Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Journey's end

Ottawa, ON – There’s nothing like getting home after a long trip! All the familiar sights, sounds and smells of a beloved place seem to extend a warm embrace of welcome at such a time. We are glad to be here at last!

Our departure this morning from Wilkes-Barre went without a hitch, and we were soon northbound on the Interstate 81 once again, spurred on by the knowledge that the next bed we slept in would be our own. It was chilly and overcast, but there was no precipitation and the roads were clear.

Before long we had passed into New York State, our seventh since leaving Florida. We stopped at a state sponsored rest area – a fairly new facility set high on a hill with a commanding view of the Appalachian Mountains. There was an excellent photo opportunity set up there to reinforce the state’s signature slogan, and inside the building was a snack bar and shopping area that highlighted local products, including maple syrup.

When lunch time rolled around, we paid one last visit to the Cracker Barrel restaurant, this one near Cicero, and enjoyed once more the down-home atmosphere – this one even had a fire burning in the large stone hearth to chase away the chills – as well as the tasty food we’ve appreciated in many other spots in Florida.

Soon we were driving across the Thousand Islands Bridge and gazing down on the St Lawrence River and Canada on the other side. With the car packed so solidly with stuff from our three-month stay, we approached the Canada customs kiosk with some interest, wondering what sort of questions we might have to answer before we were allowed back in to the country. The young man who greeted us was polite but serious, and his questions were appropriate but easy to answer, and we didn’t even have to dig out the bottle of scotch Val had purchased (and declared) – a good thing, because we weren’t exactly sure which of the many bags piled in the back contained it.

At the first rest stop we came to, once back in our home and native land, we stopped for a steaming hot cup of Tim Hortons coffee! It’s almost a ritual now, each time we return from foreign soil, and a very pleasant one to tell the truth.

When we turned off the 401 and on to the 416 that leads to Ottawa, it began to rain. Fortunately, it was just a scattered shower, and there were only two or three more to follow which were over with before we reached the city limits. We had managed to time our return to miss the rather ugly and destructive ice storm that hit on the weekend. We did see several broken trees on the way in, and found our front lawn scattered with twigs and branches, but our esteemed home checker had cleared the driveway for us so we could pull in with ease. In no time, we’d unloaded the car and filled the front hall with all that stuff, which we will now have to unpack and stow away. But we’re home now, and that will be a sweet chore indeed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Foiled again!

Wilkes-Barre, PA – Our drive today was carefully planned out last night, aided by our Road Atlas, Google Maps and a scratchy photocopy of a map we picked up in Virginia on our way south in January. The main objective was to avoid heading in to Washington, DC. Our southbound trip brought us to the ring road around the capitol city where we spent a long, boring afternoon creeping through dense traffic, so on the return journey we wanted to avoid that route at all costs. I took copious notes on what exits to take after reaching Fredericksburg so that we headed northwest rather than north, making a nice detour around the snarl of highways, byways and interstates that converged on Washington.

Armed with this helpful information, we headed out this morning under a brisk wind and sunny sky. Again, I got to enjoy the evidence of Spring’s arrival with yellow sprays of forsythia next to farmhouses, apple blossoms on hillsides, and the white froth of dogwoods in passing forests. I even saw jonquils and daffodils in bloom, plus a couple of clumps of tulips.
Once we departed from the Interstate 95, with its whizzing transport trucks and motorhomes, and turned onto Highway 15, our blood pressure decreased measurably. Rolling hills, farm fields striped with the first green sprouts of new crops, and sleepy towns had a wonderfully calming effect. It was quite lovely to look at!

By the time our stomachs began to growl for lunch, we were close to Leesburg, VA, so instead of taking the bypass, we followed the business route into town. It was great to see some of the historic buildings in the centre of town, and we did pass a few boutique-type restaurants with no sign of a parking place anywhere, so we carried on. Just when we thought we’d run out of possibilities, we spotted the Roots Café and Market – just the thing! A nice tasty menu with wholesome ingredients, plus some neat products on sale to check out afterwards.

We were making good time when we got going again, and before long the GPS told us there was less than an hour to go. By this time the skies had darkened quite a bit and to our dismay, white flakes of snow starting drifting down! Well, it was better than rain, and we figured this far north, in April, snow is almost inevitable. Besides, we’d be home free in no time…..

WRONG. As the road became more hilly in the Appalachian foothills, we suddenly saw ahead of us a long string of traffic with red brake lights aglow. Traffic slowed to a crawl and then stopped altogether. Our careful efforts to avoid traffic tie-ups were in vain! “Traffic congestion has added 60 minutes to your arrival time,” the GPS announced in what I was sure was a very snarky tone of voice. Well, maybe that was my imagination. At least I had a crossword puzzle to do and access to our cooler bag where we found some crackers to munch on – and clever me, I picked up a couple of oranges when we’d stopped to fill up with gas! So we were OK, if a little irritated and bored.

When we did finally reach our hotel, it was a welcome sight! And there was 24-hour tea and coffee in the lobby to refresh us after we got settled. Only one more day till we get home! Yay.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The long grey ribbon

Petersburg, VA – We are just south of Richmond tonight, having crossed three states, and we are tired. By our calculations, we’ve covered about 445 miles. Some of them, especially in Georgia, were pretty rough, with a broken surface or striated with grooves that made the wheels whine for miles. The grooves were to prepare the highway for a fresh paving job, but by my estimation we’d have to wait till well into the summer to enjoy that driving pleasure. This time of year, it was orange cones, road work signs, narrowed lanes and the occasional road crew actually working in the road work areas.
After checking weather forecasts for the days of our trip before departure, we actually expected rain every day. Yesterday we got it from about 3 pm onward, but today? Not a drop, thank goodness. The day dawned clear and bright, and although grey clouds drifted in as the hours passed, they behaved themselves.

No earth-shattering events took place in our world today. However, it was fun to watch the vegetation change from very southern greenery that includes palmettos and Spanish moss, to forests with just deciduous and evergreen trees. By the time we got to North Carolina, I was delighted to see blossom trees from time to time – particularly dogwoods, but also cherry trees and something else that resembled lilacs in bloom (but wasn’t lilacs).

Southern country it remained, though, judging from the highway signs. Ads for boiled peanuts, gun shops, fireworks, and southern cooking prevailed, plus two huge Confederate flags that I didn’t manage to capture with my cell phone camera.

There were also tons of huge signs for “South of the Border” that counted down the miles to the site with corny word tricks and pictures of Pedro in a sombrero every two miles. Finally, we came to a curve in the highway and there, high above the treeline, was a huge sombrero marking the long-awaited (by some) site! It was an enormous Mexican theme park. Whew, I thought to myself, no more corn-ball signs. Then? “Adios” a mile later! Argh!

We took a short break at a lovely rest area after crossing into Virginia. It was beautifully landscaped and clean, and gave us a welcome chance to just stretch our legs and enjoy the day. It never got very warm today – I think 18C was the warmest it got, and that didn’t happen till quite late, and there was a constant wind that swirled through the trees all the way. I know we will have to pile on more layers the further north we go, but I do love the freshness of the spring air.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Alligators, tornadoes and torrents

Richmond Hill, GA – Did that get your attention? Read on; it’s all part of Day One of our return journey! Somehow, we got all our amassed belongings into the car and still managed to get the doors shut, so that was a good start. It was also an early one; we were pulling out of Dunedin RV Park just after 8 am, headed north on Alternate 19 under an overcast sky and temperatures in the 70s, even at that hour.

On a Sunday morning, traffic was very light, so that was also a plus. The early part of the drive was very familiar territory, through Tarpon Springs and on up the west coast of Florida to Bayonet Point, where we turned eastward along Highway 52. Once we left the civilized sections behind us, we enjoyed the more natural surroundings, with grazing cattle, splashes of wildflowers and, further along, the Ocala National Forest, now all green and jungly as spring takes hold. A family of sand cranes caught my eye on the shoulder – mother and father were about four feet tall, and dad had a bright red crest on his head, and beside them were a pair of fuzzy babies standing half that height, trotting alongside the parents on a pleasant Sunday stroll!

Strolls for some other wildlife were not so pleasant, however: we saw two full-sized deer that met their demise by the highway, and when we got closer to the Georgia state line, a healthy-sized alligator had bit the dust! It was the first alligator of our entire stay, although I’m convinced there was one in the marsh behind our little cottage. Often as I drifted off to sleep at night I could clearly hear something chirping and it didn’t sound bird-like or frog-like.

When we left the 52 and turned north onto Interstate 95, the traffic had become a little busier and the sky a little darker. Fortunately, we stopped for lunch and got back on the road before the rain began. Actually, we got beyond St. Augustine, past Jacksonville’s ring road and over the St John River with a clear windshield, but shortly after passing into Georgia, great drops began to splash down, and before long we were wrapped in shrouds of wet mist from the passing cars and trucks.

Suddenly, my cellphone sent out great shrieks of alarm from the depths of my purse, and I pulled it out, expecting to see an Amber Alert about a missing child in the area. Instead it read “Tornado Warning for the next 30 minutes. Seek shelter immediately.” Yikes! Quickly, I scanned the skies from my side of the car, looking for a tell-tale funnel cloud or a green sky or some debris flying through the air. Nothing. I craned my neck over the great heaps of stuff in the back seat to try and catch a glimpse of the other side of the car, but if those harbingers were right up on our tail, I wouldn’t have seen a thing. Lucky for us, no tornado materialized, though I kept my eye glued to the clock till it passed the 30-minute mark. Guess we dodged that bullet.

Our first stop is just outside of Savannah, and the rain continues. The lady at the hotel’s front desk recommended the Southern Image Family Restaurant just down the way, where a buffet offered a great array of grits, succotash, fried chicken, lima beans, macaroni and cheese and other down home fare. I managed to resist the sumptuous dessert table of chocolate fudge cake with peanut butter icing, pineapple upside down cake and apple pie – though I just had to taste the homemade chocolate chip cookie.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

On the road again

Dunedin,FL – What a full day! We’ve been bustling about opening every drawer, closet and cupboard in our little cottage to clear out all our belongings. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, we’ll be pulling away and hitting the road for home. To achieve this objective has kept us running. When we came down, we brought quite a bit of stuff in order to be comfortable for our three-month sojourn, but we also acquired a few items down here which we now have to get back home. Easier said than done!

What about the flower-decked bonnet I made for the Kentucky Derby street party? Or my pink-and-purple yoga mat? Or those comfortable shoes I found at a killer price? And we both have more (OK, several more) t-shirts that were so attractive and so inexpensive we just had to have them. We have books. We have saddlebags for our bikes – oh, and the new cover we got for them as well.

Our other acquisition is a Yonanas. Fawn introduced us to this kitchen appliance that turns frozen bananas and berries into a delicious low-calorie substitute for ice cream. We enjoyed the desserts she made for us with her Yonanas so much that we decided to order one for ourselves. It came in a box that’s one-third larger than the appliance itself, thanks to Styrofoam padding. So, a rather bulky item that we didn’t have coming up. That wouldn’t be such a challenge, except that Fawn decided she wanted the Yonanas for her kitchen at home, and another for MJ back home who would love it as well. And Fawn and John are flying home, so they asked us if we’d bring them up in the car. So we now have three Yonanas packed in the car! The customs guys are going to think we’ve started a new business!

We’ve been eyeing the weather maps the last couple of days and it doesn’t look ideal – typical for this time of year, really. But we aren’t towing anything and the car is in excellent shape, so we will take it as it comes, and we won’t take any unacceptable risks. I’m actually looking forward to being on the road again; there are always different things to see and interesting people to meet.

Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter!

Friday, April 6, 2018

On the beach

Dunedin, FL – Our time in Florida is drawing to a close. Already several friends have packed up and left the park, heading back up north as spring approaches. It’s the first time we’ve been here this long, and we are seeing what it must be like every year for local Floridians when all the snowbirds go home.

At the clubhouse this past week, the US Postal Service has set up a collection box where departing visitors can leave their non-perishable foods for local food banks, instead of hauling them back home. We are already curtailing our grocery purchase habits in hopes of consuming as much as possible from our cupboards and the fridge before we head out. What’s left, we’ll either bring with us or pass on to the few neighbours and friends who live here full time.

John and Fawn have been busy battening down the hatches of their fifth-wheel trailer which they will leave on site till their return in November. There’s a lot to do to clean it out, seal it and prepare it for the searing summer heat and high humidity. Full time neighbours will tend to their garden plants and keep the patio swept.

We are savouring our visits to Honeymoon Island State Park and its beautiful beach even more than usual, knowing that in a short time thoughts of the beach will have to be put on ice, so to speak. We have gone there dozens of times, just to walk along the shore and enjoy the air, the birds, and the turquoise water. Each time has been different; sometimes it’s crowded with sunbathers and beach umbrellas, and others it’s almost deserted. Even the configuration of the sand changes depending on how intense the latest tide was or whether there was more wind than usual. For many days, we had to almost climb down a sandy wall between the wave-washed shore and the dry sand further back. Then one day, the wall was gone – washed down by a particularly strong tide the day before. It has not reappeared.

The month of March has brought much larger crowds, and lots of children armed with buckets and shovels in bright colours. Our strolls have been more deliberate as we dodge crater-like holes the kids have dug out, or elaborate sand castles. Today there was a handsome turtle molded from damp sand, with its shell covered in pieces of seashells. There were also several colourful kites flying overhead; I kept looking to see who was controlling them and finally realized they’d been tethered to benches once they were well-filled with the steady offshore breeze.

My seashell collection has almost overflowed its paper-bag container. There’s always another shell to pick up – nice colour, different shape, lovely iridescence. None of my shells are very large or unusual, but there’s a nice variety. I will enjoy looking at them when we get home, and remembering our long strolls.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Divas, dolphins and ducks

Dunedin, FL – More adventures! On Wednesday last, Fawn and I were fashion models for a special luncheon at the park’s clubhouse, to raise funds for a local shelter called the Home Empowerment Project, or HEP. While the women enjoyed a light lunch and tea, Fawn and I and half a dozen other volunteers scrambled in and out of outfits in a cramped back room before prancing up and down in our finery for an appreciative audience. With the admission tickets plus tickets purchased to bid on various donated prizes from local businesses, HEP did well by the $1200 plus that we raised.

The following day, we got to go on a cruise around Clearwater and into the Gulf of Mexico to see dolphins. The trip had been canceled the week prior due to cold weather and rough seas, but this time the water was calm enough for us to venture out, though it was by no means warm! One guest appeared in a knitted toque and scarf, which made many chuckle quietly at first, but then look on with envy when the cool air was further chilled by wind velocity.
Our captain and his mate were primed to follow any dolphins that might appear, but we passengers had to keep an eye out as well for the black fins that dart out of the water and quickly disappear. On our way to the mouth of the Clearwater harbour area, we passed a nest of ospreys, perched on a navigation marker in the channel. The eggs had just hatched a day or two earlier, and Captain John slowed as we passed so we could catch a glimpse. Mama and papa osprey kept a steely eye on us, but we did see a couple of downy heads bobbing above the rim of the nest before we left them in peace.

Just as we entered into the wider gulf, someone called out “dolphins!”, and we sped toward the spot. The dolphins love to play, and often will come behind a speeding boat and frolic in its wake. This bunch was not interested, or was too far away, and there were whitecaps out in the open water, so we turned back toward more sheltered water.

Moments after we passed the osprey family again, Fawn shouted “dolphins!” and Captain John wheeled us around in hot pursuit. In no time, two magnificent creatures were weaving in and out of our foamy wake, popping up for air from time to time to great cheers from the passengers. It was wonderful to see them so close up!

Water creatures of a completely different ilk garnered cheers yesterday in our own RV park’s swimming pool. It was the first annual duck race! Scores of yellow rubber duckies, individually numbered, bobbed in the water while one team propelled them toward a narrow passage with water guns, and another squirt gun team on the other side of the finish line tried to keep them out. Whoever had put money on the first duck through was the winner of $55. Spectators, many of whom were dressed in St Patrick’s Day green, quacked and cheered, and wayward squirts of water from pool side upped the fun factor. Our duck, Number 64, did not win any of the five races, but amazingly, Number 4 won twice in a row! What are the odds? Guess it was the luck of the Irish.

Monday, March 12, 2018

No moss gathering here

Dunedin, FL – It has been a challenge to find time to record all our doings for you avid readers. For that, I apologize – but here’s a bit of a catch-up. In the month of shamrocks and pots of gold, I’ve had a streak of good luck: two weeks ago, at the morning coffee meeting, I won the 50-50 draw of $62 to my great surprise. That night, at Bingo, I won another $20! Then, the following Monday morning, mine was the winning ticket for the 50-50 draw again, with a haul of $67 this time! And, that night at Bingo, I won another $5. This morning, at the coffee meeting, someone actually came to sit at my table in case my luck should be contagious! (And no, I did not get the prize this time; but there’s always Bingo tonight….!)*.
Fawn and I rode our bikes to a craft fair last week, and enjoyed our stroll past rows of stalls where jewelry, art work and other handicrafts were on display. Among those attending was Gail, decked out early in her St Patrick’s Day finery of glittering green! She kindly let me take her picture, which I’m sharing with you. She said she has Irish blood, and always dresses up in March to honour her family heritage.

Our friend Cam offered to take us in to St Petersburg a few days ago to visit his favourite bookstore, Haslam’s, which has been in business for decades and boasts a huge inventory of new and used books. We had a wonderful browsing session and came away with half a dozen books. Haslam’s reminded us of the now-extinct Highway Bookstore on Highway 11 just outside of Cobalt, Ontario, a wonderful rambling old building stuffed to the rafters with books of every type and vintage, which we visited every time we were up there.

After treating us to a delicious lunch at the Lucky Dill, Cam kindly offered to hunt down the Palm Tree Arboretum that I had read about in some tourist literature. The park displays palm trees of every size and colour – apparently there are some 500 different varieties of palm trees – in a lovely setting just next to the city’s harbour.

Back here in Dunedin, we’ve been making almost daily visits to Honeymoon Island State Park to stroll on its gorgeous beach. Every time we go, something is different – the tide is coming in, narrowing the stretch of packed sand, or it’s out, offering a wide expanse where thousands of shells crunch under our feet and seagulls and sandpipers vie for morsels of food. Lately, there have been more beachgoers because of the March break; it’s great to see the little ones with their pails and shovels, building sand castles.

Last Saturday the women of the park got together at the clubhouse to make Mardi Gras masks. Of course, Fat Tuesday was a while back, but they made it a moveable feast! The masks will be worn this Wednesday when we have our fashion show in aid of a local women’s shelter. We had a great time, combing through heaps of feathers, ribbons, beads and glitter, to create our masterpieces.                        [*News flash: I won $30 at Bingo!]                                     

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

To gambol and gamble

Dunedin,FL – There is never any shortage of things to do! This past weekend there was an art festival in downtown Dunedin, so Val and I pedaled into town with John and Fawn to have a look. We took the Pinellas Trail, a wonderful bike path built in part along old railway lines, that now provides dozens of miles of bicycle and walking trails in a huge loop.
It was past three o’clock when we parked our bikes and started walking – to me, it seemed quite late for an arts and crafts fair, and I half expected to see many booths closed up for the day – but everything was in full swing, with lots of visitors and a long line of tented booths stretching along the city’s central park. It was wonderful to see all the different wares, from fine art to kitschy knick-knacks! Some booths were devoted to a single product, such as hundreds of beautifully decorated hairbands, while others offered a wider range, such as poster art, jewelry, cloth items (including sleeves for your ceiling fan blades – huh??) and gorgeous photographs framed for hanging. One booth had children’s clothing hand decorated with charming 3-D fairy-tale figures or superheroes.
A guitarist was strumming away with his hat out for donations, and the smell of popcorn wafted out from one of the food stands. Fawn found some darling garden ornaments for a friend back home, and Val and John bought leather pouches to hang from their belt loops or bike seats. As we pedaled back, we paused at the Legion along the path, where a live band was entertaining crowds of people at their outdoor café. It was the President’s Day long weekend, so people were in a holiday mood.
We are always in a holiday mood, and hardly noticed the date! It continued to feel like the weekend when, on Tuesday at lunchtime, folks on John and Fawn’s street in the park hosted a Kentucky Derby event. The ends of the street were closed off so they could set up lawn chairs and tables, and for days leading up to the event, the women were working up fancy hats and figuring out wardrobe choices so they could arrive in style – and did they ever! Fascinators, wide-brimmed straw hats and tons of feathers and ribbons fluttered in the warm breeze as they all gathered. The men folk also wore various head gear, but somewhat more subdued. One fellow dressed up in a white lab coat, rubber boots, stethoscope and gloves – the horse vet, of course!
The entertainment of the day, after we had sampled a generous and delicious array of salads, barbeque and desserts, was a horse-racing game played on a peg board with little plastic jockeys on horseback that moved forward along the peg holes. It involved a deck of cards, dice and a plastic pot of quarters, dimes and nickels for bets, and lots of cheering and clapping as the “race” progressed. A good time was had by all!
Tonight, we are dining Italian-style. The clubhouse is decked out with checkered tablecloths and wine bottles with candles stuck in them, and we will be served a lasagna dinner, salads and dessert. It will be in air-conditioned coolness, and I expect we will have some kind of Italian soundtrack while we enjoy our meal. Good thing we have a whole week to go before weighing in at Weight Watchers again!

Friday, February 16, 2018

My neighbours and other animals

Dunedin, FL – Last Saturday, John and Fawn’s neighbours threw a brunch party for everyone on the street, to which we were also invited. Lawn chairs and tables were set out on people’s front lawns and on the street, and everybody brought a little something to round out the French toast, bacon and sausages that were the main part of the meal. A gorgeous spread of fruit salads, homemade cinnamon buns, golden baked eggs and real maple syrup from Canada – John and Fawn’s contribution – tickled our taste buds as we lined up to load our plates.

When most of us had eaten, the fun began. At one end of the street, they’d set up a game of cornhole (we’d call it bean toss – aiming bean bags at a board with a hole in it), and at the other was a giant Jenga game, with stacked wooden blocks that stood about four feet high. People took turns trying to extract a block from lower parts of the structure and placing it on top without making the whole thing tumble down. Great rounds of applause greeted every successful placement. It was lots of fun!

The RV park is home to several hundred residents of all ages – but mostly retired folks like us – and a considerable number of dogs and cats who keep their owners in reasonable shape on daily walks. When Anna visited John and Fawn one evening, she brought her furry companion, who fell completely head-over-heels in love with Val. Who wouldn’t, when gentle hands were so willing to provide a tummy rub?

There are other creatures who call the park home as well. One is a lonely egret, with long legs, sleek white feathers and a long pointed beak, which has adopted a plastic bird of the same species as its best friend. The plastic egret bobs back and forth on its pedestal, planted next to its owner’s trailer, and the real bird stands nearby in rapt admiration. It’s quite a sight!

The other day we caught sight of a healthy-sized box turtle by the roadside. When I got closer to snap a picture, it waddled away and then stopped. Slowly, its feet and head retracted into its deep green shell and it waited until I left it in peace!

Now that the weather has finally warmed up a bit, the frogs have been giving us a nightly concert. When night falls, a trilling chorus begins, and hardly ever lets up! In the daytime, we often catch sight of tiny, nimble geckoes that dart out of sight the minute you get too close.

Of course, we know about the rattlesnakes that inhabit the area, so whenever we bike over to John and Fawn’s after dark, we make sure to light our way with a flashlight. One encounter was more than enough!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Author, author!

Dunedin,FL – “Wouldn’t it be neat,” I said one evening last November, “if we could meet Michael Connelly in person when we’re down in Florida?” Val had read more than a dozen of Connelly’s police thrillers by this time and could hardly put them down.

This former newspaper reporter from Los Angeles had penned a whole series of novels starring Hieronymus Bosch – a.k.a. Harry – a seasoned LAPD detective with a knack for solving murder cases. The author’s bio indicated that Michael Connelly was currently a resident of Tampa, FL – just a short drive from where we would be staying.

Our interest increased once we got to Florida and began watching the Amazon TV series “Bosch” with John and Fawn. Val was very pleased to see how well they depicted the events in Connelly’s novels – but that was not by chance: Connelly was one of the show’s executive producers, and he himself chose Titus Welliver for the title role.

We mentioned our interest in meeting Connelly to John and Fawn one evening, and moments later Fawn, staring at her cellphone, murmured “oh my goodness!” – she had googled Connelly’s name and up popped a notice of a free meet-the-author and book signing event in Tampa in early February!

Val and I immediately sent in our names to reserve a spot; only a limited number could be admitted. We noted the venue, a restaurant/bookstore called the Oxford Exchange, and a few days before, drove in to Tampa to find it and scout out places to park. Our excitement was contagious: John and Fawn said they’d like to come too, but there were no more spaces.

Never mind, we said. We would try our luck. The long-awaited day arrived, and around three o’clock (for a 7 pm event) the four of us were on our way. We arrived 45 minutes later. Inside the white-brick building we found an optician, a bookstore, a coffee shop, a home décor section and a sit-down restaurant. We enjoyed our meal, while servers set up chairs for the evening’s event.

By the time we finished, a lineup had formed outside. Then it was time for guests to find seats – after organizers checked their list of names. Moments before the event started, we saw John and Fawn filing in – a cancellation had opened up a couple of spots!

For the next hour, Michael Connelly talked about his novels, his characters, the TV series, his future plans and much more to a rapt audience. He answered questions for a while longer, and then moved to the small table where he would sign books. In the lineup, Val kept his newly-purchased copy of The Last Show tucked under his arm.

Soon, Val was conversing with the man himself, thanking him for his great books and mentioning his own police career. “To Val Zanin, who knows about Harry and Renee”, Connelly scrawled above his signature, naming protagonists in two of his book series.

As I write this, Val is seated in the La-Z-Boy chair, engrossed in his newest Michael Connelly novel.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Stayin' alive

Dunedin, FL – On Monday mornings here at the RV park, everyone gets together for a singalong, led by our amateur band (which produces a pretty good sound!), morning coffee, and announcements for the coming week. There’s no shortage of things to participate in! – and for every level of involvement, from marathon peak form to standing-in-the-wings observation.

It’s great to have such a variety of choices. It’s also sobering to know, from those morning announcements, that some residents who used to be doing all sorts of things in the park have suffered health setbacks, and in a couple of recent cases, passed away. As members of an aging cohort, we know our time is not infinite, and doing what we can to make the rest of our lives the best of our lives is a very good idea.

Which is why, since we got here three weeks ago, I’ve been exploring various offerings – all of which are free of charge – at the clubhouse. I’ve been line dancing on Thursday afternoons, and yesterday I had my first exposure to yoga! I had to purchase a yoga mat for the class, which I found last week at Walmart for a reasonable price – and it even coordinated with the colours of my running shoes. Bonus.

Never mind that the running shoes were not worn for the class; at least I looked good arriving with them on my feet and the mat tucked under my arm. Our virtual teacher was projected onto a screen on the wall, so she never saw my rudimentary attempts to keep from falling over when, down on hands and knees, we had to extend our right leg up and back and counterbalance with our left arm up and forward.

And she never saw me grab Fawn’s hand, next to me, when we wobbled stork-style on one leg with our arms outstretched. And she didn’t hear my vertebrae crackle when I pointed my chin to the ceiling and made a vain attempt to grab my heels behind me as I knelt on my mat. I didn’t mind that my fellow yoga participants could see all that, because none of us could call ourselves experts. But, whether limited by arthritis, excess pounds or lack of practice, we were all there doing what we could. Stayin’ alive.

The least appealing part of the class for me was the part when we laid face down on the mat. My lovely pink-and-grey Walmart special was so fresh out of its wrapping that it gave off great fumes of whatever chemicals went into its rubbery components. Note to self: before next class, hang it out in the sun and breeze for several hours to off-gas! Whew!

It felt good to have tried something new, and to have given my body a good – but gentle – workout of stretches and positions that addressed all my muscles and limbs. My daily fast-walking has always been a good habit for cardio, but this was a worthwhile addition.

This morning, when I popped in to the club house on an errand, I saw another onscreen teacher guiding a class of residents stepping and kicking to a lively Mexican sound track. Looked like a lot of fun! I checked the weekly calendar to see what it was: Zumba. Hmmm… maybe next Tuesday I’ll be giving that a whirl too.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Car 54 Where Are You?

Dunedin,FL – That refrain, in a whining monotone, is triggered every Monday night in the Dunedin RV Park main hall, where dozens of residents assemble for a weekly chance to win at Bingo. Chanting the name of that old police TV drama happens every time the caller announces “G 54. G five four.”

When I stayed at this park a few years back, I got my first introduction to Bingo – unless you count the little cardboard Trav-L Bingo games our parents handed out on road trips to keep us kids occupied. Looking out the car window, whenever we spotted a dump truck, an ice cream stand, or any other thing pictured on our cards, we’d cross it off with great excitement, trying to fill the card before anyone else.

Bingo in the park clubhouse was a whole new world. Great hordes of people filed in, equipped with colourful little tote bags that carried daubers, pens, water bottles, table mats, lucky charms and noisemakers. Before sitting down at the tables, they had to line up to buy their game cards, shuffling along and chatting with their fellow gamers.

When everyone was settled, the caller took position at the microphone at the front desk, with a large screen behind him, displaying all the possible numbers and letters that would be called. To one side was a chart showing what exactly counts as a win: it’s not only five numbers in a vertical or horizontal straight row; diagonals count, as well as four outer corners, or four inner corners around the free square at the centre. Six ways to win!

Then there are the lucky numbers. Each week, three numbers are posted, and if your Bingo includes one of them, you get an extra 20 dollars. And to build suspense right to the end, there’s a jackpot for the last game – last Monday it was $250 – if a player achieves a Bingo before the 58th number is called.

Now, if you are a regular Bingo player, this story might be like a rocket scientist hearing someone describe how to fold a paper airplane. But it was all new to me my first time! And there was a lot to learn! It takes concentration and self-control to see your game sheets fill up (you can play six sheets at a time), and to flinch every time the new number is called and see that it isn’t the one you need, and to smile resignedly when someone else hollers “Bingo!” before you do.

But it’s fun to hear other players chime in with their silly noises – like “RMM! RMM!” when O 66 is called, or a tweety bird for I 22. Fawn and I have train whistles on a lanyard around our necks, and when the caller intones “B 9. B nine” we toot the whistles for Engine Number Nine! Someone else has a little device that says, in a Chipmunk's voice, “B 12, Bingo! B 12, Bingo!” Like I said, it’s an entire new world if you’ve never played.

The best part, though, is when you win! It hasn’t happened for me yet this year, but during my last stay I won $60, with which I bought myself a lovely bracelet with red stones at Macy’s. I wear it at least once a week. Who knows, maybe I'll snag the jackpot this year. I’ll keep whistling till then.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The serpent and the seashore

Dunedin,FL – “Snake!”, cried Fawn, as we approached the entry gate of Honeymoon Island State Park last Friday, a short drive from the RV park. From the back seat of the car, Val and I lurched forward to catch a glimpse, but could see nothing. “It’s a great big snake!”, she repeated, and we looked all the harder, but all we saw was the asphalt road leading up to the kiosk ahead.

John was able to make a U-turn just before we joined the lineup of cars, and head back toward the spot where Fawn had called out. Finally, we saw it: a magnificent, undulating diamond-back rattlesnake, slowly slithering from the warm asphalt toward the grass. We were spellbound! I quickly passed my phone to Val to snap a photo, but by the time he did so, the grass and the snake melded into one medley of greens, browns and tans, rendering the creature almost invisible.

This was not our first visit to Honeymoon Island; on previous visits, we had stopped in at the visitor centre to see displays about the plant and animal life in this seaside state park. We had also read about rattlesnakes, and seen warning signs along the pathways – but who really believes those things? It’s just the management avoiding liability, right?

Well, our sighting triggered a whole new level of respect for warning signs. The rattler was a good four or five feet long, and wore a clear diamond-shaped pattern along its length, culminating in the scalloped grey rattle that, prior to that moment, I’d only seen in cowboy westerns. And its complete disappearance, as soon as it hit the grass, underscored how easy it would be for an inattentive hiker to step on one by mistake.

Following that exciting encounter, we headed through the entry gate and on to the beach for an afternoon stroll. The flags at the pavilion cracked in the stiff wind, and we had to grab our hats a couple of times before they flew off, so it wasn’t exactly tempting to strip down and jump into the waves – although there were some folks who had waded in. But it was lovely to see the water, and to hunt for pretty shells among the heaps washed up by the tide. Seagulls screamed at us and sandpipers and plovers skittered across the hardened sand, looking for little sea creatures to munch on.

The island got its name back in the 1940s when, in a move to draw more visitors to the area, organizers set up tiny cottages for newlyweds. A contest, across the whole US, offered as its prize a free week-long honeymoon for selected lucky winners – and they came to discover the same unspoiled beach that we enjoyed all these years later, thanks to the protection offered by the state park system.

It was great to have a warm enough day, after many cool ones, for our visit. Today (Sunday) as I write this, a steady downpour is giving our little cottage a lakefront location: the massive puddle in the street out front. I look forward to the day I can wear some of the hot-weather stuff I packed! Not yet!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Everybody and their dog

Dunedin, FL— Clowns on stilts, Charlie Chaplin lookalikes, barbershop quartets and even a fully kilted bagpipe band were among the participants at last Saturday’s RV show at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Oh, plus more than a thousand homes-on-wheels which were the main attraction!

A forty minute drive from our RV park, the show was a three-day event touted to be the largest show of its kind in the USA. It must have taken days to get all the fifth wheels, trailers and motorhomes into position, parked nose to tail, in their appointed sections, to string miles of electrical wires to power them, and to lay out acres of carpeting to cover the wires. Potted plants and banners decorated the entrances to each RV company’s section, and eager sales people stood ready to deliver their spiels. Girls with flashing smiles handed out free tote bags to hold all the brochures people would be collecting – and to imprint their company’s name on the minds of passers-by.

John and Fawn and Val and I meandered through the grounds along with great throngs. I was surprised to see how many people had brought their dogs, until I remembered how fond RVers were of their pets in the many parks we’d stayed at in our travels. Why not bring Fido along? And what a huge variety there was: sleek greyhounds, sturdy boxers and a few tiny creatures being pushed along in their own doggie strollers! And dog owners are always eager to talk about their pets.

We were impervious to the unbelievable deals – today only! – because our RVing days are now behind us. But it was fascinating to see how many different models and sizes of units were out there, and the huge industry of accessories and related services that supports them. So, in addition to RVs, people were looking at furniture, name plates, lighting, and space-saving devices by the hundreds, as well as financing services and campgrounds near and far. There was also a booth selling elaborately decorated dog leashes by the hundreds – with eager buyers.

After tromping for some time, we stopped for a bite of lunch, lining up at a grilled chicken stand, where tender golden fingers sizzled over hot burners. Nice healthy food, we thought – but when I received our order (after waiting some time), it was heavily battered and fried in grease! Given the crush, we just shrugged and found a place to eat, where we peeled off the crust to enjoy the juicy meat inside. OK, I did crunch a bit of that tempting calorific stuff. At least we didn’t get the huge chicken piece dipped in batter, then Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and then deep fried. Yikes.

Kids with balloon animals, painted faces and sticky fingers from gooey treats passed by, and down the way we heard snatches of barbershop songs. Then in the distance came the skirl of bagpipes and a thumping drum, and the parade soon approached – a score of pipers with white spats and swinging kilts! Delightful!

Fawn announced that she’d surpassed 10,000 steps in all our tromping. My feet announced the same thing to me, wordlessly. We finally gave up waiting for the shuttle to take us to our car on the far side of the parking area and added a few dozen more steps. Still, a pleasant outing on our first warm day.

[Note to readers: We have no Wi-Fi in the park, so posting may be sporadic. We hope this will change!]

Friday, January 19, 2018

Cool reception!

DUNEDIN, FL – Two days have passed since my last posting and they have been full ones. A recap: on Wednesday morning we left Kingsland, Georgia and within minutes we had crossed the Florida state line. We stopped at the Florida Welcome Center where a hospitable greeter offered us cups of fresh orange or grapefruit juice, and a huge array of maps and brochures offered any number of traveling adventures in the Sunshine State.

Sunshine there was, but the expected balmy temperatures, that draw millions to this part of the world in the dead of winter, failed to materialize. It was downright chilly! And just after I had stowed my winter jacket!

We chose the more rural highways to complete our journey, once we’d navigated the Interstate 295 ring road around Jacksonville. It was a welcome change to travel Highway 40 across the state, through Ocala National Forest, and the little towns along its path. Next to the small gas station at Forest Corners, where we stopped to fill up, we marveled at a huge roadside market filled with every garden gnome, statuette, lamppost and birdbath, in the most garish colours and designs! If we weren’t so focused on getting to Dunedin, we would have loved to browse through it.

Between Ocala and the next rural highway on our itinerary, we had to take Interstate 75 for a few miles, but the traffic was not that heavy, and it was familiar territory as well, since it brought us past Bushnell where we’d spent five weeks last winter.

Our last leg was along Highway 52, that brought us westward just shy of the gulf coast, and Highway 19 and Alt 19 through a string of busy towns. The further south we traveled, the more familiar everything became, until we rolled in to the Dunedin RV Resort at last.

It was lovely to see friendly faces welcoming us back, and after heaving our bags and stuff into our park model unit, John and Fawn hosted us for a delicious home-cooked dinner in their trailer.

The heat pump in our unit was invaluable with this unprecedented cold snap! People in the park have been bundling up with toques and scarves, and this morning when we looked out, there was actually a coating of frost on the car windshield, and the palm trees and palmettos look wilted from last night’s chill. We remain hopeful that at some point the tee shirts, shorts and sandals we brought will come into use, but not yet!

Our first full day here brought us to the grocery store for a huge order – basically, we needed everything, right down to salt and pepper! We are dismayed to learn, however, that acquiring a cable TV signal and internet connection will not be as easy. The new units are not yet wired up for these amenities, so our only link to the outside world is via our cellular connection for now. So, I imagine we’ll be doing a lot of reading in the coming evenings.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

On Florida’s doorstep

Kingsland, GA – We knew we were truly in the south today when I caught sight of a large live oak with its spreading branches dripping with Spanish moss. That, and the palmetto palms we saw on the sides of the Interstate 95, were true indicators of the distance we’ve covered since our snowy start Sunday morning. I’ve been keeping an eye out for an armadillo or an alligator in the swampy patches by the roads, but the only wildlife we’ve spotted have unfortunately been in the form of roadkill.

Kingsland is just three miles north of the Florida state line, in Georgia. Huge billboards by the road have been touting “Peach World”, where visitors can sample boiled peanuts, pecan pralines and peach bread among other local delicacies.

On our roadside stops, we’ve eavesdropped with guilty pleasure, just to hear the wonderful southern twang and expressions, “y’all” being a frequent one, that everyone uses in these parts. We hit yet another Cracker Barrel restaurant for lunch, where we ordered eggs and bacon from the breakfast menu. They came with a platter loaded with buttermilk biscuits, grits and a thick, pale sauce they call gravy in which one is expected to dip one’s biscuits.

There was frost on the car when we peeked out the window this morning, and it was just above freezing when we set out, but by midday it had reached eight degrees Celsius and after lunch I finally ditched my fleece-lined winter jacket for the lighter one I’d brought along. By three o’clock it was 14 degrees! Lovely! And we had bright, clear skies the whole way.

Our route was the opposite of yesterday’s, in that we got on the I-95 at the start, drove the I-95 all day and exited the I-95 at day’s end – no convoluted on-ramps and off-ramps, no ring roads and no traffic jams! Of course, there were still lots of transport trucks along this important route, but Val navigated around them all beautifully.

On the recommendation of Lezlie, the hotel’s front desk clerk, we headed across the way to the Millhouse Steak House for dinner. It was within walking distance, but we had to cross a railroad track and a four-lane roadway that included the off-ramp from the Interstate, so we felt a bit vulnerable as there were no sidewalks. However, there was a pedestrian crosswalk to get us across, so that was a relief!

We both ordered steak with caramelized onions and mushrooms and our meals were scrumptious! The fresh sourdough bread and crisp salad rounded the meal out beautifully and we left quite satisfied. Nevertheless, we are looking forward to reaching our destination tomorrow, and the home-prepared meals we will be having from now on!

Monday, January 15, 2018

The road more traveled

Wilson, NC –After leaving Pennsylvania this morning, we have crossed Maryland and Virginia and are now in North Carolina, so we’ve hit four states in one day, but if it had been any other day but today, perhaps that would have happened a bit faster.

When we left Ottawa yesterday we were congratulating ourselves for picking a nice, peaceful Sunday to drive the Interstate 81, and thereby avoiding the heavy crush of transport trucks that use this major artery through the week. We thought the same thing this morning when we realized it’s Martin Luther King Day, so the roads would not be carrying their normal Monday traffic. It certainly looked that way when we started out, anyway.

When we crossed the Mason-Dixon line – which is almost the same thing as the state line between Pennsylvania and Maryland – we stopped at the Welcome Center for a break and to pick up some travel literature. The gentleman who served us was asking about our destination, and when we told him we’d be taking the ring road around Washington DC and Richmond, Virginia, he pulled out a fuzzy photocopy of a map with a bright orange highlighted route, well west of those two cities, through more rural sections. That route would get us just as surely to our destination, he explained, with a deke here and a switch there and no freeways.

It was all very appealing, but the clarity and dependability of our GPS lady, ever willing to ‘recalculate’ if we should take a wrong turn, won the day, especially in contrast to a photocopied sheet with dubious instructions. Besides, it was a holiday so traffic would be light, right…..?

WRONG. Every Washingtonian in the entire capitol city was heading back home on the ring roads just when we reached them. From a height of land we could see a huge long string of cars ahead – and a few transport trucks thrown in for good measure --  crawling who knows where at five miles per hour ENDLESSLY. Aaargh!

When we were finally able to drive the speed limit, our relief was palpable, but short, because almost as soon as we left the Washington traffic behind, we got snarled in the Richmond traffic with the same crawling snakes of cars, three lanes wide! Okay. End of rant.

As soon as we were able to get off the freeway, we found a Cracker Barrel restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious lunch of catfish and greens, with a side of warm cornbread and biscuits. We love their homey atmosphere with rocking chairs and checkerboards on the porch outside and a roaring, crackling fire in the hearth inside, plus lots of good home cooking. Caleb, our server, told us there are often lineups of people willing to wait 45 minutes for a table – and today’s busy crowd was not at all unusual. We managed to resist the wedges of apple pie and slabs of chocolate cake that could have capped off our meal…but only just.

The sun was a golden ball on the horizon when we finally reached our turn-off at Wilson and found our hotel. To our delight, just across the way was a Cracker Barrel restaurant, so we did a repeat visit! Yum!

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Snow long!

Harrisburg PA – We’re on the road again! Finally! Our official snowbird escape has begun, delayed by one day because of a huge swath of rain, wind, snow and ice that passed through between Friday and Saturday and triggered all kinds of dire warnings about road hazards and poor travel conditions. Our destination is Dunedin, Florida, where a lovely little park model awaits us at Dunedin RV Resort.

Our decision to wait a day was a wise one; all the highways we covered today were clear and safe, and, because it was a Sunday, sparsely traveled compared to a weekday. Our route took us to the Thousand Islands Bridge just west of Mallorytown, Ontario, and then south on Highway 81 through Watertown, Syracuse, and Binghamton in New York and past Scranton, Pennsylvania and on to Harrisburg.

Snow-laced trees and white fields whizzed by in the early hours, and temperatures hovered around minus 20 Celsius. With no clouds in sight, the sun sparkled through ice-clad tree branches and glittering farmers’ fields, while shrubs by the roadside looked like they were made of sugar. A winter wonderland that charmed the eye, but if for any reason we’d had to stop and get out, we’d have frozen in no time. We had originally thought, since we were headed for the balmy south, we could get away with light jackets and layers underneath for the first few miles, but I for one was glad I’d changed my mind and worn my winter coat, especially when I was the one pumping gas at one of our stops, in a brisk wind!

As we passed a couple of car dealerships, we felt sorry for the poor employee whose job would be to clean a white cap of snow off each of several hundred vehicles. The spray kicked up along the highway did a number on our own vehicle. We have our two bicycles on a carrier at the back and they, along with the front and sides of our Honda SUV, are now coated in salt and gunk! We will also have to top off the windshield washer reservoir before we head out again tomorrow.

Before the temperature began to rise a bit, our wipers were so stiff with the cold that they groaned each time Val pumped them, and they left quite a few sections of glass with dirty smears. Finally, they warmed up and got a bit more pliant so that, as the sun began to dip lower in the sky, they actually did clean the window properly.

We even saw patches of green grass by the roadside as we approached Harrisburg, and there is no snow anywhere now. With any luck, we’ll have seen the last of the white stuff for several weeks! Sunshine state, here we come!