatee in the water.  They would surface, snort and then go back under and swim along.  Big, big, big!  So much fun to paddle over and around them, ever watchful that they might just toss those back flippers and send us swimming!  How cool.  I got some video before the battery went dead (of course), so will post that soon.

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We found Dory!

Ok, as I finish up this post, the “little” iguana is advancing on me … followed by three more of his buddies.  I think they replace the pesky squirrels or pigeons who beg for food – except these guys are fast… and long.

Next Adventure?  Not sure. Need to spend some time at our “other” home.  When I get home I will post some of the great pics and videos from our trip!

PS. This is our first trip without Benji, our beloved adventure dog.  It seems empty without him sometimes, but we know he is traveling with us in spirit. Merlin and we miss him and send him a heartfelt shout out.

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Island Hopping

Off we go to the Florida Keys and Key West!

Of course getting there is half the fun, right? Slow start getting out of Atlanta (traffic), but we made it to Ocala area and stayed a night at Silver Springs State Park, a really nice campground that could have been the start of some nice hikes and paddling down along the river. But we were just here overnight and set out the next morning to bypass west around Orlando and get to the Pompano Beach area. Hmm, not such a great choice, since most of the local road was a retail area filled with traffic lights. And we seemed to get them all. We probably spent an extra hour and a half to two hours heading through Howey-in-the-Hills, Clermont and Winter Garden until it finally broke loose near Yeehaw Junction and we got onto I-95 south.

And of course, when you travel in your home on wheels, there is always a little maintenance. It seems one circuit of three wall outlets in the kitchen is out and the culprit seems to be the GFI outlet. A quick stop at Camping World for a replacement outlet (yikes, $24!!) may be the solution, when I get a chance to change it out.

Of greater concern was the annoying beeping from our “jacks down” alarm in the dash. When you travel along, the heat will sometimes make the hydraulic jacks extend just enough to set off the alarm. Pushing the “store” button usually fixes the problem, but this time it wouldn’t stop. Naturally it was during a heavy Friday night traffic rush hour on I-95 outside West Palm Beach, where shoulder space was lacking. Finally found a spot to pull over and check, only to be greatly surprised to find NO retraction springs and NO foot to the leveling jack in question! When and where did they leave us?

Since everything was fine when we left camp in the morning, I think the culprit was a chunk of debris I ran over earlier in the afternoon. That happened at a time when I had cars tight behind me and a motorcycle just to my left, so swerving to miss the debris (it looked like a piece of firewood!) was not a safe option. I figure it must have bumped up under the chassis and dislodged the foot and the springs happily departed the ship.

So not much further down the road (beeping all the way) we pulled into a Home Depot lot and I went in search of a solution. A ratcheting strap seemed likely to help keep the jack tightly in the “up” position, so I bought that, we drove to our campsite and I installed it in place of the springs and foot.

We leveled on the front two jacks for now, but it was luckily a very level campsite. By the way, we are camped in a nice Broward County park area called Easterlin Park. Real close to the interstate, (real close) as you can hear it all night, along with the trains. No complaints: clean, level, convenient. Before we head out this morning I am going to replace the GFI outlet and then check to be sure the jack is fully retracted … or else disconnect the warning buzzer! Ah well, the life of an RV adventurer is always fun. Off we go to the Keys and John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

UPDATE: We are now in camp on Key Largo and all is well. The jack is not beeping, nor is it being used, but the RV is level and just fine.  Replaced the GFI outlet and that fixed the circuit problems.


In John Pennekamp St. Park on Saturday they were having a tournament to collect the invasive lionfish. Coolers full of them were being turned in then a ceviche of lionfish was offered as samplings. You spear these guys while scuba diving. Actually good eating but a tricky fillet.

We paddleboarded through the mangrove canals in search of manatee, but none so far.
Sunday we took a 4 hour snorkeling trip out to three reefs. Amazing fish and coral.  Barracuda, tang, parrot fish, sergeant major, angels… lots of fan coral. Well worth it – just amazing snorkeling.

So much more to see, but once again limited WiFi so most pictures will have to wait til later. Onward to Key West!

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New York Stories

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Onward to the Big Apple from Washington, DC we ventured.  With stops in Newark, Delaware and River Plaza, New Jersey to revisit childhood neighborhoods, we made the trip to the Lincoln Tunnel with little trouble.  Good thing we had more than a handful of quarters and plenty of cash in small bills, since the bridge, tunnel and parkway tolls were quite pricey (and many were cash only with no attendants!).  Ok, we can do this, right?

Down the spiral into the tunnel we went, keeping up speed and staying in our lane between the buses and trucks. We shot out into the sunlight on the other side and tried to get our bearings, heading to 3rd Avenue and 45th street.  Good thing Jackie was an expert navigator with her Maps application, because you really need to know your way around one-way streets and traffic jams.  By the way, in Manhattan the right lane is really only for parked delivery trucks, the far left is the same and the space in-between is sort of up for grabs.  Maybe you double park, maybe three taxis angle in from the left and right, maybe you get to drive through.

Streetside in front of our Wyndham Midtown 45 was a huge truck loading the day’s laundry.  Naturally it meant we had to squeeze just in front, along a wall of garbage almost at the crosswalk. Quick! Unload the suitcases and round up the women and children!  Well it wasn’t quite that bad, but Jackie was left with the bags and Doug went in search of a parking garage.

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Cheers from the 33rd floor terrace.

However, our room on the 19th floor was amazing by New York standards.  Kitchen set-up and a great view up and down 45th street between Grand Central Station and the United Nations building.  How cool!  We unpacked and grabbed some beer from or DC brew tour and checked out the owner’s terrace on the 33rd floor.  Fabulous.  Now this was living.

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral

So what did we manage in two quick days in Manhattan?  Quite a bit, actually.  I guess it was like speed-tourism.  One big help was our decision to buy two New York Passes, which we highly recommend.  The pass gives you discounted admission to nearly every spot you want to visit, plus you can do the hop-on hop-off Big Bus tours, water taxis and ferries.

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Spices and teas at Grand Central Market.

First night in town we walked over to Rockefeller Plaza and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  On the way back we walked through the cavernous Grand Central Terminal and checked out the Marketplace for some bagels and Danish for breakfast.

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Big Bus Tours in Times Square

Next day we were up and out to Times Square where we got our Big Bus tour tickets and validated our 2-day New York Pass. New Yorkers say it’s only a few blocks walk, but it can be tricky as you navigate the taxis, scaffolding, curbside garbage and other folks rapidly moving around you.  Oh, and if you look up at the skyscrapers while walking… well, it can be quite disorienting.

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Statue of Liberty

We took the downtown loop bus, sitting in the open air top level and listening with earbuds to our guide explain the cool buildings and history along the way. Getting off at Battery Park we were able to catch a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, then Ellis Island and back to the park.

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One World Trade Center

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The Oculus

Next stop was One World Trade Center, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and the soaring Santiago Calatrava designed Oculus Transportation Hub.  We were both very, very moved by the exhibits and memorial.  Such a sad event that brought back memories of watching the tragedy unfold just 15 years ago.

We finished the day with a ride up to Top of the Rock at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.  Amazing views of the skyline all around us.

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Top of the Rock

Day 2 started with a backstage tour of Radio City Music Hall, where we got to check out the stage hydraulics, Rockette dance hall, costume shop, exclusive Roxy Lounge and a photo op with a wonderfully sweet Rockette.

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The upper level is where my family had seats for the famous Christmas and Nativity show.

Hustled over to Times Square and caught the uptown loop atop the bus, then got off at the Natural History Museum.  Great evolution and dinosaur exhibits were the highlight.

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Natural History Museum

Heading back out to catch the bus uptown we got drenched in a downpour, but once it cleared we jumped up top to see Harlem, Grants Tomb, a stop at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and a drive along both sides of Central Park on our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Egyptian artifacts at the Met

 

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Armor at the Met

Wow, the Egyptian artifacts and temple reconstruction, Greek and Roman sculptures and Medieval armor displays were highlights for us here. A cavernous space with way more than you can absorb in a short visit.

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We finished the day with drinks on the 33rd floor terrace and then a trip to the top of the Empire State Building.  Another spectacular view of the city, this time with the lights aglow.  Wow, what an ending to a great visit.

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Next morning we needed to get the car out of the parking deck and retrace our steps, or roads and tunnels, out of the city.  This part of the trip will involve a stop in Hunterdon County to see the Park System HQ building where we lived in the upstairs apartment.  Then to High Bridge to see our first house.  Our old apartment had been converted to offices and the solar greenhouse I had designed and staffed had been removed due to lack of maintenance.  Walking the grounds, I got a bit choked up seeing the trails and gardens I had planned out 40 years ago were still there, along with the historic gazebo we relocated to the site.

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Hunterdon County Park System HQ, circa 1985

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HQ building in 2016

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The gardens of the Arboretum, with the gazebo focal point.

In nearby High Bridge, Jackie and I were sad to see that our first house was in disrepair.  It seemed that little had been done in the years since we sold it – sad commentary on a cute place with lots of potential.

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Our first house in High Bridge, 2016

Two days of driving and we were back home in Kennesaw, ready to plan our next adventure.

Lessons Learned?

Is there a lesson in our visit to the past?  What will you find when you go back to your roots?  In my case it was a mix:  a return of memories of growing up, family moments and friends long forgotten.  Some things you work so hard on endure, but others are fleeting and can slip away with time.  Best not to think too hard about it.  We had fun.

Statue of Liberty selfie

“Send me your retired teachers … “

Be sure to check out the “Places Gallery” for some of the many pictures I took and revisit the previous blog for a recent update.

Next adventure is a trip to Key West in the Winnebago.  Stay tuned!

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Monuments, Memorials and Memory Lane

Off we go to use up our accumulated days of timeshare before we turn it back to Wyndham through their Ovation program.  We have a plan to spend 5 days in Washington, DC and 2 days in Manhattan (totally not enough, but this will be speed sightseeing!).

This time the RV stays home and we hit the highways in the Scion.  Along the way we plan to stop by some of the places we remember from our past.  In Doug’s case it will be childhood neighborhoods in Delaware and New Jersey; for both of us it will be our first house in New Jersey and the above-the-office apartment we rented for that first real job.


UPDATE:  We are now home from the adventure and I can now post some pictures and share some stories.  I’m going to add some information to the Foodie page, post lots of pictures to the Gallery page and hopefully keep your interest.  Next blog page will be devoted to the New York stories, so you will want to check that out as well.

So can you really go back and re-live the days of your childhood by visiting all those great neighborhoods and places you remember?  Have they changed much in 55 years or 30 years?  What will you find?

Newark, Delaware

On the way from Washington, DC we drove to the Newark, Delaware neighborhood where Doug’s family bought their second house.  While it was being built we stayed just down the hill in a small brick rental.  What are some things I remember from that time?  I recall going to Junior High for the first time, a late Spring snowstorm that with snow so deep we built an ingloo to play in, lining up to take our sugar cubes with the Polio vaccine, playing in the creek behind our houses and mischief night fun in the neighborhood (that was the night before Halloween when you could pull pranks on your neighbors).

Second house

The second house Doug’s family grew up in, circa 1961/62 (and YES we had real snowstorms back then).

Arbor Park 2016

Not much had changed after 40 years or so…

My sister of course remembers the time my brother chipped her front tooth (the cap for which she is just now replacing once again).  I recall the time in the rental house when our hamster got out of his cage, never to be found again.  It caused great panic for my great Aunt who was babysitting us that night and had already named it “that rat.”  I was sure we would lose both the hamster and my great Aunt that night before my parents returned!

Newark 2016

Our rental house and scene of the missing hamster caper …

The old neighborhood looked pretty much the same, except grown-in much more.  I sure thought we lived on a hill with a steep front lawn, but by the looks of it today it was really just a gentle slope. I wonder if the pachysandra and hosta out front are the same ones that mom planted so long ago…

River Plaza, New Jersey

Further on into New Jersey and we crossed toward the shore and River Plaza, which is just next to Red Bank and along the Navesink River.  Small world indeed, one of the guys on our DC Brew tour lived in the same area and we had been talking about some of the landmarks.

Ok, my elementary school was old even back then.

Ok, my elementary school was old even back then.

I found my way to River Plaza Elementary, turning just after Chris’s Delicatessen (still there) and was able to chat up the front office staff there.  Yes, this is the school I went to for kindergarten and first grade and would it be possible to have a look around?  Students won’t report until after Labor Day (wow) so I was able to check out the all-purpose room and hallways I once walked.  The all-purpose room was that combination of raised stage, gym and kitchen area where you ate lunch.  All I can recall of lunches was that on Thursdays you could buy a hot dog. Still K-5 with about 275 students.

Around the corner and down a hill toward the marsh was our neighborhood.  Found our old house and met the nice couple who live there now, Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham.  We shared some memories of the street and who was still around, who is gone.  The Moores, Mansons, Kulas and Culises.  The empty lot next door where we used to disc and sled during snowstorms was still called the Elephant Pit, even though there was now a house there and I doubt it was ever an elephant graveyard.  Some of the great trees with rope swings along the banks of the marsh (that led to Dutch Neck, a netherwoods area that only the brave would wander into) were gone, victims of recent storms.

First house

Doug’s family’s first house, circa 1953/54.  I guess it is “midcentury” now.  The style was the same as one that Jackie’s family had growing up, too: Cape Cod (with the unfinished 2nd floor).

 

The house in 2016. We met the current owners and shared some "whatever happened to ..?" moments.

The house in 2016. We met the current owners and shared some “whatever happened to ..?” moments.

 

Dairy Dan

Were we crazy then or what? Look how bundled up we were, but we HAD to get our ice cream!

Not much had changed in 50 years really.  This was a neighborhood where you came home on Halloween loaded with a bag of candy and treats, where your parents would shout out and call you to dinner at night, where we all learned to ride 2-wheelers and I tried out my first skateboard… which was indeed a metal skate nailed to a 2×4 for which the skateboarder (victim?) was pulled by rope behind a bicycle.  I still have dirt from that road embedded in my left knee.

Washington Monument

Washington, DC

Whirlwind 4-day tour of our nation’s capitol was a blast, even though it was still very hot (90’s).  Our timeshare was in Old Town Alexandria next to a stop on the Metro.  We bought an unlimited pass and learned our way on the blue, green and yellow lines quite well.  So what sorts of things did we do in Washington?  Saw all sorts of museums, memorials and historical artifacts that made us appreciate the significance of our country even more.  Really reminded us that our nation’s founders set a grand plan in motion that has been representative and responsive and functions well, despite the current election-year rhetoric.

WH Jackie  WH Doug

We toured and visited:

  • Smithsonian Museums of Air & Space, Natural History, American History, National Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery
  • National Zoo, US Botanical Garden
  • Union Station, Ford’s Theater, Old Post Office, National Building Museum
  • White House, US Capitol, Willard Hotel, Ebbett’s Grill
  • National Archives (Declaration, Constitution, Bill of Rights, Magna Carta)
  • Supreme Court, Library of Congress

Capitol

Washington is such a photo-rich city with statues and flags and impressive buildings and marble everywhere.  It is going to take me a while to sort through all my pics, but it was so beautiful to see, even if it was way hot and humid.  A few tours were extra-special and worth the time to try out:

Evening Segway Tour

Lincoln

Have you ever tried a Segway?  How about with a dozen others as you zip along the roads, sidewalks, paths and grounds of DC?  We loved it!!  After a quick training with City Segway Tours, we were off to explore the memorials of the National Mall at night.  Off we went like a swarm of bees, heading to see all these spots, most of which were quite different lit up at night.  A few could not be appreciated as well at night, such as the Vietnam Veterans and FDR Memorials.

MLK  Jefferson

We saw the Washington Monument and memorials to Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Korean War, World War II, Vietnam Veterans and Martin Luther King.  We stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looked out across the reflecting pool as MLK did.  And we were quite surprised at the large crowd of folks at the FDR Memorial who were… playing Pokemon Go.

DC Brew Tour

 DC 2016 (253) DC 2016 (258)

Gotta try a brew tour, so we went with DC Brew Tours and joined a young couple and 9 guys on a bachelor’s party (we were worried about that, but it was cool… even the blow-up girl they brought along).  We hit four breweries that were a real cross-section of how it’s done.  First stop was Port City Brewing for a great Weiss beer and an atmosphere much like our local spot at home.

2016-08-27 17.36.16

We then hit a gastropub, Capitol City Brewing, for a much needed plate of grub and a sampling flight.  Third stop was a small neighborhood brewery (Public Option) with some of the operation in a garage out back.

 DC 2016 (256) DC 2016 (257)

Last stop was truly different.  We pull up to a lot that is surrounded by shipping containers and wire fences.  Inside the gates of Bardo Brewing we see that the entire operation is outdoors.  There are the fermenters and bright tanks outside, with taps from a shipping container surrounded by a pallet-wood bar.  Quite the operation, but the beer was good.

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Bardo Brewing tasting room bar

 

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At least it was a clear and dry night.

As we closed out the tour we headed to the van, one that very clearly says “DC Brew Tours” with a large mug of beer on it.  We all have our large tour lanyards around our necks as we load in to the van.  But just as we pull away from the curb, a Metro police car pulls out behind us and we are stopped.  Our driver was very professional and had not had a touch of beer all night, but of course was quite rattled as he tried to find the registration card for the van.  We were told the area had a lot of suspicious activity and drug deals, however we checked out.  Umm, I figure it was pretty obvious what we were doing in the area, but I respected their diligence.  Didn’t help that the guys in the back of the van kept sending the blow-up doll forward in the van… “crowd-surfing.”  Ah well, a little extra excitement, no charge.

2016-08-27 18.28.46

Seems like a suspicious van to me …

New York City is our next adventure, so be sure to check the next posting for pictures and stories from the Big Apple.  And check the “Places Gallery” for plenty of photos and “Foodie” for more stories.

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In Memory of Benji

Benji3

Benji

February 14, 2003 – August 3, 2016

Benji 2011

Colorado Springs Day 2 (94)

Our true adventure dog happily traveled with us in our retirement all the way to the Grand Canyon and back.  But his favorite place was always where we were.

He was a one-of-a-kind dog and family member who made it through some tough adventures of his own these past few years, from nasty neighbor dogs to overly protective deer in the backyard.

Merlin posted a tribute and a gallery of photos of his buddy in Mews.

Benji will be missed greatly.

Benji Snow 1

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