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Archive for December, 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

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.”

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
Repaired!

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.

St George Island, FL

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.

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?

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.

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