Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Keys to Happiness

Decamped St.Augustine before 7:00 am, aiming for The Keys. The beginning of the journey was interesting with many sitings of White Egrets, Grey Sandhill Cranes, Hawks and even a juvenile Bald Eagle. I have a fascination with the armoured rodents known as Armadillos. We saw a few curled up by the highway napping... NOT!


We unwisely chose to stay on I-95 South through Ft Lauderdale and Miami instead of following the GPS instructions to bypass that mess on the Florida Turnpike to the west and found ourselves trapped in traffic cutting in and our around us. The tension was overwhelming along the Miami stretch. Chris kept his cool and we both were relieved to hit the calmer Highway One as we entered The Florida Keys. Grand expanses of sea sparkled in sunlight that painted three shades of cobalt. The many islands are linked with low bridges whose posts and wires are decorated with Gulls, Pelicans, Cormorants and Osprey.  Marinas are crammed with cabin cruisers, fishing boats and a few sailboats.  Motels galore, hide behind palm trees or giant cement dolphin or sea turtles. Between the newer, posh resorts, are the older fixtures from the sixties with retro pink and turquoise neon signage and green and yellow balconies draped with patio lanterns. Jimmy Buffet lyrics filter into our brains as we pass the eighth or twelfth "Paradise Bay", "The Oasis", "Siesta Inn" or "Silent Palms". Restaurants and bars are named after seabirds, fish, sunshine and anything tropical. "Tiki" takes the prize for the most common label as Tiki Rooms, Tiki Bars and Tiki Huts are as common as sand on a beach. Most architecture is built on stilts to deal with flooding and shutters wait to protect the windows during hurricanes.

By early afternoon, we were setting up the motor home at the "Jolly Roger Holiday Resort". We chose one of the grassy sites that were shaded with Palm and Mahogany. Those willing to pay extra, parked a few feet from the bay. We were able to enjoy the view and seabirds from a short distance and avoid the salt water spray that can be so damaging to RVs. We spent a number of days at this pleasant camp relaxing, reading and and people watching. We met a friendly couple,Suzanne and Peter, from Orillia, a short distance from Orangeville and ignored the Quebec couple who made it obvious with their stoic lack of eye contact that they did not wish to acknowledge Ontarians. Another neighbour walks their gorgeous black cat around the park on a leash. The cat obviously has not determined that this is not the norm. We've seen a miniature dachshund being carried under her owner's arm or pushed in a baby stroller. The little black wiener dog sits up like a toddler and I can attest to never having seen its little doggy paws touch the ground!
AThe park is full of coconut palms and a few full sized coconuts have fallen to the grass around the camp and we are thankful not to be parked under one of the many "bomb-bearing" palms.We are in Marathon County on Grassy Key, so called for the heaps of sea grass that blow into shore every night.
On Thursday November 15,we drove waaaay out across numerous keys, mangrove bays and bridges until we reached Key West. We shared a grouper sandwich on a hot patio and stapled our CCand Dixie Dollar bill to the wall of hundreds. We wandered about the town where chickens run wild and architecture is a mix of old and new, scruffy run down homes, tacky t-shirt shops and beautiful vine covered inns.The temperature was 86 and Dixie was not inspired. It was difficult to avoid the tourist traps, tons of tour trains and trolleys, pleas to take a boat cruise and vendors of whole coconuts punched with a straw.  It was cool seeing the Southermost Point of North America, sipping a couple of Mohitos, standing in the shade of "Majesty of the Seas",a huge cruise ship, and peeking over the fence at Ernest Hemingway's home. I decided against a tour when I realized that it was $23.00 a pop! Overall, we were disappointed with Key West. Perhaps its glory days are over or the romantic spots are hidden from view. Stopping at a fishing dock where the regulars were unloading their catch of the day proved to be a more genuine adventure.

Friday's breeze cooled the heat in the park and Dixie and I found a cool spot to watch the seabirds. They are so entertaining! One pelican spent almost 20 minutes trying to get a rather large fish down its throat. (Take a moment to recite "A wonderful bird is the pelican whose beak can hold more than its bellycan!") The bird would struggle for a few minutes, then take a rest and try again. As this process repeated itself, gulls and other pelicans would swoop down in an effort to steal the fish away. Fascinating!
For dinner that night, we drove a few miles down the keys where we ate seaside,outdoors on the pier. After our seafood dinner at "Keys Fisheries Market and Marina", we headed back, just in time, to watch the day close with a spectacular sunset.

On Saturday, we gave our lawn chairs a break and took hike for a few miles across the Old Seven Mile Bridge. It is the longest in the Keys and vehicles use the new bridge which runs alongside, to traverse the islands. The old bridge is beginning to decay but through financial donations, its time worn concrete and rusty beams are being maintained. Chris and some highschool buddies drove across the old bridge in the 1970's. The bridge crosses a huge stretch of the ocean where rock-lobster pot markers bob, boats take tourists out to scuba dive, fishing boats of all sizes bait their hooks and pleasure boats motor across the surf. The old railway ties used in construction have beautiful rust patterns and patina. The name of the bridge is a no-brainer! As everywhere, in The Keys, a strong breeze moderates the heat and seabirds idle by.You may know about the Iguana problem in Florida, some say it's due to people freeing their pets into the wild or sneaky reptiles dashing from the holds of tropical freighters. Whatever the reason, they are numerous and range in size from three inches to three feet. We watched a few munching grass and sunbathing at the edge of the bridge.
We picked up some great fresh cod to cook for dinner; wholesome market fish is another appeal of The Keys. Fishing is a passion of Keys folk and an obsession for visitors. The inlets and waterways surrounding the Florida Keys make it unique and to get the most from it, one really needs to own a boat.

 In a few days we're off the Everglades National Park.


Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Chris Graduates from Freightliner School

While Chris finished up his course, Dixie and I hiked again in the Cowpen Battlefields. The day was sunny and hot, about 75 degrees. We saw the  bums and erect white tails of two deer as they charged away from us. I found a small child who was able to draw a crude map in the sand of our route so far.
Late afternoon, we drove a couple of miles to the KOA Campground for the night. Great mild evening for sitting outside and enjoying the sunset.

Saturday, in 80 degree sunshine, we took Old Highway 321 in South Carolina down into Georgia. The success of the businesses of the past are visible in rusted and boarded up establishments long since given over to the Modern Motorway. We passed lots of old gas stations, motels and restaurants with faded original signage and peeling paint. Many pastel coloured southern-porched homes sat in the shade of Live Oaks and Palms. Sadly, many decrepit homes lean sideways groaning to their occupants who call these places home. Others would likely take a wrecking ball to them.

Who wouldn't like a state whose most popular grocery store is called Piggly Wiggly?

 Every town, no matter how small, has its church. The most common style is the white wooden clapboard house with a steeple mounted on top. These are so common it looks as if there was a sale on Build-Your-Own Church kits that everyone ordered. Then there are the upgraded models, similar in style but made of concrete to better withstand the wrath of God. These lack character and charm on the exterior but perhaps make up for it inside!?
Once again, we spent our overnight in a Walmart lot in Brunswick, Georgia.

                                                                                      ( Stock photo: Not mine)                                                                

Sunday November 11. We Remember our Veterans with humility and pride!

We motored two hours into Florida where we set up camp in St. Augustine State Park. Because it was a long weekend, most campers were staying through to Monday. We had a two hour wait and a good deal of frustration with some Quebecers who refused to speak English to the camp rangers, in turn, causing pandemonium to the process of issuing sites. During the wait, we dipped our toes in the Atlantic and checked out the wide, bleached white beach and sugary dunes. Two large turtles crawled up through the rough grasses leaving scraggly trails in the sand. Our camp site was private and pretty lined with Palms, Live Oak, Olive and Purple Beauty Bushes. It was a tight spot with just enough room to put the slides out on out motor home.

We changed into some lightweight summer duds and drove into downtown St. Augustine, the oldest city in America.
Evidence of its early Spanish settlement is everywhere: in the red tile roofs, the intricately carved stone and the Colonial style metalwork. Strolling the town, we found a cafe with an outdoor patio where Dixie was allowed to join us. Indulging in some southern cooking, we chowed down on warm cornbread with honey butter and a shrimp PO-Boy!

Many of the narrow streets show promise of architectural treats but most are cluttered with tacky souvenir shops and so-called art galleries. It was much nicer to stroll along the stone walkways beside Matanzas Bay. The walls of the old Castillo De San Marcos Fort stands proudly with its impenetrable walls made from Coquina heralding memories of battle. The conglomerate building material is basically seabed, a natural crushed shell substance used in building walls all around St.Augustine. It's value in a fort is its brute strength and ability to absorb the impact of cannonball fire without compromising the wall's structure, thus the Fort stands today!

In the bay,a mock pirate ship battle took place complete with canon fire and sword fight....just one of the many tacky-tourist traps that we'd rather observe from a distance. We preferred the free show of pigeons flying in formation with a rainbow, harbour and drawbridge as their stage.

The State park provided a very quiet night's sleep. We started Monday with a beach morning. That particular beach was not as kind to the feet as the powdery sand back at the state park. It was comprised of tiny shells topped with larger shells washed in by the tide. We found a cool twisty one! Dixie played in the waves where a number of surfers waited for the perfect ride. It was difficult to leave the surf-carved dunes and soothing sounds of the waves but we had sight seeing to do!

Dixie stayed at camp while we completed our sightseeing. Our best stop was at the landmark St.Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, a black and white striped icon, constructed in 1874 and restored in 1980. A museum within the light house keeper's quarters displays artifacts from the glory days of the monument. Outside, is a pathway lined with bricks, many which contain supporter's names. One such brick was donated by Clare and William Bull, Chris's parents who owned a home in St.Augustine in the 1980's. The cool breeze at the top of the lighthouse was a pleasant reward for our hike up. The platform afforded splendid views of the harbour, beaches, the Atlantic Ocean and the entire red-roofed historic city. The gorgeous spiral staircase is a brilliant combination of utilitarian engineering and aesthetic design. 

Visited the Old Spanish Mission that was disappointing as the original structure is gone. The grounds were pleasant and a small stone chapel covered in vines set an appropriate backdrop for the old gravestones. We found an interesting row of renowned nuns under a shared headstone. We drove into the old town again to see the Veteran's cemetery across from the home previously owned by Chris's folks. We finished our tour on the seashore at The Conch House. We sat in one of the many individual grass-roofed huts at the edge of the patio. Some of them are up on stilts as high as twelve feet in the air. Two small gators are housed on site and look out of their compound at the guests with hungry eyes. We dined on mahi mahi and crab-stuffed shrimp sipping planter's punch and Inland Shark Lager. We were entertained by pelicans and jumping fish shifting about as the tide rushed in. Our evening was concluded back at the picnic table where we shared a brick sized piece of luscious Key Lime Pie from The Conch and watched the darkness descend.