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FLORIDA FANTASY CARAVAN
January 5th - February 13th
2000

After two days of driving down to St. Augustine from our home in the Georgia mountains, we joined with 29 other Airstream RVs for a six-week tour of Florida. There were a few familiar faces in the group, but most were new to us. We were camped at the St. Johns County Fairgrounds, where for three days we took a look at the nation's oldest city and begin to get acquainted with each other.

We all ate dinner at Quincy's to begin the get-acquainted process. At our table was Ike and Kathy Thomas from Columbus, Ohio and Ward and Lola Jensen from Huntsville, Alabama. We met the Thomases on I-10 via the CB as we were both driving toward St.Augustine. After dinner we drove through the old part of St.Augustine to see the Christmas lights that were still shining brightly.

On Thursday morning, we carpooled to the trolley terminal in old St.Augustine at 8:00am. The terminal is located next to the Old Jail. Awaiting time for the trolley to leave we strolled through the Florida Heritage Museum and the Old Jail. The museum contains a collection of artifacts from the Henry Flagler era - the late 1800s. Henry Flagler was a partner with John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, and was one of the wealthiest men in America in his day. He moved to St. Augustine at the age of 55 and made it the center of activity for his ventures. He built over 100 hotels in Florida, the first being the Ponce de Leon in St.Augustine. He built the Florida East Coast Railroad and many public buildings. He probably had more influence on the early development of Florida than any other one man. There were other things in the museum as well - Indian artifacts, Civil War things, early furniture, and some nature exhibits with stuffed animals from the forests of the area.

The Old Jail was built by Flagler too - to get the jail out of the downtown area. It is a good example of an institution that would deter crime - no nonsense treatment of prisoners. The most amazing part of the story was the role of the sheriff's wife. She cooked, not only for her family, but for the prison staff and all the prisoners - with no help. To do this in the primitive small kitchen, she worked 14 hour days, seven days a week - with no pay. Her husband, the sheriff, received $2 per day. Of course, there were some perks - free room and board in a pretty nice house, and free utilities. No one ever escaped from the jail.

The trolley tour took us past the Fountain of Youth, the oldest house, the oldest school, the old fort called the Castille de San Marcos, the old Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College), two old cemeteries, and several other buildings of note. We left the trolley at the foot of St.George St. a little before noon, strolling down the narrow street past a myriad of shops. Arty people were playing music, fashioning things out of cabbage palms, and doing other strange things for a handout. Two people - a man and a woman, about a block apart - had painted themselves in aluminum paint and were acting like mechanical statues. How they could hold themselves perfectly still for long periods of time was amazing.

We ate lunch with the Thomases at the Columbia Restaurant which brought back some memories of the Columbia in Ybor City (Tampa) - yellow rice and chicken, Spanish bean soup, Cuban bread, etc. Afterward we strolled over to the old fort, then caught the trolley back to the terminal and drove, exhausted, back to camp.

On Friday, the 7th of January we drove over to Anastasia Island for a visit to the old St.Augustine lighthouse. This old brick and steel structure was built in 1874 on a base of coquina rock. The last light keeper retired in 1955, when the light was automated. Left unattended, vandals nearly destroyed it, shooting out to the prisms that directed the light and setting fire to the houses. A local private organization raised the money to buy the light and restored it over a 15 year period, completing the task in 1994. I climbed to the top on the 119 step spiral staircase at which point I was 165 feet above the ground. A museum now occupies the keepers house.

After visiting the lighthouse, we drove over to St.Augustine beach for a view of the Atlantic Ocean. We sought out the Saltwater Cowboy Restaurant, but found that it is open only in the evenings, so ate our lunch at a spot called The Oasis. There were some pretty good sized waves rolling in on the beach. The weather was overcast, cool, and a bit windy.

On Saturday morning the caravan moved south 110 miles to Christmas, Florida. There was much evidence of the forest fires that raged through a year or so ago. Christmas is about 10 miles west of I-95 near Titusville. Almost immediately upon reaching our campground, we formed a carpool to go over to Cape Canaveral for a tour of the space station.

It was as if we had never been there. The exhibits and activity going on at the space center were absolutely fantastic. The tour began with an orientation type movie, then we boarded a bus to the "LC-39 Observation Gantry." Here the exhibit told the story of the orbiter/shuttle program, and from the observation tower we could see the launch pad where the next orbiter flight, Discovery, will begin later this month. We could see the top of the launch rockets, but only from a couple of miles away. This was impressive but the next exhibit was even more impressive.

We boarded the bus again to go to the "Apollo/Saturn V Center." A full size Saturn rocket, with all three booster stages, the service and command modules, is housed in one building. I knew the Saturn rocket was big, but had no concept of the hugeness of this thing. To see it up close and walk the length of it was really awesome. There were models of the lunar lander and the vehicle the astronauts used to ride around on the surface of the moon.

Boarding the bus again, we went over to the building where they were building the new International Space Station. Again, the precision and detail were fascinating. The modules used to send equipment up to the station are made to fit precisely in the cargo hold of the shuttles. Despite delays, the station is supposed to be ready in five years, then used for a myriad of experiments for another 15 years. There was a mockup of the shuttle's cargo hold in the building so the modules would fit right. The mockup cost 1.5 billion dollars to build. That illustrates the scope of the whole project. The U.S. is paying 65% of the cost with the rest spread over many nations - Russia being the foremost.

Following all of that we watched an IMAX movie made from space by the astronauts. By then it was dark and time to come back to camp. We left the next morning for a cruise through the eastern Caribbean - Nassau, San Juan, St. John, St. Thomas, etc.

The bus, chartered to take us all to Port Canaveral, arrived at the campground at 10:15am on Sunday morning. After loading our luggage we boarded for the 45 minute ride to dockside. To occupy the time, we showed my caravan promotion video and the first half of the Oregon Trail tape on the bus TV system. With several TV's along both sides of the bus, everyone had a good view.

SS Rembrandt

 

Atlantis Hotel - Paradise Island, Bahamas

We stood in line for over an hour to check in and clear customs for the cruise - finally climbing aboard the SS Rembrandt about 3:00pm. The Rembrandt is an older cruise ship, built in 1959 for the Holland America Line. It was first named the SS Rotterdam and carries 1200 passengers and about 600 crew members. 748 feet long and 94 feet wide, the vessel weighs some 39,000 tons - a large ship. The sun was setting as we "set sail." It was a clear, warm day with smooth seas.

Our first port of call was Nassau in the Bahamas. Although Nassau is only 90 miles off the Florida coast, it took all night to get there, docking at 10:00am on Monday morning. In the thirty years since we were last in Nassau, much has changed. The streets were clogged with traffic and lined with peddlers. On Paradise Island, the big addition is a hotel and casino complex called the Atlantis. This huge, opulent structure features the largest aquarium on the continent. In the restaurant you sit next to one aquarium wall that is about 10 feet high and 50 feet long. Schools of exotic fish swim by and look in on the diners. The theme of the architecture is the rediscovery of the lost continent of Atlantis.

We took a water taxi over to Paradise Island, then walked another half mile or so to the Atlantis. Adjectives such as gaudy, plush, expensive, opulent, hardly describe the place. Stroll through visitors such as we were, are not welcomed, except in the gift shop areas. To stroll the grounds and beaches requires a $25 fee. So, we took a quick look and made our way back to the ship.

In the boat slip next to us was the new Disney ship, The Wonder. This is the latest in the Disney line, designed for 3,000 passengers. We heard that they were sailing only about 1/3 full, so there may be some bargains there..

We left Nassau that same evening, headed for our next stop at San Juan, Puerto Rico. The day and a half that it took to reach San Juan was nice and relaxing - calm seas, moderate weather. We entered San Juan harbor about noon. On the left was the old fort called El Morro Castle. On the rocks below the walls of the fort a freighter had run aground, probably blown onto the rocks in a storm. It was deserted, and no efforts were being made to remove it. Only one other cruise ship was at the docks - the Norwegian Sky. Several tours were offered, but since we'd done that before we elected just to walk into Old San Juan on our own. The domino game that we saw in progress 10 years ago was still going. And, the pigeons were still flocking around the square. The narrow streets of Old San Juan are almost impossible for automobile traffic. Cars barely moved. There were lots of pedestrians. It didn't take too long to get enough of that, so we returned to the ship and spent the rest of the day relaxing and reading.

The next morning we dropped anchor near St. John. We took an island tour that began with a launch coming out to the ship to pick us up. Ten minutes later we were at the dock in Cruz Bay, climbing into trucks that had been rigged with seats in the back under a canvas cover.

The Virgin Islands are really the tops of mountains that extend several thousand feet to the sea bottom. St. John is nine miles long and about 21 square miles in area - one of the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The road we drove along climbed sharply to the mountain's peak which was 1277 feet above sea level. All vehicles drive on the left hand side of the road - a custom carried over from European ownership. The sharp, hairpin turns made for slow progress. The views from the top were very nice. We could see hundreds of other "mountain top" islands in all directions. The island is thick with plush, tropical foliage - many palm trees. Along the north side of the island, every cove is lined with a beautiful white sandy beach. The water is as clear as water can get. Some 6,000 people reside on St. John - largely supported by tourist dollars. Over half the island was purchased in the early 20th century by the Rockefellers who later turned it over to the United States. That part is now called Virgin Islands National Park. Our tour truck stopped at all the good overlooks, and our guide shared his knowledge of the island's history and geology. Three hours later we were back at dockside awaiting a boat to take us to St. Thomas. The Rembrandt had gone on to St. Thomas after dropping us off.

View from mountain top on island of St. John, US Virgin Islands

Back in St. Thomas, scattered showers put somewhat of a damper on activities. Three other cruise ships were in port, so the Rembrandt had to anchor out in the harbor. A shuttle had been set up, using tenders from the ship, to go and come every fifteen minutes. The harbor was crowded with tourists, almost too thick to maneuver. We walked among the shops for awhile, ducked under awnings to avoid the rain, then decided to return to the ship. It was time to get ready for the evening meal.

Every evening we dressed for dinner in the formal dining room. Each night it was a five course meal with waiters hovering about us all the while. Our group of 59 occupied 10 tables. On most cruises, once assigned to a table, that's it for the whole cruise. In this case though, we changed tablemates every night. It was an opportunity to get to know more of the people on the caravan. It was surprising to have such a diversity of people. We have folks from Washington state, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, California, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida with us. Most came to Florida just for this caravan and will return home when it is over. We were acquainted with five or six couples from other caravans, but most were new. Getting to meet new people is one of the good things about caravanning. The ship lifted anchor and left St.Thomas while we were eating that evening meal.

I'd like to say that the two days at sea returning to Port Canaveral were uneventful, but not so. About 2:00am on Saturday morning, we hit a cold front, and the sea turned nasty. Needless to say, the result was a lot of discomfort. For twelve hours we were tossed about like a toy. We learned later that the waves were 20 feet high. When the ship crested these monsters, it creaked and shuddered, then plunged into the next trough. The bow buried itself in the next wave sending tons of water across the decks. Occasional waves hit the side of the vessel sounding big booms. After an hour of this, I had my head in the toilet, and Ann had her's in the trash basket. There was no relief for eight hours. Recalling that on a previous cruise shots were available to alleve seasickness, we were waiting when the infirmary was opened at 10:00am the next morning. It was a struggle, even to maneuver along the hallway and up the stairs to get to the infirmary. The shots worked, but the ugly weather lasted another two hours. The shots had the side effect of making us sleepy, or maybe it was just that we hadn't gotten any sleep all night, but we collapsed in bed and didn't rise again until late that evening. By then, everything had calmed down, and the rest of the trip was smooth. Folks began to swap stories about what we had all gone through. Even the crew members were saying that they had never been through anything like that.

We got back to Port Canaveral on Sunday morning, January 16th, and back to the campground by noon. Except for that last adventure with the rough weather, it had been a good cruise. We were well pampered by all the service aboard ship. I think, though, that all of the caravanners were ready for land.

On Monday, January 17th, the caravan moved from Christmas to Stuart, Florida. The 120 mile drive down I-95 was uneventful. It was nice to be back on solid ground. We made one stop at a Flying J to top off the gas tank and kill a little time. Our campsite in Stuart was at the Martin County Fairgrounds where we parked in an open field. Soon after getting set up, I found a car wash in Stuart to get some of the grime of the Suburban.

At 4:30pm everybody gathered for the first GAM - Get Acquainted Meeting., Ours was at the Ballou's trailer and included Al and Gracie Buchanan, Don and JoAnn Ballou, Sam and Mary Ann Bomann, Bill and Peggy Chafee, and us. Each introduced themselves. told where they were from, and what they did before retirement. Snacks were passed around, and for an hour or so we "got acquainted." As the sun went down, the breeze got right chilly, sending folks for their jackets.

Tuesday was a free day to do as we pleased. The local Airstream dealer brought one of the new 39 foot Airstream motorhomes over to the fairgrounds to show. It was Airstream's best rendition yet, and carried a commensurate price tag - $220,000. It got a lot of oohs and ahs, but no immediate takers. We found a little restaurant in town for lunch, then drove up to Johnson Beach to do our walking in the mall. After two miles of walking, I found a magazine to read while Ann did some shopping.

At a spot about 12 miles west of Ft. Pierce is the headquarters of the 55,000 acre Adams Ranch. This is a working cattle ranch with some 6,000 head of Bradford beef cows. These peaceful herds of cattle graze contentedly alongside flocks of wild turkeys and herds of deer. Concerned with protecting the environment and wildlife, Adams uses no artificial fertilizers or chemicals to increase the ranch's production of premium beef, nor does he ruthlessly exterminate predators. Life on the Adams ranch is a matter of surviving the natural elements. A cow too weak to survive will not survive to produce weak offspring. A modern application of the law of "survival of the fittest."

As a sideline the ranch conducts tours, and this was our day's activity on Wednesday,.January 19th. We carpooled the 20+ miles from Stuart, arriving at the ranch about 9:30am. This was Florida in the wild - not much different than it must have looked to the earlier settlers back in the 1800s. There was marshland, wide open pasture, oak hammocks, scattered cabbage palms. The only sign of manmade things was some fencing, a semblance of road, and some drainage canals. The cattle - a breed developed at the ranch - essentially ran wild. They were a cross between Brahman and Hereford. We rode in what appeared to be a converted school bus - painted a camouflaged olive drab with all the windows removed. Our driver and guide was a grandson of Judge Adams who bought the land and started the ranch in the 1930s. We saw gators, deer, wild hog tracks, sandhill cranes, many other varieties of birds, including rare whooping cranes. And we received a good lesson in animal husbandry as applied to the raising of beef. The Braford is now a proven registered breed, well adapted to the environment at Adams Ranch, but they still work to improve it by mixing in red Angus and another breed from Germany - the "Gilke" ( or something like that).

By noon we reached a spot in the woods where a cookout was being prepared and there receivedt a demonstration of the cutting and preparation of swamp cabbage. Then, with our barbecued chicken and beef, salad, and swamp cabbage, we climbed up to a tree house in a live oak tree where the first few in line got to eat. The rest ate at tables scattered around the hammock. The food was delicious.


Cooking Swamp Cabbage

After eating we walked through the woods to an old cracker house and heard the story of how "Florida crackers" got there name. The early cattlemen used whips to drive wild cattle out of the woods and swamps, and because the sound of cracking whips was prevalent, the name "cracker" was born. Then we loaded back on the "bus" and rode back to the starting point where we saw a collection of colored slides that the owners had taken around the ranch. Remarkable in color and composition, these pictures reflect a love affacir with rural Florida. The story of the ranch, the excursion through it, and the cookout far exceeded our expectations.

As we left Stuart on Thursday morning, the weather was beginning to look threatening, but we left the bad stuff behind as we headed south. This was our day to go early as part of the work crew. We were assigned parking duty, so had to get in to camp early to make sure everyone got parked properly. The trip was 240 miles long, down the Florida Turnpike to its end, then US1 to the keys. By 4:30pm everyone was in and parked, so we finally got to sit still awhile and relax.

On Friday morning we drove to Key West with Bill and Patt Herzing. A Conch Train Tour had been arranged for the caravan that started at 11:30am. Two cruise ships were in, and the number of people on the streets was incredible. There must have been a dozen or more of these trains running about the city, each carrying about 35 people. The "train" consisted of a propane powered "engine" pulling three or four open air cars along the streets - no tracks. The driver gave a running narration, talking about the different eras of Key West history that have molded the city's character.


Our Campsite on Sunshine Key


Crowd gathers for sunset at Mallory Pier


The Conch Train


Takeoff

Key West is the second oldest city in Florida, next to St. Augustine. At one point in its history, the per capita income was greater than any other city in the U.S. That was the era of the extremely profitable shipwreck salvage industry. Sailing ships that ran aground on the reefs offshore were fair game for salvage crews working out of Key West.. As lighthouses were built and warning buoys installed, there were less and less wrecks, so that era soon phased out. Then, there was a time when the cigar making industry was predominant, coinciding with revolution in Cuba. Henry Flagler built the railroad to Key West in 1912, bringing in tourists. After hurricane damage in 1935, the railroad was abandoned and a highway was built over the old tracks. That brought automobiles and tourists. The Navy came in during the 2nd World War and boosted the economy. Later, the shrimping industry kept things going. As that faded, a new highway was built, and each year more and more tourists have flooded in. The old sections of town remain as they were, making for a unique character. Two storied frame houses, with porches and lots of gingerbread and built very close together, make up the old part of town.

There are several significant places in Key West - the end of U.S.1, "Mile 0"; Harry Truman's retreat; the Key West Lighthouse; Ernest Hemingway's house; the southernmost tip of land in the continental United States. Many interesting people have called Key West home over the years - Ernest Hemmingway, Tennessee Williams, Harry Truman, Mel Fisher.

We took in the Mel Fisher Museum which houses much of the treasure he recovered from the ancient Spanish galleon - the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Gold bars, silver bars, emeralds, Spanish coins, jewelry are still being recovered from the 378 year old wreck. One interesting relic on display was a 12 foot long gold chain with links that looked to be about 1/2" x 3/4" in size. The recovered treasure has been recently estimated to be worth about 600 million dollars.

After a great lunch at a small Cuban restaurant called the El Siboney, we walked the length of Duval Street, the main street of town. There must be enough tee shirts on sale along this street to provide every man, woman, and child in America at least two apiece. About 5:00pm people started gathering along the Mallory pier to watch the sunset. The weird people perform their little acts along the pier. There was a man with trained dogs, another with cats that jumped through hoops. There was a bagpipe player, an Uncle Sam, some jugglers, another silver human statue, and a tight rope walker, By the time the sun settled below the horizon about 6:15pm there must have been several thousand people on the pier - quite a sight in itself. And the day wasn't yet over.

We arrived back at camp just in time to hear an hour long talk and slide show by a Professor Gallagher on the building of the Flagler railroad. This man came to the keys in 1992 and developed an interest in the history of the railroad and Pigeon Key, the island Henry Flagler chose to be the headquarters for the construction of the seven mile bridge. The collection of pictures taken during construction of the seven mile bridge was outstanding. Dr. Gallagher had also built a scale model of a section of bridge, showing how the piers and concrete arches were formed and poured.

The railroad to Key West was completed in 1912 at a cost of $31 million. It operated until 1935, when a hurricane caused damage. The damage was relatively minor, but by then it was Great Depression time, and the railroad had become insolvent. So, it was not repaired. Instead, it was sold to the State of Florida, and a highway was built over the railroad bed.

On Saturday morning Dr. Gallagher took us on a special tour across two miles of the old bridge to Pigeon Island where we got a first hand view of the things he had talked about the night before. We felt quite privileged to be able drive over the old span. Many of the old buildings are being restored to preserve the interesting history of the railroad and subsequent highway.

Pigeon Key is a four-acre island located 2.2 miles west of Marathon. Early Spanish maps called it Cayo Paloma, meaning Isle of Pigeons. There is nothing about the island to make it any more significant than any of the scores of small islands in the keys, except its strategic location. Because of that, it was chosen to be the site of a work camp and storage site for construction of the seven mile railroad bridge. At times the work crew living there numbered near 400. The island is now owned by Monroe County and can never be sold. The restoration group is a private foundation with Dan Gallagher as its leader. He has written a very readable book on the subject.

Following the Pigeon Key tour, we drove over to Big Pine Island looking for a pub called "NoName" on the road to No Name Key. After a couple of misdirections that took us through the Key Deer Wildlife Sanctuary, we found this unusual restaurant. The walls and ceiling are papered with real dollar bills - some 20,000 of them. Stuck back in an obscure place, well off the beaten path, the little restaurant served up some of the best pizzas we'd ever tasted. Inside, the pub was really jumping, and there were no seats. So, with the Herzings and Thomases, we ordered three different kinds of pizza to share, and went out to a picnic table in the back yard. According to the menu, this was once a bordello of some fame back in the heyday of the railroad. The rest of the day was spent at a local flea market, then home to relax.

Sunday was a day of rest. Church services were held in the meeting hall at the campground. Some folks went kayaking, some went snorkeling, some took a catamaran ride to Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas Island, others did laundry or just lazed around the pool.

Monday was moving day - this time to Florida City where we parked at the City Campground. In the afternoon we visited the nearby Fruit and Spice Park. This was a tropical botanical garden, the only one of its kind in the United States. The park began in 1944 as a private hobby. It is now operated by the Dade County Park and Recreation Department. The 32 acre facility exhibits 500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, and nuts from all over the world. There were 100 varieties of citrus, 80 varieties of bananas, 40 varieties of grapes, and scores of exotic plants with names hardly pronounceable. We marvelled at the variety and tasted many strange looking things.

Florida City and Homestead are almost adjacent cities. Many of the areas devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are still apparent. We saw entire city blocks completely bare of buildings - only traces of old driveways and streets.

The next morning we were at the Everglades Alligator Farm by 9:00am loading onto three air boats for a ride through the sawgrass. These wide, flat bottomed boats each held 20 people. With nothing extending down into the water, the boats flew across the water and grass at 45 mph. Each time we'd come to an open stretch of water, the pilot would put the boat into a thrilling 360 degree spin. Birds were everywhere, taking flight to avoid the oncoming boat. These 7 million acres of swamp are alive with all sorts of wildlife.

Back at he alligator farm there were hundreds of gators crawling all over each other - some 10 to 12 feet long. We watched a gator show where a handler caught an 8 foot gator by the tail and dragged it up on a little beach, then proceeded to demonstrate how the powerful jaws snapped under certain stimuli. The gator's brain is the size of pea. He doesn't think, he reacts. With his hands over the gator's eyes, the handler could do almost anything we wanted without a response from the gator. The same man also showed a number of the native snakes he had caught in the area.

Following the gator farm excursion, we entered Everglades National Park, driving all the way through to Flamingo on the western side - 38 miles. After lunch at the park restaurant overlooking Florida Bay, we stopped at a couple of interesting spots on our return. The first was called Snake Bight, a four mile long trail through a canopy of mangroves. We walked in about 2 miles, then out again. The other stop was at Pa-hay-okee Point. Here a boardwalk led out over the sawgrass for a panoramic view of the wide open swamp land. The name is a Seminole Indian word for "river of grass," and is no doubt the root of the town Pahokee's name. Another stop was at Royal Palm Park, a former State Park before the national park was established. Here, there was another boardwalk over deeper water and more alligators. By now, it was beginning to get dark. It had been a pretty long day. Played a little Joker with the Herzings after supper.

Moving day again - this time to Paradise Park, the Airstream Park about 20 miles east of Punta Gorda. To get there we drove across the Everglades on the old Tamiami Trail, then through the Big Cypress Swamp up through Immokalee and LaBelle - desolate, open country. Alongside the canals which parallel the Tamiami Trail, alligators by the scores were out sunning. That used to be a rare sight, but on this day they were so numerous they were impossible to count. And there were birds everywhere.

The weather turned very chilly this 26th of January. We heard reports of record cold, snow and ice in the Carolinas and Virginia, so we had little reason to complain about 45 degrees in Florida. Still, it was cold. By morning, the temperature had dropped to 35 degrees, but the sun was shining.

We drove into Punta Gorda on Thursday to try to look up our old home site. Couldn't find it. Punta Gorda has changed so much, nothing was recognizable. Some of the restored "historic district" was vaguely familiar, but even that was different. Guess that's par for the course after 43 years. Port Charlotte is home now to thousands. We went to a mall in Murdock - just a country crossroads back when. As I recall it, the owner of the Murdock general store traded groceries for land back in the 30s, then sold it to the Mackle brothers in the early 50s for about $1 per acre - 144 square miles of it - 92,000 acres. That's now Port Charlotte.

On Saturday, the caravan moved to the Tampa area - a campground near Temple Terrace on Fowler Avenue called Happy Travelers RV Park. As we came through Bowling Green, we called the Myers and Brumbaughs (friends from Hiawassee spending the winter there) and met them for lunch at the Breadboard in Wauchula. That put us near last getting into the campground. It was interesting hearing the various pronunciations of local names like Thonotasassa, Immokalee, Alachua, etc.- names folks from Florida take for granted.

So close to our old home in Brandon, we attended worship services at our old church - First Baptist Church of Brandon. Saw a number of old friends there.

On Monday, we were scheduled to go to Busch Gardens for the day, but the weather turned wet. We exchanged our tickets for others good for any other day in 2000. We found the University Mall and walked a couple of miles indoors.

The weather cleared on Tuesday, so we used our tickets to Busch Gardens. Many of the attractions were closed due to renovation with new things going in. But what was there was still worthwhile. The birds and animals were as we remembered from previous visits, but the added shows were really spectacular. We watch a show called World Rythym on Ice that was absolutely world class. It was in a large theater with the stage set in ice. The costuming, music, skaters and other performers were superb. We watched the bird show which was good, and strolled the whole complex. The flock flamingos was probably the most impressive. Other native birds have found the gardens and claimed it as their sanctuary and are there by the millions. The train and monorail through the African veldt was closed so we could only see those animals from a distance. We rode the cable cars that make up the Sky Ride for an overview of the place. Some of our folks rode the daredevil rides - the Python, the Moki, the Water Flume, the Roller Coaster, and there may have been a couple more. The Moki (I think that was the name) was some else again - whirling around upside down and plunging underground to come up into a full vertical circle at breakneck speeds. After lunch at the Crown Colony Restaurant, we walked a bit more then called it a day - after about 5 hours.

In the evening a chartered bus picked us up at the campground for the ride to Clearwater and Ruth Eckerd Hall for the Tony Bennett show. The theater was packed. He sang the old songs for an hour and a half straight to the delight of the audience. He got standing ovations after many of the numbers. At 74, Tony Bennett still has a strong voice, good lungs, and a lot of energy. There were about 2,000 people in the theater to hear him.

Wednesday was a free day. We did some shopping, got haircuts, and relaxed. Supper was a kitty treat meal at the campground club house - and it was really good - ham, potato salad, baked beans, bread, slaw, and banana pudding. Following the meal, we played Joker with the Herzings back at the trailer. Score: Men 3 games; Women 3 games.

On Thursday we moved to Silver Springs. Camped at Springs RV Park, the caravan was treated for an evening meal at the recreation hall. We were all set for a visit to one of Florida's natural wonders. We were awarded passes to the park, good for the full year after submitting to photo ID's for our badges.

After several days of rain and overcast skies, Friday opened with great promise - clear skies and a bright sun, though the temperature was in the 30s. Our campsite was less than a half mile from the entrance to Silver Springs. The park opened at 10:00am. With our passes, we were on our own to go and come as we pleased. From the large parking area, it required but a short walk over a broad boardwalk through a cypress swamp and past a huge fountain to get to the springs. Some of these cypress trees were estimated to be 500 to 700 years old.

The crystal clear water boiling up out of the springs feeds the beautiful, nine mile long Silver River, which in turn flows into the Oklawaha then the St. Johns River. Throughout the park are miles of walkways that meander along the river bank and wind through the cypress swamp past alligators, crocodiles, panthers, bears, giraffes, and exotic birds. Some of the largest cypress trees in Florida are in this area. Along the walkways are exhibits where animal trainers show beautiful macaws doing tricks. and handle gators and snakes. There was a pet show, an exhibit of bats and scorpions, and a car show.

The traditional Silver Springs excursion is on the glass bottom boats that go across the springs and down the river a short distance and back. Many varieties of fish - bass, crappie, bluegill, gar - could be seen through the glass bottom of the boats. 850 million gallons of this sparkling clear, 72 degree water come out of the springs every day. The main spring at the head of the river has itself a flow of 550 million gallons per day. That''s enough to provide water for any major city in the United States, or so they told us. This almost pure water is the central feature and most stunning thing about the park.

Then there was the "Lost River Voyage" cruise (also a glass bottom boat) down the Silver River through a wild part of Florida. Wild monkeys, descendants of monkeys left over from a movie set over 50 years ago, still entertain folks on this cruise along with more alligators, turtles, and lots of birds. There was also the "Jungle Cruise," a more relaxing ride that passed more exotic animals along the banks of the Fort King Waterway. And there was a "Jeep Safari" that traveled through the swamp and woodlands and more animals. There have been a lot of exotic animals and birds introduced to the park as added attractions since the last time we were here. They are not on a par with Busch Gardens in this regard however. It's still the beautiful, clear water of the springs that make this place unique.

After breakfast together at the RV park's Friendship Hall, we had a couple of free days to explore the Ocala area. The thermometer dropped to 28 degrees in the morning, freezing some of our water lines.

On Sunday we drove down to Lady Lake for a short visit with Lamar and Frances Cockrell. Weather cool but nice. Then on Monday, the caravan moved again - this time to Alachua. This is my kind of travelling - move 50 miles and stay three days. We camped at the Travellers Campground near the intersection of US441 and I75. About six miles north on US441 is the little town of High Springs. After setting up, we drove to High Springs to look around.

This is one area of Florida that is not overcrowded. High Springs was established in 1844 as a supply point for area farmers. It was not until 1888 when the railroad came through that the town really began to prosper. It was incorporated in 1893. As the railroad faded in importance the town lost much of its reason for being, but High Springs has now restored many of the old buildings and taken on new life with many antique shops and much interest in canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and scuba diving in the caverns and springs feeding the Santa Fe River.

We rode out to Poe Springs, Blue Springs, and Ginnie Springs - all feeding the beautiful Santa Fe River. These springs are all incredibly clear - as clear as the Silver River without commercial exploitation. Underwater caves attract scuba divers. Some of the caves extend great distances - two miles or more through the limestone underground structure of the area. The Santa Fe River is clear, quiet, and natural. We saw no boats and few people, but lots of birds. The Santa Fe flows into the Suwannee and then into the Gulf of Mexico.

Back in High Springs we took a good look at The Great Outdoors Trading Company and Cafe. This building was built in 1895, originally housing the "old opera house." Stage performances, silent movies, and dances were held upstairs while the street level area housed various stores and a barber shop. On Tuesday evening we dined as a group at the cafe and had some superb entertainment upstairs afterward. The four member group came just for us, playing and singing for an hour and a half.

Further upstream on the Santa Fe River is O'Leno State Park. We did something there that we'd never done before - walked around the end of a river. You have to think about that a minute ,,,, The Santa Fe River is a good sized river flowing general to the southwest from the center of the state. Then it comes to an end - literally. All the trash, driftwood and debris that has come down the river for centuries has accumulated at the end where the river disappears. The spot is called the "river sink." It is not a pretty sight. The water then flows underground to a point three miles away where it rises again to continue its march to meet the Suwannee. That spot is called the "river rise." When the river comes back up, it is clean. The three mile stretch of dry land is called a natural bridge.

While the "bridge" bears no resemblance to an ordinary bridge, it has for centuries provided a natural way for native Americans, for the Spaniards who settled Florida, and for the early American settlers of Florida to drive cattle across the river.

After walking across a suspension foot bridge that was built by the CCC back in the 1930s, we followed a hiking trail 1 1/2 miles around the sinkhole where the river disappears and back to where we began. At one point five deer emerged from the forest ahead of us and splashed across the river. We got back in the truck and proceed to drive back out on the highway to another entrance to the park across which a gate was locked. The ranger had given me the combination to the lock, so we entered and drove down a dirt road about two miles to where the river rises again. Here the water was clean and pretty again, though dark with tannic acid. The springs that feed into the river at many spots downstream are crystal clear, so the further down, the clearer the mainstream. Several of our caravanners rented canoes about three miles downstream from the rise and paddled up and back. They exclaimed over the beauty of the river and the oddity of paddling upstream to the "river's end."

The name O'Leno goes back to the mid 1800s when there was a town located near the "sink." The town grew around a mill that ground corn, sawed lumber, and processed fertilizer for the early pioneers to this part of Florida. It was first called Keno, but the church objected to the name because if was associated with a form of gambling. So the town changed its named to Leno. Leno was the end of the line for the first telegraph line linking Florida to the outside world. Then Plant built his railroad, bypassing Leno, and the town became a ghost town. Folks around called it Old Leno which gradually became O'Leno. The park land was acquired by the state during the Great Depression and was named after the old town.

With Wednesday a "free" day, we took the opportunity to visit with some friends, Bill and Sue Goza, in Gainesville. Bill is a retired lawyer from Clearwater and an expert on Florida history among other things. We had lunch with them at their country club just down their street. Their beautifully decorated home backs up to one of the fairways on a championship golf course.

At lunch we learned that Bill was a trustee of the Marjorie Rawlings foundation which has been instrumental in the restoration of her home at Cross Creek. He and Sue went with us to Cross Creek for an informative tour of the Rawlings estate. The old "cracker" house still contains her furniture and the typewriter she used to write such books as The Yearling and Cross Creek and others. The house and barn are located in an old orange grove and adjacent to thick oak and pine forest with palmetto underbrush. There were chickens and ducks wandering around and ripe oranges and tangerines on the trees. It was easy to see how this rural Florida environment led Mrs. Rawlings to write as she did.

After the drivers meeting in the rec hall on Wednesday night, ice cream and cake were served, compliments of the campground in appreciation for our stay with them. Then, we had a "show and tell" session with some of the caravanners showing their hobbies. Maxine Munch had several knitted things she displayed and explained. Inabelle Sides showed the beautiful jewelry she had made. Wirewrapping, she called it - learned at a lapidary school near Young Harris. Jim Matkovitz showed the toy cars he's collecting - by Hallmark. Patt Herzing showed some of her pictures and Bill presented Artie and Sue McDowell with a pictorial award for their performance in the canoes. Their canoe had flipped and dumped them unceremoniously in the Santa Fe River.

Our next and last stop on the caravan was Tallahassee, Florida's capital city. We were on the parking crew, so started the trip early with our leaders. It was a beautiful day, though starting out pretty cold. There was ice on the windshield as the sun came up. It quickly melted, and we were off. The 125 miles passed quickly as we came through Fort White and Perry, then US19 to I-10, then west to Tallahassee. We stayed in the Tallahassee RV Park, one of the nicest campgrounds on the whole trip.

After a presentation by the campground owner of things to do in the area, we drove into town and toured the Old Capitol Building. The new building immediately behind is a 22 story skyscraper, totally lacking in character. But the old building looks like wbat a state capitol should look like. It has been restored to what it looked like about 1909 with a domed rotunda. The senate chamber is on one end of the building, the house chamber on the other. We found the Liberty Bell in the courtyard of the House Office Building

On Friday we lined up in a carpool convoy to visit Pebble Hill Plantation near Thomasville, Georgia. 30 miles up the road, Pebble Hill is a testimony to huge wealth. With 3,000 acres of south Georgia pine and oak forest, there are many brick buildings around the complex. None of these buidings date back to "plantation days," but were built in the early 1900s by a wealthy northerner from Cleveland, Ohio - Howard Melville Hanna. Hanna made a fortune in steel and oil and retired at age 35.. The Brick cow stalls are better built than most ordinary houses, as are those for the horses. The main house has 40 rooms, 28 fireplaces, and is furnished with a treasure in antique furniture and art. After the plantation tour, we drove in to Thomasville for lunch and to look around a bit.

Back in Florida for the afternoon, we drove out to Bradley's General Store where pork sausage is made and sold Their claim is that they sell the best, old fashioned, country smoked and fresh sausage money can buy. It must be true as people come from all over to get that sausage. The man in line ahead of us bought over $100 worth of link sausage. The Bradley family has been at this for four generations, dating back to 1910. It was a simple and rustic store in a simple and rustic setting - very small, but proof that people will come to honesty and good quality. The store is on the National Register of Historic Places.

We played Joker in our trailer with the Herzings and Matkovichs in a six-handed game - the men losing 2 games to 1.

The weather turned beautiful for the last few days of the caravan with afternoon temperatures reaching 76 degrees. There were a few clouds scattered through the blue sky on Saturday morning. Bill Stratton brought down some of the pens and a remarkable bowl he had turned on his lathe. The bowl was made of burly maple with a top that was cut throughout in a heart pattern. He buys his tools from "One-Way" out of Canada through their website: www.oneway.com. Bill is retired from AT&T. He and Joyce live in Oklahoma City.

We drove northward to the small town of Havana where antique shops dominate the scene. One, called the Cannery because the building once housed a vegetable cannery, was a cooperative type store where the goods were all there on consignment. Anyone interested in antiques would be in their paradise in Havana.

On the way back to Tallahassee, we stopped at an archaeology site where the high mounds remain as evidence of early civilization. These "mound builders" were there 700 to 800 years ago, and it is thought that they were the ancestors of the Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee Indians. This old village is on the shore of Lake Jackson - or what was Lake Jackson. This large lake has recently drained itself dry. Some of the local people said that this happens every 25 years. The water disappears into a sink hole in the middle of the lake. Then, it will gradually refill itself. Dump trucks were hauling out muck from the lake bottom. Boat ramps and docks around the former lake were all high and dry.

On Sunday, we drove about 50 miles south to Alligator Point, hoping to get a glimpse of the beach. It was too foggy, however, to see much. The tide was in, and there was very little beach showing. The houses there are all on stilts to avoid a hurricane surf. There was much evidence of past washouts, and it appeared as though the beach had eroded considerably as some of the houses were suspended out over the water.

Our final banquet was at the Golden Eagle Country Club where we had a great meal of prime rib, chicken cordon bleu, and broiled grouper. As it happened, this coincided with our 46th wedding anniversary. When it was announced, we received an ovation of applause and congratulations. The final banquet was the only time on the caravan (except for dinner on the cruise) where "dress up" clothes were required, and we all cleaned pretty good. After dinner some of the more talented caravanners put on skits, played the Newlywed Game, and sang to entertain the rest of us. All agreed we had had a great time together. Saying goodbye was tough, but all good things must end. On Monday morning we all went our separate ways vowing to stay in touch and to "see you down the road."

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