November 2023 – Giving Thanks

This year, for a variety of reasons, we found ourselves without plans for Thanksgiving. So, we ended up footloose and free to do whatever struck our fancy. But because we are who we are, our “fancy” isn’t all that fancy. In fact, it’s kinda odd. So, for Thanksgiving, seeing as how we were pretty much open, and seeing as how we have a brand-new RV, and seeing as how we thought it would be “funny” to do Thanksgiving in a camper, we decided to take our new camper on the road do Thanksgiving in a brand new way.

The challenge, of course, is that it’s still Thanksgiving, which means there’s an obligatory set of activities that can’t be neglected just because we’re in a camper. So, the next part of “funny” meant figuring out various ways to do the entirety of our Thanksgiving festivities in a small recreational vehicle. In lesser hands, that would be a problem …

That part was easy. The hard part was a dinner: How to do turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, etc. etc. etc., which really was beyond what we could do in a camper? What to do, what to do? And how to make it “funny”? Hmmm … Then it hit us: Cracker Barrel, the ultimate in Southern cuisine and, as it turns out, they were open and doing a Thanksgiving special dinner!

As it turns out, though, we weren’t the only ones with the same idea. In fact, the place was jammed. Like Mumbai jammed. There was a 90 minute wait to be seated. And even the country store was packed, which would have made it hard to buy various Southern novelties if we wanted to, which we didn’t. So we waited…

But funny things come to those who wait. And eventually we got seated, and the meal was GREAT! (Well, “great” in a Cracker Barrel sort of way. But memorable nonetheless.)

A Southern-style Thanksgiving, with all the fixin’s, and even with wine. Sort of. It was canned Italian wine, of the “Roscato” family, fresh out of the refrigerator and ice cold. Go figure.

Friday it was more football. And then dinner at a local Mexican restaurant because, well, Mexican food is another great Thanksgiving tradition. In Mexico, at least.

So, chalk one up to another page in the family book of memories. And the challenge now is, how can we possibly top that?

August-September 2023: Ft. Drum, NY

Every now and then, life serves up an unexpected adventure. Driving from Maine to Vermont, as a stop on our way to Ft. Drum, provided one such circumstance: US Highway 2. One would think that a major U.S. east-west highway would be relatively easy traveling. And it would be, if it were paved, which it wasn’t. Seriously, 28 miles of dirt, rocky, rutted, narrow cart path, supposedly “under construction,” but feeling more like a water buffalo trail through outer Mongolia. Your tax dollars at work. Anyway … where was I? … oh, yeah … traveling towards Ft. Drum.

We made a quick overnight stop to see Wendy’s “ancestral estate” at Lake Placid, where she and the family would go as kids, and is actually an important enough historical site that it is featured in the guided tour of the lake!

“Gull Rock Camp” was originally built in 1902 with separate cabins erected for the different purposes. Wendy’s great-grandfather, Carle Cotter Conway, bought the “camp” in 1922 and had a seven-room structure added on to the site in 1926. What he was most famous for, though, was his love of very fast, very noisy speedboats. He sold the camp in 1959 and it’s currently owned by the heiress to the Calphalon cookware fortune. I married Wendy based on her assurance that this estate came with the deal. Not exactly. Hmmm…

Eventually, we made it to our campground near Henderson Bay, right on Lake Ontario. Son #2 was still on a training mission, so we spent the first few days hanging around with his family.

When the kids started school, we had a day off so it was off to visit 1000 Islands National Park in Canada.

Here’s something that’s weird… (Or, as they say in Canada, “J’ai un œuf dans le nez…”) (Or something like that … my French is a little rusty.) The rocky terrain of the 1000 Islands region, known as the “Frontenac Arch,” is the remnant of a huge mountain range of the ancient continent Pangea (except it’s now called Rodinia because, um, I forget) and consists of rocks that are 1.2 billion (!) years old, making them plus-or-minus the same age as the rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon! And because of its weird geology in the middle of an otherwise normal landscape, the area houses all sorts of plants and animals that aren’t even supposed to live there. We were only there for a few hours, but this would definitely be the sort of place to attend a ranger talk from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.

Son #2 eventually showed up, so we got to spend a few days catching up. And, since he’d been gone for a while, we were able to babysit the boys, allowing for a spousal night out on the town…

And then it was time for a 3-day drive back to Atlanta, followed shortly thereafter by delivering ACE to its new owner. And the end of one epoch in our RV lifestyle, to be followed by another. More to follow …

August 2023: Acadia National Park

After the family left the Lake George RV Park, we took a couple days to mosey eastward. The first stop en route was Dolly Copp campground in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which was significant because it was exactly the same area we spent our honeymoon 51 years previous!

A hike to Glen Ellis Falls on our way to Mt. Washington.

Of course, back then we were tent camping …

And where we were in New Hampshire in 1972, we were actually backpacking through these mountains! (Let’s say that now our standard for “roughing it” is considerably higher.) But the area is still as beautiful, and Mt. Washington still has the worst weather on earth.

After a couple days, we arrived at Acadia National Park. We had been tracking the weather on coastal Maine for weeks, and it had been what one would expect at coastal Maine: cold, rainy, and generally dismal. Except that when we got there, it remained sunny and warm for the entire week. I’m sure that’s a blessing bestowed upon us as a result of my conspicuous clean living. Actually, maybe that’s not it.

Atop Cadillac Mountain, this is pretty much how the weather was all week!

Traveling around the country, we’ve gotten used to dramatic vistas, but Maine presented us with a different kind of beauty.

For photography, clear blue skies are basically boring. But there was one (but only one) morning with enough clouds to make for an interesting sunrise.

We spent days hiking and touring around and never grew tired of the scenery. Acadia gets more than 4 million visitors per year, making it one of the busiest national parks in the U.S. But, as usual, nearly all of those people never go more than a couple hundred yards from the nearest paved surface, so hiking along the coast soon leaves one pretty much alone.

And one highlight of the trip was the culinary indulgence of having an excess of lobster at least once, and sometimes twice, per day.

Since we were eating the little critters, we decided to take a tour on an actual lobster boat, guided by a guy whose family has been lobstermen in Maine for five generations.

[Digression /on] There’s a theory in environmental philosophy known as the “tragedy of the commons.” The idea is that where there’s a common resource, each user has no incentive to preserve the resource for the benefit of others, which leads to each person over-consuming his “share,” which leads to depletion of the resource, and so on. When the theory was developed by Garrett Hardin back in the 1970s, many economists noted that the theory makes sense in a simplistic kind of way, but for its validity it requires that the users fail to appreciate the problem and cooperate to maintain the resource. So, the question was, which is true in real life? Cooperation or depletion?

As it turns out, the Maine lobster fishery offers at least one answer. Starting all the way back in the early 20th century, Maine lobstermen voluntarily began to cooperate to preserve and enhance the lobster fishery. Each lobsterman agreed to voluntarily limit his take, and they agreed on certain practices to manage the lobster population. For example, they instituted strict size limits on harvestable lobsters, returning lobster that were either too small or too big. If a female egg-bearing lobster is caught, the lobsterman clips a notch in the tail of the lobster, indicating that this lobster cannot be harvested and, if caught again, must be returned to replenish the population. And so on. Eventually the practices were codified and expanded, but the program remains largely self-regulated.

In fact, in 2009 the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics, for her study of private cooperation of common resources, using the Maine lobster fishery as an example. Her conclusion:

[Ostrom] challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories.

And the result of such self-regulated, voluntary cooperation in Maine? Eighty-five percent of all the lobster eaten in the U.S. come from Maine. And annual lobster harvests, that were roughly 20 million pounds per year in the 1980s are now 95 million pounds per year! Wow. [digression /off]

Anyway, Maine was a great stop, we (finally) crossed off an important gap in our RV-travel bucket list, and now it’s off to upstate New York to see son #2 and his family.

August 2023: Family Time at Lake George

After leaving Antietam National Battlefield Park, we took a couple days to mosey on up to the Lake George RV Park, meeting up there with Son #1 and his family. There are certain RV parks that are made for families. Obviously, Fort Wilderness at Walt Disney World in Florida is one of them. (See here, and here, and here, and here.) Some of the reviews of the Lake George RV Park said it was better than Ft. Wilderness, so on that basis we picked that park as a place to meet up. I’m not so sure about the park being better than Ft. Wilderness, but there’s no denying it’s PDG (pretty darn good).

And all the other, usual campground stuff…

So, we ended up spending six wonderful days with the family. But there is a note of sadness, too. The girls are getting to the age where school, and sports, and socializing, plus all the other things that teenagers do, leave little time for camping with the family. So, this was the farewell trip for them in the camper. <Boo> <hoo> <boo> <hoo> <weep> <cry> <sob> <snort> <choke>

But, if the ways of the world hold true, there will come a time when the kids are grown, and the parents miss traveling around in a camper, and they’ll find themselves buying another, and then the kids will come back, maybe even with grandkids in tow. Life is good.

Next, Acadia National Park.

August 2023: Antietam National Battlefield Park

Well, first, an announcement: All good things must come to an end, and it was time for ACE, our long-lived Class A motor home, to find a new home. There was actually nothing seriously wrong with it, but it was 11 years old, had 70,000 miles on it, and, while motor homes require a lot of TLC, this one was requiring more TLC with each passing year and there comes a point where the effort required is greater than the benefit received.

But there’s a coda to that story. Two, actually.

The first is that the guy who purchased ACE, in an amazing act of generosity, agreed to delay delivery for two months so we could use ACE to take a 6-week, 3000-mile trip to the northeast to visit family and see Acadia National Park. More on that below.

The second is that shortly after we transferred ACE to its new owner, we bought a small’ish travel trailer, a Grand Design Imagine XLS 23LDE. Seeing as how it’s an Imagine brand, we thought Imogene would be a suitable name, “Genie” for short. That will be the subject of a future post.

Our farewell trip

There’s lots to say about the trip, which was wonderful on all counts, but here are a few of the highlights…

Antietam National Battlefield Park

In September 1862, the Confederate Army, under Robert E. Lee, invaded Maryland in an attempt to shift the focus of the war away from the south and into Federal territory. The Confederates were met near Sharpsburg by Union forces under Major General George B. McClellan. The engagement occurred in a small area, roughly 5 miles long and no more that a couple miles wide, but what occurred there was the bloodiest day in American history: 22,000 casualties in 12 hours. The area of the fighting is preserved now as the Antietam National Battlefield Park.

And, as usual, the National Park Service has done an unbelievable job of bringing to life the history, the battle, the personalities, and the significance of that day. Most of all, NPS has set up a driving tour of the battlefield area with stops at each of the significant locations, with each stop presenting the operational ebb and flow of the engagement in a way that mimics what is known in military terms as a “staff ride.”

Just one example: Crossing the farmland was a small dirt path known to the locals as the “sunken road.” Confederate troops dug in along this road as northern troops approached. While the Confederate troops were outnumbered almost 3:1, their superior position allowed them to wreak havoc on the Union army. After 5 hours of fighting, 5500 men had been killed or wounded, and that road is now known as “Bloody Lane.” The details of what happened are accessible nowadays through an assortment of signs, maps, displays, and even an observational tower.

During one of the talks we attended, the ranger made another point that reveals something important about this battle, and about our history generally. President Lincoln actually visited the battlefield after the battle, and visited not only the Union field hospital there, but the Confederate hospital as well. I asked the ranger that such a visit was surprising to me … why would Lincoln do such a thing? She responded that, yes, Lincoln hated slavery with a passion, and wanted it eradicated from the country, but ending slavery could wait. More than that he wanted to preserve the union. He knew that someday we would all have to live together, and his job was to make sure we could. So, when asked by a reporter why he visited the Confederate hospital, he said, “there are men of valor and virtue in there.”

It reminded me of the account of Appomattox where, after Lee’s surrender, General Grant allowed the Confederate soldiers to keep their arms and horses, knowing that they’d need them to live once they got home. And before everyone headed home, the Union and Confederate soldiers mingled together, renewed old friendships, and shared stories. Perhaps, if the war meant brother against brother, people had a sense that the end of the war meant the family could try to get back together again.

Try to imagine such decency, magnanimity, and fraternity today.

Anyway, unfortunately, we had rearranged our itinerary, leaving only one day to explore Antietam. In hindsight, it requires at least two days for the same reason Gettysburg requires more time … Lincoln was right: these places really are holy ground.

Next stop … Lake George, New York.

May 30-31, 2023: RIP Little ‘Bina

Seems like it wasn’t that many years ago that little Sally went off to that great chipmunk-chasing grounds in the sky. Now little Sabrina has gone off to join her sister. It was just one of those things where Sabrina kept heading downhill, until all she did was pace around, pant, and sleep. And eat treats. Lots of ’em. It was hard to know what was going on inside her brain, such as it was, because she had no affects. But we began to worry that she was actually in pain and miserable. So, all things considered, it was time to say good-bye.

(The girls came by to say good-bye to Sabrina, which turned out to be reminiscent of a picture of them with Sally a few years ago.)

As it turns out, we had a scheduled trip back to F.D. Roosevelt State Park, so we had a couple days to adjust to a new normal without that stinkin’ little rascal. And the days were perfect. Cool, slight breeze, beautiful park, a wonderful 3.2-mile trail along Mountain Creek, and nothing to do but enjoy being outside.

(Set up at camp site #520. Typical of FD Roosevelt State Park — beautiful site, nicely secluded, and perfect for sitting outside, enjoying the peace and quiet of the park.)

(At left: Wendy walking under the Log of Damocles. At right: using her new knee to cross a fallen log.)

And to top it all off, we had a 24-hour wake for Sabrina, with a wonderful steak dinner on Tuesday night, and an indulgent bacon and egg breakfast on Wednesday.

So, little Sabrina is gone but we’re sure she and Sally are having a great time.

August 2022: Roosevelt, the Park and the Man

As noted previously, one of our favorite state parks is F.D. Roosevelt State Park, located near Callaway Gardens. Since it was time to take ACE out for exercise, and since Roosevelt State Park is only 22 miles away from where ACE lives, off we go. Surprisingly, even though it’s August in middle Georgia, which normally would be a combination of phrases invoking the same appeal as phrases like “hot poker” plus “left eyeball,” the weather was actually cool and clear and the three days we spent there completely refreshing.

This time, though, besides enjoying the park, hiking through the woods, and touring along the ridge of Pine Mountain, we took an afternoon to visit Roosevelt’s “Little White House,” a place that we had not seen in several decades. Roosevelt built the Little White House in 1932 while governor of New York, since it was close to Warm Springs, famous for its 88-degree, mineral-laden spring water, which Roosevelt sought out seeking a cure (or at least relief) for polio. It was at the Little White House in 1945, while posing for a portrait, that FDR suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died a short while later. This modest little cottage has been carefully preserved very much as FDR left it, and a museum on the grounds provides many exhibits, including FDR’s 1938 Ford convertible with hand controls, along with a short film describing Roosevelt’s life and presidency.

The “Little White House” is really nothing more than a small, two-bedroom cottage, the kind of place one would not now associate with a “presidential retreat.”

In nearby Warm Springs, one can visit the pools where Roosevelt, and other victims of polio, went to find some relief from that terrible affliction. Inside the exhibit there is on old “iron lung,” a mechanical device used to compress and expand someone’s torso, thereby forcing the lungs to pump air in and out of the body. There were often hundreds of people in iron lungs at clinics, and many of them spent years in such devices.

But the FDR museum tells another, fascinating story. It was largely through the long times that Roosevelt spent at the Little White House, and through his association with the farmers and workers of Georgia, that he settled upon most of the philosophy of the New Deal. In a book I recently read, Reagan: The Life, H.W. Brand made the point that in recent history there have only been two presidents that actually matter: Roosevelt, as the author of the welfare state, and Reagan, as the author of the conservative revolution–the two presidents who capture the poles of “government is the solution” versus “government is the problem.” And much of the course of modern America, including the current degree of polarization and animosity, reflects the collision of these two opposing philosophies.

All of which makes it hard for me to find a place in my brain for Roosevelt. On the one hand, he faced the most daunting combination of circumstances one can imagine: a global economic depression, a climate change disaster, and a world war against abject evil. What could anyone do under such circumstances but muster every means and resource available to the government and make everyone and everything, in essence, instruments of the state?

But on the other hand, he is the founding father of the welfare state, the man who put the country on the road to serfdom. As mentioned in the previous post, the prevailing ethic when Roosevelt took office was that it is morally wrong and personally degrading for an able-bodied man to take money he did not earn. That ethic is obviously long-gone now, and one must wonder whether the acceptability of living on the dole, indeed the prevailing norm that there is a right to live off of the hard work of others, can be traced back to Roosevelt himself.

I guess none of this is new. Recall the Jews wandering in the desert saying, “We hate it here. We want to go back to Egypt where we had food, and shelter, and free health care,” to which Moses replied, “What? What are talking about? You were slaves in Egypt. What are you going to do, put yourself in slavery for a bowl of soup?” To which the answer was, “Heck yes!” And so it goes.

April and May 2022: Here and There

I wasn’t going to post anything about two trips made in ACE this year, since they were mostly about things other than RV’ing, but since I’m about to do a post about our recent trip to F.D. Roosevelt State Park in August 2022, here’s something quick that explains the gap.

April 2022: Georgia Nature Photographers Association. Every year, GNPA has an “Expo,” which is the club’s gathering at some photogenic location for several days of classes, field trips, displays, contests, and general photography goofing around. This year it was at Jekyll Island, but since I was derelict in making reservations, the hotel was full and I had to resort to taking ACE down to Blythe Island county campground.

The above photo was entitled “Life Among the Ruins,” which I thought was a clever play on Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins.” That poem, if I recall correctly from high school or college or whatever it was (which I probably don’t), was about how everything man builds will crumble and fall, but love will survive. So my photo might by analogy say that everything man builds will crumble and fall, but life will survive. Get it? Pretty clever, eh? Apparently, it was too clever. For the second time at a GNPA Convention, this photo was put on display in front of the entire membership during the contest awards ceremony as an example of what is wrong with the photograph. I give up.

May 2022: FMCA Amateur Radio Club Spring Rally. Yes, another geeky ham radio excursion, but this one turns out to have been relevant for the post that is to follow about F.D. Roosevelt State Park. The rally was hold in Crossville, Tennessee, and besides doing our usual ham radio stuff (which, as noted, most normal people find insufferably dull), we did a little field trip to the Cumberland Homesteads Historic District. The Cumberland Homesteads was the largest of the Roosevelt’s New Deal subsistence homesteads built to aid “needy yet worthy families” with jobs, training, and the purchase of homes. Two hundred fifty-one families lived in homes they built, all within a community of farms and businesses. Families paid for the homes through the wages they earned building the community and farming the land.

What makes the homestead especially interesting, and relevant to the post that will follow on our trip to F.D. Roosevelt State Park, is that Roosevelt faced an interesting problem during the Depression: At the time, it was considered morally wrong for an able-bodied man to accept money that he didn’t work for. Even if people could be persuaded to take charity, giving someone charity without giving him a chance to work was considered degrading. Hence Roosevelt had to come up with all of the make-work agencies, like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation. Roosevelt knew that to lift people out of poverty in a way that didn’t humiliate them in the process, he had to give them an opportunity to “earn” they money they received, even if it was nothing more than building a trail through the mountains or a community center in the middle of the Cumberland Plateau. The Cumberland Homesteads was a marvelous example of what people can accomplish if we “help” them without degrading them in the process.

It makes one wonder what America would be like if such an ethic were still the prevailing norm?

Next trip … Roosevelt State Park and Roosevelt’s “Little White House.”

February 2022: Ham ‘n’ POTAtoes

One of the many things I love about my dear, sweet, intelligent, thoughtful, and supportive (in cases she’s reading this) wife is that she has a seemingly inexhaustible tolerance for my charming eccentricities and petty foibles. So, for example, when I decided to ride my motorcycle out to a conference in California, and then ride back from Santa Monica to Jacksonville Beach in a day and a half, for no reason other than to establish my credentials in a group of like-minded weirdos, she did not actually divorce me, make me sleep on the couch, or excise any of my body parts.

What brought on this sudden flurry of heartfelt appreciation is that I’ve done something less dangerous but equally, um, “eccentric.” Specifically, this: I enjoy amateur radio. The stereotype of a ham radio hobbyist is pretty much accurate: nerdy, obsessed with radios and amplifiers and antennas and all sorts of stuff that is mysterious to normal people, engrossed in technical details of radio wave propagation, and prone to spending countless hours in dark rooms staring at dimly illuminated equipment to ends that would seem utterly pointless to any sensible person. But that’s me, and I like it. So, when I’m not traveling with the aforementioned spouse, I set up a portable ham radio station in the RV:

Hold that thought…

One thing that hams do, like most hobbyists, is attend “conventions” where there are seminars on various radio topics, dealers selling the latest equipment, and thousands of hams selling off their used stuff. The biggest one is the Dayton (Ohio) “Hamvention,” which in 2019 drew nearly 35,000 hams. I’m writing this from the Orlando “Hamcation,” which is smaller at 20,000, but which provides on-site RV parking. Due to that option, my RV amateur radio club held a gathering at Hamcation with 16 motor homes congregating from as far away as Colorado.

Hold that thought…

Yet another thing I like to do with ham radio is called “Parks on the Air” (or POTA). The idea is that one travels to a state or federal park, sets up the radio, jury-rigs some kind of an antenna (such as by throwing some wires up into the trees), and then makes contact with amateur radio guys all over the country. So, for example, I set up at Crooked River State Park right on the coast near the Georgia/Florida border, cranked up my radio, and made 151 contacts with operators distributed around the country:

Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for: the point of all this. Since (1) I do ham radio stuff, and (2) I was traveling to Hamcation anyway, and (3) since there are dozens of parks on the route to and fro where I could do POTA activations, I decided to combine all three into an extended circumnavigation of the state, combining all three activities into one trip:

The drive didn’t quite work out like I planned, but even with some minor glitches along the way, traveling from park to park provided some memorable experiences. I visited 5 state parks (actual parks, like with campgrounds and picnic areas), 3 state historic areas (including the Jefferson Davis Historic Site, which somehow has survived current cancel culture, with even the statue of Jefferson Davis still intact), one federal National Wildlife Refuge, and one “eco-lodge” (which is some kind of facility where they send young, impressionable students to be instructed on various ecology topics).

Just one example of a glitch. I didn’t bring enough clothes. Fortunately, though, I learned an important fact from a friend: dirty laundry has to ability to self-regenerate. That is, if you put your dirty clothes in a hamper, in a few days they have self-cleaned enough that they can be worn again. Really. It’s true. Google it. By virtue of this miracle of modern textiles, I was able to go for 12 days with only 4 days of clothes.

Another glitch. One stop was at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site. The story of this plantation is fascinating. Before the civil war, the economy of the coastal south, from Georgia up through North Carolina, was based on rice, not cotton. The rice plantations, however, had to be located in what were insufferable, mosquito-infested, malaria-producing swamps. So the plantation owners would high-tail it out of those areas from April through October, leaving the slaves as the only occupants of the plantations. As a result of this extended time to themselves, the slaves developed their own culture, which was a combination of African memories and Christianity (mixed with voodoo) (seriously), even developing their own language (Geechee-Gullah), which was a mix of African dialects and English. Incredibly, that culture survived well into the 20th century, and continues to exist in pockets even today. What was the glitch? I took a tour of the plantation to learn more about this incredible bit of American history, but the tour turned out to be focused on the plantation owners’ furniture, artwork, and household accessories, including (no kidding) little lacy things that looked a lot to me like doilies. Doilies? Seriously? In the midst of this story, people want to look at doilies? Actually, yes … most people on the tour did in fact want to learn more about the home and its contents, so I waited until the tour was wrapping up, thanked the guide, and headed on to the next park. Not a totally worthless stop, but definitely a glitch.

All things considered, it was a great trip. Definitely too long away from home, maybe a bit much on the one-night stands along the route (not those kind) [Kids — If you don’t know what that means, ask your parents], unfortunate unseasonably cold weather (like 20 degrees below normal), and maybe not the most efficient routing (for example, too much backtracking). But the trip still had its moments. Georgia has done a wonderful job with its state parks and traveling around, seeing the parks, and having the fun of talking on the radio along the way, and combining that with a gathering of like-minded (mostly nerdy, but who’s counting) folks means the trip was well worth it.

December 2021 – Christmas and the Keys

One of the oft-touted advantages of an RV is that, as something of a mobile condo, it permits one to live near the relations for a while, allowing for extended visits, without the hassles and expense of hotels, restaurants, and rental cars (and now, COVID-loaded public places). In our case, that effect is multiplied because we’ve got three RVs scattered among the families, which means the congregating location can be essentially anywhere.

So, over the years, we used the RV to host dozens of family gatherings in campgrounds (such as a gathering at Land Between the Lakes, May 2015), meet Cliff on his temporary work assignment in Beaumont (November 2015), meet Cliff at Disney World (April 2016), travel out west for the birth of grandchild #7 (June 2016), meet Cliff in San Antonio (April 2017), visit my sister in California (June 2018), take an extended West Coast vacation with Robert and family (June-July 2018), arrange a linkup with Robert as he PCS’ed from Washington to Florida (May 2019), meet Robert and family at Disney World and break Christopher’s arm (March 2020), attend Robert’s promotion ceremony (March 2021), do a family reunion with all four families at Walt Disney World (March 2021), and meet with Cliff in Shenandoah National Park (June 2021). Plus probably a couple dozen other meetups, gatherings, and trips that don’t come to mind.

For all that, though, this is the first time that we’ve used the RV for a holiday gathering, namely Christmas, or as it will soon be phrased in today’s newspeak, “Popular Religious Leaders Natal Day,” a holiday that likely will be held on the last Monday in December. It’s not beyond imagining. We had to cancel a trip with Cliff over Columbus Day weekend due to travel difficulties, which spared me from having to do a blog post on a day now known in some circles as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” I’m waiting for Presidents’ Day to be renamed “Racist Leaders Shaming Day” and the Fourth of July redesignated as “Oppressive Government Founding Day.” All we need now is a national holiday to celebrate “hate week” and the fulfillment of an Orwellian dystopia will be complete.

Where was I? Oh yeah … Christmas. How did I get off on that rant? No matter. This trip not only gave us family time in Florida at Christmas, that gathering was followed by a trip with Robert and family to the Florida Keys. Robert has done an excellent blog post that summarizes the trip, so I won’t repeat the details here. Suffice it to say that this trip was one of the best family gatherings we’ve ever had.

First, if there’s anything better than Christmas with three little boys, it’s hard to imagine what it might be (save perhaps Cliff’s Christmas with three little girls). Plus wonderful meals, beautiful and warm weather, and Robert’s extraordinary on-post home at MacDill Air Force Base. And then, a week in the Keys, with temperatures in the 80s every day, touring around seeing the sights, fishing, kayaking, and cooking out. What a wonderful week.

The obligatory stop at the southernmost point in the U.S. Except that it’s not. The actual southernmost point is on the Truman Annex to NAS Key West, but those people shoot you if you try to jump the fence for a photo op.
Robert carded us onto NAS Key West so we could have lunch at the marina restaurant. Typical MWR facility: great ambience, good food, a marina with retiree’s yachts as a backdrop, and a beach with swimming and kayaking.

One other thought: traveling around Florida over Christmas break gave us an eye-opening view into the “snowbird” phenomenon. Besides millions of tourists who come to Florida for a few days, Florida hosts an estimated 900,000 visitors each winter who stay a month or more, which actually increases Florida’s resident population by 5% in a matter of days. Many of these snowbirds (some estimates say a majority) come from Canada (mainly Quebec), but judging from license plates a large proportion hail from the states you’d expect: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. And they all drive like that’s where they’re from, although that’s a post for another day.

Some of these migrants bring their RVs, making the task of finding an open campground spot almost impossible. (Laura was able to snag us a couple spots in a wonderful campground on Sugarloaf Key only because the campground had been closed while reconstructed after a hurricane, and she called within minutes of its reopening being posted on its website.) Other migrants clog the hotels and resorts. But a surprising number stay in homes they maintain in Florida just for the purpose of having a warm alternative to their frigid home states. There are an estimated 11 million second home in Florida, accounting for nearly 15% of all second homes in the country. And not all of these are little cottages. As we learned when we went to Naples a few years ago, upper-end homes there go for $20 to $75 million, although some bargains can be had across the river, such as at Aqualane, where the homes are in the $10 to $20 million range. And yes, these are mostly “second homes.” About 80% of the owners in these areas spend less than 4 weeks per year in their homes.

And what of the RVs that come to Florida each winter? It’s a weird mix. At some places, such as the RV park in Naples, the RV spots for long-term visitors are filled by one multi-million-dollar RV after another.

But we also encountered the other end of the spectrum at our stop after the Keys: little dinky travel trailers that have been “improved” by the addition of corrugated aluminum siding, plastic lawn furniture, and an eye-popping collection of yard decorations including, no kidding, pink flamingos. We even saw a fair number of Harley-riding “biker snowbirds,” which seems like an irreconciliable combination of nouns. And in a “campground” (which was more like a trailer park) consisting of 300-plus sites, there were well over a hundred of these semi-permanent beauties. Robert actually found himself parked between two of these units, and Laura remarked that she didn’t even feel comfortable going out at night. All of which caused Robert to describe this little gem of a campground as a “dump.”

So, there you have it. A great and wonderful trip, made all the better by the hard work and gracious accommodations of Robert and his family, in the midst of a social phenomenon worth seeing. We’ll be back down in Florida twice in the next few months to babysit the Little Darlings while Robert and Laura absent themselves for various reasons, but I’m sure those trips will be nothing compared to this one. Memorable indeed.