Running Off To The Circus

While in the Sarasota, Florida area we visited The Ringling, former home of John and Mabel Ringling. John Ringling was one of the partners in what is probably the best known of all circuses, Ringling, Barnum and Bailey Combined Shows. We had no idea that the home, gardens, art museum and circus museum were so extensive. We’d allowed only a few hours. If you go, plan for a whole day. We’ll be going back to take in the rest. For this visit we concentrated on seeing the miniature circus.

Howard Tibbals spent an average of twenty hours a week for over twenty years creating this masterpiece. At first you are amazed at the scope of his project. Then you begin to realize the detail and thought that went into each scene. As we were looking at our pictures we noticed details such as a watermelon rind on the edge of a plate where one of over a hundred performers ate in the mess tent. For me our visit brought back very pleasant memories of my parents taking me to New York City to see the circus when I was five. We visited the animals before the show. My Dad bought some peanuts. He placed one in my hand and held me up so I could feed an elephant, I remember the funny texture of the trunk. Was this where I became enamored with animals?

We hope you enjoy our slideshow. “Ladies, Gentlemen and Children of All Ages…”

Roadside Trivia #9

De Soto, Florida, explorer

Map Of De Soto’s Route

While in the Bradenton, Florida area we visited the De Soto National Monument. That’s our 89th national park site! I never knew that his trek took him just west of where we used to live in North Carolina. On the map it looks like he went between Gastonia and Kings Mountain.

While there we learned that the Spanish conquistadors had been responsible for the introduction of horses and pigs to the Americas. They were also responsible for the introduction of four breeds of dogs. The dogs accompanied the soldiers not as pets but as war dogs.

Can you name these four breeds? No, Chihuahua is not one of them!

We had a delicious meal at a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives spot called Jose’s Real Cuban Food.

restaurant, Bradenton, Diners Drive-ins and Dives

Jose’s Real Cuban Food

Now for the answer to the trivia question………………………….

Spain, Dogs, trivia

Dogs Introduced To The Americas By Spain

Best Of Times, Worst Of Times In Key West

Off we go to the southernmost point on the continental US, Key West, Florida. Finding an RV site nearby was a challenge.  We really wanted to stay at Bahia Honda State Park but that’s like winning the lottery. So we reluctantly settled for a commercial park, Boyd’s Campground, on Stock Island just north of Key West. This turned out to be every reason we hate commercial parks: overcrowded, expensive, unpleasant neighborhood and noisy. Had it been just us, we might have cancelled and walked away from our deposit but we had a good friend from Charlotte flying in to join us.

Boyds Campground in Key West

Too Close For Comfort

The site we were given was so tight that it took three park employees to guide Steve in and at least twenty back and forth moves to get in place. At one point our rig was so close to a palm tree that only the fronds kept us from rubbing against the trunk. If the site across from us hadn’t been empty we would never have gotten in. Once in our site, the box on the rear was in the bushes. We couldn’t have gotten our bikes off even if we wanted to ride them. The site was unpaved and unlevel. The “sitting area” barely held three chairs and our slide was only 18″ from our neighbor’s sewer connection. Oh yes, to add to the ambiance we were in the flight path for the Key West International Airport and Boca Chica Naval Air Station where they train the Top Gun pilots. The surrounding neighborhood was industrial buildings mixed with rundown mobile home parks (slums). Finding a place to walk Opal was a challenge for sure.  All this for four time so what we normally pay.

Having gotten most of “the bad” covered, we’ll go on to the “the best” part.

birds, Audubon, Key West

Audubon Print Of White Crowned Pigeon

birds, Audubon, print

Original Audubon Print Of A Cormorant

Key West today is geared to tourists but still has the flavor of bygone pirate and starving artist days mixed with “Margaritaville” and grand old homes. When you find a parking place (all are paid spaces) you stay there and walk…and walk…and walk. One of our first stops was the Audubon House. John James Audubon stayed here during his trip through Florida in 1832. At that time the property was owned by a wealthy harbor pilot and master wrecker, John H. Geiger. The property remained in the family for four generations but fell into disrepair by 1958 as the family fortune dwindled. When the last owner, a Howard Hughes type of recluse, died the property was scheduled for demolition. Through the efforts of a local benefactor the property was restored and now showcases life circa 1850 with eighteen original Audubon prints on display. One, the white crowned pigeon, was painted using the tree that still stands in the front yard. This painting had special memories for me as my Mother, an avid bird lover, had this print and the one of wild turkeys in the dining room of my childhood home. The gardens around the house are beautiful and a wonderful introduction to subtropical plants of the area. There is a brief docent lecture then you continue on a self-guided tour. Photography is allowed but no flash inside the home.

Audubon, Key West

Audubon’s Workshop

Audubon, garden, orchid, photography

Orchid In bloom In Audubon House Garden

Audubon, garden, fern

Backside Of Fern Leaf In Audubon House Garden

bromeliads, garden, Key West

Bromeliads In Bloom In Audubon House Garden

Key West, Mel Fisher, museum

Mel fisher Museum In Key West

Stop number two was the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum. Located in an old firehouse near the cruise ship pier it is a must see stop for anyone who has ever dreamed of finding buried treasure. Two ships of the Spanish treasure fleet, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita were enroute from Havana to Spain in 1622 laden with gold and silver bars, coins and wealthy colonial passengers.  Their treasure was desperately needed by the royal treasury to offset the cost of the Thirty Years War and Court expenses. The two ships carried over a million and a half pesos which in today’s dollars would be over 400 million. The Atocha was fitted with twenty cannon and sailed in last position.  The fleet sailed in September, six weeks late, at the height of hurricane season. Caught in a storm just off present day Key West they sank taking their treasure with them. Of 265 passengers only five survived. The Atocha treasure would not see the light of day until relocated by Mel Fisher and his team on July 20, 1985, sixteen long years after the search started. If you want to read more about Mel Fisher or the treasure ships visit If you are a certified scuba diver perhaps your bucket list would include the vacation package to dive The Atocha.

Atocha, sunken treasure

Photo Of Diver At Atocha Treasure Site

Mel Fisher, Spanish Treasure Fleet

Drawing of Mel Fisher At Work

For us landlubbers, a visit to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum must suffice. There you will find conserved artifacts of gold, silver, porcelain, emeralds and religious items along with maps and photos of the recovery site. But we went further than just seeing the artifacts behind glass. We took the behind the scenes tour to the conservation lab. It costs ten dollars in addition to museum entry and is offered Monday-Friday. Schedule your visit ahead as only small groups are taken into the lab on each tour.

shipwreck, treasure, museum, behind the scenes, tour

Artifacts In Conservation Lab Tank

conservation lab, Mel Fisher museum

A Cast Being Made From A Horseshoe

shipwreck, artifact, tour

Tour Guide With Brain Coral Encrusted Hammer Artifact

No visit to Key West is complete without playing tourist as you stand in line waiting to take a picture of yourself at the Southernmost Point in the USA Marker. While there we learned about the cable hut in the same location. This was transported to Key West by Flagler’s railroad. Its job was to protect the connection between the land line and the 125 mile underwater telegraph line between Key West and Havana, Cuba.

Old Town is filled with funky shops, restaurants, sidewalk vendors and the ever present Key West chickens. Everyone gathers at Mallory Square and Sunset Pier for the spectacular orange sky sunsets.

Southernmost Point, Key West, Florida

Chari And Steve At The Southernmost Point

Key West ,Telegraph

Telegraph Cable Hut

lighthouse, Key West

Key West Lighthouse

KW Street Musician (aka "No, I don't know where you can get pot!."

KW Street Musician (aka “No, I don’t know where you can get pot!.”

museum, Key West

Hustle And Bustle In Old Town Key West

Key West, Mallory Square

Pier At Mallory Square In The Evening

jet ski, Key West

Jet Skis Along Harbor In Key West

Old Town Key West Evening

Old Town Key West Evening

Key West Cigar Store Indian

Key West Cigar Store Indian

sunset, Key WestView From Sunset Pier

Everyone Crowds Sunset Pier

Everyone Crowds Sunset Pier

Chari And Steve Swimming In January At Bahia Honda SP

Chari And Steve Swimming In January At Bahia Honda SP

The Wharf, Florida Keys, restaurant

Steve At The Wharf

To give ourselves a break from walking, we took a day and drove to Bahia Honda State Park. This is the closest state park to Key West and Florida’s most visited state park. The water temperature was listed as 73 but oh it felt a lot cooler than that going over your stomach. However we were not going to come to the Keys and not go in the water. Mind over matter!! Once in it wasn’t bad at all. We drove over to the campground and checked it out for future visits. On our way out we asked the gate volunteer for a restaurant suggestion. He said a place called The Wharf was good. We can second that. After a relaxing day on the beach a good meal on an outdoor terrace was the cherry on the sundae. We even watched an iguana have dinner on leftover veggies from the restaurant.

iguana, Florida Keys

Iguana Joined Us For Dinner

More sightseeing took us to the Truman Little White House and Ernest Hemingway’s home. The Truman Little White House is located in the Truman Annex neighborhood of upscale homes and condos in Old Town Key West. Originally the home was built as officer quarters for a submarine base. Although it bears Truman’s name because he visited here more than any other President he was not the only President to come here. President Taft came enroute to his inspection tour of the Panama Canal. Taft was known for his love of driving the countryside. Each year the museum crafts an original Christmas ornament. One year it used the car Taft drove loaded with presents.  Thomas Edison stayed for 6 months while developing new weapon systems. FDR visited here several times. The Department of Defense was created here by the Key West Agreement. President Eisenhower stayed here to recuperate from his heart attack in late 1955-early 1956. President Kennedy visited twice in 1961 and 1962. The base was closed in 1974. Other Presidents who have stayed here after their term of office include Presidents Carter and Clinton. The property was deeded to the State of Florida and opened as a museum and historic site in 1990. A list of the most popular Presidents was posted and Truman ranked #5 after Lincoln, Washington, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt. Rounding out the top ten were Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Regan. Bringing up the five least popular were Harding, Harrison, Pierce, Andrew Johnson and  Buchanan. We were given guest passes because of our connection with Dr. Watson that we mentioned in an earlier post. The tour was very informative. Having read Truman’s biography, we enjoyed our visit very much.

Truman, Key West

Truman At Dedication Of Everglades NP 1947

Truman, Little White House

Truman At Little White House

Kennedy, Hugh McMillan, Key West

Kennedy And McMillan Meet In Key West

Jimmy Carter, Key West

The Carters Spend Christmas At Little White House

Our last sightseeing stop was at the Hemingway House. This was the best tour we took. The stories the guide told were funny and informative. Hemingway was an enigmatic character: handsome, hard drinking, outdoorsman and philanderer. His books are classics as are the movies made from them. His home is also the home of over thirty six toed cats. One of the stories told is about the cat’s water bowl. Hemingway was a frequent face at Sloppy Joe’s Bar. When the bar moved from its original location he brought home a urinal from the bar stating “he’d pissed enough of his money down it to buy it.” His then third wife took it and after cleaning it up made it the cat’s water dish. Another story relates to a penny buried in concrete at the home. When his wife (can’t remember if it was number 2 or 3) installed a pool over his objection he threw a penny into the concrete saying she now had his last cent. This visit made me want to read more about Hemingway and his books.

Hemingway, author

Portrait Of Hemingway At Age 35

Hemingway's Writing Studio

Hemingway’s Writing Studio

The Hemingway House In Key West

The Hemingway House In Key West

Hemingway, Old Man And The Sea

A Painting Of Hemingway’s Old Man And The Sea

The Unique Garden Fountain And Cat Water Bowl

The Unique Garden Fountain And Cat Water Bowl

We decided to have dinner at Sloppy Joe’s and enjoyed the fish tacos and nachos but the key lime pie was terrible. It was prepackaged and the sugar wasn’t dissolved giving it a granular texture. Find your key lime pie elsewhere. Be sure to locate the web cams and call a friend who can go online and see you.

restaurant, Key West

Restaurant Poster At Sloppy Joe’s

Sloppy Joe's, restaurant

Sloppy Joe’s Is A Key West Icon

Hemingway, Sloppy Joe's

Painting Of Hemingway Fishing

restaurant, sailfish

Mounted Sailfish At Sloppy Joe’s

Now we return to “the bad” part of our visit. Steve had realized that Boyd’s Campground was so crowded we would not be able to exit following the proper direction of the road. That should speak a bundle about the poor design and crowded conditions at Boyd’s. We spoke to two employees who after looking at the situation agreed we’d need to go out the “IN” route. They said “don’t worry, we’ll get you out OK. We do it all the time.” The next morning when we were ready to leave we got them to assist us. One man drove a golf cart ahead to make sure no one entered while we were exiting. The other employee walked ahead of our RV and at each and every turn faced our rig and gave Steve verbal and hand signals to ease us through the tight turns. We’d made it to the last turn but there were times we’d missed cars by just inches. The last turn took us out of the campground and past the office. There were two RVs parked on the left in the waiting area and another car parked on the right at the laundry. This forced us to make a sharper turn than we would have preferred. At no time did the employees try to open up space by asking the RVs to back up, move the parked car or ask campers to move the cars in front of their rigs parked just inches from the road.  Any one who knows anything about trailers knows the tighter the turn the more the rear end of the trailer will swing. We were 90% through the turn when we heard the sickening sound of metal scraping. The right corner of the box on the back of our trailer had sideswiped a car. We stopped of course. Police were called but no citation given because the accident occurred on private property. We claim that we were under the direction of the park employee and that the park is at fault for not giving enough clearance for safe exit. They are claiming no responsibility. How this will end is unknown. We can only warn anyone considering a stay at this park, DO NOT COME!

RV accident, Boyd's Campground, RV parks Key West

Running The Gauntlet Through Boyd’s Campground

RV accident

RVs To The Left Of Us

RV accident

Cars on The Right Of Us

RV accident, Boyd's Campground

All We Needed Was A Few Inches To Get Through Safely

Roadside Trivia #8

As we travel across the USA (and later on we hope Central and South America and Europe) we come across tidbits of information we know you just must know. So here’s another nugget to stash away. Who knows, it might just be the Final jeopardy question one day!

Where can you find the smallest, fully operational post office in the USA?

You might guess in the middle of a desert in Utah?   NO.

OK, it’s got to be in the wilds of Alaska then?   NO.

On an island in Lake Superior?  NO.

May we have the envelope, please?

It is zip code 34141 located on US 41 in Ochopee, Florida.

trivia, travel, post office

The Smallest Post Office In The USA

This building was an irrigation shed for a tomato farm. It was pressed into service in 1953 when a fire destroyed the Ochopee general store and post office. The structure has been in continuous service for portions of three counties (including delivery to Miccosukee and Seminole Indians) and as the ticket office for Trailways Bus Lines. It is one of the most photographed post offices and visitors from around the world mail themselves postcards for the Ochopee postmark.

Why Did We “Disappear”?

The past six weeks have not been kind to us. We are convinced that south Florida has it’s own Bermuda Triangle for RVs or maybe an undiscovered black hole. Or it could be we are having our own “Groundhog Day” where we just seem to repeat things over and over. Whatever it was we were stuck here. There were good times that we’ll get back too but the RV maintenance, repair, breakdown, repair, accident, repair cycle just seemed to go on forever. If we didn’t know how great this lifestyle could be, we’d probably have thrown our hands up and said “Forget This!”

We knew when we came to Florida that we’d need to have our bedroom air conditioner replaced and had made arrangements with North Trail RV in Ft. Myers to do the work in early February. Before we got there the inside control panel stopped working. Steve had to manually crank the rig up and down every time we moved. It was a “pain in the neck”, quite literally, for him. This control panel also operated the slides and stabilizing jacks but we were able to operate those with the remote control. So we added this to the list of repairs scheduled in Ft. Myers. They diagnosed the problem as a crack in the black (sewer) tank that had leaked onto the board. Now parts had to be ordered and a return trip scheduled. It would take about three weeks for the parts to arrive. At least this would be covered by our extended warranty. Otherwise the repair would have been $7,000-$9,000!

During our stay at Boyd’s Campground in Key West (a long story we’ll talk about later) we had our first accident with the RV that involved someone else. Just a note here to anyone reading this who might consider going to this park… DON’T!!!  What happened to us could happen to you. The management at Boyd’s is not owning up to their responsibility. The result is in the hands of the insurance companies. When things are finally settled we’ll include it in a post. At least for us there was no damage or injury.

To make time for the first scheduled repairs, we cancelled reservations at Hillsborough River State Park then extended three days in the Everglades and spent two nights boondocking at the RV dealer. This left us with two nights and no reservations during the busiest time of the winter season. No state park anywhere nearby had room. We located a county park not far from Tampa, Lithia Springs, that operated on a first come, first served basis. So with our new air conditioner in place we headed off. We chose a site and Chari went back to the office to register while Steve took the RV to the dump site. Before getting back to the office someone else had picked the same site. Back over to the dump, get back in the truck so we could circle around and choose another site. There was only one short road connecting the dump to the campground. All other roads were one way heading in. We were about halfway down the road when “CRUNCH”. Our comments are not necessary here as you can imagine. There was a branch extending over the road and no signs indicating a height restriction. the branch was 12’6″ and we are 13′. Say goodbye to our less than 24 hour old air conditioner. Our only choice was to back up very slowly and exit the campground going the wrong way on the road. Chari walked ahead to check for any traffic but being midday in the middle of the week no one was on the road. We pulled over at our first opportunity to check the damage. A/C unit was demolished but it appeared there was no damage to the roof. Within a few minutes the park manager came by and we reported the accident. He and Chari went to the site of the accident while Steve cleaned things up. The manager immediately took responsibility and said Hillsborough County was liable, gave us information for contacting the Risk Management Department and had the offending limb cut down. We’d like to say here that Hillsborough County made every effort to work with us and resolve the issue. What a difference compared to Boyd’s Campground! However this meant another trip back to Ft. Myers so we could have the roof inspected to make sure there was no damage before filing the claim. They verified no roof damage. Now a new A/C unit had to be ordered and it would be installed when the black tank was done. So we leave with the damaged unit wrapped in plastic.

We keep our reservations at Rainbow Springs SP. From there we were to start heading to the panhandle and west. That’s the wrong direction for returning to Ft. Myers. So we cancel another reservation. As we pack up to leave the cable on the kitchen gray water valve breaks and we are unable to fully close the valve. Yet one more thing for the RV dealer to fix. We have ten days before our repair appointment and are lucky to find space at Midway Campground in Big Cypress National Preserve. This campground has electric hookup but only a common water source, flush toilets but no showers. So we’re on tank water with supplementary jugs and exist on sponge baths and “Navy” showers. Now a trouble light shows up on the truck dashboard. The closest big town with a Chevy dealer is Naples. We have the problem diagnosed as a faulty ERG sensor and valve. You guessed it. Parts have to be ordered. Since we knew that during the black tank repair we would have to be staying in a motel, we schedule the truck repair for the same time and plan to stay in Naples overnight. But wait, there’s more. Before we leave Midway a strong wind whips up and bends an arm of the awning so that we have to tie it to keep it from deploying while we are driving. Between the plastic wrapped A/C and rope holding the awning we look like Rednecks!

For the third time we return to Ft. Myers and another night of boondocking. We leave the trailer for the A/C and black tank repair and head to Naples to the Chevy dealer. Well, the one day repair is now two days due to a backup of work at the dealer. No problem as the RV work would be at least that long and the Chevy dealer provides us with a rental car. Then we get a call from North Trail, A/C unit and control panel are in. However the black tank didn’t arrive as scheduled and won’t be in until early next week! Good Grief! What next? With the truck fixed we head back to Ft. Myers. With another delay it has become obvious that our plans for heading west along the Gulf and through Texas will need to be cancelled.

We cancel seven reservations for New Orleans, Texas and New Mexico. We need a place to wait 6 days. With snowbirds still here and Spring Break starting all parks are full. The closest we can find is 1 1/2 hours away at South Bay. We know and like the park so off we go. We decide to wait for the awning repair and have it done by our dealer in NC. The new route will take us north through Tallahassee to Atlanta, on to Charlotte and Marion. After a quick trip to family in Pennsylvania we’ll turn west and take a leisurely route to South Dakota and Montana.

Our new motto is “The best things come to those who make the best of whatever comes.” Easier said than done!