Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Florida Chronicles...Part 5...April

This is going to be a short month as I have decided to return home sometime near the end of April. It's starting to get hot down here (really hot)...and...I have to admit that I am a little homesick after four full months down here. It's a good month, this April. My cousin, Bill, came over to visit again...and, as usual, he went right to work. This visit, he rebuilt and painted a small enclosed storage area outside next to the patio...it looks good. Mark was up too at the same time...so...the three of us were able to relax and have a few good meals...and lots of wine. My lawn guy who said that he would be happy to plant some new fruit trees around the house for me has backed out of the deal. So...now I've hired a landscaper to do the job...some oranges, limes lemons, figs, finger bananas, a mamey sapote and a canistel. It's a big job because the soil has to be excavated and replaced with a special mix of compost and fertilizer...and...a drip system has to be installed off the sprinkler system to keep the trees watered. This project, by the way, really went up in cost because my mom has not had any maintenance done on the sprinkler system for at least ten years...now, all the heads have to be replaced and most of the piping below ground has to be dug out and replaced as well. Early in the month, I got down to Jonathan Dickinson State Park for my last few days of camping down here. It's a nice park...I'll miss it because there will be no more camping until my big summer trip in June. Speaking of June, I also decided (after MUCH) thought to make this next Summer Picnic, my 40th, my last. This was not an easy decision...after 40 years, the Picnic has become one of the things that has "defined" my entire adult life. That being said, I have to also acknowledge that much life has changed (in major ways) since I retired at the end of 2006. Now it's camping for June, July and August...back to Michigan for UM football in September, October and November...then down to Florida for December, January, February, March and April. That only leaves the month of May...and trying to get back to Michigan, unpack, prepare for the camping trip AND plan and execute the Summer Picnic...well...it's just too much on the plate. So...this next Picnic is it...forty and out. I had hoped that I would have more visitors down here. My friends, Parul and Monica, stopped by way back in December...my cousin visited twice, as did my friend, Mark. Oh...and I forgot to mention that my friend, Robin, flew down for ten days in February, which was nice. We visited the place where she lived and worked for a few years over on Marco Island, and then we camped for two days at a nice State Park on the northwest edge of the Everglades...great fun. April 12 was my birthday and, this year, my gift to myself was the purchase of a Glock 25, 9mm sub-compact semi-automatic pistol. I have to tell you that I thought long and hard before deciding to make this purchase. I have always supported the 2nd Amendment rights of other people to own guns, I just never thought that I would ever own one myself. But...the camping life (particularly the backpacking part) does have it's risks. My friend, Roger, who's advice I value highly, finally convinced me that venturing out into the "wild" unarmed was just too risky. So...I spent several months doing exhaustive research on line as to manufacturers, calibers, sizes, styles, etc. I finally settled on the Glock 26 for several reasons. First and foremost, Glock's reputation for quality is second to none. Second, the 9mm is plenty of stopping power with a commonly- used ammunition...this means that ammo is cheaper and easy to find. And, finally, I wanted a sub-compact because it's small and light in weight. Then, once I had made my decision, I took three, count 'em three, different firearms safety classes...introductory, mid-level and advanced. Because I am now a Florida resident, I was also able to apply for and receive a Florida Concealed Weapon Carry license. That being said, the only time I plan to actually carry this pistol is when I am backpacking. Indeed, the only times that it will be coming out of it's case is when I'm camping or going to the pistol range to shoot. I also celebrated my birthday be going out to dinner at a nice local restaurant, The Sailor's Return, for a great meal of "king cut" prime rib, baked potato, Caesar salad and several glasses of excellent Cabernet. Oh...I also wanted to mention that I am finally harvesting an excellent crop of heirloom tomatoes. I planted these back in late December (yes...tomatoes in December!), and I've been carefully watering and fertilizing them for months. I planted Yellow Globes, Red Cherokees and Purple Brandywyns. Man...nothing beats a home-grown tomato...particularly in early spring! Now, as it's getting to mid-April, I'm starting to pack up for the trip home. For some reason, this whole process is much more difficult and time-consuming than the packing for the trip down here. Late...very late...on the evening of April 18, I am packed up and ready to head home. All that I'll have to do is get the cats in their carriers, and I'll be ready to head north. Needless to say, the devil's in the "cat" details. On the morning of the 19th, I feed the cats, and two of them throw up shortly thereafter. I let them rest for a half hour or so before feeding...then it's time to load up. Only, there are no cats to load up...they have all disappeared. Yes...while I was planning the trip home, the cats were "scouting out places on the West Side ("Hey Paulie, you know any good places over on the West Side?") so that they could "go to the mattresses" when the time came. So...for two hours, I search the house top to bottom. They're hiding in closets, under patio furniture...even Cleo is holed up in the shower of the back bathroom. Finally....at 8:00AM, everybody's packed up, and I'm on the road home. A little after 6:00PM, I'm at the Days Inn in Dalton, Georgia. Same drill as before...litter box, food, water, release the cats...cocktails and dinner at the Chili's down the street...bed. The next morning, I'm up and on the road before 6:00AM. And, at around 4:30PM, I'm home...finally home. I'm happy and so are the cats...even Nola. The house looks good...I didn't know what to expect after being away for five months. I shake myself a icy-cold Stoli martini, plop down in my favorite chair, and turn on a movie. The unpacking can wait until tomorrow. Besides, I might as well rest now because the schedule over then next seven weeks is going to be brutal...really brutal.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Florida Chronicles...Part 4...March

I'm up early at Dry Tortugas National Park after a great night's sleep. The first order of business is coffee. I have to admit that I've "bent" the rules ever so slightly here...the "rules" say no propane tanks permitted aboard the ship. I interpret this rule as "permitting" the ISO-propane CANISTERS for my pocket rocket stove. So, this morning, while my fellow campers are waiting forty-five minutes to heat their water over sterno, I've got boiling water in just under three minutes. I'm using Starbuck's "Via" instant coffee which, while not as good as brewed coffee, is very handy for backpacking. I am soon the most popular guy in camp as my fellow campers come over to use the Pocket Rocket...all in all, I probably brought ten liters of water to the boil this morning alone. My breakfast is Mountain House Freeze-Dried Scrambled Eggs with Ham and Peppers...and...it's good, really good. After breakfast, I spend a few hours reading...I'm just finishing up a great biography of George Washington authored by Ron Chernow...interesting reading. Later, I decide to explore the island. There's not much to explore on the island other than Fort Jefferson, which takes up over 80% of the land area. The Fort was built following the Civil War and has the distinction of being the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Around 11:30, the boat from Key West returns, and I am able to go on board and get some cold water...I drink about two liters (mixed with powdered Gatorade). More exploring, then back to camp for more reading. It's a relaxing day, and the weather is perfect. I've brought along my new "pocket" solar panel for a test run, and I hook up my iPod Nano to recharge so that I'll have music for dinner. Soon, it's late afternoon, and the boat is loading up with tourists for the trip back to Key West. Around 5:00PM or so, I make "dinner"...tonight it's freeze-dried Lasagna with Meat Sauce...better than the Stroganoff, but not great. Of course, after several glasses of wine, it's tasting much better. After dinner, another spectacular sunset. And so...the remaining three days/nights go pretty much the same. Sleep...up...coffee...explore...read...rehydrate aboard ship...read...dinner...bed. The last night, however, is fun...and exciting. For days, I've been inviting my fellow campers over for wine after dinner and...on my last night...they all decide to stop by my camp. Soom, there's a dozen or so of us...everybody brought wine or beer...and we sit around talking until about 9:00PM. At 9:00, there is suddenly much activity in the Park...spotlights, sirens, boats in the water. So...we decide to head down to the dock to see what's going on...about twenty or so refugees from Cuba have arrived on the island. They set off from Cuba in a tiny inflatable boat with an old Garmin for navigation...and they made it all safe and sound. Having made it to dry land, they can stay. It was, I have to say, an emotional moment...that people would risk their lives to come to this country...this United States. The next morning, I'm up early to break camp...and heat water for twenty people...as i have done each morning since I arrived. When the boat arrives, I load my gear on board from the dock and spend the day taking one more stroll around the perimeter of the island. At 3:30PM, everybody's aboard, and we make the seventy mile trip back to Key West. Once there, I retrieve the Explorer from the parking garage, load my gear and head back to Mark's place in Marathon. We have dinner at one of my favorite dockside restaurants and make it an early evening. The next morning, I stop at Publix for provisions and head up out the Keys to Everglades National Park for another three days of camping. About five miles from the Park entrance, there's a great fruit and vegetable market called "Robert is Here". In addition to a wide variety of fresh vegetables, they have the most extensive selection of tropical fruit imaginable...stuff I've never heard of, like "canistel", "mamey sapote" and "sapodilla". I load up with fruit in vegetables for camping and for cooking at home back in Palm City. In the Park, I set up camp with the "little Guy"...the sights for RV's are not nearly as nice as the tent sites, but it's still fun. Two of my fellow campers from Dry Tortugas are there, so i invite them over for a dinner of Tandoori chicken, coconut rice and (of course) wine. The next day, I set out in the early morning (after coffee) for a day of hiking and photography. It's overcast and very windy, but I get in a full day...and lots of great photos. For dinner, I grill a nice piece of grouper and serve that with curried mayonnaise and some leftover coconut rice. The next morning, it's so windy that a full pot of coffee blows right off the picnic table. That's enough for me...I pack up quickly and head for home. The rest of March goes pretty much according to the established plan...more house cleaning. I did buy a 42" Vizio LED TV and a Blue-Ray player for the house, so a couple of nights were spent watching movies from Blockbuster. They were all good, but I particularly liked "The Descendants"...not a "big" movie, but very well-acted and George Clooney is...well...George Clooney. And...this was very fun...I went to see the Tigers play the Cardinals down in Jupiter. I could not leave Florida without taking in at least one game of spring ball. It was a perfect day...tickets were plentiful...and it was interesting to see a game "up close" in a small stadium. OK...the Tigers lost...but it was still great fun.
Oh...and one health-related note. Way back in October, we had a gorgeous day in the 70's, and I decided to go on a hike at my favorite local park in Michigan. I loaded up my "day pack" with three big jugs full of water to simulate backpacking conditions and proceeded to hike up and down the trails for several hours. When I got back home, my achilles tendon was tender and sore...so I iced it down. Now...five months later...it still hurts and it's not getting better (in fact, it's getting worse). So...I finally "bit the bullet" and went to a doctor. And...as March draws to a close...I'm hobbling about in a strap-on "boot" and signed up for fifteen sessions of physical therapy...welcome, Bill, to old age.

The Florida Chronicles...Part 3...February

After a hectic (but fun) December and January, things have settled down for February. House cleaning continues...I have finished with my bedroom, bath, kitchen and living room. While I was away for the Sugar Bowl, I had a local contractor come in and re-screen the outside patio and refinish the frame...looks good. I also had another contractor in to clean the tile floors (which were filthy)...floors look great! After two months, I've settled into a comfortable routine down here...work on the house for a few days, then go do something fun. I've camped again at Jonathan Dickinson twice this month. I go out for dinner every Friday night...then usually head over to the local Moose Club for a few beers (at $1/glass...can't beat it). I go out for lunch every Wednesday...usually Toojay's, the local deli. The rest of the time, I'm cooking at home...lot's of fresh seafood from a local seafood market. I found a great recipe for grouper...seared in a cast-iron skillet and served with a sauce of caramelized onions, bourbon, orange juice and heavy cream...yum! I've also made large batches of gumbo, spaghetti sauce, chili and pulled pork, so the freezer is stocked with meals that I can prepare quickly with a minimum of effort. Grocery shopping here is fun. In addition to the aforementioned seafood market, there are lots of places to shop. I can't say enough good things about the local grocery chain, Publix. The stores are clean, well-lit, and fully-stocked with a wide variety of standard, as well as ethnic, items. The staff is very well-trained...if you ask an employee where something is, they stop whatever they're doing and take you to where the item is. They even offer to take your groceries out to your vehicle. There are also a lot of Latin groceries with cool Mexican and Caribbean ingredients. I do have to go all the way south to Palm Beach Gardens to get to a Costco, but that's OK...I usually combine a Costco run with a trip to Palm Beach Gardens Mall. It's been "heaven" for the cats down here. They never liked the winters up in Michigan...way too cold. Down here, they can lounge in the sun on the patio during the day and curl up in a warm chair for a nap in the evening. Nola has adjusted well, and she's running the other cats ragged...good...they need the exercise. I thought that I might have guests over for the Super Bowl, but it ended up being just me and the cats. The "Super Bowl" calls for a "super meal", so I went all out this year. I bought two pounds of fresh lump crabmeat...some for a salad with heirloom tomatoes and homemade "Louie" dressing...some for a savory crab bread pudding which was spectacular. For dessert, I made a Red Velvet layer cake with cream cheese frosting and fresh vanilla ice cream using the ice cream maker that I gave my mom and dad years ago. As the month draws to a close, I'm planning a special camping trip. Dry Tortugas National Park is on an island about seventy miles from Key West by ferry. There are only twelve campsites and, obviously, you've got to bring everything you need with you in a backpack and cooler...good practice. Then, when I return from Dry Tortugas, I can also camp for a few days at Everglades National Park before heading for home. So...in the last week of February, I head out for Marathon, in the Keys, to spend a few days with my friend Mark. Mark and I have had a bet for many years on the outcome of the Michigan/Ohio State game...the loser buys the winner a stone crab dinner. For many years, when John Cooper was Ohio State's coach, I was awash in stone crab as UM went 10-1-1 over a twelve-year span. Then, OSU hired Jim Tressel, and I suffered through a nine-year "drought". This year, all is right with the world again, as UM was victorious again under new coach, Brady Hoke. So...on this visit to the Keys, Mark is serving stone crab to the victor (me). On the morning of the last day of February, I'm up at 4:30AM and on the road to Key West to catch the ferry to Dry Tortugas. Campers have to be at the dock to load their gear at 6:30AM, and it's about an hour's drive from Marathon to Key West. All goes according to plan, and I've got time after loading my gear to have breakfast at a little cafe before the boat leaves. I love a boat ride, and this one is three and a half hours on a perfect day. Upon arrival at the Park, I strap on my pack, grab my cooler and head for a campsite. I'm lucky enough to find a comfortable sight with some nice shade...and...for the next hour or so I set up camp. I pitch my tent, set out my sleeping bag, unpack my cooking gear...the "usual". At 3:30PM, the boat heads back to Key West, and I'm on my own...along with a dozen or so fellow campers. On this trip, I've brought along my first "backpacking" meals...freeze-dried dinners in pouches. You add boiling water to the pouch, seal it back up for ten minutes or so...and eat. This first night, I'm having Beef Stroganoff...the Russian Tea Room in NYC it's not...but I've had worse...and I'm hungry. I have also had the foresight to bring along two big "boxed" of red wine...a California "field blend" (Big House Red) and a nice Australian Shiraz. After dinner, I read for an hour or so, then watch an absolutely gorgeous sunset. A few more cups of wine...reading by the light of my tiny lantern...before heading to my tent for bed.

The Florida Chronicles...Part 2...January

Even though we went to bed around 2:00AM, we are still bleary-eyed the next morning. I slept in Terri and Carl's motor home so that we could get an early start for New Orleans. Still...we are not on the road until 10:00AM or so. Ed and Molly have agreed to take care of my cats while I'm in New Orleans, but it's tough going as my cats and their cats try to "adapt" to one another. The trip to New Orleans is pretty uneventful. Carl, as always, does the driving...and does it well. Around 6:00PM or so, we pull into the French Quarter RV and Resort...it's very nice...and...it's only a ten minute walk from Bourbon Street. Terri and Carl want to hang in the motor home and relax, but I'm itching to get into the French Quarter for some oysters. At 8:00PM, I'm sitting at the bar at Acme Oyster House...where I polish off three dozen on the half-shell, a small order of fried oysters and several local (Abita) beers. Then, for the next few hours, I wander the French Quarter...hitting a few of my favorite spots for beers and the quaint local specialty of cherries marinated in 190 proof Everclear. Long after midnight, I return to the motor home...slightly "buzzed" and my thirst for oysters slaked. The next day, Terri's got to work, so Carl and I head into the French Quarter for lunch at...where else...Acme Oyster Bar. They're not open when we arrive, so Carl and I go around the corner to Johnny Whites Bar for a few Bloody Mary "warm-ups"...then we're back at Acme for another round of oysters on the half-shell as well as a few orders of fried oysters. My favorite "shucker", Norman, is there, and it's nice to renew that acquaintance. I discretely slip Norman a $20 right away, thus ensuring that I will be seated promptly in the future regardless of the line outside. That night, Terri, Carl and I meet our tailgate/motor home friends from UM games, Angelo and Mary Beth, for a spectacular dinner at my favorite New Orleans restaurant, Commander's Palace. As always, the service and food are...well...perfect. We take it easy the next day in preparation for the big game at 8:00PM. We have tickets to the official "UM Tailgate" before the game, but it is incredibly crowded...we can't even get in. So...we decide to head to the Superdome early. We have great seats, and we are only a few steps from the concession stands. Some gumbo, a bowl of jambalaya and a few beers alleviate our pre-game "jitters". The game itself is exciting. Our center breaks a bone in his foot during warm-ups and we don't play particularly well...but...some uncharacteristic mistake by Virginia Tech's special teams keeps us in the game. It goes to overtime, and UM wins with a field goal. We stay in New Orleans for a few days after the game. Terri works, but Carl and I get some "bonding time" each day as we wander the French Quarter in search of bars and restaurants. Terri does join us for Friday lunch at Galatoire's...great food as well as great "spectacle" there. On our last day in New Orleans, Carl and I are again wandering the French Quarter...stopping here and there for a bite to eat and the occasional cocktail. On our way back to the RV Park, we stop at a local animal shelter to take a look at a few cats that they have available for adoption. A pretty Calico catches my eye, and I hold her for a bit before we head back out. Thirty minutes later, I'm back at the Shelter and, soon, I have a new cat in my family...that Calico, who we promptly name Nola. The next day, we head back to Tampa. I stay at Ed and Molly's for a few days before heading back home to Palm City. The rest of January turns out a lot like December...more work around the house. I am able to explore more of the local restaurants in the Stuart area...finding several good places for seafood, sushi, pizza, etc. Near the end of January, I returned to Jonathan Dickinson State Park for my first backpacking trip. After a comfortable night at a regular campsite in the "Little Guy, I set off early the next morning to hike ten miles along a trail of deep sand to the Park's remote backpacking campsite. It wa slow going,, but I arrived at my camp late in the afternoon. After setting up my "ultra-light" tent (1 lb., 10 oz.), I made a cocktail of Everclear, water and powdered Gatorade (one must travel light) and made a dinner of Indian eggplant with chunks of white chicken...delicious...and all cooked on my little "Pocket Rocket" stove. Everything was going well until the Park Rangers decided to light off a "controlled burn" right at sunset. Although they assured me that I was completely safe, it was a nervous evening...surrounded by flames. The next morning, I made a hot breakfast before hiking halfway back. At the halfway point, I was able to hitch a ride with one of the Rangers back to my vehicle.
At the
end of January, I head back over to Tampa for the annual Gasparilla /Festival with Ed and Molly. This time, I can leave the cats behind because a nice neighbor girl has agreed to "cat sit" for me while away.

The Florida Chronicles...Part 1...December 2011

I don't exactly have a lot of time to savor that victory over OSU and Sugar Bowl bid. I've been packing for several weeks, and now I've got less than a week to finish up packing and load up for the trip down to Florida for the winter. Early on the morning of Thursday, December 1, I'm packed up and ready to go...all I have to do is get Cleo, Jonesie and Mr. Lucky into their cat carriers, and I can hit the road. This proves to be a difficult task...Cleo's no problem, but Jonesie and Mr. Lucky are a different story. My thought was to put both Jones and Mr. Lucky in the same large cat carrier...big mistake. Over the course of two hours, I get Jonesie in/Mr. Lucky out...then Mr. Lucky in/Jonesie out...then both out...and so it went until I decided to split them up in two different carriers...success! The weather is favorable, roads clear and traffic light on the way to Dalton, Georgia...about halfway between West Bloomfield and Stuart. The cats are happy to be "freed" once we get to the hotel. I set up a travel litter box, set out food and water...and head off to the Chili's restaurant down the street from the motel. A few cold draft beers later, I'm relaxed after a long day's drive. A few appetizers and a few more beers before heading back to the motel for sleep. Even though I'm on the road early, the trip from Dalton to Palm City is long...it's after 6:00 by the time that I pull in the driveway. I get the litter boxes set up...cat food and water out...unload the cats...relax for awhile before dinner. There's no food in the house, but I'm prepared for that having brought a few meal's worth with me on the trip down. So...around 8:00PM or so, I'm sitting down to a big bowl of pasta, a salad and a bottle of Chianti. Mom took her big TV with her to assisted living, but there's a tiny one in the kitchen...so I can watch a little news before bed. I'm tired from two days of heavy driving, so it's an early night. The next morning, in the light of day, I see the huge task before me. The house is, to put it mildly, in shambles. And unpacking is problematic because I can't put anything away...every drawer/cabinet/closet/etc. is already full. So...for the next several weeks, I spend every day (and a lot of nights) sorting, reorganizing and cleaning things...one room at a time. My cousin, Bill, comes to help in week two, and we make some real progress on the floors and the patio. My first priority is my bedroom and bathroom...then the kitchen...living room...patio. I think that I put out forty garbage cans worth of trash in the first few weeks. I'm posting a few "before and after" photos to give you an idea of the magnitude of the task. I do take a few days off to relax. There's one of the nicest State Parks in Florida, Jonathan Dickinson State Park, just a few miles down the road, and I manage to get over there twice for a few days of camping. My friend, Mark, drives up from the Keys for Christmas, and it's nice to have some company for a few days. We have what is now my traditional Christmas dinner in Florida...stone crab claws, crab cakes, Publix potato salad, and a lot of white wine. It was great fun. Meanwhile, the cats...Cleo, Jones and Mr. Lucky...have settled in just fine. I opened up the porch so that they can lay in the sun all day and chase (and eat...yech) lizards. This is going to be a good winter for them (and me). A few days after Christmas, I pack up the cats and head over to my friends, Ed and Molly, for New Years. Gretchen, Roger and I ordered tickets to the Sugar Bowl to see UM play Virginia Tech, but Gretchen and Roger have run into some last-minute problems that force them to cancel their trip. So...it's Terri, Carl and I that will be heading to New Orleans in the big motor home on New Years day for the game on January 3rd. New year's Eve dinner at Ed and Molly's is spectacular as always...stone crabs, empanadas,. grilled tenderloin of beef, Caesar salad...we were stuffed by 8:00PM. Terri and Carl are there for a wonderful celebration with close friends.

Tuesday...August 30, 2011/Fall 2011

Wow...long time, no post! When last we spoke, I was still in Florida helping my mom after cutting short my 2011 summer camping trip to the Canadian Maritimes. By Tuesday, August 30, 2011, my work in Florida was complete, and it was finally time to head home. It was an extremely productive trip...in just over two weeks, I was able to find an assisted living place for mom, get her admitted, and move her in. I even managed to get Schatzi approved and moved in...although that victory was short-lived. Within a week, Schatzi bit someone, and she got "booted" from assisted living. She was placed with a local family, but that didn't work out. After being "passed off" to several prospective owners, she ended up in a rescue shelter in Port St. Lucie. Thanks to an implanted "id chip", the shelter was able to contact me...I was able to contact mom and Ace...and they were able to pick her up. For several months, Schatzi lived at the house with mom and Ace coming over twice a day to feed her and let her out. This story does have a happy ending...we managed to find another service that placed dogs for adoption, and Schatzi found a new home. They don't provide many details other than that both Schatzi and new owners are happy and doing well. So...on Tuesday, August 30, I finally headed back home...reaching my usual stop in Knoxville around 6:00PM. A few cocktails and a nice dinner at my favorite restaurant across the street from the motel...and off to sleep. I'm on the road at 6:00AM the next morning and, finally, home around 4:00PM on Wednesday. It's a busy few days unpacking and cleaning up the house before the first UM game on September 3rd. An interesting game...our first with new coach, Brady Hoke. It's a fun game...Terri and Carl now have a motor home, and they join Roger and Gretchen and the rest of our motor home "crew". The second game is truly "unforgettable"...the first night game in UM history...against arch-rival Notre Dame. A last-second victory makes this game an "instant classic". And so, the season rolls along. With the exception of two "blips" against MSU and Iowa, UM gains strength and confidence every week. And then...beating Ohio State for the first time in ages caps off a magical season. All the more so when we get a BCS bid to the Sugar Bowl...you know where I'm going!