Fireworks for Canada Day and the 4th of July – EXPLOSIVE!!

We have been enjoying Nova Scotia for the past 10 days or so, and yesterday we found ourselves caught up in the thrill of Canada Day celebrations in the small town of Antigonish on the northern coast.

Nighttime comes late in these parts in the summertime, but as daytime began to fade away, around 9:30 p.m., we suddenly found ourselves quickly becoming surrounded by Canada Day revelers.

It turned out that we were in the ideal viewing spot for the town’s fireworks display!

Fireworks

We grabbed our tripods and got set up, and in no time the show began.

And what a great show it was!! Here are some of our favorite pics — enjoy!!

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

Fireworks

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Driving an RV in the Eastern states – It’s a Wild Ride!

June, 2015 – After a wonderful four weeks in the lush green mountain forests of North Carolina and Virginia, we looked at the map to find a route into the northeast and panicked. There’s a reason that many RVers stick to the big wide open western states, and looking at the map confirmed why: FEAR.

Both Mark and I grew up in the east and drove many thousands of miles there, but zipping around in a small car is a lot different than driving a tall, wide and excessively long RV on those narrow, congested and fast moving roads.

Many interstates in the northeast are poor condition, especially in the right lane, and are overloaded with truckers on tight schedules who whip past at 75 mph or more. So, I plotted a course through the spider’s web of secondary roads from Virginia through Pennsylvania and New York that would land us on the western edge of Massachusetts and see us up and over the Green and White Mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire to arrive, breathless, on the western side of Maine.

Off we went!

Roadsigns on the eastern state highways

Where are we going again?

Yikes!

I forgot that in the eastern states the roads change names and change numbers without warning. And roads merge and intersect and become friends and part ways without ever letting the driver know. We were continually sent off on wild goose chases for route numbers that had vanished 20 or 50 miles back.

Which way do you want to go?

Did you get that?

The road signs come up so fast and with such a myriad of numbers that we were repeatedly left staring out the windshield in a daze, trying to remember what it was we just saw.

“Did you see Route 21 in all those numbers?” I’d ask Mark.

“Hell if I know!” he’d say.

“Well, we want 21 North — or maybe East — umm….wait a minute…” And I’d be buried in Google Maps again, trying to figure out exactly where we were going, only to find out that 21 North was now 18 East — at least for a little while.

Drive on any road in New York state

Truly dizzying. But look, it’s a palindrome! Almost.

The roadsigns were just a blur of numbers, with all the routes going in different directions all over the place. Sometimes the numbers formed patterns, and one was even a palindrome. Almost. Sometimes the roads just went to the devil, literally.

Route 666 Devil's Highway road signs

We’re going to hell in a handbasket.

Meanwhile the cars stacked up behind us, riding so close they were invisible in the rear view mirror. The semi tractor trailers passed us at every opportunity, pushing us out of the way as they zoomed by us on the descents, and then slowing down to a crawl in front of us as they crept up the climbs.

Traffic behind a fifth wheel trailer RV in the northeastern states

Impatient drivers pile up behind a fifth wheel.

At least in New York they call a spade a spade, though, and we got a laugh when we saw a sign written for dazed RVers from the western states:

Beware of Agressive Drivers

Indeed!

You’ve gotta love New York. Not only do they know the temperament of their drivers, they know their habits too. New Yorkers are so plugged in they aren’t given just a plain old Rest Area on the highway. They get a Text Stop!

Text stop rest area road sign in New York

For the modern traveler…

Most of these secondary roads were in really rough shape, especially crossing the Catskill Mountains in New York. We’d forgotten about the dangers of potholes, since they are a rarity out west. A deluge of ungodly blizzards pummeled the northeast this past winter, keeping the plows busy chewing up the roads, and we found ourselves doing a zig-zag dance down the highways to avoid all the endless man-eating, car-eating and RV-eating potholes.

Luckily, the powers that be have set about fixing the roads. However, that made the driving even more scary. Orange signs popped up out of nowhere and cones and equipment crowded the roads for miles at a time.

Roadsign detour in Pennsylvania

The road was small already… and now it’s filled with construction signs and crews!

Oh, and did I mention that these states are NOT flat? The mountains in the west climb straight into the heavens, going up for miles on end, but the hills in the east are like a roller coaster. They go up and down like waves on the ocean. We had installed our new brakes and engine tuner with this trip in mind, and we were now really glad we’d had the foresight to do those upgrades before coming here.

It seemed almost every hour Mark had to slam on the brakes for a red light at the bottom of a blind descent, or jump on the brakes when someone cut us off. Each time he’d mutter under his breath how great those new brakes were.

Roadsigns in every direction New York

Got it?

And did the buggy get stuck? Oh yes indeed. Several times.

In the hilly back streets of Boone, Virginia, there’s a long, deep scrape in the asphalt that is the signature left by our trailer’s bumper hitch. Confusion about road construction on the highway had sent us into this miniature town, and when we got there the only place to turn around had a massive dip in the road that was too much for our wheel base.

And in southwestern Massachusetts I played Twister with a maple tree sapling as I tried to keep its branches out of our bike wheels while Mark did a miraculous turn at the edge of someone’s farm on a steep hill. Once the maple tree released me, I watched in horror as Mark drove off over a lip down a hill that is meant for winter sledding. The fifth wheel overhang almost crushed the tailgate of our truck!

Tractor roadsign

Share the road!

It was a truly wild ride taking our RV from Virginia into the northeast. But in the end, the scars and scrapes on our rig and ourselves were a small price to pay for the great times that lay ahead!

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Floyd Country Store Bluegrass Music Jam – So Much Fun!

A few days ago over Memorial Day Weekend, our RV travels took us to southwestern Virginia where we were treated to an absolutely terrific musical experience: the Sunday Music Jam at The Country Store in Floyd, Virginia.

It was a free bluegrass jam session in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains — what a thrill!

The Floyd Country Store Floyd Virginia

Where is this country store?

We had heard that there were fabulous free bluegrass music gigs at this unique store in the Virginia mountain town of Floyd. But when we walked down the main street under the storefront awnings, we weren’t quite sure where the store was!

We saw lots of people walking around with ice cream cones. I even saw a funny sign on a storefront that said “Loitering Allowed.” I snapped a pic with some folks sitting under the sign eating ice cream while Mark walked off in search of the country store.

The Country Store Floyd Virginia Loitering Allowed

Loitering allowed!

Where the heck was that country store? We just couldn’t find it — until we crossed the street and looked back and saw that The Country Store was that funny place where loitering was allowed. Silly us!! So, in we went.

Candy Aisle The Country Store in Floyd Virginia

Inside the Floyd Country Store.

Inside we found a classic old fashioned store, with creaky old oak floors that had been walked on by thousands of feet, an old embossed tile ceiling overhead, and big barrels of candy right in the middle with all kinds of interesting little trinkets for sale on wooden shelves on the walls.

They even had musical instruments for sale on the wall behind the cash register.

Musical Instrumnets at The Country Store Floyd Virginia

There were all kinds of things for sale.

On the other side of the store they were selling ice cream and desserts and coffee. Sales seemed very snappy behind that counter. I noticed that for every person that marched away from the register licking an ice cream cone, another one got in line!

The Jingle Tap in Floyd Virginia

The ice cream on the other side of the store was very popular!

But it was at the back of the store where the music action was happening. We didn’t hear anything at first, but when we walked back we saw rows of chairs filled with people, many with fiddles, banjos and guitars in their laps, and there were musical instrument cases of all sizes and shapes leaning against the walls.

Suddenly, without any announcement or fuss, they all began to play — and what an upbeat and happy sound that was!

The musicians sat in a huge circle, all facing each other, and the folks that weren’t playing sat in rows behind them.

Sunday Bluegrass Music Jam The Country Store Floyd VIrginia

Holy smokes — it’s a huge crowd of people making music together!

We stood against a wall with great big grins on our faces — what an absolute ball this was!

Suddenly, the song came to an end, and there was a little murmuring between a man and a woman up front. Then a new song began, and the whole group jumped right in again. No one had sheet music, yet they all played in perfect harmony. How cool is that!

A little girl started bouncing around in her seat, and her mom leaned over and explained to everyone around her that she was fidgeting because she wanted to dance. An energetic white haired lady sitting next to me hopped up, took the girl by the hands and danced with her, to the utter delight of everyone watching.

Dancing at the Sunday Music Jam Floyd Virginia Country Store

Happy feet!

The music went on, song after song, and even after the little girl and her gracious dance partner sat down, the rest of us toe tapped and bounced our heads in time to the music, jigging along with the carefree melodies.

We had just gotten warmed up when the music stopped and all the musicians began to pack it up. Oh no! But then a new group of musicians came in, sat down in those same chairs, and began to play.

Bluegrass musicians jam at Floyd Virginia Country Store

The bluegrass jam session begins. Host Ben Silcox is on the right.

This time the sound was a little different. The first group had been an old-time music jam, and this group was playing bluegrass songs with vocals. The host, Ben Silcox, asked each player in the circle to lead the group in a song. Lots of people in the audience knew the words and sang along under their breath.

The high spirits in this place were infectious, and we just couldn’t wipe those grins off our faces. The instruments were wonderful — mandolins and dobros along with fiddles, guitars and banjos — and these folks could all play really well. They made it seem effortless. Their fingers flew all over the place with ease!

Bluegrass music on a mandolin_

There were mandolins…

The host, Ben, told us that one member of the group was 86 years old. He was happily fiddling away.

Bluegrass music on a dobro and fiddle

…and there were dobros and fiddles. This fiddle player is 86!

Ben had a great sense of humor, and he loved joshing his friends between songs. He told the crowd that one of the banjo players was an expert luthier who makes beautiful fiddles. He held one up to show the crowd and then wise-cracked to the banjo player, “So how many of these have you made?”

“Oh, 15 of them,” his buddy responded.

“And how many are for sale now?”

“Um…15.” His friend shrugged.

Holding up a fiddle at a bluegrass jam session in Floyd Virginia

Ben teases his buddy about the fiddles he makes.

A few minutes later that same banjo player took off on a wild tune that was dizzyingly fast. Ben quipped afterwards, “If you liked that, this guy has blank CD’s for sale in the front of the store!”

The Country Store has been around since around 1910, but it was in the early 1980’s that it became a haven for music lovers.

At that time, two of the store’s owners were in a bluegrass band that used the store for band practice on Friday nights after the store was closed and locked up for the day. Folks walking by outside kept knocking on the door asking to be let in so they could listen, and after a while the store owners decided not to lock up but to keep the doors open so people could stop in and enjoy the music.

Bluegrass music on standup bass and guitar

The Friday Night Jamboree started in the early 1980’s!

A young store clerk told me she remembered going to those Friday Night Jamborees when she was a kid in the 1990’s, but that the store had been a bit run down. In 2007 new owners totally renovated the building, put lots of fun goodies on the shelves, began serving tasty snacks, and the crowds swelled.

On the big music nights now, she said, the store is often packed and is standing room only!

Banjos and guitars Sunday Music Jam Country Store Floyd Virginia

The old-time music jam was a hoot!

If your RV travels take you into southwestern Virginia and you want to hear some authentic bluegrass music played in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, check out the schedule of events at The Country Store in Floyd, Virginia. It is a rare treat. Many weekly music jams are free, some cost a few bucks — and the ice cream is delicious!

I had hoped we’d find some true mountain magic when we pointed our RV towards the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, and when we got to the tiny town of Floyd, Virginia, we sure did!

I got a snippet on video — here it is:

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The Tube Dude – Spreading Good Cheer in Sarasota, Florida

While we were in Sarasota, Florida, we kept seeing these funny looking metal figures all around town. This big stick figure guy was always busy doing something, and he was always smiling.

Tube Dude baker at Pastry Art Bakery in Sarasota Florida

We saw metal figures like this pair at the Pastry Art Bakery all over Sarasota!

I finally asked the folks at the Pastry Art Bakery downtown — who had a cute pair out front — what these stick figures were all about.

“Oh, that’s the Tube Dude!” the gal behind the counter said with a smile. “He’s very popular around here. A local guy makes them…”

Fishing Tube Dude in Sarasota Florida

The Tube Dude goes fishing

I looked online, and sure enough, he has a website: www.tube-dude.com.

The Tube Dude hangs out on people’s lawns and in front of businesses, doing all kinds of things, from kayaking to getting the mail to parasailing:

Kayaking Tube Dude in Sarasota Florida

The Tube Dude takes a ride in his Hobie Kayak

Mailbox Tube Dude in Sarasota Florida

The Tube Dude holds the family mail

Dentist Tube Dude in Sarasota Florida

Holding a toothbrush, he greets patients at a dentist’s office

Tube Dude at a law firm in Sarasota Florida

The Tube Dudette holds the scales of justice at a Sarasota law firm.


As we drove around town, one or the other of us would spot him in a front yard or next to a business.

“Tube Dude!” We’d yell, pointing.

Parasail Tube Dude Sarasota Florida

On his days off, the Tube Dude goes parasailing!

It wasn’t always possible to get a great pic, but we sure had fun spotting him.

Parasailing Tube Dude Sarasota Florida

The Tube Dude is ready to take off with his parasail.

He’s a busy and happy guy, very similar to his T-shirt brother, Jake, who loves the outdoors and always says, “Life is Good!

Animal Hospital Tube Dudes Sarasota Florida

Tube dudes provide emergency care at an animal hospital.

If you spend any time in Sarasota, Florida, keep an eye out for the Tube Dude.

Bakery Tube Dude Sarasota Florida

Making pizza on a rooftop.

He’s all around town, grinning from ear to ear, and spreading his special brand of good cheer in Sarasota!!

Tube Dude Baker Sarasota Florida

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Rockport, Massachusetts – Quaint Charm on Boston’s North Shore

Usually we travel just a bit at a time, savoring each place as we go, and covering as little distance between stops as possible. This week, however, I jumped on an airplane in Florida bound for Boston, Massachusetts, to meet up with friends and family for a very brief visit.

A few days ago, we took a daytrip to the scenic seaside village of Rockport, Massachusetts, a quaint and historic town that oozes charm and has long held a special place in my heart.

T-Wharf Sandy Bay Yacht Club Rockport Massachusetts

Sandy Bay Yacht Club on T-Wharf in Rockport, Massachusetts

Rockport is just an hour north of Boston, and on any summer weekend it is filled to overflowing with tourists to the point where you practically brush shoulders with fellow walkers as you stroll the town streets. On this visit, however, we somehow magically caught it just right and got there on an ideal 75 degree brilliantly sunny day in mid-April when hardly a soul was in town!

Rockport’s heart and soul is the lobster trade, and there are lobster boats all around the tiny harbor.

Lobster boats Rockport Harbor Massachusetts

A lobster boat in Rockport Harbor

A classic red fishing shack, called Motif #1, presides over the center of the harbor. This iconic building is framed in countless photos and paintings, and ranks as one of the most photographed buildings in New England and the most frequently painted building in America.

Motif Number 1 Rockport Massachusetts

A New England icon: Rockport’s Motif #1

Motif Number 1 is so well loved that when the original building was destroyed in the infamous Blizzard of 1978, a new exact replica was built in its place!

Rockport Motif #1 Massachusetts

Lobster boats in the inner harbor

The land on the outer protective edge of the harbor is called “Bearskin Neck,” and it is the site where a man named Babson killed a bear armed only with a knife sometime around the late 1600’s or early 1700’s.

On the back streets of the Neck there are lobster shacks where many generations of lobstermen have done the necessary maintenance on their pots and bouys.

Lobster shack Rockport Massachusetts

A lobsterman’s shack on Bearskin Neck

Everyday, each lobsterman drops his pots off wherever he thinks the lobsters might be hiding.

Lobster boat Straightsmouth Island Rockport Mass

A lobster boat heads out for a day’s work

Lobster pots are marked by colorful bouys, and the lobstermen go from trap to trap, hauling each one up to see what he caught. The lobsters that are too small are thrown back and the other critters that wander into the trap are thrown over the side too. Then he puts fresh yummy bait in the trap and drops it back into the sea.

Every lobsterman chooses his own design of colorful stripes and dots and other markings for his bouys to make it is easy to identify not only that there is a lobster pot below but who the trap belongs to.

Lobster bouys at a lobsterman shack

Lobster buoys on Bearskin Neck

Lobster bouys in Rockport Mass

Each lobsterman paints his own patterns on his buoys

Roy Moore Lobster restaurant Bearskin Neck Rockport MA

We stop for a lobster roll at Roy Moore’s

A tiny hole in the wall on Bearskin Neck, called Roy Moore’s, is a great place to see lobsters up close in glass tanks and to get a delicious lobster roll for lunch. A lobster roll consists of chopped up lobster meat mixed with a little mayonnaise and served on a hotdog bun.

This may sound funky, but it’s a fantastic way to enjoy lobster without donning a suit of armor, grabbing assorted weaponry and surrounding yourself with dishes of butter melting over flames to grapple with the hard shell and strange anatomy of lobster served whole (bulging eyes, skinny legs, antennae and all) on your dinner plate.

The Pewter Shop Bearskin Neck Rockport Massachusetts

The Pewter Shop is an icon on popular Bearskin Neck

The shops on Bearskin Neck are all small, colorful buildings, and the cute, bright red Pewter Shop has greeted visitors to Bearskin Neck since time began.

The Country Store Bearskin Neck Rockport Massachusetts

The Country Store has delighted kids with candy for decades

The Country Store is a favorite among kids because of the huge candy selection, and there was a time, a rather long time ago, when the place was lined with glass jars filled with penny candy. Kids would excitedly point at the jars ordering “one of these” and “one of those” from very patient store clerks who filled tiny paper bags with candy behind the counter.

Rockport is loaded with history too. Back in 1814 a British frigate showed up, and when the bell in the big, classic Old Sloop Congregational Church in the center of town rang out an alarm, they fired a cannon to silence it. They missed and hit the steeple instead, and a replica of the cannon ball is still lodged there.

Dock Square Rockport Massachusetts

Dock Square is lined with historic buildings

Old Sloop Church Rockport Massachusetts

The Old Sloop Congregational Church was struck by British cannon fire in 1814 to silence the bell.

Rockport Art Association

Rockport has been an artists’ colony for years.

Front Beach in Rockport Massachusetts

The Rockport Skyline seen from Front Beach.

Rockport has also been an artists’ colony for a century, and not only is the town full of art galleries but there is also an active Art Association.

For many people, however, it is the beach that makes this town so special, and combing the sand for pretty lady slipper seashells and well worn beach glass is a soothing way to pass a few hours. We were amazed that a mere ten minute stroll on Front Beach turned up a treasure trove of beach glass!

Beach glass

Beach glass gathered in 10 minutes of casual walking.

In town we found an artist who is using the local beach glass to make jewelry. What a creative idea!

Beach glass jewelry

A creative jeweler in town is making jewelry from the local beach glass. How clever!

Without doubt, the cries of seagulls — punctuated by the hourly chimes of the Old Sloop Church bell — are the song of Rockport.

Seagull on Front Beach

This guy’s mouth is full, so he’s quiet for the moment!

Another kind of music comes from the Shalin Liu Performance Center that now dominates the Rockport skyline behind Front Beach.

View from Front Beach in Rockport MA

The Shalin Liu Performance Center (left) has massive windows overlooking Sandy Bay

Once a grocery store and later a dress shop, this fabulous building has been expanded and renovated to offer enormous views of Sandy Bay from its back side.

Shalin Liu Performance Center Reception Hall Rockport Massachusetts

The Reception Hall on the top floor has a lovely view.

Shalin Liu Performance Center Concert Hall Rockport Massachusetts

Evening concerts are often accompanied by a visual feast of waterfront sunsets.

A wedding reception in the upstairs Reception Hall would be nice, but a chamber music concert while watching the sun setting on the beach behind the stage must be truly out of this world.

All kinds of groups and musicians perform at the Shalin Liu, but we were advised that if it is a loud, amplified band, they may have to close the curtains behind the stage because the sound reverberates off the glass windows. So if you go, keep that in mind!!

______________

We had a picture perfect day in Rockport. If you take your RV anywhere near Boston’s North Shore, a trip to Rockport is a must. Midweek or off-season, it is a truly delightful excursion!

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RV Electrical System Overhaul – New Batteries, Inverter & Converter!

April 2015 – For the past ten days we’ve been doing a total overhaul on our RV’s electrical power systems, and we’re really excited about the upgrades. Having installed several RV and boat solar and battery systems to date, both for ourselves and for friends, we’ve gone all out this time, researching, studying, and talking with the engineers at different companies to figure out which components will suit our needs best. Our upgrades include:

  • Trojan Reliant AGM batteries
  • Exeltech 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter
  • Iota 90 amp converter / multistage charger
Trojan Reliant AGM 6 volt battery

We’re getting new Trojan Reliant T105-AGM batteries!

NEW AGM BATTERIES

Since we live on solar and battery power in our RV 100% of the time, having a robust power plant on board makes all the difference. Back in 2008 when we first got our fifth wheel trailer, we asked the RV dealership to install four Trojan T-105 6 volt wet cell batteries for us. These were terrific and served us very well for quite a few years.

However, because we had to leave the trailer in storage for stretches of 12 to 20 months at a time when we cruised our sailboat in Mexico, they deteriorated because no one was there to do the routine maintenance they require.

Wet cell batteries are inexpensive, which is why we chose them at the outset of our RVing life. However, once we started living with higher quality AGM batteries on our sailboat, we found AGM batteries have many advantages over wet cells (our boat had four Mastervolt 4D AGM house batteries and one Mastervolt Group 27 AGM start battery). So we decided to upgrade our RV battery bank to AGM.

Much to our surprise, we managed to time this upgrade really well, because Trojan Battery has revamped, redesigned and re-engineered their AGM battery line completely, and their new Reliant AGM batteries have just hit the market in the last month.

Trojan Reliant AGM 6 volt battery

Our new batteries go into the fifth wheel basement.

The batteries we are installing are their new 6 volt AGM battery called the Trojan Reliant T105-AGM.

Trojan Battery has been at the forefront of battery engineering and technology for decades, and this new AGM version of their ultra popular T-105 6 volt wet cell batteries is a true deep cycle AGM battery, designed to deliver steady power and withstand deep discharging of 50% of the battery’s capacity day after day after day (we plan to discharge them 25%-30% or less each day).

Most AGM batteries are actually dual purpose, designed not only to provide long-term power and deep discharging, but also to pack a high cranking power punch that can get an engine started without discharging the battery much at all. Our boat’s AGM batteries were all dual purpose marine batteries, despite their enormous size.

Obviously, a battery designed specifically for repeated deep discharging is going to be superior as a house battery to one that is designed to be both a deep cycle house battery and a start battery. So these new Reliant AGM batteries should work really well in an RV (or boat!).

The list of advantages of AGM batteries over wet cells is considerable:

  • Maintenance free – no equalizing and no adding distilled water (great if the RV gets stored for months on end)
  • Discharge just 3% per month when they aren’t being used (also important for longer term RV storage)
  • Charge more quickly than wet cell batteries
  • No gasses released during charging, so no special venting is needed in the RV battery compartment
  • Can be installed on their sides or ends since there is no liquid that can spill out

Mark has been very busy revamping our fifth wheel basement battery compartment, and he is taking this opportunity to rewire it entirely, applying all the things we’ve learned in 8 years of living off the grid!

NEW and BIGGER INVERTER

At the same time as our battery upgrade, we also decided to upgrade our inverter. We have loved our Exeltech XP1100 Pure Sine Wave Inverter since we installed it in 2008.

Exeltech makes all the inverters used by NASA, and they supplied all the inverters to both the American and Russian sides of the International Space Station (the two sides run on different voltages and currents, so they need different inverters!).

Exeltech XP 1100 Inverter

Our old Exeltech XP 1100 pure sine wave inverter is getting replaced with the 2000 watt version

Exeltech XPX 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter

Our new Exeltech XPX 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter

The quality of the electrical signal produced by Exeltech inverters is so pure that they are used by field medical units to run sensitive medical equipment. One nice thing about living on inverter power exclusively is that we never have to contend with flakey RV park electricity, and we know our Exeltech inverter is giving us a great signal whenever we turn it on.

Our old Exeltech XP1100 inverter was too small, however. We have a 900 watt microwave, and 1100 watts of inverter power was shaving it just a little too close. A mishap last year made us realize we needed to go bigger. So we are installing an Exeltech XPX 2000 Pure Sine Wave Inverter that will give us 2000 watts of power.

NEW MULTI-STAGE CHARGING CONVERTER

Solar panels charge our batteries almost all the time, but once in a while we get stuck in overcast and stormy conditions for a while. After about 4 days of grey skies, we turn to our trusty Yamaha 2400i portable gas generator to bring our batteries back to full charge. When we run the generator, we plug the generator into our shore power input connector on the side of our trailer so the converter in the fifth wheel basement charges the batteries.

Our fifth wheel trailer came from the factory with an Atwood 32 amp converter which is a single stage battery charger. This is typical of converters installed in RVs. Rather than going through three stages of charging, these simple converters give the batteries a mere trickle charge at a low charging voltage.

RV manufacturers save on costs by installing basic single stage converters rather than robust multistage charging converters, and since most RVs are plugged into shore power all the time, it doesn’t matter if it takes 48 or 72 hours to charge the batteries completely.

Iota DLS-90 Converter

The Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 Converter does true multi-stage battery charging

Sperry Gardner Bender DSA 540A Clamp-On Volt - Amp Meter

Sperry stands behind their gear!

However, the only time our converter is charging our batteries is when we run our generator, and with that thing making noise and burning fuel, we want the batteries to be charged as quickly and efficiently as possible. We don’t want to trickle charge our batteries from the generator!

We are replacing our old converter with an Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 Converter which not only provides three stages of battery charging but will also put the batteries into a true bulk charge state when we first turn on the generator.

So, with all this wiring going on, we’ve been giving our trusty Sperry Clamp-on Amp/Volt Meter a good workout lately. And we’ve had a surprising experience with that little piece of gear.

We bought it back in 2010 when we were wiring up the solar power on our sailboat. But it died 10 days ago, right as we were starting our new RV power upgrade project. Of course, the warranty ran out a long time ago, but we called the company to see if there was anything they could do. We were shocked when they sent us out a replacement unit at no charge!

It is so rare these days for a company to stand behind its products like that, especially something small and inexpensive like a volt meter. Wow!

We’ll be posting much more detailed info about our electrical system upgrade once we’ve finished it all, so stay tuned!

For now, we’re extremely grateful to our good friend “Mr. G” who invited us to shoehorn our rig into his driveway in Sarasota, Florida, and make use of his workbench, tools and fabricating expertise as we tackle this exciting project.

Fifth wheel RV between houses in Sarasota Florida

A great spot to do a little upgrade work on our rolling home!

Want to learn more about all this, check out these informative posts:

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Sunny Side Up – Baby Sandhill Cranes Hatch in Sarasota FL

Sandhill cranes are common in Florida. Indeed, they are so common in the Sarasota area that there are roadsigns in quieter places away from town where they are known to congregate. After seeing the the magnificent flocks in Willcox, Arizona, a few months ago, I was hoping we might see some sandhill cranes up close during our stay in the Sunshine State.

Sandhill cranes hatching area in Sarasota Florida

Well, my wish to see some sandhill cranes “up close and personal” came true in spades in the last few days as we became witness to the most beautiful little slice of life and glimpse of Mother Nature’s wondrous works.

A pair of these enormous birds decided to ignore the roadsigns entirely and build a nest in a most unlikely spot, sandwiched between a Bob Evans restaurant and a Lowes home improvement store in a very busy part of the city next to a tiny pond filled with lily pads.

Sandhill Crane sitting on a nest

Mom takes a turn sitting on the nest (the parents share!)

The parents were attentive to all the traffic and city noise around them, but they were surprisingly calm.

Pair of Sandhill Cranes with a nest

Dad stands watch while Mom snoozes on the nest (with one eye open)

When Mom stood up, we saw two little eggs in the nest. She gently rolled them around and then settled back down on them.

Sandhill crane checks eggs in nest Sarasota Florida

Mom rolls her two eggs around for even baking on all sides. Both eggs have pip holes in them!!

Now, this is not only a very busy area, with locals and tourists driving by all the time, city sirens screaming in the distance, and a general urban hum of activity filling the air, but a flock of crazy photographers and birders had taken up residence right in front of the nest!

Photographers and birders watch the baby sandhill cranes

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When our friend and host first took us to the nest, we stuck around for a while to see if the eggs would hatch. No such luck. The sun began to set, and the babies were still in their eggs, so we took off.

When we returned the next morning, the photographers and birders will all in position with huge grins on their faces. The first egg had just hatched!

Sandhill crane with hatchling Sarasota Florida

The baby bird was a little unsteady, but for being just an hour old, he was doing amazingly well, sitting upright and looking around.

Florida sandhill crane chick in nest in Sarasota

Mama kept poking her head down to see how he was doing…

Newborn sandhill crane chick with mom

“I’m okay, Mom”

Sandhill crane chick looks mom in the eye

His little batteries were very small and needed lots of recharging. He’d look around for a few minutes and then he’d flop over and fall asleep.

Sandhill crane checks on sleeping check Sarasota Florida

While he was sleeping, Mom was eager for the other egg to hatch. She helped it a long a bit (we were all quite surprised!).

Sandhill crane helps chick hatch Sarasota Florida

Dad had been hanging out on the other side of the pond. He flew over to the nest and the two parents walked around the chick and the egg for a while.

Pair of sandhill cranes in Sarasota Florida with chick in nest

The baby slept right through Dad’s arrival.

It was amazing to look at these big birds and to think that they had been tiny little chicks once too.

Sarasota Florida a pair of sandhill cranes with chick and egg in nest

When the baby chick sat up again, the sound of camera shutters clicking filled the air as everyone holding a camera leaped into action, from the guys with the huge lenses and tripods to the growing crowd with cell phones.

Florida Sandhill crane chick sits up in nest_

This little guy will have a younger sister or brother really soon!

These chicks have enormous legs and feet, and the little chick tried to get them coordinated underneath himself to walk around. This was not so easy — he instantly lost his balance and fell over backwards!!

Sarasota Florida sandhill crane in nest falls over

Oops!!

Sandhill crane chick on its back in the nest

Oh dear!! Maybe the trick is to roll over…

Newly hatched sandhill crane chick just hours old

He finally got himself upright and situated over his two feet. This had taken a lot out of him. He looked around and let out a big yawn.

Just hatched sandhill crane chick 2 hours old sits up in nest

The audience of photographers were all chuckling at his antics by now. This little bird was just too cute!

“Who’s going to hand out the cigars when that other one hatches?” A guy behind me asked.

We all watched in wonder as this tiny creature that had been tucked into an egg just two hours ago made his way down to the water’s edge. Mom and Dad didn’t discourage him. They were busy eating his discarded egg shell and cleaning up!

Two hour old sandhill chick by pond in Florida

Two hours ago this guy was in an egg!!

It was late morning by now, and we both had hundreds of photos on our cameras. We decided to leave the scene and come back later to see if the other chick hatched.

When we returned later in the afternoon, the crowd of birders and photographers was even bigger, and we found out the second chick had emerged from his egg too. Mom was keeping a close eye on both of her new babies.

Female sandhill crane with two hatched chicks

The two little fluff balls sat side by side while we all said “aw” over and over as they fumbled around.

Sandhill crane nest Sarasota Florida 2 baby chicks

They managed to get themselves up on their feet and face each other, and the crowd gasped in laughing surprise as they began to spar a little and flap their wings.

Two sandhill crane chicks just hatched in Sarasota Florida nest

Mom poked her head in again to see what was going on with these two.

Mother sandhill crane with two babies in nest

All this excitement was a lot for a five hour old bird. The older one in front began yawning again.

Baby sandhill crane chick yawning in nest Sarasota Florida

Then he fell over on his side and crashed, fast asleep, while the other one looked around.

Sandhill crane chick napping in Sarasota Florida nest

After just a minute or two he woke up and sat back up again while the younger bird in back fell over on his side, fast asleep. This business of living takes a lot of energy for a little bird!

Pair of sandhill crane chick babies in nest in Sarasota Florida

The older in front couldn’t stay awake long either. All of a sudden he rolled over on his side and fell asleep too.

Newly hatched sandhill crane chicks nap in Sarasota Florida nest

We tip-toed away, and the other photographers began to wrap up their gear and head home too.

A little later in the day we snuck back to check on them, and the birds were on their own without an audience of people. They had moved about 100 feet from the nest to a new location in tall, protective grasses.

By the next morning, the whole little family was gone!

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The photos here were taken with a Nikon D610 camera and a Tamron 150-600 mm lens and a Benro carbon fiber tripod.

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Sharks and Snakes on the Beach in Florida!

We’ve been enjoying the Florida’s Emerald Coast (on the Gulf Coast in the panhandle) for the past few days. This coast got it’s name because of the brilliant green water that laps the shores of the exquisite white sand beaches. As each wave curls over, the crystal clear water shimmers in vivid shades of green.

Emerald waves on Florida's Emerald Coast

Glistening aquamarine waves on Florida’s Emerald Coast.

I love beaches, and perhaps my favorite thing about them is that you never know what you’ll see when you go out for a stroll on the sand… We’ve seen little birds scampering along the edges of the waves, playing “catch me if you can” with the endless rollers.

Twin seagulls on a white sand Florida beach

Twins.

We’ve seen happy beach-goers sunning themselves on beach towels and relaxing under colorful umbrellas.

Couple with beach umbrella on Gulf of Mexico Florida

A nice spot to sit for a spell…!

But these images are all to be expected when you go to the beach. What a surprise it was to look up at one point and see a guy barelling down the road next to the beach on a unicycle!

Unicycle commute to work in Florida beach

What a great way to commute!

Beautiful girls in bikinis walking the beach are not a surprise to see, especially during Spring Break. But our eyes bugged out when two girls approached us with something strange looped around their necks.

Two girls with snakes on Florida Gulf coast beach

Is that what I think it is??

Wait, can I see that a little closer?

Python and bikini

Yikes!!

Holy Cow!! I didn’t know what to say when they told me they were taking their snakes for a walk.

701 Boa constrictor and bikini

He stuck his tongue out at me!

The lighter colored snake was an albino red tail boa constrictor that was just seven months old and would one day be 12 feet long (yikes!). The darker one was a python that was already full grown. Good heavenly days!!

Another day when we went down to the beach for sunset shots we saw a guy out fishing.

Fishing on a Gulf of Mexico beach in Florida

A fisherman tries his luck on the shore.

He seemed to have something on the line. And it seemed pretty big! But what could be that big? “A manta ray,” was the rumor I heard from his friends who were watching. They had all seen a huge manta ray earlier in the day.

Catching a big fish on a Florida beach

Wow… it looks like he’s got something!

But then we all noticed that dinstinctive dorsal fin. This fish was NOT a manta ray…

Shark fin in the water in northern Florida

Ummm… is that what I think it is??

The fisherman struggled to reel it in!

Fisherman pullling in a shark on a Florida beach

That fish does NOT want to end up on the beach.

Then he finally managed to bring it onto the beach.

Wow!

Fisherman pulls shark onto Florida beach

Got him — and no doubt, this is a SHARK!!

He worked really hard to get the hook out of the shark’s mouth. It took him several tries…

Removing a fishing hook from a shark in Florida

Getting the hook out of his mouth was a challenge.

But then he finally got the hook out and turned the shark to face out towards the open ocean. He didn’t have a tape measure, but he estimated the shark was a little over 7 feet long. Good grief! Mark had been swimming out there just a few hours earlier!!

Releasing a shark back into the Gulf of Mexico Florida

He’s aimed towards the open ocean and set free again.

And then the sun began to set with beautiful peach colored skies reflecting in the wet sand — another lovely sighting here on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Sunset on the beach in Florida

The end of another beautiful day in Florida

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Interstate Rest Areas TX to FL – Not Just Any Pit Stop!

We spent the last few days zipping along the interstates from Texas to Florida, and one of the biggest surprises has been the impressive rest areas in these states. These aren’t just ordinary pit stops with yucky old bathrooms. These are scenic parks with entertainment for all ages!

We first took notice of these incredible motorist havens at the Navarro Rest Area on I-45 in Texas. The building was very stately, and the history exhibits inside were worthy of a museum. Heck, even the bathrooms were elegantly decorated with really nice tile!

Texas Rest Area building on I-10

Navarro Rest Area building on I-45 in Texas

Outside there was a fantastic playground for kids that would make any community or school jealous. Further south on I-45, the Walker County Rest Area had an equally impressive playground (gotta give those kids a REST!). Inside, the history exhibits told the whole history of Texas.

Texas Interstate Rest Area Playground and picnic area

Mom and dad can relax after driving while the kids burn off some energy.

History exhibits in a Texas rest area on I-10

Go inside a rest area building and find — a museum exhibit featuring Sam Houston!

Behind the grand rest area building there was a beautiful pond!

Nature walk and pond in Texas

A pretty pond…at a rest area?!

Texas isn’t the only state with impressive rest areas. Driving east on I-10, an early morning stop at the Vinton rest area in Louisiana proved to be a fabulous opportunity for taking photos. It was located next to a large pond, and morning mist hovered in the air like a thick blanket.

Morning mist in a Louisiana rest area on I-10

Morning mist rises at the Vinton Rest Area in Louisiana.

A local fisherman suddenly showed up and began casting his line. Who knew a freeway rest area could double as a local fishing hole?!

Fisherman at Vinton Welcome Center in Louisiana

Locals come to this rest area to fish!

Louisiana is the beginning of alligator country for eastbound travelers. When we saw a warning sign at this rest area, we knew we had left the west far behind!

Alligator sign

Beware of alligators!

What a surprise it was later to find that this rest areas (which is technically a “Welcome Center”) has reviews on TripAdvisor!!

When we arrived in Mississippi we stopped at their first rest area and were given an incredibly warm southern welcome. I was offered a cup of coffee by some very lovely ladies at least five times! Outside, the flowering trees were in glorious bloom.

Welcome to Mississippi

Welcome to Mississippi Rest Area on I-10

Mississippi Rest Area and Welcome Center

Some of these rest areas make good overnight stops. Several were laid out like campgrounds with spacious individual sites for the weary, and a few had RV dump stations too. All had free wifi.

Mississippi Welcome Center rest area on I-10

A truly restful rest area at the Mississippi Welcome Center.

This “supersizing” of rest areas seems to be spreading east from Texas, and apparently Alabama is making every effort to keep up with its neighbors. When we got to their rest area it was closed for renovation — and the project looked immense!

We finally arrived in the Sunshine State yesterday, and Florida lived up to her motto and gave us blue skies. She also lived up to her reputation as a vacation destination when we walked into the building to find a party atmosphere. We were each handed a cup of cold Florida orange juice, and we found ourselves surrounded by families with kids. All of them seemed to be headed to Disney or the beach. There were props for photo ops with astronauts and beach scenes, and there were displays and games galore.

Greetings from Florida

I-10 travelers get into the vacation spirit at Florida’s rest areas!

We noticed one family messing with a video display, and suddenly realized they were getting a pic of themselves overlaid on a Florida backdrop that they could email or share on Facebook right from there. It was a selfie photo station!!

We had to try it too! We chose the sand castle backdrop with the bucket of water spilling on our heads. We hit the button for the pic, and then entered our email address. Bingo — it emailed us a Florida vacation brag pic!

My Florida Vacation selfie photo visitflorida.com

A Florida selfie courtesy of…an I-10 rest area!

Mark found the “Florida Recharging Station,” a bright yellow beach chair to get you in the mood for sunshine and beaches.

Florida welcome center recharging station

Mark checks out the “Florida Recharging Station”

By the time we left that Florida I-10 rest area we felt like we were on vacation!

We drove straight to the beach on the Emerald Coast, past all the surf shops and spring breakers at the bars. It sure didn’t take long for us to get into the swing of things on the beach, what with happy kids and grownups playing in the waves all around us, and savvy seagulls eyeing us up for snacks.

Seagulls at Pensacola Beach Florida

At the beach we are greeted by Florida’s REAL welcoming committee!!

We kicked off our shoes, and took a walk in the pure white sand next to the crashing surf. Wow! It felt so great to be in shorts again!!

On the beach in Florida

Ahhh… Florida! This is the best kind of rest area!

It was a long drive, the weather in Texas took us from freezing to dripping wet, and the terrible roads in Louisiana sent us flying (truly, the rig was airborne at one point!), but the southern hospitality at the rest areas helped us recover, and the sunrise this morning was totally worth it!!

Sunrise at a Florida beach

Florida sunrise.

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Casita Travel Trailers – Lots of RV in a Tiny Package

We have always admired the little travel trailers made by Casita, and two days ago, while buzzing down the freeway between Dallas and Houston, we both did a double-take when we saw a slew of them lined up on the side of the road. A huge sign above them said “Casita Travel Trailers.”

We had no idea these wonderful trailers were made in Texas! What a perfect opportunity to check them out and get a factory tour.

Casita Travel Trailers

Look! It’s Casita Travel Trailers!!

We turned our buggy around and somehow squeezed it into their front lot (which is just the right size for Casitas), and jumped out to prowl around the lot. There were dozens of brand new Casitas lined up, and each one had an owner’s name printed on a window sticker.

Casita travel trailer on the dealer lot

These are very solid and well made little trailers.

When we poked our heads in the door of the building, there was a flurry of activity going on inside. At least three couples were walking in and out of the four trailers on the showroom floor, and several sales people were in cubicles along the walls, filling out order forms and finalizing the paperwork for trailers being picked up. These things are Popular!!

Casita Travel Trailers front door

Casita Travel Trailers World Headquarters

“Feel free to look around,” a saleswoman named Carla told us. “I can give you a factory tour in a few minutes after I sign off the paperwork for a couple that just came in to pick up their new Casita.”

Casita trailer showroom

There were four trailers on the showroom floor, and we admired every one!

Casitas are sweet little trailers that are extremely well built. They range from 13′ to 17′ in exterior length end-to-end. “Our 13′ model gets the most inquiries,” she said, “but most people end up buying the 17′ model.”

17 foot Casita Trailer interior

The Freedom model has two captains chairs

There are four interior plans for the 16′ and 17′ models, and several have a king bed option! The Freedom model has two captains chairs and looked really inviting. “That model gets a lot of interest,” Carla told us when she joined us a few minutes later, “But most people end up buying a different floorplan because those chairs are a little impractical.” I sure liked her straight forward approach!

17 foot Casita Freedom Travel Trailer

Some models have furniture that folds into a king size bed!

There are lots of other options for these trailers too, including fresh water tanks as big as 25 gallons, a microwave, and a furnace. Virtually all Casitas are special ordered by the buyers who will be using them. Winter is the slow season, Carla told us, but they keep building trailers even when orders slide. Some winters they end up with four or five trailers that weren’t special ordered, but they’re always gone by spring!

Prices for new Casitas range from around $14k to $20k.

Casita Travel Trailer kitchen

The kitchen is small, but it has all the things you need to make a good meal.

Casita doesn’t have a dealer network. Instead, they have a dealership in the front of their building, where all the selling is done, and they have a factory out back where everything is made. “We build 14 Casitas a week,” Carla told us, “and it takes about two weeks to build one from start to finish.” That means there are about 30 on the line at any one time.

Casita Travel Trailer at the factory

A brand new Casita peeks out of a bay at the factory.

Out back, the factory was absolutely humming. Most of the employees have been with the company for at least 10 years, and since the company’s founding 25 years ago, Casitas have grown ever more popular. We couldn’t take any pics in the factory, but it was a great scene. Trailers surrounded us on all sides, each in various stages of completion. They are rolled by hand from station to station down the line! Outside a small tractor wheels them around with ease.

Casita travel trailer being towed by a tractor

Casitas are pretty easy to maneuver around the lot!

The top and bottom of each trailer is a molded fiberglass shell, and the two halves are joined with a bonded seal that is fiberglassed in, much the same way as our sailboat was constructed. The final testing stage was most impressive. Each Casita takes a 30 minute shower at full blast while a technician checks every square inch inside for leaks. They had shower nozzles aimed at each window and the door as well as the roof. How amazing to watch a Casita getting totally drenched by a virtual hurricane!

Casita Travel Trailers lined up at the factory

A storehouse full of future camping memories!

Folks sometimes ask us how to “test drive” the RV lifestyle. Without a doubt, the best way is to get a small rig and go do some camping. Our first RV was a popup tent trailer.

The Casita is a wonderful first RV, because it is a very well built trailer that has all the functionality of bigger rigs, but doesn’t require a big truck to tow it (they weigh about 2,500 lbs) and doesn’t require a lot of space to store.

Couple a Casita trailer with a portable solar power kit and you can learn all about boondocking and your rig will fit comfortably into any campsite anywhere! When you’re ready to upgrade, these popular RVs undoubtedly hold their value better than most.

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