Heading North, part 1: South Carolina

Despite all of the twists and turns we encounter in more than 12,000 miles of road, we often talked about our big trip having 4 main turns. We started by turning WEST in Pennsylvania, and though we wove around to see sights and visit friends, our general direction was west. When we reached the Pacific we made a giant left turn and started heading SOUTH along the West Coast. When we reached Mexico, we made our next big left turn and started driving EAST. Now, in Daytona Beach, we’d reached the Atlantic Coast. It was time for the last big left turn. Time to drive NORTH.

There was a vague restlessness in our camp that morning. After nearly 3 months on the road, moving every 2-3 days, we had developed some pretty good routines for breaking camp and getting on the road. But that morning, nothing seemed right. We were tired, a bit irritable, and lacked motivation. Eventually we had packed everything, hooked up the trailer, and buckled the kids into their car seats. We got in the car, looked at each other, and Staffan said, “North?”. It was then the reality started to sink in. NORTH was the last big turn. Once we made that turn, we were heading home. Something monumental was ending. For a brief moment we considered going west again instead, though we understood all the reasons why that wasn’t really an option. With heavy hearts, we made the last big left turn. North.

Not long after we got on the road, it started to rain. We’d been traveling for about 3 months but had only encountered rain a few times, and never in ways that interfered with our plans. Now the skies opened and the forecast assured us that this was not just a passing shower. It was almost poetic how the weather matched our moods, as if nature was mourning with us.

When we reached the Savannah, Georgia area, where we had tentatively planned to stop for the night, the rain hadn’t slowed and the wind blew cold. There were still several hours until bedtime, and while we had a small DVD player with us for such situations, we didn’t think it would keep the kids happily entertained and contained in the camper for that long. They seemed calm and content to be in the car and so we kept on driving.

We stopped for the night at the Point South KOA in Yemassee, South Carolina after a monumental yet uneventful day.

Campground Review Point South KOA:
Price: $44/night, which we felt was a little high for the off-season
Location: There’s not much in the area in terms of tourism but it is a beautiful area and the campground isn’t far from I95. It’s about 50 miles from Savannah and 60 miles from Charleston, so it could be reasonable to stay there and take day-trips to both cities.
Facilities: Most of the “extras” were closed for the off-season so it’s hard to comment, but we found the bathroom facilities to be perfectly adequate and they had a nice playground.
Site-description: Mixture of sand and grass, not strange for the Lowcountry. Plenty of trees.
Neighborhood: We didn’t have too many neighbors on a chilly, rainy weekday in November. Mostly retired long-term Rvers
Website: http://www.pointsouthkoa.com/
Comments: They advertise all kinds of other activities, like pizza delivery, wine tastings, and a coffee house, but on our one-night stay, we did not see or take advantage of any of these.

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Dayton Beach KOA – Campground Review

Since our friends were in a housing transition and staying with family, it was important to us to be able to visit with our friends at our campsite rather than expect them to host us. The Daytona Beach KOA gave us a great location to be able to do that. Here’s our campground review (spoiler alert: it’s a good one)

Price: $70 for 2 nights (not including KOA member discount)
Location: convenient to most Daytona Beach attractions. It’s not walking distance to the beach, but according to the website, it’s the closest campground to the beach.
Facilities: Great playground and a good laundry room. Bathroom and shower facilities were nothing special but perfectly adequate.
Site-description: Grassy sites with plenty of trees. The sites were also larger than what we experienced at many KOAs.
Neighborhood: November is obviously far from peak season, but on the weekend there were still a number of other campers in a variety of ages with a variety of camping styles.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/daytona-beach/
Comments: Fire rings are not included in the cost of the site, but cost $1 per day to rent.

Funny story about the fire rings: A couple that was tent camping on a neighboring site had read ahead of time that fire rings had to be rented for an additional fee. So they decided to buy their own fire ring to take with them. Once they had assembled it and used it for the weekend (literally 2 fires on 2 nights), they realized that they couldn’t fit the assembled ring back into their car to take it home with them. So they gave it to us and we happily accepted it. But for them, I’m pretty sure that renting for $2 would have been a better deal.

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Daytona Beach

Jess and I met in college. We had the same major, the same minor, shared faith and a lot of common interests. We were fast friends. After graduation, she headed off to teach as a missionary in Ecuador, and except for an occasional email, we lost touch for a while. A few years later, she was married to an Ecuadorian man and we reconnected over the headaches involved with sponsoring our foreign husbands through the American immigration system. One more thing we had in common. Oceans and time zones have made it difficult to stay in touch regularly but we have always been able to pick up where we left off whenever we do reconnect.

We hadn’t seen each other for 10 years, since we were wearing caps and gowns. I had never met her husband. We’d never seen each other’s children. The most exciting part about re-routing our trip through Florida was the chance to pass through Daytona Beach. We happily made plans to get together.

We made it to Daytona Beach on a Saturday afternoon, checked in to the Daytona Beach KOA, and set camp. Jess, David and little Matthias joined us soon and we headed out to get pizza and catch up. We could probably have sat at that table and talked until they closed, if not for the three very tired little people we had with us.

Sunday morning we went to church with them, grabbed a quick lunch and then headed to the beach. There was something satisfying about a dip in the Atlantic, making it official that we had literally been coast to coast on our trip. Perhaps even more satisfying was sitting on a sunny beach in November, well after the first snows had fallen at home in Sweden.

IMG_3185The kids preferred the sand, while watching Pappa run off into the surf.

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If you live this close to the beach, you have plenty of sand toys to share with friends

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We ended the day back at the KOA, cooking dinner and roasting marshmallows over a campfire. In other words, perfectly. The sun went down, the bugs came out, but still we sat “just a little longer.”

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Look! We’re riding a horse together!

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Eventually, the needs of our little people forced us to reluctantly end the evening. It was more than sadness at saying goodbye to friends we rarely get to see. We both sensed a deeper loss, as though something was ending…

Gulf Coast part 2: the Florida Panhandle

Continuing east into Florida, we stopped and spent a night at the Tallahassee East KOA campground. We had plans to meet up with friends in Daytona Beach for the weekend, so we did not take time to see or do anything in the area.
Here’s our review:

Price: $33/night after KOA member rebate
Location: Convenient to I-10 in the Tallahassee area.
Facilities: Great shower and bathroom facilities. The common room was comfortable, with armchairs and sofas like a family living room, and I sat there to work on updating our blog. I would have preferred to be able to sit in the camper, but the internet access didn’t extend out to the campsites, so that was a drawback. The playground was a little old and rundown, but since the ground was like one big sandbox, our kids were content to play around the campsite.
Site-description: Sand with some grass (the way it often is in areas where there is more sand that dirt on the ground); well-shaded with plenty of trees.
Neighborhood: A nice mixture of families and retired couples. No problems with noise or partying from other campers.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/tallahassee/
Comments: This campground offered baked goods at check in, and free continental breakfast including freshly made waffles on the weekends. But since this is no longer mentioned on their website, though, they may have stopped offering it. We would also recommend camping further away from the road. For us, the road noise was a drawback of this campground.

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Gulf Coast, part 1: Mississippi & Alabama

Leaving New Orleans, our next destination was Daytona Beach, FL. But since that trip was over 9 hours of driving time, we broke it up and made a couple of overnight stops along the Gulf Coast.

We didn’t spend much time in Mississippi, essentially just driving across the southern tip of it. But the Mississippi highlight was this exit marker off of I-10.

When I was a kid, my dad traveled often for work. I always asked where he was going when he left for trips, and often the answers were strange words like “Chattanooga” and “Pascagoula”. I naturally assumed he was teasing me and making up silly words. These couldn’t be real places. Imagine my surprise when I got a little older and found them on a map. Those are real places?! As a teenager I had the chance to visit Chattanooga, fully verifying its existence. And on November 8, 2012, though we didn’t take the time to visit, this road sign fully verified Pascagoula. Silly, maybe, but worth a photo.

IMG_3178 croppedIt’s blurry, but it counts!
Also, Cracker Barrel. Ubiquitous.

We stopped for our first overnight at Hilltop RV Park in Robertsdale AL. While we respectfully thank the hosts for the unique experiences we had staying there, we would not choose to return. Here’s a campground review:

Hilltop RV Park
Price: $25/night, after some discussion at check-in about whether we had to pay for the kids or not.
Location: Not so close to anything, as far as we could tell. It’s not far from the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida border, in the southern tip of Alabama.
Facilities: Adequate bathroom/shower building. There was also a common room/kitchen area, but we never used it.
Site-description: Grass sites with small trees and new-looking picnic tables
Neighborhood: Snowbirds. Somewhat exclusively, already in early November. The RV park markets itself to retired couples who want to spend the winter in a more moderate climate but who perhaps can’t afford to winter in Florida. Hence the pricing confusion over the kids. They don’t have a policy forbidding children, but they were obviously not used to having them.
Website: http://www.hilltoprvpark.com/
Comments: Of all the nights we spent in different campgrounds around the whole country, this one is the only one that refused to check us in under my name, because I’m a woman. Since Staffan was usually driving, it was usually easiest for me to register us when we first arrived. Apparently the registration needed to be in my husband’s name, and I needed to show his driver’s license as well as my own, to verify that we are married.
There were a few other things that made this RV park a bit quirky. They may be very well-suited to their niche, but family travelers may want to find another option. It was an okay place to spend the night, but we were happy to get back on the road in the morning.

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Son of a gun, gonna have big fun (on the bayou)

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Full confession: the title of this post comes from a line of a song in the movie Steel Magnolias. It’s been a number of years since I’ve seen it, but I think they dance to it in the wedding reception scene. For some reason, this song I barely know pops into my head every time I hear the word bayou. So now you know.

It seems that every time we spend time checking out a new city, however much we enjoy it and find lots of interesting things to see and do, we find ourselves itching to get back out to nature. Our visit to New Orleans was no exception. After spending a day touring the city, although there were many sights still left to see, we decided to take our second day in New Orleans to go to the other national park in NOLA, a bit outside the center city. So we made our way to Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and chose to hike the Bayou Coquille trail.

It’s striking how many different types of environments we had already explored in different parts of the United States, and yet the bayou area added yet another. We hoped to be able to see an alligator in the wild (at a safe distance of course), but November isn’t really the ideal month for alligators and we didn’t get to see any.

We had a great day exploring beautiful nature, and a picnic lunch in the sunshine. Because of the nature of the bayou, a bayou trail is mostly boardwalk. So it was a relatively easy walk. Most of it would have been accessible with the stroller, but carrying Peter in the backpack made it easier to go over bridges and up and down stairs.

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Trailhead, Bayou Coquille trail

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Plant life so dense you can’t even tell that’s water and not land

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Trying out the macro setting… I was pretty pleased with this one

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My favorite people in a beautiful place!

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We would recommend a visit to Jean Lafitte National Park to anyone visiting New Orleans. No visit to NOLA would be complete without experiencing this unique landscape that forms the foundation for much of New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s culture.

Info: http://www.nps.gov/jela/index.htm 

N’awlins

New Orleans is a city unlike any other we’ve been to, with a culture all its own. Since you could argue that this culture is built around alcohol and music, then for our purposes the music was in focus.

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We took a walking tour of the French Quarter and enjoyed beautiful architecture and waterfront views. We walked through an outdoor market and went to the Jazz National Historic Park (and stamped our national park passports, of course!)

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Beautiful characteristic wrought iron features and lots of flowering plants on porches and balconies.

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Because it’s famous, not because it was really our scene.
It was mostly deserted during the day anyway.

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Miraculously she did not fall in the fountain.
But the temptation to touch the water was just irresistible.

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Still plenty of riverboats to be seen. Makes me think of Mark Twain.

But New Orleans is above all a musical city. We went to a free concert that was indoors, complete with a stage and seats for the audience.

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Don’t ask me who this was… I’m not sure we even knew at the time.
He told stories and sang original songs.

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Attentive audience

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Captive audience (literally)

And we found less formal performances, like this one on a street corner where we found some curb seating.

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The band name: The Drunken Catfish Ramblers, written on a piece of cardboard.
It doesn’t get much more New Orleans than that!

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Not just any curb seating… under construction curb seating.
After all the walking it was just nice to sit down! And yes, my daughter is barefoot. In the middle of a city. What’s your point?

And a slightly different style down by the waterfront where we stood up to enjoy the performance (well most of us, anyway).

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During our visit to New Orleans we stayed 2 nights at the West New Orleans KOA campground.

Campground Review: West New Orleans KOA
Price: $78 for 2 nights
Location: Convenient to the most popular New Orleans tourist areas, but far enough away to be dark and quiet at night.
Facilities: perfectly adequate but nothing special
Site-description: grass/gravel, well shaded with plenty of trees. Sites are a little close together.
Neighborhood: A good variety of guests, from families to retired couples, camping with tents, pop-ups and larger RVs.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/new-orleans/
Comments: Shuttles are offered to and from the French Quarter, and public transportation is also an option. We chose to drive ourselves, mostly because of complications with car seats and for the sake of flexibility, so we can’t comment on this service. But as in most cities, parking downtown can be expensive and hard to find, so it might be a great option.

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