A nice two-week trip to the southern New Hampshire / seacoast of Massachusetts in early June is just the thing to renew old (or maybe I should use the term “long-time”) acquaintances and family. The weather is nice and temperate (although a bit warmer than usual but that is fine with Barbara), and campgrounds are just opening up for their short season. Familiar places and familiar roads to travel without using GPS to find our way.
And of course familiar New England comfort food designed to expand our waistlines.
Every area of the country has food that they are known for. Wars can be started on which state has the best barbecue, for instance, and I'm not even going to try going there.
Massachusetts is known for a few great foods. First, the absolute best seafood on the planet – fresh caught and in the cold Atlantic waters. Also roast beef sandwiches – thin, almost shaved pink and tender roast beef piled high on a hamburger roll. Greek-style pizza – which in some circles is far better than New York-style because, well, New York. And Chinese food. Not sure why the Chinese food is better up there (I'm personally not a big fan of Chinese food), but Barbara hasn't found any better anywhere else, and she knows and loves Chinese food.
And while this trip was different in some ways, most of our interaction with friends and family revolved around going out to eat.
And my waistline paid for it.
We stayed at our usual haunt – Mill Brook RV Campground in Kingston, NH, just over the border of Massachusetts. It's a nice park with very few transient spaces, and caters to the no-kid crowd, so it was good that this was our first trip there where we didn't have grandson Jace. It's also nicely spaced between the Massachusetts seacoast, my Dad's place in Chelmsford, and our friends in Nashua, NH.
First meal after arriving was a trip down the road to Costello's Famous Roast Beef and Seafood. With a name like that, how can you go wrong, right? Their Junior Roast Beef sandwich is bigger than most other places regular roast beef, and their seafood comes from just about a 30-minute drive away from the shore. I indulged in both the junior roast beef (white American cheese and no barbecue sauce) and a small fried clam and scallop order. Ate it all. Barbara had the junior roast beef with the cheese and sauce, and didn't finish hers. Some people are just lightweights when it comes to the eating department . . .
Had an appointment with my Dad to do his taxes again this year. He's in a pretty nice senior living center with his own studio apartment that he takes care of. In past years (pre-COVID) the local senior center did his taxes for free, but hasn't resumed that practice as of yet. Since I do ours every year on TaxCut, it's a simple process to add in the Massachusetts state option and handle his. For a guy pushing 92 years-old this July, he's doing pretty good.
Our next stop for eating was to an old friend, Essex Seafood in Essex, MA. They were our go-to place for seafood for many years, but had suffered a devastating fire the previous year. Newly rebuilt, they had just opened a few weeks before we arrived up north. Barbara ordered the small steamers (clams) and a small clam chowder. Thinking she'd be helping me with my order, I did the large fried clams and fried scallop boxes (no fries, because they just take up unwanted space in my stomach that can be used for seafood). Little did we know that Barbara's small order of steamers were more like someone else's large order, so I got no help whatsoever with my clams, while she nabbed a single scallop off of my plate.
This necessitated my violating a firm and fast rule for eating seafood – getting a to-go box – even if it was just for about a dozen fried clams or so.
We had intended on hitting our old beach place – Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA, but we found out since they reopened post-COVID, they were charging $30 for parking. $30 bucks! We also wanted to take our inflatable kayak out on the water there, but also found out they didn't allow for that. Probably due to no lifeguards on duty and not wanting any liability for accidents. Disappointing.
We had to take Dad down to his local healthcare provider for tests the following day, but after arriving there it was determined his tests needed to be done first thing in the morning, so we took him out to lunch at another local favorite - Stelio's in nearby Billerica, MA. Dad and Barbara got the local Fish and Chips, while I went out on a limb and ordered their beef stroganoff. Both Barbara and Dad brought home leftovers. I did not – a recurring theme.
Met Bob Dwyer, an old co-worker and golf buddy from my days at Xerox for lunch the next day at a local 99 restaurant, where no leftovers were taken home. Again.
Another roast beef stop at Simard's in Wilmington, MA after some business was taken care of, where it was determined that the roast beef wasn't as good as it used to be, and much smaller than at Costello's, but the fried mushrooms Barbara has always liked were still great.
We had a chance to see three of Barbara's cousins one Saturday. It had been planned to have a get-together at her cousin Joy's house in the afternoon, but the previous day Barbara's aunt (their mother) had taken sick. Given that all of them were going to be in nearby Manchester, NH to visit her in the hospital, we moved the get-together to a restaurant near by. Margarita's is a nice Mexican restaurant which serves a really great ½ lb burger and mixed drinks that go right to the very top of their glasses. Not a problem, unless your table is a bit unsteady and rocks back and forth with the slightest pressure. At that point, drinks spill. Might be set up that way to get you to drink faster, but I'm not sure. Their glass of wine is also about a half a bottle's worth. Not often that I don't finish a glass of wine (and some of Barbara's – but that's a story for another time), but in this case since I was driving I left a bit in the glass. A very sad end to the meal, wasting good wine like that . . .
Another afternoon saw my cousin Charlene on my Dad's side visit us up in our campground. I hadn't seen her for over 50 years. We had connected via Facebook about 6 months earlier, and she visited with Dad one afternoon, which was really nice for him. Great visit for us to talk about long-lost family. No food was associated with her visit, however.
My final visit with Dad for this trip was to get him to those tests that needed to be done in the morning. While Barbara stayed in Enterprise with Grover, I took Dad to his tests and to breakfast after that at the Big Belly Buster restaurant down the road in Billerica, MA. The Country Breakfast features 3 eggs any style and three different types of grilled smoked meat products, but I opted for all bacon. Dad took home some scrambled egg and and a few home fries. I took home nothing.
While the food at our next stop wasn't inspiring (it was tasty, however), the occasion was fun. A group of graduates of Wakefield High got together for a pre-reunion reunion. On June 13, 1971, Barbara and the rest of her graduating class walked down the aisle to receive their diplomas. To celebrate that august occasion, some classmates decided to get together on that same date 50 years later. The actual reunion will be celebrated later this year, but it was past time for a few long-time friends to meet and swap stories about their town and catch up with each other. We met at the Dockside restaurant in the Greenwood section of Wakefield, and even the few husbands who attended had fun.
Of course, no meal is complete without dessert. Especially in my world. After a short drive-by of Barbara's old house, I suggested we take Rt 1 northward to see if the old Putnam Pantry was still in business. The location was always known for it's Ice Cream Smorgasbord, where you pick you flavor of ice cream and then run down a line of various toppings to complete the fattening experience.
Barbara, always willing to go along with my crazy schemes, played the role of navigator, and lo and behold, found Putnam Pantry on the first try! Still open, still had the smorgasbord, even if the number of toppings to choose from was more limited than we both remembered.
So we had dessert . . .
Our next meal was with our best friends, Rick and Marielle Penney. We had stayed with them recently during our trip to Myrtle Beach and had parked next to their Grand Design Reflection 5th wheel in the resort, but they were now back home in Nashua, NH. Nice pizza place nearby that makes a great bacon and pepperoni pizza for the guys, and a garbage pizza with the works for the ladies. Fresh strawberry shortcake with homemade whipped cream followed for dessert.
Our last meal up north was a final trip to Costello's Famous Roast Beef and Seafood. We ordered the large fried clams and scallop boxes to eat there, and ordered a junior roast beef for me and a very tasty cheese steak for Barbara to take on the road the next day. I know hers was tasty because I had some of it for lunch at a rest stop in New York state.
Three stops later – one night in Hegins, PA at Camp-A-While campground, one night in Max Meadows, VA at Pioneer Village RV, and our final stop at a new to us campground in Calhoun, GA called Cedar Break and we're back in Georgia for a week. We barely found this place with an open 30A spot before we have to vacate for the July 4th weekend coming up. It's actually a very nice small park that has been, and is still being, updated and expanded by the new owners. About 5 minutes off of I-75, and very quiet at night. They even have a resident peacock wandering around the campground.
Next up – making do in a pinch when family and holidays clash in a post-COVID RV world.
Just some musings and observations, most of which we've discovered since the beginning of the year.
When your 4 ½ year old grandson is with you full-time for 5 months, it's understandable that the focus would be on his activities. So even though I've tried to keep everyone abreast of the RV parks and campgrounds and the things that might interest and entertain fellow RVers, I know I've missed a few things we've learned on the road.
American drivers stink. I mean really stink. I personally think that Florida drivers in particular truly believe that speed limits on their roads and interstates are merely suggestions. Mind you, they're not aggressive like some other drivers I will be mentioning later on; they just drive faster than normal.
And I get it. There's a lot of real estate between one Florida town and another, so taking your time is a waste of time for many people in the Sunshine State, but we're not talking about another 5 MPH or so; we're talking about 15-20 MPH or more on state highways. And don't get me started about I-95 drivers. Don't think I ever saw a state police car on I-95 once in all the miles we put on that road in the Mini. Maybe they feel there's no reason to even try catching these scofflaws. Maybe they just don't care. Bottom-line, if you're traveling on I-95 in Florida and you can't maintain at least 5 MPH over the posted speed limit, get yourself over to the far right-hand lane.
Georgia drivers, on the other hand, are just downright dangerous. Speeding is the least of your worries when driving your motor home on Georgia interstates. No car or truck driver in Georgia wants to be behind an RV, and they'll do virtually anything to get in front of you. We've had multiple – and I mean more than a half-dozen - drivers come up an on-ramp and continue onto the breakdown lane at speeds exceeding 70 MPH (we always go no more than 63 MPH set on cruise control) just to get in front of us. And they all cut in front of our nearly 15-ton motor home with less than a car-length to spare. If you've never tried to suddenly stop one of these gas models, we don't have air brakes like the bigger diesel rigs have, so there's a LOT of inertia to overcome! They're also not shy about cutting over two lanes to get to an exit your motor home was blocking from their view.
And they can't say they didn't see us. We're a 38-foot long, 9-foot wide, 13-foot tall rolling billboard in bright blue and white.
Finally, Massachusetts drivers. Having grown up here in New England, we're very familiar with how bad drivers are in this area, but they seem to have gotten worse since we left the area. On a positive note, they tend to leave the RVers alone. But you take your life into your hands in the Mini. Maybe they just don't notice something so small. Maybe they just hate us Mini drivers because we're not driving Subarus. Maybe it's our South Dakota plates. Either way, in less than a week we've been cut-off nearly a dozen times.
Moving on to a gem of a campground we discovered . . .
We needed a spot to spend a few days in the Hershey / Gettysburg area after dropping off Jace and before our reservations took effect up in New Hampshire. One of our Tiffin friends had posted about having stayed at Dogwood Acres in Newville, PA. It's equidistant between the aforementioned towns, with about a 45-50 minute drive to each. It's also situated about 10-15 minutes off of I-81 in the middle of nowhere, so it's incredibly quiet at night. The owners have a Tiffin Phaeton they live and travel in. Super nice people. Nice lake and pool on site. The park has a McDonalds kind of theme going on, with their playground decked out with many brand characters and locations. There's also a life-sized Ronald McDonald sitting on a bench to greet you as you enter the park. Grover was NOT a fan of Ronald. Walking back from the very nice dog park, he wasn't looking straight ahead as we were coming up to Ronald. All of a sudden he looked up and found a red-haired clown waving at him. He did a 180 flip in the air and started barking and growling at the interloper. Gave Ronald the stink-eye and a growl every time we passed him after that. Didn't know clowns creeped out dogs like they do us humans.
Moving on, it's refreshing to see things getting back to pre-COVID normal. Mask mandates being dropped if you've been vaccinated. Store shelves getting restocked and products that have been missing are slowly returning.
Gas prices are becoming very disappointing. After never spending more than $2.30 per gallon since we started this journey (and much less than that usually), prices have rapidly increased to $3.00 or more. When you've got to fill the tank with 60-70 gallons of gas, that charge on your card looks pretty steep. haven't spent $200 on a fill-up yet, but if someone in Washington doesn't get their act together soon, it's going to happen.
Finally, after sleeping on our Tiffin-supplied foam mattress for more than 18 months, Barbara and I decided to return to a Sleep Number mattress, which we had used for more than 20 years previously. We ordered a new RV Queen from the Myrtle Beach store, and await it's delivery in about 2 months time. The Tiffin mattress isn't bad, but we just felt we could sleep better on air like we used to.
More travel awaits, with a report on our latest trip to New England coming up, and a huge trip planned for the entire summer up in the Great Plains states and the Northwest. Stay tuned!
In the immortal words of former President Gerald Ford, “Our long national nightmare is over”.
After 5 long, fun, but exhausting months, grandson Jace is back with his mother; and Barbara, Grover and I can now sleep past 7 AM if we choose to. If you've read the last few blog entries, you know we've spent lots of time and effort trying to keep an almost five year-old entertained since the beginning of January, and while it can be tiring to normal parent-aged people, it's downright exhausting for grandparents as old as we are. Let's face it; some people become grandparents in their mid-forties, and might have a five year-old grandson by 50. We're well into our sixties, which just confirms Barbara's belief that there is a reason God invented menopause!
Our last two months of April and May took up 5 weeks at our favorite North Georgia campground in Cleveland, GA – Leisure Acres – where we were able to have an occasional restful Friday night, Saturday or Sunday afternoon while Jace was reacquainted with his mother and father. And while we had hoped for a hand-off in early May, we still managed to finish the month with some more memories with Jace.
One of them was introducing Jace to the mothership, Red Bay, Alabama. Every kid with grandparents who own a Tiffin needs to see where all the Tiffins go to get fixed or modified, and Jace was no exception. No warranty work this time, so we were once again ensconced in Convenient Campground behind the Tiffin Service Center, but this time all our work was being done by third-party providers in town, so we had appointments made with each.
We had heard good things about Belmont Diesel just over the line in Mississippi, so since it was time for our semi-annual chassis maintenance on the Ford gasser, we decided to check them out ourselves. Very glad we did! They did our oil and filter change, and lubed the chassis for about half the cost of Bay Diesel over in Red Bay. The only knock against them (and we heard it only from some diesel owners) is that they don't have the big hydraulic lifts used by Bay Diesel to allow the owner to check things out under the chassis with the technician. Not a big deal for us. I know nothing about the underside of the Ford F-53 chassis, and have no desire to see it firsthand. As long as the technician tells me he rolled underneath and checked everything out and it looked good to him, I'm a satisfied customer.
Our next stop was back at Red Bay Body Shop, just outside the entrance to the Tiffin manufacturing plant. These were the guys who did such a great job of repairing the damage to our rear basement doors and tow dolly last year. No damage to repair this time (thank Heaven!), but a bit of an upgrade to Enterprise's exterior. On all new Tiffin high-end Buses, and optionally on their Phaeton line, the solid colored slide ends are painted to match and join up with the pattern of the rest of the coach, and it's really a great look. So I figured, “Why can't my gasser look just like those high-end diesels?”
So now it does.
Jeff and Jeff did a fantastic job on the front end of our main slide, and the rear end of our bedroom slide. These guys are perfectionists. It was their first time doing this upgrade, and even though they underestimated the time and effort to do the job, they stuck to their original estimate like the professionals that they are. A final night to let the new silicone sealant set properly, and it's back on the road to Jace's final vacation spot: Myrtle Beach, SC.
We had planned 6 months previously (pre-Jace) to meet up with long-time and best friends Rick and Marielle Penney in their new-to-them Grand Design Reflection during their first long distance excursion in the new fifth wheel. They had spent a weekend with us last year at our campground in New Hampshire, but that was only about 45 minutes away from where they lived. This was their first real long distance drive with the new rig, and a first for both of us at a true beach resort.
Our destination was Pirateland RV Campground, an older location that had a lot of amenities for kids and adults (Rick and Marielle were also traveling with her brother and sister-in-law Michael and Marie, who had their son and two grandkids with them in an Open Range travel trailer), so entertaining kids was pretty important. The campground was built in the late 1960's, and there became the first problem we encountered. Thank God our friends had the foresight to book the relatively few pull-through sites in the park, because I'm not sure we could have backed into some of the smaller sites we saw. Others did, but it all depended on whether the people across from you were not parked in the narrow streets and hadn't taken a walk to the beach so they couldn't move their car or truck.
The streets in Pirateland are narrow. Like just wider than your motorhome narrow. As we were turning onto the one-way street to find our spot, I had to negotiate a drop-off into water on my left side to swing wide enough so that I could thread a needle between a truck parked too far into the street on my passenger side, and the awning of a fifth wheel parked too close to the back of their site on my driver's side. No exaggeration: I had 6” of clearance from scraping the truck, and 4” from taking out someone's awning. And due to our tow dolly configuration, I can't back up to better reposition my approach, so it's get it right the first time, or else.
I stuck the landing.
The good news was that our three sites are all in a row next to each other, so visiting with friends was easy, and because they were at the front of the row it was just a short 3-minute walk to the beach. The wind kept things comfortable on hot days, but the awning stayed in all the time. The mini-golf on site, the splash pad for kids and the lazy river for adults are adequate, but the on-site support is spotty. The previous residents on our site must have had a budding engineer with them, as someone had dug a fairly deep hole right off of our concrete pad, which almost resulted in a serious injury to Barbara. A call to the office got someone out right away to fill it, but a similar hole at the end of our site remained unfilled before we left, even with two requests to fill it. Bottom-line is that no one at Pirateland checks the sites out when people leave to see if there is anything that needs some attention.
The other issue is golf carts. For some reason people feel the need to rent them and drive them constantly around the campground. Too many of them are driven by young people who don't follow the speed limit and play music too loud. One of our travel companions actually stopped a cart going too fast and pointed out the 4 and 5 year-olds playing around the campsite to remind them to slow it down.
Still, we had our fun with friends and with Jace. We alternated days on the beach with days at the pool. Jace made new friends with everybody he met. He also collected shells. Lots of shells. We had to buy a container for all the shells he collected, and that went home to mom along with Jace at the end of our trip. Myrtle Beach was a fitting end to Jace's long stay with us.
A day or so before being handed over to mom, Jace announced that he wanted to bring Grover with him to his new house, because he loved Grover. Grover, however, wanted nothing to do with that deal. Grover likes Jace just fine, but he also likes alone time, which never happens with Jace around.
As we transferred Jace and the rest of his belongings to his mother's car, Jace promised that he would do video calls – to Grover, not to us – and he promised to be good for mommy.
And we got back to blessed peace and quiet, even though we'll miss the little stinker.
Next stop: New England and the return of an old friend . . .
Sorry for the delay in posting updates. Having our 4 ½ year old grandson full-time while we travel severely restricts my PC time; both because we need to keep him busy and because I need to keep him away from my keyboard! I also do much of my writing at night, and he sleeps in the pull-out bed just 5 feet away from the table where I'm set up for PC work.
Our original intent for 1Q 2021 was to do Florida in January, Texas in February, and March in Arizona. That was pre-Jace. But since we wanted to stay about a 5-6 hour drive from his mother in case she wanted to visit with him, we decided to stick to north central Florida for the duration. In retrospect, given the severe freezing weather in Texas, it turned out to be a good decision.
February began with a quick 2-day mini-rally with a couple of fellow Open Road gas owners who liked our paint design so much they copied much of it. We stayed 2 nights at Compass RV resort in St. Augustine, FL, and had a nice time with Scott and Barbara Platt and Byron and Lynn Hill. St. Augustine was definitely on our radar screen for February, so our next destination is about an hour away in Keystone Heights.
Keystone Heights RV resort was a wonderful find that only came about because there were no openings for a month in the area at another campground we had looked at. They suggested we take a look at this brand-new resort about 15 minutes away, and it really impressed us! First was the monthly rate - $600 due to a pre-opening deal going on since many of their amenities were not yet open. Second was the sites themselves; level concrete pads extra wide, with plenty of room to back in the largest 45-footer with room to spare and lots of landscaped space between each site. No packing everybody in like a bunch of sardines like many Florida resorts do. Bottom-line, once the amenities are finished, it's going to be a really nice RV resort with a small restaurant and nicely done mini-golf course just offsite.
Keystone Heights is just a bit over an hour away from St. Augustine, Florida. An easy drive on a pretty direct route depending on which side of town you're going to. It gave us a chance to take Jace to the Pirate Museum, where Pirate William gifted Jace with a doubloon, and Jace got decked out in an official pirate hat and spyglass. Another day had us exploring Castillo de San Marcos, a fort which protected St. Augustine from the fabled pirates of legend. Unfortunately due to COVID, the famous firing of the big cannon had been halted due to crowd concerns. I really wanted to see and hear that. Some very interesting history regarding that fort, and it was an entertaining time – even for our 4 year-old.
Also spent a day exploring the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine. Watched alligators get fed rats, lots of birds, a nice collection of lizards and turtles and one huge crocodile. Jace got the attention of a Komodo Dragon, who kept following him around his glass enclosure as if Jace were his next meal.
A somewhat longer day trip found us at Kennedy Space Center. If you're even remotely interested in America's space program, this is the place to visit. The actual Space Shuttle Atlantis is housed inside one of the buildings, close enough for many people to actually touch it. Atlantis flew on more than 30 missions before being retired. There are some really nice exhibits on the history of space flight, a shuttle launch simulator, and a great space-themed indoor play area for the kids. If you're claustrophobic, don't try to squeeze yourself into one of the capsule mockups or the ISS tunnel system. They prove just how much space is a premium when heading out of the atmosphere.
Anastasia Island was another beach trip (all on foot), however, the beach is not very comfortable to walk on with bare feet. No soft sand until you get to the water's edge. The sand is more like some really small pebbles that make the walk from the parking lot to the beach a pain in the foot. Didn't notice it much on the way in because we were wearing sandals, but on the way out we hadn't bothered to put them back on. There's a nice inland kayak launch in the park that we'll be sure to try another time when we don't have a 4 year-old with us. Two's company in a tandem kayak; three's impossible.
One final day trip was to Carson Springs Wildlife Conservation just outside of Gainesville. The animals here were rescued from zoos and homes where they had no business being. Jace got to feed a rhino, and we got to see some really big cats and small lemurs.
February done, it's time to move on to our next destination; Chiefland, Florida. We had planned to spend March in Arizona this year, but we needed to keep close enough to Georgia for our daughter to visit Jace on a weekend if need be, so we found a very inexpensive park called Strawberry Fields for RVers further west and a bit further south of Keystone Heights about 45 minutes away from Gainesville, Florida. Now Chiefland itself doesn't have much going for it, but it's a short trip from there to the Gulf coast side of Florida, which got us close to more beaches and more opportunities to see manatees before their migration period ended. Manatee State Park is just about 6 or so miles from the campground, and Homosassa is just 50 minutes away.
The campground itself is very basic; typically flat as most Florida parks are, with paved lots that are all pull-throughs. A newer section was opening up that would be all back-in sites on grass. Not a lot of amenities, and they really don't cater to RVers with kids (they specifically ask that you don't bring kids into their clubhouse because their full-time residents don't like the noise they make), but they have an interesting rate system that stays the same all year round. No seasonal increases for the winter months like most Florida parks. Our monthly rate was $415 plus metered electric. At the end of the month we paid about $85, so for just over $500 bucks it was a great deal. I will say that is was incredibly windy (which is typical for Florida given their lack of elevation), but I think we had our awning out maybe 3 days during the entire month.
Right down the road is Ralph's Burger House, a drive through place that serves better meals than McDonalds, and for about 2/3rds the price. The place is a local institution, with almost always a line going out of the parking lot at all hours of the day.
We took Jace to Fort Island State Beach a couple of times. Soft, sandy beach, bt a bit small in size. Since we were there on weekdays it wasn't too crowded, but I can imagine it being packed on weekends. Typical Gulf beach where the drop off is gradual, so you can head out quite a bit before it gets too deep, and the wave action is pretty tame. The water is also a bit warmer than Atlantic beaches due to the shallow nature of the Gulf, so you could spend some time without seeing your toes turn blue.
Took a day trip down to Cedar Keys, about a 45-minute drive from Chiefland. Some interesting restaurants and tourist shops, but it didn't really impress us much. We were there on an early Friday afternoon, and based on afternoon traffic it appeared to be a biker destination on weekends. Not that we have a problem with that, but two retirees and a 4 year-old grandson just wouldn't have fit in had we stayed there a bit longer.
We also spent a great day at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Great venue for kids and adults, with lots of wildlife to see. One of the more interesting features of the park was the buzzards which inhabit the interior. They pretty much have free reign, landing and flying away whenever it pleases them, and scaring the bejezzus out of you when you least expect it! But they've managed to rescue a great deal of wildlife and given them a safe habitat in which to live.
Had a chance to catch up with Barbara's brother, Rick, sister-in-law Celia, and our niece Beth. They in turn got a chance to meet Jace again, given he was just 6 months old the last time they saw him.
Florida complete, we head back up to Georgia in hopes of finally being able to drop off our grandson Jace to his mother on a full-time basis. We also have plans to visit Red Bay, Alabama the beginning of May, but that is a surprise for another post. Stay tuned!
Happy belated New Year, and welcome back to Parental Parolees!
My writing has been severely cramped due to our 4 year-old grandson traveling with us since the beginning of the year, and given I usually write late at night or in the middle of the night, his sleeping area (and my writing area) is off limits once he goes to bed. We need him well-rested or our work is multiplied three-fold once he gets cranky if he doesn't get enough sleep. Pray for us . . .
But anyway, I've found a rare moment to catch you up on the past month.
Leaving our usual haunt at Leisure Acres in Cleveland, GA, we had an easy drive south on I-75, stopping at a small campground called Paradise Lake RV Park, just outside of Tifton, GA. Inexpensive, because there was neither a lake nor was it considered paradise by any means. But it had a 50A hookup with water and sewer, plus it kept me from having a long driving day of over 9 hours to our final destination in Florida.
After overnight rains, a sunny day dawned for our short drive to Winter Garden, Florida. Winter Garden is about 15 miles directly west of Orlando on State Route 50. The park was called Stage Stop Campground. We chose it for it's central location to both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and it's proximity to all of the possible Orlando parks. Disney was out, since at 4, Jace is a bit too young to truly enjoy everything there, but Sea World was definitely on our radar screen. We also chose Stage Stop due to it's low monthly rate; just $775 as opposed to the more pricey parks closer to the coasts. State Stop is a no frills park (no playground for Jace), but it has very level grassy lots that have at least 30 feet between slides and the next lot. We definitely had plenty of space, especially if the lot next door was unoccupied, as it was for about 70% of our month-long stay. One oddity of their sites was their water and electric hookups, which were centrally shared between the BACK of the back-in lots, so we needed every bit of our power cord and fresh water hose to make our connections. One power box was shared, with either two 30A connections or a 30A and 50A connection. Sewer, fortunately, was in it's normal driver's side spot.
Winter Garden has a nice railroad museum in their quaint downtown that Jace enjoyed. The people there are very friendly and are clearly hampered by not being able to properly present their museum due to COVID restrictions. It will be nice to return when they can really show off their programs. There is also a very nicely done Farmer's Market each Saturday morning, with not only the usual produce, but breads, cheeses, spreads, pastas and pies. Downtown also features Scoops Ice Cream, where Jace enjoyed his Superman ice cream of red, blue and yellow colors and flavors.
A day trip over to Plant City was in order to see Dinosaur World. It's really a pretty neat place to take kids to see life-sized representations of a couple of dozen types of thunder lizards in a wooded setting. As with many places, lots of exhibits were closed where some learning activities would have been presented, but all-in-all it was a good way to spend a few hours outdoors. Jace was NOT thrilled with the animatronic versions of a couple of dinosaurs by the exit to the museum, but he loved everything else, including the dinosaur themed playground.
Being centrally located as we were, we took advantage of some nice weather to head over to Daytona Beach in order to drive the Mini on some sand. It seems to be an annual event for us now, as we did the same thing in Port Aransas, TX last year about the same time. We encountered a large flock of sandpipers and their babies right on the “roadway”, so Barbara had to get out and herd the birds so we could safely pass. She's a natural!
The Atlantic side also featured Blue Springs State Park, winter home to well over 100 manatees. Didn't get too close a look at them, but you'll see their ghostly shapes moving underwater in the pictures featured here. Still, it was a nice day for a long hike in the park, finished off by a stop at “the best pizza in town”, Blue Springs Pizza. Very, very tasty. Another State park we visited was Wekiwa Springs State Park. This was a very nice park about 40 minutes away, but it featured a nice set of trails to hike with both Jace and Grover, and the campground on site was nicely set up for some larger rigs like ours. Might be a destination for a week or two next year.
The Gulf coast beckoned, as we had a visit scheduled with our oldest nephew Matthew, his husband Tommy and their kids Ainsley and Hudson. Ainsley and Jace adopted each other, and had a great playdate while we adults socialized over quiche, fruit and wine. Hopefully, we can see them again before we leave Florida to drop Jace back off with his mother.
The highlight for Jace in January was Sea World. With COVID, you have to make a reservation for the day you want to attend, but before that, you have to buy your tickets. Tickets are pricey at about $89, but it's still a good deal for a whole day admittance. We could have searched for some discount tickets, but our window of opportunity was closing on our month in the Orlando area. The Antarctica exhibit with penguins was a big hit, however, it's kept at a crisp 32 degrees so when you're dressed for 75 degree temperatures it's get a bit nippy in there.
They do a great show at Sea World called Sea Lion High, where the most fun was the mixups with cast members and sea lions. Jace got to ride some kiddie rides in the new Sesame Street area (we're still trying to figure out how Sesame Street and aquatic animals are linked), and he fed some seal lions some fish. But the highlight of the day was the dolphin show. We specifically took a seat in the first row next to the tank, otherwise known as “The Soak Zone”.
It lived up to it's reputation.
Now, Jace will tell you today that getting splashed by dolphins was his favorite part of Sea World, but at the time of his soaking, he was NOT very happy about it. But being up front not only got us seriously wet, it also allowed us to see these magnificent creatures up close an personal. From corkscrewing underwater around the interior of the tank, to three dolphins coming out of the water to perch themselves on the side of the tank about 6 feet in front of us, the seats were simply the best!
We had hoped to catch a space launch at Cape Canaveral in January, but every launch we tried for ended up getting postponed and moved to a time which just wouldn't work out for a 4 year-old; either too early in the morning or too late at night. We'll hopefully have a couple of chances in February.
January ended, it's time to bring in our slides, bring up our jacks, attach the Mini to the back and head slightly north to a self-styled “Blue Gasser Group” mini-rally in St. Augustine. We found us a really nice resort to stay at for February that is both beautiful and inexpensive, and I'll cover that in my next blog post.
Red Bay – The Final Frontier (for Tiffin owners)
This is the continuing saga of the Class A motor home 'Enterprise'. It's ongoing mission: to explore previously untraveled destinations, to seek out potentially different life forms, to boldly drive where we've never driven before! (cue theme music)
Captain's Log, Earthdate: December 13, 2020. Captain David W. Richard commanding. The difficult year of the COVID continues as we have had to drive a couple of thousand miles after the Enterprise sustained damage in the Carlisle sector of the Pennsylvania nebula. The damage to Enterprise was relatively minor but incredibly noticeable to her captain, who also, by the way, was responsible for said damage. Every time a ship takes damage it's personal to her captain, but more so when his ship is a little over a year out of the construction docks.
But even damaged, the mission must go on. Scouting parties have determined where the Enterprise will orbit for the month of January, and the crew has been able to visit friends and family during various shore leaves as we've traveled from the Florida sector and through the northeast quadrant of the galaxy via the New England wormhole. But exploration aside, it's time to head for space dock to repair the damage the Boulder Beasts of Carlisle inflicted on our ship.
My First Officer (also known as Number One, or She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed) has navigated the difficult journey back to the mothership of Red Bay in the Sol system of the Alpha Quadrant. Space dock 2, also known as Red Bay Body Shop, has been awaiting our arrival for over a month, and is anxious to get us in and out quickly so that we can resume our mission of exploration. After a night awaiting our berth to become available, we're guided into space dock, and work begins immediately.
We were pleasantly surprised that our ship and crew can remain indoors out of the elements while repairs are being made. Given the coldness of space in Red Bay at this time of year, that's good news because we can sit inside a 72 degree berth for the next 3 nights while the rest of Red Bay freezes. We also save the $25 per night camping fee needed when not staying in space dock. The space dock manager is Jeff Pharr. He's already co-ordinated with our insurance company (Progressive) to review and update the previous estimate given to us on our journey through the New England wormhole. Labor rates were too low for Red Bay, and other repairs would be needed than first thought.
The local Progressive adjuster from the Tupelo expanse was David Malone, and he quickly determined that more money was needed. He cut a check that afternoon, and knowing it wouldn't get to Red Bay in time for us to sign it over, had it made out directly to the Red Bay Body Shop and confirmed it had been mailed that very day. Can't ask for better service than that.
One of the reasons the original estimate was so low was due to the damage to our American Car Dolly, and the resulting extra work needed to remove the fender due to it's extraordinary construction. What was estimated for an hour to remove the damaged fender became more than two hours because this dolly has many of it's components welded together rather than bolted on. Speaks well of it's construction, but due to it's features the repair estimate more than doubled.
Extra damage to the underside of the basement bay also increased the work needed to complete repairs. Our replacement door had been ordered a month previously from Tiffin, so it was ready to be mounted and painted. Shredded fiberglass removed repaired, and replacement strut and cover installed, then the whole area was painted Sterling Silver. After Day 2, we thought that Enterprise would be released to continue our continuing voyages, but the people in Space Dock 2 weren't happy with the feathering of the repaired area to the original area, so they kept us here another day to bring the paint up to a color change so that feathering would not be needed. Check written, we back out of space dock and enter a parking orbit for another night in a nearby campground.
The highlight on this trip, as with many trips, was meeting fellow Tiffin owners, most notably Scott McKoin in Zamboanga, Home of the Perpetual Soiree. Two nights of high-quality socializing ensued, because he's every bit as nice as you'd expect him to be. Tomorrow, our voyage into the unknown continues with a stay at Piney Grove COE campground in the Mississippi sector for 3 nights, then it's back to the always enjoyable shore leave planet of Leisure Acres in the Cleveland, Georgia expanse.
I cannot say enough praise for the folks at Red Bay Body Shop and for everyone involved at Progressive Insurance for making this very trying time completely stress-free.
This will be our last log until after Christmas and New Year's, so we want to take this time to thank everyone for their readership and friendship since our journey of exploration began. We also want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Hopefully 2021 will exceed all our expectations where 2020 has failed us.
We continue our travels through the Southeast U.S. by heading to a state we had never stayed in with our 36LA – South Carolina. We skirt it every time we head up north using I-85, but it's 106 miles of highway we use as a corridor to get from Georgia to North Carolina and beyond, and one of the cheapest places to get gas in the country. Due to low gas taxes, South Carolina gas is usually between $.10 and $.15 cents cheaper than Georgia, so we always fill-up at a Flying J off the north most exit on I-85 before heading into North Carolina when going to New England.
This time, however, we weren't heading north, but south to Charleston, SC. It will be a first-time visit for both Barbara and I, and a destination we had always wanted to see since moving to the Atlanta area nearly 30 years ago. Barbara had almost made it there back in the mid-2000's when I was a county commissioner in Forsyth County, GA. Each year, commissioners were invited to the ACCG – the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia – annual meeting in Savannah, GA. A few days of sometimes informative meetings (and many times not), some wining and dining, and a bit of sightseeing took up 4 days each early Spring. As was usually the case, while I was in meetings, Barbara did some sightseeing on her own. After a couple of years, things got a bit repetitive in Savannah, so she figured she might try a day trip to Charleston, SC one day – until she saw that it would be an over 2 hour drive just to get there. Not wanting to spend 5 hours in a car for a day trip, Charleston was put on hold.
But we're retired now, and since we take our home everywhere we go, driving times don't really matter anymore.
We made reservations at Lake Aire RV Park, which was listed as being located in both Hollywood and Charleston; either way, it was west of the city right off of SR17, which made it a pretty straight shot into the city proper after about a 30 minute drive. The park is set off in the woods, with gravel roads and lots. They have a small pond for catch and release fishing, and a small pool and pavilion on site. A bit expensive for what you're getting in amenities at just over $50 a night, but being only 30 minutes away from Charleston and surrounded by golf courses, it's not excessive. Power and water pressure were both good. Biggest gripe we had was they had some serious puddles and depressions to fill in on their roads after recent rains, and they didn't address them while we were there the entire week.
On our way there, we had what is becoming an all-too-familiar experience when driving this 38-foot long, 13-foot high and 9-foot wide behemoth down the road. We're convinced that we're either completely invisible to most normal car traffic, or that some people simply don't want to ever get behind a large RV to the point where they do some incredibly stupid things to avoid that happening. Note the two jerks at the beginning of this short video below. They rush to pull out in front of us, yet both get into our lane in order to reverse course on the route we're on. In their haste, they need to BOTH turn off into a median, forgetting that I can't exactly stop on a dime in this 13-ton motor home. The idiot in the white car almost rear ended the smaller car in front of him trying to get out of the lane and nearly didn't get off the road fast enough for me to avoid putting his trunk into his front seat!
Charleston itself is a very pretty city which has kept it's early American charm in it's downtown area. Homes and businesses easily 150-200 years old are the norm, and restaurants retain a South Carolina-specific Southern charm and menu offerings. There is a serious focus on grits down here, which to this New England couple still remains a mystery as to it's popularity. Flounder, shrimp, crab and chicken dishes dominate the menus in most restaurants. And grits. Always grits.
Our first foray downtown was strictly sightseeing. Charleston is a very easy city in which to walk around, and the temperatures were mild, even with the ever-present wind coming onshore. After finding a nearby parking garage, our first stop was City Market. Nice place to pick up some trinkets commemorating your visit to Charleston, but the woven Palmetto baskets, while beautifully crafted, were outrageously expensive. Having managed to keep a good deal of our spending money from changing hands, we headed closer to the shoreline to the Joe Riley Waterfront Park; a familiar tourist destination featuring the famous Pineapple Fountain and beautiful tree-covered walkways.
Curling our way around the southern tip of the waterfront, we stopped on Rainbow Row, a section of town where every row house is painted a different color of the rainbow. We did not have time (nor was the weather particularly conducive that day) to take one of Charleston's famous horse-drawn carriage tours, but knowing we'll be back again we were OK with putting that off for now. A quick lunch and our first day was over.
Our second day ended up being a COVID related disappointment. Our intent was to tour Ft. Moultrie on the other side of the Cooper River, so we headed up and over the beautiful Arthur Ravenel Bridge towards Mount Pleasant. The bridge is the third-longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere at 13,200 feet and features a main span of 1,465 feet. It is apparently also a destination for fitness buffs, as there is a good sized walking/running path along the entire span which was populated both days we used it.
Mount Pleasant is a quaint, but large town with some interesting history. The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was launched from an inlet nearby, becoming the first submarine in history to sink another vessel when they blew up the U.S.S. Housatonic in 1864. Edgar Allan Poe also spent some time on Sullivan's Island in 1827, and many of his mysteries are based on that area. It was this part of history that had attracted us to Ft. Moultrie.
We expected the Visitor's Center to be closed due to COVID, but did not expect the actual fort to be closed and locked. It's a small fort, and there are no guided tours. It has an interesting history in that it was built and rebuilt 3 distinct times. One version only lasted 6 years, when it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1804. Still, it played a small part in the Civil War, and we were hoping to walk it's walls and corridors. Alas, it was not meant to be. We were able to walk the grounds, and found a small pathway down to a very dangerous beach. Obviously, I did NOT stick my feet into the water with their warning sign, but people who know me know I was sorely tempted to. But what's up with that $1,040 fine? Why not an even $1,000 or even $1,500? Who comes up with a $1,040 fine?
On the drive back to our campground, we took a detour to see the famous Angel Tree. Nothing else needs be said except that it is a magnificent sight to behold.
At least the next day bore more tourist fruit. We had a reservation for a harbor cruise to Ft. Sumter, and that one still allowed for tours. Heading back over the Ravenel Bridge to Patriots Point, we get there the prescribed 30 minutes before the cruise was to leave. Come to find out that the 30 minute early arrival was if you had to purchase tickets on-site. Since we had taken care of all that online the previous day, we had a half hour to kill. The cruise left right on time, traveling under the flight deck of the U.S.S. Lexington, which is permanently berthed in Charleston.
Our boat passed Castle Pinckney, a small spit of land barely above high tide in the center of the harbor. Neither castle nor fort, it has an unremarkable history of fortification, storehouse, prisoner of war housing during the early Civil War, and finally – abandonment. Attempts to restore it as an historical site or commercial venture have all failed, and it is gradually being reclaimed by nature via disuse.
Another 20 minutes brought us to the dock at Ft. Sumter. It also has an interesting history, being the site of the first engagement of the Civil War (or as Southerners refer to it – the War of Norther Aggression), but as a fixed fortification it neither excelled at it's intended purpose, nor did it fail miserably. It was quickly abandoned by Union forces shortly after the war began, and in Confederate hands managed to hold off a poorly planned and even more poorly executed assault by Union gunboats and ironclads later in the war. But as the war raged on, it became little more than a fixed target for Union cannon, which reduced it's once four-story height in half. Nevertheless, it's still an impressive sight, made even more so by a sandbar which reveals itself during low tide. People can kayak to the sandbar, which allows them an up close look at the fort; even to the point where you could conceivable walk to the island (even if you're not allowed to by park rangers). The hour walking tour complete, we enjoy the 30-minute cruise back to the dock and a trip through the obligatory gift shop on site.
Our final day in Charleston was with friends Chris and Abby for a downtown brunch at Virginia's on King Street. Lot's of crab cakes, eggs, and smoked meat products were consumed in a fine southern setting. We then toured some more of Charleston's downtown with them, and brought them back to our campsite to show off our motor home.
But Thanksgiving and Jace time beckoned us back to Georgia, and a trip back to Red Bay for body damage repairs is in our December future.
So, we headed back to our old stomping grounds in Georgia for some Jace time, some friend time, and for an appointment at the VA Clinic in Atlanta for me.
Getting to be of an age where skin issues take on some importance, especially after so many younger years without a whole lot of protection against the sun, when something changes shape, size or color on my exterior, I'm on it.
While in Gunter Hill COE in Alabama, I noticed that what once looked like an age spot was get darker (almost black), larger, and thicker. Sent my primary care physician at the VA in Georgia a couple of pictures, and a few days later I had an appointment at their huge clinic in Atlanta. The appointment was set for about 3 weeks from the day I requested it; not bad.
Meanwhile, life went on. We finished up at Gunter Hill and headed towards our two week stay in Florida. Meanwhile, the spot continued to grow larger to about the size of a dime, and turned almost black completely black. Then, with a week to go before my appointment, it started shrinking. No drainage of any kind; it just started getting smaller, although it remained darker than normal. By the time my appointment day arrived, it was almost back to normal size. Thank God I had pictures to show the docs at the VA, or I would have looked like a kook!
My appointment was scheduled for 1300 hrs. Got there early to process COVID-mandated paperwork. At precisely 1300 hrs they called me back into the examination room. A perfectly marvelous and friendly PA by the name of Sabrina took all the usual vitals and got me set up for the examination of 3 different areas I wanted checked out.
A good twenty minutes later, I had 1 primary and 3 residents all staring at my head and knee. Lucky me, I had come on the day when residents were training with the primary dermatologist! So now only did I have 4 people staring at my vanishing problem area, I had 4 people looking at my iPhone to see what the fuss was all about. Multiple views using a hand-held magnifying glass, multiple questions from the primary to his flock, and it was determined that one of the three was no problem at all, one behind my knee didn't look like a problem, but since I was scratching it and opening it up it should be removed, and the mystery area was undetermined; but that a biopsy should definitely be taken of the site. The suspicion from the primary was that he wouldn't be surprised if I had a “foreign body invasion” (bite or sting), but that the lack of any drainage made it curious.
Now I'm officially a medical oddity in yet another area, in addition to my one-in-a-million circulatory system setup.
Barbara thought that it was (once again) entirely appropriate given my nature.
Twenty minutes after the primary's grilling, the resident who drew the short straw (or maybe the long straw due to my being a “medical oddity”) numbed both areas, removed the spot behind my knee and took a healthy-sized biopsy from my head. Sufficiently sealed and plastered with copious amounts of gauze and tape, I'm handed a wound care kit capable of taking care of things for the next few days with a promise that I'll get the results in the next couple of weeks.
Fast forward a week and a half, and I get a voice mail from the VA with the good news that nothing bad was found in either biopsy and that I'm good to go. There was also a follow-on call a couple of days after the procedure to check in on me and my condition.
Many of you who know me know that I am not a fan of government-run anything. There have also been a lot of negative stories about the quality of care veterans can expect to receive in many VA clinics and hospitals across the nation. While my experience could be a result of lower patient traffic due to COVID-19 restrictions on certain in-person visits now being handled by tele-medicine, I can honesty say that my visit and procedure done at the VA Clinic in Atlanta was every bit as good as any private medical facility. My hope is that my fellow veterans receive the same care across the country as well.
Medical oddity taken care of, it's now time for Barbara and me to visit a city we've always wanted to see, but never had in the 29 years of living south of the Mason-Dixon line – Charleston, South Carolina.
But that's for my next report.
So it's late October, and we still haven't found a site for January. The plan is to stay in Florida for January, head to Port Aransas, Texas for February, then meander our way over to Phoenix, Arizona for mid-March through mid-April. The reason for all this is because I really don't like to spend more than a couple of weeks in any location, so staying in one place for three months (as many snowbirds do) just ain't gonna happen with me. My only concession is going to be staying a full month in one place, rather than three.
Now, we could always reverse this process and hit Arizona first, but my hope is to be coming from Red Bay sometime in December after having our damaged rear basement door and cap repaired, then a quick stop in Georgia for Christmas with our family, so Florida is the more likely destination for January.
So Florida it is. The nightmare year 2020 has given us a bit of a break due to COVID-19 by keeping Canadians home. Not only is our border closed to them right now, but Canadians aren't even sure if they can get back home after it begins warming up even if they were able to get down here. So a long, cold winter for many Canadian snowbirds is giving us some help in finding open spots this late in the season.
Heading south from Montgomery, Alabama, we find another Harvest Host site in Tallahassee, Florida. The Tallahassee Automobile Museum is a must-see for collectors of virtually everything. Hundreds of antique and classic muscle cars, including a Deusenberg valued at $2.5 million if it were ever to go to auction, are showcased on two floors easily accessible by elevator or ramp. Interspersed between them, around them, and tucked into every nook and cranny are golf club collections, a knife collection that has to be seen, as well as toy cars and trucks, dolls, pianos, farm equipment, antique canoes, outboard motors and collectibles of every kind.
And each and every piece in the museum is owned by just one man. And I'm still not sure why. But it is.
As with most Harvest Host sites, the camping is no frills, but free. Members are asked to reward their host with a purchase or two during their stay, so we purchased two tickets for admission to the museum; $15 each. No guides, no maps, just a super friendly lady telling you to have a good time. The area they've set aside for RVs is a large level lawn in the front yard of the site. A bit close to the road and nearby I-10, but quiet enough once it gets late in the evening.
Our next stop for the following two weeks was Holiday RV Resort in Leesburg, Florida. This was recommended by our fellow Tiffin 36LA owners Bob and Jamie Freed Bailey, who had stayed there for a month previously. The reason we chose it was that it was centrally located between the two coasts, just north of Orlando and right in the area we thought we could find some good deals on winter rates for January. It's also a Passport America member, so the daily cost was cut in half to a very reasonable $27.50 per night.
One of the reasons we wanted to scout out destinations in person in Florida is because there are many parks that bill themselves as RV parks, but are really park home resorts that include a few RV lots for rent. So from an RVer standpoint, you have a lot of people who live in some northern state for 6 months, then head back down to Florida for 6 months to live in their manufactured home, otherwise known as a park home. Being full-time RVers, we naturally want to associate with other RVers. Don't mean to be snooty or anything; we just have more in common with people who move around a lot rather than stay in place.
So you can see all the pictures you want online, but many places don't show you how many, if any, park homes they have on site. So we really had to see potential landing sites in person. Come to find out, many of the parks we had initially hoped for as possibilities ended up being busts. General rule of thumb; the closer to the coasts you get, the more proud these campground owners are of their properties. And anything with the term “resort” in the name – whether it really is a resort or not – can also command a steeper price. The old joke going around is that if an RV park has a pool and a playground, it's now a “resort”.
And we're not looking for a lot. A pool might be nice, but in central Florida in January it had better be heated. What we really want is what we usually look for; level lots, level paved streets so that we can ride our Montague folding bikes, and maybe some water nearby so we can kayak. Civilization nearby is also a must; we don't want to be driving 30 minutes just to get groceries and gas.
After much searching of places that were pretty proud of themselves (or kinda seedy), we finally settled on (drumroll) Stage Stop Campground in Winter Garden, FL. It's affordable at about $700 per month, in between a couple of good-sized towns, and it's about as dead center in Florida as you can get. Level grass lots, a small pond warning you to beware of alligators and snakes, and just a few park homes around the perimeter. We're looking forward to it.
Our visit to Florida was also time for family and friends, as Barbara's brother Rick and sister-in-law Celia have lived just south of Ocala for years. We were able to pry them away for a late afternoon / evening visit so they could see the new motor home. I think they liked it. Rick was particularly impressed with the RV systems that are needed to run everything. He also really liked Grover, but then, who doesn't?
During our search for a place to stay in January, we also had an opportunity to visit with fellow 36LA owners Bob and Jamie Freed Bailey. We had met them last year about this time during our visit to Red Bay for our repairs to everything following our Liquidspring issue. They've been staying in the Tampa Bay area, so we packed up Grover and headed for an afternoon of socializing.
A final night of family with a dinner at a local Ocala restaurant with Rick, Celia, our nephew Adam and our niece Beth, her husband Parker and their two kids Carter and Walton. Interesting restaurant which had a decent menu, but all their entrees were unavailable for the evening; only sandwiches, salads and appetizers. Even with that limited offering it took almost 3 hours to get our food, as the kitchen was understaffed and backed up. Good thing they had plenty of wine and beer in stock!
Our time in Florida complete and our destination secured for January, it's time to head back north to get us some Jace time, and to see if we can snag a site for Thanksgiving.
And I have an appointment at the Atlanta VA for some skin biopsies.
Our trip to New England and back complete, it was time for a bit of R&R&R (Rest, Relaxation and Recovery), and what better place to do that than in our favorite Corps of Engineers park, Gunter Hill in Montgomery, Alabama. Unlike last time, we knew the campground inside of the park we needed to book (Catoma), due to it's spacious, level cement sites and more importantly – full hookups!
The trip from Georgia is usually just a single day, but our reservations weren't going to start for another day, so we threw in a quick overnight stop using our Harvest Host membership at Hodges Vineyard and Winery about an hour outside of Montgomery. Harvest Host sites are generally boondocking sites with no amenities, sometimes with occasional electric or water hookups. Not so at Hodges. Two dedicated RV sites situated right beside their store, and full hookups as well. A very pleasant surprise. If they have more than 2 RV guests scheduled, there is an overflow parking lot with no hookups, but plenty of space.
In addition, they allow you to sample just about any wine they make, which is nice due to the fact that their wines tend to run a bit sweeter than most others. Their Pinot Grigio was more the color of a white zinfandel than a traditional white wine. It appealed to our taste buds as we like sweeter wines, but it might not be to other's tastes who appreciate a more traditional Pinot. We bought 4 bottles of wine (they have a blueberry dessert wine which will go perfectly poured over vanilla ice cream) and a large package of locally-made cheese straws - they are to die for!
We also had our second encounter with a hurricane this season, as the remnants of Hurricane Delta was working it's way northward. Sadly, it kept us indoors and unable to walk the grounds, but our brief view between tropical bands showed a very beautiful property. It was a short 1 ½ hour drive from there to Gunter Hill the next day.
We had booked two separate weeks in different sites due to no site being available for the whole two weeks we planned to stay there. Or so we thought. Our first week was scheduled for Site 4, while our second week was just down the road a bit at Site 21. What we failed to realize is that making reservations on Recreation.gov is different than making reservations everywhere else in the RV world. In the RV world, you book nights, allowing you to leave the NEXT day. On Recreation.gov, you book days, and the last day you book is the day you have to leave.
So there we were, doing some food shopping on a Saturday afternoon about 25 minutes away from the campground, and we get a call from the camp hosts telling us we were supposed to have checked out of Site 4 by 3:00, and it was 3:15 and the next people who had reservations wanted their site! Rushing back to Gunter Hill, we hastily pack up and unhook our utilities to clear the site. The next people to use our site were parked on the grass next to the driveway and had already plugged in their basic 20A power cable. Theirs was a school bus “conversion”, still painted in pasteurized processed cheese yellow, with the back rusted out and open to the air. But it was now their site, and we vacated.
However WE had no place to go, since our next site (21) was already occupied, and wouldn't be free until 3:00 the next day!
So we pulled into the parking lot for the bath and laundry house and proceeded to get back on Recreation.gov to see if there was a site available for the evening. Fortunately, we found Site 35 open for the night, booked it and backed our way in. We didn't bother to hook up everything – just power – as we were only there for the night. It was a shame that this site was already booked for the following week, as it was right next to the water; we would have changed our following week's reservations in a heartbeat. Our next site still had an obstructed view of the water, but it was not as good as what we had for the evening in Site 35.
So the next day, I make a number of reconnaissance trips on my bike past Site 21, hoping to see it unoccupied. No such luck. The couple using it had just bought a brand new 2021 Tiffin Open Road 34PA gasser and were giving it a shakedown for the night and following day, and needed to use the whole allotted time to test things out. I did manage to speak with the guy, point out a couple of things to look for (he has the dreaded softball-sized dimple on his front cap that we had), and gave him advice on how to best have it fixed in Red Bay. Finally, the site was ready for us by 2:30. Didn't take long to move, but I did have to haul my tow dolly around a second time in two days.
So lesson learned. If you're making reservations on Recreation.gov, remember that you're booking for the DAY – NOT the NIGHT. The last day you pay for is the day you have to vacate your site, NOT the next morning.
Despite all the mix-ups, our second stay at Gunter Hill was fantastic! With generally level paved roads, this was a perfect campground to break out our Montague folding bikes for some much needed exercise. Since the weather was good for both weeks, we averaged a bike ride a day, and sometimes two. In between, we got Grover into the exercise act by taking him on very extended walks at least once per day. One night, he was so tired he got himself out of my chair and promptly went into our bedroom, burrowed his way under our covers and went to sleep before we did!
We also met some really nice people during our stay; Jerry and Marsha in their Newmar diesel, Tim and Deb in their 5th wheel next door to us the first week in Site 3, and especially Tina and John Caparella, who full-time in their Denali travel trailer with their dog, Moose. We had planned to break out our Advanced Elements Lagoon2 tandem kayak during our stay, and it just so happened that Tina and John like to kayak as well. Making a play date for 10:00 on Wednesday morning, we haul our associated stuff and bagged kayak in the Mini down to the boat ramp parking lot, and have everything pretty much inflated and assembled by the time Tina and John arrive to unload their kayaks.
Two hours fly by as we take on the Gun Island Chute of the Alabama River. Beautiful scenery. Lots of waterfowl. No gators! Life is good. Arms are tired as we're hauling the 35 - 40 lbs of kayak and paddles back up the very steep boat ramp, but we make it. Everything packs back up the way it was supposed to, and we get back to camp to turn around and inflate it all over again so that the kayak can dry out before we leave on Saturday. It's not the first time we've used the bikes and kayak, but the first time we've used them in the same park, and more than justifies our purchases over a year ago.
By the end of the week (and double-checking the last DAY of our reservations) we're ready to head down to central Florida to scope out some potential January sites and see some friends and family.
We're Dave and Barbara Richard, and we're planning the ultimate retirement experience - travel the U.S. and Canada in style in a Tiffin Open Road 36LA Class A motor home, play golf and stop at every weird and wacky roadside attraction we can find.