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It has been sort of a tradition of ours to welcome in the New Year by camping with our great friends, the Bradys. Knowing that we will be hitting the road full time in 2019 and not 100 percent sure when we will return to the Florida area, we made reservations back in February at Alafia River State Park. Yup, 11 months early and we barely got sites. Welcome to camping in the winter in Florida.

Hiking up a hill! Alafia River State Park, 12/28/18

Alafia is a very nice place. Large and widely separated sites made for pleasant camping. Its specialty is mountain biking. In Florida. Where the highest elevation in the state is 345′. Fun fact: that’s the lowest highest elevation of the 50 states. The park is on the site of an old phosphate mine and it really did have a whole pile of biking trails, as well as many equestrian trails and a growing number of hiking ones. It’s strange to walk a ridge in Florida with steep drop-offs on each side, but there you go. I rode most of the green biking trails as well as a blue. A couple of highlights were:

  • Slamming on my brakes to avoid hitting a boulder. The boulder then got up and walked away. It was a gopher tortoise.
  • Discovering that the “water resistant” feature of my handlebar bag is only valid if it’s completely zipped closed. I rode off the side of a bridge into a stream. iPhone and $1800 camera both got wet. Fortunately, only my pride suffered any significant damage.
  • The blue trail was fun, with a bit of a pucker factor from my perspective, until I caught up with a family with small kids. Then it became a slow ride in the woods (no place to pass).

We had a great time and an enjoyable New Year’s Eve with our friends. We also accomplished some chores on board the rig, but the main task I had hoped to accomplish didn’t get done. I wanted to test our dry camping abilities by running on our batteries only in order to see how we do without electric hookups. We are almost a fully electric coach (we have a residential fridge) and I wanted to set up our generator to auto-start if the batteries run low. It was very hot, upper 80s, and we were very active so we decided to run the AC instead of testing batteries. Maybe next time.

Then we tried to leave.

When I drove the coach to the dump station, Patti followed me in the truck. She immediately pointed out to me that our rear was riding very low, with our rock guard actually dragging on the ground. It was obvious that our rear air bags were not filling. Crap. (Actually, to be honest, we used other words to describe our feelings. For the sake of any tender ears out there, I’ll stick with “crap”.) We’re still under warranty so I got on the phone with Freightliner. Let the games begin.

Rather than writing a couple of thousand words, I’ll just sum up the next 75 hours with some bullets:

  • Tuesday afternoon (New Years Day): the roadside tech showed up. He was about what you’d expect for a tech on New Years Day. He and the Freightliner tech on the phone from South Carolina gave an initial diagnosis of a bad air valve. We weren’t convinced, but whatever.
  • Waiting for help. Alafia River State Park, 1/2/19

    The park rangers set us up in a very nice, paved and secure location that I was able to limp into. And there we spent the night. Dry camping. Our batteries held up great, the auto-start function works fine, and we are confident we can go without hookups when necessary. Lesson learned. (Also, be careful what you wish for.)

  • Wednesday morning: the tow truck driver showed up. The driver of the BIG tow truck. He started looking things over and fairly quickly made the diagnosis that the valve was OK, we had two blown airbags and zero lift in our rear suspension. Can’t be towed (too low), can’t be put on a low boy (we’d be too high), needs to be fixed in place. Oh joy.
  • By this time we were out of clean clothes, out of food and had several obligations the next day at home. Freightliner was overnighting the parts to Tampa, so we made arrangements to meet them at the coach the next day and we headed for home. (Here is where I’d like to send a shout out to the rangers and staff at Alafia River State Park. They totally took care of a couple of travelers in need and couldn’t have been more helpful.)
  • Next day I drove back to Alafia. Freightliner told me the parts weren’t coming in that day. I drove home. Crap.
  • Friday they called us and said they had the parts in hand and two hours later we were there. The tech installed the new parts and, after we had it all aired up, took some measurements and discovered the root cause of our problem. The ride height was out of spec (by 600 percent!) and had stretched the bags until they separated. At least we know. He made the adjustment and away we went. We now have 2 new airbags, a noticeably more comfortable ride, and the knowledge that my headlights work (we got home after dark for the first time).

This all may sound like a huge pain in the butt, and it was, but it was also a great learning experience under the best of circumstances. The coach was in a safe place (instead of on the side of some interstate), it was all under warranty, we discovered we can easily dry camp and we had no critical appointments or obligations that were impacted. At the end of the day, it was all good.

And the margaritas after we got home were all the more enjoyable for the experience!

Watching Notre Dame lose. Sorry Mike. Alafia River State Park, 12/29/18

This guy admired himself in my truck’s chrome for several days. Alafia River State Park, 12/29/19

Enjoying our reward. Viera, FL, 1/4/19

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After we left Markham Park, we went about 90 miles NW back to Ortona South. We were here last year and liked it enough to return. It was three days of mellow after the hustle and bustle of Ft. Lauderdale. We visited a bit with some friends who were also there, strolled the dam, and puttered about the RV fixing this and organizing that. Quite pleasant.

The big news, however, is that Fall finally fell. Markham had been very hot and the first couple of days at Ortona were hotter. We woke up our second morning to beautiful skies and temps that were BELOW 70! That may not seem cool to most of y’all, but it’s wonderful to folks that haven’t seen a temperature in the 60s since March. The rest of the trip we slept with the windows open. Perfect.

A big change that we recently implemented is that we are traveling with our cat, Nora. She’s an old lady and is adjusting slowly to this mobile life. But she is adjusting, which pleases us to no end. She has the run of the RV while we’re driving, which helps, but we still have to train her that under the steering column and behind the gas/brake pedals is not a place for a cat while driving. Otherwise, we have provided her with plenty of soft places to lay and/or hide, so she seems to be good.

We’re enjoying retirement more and more. Strongly recommend!

Morning coffee, Ortona South COE Campground, 10/20/2018

Entering the lock, Ortona South COE Campground, 10/20/2018

Gator guarding the lock, Ortona South COE Campground, 10/20/2018

Sybil at rest, Ortona South COE Campground, 10/20/2018

We just spent 3 nights at Markham Park, a Broward County park located on the western edge of the Fort Lauderdale area right against the Everglades. And is it ever a nice place. We were made aware of it via a respected blogger we follow (we’re looking at you Wheelingit) and are we ever glad we went. Our site was huge (most of the back half of the campground is like that) and backed up to the canal that separates the campground from the Glades. The park includes areas for mountain biking, RC Flying, RC Boating, a huge dog park (that was VERY popular) and an extensive target range. The range has facilities supporting both long and short guns, a skeet range and a “sport” skeet range that apparently involves wandering through the woods on a trail blasting away. Our site (which a park employee informed us was the “best in the campground”) was at the end near the range so we had the sound of gunfire all day, including one morning when the sound of extensive automatic weapons accompanied our morning coffee. Not our favorite sound but it didn’t last very long. Note: Wednesday morning is the day the Broward County sheriffs come out to play.

Our stay here was just fantastic. We saw our New York nephews who just happened to be in town. We also got together with some close friends who we haven’t seen in way too long. We biked along the berm that holds back the Everglades from civilization (or, more realistically, holds civilization back from the Everglades), saw a beekeeper doing his thing (just feet from our RV), dodged iguanas and even managed a wee bit of shopping at Ikea.

Oh, and it looks like there’s a wifi hotspot in each circle of 5 sites. We had 54Mbps download. Sweet.

Our greeter at Markham Park, 10/16/18, Sunrise, FL

The Everglades. Our site is directly behind this shot beyond the berm. 10/17/18, Markham Park, Sunrise, FL

Our site from the berm, 10/17/18, Markham Park, Sunrise, FL

Pointing to the Queen Bee, 10/17/18, Markham Park, Sunrise, FL

Scream! 10/17/18, Markham Park, Sunrise, FL

At work the other day I was offered an opportunity to get launch passes for the upcoming SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch. This was a big deal, since it was the first launch of this new vehicle. It’s also probably the last chance for Patti to come onto the base and get up close & personal with a launch viewing, since I’m now within a 12 month window to retirement. So we went for it.

We saw the launch today. It was pretty cool. We were among the closest civilians to the pad. Needless to say we were blown away. Also needless to say, I got some good shots. Enjoy.

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Lots of photographers were there. KSC, FL. 2/6/18

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Launch. KSC, FL. 2/6/18

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Liftoff, KSC, FL. 2/6/18

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Ascent, KSC, FL. 2/6/18

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Ascent, KSC, FL. 2/6/18

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Two of the three boosters descending. KSC, FL. 2/6/18

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There’s an old saying that goes: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” I have a nice example of that philosophy that occurred this weekend.

We headed down to a Corps of Engineers campground called Ortona South. It is located at some locks on the Caloosahatchee River between Lake Okeechobee and Fort Myers. It’s a beautiful campground with nice level sites and great views. We are continuing our familiarization with the RV, lounging and strolling the campground. We met the local otter family, watched boats passing through the locks and did some light biking. All in all, a very relaxing weekend.

This coach, as I described in my last post, has a very advanced electrical system that includes a built-in surge protector. Despite that, one of the first accessories I bought was a surge protector that sits between the power cord and the plug on the pedestal. It not only protects the RV’s electrical system from surges, it monitors the state and quality of the power being delivered and shuts down if the voltage is too high or low or if the receptacle is mis-wired. It seemed a bit redundant and I almost returned it when I realized how nice our coach was, but I decided that multiple levels of protection could only be a good thing.

I need to mention that when we have no power, we have an inverter that supplies AC power for the fridge and most, but not all, of the outlets. Last night when we went to bed, we left our phones plugged into one of the non-inverted outlets. At 4 AM, we woke up to the sound of power being applied to our phones (“ding”). That signified the return of our 50 amp service. Turns out the external surge protector had detected an over-voltage situation (>134V). It had automatically isolated the coach until the power returned to an acceptable level, potentially saving it from damage.

This took place on our second trip. As far as I’m concerned, the device already paid for itself. I think I’ll remain paranoid, at least about stuff I can control.

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Lady Sybil at Ortona South, 11/10/17

 

Boats queuing for the lock, Ortona South, 11/10/17

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The local family getting ready to dine, Ortona South 11/10/17

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Dinner, Ortona South, 11/10/17

There are many things that suck: gravity, taxes, the New York Yankees, but what I’ve been busy reacting to recently is aging. Now, don’t get me wrong, getting older certainly beats the alternative, but I’m still getting used to the fact that there are some things I can’t do anymore and, just as often, some things I don’t want to do anymore. One of the latter is why I bought my new camera. When we head out on trips where we’re hauling our gear on our backs (as compared to the back seat) weight has become more and more of an issue. With my old camera gear, I needed a dedicated, specialized bag to carry the body and two (or three) lenses. My minimal kit (Canon 7D, 10-22mm lens, 24-105 lens) came in at close to 8 lbs., and that’s without the other crap I need as support gear (back up disks, iPad, chargers, batteries, etc.). When we returned from our last overseas jaunt, I told Patti that before our next major trip I was buying a new camera. If you read my last post, you’ll know I did just that, picking up an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk2 which comes in under 2 lbs. Last time, I said I liked my new camera and the intervening months have only made me like it more and more.

It comes with a pretty hefty learning curve, however. It has been described as the most customizable camera currently on the market and the folks that say that aren’t kidding. I’ve been setting it up just the way I want it and, in order to figure out what the hell I’m doing, I even bought a book to explain the various options. It’s helped.

While trudging up this learning curve, I decided to exercise one of the advanced features this camera offers. It’s called the Hi Resolution mode, and here’s how it works. The camera normally takes a 16MP image. However, when it’s in the hi-res mode, it takes a 40MP image by taking 9 separate images, moving the sensor half a pixel in a different direction each time and then combining the images into one ginormous image. It needs to be on a tripod for this to work and the scene needs to be static since any movement would show up as a blur. The sweet spot for this is landscapes and, hey, we’re going to Switzerland this spring. There’s a pretty significant chance I’ll be taking a landscape or two. I thought I’d give it a test.

So, the other morning I took a couple of test shots from the parking lot at work. See the images below. The first one is a normal 16MP shot, the second a hi-res version. The camera was not moved between them (the slight differences between the two is due to a crop/straighten I did…the camera was uneven on the GorillaPod I was using). I was about 550 yards from the base of the building shooting at a 35mm equivalent 52mm.

16MP VAB, KSC, FL, 2/4/16

16MP VAB, KSC, FL, 2/4/16

Hi-Res VAB, KSC, FL, 2/4/16

Hi-Res VAB, KSC, FL, 2/4/16

Below are two extreme close ups of the flag. Note how, even without clicking on the image to zoom in, the stars are crisper and how you can now see the vertical grooves in the panels of the VAB in the high-res version. Sweet. This won’t be a feature I use every time, but it will be used.

I like my new camera. Still.

16MP Close up, VAB, KSC, 2/4/16

16MP Close up, VAB, KSC, 2/4/16

Hi-res Close up, VAB, KSC, 2/4/16

Hi-res Close up, VAB, KSC, 2/4/16

At least for us they weren’t. They were $18 for the two of us, and totally worth it.

We went camping up near Gainesville a few weeks ago to celebrate what we thought was the breaking of the long Florida summer. We were … mistaken. It was hot and humid with mosquitoes threatening to carry us away. This is not exactly an inducement to go hiking in what can accurately be described as swampland, so we hit the internet to see what else we could do under more comfortable circumstances. And by “comfortable” I mean “air-conditioned.” Gainesville, for those of you who don’t know, is the college town for the University of Florida. We discovered that it has both a Natural History and Art Museum on the campus (next door to each other, in fact) so we decided to get all cultural and check them out. Patti also read that the Natural History Museum had a butterfly garden that had received rave reviews so we put that on the list. Turns out both museums have free entry, but the butterfly garden cost $10 per person, $9 for Florida residents. We coughed up the $18, went through the airlock doors (to prevent the butterflies from escaping) and HOLY COW!

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

As soon as we walked in, we saw the photo to the right: a woman taking a selfie had a butterfly land on her screen. They were landing on kids, cameras, plants, railings, everywhere. There were thousands of them and they were beautiful. The actual walk through the garden isn’t very long, but we found ourselves just loitering about watching them, and watching the kids watching them. It was totally worth the price and an extremely enjoyable experience. It was also a LOT better than sweltering in the October Florida heat.

PS: I’m writing this on November 1st and we’re still waiting for things to cool off. <sigh>

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL, 10/10/15

"Gonzo", Eastern Screech Owl, Viera, FL, 4/11/15

“Gonzo” Eastern Screech Owl, Viera, FL, 4/11/15

"Owliver", Great Horned Owl, Viera, FL, 4/11/15

“Owliver” Great Horned Owl, Viera, FL, 4/11/15

"Bella", American Kestrel, Viera, FL, 4/11/15

“Bella” American Kestrel, Viera, FL, 4/11/15

I'll try (almost) anything once. Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/9/15

I’ll try (almost) anything once.
Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/9/15

During our week in Costa Rica we had a front row seat to some excellent surf, at least compared to what we’re used to seeing. I even dragged these bones out with my niece and nephew and took a lesson. I told the instructor that I will go out “until I hurt myself.” I was out for much longer than I expected. I was out for long enough.

The instructor told us that a big swell was heading our way on Thursday and that the spot where those in the know would be was just down the beach from our house, so I headed out there that morning and tried my hand at shooting surfers (in the photographic sense). It was fun. And, man those people had a good time too!

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

Playa Grande, Costa Rica, 3/12/15

When we finally determined that the bareboat cruise around the islands of French Polynesia was actually going to happen, we started researching the logistics of the issue. Patti eventually decided to talk to a travel agent (yup, there still is such a thing!) and we hooked up with Uschi at Crossroads Travel. We had several back and forth conversations where we discussed what we were doing (sailing with family & friends) and what the best way to execute would be. At one point Uschi said, “This is a bucket list trip, right? Then you need to spend some time ashore either before or after your sailing.” We gave that the thought process it deserved (about 20 seconds) and responded “OK!” And that is how we found ourselves at the Moorea Pearl Resort for three nights and, holy crap, was it ever the right decision.

Our (very) private pool, The Pearl Resort, Moorea, 9/25/14

Our (very) private pool, The Pearl Resort, Moorea, 9/25/14

One thing needs to be said up front: we are not usually “high end” travelers. It’s not like we scrimp on our comforts, but usually a clean room and decent meals meet our needs. That being the case, we can honestly state that a) the Pearl rocked and b) if we ever find our way to Moorea again we will be staying there again. The staff was exceptional, the facilities beyond comfortable (our room had a private pool!) and the meals delicious. There were enough recreational activities to satisfy the most energetic of guest (which was NOT us) and plenty to do on the island itself. We didn’t begin to touch the extent of the possibilities.

So what did we do with our three days on Moorea? Well, we took a 4×4 tour of the interior (more on this in the next post) during which I took a ton of beautiful shots, had a lovely sunset dinner at the Moorea Beach Cafe (yum!), spent a lazy morning under the big shade tree next to the Pearl’s infinity pool and wandered through the nearby village of Maharepa. A true highlight, not just of our time on Moorea but of the entire trip. was our dinner with Dr. Michael Poole and his lovely wife Mareva.

Before we left Florida we mentioned to some friends that we were going to Moorea. They said, “Oh, we have a friend there.” Turns out that our friend’s college roommate became a marine biologist, moved to Moorea many years before and is now the expert in French Polynesia on humpback whales and spinner dolphins. He offers eco-tours where he takes folks out to actually see the whales and is well known as the premier guy for this type of thing, so much so that Patti had already heard of him before we discovered this “small world” link. Although, due to circumstances out of anybody’s control, we couldn’t take the tour, Michael and Mareva picked us up at the Pearl, took us to the Hilton Resort where he gave a talk, and then we went out for a great meal and excellent conversation. One of my biggest regrets from the trip is that I took zero photos of this wonderful couple. Oh well, yet another reason to return.

After three days we flew to Raiatea and hooked up with our shipmates at the Hawaiki Nui Hotel, where we received an upgrade to an overwater bungalow! It was a beautiful experience to lie in bed and watch the sun rise over the Pacific. We had an interesting dinner with the entire crew, enjoyed a cocktail or two and got ready to board the boat!

Next time: inland on Moorea.

The Pearl Resort poolside, Moorea, 9/25/14

The Pearl Resort poolside, Moorea, 9/25/14

Patti chilling by the pool, The Pearl Resort, Moorea, 9/27/14

Patti chilling by the pool, The Pearl Resort, Moorea, 9/27/14

An over water bungalow, The Pearl Resort, Moorea, 9/27/14

An overwater bungalow, The Pearl Resort, Moorea, 9/27/14

Over water bungalows, The Hawaiki Hotel, Raiatea, 9/28/14

Overwater bungalows, The Hawaiki Hotel, Raiatea, 9/28/14

The Admiral & Captain on our deck, The Hawaiki Nui Hotel, Raiatea, 9/28/14

The Admiral & Captain on our bungalow deck, The Hawaiki Nui Hotel, Raiatea, 9/28/14

Poolside at the Hawaiki Hotel, Raiatea, 9/28/14

Poolside at the Hawaiki Hotel, Raiatea, 9/28/14

Sunrise over Huahine, Raiatea, 9/29/14

Sunrise over Huahine (in the distance) from our bungalow, Raiatea, 9/29/14