Final Winter 2021 stays: Wekiva, Gainesville, and Snellville

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

Bundled up for the notorious Florida winter.

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

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

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

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

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

Drone demo about to commence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: Asheville and our spring plans.

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

74 Months Full Time RVing: February 2021 Report

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

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

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

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

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

Hillsborough River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our site at Lake Manatee State Park

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

Some goodies from the Englewood Farmers Market

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

And our site at Oscar Scherer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W.P. Franklin Corps of Engineers Campground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Lake Okeechobee and South Bay While Awaiting Loki Repairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out on our bikes along the dirt roads between agricultural plots

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

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

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

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

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

73 Months Fulltime RVing: January 2021 Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

72 Months Full Time RVing: December 2020 Report

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

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

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

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

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

One full window completely removed.

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

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

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

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

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.