February/March 2003 

Lucca Brazzi Swims with the Manatees

Florida, Louisiana

Or… As seen at an RV Rally, a special Florida taste treat:  Fried Twinkies with Strawberry Sauce – no, we did not indulge.

The “Godfather” is alive and well and on “The Sopranos” on HBO.  Your wild and wacky friends have spent a zillion (count ‘em) hours sitting in the dark watching episodes of “The Sopranos.”  We caught the fourth season when it came out, but had never seen the earlier years’ productions.  And we got really hooked!  So we found a couple of Blockbusters that had all 39 episodes, and we’ve now watched them all.  Sometimes we’d watch a couple of episodes a night, sometimes maybe four, and a few nights we got a reallllllly early start and stayed up realllllllly late and watched half a season’s worth!  Boy did we have fun, fun, fun.  We got to watch the kids grow up, Ralphie and Ritchie get whacked (does Janice ever have terrible taste in boyfriends; and boy, when your part gets written out on the Sopranos, you don’t come back next season), Junior beat the rap, and the evolving relationship between Tony and the psychiatrist with the sexy legs.  We reveled in Jersey gangster-dom.  A grand time was had by all.  And now what happens?  We find out HBO is repeating each of the episodes over the next 12 months; we didn’t have to put ourselves through all this!  Ahhhhhhhhh; who cares?  Twas a kick.  

Feeling we needed a break from all that mayhem during the daylight hours, we’ve also had a few new adventures since our last writing.  We’ve seen the manatees, visited Cypress Gardens, and boondocked in the Ocala National Forest.  We’ve visited with friends from the West Coast and endured a cold spell totally beyond what we expected from the good state of Florida.  Oh yes, and have gone to a couple of huge vendor laden, motorcycle and motorhome shows.  So how did all this happen, you say, and was it fun?

The manatees were a kick.  We stayed for several days at Manatee Springs State Park, which is a lovely place on the edge of the Suwanee River (note spelling, as opposed to how Mr. Foster put it in his song).  The spring was in the middle of a swamp that was full of cypress trees with their unique “knees,” and the spring was a delightful 72 degrees.  This is why the manatees come there (and to the other springs along the Florida coast).  They retreat into the inshore areas to get away from the colder waters of the gulf.  We did manage to have one sighting, but were more amply rewarded another day when we went to Homosassa Springs, where they have a feeding area and the rascals were plentiful.

What a treat!  It was much too cold to get in the water ourselves, even if the water itself was nice and warm.  It was 34 degrees late in the morning when we arrived, and while nice enough in the sun, we were dressed in everything we owned.  We had also hoped to rent a canoe and go back into the more remote areas and poke around, but not at that temperature!  The campground at Manatee Springs was full of squirrels and deer, all extremely friendly, so the cats had a lot of fun charging around inside the coach trying to see every little critter at once from all the windows.  The deer were so tame they came right up looking for food.  They appeared pretty healthy, so some folks are probably obliging them.  We met our good friends Dick and Cathy Robinson at Manatee Springs, and we enjoyed comparing adventures since we had last hooked up with them in September in Indiana.  It was nice to have others to cuddle with when the evenings got down below freezing (in the teens one night).  We were warned to disconnect water, and leave faucets dripping; one morning we awakened to a stalagmite below the faucet that was quite astounding.  Pretty cold, huh!  (Finally found out how to differentiate between stalactites and stalagmites; stalactites have to hold “tight” to the ceiling.  So there.)

Here’s a story for you:  you know those cans you find in the exotic vegetables section of the store?  The ones that say Hearts of Palm?  You might find them in a fancy salad sometime.  Well, the real name of Hearts of Palm is actually swamp cabbage.  Millions of years ago somebody figured out that if they wanted to market this product, swamp cabbage wasn’t going to cut it.  Hence the new name.    Same thing is true for King Crab; it used to be everywhere, under its real name, Spider Crab.  Same thing: name change, everyone body wanted to eat king crab, and now it has almost disappeared off the face of the earth.  Go figure.

We encountered the unique... odd… hoky… why bother……Cypress Gardens because we went to a large motorhome rally in Winter Haven, held on the grounds of Cypress Gardens.  It’s an interesting place.  All old “attractions” have to compete these days with the latest wild ride in the amusement parks, and Cypress Gardens is really showing its age.  But the grounds are nice, and we happily walked through them.  The water skiing show has seen better days, and much of the rest of it was equally dumb.  But there is a butterfly house that was quite wonderful; the butterflies are everywhere, and they land on you looking for nectar.  Worth the price of admission.  There’s also a banyan tree in the gardens that was truly awesome.  So we had fun.  

A big change upon leaving Winter Haven and Cypress Gardens was a several-day stop in the Ocala National Forest.  Florida has several such forests, and there is plenty of primitive camping.  We felt we were ready for this after the noise of a motorhome show and the aforementioned CG, so we headed into the wilderness.  It was fun, and we met a group of nice folks who spend their whole winter in the forest, moving around as required to meet the regulations, and almost living off the land.  Happy folks with big gatherings in the evenings, including singing, and it was quite restful.  But Florida forests are pretty scruffy, on the whole, and both sandy and dusty.  And no phone coverage, and not enough sun to keep our solar panels doing their job.  Interestingly, we did find a library, and were able to get on-line and send e-mail.  It was called the Forest Community Library, and it was both new and very nice.  But if you get a back-woodsy sense about the area, a little too much so for us to stay too long, you’d hit it about right.  As we rode on out, and started reaching more developed areas, although still in the forest, we saw many new homes on acreage, with horses; the area is very popular; we can see why.

After our stint in the forest, we drifted (momentarily) past another motorhome gathering, and spent a last few days in central Florida.  We truly do like it here, even though much of the rest of Florida leaves a lot to be desired.  At least you can find locals, and the small towns look “real” instead of cookie-cutter images reflective of southern California.  We spent a couple of days getting some work done on the coach (including screens, finally, for our front passenger windows, YES!!!).  And then we started drifting up toward the Panhandle and new scenery.  We have a theory:  “If we know our way around a town it’s time to leave.”  Well, we know our way around central Florida with our eyes shut; time to get outta Dodge.

The Florida Panhandle is a pretty sight, in many places.  We camped one night in a very rustic campground right on the water, with white, white, white sand to walk on.  That was a special treat.  And we drove through Apalachicola, an old town from the 1800’s that is quite charming and well worth a visit.  You will be pleased to note that a young doctor living there in the early 1800’s, wanting to keep his patients cool in the summer horrid heat, developed a technique for making ice in a machine – thus we got air conditioning!  Here’s to Dr. Gorrie!  The entire Panhandle area is covered with forest and lots of logging is underway.  Except where there is commercial resort development, the area is rural, economically challenged, and sad.  Piggly Wiggly is alive and well in these little towns…..but there are many closed down gas stations, falling down buildings, etc.  If something isn’t on the main drag, it’s nowhere.

Country music lament:  “I miss the early morning smell of hair spray in the air.”  That man needs to get a life!  (And a new woman!; or just light a match and remember Robert Duvall’s famous line from Apocalypse Now)

Possibly the biggest, nicest surprise about Florida has been the lovely, stately oak trees.  We have found them particularly prevalent in the central and northern part of the state.  They are magnificent, often covered with Spanish Moss, and just as often with horses or cattle grazing beneath their limbs.  They have been an unexpected treat, and we never tire of them.  The homes we’ve seen that we’ve found the most appealing have invariably been set back on half an acre or so of these wonderful huge trees.  

But now we’ve moved on…………  to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Look at the map and you see it’s a hop, skip and a jump to get through them all, or a leapfrog across, to get into Texas.  We spent an unfortunately crummy day wandering the bayous of Louisiana.  We had looked forward to it very much.  But the low country is pretty depressed and depressing.  We saw lots of rice and sugar cane in the fields, and some on-shore oil drilling as well.  But not too appetizing.  And it was a gloomy, humid, rainy day.  So we moved on, and hopefully will try again another time.  We’ve promised ourselves a nice long visit to New Orleans some day, and maybe we can get down into bayou country then.  

Moving northwest toward Texas we went through the tiny town of Elton, Louisiana, which boasted Neptune’s Deli & Video Poker, along with Bubba’s Wrecker Service; we knew we’d really found a hot spot here!  And then there’s Kinder, The Crossroads to Everywhere.  And oh, yes, Basile, the home of the Louisiana Swine Festival (reluctantly felt we had to push on – are we sure it wasn’t supposed to be Louisiana’s Wine Festival? Yup).  Louisiana’s economy is a little bit of a puzzlement; there are many poor areas, and we wondered where all the money went that New Orleans brings in, even just through the Super Bowl.  It’s a little sad.  The bayou area contains many old plantation-era homes, some of them quite lovely, but the surrounding lands have been broken up and crummy stuff built nearby.  Much of it is very agrarian, but not prosperous.  All in all, we are still seeking good parts in Louisiana after three trips through via different routes.  We’ll keep looking, because we think they are there, somewhere.  Unfortunately, while the state has some good roads, your odds of finding yourself on one at any given point of time are pretty slim.  Interstate 10 through New Orleans is infamous, and rightfully so.  We named it “Bilstein Bayou” after the company that builds the really good shock absorbers that ‘arvey wears.

Western Louisiana looks a lot like eastern Texas, which is pretty darn nice.  Pecan trees, drier ground, forested areas, more prosperous homes; we were happy to get a move on across the line.  We like eastern Texas, the “Piney Woods” region, and here we sit, preparing to move south in a couple of days and cross into Mexico through Laredo.  We are very excited about making this trip, and have been preparing for it for quite awhile.  We cross the border next Sunday, the 23rd, with an organized group of about 100 fellow Escapees – that’s 100 units, not people.  We’ll spend a week or so in and around Mexico City, and then branch out from there.  We plan to be in Mexico for about a month.  We’re quite excited about this new adventure – Kathy claims it’s the first really new thing we’ve done.  I’m not about to agree with that sentiment, but I see her point.  We’ve added a fancy new water purifier to the coach, and we’re raring to go.

Hasta La Vista, Baby.  We’ll try to send you the censored version of our first south of the border excursion around the first of April.


P.S.  Does anybody know why Florida has a town called Howey-In-the-Hills?  What could be stranger………..  Oh, and if you’re keeping track, we’re still killing ladybugs from our stop in northern Georgia where they were swarming all over creation.  Far fewer now, and they only come out when the weather warms up, but they’re still with us.

 See more photos from the US & Canada in 2001 to 2003

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