Update 9: November 26, 2006
211 days; 20,410 miles (Car: 8,337, RV: 12,073); 30 states; 26 National Parks; 8,456 photos.
We arrived at Susan’s uncle’s house in Cape Coral on November 20th. This will be our residence until the first of February. It marks the end of seven months on the road so far; the first half of our trip is over. Staying here will give us a chance to decompress from the constant travel and have a nice place to welcome the new baby into the world.
It was nice to spend Thanksgiving in an actual house, and it’s nice for Justin to be able to have room to roam. It’s funny though, because he seems a little bored here so far. We think that’s because when we’re on the road, we’re constantly busy with traveling, sightseeing, hiking, going to the beach, and all the other things we do outdoors. Today he seems better, and (thankfully) has managed to keep himself busy on his own.
It’s been about six weeks since the last update. As a result, this update is one of the longer ones we’ve done. I know that it’s sometimes difficult to find time to read the updates, but let me offer you this: it will be the last update for close to three months. One possible exception will be a very short update to let everyone know when the baby arrives next month.
Because we waited so long to complete this update, there was a lot more work to do than usual. Fortunately, Susan agreed to help write a couple of updates. The author of each update is listed.
Shenandoah National Park: October 14-19, 2006
(Location 49 on the Map
Shenandoah National Park lies along the Blue Ridge in northern Virginia, near the north end of the Appalachian Mountains. We arrived at the perfect time: during the changing of the leaves. This is the part of autumn we’re deprived of in Phoenix, so it was a treat to see the beautiful colors at their peak. We were able to hike three different trails in the park despite a down day due to rain. At thirty weeks of pregnancy, the hikes were getting progressively shorter with the longest there being a 2.9 mile round-trip hike to the top of Hawksbill Mountain. Typically, I slow Jeff down even with the extra thirty-plus pounds of Justin and the carrier on his back; but I managed to keep up. As we left the park, we drove the remainder of the 105-mile scenic route along Skyline Drive.
After Shenandoah, we turned toward Williamsburg, Virginia. We drove south to Chesapeake to have dinner with my friend Bridgette, her husband, and her two sons. We had a short but wonderful visit, and Justin had a blast playing with Matthew and Aidan. He was so upset about leaving that he refused to say goodbye or thank you. As a staunch practitioner of the lessons in his Elmo’s Good Manners Game book, this was testimony to the fact that he had so much fun.
The next day, we went to Colonial Williamsburg. This is a touristy place that gives you a sense of being in the 1700’s, with the restored buildings and volunteers dressed in the garb of the era. However, it does not resonate with the history of the Revolution we had hoped for. We lamented the fact that we didn’t go to Jamestown or Yorktown instead. But the day was nice, and Justin was extremely well-behaved. He even maintained his potty training regimen while there. Usually displaying an aversity toward public toilets, he managed to use one in the women’s room quite effectively. He was so proud of himself, that as we approached the saddle maker’s shop, he proclaimed to the Colonial-clad woman who greeted us, “I pooped on the potty. It was a big poop!” Fortunately, she was a grandmother with a two-year-old grandchild of her own, so she wasn’t bothered by his candor. In fact, she praised him for his accomplishment.
As we left, we purchased a 5-disc Revolutionary War DVD set in hopes of learning more about the Revolution that we realized we are so ignorant about. We drove away, and we were again surrounded by outlet stores; the same outlet stores that blistered the scenery of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Amish country of Lancaster County. And again we wondered why people can’t simply appreciate the beauty or history of these great places without the ruinous commercialization.
For photos from Shenandoah National Park, Click Here
Great Smoky Mountain National Park: October 23-29, 2006
(Location 52 on the Map
And the commercialization continued.
I suppose we should have figured that at the most-visited park in the US, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there would be more of the same. In Cherokee, on the eastern side of the park, there was miniature golf, a water park (although it was closed for the season), and about a hundred moccasin stores. Not to mention the casino. In Gatlinburg, on the western side, there were more shops and hotels than you could count. Up the road from that were the Dollywood amusement park and the Dollywood Splash World water park.
Fortunately, you can stay inside the park and not have to deal with any of that. But even inside the park, the park’s popularity combined with the changing of the leaves, conspired to make driving and hiking a crowded affair. So instead of spending too much time at places like the visitor’s centers, picnic areas, and pull offs on the side of the road, we found some longer trails away from the crowds and were able to enjoy our week-long visit without sharing it with too many others.
One hike in particular stands out. We set out on a six-mile loop trail that would take us to the top of a nearby mountain and back. We figured that after doing a four-mile hike the previous day, Susan could handle it. As she progressed through the pregnancy, she was certainly getting slower, but if she took it slow, she didn’t have too much trouble. So we took off, and before long, Justin and I were well ahead of her. We were halfway into a somewhat strenuous two-mile uphill stretch, when I decided to let Justin out and let him walk on his own. I figured that as slow as he is, Susan would catch up to us soon enough. Well, Justin was faster than I thought and Susan was slower, and she simply wasn’t catching up. So I had Justin stop and eat a snack so we could wait for Susan to catch up. We waited. And waited. And waited. I finally decided we should turn around and go back for her. Maybe she was hurt. Or having a baby. As we were getting packed up to head back, here came Susan, walking slowly up the hill towards us. In hindsight, I see that we shouldn’t have left her behind. She said she felt terribly alone being on the trail with no one else around, in an area she wasn’t familiar with. And for the first time on any hike she’d been on she didn’t think she was going to make it. She had stopped to lean against a tree and cry. It was another lesson to me to make concessions for her pregnancy. You’d think that after seven months of Susan’s pregnancy, I would have gotten a clue. But you’d be giving me too much credit.
This stop was our coldest of the road trip so far. I had filled up the propane tank prior to getting there, but it was cold enough that we were running the furnace much more than usual, and I was a little bit concerned about running out of propane sometime in the week we were there. We didn’t, but it was close. The cold, along with a rain storm we had one day, produced some beautiful displays. In the valleys throughout the park, the low lying clouds and fog produced the “smoky” effect that the area is named for. And at Clingman’s Dome, one of the high points in the park, the weather coated the leaves of the trees with a thick layer of frost and ice, leaving the ground bare. I heard on the news the weekend after we left the Smokies that the ski area just outside the east side of the park was opening for the season. I guess we left just in time.
For photos from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Click Here
Congaree National Park: October 29-31, 2006
(Location 53 on the Map
After leaving Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we moved south to Columbia, South Carolina, where we would visit Congaree National Park.
We stayed in an actual RV park just outside of Columbia. Not an RV campground, like KOA, but an actual RV park. I think it was our worst camping spot on the trip so far. The only reason we were in the area to begin with was our visit to Congaree (a park we’d never heard of prior to the trip), and we had precious few choices of camping spots. The other nearby RV park in our book was called Barnyard RV Park, and I was damned if we were going to stay somewhere with such a ridiculous name. At the park we chose, it looked like about half the people were living in their trailers/motor homes full time. The woman next to us (always barefoot, wearing an 80's style sweat shirt hanging off of one shoulder, showing that she doesn't believe in bras) had let her 5-year-old daughter take some sand toys and go out into one of the dirt "streets" to play. (The streets being what you drive on to get to the different sites throughout the RV park). When Susan drove back from doing laundry one day, she had to wait in the car until the mother came out and got the kid out of the street. I thought, at least she's competent enough to get her kid out of harm's way. No; she just had the kid go to a different street, one street over, to play. Justin ended up playing with this girl and her sister, but they had a disheveled air about them, and I could see in them and their mother how people can draw the backwards, southern stereotype.
The next day, we went out to visit Congaree National Park, if for nothing else than to check it off of our list. Since the park was until just a couple of years ago known as Congaree Swamp National Monument, I wasn’t expecting much. But gaining National Park status (and dropping “swamp” from the title) has apparently given it some clout, and there was a new and impressive visitor’s center, along with what seemed like miles of nice boardwalks over the swamplands. We took a 2-1/2 mile boardwalk loop, which meandered through cypress trees, palmettos, and trees draped with Spanish moss, and proved to be a nice walk through the quiet swamp. Justin walked almost the entire thing without being carried. We didn’t see the alligator that was purported to live in one of the lakes, nor did we see the wild boars, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. Justin was enamored with the replica of a hollow tree inside the visitor’s center, which he kept running inside of in order to see the fake bats upside-down above him.
Since Susan in particular is concerned about Justin not missing out on the things that he would be doing if we were in an actual home somewhere, she wanted to take him trick-or-treating. We decided though, that we didn’t know the area well enough to feel comfortable, so we opted instead to carve pumpkins back at the RV. Susan carved a big one while Justin scribbled with markers on the small one he picked out. It wasn’t a bad way to spend Halloween, and thankfully there wasn’t candy laying around everywhere to tempt us into adding on a few more pounds
For photos from Congaree National Park, Click Here
Orlando, Florida: November 5-10, 2006
(Location 56 on the Map
In Orlando, we ventured to two of the biggest tourist destinations: Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Sea World. We figured this would be part of Justin’s last hoorah as an only child before the new baby’s arrival. Though we had been to Disneyland in Anaheim six months earlier, the arrival at Disney World was quite different. Where you can walk right into the California park, in Florida you must first stand in a line with 200 other people, then embark on a tram ride to the ticketing area from the parking lots. After purchasing tickets, you then choose either a one-and-a-half mile trip by monorail or by ferry to enter the actual amusement park. Justin selected the latter, and we joined our hundreds of friends again in another cattle call. As soon as we were inside the actual park, over an hour after we arrived in the parking lot, Justin asked to see Mickey Mouse. This, of course, was the highlight of his earlier California trip. He continued to recall months afterward that Mickey gave him a high five when he was there. After a number of rides and brief encounters with other Disney World characters, and followed by another cattle call, Justin finally saw the cherished mouse again. This time, Mickey gestured to Justin to touch his nose, which he did. Then Mickey motioned for Justin to squeeze his nose, which he also did. However, without prompting or invitation, Justin took things one step further. If you ask Justin today what he did when he saw Mickey Mouse, he will no longer say, “He gave me five.” Instead, he’ll tell you, “I poked his eye,” which indeed is what he did. With Mickey stunned and the crowd dismayed, being the polite child that he is, Justin offered an apology. After a full day, we returned to the parking lot via the monorail, the smell of which evoked memories of the Wisconsin State Fair. The smell lent further proof that we were indeed simply part of the never-ending cattle call that defines a day at Disney World.
While it seems true that Disney is the happiest place on Earth, the campground where we stayed did not live up to that title. Having discovered that mice had again visited the kitchen drawers and left behind small, brown gifts, Jeff set traps using peanut butter as bait. This prompted a parade of more invaders: hundreds of ants, swarming over the fresh peanut butter. Once those guests were seemingly eradicated, we experienced another unwelcome guest: a torrential Florida rain and windstorm; not unlike a hurricane, but on a smaller scale. The storm started with gentle rain, but out of nowhere, suddenly started violently whipping things across the campground. As we watched the fury outside, we heard what sounded like something very large being thrown into the side of the RV. It turned out to be our 19-foot awning, which was completely ripped off and hurled over the roof to the opposite side of the RV. En route, it punctured the side of the RV and smashed a big hole in the A/C shroud on the roof. The worst of the storm was over in just a couple of minutes. As we looked out the window at the mess outside, we saw that not fewer than six other owners had lost their RV awnings, too. Fortunately, our insurance company, in conjunction with a local RV repair company, replaced the awning just two days later, while we were visiting Sea World.
Sea World was fun. The only cattle calls were the ones getting into the dolphin and killer whale shows; otherwise, the crowds were manageable. Justin had a fun time there as well, getting a close-up view of stingrays, which he refused to touch; and bottlenose dolphins, which he wanted to touch, but they never got within reach. He got to see manatees and beluga whales and walruses. But when asked, he said the sharks were his favorite.
For photos from Disney World and Sea World, Click Here
Florida Keys: November 13-18, 2006
(Location 58 on the Map
In the ten years that Jeff and I have been together, I have always longed for a beach vacation. As we entered Florida and ventured down to the Keys, I guess I finally received it. Well, at least a sampling of it.
The Florida Keys are a popular and expensive tourist destination. Many of the campgrounds near Key West approached the $100 per night mark. Since we prefer to stay in state and county parks, which happen to be more cost effective, we took that route. Since we weren’t able to get consecutive camping reservations at one specific place, we had to split our time between two different campgrounds: one in Long Key and the other at Bahia Honda State Park.
Our campsite at Long Key was only twenty feet or so from the beach. The waters reminded me of pale emeralds and aquamarines puzzle-pieced together. There is an absence of waves in that area, and the water remains shallow for a long stretch outward. So after setting up camp, we spent the afternoon wading in the clear, calm waters with Justin. He watched his first hermit crab scurry along the ocean floor and eventually grew bold enough to pick one up. Jeff did some swimming while Justin and I explored the sea bottom. As we walked out, I heard a splash behind me. When I turned, Justin was face down in the water, unable to get himself up. I immediately plucked him out and took him back to shore to comfort him. I think I remained shaken much longer than he did because he cried for a few minutes, but quickly ventured back into the water while I refused to take my eyes off of him for even a minute while he played in the ocean. As we continued to explore, I felt tiny bites on my arms and legs from what appeared to be pesky, little gnats. I figured a few douses of Cutter bug spray would do the trick and thought nothing more of it until the end of the day when my whole body appeared to be covered in bite marks that itched with an intensity I had never felt before. Come to find out, they were sand fleas whose bites did not stop itching for over a week. I subsequently counted 350 bites on my body. Jeff’s were concentrated on his ankles and feet. Justin managed to escape the viciousness of the little creatures altogether.
From our second campsite at Bahia Honda, we spent time at the beach again, which Justin loved. We were also able to use it as a launching-off point for Key West. Bahia Honda State Park is approximately forty miles from Key West, but well worth the drive. The town of Key West is very laid back: aged sixties hippies in tie-dyed ponchos, casually dressed locals in bare feet meandering the streets, and open-air restaurants where mid-day drinking is as common as fishing. One such restaurant where we ate lunch was Sloppy Joe’s. The bar/restaurant has been in existence in Key West since 1933 and is best known as the local haunt for writer Ernest Hemingway while he lived there. We were there mid-day on a Thursday, and the bar was bustling and full. A local musician serenaded all of us with such classics as Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver and Gimme Three Steps by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Being pregnant, I believe I was the only one in the bar without a luncheon cocktail. It was a very relaxed and vacation-like atmosphere. But because I was unable to taste the beer, had to endure 350 sand flea bites, and lumber around the beaches and towns with an eight-month-pregnant belly, the trip to Key West still does not qualify as my beach vacation. Perhaps in the next ten years, Jeff will actually agree to a real beach trip, and I will be able to officially declare that I have finally had my true beach vacation. Perhaps not.
New bird from Miami Beach (en route to the Keys): Royal Tern.
New bird we saw in the Keys: Little Blue Heron.
For photos from the Florida Keys, Click Here
Florida National Parks: November 12, 17, 19, 2006
(Various FL locations on the Map
Since hitting the East Coast a couple of months ago, we’ve encountered only a handful of National Parks. Florida is the exception, with three parks in relatively close proximity to each other.
Biscayne National Park
Biscayne is located a half hour or so south of Miami, and is another of the many parks we’ve been to that require a boat in order to see most of the park. In Biscayne’s case, only five percent of the park is on land; the rest is either on some small keys, or underwater. The park is home to mangrove forests on shore and the world’s third-longest coral reef offshore. Due in part to Susan’s advanced state in the pregnancy, plus the fact that we were on the way to the Keys and didn’t plan to spend much time in the area, we decided not to take a boat out, and to just explore the shoreline. (Besides, we had planned to go to Miami Beach in the afternoon, and we were kind of anxious to hit the beach). Since such a small part of the park is on shore, it didn’t take long to explore the shoreline. Afterwards, we enjoyed a nice film in the visitors’ center, and Justin (as usual) ran around looking at and pointing to the displays of marine life. The volunteer working the desk tried to get Justin to pretend he was a turtle by laying down and having a huge tortoise shell placed on his back, but Justin was unwilling to cooperate. We had a nice lunch in the shade overlooking the bay, then headed on our way.
Dry Tortugas National Park
This is definitely the least accessible of the National Parks in the lower 48. The park lies 70 miles west of Key West, and has no facilities whatsoever on shore. You have to take a 2-1/2 hour boat ride to get out to the main island, on which lies Fort Jefferson. Because of the long ride and the fact that we’d have unpredictable seas to contend with, we decided that it was best for Susan and Justin to stay behind. The last thing we needed was Susan going into labor in the middle of the ocean.
Susan drove me to Key West, where I checked in and waited with a couple dozen others to board the catamaran that would take us on our 70-mile journey and back. True to our impressions of other inhabitants of Key West, our captain appeared shortly before departure, wearing a t-shirt, shorts, no shoes, and a deep tan. It looked like he had just gotten out of bed, and when he spoke, he was slightly slurring his words. I found out later that he plays in a local band at night, and given the penchant for drinking that everyone in Key West had, I suppose he might have been a little hung-over. He didn’t inspire confidence.
It was a good thing that Susan and Justin stayed behind. The captain warned that there would be rough seas, with waves up to six-feet high. He asked if anyone wanted to turn back before getting on the boat. No one did. Many should have. The seas were indeed rough, and over half of the passengers spent the trip on the back deck, hurling their breakfasts over the side. It was rough enough, that just towards the end of the trip, I was starting to think I might have to join them, but I held it together and made it the whole way without any problems.
Other than diving and snorkeling, one of the main attractions at the park is the mid-1800s Fort Jefferson, which almost fully encompasses the small island on which is sits. One of the boat crew gave us a 45-minute tour and history lesson, which I thought was outstanding. It was refreshing to be able to fully pay attention to his presentation, without having Justin along and worrying about him running around causing trouble or falling into the moat. The fort was authorized by Congress against the advice of the engineer they sent down to check out the island. Congress realized the strategic significance of the location, but the engineer pointed out that there were no indigenous materials from which to build anything, the island was basically an unstable sandbar, and there was no fresh water. Undaunted, Congress pressed for the fort’s construction. It took countless boats to haul in the 16-million bricks required, not to mention the personnel, provisions, and fresh water. Scurvy and boredom were problems. Hurricanes were a bigger and more dangerous problem. By the time the fort started to receive the shipments of cannon that were going to make it so invincible, they had basically stopped construction on the second of the three tiers, noting that the fort was slowly sinking and tilting to one side. The fort never fired a shot during war time, and was eventually abandoned. The years have taken their toll, and the hurricanes have wiped out most things that aren’t made of brick or rock. But it’s impressive just the same, and I walked through it again after lunch to marvel at the amount of work that went into it.
Also after lunch, I tried my hand at snorkeling, which I’d never done before. The outer wall of the moat has abundant coral growing on it, and hosts a number of interesting fish. The rough seas caused me some problems with swallowing seawater, but overall it was a fun experience.
Everglades National Park
I wanted to see alligators. Susan wanted to identify some new birds. Justin just wanted to get out of the car seat and run around outside. Everglades National Park catered to all of us.
There isn’t much to say about our visit here, other than we had a great time and saw a lot of wildlife. Susan spotted eight new birds, which is a lot in comparison to how few we’ve seen elsewhere, but is small when you take into account that 350 species live there. I figured we might see an alligator or two off in the distance, but we saw at least three dozen, many of them less than ten feet away. Since we were on an elevated boardwalk, we weren’t too worried about them, but with Justin running all over sticking his head through the slats on the railings, we tried to keep him close, just in case.
New bird from Biscayne National Park: Ruddy Turnstone.
New birds from Everglades National Park: Anhinga, Black Vulture, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Green Heron, Purple Gallinule, Roseate Spoonbill, White Ibis, Wood Stork.
For photos from Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, and Everglades National Parks, Click Here