July 2021: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I’ve been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park probably a half dozen times, and it’s always been one of my favorite places. True, it’s not the dramatic beauty of the national parks out west, but in its own way, and at the right times, it holds its own kind of appeal. For example, GSMNP has more waterfalls per square mile than any place on earth. Why? Waterfalls require two things: water and a place to fall. That’s why they’re called “water-falls.” GSMNP gets an incredible 85 inches of rainfall per year, and provides nearly 6000 feet of elevation change across its width. The combination of the two means lots of water falling all over the place. So, even in nondescript no-name locations, glancing around provides truly beautiful instances of waterfalls.

And then, of course, there are the fall colors when billions of hardwoods erupt into a display of color that defies description (and defies capturing in a way that conveys the true effect).

This trip, though, was, well, I don’t want to say it was a disappointment, but GSMNP was not what I expected. In retrospect, I realized that I’d only been to the park in the fall, when bursts of autumn color lit up the hills, the air was crisp and cool, and the park pretty much deserted. Not this time. Not on any count. First, the park was jammed. Like Manhattan jammed. Or maybe Tokyo jammed. (I’ve never been to Tokyo, but in my mind the experience in the park was sort of like people being shoved into subway cars with giant plungers.) And it’s not just my normal (i.e., abnormal) aversion to crowds. In 2020, the park had 12.1 million visitors, trailing only the Blue Ridge Parkway (14.1 million, and which is contiguous with GSMNP) and the Golden Gate Bridge (12.4 million). Furthermore, most of those visitors come during the summer months, and we were there at the very period (late July) that defines “summer months.”

Second, the park is adjacent to Gatlinburg and just a few miles from Pigeon Forge. Which means that the park is, for many of its visitors, an extension of the Dollywood theme park, T-shirt shop, go-cart-racing, water-slide, Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-“museum” experience. Really. For example, there are places in Gatlinburg that rent go-cart-like off-road open-air vehicles, stripped of normal vehicle accessories, like mufflers, and people drive these around the park roads. So, anywhere one goes within earshot of a road means one will be oppressed by a constant din of families out for a spin around the park in go-carts. Or here’s another one. Many people bring with them a supply of brightly colored inner tubes so the little darlings can float down the park’s rivers. “Many people” like thousands of them. The park becomes, in essence, a water theme park as much as a national park. One more. The aforementioned waterfalls, besides having trailheads that are jammed for a mile or more on either side, become the equivalent of diving-board / water-slide play areas, with the pools at the bottoms of the waterfalls filled with people swimming and diving and generally having a raucous good time.

None of this is necessarily bad. In fact, a lot of it (minus the unmuffled go-carts) is wonderful. There’s something great about watching a bunch of kids playing in a river, jumping on inner tubes, hurling buckets water through the air to torment little girls, and all the other forms of good, wholesome fun. It’s really wonderful to be at a picnic area watching kids climbing trees only to fall out and break their arms like God intended. It’s just that there’s something incongruous about the experience. It’s just not a national-park-experience. It’s something else. And, in the end, it’s just not something we find worth traveling for.

Finally, part of the reason for the trip was for me to do a little photography, capturing an aspect of the park (the summer presentation) that I’d never seen before. So, I saw it. Meh. Maybe I didn’t have the right attitude, but in the summer the park is basically green. Lots of green. Green everywhere. And my limited artistic skills got quickly exhausted by trying to be creative with green.

One of the many streams that cascade down through the Smokies. Beautiful in its own way, often dark and moody, but pretty much the same everywhere one goes. Green.
The “Troll Bridge” up in the Elkmont area and, as everywhere, it’s pretty much green.
Not to be so negative, we still had a great time. One of our must-do activities wherever we go is to set up for a picnic. Indeed, the very first date Wendy and I had, a mere 50 years ago, was a picnic. So, after our hike up to Clingman’s Dome, we stopped at the Chimneys picnic area for lunch.

So, on all counts, this was probably it for summertime trips to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ll go back, to be sure, in the fall. And I do want to try an excursion in the spring when the hills are alive with the sound of, no, wrong sentence, are alive with gazillions of blooming azaleas and rhododendrons. So there will be further posts about the park, and the wonders that it holds. But not in summer.

July 2021: NASCAR Daydreamin’

As mentioned in the previous post, we had a great time at our first (and maybe only) RV excursion to the NASCAR races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That we had such a great time, though, was due in large part to the wonderful people we met there, most of whom were “KYD Insiders.” Here’s the deal…

Several years ago, Robert recommended a YouTube channel, “Keep Your Daydream.” That channel chronicles the adventures of a couple, Marc and Tricia Leach, who decided to go full-time in a small’ish travel trailer and travel around the U.S. with their three teenage children (and a very large Golden Retriever). Try to picture a Ford F-250 (a mid-size pickup) with three teenagers and a large dog in the back seat, pulling a trailer, with everything needed for a life on the road either in the minimal storage space in the trailer itself, or crammed in the bed of the truck. And “everything needed for a life on the road” means clothing, linens, food, supplies, household items, tools, outdoor cooking appliances and equipment, school materials for the little darlings, computer and camera equipment, trailer accessories, etc. etc. etc. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking “that’s impossible,” even though I watched them do it. In any event, over the course of the past six years, they would publish a weekly update on where they’ve been, what they’ve learned, and tips for anyone considering the same course, along with a stream of thoughts on anything related (or sometimes even unrelated) to RV living. Besides the YouTube channel, they also maintained a website (KeepYourDaydream.com), a blog, a podcast, a FaceBook page, an e-mail distribution list, several Instagram accounts, and probably more media that I’m not thinking of. After a hiatus of a couple years, prompted in part by the need to watch anything during the COVID shutdown, we binge-watched all six seasons of the YouTube videos.

At first during their life on the road, Marc continued to work remotely at his consulting business, but eventually the KeepYourDaydream enterprises were generating sufficient revenue to support the family. And, as these things go, there developed a community of “followers,” which in turn led to a subset of followers who contribute a small amount every month (or every video) and who are known as “KYD Insiders.” That’s where we come in.

The NASCAR event that we attended was also a meetup for KYD Insiders. We decided to join the meetup, even though we weren’t sure what to expect. The KYD media seem mostly geared towards brand-new RVers and/or RVers traveling (full-time or not) with children, and neither category includes us. On the other hand, though, one of the things we like about Marc and Trish’s broadcasts that both of them are completely charming people, whose philosophies about life, including how to deal with a surplus of children in the back seat, were irresistibly engaging. What the heck, we thought, let’s meet them in person and see what happens.

All told, there were about 40-50 KYD Insider families at the Speedway. As expected, nearly all of them had purchased their first RV within the past year, and most of them had children that they traveled with. And all of them were friendly, well-educated, funny, and generally the kind of people we love spending time with. As Wendy put it, “these are our peeps.” So we spent hours sitting around talking, sharing adventures at the racetrack, drinking, eating, drinking, watching the races, and drinking.

A few of the KYD Insiders sitting around after the Saturday race, along with Marc and Trish. This is actually up in the “high rent” camping area, but the KYD Insiders are so accommodating that we had no problem finding a pass or some other way to finagle ourselves in.

There’s a philosophy that is palpable in the KYD media: there’s no such thing as a “perfect” RV, and if you wait until everything if exactly right, you’ll never go. As they put it, “start small and start now.” And, there’s no such thing as a perfect trip. If you insist that every trip be free from the dips and bumps that go along with traveling, you’ll quit RVing as soon as you start. Both views seemed to be their philosophy applied to just about every aspect of day-to-day living: things are never “perfect” so don’t wait until they are and don’t get all lathered up when things go wrong. That view maybe has more opportunities for application in an RV (vehicles that are notoriously trouble-prone), but it’s a darn appealing view across the board.

That philosophy, then, gets adopted (or appealed to those who already held to the same view) by those who felt themselves gravitating towards the KYD media, which means all of the Insiders had the same easy-going, life-relishing, people-loving attitude as the Leaches. As one of our newly-minted friends put it, unhappy people tend to get annoyed by happy people, which means that the kind of harrumphing grumps one has to deal in everyday life will self-exclude from a group like KYD Insiders, leaving only the better sort of people in the remainder.

And Marc and Trish are just as charming in person as they are on YouTube. Even though they are sort of “celebrities” in a sense, at least among the Insiders group, the Leaches are unassuming, engaging, and good natured with everyone they meet, and they take time to meet everyone.

We may or may not go to another NASCAR event someday, but Wendy and I are both committed to the idea that we definitely will do another KYD Insider event.

July 2021: NASCAR Newbies

Add one more notch to the stock of our RV adventures: NASCAR. Yup, four days at Atlanta Motor Speedway for a 400-mile NASCAR cup event, along with a boatload of other activities. It’ll actually take me a couple posts to get the full story out, so this is installment number one. First, some background.

At one point, NASCAR was the most popular spectator sport in the U.S., with event viewership numbers consistently over 10 million, eclipsing MLB, NFL, and NBA in the number of viewers per weekly event. And the same was true for in-person attendance. NASCAR’s major venues were all routinely sold out, with tracks such as Bristol (capacity 160,000!), sold out for 55 events in a row!

But beginning in the early 2000s, things started to level off, and then precipitously decline. By 2015, ratings were down in nearly all the races, and in more than half they were the lowest they’d been since the 1990s. And viewership and attendance continue to decline. By 2021, ratings were often sinking to new lows across all events.

Our experience confirms the analysis. In chatting with track workers, we were repeatedly told that both the camping areas and track attendance were only a fraction of what they were a couple decades ago.

The grandstands for the Sunday 400-mile NASCAR Cup event were at, maybe, 25 percent of capacity.

There are lots of reasons offered for the decline. All major sports are seeing declines in viewership (except for soccer, which, as everyone knows, is not actually a sport, at least for real Americans). NASCAR’s ever-changing rules and championship rankings have put off many fans. The NASCAR in-person experience, which used to be something like a midway with souvenir haulers, has been taken over by corporate retail operations. But mostly it’s that various cultural changes are making high-power stock car racing just less appealing, especially to young people.

Having said all that, though, our experience at NASCAR was completely wonderful. Much (most) of that was due to the link-up with the Keep Your Daydream crew (more on that in the next post), but even the NASCAR experience itself was enjoyable beyond anything we expected. This may be one-time been-there/done-that experience, but for an event in that category, we have no complaints.

Just to be clear, though, even though this is an RV blog, bringing the motorhome to Atlanta Motor Speedway is not “camping” by any sane definition. It’s more like tailgating in a parking lot for four days.

OK, so this isn’t exactly “camping.” Who cares? The people were wonderful, the NASCAR experience was fascinating, and our site here is right below turn one. Other sites, which we would have paid the exorbitant charge for were we to do it over, were right on the side of the track.

The weekend began with a charity run around the track in Nana’s little Ford Edge. For a $50 donation, we were allowed to take the car onto the track’s 1.54-mile quad-oval with 24-degree banked turns. There was a souped-up Camaro pace car leading us, which kept speeds to a “respectable” range, although most cars were nowhere near keeping up with even that modest pace. I mostly did keep up with the pace car, having fallen back by only a couple hundred yards by the end of the 4.5-mile “race.” My top speed was somewhere around 95 on the straightaways, which was about as fast as our little car seemed happy about, and slowed to 80-85 in the turns, which is where the car felt a little squirrely and I was too chicken (I know I’m mixing taxonomic groups) to push it. Only afterwards, after watching a race, did I learn I was my driving strategy was backwards. I was driving low in the straights and going up in the corners–it should have been the opposite. Darn. I’m sure I would have given the pace car a run for this money and set the Ford Edge track record had I known the proper driving technique.

Then the NASCAR races started. Saturday was the first race, the Infinity-Series 250-mile race. The Infinity series, we learned, is supposed to be the “minor league” for NASCAR, featuring up-and-coming drivers who aspire to the big-league “NASCAR Cup” series. The cars are built to different specs that make them slightly slower, but for some weird reason, NASCAR lets the big-time drivers join the race where, at least here, the big names (Kyle Busch in this case) often win. The race was unbelievably exciting, even though it fueled the animosity NASCAR fans direct at Busch. Bush and his teammate, Daniel Hemric, had been neck and neck for most of the race. With just 7 laps to go, Busch “bumped” Hemric, who was leading at the time, sending Hemric into the wall and giving Busch the win. Both drivers say the “bump” was accidental, and Busch apologized over the team radio after the contact, then again after capturing the checkered flag — going so far as to call the victory “somber.” “People would say I did it on purpose, but what do I need to do it on purpose for,” Busch said in a post-race interview. “Kid’s going for his first win. I’m going for 102. I’ve been there, done that. I don’t need it. It would certainly help him a hell of a lot more than it’s going to help me and give the perception that now I have on that.” Accident or not, we heard a few comments like, “Figures. Busch would bump his own mother.”

We had been told about, but failed to appreciate, what to expect when 40 high-performance cars, all sans mufflers, fire up and drive around the track at top speeds around 180-190 mph. The sound levels are just short of 120 decibels at the track. To put that in perspective, anything over 85 decibels is harmful, a chain saw operates at 105 decibels, and pain begins at 125 decibels. So, standing trackside and temporarily removing my ear plugs caused tears to start welling up in my eyes and my fillings to pop out. But more than “hearing” the sound, one “feels” it. The sound levels are so high that the air throbs and one’s bones vibrate as the cars go by. Combine that with cars going so fast that they are just a blur, the the physical experience is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced short of the Oshkosh fighter-jet fly-bys.

It’s hard to describe the sound, or even more the feel, of these cars going by. The sound is so intense it actually resonates in your bones.

But Sunday was the big momma race, the Quaker State 400. And once again the race had an exciting finish, and once again it involved Kyle Busch. Only this time, he didn’t bump anyone, and the race to the finish was against his older brother, Kurt. And Kurt won. What was amazing about this race, though, was that the cars were faster, and the noise louder, and the competition more fierce, than what we had seen the previous day. In part, that’s because the drivers are mostly a step up from the Xfinity series drivers, and at this point in the season the stakes are greater. But there’s also the difference in the cars. The cars, offered by Toyota, Ford, and Chevrolet, are supposedly look-alikes to their street-legal cousins. Maybe, or maybe not. In any event, even the “low” horsepower engines run at Atlanta Motor Speedway (550 HP), sitting in a 3200-pound car, provide enough juice to go airborne (which cars will do about 205 mph). NASCAR keeps mandating a variety of measures to try to keep speeds down to reasonably safe levels, including the mandatory use of restrictor plates (metal plates in the fuel system to restrict airflow to the engines) (now changed to a tapered spacer), mandatory front and rear spoilers to increase drag, mandatory front-end intakes, and so on, but even with these car-slowing requirements, speeds on the straightaways are still up around 200 mph. In fact, lap times were often less than 30 seconds, meaning the average speed around the entire track was north of 180 mph.

Bottom line: Perhaps the best indicator of how this trip worked out is this: Wendy had to leave half-way through the main race to get home because our stupid dog was being delivered from doggie day care. What did she do when she got home? Turn on the TV to watch the end of the race. Seriously? Wendy? NASCAR? That can only mean that our first (and maybe only) NASCAR experience was a total blast. While I doubt we’ll ever be full-blown NASCAR devotees, if there were some other reason to take ACE to a track, with some NASCAR races added for good measure, we’re in.

June 2021: Shenandoah Gypsies

One of our favorite kinds of trips is one where we do an RV meetup with family, and if meeting up with family is great, meeting up with family at a national park is even greater. This time it was linking up with Cliff, Ansley, and Margot in Shenandoah National Park. And Shenandoah was a special treat for both families. I had always thought of Shenandoah as mostly a road: a ridgetop highway (Skyline Drive), with the national park being a small ribbon of forest sloping down on either side. Actually, no. The park is over 200,000 acres in size, which means the border on either side of the roadway is MILES wide. And there are over 500 miles of hiking trails, 90 perennial streams, and dozens of waterfalls. So, because we arrived a day ahead of Cliff and the girls, we did our usual thing: went to the visitor center, explained the constituency of our family group, and asked for the best way to spend a few days. Armed with the list the rangers provided, we spent a long weekend of hiking, listening to ranger talks, and hanging around the Big Meadows campground, which involved a considerable amount of dodging wandering cervidae.

As Cliff pointed out, these deer apparently don’t see a lot of hunting pressure. Ha ha. I told one of the rangers that I’d be happy to bring my bow on the next trip and solve the Park’s “deer problem,” but he didn’t seem very interested.

We all agreed that the trip was one of the best ever: wonderful campground, beautiful scenery, great ranger talks, fun hikes, lots of activities, and pretty much all we could want.

Including one weirdness: the park is being overrun by gypsy moth caterpillars. Really. Billions of the little wooly buggers. Like many such problems, this one has its roots in human miscalculation. It seems that some Frenchman (it figures), namely one Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, decided in 1869 that he would interbreed the gypsy moth caterpillar with silk worms and, I don’t know, make more French women’s panties or something. In any event, the caterpillars escaped, started to spread, and within 10 years had devastated a huge fraction of the northeast’s hardwood forest. Little by little they’ve been spreading ever since, reaching the Shenandoah National Park in the 1990s. And they are wiping out the park’s population of native oak trees.

It turns out it is possible to eradicate the gypsy moths (as was successfully done in the Pacific Northwest). Unfortunately, though, as one of rangers put it, getting the Park Service to launch a program to kill animals (even invasive ones) requires a long (like, L-O-N-G) approval process. It can be done, though. A little further south in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the hemlock trees are being devastated by the wooly adelgid. There, though, the Park Service has launched an extermination program involving not only chemical controls but even “predatory beetles.” So far, those results are encouraging. Whether the Park Service can jump through its bureaucratic hoops before the Shenandoah oak trees are gone remains to be seen.

We’ve decided that because Shenandoah National Park is only a half-day drive from Cliff’s location, it’ll be a great spot for periodic get-togethers. We’ll be back soon.

April 2021 – Wither Callaway Gardens?

Part of the reason we’ve always had a fondness from FDR State Park is that it is located adjacent to Callaway Gardens, which has also been one of our favorite places: thousands of acres of stunningly beautiful gardens, miles of bike paths, two golf courses, a wonderful butterfly house, (until recently) a world-class greenhouse, countless natural and hybrid azaleas, all geared towards what has always been the mission of Callaway Gardens: to provide opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal in an area of natural beauty.

But this trip, we saw something we were not expecting … Callaway Gardens looked like it was struggling, both financially and philosophically.

Attendance had been slipping for years, down from one million visitors per year at its peak in the 1990s to about 400,000 in the past few years. There were several management missteps, including adding an upscale hotel, spa, and housing developments, all of which led to the Gardens bleeding cash, eventually having to sell off about 7000 acres (of its 13,000) to cover its debt. In fact, the upscale hotel, which was designed to complement the Mountain Creek Inn, actually ended up diverting guests, even after the Mountain Creek Inn underwent a $3 million expansion. A new CEO was brought onboard in 2015 (he came with a background in resorts and theme parks — including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City) who made some substantial changes, including closing the Sibley Horticulture Center, a greenhouse that was always one of our favorite stops and that was renowned as one of the most advanced greenhouse complexes in the world. That CEO left a couple years ago, and management is now in the hands of HFE Corporation, a company that operates and manages family-oriented theme parks and attractions and is a unit of Herschend Enterprises, the nation’s largest family owned themed attractions and entertainment company.

All of this led to what was a palpable change in the way the Gardens now present themselves. Indeed, even before knowing about the Gardens’ financial woes, we all remarked that it looked like the Gardens was cutting costs and struggling to make ends meet. Besides the closed hulk of the Sibley greenhouse, the grounds themselves were visibly less up-kept, the Mountain Creek Inn is shuttered, and the crowds were noticeably diminished. Plus, there was something incongruous about Callaway Gardens, of all places, closing the greenhouse and garden, while keeping the zip line. To be sure, I like theme parks as much as the next guy, but one would think that a place billing itself as “gardens” would have room for a bench among the flowers.

I’m sure that part of the Gardens’ woes can be attributed to a series of unfortunate external events. Troubles started after 9/11 with the decline in the travel industry, its real estate ventures got walloped by the 2008-2010 real estate crash, it made some bad financial decisions, and it’s certainly suffering right now from the COVID slump.

But I wonder if something else isn’t driving the decline in attendance. Callaway Gardens always sold itself as a place of quiet, introspective beauty. A place of spiritual renewal as much as anything. Obviously, a place to to renew one’s soul is only attractive to people who think they have a soul, which is an increasingly rare belief in America nowadays. And quiet solitude in a place of natural beauty has a hard time competing with the frenetic pace and fractured attention spans of a technology-crazed populace.

All of which may explain why Callaway thinks, probably correctly, that the secret to the Gardens’ future lies not so much in spiritual nourishment as in theme park exhilaration. Whether it can actually build itself up into the kind of would-be theme park that can successfully draw visitors seeking that kind of experience remains to be seen.

But an even bigger question in my mind is whether, succeeding or not, we may lose something of what made Callaway Gardens worth going to, namely that it was precisely not a theme park experience. I don’t know. Maybe the Callaway Foundation, which owns and oversees Callaway Gardens and which is committed to the original Callaway legacy, can strike a balance of attracting enough of the sort of theme-park clientele to keep the gardens going, while preserving enough of the quiet, subtle, natural beauty of the area to provide spiritual nourishment for the rest of us. Or maybe that’s an impossible balance. Or maybe there’s no market for spiritual goods in a world where people find all the affirmation they need in a theme park. We shall see…

April 2021 – No Rules Camping

Over the years, Roosevelt State Park near Pine Mountain has always been one of our favorites. Miles of hiking trails, a lake for fishing, nearby attractions, vicious geese that attack small children … what’s not to like? We were here last four years ago (“Preparing for the Next Big Trip“) with Cliff and all the little girls, so, when Jennifer and her girls had a three-day weekend available, it was back to FDR State Park.

The entire picture album for the trip is here: FDR State Park – April 2021.

And because FDR State Park was one of the places we first went camping when we moved to Georgia, it was also the place where we developed our principles of “no rules camping.” Here’s the deal. When we were raising our kids, we had lots of rules: we go to church and Sunday school every week; you eat what’s put in front of you; you do your chores before you play; TV only if you get all A’s and B’s, and then only 30 minutes per day; we pick your friends; bedtime means bed time; no R-rated movies until you’re 18; and dozens of others. Maybe we had too many rules … that’s one of the things one thinks about in hindsight after the kids are grown: what did I do right or wrong as they were growing up? But, right or wrong, we were basically a rule-based family.

Except when we went camping. Then, perhaps sensing that the little darlings needed a respite from the regimentation of our family life, we established no-rules-camping. It worked like this — when we were camping, there were no rules. You were free to do whatever you want. Really, whatever. Well, not exactly “whatever.” We did have two rules: we had to know where you were, at least within a search-party radius, and the kids could not physically harm each other, at least not seriously (mental abuse was OK). But subject to that, the kids really were free. They could jump on their bikes and go where they chose, head off into the woods, walk into the lake fully clothed (that actually happened), eat or not eat whatever they chose, wipe their worm-baity grubby little hands all over their clothes; stay up until all hours; play in the mud; whatever. We figured that, other than the normal, perfectly acceptable risks of being outdoors (cuts, bruises, broken bones; drowning; ticks; snakes; etc.), there was relatively little harm from easing up on the reins, it was fun (and probably healthy) for kids, and frankly it gave us a few days off from having to constantly socialize the little darlings. And it was fun for us too.

I think rules-based parenting is probably passé nowadays. But even still, there seems to be a delight in the freedom that a camping trip provides. Within minutes of our arrival on this trip, for example, the girls literally ran off into the woods, following the azimuth provided by their geocaching app, in search of some trinket. I don’t remember if we knew where they were or not — we certainly knew that they were on foot so they couldn’t have gotten too far — but it brought to mind memories of countless trips over the years, and the pure joy of watching kids doing what they do best, which is being kids.

What a great trip. We’re already talking about fitting in another three-day excursion this Fall, and I can hardly wait.

March-April 2021: Ft. Wilderness

Oh no! Not another Walt Disney World / Fort Wilderness post?!? Yup. Well, sort of. It was indeed back to the Disney Fort Wilderness campground (for the seventh time in the past nine years, plus a boatload of times before that), but this trip was different. First, it was a full-blown family reunion, and second, it was done during the COVID clamp down.

Family Reunion. With the family spread out over 1000-plus miles of the eastern side of the U.S., getting everyone together takes effort. A lot of effort. Specifically, it required our driving ACE down 400 miles from Atlanta, Cliff hauling his RV 1000 miles down from New Jersey, Summer and the girls flying down from Philadelphia, getting Robert’s RV 100 miles up from Tampa, putting Jennifer and the girls on a plane from Atlanta, and somehow timing arrivals and airport runs to get everyone and all of the RVs in the same place at roughly the same time. Actually, now that I write that, I have no idea how that happened. But, thanks to extraordinary effort by everyone, it did. Amazing.

And it was worth it.

Friday night dinner, before Jennifer and the girls arrived. The bottle of wine on the table is for the adults, except in case of a widespread kid-meltdown, in which case any form of subduing the children is permissible, including forced inebriation.
The Cousins” (as they refer to themselves) at the Ft. Wilderness pool on Saturday. The “campground” is so full of things to do that all we did was to hang around there all day.

Jennifer and the girls, and Robert, Laura, and the boys, all left on Sunday, so the rest of the week was Cliff, Summer, and the girls, along with the two of us. That meant two days of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, plus a couple more days of pool time, fishing, horseback riding, some really incredible dinners, and continued lizard catching.

Anyway, I won’t go on and on. The last time the whole family got together was back in the summer of 2019, so this gathering was long overdue. It was great for the grownups to spend time together, but it was even better for The Cousins.

The full family album is available here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/NdkzXPbqS4Zdg2zh8.

COVID. Obviously, a crowded theme park, with tens of thousands of people crammed within inches of each other, is a recipe for a super-spreader event of Biblical proportions. (Think of the angel of death hovering over Fantasyland, with the first-born son of each family dropping dead in the boats on It’s a Small World.) (As opposed to the parents keeling over after they’ve heard the refrain for the 95th time.) To prevent such a thing, Disney implemented a large number of restrictions designed to limit the carnage: only a limited number of people were admitted to the park (although you couldn’t prove it by me) and advance reservations were necessary to enter; masks were required everywhere, and there were warning posted that patrons failing to “properly wear” a “suitable mask” “would be asked to leave”; the lines were rerouted to prevent people from passing within inches of each other, along with signs posted reminding people to maintain a six-foot distance; crowd-producing activities (like the fireworks show) were cancelled; and several attractions were closed. And, for the most part, the guests seemed to abide by the restrictions and everyone seemed to take things in good spirits. As is evident from our pictures, we were fully masked up all the time and no one seemed to much mind.

I must say, though, that some of the restrictions seemed a bit much, more like they were drafted by lawyers, or bureaucrats suffering from the nail clipper syndrome, or by corporate PR types intent on corporate virtue signaling, than by sensible health professionals. Or maybe designed to limit the online complaining by the mask-Nazis who incite social media mobs whenever their sensibilities are offended. In any event, some measures seemed more than necessary. For example, we traveled to and from the Magic Kingdom in open-air boats where everyone, even if the boat was fully loaded, would be masked up, situated several feet apart anyway, in the open air, sitting in a 10-knot breeze as they traveled across the water. Even still, Disney chose to limit capacity on those boats to about one-third. Seriously? People were waiting in line under much riskier conditions, just to limit a situation that hard to imagine posing any realistic risk. Other examples abound: spraying down the seats and tables with disinfectant, plexiglass barriers everywhere, restaurant seating restricted to every-other-table, and so on. In a sense, I suppose, Disney should be commended for taking health measures seriously and trying to make everyone as safe as possible. Nevertheless, the experience could have been better under more sensible management.

After everyone had left, Wendy and I stayed one extra day to decompress and have a relaxing dinner at Narcoosie’s, the waterfront restaurant at the Grand Floridian Resort. As we sat there, running through the events of the past ten days, we agreed it was one of the best RV trips we’re ever had. We’ll savor the memories forever …

March 2021: Family Pride

March saw us making a quick trip down to Tampa for a family celebration. Technically, I suppose, it counts as an RV trip since we drove ACE down there and stayed at the Lazy Days RV campground, but really the trip had nothing to do with RV’ing. Instead it was a celebration of son #2’s promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.

Being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel is actually a pretty big deal. Nearly all Army officers who hang around for four years make it to Captain, which is the highest of the “company grade” officers, but at the next level, Major (the start of “field grade” officers), things start to thin out. The Army has about 80,000 officers (excluding Generals, of which there are only a couple hundred), but only about 13,000 are Lieutenant Colonels or Colonels.

It’s trite, but true. While the Army enlists the soldier, it reenlists the spouse. Army life is certainly hard (Robert has had four deployments, and a few assignments, like the one at Fort Irwin in the middle of the Mojave desert, that were, um, “challenging”), but in many ways it’s harder on the families than it is on the soldier himself. No one can succeed in the Army without a very supportive family, most of all the spouse.

Anyway, we’re headed back to Walt Disney World and Fort Wilderness in a couple weeks for an impromptu family reunion, so the next post will be about actual RVing stuff. Until then, though, well done, Robert … you make us proud.

January 2021: Okefenokee Swamp

We’re in the midst of planning several family-gathering RV trips (including one to Fort Wilderness, the location of the defining broken arm moment exactly one year ago), so we found ourselves antsy to get back into the motorhome and head out somewhere. Anywhere. So, with a break in the grey days of January, it was off to Laura S. Walker State Park for a visit to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Which brings a question to mind: why drive 5 hours to see a swamp? It is, well, a swamp. And it’s winter, which means (beside, mercifully, no bugs) no wildlife. And of the area’s 350,000 acres, most are accessible only by canoe, which is off the list for Wendy, who views canoe trips into a swamp as the equivalent of sitting upright in a coffin for day, with added prospects of either drowning or being eaten by an alligator. So, why? Besides being Pogo’s home, is there any reason to visit a swamp?

Yes — this is a great place and we had a wonderful time. Staying in Laura Walker State Park is, like every other Georgia state park, wonderful in and of itself. The campground is perfect, the restrooms are immaculate, and the amenities abundant and worthwhile. We spent our first afternoon there enjoying one of the park’s nature trails that wanders around through the pine forest, with placards placed regularly along the trailside describing the wildlife of the area (none of which we saw, which makes the placards somehow simultaneously irrelevant and necessary) (whatever that means).

All set up in Laura S. Walker State Park.

But the highlight, as improbable as it may seem, was in fact the swamp. The Okefenokee National Wildlife refuge was established in 1937, back in the good old days when the government, if it wanted to protect nature, actually purchased the land, rather than regulating it into non-use, (thereby sidestepping that pesky little fifth amendment and taking the land without actually having to pay for it). Where was I? Oh yeah … established in 1937. Since we only had a day, and since the best (and only) portion of the area accessible by car is through the east entrance, it was down through Folkston and into the east side we went.

First, a little background about the swamp itself. To start off with, it’s not technically a swamp, it’s a “blackwater wetland” and in fact the largest such wetland in the United States. But it sure looks like swamp, and I suspect “blackwater wetland” is a euphemism for “swamp” foisted on us by activists who think “wetland” connotes something more than “swamp.” Interestingly enough, the swamp is the headwaters of two separate rivers: the Suwanee (which flows into the Gulf) and the St. Mary’s (which does its best to separate Georgia from Florida and then flows into the Atlantic). And the name, “Okefenokee,” is some English version of some Indian word that means “land of trembling earth,” apparently referring to the fact that a large part of the swamp consists of semi-floating masses of peat that shake when you walk on them.

Besides the Indians who used to live here, there were actually a fair number of early pioneers (who must have been really tough dudes), who settled in the area. And actually, their habitations looks a lot better than what you might expect by watching reruns of Swamp People on the Discovery Channel.

The cabin built by the Chesser family in the 1850s, and then expanded by one of the sons in 1927. The Chesser family survived in the swamp by growing sugar cane, hunting, fishing, and tapping the pine trees for turpentine. This home was supposed built for a total cost of $200.

Back to the trails. Just inside the entrance is the “Canal Diggers Trail.” Get this. In the 1890s, some dufus came up with idea of “draining the swamp.” (It was the other dufus.) To do this, he tried to dig a canal but ran into two obvious (to me) problems: First, there are billions of gallons of water in the swamp and even if one could drain some portion of the area, water would keep flowing back in. Actually, at one point the “drainage” canal actually began to collect water and refill the swamp. Oops. Second, the whole area consists of sand, which means when you try to excavate a ditch, it has a tendency to collapse back in on itself. So, after a few years of trying, and a well-deserved bankruptcy, the project was abandoned. So, for now, the location of that failed effort makes a really interesting short hike.

The other trail we most enjoyed is actually a 3/4-mile boardwalk (!) to an observation tower.

The observation tower at the end of the boardwalk. The boardwalk was a replacement for a boardwalk that was destroyed in a fire, and to provide a measure of fire resistance, the new boardwalk is constructed of composite planks over aluminum I-beams, along with, believe it or not, a sprinkler system that runs under the boardwalk. Further information about the boardwalk can be found on the HydraEngineering website.
A panorama from atop the observation tower.
One of the weird things about the observation tower experience is that it puts one up in the Spanish Moss environment.

So, 8 hours (and 11,000 steps) later, we finished the Swamp Island drive. It’s a real compliment to the experience that Wendy, who is about the least swampish person I can imagine, had a great time and was glad to have spent the day in a swamp!

2020 Western Trip: Post Mortem

Just a few random, wrap-up thoughts after our 2020 trip to Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Montana.

RVing During a Pandemic. Definitely, the only way to travel during a pandemic is in an RV. No hassles with restaurants, public bathrooms, common spaces, germ-laden surfaces, or any of the infinity of petty (but necessary) annoyances of trying to stay free of contagion-laden encounters. Except for missing out on some of the attractions of our typical tours (such as rangers talks, guided hikes, museums, visitor centers, and the like) (all of which, to be clear, we did miss), RV travel during a pandemic is essentially no different than any other RV travel expedition. We wondered before we left whether this trip would provide the essentials of what have always made our trips memorable, and the answer is a resounding yes.

Schedules. Because our trip turned solo at the last minute, and because the kinds of activities that normally populate our schedules were largely unavailable, for the first time we had a trip that presented day after day with nothing in particular to do. And surprisingly, that made it one of the best trips ever.

Normally, when one’s time on a trip is limited, there’s a weird sort of pressure to make the best of it, to make sure all of the essentials get done, to avoid “wasting” time. But this time, we were free to do things as they struck our fancy. If we passed a sign for a trail to a waterfall, we were free to break from plan, pull over, and do a spontaneous hike. When we thought wildlife might appear, we were free to sit for three (!) hours just to see what happened. When we visited a particularly photogenic scene, we had the flexibility to wait for a couple hours for just the right light.

We witnessed one of those meteorological conditions where the wind blowing over the mountain top caused the mountain to generate ever-changing plumes of clouds. I actually did a time-lapse video of the scene, and if I figure out how to post it, I’ll replace this photo. The point, though, is that we had the freedom to spend an hour just sitting at the overlook, watching clouds. A special treat, and something possible only with an unencumbered schedule.

We don’t expect this to be our M.O. going forward. We laughed at what it would have been like to sit in lawn chairs by the side of the road for three hours if we had a shrewdness of grandchildren with us. But, for this one trip, the serendipity of an unencumbered schedule made it memorably special.

Connectivity. We noticed something odd this year: the visitors map to Yellowstone has several colored blobs indicating those areas of the park where cell phone coverage is available. Even worse, it looked to us like the Park Service is laying fiber optic cable in Grand Teton NP. On both counts, I have grave forebodings about what future park experiences may hold.

I understand why a lack of connectivity can be a nuisance. In Grand Teton, there was only one area we found that had cell phone coverage (a pull-out down by Willow Flats), and only one other location (down by the marina store) that had WiFi internet access. So, to fire off an itinerary change to the family, phone ahead for campground reservations, or respond to some supposedly “urgent” need back in Atlanta, all required an inconvenient detour to some suitable spot and a break from park activities.

But that’s the point. Immersing oneself in the splendor of the Grand Teton range is not about sending off emojis, updating your Facebook timeline, or firing off some blather in your TikTok app. It’s not even about staying connected to the office. The essence of a visit to a national park is that it forces you to detach from the consuming trivialities imposed by modern technology, take a deep breath, and momentarily focus on things that transcend the mundane details of ordinary daily life.

I’ve written before about the tragic superficiality of people we’ve seen who come across some scene of breathtaking beauty, turn their backs on the magnificence of their surroundings, take the obligatory selfies, and then promptly leave, only to continue their never-ending stream of missed opportunities. I wonder now if that tragedy will be compounded by the Park Service striving to make the national parks places for connected experience.

Blue Meanies. For many years, I’ve pondered the connection between city living and an excessive proportion of nasty people. And it’s not just one of my (many) (mostly random) theories: a friend’s wife who is an epidemiologist at CDC has actually done academic research on how urban density is a causative factor in aggressive behavior. This also explains a phenomenon we observed: states that are dominated by cities, and hence those states that tend to be blue, also tend to display the urban manners of the citified people that populate them.

We had an interesting confirmation of this social phenomenon this year. From time to time, more often than one might think in national parks, one encounters people who are unexpectedly and unnecessarily rude and aggressive. The most common examples can be seen on the park roadways. Speed limits in the park are generally pretty low (often 45 mph, slower near lodging, popular attractions, or areas where wildlife congregate). Many people (including us) actually abide by these speed limits. Unfortunately, though, for certain kinds of people, a speed-limit-obeying vehicle is little more than a source of frustration and an opportunity for attack. These are the people who ride the bumper of the car in front of them, swerve out (often illegally) to blast by the offending speed-limit-obeying motorist, drive the wrong way through a traffic slow-down, and otherwise bring the ill-mannered demeanor of urban life to the wilds of Wyoming.

And here’s what we noticed. These brutish assailants were almost always from blue states. Amazing. Most of the cars on the road were local (Wyoming and Utah mostly), but when some jerk crossed a double-line to drive at 70 mph in a 45 zone, blue state. And it was way too often to be a coincidence: New York, New Jersey, California, Washington. Blue meanies everywhere.

[For those too young to catch the allusion, the Blue Meanies were the brutish bad guys in the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine and a metaphor for mean people everywhere.]

Harleys. Speaking of behavior that is strangely out of place, here’s another one. Although I rode a motorcycle for 50 years, I never really understood the Harley Davidson crowd. The motorcycles themselves are not particularly functional (the performance riding course I took regularly would not even allow Harleys to participate), but the oddest thing is the fascination Harley people seem to have with removing the bikes’ mufflers. Why? For the rider, what could possibly be the attraction of a deafening, mind-numbing roar inches from one’s eardrums for hours on end, and how could anyone be indifferent to the annoyance that such a blast creates for anyone within a couple hundred yards of the offending tailpipes?

What brought on this detour into the oddities of the Harley Davidson subculture? Our time in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park this year coincided with this year’s Sturgis motorcycle rally, an improbable gathering of, no kidding, 460,000 motorcycles (down this year, maybe due to COVID-19, by about 9% from last year), in the town of Sturgis, South Dakota. An unfortunate proportion of the Sturgis-gathering motorcycles are Harleys, and a doubly unfortunate proportion of the Harleys are ridden by the aforementioned muffler removers. And one more unfortunate circumstance: the Lamar Valley is the natural route between Sturgis and the rest of Yellowstone. What that meant was that the roadway through the Lamar Valley was subject to a never-ending roar of groups (sometimes 30 or more) of unmuffled motorcycles blasting their way through the otherwise tranquil expanse of the park.

There’s a pretty funny video out there of a bison who attacked a woman who had gotten off her motorcycle and walked into a herd of buffalo to take pictures, with the animal adding insult to the woman’s injuries by pulling the woman’s pants right off of her. Really. Watch the video. It’s funny in a Darwin Awards sort of way.

One cannot go anywhere in the national parks without seeing these kinds of warning signs, which makes approaching a buffalo and getting pantsed in the process especially fitting.

In any event, though, we were not so fortunate as to see any bikers pantsed by buffalo this year. Next year, maybe, but at the very least we’ll remember to bring our ear plugs.

Overall. One of our best trips ever, enjoyable even in the midst of a disrupting social climate, and filled with new experiences. We are so glad we resisted the urge to bail out and once again reminded how blessed we are to live in such a beautiful country, and doubly blessed to be able to enjoy it.