Dealing With the Unknown of COVID-19, March-April 2020

While we were in Key West we did not have any television coverage. As a result our only real source of news was Facebook and links to online news articles. We saw some things about the Coronavirus, but it was very light, a few memes on Facebook, and no one was very concerned about it. “Man with coronavirus seeks a woman with lime disease.”

We left Key West on March 10th and spent much of the next week at the Southern Comfort RV Park in Florida City, near Miami. As we watched TV for the first time in almost three months we saw press conferences about school closings and the Governor talking about closing beaches and other actions. Talk about a wakeup call! I had a friend in the campground and we were talking about doing a musical performance together in the park’s Tiki bar. After watching the news for a couple of days Pat and I decided that maybe we should just keep what would soon be called “social distance” and my friend and I decided not to do it.

Our next stop was Palm Harbor, near Clearwater, FL. There we stayed at the Caladesi RV Park and planned to see our niece, Robin, and her two kids. Her oldest daughter, Destiny, was home from college because COVID-19. That was a bit more information to alert us of things to come. We had the three of them over to our campsite for dinner twice and had a great time catching up. However, towards the end of our visit we and Robin sadly agreed that it was probably best to leave any more visiting for next year. We did get in some kayaking to Caladesi Island before the State of Florida closed all of the beaches.

One day we took a drive to MacDill AFB to do some shopping at the Base Exchange and Commissary. We had heard of panic buying in grocery stores, but were not prepared to see at least one third of the shelves in the Commissary completely empty. The wakeup call continues. This is what we saw when we shopped at Costco.

We had a good time at Caledesi. The park was nice, the weather was good, and it was close to the Pinellas Trail – a Bike/Walking Trail. Every morning we would ride or walk on the trail. We were able to shop at Costco and stock up on some items we weren’t able to get while in Key West. Our problem at Costco was that Pat wanted to order new eyeglasses and the Optical department was closed. My big thing was being able to give our trailer a good wash and wax job.

While at Caladesi we began to get the bad news. Our plan had been to drive up the east coast to end up in Bar Harbor, Maine. There we were to meet a group of RVers to do an RV caravan through the Canadian Maritime Provinces. Our first major stop was going to be the RV park at Joint Base Charleston near Charleston, SC. We saw in one of our Facebook groups that JB Charleston had closed to new arrivals, although anyone currently there could stay. A phone call confirmed that. We made new reservations only to have that park call us back to say they had to cancel. One after another our reservations were cancelled. We knew we had to come up with a Plan B.

We decided we should abort our trip up the east coast and head for Michigan. There we could “moochdock,” and “hunker down” at Pat’s brother’s place in Bad Axe, in the Michigan Thumb. We can set up near his big shed with a 30 amp connection and water.

Our most direct route would be generally north on I-75. We still wanted to kill some time until it warmed up enough in Michigan for us to be comfortable and Florida was getting too hot. The Uchee Creek Campground at Fort Benning was still open and we made a reservation for three weeks. We planned to leave on March 30th, but we got a call from them on March 27th advising us that they would be closed to new arrivals on the 30th, but if we got there on Sunday, March 29th we would be welcome. My response was easy, “We’ll see you on Sunday!” We immediately began to pack up and, after an overnight stay in a Walmart parking lot, rolled in to Uchee Creek on March 29th.

The park was about half full. Uchee Creek is a very spacious campground with plenty of space between sites so social distancing was not a problem, but was very strange. Normally I would be off to visit the National Infantry Museum, wander through the Ground and Tower Week training areas for the Airborne School, take a drive to Harmony Church to see the Ranger Department, and make at least one trip to Ranger Joe’s Surplus Store. On this trip none of that happened. We would bike or walk for exercise in the morning, read books, or watched TV for part of the day to stay on top of the COVID-19 situation. We did our Income Tax, completed the 2020 Census. I also resealed parts of the trailer, and generally took it easy. More than once I suggested we could stay longer if we wanted to do so.

I don’t understand why the military campgrounds decided to close. Many of the people that use them are retired members who are fulltime RVers or snowbirds that stay for an extended period. They are not transient campers that visit the campground for a weekend. With these parks closing, it leaves a lot of us with a rapidly decreasing number of options.

Normally we tried to engage with our fellow campers, but not this time. We even met a couple from Michigan, but other than waving as we walked past each other, we didn’t make any attempt to get to know them and they kept their distance as well. When we went on post we had to tell the people at the security checkpoint where we were going, no sightseeing was encouraged. We had to wear facemasks at the Commissary and Post Exchange. However, when I drove in to the nearby town of Fort Mitchell to get propane and some other supplies at the local hardware store, I was the only one there wearing a mask and everyone else seemed to be in a “business as usual” mode. It was like COVID-19 had never happened in this small town in Alabama!

Easter Sunday was an interesting mix of services. The FOX News Channel aired a program with Reverend Franklin Graham and singer Michael W. Smith broadcasting from the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Central Park in New York City. The Chapel at NAS Key West recorded a sunrise service and broadcasted it at 10:30. Someone on Facebook has recommended that we sing “Amazing Grace” at 10:00, so I made a recording of me playing and singing it and posted it on Facebook on Easter morning.

As we got close to leaving we looked at our route. We settled on a four day trip, calculated to have as little contact with people as possible. When we stopped at rest areas we didn’t use the restrooms, but used our own in our trailer. We stayed in a Walmart parking lot in Ooltewah, TN and didn’t do our usual shopping in the store, cooking our meal in our rig. Our second night was at the Walnut Meadow RV Park in Berea, KY.  Our last night was at a Cracker Barrel parking lot in Findley, OH. There we did order a meal from Cracker Barrel and picked up donuts and coffee at the Tim Horton’s across the road. We ordered by phone and picked them up at the door while wearing our masks.

Traffic on our route was light all the way, but Detroit made the biggest impression on me. It was like driving through a ghost town compared to the normal traffic flow. We began to get a little worried about the weather as we entered Michigan as we were not seeing any signs of spring. When we arrived at Geri and Marcia’s place the weather was cold and windy. Geri came out to help us hook up our electrical and water connections, but otherwise kept the appropriate social distance. It seemed strange to not shake hands, go in for a snack, and catch up on family events, but that is the new normal (sigh). We did “attend” church with the NAS Key West Chapel via Facebook and were able to take Communion with the rest of their congregation. I guess this is the new normal?

So now we are hanging out in self-quarantine until we and Geri and Marcia are comfortable with closer contact. We always appreciate when Geri and Marcia let us stay at their place. Being able to use this as a “safe harbor” is a special blessing in this situation.

The future isn’t even cast in Jello at this point. Will we be able to do the Canadian RV Caravan? At this point no one knows. That decision will drive many other decisions. Welcome to the world of COVID-19.

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Just Another Day in Paradise – Jan-Mar 2020

This was our seventh winter of the last nine years in Key West. We have never found a nicer place to spend the winter. I don’t think you can get any farther south in the Continental US. As we have mentioned in the past what draws us here is not the physical setting (as pleasant as that is) but the people. We stay at the Naval Air Station RV park in Key West and are among the hundreds that return here every year. We have more friends here than we ever had in the neighborhood where we owned a physical home.

I’m writing this in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis and I almost skipped over our stay in Key West to write how we are dealing with the crisis, but I want to write about something enjoyable before I got into that topic.

Pat and I brought in the New Year with our friends Roger and Bonnie Ford at Navigator’s, the club at the Marina at Boca Chica Airfield. Roger and Bonnie’s favorite band, Island Time, was there to entertain us and we had a great time!

Our little military community at the Sigsbee Island RV Park (NAS Key West) is an active place. For most of us age is just an irrelevant number. We started the year off with our Annual Polar Plunge. We met at the northeast corner of the campground where we formed up and walked into the “frigid” water which was a numbing 78o. After a group dunking underwater we joined together for our first potluck with ceremonial Bloody Marys and Mimosas.

Beautiful sunsets are a routine occurrence at Sigsbee, but they always seem to be a special time in the campground. Another popular activity is taking advantage of the abundant “happy hours” on Key West. One of our favorites is the Commodore Boathouse which is located right on the Historic Seaport. It has great food, good drinks, and a terrific view of the vessels going in and out of the harbor.

I always feel the Pat’s birthday (Dec 27th) gets lost in the middle of the Christmas festivities and decided to make up for it this year. I partnered with some friends of ours, Ray and Harriet Riendeau to give her a surprise party. It was a total surprise, a great time, and she has finally forgiven me for making her the center of attention.

There is great kayaking in the Florida Keys and we hooked up with another couple, Brian and Cindy, to go kayaking in the mangroves at Geiger Key and the Salt Ponds near the airport. There is so much to see, both above and below the water. Some of the channels through the mangroves are pretty tight and we weren’t always sure we took the right turn, but that is part of the fun.

A special treat this year was seeing Reverend Franklin Graham at the Key West Auditorium for his Decision America series. Contrary to what you may have heard or think about Franklin Graham, it was a wonderful, non-political, uplifting experience.

One of our regular events is the Key West Half-Marathon. We don’t run in it, but volunteer at the merchandise sales and water stations. I feel it is safe to say that this year’s volunteer shirts were very colorful and they made me want to break out is singing, “It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius!” For a change we had beautiful weather and it was a lot of fun.

Eddie and Tina Grooms have become the unofficial social directors for the campground and hosted several major events throughout the season. Their first was a Hawaiian potluck. It’s always a fun time when everyone brings their favorite dish to share.

The Schooner Appledore II took a whole crew of us on an afternoon sail from the Historic Seaport. They provided the drink and we provided the food. It was a beautiful day with clear skies and light, but steady winds for great sailing.

I continued my tradition of volunteering as a docent on the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Museum. While the fulltime crew has always treated the volunteers as valued members of the crew, this year they threw a special party for us with pizza, drinks, and a showing of the movie, Operation Petticoat, which was filmed in Key West. It was fun to pick out Key West landmarks in the movie that was set in the South Pacific.

We also volunteered to “Plog the Keys” picking up trash along the streets of Key West. The organizers posted the location on Facebook every week and we would meet there on Friday morning to do our thing.

We had a very unique event this year. One of our fellow campers, Marty, does chainsaw sculptures! He didn’t bring any logs with him but one was available so he gave us a demonstration. What a talent! He has won several awards for his work and it was obvious they were well deserved.

For me it wouldn’t be Key West without music. I rejoined the praise team at the Base Chapel. Every Monday afternoon Gary Buck hosted a jam session at the Sigsbee Community Center. What fun to play with a bunch of guys and gals who enjoy music and are trying to become better musicians! Geiger Key Marina hosts an Open Mic Night every Monday and a couple of us were regular performers there. Great fun, great practice, and a great way to get over stage fright!

Two friends of mine, Nelson Clark and Harriet Riendeau, and I presented a Folk Music Concert at the Community Center. It was well attended and I’m not sure who had more fun, the audience or the musicians. I think the audience enjoyed listening to three very different styles of music in one performance.

As we approached the end of the season Eddie and Tina had one more event, Cinco de Marcho. Because most of us go “Up The Road” or UTR in March they decided we should celebrate the holidays we were going to miss. In an almost day-long party we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day and any other holiday we wanted to throw in. It was a great culmination of the winter season and we are already looking forward to another fun time in 2021.

On March 10th we headed up the road and into the unknown world of COVID-19.

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The islands of the “Haves” and “Have Nots”

We have been winter residents (snow birds) of Key West for years, staying at the Naval Air Station Sigsbee Island RV Park. One of the more popular nighttime spots is Mallory Square where you can watch street performers and listen to musicians while waiting for sunset. From Mallory Square you can see two islands, but these are only well known to a few. I consider these two island the islands of the “haves” and “have nots.”

Sunset Key is a 27-acre residential neighborhood and resort island in the city of Key West. It is only about 500 yards off the shore of Mallory Square. The island is privately held among its residents, one of which is OPAL Properties which operates a small number of guest cottages. The island is accessible only by a shuttle boat that runs from the Margaritaville Marina out to the island. The island consists of a total of 48 single-family homes and 21 vacant lots, each of which are valued at over $1.5 million. It is definitely the island of the “haves.”

Sunset Key’s official name is Tank Island. The United States Navy constructed Tank Island to serve as a fuel tank depot during the Cold War. Dredging began in 1965 to form the island as well as to build passageways for submarines and other large vessels. However, the Navy’s plans changed and the island saw little military action. Only two of the twelve planned fuel tanks were constructed, and although the fuel lines were run, the tanks were never filled.

In 1986, the government sold Tank Island and other anchorages in Key West in an auction to developer Pritam Singh. In 1988, the tanks were dismantled while the remaining fuel lines served as conduits for water, sewage, and utilities. Power cables were later laid alongside the existing fuel pipes.

In 1994, the island was sold and renamed Sunset Key. The island is now owned by Tom Walsh, who also owns the Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina. For those of us who could never afford to buy or rent property on Sunset Key, we can get a small taste of its lifestyle by having lunch at the Latitudes Restaurant.

Wisteria Island has a much more interesting story. It is an uninhabited island located 280 yards north-northeast of Sunset Key. It is definitely the island of the “have nots.”

Wisteria Island, also known as Christmas Tree island, was created in the late 1890s and early 1900s as the result of U.S. Navy dredging of Key West harbor. The island acquired its name from the steamer Wisteria. The Wisteria sank where she was moored on the island and then burned to her waterline. The wreck was eventually salvaged, but the formerly unnamed spit of land kept the name of the ship as a reminder.

In the 1930s, the island was purchased from Monroe County by then-state representative Bernie Papy for $3,000. In 1956, Papy sold the island to Wisteria Corp., a group formed with the intent of developing the island into commercial space and real estate. Wisteria Corp. was renamed to Wisteria Island, Inc. when it sold the island in 1967 to F.E.B. Corporation of Key West. Benjamin Bernstein, a prominent local real estate developer, was the principal behind the project and intended to develop the island into residential space. It totaled 21.5 acres at the time of the sale. F.E.B. subsequently negotiated the purchase of 150 acres of bay bottom surrounding the island from Monroe County, a transaction that took place the same year.

In November 2011, the United States Department of the Interior (DOI) determined that the federal government actually owned the island, which it said had been under the stewardship of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for almost fifty years. The DOI had originally indicated that because the island was made from fill and was not naturally occurring, it did not belong to the federal government. However, subsequent research by the DOI revealed presidential executive orders from 1908 and 1924 directing that the island be reserved for Navy use, and a 1962 executive order transferring ownership from the Navy to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under Florida law, F.E.B. is entitled to seek a refund for having paid property taxes on Wisteria Island, but such a refund extends only to two years’ worth of paid taxes. Needless to say no one really knows who owns the island. It has evolved into a huge homeless camp. Vessels anchored off shore are not in an established mooring field and they can anchor there for free, under Florida law. Visitors to the island do so at their own risk as some of the “have not” inhabitants of the island have become very territorial.

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Good Times on Florida’s Space Coast, Oct-Dec 2019

After more than a week of short stops and lots of driving we were ready to settle down for awhile. We arrived at the Manatee Cove RV Park on Patrick AFB (near Cocoa Beach, FL) on October 24th. When we were here last year there were plenty of sites available, but this year we weren’t even sure we were going to get into the campground at all. Fortunately we were able to get into a site on a short-term, temporary basis. After about two weeks we were told we could stay for the season – huge sigh of relief!

Manatee Cove has lots to offer. There are 150 plus full hookup sites in the park and a centrally located community room with a full kitchen, TV, and pool table. They offer a campground bowling league (for free), karaoke on Tuesday nights, Bingo on Thursday night, and coffee and donuts on Thursday mornings. We also set up a “jam session” on Monday afternoons for any musicians in the campground. You can join the Manatee Cove Marina for a small monthly fee (you don’t have to have a boat) and they offer a variety of activities including a Friday evening happy hour with snacks, entertainment, and a cash drawing. The Base also sponsors a number of base-wide events geared to families, but fun for everyone. If you are bored here, it’s your own fault!

Veteran’s Day is widely recognized in the area and this year the Kennedy Space Center offered a free admission to veterans and their families on November 9 through 11. We jumped on this opportunity! The Space Center continues to update their facilities and their tours and we saw much more than we had on previous visits. The partnership with SpaceX and Boeing has added another layer to the Space Center with the Commercial Crew Program. We took the bus tour of the complex, toured the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the Atlantis Shuttle Launch Experience, the Journey to Mars, and watched several movies. It was a wonderful opportunity and we owe a big Thank You to NASA for offering this opportunity to military families.

One of our favorite kayaking sites is the Haulover Canal in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Preserve. This is the channel where boats traveling the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) transition from the ICW through Mosquito Lagoon to the Indian River. Dolphins love the frolic in this channel and the surrounding area. Two friends from the campground, Tony and Lori, joined us for this trip. There was plenty of dolphin activity. We also saw pelicans soaring gracefully until they spotted a fish and then literally crashed into the water to grab it. There were also Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Cormorants in the trees along the shore. Our one disappointment is that we didn’t see any manatee on this trip. One of the local fishing guides told us he thought the water was too cold and they had gone to warmer waters.

They call this the Space Coast for a reason; there are plenty of rocket launches to watch, and excellent sites from which to view them. We were able to watch two launches while we were there. The first was a mid-morning launch on November 11th. We watched this from Cherie Downs Park. For the next launch we contacted some of our friends from Michigan who winter in Melbourne, Jim and Diana Belisle (Visit their blog at www.explorvistas.com), to join us for the scheduled launch on December 4th. We drove to Jetty Park to view it, but it was cancelled due to unfavorable weather. However, we did enjoy a nice lunch at Grillz in Port Canaveral. The next day we made the short drive to Second Light Beach and watched the successful launch. I’m sure the International Space Station was pleased to get their resupply.

I was able to present two folk music performances in our community center. It’s always fun to entertain friends who enjoy the music of the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; Gordon Lightfoot; and others.

We enjoy watching the annual competition between the Naval Academy and West Point in the Army-Navy Game on a military base. Each year the Marina sponsors an Army-Navy Watch Party. As always it was lots of fun with good-natured ribbing between the veterans during the game. Go Army in 2020!

On Monday, December 16th we pulled out of Manatee Cove to store our trailer at the Homestead Air Reserve Base while we flew back to Michigan for the Christmas holidays. On December 29th we’ll be back in Key West in time to celebrate the New Year.

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Watching the Navy’s Blue Angels, Pensacola, FL – October 2019

We always enjoy staying at Pensacola Naval Air Station. The Naval Air Station has two campgrounds, Blue Angel Campground on Perdido Bay and Oak Grove. Both are nice. Blue Angel is more rustic and away from built up areas, while Oak Grove is right on base, a short distance from the National Naval Aviation Museum. Right across Radcliff Road from the campground is the home base of the Navy’s Demonstration Team – The Blue Angels.

Shortly after we arrived on Monday, October 21st we learned that the Blue Angels would be practicing on Tuesday  morning. We made the short bike ride to the viewing area behind the Museum. The practices are open to everyone and there were plenty of people there for the show. If you forget to bring a lawn chair they are available to rent.

It goes without saying that the Blue Angels are an awesome team and put on a great show. These pilots must have nerves of steel to pass each other, cockpit to cockpit, while flying upside down. I tried my best, but these pictures just don’t do this team justice. Click on each picture to see it full size.

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Soaking it Up in Hot Springs National Park – October 2019

Have you ever heard of the “Golden Age of Bathing?” In 1832 the U.S. government set aside four sections of land in what is now known as Hot Springs, AR to protect the natural hot springs for the nation. These are not volcanic hot springs, smelling of sulfur and other minerals, but rain water that has percolated down thousands of feet through faults in the rock, warming 4° F for every 300 feet. The superheated water then rises through the springs reaching the surface at an average temperature of 143°.

Hot Springs National Park was not at all what I expected. Before doing any research I envisioned open, rock lined pools of steaming water. What we discovered was a National Park in an urban setting, with Bathhouse Row. Monumental bathhouses had been built in the early 1920’s as spas to heal all kinds of maladies with the healing waters of the hot springs. They incorporated what was then state of the art technology and physical therapy. They were expensive and catered to those who could afford it, but the government operated free bathhouses for those who could not afford those on Bathhouse Row. The Army/Navy Hospital (Now the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center) used the spring water for treatments of sick and injured military members and veterans immediately after WW II.

Today the Hot Springs National Park is on the east side of Central Avenue and the town of Hot Springs is on the west. Bathhouse Row is still there although many of the bathhouses are now restaurants and brew pubs. The Fordyce Bathhouse is now the NPS Visitor Center and you can take a Ranger-Led tour of the building and its facilities. The Lamar Bathhouse houses the NPS gift shop. The Quapaw and Buckstaff Bathhouses are still active.

We tried to get a reservation at the National Park campground (Gulpha Gorge) but it and all the nearby campgrounds were fully booked due to a film festival in the area. We opted for Plan B and stayed at the FAMCAMP at Little Rock AFB where we had no problem getting a site.

The FAMCAMP is nice with many pull-through sites. While the Air Force’s Frequent Camper Program has been discontinued, those with active booklets are allowed to continue. We were able to use one of our coupons for a free night of camping.

We finalized our plans to visit the Hot Springs and left early in the morning to make the 70 mile drive and to arrive when the Visitor Center opened at 9:00. We checked out the Ranger-Led tours and got some questions answered by the staff. Our first tour described how the hot springs were created and the initial establishment of the Hot Springs National Reservation in 1832. We were also given an opportunity to taste the water from the cool springs. I’m not sure what the benefit is, but the National Park Service allows people to fill containers of spring water for their personal use. We saw several vehicles loading many jugs of spring water into their cars while we were there.

We did some exploring and picture taking and returned to the Visitor Center for the Fordyce Tour. In 1915, reviews proclaimed the Fordyce Bathhouse as the best in Hot Springs. This tour gave us personal insight into the most luxurious bathhouse on the row. Even the locker rooms were classy. Bathers would shower, soak in a hot tub while being massaged, then have a cool bath and relax in a drying room. Everyone was catered to, making sure all of their needs were met. There were also treatment rooms for specific cures including a form of acupuncture and electric shock. There was a full gymnasium for exercise and galleries for relaxing and concerts.

Above Bathhouse Row is Hot Springs Mountain with an observation tower. We drove to the tower and then hiked the two mile Hot Springs Mountain Trail. In the 1930’s “health-seekers,” as they were called, would hike these trails as a part of their treatment. The view from the tower was great. We were able to see into Bathhouse Row and the entire Hot Springs Mountain area.

After our hike we returned to Bathhouse Row and treated ourselves to a soak in the Quapaw Bathhouse. The experience was unique in that there were five different pools with different temperatures. It was nice to move to a different pool to prolong our stay by going to a cooler pool before returning to the hotter one.

After our soak we wandered around town and I got a chance to hang out with Al Capone outside the Ohio Club where he was a frequent visitor. The town of Hot Springs took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Capone and his friends. Capone made a point of not using the National Park facilities so he would not place himself in a federal jurisdiction.

Our final stop was the Superior Bathhouse which is now a pub and brew house. (They brew their own beer with thermal spring water.) It seemed appropriate to treat myself to a flight of brews to go with dinner.

We spent the next day relaxing and shopping. The last thing we saw on our way out was a C-130 cargo aircraft outside the gate. Every Air Force Base I have ever seen has an aircraft on display outside the gate, but this one was special. This C-130 was tail number 60518. This is a special aircraft. A C-130 can carry six pallets, 92 combat troops, or 64 paratroopers. That seems like a lot until you hear the story of tail number 60518.

The Vietnam War came to a close of April 30, 1975 with the fall of Saigon. As the North Vietnamese Army was approaching Saigon, the U.S. launched a massive evacuation mission to remove thousands of Americans and Vietnamese from Saigon. In the final hours of the evacuation, Tan Son Nhut air base was a war zone in itself with over one hundred aircraft burning on the flight line. On April 30th Tail number 60518, piloted by South Vietnamese Instructor Pilot Major Phoung, was last C-130 Hercules remaining and hundreds were storming the aircraft, seeing it as their last hope. As the C-130, designed to hold less than 100 people, began to taxi it was loaded with 452 people including 32 on the flight deck. The loadmaster advised Major Phoung that he was unable to close the cargo ramp. Major Phoung slammed on the brakes, hoping that the jarring movement would slide everyone forward and allow the ramp to close – it worked! The aircraft was overloaded by at least 10,000 pounds and used every inch of the runway and overrun to lift into the air. The C-130 has been the workhorse of the airlift fleet and on this mission the Hercules was truly worthy of its name.

Next stop – Pensacola, FL

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Up, Up, and Away in My Beautiful Balloon – October 2019

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is just an awesome experience! We linked up with two other couples that we know from Key West at the Enchanted Trails RV Park and Trading Post. Being able to share the experience with friends definitely added to our enjoyment.

One of the neat things about Enchanted Trails RV Park is they have “vintage” trailers that you can rent. If you are camped there they will loan you a key to see the interiors.

None of us had made any specific plans prior to arriving in Albuquerque. We gathered for drinks and dinner and, after sharing some recent history, we got down to planning. The Fiesta operated at Park and Ride service that was the best deal. For one price we were able to take a shuttle from a nearby shopping mall to the Fiesta and entry to the Fiesta. We purchased tickets online and were ready for the adventure.

Our first day at the Fiesta started VERY early. We left the RV park at 4:30 to get an early shuttle. We were all impressed by the efficiency of the shuttle system. There was a huge fleet of busses, with one leaving every few minutes. The lines at security to get into the Fiesta moved quickly and it wasn’t long before we were inside. It was well before dawn and the crowds were huge. We purchased some breakfast burritos and headed on to the launching field. As we walked onto the field I kept waiting to run into the rope line or barrier that would keep us off the field, but we never got to it because it wasn’t there. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is unique in that visitors can walk out onto the launching field. We were able to talk with the balloon crews, stand next to the balloons as they were being inflated, and step aside as they took off. The fact that much of this was going on in the dark made it more impressive. Every direction we looked there were balloons being laid out, inflated, waiting to launch, and taking off.

One of the factors that make Albuquerque an excellent balloon site is the “box winds” in the area. The winds blow in different directions and speeds at different altitudes. We would track a balloon as it took off to the East at a brisk speed, and then see it fly to the North.  It would turn West and move at a slow speed, and continue to fly in a box until the crew decided to leave the circuit to fly to a landing site.

There is more to do in Albuquerque than the Balloon Fiesta. We all packed lunches and drove to take the tramway to Sandia Peak. This is the highest peak in New Mexico. There was a long wait to take the tram. It was interesting to see other people stand in line for an hour or more and then give up and leave. I guess frustration can be a terrible thing. The ride to the peak was spectacular but not as spectacular as the view from the peak itself. You could see for hundreds of miles!

Old Town is the historic root of Albuquerque. It was fascinating to me to walk through the area, to see the town square with the performance gazebo, the adobe buildings that housed shops, cafes and restaurants. All around the area one can listen to native Americans playing their ancestral flutes. In a courtyard off the main square I listened to a trio entertaining the shoppers. After we were done shopping and exploring we enjoyed a great dinner while being entertained by a harpist. What a treat!

Each evening of the Fiesta is the Balloon Glow. We took advantage of the Park and Ride again and took the shuttle from the mall. Inside the grounds we wandered through many of the vendor tents to check them out. In addition to vendor sales there were also exhibits from the Experimental Aviation Association and NASA. This event is certainly a great place to get young minds interested in aviation and space exploration.

After picking up some dinner we sat at the edge of the launching field to watch the sky diving demonstration. As a former paratrooper I really appreciate a good parachute demonstration and these guys did an outstanding job. After the skydiving, we wandered around the launching field to see the balloons. As it became darker the scene became more dramatic as multiple balloons would light their burners simultaneously. What a site! The pictures don’t do credit to the actual lighting.

The final activity was the fireworks display. This was preceded by a night skydiving demonstration. This was the first time I have ever seen sky divers illuminated with flares attached to their boots – a very spectacular display.

Throughout the time we were together we rotated from one rig to another for meals. The ladies thought it was a good deal to only prepare dinner every third night. We all enjoyed the great meals and good fellowship.

On October 15th we all hooked up and headed to different destinations. For us, the next stop was Hot Springs National Park.

 

 

 

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Hiking in Flagstaff and Standin’ on the Corner – October 2019

We planned to stop in Flagstaff because it was the right distance, but we had no idea what to do there. As we researched we quickly discovered there was more to do than we had time. I guess we will have to stop again on another trip!

We stayed at the Fort Tuthill County Park. We had made reservations because online it looked like the park was almost full. To our surprise the park was almost empty for the entire time we were there. Camping at Fort Tuthill is dry camping, in that there are no hookups. You fill your fresh water tank when you arrive and use the dump station when you leave. You provide electricity from your batteries and generators. This wasn’t anything new to us and we were prepared. That afternoon and evening I did some geocaching and we finalized our plans.

Our first stop was the Flagstaff Visitor Center. Here we learned a bit more of the city’s history and how it was affected by the development of the railroad. We also picked up a self-guided tour for the historical district. I love history and architecture; old buildings just fascinate me, especially when there is a good story involved. Why is the city named Flagstaff? In 1876 a group of men, known as the Boston Party, were traveling to Prescott, AZ and camped at the site on Independence Day. Being patriotic they stripped a pine tree and hung Old Glory at the top. From then on the stripped tree became a landmark for other travelers, eventually the area became known as Flag Staff and then Flagstaff. In 1881 it was officially named Flagstaff.

We wandered through the town and could see the history of old Flagstaff families by the buildings they owned and businesses they operated. Of course the best stop was for lunch at Collins Irish Pub & Grill in the old Aubineau building. This was the fourth building on this site and was constructed in 1912.

Not everything is fun and games on the road. We aren’t on vacation, this is our normal life and day-to-day activities must be done. We took some time to take the truck into the local Chevrolet dealer to get the oil changed.

After that we headed to Walnut Canyon National Monument. This is the site of ancient cliff dwellings. The first permanent residents inhabited the area from 600 to 1400 AD. They began by farming the lands around the canyon rim and in the 1100’s developed the dwellings in the alcoves of the cliffs inside the canyon. The cliff dwellings gave them protection from the weather as well as hostile tribes. We had seen the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and the Walnut Canyon dwellings were as, if not more, impressive than those in Mesa Verde.

Today more than 100,000 people a year visit Walnut Canyon. We should all be thankful to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Park Service for preserving this monument for us and future generations.

Enroute to Albuquerque we stopped in Winslow, AZ to go to the corner of Kingsley Avenue and Second Street (Old Highway 66). This intersection is the “Standin’ on the Corner Park,” and is the famous “Corner” highlighted in the song by the country-rock band, the Eagles – “Take It Easy.”

This corner has joined the ranks of many famous corners. There is a mural of the girl in the flat-bed Ford, bronze statues of “a relaxed dude with a guitar” and Eagles’ Glenn Frey, and an actual flat-bed Ford at the curb. It is the ultimate photo op for any music lover.

But why Winslow, AZ?  Jackson Browne started writing this song for his first album, but he didn’t know how to finish it. At the time, his upstairs neighbor was Glenn Frey, who needed songs for his new band – the Eagles. Browne told Frey he was having trouble completing the song, and played what he had of it. When he got to the second verse, Frey came up with a key lyric: “It’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowing down to take a look at me.”

The real-life auto-breakdown incident that inspired the second verse actually happened to Browne in Flagstaff, but it was changed to Winslow. Why? Because in the songwriting Winslow fit better in the lyrics. By the way, neither Browne or Frey had been to Winslow when they wrote the song.

Next stop – Albuquerque, NM and the International Balloon Fiesta!

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Exploring Death Valley – September 2019

Our route to Albuquerque was by way of Henderson, NV, to visit some friends from our RV caravan to Alaska in 2013. As we would be traveling near Death Valley we decided it would be good to visit there. We had visited Death Valley once before, but only for one day and we wanted to see more of it.

We checked out the campgrounds in Death Valley National Park, but decided it would be better to stay in the town of Beatty, the Gateway to Death Valley, and drive into the park. We stayed at the Beatty RV Park. It is a small park just outside of Beatty that has pull through, full hook up sites for a very reasonable rate. Mike, the manager, gave us some good advice on how to tour the park and gave us some brochures to help us plan our visit.

The Beatty Chamber of Commerce has developed a series of brochures that make planning a trip to Death Valley a breeze. Our biggest help was the “5 Day Itinerary 360° of Adventure.” The 24 page “Gateway to Death Valley 360° of Adventure added more in depth information on each stop. You can get digital versions of these at http://www.beattynevada.org/BrochureRack.html.

The next day we were on the move early to avoid as much heat as possible. We were generally following the itinerary from Day One in the “5 Day Itinerary 360° of Adventure.” Our first stop was Rhyolite, a historic gold mining town site. In 1904 prospectors Shorty Harris and Ed Cross found gold in the area. In 1905 Rhyolite was established and platted. By 1908 the population was estimated at between 5,000 and 8,000. However about that time the mine production began to drop and by 1920 the population was down to 14. There are relics of the old buildings still standing and one of the most interesting is the “Bottle House.” This was built by Tom Kelley and was make of empty wine and whiskey bottles and mortar. When it was completed it was given away in a raffle.

Near Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum. This is an art museum in the middle of the desert. Here you can see the Painted Lady reaching to the sky, a ghostly depiction of the Last Supper, a ghostly bike rider and more. A strange, but interesting site.

Leaving Rhyolite we had the Hell’s Gate Experience. We descended into Death Valley at Hell’s Gate near Mile Marker 10. The temperature on the dashboard was showing 79°. By the time we had descended to the valley floor the temperature had increased to 101° – a 22 degree change!

The temperature rose throughout the day as we toured the park. By the time we got to Badwater in the afternoon the temperature was 108°. Even though we were sweating we couldn’t feel it because it evaporated out of your clothes before they felt damp.

Our next stop was the Harmony Borax Works. Here are the remains of the Harmony Borax processing plant and the wagons that were used to haul the borax to Mojave by teams of twenty mules. The twenty mule team wagons were made famous by the TV series in the early 1970’s called “Death Valley Days,” portraying true stories of the Old West. The series was sponsored by the Pacific Coast Borax Company (20 Mule Team Borax) and the last host of the series was Ronald Reagan. The radio and television versions combined to make the show “one of the longest-running western programs in broadcast history.”If you’ve never heard of it, talk to your grandparents.

After a brief stop at the Visitor Center we drove to Badwater, the lowest elevation in the United States. Here there is a spring from seepage of water that has worked its way down from the surrounding cliffs. The water is so salty that even mules won’t drink it. There is a sign 282 feet above Badwater that says, “Sea Level.” This is where our thermometer read 108°.

From Badwater we drove to the Natural Bridge. The road is not for the faint hearted, it is a washboard with potholes. I thought the truck was going to shake apart a couple of times and I felt like a “bobble-head.”

The Natural Bridge was made by erosion. As a stream bed was being cut by water, the water ran into erosion resistant rock and the stream flowed around it to the north. After a time the water again sought a more direct path and it undercut the harder rock, forming the bridge. When I see formations like this I am awestruck by the immense, unrelenting power of nature.

From there we drove to the Artist’s Palette. The colors of the minerals in the soil have created a geological artist’s palette of bold and pastel colors.

Zabriskie Point is where we started our hike when we were here is 2012. The second half of that hike was quite challenging, but this time we just enjoyed the view and the memories.

On September 26th we drove to Henderson, NV to stay at the Sam’s Town KOA RV Park. Our purpose was to visit with some friends from the RV Caravan trip to Alaska in 2013, George and Ann.

We signed up with the casino and got some coupons and gaming credits. Sam’s Town has a free shuttle to the Vegas Strip and we rode it to check out the Strip. We wondered around, did a little gambling, and had some fun.

George and Ann are avid hikers. George had a short hike near where they live that he thought we would enjoy. It was a nice four-mile round trip to Petroglyph Canyon. It was a nice hike with some dry waterfalls that we had to scramble (that’s a rock climbing term for easy rock climbing) up. That made the hike more interesting. We were so focused on the trail that George had to point out the petroglyphs. There must have been dozens of them and it was interesting to try to figure out their meanings.

The next evening we met them for dinner at a seafood restaurant. It’s nice to be able to share a meal with good food and great friends.

Next stop – Zion National Park in Utah.

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Crater Lake, Oregon – September 2019

We left the Tacoma area with our ultimate destination of Albuquerque, NM. We started with that and looked at the most direct route. However, our routes they are rarely a direct route from Point A to Point B. We looked at locations along the way that would be interesting to visit. That often changes the route into something much less direct, but more interesting. This is how we decided to visit Crater Lake National Park. National Parks are always places we look to visit on our travels.

Crater Lake is exactly what its name implies. It is the crater formed by an erupting volcano  The vent is closed and the crater filled with water. In fact, it filled with enough water to make it the deepest lake in the U.S.

There were no sites available in the National Park campgrounds so we stayed at Crater Lake RV Park in Prospect, OR. This is a nice park that is big rig friendly and has full hook up sites. There is a mix of transient campers like us and seasonal campers. The staff was very friendly and helpful. As we were setting up our neighbors were sitting outside and we introduced ourselves. In our conversation they mentioned that the Rim Road was going to be closed on the next day for the annual bicycle “Ride the Rim” event. They were planning on riding it and we went online to see if that was something that would interest us. The bottom line of our research was that the ride would be much too demanding for our level of cycling. Consequently we decided to drive into the park for what was left of the day and drive the Rim Road. We stopped several times to explore the lake from different viewpoints. I found it surprising how each stop gave us a unique view. By the time we got to the last viewpoint it was getting close to evening and the temperature was definitely falling. It was good to get back to our trailer.

There is more to see in the area than Crater Lake and we took the next day to explore some of those other sites. Our first stop was Flounce Rock. This is the highest summit in the area. We drove most of the way (Thank goodness for having a high clearance, four-wheel drive truck) and hiked the short remaining distance. What a view! We could see all the way to Mount Shasta in California! I picked up a geocache that was related to a memorial on the mountain top.

After that we hiked to a series of waterfalls in the area. It made for a pleasant day and we ate lunch while looking at the Mill Creek Falls.

When we got back we talked with our neighbors about the bike ride around the rim. They said they enjoyed it but it was sort of painful with the big changes in elevation along the road. After talking with them we were glad that we passed on that opportunity.

On Sunday, September 22nd, we hooked up and headed for Death Valley.

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