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.

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.


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.


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


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.


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.

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.

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.


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!


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


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.