75 Months Full Time RVing: March 2021 Report

The Distance: 701 miles from Central Florida to Asheville., which brings us to 1,352 for the year. We will be stationary in April, but by late May we expect the mileage to ramp up dramatically. Foreshadowing!

The Places: We started the month with ten days at Wekiva Springs State Park, then headed north to Lake Powhatan in Asheville. We stopped at cousin Robb’s in Gainesville, cousin Marissa’s in Atlanta, and one night in South Carolina along the way. These were all places we have stayed before, unlike last month when we explored several new campgrounds.

PKM in her standard travel position on Rosemarie’s lap. She is clearly pretty stressed by the whole “leaving Florida” thing.

We were in public campgrounds for 26 days (10 state, 16 national,) in families’ driveways for 4, and at a private RV park for 1. We had full hook ups for 19 days, partial for 11, and dry camped 1 night.

Rey & Marissa’s newest creation, baby Elishia.

The Money: 26% under budget, which, given how bad January and February were for our finances, was a welcome relief. The down side is that without the final COVID stimulus checks we would have been significantly over budget. We had an extremely low average daily camping fee (because of the free camp hosting site at Lake Powhatan, free street parking with relatives, and a cheap Passport America night) but other expenses pushed the budget. Stocking up for travel and gas for the big rig were part of it, but most of our unexpected costs came from a couple of urgent “repairs” discussed below.

PKM loves Lake Powhatan. So many lizards and moles and other tasty things! She loves spending time outside, blending in with the natural surrounding.

The Drama & Improvements: Rosemarie had been nursing a tooth ache for some time, and once we were settled in Asheville it was time to deal with it. She had a bad abscess under a tooth she had root canaled in Mexico a few years back, and had to have the whole thing extracted. She experienced immediate relief, but because the removed tooth was a big molar, she really needs to have something other than a gap there. So as part of the process the dentist also did the prep work (bone grafting) for a future implant, which can’t be done until months later.

But also, its nice to have humans that prepare your sleeping accommodations properly.

Additionally, I managed to drop my phone out of the golf cart during a high speed turn and then run over it, which completely shattered the screen, rendering the entire device unusable. It is 2021, we can’t easily live without our phones, so an immediate replacement was needed. Fortunately I don’t need a top of the line, latest generation phone (such tech would be wasted on me) so I went with last year’s mid tier (A series) Samsung Galaxy, which is working quite well, thank you very much. While this was not an expense we needed or expected, I had been nursing the previous, six year old phone along for some time. The charging port was broken, the speed was heavily degraded, and the battery life was abysmal, but I had hoped to make it last through 2021. C’est la vie.

In Which We Encounter Drama Upon Our Return to Lake Powhatan Camp Hosting

Upon completion of our three month job as “glamping” camp hosts at Lake Powhatan National Recreation Area outside of Ashville last November, we departed on what we thought were excellent terms with both on site and regional management at Pisgah Adventure (the contractor concessionaire managing the property.) So much so that we believed we were not only shoe ins for a return engagement at Lake Powhatan in the spring, but also we were likely to be invited for part time camp host work at one of their sister properties in Ocala, Florida. We were… overly optimistic on both accounts.

One night stop at Lake Hartwell, a great Passport America park a few miles off of I-70.

Granted, we did not immediately contact Adventure Ocala to lock in positions. Honestly, we were waiting to see how the pandemic and eventual vaccine roll out went, with an eye towards returning to arts and crafts markets should we deem things safe. After all we have not been, traditionally, traditional work campers, having done but one short stint as lighthouse tour guides at Washington’s Cape Disappointment State Park back in 2015. This lack of work camp experience has not been because of a lack of financial need; oh no, we definitely live an RV lifestyle that benefits from an income boost to our military pension. It’s just that the markets have been a better proposition.

PKM barely tolerating her pig outfit.

Ever since participating in a few very small Key West yard sale type events back in 2016, and then a few months later in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula stumbling across a local event in Grand Marais, which in turn lead to the much larger Marquette market, we have expanded Rosemarie’s jewelry sales business such that, pre-pandemic, we were selling at venues all over the country as a regular part of our travels. Our success was such that we had even transitioned away from weekly markets into significantly more profitable special seasonal events. Because of all that we never felt the need for regular work camping, and doing both would be impractical because the obligations associated with such jobs, i.e., a multi-month commitment at one location with significant weekend hours, would likely interfere with our ability to participate in the more desirable market events.

An excellent gift from Dad and Marcia.

But the pandemic cancelled all of our planned events, which is what lead to us working at Lake Powhatan in the first place back in 2020, and while the vaccine roll out was fitfully underway, we were likely months away from a jab ourselves, and thus decided to wait until summer before returning to markets. Having made that decision we attempted to contact anyone with Adventure Ocala in the hope of working a few months, late winter into the spring, but never even received a return call or email. We got hold of the Adventure Pisgah people back in Asheville, who interceded such that we eventually received a perfunctory brush off from one of the Ocala properties.

Rosemarie’s split pea soup with ham hock, sautéed farmers market chestnut mushrooms, and fresh made bread. We eatin’ right!

At a dead end there, we pursued two additional lines of inquiry: other camp host jobs in Florida, or an early return to Lake Powhatan. A lot of phone calls and emails produced but a couple of marginally promising leads for Florida, though nothing really jumped out at us, unless you count the very secretive campground owner (he would not even tell me the name of his place when he returned my call) who was looking for a like minded couple to bunker down and maintain his park/compound during the coming government collapse. That one did indeed jump out at us, but more in the horror movie manner rather than the promising offer sense.

Our site when we first get in…

As for Lake Powhatan, the problem was that they did not even open back up for the season until late March, and we were unwilling to commit to working there beyond late May. Management was frank about this limitation: though they would love to have us back, they were holding out for camp hosts willing to commit for much longer. We kept up the inquiries in Florida, but had mostly resigned ourselves to not having an additional source of income prior to our 2021 travel cycle, and sought to embrace that “freedom” while recognizing we might need to scale back a few things as a result.

…vs when we settle in.

But then, with a final inquiry, everything changed at Lake Powhatan. Having received no solid long term “Glamping Host” applications, Adventure Pisgah agreed to have us return for a two month stint, and wanted us there as soon as possible, ideally weeks before the official opening of Lake Powhatan in order to get everything ready for guests. Though we had made commitments that precluded their preferred arrival date for us, we did accelerate things and made the run north as detailed in our last posts. After a one night stop in South Carolina, we arrived at Lake Powhatan on March 15, whereupon we were informed that new senior management would be making a slew of significant employment related changes beginning within the week.

Now, pause for a minute and consider the wisdom of instituting major changes on a compressed timeline such that employees only learn of them upon arrival or, in the case of a couple of other camp hosts, during transit. With that skeptical perspective firmly in mind:

  1. All work campers would be shifted from a barter system, i.e., part time work in exchange for a free site, to an hourly pay scale, which would be at North Carolina minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for most of them. (As glamping hosts already receiving a combination of a free site and a pay check, under the new system we would earn a noticeably higher hourly wage.)
  2. Work campers would then pay for their actual camp sites at a discounted rate of $15 a night.
  3. There would be no onsite management at all, rather, Pisgah Adventure’s regional manager would assume all local responsibility for both Lake Powhatan and another nearby property.
  4. The existing on site managers and assistant managers were effectively demoted to regular camp hosts.

Finally received our center front marker light. Installing it here, along with other repairs.

Chaos ensued. Within a week the aforementioned assistant managers (who also did a lot of maintenance for the property) quit and took positions at a nearby private resort. Another couple turned around during transit and never showed up. A third couple already present put in their two week notice. The existing on site managers, who, let me tell you, did a lot for that place, handed off the reigns to the local regional manager, who also quit within two weeks, taking a position at a nearby forestry non-profit.

Kind of a farewell party for some of the people leaving after the changes at Lake Powhatan.

We did the math and calculated that the monetary effect would be a wash for us, i.e., we would be compensated about the same as under the old system based on our anticipated work hours. Plus, our glamping host job was somewhat insulated from the daily affairs of the rest of the park. The replacement for the replacement manager let us run our loop as if it were a private fiefdom, largely because she had enough on her plate running the campground and day use areas with fill in employees while urgently trying to hire new camp hosts. At one point senior management apparently realized they had gone too far, too fast, and attempted to reverse the demotion of the onsite managers, who refused the offer.

Back in Asheville, one of our first stops: Pizza Mind for their fantastic roasted cauliflower and golden beet pizza with balsamic. Fantastic.

Like the post title says: drama! We made do, adopting a Heraclitan “the only constant in life is change” attitude, though that was only possible due to our relative independence and the previously mentioned financially neutral effect of all the changes on us, personally. There would, however, be more drama during our stay. More in later posts.

Us, looking fabulous, mostly unperturbed by the changes and associated drama.

Final Winter 2021 stays: Wekiva, Gainesville, and Snellville

Down to our last eleven days in Florida, we again benefitted from Dad and Marcia’s official retirement from full time RVing by inheriting their back to back reservations at one of our favorite Central Florida campgrounds, Wekiva Springs State Park. As late in the game as we began looking for openings, we would have been incredibly lucky to find such availability, and only if someone made a late cancellation and we happened to be the first to discover it online. Folks, that’s three separate italicized words for emphasis, so I can’t be any more emphatic.

Bundled up for the notorious Florida winter.

Don’t get me wrong, cancellation hunting has been our go to strategy throughout most of Florida since we started this RV adventure. It generally works as long as you are persistent, i.e., query online at least daily, and a bit flexible on the specific park and dates, e.g. checking three or four properties within your target region and accepting that you might have to move sites or even campgrounds to string together a week or more stay. For the CFL area we generally check Wekiva, Blue Springs, Trimble, and (last resort) Lake Monroe. Regardless, a ten day opening would have been quite unlikely, so Dad and Marcia really hooked us up.

Many of us embraced new hobbies during the pandemic. I hope to keep the bread making going. The machine: free, the ingredients: cheap, the effort: minimal, and the results: superb.

We had a full hook up site for three days, and then switched to an electric and water only site for the remaining seven. For those considering a Wekiva Springs State Park stay (which should not be confused with the private Wekiva Fall RV Resort a little further north) there are 60 sites in two loops within the main campground area (there is a separate group camping section). The 30 lower numbered sites are all 50 amp full hook ups, whereas only about half of the spots in the higher numbered loop have full services; the rest are 30 amp power and water only. For a short stay we tend to prefer the higher numbered loop because it has significantly better tree canopy than the lower loop. For those hoping for satellite TV coverage, the lower numbers will give you a better chance.

Our second site at Wekiva Springs: we saw deer, snakes, gopher turtles, and wild turkeys.

For our last week and a half in Florida, we made sure to visit with more relatives, particularly since Florida was haphazardly rolling out the COVID vaccination campaign, and some of our people had already managed to get at least their first shot. Son Jackson and DIL Andrea visited with us in the park, bringing with them their latest toy, a camera equipped, compact, quad copter drone. Man, these things have become so capable. Operated in conjunction with any smart phone, the thing is largely self flying and has a number of automatic modes for ease of use. It is exactly the sort of toy I could see myself doing hours of research on, agonizing about which specific model to purchase, and then wrecking it within the first hour of use. Regardless, it’s on our short list of wanted items.

Drone demo about to commence.

We also visited Aunt Judy and Bill and cousin Brian for an excellent dinner, and somehow managed not to take any pictures, which, I suppose, counterbalances the agonizing hours of holiday photo sessions that mom and Judy orchestrated throughout my youth.

Still reeling from our Geo Tracker engine rebuild costs, we kept things quite cheap during this period. Aside from the necessary supply restocking in preparation for our spring travel and work plans, we occupied ourselves with the critical (and mostly free!) activities of relaxing, restowing the RV for travel, watching shows and movies downloaded from public wifi sources, and, of course, geocaching. Because we have been coming to this area for years, we have a good number of caches logged here, and added to those via multiple outings this visit.

This is a typical geocaching display map. Green circles are caches we have not found, yellow smiley faces we found, and blue frowny faces we looked for but could not locate.

Despite repeated stays at Wekiva Springs, we had never managed to get up to Sand Lake and the handful of caches available on the hiking trails there. We partially remedied that with this time with a couple of strolls along the heavily wooded paths that parallel streams leading to the lake or main river. Mosquitos drove us out before we could get the last two, but we enjoyed the hikes, and the deer, turtles, and other wildlife, we saw during our successful hunt for four of the Sand Lake hides.

After ten days at Wekiva we broke camp and headed north for our final Florida stop: Cousin Robb’s and family in Gainesville. We have been visiting them during our entries and exits from the state for years, though we usually try to arrange a weekend stay at Gilchrist Blue Spring State Park so they can camp with us. There were no openings this time, but Robb and Colleen always welcome us to driveway camp at their place, so that’s what we did, and enjoyed a great spaghetti and garlic bread feast in their home. With the Gilchrist Blue Spring campground scheduled for major renovations, we look forward to a joint camping experience there down the road.

From Gainesville we made the run up to Snellville, on the outskirts of Atlanta, for what has become another traditional “visit cousins when leaving or entering Florida” routine. While there we see four generations of Rose’s relatives: (grand aunt) Titi Clarivel, her daughter (first cousin once removed) Betsy, her children (second cousins) Marissa, Daniella, and Gammi, and Marissa and Rey’s kids Annalise, Sarah, and Elisha. We stay in Rey and Marissa’s driveway, hooked up to one of their exterior 20 amp electrical sockets.

Since our first visit three years ago, we have watched their family grow: Annalise is now five, Sarah is two, and the newest baby, Elisha, a few months old now. During that time both Rey and Marissa have earned their college bachelor degrees, and upgraded to a larger house in a quite suburb which, it should be noted, has much better RV street parking arrangements than their last home.

Rey has switched jobs to a tech company, and has the flexibility to work from home, at least during the COVID pandemic year. Marissa has expanded her part time, Cricut-based, party decoration business into a full time money maker. Balloons figure prominently.

Next up: Asheville and our spring plans.

Having subdued Pennywise, Kitty Meow Meow emerges from the storm drain.

74 Months Full Time RVing: February 2021 Report

The Distance: 552 Miles as we meandered from South West Florida to Central West Florida, with extra mileage along the way due to moving the tow vehicle from one mechanic to another to finish the engine rebuild installation process. Total for 2021 is up to 651 miles.

Route would have been 200 miles shorter if not for moving Loki around for repairs.

The Places: Despite late developing plans we were able to find several excellent and even reasonably affordable places to stay during February. We started the month at South Bay Campground on the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee, stayed at our first Corps of Engineers campground (W.P Franklin North,) and then hit one new (Lake Manatee) and one old (Oscar Scherer) state park. As we finalized our Geo Tracker repairs, we stayed one night at MacDill Air Force Base, two nights in a Cracker Barrel, and close out the month with stays at Hillsborough River and Lake Louisa State Parks.

WP Franklin North has boat slips to rent as well as RV site.

We stayed 1 night at a military campground, 2 at a Cracker Barrel, and 25 in public parks (5 county, 6 COE, 14 state.) We had full hook services for 7 days, partial (electric/water) for 18, and dry camped for 3.

Hillsborough River

The Money: Making the final payments on the Tracker engine rebuild along with having to fill up the big rigs gas tank for the first time in a few months put us 39% over budget. Without any offsetting income options, we have started off 2021 in the hole. Fortunately, we have some plans to get back on track.

When you are over budget, its good to have a mostly free hobby (and despite the ripped jeans look, the hobby in question is “geocaching” not “looking homeless.”

The Drama & Improvements: As we wrote up in the post before last, Loki continued to be a source of drama this month, but with the rebuild complete, hopefully better and reliable automotive days are ahead of us. After all, we now have a 24 year old truck with 183K odometer miles sporting a zero miles engine.

Nearing the end of our Florida Winter: Hillsborough River and Lake Louisa State Parks

With the fully operational Geo Tracker back in our possession after more than eight weeks for the engine rebuild, you might think we would immediately head out for our 2021 adventure plans, but even this late in the winter we still had time to kill before our early spring commitments began. The Tracker fiasco did not really delay our Florida exit so much as destroy our intended late winter Florida exploration: given more time we would have bounced around the state hitting a few favorite and a couple of new spots. As it was, we contented ourselves with two weeks in three Florida State Parks for our final Florida 2021 hurrahs.

The uncertainty of the Tracker repair completion date had not only forced us to cancel some reservations, but also precluded us from making anything more than tenuous new ones. Once Xtreme Zukes Offroad had the truck in their shop for final repairs, we were comfortable making a few reservations, but this late in the game, in Florida, during the peak snowbird season, options were limited, despite the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Regarding that: I only have anecdotes and subjective personal observations, but it really seems like whatever loss in business Florida RV parks experienced due to state/local restrictions, the Canadian border closure and other snowbird travel reticence has been largely made up for by the otherwise booming RV industry, with families of all types itching for some form of vacation but without pandemic risks and limitations. It will be interesting to see what happens to the RV industry as vaccination rates climb, restrictions disappear, and all of those people who bought RVs during the pandemic start back to traditional travel and vacation patterns. I’m predicting a used market glut and an associated drop in prices for both new and used.

Anyway, we expanded our search area and loosened our criteria, which finally exposed a five day opening at Hillsborough River State Park, a new place for us. While we would have preferred one of the fantastic campgrounds located at a major spring or right on the water, Hillsborough River was still quite nice. It was another typical Central/South Florida State Park with swaths of scrub oak and pine forest surrounding widely spaced campsites under a moderate canopy. At $29 a night for an electric and water only back in site is not the best deal going in Florida State Pak campgrounds, but its solid compared to the private short stay options, and it’s hard to complain about a last minute winter reservation anywhere in Florida.

Having spent an unexpected five grand on vehicle repairs on top of completing a multi month stay at one of our most expensive RV parks, we kept things pretty tight: other than groceries and topping off our big propane tank we satisfied ourselves with mostly free activities during our stay. That meant evening walks to the nearby lake and several geocaching outings.

In significant family and related RV news: Dad and Stepmom Marcia have hung up their full time RV lifestyle. After nearly six years on the road, the last couple of which involved increasingly focused house hunting, they bought a place in Central Florida and promptly sold their fifth wheel. Though we will miss family joint camping events, especially the accidental ones, they spent a lot of time travelling and were quite ready to have a permanent home, especially one that ticked so many of their lifestyle requirements.

Once they finalized their move in date they offered us their two remaining and unneeded RV park reservations, beginning with the nearly next door Lake Louisa State Park. Given the Central Florida location, size of the campground, and somewhat more available reservations compared to other nearby public parks, it is surprising that we have never stayed there before. Having now experienced it, and with its close proximity to Dad and Marcia, we are certain to use it again down the road.

The park contains the region typical scrub oak, pine, and palm forests, but adds atypical rolling hills and meadows throughout the extensive, lake dotted acreage. Dad and Marcia had snagged one of the full hook up, pull through sites, making our stop that much more convenient. $28 a night for a site with these amenities is a good deal particularly considering the beauty of the surroundings and the price you would pay at a comparable private RV resort in the region.

Digressing a bit: Rosemarie and I do not make pull through sites a priority, though we know plenty of RVers who do. We generally chose the greater site availability afforded by back in sites over the ease of parking provided by a pull through spot. If I were pulling a big travel trailer or fifth wheel, I would be looking for pull throughs as well, especially for short stays. But with our quick disconnect Blue Ox flat tow system, I can have Loki parked out of the way in under two minutes, and Rosemarie is quite the expert at guiding me back into even tight sites.

Having said that, there really is something nice about just pulling right in and being able to get right to setting up camp, and we are grateful for those times we get to experience this minor luxury. So thanks to Dad and Marcia for this campsite and the next, and for the great-though-too-short visit.

Next: A monthly report and then our last eleven days in Florida for some time.

Our Nine Final Days of Geo Tracker Repair Drama (Plus Lake Manatee, Oscar Scherer, MacDill AFB, and a Cracker Barrel)

To review: On Christmas Eve I blew the engine on our 1997 Geo Tracker while driving on I-75 through the Everglades. After eight impatient hours observing swamp flora and fauna I got it towed back to the edge of Florida Gulf Coast civilization and coordinated a follow on tow to a mechanic in Fort Myers. Said mechanic was willing to do a full engine rebuild and installation at a reasonable price, but could not find a replacement engine block upon which to begin the process. With a bit of internet/google luck I stumbled upon a Tampa area Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker specialist, Xtreme Zuks Offroad, whose owner, Richard, agreed to do the rebuild and deliver it to the mechanic in Fort Myers. Which he did. Whereupon our man in Fort Myers began the installation process while we anxiously lingered in the area. During our six days at W.P. Franklin we learned of yet another stumble in our painfully long Geo Tracker repair process.

Gassing Up! Not filling up the big RV tank was nice for the couple of months we were in Sanibel, but its time to hit the road.

The new problem: following receipt and installation of the fully rebuilt engine, our Fort Lauderdale mechanic could not get it started. He spent days trying: redoing wiring, cleaning terminals, installing a new distributer, and even renting a compression machine to determine if there might be a problem with the valve job. I have paragraphs of text from him explaining all that he tried, but it was to no avail, and he was convinced of either his inability to solve what might be a very idiosyncratic Tracker/Sidekick problem, or that the engine rebuild job was flawed. You can guess how the latter might have sat with Richard at Xtreme Zuks Offroad, who described to me repeatedly and in detail the detailed and repeated instructions he had left for the installer.

The two pieces of good news in this evolving fiasco is that we at least had the ability to tow the Tracker ourselves, even with a broken engine, and that Richard said to bring the rig up to his shop and he would sort it out. So on Friday morning following our sixth night at W.P. Franklin we broke camp and swung by Fort Myers to pick up the truck (new engine installed, old engine in the back,) and towed it up to our South Tampa area campground for the weekend.

Life Pro Tip: If you might be the go to over the phone tech assistant for any of your technically challenged relatives, keep a picture of their remotes readily available. It will make walking them through procedures a bit easier.

Speaking of which: two posts back I gave an unnecessarily long explanation of our campground hunting method and updated it the next post with some happy results from this odd period of tow vehicle limbo. Even before the latest Tracker bad news we had started looking slightly north of the previous geographic triangle (between Okeechobee, Port Charlotte, and Naples) to one centered more on the Sarasota region. By expanding our search to include state and county parks at which we had never stayed, we managed to secure a week’s worth of reservations split between Lake Manatee and Oscar Scherer State Parks.

Trying to eat a bit healthier, though sometimes that just means fresher ingredients.

While writing this post it occurred to me that we tend to divide all Florida state parks (and to a lesser extent, county properties) into three categories, in preference order: on the ocean (Gamble Rogers, Bahia Honda, Topsail,) around freshwater springs (Rainbow, Wekiva, Gilchrist Blue,) and everything else (Koreshan, Lake Monroe, Trimble.) That prioritization is pretty much the same as every local and tourist in the state, regardless of the season, which makes our winter Florida campground hunt quite challenging.

Our site at Lake Manatee State Park

When such availability constraints force us outside of our accessible internet histories, half-hazardly curated webpages, and duplicative phone contacts, we often find unexpectedly fantastic places, as has been the case these past few months. We only recently “discovered” South Bay, this month we found W.P. Franklin, and this week we stumbled upon Lake Manatee State Park. Lake Manatee is what I would describe as a beautifully typical South Florida state campground: spacious but basic sites in a quite, often lakeside, lowland, scrub oak forest. I don’t know the ecological and botanical conditions that result in this type of woodland, but we thoroughly enjoy the combination of palms and heavily twisted oaks surrounding ever campsite, and strongly prefer it to the fully cleared and carefully manicured landscapes of most private parks in the state.

Some goodies from the Englewood Farmers Market

On Monday after our three day weekend stay at Lake Manatee State Park (which should not to be confused with the nearby Little Manatee River State Park) we drove north of Tampa and delivered the Tracker to Xtreme Zuks in Land O’ Lakes. We then back tracked a bit south to Oscar Scherer State Park in order to visit Rosemarie’s mom, brother, niece, nephew and family in the Venice region. Oscar Scherer is our third “go to” spot for this particular family visit area. We started with the wonderful Rambler’s Rest, a nearby private RV resort located on the Myakka River, but a few years back after they were bought out by the huge RV Resort chain, Encore, they drastically cut back on Passport-America discount availability. Unwilling to pay their full $60 a night, we sought out other options.

And our site at Oscar Scherer

For a couple of years we made do with a quite affordable, semi-official storage situation at Venice Ranch Mobile Home Estates where we parked the RV while actually staying at Gloria’s house. Eventually this too became untenable, and we reverted back to hunting for low cost options on the state and private markets. This month we got lucky with a four day opening at Oscar Scherer. We have stayed here before, and like Lake Manatee State Park, quite enjoy the dense woodsy environment. While here we were able to not only visit Gloria and Jerry, but also to hold a casual BBQ night with the rest of Rosemarie’s local family.

During our stay we got word from Richard at Xtreme Zuks Offroad that the Tracker was good to go (he had it running within half an hour of us dropping it off, then smoothed things out during the next few days) and that we could pick it up at our convenience. On Friday we left Oscar Scherer and headed north an hour or so to MacDill Air Force Base’s Family RV Campground. Despite more than six years of full time RVing, an ever increasing dependency on low cost military campgrounds, more than a third of each year spent in Florida, and stays at 15 different Air Force spots, we had never stayed at MacDill.

Now we have. The large campground boasts more than two hundred sites, most of which are reservable, some of which are first come first serve, but you’re dreaming if you think you can get any of those on short notice during the winter. They do, however, have overflow sites, by which I mean a grass field (with no services) where you can stay for $12 a night. It was fine, it was safe, it was convenient to our needs, and after working through the typical military gate security and campground administrative check in process (registration and insurance paperwork for the RV and tow vehicle mandatory) we settled in for a one night stay. Honestly, it’s a nice campground right on the bay, and should we have the opportunity for a real stay there, we will likely take it, but it just wasn’t working for us for a full weekend.

The only picture we have from MacDill AFB’s overflow camping site

So Saturday morning we left the base and headed north a bit to pick up the Tracker. Though our Fort Myers mechanic had not been able to get it started, he did a professional job of installing the engine, and Richard only charged us a small fee (less than two hours labor) for the additional adjustments and checks he conducted to get things running right.

We had reservations for the last week of February and the first half of March locked in, but this weekend was still a hole despite our usually successful hunt for cancellation created availability, so we drove five miles up the road to the nearest Cracker Barrel. Like many RVers, we have stayed at our share of big box parking lots, usually as a one night stop over along a planned route. While Walmarts and Home Depot’s are often just fine, we prefer Cracker Barrels: the restaurant chain has designated bus/RV parking, allows overnight campers (unless city ordnance prohibits) and usually feels a bit more secure than the big lot options. Water tanks full and batteries charged, we settled in for a two night stay, taking the opportunity to stock up and make preparations for our upcoming travels.

And thus ends our nearly two month tow vehicle drama. Next up: two more new state parks to close out February.

This is not exactly a glammer location shot, but we are so glad to have our little truck back.

W.P. Franklin Corps of Engineers Campground

Surprisingly, despite more than six years of full time RVing and hundreds of different campgrounds, until this February we had never stayed in a Corps of Engineers park. For a while I had it in my head that Midway Campground along Tamiami Trail in the Everglades was a COE place, but no, it’s run by the National Park Service. And now, after having actually stayed in a COE park, the differences between the two are stark. While Midway’s location is convenient and the surroundings quite natural, the reservation system, quality of sites, available services, and condition of facilities are well below that of a COE campground, particularly since, in this “compare and contrast” example, they are the same price.

First, a quick review of why we are camping in the area at all: it’s winter and this is Florida, our tow vehicle is still in the shop, Key West Naval Air Station Campground at Sigsbee remains closed, and there is an ongoing (and still raging) global pandemic so we won’t go to our crowded destinations for craft and farmers markets. With our desired region for this time period defined as a rough triangle between Lake Okeechobee, Port Charlotte, and Naples, we used AllStays.com, cross referenced to user review sites, to develop an expanded list of local RV park options, some of which had never previously appeared on our proposed campground radar. Normally we would also use Passport-America for this research, but these months are almost universally blacked out for the PA discount for participating parks in Florida.

Our efforts, loosely begun during the last weeks of our tenure at Periwinkle Park in Sanibel, intensified while at South Bay. Within our target triangle there were about 50 private RV resorts, most of which we dismissed as overly expensive, poorly reviewed, or inconveniently located, though we kept a few as part of our back up plan. Instead we focused on the handful of state parks, a couple of county options, and two COE properties: W.P. Franklin North and Ortona South, both on the Caloosahatchee River.

From this list we sought to secure sites using the appropriate online or phone systems, aiming for a minimum of three day stays, a week if possible. We are old hands at the Reserve America website, which handles reservations for thousands of federal, state, provincial and local government owned parks in North America, including all Florida State Parks. Though we have less exposure to the Recreation.gov system, which operates many federal properties including COE parks, we definitely gained experience and appreciation for it during this month’s reservation efforts. It has similar functionality and appearance to Reserve America’s website, but with a few features we found more convenient. The best aspect of the COE system over RA’s is the clear and unadulterated pricing: the final cost is “as listed,” with no extra reservation fees or taxes popping up during checkout.

After checking for cancellation generated availability multiple times every day at various state and COE spots, we managed to secure six days at W.P. Franklin, divided between two sites. What a fantastic park. The COE property straddles the Caloosahatchee River, the main westward outflow from Lake Okeechobee. W.P. Franklin exists due to a century old effort to make the Caloosahatchee navigable by commercial shipping from The Gulf to The Big Lake, back well before environmental concerns might constrain such a large scale engineering project. This meant not only dredging and straightening the winding river, but also putting in locks to control the lake level and freshwater flow due to the limited but discernable elevation change from Central Florida to the coast.

The COE property includes the southern shore day use area and lock, the northern shore campground and boat ramp, and a controlled flow damn between them. There is no public bridge to get across the river, even on foot, without going about five miles west, so plan your route accordingly. The northern section and campground is on an old river oxbow a dozen miles northeast of Fort Myers. It is a small park with only 30 sites, all electric and water only, but nearly all of them are waterfront. The low Florida elevation, proximity to The Gulf Coast, and lack of nearby vertical construction results in excellent sunset views for all.

Though close to Fort Myers, without a tow vehicle this place felt quite isolated, much more so than South Bay, for example. At the latter the bodegas and fast casual dining where but an easy one mile bike ride away. Here it was five miles just to get to a Shell gas station. We didn’t worry about that, because we didn’t worry about leaving the property, other than for evening walks. We satisfied ourselves with the abundant wildlife, fantastic sunsets, and peaceful mood generated by proximity to a quite, slow running river. We watched the gators and turtles, pier fishers and boaters, and herons and osprey. Rosemarie dared to even rise before dawn one morning to take in a sunrise, though it was obscured by heavy cloud cover.

As a result of our excellent experience at W.P. Franklin, we are absolutely sold on COE parks, and will include them as high priorities in our future travel planning, especially when back in Southwest Florida.

Back to Lake Okeechobee and South Bay While Awaiting Loki Repairs

For any given destination, we generally prioritize our campgrounds like so:

  1. Military Campgrounds
  2. State or County Parks we love or that come highly recommended
  3. Passport America Private Parks
  4. State or County Parks new to us
  5. Other Private Resorts
  6. Cracker Barrel or Walmart parking lots.

During our hectic tour of Southwest Florida this February we got to experience four of those six options, plus an entirely new category, during stays at eight different locations, with only private parks left out of the mix. Even for us “flexible” (i.e., often last minute) planners, this late winter jumping about is unusual. COVID continues to mess with our schedule (in past years we would likely still be in Key West) but this February’s game of musical campgrounds is more the result of ongoing drama with our Geo Tracker and the need to stay relatively local while awaiting completion of the engine rebuild and installation. Not knowing exactly when that would be forced us to continually seek out last minute options to remain in Southwest Florida.

PKM in her usual starting spot, on the dashboard, when we are on the road.

As we wrote in our January Report, Richard at Xtreme Zuks Offroad rebuilt an engine and even agreed to deliver it to our local mechanic in Fort Lauderdale, the place we had arranged for the Tracker to be towed the weekend after I blew the engine on Alligator Alley. While waiting for the thing to be installed and everything worked out we secured a week long reservation at South Bay RV Campground, the county park we discovered last November as a replacement for staying in Xavier and Joy’s driveway (which, if you recall past posts, was eliminated in 2019 by a visit from Coral Springs Code Enforcement.)

Without our tow vehicle, Loki, errands have to be done in the rig or by bike. Here we are dropping off books and videos at the Sanibel Library the morning of our departure from the island, bound for South Bay.

I remain a bit surprised that South Bay had week long, late notice reservations available for us twice this winter; it seems to defy my Law of Florida Winter Campground Reservations: affordable, available and local, pick any two. Seriously, if you had told me I could secure a last minute winter reservation for a week in South Florida (with full hook up services, in an attractive park with spacious sites, in a safe place) at just over $25 a night, I would have been quite skeptical. But we did. Twice.

After a few minutes on the dash, PKM demands her usual travel accommodations.

I suppose the main reason for this unexpected availability is the somewhat isolated nature of the specific location; sure it’s in South Florida, but unless you are a serious fan of boating on Lake Okeechobee, there are not many other reason for coming here. The region boasts a handful of small towns in the middle of farm and swamp land. There are no nearby beaches, major cities, or tourist destinations, and there are only so many locals likely to have snowbird relatives with RVs coming down for visits.

The pond between the two RV loops, complete with 6′ alligator.

Another likely reason for the unexpected availability: South Bay is West Palm Beach County owned and operated. During our more than six years full time RVing through 48 U.S. states and 5 Canadian provinces, we have found that county campgrounds are the “hidden gems” of RV parks, often not even known about by locals or considered by out of towners, which is why they are near the top of our list when researching options. This goes not just for new regions, but also for familiar areas where our usual places aren’t available, or when we want to change things up and try something new.

Out on our bikes along the dirt roads between agricultural plots

Now, not everything at South Bay is puppy-dog tails and glitter covered ponies. When researching the place back in November I ran across some reviews indicating that road noise was quite loud in the row of sites along US-27. Accordingly, during the phone reservation process I requested and received confirmation that we would be assigned a site other than that row, and we ended up with a great spot without significant road noise, at least none audible from inside the RV. I forgot this little nugget of knowledge when making our recent week long reservation, and we ended up in a site which thoroughly validated the noise complaints in those past reviews.

I would say that this place is one of Kitty Meow Meow’s favorites, but honestly, anywhere with warm sun, grass, and lizards is awesome for her. Throw in some particularly stupid chipmunks, moles, or mice, and you have heaven on earth for her.

If you examine the campground map, the even numbered sites between 76 and 88 along with 75 and 89, are the ones of concern, and for a week we were dead in the middle of that row. In all of those unfortunately positioned spots there is nothing more than a thin line of mangrove trees and bushes to cut the noise in the mere 100′ between the back of the site and US-27, which has a lot of large truck and tractor trailer traffic. We used head phones, ear plugs, television, and fan noise to alleviate things, but we were thrilled to move to the other loop for our two day extension at South Bay.

Our second spot this visit to South Bay. We could use a few more trees, but this is much quiter.

Without our tow vehicle we were a lot more limited than usual in our exploration of the area: there would be no geocaching or trips to Martin Tacos in nearby Belle Glade. We made the best of it with our feet and bikes. Miles of agricultural land, canals, and the big lake made for plenty of natural beauty, while a handful of nearby gas station bodegas and strip malls provided the essentials. Next up: our first Corps of Engineers park.

73 Months Fulltime RVing: January 2021 Report

The Distance: 99 miles. After two full months in Sanibel we began our meandering journey out of Florida with a westward run to South Bay, a small town with a county campground on the very southern shore of Lake Okeechobee. Obviously, our total for 2021 is also 99 miles. February will see a significant increase in our movement, but still all of it in the southern half of Florida.

This block of Southwest Florida was our home region for a big portion of 2020, and continues to be so for the first couple of months of 2021. The next few posts take mostly within this map as we linger in the area, partly because we love it, but also because Loki’s repair is taking a lot longer than we anticipated.

The Places: We spent most of the month at Periwinkle Park in Sanibel, one of our favorite places that we have visited many times, including the entire Spring of 2020 as we self isolated when the pandemic hit. We ended January at South Bay RV Campground, a county park we enjoyed for the first time back in November. This month we spent 27 days in a private park and 4 in a county campground, with full hook ups the entire month.

A small portion of Rosemarie’s shell haul from our latest two months on Sanibel. We did not have the best shelling conditions, and red tide effects made some days difficult to spend on the beach, but we made the best of it.

The Money: At 44% over budget for the month we are not, financially speaking, starting 2021 off well. Though we received our $600 per person stimulus checks, we also had to pay for the bulk of our tow vehicle’s engine rebuild. We did what we could to limit daily expenses, but it was not nearly enough to counteract the repair costs and our high RV resort fees (averaging nearly $50 a night despite the monthly discount at Periwinkle Park.)

We have enjoyed all of our sites at Periwinkle Park, but some more than others. January’s site was excellent.

You might think that the lack of a daily driver would help us limit our expenditures, and I am sure in some ways it did. But the need to rent a car for a few days to visit Rose’s family across the state and a couple of associated Lyft fees pretty much erased whatever savings that might have created.

The remnants of an American version of a folly castle on the Gulf Coast near The Ten Thousand Islands.

The Drama: Loki, our previously super reliable Geo Tracker, remained in the shop for an engine rebuild. Getting that done on any vehicle would be drama enough, but this particular job has turned out to be extra special: our Fort Myers mechanic could not locate a suitable engine block upon which to base the project! To his credit, he was dead accurate regarding how limited Tracker engine cores for our model are.

We have been trying to eat better this year, with particular focus on fresh and local ingredients. Sure, the pasta was basic Barilla thin spaghetti, but topped with fresh basil pesto, and local clams, garlic, and mushrooms it made for fine dining.

Luckily I found a Xtreme Zuks Offroad, a Suzuki Sidekick specialist (Trackers and Sidekicks were a joint project between Chevy and Suzuki during the ’90s) north of Tampa that had exactly one available engine block. The shop’s owner, Richard, agreed to do the engine rebuild, though rarity and specialist involvement meant it would be about 30% more than our Fort Myers man had expected. His shop is quite busy, so it took him a few weeks, but he not only finished the engine, he delivered it down to our Fort Myers mechanic himself. All’s well that ends well, right? Not this month it ain’t: after installation our Fort Myers guy could not get the tracker started, even after several days of extra effort and research. You will have to wait until a later post to read the final outcome.

Next up: A couple of inland campgrounds in Southwest Florida, including our first Core Of Engineers park.

72 Months Full Time RVing: December 2020 Report

The Distance:  Having arrived in Sanibel in late November and remained for the rest of the year, we had zero miles in December. Our total for 2020 was 3,536 miles, the lowest annual total in six years living and travelling in our RVs.

If you zoom in you can see what Rosemarie is pointing at… (or you can just wait until the next pic)

The Places:  Just one place, Periwinkle Park in Sanibel, which means 31 days in a private resort, with full hook ups the full time. We did several nights with Xavier and Joy in Coral Springs, but the RV was hooked up in Sanibel, so that is how I am doing the counting.

The Budget:  Oh my we completely blew the budget, finishing 86% over for the month. A big portion of that was the deposit our our new engine for the Tracker and the our portion of the tow fee, but that is only part of the problem A rough month for us financially, with January looking no better. Hopefully we can get back into some markets later this year, and we have resolved that January is the last month for a while during which we spend so much on campground fees. Time to reel it in!

The Drama and Improvements:  Oh boy. If you have read the last post, you already know the big, unfortunate news: I blew the engine on the tracker on Christmas Eve while driving across the Everglades on I-75. It is completely shot, and our choices are either buy a new (used) car, or install a rebuilt engine into the Tracker. After consultation and some research, we opted for the latter, and just hope it will not be too long of a process.

One full window completely removed.

We also worked on our windows, specifically the two large windows on the big slide in the living room, both of which have started leaking. After several youtube videos and other helpful walk throughs, I removed both windows completely and resealed them with butyl tape and caulk. It appears to have worked; we have not seen any further evidence of leaking.

Before cleaning, I found obvious gaps in the old butyl gasket tape.

I also took the opportunity to scrub the blinds and then restring one of them. For those that have not had the pleasure, these type of stringed blinds rely on tension created friction to hold the blind position, and the strings involved get worn over time and eventually break. The process of restringing them entails taking them down, apart, and installing new string in the exact right crisscrossing pattern. I did my first one years ago, and at the time bought the large spool of string rather than “just enough” for that job. This has paid off because to date I have restrung seven of the nine blinds in our rig.

Not too long after I first broke down, well before I realized it would be seven hours before a tow truck’s arrival.