Thursday, February 23, 2017

Common Ground Tour - National Parks and Lands

Last Saturday, S.D. and I arrived at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We're early, but the weather forecast was calling for high winds, snow and sleet between Sunday and Tuesday so we thought it best to get here before all that excitement. As it is we arrived, driving from the east into a 50 mph headwind.

Despite the wind, and the remoteness  (the park is 35 miles from the nearest gas station, the nearest town, Carlsbad, New Mexico,  is 70) the visitor center parking lot and the campground were packed. Americans love their National Parks!
Hunter Line Cabin

It's been the same at every National Park, Monument, Memorial or Wildlife Refuge that we've visited. Car license plates are from all over the country, and the people, from all over the world. It's been said many times, but it's no less true, our Parks are our national treasure.  Each one striving to preserve and at the same time provide access to the special aspects of this country.

Guadalupe is no exception. The mountains, for which it is famous, are actually an ancient coral reef. Rising as they do now from the desert it holds countless canyons and hidden springs. Like most parks and monuments, the land here is recovering from past human made modifications, even as Park Rangers actively encourage leave-no-trace enjoyment for current visitors.  Guadalupe's Frijole Ranch is one of the remaining historic structures. Built from local limestone blocks in the late 1800's it sits next to the Frijole spring.  Past owners used that spring to irrigate crops and fruit trees. The ranchers relied on the nearby Manzanita and Smith Springs to water livestock. Today the cabin is maintained, but only a few fruit trees remain. Foot paths lead hikers on a 2 mile loop to the other springs, but hikers are to stay on the trail and let nature restore the land.

But wait there's more! Not only do American's love their National Parks, and the wild places it preserves, they also benefit the economy. According the Outdoor Recreation Association: "Outdoor recreation is an economic powerhouse in the United States, each year generating $646 billion in consumer spending and 6.1 million direct jobs."

Americans also love a bargain and for those economically minded folks there is more good news, the parks are relatively cheap to run.  According to a dated 2005 NPS study, 137,000 volunteers, like S.D. and I, "donated 5.2 million hours to your national parks at a value of $91.2 million.." The employees also do not make the big bucks.

Almost every day since we arrived we've taken a hike.  On every one of those hikes we've meet other hikers, on the weekend it was lots of hikers. Everyone enjoying the many benefits of our great Parks.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Finding our way and/or the road not taken and/or all who wander are not lost

Guest content by SD.

We've been asked a number of times how we find out about the the places we go and how do we find our way there.  It's not always easy and I'm sure we miss many places that we would find enjoyable, but here's a quick run down on the resources we use.

There are two general catagories we are looking for, interesting places (parks, refuges, seafood, places to camp, etc.) and the roads to get there.  One of the first things we do upon entering any state is stop at the welcome center.  We usually prefer to stay off the interstates, so often we have to hit an interstate specifically to do this.  Here we always get the old fashioned paper road map.  These maps are a valuable resource because they differentate between road types, i.e. paved, dirt, four lane or two lane.  This is something that Google maps doesn't do as well as it should.  
Even Old, Old, Old maps can be useful.
Another resource at the welcome center is that information is available on attractions in the state.  Let it be said that we are horrible tourist, we admit it everytime we do a typical touristy thing.  But still we try.  The staff is generally very friendly and helpful. There is also often information on state and national parks, campgrounds, restaurants and anything else visitors to the state might want to do.

This first stop generally gives us the necessary information to begin our explorations.  Another resource we rely on is Google maps.  This gives us a pretty good map, plus you can find important things like grocery stores, campgrounds, coffee shops and reviews of these places.  The reviews require some experience to parse for our tastes, but we find them useful to at least miss the horible places.  We have also been known to stop at AAA offices to get maps, although the maps handed out by the state tend to be better.

These two resources, old school road maps and Google maps, are generally what we rely upon to find our way to places.

Google maps are useful, our route from Alaska to Florida.

The bigger trick is to find the places we would like to visit.  For this we rely upon multiple resources.  One way is to look at the maps and see if there are any interesting looking locations. Big green areas are often interesting.  To find campsites we also use multiple resources old and new.  AAA has Woodall's guide book to campgrounds.  This gives to the particulars of campgrounds, broken down by state and nearest town and has a rating system for various metrics.  We also use a smartphone app "RvParky" which also gives reviews of the campgrounds.  There's other smart phone apps we sometimes look at, but RvParky seems to be the most useful and most used.  We have also downloaded a book "Camping with the Corps" to find USArmy Corps of Engineers campgrounds.  These tend to be great campgrounds are are a really good deal, especially with my US Government Senior Pass. One of the few perks of being a senior.   Another book we downloaded is a guide to National Parks.  I have to admit as a casual visitor, not as a volunteer staying for a few months, we tend to stay away from National Parks.  They attract a lot of people who are not hikers and campers but are attracted to National Parks for some reason.  Some of our worst experiences have been in National Park campgrounds, and to be fair some our best experiences too.  Especially if you get into the back country.

An Army Corps of Engineer campsite.

Another resource is just old fashioned asking friends.  We're a nation of tourists and we almost always find one or two friends who have been there.  Additionally there are places we want to see.   We've also joined "Harvest Host."  For a small fee to get to contact local farms who have joined and alow one or two campers at a time to stay for free.  These are undeveloped, usually just a grassy spot with no utilities and you are expected to purchase some farm products.

A Harvest Host site at a farm in Florida.

Then there are a few very specific resources.  For our summer in Alaska Kelly's cousin (Thanks again!) gave us a copy of the "Milepost" which gives mile by mile descriptions of the roads to, from and in Alaska; including campgrounds, stores, gas, etc.  Additionally we bought a book about campgrounds in BC, Yukon and Alaska which was very useful.

As you can see a significant part of this wandering about the country is figuring out where to go and how to get there.  So far we've done pretty well and seen a lot of really great places and met some interesting people.  Only a few places have been a bit scary.  Let's hope we can continue the streak.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Common Ground Tour - Waterfront

Apalachacola View
On the second day of the tour we drove south from Monticello, FL down through the small town of Panacea to the Gulf Coast.  The state of Florida has nicknamed it's coastal regions. For instance the Jacksonville area is the First Coast, Palm Beach is the Gold Coast,  Pensacola is the Emerald Coast. The Florida shoreline we drove, from St Marks to Mexico City is called the Forgotten Coast.  It is SD's and my's favorite. As the name suggests, it's a relatively forgotten and ignored part of Florida and it's beautiful. White sandy beaches, pine and palm forests, salt marshes, birds, even black bears.

As we drove further west, back into more 'remembered' coasts, we were thinking about other coasts, Floridian, Atlantic, Pacific, even lakes and streams.  It it's clear that Americans love their coasts. They love it in different ways, and show that love differently but it's where American's go when they want to enjoy themselves.

One of S.D.'s oft repeated statistic is that "the population of the U.S. has doubled in his
Coastline - St. Joe's State Park, FL
lifetime and a higher percentage now live on the coastline. Which means the populaion has more than doubled on the coast."  Thus there are a lot of people living on the coast. There are a lot of people vacationing there too.  Any coastal area parking lot will have cars from multiple states. Here on the Gulf the majority of out of state plates are from the midwest.  In Florida there were from the northeast.  On the pacific coast they were from Nevada, Idaho and Arizona.

Contast that to recreation areas mid-country where unless you're on an interstate, it's only locals. It's the coastal areas that are the gathering spots. The places where American's from all over the country get together,  live, relax, have fun, and maybe, just maybe get out of their own bubbles and get to know one another a little better.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Common Ground Tour - Jelly

Lately the country has been focused on our differences; the political situation pulling folks further and further apart. Those differences are serious and real. But even as we explore those I believe it's important that we, as a common people of this country remember and stregthen our shared values and beliefs.  As S.D. and I are head west through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisana and Texas,  the focus is going to be on what we all share in common, i.e. The Common Ground Tour.

 With such a lofty goal, and such deep divisions, that common ground may be elusive, and even trival seeming at times. But we have to start somewhere! Monday it all started with jelly.

It seems that Americans, where ever they are, will take the fruit, and in some cases flower, of whatever grows locally, smash it up,
Fireweed (wikipedia)
cook it down, add sugar and make jelly.  In addition to the usual jelly contenders like blueberry, rasberry, strawberry etc., there are some pretty unusual ones. In Alaska it was fireweed (a flower) jelly, in the southwest they make jelly from prickly pear cactus fruit.  In Florida there's some type of palm fruit jelly and then there is Mayhaw jelly.

The Mayhaw trees at the Golden Acres Ranch, where we spent Monday night, were still dormant.  Thriving because they can live in boggy land where other trees can't, they will bloom and fruit by May (hence the name).  Once ripe  the ranch owner, Bobbie,  hosts a berry picking, jelly-making festival. She showed us some of the frozen berries which looked a lot like very large cranberries, and sold us some jelly.  Mayhaw jelly is a deep rich burgundy color and tastes most like a smoked cherry/chocolate blend. It's unusual and really good. 

Staying at the Golden Acres Ranch was one stop of what we hope will be many made possible by the Harvest Hosts program. For a small annual fee we are able to spend the nights at participating farms, wineries, museums and other attractions.  It's a pretty cool program, a great way to get a little deeper into the country than staying at RV parks and campgrounds allow.

 PS - The Golden Acres Ranch also grows and sells lamb and goat.  Our freezer is close to full!