Two weeks before Christmas I found myself sitting in the Okeechobee County Courthouse, serving as a juror on a criminal trial. It was a complicated case, with no clear right and wrong, and the only thing that kept me sane was knowing that we had reserved ten nights camping at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.
Dec 23 couldn’t come soon enough. Since we were planning to be there for so long, we set up two tents – one for sleeping and the other as our “commissary.”
We fell asleep that night to the hoot of owls while coyotes howled in the distance.
Christmas Eve morning I went for a bike ride and TG worked on photos.
I was happy to spy a beautiful, black-crowned night heron
And a female northern harrier enjoying the early morning sun.
Later I hiked the Prairie Loop Trail and managed to capture a belted kingfisher, notorious for flying off the moment you even think “camera.”
I was almost to the campgrounds when I came upon an 8-point buck, far more interested in grazing than in me.
One of our favorite things to do while camping is late afternoon drives around the park. The day visitors are mostly gone and the animals are beautiful in the golden light.
This crested caracara loves this spot and more often than not you can find him sitting here in the late afternoon.
That evening I drove the park road again. An owl swooped in front of me, and I spied a second one in the trees, too far away to even think about getting a shot.
Christmas morning, we woke up early to enjoy the peace and quiet before heading back home to Okeechobee.
We were invited to spend Christmas evening with our neighbors and we chose to sleep at home rather than drive back out to camp that night.
We had already noted that the campground was more crowded this year than in the past, and the vibe was different. Oscar and Maddie were stressed, which was stressing us out. We didn’t dare leave them alone in the tent, even inside their kennel, as the park was full, including several loose dogs.
That night we drove to our favorite spot for a star stack. We set up our camp chairs by the car while O and M slept inside and our cameras clicked away. We could hear, but did not spy, barred owls hooting in the trees above us.
On Monday morning we decided that TG should take O & M home while I stayed at the camp. Since we live only 45 minutes away, he would make the drive 2 times a day to spend time with me, enjoy the morning and dinner together, and build a nightly campfire.
As a bonus, my friend Tim and his 7-year-old son were staying two sites away beginning that night. I’ve known Tim for over a decade and we were looking forward to spending time with them.
Later that evening Tim sent me a text “You have a macro lens?”
They had spied a black widow spider in the bathhouse!
TG came back early the next morning and the four of us went for a hike.
We didn’t see a lot, but we did spy a beautiful buck bounding through the prairie
And a big banana spider.
When we got back to camp a large tom turkey was pecking on the hubcap of our car – he could see his reflection in the chrome and was not backing down!
After TG left that evening, I intended to go for a hike but only got as far as the Prairie Loop trailhead when I heard the snuffle-grunting of a wild pig. By the light of my flashlight, I spied a mama with three babies. She snorted at me and I decided it was best if I turned around.
Wednesday morning, we said goodbye to Tim and Carlyle and took a drive with the pups. After TG left that evening, I went looking for owls.
Much to my delight, I found one,
Then his mate.
And they even “bonded” a few times!
Thursday morning TG met me early. We had been contacted by a local rancher to take photos for their new website and we wanted to walk the property together.
That night I shot another star stack at the corner.
Friday morning, I hiked the Prairie Loop Trail again. There was a nest in a tree I wanted a better look at but the fog was so thick I couldn’t see much of anything!
I still managed to spy a grumpy yellow-rumped warbler,
An eastern meadowlark,
Several more deer and some wild turkeys.
Later I went for another bike ride and noticed a huge wolf spider sitting in the middle of the road. When I stopped to move him out of harm’s way, he got mad and charged me! I jumped back and he climbed into the spokes of my bicycle tire. I walked a short distance away and he climbed down and moved off the road. I was only trying to keep you safe, not-so-little guy!
TG returned that afternoon with the pups. We wanted to spend New Year’s Eve together as a family and figured Kissimmee would be far quieter than our neighborhood at home in Okeechobee. We took a short sunset drive around the park
And then enjoyed a quiet dinner while a little owl kept watch from a branch above our heads.
Later we sat by the fire, burning the last of our “lighter wood” – logs from a tree hit by lightning. The crowds had left the park and there were several empty sites. The only sounds we heard were the crackling of the fire and the occasional hoot of an owl. It was the best New Year’s Eve we’ve had in a long time!
Although we had made our reservations through Sunday the 3rd, we decided to pack up Saturday after the tents had dried. Mornings had been so damp and foggy we did not want to pack up wet gear. We took our time breaking down and pulled into our driveway at Casa Mini around 2:30 that afternoon.
We’ve decided that tent camping with the pups must be in measured doses, and only when the campground is relatively empty. But me staying solo, with TG driving out for a few hours each day, proved to be a very workable solution. When all was said and done I was by myself for four of our ten nights, and I can’t wait to do it again!
In October 2021, we embarked on our most ambitious road trip to date: a 7,700-mile journey to New Mexico where we planned to catch the winter bird migration in the Bosque del Apache as well as visit other interesting spots out west. All-in-all we would be gone for 28 days.
During our month-long trip, we would travel through nine states across three time zones, over multiple mountains and rivers, and cross the Continental Divide four times.
We loaded up the pups and pulled out of our driveway at 6am, driving through Florida’s panhandle,
Then Alabama, and spending our first night in Jackson, Mississippi.
The next morning, we crossed the Mississippi River into Louisiana before entering Texas.
We had programmed Siri to avoid tolls and thus far she kept us on interstates with not a whole lot to see.
However, once we arrived in Texas, she took us on country roads which proved much more interesting.
With no traffic and a 75-mph speed limit, we did not lose any time as we continued on our way.
We stopped the second night in Amarillo, Texas.
We had planned to push hard the first two days and we did: putting in back-to-back 13-hour drives. By the time we reached Hyatt Place Amarillo, we were ready to slow down a bit.
We had six more hours to get to our Air BNB in Lemitar, New Mexico and wanted to mosey with multiple stops along the way.
First up: Glenrio. This town was abandoned once the interstate replaced Route 66, but its ghosts remain.
Glenrio straddles TX/NM and the gas station sits just east of the border, proudly claiming to be “the last stop for gas in Texas.”
Once we crossed into New Mexico …
We headed for Tucumcari, another town on the old Route 66. This town has worked hard to preserve the nostalgia of that by-gone era, and we had fun capturing images of the vintage buildings.
You can see more of our photos from Glenrio and Tucumcari here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
We had a four-hour drive ahead of us and we wanted to arrive in enough time to get unpacked and make a grocery run. So after Tucumcari, we headed southwest.
We took the time to marvel at the huge wind farms,
And the mile-long freight trains, loaded with stacks of containers.
The topography of New Mexico is beautiful. Living in flat Florida, we had forgotten how much we love the mountains.
The cottonwood trees were in full bloom, a brilliant gold against the blue sky and reddish-brown mountains.
Casita Del Cranes makes for a comfortable and affordable home-away-from-home with plenty of privacy. It has a big living/dining/kitchen area, one bedroom with a queen bed, and a small bath with hot shower. We had room to spread out as well as set up Oscar and Maddie’s kennel.
It sits on a quiet road – other than the occasional passing car the only sounds are the freight trains that rumble past, something we found charming.
It is located about a 15-minute drive from the town of Socorro, with a large, well-stocked Walmart. And only 45 minutes from the Bosque del Apache where we would be spending most of our time.
We spent our first 2 ½ days checking out the Bosque at both sunrise
The birds had not yet arrived in the 1000’s we expected but we planned to be in this area until mid-November when the migration would be in full swing.
We did manage to spy a coyote sneaking across a field at sunrise, a small bobcat, several mule deer, and a group of javelinas crossing the road ahead of us!
We took a break from the Bosque on Tuesday and drove out to the Very Large Array. The drive through the mountains was breathtaking.
The VLA is a group of huge radio antennas that complement giant, single-dish telescopes for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. In a nutshell, it creates a telescope many miles across. It is difficult to grasp its massive scale, but we were able to see the large, white dishes from more than 20 miles away.
These huge antennas are on tracks and are repositioned throughout the year – sometimes bunched close together and other times spread far apart.
You can check the VLA website for exactly where they will be at any given time and plan your visit accordingly.
You can see more of our photos from the VLA here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
We continued west over the mountains and, in the process, crossed the Continental Divide.
The following day we drove south to White Sands National Park. This was a 2 ½ hour drive and we wanted to arrive for the early morning light. On our way, we crossed the Rio Grande.
After traveling through the entire state of New Mexico, this grand river becomes the US/Mexico border once it reaches Texas.
By the time we arrived at White Sands National Park it had turned into another sunny, cloudless day and the stunning white sand looked like huge snowdrifts. Driving through the dunes in the early morning quiet, without a single car in sight, was otherworldly.
The sand looked hot to touch (like our Florida beaches), so before we let the pups out of the car I ran a handful through my fingers. It was soft as powered sugar and almost cold! Air temps that day were in the mid-50’s.
We decided to stick around for sunset, so we took a mid-day break to check out McGinn’s Pistachio Land,
Bowlin’s Running Indian Trading Post for refrigerator magnets,
And the famous recycled roadrunner sculpture overlooking the town of Las Cruces.
We arrived back at White Sands around 4 pm and enjoyed a picnic dinner while we waited for the sun to set.
Without a cloud in the sky, the sunset was not as dramatic as it might have been, but we were nonetheless awed by the ethereal beauty of the park.
By the time we pulled into our driveway at Casita Del Cranes, it was after 9pm – 15 hours in the car with Oscar and Maddie! All of us slept well that night!
You can see more of our photos from White Sands here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
And so ended our first week in New Mexico.
Week Two started with another day of brilliant blue sky and plenty of bright sunshine. We chose to stay home – working on photos and getting ready for our upcoming “embedded road trip.”
In addition to our time in Lemitar, we had made reservations to stay in Farmington for three nights, Monument Valley for one night, and the Grand Canyon for another two.
We drove north and west from Albuquerque through the Valles Caldera Mountains, and at over 7,000 feet we could feel our ears popping!
Before checking into our Air BNB in Farmington we first drove to our destination for later that evening: Shiprock.
Like the VLA, it is impossible to show the massive scale of this natural rock formation. It sits in the middle of Navajo Nation land, and you can see it from 30+ miles away. It felt like we drove forever before arriving at our rendezvous spot!
Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí or “rock with wings”) rises 1,600 feet above the plain and is considered a sacred site. As such, you are not permitted to drive close to the monolith without a Navajo guide. We booked our tours with Navajo Tours USA.
We settled into Fairview Hide-Away in Farmington, our home for the next three nights.
And were back at Shiprock by 6pm.
Our guide, Kialo, arrived shortly after, and together we caravanned to the end of the road. Kialo assured us that our VW Jetta could make it “no problem” but it quickly turned into the bumpiest, most nerve-wracking non-road TG had ever driven!
We parked at the base of the monolith and then proceeded to scramble up the side of a sheer cliff to get to our first photo spot. Kialo bounded up like he had been doing this his whole life (he has) while I inched along behind him, not daring to look down and clinging to the rock wall for dear life. A tumble would, at the very least, result in severe injury, and we took our time going up.
But we were rewarded with an incredible bird’s eye view of the monolith, the last of the sunset turning it bright orange.
What goes up must come down, so we inched our way back in the inky blackness and on to our next spot for Milky Way shots. TG set up for a stack,
While I walked back and forth shooting the Milky Way from various angles.
The moonless sky was clear, and the stars were out in such numbers it was difficult to spot individual constellations. The Milky Way was a brilliant, vertical arch that stretched far over our heads into the sky above us.
It was truly a night to remember.
You can see more photos from Shiprock here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
On Saturday we had arranged for two day-hikes into the Bisti (rhymes with “Misty”). The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a rolling landscape of badlands that offers some of the most unusual scenery found in the area.
Time and nature have etched a fantasy world of strange rock formations made of interbedded sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal, and silt.
These hoodoos are in the shapes of pinnacles, spires, capped mushrooms, and other unusual forms.
We met our guide, Gilbert, at the north section rendezvous spot at 7am.
We learned a lot about the Bisti and Navajo culture as he pointed out the various formations.
We also played “What do you see?”
I named this formation “Thirsty Dog.”
TG said, “I see a camel!”
We ended our first hike around 11am and had just enough time to drive home for a quick lunch and spell Oscar and Maddie. The total distance that morning was around four miles.
We were back at the south section parking lot by 3pm and hiked to several well-known spots including the Petrified Logs,
And the famous Egg Hatchery.
We finished our afternoon hike at just over 5 miles and were so tired we could barely make it home. But it was another memorable day.
You can see more photos from the Bisti here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
The next morning, we caught up on photos and took advantage of Fairview Hide-Away’s washer & dryer – an amenity we appreciated being one month on the road!
Later that afternoon we drove back out to Shiprock for one more shot at the night sky and a star stack. Because we were on our own, we stayed in the parking lot. But even so, it made for a special night as the headlights from passing cars illuminated the dike while we took our shots.
On Monday, we said goodbye to Farmington and headed west.
It is difficult to take in the vastness of the southwestern United States. It goes on forever and coming up over a rise you can see for 50 or more miles. It is beautiful and it is spellbinding.
A quick detour took us to Four Corners.
And of course we had to take a selfie standing in the four states: New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado!
We ended the day at Monument Valley. We checked into our room at the Kayenta Valley Inn,
And then drove the twenty-five miles to the monument entrance. Here is TG’s description of our experience:
We visited Monument Valley near Kayenta, AZ yesterday. I must say that despite the monuments themselves being extraordinary in size and beauty, it was a letdown. It was the most controlled, yet uncontrolled, experience I have ever encountered.
For $20, you are issued a permit allowing a timed, 2-hour drive on a marked road that really should not allow any vehicles with moderate to low clearance…
There were many spots that we had to cover at less than 5 MPH and a couple of very steep hills with loose gravel on the way out that we almost could not climb.
Additionally, there is no policing of the drivers once in the park, although there are plenty of rules. Many drivers went well above the 15 MPH limit, kicking up dust, not looking where they were going, driving the wrong way, and stopping in the middle of the road. What we had looked forward to quickly turned into a “let’s get out of here ASAP” moment.
You can see more photos from Monument Valley here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
Our original plan was to go back the following morning for a sunrise drive but based on the previous afternoon experience we nixed that idea and continued west.
Alongside Route 160 there is an interesting rock formation called “Elephant’s Feet” where we stopped to take a few photos and stretch our legs.
We arrived in Cameron around noon – far too early for our 4pm check-in. So, we headed straight to the Grand Canyon National Park, located about a 30-minute drive west of town.
The Grand Canyon was on both of our “Bucket Lists” and our first views did not disappoint.
It truly is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and I found myself in tears, overwhelmed by its awesome beauty.
Since we had all the following day, this afternoon was a scouting mission to get the lay of the land.
Back in town, we checked into the historic Cameron Trading Post, our home for the next two nights.
This charming hotel has gorgeous views, private entries, and well-laid-out rooms. It also has the prettiest, softest baby-blue towels!
We had plenty of space to spread out our laptops and camera gear.
The restaurant serves both American and traditional Navajo food, with convenient curbside pick-up.
We realized that we were woefully unprepared for photographing the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon with its layers of light, shadow, and colors. TG spent some time researching “how-to” techniques for the next morning’s sunrise.
We were back at Lipan Point well before dawn and watched the sun slowly bring the layers of color alive as it rose above the horizon. Once again, a lump formed in my throat as I took in the beauty of it all.
November is a great month to visit the Grand Canyon. It is less crowded – for our sunrise session, we were one of a small handful of people. And although the morning started out quite cool, it warmed up quickly during the day. We were fortunate to have blue skies and bright sunshine for both days.
The roads are free of cars,
And we were able to stop and snap photos of the elk that grazed in the woods on either side.
We even took turns hiking a bit of the Grandview Trail.
With O & M waiting patiently in the car neither of us wanted to be gone for too long, so a trek to the bottom was not an option for this trip.
That afternoon we went back to Lipan Point for the sunset.
Many people had the same idea and the best vantage points were crowded with photographers, picnickers, and folks simply taking in the view.
We took a few photos,
And then moved on to Moran Point, a quieter location to wait for nightfall.
You can see more photos from the Grand Canyon here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
Thursday morning it was time to pack up the car and head back to Casita Del Cranes for the remainder of our trip. We plotted a route south and east, through Winslow, Arizona.
And yes, Eagles Fans, we did stand on the corner.
Driving for hours requires regular pit stops – for both us and the dogs. I do not normally write about these, but the truck stop in Twin Arrows deserves special mention.
Set in the middle of the Arizona desert, the doggie area was a large section of Astroturf, akin to a putting green. Oscar and Maddie found this unacceptable and used the surrounding bushes instead.
And before you were allowed to enter the building, your temperature was taken. The Navajo Nation was hit hard with Covid, and they are doing everything they can to keep it at bay.
They also sold Navajo Blue piñon coffee, which might be some of the best coffee around!
Route 60 goes straight east through a fun little spot called Pie Town, where we stopped for (you guessed it) pie.
The homemade options this day were traditional apple and pecan pie muffins.
Pecan pie muffins!?! They tasted even more delicious than they sound, and my hips are grateful there isn’t a Pie Town back home!
We arrived at Casita Del Cranes late that afternoon, happy to be back at our home-away-from-home. While TG fixed dinner, I took a walk down the dirt road in front of the house to look for roadrunners.
I was happy with this sighting of a Gambel’s quail, a new-to-me bird!
Week Three began with a visit to the Socorro Nature Area, a beautiful little preserve about three miles from Casita.
Most of the birds were TTB’s (tiny twitchy birds) that required much patience to photograph.
TG was able to capture some beautiful landscapes,
On our drive home, we spied a red-tailed hawk
and (much to my delight) beep-beep! a roadrunner!
The VLA is a designated ClearDarkSky site, and the forecast that evening was for clear and dark skies with excellent “seeing.” When away from lights, the night skies in New Mexico are unlike anything we have seen. The Milky Way is incredibly bright and visible, much more so than in Florida. We wanted to try for a star stack with one of the VLA’s massive white dishes in the foreground.
We arrived at the VLA around 7:30pm and the stars were already out in full. We parked in the darkness close to one of the giant antennas and set up for a star stack. It takes about an hour to shoot the 100-200 images needed for a stack. As we waited, we looked for various constellations and watched as stars and satellites shot across the sky while the screeching cries of hunting owls filled the air around us.
By now the birds had arrived in the Bosque del Apache in the thousands we were hoping for, so we spent the last six days of our trip close to home.
We alternated between hikes:
Seven miles of the Chupadera Trail where we climbed up to 1800 ft.
The full trail is 9 1/2 miles, but we turned around at a dry riverbed crossing. The drop down was at least five feet, and we knew the scramble back up would be a challenge!
We spied a few desert cottontails
And a group of Gambel’s quail.
The Marsh Overlook Trail, which has a short but beautiful climb up to a panoramic view of the Bosque,
And the Rio Viejo Trail.
Just as we started down the trail, a couple with a friendly golden retriever was headed to their car. They told us there was a family of javelinas near the back of the loop and TG whispered “not anymore.”
It was still a beautiful walk through the woods and we did manage to spy a group of mule deer.
We drove the “Loop Tour” roads around the refuge multiple times, where we enjoyed encounters with various wildlife such as javelinas,
More mule deer,
A fleeting glimpse of a coyote, a bobcat,
And many beautiful birds.
You can see more photos from our Loop Tour drives and hikes here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
And we spent each sunrise at the “Flight Deck.”
The Flight Deck is a wooden boardwalk that stretches out over the marsh and in the mornings is THE place to watch the birds flying in, out, and overhead.
We arrived each morning before dawn to secure a prime spot. Two dozen or more photogs, each armed with a big-lens camera, vie for the same choice positions at the north and south ends of the deck.
The noise from the birds is quite loud as small groups go through sporadic launches and then settle back down into the flock.
But suddenly, as if on cue, the noise swells to an almost deafening crescendo as they take off and fill the sky.
It is unlike anything we have ever witnessed.
It is spectacular.
You can see more photos from sunrise at the Flight Deck here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
Every day on our way to and from the Bosque we passed the Owl Bar and Cafe. This landmark restaurant has been in business for 76 years and boasts “the world’s best burgers and steaks.” I absolutely love owls, so of course we had to stop in. Being vegetarians we opted for the breakfast burritos — which were also delicious!
One afternoon our host, Steve, drove us out to San Lorenzo Canyon, located about six miles from the Casita. This picturesque canyon is in the middle of the desert and is only accessible in high-clearance or 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Even in Steve’s big truck, it was a bumpy ride! But worth it to climb among the narrow cliffs, arches, hoodoos …
And angular rock formations.
You can see more photos from San Lorenzo Canyon here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
On our last afternoon, Pam joined us for one final Loop Tour drive. On our way out we spied a beautiful female northern harrier, posing perfectly in the golden light. Since this is one of TG’s favorite birds, it seemed only right that she be the one to bid us farewell.
Later that evening, Pam and Steve invited us for prickly pear margaritas. Over our three weeks at Casita, we had occasionally heard the hoot of a great horned owl in the pecan tree outside our front door. One night at 3am I went outside with a flashlight and found him sitting at the top of the tree, just out of range of my light and certainly out of range of a camera.
We sat under the pecan tree, calling for the owl. No owl was seen (or heard) but we enjoyed friendly conversation, a warm fire, and stars twinkling overhead.
It was a fitting end to our time at Casita del Cranes.
My sister lives west of Dallas and we wanted to spend a weekend with her before continuing home to Florida. But it is a nine-hour drive from Lemitar, so we broke up the trip by booking one night at the LaQuinta in Roswell.
We drove east through the lava fields and the spectacular Capitan Mountains.
The town of Roswell was somewhat of a disappointment. It sits in the middle of a vast wasteland, surrounded for miles in all directions by nothing but rolling yellow hills. It is easy to imagine a UFO touching down somewhere in all that nothingness.
But the kitschy part of town is only about three blocks on Main Street, with lots of tacky souvenir shops,
And the UFO museum.
The rest of the town is kind of blah, without a whole lot of personality.
Once you cross the New Mexico/Texas border you come upon hundreds of miles of cotton fields. Many had huge bales bundled up in colorful yellow or pink wrappers.
The landscape changes dramatically as you near the Dallas area – it turns into rolling hills with lots of green trees. We spent a too-short, but delightful visit with J & D in their beautiful home.
We wanted to get a head start on DFW traffic, so we left on Sunday afternoon rather than waiting until Monday morning.
We were glad we did, as even on Sunday the traffic was intense for us country folks!
At the start of our journey, we had passed through the interesting town of Bogata, TX, and promised ourselves we would take time for photos on our way back east.
There are several old garages filled with classic cars and trucks. Many private homes also have vintage cars sitting on their lawns.
Multiple Google searches did not turn up any explanation for all the cool old cars, but it was fun to see and photograph them!
Driving as many hours as we did, we came up with fun games to pass the time. One was “if you could live anywhere based solely on the name, where would it be?” “Baton Rouge” is a fun name to say, as is “Sheboygan.” But then we passed a sign for:
???? HOT COFFEE?!? Seriously, it’s a real town in Mississippi, and on our next trip we will have to check it out!
We spent our last night in Tallahassee. We had a six-hour drive home to Okeechobee and only 30 minutes to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. There had been multiple sightings of a flamingo at the refuge, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.
So, we detoured south to St. Marks early the following morning and were not disappointed. The flamingo was there, looking ever-so-elegant in the early morning light.
We also saw three bald eagles,
Some white-tailed deer,
And were pleasantly surprised to find a few monarch butterflies still fluttering about.
You can see more photos from St. Marks here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
We were heading home by 9:30am and pulled into our driveway mid-afternoon. It was an amazing trip and of the 17-odd things we wanted to see/photograph we got all but one: a rattlesnake. But it WAS winter after all!
We also learned a lot about how to streamline for our next big adventure. TG and jet (and Oscar & Maddie) are indeed back “On the Road” again!
In conclusion, here are TG’s thoughts on our trip:
This was the longest road trip in distance and duration, and was a test run of sorts for some even longer journeys we have in mind…
Some Pros: JET is the best human road buddy…..we did not kill each other despite being together 24/7 for 28 days straight, much of it in the confines of a 2012 VW Jetta wagon.
Oscar & Maddie are the best non-human road buddies, period.
Driving across TX, in much of NM and a chunk of AZ, 75 MPH speed limits are the norm, even on 2 lane country roads…we liked it, especially with the new set of rubber we installed on Pepper before the trip.
Speaking of Pepper, she ran like a top, only burned a quart of diesel oil, which was expected based on my conversation with the VW dealership where we have her serviced…averaged 33 MPG for the 7,700 miles about 4,000 of which were with a 64 x 40 cargo basket holding a 63x38x18 cargo bag and contents…kind of like driving down the road with a refrigerator on top of your car.
New Mexico is truly The Land of Enchantment.
Taco Bell cheezy bean & rice burritos are the cheapest and best road food.
The Grand Canyon in November is sublime and uncrowded.
Pietown, NM is the only place to get Pecan Pie Muffins….and that is a good thing, because I would weigh 450 lbs in short order if they were in Okeechobee.
Tallahassee, FL is a beautiful little city.
Hyatt Hotels are simply the best for road travel.
SomeCons:Not all Best Westerns are even close to Best.
Monument Valley is not worth the time, unless you enjoy a highly controlled , yet unpoliced experience.
Cigarette smokers congregating near your hotel room.
Cigarette smokers letting their dog run free and straight for Oscar & Maddie.
Roswell, NM is not worth the visit for a few cheap and crappy souvenir shops and a lame UFO museum.
Traveling more than 10 hours in one day is not worth it.
All in all, we can’t wait for the next adventure in 2022.
If you’ve stuck with me this far then a huge Thank You! And if you want to look at all our photos, the links to our Flickr sets are below:
Ever since we sold Terrapin back in June, we’ve been hoping for a tent-only camping trip out at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park over the new moon. But the forecast called for cloudy skies with thunderstorms in July, so we nixed that. The same thing happened in August, so nixed once again! I was beginning to despair we’d never get a clear enough night to shoot the Milky Way this summer.
But we booked three nights over the new moon in September and hoped for the best. This time I was particularly anxious as we had friends also camping at the same time and we had invited them to join us for dinner one night.
Our first night was the Sunday before Labor Day, and the forecast again called for afternoon thunderstorms and cloudy skies overnight. Rather than risk getting rained on our very first night in the new tent, we drove the 45 minutes to the park that afternoon to check in and let the host know that we would be back the following morning to set up.
Monday dawned with a cloudless blue sky and bright sunshine. We left for the park around 8am and planned a couple of photo stops on our way.
Just as we turned onto CR724, we spied a bald eagle on a power pole, beautifully positioned against the blue sky.
A little further along, there was a sunn hemp field in full bloom.
Sunn hemp is a cover crop, used on farmlands during the summer months to rejuvenate the soil with much-needed nutrients, to control weeds, to prevent soil erosion during thunderstorm and hurricane season, and add herbage back into the soil before the next planting.
So not only are they beautiful to look at, but they also provide a valuable service to farmland! I thought the bright yellow flowers against the clear blue sky looked perfect in the eastern morning light.
We arrived at the park a little after 9 am. It took us about an hour to set up our new CRUA Core tent and by then the temps had soared into the low 90’s. For the first time since selling Terrapin, we missed her A/C!
During lunch we were entertained by the cara caras and crows interested in our veggie wraps.
After a short nap, we took a drive to cool off a bit before getting ready for our dinner guests.
Carl and Laura arrived promptly at 5:30 and we enjoyed good conversation and food before heading out for a sunset / evening drive through the park.
You never know what you might spy on a night drive out at Kissimmee. Over the years I’ve seen burrowing, barn, and barred owls, bobcats, wild hogs, alligators, deer, armadillos, raccoons, coyote, snakes (including a huge eastern diamondback), and frogs.
This night did not disappoint: not only were we treated to a glorious sunset, we saw a barred owl, an alligator, a nighthawk, a banded water snake,
And a half dozen burrowing owls flitting from side to side like tiny cherubs.
Much to my delight, by the time I got back to our campsite the skies were clear enough to see the Milky Way. I grabbed my camera and set up for a few shots between the clouds.
Our tent has a vestibule-type opening before the actual zippered doors.
We had set up our commissary in that area and opened all three sides to get as much cross-breeze as possible throughout the tent. Bedtime was uncomfortably hot, and no one was getting much sleep.
Around 3 am we were awakened by Oscar and Maddie nearly bolting through the screen. We had not left any food out, but we did leave a plastic bag with napkins from dinner. Something, most likely a raccoon or opossum, had crept into the commissary, ransacked the garbage bag, and dragged TG’s shoes across the campsite.
We did not see or hear a thing, but Oscar and Maddie were on such high alert we had to put them in the kennel for the rest of the night.
Despite the restless night, we were up before dawn on Tuesday morning.
It looked to be another beautiful day so after our coffee we went for drive. There were coveys of bobwhites running alongside the road,
We also saw caracaras,
Eastern meadowlarks, cattle egrets,
And loggerhead shrikes sitting in their customary spots close to the park entrance.
It was a lovely drive but promised to be another hot day. Rather than suffer through it, we decided to pack up and head home a day early.
We knew switching from Terrapin to tent camping would be a bit of a learning curve. There are things we forgot (clothespins) and things we’ll do differently next time (not leave ANY garbage out at night).
In spite of the heat we had a great time and look forward to our next trip — Kissimmee Prairie is one of our absolute favorite places to visit any time of the year. But maybe we’ll wait to camp again until it’s just a little cooler!
We’ve taken Terrapin out 14 times in the ten months we’ve owned her, giving us almost a full year of fun memories. She kept us sane through COVID and helped shift our travel paradigm.
Who can forget my birthday owl?
Or that spectacular meteor?
Or “Dashboard Jesus”?
International travel is not yet in our future — as of this writing, Japan is considering closing the 2021 Summer Olympics to all spectators due to an increase in COVID cases — and we simply do not have the confidence to board a long-distance flight. So, TG and I have set our sights beyond the borders of Florida and are currently planning multi-week road trips across the USA.
Visiting friends in Tennessee, New Mexico’s big dark skies, Georgia’s waterfalls, Iowa’s covered bridges, and the Northern Lights of Michigan’s U.P. are all on the list. The more we consider our USA travel options, the more places we are finding to go!
We – and the pups – have loved camping in Terrapin. She is everything you need in a compact little package.
But she gets horrible gas mileage: 7 miles to the gallon. Plus, she is not at all nimble for photo safaris. We would either have to tow a car (and further decrease our mileage) or rent once we arrived at our destination. Neither of these options made sense to us.
TG and I are too practical to let her sit in the driveway for the next year while we traveled around the country in our Jetta Sportwagen. It was time to find her a new home. And, surprisingly quick, that’s exactly what we did.
TG always says, “spend your money on experiences, not things,” so I waved good-bye with a bit of sadness and a lot of excitement about what our future might bring.
Going forward we will be tent camping, or staying in hotels and Air BnB’s. TG has managed to procure several credit cards tied to points at pet-friendly hotels. This will make any long-distance trip affordable and comfortable.
In addition to the orange tent with its airy screened roof, we’ve purchased a 4-season CRUA Core tent. Between the two, we will have plenty of room to spread out.
We will be testing our new arrangement soon so stay tuned for continuing adventures on the road with Tall Guy and jet!
Ever since we moved to Florida, I have been enchanted with the Florida Key Deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium). Found only in the Keys, they are a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, are the smallest of all North American deer, and are classified as endangered.
I saw one years ago on a drive down to Key West but it was just a quick spy along the side of US1 as we zipped by. I’ve always wanted to go back to photograph them but living in Okeechobee, that required at least one overnight somewhere closer than our four-five hour drive away. We finally planned a short trip in June, an optimal time to see both adults and fawns.
Pet-friendly hotels in the Keys are expensive so it made sense to find someplace closer to Miami. We are also in the process of planning a trip out west for sometime next fall. With their affordable room rates and no pet fee, this was the perfect opportunity to check out a LaQuinta Inn. We booked two nights at the property in Cutler Bay.
The suite was spacious and clean, with a fridge and microwave.
The king-size bed was comfortable enough. The hotel is nothing fancy but we will definitely include them as an economical stop on long-distance road trips.
Two-thirds of the key deer population is concentrated on Big Pine Key and a few surrounding islands. This geographical isolation in such a small area is one of the reasons why they are endangered. Since Cutler Bay is a minimum two-hour drive north of Big Pine, we were in bed early so we could be on the road by 5am the next day. We wanted a few hours of good light before the sun got too high and bright for photos.
Unfortunately, our fellow guests were up into the wee hours and it was difficult to keep Oscar quiet. None of us got much sleep that night!
We were wide awake and ready to go by 4:45 and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise as we drove south.
There was virtually no traffic,
And we reached Big Pine Key a little before 7am.
There are a few areas around Big Pine and No Name Key where deer are pretty much guaranteed, but in reality it’s possible to see them grazing along the side of the road just about anywhere.
We headed over the bridge to No Name Key and spied quite a few deer along our way.
The first thing you notice about these deer is their size … they are small. Very small. They are miniature versions of their northern cousins and it’s difficult to grasp their size from photos.
Adult males stand just over two feet at the shoulder and weigh around 70 lbs. The females are slightly smaller, and the fawns weigh only 2-4 lbs. at birth.
When this male approached our car, his head was level with my open window.
Despite all the signage warning against feeding them, it is clear that people still do.
The deer were for the most part very tame and not at all shy about approaching our car.
After leaving No Name Key, we checked out a few other spots – an abandoned limestone quarry called the Blue Hole – where we did not spy any deer but did see a very friendly alligator,
And the neighborhoods at the north end of Big Pine Key where we were captivated by a sweet little fawn.
By now it was getting close to 10am and the light was starting to go. We had more than enough photos, including everything on my wish-list: a buck with antlers and a fawn.
We drove back to No Name Key for one more pass. We’re glad we did as we came upon a small herd of six deer frolicking in the morning sunshine!
Mission accomplished, we decided to drive home to Okeechobee as soon as we returned to the hotel and packed up. There was no point in hanging around the LaQuinta for another night when we could be sleeping in our own bed!
Between our drive south to Big Pine Key, the time we spent photographing the deer, and the drive back north to Okeechobee, we spent over 12 hours in the car that day. Oscar and Maddie did great, even when deer walked right up to our open windows. We are more confident than ever that we – and the pups – are ready for a multi-day cross-country road trip!
The best time to photograph the Milky Way is the spring through fall months – when the galactic center is visible above the horizon. And clear, dark skies are a must for a good photo. Of course, being in Florida “clear, dark skies” are never a given so the best one can do is plan and then hope the weather cooperates!
We’ve found that both Cleardarksky and Accuweather are great tools for helping to plan night sky shots but then you need to find a dark spot with good composition opportunities to make for a truly compelling photo.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is one of only two Dark Sky parks in Florida – and on a clear night the sky is exceptionally dark, making stars, planets, and the Milky Way visible even with the naked eye.
Fortunately for us, Kissimmee is located less than an hour from our home in Okeechobee and our favorite place to camp. We booked three nights over the new moon in June and then hoped the weather would cooperate.
Our plan was to stay up late each night and take it easy during the day.
So, after we set up, I went for a short hike to scout out some potential locations for later that night.
On my walk I saw a beautiful female eastern towhee enjoying a little snack
And a hole I thought might be home to a snake until this little guy popped out!
This scraggly tree looked like it might make for a good composition so I planned to return to this spot later that night.
After dinner we watched a beautiful sunset
And relaxed by the campfire while we waited for nightfall.
The sky was so clear, and the stars so bright that TG set up his tripod around 9pm to start shooting a star stack. A star stack is a series of photos taken over several hours and then stacked together into a single photo using a special (free) program. The rotation of the earth gives the stars a beautiful “pinwheel” effect.
There weren’t a lot of campers that night, and everyone was out with lawn chairs set up to enjoy the cool evening and the brilliant night sky. Suddenly a meteor shot directly over our heads. It was the largest, brightest, most long-lasting meteor I had ever seen as it sailed across the sky and disappeared in a fireball on the horizon. And because TG was already shooting continuous 10-second exposures pointed in that direction, he was able to capture it!
A short time later I heard the unmistakable “squee” of a juvenile barred owl. I followed the sound and found her sitting on a branch directly behind the bath house – in so much light I was able to spot her as soon as I got close.
She was watching an opossum, but must have decided it was too big a meal.
I heard more rustling in the bushes and suddenly out popped three armadillos! Armadillos are nearly blind and this one practically bumped into me as he scurried on his way.
By now it was after 11pm and the Milky Way was rising above the tree line behind the campground. I took a few shots and then hiked to the scraggly tree I had scouted out earlier.
Just as I thought, the tree made for a beautiful composition with the Milky Way rising behind it.
After taking a few shots I headed back to our campsite and set up my tripod for my own star stack. I locked my shutter release for continuous 20-second exposures and went to bed.
TG woke me around 5am. The Milky Way was directly overhead
And we enjoyed the pre-dawn quiet with our morning coffee.
We decided to go for a short drive before the park opened.
The road was quiet this morning but we still managed to capture “iconic Kissimmee.”
We spent most of the day napping. Before dinner, I walked over to the Kilpatrick Hammock trail. This short, 1/2-mile loop is mostly shady, with two pretty wooden bridges.
I saw a black racer sunning on the path
And two lizards in some sort of territorial war on a palm frond.
Night drives at Kissimmee are always interesting and you never know what you might spy. Over the years I’ve seen alligators, wild hogs, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, deer, bullfrogs, and three different species of owls on the road after dark.
I’ve been meaning to do one for a while, so around dusk I drove the five miles to the park entrance. On my way I spied a beautiful red rat snake,
And a half dozen burrowing owls. I have seen these owls before but they usually fly away as soon as my headlights hit them. But this one stayed long enough for me to snap a quick photo.
Unfortunately, just as the Milky Way rose that night black clouds rolled in.
We had planned to stay until Saturday morning but received word that the new tent we ordered was to be delivered and required a signature.
The forecast called for another cloudy evening so we packed up and headed home early.
We are just at the start of Milky Way season. We have already booked dates in July, August, and September so, conditions permitting, we should have a lot more opportunities to see – and photograph – starry nights out at Kissimmee!
When the Covid hit back in early 2020, we thought that by the end of the year we would surely be able to fly international again. But as the months dragged on, we realized we were being overly optimistic and began to re-think our definition of “travel.”
In September of 2020, we bought Terrapin with the intention of exploring Florida for a year or so, driving no further than 2-3 hours away.
We’ve had an incredible time and are absolutely thrilled with how easily Oscar and Maddie have adapted to being happy campers.
We are now almost halfway through 2021, with no more clarity about when we can use our passports again than we had a year ago. Countries that are Covid-safe are either prohibitively expensive or do not want us. Countries that will accept us pose far greater health risks than we face here at home.
And there does not seem to be an end in sight. International travel is off the table for the rest of 2021 and most likely through most of 2022.
So, we have started to look beyond Florida to the rest of the USA. There are plenty of places in this great continent that we have never been and would love to visit.
But as much as we enjoy Terrapin, she only gets seven miles to the gallon. No big deal when driving the 35 miles to our favorite Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. But when planning a 5000-mile road trip, those gallons will add up quickly.
This week we began “Phase II” in re-defining travel. We bought a 10×14 tent and headed to Kissimmee Prairie for three nights.
The tent is big enough for a queen-size futon with plenty of room to spread out. If everyone were comfortable sleeping in the tent (including Oscar and Maddie), we could plan for longer distances in our much more fuel-efficient Jetta Sportwagon.
Because the forecast called for daytime highs in the 90’s, we also drove Terrapin so that we could leave the pups in cool A/C while we hiked during the day. But all of our cooking, washing, and sleeping would be in the tent.
Setting up camp took no time.
Once complete, we took a nap to introduce the pups to our new sleeping arrangement and escape some of the worst of the midday heat.
Later that afternoon we rode our bikes down to “alligator alley” for some fun gator action.
Storm clouds rolled in that evening and we fell asleep to the steady rhythm of the rain beating against the tent roof. Sometime after midnight we were awakened by two barred owls calling from the trees above us. “How wonderful!” I thought as I drifted back to sleep.
I woke long before dawn to find TG already up. The skies had cleared and the stars were shining bright. He had set up the tripod for a star stack, which turned out quite lovely.
While enjoying my first cup of coffee I heard the call of the barred owls again. I found one perched in a tree just a few yards away.
TG wanted to shoot the sunrise, so he took off east on his bike.
I was told about a nesting pair of white-tailed kites near the primitive campsites, about 2 ½ miles west. It was a beautiful morning, cool with a thin layer of mist hanging between the saw palmettos and the treetops.
On my way I saw at least a dozen deer including a shy buck,
Various warblers, ibis, herons, and eastern meadowlarks.
I also saw a large gator in a very small water hole right below the trail!
When I arrived at the nesting area, I spied a pair of swallow-tailed kites but not the promised white-tailed. But the swallow-taileds are also a beautiful bird and I was happy with the sighting.
That afternoon we rode our bikes back to the alligators, many of which were sunning themselves right along the trail!
We were also enchanted by the number of bobwhites out and about.
And I got to play “chicken” with an inquisitive yellow rat snake!
Although there were too many clouds to attempt any star shots that night, we did enjoy “glamping” with a freshly made pizza while listening to the night sounds.
TG was up early again Wednesday morning for another star stack.
I wanted one more chance for the white-tailed kites, so I rode my bike out to the nesting area.
Once there I found the swallow-taileds, a pair of red-shouldered hawks, crows, doves, a pileated woodpecker and even a bobwhite calling from a tree far away. But if there were white-tailed kites around, I did not spy them.
On of ride back, I passed a tiller coming from the opposite direction. He was getting the path ready for a controlled burn – cutting a six-foot wide swath of 3-inch deep furrowed rows in the soft dirt.
Not exactly bikeable, I walked the remainder of the way back to camp.
By the time I got back, TG had already begun to break down our campsite. Rain was in the forecast and we did not fancy packing a wet tent the following morning. We finished up and headed home.
All-in-all, “Phase II” was a success. Oscar only barked twice: once when a critter crunched in the gravel outside the tent, and a second time when noisy people walked by around midnight. If I were more awake, I would have barked, too! The pups did great and TG and I loved falling asleep under the stars, with the sounds of the night singing a sweet lullaby.
Before Covid, I never could have imagined tent camping. But so much has changed over the past fifteen months. And, as time goes on our bucket list has also evolved. Although we would love to see the temples of Nepal, Mt. Everest, or the Northern Lights, those trips are still just a dream. Until we can safely sit on a plane for ten hours, we are content to travel where Terrapin – or the Jetta – can take us.
When we were camping in Crystal River in January, we passed Colt Creek State Park on our way north. Curious, we went back to check it out while we were driving around one day.
In 2006 it was purchased from the Overstreet family to become Florida’s 160th State Park and covers over 5000 acres of pine flatwoods, cypress domes, and open pastures.
There are 17 miles of trails as well as the paved, main park road and three lakes for paddling.
The park even has kayaks and canoes available for rent if you don’t feel like bringing your own.
It looked good enough to book a two-night exploratory trip the last weekend in February. The family campsite is even newer than the park: it has only been open for three years and still has that “new camp smell.”
The clean, well-maintained sites are laid out with plenty of room to accommodate your rig, plus picnic table, grill, and fire ring. We remarked that the campground must have been designed by an actual camper as there is more than enough space between each site and the saw palmettos provide good privacy screens.
Although most of the shade is slash pine trees, there is enough room to maneuver your vehicle to avoid the hottest of the morning or afternoon sun.
The central bath building has separate his/her facilities each with two spacious shower stalls. There is also a stainless steel sink with hot & cold water for washing dishes,
And (wait for it) … vending machines with Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies!
The only weird thing is the firewood. At $5 a bundle it’s very reasonable and certainly beats lugging kiln-dried from home. But the logs are stored in a loose pile in a code-locked shed near the campground entrance. Unless you’ve brought along a wheelbarrow there is no easy way to get it from the shed to your campsite.
The drive up from Okeechobee was uneventful, although in hindsight driving through the traffic in Bartow and Lakeland on a Sunday afternoon was probably not ideal.
Even so, we arrived shortly after 3pm and were set up in our site (#30) in no time.
Andy took a nap while I hiked the nearby Flatwoods Trail. This trail is actually 10 miles long but the trailhead nearest the campgrounds is only about two miles and takes you through the woods to the southern end of the three lakes.
These lakes were part of the Overstreet’s rock mining operation in the 1990’s. The pits were deep enough to reach the aquifer layer and as a result, are now natural-looking lakes with numerous species of birds, aquatic plants, and animals.
On my way I spied a red-shouldered hawk, red-bellied woodpeckers,
A raccoon, and the unmistakable “who cooks for you?” hoot of a barred owl. I tried to locate him through the trees but was reluctant to venture too far into the woods.
Cormorants and pied-billed grebes were swimming in Little Lake.
There is a bathroom building (with flush toilet), picnic pavilion, and small parking area between the two lakes.
A grassy path takes you towards the third and largest, Mac Lake
which also has a fishing pier extending 75 feet out over the water.
A great white egret was just finishing his meal while vultures circled overhead.
I made it back to the campground shortly before dark. That night the sky started out clear and we set up to shoot some star shots.
Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in early but we were encouraged by the brilliance of the stars!
We spoke with a ranger later in our stay who told us that there are no lights at the fishing pier. It promises to be a great spot to set up on a clear, moonless night!
Monday March 1, we woke before dark and the light of my flashlight caught a little bunny as I opened the door to let Oscar and Maddie out. Andy exclaimed, “a March hare!”
We set out for a morning walk around 7:30am. No sooner had we hit the main, paved road when we saw a water moccasin crossing in front of us! We gave him plenty of time to slither into the brush before continuing on our way.
We took the same path on the Flatwoods Trail as I had taken the afternoon before, and I shuddered thinking about how far I had ventured on the leaf-covered forest floor!
As we rounded a turn on the path, I spied a barred owl on a shaded branch. Just as quickly he flew to a nearby tree, landing in the most perfect light we could hope for.
He sat long enough for us to take a few shots before disappearing into the forest. “Thank you!” I cried as he flew away.
There are three tributaries that run through the park including Gator Creek, Little Gator Creek, and the park’s namesake Colt Creek. An impossible shot, we spied a small group of ibis pecking in the creek that flows through the Flatwoods Trail.
On my walk the afternoon before, I had spied a brilliant blue bird with orange chest but he moved so quickly I was not able to snap a photo. As we headed towards the pavilion between the two lakes, we saw him again. I have since learned it was an Eastern bluebird. We ended up seeing several during our stay.
Although there are signs everywhere warning of alligators and “no swimming”
we spied only one small gator hiding in the lily pads in smallest of the three lakes.
We took the short-cut gravel road to the ranger station and paused to photograph a very cooperative Eastern phoebe.
On our walk back along the paved, main park road
we spied a beautiful male cardinal in the mid-morning sun,
We also saw common doves, a blue-gray gnatcatcher, and multiple palm warblers.
It was a long hike in the hot sunshine and by the time we got back to camp it was naptime in Terrapin’s cool A/C!
Because we booked this last minute, we had to move campsites for our second night. It was a bit of a hassle but we were settled into our new spot (site #12) by 1pm. We did, however, have to walk back to the ranger station to re-check in since we had no cell service.
It was a beautiful hike with another snake crossing our path (too quick to ID), a swallow-tailed kite soaring overhead,
A hunting little blue heron,
And tri-color heron on a kiosk rooftop.
On our way back to camp, we detoured through the short (1/4 mile) Mac Lake Nature Trail.
This trail is located close to the day parking area and has interpretative signs at various spots along the way.
We had not decided which way we would hike back to the campsite but the hoot of a barred owl pulled us once again in the direction of the Flatwoods Trail. We did not spy him but it was a nice walk back in the cool shade of the forest.
That night it was too cloudy to think about setting up for star shots. Instead, we just hung out at the campfire and called it an early night.
Tuesday morning it was time to go home. But first, one more hike to look for the barred owl. I heard two calling back and forth – a male and a female – but did not spy them. I did however spot a pair of sandhill cranes and a great blue heron overhead,
And two new-to-me TTB’s (tiny twitchy birds): A Carolina wren
And a black & white warbler.
Once I got to the lakes, I was delighted to see a red-winged blackbird pecking in the lily pads and at least 17 American robins having breakfast on the lawn.
On my way back, I passed a woman who said she had just been charged by an aggressive wild turkey! I kept an eye out but did not see him.
We have camped enough now that packing up Terrapin and pointing our way towards home takes no time. We were on the road by 10am and even with a stop for gas, pulled into our driveway around 12:45.
Colt Creek is a beautiful park and an easy drive from Okeechobee. And now during the winter months, the wildflowers are in full bloom!
You can be sure we’ll be going back.
In fact, we have already booked another long weekend around Andy’s birthday and five nights later this summer.
Ever since we moved to Florida, I have made an annual trek to Crystal River to snorkel with the manatees. Winter is peak manatee season and I try to go sometime around my birthday in January. So, when we were thinking about where to take Terrapin this month, it was only natural that I would search for campsites in that area.
I wanted something close to Crystal River, but also convenient for other places we might want to explore. I found the perfect spot in Hernando: a private Air BnB-style campsite that the owners have set up on a lot adjacent to their weekend home. The property is called “My Lake Camp” and can be found on the Hipcamp website:
It offers electric, water, and sewer hook-up along with a level, concrete pad and plenty of room for a second car.
It is situated on a beautiful lake and includes a small pier, gazebo, and a fire pit. There is also a boat/kayak launch on the owner’s side of the lot. It is a perfect spot for enjoying nature and practicing landscape shots.
We booked four nights over my birthday week and planned to set out early Monday morning. Unfortunately, things did not work out quite as expected!
Car trouble delayed us a day, but by Tuesday morning we were ready to go. We arranged for a rental car in Sebring and once we picked it up, TG drove Terrapin while I followed behind in a Nissan with Oscar and Maddie.
We arrived at our campsite around midday and spent a quiet afternoon relaxing and enjoying the view.
A Muscovy duck was busy taking a bath,
An Eastern phoebe landed in the tree above me,
And a pair of sandhill cranes flew across the lake and landed in the yard a couple houses down.
No sooner had we sat down for dinner when we heard the unmistakable “who cooks for you” call of a barred owl. Then to our utter amazement, she flew directly in front of us from one tree to the next! I grabbed my camera but it was too dark for much more than a silhouette shot.
Even so, I was absolutely thrilled. For Tuesday WAS my birthday and I could not have asked for a more delightful gift. After dark, we turned in to Terrapin for birthday cake and a fun game of “Trekking the World.” We both made it to Australia — something we have yet to do in real life!
Wednesday morning, we had planned to drive about an hour north for some hiking at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. But we were completely socked in with fog.
As we sat enjoying our coffee, the owl called again and we located her in the same tree as the night before.
We shot more photos as we waited for the fog to clear.
Too overcast to even think about nature photography, we decided instead on a little road trip. We piled the pups in the back of the car and were on our way.
TG got some great shots of the vintage V.E. Whitehurst Cattle Co. gas station, a spot he has wanted to re-visit since the last time we were up this way (and it was raining).
And I wanted to check out Silver Springs State Park.
There is a resident troop of wild monkeys which I hoped to see.
I did not spy any monkeys but I did see plenty of manatees in the impossibly blue water,
Along with wading birds hunting at the shoreline.
On our way back to camp we detoured by the Old Weirsdale Elementary School, which was closed in the 1970’s and is supposedly haunted by black-eyed children …
The owl was still in the same tree where we left her that morning. I called my friend Deb who was staying that night in Crystal River and she was able to make the drive over to capture a few images before dark.
Thursday morning, I met up with Deb and another friend to snorkel with the manatees. I watched the beautiful, pink full moon set as I drove the half hour to Hunter Springs Park, our rendezvous spot.
By 8am we were paddling to Three Sisters Springs. We could not have asked for a more beautiful day with clear blue skies and bright sunshine.
Unfortunately, everyone else must have thought it was a perfect day, too, as it was very crowded for a weekday and the manatees for the most part stayed inside the roped-off sanctuaries.
But we still had a great time with enough “keepers” to make all three of us happy.
The sky was clear that night and the moon very full. We did not see any owls but we could hear them calling from the trees all around us.
We spent the evening taking sunset and moon shots before a competitive game of Scrabble.
Friday ended up being a bonus day. We were originally supposed to leave but due to our car trouble, our hosts graciously extended our stay for one more night at no additional charge.
We decided to check out the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. This is something we have wanted to do for a long time but it is only open Friday-Sundays and a long, two-hour drive from home.
We piled the pups in the car and left bright and early, stopping at McDonalds for breakfast on-the-go.
On our way, we were once again treated to a beautiful, pink moon set.
The Wildlife Drive ended up being something of a disappointment. To be sure, it is beautiful and there are thousands of birds.
But it is also very crowded, with cars crawling along at 10mph stopping for every moorhen and alligator they see.
There is not much that we can’t also see here in Okeechobee — and with a lot less people around!
The highlight was a bald eagle’s nest at the exit.
Including a fluffy little eaglet!
On our way back to camp we passed a beautiful sunflower field
And swung through Colt Creek State Park. It looks to be a great spot and we have already booked two nights over TG’s birthday in April.
Our My Lake Camp host, Dan, arrived shortly after we got back.
As we chatted, the barred owl flew from one tree to the next and we were able to capture a few more images in the golden, afternoon light.
Just after dark, her mate landed in a nearby tree. He cocked his head at us and then flew next to her, stopping for a second before they both vanished into the night. Too quick and dark for photos, we simply thanked them for spending the week with us.
Saturday morning it was time to pack up and head home. We love camping but after four nights we were looking forward to a good night’s sleep in our king-sized “5-Star Hotel” bed at Casa Mini. Driving backroads, it took us about four hours and we pulled into our driveway around 12:30pm.
With its own owl “concierge” I was absolutely smitten with our choice for a campsite. What an incredible birthday gift and a week we will never forget!
I have always had a weakness for owls, so when TG suggested we fly north to photograph snowys, you bet I was on it! A popular spot is Plum Island in Massachusetts, where on any winter day you are pretty much guaranteed multiple sightings. But the COVID restrictions for traveling to MA are complicated and not something we wanted to deal with on a short trip.
We started looking at other areas in the US and were happy to discover that Michigan also has snowy owls, including the area around the Grand Rapids airport. Over the past 10 years, there have been dozens of sightings during the month of January alone.
In early November 2020 we booked a roundtrip flight PBI-GRR, a hotel close to the airport, and an Avis SUV. I began checking the ebird sightings daily and to my dismay there were none at the airport as we drew closer to our January, 2021 departure date!
But ebird is an incredibly useful tool and it was easy to find other “hotspots” within the general Grand Rapids vicinity. The Muskegon Wastewater Management facility looked especially promising. According to their website it’s free to enter but you must have a Visitors Pass. So, I called ahead and reserved one for the week.
A few notes about flying in this time of Covid. We flew Tuesday-Tuesday, avoiding potential weekend crowds. We flew in and out of smaller airports with less flights and people. We looked for connecting flights vs. direct to avoid long hours sitting on the plane. We wore N95 masks the whole time (I wore my pretty owl mask on top so was doubly protected) and never used the lavatory.
We stayed at a Hyatt Place, which we already knew is doing a great job keeping Covid-safe. They space people out in the hotel and allow each room at least 24 hours between new guests. They have suspended daily housekeeping unless you request it.
We brought our own food from home for breakfast and lunches. We went to a grocery store twice to buy things for dinner and also bought a coffee maker ($19) to avoid going downstairs in the morning. All-in-all we took every precaution we could think of to keep ourselves as safe as possible.
Our first morning we headed directly to the Muskegon Wastewater facility.
We programmed country roads into Siri and were treated to spectacular panoramas as we drove up and down the hills of Western Michigan.
Our Visitor’s Pass was waiting in the after-hours mailbox, as promised.
We had no idea what to expect once we were up on the berm.
The place is huge, with giant pools processing septic waste brought in by a continuous parade of big trucks.
We were told this is a working facility and the trucks get right of way.
But we were welcome to drive around any of the areas indicated on the map that was included with my packet. Some of the roads are concrete with high retaining walls that surround the actual treatment pools.
Others surround what they call “dry” ponds, which are basically big, open fields. There are also two huge frozen ponds (storage lagoons), which can be circumnavigated. These all have raised dirt roads that reminded me of the levees here in Florida.
The entire facility is around 11, 000 acres
And is home to literally thousands of birds.
According to ebird, snowy owls are regularly seen on the center road between the two frozen ponds, so we started there. About ¾ of the way down, two cars were stopped, looking at a tiny black dot out on the ice.
We quickly learned those tiny black dots are owls!
After spending some time with her, we turned back towards the entrance. TG said, “which way?” and I replied, “I feel we should go left.” This turned out to the right choice as we came upon a beautiful young female sitting on a pipe close to the road.
She stayed for a few minutes and then flew to the concrete wall,
Where she sat for the remainder of the day.
It was almost dusk by the time we pointed ourselves towards home and we later learned that sitting in one spot all day is typical behavior for female snowy owls.
Thursday morning, we were up early and anxious to get back to Muskegon.
We were barely on the berm when a female flew directly over us and landed on the ice to eat her breakfast.
She didn’t stay long before flying off again, but after our experience the day before, we figured she would be in that same area all day. So, we drove down the center berm and circumnavigated the frozen ponds.
We saw red-tailed hawks,
Thousands of Canadian geese and multiple duck species,
A new (to us) rough-legged hawk,
Gulls and bald eagles.
The Administration building has a bird feeder, and on our lunch break we snapped a few pics of the various tiny birds that flitted about.
That afternoon “Snowy” treated us to another close sighting. This time she sat perched on top of a yellow pole against the bright blue sky
Before dropping down to the concrete wall below.
It was another fantastic day and our memory cards were full by the time we headed for home. I joked to TG that now I wanted a pure-white adult male and to my delight he said “ok, let’s look for one tomorrow!”
Once back at the hotel, we checked ebird and found an area about two hours north with consistent sightings of an all-white male. We decided to head up there first thing Friday morning, again taking backroads so that we could enjoy the beautiful countryside.
Being from Florida, I also wanted a snowman!
The fields in the area we wanted to search were filled with giant windmills, silently turning in the morning fog.
We searched the power poles and although we did not find our male, we did spy another young female.
We followed her from pole to pole until we finally lost her against the white sky.
When I was a kid, my mother would ask my father to stop the car whenever we passed a stand of white birch trees so she could admire their beauty. It was only fitting that I asked the same from TG as we meandered our way back south.
Before heading to the hotel, we visited the Wastewater facility again. We found “Snowy” on her usual perch giving herself a little pedicure.
The sky was so blue and the air so crisp and clear we drove out to the center berm road and TG showed me how do shoot “starburst” sun shots.
We had decided that if we got enough good photos during the week, we would reserve the weekend for friends and family. Our good friends Chris and Sandy live in Union Pier, about 90 minutes south of Grand Rapids.
Happy with our pics thus far, on Saturday morning we headed south. But first we detoured to another ebird hotspot that promised an all-white adult male: the airport in Goshen, Indiana.
We were absolutely thrilled to find him sitting in a field across the road from the airport, looking for all the world like a tiny snowman!
He was at least 100 yards away and having had enough of our paparazzi, he flew even further into the field.
We thanked him for the photo op and pointed ourselves towards Union Pier.
I have known Sandy for almost 20 years and was matron of honor at her & Chris’ wedding.
We were so happy to squeeze in a short visit on this trip and apart from sleeping, spent most of our time outdoors.
They live close to Warren Dunes State Park and we spent a delightful afternoon catching up while enjoying the Michigan winter sunshine.
On Sunday morning TG’s brother and wife drove up from Chicago to meet us for brunch at a restaurant that offers private, outdoor “igloos” to stay warm and also Covid-safe.
And then it was time to head back to Grand Rapids and get ready for our last full day with the owls.
Monday was by far the coldest and dreariest day of our week. We arrived at the Wastewater facility just after sunrise and it seemed everyone was hunkered down against the cold. It took us a while to find even one owl.
We finally had one fly from the center berm road to a wooden structure in one of the frozen treatment pools where she sat for a while before disappearing across the ice.
TG was able to get some fantastic in-flight shots.
The wind was bitterly cold and since we were both happy with our photos from the week, we figured it was time to head back to the hotel. We had a 6am flight the next morning and we wanted to get to bed early. Besides, after six days of driving around on dirt roads in the ice and snow, we needed a car wash!
We could not have asked for a smoother journey home in planes so empty every passenger got a full row to themselves. We pulled into our driveway around noon, tired and happy.
The trip exceeded all expectations, with more owl sightings than we could have hoped for, plus the chance to spend a little time with family and friends. As of this writing, it has been a week since we returned home with no sign of any sickness. It appears all of our safety precautions were worthwhile.
Travel during these Covid days is not easy. You must weigh your risks carefully. But the same night we got home, we received word that TG’s cousin unexpectedly died, someone he had been close to since childhood.
In closing I want to share the words he posted on his Facebook page that night:
“In the midst of this pandemic, it is becoming clear to JET and me that we should balance the need for protecting ourselves against living our lives fully. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, despite today’s careful actions. Our Michigan trip was a calculated decision and we would do it again in a heartbeat. Don’t let these times paralyze you from living your life without regrets.”