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, December 31, 2011

Sarasota, Florida

Our month in Sarasota flew by. There is no shortage of things to do in this area - whether you choose to spend your day relaxing at the beach, hiking through a dense forest, shopping, or visiting one of many theaters.

One of the key attractions to Sarasota County is the 35 miles of barrier islands that lure beachgoers with wide, white beaches and majestic sunsets. In fact, Siesta Key was voted the No.1 beach in the United States in 2011 by “Dr. Beach” (a.k.a coastal scientist Stephan Leatherman) because of its fine quartz sand characterized by a brilliant white color and soft powdery feel.

Inside the courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art.
Sarasota attracts many people due to its cultural scene and the town proudly claims their cultural attractions will rival any major city. There is the orchestra, opera, ballet, dozens of theater companies, film companies and festivals, and numerous galleries. One of the main attractions is the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, a 66-acre complex featuring the Ringling’s elaborate mansion, a stunning art museum displaying their personal collection of baroque paintings, and various buildings displaying circus memorabilia. Ringling willed his estate to the state of Florida so it could be enjoyed by Sarasota residents and visitors and even stipulated that it be free to the public one day a week. (The complexity of this museum requires its own post, so tune in later for more details.)
Gallery with paintings by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (c. 1625).
Nature lovers will find no shortage of ways to spend their time. There are ample hiking trails at Myakka (see the previous post: Greetings From Sunny Sarasota) and Oscar Scherer State Parks. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars to these parks because the wildlife viewing, especially birds, is fantastic! Kayakers can choose between paddling in freshwater scenic rivers, through coastal mangrove forests, or in the clear saltwater bays. Sarasota County Parks and Recreation publishes a great 7-page guide to the areas’ kayak and canoe trails which can also be found online.

One of the many freshwater streams and lakes to paddle in.
At Myakka State Park you can rent canoes, kayaks and bikes.
Foggy Christmas morning hike.
For plant lovers, check out the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, 14 acres of beautifully manicured gardens bordering Sarasota Bay featuring more than 20,000 colorful plants, including some 6,000 orchids. The Gardens offers changing exhibits, free lectures and classes, a gift shop, two historic homes, a cafĂ©, and a Conservatory. While there, we strolled the grounds, had lunch under the banyan tree, and listened to a lecture on the areas’ bird life.

The showy flowers of the orchid are more than just pretty to look at...they serve the important
role of attracting pollinators.
The Conservatory at the Marie Selby Gardens is full of flowering plants which are constantly being rotated.
Visitors who are looking to spend a little cash will delight in the many outdoor shopping districts. Sarasota’s downtown Main Street has been revitalized into a vibrant shopping district. For blocks, you will find enticing stores ranging from art galleries, jewelry stores, boutiques, and antique stores. Then head over to highly fashionable St. Armands Circle to continue your shopping spree and enjoy a leisurely lunch at one of the many eateries with outdoor seating. Our favorite was Columbia Restaurant that featured authentic Cuban sandwiches and black beans. The area is very dog friendly and Spirit was a big hit, although it is very hard to walk down a busy sidewalk with an adorable lab puppy.

St. Armands Circle - the place for trendy shops, great restaurants, and where to be "seen."
Spirit making friends.
We spent a couple of days driving a little south of Sarasota to Venice because of their dog park and beach. Spirit enjoyed the freedom of running in the sand and swimming in the ocean while still terrorizing other dogs with her “puppyness”. After the dog park, we stopped in downtown Venice to have lunch outside with Spirit and window shop. Just as soon as she would start to fall asleep, someone would spot her and she would sit up ready to be adored. By the time we got back to the campground we were all beat and it was time for a nap in the warm Florida sun. Sorry to all you in the winter wonderland who only venture outside to shovel snow.
Spirit is somewhere in this mix
of dogs.

Typical lab loving the water.

If you are still looking for activities, take an afternoon and tour the Mote Aquarium and Save Our Seabirds, Inc. Rehabilitation facility located on City Island near Longboat Key. Mote is well known for their marine research and has been leading shark research since 19… I first heard of Save Our Seabirds (a non-profit agency dedicated to rehabilitating and releasing injured birds) while working on a brown pelican banding project in Louisiana with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A few of our birds wound up at their facility for various reasons including being tangled in fishing gear, broken body parts, and being oiled.

Before leaving the area, we felt the obligation to visit a citrus grove. At Mixon Fruit Farm we sampled tangelos, tangerines, pink grapefruit, honeybell, and various other citrus. The highlight was definitely the orange swirl ice cream but we couldn’t resist buying some fresh squeezed orange juice for our New Year’s Day mimosas.
Mixon Fruit Farms sorts their citrus in three categories based on how it looks - the "good," "bad," and the "ugly."
Only the "good" is sold to the public the rest is used for juice and cow feed. 
One of my favorites kumquats.  You pop the whole thing in your mouth, peel and all.
Mixon Fruit Farms offers a free self-guided tour.
We stayed at Myakka River State Park for our entire visit in Sarasota. The campground was great for raising Spirit. She made many, many friends, learned how to go up and down steps of the motorhome, went for hikes, slept by a campfire, and discovered that squirrels are fun to chase. While we had a great time in Sarasota, we look forward to moving on and experiencing our next adventure with Spirit in tow.

Happy New Year!

Sarasota National Cemetery.
Eye-catching sculpture in dowtown Sarasota.
Spirit leading her friend "Ivy" down one of her favorite trails.
Despite her long hike, Spirit still had more energy in her.
Sorry Ivy, Spirit is not done yet.
Finally no more spirit left in Spirit.  Thanks to our friend Bonnie for bringing Ivy over and the play
dates at the dog beach.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Happy holidays from the campground!  Many people have asked where we will be spending the holidays.  This year we are camping at a state park in Sarasota for Christmas and will be in Tampa for New Year's Eve.  Before we started camping we had no idea how many people spend the Christmas holiday camping.  Surprisingly, the campground we are staying in is full, both with local people looking to "get away" and snow birds who have come down for the winter.  We had to call 4-5 campgrounds before we could find availability for New Year's Eve.
Last years holiday decorations with lights, garland, and wreaths.
Last year, was our first Christmas in the motorhome; although we were not full-timing yet.  We ventured to Natchez, Mississippi with Betsy's brother Mark for a good old southern Christmas.  Mark and I decorated the motorhome with wreaths, garland and lights. Natchez was all decked out and was a wonderful place to go for the holidays!  Homes were brightly lit with colorful lights, downtown had a Christmas tree in the middle of the street, and the plantation homes were spectacular.
Natchez plantation home decorated for the holidays.
Santa rides in on an airboat in the south.
Natchez was cold and rainy when we arrived so after two days the sun was a welcomed
site.  This woman (yes, there is a woman in the middle of the picture) was proud of her
decorations and glad to have the sun illuminate her porch.
Downtown Natchez.
This year we are at a much larger campground so there are more decorations.  Christmas in a campground is not much different than in a neighborhood - there is the usual inflatable Santa and badly strung lights that were strung by someone who had way too much beer, but most of the motorhomes and campers have wonderful lights and decorations and the holiday cheer permeates with the sound of Christmas music and laughter.  Other campers from all around the U.S. drop by to visit and this year our camphost brought us his homemade rum balls!

Not so clever decorations.
Hope you all have a wonderful holiday and may our paths cross soon.
Small trees on the motorhome dashboards are a popular decoration.
Campground inflatables.
One of the most decorated campsites.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Greetings from Sunny Sarasota, Florida

A hard face to resist!

Well, we are midway through our month-long stay in Sarasota and having a great time in the constant warm and sunny weather.  The temperature fluctuates between 79 and 81 and we have not yet had a rainy day.  This is a great combination for outdoor activities, sight-seeing and, don’t forget, raising a puppy.  Sorry we have been lazy about posting – we are trying to get caught up (of course Spirit is keeping us really busy and her cute face rapidly lures us away from the computer).

We booked a month at Myakka River State Park located about 15 miles east of downtown Sarasota.  After camping in four Florida State Parks, we are huge fans.  We blindly picked Myakka partly because of the location and partly because of everything the park had to offer.  Myakka is a south Florida “jungle” paradise.  As one of the largest state parks in Florida at 37,000 acres, Myakka is very diverse displaying a myriad of habitats like wetlands, dry prairies, hammocks, and pine flatwoods.  The centerpiece is the Myakka River which carries the designation of a “Wild and Scenic” river and runs 66 miles south before meeting its resting place in Charlotte Harbor, Florida.
Sabal palms provide a little shade in the open prairie.
The higher ground within the park is filled with live oaks and sabal palms.  The parks
7 miles of paved roads are great for biking.
Evil (in the form of alligators) lurks everywhere!
Myakka is one of those parks where you actually see wildlife.  Alligators lurk in every body of water and we have seen quite a few alligators over 12 feet.  Rangers say there are at least 1,000 gators in park waters!  In fact, we have been warned a half dozen times by staff and volunteers not to take Spirit near the water because of previous incidents when alligators have killed dogs.  One poor golden retriever got snatched when he was wading near the bank to get a drink of water.  We have seen wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and heard coyotes calling at night.  The wetlands are filled with winged wonders.  Sandhill cranes, wood storks, great blue herons, and roseate spoonbills are easily visible from many vantage points throughout the park.  A popular place for bird watching is the “birdwalk” boardwalk which guides you through the marsh into the Upper Myakka Lake.  Volunteers armed with spotting scopes and field guides are eager to help visitors identify the numerous waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds and, birds of prey that dot the landscape.  If you want to check out forest birds and other creatures, there is a “canopy walk” where a 25-foot high suspended walkway gives you a glimpse into the forest canopy.  The walkway’s terminus is a 74-foot high tower that soars into the air and takes you above the treetops – a great reward for the climb.

The view from the top of the Canopy Walk overlooking the park's myriad of habitats.
The Canopy Walk is on of the most popular spots in the park.  All the money was privately
raised and built by volunteers. There is a slightly unnerving sway as you walk across the suspension bridge. 
The 75-foot tower is worth the climb.  Interpretive signs are placed throughout which explain
the plants and animals that are found in the forest canopy.
Spirit heading out
on the "Birdwalk."
Myakka offers lots to do for all ages and physical abilities. There are over 39 miles of hiking (including sections of the Florida Trail), biking, and equestrian trails; 6 camping areas; cabins; picnic areas; pavilions; and plenty of places to fish if you are brave enough to go near the alligator filled water.  At the “Outpost” (the parks concessionaire) you can rent a bike, kayak, and canoe or take an airboat or tram ride through the parks unique habitats.  There are two gift shops and a full service restaurant that features alligator stew, hand-dipped ice cream, and an impressive selection of craft beer.  The first weekend we were here was “Frost Fest,” a weird combination of frosty snow for the kids and frosty beer for adults.  We tried cranberry and Christmas ales while watching kids playing in the man-made snow by throwing snow balls at balloons and riding rubber rafts down a snow hill.  We were quite entertained!
The highlight for the kids at Frost Fest was the snow hill....the highlight for adults was the beer.
This park is going to be a great, peaceful place to spend Christmas.  Everyone in the campground is decorating their RV’s with lights, trees and all kinds of ornaments.  We plan to have luminaries across the front of our site.  And each night so many campsites are lit by a campfire and you can just stop by and greet your neighbors or they often drop by ours with a chair and drink in hand.  Of course, our Christmas gift to each other this year is wonderful little Spirit and the great adventure we are undertaking.  Merry Christmas to all of our family and friends from the RVAGOGOers!  We look forward to seeing many of you in 2012 as we head out west and explore that part of our country.

Sandhill cranes, coots, egrets and other assorted birds in Upper Myakka Lakes - one
of two large lakes within the park.
Ranch House Road is great for biking or hiking. 
Many miles of trail lead visitors through the dry prairie.  This unique ecosystem was maintained
by fire and was important to early settlers for cattle farming.
for cattle grazing
The "Gator Gal" - the concessionaires airboat.  Her claim to fame is being the largest
air boat in the world.  It may be the biggest, but it is also the slowest with a top speed of 10 mph.
The visitor center is a great place to start your visit.
The building was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a stable in the late 1930's when they
were developing the park.  In 1972, the dilapidated building was turned into the Visitor Center.
Another CCC building that was built when the park was established in the late 1930's. 
It now serves as a pavilion for interpretive talks or picnics.
Note the people siting on the weir...I guess only the vultures can read.

This warning sign was posted at numerous campsites.

Our peaceful campsite before we moved in.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Ocean Around Us

If you have been reading our blog, or knew us prior to motorhoming, you would have gathered that Betsy and I are drawn to water. We love the warm sandy beaches, clear Maine lakes, southern golden marshes, and everything in between. My childhood interest and love for the outdoors and environment led me to study fish and wildlife management in college and work for federal agency’s that protect natural resources. My previous jobs with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed my belief that our country’s natural resources are our national treasures and are not our generation’s to be squandered. Our planets resources are fragile. Our natural resources are very often not renewable and therefore not sustainable.

So as I now sit by the ocean’s side in Sarasota, Florida, I admire its beauty, give thanks for its bounty, and respect its fury. Coincidentally, the last few books I read pertain to the ocean and its resources and I feel it is important to thank the early pioneers and explorers for bringing to light the ocean’s importance. People like Rachel Carson who warned us in the 1960’s that we were polluting our waters, Jacque Cousteau who explored the deep ocean and brought it into our living rooms through his television shows, and Jacque Piccard who braved the journey to the deepest place in the ocean, the Marianas Trench, and informed us that life does exist at 35,800 feet (although the sea creatures that live down there are not very pretty).

The state of our oceans today is questionable. The populous feels that the vastness of the ocean will prevent us from creating oceanic destruction. After all, the oceans occupy 75% of our vast planet. But reputable scientists feel differently. Scientific data that indicates our oceans are imperiled and suffering the effects of overfishing and pollution. A 2006 article in Science (reported by an international team of scientists gathering data between 1950 and 2003) declared that if current fishing and pollution trends continue, every fishery in the world’s oceans will collapse by 2048. The United Nations estimated that the world fishing fleet is twice as large as what the oceans can support. We harvest fish by exploding underwater devices and dragging heavy nets along the ocean floor, killing everything in the path and destroying valuable nursery habitat. The days of “wild salmon” are numbered and we have nearly decimated the species of cod. Indirectly, we are degrading our oceans through climate change and acidification. As Betsy, Spirit (our new puppy) and I cool our wheels here in Sarasota, we hear daily news reports on red tide. The 75-mile swath is lingering slightly offshore and restricting seafood harvest and consumption.

Lucky for us, fish have survived on this planet for millions of years. Slowly, we are learning (and taking action) to conserve our oceans resources and paying attention to the warning signs that are thrust in front of us. We have learned that estuaries are vital to ocean health and biodiversity. The protection and restoration of these vital areas has moved to the forefront of habitat conservation. People living along the once biologically dead Chesapeake Bay can now relish in its bounty. We have become enlightened on how fish are harvested, their habitat requirements, life cycles, and what we earthlings are doing to the undersea world. Overfishing of wild strains has forced us to turn to aquaculture which may in turn be what is needed to preserve a species. Scientific data directs fishing regulations, including season lengths, harvest quotas, and gear. One can only hope that environmental consciousness will lead to societal changes necessary to help protect our oceans for future generations.

One of our favorite destinations is the panhandle of Florida.
Pensacola's white "sugar" sand is so fine that it squeaks under your feet as you walk.
Grayton Beach State Park remains our favorite campground.  White sand, crystal
clear blue water, and a RV sand castle to boot.
Over 4.9 million barrels of oil were released when the Deepwater Horizon well blew out in April 2010 and tragically
killed 10 people. As of November 2011, workers were still cleaning up tar balls along the panhandle. 
 Researchers reported that tar balls on the gulf floor have not degraded and they
are still being found in shrimpers nets.  An October 2011 report by NOAA Scientists
claims that dolphins and whales continue to die at twice the normal rate.