December 2013

December is the holiday season.  We had thought that Christmas, 2012, was likely to be the last time we spent Christmas with Kal’s family since we would be on the road in our RV.  However, since we are still at Auburn we were able to celebrate Christmas with the family in Birmingham on December 29.  Christmas day itself was quiet with just Kal and I since none of the kids could get away from work or had other plans for Christmas.  Travel was also limited, in part to save money.  Kal put in a lot of time knitting kozies for cans and bottles, plus either socks or hats for all the relatives and kids.  The three kids and spouses did get additional gifts, but they were limited in cost since this was the first time in a number of years that we did not get a holiday bonus from Auburn University.  Oh, the trials of being retired!  Therefore we planned only a single week in the camper visiting Jenny in Orlando, Florida for her birthday.  However, before we were finished Christmas got a lot more expensive.  I had minor surgery on my nose to remove a growth (which is still healing and I have yet to decide whether plastic surgery will be needed) on Friday the 13, the day before we left for Florida.  Also on Friday, Kal attempted to drive the Lincoln to the store while I dropped off a dissertation review at the University.  We had to jump the car since we had not driven it for a couple of months.  While Kal got the store in good shape, the car died on the way home and refused to start.  We had it towed to a repair shop in Auburn and left it with them while we were out of town.  On Monday, they were unable to reset the alarm system on the car and the car was then towed to the Ford dealership.  The problem turned out to be a fuel pump, which meant over $1000 to fix.  While on the way back from Florida, the brakes on the Mariner started to squeal, meaning another trip to the repair shop and over $700 more.  To add insult to injury, the garbage disposal sprung a major leak in the house the Friday after Christmas and another $200 repair bill.  All totaled the month of Christmas cost us over $3000 in unanticipated bills.  This is certainly going to be a bind on travel the next few months.

As I mentioned, we did get to spend a wonderful week with Jenny in Florida.  As most of you know, Jenny works for Walt Disney World so we like to stay at WDW where she can get a good discount.  Over the years we have stayed at a few of the Disney hotels, but we really like the cabins at Fort Wilderness.  This trip would be the first time, however, we stayed in the campgrounds themselves.  Since Jenny’s discount is blocked out for the week before Christmas, we could only get reservations from December 15-19.  Not being in any hurry we split the trip over two days stopping over at Suwanee River State Park in Florida on the way to WDW and the weekend at Reed Bingham State Park in Georgia on the way back to Auburn.  It rained on us going to Florida, so we had to set up a wet camp right at dusk and it rained on our way back to Auburn after the weekend in Georgia.  However, the time in between was nice weather, even if a bit cool for Florida being more typical of Alabama that time of year.  It was also nice that Jenny stayed with us in the campgrounds all week, which meant getting to use the extra bed in the camper.  Of course, this meant we did not have a table inside, but we did not spend very much at the campsite anyway.

Jenny Turkeys

On Monday, we got together with a longtime friend and past roommate of Jenny’s, Kori, for a round of disc golf.  Kori had a date at the gym in the morning, so we spent the morning making dinner reservations for Jenny’s birthday at the restaurant in Italy at EPCOT and buying tickets for Cirque de Soleil for Wednesday evening.  There is a beautiful park in Orlando, Gordan Bennett Park near the fair grounds with two 18 hole disc golf courses.  All of the fairways were wide open with few trees, however, quite a few of the holes went over water.  After seeing the 18th hole on the north course with the pin on a tiny island, we decided to play the south course.  This was a wise choice since neither Jenny or Kori had never played disc golf.  They both got pretty good by the end of the day, but started out pretty rough.  We were careful to position them beyond the water hazards whenever possible.  As it turned out, I was the only one to throw the disc into a mud hole, which thankfully was shallow enough I was able to retrieve the disc.  Kal played some holes, but spent most of the afternoon taking pictures of the rest of us.  We then took everyone out to dinner and had a good time and a good meal.

DiscPin Greg Jenny Kori

On Tuesday, the three of us set out to visit the only National Park in the area, the De Soto National Monument, south of Tampa Bay.  I used the GPS unit to find De Soto and we followed the directions.  However, we did not end up at De Soto National Monument as planned, but Fort De Soto Park, which is on a small island south of Tampa Bay and St Petersburg.  Instead of the National Monument we arrived at a county park and the remains of a Spanish American era fort.  While the mortars at the fort never fired a shot except in practice, it was the staging area for the invasion of Cuba and served as target practice for bombers during World War II (they dropped bombs filled with sand for practice which still rattled the windows in St. Petersburg).  While not what we had intended we enjoyed looking over the small fort and museum and settled in for a picnic lunch in the park.  Near the end of lunch, we had a visitor.  Jenny spied a raccoon watching us eat lunch and managed to get a few pictures of it in the bushes.  However, the raccoon was not satisfied with just watching as it slowly crept closer and closer.  When it was evident that the raccoon was determined to share our lunch and kept coming towards us, we started grabbing up the food on the table.  I was still putting things into a plastic bag, when the raccoon climbed right up onto the table and grabbed a plastic container of animal crackers in its mouth.  I tried to get the critter to drop the container, but it went immediately to the closest palm tree and up it went with its prize.  We watched the raccoon as he tore his way into the plastic container up in the tree, totally in disbelief.  However, before he could claim his cookie prizes, the container got away from him and we snatched from the ground.  After taking the following picture as evidence, we throw the container away in the raccoon proof trash cans.  However, the raccoon was not finished.  After checking the ground around the base of the tree, the raccoon followed us back to the car staying no more than 10 feet away at the same time.  I don’t think the raccoon was rabid, just very use to being fed from the leavings of picnic lunches and winter being slim pickings.  It certainly made our day!

Kal RaccoonFarRaccoonNearRaccoonTreeRaccoonDamage

After the adventure the day before, we decided to spend Wednesday pretty much in camp.  We did manage to squeeze in a round of mini-golf at the Winter – Summertime course at WDW (Jenny had free passes courtesy of Disney) and fixed a chicken Dutch oven meal for an early dinner.  We then took the WDW bus to Downtown Disney for an evening at Cirque de Soleil.  In all the years we spent visiting Jenny at WDW, this was the first time Cirque de Soleil was open.  We have always wanted to make a performance of this world renown company and so this was our one time to do so.  However, even with Jenny’s 50% discount the tickets cost $150 for the three of us!  If we had known then how much the month was going to cost, we would have reconsidered.  While it could be argued whether any 90 minute show is worth this much money, it was a show to remember!  They had all the acts you expect in a circus from acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists, clowns, trampoline, high wire, and women doing unbelievable things hanging from drapes high in the air.  Unlike any other circus, the entire performance is very well choreographed with live music and singing.  The things they can do with a set of trampolines alongside a three story wall with windows is amazing.  They had platforms that raised up out of the floor for different acts and trapeze and wires that lowered from the ceiling high overhead for other acts.  If you can afford it, it is certainly a show not to miss!

I know what you are thinking, how can you spend a week at Walt Disney World and not spend time in any of many theme parks.  You must understand that since Jenny can get us free into the parks and we have visited nearly every year over more than 10 years, we have seen and done everything we have wanted in each of the theme parks.  You can also imagine how excited Jenny is with spending time in the theme parks where she works every day.  Therefore, we generally spend a day in the theme parks seeing all the new or updated attractions and shows.  Thursday was the day for us in the parks, ending with a nice dinner at Italy in EPCOT, watching the Candlelight Processional at America in EPCOT and watching the outrageous holiday fireworks display at EPCOT.  The day started at Animal Kingdom where we went directly to the Everest ride which I enjoy and only rode once since it opened a few years ago.  We also stayed around to enjoy the Bird show, which we had not yet seen.  Then it was on to EPCOT for the rest of the day riding some of our favorite rides that we had not done for a while before heading into the World Showcase.  We decided to see the updated film of Canada hosted by Martin Short (new to us even though it was updated quite a few years ago) and I was stopped by one of the cast members in Canada asking if I worked there.  I thought they were speaking to Jenny, but it turned out that they were commenting on the red and black checked flannel shirt I was wearing which was identical to those worn by the cast members in Canada!  I got a few more comments to that effect while we waited for the movie.  Our day in the parks was excellent as usual.  In my opinion, Disney simply does it right.  Where other theme parks attempt to put on a good front, Disney succeeds every single time.  We also have a great time.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt to run into a security guard that is a friend of Jenny’s who back doors us onto the Spaceship Earth ride without having to stand in the 30 minute line!  I guess knowing the right people does have it’s perks!

Friday was a long day traveling to the Reed Bingham State Park, just off interstate 75 north of Valdosta.  It took us over 6 hours to get there since we have decided to stay off Interstates when we are pulling the trailer.  Part of this is a traffic issue, but it is also a desire to see more of the countryside and take a leisurely pace.  This makes a lot of sense when you are only traveling for 4 hours before stopping at a campsite, but over 6 hours in the winter means you are either leaving before sunup (which is not practical) or you are setting up camp in the dark.  While it is not quite dark at 5:30 in the evening in December, it was a challenge to set up and have dinner before it was too dark.  We spent a leisurely day in the state park with a 2 mile hike along the Little River, a black water river with a lot of wetlands.  They put a lot of effort into the trails which along the river are on a boardwalk.  Sunday was spent coming home in the rain and I was glad we got home around 12 local time as Sunday afternoon the skies opened up.


This was a great trip and we don’t have any regrets.  However, I don’t know how long it will take to recover from the other expenses of the month.  I suspect January and possibly February will be confined to trying out my new hand held GPS unit I got for Christmas with some Geocaching in Alabama and Georgia.  In other words, day trips!  I hope everyone had a joyous and healthy holidays and you all had a chance to hug someone you see only once a year or longer!

November, 2013

Following our two week trip in October and with the upcoming holidays, we decided it would be wise to not travel extensively in November.  Without the bonus check from Auburn University to pay for Christmas, the budget was not going to allow much in the way of travel for the next couple of months.  Therefore, we decided to limit ourselves to a single week in November and again in December.  It was a good opportunity to take advantage of the time share we had purchased a few years ago.  The time share provides us a week stay every two years and we needed to use it this year or lose it.  Therefore, we looked for a time share that we could exchange our week and settled on the Marriott Surf Watch time share in Hilton Head.  While November may not be the best time to visit the beach, as it is certainly “off season” for Hilton Head, the weather will be a lot cooler than the summer.  For December, we decided to visit Jenny down in Orlando for her birthday and made reservations for a few days at the Wilderness Campground on Disney property.  With our plans all set we took it easy around the house and enjoyed a relaxing day with the family in Birmingham on Thanksgiving.

On Friday following Thanksgiving, we were off to spend a week at Hilton Head.  The Marriott Surf Watch is a lovely resort within easy walking distance of the beach, yet far enough from the hustle of Hilton Head to be a quiet location.  Having a two bedroom apartment to enjoy for a week is a real step up from a small popup camper and gave us a glimpse of how the “other half” vacations.  Having a fully equipped kitchen meant that we could eat most of our meals in the room, which saved a lot on the expenses.  Our first day, Saturday, was really only a half day to be a tourist as we had to be in the room by 2:00 to watch the Iron Bowl on TV.  Therefore, we stayed on the island and visited the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Head.  This is an old plantation that the city of Hilton Head has restored and turned into a museum.  The visitor center is rather modest using the down stairs of the plantation home, but the grounds are well worth visiting.  They have a couple of boardwalks that extent into the salt marshes and interesting modern statue scattered throughout the property.  There a lot of very large live oak and red cedar trees and an extensive camellia garden.  After lunch we took a walk on the beach and even though it was too cold for us to go into the ocean (we had our coats on), the wading children were having a great time.  The rest of the afternoon was spent watching the Iron Bowl.  Anyone interested in Auburn football, will likely remember that game for the rest of their lives.  I know I will never forget that we left Auburn the Friday before the “big game”.  With the students gone for Thanksgiving, the campus had been full of RVs since the previous weekend and the town was overflowing with football fans.  I was impressed with Auburn’s composure during the game, especially as Alabama played like they were afraid they could lose.  As well they should since they were unable to consistently stop Auburn’s running game.  After missing two field goals and having a third one blocked, Alabama found themselves in a 28 point tie at the end of the game.  They lobbied for and were correctly granted one second on the clock to try a 50 yard field goal.  I just knew that after missing three field goals that put them in this position, their field goal kicker would now redeem himself and become the hero of the game.  Not wanting to watch this and expecting at the best we would be going to overtime, I stepped out for a smoke.   Upon returning to the TV I saw Auburn running the ball out of the end zone, which no sense at all since Alabama would have won the game with the field goal and would not be kicking off the ball.  As I soon learned, Auburn returned the missed field goal for 108 yards to win the Iron Bowl!!  The second week in a row with a miraculous finish.  Now we have beaten Missouri for the SEC Championship in impressive fashion (no miracles needed), Ohio State has lost to Michigan State, and somehow Auburn will be playing for the National Championship.  Like 2010, this is a season to remember!!  WAR EAGLE!!

HoneyHead ReadingBird

Enough football.  We still had the South Carolina and Georgia Atlantic coast to explore.  On Sunday, we went for an extended hike in the Pinkney National Wildlife Refuge.  While I suppose there is nothing special about the refuge for a casual visitor, the walk through the salt marshes and wooded areas of the island was very pleasant.  The weather was too cool for much wildlife, but it also eliminated the mosquitoes and other insects that I would imagine are a challenge during the summer.

On Monday, we headed towards Savannah, Georgia with the idea of visiting the Fort Pulaski National Monument and seeing some of the historic district of Savannah.  Once we discovered that Fort Pulaski is a well preserved Civil War era brick fort that is in the best condition of any forts I have seen from that era, it was obvious that we would not have time to visit Savannah.  The accompanying pages give more details about our visit to the fort, but this fort is must see for one reason.  From the front the fort is in amazing condition and the inside of the fort has been wonderfully restored.  However, be sure to walk around to the back side of the fort.  Of all a sudden you see the effect of the rifled cannon fire from Tybee Island that led to the surrender of the fort to the Union in 1861.  All along the back side are cannon holes in the bricks and the area that was repaired after the surrender is also obvious for it’s lack of holes.  You can even see the cannonballs lodged in a few of the holes.  To round out the afternoon, we also visited Old Fort Jackson which is a War of 1812 era fort that also saw service during the Civil War as part of the defense of Savannah countering the impact of the Union forces at Fort Pulaski and the naval blockade of the Savannah river.

FortFrontside FortBackside

We returned to Savannah on Tuesday to spend the day in the historic district of the city.  We purchased trolley tickets for the day, which is a great way to see the historic district for the first time.  Not only are their trolley stops throughout the district that come by about every 15 minutes, but the drivers provide a running commentary of the historic houses and squares of which there are a lot.  This two and a half square miles that make up the historic district is so full of history, we will have to return many times to see it all.  Although I would prefer walking in the future as the time lost waiting on a trolley could be better spent.  Just seeing the 22 squares and statues makes a worthwhile trip by themselves and nearly every building has an historic sign and many have tours or are themselves museums.  To get a full sense of the history and planned layout of the city designed by Ogelthorpe, I would recommend the Massie Heritage Museum, which also gives a good understanding of grade schools during the time of the Civil War.

After spending a day in the city, Wednesday was spent back in nature.  We began with a round of disc golf in Sergeant Jasper Park where I discovered that tight fairways through the pine trees means there is a lot of opportunities to hit trees with a disc!  If the discs were made of metal I would have swore the trees had magnets installed.  For lunch we headed over to the Savannah Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center where we learned the history of the refuge and its importance to wildlife.  Their biggest challenge is that most of the land around the Savannah river had been in rice plantations for over a hundred years prior to the Civil War.  You can still easily see the dikes and rice fields on the landscape extending for many miles.  The refuge has taken advantage of these dikes to create a variety of wetland habitats that can be actively managed by flooding or draining the fields.  We had a very enjoyable afternoon hiking some of the dikes through the wetland areas along the four mile driving tour they have set up for visitors.  We finally saw some alligators, which Kal was enjoying until we came around a curve in the dike and found a large alligator sunning itself.  Kal immediately jumped back and turned around without getting a photograph as the alligator took off into the water along the dike.  My recollection is that the alligator was over 6 feet long, but I can’t be sure as I only got a glimpse before it disappeared.

Being our last day at Hilton Head, we decided to check out Parris Island, which is only about 6 miles from Hilton Head if you are a seagull.  After driving for over 50 miles we finally got to the entrance gate of the Parris Island Marine Recruitment Depot.  We were not sure whether we would be allowed on the base, but found that all we had to do was show our driver’s license and be ready for a car search if required.  Come to find out, Thursday is Family Day at the base for graduating marines and there were quite a few civilians greeting theirs sons, daughters, or boy/girlfriends so we were not out of place on the base.  I expected the museum at Parris Island to be all about the marines, which it was for more than half of the museum.  However, the museum also has great exhibits that give the history of Parris Islands and the Low Country of South Carolina from pre-history through the Spanish and French colonization periods of the 1600 and up through the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War.  This part of South Carolina had a part to play in all of these periods and this museum did a great job of putting it all into perspective.  There is also a 15 stop driving tour of the base that has stops for the historic structures on the base, including the old dry dock that was the only wooden dry dock on the east coast until ships became too big for the structure.  The most interesting part of the island was the sites of Charlesfort and St. Elena, which is a national historical landmark.  These sites commemorate the struggles between the Spanish and French colonists where the Port Royal sound marked the northern most extent of the Spanish colonies and was contested over with France multiple times during the 1600s.