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, April 22, 2017

Mount Magazine State Park, Arkansas

If you are ever driving through Arkansas a trip to Mount Magazine State Park is a must.  Mount Magazine is the state’s highest point topping out at 2,753 feet and delivers sweeping views of broad valleys, lakes, winding rivers, and distant mountains.  The rugged rock outcroppings protrude from the densely wooded forests.  What makes this park even more spectacularly beautiful is that it is surrounded by National Forest lands encompassing glorious acres of woods.

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In the late 1800’s, the railroad made travel easier and people were drawn to the area for its cooler weather and awe-inspiring scenic beauty.  Resort lodges and restaurants sprang up and the resort “Town of Mount Magazine” began.  Soon a post office, parks, streets and a dance pavilion dotted the town.  The town took a turn when drought, erosion, and the Great Depression brought the town to collapse.  The 1934 Resettlement Act purchased all the private land on the mountain and was shortly transferred to the U.S. Forest Service.  In the late 1930’s and 40’s, the Works Progress Administration built campgrounds, trails, cabins, and a lodge were constructed.  A fire destroyed the lodge in 1971.  In 1998, Arkansas State Parks entered into a cooperative agreement with the USDA Forest Service to develop Mount Magazine State Park.  The lodge reopened in 2006 and graces the same beautiful setting as the original structure. 

We found this park very relaxing which is kind of amazing because there is so much for outdoor enthusiasts to do making it hard to sit still.  There are miles and miles of hiking trails, horseback riding, hang gliding launches, cycling, and some of the most dramatic locations for rock climbing and rappelling.  The diverse mountain ecosystem offers amazing bird watching and wildlife viewing and provides habitat for over 90 species of butterflies.  Many were brightening the woods when we were there.  We were there at a time when wildflowers were blooming so the forest floor was lit up with color.  The higher altitude and cooler weather on the mountain meant that trees had not leafed out yet but a look down in the valley was a stark contrast with trees fully leafed out.
 
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The park has a relatively small campground with a meek 18 sites with full hook-up (two of which are 50 amp).  Campsites are well-spaced with gravel pads and patios with fire pits and picnic tables.  We so enjoyed hanging around our campsite but for those that don’t camp you will be perfectly comfortable in the lodge or cabins.

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The Lodge at Mount Magazine has breath-taking views and some rooms have spa tubs on their balconies to enjoy the view.  Thirteen cabins dot the ridge line offering the same awesome views and Jacuzzi tub options on your balcony.  At the lodge is The Skycrest Restaurant which is a nice treat for those not wanting to cook.  We decided to have drinks one evening on the veranda enjoying the setting sun lighting the valley.  The next day we popped in for lunch where $6 got a plate of open-face prime rib sandwich, mashed potatoes, salad, and squash casserole.  Pretty good deal if you ask us. 

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This state park so worked for us.  It was the combination of the reading in a quiet wooded campground, being able to go to the lodge for a drink, lunch and great view and spending hours walking in the woods.  The park is a good 30 minutes drive from the nearest town so you may want to stock up so you can just relax on the mountain.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Crater of Diamonds State Park, Arkansas

Crater of Diamonds State Park is a place where you literally play the fun and exciting game of “finders, keepers.”  The prize here being diamonds!  In the middle of nowhere Arkansas (a.k.a. the town of Murfreesboro) is a field of 37 acres where for $10/day you can dig to your hearts’ content looking for diamonds making this the only diamond mine in the world open to the public.  And don’t think this is a gimmick.  Over 75,000 diamonds have been found in the “Crater” with an average of 600/year.  The largest diamond found in North America was found at Crater of Diamonds topping out at 40.23 carats.  In 1998, the Strawn-Wagner Diamond weighing 1.09 carats was graded by the American Gem Society as a 0/0/0 “D” Flawless perfect diamond – a “one in a billion diamond” – and found right here in Arkansas. 

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The park was established in 1972 “to responsibly manage and interpret this unique site and to provide a meaningful diamond mining experience for all guests and future generations.”  We find that pretty funny because we have never come across a state park whose intent is to provide a meaningful diamond mining experience mission.  All the more reason we wanted to go!  The parks campground is set among beautiful pine trees and offers full hook-up sites large enough to fit our 45’ RV without a problem.  To make our experience even better was the fact that our friends Rob and Linda (My Quantum Discovery bloggers) joined us.  They were traveling east from Texas and were game to try their luck at diamond mining too.

The crater is essentially a plowed field that is the eroded surface of a volcanic crater containing a variety of rocks, crystals, and gemstones.  The field is plowed periodically to expose underlying layers of dirt and gems.  The visitor center has interactive exhibits highlighting the unique history of the park and geology of Arkansas diamonds.  They also tempt you with pictures of diamonds that have been found in the park.  At the Diamond Discovery Center visitors learn about diamonds, but more importantly, techniques on how to find them. 

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Once you have rented (or brought your own) diamond digging equipment like trowels, shovels, buckets, sifting screens, etc. then it is time to head out into the crater.  The techniques vary widely from walking along looking for smooth shiny diamonds (because dirt and mud don’t stick to the smooth surface of diamonds) to digging up a bucket full of dirt and sifting through water like gold mining.  We talked to one man who uses a paint brush to lightly brush away loose dirt to reveal the diamonds.  Diamonds come in a rainbow of colors but the predominant colors found here are white, brown, and yellow.  If you think you found a precious stone, staff is on hand to positively identify it for you.  And if you want it, you keep it!  No matter what it is.

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Well we didn’t find any precious diamonds or other stones that the park is known for but we did have a great time and it was such a unique experience there was no way that we were going to miss this park.  The campground is very relaxing.  Like most state parks there is ample space between sites.  (The great thing about this park is they have 50 amp full hook-up sites.)  There is a short hiking trail that leads down to a river which was a nice walk and great for letting Spirit have some time to play.  The town of Murfreesboro is tiny with not much to do.  But we did find a fun variety store and great Mexican restaurant, Los Agave, which provided the fuel we needed for spending a few more hours back in the mine.  For a truly unique experience, we would definitely recommend visiting this state park.




Thursday, April 13, 2017

RV Park Review–Bella Terra of Gulf Shores (Foley, Alabama)

Website:     Bella Terra of Gulf Shores
Location:    Foley, Alabama
Date:          April 2016
Price:         $33/night (Special)


Bella Terra is a Class A motorcoach resort located in Foley, Alabama approximately seven miles north of the Gulf of Mexico and the popular coastal towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.  This park has nice amenities like an infinity pool and theater if you want to hang around the RV park.  But if you want to explore the area there is plenty to do within 10 minutes drive from shopping to lounging on the beach.  We took advantage of their three night “Play and Stay” promotion for $99 which means you take a one hour tour of the property and get to stay there to experience the resort.   That is a pretty good deal considering you may pay up to $70/night for a site.

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Overall, we really like this park.  Since it is a Class A motorhome park, it is obviously big-rig friendly.  The park is now developing its third and final phase and hoping to sell more lots and complete the build out.  The fact that it was not completely developed and site occupancy was not at maximum meant that it did not feel crowded.  People in the park were very friendly with a mix of transient and owners/seasonal. 
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Site description:

Roads, sites, and patios are paved.  Each site is privately owned so you have varying degrees of amenities on each site depending on what the owner decides.  Our site (#564) was very wide with a fairly large paved patio but no furniture.  Some are equipped with a coach house, gazebo, patio furniture, outdoor grill, firepits, landscaping, and enlarged concrete patio.

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All sites have water, electric (50/30/20), sewer, cable (approximately 55 channels), and free wifi.  There is a lack of large trees to provide shade so this place can get pretty hot.  Our patio faced the west so we had the afternoon sun and was too hot to sit outside on some days we were there. 

All sites are perfectly level and plenty long enough to fit a 45’ RV and car. 

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Their wifi service was spotty so we did use our Verizon hotspot which worked well and there was no issue with cell service. 

Amenities:

There are lots of amenities at this park and typical of a RV resort.  Plus, they have a busy calendar full of events both at the park and in the local area.  There is a large (6,000 square-foot) clubhouse with couches, tables, and a lounge.  It also features a movie theater (with 14 seats), business center, dry sauna, and great fitness center (with treadmills, exercise bikes, free weights and machines).  Outside is a large zero entry infinity pool with plenty of deck space with lounge chairs and tables and a fire pit and BBQ grill. 

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There are two fenced dog parks large enough to throw a ball for Spirit.  Each park had a water spigot and bowl.  In the center of the property is a large lake that is advertised as “stocked” and open for catch and release fishing. 

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Four bathhouses and laundry facilities are scattered throughout the property and were clean and well-maintained. 

Future amenities planned for Phase 3 are pickleball courts, another pool and club house, and bocce ball and shuffleboard courts. 

Surrounding area:

The park sits on a quiet street between some pretty busy thoroughfares used to get from I-10 to the beaches.  The beach is about seven miles to the south and I-10 is 13 miles north. The closest grocery store is about three miles away and you are not far from outlet malls, movie theaters, gas stations, etc.    Just a couple of miles north of the park is a large amusement/sports/entertainment park set to open summer 2017.  Basically, everything you need is pretty close.

What we liked:

We really liked the fact that our site and patio were paved (especially since we had a rainy day).  We did take advantage of some of the amenities like swimming and lounging by the pool and using the fitness center.  The people were very friendly and we did not feel unwelcomed as transient visitors. 

What we didn’t like:

The biggest drawback of our site was that our patio had afternoon sun and there was no shade which would be brutal in the summer.  Winds were high while we were there so we could not put out our awnings.  We would definitely request a different site next time.  Wifi did not always work well. 

Spirits’ two cents:

This was a pretty good park for her and she liked the dog parks that were big and never had other dogs in them.  The park is a decent size for a dog walk but there are no hiking trails close to the RV park. 





Sunday, April 9, 2017

History in the Deep South

There were two towns in the south that we wanted to visit on our way north…Fairhope, Alabama and Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Both are historic towns that would allow us to get a history fix.  There are a lot of similarities between Vicksburg and Fairhope namely they sit perfectly perched high on a bluff above the water, have quaint streets lined with moss draped live oaks, and there is no shortage of Antebellum homes.

Fairhope is cute.  The town sits comfortably above the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.  Across the bay on a clear day, the skyline of downtown Mobile comes into view and lights the night sky.  And while the shipbuilders and cruise ships bustle about Mobile, Fairhope remains quiet and steady.  The downtown is walkable with the usual galleries, shops, and restaurants where someone with a sweet southern Alabama accent greets you and welcomes you in.  The town got its name from the premise that every man had a “fair hope of success.”  The philosophy must have stuck because visitors and those wanting to get away from the nearby bigger cities keep this town vibrant.  We stopped at a complex of city parks along the waterfront where we took a stroll along the walking path and admired the massiveness of Mobile Bay and let Spirit take a swim for a quick cool down.  As it was getting close to lunch time, we headed up the bluff to the downtown for a look around and to get a bite to eat.  The French Quarter section of Fairhope is very popular with restaurants, shops, and a chocolate shop.  It is also home to a very territorial cat that deliberately got off its well-claimed bench and decided to chase Spirit out of its domain.  The angry cat made us all walk a little faster as its paws were not slowing down.  I’m happy to report that no dog was harmed in the strolling of the French Quarter….but it was getting a little dicey.  I love me a little town with some charm and this one definitely delivered with some southern flair.

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Vicksburg, Mississippi may not be on a lot of peoples’ radar list but we thought it was well worth a visit with plenty of things to do.  I had visited the town before when I worked with the National Park Service and Betsy and I stopped for a quick overnight in the RV seven years ago and thought it was time to revisit.  We stayed at the Ameristar Casino RV Park which is conveniently situated close to I-20 and just a short drive to the city’s attractions.

Here is a town rich in military and river history.  The place to start is the historically significant Vicksburg National Military Park which interprets the Civil War battles that took place in Vicksburg where a decisive campaign for the Union Army was won.  The Battle of Vicksburg, also called the Siege of Vicksburg, was the culmination of a long land and naval campaign by Union forces to capture a key strategic position during the Civil War.  President Abraham Lincoln recognized the significance of the town situated on a 200-foot bluff above the Mississippi River.  He proclaimed, "Vicksburg is the key, the war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket."  The siege lasted 47 days before General Grant finally received the white flag from General Pemberton of the Confederate Army.

The visitor center has a few exhibits and a 20-minute film that explains the battle which makes the 16-mile tour road more meaningful.  As you travel along, numbered stops explain the campaign and scattered about are numerous monuments to the forces that fought.  If you want more detailed information you can purchase a CD for your drive and there are stations where you can use your phone tag app.

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On the western side of the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum and the National Cemetery.  The cemetery is the final resting place for nearly 17,000 Union soldiers making it the second largest National Cemetery in the country.  About 40% of the soldiers buried here were members of the U.S. Colored Troops – a fighting force made up of free black men.

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The U.S.S. Cairo was a steam-driven ironclad Naval vessel that was designed to operate in shallow waters.  The Cairo was one of seven Union Army ironclads (called so because of the iron sheets and railroad tracks that attempted to protect the ship from cannon and gunfire) sailing down the Yazoo River when it was struck by an electrically detonated torpedo.  The ship sunk in 36 feet of water and not one of the 176 men on board were lost.  Especially remarkable considering how much gunfire was assaulted on the Cairo at the time.  The ship sat idle on the river bottom from 1862 until 1956 when it was discovered and plans began to bring it to the surface.  The initial attempt to extract the boat from the river bottom was halted when the three-inch cables placed around the hull cut deeply through it.  The decision was made to cut the boat into three pieces for ease of extraction yet complicating the restoration.  Once on land, it was like putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle.  Fortunately, the original drawings of the Cairo existed but some 20 to 30 modifications were made.  The boat was cloaked with nearly one hundred years of sand and silt deposited by the river making the raising more difficult while acting as a preservative protecting thousands of artifacts.  A museum houses exhibits displaying artifacts recovered from the boat as well as information about the restoration process.  Outside, a catwalk allows you to walk through and around the ship.

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Keeping with the river theme, we headed downtown to the Jesse Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum (which is 119free).  Interactive and static displays pertain to the natural resources, importance of the Lower Mississippi River and its’ watershed, and historical flooding events.  The highlight of the museum is the M/V Mississippi IV – a retired diesel-powered ship that served as both workboat and river ambassador hosting meetings of the Lower Mississippi River Commission.  The ship continues in its role as public ambassador as museum visitors are free to browse its’ four levels and see what life on the ship was like. 

Like other river towns, Vicksburg has seen its share of flooding.  From the historic flood of 1927 to the most recent event in 2011.  The city is protected from the raging waters by a concrete flood wall which also serves as a canvas capturing the city’s past.  The eye-catching murals are reminders of the past, present and future roles in American history, commerce, culture, religion, and technology. 

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But don’t think you are done with Vicksburg yet.  There is still the Old Depot Museum, Old Courthouse Museum, The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, the Toy and Doll Museum, dozens of Antebellum homes, and a few casinos. 

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Vicksburg kept us busy for a couple of days with all there was to do and see.  Since we’ve been here twice already we’ll leave this blog post for you all to follow up on!   Of course, we leave you with a picture of Spirit.

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