New Orleans to Florida; Part 2 of Crossing America Just Because

By Sara Stringfellow
Read Part 1 of this journey here: From L.A. to Louisiana: Crossing America Just Because

Leaving New Orleans, we headed east for the second half of our cross-country adventure. On this leg we’d be stopping in two cities I used to call home: Atlanta, GA, and Tampa, FL.

But you didn’t think this was going to be an RV trip with no malfunctions, did you?
(Insert every RV owner’s intense guffaw here.)

Sara feet twigs

As the sun set just outside of Pensacola, we realized our back brake lights had stopped working. A mysterious static electricity had been bouncing off of us and the dog for a few days now, and though my theoretical knowledge figured we weren’t grounded properly, neither I nor Blake had any idea how to remedy it. With no brake lights, we couldn’t legally drive at night so we pulled off the road until we could find anything resembling an automotive repair shop.

Amazingly, that put us less than a mile away from the personal home and business of the best RV repair person I can imagine existing. This guy made a personal game of “see this? I can fix this too” and like an over-caffeinated genie from a coke bottle, went to town on just about every random “we’ll fix it later” item left on the RV. When we were done he recommended one last item, swapping out a tire, and had a friend down the road who took care of it just as fast.

This is the travel groove.
You never know when you’re going to slip into it, but in all my years of traveling I know when I’m in. It’s when you fall into perfect alignment with ideal happenings, even in your worst circumstances. This is the part of the trip when you know you’ve settled in for the ride and are neither bored nor anxious. Considering the ease of our exemplary malfunction and resolution, I knew we’d hit that sweet spot like a raft finding its way down a river’s rapids in the smooth center of the channel. We even made it to Georgia that night.

While Northern Georgia holds some of the best outdoor hiking, biking, and anything-you-can-do-with-a-lake activities in the country, I decided to use my limited time to connect with friends and family around Atlanta, and explore my childhood home in Dallas (though if given the chance I would absolutely check out the Georgia Aquarium and, when it’s warm, boating on Lake Allatoona).

Sara flowers tree

Meeting up with friends, some I hadn’t seen in fifteen years, we took off chatting and joking like no time had passed. That’s one thing I love about hometowns (and being outside of Los Angeles): agenda-less conversation. Our only goal was to “yes-and” each other’s jokes and have a ridiculously good time with some of the most affectionately cheese-ball arcade games we could find at a bowling alley bar. Due to some creative cocktails, a too-crowded photo booth, and some good old Cruis’n World matches, we were overly successful.

I stayed the night at my step-sister’s, and finally met my dog-niece “daisy” who is an expert at cuddling-while-sleeping. Driving to meet more friends the next night, my sister and I unfortunately experienced something Georgia natives are all too familiar with: a car collision with a deer.

busted headlight

In the ten years I had lived there I experienced this only once before, but with an aftermath that included a busted van radiator and evidence of likely-fatal injuries for the massive animal. It’s an unfortunate occurrence, but one that anyone who has ever experienced knows can happen before you have time to blink.

Thankfully this night, my sister and I were not injured, her car was bruised but still driveable, and the buck ran away without leaving any trace of blood, which gave us hope it was okay. For a bad situation, it appeared that all parties managed to luck out with the least-worst scenario.

After hearing me pine after the memory of real southern biscuits, a dear friend pointed me in the direction of a much-heralded chain (making me raise my eyebrow at first, skeptical that a quest for true southern cooking wasn’t sending me to someones grandmother’s diner first.)

But if southern breakfast were a religion, “The Flying Biscuit” is Sunday church.
I had both the fluffiest, doughiest biscuit of my life and the most divine ‘creamy dreamy grits’ which lived up to their name 100%. Post carb-coma, I drove an hour east to explore my old neighborhood in Dallas.

Sara dogwoods

I’ve called many places home in my life, but my childhood from three to thirteen years old mostly happened in Dallas, Georgia. To get back to our original subdivision I had to pass southern mansions, trailer parks, farms, and everything in between. When I arrived I discovered the five-foot-ish dogwood tree we planted in our front lawn in the 90s is now one of the most massive dogwoods in the neighborhood. I can’t quite explain how hopeful that made me feel, especially in light of seeing the current owners had pretty much let the rest of the house go. I was reminded; the only constant of life is change, and sometimes the most positive change is steady growth up no matter our surroundings.

But if nostalgia was the purpose for my day trip, seeing the house itself was never my main objective. It was my old backyard that called to me.

wild

My “backyard” was my own personal wilderness wonderland, where my love for nature and exploring was birthed and given full range. Acres and acres of undeveloped land, two lakes, sky-high pines, and soft emerald green moss everywhere; us kids in the neighborhood spent our daylight hours building massive forts, bridges over creeks, vine rope swings, and digging out secret paths behind each other’s houses.

I’ve often wondered (as an adult all too familiar with business incentives) how this neighborhood got developed and yet nothing else around it has been since. I’ve suspected there was a race between the construction company and the National Register of Historic Places, who preserved the adjacent 765 acres as ‘Pickett’s Mill Historic Civil War Battlefield Site’ in the 70’s. Perhaps they got it in under the wire and now the rest of the land is off limits?

Now, decades later, walking on one of the secret cut-through paths I knew from memory, I discovered a sign informing me the rest of the land is a Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. This warmed my heart and is the kind truth I want to reassuringly share with the “liberal urban hippie” world; even in south, in the hotbed of Republican politics, southerners love their land and can actually be more in touch with the natural environment on the daily than us ‘Planet Earth’ watching city dwellers. They too are fighting against “red-state climate-change deniers”, even if simultaneously awaiting hunting season and sporting truck nuts.

I started my hike back out of the forest with a glimmer of hope: my generation still cares, and still acts to preserve what is meaningful in this world.

wild

When you pack for a cross-country trip in spring, and the cities you pass through range from 30 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, you have to spread out your packing across functionality, and not necessary variety of the same item. Translation: the only dress I packed was purple, the pants I had were jeans, and nothing was black enough or fancy enough to wear to a funeral service I was invited to last-minute for a friend of my step-father, step-sister, and mother. They flew into town my last morning in Georgia to attend, and in true southern hospitality, when the family of the deceased heard I was in town, invited me after the service to a backyard dinner reception— and didn’t give a flip about what color my clothes were.

The sweetness of people in Georgia to both insiders, outsiders, and inbetweeners is truly and unshakably down to earth. After some tasty barbecue and a beautiful sunset, I met up with Blake and Bodhi for our final drive south to Florida.

Bodhi on beach

We landed at a dog-friendly beach north of Saint Augustine and brought Bodhi to splash around and celebrate their adopt-iversary for the 12th year.

That night we stayed at an RV Park, which was my first experience in one.

And damn, it was charming AF.

As I walked the grounds of this part-time neighborhood and saw cute little signs reading “The Richards; Massachusetts” or “The Kemp’s; Maine” it suddenly dawned on me what I was looking at, the den of the oft-muttered Florida Snowbirds.

RV lights

Lights I had only seen at Burning Man were proudly draped outside these RVs, which had clearly been camped here for most of the winter. I tried my hand again at night photography since we were so far away from the city, and attempted another time lapse of the starry night sky.

stars at night

Blake and I, with our revived electricity and first access to water hookups, took full advantage of the RV. We popped out the side (which made the living room the size of my LA apartment) cooked, washed dishes, played Yahtzee, and even busted out our laptops where Blake brilliantly cut some of the GoPro videos I had been steadily collecting all trip.

The next day we headed to Daytona for Blake’s friend’s birthday where he once more swapped his videographer hat for a culinary cap and created his own specialty buckwheat banana pancakes with a maple mango compote and coconut shreds on top, accompanied by a healthy green smoothie which perfectly nailed the spot between fruit-sweet and green-earthy.

Arriving in Orlando, Blake connected with family and began the process of selling the RV in preparation for the next stage of his adventure: move himself and Bodhi to St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands.

“I used to hate the quote ‘leap and the net will appear’ because that’s quite a dangerous thing to tell people, not everyone can afford that privilege,” Blake explained.

Bodhi on beach2

I learned while accompanying Blake on this eleven-day journey, that he had a successful business as a full-time photographer in Los Angeles for over fifteen years. Sought after for headshots and weddings (for obvious reasons seen on blakefloydgardner.com) he was also Backstage’s go-to photographer for an eclectic array of celebrity portraits (from Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, to Pee-wee Herman and Betty White.)

But the accumulation of notoriety–and a five-bedroom house and studio in LA– began to feel stagnant and too locked down. Three years ago, needing a new challenge and growth, he sold his house, bought the RV, and moved to Northern California to attend a raw vegan culinary school.

“In a way, I was lucky. The net did appear, and so I went for it. And plus, photography is such a great skill I know I can always use it as some source of income if needed.”
His RV trip across the country is a bit of a cumulative farewell tour, hitting all the places he’s lived; Mendocino, Los Angeles, Tucson, and finally Orlando. Now arrived, he’ll move himself, his lenses, and Bodhi to St. Croix to be the chef at two up and coming BnBs owned by our mutual friend Ryan, and continue his real estate photography on the recovering island.

Bodhi headshot

“It’s scary to change things up again, but it feels like it’s the right move. It’s a big upheaval – again – letting go of the life I had set up. But I’m excited.”
With Orlando being our final stop together, and it close proximity to my other hometown (Tampa) where I lived during my teenage years, I departed for the next stage of my journey: spend some quality time with my parents and find out if this wanderlust in my blood is a genetic trait or genetic defect.
Sara Stringfellow, the daughter of a pilot and longtime adventure traveler, invites you along her journey which in the past has included Central America, south and eastern Africa, and at the moment involves road-tripping across the southern United States. Follow her adventures on Facebook at “Once Upon A Passport” and on Instagram @OnceUponAPassport_Sara.

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