Friday, January 14, 2011

The Grandest Poobah

We are at the Plant City Elks Lodge number 1727 (map), just south of the freeway east of Tampa. We arrived here Tuesday afternoon following a short drive from the Pinellas Park lodge, by way of the TA truck stop a couple exits west of here, which has a dump station.

Long-time readers know we stay in many Elks lodges, and occasionally someone asks why we spend so much time at the lodges or whether we are perhaps officers in the organization (we are not). The simple answer is actually that RV parking at many lodges around the country is one of the benefits of membership in the order, and in many places we've been, the lodges are either our only alternative or our most cost-effective alternative.

For example, we have often found ourselves in the northeast in the late fall, when traditional campgrounds have already closed for the season. While we could spend a night or two at, say, a Wal-Mart, staying longer than that to visit family, or taking the scooters out to see the sights, requires a more appropriate venue, and often an Elks lodge is the only nearby alternative. In many cities, such as San Jose, an Elks lodge is the only legal parking alternative within range of downtown. And here in Florida, where few Wal-Marts allow overnight parking and many campgrounds require advance reservations (something we never make), the lodges enable our preferred point-and-go travel style.

Some lodges, such as San Jose, or the Brandon lodge just west of here, have their own revenue-generating campgrounds and are happy to let us stay as long as we wish, so long as we continue to pay the nightly fees. But most lodges at which we park have no RV facilities and simply provide the parking as a courtesy to traveling Elks, with no expectation other than perhaps a token donation. We actually prefer this type of opportunity to the more developed ones, unless we need power in the heat of the summer. But we are sensitive to the fact that the lodge is not in the camping business and we try not to overstay our welcome, which is why we left Pinellas Park after a full week there, only to travel just 40 miles to this lodge in Plant City.

Little did we know until we arrived here that this lodge is the home lodge of the current Elks National President, also known as the "Grand Exalted Ruler" (GER), Michael F. Smith (blog). We arrived before the lodge opened, and had to widget our way in the back entrance due to FDOT blocking the road in front of the main drive while they repair a sinkhole. I knew approximately where to park from reading about it on the Elks RV parking Yahoo group, but it occurred to us that the extensive roadwork might mean the lodge was closed for the week, and so I went on-line to look it up, which is when I discovered we were in, to borrow a phrase from the Flintstones, Grand Poobah territory.

Whenever we stay at a lodge we make every effort to go inside and be social, to put a human face on the giant bus in the parking lot. Sometimes it's impossible, either because the lodge hours are incompatible with ours, or because the lodge is in a state or county that still allows smoking in the lodges. We'll go in for a cocktail, and if the lodge serves food during the course of our stay we might go in for dinner as well. And so it was that we actually got to meet Mike-the-GER that same evening for cocktails and again on Wednesday when the lodge was serving Cuban pork for dinner.

People who rise to such a position of leadership in national organizations, whether that is the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the American Red Cross, or the Congress of the United States, universally possess a certain charisma, and exude a kind of confidence, that is immediately recognizable and impressive. Mike is definitely confident and charismatic, as well as a genuinely nice guy. We were glad to have met him and his wife Sandra and wish him great success in his term as National President, at a challenging time for the Elks.

We very nearly did not make it this far Tuesday, as we whizzed past the annual Florida RV Super Show at the state fairgrounds in Tampa. It looked to us like there was RV parking at the fairgrounds and we thought perhaps we'd drive in to check out the show. When we stopped just a few minutes later at the TA to use the dump station, we made some phone calls to find out the scoop.

Unless one is willing to buy a three-day package, RV parking at the fairgrounds for the show is strictly dry camping at $15 (or $20, we couldn't get a straight answer) per night. That's on top of the $10 daily parking fee, plus entry to the show itself. Faced with a minimum of $25 to park for a single night so that we could pay another $20 to see a show we were only luke-warm on, we opted instead to continue here to the Elks lodge.

Now that we've had a chance to settle in, think about it, and find a discount coupon for show admission, we're planning to ride the scooters back the 15 miles to the fairgrounds later today and spend two or three hours there. Hopefully they will charge us a single parking admission for both scooters. It's a bit warmer today than yesterday, at least, when we froze our buns riding over to the Carrabba's just a couple miles from here for dinner.

This has been a very pleasant and quiet place to stay, at least overnight. During the day we are just across from an endless parade of cement trucks, maybe a dozen each day, disgorging their contents into a pump which is trying to fill the sinkhole. The lodge told us it might go on for six weeks, as the hole is over 200' deep. Plant City is the strawberry capital of the U.S., and when temperatures drop to freezing the growers have to pump many more acre-feet of groundwater out to save the crop -- sinkholes here are a constant problem.

Tomorrow we will bid a fond farewell to this very pleasant and welcoming lodge, and head east to Orlando and our secret stealth parking space there. Our friend Steph flies in Sunday evening and we have agreed to pick her up at the Orlando airport, which is just a few miles from that spot. I still need to research what unnatural acts we may need to do to drive Odyssey through the airport -- sometimes they make us use the bus lane. On Monday I will be dropping Steph and Louise at the dock in Fort Pierce for their training cruise before heading off to parts unknown as a bachelor.

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