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!