Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Bristol, Connecticut

About 20 miles to the west of Hartford is a dot on the Connecticut state map that says Bristol.  There is a good reason why we meandered along narrow winding county roads and ventured into the middle of Connecticut to find this dot?  Turns out Bristol has two interesting museums that beckoned us – The American Clock and Watch Museum and the New England Carousel Museum.  And it was set in a pretty part of the country with gorgeous fall colors where we found a state park to explore and pictures to take.

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Happy pup hiking in Black Rock State Park
Upon arrival we found out some other interesting factoids about Bristol.  Like, it is the home of ESPN and America's oldest still-functioning theme park – Lake Compounce.  Bristol is also home to the largest elevator test tower in the United States standing 383 feet tall.  Bristol's nicknames include the "Bell City", because of their history in the manufacturing of innovative spring-driven doorbells, and the "Mum City", because it was once a leader in chrysanthemum production and they still hold an annual Bristol Mum Festival.  Who knew?

But Bristol is really known for its clock making which started in the 19th century and saw the rise of 275 companies involved in the industry.  By 1844, Bristol held the distinction of being the world leader in the production of affordable time pieces.  With clocks so widespread today it is hard to imagine there was a time when they were priced so high that many households couldn’t afford the luxury.  So what changed?  A man by the name of Eli Terry brought forth an industrial revolution in the clock making business.  In 1806, Terry invented gauges, dyes, machines, and techniques that enabled him to mass produce clock parts that were interchangeable.  Terry went from using parts made of brass to wood and was able to produce 500 times as many clocks with his large scale manufacturing process as those of craftsmen hand-making brass clocks.  Increased production and lower prices meant that clocks were no longer a luxury for just the wealthy but the working class could afford them as well.  Soon, door-to-door salesmen were selling one to every household to be displayed on their mantle.

The mission of the American Clock and Watch Museum is simple – “celebrate the ingenuity and artistry of the industries that launched America’s industrial revolution and democratized access to accurate timekeeping.”  It is the only museum in the country dedicated to horology – the study of time (just wanted to clarify that).  The 10,000  square foot museum has amassed over 6,000 clocks, watches, library materials, and historical papers since it opened its doors in 1954. 

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As visitors wander through the museum’s eight galleries, timekeeping devices come alive as they sound their signature chimes when they strike upon the hour.  Throughout the museum are interesting displays and information pertaining to clocks, like where the name Grandfather clock came from, how clocks and watches work, why rail travel was standardized by the railroad leading to the establishment of time zones.  We were pleasantly surprised about how much we liked this museum and came away with a much better appreciation for the common apparatus’ that we strap to our wrists every day.

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Just down the street from the clock and watch museum is the New England Carousel Museum.  Betsy is a carousel enthusiast and was really excited when I told her this museum was in Bristol.  Carousels have long been a sense of enjoyment and wonder for all generations.  Betsy grew up riding carousel animals and even owned a rare carousel horse carved by a famous carver.  The musical notes from the calliope music, bright lights glowing on the rounding boards, and jumping horses must have made carousels popular for well over 100 years.  And while they are commonplace at fairs and amusement parks the antique wooden carousels from the early days are of great value.  A wooden standing tiger by the famous carver Gustav Dentzel can fetch over $80,000.  

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Have you ever noticed that carousel animals are in one of three positions?  “Standers” are typically the largest of all 20161030_133219the animals on a carousel because they are on the outside row.  Since that diameter of the carousel is the largest, horse size decreases as you move inward.  These horses have all three feet on the ground with one hoof up and do not go up or down.  Moving inward to the middle row are the “Prancers” which have two back feet on the ground and the two front legs up in the air and do not move up or down.  On the very inside row are the “Jumpers” that are popular because they go up and down.  These horses are the smallest in size and are very popular with children (and Betsy!) because of their movement. 

Carousels were first devised to help train knights to perfect their spearing skills while on a moving horse.  They raised their lances attempting to place them through a spearing ring.  The days of knights are long gone but the idea of snaring a ring is still around.  Riders in the outside row would attempt to grab a ring from a dispensing machine as they went around.  The rider lucky enough to grab the brass ring won a free ride. 

Every carousel has a slightly larger “lead horse” which is typically a lion or camel and used to help the operator count the ride’s revolutions.  If you look closely at the carousel animals you will notice that the right side of the animal (which faces outwards due to the carousel spinning counter-clockwise) is much more elaborate and fancy than the inside.  The outside is visible to potential riders and on-lookers whereas the inside is not.  Usually, the master carver is responsible for the fancy side while the inside is done by an apprentice. 

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As an added bonus the Bristol Museum of Fire History is housed in the same building.  The museum features fire fighting equipment and firehouse memorabilia and antiques dating back to the mid-1800’s.  Visitors are encouraged to dawn fire fighting gear and pull that lever in the fire alarm box that the inner demon in you has always wanted to pull!

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In the neighboring town of Thomaston we found Branch Brook Campground which would serve as our home base while we were in the area.  Can’t say we were thrilled with the campground but it was just across the street from Black Rock State Park which was perfect for walking Spirit and exploring the many trails.  There is a campground at the state park but it was closed the time of year when we were there and their website says they do not allow pets in the campground.




Tuesday, January 17, 2017

January 2017 Update

Whoops the last blog was over … weeks ago and I said a while back that I was going to be better about posting blogs in a timely manner.  Bad Blogger!  I am going to fast forward through numerous ideas and non-written posts about places we traveled to this past fall and get you caught up to speed.  From the last blog, it looks like we are still in Connecticut.  Not true.  And remember, we are Snowbirds and it is January so we are definitely not in Connecticut.  268

We arrived Florida later this year because we wanted to spend Thanksgiving in St. Louis with my family.  December 1st had us arriving at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park where we will once again be volunteering.  We agreed to four months of driving the tram to and from the beach.  Thirty hours per week total is what is required to get our full hook-up (including cable) paved site for free.  Our day starts around 8 am and usually finishes around 5 pm.  So no crazy hours like last summer in Maine when my catering job had me up until midnight and Betsy in the campground office/store until 7:30 pm.  In between scheduled tram runs, we clean sites, check the in’s and out’s, empty recycle bins, fill brochure boxes, and perform various other duties.  Since this is our third year volunteering here we have become friends with so many returning volunteers and it is always great to see the familiar faces.  And, like every year, we always meet many new and interesting nice people. 

Topsail fits our lifestyle very well.  It has over 1,600 acres of nature preserve to explore through 20+ miles of trails, over 3 miles of beautiful white sand beaches, and spacious full hook-up sites set amongst towering pine trees.  The RV park used to be privately owned so you have more amenities offered with the added bonus of having a state park feel.  Sites have ample green space and privacy and can easily accommodate 45’ RVs.  There is a shuffleboard court, swimming pool, and an outdoor amphitheater with concerts.  We especially like the fact that we get all the park has to offer but enjoy being in an urban area with movie theater, grocery, restaurants, and much more within three miles. Topsail is a very popular park and lucky for us our other RVing friends seem to show-up as they migrate across the country. 

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Topsail sits on a very pretty stretch of Florida’s Gulf Coast called Scenic HWY 30a located between Destin and Panama City Beach.  While close to these popular spring break and summer vacation destinations, it feels world’s away.  There are no chain stores, no screaming neon lights, and no high-rise condos meant for the masses. 

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Winter in the Florida Panhandle is not for everyone.  The winter weather can definitely have a chill to it, temperatures do dip below freezing now and then, and that inviting emerald green water that registers in the 60’s is too cold for us to dip our toes in.  But that weather works for us and for Spirit and allows us to hike without sweating and keeps the snakes slow.  Sure the nights may dip below freezing but for never more than three in a row and then we are back in the high 60’s and 70’s.  If you have never spent time in this neck of Florida you might want to give it a try. 





Friday, December 9, 2016

A Few Things to See and Eat Along Coastal Connecticut

Connecticut is a beautiful part of New England with plenty of natural beauty complimented by rich history.  We had less than a week and lots to see, and eat, so we planned our days carefully.  The trip through the Constitution State was going to run the gamut of small obscure museums to maritime history to food.   

Our first planned stop was to the charming town of Mystic.  Mystic is that idyllic coastal town that embraces its maritime roots and history then throw in some art galleries, delicious restaurants, and quaint boutiques.  A town of just over 4,000 people, Mystic swells in the summer when visitors arrive.  Two of the biggest attractions are Mystic Seaport and the Mystic Aquarium (both of which we have been to before and did not visit on this trip but are worth a brief mention. Click here for a link to a previous post). Mystic Seaport is a waterfront facility that is a re-creation of a 19th century coastal village.  The streets are lined with more than 30 authentic 1800’s trade shops and businesses that were brought to the site from towns throughout New England.  Docked along the harbor are wooded sailing ships (including the slave ship “The Amistad”) which are available for touring and short cruises.  Mystic Seaport is quite large and you could easily spend a full day there.  The Mystic Aquarium is another popular attraction with wonderful indoor and outdoor exhibits and boasts having the largest outdoor beluga whale exhibit in the U.S.

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We enjoyed strolling around Mystic’s small cute downtown where antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants hang next to the Mystic River flanked with boats and framed by the drawbridge.  I would be lying if I led you to believe we only paid Mystic a visit just to see the sights and soak in its charm.  Nope, we came to eat.  Before leaving New England we were determined to have lobster one more time and there are plenty of quaint waterfront restaurants serving up this taste of the sea.  But what we really wanted to eat was pizza.  Five years ago we ate at Mystic Pizza and the taste has lingered in our minds all that time.  Consistently ranked as one of the best pizza joints in the country, Mystic Pizza left an indelible mark on us and we could not pass up the chance to have it again.  

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Sitting on the Thames River just north of New London and a short drive from Mystic is the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum and Library.  When we visited the museum and base it was abuzz because Michelle Obama was there to commission a new ship.  The facility is home to the USS Nautilus.  The ship was commissioned in 1954 as the world’s first nuclear powered vessel and became the first vessel to pass the north pole.  Retired from service in 1980, the Nautilus is now on exhibit for all generations to marvel at.  Our visit started with a great film that tells the story of the development of submarines from the early crude and dangerous to the invention of nuclear power and sophisticated weaponry.  The film is about 45 minutes but very interesting and well worth the time. 

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After exploring the museum’s many artifacts and exhibits we headed outside to tour the Nautilus now permanently moored at base.  There is an audio wand that interprets various stations and rooms throughout the ship and makes for a more enjoyable visit than reading placards.  After being in the tiny cramped space of the ship, the motorhome felt quite large and spacious. 

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Next up on our Connecticut trip were two stops that focused on food.  There is no way we could pass up the chance to eat at a hamburger joint that is often credited for having invented the hamburger.  (There is some dispute about who actually invented the hamburger but Louis’ no doubt is the oldest continuously operating hamburger restaurant in the 20161029_121107country).  Louis’ Lunch, established in 1895, makes a simple burger with freshly ground meat stuffed between toasted white bread (after all the hamburger “bun” wasn’t invented yet).  It started when a man dashed into Louis Lassens lunchonette and asked for a quick bite to take on the run.  Louis sandwiched a broiled beef patty between two pieces of bread and the man was off.  Today, the restaurant is still owned and operated by Louis’ great grandson Jeff.

The restaurant is tiny but considering it started as a lunch wagon, it is quite spacious today.  If you don’t get there early or just before closing you will wait in a line that is out the door but worth it.  The upright flame broilers look like something out of an antique shop but do the trick.  Round meat balls are pressed between two grates and seasoned simply with salt and pepper (which goes to show you simple is sometimes the best).  The meat laden grate is oriented upright and placed in the broiler. 

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Ordering is quite simple and the menu small.  Hamburgers are cooked medium-rare.  You can choose cheese, onion, and tomato but no ketchup or mustard (they would detract from the taste of the perfectly seasoned juicy meat).  Bread continuously rolls off the radiant gas toaster like no toaster I have ever seen before.  Meat is constantly being flame broiled in the upright grill that is the trademark of Louis’ Lunch.  The history and delicious hamburger found at Louis’ Lunch are prime reasons this establishment made it into the Hamburger America book and a must eat for us.

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PEZ candy has been around since 1927.  The distinguished rectangular shape and iconic dispensers made it a popular candy treat for children and collectors item for adult enthusiasts.  When we saw that PEZ had a visitor center in Connecticut we put it on our list to see.  Entering the building you are greeted by a wall of nearly 800 PEZ 20161029_143046dispensers and a waft of sweet candy smell.  Entrance to the museum and store cost $5 but a $2 credit is awarded to ticket holders so you can purchase some sweetness to take with you or add to your dispenser collection like that new Obama dispenser you always wanted (they really do have a Presidential collection).

You may think this is an all-American candy just like a Hershey chocolate bar but there is more to that story.  PEZ candy was invented in Vienna, Austria as an alternative to smoking.  That’s right…what we know as a candy was invented as a breath mint to kick the smoking habit (and was round in shape).  The name PEZ comes from a German word for peppermint, “pfefferminz” taking the P from the first letter, E from the middle and Z from the last letter.  PEZ came to the United States in 1952 and has been a staple of American pop culture. 

The PEZ visitor center is the largest, most comprehensive collection of PEZ memorabilia on public display in the world!  As you wander through the main floor visitors are treated to many vintage items that represent collectibles including those from Austria, Mexico, Russia, and more.   Also represented are dispensers of various groups like sports, superheros, animals, Disney characters and many more.  While you can not walk through the factory where the candy is made, there is a brief film explaining the process and portions are visible through glass walls.  It seems everyone’s favorite area is the area where you can shop for new dispensers and pack a bucket full of candy to take home. 

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We have always loved coastal Connecticut and vow to spend more time there so I’m not sure why we just don’t budget more time.  Maybe because we know we can always come back!

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