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Archive for May, 2012

May 21, 2012

We’re back! After a long absence we are back online, sitting go in the rain and sun – alternating hourly it seems, catching up on the blog.

We were delayed leaving Calgary when the hydraulic pump for the slides failed during its final test at the RV dealer – better here than somewhere in Nebraska.  Ten days later we were on the road to Florida having missed the Breau Bridge Crawfish and Zydeco music festival and madly trying to get to Key West on time for our reservations. This was not a good idea. Travelling 5500 kms in just over six days is exhausting and it seems we had RV-lag of one day for every travelling day.

A word of advice for anyone travelling south and southeast – avoid Denver anytime outside maybe midnight to 4 AM.  That lesson learned on earlier travels sent us off through Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas. Sounds dull? Actually it wasn’t- these states are actually interesting if for no other reason other than seeing the places that have been etched in our minds by movies and the general saturation of American culture.  There were lots of “OMG – that little trickle is the XX river!”.  There also seems to be about one billboard per 100 m for most of the way – I wonder when reading billboards will be defined as a driving distraction.

There may be a deep recession in the USA but some states, like Alberta and Saskatchewan, are not suffering – at least that’s what we could glean from the billboards that were endlessly trying to convince their young to stay in the state, city, … there was even one Nebraska city (Salina) that had a sign saying “WE HAVE JOBS – PHONE 1-800-XXX-YYY”.

Have you ever thought of taking a roller coaster ride in a 34 foot Class A motorhome? If so try driving I-70 through Kansas City.  Did I mention that these states are not dull? They are not flat either. But as you get into Missouri, the terrain becomes heavily wooded.  In fact you’ll note that any trees in WY, Nebraska and western Kansas are deliberately planted, and east of Kansas anything open land are where trees have been deliberately cut down.

Our route took us through a bit of southern Illinois, Kentucky and then into Tennessee (five states in one day). Crossing the border from Missouri to Illinois, you can feel how much harder hit Illinois has been.  Even Kentucky – the perennial poor state of the region, looks affluent in comparison.

Having travelled through Tennessee before there were no great surprises, but even now this state is bushland – heavily treed and canopied.  All the Davy Crocket, Daniel Boone stories of slipping unheard through the forests are still quite real even today. Only the real trick was not going silently in circles.

Georgia was a surprise.  This is beautiful state with rolling hills, pastoral meadows and antebellum architecture. We’re backtracking later to explore this gem of a state. And by the way, we passed Suwannee River (this is the correct spelling not Swammee River -the Gershwin song) and its not something we would sing about!

As we approached Florida the land became flat – little did we know that we were entering a two-dimensional world.  The tides of the Bay of Fundy would cover the whole state in water, so for mountain people this was serious sensory deprivation! The humidity is very high as well and we were mighty thankful for air conditioning. The Keys are a series of small islands joined by Highway 1 ending in Key West the southernmost point in the continental USA. Keys by definition are islands without fresh water source and all the freshwater is supplied by a pipeline from Miami (over 129 miles) built during WWII to supply the airforce and naval basis in Key West. We arrived at the beautiful Blue Water Key RV Resort where our exclusive “campsite” complete with a very large Tiki hut, dock and palm trees overlooking the water was waiting for us! Completely exhausted by the long days on the road, we have been relaxing, reading and enjoying the balmy breezes and spectacular downpours.  And of course sampling the “cuisine of the keys” – some great and others not.

The town of Key West is not the quaint wrecking (we’ll explain that term later), fishing and sponging town of Ernest Hemingway’s time (1930’s-40), but is a town of 25,000 people invaded by 2 million tourists – half of them from cruise ships.  As a result it can be a bit of a tourist trap, but the town’s history warrants the hype.  For those of us from such a newly minted city as Calgary (are there 10 buildings that pre-date the 29th century?) note that the town was established (temporarily) in 1521 – some of the buildings look it.  The island has a natural harbour and so attracted the Spanish.  But they found the island  littered with humans bones.  Suspecting some barbaric pagan rituals were involved they named it Cayo Hueso (Bone Island) and promptly bailed.  The Americans/British arrived later and as always pronunciation challenged bastardized the name to Key West (at least they got the west correct).

Although Florida was the possession of the US by the early 19th century, Key West was still technically Spanish.  However, a Spanish naval officer who was deeded Key West by the Spanish governor in Havana promptly sold it to twice and finally ended up in the hands of John Simonton in the 1820’s. Although he lobbied for a naval base to be located there (apparently he was willing to part with some of his property for a price), the real economic driver for the town was wrecking – today what we call salvage.  The Straits of Florida between the Keys on the west and the Bahamas and Cuba on the east and south,are narrow and treacherous, especially on the coral reefs along the keys.  At that time almost all American trade occurred by ships up and down the coast and if the west coast was the trading objectives the ships needed to pass through the straits.By the 1850’s 150 ships a day would make this passage – an an inordinate number were floundering in storms or at night on the reefs.  A whole industry of “wreckers” existed in Key West saving crew and salvaging the cargo. By 1850 Key West was the wealthiest city per capita in the USA, and by 1890 the largest city in Florida (18,000 people).  However, by this time, steamships and better navigation technology reduced shipwrecks to a point where the industry simply died.

However by then the military was a major presence and in 1912 a railroad connected the keys to the mainland triggering the tourist industry.  Having such resident celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and heavens forbid, Jimmy Buffet (Margaritaville bars et al) adds to the colour. But really, the architecture that resulted from the huge dealt in the town in the 18050’s is worth the trip.  And it is the only place where you’ll see three operating sloops (of the Bluenose variety) used for cruises.

The Keys are a mixed bag for these westerners. Although our site is in a beautiful location (basically a huge lagoon) surrounded by palms and sea breezes, with the breezes came a distinct smell of sewage.  Apparently the Keys have a serious sewage disposal problem with far to many relying 0n septic fields that simply do not work with high water table and porous limestone, and result in raw sewage seeping into the canals and lagoons.  As you drive down the keys you get “wiffs” of the sewage.  The exception is Key West which has installed a sewage treatment system.  Needless to say we are not diving off our dock or fishing for dinner.

Florida also suffers from proximity – to the north. Locals complain that as winter approaches transients, the homeless migrate with the birds to warmer climes and brings a crime problem. We noticed that the first Florida highway rest stop (these are nothing like the Canadian version of a garbage can on the side of the road – these have vending machines, restrooms, parks, ponds..) had a sign saying the site was guarded by armed personnel 24 hours a day!! The gratings for the parking lot drainage were also chained in place. We asked local fellow why the need for armed guards and the chained gratings.  Apparently the winter migration brings muggings, theft, rape and murder to these sites and hence the armed guards.  However he said its safe now because the migration has returned north.  Great – time to go!

This is where Florida and Hawaii differ.  Florida, from what we had seen hosts a broad range of tourist economics, with inexpensive trailer park and low cost retirement housing being predominant.  It is not pretty.  The more up-scale communities are hidden behind gated and guarded communities (even our RV park is gated), so as a casual tourist your exposure is definitely downscale (note: we haven’t been to Miami yet, so the verdict is on hold).  Hawaii on the other hand has a “cost of entry” barrier, i.e. you have to fly your butt over there at some expense.  As a result crime is much lower (Honolulu has the lowest crime rate for its size in the USA), fewer communities hide behind wall and gates (besides, because most are on hills and slopes you can see them) and most are upscale.  Strange comparisons but obvious to us we just feel more comfortable in Hawaii.

Pictures tomorrow!

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