"...I decided to visit California for a year or two to see its wonderful flora and the famous Yosemite Valley. All the world was before me and every day was a holiday, so it did not seem important to which one of the world's wildernesses I first should wander."
--John Muir (1868)
We love this place. This old venue just drips with history and musical karma. It's fair to say that every famous bluegrass artist has played here, probably dozens if not hundreds of times. It's an old cinder block building without windows in what used to be a warehouse and vacant lot area West of downtown Nashville. Now the neighborhood is "The Gulch" and is all high-rise condos and valet-parking restaurants--all surrounding the old Station Inn. I chatted with the owner of the club and asked whether the neighborhood was going to squeeze them out, but he said he would keep on doing their thing as long as they could. To me, the surroundings just make the place even more classic by contrast.
Friday night we saw New Town, a bluegrass band from Lexington Kentucky featuring Katie Penn as singer and fiddle player. Katie had a brief country music career, but as her bandmate said, she wanted to get back to her lucrative bluegrass where she's made "tens of dollars". New Town was a solid band with great vocals and tight musicians.
Saturday we arrived at 6:30 for a 7:00 door opening for a 9:00 show...and the line at 6:30 was already long. In a town with about a hundred music venues to choose from on a Saturday night, this turnout is indicative of how popular is the band The Steeldrivers. We've seen them a number of times, including twice last spring in Nashville and Gettysburg. They are another solid, tight bluegrass band, but their big draw is their amazing bluesy lead singer, Gary Nichols. These guys brought down the house. Gary was a country artist previously and the fiddle player toured with Reba McEntyre. Both of them joked that they gave up the private jets to ride a 12-passenger van and make the big bluegrass money. I'm just glad that they're doing what they do! My clip from last night:
We've been in Nashville for over two weeks and hadn't been to the Bluebird Cafe yet, Nashville's premier songwriters' venue. We tried to go the previous Sunday night but the line was out to the sidewalk and there was no chance we could get in (it only seats 120). But tonight we had advanced tickets and finally got to go back to one of our favorite places.
Tonight the lineup was very strange, four completely different styles represented. The format at the Bluebird is four or five songwriters sit in a circle with mics and guitars and go round singing their songs in turn. There were two kind of nondescript singer songwriters who were just ok, but for me the other two were pretty good. Steve Goodie is a comedian/songwriter/producer who did all comedy country songs (betcha didn't know that was even a category, did you?) Some of his songs were funny enough, including a Tom Petty medley he called a "Pedley" (look it up on YouTube). The stars of the evening were Leigh Nash and her husband. Nash is the lead singer of Sixpence None the Richer, a one-hit band that had the pop smash "Kiss Me" back in 1999. She is a really good singer and songwriter and did some enjoyable songs. Here is an acoustic version of Kiss Me by Leigh:
For the past 10 years, the TimeJumpers have played Monday nights at the Station Inn. We saw them at their new venue, 3rd and Lindsley last week and they were great! There is a new Monday night band at the Station Inn and we went to see them last night.
Val Storey, Carl Jackson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Jackson) and Larry Cordle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Cordle) headline this band and they were yet another terrific Nashville assemblage of talent, Grammy nominees and winners. They played traditional country, western swing and bluegrass. Val had an awesome voice. I don't have a video to post, but here is a YouTube of Carl and Val doing a nice duet:
First, let me pay my respects to Vince Gill, whom we saw play a few nights ago. We saw a video of Willie Nelson accepting his induction into the Hall and he said "I thought you had to die to get this!" Well, a lot of the inductees are dead, but one of the living ones is Vince Gill. He has the sweetest voice and the smoothest guitar style around, and a great songwriter too.
We were at the hall to see an instrument demonstration complementing the
Bakersfield sound exhibit. A couple of typical Nashville types were
on hand to play and sing. Both of these guys (I didn't get their names)
had played in bands with many of the greats and they had lots of
stories to tell about how guitar styles evolved over the years. We were in the rotunda of the Hall with all the plaques of the inductees around us. The setting was very intimate (we were barely an arm's length away from the musicians). Here
are a couple of clips of their playing:
We don't JUST go out to hear music in Nashville, and today we rode 16 miles of Nashville's beautiful bikeway along the Cumberland River. We did a stretch called the Shelby Bottoms, which is East of downtown a few miles. It was flat and smooth and not very crowded at all. Hopefully we can do another section tomorrow, some of which goes right through the city, still along the river. This picture was taken from a pedestrian bridge over the river leading to another segment of the bikeway. It was 70 degrees and absolutely beautiful today.
When we were in Nashville last spring we be came members of the Hall of Fame. So we not only get in free anytime,.we.can attend their members-only events like the weekly featured songwriter sessions. Today we saw Buddy Mize, who was active.in the Bakersfield era of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Buddy was funny and nostalgic. He sang songs he wrote for Johnny Cash, Marty Stewart and several other stars. He was an authentic relic of classic. Country music.
Chris Hillman was one of the original Byrds back in the 60s and he was instrumental in moving the band in a country direction with their "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album in 1968. After the Byrds broke up, Hillman created the Flying Burrito Brothers to focus even more strongly on country heavily influenced by Buck Owens and the Bakersfield sound. His next band was the Desert Rose Band formed in 1985. Last night we saw them play an acoustic set at the beautifully-renovated Franklin Theater in historic Franklin. The band was great and they played some old Byrds and Bob Dylan songs in that unmistakable Byrds style.
3rd and Lindsley is a great music venue several blocks south of the Lower Broadway honky tonk strip. They being in alternative rock, singer-songwriters, country and on Monday nights, a Western Swing band called the Timejumpers. This is a band made up of some of the best studio musicians in Nashville (and that's saying something!). These guys are tight and hot and we were lucky that tonight they were joined by Vince Gill, long time country legend, 30+ Grammy winner and all around nice guy. We saw Vince in Boston last year and loved him and we have tickets to see him again in Florida in January. He is a hot guitar player, great singer and has written some of the sweetest country songs of all time like this one:
Anyway, the Timejumpers were great and we had another fun night on the town in Music City!
Three times the size of your living room, full of mismatched tables and chairs, painted black from floor to ceiling and wallls covered with bluegrass festival posters from 50 years. Every bluegrass great from Bill Monroe on down has played here...dozens of times.
Tonight it's 18 South, a local band that defies categorization. Jazz, bluegrass, blues, even a version of Woodstock, all make up their repertoire. Outstanding musicianship, virtuoso actually, with two bluesy singers, electric guitar, electric piano, string bass, acoustic guitar and drums. Not the usual Station Inn lineup, but outstanding...and a packed house. These guys obviously.have a rep in Nashville.
Here is a quick video I took of their HOT guitar player:
After the show I did a little research on 18 South and was impressed with what I found. They really are a local hot ticket. Check out this YouTube video of them on Bluegrass Underground on PBS. Their guitar player, Guthrie Trapp is a legend here and you can see why starting at 3:00 on the video:
We're going to see Guthrie Trapp at least two more times before we leave.
Levi Lowrey is a singer/songwriter who was the first artist signed by Zac Brown's record label. He co-wrote one of Zac's singles and had Zac's drummer playing in his band. He writes awesome songs very much in the Zac Brown style. We also found out that Lee Dewyze, winner of American Idol's tenth season, is going to be playing at 12th and Porter next week, so we might come out to see him.
Well, we had been in Nashville a whole three days, we'd only seen one concert (but a great one!) and I'd spent all my time working (I still do work, and pretty hard) or trying to fix our trailer's toilet (now that's a story you don't want the details on!). So on Wednesday of our first week we decided to check out Music City Roots, a refurbushed barn out in West Nashville where they have live music every Wednesday. I thought we would see bluegrass or folk music, but really had no idea what we were in for.
We first ate at the Loveless Cafe out front, which was for me the best Southern cooking I've had yet. Grilled catfish, turnip greens with pot liquor (don't ask), homemade melt-in-your-mouth biscuits with butter and berry jam. Hmm, Hmm. And the friendliest people, which is pretty much the norm in the South. The music show was a kick in the pants. It was being broadcast live on radio, so between bands they had live commercials (Mrs. White's biscuits, just like home made!) and interviews with the musicians. We saw five bands ranging from Mississippi grunge blues to vaudeville bluegrass to alternative rock. The twenty minutes per band was just about enough (none of them were really our style, which is bluegrass and straight country) but we had a great time and had found a neat new music venue to try again.
We're back to this great city of music. A two-hour drive from Mammoth Caves brought us to our campground just north of Nashville. This looks to be a nice place to call home for a while. Having a pull-through site meant it was a snap to get set up and by early afternoon we were all settled. We are excited to be here and look forward to going back to all our favorite music venues: the Bluebird Cafe (where all the local songwriters come to perform the songs recorded by the big country stars), the Station Inn (the spiritual home for all bluegrass music fans, the many honky tonks of lower Broadway (where at least a dozen clubs have live music 14 hours a day with no cover charge, the Ryman Auditorium (original home of the Grand Ole Opry), the Exit/In (grungy club where all the artists who have played there sign a big black wall, hoping to get a picture of that) and hopefully more new ones we don't know about yet.
This blog will likely have a lot of micro-blogging for the next several weeks where I post pictures and a short message right from whatever venue we happen to be at. Stay tuned for some great musical stories!
Our first musical event was that very first night--we bought tickets last spring to see Bonnie Raitt at the Ryman. Bonnie is a legend who has been playing since the sixties when she started playing blues alongside Howlin Wolf and Mississippi Fred MacDowell. If you're interested, her bio is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonnie_Raitt. Rolling Stone magazine has her number 50 on their list of 100 greatest singers and number 89 on the 100 greatest guitar players list. She was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. We loved her show at the Ryman--the acoustics were magnificent, her playing and singing was stellar, her band was killer. It was touching because she kept giving recognition to the songwriters of many of the songs she played who were in the audience. One of the great things about Nashville are the fabulous songwriters in this town, more on that in later posts, I'm sure. This was the last city on Bonnie's 89 city tour and it was a show to remember for sure!
A two-hour drive from LaGrange took us to Mammoth Caves National Park
where we planned to spend a couple days exploring the cave and camping
in a nicer setting than a Walmart parking lot.
park was beautiful with fall color and the campground was nice and
pretty empty. We enjoyed the cave tours and walking around the trails.
Mammoth Cave has 390 miles of charted tunnels all jumbled in a 7-mile
wide by 400 foot deep area. Think of a bowl of spaghetti and that's
what Mammoth Cave looks like. It is mostly a dry cave, so not many
stalactites/stalagmites, but we did see some neat flow stone and several
formations. Some of the tunnels are over 40 feet high and twice as
wide, while other places a person has to crouch or wiggle sideways to
get through. Much history here from before 1800 when it was
rediscovered. Traces of human activity go back 6000 years. Overall a
very interesting place. We even did a lantern tour where the only light
was from ten lanterns carried by some of the tour group. That was very
We stopped for the night at this little town because it had a Walmart where we could camp for the night. We found that (besides a Walmart) it had a quaint little three-block downtown that uniquely had a railroad running through it--litterally! About 30 times a day, freight trains run down the middle of Main Street, about 10 feet from the stores and restaurants on either side.
We had dinner at the best restaurant in town and it was very homey and super friendly. We hoped a train would go by while we were eating, but sadly none did. We hung around and walk a bit hoping a train would come by, but we ended up leaving before we saw one. The next morning we came in for coffee, hoping to see a train and we did see the tail end of one just leaving town as we parked. We lingered over our coffee for an hour, then left feeling like the trains of LaGrange were an unfinished chapter in our trip.
A short drive from Niagara Falls takes us to Cleveland. Not sure why, but everyone we've told that we are going to Cleveland goes "Cleveland?!" like they thought we said we were going to eat a live cockroach or something. (BTW, did you read about that guy who died recently after eating dozens of live cockroaches in some gross eating contest? Who would have thought that that would have turned out badly?). But, of course, Cleveland is inexplicably the home of the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame (RRHoF) and definitely one of my bucket list places. After searching in vain for a campground near Cleveland, we found out that we could stay in the parking lot next to the Cleveland Browns stadium, which is right next to the RRHoF. It is also next to the Cleveland docks and various dingy waterfront toxic waste sites, so not the most scenic place we've ever camped, but we did have a great view of the downtown buildings.
We couldn't take pictures in most of the RRHoF itself, so we don't have much to show, but I'll try to hit some random highlights. Various listening stations where you can hear artists from the entire history of R&R; interactive displays that trace the influences of artists on each other (Nirvana was influenced by the Kinks who were influenced by Jerry Lee Louis who was influenced by Lead Belly). A Beatles video compilation that focused on each of their albums with audio clips and pictures from the actual recording sessions. A fabulous Rolling Stones video with clips strung together of 50 years (!!!) of live performances. Literally hundreds of guitars played by everyone imaginable. Dresses worn by the Supremes. It went on for five levels, concluding with a special exhibit of the Grateful Dead (one of my favorites). There were some rough edges on a few exhibits (notably the one for the actual HoF inductees), but overall it was a great experience for anyone whose life has been touched by rock and roll (like most of us!)
We pulled into the Cindarella Motel and Campsite well after dark. The heavily-tatooed biker-type in the motel office was a man of few words, just waving in the general direction of the pitch dark campground behind the motel and telling me to take any site after #6. At least it wasn't raining. When we awoke the next morning, we were relieved to see that Cindarella was actually a pretty nice place, though without amenities like a pool or clubhouse. Nicely wooded and almost empty, we figured we could spend a couple nights here while we explored Niagara Falls.
A ten minute drive took us into the town on the US side of the falls and after a Starbucks we met our "PediCab" tour guide (and pedaler) for our tour. As a footnote, Lynnae and I were talking about how cool it would be to see a map with a pin on every Starbucks either of us had been to--it would be quite a sight! Gaelan is a twenty-something guy who was born and raised in Niagara Falls and has been giving tours for years. He was fun and easy to be with and he knew lots of great spots to see the falls. He accompanied us on the Maid of the Mist boat that took us right to the base of Horseshoe falls and next to American Falls. This was a very cool trip--though you can get pretty wet even with the flimsy poncho they give everyone to wear.
Later that afternoon, we went over to the Candian side, where you can see the falls from a different vantage and hit the Hard Rock, Rainforest Cafe or TGI Fridays if you want to imagine that you are anywhere but Niagara Falls. They light the falls up at night and it is really a spectacular sight. The coolest view is right next to the edge of Horseshoe falls:
Having recharged our batteries, refreshed friendships, relaxed in the comparative luxury of our home on Clam Pudding Pond and re-packed the trailer for a longer journey away this season, the three intrepid travelers set out on a beautiful Fall day in October. The plan is to take a week meandering down to Nashville, stopping along the way at such bucket list destinations as the Corning Glass Museum, Niagara Falls, the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame and the Creation Museum (that last one only over Lynnae's hearty objections). The last view of our beautiful pond in full Fall color was one to remember:
The countryside of Western Massachusetts and central New York was aflame with color as we drove through valleys and fields. After spending the night in a forgettable campground in Oneonta, NY, we spent the afternoon at the Corning Glass Museum. The town of Corning itself was set in the day's most spectacular valley of gold, red and yellow. The museum is a fascinating collection of glass art and objects from Egyptian times to today, live demonstrations of glass blowing, in-depth exhibits of technological advances from the first machines to make bottles (putting untold numbers of glass-blowers out of work) to fiber optics. Corning is the company that invented Gorilla glass, used in the iPad and other tablets, but I was disappointed that I couldn't find any displays about that. If you want to see a cool video by Corning about the future of glass technology, check this out: A Day Made of Glass. The gallery below shows some highlights from the museum.
Waving goodbye to Nashville, we headed east through the Appalachians to Washington DC. We spent two weeks camped near our nation's capitol. Some of the higlights were spending the day with my friend Bob and his family in Annapolis (including a wonderful day on his boat), visiting the National Gallery and the Jefferson Memorial, and dancing to country music at the best Western bar of our whole trip.
Our last destination before heading home was Gettysburg. PA. One of the best bluegrass music festivals in the country is held in May and August at a campground outside of Gettysburg. Four days of marvelous music, food and wonderful weather--there's nothing that can soothe the spirit like a good bluegrass festival. We saw and heard some of the best acts in the country, and the stage was a couple hundred feet from our trailer! We also spent a couple days touring the Gettysburg Battlefield visitors center and the battlefield itself. We took a Segway tour one day (GREAT way to see the park) and walked a
ot around the historic town. All in all a beautiful and moving place to visit.
Memorial weekend we drove the last legs of our trip and arrived home on May 31. Four and one half months, about 8000 miles and a million memories--we couldn't wait to leave again!
We've been to Nashville twice before, always for a long weekend only, and we've enjoyed ourselves immensely. So we decided to spend more time there than any other spot on our trip so far, three whole weeks. We had reserved an Army Corps of Engineers campground sited on a lake only about 10 miles from downtown Nashville. Due to the two-week stay limit, we had to move for the last week to another COE campground on another lake a little further from town. All-in-all during the three weeks we were there, we probably spent two evenings at home. For anyone who likes music of any kind, but especially country music, Nashville is a city like no other--nothing is even close!
Nashville is a mecca for songwriters, musicians, singers and various players in the music industry. All these people are trying to get discovered and love to play music, so the number of live music venues here is hard to estimate. Downtown on "lower Broadway" there are at least a dozen honky tonks with live music from noon to past midnight every day, all with no cover charge. Then there are several "songwriter clubs" around town, like the Bluebird Cafe, Douglas Corner, Third and Lindsley and several more, where song writers play their music to small audiences in an atmosphere that is more like a poetry reading than a concert. One night at the Bluebird we saw four songwriters gathered in a circle in the center of an audience of about 100 taking turns singing their songs that were recorded by the likes of Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw and other big stars. There was something authentic and moving about this kind of show, especially all the stories the writers told about how they came to write the songs and the challenge of getting their songs picked up by artists.
Another great venue is the Station Inn, pretty much the Mecca of bluegrass music. The first time we visited the Station Inn back around 6 years ago, it was a cinder block hut with no windows in the shadow of a freeway surrounded by vacant lots and warehouses. Now, it is a cinder block hut with no windows surrounded by condos, valet-parking restaurants and boutiques in the newly-gentrified "Gulch" area of Nashville. But inside it is still the place it was when Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs played here in the 50s. Never more than about 20 feet from the stage, you can see the best of bluegrass music in an awesome atmosphere, lubricated with root beer and "things" of popcorn, sitting on garage sale kitchen chairs around mismatched tables, elbow to elbow with other lovers of bluegrass. We went to the SI three nights and saw three awesome bands (Caroline, Steeldrivers and Special Consensus), two of whom were having CD release parties so some of the song writers were there, literally sitting across from us. Even if one doesn't care for bluegrass, the musicianship and singing of these top acts is a moving experience when you are close enough to be in your living room!
Of course we spent several evenings on lower Broadway, wandering from club to club and sampling the music. You get a lot of cover bands, doing everything from old Johnny Cash and Hank Williams to newer hits, but also a lot of original music. We saw bands that have opened for Kenny Rogers on tour around the world (Savannah Jack) and musicians that have played in the studio or on tour with the best. The quality of music in all the clubs of Nashville is amazing. Many famous acts have gotten their start playing on Broadway for tips from Willie Nelson to Rascal Flatts. And because there are so many clubs, there is often room to dance, so we loved that a lot and were often the only ones on the dance floor.
To be continued...
Well, I have to confess to being a negligent blogger. We've had a great time since we left Florida we've had a terrific time and seen some wonderful places. I'll try to catch up on this post, which might be kind of long.
When last we checked in, we had decided on a whim to travel to Dauphin Island Alabama for a two-day bluegrass festival. We planned to keep our options open and either stay longer in Dauphin Island or move on to Gulf State Park, which we had heard great things about. After traveling the three-hour drive to Dauphin Island, some of it through a driving thunder storm, past Mobile (Mo-BEEL as they say here) and down the western shore of Mobile Bay, we crossed the 3-mile-long bridge (built in 1952, the year I was born) to the island. We quickly found our campground on the Eastern tip of the island and walked to Fort Gaines for the festival.
Mobile Bay was the site of a major civil war naval battle ("Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead", which of course it doesn't seem Admiral Farragut actually really said) and there are two forts on either side of the wide entrance. Fort Gaines was a very cool venue for a festival, with high brick walls and a large grass expanse inside. This festival, the first annual "Seagrass Festival" was partially supported by BP in their efforts to restore Gulf tourism in the wake of the oil spill. We saw some great acts, highlighted by Sara Watkins and her brother (two thirds of the extraordinary and groundbreaking band Nickel Creek) and one of the heavies of all time, Ricky Skaggs. The moon was brilliant, the weather was pleasant and the music floated out to sea and up to the stars.
The next day, we explored the length (8 miles) of Dauphin Island and walked to the beach near our campground. It was a really interesting place, with most of the houses up on stilts and half of the island basically just sand dunes, but we decided to move on to the Alabama gulf coast for two weeks, where the water and beaches were nicer and there was more to do.
Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama, was hit with a double whammy this decade. First hurricane Ivan in 2004 flattened much of the park and closed it for quite a while, then last year a forest fire destroyed 1000 acres of forest. We weren't sure what we would find in this state park that was so highly-rated by online reviewers, but we weren't disappointed. Yes, there were a lot of areas where the trees were broken and burnt, but there was also a lot of renewal and bright green shoots covering the landscape. The vistas were more clear and the swamp areas were more visible now and we saw some of the most amazing sunsets of our trip so far. Gulf State Park has miles and miles of paved bike trails, over a mile of unspoiled beaches and very well-developed campsites. We met a lot of people who had wintered here--the park is much more "snowbird-friendly" than the Florida state parks where stays are limited to two weeks max. We did a lot of bike-riding, exploring the coast and historic sites of the area. Fort Morgan is directly across the bay from Fort Gaines and is a much more extensive site, with many gun placements and a lot of informative exhibits about the Civil War battle fought in the area.
I have to say something about the people we met in the Alabama gulf coast area. Alabamians (yes, that's what they are called) are very nice people (except for the occasional redneck truck emblazoned with Confederate flags and gun racks!) and have a simple outlook and lifestyle that is appealing. The Alabama accent is so pure and melodic and their sense of humor is humble and self-deprecating. We felt very comfortable here--and of course LOVED the seafood, especially the shrimp. We found a type of shrimp called Royal Reds that were so sweet and buttery that they reminded us of lobster (I know, a heresy for New Englanders). One thing we didn't appreciate before is how French southern Alabama is. The early settlers were the French and Mobile was actually the capital of the Louisiana Territory at one time. The only smudge on the area are the oil and gas rigs visible offshore from some areas, but we didn't see any sign of beach damage, two-headed shrimp or oil slicks. We'd definitely go back to this area as a less-developed alternative to the Destin-Ft. Walton Beach area.
Our next destination was Nashville, where we had concert tickets for April 10th featuring our favorite musician, Keith Urban, but first we had to get there, almost 500 miles and 8 hours drive due north through Alabama. We decided to break it into two days and stop in Birmingham to see the Civil Rights Institute museum there. THAT was an experience. Through an immersive combination of photographs, tv news stories on 60s-style sets, recordings, newspaper accounts and artifacts, we heard the story of the civil rights movement--of which Alabama was in so many ways the epicenter. We had to fight back tears at some of the amazing events that we were only barely aware of at the time--school children being attacked with fire hoses and dogs or being blown up by bombs. All of the self-justifying talk of the leaders at the time sounds ridiculous today. The Institute itself is across the street from the Baptist church that was bombed, killing 4 little girls. Sitting in the park across the street from that was an incredible experience.
Our drive from Cedar Key to Niceville (yes, that's really a place!) Florida was long--7+ hours and 400 miles. Florida is really a big state! We had tried to book one of the Florida state parks that are on the beach, but they fill up fast and we had to settle for Rocky Bayou State Park, about 5 miles from the beach, but a nice park and campground on the water. Our plan was to stay in this area for a couple weeks, for a few days of which our friend Lallie was planning to fly down and stay with us.
The nearest beach town to us is Destin, FL which is near Ft. Walton Beach. These towns have the most beautiful beaches--white soft fine sand beaches and clear green water. There are also extensive bays, harbors, canals and other water features in this area, so it is extremely scenic. We enjoyed watching the great sunsets from Destin Harbor, Blueharbor Marina (only a 5 minute drive from our campground) and of course the beaches. Topsail State Park is one we'd love to try to stay in next year. It's a lovely, spacious campground with grassy sites and a short bike ride from the gorgeous beach. We also went to Richardson Beach State Park one weekend and it's beach was also great.
I did a little diving while here, which wasn't a tropical coral reef like the Keys, but was interesting in it's own way. The visibility was about 40 feet and we did two dives, one on a natural limestone reef with soft corals and sponges, the other on an artificial reef composed of the demolition debris from an old bridge that was replaced. Both had a lot of interesting fish and other marine life. It was fun to get back down underwater and I felt a lot more comfortable having just done some diving a month before in Key Largo.
We did some great eating in Destin and one Sunday while Lallie was here, we took advantage of her nautical experience to rent a pontoon boat and explore the bay and bayous around Destin. Very nice and we saw some dolphins too! We'd love to come back the the Emerald Coast some day and hopefully camp right near the beach.
It's funny how serendipity works on a trip like this. Case in point: I happened to pick up a "Snowbirders" tabloid newspaper one night at a restaurant and read in the calendar section that there was a bluegrass festival the coming weekend on Dauphin Island, Alabama. I'd never heard of Dauphin Island, but we love bluegrass and had no firm plans other than to drift over to the Alabama coast for a while. On further research, Dauphin Island sounded great, so we booked a couple nights at a campground there and headed off late on a Friday to catch a couple days of bluegrass. Read on to find out about it!
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We knew we were going to be working our way north out of Ft. Myers toward the Florida panhandle and the Gulf shore, and while researching places to stay I came upon Cedar Key. We took a chance and booked a week at Cedar Key hoping it would live up to some of the good reports we'd read--boy, did it!
Cedar Key is literally in the middle of nowhere. Most Floridians I'd mentioned it to had never heard of it. It is about 2 hours north of Tampa on the Gulf coast, about an hour out of Gainesville at the end of Route 24. Surrounded by wildlife refuges and state parks, Cedar Key is at the heart of what they call Florida's "nature coast". It was the terminus of a railroad that ran from St. Augustine in the late 1800's and became the cedar pencil and whisk broom capital of the country for a while. What it is today is a charming small town of about 1000 people that is home to thousands of birds, millions of shellfish, hundreds of tiny islands and a slow "old Florida" way of life that is just plain wonderful.
We stayed in a small RV park about a mile up the road from "downtown" Cedar Key. This was the most friendly, laid back RV park we've found. The people were wonderful and they had low-key events almost every night--karaoke on Sunday, bluegrass picking on Friday and Saturday, bingo on Thursday. We watched beautiful sunsets from the docks and met some really terrific people. We rode out bikes to the docks at Cedar Key and watched people fish among the pelicans, gulls and other shorebirds. We ate melt-in-your-mouth gulf shrimp, clams, grouper and bruschetta. We visited a 5000-year-old native American shell mound that was 25 feet high and several acres across. Cedar Key is described as being like Key West 50 years ago and there is something to that. Quirky homes, restaurants and shops, working fishermen, stunning natural surroundings and little commercialization make Cedar Key a real treasure. We're planning to come back and stay a month next year instead of the week we spent this year.
As I write this, we are driving north out of Ft. Myers after spending two great weeks at the Calusa Cove RV Resort in Estero. It didn’t start out very well, though. After our questionable camping experience in Key Largo, I was a bit nervous about this one. Trying to make reservations months in advance during the high season in Florida is challenging at best. The web sites for some of these places are primitive and there is a certain amount of “puffery” in the descriptions and pictures.
Calusa Cove’s site was worse than most, with the pictures mostly being stock photos of people kayaking and enjoying the beach. We arrived late afternoon and our hearts sank a bit as we drove to our site, which was at the end of a row of trailers and semi-permanent single-wides. It was a sandy and weedy clearing at the edge of a scrub Florida palmetto forest. Our neighbor, Jim, came over to introduce himself. He helpfully warned us about the fire ants that invaded their trailer one night while they slept and gave me some fire ant poison to spread around our wheels and jacks to keep the critters out. As I crawled under the trailer in the dark to make sure I surrounded the tires with the deadly stuff and felt the new bites I was collecting from the no-see-ums, I really wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
But, you know, Calusa Cove turned out to be pretty nice overall. It didn't have nice grass or a pool or a laundry or, really much of anything. But it was right on the edge of a large wildlife preserve that extended a few miles to the Gulf of Mexico. From our trailer, we could watch the sun set knowing that no one was living between us and Mexico hundreds of miles away. We occasionally saw a local tortoise ambling about and eating weeds and never did get invaded by fire ants. It was quite beautiful and far better than being sandwiched in with a ton of other RVs.
We saw a lot of Lucas during our stay, having him over to the trailer for Mojitos and dinner several times, sampling the local restaurants, visiting his office at Gartner and going to see the Red Sox opening day of spring training in their new stadium—Jet Blue Park in Ft. Myers.
The beaches near Ft. Myers are beautiful. One day we went to the “dog beach”, which is a county facility all set up to a literal dog heaven. A short walk from the parking lot off the coast road is a series of beach and sand bars that are enclosed by water on both sides, so you have to wade through a couple feet of water (at least when we were there at high tide) to get out there. And what a place for dogs and dog people. The water was shallow, clear and warm like bath water. There were a couple dozen dogs there on this Saturday morning (Lynnae and Tucker were there Friday, too) and they were chasing each other, running in the water and generally having a great time. Tucker chased his rubber Frisbee into the water over and over. Other dogs came over to play and everyone got along great. At one point he was chasing a greyhound all around the sandbar howling like the beagle half of him loves to do sometimes.
We had heard that Lovers Key was beautiful so we went there for a sunset. Access is just north of the dog beach.
We loved seeing Lucas at work and home. Although there's no pics, he prepared and served a dinner to us and three of his friends...a delightful evening.
A few weeks back we had purchased a Groupon for the Ft. Myers Fred Astaire studio, so while we were here, we got to get a couple private lessons and attend two practice parties. It was great to dance and scrape a little rust off the swing and cha cha skills. On our last night in Ft. Myers, after spending the afternoon watching the Red Sox demolish the Northeastern kids at Jet Blue park, we had dinner with Lucas at the Sandy Parrot Tiki Bar, where we discovered they have a dance floor and live music. So we got to dance a bit more before spending our last night in Ft. Myers and packing up Sunday morning to make the 5-hour drive up to Cedar Key on “the Nature Coast” of Florida (in other words, the middle of nowhere).
Friday night Lucas drove down from Ft. Myers and arrived around 7. We grilled up some shrimp (the Gulf shrimp are amazingly tasty and fresh) for dinner then took off to pick up Jeff at the airport. Our trailer is roomy for Lynnae and I but living in the trailer with the four of us was going to be “interesting”.
I had booked two days of dive trips for the three of us guys and Lynnae was going to go out in the dive boat with us on the first day to snorkle while we dove. Jeff had done the first half of his dive training in New York and just needed his 4 open water dives to complete his PADI ceritification. We could all go out on the same boat and Lucas and I could dive on our own while Jeff got certified. We left the dock in Key Largo on a beautiful 80-degree afternoon. It was about a 30 minute ride out to M olasses Reef, which is located in John Pennekamp State Park. The reef here ranges from just 10 feet to about 30 feet deep. We did two dives that first day and it was a little choppy at the surface, but we had really nice visibility underwater. There was a bit of a current, which proved to be a problem at the end of the first dive.
It had been about two years for me and more than three for Lucas since our last dives, so we were pretty rusty. It didn’t take long to get more comfortable and we tried to hang around the dive instructor who was putting Jeff and a few others through their paces. We lost them about halfway through our dive and just explored the reef. We didn’t realize how much the current was pushing us until we went up to the surface and saw that our boat was about 100 yards away and against the current. I was getting pretty low on air by this time and started to back stroke on the surface toward the boat. It was a bit dicey for me but Lucas and I did make it back near the boat and one of the dive masters came out and helped me get back to the boat, which was great since I was pretty tired by that time. The next dive, one of the instructors had us stay with her and she gave us a guided tour of the reef and that dive was much more relaxing and fun, since we just had to follow her and look at the fish, coral sponges and eels. We did two more dives the next day and Jeff and Lucas went out the third morning too. We all had a great time diving and saw a couple large (4 ft.) grouper, crabs, a massive manta ray, and thousands of fish. This reef is much nicer than I expected, with 50-foot visibility and beautiful coral and fish.
While we were diving the second day, Lynnae went to a nearby bird refuge and had pelicans walking betweeen her legs and stepping on her feet . Both diving days we weent out to local fish restaurants with that Keys “feel” and great seafood. It was sad to say bye to Jeff, but we were headed back with Lucas to Ft. Myers to spend a few weeks near his home.
So making reservations at campgrounds sight-unseen during the high season in Florida is dicey at best. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. We had stayed at several beautiful state parks in Georgia and Florida, some Spartan private RV parks and one ultra-planned community. But we had never pulled into our destination to find what looked like one of those trailer parks in Oklahoma you see on the news when a tornado hits. This place had rusted junky trailers, boats, a front-loader, two or three huge engines on blocks, four or five rusted and moldy-looking “houseboats” and a half dozen or so actual RV’s. And the owner/manager was a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed woman with half her teeth who would get into shouting matches with the tenants.
Speaking of the tenants, I have to admit they were generally very nice but had WAY more than their share of little yapping dogs and looked like this was the last stop on their way to….nowhere. This would have been the trailer park the Joads stopped at on their way to California during the 30s with a big sign that said “Migrant workers welcome—cold beer!”.
On the plus side, the Pelican Cay RV Resort and Marina was situated right on the water with a long dock and surrounded by very picturesque boats. We saw lots of white herons, pelicans and even a couple manatee swam right by us. We actually had a pretty good time there in spite of some of the surroundings and some questionable neighbors. The good thing about RVing is no matter where you are, you can just go into your trailer and you are HOME! And home in the Pelican Cay RV Resort and Marine had pretty nice views of the water and boats from our picture window. And our boys were coming to visit soon!
We got an early start, fueled up with coffee and breakfast and headed out through Homestead to the edge of the US mainland where the two-lane highway launches off on the 120-mile journey to the southernmost point of the US. The day was beautiful and the ocean was turquoise blue in patches. The first half of the drive to Key West was a little disappointing—not much view of the ocean and a lot of development characterizes the Upper Keys. But as we got down to the Middle Keys, it opened up and we found ourselves jumping from key to key over causeways and bridges and narrow spits of land, many of which were constructed by Flagler’s crews 110 years ago. After a few false starts trying to find a place to eat lunch we found [plug for TripAdvisor: our entire trip has been significantly enhanced by using TripAdvisor to find places to eat and things to do] a cool place right at the foot of the famous seven-mile bridge. It was rather chilly that Sunday so we ate under heaters with fleeces on, but we managed to go out to the pool patio where a two-person band was valiantly trying to play some warmth into the crowd. We got to dance a couple swings to scattered applause before we got in our rig and headed south again.
Remains of the Overseas Railway
The last 40 miles of the drive was simply spectacular—every key distinctly different and the light blue vistas of the shallow water and reefs sparkled in the sun. We were almost sorry to cross our last bridge to Key West, but we were also thrilled to be done driving and near such an iconic destination. One last challenge awaited us, though—the dreaded “backing up the trailer into a space narrower than an Arkansas outhouse with fifty bored RVers watching, commenting and advising”. Boyd’s RV Park is an old, family-owned park about 5 miles from the epicenter of Key West. Like good Republicans everywhere, they maximize revenue by stuffing the most customers into their limited space. Lynnae is a champion trailer wrangler and Denis is pretty good at directing and we got our rig squeezed in between huge RV’s on all sides. We were beat and didn’t feel like braving Key West until the next evening.
SIDEBAR: HOW DOES DENIS WORK ON THE ROAD?
This might be a good time to talk about how Denis and Lynnae structure their days during the week, because as you know, Denis is still working full time. Our first Monday in Key West is a great example. Denis got up around 7, fed Tucker and went for a walk around the RV park. Boyd’s is right on the water and some of the spots have beautiful views of the ocean and bays. People are out walking and riding bikes or just sitting on the dock. Back at the trailer for breakfast and Denis sets up at the dining table with his laptop, wifi hotspot, skype headset and cell phone. During the morning he will call and email customers, chat with his sales team, have a conference call for a couple hours with his boss and peers. One of us will make a salad for lunch and we’ll usually eat it outside, then back to work for Denis. Around 5:30 on this Monday we headed down to the heart of Key West for dinner, walking around and more people watching. We’re back by 9 or so and might watch a little TV or read before bed. Pretty simple. I’ll leave it to Lynnae to write her own posts about what she has been doing, but suffice it to say she is enjoying things like yoga on the beach in early morning, bike rides around the neighborhood and the occasional solo trip to a local sight.
We only stayed in Key West for three nights, but it was a very fun time. We went into town every evening for dinner and a stroll. One morning we had a neighbor drive us and our bikes to the very southern tip of the island and we rode back to the camp before breakfast and work—that was a really great activity. But all good things must end, so on Wednesday we did a rare mid-week trailer move because we had to get up to Key Largo and be settled before our boys arrived on Friday night. So Denis made a ton of interview calls (he’s hiring salespeople in a couple territories) from the passenger seat of the truck while Lynnae drove the 100 miles up to Key Largo and what was in some ways our most disappointing stay.
It was going to be a long drive from Titusville to Key West, so we broke it up into two days and after driving much of Saturday afternoon, we spent the night “dry camping” in a county park near Miami. We drove into Miami Beach and had a great time people-watching, eating Cuban food and exploring the streets. We found a historic street that was very lively with restaurants and pedestrians, called Espanola Way. Having already eaten dinner, we settled for a Gelato and a walk back to the car. We were disappointed that we never found a salsa club to try our limited salsa skills among the masters, but we were excited about the next day’s drive—down the Overseas Highway, following the route of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway to Key West.
We liked it so much, we returned with Lucas on February 20.
Our stay that night was at beautiful Easterlin County Park near Ft. Lauderdale. We then headed west to Fort Myers, crossing the state just above and through the Everglades.
I knew I needed to make a business trip up to Boston and NYC the following week, so we planned to visit the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday all day and watch the Super Bowl in some (hopefully) Patriots-friendly sports bar. We also wanted to find a place where Lynnae could be alone (with Tucker) and have interesting surroundings with something to do. We found a spot at The Great Outdoors RV Park and Resort, also known as “Pleasantville”. Picture a planned development like the Pinehills with nearly a thousand lots along streets winding around a village with markets, churches, a meeting hall, post office, etc. Except instead of condos, you have RV parking spaces that range from a concrete pad with grass around it to a 4,000 square ft. home with an RV carport and “dock”. People there seemed to love it, we met several who had lived there for years. It wasn’t our cup of tea. But we did attend their Valentine Dance and danced till we dropped.
Space Shuttle Atlantis
But the KSC was awesome! Some highlights were: the multi-media recreation of an Apollo moon launch using the original mission control room and tape and film from 1967; the massive Apollo V rocket suspended on its side in it’s own building with tons of Apollo memorabilia on display; the bus trip to the launch pads for the Space Shuttle missions and the huge building where the shuttles were prepared for launch and attached to the booster rockets; the actual Atlantis space shuttle sitting 15 yards from us looking very “used” waiting to be refurbished for display in its own building next year; and getting a tour of the “rocket garden” from a man who had worked on the space program since the early days and had lots of stories. If you’re ever in Eastern Florida, the KSC is a must see. Unfortunately we missed seeing a rocket launch by about a week, but we had to move on because we were headed to a rendezvous and dive adventure with our boys down in the Florida Keys!
Massive engines of the Saturn V rocket
Gemini capsule that actually went into space
Apollo moon module
Rocket garden at sunset
Lynnae dropped Denis off at the Orlando airport the next morning and kept going to the Epcot Center. After trying out some rides (and finding out she still gets motion sickness), she went into the international portion. It was amazing to visit the different countries represented and be able to recall specific memories from previous visits to some of those same countries. Epcot Center did a gret job with beauty and entertainment.
St. Augustine's Spanish fort overlooks the beautiful harbor
A short couple hours drive took us to St. Augustine, Florida where we had a camping space reserved in Anastasia State Park, just across the harbor from the old city. St. Augustine has been a tourist town for hundreds of years and they really know how to do it. The old Spanish fort lies right on the water and next to the very walkable streets. We caught a tour of the fort before dark and set up our camper for the week.
Settled into camp for the week
For a small city of about 13,000 people, it has a wealth of restaurants (over 220 according to TripAdvisor) and we managed to sample a few during our stay. Denis worked during the week and Lynnae managed to fill her time with exploring the beautiful beach with Tucker, doing grocery shopping, laundry, riding her bike and visiting the town.
She toured the incredible Flagler College campus, which is housed in the Ponce de Leon Hotel built by Henry Flagler in 1888.We have both been reading a great book about this fascinating man called The Last Train to Paradise about his construction of the railroad line that essentially created the Florida we have today. Flagler was a partner of John D. Rockerfeller in Standard Oil who took his fortune and started a second career as a land developer and railroad man. He built the railroad from Jacksonville to St. Augustine, fell in love with the town and moved there, building a few very high-end luxury hotels to draw the richest tourists of his day. The Ponce de Leon was the first hotel to have all electric lights. Fron St. Augustine, he extended the railroad to Palm Beach and built a mega hotel there which created that city from basically swampland. When he extended the railroad to Ft. Dallas in 1898, it had a population of about 300. The name was changed to Miami a few years later. In 1905, Flagler started his most ambitious project--building a railroad to Key West. It took 7 years and cost hundreds of lives, but it was an engineering marvel for it's time. The railroad was destroyed by a hurricane in 1935 that is still considered the most powerful storm ever to hit the US mainland with winds of over 200 MPH. Read the book, it's fascinating.
White Egret building a nest
Rescue or Sacrifice?
Our last day in St. Augustine, we visited the world's famous Alligator Farm right across the road from our state park campground. Home to nearly 1000 alligators and crocodiles as well as many birds, turtles and little primates, it is a small zoo that is really quite fascinating. To see 15 foot alligators from just a few feet away is pretty cool.
What are those turtles doing, Mommy?
We will definitely go back to St. Augustine someday, hopefully during the holidays when the entire city is draped in white lights (it is considered one of the top few cities in the world as measured by white light displays--not sure who actually keeps track of that).
Next stop--Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center!