Saturday, March 30, 2013

Our First Anniversary of RV Life: A Year of Bests

It's been over a year of retirement and we are celebrating our First Anniversary of the full-time RV lifestyle. We haven't always kept up to date on the blog (we're usually too busy doing things to write about them!), but here are some first year highlights.

Best Boondocking Site: Ocala National Forest - Ocala, FL

An unbelievable find! A former military building site in the middle of a national forest. Located at the highest ground in the area and surrounded by trails and forest, this spot even came with our choice concrete building pads to park on. With good solar exposure and Verizon internet, we ended up staying here for 22 days camping off the grid.

The Ocala National Forest is known for its bountiful natural freshwater springs. Florida's ample rainfalls percolate through the sand and limestone ground for hundreds of years before they gush out at millions of gallons per minute throughout the Ocala region at these springs. Sandy bottoms, a constant 72 degree temperature and naturally filtered water make for some nice swimming holes.

No alligators here, you can see the bottom!
There are four primary freshwater springs in the Ocala National Forest area: Alexander Springs, Juniper Springs, Silver Glen Springs, and Salt Springs.  All are unique and provide diverse habitats for many plant, animal, and bird species.  We stayed in the area in February and visited each of the springs...we had beautiful, warm, sunny days and the springs all to ourselves....
Swimming hole filled with mullets at Salt Springs- great freshwater snorkeling!

Tilapia nesting pools in the Silver Glen Springs  

One of the most notable historical attractions in the Ocala National Forest is Pat's Island and the Yearling Trail, the setting of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 novel, The Yearling.  Boondocking and hiking in this Florida scrub land, filled with sand pines, palmettos, and wiregrass, gave authenticity and life to our reading of this novel and watching the 1946 Technicolor film based on it during our stay.  Fighting off a pack of starving wolves, wrestling alligators in a swamp, romping with bear cubs, and drawing off the venom of a giant rattlesnake bite with the heart of a fresh-killed deer was all in a day's work for the Baxter family (Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman), thank goodness not for the Vowell's!

Weirdest Roadside Attractions: Carhenge - Alliance, NE 

One day a guy got this idea that taking the wrecks of old cars and building an exact replica of Stonehenge would be fun and an intersting way to draw tourists to this remote part of northwest Nebraska. The site is a little scruffy from neglect, but is an unique roadside attraction. For anyone thinking of starting a new business, the property is for sale!

The "real" Stonehenge

Wisconsin Concrete Park - Phillips, WI

Another labor of love by someone who just started building historical and fictional scenes out of scrap concrete and glass. Like most labors of love, he never stopped building until he died leaving this huge collection of sculptures for the rest of us to enjoy.

Don Quixote and Rocinante

Horse-drawn barrels of wine

Paul Bunyan and his mighty Oxen
Jake enjoys the sculptures too!

Best Fine Dining Experience: The Inn at Little Washington - Washington, VA

We've eaten at all the usual suspects for best dining in the U.S., but this one wins the prize. Virtually the reason we travelled back east last year, The Inn at Little Washington does all of the little things and the big things just right. They even let us boondock in their employee parking lot for two nights. We enjoyed it so much that after our first dinner we decided to stay a second night for dinner (making this the most expensive two nights of "free" camping ever).  As an added benefit, one of the folks at the Inn had a little too much fresh venison from the Virginia country-side and gladly exchanged about 30 pounds of it for a bottle of our Rocinante Syrah.

Behind the scenes in the Inn's Kitchen

A chance to say "thanks" to Chef/Owner Patrick O'Connell

Best Wilderness Hiking: Soldier Creek Wilderness - Fort Robinson, NE

Right against the border of Nebraska and South Dakota is this remote little gem with miles of empty hiking trails, trout fishing, and plenty of places for quiet reflection.


Quiet reflection...

Best Microbrewery: Millstream Brewing Company - Amana, IA 

Millstream Brewing Company is located in one of the most unlikely of locations, the Amana Colonies, a group of settlements of radical German Pietists in Iowa.  The small, wood-clapped brewery opened its doors in 1985, reviving the art of brewing beer that hadn't been practiced there since 1884.

In an authentic setting of an old European biergarten, all of the beers were fresh and flavorful, clearly evident of a commitment to "hand-brewing one batch at a time".  

Best Wine East of the Mississippi: Alba Vineyard - Milford, NJ (Cabernet Franc) 

The winery is family-owned (fourth generation), the grapes are estate grown and the winemaking team has been together for a while, so vintages should be pretty consistent (weather permitting). This is a New World Cab Franc as worthwhile to seek out as any in North America.

Dr. Konstantin Frank - Hammondsport/Finger Lakes, NY (Rkatsiteli & Gruner Veltliner)

We made the trip to this winery with Dry Reisling as our goal. We found much more. It turns out this winery does a wide variety of dry white wines about as well as they can be done. Their dry whites have been used as benchmarks by California winemakers for years. An added bonus was their exceptional collection of sparkling wines. Oh, and the prices are incredibly reasonable.

One of the oldest vinifera grape varieties known to man, Rkatsiteli is an elegant dry wine presenting a bouquet of fresh flowers and herbs balanced with wonderful fruit and crisp acidity.

As an added bonus, the winery is located in Hammondsport, New York, on the banks of Keuka Lake, one of the most beautiful and undeveloped of the Finger Lakes.  In 2012, Budget Travel Magazine ranked Hammondsport as the "Coolest Small Town in America"...and it has nothing to do with temperature!

Best Farmers Market: Broadway Market - Green Bay, WI

Local produce, goat milk butter, smoked fish...a foodies paradise!
This was completely unexpected. We've been to open markets around the world, and this one ranks as possibly the best. In the middle of the week in the middle of May we didn't think we would find a farmers market with 250 stands and such a wide array of artisanal, local foods.

Waseda Organic Farms is located in Door County (peninsula extending into Lake Michigan) which is the epicenter of Wisconsin's agriculture.  A major supplier of organic, grass-fed meat to the Green Bay Farmer's Market, Farmer/Owner Tom Lutsey proudly showed us around his farm which included a Temple Grandin-designed cattle handling system.  All animals appeared to be "happy"! 

Green Bay, home of the Titletown Brewery too!

Best Mountain Attraction: Mohonk Mountain House - New Paltz/Catskills, NY

Surrounded by thousands of acres of unspoiled forest and winding trails, this seven-story Victorian castle has successfully maintained its distinct 19th-century character into the 21st century.  We hiked the pristine mountain wilderness of the Catskills' Shawangunk Ridge to get a bird's-eye glimpse of the glorious historic hotel retreat.  

Most Crowded National Park: Acadia National Park - Mt. Desert, ME

Within a 12-hour drive of 25% of the population of North America
A view from the top of Cadillac Mountain, one of the crowning jewels of Acadia 
Finding solitude hiking (instead of driving!) the Park's many mountain trails

Least Crowded National Park: Dry Tortugas National Park - Key West, FL 

The Dry Tortugas lie 60 miles off the west coast of Key West and were once the island hopping domain of Caribbean pirates. When the musical chairs of colonialism left Florida and these islands in the hands of the French, Spanish, English, and finally, the United States, we decided that the largest masonry-constructed fort in the world had to be built out here to protect our gulf shipping lanes. Needless to say, building and maintaining such a structure was a monumental task undertaken at an astronomical cost. Although the fort never fired a shot in anger or was ever threatened by a foreign enemy, it does have a fascinating history and is an architectural gem. In addition, we the people bought ourselves one of the coolest snorkeling locales in the world. It's definitely worth the effort to get out there.
Accessible only by boat or seaplane!

Best Small Museum: Museum of the Fur Trade - Chadron, NE

Following the guidance of our travel bible, "Roadtrip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America's Two-Lane Highways", the very first stop of our new adventure was at the unassuming Museum of the Fur Trade on US-2 in Nebraska.  It was the first Sunday of the month (free admission!) but after spending over 4 hours enjoying the fabulous private collection of culture on the North American frontier, we felt obligated to make a donation. Besides giving the overall historical context of the fur trade and its many related enterprises, the collection brought to life the day-to-day realities of life on the North American Frontier in the 18th & 19th centuries, as well as the first centuries of interactions between Native Americans and Europeans.  Little did we realize at the time how much of this knowledge would relate to so many of our adventures to come!

Best Burger and Place to Eat It: Anchor Bar - Superior, WI

Following the guidance of our other travel bible, "Roadfood", we searched out what has to date become the best burger (and place to eat it) of only two places so far that are worthy of a return visit!  Anchor Bar is a sparse-looking tavern in an industrial non-neighborhood near the Duluth shipyards.  Customers at the bar and big round tables include rugged-looking seamen having rugged-sounding conversations.  It serves burgers and fries only, that's it, no chicken, fish, or veggie alternatives.  It has only one deep fryer and a small grill so it is not a fast food place, but the HUGE mugs of cold, local beer provide an agreeable distraction.  The aroma of grilling beef is irresistible and the proletarian prices unbelievable.  There is a nautical motif but along the way other "stuff" has found a niche in the building--the proprietor hates to go to a bar and stare at beer signs.  The Anchor Bar is a destination hamburger-lovers need to know...and go!

Best Swimming Hole: Sand Point Beach, Lake Superior - Munising, MI

Lake Superior is, by surface area, the world's largest freshwater lake.

The average underwater visibility of Lake Superior is 27 feet, making it easily the cleanest and clearest of the Great Lakes. 

With crystal clear freshwater at 4' deep on the sandbar...

Fortunately the weather in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when we visited in July was pure summer - bright sun and 80+ degrees - critical when venturing into the waters of Lake Superior which normally register at 50 degrees.  With a sandbar extending at least 300 yards from this beach into the Lake, the average temperature here was about 65 degrees, perfect for a dip!

...Karly and Jake learn to swim!

The beach "office" all to ourselves


Worst Swimming Hole: Kolomoki Mounds State Park - Blakely, GA

Looks can be deceiving....

Best Lobster Pound: Five Islands Lobster Co - Georgetown, ME

How to dine at Five Islands can be a  confusing--nothing like a restaurant with waiters or even an eat-in-the-rough seafood shack.  First, you enter the red clapboard building labeled "Lobsters" and confer with the ladies about the size you want; they happily hoist ones of the seawater tank for inspection.  Then you let them know if you want clams, corn or potatoes thrown in the net and boiled

After arranging for dinner, you head outside, find a picnic table, and settle in with the BYOB of your favorite beverage and wait the 25 minutes it takes for everything to boil.  Tranquility reigns admiring the islands in the distance, even when all the picnic tables are crowded with happy eaters enjoying their sleeves-up meal.

As we devoured our shore dinner, savoring the beautiful scene every bit as much as the food, a couple of fishing boats glided into the harbor and tied up at the wharf a few yards from our table.    We marveled as the fishermen offloaded their haul of lobsters just trapped in the deep thinking it doesn't get much more local or fresh than this!

Best Books To Read: Historical Fiction by J.L. Fredrick - Poynette, WI

J. L. Fredrick book signing at Poynette Farmers Market
One of our most pleasant visits and boondocking stays was in a small city park in Poynette, Wisconsin.  There was great solar capacity, incredible fresh, cold drinking water from a hand-pump, a porto-potty that was cleaned weekly, and a dumpster...what more could one want from a boondocking site??  How about a GREAT neighbor with whom to share interesting conversation over a couple beers and a warm fire at dusk!  
We had it all when we met our (only) neighbor, author Joel Fredrick (pen name J.L. Fredrick), a resident of Poynette who was seeking solitude from the distractions of everyday living in order to write.  Joel's specialty is historical fiction; John and he could talk for hours...about anything and everything!  Born into a farm family in the late 1940's, Joel lived his youth in rural Western Wisconsin, not far from the Mississippi River, which is where most of his writings are based. He is a fascinating writer, one that captures you from the first page and doesn't let go until the last...and after sharing many dusks with him, we could "hear" him telling us his stories firsthand, he's that good!  We shared some of his books with others and have heard only excellent reviews!  Highly recommended and can be found on We can't wait for his next release!

Best Waterfalls: Ithaca, NY

As the Chamber of Commerce boasts, "Ithaca is Gorges" ...seems apropos!


Best "Off the Beaten Path" Attraction: Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome - Rhinebeck, NY

They may not have the largest selection of WWI and earlier aircraft, but they definitely do have the largest selection of these aircraft that are flown every Saturday and Sunday throughout the summer season. This is a tiny non-profit organization that survives through the labors of love of a small dedicated staff and dozens of passionate volunteers. It is campy, unassuming, and run-on-a-shoestring budget. You watch the barnstorming style airshows from a grassy knoll next to the runway and the seating is 2' x 12' boards on top of old concrete cinder blocks.  If you volunteer to dress up in vintage dress and model for the crowd, you get a "free" ride in one of the vintage cars (guess who volunteered?).  Nothing fancy, but a true living museum and one-of-a-kind in the nation. They even let us boondock on the grounds over Labor Day Weekend.

You know who volunteered to model for the daily vintage fashion show...

...and was escorted in a Vintage Ford Model T

This is the oldest airplane in the world that is still flown. The same model, built three weeks earlier in 1906 than the one in this picture, is also at a museum in England but is rarely ever flown. They attempt to fly the plane in this picture twice a week during their airshow season each year. If you look closely you can see they just barely got it off the ground on this try.

The Aerodrome also happens to be right next to Hyde Park, NY, home of the main campus of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). That always makes for a nice evening out!

Best Understated Dining Experience: Archie's Waeside - Le Mars, IA

It's worth a trip to LeMars, Iowa just to experience Archie's...seriously!
Dry-aged steaks!  Cooked to order!!  Archie's steaks will rival anything you will get anywhere else in the country.  The service is impeccable and the wine list is better than most Zagat-rated restaurants.  There just aren't words for the hand-cut, dry-aged beef served at Archie's--it's the best!  Archie's has been a constant in Northwest Iowa for three generations, but the steak that couldn't get better is, well, better with a wine list that includes fabulous great boutique wine finds!  What else could you want?  The incredible small town prices and warm friendly service are just the bearnaise on the chateaubriand!  (By the way, this is the other place worthy of a return visit.)

Best Boat Ride: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Lake Superior/Gitchee Gumee) - Upper Peninsula, MI

The hiking and the beaches at Pictured Rocks are better than New Zealand's famed Abel Tasman national park. The added benefits include 1/4 of the crowds, almost no boat traffic, and the swimming is in crystal clear fresh water (which we prefer to crystal clear salt water).  By land and by water it's just one incredible vista after another full of changing colors that are never the same depending on what time of day you approach the scene.

Based on our summertime visit and the pristine scenery,  it's hard to imagine that this Lake could become so violent in winter as to sink the Edmund Fitzgerald. Our visit to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, MI provided fascinating insight into the fury that ensued.
"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'"

Best Small Town: Traverse City, MI

Traverse City, Michigan, located on the Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan, has a population of about 15,000, but with fabulous natural beauty and hosting many world-class special events and festivals, at times its streets are filled with 150,000!!  As such, the special amenities and features that cater to tourists are available year-round to local residents...making it a very special community!
Gloriously-restored historic downtown movie theatre
Site of annual Film Festival hosted by resident, Michael Moore

What's not to like about a very dog-friendly community!

What's not to like about a town with its own professional baseball team...

...encouraging local support with $5 seats and great food!  

10 miles north of downtown are two peninsulas, Leelanau and Old Mission,
winegrowing regions referred to as the "Napa Valley of the Midwest"
Two of our favorites:
Two Lads Winery for Reds
L. Mawby for Sparkling

20 miles west of downtown is Sleeping Bear National Seashore  

Named the "Most Beautiful Place in America" by ABC's Good Morning America in 2011

Best Man-made Geological Site: Providence Canyon - Lumpkin,  GA

The farmers who scratched a hard-living out of the soil here in the 1800's didn't know about contour plowing, cover crops, and crop rotation and would be astounded at the erosion they started with their mule-drawn plows.  Under the grass and sod lies a deep layer of red clay; further underneath is the Providence Formation, whose susceptibility to erosion is dramatically demonstrated by the gullies, some 150 feet deep, which began to form generations ago in the white, pink, and purple strata.  The 3-mile Canyon Rim Trail, with over 20 overlooks, as well as hikes deep within the canyon walls exposing breathtaking colors, make this locally known as Georgia's "Little Grand Canyon".  Interestingly, geologists say that because of the claylike erosion-resistant soil underlying the Providence Formation, the canyons will not get deeper, but the sides of the canyons will continue to erode.  A testament to preservation, in an ironic sort of way.

Best Views from a Fort:  Castillo de San Marcos - St. Augustine, FL

The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest stone masonry fort in the continental US and the only 17th century fort still in existence in its original state in North America.  Located on the shores of Mantanzas Bay in the city of St. Augustine, FL, construction was begun in 1672 when Florida was part of the Spanish Empire.  Its architecture and design are distinctive and it is an excellent example of the "bastion system" of fortification.  Through its history, possession of the fort changed six times, all peaceful, among four governments: the Spanish Empire, the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America. Though built in the 17th century, the fort's history embodies the struggle and contest of the entire colonial era as well as the foundations of American identity. 
Note the bird's eye view of the passing ship
made possible by the bastion design

View of Atlantic Ocean from cannon bastion

Best Fall Foilage: Cherokee Foothills - South Carolina

(See 10/31/12 Blog Post for more details)

Table Rock State Park
Rood Creek State Park

Most Unique Fall Harvest: Georgia Cotton  (Blakely, GA) 

Georgia Cotton Fields, Pre-harvest (Early November)

Georgia Cotton Fields, Post-harvest (Mid November)

Georgia-Made Cotton T-shirts!

Most Picturesque Beaches: Gulf Islands National Seashore - Fort Pickins National Park (Santa Rosa Island, FL)

Gulf Islands National Seashore is a place of many natural riches: sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, magnificent white beaches, and fertile coastal marshes with protected sand dune communities.  Although 80% of the nationally- protected area is submerged, the seashore islands attract the most attention.  The islands are long and narrow, composed of snow-white and sugar-fine sand that is carried seaward by rivers draining the Appalachian Mountains.  As barrier islands, they block ocean waves and violent storms that would otherwise strike the mainland US with greater force.  The following photos were taken along the Gulf of Mexico coastline of Fort Pickins National Park, just across the bay from Pensacola, Florida, the contrast of the blue skies, azure ocean waters, and impeccable white sand beaches has to be experienced in person to be believed!

A great side trip from Fort Pickins (or rainy day activity) is to the National Naval Aviation Museum at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL, home of the Blue Angels.  We spent two full days touring displays ranging from WWI through the war in Afghanistan (including the space age), admiring over 150 beautifully and authentically restored aircraft (not copies, boast the former Navy personnel volunteer guides) representing Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aviation.  We also experienced a simulation of being aboard an aircraft carrier flight deck, complete with the smell of jet fumes and take-off rumbles.  Most amazingly, admission to this world's largest aviation museum is free!

Best Place To Not Live - Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan    

Delightful in Summer...
FJ McLain State Park - Hancock, MI

...Disaster in Winter!
Copper Harbor, MI

Best Al Fresco "Dining In"

East Coast: Pierogies, Kielbasa & Yuengling Beer

West Coast: Summer Sausage, Cheese & Rocinante Syrah

Best "Happy Hour"

(Jake, you outta be in pictures)
...for John & Susan

...for Karly & Jake

Best Sightseeing with Susan

Southernmost Point in USA - Key West, FL

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory - Waterbury, VT
Geographical Center of North America - Rugby, ND

McIlhenny Company - Avery Island, LA

Best Wildlife

Key Deer (endangered)

Found only on Big Pine Key, FL

Alligator -  No Name Key, FL
Sandhill Cranes - Lake Superior, MI
Gopher Tortoise - Kolomoki Mounds State Park, GA
Bison - Valentine, NE
Lion Fish - Key West, FL

Red Fox - Catskill Mountains, NY

Pelican - Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary, WI

Coyote - Copper Harbor, MI
(Sure fooled Karly & Jake!)

Best Sunsets

Ocala National Forest - FL
FJ McLain State Park - Hancock, MI

"Sunset Celebration" - Key West, FL

Mallory Square - Key West, FL

Saltwater Cowboys - St. Augustine, FL

JW Corbett Wildlife Management Area - FL

Sand Point Beach - Munising, MI

Dry Tortugas National Park/Gulf of Mexico - FL

Atchison State Fishing Lake - KS

Looking forward to the "bests" yet to come!