Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Five Months and 10,000 Miles

We can’t believe our good fortune to be basking in the Florida Gulf Coast sunshine while all our friends back home are dealing with snow, frozen pipes and worries about their gardens. We’ve discovered that Florida is not immune to extreme weather however. The day before yesterday we had to pull over and wait out thunder, lightning and torrential rain. Here in Florida we are celebrating Severe Weather Awareness Week February 24 to 28. January was the wettest month on record here, with the rain closing schools, roads, business and local government due to severe flooding. Happily, we’ve managed to skip through the puddles pretty well and Lilypad dries off quickly given a little sun.
Many birds watched and trails trod, as well.

We just left Tallahassee where we managed to take in the latest Meryl Streep movie, Costco, the farmer’s market and the Florida State History Museum all within 24 hours. We wistfully passed by Trader Joe’s and parked overnight with other RVers at Wal-Mart. There was some excitement when at 5am some over-zealous dog-loving police officer pounded on the door wanting to know if the stray service dog in the parking lot was ours. Those of you familiar with Janna’s attitudes towards dogs can just imagine the conversation after that encounter.

Our route, so far. Next we'll go to Selma, Asheville, and DC

So what else have we been doing? We just passed 10,000 miles on our trip and soon will mark off five months of travel. We’ve visited 18 states, dallying less than a day in Texas and enjoying almost three months in Florida. We’ve spent about $3,900 on gas, $2,000 on campgrounds and $1,000 on admissions to 62 museums and historical sites.  We’ve slept in 27 private campgrounds, 30 public campgrounds, six friends’ driveways, and in the parking lots of 13 businesses including one ferry terminal. We’ve travelled twenty National Scenic Byways and countless state ones and a few roads that should be scenic byways. We’ve soaked in four hot springs, seen two aquariums, and taken twelve boat trips. We’ve enjoyed many small towns, many of which beg for a return trip and more time.  We’ve also driven through some great cities that felt welcoming with all the things we value: farmer’s markets, free public transportation, independent bookstores, free Wi-Fi, diverse demographics, public art and cultural events, good museums and tasty local organic food.

We’ve also come to the conclusion that the best way to appreciate a place is not necessarily through a stop at the visitor information center, but rather, the local history museum. Especially in small places these collections capture the sense of place through time that no array of current services or businesses can convey. Often they exhibit artifacts or remnants of human or natural history that can no longer be seen on the current landscape, but unquestionably deepen the significance of the place. We find it amazing that places can be vastly different, towns can cease to exist, something monumental might have happened here long ago; and we would never have known, had we not stopped at the local museum. And of course these museums provide an opportunity to connect with enthusiastic local residents who treasure their area and the elements that make that place unique. Those encounters with folks that love a place, both strangers and friends, have made up some of our most precious memories of this trip.

Another important part of this trip has been the many visits to actual historical sites. Reading about what happened is one thing but finding yourself at Shiloh or Jamestown or Kittyhawk or Monticello  or Yarnell or the Charleston Slave Mart is quite another. Even if there is nothing left but an historical marker along the side of the road, we found it quite moving to be right here in this place where it actually happened. We have learned to stop for historical markers. You never know what you might find. One such place was Rosewood Florida. If you don’t know about Rosewood, read the historical marker in the attached picture or check it out in Wikipedia.This we know: these places matter.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Smith and Weeki

Debbie and Liz meet up with a mermaid

We met up with Debbie Pigman this this week at the world famous mermaid show at Florida’s Weeki  Wachee State Park.  Weeki Wachee is headwaters of one of Florida’s many artesian springs and the mermaids have been performing there since 1947 when a retired Navy SEAL created a performance area allowing the audience to view the springs under water in comfortable theatre seats. In spite of a chilly morning, we enjoyed a narrated boat ride down the Weeki Wachee River and then settled in for the mermaid show. It’s impressive to see these excellent swimmers in the 74-degree water for 45 minutes, smiling, lip-synching and never appearing to be cold. The magic creeps in, one’s imagination of a life under the sea takes over, and one hardly notices that the graceful dives to the bottom are to pick up air hoses. We especially liked it when the fish and turtles crept through the show. In fact we enjoyed the whole thing so much we were happy to return after lunch for another show. To learn more about the history of the attraction and the women behind the show, see the story that was posted in the New York Times last summer .  

Whisk brooms and pencils from historic Cedar Key
Our next stop was in historic Cedar Key, once a bustling terminus of the Florida Railroad. We rushed to get to this now-laid-back fishing village of about 900 folks to hear Rick Smith, son of Florida’s preeminent storyteller Patrick Smith, give a retrospective of his father’s work. When we first landed in Fort Pierce, we had been issued a stack of Patrick Smith historical novels as required reading for gaining an appreciation of cracker culture and the historical interaction of humans and land in Florida. This lecture was sponsored by the Cedar Key Historical Society and by 7pm there was standing room only as all 250 seats of the community center filled with old-timers and snowbirds, and a few kids and families. Rick showed video of his dad discussing his various books, including “Angel City” which cast light into the oppressive migrant worker camps and brought significant legislative changes; “Attapatah” and “Island Forever” which captured the saga of the Seminoles and their loss of land and livelihood; and “A Land Remembered” chronicling a pioneer family that helped create the Florida cattle industry. This book, about the first of so-called “Crackers” (a name that came from the sound of the drovers' whips) is now taught in Florida classrooms. The evening felt like a large community book club as we all raised our hands to indicate which books we had read. We were sad to note the passing of Patrick Smith a few weeks ago, and were pleased to be able to meet his son who is so ably and passionately keeping his father’s work alive. See his website for scheduled talks.

Seahorse Key hosts artists as well!
We made the most of a rare opportunity to explore the island of Seahorse Key, on one of the few days each year the public is allowed to visit. Seahorse Key, offshore from Cedar Key, is one of a number of smaller islands, managed by the US Department of Fish and Wildlife Service as the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Seahorse Key is known for  ibis, egret and heron rookeries, as well as an historic lighthouse and an abundance of cotton mouth vipers. It is open to the public only two days a year.  Lighthouse Key is also a study site for marine biology students from the University of Florida, many of whom were acting as docents for the day.  We especially enjoyed walking with ornithology experts on the beach where we practically tripped over yellow rumped warblers, phoebes and juvenile ibis. Spotting scopes were used to view old friends like loons, buffleheads and horned grebes out on the water. Seahorse Key has been noted in National Geographic for the symbiotic relationship between its nesting seabirds and a large cottonmouth population.  According to the researchers the snakes keep rodents from pillaging the rookeries and gorge themselves on dropped fish, not baby seabirds, allowing the seabird population to flourish (see National Geographic story here). We also clambered through the historic lighthouse which was built in 1854 and served as a Union bastion during the Civil War. It is one of 14 Florida lighthouses that claims a female keeper. We paid our respects at the grave of Catherine Hobday, the lighthouse keeper, as we explored the historic cemetery.  

We also have to make note of the truly unique campground we are in. Sunset Isle RV Park in Cedar Key first came to our attention through the blog of technomads Chris Dunphy & Cherie Ve Ard, hosts of the great RV tech resource, Technomadia. They wrote about how this campground attracts folk, country and bluegrass musicians and how people gather on the docks to watch the sun go down. We have met some new friends here and enjoyed playing and singing last night with Bob Kay, who, in the other season, captains the Blue Nose Schooner Martha White on Chesapeake Bay (see website).  There was music every night and most of the day. It’s on our list of places to return to when we are in the area again.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Friends, Silver and Gold

Bluegrass Night at Marsh Landing, Fellsmere

We just left our new RVing Women friends Donna and Fran in Fellsmere, Florida, after three wonderful days in their excellent company. We landed at their house in time to time to take in Bluegrass Night at Marsh Landing, a lovely old-Florida restaurant owned and run by Fran and her daughter Susan. Housed in a renovated historic building, the restaurant walls are covered  with old photographs and taxidermy and other items from Fellsmere’s past, making the restaurant also the de-facto Fellsmere museum. But Marsh Landing is primarily a unique culinary destination, drawing from an area far greater than the 5,000 people (mostly farmworkers) who actually live in Fellsmere. Every Thursday night is Bluegrass Night when all 320 seats are filled and folks are frequently turned away at the door. Fran herself is a big draw, having served as Indian River County Commissioner for 12 years and obviously well known and well liked. Later this year, Susan (who is also a local favorite and the current mayor of Fellsmere) will be taking over management of the restaurant so her mom can retire. 
Liz gets into fossiling with Donna and Fran
Fran and Donna were the women that got us started on our kayaking adventures at Rainbow Springs in December, and this time they took us out to the Peace River in central Florida for a canoe/kayak expedition in search of million-year-old fossils. Donna is an expert rock hound and fossil permit holder, and we floated the river until her eagle eye honed in on a likely spot. Sure enough, a reach down into the shallow stream brought up a fossil dugong bone (ancestor of the manatee). We tied up, unloaded gear and climbed into the knee-deep river that flowed past our feet and ankles at 72 degrees. The next two hours were spent in the water, shoveling and sifting gravel. We returned to Fran and Donna's house with many sharks teeth, an equine tooth and lots more bone.  Fran and Donna plan to start full-timing in their motorhome this summer and we are looking forward to meeting up with them in New Brunswick in July.

Janna communes with pelicans on one of our bike rides

Prior to that, we had another couple of weeks with our dear friend of many years, Mary Rice who lives in Fort Pierce. During that time, Mary submitted a major manuscript on sipuculan larvae, Janna got new glasses, Lilypad had her 30,000 mile check-up, Liz did a lot of yardwork, and we got our corporate and personal taxes done while sitting at Mary’s dining room table. We also took in the fabulous Fort Pierce Farmers Market, the SEAL Museum, a lecture at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Institute, a performance of “Late Night Catechism,” and put many more miles on our bicycles. 

Zora Neale Hurston's Gravesite in Fort Pierce
On the day before we left Fort Pierce we went and paid our respects at the gravesite ofZora Neale Hurston, an author Liz has revered since discovering her 45 years ago through UW anthropology courses. Hurston was studying for her PhD with Franz Boas when Alan Lomack from the Smithsonian Folklore Program lured her away to collect stories and music from southern African-American communities. She wrote and published four novels and dozens of plays and short stories, but died in poverty in 1960. She was relatively unknown until 1973 when she was brought back into public awareness through the work of Alice Walker. Now she is considered to be one of the pre-eminent writers of African American literature of the 20th century. The gravesite was unmarked for many years, but Alice Walker found it in a small Black cemetery in Fort Pierce in 1973 and added a gravestone, which we saw when we were there in 2003. Since then, a much larger tribute has been installed, the work of artist James Liccone. We visited it on a rainy day in Fort Pierce, one of those moments when you feel honored to honor one of the Greats. 

Now we are headed towards the west coast and panhandle of Florida. We are looking forward to meet-ups with Friday Harbor friends Debbie Pigman this week, then Teddy and Alice Deane around the first of March. As we count our blessings, which are many, old and new friends are high on the list.