Somewhere in our travel research, I read that Harrington Beach State Park is one of the best state parks in the state of Wisconsin being located on Lake Michigan. I figured after spending a week photographing Lake Michigan from Door County, it couldn’t hurt to spend a few more days doing the same from another vantage point.
Ironically, while staying 3 nights at Harrington, I spent the least amount of time on the shores of the great lake; instead there was much more to this park. Good thing because the lake’s water levels are so high, there was no beach! Enjoy the photos from this beautiful and historical park.
There was another draw to staying at Harrington Beach and that was to visit yet another post-industrial city, Milwaukee. Yes, the city that has or had the following distinct and I might add, diverse characteristics:
the German Athens of America
the largest Polish settlement in the U.S.
the distinction with New York City of having the largest percentage of immigrant residents in the U.S.
the major city in which for years the Socialist Party of America earned the highest votes
a street named after Al Capone because he owned a home in a Milwaukee suburb
avoided the severe declines that other rust belt cities could not because of its large immigrant population and historic neighborhoods
nicknames “the cream city” because of the prominent cream-colored brick used to build many buildings
once the home of the world’s largest beer breweries (Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst and Miller) and number one beer producing city in the world
home to America’s Black Holocaust museum
home to Laverne and Shirley
With only a short time for a visit, we came to admire some of the historic architecture of Downtown Milwaukee, added steps to the FitBit while enjoying the Riverwalk, stood in awe inside the iconic Milwaukee Museum of Art and ate an authentic Mexican lunch in the Historic Third Ward. We didn’t experience enough of this city but enjoy these photos from what we can share with you. Also, to get a slightly different perspective of the city, check out our friends’ Spencer and Lorraine Saint’s travel blog about their visit to Milwaukee.
RV Tips and Issues
We have learned the hard way to research campsites before we reserve one. That is, we spend a good amount of time studying Google satellite images. And it isn’t just that anymore, now we use the measurement tool in Google Earth to evaluate campground road and campsite widths. If we are lucky, we can get a street view of the campground as well. And sometimes, we find someone’s video of campsites at specific campgrounds. All of this information available to us has made our life easier and has helped us avoid further problems. We are convinced that some of our previous campsites (because we didn’t know any better) were the reason for having serious suspension issues (more on that later). My advice is if you have a moderate-sized trailer, class A motorhome or a fifth wheel is the following:
Know the full length of your rig (this includes tow vehicle connected to trailer or fifth wheel). Ours is 49.5 feet (truck connected to fifth wheel). Therefore, we DO NOT reserve campsites that are shorter than 50 ft.
For back-ins, look for campsites that are on a straight-away and not on a curved portion of the campground road. Look at the first image at the top and notice the curved road. Vivian got in with no great problems, but the curve made it more difficult. Thankfully, there was no obstacle on the other side of the road.
With satellite views, look for objects that will interfere with backing in. This is where knowing the width of the campground road comes in handy.
When in doubt about a campground, search YouTube videos, you might get lucky and find images of the campground. Check out this YouTube channel titled Campsite Photos.
Balancing the tripod and camera on my shoulder, I carefully climbed along Lake Michigan’s steep and rugged shoreline searching for a rock ledge flat and wide enough to set up for a sunrise over the great lake. A continual onslaught of powerful waves violently crashed against the vertical expanse of rock several feet below me. Frequently, the water impact resulted in a tall fountain of spray that kept the rock surface wet where I knelt behind the tripod. As soon as I set up to shoot, kinetic energy released from a rogue wave brought a torrential splash over the ledge. My reflexes worked well to move the camera back fast enough to avoid drenching the electronics. This was the lake I wanted to photograph more than anything and it was not making it easy.
The day before, we drove over 300 miles from the northwest corner of Illinois to Baileys Grove Campground in Baileys Harbor, Door County. Door County comprises the upper region of Green Bay Peninsula that is surrounded by Green Bay on the west side and Lake Michigan on the east side. One year prior, we stayed in Michigan where I photographed from its eastern shoreline. This time on the Wisconsin side, if I could throw a rock far enough across the lake, it would have landed in almost the same spot where I photographed a year ago from a sandy beach.
Much of Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline within the state of Michigan is characterized by miles of gentle sand dunes that are created by the prevailing westerly winds. In stark contrast, Wisconsin’s western shoreline is characterized by tall rocky bluffs and rugged cliffs. It is the western portion of the Niagara Escarpment which is most prominent in Green Bay Peninsula. The escarpment rises from the shores of Lake Michigan and drops sharply into Green Bay. On a ledge, the peninsula benefits from the constant air movement from the surrounding waters which helps maintain moderate temperatures in the summer. Indeed, during our week-long stay in August, we enjoyed temperatures that never fell out of the 60 to 75 degree range. The warmer air also provides a longer growing season, perfect for the vineyards and vegetable farms, which we also enjoyed.
The challenging Lake Michigan shoreline cannot be described without mentioning how Door County got its name. Directly above the top of Door County lays Washington Island. Separating the island from the peninsula is a mere 7 miles of important navigational passage that connects Lake Michigan to Green Bay. Appropriately referred to as “Death’s Door”, it is littered with shipwrecks. In 1881, the dangers of this formidable, yet important shipping route led to the construction of a by-pass canal that cuts through the peninsula about 40 miles south of the point.
Door County has a rich Native American and European/French Canadian settlers’ history, but what caught our attention (thanks to the Ephraim Historical Foundation) was the charming bayside community of Ephraim. A few weeks earlier, we were introduced to the intriguing history of Moravian immigrants that settled in Winston-Salem, NC. While the southern community originated from Germany, Ephraim was founded in 1853 by a group of Norwegian Moravians led by the Reverend Andreas Iverson. On the shores of Green Bay, Ephraim soon became a busy shipping point as well as a tourist attraction. By the end of the 1800s, Ephraim’s main source of income was through tourism as hotels and businesses as well as the sale of summer homes attracted summer vacationers.
The Ephraim Historical Foundation has a wonderful walking tour of museums that can be visited within a day. It includes The Iverson House (the oldest framed house in Door County) and the Goodletson cabin which has an interesting history. The Goodletson home was built on Eagle (Now Horseshoe) Island in 1855 but in 1860, the family decided to move to Ephraim. Life was much more difficult back then compared to now, and consequently, people must have put a fair amount of time and energy into figuring out how to make life easier and affordable. Which got me asking the question, if you were living on an island and wanted to move to the mainland several miles away, which would be the most viable solution – wait until winter and drag the cabin across the ice or sail over to the mainland during summer and build a new cabin? Be it for the cost or the work involved in cabin building, the Goodletson family figured out that dragging their home across ice was the best solution. After setting it up in Ephraim, it remained in place for over a hundred years. Now, the original cabin can be visited on Moravia Street, next to the Pioneer Schoolhouse Museum.
When visiting a new place, some things must be experienced and quite often that experience involves food. Vivian and I tend to reserve our measly restaurant budget for exceptional places that represent a location’s unique culture. This time, it was the infamous Fish Boil which is much more than a meal – it is a show. Locals warned us to plan ahead and make our reservations several days in advance, so we reserved a spot at the White Gull Inn five days prior.
We can thank the Scandinavian immigrants for fish boil. Back in the day, it was an economical way to feed large groups of fishermen and lumberjack. Today, the fish boil is more than just a meal, it’s a spectacle. You are asked to arrive 30 minutes prior to being served so that you can experience the show of cooking the meal. It goes something like this. You and about 30 others stand around a large black kettle hanging over a fire behind the restaurant waiting for the water to boil. As soon as the water begins to boil, the fish boiler lowers wire baskets filled with potatoes into the water. Shortly after that, small cuts of whitefish are added. The only seasoning is salt and for every 3 gallons of water, there is a pound of salt in the boiling water. After about 10 minutes, the oils boil to the top. At that moment, the short-lived spectacle begins as the fish boiler pours kerosene onto the fire. With huge flames engulfing the kettle, water quickly boils over leaving behind the salted and cooked potatoes and fish. The fish chunks remain firm and believe it or not, they are tasty. It’s an all-you-can-eat meal topped with homemade cherry pie. Classic Door County cuisine.
Aside from the fish boil, small town charm, farmers markets and history museums, Door County has a variety of wilderness areas to explore – coastal wetlands, forests, meadows and rock ridges. Consequently, we filled our time with hiking and kayaking. Although the temperatures were ideal for outdoor activities, unusual northeasterly winds made the original idea of kayaking along the cliffs of Lake Michigan less appealing. Instead, we opted to take our inflatable kayak up to the Mink River, protected waters off Rowley Bay. A calm and casual day of paddling through a marshy area made us feel like we were back in Florida. Only a few hours earlier, I was standing on a precarious rock ledge trying to protect myself from the cold wet spray of great lake water. Tomorrow, we would hike through maple and birch forests in search of wild turkeys and a lone white pine. Door County packs it all in during the summer months.
As with the driftless area of Iowa, we did not want to leave Door County. As time goes on, we look back on the places we have visited and a few of them, like Door County have left deep impressions on us. I will always remember Door County for the peacefulness we experienced through its charming coastal towns, small farms, lack of noise (no trains!), lack of traffic (driving miles on a back road without seeing another vehicle), and near perfect weather conditions. In our short time, Door County was on its best behavior.
On the final morning of our visit, I walked back to the Cave Point parking lot after two hours of negotiating water spray and rocky ledges to photograph Door County’s “most iconic natural landscape” one last time. For the past week, it was only during my photo shoots at Cave Point that I felt the discomforts of cold wetness that reminded me of the harsh winters that come soon after the fair-weather tourists leave. I wondered if we would ever see this place in the winter. On second thought, I prefer my current impression of Door County to last a very long time.
RV Traveling Issues and Tips
Specific to Wisconsin, prepare to pay for a yearly state park pass. We made reservations at Harrington Beach State Park near Milwaukee and paid for it online. Upon arrival, we learned that out-of-state visitors must pay a daily park fee of $11 ($44 for our 4-day camping stay). So, we opted to buy the yearly pass with the intention of staying at another state park. The take-home message here is, research each state and budget accordingly, and not only for camping at state parks but for day visits as well.
We drove north on Illinois’ scenic state road 84 along the eastern edge of the upper Mississippi River where we arrived at our home base for four days, Mississippi Palisades State Park. It was our introduction to the driftless area. When I think of the Mississippi River, I have visions of low country deltas. The area here is nothing like that with its rock cliffs standing 1000 feet above the river. When I did learn about the driftless area, it became clear that the upper Mississippi River is a completely different one from its southern counterpart.
The driftless area is a geologically unique territory represented by Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota and if not for Vivian’s fly fishing research, we would never have known it exists. How the driftless came to be has to do with the absence of glaciers. Glaciers are known to flatten things and when they retreat, they leave behind drift (clay, gravel, silt). Because this area escaped the leveling effects of glaciers during the last ice age, its landscape is characterized by ridges, deep river valleys, spring-fed waterfalls, caves and cold-water trout streams. Without drift. This unassumingly beautiful area is like a combination of Florida and New England. It is similar to Florida because of its karst geology comprised of soluble rock (i.e., limestone) and for its underground drainage system of sinkholes and caves. But the large cliffs, ravines and forested areas are more akin to New England. There are very few lakes in these parts, but the upper Mississippi River passes right through it. And it is fly fishing’s best kept secret.
Even better, the driftless contains one of the top ten charming small towns in America, according to TripAdvisor. What’s not to love when you put charm and small town together? Consequently, we spent a day walking the downtown streets of historic Galena. The town is named for the main ore in lead which formed the basis of the region’s early mining economy. Although native Americans had been mining this area for over a thousand years, European settlers turned it into the first major mineral rush in America. By 1828, Galena was the largest city in Illinois. By the beginning of the 21st century, lead demand had declined dramatically, and Galena became a rural farming community. Later, Galena was listed on the National Register of Historic Places with 85% of its structures within the historic district.
We left the eastern banks of the Mississippi to go north, but a couple weeks later came back down to the driftless, this time to a small town in northeast Iowa. If Galena is the flamboyant city-wannabe country girl, Elkader is Galena’s hardworking but quirky never-leave-the-farm sister.
Elkader is unassuming in all its qualities (except for the gigantic grain mill that hovers over the downtown area) and full of delightful surprises. I so enjoyed walking the empty streets of the tiny town one early Saturday morning as the sun rose above the hills overlooking main street. While walking down the main street sidewalks, the smell of baking bread from Pedretti’s bakery, the one-room city hall building, the movie theatre, the lack of traffic and other reminders of smalltown life made me want to live there. Our home on wheels was parked less than one mile away, so in reality we were living there.
During our 10 days at the Deer Run RV Resort on the outskirts of town, we experienced Elkader’s wonderfulness; pumping then paying at the gas station, buying fresh eggs, vegetables and homemade pastries from local women, tasting various brews at Deb’s Brewtopia where Deb grows her own hops in the backyard, crossing the historic Keystone bridge many times, perusing the 3-story Turkey River Mall antique store, and enjoying a pleasant dinner at Elkader’s only gay-owned Algerian restaurant, Schera’s. All this while a river runs through it.
We took in the town of Elkader as often as we could, but only in between our driftless area explorations, which was why we were there in the first place. Vivian researched the numerous trout streams and had her heart set on practicing her new flyfishing skills in as many of them as possible. I tagged along looking to photograph the uniqueness of the driftless area. When we explain to people that we spent time in Iowa (and not just to drive through it!) while enjoying every minute of it, they were perplexed. We tell them, the driftless area of Iowa is very different from the rest of the state. And it has some impressive places to see, such as Pikes Peak State Park where the bluffs reach their maximum height of over 1000 feet or the unique Effigy Mounds. Rolling farmland goes on for miles, interrupted by country roads with minimal traffic and farms with barns and silos. The tariffs were in full force when we were there, so we talked about that with the campground owner, Doris. The locals, mostly farmers seem to take it all in stride; the recent floods, the current drought, lack of sales to China, and so on. What else can you do?
Almost every day, we got out before first light and drove to a remote trout stream where Vivian could fish. Water levels were extremely low, which seemed strange given the severe flooding four months earlier. The waterfall at Pikes Peak was nothing more than a trickle. But I photographed water whenever I could. The enchanting farmland kept calling me and I really wanted to capture it under the right conditions.
On the last morning of our stay, I sat inside the RV drinking coffee with darkness outside. I rolled the window shade up and peered out. Through the darkness, I could see heavy fog. Opportunity finally arrived. I quickly gathered up the camera and equipment, got dressed and drove off into the dark abyss to a lookout point I had discovered earlier. Conveniently, it was only 2 miles away, so that by the time I arrived the sun had yet to peer over the horizon.
What a glorious site that unfolded before me. For miles, I could see green undulating hills veiled in long folds of fog waving across the land like flowing scarves. The sky awakened in color as the sun appeared and the illuminated fog kept a fluidity that created an ever-changing view. Facing the sun, I worked the scene only to get more excited when I turned around and saw an equally beautiful front lit view. For well over an hour, I ran back and forth between my designated spots and captured the morning as it brightened the sweeping farmland. I got what I came for and not a day too soon.
We left Iowa on Labor Day to head south with anticipation for what was to come. As is always the case when RV traveling, some places try to pull us back as we leave them for the next adventure that pulls us forward even stronger. But that is the beauty of RV life, we can come back.
RV Traveling Issues and Tips
We pull a fifth wheel, therefore we drive a big diesel truck which requires maintenance now and then. If you are traveling extensively, you must plan for some maintenance. In our case, the F350 Ford needs an oil change every 5000 miles or so, filters need replacing, tires need rotating, etc. We keep a record of these things and can anticipate when and where we will need to visit a Ford dealer. Fortunately, Ford dealers are just about everywhere. The point it, when planning your trip, account for the maintenance schedule and be sure you have access to service wherever you plan to be. Not only that, consider that you will probably have to devote at least a half day to get these things done.
Following Gettysburg, we headed west into the heart of America’s rust belt. And of all the places we could see, we wanted to visit Pittsburgh and Cleveland. As we planned our trip, we told many people this fact and their curt response, “Why?” along with their looks of dismay are still burned into my conscious. Visiting Cleveland was excusable – but Pittsburgh? As we drove west on I-76, certainly there must have been more to see than these two cities made from steel and oil.
I suppose I could focus on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater where we spent a morning after a short drive from our campground. I could talk about the history we learned about Wright’s most famous and arguably his most beautiful piece of work within an exquisite wilderness area. I could also talk about Ohio’s only National Park, Cuyahoga Valley that is adjacent to Cleveland. We spent a morning exploring its grand waterfalls and walking through lovely marshes. I could talk about the peaceful lakeside campsites that we enjoyed coming home to each afternoon. Instead, let me take you on a post-industrial tour.
Pittsburgh is a river city having been built at the confluence of not two, but three rivers – Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio. Consequently, it became an industrial city following the American Revolution. And it was the starting point of the Lewis and Clark expedition which was one of the draws for us. Later, it became a major steel producing city, accounting for almost half of the national steel output in the early 1900s. Production sky rocketed during WWII and as a result, Pittsburgh suffered the highest levels of air pollution after almost 100 years of industry, described once as “hell with the lid off”.
Finally, Pittsburgh initiated a “Renaissance” to help clean up its air and rivers. By the 1980s, the steel and electronic industries crumbled with massive layoffs from mill and plant closures. Later, the economic base, like in so many other post-industrial cities shifted toward healthcare, technology and tourism. The success of the revitalized city and the remnants of industrial days long past were both quite evident as we walked the many downtown streets, including the bustling Market Square. We enjoy visiting cities that include art and culture as part of their draw and Pittsburgh drew us in. As with Winston-Salem that had the Hanes family, Pittsburgh has Heinz, as in ketchup. It also has Andy Warhol and Mr. Rogers. Where else can you see a bridge dedicated to America’s quirky artist near a baseball stadium, a history museum with a display dedicated to pre-school children’s favorite neighbor and a beautiful outdoor park at the point where three major rivers join.
Up next, Ohio (try to contain the excitement). I had a good reason to spend a few nights in Ohio and I have very fond memories to blame for that. One of my favorite ways to spend money as a teenager and young adult in the 70s was buying record albums. And I enjoyed looking at the album covers just as much as I enjoyed listening to the music, for which I spent thousands of hours from the time I bought my first record to the very last (mind boggling to think how productive I might have been otherwise!).
Feelings of nostalgia convinced me to visit Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and drag Vivian along with me (and now I am going to drag you along too!). She doesn’t share the same warm and fuzzy feelings I have for rock and roll, but the museum has enough for everyone, and I was certain she would enjoy parts of it. She did like being inside Johnny Cash’s old tour bus and I believe it is the only thing she remembers from our visit, probably because it had more to do with RVing than rock & rolling.
My entire impression of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can be summed up as follows – it was like the experience of listening to a new album for the first time. Lots of anticipation, really digging the first and second songs and then the excitement dwindles with each subsequent song. Yep, expectations kind of went to the wayside as I worked my way through the crowded dark hallways, one exhibit after another.
But I am glad I went. My eclectic taste in music was represented well at the Hall of Fame. It reminded me of a couple things, like how I loved looking through albums at a record store. It also reminded me of spending time perusing my 6-ft long album collection. Even better was when someone else went through my records as rock and roll was always a great conversation starter. I would eagerly wait to see which albums they pulled out and ask me if we could listen to one. Within the RR Hall of Fame, it was interesting to see some displays crowded with several people, while other displays got passed over quickly by most. But it was a nostalgic feast and besides, where else are you going to see a fan of Black Sabbath standing next to a fan of Madonna for all the same reasons.
Visiting cities have been a happy part of our RV travels, even if their sordid pasts include a burning polluted river. As I write this, COVID has already affected the entire world. In our little world, it caused us to make changes to our 2020 travels, including avoiding cities. As I reminiscence about Pittsburgh and Cleveland, I am so glad that we spent a little time in each as we wonder when we will visit another American city in the future.
RV Issues and Travel Tips.
Tip 1: Cost of going to the city and nearby attractions does not have to be expensive. We visited both cities for under $100 (not including cost of diesel). In Pittsburgh we visited the Heinz History Center, Fort Pitt Museum, and Market Square area. We spent a total of $23, $7 for parking, $16 for Fort Pitt. We got into Heinz for free because a nice couple standing in line with us had coupons to share. In Cleveland, we spent $72; $10 for RR Hall of Fame parking, $52 for RR Hall of Fame and $10 for parking at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Tip 2: Owning a big truck (and we don’t have a dually!) gives city parking a whole new meaning. But don’t let that keep you from visiting a city. With a little research, you can find relatively inexpensive parking lots with enough room to park. The key is to do the research, make a phone call or two, view the Google satellite image of the area, be flexible with your time and find the best route in. We chose to drive into Pittsburgh on a Saturday morning, which meant less traffic, cheaper parking and more parking spaces available. All that despite a Pirates home game later in the day. By then, we were leaving anyway. Which brings up another tip; check the schedule for hometown sporting events. Away games are a bonus, unless of course you are going there to see a game.
The bucolic farm scene spread out before me as I hustled to set up the camera and tripod in predawn darkness. The unfamiliar crisp air added to my thrill of being surrounded by uninhabited hallowed grounds that make this place so special. Behind me, another scene was unfolding, a brilliant pink sky illuminating a swath of light fog across the green pastures. Rustic criss-crossed fences served as the perfect foreground for the scene and there were no utility poles or lines to rudely interrupt it. This was photographic heaven to me; no people, no cars, no noise, only beautiful farmland. My only opportunity to photograph a landscape here, my mind was focused on the technical and aesthetics of creating an image worthy of Gettysburg National Military Park. I wasn’t exactly thinking about the history of my photo subject as I hit the shutter button. My primary thoughts were on creating a good composition that included the full moon before it set over the bright red barn and the brilliant pink sky before the colors and fog disappeared into daylight.
As I framed a farm scene through my camera’s viewfinder, I wasn’t thinking about the Sherfy family that were forced to give their farm to confederate soldiers who in turn made a hospital from the large barn. Nor was I thinking about the union soldiers who stormed the farm and burned everything in sight, including the barn. As I took one shot after another, I gave no thought to the Sherfy family who fled their home and then returned after the battle to rotting corpses and charred fields. It was only later in the day that I gave serious thought to the Sherfys and many other citizens of Gettysburg. Now, every farm on the national park battlefield is a replica or a monument built for the park.
Ever since leaving the low country and working our way north along the Appalachian Mountains, I had fallen in love with the rolling farm country that comprised much of our route. Gettysburg would be a special display of that idyllic countryside with its cannon replicas and numerous monuments to soldiers and their commanders. And I wanted to photograph it. But of course, our primary reasons for being here was to immerse ourselves in the history of the Civil War and enjoy our national park service at its best.
Recently coming from Fort Sumter, we were primed for Gettysburg. Our campground, Artillery Ridge was conveniently located a very short distance from the national park’s visitor center. Having only two days to take it all in, we opted for the combination bus tour and cyclorama film on one day and then the next, we attended a ranger-led tour and drove around on our own through the park. The entire park experience was intense, and we spent a lot of time listening and reading. As I learned more, I realized why Civil War reenactments are a big deal here. But it also became clearer to me why these grounds are a national park. These things cannot be forgotten and although the battle of Gettysburg took place over 150 years ago, the park brought it back to life in such a breathtaking way.
I was taken in at how such a profound and horrific event in American history could be presented in a way that satisfied both the casual tourist and the Civil War history fanatic. It’s all there, entertainment as well as in-depth history lessons and battlefield analyses. The park lays it out for us to interpret and feel on our own. I wonder if visitors, like myself who never experienced Civil War firsthand or do not have ancestors who did, leave there with a piece of humanity they did not have before. I feel I did.
There I stood with tripod and camera standing on the very ground where tens of thousands of men lost their lives fighting their neighbors and where commanders made good and bad decisions that ultimately led to the defeat of the confederate rebellion. I left Gettysburg with a few good images and a deeper understanding of the Civil War, but I also came away with a sense of hope for our country that seems to be steering off course. We are in a time when cavalier mention of “starting a civil war” does not cause dismay but instead is shrugged off as the divisiveness among Americans cuts deeper each day. We all need a history lesson now more than ever.
RV and travel issues, concerns and tips
Issue 1: If your rig is wired for 50 AMP, opt for 50 AMP spaces even if they cost you more than a 30 AMP space. When temperatures outside rise above 90 degrees like they did when we were in Gettysburg, that 50 AMP can make all the difference in AC comfort. We reserved a 30 AMP site to save a few bucks, but immediately upgraded to 50AMP once we arrived. Well worth having when you want that AC running smoothly.
Tip 1: If you plan to visit Gettysburg, these are my recommendations. First, stay at Artillery Ridge Campground; it’s expensive but well worth it for the location. Second, I highly recommend you spend at least two full days. We had 2 days for the park and I wanted at least one more day. The ranger-led tours are numerous and well worth it to plan your days around them. Third, I also highly recommend you reserve a personal tour guide by car or a take the less expensive bus tour. We opted for the bus tour and although we were two among 50 or so people, the tour guide was outstanding. Guides are typically locals that know the Gettysburg battle inside and out. You can ask them any question and they will have an answer. And last, you MUST see the cyclorama painting, that was a highlight of our visit.
Taking baby steps, we drove north toward the Appalachian Mountains, the barrier between the east coast plains and interior lowlands of North America where we would eventually get to. But first, we had some things to do on this side of the country. Three hundred miles west of the coast as the crow flies, we spent two nights near Winston-Salem at Tanglewood Park, our first county park camping experience.
County parks are urbanesque compared to state parks and tend to offer much more than a campground. But, we took our chances with Tanglewood and glad we did. The RV campground is a relatively small area within a 1100-acre park filled with beautiful cycling and hiking trails, a manor house, a horse stable, swimming pool, two golf courses, lakes, playgrounds, tennis courts, etc, etc. The history of Tanglewood park is even more interesting.
In 1921, William Neal Reynolds (brother of tobacco’s R.J. Reynolds) and his wife Kate, purchased the Tanglewood tract and Manor House. There, the Reynolds lived until 1951 when the Tanglewood property was willed to the citizens of Forsyth County as a public recreational park. The couple wanted the county citizens to enjoy the beauty and history of their country estate – but under one condition. The generous couple added a stipulation to their will that the park be open to white people only.
Along came the Civil Rights Act in 1964. At once, the trustees who oversaw the Tanglewood estate were thrown into a modern-day predicament. In some form of compromise, the trustees closed much of the park including the Manor House, pool, theatre, motel and restaurant. A few more years past as officials attempted to find a legal solution but it was a suit filed in federal court in 1970 that forced the issue to final resolution. The court ruled that Tanglewood must be open to all races or be closed. After some complications concerning park operations, the county park was officially integrated in 1971. Now that wasn’t so difficult, was it Tanglewood?
The history of Tanglewood probably would not have come onto our radar screen except that a week earlier during a 4th of July celebration at the park, a park visitor made the news. While relaxing at the park’s pool, she noticed something odd about the festive red, white and blue wrist bands handed out to all the park visitors. What were supposedly semblances of the American flag were instead of the confederate flag. When this was brought to the park’s attention, blame was passed on to certain park employees who unwittingly ordered the wristbands and park officials immediately got rid of them, the bands that is.
During our short visit, we spent the day in Winston-Salem, and it brought back memories. I clearly remember the iconic green and white package of Salem cigarettes because my dad smoked them right up to the day of his first heart attack. I wouldn’t have known Salem cigarette packages were green despite all the TV ads because we didn’t have a color TV back in those days. I also remember how a pack of cigarettes felt in my small child’s hand because dad would occasionally give me a dollar and send me to the corner drug store to buy his cigarettes. And if it weren’t for my family history, I would not have known that Winston-Salem was once the tobacco industry capital of the world. It’s also the home of Krispy Kreme, by the way.
Not to put heart disease in the forefront, but what is left of the tobacco industry is barely noticeable in the charming city of Winston-Salem. The twin city is called by some as the “City of the Arts and Innovation”. What’s not to like about the second most livable downtowns in America according to the Wall Street Journal? By the 1940s, 60% of Winston-Salem working folks worked for either Reynolds or the Hanes textile factories. And here’s an interesting cigarette fact, despite being 200 miles from the ocean, Winston-Salem was once designated by the U.S. government as an official port of entry for the U.S. because it imported so much French cigarette paper and Turkish tobacco for Camel cigarettes. Now, the largest employer in the twin city is Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Once again, times have changed – tobacco has been replaced by biomedical research.
We spent most of our day at Old Salem, which I knew nothing about until then. And I knew nothing about the Moravians. Old Salem is a historic district in Winston-Salem and originally founded by the Moravian community in 1753. It is now a living history museum that provides an interpretative tour of a Moravian lifestyle. During the early 1400s, Catholicism was firmly established in Europe. In Moravia, a small group of Germans began following the teachings of a local priest, John Hus who believed that the bible should be interpreted by the individual and not be reliant on the interpretation of the clergy. This went against the traditional Catholic Church, so they burned him at the stake for heresy in 1415.
Hus’s followers, the Moravians were forced to stop their religious services; but in secret many continued the practice. Eventually, the Moravians who had turned to the Protestant reformation, resurfaced in the Czech Republic. There, Count Zinzendorf was so taken in by the Moravian’s spiritual expression and acceptance to all who wished to join their faith, that he granted them land to build a village where they could practice their faith freely. From there, they thrived and grew, and embarked on missions throughout the world.
Converts were attracted to the emotional religious services and the orderly and close-knit community life of the Moravians. Moravians, contrary to traditional religions, believed women and men were spiritually equal and women were full participants in religious services. Women could be spiritual leaders, alongside their male counterparts. In 1735, the first Moravian missionaries arrived in the New World, specifically Savannah, Georgia. Later, more successful colonies grew in Pennsylvania (Bethlehem for example) and later in North Carolina, now known as Old Salem. Unbeknownst to us, this would not be our last encounter with Moravians on this trip.
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love”. A Moravian Motto
I’d like to mention something about the Hanes family that also comes out of Winston-Salem because I grew quite fond of them after visiting SECCA, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. SECCA has been around since 1956 as a non-profit visual arts organization. In 1972, James G. Hanes willed his 32-acre estate and English Hunt-Style mansion to the gallery. The mansion was renovated and a 8896-sq-ft gallery was added to it, followed later by a 24,500 sq-ft addition in 1990. A small donation gets you into the gallery where you can enjoy cutting edge and contemporary art exhibits dedicated to southeastern artists. A portion of the Hanes mansion is also on exhibit and the exquisite taste of its owners in full display. SECCA is one of Winston-Salem’s jewels, and we have an underwear magnate to thank for that.
Our stay near Winston-Salem was a short one, but so glad we took the time to visit. Now, we have some climbing to do, before passing over into the vast lowlands of North America.
RV and travel issues and concerns
Issue 1: Unlevel sites. When RV traveling, parking on unlevel sites are inevitable. At Tanglewood, the site was flat and paved, but inclined significantly. We’ve had a few occasions where our auto level system resulted in a wheel coming off the ground. We figured out how to finesse the landing jacks to avoid this from happening, but it took a few trials and errors. You simply have to know that you will encounter unlevel sits and prepare to deal with it. We have several leveling blocks that are quite easy to drive the wheels up onto. Despite the leveling system telling me we are perfectly level, I always check with my own level and tweak the system if needed.
Feeling relieved to have survived the 120-mile drive on I-95, we happily pulled into Santee State Park’s spacious Cypress View Campground. We backed in easily to our site that appeared to be the only empty one in the middle of a holiday weekend. The next day, we visited Fort Sumter and Charleston and came back to an empty campground. For the most part, it stayed that way until we packed up and left four days later. We basically had the entire back forty to ourselves while camped at Santee.
After our day trip to the coast, we spent the remainder of our time within the state park. Vivian would finally do some fishing from the inflatable kayak on Lake Marion two mornings in a row. Meanwhile, I explored the large wooded state park by bike. I loved every minute of it, except for that one time when I dropped my wallet in front of the RV door and didn’t notice it was missing until I was 10 miles into my bike ride. I raced back to the campsite, not knowing where the wallet had dropped but suspected it was near the RV. And there it was, in clear view next to the stairs where it had laid for an hour.
Santee State Park is adjacent to Lake Marion, the largest body of water in South Carolina and the result of the largest earth moving project in U.S. history. It is essentially a reservoir along with Lake Moultrie created by the damming of the Santee River in the 1940s. Lakes Marion and Moultrie are separated by a canal and together have 450 miles of shoreline. This, like so many other reservoirs were made to supply hydroelectricity to rural areas of the south as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. And as with many of the other reservoirs, its creation came at a cost. As the largest earth moving project, 160,000 acres of pine forests and swamp were flooded. Submerged in Lake Marion is the town of Ferguson and curious folks in kayaks can find some of the remains of the watery ghost town. One of the interesting views of Lakes Marion are several cypress trees standing in the water. Apparently, the creation of the reservoir was a rush job (we had just entered WWII) and they flooded the area before many of the trees could be cleared.
Camping at Santee allowed us the opportunity to continue our intensive history lesson of the Civil War by visiting Fort Sumter near Charleston which proved to be a turning point for me in my Civil War lessons. Fort Sumter is one of many sea harbor forts built along the Atlantic coast as a defense against attacks on important seaports, such as Charleston.
On April 10, 1861, confederate forces in Charleston demanded Fort Sumter to surrender knowing that a resupply ship was on its way from the north. The commander, Maj Robert Anderson refused. On April 12, confederates opened fire with cannons. The next day, Anderson surrendered. The Civil War began and the first death from the war was recorded.
As I walked through the fort’s museum and studied each display, it seemed that all the complicated history of the war and the reasons why it happened finally boiled down to one raw fact; cotton was king. Wealthy southern landowners needed slaves to maintain their large cotton plantations, northern banks were woven into the cotton economy and New England textile mills relied heavily on it. Cotton, along with tobacco and sugar was a worldwide luxury commodity and between 1803 and 1937 it was America’s leading export, much of it going to Britain whose textile industry accounted for 40% of its exports. In short, the economics of cotton ruled the land.
Trans-Atlantic slave trade (the middle passage) ended in 1808 but only after nearly 400,000 Africans were transported directly to the U.S. Charleston was known as the slave trade capital, accounting for almost half of the number of people that came into this country. But there was also a second middle passage which involved far more black people and that was the internal or domestic slave trade that peaked from 1830 to 1860 when cotton was king. Of the 3.2 million slaves working in the 15 slave states in 1850, 1.8 million worked in cotton.
Cotton’s value was considerably lower than that of slaves. Slaves were three times more valuable than livestock and twelve times more that of the entire U.S. cotton crop. While the price of cotton and land declined, the price of slaves increased. And we can thank the cotton gin for that by increasing slave productivity tremendously, which led to higher profits and increased demand for slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, there were over 4 million slaves in the United States, owned by a relatively small portion of the southern population. Slave-labor cotton was so profitable it took a civil war and over 600,000 lives to end it.
By the 1830s, abolitionists were becoming more influential. And when Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, it started a wave of anti-slavery sentiment. When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said to her “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” And the abolitionists had their martyr in John Brown after he was tried and hung for treason following his attempted raid on Harper’s Ferry. Not only that, immigrants mostly from Germany and Ireland during the potato famine of 1840s and 1850s became an available pool of low wage laborers, decreasing the need for slavery. One by one, northern states began to abolish slavery. Finally, the creation of the Republican party in the 1850s and subsequent election of its first presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, got the ball rolling in the right direction, except there was a powerful resistance and it all began in South Carolina.
What began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 and ended at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865 was the tragic result of a clash between a slave-dependent economy and the very fact that slavery is wrong. It is befuddling to think of how so many poor men, simple farmers and laborers joined a confederate force to fight their neighbors when the reality was that the secession attempt was about maintaining slave-dependent wealth. Somewhere in there, people were riled up into believing that the federal government was going to swoop down and steal all their rights. While abolition was moving the country in the right direction morally, it would be at the expense of a very powerful institution and the wealth it brought to many white people. In short, the federal government was taking away the right to own human beings as laborers for personal gain. In Michael Shaara’s partially fictional book about the battle of Gettysburg “The Killer Angels”, he describes a scene where a union soldier asks some confederate prisoners why they are fighting. When they answered, “We’re fightin’ for our rights”, the union soldier confused the word ‘rights’ for ‘rats’ and was even more confused to learn the confederates were not fighting for slavery.
As cliché as it may sound, we have put our home on the road and have gone to look for America. And it is this leg of our trip that we have become so immersed in the Civil War, that it seems every day we think about it and try to wrap our minds around this country’s great tragedy. How could this have happened? After so many lessons learned on this trip, it remains incomprehensible.
During our stay at Santee State Park, we welcomed temperatures below 80 degrees during these final days of our low country tour of the southern states. Soon, we would begin making our climb into the Appalachian Mountains and maybe, just maybe feel a cooler breeze. But first, we had more southern hospitality to enjoy.
RV and travel issues and concerns
Issue 1: Laundromats or lack thereof. Our laundry duties come once a week. So far on this trip, we have stayed at campgrounds that offer nice laundry facilities – that is until now. Vivian who is usually the one in charge of laundry will do a Google search and read the reviews of local laundromats. There was only one laundromat in the nearby “town” of Santee and it got horrible reviews. And now we know why, the laundromat had seen better days decades ago. While waiting for the wash and dry cycles, we stayed on guard unnecessarily because every person doing their laundry looked completely exhausted and defeated, so safety was not threatened in the least bit. After that, not a day goes by that Vivian does not lament the fact our 32-ft RV cannot accommodate washer & dryer, and dreams of one day upgrading to one that can.
Issue 2: We bought a flow meter to attach to our water hose so we could evaluate how well we conserve water. We learned while at Santee that we could get it down to about 12 gallons per day, including both of us showering each day. This knowledge will come in handy when we find ourselves in a campground without water or sewer hook-up, and that day is coming.
Two weeks into our travels and the tow mileage barely broke 500. That’s how we roll, slow and easy while making a call from the road to find out if we can check in early at the next campground. But, the high volume traffic indicative of the east coast more than makes up for the low mileage. We ended our 107-mile day in Savannah relieved to have missed several I-95 accidents that showed up on our Google maps.
Red Gate Campground and RV Resort would be our home for the next 7 nights. Although the RV was parked in a large field with several other rigs and had not one inch of shade, we enjoyed it and the manager was quite helpful. The best part of Red Gate was the horses. And goats. It was idyllic and I made it a habit to get up early each morning to catch sunrise over the horse fields, say good morning to the goats and walk to Patty’s Shack where at least 3 roosters lived with a few peacocks and fowls and many chickens. It was just so dang fun to hear the roosters crow in the morning while I drank my coffee.
And it was maddenly hot. The southeast states (basically everywhere we had been for the past 2 weeks and planned to be for the next 2 weeks) were experiencing an extraordinary heat wave. This was particularly acute during the two days we visited historic Savannah. On the first day, we took the trolley tour (which picks up at the campground) and rode through the entire district at least twice during that long, hot day. No matter where you look in Savannah, it’s beautiful. The architecture and the squares make that city stand out from all the rest. Savannah is rich with history, culture and architecture all rolled into one colorful city.
Thanks to the 90+ temperatures, the highlight of our trolley tour was a pit stop to the historical Leopold’s Ice Cream shop founded in 1919. We arrived 15 minutes before opening and stood in a growing line of sweaty individuals eagerly waiting for the doors to open. At 11 am, we were in and greeted by several scoopers behind a busy ice cream counter and within a few minutes, we were enjoying Savannah’s cold deliciousness. We also found refuge in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist where my only non-iphone photographs of Savannah were taken.
I have to say, our impression of the oldest city in Georgia was clouded by the relentless heat and humidity. Good for us, there were so many other surrounding places to explore. For example, we visited the Wormsloe plantation and after seeing so many breathtaking photographs of the famous Wormsloe Drive, I was both delighted and disappointed that my only photograph of the tree-crowned road was through the front window of our big diesel truck while we drove down the road to the visitor center. Wormsloe is also a Tabby ruin and the story of its owner, Noble Jones is a fascinating one.
Did I mention yet that it was horribly hot? In addition to melting our way through Savannah for a couple days, we visited many other nearby places, Tybee Island (quaint, artsy and extremely crowded), Fort Pulaski (highly recommended), Hilton Head (don’t bother) and Savannah Wildlife Refuge (great place, visit in the fall and winter). I recommend visiting and/or camping Skidaway Island State Park. We had been there before to camp, so we didn’t go in this time, but it is a very popular location for RV camping.
We reserved the fourth of July to do something we really wanted to do and that was to paddle our kayak on Ebenezer Creek. So much of the history in this area centers around the Civil War. Our Civil War history lessons began back at St Mary’s in Georgia, but as we continued traveling north, we opened the story of America’s ugly war like an overstuffed suitcase. Prior to this trip, the extent of my Civil War knowledge could be written on one page with large letters and I have Ken Burns to thank for what little I remembered about it. I certainly didn’t come away from high school or college with any real Civil War knowledge. As our history lessons unfolded, the long-lasting impact of that war became clearer to me. We heard so many war stories but perhaps the one that stood out the most was the betrayal at Ebenezer Creek.
It was common for black refugees to join Union troops because the soldiers would give the refugees food and safety in exchange for their labor. However, many other refugees came along by the hundreds, including women, children and older men. This had unfortunate consequences for Jefferson Davis’s troops who were attempting to “march to the sea” into Savannah. As refugees continued to increase in number, the troops were slowing down and there was a food-shortage. On December 3, 1864, Davis’s troops reached the icy and deep Ebenezer Creek. Davis ordered his army to build a pontoon bridge to cross the creek, and he told the refugees that they would be held back for their own safety because the confederates would be waiting for the Union soldiers on the other side. Once all the soldiers had crossed the creek, Davis ordered his men to dismantle the bridge, leaving the refugees stranded. It was estimated there were at least 5000 men, women and children left behind. Meanwhile, the confederate cavalry that had been stalking Davis’s army pressed the refugees from behind, and those that did not die attempting to cross the icy waters, were either slaughtered or captured.
The story of the betrayal at Ebenezer Creek was on our minds as Vivian and I paddled through the majestic tupelo and cypress cathedral swamp. I thought I heard voices. The story speaks to us as a reminder that the beauty of the south comes with ugly scars and scab-ripped wounds. I must admit, our motives for RV travels are mainly shallow (e.g., fishing, photography), but we are also eager to examine our country’s history and gain a deeper perspective. As being one of the most significant events in American history, the Civil War is a significant part of our 2019 travels. And the direct connections that the war and its origins have on current events has become clearer to us with each mile traveled.
Our immersion into Civil War history had just begun, there was plenty more ahead of us. As we prepare to continue north, we dream of cooler temperatures. We’ll reach cool air eventually, but we had to put some miles on before we get a break from the heat any time soon.
RV and travel issues and concerns
Issue 1: Having our RV parked on remote Chokoloskee Island has taught us that some things are totally out of our control with occasional power outages and subsequent boil water notices. Consequently, we rarely bat an eye at such minor inconveniences now and we come prepared. When camping in northern Michigan last year, we lost power twice. We expect that losing power will happen during our trip, but we honestly did not expect to lose water, which we did one early morning at Red Gate. Fortunately, we had some water in the fresh tank that we always keep on hand when traveling from full hook up to full hook up. After a few hours, the campground maintenance folks had it back on, but the moral of the story is, be prepared. If even you go full hook up all the time, you’re going to experience a lapse somewhere down the road.
Issue 2: Not an issue for us, but it may be an issue for you. We haven’t had our TV connected to cable since leaving Chokoloskee. We rarely watched it anyway and instead, use the Firestick to catch up on YouTube video subscriptions or Amazon Prime series. But while traveling we don’t always have adequate Wifi to do that. So, during our travels we have become experts at finding air antenna channels. Using the app “Antenna Point”, we can locate the direction to the closest towers and if we are lucky, capture a dozen or more channels. I think it was through Georgia and South Carolina where we were so delighted to watch original Star Trek episodes while eating dinner. And don’t get me started on my excitement when I found a Mary Tyler Moore marathon somewhere in Pennsylvania! Yes, our boring baby boomer selves often end our evenings watching MeTV, GetTV, Decades and well, you get the picture.
Our languid travels got us barely over the Florida-Georgia border to our next campground where the RV would be well shaded under the oak trees draped thick with Spanish moss that would serve as our home for a week. Surrounded by salt marshes that extend gently toward the ocean, we have a long way to go before we escape the heat and humidity. But that’s OK, there is much to explore in these parts and we are in our element.
Our campground park was small, charmingly old and well shaded. The bonus was the friendly kitty that came to visit us during happy hour in our front yard. The kitty, Boots, belonged to the owner. Boots was not the owner’s only pet; there was a chicken (the name escapes me) who also came calling at happy hour. Apparently, Boots and the chicken were kind of lonely. During the winter months, many seasonal visitors become long term friends with the two. For that reason, we hesitated to hand out treats to Boots and the chicken given we were short term residents. Apparently, Boots spends a fair amount of time sitting on an empty lot mourning the loss of her friends when they pull out and we did not want to contribute to her depressed state of mind.
We could have hung out with Boots and the chicken all day, but we had places to visit, the first being the quaint seaside town Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. It is the northernmost Florida city on the Atlantic side. I discovered it from one of those “Top 10” lists, something to do with charming U.S. seaside towns. We really enjoyed walking around the old neighborhoods.
A bit worn down from our walking tour in the relentless heat and humidity, we were happy to find an air-conditioned Cuban Café not far from main street USA. After getting our “Miami 3:05 PM” fix, we sought out more AC at the Island Art Association Gallery. I always love to see local artists’ work especially when it is inspired by the natural world. This art gallery was the highlight of Fernandina Beach.
I dreamed of photographing the driftwood beach of Jekyll Island, so the next morning I got Vivian up and out the door by 5 am to make the hour-long drive to the beach so I could capture sunrise.
The sunrise was lackluster and the tide was low, so my vision was not met. But the eerie driftwood trees stood out as they always do and I couldn’t help but think of how they might look in the dark surrounded by zombies. Come to find out, zombies have been here before (apparently season 7 of the Walking Dead) and they were back for the upcoming season 10, just hours before we arrived on the scene. I didn’t know this when we first got there and stumbled onto a large shipwreck half buried in the sand. Turns out it was a Walking Dead movie set and dismantling had commenced later that morning. Thankfully, we just missed the zombies.
One of the highlights of our visit was the Okefenokee swamp, Georgia’s largest wilderness and the headwaters for the St Mary’s and Suwannee Rivers. We felt at home there, a familiar place where alligators and snakes thrive, and it was so dang hot. Native Americans referred to it as the land of trembling earth where unstable peat deposits tremble when stepped on.
We took a boat tour, led by an honest-to-God peat lovin’ swamper who proudly announced he was 6th generation Okefenokian. He then asked where we were from. Vivian said “Chokoloskee Island”. Oddly, the Okefenokee native made a joke about the name Chokoloskee and mumbled something about it being a mouthful. That’s how I expect most people to respond, but not a 6th generation Okefenokian (that’s pronounced O-key-fe-no-key-in), especially given Chokoloskee is short a syllable. Funny sounding names aside, our guide explained to us that the swamp was built upon peat, not mud as he reached down to grab a handful of it. He further explained that if you got out of the boat, you jump up and down on a patch of land and the movement would be felt by someone standing on another patch of land 50 feet away. Land of the trembling earth.
Our travels are steeped in history lessons and learning new words and phrases. I had never heard of Tabby Ruins until this trip. I learned about Tabby ruins while driving to and from our campground many times and passing a small, unpretentious sign that read “The Tabby Ruins”. Finally, curiosity got the better of us and we investigated the ruins on our last evening. Tabby is a term used to describe a concrete made from crushed oysters, lime, sand and water. The ruins that are the remains of forts, plantation homes and commercial buildings can be viewed along the coastline from north Florida to South Carolina. They are so popular that there is a travel guide. https://www.tabbyruins.com/
Here’s another interesting tidbit – within the Kings Bay naval base on the nearby St Marys River, dolphins are trained to guard it. We learned about the dolphins from the docent at the St Marys Submarine museum whose husband was a navy sailor – except he got horribly seasick and consequently, the navy decided he would serve them better in a submarine. We spent an hour at the museum which included a wonderful video showing life on a submarine (we later learned that the video left out the most interesting parts) and many artifacts and documents from WWII submarines. However, the highlight was the unplanned “15-min before closing” discussion we had with the docent that turned out to be the most fascinating of the tour. Besides the dolphin story, she enthusiastically shared many tidbits of intriguing information about submarine life or “silent service” that are way too many for this blog, but here are three; oxygen gets made, the most important piece of equipment is an ice cream machine and toilets explode.
Our week among the salt marshes and driftwood beaches ended too quickly as we began to prepare once again to hit the road. If it were not for the oppressive heat, we would have explored more, particularly Cumberland Island. But that’s OK, the best part of having home on wheels is we can come back.
RV and travel issues and concerns
Issue 1: We noticed some bubbling of the decals on the fifth Wheel (2018 Grand Design, Reflection 303rls). You may think this is benign but what can happen is water build-up inside those bubbles. After speaking to Grand Design, we learned the bubbles could be addressed by popping them to release any water. Done, problem avoided. Later in the trip, we stopped at Grand Design headquarters that was on our route picked up a replacement decal. Connie and Vivian 2, RV imps 0.
Issue 2: We are on the move frequently on this trip. That does not leave much time to clean our home on wheels. But it must be done! Regardless of your view (Atlantic Ocean, Grand Tetons, Lake Powell, or whatever majestic scene you are enjoying), you must clean your house. Exhausted from constant heat while exploring the sites, menial indoor housework was a welcomed reprieve.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.