Oct 6, 2019 – Limping Back to Florida

The Vicksburg Military National Park’s cemetery.

By the time we got to Mississippi, we were road weary. And Mississippi didn’t help that either, it just seemed as weary as we were. It was a sad place in many ways with remnants of tragic history made mostly during the Civil War. We came to Vicksburg to continue our casual studies in American history and this year, most of our lessons were on the Civil War. They began in Florida, continued to Fort Sumter, then Gettysburg, and now Vicksburg.

A monument to the black soldiers that fought in the war.

Although by this time we came here with a respectable level of Civil War knowledge, Vicksburg opened our eyes wider. Our visit to Vicksburg National Military Park was a sharp reminder that the Civil War was not a war of soldiers that fought on battlefields isolated from the American way of life. Rather, it was a war fought (mostly on southern soil) where American towns and cities existed, where American women and children lived, where American farmers grew crops and raised livestock, and where human beings were bought and sold by Americans.

What stick’s in my mind is the book written “by a lady” , (Mary Ann Loughborough) that lived in Vicksburg during the Civil War. At the siege of Vicksburg, she and many other citizens of the town hid in caves for several weeks, making a life of it as best as possible. Her book is an account of that horrible experience. It can be read in full here.

It wasn’t as much the National Park that reminded of this fact; instead it was Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum that sits atop a high hill. It was well worth the struggle to push Vivian’s wheelchair up the very long and steep handicap ramp leading to the entrance. The museum is cluttered with artifacts of antebellum life, including a confederate flag that was never surrendered and the tie worn by Jefferson Davis at his inauguration as Confederate President. This is also where a first edition copy of the 1864 book titled “My Cave Life” written “by a lady”.

Vicksburg Old Court House on a calm day when the flags were not flying.
We also visited the Windsor Ruins. The mansion was built in 1861 on a 2600-acre cotton plantation. Though it survived the Civil War, it burned to the ground in 1890 when a guest dropped cigarette ashes on construction debris left by carpenters who were making repairs.

After a few days in Vicksburg, our morose spirits needed lifting and I thought I knew exactly how to do that. As it were, the most anticipated part of our itinerary was yet to come; and besides, we were not about to limp back home feeling defeated. Let me put this into context. We live in the far southern region of Florida’s gulf coast and before retirement we lived in Miami, equally as far south. We love south Florida’s Everglades, Biscayne Bay and Big Cypress and spend as much time as we can in the wilderness. But there are areas north of us that are equally as appealing to us. We dream of spending quality time up there because there are some drop-dead gorgeous rivers, salt marshes, pine forests and pristine beaches including the Emerald Coast. That’s a problem for us because it takes an entire day to drive to the panhandle and northern regions of this long state. Consequently, northern Florida has eluded us. But not anymore! Now that we are retired and full time RV’ers, we finally have the wherewithal to get to these places. And I had every intention of doing that as a finale to our 2019 travels.

Florida’s Emerald Coast is among the most beautiful. This view on the Gulf Islands National Seashore was a very short walk from our campsite in Fort Pickens.

If you understood how insanely difficult it is to reserve a campsite in Florida, you will understand why an ankle break was not going to stop us from reaping the benefits of our hard-earned campground acquisitions. Like how a marathon runner gets a second burst of energy at mile 25, the final three weeks of our 4-month travels were planned ambitiously to include five Florida campgrounds in these hard-to-get places. Several months prior, in an act that can only be described as a coup, I fought my way through ReserveAmerica.com and Recreaction.gov to secure reservations at Fort Pickens campground and four Florida State Parks (including the highly coveted St George Island).

My dream to photograph this coastline finally came true but it came with a price.

Fort Pickens campground is on the Gulf Shore Islands National Seashore. From a photography perspective, it is one of Florida’s prized beachy waterscape locations. And naturally, it is fishing paradise for Vivian, so much so that her longtime fishing buddy Jimmy planned to drive all the way from south Florida to stay with us a few days so that the two could do some serious fishing together. This highly anticipated event was the icing on our travel cake.

Ahhh, we’re back in Florida!

But it was NOT going to be easy. There was after all, this nagging inconvenience of a broken ankle. Vivian’s friend Jimmy would help overcome this. Our super idea was that he would help Vivian access the water and the two could fish together while I ran off into photographic bliss knowing Vivian was well taken care of. But alas, Florida had other things in store for us.

Vivian’s view of the beach as she sat in a wheelchair with her booted ankle while I wandered around looking for photographs.

To begin, getting into our campsite at Fort Pickens was nothing short of a comedy of errors and quite possibly the turning point of our travels. I was not expecting a narrowly paved campsite with significant drop offs along its entire edge, but that is what we got. The severe lack of space for maneuvering the 21-ft truck with a 33-ft fifth wheel attached and the fact that Vivian (the driver) could not get out to assess the situation made it all too easy for me to relinquish to strangers’ willingness to offer help, which ultimately made things worse. A series of unfortunate events resulted in me waking our neighbor to ask him to move his truck which was unavoidably in the way. All that and a growing line of cars waiting to get past and the increasing number of neighbors coming out of their campers to share their unsolicited 2 cents made 30 minutes seem like an eternity.

At one point, Vivian had no choice but to back the RV over the pavement drop off and into the sand to allow cars with honking horns and impatient drivers to go by. I cringed as I heard the tell-tale noises emanating from the suspension that was straining under the weight of 12,000 lb while the driver-side wheels rolled off the pavement. It was not pretty. That compromising move was the price paid to get the truck and RV lined up suitably to pull forward and successfully back-in with about 1-inch of pavement to spare on either side of the wheels. Later, we learned it probably cost us much more than that.

I wished I had a photo of our campsite, but I think I was so traumatized by the events that I blocked it out. Instead, I would like to remember the time I had photographing on the Emerald Coast.

The backing-in debacle ended just in time for a hefty afternoon storm to pour down on me as I connected the electric and water. By then, the dark mood had already set in, so I didn’t care anymore. There was some bad juju going on and it did not help that I was feeling guilt for wanting to be here so badly while Vivian would not enjoy this place as much as I would.

There was another dark cloud coming for us and it was tropical storm Nestor. We anticipated Nestor before we arrived, and shortly thereafter we were almost certain it would necessitate our leaving this hard-earned campsite earlier than planned. That ball was already set in motion as Vivian’s friend Jimmy cancelled his plans to visit because of the impending storm. On our second day, we fully expected the park to evacuate its campers before the weekend and we did not want to be there when that time came. We planned our exit strategy.

I was loving the storm clouds over the Gulf Shores, knowing our time here would be cut short.

After only two days and three nights at Fort Pickens, we cancelled our remaining three nights and pulled away from the crowded campground. Everyone seemed oblivious to what was brewing in the gulf and I could only imagine the scene on evacuation day when reality finally hit. And they did evacuate because Nestor came right toward Pensacola. Meanwhile, we headed for safer ground inland, which eventually led us to the Suwannee River.

Along the Suwannee River, a short walk from our river campground. Water levels were very low, so those cypress knees were in full view.

Nestor resulted in nowhere near the level of destruction that this coast suffered from Hurricane Michael last year, not even close. But still, it was strong enough that our moves were justified, and we took bittersweet comfort in knowing we did the right thing. The coastal campgrounds would soon be back to normal, but our plans were already altered and there was no going back at this point. Instead, we found ourselves betting on pigeon races and playing chicken poo bingo at the Suwannee River Rendezvous RV Park, a charming out-of-the-way river park.

The owner of Suwanne Rendezvous raises homing pigeons and every Saturday, a pigeon race is held. An hour or so before, you put some money down on a pigeon of your choice. This was my choice.
The pigeons are shuttled off to the “starting line”, which if I remember correctly was about 5 miles away. We then waited for them to come back, surprisingly within a few minutes or so. Mine took a bit longer than the winner.
After the pigeon races, it was time for bingo! If you have to ask, here’s how it goes down. You first bet on a number, like those on a bingo card. A large wagon with a cover containing a floor with the numbers painted on it is prepared. A chicken is placed in the wagon and everyone stands around watching and waiting. It didn’t take long. Within a minute, the person that bet on the number targeted by the chicken was declared the winner!

After the Suwannee River, Paynes Prairie Preserve and Colt Creek were our final Florida State Park destinations and luckily, the weather did not force us to cancel them. Vivian missed out on long hikes through Florida’s savannah and a climb up to the lookout tower to view the wild bison and horses that make Paynes Prairie a unique Florida park. But not all was lost, we both enjoyed the Florida Museum of Natural History in nearby Gainesville.

Florida once had giant sloths roaming its land! As seen at the Natural History Museum in Gainesville.
No photos of wild horses or bison, but I can show you one of Florida’s favorite birds, the Anhinga. This is in Paynes Prairie State Park.
And here is another Florida favorite, a limpkin, also in Paynes Prairie.

Our final three days were spent at the remote Colt Creek State Park, Florida’s newest. It is so new that the washing machine and dryer are still in good working condition! Doing laundry while traveling in an RV is no picnic but when the primary laundress in the group has a broken ankle, this task becomes insurmountable. So thank you Colt Creek State Park for making that task a bearable one.

Things not looking good under the RV. That’s one of the equalizers, not in its usual form.

Did I mention something was wrong in paradise? Did I also mention that the Fort Pickens back-in spectacle was a turning point in this story? Well, here is how it ends. After our first night at Colt Creek, I noticed something terribly out of place as I walked around the RV. As part of the suspension, the equalizers hang between the front and back wheels and are normally shaped like a ‘W’. This time, the driver’s side equalizers resembled a ‘J’. This could not be good. We were both perplexed because the RV was perfectly level. The Fort Pickens nightmare suddenly came back to haunt us.

Notice the hanger bracket where it is barely hanging and unattached from the leaf springs. Notice the hanger bracket in the background, that’s what it is suppose to look like.

The first call to Lippert Components (manufacturer of the suspension and frame) was short and not so sweet. “Check the hanger bracket” was the technician’s immediate advice. We did, and in horror discovered the culprit that caused the equalizer to lose its form. The hanger bracket, which attaches to a leaf spring which attaches to the equalizer had sheered off at the weld. And God only knows how many miles were driven in that condition.

Let me pause the story for a second and mention once again how inconvenienced Vivian has been since breaking her ankle and how critical it is that both partners at least understand each other’s respective RV duties. On Vivian’s OCD routine checklist are inspections of the suspension at every stop as we move down the road. Among other things, she looks for loose bolts and cracks. Would she have noticed a crack in the hanger bracket before it broke off? Perhaps, but we’ll never know because in her state of disrepair, she was unable to perform her routine inspection. I could have stepped up and done her work, but too late for that now.

After many starts and stops, the welder gets to work.

Long story short, by the grace of God or pure damn luck the worst-case scenario did not happen. We found a hanger bracket at an RV parts store and bought two. The next day a mobile welder was on site by 9 am to remove the broken one and weld on the new one. We had a spare leaf spring and had him put that on as well. A flat tire on the weld truck and a welding machine that decided to die before the weld began delayed the repair to well past 9 pm. Welding in the dark is not ideal. We had only one thought and that was to cross our fingers during the 220-mile drive back home.

The new hanger bracket welded in place.

We did make it home safely on November 3 after leaving Colt Creek. Once set up on our lot in Chokoloskee, the RV would not move for 6-7 months. Nevertheless, plans to resolve the hanger bracket issue began. Not only that, we had another RV issue that needed to be addressed. Both would lead us back to the RV capital of the world in Indiana where our Grand Design home and Lippert suspension were born – the room where it happened. We had some serious repairs and a few upgrades to be made and with that, our 2020 travels began to form as we settled in for a winter in the Everglades.

Our final evening on the road, enjoyed from Colt Creek State Park.

RV Tips and Issues. We pull a 12,000 lb fifth wheel. That fifth wheel contains most of our possessions. Supporting all that weight are the tires, frame and suspension. Things can go bad when any one of those is compromised. Therefore, frequent inspection is essential. Occasional bolt-torquing and moving parts – lubing, as well as annual bearing maintenance are essential. And don’t wait to do your inspections after you’ve driven down the road, start at the RV center where you are purchasing your new rig. Inspect, inspect, inspect. Don’t know what to look for? Educate yourself. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can about that rig, especially if it’s going to be your home. If you don’t take the time to learn, then you have two choices – don’t live in one or plan to spend a lot of money and a lot of wasted time dealing with repairs and hoping the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen. Always remember, the road is unforgiving.

Sep 16, 2019: The New Normal

Vivian in the wheelchair at sunset, Catherine’s Landing RV park near Hot Springs. Concrete pads were an extraordinary luxury.

To most, accessibility is taken for granted. The word “inaccessible” has no context to an able-bodied person. Like discrimination, you really don’t get it until you’ve experienced it. The short of it was, Vivian had only one good leg while the other was basically a useless appendage for two months following the break. Because of a minor misstep on wet grass, her ankle bent underweight and within an instant, many things became inaccessible to her. Accessibility soon became the new standard by which we measured everything. Accessibility, or lack thereof, became the lens through which we viewed RV travels.

An unconventional approach to negotiating the fifth wheel stair steps; the step stools served as knee rests.

Why bore you with the details of how we acquired medical equipment, negotiated post-surgery follow-up visits, and all the research on bimalleolar fracture recovery, when instead, I can describe the remarkable places we visited in Arkansas during the few weeks following the surgery. I was not comfortable leaving Vivian alone during that time after her surgery; consequently, my photography plans were mostly scrapped. And of course, fishing was no longer on Vivian’s itinerary. More to the point, Vivian could not do anything without my assistance, so whatever fun things we did would be casual sightseeing that a) we both enjoyed, and b) offer a certain level of that precious commodity – accessibility. As we crossed off our respective itinerary plans, we were left with one item intact – casual sightseeing.

Downtown Eureka Springs as viewed from a tour tram. These streets wind through the city and no two intersect at a 90 degree angle. And there are no traffic lights!
Most homes have at least two stories, built into the rocky terrain.

This ironically led us to Eureka Springs. I say ironic because this historic Ozark mountain town is also known as the ‘stairstep town’ because of its mountainous terrain through which streets and walkways wind. A visit to Eureka Springs for able-bodied persons would require a respectable amount of effort walking those steep walkways perusing quirky shops, visiting the cave grottos, touring the museums, taking in the historical Victorian architecture and so on. We had to find an alternative which was a tram tour and one that accommodated the wheelchair.

Grotto Spring was one of our tram tour stops. The grotto needed to be protected from street construction in 1890, so an enclosure of limestone and ornamental stonework was created.
Inside Grotto Spring.

The essence of Eureka Springs revolves around the healing powers of the spring water that were known to the Native American long before European Americans discovered it. Among those European Americans was Dr. Alvah Jackson, credited for discovering the springs which he claimed to have cured his eye ailments. He wanted to share that so during the Civil War he set up a hospital in a local cave to treat soldiers. Afterwards, Eureka Springs became a popular tourist destination and was once promoted as a retirement community for the wealthy.

The Cresent Hotel, built as a resort for the rich and famous, was eventually purchased after standing vacant for a long time having and is open for business.

Because of the famed healing powers of the spring water, you can imagine that Eureka Springs attracted many colorful characters including Norman G. Baker, who was run out of Iowa in 1937 for practicing medicine without a license (his story is well worth the read). At that time, Eureka Springs was a depressed town following the stock market crash. Millionaire pseudo-doc Baker moved to Eureka Springs with his cancer patients, reopened the Crescent Hotel that had fallen into disrepair and turned it into a cancer-curing hospital. As Baker commenced in promoting his cure which was to drink the area’s natural spring water, the spa and resort mountain town enjoyed renewed vitality (the hospital apparently cleared ½ million dollars in one year). But alas, federal charges against Baker for mail fraud in 1940 sent him to prison for four years.

The essence of Eureka Springs.

Two weeks following Vivian’s accident, we land in the American Spa, Hot Springs where we stayed for 10 days. There was much to see and do, so we wasted no time getting to The National Park where we could partake in accessible park ranger tours.

The Fordyce Visitor Center where ranger-led tours give you a glimpse into the bathhouses long before it became a national park in 1921. Prior to that, it was designated as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832.
A tour of a bathhouse shows you how it looked over a hundred years ago.
One of the 2 locations where you can stick your hand in the thermal water. It comes out of the ground at 147 degrees F, but by the time it reaches the pool, it’s cool enough to touch without scalding.
People come to fill up their water bottles from one of the many thermal spring fountains in Hot Springs. The hot springs were protected by Congress in 1832 with the intention the water be used.

And we weren’t going to let inaccessibility keep us from enjoying lunch at the famous McClard’s Bar-B-Q restaurant. I think what put McClard’s on the map besides its food are the prominent people who visited it, including Bill Clinton who is the only person whose reservation is accepted and the only one for whom a change to the menu was made (after Clinton’s by-pass surgery, they added an item that did not include bread or added sugar). Clinton enjoyed eating at McClard’s while growing up in Hot Springs and as president, continued to do so.

Our truck parked on the right, we waited for lunch crowd to leave so that Vivian could more easily navigate through the tiny restaurant.
Smoked turkey is a popular dish at McClard’s and I savored every bite while Vivian enjoyed the ribs.

Speaking of Bill Clinton, we drove to Little Rock to visit the William J Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Think whatever you want of the Clinton’s, but this museum was well worth it, and on an accessibility scale of “don’t bother” to “I can enjoy this 100%”, Vivian enjoyed our visit thoroughly throughout this modern building with wide open spaces. The library also houses temporary exhibits and during our visit, we had the great pleasure to see Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea. A non-profit art project founded by Angela Haseltine Pozzi in 2010, tons of plastic pollution from Pacific beaches are used to create monumental art installations.

Enjoy the slideshow below of the Clinton library. Built next to a pedestrian bridge on the Arkansas River, the building cantilevers over the river in the spirit of “building a bridge to the 21st century”.
Throw away plastic and rubber become art, an exhibition at the Clinton Library.

Following that, we stopped in to pay homage to nine brave children at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. It was a solemn visit to the small visitor center built across the street from the infamous school where those children walked the cruel gauntlet that led them to integrated education.

The words of segregation, in response to the police protection for the Little Rock Nine.
The words of Carlotta Walls, “Super Negro”.
Little Rock Central High School is the only operating high school designated a National Historic Site.

My memory of these places is somewhat tainted by the degree of inaccessibility we experienced. As I write this, Vivian has had full mobility for several months (11 months have passed since the break). Despite the inconveniences of struggling to push the wheelchair up a steep path or hoist it into the truck for the umpteenth time, or entering a campground bathroom with “handicapped accessible” signs only to discover there were no rails in the stalls or not being able to move the wheels on a gravelly uneven ground, we never forgot that this was a temporary inconvenience and nothing more. So yes, our final weeks of our 2019 travels got disrupted in a big way; but we had good times and we got over the bad times.  

RV Tips and Issues. I highly recommend that both of you (if you are two) feel comfortable with every aspect of moving your rig; dumping, unhooking, hitching, driving, backing up, unhitching, hooking up -repeat cycle. If one of you goes down for the count, the other needs to step in. I will admit, I was relieved Vivian was able to drive the fifth wheel, which meant she could do the backing-in because that has been her designated job from the start and she is much better at it than I am. Of course you can also rely on the kindness of strangers.