West Side, Best Side?

So after our two weeks over by Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Miami we’ve retreated back to the Gulf Shore part of Florida; first a week down by Bonita Springs, then up to Crystal River…where the manatee winter.

Before we get to the latest on the west side. A bit of a view on the east part of the state of Florida. Top line review; from Miami up the coast to Palm Beach, not our cup of tea. Southeast Florida has all the amenities of a big, big, city. If that’s what you like, have at it. That means it also has all the drawbacks of a big city. Basically; we found it hot, too crowded, has terrible traffic, flat as a pancake, lacking in bicycling amenities (in fact it’s dangerous to ride a bicycle in many places), and basically not our style. If we had a boat here it might be better, but I suspect I’d just be prepping the boat to escape over to the Bahamas.

Sure, we liked Butterfly World, riding on a few trails near the beaches, riding the rail transit to Miami for the big Boat Show and using this stop as a base to jump off and see the Everglades, which are very cool. I liked being able to get good bagels. Unless we have a specific reason to be in that area, I suspect we’ll avoid it in the future.

But as I said, Butterfly World was pretty neat.

We were able to find a few bike rides among the rich houses in Palm Beach with views of the beaches.

Our best ride was in Shark Valley in the Everglades National Park. There’s a long paved trail that leads out 8 miles to a raised observation tower. All along the route you’re near the water, and that also means you’re near the gators. We saw a lot of them. The only one that looked dangerous was a mother with two foot long babies. If you stopped and looked like you might walk near the babies.

We were in the area long enough to get a little work done on the RAM truck that pulls our home. In addition to normal oil and filter work, we needed some front end adjustment.

Then we were off again, back to the West side and Bonita Springs. It was funny to notice how as we got back West, where there are fewer people and less development, that we began to relax more.

We were able to pull the canoe off the roof in Koreshan State Park and drift downstream on the Estero River. There were tons of fish to see in the river. Then we went out to the Lovers Key, the barrier to the Gulf of Mexico, where we found the most friendly manatee. You’re supposed to keep away from them, but it’s hard when they keep coming back to you and diving under your canoe.

After a week we headed north to Crystal Springs, stopping along the way to spend a quiet night at a goat farm. Let’s just say we now know how to milk.

The area North of Tampa is dotted with dozens of natural springs, many of which used to be Florida highway tourist stops back in the last century. Families driving down would stop for ice cream, to dip in the springs, or to see the crazy, kitchy, shows. After the 70’s opening of Disney World started to suck away all the tourists, many of these little places started to fail and go out of business. Good news though as the state has taken over many of the springs and turned them into small state parks.

We stopped at Dripping Springs state park as a jumping off point for bicycling the trail across the Suwanee River. Yes, this is THE Suwanee River from Old Folks at Home by Stephen Foster, Florida’s State Song. And yes, I was singing the song as I rode across….though not the original racist lyrics. I go with the new improved standard version without all the racist stuff. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you’re interested.

Then we stopped at Homosassas Springs State Wildlife Park. This used to be an odd little zoo but when the state took over they got rid of the rag tag collection of zoo animals (except the little hippo, everyone loves him; though I suspect he’ll not be replaced). Now the State Park uses the renovated enclosures to show off Florida native wildlife that are injured in some way, and can’t be released. Here you can see native Panther, Bear, Fox, Birds and fish in the spring. They also have a full Manatee rehabilitation program to take care of those when they are injured. Very cool.

Finally, it was time for the pilgrimage to see the mermaids at Weeki Wachee State Park. Since 1947 the mermaids have been doing their dance in the springs for the audience behind the glass. It could all have gone away when these small attractions started failing, but now with State Parks Department management and investment you can see they are keeping this iconic piece of Florida alive.

Is it a bit kitchy and tacky? You bet! Proudly so. And your mother and grandmother may have come for the same show. And if you want to know why it needs to keep going just bring a 4 year old girl who loves The Little Mermaid, and watch her eyes as the curtain raises and the bubble screen drops, and there’s a real live mermaid floating just a few feet away, smiling, waving and blowing kisses at her.

Mermaids are real

And it’s not all about mermaids. The state parks department has added more programs around native Florida wildlife and about the importance of all the springs to the Florida’s environment. You know, the good stuff you need to know, and that you expect from your State Parks. (But lets not kid ourselves; its still really about the mermaids).

Next up we’ll be crossing again to the East Coast, but this time we’ll be way North of the crowds, heading for historic Saint Augustine.

Finally, Florida

Well, we made it. On Wednesday, January 8th we crossed the border into the Florida panhandle, passed Pensacola and Destin, turned right just before the capitol in Tallahassee, and made our first night stop on the beach near Panacea on Ochlockanee Bay. That’s just down the road from Sopchoppy, home of the annual Worm Grunting Festival. Someone has to get the bait.

Not a bad first impression of Florida.

Since this was our first time in Florida (aside from business meetings where you see only airports, convention centers and hotels. I’m looking at you Miami Beach) we first went to a campground near Zolfo Springs. That’s sort of in the middle of the state, south of Clearwater. The great thing about that location is it’s only about an hour from Tampa, an hour from Sarasota or an hour from Punta Gorda. It made a good place to rest up, while we poked around looking at different areas. We found lots of places we liked.

While we were looking for interesting things to do we realized that in a few days the worlds biggest RV Show would be taking place in Tampa. Sweet. We were disappointed in how small the Seattle show was in terms of RV add ons, classes, vendors, etc. Tampa had lots to look at. What’s more, it’s where David and Gyung Huntsman’s daughter Jenny lives with her family. She came to meet us for dinner on the riverwalk downtown. It was easy, as the restaurant was only 5 minutes from the ballet studio where she needed to pick up Noelle. Its was a blast to see them both so far from home.

One thing we’ve been doing a lot of is bicycling. Now bicycling in Florida means peddling all the time. No really, all the time. It’s flat as a pancake and you never get to stop and coast like you do where we’re from. On the flip side, you never have a hill, except for a street overpass. At least when you’re at the top of those you can see where you are. They are the highest points around. In Venice, we found the holy grail for bicyclists….a Bike and Brew shop. Bike parts…and beer. Actually we found another of them in St. Petersburg. Liking this aspect of Florida.

Of course, you can’t go to Florida without doing some beach time. Being the fair skinned, NW/Scottish/Scandinavian folks that we are we knew we had to get some protection. I love the web sites that let you research the very best beach umbrella, and chairs, and then order them. Prime delivery works at the campground when you’re staying two weeks. So in just days we had the tools to be beach bums. Ah, the life.

As we’ve rolled across the country we’ve been keeping our eyes out for a good used canoe. We knew we needed a way to enjoy the lakes and rivers we’re finding out here. The search went on with little success until Sarasota where we finally found our girl. Her name is Flo. We’ve had a couple of chances to take her out. She’s a nice red Old Town canoe. I think Karin likes it, but she still has her head on a swivel looking for gators and snakes. We did find lots of birds, fish and even spotted a Manta Ray under us in the keys. I think Flo is a great addition to “Team Endless Song.”

The Florida Keys were exactly what we hoped they would be, warm and reasonably quiet. Until, of course, you get to Key West. We were staying at a park called Fiesta Key, just North of Marathon. It’s about halfway down the Keys, so it was a great base for us to jump out and look at the areas North and South. All the way south, at the end of the road, is Key West. I’m torn. Downtown is a cruise ship, tourist, destination. Sure everyone’s laid back…but it’s too commercial now. Not like it “used to be.” But if you look hard, and get away from that downtown core. The older, slightly seedy, live and let live part is still around. You just have to look a little harder to find it.

And since we’re in the Keys…we had to make a Key Lime Pie. Mmm. First we bought a piece from a shop in Key West that is really known for it. Kermits. And it was lovely…and as it should be, not green. We wanted to taste theirs so we had a standard to judge against.

We also decided not to kill ourselves trying to find and juice Key Limes. They are not everywhere, and if you don’t find them and try to use the normal limes we get in stores it’s not going to work. We bought a bottle of Kermits concentrate. We also got a commercial crust as we realize we don’t have any pie tins on the trailer.

So this pie is a cook and then chill it pie. Since we didn’t want to stay up, we decided the best strategy would be to bake it….then chill over night. I’d get up and whip the cream. Pie for breakfast. Mmm. Don’t judge me. It was fantastic

After most of a week in the Keys it was time to turn the rig north toward the busy Southeast Florida coast. This is our next base for two weeks to explore Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, etc, and it’s our jumping off point to ride and canoe in the Everglades National Park.

One last point about the Keys, we want to come back. We’re already looking at places to stay, but next time we’ll book a year out so we can get a site for a whole month.

Harvest Hosting to Florida

As I’ve said before, when you’re doing a series of one night stops on the road to somewhere, the best stays we’ve had have been at Harvest Host locations. Harvest Host is an RV membership made up of wineries, breweries, farms, museums, golf courses, and other similar places where you can stay the night for free. Sure you might by wine, beer, soap or honey…but that’s not a bad thing. They are way better than pulling into some RV Park next to a freeway or camping in a Walmart Parking lot.

After Austin we had a quick run over North of Houston to Fortress Brewing, where we had a pint and watched the Seahawks last playoff game. Sigh.

Go Hawks

The next night we stopped again at Bayou Teche Brewing in South Central Louisiana. They aren’t normally open on Mondays, but the guy in the office said, “Nah, we always open up for you Harvest Host Folks, any day.” Nice. We got to chat with the founder Karlos Knott about how microbrews are growing in Louisiana.

Our last stop before Florida was at Gulf Coast Gator Ranch just east of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Now I had spotted this on our route, and told Karin, “Yep, we’re spending the night on a gator farm.” She was willing, but a bit nervous.

It was great. Marty and Sam our swamp boat driver were good ole boys, but were so nice and welcoming and explained how the ranch was working to raise Gator to continue re-population after a hurricane all but wiped out the gators in the area.

We got to see the gators in pens they were raising, but also went out in a swamp boat to look at a few basking in the sun out in the wild. I’d never been on one of these boats before, so even that was fun for me.

Karin, she’s still not to keen on gators. You really can see it in her eyes as she was petting the baby one. Ewww!

Karin, still not liking the gators

Next up, Florida.

East, ever East….to Texas!

One of the great thing about having family in Texas is that it’s a great place to go to play with all the kids….and also a great break from the road to Key West.  With Sarah, Ryan and their kids in San Antonio and Amanda, Brandon and their brood in Austin, we have ample reason to stop in the Lone Star State.  It’s not all about H-E-B and Buc-ees.  (You’ll understand if you visit).

The road East to Texas from Tucson was easy, with a stop first at a winery in El Paso for a night, and then New Years Eve in Marfa.   Marfa’s an interesting place in the middle of nowhere West Texas.  It’s where the film “Giant” with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean was filmed. Also, No Country For Old Men and There Will be Blood, if you need more recent references.

Today Marfa is a combination of very rural agricultural town with a hipster enclave from all the artistic types who have moved in, lured by the low cost of land…and the West Texas light.  Makes for an interesting mix.

We pulled into Bulverde, north of San Antonio, to squeals and hugs from Brooklyn, Jaxon and Ryder. Love Sarah and Ryan and the kids.  It’s so nice to just hang with the kids, once the excitement of arrival wears off.  You actually get time to talk to them…a little more quietly.

Brooklyn, Jaxon and Ryder Winger

After a few days it was time to point the rig north to Austin to see Eleanor, Hendrik and Lennox. Oh right, and Amanda and Brandon. 

The Mueller District in Austin where they live is such an interesting experiment in redevelopment….with homes, townhouses, apartments and retail all being built in walkable neighborhoods.   They live right on the edge of the “current” build.  Infill is happening all around.  Easy to park a trailer on the street today, but it will not always be so.

One thing I love about Amanda is her practical side. She was thinking about hosting a big Tuesday evening New Years Eve Bash for friends. But then she looked at the calendar, and the idea of staying up past midnight, and said “The heck with that.”  We’ll have the party early on Saturday evening so it can end at a reasonable hour for people who have kids.  Love it.   Adding spice was that it was a 1920’s Murder Mystery Party.  Everyone had a role, and someone was going to be “bumped off”.     Knowing she could trust my big mouth, Amanda cast me as a Gangland Mob Boss.   As you might guess, I did not survive the night.

After hugs and kisses the next morning, it was time to point the rig east toward Key West.   Well, first to a brewery North of Houston where they let you stay the night.  Have I mentioned Harvest Host?

Parking at Fortress Brewing

Christmas in Idaho

One reason we went to Tucson was it was the perfect place to stash the trailer while we drove up to Idaho to spend a few weeks for Christmas with family at Fairfield and Corral Creek Ranch. Weather is so nice all we had to do was clean it, park it, and leave the refrigerator door ajar. No winterizing needed as we’d be back in just a few weeks.

We broke up the trip staying the night in St. George, Utah. As I’ve said before, we’re old and don’t like fourteen hour days on the road anymore.

We arrived in Fairfield on a Saturday night, just in time for the American Legion’s Christmas party, with none other than Joe Henry Valadeo tending bar down in the dungeon.

Karin pours her own drink, so she can drink it. They have a heavy hand on the bottle down in the Dungeon.

Time in Fairfield is always filled with fun, family, and food. And this time, since we arrived early, we also got volunteered at the local Senior Center to help with lunch, and got to go to our nieces and nephews high school basketball games.

Christian flew in from Seattle in time for the big party celebrating Josh’s Birthday and Karin and my fortieth wedding anniversary. Really, forty years? Yep. And we decided to glam it up for the evening. Champagne went to our heads I guess. Still, it made for another fantastic Christmas in Idaho.

Quiet Christmas Morning at Corral Creek Ranch
Snowing in Fairfield

After Christmas it was time to jet back down to Tucson to get the trailer moving toward Key West again, stopping for a night in St. George, Utah….where they had a lovely light show.

Tucson and Saguaro National Park

Driving down to Tucson was pretty easy and weather was good. The only real issue was trying to avoid all the traffic in Phoenix.  But once through that, it was quick down to Tucson.

So we were a little worried as Phoenix was hot, kinda flat, very busy, and not very interesting to look at.  But Tucson was none of that.  The desert floor had green foliage (yes it’s cactus but so many kinds) and the mountains closed in on the valley, making everything seem closer; more intimate.

You have to love a city bracketed by National Parks.  In this case, the Saguaro  National Park.  It’s in two parts….one East of town and one West.  We took time to go for a walk in the Eastern most park.  It was lovely.

Then of course we went to find a beer.

We talked to the brewer, and she said there were 23 breweries in town, and we visited a few while there.  Oh, we need to come back.  We need to be here for a month, maybe more, and hike the other half of Saguaro National Park…and, of course, find more of the breweries.

Bicycling is also a thing in Tucson.  Bike paths all over the place.  We, unfortunately, did not bring our road bikes just our town bikes.  Something to consider for the next trip…but can we get away with bringing 2 bikes each?  It seems like overkill. Only not.

So in Tucson we said in a place called Voyager RV Resort.

This was our first real encounter with the world of snowbirds, the older folk who leave the cold North in the Winter and camp for months in Arizona…and as we’ll learn later Florida. Calling it camping is a little silly actually. This is a resort where you park your rig, hook up to every and all service available, and then wait out the winter.

This resort is amazing. It has three pools, sauna, spa, massage service, and a small hotel if you have visitors and you don’t want them in your rig. It has tennis, golf, pickle ball, shuffleboard, boccie, basketball courts and horse shoes. It also has the most amazing collections of hobby rooms I’ve ever seen. Woodshop, better than pro. Photo studio, got that. Computer room, and services on site. Pottery, three kilns. Sewing, bring your machine or use theirs. Think I’m done? Not by half. They have silversmiths, jewelry making, lapidary, stained glass making, oil painting, watercolors, quilting, knitting, crochet, and if your fingers are sore, machine embroidery. Amazing.

The place has it’s own store and it’s own Bar and Grill. But, we’re all older now. The busy time is five pm, and when we went there was already a crowd in the bar doing karaoke….and I mean really getting fired up.

But this being older folk…by nine PM…it’s a ghost town. Ah, cruisers midnight.

Now the truth is, this is not really our kind of place. It’s a little sterile. And we felt like we were younger than this crowd by at least years. We like being in the woods, or the desert. That said, I can see the allure of a place that caters to your needs as you age, and where you can meet all kinds of other folks going through the same things you are. I get it. We’re just not there…yet.

 

Joshua Tree National Park…watch for jumping Cholla

Just East of Palm Springs is Joshua Tree National Park.

Everyone says they love Joshua Tree National Park and for good reason.  What a wonderful area.  We were able to spend a night in Cottonwood Campground with only a few other campers in the entire campground. 

This part of Joshua Tree has quite diverse flora and fauna.  The flora we were impresses with.  Unfortunately the fauna viewing was limited to a desert rabbit and a few birds.  We clearly need to work a bit harder on this.   

We took a short hike from Lost Palms Oasis.  This is an easy hike with lots of interesting views and cool plants.  We had to keep it short due to my bum hip but hope to return and have a longer walk in the wilderness. 

Rock formations in Joshua Tree

We were able to drive up from the southeast entrance (Cottonwood Visitor Center) almost to the northwest entrance (Joshua Tree Visitor Center).  The Rock formations were interesting (very round) and we would like to try camping nearby next time we visit. 

The micro-climates allows for lots of similar plants to congregate in certain areas.  For example, the Joshua Trees are only in the northwest section of the park, not the entire park. 

There’s also a cactus garden that has a natural concentration of the Cholla cactus.  You can find them all over but here they’ve taken over a small area.  The conditions must be just perfect for them to thrive at this density at this spot.

This is certainly a place to visit if you ever get a chance.  We’ll go back.

On the road again….just can’t wait to get on the road again….

OK, November in Anacortes was nice. We got to catch up with family and friends and repack the bearings on the trailer. But after Thanksgiving weekend we were off again on our grand winter adventure to Key West.

So when you start from Anacortes…on December first…with the goal being in Key West, you really have to think about the route.  Go too direct and you could run into some really nasty winter weather.  We decided to go conservative.  First up; South and fast as possible. That means I-5 down to Oregon.  We did it in one day, all the way South of Suzy and Tom’s place in Yoncolla. The next day was clear at the Siskyou Summit, so we gunned it all the way down past Shasta to Red Bluff in the Central Valley.  Nice, we’re past the snow.  Next day we did the entire Central Valley to Santa Clarita and the next day we skipped North to the Mojave allowing us to miss LA as we dropped into Palm Springs.  Our first visit.

So Palm Springs.  OK, I get why folks come here.  It’s warm in December, and there are tons of citrus trees in backyards loaded with fruit…that’s ready to be plucked.  Dan Heck, our financial guru, and his wife have a house down here in a gated community (and they are all gated) and he called the gate and told them to let us in.  He wanted us to go pick his grapefruit.  They were awesome.  We felt greedy filling up on them, but after we had a  few, we decided we should have gotten more.

Mountains are nice in Palm Springs, but you drive…a lot.

We did some driving around Palm Springs…which is your only choice.  Well, bicycling would be possible….but only as exercise.  Lots of guys in race suits and on aero bikes.   It is definitely a place that caters to older, more seasoned, people.  Lots of medical clinics that cater to the ills of the elderly.

After Palm Springs, our plan was to head to Tucson, Arizona to poke around there for a few days, and then store the trailer there while we jet north to Idaho for Christmas.  More on that in a bit.

You could gun it all the way from Palm to Tucson in one day, but that would suck. We’re old people.   And hey, Joshua Tree National Park is on the way.   So when we left, we only went about 40 miles to the National Park and camped in a lovely spot.    It allowed us the chance to get into the park and look around.  Beautiful.   We’ll be back.

Then it was time to head East.  Tucson here we come.

November on the Boat…but now off again

After all the fall camping around the West, it almost felt odd to be back on the boat.  It was important to come home though so Karin could deal with her sore hip. More chiropractic and plans for finding help out on the road if she needs it.

It was also a month of spending more time with Mom and BD. Since Karin was having twice a week chiropratic appointments in Mount Vernon, it was easy to skip down the highway a few miles to see them.  It also game Karin a chance to set up sewing machines to finish Christmas Stockings and a few other similar projects.

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We found the time to run over to Port Townsend on the Ferry to see Jim and Shirley Runkel. They had their motorhome over there for some work and were staying at Point Hudson.

After putting 12,000 miles on the trailer since we got it, it was also time for a little routine maintenance.   I was going to try to repack the wheel bearings myself. Always good to learn. But then I thought about the fact that it is cold, I don’t have a shop, garage or clean place to work, and it would take a long day since I’d be learning. In the end I got JR to do it. Money for time. But now Dewey is ready to role.   And since we hit 30,000 on the truck, we had that inspection done too.  Now the whole rig is as ready as possible.  Oh and one more rig related thing. We took the break to solve something that has bothered us since day one. We found nice replacement faucets for the kitchen and bathroom in the trailer that are made of metal. The process to replace them literally took 30 minutes, with most of that time spent unloading the items in the cabinets that were in the way.  Nice!   Arctic Fox makes a nice rig, but how about real faucets as an option? That would be one I would have paid for.

Seems the holidays just speed up everything. The last week has been a blur.  We met with all the Scout parents on Monday in Edmonds. Wednesday Christian and Kim came up to have dinner with us and my sister Rebecca and her husband Jeff.  Christian and Kim spent the night on the boat before heading off to Thanksgiving with her family down on Whidbey Island.  We met at Mom and BDs for Thanksgiving dinner.  It was probably the first she hosted for family in two or more decades. 

Is was great to have Rebecca and Jeff around. I know Mom and BD loved it.

Friday we went to Woodinville to see Ethel and Louie, Chris and Jen German.  Always a hoot.   Then we came home and moved the trailer out of the storage yard and into service at a nearby campground.  It’s good to do this a few days before you leave.  There’s no rushing and it seems easier. 

I had a bug, but Karin got to play with Theo on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Oh right, and she saw our niece Lara and Keith, Theo’s mom and dad.  Ok, so her sister Judy and Mom Millie too.   But lets face it, Theo’s the star. 

Theo and Aunt Karin

All that’s left is to push off for more adventure.