Apr 29, 2009

North to Magnolia Springs State Park

Wednesday, April 29, 2009
near Millen, GA

Because our drive today was planned to be a long one (220 miles... long for us), and because most of the planned route was on two-lane highways that weave through any small town along the way, we got an early start. By 9am, we had the bus running and on it's way to our next stop, Magnolia Springs State Park near Millen, GA.

Leaving the Swamp near Fargo, GA, we headed north to Waycross where we picked up US-1, which we took all the way to Swainsboro. I had to make a difficult right hand turn in downtown Swainsboro... tight roadways, intruding curbs, turning into a single lane between oncoming traffic waiting for the light on the left and parked cars on the right. I couldn't borrow much lane-space from anybody and couldn't avoid climbing a curb with my starboard-side drive-axle tires and, of course, the tires of the toad followed. Ouch! Both Dar and the fresh black tire-scar reminded me later of the wisdom of planning routes through tight commercial districts that minimize right hand turns. Lesson learned.

From Swainsboro it was east on US-80, then northeast on GA-23 to Millen, GA. Just 5 miles north of Millen is Magnolia Springs State Park. Most Georgia State Parks have sites that can accomodate big campers and they're generally well designed and maintained. Since it was the middle of the week didn't make reservations. But it's good we were flexible for the upcoming weekend as they were booked solid and we had to be out Friday. Two nights was about right anyway as there isn't a lot to see in this area anyway.

Magnolia Springs is a small State Park of only about 1,000 acres. It's the site of Camp Lawton, a Confederate POW camp during the Civil War. There's a small lake and a crystal-clear spring that flows at the rate of 9 million gallons per day. The pond near the spring was filled with hundreds of turtles, some quite large, and a bunch of other wildlife. We did spot a couple small alligators too.

We hiked around the park and found some earthworks that are the only remains of Camp Lawton. It was built to relieve crowding and the horrible conditions at Andersonville but was only in operation for less than a year before being abandoned in advance of Sherman as he marched from Atlanta to the ocean.


Apr 28, 2009

Alone in the Okefenokee

Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Stephen Foster State Park (GA)
in the Okefenokee Swamp

Yesterday, Monday, we joined a few other hearty souls on a two hour swamp tour with one of the Rangers here at the State Park. The State of Georgia leases the park grounds, known as Jones Island, from the National Wildlife Refuge which controls and manages the bulk of the Okefenokee. There are only 4 public entrances into the Swamp, the State Park here being one, and the only one on the west side. Since the only good reason to come here has to do with the Swamp, and the only way to really see the Swamp is from a boat, it made a lot of sense to find a boat. This boat, a pontoon boat, conveniently came with a knowledgeable guide who could help us understand what we were seeing and who would have a good chance of getting us back to the dock again.

The west side of the Okefenokee is the more heavily wooded portion. Out in the wet parts of the swamp, Bald Cypress, Pond Cypress, and Black Gum prevail. In the not-so-wet parts and on the islands, Longleaf Pine, Slash Pine, Live Oak, and Sweet Gum seem to do well. Between the islands the Swamp consists of large areas of impenetrable bogs and other areas where the water is deeper forming small lakes that allow travel by boat. There are a series of canoe trails that traverse the Swamp as well, some of which are natural and others that are minimally maintained for recreation purposes.

Our Swamp Tour took us through a lake, a wide spot really, in the channel that becomes the Suwannee River a bit further down stream. We also took a more narrow boat trail northward and deeper into the wilderness areas of the Swamp. The Ranger pointed out various landmarks along the way that aid in knowing your location and direction of travel. We observed and learned about the key plants and animals... the flora and fauna of the Okefenokee Swamp. Alligators are the top of the Swamp food chain, but observation and education make even them less frightful. The other thing I'll always remember is the sound of the Swamp -- there's a lot going on but it's peaceful. At first it sounds like silence but eventually you start to hear the many voices of nature -- birds, frogs, water, wind.

Today, Tuesday, we rented a boat and motor, and continued exploring the Okefenokee Swamp on our own. We debated whether a canoe or a couple kayaks would be a better choice, but we could cover more ground... or, swamp as it were... with the small motorboat. We floated through narrow canoe trails and found the landing for Billy's Island, one of the largest Islands in the Swamp and the site of large logging operations and camps during the early 1900's. There, we found a small cemetery that contained a few graves from that period. We took another canoe trail to the north and found a wooden deck landing built as a rest stop for weary canoers. I lost track of the number of alligators we found along the way. And I'd shut down the motor and just float along at times, taking in the sights and sounds and feelings as one.

When not boating we found a walking trail at the State Park, much of it a boardwalk that extends some distance into dense Swamp. Here, at your leisure, you can walk, observe, photograph, and just soak it all in from another perspective.

Back at tour camp the only animal that gave us any trouble at all was the mosquito. If our visit was any later than it was, say mid-May or so, a deerfly-like bug called a yellow fly that would have joined the mosquito in trying to make exploring miserable. As it was, the mosquitoes were really only troublesome in the evening and it was mostly Dar they were after.

I'll come back again. On the basis of our first visit, I grew to like this really like this place. Spring and Fall are the best times to visit. There's more to do, much more to learn, as we've only scratched the surface of the Okefenokee Swamp.


Apr 27, 2009

The Okefenokee Swamp

Monday, April 27, 2009
Stephen Foster State Park (GA)
in the Okefenokee Swamp

Back a few years, when I was a kid, every once in a while you'd hear something about the Okefenokee Swamp. Usually what you heard left you with the impression that it was big, far away, remote, and something to be feared. There, huge beasts ruled and if someone were foolish enough to venture out into it they had better be prepared for trouble. There were herds of huge alligators, nests of even bigger snakes, big bears, and insects that could, and have, carried off small dogs. A run-in with any of these was surely fatal, or worse. There were moderating influences to our impression of the Okefenokee as well. For example, the kindly characters of the comic strip Pogo lived in the Okefenokee Swamp, and they seemed to like it.

But explorers, especially intrepid explorers, aren't daunted by things like 'gators or snakes or other dangers. No way. The Okefenokee is an important historical part of the America we're on a quest to see. Our Prime Directive requires that we explore places like it. So when we discovered that there's a Georgia State Park out in the middle of the Okefenokee there wasn't much more than brief glance at each other before we knew we had to go there... spend some time there. This is something that must be seen and experienced.

The Swamp is big, about half the size of Rhode Island, over 700 square miles. Many millenia ago the ocean covered this part of what is now Georgia and North Florida. As oceans tend to do, it deposited large sand-bars in various places. When the ocean receded these sand-bars became ridges that formed a kind of bowl that held any water within it. Contrary to what many people think, this "bowl" isn't a low spot in the surrounding geography like many swamps and marshes. No, this "bowl" is elevated above the level of the land around it. No significant streams flow into the Swamp. But two large rivers do flow out -- the Suwanee River (the one made famous by Stephen Foster), which drains most of the Swamp's area and eventually flows into the Gulf of Mexico, and the St. Mary's River which drains the Southeastern corner of the Swamp and flows into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville. The source of almost all the water in the Swamp is the rain that falls into it.

The word "Okefenokee" derives from an Indian word that means "trembling earth", a reference to it's spongy bogs. The bottom of the Swamp consist of thick layers of decomposing plant material. During the long process of decomposition this material becomes what we call peat. Often, in the layers of peat, methane gas given off by the process causes the layers to separate. The gas is lighter than air and can cause the upper portion from this separation to float to the surface. These are called "blow-ups" or "batteries" that can be thought of as small floating islands. After a period of time grasses and other plants take root and the blow-up grows into a bog which becomes more supportive of even larger plants. It's possible to walk on these bogs... each step causing the ground to give as it struggles to support your weight... and thus, trembling. If the bog survives long enough, eventually trees will sprout and the roots will anchor the island to the sandy bottom of the Swamp, immobilizing it and making it a more traditional island... one that stays in one place.

The Okefenokee is a blackwater swamp -- the largest in the USA. The decaying matter that comes from this particular mix of trees and plants is particularly high in tannic acid. During the process of decomposing these tannins stain the water a dark reddish brown, almost black -- thus the term blackwater. Also because of the high tannin content, the water is very acidic (typical ph of 3.5 to 3.7) which influences the mix of plants and animals that can live in this acidy environment. It's a stable ecosystem that has evolved over time to be what it is today.

Despite the term blackwater, the water doesn't look at all dirty or murky or silty. It's clear but just very dark reddish black, like coffee or a dark reddish tea. During the early days of ships crossing the Atlantic this water was collected and barreled, to be used as drinking water during long voyages. This high acid content kept the water "fresh" much longer than other normal water that could quickly become foul and undrinkable.

The Western part of the Okefenokee Swamp, where we were mostly, is more heavily wooded. The Eastern part is largely open prairie wetlands. Fire is an integral part of life in the Okefenokee and life has adapted to regular dry spells and burns of the underbrush. As recently as 2007 more than 75% of the park burned during a prolonged drought. As long as the fire isn't so intense that it gets into the crown of the trees, they'll survive. We saw a large area just outside the State Park that was control-burned just a month ago and observed a large amount of new growth already sprouting under a surviving canopy of tall pines. The floor of the woods was already completely green.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was no shortage of people who saw $$ dollar-signs in all those magnificent trees and rich land if only something could be done to get rid of that dang water. Canals were dug, logging and milling operations established, railroads built, and people brought in to make it all happen. They all eventually failed but not before much of the virgin old-growth cypress and pine trees were cut and turned into roofing shakes and turpentine. The Swamp slowly, surely, swallowed up these operations and they were consumed by the costs of dealing with all the water and the harsh environment. It's tough to fight mother nature.


Apr 25, 2009

Stephen Foster and the Suwannee River

Saturday, April 25, 2009
White Springs, FL

Born in 1826 in Pittsburg, Stephen Foster left a legacy that won't soon be forgotten. His talent was writing songs... hundreds of them over his short 37 year lifespan. Although you probably won't recognize him as the author, his works include: "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"), "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", Beautiful Dreamer", and "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair", and many many others.

Although a lot of his songs have a Southern theme, Foster never lived in the South, and actually only visited once, on a riverboat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans for his honeymoon.

But to honor him and his contribution to music and Southern Folk Culture, the states of Florida and Georgia have both named State Parks in his memory.

Today, we visited the Florida Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, just a couple miles up the road from our campsite at Lee's Country Campground. These grounds are along the Suwannee River, the subject of, arguably his most enduring song, "Old Folks at Home".

During the 1930's, renewed interest in Foster led to civic efforts to develop this property which opened in 1950. There's a museum, a 97 bell carillon -- one of the largest in the world, and dozens of acres of park setting for recreation, picnics, camping, weddings (there were two here during our visit today), and walking trails along the Suwannee River.

The river was high today, the result of heavy spring rains in Southern Georgia and the area of the Okefenokee Swamp, which is it's source and headwaters. The water is stained reddish-black, the result of tannins from the decomposition of plant material further upstream. And we're not talking a slight tint when I say reddish-black. It's deep black with a slight tinge of red around the edges. Not dirty, not silty, not really murky... just black. Very impressive.

Tomorrow, Sunday, we're making a short 60 mile drive to another state park, this one in Georgia, named after the one and only Stephen Foster. The Georgia State Park is on a small island in the middle of the Okefenokee Swamp, the home of big gators, bigger snakes, and a lot of other reasons NOT to go there.

But we're explorers... intrepid explorers... and duty calls.

Due to the remoteness of the Georgia State Park, there's no cellular communication of any kind... no internet, no phone, no nothing. Isn't it something that we have to go to these lengths -- risking our lives by living among large wild animals -- to get a few days of peace from the "web"?

I'm actually looking forward to it.


Apr 22, 2009

Flying Memories

Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Orlando, FL

Between June of 1975 and July of 1976 Dar and I lived in Southwest Orlando -- actually not far from Turkey Lake Park where we're now camped. We had been married for a few years, hadn't had kids yet, and didn't own a house -- kind of foot-loose you could say. I had been working with Duo-Fast Corporation for a few years by that time and, when offered, we eagerly accepted a transfer from Minnesota (brrrr) to sunny Central Florida.

During that time I was flying, a skill I learned while living in Minnesota in 1974. After moving to Orlando I searched the area for the right airport I could call home, at least for my purpose of stretching my wings, as it were, and feeding my interest in aviation.

The general aviation airport of the Orlando area was Orlando Executive/Hernden Field as I remember it was called then. A few times I did fly out of Hernden but didn't like it. With it's control tower, shared airspace with Orlando International, and bustling activity, it was like driving through downtown Chicago when all I wanted was to take a quiet peaceful drive in the country. No, Hernden Field wouldn't do. So the search for a quieter airport out in the country went on.

One day I found a small grass strip on the rural western edge of the Orlando area called Maguire Airport. It was a very small operation with a few "tie-downs" they rented to local airplane owners, a maintenance hanger, and an office. They had 3 or 4 planes that they rented to students and people like me who already had a license and just wanted to fly once in a while. Compared to the 5000' long asphalt runway at my home base in Minnesota, Maguire's 2500' grass strip would be a big change. But during training I learned to like grass landing strips -- they're very forgiving compared to hard asphalt.

During the short time we lived there I probably only used Maguire Airport 6 or 8 times. But I loved the place. I spent a little time talking with owner Harold Maguire and enjoyed hearing how the airport just evolved over time from an orange grove to a pasture to an airstrip.

After Dar and I moved back to Wisconsin I didn't think much about little Maguire Airport. I had a growing family by then and my interests grew in other directions. It was another phase in my life.

This week, as I thought about the Orlando area, how much it's changed, how little I recognize in some places, I thought about my days at Maguire Airport. Searching maps I could neither find it nor remember exactly where it was relative to roads or other landmarks. Then I "googled" it and found a website about abandoned and little-know airfields. (Isn't the internet an amazing thing?) (I mean... it REALLY is!)

Here's a picture from about the time I was using Maguire Airport. Notice the orange groves all around...

And here's a straight-down picture from 2002...

If you click on the picture you'll see a larger version. In the first picture you can see that the airfield is close to the intersection of two roads. That same intersection is also on the second photo, down near the bottom left corner. Take note of all the development in the area, too. There's not a hint of "rural" left.

If you look carefully on the new picture, just below the parking lot in the center, there's an undeveloped area full of grass, brush, and trees. If you look carefully the foundations of the old maintenance shop and the smaller office are still visible, at least they were in 2002, the date the picture was taken. The grass runway ran right near where the parking lot and the stores meet.

I also checked out the area on Google Maps thinking it should have a more recent photo. Sure enough, now the shopping center and parking lot expansions have eliminated these last remaining signs of Maguire Airport.

They can take away my airport but they can't take away my memories.


Apr 20, 2009

Orlando Days

Monday, April 20, 2009
Orlando, FL

In case you're wondering, I haven't visited any of the attractions here in Central Florida. And there are no plans to do so. When our two kids were growing up we made a number of excursions here specifically to see Disneyworld and some of the other theme attractions in the area. Those were great trips full of wonderful memories of small kids taking in all the amazing sights, rides, and fantasy; and watching the big smiles on their little faces. It was the right thing to do at that time.

There were one or two little incidents that don't exactly fall under the category of fond memories however. Why, I still wake up in a cold sweat when I have flash-backs (a form of post traumatic stress syndrome, I've learned) of the time our "boat" got stuck inside "It's a Small World" for nearly half an hour. Once extricated it took three days, some medication, and equal measures of oxygen and scotch to get that song out of my head. (Even writing about it is hard... it's... that... SONG... don't think about it... think pleasant thoughts... happy thoughts...) If we really wanted to make those Al Qaeda boys at Guantanamo talk we'd load em on a plane to Orlando, put em in the Small World exhibit, and close the doors. They'd be clawing at the locks pleading to tell us anything... everything... before you could finish your first small cup of five dollar Disney coffee. And some people want to call water-boarding torture!

I'm glad we found Turkey Lake Park and made the decision to stay here while Dar's at her nursing conference. It turns out to be the closest RV park or campground to the convention center -- only about 8 miles and about 20 minutes in the normally frantic and always exciting Orlando traffic. I'd be even happier if Dar would just take the car but, like most things in tourist spots like Orlando, it costs two arms and a leg to do almost anything. Parking at the convention center is reported to be $11 per day... and if you happen to leave the parking lot for a few minutes, say in order to run over to an ATM for even more money, they'll charge you another $11 when you come back to claim your parking space you've already paid for.

Not only is Turkey Lake Park the closest place we could have camped, it's probably the most ideal place for us. Even though there are concrete pads and asphalt roads, it's laid out more like a campground than an RV park. That's the way we like it. Plenty of trees for shade, wide spacing for privacy, and a nearby lake. As long as you don't leave the park it feels like you could be a hundred miles away in the forests of Northern Florida. And the price is right too... less than those two parking fees at the convention center. There were some commercial RV parks down near Disney and Kissimmee that wanted more than $50/night. Yes, we've clearly come to the right place.

We're here until Friday, when we pull up jacks and point the bus-house north again. We've been doing so much shoreline travel since leaving Texas I'm thinking a more inland route might be good for a while. Among the places I'd like to see next is the Okefenokee Swamp, straddling the border of Florida and Georgia. It's one of the largest, if not the largest blackwater swamp in the USA. A small point of interest: the characters of the comic strip Pogo, long since gone, made their home in the Okefenokee Swamp.


Apr 16, 2009

A Hitch Switch

Thursday, April 16, 2009
Orlando, FL

Yesterday we pulled up jacks at Ho-Hum RV Park and continued the trek eastward. It was a 200 mile drive along quiet desolate coastline, boggy wetlands, pine forest, and hilly horse-country. We followed US-98 to US-19 at Perry, then through Fanning Springs, and Chiefland where we picked up US-27 for the ride into Ocala, FL.

A couple months ago I became aware that the trailer hitch and receiver on the bus-house was the subject of a recall. Apparently, the company that made it screwed up, didn't make some parts to spec, and when it all came to light, went out of business, leaving Spartan Motors (the manufacturer of the bus-house chassis) holding the bag. About 1000 hitches on motorhomes all over the country had to be replaced. I reckon that costs a few bucks.

Over the past week or so I've been researching a good service shop to make the change and coordinating the part, and us, being somewhere at the same time to get the job done. Well, it all came together in Ocala at Cummins Power South. They specialize in motorhome repair and service and had a good reputation from what I could gather from various sources on the internet. And they even have a 10 space RV parking area complete with 50amp power and fresh water at each site. They offer this as a no-charge convenience to their customers and we were glad to take advantage of it.

This morning the "hitch switch" was completed... without a hitch (meaning no-problems). We had a bit more time so I asked them to change the oil and filter in our generator too. Even with that we were done and out of there before noon.

Then it was only about 80 miles down I-75 and the Florida Turnpike to our campsite in the Orlando area. We're staying at Turkey Lake Park near the junction of the Turnpike and I-4, and only a few miles from the venue for Dar's conference.

Let's see, while Dar's at the conference should I do Disney World?.. Universal Studios?.. SeaWorld?... the Space Coast?... the celebrity wax museum? Hmmm.


Apr 14, 2009

A Capitol Disappointment

Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Carrabelle, FL

Since we're within about an hour or so of Tallahassee when we're at Ho-Hum RV Park in Carrabelle, we decided to make the drive and knock another State Capitol Building off our list. We did a little research before going and discovered the Old State Capitol is at the same location as the New State Capitol. Very convenient.

From a distance the grounds look like an office complex with an older ornate building plopped down in the middle of it all. That older building is the Old State Capitol and it dates from the 1840's, although it's been added onto and changed numerous times over the years. The surpising thing is that this historic building served as the State Capitol for well over 100 years, until the middle 1970's when the New State Capitol was built.

We toured the Old State Capitol first.

After the New State Capitol was completed in the mid 70's, there were plans to raze the old structure and create a courtyard for the new building. But some who felt strongly about preservation, like the then Secretary of State, refused to move out of the old building until they had assurances it would be preserved. Eventually, the preservationists won.

The Old State Capitol building has been accurately restored to the way it was in 1902. It's a handsome old thing that's not overly impressive in any single way, but taken altogether -- the design, architecture, restored or recreated furnishings, historic displays -- it tells a story of a struggling young State dealing with the difficulties of weather, spotty agriculture, slavery, civil war, and finding it's place in the Union of States. We spent a couple hours here and came away with new knowledge and a new understanding of Florida's roots.

Then we walked over to the New State Capitol, a complex of three interconnected modern buildings -- one of them a 22 story high-rise, built in a style called "New Classicism". I couldn't believe it. We've been to a number of the grand ornate Capitols of many other states, rich in art and symbolism, designed to impress, to tell the story of how the State was founded, to create a feeling of majesty and the power of the people. But this thing, the New Capitol, is just a pedestrian office building.

After going through security and gaining access to the main lobby, we found the information desk to ask what we should make sure to see... whether there were tours or at least a self-guided walking tour. Certainly there are some hidden gems in here somewhere. The gentleman that helped us was apologetic. He said "there's really not much to see here... it's just an office building... it's what the Governor (in the 70's) wanted." There is an enclosed observation deck on the 22nd level. And then there's the lobby with, well, a large version of the State Seal. You could get a glimpse of the House Chamber, through some windows, but the Senate Chambers were being used and behind additional security. It was a real disappointment. The good people of Florida deserve much more than this.

Our visit to the State Capitol of Florida is our 7th of the 50 States. With some planning, I think we'll have a chance to knock off a couple more before summer.


Apr 13, 2009

Florida's Forgotten Coast

Monday, April 13, 2009
Carrabelle, FL

The Gulf Coast that lines the "bump" or "horn" on the panhandle of Florida has been termed Florida's Forgotten Coast. Why?

The beaches aren't as spectacular as those near Destin or Ft. Walton Beach or Panama City. The area is out-of-the-way and harder to get to... the nearest Interstate Highway is 50 miles to the North and the nearest airport with commercial service is about that far off too. Despite numerous attempts, big-time development just hasn't happened here, much to the chagrin of those who've invested in it. Shopping can be a project -- there's not even a Walmart anywhere nearby. It's slow. It's sleepy. It's very laid back. There's no pretense, no bling, no fa-lala-lala. It's cool!

The past two days we've gone off exploring the area around Carrabelle.

During WWII, the Army hastily put together a training camp on 155,000 acres, right here and surrounding the area where Ho-Hum RV Park is. If you look hard enough there's evidence of it that still exists more than 65 years later. We found a small museum in Carrabelle that's dedicated to keeping the memory of that camp alive. The facility's official name was Camp Gordon Johnston and it only existed for 4 years between 1942 and 1946. But during that short time more than a quarter million soldiers were trained here... mostly in the tactics and the use of equipment for amphibious assault. These skills were invaluable during the D-Day landings in France as well as the island-hopping operations against the Japanese in the Pacific. Apparently the camp was a miserable place and became known among the trainees, unofficially, as "Hell by the Sea". But they endured and went on to do what they had to do. And they did it well.

How could I not say something about The World's Smallest Police Station? I know, I know... right here in Carrabelle... it's almost too much to believe. But these are the kind of small town gems that we love to collect. You could go looking for that perfect sea shell by walking along the low-tide line; or you could get all apoplectic over your first siting of a Yellow-Breasted Crown-Crested Bunt Sucking Nuthatch. But not us -- no way. We love natural history. We love finding and then celebrating the quirky nature of people, their imaginations and the creations they produce. It's really what we all are if we'd just lighten-up and let our hair down long enough to realize it.

We also visited a couple Florida State Parks -- this area is full of parks, both State and National. Large areas set aside and protected from development, they're invaluable in understanding the natural state of affairs of a given area. They're often islands of solitude and peacefulness that can also renew the weary soul.

Monday afternoon the rain started and it came out of the sky in torrents. It's still pouring as I write this about 10pm. After our wet experience in Alabama, and now this, I'm thinking we have a new business opportunity staring us in the face -- Drought Busters! These torrential downpours, inches of rain per hour, local flooding, have, on and off, followed us since leaving Texas. Today, believe it or not, we heard much of Central Florida is in severe drought. Well, here we come! I'm sure our presence in the area for the upcoming week or more will take care of that little problem.


Apr 11, 2009

A Work Day

Saturday, April 11, 2009
Carrabelle, FL

There have been a number of projects, little tasks really, that have been giving both of us gas... and I mean full-fledged heartburn natural-methane flatulent GAS. These little administrative and paper-work things have been dogging us, following us around, waking us up at night, and biting down on our meaty-parts anytime we thought we'd procrastinated the dang things away. NO WAY! "You're not going to forget about me... oh no... Not that easy!"

When we woke to clouds and a wet-rainy-feeling morning it seemed like a great day to get these jobs done... finished... acompli... outa-here. So we did. We're both paying bills, following up on insurance questionnaires, entering expenses into our budget tracker, updating this and that, applying for this and that, and on and on... until we looked up, about 2pm, and saw the sun was out. It was a beautiful day. There was very little wind. It was warm. People were milling around... wondering why there's no evidence of life around the Newmar motorhome we call the Bus-House.

So there won't be much of a blog entry today. We did eventually get out, walk around, talk to neighbors and re-assure them that we're still alive. And my fingers are tired from "key-punching" all day long. We got a lot done, but it'll be early to bed tonight.


Apr 9, 2009

The Gulf Beaches of Florida

Thursday, April 9, 2009
Mexico Beach, FL

Today, after 20 days... after Dar's bout with walking pneumonia... after who-knows how much rain (certainly more than 12 inches), we vacated site number 13 at Escapee's Rainbow Plantation and resumed our trek eastward. Despite the challenges encountered, we really enjoyed the Escapee's park and will certainly stop back there the next time we're in the area. In my limited experience, it's one of the nicer Escapee's parks we've been to.

But it was time to go. And the weather was a bit of a factor in our decision. Today was going to be nice but starting tomorrow Northern Florida is looking to be more unsettled, rainier, windier, cloudier, etc. So we decided to strike out today and get some miles behind us to make tomorrows drive easier. We have a reservation near Carrabelle for the weekend and after today's drive we're only about 70 miles away. That'll make tomorrow a much easier day -- even if it does rain.

Today we followed US98 which is the closest main road to the beach all along this part of the Gulf Coast. We went through Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Destin, and Panama City and many, many more small towns along the way. The beaches here are known for their white sand -- and when I say white, I mean stark, startling, bleached-out, no-mistaking-it... white! If you didn't know better a Northern boy like me would swear it's snow. Just gorgeous wonderful wide white beaches.

Of course, it's those gorgeous wonderful wide white beaches that bring all the people here. During our route today there were certainly more miles that are developed than miles that are natural. Once in a while we had a few miles to enjoy natural views of sand and surf, but there were many more miles and much more time of sitting at stop & go lights, waiting, and keeping a defensive eye on 6 busy lanes of heavy traffic -- which while bad enough wouldn't have been so bad if we could have enjoyed views of the coastline and the Gulf, you know... right over there. But that wouldn't be possible for all the condos, hotels, parking garages, and gift & trinket shops that have clogged up the beach.

For most of the last almost 2 years, since we've been fulltiming, we've spent most of our time exploring the area west of the Appalachian Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There was one foray into the east but much of that time we stayed with friends and family. If this trip into Florida is any indication of what RV Park prices are like in the east I think we'll be heading back to the Midwest and West as soon as possible. Our most expensive night last year, all year, was about $32 and the average paid night was less than $20. In Florida it's common for "nothin' special" RV Parks to ask $50 or more per night. Considering there's so much to see in the rest of the country why would we want to subject ourselves to these prices and all the hassles that come from the crowds and congestion in the future?

Even though I take issue with things from time to time, we really are having the time of our lives. Both the good and the not-so-good are all part of the experience, the product of our explorations. For the foreseeable future I wouldn't want our lifestyle nor our mode of living to change one bit.


Apr 7, 2009

The Navy's Blue Angels

Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Summerdale, AL

Yesterday, Monday, while exploring the Naval Aviation Museum over at the Pensacola Naval Air Station we discovered that the Blue Angels would be practicing Tuesday morning, this morning, precisely at 8:30am at the airfield right behind the Museum. Those fly-boys and fly-girls sure do get up early in the morning, don't they?

So Dar set two alarms and we were up at 6am in order to leave by 7am so we could be there by 8am. She was a determined girl and she was going to see this with me or without me. And one way or another, somehow, we got there just a few minutes after 8am, but well before start time.

Behind the Museum and it's airplane restoration hangers are bleachers just a few hundred feet from the main runway. This being spring break week for the public schools in this part of Florida the stands were full of families with kids. Dar and I found a place to stand within a few feet of the front of the cordoned off area -- off to one side. I've always preferred standing during air shows as I'm usually turning and spinning my head looking this way and that, taking in the whole scene. We had two cameras ready for action -- our Canon SLR with our "big" 300mm zoom telephoto lens attached, and our little pocket Nikon that's good for wide-angle shots and movie clips.

From Blue Angels Practice

Right at 8:30am the team thundered into the skies, making tell-tail smoke as they climbed for altitude with full afterburners ablaze. For the next 45 minutes we watched with cameras clicking like crazy. First Dar, then I, learned how difficult it is to take pics of something moving 400mph just a few hundred feet away -- especially with a telephoto lens. I had the best luck by turning off the auto-focus and manually adjusting both focus and zoom, cranking up the shutter speed, pulling the "trigger" and letting the camera take as many pictures as it could while I kinda' pointed it at the blue streaks flying by. By the end of the practice session, the two memory cards held hundreds of pics... even after discarding the clearly bad ones we ended up with a bit more than 100 keepers.

From Blue Angels Practice

From Blue Angels Practice

From Blue Angels Practice

More photos are available in our online photo gallery, complete with Dar's commentary.

We've seen the Blue Angels many times in the past. We've also seen the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Canadian Snow Birds. They all do similar shows demonstrating the best of precision flight by the finest pilots in the world. But seeing them practicing at their home field was an experience we'll always remember.

Click on the Blue Angels Schedule for 2009. You might be able to see them someplace nearby this summer. It's a thoroughly enjoyable show.


Apr 6, 2009

Pensacola Naval Air Museum

Monday, April 06, 2009
Summerdale, AL

What happened to our warm Spring? About 4am this morning I was awakened by gale force winds blowing through my little open window right next to my sleeping head... and it was cold. A cold front was obviously making its entrance and letting everyone know winter isn't quite over yet. There are freeze watches up for the next two nights and it could get down to 30f or so. I checked the forecast for Beaver Dam, our hometown in Wisconsin, and the predicted low tomorrow morning is 25f. So the difference between the two is more than 1,000 miles and just 5 degrees. Hmmm.

We got a call from our daughter Andrea this afternoon making sure we knew the Northwest was having a breakout of summer weather. It was well into the 70's there, under bright skies, and she, Ryan, and Evan were having lunch out on the patio. I think she wanted us to know what we were missing. Thanks Andi.

After my usual coffee and internet time this morning we headed off to the Naval Air Museum at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Pensacola NAS is also the home of the Navy's Blue Angels, those precision flying aces that willingly perform death-defying stunts with very powerful airplanes at air shows all across the USA.

The hour drive went quickly and before you could say "Apalachicola" we were pulling into a very busy, nearly full very large parking lot. Ohh-oh -- Spring break for the little tikes. That s'plains all the kiddies and their Moms and Dads all over the place. Ah-haa! Not having to deal with crowds much anymore I started hyper-ventilating. Dar brought me around with logic -- imagine that?

She said, "Look, this is a big place and most of the displays, the planes, are bigger than kids and they're often hung from the ceiling... kid's aren't up on the ceiling... and you're taller than most kids anyway... so you'll see everything you want to see."

OK. How do I fight logic? Let's go.

From Naval Aviation Museum

Admission is free. The facility includes an IMAX Theater, the ubiquitous gift shop, and the Cubi Bar Cafe which are the only three places you can spend your money in the place by my count. All the exhibits and the guided flight line tour are absolutely free. And the exhibits are phenomenal! This is one of the best air museums I've seen... but remember that I'm a real sucker for old flying hardware.

From Naval Aviation Museum

There's a nice time period balance to the exhibits -- there's no over-emphasis on any particular time period over another. From the earliest attempts to use those newfangled aeroplanes for Naval purposes, through WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, on up and through the Gulf Wars -- there are educational exhibits and hardware examples of the key elements of each period. I could have spent a couple days there.

One thing I noticed during our guided flightline tour was the number of Blue Angel aircraft sitting here and there, oh, maybe 3 or 4 of them. Most of them were the latest version the group uses... the FA18, so why are they sitting on the museum grounds? Well, here's the story.

Those spit-polished, shining, bright blue airplanes we see at airshows all across the USA are NOT brand new airplanes right from the factory. No Sir! The new planes go to the people that need them the most... those in active service in defense of our country... those Naval aviators on an aircraft carrier someplace on the other side of the planet. Once an older plane in active service is deemed no longer combat ready, it's evaluated by the Blue Angels experts. When they can slip a better plane into the show -- one that's in better shape than the one they're currently using -- they make the switch and the old plane goes to the museum until final disposition can be determined. Often final disposition means it'll end up on a post in front of an airport somewhere. Better, I guess, than being cut up and recycled into beer cans.

From Naval Aviation Museum

Another plane of note is the exact plane George W. Bush used to land on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in 2003. It's an S-3B Viking that still had the President's name printed under the cockpit window. They refer to it as "Navy One" and it's the first and only plane to ever carry a sitting President aboard an aircraft carrier with a tail-hook landing. Mission Accomplished!

We also enjoyed the Cubi Bar Cafe which not only serves food but is an exhibit unto itself. From the 1950's until 1992 the NAS Cubi Point Officers Club in the Philippines was a famous hangout for Naval flight crews and support staff coming or going to service in the Western Pacific. When it was shut down in 1992 much of the decor and ambiance was transferred here and survives today as the Cubi Bar Cafe in the museum. There are hundreds of plaques, each celebrating a particular Naval unit that passed through NAS Cubi Point, hanging from every wall, post, and ceiling. It's impressive and provides an insight into the team spirit that these guys felt for each other. To read more visit the Cubi Bar Cafe website.

And here's a link to the Naval Museum's website if you'd like to learn more.


Apr 5, 2009

A New Blogger

Sunday, April 5, 2009
Summerdale, AL

We went nowhere today. The toad rested... is stone cold from the lack of travel. What I did do was transition The RV Sabbatical Blog over to a new bogging software provider... Blogger. I was having problems with the previous supplier -- Yahoo! -- and decided to make the switch now rather than wait for serious problems to crop up later.

The new blog is still called The RV Sabbatical Journal, and it's still available from the links/menus on www.tdhoch.com, our website front page. Most of our readers will notice nothing except for a new look. Only those who created a link or set up a shortcut directly to the old blog will have to change the address that link or shortcut points to. For you guys, the address of the new blog is tdhoch.blogspot.com.

I moved over all posts from this year, 2009. But all posts from previous years are NOT available on the new blog. I've got them, in a big PDF file, but they won't be available, ever, on the new platform. For a while longer the old blog, and all the old posts, will still be available at the old address, but I don't know how long that will last. Dar's trying to talk me into putting a link to those old things on our front page. I'll see if I get around to it.

Tomorrow we're planning on driving over to the Pensacola Naval Air Station and visiting the Naval Air Museum. Then, we hope to get back early, and prepare for moving from Summerdale to points east on Tuesday.


Apr 4, 2009

Lunch on Mobile Bay

Saturday, April 04, 2009
Summerdale, AL

Our time here at the Escapee's Rainbow Plantation RV Park is growing short. With that in mind we thought we'd venture out and try to find lunch at a restaurant on Mobile Bay, that big body of water just 8 miles west of us. We didn't have anything particular in mind, just to wander, explore, and hope we happen upon the right place.

And we did... at the Fairhope, AL. municipal pier, a gathering place for locals and tourists since the 1920's. About half way out this historic and storied public pier is the Yardarm Restaurant, a somewhat "pricey" place but with the clear advantage to us of being right on the water.
From Fairhope, AL

We choose to dine alfresco and thoroughly enjoyed the views of birds and boats while we ate and soaked in the day. The bay waters were particularly brown, even muddy, the apparent result of all the rain we've had recently. But the skies were mostly clear and we could see the buildings of downtown Mobile about 15 miles across the bay.

After lunch we drove south along the beach road, past Point Clear, and down to Weeks Bay on Hwy Alt98. At Weeks Bay we stopped at the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Administered by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it's goal is to establish and manage a national system of reserves representing the different coastal regions and estuarine types that exist in the USA. Now that sounds like big government at work, doesn't it?

An estuary is a semi-enclosed body of water where fresh water from rivers mixes with salt water from oceans. It's in these places that vigorous interactions among land, sea, fresh water, and air take place. They're among the most productive environments on earth and great places to study life and the effects of mankind on our ecosystems. There are a bunch of exhibits in the main visitor center to see and numerous self-guided nature trails to take. One of the highlights of the visit is seeing Pitcher Plant Bog. It's one of the last surviving bogs that are home to an unusual plant called the Pitcher Plant. The Pitcher Plant has tubular leaves that are death traps to insects and other small creatures. Inside these hollow tubes are stiff hairs which point downward. These hairs, called cilia, make it easy for insects to crawl down into the tube, but difficult to crawl back up and out again. Insects eventually die and fall into a pool of liquid at the bottom of the tubes which contains enzymes that digest the insects and allow the plant to absorb minerals and nutrients from their decomposed prey. These plants eat meat!
From Fairhope, AL

After that shocking discovery we headed home to a light dinner and to work on the website and photo collection.


Apr 3, 2009

Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan

Friday, April 03, 2009
Summerdale, AL

No excuses! Both of us are feeling fine. The sun is out, temperatures are mild, winds moderate. It's time to go exploring!

So we loaded up the toad and took off for Gulf Shores. Gulf Shores, AL. that is. This is the town that sits in the middle of one of the premier beaches along the northern Gulf Coast. Over 20 linear miles of wide white sand and usually warm water... when someone mentions "idylic white-sand beach" this is the mental picture that springs to mind.

The good news is the beach is still there. The bad news is that much of it near Gulf Shores is hidden behind private condominiums and beach houses. Apparently, this is just another version of pay-per-view. We drove mile after mile along Hwy 182, the closest road to the beach and only occasionally caught a glimpse of the white sand and water. It seems developers have gone wild and local politicians have let them sell off the beach, lot by lot.

From Gulf Shores & Fort Morgan

Right or wrong, it's my opinion that the beach, the shoreline, and clear access to it should belong to the public. In contrast to what we saw here, the beach in the Gulfport -- Biloxi Mississippi area, about 80 miles west of here, is wide open for 20 miles or more, with almost no structures between the beach road and the shoreline, with public access and large public parking areas at regular intervals. Other forward thinking cities in the USA do this too... Fort Lauderdale, FL comes to mind. What happened to Gulf Shores? And who's going to bail out these beach dwellers when the next Cat 5 hurricane come blowing ashore? Huh? I'll bet we all know the answer to that one.

I can't even imagine how crowded and congested this place is in the summer when all those condo owners and their families bring everyone they know to the beach. Even though it wasn't busy at all when we were there (early April), it has a "tourist trap" feel to it. One can almost visualize the traffic gridlock and throngs of people in line to buy beer, visors, and sun screen... to rent scooters, wave runners, and beach umbrellas. The other thing we both noted was the number of "For Rent" signs that are lined up in front of literally every building and house. I don't know what the current economic crisis has to do with it but the shear number of "For Rent" signs telegraphed a sense of desperation... on someone's part. I mean it's well into April and literally every place had a "For Rent" sign in front of it? What does that mean?

After our tour of Gulf Shores we headed west on Hwy 180 along the Fort Morgan Peninsula -- out to where it ends at the mouth to Mobile Bay. At the very end -- and I mean at the point where I could throw a stone into the main channel of the bay -- is Historic Fort Morgan. Built in the 1830's as a means of protecting and securing the entrance to Mobile Bay, it was active, on and off again, for over 100 years. The most notable action that took place there was during the Civil War when Confederate Forces had control of the fort and the Union undertook action to regain control of the Bay. In August of 1864, Union Admiral D. G. Farragut and the forces under his control were successful in breaking through the South's defenses and sailed into Mobile Bay. It was during this action that some accounts have Farragut saying that famous line: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."

From Gulf Shores & Fort Morgan

The fort has been described by some as one of the finest examples of military architecture in the New World. The basic structure is a 5 sided pointed star that provides the ability to self protect itself from siege and land assault. But within just a few years of it's construction advances in weaponry and high-explosives made brick fortresses like this obsolete. During the 175 years since it was completed it was actually manned by the U.S. Military for less than 50 of those years... primarily during crises like the Civil War (by the South), the Spanish-American War, WWI (as a training base), and again, briefly, during WWII. In 1946 it was completely decommissioned and turned over to the State of Alabama. Our visit here was educational and enjoyable.

We eventually found a piece of beach where we could relax for a while, near the Fort about 18 miles west of Gulf Shores... where we could take a walk at the waterline, and enjoy the unspoiled surroundings around us. The Northern Gulf can be a wonderful place to kick back and enjoy nature. But you might have to search for it.


Apr 2, 2009

A Wet Week

Thursday, April 02, 2009
Summerdale, AL

Well, it's been a wet week here in "L.A." -- "Lower Alabama" as the locals call it with a smirk on their face. March is normally a wet month for this part of the country and this year we just happened to be here for one of the really exceptional ones. The weather service has the past week's rainfall total for this area in the 10 to 15 inch range, a good portion of which fell just last Friday night. Average precipitation for the entire month of March is usually about 7 inches.

We're in a pattern of one nice day followed by a couple three rainy ones. It's easy to complain but I've found myself learning to live with it. Other than head on down the road to somewhere else which may not be any better, there's not much I can do about it anyway. So if I can't be outside exploring or soaking up sunshine I'll find a comfortable place, a warm drink, and a good book to keep me occupied. It's a state of mind.

All the down time has given me an opportunity to get our taxes done and filed, as well as some other nagging bookwork chores that I've been seriously procrastinating about. By the time we leave here I should be pretty much caught up on that sort of thing. Of course, Dar still has a bunch of photo albums to arrange and upload. Let's cut her a break considering what she's been through the past couple weeks.

Speaking of Dar, she's almost back to 100%. But now my allergies are giving me fits again. It seems if my day starts out with sniffles and sneezes, it get's progressively worse during the day and, often, by mid-afternoon, I can be a basket-case and the poster-boy for Zyrtec ads. On the other hand, if I can freely breathe and have no symptoms when I awake I'll be fine all day. One day one extreme, the next day the other. Go figure.

Yesterday we had lunch with Kay & Doug Brue, friends off ours from our stay at Sandollar a year ago during the Christmas Holidays. They are really intrepid explorers having live for 6 years on a sailboat and some years since then in RV's. They're full of stories and have a wealth of knowledge about the wandering lifestyle. We thoroughly enjoy the time we spend with them.

From Lambert's Cafe

In the next day or two, if the weather cooperates, we're going to explore the Gulf Shores area and the peninsula west of there, out to Fort Morgan. There are some wonderful beaches out that way and it'd be great to get a little sun and fun, not to mention maybe a picnic?, at the beach.

Before we leave here Monday or Tuesday, I'd like to also visit the National Naval Aviation Museum at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. [http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/Home.aspx] Being a real aviation buff I find it hard to pass by collections of old airplanes, especially one as good as this.


Apr 1, 2009

Dar Returns

Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Summerdale, AL

As difficult as it was to get Dar out of Pensacola and safely into Madison last Tuesday and Wednesday, when I looked at the forecast yesterday morning it appeared that we'd have more of the same problems getting her home. There was rain expected in Wisconsin and there were, once again, predictions of heavy thunderstorms for Pensacola and she had a tight connection in Dallas. But all you can do is go with the flow. When the plane leaves you'll leave. When it shows up, you'll show up too. Relax. Chill.

This has been quite a weather spell here in Lower Alabama with rain and storms most days. In Texas, the entire time we were there this year, there were daily concerns about wildfires. It was so dry and usually so windy that if a fire got going it wouldn't stop until it got to Louisiana. But here, lately, I'm not at all concerned about wildfires.

Dar's flight was due into Pensacola at 4:40pm. I confirmed she was in the air before heading to the airport and, by a little after 5pm, she was in the car and we were on our way back to the Bus-House. The air transportation system in the USA, and worldwide, is an amazing thing we often take for granted and criticize harshly. But it moves a tremendous number of people from here to there in safety and general reliability. A real modern marvel.

It's good to have my exploring partner back again... and in much better shape than she left.


Beyond Branson; Pondering Future Travel

This past Tuesday, we moved from Branson to a very nice Corps of Engineer’s Park on Wappapello Lake.  We’re in the Redman Creek CG. This fac...