Santa Barbara, California and Channel Islands National Park

We decided to visit Santa Barbara after learning that there is an island National Park just off the coast. My cousin Sarah lives in Santa Barbara, and there are great wine regions nearby, so we had plenty of reasons to visit.

We stayed on the other side of the mountains from Santa Barbara, at Rancho Oso RV park. We stayed there because it is a Thousand Trails campground, and it was fine, except for a lack of cell service.

We met up with my cousin Sarah downtown, and she showed us the Santa Barbara courthouse, where she’ll be getting married soon. It’s a beautiful building, and we climbed the clock tower for a great view of Santa Barbara and the mountains.

Afterward, we walked down State street (the shopping district) to the wharf. Then we did a little wine tasting, and her fiance met us for dinner. It was a great time catching up!

Solvang is a Danish village in the Santa Ynez valley northeast of Santa Barbara. We went there for breakfast, and had Danish sausage and pancakes. We had a little time to kill before we visited a couple wineries, so we walked around the town and visited a Danish bakery where we bought… Danishes! For some reason, wineries don’t open until 10 or 11 am.

Brian had visited Demetria winery about 10 years ago, and liked it so much that he wanted to visit again. We didn’t have an appointment, but they fit us in since it was early on a weekday. The drive through the winery was picturesque, with the grapevines growing on the hills. The grapes weren’t growing yet, but the hills were much greener than usual, since the area had a lot of rain the week before. We tasted wine outside on the patio, the only ones there.

We also visited Riverbench winery, where we liked the wine, but not as much as Demetria. We called it a day after two wineries. Wine tasting is expensive, especially when we like the wine enough to buy some.

The last day of our visit we went to Channel Islands National Park. It’s made up of five islands, which are off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island are about an hour boat ride away. Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara Islands are further away. They have always been isolated from the mainland so they have unique ecosystems. The sea around the islands is a giant kelp forest.

We chose to visit Santa Cruz Island. It’s the biggest island (in Channel Islands and also in California, 96 square miles!), and has the most hiking trails. We booked a day trip on the Island Packers Ferry. Our boat left at 8 am, and it was foggy and chilly. We brought jackets and dressed in layers, and were glad we did, because we sat up top on the boat and it was windy! We saw a seal and a pod of dolphins on the way there.

We first went to the campground to look for Island Fox. They are native to the Channel Islands and so freakin’ cute. They are about the size of cats, and seemed to resemble their behavior at times.

We heard that we would definitely see some near the campground, where they try to steal food from people.

I’ll admit, after they cooperated with our photo shoot (they aren’t scared of people) I had to resist trying to coax one into my backpack. They are just the right size for a trailer pet!

When we finally tore ourselves away from the foxes, we went for a hike. There is a trail right on the coast of the island, that shows off the rocky cliff. Many days the mainland and all the other islands can be seen from the trail, but the day of our visit was foggy. It was fun to see the fog drift in and out, and climb right up the cliffs and wash over the hills.

We had a picnic lunch at Cavern Point, and when we sat down to eat we couldn’t see anything past the rock we were sitting on. After just a few minutes, the fog blew away and an amazing view popped out!

When we got to Potato Harbor, the view was mostly fog. We could hear a seal (ort ort ort!) but couldn’t see it.

We were planning to hike back on the inland trail, but the coastal trial was so nice that we took it back too. Even without a long view out to sea, there was plenty of beauty. Succulents and a large variety of plants grew on the cliffs, and some flowers were blooming.

A prescribed burn had gotten out of control a few days prior, and they cancelled trips to the island for two days before our trip was scheduled, so I was glad to be able to visit.

After we finished the trail, we went to the beach to crawl on the rocks and see what we could find. We found some crabs. I was following Brian out, and he hopped up on a rock just in time for a wave to come in and soak my feet! I had wet feet all the way home on the boat.

On the boat ride home, we saw the pod of dolphins again! There were hundreds of them, and they swam near the boat for probably 15 minutes. It was amazing to see them all jumping through the air. It was a great way to end our long, tiring day on Santa Cruz Island.

Day 548 | Mile 59,863

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Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park

Driving south out of Death Valley, we stopped at a market. We were in line to buy a loaf of freshly baked date bread, and a couple of ladies told us that the date farm where the bread was made is in Tacopa, just a few miles away. They also suggested we may not want to take the trailer down the steep winding road to the farm.

We didn’t have any cell service, but were able to follow their directions and signs to China Ranch Date Farm. There was a gravel lot at the top of the hill, where we unhitched the trailer. We went to the gift shop and bought date milkshakes (that were more like date blizzards), a date cookie, and two pounds of assorted dates. It’s a good thing I discovered I like dates. Brian thought it was so cool to be able to buy so many varieties of dates!

We boondocked inside Mojave National Preserve. We knew there were some other campers nearby, but we couldn’t see anyone around! It was really peaceful and quiet.

Mojave National Preserve is a big place that has volcanos, desert, sand dunes, and Joshua Tree forests. We went to the volcanic area to see a lava tube. It was only a short walk from the car to the entrance of the tube, and we passed small openings in the earth. We peaked inside and tried to guess how far down they went. When we got to the largest opening, I was relieved to find a ladder!

We passed four other people getting into the lava tube, but when we were down there, we had it all to ourselves. There was a squeeze where we had to bend over to fit through, but then it opened into a big room.

We could see the openings in the ground that we looked into before. They let light stream into the lava tube in beams. We were lucky to see the light beams, they kept disappearing and reappearing as clouds went overhead, until it eventually disappeared for good. It was actually raining a little bit when we left the lava tube.

It rained off and on throughout the day, but cleared up enough for Brian to make a fire and cook steaks over it for dinner. It was nice to sit out by a fire with no one around.

The next day we drove to another area of the park (Mohave is pretty big), to the Teutonic Peak area, where there is the densest Joshua Tree Forest. Joshua Trees are funny looking, with different shapes and sizes and numbers of branches. Seeing all the trees together almost looked a little grotesque. It was fun to look at each one, they seem to have different personalities, like Saguaro cactuses.

We climbed up on some of the rocks, and avoided stink bugs that showed us their butts when we walked by.

Before we left the park we stopped at the visitors center, which is a converted train station and a beautiful building.

We moved a few hours to Joshua Tree National Park, and boondocked on BLM land on the north side of the park. The area was basically a big field where many other people were parked too, but it was a great option for us. Near the park and free! And all the campgrounds in the park were full.

We were surprised to find out that Joshua Tree is such a busy and popular park. We went to the visitor center just outside the park, and the ranger warned us how busy it is during the whole month of March, because of spring break. We asked if there were any ways to avoid the crowds, and he recommended arriving very early, before sunrise, and then recommended all the most popular hikes/areas in the park. Maybe, due to the park’s relatively small developed area, there aren’t better ways to avoid the crowds.

We visited the park two days, and each day arrived at sunrise and left by noon or 1 pm. In the mornings we heard and saw birds, and once heard a whole pack of coyotes going nuts. We aren’t morning people, but the colorful sunrise on the second day made getting up early worth it.

The two most popular attractions in the park are Joshua Trees and rocks, and we saw a lot of both. The Joshua Trees in this park looked healthier and fuller than the ones at Mohave.

The granite rock formations at Hidden Valley were fun to crawl up on. We thought we would just do the one mile hike pretty quickly, but it was so nice there, and pretty quiet so early in the morning, so we took our time.

We also did the Split Rock Trail and the Cap Rock Nature Trail, which were also pretty short easy hikes, but Hidden Valley was our favorite.

At the overlook at Keys View we could see down into the Coachella Valley.

Joshua Tree National Park includes both Colorado desert and Mohave desert, which are very different. The Colorado desert is lower and hotter than the Mohave Desert, and contains spikier plants. There is an area called the Cholla Cactus Garden, that is full of cactus.

While we were in Death Valley, our truck started going into limp mode. It had been happening more and more, so we wanted to get it fixed before we had to tow again. The Ford dealer in the area couldn’t get us in until the day after we were planning to leave, but they did have a throttle body in stock. Since this was the part that needed replaced last time we had this problem, Brian bought the part and installed it himself. So far, it seems to have fixed the problem!

Day 542| Mile 59,185

Death Valley National Park

We tried to make good time getting to Death Valley, but it still took us three and a half days to drive the 2,100 miles. The first couple days through the Midwest were pretty boring, but it got a whole lot more pretty once we passed Denver. Driving on I70 through Colorado and Utah showed off snow-capped mountains and dramatic canyons.

By the time we made it to the park we were so ready to get out and explore. Most of the campgrounds in Death Valley are no reservation, no hookup campgrounds, and rarely all fill up. We camped at Sunset campground in the Furnace Creek area. Furnace Creek is the heart of the park because it is a natural oasis, in the dry valley.

Death Valley is an extreme place. It is the largest National Park in the United States, outside of Alaska. It also has the lowest point in North America, and is one of the hottest places in the world. The valley is entirely surrounded by mountains, and the hot dry air gets trapped, and keeps getting hotter. Fortunately in March the temperature usually gets into the high 70s during the day, and 50s at night.

It is so dark in Death Valley at night. It felt especially dark after spending three nights in Walmart parking lots. The wind howled the first few nights. I don’t think we’ve been in stronger sustained winds! We assumed the tired people we saw in the park were tent camping.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, and it’s what I thought of when I thought of Death Valley. It’s a salt flat, and we walked out into it until the salt and mud formed a hexagon pattern.

There are several areas of salt flats, some looked even saltier. Tasted salty too!

We found the Devil’s Golf Course even more interesting. The salt and mud have formed knee-high spikey knobs, that are strong enough to walk on. We walked out on them, and it was pretty tricky to stay upright. There was a warning posted that if you fall on them, they will cut you!

Erosion of the mountains creates sand, and there are a couple of areas where the sand is trapped, making sand dunes.

We walked into the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, and avoided the popular trail up the biggest dune to have more solitude. Sometimes we would step on hard packed sand, and other times sink right in.

The morning after a few days of strong winds they looked pristine. The wind left such interesting patterns in the sand.

It was fun to find animal tracks, and try to guess who had left them.

Desolation Canyon is behind an area called “Artist’s Palette” because the canyons are made up of multicolored rocks in pastel pink and blue. We hiked over three miles round-trip into the canyon.

After we hiked about a mile and a half of the trail, there was a side trail that went up a hill. We went up, and Brian pointed to the tallest peak around, and said we were going up that. I said no, but he talked me into it. About two thirds of the way up, I panicked. Some combination of the howling winds, dizzying height, and crumbling ground got to me. I basically clutched the trail and refused to move. Brian talked me into scooting myself the rest of the way.

The view from the top was breathtaking, but it was hard to enjoy it too much, knowing I still had to make my way down. I scooted down the whole way on my butt, stopping to panic again in about the same spot.

It was not the most graceful I’ve ever been, but at least I had an audience of 6 other hikers who stopped and sat down to watch. I’d love to say that I’m glad I did it, and it was worth it in the end, but nope. I think it was dumb. No view is worth risking falling off a mountain! Brian disagrees. People clearly climb up it, there were a few footholds carved into it, but it wasn’t established enough of a trail to make me comfortable that it was safe.

Death Valley has had native people living in it for thousands of years. There are petrogylphs remaining. In the 1800s, during the gold rush in California, homesteaders and miners came through the area, and it was used for mining. Some silver mining was done, and they made charcoal in kilns to use in the smelters. Ten 25 foot high kilns were built in 1877 and only used for a couple years.

Borax was mined in Death Valley starting in the 1880s. We went to a ranger talk at Harmony Borax Mine. Before it started, Brian questioned whether I really wanted to listen to a talk about Borax mining. It is surprising that I voluntarily seek out things that I would’ve found so boring if my parents had made me do them as a kid. It was an interesting talk! We learned that ’20 Mule Team Borax’ was transported out of Death Valley on wagons pulled by 18 mules and 2 horses, and the trip took 30 days round trip. It’s hard to believe it took so much work to make laundry detergent.

We drove on the unpaved high clearance road through Warm Springs Canyon. It was about 14 miles out to the remains of a White Point Mine, and we saw burros on the way. The mine remains were interesting to see, but it’s surprising that when a mine closes, they don’t have to remove everything.

Aside from the burros, and some lizards, the only other wildlife we saw were the endemic Salt Creek Pupfish. A boardwalk took us passed the creek, and the fish that live there are tiny, only about an inch long. They live in this one extremely isolated shallow creek, and can survive the large range of winter and summer temperatures.

We also drove Titus Canyon road, an unpaved, thankfully one-way road. It climbs up a plateau, and over Red Pass (where the dirt is red), and down into Titus Canyon. Tall walls came up around us, and there was barely room for a car to make it through. It’s hard to believe the canyon is passable by car.

After driving Titus Canyon road, we ended up in the middle of the park, so we went north to see Ubehebe Crater. The view from the parking lot was so nice, and the wind had picked up again, so we skipped the hike around the crater’s rim.

We spent about five days at Death Valley, and we filled long days to see as much of it as we could. We were amazed at not only the vastness of the park, but also the beauty. Every direction had towering mountains on the horizon and something fascinating right in front of us.

Day 537| Mile 58,450

Key Largo, Florida

This was our first repeat visit, and the reservation we planned the farthest ahead for! Since we knew we were going to Florida to visit Disney (thanks to Brian’s sister’s planning), we decided to go to the Keys again. The state parks in the Keys book up SO fast, that we really had to hustle for this reservation. We made it 11 months in advance, and woke up at 5 am (darn time zones) three days in a row to get a spot. We literally had a single chance to click at the perfect time each morning to get one of the available sites.  It was very satisfying when we were able to reserve 13 nights at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The state park has full hookups, and at half the price of a private campground in the area, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular.

Because we had our visit planned in advance, we arranged for my mom to come visit! She joined us for the second half of our stay. We were feeling pretty tired from Disney and we’d already explored the area, so we took it easy until Mom arrived. Also, it was windy the first half of the week, so the conditions weren’t good for snorkeling or fishing. The one thing we did a lot of is eat seafood. Brian cooked whole tilefish, whole lionfish, and snapper filets. We also went to Island Grille for tuna nachos, and recreated a version at home.

We went on a hike in Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park (otherwise known as DJKLHBSP to the locals), which is right next to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We got a permit to hike on the backcountry trails, but when we got there, we learned that the trails were all paved roads, except for a short section that went towards the coast. At the end of the trail, there was a bunch of trash. It must’ve blown in from the hurricane. It was kind of shocking to see, and really made me think about where our trash ends up. There was a toilet seat hanging in a tree, lots of buoys and other fishing gear, and all kinds of plastic containers that were swept around in the ocean long enough to have all their labels scrubbed off.

We did see damage from Hurricane Irma across the Keys, more in the south. A lot is cleaned up, but many signs were missing, and a lot of construction is going on.

We rented kayaks at John Pennekamp, and went kayaking through the mangroves. It was a little tricky because the wind tried to blow us into the trees, and the narrow trails were two-way. We took a chance on a double kayak, even after being told that they are also known as ‘divorce kayaks’. We managed to operate it pretty well, and I only considered jumping out and swimming back once or twice.

We drove to West Palm Beach to see my friend Carly who was visiting her family. I vastly underestimated Miami traffic, and what I thought would be a 2.5 hour drive took us about 4 hours. It was great to see her, and her family was so nice. They showed us around their beautiful house and sun porch, introduced us to their dogs, and we had cuban takeout and talked. It was a great night.

After my mom came to visit, we picked up the pace and saw a lot. The first day we drove to the north side of the Everglades and took the Shark Valley Tram Tour.

The tram tour is a great way to see alligators and lots of birds including great blue heron, egrets, ibis, and anhinga. We saw a baby gator (babies have yellow stripes) and a nest of baby anhinga. After the tram tour we drove into the main entrance of the park and walked on the boardwalk at the Anhinga Trail.

We visited Robert is Here fruit stand to buy exotic fruits and a few of their delicious smoothies. We bought guanabana, papaya, black sapote, key limes, and passionfruit to make more smoothies.

The next day we drove from Key Largo at the north end of the Florida Keys, 100 miles down to Key West, which is the southernmost tip of the Keys. We ate sandwiches at Cuban Coffee Queen, while a stray rooster stalked our crumbs, and then popped into shops as we walked to the Hemingway House.

Brian snuck off to have a cigar while mom and I toured Ernest Hemingway’s house. The tour guide told us about Hemingway’s life and wives, and his time in Key West in the 1930s. All through the house and property were six-toed cats that are descendants from Hemingway’s cat. There are now 54 cats on the property. They are a major part of the experience, yet a tour guide didn’t seem amused when I told her I was just there for the cats.

After the tour we met back up with Brian at Blue Heaven where we had a couple drinks and mile-high key lime pie before we walked to Mallory Square for the sunset celebration. Then we drove home the 100 miles and saw a couple Key Deer on Big Pine Key.

The next day Brian hired a guide and went fly fishing in the shallow flats between southern florida and the Keys. He fished for tarpon, and saw some and cast to them, but didn’t get any to bite. He did catch a few speckled sea trout, which made a tasty dinner!

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Mom and I had better luck with tarpon! We drove to Islamorada and ate lunch at the Hungry Tarpon, and then we bought a bucket of fish to feed to the tarpon. We managed to get a few fish to the tarpon and jacks, and a few fish were taken by the pelicans, one right out of my hand! The pelicans are so aggressive there!

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The best part was when a manatee swam right up to the pier to see what we were doing. He (or she) seemed really interested in us! A few people pet it, and I tried so hard, but my arm wasn’t quite long enough. One woman thought her toddler wanted to meet the manatee so she dangled him head first by his feet down off the pier. He screamed! Others tried to feed it fish, which it ignored, since manatees (sea cows) eat grass (obviously).

Afterward we went to the Wild Bird Sanctuary. We took mom to a lot of the same places we enjoyed going to when we visited last year. We didn’t make it to the turtle hospital on Marathon this time, there are so many good wildlife experiences in southern Florida! We also checked out the artists’ village and its giant lobster.

The activity I was most interested in was snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Brian and I did this last year, but it was windy and the sea was choppy and we didn’t see much. This time the conditions were much better. We signed up for the extended snorkeling trip (4.5 hours), but they didn’t get 10 people to sign up for it, so we ended up on the 2.5 hour regular trip. I don’t know why the extended trip isn’t more popular! So, we snorkeled on the Grecian Rocks reef, and it was great! The water was so clear and there were fish everywhere. We saw barracuda, parrotfish, snapper, hogfish, small colorful reef fish, all kinds of coral. I must’ve brushed some fire coral with my forearm and it stung afterward. Mom and I wore new full face snorkels, which were so easy to breathe in. Brian wore goggles and a nose plug, so he didn’t have to shave his beard this time. He did cut it short though, to help with the Florida heat.

We had a great visit with my mom. Unfortunately, the first day of her visit, while we were on the Everglades Tram Tour, someone got into our truck and stole two brand new camera lenses and some other things. We just bought a fancy new camera and three lenses, and having things stolen from us was really upsetting. Fortunately, we had the camera body and most expensive lens, our phones, and our wallets with us. Also, we have full-timer insurance (from Foremost) on the trailer, which acts like a homeowners policy, so it covered the loss. Having things stolen from us has made me a bit more uneasy with leaving things in our truck or trailer.

Our time on the Keys with my mom flew by, and when it was time to go, we drove up to Gainesville, Georgia with my mom to visit my cousins Don and Diane. We had a great visit and were very well-fed for a few days to finish off our February of Family Fun! When we left Georgia, we were planning to head west, but instead headed back to Michigan to attend a funeral. Then we will be off to the west!

Day 518| Mile 54,319

Disney World!

Brian’s sister Erin planned a trip to Disney World for our niece Quinn’s fourth birthday, and invited us to join them!

Erin booked sites in Disney’s Fort Wilderness campground a year and a half ago. Brian’s parents came too, and camped in their new motorhome, so we had three campsites in a row. They also rented a golf cart, which made it much easier to get around the huge campground. There is a bus line in the campground, that we took a few times.

The first evening we went to a campfire and singalong in the campground and Chip and Dale were there! Quinn played with other kids and made friends.

The next day we went shopping at Disney Springs because I couldn’t go to Disney World without mouse ears. In the evening we went to the Hoop de Doo Revue, which is a family-style fried chicken and ribs dinner, with a western musical show. Dinner was delicious, and the singing and dancing were fun to watch.

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We bought four-day park tickets, and spent two days in Magic Kingdom, a day in Epcot, and a day in Animal Kingdom.

The first thing we did in Magic Kingdom was take Quinn to get her princess makeover at the Bibbity Bobbity Boutique. She was excited to pick out a princess dress and get her hair, makeup, and nails done by her fairy godmother.

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We met princesses, went on the Small World ride, and watched the Mickey’s Philharmagic Concert, which was really cute. We rode the Seven Dwarves Mine Ride, and it was a bit faster and more roller coaster-y than I expected. Quinn was not pleased. I would’ve been scared of it, had I known what it was like. I have about the same tolerance of roller coasters as a 4 year old. I got worse about rides, too, as the trip went on. I asked the employees working the lines if the rides were scary, or how bad the drops were. I think they all assumed I was asking for Quinn. Nope, I am actually that much of a wuss.

We ate at Be Our Guest, the restaurant in Beast’s Castle, and we did the Belle experience, which was interactive. Brian was a knight.

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We took a break in the afternoon, and came back later and rode the Peter Pan ride, the Little Mermaid ride, met Ariel, and rode the Dumbo ride and the tea cups. Brian and Andrew made themselves dizzy.

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The next day we went to Epcot and it was so hot and there wasn’t much shade. We had breakfast in Norway and enjoyed riding the Frozen ride and meeting Elsa and Anna. We walked through a few of the countries before we overheated and went back to camp to rest.

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We came back later, and the countries were so crowded! We did some of the classic rides, which are a bit dated. We liked the Finding Nemo ride. The International Festival of the Arts was taking place, and we ate at a couple of the food stands and “appreciated art”.

We ate fish and chips in England and watched the fireworks and the light show on the lake. We had the most fun at Epcot at night!

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We liked Animal Kingdom more than we expected to! We ate breakfast at the Tusker House with Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and Daisy! It was cute meeting the characters in their safari outfits. The best part was when Quinn told Daisy she was her favorite.

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Then we went to Pandora and rode the Flight of Passage ride. We were lucky (which really means, Erin planned well) to have fast passes for this ride, because the line got up to four hours long! It was a great ride! It was a virtual reality ride, which I prefer (because I’m a huge wuss). It really felt like we were flying!

We boarded jeeps for the animal safari and rafts for a water ride. We watched the Bug’s Life show in the Tree of Life, and no one liked it when it felt like bugs were crawling on us! The Lion King show was really good.

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Pandora was really beautiful, Brian and I decided to stay after the rest of the family left and see it after dark. At night there was a light show projected onto the Tree of Life.

Our last day in a park was Valentines Day, and we went back to Magic Kingdom. It was cooler than the other days (high 70s rather than 80s) and it felt really nice. We started the day with breakfast in Cinderella’s castle. Quinn wore the beautiful Snow White dress that Peggy made for her, which was the perfect outfit for meeting all the princesses. Before we ate, we got to meet Cinderella and Prince Charming.

We were crossing the park when we ran into a parade with a dance party!

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We rode the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and Aladdin’s magic carpet ride, and visited the Tiki Room, where we heard the only song that stuck in our heads worse than “it’s a small world, after all” (“At the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room…”). We rode the monorail and cars in Tomorrowland. The monorail goes into Space Mountain, which is all dark, and just being near the roller coaster made me nervous!

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Brian’s family left midday for a break, but Brian and I stayed. We saw the afternoon parade, which was a series of colorful floats that filled me with Disney spirit!

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We visited the Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor, which is a comedy show where the animated characters interact with the audience. As we were filing in, Brian wanted to switch seats with me so I could see better, which put me on the aisle. As soon as they started shining a spotlight on people and asking them questions, I got nervous. The very first question was asked to the girl sitting behind me, and for a second I thought the light was shining on me. The relief I felt when I realized it wasn’t was replaced with panic when they called on me! There were probably at least a hundred people watching the show, so I really didn’t think I was likely to be called on. I think I did okay while I let a monster “read my mind” and guess the number I was thinking of ( though Brian tells me I should’ve picked pi).

We ate a fancy dinner at the Skipper’s Canteen before meeting back up with the family for the Magic Kingdom light show. It was definitely worth sticking around for the light show, which is projected onto the castle. We all loved it!

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There are Photo Pass photographers throughout the parks that took pictures and link them to our account. Erin bought all ours in advance, so I made sure to stop at as many as possible. I think I had the most fun with this, I just love photos! The most fun was the “magic photos” where they took our picture, and added something to them afterward.

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We ate some tasty food in Disney! We weren’t expecting too much, because a few years ago we went to Universal Studios, and the food wasn’t impressive. I think the rides are better at Universal Studios, but the food, parades, characters, and overall experience at Disney can’t be beat!

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We tried to do Disney on a 4 year old’s schedule, and Erin did a great job of planning breakfasts as the main event of the day, and planning in rest breaks mid-day. But, Disney is not a easy place, and it tires out even the most active kid! She had such a good time until she couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore, now matter how hard she tried.

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The last day of our trip we didn’t go to a park. Quinn took a pony ride, and we went to the campground pool, and Brian and Andrew took Quinn fishing. We had dinner and many drinks at the Cuban restaurant at Disney Springs, and Quinn danced!

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Brian liked Disney more than he expected to. It’s kind of like a kid-friendly Las Vegas. It was a really great week of Disney family fun!

Day 505 | Mile 52,209

Tampa, Florida

Our first destination in 2018 was to visit my uncle in Tampa, Florida.

It was great to get out of the winter cold. We didn’t expect to see much wildlife in the metropolis of Tampa, but we saw some cool birds in the ponds at my uncle’s subdivision. I was looking out the window of his house when I saw a bird dive straight for the water, and come up with a big fish in its talons! We also saw a Roseate Spoonbill. We searched and searched for them in the Everglades last year, and only saw them flying far away.

We spent most of the time hanging out with my uncle and making repairs and adjustments to his house against his will. He was a good sport about it. We watched the Kitten Bowl and the Puppy Bowl and the Super Bowl, checked out the local flea market, and went out to eat most nights, our favorite place was a seafood restaurant called Catch 23. The stuffed grouper was so good, we went back a second time to get it again!

My uncle has a membership to the Florida aquarium, so we went one day around 1 pm. He thought we’d have enough time there before they closed, but he’s never been to an aquarium with Brian, who took his time at every exhibit. Since it was actually cheaper to add a second guest to his membership than to buy one ticket, we came back the next day to make sure the exhibits were fully explored. We went on a dolphin watching cruise, saw a 4D movie about ocean predators, met a penguin (they have 9 penguins, but no exhibit for them yet), and spent a lot of time with the birds. Guess what they have at the aquarium? Roseate Spoonbills!

There are only two campgrounds close to my uncle’s house, and one was full so that made our decision for us! The campground with availability was Silver Dollar RV Resort. It is part of the Thousand Trails Collection, so we bought an annual membership to Thousand Trails to give us a big discount on this campground. Thousand Trails is kind of like a time share for camping. It’s not cheap to join, and there are rules and things to figure out, so we probably wouldn’t have joined, except the savings on our 9-night stay in Tampa paid for more than half of it. The campground was nice enough, the spots were a bit tight, but it was fun to step out our door and see the golf course’s driving range. The strange thing was that someone turned off our water connection 3 or 4 times! They must’ve thought our tank was leaking, but it was condensation from the air conditioning.

We had a great visit with my uncle. Next stop is Disney World!

Day 498 | Mile 52,086

Home for the Holidays, and all of January

We spent our 2017 holidays in Brighton Rec Area, just like last year. The day after we arrived in early December, we visited the Christmas tree farm with Brian’s family. We found our tree in the “Charlie Brown Tree” section for $12! It wasn’t scraggly at all, but it was pretty fat at the bottom, which would probably make it tough to use inside. It worked great for us though!

We decorated the trailer, inside and out, pretty much just like last year. It was much easier the second time around!

We had a great Christmas, with much less illness this year! Brian was sick for a few days, but I managed not to catch it. We spent the time before Christmas shopping, wrapping, decorating, and seeing family and friends.

After Christmas it got so cold! It got down to -13 degrees Fahrenheit at night. We bought a space heater, which helped keep it warm in the trailer, and we refilled a propane tank about every other day to run the furnace. Both propane pigtails started leaking one after the other, but we were fortunately able to find suitable replacements at an RV dealer nearby.

We did have to move once, in our 45 days at Brighton Rec Area, to dump the tanks. It was 12 degrees and windy, but the forecast was calling for single digit temperatures coming up, and our tanks were full. With our Christmas lights still attached, Brian towed over to the dump station to find that the tank release valves on the Airstream were frozen shut! We had to drive back to our campsite, plug in the electricity, and put the space heater under the trailer, pointing up at the valves. After about an hour and a half, it thawed enough to be open, and we headed back to the dump station. The dump station was disgusting. It wasn’t well maintained by the park and froze shut, so people just dumped their shit on top of it.

We love spending the holidays with our family and friends, and sitting in our warm trailer watching the snow fall can be really cozy, but winter camping is decidedly less glamorous. Brian still enjoys it, since he is basically a polar bear.

We didn’t plan ahead when we would leave town in January, and had a long list of things to do before we left. We kept extending our stay, until we eventually stayed through all of January! We were stuck in Michigan for two months last holiday season while our truck was getting fixed, and this year we voluntarily stayed nearly as long.

The time went by fast, but sometimes we felt a little too retired. We’d go out to get propane and water, and end up wandering around Walmart for an hour and forgetting why we went there in the first place.

But, being home meant we had more time with family and friends, and were home for New Years Eve, my cousin’s wedding shower, a friend’s baby shower, my birthday, and our nephew’s first birthday!

Brian also made time to go ice fishing! He spent two days sitting on frozen Lake St. Clair, catching perch.

We were also able to shop and have things delivered. We do miss online shopping on the road. One downside of living in a small space is that we seem to obsess a bit about buying things. We don’t want to buy the wrong thing, so we do too much research.

We ordered a new mattress for the trailer online. It’s a Short Queen, but doesn’t have the rounded corners that our original trailer mattress had. It’s also heavier. We lift the bed up often to access the under bed storage, so hopefully this one won’t be too heavy, and will be more comfortable.

We noticed some mildew forming under the bed, from the condensation caused by living in a freezer. We bought Aire Flow (aka HyperVent), a material made of a web of polymer strands, to put between the mattress and the bed platform. Brian also removed the platform, painted it, and drilled some holes in it for air flow. Moisture managed, hopefully.

Before we left Brighton, we took down the decorations and burned the Christmas tree. Christmas trees throw off some pretty cool sparks when they burn.

We had a great stay in Michigan, but it’ll be nice to get back on the road and thaw out!

Day 488| Mile 50,491

Mammoth Cave National Park

On our way home for the holidays we spent a day at Mammoth Cave National Park in central Kentucky. Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world, with more than 400 miles of cave discovered so far.

We took two cave tours to explore different parts of the cave. They offer many tours, we picked the Historic Tour and the Domes and Dripstones Tour, both were about 2 hours.

The Historic Tour enters the cave through the historic natural entrance. We like entering through a natural entrance (rather than an elevator or man-made stairwell entrance) when possible because it helps us understand where we are in the cave and it’s also fun to think about the people that first discovered the caves, and what their experience was like. This cave has several natural and man-made entrances.

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Mammoth Cave has been explored for over 200 years. Evidence of pre-historic Native American activity in the cave has also been found. On the Historic Tour, we learned about the saltpeter mining operations that took place using slave labor during the War of 1812, to produce gunpowder.

After it’s use as a mine, but before Mammoth Cave became a National Park in 1941, it was used for tourism by private owners of the land above the cave. Stephan Bishop was a slave who led tours in the cave in the 1840s and 1850s , and made many discoveries within the cave. He was the first person to cross the “Bottomless Pit”. During this time, (and after), a lot of graffiti was added to the cave. Ash from candles was used to write names on the ceiling. I was surprised at how much graffiti we saw in the cave.

This tour went through several huge halls and rooms. Mammoth Cave was formed in limestone, but there is a capstone of sandstone over top of it, so water is unable to get in, and there aren’t many flowstone formations (stalagmites, stalactites, etc).

We also went through a few more restrictive areas. The first is called Fat Man’s Misery, where the walls closed in up to our waists, which is followed by Tall Man’s Agony, where the ceiling came down low. I loved all the old-timey names of features and locations in the cave.

At the end of this tour, we had to climb several flights of stairs to get back up to the level we started, and then walked back out the natural entrance. Even with all the stairs and restricted areas, there were no warnings when we bought our tour tickets.

The second tour started with a bus ride to the middle of the woods, and entered through a creepy cement phone-booth. Before we went in, we got our first and only warning of the day. We were told that we would see long-legged creatures in the cave, but don’t be alarmed, they aren’t spiders. They are cave crickets!

Brian spent a decent amount of the tour trying to photograph cave crickets, while everyone else was squirming away from them. They gave most of us the willies, because they were hard to spot until we were right next to them, and they started moving. There were a lot, crawling all over the walls and ceiling!

The first part of the Domes and Dripstones tour showed off the domes, which were tall (or deep) structures.

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The last part of the tour was through an area where there is a break in the sandstone capstone over the cave, and water has been able to enter the cave, creating the Frozen Niagara structure.

At the end of the tour, just as we were about to leave the cave, a ranger overheard Brian talking excitedly about the cave crickets, and shined her flashlight in an area where she expected them to be, and there were a ton of cave crickets all over the ceiling! It was creepy, so of course Brian loved it.

After Mammoth Cave we spent a few days near Frankfort, Kentucky. We camped at Lake Shelby Campground, which only had a handful of campsites. We did some bourbon shopping for Christmas presents, and took one distillery tour. We did all the big distilleries a few years ago, but visited Buffalo Trace again to take the Hard Hat Tour. The tours and tastings at Buffalo Trace are free, and the Hard Hat Tour wasn’t available when we were there last. It was a good tour, but the production areas we visited were loud, and at times we couldn’t hear the tour guide. The tasting (especially the bourbon ball) was my favorite part!

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Day 435 | Mile 45,682

Nashville, Tennessee

Between Georgia and Nashville, we went a bit out of the way to visit Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. Country ham is pretty salty, but we’ve learned to like it. Our quick visit to the Benton’s shop was great. It’s a no-frills place, stuffed with smoked and aged meat. Brian got a Tennessee souvenir.

We spent a week in Nashville, staying at the KOA on the east side of Nashville near the Opryland Hotel. It was pretty easy to get into Downtown Nashville, about 15 minutes away. Thanks to a tip from fellow travelers, we parked near the Titans Stadium (in lot R) and walked across the pedestrian bridge to get to downtown. We loved this! In addition to free parking (which we always love), walking across the bridge was fun and had great views of the city!

We aren’t big country music fans, but when in Nashville! We bought tickets to the Grand Ole Opry. Until planning our visit, we actually didn’t realize that the Grand Ole Opry is a show rather than a venue, that’s how much we know about country music. The Grand Ole Opry is the longest running radio show in America (since 1925), and is essentially a country music variety show, with each band performing two or three songs.

The Opry performs at the Opry House three times a week, but in the winter it moves to the Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman Auditorium was built as a church in 1892 and called the Union Gospel Tabernacle. From 1943 to 1974, the Opry was performed at the Ryman Auditorium, which became known as “the mother church of country music”.

We thought it was fun to see the Opry in its historic theatre, but church pews aren’t the comfiest concert seats. The balcony was sold out by the time we bought tickets, and it comes way down over the floor seats, somewhat blocking the view.

The performers the night we went to the Opry included Old Crow Medicine Show, and a bunch of other singers we’d never heard of. The show was honoring the 25th year of Marty Stuart’s membership in the Grand Ole Opry, so he performed and brought many guests to perform with him, including his wife Connie Smith, who is also a country music singer. My favorite guest that he brought was his mother, who came out and played the guitar with him for a song.

We didn’t visit the Opry House, but we did stop next door at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center to check out the Christmas decorations. There is a fountain there, and Brian was watching it while I was in the bathroom. When I came out, he swore that it went really high. We watched it for probably half an hour, and I thought he was making it up, but eventually it did shoot high into the air!

Because we aren’t country music fans, we skipped the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but we did go into the building it is in to visit and tour Hatch Show Print, which is a historic letterpress poster shop. It has been around since 1879, producing posters to advertise the many country music shows in the city. It was previously located on Broadway, but moved to the Country Music Hall of Fame when their building was renovated, since they are now owned by the museum.

We got to Hatch Show Print just before the last tour of the day. I anxiously asked if there were tickets available, and yes, yes there were. In fact, we were the only ones on the tour! I guess 3 pm on a Tuesday isn’t the most popular time. They also seemed a little surprised we were interested, asking “So… are you guys artists?” Nope, we just like to see how things are made.

The first part of the tour was a description of the printing process, near the presses, which were in use at the time. A guy was running off posters that looked like a calendar, and a woman was carving a vintage car and trailer, free-hand. They showed us some of the old letters, still in use (they don’t add any new letters to the collection, the worn/distressed look comes about honestly), and deconstructed a poster into its components and described how it was printed.

The second part of the tour took place in their design studio, where they went through the history of Hatch Show Print, and we got to add the final color to a souvenir print. We enjoyed the tour, and really enjoyed shopping at the store!

For another live-music Nashville experience, we went to a Honky Tonk on Broadway. We went to Robert’s Western World, with the thought that we would try a few different places on the block, but we liked Robert’s so much we stayed all night. We went on a Thursday, and it was busy, but this street was crazy on the weekend!

We also saw my second cousin, Sharon, and met her husband Steve and kids. They had us over to their house for a delicious dinner, and came over to see our trailer too! It was so nice to connect with family that I hadn’t seen in too long!

Day 432 | Mile 45,201

Visiting Family in Gainesville, Georgia

The day after Thanksgiving we headed to Gainesville, Georgia to see my cousins Don and Diane, and their family. We parked the trailer in their driveway, and stayed in their beautiful house. Our bedroom for the weekend was about four times the size of our trailer!

On Saturday the whole family came over (Don and Diane’s kids and grandkids), we put on our red and black for the Georgia Bulldogs, and watched college football. The girls went out to get manicures and pedicures to celebrate my cousin Kelly’s new baby, coming soon!

Afterward Don grilled steaks and we ate a delicious meal.

We even got to pretend we had pets, hanging out with Eli and Remy. It only bothered me a little that they seemed to prefer Brian!

The next day Don and Diane took us around Atlanta to see the sights. We first went to Stone Mountain, which is an 825 foot tall exposed granite mountain near Atlanta. It was once a quarry, now the state of Georgia owns it. There are a lot of attractions, including a skyline ride up to the top of the mountain, nature trails, a lake, laser light show, and this time of year there’s a toboggan ride on fake snow.

We took the skyline ride to the top, where there was a great view of Atlanta. The stone is all potholed and it feels like walking on the moon.

Oh, and there’s also a huge confederate monument carved into the side of the mountain. Started in the 1920s, it changed hands and sculptors over time until the state of Georgia bought the land and it was completed in 1970. The original sculptor (Gutzon Borglum) went on to sculpt Mount Rushmore, but his work on this carving was removed by the next sculptor. It’s the largest relief carving in the world.

Afterward we drove around downtown Atlanta, and ate at the Varsity, a Georgia institution. The grilled pimento cheese sandwich was great!

We had a great time seeing my cousins, and it was so nice of Don and Diane to have us in their home and show us around!

Day 424| Mile 44,674