Blair Charnley is a retired newspaper writer and editor from Southern California. He recently spent two months traveling from California to Florida and back in a truck camper with his wife, Lynne, birding, hiking, visiting friends, eating and shooting photos. They traveled for two months, 9,970 miles, through 13 states. Charnley shares this report.
Best moment (above): On a hot Texas afternoon late in April, with nine weeks and 8,000 miles under our belts, we pulled into a campsite in Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park, about 200 yards from the Rio Grande and the Mexican border. The sites are simple: A place to park, a picnic table and a fire ring, all under giant cottonwood trees. No running water, electricity, TV or cell phone service. We were the only people in the entire campground, though later a woman took a site 50 yards away. We pulled out the camp chairs, popped cold beers and sat, enchanted, as a magnificent selection of beautiful birds cavorted for our enjoyment: vivid vermillion flycatchers, summer tanagers, Wilson's warblers, indigo buntings and others flitted about in easy viewing distance. Birding by chair!
Best shot (above): This great egret, all decked out for romance, was one of dozens in the rookery at Audubon Swamp at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, S.C. We planned our trip to coincide with bird breeding seasons along the way, and here we saw dozens of nesting egrets and great blue herons, as well as many other interesting and gorgeous birds.
What I learned: I've spent a fair amount of time in Florida, mostly in a boat working my way down the West Coast and up the East Coast to Fort Lauderdale; in Texas, I've mostly visited cities. Exploring slowly in the camper, visiting nature preserves and parks, as well as cities and museums, gave me a whole new perspective on these fascinating places. El Paso, Texas, is vibrant, safe and interesting. Who knew?
Best meal (above): This is a tough choice. We had beautiful fine-dining meals in Charleston, S.C., Houston, Texas, and, of course, New Orleans, and great down-home restaurant meals all along the way. In camp -- where we ate most of our meals -- we're not usually canned-frank-and-beans types. Probably our favorite meal, though, was four kinds of oysters at Boss Oyster in Apalachicola, Fla., where great food trumped the very long wait for a table, the touristy atmosphere and the spotty service.
Most fun: Rolling down the road, preferably any small one, listening to tunes and baseball on the satellite radio or tunes and NPR podcasts on the iPod, headed for the next adventure. My sweetie's beside me, working her maps, smartphone and guidebooks to find the night's campsite or the next park or nature preserve to explore.
Don't miss: Big Bend National Park in Texas is remote, hot and huge. It provides a magnificent outdoor adventure along the Rio Grande and the Mexican border. The park has three separate camping areas with distinct identities. Two are pretty remote and unimproved (and thus more to our taste). The third has a store, a hotel and restaurant and more upscale RV campsites.
Best tip: If you're new to RV camping, rent before you buy, and be very aware of what your needs and desires are. We rented a smallish RV and then looked at everything from small van conversions to big, towed RVs. We settled on a slide-in camper that rests on the back of our pickup truck. It's surprisingly spacious, with a double bed, refrigerator and freezer, toilet, shower, stove with oven, hot water heater and furnace -- but no TV or microwave. We like it because we can travel on twisty little mountain dirt roads or park in downtown Seattle or Charleston. Many would find it way too small and Spartan; as veteran sailboat cruisers, we find it roomy and comfortable. The outdoors is our living room.
Gearhead notes: Our truck is a 2001 Ford F350 diesel. The camper is a 2004 Lance Lite 1025. My main camera is a Nikon D90 with a 70-300mm 1:4.5-5.6 zoom lens. I carry a backup Nikon D70S camera and a Lumix point-and-shoot. Not really professional-level equipment, but not your daddy's Kodak Brownie, either.
More trip highlights:
Above: A male pileated woodpecker leaves his nest in an Everglades palm tree as the female waits to take over parenting duties. We were steered to this nest by Ranger Bob of the National Forest Service, and returned and staked it out for a half-hour before we saw this fascinating parental hand-off.
Above: Perhaps our favorite bird, a green jay, at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Los Fresnos, Texas.
Above: Me paddling a rented canoe in the Loxahatchee River near Jupiter, Fla. We paddled far up into a small creek, viewing nesting ospreys, gators and rich, lush trees and bushes.