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.

Another December in Sanibel

In our zeal to post an annual report, however limited, before the final moments of 2020 ticked away, we probably gave our December shenanigans short shrift. During that month we were able to see family and friends, in a mostly COVID safe manner, while also enjoying being back in Sanibel, and ended the year with some very special automotive drama. So at the risk of excessive repetition, here is even more about our time in Sanibel.

Over the course of six years full time RVing we have observed a few trends in our annual travel plans. Though not entirely consistent, we have aimed for an alternating tour of the East US one year, then West the next, with Canada added to the mix in 2018. Key West became our primary winter home, with our seasonal stays there expanding from two weeks to nearly three months. Similarly, our time in Sanibel has grown from a week or two in the fall to a full month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with another short stay in the spring.

This was our first year as volunteers for the annual bird count on Sanibel Island. Rose and I went out with two much more experienced birders to count assigned sectors.

Due to COVID most of that went out the window in 2020. For the second year in a row we abandoned plans for westward travel, and only made it as far as the Carolinas during a limited summer itinerary. We have not returned to Key West since leaving in March, and don’t intend to until possibly December of 2021. And though we have not done a work camping job since our two weeks as light house tour guides at Cape Disappointment in 2015, this year we signed on for a nearly three month gig outside of Asheville.

Conversely, our time in Sanibel ramped up considerably, starting with an unprecedented three month stay this last spring as part of our pandemic isolation plan. Following our summer in Tennessee and North Carolina, we returned to Florida with most of our normal fall and winter routine in shambles: no craft fairs, Key West campground still closed, and long standing family gatherings cancelled. One thing we could maintain (and expand upon) was our month in Sanibel after Thanksgiving, and so that is where we spent the end of 2020, and that is where we remain.

Early in the month cousins Robb, Colleen, Nola, and Maeve, with whom we had spent the night in their driveway back in November, came for a weekend visit to the island. We started things off with a tour of Periwinkle Park’s parrot refuge, exotic duck ponds, and monkey cages before heading for our “go to” beach, Bowman’s. We had a full day of shelling, fishing, and swimming before packing things in heading back to our respective campground and hotel.

After a suitable clean up period, we enjoyed evening cocktails and stories under the stars, and a great dinner of sliders on the grill, with sides from Jerry’s grocery. We can highly recommend their artichoke tortellini salad.

Rosemarie’s sister Dolores and family made their traditional annual pilgrimage to Florida from California, staying with Xavier and Joy in Coral Springs for a month. Dori has been working from home and Tamiry’s school has been mostly zoom classes, so they are effectively in Xavier and Joy’s “COVID bubble.” During the first half of their stay, before Josh had to return home for work and family obligations, Rose and I made the trip across state for a short pre-Christmas visit.

A few days later Dolores, Tamiry, Xavier and Joy followed up with a day trip to Sanibel for some beach time. We have not had the best beach conditions of late: low visibility, poor to middling shelling, and sporadic red tide, but you can’t keep Dori and Tamiry from the beach when they are in Florida.

For the Christmas window Rosemarie and I drove back to Coral Springs and stayed for two nights. Rose’ youngest sister Melissa had flown in from New York City, so this is the only time in a long while all three girls have been together. I drove back home to take care of the cat (we are comfortable leaving her alone with extra food and water for two days, but beyond that, not so much.) On Christmas eve I started back to Coral Springs, and right about half way there from Sanibel on I-75, I blew the engine on the tracker. Oil spurting everywhere, a few flames from the bottom of the engine block, a sound like the car was trying to eat itself, and then I was alone on the highway in the Everglades.

Due to a poorly trained roadside assistance agent (messed up my location, which caused the initial tow company to cancel without notice,) my actual location (the middle of the Everglades,) and the timing (afternoon on Christmas Eve) it took seven hours before a “tow truck of last resort” picked up the tracker and took it to their yard in Immokalee.

Faced with the possibility of me spending Christmas Eve and Christmas alone, Dolores, Xavier and Rosemarie came and picked me up from an exit on I-75, the tow truck having just finished loading the tracker as they were passing through that section of the big swamp. We ended up having a wonderful Christmas with lots of unwrapping and way too much video chatting.

Xavier and Joy took me back to Sanibel the day after Christmas, leaving Rosemarie for a few more days in Coral Springs. While alone in Sanibel I started the process of either getting the tracker fixed or replaced. Here is the current situation:

  • With input from several Periwinkle Park friends I selected and spoke with an experienced mechanic (Art) in Fort Myers, who agreed to assess the vehicle once I got it to him, and swap the engine out with a remanufactured one if necessary.
  • The tow truck company delivered the tracker to the mechanic, charging me a previously agreed upon additional $75 for splitting up the tow. Art confirmed the engine was completely shot, it has a hole in the side probably from a piston trying to leave the engine, and is thus not even suitable to rebuild.
  • It took a lot of phone calls and online research, but we finally located a Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker specialist in Tampa who had an engine core available and agreed to rebuild it.
  • Once complete, the engine will be shipped down to For Myers where my local mechanic will do the install.
  • As for the alternative option of just scrapping the Tracker and buying something newer: it was a close call, but given our criteria the options for a different vehicle are pretty constrained. We want it “flat towable” i.e., no tow dolly or trailer, light weight, and with automatic transmission (four wheel drive and a rag top preferred but not required.) Sure, for our estimated repair costs we could have instead bought something like a 12 year old Chevy HHR, but how much better would that be than a “zero miles” 23 year old tracker with an otherwise solid body and running gear?

So that was our December. We look forward to a fun, relxing, and yet productive January here in Sanibel.

2020, our Sixth Year of Full Time RVing, in Review

What a strange, frustrating, terrifying, and unusual year. Looking back at the beginning, when so much of our country and the world thought 2020 was looking to be a terrible year because… something about Australia being on fire. Which is, admittedly, not good, but oh how innocent we were! So here is to a hopefully much better year in 2021. It is less than an hour before New Years Day here on the East Coast, and we have spent much of the last week remembering our year, good and bad.

Though we spent so much of the year “hunkered down” and self isolating to various degrees, we did manage to see a surprising number of family and friends along our limited travels, socially distanced and “bubbled” as much as we could, though not as much as we should. Before we knew how bad COVID would get, we visited the Nieves family on our way out of Key West. That week in mid March is when we finally realized the novel coronavirus was going to wreak havoc on the world.

With a few false starts, we did a three month aggressive “hunker down” in Sanibel, before things seemed opened up enough for a bit of RV travel, especially as in the process we would actually be leaving one of the most hard hit pandemic states in the country at the time. We worked our way out of The Sunshine State, seeing Jackson and Andrea in Central Florida and Robb, Colleen, and the twins in High Springs.

In July we had a flurry of sequential visits, starting with a brief and careful visit with Marissa and Rey outside of Atlanta. From there was up into South Carolina to meet up with Dad and Marcia, and then later including brother Jason and now wife Emmie in North Carolina. At this time we had gotten through the full COVID spring with a plan but were pretty much in limbo about where the summer and fall would take us.

Starting with a run to the East Coast to visit Mom and Tim in Wilmington, our summer plans started to coalesce, beginning with a month exploring Western Carolina (Asheville, Waynesville) and East Tennessee (Cumberland Mountain and Fall Creek Falls.) During this window we stumbled across, and then solidified, our work camping gig at Lake Powhatan National Recreation Area and Campground.

Said job took us through mid November, after which we began to work our way back south to Florida. Along the way we had another short visit with Ray and Marissa, Robb and family, and Jackson and Andrea in their respective towns, still trying to have most of our socializing outside. For Thanksgiving we spent six days in South Bay on the shore of Lake Okeechobee, which facilitated short visits with Rose’s Dad Xavier and Joy.

Finally, at the end of November, we ended up back in Sanibel, intent on working through the bulk of the winter here. We had a short day visit at a beachside restaurant back in Vnice with Rosemarie’s mom Gloria and Jerry. We endured, as best able, that brisk Florida winter weather.

Rosemarie’s sister Dolores, along with Josh and niece Tamiry, arrived in Florida for in early December, and we were able to see them during a short trip across the Everglades to Coral Springs, and again when Xavier, Joy, Dolores, and Tamiry came for a day visit to the Sanibel Beaches.

A couple of weeks later, for the Christmas holidays we spent a few days back in Coral Springs. While we had some excellent holiday memories, family time, and gift exchanges, we also had some additional drama to make the last days of 2020 that much more special: I blew the engine on the Geo Tracker during one of the several back and forth runs across the state between Sanibel and Coral Springs.

This means that we end the year with our little car in the shop getting a rebuilt engine put in, while we make do with our bikes and an occasional rental car in Sanibel. There are far worse places to be, but we sure look forward to a better year in 2021.

Back to Sanibel to Close Out 2020

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but that has been kind of a weird year.

In March, before we understood the full gravity of the COVID pandemic, we left Key West intent on travelling west as far as the Pacific Coast and then up into Canada. Then reality intruded and we instead spent the entire spring hunkered down in Sanbel, FL. We finally got in a bit of 2020 travel, though limited ourselves to the US Southeast, most of it in North Carolina. With winter approaching, we headed back to the Sunshine State, and after a couple of weeks find ourselves right back in Sanibel, intent on finishing out the year here and part of 2021 as well.

This is almost normal for us: over our years of both part and full time RVing we have gradually increased our time spent at Periwinkle Park in Sanibel from a weekend here and there up to a full month in late fall and week or two in late winter or early spring. That growth in our annual stay time has been facilitated by the staff here knowing us a little bit better each year and rewarding our customer loyalty with their flexibility and effort in finding us longer stays at this high demand location.

We can sort of look at our Sanibel RV pattern during this COVID-altered year has an expansion on our usual schedule; instead of a few weeks in the spring, we did a few months, and instead of one month in the late fall and winter we are doing two. Said expansion, however, would not have been possible without the limitations other RVers are experiencing. Simply put, some of the snowbird population and nearly all of the Canadians are just not here this winter, opening up spots in these popular resort RV parks.

In any case: we arrived a couple of days after Thanksgiving, and intend on staying until almost the end of January. This will give us two full months, which, with the modest monthly discount, reduces our nightly cost from $62 to a little over $53. That is still on one of the most expensive rates we pay, anywhere, and once we leave the island we will be doing some serious belt tightening in terms of campground fees, which will hopefully include some free boondocking as we move west later in 2021.

As for markets and craft fairs: though an ever increasing number of them are back in business (with varying levels of COVID control) we won’t be participating until we have the safety of a vaccination and hopefully the additional protection afforded by herd immunity once a high percentage of the general population has also received their shots. We accept this, but it is so hard to decline an invitation to an event that has, in past years, been so profitable for us, such as the Cape Coral German American Society Christmas Fair or the Key West Gardenfest.

Ah well, we are making the best of it! We have the Sanibel beaches, fantastic Florida winter weather, shelling, and the comfort of one of our favorite RV parks. More on our Sanibel and South Florida winter next post.

71 Months Full Time RVing: November 2020 Report

The Distance:  After two months with zero mileage, we got back on the road, covering 1,055 miles as we made our way from Asheville back to South Florida. The map for this run shows about as efficient of a straight southern route as we could make until we moved close to the Atlantic Coast of Florida for our Blue Spring and South Bay stops. November’s mileage represents nearly one third of our 3,536 total for 2020, which will be our final number for the year as we don’t expect to move the big rig from our current location in Sanibel until 2021.

The Places:  After our last eight days in the Asheville area we visited family outside of Atlanta and Gainesville, with short stops affordable and convenient Passport America parks along the way. Once back in the Sunshine State we spent a week between two Florida state parks, Rainbow and Blue Spring, followed by six days at South Bay RV Campground on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. We finished the month back at Periwinkle Park in Sanibel, kind of our “go to” COVID spot this year once they closed the military campground at Key West.

The month included 20 days at public campgrounds (7 national, 7 state, 6 county,) 7 days at private parks, and 3 in the family driveways. We had full hook ups for 20 days and partial for the remaining 10. Incidentally, I include running a regular extension cord to friends and family’s standard 20 amp exterior sockets as “partial” services; it makes a big difference in keeping our house batteries charged up and ready for the road.

The Budget:  2.5% under budget. Our financial gravy train from our work camping gig at Lake Powhatan has come to an end, though that last 1 1/2 paychecks made a huge difference in keeping us on track this month, especially since we put in a lot of miles (with the associated gas costs.) Our free nights with family and the very cheap Passport America rates at our two short stops in South Carolina and Georgia played a significant role in keep us just under budget this month, particularly since we obviously had a lot more campground costs to absorb than the last couple of free months.

The director is uncertain this project should have ever been green lit.

The Drama and Improvements:  Our automatic entry stairs have been a headache for years, though I have gained enough knowledge to make them work whenever they get stubborn. Until we get around to replacing the controller, though, we will continue with this minor annoyance. Usually they work fine until the house batteries get a bit low, like after a full day of travel, but sometimes they just decide not to work even with a full charge.

Such was the case as we were preparing to leave Blue Spring State Park. Though we are pretty good about including a visual check for their retraction when we prepare to get underway, we forgot that time, they didn’t retract, and I damaged them driving forward over an exposed root. The bottom stair plate partially detached from the frame, and it took me several minutes to get them to retract sufficient to make our trip to South Bay. Once there my trusty Ridgid cordless drill and a stainless steal bolt made quick repairs of the bottom step, so all in all this was pretty minor drama, but drama nonetheless.

A New (to Us) Place in South Florida: South Bay RV Campground

Like many full time and seasonal RVers, this time of year presents a challenge: how to find Florida campgrounds that meet our – quite flexible, we like to think – criteria. COVID has both aggravated and simplified that effort: an industry wide RV boom and the continued closure of our preferred winter location (Sigsbee Campground at Key West Naval Air Station) have complicated our search, while the Canada-US border restrictions have severely limited the presence of, and thus the competition from, our northerly neighbors.

Even under normal, non-COVID times, an RV campground search in Florida is more than a bit analogous to the Project Triangle, i.e., “you can have it fast, cheap, or good: pick any two.” The RV version is something like “available, affordable, or local: pick any two.” If you’re very flexible about the location and amenities, you can certainly find places. If money is no object, you can get almost anything you want, anywhere you want. And if you are on a budget and specific, but willing to plan and commit way ahead, you can usually find places as well.

For the Shell On Wheels family, who are budget conscious, location specific, and insistently flexible (i.e., late planners) this campground search can seem Herculean. Fortunately for us military RV parks exist outside of the normal economy, which is a euphemistic way of saying they are heavily (financially) subsidized by the general, tax-paying public. As such, we depend on these military campgrounds during peak season and in high demand regions, because there is no way we could stay the bulk of the winter in places like, e.g., the Florida Keys without access to Key West Naval Air Station.

A selection of heavy equipment associated once part of the water management system near the big lake. Somewhere among them is a geocache…

COVID, however, has altered the equation. Key West Naval Air Station campgrounds remain closed, despite most of the other Florida military campgrounds being open. As a result this last spring and now in the late fall, we elected to head back to our rather expensive campground on Sanibel Island, off the coast of Fort Myers. In non-COVID years even this might have been impossible, but with the ongoing Canada-US border restrictions most of our northern neighbors are not coming to The Sunshine State, leaving a few otherwise inaccessible RV sites available in high demand parks.

… Ah, there it is.

With six open days between our last Central Florida state park reservation and the start of our two months in Sanibel, we were casting about with ever increasing urgency for something nice, affordable, and available. In past years we would have headed straight to Coral Springs to stay in Xavier and Joy’s driveway for at least part of this Thanksgiving period, but during our last such stay city code enforcement paid a visit, informed us that RV’s were strictly forbidden in residential driveways, and thus ended that particular “free parking while visiting family” situation we had enjoyed for years.

Our geocaching map for the South Bay region. Yellow dots we found, all others we will hopefully hunt on a future visit.

So that’s five paragraphs of navel gazing as a segue into the actual subject of this post: a new to us campground in South Florida. We still wanted something reasonably close to Coral Springs, and as we expanded our search, both by region and park characteristics, I stumbled across South Bay RV Campground, a Palm Beach County facility on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee. It was perfectly situated one hour from Coral Springs and a little over two from Sanibel.

Hard to se without zooming, but there is a small gator, maybe 3 to 4 feet long, just off shore here in one of the campground ponds.

South Bar is not exactly in a prime tourist destination, but Florida’s Big Lake does have more than a little appeal, and the price was right at less than $30 a day for a full hook up, good sized lot. I was a bit surprised they had plenty of availability for a short notice reservation in mid November. I wonder how much COVID has effected the regular patrons, particularly since they do offer modest discounts for weekly, monthly, and seasonal campers. Perhaps we will find out next year when we attempt to make South Bay our replacement park for Xavier and Joy’s now unavailable driveway.

Given the circumstances, I can’t say enough about this park. While it was a bit short on trees, we had a full sized site in a tranquil location with friendly neighbors all about, and for less than we pay at most Florida state parks, much less private resorts. The town of South Bay and nearby Belle Glade are big enough to have regular grocery chains, gas stations, restaurants and the like, and if you truly need a Walmart one is just 20 minutes west in Clewiston. Tripadvisor pointed us to a fantastic little taqueria in town, Martin Tacos, which we enjoyed so much we went twice during our short stay.

What a fantastic place! The standard tacos and burritos were excellent, and they even had some specialty items like tongue meat.

The big reason driving our south Florida park selection this period was Thanksgiving, and our planned four person celebration with Xavier and Joy. We like to think we have been pretty COVID responsible in our mask wearing, distancing, and limited contact outings, and have also tried to be selective in who we, in turn, interact with in closer settings. Xavier and Joy have been have been very restrictive, with the grocery store for supplies being about their only regular exposure. We left the cat, whom Xavier is violently allergic to, at home with a robust amount of food and water and made the short drive to stay with them for two days.

Joy had already purchased a turkey, finding an elusive 10 pounder, ideal for our small gathering. I did the usual brine it overnight and herb butter under the skin method, but with such a small bird Joy and I decided to forego the spatchcocking and use an oven bag instead this year. It came out great! We enjoyed a wonderful meal with plenty of fixings, and despite the modest size of the turkey itself, we had a lot of leftovers, easily sufficient for a week’s worth of turkey sandwiches.

Back in South Bay we made preps for the two hour drive west to Sanibel and our impending two month stay at Periwinkle Park. Next up: Our November Full Time RVing report.