Skitters, Swamps, and Sand: Spring Break Defined

11 04 2013

“Hey, you got long hair?”  The disembodied voice carried from one shower stall over to mine.

“No…”  I replied.

“Than you prolly wanna use this shower.  It’s better than that ‘un.”

So I moved over, and she was right.  The woman obviously was well-acquainted with them both.  At $18 a night including water and electricity, Shepard State Park on the coast of Mississippi made a good stopover on our travels, as well as a cheap place to hunker down for those caught in economic distress.  That night, we chatted with a bird-watching retired couple taking a two-month sojourn from Oregon to visit relatives in Florida, and the next morning I learned from another long-term camper that there was a vent connecting the men’s and women’s bathhouses that every morning brought over the stench of tobacco smoke from “someone smoking in the boys’ room.”  Camping.  There just isn’t anything like it.

Spring Break is all about breaking from the routine and getting refreshed for the last few weeks of the school year.  Which is why I twisted Brian’s arm, slightly, into taking a camping trip.  I was interested in the Florida beaches on the Gulf Coast and in looking at the map noticed that Pensacola was a mere three hours from New Orleans, where coincidentally the National WWII Museum beckoned.  And so we set out.

We spent the first night communing with mosquitoes at Florida Caverns State Park.  In hindsight, camping in a swamp was not the best idea, even in April.  According to the ranger, massive rains about a month earlier had hastened mosquito season such that it was hard to breathe without inhaling a few of the swarming pests.  We set world records getting in and out of our tent and managed to spend a fairly comfortable night without the whine of insects in our ears, although our spaghetti dinner was doubtlessly enhanced with their protein.  Fortunately, by that point it was dark.  Barred owls and howling dogs (coyotes?) kept us entertained through the long night.  2013-04-08 08.31.42

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The virtues of a swamp do not include mosquitoes.

The next morning we broke camp in record time, leaving the tent to dry on the picnic table while we toured the park’s main attraction, the caverns.  The solitary bat we saw there, try as he might, obviously could not make a dent in the mosquito population.  The tour was thankfully pest-free, and we enjoyed our walk through the cave system as our guide pointed out stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies, flowstone, and other features that made this underground section of the park so much more pleasant and remarkable than the topside.  In our haste to leave, we almost made it out of the park before remembering to go back for our tent.

Ahh, the beach.  A short three-hour drive promised the white sands and blue skies of Florida’s Gulf coast at Big Lagoon State Recreation Area.   We pulled in to the park to see a scruffy sand dune desert: rolling dunes covered with saw palmetto, vines, and more than a few dead tree scrags.  The campground map showed us beachside, so upon finding our site, I climbed over the dune to gaze upon the shore.  A swamp.  Again, a swamp!  Yet when I squinted my eyes, I could just barely make out the white sands of the beach.  A walk on the boardwalk gave us the names of the local flora: sand pines, sand live oaks, sand everything.  And in-between the sand dunes, stagnant water covered with duckweed, hiding, no doubt, the gleaming eyes of hungry gators.  Yet a constant breeze kept flying insects at bay, so all was not lost.

We got back into the car and drove down to the beach, which though quite nice, was only on the lagoon (hence the name “Big Lagoon”).  Back in the car, we drove a few more miles out of the car to Perdido Key and paid a few dollars to drive on Gulf Islands National Seashore, where the dazzling white sand and crashing surf confirmed every preconceived notion we had of Florida’s beaches.   2013-04-08 15.36.25    Breathing deeply, we stretched out on the sands, then walked the surfline for a while, snapping shots of a disinterested great blue heron who obviously was used to the invasion of human-types.  2013-04-08 16.12.24All too soon, we headed back to the campground.  Lulled to sleep by the croaking rhythm of a bajillion frogs, we were awakened early by the chirps, tweets, songs, and squawks of a bajillion birds.  Sleeping in was not an option.

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Morning breaks over the swamp

By 8:15, we were on the road, headed for New Orleans and the National WWII Museum.  The next six hours was spent reading every exhibit, watching every short video, and listening to every audio in the entire museum.  No, that’s a lie.  I didn’t get to take in everything, but we did take our time and see as much as we could.  There’s always next time.

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A victory garden outside the WWII museum

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A half-track similar to the one that carried my father across Europe

Although it doesn’t have the emotional angst of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, it did present a thorough view of the War along with insightful observations (America fought Hitler, the world’s worst racist, with our own segregated army).  Back in the car, we headed out of New Orleans at rush hour, an experience with all the thrills and excitement of an amusement park roller coaster.

Into Mississippi, we found Shepard State Park.  Within seconds, the sand gnats found us.  A glance behind our campsite confirmed the obvious:  another swamp.  Again, world records were set in unzipping and zipping the tent door.  A quick meal of partially-rehydrated vegetable soup, enhanced with insect protein, then the plaintive call of a locomotive every half hour to keep us company through the night.  The next morning, we broke camp in under half an hour, eating breakfast at a rest area down the road a ways.  A long drive home ahead of us, we entertained ourselves scaring the several hundred sand gnats who had decided to journey along with us.

Into Alabama, with only five or so hours separating us from the comforts of home, we came to a brown sign on the highway indicating that Tuskegee Institute was a short distance off the road.  “Shall we?” Brian asked.  “Silly question,” I replied as we veered off the highway: yet another reason why I love my husband.

Not knowing exactly what we were looking for, we passed a cemetery with the obvious grave of Booker T. Washington, etched with “Education is the answer.”  We drove through the impressive campus of Tuskegee University: distinctive, well-kept buildings with a student population still thriving after all these years.  The campus was, however, an island of prosperity amid an ocean of poverty.  The city of Tuskegee had the paint-peeling run-down feel of a scrubby deep South town where laundromats, tattoo parlors, and Quik Cash marts were the only thriving industries.  On the way out of town, we came to Moton Field, training site of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.  We stopped and went through the hangar where exhibits told the story of the famous experiment that proved Blacks were capable of serving in combat operations.  I always feel embarrassed that it took us so long to admit what should have been obvious.

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Moton Field, training site of the Tuskegee Airmen

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Inside the hangar at Moton Field

The rest of our trip home was spent in a state of boredom-induced drowsiness when Brian drove the long highways and wide-eyed two-handed alertness as I drove through the convoluted construction-ridden areas around major cities.  Home again, after three days of camping and some 1400 miles, history and nature seamlessly interwoven on the wings of countless insects, reminded once again of the world outside my classroom, thinking all the while of ways to bring it back within the walls of my school.  Spring Break, indeed.

Great Alaskan Adventure: The Final Edition

23 07 2011

The search was now on for an overnight parking place in Anchorage.  We had to turn in the RV the next morning, so we needed to find some place close.  This turned into the hardest task of the trip, as there were no campgrounds and most parking lots had signs up saying No Overnight Parking.  We finally found a parking lot with other RVs and large 18-wheeler rigs.  Unfortunately, the constant street noise and activity made for a sleepless night.  Our flight plans to go home were crazy, not leaving Alaska until 11:30 pm, taking us through Denver and Chicago before depositing us in Columbia at 5:01 pm the next day.  At least that was the plan.  Sleep the night before such a trip would have been nice.  Oh, well.

We turned in the RV at 10:00 am.  Faced with a whole day before our flight out, we took a cab downtown to see one final museum.  The Anchorage Museum was as good as any I’ve ever been to, including the Smithsonian and the British Museum.  Having all day, we were able to read and study each and every exhibit, although I must admit that not all members of my party shared my enthusiasm for this activity.  We took the bus back to the RV rental place, where we picked up the luggage we had stashed there for the day and took a shuttle to the airport.  There we sat for eternity, only to find that our plane was delayed for an hour and a half due to storms in Denver.  Finally taking off at 1:30 am, we were able to make all our connector flights, although by the time we got on the plane in Chicago, I was so exhausted I remember very little of the actual flight.  By 5:00, we walked off the plane and into that warm, sticky embrace we call “Southern Summer.”  Yet Alaska, so far away, was still close by; in fact, Alaska was now a part of me.

Ten Things to Consider, if You’re Considering a Trip to Alaska:

1. Pass up those high priced tee shirts and other souvenirs that are thrust upon visitors at every gift shop at every stop.  Instead, find a Walmart, Target, or other similar store.  They will have the very same items, but much cheaper.

Skate egg case

2.  Better yet, go for natural souvenirs.  For little or no cost (other than the ribbing of my co-workers and friends), I was able to acquire moose poop and bones, caribou antler, beaver fur, lynx fur (not sure how I feel about this one, but I bought it without doing too much thinking), various dried sea creatures found on the beach, feathers, porcupine quills, birch bark, mastodon tusk bone, and smallish rocks collected in memorable spots.

Cow parsnip, bluebells, fireweed, and a dandelion

3. If you go in the summer, invest in a book of Alaskan wildflowers.  The flowers are everywhere and are quite different than those around my neck of the woods.  If you have any curiosity about natural things, you’ll want to put names to them.

4. Another summer tip: the sun never sets.  We could read in the RV at 11:00 pm with no lights turned on.   If you need dark to sleep, bring an eye mask.  Also be aware that Alaskans don’t sleep in the summer.  We saw young kids playing soccer on a field late late at night.  We were told that Alaskans get very cranky by the end of the summer.

10:55 pm in Denali National Park

5. If you despair that going to Alaska in the summer means no snow, fear not!  Cottonwood trees are in full bloom in late June/early July, meaning that just about wherever you go, you will encounter “summer snow” without any of the discomfort brought about by the cold, wet stuff.  You might consider bringing a mask, though; the stuff is pretty thick in places, making breathing difficult at times.


6. On mosquitoes: yes, there are quite a few, and they seem to increase the farther north you go.  However, although they are big, numerous, and bothersome, we did not get a single bite, leading us to believe that they prefer moose and bear blood.  Southern mosquitoes, on the other hand, are not nearly as particular.

7. On weather:  Prepare for it all.  Most days we were comfortable in long sleeves and long pants.  It will be VERY cold if you go on a day cruise.  And it usually is overcast with light showers common.  Enjoy the sunny days thoroughly.  There won’t be many of them.  The interior of Alaska is classified as a desert, with less than ten inches of rain yearly.  Just about every day, we had a shower or two.  Go figure.  Clothes you won’t need: dressy.  Living is very casual here.

8. Alaska is expensive.  Save money by not going to restaurants.  Do not try to save money by passing on the side trips.  The day cruise out of Seward to see the glacier and the flightseeing tour that landed on the glacier were very expensive, but worth every penny.  They made memories that will last long after I miss the money.  And if the weather is not conducive to seeing Denali or landing on the glacier, ask for a later flight.  You might luck up.  We did.

9. Renting an RV is a good way to go.  Tent-camping is only for the very adventurous: bear are not easily dissuaded by nylon, and frequent rain makes staying dry difficult.  Cruises are fine, but very expensive and you are stuck with their timetable.  Driving and staying in motels is the second-best option, but realize that motels are few and far between.  RV rental didn’t save us much money, but it did offer flexibility.  We were able to eat most meals in the RV (except for fish, Alaska is not known for their haute cuisine).  Camping in a campground was optional, since Alaska allows RVers to camp overnight on any of the numerous scenic overlooks or pull-off areas.  We did find out the tank for gray water filled up within a day or two, so we planned our stays accordingly.  The only place we had to make reservations was in Denali.  Other than that, we were free to stay wherever we landed.  The RV came fully equipped with everything we needed: linens, cookware, and bedding.  Never having driven one before, we chose a relatively small RV at 25 feet, which was a little close quarters for four of us, but we soon adapted to our surroundings.  Just like the natives.

10. As seen on a wall in the Anchorage Museum, “Esghallghilnguq, Nagagullghilnguq, Nanghiillghilnguq, Naliuksaghqaq.”  “What you do not see, do not hear, do not experience, you will never really know.”  I hope I spelled that correctly.  I hope you have the chance to know Alaska.  I’m glad I did.

Ending a day and a trip at Byer's Lake in Denali State Park