Monday, December 13, 2010


After getting our power converter replaced we turned north once more, and drove out of Florida and back into Georgia, stopping to camp at Crooked River State Park, near St. Marys and Cumberland Island. We had intended to spend more time here, but the electrical problem ate into that particular chunk of time. We also planned on warm, sunny weather, but what we got was more like New England. Stoopid cold front! The wind and cold discouraged us from visiting Cumberland Island National Seashore, so we'll have to see that another time. In order to get home for the holidays we had to keep moving, so we drove north again, to Hardeeville, SC, just 15 minutes out of Savannah, Georgia.

It's been a while since we camped at a private park. This one's just fine, though, and with our Passport America discount, quite inexpensive. Our site is on the outside of a loop, so more private than most. Mostly, though, we wanted to be within easy striking distance of Savannah.

After the rain stopped, we went into town to have a look around. Loved the private homes and park squares in the downtown area. Live oaks draped with spanish moss, palms, flowering shrubs, vine-covered walls around private gardens, stately homes decorated with pine garlands, red ribbons and white twinkle lights...magical. We weaved our way through the grid of roads, taking it all in, then found a parking place big enough for Gigantor's ample hips, squeezed her in there, bribed the dogs with their favorite treats, and set off again on foot.

We walked down to River Street with its uneven cobbled surface and sooty old storefronts, watched tugs escort monsterous tankers upriver to the freight depot, and ducked into tourist shops if the wares looked interesting. They're big on hand-made chocolates and taffy in Savannah, and several stores beckoned passers-by with sweet aromas and free samples. Chocolate wheels kept the brown goodness at just the right consistency; workers made thick, nutty turles (they call them gophers) by the 100's; wooden rollers worked huge blobs of taffy into shape, to be carried across the store to baggers by eleborate Rube Goldberg machines - bucket conveyors, belts, slides...

We wandered City Market and the commercial streets with their antique stores, fashion boutiques & restaurants and settled on the Moon River Brewing Company for a nice meal.

These were taken in Forsyth Park:

Savannah is a great city - not too big, not too small, with plenty of attractions for tourists, but everything a full-time resident requires to make city living fulfilling. Must be even nicer when the sun is out and the air is warm!

We're now at a campground in Dillon, SC near the North Carolina border, weathering a riduculous cold front, and packing for the drive home for Christmas. The water hose was frozen this morning, despite keeping a line cracked open to let it dribble. The dribble turned into a pillar of ice overnight!

We look forward to 2011 when we'll finally see the American West. We'll head to the gulf coast, visit New Orleans, work our way through Texas and into New Mexico and Arizona. We'll hit the west coast down near San Diego, run up towards L.A. to go to our favorite sushi restaurant, then cut back inland to see the Grand Canyon, the arches of Utah, and the Rockies in Colorado. It feels just like it did when the trip first began back in March - just as new, just as exciting!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Santos Trails Mountain Biking

READER ALERT!: The following travel-log entry is nearly 100% concerned with mountain biking. If, for some reason that I cannot possibly understand, you are not interested in this wholesome, healthy, exciting activity, then perhaps you'd prefer to spend your time another way, watching television or sorting your stamp collection, whatever it is that you do do. Thank you.


Santos Trails, located on the south side of Ocala, Florida, are listed by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) as "epic", recognizing this trail system as "...having the biggest influence on riders, as well as land managers and decision makers. These rides are the models that shape our conception of what is possible for trail recreation on public lands." I read that Santos has not only a wide range of trails for all abilities, but also two pump-tracks, a skills area, and a free-ride area with stunts and jumps ranging from just-learning to expert. (The biggest drop is 20 feet!) Furthermore, they have a state-run campground at the trail-head! This made it a mandatory stop for our trip.

The campground had a site available so we booked it, arriving to find all sites taken, and all sites littered with mountain bikes. Clearly we were in good company.

I took to the trails as soon as the unseasonably cold Florida temperatures made it into the 50's. At first I was unimpressed, for while the curvy trails were fun, they had the technical requirements of black-top. But I came at last to the expert level trails, "Magic Mountain" in particlar, at which point the trail took advantage of some rare Florida landscape features, kind of like hills, and made of something kind of like rock. This is what the Magic Mountain trail looks like from its starting point:

The expert trails proved to be a load of fun, requiring much in the way of technical ability and picking a good line, but not to the point that they were not rideable on the first try. I particularly enjoyed a trail called "John Brown". Here I am descending a rocky outcropping:

I made my way through the park and over to a section called Vortex. Here there is an area of expert trails and the free-ride section. They have cleverly installed a "gate" to the area: a ramp feature which, if you can ride over it, provides a good indication that the expert trails beyond are within your ability. It was well within mine, so I proceeded.

The first thing I saw was the free-ride jumps, a three wide and about 100 yards long series of jumps and table-tops that ranged from beginner to insane. Here's a guy taking flight on a table-top jump:

I then rolled down to the quarry floor, where the big drops are. I found some little ones to play on and then watched a guy drop off one of the "medium" drops, perhaps a 6 footer with a good gap between the launch ramp and the landing area such that the drop had to be done at speed. Here's the guy mid-flight:

I went off to ride the expert loop, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which included some ramp opportunities which I was able to do. Here's the longest one, about 50 feet long, maybe 14" wide, and around 3 feet above ground at its apex. Nice!

Having scoped things out, the next day Nancy saddled up her comfort bike and we both did a loop on the easy trails. We did a short loop one day and a longer one the next. She did great, and really enjoyed it!

We even both played around on the pump track and skills area. Here's some shots of our two wheeled fun:

A really great trail system with something for everyone, well worth a visit if you're in the area and are interested enough in the sport to have read this far. There are two bike shops near the trail head which rent good bikes.

The Power Converter: I was cooking dinner at dusk the evening before we were to depart when Nancy called to me "Power's out!" I looked around and saw lights elsewhere in the campground, and went inside to investigate. A noxious odor assailed my nostrils upon entering the Whale, so I bolted to the electric hookup box and threw the breaker. Upon investigation, the source turned out to be our power converter, which takes the 120V AC "shore power" and converts it the 12V DC power that most of our electric lights and pumps run on, and also charges our battery. Without it we would run our battery down in short order, so a replacement would have to be found right away. I saw that an RV dealer was just 1/2 mile away and arranged for a new converter, under warranty, to be available the next day. Unfortunately they received the wrong one, so we ended up staying two extra days, but ultimately the correct one was received. I installed it and we are back up and running.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Wesley Chapel; Hillsborough River State Park

Firstly, here is a street sign we passed which seemed so apropos:

We tore ourselves away from the manatees and drove a few hours south to Hillsborough River State Park, and found it to be another really excellent park. We had reserved a perfect site on the outside of a corner, so our yard was nothing but jungle:

The Hillsborough River winds through the park and a quick peek over at the kayak launch area revealed some of the river's denizens basking in the sun:

We came here primarily to visit my uncle Jake and aunt Bernice. They came over to camp to see the Whale and then we went out to eat. It was to be the first of three dinners out!

The next day we went over to Wesley Chapel to their house. Like their house in Virginia, this one is also home to many of the furnishings and decorations from the Albrecht family lake house on Otisco Lake, NY. It was fun to tour the house and see these familiar items. Here is the happy couple in front of their florida home:

Also at home was Lewis "The Mooch", Bernie's son, and the two Boston Terriers: Fancy and Buster Brown. Here I am with Fancy, who is looking somewhat demonic, but was probably just about to give me kisses:

We went for a driving tour of the area, stopping at a pottery shop, and antique store, and a county park where we took this group photo:

We had dinner that night in Dade City, at Kafe Kokopelli. It is a fascinating place inside and out. The exterior is completely covered in vines and the interior, which used to be a Ford model T shop, is decorated with, among hundreds of interesting items, many stuffed wild animals. We enjoyed an excellent meal, and hot fudge sundaes were savored at its close:

The next day we checked for gators and, finding none on the launch, we put in the kayaks. It was an enchanting paddle down the serpentine glassy river, overhung with live oak, cypress and palms. The clear waters revealed hundreds of fish, mostly foot-long bottom feeders, but also several trophy-sized largemouth bass, and at least one gar.

Also spotted were many turtles and this white ibis:

I took my bike out on the trails that followed along this same river and found them to be loads of fun - narrow winding trails with a few roots to give the suspension something to do:

Another dinner out with Jake and Bernie, this time in North Tampa at Bonefish Grill. Although the evening almost went sour when a skateboarder cut in front of our vehicle, we smoothed our nerves over cocktails and enjoyed a fantastic meal of shrimp, salmon, wolf-fish and mahi-mahi.

It was a really fun visit, but we must keep moving on. Next stop, just two hours north, I'll ride at one of the IMBA designated epic trail systems, the Santos Trails in Ocala. (

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Georgia Museum of Agriculture; Manatee Springs

The day after Thanksgiving the temperatures dropped, so we loaded up and headed south. I found a state run "campground" at the Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village in Tifton. Right off the highway, the campgrond was just a parking lot, but just $20/night for full hookups. The noise and light from the highway was surprisingly non-intrusive, and the facility grounds provided great dog-walking opportunities. As we walked several large flocks of sandhill cranes flew overhead in V formation, which was really cool to see.

The next day we toured the museum and historic village. A steam train carries passengers from the main office to a couple of stop in the village, which was fun.
After dropping us off the conductor climbed up onto the engine and swung over a pipe from a water tower and topped off the water in the engine - not something you see every day! The village, a living history exhibit of authentic or replica structures, was only partially staffed, but we got to see a blacksmith at work, talked to a 90-year old farmer, and got a great demonstration of a water-driven grain mill where they turned corn into grits or meal. There was also a turpentine still and a large cotton gin. Here is Nancy next to a couple of 500lb bales of cotton:

Also on site were some livestock, including this inquisitive bull:

Still a chill in the air, so southwards once again, crossing at last into Florida! It seemed like just crossing the state line the temperature jumped 10 degrees. It felt great. Our destination was Manatee Springs State Park, and we arrived to navigate among the cypress and hickory trees to our campsite. Small white-tailed deer wandered all around and the dogs erupted into frenzied barking, which took all of the fun out of backing in, but it was great to see them at such close range.

We took a walk down to the spring and gazed down into the pure clear water, bubbling up out of the ground at a rate of 100 million gallons per day at a constant 72 degrees. It forms a stream which flows out to the Suwannee River:

At night we heard many rustlings outside, which I thought at first were the deer. But it became obvious that it was not deer, so I fetched a flashlight and turned it on to illuminate: an armadillo! Toby's got a new favorite animal that he'd like to catch, and he spent the rest of our stay watching for them. On one hike he flushed one out and came within inches of its armored hide, but they are very quick little buggers!

We launched our kayaks in the spring and paddled to the confluence and the air was full of buzzards! They roost in the trees all around the mouth of the spring - hundreds of them weighing down the tree branches, squawking, grunting, barking. There were both turkey vultures and black vultures. I haven't seen this many ever, not even on the elephant carcass in Africa!

And then there were the manatees! Eight of them were hanging around where the spring waters flowed into the river, either at rest on the bottom or lazily swimming here and there. When they came up for air just their nostrils would break the surface and you'd hear the breath from their massive lungs, then they'd slip below the surface without a ripple. It was awesome to be able to get so close in the kayaks, often drifing right over one or two, most as long as the boat and many times heavier.

Here is Nancy next to a mother and calf:

Another item of note: we arrived at Manatee Springs SP to find that we had very poor cell service and no internet. A real test for our new Wilson Electronics amplifier and antenna which I installed for just this type of scenario. We plugged it into the Verizon Air Card and presto! Internet! It works great, and transformed a campsite where Nancy could not have worked into one where she could. Just what the doctor ordered!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving in Atlanta

Our friend Sharon is currently camped in Georgia and we were hoping that we might get together over Thanksgiving. We learned that she had plans to spend the holiday with her friends in Atlanta, but before we had made other arrangements we found ourselves invited to join in their celebration. So we drove west to a Army Corps of Engineers campground not far from Atlanta. The McKinney campground is really nice - big sites well spaced, and reasonably priced, much like a state park. We got a nice back-in site on Allatoona Lake:

Thanksgiving Day arrived and I found that the shirt I selected was wrinkled. For want of an iron, I improvised: a heavy-bottomed saucepan heated up with a little water on it for an iron, a damp cloth on the counter for a board - wrinkle removed!

We arrived at the address we'd been given to find ourselves at a beautifully restored city home. We greeted Sharon and met our hosts and newfound friends Conni, Paul, their son Alex, and their dog Sparticus. Here are Conni and Paul behind the amazing spread of fabulous thanksgiving dishes they had prepared:

Harley (Sharon's dog) and Sparticus were happily wrestling and sparring, but when they'd had enough rough play we brought in Kinsey and Toby. What commenced was a conga-line of urination and butt-sniffing, which was hysterical.
Sparticus largely ignored the two terriers, but Harley found them fascinating, and his affectionate advances to both dogs earned him a few snaps and snarls until he lost interest. It was fun to let all of the dogs socialize while we scarfed down a variety of savory snacks and sipped champagne.

Among the amazing variety of succulent dishes laid out for dinner was the largest, deepest lasagne that I've ever seen. Here Sharon digs deep to extract the first piece:

We gathered for the feast, and everything was so good. It was a meal to remember, and we left the table suitably happy and engorged:

Of course we missed being with our own families back in Connecticut and Maine, and we look forward to being with them over the Christmas holiday. But Sharon's friendship and Conni & Paul's gracious hospitality and generocity was touching and much appreciated. We will always remember this Thanksgiving away from our home, and think of our new friends with fondness and gratitude.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Hamilton Branch; F.A.T.S.

We tore ourselves away from the sun and sand of Edisto Beach, picked up a pound of local shrimp at Flower's on the way off island, and drove inland to another state park just north of Augusta, Georgia. The Savannah River separates Georgia from South Carolina, and in is dammed to create Strom Thurmond Lake, on the banks of which is Hamilton Branch State Park. This lake is about 40 miles long, but with a coastline of nooks & crannies that give it a whopping 1200 miles of shoreline! The park offers huge wooded lakefront sites with electric and water, and we picked one where the neighboring sites are not visible. The dogs could run free, and trot down to the lake for a swim.

It was, for the most part, very peaceful at this park. Most of the time it was so quiet that all you could here was crickets. No traffic, no motors, no other campers. Awesome. And there was virtually no wind during our stay, so the lake was like glass:

Occasionally a train would rumble by on nearby tracks, blasting its horn at intersections, but these didn't last long. One day there was a terrible racket from some kind of racecar on a motor-speedway, and it was so awful in comparision to the blissfull silence that it shattered, and the blessed silence that returned once the driver finally had enough laps.

What drew us to this section of South Carolina is a mountain bike trail system called Forks Area Trail System, or FATS. I rode there both days that we were in the area, and it was really great. The first time was a Sunday, and I arrived at the parking lot to find it nearly full - there must have been 50 cars there, all with bike racks. I got geared up and set out to sample some of the 35 miles of trails.

These trails are known for their buttery smoothness, and they were indeed smoother than any I've ridden to date.
How smooth?....................................

Yeah, that smooth.
I think I saw 5 rocks over two days. And the trails are so well cut into the terrain, traversing the slope of the land, stretching out the downhill experience for what seemed like miles, undulating between the trees, and punctuated by lumps and dips that, at speed, provided countless opportunities to get both wheels off the ground. It was really, really fun riding.

Here I am at the intersection of Big Rock and Tower trails:

Back at camp, we went for a couple of beautifully serene paddles on the mirror smooth waters of the lake.

Not a bad way to live, if you ask me...