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December 31, 2006

Happy New Year! Airstream Life now just $16!

Today has been exactly as the weather gurus predicted: gray, wet, upper 60s. And it's one of those endless Sundays in which you've realized you've taken all the baths you can usefully take in one day, and you reach that "long dark tea-time of the soul," as Douglas Adams put it in his Hitchhiker's Guide series.

When it rains like this, we usually get out and do something, and if we've got no real errands to do, we go walk the local mall. Ho hum ... but at least we got out. It was a pleasant day, if a little on the dull side.

This evening our programmer and I pulled the trigger on The Big News. After months of planning and worrying and hair-pulling, we have finally taken the plunge and cut the price of Airstream Life magazine by half. More info. This evening we've been working feverishly to make sure the transition came off without a hitch.

It's a big leap of faith. Will the price decrease attract enough new subscribers to make up the difference? Will we get enough new advertisers to make up the difference? Will our renewal rates go up? I think so, but nobody really knows.

I want to thank my trusted advisors (you know who you are) that have helped make this decision and who have been supportive through the business tribulations of this past year. I also want to thank those of you who have subscribed to Airstream Life in the past years and made it possible for me to be at this point of tearing my hair out! ;-) No, really, thanks for your support and let's look forward to a great new year of Airstream Life magazine at half the price.

If you're a current subscriber and wondering what this new price means to you, click here.

Henderson BSP new years.jpg

Since everything seems to be working OK on the website, tonight we are going to relax with a movie and popcorn in the Airstream. I hope you have a nice night too. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

December 30, 2006

New photos

A quick update: I've uploaded three new photosets to the Flickr album -- click the link in the left column that says "Pictures" to see them.

We're now set up in Henderson Beach State Park, and what a lovely spot it is. Tomorrow we are expecting rain but as soon as the weather permits I'll take some photos of the boardwalks, dunes, beaches, etc.

Henderson Beach State Park, Destin, FL

We've parked in the day use area of Henderson Beach State Park while we wait for our campsite to open up. It's actually so nice here next to the roaring surf that we wouldn't mind just boondocking here for a few days if we could.

Henderson BSP day camp.jpg

It's sort of a New England beach day, with overcast skies, a bit of fog, temperatures in the upper 60s, and a breeze. It may not sound ideal but it's really nice. The white sand and sea oats are gorgeous, and we've opened every window on the Airstream to let the salt breeze blow through. Eleanor is relaxing with a book, Emma is drawing, and I'm just poking around ... it's a nice way to spend Saturday.

Henderson BSP beach.jpg

We'll be here all week, doing some exploring along the beach and in Destin. I'm curious about the telescope right next to us. Perhaps some local organization opens it up for public viewing? I'll check it out and see if we can get inside.

Some friends are coming here to join us in the next few days, so we'll do a little "pre-rally" stuff. At the end of the week we'll migrate over to nearby Topsail Hill State Park for an Airstream rally. Anyone who is coming to the rally a little early, consider dropping in and visiting with us!

Henderson BSP sign.jpg

December 29, 2006

The Initiation Ceremony

Well, I was going to reveal the secrets of the Dixie Campers but now I can't because we've all been initiated into the secret brotherhood -- or cult, I'm not sure which. After I posted last night's blog and we all ate Eleanor's fabulous pies, all the newbies in the crowd were summoned to the Official Altar and given ceremonial Dixie Camper t-shirts, nose glasses, and communion.

Ft Morgan pies.jpg
Key Lime pie and Chocolate-Hazelnut Tart by Eleanor

Ft Morgan initiation.jpg
The Initiation Ceremony

I forgot to mention that the Dixie Campers were born out of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Three of the "founding members" were driven out of their homes by the hurricane and moved into motorhomes or trailers for temporary housing. Vinnie already had a pair of Airstreams, but he inspired two friends to get motorhomes, and now they all travel together. Two of them are still full-timing in their rigs today, making the best out of a bad situation. It's a "silver lining" story.

Ft Morgan Emma noseglasses.jpg

We hung around most of the day today, but had to get going by mid-afternoon. We'll definitely see this crew when we pass through the south next time.

Now we are parked overnight in Ft Walton Beach, and in the morning we will set up at Henderson State Park for a week.

Maintenance note: Pretty soon I need to get the trusty Nikon D70 serviced. It has seen heavy use over the past two years and is overdue for cleaning. Last week it fell into the sand when we were trying to snap our Christmas photo (the wind was so strong it blew the tripod over), and this week the built-in flash has stopped working. The camera has shot over 12,000 photos in the past 18 months (an average of 22 shots per day!), so I guess it has earned a rest, calibration, and cleaning. I'll ship it in to a service center after this next rally, and use Eleanor's camera while waiting for it to come back.

Ft Morgan Eleanor noseglasses.jpg

December 28, 2006

Crawfish boil!

People are going to think our blog is all about food ... but I'll take that risk. Sure, I got a haircut today, but who cares? Let's get right to today's menu:

Breakfast: marvelous cinnamon rolls baked over charcoal (!). Try baking like that sometime -- it takes a knack. And those rolls were perfect, courtesy of " The Governor". There's some serious cooking talent floating around in this group. Plus eggs, bacon, and cheese grits with a little cracked black pepper.

We missed lunch because we were out getting ingredients for Eleanor's desserts, but dinner ... ahhhh. When I lived in Louisiana back in the 1980s I gained an appreciation for the excellence of Cajun-influenced cooking. There's nothing like a batch of "mudbugs" (crawfish) boiled with spices, lemons, potatoes, and corn, in a big pot. You can order crawfish on the menu of a restaurant in Boston or New York, but I guarantee it tastes better when you are standing next to the steaming pot on warm afternoon with friends and music.

Ft Morgan crawfish.jpg

We dug into the crawfish, corn, and sausage with our bare hands. Eating crawfish is a social activity. No one can eat a crawfish neatly or meekly. You rip the tail off, getting hot spices in your fingernails, chew out the tail meat, (optionally) suck the juices from the heads, and toss the remainder into a fast-growing heap. The sweet taste of the meat mixed with the spicy boil makes a splendiferous succulent treat, but it fades all too quickly, so you grab another little bug and have at it again ... and again ...

And while you're doing this, six or seven other people are doing the same thing, ravaging a few dozen pounds of crawfish into scraps in minutes. It looks a little like a gang of primitives sharing a fresh kill from the hunt, but among all the dissection and finger-licking a steady stream of conversation continues -- mostly about how good the crawfish tastes.

And more ... fresh catfish (soaked in yellow mustard before breading and frying, really different and great); hush puppies, sausage, and shrimp so delicately fried they were almost like tempura. Nobody leaves the Dixie Campers feeling hungry.

Ft Morgan hush puppies.jpg

Eleanor has been working on a pair of pies for this evening: Key Lime, and a chocolate-hazelnut tart. As I write this they are cooling on the rack and waiting for the crowd to finish dinner. A bunch more people showed up today -- I've lost count of how many, but at one point there seemed to be about 30 people here. All good and fun people!

The ironic thing is that many of them have told me that they are admiring or envious of our lifestyle. But many of these folks are retired, or have jobs with liberal time off! I tell them I'm envious of their lifestyle -- they get paid vacations and weekends when they can travel and really disconnect. By comparison, I work six or seven days a week!

Someday we'll do this trip again without jobs, and I bet it will be completely different. But in the meantime, we are enjoying the freedom we have, and I encourage everyone else to find their freedom and enjoy that too -- whatever it is. Don't wait for "someday".

Most of the Dixie Campers are going to stay through Jan 1, but we are moving onward tomorrow to do some things in the Pensacola and Destin areas. Next stop will be Henderson State Park, where we plan to rendesvous with the folks first met in St Augustine, Steve, Misty, and Brianna.

Ft Morgan evening.jpg

December 27, 2006

The Dixie Campers

As I mentioned, the Dixie Campers seem to camp almost exclusively to eat. The cooks went from breakfast (eggs, bacon, cheese grits) almost directly to lunch (muffalettas) and then to dinner. Vinnie never seems to turn off the propane burners outside his motorhome. And it was all terrific. So far our contributions have been light: some double-chocolate Ghiradelli cocoa at breakfast, avocado dip and smoked mullet pate for appetizers, and a box of chocolates that we shared for dessert.

Ft Morgan Vinnie.jpg

This is a really nice group of people. I put in a request for some crawfish and this evening a huge cooler full of crawfish showed up, direct from New Orleans. There has to be a several dozen pounds of crawfish in there, all still very much alive under a towel and some ice. We'll boil them tomorrow night with some spices, cajun style.

Ft Morgan cooking.jpg

A few more rigs arrived today, including a slick polished 1962 Globetrotter, so our crowd has grown and the evening has gotten more, uh, "lively". All I can say is that it's a good thing there's virtually nobody else in this campground, or they'd probably toss us all out!

And mysteries are starting to appear. Was Vinnie really once a drummer for John Fred & the Playboys? Why is the owner of the Globetrotter called "The Governor"? Where did they find a giant case of crawfish out of season? Why do the motorhomes have sequential license plates? What's the story behind Vinnie's raccoon hat? The Dixie Campers are indeed a curious bunch. (And since they are reading this blog every night, I can't reveal the answers to these questions until I'm safely away!)

Ft Morgan sunset.jpg

December 26, 2006

Fort Morgan, AL

We got a nice break in the weather in the afternoon of Christmas Day, good enough to go out and walk the beach for a couple of hours.

SGI .jpg

The long beaches of St George Island are great for shelling, walking, and talking. You can even ride your bike on the hard-packed sand near the water. It's also good for drawing.

SGI sand drawing.jpg

Today we meandered about 200 miles west on Rt 98 out of Florida, to Fort Morgan AL, to meet our friends Vince and Lonnie and a group of their friends that they call the "Dixie Campers". Fort Morgan is on a peninsula near Gulf Shores, almost like a barrier island, with white sand and pine trees. From our campsite on the bay we can see a line of offshore oil drilling rigs miles away, each lit up with orange sodium lights. Tomorrow I'll take out the tripod and try to capture some sunset pictures over the water.

This evening Vince and Lonnie hosted dinner for everyone, which was of course delicious and fun. Apparently the Dixie Campers exist for one main reason: to eat. Since the food is terrific, we can deal with that. I put in a request for crawfish ...

Our Google Earth location

Here's a Sign of The Week, although it has been many weeks since I last posted one. Spotted in Apalachicola:

Apalachicola sign.jpg
"Most" aren't endangered?

December 25, 2006

Christmas Day on St George Island

Yesterday we drove over the bridge from St George Island to the small fishing town of Eastpoint, where Eleanor went on a seafood shopping spree at the local fish shacks.

Eastpoint fish.jpg

She bought smoked mullet, fresh oysters, grouper filets, and served all those things with frozen crab cakes and lobster bisque that we bought in Virginia at The Great Machipongo Clam Shack. This seafood dinner emanates from an old Italian tradition of serving seven fishes on Christmas eve.

All evening and night the sky was dark and the sea was stormy, with thunderstorms. Winds running 30 to 40 MPH whipped the rain against the Airstream all night, but we were comfortable inside watching movies and feasting and wrapping a few last-minute things.

Christmas morning started rainy and gray, but soon the clouds parted and by the time we were finished opening gifts over Ghiradelli hot cocoa, the sky was blue. Emma got what she asked for: a big old-fashioned alarm clock with bells on top, in addition to a lot of art supplies (beads, markers, a potholder kit, picture frames, small stones) and of course a little candy.

Eleanor’s idea of Christmas – and virtually all holidays – is to cook, a concept which which Emma and I agree. And I bet you’re wondering what she came up with, so here’s the menu.

The remaining oysters were sautéed with garlic buttons and stuffed into one of two sirloin tip roasts. The other roast was stuffed with pesto. She also roasted vegetables in the same pan: carrots, celery, Bermuda onion, whole garlic cloves, and whole macadamia nuts. The nuts become soft and mellow when roasted.

On the side we had a wild mushroom ragout with Porcini, Black Trumpet, Chantrelle, Lobster mushrooms, Oyster mushrooms, Shitake, Crimini, Portobello, and Black Morels. This dish has a particular meaning for us, since we personally foraged some of the mushrooms and dried them years ago. The Black Trumpets and Lobster mushrooms came from our land in Vermont. We collected the Chantrelles in Quebec, near La Mauricie National Park. The Porcini we bought on a trip to northern Italy, and the rest were bought dried from the supermarket.

Elvis is on the stereo singing “Why Can’t Every Day Be Like Christmas” and I can see three small pies (blueberry, apple, cherry) sitting waiting for our appetites to return. We’ll go for a long walk on the beach today, take some pictures of the wildlife, and then go out to post this blog entry.

I want you to know that we are thinking of all our family and friends today. We are so lucky to have met so many of you on the road, and you’ve all become friends. I hope – whether or not you celebrate Christmas – you are having a wonderful day.

An Airstream Christmas
By Rich

T’was the night before Christmas, and inside our Airstream
Things were not quite as they usually seem,
Stockings were not hung by the chimney at all,
Instead they were carefully Velcro’d to the wall.

The kid was so wired, our chance of sleep was ‘bout nil,
We considered hot cocoa with a strong sleeping pill.
Eleanor was sighing and yawning, and I was no better,
We were slowly growing limp in the humid Florida weather.

When out in the campground, we heard such a crash,
We assumed that raccoons had gotten into the trash.
I ran to the bedroom, and peered out the Vista View,
Hoping to relay the cause to my crew.

And what to my family, did I excitedly say?
“There’s a flock of brown pelicans drawing a sleigh!
Santa’s in a Speedo, and his Elves are in jams,
Toss out the carrots! Get oysters and clams!”

Straight and smooth flew his sleigh, with nary a twitch,
No doubt a result of his fancy new hitch.
The taillights gleamed with bright LEDs,
As the sleigh glided in among the pine trees.

A bit of a fog between the camp rows,
Was easily cut by the pink flamingoes,
And so, with a leveller and chocks pulled tight,
Santa’s sleigh was parked right next to our site.

He leapt to our aluminum roof, the old gent,
Nimbly avoiding the Fantastic Vent,
I knew he was there to make true my wish,
When I saw him installing a satellite dish.

As he worked on the roof, his belly and nose,
Jiggled and wriggled like a flowing dump hose.
There’s clearly no doubt he could have been thinner,
His weight the result of huge rally dinners.

This Florida Santa had different techniques,
He pulled Emma’s toys from the pelican beaks,
Then a few gifts for Eleanor appeared in a snap,
Spices and coffee, and a Wal-Mart road map.

In a flash he was seated back in the sleigh,
Pausing only a second to refresh his bug spray,
I think I heard what he cried, as he was waving his hand,
“This is still a White Christmas, if you count the beach sand!”

St George Island Christmas.jpg
Merry Christmas from Rich, Eleanor, and Emma

December 24, 2006

St George Island State Park

The brochure says this is “one of the best examples of Florida’s Gulf Coast barrier islands,” and I would have to agree. Too many of Florida’s beautiful barrier islands are completely overgrown with hotels, motels, condos, tacky shops and traffic. Ft Meyers Beach is a sad example. But a few great spots remain relatively unmarred, and the northeastern tip of St George is one of them.

Here the state park preserves nine miles of white sand beach, dunes, slash pine trees, and bird life. Sea turtles nest on the beaches at night in the spring and summer. The road only extends for five miles (to the small campground, 60 sites), and that means you have another four miles of quiet beach to walk.

St George campsite.jpg

This time of year, solitude is easy to find. Even the developed part of the island is deserted. The local zoning prohibits the type of hyper-development that has trashed other barrier islands, and apparently few people are interested in renting a beachfront home in December, even though it is gorgeous here. I suppose if I were facing typical weekly rental charges of $900-2,500 at this time of uncertain weather, I’d think twice too, but our stay in the Airstream is costing us just $25 per night – and we get to stay on the most beautiful part of the island!

St George decorating.jpg

Today Eleanor and Emma are staying in to decorate the trailer for Christmas. But later this afternoon we will step out to explore a little, and so I can get online to post the blog. It’s a challenge to get online here. We are on Verizon’s “extended network” which is code for “you’re not going to get online.” The local Subway sandwich shop has an open wi-fi network, but yesterday I was told that I had to buy a six-inch sub before I could use it, because “it costs us money to offer this service.” I think that’s the height of foolishness. It costs hardly anything to provide free wi-fi and it’s done by many businesses as a goodwill gesture.

When we need to get online at a café or shop, it’s our policy to buy something to show our appreciation for the free wi-fi. We’ve done that many times, across the country from Crescent City CA to Sarasota FL. Usually we go to Panera Bread for their excellent combination of good food & coffee, fast Internet, and comfortable seating. Panera Bread is great.

In this case, the Subway store was completely empty except for me and the two staff, and I had already bought a medium drink for $1.37 when the Subway staff informed me of their policy. The wireless signal, which I had seen only minutes before, disappeared too – I think they actually turned the wi-fi router off to keep me from using it! That’s just dumb customer relations. I went down the street and used one of the many other open networks available. The St George Island Subway won’t be getting my business again.

Emma has begun a journal of bird drawings, using a blank book given to her by a friend in Vermont. So far it contains sketches of a hawk that she spotted at Barry’s, a finch that she saw here, and a penguin. Since this is a good birding spot, I’m hoping she’ll get a chance to draw an osprey, or a bald eagle. She’ll certainly see cranes, sandpipers, pelicans, and other common seaside birds. A cold front is coming through as well, and supposedly that increases the opportunities for spotting migratory birds.

We heard from many people on the subject of our upcoming visit to Ruston. Jody says we’ve caused a run on the peaches, but they won’t be ready until June. The funniest comment came from Brad: “I have you tentatively scheduled to give a talk here in Charleston at the convention center. The subject is, of course, Ruston and environs.”

December 23, 2006

St George Island, FL

Our departure from Barry’s was slightly delayed by a maintenance item. An aluminum flange that helps support the dump valve plumbing came loose. The flange is attached by two small screws in the belly pan aluminum, and they have torn out of the thin aluminum over time.

Tampa broken flange.jpg

I hadn’t noticed this gradual loosening until I went to close the gray valve in the morning and the entire flange popped loose. In my opinion, the flange should have been attached with a pair of “buttonhead” rivets, which are less likely to pull through the aluminum skin.

Tampa flange rivets.jpg
The rivets and the screws they replaced

Fortunately I travel with a pair of the appropriate rivets in my toolkit, and of course a rivet tool. Replacing a rivet is very easy and if you don’t know how to do it yet, get a friend to show you. It takes just a minute. For those who want to stock a few of the right rivets for belly pan repairs, check out Marson product # ABL6-4A, or equivalent 3/16" diameter rivet, “buttonhead”, “large flange”, grip range 1/8" - 1/4", hole diameter .192-.196", aluminum rivet with aluminum mandrel.

Tampa flange repair.jpg

Of course you’ll also need a rivet tool, which can be found at places like Sears and Harbor Freight. The other tool you need for rivet replacement is a cordless drill with an assortment of small bits. In my experience, most frequent RV travelers already have one.

Between packing up and this little repair, we got a late start. The weather here turned mixed and occasionally rainy, from the southern edge of the same huge storm system that dumped a couple of feet of snow on Denver. By nightfall, as we were towing the Airstream along the coast on Rt 98, it was increasingly foggy and our progress got slower. At 8:30, when we reached St George Island, the fog was so dense that we could go no faster than 20 MPH along the main gulf beach road.

The state park closes its gate at sunset, so after making an inquiry at the local gas station, we parked in a beach lot near the center of town. The beach lot has signs: “NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING OR TRAILER PARKING” but on this evening the island was virtually deserted, most of the motels were closed, and all the parking lots were dead empty. Our local contact told us that the overnight parking ban was more for the summer season. So we took a chance and spent the night a few hundred feet from the surf, which we could hear all night long.

Eleanor and I sat up until 2 a.m., talking in the dark. Once in a while we need to really have a deep conversation about everything: what we are doing, where we are going (figuratively), our goals, our worries. We both have concerns and the occasional loss of confidence. Airing it all out is the way we make sure we are still on the same program, and make mid-course adjustments as needed. After hours of talking, we have reaffirmed our commitment to finding a low-maintenance home base soon, so that we can settle into a community for next winter, while maintaining the option to travel in the Airstream frequently for business and fun.

At 7 a.m. we woke to watch the sun rising over the Gulf of Mexico, and we knew it was time to get out of the parking lot before we attracted the wrong kind of attention. It was one thing to park after dark in the fog in an unlighted parking lot, but quite another to be obviously there with the morning sun gleaming on our bright silver tube. One downside of our decal-festooned Airstream (complete with web URLs on all sides) is that we do not blend in very well.

St George El Jalisco.jpg

Fortunately, the Mexican restaurant next door opened at 6 a.m. for breakfast, so we pulled the trailer one block over to a side street and popped into El Jalisco. By 9:00 a.m. we were drawing up to the Ranger Station at St George Island State Park, and that’s where we are now. This will be our Christmas stop.

December 21, 2006

The Ruston plot thickens

Now that I've agreed to tow the Airstream to northern Louisiana, the enthusiastic residents of Ruston have come out in force. It's flattering, amusing, and a bit intimidating all at once. I think Jody is having way too much fun with this.

This morning's email was from the Event Director of the Squire Creek Country Club; I'm now scheduled to speak before the Ladies Lagniappe Lunch. I'll be giving a 45 minute presentation on our trip, complete with a handful of the best photos from the 5,000 or so I've collected in the past year.

This afternoon's email was a reporter from the Ruston Daily Leader. We'll be doing an interview about our reasons for coming to Ruston, and our impressions of the county. ("Love the peaches!")

This evening's missive was a very warm welcome from the President/CEO of the Ruston Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau. He'd like to meet up and offered any assistance needed. Very kind indeed. (He also mentioned the peaches.)

So if nothing else, I can assure you that the people of Ruston are (a) really friendly; (b) proud of their peaches; (c) organized so well that they make the Marines look like slackers; and (d) tolerant of itinerant publishers.

Bert was impressed. This evening we drove up to Bay Bayou to have one final dinner with Bert & Janie, and he said that Ruston sounded like an opportunity not to be missed. "Bonnie and Clyde history! You have to go!" It's funny how this has turned from a little detour to a major event in our trip. I had never, ever, considered visiting Ruston before ... and now it is absolutely unthinkable that I should miss it.

Today we got blogged by another blogger here in Tampa. Isn't that kind of like NBC reporting on CNN? Or like a TV documentary about another TV show?

Maintenance note: I bought a 30-amp extension cord at Camping World. We have been using a 50-foot 14 gauge extension cord to reach power outlets when courtesy parking or at rallies. But that wire gauge is so thin that it was only enough to charge the batteries, and the voltage drop was noticeable. The 30-amp rated cord uses 10 gauge wire, much thicker, and will allow us to run the new 800-watt microwave or the air conditioner when 30-amp service is available. We'll keep the 50-foot thin cord for super-long runs when we have no other choice.

December 20, 2006

The Invitation

Last night we went out for dinner with Brett and Lori at Buca di Beppo, a family-style Italian restaurant. The only table available was the "kitchen table", literally right in the kitchen, which made for a lively and loud evening. Great food. Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera so the only picture I have is from the cell phone. It takes abominable pictures, but I punched up the contrast, sharpness, and color saturation a bit to get this:

Buca di Beppo.jpg

Today our friend Zach showed up with his Airstream Westfalia. We took him out with us on a few errands and stopped in at a local Farmer's Market on Hillsborough Ave.

Tampa fruit market.jpg

This evening we got Barry & Sue to join us for dinner in the trailer for some amazing Italian thing with pasta and chicken that Eleanor whipped up. Appetizers were prepped by Emma and I: two kinds of Italian sausage, fontina and parmesan cheese, olives, and carambola fruit. Desserts: hazelnut-lemon cookies, hazelnut cream-filled chocolates, canteloupe, cinnamon cashews. I think Eleanor was inspired by our dinner the night before.

Tampa Barry Sue dinner 2.jpg

Being somewhat notorious, we occasionally get invitations from local communities to come visit and see what they have. Long-time readers of this blog will recall our visit to Taylor TX for some fabulous barbecue, which was the direct result of an invitation by local boosters. It's always flattering when someone invites us to come visit, but we often have to decline because they aren't near our travel route. But nobody has ever gone as far as Jody Brotherston ...

About a year ago, Jody, a contributor to the magazine, began a campaign to get us to come to Ruston LA, where she lives. We missed stopping in last April when we drove by, so this year she has accelerated her efforts. The first salvo:

October 19: "Will you be heading across the interstate to Texas in early December? If I could arrange a comp. camp site on the lake through the Chamber of Commerce, perhaps you could spend a day in Ruston and speak to the local businessmen at lunch about Virtual Entrepreneurship...same thing you did for the aviation program? There is a terrific hands on explorium for children at the University that is open until Dec. 19 when the university closes."

As I recall, I gave Jody a tentative "maybe" but all the while I was thinking that Ruston would represent a large detour from our planned route into Texas ...

Undeterred, she followed up on December 3: " What would it take to invite you to Ruston to speak to a group of businessmen about your really unique way of life while running a very successful business? I am going to take an issue to the Mayor and see about an official invitation as we have a little known wonderful city park on a lake that is a great campsite....we will certainly host your visit, and take Emma to the hands on children's museum."

My response: "It's a little premature for me to be talking to anyone about running a successful business!"

Then on December 16: "The Squire Creek Country Club would like to invite you to visit and do a program for the ladies lunch program....."

Yesterday, December 20, Jody stepped up the pressure. She called the Mayor of Ruston and I received the following note from him:

"On behalf of the City of Ruston and Lincoln Parish, I should like to invite you to consider paying a visit to our community on your next tour through our wonderful country." He went on to mention the Airstream he and his wife owned for 20 years, and the great "Ruston peaches". To top it off, he mentioned that we could stay for free at the local Lincoln Parish park. I guess word is out that we are camping cheapskates.

I began to crack at this point. I emailed Hizzoner and Jody that perhaps we could make a change to our plans and go to northern Louisiana for a little while. That seemed to encourage them, because today the latest salvo in Jody's campaign arrived, from the President of the Ruston-Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, a Mr. Scott Terry. This invitation was unique:

"... I also want to invite you to visit our little city to experience the great life here in the north Louisiana. I believe the Mayor’s office is sending you a packet filled with information regarding the Ruston area. However, there are some facts that are sometimes overlooked."

Oh, and what are they?

"Not that you can see it in the distance, but we are located fairly close to Mount Driskell (the highest point in Louisiana at 535 ft. above sea level). We promise you will not suffer from high-altitude sickness as some people do when visiting the Rockies.

That alleviates a major concern. But wait, there's more!

"Bonnie and Clyde (famous outlaws in the 1930’s) were ambushed near here. The gang actually kidnapped one of our high school teachers. This local lady (100 yrs. old) still lives in Ruston. Amazingly, the marker designating the actual ambush spot along the rural highway looks like it was there during the ambush. It seems that some of the hunters use the granite marker to sight in their hunting rifles."

That's two people we need to meet: the centegenarian kidnapee, and Mr. Terry himself. You don't often meet a member of the Chamber of Commerce with a sense of humor! And yet, unbelievably, he had even more amazing attractions for us to sample in Lincoln Parish:

"As hard as it may seem to believe, the Mountain Bike Trail at Lincoln Parish Park is ranked as one of the top trails in the country. Most people believe the best mountain bike trails are in the mountains… until they visit our trail in Louisiana."

Right, who needs mountains for mountain biking? Makes it too hard. I think I might prefer this format of "mountainless mountain biking". But here's the real topper:

"Lincoln Parish was home to a Nazi POW Camp."

Come on now, haven't you always wanted to see a Nazi POW camp? Actually, I've never even heard of one. Did they really ship Nazi prisoners all the way to Louisiana, or is he just pulling my leg? And of course, for the final temptation, he had to mention the peaches again:

"We grow the sweetest peaches in the country. And, we’re just really nice folks who know how to show our old-fashioned southern hospitality."

So I give up. We'll come to Ruston, already! Free camping, a chance to blather on in front of the locals, fresh peaches, a POW camp, and (apparently) eccentric locals -- who could ask for more?

December 19, 2006

Spanish Moss

Our parking spot at Barry's sits in the shade of several very large Live Oak trees, each of which is heavily adorned with Spanish Moss. Spanish Moss is a simple but dramatic air plant that can be found almost anywhere in the southeast, hanging from trees, but less in urban and suburban areas where the Live Oaks have been cut down.

Tampa Spanish Moss 1.jpg

Thus, Spanish Moss is one of my indicators of finding a bit of "old Florida". The state parks are loaded with it, reflecting the state's interest in maintaining its parks as close as possible to the way they appeared when Europeans first arrived. If a restaurant is shaded by Live Oaks and Spanish Moss it's a lot more likely to be a remainder of old Florida than one that surrounded by concrete and asphalt. Those old Florida places are usually pretty interesting.

Tampa Spanish Moss 2.jpg

But I'm going to start feeling mossy myself if we stay much longer. Not counting our visit to VT, we've been in Florida for about seven weeks, three of which have been in the Tampa area. Our thinking is that we will complete our remaining business this week and head out by Friday.

Maintenance note: the Olevia LCD TV died suddenly. It just won't go on anymore. After some diagnosis with technical experts, the conclusion is: warranty replacement. We'll get a new one tomorrow and see if it holds up better. I've done some searching on the Internet about LCD TV failures and they seem to happen to all brands, so I'm not ready to point the finger at Olevia for this yet. They didn't give me any flack about replacing it, and if the second one lasts, I'll be satisfied.

December 18, 2006

Back to Tampa

I heard from a few people that yesterday's blog entry was ""dark" and "depressing". I think that means it was a success.

I have been discussing with a few trusted friends the nature of the book I should write about this trip, and at this point the thinking is that the book should be very honest about our feelings and observations -- not just a travelogue. This past week's blog entries have been an attempt to discover what sort of observations are honest enough to ring true, and if everyone found my discourse on Lake Champlain to be a bit dark, well, that's perfect because it means you got the point. But don't worry, it won't be like that all the time.

BTV Jet Blue.jpg

We are back in Tampa. At 517 miles per hour, taking a jet is the best way to see nothing from airport to airport. Only when we walked off the jetway at Tampa International could I smell the sweet humid air of Florida, and suddenly it was like we never left. Except that now we have an abundance of sweets with us, and a few more memories.

We are considering staying a little bit longer. Our next engagement is Dec 26 in Alabama, and between now and then we just want to relax a bit. Things have been hectic, and a little quiet time might be good for everyone. Also, we need to do some thinking about our plans for Texas in January. It looks like we may be there longer than we had originally thought -- and why rush? Our only real deadline is our next set of airline tickets, set for mid-February from Tucson.

December 17, 2006

A tourist in my own hometown

When we lived here, I tried not to look at Lake Champlain this time of year, because the sight of the churning gray water contributed to my cabin fever. I never liked the winters, and certain gloomy sights made me anxious. As I post this in the mid-afternoon, the sun is setting and it will be set entirely by 4:14 pm, leaving the lake only a dark mystery outside the window.

But since we are here for only a week -- leaving tomorrow -- I am trying to embrace this season, and look more closely at the familiar things. As a tourist in my own hometown, I can afford to take chances with my experiences and responses. If I don't like what I feel, it's no problem. In a day, everything will be different.

Lake Champlain has changed character since the summer. The lake surface this time of year is forbidding. It seems exclusively composed of gray-green waves topped with icy whitecaps, each wave having a solidity to it that transcends mere water. When I look at them I get a sense of the deepness of this lake (300-400 feet), the darkness at the bottom, the cold embodied in each wave that can suck the life out of a person in 30 minutes. The lake, which seemed so friendly and inviting when the waves were blue, now lies there like a giant alligator waiting for someone to stumble into its path.

Lake Champlain Christmas.jpg

This time of year everyone treats the lake with respect. There are no boats on the water, other than the year-round ferries and the occasional Coast Guard ship. Fall storms can sink boats at their moorings, so most of the summer boaters have long since stored their craft. Even a full drysuit is not enough to dive the lake for more than a few minutes this time of year.

Last week when I rode the ferry coming back across the lake from Plattsburgh I was struck by the intensity of the lake, especially at night. With clouds in the sky and a light wind, it is absolutely pitch-black and no aids to navigation can be seen until the red and green lights on ferry dock appear. The ferry is very safe, yet sitting there in the dark and listening to the thrum of the diesel engines, I had the sense that I was riding only inches from disaster in the cold cold depths.

If temperatures are cold enough, the lake will freeze in February, at least in the inlets and harbors. The broad lake (3-5 miles across) only freezes in very cold years, but when it does the lake becomes transformed -- usually overnight -- into an amazing world of thick dark ice interspersed with snow patches and ice heaves that can reach 10 feet tall. Ironically, although the frozen lake can be extremely treacherous, it seems so miraculous and enticing that it's hard to resist walking out for an exploration.

As kids, we would bring a narrow brass pole to tap holes in the ice (to check thickness), and long sticks held horizontally like tightrope walkers. If the ice broke, the stick was there to keep us from going all the way in, and give a tool for getting back out. I took a few icy plunges ...

Springtime, however, is when most people get into trouble. In December the lake is so grim that only fools and rescue personnel venture out in small craft. But in the spring, everyone has the fever to get outside, and there are always those who want to extend the ice-fishing season a bit further than they should.

On some sunny Saturday next spring there will be news of the folks whose truck vanished through the ice, or the truly unfortunate who ended up on a drifting and disintegrating ice floe that seemed well-attached to the rest of the ice when they walked onto it. The latter folks have one of two fates: They end up humiliated on local TV after their rescue, or they end up in the "missing presumed dead" category.

With all this, it is little wonder that Vermonters (and New Yorkers, and Quebecers) flock to the lake in the brief months of summer. We know we have hardly any time to enjoy it, and once the season ends, it will be at least several gray cold months before a few weeks of solid ice. I never had the ability to endure that. Long before the season ended, I would be enveloped in a gray of my own, and it would become impossible for me to see anything other than my desire to flee to a sunny climate.

Yet there is a sort of rugged beauty in the lake this time of year. I can see it this week. It is like looking at an erupting volcano, deadly if you get too close, and fascinating with the proper distance and perspective. Having had some time to think about it, I believe my proper distance is still at least a couple hundred miles, but I wish I did have the internal perspective others seem to have, which allows them to see things like this up-close without risk of being consumed by them.

December 16, 2006

Balancing travel and "fixed" life

I’ve taken time off from the blog to concentrate on other things this week, including family and personal obligations. We’ve been doing the low-key things that comprised our life before we became wanderers: casual dinners with family and friends, attending a charity event, walking down the road with the dog, decorating the Christmas tree, seeing a movie.

Ferrisburg dinner.jpg
Dinner with Christine

Since we aren’t having fabulous Airstreaming adventures, my attention has gone to the more subtle aspects of this full-timing lifestyle. Although taking off in a travel trailer is popularly viewed as the adult equivalent of running away with the circus, in reality we are as connected to our home base as we ever were. We haven’t fled our obligations, we’ve only relocated them.

This week, for example, we had our dentist appointments. A mundane thing, until you consider that for us dental and primary medical care are usually hundreds or thousands of miles away. I found that while I’d been away my regular dentist had retired and his practice had been taken over by a much younger guy, the very affable Dr Congelton. I also discovered I’d lost a small filling, but there’s no time to get it replaced before we fly back to Tampa. Fortunately, the doc and his staff were enthusiastic about our trip and happy to offer advice on the best way to deal with the situation.

This is the sort of cooperation that makes the trip work. Behind the scenes there is our support network: a Postmistress who handles our mail forwarding via email; a dentist and doctor who help us figure out how to maintain our health with no fixed address; a tax guy; friends who store our “spare” Airstreams, and other friends who provide logistical and emotional support; the storage unit; and the all-important family who give us a place to come back to. You can’t really run away with the circus and leave all your obligations behind without also losing important things, but you can pretend.

We’ve also been lucky. Sure, the hard drive/ GPS/ cell phone failed, a wheel came off, and Eleanor had a vicious five-day migraine, etc., but – at the risk of sounding like an old fart – we’ve still got our health. Emma’s doing great. We’re all still happy. I don’t worry about where my next meal is coming from (although it won’t be the Grand Degustation at Charlie Trotter’s), and considering that a large percentage of this world still does, that’s something to be thankful for. When things look gloomy, I try to remember that.

Coming back from Vermont we will mentally start another leg of our travels, this time traveling slowly across the south toward California. We have huge plans, including visiting many friends, looking for property in the southwest, attending several events, and working hard to grow the magazine. Most important will be a careful exploration of small towns that we might want to settle in next winter. Our list of places to check includes towns such as Fredericksburg, Marfa, and Ft Davis TX, Silver City NM, and Ojai CA.

We’ve already been doing this for a while, in the background. We’ve scoped out Eureka, Julian, Borrego Springs and Nevada City in CA. Also, Alamagordo NM, Patagonia, Sedona, and Bisbee AZ, St George UT, Boulder City NV, and dozens of others. Some we can quickly identify as not for us based on real estate prices or lack of local culture, and others (like Nevada City and Silver City) deserve a second look.

Eventually the trip will bring us to a culmination where we find a second home base for winters, and gradually we’ll settle into a “working snowbird” existence. But the extended trips in the Airstream will never end, I hope. This experience has brought too much value (friends, learning, personal growth) to our lives to put it behind us. The quiet weeks like this one remind me that we need to find a way to balance the opportunities of travel with the values of a fixed location.

December 14, 2006

More Christmas gift ideas for Airstreamers

Now that we are in Vermont for a week, Christmas has suddenly loomed much closer. Not only are we having our family Christmas this weekend, but Vermont itself is a place where the holiday seems almost palpable.

Last week in Key Largo we dropped in on the local Public grocery to look for Key Lime Pie and found the fire lane outside jammed with locals buying balsam fir Christmas trees off a truck. The air, normally smelling of salt air and mangrove marsh, was rich with the scent of fir, an incongruous scent indeed among the swaying palm trees. I remember being surprised. Without having the climatological cues of Vermont, I had completely forgotten what time of year it was.

Here, blustery winds and cold dry air, the sky studded with gray clouds, the trees barren of leaves -- all seem to be setting the stage for a big snowstorm to drop in at the last moment and decorate everything for the holiday. I doubt we will have any substantial snow this early, but in Vermont you never know. That's what everyone would like, for sure. Without snow, this is just a cold windy place, but with snow it's magical, and suddenly everyone is thinking red & green, Robert Frost poems, egg nog and hot cider, and hearing Christmas carols everwhere.

Speaking of Christmas carols, if you are ever in Vermont, drop by the Porter Music Box Company in Randolph. You can also hear one of their magical boxes playing Christmas music from a giant copper disc at Kennedy Brothers in Vergennes, during the holidays. The sound is absolutely enchanting and is guaranteed to put you in the holiday spirit. (You can also hear a brief sample and order a CD of the Porter Music Box songs on their website.)

This reminds me of other Christmas gift ideas for trailer owners that I should have mentioned in my previous blog. (Disclaimer: some of these are advertisers in Airstream Life magazine, but I mention them because I like their products.)

Charlotte Hammerhead.jpg

The Hammerhead sled is a really unique thing. It's expensive but super fun. My brother runs the company. You can get them from the company website, or EMS, LL Bean, REI, Hammacher Schlemmer, and other outlets. We're going to go sledding this weekend on a pair of Hammerheads, so I'll post some pictures of that later.

For someone who tows a trailer, Dura-Flap makes a really nice product. I've seen their mudflaps and they are super tough. I plan to get a set for the Armada soon. They should keep us from getting any more major rock dings, like we did in Oregon.

Another idea is a Torqstik. The whole set is expensive, but you can buy just one Torqstik for $20 directly from the manufacturer. An Airstreamer who owns his own air wrench could certainly use one of these, and even if you don't have an air wrench it would be nice to have one onboard to hand to the tire shop guy so he doesn't cause a problem like we had last summer.

Terry Torqstik.jpg
Terry installed our tire using the "Red" (50-lb) Torqstik, and then finalized it with his torque wrench.

Just order the particular Torqstik appropriate for your trailer's wheels (check the Owners Manual for info on what torque you should be using). For example, our trailer wheels should be torqued to 100-110 ft-lbs, and we have 3/4" lug nuts. So the "Gray" stick, part #PAT-19100 would be my choice.

Have fun shopping for your favorite Airstreamer!

December 12, 2006

GSM Vehicles

Everytime I'm in the northeast I have to drop in on GSM Vehicles to see what's up. We have several things going on over there. Our last project trailer, "Vintage Thunder", is there. It is now owned by our friends Don and Amanda. They've asked Colin to do a few tweaks on it. Both Colin and I were impressed at how well the paint job is holding up. The trailer still looks like new.

Another trailer we used to own is there as well. I'm talking about Matthew McConaughey's trailer "Vintage Lightning" (a 1952 Cruiser). It's still being restored but already it looks great. I'm writing up an article about the progress of that project for the Spring 2007 issue of Airstream Life.

Plattsburgh Vintage Thunder.jpg

There are a few trailers that we still own, sitting there: a 1968 Caravel, a 1963 Serro Scotty, and the newest member of the family, the 1953 Flying Cloud we found in Virginia. So of the 33 vintage trailers on Colin's lot at the moment, five of them either belonged to us formerly or still do!

Plattsburgh trailer lot.jpg

Colin and I cleaned out the 53 Flying Cloud today. The previous owner was a packrat, so we had a couple of cubic yards of various "treasures" to toss into the dumpster. We also cleaned out the usual mouse nests, fossilized mice, dust and tattered curtains.

In the process we discovered some paperwork that helped establish the history of this trailer. It was owned by a man named Dell, who registered it in Florida in the 1960s. He was a WBCCI member and his number was on some of the old folding chairs in the trailer. It was sold to another person in New York, and later to Jack in New Jersey, who parked it a decade ago and finally sold it to us. All of this was determined by slips of paper we found: an old Florida title, some sales receipts, and correspondence.

Now that we can actually see the interior, it's clear the potential this trailer has to be a very nice restored unit (with the application of appropriate $$). All the vintage appliances are there, the cabinetry is in good shape, and the body will look very cool when cleaned up and polished. If someone comes by Colin's shop and wants to have him restore it, I'll sell it, but otherwise I'll hold onto it for "someday".

December 11, 2006

Christmas gifts for Airstreamers

Since we spent the entire day doing nothing interesting except working and packing, I'll take this moment to offer some suggestions to those of you shopping for loved ones who travel in their RV a lot.

Folks like us live in small spaces, and need to travel light. So the ideal gift is very useful, lightweight, small, and requires no maintenance. Even better are consumable gifts. Here are a few things your traveling friends might love:

-- gift cards to places that RV'ers frequent: Camping World, Cracker Barrel, Wal-Mart, Home Depot. Or, if you prefer, get a gift card for services RV'ers commonly use: fuel, cell phone, campgrounds
-- entertainment: CDs, DVDs, Netflix gift subscriptions, or for that digitally-savvy traveler an iTunes gift card
-- a National Parks Pass, or for someone with children, an ASTC museum Passport. Both are great money-savers and valid nationwide.
-- if you have an in-person visit, consider a nice rosemary bush as a miniature Christmas tree.
-- food. You just can't go wrong there unless you ship them a giant crate of pineapples. Food is great because it doesn't take up space for long. Homemade goodies are especially appreciated, at least by us. Or if you want something themed, you could get Silver Joe's coffee, or Happy Camper wine.
-- photos. Most RV's I see have photos mounted on the walls somewhere to remind them of the people they plan to visit.
-- a cool Airstream shirt, sweatshirt, hat, poster, book, or set of travel decals from the Airstream Life store (shameless plug #1)
-- a subscription to Airstream Life. (Shameless plug #2) If you don't like them that much, get them a subscription to Trailer Life instead.
-- cute Airstream Christmas lights. These look great hung on the awning at night.
-- a useful book that might inspire something, like Traveler's Guide to Mexican Camping.

On the other hand, if price is no object:

-- Birdy folding bicycle ($1,250 and up). Airstream branding is available.
-- highly portable digital camera with movie mode ($200-400)
-- Kodiak disc brake upgrade (>$2k for a tandem axle trailer)
-- Verizon Broadband National Access PC card and 24 months service (about $1,500)
-- a Hensley hitch (under $3,000)

Today we are flying northward for a week.

December 10, 2006

Pit stop

On the way back from the Everglades we stopped in to see fellow Airstreamers Terry and Marie in Cape Coral. Terry had noted that our streetside tires were getting a little thin, which is not surprising given the 30,000+ miles of towing they have experienced. (The curbside tires are nearly new, since both were replaced during our various debacles this summer.)

So Terry arranged for a pair of new Goodyear Marathons to be waiting for us in Cape Coral on Saturday, and he opened the repair shop where he works, just for us. I figured this would be a quick 30 minute trip in and out, but when Terry took off the wheels he immediately spotted worn outer brake pads. We were very close to having no pads at all, so replacement was mandatory.

Cape Coral brake pad.jpg
A cracked and worn disc brake pad

The Kodiak disc brakes we have use a GM pad, which fits a Buick Cutlass or the equivalent Chevy. Primed by Terry, I walked into the local auto parts store and requested two sets for "a 1986 Chevy Celebrity without heavy-duty brakes," and after trying three or four stores, we found them in stock and Terry popped them on.

I called David Tidmore at Roger Williams Airstream, where the brakes were installed last May (roughly 15,000 miles ago), to double-check on the pad choice. He agreed with the brake pads and noted that Kodiak has gone to ceramic brake pads for better wear life. We couldn't find ceramics in stock anywhere, but next time I'm going to order them. We seem to find ourselves going down a lot of steep grades out west ...

Cape Coral jumprope.jpg
Emma, Eleanor, and Marie found ways to entertain themselves.

Cape Coral torquestiks.jpg

Terry, being an Airstreamer and a mechanic of many years, did it right. He uses Torqstiks on his air wrench to control the amount of torque it can apply to the nuts, and then finishes the job with a very cool digital torque wrench. The Torqstiks are calibrated to twist just the right amount to prevent over-torquing the nuts. I checked the nuts three times on the way home with my torque wrench, and so we managed to get back to Tampa with all four wheels still attached.

Cape Coral old tire.jpg
The old tire with worn tread

A few stats for our maintenance-minded folks: the tires we took off had >30,000 miles on them. The rear tire showed about 6/32" tread remaining, which is marginal, and the front tire showed 7/32". We've noted the rear tires do wear a little faster. We could have left the tires on a few thousand more miles if we cared to push it. The new tires, for comparison, come with 10/32" tread. The ones on the curbside, which were installed about 5,000 miles ago, show 9/32".

The trailer is now parked in its storage location for the next week. We're packing bags for a trip to Vermont. The next week of our blog will be reports from the cold, windy, rainy northeast, but I do plan to get over to Plattsburgh NY to see some interesting trailer activity going on at GSM Vehicles.

December 09, 2006

Notes from the Keys

OK, we're back online after a 30-hour hiatus .... seems like a long time, but it really wasn't. We reluctantly left the sun and warm breezes of Bahia Honda on Friday and spent the night at one of the National Park campgrounds in Big Cypress National Preserve, along Rt 41 in the Everglades with the birds and gators.

A cold front came through, too. It seemed cold at 58 degrees in the evening, but then Colin called and said it was 10 in Plattsburgh with fresh snow. And to think, I'll be there next week ...

A few random items about the Florida Keys and Everglades:

1) No-see-ums can be a plague in the Everglades and Keys even in the dry season (winter). We have so many red spots on our feet and legs that we look like measles patients.

2) You can't get online in the Everglades with Verizon.

3) Bahia Honda is nice but ridiculously hard to get into. If you can't get in there, try the new state park, nearby: Curry Hammock.

4) The cheapest gas in the Keys is found in Key Largo.

5) We haven't found a key lime pie that beats the one we had at Ted Peters', but there was one on Marathon that was pretty darned good. Lime juice in the whipped cream topping is a nice touch.

December 08, 2006

Bahia Honda fun

To my mind, the pace of life should slow down in a place like Bahia Honda. I wish I could take a pure vacation but work obligations will not allow that, so I've done the most I can by working early in the morning and late at night.

Bahia Honda ranger talk.jpg

I've said before how useful the ranger talks are at state and national parks. So I "rescued" Brad from his late-morning drowse and we headed over to the old bridge to hear about the old Keys railroad financed by Henry Flagler from 1905 to 1912. It's another great railroad debacle story like the one I heard in Anza-Borrego State Park last January. The railway is gone now. Route 1 covered it, and the only vestiges are some abandoned bridges.

There are nice beaches at Bahia Honda, and they are quiet this time of year. We took a picnic cooler and spent the afternoon wading through the shallow waters. Despite cold weather virtually everywhere else in the continental US, the Keys have once again been in the low 80s. I'll be sorry to start heading north again so soon.

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Brad and Mary came over last night for dinner. Brad has some experience in the restaurant world, and so he's a handy cook. We let him do some of the work last night...

Bahia Honda Brain.jpg

... while Mary and Emma played games and watched a little "Pinky & the Brain" on the big new screen.

We have debated whether to try to get another day here in Bahia Honda. The consensus seems to be that we won't try, because we have a few stops we want to make on the way back up to Tampa and we don't want to rush. Our schedule is being driven by airline tickets to depart Tampa on Monday. We'll be flying to Vermont for what Emma calls "fake Christmas" for a week. After the sun and balmy weather here on the Keys, arriving in Vermont will be a shock indeed.

Bahia Honda.jpg

December 07, 2006

Bahia Honda State Park

You can't get into Bahia Honda State Park very easily. This place is so popular that it often books up 11 months in advance. We tried a couple of months ago to get a spot here for this week, but it was impossible.

Then last week Brad tipped me off that a few sites had last-minute cancellations this week. I immediately got onto and found one site available for two days. Miracle! So we cancelled the rest of our stay at John Pennekamp State Park and headed about 65 miles further down the Keys.

(If you need to cancel or modify a reservation that you've made with ReserveAmerica, wait to do it at the campground. This avoids a $10 change fee that you'll get if you do it by phone in advance.)

The Keys are basically one road all the way down, Rt 1, "Overseas Highway". Instead of using addresses, most places indicate location by Mile Marker. We went from about MM 102 to MM 37.5. Before we left, we had breakfast at the Hideout restaurant, which is a very homey small place near the park next to "Jules Verne Undersea Lodge" (ideal if you would like to spend your vacation in a bubble under water). The Hideout doesn't look like much but it's friendly, local, and the back porch has a nice view.

Keys iguana.jpg

As we were packing up at Pennekamp, a very large iguana wandered by the campsite. This one was a good two feet long in body with a two foot striped tail. Iguanas are not natural here -- but some pets were probably set free years ago and now you can see them thriving on the Keys. This guy was a monster.

We also met John and Thelma, the campground volunteers at Pennekamp. They gave us some good advice on travel to Mexico and have helped to lower Eleanor's suspicions of it. She now concedes that a trip with a few other people (a mini-caravan) would be OK. I'm starting some serious planning ...

Keys tarpon.jpg

Along the way at MM 77, you can feed the tarpon at Robbie's. But the brown pelicans are aggressive there and the experience can be, um, challenging.

Keys bridge sunset.jpg

Brad and Mary are parked just down the row from us. We took a sunset walk up to the old Flagler Bridge, a leftover from the railroad that first connected the Keys back in 1912, and then returned to their Airstream for a superb Thai dinner that Brad and Mary whipped up for us. We contributed Key Lime Pie for dessert, of course.

December 06, 2006

Key Largo snorkeling

John Pennekamp State Park is the home of America's first underwater park, and the only reefs in the continental US too. So it's not surprising that snorkeling and scuba diving are the two most popular activities here.

I had tried to snorkel here a few years ago, but was stymied by bad weather. This time things looked better, so I carried my gear from the trailer over to the park's shop for the noon boat. (Since the tourists have not begun to arrive in large numbers yet, reservations weren't necessary.)

My buddy on the trip turned out to be a French man who was in town for a convention of polymer chemists. He spoke little English and I speak very little French. Perfect. I had fun trying to translate the Captain's speech about coral protection, reef fish, inflatable vests, and Man O'War jellyfish. I learned the French word for jellyfish, then promptly forgot it.

The reef is about five miles offshore. The trip out, winding through canals of mangrove, is visually interesting and fun, especially in a fast twin-diesel turbine boat. Unfortunately, out in the open water the seas were running 3-4 feet, which is too choppy for snorkeling. Also, I suffer from mal de mer, as I explained it to my snorkel buddy, and once they anchored the boat at Grecian Rocks reef, the motion began to get to me. I got in the water fast.

On the reef the waves were 1-2 feet, acceptable for snorkeling. It still was a bit rough but, hey, I was out there, I'd spent $31, and being in the 78 degree water was a lot nicer than sitting on a pitching and rocking boat for 90 minutes. Besides, my French snorkel buddy needed me. He didn't know the signal to come back to the boat when time was up.

Keys snorkeling.jpg
Hey, aren't you supposed to have top of the tube above the water?

We saw colorful reef fish of all types, conch, several types of coral, and even a Spanish cannon. (My French associate Jack provided all these pictures from his underwater digital camera. I took many others with a film camera but haven't developed it yet.)

I was thrilled to see a two-foot long grouper capture and eat a 4" long reef fish right in front of me. (I guess the colorful disguise didn't help that little guy.) But I didn't see some of the creatures that I had hoped for, including nurse sharks and stingrays.

Keys fish.jpg

Eleanor and Emma checked out the two beaches that are here in the park. Like most of the Upper Keys, Key Largo has no natural beaches, so the only ones you will find are man-made and quite small. They could have gone snorkeling off the beach over a reproduction (!) of a Spanish wreck, but the water close to shore was too turbid from the wave action today. It was also Art & Crafts day -- they made jewelry for Christmas gifts. The trailer is filled with colorful beads and silver wire.

I would have liked to have taken them with me, but Emma is not ready for a snorkel boat yet. She needs to get out of the habit of standing up everytime she sees something underwater. The coral is too fragile for that.

We've snorkeled four states so far on this trip: Vermont, Maine, Florida, and Texas. Anywhere the water is clear, we'll go take a look. Any suggestions?

December 05, 2006

John Pennekamp SP, Key Largo, FL

Chokoloskee Island is one of the "Ten Thousand Islands" that make up the lower Everglades and provide a delight for kayakers and fishermen. To say that this area is abundant in wildlife is a serious understatement: everywhere you look or listen you can find them, and the photographic opportunities are superb. My 200 mm lens really got a workout.

Everglades blue bird.jpg
Many more photos on the Flickr album!

Everglades City is a piece of "old Florida" that is probably going to disappear in a few years. Already we can see the condos and "vacation villas" showing up and displacing the older residences. The town doesn't look like much at first, but digging in you'll find a numerous small restaurants and cafes, fantastic boating, fishing, sight-seeing opportunities, and great scenic vantage points from unexpected locations.

Everglades City.jpg

On our way out, we stopped at City Seafood on Begonia Street to pick up something interesting for lunch. This turned out to be some large grouper sandwiches and a bunch of steamed spiced shrimp. $6.95 for each item, and everything was terrific.

Everglades City lunch.jpg

Before we left the Everglades, Brad and Mary urged us to drop in on the H P Williams Wayside area on the Tamiami Trail. (The Tamiami Trail is also known as Route 41, the two-lane road that stretches from Miami to Naples, and then northward to Tampa.) This is an ideal stop for the Airstreamer, since there's a parking lot with dedicated spaces for RVs, and superb bird and gator viewing. Bring a long lens or binoculars, but most of the creatures will be within 100 feet of you as you walk the boardwalk.

Now we are in Key Largo at John Pennekamp State Park. I am hoping to go snorkeling today at noon, if conditions are good. The sun is in and out of clouds but the sky is mostly clear and we are enjoying upper 70s while even in Tampa it is 15 degrees colder. The water is a balmy 78 degrees here, and the seas should be reasonably calm, so the only real blotch on the snorkel trip is that there is a "Man O'War" jellyfish warning in the water. Still, the boat trips are going to the reef, so apparently the operators feel conditions are still acceptable. I'll report on that tomorrow.

December 04, 2006

Chokoloskee Island, Everglades, FL

I-75 is a long ribbon connecting Jackson Center, OH (the home of Airstream) to Florida's Everglades. Given that this is December and the entire country seems plunged into temperatures best associated with refrigerator compartments, we chose to head south.

Our goal was to get into the Everglades for a quick one-night stopover. We've visited the Everglades before in our 1968 Airstream Caravel, but we've never been to the Everglades City area, so that became our destination. Coincidentally, in the morning I received an email from Brad and Mary saying that they were staying at Chokoloskee, and we realized it was basically the same place, and for a bonus, there was a campground offering a $17.50 full-hookup rate for holders of the Passport America discount card.

Chokoloskee trailers.jpg

So while Brad and Mary were out riding a National Park Service boat tour, we pulled up next to their spot and set up camp. After six months of emailing each other as we roamed the country, I think they were a bit shocked to find us finally parked ten feet away!

Chokoloskee pelican.jpg

Before Brad and Mary returned, we also got a chance to photograph some brown pelicans at the marina. I've uploaded a bunch of nature photos from this stop to our Flickr album, which you can see here.

We hit it off with Brad and Mary, and ended up putting together a fun dinner made up of various "Indian food in a box" packages we both realized we were carrying, and staying up till 11 p.m. yakking. We'll see them again on Wednesday.

I'll talk more about Chokoloskee Island, and Everglades City, in Tuesday's blog, when I catch up. Here's where we camped (requires Google Earth to view).

December 03, 2006

Skyway Fishing Pier

On the road again, and it feels good! We towed the Airstream down to Ft De Soto for the afternoon, and met Brett, and another Airstream couple, Terry & Marie, at our "day camp" by the North Beach. They brought motor scooters, so I got to take one out and give Emma a ride.

Ft De Soto Emma scooter.jpg

One of the neat things about taking your Airstream to Ft De Soto is that you can park on the bay at several points, on reasonably firm sand.

Ft De Soto beach camp.jpg

Our next stop was the Sunshine Skyway South Fishing Pier, across Tampa Bay. Readers of the Vintage Thunder blog last year may recall we've been here before. It's a neat spot for an overnight. Bert & Janie drove out to join us for the evening, just to see what it's like. They may bring their Airstream next time.

Skyway kids.jpg
Bert interviews some fishermen on the Skyway Pier

After sunset Bert and I went down the pier to try to get some night shots of the nearby Sunshine Skyway Bridge. I like how this bridge looks like a sailing ship at night, but it's tough to get a decent shot even with a tripod. We were at it with two Nikons and long lenses, for half an hour.

Skyway Bridge.jpg

It has been a quiet, if damp, night on the pier. Being over the water, a mile from shore, it is naturally very humid. But the temperatures have been perfect and as I type this, the sun is rising to give a pink and blue start to the day. We'll tow south today, either to Naples, the Everglades, or the Keys, depending on how it goes.

Our Google Earth position on the Skyway Pier.

December 02, 2006

Travel books

We are departing for Ft De Soto today, where we'll meet a few other Airstreamers before we start heading further south. Eleanor is rushing to get a load of laundry done while we pack up. Yesterday we did the car maintenance, which was limited to an oil change and a wash.

Tampa car wash.jpg

I've been reading more travel books. It's becoming a compulsion. A few weeks back I re-read the lively story by Anthony Bourdain called "A Cook's Tour." Bourdain is a hilarious writer with the gritty realistic viewpoint of someone who has spent his career in the modern equivalent of a 16th century ship's belowdecks: a restaurant kitchen. In the kitchen, it's a strict authoritarian system, where if the chef says "Fall on your sword," you fall on your sword and then get up and make a perfect grilled seafood medley.

His book is about his travels around the world on behalf of the Food Network, for a TV show he hosted. It's not politically correct (his rants about vegetarianism are particular brutal), it's not G-rated, and it's not predictable. If you can deal with those things, it is a lot of fun to read.

My current book is "Blue Highways," by William Least Heat Moon, which is considered a classic by many travel readers. The book feels aimless at first, as the author takes off in his "basic plumber's van" in the aftermath of his marriage, and seeks out the smallest and most oddly-named towns he can find. Then you realize it's meant to be aimless -- reflecting the author's voyage and purpose. Along the way, he meets a cast of characters who are too diverse and honest to be anything but real. It's Kerouc, mellowed out and slowed down, in the late 1970s.

You might have guessed that I've been reading travel books to inspire myself to write up our story in a book format. I took a crack at it last August, but threw out 80+ pages of draft in October because it wasn't what I was hoping for. With an appreciation of the various styles of people like Capt Joshua Slocum and William Least Heat Moon, and the stories of Magellan and Wally Byam, I hope to eventually strike upon the style that will work for our extended trip.

We are neither Magellan nor Byam, not sailing the world like Slocum, or interviewing locals like Least Heat Moon. We are not in search of the perfect meal like Bourdain -- nor any form of perfection. When I can adequately answer the question of why we are out here, I think then I'll be ready to write the book.

December 01, 2006

New shelves

Our Tampa visit is winding down. Today we are finalizing a few last things and starting to pack up. One of the last projects to get done is the installation of our new shelves.

Tampa new shelves.jpg
Click for larger

They are a huge bonus for our storage. Right now you can see the laser printer sitting in the upper slide-out tray. Most of the time that tray will hold a bin for recycling, and the lower shelf will hold another bin for laundry.

The laser printer will go in when we are in a campground that doesn't offer recycling (all too often, I'm afraid), and when we are parked for long periods. (The laser printer travels in the back of the Armada.) Below the shelves we have room for shoes, and on the left are a series of hooks that hold headlamps and rally badges. This really improves our space utilization.

On the top of the counter you can see a series of terra cotta object sculpted and painted by Emma: an "boy with a hat", a basket, an "experiment pod", and a hamburger. By the way, she lost a tooth last night ... her third one.

Tampa BB parking 2.jpg
This will be our last night in Bay Bayou!