Blue Spring State Park

Before we moved from our days of dealing with bureaucracy and car repairs, to the hectic days of visiting ahead, we decided to squeeze in one night of camping at Blue Spring State Park, in Orange City FL.  Not only did this stop break up our trip from St Augustine to central Florida, but it gave us a chance to do some family snorkeling.

Blue Spring is one of the several First-Magnitude freshwater springs in Florida.  The spring emerges from a submerged cave with such force that the water almost appears to “boil” at the surface, and the volume of water is enough to create a river roughly 30-40 feet wide and 3-4 feet deep.  At the spring itself, you can snorkel over the cave and watch as scuba divers and free divers disappear into the opening (the free divers, of course, quickly come back up).  Toward the spring end of the river there are no fish but just a few hundred feet downstream they are in abundance, along with an occasional turtle.   Over the winter (starting November 15) the spring is closed to swimming, snorkeling, and diving so that manatees can live there peacefully.

The water is always 72 degrees F, which feels pretty good to us transplanted Northerners, especially with shorty wetsuits on.  The park provides docks and stairs for easy access to the water, and we entered at the dock furthest downstream, to paddle up to the spring.  There’s quite a strong current at some points, which eventually defeated Emma about 100 feet from the boil, but she did not mind because at that point there were no more fish to look at anyway.  Also, the sight of the gaping rock maw of the cave disappearing into the darkness can be disconcerting to children — it looks rather scary, although I always find it fascinating.

There are several good springs like this in Florida.  Wekiwa State Park in central Florida offers a similar spring but less snorkeling opportunity, and near the Gulf Coast, Manatee Springs State Park is very similar to Blue Spring. The camping at all of them is classic Florida, with sandy sites, lots of vegetation, and a nice quiet “natural Florida” feel.  In my opinion, Florida has the best concentration of excellent state parks in the country.  While our next stop will be courtesy parking, we’ll be hitting more of the state parks over the next couple of weeks.

Green Cove Springs, FL

Technically we are in St Augustine, but right on the western edge at the banks of the St Johns River.  Just across the river is Green Cove Springs, a quiet small city that happens to be the official mailing address of Airstream Life magazine.  I am often asked by people who call on the phone, “How do you like it in Green Cove Springs?” but we’ve only been here once before, and that was for just a few hours. We receive our mail here, and we’re incorporated here, but until this visit it has been just another stop along the road.


It has been a good stop.  Eleanor has been making maximum use of our relatively rare full hookup campsite, by making special meals.  This means we eat well but also periodically Eleanor has to go out to find unusual ingredients, like apple brandy, which apparently must go into a dish she is preparing. Apple brandy was not available at any of the local stores (on the west side of I-95) so she made a compromise version with a reduction of apple cider and cognac.  The sauces required for this dish are now done, but we won’t get to eat the actual meal until Friday, when we will be courtesy parked in Haines City.

I was able to get our tow vehicle serviced, and I’m very glad I did.  The dealer in Jacksonville had the car in for its “day of beauty” all of  Wednesday, and replaced all four tires, aligned the wheels, flushed the transmission, replaced a blown fuse, and washed it.  Although the price of the tires still has me reeling, I have to admit that the car once again drives like new.  The worn tires were making a lot of noise and the roadhandling was definitely not as good as it was, plus it was pulling right a little.  It may have been my imagination, but I also thought the transmission was not shifting quite as smoothly as it should, with occasional subtle balks and flares.  I did a 19 mile test drive on the way back from the dealership and everything feels perfect again.

We had a surprise visit yesterday from a group of manatees, at the Trout Creek that borders the campground.  Manatees need warm water, and so in the fall and winter they swim upstream from the salty ocean to fresh rivers where the water never drops below 72 degrees.  A group of about eight manatees showed up with a calf, and slowly swam back and forth in Trout Creek past the docks where they made a nice spectacle for the people sitting on the back deck of the main campground building.


Manatees are wonderful mammals that live very placid lives, munching on green undersea vegetation and floating through the water with no apparent goals in life.  Little wonder they are often called “sea cows” — they’re about the same weight and definitely have bovine characteristics to their personalities.  Their skin is like an elephant’s, and they can grow to be very large and heavy, so although they are quite benign they are also a bit startling when you encounter them while snorkeling.

Their very nature of calmness and lack of fear works against manatees. The big killer of manatees is boat propellers, and it is easy to spot a manatee with a set of slashing white scars along its body from a close encounter with a turning propeller.  There are lots of regulations in place designed to prevent manatee-boat collisions but they can be difficult to avoid, especially since they are often interested in checking out what the humans are up to.

We are leaving this site today but will be returning in a couple of weeks.  One piece of bureaucratic business remains unfinished, and until a certain official piece of paper arrives I can’t complete it.  Coming back here will be a detour from our planned route, but I don’t mind terribly since the campground has been pleasant and Green Cove Springs now feels like a symbolic kind of home.

On the road to St. Augustine, FL

rutherford-bad-lug-nut2.jpgMaintenance complete (or so we thought), we pushed onward through South Carolina. Since the wheels had all been removed, it was incumbent on me to stop and check the lug nut torque a few times as we went.  I typically do this around 15 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles, although it doesn’t hurt to check a little more frequently.

That’s when another maintenance issue cropped up. We’ve had these crummy “capped” lug nuts on the trailer forever (pictured at right).  They are the cheap-o version.  Instead of being solid metal, they have a thin chrome cap over a steel nut, sort of a “falsie.” The problem with this type is that eventually the chrome cap can loosen and even come off.  Super Terry had pointed this out as a potential problem, and honestly I have been meaning to replace all of them for years but just never got around to it.

So of course, about 15 miles out in a lonely piece of rural North Carolina, one of the caps started spinning loose, meaning that I couldn’t properly torque the nut.  Now, being a prepared sort of Airstreamer, I carry 4 spare lug nuts, the solid kind.  I took them out and discovered that they require a 13/16″ socket, but the largest socket I had is 3/4″.  So I couldn’t install them.

After pondering the situation and trying a few tricks (like the car’s lug nut wrench) the ultimate solution was simply to tow to the nearest auto parts store, where I bought the appropriate socket and 20  more of the solid chromed metal 13/16″ lug nuts. I didn’t want to take all the wheels off right there to replace all the nuts, so I installed just the one I needed and tossed the rest in the storage compartment for future use.  My idea was to replace them one wheel at a time whenever a wheel needed removing, but of course about 150 miles later when I checked the nuts at the end of the day I found another loose one. So now I have 22 nuts that require a 3/4″ socket, and two that require a 13/16″ socket, which makes it much more amusing to watch me checking the nuts.

The other maintenance item is the tires on the Mercedes.  I’ve been watching them carefully for a long time, and was hoping that they’d last until we got back to Tucson.  At 29,000 miles, when we had the last dealer service, they looked OK, but now at 33,500 miles it is clear that they need to go.  The front end of the car is somewhat out of alignment, a fact that was revealed only in the past week when the right front and left front tires started showing excess wear at the outer edge. I could rotate the tires one more time (front to back) and probably gain another 1,000 or 2,000 miles, but I don’t care to push them quite that far.  Towing, as you know, puts high stresses on tires.  The last time I tried to stretch a tire (on the Nissan Armada) we had a blowout at low speed.  So a set of tires and an alignment are part of this week’s plan.

Our base of operations for the next few days will be St. Augustine, FL.  Normally we stay over on the coast, but this time I’ve got obligations in Green Cove Springs, which is west of  St. Augustine, so I’ve selected a rustic old campground near the St John’s River.


We have all the little cues that tell us we are Florida.  It’s balmy and humid.  Everything is green with life, and there’s a particular scent in the breeze that speaks of ocean salt, inland swamps, and natural decay.  Spanish Moss hangs from every tree, and grayish sandy soil is underfoot. Eleanor even managed to get bitten by a red ant within 10 minutes of arrival.  Ah, yes, Florida.  I love it here but you’ve got to watch out — there are more biting and stinging things here than Arizona, by far.

The campground is many decades old.  It is a classic piece of “old Florida”: well shaded, unpretentious to a fault, and straddling the line between marginally maintained and moldering neglect.  There are ducks and chickens and feral cats all over the place.  The river is alive with water birds and fish (and probably alligators).  We like it.

The campground is under threat of development, but not any time soon.  The owners, who have run various businesses on the property for 80 years, announced in 2005 that they were going to sell the whole thing for condominiums, but so far nothing has happened, so we should be fine for the rest of this week, while we take care of business.

Maintenance day

Perhaps as a reminder of how quickly things can change, the river behind our campsite has nearly dried up. Apparently it is dam-controlled, and the water releases are only Monday through Friday.  By Friday night, it was a mere trickle about two inches deep, but still pleasant to be camped near.

Super Terry and Marie arrived, and on Saturday morning the ladies all headed out for a day of activity around Asheville while Terry began his maintenance checks of our Airstream.  The first task was a four-wheel brake and tire inspection.  I’ve been anticipating this for a long time, since we’ve historically fought with our disc brakes and tires.  At nearly every previous service stop, we’ve found the disc pads wearing unevenly, once to the point of catastrophic failure, and the repeated belt separations on our tires are embarrassingly well-documented on this and the Tour of America blogs.

So I was extremely happy to find that on all four wheels, the brakes are only lightly worn, wearing perfectly evenly, and need absolutely nothing. At last!  Super Terry gets all the credit, since he did the last four-wheel brake job in January.  With these Kodiak disc brakes, it seems critical to properly lubricate the slider pins and some mechanics (in our experience) don’t do it right.  Given the light wear on these semi-metallic pads, we should have many more miles of use ahead, but I’ll check again every 10,000 miles or so.

At the same time, we examined the new tires.  Readers of this blog may recall that, after years of frustration with various brands of ST (Special Trailer) designated tires, we finally ditched them for a set of Michelin LTXs.  They have performed beautifully. The wear is very light and even, at about 9,000 miles, and we’ve had no punctures. They look good for many more miles, and should easily outlast the STs they replaced.

As each tire came off, I took the opportunity to look at the axle torsion arms, the shock absorbers, and the wheel wells.  Everything looked good (undamaged, clean, dry, tight).  So with no repairs needed, we turned our attention to other projects.  I hadn’t realized how many little things we needed to do until we started going over the trailer.

The first project was to install a zerk (grease) fitting on the hitch coupler.  This allows me to grease the hitch ball without removing the Hensley hitch.  I have to grease the hitch ball about 4-5 times a year, and before installing this zerk, the job took about 15 minutes because of the labor involved in loosening the hitch and then re-installing it.  Now, it takes just a few seconds with the grease gun.

This is a simple job but it requires one specific tool.  We hitched the Hensley to the car, loosened the strut bars, then released the ball coupler and raised the trailer off the hitch ball, using the power jack.  Then we covered the ball with a piece of plastic wrap to keep metal shavings from getting all over the greasy ball.  Super Terry drilled the proper size hole through the very thick metal of the hitch coupler, and threaded it using a thread tapper.  He screwed in the zerk, and the job was done. Total time: about 20 minutes.

The steel step by our entry door is bent somewhat toward the rear of the trailer.  This was probably caused by hitting a curb long ago.  It hasn’t been a major problem but lately we’ve noticed that the bend makes the step difficult to raise.  Lubricating it helped only a little bit, so Terry applied a prybar and bent the step back into alignment enough to alleviate the issue.

For some time, our water heater has been intermittently screeching as it heats, which was caused by a poor air-fuel mixture.  Adjusting the mixture is a simple matter of loosening a bolt and sliding a vent until the flame burns strong and blue.  I should have done that one a long time ago.

Another bug was our entry door.  After we had the entry door adjusted to close more smoothly, last summer at the factory, we noticed that the door lock no longer worked.  We’ve been using the padlock exclusively ever since.  So today Super Terry removed the lock, diagnosed the broken part, “convinced” it to behave, and re-installed the lock, all in about two minutes.   Like the water heater fix, it’s one of those things that is easy when you know how.

A few days ago Eleanor was plugging in our Doran 360RV tire pressure monitor and the 12v  cigarette lighter adapter broke in her hand.  We really rely on that monitor to warn us of tire problems, so its absence was felt.  Terry and I picked up a replacement 12v adapter at Radio Shack today, and he wired it up in a few minutes.  Another problem solved.

Since we were rocking along so well, I went looking for other bugs to fix.  Bugs … hmm … stinkbugs … and then I remembered, our center Fantastic Vent was absolutely disgusting with greasy dirt and dead bugs.  That vent is the closest to the kitchen and gets all the cooking smoke, so it gets the dirtiest. It’s impossible to fully clean the vent without getting on the roof of the trailer, so I borrowed Terry’s folding ladder and got up on top, with a roll of paper towels and some orange cleaner.  Cleaning the vent cover, fan blades, and surrounding area took only about ten minutes.

While I was up there I noticed that the black rubber gasket of the vent had come loose. Super Terry to the rescue again!  He had a tube of 3M Weatherstripping Adhesive, which I applied lightly to the gasket.  We closed the vent for a few hours to hold the gasket in place while the adhesive cured, and the problem was solved.  I got all the dead stinkbugs out of there, too.

While Terry was inspecting my work on the roof, he pointed out that the white caulk surrounding the Fantastic Vent is cracked and approaching failure.  Long-term sun exposure will do that.  That particular vent was factory installed, so the caulk is older than the other two vents on our trailer.  I’m going to have to buy the appropriate caulk and a scraper, and get up there in the next few weeks to correct that problem before we get a roof leak.

That was the last of the work for today, but there was one other thing I should mention.  A few days ago we noticed that the shower was leaking at the wall next to the toilet.  This has happened before. The silicone caulk eventually loses its grip in this spot, probably because it is trying to adhere to a wood wall with waterproof wallpaper covering.  This needed immediate attention, because the leak could quickly cause a much more significant wood rot.  I did the fix on Thursday afternoon before we left Clemmons, and the shower was ready to use again by Friday night.

It’s a good feeling to have done the checkup on the running gear, and especially to remove the little annoyances like the screeching water heater, the filthy fan, and the disabled door lock.  You don’t realize how those things begin to weigh on you until you resolve them.  Letting problems accumulate tends to make people feel that their investment is slowly turning to junk, and then the self-defeating idea of “trade in” begins to appear.  On the other hand, fixing the little bugs and doing a little cleanup can make you feel good far out of proportion with the actual effort involved. I’ve advocated that a single Airstream can last for your entire life, so I have to take my own advice and keep ahead of the creeping crud of neglect that will defeat even the best-made product.

Tomorrow we will begin our trip to Florida with a good feeling about our equipment.  We’re out of time for our east coast tour, and need to get down to Florida (for many reasons), so the next 450 miles or so will be covered at an uncharacteristically quick pace. But now, we’re ready to get going.

Camped down by the river

Lately, when I’m thinking about where we are, I am reminded  of the excellent description given by Verne Troyer in the movie “The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus,” when he is asked “Where are we?” by Heath Ledger:

“Geographically, in the Northern Hemisphere.  Socially, on the margin.  And narratively, with some ways to go.”

Sometimes that’s how I feel too.  If you overdo it when traveling, all the campgrounds can start to look the same, making your location seem less special and more like “somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.”  And socially, we are occasionally reminded that not everyone views our life in an Airstream as exotic; for some, we are itinerants who live in a trailer.

In fact, today that’s exactly where we are: living in a trailer down by the river. In fact, it is the Broad River, running silently and swiftly about 20 feet behind our back bumper through the shady trees. I view this as a fine location for camping, but I’m sure there are those who cannot fathom what in the world makes us choose this quiet spot in west-nowhere-North Carolina instead of a fancy hotel in a cosmopolitan city.

This is not the sort of place we normally choose to camp.  It is a commercial full-hookup campground in the middle of nowhere, where our phones barely work, and we bypassed a couple of interesting-sounding state parks to be here. That’s because we are meeting Super Terry and Marie, and they picked the campground.   But this is a good thing, because it looks nothing like the places we have been lately and that aspect of diversity helps us stay oriented.

Also, I like the break. Having no “bars” on the cell phone means I can justifiably turn it off and have a phone-less weekend.  The campground has satellite-based wifi, so the blog can continue, but it’s slow and that justifies leaving the computer off most of the time too.  Although it is Friday afternoon on an absolutely gorgeous Fall day (75 degrees, sunny, dry), there are very few campers here and so the place is nice and quiet.  We floated little leaf-and-stick boats down the fast-flowing river to the “rapids” and watched them sink, then we played a board game on the dinette, and now I have the enviable option of lying down on my comfy Airstream bed and reading a book.  At times like this, our trailer magically transforms from our home and office on the road, to a getaway vacation cabin, all without packing or unpacking.  Time to break out some cold drinks, chips, and guacamole, and snack our way through dinner.

The town is Rutherfordton, which we have not seen since we are in the boondocks (and there may in fact be no town center).  The name sounds to me like they couldn’t decide:  “Rutherford, or Rutherton?  What the heck, let’s call it both: Rutherfordton.”  Rutherfordington Center would have been even better.  I’ll post that in the town’s Suggestion Box if I can find it.

I have to post  a small warning about stinkbugs.  These guys have been plaguing us since Pennsylvania, the origin point of these annoying fat flying insects. They are harmless but in the Fall they will invade an RV in massive numbers if they get a chance.  We caught the beginning of the stinkbug invasion season in September at French Creek State Park, then encountered them again in Falls Church VA, and have been finding a dozen or so every day inside our trailer ever since.  They are seemingly endless.

The strange thing is that we never actually saw more than a few flying around while we were camped.  They have an amazingly ability to sneak into refuge points when you’re not looking.  I’ve found them in the screens, in the vents, rolled up  inside the awning, inside windows, and every other possible crevice that they can get into.  I would like to say we’ve got all of them, before we carry the little nuisances to Florida, but as the temperatures warm, more of them show up.  And there seems to be no practical solution other than to find them all by hand (or by vacuum cleaner).  Fortunately, Emma likes to capture them with her bare hands.

This weekend while Emma is catching the bugs, Super Terry is going to take a look at our brakes, bearings, and tires.  We last serviced all those items in January 2010, back in Riverside CA, and since then we have logged about 8,000-9,000 miles.  That isn’t a tremendous amount of mileage but we have historically had problems with brakes pads wearing unevenly, and tires failing and so I’m being extra-cautious.  If there are any hints of trouble, I’d rather know now.  On Sunday and Monday we are going to log a lot of miles very quickly, and from there we will be doing a lot of towing around Florida.  At this point I have no indications of trouble (tire wear appears nominal and braking is excellent) but we’ll pull all four wheels off and take a look anyway. I’ll post an update on that later this weekend.

In other words, narratively, we still have some ways to go.