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.
Our first weekend at Mill Brook RV was a reunion of old friends. My best friend growing up, Rick, and his wife Marielle (my big sis) had purchased a Grand Design Reflection 5th wheel earlier this year to replace the toy hauler trailer they sold last year. Even with a shortened camping season due to COVID-19, plus some health issues, they've managed to get in a good bit of camping (now glamping) this year. This weekend with friends was the end of their season in New Hampshire. We ended up getting about 10 people around a campfire and some nice grilled burgers and dogs. And wine. Lots of wine. Maybe it was just me having lots of wine. I'm not sure.
The rest of our time in New England was spent reacquainting ourselves and introducing our daughter and grandson to New England food and the Atlantic coast.
The food was covered by roast beef sandwiches (lean roast beef, white American cheese, served on either an onion roll for some or just a plain hamburger roll for others with BBQ sauce as an option), a New England specialty which puts Arby's to shame, or some of the best and freshest seafood on the planet. So a trip to the Clam Box in Georgetown, MA, Costello's in Plaistow, NH, and our favorite - Simard's Roast Beef in Wilmington were hit up early.
And of course, golf had to be played. My buddies I used to work with at Xerox years ago get together each week, and I'm usually able to make a guest appearance each trip up north. COVID shutdowns have caused a change in taking care of reservations for tee times. Some places require you to pay for your entire group at the time of the reservation. Others will hold the reservation for a couple of days while your players call in their individual payments. If a person needs to cancel, many are just giving a credit instead of a refund. Let's just say it's both confusing and a bit irritating.
As to my golf game, let's just say it still needs a LOT of work, as I have not been getting out as much as I planned to do when I first started retirement. But as they say, there I a never a bad day on the golf course.
While I was being taken through the torture rack known as Granite Fields Golf Course just 5 minutes away from our campsite, Barbara and Alicia had to keep Jace occupied and entertained – not always the easiest thing to do. Enter Demeritt Hill Farm. Nice petting area, apple picking, and the always present pictures with head cutouts for photo ops. There is nothing like New England apples fresh picked in the Fall.
One of the great joys about traveling with our grandson, Jace, is his fascination and love of water; in this particular case, the ocean. He loves any body of water, but he REALLY loves waves crashing onto the shore. Big or small waves, he's on it.
The first trip to the shore was to our, and Jace's favorite beach; Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester, MA. A favorite of my Mom's and my Auntie Marge's when we were growing up as kids, because it's nestled in an inlet so any wave action is benign, and it's shallow so a four year-old can walk way out from shore and not get knocked over. It also features a sandbar that has been there for decades which gets exposed during low tide, but submerges during high tide. You don't even get your navel wet. Getting Jace out there doesn't take a lot of time, but getting him back to shore takes forever. I know; you're shocked, right? An afternoon well spent, and Jace comes back with a few seashells to bring to his Dad.
Next trip out was to a treasured place for both Barbara and me. Nubble Light in York, Maine was the site where I proposed to Barbara all those years ago, and it still holds a special place in our hearts. For Jace, it meant some serious rock climbing with Papa while waves came crashing into the shoreline. Nubble sits on a beautiful rocky promontory and stands as a beacon to provide safe harbor to fisherman and recreational boaters in southern Maine.
A cookout at my sister-in-law Debby's house gives us another visit with Dad, and a chance to see our nephew Mike, his wife Nicole, and their beautiful daughter Phoebe. Jace and Phoebe seem to get along very well, even if they can't get the whole see-saw thing down pat. Earlier in the week we had a short visit with my cousin Gary, his wife, Lisa, and my Uncle Don. Don and my Dad are the surviving patriarchs of the Fudge and Richard families.
IN an earlier edit of this page, I neglected to include another family visit; this time by Barbara's cousin Joy and her husband, Mike. Joy and Mike stopped by our site and brought gifts of wine for us, and activities for Jace. (good thing it wasn't the other way around!) Sorry, guys! It's hard to remember what I have for breakfast some mornings, let alone all the things that occurred almost a month ago!
Our final visit to the Maine shoreline holds great memories for Barbara. Officially known as Cape Elizabeth, it's commonly known as Two Lights. This is because there are actually two lighthouses still on site, as the older one was never disassembled when the newer, taller lighthouse was erected. Barbara's grandparents had a place in nearby Old Orchard Beach, and Two Lights is a short drive away. Many a summer day was spent by Barbara climbing the vast rocky shores. It's also a great place to get inspiration for the painting she used to do, and hopefully will again. Two Lights also features a small restaurant where we were able to have our final fill of fried clams and scallops.
A final night in New Hampshire with our best friends Rick and Marielle (and one of the best pepperoni and bacon pizzas I've ever eaten), and it was time to hit the road again. Bypassing Western RV Village in Carlisle, PA so as not to repeatour earlier boulder encounter, we stop at a place we stayed last year while on the way back from New England – Camp-A-While in Hegins, PA. Less than a mile down a steep hill off of I-81, it's halfway between Hazelton and Harrisburg. They have three pull-through sites they usually keep for transient RV's that need a lot of room without having to unhook our toad. A nice young couple bought it last year and they have been making improvements to the park, and it shows.
One final stop before dropping off Jace and Alicia was in Max Meadows, VA at Pioneer RV Village. It's our go-to stop heading north and south on I-81. Right at the junction of I-81 and I-77, it's a perfect one day drive to and from Georgia. It features large sites with small trees and an open meadow bordered by a meandering creek. Perfect for Jace to throw hickory nuts into to keep him entertained.
While New England is no longer our home, we still consider it to be something close to home. The food, the friends, and the family will always make it so. But our home now is wherever we park it. And even Grover is getting very comfortable on travel days when Barbara has a weak moment.
Our intended trip to New England to visit friends and family having been canceled due to COVID-19 this past June, we FINALLY get the go-ahead to make the trip in late September – early October. Our earlier trip was put off due to private campgrounds and interstate rest areas being closed along our way, and while we could have stayed somewhere in New England to do our visiting at that time, the prospect of me driving 24 hours straight made our June trip impossible.
Not that we still didn't encounter some issues along the way in September. Massachusetts state government kept changing their rules for RVers so much that certain campgrounds stopped taking reservations from out-of-staters because they got tired of refunding money. Maine still insisted on a 14-day quarantine for people traveling from certain areas (areas we had traveled to and from). New Hampshire finally got around to allowing out-of-staters to finally come in to private parks, but not into state parks, limiting our choices And to top it all off, some campgrounds were limiting their discounts to try to recoup losses suffered during the early part of camping season.
It was a mess.
Finally, some friends of ours were able to secure a couple of weekend sites for themselves and a relative for them to camp with, and a spot was also available for us for our 2 week stay. Mill Brook RV Park in Kingston, NH became our go-to campground for the second straight year. It's well situated to hit the NH coast, Maine and Massachusetts from one location, so it was perfect for us.
Also similar to last year, we had our grandson, Jace, with us. Fortunately for us, we also had Jace's mom, our daughter Alicia, with us this year to play the role of cat-herder. Jace is the proverbial cat.
Our drive up was a bit different this year, in that our usual place to stay, Pioneer RV Village in Max Meadows, VA (right where I-77 and I-81 meet) was fully booked for the one night we needed. It's a great park with wide, grassy pull-through sites that are perfect for the one-night stand (and longer stays). So after trying all other parks in the area and coming up empty, we found a Harvest Host site called Draper Village / Draper Mercantile. There were 3 parking spots available at a farm up the road from the Mercantile (don't pull into the Mercantile itself as it doesn't have a way for you to turn around or back out), and you can take a short walk to the Mercantile once you get settled in. Unfortunately for them, we got in late and left early, so everything was closed by the time we got around to supporting our hosts. The Mercantile looks interesting, so maybe next time.
It was very foggy and dark when we left the next morning, which gave me an opportunity to see if the headlights that had been adjusted in Red Bay last November were still working correctly (they were). Barbara followed me through the streets of Draper and onto I-81 North in the Mini, as I didn't want to reconnect the toad in those conditions. Mated everything back up at a rest area about 30 miles north where the sun was up and the fog had dissipated.
Our second night's stay on the way north was, frankly, a disaster. Unless you were Jace. He got a playground. We stayed at Western Village RV Park in Carlisle, PA, a park we used last year as a base for the Hershey RV Show and our trip further north. Barbara had called ahead, requesting our typical pull-through site. The spacious sites up front for “transients” were all booked, but the person on the other end of the line said she did have a pull-through in another section of the park. Understand, we ALWAYS tell people at parks that we're a 38 foot Class A motor home with a tow vehicle when asking for a site.
Well, we got a pull-through, but it was better suited access-wise to a short travel trailer. Narrow site, with large boulders on one side and trees on the other, extending to the back and front of the site, so when morning came there was little room for me to take the turn out of the campsite.
Long story short, the large tail swing on our 36LA was too much to make it's way past a boulder on the passenger side exit, and we caved in our rear basement bay door and some fiberglass on our rear cap. We also bent back the steel fender on our tow dolly. I was seriously pissed!
On our way northbound Barbara called the campground to inform them of our damage and to tell them to never recommend putting a motor home in that site, and the person in the office says, “We never put motor homes in that site!” Well, maybe you should tell the person working the desk LAST night that, ya think? If there is a silver lining in all of this, the folks at Progressive Insurance have been very easy to work with thus far, and we hope to be able to schedule some time in Red Bay in November to have the damage fixed.
Our final stop on the way to New Hampshire is one of the only rest areas I think I'll ever stay at. On I-84 in Connecticut, there is a rest area heading northbound in Southington, CT. What makes it special for me and the rest of us fellow RVers is that it is one of the few (if only) rest areas with dedicated parking for RVs. No cars, no 18-wheelers allowed (they each have their own dedicated areas). It has plenty of room both wide and long to park dozens of RVs, and it gives us the ability to park against a curb so that we can open our slides for the night and run our generator. And of course it's free.
A short 2 ½ hour drive the next day, and we're in place for 2 weeks. Jace is free to be free, and we can start putting together all the visits needed to see everyone we need to see. I have to get my Dad's taxes done because the Senior Center no longer offers that free service due to COVID-19, Enterprise needs to be washed after a couple of thousand miles on the road (thanks again Wash and Wax All!), and we need to prep for visitors coming in for the weekend.
Next up – Sightseeing on New England's rocky shores.
After a great week in Gunter Hill COE, and specifically Catoma campground, it was off to sunny Florida to do the first of our planned explorations of the Gulf coast. The goal was to find a park (or parks) that might be suitable for spending the upcoming winter months in bit warmer weather than we did for certain times last year. We know we're behind the 8-ball on doing this, as many parks get filled up earlier in the year in advance of snowbird season, but we're really not interested in the middle and south Florida parks many people look for, because frankly they're usually too expensive or too packed in and crowded for our tastes.
We don't like opening our awning and wondering if it will hit our neighbors slide-out. I don't care how warm the weather is.
And we also have a budget to consider. Sure, we can go as high as $40 per night, but we'd much prefer something in the $30 range, and some of these places are way too proud of themselves when it comes to monthly rates in the winter season. I don't care what you offer, $2,000 per month is simply robbery (unless it's for a beach view)!
So while the Gulf coast isn't as warm as the Florida peninsula, we think it is a good balance between warmer weather and lower prices – and we don't need a beach view, either.
Our base campground was Five Flags RV Park just west of Pensacola, Florida. It's a quirky little park that (like many these days), caters to full-time residents with a few transient sites for people like us.
There are doors leading out of their fence to the local convenient store and to a bar-b-cue place. One looks like you're entering an Airstream and the other just some other camper. Their laundry rooms are a couple of old modified trolley cars.
The have an old drive-in style sign at the front entrance with silly puns that change on a regular basis.
But the really nice thing is that their sites are wide, with concrete and crushed rock pads to handle just about any length or weight RV and grassy areas between. They have two different “dog parks” which double as retention ponds when it rains. Which, btw, need to be mowed more frequently. When the grass in certain areas is taller than Grover, it's too high by far. Poor Grover picked up a little slice on the bottom of one of his pads, but he's healing nicely; even if he hates his cone head.
Grover did get to see his first beach and got a stroll in some water. He was NOT impressed.
Otherwise, it's a gem of a park just about 20 minutes away from beaches, and nicely situated just 7 miles away from the Alabama border and only an hour away from Mobile Bay. We booked seven days, with the intent on scouting out some local Alabama and Florida parks first-hand, while enjoying some drive time in the Mini. Largely, we were unsuccessful in finding anything that suited our criteria both east and west of our base camp, but thanks to some fellow Open Roader Facebook friends we have a couple of other potentials to look at (via Google Earth) that just might do.
And why are we now relying on Google Earth to do our research?
Our original reservations had us staying until Wednesday morning – the 16th of September. As the week wore on, Sally's track looked like it was going to hit New Orleans; bringing heavy rain and some tropical force winds to the Pensacola area, but not much else. But then she started wiggling around in the Gulf, and her track kept getting closer to the east instead of the west. We've been in heavy winds and downpours before (although not at the same time), and we knew our 36LA could handle the early forecast for our area, but my Spidey-Sense was tingling on this storm.
Sunday night we disconnected just about everything except power, and went to bed still thinking we could either stay or go the next morning. About 4:30 AM I'm up and glancing at the latest storm track, and it doesn't look very good to this amateur weather guy (I studied meteorology in grade school). Too much rain being forecasted – as much as 20-plus inches – and the northeast quadrant of the storm was uncomfortably close to the tip of the Florida panhandle (remember, we're 7 miles from the Alabama-Florida border). Barbara and I speak briefly, and it's determined that we are going to be slides in and jacks up by 8 AM. We're outta here!
Good call as it turned out . . . As you can see from the news, we dodged a big bullet by leaving two days early.
We headed directly east along I-10 in order to stay away from the effects of the storm. The winds weren't bad – gusts to 30 MPH – and we pass through a couple of tropical rain bands, but we get to Tifton, GA and Wallydock for the night before continuing on to our go-to park in North Georgia, Leisure Acres. Here we'll be picking up our youngest daughter and our grandson Jace for a three-week trip to New England to see family and friends and get our annual seafood and roast beef sandwich fix. This trip will be a bit different than last year when we had Jace; he's older by a year and his mom is around to herd him instead of just us.
That being said, this blog will be on hiatus until after that trip, as my PC time is usually short-lived when Jace wants to hit the keyboard. We'll still do updates on our Parental Parolees Facebook page, so be sure to keep up with us using that media.
Meanwhile, it's time to break out the cold weather gear for Barbara . . . because, well - Barbara.
Our Tiffin experience finished for now, it's time to head back out on the road. While fun and informative, 4 ½ weeks at Camp Red Bay cannot remotely be described as “glamping”.
We need some trees and water surrounding us, so we made a reservation for Gunter Hill COE, just out side of Montgomery, Alabama, a short 3-4 hour ride from Red Bay. Recreation.gov is the way to reserve spots in any Federal campground across America, so we started looking at descriptions of campsites furnished by the folks at Recreation.gov.
Not a good idea.
What looked to be one of the best sites available was site 131 in one of two campgrounds at Gunter Hill. It was listed as being suitable for an 85' motor home, with 50A service and water (no sewer). The campground was listed as “ANTI”, short for Antioch. There is another campground called Catoma, but no sites were available for the time frame we needed, which was over Labor Day. But hey; 85' long site, right?
Come to find out that the site was long enough, but severely sloped down towards the back. We also found out that Antioch was a more “primitive” campground; older, heavily wooded and narrow sites with sandy / gravel bases. And while you can drop a travel trailer or fifth wheel onto a heavily sloped sandy / gravel site, a motor home does not play well in that environment. After placing three 2x8” blocks under each jack, our 36LA was STILL not level. Even adding 2 more 2x12” blocks under each jack got us to where we could level, but by morning the soft sand had shifted enough to make our jacks unstable.
In addition, our heavily wooded site was sitting right under some hickory trees, and the nuts would drop down a hundred or more feet and crash onto our roof, waking us up and scaring poor Grover! One hit so hard it knocked off a ceiling vent cover and sent it crashing to the floor. Antioch is great for tents, travel trailers and fifth wheels, but NOT motor homes!
After a drive through Catoma campground, we contacted the office to get our reservations changed once a suitable site became available on Sunday afternoon.
Catoma is night and day different than Antioch. Every site has a concrete pad, 50A service, and something rare at COE parks – sewer connections on almost every site. The sites are wider, with picnic table, fire pit and lantern stand. And they are ALL level. We didn't see any site there that we could not back our 38' motor home into, and there were more than a dozen pull-thru sites for the really big rigs with trailers. Our new site 22 had a small view of the lake across the street through some trees, but it was a water view nevertheless.
And NO HICKORY TREES!
Met a great couple over at Catoma. We were walking Grover and passed by another Open Road tucked waaaaaaay back in a site that had to be more than 150' long. Quick check on the slides and noticed it was a 36LA like ours (so we knew they had impeccable taste), so we stopped by to say Hi. We had been playing Facebook tag letting each other know where other Tiffin owners were in the park. Beverly and Billy have had their 2019 just a little longer than we have had our 2020, so the usual stories were swapped about differences between each one, and of course modifications, hacks and equipment. Really nice people we hope to see down the road again.
Overall, we're really happy with our stay at Gunter Hill, especially in the Catoma campground. Definitely one to revisit again!
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.