Two days before leaving Austin, we get an email from a new Pennswood resident, Nancy Arnold. The joy of Pennswood is that we keep meeting interesting, engaging people. We learn that Nancy’s brother Carl and his wife Irene live in Austin. He’s an adolescent psychologist. Irene’s in charge of the Science textbooks for the state of TX. They agree to meet us for dinner—delightful people we definitely want to introduce to Adam and Caroline. They live in a neighborhood near the Griffin School. Carl Pickhardt has written many books: Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, Why Good Kids Are Cruel, Keys to Successful Step-fathering, The Future of Your Only Child, The Connected Father: Understanding Your Unique Role and Responsibilities, Everything Parent Guide to the Strong-willed Child, Boomerang Kids: A Revealing Look at Why So Many of Our Children Are Failing (to name only a few of those I found on Amazon.com)—a tremendous resource for Adam’s school of 90 adolescent high school kids. Such a small, small world!
Our last night in Austin, we eat a quick dinner with Adam and his family and rush off for our final opportunity to watch 11-year old Jennings play basketball. His inexperienced 5th-grade team is short two players, so Jennings plays the entire game. Although he’s short, Jennings is really fast and fun to watch. He’s a star, making the first two baskets for his team, catching rebounds, stealing the ball, hitting a free throw, and passing, passing, passing. For the first time in 10 games, his team is ahead and has the possibility of winning. With one minute left, the score is 12-11. In the heat of that last minute, he fouls another player, and the player makes both free throws. Jennings’ team loses—by one point! Jennings is in tears. He’s played a magnificent game and supported his team in playing the best they’ve ever played—and his foul costs them the game. Adam is wonderful. He’s right there on the court with Jennings. It’s a hard life lesson. Two days later, we get a text from Adam: Jennings team won its first game!
One thousand, four hundred sixty-nine miles are ahead of us. It’s an easy 4-day drive if we average 400 miles a day, most of it on I-10: Austin to Breaux Bridge, LA; Breaux Bridge to Bonifay, FL (in the Florida Panhandle); Bonifay to Lake Placid, FL (at the north end of Lake Okeechobee in Central Florida); Lake Placid to Key West. We leave in bright sunshine, diesel topped off, refrigerator full, wife on board (this is an old RV joke—many campgrounds have signs at their exits that say, ANTENNA D0WN? STEP UP? WIFE ON BOARD?)
The miles fly by as we listen to an audio book, The Racketeer by John Grisham. We change drivers just as we get to the Houston area (Richmond says driving through city traffic and in bad weather is my shift). I drive very carefully through miles of construction and bumper-to-bumper traffic around Houston and breathe more easily once we’re out of the city limits. We notice immediately when we cross into Louisiana, because the Interstate turns to a wash board, jolting our truck up and down. This causes a condition called “porpoise-ing” because its like riding a porpoise. I drop our speed from 70 to 55 mph, trying to find a sweet spot where we can ride smoothly. Richmond takes a nap, unconcerned. I notice a huge billboard that says, “That ‘love thy neighbor’ thing? —I mean it!” – God
We experience several instances of Southern hospitality. A Hispanic man in a van sails in in front of us to gas up, blocking the only diesel pump. When he sees us looming in his rear view mirror, he waves and cheerfully moves to another pump. At another stop, two young, white guys in a pickup alert us that our truck’s spare tire is loose. Richmond crawls under the truck and tightens the bolt.
We stop around 4:30pm at Cajun Palms RV Resort in Breaux Bridge, LA, while there’s still plenty of daylight. No more night arrivals for us! RV park directories provide three 1-10 ratings for cleanliness of bathroom and laundry facilities, ambiance (special landscaping, level sites, tree canopy), and special facilities like RV store, propane gas and firewood availability, a pool, tennis courts, fishing ponds, etc. (with 10 being the top of each scale), a system similar to AAA ratings for hotel rooms. This place gets 10’s across the board. Beautiful, flat sites with concrete, pull-thru pads. Lots of palm trees. A swim park for the kids, complete with slides, pirate ships and pirate maniquinns). Several eateries. An outdoor bar area. Huge, air-conditioned event rooms. Its proximity to the University of Louisiana probably brings lots of weekend families and parties. But mid-week, it’s just a few rigs like ours staying overnight in a place with 200 RV sites and another 50 furnished cabins—and a flock of resident Mallard ducks. We discover we have picked up some stow-aways: a colony of sugar ants seems to have made our home theirs.
Louisiana is the land of Cajun cooking. As we drive mile after mile on raised causeways across bayous and rice paddies, we see other billboards advertising cracklins, boudin (a French word for a type of spicy sausage), gator burgers and po-boys (a type of hush puppy). We pass places with names like Whiskey Bay, Atchafalaya National Wildlife Area, St. Martin Parish. We don’t take time to stop, but apparently the Atchafalaya River is teeming with wildlife like Red Headed Woodpeckers, Wood Ducks, Great Blue Heron, Roseate Spoon Bills, Cormorant, Deer, Beaver, Bald Eagles, Osprey, Egrets, Pileated Woodpeckers and alligators. Huge oil refineries loom on the horizon from Houston to major Louisiana shipping ports like Port Arthur and Port Allen. Casino gambling is also a big industry here (many billboards invite players as well as occasional ones with a phone number to call if you think you have a gambling addiction).
We drive uneventfully across Mississippi and Alabama and end our day in the Florida Panhandle at Florida Springs RV Resort in Bonifay, FL (about 90 miles west of Tallahassee).
Billed as “rustic,” it has a small pond and lots of big trees as well as a small, on-site restaurant called the Mustang Grill that serves what Richmond calls “good, honest food.”
Leaving Interstate 10 at last, we travel on US 27 for most of the next day, driving through pine forests til we hit the orange groves of central Florida and stop at Camp Florida RV Resort in Lake Placid, FL.
Situated on an 800 acre, man-made lake, this is a RV community about the size of Pennswood Village—about 400 sites, most purchased for about $24,000 a lot and arrayed in seven cul de sacs surrounding a bathhouse and laundry with mature palm trees and beautiful tropical landscaping. One of the original, fulltime residents, a tanned, healthy woman in her mid-70’s says she and her husband moved here 23 years, retiring 10 years earlier than they had expected. She cites the many amenities they enjoy like the clubhouse, occasional speakers and theater performances, a salt-water pool, tennis courts, bridge games, knitting group, bingo. The cost of grounds keeping and all utilities except electric is only $325. each quarter. A number of the lots still have orange or grapefruit trees.
Driving from Lake Placid to Miami we notice “Bear Crossing” signs along the highway, as well as mile after mile of swampy-black soil of the sugar cane plantations. Ironically, as we left Austin, we had purchased a new brand of toilet paper called Green2 that promotes the fact that “no trees were harmed while making this product” (over 900 million trees are harvested each year to make toiletpaper). So what’s it made from? Sugar cane bio-waste and bamboo grass.
Lake Okeechobee sits in a shallow geological trough with a clay and limestone bottom that also underlies the Kissimmee River Valley and the Everglades. Until 6,000 years ago, it was dry land. As sea level rose and rain increased, the Florida water table also rose, forming wetlands, then a peat bog, and eventually a 730-square mile, shallow lake with an average depth of 9 feet. Five Florida counties (Glades, Okeechobee, Martin, Palm Beach and Hendry counties) surround it. Its murky water is polluted with farm chemical runoff that flows into it from the Kissimmee River, Fisheating Creek, Lake Istokpoga and other smaller tributaries. The 100-foot wide dike that surrounds “the Big O” is part of the Florida Trail, a 1,400 mile, well-maintained path that welcomes hikers and cyclists.
Sugarcane fields, locks, canals covered with water hyacinths, and water management levees radiate out in all directions. Although Lake Okeechobee is the second largest fresh water lake within the lower 48 states (the largest is Lake Michigan), we never see it. It’s surrounded by a 30-foot dike built by the US Corps of Engineers after the 1928 Hurricane breached the old dike and flooded the surrounding area, killing over 2,500 people.
Historically, Lake Okeechobee’s water flowed out in a sheet over the Everglades, but a large amount of Everglades water has been drained and diverted into canals to create land for housing developments, strip malls, and the lovely RV resort we stayed in last night— or for growing sugar cane. Limestone is a key component of cement, and we pass several enormous concrete plants that provide much of the construction material for FL development as well as tiny towns with names like Immokalee and the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation.
We finally turn west in bright sunshine to drive the last 150 miles of the mostly 2-lane Overseas Highway that connects “the Keys.” (Key West, the last key in the chain, is so far west it’s due south of Cleveland, OH.)
We pass many bicyclists. Much of the trip is quite bike-friendly with paved paths separate from the auto roadway.
The original 1912 Flagler railroad structures are evident all along the way. In many places sections have been upgraded and re-purposed as fishing piers and biking/hiking paths. In others the structures have been severed from land and closed. These deteriorated and decaying relics are still a marvel of engineering, the skeletal ghosts of the steam-train era.
At last we arrive at Geiger Key in Key West, our home for the month of February. The main attraction here is visits with our son Mark and his woman friend Cristy. But Key West is also rich in entertainment and great places to dine. The temperatures are in the shirt-sleeve range, the air is soft, scenery is great, and the pace of life is, well, somehow more gentle.