Aug 21 It’s the Little Things that Count

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller

tripod
What could I possibly photograph in an Indiana field?
Back lighting
Maybe this?

If you follow Instagram travel posts, you will be inundated with beautiful photos from iconic locations, primarily those we enjoy within our national parks here in the United States. Photographs of Delicate Arches, Maroon Bells, Horseshoe Bend and Haystack rocks of the Oregon coast are the eye candy that make us pause for a second or two and hit “Like” before scrolling to the next photo. It is no surprise that these iconic locations are among the most photographed and that people plan their travels around them.

More Indiana
A trail behind our Indiana campground

As a nature photographer and more recently an RV traveler, I must admit that chasing icon photos is not on my radar screen when it comes to planning our travels. In fact, just the opposite is true. I rather relish in the challenge of exploring the nature of a non-iconic location and attempting to create art from it with my camera. This approach to photography started fifteen years ago in the Everglades where there are no grand waterfalls or majestic mountains to photograph. It is in the subtleness of the Everglades that I learned how to connect photography with my wilderness experience. Through my relentless pursuit of capturing nature intimately, I learned to be fully immersed and take the time to get to know the place. By doing so, I notice the little things and discover something new to photograph all the time.

Everglades
The subtlety of the Everglades

Far away from the Everglades, it was in the middle of Indiana farm country that I came to appreciate the little things that we encounter on our travels. And it was all because family comes first in our travels, meaning our routes are designed to include quality time in and around Indianapolis. During our first family visit, we stayed two weeks at White River campground in Hamilton County, about 30 miles north of Indianapolis. Open fields of wild foliage and farm land dominate this area. And the muddy White River cuts through it. The prospects of catching fish or photographing spectacular nature seemed awfully dim to Vivian and me; after all, there is nothing iconic about this location. Or is there?

Yellow flower
Nothing iconic about a yellow flower, but it sure is beautiful.

Spending time in Indiana surprisingly piqued my photography interest. But mostly, it helped me to connect my approach to photography with our approach to RV traveling. As we traveled and observed through our RV window, we began to devote more time to researching a location and learning its most fascinating stories as we traveled through it. And when we stopped at a location for a short time, we tried to immerse ourselves in the area’s history and ecology. Our favorite on-the-road pastime while the other one drove was iphone-research when passing through a small town. We learned that each of those obscure little towns has a compelling story to tell and it is so much fun to read about it while driving through it. Our RV travels are about discovering these unknown stories and the people that make this country what it is. In a way, I do the same with my camera by taking the time to discover nature’s story, even when there is nothing iconic to photograph.

Honey bee
I spent several hours looking for bees to photograph.

Walking the hiking trails through the fields of Indiana where yellow wildflowers had seen better days, I became focused on the small things and thoroughly enjoyed it. Instead of resenting my two weeks spent near Indianapolis rather than a more beautiful and iconic location, I took it all in and made plans for future visits. So, thank you Indiana for helping me confirm that our RV travels are not about racking up icon points and “getting the epic shot” that so many others have done in the past; but rather, they are about enriching our lives through the discovery of the unknown and taking the time to notice the small things along the way. Perhaps icons can be found most anywhere if we choose to see it that way.

Intentional blur
When hard pressed to find something to photograph, there’s always the abstract intentional blur shot!
cow parsnip
Not sure, but this might be cow parsnip. Regardless, I thought it was quite interesting.

Aug 15 – Potholes

Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.” Babs Hoffman

Indy cartoon
Cartoonist Gary Varvel: Indianapolis potholes

Traveling through the United States in an RV makes one keenly aware of road conditions. Every slope, grade, rut, low-hanging tree, covered bridge, soft shoulder, sheer drop off, crack and pothole is experienced with a heightened awareness. And with a good amount of mileage covered, it becomes quite evident that each state and each county within a state has its own governance when it comes to road maintenance. How many times have you crossed a state or county line and encountered the most dramatic change in road conditions? Depending on which direction the conditions go, your body goes into passive or defensive mode. I understand that each state or county has its issues; but Indiana, or more specifically Marion County has a very serious pothole problem.

Repaving
They do try.

My family, including my 91-yr old mother is the reason Indianapolis is always a destination in our travels. Not that Indianapolis is a bad city but every time I visit, I ask myself why couldn’t my family, all originally from northern Michigan, have gravitated toward Seattle or Austin? I would be just as happy had everyone stayed in beautiful northern Michigan! But no, they ended up in Indianapolis, one family member after another. Having visited Indy more times than I can remember over the past forty years, I can genuinely tell you that it has been a struggle to find redeeming qualities to this city and this is largely because I am not a fan of race cars or basketball. But to be fair, it is the home town of Kurt Vonnegut, author to one of my favorite books.

indy road
My daily commute to mom’s house.

The state of Indiana is known as the Crossroads of America and Indianapolis contributes well to this with six interstate highways crossing through town. Which brings me to the topic of the blog, potholes. I repeat, Marion County has a serious pothole problem. Don’t believe me? Check out the pothole map below. I totally understand that northern cities are subjected to snow and ice, and consequently have challenges that cities like Miami do not. Knowing a little bit about physics, I also understand that cold temperatures cause water to freeze and expand, and warm temperatures do the opposite. It’s during the spring when freezing and thawing oscillate more frequently. This in turn places the greatest stress on roads and makes them vulnerable to pothole formation. Apparently, this year has been one of the worst pothole seasons for Indianapolis.

Pothole map
Commuters swerving to miss a pothole are also on their phones to report the pothole.
Pothole Data
And this is one reason Miami does not have a serious pothole problem.

No doubt, Indianapolis is not the only city challenged by potholes. Nevertheless, it is a good example of a city that does not address its road maintenance budget adequately. It has tried, more recently with a 10 cent increase on top of the 18 cent gas tax, and a hefty vehicle registration fee. And for a long time, Marion County has considered imposing a commuter tax. This would affect those suburbanites from surrounding counties who travel into the city to work. To some Indianapolis officials, it seems only fair that people who use Indianapolis streets and infrastructures should contribute to its maintenance. Just to get poor roads elevated to fair status, Indianapolis requires almost three quarters of a billion dollars and twice its current annual funding to maintain fair status. Many folks believe a commuter tax would bring in the needed funds. But, unfortunately for the city, a commuter tax requires approval from the surrounding counties and guess what? They are not approving. Does the phrase, “Taxation without representation ring a bell?

Open Source Roads
Mike Warren and Chris Lang taking matters into their own hands.

Why can’t the people of Indianapolis have good roads? There is no clear answer here, which must frustrate many Indianapolis residents. So much so that a handful have taken it upon themselves to fix the potholes. Take for instance Mike Warren and Chris Lang, who created Open Source Roads and a GoFundMe campaign to repair Indianapolis’s roads, one pothole at a time. And then there is Quinn Daily who used red spray paint to draw lines around the potholes. Soon after, he noticed that drivers slowed down and avoided the spray-painted potholes. “I was doing this just as a joke, said Daily, “I’m actually doing good!” But, even with good intentions, Open Source Roads can barely scratch the pavement surface.

wanksy
The artist learned that his city could be embarrassed into fixing the potholes.

So, where does this leave Indianapolis’s pothole dilemma? Maybe Indy citizens can learn from an anonymous man from Manchester, England who took to drawing penises around potholes out of frustration over the number of them in the streets. The artist, who calls himself “Wanksy” says the drawings fade within a week or two and are just a creative way of getting something done. Apparently, the city was embarrassed enough to fix those potholes.

Pothole art
The good side of potholes, inspired art.

In the meantime RV travelers, if you visit or drive around Indianapolis, be extra mindful of those road craters. And if you see a couple of young guys filling potholes or another one spraying red paint around them, give a honk and a wave; but please, don’t take your eyes of the road for a second, even if you see a pothole with a penis drawn around it.

Aug 13 A Cave, a Woman and a Camera

I won’t take a picture unless the moon is right, to say nothing of the sunlight and shadow!” Frances Benjamin Johnston

Cave Exit
Coming out of the cave into the light.

One thing I have learned during our RV travels thus far, is that no matter what place we visit, there is a story of a fascinating person connected to it. Who would have thought that by visiting a cave in Kentucky, I would become immersed in the unlikely story of an accomplished Victorian-era photographer.

Self Portrait
A self-portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston.

It all began when we spent two nights in Kentucky at Lake Nolin State Park near Mammoth Cave National Park. It was a nice enough campground on a pleasant enough lake. But we didn’t come for the water this time; instead, we came for the cave. Thus, we signed up for a couple tours and spent a day underground in the longest cave in the world.

Inside the Cave
Without the use of flash, I used the artificial lighting provided by the park to create some images.

While I was fascinated with the possibility of photographing inside the cave (without use of flash, which is not allowed by the way), my interest did more than produce a few photos; it also got me intrigued with an obscure history of Mammoth Cave. In the visitor center’s museum, there hangs a large placard about a woman who photographed inside the cave over a 125 years ago. As soon as I saw the large print title “A Woman, a Cave, and a Camera”, I immediately ran over and began reading about Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Display
The park’s display about Frances Benjamin Johnston.

What I read about Johnston was intriguing enough, but upon doing some research, I became more intrigued. Outside the cave, she accomplished many great things during her long life (1864-1952). From the library of Congress, I learned that Johnston had a 60-yr photography career that began when she studied art in Paris in the 1880s. Granted, she was born into wealth which gave her the leverage to pursue her photography career. Not only that, her parents had great social standing and connected her with highly influential people including Teddy Roosevelt and several other presidents whom she photographed inside the White House. Some of her most famous studio portrait subjects included Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Susan B. Anthony. And her first camera was given to her by a close family friend and inventor of the Eastman Kodak camera, George Eastman.

The Photographer
Johnston on the balcony of the Treasury building.

She may have been born into privilege which helped launch her career, but her parents could as easily forbade her from pursuing her passion. When I read about Johnston’s work, there is no doubt in my mind that her success came entirely from her exceptional drive and motivation, tireless ability to work hard, and keen artistic vision. This woman, unleashed in a Victorian era was a remarkably creative and cutting edge photographer.

Cave 1
Johnston’s photo of a cave guide.

Johnston was one of the first photojournalists in the country (1890s) and wrote articles for several magazines. Her photos were regularly shown at world’s fairs and international photo exhibits. She took an interest in progressive education and documented schools created for black and Indian students throughout the states. In the 1910s, she began to specialize in contemporary architecture and landscape photography. For her research and her lectures on gardens, she traveled all over the United States and Europe. Later, she focused more on the documentation of historic buildings in the south by traveling thousands of miles by car to create the Carnegie Survey of the Architecture of the South with the intention of preserving its history through her art. In addition to all that, she sold prints to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Johnston earned several commissions and grants that provided her the resources to do the work. According to Wikipedia, her collection of photographs given to the Library of Congress is a significant resource for modern architects, historians and conservationists.

Cave 2
Victorian Era Ecotourism, photo by Johnston.

Through my research, I could not determine what got Johnston interested in photographing Mammoth Cave, so I came up with my own idea. In her time, the cave was a privately owned tourist attraction with international acclaim. It was normal for high society tourists to set up a proper picnic lunch in the cave and eat by gas light. I compare this to the current ecotourism industry in that people who were able to pay for it visited the cave for a unique adventure. I suspect Johnston went into the cave not because her wealth gave her access to it or that it supplemented her Bohemian lifestyle; no, I think she was attracted to the cave for the challenge of photographing it. Her interest was great enough that she wrote a book titled “Mammoth Cave by Flash Light”. And we are not talking LED flash, we are talking dangerous explosive flash powder. Being an unconventional woman, she used unconventional methods to light the cave, all for creative and technical experimentation.

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Clearly, women’s place in society has greatly evolved since the Victorian era. To that end, successful women leaders are a dime a dozen these days; whereas over one hundred years ago, Johnston was a radical. But even today, women still lag behind in leadership positions compared to men. For this reason and despite being from a century past, Johnston serves as an excellent role model for contemporary girls and young women. Not only that, it is these unconventional, crazy-motivated women like Johnston who help pave the way for so many women to pursue their passion. And it is so critical to women’s progress that these stories be told in public.

Indeed, in 1893, Johnston  told a reporter,  “It is another pet theory with me that there are great possibilities in photography as a profitable and pleasant occupation for women, and I feel that my success helps to demonstrate this, and it is for this reason that I am glad to have other women know of my work.” It’s doubtful that all visitors to Mammoth Cave will grasp all this, but maybe a young girl loving her camera just might.

Shadows
Low lighting in the cave created interesting shadows.

Aug 9 Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

When you come to a fork in the road … take it.” Yogi Berra

Empty Road
The day started out so easily. We all wish our drive could be like this all the time, right?

Railroad crossings in Alabama do not often come with a signal. Following a near miss, we were told that you must roll down the window and use your ears. As Vivian drove through a small back road to an intersection, we were so frazzled from the day’s drive that it did not occur to us that our rig would be standing over a railroad track as the truck came to a stop. Nor did it occur to us that an actual train would be whizzing down the tracks not so far from said intersection. In the nick of time, Vivian pulled out of the way but not before we both saw the whites of the engineer’s eyes. A railroad track only 15 feet from a stop sign makes you think.

Driving in Rain
Unfortunately, most of the day looked like this.

Let me back up. Vivian had driven on various roads and highways that day before the train incident and much of it was done in white-out rain conditions. We had left White Oak River Campground on Lake Eufaula early in the morning with intentions of driving approximately 240 miles; so we figured about five hours at the most. It started out nicely, very little traffic on a four-lane highway and no grades. But then things started to change. More traffic, more hills and lots and lots of rain. At one point we were heading up a very steep wet road and cars coming toward us were flashing their lights. Our lights were on, so we had no idea why they were flashing us, that is until we crested the steep hill and could see an accident scene straight ahead of us through the torrential rain interrupted by the rapid movement of the windshield wipers. Thankfully, the truck brakes worked well (if you are wondering about the trailer brakes, go to my first blog, more on that later) and we avoided disaster within inches.

The day was not quite over as we bypassed the town of Gadsen, only a short 50 miles from our destination, Lake Guntersville State Park. By then, we had been on the road about six hours. Going 55 mph, we rounded a corner and encountered a moment of panic as we approached a covered bridge. No time or place to stop, we drove under and thankfully, no sounds of metal scraping were heard.

Bridge
That moment when you try to remember the height of your RV.

According to my research prior to our trip, the worse part of the route was ahead of us as I knew we would have to do some serious climbing on narrow winding roads to get to Lake Guntersville. Previously, I inquired on an RV forum if anyone knew the best way to get to the park as it appeared there were two ways to enter from Highway 227. Someone very familiar with the routes highly suggested we avoid coming in from the south and instead, enter from the north. His description of the drive is the following, “White knuckle would be coming in from Guntersville on 227 up and down a long winding grade with one turn about 90 degrees and a few places with nearly sheer drops.” In order to avoid that, we would drive about 20 miles out of the way and enter from the north side.

Driving Rives Rd
That moment you realize you made the wrong turn.

Seven hours of driving later, we approached a critical moment where we could continue to the “out of the way, but safer” route, or take the more “direct, but not recommended” route. Road weary, we decided to take the direct route. This led us to make a left turn onto Rives Rd. Soon, we realized that we were on a road that was barely wide enough for our truck and RV. It led us through private farms and ranches, all of which I am sure were equipped with a respectable arsenal of firearms. At least there were no dogs running out to the road. But there were chickens, the free roaming kind and at one point, we had to stop several times as the chickens played chicken with us. The horses in the field looked up at us with bewilderment, probably thinking we were coming for them. Driving on a road barely wider than a bicycle path made us cringe thinking about what was going on inside the RV with every bump and pothole. 1.2 miles later, we laughed with such relief as we arrived at a stop sign and turned onto a respectable road.

Rives Rd
The infamous Rives Rd from Google maps.

Vivian, having driven all day was glued to the steering wheel. A few more miles on some easy sloping roads led us toward the dreaded highway 227. We would do exactly the opposite of what was recommended to us. All my painstaking efforts to route us safely to the state park all went out the window. Soon, Vivian was testing our truck’s exhaust brakes up and down a 8% grade that went on for miles. Slowly driving, we accumulated several cars behind us, until we reached a straight-away and everyone quickly abandoned our convoy before the next sharp turn up a grade. Soon after, we arrived at beautiful Lake Guntersville feeling so much love for our diesel full ton.

Guntersville
A view of Lake Guntersville. The drive was well worth it.

It was a three-cocktail night for Vivian whose fingers had to be peeled off the steering wheel. Soon after hooking up and dealing with an unlevel campsite, we walked to the edge of Lake Guntersville while passing several deer grazing in a grassy area of the campground. The sun was still high as it began its evening descent over the water. Toasting once again, we, the RV traveling newbies, made it to yet another beautiful location. Roll with the tide, cheers Alabama.

Aug 10 For the Greater Good

The fact is, they’re floodin’ this valley so they can hydroelectric up the whole darn state. Yessir, the south is gonna change.” Ethan and Joel Coen.

Guntersville
At the entrance of the Guntersville Museum.

Having three days to spend at Lake Guntersville State Park, we decided to use one of them to visit the “city”. We drove the infamous Highway 227 down into a valley to the small town of Guntersville of which 40% is comprised of water. We found ourselves in the Guntersville Museum for a couple hours and it is there that I learned how the Tennessee Valley Authority changed the south.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created in 1933 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It had three goals – improve agriculture practices, provide electricity to much of the rural south and tame the Tennessee River. Essentially, the TVA changed both the economic and ecologic face of the Tennessee River Valley that included Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

The recorded narration in the museum’s display described the bold construction of 16 dams and a steam plant. To achieve its goals, as the narration goes on to describe, the TVA was given the power to remove families from their homes and relocate them. Ultimately, the dams provided access to electricity for the first time to a vast area of the south and the TVA continues to be the largest public utility and power supplier in the United States.

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This got me thinking about the greater good. There was great distrust and cynicism toward the government when Roosevelt created the New Deal as there was (is) distrust toward the Affordable Healthcare Act. I suppose part of that has to do with the fact that when there are effective wide spread changes, there are going to be winners and there are going to be losers. But in theory, these changes are created to minimize the losing side and over time, lead to a greater good. But, the seemingly biggest losers appear to have the loudest voice of opposition. Case in point, the TVA’s most vocal critic was Wendell Willkie, president of the largest utility company, the Commonwealth and Southern. Despite his opposition, Willkie negotiated with TVA and eventually ceded – “We accept the inevitable with good spirit and are selling our properties at as good a price as we can get the government to pay.”

TVA ad
An advertisement for the TVA’s program for improving agricultural practices.

Despite opposition, the TVA moved forward and transformed the south, providing thousands of families and farms with a higher standard of living. But of course, there were losers. A more recent example of the losing end was in 2008, when the TVA, being one of the largest coal industry customers created the country’s largest coal ash spill, smothering over 300 acres of land and several houses.

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And then there is the story of Jim and Mattie Randolph and their seven children, one cow, one pig and sixty chickens back in 1936. To accommodate the hydroelectric dam projects, the Randolphs were one of thousands of families forced out of their home and relocated. The story of “plain stubborn” Mattie Randolph is a popular one because she refused to the bitter end to leave her two-room log cabin and 14-acres of land as the Norris Dam reservoir was being created. The TVA personnel that were charged with evicting the Randolphs could not understand why the family wished to remain in their home rather than live elsewhere in better conditions. A caseworker wrote, “The six children seemed happy, but why or how is the question – [The Randolphs] have very limited experiences, do not want a better place to live, or electric lights, or a bath room, or any other high-falutin thing.” The Randolphs had no understanding of the TVA and what it was all about. That is because the Randolph’s world did not reach beyond their 14 acres, that was all they knew or cared to know.

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Currently, American citizens are waging a war against each other all in the name of government politics. It seems “the greater good” has two very different interpretations, depending on which side you’re on. I think of the New Deal, the Great Society and the Affordable Healthcare Act and wonder why so many resisted these government-mandated changes. Is it simply because we don’t take kindly to our government imposing social experiments that disrupt our own personal world? It probably is not as simple as that, but then again, maybe it is. At least for Mattie Randolph who lost her entire world, it was.

Lewis Hines Photograph 1
If I can inject photography into a story, I certainly will. Lewis Hines was hired to do a photographic survey of the TVA as it was constructing its dams. What came out of that project is more than a survey, it became art. This photo is one of his pieces.
Pickwick Damresized
Another Lewis Hines photograph.

Aug 7 Sweet Home Alabama

Hey Stan, you’re in Ala-F***in-Bama.” Vinny Gambini

In Phenix City, AL, the tombstone of a bridge-builder and slave owner reads the following, “John Godwin Born Oct. 17, 1798. Died Feb 26, 1859. This stone was placed here by Horace King, in lasting remembrance of the love and gratitude he felt for his lost friend and former master.

Monument
Horace King’s monument to his friend and master, John Godwin.

I first learned about Horace King at the Shorter Mansion museum in Eufaula, Alabama. While camped on Lake Eufaula, Vivian and I drove to town on a persistently rainy day and found refuge at this beautiful mansion and museum. Although the history of Eufaula and its surrounding area are deserving of attention, what I keep thinking about is the story of Horace King. I read it with interest from a placard that was within three steps of a display about Governor George Wallace. Most Americans have heard of Wallace, but few would recognize King, so the paradox of the two coming together in a historical museum would go entirely unnoticed by most.

Shorter Museum
The large columns of the classical-revival Shorter Mansion stand majestically.

Horace King was born a slave in 1807 and became the property of John Godwin in 1829. Godwin was a bridge builder who saw great opportunity in Alabama with all its waterways. Bridges and roads needed to be built. King’s relationship to Godwin was more partner than slave as King played a significant role in designing and building bridges. He supervised many of Godwin’s projects, which in the day were considered superior workmanship. King’s reputation as a builder and his fortunes grew over time and eventually, he became an elected Alabama state representative. In 1846, Horace King became a free man when Godwin’s family released him. In honor of his previous owner and friend, he purchased a Masonic monument and erected it on Godwin’s grave, where the inscription above can be read.

Emancipation
Horace King’s official emancipation notice.

A few steps further, I read about Governor George Wallace. The museum’s display tells us about Wallace’s positive contributions to the state of Alabama, barely eluding to what made Wallace most famous in the United States. Wallace’s inaugural speech in 1963 (which was nowhere in the museum’s tribute to him) sums it up quite well – “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.

I must admit, when I think of Alabama I think of segregation and intolerance. This may not be a fair assessment give how little I know about the state, but then there are so many accounts, from long past and more current that make it difficult to believe otherwise. Voting rights are still being suppressed in more predominantly black counties, it is the only state in the U.S. where the majority of residents oppose same-sex marriage, it passed the harshest anti-immigration law in 2011 (it was overturned federally), recently passed the most restrictive law affecting women’s access to healthcare, and holds a city (Gadsen) that was ranked the worst place to be a woman by 24/7 Wall Street.

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No words.

Alabama, you are a complicated state of citizens ranging between the two extremes, anti-everything-that-is-not-white-male-or-straight policy makers and the people who overcome their policies in great ways. You were born from cotton where black slaves worked and died, but you are the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Someone once wrote that Alabama is proud of its divisive past, as well as its reputation for being at the forefront of equality.

Window
A window display in downtown Eufaula.

I am a Caucasian and Vivian is a white-looking Latina, so clearly, we will never experience racism in Alabama. On the other hand, we are two women, married to each other. Ironically, I felt a sense of belonging when the Shorter Mansion museum host described the yearly Antebellum pilgrimage where visitors can tour several historical homes in Eufaula. One of those homes is a grand Victorian-style house owned by two men, a couple as she described them. She was proud to share with us the rich history of Eufaula and its historic mansions, and she let us know in a matter-of-fact way, that the couple being gay was simply an inconsequential part of that richness.

Despite the brouhaha of ‘us vs them’ politics, within a community people must get along. It doesn’t matter what the community is, an RV park, a state, a small southern antebellum town, a fishing village or a large metropolis, we are all in this together and quite often, we depend on each other. Vivian and I are members of several communities, one of which is Chokoloskee Islanders and another, fulltime RV’ers. We know from experience that when it comes to neighbors, who a person loves, their gender or their race matters not in comparison to how we treat each other. George Wallace the governor of Alabama did not understand that, perhaps John Godwin the slave owner did, and certainly, the Shorter Mansion Museum host does.

Horace King
Horace King was a bridge builder in more than one way.

Aug 6 Wilderness Spoiled

Travel is a Privilege.” Nomadic Matt

Over one week into our trip, we finally drove out of Florida. Our first campground in Alabama was a very nice one on Lake Eufaula (also known as Walter F. George Lake). Our site gave us direct access to the water and an easy shoreline for Vivian to launch the kayak. Investing in a 1-week Alabama fishing license, she would for the first time on our trip, use the inflatable kayak and do some fishing. While the lake was nice enough, the view was interrupted by power lines and buildings along the shoreline. I was not inspired to photograph it.

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A waterfront campsite on a populated Lake Eufaula

Living in Chokoloskee, Vivian and I are wilderness spoiled. From our home in Outdoor Resorts, we can overlook the very large Chokoloskee Bay that surrounds the island and see only wilderness. No development will ever interrupt our view of the Ten Thousand Islands.

Chokoloskee Bay
Our view of Chokoloskee Bay.

Short video: Photographing Chokoloskee Bay, check out those oyster bars!

Within minutes of home, we can paddle our boats into Everglades National Park where sharks, dolphin and manatee share the waters. I can drive a couple miles, launch my canoe and be totally isolated in Big Cypress National Preserve with the alligators. A 5-mile drive to the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park is where the coveted ghost orchids bloom in the summer. We paddle through the nearby Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge with our canoes for several days at a time, primitive camp on the islands without the service of cell phones, running water or electricity. We are at home in the wilderness. To us, the RV is the antithesis of camping.

Short video: Sunset over Lake Eufaula

Short video: Overlooking Lake Guntersville from 600 ft above

But it is with the RV that we have the privilege of traveling through the United States. Alabama is one of 48 (maybe 49) states that will contribute to our experiences in the rich diversity of American culture and ecology. During a week in Alabama, we camped on two lakes located at opposite ends of the state, Lakes Eufaula and Guntersville. While there, I learned that Alabama is the second largest in inland waterways with a total of 1500 miles. It is also among the top in the nation for its range in biodiversity of flora and fauna.

Guntersville view
A view from the shoreline of Lake Guntersville, near our campsite

Despite the recognized waterways and biodiversity, I struggled sometimes with the lack of pure wilderness. At both our campgrounds, I saw more signs on large trucks displaying “Roll Tide” than I did wild animals. On Lake Eufaula, our camp neighbor’s drone was one of only two objects flying over the lake, the other was an osprey. Buildings and docks lined much of the lakeview there. On Lake Guntersville, utility towers interrupted the sunset view. Powerboats were plenty on both lakes, but we did enjoy a small herd of deer that hung out near our campsite. I had to finally accept that traveling in an RV meant redefining “wilderness camping”.

Eufaula campsite
RV camping on Lake Eufaula, Army Corp of Engineers White Oak Campground

On the other hand, there is something to be said for parking your home on waterfront property. Vivian enjoyed a the mornings fishing on the water while I explored the surrounding land. Nature photography was relegated to spiders in the woods, but I loved that I had all my camera equipment available, and on a whim could grab it and go hike around a small parcel of wilderness looking for something, anything to photograph.

forest shot
Give me a camera and a short walk in the woods, I’ll find something to photograph
spider webs
And that includes spider webs

Vivian could have her kayak on the water within seconds of our campsites, although there were no fish caught. At Lake Guntersville while Vivian paddled out on the large body of water, I hiked straight up to the overlook where I had a panoramic view of the large lake where a tiny speck that was her boat could barely be seen. I had my camera, she had her fishing rod. It wasn’t the Everglades, but we did not wish to be any other place on earth.

Overlooking Lake Guntersville
From 600 ft above, I could view our campground overlooking Lake Guntersville. Vivian and her kayak is one of the tiny specks in the water

We believed ourselves to be privileged to have an RV and a truck to tow it to these locations. The places we park our home give us access to pieces of America that we otherwise would never have known if not for the RV. Sitting outside in our camp chairs one evening in Alabama, our view of a sunset over Lake Guntersville where powerboats raced to get back home before dark was blocked by several RVs. Facing the opposite direction, we toasted Alabama while enjoying the view of a herd of deer grazing nearby on an empty RV site.

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The deer that greeted us as we arrived at the campground

Aug 5 Florida’s Unconquered

The case of the Seminoles constitutes at present the only exception to the successful efforts of the government to remove the Indians to the homes assigned them west of the Mississippi.” President Martin Van Buren

I rarely think about names of places, but Lake Seminole’s name is familiar, yet seems out of place. So, I took an interest this time. I recognize the name Seminole for a couple reasons, neither of which have anything to do with the origination of Lake Seminole (yet another reservoir created from the damming of a river or two). The first reason is that the Seminole Tribe of Florida reside in south Florida near my home. But mostly, the word Seminole reminds me of the Everglades and how it has altered the course of Florida’s history in profound ways.

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Storm clouds over Lake Seminole

Lake Seminole is located so far north that it is dissected by the Florida-Georgia state line. Despite being over 500 miles north, Lake Seminole is connected to the southern end of Florida’s Everglades in some ways. Perhaps one thing in common is Lake Seminole’s claim to fame of a duck hunter who died mysteriously several years ago; his body lost to its waters. Speculators believed it to be eaten by alligators. This story reminds me of another, yet more recent missing person incident down in the most southern reaches of the Everglades. While RV-camping with his family at Everglades National Park’s Flamingo campground, a man went missing after going out for a hike. Like what happened in Lake Seminole, the missing body was attributed to the eating behaviors of alligators.

Short video: A view of Three Rivers State Park & Lake Seminole

But what really connects Lake Seminole to the Everglades is its name. Back in the early 1800s, a land-grabbing U.S. government coveted the rich land that later became the state of Florida. At that time, Spain occupied the area, so the U.S. wanted to remove both the Spaniards and the Indians. Meanwhile, the Creek wars waged by General Andrew Jackson in Alabama forced thousands of Creek Indians to migrate to Florida. There, they existed among the indigenous tribes who referred to themselves as “yat’siminoli”or “Free People” because they successfully resisted the Spaniards and English attempts to conquer them. Over time, American settlers began referring to all Florida territory Indians as “Seminoles”. The Creek’s migration to Florida really got under Jackson’s skin, so, the first Seminole War (1816-1819) was fought which resulted in the ousting of Spain (who by that time wanted to leave Florida anyway) and the displacement of Indians from northern Florida to central Florida.

Granger
The painting “the Seminole Wars” by Charles Granger, 1835, ironically gives the first and second wars an orderly appearance.

Not having succeeded in removing the Seminole Indians completely, the U.S. government under Jackson’s presidency began another war (1835-1842) and was met with a fiercer opposition, let by the infamous warrior chief, Osceola. This war became the second Seminole war which cost the U.S. government almost $40,000,000 in its attempt to remove about 3000 men, women and children from Florida. The U.S. government fought many Indian wars, but this one differed in that it involved all arms of the military; army, navy and marines. Eventually, survivors of the war fled into the deep dark Everglades, an area completely unchartered by American settlers.

Osceola
Chief Osceola

A third time, the U.S. military followed the orders of its government to exterminate the remaining few Indians. The third Seminole War (1855-1858) was far from traditional, it was the U.S. military’s first guerrilla war. They were against the hit-and-run tactic of the Indians whose primary weapon was the territory in which they lived. It was here that one white soldier wrote home, “If the devil owned both Hell and Florida, he would rent out Florida and live in Hell!”

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Not so orderly, the third Seminole War was guerrilla warfare. Not sure how the flamingo got in the middle of it all.

At the end of it all, the U.S. government could not force the Florida Seminoles to surrender, leaving a few hundred men, women and children to the swamps of south Florida Everglades. I think about those survivors every time I go into the Everglades and I think about them as I stand on the edge of Lake Seminole on the second morning of our stay. So lovely it was as the sun rose over the horizon and lit the sky a brilliant orange. The lake glistened from the sky’s reflection as a lone kayak fisherman threw his line, gently interrupting the water’s calmness. The attempt to rid Florida of its native people began here and ended further south in the Everglades. Behold Florida’s unconquered natural beauty, legacy of the Seminoles.

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A kayak fisherman alone on Lake Seminole as the sun rises

And by the way, 17 years after the duck hunter went missing, there was a breakthrough in the case; the body of the murdered man, Mike Williams was found. His wife, having collected $1.75 million in life insurance and married Williams’s best friend, was convicted of murder. They never did find the missing man down in Flamingo.

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Lily pads on Lake Seminole showing evidence of recent rains

Aug 3 A Room with a Changing View

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” Bill Bryson

Loading the boats
Vivian and I breaking camp & packing our boats in the morning during one of our Everglades trips.

Vivian and I have a routine when camping in the Everglades that friends have warmly referred to as “militaristic”. She has certain tasks, I have certain tasks and we just get them done. In the morning in our tent, we have our coffee and breakfast (using hot water from a Nissan thermos filled the night before) so we can more efficiently pack our gear and go. The entire point of doing this is to simply minimize discomforts and avoid disasters. We are now approaching our RV camping much the same way. On the morning we left Lake Rousseau, we packed up and secured what needed secured, got our lunch and snacks for the road, and were outside by 7:30 am. After disconnecting water, electric & sewer, bringing the slides in and hitching, we were driving away before 8:30 am.

As usual, storms were moving across Florida and we had a short window of opportunity to arrive at our next campground and set up before the second round of storms began. Three Rivers State Park on Lake Seminole where the unknown awaited us, was approximately 220 miles away. It would be a first for both of us; Vivian would back up the RV into a campsite and I would have the honor of using a dump station.

dumpstation
The dump station really wasn’t a problem, I took my time & got minimally splashed. Thankfully, I didn’t have a line of waiting RVs.

Maybe it has to do with the zillion cameras that came with the truck or maybe it is just Vivian’s keen designer sense of space, but she got that 32-ft 5th wheel into our small campsite with little difficulty. All my worries and sleepless nights were for naught. I stood outside and gave instructions over the walkie talkie – “jack it”, “follow in”, “pull forward”, “stop”, only to learn she wasn’t paying much attention to my directives anyway. At any rate, relying almost entirely on the cameras and her intuition, she got it in there. Hooking up was easy because I didn’t have to deal with the sewer hose until the morning of departure. Thinking of the dump station that awaited me, I felt a slight hint of fear, the same fear that caused many sleepless nights prior to our trip. But I could also sense the fear dissipating with each new experience and each mile driven. I was beginning to feel empowered as an RV’er. The dump station would wait for a couple days, so I never gave it another thought until it was time.

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Our campsite, in which Vivian neatly backed in the RV.

With no more sleepless nights ahead, we enjoyed this beautiful campground. After setting up, we had about 30 minutes before the next torrential rain fall and to view the incoming storm over Lake Seminole.

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Incoming storm over Lake Seminole

And then it came. We ran back home and once inside the RV, we were quite comfortable watching the rain through the windows. An RV with a view.

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Looking like a rain forest out there
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See that water trail next to our electrical post? Comfortably inside looking out, watching this made me a little nervous.

When I lived in Miami, I enjoyed coming home from work and preparing our dinner. It was a form of relaxation for me as I sipped my wine in between chopping vegetables. While I did the same in our new home parked on Lake Seminole, a warm feeling overcame me while I listened to the rain pelt the RV roof. The comfort of our home and all its routines will be with us wherever we go. As I prepared our meal, I gazed at the monochrome greens of rain-soaked foilage framed by the window. From our home, we will always have the best view, because it will change frequently.

Aug 1 A Place Where People Visit and Never Leave

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. “ Lao Tzu

For the past 15 years, Vivian and I spent almost every weekend and vacation day paddling our canoes through the Everglades. On occasion, we take trips lasting 8 to 10 days and paddle upwards of 20 miles from one campsite to another. Everglades National Park is a large and remote watery wilderness area and many campsites take several days to reach by kayak or canoe.

Two Canoes
One of the many campsites we paddle to during our Everglades trips.

We probably spend more time planning each trip than on the trip itself. Every planning decision is dictated by the king and queen of the Everglades, weather and tides. We study the tide charts, calculate mileage, consult the wind predictions and create contingency plans. Specific routes are carefully designed to minimize exposure to the typical winter wind patterns or the occasional storm that can make paddling difficult and sometimes dangerous.

Check out this short video of our Everglades trips.

And that is exactly how we approached our maiden voyage with the RV. Before we began our trip, I lost many nights of sleep thinking about how to back our rig into a tiny cramped campsite or how it could be pulled up and down very steep grades on narrow winding roads. When planning, I tried to avoid both these situations as much as possible. We poured over road atlases, consulted RV apps, read campground reviews, posted questions about road conditions on RV travel forums, studied the details of satellite images, and relentlessly hounded our experienced RV park neighbors with more questions. Consequently, I created a route from Chokoloskee, Florida to Indian River, Michigan (approximately 1800 miles) and made all our reservations to get us from point A to B. We were neatly booked for the next two months, just like paddling through the Everglades.

But here’s the thing – mother nature has a way of changing plans. This is not news, we all have been there. Our paddling trips have been altered or cut short occasionally. But we are now in an RV and covering much wider territory and exposing ourselves to weather patterns that are entirely new to us. According to our plan, we were to leave Lake Rousseau after three nights. As it were, we stayed two additional nights. Our second destination in the panhandle of Florida was flooded from relentless rains. We have found ourselves in the same kind of predicament in the Everglades. Faced with 25+ knot head winds across very large bodies of water, we make the executive decision to stay at a campsite instead of paddling onward. That’s the beauty of planning, it gives you the knowledge and confidence to make changes when necessary. True to form, we postponed our travels to the panhandle to wait the storm out. This gave us two additional nights at Lake Rousseau, where people come to visit and never leave.

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The boat launch at Lake Rousseau RV resort at sunset

I was beginning to get a creepy feeling from our camp host’s insistence on that fact, and I felt a hint of sadness not being where we originally planned to be. We could have left and arrived at our next reserved campsite on schedule, but why should we? Why should we drive in white-out conditions to get to a place where we would set up camp in torrential rain fall (assuming we could get into our campsite)? Why not wait until the storms clear out and then go? After all, we were thoroughly enjoying the purveyors of summer shade.

Sunrise again
Another view of sunrise over Lake Rousseau

That is the beauty of having our home everywhere we go. We plan our trips with fastidious attention to detail; but we know mother nature will always have the final say in the matter. And we are OK with that, because we will always be home.

FYI, here are the three resources we used the most to help us plan our trip:

Allstays Pro

Harvest Hosts

Passport America

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Staying five nights allowed me to capture some beautiful scenes of Lake Rousseau.