Lower Michigan (May 27 – June 15, 2021)

On Thursday, May 27th, we got an early start and drove 190 miles from Elkhart, IN to Ludington, MI where we spent five nights at Poncho’s Pond RV Park.  We set up in a light drizzle but managed to get finished before the heavier rain began.  The campground was very attractive and our site was on the edge of a large pond.  However, our pad was quite narrow and not long enough to accommodate all our vehicles.  Since the campground rules prohibited parking on the grass, we needed to remove the bikes and bike rack so our car wouldn’t be sticking out into the road.

The weather for the entire Memorial Day weekend was quite cool.  The highs for our first three days never got above 60 degrees and Memorial Day itself was only slightly warmer. On Saturday, we drove to Ludington State Park on the edge of Lake Michigan.  We hiked 4.5-miles out-and-back on the Lighthouse Trail.  The trail first took us to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse, which was built in 1867 after 12 ships had wrecked in the area in 1855.  On our return, we climbed the dunes at the site of a shipwreck and the former site of a station of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.  Unfortunately, there were no remains to be seen.

That evening we drove to the edge of Lake Michigan and watched the sunset.

On Sunday, we returned to Ludington State Park and hiked the 2.5-mile Lost Lake and Island Loop Trail.  This loop trail took us around the circumference of Lost Lake, with us hiking along Hamlin Lake on the return.

Monday was Memorial Day.  We returned to Ludington State Park for the third day and hiked the 2.3-mile Skyline Trail.  The middle of this loop hike involved climbing over 200 stairs to the top of a sand dune that provided a view of Lake Michigan.  The trail ended at the Hamlin Dam which feeds the Sable River.

We then drove back into Ludington and hiked along the Ludington North breakwater to a lighthouse, a distance of one-half mile in each direction.  We were glad the waves were not as strong as we had observed in previous days and we managed to walk the breakwater without getting wet,

On Tuesday, June 1st, we moved northerly to Traverse City, MI.  With only an 82-mile drive from Ludington and check-in not allowed until 2 pm, we had a leisurely morning and departed at 12:30.  Although our starting and ending points were both on US-31, the GPS took us on a rather circuitous route.  We arrived at Holiday Park Campground at 2:30 for our weeklong stay and found that our area of the campground was largely devoid of other campers.  We expect that to change on the weekend.

On Wednesday, we drove to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  Lake Michigan and the giant dunes were formed 14,000 years ago when the glaciers receded.  Over time, forests have developed in much of the area.  After a brief stop at the Visitors Center, we drove the 7-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and got out to explore at several of the stops.  One of the stops provided a 450-foot steep climb down a dune to Lake Michigan.  There was a warning sign stating that a rescue from the slope would cost $3,000 so we just watched from an overlook as some of the younger, and more adventurous, climbers took the challenge.

Our next stop was at the Dune Climb.  We struggled in deep sand to get up the massive dunes and managed to get a view of Lake Michigan in the distance.  We decided not to attempt the entire Dune Climb Trail, which would have entailed walking four miles in the deep sand. 

After a stop in Glen Arbor for some ice cream treats, we hiked the 2.9-mile Good Harbor Bay Trail.  This loop trail took us through thick forests and a swamp.

On Thursday, we drove to Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, MI.  This state park is one of the largest in Lower Michigan.  It is named for its 49 acres of old-growth pine forest, some of the last remaining in the state.  After exploring the displays at the Visitor Center, we walked along a path through the old-growth forest.  We stopped at the Chapel in the Pines, built in 1953.

We then toured the Logging Museum, with its depiction of the state’s 19th-century logging era, when Michigan led the nation in sawed lumber production.

We then did a scenic drive on dirt roads that wound through the forest.  After the drive, we hiked the 3.3-mile Ausable River Foot Trail.

On Friday, we started our day at the Blue Vase Book Exchange in Interlochen, MI.  This bookstore operates with a unique business model, selling used books, DVDs, games, and vinyl records.  In addition to selling books online, they allow customers to bring in their gently loved books and exchange them for different ones.  Generally, they give one half the store value in credit that can be used to buy books from their very large inventory.  We took in ten books we had finished and left with ten new-to-us books.

Next, we drove to downtown Traverse City and spent time exploring the East Front Street shopping district.  We stopped for lunch at a collection of food trucks.  After checking our a few stores, we wandered down to the marina on West Grand Traverse Bay.  Before leaving downtown, we stopped at the Grand Traverse Pie Company and bought a peach pie.  Our final stop of the day was at Walgreens, where Phil got his second dose of the Shingrix vaccine.

On Saturday, we visited The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, on the grounds of the former Traverse City State Hospital (previously known as the Northern Michigan Asylum).  After visiting several of the shops, we took a two-hour guided tour of the hospital.  Our tour guide, Vanessa, had grown up at the facility as the son (then named Ben) of the hospital’s Superintendent and as a part-time employee in the Maintenance department.  She shared a lot of amusing and sad stories about life at the hospital and her interactions with the patients and staff.  We learned a lot about the history of the hospital and its approach to dealing with mental health issues.  Our tour included visits into the former chapel (now a reception hall), one of the unrenovated buildings and a walk through the brick steam tunnel built in 1883.

Construction of the Northern Michigan Asylum began in 1882. In spite of a time of hand tools and mule power, the immense task of constructing the huge hospital took less than three years to complete. By November of 1885, it received its first patients. The main structure (Building 50) was almost one quarter mile long, with over 300,000 square feet, and employed central heat and electric lights. With a rudimentary understanding of germ theory, a state-of-the-art ventilation system was designed that would use large fans to force air through underground tunnels, into the basement and up flues in the building. Almost immediately after completion of the original building, there was demand for additional patient rooms. Standalone cottages were constructed to serve the increasing patient population. 

The Northern Michigan Asylum was built more than six decades before the use of the first psychiatric drugs. Founding Superintendent Dr. Munson believed in the Quakers’ moral treatment movement. Central to this belief was Dr. Munson’s philosophy that “Beauty is Therapy.” If patients were surrounded by a beautiful environment, from the architecture to the campus grounds, their emotional and mental state would be uplifted. Dr. Munson made an effort to ensure that patients felt at home, rather than trapped in an unfamiliar place. Each patient room had a window and view to the outside. This let in an abundance of natural light and allowed every patient the opportunity to enjoy a view of the campus.  Use of physical restraints was forbidden, except for the most extreme patient situations. Meals at the hospital were served in dining rooms on fine china, atop white linen tablecloths. Fresh flowers and plants decorated dining tables and resting areas. Artwork and inspirational sayings adorned the walls of the wide hallways.

By 1966, the hospital population hit its peak with 3,600 patients and 800 employees.  However, as the patient population dropped in the 1970s-1990s, some of the buildings were shuttered or demolished.  The state and community debated the preservation or demolition of the facility.  In 2002, the Minervini Group LLC acquired a 36-acre parcel and renovation began.  Today, The Village at Grand Traverse Commons contains offices, residential lofts, a senior living facility, and numerous shopping and dining establishments.  Numerous events are held on the grounds throughout the year.  Renovation of the outbuildings is still a work in progress.

Following our tour, we had a late lunch at the Red Spire Brunch House in the lower level of the former hospital.

On Sunday, we headed to the farmers’ market in Interlochen.  Although there were a lot of vendors, it must have been too early in the year for vegetables and we left empty-handed.  However, we did stop at the Blue Vase Book Exchange again and left with another ten books.  We should now have enough reading material to last us quite a while.

On Tuesday, June 8th, we drove 120 miles to Mackinaw City, MI where we will spend a week at Mackinaw Mill Creek Camping.  We had expected to take I-75 most of the way but the GPS had a different idea.  We drove almost the entire trip on US-31, which took us along Lake Michigan and by a number of beautiful lakes.  It was a longer trip, timewise, but definitely more picturesque.  Our campsite was a large pull-through with plenty of privacy.  Although not on the water, we could see Lake Huron a short distance from our site.  A beach with a clear view of the Mackinac Bridge was only a short walk away from us. 

Unfortunately, halfway through the trip, Phil’s truck started giving him a message of “DEF System Service – See Dealer.”  DEF is the acronym for Diesel Exhaust Fluid and can create a serious problem for a diesel truck.  If unresolved, the truck will be limited to driving at 5 mph.  In fact, as Phil continued to drive, the truck messages began to display more ominous messages, beginning with “5 mph in 150 miles” and counting down from there.  Upon arriving at our campsite, Phil found that the closest RAM dealer was in Cheboygan, 14 miles away.  We drove the truck to the dealer and hope the issue can be resolved within a few days.  We were fortunate that the issue arose when we were still close to a large town.

After leaving Cheboygan, we explored downtown Mackinaw City.  We selected Noona Lisa’s Italian Ristorante for dinner.

On Wednesday, we drove to Wilderness State Park and hiked the North Country Trail Sturgeon Bay South Loop.  When we arrived in the parking lot at the trail’s geo-coordinates, we only found one trailhead and began down that trail.  After a mile, Phil checked our progress against the Alltrails app and discovered we had headed north when we were supposed to go south.  We backtracked and discovered the correct trailhead was across the road from the parking area.  The first half of the hike wasn’t really a trail at all.  Instead, it was a pleasant stroll alone the shore of Sturgeon Bay.  The return portion of the loop involved many fairly steep ascents and descents.  It was rated as moderate difficulty and reminded us of the moderate trails we had hiked in Maine. We ended the hike with a total of 7.6 miles.

On Thursday, we took the Star Link Ferry to Mackinac Island.  Our ferry was one of the few that included a route under the Mackinac Bridge.  The trip to Mackinac Island took about 40 minutes. 

Mackinac Island was first settled by Europeans in 1670.  The island was owned by the French, British and Americans over the next 150 years.  In the 1820s, the island was the center of a large fur trade.  By the late 1830s, commercial fishing was the primary industry.  Following the Civil War, the island became a popular tourist destination. Mackinac National Park was created in 1875 as America’s second national park, just three years after Yellowstone.  In 1895, the Federal government transferred the national park to the state of Michigan.  Three years later, the first automobile appeared on Mackinac Island, frightening horses and threatening the island’s carriage trade economy.  After receiving a petition from the tour operators, the village council quickly banned “horseless carriages.”  To this day, no motor vehicles are allowed on the island.  Tourists and residents alike must rely entirely on horse-drawn carriages and bicycles to get around on the island. 

Upon arrival, we strolled down Main Street and purchased some fudge at Murdick Fudge.  We continued our stroll along the bay, before stopping at the Grand Hotel.  This beautiful hotel was built in 1887 and still demands huge room rates.  In fact, we were charged $10 a piece simply to tour the hotel and grounds. 

After leaving the hotel, we strolled along Market Street.  Lilac bushes were everywhere and were in full bloom.  Their aroma helped to offset the ever-present scent of horse droppings.  We then returned to Main Street for lunch and, after checking the menus at numerous restaurants, we dined at Horn’s Gaslight Bar.  Following lunch, we visited a lot of shops on Main Street.  By mid-afternoon, the weather had gotten quite cool, with strong winds and a temperature of 62 degrees.  Phil gave into the chill and purchased a sweatshirt.  We also picked up another chunk of fudge at Murdick’s.  After some additional sightseeing and a brief stop in the Sainte Anne Church, we boarded the 5 pm ferry for our return to Mackinaw City.  There was still a lot we hadn’t see on the island but we decided to make a return trip later in our stay.

Friday was a rainy and dreary day so we stayed indoors most of the day.  At 5 pm, Phil finally heard from the service manager at the Dodge dealer that the truck was ready to be picked up.  Since the service department was closing and we were only 15 miles away, Phil asked the service manager to just put the key in the truck’s console and leave the truck unlocked.  However, when we arrived in Cheboygan, the truck was locked.  After dinner, Phil located the spare key and we returned to the dealership to retrieve the truck.

On Saturday, we explored downtown Mackinaw City.  As we arrived, we discovered a large event happening in the local park.  We later learned that the 1st annual Mackinaw City Motorcycle Rally was being held this weekend.  There were well over 1,000 motorcycles in town and bikers were everywhere we went.  Our first stop was at Michilimackanac (Mackinaw’s original name) State Park.  This was Michigan’s second state park and is home to two historic sites, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and Colonial Michilimackinac.  The park provides a great view of Mackinac Bridge, where the motorcycle rally had scheduled a parade over and back.  Unfortunately, due to a fatal motorcycle accident, traffic across the bridge was backed up for hours.  Due to the gridlock of bridge traffic, we were unable to get across town to see the McGulpin Point Lighthouse.

Our next stop was the Mackinac Bridge Museum, which is on the second floor of Mama Mia’s Pizzeria.  In addition to lots of artifacts from the bridge construction in 1954-1957, we watched videotaped interviews with ironworkers who had worked on the project.  The Mackinac Bridge is part of Interstate-75 and connects the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan.  The bridge is five miles long and the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere.  The bridge, known as “Big Mac” or “Mighty Mac,” is designed to withstand crushing ice and winds up to 150 mph.

After visiting a few downtown shops, we stopped at Dixie Saloon for a not-so-healthy mid-afternoon snack of fried cheese curds.

On the Road to Michigan (May 10 – 27, 2021)

On Monday, May 10th, we left Kerrville, TX and began our trip northward.  We drove 211 miles and spent the night at the I-35 RV Park in Elm Mott, TX (near Waco).  The weather forecast was calling for thunderstorms and very heavy rainfall to begin Tuesday morning so we got an early start.  Fortunately, the storm held off until we completed our 265-mile drive to the Shady Pines RV Park in Texarkana, TN.  We managed to get set up and settled safely indoors when the heavy rains came.

After a stormy Tuesday evening, Wednesday was a lovely day.  We decided to stop at Bringle Lake Park to get some exercise.  Although we hadn’t prepared to hike the full 7-mile loop wilderness trail around the lake, we did walk 2.2 miles in one direction and then returned the way we had come.  The rain had left the trail swampy in places but we were able to skirt the worst of it and didn’t get too muddy.  Part of the trail had been designated Gnomington Forest.  In this section, there were numerous little doors at the bottom of trees.  We looked into some of these doors but did not spot any gnomes.

On Thursday, we drove 235 miles to Delta Ridge RV Park in Forrest City, AR.  On Friday, we drove 273 miles to Nashville, TN where we spent eight days at Seven Points COE Campground.  We had learned a few days earlier that the I-40 bridge we had planned to take across the Mississippi River at Memphis was closed.  A bridge inspector had discovered a large crack in the bridge and this section of I-40 was likely to be closed for months.  Our next-best option was to take the smaller I-55 bridge, despite the anticipated bumper-to-bumper traffic for miles leading to the bridge.  The owner of the Delta Ridge campground suggested an alternative route that took us through West Memphis, AR and allowed us to join I-55 much closer to the bridge, thus missing much of the tie-up.  We still had a bit of a delay but managed to arrive at Seven Points by 3:30 pm. 

On Saturday, May 15th, we picked up Jason and went to watch the Nashville Sounds play the Memphis Redbirds.  The Nashville Sounds are now the Triple-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.  We were surprised to learn that Christian Yelich was starting in left field for the Sounds.  Yelich is a two-time National League batting champion, the 2018 NL MVP and the 2019 NL MVP runner-up.  He is currently on a rehab assignment with the Sounds, before he returns to the Brewers.  We had great seats, on the club level close to home plate.  The beginning of the game was rather slow, with the pitchers for both teams struggling with control issues, and remained scoreless (and the Sounds hitless) through seven innings.  After that, the game got quite exciting and there were some spectacular defensive plays.  Memphis scored two runs in the top of the eighth but the Sounds got three in the bottom of the inning. Memphis tied the game in the ninth after the Nashville pitcher hit three batters.  The Sounds finally won the game with a two-out hit in the bottom of the tenth.  The game had lasted for 4.5 hours and many of the spectators around us had already left, but we stuck it out and were rewarded with a great ending.

On Sunday, Jan had lunch with her friends, Sheila and Michelle, and Sheila’s daughter, Ashley.

On Monday, we went to Franklin to the Mazda dealer for an oil change and to Discount Tire to get one of the tires inspected.  The tire had developed a slow leak over the previous few days.  The service tech found a nail in the tire and was able to patch it.  On Tuesday evening, we got together with Lizzi and her roommate, Amanda, for dinner at Las Palma.

On Friday, Jason took the day off from work and we had quite an adventure.  Our first stop was in East Nashville at Three Daughters Bakery.  We each had a 100-layer donut, which was flaky like a croissant but quite filling.  We then headed to the Regal Opry Mills where we watched the movie “Dream Horse.”  The film was based on a true story of a small-town bartender in Wales who convinces her neighbors to chip in to help breed a race horse, Dream.  The investment pays off as Dream becomes very successful and becomes a beacon of hope for the struggling community.  Our next stop was at Game Terminal, a warehouse in South Nashville with one of the largest selections of arcade games and pinball machines in the USA.  The arcade games were all free and the pinball machines cost $1 a game.  In addition, there was a large outdoor area with games such as cornhole, shuffleboard, ping pong and giant Connect Four.  Our final stop of the day was dinner at Gino’s East, one of our favorite pizza chains from our days in the Chicago area.  The weather was ideal for dining outside so we sat on the patio and enjoyed a deep-dish sausage patty pizza.

On Saturday, May 22nd, it was time to travel again.  We drove 260 miles to Nineveh, IN where we spent the night at the Johnson County Park Campground.  The office was closed when we arrived but the host met us and led us to our site.  The assigned site was a back-in but, when Phil asked for a pull-through, the host led us to a new site that looked like we were parking on a road.  Despite having taken us in the wrong direction so our hookups were on the wrong side, the site was adequate for one night and level enough so that we didn’t have to unhitch.

On Sunday, we drove 200 miles to Elkhart, IN where we spent four nights at Elkhart Campground. On Monday, we were hosted for dinner by Phil’s sister, Barb Anderson, and her husband, Dan.  We were joined by Phil’s niece, Emily Hall, her husband, Cody, and their one-year-old son, Wyatt.

On Tuesday morning, we drove to the DRV factory in Howe, IN to pick up some parts for our RV.  Although we were eventually able to get all five parts, it took considerably longer than expected.  The computer went down at the moment Phil arrived at the warehouse.  This, combined with the fact that their operation really wasn’t set up to have customers pick up parts in person, led to a lengthy wait.  When Phil finally received the parts, he discovered that one of the parts was not what he had requested and this led to a further delay.

When we finally got our parts, we headed to the flea market in Shipshewana.  With nearly 700 booths, this flea market claims to be the biggest in the Midwest.  It was a warm day but strong winds made it more tolerable, even if the winds did create havoc for many of the vendors.  We made a lot of purchases, largely of things we didn’t know we needed until we saw them.  After completing the circuit of booths, we headed across the parking lot to Yoder’s Meat and Cheese.  We loaded our cart with lots of fresh meat, cheese curds and other groceries. 

On Wednesday, we had dinner with Barb and Dan Anderson at Davinci’s Italian Family Restaurant.  The food was very good and the portions were so large that each couple was able to share an entrée.

Kerrville, TX Again (April 10 – May 10, 2021)

On Saturday, April 10th, we left Johnson City and drove 67 miles to Buckhorn Lake Resort in Kerrville, TX.  This is at least our eighth stay at Buckhorn Lake Resort.  The purpose of our return was to take care of our annual doctor appointments and await warmer weather before beginning our travels north. Although it’s a very nice campground and Kerrville’s a nice town, we’ve pretty much exhausted the available attractions.

Shortly after getting set up, we drove to Walgreens and Jan got her COVID vaccination.  Jan was glad to be able to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine so she didn’t have to worry about scheduling a second injection. 

Phil attempted to play pickleball most mornings but, with some poor weather and the departure of many of the winter regulars, there were a lot of mornings when he was unable to play.  Jan walked every morning, often opting for the Louise Hays Park in town rather than having to make multiple laps around the campground.  Phil joined her on days with no pickleball.  We often spotted deer in the park who were relatively unfazed by the passerbys.

Monday, April 12th, was our 18th wedding anniversary.  We celebrated with dinner at Rails, Kerrville’s top-rated restaurant.

On Wednesday, we went to Bandera and had dinner at the 11st Street Cowboy Bar.  We took our own steak and Phil grilled it over one of the large pits.  We purchased sides of baked potato and salad.  We sat by the dance floor and spent the evening watching experienced country dancers demonstrate their skills.  We had hoped to have an opportunity to use our newly-learned line dancing moves but we were disappointed.  The only line dancing opportunity came when the band went on break and, even then, few people got up to line dance.  Phil did line dance to Copperhead Road but the few dancers all appeared to be on a different beat.  Later that evening, Phil attempted to Google local line dancing venues but saw comments such as “Texans don’t line dance” and “like disco, the line dancing craze died in the 1990’s.”

On Saturday, we went to the Fredericksburg Trade Days.  This is a massive flea market that is held for three days on the third weekend of each month.  We strolled around for a couple of hours and made a couple of purchases.  If there in truth in the saying “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” we saw lots of potential treasures for someone else.

On Wednesday, April 28th, Jan flew from San Antonio to Nashville to attend the wedding of Evan Gaskin, son of Sheila and David Gaskin, on May 1st.  After dropping Jan off at the San Antonio airport, Phil returned to our RV and sat through an evening of wild weather.  The forecast included a tornado watch and the threat of large hail.  Fortunately, the worst of the severe weather passed to both the east and west of Kerrville.  The town of Hondo, 50 miles due south of Kerrville, was hit with 80-110 mph winds and softball-sized hail that did a great deal of damage.  This was one of three hailstorms over Texas and Oklahoma that inflicted at least $1 billion damage combined.  Although spared any damage, we did experience very heavy rain that continued for most of the next 24 hours.

On Saturday, May 8th, we drove to Fredericksburg. We wanted to stock up on some of our favorite sauces from Rustlin’ Bob’s before we leave the area on Monday. Rustlin’ Bob’s is one of those stores where you can stroll up and down the aisles and sample the various products on crackers and pretzels.  We had last visited Rustlin’ Bob’s in June 2020 and, due to COVID, the store had been locked down and shopping had consisted of calling in our order and picking it up at the register.  This time, we were happy to see that life at Rustlin’ Bob’s had returned to normal and we were able to graze to our hearts’ content.

After leaving Rustlin’ Bob’s, we strolled down Main Street and visited a few more stores.  We then decided to drive to Luckenbach and listen to some live music.  We arrived in time to listen to a set of country and gospel songs by Weldon Henson and his band.  Weldon’s six-year-old daughter, Brea, joined in the performance and soloed and sang backup on a number of songs.

On the Road to Kerrville (April 1-10, 2021)

After waving goodbye to Phil’s fellow pickleball players, we departed our three-month home at Sunkissed Village and began our 10-day journey to Kerrville, TX.  Our first day consisted of a 294-mile drive, almost entirely on interstate highways.  After having been stationary for three months, the drive was rather tiring but uneventful.  We spent two nights at Outback Springs RV Resort in Bonifay, FL.  The weather turned significantly cooler, with daytime highs in the low-60’s and nighttime lows in the upper-30s.

On Friday, April 2nd, we drove 75 miles to Destin and spent a couple of hours exploring the Destin Harbor Boardwalk.  We strolled past lots of yachts and charter fishing boats.  We watched as the fishing boat crews cleaned their catches and threw the scraps to the awaiting pelicans.  When we grew hungry, we decided to stop for lunch at Brotula’s Seafood House. 

After lunch, we left Destin and drove about an hour along the Gulf to Panama City.  We parked at one of the beach access points and then strolled about 2 miles up and down the shore.  Although it was windy and cool, the bright sun made for a beautiful day.

On Saturday, we drove 286 miles to Mandeville, LA where we spent three nights at Fontainebleau State Park.  We had stayed at this state park several years earlier.  For that stay, we had gotten one of the very few full-hookup sites but it had been very challenging to get into and out of the C-shaped pull-through.  We had discovered some other pull-through sites that, at that time, appeared much easier to access but lacked a sewer hookup.  For this year’s stay. Phil selected one of these sites without a sewer hookup.  Although pulling into this year’s pull-through site was easier than the previous stay, getting to our site was no fun at all.  It was Easter weekend and the campground was mobbed.  In addition to having the campground full, there appeared to be many visitors.  Vehicles were parked everywhere and kids seemed oblivious to the traffic.  This made it very difficult to get up and down the roads.  To make matters worse, the park ranger had failed to tell Phil which road to take to have the hookups on the right side.  When we finally got within eyeshot of our site, Phil realized that he was going to have to get turned around.  This necessitated driving through the crowded streets again and making a couple of sharp turns.  One of the turns had us nearly going into a ditch and required having a kind Boy Scout leader move his van (twice!) so Phil could swing our rig wide enough to miss the ditch.  Jan was in the Mazda behind him and was able to watch the close calls and keep Phil informed over the cell phone.  We were happy to finally get set up in our site and, despite it being somewhat of a muddy mess, it was good enough for a few days. Unfortunately, we subsequently discovered that a board we rubbed up against while getting around the ditch damaged some of the fiberglass on our rig and it will need to be repaired.

On Easter Sunday, we drove across the 24-mile-long Mandeville Causeway into New Orleans.  Phil had booked parking in a garage near the French Quarter.  After parking our car on the 4th level, we didn’t see any elevator so we walked down a stairway that was dirty and somewhat scary.  When we reached ground level, Phil realized he had forgotten his mask so he had to return to the car.  The stairway we had come down did not open from the outside so Phil had to find another way.  His first attempt was another staircase but it went up about four levels before coming to a dead end.  After returning down those stairs, he decided to walk up one of the ramps.  Unfortunately, this ramp went all the way to the 7th floor, with no access to the lower floors.  Phil finally found the elevator and was able to get back to our car and then rejoin Jan on the ground level.

Fortunately, the parking garage was only a short distance from Evangeline, the restaurant where Jan had gotten us reservations for brunch.  Jan had learned that Easter brunch is a New Orleans tradition and had had to contact many restaurants before finding an opening at Evangeline.  We requested a seat in the courtyard and, with an umbrella over our table, the setting was ideal.  The food was delicious and the servers made sure that our Bottomless Mimosas remained bottomless.

After brunch, we went for a long walk through the French Quarter.  It was early afternoon on Easter and the French Quarter was appropriately sedate.  After we both achieved our 10,000 steps for the day, we splurged by ordering beignets at Café Du Monde.  These French doughnuts are coated with tons of powdered sugar, making for a messy but tasty treat.

In the fall of 2020, we had been experiencing a problem with our DirecTV signal freezing up.  We had called DirecTV several times for technical support but they had been unable to resolve the issue.  We really needed a service call but, because our account address is our Livingston, TX mailing address, DirecTV will only send a technician to us if we are in Livingston.  Since we had cable service at Sunkissed Village, we had suspended our DirecTV service for three months.  When we restored our DirecTV service at the end of March, we had technical issues and had to reset the connection to two of our TVs.  Somehow, this cleared up the problems we had been having.  Since we really had no other reason to return to Livingston, we cancelled our Livingston campground reservation (and service call) and altered our travel plans.

On Tuesday, April 6th, we drove 268 miles to Beaumont, TX where we spent the night at Hidden Lake RV Park.  This campground was quite a distance from town but was beautifully maintained.

On Wednesday, we drove 290 miles to Johnson City, TX where we spent three nights at Miller Creek RV Resort.  The drive took us along I-10 through the middle of Houston but, fortunately, we timed it so that we hit the city around 10:30 a.m. so it wasn’t too bad.  All but the last 60 miles were on I-10 and they went pretty smoothly, despite being boring.  However, the last part of the trip took us through a number of small towns and was more challenging.  Finding the campground was also a bit of a challenge and we were exhausted by the time we arrived.  The campground was about six miles south of Johnson City but was very comfortable and tidy.  We decided to go out for dinner but found that almost all of the local restaurants were closed in the evening.  We finally settled on El Agave Mexican Restaurant.  The food was only so-so but we were very hungry and just glad to have something to eat.

On Thursday, Phil took the Mazda and the truck to a local tire dealer to get our Texas vehicle inspections.  Texas law had allowed us to renew our registrations without inspections since we were out-of-state at the time but we were required to get the inspections done within three days of re-entering the state. We then drove into Johnson City and visited the boyhood home of Lyndon B. Johnson.  Unfortunately, due to COVID, the Visitors Center was closed and there were no tours of the home.  We were limited to walking around the grounds and peaking in through the windows.  LBJ’s parents had bought the home in 1913.  It was from the East porch of this house that Lyndon launched his first congressional campaign in 1937.

We then walked down a path to the Johnson Settlement where LBJ’s paternal grandparents had lived in a dogtrot cabin from 1867 – 1872.  We also viewed buildings that had been owned by other Johnson kin in the late 1800s, then spent some time communicating with a pair of Texas longhorns.

On Friday, we drove to Stonewall, TX and visited the LBJ Ranch unit of the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site.  We began by visiting the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm.  This is an authentic working farm, where park interpreters dress in period costumes, demonstrating the lifestyles of a typical German Hill Country farm between 1915 and 1918.

We then drove across the Pedernales River and did a self-guided tour of the LBJ ranch.  Our first stop was at Junction School, a one-room school where four-year-old Lyndon began his formal education.  President Johnson returned to this schoolhouse in 1965 to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which redefined the Federal government’s role in America’s schools.

Next, we visited the nearby Johnson Family Cemetery where LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson were laid to rest, alongside generations of Johnsons.  Then, we walked around the site where LBJ was born in 1908.  The house was reconstructed in 1964 to closely resemble the original house and was used by the President as a guest house.  We also visited the farmhouse of Sam, Sr. and Eliza Johnson, LBJ’s grandparents.  We had seen their earlier home in the Johnson Settlement on Thursday.

The rest of the drive took us through huge pastures that were part of the LBJ Ranch.  Although it seemed like a large property, we learned that this was only one of nine of LBJ’s ranches and was not the largest. The drive ended at the ranch house which, during the Johnson Presidency, had been known as the Texas White House.  The Johnsons had purchased the house in 1951 and it was home for President and Lady Bird Johnson until their deaths in 1973 and 2007.  Unfortunately, due to COVID, tours of the house had been discontinued.

There is an airstrip nearby and we got to see a Lockheed Jetstar assigned to the White House fleet.  Since the airstrip could not support the weight of Air Force One, President Johnson used this smaller plane to travel to and from the ranch.  LBJ referred to it as “Air Force One-Half.”

That evening, we drove to Austin and had dinner at Hopdaddy Burger Bar with Caleb and Brittany Dickerson, Katie Schlegel and Michael Totty.  This was not your ordinary burger place.  We used our cell phones to order and pay for our meals, without ever leaving the table.  We each had a gourmet burger and we shared huge orders of Parmesan Truffle Fries and Hot Honey & Sage Sweet Potato Fries.  After dinner, we returned to the Dickersons’ abode and played a game of Mexican Train, before making the drive back to Johnson City.

Winter in Florida – Month 3 (March 1 – 31, 2021)

On Thursday, March 4th, we went to The Whispering Oaks Blues Fest at Whispering Oaks Winery in Oxford, FL.  Over the next three hours, we enjoyed three outstanding musical groups as they performed the blues.  First was Steve Arvey; then Memphis Lightning; and finally, Alex Lopez and The Xpress.  We sat at a table with a couple who were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and who had lived in The Villages for 10 years.  We enjoyed flights of Whispering Oaks wines and dined on BBQ flatbread.

At the end of the evening, all three headliners appeared on stage together for an incredible jam session. We managed to capture most of it on video.

On Saturday evening, we had a mini-reunion with several friends from our Winter 2020 stay at Tropical Trails in Brownsville, TX.  Leslie Verhaeghe was in town visiting her stepmother, Diane.  We met Leslie and Diane, as well as Kenny and Becky Swisher, in Lake Panasoffkee for dinner at Catfish Johnny’s.  The food was very good and reasonably priced.  It was nice to get together once again with friends from a previous stop along our RV journeys. 

On Sunday, we went to Silver Springs State Park.  We began our day with a 90-minute cruise on a glass bottom boat along the Silver River.  The glass bottom boats showcase the crystal-clear springs and underwater life that inhabits Silver Springs.  Above the surface, we also viewed turtles, alligators, a manatee and a wide variety of birds.  The boat’s captain provided us with lots of information about the wildlife and the history of the river.

One of the stories we heard related to wild monkeys that live in the park.  In 1938, a tour boat operator attempted to create a tourist attraction by releasing six rhesus macaques, a monkey native to south and southeast Asia, on a small island.  Unbeknownst to the tour boat operator, rhesus macaques are strong swimmers and they escaped into the woods.  Replacement moneys were bought in but they also escaped the island.  The population has grown over the years and there are now hundreds of these monkeys in the park.  We did not see any monkeys on our boat cruise.  However, after lunch from a food truck and some exploration of the main part of the park, we headed over to another section and hiked the River Loop Trail.  As we walked along the river, we noticed some boaters on the river pointing to monkeys.  As we watched, we were able to see several of these monkeys frolicking on the opposite bank of the river.

On Wednesday, March 10th, we met Barb and Bobby Sanders for lunch at OakWood Express Smokehouse & Grill in Wildwood, FL.  We first met Barb and Bobby on our trip to Alaska in the summer of 2018.  It was great to catch up with these friends after all that time.

On Tuesday, March 16th, Phil was finally able to get his permanent crown installed.  He had gotten a temporary on February 11th but getting the permanent crown from the lab was delayed a couple of weeks by the freezing weather in Texas.

On Thursday, we addressed a minor leak that had been seeping from the base of our toilet.  Although the procedure Phil had watched on YouTube looked fairly easy, it didn’t turn out that way.  The first of the two nuts holding down the toilet came off easily.  However, the nut on the side between the toilet and the wall was rusted and very difficult to see, much less remove.  After we finally got the toilet out and had cleaned up the nastiness, replacing the seal and reinstalling the toilet was fairly easy. 

That evening, we drove to the Spanish Springs Town Square in The Villages to enjoy the St. Patrick’s Day festivities.  We wandered around the square and watched several of the entertainers and checked out some of the booths.  We then managed to find seating in the center of the square and watched the musicians performing Irish songs.

On Saturday, March 20th, Phil participated in another pickleball tournament.  Unlike the earlier tournament, he was paired with strong partners and won all six games.  However, another camper (Mark) also won all six games.  As a result, Phil and Mark had to play a tiebreaker game.  Two of the other top finishers drew numbers to see who would play as their partners.  Phil ended up with Nick as his partner, while Mark was paired with John.  After jumping out to an early 7-0 lead, Phil and Nick then fell behind 10-11.  Fortunately, pickleball requires you to win by two and Phil and Nick fought back to win 13-11.  Phil won a $20 Publix gift card.

On Sunday, we drove to Hernando, FL and toured the villages of Citrus Hills.  Our visit began with a tour of Citrus County, taking us throughout Inverness and Crystal River.  We then visited the recreational facilities in Citrus Hills, before having lunch at the Grill.  These facilities were beautiful, with a resort-like feel to them.  This development seemed a lot less chaotic than what we’d observed in The Villages, FL.  After lunch, we visited several model homes and viewed some available lots.  Although we were very impressed with Citrus Hills, we are not yet ready to settle down and aren’t convinced yet that Florida is where we want to live long-term.

On Monday evening, we had dinner with Jeri and Jim Mahan at Eaton’s Beach Sandbar and Grill.  Jan ordered Shrimp & Grits and Phil had Shrimp Creole.  On Tuesday, we drove to a Catholic church in The Villages for Phil to get his second dose of the Moderna COVID vaccine.  Many people have experienced serious side effects from their second dose but, fortunately, Phil’s only side effect was some tenderness at the injection site.

Although we had already tentatively made reservations to return to Sunkissed Village RV Resort in the winter of 2022, we continued to explore other options.  Jan discovered a brand-new RV resort in Webster, FL that is scheduled to be completed in Fall 2021.  After Phil’s vaccination, we visited Oak Alley RV Resort.  Phase One of the resort has 311 sites and there are plans for another 259 sites.  With the exception of 13 pull-through sites, all of the sites are on grass.  There are 12 very nice pickleball courts and a pickleball pro on staff.  The clubhouse is very large and the pool area (not yet completed) looks like it will be quite nice.  One of the biggest draws to this campground is that they are offering 50% on all reservations booked by mid-October 2021.  This brought the cost of a 4-month stay down to $1,750, plus sales tax.  Also surprising is that this rate includes electricity.  We selected site #131, near the clubhouse, and went into the office to book our stay for December 2021 through March 2022.  Although Webster, FL is out in the boonies, we couldn’t pass up this incredible deal.  Later that afternoon, our friends Dave and Jo Peterson also booked reservations at Oak Alley.

On Friday, March 26th, we drove to Ormand Beach on the Atlantic coast.  The drive took 1.5 hours each way but this was the only time we got to see the ocean during our three-month stay in Florida.  After having lunch at Panera, we parked at the Andy Romano Beachfront Park and walked 3 miles up and down the beach.  It was a beautiful day, with a temperature of about 80 degrees.  The water was too cold to even consider swimming but it felt really good to wade along the water’s edge.  The beach was littered with a ton of jelly fish.  The big ones were easy to spot but the smaller ones required a lot of attention to avoid stepping on them.  After our walk, we went to the Beach Bucket Bar & Grill and, after a half-hour wait, got a table overlooking the beach.  We enjoyed a couple of Blue Moons and an order of onion rings before beginning our drive home.  That evening, we gathered at the pool with our friends for three hours of entertainment hosted by deejay K.C. Webb.

Winter in Florida – Month 2 (February 1 – 28, 2021)

As we entered month two of our stay in Summerfield, FL, we had settled into a regular routine that included walking, tai chi and yoga for Jan and pickleball for Phil.  We both continued to attend weekly beginner line dancing classes.  Although we still struggled to remember what steps go with each dance, they were becoming more familiar to us.

We continued to explore various RV parks in the area for possible stays next winter for us and/or our friends.  On February 5th, our travels brought us back to Inverness and we stopped for a late lunch at Stumpknockers.  We ate indoors and enjoyed the décor on the walls.  That evening, we attended a fireside social at the campground but it was rained out within the first 15 minutes.  The following night, we went to the community center and listened to the Beachbillies Band.  Jan practiced her line dancing skills with some of the other campers.

Jason arrived in Orlando on Saturday, February 13th for a weeklong visit.  Although it was rainy many of the days, it was definitely better than in Nashville, where they had extremely cold and snowy weather.  On Sunday, we drove to The Villages and attended a crafts fair at the Spanish Springs Town Square.  After visiting the many booths, we relaxed in the square and listened to live music.  We then drove through numerous neighborhoods to show Jason what The Villages was all about.

On Tuesday, we drove to the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.  COVID had forced the closure of the visitor center, boats, reptile house and the underwater observatory, as well as cancellation of the educational programs.  Despite this, there was plenty for us to see.  We spent several hours on the Wildlife Walk.  We saw several manatees and massive schools of fish gathered around the bridge and in the spring.  In addition, we strolled the boardwalk and were able to see numerous species of mammals and birds in their natural habitats.  Most of these animals had been rescued and are no longer able to survive in the wild.  This included a hippo, gray wolf, foxes, a black bear, alligators, as well as eagles, owls, flamingos and many other types of birds.

On Thursday, February 18th, we drove two hours to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Merritt Island.  We began by visiting the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which had covered 126 million miles of space travel.  After looking at numerous exhibits related to the space shuttle program, we did the Shuttle Launch Experience.  This attraction is a flight simulator on par with what astronauts experienced in training.  After riders are belted into their seats, the platform rises and seat rumblers and shakers rattle riders through the turbulent main engine start, the firing of the solid rocket boosters and then their separation over the next six minutes.  Air bags in each seat sink and rise to capture the sensation of the 17,500-mph liftoff of a NASA shuttle.

Our next stop was at the IMAX theater where we watched the 3D movie, Journey to Space, and learned about designing space vessels for travel to Mars.  We then went to Journey to Mars: Explorers Wanted, where we learned more about future missions to Mars.

We next went through Heroes & Legends, which focused on the astronauts of the early space programs.  We then walked through the Rocket Garden, containing rockets from NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. 

We had selected Thursday for our visit since that was the day the Perseverance rover was scheduled to land on Mars.  Perseverance had been launched in July 2020 for its six-month journey to Mars and 2-year mission on the planet.  Our final stop of the day was at the Atlantis North Lawn where we sat on the grass and watched the NASA TV live-stream on a large projection screen.  We were able to observe the Mission Control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA and listen to the live commentary as the rover approached and successfully landed on Mars.  Watching the excitement of the JPL personnel during those critical last few minutes was quite captivating.  Seeing the first pictures from the landing site was memorable.

For dinner, we stopped at the Island Waterfront Bar and Grill on Merritt Island.  We sat on the patio which provided us with views of the river.  We each had a different type of fish but were all very satisfied with our meals.

On Saturday, it was time for Jason to return home so we drove back to Orlando.  We stopped for a dinner of made-to-order burgers at Mooyah.

On Tuesday, February 23rd, Phil was able to get his first dose of the COVID vaccine at a community college in Sumter County.  He had registered in January but, since Florida had subsequently announced that only Florida residents would be eligible for the vaccinations, he was surprised to get an appointment.  Phil took his US passport as identification to the drive-through vaccination site but no questions about residency were asked.  He has an appointment for the second dose on March 23rd.

On Friday, we were sitting outside when a blast of wind blew through our site, interrupting an otherwise still afternoon.  Both of our screens were ripped out of the ground by the wind and blown skyward.  The screens had been anchored into the ground by bungee cords and tent pegs.  As the screens strained against the winds, the bungee cords stretched until they pulled the tent pegs out of the ground and rocketed the tent pegs into the air.  Most of the tent pegs were discovered on the opposite side of our rig and a couple of bungee cords had to be retrieved from our rooftop.  Our neighbor’s awnings and frames were badly damaged so we considered ourselves fortunate.  The whole event only lasted a few seconds and appeared to be isolated to our area.  We mentioned the wind gust to others in the campground and nobody else seemed to have experienced the excitement.

Later that afternoon, we attended the Strawberry Festival at Brownwood Paddock Square in The Villages.  The Festival began at 4 pm and, when we arrived at about 4:20 pm, we had to cruise around the huge parking lots quite a while until we found a parking spot.  We first ate dinner at City Fire American Oven, then wandered around and visited some of the many booths.  We made a couple of purchases, including some Plant City strawberries.  We then watched the Paul Bunyon lumberjack show.  Finally, we retrieved our chairs from our car and found a spot to watch the live entertainment in the square.  Since there was a 45-minute wait to get a seat in the square, we set up our chairs outside and kept moving closer as people left.  We got back to the campground around 8 pm and were able to listen for an hour  to the band, Darkhorse, who were performing poolside.

On Saturday, February 27th, Phil participated in a Pickleball round-robin tournament.  Each of the 20 participants played six games with a different partner.  After a very poor start with a newbie partner in the first game, Phil did OK the rest of the day.

Winter in Florida – Month 1 (December 31, 2020 – January 31, 2021)

On December 31, 2020, we left Gulf State Park and began our trip to our home for Winter 2021.  We drove 283 miles and spent the night at Deerfield Inn and Madison Campground in Madison, FL.  This was not a campground where we would have normally stayed but we were only overnighting and the Passport America rate of $25 was hard to pass up.  Our neighbor was quite chatty.  We learned that he had been in his spot for 1 ½ years and it looked it.  He has been diagnosed at two VA Hospitals as having a non-treatable cerebral aneurysm.  He gave us each a crocheted cross that his wife makes for their neighbors.  We were exhausted from our first drive in seven weeks and, despite it being New Year’s Eve, we were in bed by 10 pm Eastern time (only 9 pm in the Central time zone where we began our day).

On New Year’s Day 2021, we drove 148 miles to Summerfield, FL where we had reserved a site at Sunkissed RV Resort for three months.  The campground, which is only in its second year, is very nice.  Our pull-through site is quite long and on pavers.  There is adequate room between us and our neighbors.  Relatively light winds enabled us to use our awning screens for the first time, after having bought them from a former DRV owner three years ago.

Upon check-in, we were provided a schedule of activities that had the potential to keep us quite busy.  In our first week, we attended a welcome coffee, a bar-b-que and a beginning line dancing class.  Phil played pickleball most mornings, while Jan walked around the campground and attended tai chi and beginner yoga classes.

Our campground is only five miles from the master-planned community known as The Villages.  The Villages, with a population of 123,000, consists of 64 neighborhoods in several counties.  Sumter County has the highest median age in the country, averaging age 67.  At least 80 percent of the homes within The Villages are required to house a resident of age 55 or older.  Family and friends under the age of 19 are not permitted to stay for longer than 30 days.  The Villages are consistently ranked among the nation’s most popular active adult communities.  The neighborhoods are all linked by golf cart paths and shopping centers that all have designated parking for golf carts.  There are three old-fashioned town squares, with lots of restaurants, shopping and nightly free entertainment at each.  On Sunday, we visited the Brownwood Paddock Square and dined outside at World of Beer.  One of the things that amused us was the gas station designed just for golf carts. 

On Saturday, January 9th, we did a road trip north of Ocala.  Ocala has been deemed the “horse capital of the world.”  After driving past tract after tract of horse properties, our first stop was in the picturesque town of McIntosh, FL.  The streets of this small Victorian town, with a population of 490, are lined with a canopy of century-old live oak trees clothed in Spanish moss.  Our next stop was in Micanopy, FL.  Micanopy was the first town founded after Spain relinquished Florida to the United States in 1821.  With a population of 669, Micanopy is primarily known for its authentic rustic storefronts and many antique shops.  Like McIntosh, the streets are lined by huge live oak trees.  We spent time visiting many of these shops and contributed to the local economy by making some purchases (but no antiques).

We then continued on to Cross Creek, FL and had a late lunch at The Yearling Restaurant.  We both had catfish and it was extremely fresh and flaky.

After lunch, we drove less than a mile to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park.  We took a very informative guided tour of the M.K. Rawling’s farmhouse and learned a lot about her life.  Rawling had found limited success as a romance writer prior to purchasing an orange orchard in Cross Creek in 1928.  She began writing short stories based on her experiences at the new locale and received encouragement from a prominent editor at Scribner’s Magazine.  Her first novel, South Moon Under, became the runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.  Her third novel, The Yearling, earned her the Pulitzer and international acclaim.  The movie based on this novel was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award.  When the Whippoorwill, a collection of short stories, preceded Cross Creek and Cross Creek Cookery.  Rawling’s last book, The Sojourner, was published in 1953, shortly before her death.  The property was bequeathed to the University of Florida and is now a Florida state historical park.  Nearly all of the original furnishings are on display in the house. 

On Sunday, we visited the Market of Marion.  This enormous flea market has over 1,100 booths with more than 400 dealers.  We wandered up and down all of the aisles and made a few purchases. 

On Thursday, January 14th, we drove to Tampa and attended the Florida RV SuperShow at the Florida State Fairgrounds.  We had attended this huge RV show several years ago, prior to buying our RV.  This year’s show included over 850 RVs that were available to walk through.  We mostly focused on the high-end fifth wheels, but also explored other types of RVs and park models.  This included a $2.4 million Prevost motorcoach in which Jan enjoyed sitting behind the wheel.  We also strolled through the two large exhibit halls and talked to many of the over 450 vendors who represented campgrounds, RV after-market suppliers, etc.  We loaded our bag with lots of brochures and made several purchases.  Although the admission ticket was good for two days, we were worn out after five hours of wandering around with masks on.

On Saturday night, we went to the clubhouse and listened to the Blackwater Bayou Band.  The band was originally supposed to perform outdoors but cool weather moved them indoors.  Although the acoustics in the clubhouse weren’t ideal, we enjoyed the show.  COVID restrictions limit attendees to four people at a table but we were lucky to be able to sit with our friends, Kenny and Becky Swisher, who we had met last winter at Tropical Trails. 

The balance of January was largely uneventful.  Phil played pickleball most mornings.  Jan continued with her tai chi and yoga classes, along with walks around the campground.  She began to walk with some of the other ladies in the park, making this exercise more interesting.  We continued to attend the weekly beginner line dancing classes and extended our lessons by following YouTube videos in our living room.  Unfortunately, the lack of space made line dancing in the RV somewhat challenging.  We also got together with Kenny and Becky a couple of Sunday afternoons for shuffleboard.

We continued to explore The Villages and the surrounding area.  We even toured a couple of pool homes in The Villages.  Although we really liked one of them, we decided we’re not yet ready to settle down and aren’t sure we want to live in Florida fulltime.  We rented a documentary on The Villages, titled “Some Kind of Heaven.”  It followed four individuals who had had a difficult time adjusting to life there.  In all fairness, these people were quite dysfunctional and would have had issues regardless of where they lived.

After weeks of weighing our options, we finally decided to return to Florida next winter, rather than camp in Arizona.  Once we reached this conclusion, Phil spent several days planning a route that would have us back in Gulf Shores, AL in November 2021 and somewhere in Florida beginning in December 2021.  Since the Rykals, Ehlenfeldts, and Laurie Tamas had already decided to winter in Florida, and the Petersons were open to it, the challenge was to find an RV park that met each family’s needs.  We checked out several RV parks in the area but, to date, have not found one that works for all.  Todd Ehlenfeldt mentioned that he had been watching Preservation Point in Inverness, FL.  Based on their website, Preservation Point is a pre-development RV park that is supposed to be opening in mid-2021.  Jan called to set up an appointment with the sales office but their mailbox was full.  On Friday, January 29th, we decided to drive to Inverness to check it out.  Upon arriving at the address, we found no sales office or even a driveway.  We did some brief exploration of downtown Inverness and then headed to nearby Dunnellon, where we ate an early dinner at Stumpknockers.

On Sunday, we went for our first hike in several months.  We hiked a 6-mile loop in the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross-Florida Greenway, starting at the 49th Avenue Trailhead.  The greenway contains many trails which are designated specifically for bike, horse or foot traffic.  The first half of the hike was on a foot trail that was nicely blazed and somewhat hilly, a rarity for Florida.  In fact, we heard a teenaged boy calling to his mother in mock surprise, “Look, a Florida hill!”  The turnaround point of the hike was at the land bridge spanning I-75.  The return portion of the loop was on a horse trail that was quite sandy.  This trail was not well marked and, despite checking with the Alltrails GPS map frequently, we found ourselves off the trail several times.  Fortunately, we only encountered one group of three riders.

Alabama, at Last (November 9 – December 31, 2020)

Hurricane Sally ravaged the Gulf Shores, AL area in September, resulting in the delayed availability of our site at Gulf State Park until November 12.  On Monday, November 9th, we finally headed to Alabama.  We drove 159 miles to Cullman, AL and spent the night at Cullman Campground.  Although the road leading to the campground was quite rough, the campground itself was quite nice. 

That afternoon, we drove into Cullman and visited the Ave Maria Grotto on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, the only Benedictine monastery of men in the State of Alabama.  The Grotto consists of a landscaped hillside of 125 small stone and cement structures, the handiwork of Brother Joseph Zoetl, a monk of the Abbey for almost 70 years.

We began our visit by viewing a 15-minute video on the life of Brother Joseph.  We then strolled through the Grotto.  Brother Joseph was born in Bavaria in 1878 and came to the newly-founded St. Bernard Abbey in 1892.  When not shoveling coal into the furnaces of the Abbey power house and spending four hours a day in prayer, Brother Joseph took time to construct miniature replicas of historic structures using stone, concrete, and unwanted donated materials (e.g., broken plates, costume jewelry, ceramic tile, beads, marbles, seashells, etc.).  Of all the replicas constructed, he had only actually seen about six.  All the others were constructed from photographs or from printed descriptions.

On Tuesday, we drove 255 miles to Atmore, AL where we spent two nights at the Wind Creek Casino RV Park.  The RV park consists of 28 pull-though sites and was quite nice, especially given the already low rate that was discounted another 25%.  The casino offered $10 food vouchers for each new Rewards member so we headed there for our free dinner.  After eating at the Grill, we tried our luck on the slot machines, with mixed results.  We returned to the casino on Wednesday, again with mixed results on the slots.  However, considering the $20 in food, the two days netted us a loss of only $8; not bad for two days of entertainment.

That evening, we heard from Gulf State Park.  Although they confirmed our site availability on Thursday, they informed us that the site wouldn’t be ready until 4 pm.  This was a problem since we were only 82 miles away.  On Thursday morning, we waited until the last minute and left the Wind Creek Casino RV Park at 11 am.  Even with a couple of stops along the way, we arrived in Gulf Shores at 1:30 pm.  We parked at Wal-Mart and killed time until 4.  When we were finally able to check in, we discovered that most of the nearby sites were unoccupied.  This made it easier for us to get into our back-in spot and provided us with great views of the lake.

Saturday was the 40th anniversary at Tacky Jack’s and they were offering food specials and prizes.  We decided to head there for an early dinner but it turned out not to be as early as we had planned.  There were plenty of others who had also decided to come for the celebration,  We were told it would be an hour-long wait for a table.  It was a beautiful day and we waited on the deck overlooking the bay.  Unfortunately, the great weather kept people at their tables longer than expected and our predicted hour-long wait extended to two hours.  We wouldn’t have stayed had we known the length of the actual wait but, after investing an hour, we decided to stick it out.  To make matters worse, we didn’t even win a prize.

Over the next week, we dodged a health scare.  Jan developed sinus congestion, a bad cough and a headache that lasted for days.  She lost her voice several mornings.  Phil had similar symptoms, but not as severe.  Although the symptoms were consistent with the common cold, many of them were also consistent with COVID-19.  We also learned that Jason’s housemate, who we had hosted for dinner our last night in TN, had caught the virus.  Since we had family coming for Thanksgiving, we decided we should get tested for COVID.  We found two CVS stores in Pensacola where we could get tested for free on Wednesday.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t both get appointments at the same store.  After Phil got tested at the first store, we drove four miles to the next store where Jan was tested.  Phil got his results two days later and it was negative.  Jan had to wait another two days but also got a negative result.  We both continued to feel under the weather but were relieved to know it wasn’t COVID.

Phil had continued to experience discomfort in his left shoulder, seriously impacting his ability to sleep.  The condition had started in September 2019 but had gotten more painful in recent months.  He had seen an orthopedic surgeon when we were in Gulf Shores in November 2019 and scheduled an appointment with him again a few days after our arrival this year.  Unlike in 2019, the orthopedic surgeon now considered it likely that Phil had a rotator cuff tear and it would require surgery.  On Thursday, November 19th, Phil had an MRI on the shoulder.  The following Monday, Phil returned to see the doctor and was relieved to find out that there was no tear.  The doctor prescribed several weeks of physical therapy while we are in Gulf Shores and then a regimen of at-home exercises after that.  We are hopeful that that will help. 

Although the campground was about 20% occupied when we arrived on November 12th, the occupancy continued to build over the following week.  While the occupancy was still well below the same period in 2019, more than half of the sites appeared full as we approached Thanksgiving week.

Phil researched pickleball venues in the area and settled on the Orange Beach Rec Center.  They have six indoor courts, with four dedicated to intermediate players.  He purchased a 15-visit pass and enjoyed playing most weekday mornings from 9 am to noon. 

On Wednesday, November 25th, Jason, Jarrod and Jess arrived to spend Thanksgiving weekend with us.  They had originally reserved a regular campsite at Gulf State Park, just a few sites away from ours.  However, when Jan checked out the site, she discovered that it would have been unsatisfactory for tents.  As an alternative, they booked a tent in the primitive camping area of the park.  We hadn’t even been aware that this area existed.  The primitive area consists of three large canvas tents and cots on wooden platforms, pit toilets, a water pump (although not drinkable) and a shower with unheated water.  The other challenge was that these sites are not accessible by motor vehicle and are a 16-minute bike ride from our site.  Although primitive camping wouldn’t be our thing, the kids enjoyed their stay there (except for the bug bites).

We had a turkey for Thanksgiving that Jan had arranged to get smoked at Moe’s BBQ.  Moe’s offered a smoked turkey for $50 but, as an alternative, we bought our own 14-pound turkey at Publix for $7 and paid Moe’s $25 to smoke it for us.  Combined with numerous side dishes and two pies, we had quite the Thanksgiving feast.  The weather cooperated and enabled us to eat at the picnic table.

Jason, Jarrod and Jess rented bikes at the campground store.  We made numerous rides around the park over the next few days.  We saw quite a bit of wildlife on our rides.  We visited The Wharf on Friday afternoon.

We got up early on Saturday morning to watch the kids run in a 5K race at the Orange Beach Sportsplex.  Due to COVID concerns, the start was staggered.  One 5K runner and one half marathon runner were started at three second intervals.  Despite not training for the race, Jason and Jarrod came in first in their age brackets and Jess came in third in hers.

Jason fell very ill on Sunday afternoon and spent the night with us.  He was feeling well enough on Monday to join us for an early dinner at Mikee’s Seafood to celebrate Jan’s birthday.  The food was good and the portions were very large.  After Mikee’s, we picked up individual cheesecake slices at Hope’s Cheesecakes to be eaten later that evening.  Phil then drove Jarrod and Jess back to Pensacola airport for their flight home.  Unfortunately, Jason had a relapse Monday night so Jan took him to Urgent Care on Tuesday morning.  After a couple days of rest and medication, he was feeling well enough to work from our home the rest of the week.

On Thursday, December 3rd, Jan’s girlfriends came to Gulf Shores for four nights.  Jan had rented a condo several months earlier.  After Hurricane Sally battered the area, Jan had called the management company and was assured that the condo was still going to be available.  Then, a week before the girlfriends were scheduled to arrive, the management company called Jan and told her that the condo was not yet habitable.  She spent the next couple of days searching for another condo and managed to negotiate another one for the same cost.  On Sunday, Jan took a break from her girl time and we drove Jason back to the Pensacola airport for his flight home.

On Friday, December 11th, we went for a 3-mile walk along the beach.  We began at the pavilion and walked to the pier that had been partially destroyed by Hurricane Sally.

On Saturday evening, we parked along Canal Road and watched the Christmas Boat Parade.  Although a lot of boats that had registered for the parade did not show up due to the heavy rainstorm at the start, there were still 20 boats that did participate.  We stood on the bank of the canal and waved to the people on the decorated boats as they passed by.

On Friday, December 18th, we went to Flora-Bama to play bingo.  Unfortunately, it was not as entertaining as in 2019. After the first game, we headed upstairs to the Main Room and watched live music by the LeaAnne Creswell Duo.  On Saturday evening, we headed to Papa Rocco’s for pizza and entertainment by Bo Grant, formerly of The Platters. We had seen him twice in 2019.

The cooler and windier weather over the next week kept us close to home.  Phil continued to attend physical therapy twice a week. Jan did manage to discover some wildlife on one of her bike rides.

Jason arrived on Christmas Eve and stayed with us for six nights.  After having breakfast and opening presents on Christmas morning, we headed to the movie theater at The Wharf and saw the new Tom Hanks movie, News of the World.  Then, we headed home to our huge Christmas dinner, consisting of Honey Baked Ham and lots of side dishes. On Saturday, we went to the OWA entertainment complex and attended the Legends in Concert show, A Merry Country Christmas.  The cast included impersonators of Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and Elvis Presley.

On Monday, Jan and Jason went for a long walk on the beach.  We all then went for dinner outdoors at LuLu’s.

Jason worked from the trailer on Tuesday and Wednesday and we got ready for our departure on Thursday.  On Wednesday evening, we drove back to Pensacola to drop Jason off at the airport.  His flight was delayed several times so we had time for a farewell dinner at Whataburger and a trip to Sam’s Club.

Autumn in Rocky Top (October 15 – November 9, 2020)

On Thursday, October 15th, we left Mt. Airy, NC and drove 136 miles to Blountsville, TN, where we spent a night at Rocky Top Campground.  This small 55+ campground had a nice, level pull-through site for us, although it did require us pulling through an unused back-in site to reach our site.  Other than doing our laundry, we didn’t do anything the rest of our stay.

On Friday, we drove 100 miles to Sevierville, TN, where we spent three nights at Duvall in the Smokies campground.  We had been advised a few weeks earlier that this Saturday was the campground’s 3-year anniversary and they would be having a big celebration.  We discovered that many of our fellow campers had attended previous anniversaries and, as a result, book this weekend a year in advance.  Saturday’s celebration began at 10:15 am when we all boarded a double-decker tour bus.  The temperature was in the upper 40s when we departed, which made for a chilly experience for us on the upper level.  After driving through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge for an hour, we stopped at a local park for lunch.  After lunch, we headed down scenic Wears Valley Road toward Townsend.  The Smokies are a very popular destination in October and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper for the next couple of hours.  When it became apparent that the remaining 2.5 miles would take over 45 minutes to complete, and since there hadn’t been a restroom stop since we left the campground, it was decided that they would turn the bus around.  This was not easily done since the road was only single-lane in each direction and there were no shoulders.  The driver attempted to back the bus into a driveway by pulling into the oncoming lane.  Unfortunately, as the driver was blocking both lanes of traffic, the transmission would not catch in reverse.  When the driver was finally able get into reverse, the passengers on the upper deck could see that he was headed into a ditch.  Finally, to the relief of our passengers and the other drivers on the road, he got us turned around.  We then headed to an ice cream shop and we were all treated to anything on the menu.  By this point, it was five hours after we had left the campground and a trip to the bathroom was everyone’s highest priority.  Unfortunately, they only had single-occupant men’s and women’s bathrooms so the lines were quite long.  After ice cream, we returned to the campground and arrived around 4 pm.  That evening, we had a cookout, followed by a country band who performed for a couple of hours.  It was a very long, but enjoyable, day and was very generous of the owners.

After relaxing on Sunday, we moved again on Monday.  We drove 25 miles to Anchor Down in Dandridge, TN where we spent a week attending the fall DOG (DRV Owner’s Group) gathering.  We had attended this gathering in 2019 but had only been able to stay a few days then.  We attended a meet-and-greet dinner hosted by our dealer, RVs for Less.  Jason arrived that evening and spent six days with us, working from our living room for the rest of the workweek.  Anchor Down is a beautiful campground and our site (#132) gave us a great view of Douglas Lake from our living room.

On Tuesday, we drove to Pigeon Forge and did some shopping at the Eddie Bauer store at Tanger Outlet.  On Wednesday, we washed the rig and our cars.  On Thursday, we took the scenic backroads to Smokie Mountains National Park and drove the 6-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.  The fall leaves were in full color.  We saw five black bears near the road.  Although this was fortuitous, it was also frustrating, since the cars in front of us would just sit where they spotted a bear and there was no opportunity to get around them.  Once the bears disappeared, the traffic moved along more steadily.

During our drive from Sevierville to Dandridge on Sunday, we had passed a sign for a business that sold honey.  On Friday, we returned to this business to buy some honey.  One of the owners encouraged us to walk around their entire site, which we learned included 34 storage sheds containing antiques, crafts and gifts.  It appeared that, although the owners were primarily in the business of selling storage units, they had also a sizable business selling other “stuff.”  We ended up buying some honey, jelly and a braided throw rug.

On Saturday, Jason was able to join us for some sightseeing.  We drove to Gatlinburg and, after fighting the heavy traffic, we decided to drive through McDonalds for a quick breakfast.  It didn’t quite work that way.  We got into the drive-through line at 10:30 am and crept along.  It took over 30 minutes just to reach the point where we could order and, by then, the menu board had already switched to their lunch menu.  We did manage to order three sausage biscuits but, by the time we had paid, it had taken 45 minutes.  Our next stop was at the Gatlinburg Skylift Park.  After waiting in very long lines, we boarded one of the yellow ski lift cars for a ride to the top of Crockett Mountain.  At the summit, we walked across the 680’ pedestrian suspension bridge, the longest in North America.  Midway across the bridge, we walked over glass panels 140’ above the ground. 

After the skybridge, we drove the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail again and saw another black bear.  We stopped a couple of times for photo ops, including a stop for lunch at one of the old homesteads. 

After breakfast on Sunday morning, Jason left for his drive back to Nashville.  We spent the rest of the day getting ready for moving on.  On Monday, October 26th, we drove 40 miles to Heiskell, TN where we spent the night at the Escapee’s Raccoon Valley RV Park. 

We had reserved a site at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, AL for the months of November and December.  However, Hurricane Sally hit Gulf Shores directly in mid-September and this resulted in the park’s closure.  In addition to severe damage to trees in the park, many of the electrical pedestals had been submerged and needed to be repaired to ensure their safety.  On October 21st, we learned that our reserved site would tentatively be open on November 1st.  However, on October 26th, we learned that, due to the contractor’s inability to obtain the parts needed to make the required repairs, we would not be able to occupy our site until November 12th

On Tuesday, we arrived at our dealer, RVs for Less, for a list of needed repairs.  Although most of the items on our list were relatively minor, there were several that really needed to be addressed right away.  The weather forecast called for two days of heavy rain, making it uncertain when the repairs could be completed.  A few issues were addressed on Tuesday but rain on Wednesday resulted in no further progress.  The weather improved somewhat on Thursday and Ken Rife, the General Manager, told us they should be able to finish the repairs that afternoon.  Since we were required to be out of our rig while work was being done, we left for a road trip.  We drove down Wears Valley Road, then took the scenic Foothills Parkway and continued on to Maryville.  Jan had found an article listing the best communities in Tennessee for retirees and Maryville was one of them.  We liked what we saw and will check it out further in the future.

Unfortunately, on Friday morning, we learned that we would need to wait for some parts that were scheduled to arrive later in the day.  We decided to take a road trip to Farragut, TN, another recommended community for retirees.  It was also very impressive, although the houses we saw with the greatest wow factor would never be affordable by us.  When we returned to the dealer, we learned that the parts had arrived but had not yet been installed.  We agreed to spend the weekend on the lot, with the expectation that the remaining work would be done on Monday morning.

On Saturday, we drove to Norris Dam State Park and hiked the 3-mile Observation Point loop trail.  The trail led to an overlook with a view of the Norris Dam and the Clinch River.  The dam’s construction in the mid-1930s was the first major project for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

On Sunday, we drove to Knoxville and hiked a 3.5-mile loop within the William Hastie Natural Area.  The loop consisted of the View Park, Yellow Jacket and Sink Hole trails.  The trails zig-zagged repeatedly and required frequent checks of the GPS to keep us on the desired route.  The three trails are popular with mountain bikers and are all rated as “very difficult.”  Although there were no viewpoints along the trails, there was a 20’-deep sink hole on the Sink Hole trail.

The final repairs were completed on Monday but, when the bill hadn’t been finalized by 3 pm, we got approval to spend another night on the lot.  We finally got back on the road on Tuesday morning and drove 125 miles to Old Mill Camp at Cummins Falls in Cookeville, TN.  Tuesday was election day and we were anxious to see the results that evening.  Since we knew the campground was heavily wooded, we were unsure whether we would be able to get a satellite signal.  After analysis of the online campground map and the Google Earth app, we reserved the site that appeared to be most open.  When we arrived, we raised the satellite dish before unhitching to make sure we could get a clear signal.  After circling around for quite a while, the dish finally locked in on the satellite and we knew we could proceed with getting set up.  We stayed up until after midnight watching election results but, when it was obvious there would be no final decision that evening, we went to sleep.

Our campground was located across the street from Cummins Falls State Park.  On Wednesday, we hiked a 2.5-mile loop from our campsite to Cummins Falls, with its 75-foot drop.  Our return took us past some dilapidated structures from the John Cummins estate.  John Cummins acquired the land in 1825 and built two water-driven mills on the property.  The land stayed in the Cummins family for more than 180 years before being acquired by the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation.

On Thursday, November 5th, we drove 94 miles to Goodlettsville, TN, where we spent four nights at Grand Ole RV Resort.  The campground had expanded since we were there in the spring.  Due to uncertainty of the length of our stay at RVs for Less, we had waited to make reservations.  This resulted in us being assigned to a pull-through site along the entrance road.  Although not an ideal location, it served the purpose and wasn’t as noisy as we feared.

Jason joined us for dinner on Friday night.  On Saturday, we drove to Camden and had a catfish lunch at Country & Western with Sheila Gaskin.  On Sunday, Jason and his housemate, Steve Lilly, joined us for dinner and the warm weather enabled us to eat outside.

Heading to Tennessee (October 8-15, 2020)

After leaving Moodus, CT on Thursday, October 8th, we drove 270 miles to Catawissa, PA where we spent three nights at J & D Campground.  Although the drive was mostly on interstates, it was slower than expected due to many work zones and one major backup.  The campground is located a short distance from Knoebels Amusement Resort, where they hold a large Covered Bridge and Arts Festival this weekend each year.  The festival was cancelled this year due to COVID but the campground was still requiring a 3-night stay.  Our site was one of only a few pull-throughs in a very large campground.  After having stayed in nearly-empty campgrounds in MA and CT, it was quite a change to be back in a full campground.

We spent Friday doing routine chores, such as laundry, grocery shopping and getting Jan’s hair cut.  We did stop to see two of the 28 covered bridges in Columbia and Montour counties.  The first was the 185-foot-long Rupert Bridge, originally built in 1847 and restored in 2000-01.  The second one was the 99-foot-long Wanich Bridge, constructed in 1884.

We spent Saturday with Ken and Cathy Bentz, two friends we met during our trip to Alaska in 2018.  We met the Bentzes in Ashland, PA and toured the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine.  This anthracite coal mine operated from 1911 until 1931.  When the business closed, all the equipment was stored in the cave and the entrances were blasted closed.  While they had hoped to resume mining someday, that never happened.  In 1961, Ashville officials came up with the idea of re-opening the mine for tourists.  They had a small budget so, other than re-timbering the shafts, the mine appears largely as it did in 1931.

Our tour began with a short ride on a narrow-gauge steam train.  The train was used years ago to haul coal bins but now pulls passengers alongside Mahanoy Mountain.  We got to see where coal was originally recovered using strip mining and a “wildcat mine” where out-of-work miners would illegally dig for coal during the Great Depression.  Our guide explained that the State of Pennsylvania had decided to reclaim the strip mines by filling them with trash and, then, burning the trash.  This led to a disastrous result in neighboring Centralia, PA when one of these landfill fires hit a vein of coal in 1962 and is still burning underground today.  The government was forced to buy out and relocate almost all the landowners.  Centralia’s population has dropped from 1,500 in 1962 to 6 diehards today.

The next part of the tour involved riding into the tunnel on mine cars that were rebuilt to carry passengers.  Our guide, an experienced miner, led us down gangways to see veins of coal, manways and coal chutes.  He explained the dangerous process for mining this coal, employing many children as young as 10-years-old, working 12-hour-days, six days a week.

After leaving Ashland, we drove to Pottsville, PA.  We ate lunch at Wheel, a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant.  Each diner gets to design their own grilled cheese sandwich, using over 85 ingredients.  We each selected our own bread, cheese, protein, toppings, dipping sauce and side.  They were delicious!

We then toured the Yuengling brewery.  Yuengling was established in 1829 and is America’s oldest brewery.  Our guide took us through the plant that has been operating since 1831, after the first plant was destroyed by fire.  We walked through caves that had been hand-dug into the mountain by out-of-work coal miners and were used for beer fermentation before refrigeration.  We could see remnants of the brick walls used by the government to seal off the brewery during Prohibition.  Our tour guide explained the brewing process and she led us through the brew house, racking room, packaging room and Rathskeller.  The tour ended with free tastings and, of course, the gift shop.  We ended up buying a case of one of their new products, a Hershey’s Chocolate beer.

It was a fun day and we really enjoyed seeing Ken and Cathy again.

On Sunday, we drove 240 miles to New Market, VA where we spent the night at Endless Caverns Campground.  Endless Caverns accepted Passport America so our site only cost $29 for the night.  It started raining as we entered Virginia and continued to rain for the next 24 hours.  The campground looked lovely but, due to the weather, we stayed in our rig the whole time.

On Monday, we drove 240 miles to Mount Airy, NC where we spent three nights at Mayberry Campground.  This campground also offered the half-off Passport America discount for two of the nights, so our total cost for the three-night stay was only $78.  Our pull-through site sat atop a hill so we had a great view of the campground below us, at least until an Allegro Bus pulled in behind us and cut off our view.

We spent Tuesday with Dave and Cheryl Albert, friends we met earlier this year at Tropical Trails RV Resort in Brownsville, TX.  Dave and Cheryl live nearby in NC.  They picked us up at our site and took us for a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.  We stopped for lunch at Mabry Mill.  Despite being mid-week, this was a popular spot and we had an hour-long wait for a table.  While we waited, we explored the mill.  Mabry Mill was built in 1910 by Edwin Mabry, a jack-of-all-trades who had been a chairmaker, a miner, a coal company blacksmith, and a farmer.  He and his wife operated the mill until 1936, grinding corn and sawing lumber for their neighbors.  In 1945, the National Park Service restored and landscaped the mill.  Today, it is one of the most photographed features on the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

After a delicious lunch, we drove to Pilot Mountain State Park, 20 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, NC.  Pilot Mountain, rising to a peak 2,421’ above sea level, is one of the most distinctive natural features in NC and has served as navigational landmark for centuries.  We walked up to several overlooks where we could watch lots of raptors soaring above the peak and view the valley below us.  We later spent time in the new Visitor’s Center where we viewed exhibits about the park and the surrounding area.

On the drive back to our campsite, Dave took us through downtown Mount Airy.  This whetted our appetites for Wednesday’s further exploration of the town. After socializing awhile back at the campground, it was time to say goodbye to Dave and Cheryl.  We really enjoyed seeing our friends again and appreciated having such good guides to show us around the beautiful area.

On Wednesday, we spent the entire day in Mount Airy.  This small town, just six miles south of the VA border, was long known as a center for furniture and granite.  However, it is best known as the hometown of Andy Griffith.  Mount Airy was the inspiration for Mayberry, the fictional town in the Andy Griffith Show.  There are lots of Andy Griffith and Mayberry attractions in the town.  We visited quite a few of them but felt like we had just scratched the surface.  After having a huge lunch at Little Richard’s BBQ, we strolled down Main Street and visited many of the shops.  We stopped at replicas of the Mayberry courthouse and jail, Wally’s Service Station, Floyd’s Barber Shop and Snappy Lunch, as well as quite a few other attractions that draw on the Mayberry theme.  We walked by the Andy Griffith Museum and saw the TV Land sculpture of Andy and Opie.

Two New States – MA & CT (September 28 – October 8, 2020)

On Monday, September 28th, we left Maine and drove 178 miles to Charlemont, MA, where we spent three nights at Country Aire Campground.  This was our first RV stay in Massachusetts, making it the 45th state we’ve camped in.  Being near the end of the campground’s season, there were very few campers around us.  We had a beautiful view from our living room windows of the hillsides with their multi-colored fall foliage.

With rain in the forecast for the afternoon, we got going early on Tuesday and did a 4-mile loop hike in the High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary of nearby Shelburne.  The hike mostly took us through a thick forest but, toward the end, we were rewarded with a fabulous panoramic view of the village 1,000 feet below us.  There was even a large brick and stone fireplace near the overlook.

We next strolled around the small villages of Buckland and Shelburne Falls, visiting a number of local shops.  Due to COVID, we had to view the Bridge of Flowers from a distance.  This bridge, constructed in 1908 for trolleys, had become obsolete by 1927 when the trolley company went out of business.  Tearing down the bridge would have been prohibitively expensive so it was left to decay.  In 1929, a local couple proposed building a garden on the bridge and the Shelburne Falls Women’s Club answered the call, replacing weeds with plants and flower seeds.  Volunteers have sustained the Bridge of Flowers to this day.

We then visited the glacial potholes in Shelburne Falls.  As glaciers receded at the conclusion of the last “Glacial Age,” fifty separate “pools” were formed, ranging from 6 inches to 39 feet in diameter.  The round holes were the result of the whirlpool effect of water and gyrating stones of varied sizes.  The Shelburne Falls site is one of the largest collections of natural potholes in the world and the site of the largest pothole on record. 

After leaving Shelburne Falls, we drove through the village of Charlemont and stopped at the Bissell Covered Bridge.  The current bridge, built in 2004, is the third generation of the bridge first built in 1880.

On Thursday, October 1st, we drove 105 miles south to Moodus, CT where we spent a week at GrandView Camp Resort.  We had a little excitement on this short drive.  First, Phil was unable to get across to the proper lane as we passed through Hartford, CT and had to drive through downtown Hartford to get back to the right highway.  Then, upon arrival at the campground, Phil second-guessed himself about pulling up a narrow driveway that turned out to be the actual entrance to the campground.  After passing the driveway, he sat on the country road and called the campground office for guidance.  Fortunately, the nearby golf club had a large roundabout that enabled him to get turned around easily.

The campground has an interesting history.  In 1946, the Grand View Resort and Day Camp was built as a vacation place where nearby city-dwellers could get away to the fresh air and relaxing atmosphere of the country.  The resort contained a hotel, playhouse, cottages and a swimming pool (ala the movie “Dirty Dancing.”)  By 1975, air travel, cruising and RV camping became more affordable and such resorts in Moodus became a thing of the past.  The location served as a Jewish heritage center and retreat for the next 20 years, then as a basketball camp for city kids for a short time.  After that, the resort fell into disuse and was vandalized by trespassers.  The current owners have lived across the street from the resort for 50 years and witnessed the good times and bad.  Since buying the property, they are attempting to restore what they can, adding camp sites and modern facilities. 

After a rainy Friday, we finally got out to explore the area on Saturday.  Our first destination was Old Saybrook, CT, first settled in 1635.  Our first stop was at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, known affectionately as “the Kate.”  Katharine Hepburn had summered in the area as a child, returned throughout her career, and spent the last six years of her life here.  The cultural center was created after her death in Old Saybrook’s disused old town hall.  Although it contains a museum, it is now closed due to COVID.

We then drove to see the Lynde Point Lighthouse in Saybrook Point.  The lighthouse is only truly accessible by boat but we were able to get close to it on foot, down a road next to a golf course and through a neighborhood of beautiful homes.

We then drove to New London, CT.  We drove by the U.S. Coast Guard Academy but, to no surprise, it is closed to visitors currently.  We next stopped at the Old Town Mill, which was originally built in 1650.  Although having since been rebuilt, it operated continuously for 300 years.  The neighborhood looked rough, with a homeless shelter across the street, so we made a quick visit.

We next drove to see the New London Harbor Light.  Since this lighthouse is now privately-owned, we could only view it from the road.

Our next stop was at Fort Trumbull State Park.  The museum is closed due to COVID but we were able to explore the grounds.  The first fortifications at this site were built during the American Revolution.  The current fort (the third on this site) was built between 1839 and 1852.  The fort also served as the first home of the Coast Guard Academy, from 1915-1932.  The Coast Guard’s training ship, the Barque Eagle, docks at Fort Trumbull 2-3 times a year and we were fortunately able to see it.

Our final stop in New London was the Whaling Wall, a large mural originally painted by environmental artist Wyland in 1993, with annual touch-up work begun in 2006.  There were several other large murals on the downtown walls.

Jan attempts to collect stone coasters from each of the states we visit so we stopped at a store in Waterford to buy one for Connecticut.  Unfortunately, the only ones mentioning Connecticut specifically mentioned Waterford.  We had not yet visited any site in Waterford so we set out to rectify that situation.  We decided to visit Waterford Beach Park, which has a ¼-mile stretch of sandy beach along the Long Island Sound.  From the beach, we could see some sort of a kite festival further up the shoreline so we headed that direction.  This required some rock scrambling but, once past the rocks, we came to another large park with signage that referenced Camp Harkness.  We didn’t think much of that since we knew that Harkness Memorial State Park was in the area.  However, when we reached fences that kept us from reaching the kites, we sensed that something was amiss.  As we headed back to the Waterford Beach Park, we were approached by a security guard who asked if we were passholders.  We learned that Camp Harkness is one of the few state parks in the country dedicated exclusively to individuals with disabilities and that we were trespassing.  After our apologies, we returned the way we had come.

On Sunday, we hiked the 2.3-mile Machimoodus State Park Trail.  The was mostly a very easy hike, although there was one short, steep ascent that took us up a hill overlooking the Salmon River.

We then visited Gillette Castle State Park.  This was the former home of William Gillette, an American actor, playwright and stage director in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, most famous for his stage portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.  Gillette built a castle, known as Seven Sisters, on a hilltop overlooking the Connecticut River.  The castle included many features to accommodate Gillette’s many cats, as well as a 3-mile-long narrow-gauge railroad for riding around the property.  Although the house and museum were closed due to COVID, they did have period actors portraying William Gillette, dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and his wife.  We learned that William Gillette was quite rich for his time, earning $1,000 a week at a time when the minimum wage was 14 cents per hour.

On Monday, we drove to the Day Pond State Park in Colchester, CT and hiked the 5-mile North Loop.  The beginning of the hike was fairly straightforward and we were able to follow the trail markers.  We did pass a gutted-out car on the trail and have no idea how it could have gotten there.  The second half of the hike became more of an adventure.  We were attempting to follow a route that had been recorded in Alltrails and it deviated greatly from the marked trail.  Phil walked most of the way back with his phone in his hand, trying to follow the Alltrails map.  Many of the paths had obviously not been heavily traveled and having lots of dead leaves on the ground made the paths even harder to follow.  The trail had so many switchbacks that we could have gotten lost easily without internet access.