Saturday, July 30, 2005

I've just returned from a jaunt to visit my brother-in-law (together with my lovely wife) in Green Cove Springs, FL. Because he had just built and was still finishing a new home we intended to help WORK but all we did is play.

Ok, so I helped get his drag racer ready for this weekend. Well, that was PLAY. And I did help get his boat ready for floundering, MORE PLAY. And I did help him on a shakedown floundering trip. EVEN MORE PLAY!!!

The truth is that all I did was play. We ate at a crab shack, local pizzeria, and home (fresh fried flounder!). We played on the race car and boat, fished (gigging flounder is nothing BUT fun!). My wife talked and shopped and ate and slept. We had a great time!

Gigging flounder is great fun. My brother-in-law works for the Navy managing maintenance/rebuilding of fleet aircraft. He travels a lot and enjoys hands on projects. His boat and floundering are two things, aside from drag racing, that he really enjoys. You should see his eyes light up and I guess mine do, too! Anyway, he has a 14' flat-bottomed aluminum boat (like the 1440D in the link) with a 25hp Honda 4 stroke (now that is a quiet motor) and no center seat. He has mounted a bank of 6, 500 watt halogen work lights on the bow and powers them with a 3KW Honda generator. Depending on which bank he's working and which side of the boat needs to be lit he uses the center 2 lights and 2 lights on the shore side of the boat (not all 6 at once). It is pretty cool as you pole down the coast in 4-8" of water, following the tide and spearing the fish as you spot them on the bottom waiting for their dinner. Of course, this can only be done at night so no couch potatoes and no direct sunlight! He knows his stuff and we got our limits both nights (10 each or 20 total each night) or 40 fish all together. At more than 1½ lbs each (we got several whoppers as well as several 14" fish), we had many lbs of good eating in the freezer (3 gallons of meat ready for the frier). He figures that those fish would have cost us $400 in the store.

It is great fun and sort of combines hunting with boating and staying out all night. One doesn't need to invest a lot to participate but of course some folks do. I'd forgotten how much fun it was to be out on the water after dark and to navigate by the navigational markers. Technique and timing count for a lot and I can see how some folks wouldn't be as successful as others. At first I couldn't see the fish until they were pointed out to me, by the end of the second night I was seeing fish my brother-in-law didn't see or before he saw them. Of course you get to see lots of other fish as well, such as needle-nose gar, rays, small sharks, sheepshead, mullet (the principle prey here), redfish, and crabs. That alone is interesting and exciting. You certainly don't, and can't, see all that during the day.

Now, if I can just get him to take me shrimping...

Hobie (left) and Brother-in-law (right) in front of boat with one night's catch. The small boat is easy to handle with a single pole even in a tide that brings in 4 ft of water in 3 hours.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Trip around the country...

My wife and I (and our miniature schnauzer, Bailey)just returned from a 24 night RV "jaunt" around the country. Not the whole country, just 18 states. Because we couldn't leave until 8 June and had to return not later than (NLT) 2 July, we were limited in the time available at certain places. Another limitation, that I placed on the trip, was that driving time would not be in excess of 6 hours. There were several reasons for this restriction. First, I HATE to drive! Second, we had our dog and thought it inappropriate to have her in the crate more than necessary. Third, there's lots of places between "here" and "there" with something great to see (as it is you can't see, photograph, or spend much time at everything along our route). For this trip, we mostly stayed at KOAs. Every place we stayed had some sort of on-line presence as I wanted to sort of test this out.

For those interested our rig consists of a Ford F150 with the Triton motor and tow package dragging a Trail Manor 2720SL. The truck did very well and I never went over 3000 rpm nor did I have to cut out the overdrive. The steepest roads encountered with trailer were I-25 dropping into Trinidad, CO and on US 65 in Missouri! The problem wasn't in going up, it was coming down. The F150 engine isn't set up to brake well.

Our first stop was at the local KOA to load out, final operational check of all systems and to give Miss Daisy (my wife and employer) a final opportunity to bail on the trip. Everything went well mechanically, we got the "stuff" into the trailer and were gone the next day. Please note that I only wore ½ the clothes I carried and that was far better than Miss Daisy. It is really easy to pack too much.

Our second stop was Chattanooga, TN. This was only a layover, and is about ½ way between our home and Pensacola, FL which was our first destination. This was a KOA and while acceptable wasn't quite as pretty, clean, etc as the KOA in Verona, VA. We went back up I-75 to a Cracker Barrel as it was "too darn hot to cook". You'll see that we pretty much followed this pattern throughout the trip!

Another pattern adhered to throughout the trip was that the system operator, me, couldn't ever put up the trailer fast enough, tear down the trailer fast enough, drive fast enough, drive slow enough or stop quick enough for photos. Glad I didn't have a shock collar!

Our next stop was Pensacola, FL (Milton KOA) to see family (our son and my wife's sister). Unfortunately we arrived about the time that Tropical Storm Arlene came ashore. Lots of rain and with 6" of water standing around the camper and more coming down I tore down the camper in the rain wearing only my swim suit. I'm sure the other campers thought there was more lightning than there was as the reflected light from my once large belly flashed across their windows. Nothing like handling 30A electrical service standing in 6" of water... That done and me dried off, we moved back across the bay to Pensacola proper and a Ramada (and another Cracker Barrel). Spent the day with my son and had dinner with my sister-in-law and her boyfriend.

Now it was on to Biloxi, MS to Cajun RV and the "strip", casinos, along the gulf. This is my wife's thing but this time we just ate out at the Grand Palace, watched folks abuse the buffet (my goodness can some people pack it in!), and did a quick cruise of the floor and poker machines. Lost my usual $5 and quit.

The RV park is right on the strip and many sites are on all gravel but there are some grassed sites (although not enough necessary shade). The folks there are real nice but the facilities are a bit dated.

Our next stop was Beaumont, TX and Gulf Coast RV. I'd originally chosen this stop because it was about ½ way between Biloxi and San Antonio and getting there or from didn't exceed my self-imposed 6 hour drive time. I then discovered the Texas Energy Museum and wanted to go there as well. Spindletop was the big discovery and really kicked off the Texas oil boom and the museum really is a great place for adults AND kids to visit. However, it wasn't open the evening we arrived so we had to wait until morning to visit. The folks at Gulf Coast RV were great about giving us a bit of extra time to check out so that we could go to the museum.

Gulf Coast is a great facility but for ONE problem, no SHADE! It was hotter than heck while we were there and shade would have been welcome. However, all the facilities are super clean and in excellent condition. It is a great place to drop the steps.

We left there at about 11 AM for the first big stop of the trip, San Antonio, TX. My wife was extremely excited and the drive was without incident. We arrived at the San Antonio KOA at about 2:30 and got set up in time to go downtown and eat. My wife HAD to go to the riverwalk. Again hotter than heck. The KOA advertised that they had bus service to the riverwalk (note that this isn't "shuttle" service) but it was the public bus system. Not a problem for me but the wife didn't like riding through the local run down section of town with people getting off work, etc. We did get to see the National Cemetery and the Spurs home turf on the way. We also had to wait in the heat as the bus was about 45 minutes late. Not a good thing when the wife is hot AND hungry. We ate at the County Line (a BBQ place) which was good but expensive (in keeping with the purely tourist atmosphere). Rode back with a few other KOA Kampers who commented on their unintended look at another side of San Antonio (!) and slept well. Got up early the next morning and went to the Alamo. Every gentleman kept his hat off inside. Very interesting. Road the riverboat, ate on the Riverwalk again, went to la Villita shops, and rode the bus again. Much fun, for me.

The San Antonio KOA must get quite a lot of business and they are a bit less caring about the condition of their facilities. The dog walk was downright dangerous for man and beast although there was safe space right at the camp site. However, the folks were very nice and helpful.

Our next stop, intended to be an overnight, was Abilene, TX. The ride was interesting and educational. Over a variety of roads, it was an interesting transition across the differing geography of Texas. Abilene wasn't particularly exciting but we did get to go to Frontier Texas. That is something for all ages. Lots of fun and educational.

The folks at the Abilene KOA were nice, the facility was a bit above average. While it was still really hot, the humidity was a lot less than in San Antonio. Trees are a rare thing here so not so much shade... We ate at a Texas Roadhouse and both food and service were excellent.

Our next overnight was at the Amarillo KOA. Again, another excellent facility but no shade. Pretty windy, too. Ate at The Big Texan, home of the 72 oz. steak, which was ok. Miss Daisy liked it more than I did. Went to the American Quarter Horse Museum as well and I liked that more than MD did so I guessed we were even. I guessed wrong.

Our next goal was Pueblo, CO and we stayed at the Pueblo North KOA. This was a night to wash clothes and the dog. A big negative was that it was here that we discovered the TV was going to pot. I'm guessing that the vibrating in the trailer didn't agree with the set despite how we packed it on padding in it's original box. MD likes to be able to watch TV and this was not a good development! Still hot here. We went to the local Walmart where I met a "long lost friend". Well he thought I was and I was polite but vague (I did NOT know this guy). He went on and kept looking over his shoulder for a bit...

Enroute to the next stop we passed through Cheyenne, WY. At the Welcome Center there, just off I-25, we saw pronghorns only some 50 yards from the parking lot! Pretty cool to me. Dog like watching, too. Saw these animals all through Wyoming (except Yellowstone) on our trip.

The next stop was Douglas, WY. Now this is the sort of small town where I'd like to live. The KOA (which pushes the jackalope connection) is very nice as are the folks running it. GREAT place to stay and much cooler in the evenings. Ate yet another steak at a local restaurant AND got to visit FT Fetterman. Warmed up during the day but not so much humidity (I'll take what relief I can get!).

Finally, heading to Cody. Went through Thermopolis, WY. Great scenery, great people, and the wife was really excited as we neared Cody. Can't take enough photos to capture all the great sights. Arrived at the Cody KOA early in the afternoon and got set-up in time to catch the "gunfight" (entertaining for a number of unintended reasons) and trolley tour of Cody. Fascinating.

Cody was the first KOA with the all-you-can-eat pancakes ($1 here) and we took advantage. First day we went to Yellowstone. Beautiful but not as the wife remembered it. We're old enough to know that you can't go back. Arrived at Old Faithful in time to witness a mountain thunderstorm and, unfortunately, see a 12-year old boy scout struck by lightning. We understand that he is still alive. Also during our stay, another boy scout was swept down the Yellowstone River. Last we heard they were searching for him, in Montana. Sad. That evening we went to the Cody Nite Rodeo.

The rodeo was about what I expected. You can't run a rodeo every night and expect to have the best talent or stock available. My wife was disappointed that there weren't "pros" there. I thought that the participants gave as much thrill in 8 seconds as anyone else could. We ate at the rodeo.

Anyway, the park is much changed from MD's last visit and much built up in the area of Old Faithful. Of course, she was last there about 40 years ago. Saw no bears or elk but MANY bison. Elsewhere in WY we saw many, many pronghorn antelope. All in all, we thought Wyoming was beautiful.

The 2nd day we spent at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Too much to see in too little time (a recurrent problem). What a place! LOVED it (and so did MD). Art, natural history, firearms, great folks, great facility... what's not to love? FANTASTIC and worth the whole trip.

Interesting to me were all the guns I'd seen in books since 1965 finally just inches away from me. Really helped me to see the guns first hand. Also, while Mr. Cody had been a "hero" to me before, I really came to understand how fantastic this guy was. He may have made mistakes, been flawed, etc, but what a forward thinking, inventive person. Again, a great thing. Ate at the Mexican-American place on main street. Wife loved it.

On our third night in Cody we had a heck of a windstorm. It may have contributed to later problems (or not) but the winds must have been gusting to 50+ mph. Rocked the camper pretty good and didn't end until about 1:00 AM MT. I'm not sure, I was asleep but the wife didn't get to sleep until about 2:00 AM.

Got up the next morning to be greeted by our neighbors with tales of the harrowing night and our pancake breakfast. Packed and ready, we left for Hardin, MT via Billings. The trip was most notable to us for the change from high desert to grassland. Our comfort level went way up! Reached Hardin KOA at about 2:00 PM (lots of construction) and were off to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Very interesting to get an idea of the scale (which means a lot to this old infantryman). Couldn't stop thinking that Custer must have been nuts. No competent infantryman so outnumbered would have done anything that Custer did.

Of course this is on the Crow Nation. The NAs may be poor but that was the best Kentucky Fried Chicken I've had or seen in a loooong time. Those folks run a tight ship.

We were there on June 23rd and so saw many activities taking place including a memorial ride on the reservation. Great timing, accidentally, on my part.

On the 24th we headed for Mount Rushmore and the Mount Rushmore/Hill City KOA for two nights. Now there is a great facility for family camping. Trail riding, all-you-can-eat pancakes, swimming, Mount Rushmore 5 minutes in one direction, Crazy Horse Memorial 10-15 minutes the other direction, beautiful scenery, etc. Wonderful. Moved my wife to tears.

First night ate at the restaurant on site. Had buffalo and it was pretty good. Gave the dog a good walk and said hello to some kampers who had lived through the big wind in Cody with us.

The next day we started with pancakes, buffalo sausage, and Mount Rushmore. Impressive and very interesting. Loved it all. By noon we'd seen it "all" and left to check on the dog and then for Crazy Horse. Had a very interesting afternoon at the Crazy Horse Memorial and then "home" for dinner. After dinner it was back to Mount Rushmore for the lighting ceremony. This included a salute to the veterans wherein the veterans folded the flag, all stood for the national anthem and the folded flag was passed from veteran to veteran. Forced to participate by my wife, I was surprised by the number of veterans who walked down to the stage to participate. This included a husband and wife with whom I spoke very briefly. My wife really enjoyed this particular day. She loved the scenery, the facilities, the ceremony and the short travel time.

The next morning we're off for Sioux Falls. Started to have fun now. Stopped in Mitchell, SD at the Corn Palace. Only did this stop because a friend thought it was so great. Frankly, I wasn't much impressed. Perhaps I was getting a bit tired. Too bad, I was only a couple of hours away from some real excitement. However, I also got to go through the Cabela's which is just off the exit. Great thing.

Continuing to Sioux Falls, at exit 390 I looked in the rearview to see the forward left coping on the trailer begin to peel off! Traveling at 75 MPH, I pulled over just in time to prevent the complete removal of of the molding and the possible removal of the trailer's side panel. Fortunately, I had some electrician tape and that got us the next 9 miles to Sioux Falls KOA which, by the grace of God, was right next to a full-service RV center which owns the KOA.

What had happened is that at some point the wind from driving some 4000 miles and/or the high winds we'd experienced a couple of nights had loosened the ill attached molding/coping. This stuff, which covers the gap between the front and side panels of aluminum, is vinyl and "glued" on with silicone sealant. The factory did not get the sealant located correctly and didn't have full contact along the length of the molding. This was on a Sunday and we had to wait until 8:30 the next morning to get the materials/help to repair the trailer. I think I did a much better job with the sealant I got from the RV center (they also loaned by a caulking gun, some surface cleaner and a shop rag). It didn't come off again but I did get a second tube of sealant and a caulking gun (from a Home Depot in Sioux Falls) just in case. This was kind of disconcerting for me and a major irritant for my wife.

Our next stop was a KOA (Kansas City East) just east of Independence, MO on I-75. Hot again after several cool nights, the worst part about this leg was the horrible traffic in the Kansas City area. Also, they had the worst maintained and manned restaurants and service stations of the whole trip. We had planned to go to the Truman Library but our repair work on the trailer ate up too much of our time and we were unable to do this.

The next morning my wife was eager to get up and get on to our next stop, Branson, MO. It has to be said that I-75 and US-65 were the two worst roads, for surface condition, we experienced (with the exception of surfaces under construction which were sometimes better). Rough with repairs that seemed to exacerbate the poor condition of the road rather than improve it, we bounced our way much of the way to Branson. Couldn't even stop at the Bass Pro Shop in Springfield! Oh, well... Went on to Branson and the Branson KOA where we had a site right off Lake Taneycomo and a very short walk from their all you can eat pancakes (nobody will believe that I lost 15+ lbs and 2 inches from my waist on this trip).

Of course "we" had to see some shows and we went to the Ray Stevens show and to a show by the Oak Ridge Boys. Also, my wife being a fan of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans (two wonderful people), we went to the museum honoring them and saw the show by Dusty Rogers. Good cowboy music that doesn't hurt the ears. As Dusty says, "you'll still be able to hear when you leave." Being train buffs, we also took the excursion on the Branson Scenic Railway that leaves Branson's depot (downtown). FYI, the cars are air conditioned.

After Branson it was on to Munford, TN (just north of Memphis) to visit friends. They treated us to dinner at a very nice Italian place where I had shrimp and salmon on angelhair pasta. Lots of good talk, some wine and then we were off again for Nashville.

A quick drive (3 hours) to Nashville, TN and we were off to Opry Mills and then to the Grand Old Opry. The most memorable part of the show was a performance by Gail Davies of a gospel hymn in tribute to her friend Goldie Hill. Sung mostly acappella, I don't believe she needed a microphone to reach the 3000 some people present. Wow!

One more night in the trailer and we were bound for home! On the road from June 8 through July 2 we drove some 5700 miles through some 18 states. If we missed you I'm sorry, we didn't get to do a tenth of what we'd have liked to do but did all that time allowed. Hopefully we'll catch you next time!