Boating with gators and walking in the treetops at Myakka River State Park, Florida

Of all of the things I expected to see in Florida, cow country wasn’t one of them. But after we left Highlands Hammock State Park and passed by miles and miles of citrus groves, we were greeted by a landscape of flat grassy fields accented with trees and grazed by cows (each accompanied by its own cattle egret, it seemed). That is, until we passed the property line of Myakka River State Park. On one side of the park boundary was bare, almost empty land, and on the other was lush palm and oak forests like those that I fell in love with at Highlands Hammock State Park. 

Myakka River State Park isn’t all lush forest – it’s a massive park that encompasses everything from forests to wetlands and prairie ecosystems, and our visit would feature a treetop walk, a boat tour, and even some amateur birding. 

After we arrived in the campground and took a look at our site, we drove down the park road to check out the locations of the canopy walk, trailheads, cafe/tours/picnic area, and the birding boardwalk.

This view of sunlight shining through spanish moss was a sign of beautiful scenery to come

There was enough time before sunset to walk to the canopy walk, so we checked it out. The canopy walk is a suspension bridge 25 feet in the air that places you at a level where you can see into the branches of the trees around you. I was delighted that the trees I was seeing were oak trees, whose plant-covered trunks and branches I had found so amazing at Highlands Hammock SP. Here I saw the ferns and air plants up close. 

At the end of the bridge was a tower that rose a total of 74 feet above the ground. While George hung out below with the dogs, I climbed the tower to discover that the timing was (accidentally) perfect – the sun was setting over an ocean of palm fronds, and I had a front row seat. 

I reached the top just before the sun dipped below the horizon
Sunset colors reached across the tops of the palm trees as far as the eye could see

Watching the sunset from the tower reminded me of watching sunsets from the Catfish Fire Tower on the Appalachian Trail back home.

The Catfish Fire Tower on the Appalachian Trail in NJ has been a favorite sunset viewing spot, so it was special to find a similar place on the journey
I was lucky to have the top of the tower to myself. This large group was on its way up as I made my way down from the tower.

The next day we signed up for an afternoon boat tour on the lake. We figured that it would focus on some element of the park’s ecology, and it wasn’t long before the captain/tour guide made it clear that it was all about alligators. We motored along to the side of the lake where the gator viewing would be best and were entertained (?) by the interesting commentary. (Maybe it wasn’t in good taste to tell the story about a child getting attacked by a gator at Disney…) But it was a nice day, and the sunlight sparkled on the water as we spotted lots of alligators along the shore.

Obligatory gator photo
Another obligatory gator photo

I was surprised to see that birds weren’t afraid to approach the gators and that the alligators themselves didn’t seem interested in herons or spoonbills for lunch. Our guide explained that birds aren’t worth the effort for the gators, so the gators don’t try to eat them. The park actually is a popular place for migrating birds and has a viewing boardwalk for bird observation.

The lake was shallow, and the boat used water jets instead of propellers in order to protect any manatees that might be in the water. That got me hoping that we’d see a manatee, but we weren’t lucky enough on the boat tour. We took a day trip to Oscar Sherer State Park the next day and found out that manatees are often seen in the creek there, so I spent a good deal of time peering into the creek waters at every opportunity in what came to be known as “Manatee Watch 2019.”

Pretty scene, but no manatees

Manatee Watch was unsuccessful though, and we returned to Myakka River State Park, where we were camping for a few days. We revisited the canopy walk and did some hiking on the trails and saw lots of wildlife just from the main park road, including birds, alligators, deer, and even wild hogs. Unfortunately, the hogs root around in the dirt and destroy vegetation, and we saw their negative effects in every part of the park. I’d be amazed if any new trees or plants can grow. There were numerous cages set up to capture them, but the guide on the boat tour said that through trapping, the park can only manage to maintain the numbers rather than deplete them.  

On our last day at Myakka River, I visited the birding observation spot while a volunteer bird expert was there to answer questions and offer tips on birding. He was set up with a large scope focused on some white pelicans across the water that were wintering in the park, so I trained my binoculars in that direction. I’ve always loved how awkward and prehistoric pelicans can look when sitting or walking while also looking unbelievably graceful when flying. These pelicans were bright white with black-tipped wings and were floating in a large group together.

I didn’t bring a camera with a zoom lens, but I assure you, the white lumps are pelicans

Then the unexpected happened, when the bird expert walked over to offer me some advice. He asked if he could see my binoculars and then tried to readjust them. I was speechless for a moment as he pulled the barrels apart so that they would be too wide for my eyes, but I caught him just before he spun the diopter (the dial on the right eyepiece that lets you adjust for the vision differences between both eyes) that had been tuned to my eyeglass prescription. He assumed that I didn’t know how to use binoculars. Dear reader, mansplaining is real.

When I had my fill of pelicans and all of the other birds that I could see perfectly through my binoculars, I met George and the dogs in the parking lot to continue on to the next destination of our trip. We had enjoyed Mayakka River SP’s very nice campground facilities and were beginning to see that all of the Florida state parks had great facilities with nice shower houses and laundry machines, but we finally decided to make our way to the Florida Keys. Until this time, we had been unsure about our itinerary, since I was hoping to meet up with friends in late January or early February to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. Trying to work that into this trip just didn’t seem feasible though, so I decided to save that for a trip of its own. 

So we left Myakka River State Park and headed south, as always, toward the next adventure.

Ever on!

Beautiful Myakka River

Christmas in the campground: Highlands Hammock State Park, FL

This year, Santa arrived in the form of an armadillo. 

But let’s back up. 

On Christmas Eve, we set out from Lake Louisa State Park in Florida to Highlands Hammock State Park, where we had made a camping reservation the previous week for the Christmas holiday. We didn’t have any expectations for this park and had really only chosen to stay there because the campground had two nights available, while many other parks were full. 

We pulled into our campsite at Highlands Hammock to a sensory overload of noise, activity, and Christmas decorations. The campground, which had densely-spaced sites to begin with, was crowded with families in full vacation mode. Footballs flew through the air, kids sped by on bicycles, dads unrolled strings of lights, and a jolly fellow manning the grill at an adjacent site sang loudly along with the music blasting from his camper. 

The retired couple in the site next to us pulled out all of the stops with their Christmas decorations. A whole lawn’s worth of lawn ornaments was set up around a screened-in pop-up tent that was draped in colored string lights front of their Winnebago. They also projected spiraling sparkly lights onto the side of said Winnebago, which reflected brightly into our camper if we didn’t keep the blinds and curtains closed that night. And theirs was by no means the most festive set-up. All month we had seen campers decorate their sites just like they would decorate a house for the holidays, including everything from trees to inflatable lawn decorations, and the spectacle was greatest on the eve of the day itself. I was reminded of a scene in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” where wizards camping out before the Quidditch World Cup set up extravagant magical tents, causing Harry’s friend’s dad to say: “Always the same…We can’t resist showing off when we get together.”

Things quieted down as the evening grew later, and by the time we took the dogs out for their before-bed walk, the only activities were quiet conversations around campfires. 

As we walked through the dark campground, the dogs suddenly began straining at their leashes to investigate something they smelled, and we heard a loud rustle of leaves. I clicked my headlamp on and pointed it at the sound, not knowing exactly what we would see. (The park was home to everything from feral pigs to alligators to deer.) What we saw in the headlamp light was a pile of leaves in a drainage ditch that looked like it was ready to erupt. Something was scuttling noisily around underneath it. We looked through the beam of light as leaves were uplifted and rustled about when all of a sudden little Shrek ears and a tiny snout poked out. An armadillo! It scurried out of the leaves and dashed up the side of the drainage ditch. We restrained the dogs and didn’t follow it, because we didn’t want to harass it or drive it into another campsite with dogs, but we watched until it ran out of the beam of the headlamp. It was so cute! I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas surprise.

I didn’t have a camera with me when we spotted the armadillo, so here’s a disappointing picture of the leaf pile where we saw it

Christmas morning brought a beautiful warm day, and we set off on foot to explore the trails in the park.

Our first stop was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum on site. It was staffed by a volunteer who enthusiastically told us about the work that the CCC did in the park and how the young men who participated benefited from the program by learning trades and skills.

We then took the Orange Grove Trail from the camp store to connect to the other trails in the park. We were interested in seeing what the park brochure claimed was a 1,000-year old oak tree. As we got farther into the hammock (a term meaning hardwood forest), I was delighted by the increasing number of palm trees surrounding us. It felt like we were in a primeval rain forest. 

Bright sun filtered through the green palm fronds in a landscape utterly unlike anything I’ve ever been in before. The trails were beautiful, and I just wanted to keep walking and walking to see more. What I loved most was coming across some of the big oak trees. Not necessarily the oldest, most notable ones, but the ones that were wide enough to walk into and which had entire ecosystems growing on their bark. Resurrection ferns and air plants created dense mats of vegetation on the top side of branches and on side-ways leaning trunks. From the ground I could only look up and wonder what was going on in the canopy above.

Massive oak trees were covered in ferns and air plants
A whole ecosystem grows on the trunk of a large oak tree

The two oldest trees were huge and unbelievably old (believed to be around 1,000 years), but besides their age, I didn’t find them to be as interesting because there seemed to be less going on. In fact, when we rounded a bend and came into view of the oldest tree in the hammock, we weren’t sure if it was actually still alive. It was broken off about 15 or 20 feet off the ground, with a thin shoot of a branch (unless it was another tree growing in the stump) rising from the top. The trunk was almost bare of bark and looked like it was slick from park visitors climbing on it all of the time. It had been stabilized decades ago with metal cables and concrete, chunks of which lay on the ground around the tree as it succumbs to time.

The oldest organism in the park has seen better days, but comprehending just how many days it has seen is mind boggling.

The other, slightly younger tree was in better shape, with larger sections of living tree. It was amazing to see something that had been alive for so long, but it was also amazing to see the trees with so much life going on right now.

One of the most popular trails in the park is the Cypress Swamp Trail, a boardwalk trail through a cypress swamp where alligators are often spotted. I wasn’t really all that interested in seeing an alligator, but I was so impressed by all of the other trails in the park that I wanted to make sure that I saw them all. 

It’s called a cypress swamp, but in my opinion, “magical fairyland of wonder” is a more accurate description. The trees rise straight up from the water and shoot up short, knobby “knees” around them. The subdued brown, grey, and green colors were contrasted with light and colors reflected from the sky. The water itself was like a dark mirror. I meant to just walk along the boardwalk quickly to see what it was all about and meet George and the dogs back at the trailhead (dogs weren’t allowed on the boardwalk), but I couldn’t help but linger and feel the magic of the place.

From the dense palm and oak forests to the beautiful cypress swamp, Highlands Hammock State Park showed me one of the most beautiful, natural, and wild sides of Florida. 

We enjoyed our visit so much that we reserved another campsite and stayed an additional night. It turns out that the extra day gave us the opportunity to spot an alligator in the park, which was the first I’d ever seen.

Do you get the feeling we’re being watched?

I had been vigilant during our time in Florida about Pippin not going near water where gators may be lurking, and seeing this one watching us from the surface of a creek reinforced my intention of keeping Pippin safe. (George says that alligators are cool dinosaurs and can’t understand why I don’t like them.) It turns out that I would soon be seeing plenty more alligators (from a safe distance) at our next Florida destination, but I wouldn’t see another armadillo on this trip in any of the southeastern states or even in Texas. It truly was a special Christmas surprise.

Ever on!

Welcome to the Sunshine State

Our general plan for this trip was to slowly meander south to the Florida Keys, avoiding highways and stopping for points of interest all along the way, and then to head west and visit Big Bend National Park in Texas before finishing out the winter in New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. The meandering and “stopping at points of interest along the way” didn’t take nearly as long as we thought it would, since we bee-lined south to avoid freezing temperatures that would damage the camper and to find warmer temperatures where I would feel better. After only 3 weeks of total travel, we entered Florida, which was our 8th state and the first one that I had never been to before. 

The “Welcome to Florida” sign greeted us at the state border

We entered the Sunshine State under ironically cloudy skies and spent the night in Cary State Forest. Since I was still recovering from my cold and it had started raining, we broke camp pretty early the next morning and headed south. I was using an app called Campendium to select campgrounds to stay at, and the campground that had the best ratings that seemed to be the right travel distance for the day was Lake Louisa State Park.

I attempted to make a reservation online and found what you might expect in December in Florida – it’s peak travel season, so it’s difficult to get campsites at the last minute. I found a site at Lake Louisa that was open for two days in a row, but only the second day was reservable online. One the same day, it was first-come, first-served. We reserved it online for the second day and hoped to arrive to get it for the current night before someone else did. 

When we arrived at the park, we were relieved to find that the site we hoped would be open was still available, and we settled in.

Spanish moss-draped trees framed a misty view of one of the lakes

We could tell that this was a natural haven amidst the built up area surrounding Orlando. The scenery was filled with several lakes and with a mix of tall conifers, mixed hardwoods, short citrus trees bearing sour yellow-orange fruit, and large fields of shrubs, including many with clementine-like fruit.

Some kind of sour orange that grew throughout the park, which had once been a citrus grove

We found out some important issues with our camper at this park. The first was that we had a leak. When we had the camper checked out before departure, we thought it might need some re-caulking here and there, but the RV service center didn’t see any need for that. From the time we had purchased the camper two months before, it was watertight, but as it rained during our stay at Lake Louisa State Park, a steady drip of water came in through the window by my pillow. Having just solved the condensation issue, I though we were done with excessive moisture, but this proved to be something we would have to deal with (by lining the window with a towel) until we could get it repaired at another RV service center. 

The second camper issue we discovered here was that the refrigerator doesn’t work if the camper is parked slightly off-level. Even if the lot seems to be flat, the fridge’s evaporation process will not work if it isn’t completely level. This became very obvious since we were staying two nights, and by the time we pulled out the breakfast fixings on the second morning, they weren’t cold anymore. To fix this, we have been really cognizant of parking as level as possible and using blocks of wood to level us out if a site isn’t flat enough. Eventually, we would like to fix it completely by replacing the cooling mechanism (George’s exact words were “the guts of the fridge”) with a compressor. 

When the rain ended and the Sunshine State began to live up to its name, I knew that Pippin, who had grown a magnificently fluffy winter coat, would have a hard time going for hikes and dog walks in the heat.

It was starting to feel a lot like summer, especially during this walk with Pippin’s full fluff. (I did not document the de-fluffing process.)

I had packed the clippers that I use for his summer hair cuts and set to work trimming him at our campsite. It’s always a day of great sadness for me when I have to removed any of Pippin’s fluff, but he seemed relieved to be rid of the extra insulation, and once the weather turned even warmer in the next couple of days, I was happy that he was cool enough to explore comfortably with us.

I had no idea just how much there would be to explore at our next destination, Highlands Hammock State Park, where we would stay for several days during the Christmas holiday. But more on that next time.

Ever on!

A vacation from the vacation

Maybe it was the circumstance of researching Airbnb rentals on our mobile devices while parked on the side of the road and in a state of significant sleep deprivation, but it seemed like we’d never find a whole house with driveway parking  (with outdoor electrical hookups) to accommodate our rig and which would allow dogs. I was sick, the bottom of our mattress was soaked from condensation, and we needed to get off the road for a couple of days. When George finally found something that seemed to meet all of the criteria, he reserved it, and we hoped for the best.

We crossed into Georgia, the 7th state of the trip, and bypassed Savannah (which we’ve visited before) in order to get to the bungalow on St. Simons Island that would be our home for the next four nights.
The bungalow sat under magnificent oaks draped in Spanish moss. It was furnished and decorated artistically and had a fully enclosed yard for the dogs, and we settled in comfortably for my convalescence.

This little house turned out to be exactly what we needed

The key here was that I had my own room and more than enough pillows to be propped up at night. After a few days of resting and getting more restful sleep, I started to feel better. 

As I lounged around and drank tea and green vegetable juice, George researched solutions to the problem of condensation developing under the mattress in the camper. Being such a small, uninsulated space, the camper develops condensation at night, which is generally dried out with an electric heater, the air conditioning, or by opening a window or ceiling vent. What we didn’t know, though, was that condensation was forming that wasn’t drying out. It was along the bottom of the nose of the camper, which hangs above the cab of the truck and does not retain its temperature as well as the body of the camper. It wasn’t drying out because it was under the mattress, which was lying directly on the floor of the nose and was soaking up the moisture.  We needed to create some sort of air flow between the mattress and the floor.

As soon as we arrived at the Airbnb, we moved the mattress into the house to dry out, and the next day we took a trip to a home improvement store to see what materials were available. After searching through almost every department, we settled on wooden roof panel closure strips that would be supportive enough to lift the mattress while allowing enough air flow to prevent moisture from building up. The next challenge was figuring out how to connect them without a full workbench of tools. George had the idea to connect them with strips of nylon webbing screwed into the wood. It would only take scissors and a screwdriver. And guess what? It worked! In the two and a half weeks since we began using the system, we haven’t had any moisture there. 

The U-shaped cutouts in these roof panel closure strips provide air flow

The wooden strips are attached with pieces of nylon webbing

The mattress and foam pad are fully supported with plenty of air flow underneath

After three nights resting at the Airbnb, I was feeling well enough that I took the opportunity to see “Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker” in the theater on its opening day. 

I had been excited about seeing this movie for months, but I didn’t know how I’d be able to do it on the road with the dogs. Having a home base other than the truck and camper was a perfect scenario, and George and I were able to go out to the movies while Pippin and Loki napped in the house.

After the movie, we retrieved the pups and brought them to the other side of the island to check out Fort Frederica National Monument. 


Fort Frederica was founded by James Oglethorpe to protect the colony of Georgia from the Spanish in Florida. It consisted of a fort and a town, and we were able to view the battery and remains of the barracks as well as the foundations of the town’s buildings.

The pups were excited to sniff out almost three centuries of smells at the battery

Pippin, the sign clearly says “Keep off the ruins”, not walk into them!

Cannons and informational kiosks overlooking the river by the battery

Remains of the barracks

The foundations were made of a strong substance called tabby, which was derived from an oyster shell-based lime.

Brick and tabby remains of a house


The property was lined with gorgeous oak trees draped in Spanish moss. These trees were all over the island and were one of my favorite sights in Georgia.

These trees lined the path that once was the main road through the town

Loki isn’t really interested in history and wanted to play and wrestle

After visiting the fort, we returned to the bungalow for my last night of recovery before getting back on the road. In the days that we spent there, I had fewer and fewer coughing fits and felt better each day, so when we finally pulled out of the Airbnb driveway toward our next destination, I felt like myself again.

Healthy, rested, and pleased with our condensation solution, we were ready for the next adventure. 

Ever on!

When #camperlife is kind of awful

Living in a confined space, not being able to carry all of the stuff you want to use, using public showers, not knowing where you’re going to stay next – these are all things that could discourage some people from camper life. We really don’t mind them, but the one time we feel that camper life is absolutely awful is when one of us is sick. 

As we left Huntington Beach State Park, SC, we knew that we wanted to head south. We could have camped anywhere between Charleston, SC and Jacksonville, FL, with sight-seeing opportunities galore. But my cough was getting worse, and I wasn’t really feeling up to a lot of sight-seeing, let alone planning our itinerary and researching campgrounds. We ended up booking a place to camp near the Georgia border through an app called Hipcamp, which is basically Airbnb for camping. Our host had full RV hookups in his yard from when his dad used to visit him, and now he hosts campers like us for a small fee.  

If the previous night had been bad, this night was miserable. Despite taking the most promising meds in the “Cold and Flu” aisle, I had coughing fits for hours. I tried to sit upright on the couch area where Loki sleeps, but there was nowhere to rest my head. I microwaved water to drink hoping it would clear my throat. If I were home, I could make tea without bothering anyone and lounge in a recliner in the living room until I fell asleep. In the camper, there is nowhere to go where I won’t bother George or where I could be comfortable. I even contemplated sleeping in the passenger seat in the truck.

Eventually the sun rose, and we packed up and headed closer to town to see if we could get cell service or wifi. After that night, it was plain that we needed an Airbnb so I could just lay around on a pile of pillows and get better. On top of that, we also discovered that condensation was forming under our mattress due to the temperature differential between indoor and outdoor temperatures. It was exacerbated by the lack of insulation in the nose of the camper, where the bed is located. We needed to remove and dry the mattress and come up with some sort of solution to prevent the condensation build up.

We parked the truck and camper on Main Street in Ridgeland and had enough service to research and book an Airbnb in Georgia. Then the dogs needed a walk, so we took a stroll down Main Street. I was delighted by Gopher Tortoise Square, which honored Ridgeland’s history as Gopher Hill (which it was once known as for the abundance of gopher tortoises that used to inhabit it).

By the end of the dog walk, a seafood restaurant named Fiddler’s opened, so we ordered fish and shrimp sandwiches for lunch.

We ate our sandwiches at a small nature preserve access point and headed off to enter the 7th state of our trip for my convalescence and to solve the great condensation conundrum, but more on that next time.

Ever on

SC state parks for the win

As we took the Southport/Fort Fisher Ferry south, we intended to continue following the coast, which meant that Myrtle Beach would be the next logical stop. As we entered South Carolina and ticked off the 6th state on our trip, we began seeing more and more surf and beachwear shops and extravagant mini-golf places. (Ah, to think what my sister and I would have given back in the day to have played mini-golf in a fabricated jungle on the side of a volcano that erupted orange-colored water!) 

When we reached Myrtle Beach, we headed over to the KOA to book a campsite. This KOA was beautiful. A gigantic, shiny, silver crab held up the yellow KOA sign out front, and just beyond the main office, lounge chairs were set up in front of a cute building decorated with colorful wooden buoys. But it was also expensive (almost twice as expensive as all the other KOAs we’ve visited), and it was right off the main road and didn’t have trails for hiking with the dogs. I looked at a map and saw some state parks in the area, and we decided to give one of them a try. 

Myrtle Beach State Park was nearby, but further away from all of the hustle and bustle, in a large green patch on the map, was Huntington Beach State Park. We thought it would be more our speed and decided to try it out. 

The campground at Huntington Beach State Park had large sites nicely spaced from each other. As George got the water and electric hooked up, I took the dogs for a walk and almost immediately found a trail leading off into the woods. The sandy trail was lined with grey arching trees and wound around in the woods before coming to a little waterway between the woods and the ocean. Ducks swam in water sparkling with orange late-day sun in front of a backdrop of white sand dunes and blue ocean. I knew that the sun would be setting soon, so I turned around so we could get back to the camper and go for a sunset walk on the beach. 

It seemed like there was no one else on the beach that evening besides us and some sandpipers. The weather was brisk and chilly, but the beach was wide and beautiful, and we walked until the sky was deep orange and our way back would be dark.

I couldn’t wait to return the next morning with our fat bikes (which are equipped with extra wide tires that are perfect for sand) to ride on the beach.

The sunset walk felt wonderful and exhilarating, but I regretted it a bit that night when a little post-nasal drip that I had turned into a bad cough. I spent hours awake clearing my throat and coughing. At some point in the middle of the night, I actually got up and microwaved some water for tea, which helped me get some sleep for a bit. Of course, in our tiny space, this meant that George and the dogs were kept up all night, too, and no one was in any condition for a bike ride the next morning. 

We did walk around the park and onto the beach again before we left. The park is home to Atalaya, the historic winter home of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. It was an interesting mix of opulence, utilitarianism and artistic design. From the outside, it actually looked like a prison, but from the front gate, it looked quite grand.

When we walked on the beach again, Loki and Pip enjoyed playing in the sand and surf. Loki even went digging for buried treasure!

We loved this beautiful and well maintained park so much that we probably would have stayed longer if I had been feeling better. There was a bird sanctuary that I really wanted to visit, and I would have loved to explore more of the trails. It was definitely more of the kind of experience we’re looking to have than the resort campground in Myrtle Beach would have been.

Egrets in the bird refuge portion of the park

Even the park’s campground facilities were excellent.  The grassy area encircled by campsites and containing the bathhouse was shaded with big, beautiful oak trees. The bathhouses themselves had been renovated recently and were some of the nicest that we’ve used on the trip. 

I hated to leave this park, as it had so much to offer, but we had this feeling that we needed to move south and chase warmer weather. I certainly wouldn’t be able to do much bike riding or hiking if I had more nights of coughing. So we departed Huntington Beach State Park thankful that we had chosen it over the flashier, more expensive campground option. It’s definitely going on my “would like to visit again” list.

Pippin poses on a giant Adirondack chair in front of the visitor center

-Ever on

Among the long-leaf pines

Our travels through North Carolina (the fifth state of our trip) continued with a stop at a KOA in New Bern, dog walking in Croatan National Forest, and then a few days in Wilmington. New Bern and Croatan National Forest had been hit hard by Hurricane Florence last year, but the KOA was in great condition. The showers and bathrooms were mobile units, so I assume that they had been brought in until the regular showers could be repaired from flood damage, but they were perfectly suitable, and the rest of the campground was very nice. I especially enjoyed lounging on a swing by the Neuse River in the morning before we left.

A peaceful spot by the dock on the Neuse River

The part of the Croatan National Forest on the river that we visited hadn’t fared as well with the hurricane; there were many trees down, and most of the trails we tried to take were closed.

On the way to Wilmington, we took a route that seemed to skirt around the northern edge of the national forest. I always check the route that Google Maps recommends before we take it, and it seemed to be fine, but it actually cut through a sliver of the forest on a 4-mile-long, heavily pot-holed dirt road. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but the hitch rack carrying our bicycles and other supplies bounces a lot, and the rough ride was not good for the bikes. After 4 miles of potholes, the bikes had come free from the wooden mounts they had been secured to, and everything had jostled out of place. The hitch rack has proven to be way more of a hassle than we had anticipated it would be. 

On another note, in this part of the national forest, we observed a lot of sections of long-leaf pine trees that had been harvested, either recently cut and looking like no-man’s land, or replanted and growing in distinct rows. As we traveled further south, we saw more and more trucks delivering logs to paper mills. It was eye opening to see the source of materials that we use every day in so many different stages.  It definitely makes me think about my consumption of resources and where they come from. 

When we got to Wilmington, we met up with my aunt, uncle, and cousin for lunch. It was great seeing them and catching up since the last time we visited. 

Since we’ve visited several times before, we had already explored a lot of the usual sights around Wilmington. There weren’t many new places we intended to check out, but we did visit some familiar sights. 

We traveled a little south of Wilmington to stay in the campground in Carolina Beach State Park. I have a special fondness for that state park, because I ran my first trail race there in 2008 with my cousins. Back then I had just finished grad school and had a lot of time to devote to training, and that was when running really began to be a big part of my life. It was at that race that I placed in my age group for the first time. I ran the same race again in 2013 and usually go for a hike in that park every time we come to Wilmington. I haven’t been able to run for years due to knee issues, but I still love hiking the sandy trails under long-leaf pines and admiring the views along the Cape Fear River.

Long leaf pine trees are pretty much ubiquitous in the south, but they never seem to get old for me. Their long needles look fluffy in bunches on the branches, and their large pine cones look enormous compared to all of the pine cones I’ve ever seen in the North East. I love pine cones, and these are some of my favorites.

Our campsite in the state park was in the middle of a long-leaf pine forest, and I loved getting up in the morning surrounded by these trees and being steps away from beautiful trails.

When we visited this area last year, we took a long walk in the park with my cousin, and at that time we noticed that a lot of the forest had been the site of a controlled burn. (For details on what a controlled burn is, check out this article: https://www.ourstate.com/prescribed-burns-bring-new-life-to-north-carolina-state-parks/ ) On my hikes during this visit, I noticed that the understory was alive with the reddish leaves of young oak trees that had sprouted up since last year.

Long leaf pine trees (showing their fluffy tufts of needles) stand above young oaks in the understory

On the last night before we left, George took the dogs for their pre-bed outing and popped into the camper at the end of the dog walk to ask me if I wanted to see some raccoons. Two had made their way into the rectangular wooden campground trash receptacle, and the dogs had been attracted to them rummaging around. We lifted the lid, and this little guy and a buddy looked up at us! Raccoons getting into campground trash isn’t exactly anything new, but I thought it was pretty adorable. After snapping this photo, we closed the lid and left them to their rummaging.

Trash panda!

When it was time to head south, we took the Southport/Fort Fisher Ferry.

Camper’s first ferry ride of the trip! 

-Ever on

Blown away at Kill Devil Hills

Back in June/July, George and I drove out to Colorado and listened to David McCullough’s biography of the Wright Brothers during part of the drive. As we left Virginia Beach and planned our route southward, we thought that it would be interesting to swing by the Outer Banks in North Carolina and drive through Kitty Hawk to see the area where the Wright Brothers’ historic flight took place. 

We stopped at the tourism bureau and learned that there was a memorial there titled “Monument to a Century of Flight” and that not far away in Kill Devil Hills was the Wright Brothers National Memorial. We also took a park map for Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which we planned to explore with the dogs after taking a look at the monuments. 

Pippin checks out “Monument to a Century of Flight”

We were able to use our “America the Beautiful” national parks pass to gain access to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Once we parked, we could see that the monument stood on top of a hill at the far end of a flat, grassy field. We stopped in to the visitor’s center at the other end of the field and looked through the exhibits. Images and information about the Wright family accompanied interactive features about the principles of flight, really bringing to life what we had learned in the biography. 

Turning a corner, we entered a room with a full-scale reproduction of the original flyer. Artifacts lay underneath plexiglass windows encircling the flyer, and those that were broken or missing pieces were displayed with clear molded plastic simulating the parts that were absent to help you visualize what the item would look like whole. 

Windows arching around this exhibit room looked out onto the flight field, with markers showing the distances of each of the first 4 flights. Sidewalks led to the markers and across the field to the hill with the monument, so we decided to go out and walk the dogs around to get a better look.

Standing at the stone marking the lift-off of the first flight. The markers in the background show the distance of each of the first four flights.

Outside were also reproductions of the shelter and hanger that the Wright brothers used while they worked on their gliding and flying experiments here. I was amused to see that they looked exactly as I imagined they did when I listened to the book. 

We decided to walk toward the monument, which was located on top of Big Kill Devil Hill, where the Wright Brothers conducted glider flights before moving on to mechanized flight. It was a very blustery day, and as we walked along the path toward the monument, it wasn’t hard to imagine how useful those kinds of conditions had been for flying over a century ago.

The monument on top of Big Kill Devil Hill

The monument perched on top of the hill looked simple but impressive. As we climbed up the paths encircling the hill, we got some glimpses of art-deco features on the sides that gave the impression of wings.

Art Deco features simulate wings

A kiosk informed us that the hill had to be stabilized with vegetation in order to build the monument. It would have been more authentic to see the hill just as sand as it once had been, but seeing the monument was surprisingly rewarding. From the base of the monument itself we had views of the flight field and far beyond toward forests on one side and the ocean on the other. Around the other side of the monument were the names Wilber and Orville Wright, and their busts were displayed on pedestals on either side – or at least, they usually are. Only Wilbur’s was present while we were there. Orville’s had been stolen by vandals about two months before. (Why do people have to be terrible?) In the center were metal doors decorated with art deco panels featuring images of flight. We could also see that on the side of the hill opposite the flight field was a life-sized statue installation depicting the first flight.

A bust of Wilbur perches nobly in front of the monument
Don’t get blown away, Pippin!

We went to see this piece, erected as a centennial memorial in 2003. It contains seven bronze figures and a stainless steel reproduction of the flyer. Loki was concerned about the bronze figures, especially that guy Orville, who was not supposed to be climbing on the plane!

Sculpture installed for the 100th’s anniversary of the first flight
Loki did NOT trust this guy

Being able to stand where the photographer stood for the famous photo of the first flight and get different points of view was another unexpectedly engaging element of this visit.

Photographer’s viewpoint

After walking back around the monument, we were ready to get out of the blustery weather and back to the truck. We hadn’t expected to spend so much time there, but there was so much to see! The dogs were sufficiently well exercised after walking around the monument and fields, so we set off toward our next campsite about 3 hours away. When we drove by Jockey’s Ridge State Park, with its towering white sand dunes, I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to see it, but the Wright Brothers National Memorial was well-worth the time. I’ll just have to add Jockey’s Ridge to our to-see list for the next time we’re in the area…

Ever on!

Virginia

After leaving Assateague Island, we began down the Delmarva Peninsula and entered the fourth state of our trip: Virginia. 

The highlight of the day was lunch at Kendall’s County Kitchen in Onley, VA. We were looking for something more than gas station food or fast food chains, and this little restaurant, located in a nondescript strip mall, seemed to be a popular local place. There we enjoyed fabulous lunches of fried catfish, meatloaf and gravy, cornbread, green beans, and cole slaw. It was excellent! With full and satisfied bellies, we walked the dogs around the strip mall and proceeded south toward Virginia Beach.  

As the navigator, I looked ahead at our route and was mildly panicked when I realized that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is actually the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. Would we fit in the tunnel? Would we have to turn around and backtrack for hours to take a much longer inland route?  Luckily, I was able to look up the height restrictions, and we were well within the limits. 

We reached the bridge around sunset and enjoyed beautiful sunset views on the drive.

The timing was just right for sunset views on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge

On the other side of the bridge, Virginia Beach was alive with lights, businesses, and traffic. As we passed by First Landing State Park, I regretted that we didn’t visit and were not staying there. We were headed to the Virginia Beach KOA (Kampgrounds of America), which had the added benefit of wifi…or at least, we thought it did. 

KOA is a large chain of campgrounds that feature resort activities and lots of amenities. There are pools, playgrounds, dog runs, game rooms, laundry facilities, full RV hookups, wifi, nice showers, and more. They are usually conveniently located off of major highways, and have pretty reliable standards. 

Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of the few negative camping experiences we’ve had so far. First, the wifi wasn’t working at all while we were there. There was a phone number to call for technical assistance, but the call went to voicemail, and no-one ever called back. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I was hoping to use the internet to research routes and sight-seeing stops and to post on the blog that night. That was one of the reasons why we chose to stay at that campground instead of at the state park. 

On top of that, the campground was located very close to a naval air station, so deafening fighter jets flew by regularly. The flights continued until about 9:30 pm, so it was over by the time we went to sleep, but sometimes it was so loud that I had to cover my ears, and I wondered if it was damaging to the dogs’ hearing. It just wasn’t a great experience. 

The campground did give us a 5% refund on the stay due to the wifi, and we learned a few things to expect and to look for when choosing a place to stay. We’ve stayed at two KOAs since then, with no problems, but I’ve found that sometimes I really don’t mind sacrificing amenities like wifi for a quiet, scenic, interesting place to camp. 

Pony Watch 2019

A dense fog had rolled in when we pulled into the visitor’s center  at Assateague Island National Lakeshore in Maryland. By the time we checked in at the campground, dusk was falling, and I was pretty sure that we would not be seeing any wild horses. As we walked the dogs through the nearly deserted campground, I looked at every dark shape with the hopes that it would be a horse, but they were always bushes. 

The night was chilly and blustery. We had a campsite protected by trees on the bay side of the island, but the wind still blew mightily. This was our first time off-grid in the camper at a site without water, electricity, or showers. An RV place had tested our battery before we left and said that it was in good shape, and this overnight would put it to the test. We cooked dinner on our propane cookstove and were able to use our own water for cooking and cleaning up. The battery powered lights, the water pump, and the fridge. When the temperature dropped during the night, the propane heat kicked on, and despite the wind howling outside, we were warm and comfortable.

Our campsite on the bay

When I woke up, I pulled the curtain by my window back a bit to see if there were any ponies outside. There was too much condensation on the window to see, so I bundled up and took the pups for a walk/pony-finding mission. We walked around our campground with no luck, so we went over to the ocean-side campground. A boardwalk led from the campground right onto the ocean, so we walked out onto the sand. Loki started dancing about, digging, and thrashing his leash excitedly. This was his first time at the beach! He seemed to enjoy it, and we walked along the shoreline for a little while before heading back to the campsite for breakfast. Unfortunately, “Pony Watch 2019” was still unsuccessful.

Loki’s first time playing in the sand!
A beautiful view of the bay

At some point after breakfast, the lights started to flicker, and George noticed that the fridge was off. The battery had powered us through the night, but it wasn’t strong enough to keep going through the morning. He switched the fridge to propane power, and we turned off the lights. We knew then that we would need to upgrade the battery, so we’re looking into getting a lithium-battery based power supply and solar. 

But enough about batteries and energy. The real reason we’re all here is PONIES. All of the literature from Assateague referred to them as horses, but I thought that they weren’t quite as tall as full-size horses and could be correctly and interchangeably called ponies. (Note: The literature from Chincoteague does refer to them as ponies.) Anyway, we got a tip from some other visitors that they had seen lots of them down at the end of the road, so we made our way there. As we pulled into the parking lot, I could see a brown equine form just beyond a bush. PONIES! I excitedly pointed in the direction, and we parked so I could get out and stalk them with my camera. I kept the required 40 feet away and watched as one sauntered lazily down the middle of the road and paused every once in a while to nibble at the vegetation on the roadside.

I met back up with George and the dogs, and we walked together on the beach looking inland toward two ponies meandering through the dunes.

Pony Watch in full operation

It was a bit overcast, but the landscape was beautiful. The beach stretched on into a misty horizon, and beyond the white sand, horses’ heads popped up from the vegetation on the dunes as they ate.

Pony Watch success!

After I had more than enough pictures, we prepared to leave. On the drive off the island, we saw two more bands of horses in the marshy areas on the bay-side of the island.

We saw this group just before we crossed the bridge to the main land

Assateague Island was an important milestone for us. It was our first National Park System site and was where we got our America The Beautiful Pass, which gives us discounted or free access to national parks and federal recreation lands. We plan on visiting a lot of national parks on this trip, so the annual pass was a must, and it felt momentous to actually get it! Thanks to our friends back home who gifted this pass to us!

I was disappointed to have to bid the ponies farewell, but our journey (and a campground with showers and wifi!) lay southward in the fourth state of our trip: Virginia.