Through New Mexico into Arizona: First Week in Tucson

After our three day stay at Balmorhea State Park, we picked up the pace and sprinted to the West Texas border and into New Mexico.  I-10 in Texas is 880 miles long, so it is almost a relief to finally cross into a new state.  We pulled over just across the New Mexico line to eat lunch and do a bit of research via Gas Buddy on where exactly to fuel up and finalize where we would stay the night.  Unlike many a day during our first year fulltiming, it was nice to pull into a rest area for something mundane rather than due to mechanical problems.

Knowing we would have a tight budget this month, we decided to save a few bucks with a one night parking lot stay at a Walmart in Las Cruces before continuing on to Arizona. We had just topped off the gas so had plenty to spare for the big generator, allowing us to run the AC until the cool desert evening made things comfortable.

The next morning we pushed deep into Arizona, stopping at Davis-Monthan AFB’s Agave Gulch Family Campground in Tucson.  The RV park here is another great deal: $20 a night for full 50 amp hook ups with sewage, free park wide wife (better than “RV Park average” but still slow or unavailable at times), very well maintained facilities and all the amenities that a big military base provides.  We also used one of our free night certificates from the Air Force Frequent Camper Program we had purchased late last year.

The scenery is about as nice as you can make a desert military base, with extra care having gone into the landscaping, and the interesting view of the aircraft bone yard nearby.  Hundreds of retired military planes stripped of components, windows and entry points covered in plastic, slowly degrading in the hot desert air, surrounded by cactus and other desert flora.

The length of our Tucson stay would be largely dependent on our ability to gain vendor access to the local farmer and artisan markets.  After our success in San Antonio we had finally found enough forward planning space to seek events along our route.  While still in Texas we submitted email and online application requests to three different market managers, but did were not accepted in time to participate in anything the weekend of our arrival.  We made the best of it and scoped out one of those events on Easter morning to get a feel how we might do there.

We finally received approval for a couple of markets the following weekend, and had to make a tough decision about whether to linger in Tucson a full week.  Since we were still waiting on Rosemarie’s passport and she would be flying out of Phoenix a few days after that market weekend, we chose to extend.

While killing time there we took advantage of all the great outdoor hiking and cultural activities.  Haha, just kidding, Tucson in late April is freaking hot!  The sun just blazing down on you all day, temps in the 90s with limited shade, so we just tried to keep cool while turning our stay here into a “working port” rather than a “liberty port.”

Rosemarie did a thorough cleaning of Serenity’s interior, reorganized all of our jewelry displays and finished items, and spent the rest of her waking hours creating a a slew of knew offerings.  I repaired part of our damaged awning, changed the water filter, cleared a clogged line, started the insurance claim process to replace our cracked windshield, fixed our leaking potable water hose, finally installed our new shower head, cleaned our AC inlet filters, did our taxes (on the last day, of course) caught up the blog, cleaned out the heating vents, and bathed the cat.  Yeah I know how they are supposed to be a self cleaning item, but our odd kitty loves to roll in the sand.

Late on Friday afternoon we headed south towards Ranch Sahuarita for the early evening market run by Food In Root.  We met with manager Tim who got us set up on the manicured lawn of the resort.  Along with roughly 20 vendors we had a small but steady stream of potential buyers, and ended up doing quite well.  I have developed a loose “profit margin happiness scale” ranging from depressed and on up through disappointed, grudgingly satisfied, content, happy, excited, to ecstatic.  This one cleared happy by a comfortable margin.  We spoke with Tim about other markets his organization runs, and we have the option of coming back next weekend for a couple of those events.  I plan on being in Phoenix then, but if we don’t get accepted at markets there I might just back track while Rosemarie is out of town.

That same Friday Rosemarie came down with some sort of bug resulting in cold sweats, shivers, general discomfort and the like.  She soldiered on through the evening market, but the next morning was in no condition for that day’s event.  Not a problem; she had prepped everything, it was all loaded and ready in Loki, and I had done one event without her in Key West last year.  So early Saturday I headed north to Sabino Canyon to participate in the market at Three Canyon Beer and Wine Garden run by Art Lounge Productions.

Market Manager Janna settled us in and assigned us a spot in between a baked goods chef and an organic tea vendor.  It started extremely slow, and more than an hour in to the four hour event I was not sure we would even clear the $25 table fee.  Fortunately we had a last hour rush that saw me still selling things 20 minutes after the market technically ended, so we ended up nicely into a “content” result for the day.

That’s our eight day stay at Davis-Monthan AFB.  The remaining week of April is still mostly in the TBD category: the only things we know for certain is our shift over to the wonderful Gilbert Ray County Park just outside Saguaro National Park and Tuesday appointment to get our windshield fixed.  After that I know we will be driving up to Phoenix for Rosemarie’s Wednesday morning flight, but whether I stay there or return to Tucson while she is in Florida will, as I mentioned earlier, depend on what markets, if any, we get accepted to in Phoenix.

Are you quicker on the uptake than I am? A surprise in Balmorhea State Park, TX

After extending our stay in San Antonio far longer than we anticipated, we resolved to push west hard, all the way to Balmorhea State Park.  This would be a 375 mile jaunt; at least six hours of drive time given our 68 mph comfortable interstate speed.  This is significantly longer than our preferred 250 mile, four hour drive.

It’s worth a separate post to talk about why we don’t travel like young people in cars doing 10 or 12 hours or even pushing through the night.  The short answer is that driving a big RV is far more tiring.  Our’s weighs more than ten tons, is two feet wider than a car, with Loki in tow is about 50 feet long, takes a lot longer than a car to stop, wallows sickly, and has such a massive sail area that gusts of wind really shove us around.  And the cat gets sick.

Anyway, having put ourselves in the mindset to make an extended drive, we left mid to late morning, took a half hour break at a rest stop to make lunch, and arrived at the park in the early evening.  But all that was preceded by a couple of odd phone calls with the park staff and reservation desk.  I had made reservations for a two night stay starting Monday.  Once we realized that the weekend markets in San Antonio would be all day affairs, we decided to slide the reservation back a day to arrive on Tuesday.

So I called and the park office, who asked if I wanted to slide both my reservations?  What?  They indicated I had two spots secured.  Confused I told them I only needed one and to please cancel the second, assuming it had been a case of internet lag causing me to hit the enter key on the final acceptance page of the online reservation system more than once.

We arrived at the park after the office was closed, but found our name on the check in list with a site assignment, maneuvered through the park counting down the numbers, only to see a women in an electric green shirt waving us around and directing us to pull wide to the right and come at the spot form the other side.  Park host no doubt.  Energetic woman, grey hair in a short bob.  Looked familiar.  Looked like this:

Yep, stepmom Marcia was waving us in, Dad a few steps behind looking on.  This was totally unplanned by either of us.  We had both selected the same Texas state park for a brief stopover during our westward trips, and had even initially reserved the exact same days.  Since I am a “junior” with the same first middle and last name as Dad, when I called to slide mine back, they assumed the two reservations were both mine, and I ended up cancelling one of them.

When they arrived (a day before us since I had pushed ours back a day) they sorta figured it out, but weren’t a hundred percent sure it was me rather than someone else with the same first and rare last name.  In any case, it worked out great: having resolved to try a bit harder to RV together this year, we managed to spend a day in a campground together without even trying.

Balmorhea State Park was on our intended visit list in 2015 before our first significant roadside breakdown in Big Bend National Park altered our plans.  This was a great make up opportunity, positioned close enough to I-10 to be convenient for our westward sprint.  The park itself is fantastic: Built by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930s, it is a smallish, 44 acre park centered on a major natural freshwater spring that they converted into a huge free flowing pool before the water continues on to irrigation fields.

In addition to the fantastically clear, chlorine free swimming and diving, the grounds are teaming with interesting and in some cases rare animal life.  Roadrunners all over the place in the morning, some small quail like species everywhere, more rabbits than you thought possible in such a small area, pupfish and headwater catfish in the pool and streams, large soft shell mud turtles, coot, etc etc.  You could spend all day wandering the grounds, especially near the cienegas, or desert wetlands, and not get bored.

Pad Kee Meow was particularly taken with this park since the rabbits seemed to have so little self preservation instinct; like with the ground squirrels in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, had it not been for her harness and leash there would have been a rabbit bloodbath at our campsite.  Between the rabbits, the only slightly more careful road runners, and the slew of small wrens nesting in the eaves of our shade structure, kitty was in alert mode and begging to be outside as much as we would let her.

We enjoyed our second day so much we extended for another, which is sort of an unofficial rule we have developed for travel this year: if it’s a destination, stay at least three days, preferably even longer.  In 2015 we did a lot of two day stops, and it is really difficult to enjoy even a limited geographic area at that pace.  This year we are doing a lot more “sprint and stop” stuff, i.e., running hard with single day stops until we get to a nice place, then stopping for a week or so.  Once we get to the West Coast, we will have to reassess the travel pattern since there are a LOT of places we want to visit.

After a relaxing third day at Balmorhea, we got back on the road and continued our sprint west, aiming for Tucson.  And thanks to Marcia for the first four pictures in this post, as well as this one:

From Florida to Texas: Fort Sam Houston RV Campground, San Antonio.

We put in over a thousand miles in March, but much of that involved crisscrossing Florida while visiting family and friends.  This month we truly head west and put a lot of miles on the odometer in the process.  Following our unexpected extended stay in Pensacola, we cruised across the Florabama border and passed right through Alabama and Mississippi before stopping for one night in Farr Equestrian Center Park in Baton Rouge, LA.

I had gotten a bit mixed up during my research, and had mistakenly included this very well reviewed park in my short list of very affordable options like the Passport America participants I was comparing.  It was not.  At $35 a night it is pretty steep for a county park, but it was very nice, with views of the pastures and horses from our site.

The only downside is the difficulty in finding someone to make payment to during the weekend, especially since they lock the electrical junction boxes during low demand periods.  This park would be ideal for anyone needing an RV park near the LSU campus, but make sure to call ahead and sort out the payment and access to electricity during standard week day business hours.  Lastly, don’t be put off by the google directions: yes, you will pass through some smaller streets and over a pretty hefty railroad track swale, but it will get you there.

We left after one day and continued along I-10 with a stop in Lafayette to get what Gas Buddy suggested was about the cheapest gas in the country ($1.89/gallon at the time) before plowing onward.  We were aiming for a Passport America park on the far side of Houston, but Mother Nature had other plans.  Light drizzle turned into rain which turned into a maelstrom forcing us off the road at a random exit.  We waited for it to abate while looking at our options for a revised night stop close to our current spot.

Finding no cheap RV park options, we eased ten miles up the road during a rain break to the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel in Baytown, TX.  The spot was just big enough that we could fit the rig with Loki still attached.  For you non-RVers: several store and restaurant chains allow overnight RV parking: most Super Walmarts, Home Depots, Lowes, Cabellas, K-Marts, Flying Js, and surprisingly, Cracker Barrels.

We settled in for the night before pushing on to San Antonio the next morning.  Originally planning to use one of our Air Force Frequent Camper Program free night certificates at Lackland AFB, when we learned they were full we shifted plans and secured three nights at Fort Sam Houston.  You here that?  Three nights.  That was the plan.  We’ll circle back around to that down post.

So we connected at the spacious, pull through, full hook up site on a concrete pad to relax for a couple of days after our hard push west through wind and rain.  The base is huge.  Not huge in the way that say, Arnold Air Force Base is with its few people and thousands of acres of woods.  I mean a large chunk or property filled with soldiers, sailors, and airman, buildings everywhere, confusing roads, schools for the kids, and something like five different Exchange posts.  We got lost a couple of times, but the upside was it felt like the safest place on earth:  in the heart of Texas, on a big military installation filled with battalions of troops.

While there we did the obligatory trip to The Alamo.  Seems like they had great rental options, but we will stick with Thrifty.  Hah!  No, we went to the mission and gave ourselves a self guided tour.  The place is well organized for tourists to gain an appreciation for the nature of the siege and battle, and the grounds are gorgeous.

I could have done without the holier-than-thou response from one of the period actors I interacted with though.  After reading part of the letter from Bowie to Houston in which he expected an imminent attack, and that it would come “by land” I asked the actor if this was some sort of gallows humor on the part of Jim.  He replied something along the lines of “I don’t think anyone was making jokes at a time like that.”  Oh please, get over yourself, the dark humor in the letter gave me greater admiration for the event, not less.

Without meaning to we also stumbled across the city’s amazing Riverwalk, one of the nicer versions of such a thing I have seen in our travels.  The part we explored appeared to be a diverted loop from the San Antonio river, with elevated platforms and shops on each side, periodic arched pedestrian bridges, and even tour boats cruising the narrow channel.

Anyway, remember that three day stay we paid for?  Shortly after our arrival we discovered that blog acquaintances Dan and Lisa of Always On Liberty were in the park.  And then we found a bunch of weekend farmers markets that, on a whim, we applied for and were quickly accepted to as vendors.  The combination was enough to make us extend through the weekend.  We had evening cocktails with Dan and Lisa nearly every night along with two excellent meals (one out: Southerleigh, just outstanding, and one in: Lisa’s experimental work with her new air fryer, fried chicken without the oil!)

We were accepted as vendors by two conflicting events, and chose to participate in the Saturday and Sunday Legacy Farmers Market just 20 minutes up the road from the base. Manager Shari was very helpful and accommodating, and generally runs a laid back but successful set of markets.  Unlike some FM managers, she doesn’t require a seasonal commitment, doesn’t assign spaces, keeps the table fee very low ($10), and is apparently flexible enough to not worry about her long term vendors skipping a day or two to take advantage of other monthly or annual sales opportunities.

We walked into the market with a sales goal that would leave us satisfied, and a higher one that would make us happy.  Saturday was better than Sunday, but averaging out the two days, call us happy with results that hit right at the average for our scores of markets during the last year.  A nice result considering we didn’t expect to have any sales options at all in Texas.

Having basically “worked” the weekend (five hour market, set up an hour early, drive time, damn, its basically like having a job!) on Monday morning we chose to extend one more day.  We desperately needed to do laundry, stock up at the commissary, prep Serenity for the long drive, and spend one more evening with Dan and Lisa.

The hardest part was the one day extension:  the RV office is very accommodating, but they seem to be dealing with a lot of cancellations and no shows, but assume “worst case” as far as site availability goes.  We had observed the strange process when we extended from three to five and then again to seven nights, and for this final extension we actually had to move sites.  No problem for us; the move would serve to get us ready for the real journey a day later, but it was disconcerting to move, and then watch as the spot we vacated stayed empty the entire day and night.

There its, a deluge of posts, more than one a day this week, and we are basically caught up.  Next up, a big surprise in West Texas.

27 Months Fulltiming: March 2017 Report

Just three days ago we were a month behind, but after a flurry of posts we have cut that down to two weeks.  Progress!

The Distance: 1,060 miles as we meandered our way from Key West to Pensacola, pretty much the entire length and breadth of the state.  Since we barely moved in January and February, our 2017 total is only 1,062 miles.

There were several side trips, route alterations, gas fill ups, and a bit of backtracking that resulted in about 50 more miles than this route map shows.

The Places:  For the first eleven days of the month we continued our lengthy winter stayover at Sigsbee Park, Naval Air Station, Key West, before finally leaving after the March yard and craft sale.  From there we made our way through southeast Florida with a run up to Cutler Bay to visit friends and then on to Coral Springs to see Xavier and Joy.  A few days later we crossed over to the Gulf Coast to see Bill and Gloria in Venice before moving back northeast to Mount Dora and Trimble Park.  We finally began to truly work our Western Route Plan by shooting though Gaineseville into the panhandle, stopping for one night at Beaver Lake RV Campground in Quincy before pushing on to Oak Grave and then Anchor Cove campgrounds in Pensacola.

Family gathering in Venice for St Patrick’s Day

We spent 19 days in military campgrounds, 7 in parking lots, driveways, or storage areas, 3 in public campgrounds (county), and a grand total of a single night at a private park.  We dry camped for 3 days, had at least partial hook ups for 22, and stayed with family for 6.   The one night we had in a private park was on the Passport-America discounted rate.

The Budget:  Oh man, we completely blew the budget this month, almost entirely because we needed to take care of some issues with Serenity before beginning our big western adventure.  That meant over a grand poured into the rig to make us safe and fully functional for the coming Spring and Summer travel season.  This left us 40% over budget for the month!  And that is despite making some minor market sales and keeping things tight in other areas, e.g., our campground fees averaged only $16 a day this month.

At The Neives’ house: wine for us, grapes for Lisa

Fortunately we were way under budget in January and February, so the year is not looking to bad, only 2% over for the quarter.  The problem is that April is tax time, we will really bump up the gas expenditures from now until the fall, and we plan to get significant dental work done in Mexico, which may be cheap but will add up.  Gonna have to tighten those belts in the coming months!

The Drama and the Improvements:  As alluded to above, we completed our phased replacement of the old motorhome tires with the purchase of three new ones.  These aren’t little car tires you can get for $70, these are big ole honking truck/rv tires that cost over $200 each plus installation and disposal fees.  At least they aren’t as bad as the even larger bus tires we had to buy for The Big Kahuna. In addition, we had a small mechanics bill to help sort out our last electrical issue, and we purchased two new deep cycle house batteries since the old ones were done.

Here are our monthly reports for the year so far:

And here are our 2016 and 2015 annual summaries, each of which have embedded links to the individual monthly reports from those years.

We Turn West: Blue Angel Recreation Area, Pensacola, FL

Last post I offered up two competing route plans for our 2017 adventures; one that took as back west like in 2015, the other east like in 2016, but left it unanswered as to which we chose to execute.  The answer is “The West” plan.

After departing Mount Dora we headed north to visit cousin Robb, Colleen, and the twins, Maeve and Nola.  Unfortunately I misunderstood their Spring Break plans and we were unable to connect since they were not even in Gainesville.  Promising to catch them in the fall, we simply accelerated our departure by a couple of days and turned northwest towards the panhandle, researching a one night Passport-America stopping point on the fly.  We made it as far as Quincy, just passed Tallahassee, for a stay at Beaver Lake RV Park, a no frills place conveniently located just off I-10.  Full hook ups in a grass field for $20, not too shabby for Florida in the early spring.  If I had more time to research we would have aimed for Pat Thomas Park just a few miles further off of the interstate, but with near perfect five star reviews and only $15 a night.

The next day we pushed on to Pensacola, planning to stay at the Blue Angel Naval Recreation Area with our Key West friends Bob and Michelle.  Unfortunately I had misjudged the season and assumed they would have sites available without reservation.  Wrong!  We had to do some scrambling, but ended up at another military campground, Oak Grove, a few miles up the road,  We got their last full hook up spot, but at $27 a night it was a bit more than we are used to paying for military campgrounds.  It was, however, a great location, with decent amenities and a very short walk along the boardwalk to a nice beach.

The elusive Pensacola Beach Cat

The next morning we went back to Blue Angel having gone through the reservation process like we should have done in the first place.  Blue Angel actually has two RV campgrounds: Anchor cove, which is heavily wooded, provides power and water only, and is on compact dirt/gravel sites, or Battleship Row which is a bit less wooded and offers either full hook up or electric and water only sites, most on concrete pads.  Bob and Michelle were in Anchor Cove, and at $15 vs the $23 a night charge, we were happy to join them there.  They had scoped us out a great site just across from theirs, and we pulled in late morning ready for a solid three day stay.

Neither Bog, Michelle, nor anything in their home has color: only the OJ we brought over relieved the black and white environment.

Remember those plans we wrote up last post, especially “The West” option?  There is a saying in the military that the first casualty of battle is “the plan,” and between Gainesville and Pensacola is where our’s began to need, shall we say, serious adjustment.   First, having selected the western route, we decided to take advantage of the very, very affordable yet ostensibly high quality dental care available in Los Algodones, Mexico.  But someone, and I wont say who (except that their name rhymes with Hosemarie) had procrastinated getting a new passport after his or her old one had expired.  This meant emergency applications with additional expedite and overnight delivery fees and an adjustment of our westward sprint.

Our site at Anchor Cove

Before I move on to other factors that had us adjusting our schedule, let me say how much of a pain in the ass the US passport application and renewal process can be, and hopefully save someone some trouble.  First, we googled passport application locations, which took us to a post office.  (We did this in our RV, with Loki hooked up, on our first day in Pensacola before we even checked into the campground.)  They told us that only certain USPS offices do passports, they weren’t one of them, and pointed us to another office.  That office informed us that yes indeed, they would be glad to process it, once we had made an appointment, which was not available until next week.  BUT, they pointed us downtown to the courthouse were we could get it done easily since they had, like, six full time passport people.  So we manuevered Serenity, Loki in tow, through some narrow streets in downtown Pensacola only to find that the court house (with one employee working this issue) does not do passport renewals, only initial issues.  The bottom line is this: don’t go to the post office or courthouse at all, just print out the forms from the online website, get your photo taken at a CVS, and submit the whole thing yourself.

Well, at least we got to see the courthouse.

OK, back to route plan revisions:  My Dad and Stepmom Marcia are also full time RVers and they too are working a western route for 2017.  In 2015 and 2016 we had been unable to coordinate a joint RV venture despite occasionally being within striking distance.  I think this was because we were all new enough to full time RVing and wanted to work our plans, and not be subject to the fluid demands of others.  But in late 2016, beginning with our joint stay at Wekiva Falls followed by their visit to Key West, I think we had sort of mutually decided to make a bit more effort in 2017.

Our site at Oak Grove

So a couple of days after we checked in to Blue Angel, I thought to ask about the ability to sponsor friends and family in the park, something just not possible in the ultra high demand Key West Naval Air Station.  We got a green light, I called Dad, who was at the time headed for the panhandle anyway, and after some negotiation they cancelled an existing reservation and pushed on to Pensacola.  They flexed their schedule by skipping past some central panhandle locations, and we flexed ours by extending our three day stay to a full week.

Lambert’s Throwed Rolls and Fried Chicken

So we had about four days to hang out with Bob and Michelle, who showed us around town and across the FL_AL boarder for a meal at the world famous Lambert’s, home of the throwed rolls.  We have been to our share of what I’ll call “Southern Comfort Food” type restaurants, and this is near the top.  A ridiculously large amount of food because pretty much every entree is a big portion that comes with two hefty sides, and then top that off with the constant “pass arounds,” an assortment of additional sides that the wait staff brings around in unlimited buckets, except for the freshly baked yeast rolls, which are, as you might have guessed, thrown to you.  And even with that amount of food, they don’t bat an eye at giving you a take out box that you can fill with those pass arounds for your next several meals at home.

Waiving for the Throwed Roll Guy at Lambert’s

Dad and Marcia arrived and we had three days to hang out with them, enjoying several fine group meals, a lot of wine, and a few hours at the truly impressive Naval Aviation Museum on the base.

Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola

Eventually it was time for all of us to move on: we were still sorting out our revised schedule but wanted to sprint through the south at least as far as New Mexico before slowing down, and they had reservations in Alabama and Mississippi.  Though we would be a bit ahead of them on the westward march, we figured there would just might be additional opportunities for us to RV together down the road.

Dad and Marcia at sunset in Pensacola

Our 2017 Route Plan

During our third winter in Key West we developed a rough plan for our 2017 travels.  You may recall that in 2015 we made a 15,000 mile clockwise tour of mainly the west half of the country, hampered by four months worth of mechanical delays and the limitations that come with not having a tow vehicle for most of the year.

In 2016 we did the opposite: a 10,000 mile counter clockwise tour of the east half of the country with but a couple of days of mechanical delays and aided by a great little tow vehicle, our 1997 Geo Tracker, Loki.

We really loved both of those years, and longed to get back to all of those fantastic spots that had given us the most joy while discovering new ones as well. A second trip through any region would allow us to skip over some areas, spend more time in our favorites, and catch those places we had simply not had time for during our somewhat rushed first two years.

In the west, we really wanted to return to California and the four national parks we had missed as a result of The Big Kahuna’s ongoing issues, to explore more of Washington State, to revisit Idaho’s Salmon River, and cut back down into Utah and Colorado to see four National Parks we had missed there as well. We roughed out a plan like this:

  • March: meandering exit from Key West to Gainesville visiting family and friends
  • Late March – early April: Sprint across the country to Southern California
  • Late April – June: work our way up the west coast to north Washington state
  • July and August: Work east through Idaho into Montana and the Dakotas
  • September: cut back south west into Utah and Colorado
  • October: sprint east to Iowa before turning south towards Florida
  • November: Arrive in Florida for family and friend visits throughout the state
  • December: Get back to Key West for another winter.

In the east, we had loved Maine so much we wanted to spend half a summer there again, and had been so surprised by Michigan, especially the Upper Peninsula that we had visions of spending the second half of the summer there, broken up only by a bit more time in New Hampshire and Vermont and some excursions into Canada. We made a back of the envelope plan along these lines:

  • March: the same meandering exit from Key West to Gainesville as “The West” plan
  • April – early May: work our way up the east coast all the way to Maine.
  • Late May – June: Maine, especially Bar Harbor region, but other areas as well
  • Early July: New Hampshire and Vermont
  • Late July – August:  Michigan Upper Peninsula
  • September: The Dakotas and east Montana
  • October: Sprint back to Florida by way of Iowa
  • November: Back in Florida just like “The West” plan.
  • December: Back to Key West

The plans are basically the same though March and also in November and December, but radically different April though October.  A few pros for each:

  • The West allows us to make up for those four months in 2015 that we spent in mechanic shops
  • The West takes us to a lot more National Parks
  • The West is actually less weather risky, seeing as how we depart the true North earlier
  • The East is far easier from a mileage perspective
  • The East allows longer stays in our key preferred areas
  • The East has enough slop built in for Canada trips

Cost wise its hard to tell.  The Northeast is pretty expensive, but so is California.  The West has more BLM and other public land allowing you to boondock cheap, but the gas expenditures will be much higher with so many more miles to drive.  Anyway, we made a decision.  For those that don’t already know, our next post should make it clear.

With the end of winter, we begin our 2017 travels through the US, starting with family and friend stops in Florida

As of this writing we are exactly one month behind on the blog.  Travesty!  And made worse so by my frequent promises to catch up!  So let’s do catch up by almost two weeks right now.

We faced but one short delay on the road to Cutler Bay: this guy would not get out of the way until Rosemarie got out of the RV and scared him away.

After our 73 day stay in Key West, we departed in March, making a one day stop in Cutler Bay (a score miles south of Miami proper) to visit the Nieves.  They again arranged for us to parking lot camp in their subdivision’s club house area for a night.  We enjoyed a great meal together, and hope we get to see them all again sooner than our return to Florida in the fall.

Our parking lot spot at the Nieves’ club house: not bad for dry camping!

From there it was a short run up to Coral Springs for three days at Xavier and Joy’s, with Serenity parked in their just-long-enough driveway.  We had a comfortable few days in an actual house with cable TV and unlimited Netflix, you know, all those first world amenities we missed in The Keys.  I continued my quest to find all the nearby areas of geocaches, and we had a visit from our Miami Beach friend Alex, who drove up to see us after work one evening.  Perhaps most importantly, we were finally able to visit a bridal store for Rosemarie to select a bridesmaid dress for our friend Roseann’s July wedding.

PKM “making friends” with the Nieves’ hamster.  What could possibly go wrong?

Then it was across Alligator Alley and up the Gulf Coast to Venice.  Gloria and Bill found us a place to stash Serenity: an RV park right across the street fronting their subdivision that let us park the rig (no hook ups) for less than $4 a night. While there we got to visit with Jerry and niece Laura (boyfriend in tow) and Bill’s daughter Bobbi and Steve for a big St Patrick’s day meal.  We had Puerto Rican style food, as is traditional.

St Pat’s meal at Bill & Gloria’s

While there we took Gloria on a spree through several local thrift shops, and we finally resolved our sporadic 12V issues by replacing both of the deep cycle house batteries.  We pretty much blew our budget this month as a result of significant motorhome related expenses.  Three new tires, house batteries, and a minor mechanic bill really added up despite our frugality in other areas.  Ah well, there is always April.  Oh wait, taxes…

We pulled out our very best jewelry for the occasion…

One very disturbing aspect of our visit: there has been a change in rules regarding Pad Kee Meow’s roaming area.  Whereas previously “Grandma” let kitty have the run of the enclosed pool deck area, now she has to be supervised because Gloria has partially tamed two enole lizards by feeding them tiny grub worms she found in a bad papaya.  Yes, this happened.  She fed one of them so much it fell over on its side in a food coma for a couple of hours.  PKM is most displeased by this new state of affairs.

A barely supervised tour of the pool deck.

We left with their usually insistence that we take a bunch of food and other sundries with us; this time it was a container of bacalaito (cod fish fritter) mix, a couple of big freezer bags filled alcapurrias, pasteles, empenadas (come on, you know what those are, right?)  Bill contributed a huge helping of his home made cole slaw, Italian soup from Amores Restaurant, and a bottle of horseradish.  Loaded for bear, or at least able to feed them, we continued north.

Another fantastic spot at Trimble Park

From Venice it was back to Central Florida and four days in one of our favorite places, Trimble Park near Mount Dora.  Our departure date and itinerary to this point had been driven by my Mom and Stepdad’s (Tim) trip to Florida from their home in North Carolina.  Down for Tim’s daughter’s wedding near Jacksonville, the pushed further south once those festivities were complete.  We even convinced them to stay one night with us in the RV, a first, but hopefully not a last.

Mom & Tim by the fire at Trimble.

Mount Dora is within convenient striking distance of much of my Florida family, which we took advantage of with a big dinner at Aunt Judy’s with son Jackson, mom, Tim, Uncle Bill, and cousin Brian.   We missed seeing Uncle Bob and Aunt Terri this round, so next fall we’ll make that a priority.

The dock near our site at Trimble

So that’s it, now we’re less than three weeks behind.  Next post: Our route plan for 2017.

One of those “bears” for which we were prepared.

Our Key West 2017 Winter Part Three: Visitors and Geocaching

The Visitors:  We have an open invitation to family and friends to come camp with us wherever we are, but with our continual movement and uncertain itinerary, it is difficult for people to make plans to see us on the road.  Key West, however, is different: it’s reasonably close to a lot of our Florida people, it is a desirable location to visit, and we are there long enough to allow actual vacation planning.

Dad & Marcia

We started off the season with The Nieves Clan spending a weekend with us, just as they have during our past FL Keys stays.  Goddaughter Kai used to be able to sleep on the folded back driver’s seat of our first two motorhomes, leaving more room for the adults and older girls.  But with everyone growing so fast we are quite thankful that our latest rig has easy sleeping accommodations for six, so its just a bit of a stretch to make four adults and three kids work out.

Us and the Nieves Girls

Dad and Stepmom Marcia came down in February to stay a few days as well.  Marcia had not been to the FL Keys, so this was a great opportunity for us all to be together and for them to enjoy a new spot.  They are full time RVers with their own rig, but because the Naval Air Station’s RV parks are full of retired and active military people during the winter we were unable to sponsor them here like we can in less popular military campgrounds, so they just drove the truck down and stayed with us in Serenity.

One of Marcia’s pics from The Dry Tortugas

They also did something we have yet to do: they took the high speed ferry out to Dry Tortugas National Park.  It just was not in the budget for us to join them on that journey this year, but their absolute rave reviews convinced us it needs to be a priority next winter.  And not just for a day trip, we look forward to doing what they did and staying overnight in a tent for the amazing stars, waves of nocturnal hermit crabs, and bioluminescent creatures in the fort’s mote.

Another Marcia pic

Geocaching:  Rosemarie and I have been geocaching for a few years, finding hundreds of caches in 43 states plus the UK so far, but we have never been out caching with other fanatics.  The closest we ever came to that was a meet up with Ken and Ginny in Sanibel, fellow RVer’s who were at the time volunteers at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the owners of about a third of the caches on the Island.

Early in our latest stay at Key West, however, Bob from Michigan coordinated a meet and greet for all the fellow cachers staying at Sigsbee Park.  We had about 20 people show up, some of whom we had met but did not know were cachers, some who were completely new to us, and even a couple of people who had never cached but came out of curiosity. The end result, aside from an enjoyable evening of trading stories, was a nascent group of, er, group cachers.

In the following months we would coordinate gatherings of thee to eight people exploring the lower keys cache environment.  Man, geocaching is so different in groups! We took newbies Stan and Steve around, locking them into this new obsession.  Rusty coordinated day long adventures as far as Big Pine Key, highlighted by our short hike out to the Rock House, a lower keys land mark.

And I managed to get my first ever “First To Find” cache after Bob led me through the process of setting up email alerts for new caches in anticipation of his new one on a mangrove island off Dredger Key.  Once I got the email alert that the cache was up, I borrowed Bob’s kayak, toted it down to the water and paddled furiously the full mile to the island, smart phone barely responding to the demands of my wet fingers, wrapped as it was in a plastic bag, to secure the find.

One more pic from Marcia

We cached by car, van, bike, kayak, and foot all winter.  For me the final result was an entirely “cleared” island, having found all 51 on Key West plus dozens more northward.  We really look forward to more events like this next winter, and possibly even finding something along these group caching lines during our spring, summer, and fall travels.

Our Key West 2017 Winter Part Two: Parties and Markets

Today we continue our Key West close out started last post, the final section of which focused on food, which is a nice segue into the starting subject of this post:

The Parties:  Sigsbee Park has an unending social scene, one that has become increasingly insistent as we have become more connected, especially via the Sigsbee Shufflers facebook page.  Where to even begin?  Since the FL Keys are all about the water, afternoon floats seems like a good spot.  I don’t know how this became a thing, but through the seasons a growing number of Sigsbee RVers began to gather in makeshift flotillas of rafts, kayaks, and other sundry floating objects.  (Insert your own Cuban migrant joke if you must, we sure did.)  I think the peak was our over-sized gathering near the end of the season, as pictured here.  It sucks you in: I expected to spend an hour or two at most in the water, and yet we ended up there all day.

Of course the pride and joy of the Sigsbee social season is the more than monthly shuffles: roaming afternoon parties that drift from one designated host to another.  They have gotten so popular that the Navy MWR masters who run the campground felt the need to step in and manage it with a sign up list and 40 person max participation: something about hordes of drunken retirees staggering around the base, cocktails in hand, hit a liability nerve I assume. Either that or it started to looked like a Walking Dead scene once the sun went down.

Anyway, after thoroughly enjoying a five stop shuffle in January, we got bold and volunteered to be a host at the next one.  And then Rosemarie left town to visit relatives, leaving me with sole responsibility.  I, of course, consulted my extensive collection of Martha Stewart Living magazines on how to throw the best high brow shuffle ever, got overwhelmed and decided to just go with a still ambitious offering of watermelon rum punch and jalapeno-pigs-in-a-blanket-poppers.  Even this became too complicated and so I completely punted: four boxes of margherita mix, cheap tequila and carry out pizzas for all my friends!  It was a hit, regardless.

We also loved International Day, in which Bonnie and Roger hosted all comers at a pot luck dinner in which everyone brought an internationally oriented dish or drink of their choice.  There must have been a hundred of us there, a truly successful party by any measure.

This list could go on for far too long, so just a couple of more events from the season: Eddie and Tina hosted a wine tasting of sorts.  The rules: every couple brings one less than $12 bottle of (not sweet) red wine for a blind taste test.  The catch?  A bottle of $2 wine would be inserted into the mix as well.  To our everlasting shame, guess what won? Yeah, Winking Owl wine from god knows where met the lowest common denominator test.  Sadly, we are all losers for this atrocity.  I take solace in the knowledge that I did not put this crime against humanity in my top three ballot.

Lastly, party provocateurs Eddie and Tina also coordinated the end of season “Cinco de Marcho” bash:  celebrating all of the late Spring and early Summer holidays that we would, as a group, miss since we would all be disbursing within weeks.  I was highly skeptical of the proposed plan, an all day party beginning with breakfast tacos and mimosas, concluding only after dark?  But damned if it didn’t go down as planned, though many of us might be a bit fuzzy on the details.

Craft markets and other sales:  Ever since dipping our toes into the craft market/yard sales last Winter in Key West, we have been looking forward to coming back and seeing if we could expand on our initial success.  With a lot more experience as well as a lot more and varied items available, we returned to The Keys hoping to broaden our opportunities by perhaps pursuing some events off base.

To our happy surprise, one presented itself early in the season: The Lower Keys Medical Center on the very next island north (Stock Island) hosted an event in their parking lot, the table fees for which benefited cancer research.  We were a bit worried about the $25 table fee considering the somewhat out of the way location, lack of event history (this was their first one) and unknown amount of advertising.  Though it started slow, as the morning wore on we saw an up tick in visitors, never really a rush, just enough to do steady business, and we ended the event with a satisfying profit.

Next up we had our first on base craft/yard sale of the winter.  We had not arrived in time for the December sale, but the MWR department had wisely rescheduled the next one from late January to early February in order to align it with the base Family Day event, which would have kid oriented activities throughout the day culminating in a luau.  This worked out spectacularly, with far greater numbers of potential buyers.  It was one of our most successful markets ever, and several of our friends did quite nicely as well.

One of the things we noticed last year was the number of bicycles being thrown out beside the base dumpsters and recycling areas.  Key West is hard on bikes, the constant exposure to sea breeze driven salt air results in shockingly fast corrosion, and a lot of owners just don’t want to transport a rusted up, barely working one all the way back to there northern home.  But to see them just thrown out seemed pretty wasteful, especially after I had so easily cannibalized some parts to fix both our bikes early in our stay.  So I started snatching them up whenever they were left for dead, taking them apart, chemically removing rust, reassembling them, changing out tires and tubes as needed, and lubing up the gears and cables.

Over the course of our 73 day stay I made four working bikes out of seven trashed ones, and sold three of them plus an assortment of parts (tires, tubes, wheels) for $135.  I could not find a buyer for the little girl’s bike I put together, but after putting it back out in the recycle area in much better shape than I found it, a dad snatched it up for his daughter who was just growing out of her baby bike.  This whole thing seemed like a triple win:  we made a bit of money, stuff that didn’t need to be thrown away wasn’t, and I learned a whole lot about bike repair along the way.

For our Key West exit date, we only had a rough departure window: first or second week of March.  Given the unending parties and social scene, our livers were suggesting we leave as soon as possible, but when the base scheduled the last yard sale for March 11, we felt that would be as good a last day as any.  We put in the work to make the last sale opportunity of the winter as successful as possible, but with our expectations moderated by the knowledge that there was no concurrent base event to draw in extra crowds.  To our pleasant surprise we had a quite successful day: not as good as the Family Day event from February, but better than any of the base sales we had worked last winter.

I had originally envisioned one long post to close out Key West, but as we jotted down all the things we wanted to cover, the length became unwieldy and I broke it into two posts.  But then it kept getting longer and longer so it will now be a three-parter, with the final section coming within a day and covering friends and family visits and the extensive group geocaching we did throughout the lower keys.

Our 2017 Key West Winter Part One: Drycamping, Friends, and Food

OK, this will be either a very long post or the start of a multi-parter.   On the one hand I really want to catch up on the blog since we are already four states away from Florida, but on the other hand we spent eleven weeks in Key West, so it deserves a bit more than a standard five paragraph summary like we would for a week long visit.  Let’s just plow ahead and see what happens.

Adjusting to the dry camping and rotation cycle.  Look, we rave about our winter stays in Key West, but we can only (financially) manage it because of our access to the Naval Station campground.  And, as we have discussed at length before, that means dealing with the downsides, particularly the dry camp to full hook up rotation schedule.  If you don’t want to click those links to see the full explanation, here is the short version:  Only about 20% of the military RV spots in Key West have services, the rest are dry camping.  The base Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) department has set up a rotation process once the campground begins to fill: two weeks max stay in hook up if anyone is waiting in dry camp.  The “peaker” the season, the longer the wait for those sites.  With our very late December arrival, this meant an initial three week stay in dry camp, followed by two weeks in hook up, then four full weeks in dry camp until we closed out our season with ten days in hook up again.

So it is always an adjustment coming to the keys and having to rely on our generators and batteries, moderate our water usage to stretch the time between visits to the dump and refill stations, and limit A/C use to only the hottest portions of the hottest days.  This also means the day is filled with the soft buzz of multiple generators punctuated by the excited noises of school age children forced outside where the sea breezes make things more tolerable than the stifling enclosure of an RV in Florida heat.

But it is so worth it.  We pay $14 for the privilege of living in paradise, and just like the children, we are forced outdoors, which means engaging with neighbors and seeking out activities in town or at the community center.  As our fiend Bob from Michigan pointed out in a comment on this blog, the dry camping rotation is almost certainly a major part of why Sigsbee Park has such a sense of community.

Friends from last year and new ones.  This was our third winter in Key West, with each year seeing us linger longer.  Part of that is because we have (barely) gotten beyond the newbie full time RVer’s need to go go go, but also because we have developed a growing number of friends with whom we enjoying hanging in Key West.  I resolutely refuse to attempt a comprehensive list for fear of missing someone.  They know who they are, and are pretty thoroughly represented in our pictures, both here and our other social media ventures.  We look forward to seeing them all again next winter, and perhaps even crossing paths before then.

The Food.  I don’t think Key West has a particular claim to foodie mecca status, but our multiple lengthy visits here have allowed us to explore and develop favorites, both hidden and well traveled by tourists.  Like every other major island in the Florida Keys, KW has a winter seafood fest.  I wouldn’t put it up there with our top festivals, but it was a fun event, free for military active and retired, with a healthy amount of fried local fare, including our robust basket of conch and oysters.

Any place worthy of calling itself a town has to have a fresh farmers market, and Key West offers several.  We really enjoyed the Thursday event in one of the local parks, where we could score very affordable fresh baked breads, fruit, and veggies, (though we passed on the $20 a pint olives.)

For budgetary reasons we generally limit our restaurant visits, and in Key West that means avoiding down town.  But you can’t spend 75 days there and not try one or three, right?  And so we selected Kelly’s Bar for their very well priced appetizer happy hour menu (surprisingly good chicken wings and margheritas) and the truly wonderful brunch menu at Blue Heaven.   Perhaps next year we will try a couple of others, but man they get pricey the closer to Mallory Square you get.

As an alternative to those expensive downtown restaurants, we were directed to Kennedy’s Cafe just outside the Sigsbee Annex base.  What a find!  With an interesting mixture of east European and Mediterranean options, it became our favorite place.  Turns out our blog acquaintance, Eric from Jeneric Ramblings, holds Kennedy dear so we were able to meet him there during one of his short business trips to the lower keys.

There have been a couple of places that wowed us in past years that seemed disappointing during our recent visits, so we try to keep an open mind about shifting our patronage to new options.  Our new cost sensible deal this year was Lucy’s because of their Taco Tuesday extravaganza: $1 tacos and $2 Coronas.  An unbeatable event for this island, and one that quickly became a Sigsbee mainstay, so much so that we had warring 20 person parties competing for the long outside table.

OK, so that’s it for now, I know the eyes of everyone that reads this glazed over at paragraph two.  Part 2 tomorrow, with the more exciting reports of the parties, markets, visitors and geocaching events from our stay.