Miami Everglades Resort: Miami Florida

Miami Everglades Resort has some of the nicest, on-sight recreation options of any park we have been to. I really liked it here, Trail was less enthusiastic, but it’s the only park we have booked twice in our travels; once going south, and again on our way north.

We Paid: $64 per night for 4 nights
Discounts Used: Thousand Trails Encore
Address (GPS Link): 20675 SW 162nd Ave Miami, FL 33187
Website: www.rvonthego.com/florida/miami-everglades-rv-resort
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Games Room, Rec Room, Pool, Jacuzzi, Playground, Shuffleboard, Miniature Golf, Basketball, Pickleball, Dog Run, Wireless, Cable TV, Fishing, Bathrooms, Showers, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane, Pay to Use Wireless
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Beautiful outdoor recreation facilities
  • Attractive Park Environment

Worst Features

  • Difficult to maneuver into some sites

This course even has a hole where you can put into a stream and the ball will end up back on the course. So cool!

If you read my reviews, you may know I like miniature golf. I am here to tell you that Miami Everglades has the nicest miniature golf course at an RV park that I have yet encountered. It is pretty much a picture perfect 18 holes of well-maintained putting pleasure. In case you were wondering, I bested Trail by 3 strokes on the course. Their Shuffle Board and other outdoor sports facilities are likewise top of the line and immaculately maintained. The pool is great too, so if you like to spend your park time out in the sun, this is a fantastic park.

The parking spots themselves are something of a mixed blessing. I enjoyed all the greenery and copious shade offered by the many lovely trees. Trail was annoyed with all the leaf litter on our site that was not cleaned up by park staff. The trees and relatively small parking areas also made for some challenges getting in and out of our space. The hookup for the sewer was high compared to the spot for parking making it difficult to drain our tanks on leaving the park. The greenery also has the advantage of attracting a lot of wildlife. The park has a lot of lizards on the property that you can find scuttling around keeping the bug populations well in check. There are also many birds including a pair of ibis wandering the grounds.

Everglades resort is chock full of lizards. This guy was hanging out with us while we did laundry.

The only disappointment is that the wireless is pay to play. This tends to mean you get better service but given the prices of parks in Florida, it feels excessive to have paid wireless when other parks which charge less for rent offer it free.

While the price is not low by national standards, Miami Everglades Resort was less expensive than parks to the north and south of us. It is located close to Miami and Everglades park, making it a great base for lots of different adventures. By Florida standards, it is a very good value. Compared to the rest of the country it is very expensive. I give it a solid recommendation.

 

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Upriver RV Resort: Fort Myers, Florida

Upriver RV is located on the banks of the Caloosahatchee river in Fort Myers, Florida. The price point is high, as are most parks in southern Florida, but it lives up to its Resort status for the most part.

Nights: 3
RV Park Cost: $222 ($74/night)
Discounts Used: Good Sam
Address: 17021 Upriver Drive  North Fort Myers, Florida 33917
GPS: 26.711625, -81.785575
Website: www.upriver.com

Pros

  • River access
  • Nice New Pool
  • Large Sites

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Very Small Laundry and Bathrooms
  • No Wireless on Site

This is a nice view of the premium parking spaces. Like all Florida RV parks, they have Palm trees here.

The Details

One of the cool features of Upriver RV is that a canal from the river extends into the park and you can rent cabins on the canal that come with their own private dock. While there are no RV spots on the water line it is still accessible to anyone in the park. The rest of the park is surrounded by dense everglades vegetation and makes for a nice environment.

The park amenities were mostly in good condition. We sprang for one of the premium sites which had a full concrete pad and patio as well as brand new hookups. It was only about $8 per night extra and was the only pull through option when we made our reservation. Not all the sites were as new or as well appointed but nor were any of them especially sketchy like we have seen at other Florida RV parks.

They just put in a new pool and it was one of the nicer once’s we have seen. We were too busy during our brief stay to make use of it but it featured two large pools and a very large and well-appointed deck area. The library and game room were also large and comfortable. Unfortunately, wireless internet was limited to their pool and clubhouse areas. The clubhouse did have decent places you could plug in and work but is not available late at night.

Their pool was completed this year and is picture perfect.

While the bathrooms and laundry were conveniently located int he park at multiple locations, they were very small and not especially nice. The laundry lacked a good location to sit while using it, and the bathrooms/showers rate as adequate. If you want to shower I suggest heading over to the pool.

Normally I’d be very disappointed with the price, vs the overall quality of the park, but in south Florida, every park is charging these kinds of prices. Upriver RV has its ups and downs, but I think overall it get’s a passing grade due to the parts of the park they have recently renovated.

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Fiesta RV Resort, Fiesta Key, Florida

Fiesta RV Resort is not only located on Fiesta Key, it takes up the entirety of Fiesta Key. Not shockingly, the views are lovely but the price is among the highest of any RV park you are likely to find.

Nights: 7
RV Park Cost: $605.25  ($86/night)
Discounts Used: Thousand Trails Encore
Address: 70001 Overseas Highway Long Key, FL 33001
GPS: 24.839970, -80.792233
Website: www.rvonthego.com/florida/fiesta-key-rv-resort

Pros

  • Located in the Florida Keys
  • Full restaurant-bar on property
  • Fishing, snorkeling and other water recreation on property

Cons

  • Dirty bathrooms and showers
  • Expensive
  • Under Staffed
  • Amenities in poor repair
  • Pay to use internet

This was the view from our pad at Fiesta. The Florida Keys are as pretty. The Fiesta Key park, a bit less so.

The Details

The Florida Keys cater to people that want to get drunk and play in the water. We fall into the latter category but there is plenty here to cater to both. Fiesta key lives up to its name and the atmosphere is more “beach shack party” than “tropical resort.” A lot of the infrastructure is somewhat worn down and in need of some TLC but it has amenities and features that are very compelling and convenient.

The west side of the resort is where most of the action is. There is a huge elevated pool overlooking the ocean as well as a restaurant and bar. You can go swimming in the ocean, bring your boat, or rent paddleboards and the like. The shoreline is mostly rocky rather than sandy beaches but it is not hard to get in and out of the water. The water is full of life so it makes for great snorkeling and exploration as well as for good fishing. Some of the deluxe cabins here are right on the northern sea wall so you can step off your front porch and go fishing.

We were warned that we’d be packed in like sardines at RV parks in the Keys, but I can say that is not the case here. Our pull through had ample room on either side. While not especially roomy, the space available is about average for a smaller park. There are cabins, rental RVS, and tent camping spots here as well. Unlike many parks we visit, the tent camping was popular here with lots of younger campers here to party and socialize. The overall atmosphere is very different from a typical RV resort which tends to have an older and quieter population.

I’ve become quite a fan of Pelicans. You get a lot of opportunities to see them up close in the Keys. This guy was at the boat docks on Fiesta Key.

Our first experience at the park spoke to poor management. As we arrived the gate attendant was overwhelmed with visitors without any organized help. Shortly thereafter we went to the restaurant where we found they were also understaffed. As we arrived others were leaving complaining loudly about the service. Sure enough, we had a long wait including people who took our order and promptly forgot about it. We were happy to just hang out until they sorted things out but it was clear they too were overwhelmed. All around the park things were in some state of disrepair or disorder. Not so much that it got in our way, but obviously there was a lack of direction and oversight here as well as too few employees to take care of the guests and the park.

Another disappointment is that the wireless was strictly pay-to-use with no assurance you could get a good signal at your site. A few locations in the park have networks that guests can connect to, but the only one with good seating, the restaurant, asks you not to use your computer while sitting there. The restrooms here were especially dismal. No doubt they must contend with hurricanes, salty air, and partying college students, but the broken air conditioners and tiny stalls made it feel like a cramped dirty sauna.

For swimming, you can take your pick of the freshwater pool or a dip in the salty ocean. This was taken before the evening’s revelers arrived.

Ultimately, Fiesta RV is about its location more than the park itself. There is a lot of value in being able to see stingrays and manatees 50′ from where you are parked and you will pay for the privilege. No park in the keys is cheap. Fiesta Key could, however, use some real improvement so I won’t recommend it if you are visiting the Keys for that reason. Chances are, one of the others may be a better run while enjoying the same seaside attractions. In short, it’s not bad, but you can probably do better.

This is another strike for us against the Thousand Trails park network. So far, all of the parks we have stayed at have been expensive and flawed in some fashion when compared to out of network parks at a similar price point.

 

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On Second Thought, Forget The Alamo

Why did we choose to forget the Alamo? Well, it all began with a desire to see The Alamo while we were near San Antonio, Texas. It is probably the most famous place in Texas, at least it was for me. The Alamo Mission is one of many old Spanish missions in San Antonio. They have set up a long, sprawling park that encompasses 4 large historic missions. The Alamo is actually not part of that park but is its own historic site in the heart of San Antonio. The park is called the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.

A Little History

It is most famous for its galvanizing role in the Texas war of independence in which the American and Mexican settlers in the region decided to declare independence from Mexico. The Alamo Mission was the location of a famous battle, one in which the Texans were defeated and all the defenders killed. Tales of their valor inspired others to join the cause for independence and eventually emerge as victorious. Later, Texas voluntarily succeeded to the United States becoming a state. It was originally called Misión San Antonio de Valero but was renamed the Alamo after it stopped being used as a mission and was later used as a military fort.

These missions were not designed to remain missions forever. They were built as part of Spain’s colonization efforts in the Americas. Missionaries would establish a base of operations, preach to the local peoples, and teach them the Spanish way of life. Spanish military units would be stationed to defend the mission, scout the area, and stake Spain’s claim to the land. The idea was that after the missionaries had established Spanish culture and religion, they would convert the missions into civic centers.

Each mission is unique but they have some common characteristics. There is usually a large chapel building at the center of the mission. There are protective walls and defenses intended to repel raids by hostile native American groups. They have simple housing for the natives who join the mission culture and work there. And they have some kind of industry set up, typically geared towards construction and tool making. It is the fortifications that lent them to becoming forts after the missionaries left.

I find the craftsmanship of older era’s interesting. I really liked these iron hinges found in all the mission buildings.

Our Visit

Our plan was for an all day outing where we would visit the Missions, culminating in the Alamo. The Missions are each a few miles apart, so you have some choices. You can walk from one to another, but if you want to visit them all, that is a serious hike. You can drive from one to the next, which is what we did. The roads are winding but they form a large loop from one mission to the next with neighborhoods and other park areas in between. You can also take public transportation or a bicycle. I think that last option might be the ideal way to experience them. Trail is not fond of cycling so we stuck with the truck.

All the sites have a few qualities in common. They are a mix of original ruins, reconstructed buildings, and newer structures built to replace older ones. Each of the missions here features an active catholic church, either in the original mission chapel or in a somewhat newer, but still period building. Outside they appear to be very old buildings, often in semi-ruin. Inside they have been modernized to some degree and accommodate modern worship service which you can attend. You may want to time your visit to coincide with service, or to avoid it depending on the experience you want to have. We visited when there were no services held and that let us wander around and take pictures inside.

Each site also gives you a good overview of mission culture. While some of the interpretive signs are specific to each mission, there are others that appear at each site which give you the overall history of Spanish missions in New Spain. The presentations are very thoughtful and appear to be updated with the times. They offer a lot of information both about the missions and the impact they had, without a lot of judgment. It is up to you to decide how you feel about the history and make your own judgments. I’ll go over mine a little later, but suffice to say I learned a great deal during my visit and found it fascinating.

Mission San Jose features a very large courtyard enclosed by a defensive wall.

Mission San Jose

This is the largest and grandest of the Missions in the park and also where you can find the park’s visitors center. The outer wall of the mission has been rebuilt and gives you a good idea of how the fortifications worked. They stand about 15 feet tall and include ports for using firearms or arrows against attackers. The interior of the thick stone and adobe walls make for residents for the native residents of the mission. Within the walls is a large courtyard where the other buildings of the mission would be. The main chapel here is the grandest of those you can visit and still has many of its original decorations. Some of it stands in ruins, but part of that is simply unfinished work.

Stepping inside, like all the missions you are struck by the beauty of the chapel and it’s comparatively modern decorations. The juxtaposition of the historic and crumbling exterior and the painted and air conditioned interior is striking. Trail grew up in the Catholic church so the symbolism and decorations are well familiar to her. We often play, “name the saint” when visiting catholic chapels. I found this mission to have the most educational material due to its size and the number of buildings they have reconstructed to demonstrate how they were originally used.

This is Mission San Jose’s chapel. It is a far cry from the old stone of the church’s exterior seen above.

Mission Concepcion

Mission Concepcion stands out as having the best-preserved chapel and grounds of the four. Not only is much of the exterior structure still in place, work here has managed to surface the original frescos by removing layers of dirt that have accumulated and obscured them. Much of its longevity is owed to it being built on solid bedrock as where most of the others were on less stable ground leading to structural failures. Most of the others had their roof fail when the building shifted which leads to a faster pace of decay for the rest of the building.

The painting here is original to the mission, cleaned and enhanced without adding additional paint.

Mission San Juan

Mission San Juan is mostly in ruins. The Church that is in use here today was originally intended as a grain storage building. The original church was built of mud and straw while the intended replacement was never finished. The church you do find here is also under threat from the unstable soil and was shored up in 2015.  Inside it is a remarkably beautiful chapel, decorated in what struck me as a more folk art style than the others. I really liked the atmosphere. While we were there, a family was gathering for a wedding ceremony and a native group was warming up for a dance performance in the central yard. Both added to the atmosphere of the place and stressed that it is still a living part of the community here.

Mission San Juan’s small chapel captures both qualities of humility and grace.

Mission Espada

Mission Espada is one of the smaller mission sites. It has one remaining wall and a rebuilt chapel. In addition to the working church, there is a catholic gift shop here that supports the maintenance of the building. There is a nice shaded porch with chairs and benches where you can take a break and enjoy the lovely garden they maintain in front of the church. I had a seat and chatted with an older woman who was also enjoying the beautiful day and cool breezes. There is also a small museum at this site, but it was not open when we visited.

Mission Espada’s courtyard is a peaceful place to relax while exploring the Missions.

The Alamo (We have not forgotten it…. yet)

Our final stop was to be The Alamo which is not part of the park and is right in the Heart of Downtown San Antonio. By the time we were headed there, we’d eaten and gotten some rest but we’d been exploring missions for a good 6 hours. It was also late afternoon on a Saturday with perfect 75-degree weather and clear blue skies. In short, it was a perfect day for heading downtown to see the Alamo or to do some shopping. As a result, the narrow streets of the city were jam packed with traffic and the parking lots were overflowing.

Trail, being the worrying kind, had planned ahead and found the best parking spot in the city. Unfortunately, this information was no secret and we found that the lot was both full of parked cars, and full of parking seekers circling the narrow lot looking for spaces. In our rather large truck, this made for a deeply stressful and unpleasant experience. After 15 nail-biting minutes, I gave up on the lot and started looking elsewhere. The only open lots we could find were covered garages and Trail was not at all keen on taking our truck into one of those. I was starting to become quite frustrated and stressed. It was at this point I said, “Honey, let’s just forget the Alamo.”

This feature of Mission San Jose is called the Rose Window. Perhaps we can come here to ask for forgiveness for not visiting the Alamo while in Texas.

Reflections on Spanish Missions

Everywhere we travel in America tells a dual story. As the United States expanded and established itself, the native cultures were forced to retreat, assimilate, or face destruction. In the south, Spain plays a third role in the story as the first western contact. It is interesting to compare and contrast the approach to conquest taken by Spain vs that of America. Of course, neither of these are happy stories for most native peoples, but the character of them is different.

On the American side, you have the theme of manifest destiny which is essentially just that northern Europeans are destined by god to rule the world and everyone else either needs to bow down or will be dominated by force, which is exactly how they operated. Neither capitulation nor resistance did those they opposed any good in the end. The missionaries seemed to genuinely feel they were bringing gifts rather than mandates. They wanted to offer their faith, which they felt was everlasting salvation and their culture which they thought was an end to starvation and predation by rival tribes. And for some native groups, it was an attractive offer.

Ultimately, it’s not clear they did all that much for them. Spain lost the territory and the US program of clearing out indigenous Americans for white settlers was what they were subject to anyway. The missions were all abandoned. But it is clear that in most of latin America, the Spanish settlers and the native people effectively mixed and brought about a new hybrid culture, as where in America, the native people are essentially relegated to rural slums. What would America be like today if the mission style system of assimilation were to have been favored over manifest destiny?

Is think there is any practical purpose to such considerations? Well-intentioned or not, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas spelled disaster for everyone living here. Even if the Europeans had not tried to conquer and settle, the pathogens they brought wrought apocalyptic havoc among the native populations. And whatever the missionaries intent, the Spanish state was by no means gentle or kind with the native cultures they encountered. Now we have a world where every culture is connected to some degree. Only a few very isolated remote tribes are protected from the modern world. Still, we do find ourselves in situations where we feel compelled to help another culture or find ourselves in conflict, and we face questions of what counts as help or exchange, and what counts as domination and coercion.

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Orange Blossom KOA: Apopka, FL

At last, we have encountered a KOA park we really liked. Orange Blossom KOA boasts they are the friendliest RV park in Orlando and if our experience is any indication, they may well be right.

Nights: 4
RV Park Cost: $198 ($50/night)
Discounts Used: KOA Value Card
Address: 3800 W Orange Blossom Trail  Apopka, FL 32712
GPS: 28.699015, -81.573893
Website: www.orangeblossomkoa.com

Pros

  • Super friendly owners
  • Well maintained
  • Good, reliable wireless
  • Cable included

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Regular lots are a bit crowded
  • No clubhouse
  • Train noise

The Details

Normally when we arrive at a park, one of the questions the front desk asks is if we have pets. We always declare the two cats, something that goes unremarked since there are never any specific accommodations or rules for them. At Orange Blossom KOA we got a surprise. The receptionist handed us a special welcome package for our kitties including special treats and this note.

Needless to say, we were delighted and charmed by the gesture, taking an instant liking to the park. This was not, however, the last of its charms. The park is small but lovely with very large trees both in and around the park. Sunny Florida weather doubled down on the environment making for a very restful setting. Another boon was the strong and consistent wireless internet. We seem to have finally returned to a part of the country with internet backbone strong enough to handle a park full of campers. Of course, this being a small park also helps considerably.

The amenities are not outstanding but they get the job done. There is a central green space with a pool, laundry, showers and bathrooms. All of them are on the small side but in keeping with the scale of the park. Everything was clean and in good repair, though not especially modern. The hook-ups were in good shape and cable TV is included in the basic price. One thing they don’t have is a clubhouse, but there is a lot of seating by the pool and a nice fire pit area with benches. The lots are good and level, composed of a crushed clay like gravel. The rank and file spots are a bit crowded but they offer deluxe spots with lots of room for a bit more.

I am becoming a big fan of the trees in the southeastern US. They are gorgeous and make the parks very pretty here.

This brings me to the one thing we didn’t like so much which is the price. As we get deeper into Florida this will just keep going up. There is no way around the fact that the further you go into south Florida, the higher the RV prices will go. At least at Orange Blossom KOA they are trying to give you some value for your money with good service and a nicely maintained park. We finally bought a KOA membership card here as the discount meant we only paid an extra $10 for it. That should make it pay for itself at our next KOA stay and then start saving us money.

Considering the lack of lower priced alternatives, I’ll give Orange Blossom a thumbs up. Bargain hunting for RV spaces just isn’t feasible in this part of Florida so you should focus on quality and convenience in booking your stays.

 

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Trail and Hitch vs. Cranky Jack

It has been a while since our intrepid crew has faced off against our old adversary, the Atwood 3000 power jack. Our last encounter was Trail and Hitch vs the Immovable Object way back in November 2015. Well, my friends, this villain has returned and this time had earned the sinister nickname, “Cranky Jack.” Old Jack gave us quite a fight, and in the end, taught us some valuable lessons. Grab a grog and gather round as I tell the tale.

Darkness Stirs

The trouble began as we set out to leave our winter bunker of two months in Mission Texas. The morning of our departure we discovered the power jack on our Airstream refused our commands to raise or lower the trailer. Only silence greeted our flipping of the up and down switch. Our first suspicion was it had gotten a bit stuck as it had back in the Immovable Object challenge so we dug out the manual crank and I had a go.

After 2 months of not much more than sitting around and writing, I was not in good condition for hand cranking a 9K pound trailer. Making matters worse, instead of the low growling whine, Cranky Jack is supposed to make when handled thusly, he instead made a loud “Thunk Thunk Thunk” sound as the handle jerkily stuttered under my efforts. It felt like the gears were slipping rather than turning smoothly, making the task significantly harder and giving us further concerns.

Investigation Begins

Trail called for emergency exploratory surgery on old Jack. We took apart his plastic shell and poked around a bit at his innards. Everything looked normal enough. The few gears we could see appeared well fitted. We greased them a bit for good measure, looked at the electrical connections, all of which seemed fine to our untrained eyes. Eventually put him back together and tried the switch again to no avail.

Trail next turned her baleful eye to our batteries, which she claimed had been acting a bit suspicious as of late. She noticed one smoking a bit when refilling it and at only a year old they are much too young to be smoking. We decided to hook up shore power to test this theory but Cranky Jack remained silent despite the guaranteed power source. By this point, we were out of guesses and had to get on the road so I Thunk Thunk Thunked until I got the trailer hitched and we could get on the road. Unfortunately, the next repair place was near Dallas, 2 stops away from Mission.

Texas has the coolest cows of anywhere we have been. These longhorn cattle are great, so are the Brahman. What the heck else am I going to illustrate an article about a cantankerous power jack with?

Cranking Along

Old Cranky Jack and I got to be on rather intimate terms. I discovered that with some finesse, I could coax him into stopping his Thunking and get a nice smooth turn of the crank. When he wanted to behave, that made things much easier, when he didn’t, like the time we had to leave in the pouring rain, it was rather hellish going. On the positive side, my arms were getting a very nice workout every other day.

Arriving in Dallas we tried to set up a service appointment. Our first pick turned out not to do warranty work. Our second option did warranty work but didn’t have an appointment for another four weeks and that would be just to look at the darn thing. The were very helpful in asking if we checked the fuse. “Which fuse?” we asked. “The one directly leading to the jack,” he said, “that is the problem 9 times of 10.” Hope dawns! “I’ll check on that and call you back,” I told him. We actually had checked for fuses on the way out since our manual mentioned it, but we didn’t find the thing and it wasn’t clear where it was. All the fuses we could find looked fine, but faced with a 3-week delay in our journey, I was more motivated.

A New Hope

I crawled under the Airstream near the jack to give it a detailed look, not a comfortable position for a man of my size, but lo and behold I found it. It’s actually just a junction in the power cable leading from the jack to the batteries and if you pull the cable apart, the fuse is inside. Sure enough, it was blown! Huza, our problems were solved, get a new fuse and we are on our way. We drove over to an auto parts store, laughing at ourselves and picked up a new fuse.

But we would not have the last laugh. Cranky Jack had other things in mind and on replacing the fuse he remained stubbornly silent to our commands. We needed a new plan. Staying a full month in Dallas put us out of timeline for our further travels and we were learning there was no such thing as a quick appointment with a warranty service center. My new plan was to pick a spot where we would be staying for a week or more at least 4 weeks down the road where there was a service center. That ended up being Orlando, Florida. I called them up and booked a date for servicing Jack.

So we hand cranked our way to Orlando Florida from Dallas Texas. Cranky had his good and bad days but before too long we made it to Orlando in time for our service appointment. While my arms were feeling swole from the exercise, by the time we’d arrived the hand crank was starting to fall apart and metal shavings were coming of Cranky Jacks crank hole. Clearly, it was not intended for long term abuse of this kind.

Florida has the best reptiles, including this fellow. He gave us a great pose. Lots more to come on this guy and his buddies in future articles.

Lessons Learned

Trail had a good idea to scout out the service center ahead of time. It seemed silly to me but it turned out to be a wise move. Firstly, this shop was right in the middle of an urban area so the route to bring a 30′ airstream there was not an easy one. Also, there was significant construction in the area. Even though it meant some extra gas and time, we were able to sort the best route and not have to do any guesswork when it came time to take the trailer there. We also talked with the technicians to see how long they would need the trailer for so we could figure out what to do with the cats.

While talking to the service center folks, they noted our Washington state plates which pretty much amounts to a far and exotic land in Florida. We proudly mentioned we were full timers as we usually do. Their faces went dark for a moment and they said something like, “I didn’t hear what you just said, living in your trailer voids your warranty.” “Right, I said we are having a great time on our Florida vacation,” I replied. Neither our dealer nor the other places we’d had warranty work done had mentioned this important bit of info and sadly we had not read the fine print. An important lesson learned.

The Final Fate of Cranky Jack

But what of Cranky Jack? Well, when we brought the trailer in they looked it over and noted that the batteries were dead and on testing them, their equipment called for them to be replaced. We’d had our suspicions about the batteries but it didn’t actually get in our way so we’d let them be. We asked for them to be replaced. Once that was sorted, they looked at the Jack. It turned out that one of the wires was loose on the activation switch and that it worked just fine once connected to the new batteries. Old Cranky Jack was not so cranky after all, just a victim of circumstance.

With all the evidence at my disposal, I mentally reconstructed the series of likely events. First, our batteries went bad. That likely caused the fuse to blow out. In our attempt to figure out what was wrong we opened the jack up and likely inadvertently disconnected the switch wire while putting it back together. Later when we fixed the fuse, the wire had come loose so it still didn’t work leading us to think it was just broken. If we’d done a better job maintaining the battery, we’d not have run into this series of unfortunate events.

As you can see, Jack has suffered a bit of hardship since we took his picture back in 2015 (as seen in the cover image).

The Aftermath

That brings us to our last lesson. For a while now, Trail and I have disagreed about what to do with our battering disconnect switch. I recalled the dealer telling me to always leave it on unless you were putting the RV into long term storage. Trail felt that it should only be on when not connected to shore power so she turns it off most of the time. Trail tends to “win” such arguments so she turned it off when we were on shore power and when towing.

Well, since the batteries had died, I re-opened the great debate. Fortunately, at the service center, there was an Airstream technician who Trail agreed would be the final word on this disagreement. I am not shy to report my triumphant victory. The service technician confirmed that you should leave the battery connected at all times, only turning it off for long term storage. Further that an RV parked at home should be plugged in once a week at least to keep the batteries charged. And finally, the clincher, that turning the switch off is a good way to destroy the batteries. Trail graciously accepted the judgment and we agreed in future the switch would stay on.

So our tale ends as so many of life’s challenges do, with us a little poorer in cash, and a little richer in knowledge. Cranky Jack has returned to grace as the honorable Admiral Atwood and we continue our journey of discovery.

The true villains of the Cranky Jack saga.

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Three Flags RV Resort:

Three Flags RV Resort is our first stay at a Thousand Trails campground. Thousand Trails is a membership camping club where you pay a flat fee and can camp without cost at a number of parks. We bought a six-month pass for the eastern US to see if we could get value from it. As a result of the club deal, we didn’t pay specifically for this stay. The nightly rate listed is from their website for the winter season.

Nights: 4
RV Park Cost: $0* ($48/night)
Discounts Used:
Address: 1755 East State Road 44, Wildwood, FL 34785
GPS28.859248, -82.075270
Website:  www.thousandtrails.com/florida/three-flags-rv-campground

Pros

  • Large number of amenities
  • Community events
  • Lots of nice trees

Cons

  • Grass lots
  • Wireless is not free
  • Crowded
  • Expensive

There are a good number of shade trees in the park, though the grass lots make for uneven parking.

The Details

Three flags is a medium sized park but it is packed to the rafters with RVs. When we arrived the park was very nearly at maximum capacity. The roads are narrow as are most of the lots so it felt rather crowded compared to most RV parks we visit. We were further disappointed to discover all the lots were grass with no actual pads for parking. That mean that we had to do a fair bit more work than usual to get things leveled out. We are seeing more and more parks with grass parking spots as we travel into the southeast. They aren’t terrible, just a bit less convenient.

The park has a pretty full slate of amenities. I found the showers and restrooms to be about average in quality but well maintained. They also have a large club room and a pretty good schedule of events. They were preparing for a St Patric’s day event when we were there and I got the impression they have a fair number of longer term residents. They had a mini golf course which was simple but in good shape. This was the first park we have stayed at that had shuffleboard courts. There is a pool, though it is of modest size.

I did not try the wireless here because you had to pay separately for it. Since we have our own cell based service, we didn’t bother. I suspect it would not be especially good considering how many people were in the park and how few transmitters I saw. Considering the park is pretty expensive on its own, this felt cheap to me.

The pool room was on one end of the clubhouse. The tables were in good shape. Three flags doesn’t shirk on their maintenance.

The park borders woods and farms so it is a peaceful atmosphere. Many large shade trees are found throughout. There is not a lot of border area around the park however so opportunities to walk around and explore are limited. Nor were there many public areas to gather other than at the clubhouse.

As our first Thousand Trails stay, we were disappointed. They claim their parks are top notch, but this was more like a low to average quality park. Further, because it was so crowded, we could only manage to get 4 days here when our membership would allow us 14 days stay for free. It’s hard to get a lot of value when you can’t book a space. I hope this doesn’t become a trend for us.

If you have a membership, you might as well take advantage of it, but if you don’t I would not recommend Three Flags based on its price and what it offers. You could easily do better for less.

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Visiting Boquillas, Mexico

While at Big Bend National Park I made some noises about wanting to cross over into Mexico at least once just. I also wanted a taco. Of course, I’d love to go for a longer visit but our beloved kitty cats; Kia and Kekovar, are something of an obstacle to international travel. Getting them cleared to cross over would require some vet visits, some payments, and a fair bit of paperwork. Thus, for now, it’s day trips only to Canada and Mexico.

A little history

Fortunately for us, Big Bend has a fairly unique opportunity for visiting Mexico in the village of Boquillas del Carmen. Back in the 1930’s, there was a US-Mexico effort to improve relations between the two countries who had a troubled past mostly owing to the US taking a lot of their territory in war. They decided to try and create a peace park, which would take the form of a continuous national park spanning the border of  Texas and Mexico. The peace park never really came together. The US side did become Big Bend National Park but over on the Mexican side, it was pretty much a park in name only and little effort was made in preserving the landscape or wildlife.

The village of Boquillas del Carmen none the less came into being on the Mexico side and made a modest living from American tourists visiting the park on the US side, and then crossing over the Rio Grande to visit their small town. All that came to screeching halt after 9/11 and US visitors were prohibited from crossing there. The village shrank down to about 30 families and most of the business catering to tourists shut down. It was not until 2012 that the US re-opened the border crossing and life began to return to Boquillas del Carmen.

Boquillas, Mexico

Boquillas, Mexico. This is main street in the town. The electricity is a new thing and the green building is the main store in town.

Getting there

We didn’t do our research when heading to Boquillas. All we knew is there was a border crossing to a town in Mexico. I pictured one of those drive-through border crossings you see in the films or find on highways into Canada. I also imagined various businesses catering to American tourists in what I imagined to be a sleepy but roughly modern town. None of this was the case. While we had our passports with us, we were otherwise unprepared.

The Crossing is really just parking lot and a customs station on the US side run by homeland security. You cannot drive through, you must park and then walk through. You will need a passport and they will give you a breakdown of the rules of what you can bring through and what you can’t. Most of the focus is on not bringing back any animals, vegetables, or minerals local to the area as well as no booze or drugs. They also let you know that you will need to bring cash as there are no ATMs on the Mexican side and they don’t take credit cards anywhere.

Boquillas Boat Ride

Here is our boatman. I think he’s also essentially in charge of the guides and transportation efforts in the town.

After you pass through you will need to cross the Rio Grande. Your choices are to pay a gentleman to take you over in a rowboat, or to walk/swim across on your own. The boatman only takes cash. Same goes for everyone in the village of Boquillas so you will need to bring enough to pay for everyone’s crossing and whatever you intend to spend while there. Once across the river, you must make a short Journey to the village itself. You can either walk about a mile on a dusty road, hire a truck to take you or hire a mule/horse to carry you. While making these arrangements you can also employ a local as a guide to show you around at an hourly rate. Again, all cash, all in US dollars. The prices are not very steep. We paid $5 per head for the river crossing and decided to walk to the village.

Once you arrive you will need to check in with officials on their side. The woman we were directed to didn’t speak any English and asked us questions in Spanish that we couldn’t answer. We filled out some paperwork and given a stamp. We had been told there would be a fee by the US officials, but we were not asked to pay anything in the Village.

Two of the more adorable mounts you can choose from to take you up to the village.

What you will find there

Boquillas is a very small town of about 200 residents. Nearly all the houses are one story adobe dwellings and you can walk from one end of the town to the other in about 15 minutes. Many of the houses are painted in bright colors which look pretty from a distance. Nearly everyone you are likely to see in Boquillas is going to try and sell you something. They are not pushy, but everywhere in town the locals have set up little tables where they offer three things.

  1. Cloth banners with images painted on them, either religious, cartoon characters, or Mexican flags
  2. Agave Stalks that are painted with snakes or other colorful designs that make great walking sticks
  3. Little animal figurines sculpted from wire and glass beads

All of these crafts seem to either come from the same makers, or the village residents have all decided that these three things, in these particular styles, are the ultimate desire of your typical American tourist. Each is clearly hand made, but the style and subject matter is remarkably consistent. We were told on the US side that all these items were fine to bring back unless any stones were used in the figurines. We were also told not by buy painted stones but I didn’t see any for sale. We didn’t buy anything since we just don’t have room for novelties in the trailer but I did hand out quarters to small children who tried to ply me with these goods.

Folks from Boquillas, Mexico make trinkets and try to sell them at Big Bend National Park. You're not suppose to buy anything according to federal rules.

Here are some of the wire figures. These were actually on display inside the park with a tip jar so you can pay. It is actually illegal to buy these on the US side but that doesn’t seem to be strictly enforced.

There were a few businesses on what could best be called main street. The was a kind of internet cafe for the locals where we observed Mexican police or military with automatic rifles. There were a few restaurants, only two of which were open, and a bar or two that looked to be shuttered more or less permanently. Also a liquor store and possibly general store. One of the restaurants also served as an inn and had a gift shop that was selling more typical Mexican objects de-art. As of 2015, the Village has electric power through a nearby solar plant. Prior to that, it was generator only.

Notable non-commercial buildings include a single classroom school and the local church. Both have a lot of rustic charm to them with the church appearing to be one of the older buildings in town. I’ve come to appreciate than in many towns in the southwest, visiting the local historic Catholic church is almost always worthwhile and it was probably the most interesting single location in the town.

Most of the residents here do not speak English despite the prevalence of the tourist trade. The boatmen, some of the guides, and the owner of the restaurant we ate at were the only exceptions we encountered.

The landscape here is both beautiful and desolate. This shows some of the painted banners they sell everywhere in town.

Authentic Mexican food achieved

I like Mexican food, or at least I like some of what passes for Mexican food in the US. At least 90% of the Mexican restaurants I visit claim that they offer “authentic Mexican food” and I’ve always been highly dubious of those claims, especially after tasting them. So here I was with the opportunity to finally discover what was or was not “authentic.” I picked the larger of the two restaurants, the one with the inn and gift shop. It also had the distinction of having a nice patio where you could eat and look out over the Rio Grande.

I ordered a plate of red chili enchiladas which came with beans and rice. I spent a while reading the menu which had information about the history of the town. I asked our server about the history of the restaurant. It turned out she was actually its owner. She’d inherited it from her mother who ran it for some 30 years. It had shut down when the border was closed but her daughter had reopened it in the last few years. She claimed that the recipes they used were her mothers. I hadn’t asked, but this convinced me my meal would indeed be authentic Mexican food.

I was not disappointing. While it was not the best enchilada I’ve ever had, it was definitely in the upper echelon. The sauce was very nice and the chicken tasted fresh. It included some cotija cheese crumbled on top, though not a whole lot of it. All in all, it had a bright chili flavor with a little bit of heat. Great stuff. The beans were simple but good, and the rice was very soft with large grains, clearly cooked in a seasoned broth. Trail ordered tortilla chips and salsa as she just wasn’t very hungry. Both were clearly hand made. The salsa had a real kick and tasted super fresh. The chips were pretty thick and not all that great so far as corn chips go.

Based on this experience I’d say the Authenticity of most Mexican restaurants in the US is pretty suspect, but definitely not all. I’ve had some very similar enchiladas in a number of restaurants throughout the US. The most common departure is the use of cheddar cheese. Next up would be the enchilada sauce which gets sweetened in some Americanized restaurants. In total, and for enchiladas, I’d say the differences are not vast and for enjoyment, quality of ingredients and care in preparation matter more than Authenticity but I’m happy to have a standard for comparison now.

Here is the archway on the American side of the border crossing that leads down to the Rio Grande.

Wrapping up

If you visit Boquillas, you want to keep track of the time and get back before they US border crossing closes. Otherwise, you are going to have to stay at the inn on the Mexico side. We managed to get back with a bit of time to spare. The return boat ride is free. Curiously the return screening is done by videophone rather than by the official manning the border crossing. “Are you an American,” and “Did you bring anything back” were the only questions they asked us.

We had a very nice time exploring the village and trying out the food. I’d recommend it to anyone visiting the park or wanting to see a very rural version of Mexico. Just remember to bring some cash and don’t drink the water as it can make you sick if you aren’t used to it.

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A Stone’s Throw RV

A Stone’s Throw RV park is a small, largely self-serve park located near Tallahassee Florida. We found it to be efficient, clean, and a decent place for a short stay.

Nights: 2
RV Park Cost: $56 ($28/night)
Discounts Used: Good Sam
Address: 97 Cumberland Dr.  Lamont, FL 32336
GPS: 30.474009, -83.889024
Website: www.astonesthrowrvpark.com

Pros

  • Inexpensive
  • Clean

Cons

  • Limited amenities
  • Highway and train noise
  • Not so flat parking spaces

Here we are parked at Stone’s Throw. Notice the growing collection of national park stickers!

The Details

To park at Stone’s Throw RV you can either reserve a spot or just show up. Typically there is no staff on sight. You must pay on arrival by putting cash or charge information in an envelope and dropping it in a pay box. You can park in any available spot. The park is small, fenced in, and sits near the intersection of two highways. That makes it convenient for travelers but makes for a somewhat noisy night and no scenery to speak of. Neither of us found the noise disturbing to our sleep, but it was noticeable if you tuned into it.

The amenities are limited to one unisex bathroom and a single washer and dryer. Since it is a small park they are probably sufficient. The wireless was quite decent for part of the stay but stopped working on our second night. They have full 50 amp hookups, water, and sewer. The spaces are big enough for most rigs, but nearly all of them are at something of an angle, end to end. We had to jack our trailer down fairly low to get it level on what appeared to be one of the less steep sites.

The price is agreeable enough if you have a club discount. I’m not sure how they verify your membership so I suppose that’s on the honor system. Even without it is on the cheap side. You don’t get a lot, but I’ll happily take clean and minimalist at $30 and under, especially in Florida. I give Stones Throw a thumbs up.

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Wisdom and Travel

I see wisdom as an understanding of what it means to be a human being. Wisdom helps us navigate our lives, both giving us the tools to change our circumstances and to adapt to those we cannot change. Wisdom is often gained from a mix of first-hand experience and teaching from our fellow life travelers. The first rule of wisdom is to know there is always more wisdom to be had and to forever seek it out through experience and learning.

Travel has long been seen as a source of wisdom. The wise are often said to be worldly, that is they know of the wider world beyond those they were born to. In religious traditions, the pilgrimage was a means of gaining wisdom and enhancing faith. To undertake a journey to a holy place is also to undertake a journey within yourself. The experiences you have along the way make for a rich tapestry to learn from and reflect upon. Echos of pilgrimage find their way into the secular world in such traditions as “the grand tour” and “the heroes journey.”

Today’s theme is Textures. I like to take pictures of different textures I encounter. These are snail shells on the beach of the Salton Sea, a man-made lake that teamed with life but is now dying a slow death as we restored the natural waterways leaving it to evaporate.

How Travel Makes You Wiser

The most obvious benefit is that traveling brings you a host of new experiences. Every place and every person in the world is unique in some way. While you can see pictures or read descriptions from afar, to truly understand something on a full human scale often involves being there and experiencing it for yourself. You not only can take it in with all your senses, you can feel what it means in relation to yourself as a mental, spiritual, and physical being. This will not only tell you something about the place but something about yourself. With people you meet, this is especially true.

Relationships at a distance are meaningful, but to actually see people in the place they live gives you a fuller picture of who they are and how the place is part of their lives. You will experience both how people in different places are markedly different, and how they are fundamentally the same the world over. You can then reflect on how the places you came from shaped yourself and how your new experiences may change you.

This is the wall of a slave’s residence in a Louisiana Plantation. The building outlived slavery and became a sharecropper’s home, then finally a monument.

Secondly, travel opens you up to how little you know. Wisdom flowers as you realize how little of what is possible is already in your grasp. The more you travel the more you realize the truth that you don’t have all the answers and that wisdom lies in always seeking more. Travel breaks you out of your bubble where you think every question is settled and the truth is always obvious. You will see that your tradition that works so well, is not the only tradition that works well. Likewise, you can see that the evil you know, is not the only evils there are. This encourages you to open your eyes and your mind, to ask more questions, and to seek more answers.

Travel also helps you discover yourself. Even if you are traveling with companions, you will often be forced to rely on your own wits and wisdom to make your way. You will be challenged in ways you never imagined and you will discover new strengths and weaknesses you otherwise might not have known. The routine formulas we create for ourselves in a more static and sedentary life have to give way to more improvisation and spontaneity when you are on the road. Every time you stretch yourself and succeed or fail, you will learn more about who you are, and provided you are willing to learn and grow, you will become wiser for it.

Wind Cave Ceiling

Wind Cave Ceiling – Boxwork is commonly composed of thin blades of the mineral calcite that project from cave walls or ceilings that intersect one another at various angles, forming a box-like or honeycomb pattern.

Tips for Getting Wiser

The best kind of travel for becoming wise is when you try to experience life from the view of those who live in the places you visit. It is easy to avoid this in places catering to travelers. They often make it possible to hide away in a bubble of hotel rooms and tailor made experiences appealing to comfort and familiarity. While these are great for a safe refuge, the best and richest experiences will happen when you embrace the unfamiliar and new. I love going into local groceries, or getting my haircut at a local barber. There are always details that are unfamiliar and new and they give you unique insights into the place and its people you won’t get at a museum or monument. Think about what these things mean to you, and what they would mean to the people that live there.

Remember that travel doesn’t have to take you far from home. You can have these experiences just visiting a nearby town or even a part of the place you live that you have never been to. It is a very common experience to speak with someone in a place we visit who has never been to the places that make that location famous. Before we left our own home we made an effort to get out and see the kinds of places we would visit as travelers. It is a testament to how travel opens you up, that we came to regret the things we didn’t do in the place we lived for so long.

This is a lovely piece of petrified wood. Minerals slowly fill in the cell walls of the tree, retaining the structure but replacing its substance with stone.

Examine the past as well as the present. When we are being thoughtful, we will do research on places we are going to visit before we get there. Knowing the history of these places often enhances our appreciation of what we find there. Any good tour guide will try to fill you in, but reading on your own lets you focus on the things that interest you most and dive deeper into the details. A study of history also lets you see the world for more of what it truly is, an ever changing tapestry rather than a static picture.

Finally, stay alive and keep your health up. Travel can have it’s dangers so be aware of them and take the necessary precautions. While I’m sure a near death experience can lead to a lot of new wisdom, it is one case where I’d prefer to learn from others who have been there.

Go Get Some Wisdom!

It’s out there waiting for you! Go get some today by having grand adventures, putting one foot in front of the other, and generally opening yourself to the vast array of opportunities waiting for you just around the next corner.

Devil’s Golf Course in death valley. This is a place you have to be in to fully appreciate. The muddy salt heaves up into sharp crystalline mounds of earth.

 

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