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 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.