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.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Treasure Coast

We recently made a brief stop in Fort Pierce along Florida’s Treasure Coast.  The Treasure Coast was aptly named due to the large number of trading ships that sank off the coast and took their booty to the bottom of the sea.  (Maybe it should have been named the “Booty Coast”, they might get more visitors!)  
Creative sign welcoming visitors to Fort Pierce.
The lure of lost treasure was not strong enough to pull us into the water so we decided to stay on land and do some sightseeing.   One of the tourist gems we found was the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum, also known as the Birthplace of the “Frogman.”  World War II brought forth the idea that new naval tactics, such as underwater demolition and hydro-reconnaissance, were needed for amphibious landings that would be crucial in defeating the Axis powers.  The need for these tactics was solidified after the U.S. Marine landing at Tarawa (in the Pacific) when natural obstacles prevented landing craft and soldiers from reaching the beach.   
A statue of a "Frogman" stands proudly in front of the museum.
First class exhibits explain the importance and challenges faced by these elite forces and the
crucial role they played in World War II.
Early "Frogmen" did not have the luxury of SCUBA equipment that was so commonly used by later troops.
 Fort Pierce was designated as the training location responsible for developing three elements of what is collectively known as Naval Special Warfare.  These elements were the Scouts and Raiders, Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDU) and Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT).  Brave men volunteered for training to become part of this elite group that later evolved into the exclusive combat force known as the U.S. Navy SEALs.  Compared to the SEALs today, these early frogmen where sparsely outfitted with crude equipment.  They wore only cloth shorts (as wet/dry suits had not been invented yet), mask, snorkel, fins, cloth shoes to protect their feet from coral, a knife strapped to their sides, a writing board for note taking, and a weighted string with graduated knots to measure depth. 
UDT's played a vital role in recovering astronauts
and capsules from the Gemini and Apollo missions.

Vietnam was the arena that transformed members of the UDT to Sea, Air, and Land Teams (a.k.a. SEALs) in 1961.  These elite Navy Commandos were send into the jungles to engage in guerrilla warfare, gather intelligence, conduct raids, and train their Vietnamese counterparts.  SEALs were highly decorated for their early efforts in Vietnam and continue the reputation of elite, secretive, highly trained and specialized fighting men.  Recent news about the SEALs was highlighted in the death of Osama Bin Laden and the raid to free hostages in Somalia.
One of the highlights of the museum is the lifeboat from the Maersk Alabama the ship hijacked by
Somalia pirates in 2009.  The captain protected his crew by entering the lifeboat with the captors.  
After being adrift for 4 days and attmpting one daring but unsuccessful escape, Navy SEALs snipers fatally wounded all captors and freed the captain.  A look inside the cabin shows just how accurate the snipers had to be.
The museum is a myriad of displays, videos, equipment, and dioramas displaying the history and evolution from UDT to SEALS and covers every conflict from WWII to Iraq/Afghanistan.  The day I was there, I was greeted by a gentleman who was one of the first Frogmen to train at Fort Pierce and serve in WWII.  He  walked us through the main gallery entitled “Fort Pierce: Birth of the Underwater Warrior” and opened my eyes to the world of a young man nobly fighting in a pioneering program during WWII.  I am appreciative to him for sharing his stories and his service to our country. 

The outside of the A. E. Backus Museum
and Gallery is adorned with a manatee
Since I am still succumbing to my new found interest in art museums, we decided to make a quick stop at the A.E. Backus Museum and Gallery.  Backus is a 20th century American landscape artists from the area who really captures the look and “feel” of the Florida coast.  The museum houses nearly 100 original paintings and sketches from Backus and other well-known artists.  During our visit there was an exhibit by Charles Walker a member of the “Florida Highwaymen.”  When the lady at the museum asked if I had ever heard of the   Highwaymen I indicated that I had and thoughts of a musical group came to my mind.  However, that was not what she was referring to.  The storied Highwaymen were a group of 26 African American artists from the Fort Pierce area that sold paintings out of the back of cars and along the roads of Florida during the 1950’s through the 80’s.  Selling from their cars was a necessity during segregation when local galleries refused to display their work.  These self-taught men (and one woman) were inventive and painted on inexpensive Upson board instead of expensive canvas and used discarded crown molding for frames.  Today, artwork by the Florida Highwaymen is highly sought after and a prized collection to those who own a piece.

The fishing and boating industry still plays
a major role in Fort Pierces economy. 
Dugout canoe used by early Native American Indians to fish and trade goods.
Our destiny was luring us farther down the Atlantic Coast with a stop in Jupiter and on to Key Largo.  Sorry for the slack in postings….seems like even a Verizon 4G phone and free WiFi at McDonalds can’t rescue us from internet woes at times.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

RV’ing the Magic Kingdom

Walt and Mickey.
We recently spent a week at the magical world of Walt Disney World, a place I first visited as a young child and have returned many times since. Most kids today probably have no idea that Disney is the last name of a real person with the first name of Walt.

Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901 and came from humble beginnings. With the help of his brother, Roy, they built an entertainment empire around a loveable mouse. The iconic Mickey Mouse is one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in history. How ironic that one of the most feared and hated home invaders are mice, yet Mickey is so endearing that parents buy their kids stuffed mice to cuddle up with at bedtime! The company formed by the two brothers (known officially as Walt Disney Productions) became one of the best-known motion picture producers in the world and boasts the highest number of nominations for the Academy Awards (59) and Oscar Awards (22). Walt has been labeled a film producer, director, screenwriter, animator, entertainer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. With all those talents and the heart of a young child, it is easy to see why his company grew and developed into a major international entertainment corporation reporting an annual revenue of $36 billion in the 2010 financial year. But not all of Walt’s business ventures ended in success and on more than one occasion they landed in bankruptcy.

Spirit and I with Mickey in the campground.
Walt’s inspiration came at an early age when he was exposed to the world of Vaudeville and motion pictures. Later as a young teenager Walt attended classes on the weekend at the Kansas City Art Institute and later at the Chicago Art Institute after his family relocated. He became a cartoonist for the school newspaper where he continued to develop his talents. After a brief stint with the Red Cross in France, Walt returned to the states and found work at an art studio where he created advertisements for magazines, newspapers, and movie theaters. An early attempt to start his own company proved tough and Walt soon abandoned that idea and landed a job at a Kansas City Film Ad Company where he discovered animation.

Walt’s first animated series was not based around the famous mouse named Mickey, but instead a rabbit named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Walt lost the rights to Oswald a year after creating the character when contract loopholes forced him to relinquish Oswald to Universal Studios whom he was  working for at the time. It wasn’t until 78 years later that the Disney corporation reacquired the rights to the Oswald character through a trade deal with NBC Universal. In the deal, Disney got Oswald and NBC got sports commentator Al Michaels. I wonder how Michaels felt about being traded for a rabbit?

After losing Oswald, Disney focused his attention on creating a new character based on a mouse he adopted as a pet while in living in Kansas City. The mouse’s name was Mortimer. But Walt’s wife Lillian did not think the name fit and suggested the name “Mickey.” The first animated Mickey cartoon with sound was entitled Steamboat Willie and a was a great success. Walt himself provided the voice for Mickey and, it's been said, gave him his “soul.”
"Steamboat Willie" - the cartoon that launched Mickey's career.
It was Disney’s quest to find a place to take his young daughters and their friends to be entertained that led to the development of Disneyland in California in 1955. But the park proved too small to include all of Walt’s new ideas. So in early 1964, Walt announced plans to develop a more elaborate theme park on a large parcel of land near Orlando, Florida. The new park was to be named Disney World. Included in the park would be a “Magic Kingdom” and the "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow," known as EPCOT. Disney World would also include resorts, golf courses, restaurants, and other entertainment venues.
One of Disney's newest resort at the Animal Kingdom.  The resort is designed such that guest rooms
an open "savannah" with animals roaming free.
The Grand Floridian Resort.
One of the original resorts is the Contemporary.  This unique resort has the monorail transportation system running right through the resort.
Tragically, Walt’s life would end abruptly before the amusement park opened and just ten days after his 65th birthday. While preparing for neck surgery to fix an old injury, doctors found a tumor in one of his lungs. One and a half months after his diagnosis, Walt Disney died. Roy Disney returned from retirement to continue oversight of the project in Florida.  Upon completion, Roy insisted that the name be officially changed to Walt Disney World in honor of his brother.
"Cinderella's Castle" the centerpiece of Magic Kingdom.
Entrance of the Magic Kingdom where upon entering you are instructed to "have a magical day!"
"Tower of Terror" thrill ride at Hollywood Studios.

Since I am not a fan of thrill rides and roller coasters, I opted to ride the speed cars that go 10 mph.
Street performers at Magic Kingdom.

This scene usually flips us out, but we mentally prepared ourselves for tackling Magic Kingdoms ciaos.
Plus, they sell beer at the park!
While at Walt Disney World, we stayed at the Ft. Wilderness campground. A mecca of all campgrounds and a true “must visit” for RV enthusiasts (especially if you have kids). The campground is huge with nearly 800 RV sites and 400 cabins. Transportation is a breeze as Disney provides free shuttles (via buses, monorail, and boat) to all their theme parks, restaurants, and resorts. If you want to shell out $63 a day, you can rent a golf cart to tote your family and friends around the campground. There are plenty of things to do even if you never leave the campground. There are two swimming pools, multiple playgrounds, hiking/biking trails, basketball/tennis courts, and fishing ponds. Outdoor enthusiasts can rent bikes, kayaks, and fishing poles, go on a Segway adventure ride, rent a pontoon boat, ride a horse, practice archery, and so on and so on. For those with kids, there is a nightly Chip ‘n’ Dale campfire sing along and marshmallow roast that is followed by a Disney movie (a kids movie, of course). Or, you can head to Mickey’s Backyard Barbecue or the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue to have a barbeque dinner with Mickey and all his friends.

This picture is of a campsite - you just can't see the motorhome behind the 342 inflatable Disney
Characters and other Christmas decorations.  (If you look closely you can see the white roof and light
blue awning of the motorhome).
I assume they remove the stuffed animals before driving.
Serious Disney fans.  This is just one side of their rv.
The other side.  I personally like the inflatables on the roof.
We bought a three-day park pass and visited Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. Our days flew by and we were in sensory overload from the sound of rides, smells of food, and spectacle that is Disney. I was sorry to see the “Mr. Toads Wild Ride” was no longer in existence. I remember the ride as a child and rode it every time I came to the park as an adult. And Betsy was asked to consult on Animal Kingdom when it was being developed so she had been there several times and watched its evolution. While at Disney we enjoyed connecting with our friends Don and Karen, a couple from southwest Louisiana that we met last summer in Maine that were staying at the campground (and who make excellent crawfish etouffee and gumbo). We spent a great day at Animal Kingdom with them and enjoyed catching up.
The "Tree of Life" at Animal Kingdom.  The tree was designed to look like a African baobab tree and
with hundreds of animals carved in it. 
Our safari ride through Animal Kingdom was not as much fun as our last Kenyan safari but
was fun none the less.
White rhinos.
The Animal Kingdom Resort has a great restaurant named Saana.  This is the view from our table.
In the background are hotel rooms that overlook the "savanna" where the animals roam free during the day.
What is called Downtown Disney is free and we spent a day there eating and watching a movie. We realized our time at Walt Disney World was too short so we extended our 4-day reservation to 7 days. And yes, even Spirit had fun. Her favorite Disney attraction was the dog park … which provided amusement for all of us (and it was free). It seemed as if she would wake us earlier in the morning so we would get up and take her to play and wrestle with all of her “Disney dogs!” A fun time was had by all of us and Spirit even saw her first fireworks over Fort Wilderness campground not to mention the marsh mellows at the campfire sing along.

Spirit and her new friend Shiloh.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

From Circus to Citrus!

After we left the gulf coast town of Sarasota, we headed inland towards Orlando. It didn’t take long for us brainiacs to see why Florida is the citrus capital of the United States claiming the prize of being the nation’s leader in orange and grapefruit production. Maybe it was the miles and miles of orange groves that gave it away, or the thousands of citrus trees that were growing in the state park where we were camped, or was it the u-pick citrus farm down the road that had a packed parking lot. We were surprised at just how many acres are dotted with bushy green trees covered with flecks of orange and yellow.

On our way from the coast to our campground at Lake Louisa State Park we passed a very appealing u-pick citrus farm. To be honest, it was the fake dead shark hanging from its tail and the 20-foot alligator in the pond that caught our attention and made us pledge to come back. Our plans were simple – stop at the farm and buy a few already picked tangerines, oranges, and grapefruits. But soon we got caught up in the excitement of a u-pick farm, grabbed a “picker,” a bushel bag, and headed out  into the maze of citrus. Luckily, our bushel bag had a map to guide us through the hundreds of  acres  and 50 varieties of citrus. We had no idea there were so many varieties of oranges and tangerines and had never tasted many of the varieties. At a previous citrus farm stand, Betsy fell in love with the sweet flavor of the honeybell. The honeybell which is a hybrid cross between a tangerine and grapefruit turns out to be one of the sweetest and most popular oranges (thanks also to a major marketing effort).

How could we pass up this place?

Our loot!  Much more fun to pick it ourselves.
The citrus industry in Florida has changed in the past few years due to falling land prices and disease. Citrus groves that were once gobbled up for development now lay fallow and undeveloped. Many growers sold their groves to ambitious developers for top dollar; however, the recent post-housing boom forced a change in plans and left groves abandoned. Abandoned groves exacerbate the disease problem as fungus and insects spread from infected trees to nearby healthy groves. To manage the two primary diseases – canker and citrus greening – nearly constant spraying and monitoring is required. Abandoned groves make the problem harder to control and fungus and insects from diseased trees quickly migrate to nearby healthy groves.

Citrus plants were protected from the freezing weather by ice.
Betsy teasing the alligator with our bag full of citrus.
Lake Louisa State Park was a great find for us! The park is characterized by rolling hills, freshwater lakes, and wide vistas. All of which provided us with ample opportunities to hike, kayak, fish, and bike. With eleven distinct natural communities, the park is diverse and interesting. What is now parkland was once part of the Seminole Reservation. Later it became a cattle ranch and orange grove which is still evident today. The park opened to the public in 1977 and has become very popular. It was a wonderful place for us to camp and we enjoyed many great walks through orange groves and pine forests.
Lake Louisa State Park is a stark contrast from our last campground at Myakka River State Park.
We loved the upland piney woods habitat.
The campsites are fairly well spaced with trees and shrubs in between sites.
Hammond Lake which was a perfect size for paddling the kayaks and fishing.

Beautiful sunrise!  We love that we are seeing fall colors in January.
Lilly pads in the lake.
Spirit and I took in some beautiful sunrises....mostly because she wakes me up at 5:30am.
Happy dog.
Old pasture land that has been planted with native pine trees.
Lake with fishing pier.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Greatest Show on Earth!

When we found out there was a circus museum in Sarasota, we knew we had to put it on our list of things to see. Since Betsy and I both love animals and have worked around them for years (her as a scientist in the zoo field and me as an exotic cat trainer at a zoo), we figured we would be captivated.

The Ringling name is synonymous with circus clowns, trapeze artists and a plentitude of exotic animals performing under the big top. The five Ringling Brothers built a circus empire that has entertained young and old for many generations. The Ringling Brothers Circus was born in their home town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, but it was when the expanding Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was looking for a winter home that they found Sarasota, Florida.

To most people John Ringling was just a circus man, but to Sarasota he was instrumental in growth and development during the 1920’s and pledged to make Sarasota “one of the sights of the south… and one of the most beautiful cities in Florida.” His influence is well pronounced throughout the city. Places like Lido Key, St. Armands Key, and Longboat Key are the high society communities that exist because of Ringling’s development successes. But for all that Ringling’s real estate development meant to the city, it was the gift of his grandiose estate and art collection that is his lasting legacy. The picturesque estate sits on 66 acres along Sarasota Bay and features the Ringling’s palatial mansion, an art museum, circus museum and beautiful gardens including an expansive rose garden.

Ringling named his Venitian Gothic palace "Ca'd'Zan" meaning "House of John" in the
Venitian dialect.

The mansion was completed in
1925 at a cost of $1.5 million.

There are 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms - perfect for two people!
The building is constructed from terra cotta "T" blocks, concrete,
and brick covered with stucco and terra cotta, and decorated
with glazed tile.

The highlight is the 81-foot Belvedere
tower that overlooks Sarasota Bay.

Ringling’s interest in European, American, and Asian art was enough to fill the 21 galleries in the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art with paintings and sculptures by artists like Rubens, El Greco, Velázquez, and van Dyck. The Museum opened in 1931 and features Ringling’s personal collection. Ringling stipulated that the museum must be free to the public one day a week and left an endowment to insure that it happens; therefore, ensuring his art collection would be viewed by all who are interested. The beauty of the Ringling Museum is not confined to the galleries decorated by artistic masterpieces, but flows out onto the grounds and gardens which are superbly manicured and works of art in their own right.

Gallery with works from Peter Paul Rubens, the famous Flemish artist.

One of many beautiful galleries in the art museum.

The courtyard of the art museum features a 16-foot bronze replica of
Michelangelo's David.

The art museum and gardens are great, but what we really came to see were the Ringling Museum and the Circus Museum. The Ringling Museum pays homage to the importance of circus history with special exhibits and a permanent collection of circus memorabilia. Located in another building, the Circus Museum houses various other circus memorabilia like circus papers, costumes, performing props and equipment, and the Ringling’s fully restored private railcar. The show piece of the Circus Museum is the authentic replica of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus in miniature. The “circus” is complete with 8 tents, 152 wagons, 1,300 circus performers, 800 animals, and a 57-car train.

Circus constumes on display.  
The Circus Museum has great exhibits that are informative and interactive.
Late 1800's circus wagon.
An added bonus for us was the temporary exhibit entitled “The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company” showcasing late 19th and early 20th century circus posters. This special exhibit conveyed the importance of the circus poster and how they changed the face of American advertising through their artistry and appeal. The bright color, bold print, life-like animals, charming clowns and dramatic scenes compelled people to visit the circus, thus making it a premier form of entertainment. The still-life, one dimensional exhibit was enhanced by the IPod of circus music that was provided for ones listening pleasure. The sounds of the circus in our ears and sights in front of us certainly made us smile.
The gallery displayed some of the most dramatic
posters seen in the late 1800's - early 1900's.
This poster was designed to attract the public by conveying the magnitude of the circus.

Animals (especially dangerous ones) have always had an appeal to circus goers.
While we came to the Ringling Museum for the circus portion, we were delighted with the rest of the experience. Yes, including the art museum (my second one in one month). My Mom will be so proud.

More pictures....
Circus posters.

The Howard Bros. Circus Model as seen from the upper viewing area.

One of the many scenes in the model circus - the clown dressing area.
Lighting for the model dims so you can get the feel of being under the big top at night.

One of the most death defying stunts at the circus was the human cannon ball.
This contraption was mounted to a GMC truck.
Banyan trees brought from Asia and planted on the grounds.  The roots grow down
from the branches and look like multiple trunks.
One of the many rose bushes.
The rose garden.
View of the art museum courtyard.