Data plan

I have read some chronicles of full-time RVers from long ago – like way back in the 1980’s – and life for them was indisputably more difficult than it is for us.  The RVs were less robust, the leveling systems were primitive, diesel fuel less available.  Almost all bills had to be paid by mail and banking, too, had to be done remotely unless you could find a local branch of your bank.  But the biggest difference was telephone.  Before cell phones, an RVer would have to stop at a truck stop to make a call. If you had a computer with an acoustic modem, you had to find a telephone that you could use long enough to do anything of value.  And the internet, still in its infancy, was more of a curiosity than a real tool for getting anything done.

Today we can call anyone we want anytime we want from almost anywhere. Yes, there are still “dead zones” where there is no signal, but they are rare.  I have more often been surprised by the high quality of the signal in places where I expected none than finding a poor signal when I expected a good one. Banking is done electronically using a cell phone app.  Almost all bills are paid electronically via debit or credit.  News, sports and information of all kinds is available via the internet.  Social media make it a snap to keep up with friends.

But all of this modern electronic convenience upon which we now depend as full-time RVers requires a cell phone data plan.  Bandwidth is money to the cell phone companies and they don’t just give it away.  Jett and I have a shared data plan with Verizon that, with equipment charges and taxes, runs about $200 per month.  We have to share 24GB of data.  That means that we cannot stream anything of any size.  Netflix? Forget it – a single movie is several gigabytes. We even have to be careful with social media.  There are so many video clips of children, cute cats and dogs and people doing stupid stuff embedded in Facebook postings that, if we aren’t careful, we can use a gigabyte in a day.

A year ago we were averaging about 12GB per month.  We are now nearly double that.  Are we using the internet more? Possibly, but I don’t think our usage has changed dramatically.  What I have seen develop over the past year is an insidious hidden usage of my data bandwidth by websites running in the background of my browser.  For example, unless you specifically block it, Windows tries to back stuff up to the “cloud”.  That is real data, in big chunks at times.  Facebook, if left running in the background, seems to continue to use data (for what I don’t know – maybe those cute cats continue to roll around when I am not looking).  There have been times when I have checked my usage in the morning and find that 4GB of data have passed through my router while I was sleeping!  I have had to buy “extra data” several times to avoid ridiculous Verizon surcharges.

We tried to train ourselves to shut down our laptops at night.  I even tried to routinely shut off the router before bedtime, though wasn’t very successful at that – too tired to remember, I guess.  But still the puzzling data drain continued. I finally got sufficiently frustrated that I called Verizon to get some insight into what was using the data.  They couldn’t really tell me that; they are, after all, just an internet provider.  It would be like asking the city where my water was going; they can only tell me how much water flowed through my meter.  But Verizon did offer me a plan with more data for less money.  Why didn’t they notify me sooner that such a plan was available?  Because they aren’t stupid, I guess.  But it was a bit annoying that I had to complain before they ‘fessed up that, yes, there was a better way.

Even with our kinder, gentler data plan we still need to be careful about what we leave running in our browser windows.  I believe Facebook and other social media sites suck up data like a black hole.  And even portal sites like msn.com consume data at a rate much higher than I would expect.  Our current strategy is to close such sites when we are done with them – we try to NEVER leave them running in the background.  This strategy has stabilized our data usage, though still at a higher rate than I can explain – about 600MB per day. But that is ok. Because that level of usage fits into our data plan and our data plan makes our RV lifestyle feasible.

“Think Twice” by Lisa Scottoline

St Martin’s Press, 2010

This is one of a series featuring Bennie Rosato, head of an all-female law firm in Philadelphia. Most books in this series are mysteries, with a strong cast of characters and a lot of time spent on romantic and family relationships, sometimes at the expense of the mystery. But, overall, I find the books enjoyable because the characters are robust and the romantic and family dramas are interesting. This one, Think Twice, is a bit unusual in that there really isn’t a mystery.  It probably should be classified as suspense.

The plot, basically, is that Bennie’s identical twin – an evil doppelganger named Alice Connelly – tries to kill Bennie, assume her identity for a few days and steal all her assets – over 3 million dollars. She, of course, almost gets away with it, but not quite.

I enjoyed the book, but I enjoy good mysteries more, so it being suspense rather than mystery did not elevate it in my esteem.  I also didn’t buy the way Bennie escaped being buried alive.  In a situation which should have killed her in a matter of a few hours, Bennie seems to have survived for over a day, then she had to battle a coyote to get out of her grave.  Meanwhile Alice was assuming her identity so well that no one at her office, or any of her clients, detected the substitution.  Even more unbelievable was that Bennie’s ex-boyfriend returns unexpectedly and resumes the interrupted romance, thinking that Alice is Bennie.

Finally one of the lawyers at the office begins to suspect something is amiss, but not because Alice was a dolt at law, but because a crazy woman from Italy who claimed superhuman powers identified Alice as an “evil woman.”

Lisa Scottoline is a skilled author who knows how to relate a tale. But this tale was too much of a stretch for me.

5 out of 10

Thanksgiving buffet

Thanksgiving buffet

Thanksgiving buffet

Jett and I have twice done Thanksgiving via Cracker Barrel. They offer a take-out Thanksgiving dinner for about 6 for just over $70 – a pretty good deal. You get a hefty portion of turkey, a lesser portion of ham, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetable and dinner rolls. A hearty feast.

This year we wanted to do something different. We debated going to Perkins or the local restaurant, Sunshine Cafe. But we opted to stay in the RV park and participate in the Thanksgiving buffet. The park provided turkey, ham, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy and coffee/tea. The residents brought hot dishes, salads and desserts.

Jett and I aren’t huge fans of buffets and we weren’t very optimistic that it would be any better than the church social buffets that dotted my childhood and adolescence. But I was pleasantly surprised. The turkey was just about the best I have ever had (sorry, Mom!) and the ham, while dry, was tasty. Even the resident-supplied dishes were quite good. So, for the cost of some salad fixin’s we had a Thanksgiving dinner that was better than Cracker Barrel’s.

The other benefit of a local buffet is the opportunity to introduce ourselves to the community. We sat at a table of 8, so we met 3 other couples. All were friendly and the conversation was interesting. Time will tell whether we made any lifelong friends, but it is not out of the question.

“Gideon’s Corpse” by Preston and Child

Grand Central Publishing, 2012

This was my first Preston and Child book featuring Gideon Crew, a nuclear physicist on loan to the FBI.  I may have read another Preston and Child book from their Pendergast series (Jett tells me I have), but if so I can’t recall it.  Preston and Child are one of Jett’s favorite authors, so I borrowed this one after she finished it.

You can read the synopsis yourself.

The plot reminded me a bit of the kind of plot you would find in the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child (no relation?): an over-the-top, the-nation-at-risk threat, thwarted by the actions of a single man. But the Reacher plots are, somehow, believable. I had a hard time believing this one – a man on the run from 22 federal agencies, involving tens of thousand of people, yet he is able to move freely around New Mexico, drive cross-country to Maryland and pass easily through security at both Los Alamos and Fort Derrick. Yeah. Either he was really lucky or our security agencies are totally incompetent.

I was also surprised at the Indiana Jones flavor of the action. Crew goes from one life-threatening predicament to the next with barely time to catch his breath. The surprise was the Jett enjoyed this as it just doesn’t seem like a plot she would enjoy. She told me afterward that she prefers the Pendergast series, but that the Crew series was “ok”. Well, in my view “ok” is a compliment.

4 on a 10 scale.

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Pleasant walk

Pleasant walk on a beautiful day

On Sunday, Oct 13, the day before our final TTS hop, Jett and I visited the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park which was just a mile from our RV site. We almost didn’t go as it was competing with a large annual seafood festival in Homosassa Springs, which also sounded interesting. But I had seen the crowds at the festival and it looked like it might be a hassle just getting there, so we opted for the more “gentle” outing to the state park.

We are glad we did.

This is a beautiful state park/zoo. It offers wonderfully landscaped walkways, interesting animals and opportunities for photos at every turn. We were there just over 2 hours and I snapped over 50 photos. And the weather cooperated – low 70’s, sunny, light breeze. A great day to enjoy the wildlife.

The park had a long history as a private tourist attraction and was home to a number of animals that appeared in Hollywood films. The only one remaining – and the only resident animal not native to Florida – is “Lu”, a 60-year-old hippo that was made an “honorary resident of Florida” and is being allowed to live out her life in this beautiful park. Lu spends most of her time in the water and enjoys drinking fresh water from a hose.

Lu getting hosed down

Lu getting hosed down

Most of the animals in the park are ones that were injured, rescued and treated, but were, due to their injuries, unable to survive in the wild. The bald eagle – minus a right wing – is one such animal.

Rescued bald eagle

Rescued bald eagle

The injured birds, because they can’t fly, were in open enclosures. There were also many other birds – including lots of vultures and herons – that were also free to come and go as they pleased, but they obviously chose the park as there were hundreds of them. Free food, I imagine. But it was a memorable up-close-and-personal encounter with some very large vultures.

Bird sanctuary

Bird sanctuary

Free-range vultures

Free-range vultures

The highlight, though, was the manatee feeding and the below-water-line observation deck. This was a wonderful opportunity to see manatees as they were feeding. There are 3 manatees – the “ladies” that are permanent residents of the park, but during the winter months the gates are opened and other manatees enter the park to bask in the 70-degree spring water. These are huge (2,000 pounds), lumbering beasts. A sight to see.

Feeding manatees

Feeding manatees

TTS Hop 10: Homosassa, FL, to Ft Myers Beach, FL

214 miles via US 98 (with a truck route detour around Brooksville), I-75 and county roads to the destination. Cumulative tow miles: 2,263.

TTS Hop 10

TTS Hop 10

We have done this route several times before, so there were no surprises. US 98 is always a pleasure. I-75 is always busy. But they are both relatively smooth and flat, so it was a cruise control trip most of the way. We made a lunch stop at a rest area near Tampa and arrived at our destination before 3pm.

Thus ends the TTS. The TTS will be designated “the trip without dings”. No accidents, no blowouts, no truck engine failures… nothing that required a deviation from the original plan. The only real deviations were in our hop destinations. This was a trip in which I, for the first time, did not book all of the destinations in advance. We started out booked only for the first 3 hops, to MD. In Maryland I booked the next 3, to Charleston. In Charleston I booked the final 3. I think this was a good strategy as it allowed for the possibility that circumstances or interests would change (they didn’t). And it gave me time to consider some options for the final 3 hops. The original plan was to do a “space coast” (Cape Canaveral) route, but Jett was not interested in Cape Canaveral and I don’t like I-95 and I-4. So we opted for a trip across Georgia, to the Florida panhandle, and then down US 98 and I-75. That gave us an opportunity to spend a few days in the Florida panhandle and Crystal River, both of which held more appeal for Jett.

The final mileage: 3,070 which includes just over 1,000 non-tow (i.e., driving the truck around) miles. Half of those were in Massachusetts during our 6-day stay there. The rest were visiting points of interest and doing chores (eating, refueling, shopping). The truck, with its repaired engine, performed admirably.

The highlights of the trip? Biltmore, Ellie Schiller Wildlife State Park (more on this in the next post), the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherry Hill Park, General Coffee State Park. The lowlights? Jett’s health (she is still coughing) and the 2016 election. I try to not be political here, but the fact is that when I think of this trip I will think of the sleepless night in General Coffee when the scope of the election disaster became apparent.

Our home for the two nights was the Homosassa River Sun RV Resort in Homosassa, FL. This park’s main advantage was proximity to Crystal River and our site’s proximity to the laundromat. We had a large cache of dirty laundry that needed washing, to getting a site next door to the spanking-new laundromat was a boon. I also got to watch the first half of the Patriots/Seahawks game (they lost!) at the Suncoast Bar and Grill in Homosassa. I went there specifically to watch the game, but also decided to eat there, to stretch out my stay. I was expecting the place to be busy but in fact I was the only patron. So I got a chance to meet and chat with the owner and his barmaid wife. Nice folks. He also makes a very fine blackened chicken breast sandwich. It was better than fair – one of the better sandwiches I have had lately. It was a fun experience, tempered only by the fact that they shut down at 10pm, during halftime at the game. I didn’t get to see the disappointing (for the Patriots) finish. Probably not a bad thing.

The RV park was a mixed bag. Yes, the site was large and, for our purposes, the location adjacent to the laundromat was perfect. But the office had misplaced my reservation, the office was hard to find (no signage – probably due to their recent name change – but “Office” would have been simple and effective), the roads were narrow and the cable didn’t work. We had two quiet, TV-free nights to end the trip (ironically, the cable was out when we got to our destination, so the cable-free nights stretched to 3). Most annoying was the fact that they neglected to inform us that they would be repaving the driveway Monday morning, so we were delayed getting on the road. And no one told us what to do – wait or go to the emergency exit (one resident told us to do that but another resident immediately disagreed and said that the back exit was locked. We had to call the office to find out what to do (wait a few minutes for the paving equipment to clear the driveway). The whole experience left me feeling that they just didn’t have their act together. Not recommended.

I seem to have either gotten no pictures of Homosassa River or have lost them. No great loss.

TTS Hop 9: Carrabelle, FL, to Crystal River, FL

200 miles via US 98 and US 319. Cumulative tow miles: 2,049.

TTS Hop 9

TTS Hop 9

This hop was more difficult than it should have been. Yes, the navigation was a breeze: just turn right out of the RV park and keep going until we were within 3 miles of our destination. But is was complicated by the fact that there were no gas stations with diesel near Carrabelle (or at least none that showed up on GasBuddy), so I had to use the 4 gallons of reserve fuel to get us the 40 miles to a refueling stop (we did pass 2 other gas stations along the way that offered diesel, so don’t always believe GasBuddy). When we got there a tanker truck, delivering gasoline, was blocking the diesel pump, so we had to wait about 20 minutes for it to finish and depart. Then Grace decided that today was the time for her to have a very smelly “accident” in the back seat. Another 20 minutes to clean that up and dispose of the carpet that covered the seat, just in case of incidents like this. Next, when we arrived at our destination they had no record of our reservation. Fortunately, they had room for us, but it took and extra 10 minutes to re-enter all the information that I am positive I had already provided. Finally, when we got to the site we discovered that the cable hookup was not functioning. And no over-the-air reception either. So 2 nights off the TV grid.

But the route itself was wonderful. I love US 98!  Four lanes, very flat, very smooth, almost no traffic.  Just cruise along. If only all roads could be like 98…

Ho Hum RV Park

Ho Hum RV Park

Our home for the 3 nights in Carrabelle was the Ho Hum RV Park, right on the water. A strange name for an RV park, but the staff embraces it; they greet you with “Good morning, I hope you have another Ho Hum day!” The upside of being right on the water is the spectacular Gulf of Mexico scenary. The downside is all of the sand that inevitably gets tracked into the RV. We put down our outdoor carpet, but that only reduced the mess.

This is a small park – maybe 50 sites – with few amenities. But who needs amenities when you have the Gulf at your doorstep?

When we arrived they couldn’t find my reservation. Probably my fault (shhhh… don’t tell Jett); I think I gave them the wrong dates. Fortunately they had a place for us. Jett was annoyed that I didn’t spend the extra $7 per night to get a back-in spot right on the water (which they may not have had, but I didn’t ask as I was just so relieved that that had a spot). Usually she prefers the pull-through sites because they are more convenient, but in this case she would have preferred the back-in. Note to self: get a spot on the water if possible.

The dogs enjoyed the walks on the beach and I loved taking photos. I hope you enjoy them.

Dog walking on the beach

Dog walking on the beach

Beach stumps

Beach stumps

Fishing pier

Fishing pier

Gulf view

Gulf view

Back-in sites on the beach

Back-in sites on the beach

Carrabelle, FL

Sunset in Carrabelle

Sunset in Carrabelle

Sunset in Carrabelle

Sunset in Carrabelle

I don’t usually blog about small towns that I visit just once, but our trip into and through Carrabelle, FL (pop. 2,778) was interesting enough to warrant its own post.

First, we, quite by accident and more due to laziness than an actual plan, headed west into Carrabelle just in time to catch the sunset. The spectacular, breathtaking sunset. I simply admired it for a few miles, then realized that I should be taking a few photos. I caught the tail end of the sunset, so some of the colors had faded, but it was still stunningly beautiful.

Interior of Fathoms

Interior of Fathoms

Second, because it was late and we were hungry, we decided to dine out. Carrabelle doesn’t offer a wide variety of dining options, particularly if you exclude Subway and pizza joints. But we passed the Fathoms Steam Room and Raw Bar on our way through town and Jett thought it looked sufficiently interesting to give it a try. We almost missed it on our return trip, because it had gotten quite dark, and when we stopped we almost moved on as there were some very sketchy guys hanging out, with a few Harleys outside. But our hunger got the better of us and we decided to take on chance on what we thought was a biker bar.

We are glad we did. Jett ordered the crab leg dinner which was, in her view, quite good, with a steamed vegetable medley (well, more a duo than a medley – broccoli and potatoes) that was arguably tastier than the crab. I opeted for the seared tuna sandwich. I like seared tuna, but have never had it in sandwich form. It was spectacular. Perfectly seared and seasoned, in Texas toast. I think it was one of the best sandwiches ever. Outstanding!

Fathoms is rated only #4 of 11 among restaurants in Carrabelle (where are the other 10?), but I would give it 5 stars. If you are ever in Carrabelle (and why would you be?), give it a try.

Sunset in Carrabelle

Sunset in Carrabelle

Crab leg dinner

Crab leg dinner

Seared tuna sandwich

Seared tuna sandwich

TTS Hop 8: Douglas, GA, to Carrabelle, FL

TTS Hop 8

TTS Hop 8

196 miles via GA 32, US 221, US 41, GA 31, FL 145, FL 14, I-10, US 19, FL 59, US 98 and US 319. Cumulative tow miles: 1,849.

Does that route sound complicated? It was. This was arguably the most complex route we have had on any hop in any of our trips. The Google map initially offered 3 routes and I waffled back and forth over them for hours. The shortest route had too many turns. The middle route took me down a narrow street and through a roundabout. So I opted for the longest of the 3 routes.

Naturally, the GPS couldn’t find it. So I traveled over 50 miles along the route, hoping that the GPS would eventually catch up. It didn’t. I came to an intersection where – God forbid – I had to use my gut instinct and chose to continue further on US 221. So the route we took ultimately was “none of the above.”

This made for a pretty stressful trip. I was comforted only by the knowledge that I was traveling in approximately the right direction (thanks, compass) and that there were no low bridges within 100 miles (thanks, Low Clearances). Despite being, in a sense, lost, the route ended up shorter than the route I had planned to take.

The final error was that we entered the wrong destination address, using “US 98 W” instead of “US 98 E”. I was cruising along, thinking I still had 8 more miles to go, when our target – the Ho Hum RV Park – suddenly appeared on our left. Some quick braking and a sudden left turn and we were home. Whew!

Our overnight stay the night before the hop was the General Coffee State Park, about 7 miles east of Douglas, GA. This was just an overnight, but it was special in that it was our very first state park campsite. We have avoided state parks because most either don’t have RV camping or don’t have RV camping for a big rig like ours. General Coffee not only had RV camping but had lots of spacious sites. Most of them were 30-amp electric sites but they did have a couple of 50-amp sites. None of the sites have sewer, but they do have a dump station and in any case the lack of a sewer connection for a single night is no real problem.

Campsite at General Coffee

Campsite at General Coffee

We got there just before sunset and didn’t have a lot of opportunity to look around, but I liked what I saw. First, the park is huge – we had to drive 2 miles into the park to find our campsite. Second, it seems to have a lot of amenities. Beach (apparently with canoe rentals) and possibly horseback riding as we passed a stable with 3 horses. Very nice. I don’t know what else is in the area – Douglas itself doesn’t have anything that would attract me – but if you ever find yourself looking for a campsite near Douglas GA, consider General Coffee State Park.

We picked a site (yes, they let you pick your own site) that was heavily wooded and pretty secluded. Very, very quiet and very, very dark. One negative: there is absolutely no television reception. No cable, no over-the-air. It was a quiet night with DVDs.

The dogs enjoyed the nature trail walk in the morning.

Morning walk

Morning walk

TTS Hop 7: Charleston, SC, to Douglas, GA

TTS Hop 7

TTS Hop 7

216 miles via US 17, I-85, GA 196, US 84, GA 203 and GA 32. Cumulative tow miles: 1,653.

Charleston market

Charleston market

This was a 4-hour trip with a midpoint lunch stop – no fuel, just lunch – mostly on roads that we had not taken before, except for I-95. I was expecting the roads to be narrow, but except for portions of the final stretch on GA 32, all were 4-lane roads in good repair. The traffic was fairly light and the weather was fine (partly cloudy, low 70s), to it was a pretty pleasant jaunt. Jett, who is still not feeling great, slept for an hour.

Because she was not feeling well, the 4 days in Charleston were less adventurous than we had planned. We made it into town just twice – on Saturday to walk around a bit, do some gift shopping and dine at the Charleston Crab House – and on Monday to dine at Tommy Condon’s, the Irish Pub that was one of the highlights of our first visit. We remember their fried green tomatoes – hand battered and served with a corn chutney. It was then – and is still now – the best friend green tomato dish that we have encountered anywhere. We also had some friend green tomatoes at the Crab House but there is simply no comparison. If you want fried green tomatoes in Charleston, go to Tommy Condon’s.

My entrée at the Crab House was a “shrimp steampot”, a nice steamed concoction featuring peel-and-eat shrimp complemented with a few red potatoes and chorizo sausage. Very good. My entrée at Tommy Condon’s was fish and chips, accompanied by a local ale. Excellent! Again, decision to Tommy Condon.

Shrimp steampot

Shrimp steampot

Entrance to Tommy Condon's

Entrance to Tommy Condon’s

Our home in Charleston this time was the Oak Plantation Campground, a very highly-rated RV park about 10 miles west of Charleston. It was our second choice. We had wanted to return to the Campground at James Island Park, but they had no availability on the weekend. As a second choice, Oak Plantation was pretty good. Our site was huge, there was a dog park nearby and the other amenities looked very nice. However, the water was harsh and made for very bitter coffee and the check-in process was strange and quite annoying. They had lost my reservation, which delayed the checkin for about 10 minutes, then I had to sign a pledge promising I would clean up after my pets. That is a first. Almost every park has that as one of their rules, no surprise, but a separate signed form on which I had to list the names of my pets?  Not their breeds or their sizes, mind you, but their names.  Were they going to file complaints against the individual dogs if they fouled the property?  Makes no sense.  Just bizarre.

Oak Plantation

Oak Plantation

Our site at Oak Plantation

Our site at Oak Plantation