Archives for February 2013

Sunrise Sunset

Here we are, its 3:30 in the morning and after hours of trying,  I can’t go to sleep so I tore down the campsite in the dark.  I’m bit up, fed up, packed up and about to head south west across the state, hoping to find a more family friendly environment.

Then I get a thought…

Let’s go back to Flagler Beach and watch the sun rise one last time from the Atlantic coast.

One last walk around our vacated campsite with the flashlight and lantern.  Nothing has been forgotten.  One last check to ensure the cargo rack and contents are secured for a long haul.  Straps tight.  Tarp tight.  It’s all good.  Buddy in the kennel.  The girls up front.  It’s lift off once again!  Off we go out of the RV Park, and into the dark, heading to the eastern edge of North America.  See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!

Driving down narrow state road 40 to the coast left me thinking about back home.  In Minnesota at this time of the morning, there would be critters darting across roads everywhere.  Where is the wildlife here?  I bear down the road at less than the posted speed limit, just in case.  We’re in no hurry, there are no other cars, and we’ve got plenty of time.  Heck we’ll be to the coast by 5:00 am—I could take a nap.

The great Atlantic Ocean was equally desolate once we got to A1A.   I end up stopping long before Flagler, just beyond Ormond-By-The-Sea, pull into the narrow parking area, and wait.  And wait. And wait.  The clouds presented a heavy blanket across the horizon.  We waited.  I decide to get out and stretch my legs, and make some coffee.  HOLY HANNA once again it is ass biting cold out there!  What??? I need mittens!  Gee I guess this is why there isn’t a line-up of folks waiting to see the sunrise!  How can this be, only 50 minutes east of where we camped? Yikes!  I’m back inside the truck with the heat on—I put on my bad Santa hat and get warm.

We continue to wait, and finally a glimmer of pink lines the top of the waters horizon line.  As it turns out, we are witness to the all-time longest, coldest, and most uneventful sunrise ever.  The clouds hid most of it.  Hoping for something amazing, we held out until almost 8:30 to no avail.  But we can say we were there to see it all.  After a brisk walk on the beach and a quick breakfast for all, we’d had our fill of the Atlantic coast.  Now it’s onward and westward, hopefully to warmer weather.

Of course our journey took us through Orlando where the landscape shifted from thick trees, beachfront, and solitude to tall buildings, cement clover leafs, and 4 lanes of heavy traffic.  Every other vehicle was an RV it seemed.  We got a look see at a few points of interest from the highway.  Determined not to be taken off course, I held fast to the wheel and did not exit for any roadside attractions.  If there were children on board, I don’t know that I could have kept going.  Especially past Disney World.

Several hours later we arrive to Tampa, and hurray, it is at least 20 degrees warmer here!  We drive around the area, up 75, down 597 and find ourselves somehow on highway 60, traveling across a bridge over the ocean. 

Man, oh man, oh man, how cool is this???  Campbell Causeway.  I turned around and went back across.  Then, we turned around and did it again.  And yes, one more time. What can I say?

Oh this is a great place!  We keep bearing west, and end up in Clearwater Florida.  I pull off the road into a gas station and GPS for food and camping.  We follow coordinates that bring us across another bridge over water and in to Pier 60.  The entire pier and surrounding area is jam packed with tourists.  I see the restaurants that GPS pulled but can’t find any camping or dog friendly areas. No animals on the beach, but they can be on the walkways and grassy areas along the pier.  Happy to get out after our cross country trek, I park, and walk the dogs around the parking lot and along Pier 60’s main drag. 

Once again, people stopping us to find out what kind of dogs these are, or telling stories of how they miss their own dogs left at home. I spot Shepards Restaurant on the water.  All you can eat seafood buffet.  Oh yes, I’m there.  I make reservations for 4:30.  We spend most of the day wandering around the pier, enjoying the warm sun and diverse population.  I’ve run out of poop bags, but accumulated some brochures on fishing trips, various boat ride excursions, and a list of things to do on the Pier every day.  At 4:00 we are back at the truck, dogs are getting dinner, and I am soon on my way to “sea-food-and-eat-it” heaven.

And heaven it was! The only customer sitting on the deck, it seemed I had the entire outdoors to mshephardfood2yself. My waiter, Bryan, commended me on braving the cold.  Cold?  It’s got to be 60 degrees!  That’s not cold!  There I was, crisp wind on my face, scratching my bites in my bad Santa hat, gorging on plates of well-prepared seafood, and watching an amazing end to a wonderful day. Bryan was outstanding.  He was there to assist in fending off the hungry gulls attempts to steal my food, and took pictures of me at sunset. 

Happy girl. holidayc2c


Happy tummy.  



Happy to be here in Clearwater Florida.


Christmas On The Beach

Santa Claus does get pretty much everywhere, even to the remote camping areas along the St. John River.  Seems he brought me a portable hoop for hoop dancing!  That, and a much coveted car seat warmer to keep my butt cozy on the cold ride home.  Thank you Lynn and David for looking out for me!  And my furry kids are still ripping into their mound of toys and chews.  Christmas in Florida.  Christmas without snow.  Quite the experience!

But even though it’s 55 degrees and sunny this morning, we are all merry and celebrating our holiday, opening gifts.  In a little bit I will pack things up to spend the day at the dog friendly beach.

And then I find the note.  Without going into detail,

“Someone” has taken it upon themselves to speak as “we” in a note stating that they will have me removed from the park if I don’t get my dogs under control immediately.

I am dumbfounded. I am stupefied.  I have no understanding of why this note was taped to my tarp.  Was it a mistake?  Was it meant for the people down a few sites with the barking dog?  Was this person serious?  Who wrote this?  I think back to a time when I may have not had my dogs under control.  There isn’t a time.  In fact, we are gone all day every day, and when we are back, we are all together, up only a short time before going to bed for the night.  There is no time my dogs are out of control.

Why would someone do this?

It really doesn’t matter.  It’s Christmas Day.  How absolutely rude and uncalled for!  The “mystery person” had 8 days to approach me with any concern and work it out.  But wait until Christmas Day and then leave a threatening anonymous note?  How absolutely rude and uncalled for, especially when there is no basis to the claim.

I am now feeling quite uncomfortable.  This is one of those times where I’m hearing my instincts loud and clear. I am thinking it’s time to get out of here.  What kind of place is this?  Our time is up tomorrow unless we renew.  I’m not going to renew. We will have our day at the beach today, but then we are packing up and pulling out tomorrow.

So I gather up my bad Santa hat, the dog toys and treats, beach blankets, sandwiches, strawberries, snacks and water, and we head out to spend our holiday on the beach.

And what a lovely day it is at Flagler beach, with a high about 70 degrees, a light breeze, and not too many people around.  We walk up and down the shoreline, lay around looking at the clouds rolling by, eat a little, fetch a little, forget about the rest of the world a little.  Christmas in Florida.  Christmas without snow. Quite the experience!  Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve Camp Dinner

Simple Steak, Potato and Veggies, Stove Top Style


1  T-Bone Steak  (or your favorite cut)

1 bunch fresh Asparagus

2 Roma Tomatoes

1 sweet Onion

½ of a small box fresh mushrooms

1 whole Garlic

5 – 7 Roasted New Potatoes (those little red ones)

1 t Italian seasoning



Butter and/or EVOO

Get 3 Fry pans out, 2 medium and a small

Set out your steak for at least 1/2 hour, lightly sprinkled with Salt and Pepper


Medium fry pan 1

Cut up the potatoes into cubes

Chop up about 3 cloves of garlic

Melt about two T butter or EVOO into fry pan.

Place potatoes and garlic into pan and cook, covered about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add the Italian seasoning, continue cooking over low heat, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender.

While the potatoes are cooking:


Medium fry pan 2

Chop the onion into large pieces—take away about 1/3 of it for later use.

Chop up 3 or 4 cloves of garlic

Remove any dry ends from the Asparagus

Cut Tomatoes into medium chunks

Melt about 2 T butter or EVOO into fry pan.

Place onion and garlic into the pan and sauté about 5 minutes

Add asparagus and cook over medium heat stirring frequently about 10 minutes.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper

Add tomato and continue to cook and stir, about another 10 minutes or until asparagus is tender.


Note: These two pans will provide servings for 2 – 3 people

With the potatoes and veggies ¾ of the way or more cooked:



Small fry pan (just big enough for my one steak)

Melt about 3T of butter into the pan

Make sure this is a hot skillet

Drop garlic and mushrooms into the pan and stir until mushrooms wilt down.

Push to sides of pan or carefully remove most mushrooms without taking out the garlic butter.

Drop the steak onto the hot skillet and cook to order

(for me that means about 3 minutes per side—as I prefer super rare)

You will need a larger pan, more mushrooms and garlic, and staggered cook start times for multiple steaks.


While steak is cooking, plate the potatoes and asparagus mixture, place steak on plate and top with sautéed garlic mushrooms.


I love holidays.



Don’t start your steak too early, wait until the other dishes are almost done.

Rule of thumb, potato will take longer to cook than veggies, cook in stages so everything completes together. 



Cedar Key Day Trip

Tired of not finding any pig sign, I’ve decided to try a new direction for our next adventure.  It looks like there is some interesting hunting land straight west of Astor.  I want to go check it out, see if it’s worth visiting at a future date.  It’s early, we’ve had breakfast so I pack up the family and we hit the road, headed for Florida’s west coast. 

Almost half of the journey west is through the thick, lush Ocala National Forest, and I make note of at least half a dozen good looking spots to check out for pig worthiness.  Somewhere between the forest and Ocala, the scenery changes.  Among the long list of recreation activities Florida has to offer, it is also known as a hot bed for Equestrians, and the horse capital of the world.  Rolling hills, lined with intricate wooden fences, filled with acres of green blankets—we’ve entered a stallion playground paradise.  The view is simply breath taking with dozens of beautiful Arabians and Quarter Horses dotting the perfectly manicured ranches.

I forgot to bring coffee with me for the morning ride. Desperately needing a caffeine boost, I stop at Gilberts Hardware and General Store at 225A& West 326. Step back into the past, to the days of cowboys, ranchers and front porch business discussions—you’ve got Gilberts.  Their great service staff brewed a fresh pot of coffee for me and filled my thermos extra full, for less than a buck.  After that,  Laurel Lane, Paradise Farms,  Dark Horse Farm, Hidden Pond Ranch and Bridle Wood Farm, were just a few of the horse farms I passed.  Beautiful acreage, amazing top of the line horses scattered throughout each.

As I approach the intersection of  27 to 24, I spot signage for Dakotah Winery.  Hmmm, it’s just up ahead a few miles—no, keep going!  It was all I could do to stay on course and remain focused.  Good thing I did, because I was soon transported into a stretch of wilderness abundant with wildlife.   Finally.  Abundant wildlife.  Deer, springing across the road, causing me to slow way down.  Eagles, flying overhead nesting in treetops along the road.  Three turkeys scoot off the shoulder into the brush.  Wow, in the few minutes I’ve been on 24  I’ve seen more wildlife then the entire time I’ve been in Florida.  Where am I?

Devils Hammock, Wildlife Management Area. I see an information station and stop.   I’ve entered a whopping 7, 635 acres of land set aside and available to hunt, fish and enjoy.  What a perfect place for a potty break.  I get all 3 kids out and we stroll down a trail.  The temperature has cooled considerably.  The wind has picked up.  The sky is overcast.  The tall pines shelter us from the bulk of the wind.  It’s a beautiful woods.  I wonder if people use treestands here?  We keep the walk to “taking care of business”, and I grab a brochure at the post.  This place looks awesome, but from what I was reading, I was too late for Deer season, too early for pig season.  Off we go.

In less than an hour the road brings us straight into an extremely understated little “ghost town” bordering the Gulf of Mexico, called Cedar Key. Not much is stirring here.  I’m not seeing any landmark sights like a McDonalds.  There are almost no cars or people in sight.  It starts to drizzle.   I cross a bridge and there is a dock area to the left side.  I pull off and park, and investigate the dock.  There are tiny islands scattered across the waters.  An airboat off in the distance is bulleting towards shore.  One lone angler on the pier, states he’s not had much luck as of yet.  I get back in the car and drive toward the main town.

A great way to learn about a town is to find the local Museum.   For a couple bucks I get out of the drizzle and get the whole story about Cedar Key at the Museum and State Park. 

Cedar Key became a settlement in the 1840s, and by the 1860s the rail was in place.  This made industry more assessable and allowed Cedar Key to become highly productive in two major industries, pencils and fiber mills.  They had many Cedar, Pine and Cypress trees.

During the War of the States, Cedar Key was providing the Confederacy Army supplies, food, and most of their much needed salt. Then, in 1862 the town was captured by Federals–which stopped all their production.   After the war, the town went back to logging Cedar, Pine and Cypress, but it wasn’t the same.  John Muir, a noted conservation leader and naturalist, lived in Cedar Key in 1867 and described what he saw in his journal as “The traces of war, are not only apparent on the broken fields, mills and woods ruthlessly slaughtered, but also on the countenances of the people.”

The people of Cedar Key started to rely on harvesting oysters, fish and crabs for their livelihoods.  All were abundant on their magnificent shoreline.  But soon, even this industry failed.  The ships were getting bigger, there was a growing need for deeper waters to dock in, and eventually, Cedar Key was unable to maintain their commercial value. They have not been able to establish and maintain a strong industry niche since.

There remain a few farms raising clams along the pristine shoreline banks, and several commercial fishing, and crabbing operations, but they are low key  The people of rustic, sleepy little Cedar Key are just fine with that.

It’s starting to rain harder.  Now I can say I’ve been to Cedar Key.  If I want to be in camp before dark, it’s time to head back!

How could I possibly drive past that Dakotah Winery sign twice in one day without stopping?  I can’t, so I turn onto 27 and within minutes am pulling into their parking lot.

What an adorable winery!  This father and son operation was started in 1985.  They have some acreage here in Chiefland along with the store, and another 20 acres in Fanning Springs.  But here is where the wilderness retreat is found.  The building is surrounded by their own wildlife refuge.  A deck, veranda, grape arbors, a koi pond and woods make this the perfect rest stop for any traveler.  So peaceful .  Deer, turkey, Fish, Wood Duck and Canadian Geese all call Dakotah Winery home.  So very serene.  They even have a pet exercise and picnic area.  And besides all that, I have experienced the most amazing Blueberry dessert wine! Well, ok, so I experienced about two cases worth of amazing wines to bring home.   I was assisted by Son Rob Rittgers for my wine tasting experience, and Father Max Rittgers, helped with hauling my treasures to the truck.  He thanked me for the business and handed me his business card. Attached to it was a piece of pottery shard over 200 years old, with an Indian head penny over 100 years old attached to it. This was a piece of original art—a special gift.  A special family.  A special place.  Really good wine, too.

As I drove back down highway 27, I spotted a produce stand on the left that looked too  good to pass up.  One last stop.  I pull in and park for a quick look.

Wow! The best fresh produce stand I’ve seen since the wholesale place in Pennsylvania.  They had everything; awesome strawberries, a full spread of fresh veggies – even Pommelos.  I picked out asparagus, onion, tomato, potato, zucchini, carrots, broccoli, and of course a box of strawberries and a couple Pommelos.  There. Christmas Eve dinner and more.

Now, finally, we head back to camp in the dark.


See No Evil

It’s all done so sneakily.  You don’t know what is hitting you.  You think you are safe.  But oh no, you are far from safe.  You don’t hear anything, but they are out there.  They are close to you without your knowing.  Maybe they wait until you are distracted with an activity before they make their move.  They wait until you could mistake their presence for something else.  They wait, all around you, and in large numbers. A tingle on the arm.  A twinge on the big toe.  You brush it off, unknowingly.  Over and over, selectively picking away at your body they go in for the kill.  Tingle, twinge, tingle, twinge.  They show no mercy.  They attack relentlessly.  While you are sitting, while you are walking, even while you are sleeping…..

No See Ums.

These tiny flying blood suckers have decided they are going to destroy me, one bite at a time.  They made this decision the moment I arrived in Florida.  It’s taken me this long to figure it out.  All this itching, well it was the No See Ums.  I am bruised.  I have welts on my welts.  I have scratched until I bleed.  On my feet, my legs, my arms, my sides. They are everywhere.  I have tried 7 or more different bug sprays now, and none of them do squat.  I have sprayed or applied bottles of Benadryl to relieve the itching.  I’ve taken enough Sudafed to put me into a coma, hoping to minimize the urge to itch.  All for not.  I look like I’ve been in a bloody war.


I cannot let them win this battle.  I have fogged the campsite.  Repeatedly.  Heck, I’ve fogged the dogs!  I lay awake at night practically ripping my skin off.   I don’t know what it feels like to not be scratching myself raw. Nothing I try is working!! Perhaps vodka or tequila will help?????  No, I have to be on my game.  So it’s long pants and long sleeves, continue dousing with Deet, and praying for a strong wind or a hard freeze.  Oh wait, I take that back.  No freeze!  But on the other hand…..


Horsin Around

For Seven years, Tina and Corey Rhoads have owned and operated Makin’ Tracks,   

a Self-funded Equestrian Rescue Ranch.

Their mantra —  Helping Horses Help Themselves — keeps their family busy 7 days a week, offering one and two hour rides, all day trail rides, moonlight rides, rides that include swimming with horses in the Oklawaha River, camping on horseback, weddings, pony parties, and lessons.  Except for a handful of major holiday days, Makin’ Tracks is open year round to share their passion for horses with individuals and groups, on horseback rides through the Florida Greenways, Gores landing Unit and Ocala National Forest.

Some of their horses are retired racers, others have simply come from an environment of neglect.  They have received in horses that were 300 – 400 pounds underweight and nursed them back to health.  Animal Control surrenders horses voluntarily – they often step in to take them and care for them.

I had the pleasure of enjoying a trail ride with Corey, saddling up “Bones”, one of his 14 “trail ready” horses.   They work with new additions to the ranch for weeks, months, and even years to bring them up to optimum quality of life, physically and psychologically.   Corey, riding Shadow, his young assistant Jessica, riding Honey, and I rode off into the Ocala Forest for a two hour nature ride of unbelievable beauty and solitude.

Of course Corey was determined to demonstrate his agility on Shadow, turning around riding backwards to carry on a conversation with me.

He advised me we were entering the Cross Florida Greenways, and headed into Gores Landing Unit, backed up to the Ocala National Forest.  Touring the forest with a “horse eyes view” is an exhilarating experience. The foliage is thick and stretching out as far as the eye can see, yet the heavy forest does not dissuade these sturdy horses.  Bones was sure footed, and would break trail through untouched ground, press on over downed trees, through the churned up mud pits, and do so with the utmost consideration of his rider.  The river was too low to take the horses swimming, but our ride was outstanding just the same.

At one point we entered a swampy bog-like section with heavily canopied Spanish Moss dangling from the trees, like a fringy blanket.  The humidity clung to my skin, the air held strong dirt-burned smell. Meandering through that space was like entering Yoda’s den from Star Wars.

Twenty minutes further down the trail, we came to a huge clearing of dried up mud and small palm trees knocked down that looked like a backhoe churned it all up.

“You can see, pigs were here rutting up the forest a few weeks ago”  he commented.  “There are bear, deer, pigs, and panthers in these woods.  Being able to see them is another thing.”

Corey told me about his wife Tina, who despite being an excellent horseman, was thrown from her good horse and broke her back, in September of 2011.  She is still confined to a wheelchair. They are hoping for an eventual full recovery. 

Never take your horse for granted. 

He told me stories of how he moved from upstate New York to build a business in Florida based on caring for horses.  He shared several stories of how he came to discover the degree of neglect bestowed on some of these gentle creatures, and how his family is committed to do everything they can to rescue horses and improve their quality of life. His story made me think back to the days I was caring for Precious, an amazing Peruvian Paso Fino I was blessed with owning for a few years.   Riding now, is reminding me how much I miss having that sweet natured horse.  She and her barn mate Sassy, the Tennessee Walker, were quite the unique combination to see.

Our ride came to its close, just as the sun was starting to set.  We returned to the ranch, I gave Bones a well-deserved apple treat, and I was introduced to the entire herd. Each horse has its own amazing story, and it was clear that every one of them had complete gratitude, love and trust of Corey and the family.

Makin’ Tracks operates without being provided official funding dollars. It is not easy. They mostly rely on their own resourcefulness and the business they generate from trail riding to care for the horses they keep.  They welcome any assistance the public can provide, from cash contributions, to volunteering opportunities at the ranch.  No donation is too small for the horses. 

If you are looking for an authentic trail riding experience, I highly recommend connecting with Makin Tracks.  Check out their website,

or contact them directly:

Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides

15901 NE 137th Court

Fort McCoy, FL 32134


Riding The Storm Out

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  After days of sunny skies, talk in the park is that a front is coming in, hard and fast.  The storm is predicted to hit in mid-afternoon.  I walk around camp, check on all of my stakes, ropes, tarps, and new shower curtain breezeway.  Everything seems to be quite secure.

One of the ladies down on the corner stops by.

“where are you all going to go, dear, when the storm comes?”  

“Well, I suppose we’ll be in the State Forest, in the tent, or in the truck.” I respond.

“Oh my dear,” she says with a worried brow, and buzzes off on her golf cart.

I can’t imagine a little rain could be ‘all that’….but just in case, I decide to stay in camp and catch up on some paperwork today, and at 8:30 proceed to make breakfast.

It isn’t even an hour later that the wind starts to pick up.  Wind teasing my tarp walls with an intermittent gust that causes slight ripples.  I walk around camp again, checking ties, making sure everything is secure.  It is.

The dogs are restless, so we go for a nice long walk out of the camp grounds and down the road.  The way back is challenging with noses to the wind.  We crawl into the tent and I start to do some work.  Wind gusts are increasing by the hour.  A couple of them rattle the tent pretty good.  Then Angel starts to growl.  She can predict a storm coming from miles and miles away.  And she was right on now, alerting us to faint thunder.  It is coming our way.  It’s about noon.

I load all 3 dogs up in the back of the truck, and close the gate and window.  They feel much safer back there.  I go back into the tent and continue working.  The sky gets darker, the tent is getting darker, the winds getting stronger, and suddenly with a


of thunder,  gale force winds rip into the campgrounds with no end!  The tent is rocking! I quickly zip up the windows and exit to the canopy.  The sky has become a dark, greenish gray, and the tarps are flapping so loud and hard I fully expect to see the stakes be pulled from the ground.  But they are holding fast.  Wind is pulling at the canopy from all 4 corners. It is desperately trying to take flight.  Back when I read the online rating on this pop up canopy everyone said it was not at all able to withstand any wind. And here I am, putting it to the ultimate test.

It’s hanging in there. The tarp walls are weighing it down.  I move my cooking gear off the table to a less precarious spot under the canopy in case something caves in. As I tuck away the rice cooker along comes another


And the sky literally opens up with a torrential downpour.  I am being pounded under the canopy.  Wind ripping at the walls, and water coming straight down in solid sheets.  I glance back to the tent and breeze way.  Both are doing surprisingly well.

The bad news is the canopy roof is caving from the rapid downpour.  I try to push the water over the edge of the canopy frame so it doesn’t cave through.  Then even stronger cross winds appear with a vengeance, attempting to pull the whole thing apart.  I find myself hanging onto the top of one of the tarp walls, trying to keep it attached to the canopy frame, and all earthbound.  At the same time, I’m trying to direct water away from, and off of, the roof of the canopy. 

I think I’m loosing this fight. 

Not a peep out of the back of the truck.  All 3 dogs are hidden deep into their kennels.  Not a movement throughout the park as far as I can see, which isn’t far, either.  I continue to hang on for dear life, facing the onslaught of bitter cold and sharp pounding rain and wind.  Up against the tarps and frame, I’m taking the brunt of the weather and am soaking wet.  But I continue to hang on to my Florida Fortress kitchen. I will not give up.  I will not.  This storm cannot have my kitchen.

And as the next two hours go by, I am about blue, teeth chattering, and still hanging on.  Is it my imagination, or is the wind letting up?  Is the rain maybe letting up, too?  Perhaps it’s a hallucination, but it almost looks like the sky is turning a lighter shade of storm cloud.  Could it be?

Please let this be over soon.

My fingers are burning.  I have forgotten all about itching my bit up and welted body. I see small rips starting around some of the tarp grommets.  Please hang in there!  Please let this be over soon!

And suddenly there’s a break in the wind.  I let go of the structure and rub my cold shriveled hands together.  

Along comes another gust and round of ripping winds with sideways rain, and I grab the canopy frame again.

And then, a break in the wind.  I let go.

And then, a mega gust.  I hang on.

A break.  Let go.

A smaller gust.  Hang on.

A longer break…

And finally, after an hour or more of this, the rain becomes just a drizzle.  The wind subsides, the dark green-gray clouds roll away leaving a bright blue sky. It is 3:25

I wipe my dripping bangs out of my face, shake off some of the water I am soaked with and walk out onto the road.  There is standing water everywhere.  Broken tree branches.  Palm branches. Someone’s antenna.

And a beautiful blue sky.

Here comes the sun. Ah do-do-do-do-do.

Here comes the sun, and I say,

It’s all right.

Holy crap I love camping!

Blue Spring Beauties

Winter may not be the prime time to experience all Florida offers, unless you’re a manatee….

Today I found myself at Blue Spring State Park, which is known as the winter home to over 200 West Indian Manatees.  The park is huge, more than 2,500 acres and offers the manatee “snowbirds” a safe, seasonal residence that is a constant 72 degrees.  They can be seen all along the spring for about a third of a mile. The spring dumps water into the St. Johns River, and actually flows north.

Manatees are mammals have been endangered for years.  Their gentle nature has put them at risk from boats and people in general.

While strolling the parks boardwalk, I observed dozens of the gentle giants at close range.  They were just starting to come in to their warm haven in large numbers.  They lumbered through the waters, rising up every 3 minutes or so for a good breath of air, then back down like a slow moving tank.  Some would cruise back and forth, others, simply hit bottom and laid there. Mamas and baby swam side by side.  One was spotted upside down, scratching its back on the sand bottom.  As I stood at the top of a cement staircase going down to the water from the boardwalk,  a mature manatee suddenly rose up out of the waters in slow motion, and pulled himself up onto the steps, centering his big blue-gray body on the metal handrail in the center of the steps, and laid across the bottom of the steps, rubbing on the hand rail.  That manatee had to be over 800 pounds for sure.

When a guy’s gotta scratch, a guy’s gotta scratch, and he certainly drew a crowd of excited onlookers!  But it is critical to limit human activity to observation only, no matter how tempting it may be to help give him a good scratch.  And you know he wanted it….

There were people from all walks of life and from all over the world on the boardwalk, observing the Manatees.  It was easy to get lost in an entire day of watching these big historic beauties, but there are certainly other things to do in Blue Springs as well. 

Swimming, tubing, snorkeling and scuba is offered during the summer months.  During the winter, the waters are the official Manatee refuge, so access to the water is restricted, except for an occasional Riverboat, canoe or Kayak tour.   The park had a huge campsite area with electric, water, and an impressive amount of privacy from other campers.  Cabins are even available to rent.  There are places to have large gatherings and picnic, hike, bike, bird watch, and maybe even spot an Okeechobee gourd.  

The sun was slowly going down in Blue Spring State Park.  Time to go back to the campsite, and look at the 400 or so shots of Manatees I’d taken.   The gentle, giant mammals of the coast.  What a great day!

Oh, and OF COURSE I found a cute little Manatee Christmas ornament at the gift shop…..

The Florida Fortress

The decision has been made, we are staying here in Astor for awhile!

It’s always fun to create a camp home. It’s a whole new experience to do it in the middle of an RV park.  As I am stepping off distance for the ground cloth under the tent, the same man directly across the road from me, is sitting at his picnic table, chain smoking, facing my campsite, watching every move I make. An occasional senior on a golf cart putts by, watching with concerned curiosity, usually with their little dog riding shotgun,.  My 3 are anxiously waiting in the back of the truck to see what home is going to look like.  It’s a little windy, but I’ve dealt with worse.  But the intense starring, now that’s a little awkward.

I set up the 3 room tent directly butt up against the open side of the 10×10 canopy.  So,  all 3 sides on the canopy have tarped walls with the entry “door” at one corner, and then the main house.  The good news is, I’ve completely blocked the man across the way’s view, without using my vehicle.

I re-set up the dog fence around to one side where the tarps weren’t meeting well at the corner.  We now have a secure dog space.  I set up the cook table, and run cords to the power box.  We have electric for the kitchen.  Then I pull out the cot, the tub of bedding, and a lawn chair.  It’s time to nest in the tent.

While I’m in the tent, I start wondering what would happen if it rained…and evaluate my set up.  While the whole canopy idea is new one for me, it sure seems to be a smart idea so far.  If it were to rain, the water will stay off of the whole camp kitchen.  If it rains, everything in the tent is safe.  But what about that slight gap between the canopy and the tent?  Hmmmmm.  I was out of tarps.  Ya know what would work?  Yes, a shower curtain!  I just need a cheap, clear shower curtain or two to run across that side and over the front edge of the tent, to serve as a breezeway and keep water from the tent entry.

Shower curtains are added to the Walmart shopping list.

I finish arranging the tent and making the bed (cot) with my cozy polar fleece blankets.  I lay dog blankets in several spots to give the kids some options.  The tub is turned upside down to become a table.  I run a power cord in there for my computer and a light.  Home sweet home. 

Our Florida fortress is complete.  Tonight I will cook with electric and scratch myself to sleep on a comfortable camp cot.  I do a quick change into swimwear and head to the pool.  Maybe the chlorine water will help with bringing down some of the welts forming all over my arms and legs…..

Elaine And Bear

Sometimes people are put before us for reasons we don’t understand.  Maybe for a lifetime, maybe for a few minutes, or somewhere in between. 

Today brought a pleasant surprise as we went exploring the East Coast beaches.  Discovering how close we were to the big water from camp was exciting.  Wow, we are only 30 minutes from the south eastern edge of the United States (I loosely consider the whole Florida coastline the southeastern edge).

Just as exciting was the unexpected pleasure to meet Elaine and her little dog Bear, brave travelers of the east coast.  Elaine and bear were bird watching when I came down the dock and discovered them on the pier.  There she was in her LL Bean windbreaker and jeans, perched on the pier bench with book, binocs and journal in hand.  Her little dog sat next to her at full attention.  We struck up a conversation. She was probably close to 75 years old, but you would never guess that.  She seemed so much younger.  She impressed me as an intellectual woman, forthright and full of passion and life.  She and her husband loved to travel.  She told me that when he passed on several years ago, she decided to make a decision.  Either stay home and mourn him, or learn how to pull an RV and keep doing what she loved–traveling. 

Elaine hails from Ohio, so we know what her decision was.   She and Bear were on an adventure and despite concerns from friends and family, have been traveling with her 34 foot trailer every winter for the last four years.  We sat together and talked about many things. We talked about life and choices.  Choosing to do something uncomfortable because of her love of life. We talked about companionship, and loss, and continuing on alone, even when it hurts the heart. We talked about being married to a job, and walking away from them. About careers, the economy and what it takes to be successful in business today.   We talked about swing dancing and social media.  We explored the idea of second chances, in work in relationships, and in love–and the slim pickins’ for dates lately.  We laughed a lot. We solved several of the World’s problems, and we shared bits of ourselves as though we’d been friends for years.  She gave me insights on where the best dog friendly beaches and restaurants were.  Bear agreed. We made a list for me. I told her about some of the interesting places there are in Minnesota.  We made another list for her. We commended each other on our passion for adventure and fearlessness.  She tried to convince me that even I could pull an RV if I wanted to.  It’s not that hard.  Yeah, well, I’ll stick to tents.

Elaine is an amazing and ageless woman. Such a warm, vibrant and alive woman.  I hope if and when I get to be her age I have even half of that passion for life she has.  Thank you, Elaine for being on that pier and being an inspiration in my travels.