Mammoth Cave and Notre Dame – April, 2019

The United States is blessed with some of the most amazing natural wonders. One of these is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Mammoth Cave is mammoth in that it is the longest cave in the world – a total of 412 miles of underground passageways. It was one of the first tourist attractions in the United States. Mammoth Cave was designated as a National Park on July 1, 1941 but the cave has been explored for some 4,000 years. Yes, there is evidence of exploration from that long ago. When the cave was designated as a National Park there were only 40 miles of surveyed passages. Today there are 396 miles of surveyed passages and the number is growing.

There are a number of Ranger-Led tours of the cave. Some are short and on paved pathways with handicapped accessibility. Some are unique, such as lantern tours where your only light source are candle lanterns like those used by the early explorers. There is even the Wild Cave Tour where you have to get down on your belly and slither through openings in the rock that are extremely tight (way too much for this claustrophobia sufferer!). We chose to take the Grand Avenue Tour, four miles in about four and a half hours. This tour began at the Carmichael Entrance and ended at the Frozen Niagara Entrance. This was a physically demanding tour with tough climbs and lots of geological variety. There was no flash photography allowed in the cave, so please excuse me if some pictures are slightly out of focus.

The Carmichael Entrance

An outlet from the Wild Cave Tour – pretty tight!

Some of the early explorers left their names and messages behind with the soot from the candle and carbide lamps.

At one point in the cave’s history there was an underground cafeteria where tourists could stop, relax, and have lunch.

The flowstone of the Frozen Niagara is aptly named

From Mammoth Cave we drove to Granger, IN to visit one of Pat’s high school classmates. We had a great visit, but, alas, I forgot to take any pictures 😦

We were very close to South Bend and we rode our bikes into the campus of Notre Dame. This is probably the prettiest college campus I have ever visited. As we rode through campus we saw students engaged in club activities or just relaxing on the lawns, enjoying a warm, sunny day.

The University of Notre Dame was founded in November 1842 by Rev. Edward F. Sorin, a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, a French missionary order. Notre Dame has grown from the vision of Father Sorin. Notre Dame has been a place where the Catholic Church could do its organizational thinking.

We walked into one building that we thought was a cathedral, only to discover it was the main administrative building, how appropriate for a private Catholic university. The view of the dome from inside the building was amazing. All of the buildings reflect this same European religious architecture.

We did find the chapel but there was a mass in progress and we could only view the outside of the building.

Of course you can’t visit Notre Dame without seeing the football stadium where the gates are named for some if its more famous coaches.

On April 29th we crossed into Michigan. It’s always good to come home!

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Huntsville, AL and the Redstone Arsenal – April, 2019

When people think about the United States Space Program most have images of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. A smaller number will think about the Houston Space Center in Texas. Only a few will think about the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL. At the end of World War II, Wernher von Braun and the team of scientists who headed up the German rocket program for the Third Reich surrendered to the U.S. Army in Peenemunde, Germany. These scientists and the captured V-1 and V-2 rockets were shipped to the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico for testing and research. On June 1, 1949 the Army designated the Redstone Arsenal as the Ordnance Rocket Center. Von Braun and his team of over 130 scientists were transferred there to Redstone White Sands in 1950.

Today the Arsenal is still active in rocket engine development and tactical rocket systems. It is also the home to the Marshall Space Flight Center that developed the Saturn launch vehicles for the Apollo Moon Program.

Visitors can tour the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the Visitor Center for both the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Marshall Space Flight Center. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is housed in two buildings, the Space and Rocket Center and the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, and display more than 1,500 artifacts of America’s achievements in space exploration. One of the first programs we viewed was about the International Space Station (ISS). We were able to see live videos being broadcast from the ISS and learned how to find out when it would fly over close to our location. You can also go online to view video of the earth from the ISS.

Walking through the main building exhibits we saw President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University announcing the Moon program. We also saw the wide variety of devices that were invented at the Space Center, many of which we use in our day to day lives. I’m sure a few of you remember this invention.

In the Davidson Center for Space Exploration we watched the 3D movie, “Space Next.” Space Next offers a glimpse into tomorrow, and the possibilities of what is to come through private space developments and national space programs. The central focus of the Davidson Center is the full size model of the Saturn V rocket. There we were able to trace the history of the Space Program from the German V-2 rocket to the present. A secondary focus is on the Apollo Program with models of the Lunar Rover, the actual Apollo 16 Capsule, a model of Skylab (the first space station), and the remains of Skylab that survived its fall from orbit. An interesting feature of the Davidson Center is the team of retired rocket scientists that volunteer as docents and guides.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is also the home to Space Camp, founded in 1982 as an educational camp program for children using the United States space program as the basis to promote math and science to children. The camp provides residential and educational programs for both children and adults.

The Huntsville Visitor and Tourist Bureau give walking tours every Saturday. The Saturday we were there we had a light drizzly rain, but we had a big crowd for it any way. Our guide led us to a variety of houses in the historic area. Some of the homes were owned by Northern sympathizers during the Civil War, some were rented to Wernher von Braun and his team, and some that were supposedly haunted. It was a very interesting way to learn about the history of the city.

Huntsville has an impressive Veterans Memorial Park. The statues on the main memorial were inspiring. The “Patriot Trail” gave a personal touch to history with stories of actual Huntsville area veterans from the Revolutionary War to the present. It was one of the best memorials I have seen around the country.

During this visit we stayed at the military RV park at the Redstone Arsenal. This is the newer of two campgrounds at Redstone. It has huge pull-through sites and is a short walk/bike ride to the Post Exchange and Commissary. The Arsenal is a quiet post in regards to traffic and easy to get around. I used the Hobby Shop to make some repairs to my guitar case and prepare our camp sign for refinishing. The volunteer staff was great and couldn’t have been more helpful.

On April 23rd, we hooked up and headed north to Mammoth Cave, KY.

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Return to Fort Benning, April 2019

In past years we usually stopped in Raleigh, NC as we left Florida. Our daughter lived there and we would camp host at the Falls Lake State Recreation Area for the month of April. Last year Elisabeth moved to the Tacoma, WA area so this year we decided to spend some time at Fort Benning near Columbus, GA.

The Uchee Creek Campground at Fort Benning is one of the nicest RV parks run by the Army. It is on Fort Benning property but outside the security perimeter so you don’t have to go through security checkpoints to get there. It’s actually across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama. Uchee Creek is laid out more like a campground, as opposed to many RV parks, with lots of room between sites, campfire rings at each site and plenty of mature trees.

Fort Benning holds a special place in my heart. As an Infantry officer I spent a lot of time there – Infantry Officer Basic Course, the Basic Airborne Course, Ranger School, and the Battalion/Brigade Pre-Command Course. I am a graduate of the “Fort Benning School for Boys!”

On this visit our activities focused on the surrounding area, instead of locations on the Army post. One of the first things we did was to ride the Chattahoochee Riverwalk. This is a fifteen mile trail that runs from Fort Benning along the river to north of Columbus. We didn’t ride the entire trail, but part of the northern portion. We drove to the National Civil War Naval Museum, unloaded our bikes, and rode north from there. This stretch took us along the portion of the trail bordering the City of Columbus. Further down the trail we saw an old mill and watched fishermen and white water kayakers enjoying the fast water. Farther upstream we saw white water rafts taking their guests down to the rapids.

On our way back we left the trail to ride into parts of Columbus and stopped for lunch at the Country on Broad Barbecue. This is an old bus station, converted into a restaurant. The food was very good and the setting entertaining. There is even an old bus that has been converted into a dining area.

A “must do” activity is a visit to the National Infantry Museum. I can remember touring the Museum when it was housed in the old Post Hospital and was mainly a collection of artifacts. Today the Museum is in its own, state of the art, facility. The Museum displays the history of Fort Benning and Columbus in a grand style. As Pat and I wandered the collections I relived the history of the Infantry from the days of the Pre-Revolutionary War militia to current times and the War Against Terror. For me the best part of the Museum is the first exhibit – “The Last 100 Yards.” After the Air Force and Army Aviation have bombed the objectives, and the Field Artillery and Armor have fired explosive rounds into it, it is the job of the Infantry to close with the enemy by fire and maneuver, come face to face with the enemy in the last 100 yards and defeat them.

Dioramas depict these last 100 yards from Alexander Hamilton leading the charge on Redoubt Ten at Yorktown, Lew Millet leading the first bayonet charge since the Civil War in Korea, and today’s soldiers engaged in hand to hand combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Uchee Creek Campground is near Fort Mitchell, AL. The Fort Mitchell Historic Site tells the history of the area from the early 1800’s.

One of the sad parts of Fort Mitchell’s history is that it was a gathering place for the Seminole Indians for the beginning of the Trail of Tears, the forced migration of the Indians from their ancestral lands to the frontier, west of the Mississippi River. As we read the story of this, I couldn’t help but think the United States has plenty to be proud of, but also has reasons to be ashamed. The day was overcast with drizzling rain. Perfect, somber weather for such a visit. The metal flame sculpture honors the memory of the Indians who were driven from their lands.

Uchee Creek is a short drive or bike ride from Fryar Drop Zone (DZ), the largest parachute drop zone at Fort Benning. One day I discovered a jump was scheduled and drove out to watch members of the 1st Ranger Battalion jumping from Marine Corps V-22 Ospreys. It was fun to watch. While I was there a First Sergeant from the Airborne School came out to observe. When I mentioned to him that the last time I jumped on Fryar DZ was in 1977, he told me he was two years old then. I won’t say I felt old, but I did feel I was more experienced!

It was fun spending time at the Home of the Infantry and Uchee Creek is a pleasant place to just hang out and enjoy the outdoors. On April 10th we packed up and headed north to Huntsville, AL and the Redstone Arsenal.

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Pensacola – Home of Naval Aviation, March 2019

I’m afraid this title is a little misleading. Yes, Pensacola is the primary training site for Naval aviators and home of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s Demonstration Team. We had hoped to watch the team practice as their Tuesday and Wednesday practice sessions are open to the public, but they had been away doing performances and there were no practices scheduled while we were there.

Our primary purpose was to have some repairs done on our trailer. In the last eight years of fulltime RVing we have had good and bad experiences with RV dealer service departments. One of our favorite dealers is Carpenter’s Campers in Pensacola. They have given us consistently good service. We had to replace the awning fabric and the seals on our refrigerator doors. After eight years of constant use and, in the case of the awning exposure to the sun, they were just worn out. We also had a problem with our gas furnace that they fixed. I know many RV owners complain about RV service departments having their rigs in the shop for months getting things done. We try to avoid that in two ways. First, we let them know we are fulltime RVers and live in the rig, so we can’t just drop it off. Second, we work with the shop to agree on the date when the repairs will actually be done. We insure all of the parts are ordered ahead of time and on hand in the shop. Carpenter’s Campers was very good about working with us in this manner. Another repair that needed to be done was to replace the “D” seals on our slide outs. Eight years in the sun had dried them out. The cost of having the service department do this was way too much as it is very labor intensive. I purchased the seals from them and installed them myself. It took me three days (about five hours a day) to get them done.

It wasn’t all work and no play. We stayed at the Blue Angel Recreation Area, part of Naval Air Station Pensacola and our neighbors hosted a happy hour on a couple of the days we were there and we got to meet some of the other campers in the park. The campground is right on the shore of Perdido Bay and we could enjoy of view of the water and sunsets right from our campsite.

Some friends of ours from Michigan, Roger and Darcy, spend the winter in nearby Orange Beach, AL and we met them for dinner one night shortly before they headed back north. No matter where you are it’s always nice to meet up with good friends.

One day we went kayaking along the shore in the bay. It was a beautiful day, warm, sunny, and light winds. They had done a “controlled burn” in the neighboring county park and we could see there were some fires still burning. I was concerned about this until I saw a maintenance truck patrolling through the area putting out these small spot fires.

The real treat of the day was seeing many sting rays swimming in the shallow water. There had to be at least fifty of them! I have never seen this many sting rays in one area before and wished I had come prepared to snorkel while kayaking. It was difficult to get some good pictures, but I gave it my best shot!

Roger and Darcy had told us about Joe Patti’s fish shop and the Palafox Market and we didn’t want to leave without checking them out. Joe Patti had started a small operation catching shrimp and selling them from the back of his house. Over the decades it has grown into a major operation selling local catch and importing fish from all over the globe. Here you can buy fish within minutes of it coming off the boat. I could see people cleaning and preparing the fish in the back work areas.

Every Saturday the Palafox Street is turned into a street market with vendors of all kinds of goods and food as well as street musicians. It’s a great location to pick up local produce and unique gifts and we did take time to enjoy a Nutella and strawberry crepe.

At the north end of the market the Christ Episcopal Church was open for visitors. It reminded us of the many churches we visited on our tour of Germany in 2017. The stained glass windows and domed ceiling were impressive and learning of the history of the church made it special.

Our last stop of the day was the Oar House restaurant. Located right on the river, we could watch the boats as we enjoyed fish and shrimp. The food and service was great and I would recommend it to anyone visiting the area.

On Sunday, March 31st, we continued our journey north. Next stop – Fort Benning, GA and the Uchee Creek Campground.

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Tampa Equals Family and Fun, Tampa 2019

One of our priorities whenever we are in Florida is to spend some time with our niece, Robin, and her kids, Destiny and Jeremiah. This year and last year had the added benefit that Pat’s brother and sister rented a house near Robin for a month so we get to see even more family!

We stayed at the Bay Bayou RV Resort near Oldsmar. This is a nice park, well maintained, and with the added benefit that it is close to Robin’s apartment. There are nice routes for cycling and walking from the park as well as a convenient kayak launch.

One of our first activities was to drive to Lakeland to watch the Detroit Tigers at Spring Training. I can’t remember the last time I was at a major league baseball game. I think the Tigers have some work to do to be ready for the regular season; we were disappointed that they didn’t give us the win we were all hoping for. An added bonus was meeting one of my old National Guard buddies. You just never know who you will run into these days.

The next day we headed to the beach on Honeymoon Island. What else would a bunch of refugees from a cold Michigan winter want to do but soak up some sun! It was nice to hang out, wade in the Gulf of Mexico, and toss a Frisbee around. The sunset was great, but the afterglow was outstanding!

Jeremiah is very much into sports, especially football. Even though he is in Sixth Grade he already plans to play in the NFL! We were fortunate that he had a game on Saturday and the whole family was able to watch him play and cheer him on. He is really quite good and plays hard to support his team.

Last year we went to the horse races at Tampa Bay Downs and enjoyed it so much we went back again this year. Admission is only $3 on the weekends and free during the week. The program gives you all of the races and which horses the odds makers have favored to win. The problem is if you bet on the favorite you don’t make much profit from your bet and if you don’t bet on the favorite you increase you potential profit, but also increase your chances of loosing. However, the minimum bet is only $2, so you can have a lot of fun taking a small chance. It makes for a reasonably inexpensive entertaining afternoon.

While we were busying doing all of this, we filled in the gaps with going out to dinner. We ate at some great restaurants, but our best meals were the ones we prepared for each other at the house.

Our time together was fun and ended too soon. Sunday, March 16th we headed up the road on our way to Pensacola.

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Just Another Day in Paradise, Key West 2019

Key West is known for its easy going, laid back attitude, but our social calendar was always full. There was always something going on in the campground, or sponsored by someone in the campground.

Every Tuesday afternoon I volunteered as a docent on the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Museum. It’s a lot of fun meeting people who are in town for a short visit or off a cruise ship. We give them a chance to see history up close onboard the cutter. It’s a pleasure to be a part of this crew and to preserve some history.

One afternoon a bunch of us rode our bicycles into Key West to visit the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, the first legal distillery in town. We sampled a variety of rum, took a tour of the distillery, and had a presentation on how to make an authentic Cuban Mojito (with samples of course!). We finished the evening with snacks and drinks at a local establishment for happy hour before we rode back to the campground.

Eddie and Tina Grooms are the party masters of Sigsbee Island. They planned the Sigsbee Shuffle in January and did an excellent job. They grew an event that had been limited to 40 people to 140 participants and still kept everything smooth and fun! Last year they had held a blind wine tasting that had about 29 wines entered into the contest, this year they did it again with 75 entries! Only Eddie and Tina could pull this off without a hitch and they did – What fun! They divided us into three groups, with 25 wines for each group. There were breaks for food, so we still had taste buds left for the later wines. I had entered my homemade “Green Apple Riesling and it took first place in its group of 25. I can now say I have made an award winning wine!

It’s just not right to watch the Super Bowl without a party and there were multiple Super Bowl parties in the campground. In our case the game was projected onto a screen with the sound broadcast through one of our musician’s amplifiers. There was plenty to eat and drink as well as fans for both teams. The friendly rivalry was active and fun.

Every year I present a class on how to make your own homemade wine. In the class everyone gets to see the process and tools for each step of the wine making process and wrap it up with a tasting of a variety of my own homemade wines. Everyone seemed to find it interesting and definitely enjoyed the samples!

I play my guitar in the Praise Band for the base chapel and one Sunday we had a special guest show up for services, our Vice-President Mike Pence. Apparently the Chaplain only had 20 minutes warning before Mr. Pence showed up and I didn’t even know he was there until I saw him in the congregation. I guess now I can say I performed for the Vice-President of the United States!

SCUBA diving is popular in Key West. Ed and Ruth Kluk, friends from Michigan are both avid divers. We dove on a couple of reefs and the second largest artificial reef in the world – the General Hoyt Vandenberg. Formerly an Air Force tracking ship, the Vandenberg is both a challenging and rewarding dive.

Again we went out for a sunset cruise on the Appledore Star with some friends that came to town for a brief visit. Key West offers a number of offerings of sunset cruises and the Appledore Star is our “hands down” favorite. The crew is great, interacts with the passengers, and will let you take a turn at the ship’s wheel. We finished the evening with coffee and key lime pie at Kermit’s Key Lime Pie Shoppe.

One of my musician friends, Harriet Riendeau, ( and I put on a folk music performance at our campground community center. We called it a Happy Hour Folk Music Performance and did it on a Sunday afternoon. When we scheduled it we didn’t know that we were in conflict with two other events, but we still had more than thirty people in the audience. I’m not sure who had more fun – the audience or Harriet and I!

Check out the video (Click here)

Every weekend there is a big Flea Market on Big Pine Key and a bunch of us drove up to check it out. It was interesting browsing the various booths, but the hit of the day for me was stopping at the Bucktooth Rooster for a huge rack of ribs. There was enough left for dinner the next day!

One of the new events this year was the Survivor Challenge. A take off of the TV show, our Challenge had a scavenger hunt, limbo contest, puzzles, coconut toss, and a kayak race. It took a lot of effort to put it on but was a lot of fun. I have no doubt it will back again and even better next year.

Sunsets in Key West are always fun and one of the best spots for sunset is the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Museum. Every Friday and Saturday night they open the ship for a Sunset Happy Hour. As opposed to the popular Mallory Square, the atmosphere is calm and the view is great! This night we were joined by two of our friends, Dave and Suzie Cook. The night we were there was a special occasion as one of the Admirals of the Couch Republic Navy had passed away and they did a wreath toss and 21 Gun Salute in his honor. This was followed by a great dinner at Jack Flat’s on Duval Street.

One of the last things I did this year was visit the Key West Lighthouse and the Shipwreck Museum. The Shipwreck Museum does an excellent job in describing the work of the wreckers in Key West. These brave men would sail and row out to ships that had foundered on the off shore reefs, to save the crew and salvage the cargo. At one time this activity made Key West the richest city, per capita, in the U.S.  Docents in period costumes are stationed throughout the museum to help guests explore and get a deep understanding of the wrecker industry and modern day salvage operations.

The Key West Lighthouse is a self-guided tour that gives you some great views of the island from the top of the lighthouse. I have learned a lot about lighthouses over the years. Here I learned that, while General George Meade is famous for his Civil War duty, he was the Army engineer that designed and supervised the construction of many of the lighthouses in Southern Florida.

Finally, our time in Key West came to an end and we were UTR (up the road) on March 4th. Rest assured that we will be back next year to enjoy all of the fun times with our many friends!

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The Conch Republic, Key West 2019

I wonder how many visitors to Key West realize they are visiting an island that was once a foreign nation.

According to my local friends, the US Border Patrol, in 1982, set up a roadblock and inspection point on US-1 just south of Florida City. Vehicles were stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants. The Key West City Council complained repeatedly about the inconvenience for travelers to and from Key West, claiming that it hurt the Keys’ important tourism industry. The City Council’s complaints went unanswered by the U.S. federal government, and attempts to get an injunction against the roadblock failed in court. As a form of protest Mayor Dennis Wardlow and the Council declared Key West’s independence on April 23, 1982. In the eyes of the Council, since the U.S. federal government had set up the equivalent of a border station as if they were a foreign nation, they might as well become one. As many of the local citizens were referred to as Conchs, the nation took the name of the Conch Republic.

On April 23rd Mayor Wardlow was proclaimed Prime Minister of the Republic, and immediately declared war against the United States. The Conch Republic Flag was raised over City Hall and the schooner Western Union, under the command of Captain John Kraus, went forth into the harbor and attacked the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with water balloons, Conch fritters, and stale Cuban bread. The Diligence fought back with fire hoses and thus commenced the Great Battle of the Conch Republic. Prime Minister Wardlow surrendered and demanded foreign aid (which they are still waiting for).

Although the US government never recognized the independence of Key West, the border checkpoint was closed and the Conch Republic was born – at least as a marketing strategy.

In 1995, it was reported that the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion of the United States Army Reserve was to conduct a training exercise simulating an invasion of a foreign island. They were to land on Key West and conduct affairs as if the islanders were foreign. However, no one from the 478th notified Conch officials of the exercise.

Seeing another chance at publicity, Wardlow and the forces behind the 1982 Conch Republic secession mobilized the island for a full-scale war (in the Conch Republic, this involved firing water cannons from fireboats and hitting people with stale Cuban bread), and protested to the Department of Defense for arranging this exercise without consulting the City of Key West. The leaders of the 478th issued an apology the next day, saying they “in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic”, and submitted to a surrender ceremony on September 22.

The Conch Republic actively maintains an Army, Navy, and Air Force whose primary duties are to help re-enact the Great Sea Battle of 1982 and the retaking of Fort Zachary Taylor. The Navy comprises no fewer than 10 civilian boats and the schooner Wolf under the command of Admiral Finbar Gittelman.

Admiral Finbar Gittleman

The Army consists of the 1st Conch Artillery, garrisoned in Fort Taylor. The Conch Republic Air Force has more than a dozen appointed aircraft in its fleet.

The Conch Republic celebrates Independence Day every April 23 as part of a week-long festival of activities involving numerous businesses in Key West. The organization — a “Sovereign State of Mind”, seeking only to bring more “Humor, Warmth and Respect” to a world in sore need of all three according to its Secretary General, Peter Anderson — is a key tourism booster for the area.

Through their website, the Republic issues souvenir passports. These are issued as souvenirs, but some have evidently bought them in the mistaken belief they are legitimate travel and identity documents.

The Conch Republic is alive and well in Key West. When you visit Key West you see all kinds of references to the “Conch Republic.” Most tourists write it off as a quirky nickname. Very few of them understand the Conch Republic is real – well, sort of.

As a result of my volunteer work on the Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Museum it was my honor and privilege to be certified as a Deck Officer in the Navy of the Conch Republic. Yes, Key West is a unique place to visit and I encourage you to put it on your list of places to explore!

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