March 2015 – Spartanburg, South Carolina

Since we have seen the National Parks and most of the historical State Parks in the Carolinas last fall, our intention was to pass quickly through on our way to Virginia.  Our first stop was a campground just outside of Spartanburg, which is close enough to our daughter, Nikki, to visit and buy some more Hi-Wire beer.  We pulled into the park around 2:00 in the afternoon and were shown to a pull-through site that was easy to get into and out of.  The pad for the RV was asphalt, which is the first time we had an asphalt pad.  Many of their older sites were asphalt, while their newer sites are either gravel or concrete.  This would seem to be a better alternative, as the asphalt was getting pretty torn up.  Our site had a big hole where a previous visitor had punched through the asphalt with their center pole.  Other than that, the site was large enough, although not as nice as the state parks or COE campgrounds we had been staying in.  It also had a concrete patio and picnic table which are nice additions.  The owners were extremely friendly and helpful, especially once we offered them a couple of Hi-Wire beers.  They are relatively new owners of the campgrounds and are in the process of making improvements. The bathrooms were brand new and modern and while we were there they patched a section of the road coming into the campground.  We would certainly stay here again if we are ever in the area.  Once we got set up, we enjoyed a relaxing evening since we finally had great TV reception again!


Since we had already seen the sights around Spartanburg, last fall, our only objective was to drive up to Asheville and visit with Nikki and Chris.  So on Tuesday, that is just what we did.  They took us on a tour of the Hi-Wire expansion that is projected to be completed in June.  They have leased a huge building down near Biltmore Estates and are in the process of putting in concrete pads to hold a huge Brewhouse and multiple fermentors, etc.  Once completed their production is going to allow distribution through all of North Carolina, South Carolina, and eastern Tennessee.  The new location will also house a fully automated bottling and packaging line which will be able to bottle a batch of beer in just hours where now it takes the better part of a week.  They are also planning to have a “tasting room” at the new location that will twice the size of their current location on the edge of downtown Asheville.  It should attract visitors staying near the Biltmore (high price clientele) and be a better location for the beer tours that bring crowds to the breweries in town.  While we were there they were delivering the main part of the bottling line.  Working with their pallet jacks and undersized (for this job) forklifts, they did manage to pull the machine (over 6000 pounds) out of the truck and get it too a spot out of the way of the workers still pouring concrete for the floor.  It was quite an operation, entailing at one point one forklift towing another to get sufficient power.


After this excitement we ate a late lunch with Nikki and Chris, said hello to their dogs, Wiley and Lucky.  We also replenished our beer supply with a case of brown ale “Bed of Nails” and a sample of their seasonal beers, in particular “Bird on A Wire” which is a collaboration with another small brewery.

ChrisAtLunchNikkiAndLucky KalAndWiley

Wednesday was spent in the campgrounds where I got caught up again on the blog and Kal enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of knitting and playing games on the computer.

March 2015 – Hartwell, Georgia

Our next campground was to be Watsadler Corps of Engineers Campground on Lake Hartwell, near the South Carolina state line.  We choose this campground for two reasons.  First, we could get the RV there without having to deal with Atlanta as it was northeast of our current location.  Secondly, it provided access to Ninety Six National Historic Site which is our last National Park site in South Carolina.  I had tried to get a site at one of the COE campgrounds further east along the Savannah River, however, they did not open for the season until later in March or April.  Watsadler COE was the only one open year round.  The pull was not bad over narrow Georgia highways and better US highways.  In fact, we missed a turn and ended up traveling about 20 miles on I-20 which turned out to be fortuitous since there was a Rest Area along this stretch that gave us an easy place for lunch.  We were not in any hurry and got to Watsadler around 2:30.  Again this was fortunate since the registration booth is only open from 2-5.  If we had come earlier we would have had to know our site number so we could park the RV and return to register later in the day.  I suppose we could have looked it up on the web, since I have not needed to record this information in the past.  I will from now on, but since it was after 2 we got registered.  We did run into one problem with the registration.  This was the first COE campground that wanted to see our National Park Pass we were using to get the discount (50% off!!).  It turns out that you have to have the Senior Pass, which we will not be eligible for until next year since you have to be 62.  The Golden Eagle Interagency Pass is good for only admission, not campground fees.  So we had to pay an additional $90 for the week.  This is still within our budget, but obviously not as good as half price.  In any case, we got registered and found our campsite.  We were immediately impressed with the site.  First, it was a pull-through site which made it easy to park the RV and second, the view outside the front door was great.  Our site looked east across Lake Hartwell which gave us a great view, especially with the sunrises in the morning when it was not cloudy.  Kal got some great pictures of the sunrise.  In addition, the sites are all lined up along the shore line, which meant there was a lot of room between the sites.  The bathroom facilities were also close.  My only complaint about the campgrounds was the dump station, which is actually on the way into the campground loop instead of on the way out.  This meant that when we left the following week we had to pull around to the dump station and then circle through the campground again.  Poor planning in my opinion.

Campsite KalAtCampsite Sunrise

Since a cold front was to come through on Wednesday causing rain and lower temperatures, we decided to visit Ninety Six National Historic Site on Tuesday.  It was a little over an hour to Ninety Six and when we arrived we discovered the Visitor Center was not open on Monday or Tuesday.  Having come so far already, we decided to see what we could instead of returning later in the week.  Except for the museum and movie about Ninety Six, we did not miss anything.  I was only upset that I could not buy my lapel pin that I am collecting from each National Park.  What is it about the National Historic Sites in the Carolinas?  We ran into this problem last year at Moore’s Creek National Historic Site in North Carolina which also was not open on Tuesdays.  I suppose we should check their hours on the web first and will attempt to do this in the future.  In any case, the weather was great on Tuesday and we had a great time visiting the site, especially since we had it all to ourselves.  The path from the Visitors Center travels along the old Island Ford Road that goes to the ford on the Saluda River.  Due to heavy traffic in the past, the road was well sunk into the ground and still very obvious.  We found the same to be true with the Charleston Road that led south our of town.  Once you exit the roadbed you are immediately struck with the condition of the trenches and earthen embankment of the Star Fort.  The picture is even more dramatic when you climb up into the observation tower that gives a great bird’s eye view of the battlefield.  Back in 1781, during the later part of the Revolutionary War, Ninety Six was the location of the longest siege of the war.  Before that time Ninety Six had become the trade and cultural center for the backwoods of South Carolina.  Unlike the coastal areas around Charleston and Savannah, this was the frontier with continuous tensions between the settlers and Cherokee Indians.  The settlers themselves were divided in their loyalties between the Crown (Loyalists) and the revolutionists (Patriots) to the extent that there was a continuous civil war being waged since 1775 when Ninety Six was the site of the first land battle of the Revolution between American loyalists and patriots only a few months after Lexington and Concord.  After being defeated at Kings Mountains and again at Cowpens just a hundred miles to the north in October and January, respectively, and a costly victory at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, the loyalist army under the command of General Lord Cornwallis was retreating to Charleston.  This left the frontier without military support and General Greene in command of the Continental Army decided to remove British rule of the frontier rather than pursuing Cornwallis.  This brought his army to Ninety Six in May of 1781.  However, the loyalists under the command of Lt Col. Cruger had fortified not only the town of Ninety Six with a stockade, but also improved the defense at the Stockade Fort to the West of town and constructed an 8 sided Star Fort to the Northeast of town.  Without heavy artillery, Greene was forced to use siege tactics to take the town.  Concentrating on the Star Fort, they began to build parallel trenches to bring up men and cannon within range of the fort.  The first parallel was completed on June 1, the second on June 3, and the third on June 10.  You can see all of these parallels on the ground after the excavations in 1973 and 1974.  They then put up a 30 foot high wooden tower to provide a platform to shoot down into the fort.  However, the loyalists simply put up a higher wall of sandbags to protect themselves.  After learning that there was a relief column on the way to reinforce the loyalists, General Greene decided to storm the fort on June 13.  Armed with axes and hooks to pull down the sandbags, 50 soldiers were ordered to advance on the fort.  However the loyalists did not wait for them to gain access over the walls.  Instead Cruger sent troops in both directions from the back of the fort and pinned the patriots in the ditch.  General Greene abandoned the attack and before dawn on June 20 had retreated north.

KalAtTrenches GregAtTrenches

Since the town of Ninety Six was burned by the loyalists when they withdrew towards the coast in July, there is nothing left of the town, although they have marked out the boundaries.  They have located the brick jail on the edge of town and done some archeological excavations of the homes finding a few artifacts.  We also took a short hike down the Charleston road to the Gouedy Trail which is 1.5 mile loop through the bottomland hardwood forest along the creek.  As all bottomland hardwood forests it was fairly swampy with multiple small creeks and they have done a good job with the trail and bridges over them.  The trail takes you to the site of the original Gouedy Tradepost, which became the original Fort Ninety Six in the 1750s to trade with and protect the early settlers from the Cherokee Indians.  It is interesting that they don’t know where the name Ninety Six came from, although it could represent the distance at the time to the Cherokee town of Keowee, near Clemson.  There are also some unmarked graves along the trail from the 1700s that are probably the remains of a slave cemetery.


After the side trip we headed up the hill to the Stockade Fort that overlooked the town which they have partially reconstructed.  You can get a good sense of the defensive nature of the fortifications since they have inserted pointed poles into the soil as would have surround the Star Fort to protect it from ground attack.  They have also brought in a 1700s log cabin from nearby to use as a demonstration and education center for the site.


On Wednesday I checked into Disc Golf courses in the area and found one in Greenwood, which is less than 10 miles from Ninety Six.  So I decided to travel back to Ninety Six to get my lapel pin and take in a round of disc golf.  With the cold front approaching the day was cloudy and windy, so I was not sure if I would be able to play, but it gave me a good excuse to return to Ninety Six.  Kal decided to stay at the camper, so we each had a day to ourselves.  Now that the Visitors Center was open, there were a lot more people visiting the site and I was able to take in their movie as well as get my pin.  The movie was very well done, using real actors to play the roles, giving a complete history of the rise of Ninety Six and its importance to bringing law and order to the frontier.  They also showed the construction of the Star Fort from digging the walls and constructing the abatis in front of the fort.  They did a real good job showing the trenches being constructed during the siege and the short fight to storm the fort.  While not worth an hour’s trip by itself, I was glad I got to see it.  From there I went and got some lunch and went in search of the disc golf course.  The course is on the campus of Lander University in downtown Greenwood.  I found the baskets for the course with no problem, but I could not find the starting point for the course and with construction on campus I could not figure out where visitors were supposed to park.  Taking into account the threatening weather and the students walking through the course going to classes, I decided against playing disc golf.  Instead I went shopping and bought me some tennis shoes I needed.  My current shoes were developing a serious “mouth” at the toes and would soon become flip-flops!!  So the day was not a complete loss.

Thursday was the start of the NCAA Basketball tournament and we had a good signal for CBS.  Over the years we have enjoyed our basketball and really missed attending the Auburn games the last two years, so we were excited to be able to watch the tournament again.  Kal grabbed the dirty clothes and went into town to a laundromat and I cleaned the RV in the morning.  We were both done by noon and settled in to watch some basketball.  We saw some great games on Thursday, although without cable all we could watch was whatever game was on CBS.  Except for the blowout by Kentucky the games were entertaining.  I did not realize I would miss the old way CBS used to cover the tournament before all the cable channels.  In the past, they would keep you updated on all the games cutting to them at half time and whenever something exciting was happening during the end of the game.  Now with cable, they ignore the other games and the only way you can keep up with them is the scores at the top of the screen.  Even during halftime all they did was talk about and maybe show a couple of highlights.  While frustrating to be limited again to a single game, it was still better than nothing.

Friday through Sunday was pretty much the same deal.  We piddled around the RV in the morning working on the blog and knitting or playing games and watching basketball in the afternoon and evenings.  Even the weather cooperated since it was cloudy and raining every day but Saturday, so we did not feel so guilty about spending the time in front of the TV.  Even though we had to watch some games we were not that interested in, instead of other games that would have been of more interest, we did get to see UAB lose their second game and Wichita State win their first two games and make it to the Sweet 16.  We both grew up in Wichita and have a sweet spot for the team.  We are both rooting for Wichita State to win its next game so it can face Kentucky for the Final Four.  It was Kentucky that ended Wichita State’s unbeaten season last year in the tournament.  It would be sweet to be able to end Kentucky’s unbeaten season this year, although I will admit that Kentucky had a much better chance last year then Wichita State will have this year.  We can only hope!!  Go Shockers.


March 2015 – Macon, Georgia

The trip on Thursday to High Falls State Park, north of Macon, Georgia, was uneventful until we pulled into the State Park.  Our first impression of the park after the flatlands we had been staying in during out two months in Florida, was that this was NOT flat.  As the name implies, the main feature of the park are the Falls and cascades on the Towaliga River.  The falls and remains of the 1800s power plant are right at the park offices/store.  This park was different then any other we have stayed in because you first have to pull your RV into the office/store where you register.  Then you immediately circle around the office and go back out on the highway to get to the campground which is across the highway.  We turned at the sign where the road immediately split and guessed the campground was to the left down a steep incline.  We were concerned since the road immediately got too narrow to be called a two-way road and there was not going to be an easy way to get turned around with the RV if we had guessed wrong.  Luckily at the bottom of the incline the road went straight into the campgrounds and we went to pick out a site.  The campgrounds at High Falls State Park are beautifully maintained with lots of room between the sites.  While most of the sites are back-in and 30 amps, we paid for a pull-through site with 50 amps on the upper loop.  After winding through the campground we picked out a real nice site that was easy to get in and out of.  The front door of the camper looked out into the woods over the sites in the lower loop.  There was a nice wooden fence marking out the area in our “front yard”.


We were staying only 4 nights in High Falls State Park and with two National Park locations nearby, we had things to do.  Since Friday was cold and blustery for north Georgia, we decided to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta since we figured it would be mostly indoors.  We are both very familiar with the traffic around Atlanta and were not really looking forward to the trip.  We are also both very familiar with the adult life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the Civil Rights Movement in the South, so we were not expecting to learn very much.  However, we were wrong on both accounts!  The drive into Atlanta along I-75 was, as expected, a nightmare of traffic, but out GPS unerringly brought us to the National Historic Site which has a very nice (and large) free parking lot a short walk from the Visitor Center.  Since it was about 10:30 in the morning on a day with depressing weather, there were not many people at the Visitor Center.  We were able to immediately sign up for the tour of MLK Jr birth home and spent the first half hour before the tour watching a nice documentary about the events leading up to Bloody Sunday and the March to Montgomery in Selma, Alabama.  Following the movie we went immediately to the tour of his home, which was about two blocks away up Auburn Avenue.  So much for being indoors and out of the weather.  The tour of the home is certainly worthwhile, but since it is limited to 15 people each hour, I would suggest getting their early to get your tickets during most of the year.  We had a full group for the 12:00 tour.   Even though I am familiar with MLK Jr professional life, I did not know about his early childhood.  For instance, I did not know about the “Sweet Auburn” neighborhood in Atlanta that he grew up in.  This neighborhood was one of the most affluent African-American communities in the early to mid 1900s.  Following a race riot in 1906, the neighborhood became segregated when the white families moved out.  Living under the Jim Crow laws that were used to discriminate against African-Americans, these segregated neighborhoods began their own businesses and shops.  They even had their own Insurance Company.  In addition, MLK Jr grew up in a household where his mother was a school teacher, his father and grandfather were pastors at Ebenezer Baptist Church, just down the street.  Therefore, academic and religious education were very important to the family to the point that MLK Jr was able to skip the first and last years of high school, entering Morehouse College at 15.  Finally, both his father and grandfather were both community activists addressing social injustice issues, having planning meetings in their own home.  All of this made it almost inevitable that MLK Jr would grow up to be a leader in the Civil Rights Movement preaching non-violent methods of social change.  We also learned that the National Park System has been buying and renovating the homes and businesses on Auburn Avenue to their 1950 condition.  This included the shotgun houses across the street and homes on either side of MLK Jr’s home.  Along with private owners and other organizations, they have done and are continuing to do a great job in recreating the neighborhood.  For instance, the childhood home of MLK Jr. is still owned by the King family, even though it is administered by the National Park Service.

KalNextDoor RangerTalk

It was nearly 1:00 when we finished the tour of the home and both Kal and I were hungry for lunch.  With the bad weather we had decided not to bring a picnic lunch and so went out in search of a cafe.  I don’t know if it was the weather or the fact it was a Friday in mid-March with few tourists, but none of the cafes in the immediate area were open.  Outside of the National Historic Site, this was not an area of Atlanta that I was comfortable wandering around in looking for something to eat.  We decided to just “suck it up” and finish exploring the Historic Site before leaving and finding en early supper somewhere on our way back.  Therefore, we went to visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church where his grandfather, Reverend A.D. Williams was pastor and his father, Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr was co-pastor.  The church itself is not part of the Historic Site and has been restored to what it was in the 1950s.  As expected the sanctuary is fairly small, but beautiful with many stained glass windows.  The congregation has greatly outgrown this church, so they have built a new, modern, and beautiful church across Auburn Avenue from the historical church.  This new church is termed the “Horizon” church and the historical church is the “Heritage” church.  After taking a long look at the sanctuary we proceeded downstairs to the Fellowship Hall, where we had the great joy of hearing a young gentleman recite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  He did an outstanding job of capturing the emotion and intonation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and it was a real treat for us.  I have not heard the entire speech since I was a boy and it is truly one of the great speeches ever made.  It is still inspirational today.


We quickly took in the rest of the area taking a quick look at the International World Peach Rose Garden, which was not very impressive in mid-March.  Too early for roses I guess.  We also visited Fire Station 6, where MLK Jr. spent time playing at while growing up.  It is also the location of the first integrated fire station in Atlanta, although we learned that even then they made it nearly impossible for African-Americans since they had to pay for their own training and nobody was willing to train them.  We also saw MLK Jr’s tomb and reflecting pool.  Once again, this would be a beautiful place on a sunny day, but in the drizzle and wind it was not all that exciting.  By this point we were hungry enough that we did not spend any time in the Visitor Center which is suppose to have a number of very good exhibits about the Civil Rights Movement and MLK Jr.’s professional life up until his assassination.  We figured we would drive back near the state park to get an early dinner, but Atlanta was not done with us yet.  It was 3:00 on a Friday afternoon and the traffic on I-75 leading south to Macon, was a large traffic jam.  After inching along for nearly an hour, we jumped off the interstate and got some food!!  Not wanting to get back into that mess, we let the GPS find an alternate route.  I am not sure it was any better since it kept close to the Interstate and with the still heavy traffic and stop lights it took over another hour to get back.  That 60 mile drive that took just over an hour that morning, took nearly 3 hours to get back.  I REALLY don’t want to go back to Atlanta for any reason in the future!!!!!


After our experience with Atlanta the day before, we spent Saturday at the campsite doing as little as possible.  I did get some work done on the blog and Kal got some knitting done, but very little else.

We still had a National Park System site to visit in the area, so Sunday it was off to Ocmulgee National Monument just outside of Macon.  We got there around 10 in the morning, so there were not very many visitors and we had the whole day to spend in the sunny weather.  Starting with the Visitor Center which had a very good museum about the Native Americans that have occupied the site for over 17,000 years and a good 20 minute movie that provided a very good overview of all the history.  Beginning with the Paleo-Indian (pre 9000 BCE) of nomadic Indians who hunted large mammals and the Archaic Indians (9000-1000 BCE) of hunters and gatherers of which there is little archeological evidence remaining to the Woodland Culture (1000 BCE-900 CE) that left tools and pottery.  The most striking features are of course the large mounds constructed by the Mississippian Culture (900-1100).  The Great Temple Mound that rises over 50 feet into the air and is nearly two acres at the top, the Lesser Temple Mound, the Funeral Mound, the Corn Field Mound, and three other smaller mounds make up the main complex.  The other striking feature are the railroad cuts that were made in the 1830s that destroyed most of the Lesser Temple Mound and again in the 1870s that destroyed most of the Funeral Mound.  These are unfortunate additions to the landscape that have destroyed so much.  However, as the extensive archeological excavations in the 1930s prove, there is still much to be discovered.  This excavation that lasted from 1933-1942 unearthed over 1.5 million artifacts.  Among their finds were a number of earth lodges that the Mississippians used for meetings of their leaders.  They have reconstructed one of these earth lodges using concrete covered in grass as the roof of the lodge.  You can enter into the earth lodge (although you have to watch your head as the Indians of the time were not much over 5 feet in height) on a wooden platform built over the clay floor.  You can see the carved sitting positions for the leaders and the raised platform in the shape of an eagle across from the entryway.  This along made the trip worthwhile.  There is also a wooden stairway up to the top of the Great Temple Mound that gives you a great view of the surrounding area and downtown Macon.  After climbing back down off the Mound we returned to the Visitor Center along two trails that wind their way through the bottomland hardwoods and wetlands surrounding the site and goes by the small Southeast Mound, which it was hard to understand how they determined this small rise was an ancient Indian mound.

GregOnTopViewFromVisitorCenter KalInWetlands

After lunch at the Visitor Center we wanted to see the other sites at the National Monument.  We began with the Funeral Mound which you can drive to, so long as you are careful going through the tunnel under the railroad which was built for a wagon, not a great big pickup truck!  There is not much to see at the Funeral Mound, except for the railroad which has eliminated over half of the mound.  There is also another area at Ocmulgee that is, unfortunately, not accessible because it is deep into the swamps along the river.  The Lamar culture replaced the Mississippians from 1690-1715, combining aspects of both the Mississippians and Woodland cultures.  They also built small mounds one of which has a unique spiral ramp leading to the top.  It was disappointing we could not see these mounds, but there is another couple of small mounds a short hike from the Visitor Center, the Dunlap  and McDougal Mounds.  We walked over to the Dunlap Mound, which is next to the home built by Dunlap when he farmed the area.  Near the Dunlap Mound are some well preserved Civil War earthworks that were built by the Confederates in 1864 to successfully protect Macon and the important railroad from Union forces sent by General Sherman from Atlanta during his March to the Sea.  Union forces tried twice in July and again in November of 1864 to capture Macon and release the Union officers held at Camp Ogelthorpe, but were repulsed both times.  Even though Atlanta was captured and burned by General Sherman, the actions towards Macon were a only a feint before he proceeded east to Savannah.



March 2015 – Douglas, Georgia

While Florida was a great place to spend the last two months, it was time to begin our make our way to the Northeast.  This was a brutal winter for most in the northern states, but except for a couple of nights with below freezing temperatures, the winter in Florida was very mild and pleasant. We leave with a lot of memories of Florida and are now looking forward to new sights and experiences.  Our first stage is to make it to William’s house in Maryland by the first of May and since we have already spent a lot of time in Georgia, we will push quickly through the state.  Since we are limiting our travels to less than 200 miles between stops, it will still take us a couple of weeks.  Our first stop was General Coffee State Park, outside of Douglas, Georgia for three nights.  From there we will move on to Macon and then to the South Carolina state line.  General Coffee State Park is focused on the agricultural history of the region with a heritage farm on the property.  Since the trip took just over 4 hours from Gainesville, Florida, it was about 2:30 in the afternoon when we arrived and all we wanted to do was set up camp.  We were amazed when we pulled into the RV campgrounds to find them nearly empty.  After our experiences for the last two months in Florida where the RV parks and state parks were all at 90% capacity even during the week, it was surprising to see a beautiful state park with only 3-4 RVs camping in it and it is only a couple of hours north of the state line!  All of the RV sites are pull through sites and we had our pick of them, literally.  We choose a nice site with a view of the surrounding woods out the front door.  We are getting good with setting up the RV.  It now takes less than an hour to unhook, plug in, and put the slides out.


Except for the state park, there is not much in the immediate area that we wanted to visit, so we spent Tuesday in the state park.  We began with a 3 mile hike on their nature trail leading from the campgrounds around their Gopher Loop.  This is a loop trail that loops through the pine sand hill community.  When I saw the large number of dead hardwood trees in the mid-story, my first thought was a past storm and subsequent fire had caused it.  However, as we continued on the hike it became obvious to me that the destruction was of human origin.  As we found out later, the area is being actively restored to a longleaf/wiregrass community.  Since fire had been excluded in the state park for over 50 years, they had first reintroduced fire.  However, this was not successfully removing the scrub oaks and hickories, so a couple of years ago they came in and manually cut down the scrub understory followed by a good burn last year.  They are now getting some good longleaf pine regeneration coming in and I understand they have also planted some longleaf as well.  The pictures we took illustrate what the transition looks like, which in many cases is not pretty.  However, as the longleaf pine grow into the understory, this is going to become a good example of the longleaf pine/wiregrass community that historically would have dominated the sand hills maintained by fire.

KalOnTrail LongleafRestoration1

Following the hike we got in the truck and went to visit the Heritage Farm at the park.  While not a working farm, since there are no agricultural fields, they do have examples of the buildings and animals you would find on a pioneer farm in Georgia.  There is a log cabin, corn crib, tobacco barn, and cane mill plus chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys, pigs, and some kind of cow that I have never seen before.  There was also a nice hike around the fishing ponds before going back to the RV for lunch and a relaxing afternoon.


On Wednesday, we decided to just take a break and stay in the campground.  I got caught up on the blog, finally, and Kal got some knitting done for Christmas presents.

March 2015 – Gainesville, Florida

After finishing the work on the RV it was an easy pull up towards Gainesville to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.  This is the State Park south of town that gives the University of Florida’s stadium, “The Swamp” its name since you can see the stadium off in the distance from the State Park.  As all the places we have stayed in Florida, the campgrounds in the State Park were very busy with just a few open sites through the week.  The campgrounds are set in a hardwood hammock on the south edge of the prairie (which is really a freshwater marsh), so there were a LOT of trees and all the sites were back in.  As we wound through the campground looking for our site (some of the turns were very tight for our 35 foot monster) I was concerned about being able to back it in, but we had no choice.  Thankfully, once we found our site was right across the road from the restroom which meant we had the parking lot in front of the restroom and the site was angled to the road.  Going VERY slowly, I turned the RV into the site, pulled up once to straighten out the truck, and went straight back into the site!!  Certainly my best job so far.  In addition, the site was deep enough to park the truck straight in instead of parallel to the road.  We got set up with no issues and settled down for a relaxing afternoon.  As with most State Parks, there is a lot of room between the sites and with the trees we could just barely see our neighbors on either side.  With the bathrooms just across the road, we used them for taking showers instead of filling up the gray tank since we did not have a sewer hookup for the week.  We are not yet comfortable with our gray water capacity for a week and we have not invested in a pull behind tank that most full timers use to empty their tanks when they are staying for extended periods.  Pulling the RV out to empty the tanks certainly was NOT an option!


Even had we not stayed in the campground, this was a State Park that we would have wanted to visit.  So Tuesday we went to check out Paynes Prairie, beginning with the Visitor Center at the southern edge.  They have a very nice Visitor Center with a small museum and an excellent video about the park.  As I suspected, Paynes Prairie is not what I would think of as a prairie.  It is really a very large freshwater marsh formed by a limestone sink 40,000 acres in size.  It would be a lake except there is a drain through the limestone on the north end that maintains a water level ranging from 0 to 2 feet depending upon the rainfall.  In fact, the drain has become plugged in the past turning the prairie into a shallow lake, the latest being from 1871-1886 when there were steamboats transporting fruits and other agricultural commodities to the railroad in Gainesville.  There have also been efforts to drain the marsh to create orchards and grazing land for cattle.  Today nearly the entire prairie is part of the Paynes Prairie Preserve and they are working on restoring it to its pre-settlement conditions.  They have even introduced a small herd of about 50 bison, as well as, herds of Florida Cracker horses and cattle.  They are free to roam the Preserve and surrounding bluffs.  As visitors you have to enter their habitat, which was great.  The trails are along old dikes that extend into the Prairie, but even then you can access only a very small percentage of the habitat.  We did see a lot of bison wallows and scat, but unfortunately never caught sight of a bison.  They also have a tower at the Visitor Center to give a great view, but it was closed for repairs when we were there.  We still enjoyed a short hike through the hammock around the Visitor Center and hiking about 1.5 miles out into the Preserve along the dike.


Kal has been in search of ancient Indian Mounds since we got to Florida, so on Wednesday we headed towards the Gulf Coast to the Crystal River Archeological State Park which was suppose to have a series of Indian mounds.  As advertised, there were a series of 6 Indian mounds at the mouth of the Crystal River.  Unfortunately, the Visitor Center was closed in preparation for a public fund raising event to celebrate the unveiling of a new mural in the museum.  It was too bad we could not see the mural or learn much about the Indian culture and artifacts from the site, but the site was open and we exploring.  The grounds are beautifully maintained as a grass covered park and you can easily see the mound complex.  The main features are two large temple mounds with a plaza in between.  The other mounds have been identified as burial mounds and midden.  It turns out this site was occupied for 1600 years, the longest continuously inhabited site in Florida, and Indians would travel for many miles to bury their dead at the site.  There are two “stele” stones at the site, which are limestone blocks used in the ceremonies as their is evidence that the ramps from the temple mounds extended to the stele.  On one of the stele you can still make out a carving of a head and torso.  In addition, there are wooden steps leading to a platform on top of the larger of the two temple mounds that give a great view of the river and surrounding area.  Finally, there was a unique area set aside for educational purposes.  When they dredged out the boat slip they piled all the material into another small “mound”, which they are now using to demonstrate archeological field techniques. They have set up a series of sieves that school children can use to sift through the material removed from this “mound”.  There are certainly artifacts to be found, but due to the disturbed nature of the mound, they cannot be placed in any time sequence.  The site is not really very large and it only took about an hour to explore it, so we still had most of the day to fill.

TempleMound ViewFromMound

Not too far away there was another historical site, the Yulee Sugar Cane Mill Ruins Historic Park, which sounded like a good place to visit and have lunch.  At first, we drove right by it as it stands on the side of the highway on one side, with a small picnic area on the other side.  We quickly got turned around and came back.  Back in the 1800s, this part of Florida along the coast was all in agriculture. This particular site was owned by Senator Yulee who owned and operated a 5000 acre sugar cane plantation with over 1000 slaves from 1851 until it was destroyed during the Civil War.  These large plantation owners would operate their own sugar cane mills to produce molasses, syrup, and sugar from the cane before shipping to market.  The most striking feature of the ruins is the smoke stack of the furnace that was used to cook the sugar cane and to operate a steam engine to power the cane squeezer and pump water from wells.  On one side of the furnace you can see the large iron gears used to squeeze the sugar cane and the piston of the steam engine.  On the other side are the series of vats used to cook and then cool the sugar.  Missing are the buildings that would have been there for processing, storage, and shipping of the filled barrels.  Again it did not take but a half hour to visit the ruins and another half hour to eat lunch.

Chimney KalAtRuins

We still had the entire afternoon to fill, so we decided to check out the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park that we had passed on US 19/98.  We pulled into the parking lot at the park and found it to be very busy.  We had to park in the overflow area which was over half full.  It turns out this park is really a big outdoor zoo that has been a very successful private enterprise in the past until it fell into financial difficulties and purchased by the state in 1984.  It is suppose to be the best place to see manatees and other native wildlife with tram and boat rides.  However, it also costs $13 to enter the park and from the number of cars in the parking lot, was very busy.  This was not the experience we were looking for, so we decided to visit the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge instead.  This also turned out to be a bust as we located the refuge boundary with no problem, but could not find any hiking trails.  It would appear this refuge is accessible only by boat or canoe.  So we settled for going back to the Crystal River Preserve State Park, which surround the Archeological Park we were at earlier.  This Preserve is mostly the islands, inlets, and backwaters along the Gulf Coast, however, they were suppose to have boat tours twice a day.  When we got there, the Visitor Center was open but nobody was manning the desk and there was a sign that the boat tours were canceled for the day.  This entire day was not working out as we had hoped, but we did what we could.  There was a nature hike of a couple of miles with access off US 19/98, so we went and found it.  We were the only people on the trail, which is fine for us and certainly a lot better then the packed Wildlife Park!  The trail winds through some pine sandhills that they are supposedly converting to longleaf pine and wire grass from the bahia grass that dominates this old cattle ranch.  I could see no evidence of this activity, except they had burned it a few years ago.  The path continues down through a hardwood hammock and along the edge of a freshwater marsh before looping back to the parking lot.  It was a nice walk and made up for our earlier disappointments.

KalAtDockGregOnPath  KalOnTrail

Thursday was another beautiful day and I convinced Kal to visit the Goethe State Forest which advertised they had the largest expanse of old growth longleaf pine in the state.  We knew they had a number of hiking and equestrian trails and so we headed to the offices to check them out.  The receptionist at the State Forest office was extremely friendly and helpful.  Even though they don’t have a formal museum, she took us into their conference room where they had displays about the turpentine industry that was active until 1980 (much later than I was aware of in Alabama), the large number of red-cockaded woodpecker colonies (an endangered species dependent on old natural pine, especially longleaf, for their nesting cavities), butterfly collection, and hiking trails.  She supplied us with more trail maps then we would ever use and we set off to see the forest.  Before lunch we decided to check out a short boardwalk to a large bald cypress tree, Goethe Giant.  The boardwalk was accessed up 4 miles on a woods road, which was well maintained but still gave Kal a thrill as we were bounced around.  The boardwalk is only about 1/4 mile through a bald cypress dome to the largest bald cypress trees I have ever seen.  The boardwalk gets almost close enough to Goethe Giant to touch it.  Goethe Giant is estimated to be over 900 years old and nearly 9 feet in diameter.  It is only just over 100 feet tall, but it is obvious it was once much taller as it is still over 6 feet in diameter at the top of what is left.  There is another bald cypress not too far off the boardwalk that is nearly as big and is also missing its top around 100 feet up.  For an old forester, this was certainly worth the visit!

GregAtGiant MuddyTrail

We proceeded on to the Buck Island Pond Trail for lunch where we ran into a couple of young men in an ATV who had gotten lost.  It turned out they were staying on the State Forest in the primitive campground along with other friends and their horses.  For the past three months they had been traveling from California to Florida trying to travel as much on their horses pulling carts as they could.  Having to travel by dirt roads they had found it difficult since there are not many dirt roads that are left.  After lunch we tried to find the hiking trail around the pond, but it was confusing since it was suppose to begin on the equestrian trial that went by the pond.  After following what we thought was the trail off of the well traveled equestrian trail and ending back at the picnic area, we decided to try the other direction.  This worked as we circled the pond along the fringe of the wet area.  On the other side of the trail was a slash pine stand that had been opened up in a seed tree cut with the intent of converting it to a longleaf pine/wiregrass environment.  They did a good job with the seed tree cut, however, the only longleaf pine trees were along the edge of the stand.  Therefore, they were going to end up with a natural slash pine stand with a few longleaf, unless they intended (or had already) planted some longleaf.  The trail also entered an old longleaf stand, that was suppose to be an example of their old growth longleaf, which was the whole reason I wanted to visit.  However, the trees were less than 100 years old and not what I would call old-growth.  Although there was no evidence of tree stumps that I saw that would indicate past harvesting, there was also no evidence of turpentining, which their literature stated should be evident.  Again this indicates these trees were not as old as they were making them out to be.  It was a pretty stand of longleaf, however, it was certainly not old growth.  After leaving the longleaf stand, the trail went back to the fringe of the pond and exited onto a woods road that had been heavily traveled by both jeeps and horses.  It was not only heavily rutted, but extremely wet and muddy.  I had made the mistake that day of not putting on my hiking boats and be the time we made it out of this swampy area, my tennis shoes were soaked and muddy!!  I will not forget to change into my hiking boots again in the near future.  Still, it was a nice and informative hike and a good use of the day.

By Friday it was time to do laundry, however, this was the first location without a washing machine. All the other state parks and certainly private RV resorts had washing machines, so it was a surprise not to see one.  Therefore, Kal had to head into Gainesville on the hunt for a laundry mat and grocery store.  While she was gone I worked on a detailed cleaning of the inside of the RV.  I had not really cleaned the wood cabinets in a couple of months and their area a LOT of wooden cabinets in this RV!  Kal was back from doing laundry in a couple of hours, but it took me most of the afternoon to clean all the cabinets.  In any case, the RV and truck are now clean inside and outside.

On Saturday, I was needing a break and wanted to catch up on this blog, so we stayed in the campgrounds until supper.  I had contacted Dr. Heather Enloe who I had worked with as the statistician on her PhD graduate committee and gotten to know her and her family while at Auburn.  Since graduation she and her husband, Steven, had taken jobs at the University of Florida in Gainesville.  We had plans to get together today, but as so often happens with a young family, the kids had been sick all week and now mom and dad were suffering from colds as well.  Therefore, we met Heather and her son at a Mexican restaurant within walking distance of their home.  We had a great meal and enjoyable conversation.  We wish them both the best in the future.


On Sunday, we decided to take another chance to see the bison at Paynes Prairie and take another 2 mile hike closer to the northern part of the prairie.  The Bolen Bluff Nature Trail is a loop that winds through a hardwood hammock on the bluff alongside the prairie with access to another dike that extends into the prairie to a wooden wildlife viewing platform.  Along the trail we saw a good mix of hardwoods that included species I am more used to (like sweetgum) with the live oak and cabbage palm.  We also were fortunate to see one of the Florida Cracker horses in a small clearing not far from the trail.  We walked the 0.75 trip out to the viewing platform with the hopes of spotting a bison.  However, when we got to the viewing platform it was fully occupied by a young family having lunch.  We waiting about 20 minutes and when it was obvious they were not leaving any time soon, we left without seeing much of interest except some wading birds.  In conclusion, Paynes Prairie is well worth a visit as a unique set of habitats (there are suppose to be 15 distinct habitats depending upon the season and rainfall) and cannot really be seen from what you can see along I-75.

KalAtBolen GregAtBolen WildHorse

March 2015 – Ocala, Florida

Saturday morning was threatening rain with the chances increasing throughout the day, so even though we had about an hours drive back to Tri-Am, we got moving quickly in the morning.  I wanted to get the RV closed up before it rained.  We did beat the rain by 10:00 and there was only a couple of sprinkles before we pulled back into the dealership.  The lady at the counter was surprised to see us, especially when I said we had an appointment for the day and they were only open until 2 that afternoon.  She was relieved when I corrected myself since the appointment was for Monday morning and we were only looking for a site to park the RV for the weekend.  She checked her appointment board and confirmed we were scheduled for Monday.  We were able to pull through into our site, which made it much easier.  We decided to go out to dinner that evening at the Ocala Ale House and had a fine meal of pasta and chicken.  I was disappointed that the only craft beers they had were IPA, so I had to settle for a seasonal Sam Adams, that was quite good.


On Sunday we were behind a locked fence since Tri-Am was not open on Sundays.  This was not a problem, except their bathroom was also locked up and without a sewer hookup this was made it a problem.  Therefore, we went to McDonalds for breakfast so we could take of our “other” needs.  Once back at Tri-Am it was time to give the RV roof its first cleaning.  Not sure it I could use the brush we had on the roof, I proceeded to do it with a cloth on my hands and knees.  Either the roof is too large a roof or my knees have gotten too old, because it was all I could do to finish the roof.  I learned on Monday that the brush I had was fine for the roof, so in the future I will be standing up to clean the roof.  While on the roof I noticed a couple of other things that needed to be looked at.  First, there was a small hole in the roof where a branch had fell and hit it the previous week.  I also noticed the top part of the gasket on one of the slides was separating.  Neither were a big deal, but I was glad I found these while at the dealership.  After taking a break, I then cleaned the outside of the RV for the second time.  By borrowing a ladder they had left outside the shop, I was able to get all the way to the top of the RV and give a good cleaning.  I also sprayed dry graphite on the slide’s push bars, as I had learned I should be doing every 3 months.  They were getting a bit rusty, so it was good to get this done.  I also sprayed a silicone treatment on the rubber gaskets around each of the slides to protect them.  By this point it was late afternoon and I was exhausted.  Kal, on the other hand, had spent most of the day knitting and did not seem a bit tired, go figure!!


On Monday we were all ready for them to begin by 8:00 only to find out they had changed their hours and did not open now until 9.  This gave me a chance to wash the truck, which is a lot easier than the RV (and a lot less area to clean).   At 9, we closed up the RV and they took it into their shop area so they could jack up the bedroom slide and install the gasket.  They also replaced the toilet bowl, which had a small crack, and we put in a new water filter cartridge that they had ordered for us.  I then showed the technician the small ding in the roof and found out that it did penetrate the rubber and needed to be caulked.  I have some of the caulk, but I let him do it to see how it was done.  The only preparation was to clean the spot, which I had already done and he just squirted a generous amount of the caulk to cover the hole.  Pretty simple.  I should be able to handle this in the future.  I also showed him where the gasket for the slide was separating and although not a critical repair, they were more than happy to replace the gasket.  All the repairs took a couple of hours and we were ready to go before noon costing us nothing except for the supplies we purchased.  WOW – these guys were great!!  Although there were a number of repairs to be made, they are to be expected on a new RV.  I just hope we won’t run into too many more issues before we are back in Tennessee for our 1-year check up next fall.

February 2015 – Bushnell, Florida

Not knowing how long it was going to take to get the warranty work done on the RV at Tri-Am, we did not have reservations for the next two weeks.  This was the first time we have had to do this and I was nervous.  However, after talking with the Escapee Park, The Resort, back in January and finding out they did not take reservations, but had never turned an Escapee member away even in February, we decided to take our chances.  I did not know until Tuesday that we would need a place beginning on Wednesday, I called up the other Escapee Park in the area, Sumter Oaks, to see what they might have available.  Sumter Oaks was just south of Ocala near Bushnell instead of The Resort which was east of Tampa.  Thankfully, they did have one site available, but had to call us back.  They needed to check the size of the site and when they called back I was disappointed to find out it would not be big enough for our 35 foot RV.   It turned out they would have a couple of pull-through sites opening up on Thursday, so we decided to take it meaning we would have to “dry” camp without any hookups for Wednesday night.  This would be another new experience, but we should be fine for only a single night.  We made sure we had full water tanks before we left Tri-Am so we could use our water pump for the first time.


They were finished with our RV by 10:00 in the morning and since the drive was just over an hour, we had plenty of time to get to Sumter Oaks.  We were there by noon and soon thereafter had backed our RV into their dry camp area.  Even though this was a large open area and we could put the RV anywhere we wanted, the trees on the other side of the road made it more difficult then it should have been.  I took two attempts at it and finally just gave up and accepted the fact I was not going to get the RV at right angles to the road!  Since we would be pulling out in the morning to another site we decided to leave it hooked up to the truck for the night.  Another new experience!  We knew the RV would not be level, but the downward angle from the front to the back of the RV would get some getting use to.  The angle was not severe enough that we had trouble sleeping in bed, in other words, I did not end up on top of Kal by morning.  However, coming down the steps out of the bedroom were a surprise in the morning as I ended up in the living room before I could stop myself.  The water pump worked perfectly and with the propane water heater we had hot and cold running water.  We could not use the microwave or TV, but the propane stove meant we had a hot meals.  In order to charge the batteries in the computer and IPad, we spent a few hours in the evening at the clubhouse plugged into their electricity.  We had the joy of listening to their weekly bingo games while we were there.  We would still need a generator to power the refrigerator which used about a third of the battery power over the 24 hours, but I believe we could do this.  We are still not sure we want to do it, though.

On Thursday, we waited until after lunch to check on our pull-through site, although I think we could have done it sooner as we could tell there was nobody occupying the site.  In any case, we pulled the RV around and tried to pull into the pull-through.  While it might be a pull-through site for shorter rigs, there was no way to make the turn into the site without the RV going over the rocks surrounding one of the sewer connections.  In addition, we were on a dead-end street in the Park meaning I needed to back the RV up, making the turn back onto the road at the back of the campground without hitting the dumpsters directly behind me.  I was not happy!!  Fortunately, this is an Escapee Park, which means I had plenty of assistance as soon as it was obvious I had a problem.  By moving a few chairs it was possible to pull forward and go between two other RVs that were parked in sites without any trees between them.  It sure surprised one of them who told me later about seeing an RV go right by his window where there should not be an RV!  I was able to pull this monster around and set up to back into the site.  It was going to be a challenge with a large live oak I had to swing around.  Luckily with the assistance of our next door neighbor who had driven big rigs, I was able to back it in without too many issues.  We got to know our neighbor and their dogs fairly well since Sumter Oaks is set up to share hookups which meant we shared a “front yard” with them.  They are a young couple who were just moving into their fifth wheel and going full time so we had a lot to share.  I was used to being the novice at living in an RV since everyone we met had been doing it for years.  It was different knowing more than someone else about how to manage a very small living space.


On Friday, we needed to do some laundry and I had to catch up on this blog which had managed to get over two weeks out of date.  So we stayed at Sumter Oaks for the day.

By Saturday, we were both ready to do something and we had one more National Park to visit in Florida.  So we took on the hour and a half drive to Bradenton which is south of Tampa.  This distance is unusual, since I am trying to stay close to the National Parks on our travels, however, we decided to stay at Sumter Oaks instead of The Resort which would have been only about 30 minutes away.  I was not sure what to expect at De Soto National Memorial, since I am primarily aware of his expedition from 1539-1542 since we have run into mention of him at other sites in the southeast.  It turns out this was his original landing site in Florida from which the expedition began.  After a very good video about De Soto and his expedition in the Visitor Center, I had a much higher appreciation of what they did.  We learned that De Soto had already been successful as a conquistador serving under Cordoba in Nicaragua and Pizarro in Peru.  He was a wealthy man when he returned to Spain in 1536 only to return as the Governor of Cuba with a mission of locating and establishing colonies in Florida.  However, his goal was to find gold and other treasures which he had every reason to believe would rival what had been plundered in Central and South America.  Instead of establishing any colonies, he embarked on an extended search for this treasure, starting with a small camp near Tampa.  Beginning with 620 soldiers, tons of heavy equipment, 237 horses, over 200 pigs, and an unknown number of war dogs, De Soto went north in his search.  De Soto was a brutal leader who would begin by capturing the chief of a village and then through torture and other brutal practices would learn what they knew of treasure, as well as, supplying bearers and guides.  Moving and plundering village after village they made their way north with the promise of treasure always beyond the next village.  Over the next three years they traveled into the Carolinas and west to Arkansas.  After dying of a fever in 1542, the survivors (less than half) made their way down the Mississippi River to a Spanish settlement in Mexico.  After viewing the video, we took the short nature walk around the point on the river and ate lunch in their picnic area.  Following lunch we ventured over to the reconstructed “camp” where Park Rangers in period clothing were giving presentations every hour throughout the day.  The talk we heard was very interesting since it focused on the major impacts and consequences on the New World.  The most interesting part of the talk for me was the reason behind bringing pigs and the impact of the war dogs.  We learned about there use of massive and armored war dogs that were very effective against infantry trying to fight with hatchets and arrows.  Obviously, pigs were brought as a food source, but why pigs?  They are much easier to herd then cows, they will eat just about anything, and they reproduce at a fantastic rate.  Some of these pigs would have certainly escaped and become wild leading to the razorbacks in the southeast.  They also had another huge consequence for the Indians.  Almost certainly the Indians would have also started raising pigs, however, they had not evolved with the pigs and were not prepared for the many diseases carried and transmitted by pigs, including measles and small pox, which over 250 years killed millions of Indians.  This is also the reason there is very little known of the oral histories of these Indians since entire communities would be wiped out, including most of the story tellers and elders who would not be able to pass down their history.  Fascinating talk.  After the talk we took a longer hike through the mangrove to the old De Soto Monument and Holy Eucharist Memorial Cross.

GregInMuseum KalOnBoardwalk RangerPresentation

Sunday was another beautiful day in Florida, so we decided to check out an historic site not to far away, Fort Cooper State Park.  We had no idea what to expect, but we guessed it would have something to do with the Seminole Wars.  We were correct, although the State Park is more about recreation around the lake and hiking trails.  There is nothing to be seen at the fort site and without a Visitor Center or museum, there was little information about the fort.  There were a few interpretive signs that give the basic information and more are planned for the future.  Fort Cooper was of minor importance during the Second Seminole War, being constructed in 1836.  It was a simple palisade fort built by Major Cooper to provide protection for the sick and wounded soldiers while General Scott continued on to Fort Brooke (Tampa).  He was only suppose to hold out for 9 days until soldiers would return to escort them, however, they suffered for 16 days before the troops arrived.  After the third day when they were discovered by Osceloa and his Seminole Indians, they were under daily attacks.  While a number of soldiers were injured, only 3 died during this period.  They have put up about 10 feet of a palisade at their approximation of the location, which is all that can be seen.  We did enjoy the hike through the hardwood hammock before lunch and pine sandhill community after lunch.  Unfortunately this is a small state park, which meant it was very close to a busy road through the hammock and they were going to have trouble trying to maintain a fire regime in the sandhill community, which is essential to maintain the pine and turkey oak community.  There was already a lot of scrub oak and hickories in the mid-story which will replace the pines eventually without fire.

KalAtTable KalOnTrail

Ocala is only just over an hour from Orlando, so we were close enough to visit Jenny again before leaving Florida.  Since Monday was her day off, this was our chance.  Recently, Jenny has been dealing with transmission problems with her car and we have been talking with her about getting a new car and consolidating her payments.  She had already put a lot of money into the car, of which we were helping along with just about all of her income tax refund, and the engine light was still indicating a problem.  She took her car into the shop again that morning before we showed up.  We took her out to lunch at a great restaurant, the Sweet Tomatoes, which I believe is a chain store.  If you have the chance, I would highly recommend it.  It is an all you can eat salad and soup restaurant, which means you can make the greatest salad you can think up and/or sample from a number of great soups and breads.  From there we went to play miniature golf on Disney property, Fantasia Golf.  We have played this course before and it is an enjoyable experience, Disney knows how to make anything a lot of fun.  While we were there, Jenny got a text message from an old Auburn friend who had just arrived with his new family for a week at Disney World.  She also got the bad news from the garage as it was going to take more hundreds of dollars to fix a sensor that was causing the problem and they would have to keep the car over night.  At the time we figured we would be returning to Orlando on Tuesday to help Jenny out with transportation.  In the meantime, we headed over to meet her friend who was staying at Animal Kingdom lodge.  I believe I have stated it before, but Disney just seems to know how to do things right.  Not only is the Animal Kingdom beautifully done in an African theme down to displays throughout the halls of native African art work and information about African culture, but guests are not allowed out of their rooms onto the grounds.  The reason for this is there are a number of African animals roaming the grounds.  From any of the hotel rooms, except those facing the parking lot, you can watch giraffes, ostriches, gazelles, water buffalo, etc!!  I was totally blown away.  We also met up with another Auburn friend that works at Disney World who offered to get Jenny around on Tuesday, so we were off the hook.  They were also going to go by the Credit Union to see about consolidating her debt into a loan for another used car.  I am just afraid she is just beginning to see major expenses to keep her car running.

GregAndJenny KalAndJennyGiraffe

Tuesday was going to be the last nice day before the next cold front hit dropping the temperatures dramatically, so even though it threatened rain we headed south to see a reconstructed fort from the Second Seminole War, Fort Foster.  Actually Fort Foster is just across the highway from Hillsborough River State Park, so we saw both of them on the same visit.  In the morning went to the museum they have for the Fort, which was not all that exciting.  I did learn more about the Second Seminole War, but for the most part there was nothing new.  The fort however, was certainly worth the trip.  The have totally reconstructed the fort at its original location, as well as, the bridge over the Hillsborough River for which its protection was the reason for the fort.  Since they use the fort for periodic programs on weekends with volunteers in period clothing, all the rooms are laid out with period furniture and items.  I was especially impressed with the cannon they had on a platform inside the fort which was aimed out a small door in the palisade straight down the bridge over the river.

CannonAtBridge InsideFort

After looking over the fort, which had no other visitors while we were there, we drove over to their picnic area. This picnic area was very impressive with multiple areas, pavilions, bathrooms, and even a cafe (which was not open).  After lunch we had to wait an half hour for the rain to stop under one of the covered pavilions.  We then took the hike along the river towards the rapids.  Even though Kal was concerned that she would get soaked from the wet vegetation or another rain shower, I just had to see Florida’s idea of rapids!  It was suppose to be a Class II rapid, but I had to see it to believe it.  The trail along the river was a nice walk with a constant view of the river.  They were able to do this by providing boardwalks or bridges over any section where the banks had been washed away.  As we approached the rapids you could hear them and the overlook built by the CCC in the 1930s was well positioned to give an excellent view of them.  While I don’t argue they are a Class II rapid, it is only about 100 feet long with a couple of small drops.  We have now seen what Florida has to offer as a “Pass” in the Everglades and a “rapid” on a river.

KalOnBridge Rapids2

On Wednesday, the weather had certainly taken a turn for the worse for Florida, with temperatures during the day in the 50s and projected to get below freezing over night.  For the next two days we would have to survive through Florida’s winter so we decided to stay home and not brave the weather (he says sarcastically).  Therefore, Wednesday and Thursday were spent on catching up on my blog and Kal did the laundry again.  I also got some cleaning done on the RV in preparation for taking the RV back to Tri-Am on Saturday.

Friday was our last chance to get out and the weather had improved with temperatures back into the 70s.  We had survived the brutal winter in Florida.  I feel very sorry for all our friends in Auburn and family in North Carolina and Maryland who have really had to deal with a brutal winter that seems like it will not end (for everyone not in Florida at least).  We stayed close traveling only about 10 miles to Dade Battlefield Historic State Park.  As expected this battlefield is associated with the Second Seminole War, however, what we did not know was this battle essentially began the Second Seminole War.  Tensions between settlers and the Seminole Indians had been increasing since they Seminoles were forced to leave their towns, homes, and cattle ranches in northern Florida to a reservation in central Florida that is essentially swamp land and dry sandhills in the 1800s.  Now that Florida was part of the United States, settlers wanted this land as well and President Jackson was determined to move the Indians west to the Arkansas territory.  After three treaties that the Seminoles were forced to sign, they were supposed to move west.  Government troops were determined to make them move and the Seminole Indians led by Osceola and other chiefs were determined to fight back.  They established forts near Ocala, Fort King, and near Tampa, Fort Brooke, with a Military Road running through the Seminole Reservation.  In December, 1835, Major Dade led 108 US troops north from Fort Brooke to resupply and reinforce Fort King.  The Seminole Indians shadowed the troops they entire journey, but after passing the three river crossings in the south, Major Dade thought the danger had passed.  However, the Seminole Indians were waiting for Osceola to join them who was delayed at Fort King.  Once they were within 100 miles of Fort King, the Seminole Indians decided they had to attack without Osceola and set up an ambush in the pine flatwoods by hiding in the saw palmetto and grasses.  The initial volley killed most of the officers, including Major Dade, and by the end of the day only two soldiers were left alive since they had been unconscious and presumed dead.  This battle so outraged the public, that a major offensive to force the Seminole Indians out of Florida commenced that would last for 7 years before calling it a victory even though there were still hundreds of Seminole Indians in the Everglades that never surrendered.  The historic site is very small since it includes only a small Visitor Center and the location of the battle along the Military Road.  There are a couple of monuments that were erected over the location where Major Dade and one of his lieutenants were killed.  There is also one of the largest live oak trees that I have ever seen and the nature hike through the pine flatwoods was interesting.  They are attempting to recreate the forest conditions to the time of the battle, which means frequent burns.  They have successfully reintroduced fire on part of the land, but still have a long way to go.  While it only took a couple of hours to visit the battlefield, it was worth the visit.

LargeLiveOak MilitaryRoad

February 2015 – Ocala, Florida

While our original intention was to stay at an Escapees member RV park east of Tampa, we had some warranty issues on the RV and therefore made an appointment with Tri-Am RV Center in Ocala, Florida.  Although we bought our Excel from the Tri-Am outlet in Bulls Gap, TN, their original location is just north of Ocala.  In any case, we pulled the Excel up north of Ocala, about a 4.5 trip along I-75, on Monday with the intention of staying the night at Tri-Am so they could do the work beginning first thing Tuesday morning.  While camping at Tri-Am is nothing special, they do have electric and water hookups on level sites behind the offices/store/service building.  It was certainly quiet and secure with only one other camper having solar panels installed on her motorhome.  We went to the store and out to dinner at a good Mexican restaurant in Ocala and settled in for the night.


True to their word they got started on the RV first thing Tuesday morning, pulling out the bad bedroom slide gasket under the slideout.  This was the same gasket we had problems when we bought the RV with the back edge sticking into the RV.  At the time they put the gasket back into place and sealed it.  This corner was now the only part secured since the rest of the gasket was now inside the RV.  He had to cut it up to get it out, so we would be getting a new one.  Unfortunately, they did not have any of this gasket in stock and we would have to come back to have it installed.  They told us it would not hurt the slide not to have the gasket, but we would have to use towels to block the cold air (which we were having to do anyway since the gasket had been inside the RV).  He then tested the electrical outlet inside the cabinet next to our electric fireplace and found that a wire had come loose.  I suspected as much, but since it was inside a cabinet I had not been able to open the plastic box to get at the wires.  It was good to see he had a difficult time getting it open as well and ended up replacing it with a plastic box that is much easier to open.  We had them replace the shower head since the cutoff switch was leaking and had even come apart at one point.  We got a better and more expensive shower head installed, which they covered under warranty even though we were willing to pay the difference in price.  Any service done at Tri-Am comes with a free roof inspection, which found no issues.  However, I took advantage of their time to review proper maintenance of the roof and bought the treatment I will need in the future.  I also talked to them about lubricating the slides with graphite and they showed me how to lubricate the TV antennae.  Finally, I had them look at the welds holding the push rods onto the slideouts and they were shocked to see only 4 spot welds holding them together.  Since we had already had one separate back in November while camping in Georgia, I was relieved to know they agreed with me that they needed to be welded all the way around.  Unfortunately, the rest of the afternoon was raining and not good weather for welding, so we had to stay another night, which was not a problem since we did not have any reservations and we were staying for free.

On Wednesday morning, the pulled the RV into the shop and had the welding done in about an hour and a half, so we were on the road by 10.  We made reservations to return in a week and a half to complete the work since they had to order the gasket for the bedroom slide, a new toilet to replace the one had which had a small crack at the top of the seat, and a replacement water filter that was out of stock.  Feeling a lot better now that the slides were welded solid and should not give us any more problems, we were ready to get back on the road.

February 2015 – Naples, Florida

On Monday, it was time to leave the expensive, but nice, Miami Everglades RV Resort and make up for it by staying in state parks and inexpensive Escapee park for our time up the west coast of Florida.  State parks fill up quickly in Florida, but I had made these reservations back in December so was able to get reservations through February.  Although we were going almost due west to the other side of Florida, we were going to stay close to the Everglades National Park.  In fact, the drive down US 41, the Tamiami Trail, is the north boundary of the Everglades for most of the trip.  The first part of the trip was actually within the Seminole Indian Reservation, so there were a number of small Indian villages and quite a few airboat ride outfits.  This ended when we entered the Big Cypress National Preserve for over half of the trip.  On the other side of the National Preserve, there is a State Preserve and State Forest, followed by the Collier-Seminole State Park, our destination for the next week.  Therefore, there was very little development along the highway and we had the joy of looking at the Big Cypress Swamp and counting the alligators populating the man-made canal alongside the highway that was used for road building material.  The Collier-Seminole State Park is close enough to the Gulf Coast that it is part of the extensive mangrove forest.  The campgrounds are nice, although they are tight for a state park and full every day.  All the sites are back-in with trees and other RVs in the way.  To state that I am still a novice at backing this huge fifth wheel is an understatement!  I managed to get the RV turned into the site and got it fairly straight on the first attempt, but we were too far from the electrical hookups.  When I tried to move the RV a few feet, it was a disaster.  Frustrated, Kal tried her hand for the first time with backing the RV after pulling out and circling the campground to try again.  She did a fair job, but got it too close to the tree which would block the slideout.  I then pulled it forward one more time and moved it over a few feet.  It was still not straight in the site, but it was good enough!!  It is definitely going to take some more practice.  Collier-Semiole State Park maintains one of the original locations where Royal Palm grows naturally, which was very evident with the number of the majestic palm trees in the campgrounds.  There were also a lot of birds in the surrounding woods.  On a couple of mornings we had problems with a Cardinal, that was bound and determined to attack his rival inside our RV!!  He would stand on the ladder and try to fly through the back window over and over again.  We tried hanging colored yarn to no avail, so our only solution was to hang a towel over the window to hide his “rival”.

Campsite Cardinal

We were both excited about visiting the Big Cypress National Preserve on Tuesday, with the hope that we could sign up for another canoe trip.  There are two visitor centers in the Preserve, one on the western boundary and one approximately the center of the Preserve on US 41.  Stopping at the Big Cypress Swamp Visitor Center on the western boundary we first checked on canoe trips.  While they do have Ranger led canoe trips, they all fill up two weeks in advance this time of year.  Disappointed that we would not be able to participate we set out to see what we could by foot.  We also learned why this is a National Preserve instead of a National Park.  Originally it was included in the proposal for the Everglades National Park back in the 1940s, however, the federal government was not able to purchase all the land from the many landowners, unlike the Everglades.  However, in the 1960s when Miami began construction of a huge new International airport, the Seminole Indians, conservationists, hunters, and private landowners banded together to stop it.  While it was a strange coalition, they all shared the desire not to have this habitat destroyed to create the airport and surrounding developments.   However, they also had different traditional and historical uses for the land that they did not want to give up either.  Thus, a new type of National Park was formed, the National Preserve, where there is a multi-use objective.  In addition to the preservation and protection of the habitat and recreational use you find in a National Park, the National Preserve also allows for hunting, off road vehicles (swamp buggies), and even oil and gas exploration and extraction.

Since the only access to the Big Cypress National Preserve without a canoe, kayak, or swamp buggy is US 41, the opportunities to see the Preserve are limited.  There is the H.P. Williams Roadside Park that has a few picnic tables and a short boardwalk along the canal.  The Kirby Storter Roadside Park is a short boardwalk through the dwarf cypress trees into a cypress dome.  Walking along the boardwalk, you can easily tell the cypress trees get larger as you approach the center of the dome.  This does not necessarily mean these larger trees are older, as those outside the dome could be older but limited in their growth due to the lower nutrient environment.  There was a small pool in the center of the dome and since the boardwalk extended out into the pool, there was a good opportunity to get pictures of the wildlife.  Along with the obligatory alligators, there was a tri-colored heron, wood stork and red shoulder hawk in the trees.  These were both short walks, so we traveled on to the Oasis Visitor Center where we saw a very good movie about the history and natural environment in the Preserve before we ate lunch.  Following lunch, we decided not to take advantage of the Ranger talk about alligators since we would not likely learn anything new after over a week in the Everglades.  Instead we headed out on the Florida National Scenic Trail which has its southern terminus at the Visitor Center.  The first half mile of the trail is along the small airstrip at the Visitor Center which was not that exciting.  However, once you get past the air field the trail winds its way along a strip of relatively dry land (probably an old logging road) towards a hardwood hammock.  We walked off the trail a number of times to get pictures of the Big Cypress Swamp with the dwarf cypress trees and sawgrass prairie.  Unfortunately, the trail continued to deteriorate the further we went and after about another half mile we had enough since we did not want to get too muddy.  We returned back to the Visitor Center and headed back to the state park.

KalOnBoardwalk StranglerFig WoodStork

We did not do laundry the previous week at the expensive resort, partly because we were pressed for time to see everything and partly because the washers and dryers were more expensive, as everything else was.  Therefore, Wednesday was our day to catch up on the laundry and clean the RV.

On Thursday we headed back to the Everglades National Park, to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center at Everglades City.  We were disappointed in the Visitor Center, since it has only a couple of small exhibits, no hiking trails, and is primarily a launch point for boats traveling out into the Ten Thousand Islands which are a huge number of mangrove islands in the Florida Bay.  We did check on canoe trips without much hope after learning they were booked two weeks in advance in the Big Cypress National Preserve.  To our surprise they have daily Ranger led canoe trips out into the Bay at 2:00 in the afternoon and there were only two other people signed up for that day.  We gladly added our names to the list and headed back to the state park to change clothes.


Since we still had a couple of hours before needing to be back for the canoe trip, we stopped at the parking lot for the Ten Thousand Islands National Refuge right next to the State Park.  Along with a number of canoe trails that take off from the parking lot, there is also an old logging road (called a tram) that headed south into the mangroves.  The first part of the Marsh Trail is paved, which was a surprise, that led to an observation tower about 1/4 mile from the highway.  The observation tower overlooks a borrow pit full of water, birds, and fish.  With the added elevation we were able to look down into the water and had the greatest view of an Anhinga bird chasing a school of minnows around and around a small pond.  You could actually watch him spear a minnow with his beak, surface, and then flip the minnow up and down head first into its mouth.  Underwater he would work the school of minnows around trapping a few along the bank making them easy prey since they could swim faster than the Anhinga in open water.  The tram continues for at least another couple of miles and we followed it until we ran out of time and had to get back to the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

AnhingaFishingAnhingaFeeding  KalOnTram

We arrived back at the Visitor Center with plenty of time to eat lunch and prepare ourselves for the canoe trip.  Unlike last time when we did not take a camera and got no pictures of the trip, we decided to take a chance and carry my small camera in Kal’s small water bag she wears as a hip sack.  We met our Ranger guide and fellow travelers at 2:00 to get our canoes, paddles, and life vests.  We all had to wear life vests even though the water in the Bay, especially at low tide, is only a few feet deep.  We had thought we would stay along the coast wandering in and out of the mangroves along the shore, however, our guide took us out into the Bay.  The entire time the Ranger talked about the history of Everglades City, which is not a part of the National Park and would not be part of any established authority if they had their way.  We noticed when we went to the local store earlier in the day, that the residents were not especially thrilled to have us in their store, although they were not rude just cold.  The Ranger told a number of stories about the time before the Tamiaimi trail, when Everglades City was the only town in the region and could only be accessed by boat.  It was a place definitely outside the law and had a number of colorful characters over the years.  After at least a half hour of paddling across the Bay towards some of the mangrove islands, we were treated with the view of the inside of a rookery.  We saw dozens of brown pelicans and some kind of white bird (I think they were herons) nesting in the mangrove trees that had created a nearly perfectly circle of small islands around the rookery.  We kept our distance to not disturb them too much, but it was an amazing sight.  We then paddled back across the Bay to the mouth of the river.  While approaching the Visitor Center, one of the other canoes capsized suddenly dropping them into the water.  The Ranger turned back to help them, although the water was less than 3 feet deep so they were in no trouble.  I also turned around to see if I could help, however, it turned out to be easier to simple drag the canoe full of water back to shore before we turned it over.  Once again we are convinced that having a canoe is best way to see the mangrove forests and wildlife, especially birds.


There was only one place left in the Everglades to visit and although it was much closer to our previous location at Homestead, we decided it was worth the 1.5 hour drive.  The Shark Valley Visitor Center is just outside the eastern boundary of the Big Cypress National Preserve along the Tamiaimi Trail, on the northern boundary of the Everglades National Park.  Being closest to Miami, it has the highest use.  Along with a couple of short trails leading out from the Visitor Center, there is a 15 mile paved road that loops through the sawgrass prairie with a 45 foot observation tower at the furthest point.  We had planned on renting bicycles at the Visitor Center rather than taking the Tram ride, since they no longer allow cars on the loop road.  However, when we found out that it would cost us $9/hour to rent a bike and assuming it would take 3 hours ride the loop, it was cheaper to buy tickets for the tram.  While you would need reservations for the tram on the weekends, it was no problem getting tickets for the 10:00 tram since we got there soon after they opened in the morning.  The tram ride was certainly worth it, since you get a knowledgeable guide and driver that can spot and identify all the wildlife on the trip, which there was a lot.  While on the tram we saw a female alligator nurturing two very young alligators and an immature Anhinga bird, too large for the nest, but not yet flying or living on their own.  They also pointed out wood storks, three species of herons, vultures, turtles, and ducks.  It turns out that the canal next to the road near the Visitor Center is a mecca for birds during the winter that are used to humans.  It was possible to get close to a lot of different birds, turtles, and alligators within a few hundred yards of the Visitor Center.  The observation tower at the end was very impressive, rising 45 feet above the prairie in a small hardwood hammock.  It was built at the site of an old oil rig which accounts for the straight road leading from the Visitor Center.  The view from the observation tower made the trip worthwhile all by itself!!  You could see miles out into the Everglades and get a true sense of the sea of grass.  From an ecological standpoint, it is unfortunate that so much of the sawgrass prairie is now lost to farms and fields to the north since it historically extended all the way to Lake Okeechobee and is now reduced to only 20% of its original extent.

KalOnTramSharkValleyAlligator SharkValleyPrairie

Following lunch sitting on a bench at the Visitor Center where we met another couple that are also full timing in an RV doing exactly the same thing we are doing.  However, they travel a lot more.  It was nothing to them to travel all the way to Alaska for the summer a few years ago and they have traveled across the US and Canada more than once.  I am not sure we will ever want to make the trip all the way to Alaska.  After lunch we took in the Bobcat Boardwalk which is a short boardwalk through a bayhead, which was a different environment then we had seen.  Dominated by red bay and willow trees instead of cypress, the bayhead is a different example of the wetland environment that can be found in the Everglades when there is occasional fire during the winter.  There is also the Otter Cave trail that is a one mile round trip from the Visitor Center if you include the hike up the tram road to the beginning of the actual trail.  This trail is in a subtropical hardwood hammock, where you can see some impressive seep holes in the limestone.  You certainly have to watch your step to keep from stumbling into these holes, some of which were quite large.  Thus ended our time in the Everglades, which we enjoyed immensely.  I would be interested in seeing the Everglades in the summer to better understand what it looks like during the rainy season.  However, I don’t think I would enjoy the heat, humidity, and insects, so I don’t see it ever happening.

On Saturday, it was time to explore something different outside the National Park System.  We read about the James Scenic Drive in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, just to the west of the Big Cypress National Preserve.  The drive was suppose to be an 11 mile dirt road with many opportunities for hiking.  The Scenic Drive started off an a well maintained dirt road that was the main tram into the area for the harvesting of cypress trees in the 1940s and 1950s.  We stopped at the first side tram we came to for a hike.  We hiked back into the forest for about a mile or so before the trail became too overgrown to continue without a lot of effort.   We then continued on down the road to another tram which was a “jeep” trail maintained for some hunting camps.  It was a more pleasant walk then the overgrown trail.  Along the trail we saw the remains of a railcart for transporting logs and a short stretch of orange trees that were probably the remains of a small orchard maintained by the Seminole Indians at one time.  We tried one of the oranges but found it to be so sour that there was no way either of us could eat it!!  We ran into a Park Ranger once we exited the trail who told us he harvests the oranges every year to make orangeade.  I was also surprised to see a number of young royal palm trees growing in the forest, as I was under the impression they were only grown in nurseries locally.  I later found out that this strand is one of only three locations in Florida where they reproduce naturally, competing with the cypress trees along the strand. By this point the Scenic Drive was down to a single lane dirt road that was still passable, but with few if any places we could turn this huge pickup truck around.  We ran into the Park Ranger again down the road where some volunteers were working on clearing the brush back from the road.  This made it difficult to get by since the road was not really wide enough.  We asked him about turning around and he told us of another tram branching off further down the road where we would have enough room.  Unfortunately, there was another family eating lunch at this tram and took up the entire parking area.  So we continued on down the road, which by now was full of deep mud holes and getting much rougher and narrower.  I was certainly getting nervous, but Kal seemed to remember from the maps that this road intersected with another one that should give us the chance to turn around, so we continued.  We eventually left the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve without any further sign that we were getting into anything but more trouble.  We were also not the only vehicle making the trip as we had seen at least two other cars traveling in this direction with nobody going the other direction.

KalOnTrail OldRailCart OrangeTree

After about 1/4 mile after exiting the Strand there was a sign for the Picayune Strand State Forest and luckily a pull out spot with a single picnic table.  Thank goodness we could now get turned around, so we stopped for lunch before heading back.  There was also a posted map of the State Forest on a bulletin board, which made no sense at all.  It showed residential streets with names and canals between the streets!!  We could certainly not see anything that looked like a residential area anywhere around this wilderness and why would it be a State Forest?  Luckily another visitor drove up in their car while we were looking at the map and we asked them about it.  It turns out this State Forest is a failed residential land scheme dating back to the 1960s, named the Golden Gate Estates.  Over 17,000 investors were scammed into buying an average of 2.5 acres of land that was to be developed into America’s largest residential community.  Potential investors were flown over the area during the dry winter months and shown videos of other residential communities developed by the company.  However, after years of laying out the streets, building massive canals to drain the water, and paving the major roads, it became obvious this swamp could never be developed and the company went bankrupt.  Thus one of the original “swamp lands in Florida” land scams of the 1970s.  We had to check it out!!  So we drove on down the road into this “residential” communities where some of the paving on the roads can still be seen, straight streets cleared of trees in between huge canals and bridges.  It was truly an amazing sight in the middle of this wilderness.  After driving around a little bit we headed back out along the James Scenic Drive and headed home.

ResidentialMap ResidentialCanal2 ResidentialStreet1

Sunday we spent relaxing in the State Park and considered attending the Blue Grass Festival they had that weekend.  We were surprised that we could not hear the music, which was unfortunate since they had the access to the hiking trails blocked off.  However, the entrance fee was more than we wanted to spend, so we just took it easy while I worked on the blog and Kal read her Kindle.