Monday, December 31, 2007

2007: It's A Wrap

J.C. Levendecker's Dec 28, 1907 cover for the Saturday Evening Post

Having this year of 2007 come to an end is like sliding into home in game 7 of the World Series, bottom of the ninth, score tied, and hearing the Umpire scream, “SAFE!” as the crowd (Red Sox fans, no doubt) erupts into a deafening roar. That’s how good, how exciting this first year of being full time in the coach has been for us. Like the “ball game,” there were moments when we were ahead of things and times when we were trailing a bit, but there was never a lull in the action, and the excitement of our adventures built right to the very end. It’s a WIN. So on New Year’s Eve (tonight as I write this), it will be “Game Over” for this year…..But wait ‘til next season! We’re looking to repeat!

It is so incredibly tempting for me to list all the travels, the precious moments, the scary episodes, the majestic vistas, and good times with old and new friends alike - but you are already reading the blog and so you have all that before you if you care to scroll down or dip into the archives. So rather than detailing the year all over again, let me present a “book report” summary.

We visited a grand total of 32 of the 50 states in the good old US of A in this, our very first year. On the left side of the blog page at the top you will find the colored in map of those states. When you hear people tell you that we live in a beautiful country, believe it, whether you have availed yourself of the opportunity to get out there and see it yet or not. You will find all that you expect from the places that are known to you before you set out, but there is great beauty in the discovery of things and places and sights that are unknown to you. Adventures unanticipated are marvelous gifts.

We also spent some quality time in three Canadian Provinces, and there is a map to that effect as well. While “three” may not sound like very much, it is important to remember that space is BIG up there and the distance traveled though three provinces can be thousands of miles. It is for example, 2,300 miles from Seattle to Alaska. This helps put matters in perspective.

And while we’re talking about miles, the total for the year, as noted on the odometer of the coach at the Pilot Truck Stop for the last fill up of the year, crossed “home plate” at 23,571.9 miles. That, remember, is JUST THE COACH. We towed the Odyssey behind us for each and ever one of those miles, and then unhooked it whenever we needed to day-trip around where-ever we made base camp. So I’m guessing that the actual mileage driven for the year, combining both vehicles was probably near double that figure above. In any event, I can promise you we did a lot of driving. Fortunately I love to drive. We all do. Marilyn has become an excellent navigator- a skill she did not have before we set out. But practice makes perfect…and she’s had a lot of that. There were times when she was right and the GPS was wrong. That would make me “wrong” on more than one occasion when I opted to follow the directions of the GPS and not hers. I only remember one or two particular times when that happened, but somehow I’m thinking Marilyn can detail quite a few more.

We had a few repairs to deal with along the way, but nothing major (knock on wood) and in the vast majority of times, Newmar or a particular dealer or repair shop made the pain go away fast like a good “doctor” should. We took all the safety measures we thought we could and put as many redundancies in place as we could think of (and afford). We call that the "Gundy Redundancy Program." Certainly that has paid big dividends and prevented problems that may not have been easily handled. We say our little prayers that the travel continues to be safe, but we help out that process where-ever possible with good planning and common sense- or so we think!

I’d like to offer a few observations from the vantage point of one who is on the road, one way or another, on a daily basis. You are free to disagree if you like, and perhaps some of my thoughts will change with more time, but a few things seem to me to be, in general, misperceived in this country, and I just felt like offering my 2 cents worth for your consideration:

First off: gas, diesel, fuel prices in this country are NOT expensive! Oh, they may be a lot higher than they were, say, two years ago, but that’s because it was artificially cheap then, not because it is outrageously high now. Now I’m not saying it won’t pinch your wallet and mine for a while until we get used to the new reality, but we still have it good here. While you were paying a buck and a quarter for gas several years back, we were living in Honduras and paying 4.50 a gallon. In Europe at that time gas was about 6 dollars. This year, when we traveled through the Canadian Provinces we paid generally much higher prices than anywhere along the route in the US and as much as 5.50 a gallon in British Columbia (price converted to US gallon from Imperial for comparison sake).

Secondly: While the rest of the world uses the metric system because it is “better” and “easier”, I have not yet proved that to myself, so I certainly can’t prove it to you. It MAY, however, be true, so I’m keeping an open mind and we made comparison charts so we could work at learning what even little kids the world over all understand better than we do. The scale of the GPS in the coach, a Garmin 7200, can be switched back and forth which helps the learning curve a lot. It is good and positive and fair for us to appreciate the way we do things. But it is not so constructive for us, as Americans, to think that everything we have, everything we do, is better than the way others deal with things. There is value in both understanding and appreciating the ways of others. We do not…or rather should not…travel to see how much better we are than everyone else. We travel to learn those differences, to appreciate those differences and to grow constructively in the process. What we view with and react to with respect builds friendships which are necessary for peace in the world. Without mutual respect we will always have problems at every level.

Next up: People send me reminders in the form of forwarded e mail about this and that just about every week, especially that English is the official language of the country. True. No argument from me there. BUT…I have traveled, even lived for periods of time, to places where I didn’t speak the language or couldn’t speak the language, even though I made every effort, and I sure appreciated it if there was sign in English to help me out, or a bilingual brochure, or a person on the street who was willing to try to communicate to help me out. I’m just thinking we are taking this a little too far sometimes. We are an immigrant nation. Trace your own lineage back far enough and most of you will find relatives speaking something other than English. Even so, that would make you British, not American. Point being this: We have heard English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Athabaskan, Inuit, Japanese, Chinese, a variety of First Nation (Indian) languages and a smattering of many others along the way. While our official language is English- that was not our first language, so if your argument is that “If you want to come to our country you must learn to speak our language”- I would only ask you one thing: How much Cherokee, Apache, Sioux and/or Cheyenne do you speak???

And finally, a word about energy. You read the same headlines and stories I do. So it’s temping to buy into the horse crap that as Americans we are not innovating, not conserving, not going “green”. I have seen countless evidence to the contrary, so permit me to go on a bit more. Wind? There are wind farms across this entire country. I have seen them, marveled at them, photographed them countless times. I have seen them on the east coast, the west coast, in the heartland, in Alaska, in the south…so please don’t tell me we are not working in that direction, Mr. and Mrs. Politician. In fact the only place you won’t see them is in the bay in front of Ted Kennedy’s place because he thinks they are ugly and doesn‘t wish to have to look at them! There are solar homes, solar panel stations, solar operated road signs even in places where I am not too sure they can work well but they seem to be doing just fine. There is a solar panel on the top of this coach which helps to keep our 6 batteries charged (didn’t know that one, did ya?) There is hydro power a plenty, complete with fish ladders to protect the species that need protecting. There are lots of coal fields in lots of places where I didn’t expect to see them. And we identified oil shale deposits along the way that are primed and ready to be developed at today’s prices. The facts though are simple: Oil is still the cheapest energy source to find, to produce, to use. Until that changes, guess what? But we ARE preparing for that eventuality. And about the "Amber waves of grain" in the famous line from AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL, they were nowhere to be found on this cross country trip. Wheat has been replaced by either corn or soy as we ramp up production of ethanol; if this keeps up we may need some new lyrics for that beautiful song.

The evidence of what is going on in the country is quite different from what the so called “truth” is. Truth is not self evident, as you might have heard. It grows out of experience. We hope you will ride along as we get ready to begin our second year on the road. Keep the windows and the mind open so the experience can flow on in….Thank you all for a great year and….Happy New Year!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas in the Keys- A Photo Journal

It takes some getting used to - but Christmas in a nice warm climate with bright sunshiny days beckoning you to take a shoeless walk on the beach is NOT such a bad thing. Sure, pine trees and snow make up the traditional look at the holiday, but the reality is that the reason for the season is celebrated everywhere, and lots of those venues have absolutely nothing to do with cold. We have always wanted to celebrate Christmas in the Florida Keys. Now we have done just that and there wasn't so much as a single moment of regret in the decision. In a word, it was GREAT! We would do it again in a heartbeat...and probably will!

As this post is in large part a photo journal, I'll remind readers once again that all the photos can be enjoyed in their actual size by clicking on them to enlarge them. Then simply click your "back" arrow to return to the blog.
Here's the official Christmas photo for 2007:

What did sunset look like where you were on Christmas eve? Did you even notice? Here, sunsets command attention and respect and are all part of the celebration of the day- no matter what the day.
I've tried to organize the "show" into some kind of order, although not a very strict one to be sure. So the first portion tries to share what Christmas looks like in the Keys. Some things stay the same no matter where the season is celebrated. But others take on a flair of their own, combining the theme of the region with the theme of the season. You'll see...

The portion of the wreath (no, not the reef) shown below will have to be enlarged to be appreciated for sure. This was an 8 ft. diameter wreath on the entryway to the hardware store in Key Largo. It's made up of lures, lines, boat parts, and fishing rod parts. By the way, that hardware store is reason enough to go to Key Largo: plenty of everything, fantastic personal service, and a friendly atmosphere that brings you back even if you don't REALLY need anything, just so you can say you were there again today. No large chain retailer will ever ring the death bell for this old fashioned hardware store. They wouldn't stand a chance against the kind of business quality and service they can deliver.
Christmas buccaneers anyone? Pirates of the Caribbean for sure, matie!
Santa gets around by boat down here...or golf cart. Here he is at the Theater of the Sea, where you can swim with dolphins, sting rays, sea lions, or just hang out with a hundred or so cats.
Charter anyone?
OK, so those of us on the road may not have a house to tack lights all over any more but that doesn't mean that decorations are a thing of the past. Dashboards, it turns out, make great display shelves.

At the KOA in Sugarloaf Key at mile marker 20, this work camper gets the chalk drawing activities ready to begin. She was one happy camper, as most all campers are it seems.
No doubt you've seen the Southernmost marker on Key West. But have you ever seen it with a Christmas tree set up there as well. Uh, huh, the southernmost Christmas tree.

No sleighs here. Santa comes and goes on a golf cart in this campground parade.

It's a good thing much of this stuff deflates, otherwise RV'ers would never fit it in.
On Big Pine Key, you can find Rudolph the Red-nosed Key Deer. Talk about an endangered species!
Tropical, underwater Christmas tour. That's the way, uh huh uh huh, I like it!

The Keys are blessed with natural beauty all their own. Some of it is small and some of it is grandiose. This tiny sand crab is, in actuality, less than 1/2 inch across the carapace (shell).
The beaches have a rough look on close examination. They can be tough to walk on. Bring the reef runners- shoes that can get wet, be worn in or out of the water and protect the feet the entire time. Like elsewhere in Florida, once you are in the water, keep the feet up off the bottom or shuffle them along the bottom to avoid stepping on things that are better NOT stepped on, like sting rays. I have, for all my life, found the composite make up of a shell and coral laden beach, to be one of the most splendid of God's creations. They put me at peace when nothing else can do so. You can spend an hour or more just studying a single square foot of this sea bordering terra firma, and see something different in every moment you spend looking. C'mon. Blow it up. Give it a try. I'm giving you this square foot of beach as this year's Christmas present. I hope you can love it even a fraction of what I have come to love it. You,ve nothing to lose and I guarantee you won't ever have to exchange it for another size or color....
Many of the Keys have side by side bridges. The new ones carry the vehicles of today. The old ones carried, for the most part, the trains that ran for only a short time after the railway they said couldn't be built was in fact built by a guy named Flagler. The history of the railway in the Keys is fascinating and a subject all its own. The bridge on the right runs to the old Pigeon Key. A small train more on the order of a string of golf carts made to look like a train still takes you out to this private key to this day.
Locals call them 'bugs" but you know them as spiny or warm-water lobsters. Whatever you call them, they are both delicious and expensive. Grilled or broiled brings out the flavor the best.
Ever go diving with a hammerhead? No! Me neither.
The grounds at Islamorada Fish Company are beautiful. It's a great lunch venue with seating outside under one of the largest tikis in the Keys. They have a retail fish market and the restaurant; both are worth a visit.
We met this charming young lady and her four-legged pal at the tiki hut having some lunch. At most outdoor restaurants in the Keys, pets are allowed, so dogs wearing Santa hats are fairly common, although martini sipping felines are less common and and pretty much limited to Key West and parrots that talk trash while you eat conch fritters are seen now and again.
There's an outfitter next to the Fish Company and inside they have a rebuilt boat that belonged to Hemingway himself. In fact, Hemingway had two boats- the other has fallen into severe disrepair in his beloved Cuba. Because I have always appreciated his writings and his extreme ability as a fisherman, I was a bit taken by awe to set foot on board. I touched his actual typewriter. Goose bumps!
There's no shortage of things to do in the Keys. And fortunately if there isn't a hurricane a blowing you can do just about any of those things whenever you have a mind to.... We did what we could fit in that we hadn't done before, and then revisited some activities and places we love the best. Not much left of this old sign post. Warm water takes a heavy toll on most materials that don't actually belong in the sea.
Lazy man kayaking. It never fails. Despite swearing that I will never get away with it again, I always manage to catch Marilyn off guard long enough to hitch a ride by hanging onto her safety line trailing behind the kayak. The secret is to sneak up quietly and to pick up the line while you are traveling at the same speed as the lead boat. SMOOTH hook up is the key! Never even knew I was there. You see so much and get so close to such marvelous wildlife while kayaking that you just never think that someone would be playing a dirty trick on you. But what can I say: I ride til I can't keep from laughing out loud, which is a dead giveaway.
Our favorite passages are through the mangrove channels. It's quiet, cool and magnificent in there. Because you are approaching in a manner unexpected, you can get exceptionally close to critters, fish, and birds. You can get up close and personal and never even disturb them at all.

In the foreground of the picture below, you can make out the skeletonized remains of a sea turtle's lower shell. It was still a little too ripe to become part of the "collection," so look for it on the beach off Curry State Park near Marathon Key.
Seven mile bridge is perhaps the neatest part of the drive to the lower Keys. The colors of the water are simply amazing and change rapid fire with the angle of the sun, the passing clouds, and the depth and movement of the water and wind. If I were ever sentenced to a commute to work again in my life, I hope this will be the route of passage. My heart soars whenever I am on this piece of road. Sharing the drive with Marilyn and Abby (who strangely seems to love it as well as we do) is surely a blessing I will take whenever I can.

Check out the old railway bridge, both ahead of us as we travel and in the rear view mirror. Many of the old rail bridges have been converted to fishing piers. Nothing goes to waste here. Even if it is only "scenery."
You know by now I love my signs:
We visited the Butterfly Conservatory in Key West. It ranks at the top of Marilyn's list for fun things to see in the Keys, and in fact it is the number one tourist attraction- believe it or not.

The Southernmost mansion in Key West. Just up the beach from the Southernmost marker.
You can see Key West very nicely from a scooter. It makes finding a place to park a whole lot easier. This one is not only vintage- but Key West Classic as well.

Above and below, part of Flagler's rail line. The old trestles are beautiful even in their extreme state of disrepair.
Which came first? The chicken or the Key West. Free range chickens are everywhere in the Keys. I think they were most probably brought in to help get those who had a little bit too much to drink the night before crawl out of bed on time the next morning.
I like to call this photo, "Twin Engines." Think about it!
At our favorite watersports center, Key West Water Tours and Sunset Watersports both at the Hurricane Hole Marina, on the ocean side right before you cross into Key West proper, things are pretty low key, laid back- literally!
Tried a jet ski once when we were in St Lucia. For years we have wanted to take a waverunner tour around the keys and so that is exactly what we did this year.
Who says you can't take your own picture while driving a jet ski? Looks like our series of shots from the 4-D movie theaters, only slightly less goofy.
Guide for the day was Keith, shown here. It was a lucky day for us. We were the only ones signed up for the tour at that hour (it's two hour tour, Gilligan). The weather and water conditions were perfect, which is not always the case this time of year. Keith is a great guy with a wonderful control of making a tour what you want it to be. He threw in a bunch of stops he seldom ever does because we were by ourselves and had demonstrated control over the "vehicle" even at speeds up to 53 mph. He also turned out to be an excellent photographer and used our water camera to get a few shots of us for the old blog that made us really happy! Keith said if he made the blog, his mama would be proud of him. Mama, you should be, the boy done good!
It was the first time we ever visited the Southernmost marker by water. Nice photo, Keith.

Behind us in the background is the 109 foot long sailing vessel "Legacy" which has been aground on the reef some five miles out of the harbor ever since Hurricane Wilma danced all over the waters around Key West. Keith took us out there to get a good look at it- not a stop on the regular tour at all. It pushed the envelope a tad on the offshore limitations for operating a jet ski, but oh, boy, what a nice addition to the trip. Nice photo Keith.
Below is the small houseboat community set up for the express purpose of housing the crew of Legacy, who are still in the process of getting the ship off the reef. This is set up in proximity to the vessel so the work can be on-going. I wouldn't mind living there myself- at least not when the weather was really good like it was on this day. Nice photo, Greg.
Coming back into the water sports basin, we passed "Mount Trashmore." This sanitary landfill was set up to accept the garbage from Key West. Its lifespan was cut way short by how fast it filled up as the lower keys developed faster than anyone thought they would. These days everything has to be carried back up to Miami. Don't ask me where it goes from there. I'm afraid to know....
Next day after the wave runner tour we took mini speedboats out for a loop around the Key as well. Again a guided tour but every one drives their own boat.
First stop was at the submarine pens, carved into the deep coral to hide as many as half a dozen subs in the normally very shallow waters around the Key. The government never did use them, but they sure make a neat stop on the tour, and at a depth of 80 feet or so, they are cool to swim and dive in, or to swing over with a rope and just "drop in."
Go Greg go. Tarzan yell and all!
Then we went out into the Atlantic a couple miles and had ourselves a snorkel around a nice cluster of coral heads. Plenty of fish, especially the hogfish which looked like dinner to me, sea fans, brain corals, the usual for a shallow water reef. Considering the pressure on a reef this close to shore it really was not in such bad shape as I had imagined it would be. A few nice big jelly fish in the area made the venture a bit more of a challenge, but nothing we are not used to dealing with from all our time diving in Honduras and elsewhere. You can get some sense of the distance off shore for the dive by looking at the Key West shoreline in the upper right of the photo.
Never did find the time or the nerve to go para sailing...but there's always the next time...and some new adventure to look forward to....
Merry Christmas, everybody!