Finding our Florida Home (May 5 – 17, 2023)

When we purchased our lot in Jasper, TN in May 2022, we had expected to have our new custom home under construction by this time.  However, as we started the process, we quickly began to realize the many hassles and high costs of trying to build our dream home.  In January 2023, we decided to list the property for sale and explore the resale market for a home that would be readily available.

While we spent the winter of 2023 in Texas, we made plans to travel to Florida in the spring to explore multiple communities to see if any of them met our needs.  Jan’s requirement was a house with a pool, while Phil required a community with pickleball.

On Friday, May 5th, we drove 255 miles to Vernon, FL, 40 miles north of Panama City Beach.  We spent three nights at Holmes Creek Camping & RV Park.  This was a fairly new, family-run RV park with a goat farm next door.  Many of the planned amenities had not yet been constructed, although they had everything we needed.

On Saturday, we drove to the Panama City Beach area and toured the 55+ community of Latitude Margaritaville Watersound with a real estate agent, Mark Oberg.  After receiving an overview of the development’s growth plans and amenities, we walked through several of the model homes.  Since the development was so new, there were no resale opportunities at the moment.  We selected a preferred model and met with the sales rep.  We learned that the timeline would be quite lengthy.  It would be about a year before we would be offered an available lot, then home construction (with a pool) would take about 18 months.  There was no cost to put our names on the waiting list, so we did so and then headed out to explore the surrounding area.  We drove westward along the Gulf, from Panama City Beach to Seagrove Beach.  The drive confirmed our realtor’s comments about the tremendous amount of construction taking place in the area.  Although we were impressed with what we saw, the 2.5-year wait to have a house built made this location a longshot.

After a relaxing Sunday, we were back on the road on Monday.  We drove 295 miles to Ocala, FL, where we spent three nights at Ocala Sun RV Resort.  We had checked out this campground in the winter of 2021 and it had been quite full.  It was considerably less crowded in May 2023 and we had a 75-foot pull-through site that was more than adequate for us.

On Tuesday, we took the truck to the Dodge dealer for repair.  The “check engine” light, which had been reset twice in Texas, had come back on during our drive to Florida.  After another round of diagnostic testing, it was determined that we needed two parts, a Nitrous Oxide Sensor and a CPD Controller. 

While the truck was in the shop, we met with a realtor, Robyn Wagner, who gave us an in-depth tour of two large 55+ communities, On Top of the World and Del Webb Sone Creek.  Robyn had previously lived at On Top of the World but was now living at Stone Creek, although she did a pretty good job of hiding her bias.  On Top of the World, with over 10,000 homes, had tremendous amenities but seemed too big for our comfort and, besides, had no resale pool homes available.  Stone Creek was smaller but, with 3,600 homes, is still the largest Del Webb community.  They had very nice amenities and were building more.  We toured three pool homes which provided plenty of diversity.  The first house was, at over 3,000 square feet, much more than we needed, but had a ton of upgrades and a wonderful view overlooking the golf course.  The price was more than we hoped to pay, of course, but it was very tempting.  The next house was too small and was easily rejected.  The third house met all of our needs and was priced appropriately, but, after seeing the first house, was hard to get excited about.  We met briefly with a sales agent for the development and discussed the possibility of building a new house.  While there some lots currently available, the timeline to get a house and pool constructed was longer than we hoped for.

On Wednesday, we went out exploring on our own.  First, we drove to Inverness and drove by several pool homes on large lots.  They were nice homes but lacked the community amenities we were looking for.  We had lunch at Stumpknockers in Inverness, then headed off to check out eight pool homes in The Villages.  Although we could only do a drive-by on six of these homes, realtors were holding open houses at the other two.  One of them had a great view of the golf course from the pool, and we were tempted.  However, since we were leaving town the next day, we chose not to make a rash decision.

On Thursday, we drove 135 miles to Bradenton, FL, where we stayed for six nights at the Bradenton / Hunsader Farms KOA Holiday.  This KOA was on the grounds of a working farm and included a large produce market, U-pick fields, and a petting zoo.  The downside of being on a farm was that the flies were terrible.  We spent a significant amount of time squatting flies, especially at meal time.

We had come to this area to explore Lakewood Ranch, the hottest-selling planned community in the country for the past two years.  Lakewood Ranch consists of over 20 diverse communities.  Unlike The Villages, only the Del Webb and Cresswind communities were 55+.  We had arranged to be shown around by a local broker, Kathy McKinnon. Del Webb was completely sold out and had no resale pool home listings, so we skipped that community.  Cresswind also had no resale listings but was still doing new construction.  We toured the models and the amenities, and were impressed with both.  However, the costs for a new build were significantly higher than Stone Creek in Ocala.

Next, Kathy had us tour Del Webb Bay View in Parrish, north of Bradenton.  Like Cresswind, they had no resale listings.  The amenities were very nice, but although the cost of new construction was less than at Cresswind, it was still quite a bit higher than Stone Creek.     

Kathy had previously sent us some listings for a couple of pool homes in Del Webb Cypress Falls, in North Port, FL, but we had initially decided were weren’t interested in being 40 miles south of Sarasota.  However, with time to kill, we decided to take a look on Saturday.  When we met Kathy in North Port, we learned that one of the resale pool homes had gone under contract the previous day.  Although the remaining house was somewhat smaller than we wanted, the house had everything we needed and had a nice water view from the pool area.  As we were walking around the outside, we struck up a conversation with the next-door neighbor, who was extremely friendly and informative.  We walked away from the home thinking that it was a serious contender.

Kathy had us stop by the sales office to ask if we could get a tour of the Amenity Center.  In the course of the conversation with Kim Moore, the sales agent, we learned that the development was just about sold out and that they were selling the two remaining model homes.  We toured the larger of the models and found it to be beautifully decorated.  Kim told us that there had been a previous buyer for this model, but they had had to back out two days earlier.  As a result, the builder was very motivated to sell it and was offering a substantial discount.  In addition, we learned that, since there would be no more models built, all the furniture was available for purchase at a price that was unbelievably low.  Since we have been living in an RV for 7-1/2 years, finding a fully furnished home with unused, high-quality furniture, would solve a huge challenge for us. 

We then took a tour of the Amenity Center.  Since this community only has 790 homes, the amenities were somewhat less than at the larger locations, but they were plenty adequate for our needs, including the required pickleball courts.  We decided we should explore the neighborhood and the surrounding area on our own, to see if it was somewhere we would like to live.  After driving the neighborhood, we returned to the model and took pictures from every conceivable angle.  We then drove to dinner at Twisted Fork, a very energetic restaurant.  Along the way, we passed plenty of retail, medical and services within a short drive of the Del Webb community.  After dinner, we drove south through Port Charlotte and turned for home when we reached Punta Gorda.

On Sunday, despite being Mother’s Day, we met Kathy at Cypress Falls at noon and spent the next two hours going over the purchase agreement with Kim.  It was the builder’s contract form, so there wasn’t much opportunity to change the terms, but we were able to negotiate some changes.  Since we needed time to discuss things, and since both Kathy and Kim had Mother’s Day dates with their children, we left without signing the agreement.  On our way back to the campground, we stopped in Lakewood Ranch’s downtown and strolled the streets.  We stopped for appetizers at a Mexican restaurant.

The rest of Sunday and all day Monday was spent reviewing the contract. There were numerous phone calls and text messages before we were satisfied with the wording of the addendums. We signed the purchase agreement electronically around 10 pm. Monday night. We both had trouble sleeping and finally got out of bed at 3 am. Although Jan was able to get back to sleep after about an hour, Phil stayed awake for a couple of hours, filling out applications. We submitted the non-refundable deposit money on Tuesday and felt fully committed to being homeowners again.

After numerous stressful days, we decided to spend Tuesday afternoon at the Siesta Key beach.  This beach was ranked as the best beach in the United States in two recent years.  The sand was very white and soft.  The walk from the parking lot to the water was quite long and the soft sand made it a real workout.  We spent a couple of hours strolling up and down the beach.  Despite being a Tuesday in May, the beach was rather crowded.  We know it would be much more crowded in peak season.

Heading to Florida (April 30 – May 5, 2023)

We left Kerrville on Sunday, April 30th and drove 245 miles to Katy, TX (a suburb northwest of Houston).  We spent the night at Katy Lake Resort. 

On Monday morning, we waited until after rush hour and then headed out on I-10 for a drive that took us through Houston.  Although there was steady traffic, it wasn’t too bad.  We drove 235 miles on I-10 to Duson, LA, where we spent two nights at Frog City RV Park.  The campground was nice and, although it was very close to the interstate, wasn’t too noisy.  The best part was that they offered the Passport America 50% discount, so each night only cost us $26.

On Thursday, we drove to Avery Island where we toured the TABASCO visitor center and factory, as well as exploring the Jungle Gardens.  Avery Island is not truly an island.  It’s actually a salt dome, squeezed up from the Earth’s interior.  From a distance, it looks like an island because of its height and encirclement by wetlands.  The Island climbs about 160’ above sea level, stretches 2.5 miles across, and covers 2,200 acres.  Its deposit of solid rock salt is thought to be deeper than Mt. Everest is high and is currently mined by Cargill, down about 2,000 feet.

We began the tour in the museum, where we learned about the history of TABASCO and the production process.  In the mid-1860s, Edmund McIllhenny began growing peppers using seeds believed to be from Mexico or Central America.  Around 1868, he created the first bottle of his now-famous TABASCO brand pepper sauce.  TABASCO has remained a family-owned business, run mostly by descendants of Edmund McIllhenny.  These descendants had a variety of interests beyond the business.  One was a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt; another was an explorer of the North Pole and pioneered the introduction and commercial cultivation of bamboo in the United States. 

Three single ingredients – aged red peppers, natural vinegar, and a dash of Avery Island-mined salt – produce the spicy flavor of TABASCO red pepper sauce.  The tabasco pepper is picked at the perfect shade of red, then immediately crushed, mixed with salt, and aged in white oak barrels for up to three years.  The aged “mash” is then blended with vinegar and stirred intermittently in 1,800-gallon vats for 2 – 3 weeks, then strained to remove the pepper skins and seeds.  The finished sauce is then ready to be bottled.  Our self-guided tour took us through the real-life operations of the greenhouse, barrel aging, blending, and bottling facilities. 

After doing some product tasting in the Country Store and making some purchases, we had lunch at the 1868 Restaurant.  We then did a drive through Jungle Gardens.  Edmund McIllhenny’s son, “Ned,” grew up on the island and studied plants and animals.  Around 1895, Ned developed a semi-tropical garden on the island.  In 1935, it was opened to the public as Jungle Garden, covering about 170 acres.  We drove the circuit and stopped at all 14 points of interest.  We spotted two alligators, including one whose movements had us scurrying back to our car.  One of the stops was at a Buddha from about 1000 AD, a gift from two of Ned’s friends.  Jan discovered a wallet on the ground in the parking lot by the Buddha and was able to find the owner.  He was extremely grateful.

Ned also built an aviary on the island, known as Bird City, to help save the snowy egret, a species that had become endangered due to its feathers being prized by hat makers.  In 1895, he hand-raised 8 snowy egrets in a cage above the water.  Egrets prefer to build their nests above the water because the alligators in the water deter other predators from harming the birds.  In the fall, Ned released them to migrate south.  The following Spring, they returned to nest and raise their young.  By 1911, an estimated 100,000 egrets nested in the rookery.

On Wednesday, we drove 185 miles to Bay St. Louis, MS, where we spent two nights at Legends of the Bayou RV Park.  Phil had learned about this brand-new RV park on Facebook.  The campground was largely a gravel-filled parking lot on the edge of a bayou.  The office, restrooms and laundry were up on stilts but, fortunately we didn’t need to climb the stairs, except for the view.  The owners did provide a fishing boat, rods and bait, but we never had time to take advantage of them. 

That evening, we headed to downtown Bay St. Louis and had dinner outdoors at Cuz’s Old Town Oyster Bar & Grill, across the street from the bay.  We then visited Hollywood Casino briefly and left with more money than we had risked.  We wisely decided to quit while we were ahead.

On Thursday, we headed to Old Town Bay St. Louis.  Our first stop was at the visitors’ center in the historic train depot.  Upon getting handed numerous brochures, it was readily apparent that we could easily have spent more than one day in Bay St. Louis.  After walking through the Mardi Gras and Blues exhibits, we headed upstairs to the Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum.  A young girl gave us a guided tour through the museum.  Alice Moseley’s mother had developed Alzheimer’s when Alice was in her 60s and, to deal with the boredom while caring for her mother, Alice took up painting.  Over the next 30 years, Alice developed a reputation as a nationally acclaimed folk artist, humorist and story-teller.  We watched her on video, telling her jokes and stories, and could clearly see the appeal.  We bought a couple of prints of her artwork.

We next drove to the bay to see the largest of the “Angel Creations,” Hurricane Katrina-damaged live oak trees transformed into sculptures by chainsaw artist Dayle K. Lewis.  This tree had been used as a life raft by three Katrina survivors.

We then spent a couple of hours doing the historic walking tour through Old Town Bay St. Louis.  Using the guidebook we had obtained at the visitors’ center, we learned about the history of 24 houses and buildings that dated back to the late 1800s / early 1900s.  One of the stops was a building that had been the centerpiece for a 1966 Sidney Pollack film, This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood, Robert Redford and Charles Bronson.

After all that walking, we were ready for lunch.  We ate at The Blind Tiger and had a table overlooking the marina.  Our final stop for the day was at the Ground Zero Hurricane Museum in the neighboring town of Waveland.  Waveland had been ground zero for Hurricane Katrina.  We watched a very sobering video containing film footage of the storm and interviews with survivors of Katrina who had ridden out the storm in Waveland.  The museum, in a former school building, has a line painted 11’ above street level showing how high the water had reached during the hurricane.  In the school’s hallways, they have a timeline showing the activities of each day, from before the storm through the aftermath.  In total, 1,833 people died in Katrina, including 25 from the little town of Wavelend.

Relaxing in Kerrville (April 16 – 30, 2023)

We have little to share for the two weeks following our Caribbean cruise.  We managed to squeeze in several doctor and dentist visits before leaving Texas again.  Phil played pickleball a few times a week, mostly indoors at the Methodist church.  Other than that, we spent a lot of time reading and preparing for our upcoming trip to Florida.

On Saturday, April 22nd, we decided to visit Luckenbach to listen to some music.  We had not checked to see if there was anything happening that day and were surprised to find the parking lot quite full at 2 pm.  We discovered that they were holding their 2nd Annual Bluegrass Festival.  Fortunately, we had our folding chairs in the back of the car, so we had a place to sit.  As we entered, we were told that the entire area in front of the stage was full so we would have to go across the bridge and sit on the hillside.  This gave us a somewhat limited view from the side of the stage but, once they shifted one of the speakers mid-afternoon, we could hear the music clearly.  Upon looking online, we learned that the festival had started at 11 am and the headliners, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, were scheduled to begin at 5:30 pm.  Although we had only planned to stay for a couple of hours, we then knew we would be there for the duration.  The crowd continued to grow throughout the afternoon and the hillside was quite packed by the time Ricky Skaggs performed.  All of the groups were very good, and we were glad we had chosen to attend.

Our 20th Anniversary Cruise (April 5 – 15, 2023)

Although we had celebrated each of our previous 19 wedding anniversaries, we had not really done anything particularly memorable since our 5th anniversary trip to Hawaii.  This year, we decided to celebrate our 20th anniversary in a big way.  After considering various options, we chose a 9-day Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, leaving from Galveston, TX.  The cruise had stops in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Belize, and two ports in Mexico.

On Wednesday, April 5th, we left our rig in Kerrville and drove 315 miles to Galveston.  We departed at 9:45 am with the goal of avoiding Houston’s rush hour traffic.  The weather was quite windy and we had rain for the last half of the drive.  We hit the outskirts of Houston at 2:45 pm and immediately ran into heavy traffic that we fought for the next two hours.  The GPS didn’t help, calling for several multi-lane crossovers in short distances in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  After a couple of stops in Galveston, we reached the Best Western Plus hotel at 5:45 pm.  Our room was very nice, with a view of the gulf.  We had selected this hotel because we could park our car there for free for the duration of our cruise, saving us over $150, even after paying for taxis to and from the ship.

On Thursday, we checked out of the hotel at noon and took a taxi to the ship.  After checking our luggage and clearing security, we boarded the ship.  Although access to our stateroom wasn’t available until 2 pm, we were able to sneak in and drop off our carry-ons.  We spent the next two hours exploring the ship.  It started to rain at 3 pm and the Sail Away Party at 4 pm had to be held under cover.  We headed to dinner at 5:30 and had a table for 10 all to ourselves.  This would continue to be the case for the rest of the cruise, with the exception of one night when another couple joined us.  After a prime rib dinner (Jan had escargot as her starter), we attended the Welcome Aboard Show, starring comedian JR McCollom.  We learned that the ship had a crew of 900 from 52 countries, taking care of 2,200 passengers.  After watching a game show, we were ready to call it a day by 9 pm.

Day 2 of the cruise was spent at sea.  After breakfast, Phil played pickleball on the sports court on Deck 12.  High winds made the games rather challenging.  Jan attended the Shore Excursions Talk and we met later to attend the Caribbean Port and Shopping Show.  We then watched the World’s Sexiest Man Competition by the pool.  Although almost all of the contestants were young studs, the winner was a 35-year-old with five kids.  After lunch, we headed back to our room for a brief nap.  We then played three games of Bingo but didn’t win.  After our Dress to Impress dinner, we headed to the theater for a performance by Mo5aic, a 5-man a cappella group who both sang and vocalized the sounds of a wide range of musical instruments.  Our final activity for the day was round one of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition.  Three winners from the field of 13 contestants were selected to advance to the Finals on the last night of the cruise.

Day 3 was spent in Cozumel, Mexico.  We disembarked at 9:20 am and headed to the All-Inclusive VIP Dolphin Encounter at Dolphinaris Cozumel.  We spent 40 minutes with marine mammal specialists who led us onto a shallow submerged platform to interact with two dolphins, a 5-year-old female named Aria and a 4-year-old male named Leo.  After getting to rub their bellies and backs, we each shook hands with the dolphins, got them to spin using our hand signals, and received kisses on our cheeks.  After leaving the water, we received an a la carte lunch.  Upon our return to the ship, we had dinner and then attended the evening show with musical and dance performances.

Day 4 was Easter Sunday and we spent the day in George Town, Grand Cayman.  Since there was no dock in George Town, the ship moored offshore, and we had to take a 15-minute tender boat ride to the port.  We had not signed up for an excursion but were immediately approached by some people hawking a tour of Grand Cayman.  When others from our ship signed up for the tour, we decided to join them.  As the tour guide drove the van around the island, we learned a great deal about Grand Cayman.  Although Grand Cayman is only 72 square miles in size, it is the largest of the three Cayman Islands.  Grand Cayman is home to 600 financial institutions and is considered the fifth largest financial district in the world.  Residents of the Cayman Islands pay no income or property taxes and, according to the driver, there is no crime.  The Caymans are still a British territory, with a governor (largely a ceremonial role) appointed by the British.  We stopped briefly at the Governor’s House.  Our next stop was Hell.  This bizarre rock formation is millions of years old.  In spite of its volcanic appearance, it is actually limestone and dolomite rock, eroded by algae.  The name “Hell” is said to have evolved a long time ago when a British commissioner was touring the island.  It is alleged that he took one look at this site and exclaimed, “My God, this must be what hell looks like.”  The site then forever became known as “Hell.” 

We next stopped at the Tortuga Rum Distillery and sampled rum and rum cakes.  We then spent 30 minutes at Dolphin Encounter but, although we were able to see a lot of dolphins, there were no guests in the water due to it being Easter.  Next, we were dropped off for an hour at Seven Mile Beach.  We enjoyed swimming in the warm Caribbean water and laying out in the sun.  After returning to the ship, we got cleaned up and headed to dinner.  We then watched the Perfect Couples Game Show, in which three couples competed in various events which were hilarious to watch.  Our last activity for the day was Round 2 of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition, where another three contestants advanced to the Finals.

Day 5 brought us to Falmouth, Jamaica.  After having an early breakfast, we left the ship for our 5-hour excursion, titled “Go Native, Jamaica.”  The excursion began with a long ride in an air-conditioned motorcoach to Montego Bay, during which our tour guides provided lots of information about Jamaica’s culture, history and cuisine.  After driving past the fine all-inclusive resorts that line the bay, we turned inland and began to see how the less affluent Jamaicans live.  Since we had honeymooned in Jamaica, this wasn’t totally surprising, but it was definitely different than the wealth we had seen the previous day in Grand Cayman.  Our first stop was at the 248-year-old St. James Parish Church.  We viewed the ornate stained-glass windows, 18th century sculptures and numerous memorial plaques dedicated to local dignitaries.  The church continues to operate but, after COVID, is down to 150 active members. 

Our next stop was at Mt. Olive Basic School, a private school with 72 students, ages 3 – 7.  Although school was closed for the Easter holiday, several local students sang for us and the faculty showed us through the schoolhouse.  The classrooms were quite cramped but somehow they manage. 

Our final stop for the day was at the Johns Hall Plantation, a bird feeding sanctuary.  Upon exiting our bus, we were able to sample coconut milk and sugar cane.  We then had a buffet lunch consisting of traditional Jamaican food, including plantains and jerk pork and chicken.  Upon our return to the ship, we had another lunch, despite having had the buffet lunch, and then took naps.  After dinner, we participated in a Song Lyrics trivia contest but didn’t do very well.

Day 6 was spent at sea.  After breakfast in the Windjammer restaurant, Phil played pickleball in calmer winds for 2-1/2 hours and Jan relaxed by the pool.  After pickleball, Phil joined Jan by the pool and we watched the International Belly Flop Competition.  After lunch, we spent most of the afternoon poolside and watched the Battle of the Sexes competition there (the women won handily).  After dinner, we sat in the Centrum and listened to classical musicians.  After getting tidied up, we returned and got our anniversary portrait done.  Although our anniversary wasn’t until the following day, we knew our excursion on that day would leave us looking kind of rough for a portrait.  We then found our way to the helipad on the bow of the ship.  It was very dark but the sky was clear and there were lots of bright stars visible.

Day 7 of the cruise was April 12th, our 20th wedding anniversary.  Our ship was moored in Belize City, Belize.  We met for our excursion at 9:15 am but didn’t get access to our tender boat until 10:45. When we reached the port, we boarded a motorcoach for a 50-minute drive through the Belize River Valley.  During the ride, our tour guides provided a lot of information about the history, culture and wildlife of Belize.  We stopped for a buffet lunch at the Ayiaha Eco Park.  After lunch, we were supposed to board a speedboat, but the captain was having mechanical problems with one of the motors.  It took him about an hour to fix the problem, putting us even farther behind schedule.  Since we were on an excursion marketed by Royal Caribbean, we knew the ship would not sail without us but it was still concerning that we would delay the ship.  Once we got underway again, we got a 25-minute high-speed boat ride along the New River Lagoon.  The captain did slow down for us to see several crocodiles floating near the shore. 

The boat took us to Lamanai, once a major city of the Mayan civilization, occupied as early as 1500 BC and until the Spanish arrived in about 1500 AD.  At its peak, Lamanai (Mayan for “submerged crocodile”) had a population of 60,000.  We hiked along a trail that took us to the Jaguar Temple and the High Temple (the 3rd tallest Mayan temple in Belize).  We spotted many monkeys in the trees.  We then walked past the Ball Court.  Our guide explained how the game was played and that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed to the gods.  Since this practice runs contrary to the concept of survival of the fittest, the guide speculated that it may have contributed to the demise of the Mayan civilization.  Our final stop at Lamanai was at the 108’-tall Mask Temple.  We were permitted to climb up the side of this temple and down the front steps.  We then reboarded the speedboat and returned to Ayiaha Eco Park, where we took the bus back to the port.  The tender boat got us back to the ship by 7 pm, 1-1/2 hour after the scheduled All Aboard time.  After our late dinner, we attended Round 3 of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition.

Day 8 of the cruise was in Costa Maya, Mexico.  The ship arrived in port around 7 am and left again by early afternoon, so our excursion was both early and short.  We woke to an alarm at 5 am, had breakfast, and met for our excursion at 7 am.  The excursion, titled “Mexican Salsa Experience and Beach Break,” had an assortment of activities.  The first was a hands-on cooking class in which we learned to make guacamole and two kinds of salsa.  We were provided a plate with all the ingredients; Phil was the chopper and Jan was the masher. 

We then listened to a lecture on tequila and enjoyed a tasting.  Our next activity was learning to dance the salsa.  Although we mastered the steps, we will need more than a little practice to perfect it.  After dancing, we headed outside to the beach and enjoyed laying in the sun and wading in the water. 

We returned to the ship around noon and headed to lunch.  After lunch, we spent time laying by the pool, then returned to our room and relaxed on our balcony.  For dinner, we wore our Dress to Impress outfits and dined on lobster tail, with molten chocolate cake for dessert.  After dinner, we went out on deck and watched the sunset.  We then participated in a Movie Director trivia contest, listened to a guitar and vocal duo, and attended a non-competitive karaoke session.  We then headed outdoors on the 11th deck for some snacks and watched the movie Top Gun: Maverick on the big screen for a while.

Day 9, the final full day of our cruise, was spent at sea.  Phil played pickleball, while Jan attended a Towel Folding Demonstration and watched the flag parade.  In the afternoon, Phil lounged by the pool and listened to music while Jan attended the art auction.  After dinner, we finished packing our suitcases and put them in the hallway for pickup.  We then attended the Farewell Variety Showcase, featuring the house orchestra, singers and dancers, followed by comedian JR McCollom who had performed on the first night of the cruise.  Our last event was the Finals of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition, in which the nine contestants selected in the three preliminary rounds competed.  There were several very good performances, but the winner was by far the best of the night.

On Saturday, April 15, the ship arrived back in Galveston after traveling 2,300 nautical miles.  We awoke to an alarm at 6 am, had our final meal onboard and returned to our stateroom to finish packing our carry-on bags.  We were required to be out of the stateroom by 8 am but couldn’t leave the ship until 45 minutes later.  After retrieving our luggage, we got a taxi back to our car at the hotel.  The 315-mile drive back to Kerrville was uneventful; Saturday morning traffic through Houston was heavy but not as bad as when we had arrived.  We got back to Kerrville around 3 pm.

We had a wonderful time on the cruise, despite eating much more than we should have.  Although Jan had cruised with her girlfriends before, this was Phil’s first cruise.  We were both already thinking about a future cruise, certainly not waiting another 15 years to do it.

Back to Kerrville (March 28 – April 4, 2023)

On Tuesday, March 28th, we left Tropical Trails and drove 122 miles to Kingsville, TX, where we spent two nights at Nature’s Own RV Park.  Although the drive was fairly short, it was rather tiring.  In addition to having not driven any distance in two months, we also had to contend with periods of heavy rain and high winds.

On Wednesday, we toured King Ranch.  We had stayed in Kingsville twice before but those stays had not been on days when King Ranch tours had been offered. Although highway road construction made it difficult for the GPS to lead us to the ranch’s Visitor Center, we made it in time to watch most of the pre-tour video regarding the ranch.  We then boarded a tour bus and our guide, Peggy, took us for a two-hour tour of the ranch.  Peggy, now age 71, had worked on the ranch as a teenager, so she was able to provide a perspective of the ranch from both 50+ years ago and now.

King Ranch is the largest ranch in the United States.  With 825,000 acres in South Texas, it is larger than the state of Rhode Island.   The ranch consists of four large sections, called divisions, in portions of six counties.  King Ranch also owns 90,000 acres in Florida that are used to raise oranges, sugar and sod.  The company is privately owned, with family members controlling 51% of the shares.

Richard King was born in New York City in 1824 to Irish immigrants.  He was indentured to a jeweler at age 10 but ran away after two years.  He stowed away on a steamship and, upon discovery, became the captain’s cabin boy.  Over the years, he was trained as a seaman and became a river pilot.  In 1850, King and three partners formed a transport business, running steamers up the Rio Grande.  Having been raised by sailors, King was a foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, womanizer until 1850, when he fell for Henrietta, the 17-year-old daughter of a Presbyterian minister, and had to spend the next four years convincing her, and her father, that he had changed his ways.  In 1852, King saw the land that would become the first part of King Ranch.  He and a partner purchased 15,500 acres for $300 in a desolate area between Mexico and Texas.  During the Civil War, Capt. King transported Confederate cotton to Mexico and was hunted by Union soldiers.

When Richard King died in 1885, Henrietta made Robert Kleberg, King’s legal advisor, full-time manager of the ranch.  Kleberg married King’s only daughter, Alice, the following year.  Henrietta’s death in 1925 brought about many complications, due to high estate taxes and the start of the Great Depression.  Despite owning over 1 million acres of land, the ranch was left $3 million in debt.  A long-term lease for oil and gas rights with Humble Oil (later Exxon) kept the ranch afloat.

The foundation stock of King Ranch was the longhorn.  Even today, they have 400 head of purebred longhorn.  In 1872, King bought several Brahman bulls, which were adapted to the South Texas climate, and these were crossbred with Shorthorns to produce the Santa Gertrudis cattle, the first American-produced beef breed recognized by the USDA.  While continuing to develop its cattle operations, centered on the Santa Gertrudis breed, the Ranch began to both breed and race quarter horses and thoroughbreds.  In 1946, a King Ranch horse, Assault, won the Triple Crown.  King Ranch also entered the timber industry and real estate business in 1967.  In 1999, the Ford Motor Company began using the King Ranch brand on its vehicles.

Throughout the tour, we were able to see lots of recently-born calves and foals.  Although this part of South Texas averages only 20 inches of rain each year, it has been in a four-year drought.  We learned from Peggy that wild turkey hens will refuse to mate during droughts.  As a result, the wild turkey toms have become frustrated and are desperately strutting their stuff to try to attract a hen.  The only time we left the tour bus was at the former weavers’ cottage, where they used to make woolen blankets.  In the cottage, we learned about branding and the many brands that have been used at King Ranch.

On Thursday, we drove 235 miles to Kerrville, TX, where we will spend a month at Buckhorn Lake Resort.  We visited Fredericksburg on Friday and restocked our supply of candied jalapeños and raspberry chipotle sauce.

Tropical Trails – Month Two (February 28 – March 28, 2023)

While much of the U.S. was dealing with extreme cold and snow in early March, we experienced a regular dose of daytime highs in the 80s, with an occasional low-90s, albeit with strong winds.  Although Phil continued to play pickleball most mornings, we spent a lot of time indoors with our air conditioners running.

On Thursday afternoon, March 2nd, we gathered by the pool to listen to live music by Kenny Ray Horton.

On Friday, Phil drove to the Dodge dealer to pick up the rear hubcap he had ordered four weeks earlier.  It had fallen off the Ram during our trip to Kerrville in January.  Since the replacement hubcap cost $225 and attaches with a lot of easily-broken plastic clips, Phil attempted to get the mechanics at the dealership to pop it on.  After two mechanics were afraid to try it and claimed not to have the right tools, they referred him to Discount Tire.  The service rep at Discount Tire popped it on with his bare hand in a few seconds, at no charge.  However, on the drive home, the Ram’s check engine light came on.  Phil called the dealer and, although their service department was booked two weeks out, they suggested he return on Monday to have the service tech check the truck’s computer codes.  On Monday, he returned to the dealership and the computer codes indicated a problem with the emission sensor.  They suspected the wiring may have been chewed on and found rodent tracks under the hood.  It would have been an expensive repair, since accessing the sensor would require removing part of the engine.  Fortunately, they reset the check engine light and it stayed off.  Hopefully, it will remain that way.

On Wednesday, we joined 48 other campers for a tour of the SpaceX Starbase facility at Boca Chica, TX.  Construction had begun in the late 2010s, with the original intent of supporting suborbital launch vehicles.  However, in 2018, SpaceX announced that the site would be used exclusively for their next-generation orbital launch vehicle, Starship, with the ultimate goal of launching spacecraft to Mars.  The focus of the SpaceX program is to make space travel more affordable, by recovering all the components of the launch vehicles.  The launch tower is designed with cranes to lift the rockets onto the launch pad and giant arms that will catch the rocket on its return.  Although most areas of the SpaceX facilities were restricted, we were able to get quite close to the launch facility, the tracking towers, and the rocket farm.  Our guide provided a tremendous amount of information about the program, in much more detail than we could possibly absorb.  Following our tour, we were able to watch videos of several of the previous test launches.  Although several of these launches had successfully lifted off, inverted, and lowered back to the launch pad, they had exploded upon touch down.

Having driven down several miles of gravel roads to reach Rocket Ranch, our car was quite dirty by the time we returned to Brownsville.  We took it through a car wash, which got it very clean but ripped off one of our windshield wipers.  Later that afternoon, we gathered by the pool to listen to live music provided by Madelyn Victoria.

On Thursday, March 10th, we attended our second shrimp boil and listened to Shake N’ Bake, a musical duo who we had seen in 2020. 

On Saturday, we decided to spend some time on the beach at South Padre Island.  We originally intended to use the beach access by Clayton’s but found the parking lot packed solidly with Spring Breakers.  We then drove north in an attempt to find beach access.  We passed several public access entries but refused to pay the $12 parking fee.  We continued to drive several miles north on the county road, until we reached the end of the road.  At that point, we found that we could park for free on the shoulder and climb over the dunes to reach the beach.  This section of the beach was much emptier than the ones closer to town.  We spent an hour sunbathing and watching people riding horses along the shore.  Afterward, we headed to Longboard, where we had dinner and listened to music.

Sunday was the hottest day yet, with a high of 95 degrees.  We found a spot in the shade by the clubhouse for two hours of music by Leslie Blasing.

On Thursday, March 16th, we returned to Nuevo Progresso, Mexico for the day.  We had lunch at Red Snapper, then headed to our regular salon.  Jan got a manicure, while Phil got a haircut and pedicure.  We made a few purchases as we headed out of town.

On Wednesday, March 22nd, Phil participated in a pickleball tournament.  That evening, we headed to The Broken Sprocket with a large contingent from Tropical Trails.  The Broken Sprocket is home to several food trucks and provided live music until 8 pm.  Then, it was time for karaoke.  Jan joined many of the women from Tropical Trails in a rousing rendition of Under the Boardwalk.

On Thursday, we attended Tropical Trails’ Grand Opening and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.  This seemed odd, since the campground has been open for three years.  It appears that the ceremony was related to Tropical Trails joining the Chamber of Commerce.  There were quite a few attendees from the Brownsville and South Padre Island Chambers of Commerce.  Leslie Blasing provided the musical entertainment.

On Friday, we headed to the Riverview Club in Mission, TX and took an hourlong boat ride on the Rio Grande River.  There was a group of 40 from Tropical Trails so we had the boat, the Riverview Dreamer, to ourselves.  The captain did an excellent job of explaining what we were seeing along the way.  Across the river from Mission, TX is the Mexican city of Reynosa, with a population of nearly 1 million.  Much of the Mexican side of the river was lined with privately-owned parks and recreation venues.  The Rio Grande was much wider and deeper than we were used to seeing in Nuevo Progresso, which we learned was due to the Anzalduas Dam.  Along the shoreline on both sides of the river, we could see numerous partially submerged rafts that are used by drug smugglers and human traffickers.  We cruised past a privately-funded border wall.  The captain told us that this wall cost $10 million dollars per mile to construct but is of higher quality than the U.S. government-funded wall, which costs three times as much per mile.  Following our cruise, we had lunch at the Riverview Club.  Jan had the fried shrimp basket; Phil had a pork tenderloin sandwich that was much bigger than the bun.

As we neared the end of our stay at Tropical Trails, we spent the last few days getting ready to travel again.  Phil washed the RV and our vehicles, since we had not stayed in a campground that allowed this for quite a while.

Tropical Trails – Month One (January 27 – February 27, 2023)

On Friday, January 27th, Jan had her initial appointment with her new PCP in Kerrville scheduled for 9:15 am.  Since it was 350 miles from Kerrville to Brownsville, we decided to drive separately, rather than arrive after dark.  We packed up early and Phil got on the road by 8:45 am and arrived at Tropical Trails by 2:45 pm.  Jan arrived a few hours later. 

We had stayed at Tropical Trails for three months during January – April 2000.  It had been the campground’s grand opening, and we had a good time with the small group of campers who stayed here then, many of whom we are still in touch with.  Despite this, we swore we would not return to Tropical Trails due to the nearly constant strong winds.  However, since then we have followed the activities at the campground on Facebook.  This, combined with a desire to return to South Padre Island and Progresso, Mexico, led us to give it another chance.

Upon our arrival, the most obvious difference was that virtually all 240 sites were filled.  In 2000, there had only been about 30 rigs here at the peak.  Another change was that a large number of the sites are now covered with blue canopies.  One thing that hadn’t changed was the thick mud surrounding the concrete pad.  Although there was more ground cover than three years ago, a light drizzle as Phil was getting set up quickly turned it into a mess.  He soon had mud up to his knees and was scraping ½”-thick mud clods off his shoes.

After a rainy Saturday, we headed out on Sunday to the Don-Wes Flea Market in Donna, TX.  We found the parking lot much less full than in the past.  As we walked around, we quickly learned the reason.  The main building, which had held most of the stalls, was gone.  We learned that the building had burned down in July 2022.  We made a few purchases, but not as many as we had anticipated.

On Monday, Phil went to play pickleball.  In 2000, Phil had been one of the few campers who had played the game before, and he spent a lot of time teaching the others.  This time, things are quite different.  Advanced players are scheduled from 9-11 am, with beginners from 11-12.  Phil arrived before 9 am and the four courts were already packed.  He spent more time waiting to play than playing, until people started leaving shortly before 11.  Jan headed to the fitness center, which was also popular.

That afternoon, Tropical Trails was holding a Welcome Back event, with free pulled pork sandwiches and a deejay.  Although the event was scheduled from 1 – 3, they were about out of food when we arrived at 2:15.  When we arrived, the entire pool area was packed and we quickly realized that we should have brought our own chairs.  We ended up bringing the food back to our rig.

A strong storm front brought cold weather to much of the United States over the next few days.  Kerrville got below freezing temperatures and ¾” of ice.  Although Brownsville is only 300 miles south of Kerrville, we were spared the ice storm and the freezing weather.  We still had several days with highs in the mid-40s, which largely kept us indoors.

Although it had only warmed slightly by Friday morning, Phil headed back to the pickleball courts.  There were a few other hearty souls playing, albeit bundled up.

By Saturday, February 4th, it had warmed up enough for us to venture out to South Padre Island for the first time in 2023.  We listened to music at Longboard, then headed to Pier 19 for dinner.  In the past, we drove through the KOA campground to reach Pier 19.  This time, as we drove through the campground, we couldn’t find our way to the pier.  Upon checking the Internet, we learned that Pier 19 is now permanently closed.  As an alternative, we drove to Port Isabel and had dinner at Joe’s Oyster Bar.

On Sunday, we hung out by the pool listening to music provided by a deejay.  It was good that we remembered our chairs this time, since all the pool chairs were taken.  As is typical in resorts, people come out early in the morning to claim the lounge chairs for the afternoon.

On Tuesday, we drove to South Padre Island and took a two-hour cruise with 38 of our fellow campers from Tropical Trails.  It was a windy day, with a small craft advisory, so the boat captain kept us in the bay and along the canals between the homes of the rich, and possibly famous.  We were very well fed, with servings of grilled shrimp and fajitas filled with beef, chicken and grilled fish. A couple of musicians kept us entertained throughout the trip.

On Thursday morning, Phil participated in a pickleball tournament.  It was pretty low-key and, although they did record scores of the eight games, they never announced an overall winner.  On Friday, we attended our first shrimp boil of the season.  While the food was being prepared, we sat outside and listened to Kenny Ray Horton perform.  It was rather cool and windy, so the audience was bundled up and glad to move inside when the food was ready.  In addition to the peel-and-eat shrimp, we had potatoes, Italian sausage, corn on the cob and a roll.

Jan’s cousin, Lori Davis, and Lori’s husband, Bruce, came to South Padre Island (SPI) for the weekend.  After the shrimp boil on Friday, we drove to their hotel and delivered a coconut cream pie Jan had made for them.  On Saturday morning, we returned to SPI and met Lori and Bruce at Yummies Bistro for brunch.  The food was excellent.  Jan and Lori each ordered a Spanish macchiato, a deluxe coffee concoction which the barista had decorated beautifully with a floral design.  We then took Lori and Bruce for a driving tour of SPI.  We stopped outside the gates to Isla Blanca State Park and walked a loop around the park and along the Gulf-side beach.  Afterward, we drove to Longboard and listened to live music for a couple of hours.  We then had dinner outdoors on the deck at Louie’s Backyard.  The high temperature for the day was only in the upper 50s, but the sun made it feel good.  As the sun set while we were eating dinner, it cooled off rapidly and we decided to call it a day.

The cool and windy weather continued for most of the next week.  Other than Phil playing pickleball every morning, we didn’t spend much time outdoors.  Phil participated in a pickleball dink tournament on Thursday, but found it to be a rather boring format.  Jan got a massage at the campground on Friday.

On Sunday, February 19th, we attended the Los Fresnos PRCA Rodeo.  The weather was in the upper 70s and quite sunny, so it was a great day to be outdoors.  We arrived two hours before the rodeo and spent the time wandering around the fairgrounds.  We had some lunch, listened to live music, checked out the livestock, and attended a ventriloquist performance.

The rodeo itself was a sellout, with rather tight seating for over 8,000 attendees, and the professional rodeo cowboys put on an excellent show.  The events included bareback bronc riding and saddle bronc riding; calf roping, team roping, and breakaway roping; steer wrestling; barrel racing; and bull riding.  Kids ages 4 – 7 participated in mutton bustin’, in which they attempted barebare riding on a sheep.  Kids in grades 3 – 5 participated in calf scrambles, in which they attempted to chase down calves and capture the ribbon attached to the animals’ tails.

On Tuesday, we observed the golf cart Mardi Gras parade around the campground.  The turnout was rather small, due to the extremely strong winds.  On Thursday, we gathered by the pool for live music provided by Leslie Blasing.

On Friday, February 24th, the pickleball group gathered for pictures, sporting the new Tropical Trails pickleball shirts.  That afternoon, we headed to South Padre Island and attended SPI Market Days at the Convention Center.  We then stopped at Clayton’s for some fish tacos and listened to live music provided by a couple known as The DuOver.

On Saturday, we visited the 77 Flea Market.  Despite it being very hot, we wandered through almost all the massive venue.  Although there really was not much of interest to us, we did manage to buy a nice selection of fresh fruit and only spent a total of $5.50.

On Monday, Phil participated in a Pickleball Boot Camp, in which JR, a certified pickleball trainer and former Marine drill sergeant, provided tips to improve the participants’ play.

A Short Stay in Kerrville (January 18 – 27, 2023)

On Wednesday, January 18th, we drove 74 miles from San Antonio to Kerrville, TX, where we stayed at Buckhorn Lake Resort.  Although we managed to fit in several other appointments during our stay, our primary reason for returning to Kerrville was to get Jan established with a new primary care physician (PCP).  When we were in Kerrville last summer, she had learned that her PCP was leaving her practice.  Jan had submitted the paperwork necessary to transfer to Phil’s PCP in November.  Unfortunately, the office called to say that she needed to submit one more document, requesting the doctor to accept her as a patient.  They wouldn’t email the form and it didn’t arrive in the mail for several weeks.  Jan mailed in the form immediately upon receipt, but got a call in early January saying that Phil’s PCP had stopped accepting new patients two weeks earlier.  This was very frustrating since, if they had emailed the form, Jan would likely have been accepted.  The only one in the practice accepting new patients was a Nurse Practitioner.  Even at that, Jan had to submit a new form to see if the Nurse Practitioner would accept her.  She completed this form on our first day in Kerrville and was accepted a few days later.  Since the only medical insurance option for Jan is an HMO, she needs a referral from the PCP before seeing any specialist.  Since the new PCP was unlikely to give a referral to someone she had never met, it was essential that Jan schedule a physical ASAP.  She was able to get an appointment on Friday morning, January 27th.  This required extending our stay in Kerrville by two days.  Oh the joys of healthcare in the 21st century!

The rest of our time in Kerrville was uneventful.  The weather was not really conducive for outdoor activities, with daytime highs in the 50s and many nighttime lows below freezing.  Phil played pickleball indoors at the Methodist Church most mornings.  He also played outdoors twice at Buckhorn, but the cold and wind made the drive to the church worthwhile.  Jan made several trips to the fitness center at Buckhorn.

We did make a trip to Fredericksburg to stock up on sauces and candied jalapeños at Russlin’ Rob’s.  We also strolled along Main Street but were disappointed to see so many shops out of business.

The Long Way to Kerrville, TX (January 1 – 18, 2023)

Although we were going to spend the first four months of 2023 in Texas, we first needed to return to Tennessee to visit our RV dealer in Knoxville and our property in Jasper Highlands.

We awoke early on New Year’s Day and prepared for our 267-mile drive to the Birmingham South RV Park.  Our departure seemed to be going smoothly at first, but things went south in a hurry.  When Phil stopped at the traffic light before getting onto I-10, he picked up the scent of burning rubber, but hoped it was from the truck in front of him.  When he exited I-10 four miles down the road and hit his brakes, the truck pulled sharply to the right.  This time, the smell was more pronounced.  At a traffic light a few miles down the road, passengers in car next to him pointed to his front tires.  He pulled over on the shoulder and got out to inspect.  He discovered that there was a tremendous amount of smoke pouring out of both sides of the hood.  Jan pulled up behind him and we spent the next hour trying to decide what to do.  It was obvious that we couldn’t risk continuing to drive to Birmingham. 

We had spent over $2,000 ten days earlier on major routine maintenance on the truck, including replacing the front brake pads and having the front wheels aligned.  Other than driving the truck back to the campground, we hadn’t driven it since the maintenance was done.  Unfortunately, since it was a Sunday, the dealer was closed.  Also, since New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday this year, they would also be closed on Monday.

While we waited for the tires to cool back down, we tried to find a nearby campground where we could stay for three nights while we got the truck serviced.  When we found one with an available site, the question became how to get there.  Although we do have towing coverage with CoachNet, it would have involved finding two tow trucks on a holiday; one to take the truck to the dealer and one to take the fifth wheel to the campground.  By this time, the smoke had dissipated and we decided to try backtracking 25 miles, of our original 40 miles, to the new campground.  Phil drove very slowly and tried to time the traffic lights to limit the usage of his brakes.  We even stopped at Buccee’s half-way to our destination to allow the brakes to cool.  It was stressful but we managed to make it.

We booked a site at West Wales RV Park & Light Railway for three nights, with an option to extend, if necessary.  Although the online reviews had been marginal, our site was long enough and extremely wide.  Our site was next to the train station for the light rail, but we never heard it running.  West Wales operates two train ride attractions, each of a different size – narrow gauge (2’ between the tracks) and grand scale (7.5” between tracks).  Both are reportedly big enough for even a grown-up to ride.  They decorate the facility for seasonal events.  We got to see the decorations for the Artic Express, with over a million lights twinkling in the trees and over the exhibits.

After killing time on the Monday holiday, we got up early on Tuesday morning and got the truck to the Dodge dealer when they opened at 7:30 am.  Unfortunately, they didn’t even get to look at the truck by closing time that afternoon.  Phil got a call from the service advisor on Wednesday morning and learned that the calipers and brake hoses needed to be replaced, as well as having the brake fluid flushed, at a cost of $900.  Phil tried to argue that the damage was related to the brake work done on Dec. 21st, but got nowhere with that.  The service advisor said they needed to order the brake hoses but expected them to arrive by early afternoon, with the service completed by day-end.  However, the hoses didn’t arrive until 4 pm on Wednesday and the service work didn’t begin until Thursday morning. 

Since we had needed to be at our RV dealer in Knoxville for a Wednesday morning service appointment, each delay required rearranging our travel plans.  We finally decided to reschedule the Knoxville appointment to the following week and go to Chattanooga first. This resulted in re-routing our travel to Texas.

The service work was completed by noon on Thursday and we were able to be on the road by 2 pm.  We drove 246 miles to the Birmingham South RV Park, where we overnighted.  By the time we arrived at 6:30 pm, it was quite dark.  It had been many years since we’d had to set up in the dark, but we managed to get it done without incident.

On Friday morning, we drove 170 miles to Rossville, GA, where we began a five-day stay at Holiday Travel RV Park of Chattanooga.  We were glad to be off the road for a little while. On Saturday, after getting an oil change for the Mazda, we visited our lot in Jasper Highlands.  It was only 43 degrees and had been raining for most of the drive.  Fortunately, it stopped raining when we arrived, so we were able inspect the property.  It looked quite barren with all the leaves off the trees and the overcast skies didn’t help.  We could see the markers for the septic system that had been placed by the TN Department of Environment & Conservation.

The rain became more intense on Saturday night, turning the already-wet campground into a swampy mess.  We were very glad not to be traveling that day.

On Tuesday, we went to the movies and saw an early release of A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks.  The movie was quite good.  The combination of a good film and it being Discount Tuesday led to having the theater more crowded than we have seen in several years.

On Wednesday morning, we drove 100 miles to our RV dealer, RVs for Less, in Knoxville to have our furnace serviced.  Our CheapHeat furnace had stopped heating on electric in early November.  Our testing had indicated that the problem was with the thermocouple.  Since the weather in Gulf Shores stayed fairly warm in November and December, we were able to get by using the heat pumps when the lows stayed above 40 degrees, and the furnace on propane on colder nights.  When we have had service done at RVs for Less in the past, we have always spent at least one night parked on their lot.  When we arrived around noon on Wednesday, it was clear that there was no room for us to park this time.  While the service tech began working on our rig, we made a run to the post office and stopped for lunch.  Upon our return, we found that the work was done, and they were ready for us to leave.  While the bill was being finalized, Phil found us a campsite for the night.  We drove 97 miles to Monterey, TN, where we spent the night at Spacious Skies Belle Meade.  The campground was very nice, with very long and wide pull-through sites.

That evening, as we began to plan the balance of our drive to Kerrville, the weather forecast created a dilemma.  The forecast for Thursday called for severe weather, with heavy rain and high winds.  We considered staying another day in Monterey but abandoned that idea when we saw 1-2” of snow forecasted for Thursday night.  Since the storm wasn’t supposed to hit until mid-morning, we got up very early on Thursday morning and were on the road by 7:25 am.  After about 90 minutes of clear skies, we reached the storm front.  Although it rained much of the next two hours, the heavy downpours only lasted a few minutes at a time and the one hailstorm wasn’t too bad.  Our early departure brought us to the exit for our planned stop by 11:15 am.  Since the weather had been tolerable up to that point, we decided to continue on for another 130 miles, to Tom Sawyer’s RV Park in West Memphis, AR.  When we were within 60 miles of our destination, the skies grew very dark, and we encountered a very scary storm.  The rain was so heavy that traffic slowed to 40 mph and the hailstones hit so hard that we weren’t sure our windshields would survive.  Fortunately, we reached a rest area and were able to pull off and ride out the storm for 15 minutes.  We had rain for the remainder of our drive but, fortunately, it stopped as we neared the campground.  We were quite tired after driving 326 miles under difficult conditions.

We had stayed at Tom Sawyer’s RV Park in September, and, at that time, the Mississippi River was quite low.  This time, the river was much higher.  Although it wasn’t raining as we set up, it was cold and quite windy.  After being set up for 45 minutes and enjoying the heat from the furnace and fireplace, we lost power.  After several unsuccessful attempts to reset the circuit breaker, Phil notified the office, and they sent a mechanic.  When the mechanic was unable to fix the problem and we were getting cold, Phil decided to see if he could hook up our power cord to the pedestal for the site next door.  It worked and, fortunately, no one ever showed up for that site.

On Friday, January 13th, we drove 286 miles to Texarkana, TN, where we spent the night at Shady Pines RV Park.  We had stayed at this park many times.  On Saturday, we drove 200 miles to Corsicana, TX, where we stayed at American RV Park, another park where we had stayed several times before.

On Sunday, we drove 226 miles to San Antonio, where we spent three nights at the San Antonio / Alamo KOA Holiday.  Facing headwinds of 20-30 mph for most of the trip resulted in a rough ride and low fuel economy.  After covering over 1,200 miles in five straight days of driving, we were definitely ready for a few days of relaxation.

On Monday, we caught the bus across from the KOA and rode into downtown San Antonio.  We walked along the River Walk and had lunch at Casa Rio.  Despite it being a holiday (MLK Day), there were less people on the River Walk than we had ever seen before.  We enjoyed being back in warm weather, with the temperature in the mid-70s.

Gulf Shores, AL – Month 2 (December 1 – 31, 2022)

With our friends leaving at the end of November, our social activities slowed down considerably in early December.  However, we were blessed with daytime highs in the 70s for most of these days.  This allowed us to get outside more, to enjoy bike rides, walks on the beach, and outdoor pickleball.  Phil found time to wash our rig and perform other maintenance.  We had hoped to make a trip to Dauphin Island but thick fog every morning kept the ferry shut down until later in the day.

We were entertained for several days by a cardinal who visited the tree behind us regularly.  It seemed confused by the reflections off our back windows and flew into the glass over and over again.  We would chase it off, only to have it return a short time later.  We tried hanging things outside on our windows, but this had no effect.

On Saturday, December 10th, we visited the Christmas festival at The Wharf.  We visited the vendor booths and listened to live Christmas music.  We then made our first trip of the year to Flora-Bama, where we had lunch and listened to live music.

On Monday, six weeks after submitting our septic system permit application, we got a response from Natalie Lankford, Environmental Consultant for the Chattanooga office of the TN Division of Water Resources.  She wrote, “On paper, there appears to be sufficient space for a 3 bedroom Modified Low Pressure Pipe system, but I will know more once I flag out the LPP laterals on contour.”  Although we’re not exactly sure what that means, it seemed encouraging enough for us to schedule a meeting with an architect in early January. 

On Thursday, December 15th, we drove 475 miles to Nashville to attend Lizzi’s graduation from Belmont University.  Although she had earned her Bachelor’s degree from Belmont in 2015, she returned two and a half years ago to earn a Master of Science in Strategic Communication and Leadership from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.  We left the campground at 8:07 am and arrived at Belmont just a few minutes before the hooding ceremony began at 5 pm.  Fortunately, there were only six students receiving their Masters from this college so the hooding ceremony was quite short.  After a brief reception, we headed to our hotel for some much-needed sleep.

On Friday evening, we attended the graduation ceremony in Belmont’s Curb Event Center.  This time, there were about 1,000 students receiving degrees so the ceremony lasted quite a while.  Afterward, it was too dark and cold to take pictures outside the arena, so we all headed back to our hotel.  After taking lots of pictures, we headed to Darfons Restaurant, where we had a delicious meal, with very large portions.

On Saturday, we drove to Camden, TN for a get-together with Jan’s relatives at the Country & Western Steakhouse.

On Sunday morning, we picked up Jason at 9 am and began the long drive back to Gulf Shores, AL.  We got back home at 6:30 pm and were ready for an early bedtime.

The following week brought unseasonably cool weather to Gulf Shores.  Daytime highs never got out of the 50s and, by the end of the week, we were having lows below freezing.  Although we were spared the artic weather experienced by much of the rest of the country, it largely kept us indoors.  Jason did manage to get out for some running, walking, and bicycling, but he had to really bundle up to do so. 

On Thursday, December 22nd, we received approval from Natalie Lankford on our septic system application, enabling us to continue with plans for our 3-bedroom house. 

On Saturday, Christmas Eve, we enjoyed an early dinner at the Shrimp Basket restaurant.  We also picked up individual cheesecake slices at Hope’s Cheesecake for later.  That evening, we attended the Christmas Eve service at Central Church, in the Orange Beach Community Center.

On Christmas Day, we attended a potluck Christmas feast in the campground’s activity center.  We shared a table with a couple from Pensacola and enjoyed getting to know them.

Jason’s flight back to Nashville was originally scheduled to depart from Pensacola on Christmas day at 6:40 pm.  However, as the day progressed, his flight on Southwest became increasingly delayed.  By the time we dropped Jason off at the airport, the flight was already delayed by two hours.  When we were halfway back to the campground, Jason learned that his flight had been cancelled.  He was rebooked for Tuesday at 7:30 am and, fortunately, was able to retrieve his luggage.

On Tuesday, we all woke up at 4 am, with the intention of taking Jason to the Pensacola airport.  However, we quickly learned that that flight had also been cancelled.  To make matters worse, his return wasn’t rescheduled until Saturday morning, New Year’s Eve Day. Over the next few days, we learned the extent of Southwest Airlines’ problems and that many Southwest customers had experienced even greater hardships than Jason’s.

On a more positive note, the weather for Jason’s second week in Gulf Shores, although windy, was much warmer than it had been for his first week.  We were all able to spend considerable amounts of time outdoors.

On Saturday morning, we all got up at 4 am and drove Jason to the Pensacola airport.  This time, his flight departed on time.  After napping upon our return home, we went out for an early New Year’s Eve dinner at Doc’s Seafood Shack.  Since New Year’s Day was a travel day, we didn’t attempt to stay awake long enough to ring in 2023.

Gulf Shores, AL – Month 1 (November 1 – 30, 2022)

On  Tuesday, November 1st, we drove 166 miles to the campground at Gulf State Park for our two-month stay.  With Todd Ehlenfeldt’s assistance, Phil got us backed into our spot in site #12 fairly easily.  After getting set up, we attended a happy hour at the campsite of Scott and Gail Wahls, friends we had met here last year.  We were joined by longtime friends, Todd and Beth Ehlenfeldt, Tom and Roxi Rykal, and Dave and Jo Peterson.

On Wednesday, the same group gathered for another happy hour, this time at Rykal’s site.  We then headed to Doc’s Seafood Shack for dinner, where we shared a bowl of gumbo and split the seafood combo.

On Thursday morning, Jan went for a walk on the beach. 

That afternoon, we drove to Pensacola, FL and caught a nonstop flight to Nashville so we could attend Jan’s 45th high school reunion.  We spent the night at the Club Hotel near the airport.  On Friday, we drove to the reunion venue at The Lodge at Paris Landing State Park, after making brief stops in Camden and having an early dinner in Paris.  Our room at The Lodge was very nice and overlooked the Tennessee River. That evening, we met around the firepit with many of the early-arriving attendees.

On Saturday, after lunch in the lodge’s restaurant, many of the group gathered around the big screen TV to watch the Tennessee – Georgia football game.  Unfortunately, the game did not go as well as hoped and the crowd dwindled after halftime.

The main event began at 6 pm, with socializing and dining on a wide array of finger foods.  At 7 pm, the music began and was provided by a one-man band who was quite good.  There was a large turnout from the Class of 1977 and the attendees enjoyed reconnecting.  The fun continued until after 11 pm.

On Sunday, after saying goodbyes, we headed back to the Nashville airport.  Before catching our afternoon flight, we stopped for an early dinner at Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen at Opry Mills and consumed catfish, spare ribs, four sides and peach cobbler.  Our nonstop flight back to Pensacola was on-time and we got back to our campsite by 6:30 pm. 

On Monday, November 7th, we celebrated Scott’s birthday with the Ehlenfeldts, Petersons and Wahls with dinner at DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen.  This was the first of three birthdays our group will celebrate in November.

Tuesday morning, Phil went to the Orange Beach Rec Center and played pickleball for nearly three hours.  Since he hadn’t played in about two months, he was rather stiff afterward.  That afternoon, we hosted a gathering of the five couples at our site and played numerous games of LCR.

On Wednesday, we headed to Walgreens and both got our flu shots and COVID boosters.  Thursday afternoon, we met the whole group at the Big Beach Brewing Company for an offsite happy hour. 

Afterward, we sat outside and enjoyed the heat from our fire ring.  We had purchased the fire ring and propane tank in the Spring but this was the first time we had tried it out.

On Friday and Saturday mornings, Phil played pickleball at Gulf State Park.  Although the concrete courts contain a lot of cracks, there were some very good players there and it was free (unlike the Rec Center).

On Friday evening, we went to Papa Rocco’s for dinner with Tom, Roxi, Beth and Gail.  Our primary reason for this outing was to see Bo Grant, formerly of The Platters.  We have seen him perform at least once each of the past three winters.  In 2019, Jan had asked him to change the lyrics of Sixteen Candles to Sixty Candles in honor of her 60th birthday, but he had forgotten to do it.  Jan reminded him that he had let her down and, this time, he obliged her request, albeit three years late.

On Tuesday, November 15th, Phil got online at exactly 8 am to request reservations at Gulf State Park for November 2023.  He had pre-programed his iPad to reduce the entry time somewhat and was able to complete the forms in 86 seconds (15 seconds faster than in 2021).  However, due to the increasing popularity of this campground, his entry was #324 in the queue (60 higher than in 2021).  Fortunately, he got the callback the following afternoon and was able to reserve our same campsite (#12) for next November.

On Tuesday afternoon, Jan joined Beth, Roxi, Jo and Gail for a girl’s day out.  They went to The Wharf to see the movie Ticket to Paradise, starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts.  Afterward, they did some shopping at The Wharf and had refreshments at Tacky Jacks.

On Wednesday, we drove north to Spanish Fort and Daphne for some shopping.  We then stopped for lunch at Market by the Bay, based on a recommendation from an older gentleman who had dropped by our rig when we were in Georgia.  We both had shrimp po’boy sandwiches and agreed with the recommendation.  After lunch, we stopped in Fairhope and did some Christmas shopping.

On Friday morning, we picked up Jason at the Pensacola airport and stopped for breakfast at Brick & Spoon in Orange Beach.  Saturday was rainy so we decided to spend the afternoon at the movies.  We went to The Wharf and saw The Menu, described as a horror/comedy film.  Phil enjoyed it more than Jan.  After the movie, we headed to Doc’s Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar for Jason’s 40th birthday dinner. We returned home to watch the Tennessee Vols football game.  Unfortunately, the Vols were overrun badly by the South Carolina Gamecocks, thus ending the Vols’ hopes of a national championship run. 

After taking Jason back to the Pensacola airport for his flight home on Sunday morning, we joined the Ehlenfeldts, Petersons and Wahls that afternoon at Doc’s Seafood and Steaks restaurant to celebrate Beth’s birthday.  This Doc’s is the newer version of the restaurant where we had eaten on Saturday night.  We then returned to the Ehlenfeldt’s coach and had cake and ice cream. 

Since we were going to be in Denver on Thanksgiving Day, the group decided to celebrate the holiday on Tuesday.  We gathered at the Petersons’ site and everyone brought multiple dishes.  As usual, we ate more than we should have but it was all very good.  After dinner, we played games and then gathered around the Wahl’s fire ring to escape the dropping temperatures.

On Wednesday morning, we drove to the Pensacola airport and caught our non-stop flight on Frontier to Denver.  We arrived 1-1/2 hours before our flight but, due to the nearby parking lot being full and both baggage drop-off and TSA having long lines, our flight was already boarding when we arrived at the gate.  Upon arriving in Denver, we took a 45-minute train ride from the terminal to Union Station downtown.  Jess picked us up and took us back to her and Jarrod’s apartment.  Jason had arrived earlier in the day.  After relaxing and dining on pizza, we went upstairs to Brittany and Caleb’s apartment in the same building and got to see 5-week-old Liam for the first time in person.

We had rented a basement apartment through Airbnb that was four blocks away, in a nice residential neighborhood.  The apartment was well-furnished, with everything we needed, except a coffee maker.  Jarrod brought us a coffee press, which did the job for Jan’s morning coffee.  Although Jarrod or Jess drove us to our apartment each night, we were able to walk back to their apartment in the mornings. 

After breakfast on Thursday, we walked through the neighborhood to Cheesman Park, one of the many city parks throughout Denver.  We enjoyed seeing the huge historic houses along the way, many of which have now been subdivided into apartments.  The weather was cool, but not unpleasant, and there were many people in the park.  Upon returning to the apartment, we relaxed and watched NFL football until it was time for our Thanksgiving feast.  Caleb, Brittany and Liam joined us for the Thanksgiving festivities.  We dined on Honey Baked Ham and beef tips, as well as many delicious side dishes and desserts.  No one left the table hungry.  After dinner, Jan held Liam while the rest of us played a rousing game of Marbles.

On Friday, we drove to Roxborough State Park and hiked six miles.  Although it was breezy and there were patches of snow on the ground, we warmed up quickly in the sunshine.  We enjoyed seeing the dramatic red-rock formations and the large herds of deer.

On Saturday, the women headed to a couple of craft fairs and then to lunch.  The guys relaxed at the apartment and mostly watched the numerous college football games.

On Sunday, we checked out of our apartment and headed across town to Cozy Cottage for breakfast.  The food was delicious and the servers were very friendly.  After returning to Jarrod and Jess’ apartment, Caleb, Brittany and Liam joined us for a walk through Denver City Park, a very large park across the street from the apartment.  It was then time for Jarrod and Jess to take us to the airport for our flight back to Pensacola.  Jason’s flight was a few hours later than ours, so he hung out with us until it was time for us to board.  The flight left a few minutes early and made good time getting back to Pensacola.  After some delay in getting our suitcase and catching the shuttle to the remote parking lot, we drove back to Gulf State Park and arrived at 9:45 pm.

As the end of November approached, we had to say goodbye to our friends until next November.  On Monday, November 28th, all five couples gathered for a late afternoon lunch at Tacky Jack’s.  Tom and Roxi Rykal departed on Tuesday morning.  On Tuesday evening, we joined the Ehlenfeldts and the Wahls for dinner at Lamberts, home of the “throwed rolls.”  Todd and Beth Ehlenfeldt left on Wednesday morning.  That evening, we hosted our final happy hour with the Petersons and Wahls, who were leaving the following day.  It was Jan’s birthday but, after over a week of big meals, she opted to celebrate it at home. 

Fall in TN and GA (Sept. 18 – October 31, 2022)

On Sunday, September 18th, we drove 200 miles to Rossville, GA, where we spent three weeks at the Holiday Travel Chattanooga RV Park.  Although the park has a Georgia address, it is less than a mile from the Tennessee border. We had stayed at this campground four months earlier, when we came to look at property in Jasper Highlands.  We have now returned to begin the long process of design and build of our new home. 

On Monday morning, we drove to our lot in Jasper Highlands.  We used our 100-foot tape measure to get a better sense for where on the lot we might want to build.  We then met with Grant Moore, the Project Manager for Fredonia Builders.  Fredonia’s claim to fame is their Amish carpenters who do the framing.  Phil had previously had a phone conversation with Grant, who is also a Jasper Highlands resident.  Since Grant owns a Fredonia-built house, we began by touring his home and discussing Fredonia’s process for design and build.  Grant took us to two Fredonia construction sites so we could see some of their work.  We then met Lisa Boyle, owner of Fredonia Builders, and drove back out to our lot.  Grant and Lisa gave us their opinions on where we might build.  Unfortunately, due to Lisa’s sensitivity to poison ivy, she was limited to assessing our heavily-wooded property from the road.  They advised us to stake the perimeter of the house we’d like to build and apply for the septic system permit, before spending any money on architects or builders.

On Tuesday, we met with Hunter Godfrey, the Project Manager: Draftsman for Goodman Creations, to discuss the process and cost for architectural design of our house.  We liked what we heard but let them know we were planning to apply for the septic permit first.

Wednesday morning, we headed back to our lot.  We first stopped at Lowes to pick up some landscaping stakes, mason line and various tools for clearing brush.  We then spent several hours chopping down branches and thorns.  After this effort, we were able to run a string line along one border of our property.  Being too worn out to fix dinner, we ordered catfish plates from Champy’s which were delicious and very filling.

On Saturday, we attended the Chattanooga Home & Garden show at the convention center.  We enjoyed chatting with many of the vendors, although it would have been premature to ask for estimates.  We spent about an hour talking with LaNita Cates, the New Client Liaison for Cole Construction, despite already having scheduled a meeting with her on Monday.  We got home in time to watch the Tennessee Vols beat the Florida Gators in an exciting game.

On Monday, September 26th, we went to the Chattanooga office of Cole Construction and met with LaNita Cates again and Matt Cole, one of the owners.  They are the only custom builder working in Jasper Highlands that offers a fixed cost contract.

We spent many hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday back on our lot, clearing lots of brush and running string lines along the boundary of our desired house plan.  There are many mature trees that will need to be cleared prior to construction but, for now, we just had to work around them.  The final touch involved running yellow caution tape along the string to keep people from tripping over it.

On Saturday, Jason came to visit us and spend the night.  We drove him out to Jasper Highlands to see our property.  After walking our lot, we drove around so Jason could see many of the beautiful homes in the development.  We also stopped to explore Raulston Falls Park and the Pat’s Summitt pavilion.

On Monday, October 3rd, we drove to Cloudland Canyon State Park for a hike.  This state park is located on the western edge of Lookout Mountain in the northwest corner of Georgia.  We hiked the 1.8-mile out-and-back Waterfalls Trail to see Cherokee Falls and Hemlock Falls, as well as an unnamed falls on Sitton’s Gulch Trail.  Although fairly short, the hike was rated as strenuous due to 600 stairsteps each way.  As usual, the stairs going down weren’t too bad; going back up was another story.  Due to the lack of rainfall, the falls were not as impressive as they would have been otherwise.

On Tuesday, we drove to Helen, GA and spent the day and night with Bruce and Lori Davis.  Bruce’s family has owned a time-share unit there since 1985 and have a tradition of visiting during Oktoberfest.  Helen is Bavarian-themed village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia.  We spent the afternoon exploring Helen with Bruce and Lori, strolling the cobblestone streets and visiting a number of shops, including Betty’s Country Store, Helen Hat Company and Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen.  We stopped to listen to music and enjoy some liquid refreshments at King Ludwig’s Biergarten.  We had German food for dinner, naturally.  The food was delicious, and the portions were very large.  After a quick breakfast on Wednesday morning, we headed for home, first making a stop to check out the campground at Unicoi State Park.

During our brush clearing efforts the previous week, Jan had discovered what appeared to be a survey marker buried in the ground.  That was concerning since this marker was several feet away from where the surveyor’s stake was stuck in the ground.  We decided we should get the line re-surveyed before applying for our septic permit.  On Thursday, we learned that the marker Jan had found buried in the ground was the correct boundary.  This meant that the string line we had run for our proposed single-level house footprint was actually seven feet inside the required setback area.  This was enough for us to abandon our thoughts of a single-level house and, instead, to consider other options with a smaller footprint.

On Friday, we worked to clear the space needed for a two-story house, located on the left side of the lot.  We still had thoughts of possibly building a house with a walkout basement, so Jan invited Grant Moore, of Fredonia Builders, to return to our lot and give us some more advice.  Grant came out on Saturday morning and confirmed that the two-story was our better option.  However, after Grant left, we started to consider placing the two-story house on the right side of our lot and began to clear the necessary area.  By the end of the day on Saturday, we were torn between the two options and could find pros and cons with each.  Since we were scheduled to return in two weeks, we decided to use that time to make our decision.

On Sunday, October 9th, we drove 156 miles to Goodlettsville, TN, where we would spend eight nights at Grand Ole RV Resort.  We arrived in time to watch the second half of the Titan’s win.  Jason dropped by for dinner.  Monday was a more relaxing day, although we did head out to Moss-Wright Park in the afternoon for a long walk.

On Tuesday, we drove to Lebanon, TN and met Philip and Brenda Dunlap for lunch at Los Compadres.  Jan spent Wednesday with Sheila, Ashley and Laura at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens.  After waiting out a tornado warning at Ashley’s apartment afterward, Jan’s drive home through the rain and rush hour traffic was extremely slow.  After visiting our storage unit on Thursday afternoon, we attempted to explore downtown Nashville for a couple of hours.  We abandoned the plan when we could only find full-day parking for $26, and it was getting close to rush hour.  On Friday, Jan spent the afternoon with Sheila and Rita shopping and dining at Opry Mills.

On Saturday morning, we drove to the West End of Nashville and found free parking on the campus of Vanderbilt University.  We then visited the Graduate Nashville hotel and enjoyed some fresh oysters at White Limozeen, the rooftop restaurant and bar.  The pink-themed restaurant was packed with bachelorette parties.  It was drizzling as we left the hotel, so we decided to just drive back down Broadway.  The streets and rooftops were packed with people.  We made it home in time to watch the Tennessee Vols beat Alabama 52-49 on a last-second field goal, ending a 15-year losing streak.  It was a super exciting game!

On Sunday evening, October 16th, we met Jason and headed downtown for a Jason Isbell concert at the Ryman Auditorium.  Before the show, we had dinner at the Assembly Food Hall, across the street from the Ryman.  To describe the Assembly Food Hall as a food court would be to do it a great disservice.  The hall features 24 eateries, nine full-service bars, one full-service restaurant, and three performance stages.  The hall’s 100,000-square-foot includes an open-air rooftop concert venue and over 25,000 square feet of outdoor patio and terrace space.  The place was very crowded.  Jason found us a table and, as we each headed out to order food from different vendors, we were joined at the table by a couple from California.  We had quite a good conversation with them, on a wide range of topics.

The concert began at 8 pm with the special guest, Vagabon, a female vocalist originally from Cameroon.  Things got much more lively when Jason Isbell took the stage.  Isbell grew up in North Alabama and started playing as a teenager in a garage band, with a friend.  They played at the Grand Ole Opry when he was 16.  At age 22, he joined the band, Drive-By Truckers, and was with them for six years, until 2007, before beginning a solo career.  Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit, is primarily made up of musicians from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama area and were very talented.

After a late night, we had to get going early on Monday morning to begin our 206-mile drive to Heiskel, TN, where we spent the night at the Escapee’s Raccoon Valley RV Park.  On Tuesday morning, as we prepared to drive to our dealer, RVs for Less, for service, we were unable to get the two hydraulic living room slides to retract.  This wasn’t a total surprise since a hydraulic fluid leak was on our list of service issues.  Phil added a quart of transmission fluid, and we were able to get the slides closed.  When we got to RVs for Less, they quickly determined that the leak was due to a broken O-ring, and it was fixed quickly.

The remainder of our stay was spent addressing an issue referred to as “butt wiggle,” where the rear cap begins to separate from the frame.  The mechanic said that, on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being the least serious), ours was a 1.  However, once he had done enough work to make the diagnosis, it only made sense for him to finish the job of adding braces to hold the end cap in place.  The total job took eight hours of labor.

Since we never know how long our service appointments will last, we had booked our next campground reservation for Friday.  When we were done early, we had to scramble to find a spot for Thursday night.  Since October is a very popular time in the Smokies, we were fortunate to find an overnight spot at Riverside RV Park in Sevierville, TN, about 25 miles from our dealer.  After getting set up there early Thursday afternoon, we headed off to spend the rest of the day in Gatlinburg.  We strolled the main strip from one end to the other, and then returned down the other side of the street.  We stopped for dinner at an Italian restaurant.

On Friday morning, we checked out of Riverside RV Park.  Phil drove our rig 45 miles to Heiskel, where we spent the weekend at Raccoon Valley again.  Since we had nothing planned for Friday, Jan stayed behind and spent the day shopping at the Tanger Outlet Mall in Pigeon Forge. 

We had chosen to spend the weekend in the Knoxville area so we could attend a Tennessee Vols game, since Phil had never been to Neyland Stadium. We had pretty much abandoned that plan since ticket prices were initially too high, for what was expected to be a blowout game against Tennessee Martin, a FCS football program. However, by Friday night, ticket prices on StubHub had gotten considerably cheaper so we bought some. We parked about 1.4 miles from the stadium and followed the orange-clad crowd. Our seats, in the corner of the end zone, were better than we had expected, and we saw a lot of game action in front of us. The temperature was cool to start the day but, with bright sun, it warmed up quickly. The game turned out to be as one-sided as expected, with the #3-ranked Vols rolling up a halftime score of 52-7, despite pulling many of the starters. The backups played the entire second half and we left with seven minutes remaining. The final score was 65-24.

On Monday morning, October 24th, we left early to meet a Progressive claims adjuster at a truck/RV body shop near Knoxville.  We have experienced hairline fractures to the paint job on our front cap from an incident quite a while ago.  We had filed the claim in Spring 2021 and had received a check from Progressive, based on photos Phil had sent them.  Due to our travel itinerary, we weren’t able to get an actual estimate from the body shop until Spring 2022.  Due to a large difference from their initial estimate, Progressive decided they wanted to schedule a meeting at the body shop, where they could inspect the damage in person and discuss it with the body shop owner.  Again, due to our travel, we weren’t able to schedule that meeting until now.  After that fairly quick meeting, we drove 120 miles back to Rossville, GA, where we spent the next week at Holiday Travel Park Chattanooga. 

On Tuesday, we were back out at our lot in Jasper Highlands, clearing brush and deciding where to situate our house.  Matt Cole, owner of Cole Construction, dropped by at 10 am and provided his opinion.  He recommended we move the house about 35’ farther back than we had previously intended, now starting 75’ from the road.  We spent the rest of the day clearing brush from the paths we would need for staking the new house location, farther back and on the left side of the lot. 

Over the next two days, we met with two more prospective custom home builders: Cain Development on Wednesday and McCoy Homes on Thursday.  This brings us to a total of four possible builders, all of whom come highly recommended.  It will be difficult to make the final selection, as there are pros and cons for each. 

On Friday, we returned to our lot and proceeded to stake out the house footprint, using Matt Cole’s recommendation, but moving it to the right side of the lot.  We spent the entire day clearing brush, marking the corners and running string lines and caution tape around the perimeter.  Although we were very tired and sore, we were glad that we would not need to return on Saturday.  The next step is to apply for the septic permit and wait 4-6 weeks for a decision.  Hopefully, our proposed location will be approved, but, if not, we hope any suggested changes will be acceptable to us.  Regardless, the many days we’ve spent clearing brush from multiple areas on the lot, assisted by the falling leaves, has made the property appear much more open.

Jason came to visit us again on Saturday.  We all enjoyed watching the 3rd-ranked Tennessee Vols beat up on the 19th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, 44-6. 

As we were leaving our dealer’s lot on October 20th, Jan had learned of a tribute for Loretta Lynn at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on October 30th.  She logged in to claim one of the free tickets and received a QR code.  When we arrived at our campsite, she tried to get Phil a ticket but he was placed on the waiting list.  Over the next ten days, there was a lot of conflicting information as to whether or not having the QR code guaranteed a seat in the Opry.  It sounded as though the QR code holders would be given tickets on a first come, first serve basis on the day of the tribute.  On Sunday, October 30th, Jason left us early, drove back to Nashville, and got Jan a place in line at the Opry.  Jan arrived at 11 am and relieved Jason.  She was in line until 3:30 pm, when they started letting people inside for the 6 pm show.  The tribute included a large number of country music icons, both in person and by video.  Although it was an exhausting day, Jan was glad she was able to attend. Back at our campsite, Phil was able to watch the tribute on CMT from the comfort of his recliner.

On Monday, October 31st, we began our drive to Gulf Shores, AL.  Phil towed our rig 267 miles from Rossville, GA to the Miller’s Ferry Corps of Engineers campground outside of Camden, AL.  The campground was quite nice but extremely remote.  Jan drove 300+ miles from Nashville and arrived at the campground about an hour after Phil.