June 18: Where America Began

june-18resized.jpg

It was a meager 75 miles of towing to our next destination, 4 Lakes Campground near St Augustine. The campground was located conveniently near the old city and it honored our Passport America membership for the three nights we stayed, making it the second cheapest full hookup campground for our entire trip. It’s a new campground, recently opened last year. Our site was a pull through and level, which is half the battle at most campgrounds. Were there four lakes? Look it up on Google maps satellite image and you decide.

IMG_4069resized
The view of 4 Lakes Campground from one of the 4 (or 3 depending on how you look at it) lakes.

On to St Augustine, lots of history here. And if you are a fan of the Standard Oil baron Henry Flagler, well this is the place to be because his influence is seen at every turn. While we visited, temperatures reached the mid-90s and typical afternoon storms blew in thwarting much of our sightseeing plans. We signed on for a one-day trolley tour, which was plenty of time to hear the city’s history from the well-informed drivers, all of whom have a gift for storytelling. But ask me if I remember anything from that oral tour of St Augustine? Not a thing, it’s a vague memory of dozens of facts and mini-stories rattled off one after the other as the trolley passed by several points of interest. After hearing the driver introduce himself as “Robert, the dread pirate” in a fake menacing drawl a dozen times to those boarding the trolley, we were ready to get off.

IMG_4082resized
The Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church was built in 1889, in dedication to Henry Flagler’s daughter who died during childbirth. He, along with his daughter, grandchild and first wife are buried in the adjacent mausoleum.

Of course, we wanted to take part in the free tasting at the St Augustine Distillery which comes with the tour. I mean, we do have our priorities! We exited the trolley in pouring rain and went inside the distillery lobby to get our tickets for the next tour. More people poured in as the rain worsened outside and loud thunder surrounded us. And then we lost power. Long story short, after an hour of waiting in the dark, we left the distillery in want of a drink and promptly boarded the trolley for its next stop, the San Sebastian Winery. Lucky for us, the storm blew over, the winery had power, we got our free tasting.

IMG_4084resized
Not a bad way to spend a stormy afternoon in St. Augustine.

The next day, we visited the Castillo de San Marcos, a national monument and where America began. Almost 350 years old, the fort is the oldest in the United States and looks pretty good for its age. It was built by the Spanish and taken over by the British a couple times. Pretty much done with Florida by this time, the Spanish handed the fort over to United States in 1821. After that, its walls served as a prison during the Seminole wars and one of the most famous prisoners was Osceola, a Seminole leader captured while attending peace talks under a white flag of truce.

IMG_4096resized
At the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, I like the presence of a park ranger over a prison guard.

Storms come and go quickly down here this time of year, so with a short reprieve between them we enjoyed a beautiful view from a roadside park along A1A south of St. Augustine. There, we struck up a conversation with a local fellow who pointed toward a strange looking building off in the distance. He said that was Fort Mantanzas and he highly recommended we visit it, so we did.

IMG_4106resized
Florida  in the summer, love it or leave it.

Fort Mantanzas is a national monument and free. Compared to Castillo de San Marcos, it is extremely unassuming. A ferry takes you a short distance to an island where the fort stands. The round trip ferry ride and self-guided tour of the small fort takes less than one hour. The part I enjoyed most other than the view, was the rickety wooden ladder that leads through a narrow opening to the top of the fort. I was so delighted to see a young girl climb up and down that ladder with only a simple encouragement from mom. No coddling allowed in this fort!

IMG_4109resized
A view from atop Fort Mantanzas.
IMG_4120resized
To reach the top of the fort, you must climb through a narrow opening.
IMG_4119resized
Vivian stays below and strikes up a conversation with a park ranger.

The forts and old St Augustine were the primary attractions for us, but the coquina rock coastline was the highlight for me. I left the RV one morning at 5:00 am and drove 45 minutes to the beach near Marineland. There, the beach is littered with large coquina (shellstone) rock and consequently among the most photographed beaches in Florida. Coquina is also the material used to build Castillo de San Marco and Fort Mantanzas. In the dark, I looked for rock and beach scenes to capture and waited for the sunlight to appear over the horizon. An hour later as I walked back to the truck, I realized I had walked past several fresh turtle nests in the dark.

uhmc1446resized.jpg

19Jun19 2resized

19Jun19 3resized

Founded by Spanish explorers in 1565, St. Augustine is claimed to be the oldest U.S. city. But there is a more recent and interesting piece of history to it. St Augustine was a hotbed of racial violence soon after Brown vs Board of Education decision in 1963. KKK as well as police violence gave St Augustine national attention and created an upheaval of sympathy for those at the receiving end of the violence and deep disgust for those invoking the violence. Long story short, the events in St Augustine (including the arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr) were key in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

At the end of our two days in St Augustine, we were ready to leave Florida.

RV and travel issues and concerns

Issue 1: Is the trolley tour and museum passes necessary to experience St Augustine? The historical city is relatively easy to get around by foot if you are capable and willing to do so. And as an alternative to a museum pass, reading the history ahead of time will give you all the history you need as you take in the architecture on your own walking tour. Frankly, we found a lot of the attractions to be too kitschy for our taste. I will admit, purchasing the trolley made it easier to get around in the heat and rain. It also gave us free parking and free distillery and winery tours, so we factored those costs into the deal. Bottom line – do your research before you start purchasing tours and museum passes.

Issue 2: So far on this trip, our Passport America yearly fee has paid for itself and our “America the Beautiful” pass will eventually pay off as well as we continue our trip. I recommend both for long term travelers. There’s another one I recommend as well, Harvest Hosts. It has in the past and will prove once again on this trip that it is well worth the yearly membership fee.

June 16: Springing into Action

June 16resized
Our tow route to Blue Springs State Park. Avoid driving I-4 through Orlando while pulling at all costs!
IMG_4015resized
Driving in Florida, in the summer.

Our five-month trip begins here. Our 250-mile towing route from Chokoloskee Island to Blue Spring State Park began and ended without drama. Well, maybe a little drama as we drove I-4 through Orlando which seems to be entirely under construction. Miles of concrete barriers provided barely enough width to drive through and made me a bit guilty that Vivian did all the driving that day. And right on cue, those Florida summer storms popped up at random with a vengeance. As navigator for the day, I kept one eye on the radar and the other on the map. Fortunate for us, we skirted the storms safely and once we arrived at Blue Spring, we had only a steady sprinkle from the remains of a storm that had blown through earlier.

IMG_4046resized
Blue Spring offers refuge to manatee during the winter months. In the summer, they head north and are nowhere to be seen here.

Depending on what you read, it’s either Blue Springs or Blue Spring that is one of Florida’s most popular state parks. Do NOT confuse it with Blue Springs State Park in southern Alabama. Alabama’s park is a couple of cement ponds that are fed natural spring water at a rate of 3600 gallons per minute. That’s probably adequate to flush out a child’s wee; but call it what it is, a swimming pool.

IMG_4053resized
Blue Spring is popular with scuba divers who can dive in and explore the underwater cave.

Florida’s Blue Spring on the other hand is a first magnitude spring, one of 33 found in Florida. It flushes over 70,000 gallons of water into the St Johns River each minute. Blue Spring is one of 700 springs in Florida where more are still being discovered. When it comes to natural springs, Florida is king. Not only that, Florida’s Blue Spring has manatees and lots of them. Unfortunately, we didn’t see them because like us, manatees prefer warm water and migrate north in the summer.

IMG_4051resized
One of the access points to the springs. The spring is a very short distance from the campground.

We parked two nights in Blue Spring State Park. The state park experience was as expected; crowded, narrow tree-lined roads and cramped campsites. When we arrived on a Sunday afternoon, there was a nice big sign at the entrance that read “No entry, park full” and a roadblock in front of three cars lined up in front of us. I walked to the ranger’s station to let them know we had reservations. He said, “Oh, just move the roadblock and come in and be sure to close it after you get through it”. No problem – got it boss. Except he overlooked the inevitable which was that every vehicle behind our RV would follow us in, lock step. Which left me standing next to the roadblock watching cars go by and wondering if I was going to be fired on my first day of the job. Finally, I took advantage of a car with its driver’s side window down and shouted “Tag, you’re it”. Back at the ranger’s station, another kindly ranger laughed as he told me I should have just closed that roadblock immediately after clearing it. I guess my junior ranger days are numbered.

IMG_4026resized
The 1/3-mile boardwalk follows along the spring and winds through a lush oak and palm forests.

After backing in and setting up in a gentle rain, we walked to the springs where a hoard of children played while their parents grasped the final few hours of a precious weekend before heading home. This is a popular location for locals to enjoy cool water. The park offers a couple access points to the water and some short distance boardwalks through lush forests. It also provides scuba divers access to the underwater caves. If all you do is look at the springs from land, it’s worth being there because it is one of Florida’s gems.

IMG_4029resized
An osprey finds a perfect nesting location in downtown Sanford.

During our short stay, we were glad to have seen the springs, but we mostly looked forward to sightseeing at a couple little towns in the area, DeLand and Sanford. We wanted to visit Sanford because a friend had lived there when he was a yacht broker. He said good things about the river town he once called home, so we took that as a sign to visit Sanford because he rarely says anything good about any place in Florida.

IMG_4032resized
The founder of DeLand, Henry DeLand wanted to make the town the “Athens of Florida”. So what did he do? He hired an architect to build an Italian Renaissance theatre. Built in 1921, DeLand’s Athens theatre has survived deterioration, closure and eventual revival. It continues to be a working theatre.

We visited Sanford in the morning and saved DeLand for the afternoon. I honestly don’t remember much about Sanford. I must admit, it was Monday and everything of interest to us was closed, including most of the downtown shops. But we wanted to see the town, so we stepped into the visitor center hoping to get some local intel. Unfortunately, the only person working there was a young man who behaved as if someone had just woke him from a deep sleep, snatched him from his bed and then dropped him in a visitor center without giving him any instructions or information that would provide him the means to do the job expected of the individual sitting behind a “Welcome to Sanford” sign. In short, we got nothing. After leaving the visitor center bewildered, we wandered aimlessly about town. After walking past a closed sign along main street for the umpteenth time, we decided to move on to Deland.

IMG_4033resized
This is a portion of a very large mural in downtown DeLand. The artist used the faces of actual (past and present) persons to paint onto the bodies. Sense of scale was not keen!
IMG_4035resized
My favorite mural on the walk included bears and other animals.
IMG_4040resized
While walking DeLand’s mainstreet, know that you are being watched.

We were so delighted with the charm of DeLand and its many small (and open!) businesses displaying pride flags that we dug into our pockets and had lunch at Dick & Janes. We enjoy exploring locations and bringing our own lunch and water bottles to refill at a drinking fountain, but we had to splurge in charming DeLand! It wasn’t too horribly hot, so we took a nice walk around the city hunting for murals on the historic mural walk. We found most of them, but the city does make you work to find them! The crowning jewel of our visit was the county court house where a collection of art by Jackson Walker could be viewed at will. What a treat that was for us because it was old Florida and its rich history displayed in one oil painting after another.

IMG_4042resized

IMG_4043resized
One of Jackson Walker’s oil paintings and my favorite within the gallery is of William Bartram, titled “The Flower Hunter”. Bertram was a botanist and Florida explorer. He began his explorations in 1773 and explored much of Florida, including Blue Spring.

That was our entire time at Blue Springs State Park, a nice and easy way to begin our 5-mon trip. With 5 months of traveling and so many different experiences and places ahead of us, I wanted to take in Blue Spring and the surrounding area, but I was itching to move on.

RV and travel issues and concerns

I decided to add a section to each blog that would address issues we were confronted with during our stay at a campground or during the drive there.

41FE13D4-3266-45F5-B972-073AB225097Eresized
The water pump was easily removed and opened. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most difficult of RV maintenance and repairs, this was a 3 (I’d rate it 2 if it wasn’t for the hard to reach screw hole to get it back in place).

Issue 1: We knew going into this that maintenance and repairs were part of the deal and we could only hope that all or at least most of them could be successfully performed by us. On our way to Blue Springs, we took a break and pulled off at a gas station. Our standard routine is to set the plumbing to Dry Camping and then simply turn on the water pump when we go into the RV to use the toilet. This time, the pump did not come on. First time for everything. All connections and settings checked out, so we called the company (Shurflo) that makes the water pump. It’s a water pump, not a deuterium fusion reactor so we figured it could be an easy fix. When we told them what was happening, they suggested it was likely clogged and required a simple cleaning, but if that did not work, they would send a NEW pump. So we took it out, took it apart and cleaned the filter. It worked! Problem solved. Vivian and Connie 1 – RV imps – 0.