Deer near my campsite at Clearwater Lake Campground,
Ocala National Forest
About a week-and-a-half ago, I found myself, with some unscheduled free nights and no campground reservations during the tail end of "the season" in Florida. It's a challenging time to find a campsite. I checked for availability at Florida State Parks (I could snag a day here or there at the last minute, but I couldn't stay long) and at National Forest campgrounds. Theoretically, there are no-reservation sites at Ocala, so I headed that way and spent a couple of peaceful nights (March 8 and 9) in a beautiful forest. But the weekend was coming up, and my site was reserved. To find another walk-up site, I'd have to cruise around the forest on Friday, and most of these sites get snapped up by people who can hang onto them for a while.
I decided instead to return to Dixie County, where I'd stayed at Horseshoe Beach Campground the previous weekend. This time I tried Shired Island, recommended by a fellow camper. It was another awesome county park. I commiserated with another full-timer that, when you don't have reservations, finding a county park or boat landing can be the best solution.
Sunset at Shired Island Campground, a Dixie County Park
Shired Island, like Horseshoe Beach, is a campground that's right on the water, separated only by a little strip of nice beach. There is also interesting tidal activity at Shired Island, but not the amazing bird-watching that I enjoyed at Horseshoe. However, Shired Island is out in the boonies, rather than being urban, and I like that. Not only is it in the country, it's right in the middle of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. (This is the same Swanee River that Stephen Foster wrote of in "Old Folks at Home.") This little parcel of county land is plunked here, and it's worth the $20 per night for non-locals. I was camped without hookups, at the same price as if I had them, and that was fine. There was plenty of sun for my solar and the water at these waterfront campgrounds is not potable, anyway.
I stayed four nights (March 9-12), until it was time to go meet up with Steve, who was flying into Orlando the following Tuesday night.
I spent a lot of this time dealing with health issues. Before I left New Mexico in mid-February, I'd had a bad respiratory virus, and I was still coughing and blowing my nose as I zigged and zagged through Texas, heading for the Gulf. I felt a lot better once I was in warmer temperatures and enjoying some consecutive days of beach camping, but this virus is a real hanger-onner.
Then I got hit with some lower GI problem at Horseshoe Beach, and that took about a week to resolve. It might have been due to using the water there at Horseshoe Beach. I did not see the sign that said the water was not potable until I left. I hadn't used the water very much--I usually use bottled water for drinking and cooking, and tap water just for dish washing and flushing, but I might have inadvertently drunk the water. AND I'd put some of that water into my tank! So, once I made that possible connection, I was better a few days later. Coincidence? I don't know. Bad water is something I've heard of happening to other RVers, and why take a chance?
Right when I was finally feeling better a week after the Horseshoe Bay gut problems, I had a food allergy hit me while staying at Shired Island. It was severe. I got hives on my hands and arms and a few other places, but mostly the arms. I slathered the painful, itchy hives with Benedryl cream and took two Benedryl pills and went to bed. If I'd been at home in Truth or Consequences, I think I would have gone to the ER, but I was a very long way from help. It all turned out fine. I woke up the next morning and am here to tell the tale. I did have a lot of itching for days to follow, and I had a hard time eating. The hives are just disappearing now, a week-and-a-half later.
So, this has been the sickest I've ever been while traveling, and I have also had some personal things to grapple with. Added to that are mechanical problems. On my way to Ocala, I suddenly had power steering fluid leaking. Argh! I'd gotten a new power steering pump and lines in California in January, right before the RTR. I cruised around to three mechanics before I found one who could help me (with frequent stops to pour in more PSF). I needed another new power steering line. Apparently the previous one, although new, was not exactly the right one. Or so this mechanic said. I may be jaded, but I am amazed by how often mechanics and other handy guys blame the last guy for doing it wrong or using the wrong product or part.
Sunset at Lake Whippoorwill KOA, Orlando
Anyhow, things got better once Steve arrived. I got to the Lake Whippoorwill KOA in the Lake Nona area of Orlando in the afternoon and got the RV hooked up. Steve flew in late at night and took a cab to the KOA. We spent three nights there (March 13-15), mostly relaxing and enjoying getting to see each other again.
Got a haircut in the laundry room at the KOA by a nice lady who has been cutting people's hair there for 22 years! I happened to show up on the right day.
We thought of going to Disney and either spending a day in one of the parks or just riding around the monorail and eating at a nice Disney resort. But Gatorland sounded more like our speed: an inexpensive, cheesy, funny tourist trap with thousands of rescued critters.
Steve arrived in time for Pi Day (3.14)
Unfortunately as we were about to leave for Gatorland on a Thursday morning, Brownie was making a whole lot of racket. Her noise level under the hood had increased some when she got the new fan clutch back in California in January, and she was making more noise when cold, but that morning the racket was much worse! We headed to a mechanic instead of Gatorland. He gave it a look and said the problem was just the muffler or exhaust pipe, not anything that would make it unsafe to drive, and he recommended we go to Muffler Man. So we made plans to do that the following morning and went on our merry way.
Visitors see the front of Gatorland--there are thousands more acres of gator rescue land as part of the operation
Steve with parrots at Gatorland
Gatorland was everything we'd hoped for...tour guides cracking stupid jokes, close encounters with critters we don't ordinarily see, junk food and gift shops.
Brownie at Muffler Man
Brownie got a new exhaust pipe and some welds at Muffler Man on that Friday morning, and we drove up to our next destination, North Beach Campground, a few miles north of St. Augustine.
The drive was pretty exciting to me. After all this way, I finally saw the Atlantic Ocean, plus we drove along US-1 on the opposite coast from the other US-1 that I've driven several times.
The first Atlantic Ocean beach we got to
North Beach Campground Resort was a really wonderful place, and I could see why some people stay for the whole winter. We stayed just three nights (March 16-18), which wasn't nearly long enough to enjoy the campground or the many fun things to do in the area. At the campground itself, there are two beaches, the Atlantic and the Intercoastal Waterway, with restaurants at each. Our back-in site was beautifully private, surrounded by trees and palmetto. We ate outside on the deck at Aunt Kay's, the riverside cafe, where we first tried conch fritters. We ate them everywhere we could after that.
Our site at North Beach Campground Resort
We anticipated rain, and we are sleeping in the dinette bed or, as I like to call it, the nest. That is exactly where rain water has been leaking in through the rooftop air conditioner, ever since I bought Brownie last year. I usually sleep up in the cabover bed, so previously the rain came in onto the dinette table, rather than a bed, and it wasn't hard to just put out some towels to catch the drips. Now it became critical to get it fixed, because we sleep right under the air conditioner. Steve did it! After taking off the covers both on the roof and inside the RV, Steve determined that the screws keeping the A/C in place had gotten loose, and the rubber gasket that's supposed to keep water out of the house was not held tightly in place anymore. I'm sure glad Steve could fix it, rather than having to call an RV technician at $125 or whatever per hour.
Steve on the Red Train
We used a trolley service, Red Train Tours, to get into St. Augustine by van on Saturday morning. Then we took their 90-minute tour of the city, which was informative and full of more bad jokes.
Our pirate, in front of one of only three authentic Jolly Roger flags still in existence
After circling all of the historical attractions, we went to the Pirate and Treasure Museum, which was a lot of fun. Our pirate guide told us lots of interesting history some more bad jokes. Is it a blessing to be 62 and not remember any of them? Arr, I don't know, matey.
Historical reenactors at Castillo de San Marcos...I laughed as I passed by, because the guy in the middle was complaining about traffic.
Castillo de San Marcos, a 1600s fort which was originally Spanish, but changed hands between several countries, including the Confederacy, was very interesting. We ate abundantly at the Florida Crackers Cafe, which is on St. George Street, the main tourist trap retail section of St. Augustine. (Aunt Kay's conch fritters win.) I bought a bamboo saxophone on St. George, something I'd never heard of, but knew immediately that I needed. We wrapped up our day too late to use the Red Train to get home, so we took a cab and got a personal guided tour of everything we saw on the way back to the campground, which was really nice.
The next day, we'd intended to sit on the beach, but I was a picnic table potato and never left. A fantastic campsite can do that sometimes.
Relaxing at Loughman Lake Lodge
Our next destination was to camp somewhere near Titusville so Steve could go see space stuff at the Kennedy Space Center. We didn't have any reservations, but I'd talked to somebody at Loughman Lake Lodge in Mims, and she said no reservations were needed. No kidding! We got there on a Monday and there was nobody camping there, the lodge/restaurant/bar was closed, and there was nobody to take our money. There is, however, a family who caretakes the place, so they called the owner and we paid them $30 to spend the night, with hookups. It was a very pleasant stay, but not a place we'd go back to, because there is a corduroy road to get in there. Loughman Lake is probably a really hopping place on weekends when people come to take air boat rides.
Rockets behind the tour buses, from the RV parking lot at Kennedy Space Center
The next morning, we drove over to Merritt Island for Steve's NASA Kennedy Space Center tour. We parked in the bus/RV lot for $15, and I spent the day lounging while Steve went inside. He liked the tour very much and probably got his $50 worth, but I knew all that science would just make my eyes glaze over within five minutes. I did a little painting and reading instead. I finished a book called "The Kitchen House" by Kathleen Grissom, which was one of the best historical novels I'd read in a while, and I am ordering the sequel, "Glory Over Everything."
Since we didn't want to go back to Loughman Lake and we didn't have reservations anywhere else, we headed a little ways south, during a big wind and some rain, to the Walmart in Melbourne. This store has a huge lot and was a nice place to stay.
Brownie takes another ride
The next day, we were headed to our next destination, Phipps Park Campground in Stuart. I was driving and I pulled over to turn on the navigation on my phone, and Brownie started smoking and steaming from under the hood! So bad that a passerby called 9-1-1, and we had several police cars and fire trucks there within about two minutes. However, we had already determined where the steam was coming from--the water pump, it looked like--and there was no real danger. I called my roadside assistance provider, Coach-Net, and Brownie was towed to a garage that they found for me, St. Lucie Automotive in Fort Pierce.
So, Wednesday was shot, and Brownie needed a new radiator in addition to the water pump, with parts arriving on Thursday. Steve and I spent the night at a La Quinta hotel a few miles away, while Sonja was in her kennel inside the RV. (It's big enough to be a kitty condo, with food, bed and litter box.)
We had time to kill on Thursday while the repairs were being done, so we didn't check out of the hotel until check-out time at 11:00, and then we walked over to a Shake and Steak for lunch. We took a cab back to the garage and waited there a few more hours until the work was done.
There was a suspicious amount of blue smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe when we left the garage, but they said it would stop doing that once an excess of fluids burned off. But they were wrong. The smoke got worse. We stopped at another shop, 20 miles down the highway. They did some more work. They blamed the last mechanic, can you imagine that? I called the previous mechanic, and he blamed the new one. So much blame to go around, while my RV smokes.
We did make it to Phipps Park in Stuart, finally, on Thursday night. Driving here was such an embarrassment, I wanted to put a paper bag over my head. (Steve was driving, so I guess I coulda...woulda...shoulda...) We got situated and made arrangements to stay here all weekend. The mechanic in Fort Pierce that did the major repairs has ordered the part he thinks Brownie needs (a module or modulator, we are clueless, having become overwhelmed) and we will drive a smokin' Brownie 30 miles back north on Monday morning, hopefully under cover of darkness.
These latest repairs throw so many plans into disarray. I've spent a month's worth of income on repairs this year, and it's only March. My plans to go to Santa Fe to do pottery this summer are deferred to next year, I think. It's also unlikely that we will get to the Everglades. We'll see what happens on Monday. Probably when we get Brownie repaired to where she no longer smokes, we'll just start heading back home, via Sarasota, where we have reservations this coming week at Myakka River State Park that we hope we will be able to make.
In this moment, I am sitting in a beautiful campsite for the weekend. We haven't shopped recently, so I'm making some very creative meals and am glad my pantry includes good basics such as canned and dried beans, evaporated milk, chicken broth, tuna, etc. We have plenty of solar to power our devices so we can watch movies and read books. I spent yesterday planning our return trip. There are musical instruments and art supplies. Some quiet relaxation is a good thing.
View from our campsite at Phipps Park Campground, Stuart, Florida