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.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Penne Pasta with Sun-dried Tomato Cream Sauce

Oh, for the love of pasta!  When I get a craving for pasta it comes on hard.  I try to resist the so-called "evil" carbs but some times that desire to bite into a tender resistance of al dente egg noodles merrily swimming in creamy tomato goodness is unbearable.  Yes, the desire overwhelms me and I succumb – to the stove we go.  The beauty of this recipe is that there is not an extensive list of ingredients and it all comes together in about 30 minutes. Want protein? Add sautéed shrimp or chicken. Want veggies? Add spinach or peas. And by all means, have a salad. There, less guilt!

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This recipe (which is adapted from one of my favorite food blogs Half Baked Harvest) combines the smoky sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes with the acidic tang of tomatoes and silkiness of cream.  Half Baked Harvest adds vodka for a bite.  But when I had the vodka bottle in my hand I was more inclined to pour vodka into my martini glass than in the saucepan.  I searched out some olives and self-validated my decision that vodka would serve me better in the glass than diluted in pasta sauce.  But I'll leave that tough decision up to you.


Sun-dried tomatoes are ripe tomatoes that lose most of their water content after spending a majority of their drying time in the sun which gives them a distinctive flavor. Historically, tomatoes were salted so the moisture would evaporate out thus delaying the process of decomposition so they could be enjoyed later in the winter when it was difficult or impossible to grow fresh produce. Today, we get tomatoes year-round; albeit, they really don’t taste like a tomato. Now if you want to get all gangster and Martha Stewart this recipe, you could make your own sun-dried tomatoes but I prefer to grab a jar off the shelf in the grocery store.

This recipe made enough for the two of us with a bit leftover for lunch. And, by the way, it tasted just as good four days later when I heated it up for lunch as it did the first day. (I know you’re thinking I should probably clean out the fridge a little more often.)

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ sweet onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (use more or less depending on the amount of heat you like)
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried basil
1 - 28 ounce can whole tomatoes; crush them by hand before adding
¼ cup oil packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained
½ cup heavy cream
½ pound penne pasta (or your favorite pasta)
garnish with fresh basil and grated parmesan cheese


Directions:

Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, for 5-7 minutes until they are translucent. Add garlic, cook for 1 minute. Add red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, tomatoes (and the juice), sun-dried tomatoes and bring to a boil for a few minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Let cool for five minutes before pureeing in a blender or with an immersion blender. Return mixture to the pan, add the cream and simmer for five minutes.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package instructions. (You can save some of the pasta water to use for thinning the sauce if you want to use less cream.)

Now that everything is ready (and you have poured yourself a glass of wine) combine all the ingredients and top with parmesan cheese and fresh basil. Enjoy!







Friday, April 6, 2018

Workcamping – In Our Opinions!

One thing we have learned over the seven years of full-time traveling is that we like to slow down our travels and stay awhile.  No more acting like whirlwinds and moving campsites every three or four days all year for us.  In fact, the pendulum has swung pretty far to the other side by having some years when we are stationary for nearly eight months out of the year.  It's all about finding out what works for you.
 
Our first two years were very typical of how newbies travel.  We hit the road excited with our new found freedom and wanted to go everywhere and see everything. We envisioned the duration of our RV life to be a couple of years, maybe three at the most.  During that time we could see everything in the good ol' U. S. of A.  As we reflect on that thought after seven years, we can emphatically say “boy were we wrong!”  

One aspect of travel that keeps us in places so long and makes our travel more enjoyable and fulfilling is workcamping.  Being in one place and working provides a sense of community and led to lasting friendships in what some might think is an isolated lifestyle.  And, we have spent more time getting to know the area and meeting locals.  It also doesn’t hurt that workcamping helps put a little money in our pockets and saves on annual expenses. When comparing years when we have not workcamped versus when we have our nightly camping cost dropped from $30/night down to $10/night.  Don’t forget that sitting for extended periods of time means you are not filling up the RV with fuel on a regular basis which also helps lower annual expenses.  

Average nightly camping costs for Years 4, 5, and 6 were so low because we workcamped eight
months out of the year.  In Years 1 and 2 we did not work at all and Year 7 we only worked four months.

"Workcamping" conjures up the images of campground jobs where you might be escorting someone to their site in a yellow shirt or working in the office checking road weary campers into their site. But, the term actually describes any job performed while living in an RV – and does not necessarily mean you are working at a campground. Our experiences are widely varied and make for some pretty scattered resumes. This nomadic lifestyle allows us to embrace many different jobs that have included working as a stern man on a lobster boat, driving a tram in a state park, operating the fee booth at an US Army Corps of Engineers campground, cooking as an event chef for a catering company, and shopping and delivering groceries for Shipt.



So how do we find our "jobs?" There are many great free resources that advertise a litmus of job opportunities from working in green houses (and yes, marijuana farms are springing up on that list) to being a caretaker for someone’s property and pets while they are away, and don’t forget campground jobs. Here are some sites that we use to find opportunities:


Another resource with an interesting and eclectic myriad of jobs is CoolWorks. Some of their job categories include environmental stewardship, food and beverage service, ranch, horses, driving and transportation and many, many more. Another big employer of RVers is Amazon. Every year through their Camperforce Program, Amazon bulks up their employee work force during the holidays to fulfill the enormous volume of holiday orders.

Some things to consider regarding work camping are to be sure you are in an area where you want to be for the period of time the job requires. Do you want to get paid or just get your site for free?  If you are retired, you might want to check with your CPA and see how drawing a salary with affect your tax bracket. It is also important when considering a workamping position if the compensation is worth the hours you put in.  Other thoughts for people who don't worry about compensation either in a salary or free campsite but just want something meaningful to do, check the local newspapers or Craig's List for volunteer programs in animal shelters, Habitat for Humanity, church programs, hospitals, etc.


We loved volunteering at Dent Acres Campground in Idaho where thousands of acres of woods kept
us busy hiking and the 54-mile long reservoir was perfect for kayaking and fishing.  But, the closest town (population
3,000 people) was 45 minutes away which may be too remote for some people. 

So what's next for us? This summer I will be working part-time at 
Savage Oakes Vineyard and Winery in Union, Maine while Betsy and Spirit enjoy a break from working and enjoy all that coastal Maine offers. Next December, we will return to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park for four months and resume our tram driving duties and many other opportunities.




Friday, February 2, 2018

RV Park Review–Petoskey KOA (Petoskey, Michigan)

This is a nice KOA with nice facilities and lots of amenities.  We camped there in July and our first impression when we drove in was “wow, this place is busy!”  It is a very family-friendly park and you feel like every other site is having a family reunion with so many people at each site.

We were assigned a pull-thru in a spot where most of the campers were transients. (There is another section that appears to be most of the seasonal campers.)  Getting to the site in our RV was a little tricky because of all the trees, narrow roads, and cars parked everywhere.  We got a few stares from people as we slowly drifted our oversized supertanker into our site.  Luckily, it was in the middle of the afternoon when we arrived and people were out and about so we didn’t draw too much attention.  While this park does accommodate big-rigs we had to take it very slow and do some wiggling to get into our site.

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Our site was level, paved, and had a paved patio and was full hook-up with cable and WiFi (which worked well at our site). While the sites are fairly close together there was a nice grassy area separating us from our neighbors. Fire pits and picnic tables are included at every site.

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The park is a typical KOA with tons of amenities and things going on. We chose not to use the pool because it was overrun with kids and seemed way too small for the number of people in the park. There is an off-leash dog park but it was pretty small for our lab to get a good run in. The laundry was nice and clean but a bit expensive $2.25 per load. When we checked in the staff raved about the onsite KOA café’s pizza but we didn't try it – too many other great places to eat nearby.

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The park is very convenient to downtown Petoskey but the traffic on Hwy. 31 can be horrible at peak times. It is also close to Petoskey State Park and the Oden State Fish Hatchery (which has trails and a great place to visit). There are lots of breweries in the area, a great farmers market, and really good restaurants. We personally loved Beards Brewery, Palette Bistro, and the Crooked Tree Bakery. There is a great paved biking trail located nearby that runs from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs.









Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sponges, RVs, and Mermaids All in One Weekend

There is always so much to explore in Florida so road trips are always a blast. We used the Tampa RV Super Show as an excuse to head south and explore some of the unique and kitschy areas of Florida. Instead of taking the rig we decided to rent a pet-friendly cottage which worked out great because our friend Debbie Long joined us for the four-day jaunt.

Just northwest of Tampa is one of my favorite towns, Tarpon Springs. The region's springs, bayous and close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico drew farmers and fishermen to this town and when the railroad was constructed, tourists were delivered. Legend has it that when visitors spotted a tarpon jumping out of the water the name Tarpon Springs came to be.

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Tarpon Springs bagged the title “Sponge Capital of the World” – an industry that dates back to the 1880’s and is celebrated throughout the town with colorful murals and memorials.  In the 1880’s John Cheney founded the first local sponge business and it wasn’t long until he was selling nearly one million dollars in sponges. Sponges flourish in the fluctuating temperatures of the northern gulf waters that rise and fall with the seasons. Many blacks and whites from Key West and the Bahamas settled in Tarpon Springs to hook sponges and process them for sale. The industry flourished and the Greek population exploded in 1905 when John Cocoris introduced the technique of sponge diving to Tarpon Springs and recruited divers and crew members from Greece. The use of rubberized diving suits and helmets was a major advance in increasing harvests and by 1905 over 500 Greek sponge divers were at work on 50 boats making this one of the leading maritime industries in Florida at the time.

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In 1947, a decimating red tide algae bloom wiped out the sponge fields in the Gulf of Mexico forcing many of the sponge boats and divers to switch to fishing for their livelihood, while others turned to other business opportunities. Over time, the sponges recovered, and the industry still exists today. In the 1980's, the sponge business experienced a boom due to a sponge disease that killed the Mediterranean sponges. Tarpon Springs still is the “Sponge Capital of the World” and you will still see sponge fishermen working at the historic Sponge Docks and boats draped with sponges. Tour boats take visitors out for sponge collecting demonstrations or you can opt for a quicker explanation from a video in the Sponge Museum at Spongeorama Sponge Factory

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Tarpons Springs celebrates their lively Greek heritage and a trip to the sponge docks is a lively experience where Ouzo is flowing into shot glasses, shouts of “Opa” fill the air, gyros are on the menu, and flaming saganaki (a cheese dish) is being served as often as the second hand on your watch clicks.  As a lover of Greek food, you can guess why I love Tarpon Springs.

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If you are an RVer and have never been to a Super Show you are in for some major “Wow!” factors. The Tampa show has over 20 acres of RVs, accessories, and vendors which creates an RV frenzy. Everything from tear drops to Prevosts are on hand for you to view and ponder. We came for the day and were saturated by the time we left. If you are in the market (or just looking as we were) this is a great way to see everything that is available and learn from others. We find the most valuable information comes from just sitting in a unit and listening to what others say about it.

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On our way home we passed a sign that said “live mermaid show” so you know we had to stop. Once before in our travels through Florida’s “Nature Coast” we tried to stop at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to see the famed mermaid show but their “pool” was closed for repairs and we were so disappointed. On this trip we were ecstatic to learn shows were being performed everyday so we were going to finally get to see this unique roadside attraction. And Debbie was equally game to partake in this adventure.

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The name “Weeki Wachee” comes from the Seminole Indians meaning “little spring” or “winding river.” The spring is so deep that the bottom has never been found but each day more than 117 million gallons of clear, fresh 74-degree water bubbles up out of subterranean caverns. In 1946, Newton Perry, a former U.S. Navy man who trained Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II, came to the area in search of a location for his new business featuring underwater performers. Perry invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from a compressor instead of a tank strapped to the back. This air hose allowed swimmers to appear more like graceful underwater creatures than divers.

With an 18-person amphitheater carved out underwater into the limestone and his air supply in place, Perry set out to find pretty girls who would want to perform aquatic ballets, drink beverages and eat bananas underwater. Being a mermaid is not as easy as having a pretty face and wiggling into a tail. The job can be physically demanding and trying out for the cast involves a 300-yard timed swim which at times is against the rivers strong current and a 10-minute water-treading exercise.

Weeki Wachee’s heyday came in 1959, when the spring was purchased by the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) and was heavily promoted. ABC built the current theater, which seats 400 and is embedded in the side of the spring 16 feet below the surface and then developed more themed shows with props, music, and storylines.  Over the years ownership changed hands and in 2008, the city handed over ownership to the state of Florida and this famed roadside attraction was established as a state park. The mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park have been captivating and entertaining visitors since 1947 and we were also quite entertained.

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The 538-acre park that is Weeki Wachee State Park features more than just mermaids. There are wildlife shows, narrated river boat cruises, a waterpark, and you can paddle down the clear waters of the Weeki Wachee River and look for manatees.

We had a great time on our jaunt down what is known as the “Nature’s Coast” of Florida and were glad our friend Debbie accompanied us. It is a wonderful area to explore and there is so much to do and see; but, it was back to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park for us girls as we had to get back to work at our volunteer jobs.

























Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Boeuf Bourguignon (aka Beef Stew)

Boeuf bourguignon is a French classic which comes from Burgundy, France – a region that is home to other famous dishes like coq au vin, escargot, gougères, and pain d’épices.  Leave it to the American culinary icon Julia Child to IMG_20180110_164017_821bring this dish to the American diner table.  In Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking she describes the dish, "sauté de boeuf à la Bourguignonne," as "certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man." And that is a pretty strong recommendation to cook this dish.  

Don’t let the fancy French name of this dish fool you, on our side of the pond it is called beef stew and there are many different variations.  Boeuf bourguignon was originally a peasant dish made with cuts of meat that were undesirable because of their toughness.  But this method calls for a long cooking process in wine which helps tenderize the meat making it savory, rich, and fork-tender.  This is a perfect dish for keeping warm in the midst of this chilly winter weather that is blanketing us.

My rendition calls for the addition of coffee granules, orange zest, and boiling potatoes.  Why coffee granules?  I think it just intensifies the flavor and deepens the richness.  But, by all means, you could omit this ingredient.  I like the zest of the orange to bring flavors to life and the potatoes make this a hearty one-pot meal.  The other difference in my version from the traditional is the lack of bacon. Bacon was added to the pan first and the rendered fat would be used to brown the meat, I use olive oil instead.  You get it ... I'm trying to be health conscious!

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 lbs. boneless beef chuck, cut into 2-inch pieces
½ cup flour
1 onion, ¼ cut into small dice and the remainder quartered
3 carrots, ½ carrot cut in small dice and the rest in 2” pieces
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon tomato paste
¼ cup brandy
1 ½ cups of red wine (preferably Burgundy)
2 cups beef stock
4 fresh thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
2 cloves
1 orange, zest removed in 3 (1-inch) strips
1 tablespoon coffee granules
5 small new potatoes, cut in ½
8 ounces button mushrooms

Directions:

Place flour on a plate.  Season beef with salt and pepper and dredge in flour, shaking off the excess. Heat the oil in Dutch oven medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot, add meat and sear on all sides being careful not to overcrowd the pan, you may have to do this step in 2 or 3 batches.  Remove and transfer to a plate.

Reduce heat to medium and add diced onion and carrots.  Sauté for 5 minutes until softened.  Add garlic and tomato paste and cook, stirring 2 minutes until paste begins to caramelize.  Add brandy to the pan and bring it up to a simmer while scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen up all the tasty bits.  Once the brandy has reduced by ½ add the wine and stock.  Bring to a boil and add the seared beef, quartered onions, carrot pieces, thyme, bay leaves, cloves, orange zest, and coffee.  Reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 2 hours.

After 2 hours add the potatoes and mushrooms.  Cook uncovered for 30-45 minutes or until potatoes are done.  Scrape off excess fat.  Remove thyme sprigs, bay leaves, cloves, orange zest, and serve.
This can be made a day ahead and reheated to serve.  We actually think it is better the next day as the flavors have time to meld.



























Monday, January 8, 2018

Heading South

There are a lot of miles between Davenport, Iowa and our winter destination in Florida – a thousand in fact. Luckily, the state just south of Iowa is Missouri which is my home state. I  have family in St. Louis so we try to stop twice a year as we make the north-south migration (like the “snowbirds” we are).

The drive south through endless corn and soybean farms left us in a little bit of a trance with a very monotypic view of America’s farmbelt.  We pulled into an Army Corps of Engineers campground near Hannibal, Missouri for a one-night stay and quickly wished we had more than one night to enjoy this respite in the woods.  The fall colors were dancing on the trees in the quiet campground which was occupied by one other camper.  The weather was perfectly sunny and cool so we ventured out for a walk and popped into the nature center which had a great view of the lake and short interpretive hiking trail.

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While we didn’t want to leave our quiet, woodsy campsite the need to get our Aqua-Hot heating system serviced was nagging at us – especially with temperatures dipping into the 30’s.  After our service appointment, we decided to stay at a state park nearby in case the repairs were not done properly and needed follow-up (yes, that has happened before so we were just being smart!).  Bennett Spring State Park is one of my favorites for a couple of reasons.  Not only do we like the campground but there are beautiful historic Civilian Conservation Corps buildings that add character, plenty of hiking trails, and it is one of Missouri’s “Trout Parks.”  The park has been in the business of raising fish since the 1930’s at their fish hatchery which are released into the the spring and stream flowing through the park.  Thousands of anglers are attracted to this trout hot spot which can be shoulder to shoulder at times.  Luckily for us, the late fall has less crowds and on weekdays will only draw a handful of anglers.

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Next up on our trek through Missouri was a stop in St. Louis for some family time and to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast.  It was great for us to get to see so many family members especially those who drove up from Arkansas and in from 20161124_174729Pennsylvania.  The fall weather cooperated and was perfect for being outside.  South of the city is Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery and Military Post - the oldest operating U.S. military installation west of the Mississippi River which is now used as a base for the Army and Air National Guard.  Jefferson Barracks was an important and highly active U.S. Army installation from 1826 through 1946 and by the 1840’s was the largest military establishment in the United States.  It was decommissioned in 1946 and some of the buildings have been transformed into museums, one of which was the Telephone Museum which peaked our interest.  The museum houses hundreds of pieces of telephone-related equipment and tools, and memorabilia from the 1880s through the 2000s.

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St. Louis County has lots of free museums everything from the art museum, the zoo, and a large science center and more.  Since the weather was conducive to being outside we opted to visit the Laumeier Sculpture Garden.  The Laumeier was founded in 1976 and is one of the first and largest sculpture parks in the country.  It all started in 1968 when Mrs. Matilda Laumeier bequeathed the first 72 acres of the future Laumeier Sculpture Park to St. Louis County in memory of her husband, Henry Laumeier.  Shortly thereafter in 1976, local artist Ernest Trova donated 40 works of art (estimated at nearly one million dollars) to St. Louis County for the formation of a sculpture park and gallery.  The park, which is free and open daily, attracts nearly 300,000 annual visitors who come to meander through the grounds decorated with shiny, whimsical, and abstract pieces of art.  They also offer education programs, art classes, guided tours, and much more. One of our favorite pieces was “Deer.”  This 20’ high fiberglass and steel structure garners your intrigue because of its size and interest with its sweet fawn face.  The artist created this much larger than life-size animal to emphasize that nature is out of balance in today’s urban and suburban spaces and humans have impacted other species in the environment.

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With the glorious weather continuing to shine on us we kept looking for outdoor activities and decided to venture across the Missouri River to St. Charles, Missouri.  Historic St. Charles comes alive the weekend after Thanksgiving as they kick off the Christmas season when yesteryear merriment meets the present.  The "Christmas Traditions Festival" is one of the nation's largest Christmas festivals.  Legendary Christmas figures stroll down Main Street, live music fills the air, a festive parade rolls through town, live street performers entertain the crowds, and there is plenty of shopping to help you get a jump on your Christmas lists.  The town is charming with its brick-lined streets that highlight this Nationally Registered Historic District. 

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Before getting too deep into the shopping and events on the street, we popped into the Lewis and Clark Boathouse and Museum.  The museum is appropriately located here as the legendary explorers began their momentous journey westward from St. Charles via the Missouri River.  The museum is an educational attraction with exhibits, artifacts, and videos displayed upstairs about replica keelboats and piroques that resemble those used by the men. 

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After spending a week and a half in St. Louis, it was time to get on the road and make a couple quick overnights so we could get to Florida in time for work.  Yep, it’s back to “work” for us. We will be volunteering at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park (in the Florida panhandle) for the winter.  Walks on the white squeaky beach and through the sunlit longleaf pine forests will give us plenty of time to ponder our 2018 travel plans.