Spring in Sarasota FL + Bryce Canyon’s Night Skies – in Trailer Life

We are very proud to announce that the March 2017 issue of Trailer Life Magazine features our article about beautiful Sarasota, Florida, plus a back page column about hiking Bryce Canyon National Park under the stars.

Sarasota's Three-Ring Circus Trailer Life Magazine

Trailer Life Magazine, March 2017
Text by Emily Fagan, Photos by Emily & Mark Fagan

Sarasota, Florida, is a fabulous place to visit in April, and we enjoyed five wonderful weeks there. For RVers that are heading north these days from the hotter parts of southern Florida, a stopover in Sarasota is a true delight.

Venice Beach Sarasota Florida

Venice Beach just south of Sarasota, Florida.

We have been fortunate to visit tropical beaches all over the world, most recently in Thailand but also in many parts of southern Mexico, Hawaii and the Caribbean. Frankly, not one of them has sand that is quite as pure white and fluffy soft as Siesta Beach in Sarasota. It is the texture of confectioner’s sugar! And the turquoise water is ever so inviting too.

Siesta Beach Sarasota Florida

Siesta Beach — Where the sand is like confectioner’s sugar!

But what surprised us was the many other things Sarasota has to offer. A century ago it was just a small fishing village, but the Ringling Brothers decided to settle in the town and make it the home base for their circus, and that changed it forever.

The Ringling mansion Sarasota Florida

The Ringling – Former home of the founders of the circus

Now, The Ringling is a fabulous museum that offers so much for tourists to see that you can get a three day pass — and you need it if you want to see it all.

Ringling Mansion Ca-Dzan Sarasota Florida copy

Ornamentation galore!

The Ringling estate’s mansion is a phenomenal building that is loaded with decorative arches, fanciful cornices, and an altogether fairy tale type of air.

Tourists at The Ringling mansion Sarasota Florida

The Ringling is a “do not miss” Sarasota excursion!

Out front there is a fabulous and enormous rock tile deck that looks out on Sarasota Bay. Standing there I tried to imagine what it was like back in the day when John and Mabel Ringling held parties there. Oh my!

Tile deck at The Ringling mansion Sarasota Florida

Even the deck is absolutely stunning, with inlaid colorful stone tiles.

The Ringling also has a museum that houses the stunning collection of European art that John Ringling collected. Mondays are “free admission day,” and when we got inside we were blown away by this immense art collection.

The Ringling Art Museum Sarasota Florida

The Ringling art museum is free on Mondays and is home to a stunning collection of European masters.

Out back there is a rose garden that was the pride and joy of Mabel Ringling as well as a gargantuan banyan tree.

Banyan tree The Ringling gardens Sarasota Florida

Out back we found a massive banyan tree shading a very cool bar!

Sarasota is one place where it would take a whole season of outings to run out of things to do. One excursion we really enjoyed was going to Jungle Gardens.

This is a zoo of sorts whose welcoming committee is a flock of pink flamingos who go out of their way to say, “Hello!”

Flamingo and photographer Jungle Gardens Sarasota Florida

At Jungle Gardens they hire pink flamingos to be the greeters!

They are extremely friendly birds, and even though they had plenty of natural spaces to stand around and do their flamingo thing in the water and under the tropical trees, one flamingo took a particular liking to Mark and rubbed his beak all over him!

Flamingo Jungle Gardens Sarasota Florida

True love… for the flamingo at least!

Jungle Gardens also has a wonderful bird show, and we were delighted by the antics of the various parrots. One parrot, a 79 year old cockatoo named Snowflake, was a seasoned professional when it came to performing. He was so old that he had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show before I was born!

He can still do great tricks, though, and we watched him ride a bike on a tightrope while a buddy macaw perched on a swing and went for a free ride below him.

Snowflake rides a unicycle with Andy riding underneath copy

Snowflake’s still got it at 79 years old!

There are lots of parks in the Sarasota area, and we got a huge kick out of watching native birds fishing, swimming and flying by us in some of these parks.

Great Blue Heron Sarasota Florida

The native wild birds are a sight to behold in many parks around town.

Sandhill cranes like Sarasota as much as people do, and to our utter delight and complete surprise, a pair of sandhill cranes had a nest with two eggs near a pond at a strip mall.

Sandhill crane with chick in nest Sarasota Florida

A sandhilll crane mom checks on her brand new chick.

On the day that they were due to hatch a large group of fascinated birders and photographers gathered near the nest and began to watch the arrival of the baby chicks through huge telephoto lenses and binoculars.

Sandhill chick and egg in nest Sarasota Florida

“Yawn…It was a lot of work getting out of that egg!”

This little guy was absolutely adorable.

Sandhill crane with chick in nest Sarasota Florida


And the first little one was soon joined by its sibling while the parents pushed the egg shells aside.

Two sandhill cranes in nest Sarasota Florida

“Are you my brother?!”

Sarasota has lots of quirky charm, and there is a mascot that adorns many homes and businesses around town. Nicknamed the Tube Dude, this guy can be seen holding a toothbrush in front of the dentist’s office, wearing a baker’s hat in front of the bakery and sitting in a Kayak at the local surf and kayak shop. What fun!

The Tube Dude in Sarasota Florida

The Tube Dude at a coffee shop with a water bowl for his dog.

Trailer Life has posted our article on their website and you can read it here:

Sarasota’s Three-Ring Circus – Trailer Life Magazine, March 2017

Flipping to the back of the March issue, there is a photo of a wonderfully starry night taken from the Mossy Cove trail at Bryce Canyon National Park. We spent quite a bit of time at Bryce Canyon last summer, which gave us a chance to get out on the trails in the dark several times.

Stars over Fairytale Canyon Bryce Canyon National Park

Hiking Bryce Canyon under the stars is very rewarding.

It is a little eerie hiking in the pitch dark with a flashlight, but we managed not to fall over the edge and we saw some really cool skies.

Fairy Tale Canyon Bryce Canyon National Park Night Stars


Bryce Canyon doesn’t have super dark skies, so there is always a big of a glow on the horizon from nearby towns, but even so, the stars jumped out of the heavens.

Fairy Tale Hike Bryce Canyon National Park Night Stars

We ventured out into Fairytale Canyon

We were there fairly late in the season, in September, so catching the Milky Way was a little tricky as we had to get out into Bryce Canyon’s amphitheater of hoodoos in order to look back up towards the rim to see it. But we caught it sailing across the sky on several occaisions between 3:00 and 5:30 in the morning.

Milky Way Bryce Canyon National Park Fairytale Canyon

The Milky Way is easiest to see in late spring and early summer.

Milky Way and tree silhouette Bryce Canyon National Park


Milky Way Bryce Canyon National Park


Of course, we stayed out so long on these crazy midnight hikes that by the time we got back to our trailer the morning sky was just beginning to lighten into rich shades of blue. And sure enough, there was the Orion constellation hanging over our rig!

Orion constellation over RV Utah

Orion sails high above our trailer.

Trailer Life is an excellent magazine, and we were subscribers for years before we became writers and photographers for them. Whether you are a new RVer or have many years under your belt, if you own a towable RV like we do, you might enjoy subscribing for a year. You can subscribe to Trailer Life here:

Trailer Life Subscription

It’s not expensive, and what I like is that it is professionally edited by terrific editors and it is professionally laid out by a graphic artist which gives it a polish in the print edition that just doesn’t exist online, whether on magazine websites or on folksy blogs like this one.

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Interested in visiting Sarasota? Here are our blog posts from our stay there:

More Blog Posts from Florida

Curious about Bryce Canyon and/or Hiking Under the Stars? Check out these posts:

Night Skies in Waterton Lakes + All Night Timelapse of the Milky Way07/31/16

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    Trailer Life Articles by Emily & Mark Fagan

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    Jungle Gardens in Sarasota Florida – It’s for the Birds!

    April, 2015 – A vacation to Florida wouldn’t be complete without a trip to a tropical garden with exotic birds, and even though we weren’t exactly “on vacation” (well, maybe this was a “vacation from our vacation” ??), during our stay in Sarasota we just had to go to Jungle Gardens.

    Zoo trips to kiddie parks may seem to be all alike and not really appropriate for the 50+ set if you don’t have grandkids in tow, but this place held some special treats for us. When we arrived, we were greeted by a beautiful albino peacock who looked like a princess ballerina emerging from the bushes.

    Peacock ballerina princess at Jungle Gardens Sarasota Florida

    A ballerina princess makes “her” entrance from the bushes

    The flamingos were nearby, walking all around us, and we watched them vie with the seagulls for the free food handouts that people were grabbing from little dispensers around the grounds.

    Flamingos and seagull at Jungle Gardens

    The food is for the flamingos but the seagulls don’t miss a trick.

    I’d never stood next to a flamingo before, and I was quite surprised — these guys are really tall!

    Flamingo with me at Jungle Gardens Sarasota Florida

    Seeing eye to eye.

    One came over and suddenly became very interested in Mark’s shoes.

    Curious flamingo inspects shoes

    “What’s that on your shoe?”

    I looked away, and when I looked again, Mark had squatted down to take some photos and this flamingo had marched right over to him and was resting his chin on Mark’s head!

    Flamingo checks out a hat

    “Can I climb on you?”

    Then this big pink creature got really interested in something on Mark’s neck.

    Flamingo really likes hat

    “You’ve got something yummy on your neck…”

    Mark turned towards him, and he just kept on poking around, rubbing his beak all over Mark’s back. Crazy bird!!

    Crazy flamingo

    What’s he looking for anyway?!

    These curious flamingos kept us occupied for quite some time, but we finally moved on to check out some of the other exotics in the park. There was an iguana…

    Iguana face up close at Jungle Gardens in Sarasota Florida

    A face only a mother could love.

    …and an allligator pen nearby.

    Alligator tank at Jungle Gardens Sarasota Florida

    Wait til these guys grow up!

    This is a “garden” and we saw some lovely plants. I especially liked the red and green leaves on a bush Mark found.

    Jungle Leaves in the Garden

    Despite all these animals, it is a Garden, after all!

    But it was the birds that charmed us the most. There is a big group of parrots at Jungle Gardens, and they come in all colors, from light blue to bright orange.

    Ring Neck Parakeet and Conure at Jungle Gardens Sarasota Florida

    Pretty colors: a ring neck parakeet and a conure.

    Some colors are even “made up” like this hybrid of a green wing macaw (which is red and green) and a blue and gold macaw (which is blue and yellow). The result — orange and green and blue!

    Hybrid Macaw at Jungle Gardens Sarasota Florida

    What do you get when you cross red and green and blue and yellow?

    But my favorite parrot of all is Snowflake. He’s a greater sulphur crested cockatoo that is 79 years old. And if you look at him closely, you can’t tell that he’s a day over 3. He’s in perfect shape.

    Greater sulphur crested cockatoo Snowflake at Jungle Gardens in Sarasota Florida

    The star of the show — at 79.

    There’s a very fun bird show at Jungle Gardens, and we watched two Macaws, Andy and Cracker, doing the ring toss.

    Two green wing macaws do ring toss at Jungle Gardens in Sarasota Florida

    Cracker and Andy do the ring toss while a buddy looks on.

    Then the trainer introduced Snowflake to do his tricks. We were amazed when she told us he had performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. He rode a unicycle on TV for Ed Sullivan — and he did the same trick for us! One of the macaws got a ride on a swing underneath him as he pedaled across a tightrope. How cool is that?! He’s been performing every day for decades. What a champ!

    Snowflake rides a unicycle with Andy riding underneath

    Snowflake takes a buddy for a ride.

    Afterwards all the kids lined up to get their photos taken with the birds of their choice on their heads and arms.

    Little boy with two macaws on his head and arms


    I was the only person over 10 standing in line to get my pic taken with a bird on my arm, but Mark nudged me and said he’d take a photo of me with Snowflake. My day was made!!

    Snowflake at Jungle Gardens Sarasota Florida

    Holding a 79 year old bird makes me feel like a kid!

    Going to Jungle Gardens with kids or grandkids is probably the best way to do it, but if you don’t have any to take with you, it’s still a blast to go and be a kid yourself for a little while…

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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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    Sarasota, Florida – Life on the Waterfront

    April, 2015 – Sarasota, Florida, is a oceanfront city, and The Ringling is an exquisite spot to enjoy Sarasota’s shores. During our stay, we soon discovered that this pretty city has lots of other wonderful public places on the waterfront, too.

    Beautiful colors at Venice Beach Florida

    Sarasota’s waterfront is sweet.

    Centennial Park is an older waterfront park, but the views across the water of the city skyline are lovely.

    Couple on Sarasota Florida waterfront

    Looking out on the bay from Sarasota’s Centennial Park

    Boats seen from Centennial Park Sarasota Florida

    Views from Centennial Park

    At one end of Centennial Park, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall backs right up to the shoreline, and it has a deck where we were told theater goers can enjoy a snack with a view at intermission. How fun!

    Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Sarasota Florida

    The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is located right on the bay — a nice spot for drinks at intermission!

    Sarasota is perhaps most famous for its divine sugar sand beach called Siesta Beach. I don’t know if I was more enchanted by the powdery soft sand or the vivid colors of the beach umbrellas and the turquoise water — it was all gorgeous.

    We learned that Siesta Beach was rated the #1 beach in America in 2011, and there are lots of proud “#1 Beach” signs all around town. Interestingly, Siesta Beach was followed closely by Coronado Beach in San Diego…another beauty!

    Beach umbrellas Siesta Beach Sarasota Florida

    Siesta Beach — #1 American Beach in 2011

    Marina Jack is the downtown waterfront area in Sarasota, and we were surprised to find another connection to San Diego when we saw the enormous sculpture “Unconditional Surrender.” We discovered that both sculptures were created by artist Seward Johnson and that the one in Sarasota was constructed first, back in 2005!.

    Undonditional Surrender WWII sculpture Sarasota Florida

    “Unconditional Surrender”
    A sister-sculpture to the one in San Diego.

    Marina Jack is a large marina with lots of boats of all sizes. Next to it there’s a lovely little walking path that goes around a peninsula called the Marina Jack Trail.

    Marina Jack walking path Sarasota Florida

    Views from the Marina Jack Trail in downtown Sarasota

    A little dinghy pulled up on shore made a perfect photo op. We took turns with some other people getting portraits of each other perched on the dink with pretty Sarasota Bay in the background.

    Marina Jack walking path Sarasota Florida

    Pausing for a photo op on Marina Jack Trail downtown

    A few streets back from the waterfront we enjoyed a wonderful farmer’s market one Saturday morning. This was a sizable market with lots of fresh and beautiful veggies and other goodies.

    Farmer's Market Sarasota Florida

    The Saturday Farmer’s Market is just a few streets in from the water.

    On another day we drove a little south of Sarasota to Venice where we found yet another wonderful beach. Of course this whole coast is loaded with great beaches, but when we got to Venice Beach it seemed like the population of the whole coast had decided to join us there! And how funny to find another California connection in the name “Venice Beach.”

    Picnic areas Venice Beach Florida

    Picnic areas on the boardwalks in Venice

    The beach in Venice has some unique picnic areas that are built into wooden walkways so you are slightly elevated above the vegetation. We hadn’t brought a picnic, but many of these little picnic spots were in use by knowledgeable locals who had staked them out for the day.

    Venice Fishing Pier Florida

    The Venice Fishing Pier

    The Venice Fishing Pier extends well out into the ocean and is popular with fishermen.

    Fisherman on Venice FIshing Pier Florida

    Gone fishing…

    It’s also a great vantage point for getting a look at this super popular beach. On one side of the pier the beach was overflowing with crowds of sun worshippers.

    Sunbathers at Venice Beach Florida

    The beach scene on one side of the Venice Fishing Pier…

    Due to construction going on at the pier, looking over the rail at the stretch of beach on the other side, we saw crowds of another sort…

    Seagulls at Venice Beach Florida

    …The beach scene on the other side of the Venice Fishing Pier!

    Sarasota has freshwater waterfronts too. Payne Park is a tiny downtown city park with some small man-made ponds that have lovely water lilies and a lively collection of unusual birds floating around.


    Sarasota has fresh water shores too

    A few miles east of there, the Celery Fields park has some wonderful fresh water birding habitats for long legged herons and egrets.

    Heron flying over water

    A heron flies in at the Celery Fields

    Heron walking in water_

    Stalking dinner in the shallows

    Sandhill cranes are very common in Sarasota (as we found out when we saw some adorable hatchlings) and they are much beloved by birding enthusiasts. Someone had even built them a park bench to sit on, although we didn’t see any sandhill cranes using it.

    Sandhill crane park bench

    A park bench just for sandhill cranes…

    The purple martin boxes were definitely getting lots of use, however, and we watched a pair of them hanging out on their front stoop.

    Pair of birds on Purple Martin box_

    Home Tweet Home

    Nearby, a little ground squirrel had grabbed a discarded piece of bread and he’d run away with it to the safety of a tree branch.

    Squirrel eating bread in yellow flowers

    Sarasota has lots of wildlife…and most of them have street smarts!

    There are dozens more waterfront spots and there’s lots more wildlife to be seen in and around Sarasota, but these are a few of the glimpses we got during our visit there…

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    The Ringling – The Art of the Circus in Sarasota, Florida

    April, 2015 – We made our way from Pensacola Beach to Sarasota, Florida, with two big missions on our minds: first, to overhaul the electrical system on our RV and second, for me to zip off to New England for a family reunion. But during our stay in the pretty beach town of Sarasota we squeezed in a little sightseeing and discovered some wonderful gems.

    John and Mable Ringling Mansion Sarasota Florida

    “The Ringling” in Sarasota is an impressive estate that once belonged to the founder of Ringling Brothers’ Circus.

    Who knew that Sarasota’s roots are intertwined with the circus?? Back at the turn of the twentieth century, Sarasota became home to John Ringling, the sixth of seven Ringling Brothers, five of whom founded the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1884. Drawn to the small fishing village of Sarasota in 1911, John began using his immense circus fortune to buy up real estate. At one time he and his brother Charles owned 25% of Sarasota.

    Ringling Museum entrance Sarasota Florida

    Entrance to The Ringling

    John was the advance man for the circus, handling bookings and promotion, but he was a savvy invester as well. His holdings were very diverse and included things like railroads and Madison Square Garden. A lover of European art, he also invested heavily in artwork from the middle ages through the 19th century.

    Entrance to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Sarasota Florida

    One ring circus.

    When he died in 1936, despite having seen his fortune crumble in the face of the Great Depression, his massive ornate waterfront estate and his sumptuous art collection were both still intact, and he bequeathed the whole lot to the State of Florida.

    Artwork on the walls of the Ringling Museum of Art

    The Ringling Museum of Art is a world class collection of European art covering 600 years.

    Today, the mansion and art museum and beautifully landscaped grounds make for a fabulous tour. Upon entering the Ringling Museum of Art, we were blown away to see a room full of massive paintings by the Flemish Baroque master of the 16th and 17th centuries, Peter Paul Rubens.

    Inside the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Sarasota Florida

    From massive wall-size paintings to miniatures, every era of European art up to
    the 1900’s is well represented.

    Astonishingly, that is just s smattering of the immense collection of Ringling artwork which spans all of European artistic development from the middle ages through the 1800’s. What’s best is that the art museum is open to the public for free on Mondays.

    Ringling Art Museum Courtyard Sarasota Florida

    The grand courtyard of The Ringling Museum of Art.

    The grounds of the entire Ringling estate are beautifully kept, and the courtyard behind the Museum of Art is sensational. An enormous, pillared courtyard surrounds a formal garden that is filled with statues.

    Ringling Museum Courtyard Sarasota Florida

    Statues grace the rooftops and the gardens.

    Above the rows of arches lining the courtyard, there are legions of statues on the rooftop cornices as well.

    08 431 Garden statues Ringling Art Museum Courtyard Sarasota FLorida

    At one end a bronze replica of Michaelangelo’s statue of David presides over the gardens, surrounded by palm trees.

    Replica of Michaelangelo David statue Ringling Museum

    John Ringling commissioned a bronze replica of Michaelangelo’s David — to stand between palm trees!

    Up on top of the helmeted head of one of the statues, a little songbird sang his heart out for us, filling the air with his melodious warbles.

    Singing bird on statue in Ringling Art Museum Courtyard

    A little songbird warbled a beautiful melody for us.

    Awestruck by the immense scale of this personal collection of art, and trying to imagine what life was like as a circus tycoon a century ago, we were delighted to find a more down-to-earth treasure hidden between the wide banyon trees of the estate. A huge mulberry bush was covered from head to toe in delicious, ripe mulberries. This bush — or tree — was so huge that we could climb inside under its thick branches. There were enough berries in there to feed an army, and we feasted on them for quite some time!!

    Eating mulberries in Florida

    In between the huge banyan trees we found a massive mulberry bush filled with ripe mulberries!

    The huge John and Mable Ringling Mansion is now a museum as well. A very long line of people was waiting outside to get tickets to see the interior rooms of the mansion, but we contented ourselves with wandering around the grounds. The mansion is called Cà D’Zan, which is said to be a Venetian dialect for “House of John.” It is also thought to mean “House of Zany,” and since “Zany” means “clownish,” it is also fitting. John Ringling’s first role with the circus was as a clown.

    Ringling Mansion Ca-Dzan Sarasota Florida

    These windows of the Ringling mansion look out onto the bay.

    Ringling mansion and museum Sarasota Florida

    Ornate windows in the Ringling mansion.

    Ringling mansion and museum Sarasota Florida-2

    What a place to spend the winter!

    Ca-dzan Ringling Mansion Sarasota Florida

    “Cà D’Zan” (“House of John”) is the name Ringling gave his unique winter bungalow.

    The vast marble patio stretches on three sides of the house towards the water, and there is a huge boat dock right out front.

    Marble patio Ringling Mansion Sarasota Florida

    Colorful marble tiles stretch across the expansive patio.

    There are several other museums on the Ringling estate, including a Circus Museum, and it is possible to get a discounted three day pass to see all the museums at leisure. We decided to save that in depth look at The Ringling for another visit, but we were enchanted when we met a longtime Sarasota resident who gave this unusual Sarasota circus connection a personal touch.

    Ringling R insignia on metal gate

    The Ringling “R” over a gate.

    She remembered when the circus train would arrive in Sarasota for their winter break in the early 1950’s and depart again in the spring. Everyone from town would run down to wave at the performers who lived on the 100 car train during the touring season. She also remembered when a group of midgets lived in a nearby neighborhood of miniature homes. Many of the midgets had been cast as Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz in 1939.

    How cool is that?!

    Added later: Thanks to a heads up from reader Richard Daugherty, here is a YouTube video of child prodigy singer Jackie Evancho performing at the Ringling Museum of Art when she was 11. Check this out!!


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    Gulf Islands National Seashore – Florida’s Emerald Coast!

    March, 2015 — After a wonderful visit at the Escapees RV Club headquarters in Livingston, Texas, we huslted east on I-10, enjoying several really fun stops at the interstate rest areas along the way. We had endured more rain and crummy weather in the last few weeks in Texas than we had experienced anywhere in years, so the gorgeous sunshine that greeted us in Florida was especially welcome.

    Dawn on Pensacola Beach in Florida

    The beach at dawn — bliss!

    Pensacola Beach and the Gulf Island National Seashore on Florida’s Emerald Coast are just gorgeous, with white sand and water the color of jade stretching for miles and miles.

    Girl plays on Pensacola Beach in Florida

    Pink bathing suits, sand castles and aquamarine water — what could be better?

    We were told that we had arrived on the first really great days of the season, and everyone was out enjoying the beautiful weather. It was spring break, and kids were everywhere, playing frisbee, suntanning, flirthing and hanging out.

    Kids play ball on Pensacola Beach in Florida

    Play ball! Spring break in Florida!

    Even the seagulls seemed to be getting into the playful spirit.

    Seagull flies over Pensacola Beach in Florida

    Checking out the beach scene from above!

    Seagulls on the beach in Florida

    “It wasn’t us!”

    There is a paved path that goes along the Gulf Islands National Seashore for miles and miles, and we took our bikes out for a spin along the coast.

    Riding bicycle on Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida

    There are many miles of paved bike paths along the Gulf Island National Seashore.

    The paved bike path parallels the Gulf Island National Seashore road, so you can walk, run, bike, drive or ride a motorcycle along this beautiful scenic drive.

    Bicycle on white sand Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida

    It’s like biking in a sugar bowl!

    The sand in this part of Florida is blindingly white and sugary soft. Birds and other creatures leave tracks all over the place. We saw the tiny footprints of little sandpipers, the webbed tracings from gulls, and the huge footprints left by large herons.

    Bird tracks in white sand Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida

    Little birds leave tracks of all kinds in the sand.

    And we also saw the birds themselves…

    Seagull Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida


    But it was the color of the water that just plain knocked us out. Wow!!

    Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida

    The Gulf Islands National Seashore on the Emerald Coast

    There were loads of pretty seashells too.

    Seashells in white sand Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida

    Pretty seashells were strewn about.

    This was all such a delight and such a huge change after the vast, inland landscapes of Big Bend Texas and the piney woods in east Texas. We were loving being on the coast again.

    Happy Campers on the Florida Gulf Islands National Seashore

    Happy campers!

    As we were riding back from the Gulf Islands National Seashore to Pensacola Beach, we came across an outdoor bar in front of a resort. The bar tender had blenders lined up to make yummy frozen drinks. What a place!

    Outdoor bar Pensacola Beach Florida

    This is the land of Vacations and Parties!!

    This whole area is totally geared towards tourists and beach life, and it was so great to change gears completely and get swept up into beach vacation mode.

    Hot crabs and cold beer sign Florida

    Get it here…!

    Windsurfing on Pensacola Beach Florida

    We were told we’d arrived on the first real beach day of the season.

    Little girl on the beach in Florida

    Is there anything better than a sunny day on the beach?

    We breathed deep, walked the beach, and unwound for a few days.

    Pink lilly flowers

    I love the beach because there is always something going on, and sure enough, one day when we went to the beach we watched a fisherman reel in a shark, then two young gals in bikinis walked by with large snakes wrapped around their necks!

    Colorful umbrella on Florida beach

    The sunshine and colors were a true feast for the eyes after all that rain in Texas.

    The funny cries of the laughing gulls filled the air and the sunsets and sunrises were exquisite.

    Seagulls flying over people on Florida beach

    Even the gulls were having a good time.

    Seagull flying into camera

    These guys laugh and laugh and laugh.

    It had been a long hike to get from Texas to Florida, but we both agreed these wonderful beach days were well worth the drive!

    Sunset at Pensacola Beach Florida

    The colors at sunset and sunrise were beautiful.

    RV at sunset

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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


    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


    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!


    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


    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


    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.


    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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    Florida Panhandle – Emerald Coast Gems

    RV blog post - Apalachicola is cute, St. George island has seashells & critters, but the Gulf Islands Nat'l Seashore's sugar sand beaches & emerald water rule.

    Apalachicola oyster boats

    Apalachicola Florida Sponge Museum

    The Apalachicola Sponge Museum

    Apalachicola Florida Sponge Museum

    Inside the Sponge Museum - lots of cool antiques

    Storefronts in Apalachicola Florida

    Storefronts in Apalachicola

    St. George Island State Park Forgotten Coast

    St. George Island offers a quiet bay and beaches.

    St. George Island State Park Forgotten Coast St. George Island State Park Forgotten Coast

    This guy sunned himself for hours while campers stopped for photos

    St. George Island State Park Forgotten Coast

    St. George Island State Park on a blustery day

    St. George Island State Park Forgotten Coast

    Shell-strewn beach

    Pine Log State Park Panama City Florida

    Pine Log State Park

    Lake Powell City Park Panama City Florida

    Lake Powell park shrouded in mist

    Bald Eagle Lake Powell State Park

    A bald eagle watched us kayaking below

    Rosemary Beach Florida

    Cycling near Rosemary Beach

    Middle Eastern style swimming pool

    in a new development

    Gulf Islands National Seashore Pensacola Florida

    Gulf Islands National Seashore - what a spot!

    Emerald Coast - Gulf Islands National Seashore Pensacola Florida

    The Emerald Coast

    Emerald Coast - Gulf Islands National Seashore Pensacola Florida Emerald Coast - Gulf Islands National Seashore Pensacola Florida

    Crashing surf - Gulf Islands National Seashore

    Results of Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis in Pensacola Beach FL

    Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis hit this coast back to back.

    The surf and winds were so powerful the entire road was

    hurtled hundreds of yards away, in rumpled pieces.

    Emerald Coast FL

    Sugar sand beaches line the Emerald Coast

    Emerald Coast FL

    The sand is so white and so thick it looks like snow.

    Love on the beach

    Sunset from our doorway

    A great shoreside spot to spend a few days.

    Apalachicola, St. George Island, Gulf Islands Nat'l Seashore, FL

    February, 2009 - We continued our tour of the state parks in Florida's

    Forgotten Coast, leaving St. Joseph State Park and stopping in the

    cute seaside town of Apalachicola on our way to St. George Island State

    Park.  We had visited Apalachicola last year and been enchanted by its

    unique shops and history, and we found it equally charming on our

    second visit.

    The town was once a bustling cotton shipping port, and it now harbors a

    sizeable fleet of oyster boats.  There was an active sponge harvesting

    industry too, and the Sponge Museum offered not only a glimpse of that

    unusual industry but a terrific collection of curious antiques as well.

    We picked up another jar of the semi-sweet locally harvested Tupelo

    honey and spent a happy morning wandering through the many

    shops in town.

    Over on St. George Island we checked into the state park that fills the tip

    of a long, narrow sand peninsula.  Like St. Joseph, this park borders

    both a shallow saltwater bay and the Gulf coast.  The bay is sleepy, lined

    with skinny trees with exposed roots.  We learned that a tidal surge had

    covered the entire end of the island in recent years, leaving the bayside

    trees immersed in salt water longer than they liked, and sadly killing many of them.

    This gives the bayside a slightly haunted look.

    Lots of swamp creatures

    patrol the area, and we

    noticed unusual birds standing

    in the trees and a sneaky

    alligator biding his time at the

    water's edge.

    The coastal beaches were

    wind-blown and blustery when

    we were there.  At night the

    roar of the waves on the

    beach filled the trailer, even

    though the campground is a

    healthy distance from the


    The beaches extend for many miles, and we did lots of invigorating

    walks along the water's edge.  The seashells were abundant, as they

    had been at St. Joseph State Park, and the campground had a

    lovely display giving the names of all the different creatures' shells

    that could be found along the beach.

    Leaving the Forgotten Coast, we ventured slightly west and stayed in

    two more parks.  Pine Log State Park boasts vast stands of pines, a

    terrific mountain biking trail (this from an avowed roadie who does not

    particularly enjoy mountain biking) and a lovely row of campsites

    overlooking a pond.

    Lake Powell park sits on the edge of a lake that was the perfect

    place for kayak exploration.  The morning awoke under a shroud of

    thick mist that gave the park's trees a mystical look.

    Later in the day, once the sun was

    victorious over the fog, we took the

    kayak into the far corners of the lake

    where we spotted a Bald Eagle.  He

    watched our bright yellow craft for a

    long suspicious while and finally flew

    off with a majestic sweep of his


    This portion of the Emerald Coast has

    a few upscale communities, and we

    rode our bikes through the South

    Walton Beach and Rosemary Beach

    areas one morning.  Like everywhere

    else in this country, many developers'

    dreams have evaporated in all stages

    of construction since the housing market crash (not to

    mention this area's sudden face-off with nature in a

    series of hurricanes).  We rode through a community of

    graceful homes that stopped sprouting when only about

    20% were built.  Boardwalks meandered through the

    community and over waterways, offering pretty views of

    what could have been.

    A fellow cyclist stopped and took our photo in front of

    the grand entrance to the strip of road that defines a

    particularly ritzy part of the coast.

    She recommended that we check out the Middle

    Eastern style swimming pool that was the central

    attraction of one new development.  I wouldn't have

    thought that this distinctly Arabic looking community

    would have been a big seller among Americans in this

    era, but sure enough, we saw several sales people with

    clipboards in hand and prospective customers in tow.

    Further west along the Emerald Coast we

    discovered the Gulf Islands National

    Seashore.  This jewel of a drive presents

    the stunning coast at its best, especially

    on bright sunny days.  The sand is

    blindingly white, and the water is truly

    green in places.  We walked the beach

    and our shorts soon gave way to bathing

    suits and frolicks in the waves.

    The signs warned of rip-tides, but just like the warnings of bison gorings

    at Yellowstone, you don't really take those things seriously at first glance.

    I was mighty curious about the dark green band of water that is behind

    Mark in this photo.  It beckoned me in the way that ocean water always

    has since I was a a small child.  I just had to find out how deep it was

    there.  So I bounded out into the waves, going from waist deep to over

    my head in one step.  Hmmm... it was deep!  I turned around to swim in

    and soon found that my most powerful strokes were not moving me

    forward.  Mark stood on the edge of the water, just 100 feet from me, but

    despite my best effort, I couldn't make any progress towards him.

    Suddenly the sign about rip-tides came back to me.  Is this a rip-tide?

    Yikes!  What had the sign said about them?  I had no idea.  Mark was

    yelling something at me from the beach, but I couldn't hear.  I just dug in and swam towards him for all I was worth, valiantly

    ignoring the rising feeling of panic in my heart.  In a few minutes (that felt like forever), I finally found my footing on the sand, dug

    my toes in, and hiked my way back to him, uphill in aggressive water.  I stood next to him on the beach, trying not to let my

    pounding heart and panting breath be noticeable, and feigned nonchalance about the whole thing.  "Great workout!"  I said

    cheerfully.  Mark quietly shook his head at me, hands on his hips.  "Didn't you read the sign?  Swim sideways, parallel to the beach,

    when you are in a rip-tide."  ... Oh, that's the trick!

    The power of the ocean is deceptive along this idyllic stretch of coast,

    with its shimmering, rich shades of turquoise.  The waves show dark

    green just before they break, and the sandpipers dart in and out of the

    water effortlessly, living their entire lives on the edge.  However, we

    learned from a local ocean kayaker that in 2004 Hurricane Ivan

    completely destroyed the road along this strip of land, effortlessly

    tossing it in tiny pieces all over the inland side of the peninsula.

    Eager to stay on top of repairs, the state replaced the road

    immediately.  Five days after reopening the road, Hurricane Dennis

    roared through.  The sea chewed up the new road and spewed it all

    over the bayside dunes a second time.  I was stunned to walk the

    dunes and find evidence of this man's story all over the place, as far

    as 300 yards from the road.

    This savage aspect of nature seems

    implausible as you sift the fine sugar

    white sand through your hands.  In

    places along the Gulf Islands National

    Seashore it looked more like snow

    than like sand.

    It had the same texture as the sand

    we found in the Coral Pink Sand

    Dunes park in Utah, but here it was

    pure white rather than a rusty burnt

    orange.  Riding our bikes alongside

    the sand  "snowdrifts," we thought of

    all our friends and family who have had such a

    snowy winter in Michigan.

    The spectacular scenery on these glorious sunny days brought out the most

    romantic notions in everyone along the beach.  It is a place for lovers, and this

    young couple found each other quite irresistable.

    We stayed along the beach for many days, watching the coast change from minute

    to minute as a series of storms blew through.  It was the perfect place to slow down

    again and get back in touch with ourselves and with nature before heading on to

    Alabama and a gradual trek west with a fun return visit to the Natchez Trace.





















































































    Florida Panhandle – Don’t Forget the “Forgotten Coast”

    RV blog post - Delta Downs horse races were a thrill but the emerald water & sugar sand of St. Joseph State Park, Mexico Beach & Panama City Beach Florida were the best.

    Delta Downs horse parade

    Delta Downs Racetrack

    "And they're off!"

    Delta Downs Horse Races Delta Downs Casino Horse Races

    Mark would have put money on this horse...

    Delta Downs Racetrack Florida Panhandle

    Our greeters at the first sight of the ocean in Florida

    Panama City Beach Florida

    Young love on the beach

    Panama City Beach Florida

    Panama City Beach

    Mexico Beach Florida

    Mexico Beach

    Mexico Beach Florida The Driftwood Inn Mexico Beach FL

    The Driftwood Inn

    Chapel at the Driftwood Inn Mexico Beach FL

    Mini-chapel, a labor of love

    Ochlockonee River State Park

    Rare white squirrel at Ochlockonee River State Park

    Pecker Pines at Ochlockonee River State Park

    Walking trails and "pecker pines" at Ochlockonee

    River State Park

    Ochlockonee River State Park

    Ochlockonee River

    Hobie Kayak i14t

    Hobie inflatable kayak, with paddles AND pedals

    Gulf Coast St. Joseph State Park FL

    Gulf Coast at St. Joseph State Park

    Gulf Coast St. Joseph State Park FL

    The beaches are serene and quiet

    St. Joseph State Park FL

    St. Joseph, bayside.

    Sea Shell on the Emerald Coast FL Fishing on the Emerald Coast Sea St. Joseph State Park FL

    Grandson & grandpa fish from shore.

    St. Joseph State Park FL

    St. Joseph State Park

    Sea Shells on the Emerald Coast FL

    St. Joseph State Park

    St. Joseph State Park Florida

    Pelicans enjoy their view of the "Forgotten Coast."

    Beautiful boardwalks through the pines and

    grasslands in St. Joseph State Park

    Delta Downs Race Track, LA, & "The Forgotten Coast" FL

    February, 2009 - We left San Diego and started a cross-country trek to

    visit Mark's son at Navy Dive School in Panama City, Florida.  We didn't

    intend to cover the distance quickly, but suddenly found ourselves doing

    400-500 mile days.  I-10 through Texas stretches for 880 miles, and you

    get a sense of treading water somewhere around San Antonio.  We

    wondered if we'd ever get out of Texas.  So it was with exhaustion and

    relief that we finally pulled off the interstate in Louisiana to stop at Delta

    Downs Casino.

    We were simply

    hoping for a

    quiet night's

    sleep, but when

    I began to

    close the

    shades I noticed that there was a horse racetrack right behind where we

    were parked, and the stadium lights were on!  We wandered over, and

    suddenly found ourselves swept up in the horse racing scene.

    I had never been to a racetrack before, and I was amazed as the

    horses were paraded and their credentials were read by the

    announcer.  The jockeys were smaller than the Tour-de-France

    cyclists who specialize in climbing, and the horses were lean, fit and

    eager to race.

    The betting office opened, the stats for each horse were displayed on a

    huge electronic board, and a line of seasoned racetrack bettors

    suddenly formed.

    While the TV cameras rolled, a gun went off, and the ground

    rumbled beneath our feet.  Suddenly, a hurtling pack of hooves and

    snorting nostrils streaked past us.

    As a little boy, Mark spent a lot of

    time at the horse races with his

    beloved grandpa, and he had told

    me, "Watch horse #2."  Sure

    enough, that horse won, and

    Mark caught the winning moment

    on camera.  Too bad he hadn't

    bet a buck or so on that horse, it

    would have been a really good


    That happy evening's unplanned

    entertainment put smiles on our

    faces that were still there two

    days later when a group of

    seagulls greeted us at the first

    tiny beach on the Emerald Coast

    in Florida.  Panama City Beach

    was just

    starting a warm

    spell when we

    arrived, and we

    made a beeline

    for the famed




    There is something about turquoise water and white sand

    and young lovers romping around that makes the heart sing.

    Panama City Beach is an arcade and mini-golf heaven, but

    the beach is pure and true, even though high-rises anchor it

    to the modern era.

    We took a side trip to Mexico

    Beach, a delightful, tiny, seaside

    community that is all low-rise

    buildings offering more of that

    beautiful sugar-sand beach.

    Friends of ours were staying at

    the Driftwood Inn, a beautiful

    property that is worth a visit even if you aren't lucky

    enough to get a room.  It is charming and artsy and a

    little funky, with antiques and a unique mini-chapel that

    the original owner built for his wife.

    From Mexico Beach we began a tour

    of three state parks along the

    "Forgotten Coast."  The first was

    Ochlockonee River State Park, a

    lovely park amid thousands of skinny

    "pecker pines."

    We had read that "a patient observer

    may be rewarded with a sighting of

    the rare white squirrel, a local

    mutation that is not an albino."

    On our very first hike we saw one.

    What luck!  Like many park

    animals, he was unafraid of us,

    and he busied himself eating nuts

    and scampering up and down

    tree trunks without the slightest

    concern for our presence.

    This park sits at the confluence of

    two rivers and has several pretty

    hiking trails.  We had just

    purchased an inflatable tandem

    kayak as a combination 5th

    anniversary gift and pair of

    birthday gifts for each other, and

    we couldn't wait to launch it in the

    river.  It is a very cool kayak that has

    pedals as well as paddles, perfect for

    a pair of cyclists.  And it fits in our basement (barely!).

    The air was about 50 degrees when we first set it up on the river's edge, and we were both

    bundled in many layers of clothing.  Mark hopped in and situated himself while I chatted with a

    pair of experienced kayakers who had just shown up on the beach.

    "Does that have pedals?"  the veteran kayaker asked me.  "Yeah!"  I said proudly, "Isn't it cool?

    This is our first time out!"  I confidently put one foot in the kayak to launch it, taking care not to

    get my other foot wet as I pushed off from the shore.  In an instant, I was over the side, one leg

    looped over the edge of the boat, hanging on for dear life, while the other sank steadily deeper

    until I was submerged, half under the boat, in cold water up to my neck.  "Sweety!' Mark called

    out.  "You didn't want to get your feet wet, and now look at you!"

    Very funny!

    I found my footing and scrambled ashore, squeezing gallons of water out of the arms of my

    jacket.  Why do these kinds of things always happen with an audience?  After a change of

    clothes and a few colorful remarks from yours truly, we eventually got the kayak launched, both

    of us dry and in the proper seats in the boat.  What a blast.  It flies along effortlessly and opens

    up all kinds of possibilities for exploration we could never do from shore.

    We moved over to St. Joseph State Park where we spent a few days perched on the end of a

    long skinny peninsula of sand.  The roar of the waves lulled us to sleep every night,

    accompanied only occasional by an owl nearby our campsite.

    We had stayed there last year, but

    we got better weather this year

    (fewer bugs)

    and enjoyed




    walks along the


    My mom visited

    us for a week,

    and as we

    walked and

    talked, catching up on all kinds of things, we had to stop every so often to

    look around and soak in the gorgeous colors.  The many pretty shells

    evoked all kinds of creative ideas for crafts and decorations, as well as

    thoughts of the creatures that had once lived inside.

    It is fortunate that this is the

    "Forgotten Coast," because it is

    very sleepy and almost feels

    undiscovered.  The sugar sand

    brings out the kid in

    everyone, and a grandson-

    grandpa pair were fishing

    happily from the shore,

    poles vertical and ready,

    and souls relaxed and free.

    As we asked the many

    fishermen along the beach

    what they were catching,

    everyone had hopes for various kinds of fish, but no one was

    catching much of anything, and nobody seemed to care either.  It

    was too beautiful to feel anything but joy at being alive.

    St Joseph State Park opens onto a shallow bay as well as the

    Gulf, and the bay side retains some of the swampy feeling of the

    inland rivers.  The shorebirds like to mingle with the swamp

    birds, and the brackish water from the rivers mixes with the tidal

    waters of the ocean.

    Everywhere you look you feel

    the essence of peace.

    Boardwalks connect the two

    campgrounds, taking strollers

    on a tour of the marshlands.

    Mom and I sat for a while,

    contemplating the swaying

    grasses and the ibis and

    herons that stalked their prey

    among the rushes.  It was an

    easy decision to stay in

    Florida's Panhandle a bit longer.