Even though we’ve been planning for this moment for a year, I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
We lived in this house for 7½ years. Minnie Mouse was 3 when we moved in. It was December, and we wasted no time setting up the Christmas tree and decorating for the holidays. It seems like a lifetime ago, and yet just like yesterday.
But, after the honeymoon period was over, I developed a love-hate relationship with this house. I do not love the 3 toilets I have to keep to clean. I do not love the yard work that is required to keep the beautiful backyard looking semi-beautiful. I do not love doing dishes by hand every day. I do not love traveling up and down two flights of stairs to do laundry.
However, I do love the memories we’ve made here. I love the friendship Minnie Mouse developed with the neighbor girl through the back fence. I love the sunroom. I love how the sun pours in the windows of the little office and the master bedroom in the morning, and then in the afternoon it does the same in the other two bedrooms. I love the sour cherry tree in the backyard.
Despite all the reasons our little family has loved this house, we have made a decision to go against the grain, and down-size. No, we aren’t moving into Harriet full-time–not yet anyway. But, we do know we want to travel more. In order to do that, we have decided to live in a smaller house so we have less to keep up—less to steal our time.
So, we are stepping out on a new adventure. We don’t have a solid plan, which is both a little unsettling and little exciting. But we do have a goal, and that feels good. A goal to spend more time together having adventures and seeing the world. A goal to focus more on people and less on things.
Sunday we left Bradenton for the Happiest Place on Earth! For the first time, we stayed on site in a Disney resort, camping at Ft. Wilderness Resort and Campground.
Our Disney experience began with the nightly campfire and sing-a-long hosted by Chip and Dale (and, just in case you can’t remember which is which, we learned that Chip has the dark nose, like a chocolate CHIP). We played Bingo, sat by the fire, and sang songs. Then, we headed back to Harriet to make s’mores (because we forgot to bring our marshmallows to the party).
Minnie Mouse and Dale
S’mores by the stove!
We spent our first day at Epcot. Minnie Mouse had a blast on Test Track and Mission: SPACE. We traveled through the countries, and Minnie Mouse collected stamps at each one. We enjoyed tasty pastries in France, and a delicious dinner in Mexico.
Family selfie in Italy
Pastries in France
Dinner in Mexico
Family selfie with the Ball
Making a call in the United Kingdom
Le Artiste in France
Astronaut Minnie Mouse
Minnie Mouse had fun “experiencing” Epcot! And, then we found this sign in Mexico. Tell me it isn’t perfect!
After dinner we hopped over to Magic Kingdom to finish the night with the Electrical Parade.
Tuesday was Magic Kingdom day—we literally opened and closed the park! What a day! It was filled with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, it’s a small world (3 times by the end of the trip), Pirates, Haunted Mansion, Mickey Mouse, and so much more!
The castle in the morning
We found Marie!!!
Minnie Mouse and Daddy on the Speedway
Minnie Mouse and Mom on the teacups
The castle at night
Wednesday started at Animal Kingdom with A Bug’s Life and the safari. Minnie Mouse rode Expedition Everest, but it didn’t end well. She did not like that roller coaster! We finished up this park with Dinosaur, then made our way back to the Magic Kingdom. We did some of the things we didn’t get done the first day, rode some things a second time, and enjoyed the extra magic hours that night, since we were staying on site!
The Tree of Life
Yes, we took her on that!
Marie and the castle, once again!
Our last day was spent in Hollywood Studios. It was a much more relaxing day. We watched all the shows, rode Star Tours and the Great Movie Ride together, and ended the day with Fantasmic. Vence and I did get to ride the Rockin’ Roller Coaster separately, and I rode Hollywood Tower of Terror…twice!
I don’t know who that guys is, but…
Tower of Terror
Rockin’ Roller Coaster
Piggy with Miss Piggy!
A Mickey Mouse ice cream!
The trip was a great success, and we’re already talking about “the next time”! Good-bye Disney World, for now! See you at the next stop.
Monday morning dawned, and we headed out on an exciting adventure—canoeing a water trail at Nine Mile Pond! (No, the pond is not 9 miles. It is named that because it is located 9 miles from the location of an old visitor center.)
We rented our canoe, and set off. We made our way through mangrove trees and rushes for 2 hours—we even ate lunch on the canoe!
After dropping off our equipment, we stopped at Mahogany Hammock which is another boardwalk trail. This is not the kind of hammock in which you take a Sunday afternoon nap. This kind of hammock is where the trees overhang from above. And, on this trail the subtropical trees were interlaced with huge, years-old mahogany trees.
We headed back to the campsite for some much needed rest and relaxation. And, we enjoyed this gorgeous sunset view!
Tuesday morning we packed up and headed out of the Everglades. First, we stopped at the welcome center so Minnie Mouse could turn in her book, take her pledge, and receive her Junior Ranger badge.
We discovered from her book that the Everglades National Park is part of the South Florida Park Service which includes Biscayne National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. Because these three are so interconnected, they have arranged for kids to work from the same Junior Ranger activity book, receive a badge from each park, and then after doing that, receive a special patch. Since we were so close to each park, and don’t know when we might make it back this way, we decided we would stop at the other two as we made our way north.
First stop—Biscayne National Park. It is the largest marine park in the National Park Service. This means that to really see the park you have to take boat tours. However, Tuesday was VERY windy, so the boats weren’t running. We watched a film about the park and wandered around the visitor center. We did walk along the path outside for a bit, enjoying the view. Minnie Mouse took her pledge and received her badge from Biscayne. Later, we were talking with a sweet volunteer who was very impressed with Minnie Mouse’s vest (as were all of the rangers we encountered). She asked us to hold on a minute, and she ran to the back. When she came back out she had this very cool wooden Junior Ranger badge made special for 2016, the Centennial of the National Park Service. She said it is for those who have been actively working on Junior Ranger badges, and since Minnie Mouse has so many, she was deserving!
Yes, it is windy!
Taking her pledge!
From Biscayne we headed west toward Big Cypress. We stopped at a visitor center and watched a film about this preserve. We found out it is the home to the Florida panther, a beautiful large cat that was near extinction. Due to a panther preserve and valiant efforts of rangers, the population is growing. This area is often referred to as the Western Everglades, and is just as important to the eco-system of south Florida as the Everglades themselves. It, too, is a beautiful area. After asking some questions and learning more about the park, Minnie Mouse took her pledge and received her badge. Apparently they are all out of patches right now, but they took our address and promised to send her one as soon as they are back in stock.
It was getting late in the day, so we decided to camp here in the park, at Monument Lake. Fantastic view!
I was surprised by the Everglades, Biscayne, and Big Cypress. I fell in love with them. There weren’t majestic mountains like we saw out west. They don’t have geysers or glaciers, and they aren’t home to as many large animals. In a way, the beauty here seems almost hidden. Here palm trees, mangroves, and mahogany trees co-exist. Small sparrows flit around, and large, elegant water birds glide over coastal prairies. Fresh water and salt water collide to create nurseries perfect for baby marine life to thrive. Here worlds collide, and create a little piece of perfection, at least to this Hoosier girl.
Now, on to Bradenton and good times with our friends! See you at the next stop!
Saturday after lunch we pulled out of Bradenton and headed south for the Everglades National Park. We pulled into Long Pine Key campground in the evening, and started our adventure the next morning.
We headed first to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to get Minnie Mouse’s junior ranger book. We looked around here for bit, then headed back up the road to Royal Palm where we took a ranger guided tour of the Anhinga Trail. A fun side note is that, here in particular, these black vultures are a real problem—they like to tear the rubber off of cars! So, the park provides tarps for visitors to put over their cars for protection. And, apparently, they really do like the cars!
Looking out over the pond at the welcome center
A black vulture on someone’s car!
This trail was a great place to start. Minnie Mouse got to carry a bird identification card for the group, and we certainly saw lots of different birds! First, we saw the namesake of the trail—the Anhinga bird. This bird is unique in that its feathers aren’t buoyant like a duck’s, so it can dive and swim under water. Then, after it comes up, it will sit in a tree with its feathers wide open to dry them.
Following Ranger Lori along the Anhinga Trail
An anhinga drying it’s feathers
We also saw a blue heron resting beside the stream of water. And, then we saw my personal favorite, the purple gallanule. And no, it isn’t my favorite just because it has purple in its name! The variety of color on this bird is amazing. It was stunning! Oh, and then I guess I should mention that we saw alligators! And, not just one, but THREE alligators!
Minnie Mouse observing one of the alliagators
The blue heron
The purple gallanule
As we came around the last bend in the trail I was taken aback by the view of the coastal prairie. The prairie grass waving in the breeze reminded me so much of our trip out west last spring. Yet, the eco-system here is so very different! Near the very end of the trail, we came up on a bird sitting right near the trail. Ranger Lori had told us that there was a black bird that looked a lot like an anhinga, but there were slight differences—a double-crested cormorant. That was what was staring at us! Its beak has a crook on the end, and its tail feathers are slightly shorter than the anhinga. This bird let us get right up close to it!
The coastal prairie
From Royal Palm we headed back to the campsite for lunch, then on to Flamingo Visitor Center. Now, we aren’t sure what came first, the building or the name, but we sure thought the building looked a lot like a flamingo! This visitor center is basically at the end of the road—the southern most point in Florida (without crossing over to the Keys). It sits right on Florida Bay, which is an estuary (where fresh water from land meets salt water from the ocean) that is home to manatee, sea turtles, and many other sea creatures. And, yes, we did see some manatee feeding on some sea grass in the marina!
Walking toward Flamingo Visitor Center
Looking out across Florida Bay
While at the visitor center, we listened to a ranger talk on sea turtles given by Ranger Mike. It was fun to hear about the varieties of sea turtles that live and nest along the coastline from Florida up to South Carolina. He even had these cool shells we could touch, and then pretend to be turtles!
On our way back to our campsite we decided to stop at the Pa-hay-okee Overlook. As soon as we entered the trail, we looked up and saw two gorgeous Barred Owls in a tree, preening each other. So sweet! We continued on the 1/4-mile boardwalk to the observation tower where we looked out over the River of Grass—again reminding me of the great prairies out west.
The trailhead to the Pa-hay-okee Trail
We also, FINALLY, saw a turtle on this trail! But, as it was in the water, we didn’t get a picture of it. Evening was setting in so we headed back to camp for the night. We were looking forward to another great adventure on Monday!
Just kidding! It has been in the 80s here in Bradenton, and we are LOVING EVERY MINUTE! Minnie Mouse took a dip in the pool Wednesday morning (even though the water was a bit chilly), and we had lunch on the beach, soaking up the sun and the warmth. Afterward, William took us to a little ice cream shop on Anna Marie Island, where he and Minnie Mouse played a mean game of checkers (with crabs and starfish!).
Fishing in the pool. There weren’t too many biting!
The rest of the day we spent relaxing. I did go out for a jog at 7:30 p.m. and came back a sweaty mess!
Lunch at the beach on Anna Marie Island.
Fun in the sand…
and water with Daddy!
Thursday (New Year’s Eve) was another beautiful day. We ran some errands in the afternoon. We had some party food and played some games before ringing in the new year.
Friday didn’t bring a whole lot of excitement. We did laundry, cleaned up Harriet and the car, and prepared to travel further south to the Everglades. We will leave tomorrow (Saturday), so I’ll see you at the next stop.
It seems the weather of the midwest followed us south! The rain was awful on Monday. We couldn’t get away from it! We left the Smokeys after lunch on Monday, and the weather had cleared a bit, but it was still cloudy. We had hoped to get pretty far south of Atlanta, but due to a late start and the weather conditions we only made it to Jackson, GA. Traffic was basically bumper-to-bumper through Atlanta. Couple that with the rain, and it was not pretty! We saw one accident happen right in front of us, and we passed several others that had already happened.
Our first night on the road. We look so small next to those semis!
The Pilot station with a McDonald’s.
We did make a stop in between the border and Atlanta for dinner and a bathroom break at a rest area. Then, we trudged on and finally stopped for the night at a Pilot station that was very RV friendly. Because of this there were a whole lot of other travelers who over-nighted here, as well. Due to the noise, we were all up early (and by early, I mean before 7!), so we made the decision to get ourselves to Bradenton by day’s end.
Thankfully, Tuesday morning dawned as a much more promising day for weather. It was raining a bit when we stopped at the Florida Welcome Center for lunch and our complimentary orange juice, but that quickly disappeared as we continued driving south. We were reminded just why Florida is called the Sunshine State! The sun poured in our open windows, and my spirits immediately lifted as palm trees came into view. I love this place!
We pulled up to the Sallees’ around 5:30 p.m. (where it was still 75 degrees, I might add). After getting Harriet settled, we shared dinner with William (Robin and the kids are visiting her parents), and enjoyed a nice evening of conversation. We will stay here until week’s end, then head further south to The Everglades National Park.
So, it was Christmas Day, and after the presents were opened and the breakfast was eaten, we looked at each other and said, “Well, now what?” One of us said, “We should go to Florida for a month.” Someone pipes in, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea!” So, we did.
Okay, it didn’t happen exactly like that, but we are on our way to Florida. And we did leave on Christmas Day. But, the plan started taking place a few months ago. I mean, really, why not, right? We (and by we, I mean me and Vence) strongly dislike cold weather, he has the month of January off, and we homeschool. Oh, and add to the equation that some of our best friends live in Bradenton, FL. All of that adds up to, “Let’s go to Florida!” Harriet was getting restless too. She hasn’t been out since we parked her in June. She needed to move her tires and get out on the open road. She had rested long enough.
We pulled out in the afternoon on Christmas and drove southeast. (You might notice that this time we are pulling a car!) We stopped for the night in Kentucky at a Pilot Truck Stop. (One thing that is going to be obviously different on this trip as compared to our last is the casualness of the schedule. We actually have no schedule, no reservations, save one — Disney World. We have a plan to visit the “Happiest Place on Earth” January 11-15.) After a stop at Walmart to buy the things we forgot (there is always something, isn’t there?), we continued southeast into Tennessee to our first destination: the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. The beauty of this place has blown me away. The first thing I noticed after getting out of Harriet at the campsite was the smell! One of the greatest flaws of the World Wide Web is that I cannot send the smell to you. We are surrounded by evergreen trees, so imagine the smell of fresh pinewood (not the artificial smell of candles). Amazing! There are beautiful mountain springs and rushing rapids everywhere. And the trees, the trees, oh the truffala trees! Oh, wait, wrong story. But the trees here are stunning. There are varying types of trees — tulip trees, oaks, and many evergreen varieties, just to name a few.
Sunday we spent the morning driving around the Cades Cove Historical Loop. There are 18 stops along the loop which include homes of the first families to settle in the cove and the churches those families built. An interesting fact for history buffs is that this national park was formed through the purchase of land. For instance, the families of those first settlers owned much of the land around the cove. When forming the park that land had to be purchased from those families. Other national parks were not formed in this manner.
Of course Minnie Mouse worked on completing a Junior Ranger badge! After an afternoon run to the nearest Camping World we stopped by the Sugarlands Visitor Center to ask a ranger a question in order to complete the requirements. Then, she took her oath and received her badge! Thank you, Grandma, for the wonderful vest. Ranger Maggie was very impressed!
Taking her Junior Ranger pledge
Vence & Madeline working on Junior Ranger Badge
Reading over her Junior Ranger book
The past two evenings in Harriet have been delightful. I was reminded why we are doing these trips. The first night the three of us all sat in the little living area doing our own things (Vence reading, Madeline coloring, me crocheting), and yet we were together doing them. Sunday evening we ate dinner, cleaned up, and then spent the evening playing Apples to Apples Disney version (thank you Aunt Mindy!). It is precious time. The joy of just being together without distractions. It is one of the main reasons we didn’t come home from the last trip and immediately sell Harriet. She provides us with space to create special memories.
Monday morning, Vence worked on Harriet, repairing a leak on the roof, while it was raining! Then, after lunch we headed further south toward Atlanta…so, I’ll see you at the next stop.