The Living Desert

Not far from Carlsbad Caverns is a truly delightful New Mexico State Park called The Living Desert.

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Dam!

This park is a tiny jewel, including a selection of desert botany which we were there at just the right time to see in glorious bloom, displays of desert wildlife,

and a wonderful viewpoint of the desert plain extending in all directions.

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An interesting tale told by the local indigenous people is found on a plaque in the visitor center of the park. I’ll leave the alien-visitation crowd to make their own theories about what this could mean (not so far from area 51) and just include it here without comment…

 

The sunsets are spectacular.

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The wildlife is adorable,

majestic,

and also frightening.

Don’t miss the chance to visit The Living Desert!

I love bats!
I LOVE THIS PLACE!

Carlsbad Caverns

Once we crossed over into New Mexico, we began to feel the arid desert sucking the moisture from our skin and nasal passages. That’s why the sight of Brantley Lake was so welcome when we pulled into Brantley Lake State Park for a little stay. This lake is beautiful, and the sight of the tiny specks of  cars on the highway on the other side gave our eyes their first chance to really adjust to the scale of distance of the American Southwest. This campground was absolutely swarming with jackrabbits and had a nice trail from the campground loop down to the rocky lakeside.

Lake Brantley
Lake Brantley

We continued along our merry way to Carlsbad Caverns. You may have noticed a cavern theme to our visits; yes, we love caverns. Besides the fact that we are now fat people, I’ve been a little claustrophobic since childhood, so true spelunking, as when you get down on your belly and squirm through passageways too small to get up in, is my idea of a nightmare. But I LOVE caverns, where you can walk (or, if you’ll recall my Kentucky experience, ride a boat!) around and see the natural sculptures and jewel-like gleaming treasures hidden beneath the surface of the earth. However, I suspect that Carlsbad has ruined me for life on other caverns.

Peri in front of rock formations
Ruined for Other Caverns!

Carlsbad has an elevator system, drilled hundreds of feet into the rock below. When you get off, instead of a uniformed tour guide herding you through, they hand you a little device like an old-fashioned telephone receiver, and you wander through at your own pace. Every so often there is a number, and you punch that number into the self-guided tour device and it tells you a few things about what you’re looking at.

Steve Contemplating the Caverns
Steve Contemplating the Caverns

Because caverns promote silence and contemplation, this is a much more satisfying way to see a cave. There are points at which you just want to stand and drink in the beauty of the formations and the tiny dripping sounds that formed the huge chambers over millions of years.

Patterns formed by water along the ceiling
Patterns formed by water along the ceiling

The knowledge that the 2.5-mile loop you are walking is just a tiny fraction of the caves’ immense length, and that the caves lay underground unexplored for all of humanity’s time on earth, is awe-inspiring and humbling.

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Since Carlsbad is part of the US National Parks System, and we were planning to visit others on the Grand Circle in the Four Corners (Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado) area, we spent $80 for a Parks Pass, which allows us entry into any national park and discounts on some of the amenities in the Parks as well.

I highly recommend Carlsbad Caverns as a peak experience for any cavern enthusiast.

 

Messin’ With Texas: San Antonio and Gruene Dance Hall

Once we left the Texas Gulf Coast, we felt like we were really in Texas. Up until that point, the Gulf of Mexico had more or less blended seamlessly from Snowbird city to the Redneck Riviera to the Big Easy and the Bayou to Offshore Oil Central. But once the sea faded away in our rear-view mirrors, we began to see the big-hat, big-truck aloofness that gives the second-largest state its character.

 

San Antonio is famous for two main things: the Alamo, a fort where the Spanish-American War had one of its most famous sieges, and the Riverwalk. We found a quiet campground not far north of the city of San Antonio proper and set out to explore the Riverwalk first.

My general philosophy is that the best way to explore a river is by boat. And conveniently enough, there are riverboat tours available which take you all the way around the looping commercial canal known as San Antonio Riverwalk. Many cities have a downtown area which they have spruced up to cultivate tourism. But San Antonio is perhaps unique in that their tourist district is oriented around the San Antonio river.

We located the booth and bought our tickets, and rode around in the watercraft seeing restaurants, bars, hotels, and more restaurants, bars and hotels alongside the riverbanks. The history of the area was narrated by a college-age young woman who frequently mentioned that she was happy that the Riverwalk existed because otherwise she wouldn’t have a job. There were quite a few picturesque sights along the way. We ate lunch at one of the restaurants, an indifferent, overpriced affair, and then we sought out the Alamo.

Riverwalk

One thing I found surprising about the Alamo is that it is located right in the middle of what is now downtown San Antonio. We were there in early spring, and we expected it not to be too crowded, but we thought we were mistaken. We paid our $8 and stood in line to enter the big gaping former church, former barracks, former field hospital. Several places had a list of the soldiers who were killed in the battle with Santa Ana. Between the items of equipment shoved in front of the historical plaques and the poorly-managed crowds, it was not what I would describe as a peak educational experience.
The courtyard was nice, though. And one has to have a soft spot for a historical site which buries its cats with grave markers like these!

The Alamo Cats
The Alamo Cats (RIP)

But we were just as happy to make our way back to the motorhome for a quick dinner and change of clothing before our night’s outing.

 

Being in Texas, we had to take the opportunity to visit the oldest dance hall in the state. Located in the little village of Gruene, Gruene dance hall has been hosting country and western performers since XXXX. We found a spot on one of the crude wood benches and got a hard cider and enjoyed the show.

We really enjoyed the opening act, Hunter Hutchinson, an up-and-coming performer with a great sound and a great stage presence who performed covers and original songs with a flare that tells us he has what it takes to become a star one day. We actually liked him better than the headliner, Zane Williams, but judging by all the hootin’ and hollerin’ going on when Zane took the stage, ours was a minority opinion.

The crowd at Gruene
The crowd at Gruene

The wood dance floor was soon covered by couples waltzing and Texas two-stepping to the music. Attire varied from urban-cowboy redux with big hats and thousand-dollar boots for the men and sprayed-on denim miniskirts with cowgirl boots for the women, to simple cotton shirts (some with, yes, pearlescent snaps!) and jeans, to band T-shirts and nylon shorts with running shoes. After the show ended, we walked the streets of the quiet little town in the moonlight, listening to the crickets and holding hands as the traffic cleared out and we made our way back to our little RV snailshell.

Bolivar and Galveston

Down around the Gulf Coast we went, heading for Texas! After a one-night stay at the Cajun Corner campground, where we shared a hot tub with an obnoxious drunken Canadian woman and her entourage, we headed down to Bolivar.

Ready to Roll!
Leaving Cajun Country.

The Bolivar peninsula is a barrier island, not much more than a line of sand dunes, not far from Houston. It’s basically a single strip of road with beach homes and small businesses on either side. Bolivar’s beaches are open for cars to drive on (with a permit, purchasable at the bait shop; the government has to get its cut somehow!). The crowd on the beach varies from fishermen to surfers to families out for a picnic, and ranged from ebony-skinned to pallid folks like me, with the language overheard as likely to be Spanish as English.

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The Bolivar peninsula also appears to be one of the towns with the highest concentration of RVs of anywhere I’ve ever been! The peninsula is vulnerable to hurricanes, so all the houses built in the last 40 or 50 years are up on stilts. The area underneath the homes makes a perfect RV parking pad, and many homes have sewer and electric hookups at ground level included in their construction. Quite a few landowners have skipped the house part of the equation entirely, and they just have a sundeck on stilts with hookups underneath. (One local told me that lots of people couldn’t afford to insure a house, but they can afford to lose an RV in a hurricane). Some of them are single hookups for just the owner’s 5th-wheel or motorhome, but quite a few of them also have slots available for rent.
We had already reserved a space at an actual RV park, Paula’s Vineyard, with which we were delighted. It was gated and quiet and had excellent laundry facilities. Laundry facilities are one of the make-or-break items when you are traveling by motorhome, and good ones make the inevitable laundry day so much more pleasant. It also was home to this little cutie, a calico-point Siamese who trotted right up and made herself at home! We miss World Traveler Kitty Tapioca since she left for the sunny window in the sky last Fall, but we are planning to do more international travel soon, so we are not ready to take on another cat. We had a hard time convincing Dirt (that’s what they’d named her at the campground) of that!

Dirt
Dirt wanted to be our kitty!

Bolivar is connected to Galveston by a ferry, and we took our toad (towed car) across on Saturday night to look around and enjoy the nightlife.

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Galveston at Night.

We had a great Mexican dinner at Salsa’s on the beach and then enjoyed a local singer-songwriter performing at a little club called The Old Quarter, complete with an impromptu belly-dance performance by an audience member. 2017-03-25 23.51.03When we got back “home” to our snail shell, guess who was waiting for us on top of the front tire?

 

I was a little apprehensive about the trip across on the ferry in the motorhome the next day. As I’ve mentioned before, when you choose the snail’s life of full-time RV living, you put everything you can’t live without into a box hurtling through space. Putting that box on a big floating platform in the middle of the water was a whole new level of trust in the benevolence of the Universe!

But we made it across just fine, and then it was inland, to experience Texas proper!

Mississipi Gulf Coast and the Casino

No USA motorhome tour would be complete without at least one stop at a casino. Everywhere you go nowadays, casinos seem to be an attraction. I guess I’m showing my age when I say that I remember when you had to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to gamble legally; it used to be that huge amounts of money changed hands off the record, in the form of bets, and I guess the government and its coddled spawn, the corporations, decided that they needed to get a cut, so now big hotel complexes with golf courses, RV parks, and overpriced gift shops dot the landscape, nationwide.

 

Biloxi, Mississipi was one of the first areas to jump on the casino trend, and the Hollywood Casino Hotel and RV park is one of the most-highly reviewed online, so we made our way across the Mobile Bay area, skirted New Orleans, and checked into a campsite with a fabulous view of the bayou out our bedroom window!

Trees and wetlands on a sunny morning
View of the Bayou out our bedroom window.

The property was huge and even the non-golf-course portions were criss-crossed with asphalt trails which their maintenance staff used to get around in golf carts, so I got some great bike riding in. I had been looking forward to using their advertised hot tub and enjoying their poolside bar and grill, but when we got there we found that while the pool was accessible, the hot tub was not, and the services were not yet open for the season, despite the lovely Gulf Coast March weather.

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On the other side of the causeway

A day trip across the causeway to the beach town of Pass Christian brought us to more of the Gulf Coast’s famous sugar sand beaches, with restaurants and chic shops right across the way. The New Orleans influence was undeniable, both in the menus, and in other details. Recycling is popular everywhere right now, but where else do you find Mardis-Gras-bead recycling stations in the grocery stores?

We popped our inflatable beach loungers open and let them catch the breeze and enjoyed a lazy afternoon in the sun.

Lying on the beach on inflatable loungers
Pass Christian Mississipi has the famous Gulf of Mexico white sand beaches

Oh, and we did visit the casino a couple of times. I was looking forward to the musical clinkety-chink of quarters dropping into the slots and spilling out into the cup when you won. But alas, that’s apparently not how it’s done anymore. The woman at the counter shook her head as she sold me a plastic card. “No, no more quarters,” she lamented. “They evacuated us for Katrina, and when we came back after Katrina they told us it was all plastic cards now.” I put $100 on the card and began: I played the slots for a while, but they were all electronic push-buttons; I missed the tactile satisfaction of pulling down the handle. I couldn’t ignore the niggling awareness of how much easier it is to rig the system when an electronic card tracks your winnings and the machines are all wired into a network. I got $18.75 ahead, and quit.

 

The hotel did offer a huge, decadently lavish buffet. Steve ate his weight in crab claws and I made a pig of myself at the dessert table. Then it was time to pull up stakes and move on!

Slow for a Vehicle…But Fast for a House! Twelve Tips on How to Stay Safe in an RV

 

 

All told, traveling by RV around the USA is a pretty safe endeavor. Yet, every so often you pass a wreck or read a story online which puts your heart in your throat. After all, this is not just our means of transportation: it’s our home. We may have a few things in storage, but basically we went through our belongings, picked out everything that we felt we couldn’t live without, and put it all into a flammable box which we then proceeded to hurl across the landscape at a mile a minute. Crazy? Maybe.

 

We’ve had no major incidents so far. However, one thing did occur which made me remember the physics that are in play. We were on the interstate, entering some construction traffic, and I had to use the facilities. The nice thing about a Class A RV, like our Thor Hurricane, is that the passenger can get up and use the restroom while the vehicle is moving, just like a bus or train passenger might.  After using the bathroom, I stopped at the refrigerator and grabbed a can of seltzer. As I closed the refrigerator door, refreshing beverage in hand, a truck ahead of us downshifted suddenly, and Steve had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting it. I managed to stay on my feet halfway down the length of the motorhome, until my foot got caught on the area rug, and I went flying through the air backwards! Miraculously, I landed with my head and neck virtually cradled on the ramp that leads up to the engine hump between the seats. Six inches further front or back, and I might have had a pretty bad head bump! My left ankle was screaming obscenities at my brain.

 

“HONEY, ARE YOU OKAY?” Steve was worried, but to his credit, he kept his eyes on the road.

 

“Yeah, I think I’ll be all right. But I think I hurt my ankle pretty badly.” I lifted my head just as Steve hit the brakes again. “I’ll just lie here until you get through this stop and go traffic.”

 

As it turned out, my ankle just needed a few days of being wrapped and elevated. I had two gorgeous bruises on my upper arms where I reached out to catch myself on the furnishings (at that speed, it was like trying to “catch” a sack of cement dropped from a 2nd-story window!). The can of seltzer was in the dinette seat. The refrigerator door was still open. I felt kind of scared and snively because, for the moment I was flying backwards, I couldn’t see what had happened or what was about to happen; for all I knew I was about to crash through the windshield, break my neck, and never walk again!

This got me thinking about all the things you can do to minimize risks and stay safe while you’re on your RV adventure. RV safety is not something to be taken lightly, so here are some of the things we’ve learned to do. Some of them are things we learned from books or classes at the Escapade, some are things I learned from the wonderful man who sold us our RV, and some of them are things we’ve had to figure out  ourselves over the ten months we’ve been on the road:

 

  1. RV safety tip number one is: turn off the propane and refrigerator when not in use.

The propane may seem pretty obvious, but there are a surprising number of RV owners who will leave the propane flowing from their built-in-tank while they are rolling down the road. When your propane is on, you run the risk of turning a day-ruining auto accident into a life-ruining conflagration. Just turn it off!

Burning 5th wheel 2The refrigerator is a little less obvious. RV refrigerators are built to run on propane or electrical current. You would think that if they are running on electrical current, they would be safe. But the way the coils are constructed in RV refrigerators, if they are off level in one position for more than a few minutes, the coils can overheat and start a fire. If you stop for a meal, or leave the RV in an unlevel site, it’s best just to turn the frig off. The temperature will not rise too rapidly; if you’ll only be gone an hour or two your food will not spoil.

  1. RV safety tip number two: Keep fire extinguishers handy in multiple locations and know how to use them. This is good advice for your car and house, not just for your RV. In fact, fires consume RVs so quickly and completely that you’re more likely to safely extinguish the fire in a home or car. If you have big bucks, consider a whole-RV fire extinguisher system.
  1. Thirdly, make sure you know where your emergency exits are and how they work. Any window of the RV that you can fit through can be an emergency exit if it needs to be. But all motorhomes and 5th wheels have one emergency exit in the sleeping area which can be swung or pushed out for quick escape if the doorway is blocked. Know how yours works, and think ahead of time about how you will climb out a window which may be 8 feet or more off the ground.
  2. The fourth RV safety tip is: Wear a seatbelt when the vehicle is moving. I learned this one the hard way. Yes, as in a bus or plane, you may need to attend to nature’s call and unbelt for a few minutes. But pay attention to the road conditions (I was oblivious to the construction traffic) and be prepared to resume your locked and upright position if necessary! I see people in RVs lounging on their bunks or sofas while underway, all the time, and it is not worth it!
  3. The fifth RV safety advice tidbit is: Make sure your tires are in good condition and properly inflated. Tire blowouts are one of the most common causes of RV accidents, as the video at this link will show you.

The tires on our Hurricane were 8 years old, but had only 13,000 miles on them when we bought it. They had plenty of tread left on them, but the manufacturer recommends replacing them after 7 years for the sake of safety. I was skeptical, since after all, the manufacturer has an ulterior motive to get you to buy more tires! On inspection, I discovered cracks in the sidewall, a sign of impending blowout. It was expensive—six new tires cost almost $3,000—but the peace of mind we got from the safety of our RV motor home was priceless!

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The trailer tire blowing out was something we could handle, with the help of AAA!

Know what do do if you have a blowout. Many people automatically hit the brakes, but that’s the absolute wrong thing to do! As the video link above discusses, as long as you’re moving, you have hope of getting things back under control.

A related tip is to be aware of the recommended inflations of your tires and the weight ratings for your axles, and take them seriously.

  1. Sixth, make sure your lights are operative on the tow vehicle and trailer. Brake lights and turn signals become extra important for RV safety when you have huge blind spots.
  2. For the seventh point, have a checklist. Use it. Every. Single. Time. I learned this from being a pilot and the reasons are just as applicable to RV safety. I am including a PDF of our latest, updated checklist as a starting point. Yours will have different items on it, but imagine what would happen if you forgot to, say, connect the brakes to the trailer hitch? Reel in the awning, or pull up the stairs before driving away? The possibilities for unsafe conditions are multiplied when you are taking down your entire home and setting it back up, over and over again.

How to use a checklist? First, go through, item by item, and do everything on the list. Once you’ve done it a few dozen times (as we have) you won’t need the list for this part, you’ll do it by memory.

Then, just before you take off, sit down together and read the list, item by item, and the person who did the thing says, “Check.” It may seem silly or unnecessary, but the first time you say, “Power disconnected?” and your partner says, “Um…” you will suddenly appreciate the wisdom of this method.

  1. The eighth RV life safety advice is to be aware of your surroundings; lock your doors. The fact is, RV parks and campgrounds are amazingly safe and crime-free, when you consider that people are thrown together at close quarters with others from all over the country, here today and gone tomorrow. You have people in modest tents, vans, and pop-ups camping right next to people in half-million-dollar luxury houses on wheels. Yet, there’s a friendly ambience which strikes just the right balance between live-and-let-live and keep-an-eye-out-for-your-neighbors. Still, there’s no reason to be foolish; don’t flash your cash or expensive electronics or leave valuables outside overnight.
  2. Nine, if you are comfortable with it and legally allowed, consider arming yourself with a firearm. I think part of the reason campgrounds are so safe, is that the majority of RVers do keep a firearm in their rig, and crooks know this. Most states require a firearm in a moving vehicle to be in a locked, inaccessible container, so consider purchasing a small gun safe. And if you have kids or grandkids in the RV with you, please lock the firearms up. I’m a big Second Amendment believer, but I’m also a believer in keeping your family safe in every way.

If you’re not a gun person, that’s fine. Think about keeping a can of wasp spray or a personal alarm siren handy, just in case.

  1. Getting close to the end of our list of twelve RV safety tips: Make sure your brakes are in good shape and test them regularly. This goes for the trailer as well as the tow vehicle. Don’t even think about towing anything heavier than a pop-up without accessory brakes. It’s not safe. Enough said.
  2. Number eleven on the RV safety countdown: never drive faster than your rig is designed to go. For most motor homes and 5th wheels, that’s about 60-65 mph. On a curvy road, or in the rain, or in traffic, it might be lower. Sometimes far lower! It takes a lot more distance to stop a motorhome or 5th wheel than a car. People will aggravate you by cutting you off, not realizing you are trying to leave a safe stopping distance ahead of you. Don’t let them get to you, just slow down a little until you have a safe distance again. The title of this article comes from a bumper sticker I saw at a campground once. One that made the same point said, “Retired. Go around me.”
  3. Finally, as the scribes at the ancient Egyptian Temple of Luxor advised: know thyself. Know if you’re tired or ill or upset. It will affect your reaction time and attention span. You are not a machine or an automaton. Until technology provides us with the self-driving RV, we will all be safer if we acknowledge the fact that we are weak and fallible creatures.

Sometimes, the safest way to travel in an RV is not to travel at all. Sometimes, the best choice is to pull over short of your destination. Camp in a rest stop or big store parking lot. You’ve got a comfy bed, food you like, something to read or knit. Relax, recharge, and live to RV another day!

 

Willie!

You know how some singers feel like they are burrowing through your ears right into your heart and soul? Everyone has their list, and mine is quite a few names shorter over the past couple of years. Losing Candye Kane and David Bowie really hurt, and it was also sad to say goodbye to Leon Russell, Prince, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey, and many other greats. But there is one star who keeps twinkling away, and that’s ol’ Willie, the Redheaded Stranger himself!

 

Now, Tallahassee, where I lived almost 30 years, is not famous for its concert venues. But recently, a dying mall renamed itself The Pavilion and rejuvenated itself by building a partially enclosed, open-air area with a stage where big acts could play (without sounding like they were at the bottom of a bucket). We arrived early to the Willie Nelson and Family concert and walked around the little ersatz city street outside. The “food court” is a brand-new building, constructed and decorated to look like a converted early-20th-century warehouse or factory building. So, people drive their cars to the fake city street in the middle of a giant parking lot and pretend they are in an authentic town. This, boys and girls, is what we call, “irony!”

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New construction, built to imitate old repurposed edifices.

 

The concert hall was one level, and the chairs were lightweight metal folding chairs (surprisingly comfortable) arranged into sections marked out on the floor in chalk. The stage was surrounded by barricades and security. There was a giant video screen so that you could see if your view was blocked, but our mid-range seats were perfectly fine and we could see and hear everything. The sound crew knew their stuff, so the music sounded clear and true.

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Dwight Yoakum opened and he did quite a nice set. I like country music as well as anyone who has lived most of her life in the south, so I enjoyed him. He did Willlie proud, and he no doubt pulled in some of the younger people who were at the concert.

 

(The Uber driver who picked us up told us sweetly that his parents loved Willie. Oh, well).

 

I half suspected that Yoakum would be the whole show. I thought that since Willie has had a collapsed lung and carpal tunnel surgery, and was, after all, 82 years old, he would probably come out, cough a couple of times, “sing” some talking-blues song, and shuffle offstage. I was never more delighted to be wrong! He opened up with “Whiskey River,’ and his voice was pretty weak and reedy. But as he worked his way through some other old favorites, he warmed up, and by the time he launched into “Beer for My Horses,” the whole house was singing along on the chorus.

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Young and old, we were all laughing by the time he sang his latest song,

 

I woke up still not dead again today

The internet said I had passed away

Well if I died I wasn’t dead to stay

I woke up still not dead again today.

 

And in the end, isn’t that the best any of us can say? We are not promised tomorrow. But we can enjoy the bright sparks of life among us like Willie Nelson, who remind us what today is for.

Leaving Snowbird Country

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I logged in and saw it’s been a full month since I last updated this blog!

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Steve finally had a good day fishing, and then we were glad to leave Pine Island at the end of February. Not that Pine Island isn’t nice, but South Florida is crammed full of RVers and snowbirds that time of year and that makes everything overpriced and crowded.

 

So we stopped to visit my daughter in Saint Petersburg,

 

…and then it was on to Tallahassee by way of Lake City. Now, Lake City, being the intersection of I-10 and I-75, is a town I’ve been through literally dozens, if not hundreds, of times in the decades I lived in Florida. But honestly, I never thought of it as an actual place, just as an intersection with a bunch of hotels, truck stops, and fast-food restaurants. However, we found that it is a town with some charming neighborhoods and at least one good restaurant. We always prefer local places when we can, so when we discovered Shirley’s for breakfast, we were tickled pink! It’s a real down-home Southern diner with friendly service great food at good prices.

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Shirley’s

We booked a cheap motel room for the night and dropped our motor home off at Rush Truck Center for an oil change, generator service, and tie rod boots. The work wound up taking a day longer so we stayed two extra nights. We were very impressed by this shop, and so we’re happy to learn they are a nationwide chain of truck mechanic centers!

 

It was the beginning of Spring Break season, and we were chagrined to learn that the only campground that had a site available close in to town was, shall we say, not a luxury RV resort. When city snobs say, “trailer park,” this is the image that they are calling to mind. But, it was close driving distance to both our storage locker and two of our childrens’ houses, so we sucked it up and stayed all week.


Here’s what we DIDN’T do when we were back in Tallahassee: we didn’t drive by our old house. We didn’t visit my old clinic or Steve’s old office. None of our old friends seemed to be able to get away for a visit. It seems that the only two things tying us to Florida’s capital city any longer are blood and possessions. We sifted through the possessions in storage and disposed of a few more of them. We spent some time with Steve’s daughter, She Who is Very Jealous of Her Privacy, and also with my son Ben, also known as the famous DJ, Wyreluse. But our roots have finally pulled away after two years of travel. There’s a little melancholy there, but I wouldn’t trade anything for my peripatetic life! It’s a great feeling of freedom!

 

Next Post: Willie!

Quick Break: Playa Del Carmen

Peri at Ceviche restaurant

Those of you devoted souls who have been following me for a while know that I spent a year in Ecuador and loved it! Those who don’t know, you can check out the epic saga at https://goodbyeusahelloecuador.wordpress.com/. Anyhow, we are now exploring our beautiful home country by RV, but with an eye to moving somewhere wonderful in Latin America eventually. High on the list of expat escapes recommended by all and sundry is the Yucatán peninsula. So, while our home-on-wheels was safely tucked for two months into a cozy spot on Pine Island, Florida, we decided to hop the Gulf of Mexico and check it out.

We found a really excellent fare on Spirit Airlines. Their no-frills fares allow you to travel light at reduced cost. You pay extra for things like checked or carry-on baggage,fullsizeoutput_a16 food and beverages on board, pre-selected seats, etc.. For a two-hour flight to a tropical destination, who needs a lot of baggage? And who cares where you’re sitting? Although I did spring for pre-selected “big” seats; I love what Spirit has done here: planes with pre-installed first-class seating up front, but none of the unnecessary perks that go with the First Class or Business Class experience. So we paid $45 extra and got seats which we could actually fit our obese American bodies into comfortably. This eliminated the ordeal of sitting through the flight with our arms and ankles crossed, which we usually have to accept when we fly coach, without paying multiple times the ticket price! I can buy my own champagne once we land, thank you very much. Another thing I really like about Spirit is that they break out the costs of government fees, taxes, and regulations on your invoice. So we could see that the actual price of our ticket was only about 1/3 of what we paid; the remaining 2/3 was broken out and itemized under the main heading of “Government’s Cut.” It did my libertarian heart good to know that everyone who flies Spirit will see that (maybe they’ll start wondering what OTHER things in their lives would cost 1/3 as much without government fees and taxes?).

Mexico: original Beetle's last stand!
Mexico: original Beetle’s last stand!

We flew into CUN, Cancún airport, and after breezing through Customs, we visited an ATM to get pesos. Quick tip: in Mexico, they use the $ symbol to refer to pesos. At first I got only 200 pesos, thinking I was getting US$200 worth of pesos. 200 pesos is about US$10! Not quite as much as I would need; though things in Mexico are inexpensive, they aren’t that inexpensive. Once that was sorted out, we skirted a few people who tried to be best friends with us in order to sell us tours or transportation right in the airport terminal. We knew we were in a party destination when we passed the giant Margaritaville™ outdoor tiki bar selling beer and ritas at noon right out in front of the terminal, on the sidewalk to ground transportation.

 

We hopped on a clean, comfy ADO bus for $13 (65 pesos) and we were off. All the airport and bus personnel were smiling, friendly, and eager to help. Less than an hour later, we were off the bus in the crazy commercial pedestrian tourist strip of Playa Del Carmen (PDC) a block from the beach and the aquamarine, azure, and indigo waters of the Caribbean. We sorted out our phone situation (my company doesn’t have service in Mexico, though some US companies do) by purchasing a $5 SIM card to pop into my iPhone and $10 worth of calls and data, and a cab deposited us at our hotel.
Now, I am not an all-inclusive-resort kinda girl. What’s the point of visiting a foreign country if you are just going to cocoon yourself with other pampered tourists? The hotel I’d scoped out on Trip Advisor was Claro De Luna, a mile or so back from the beach in a quiet local neighborhood. Roberto, the owner, speaks Italian and Spanish, and his right-hand-man Gustavo speaks Spanish and a little English. My Spanish is adequate and enthusiastic, if sometimes comical, so we were able to get by. The place itself is a converted hacienda-style home with a walled garden, small pool, tiled floors and high ceilings. The room was sparsely furnished, and it was obvious that Roberto had done some of the work himself, but it did include a small kitchenette. For the very inexpensive price, it was positively luxurious.

Ivy covered apartment buiding next to colorful storefront with small sidewalk tree
A typical Playa del Carmen street

We told Gustavo we wanted to try local food, and he recommended a really awesome place, el Faisan y el Venado (The Pheasant and the Deer), only a few blocks from the hotel. The rustic charm of the high, thatched roof and sturdy wooden furniture got us to relax right away, and the food was amazing! I think their longaniza de venado (venison sausage), which we got for an appetizer, is one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten at any restaurant in a long time. We asked the waiter to bring us his favorite dish, and the colchinita pibil, a spicy, savory pork stew, was out of this world. We ate there twice more during our ten days in PDC.

Steve at dinner with rustic art behind him
Steve at el Faisán y el Venado

I’d been following Q-roo Paul‘s blog and he certainly made the area sound inviting! We had planned to take the bus to various places around the peninsula on a check-out trip. In particular, we’d heard that Mérida is a beautiful colonial city, similar in many ways to our beloved Cuenca in Ecuador. But after 48 hours of feeling our feet swell and our clothes soak through in the tropical heat, we were having serious doubts about the whole “moving to the Yucatán” concept. I stopped in for a gel manicure (300 pesos, US$15) and the lovely salon owner who did the job told me that it was nice and cool in PDC this time of year (February), but that Mérida is at least 5ºC hotter and has no ocean breezes. That did it! We now knew that the Yucatán was not the place for us! We decided to just melt into the vacation vibe of PDC and enjoy the beach, and save Mérida for another trip.

Seagulls soaring over the beach at Playa Del Carmen
Seagulls soaring over the beach at Playa Del Carmen

We spent several days during our trip lolling on the beach and sipping margaritas and mojitos. Though much of the beach is monopolized by the aforementioned all-inclusive resorts, there are several beach bars/restaurants which rent out a chaise with umbrella for around US$8 and serve you drinks and food whenever you get hungry or thirsty. It’s an idyllic way to relax and savor the tropical ambience. The tourist strip of 5th Avenue is a block away, where shopkeepers will shout, “Hey, it’s me, Pablo from the resort!” to try and get you in the door to buy things that are “almost free.” We did give in and get some local tequila, some shell jewelry, and couple of items of clothing.

Blankets and hammocks under the thatched roof of the souvenir shop at Coba
“Come in. Almost free!”

We also booked a snorkeling trip out to the reef just offshore. I love snorkeling, and the beautiful blue water was clear that day and concealed a magical world of colorful fish and vibrant corals. It is rumored that you can see sea turtles there, but not that day. (Sorry, no photos; we didn’t pack the waterproof camera).

 

During one of our exploration walks, we wound up wandering into one of the big commercial condominium developments that are taking over that part of the Mayan Riviera. The contrast with the vibrancy of PDC’s actual neighborhoods was stark: wide, car-oriented streets with no one walking on them, no shops or businesses of any kind, artificial landscaped islands of mulched vegetation. Again, I mused, why do people flee the USA and then bring the lifestyle they’ve left behind along?

 

Back downtown, I found a well-reviewed local dentist and stopped into the office. I had broken two lower incisors not long after returning to the US.  They told me to come back in an hour, and within a few minutes whisked me back to a modern dental suite reeking of antiseptics. The dentist pointed out that the ends of my teeth were cracking off because they were spreading apart, and I mentioned that that was because of a cyst in my jaw. She asked if I’d considered having it removed, and I explained the endodontist didn’t think that was a good idea because I could lose the surrounding teeth in the process. She asked if it was growing, and when I told her I’d had two X-rays five years apart showing no growth, she said, “Perfecto!

Teeth after reconstruction.
All fixed!

And started to work. She reconstructed the incisors and carefully burred down the opposing teeth so they’d fit correctly. Within the hour I was out the door, for 1200 pesos (US$60). Another reason I want to leave the US: in the US, I can either afford to pay for health insurance, OR I can afford to pay for non-covered services, deductibles, and copayments. I had hopes that the Baboon who won the election would do the one thing that he’d promised that I approved of, and repeal the idiotic system that his predecessor forced into place, but apparently it is not to be; regulations are more easily made than repealed. I just hope that he doesn’t sour the Mexican people on all Americans (I’ve heard a few anecdotes about expats in Mexico being treated quite rudely by their neighbors since the election).

 

We also booked a full-day tour that promised a swim in a cenote (a swimming hole in a limestone sinkhole cave), an authentic local lunch, a trip to a ruin we could climb, and a visit to the famous ruin of Tulum. I was highly skeptical that we could cover all that in one day without being rushed and frantic, but our tour guide Alejandro was knowledgeable, professional, and pleasant while keeping us on time yet relaxed.

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We reached the ruin of Coba, one of the few Mayan ruins where visitors are still allowed to climb to the top. Now, I am disabled due to arthritis, but that day I was feeling really good. I remembered my last visit to a Mayan pyramid in Belize years earlier, where I was afraid to climb it because it was slippery after a rainstorm. Today was a brilliant blue-skied hot day, so I determined to make it to the top. I took my time, stopping for several rest breaks on the way up (got my HIIT workout), and the view of the surrounding Yucatán jungle was spectacular from the top! Tiny swallows darted in and out of the treetop canopy. “So,” I said loudly to no one in particular, “when does the helicopter come to pick us up?”

Steve in the middle of a suspended bridge high in the air.
Out on the swinging bridge!

(That got a laugh from the other climbers around me!) The trip down was performed on my butt; no pride! That left me limping the next day (eccentric muscle contractions cause muscle soreness), but it was totally worth it.

The village of local Mayans who hosted us for the cenote swim were very welcoming. They consider the cenotes sacred and so they had a little ceremony by a village priest before we went for our swim. Alejandro pointed out that, while the prayer (in Mayan, so I had to take his word for this) was a Christian prayer, it contained elements of indigenous ritual as well. The buffet-style lunch included corn, rice, peppers, savory meat dishes, lentil stew, and lots of chilled lemonade and hibiscus tea (not too sweet!).

Typical local dishes served at lunch during the Altournative day trip.
Typical local dishes served at lunch during the Altournative day trip.

Tulum was beautiful. It’s one of the most visited prehistoric sites on the planet, and it’s been landscaped with winding pathways on the grounds reminiscent of Central Park or Biltmore estates. A cliff overlooks the sea, and there are plenty of moments to reflect on the civilization that rose and fell in this region so long ago.

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Our final evening in PDC was February 14, Valentine’s Day. We discovered one of the benefits of our recently-acquired Old Fart status: when you are ready for dinner at 5:00 pm, you can get into a really nice restaurant without a reservation even on Valentine’s Day! Bovino’s Churrascaria offers a premium dinner buffet along with traditional Brazilia rodizio-style meat service, where the waiters carry around spits of roasted meats and slice them off right at your table. We savored our desserts as the staff frantically assembled tables for two with special champagne and rose settings for the holiday. The next day it was back to CUN on ADO, then onto Spirit again.

Pyramid of ceviche with visible octopus tentacle.
Serious ceviche!

I forgot to put my Swiss Army knife into my checked bag and got kicked back from security scanning. My bag had already gone to the holding room, so I asked the aged woman cleaning the bathrooms if she had a grandson who might like the knife. She smiled happily and took it for her nieto gladly.

 

On reaching the US, the experience of going through US passport control and customs could not have been more different than our reception in Mexico. As I shuffled along in line, being shouted at by blue-gloved goons, I reflected on all the failed hotels and empty restaurants in Florida’s foundering tourist areas. Where have all the international tourists gone, who used to flock to Florida every year? I found them! They are on the white sand beaches of the Mexican Riviera, enjoying the relaxed sense of personal freedom and the reasonable prices, chattering away in German and Dutch and Italian and Portuguese, as well as Aussie and British English, and of course, Spanish. They don’t care for the hostility that greets them when they arrive at our airports. And who can blame them? I certainly don’t.

 

RV Quick Tip: Jewelry Storage

One thing I enjoy about getting older: my jewelry collection has grown over the years and I have lots of “sparklies” to wear. When I came back from Latin America, one thing I looked forward to was being able to wear my ornaments without worrying that they made me look like a wealthy gringa, an inviting target for grab-and-run petty thefts.

What I didn’t count on was the difficulty of keeping jewelry in an RV. The full-time RV lifestyle requires rigid discipline regarding what you keep because space is at a premium (as is weight, but that’s a topic for a different post). Steve and I almost had an argument over an empty jelly jar a couple of days ago. (Me: “What are you keeping this for?” Him: “I might use it.” Me: “What are you going to use it for?” Him: “Well, nothing in particular…” Me: “It’s garbage.” And out it went.)

 

Tangled necklaces with RV window in background
The problem: necklaces tangle hopelessly!

So, we share a single, 40-inch wide closet and one large bureau-style drawer. I gave up my jewelry armoire with regret and packed my jewelry in hanging backs with sew-on rows of clear plastic zippered pouches, which work really well for rings, bracelets, and earrings. Necklaces, not so much. I tried putting the chains through drinking straws, but that didn’t really do much to stop the tangling.

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Velcro tabs to hold necklaces apart

At Michael’s craft store with my darling daughter, I discovered this: it’s a craft organizer, I suppose, but it’s PERFECT for storing my jewelry in the RV. It took me almost an hour to untangle the necklaces, but look how pretty and organized it looked when I was done!  I hope it works as well as it looks like it will. I’ll keep you lady RVers posted.

Necklaces held in place with velcro tabs
Think they’ll stay untangled?

If you’d like some more tips and advice about ways to make the most of the limited storage space in an RV, let me know using the feedback form below! Thanks!