Reflections on Key West – Jan/Feb 2018

Key West is our favorite place to spend the winter. Staying at the Sigsbee Island RV Park (part of Naval Air Station Key West) is a unique, fun-filled, and fulfilling experience. Every year we get to expand our circle of friends. We know more people there then we ever did in our old neighborhood!

The Naval Air Station had sustained considerable damage from Hurricane Irma and it took them until December 27th to open the park. For the first time they took reservations so they could phase the arrival of several hundred campers into the park. We arrived on December 31st. It was interesting to see the park so empty, but we knew it would only be a few days before it would be filling up quickly.

I renewed my duties as a volunteer docent on the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Museum Ship. I have been doing this since our second year in Key West. I enjoy showing people a ship that served our country for 52 years and is the most decorated Cutter in the Coast Guard.

We got involved in our military community quickly. The Key West Half-Marathon has been going on for twenty years. Our small community supports the race by manning two water points on the route. We have two team captains that have been organizing this for as long as anyone can remember – they do an excellent job of coordinating this effort. Unfortunately for the racers the weather was unseasonably cold with strong winds. Despite the weather, we still found it both fun and rewarding to perform this service.

Saturday, January 27th over 150 volunteers, many with canoes and kayaks, gathered at Big Pine Key to help in the continuing clean up from Hurricane Irma. We paddled up the canals and walked the streets collecting trash. In and near the canals we found complete decks and docks that had been tossed there by Hurricane Irma. We hauled coolers, sections of fence, and all kinds of trash (even a hot tub) from the canals. Boards from docks and decks were tossed into the canal and towed to collection points to be picked up by heavy equipment later. As bad as Key West was hit, the Middle Keys got clobbered. The clean up still continues today.

I also conducted my classes of Snorkeling 101 and Basic Wine Making. These are always fun to present and people seem to enjoy them. It’s a great joy to see someone who is not comfortable in the water discover the beauty of what is below the waves and begin to enjoy instead of fear the water.

The highlight of our stay was when our daughter, Elisabeth, came to visit. We toured parts of the island by bike, made SCUBA dives on the USAFS Vandenberg (sunk as an artificial reef) and in the Marine Sanctuary at Looe Key, kayaked at Geiger Key, and generally had a fun time together.

Our campground can often become “party central” and there were several parties at waterside campsites to watch the sunset, Karaoke Night at the Sunset Lounge, open mic night at the Geiger Key Marina, as well as a few theme parties like the “Ugly Hawaiian Shirt Party.” There was rarely a dull time at Sigsbee Island.

On February 28th we packed up and headed north to visit family near Tampa, FL.

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Selfless Service – Key West, FL Jan-Feb 2018

Our country’s military services have sets of values that guide the behavior of their members, whether they be Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, or Marines. The Army Values contain a value of “selfless service” and  the Air Force describes this as “service before self.” The Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard include “service” as a part of their value of “commitment.”

As full time RVers we generally spend our winters in Key West, after all wouldn’t you like to spend a couple of months down here, right after Christmas? We stay at the RV park that is a part of Naval Air Station Key West. Living in a community of active and retired military gives us a rather unique view of things and an opportunity to see Selfless Service in action.

Every morning when I go for my morning walk I see an elderly (I hate to use the word old, but I am younger than she is and most people stopped calling me young decades ago.) woman walking along the roads of this part of the base in a determined manner – she is on a mission! She has her grabber stick and several plastic shopping bags and she is picking up all the litter along the road. This also includes the causeway, so she gets all of the litter that is brought in by high tide. Her name is Janet and she is the most dedicated person I have ever met.

Shortly after we arrived here there was a Wounded Warrior Project cycling rally to promote veteran issues. Our crew of volunteers from Sigsbee Island (our RV park) were hard at work, serving meals to all of the participants.

The Key West Half-Marathon and 5K is an annual event and is a source of pride to the residents of the island. This was the 20th year of this race. Local businesses volunteer their time and services. Turtle Kraals and Shipyards hosted a breakfast for all of the volunteers as a part of the organizational briefing.  Once again our military community was front and center. We have two teams that man water stations along the course. Jack and Denny, our team leaders have been doing this as long as anyone can remember. We were on the course by 6:30 am on a cold and very windy morning, but all of our attention was on the runners, encouraging them as well as keeping them hydrated. Next to our station a husband and wife team played their guitars to encourage the runners – they just thought it would be a good idea.

The National Coast Guard Memorial is at the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham, a floating museum of Coast Guard history moored in Key West. Every day volunteers man the gangway, welcoming visitors to the ship. The Ingham is a privately-owned museum and could not continue to operate without the volunteers that paint her decks, clean the displays, perform other maintenance, and welcome her visitors.

This last Saturday we and other volunteers from Sigsbee joined a cleanup effort on Big Pine Key. The Middle Keys were the hardest hit by Hurricane Irma and even months after the hurricane there is still debris from wrecked boats and destroyed homes all over the area. Over 150 of us walked the streets and paddled in the canals in our kayaks. We pulled lumber from ruined homes and docks that had fallen into the canals and piled up on the banks. We also gathered debris from wrecked boats and other trash that was swept into the canals by Irma. Local businesses, themselves badly hurt by the storm, donated supplies, heavy equipment, food and beverages to aid the volunteers in this cleanup.

Selfless Service is a value we should all embrace. We are all blessed with talents that can be used to help others. It doesn’t take much. As an example, when we pulled into Sigsbee Island and were assigned an RV site, I knew that we were responsible to keep our site mowed and there are mowers available to us. Before we got all set up I went and borrowed one and mowed our lot. I then proceeded to mow the five lots next to ours. I knew they would be occupied by the end of the day – just a neighborly thing to do. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but to show it doesn’t take a lot of effort to help someone.

Ask your local library if they need help. Is there a non-profit organization that could use someone to answer the phones or stuff envelopes?  If you have web-design skills, possibly help maintain their website?  Check with your local church – do you sing or play an instrument? I’m sure they could use someone like you. What does the local playground look like? Could it use someone like Janet to walk through every day or two and pick up litter?

A local Boy Scout leader once told a group, “We don’t need experts, we just need people who care.”

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Christmas Holidays in Florida, December 2017

Having grown up in Michigan, enjoying winter activities such as skiing, sledding, and snowball fights, it has been strange to have celebrated the Christmas holidays in warmer climates since we have been fulltime RVers. This year we stayed at Wickham Park in Brevard County, near Cocoa Beach, FL. The park has a community center, senior center, multiple picnic areas and playgrounds, a big Frisbee Golf area, and an RV park – something for just about everyone! Wickham Park is a great place to camp. There are full hookup sites, plenty of paths and trails to walk on and an easy place to bicycle. There were also plenty of geocaches to keep me busy.

As we pulled into the park one of the first things we noticed was that it was the site of the Space Coast Lightfest. Every evening people would drive for miles to drive through the park enjoying the lights. The night after we arrived was set aside for a “stroll” through the park. No cars were allowed and we walked around the park enjoying the light show, quite a unique experience. There are light shows in Michigan but you certainly don’t walk around them in shorts and a t-shirt!

We may not be in snow country, but we still decorate for the holidays. We drape ornaments from the crown moldings of our trailer’s slideout rooms. I decorate the small tree that my mom sent to me when I was deployed in the Persian Gulf for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. We hang lights in our windows and I make a tree of lights outside. Pat says it is hard to really get into the Christmas spirit when you have the air conditioning running while you are decorating! As we walked around the campground it was interesting to see how others had decorated their RVs for the season.

There were several interesting things going on this season. One of the first was the “super” full moon. This was one of those rare times when the moon is the closest to the earth. We could see the detail of the craters with only the aid of normal binoculars.

My sister flew in to see her brother-in-law, Paul, his wife, Mary Ann, and we joined them for lunch. You know it’s getting bad when the prime topic of conversations revolves around aches and pains and other health issues. I’m not saying we are old, but it is getting harder to ignore it!

We also had a chance to have dinner with Jim and Diana Belisle, who are also fulltime RVers from Michigan. Jim is also a fellow blogger.

We also got to witness the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral. We drove to a site on the beach where we could get a good view. I was glad we got there early because the area filled up quickly with others having the same idea. One thing that made this a very unique launch is that they recovered the booster rocket by having it land back on the launch pad. It was literally like watching the launch in reverse.

The launch of the Falcon 9

And the re-entry of the Falcon 9 booster rocket

On the Florida Spacecoast Santa doesn’t come down the chimney, he skydives in! We spent most of an afternoon watching “Skydiving Santas” landing on the beach at the Cocoa Beach Pier. They jumped from a WWII era C-47 cargo plane and a UH-1 helicopter. The targets on the beach included inflatable chairs and sleighs. Several of the Santas landed right in front of us and I was totally jealous of them. Just watching them made me want to climb into a parachute harness and join them!

The rest of our time was spent doing Christmas shopping, attending services at three different churches in the area, kayaking, and spending time with some friends from Key West who were camping at nearby Patrick Air Force Base. Like us, many of them were killing time waiting for the campground at Sigsbee Island (Naval Air Station Key West) to reopen. We joined them for their weekly happy hour at the base marina.

On December 19th we flew back to Michigan for the holidays and our annual doctor visits. We had plenty of snow and cold weather this year and the temperatures stayed in the single digits the most of the time. The plus side is that I got a chance to use my cross-country skis again!

Christmas with the family in Bad Axe is always fun. We were able to see relatives that we only get a chance to see once a year and celebrate how blessed our lives have been. We hope everyone else had a Merry Christmas and the next time you hear from us we will be enjoying the sunshine in Key West, FL. Happy New Year!

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Relaxing and Exploring History in Jacksonville, FL – November 2017

Pelican’s Roost in one of the more popular military RV parks in Florida and it is not easy to get a reserved site. We thought we might have a chance this early in the “snowbird” season, and were pleasantly surprised when we were able to get a full hook-up, pull through site right on the waterfront. I guess you could call it a post-Thanksgiving blessing.

As I was checking out the possible sites, I ran into Steve and Linda, a couple we knew from last year in Key West. It was almost comical as I had run into Steve while at Myrtle Beach and we had dinner at their RV with another Key West couple. You can’t let these opportunities go by and we made arrangements for dinner at our place.

We spent our first day, Cyber Monday, doing Christmas shopping both online and in local stores. Some of our gifts will be shipped back to Michigan where we will pick them up, some wrapped and boxed to send to relatives, and some we will take with us when we fly back to Michigan for the holidays, so we have to get it done early enough for that to happen.

We took the next day to take care of some house-keeping chores – washing the trailer and taking advantage of free washers and dryers in the park laundry. One of the benefits of staying here is that you are right on the St. Johns River and can watch the ships as they go by – Navy ships from Mayport Naval Base and commercial vessels from the commercial ports up river.

As I walked past the Navy Ship Basin I spotted the USNS Detroit, a Littoral Combat Ship. This is the second warship I have seen in the last year named after our home state of Michigan.

Dinner with Steve and Linda that night was fun. We had so much to talk about – where we had spent the last year, and will Sigsbee Island open up soon so we could spend the winter there. Steve and another friend of ours are chartering a sailboat for a two-week cruise in the Caribbean. We were invited to join them, but didn’t let them know soon enough to make the cut. Too many friends were interested in going along. We talked about when they might do it again and they assured us we would be at the top of the list. Steve and Linda had a local seafood place they wanted us to check out so we made plans to join them the next night. Sometimes our social calendar is crazy!

Next morning we drove over to the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a National Park. This part of the preserve consists of the Visitor Center and Fort Caroline and the Theodore Roosevelt Area.

Fort de la Caroline was established as the first French settlement in Florida in 1564. There the French were welcomed by the Timucuan Indians who helped them to build the fort in the hope that the French would support their tribe in a conflict with another tribe. The French stayed neutral and the relationship with the Timucuan soured as a result.

Learning of this settlement, Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez attacked and destroyed the fort in 1565, killing most of the French settlers.  In 1568 the French attacked and burned the fort in retribution, but French settlement of Florida was effectively over in 1565.

It was interesting to tour the fort, but disappointing. The remains of the fort had been washed away in the 1880s and a replica was built, based on a sketch by Jacques le Moyne. However, the interpretive signs show several drawings of the what the fort should look like, but none of them looked like the replica built by the Park Service. We walked away confused, why build a replica that doesn’t look like the pictures you display of what people thought it looked like?

The Theodore Roosevelt Area was the childhood home of Willie Browne. Willie Browne was a long-time admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and in his final years he encouraged the public to use his land as a refuge from the modern world. In the area you can see varieties of water fowl, Bobcats, amphibians, and even dolphins in the salt marsh. In 1969 he donated the land to the Nature Conservancy. Browne died in 1970 and is buried on the property. In 1990 the National Service acquired the land.

That afternoon Steve and Linda took us to an early dinner at the Safe Harbor, a seafood market and restaurant. This is a “hole in the wall” establishment on the shore of the St. Johns River. The food was delicious with big servings, a military discount, and a view of the traffic on the river. After dinner we perused the seafood available for sale, everything from shrimp, fish fillets, to whole fish! What a great way to end our short stay in Jacksonville.

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Thanksgiving in Myrtle Beach, SC November 2017

Most impressions of Myrtle Beach are of large resort hotels and RV resorts. However, in the middle of this extremely commercial tourist area is a true gem known as Myrtle Beach State Park. The park has a beautiful beach, picnic shelters, nature center, fishing pier, and roomy wooded campsites. It’s a forest campground in the middle of a city.

We enjoyed doing our morning walks on the beach and walking to the nearby Market Common, a planned community built on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.

A local group, the GTS Theater, presents a performance called the Motown Tribute. Having lived in the Detroit area, we had to check it out. I wouldn’t say it was Broadway quality, but we enjoyed it.

Our daughter, Elisabeth, and her cat, Cinder, joined us on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. We did Christmas shopping and planning for the Thanksgiving dinner. Pat baked a beautiful Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings – dressing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and apple pie. What a feast! We enjoyed the leftover meals almost as much as the original dinner.

It may have been November, but we had nice weather for an afternoon on the beach.

On our last night in town, Elisabeth drove us to North Myrtle Beach for their annual drive-through Lightshow. It was great and I shot pictures by standing in the sunroof of her car.

Sunday morning we were packed up and while Elisabeth drove back to Raleigh, we began our two-day drive to Jacksonville, FL and Mayport Naval Base.

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Camp Hosting in Raleigh, NC

We typically serve as Camp Hosts at the Holly Point Campground in the Falls Lake State Recreation Area near Raleigh, NC in April, or October, or both. We do this so we can spend more time with our daughter, Elisabeth. As in many states, North Carolina will only let you stay in a campground for 14 days within a 30 day period. In order to stay longer we volunteered to be Camp Hosts. We clean bathrooms five days a week, but compared to camp host duties in other states this is light duty!  For this small commitment of time we get to enjoy time with our daughter and a beautiful campground on the shore of Falls Lake.

The North Carolina State Fair a must do event whenever we are in the Raleigh area. We enjoy the livestock exhibits, 4-H Club displays, including the largest pumpkins I have ever seen!

One of my favorite exhibits are the lawn arrangements. The two of these that I liked the best this year were one that had plants as people and the one that incorporated a model train.

Another favorite are the pig races. They have races with pigs, geese, and goats. We see the same races every year but they are still a hoot.

My favorite exhibit is the Yesteryear Village. In this building are many artisans and craftsmen displaying everything from painting and tinsmiths to gun makers. I could stand around for hours watching these men and women working their crafts.

Halloween may not be the only holiday in October, but it is the most popular. When we were still living in a house we enjoyed handing out candy to the neighborhood children. However, you don’t get a lot of trick or treaters in a campground. That doesn’t mean we didn’t celebrate. On the Saturday before Halloween the Ranger staff and the “Friends of Falls Lake” hosted a Halloween celebration at the campground amphitheater. There was face painting, popcorn, S’mores, and ghost stories. Over 100 campers attended and we all had a great time.

On our last Sunday afternoon the volunteers and seasonal staff gathered with our Head Ranger, Crystal at her house for a cookout. The weather was sort of drizzly, but we had a fun time hanging out and sharing stories from the camping season.

A common subject among fulltime RVers is how to get medical care. Last year I had to have a root canal that ended up with a fractures tooth. I opted to go with a dental implant but never realized how drawn out the process would be. I made an appointment with a local oral surgeon to extract the tooth and emplace the implant. There are several long waiting periods in this process. First they did the extraction and did a bone graft to make sure there was a solid surface to emplace the implant, then I had to wait for at least four months. We traveled through Florida and wintered in Key West and returned to the Raleigh area in April. At that point the oral surgeon put in some kind of device and I had to wait another four months. I thought I was going to be able to finish the process while we were in Michigan over the summer and made arrangements with my general dentist for the crown that would replace the old tooth. I was having such a difficult time trying to explain to oral surgeons in Michigan what needed to be done, and considering that I had already paid for this to be done in Raleigh, I decided to wait until we got back to Raleigh to finish the process. The process was long, but on November 6th the crown was fastened to the implant and my mouth is whole again.

While all of this was going on we finished our duties as camp hosts at Holly Point on November 1st. That campground closed and we moved to the Rolling View Campground, also on Falls Lake, where we stayed until November 12th.

We spent our last day in town taking advantage of some of the meal discounts offered to veterans in honor of Veterans Day and watching the MSU (Go Spartans!) game with our daughter.

On November 12th we awoke to a chilly morning, hooked up, and headed south for Myrtle Beach State Park in South Carolina.

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Pigeon Forge, TN – Dollywood and the Great Smokey Mountains – September 2017

Many of our stops are not intentional, in that they are not a chosen destination. Pigeon Forge happened to be on one of the possible routes from Michigan to North Carolina and the right distance from our last stop. As I explored what we could do in the area I quickly discovered this was the home of Dollywood. We had enjoyed attending the Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Branson and thought there may be similar things to do here.

We booked a site at Clabough’s Campground. We’ve had good luck with campgrounds lately and this was another hit. We had a nice pull through site, there was a good camp store, and laundry room. Our only complaint was that the office is in a building shared with a gas station and we drove right past it without noticing. It was not a big problem as I just walked over, got our site and we pulled into it with no problems.

We took the Pigeon Forge Shuttle into town and did some exploring. I was a bit disappointed with Pigeon Forge. I thought it would be like Branson, but it is much more commercialized and harder to get around town. After exploring the shopping at The Island at Pigeon Forge area, we stopped by Dolly Parton’s Smokey Mountain Adventures and bought tickets for the following night.

The Smokey Mountain Adventures is the story of Dolly Parton’s mother and father as they were growing up and how they met in the Pigeon Forge area. I’m not sure how accurate the story is, but I found it very entertaining. It was a unique combination of song, dance, acrobatics, and comedy. It was a dinner show and the multiple course dinner was served smoothly in an unobtrusive manner. I was impressed by the quality of the food, especially when you consider they were serving hundreds of diners in one sitting.

We thought the Great Smokey Mountains National Park was more interesting than Dollywood, so we drove to the nearby Sugarlands Visitor Center to find out more about the park and hiking opportunities. We learned about the park and talked with a couple of volunteers who gave us some good information on the best trails for us. The next day we drove to nearby Gatlinburg to check it out.

Both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are big-time tourist traps, but I liked Gatlinburg better than Pigeon Forge. We wandered around Gatlinburg checking out the shops and doing a couple of wine tastings. The place was packed and the sidewalks loaded with people from doorway to curb. However, if you’re looking for a variety of places to eat and shop, Gatlinburg is it.

The next morning we drove back into the Great Smokey Mountains to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail. It was a beautiful day for a hike, a little cool and slightly overcast with a forecast of clearing skies throughout the day. When we got to the trailhead there were lots of cars but we were able to find a spot in an overflow lot. The trail is a 5.6 mile round trip (although it felt longer and my GPS agreed with our feelings) and definitely a climb. We could see signs of extensive trail maintenance. There were new erosion control measures and very large tool boxes, like the kind that go in the back of a pickup truck. I couldn’t stop wondering, “How did they get these things up here?” I couldn’t imagine them being carried by workers, maybe they had pack mules?

Because the trail led to a waterfall, we expected to have to do several water crossings. Some were easy with log bridges, others required us to step and jump from one rock to another. All of these added to the fun.

At one point we ran into some hikers who said they had seen a bear. We stopped to take a good look around and look what we found!

We reached the falls and took a break for lunch. Getting to the falls proper required some more climbing, but it was possible to get under the falls. Needless to say things get wet around a waterfall and as I was climbing to get under it I kept hearing my climbing instructors from Ranger School telling us not to climb on wet rock!

The hike back down went a lot faster. As we descended we kept encountering others who were hiking to the falls. They were not encouraged when they asked us how far it was to the top and we told them we had been hiking downhill for the last hour. We had a good time on this hike but it was not one that you want to start late in the day. If this was a good example of the day hikes available in the Great Smokey Mountains, I would recommend the Smokies for anyone who likes hiking.

As a final note, when we stopped at the Visitor Center to get a hiking medallion, I asked a Ranger about the tool boxes and he told me they had been airlifted in by helicopter.

The next day, October 1st, we headed east to North Carolina.

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