Florida: Southbound & Down to Key West

11/20/2020 – 12/14/2020

Note from the TWT Team: We are currently sitting in Ortona Lock Campground, east of Fort Meyers enjoying a cool, brisk, sunny Christmas. In fact, the temperatures were forecasted as the same here as they were for Golden, Colorado. You will read about this place in this blog and as it worked out, we were able to get a spot here over the holidays and have greatly enjoyed it. This blog is rather long and was difficult to get out based on that but we felt we needed to catch up a bit. We promise to shorten these moving forward. Merry Christmas from Kemp, Lysette, and Toohey.

Toohey Christmas Photo

If you’re interested in a short 11 minute movie titled Southbound and Down which features two Aussies on a surf trip around Australia in a small van camper with magical surf videos accompanied by possibly offensive heavy music and nothing remotely relative to our travels or this blog entry other than the title, then check this out. Otherwise, and no big whoop (NBW), skip down to the much more interesting TWT blog entry below which is suitable for all audiences.

The growth of the state from the Paleo-Indians of prehistoric Florida and the Spanish occupation of the state, to Flagler’s dream of tourism dollars, bringing him vast (more) wealth, the construction of US 1 down the east coast followed by the mega highway, I-95, delivering the Epstein’s loaded Cadillac sitting low over the rear wheels with New York plates, and a caravan of other snowbirds from Canada south to Florida for the winter. The place, with its hokey 50’s tourism, caters to the roadside grotesque and extreme, featuring gators, monkeys, rednecks, and mermaids. The spectacle of the loud party scene among the beauty of the Florida landscape, wild with manatees, coastal birds, and believe it, bears and panthers. Oh, and there are beaches. The beaches along the western coast remain wild and some still undeveloped as they would have been with the settlers, less some harvested trees. The center of the peninsula is heavily agriculture (with a spot of Disney) all the way south to the Homestead sections west of Miami, where large amounts of money is provided for infrastructure initially used to manage water for agriculture nearly ruining one of the great natural floridian gifts, the Everglades. 

Having grown up in Savannah, I am familiar with many places in north and central Florida accessed by interstate to beaches. As a professional in Savannah, a part of my territory was Florida, so I have seen the state from a risk management and business opportunity. My family did the Disney thing on a few occasions. One of my favorite experiences in the state was when Lysette and I moved my dad’s boat north from Ft Lauderdale to Savannah along the Intracoastal Waterway.  But I honestly haven’t spent much time on back roads, other waterways, the south, or national forest along the panhandle.

Lysette is familiar with the state from conferences, papermill projects, vacations in the panhandle and keys, and triathlons. She did Florida’s Hellweek twice back in the day which was cycling 100 miles per day for 8 days on backroads through the state. Both bike trips included a stop over at the Gatorama. However, she acknowledges that she remembers little, so this trip will all be a great surprise for her. 

The most interesting thing of all is how unlikely we were to make the journey down into the state. We snubbed our noses a bit at the thought of it as a move following Savannah. But here we sit, a month from Savannah with plans to remain here through Christmas and for a few weeks following based on our slow mode of transportation. What we’ve found here and report in the following blog entry is an interesting world, full of the wild, extraordinary, entertaining, and some annoying moments. In all, we are so glad we made the trip southbound and down to see it from the lens of our journey as we both now have a whole new respect for the state and the true wild it has to offer.

Our Basic Route Southbound & Down Through Florida

Travel Journal

Since we have spent lots of time in the state, just going south, the blog entry is sort of long, so we’ve cut it up into sections based on our stops. You’ll likely need a comfy chair and a few more minutes to get through this one so grab a seat, use the restroom, warm up your tea, and settle in for the ride.

St Marys River, Macclenny, FL

With our looming departure from Laura S Walker State Park being a Friday, we struggled with finding available campsites through this weekend and the following Thanksgiving week. But, to the credit of the TWT Research and Travel department for their tenacity, we ended up with a couple of Hipcamps, RV parks, and other unique choices that give us some solid places to stay. Destination 1 was three nights at a hipcamp (AirBnB for campers) located along the Florida side of St Marys River, advertised as a large grass field for setting up camp near a short path down to the river where you’ll have a private white sand beach on the St Marys River to enjoy. Destination 2 is two nights at a hipcamp on an organic blueberry and turmeric farm southwest of there, likely in a field, but very interesting. Destination 3 is outside of Crystal River where we’ll be in an RV resort.

The drive out of Florida began on the same roads to the Folkston, GA entrance to the swamp. We fueled up there and continued south passing the entrance road to the park and straight eventually crossing the St Marys River. The river runs from the swamp to the ocean while providing an ever shifting, tannic acid stained water landmark for a state line between Georgia and Florida. We continued past Blue Hole Road, a left turn to our camp and into the small town of Macclenny, Florida. This diversion was needed as we were about an hour early from when we told the host we’d arrive so it allowed us an opportunity to get some cash from the ATM and a few things from the Winn Dixie Food Store. 

We returned north and an eventual right just before the St Marys river bridge and onto Blue Hole Road. The road, a small county maintained road lined with a few other houses and manufactured homes, led us about a quarter of a mile to where we took a left onto a long straight gravel drive up to the property. The house was a one story ranch, nicely painted with a dark green metal roof. We drove to the right of it, between it and another smaller house, passing through small palm trees and a true plot of land appearing more Florida than Georgia. A man in all white, appearing to wear painters clothes, hopped off his orange Kabota tractor to wave us toward the large grass field to the right, surrounded by woods. He would tell us to park anywhere but the ground is pretty flat along the edge of the woods. So we did. We set the rig near the lone tree along a mostly flat section of grass. The place was home to few fire ant mounds, the larger of them having been extinguished recently by the owner.  

With the home set up, we followed the tree line to find the trail, a quarter mile walk through a shady North Florida river forest with ground of sandy, white dirt over some natural undulating berms to the white sand, dirt beach along the St Marys River. It was as advertised, the water black in appearance from the tannic acid, the same water we had experienced in the swamp, now moving south, then east with an easy, steady flow. After looking at the map, the river actually turns north for about 20 miles before making a sharp easterly turn for its final run to the ocean. 

Our beach front for the day was about 50 yards long as the river curved slightly around us. The other side, Georgia, was high bluffs cut from the water erosion, moving sand and earth down river, removing the foundation of sawtooth palms and river oaks along the way, leaving them hanging if not dead along the shoreline. 

Sitting behind us along the high side of our beach, just tucked into the trees are three tent camp spots each with a stone fire ring and a few picnic tables. According to our host, these are the most used spots during the summer. They also provide a green molded plastic poop house for guests, to include us, positioning it just at the end of the path close to the beach. 

We spent the next hour tossing sticks for Toohey who always seems to find the puppy spirit in him when around water. His routine of swimming for a stick, binging it back, destroying it, then finding a place to roll in the sand remains consistent. At least until the last stick which is tossed to wash off the sand before heading back to camp. 

Sleep was decent with the creepy sounds of coyote yelping throughout the night, a few owls hooting and screeching, random gunshots and some unknown noises. It was a descent sleep though, with temperatures in the mid 60’s, extremely comfortable. 

The morning broke to overcast skies and a quick check of the weather, over 90% humidity, which is a moisture we will just have to get use to while traveling the state of Florida. We decided on a walk or run around the area. Walk or run as my back has been out of whack since a few days before leaving Savannah so I haven’t had a good workout since. But I thought maybe it was good enough to at least try. In the end it wasn’t good enough for a run but we still walked. We did 3 miles doing an out and back to the end of Blue Hole road. We also include a walk to the main highway where we crossed the stateline by walking over the bridge to the Georgia side and then home. It wasn’t really anything that interesting but a good way to better familiarize ourselves to this area. 

We returned home cooked, ate, and cleaned breakfast just as some sun finally broke the low cloud cover. I pulled the new kayak from the roof and we worked together to inflate it, then with water wear on, we carried the vessel to the beach which was our beach, alone for the day.

Our first trip in the kayak carrying all three of us was tight with me sitting in the rear seat, Lysette in the middle, and Toohey in the bow. My knees remained bent with back forced to the stern of the boat, at times feeling like I was better off just lying back and that was more comfortable. Also, to sit up and paddle would drip cold water on Lysette she didn’t like as the weather was already cool. So in the end, she mostly did all the paddling and I sat back and enjoyed the ride. Toohey, now lying with his muzzle on the bow just relaxing and watching. We moved the boat up river, against the slight current without much effort until we rounded a bend seeing the highway bridge that we had walked to earlier. At this point we came about pointing the bow down river flowing with the current. At certain points the current was so light that we, she, had to paddle against the slight breeze to make any forward progress. We returned to the beach where we had launched and Lysette got out. Toohey and I proceeded on down river with the current for a click.

As he does anytime we separate the team, Toohey gets nervous keeping his nose up for scent and his eyes on the place where he’d last seen her looking for any motion that might be her. His ears on duty, he wasn’t relaxing as before. We floated around the first bend and out of sight and he finally turned and relaxed. 

The river curves constantly right and left with no real pattern of consistency, with white sand and dirt beaches on the inside of the curves and high bluffs continuing to be carved out by the steady erosion of the dark colored water. The trees, some standing, others fallen or hanging on by a few roots include mostly small oaks and sawtooth palms. It is a gnarly unmanaged scene, like a really bad head of uncombed hair, a garden you likely wouldn’t plan based on plants, trees and lack of any organization, but one wild definitely defining the area. Mostly there is no sound on the river other than the ruffing of palm branches and small animals crunching as they move over the ground cover. Occasionally there is a sound of a truck on a distant highway, maybe a gun shot from a hunter. The river, however with its slow pace never makes a sound even as it produces eddies around fallen trees.

We turned around at a large pool formed in a wide turn to head back to Lysette and the beach. The paddle up stream took a little more effort but nothing much more than keeping the paddle blades moving through the water with a few over corrections to align the bow with the target up river.

We spent the remainder of the day sitting, talking, throwing and chasing sticks, chasing me as I’d go off in the boat for short excursion. We’d walk up and have some lunch only to return to the beach for one more tandem paddle which was mostly Lysette paddling so I wouldn’t drip water on her. 

We carried the boat home in time to feed the tired dog and drive into town to pick up some provisions and a birthday bag for our host’s 34 year old son. Earlier in the day birthday boy’s dad/our camp host would drive up in his gold cart to invite us to the party. So, as good guests do, we wanted to attend with a gift. We stopped by the liquor store and purchased Coors Banquet, the banquet of beers, then headed to the Winn Dixie for a birthday party bag that said CHEERS on it. We returned home and as we were getting out the camp host drove up on his golf cart again to inform us that there would be a DJ that shouldn’t go past midnight and that we should come up to eat some oysters. We agreed but first we ate a nice dinner and had drinks while other party goers started driving up, parking in the grass field in front of us. The DJ had set up and mumbled lots of stuff with some music in between. 

We packed the gift and walked over, spotting the host. He pointed out his son whose birthday it was, so we gave him the Colorado gift which he politely took. The most interesting part of the event was the gambling game at the center of the party referred to as Chicken Shit. Basically, there is a large blackboard with a grid of numbers in white surrounded by a fence of chicken wire. You purchase numbers starting at a $1 each. You pull a piece of paper with a number from a bowl. Once all the numbers are sold they spread feed evenly on the board, take the live chicken from the pet carrier, and place it on the board and wait for it to poop. This takes about 1 minute. The square where the poop lands wins the pot. They did this repeatedly during the night, increasing the squares from a dollar to $5 by the time we left, then as we got home the DJ announced a $20 square. It was fun to watch. The chicken was the owner’s pet and not harmed or scared, it was handled gently by all, and simply did what chickens do, eat and poop to the delight of all our new friends at the birthday party.

The day was full and fun, experiencing time in the space, a spot of land on the St Marys River, a flow of water that runs from the Okefenokee to the Atlantic Ocean. Mr and Mrs Host have a wonderful place here filled with nature and their family who they graciously invited us in to meet and get to know. They are warm people who love to share this spot which includes sharing their story. Their goal isn’t so much profit but seems to be more about sharing the love and enjoyment that they have for this place. We were grateful, benefitting from the opportunity to stay here and get to know them. 

Ever since we left Fort Peck, Montana, we have joked that if you ever want to know where we are on any given day, just look for the spot of green on the weather radar. Well, the clouds just keep on coming. We woke to mostly overcast skies and after a nice leisurely walk to the beach, breakfast, and time to sit a bit, we chose to go for a bicycle ride. Our focus was on a road we’ve seen called Steele Bridge Road, giving us the idea that maybe there is an old bridge or at least the river. We set off on an investigative adventure taking a right out of the long driveway then a left onto the main road towards Macclenny. We past the Christian Corner Store on the left, several churches before hucking a right turn on Steele Bridge Road. The road was Florida flat, cut long and straight through tall pine tree farms, past the Baker County refuge station at the intersection with Deputy Dawg Road, rounded a few tight turns, one to the right, then left, then left again before another long straight to where the pavement ended at a boat ramp and Mary’s RV Park. We stopped, leaned our bikes against a fence and tree and walked down the boat ramp to the beach. We took a few selfies and headed back up taking in the graffiti and stepping over trash. 

Along the ride back, I introduced a concept for conversation after seeing so much trash littered along the boat ramp, beach, and road. First, what is the relationship between litter and socioeconomics of an area? In other words, do lower income folks think less of the land they use so as to toss more trash from their windows onto the roadside? Do they not see the beauty of the nature where they live or do they not understand the damage it does to that beauty? Do they not have the resources to dispose of trash or are they not taught that this isn’t a good thing? After a short dialogue where Lysette gave a counter argument attacking the foundation of my question suggesting that they more likely toss the litter in the bed of their truck and as they roll down the road it flies out without them noticing. Whatever. Then I expanded the thought to my original question: Is there any correlation between the product being littered and chronic disease in a community? Most of the products were sugary drink bottles, fast food to include Popeyes nd McDonalds, cheap beer cans, and an occasional plastic water bottle. Whatever the question or the answer, a Boy Scout troop could bag lots of debris along these roads and public spaces. 

Along the ride and well after the conversation, we spotted a cell phone tower so we stopped to get caught up a bit. Then proceeded back to camp. When we arrived back at camp, we snacked a little then decided to deflate and pack up the kayak as it appeared as through rain is in the forecast for the remainder of the day. As expected, soon after the boat was bagged and tied down to the roof, the rain started and would mostly rain through the night. 

We took the rainy afternoon as an opportunity to drive around the area so the photography department could capture some photos and to stop under the cell tower to research and schedule more reservations for future camps.

We returned to camp for the night, sitting in the dry quarters of the Home, she working on photos, me typing and reading. A new camper arrived and was escorted by the camp host down to the river. We ate a canned dinner of fish and chicken salad and were off to bed with wishful dreams of sunshine for a few days.

Today, move day, is always exciting. That, and the location is two nights at an organic blueberry farm which only adds to the intrigue. The report is they have solar showers, a port-o-let while the compost toilet is completed, and potable water that is spring fed. They have two dogs and suggest that dogs can roam as long as they don’t interfere with farm operations or defecate on the blueberry bushes. Alright!

Organic Blueberry and Turmeric Farm, Old Town, FL

With the Tacoma moving at blazing speeds south along highway 349, we zoomed past the entrance to the Organic Blueberry Farm even after the half mile notification from the Google Maps girl accurately warned us. Thankfully we were on a large, wide highway equipped with bike lanes and easy slopes off the road, allowing us the ability to swing the rig around and pull safely into the farm entrance. The host instructions were to follow the Hipcamp signs right, through the gate, around the rows of blueberry bushes into the backside of the property and locate your lot. Ours was Lot 3 which turned out to have a teepee style tent already pitched there. Lysette texted the hipcamp host and he texted back to take Lot 1, so we did.

This Hipcamp was also advertised as a WWOOF farm that comes with solar showers, molded plastic outhouse, and spring water all while camping among blueberry and turmeric root farm operations. It provided all that plus extremely flat sites, covered in nice cut grass, large enough for 2 RV’s, a picnic table and fire pit. Across the road was a man-dug pond aka gravel pit suitable for swimming at your own risk.

Our neighbor in the teepee style tent turned out to be originally from California but more recently, interestingly enough, from Colorado where she worked as a pre-school teacher in Golden. Her most impactful profession was as a massage therapist for 20 years. She was pleasant and happily showed us around the place pointing out the solar showers which I had great interest in using pretty soon. She, being in her early 50’s, was there as a WWOOFER but as she reported, only for light duty and massages for Hipcampers and other volunteer workers.

As she was showing us the showers, the “main event” walked up. A tall, dark complexion man wearing a cowboy hat, neck scarf, checkered button down shirt, khakis belted tightly, and socks with some sort of clog or solid croc. He greeted us with a big smile providing a clue of the event that followed. We would learn during the afternoon that he is a 5th generation Floridian with family having ranched this land selling all but what is left here, through the years. He moved here from California to give it a go and has reported great success. He was the only supplier of organic turmeric root to Lucky’s Markets until they went under last year but has since hooked up with another large supplier who sells nationally to Wholefoods as well as others. He also does good business with blueberries and all while using WWOOF labor. 

WWOOFing is a thing where you can volunteer your time on an organic farm, for room and board. Our neighbor also provides massages to workers and there is another retired lady and past wwoof laborers who now cooks the three meals a day while living in her RV. The volunteers work five 5-hour days for their compensation. 

https://wwoofusa.org

We’d learn the other following features from our host, the main event.

  • He has an MBA.
  • He played semi-pro Rugby.
  • He learned to swim on the farm in the gravel pit swimming hole in front of our camp.
  • He can ride horses as he learned ranching on the land where Lot 1 sits.
  • He was a successful corporate business man in California before coming home to save the remaining portion of land his family started ranching five generations ago.
  • He lived in many countries and first WWOOF’d in Australia on a sheep ranch.

We found the “main event” kind, full of energy, easy to talk to and a personality large and interesting. Seeing him ride up on a shoddy golf cart was kind of contradictory as a large white horse might have been more appropriate. But much like our camp on site No.1, it is an amazing and interesting place to sleep for a couple of nights if you can dry camp.

We spent the afternoon showering, playing with his dog, Bjorn, in the pond, and walking the property. We made a fire to cook sweet potatoes for dinner after sunset, cooked turkey burgers to compliment the taters and a salad. After dinner we sat and watched the flames disappear and the embers glow under a half moon and big open night sky sprinkled with wonderful stars. We talked, Lysette walked to get her step count up, and we finally retired to bed for a wonderful cool night of sleep.

We woke before the sun rose to a moist camp from all the evening dew. The moisture rising off the ground was creating a slight fog off the surrounding fields and from the pond. We walked along the fence line of the property towards the main road leading in, turning around in time to see the sun blaring through the trees along the back of the property, turning the color of the trees to dark, backed with rays of sun light jetting into the pasture through the misty air, starting the day off with a brilliant sight. 

With my back feeling better, we decided on a short run and reintrodocution of the Tibetan rites, the five moves to include a standing spin move, leg lifts, kneeling back arches, platforms and a downward dog type thing. Once this was done along with breakfast we made our move for the day. The plan was to first visit a springs as this is the areas natural delight. The next move was based on the advice of our camp host which was to drive to Shired Island by way of the Dixie Mainland Road. So we set off.

We arrived at the Manatee Springs State Park, paid our $6 entry fee, and drove to the parking lot. We grabbed a spot up front and with dogs allowed in the area, except platforms and swimming areas, we leashed Toohey up. We walked the main park, scoped out the swimming hole and decided to take the plunge. So I took Toohey back to the Tacoma to position him on duty to protect the assets, grabbed my goggles, and hurriedly headed back where Lysette and I stripped down to our suits. 

Natural springs are a big part of the geography of this area of Florida, providing a comfortable year long water temperature of 72-74 degrees. This made  perfect living spots for Indians in the area for a constant supply of fresh water and a magnet for attracting their food. This fresh flowing clean water source flows easily from there down a slight river feeding the Suwanee River. The run from this spring to the river is about a quarter of a mile at best lined with old cypress trees. There are four man made entry points into the springs for swimming, a boat ramp from non-motorized boats, and a baby alligator sunning on the opposing shore being warmed by the late morning sun. 

Lysette and I, now standing on the second from the last grated metal steps running to the water, watching as a mother and her two daughters take turns jumping in. While noticing no severe shivering as they exited nor movement from the alligator, we decided to go, first me then Lysette. The water was as expected, amazing. We swam around for a few minutes, taking time to dive deep into the crystal clear water to look for fish, seeing the underwater vegetation, before resurfacing to put an eye on the uninterested baby gator. Knowing full well that the two little girls are much easier prey than the two much larger and stronger adults. 

We exited the swimming hole to make room for other humans with children and to avoid the crowds. We dressed and decided to walk the boardwalk through the swamp filled with huge cypress trees on both sides to the opening at the Suwanee River. There, we witness a large baby manatee and at another point, a much large adult manatee floating through the waters, not quite cold enough to move upstream into the spring inlet, but close. 

We stopped on our return trip where there was a turnout slash overlook and found ourselves in a conversation with a couple who were sporting Florida State Park Volunteer garb. They told us how easy it was to become a volunteer with compensation of free trailer parking for 20 hours a week of service per couple and no mandated time frames for service. This is something we are interested in, but not yet fully committed, as a way to spend the winter months, or at least a winter month, in Florida. 

We left the park and drove out of the area much the same way we got there. At the small intersection town of Cross City, we fueled up then turned left towards Suwanee. A few miles before Suwanee we found the road, Dixie Mainline, an old railroad bed now a dirt road through Lower Suwanee Wildlife Refuge. This road connects the swamp to the causeway to Shired Island. The drive is a single lane, gravel, well maintained road that once was used to haul harvested cypress timber from the land to roads by rail car. The cypress that are there now are much thinner than the ones seen in the state park, evidence of past timbering operations. We saw lots of palms, cypress, some muddy creeks, and a few locals, one fishing with a spear gun concoction using a crossbow with a Zebeco style closed face reel. As we rolled up to him standing on the bridge, I asked him what he saw, and with his death machine in hand, responded, a baby manatee followed by a slight smile and laughter. We’re pretty sure he was only kidding. We talked for a bit before we moved on. The 8-mile stretch was pretty and worth the time. 

As planned, we intersected the causeway to Shired Island, turning left to the coast. A short time later we drove onto the island. The road deadends at a cul-de-sac, a place with some trash and debris, likely a great place to stash a dead body if you were in that business. There were two roads leading off the main road, one leading to the campground and the other road used mostly for boat trailer parking and a walk out to the shore line.

We drove the camp road and weren’t impressed with the sites or the prospect of camping there at the moment with the current clientele. Being free brings a lack of control. We then moved to the second road with an interest in hiking out to the shoreline. With Toohey off leash, we headed out. The sun was settling in the lower half of the the western sky as the path led us through a marshy area into an opening just to the south of a treed hammock. The beach sand turned quickly to mud then to a shallow shelf of water that led out to the gulf. There was a family with about 4 children playing in the shallow shin deep waters about 20 yards off the muddy beach. We walked out to wade in the shallow water before walking north along the beach hammock. Lysette got interested in an Osprey perched on a dead tree above here, drying his feathers for a hunt while Toohey and I continued to walk. The biting flies quickly found us in a swarm and began doing their thing. About the time we got to the end, we decided that the 60 flies on Toohey were too much so we started a brisk walk, then run back to the car. We survived but what started as a pleasant experience turned quickly into one where the insects won the day.

We drove back to camp, about a 40-minute deal, had a conversation with the camp host who came by to deliver turmeric powder and collect on the firewood. We lit the fire, cooked dinner, and enjoyed our last night here before our move date tomorrow to the Crystal Island RV Resort.

Crystal River and Homossasa Springs

Our drive to the Crystal Islands RV Resort was short based on our travel standards, having us arrive soundly at 1PM even after a stop at a Winn Dixie for some last minute groceries. The site assigned to the team was 73 which was a tight back in spot, in the side yard of a long time, 24-year, park resident living in her 5th wheel. We quickly set up the home with full on electric and water before getting word that Lysette’s sister and brother-in-law, the other full time RV’s in the Hunt family, had also arrived in the park. We set off with Toohey on leash to greet them and the cousins. After a quick hello, we returned to our home to get some other things put away and to wait on the Thanksgiving Day dinner the resort has organized and cooked for anyone interested. The scheduled delivery was to be between 1 and 3pm. Slightly after 3, having not received it, I decided to ride my bike up to the front to see if we needed to continue waiting. I approached a golf cart with the pink sign indicating a delivery vehicle and when I asked the driver, she replied they were out of dinners but had some green beans and mashed potatoes left if I was interested. So I rode back to camp and told Lysette who then sent her contact who had called us three times about this dinner that we didn’t really care about, a text. She said there would be a delivery soon. Confused.

We then got a note that her sister and clan were walking over. They showed up and we all got inside our small 12-foot Aliner where the four adults and three dogs existed comfortably. The dinners showed and we all picked at them while enjoying a drink and conversation. We squeezed back out of the home sort of like a clown car episode and went for a stroll around the park.

The RV park sits off Fort Island Trail which is a road jetting out to a small beach call Fort Island Gulf Beach that sits at the mouth of the Crystal River. The place is strewn with tall and short palms, lots of low wetlands, waterways, some of which are man-cut, others natural, loads of birds, signs indicating venomous snakes, and an occasional alligator sighting.

The park is large with many full-time and seasonal spots, some spots backing up to the water with permanent docks. There is a boat ramp and public dock area as well. The permanent residents have incredible structures, party houses, screen porches and temporary tent buildings constructed in small spaces. Some are equipped with outside TV’s, bars, and light displays. The park has a pool, basketball courts, playgrounds, large lake in the center with a small gator, and best of all great people watching. Tank tops, t-shirts, flip flops, old school cigarettes, and fishing stories are the norm here. But all in, a pretty nice place that is mostly maintained to the standards we’ve experienced at most other RV parks. 

We woke up Thanksgiving day with a 5k which is just something you do the morning of Thanksgiving. Our run took us out to Fort Island Trail Road then west to a public park, dock and boat ramp. After returning, I scrambled some eggs and spinach for a nice breakfast. We set off in the early noon to Homosassa Springs Wildlife Refuge with hopes of another fresh water spring swim. We arrived and quickly learned there was no swimming and much of the park attractions were closed for the holiday, so we left. We drove west into the small village Homosassa which was old style Florida, large oaks, palms, a restaurant called McRae’s sitting next to the public boat ramp and along the Homosassa River. There was a place called the Monkey Bar for viewing an island reportedly called monkey island with stray monkeys from past movie sets and Florida attractions. The place was mostly shutdown for the day but was begging us for a return visit. 

Needing a water experience, we made the drive past our RV park to the Fort Island Gulf Beach. This small beach, seemingly man improved with sand, had a nice swimming area between two hammocks and a well dispersed crowd. I quickly pulled off shirt, kicked crocs to the sand, and with goggles secured, headed out for a swim along the beach. The water was crisp but nice and mostly felt clean, although with few waves or other water movement, it made me think off all the small kids wading in and out and what I might be swimming through. But oh well.

Following the swim, the four of us sat on the beach to enjoy the afternoon with a few beers, lots of laughter, and great scenery.

We made it home, showered, tossed a salad together before heading to sister’s rig for Thanksgiving dinner. The ground turkey meat, cooked with thyme, rosemary, and sage along with other spices tasted like a T-day event. They cooked sweet potatoes in the crockpot and accompanied with stuffing, gravy, and cranberry salsa. All wrapped in a soft warmed flour tortilla were extremely delicious! We followed it up with a slice of pecan pie and a few rounds of Crimes Against Humanity before saying good night, a quick stroll home, and sleep. It was a great way to spend Thanksgiving as traveling nomads.

Some of our best days have been those spent around water. Today was one of those days. We made an early run to the Winn Dixie for a few provisions needed for a boat ride then met up with sister and brother-in- law at the marina where droves of others were also there with this brilliant idea. We signed up for a boat, had a brief wait and check in from the boat girl, and departed the dock at Twin River Marina with the only instruction not to go up Salt Creek as we’d be sure to damage the propeller. 

While waiting on our boat, we encountered the most uninteresting family ever.  It appeared to be two couples but likely based on the little information provided to us, it was more likely a sibling thing. What made them uninteresting was the lack of any facial response given to any external stimuli. Now, I get that some people are introverts and like to be left alone and I can certainly read an audience to know when that is the case. But these completely uninteresting people were bazaar, not your typical introvert but completely unable to communicate. The one chatty one, a female, told us that one of the uninteresting males was from Savannah. After not having to wait too long for a conversation opening with this group of uninteresting people, I asked him, where in Savannah? He breathes in and exhales, never really looking up making the lack of hearing not a possibility, and as the last bit of air leaves his mouth he kinda of snorted out, Ardsley Park. The chatty female did respond for him making us think maybe she was being paid to be the conversationalist interpreter of the travel band of uninteresting people. Her question in retort was to ask where I had lived in Savannah. But now I was uninterested in the conversation as the male simply went back into sleep mode, pausing any sign of life in his body, remaining uninteresting. 

In all honesty though, there was something interesting about these uninteresting people. When they backed out of the dock space next to our eventual boat, they nearly took off our engine as they throttled forward, ramming it as they passed by, all while remaining completely expressionless, unlike the marina staff who all came running out to check on stuff, as well as the guy on the opposite dock who stood there in disbelief. The uninteresting folks in the boat simply made no expression and motored along. We’d see them one more time, hours later at the gas dock as they were returning just after us, when interestingly enough, they rammed their rental boat bow first into the dock so hard it almost dislodged the dock. I guess their throttle works at the same pace as their uninteresting expressions. Pretty interesting.

The boat we rented was a 24-foot Carolina Skiff, a flat bottom boat with three layers of bench seating giving us plenty of room for our group of four adults and three dogs. We comfortably first motor boated out to the main waterway next to Shell Island, sitting at the entrance to the vastness of the Gulf of Mexico, then turned and headed inland to the extremely congested area of Three Sisters and Hunter Springs parks. The shore here was lined shoulder to shoulder with waterfront homes with docks, large marinas, and people on kayaks, paddle boards, pedal bikes and clear hulled plastic canoes. They were as thick as gnats at a baseball practice in Savannah. We slowed to idle our way through the narrow waterways, through the clear fresh water channels. I never looked down for manatees as the thick stream of people were out in droves. The place was packed. At the entry into the Three Sisters Springs, the kayaks lined both sides of the waterway as swimmers swam up into the springs, all with hopes of seeing underwater aquatic life in the crystal clear water and the chance of swimming with a manatee. 

We made our way to the end, swung the boat around and headed back out to a spot just south of Shell Island where we set anchor, had some lunch while watching the steady parade of boats returning from the Gulf of Mexico. It was quite the sight to see as millions of dollars of floating recreation buzzed past us while we sat in a beautiful spot along the shoreline of the gulf. 

After dropping off the boat, we headed to the shrimp market next door to pick up 2 pounds of shrimp for a shrimp boil, RV style, followed by more Crimes Against Humanity.

The morning started with a pre breakfast trip to the laundry room for laundry, a short run followed by breakfast, and plan making for the next few weeks of travel. This planning included a KOA, which is AOK, a Hipcamp, and a week long stay at the Flamingo National Park Campground in the Everglades. We also got word that we were going to meet up with sister and brother-in-law for a kayak to the Homosassa Springs south of Crystal River. 

We departed from camp about noon meeting up again in the parking lot of McRae’s, a riverside dock style open restaurant and bar. The place, the Friday after Thanksgiving was busy with patrons, fisherman returning to the dock, and the steady stream of boaters up and down in front of the river. On the other side of the river was another busy place, Crumps. We quickly learned that they don’t rent kayaks there and sister found a kayak rental place on the opposite side of the river requiring us to drive back east, then left turn back to the river side kayak rental place. No big whoop!

The kayak rental place sat in the parking lot of a riverside restaurant on the south side of a bridge over the river. The rental counter was on a small floating dock tied to a fixed dock beneath a roof, providing the attendant plenty of shade. His work space appeared to be an old tiki style bar converted to a place to sit his computer. After slowly renting us three kayaks plus a launch fee of $10 for Toohey’s SUP, we set off. Lysette, sister, and brother-in-law were in sit on top style kayaks, and Toohey was on the bow of the SUP with me at the helm. The directions from the clerk, out of their inlet, turn right, then a quick left. Remain on the right side of the river and there is lots of private property to respect. He pushed us out and we were off. 

We did as he said, joining in the parade of many others, mostly in power boats to include pontoons, small water craft, large expensive with center console fishing boat style and some interesting styles with high helms centered on the boat presumedly for flats fishing, better sight of the fish. We even saw something interesting, called a shallow water engine with this one being a GatorTail for shallow water.

We paddled along as the water got clearer to the point it was as crystal clear as pool water, seeing fish swimming along beneath us. The jungle like environment along the shore provided landscape to the Florida style homes, fitting and interesting to look at. We passed under a low bridge preventing most boaters from going further and into a really small creek where Toohey and I would enjoy a short swim. A lady from Pennsylvania who was wading in the area with her man and another couple alongside their jet skies asked about the SUP and asked to try it, which she did, proclaiming afterwards that she’d like one. We continued our paddle a bit deeper into the creek with Toohey getting annoyed when Lysette wouldn’t stay close showing his discontent by barking loudly. All while people in other boats, mostly females, would comment on how cute the dog was. 

As we passed back out of this area and by the manatee area, the music got loud, really loud. We found a spot with two other boats anchored close to shore with two manatees swimming beneath, occasional coming up to open the fat blubbery mouths with whiskers, above the surface for a gulp of air. The moment special, if not for the extremely loud music the young boaters blared from their boats. Terribly rude and not necessary, simply taking the natural enjoyment out of the moment. 

Music is something I’ve always enjoyed but never personally had any talent. My playlist is broad from old country, blues, light jazz, and classic rock. But one thing I know is loud music in a place meant for quiet enjoyment, whatever the music, is rude. We would find this here, along this special place in Florida, beautifully appointed by nature with amazing things to experience, all overshadowed by the lack of consideration of some people more concerned with getting a party on than truly allowing the moment to exist as it should for others.

We paddled along finding our way back against a headwind to the kayak dock we left. We gave the clerk his boats, I deflated the SUP loading it into its backpack and then onto the roof of the Tacoma, travel ready. We went home, showered, met back at the sister and brother-in-law’s RV for another nice dinner, drinks and conversation before heading back to the home and bed. 

The next morning, we all left for the next event, us to continue further south into Florida and for them, a push back to California with business to attend to before getting back on the road.

St Petersburg Area

We left Crystal Isle RV Resort after saying goodbye to family. The drive was basically south down Highway 19. We decided to make a turn to 19 Alternate for a quick trip into Tarpon Springs. Tarpon Springs was founded by Greek immigrants who used their diving skills to collect sponges off sea floor. The small village of Tarpon Springs sits along a small harbor with greek architecture, a style they brought from their homes along the Adriatic Sea. Today, the place is a lively tourist destination with retailers up and down the street selling authentic sponges, the street signs have names in both English and Greek alphabet, and lots of authentic Greek restaurants. We drove through the main town with the small shops along one side and the harbor on the other. The photography department rolled film from the passenger window of the Tacoma as we kept the slow pace moving in then out of town. 

We maintained a steady pace along 19 Alternate through more small areas, seeing glimpses of water, ever changing structures from small, old Floridian style to large towering condominium structures. We made our way back to 19 and about 20 minutes later and two quick right turns, pulled into the KOA, St. Petersburg/Madeira Beach. Our spot, site DW18 is the most expensive KOA real estate we’ve rented at $110/night. It backs up to a shallow bay bordered by mangrove bushes. The park has a convenient kayak launch spot for us to use. There was a small 3-foot gator that moved across the short piece of land from the pond to the bay during the day which was a little freaky. Mostly the place is quiet, facilities clean and working, and located a short 20 minute drive to the beaches.

We set up camp, inflated both the kayak and paddleboard and set off for a float/paddle around the mangroves and bay. It was peaceful with many water birds flying, floating, or standing around. We saw several fish and schools of fish jump. The mangroves themselves are sitting on what looks like clumps of hardened oysters piles but in researching we aren’t really sure. We did learn that the shrub is a durable beast with the ability to thrive in salt water where most can’t. Life is pretty amazing with you think about its adaptability to nature. 

We returned from the paddle and headed to the local grocery store to pick up a few things including a ready made salad for dinner as we really didn’t feel like cooking. We returned to camp, showered, ate, and slept. 

The forecast showed a 100% chance of rain in the morning and it arrived at 6AM and was completely gone by 8AM. Once it stopped, we jumped into running garb and headed our for a run along the Pinellas Trail (www.pinellascounty.org/trailgd/) that crosses in front of the entrance to the KOA. The trail is a bike, walking, roller skating, running path connecting downtown St Petersburg to Tarpon Springs with many side community trails and bike path connectors. Our piece of the trail for our run flowed on bridges over the small bay from behind our camp, behind shopping centers, over roads, and along roads. It was well maintained and a good place to stretch the legs but nothing all that interesting. 

We returned to camp, had breakfast and relaxed a bit before making the decision for an afternoon trip to Fort Desoto Park and its dog beach. Finally a place where our dog can enjoy his love of rolling in the sand after swimming in the sea without fear of fines. We made the 30 minute drive, paid the $5 daily use fee to the entry attendant, who also gave Toohey a treat, then headed down to the white sand beach. The water was beautiful, the porpoises rolling, and sea birds fishing, all the while, good mannered dogs with responsible dog owners enjoyed the nice sunny day. We found and left nice clean beaches littered with a few old tennis balls, and the sight of happy dogs. Toohey’s day included chasing sticks into the water, an old tennis ball, butt sniffing other dogs, and of course rolling in the sand. He sniffed lots of butt and was basically, just a good dog. 

Leaving dog beach we both agreed that Fort Desoto Park is a place we’d like to stay if we return. The park’s campground has access to several trails and is removed from the hustle of the city. We had checked before coming here and nothing was available as only one loop allows dogs. But for future visits, this will be an A choice to research availability. 

The drive home was enjoyable as we drove through the beach communities. You don’t see much of the actual beach or water due to the highrise structures along the shore but we both liked seeing the few old beach communities that remained with small cottages sprinkled among the giants. Following a quick stop in the grocery store for fish for dinner and we were home. 

The next day started with a bike ride. We unleashed the bikes, saddled up, and headed back to the Pinellas Trail where we hucked a left and followed it all the way into downtown St Petersburg. It was mostly flat, rolled over a few bridges over roads, rivers, and whatnots, all had good safe crossings, and overall, well maintained and safe. There were others biking, a few runner, and an occasional walker. We arrived at a waterfront park just to the south of where they used to stage the St Anthony’s Triathlon that we both competed in years past. We quickly reminisced about the past event while turning our bikes back along the path and headed home. 

Once home, we did a quick change and prep as we had an appointment with a camera repair shop close by who could hopefully remove the lens protector stuck on Lysette’s camera. You might have noticed all the little specs of dust all over the photos as these were on the inside and couldn’t be removed. She had taken her lens to two shops in Colorado with no success and was thinking the lens may be a loss. Having already found her only other lens in a washing machine early in the trip, this could be another expensive loss. Google took us to his house. He was friendly, took the camera to a back room, quickly removed the filter, and sent us on our way charging nothing.  Florida Camera Repair | The Camera Cure. She only wishes she’d thought to have him clean the lens while she was there.

Ortona Lock Campground

Hitched and loaded, loaded and hitched, we headed out of camp heading south through Bradenton then east on Highway 72. We made some lefts and rights, went straight before a swooping right slice on a bridge over the Caloosahatchee River (canal) that is about 15 miles upstream from where we’d camp. 

Lake Okeechobee and the Okeechobee Waterway provides flood relief to South Florida and safe passage for boaters moving from Port St Lucie and the Atlantic ocean on the east coast to Fort Meyers and the Gulf of Mexico on the west coast of Florida. There are three locks along the waterway where the Corp of Engineers has provided really nice campgrounds. Our site, No. 26, at the Ortona Lock Campground overlooks the canal across the way from the actual lock. From our camp, we look left to see the dam controlling the massive amount of water separated from the lock by a large mass of dirt. Looking up river, east, is the waterway with one pleasure yacht moored to a designed post waiting for the morning shift to open so he can motor on. 

Located to the south of the camp and all along the road that brings you here is a cattle ranch. The wildlife is the show though with frequent sightings of a variety of vocal water birds who have migrated here for the winter. There is also a mating couple of bald eagles that would at one point fly low and directly overhead as we sat with cocktails. The place is alive with nature and the steady hum of the dam, but otherwise a mostly quiet little retreat where we are looking forward to a couple of restorative nights. 

All sites at the campground are level with concrete pad and crushed rock sitting area, covered picnic tables, and fire rings. The bathrooms right across from us are clean and well lit, which is actually one complaint of mine as they are unnecessarily bright for this place. But all in, this is a clean place, good for a few days if not longer, to set up camp and enjoy a little nature for a great price.

We didn’t do much of anything while at Ortona Campground, but relax, watch the many birds, alligators, and an otter. We saw pleasure boats and one commercial fishing boat come up to, wait, and then enter the locks moving east to west. A few traveled upstream to the east in front of us but the majority headed for the gulf coast. 

On morning one, we ran the grassy earth berm around the wetlands to the east, sitting off property where we were told by a new friend that all the birds hunker down for the night. He also told us this wetland was created to catch some of the overly fertilized water used for all the sugar cane growing in the area so as to not overly pollute the gulf waters from the runoff. Our run was scenic with numerous birds not seen from the campground, hidden along the backside between it and rows and rows of sugar cane and fruit tree fields. 

Our favorite place to watch nature during our stay was along the small canal that ran into the main river at the west end of the damn, beneath the well constructed dock for fishing. There, birds fished the banks, heron, limpkins, kingfisher, hawks, wood storks, and other smaller unnamed birds. There was one large 7-foot gator sunning one day, and on our last day we witnessed the otter moving about. 

On our last day, we did a short run out the road and back along the pasture with bulls and cows, brahman bulls, a freaky looking large animal with a hump on its back behind its head and funny low hanging ears. An awkward white yak looking beast.

But all in, the most interesting wildlife we encountered was meeting our camp neighbor who we’ll call the Creeper. The Virginia Creeper was the trail name given to him when he hiked the AT in the early 2000’s. He earned the name not for being creepy but for the Virginia Creeper, a vine from his home state. Creeper has reportedly been wandering for the last 12 years, if not a lifetime.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Henry David Thoreau

My first sighting of Creeper was while setting up camp, I noticed this tall man with baseball cap, button down collard plaid shirt and a fleece pullover, cargo shorts, and Chacos approaching me. His appearance reminded me of David Letterman with the long white beard, large smile, and wire framed glasses. As he approached he remarked on the A-Liner as something he is interested in. We would have several brief conversations with him along the camp road where we learned lots interesting stuff, mostly that this guy has a great story. The thought of knowing his story more had us invite him for happy hour at our place that night. He accepted but would later suggest 4PM as that is when he usually drinks his two beers before dinner and needs to remain scheduled, or else.

He showed up at 4 with his chair and we all sat. We would learn more about his adventures, riding his bike across the USA on the Transamerican route, riding his bike through the Yukon, hiking the AT, spending up to 30 days alone in the wilderness, twice, and his deep passion for dark craft beers. He buys honey and currently stows about 20 pounds in his Ford Transit van he calls Drifter, all in preparation of the day when he can no longer travel. His plan is he will open each jar that will provide him with a wonderful memory of how he lived it.

He shared with us how he got started on his journey by quitting his job one day and once he realized he could just quit, he became free to live life on his terms. He owned a house once but now lives in in Drifter, mostly.. He spends his summers out west where he loves western Montana. He has a friend with a large ranch in Texas that he now calls his home base when he needs to just sit an the likes to winter in Florida where he knows the landscape and has friends. He commented on how much more difficult this lifestyle has become in recent years with the influx of travelers. He tells of the lifestyle when finding a campsite was as simple as arriving at a campground, your last stop, expecting a vacant site. Now things are much more difficult with campgrounds requiring reservations for godsake. Planning is not a trait of the wandering lifestyle as the TWT team knows all to well.

One of the stories best told by him was the start of his ride across the USA which began in Astoria, Oregon. His friends who knew of his love of craft beers warned him that he’d never leave the state once there. He said he made it a mile before coming up on the first craft brewery where he went inside for one. When the patrons learned of his adventure they started pouring him more and day one stopped there. 

Another of his stories was about his 30 days in the wilderness alone and how his senses just woke up. He found he heard and smelled so much better, getting way more into his experience with nature to the point he could sense wildlife before he saw it, he became so much more aware of nature and his senses while there. He was equally amazed at how fast it goes once back in civilization among the noise.

Creeper was an interesting human to say the least, a kindred spirit that Lysette and I both connected with and enjoyed listening to and learning from him. He had sage advice on many things but in the end, the smile and laugh of a man happily enjoying living his existence, simply and by his terms. A wealth for him not defined by the size of a bank account or home but on the enormity of freedom to live his life by his terms. We said goodbye to him with conversation of possibly meeting up later as we return to the area on our north bound journey.

Redland, Florida

We left the campground, waving goodbye to Creeper who was stopped on the side of the road on his Bike Friday, looking at Sandhill Cranes in the pasture. We turned right into LaBelle, an agricultural community with some ties to Henry Ford, and then a left, south towards Big Cypress Swamp. The route was scenic as we passed through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Preserve. We saw no panthers but plenty of other wildlife along the swamp ladened roadside. We turned left onto Highway 41, the original Alligator Alley, which would pass through more swamplands, the Big Cypress National Preserve, and the northern run along the Everglades.

We stopped briefly to refuel, then at the Big Cypress visitor center, where we learned a bit more about the place. They had manatees off the back pavilion earlier in the day, and the nice friendly folks offered suggestions on hikes and canoe trips, all of which sounded amazing but not in our travel budget for this pass.

There was also a small swamp buggy exhibit which had the diesel engine of the first one built. These large tired, open wagon, crawlers are seen everywhere from firefighter rigs to tourist attraction. They sit tall and apparently are the perfect mode of transportation through the swamp. The second best and more sexy is the airboat which is a huge tourist offering in this area, especially per the Miccosukee Indian tribe. 

The road went on, passing campgrounds and Indian villages identified by signs that said, “Indian Village”. From what we could see, as most were off the road and some with high gated fences, the structures were covered with palm thatched roofs, and surrounded by wet soggy ground. Once we got into the Everglades the swamp transitioned to open prairie, marsh grass, and as we got closer to civilization, the area to the left, north side of the road showed signs of the massive infrastructure used for flood control systems. 

We pulled into Redland which is basically Homestead, Florida or vice versa. The area is a huge agricultural producer of almonds, exotic fruits, varieties of palms, avocado, and other flowering plants. Row among rows of tropical looking crops. We turned off the main four-lane highway onto the narrow roads that went deeper into the area. They were straight as an arrow with constant distances between intersections with 4 way stops. The system created a rectangular pattern through the farms. The feel was lush, green, making us think this is what it must feel like in Central America.

After many turns, we finally made it to the gate entrance into our Hipcamp experience for the next few nights. As instructed, Lysette opened the gate, I drove the rig through, then she closed the gate behind me before calling the host for final instructions. The host said to pull back into the section beyond the kitchen and showers and find the spot with a grill, that we’d be happy. As we made our way back through the property, we passed those things she’d suggested along with a tent set up along the woods to our right, a 5th wheel and pick up truck to the left, a one story low roofed house with a pallet fence around it, and a hedge of sorts where the property opened up slightly to a second smaller field. We found a 4×4 stake with the number 6 on it, a pedestal fire grill, which is where we decided to set up. We leveled side to side, unhitched, leveled front to back, and set up camp. After feeding Toohey, we decided to walk around to find bathrooms, showers and the kitchen which were all advertised on their web site. We walked close to what we’d learn is the main house where a large guy was standing. Our conversation was short as I am pretty sure the dude was half baked. As he walked away from us, he said he was the owner’s son, that he lived there and we were welcome to use the pool. As he continued his move away, he said to let him know if we need anything while we were here. We also learned, as it turns out this is a WWOOF camp. The farm and the many trailers, tents and housing are used by those working the farm for free. 

The feel of the place is third worldly, eclectic, and unmanaged. There are chickens freely roaming the place which Toohey got used to quickly as long as they’d scatter when he’d let them know they were too close. There was a pig that he went snout to snout with, but no sign of aggression on either side, turkey like things, a large cow of sorts, and other animals we still haven’t seen. Lysette has counted 15 older Airstreams in various stages of deterioration. A few were used as housing, some to store yard sell items, but most were not being used. As of the typing of this we also haven’t seen the owner and to update, we never did. We have had some conversation with a few WWOOFERs who, besides Helen, weren’t overly friendly to us.

Helen lives in the 5th wheel trailer that she owns. We learned that she closed her short term rental business in California due to COVID, rented her property long term, and came here to let things settle out. She has a friendly Rottweiller named Missy that has already killed three chickens, quickly placing Toohey in an “good boy” class for farm dogs. I don’t think Missy had anger issues towards chickens but was most likely just following her dog instincts to chase things that run away and bite them.

We learned that the bathrooms weren’t well maintained, the kitchen wasn’t worth using for us, and the showers have yet to be explored, but should be fine. The quirkiness of the place includes all the new farm noises throughout the night, new animal noises, lots of roosters, gun shots and fireworks, and dog barks. Redland and our camp is an intriguing place, way different than anything we have seen yet, and sits close to the major city of Miami. We are hooked for exploring this place.

One other camper pulled in last night in a small white dodge van. They turned out to be two young women and a dog. We heard the dog bark a lot last night before meeting them in the morning. We waved hello and she came out to talk. She was a pleasant young woman from Chicago who sublet her apartment for three months, purchased the van, and has been on the road ever since. Her current traveling companion is only with her temporarily. She has been traveling the state and will be heading home to family for Christmas before heading west. She wasn’t thrilled about the camp as the bathrooms were deplorable based on COVID standards. They have two nights booked and likely can’t get a refund but my guess is they move on. 

The morning was a slow start. We did a short run around the neighborhood, checking things out. All the neighborhood dogs, mostly behind fences, barked at Toohey as we ran by, chasing us along the fence line until it stopped, and we moved along. It was hot and humid, flat but a little interesting in the varied homes, gates, foliage, and row crops. 

We made our way back to the Hipcamp property noticing a yard sale happening in the back yard of the main house. There was nothing really of interest to us other than they were having this event which as we’d learn is a daily occurrence. Actually, besides the Hipcamp, this enterprise appears to be the only thing actively trying to make money on this patch of land.

To expand on this thought, I find myself constantly trying to figure out the business model here as it just doesn’t make sense to me. There are people wwoofing here but no apparent business of farming which is the normal WWOOFing model. There are small lots of trees, some bananas, papayas, and a few that we don’t know. In total, the small amount of fruit isn’t enough to fill an old pickup for a day of being a roadside fruit vendor on a Florida highway, certainly not enough to pay a monthly utility bill. There are a butt load of chicken walking the property so maybe eggs, but we saw none being collected or sold. The one cow is a promising beef ranch enterprise.

The best business opportunity I can ascertain would be to harvest the many interesting assets to include vintage metal bodied Airstreams sitting in decay along the property. Some used to display yard sale junk while others just lined up in the field. Mixed in with this would include a tourist trolley, a city bus used to also show yard sale merchandise, and some other trailers and rotted whatnots.

There is a large mound of decaying mulch maybe a large compost pile? There are wwoofers doing odd jobs, one was renovating a metal shipping container into a living space. When asked if they’d sell it he said no, likely just keep it for people to live in. We’ve seen at least 6 wwoofers, never seen the owner but communicated with her through the Hipcamp app text messaging software. We did learn later that they had a catering job which could be a money maker. As I edit this, I am still not sure what goes on there and likely won’t, as a return trip just isn’t likely.

We ate breakfast and then decided to drive around the place. The only touristy thing the host provided was a visit to the Robert Is Here, fruitstand.  So we set that as point one. It was busy, full off all sorts of exotic fruits, reportedly grown in the area, some with stickers indicated they were grown elsewhere, but packaged here. Stalks of sugar cane, passion fruit and even a basket of large emu eggs for $30 each. They advertised frozen drinks and boiled peanuts. There was a petting zoo with many tortoises, goats, roosters, and lizards. He had old airplanes bits and tractors around the yard. We purchased some boring basics such as peppers, onion, tomatoes and a bag of dates from California. The check out lady did the math by hand on a brown paper bag and came up with $12.23 for the total. When I commented on her old school checkout she said the owner doesn’t want any technology. 

We left there and drove the area. We searched for the interesting. For me it was the fancy gates. All the residential properties were fenced and many had gates, mostly automatic, that were ornately proud. We also saw a wide variety of crops, migrant workers in the fields, but mostly we felt more disappointment than excitement with the area. We drove into historic Homestead and saw the bones for a nice small downtown but either empty or uninteresting businesses occupying them.

We’d spend the evening around the camp, sitting in the sun, shade, talking to friends from Golden, and walking the property trying to make sense of it all. We enjoyed a nice cut of farm raised Salmon, pan fried with a salad before a few hands of poker and a nice night of sleep.

Biscayne Bay is a slough (slew) of water sandwiched between Miami to the north and the Keys to the south. There are a string of islands and reefs along the eastern edge making it a bay. The area is managed as a National Park to help prevent it from being destroyed by man and likely to provide a buffer between Miami and the Nuclear Power facility sitting to the south along the coast. This park is about 20 miles due east from our current camp spot and the place we headed today. Biscayne Bay National Park required no fee to enter, no ranger sitting in a guard shack, but a few directions to the visitors center. Once in the parking lot, which was about half full, we strolled the path and boardwalk along the bay edge, passing several folks fishing, the clear waters, where you could see the fish swimming below. The boardwalk ends at a stretch of reef about 10 feet wide anchored with mangrove on either side. Here you follow the trail east to the end where we stopped, stared, and turned back. We made our way to the visitors center to get a map as we had decided with all this water to inflate the boats and paddle. 

We got back to the truck removed and inflated the boats, changed into water clothes, and launched from a small cut through the mangrove about 50 feet behind the Tacoma. We paddled, sort of north and east along the coast line seeing mangrove so thick you could only see about 20 yards deep. It was strewn with plastics and debris of all kinds including a couple of inflated beachballs. Of course, in my mind I wanted to know the story, the history of the balls, not how they got there but the good times those who previously owned the balls were having before they got away. 

The shoreline took us to a cut where we paddled in a bit before deciding to turn back out to the large open bay. We watched as an osprey proudly perched atop a tree looking not at us, but for his lunch, maybe mid afternoon snack. We continued around a point that opened to another cove. Off in the distance, sitting beneath a brown cloud of air was the vague outline of the Miami skyline. 

The flotilla turned west towards two small islands split by a narrow waterway. You could see the rock mound of gnarly limestone beneath the mangroves and other trees, with a flock of large buzzards perched waiting for some smelly decay. We paddled between the two islands turning back east. We floated, drifted, and commented on some sort of flowering fruit trees we’d never seen among the mangroves. The fruit almost appeared a fig like, unripe green in color that appeared to turn purple or dark brown before bursting into a flower of yellow or deep red. The photography department snapped a few photos for later use by the Research Department. 

We paddled and floated, floated and paddled. Toohey accidentally relaxed on the bow of the kayak eventually dozing off into an afternoon nap. We made our way back around to the kayak launch site where we watched a gentleman wearing a ball cap, basic issue orange USCG approved life vest, extremely white legs heading out, leaning back on his seat with his wife and son on shore, as he clumsily launched his boat, struggling with balance as he almost flipped a few times, but nonetheless, happily paddling along. I asked if this was his maiden voyage and he said he’d paddled about 100 meters last week but there were alligators watching so he decided that wasn’t too smart so he came here to try again. Likely a good risk management move on his part. We’d later see his wife and son taking turns in the new toy, none getting wet from the dubious roll. 

We waited around while another family with two boats launched from where we did earlier. A girl in a single boat and a guy with what appeared to be his mom, a large lady who didn’t have a paddle but sat back behind her son, wearing what appeared to be a sun dress. They got a few meters off shore before he barked out an order for the girl in the single to hurry and take a photo, to get closer… Interesting and fun to speculate. 

We brought the boats to shore with more water for our exit, deeper than when we put in. We pulled them forward and began the deflate and packing process. It was a nice afternoon paddle and we were all glad we did. The park itself doesn’t feel like most national parks. Having no fee or park ranger presence other than parking control. However, it does appear to be one at great risk with all the surrounding threats of large cities and the obvious drainage from big populations.

The drive back was mostly due west with a couple of stops for provisions. We returned, showered outdoors, boiled some eggs for breakfast, and packed the truck for an easy departure in the morning. All this needed based on the forecast for rain and to keep what we can dry. The showers would be brief but they arrived as scheduled, slowing the departure slightly. 

This Hipcamp was intriguing, creating lots of questions, assuming lots of things, leaving us with an image slightly Sanford and Sons, American Pickers, meets FEMA refugee camp. In the end, the owners of whom we, nor many who have reviewed the place, never met. Our little slice of the property was in the back and secluded from the mystery of the daily activity of the place. We were much closer to the large tree nursery operation going on in the neighbor’s property. It was a noisy place from the chickens, roosters, ATV’s somewhere close zooming around, an occasional gun shot, and the occasional festive latino music playing somewhere nearby. The neighborhood was consistently dumped and littered with sign of trash along most roadsides. The most intriguing thing to me were the large gates entering most properties. I wonder what the heritage of that need is, security, sign of wealth, or just a good deal on gates.

As with most places in south Florida the bird of prey that we’ve seen in large numbers is the buzzard, and they were everywhere, I guess giving a sign of both life and death. The swarms in the sky at times making me think of an old WWII video of fighter plans engaged in dog fights in the sky. We watch them as they circled, dove, glided with no particular rhythm or coordination, but each knowing something is about to die enough to become food. In the end, we both agreed that we’d not go back to this place. It was just a little too weird and not hospitable enough, many times making us feel like we were trespassing, somehow out of place much like all the large Airstreams sitting unattended.

Flamingo Campground, Everglades National Park

We left the gate of the Hipcamp and rolled through the neighborhood then to Publix for some provisions for our four nights in Flamingo where there are none. We set the directions in play and before long we were passing the sign entering Everglades National Park. We stopped briefly at the main visitors center and then headed on down the road.

Flamingo Campground sits at the southern tip of the major “land” mass of the Everglades. To get there you follow the only road, 9336 first west, then a long sweeping left turn south. You pass through strands of trees where signs indicating a pass of 3 feet then 4 feet which we enjoyed seeing after the high mountain passes out west. The drive takes you through the varying swamp eco systems that include large marsh prairies, pine forest, cypress forest, then into the mangroves before rolling into the Flamingo area. All long the road there are turn offs and side roads for hikes, paddles, and interpretive walks well marked with the universal brown NPS signs. We passed by the marina painted flamingo pink and active with boaters then the old visitor center which was under a complete renovation after the destruction from one of the last hurricanes. We rolled by the large construction site where they are rebuilding the hotel and restaurant that was also destroyed by the hurricane.

The campground entrance was manned by a lady volunteer who would assign us to site 27 on the T Loop. There are two loops with one being a tent only and the T Loop which is equipped with electricity and such, more designed for trailers and RV’s. The sites are colored coded on the map for shade spots and non shade spots assuming this value is based on the potential hot southern sunshine, but for us, there really was no value. 

The Everglades covers most of the southern tip of Florida. it has been damaged by flood and water control supporting the agriculture and growth of metropolitan and agricultural areas to the east of it. From the west coast below Naples, the park starts near Everglades City with the Thousand Islands and an inland wilderness waterway which we had little knowledge of or have every heard anyone paddling this. This shallow coastal area of the Everglades extends south into the Florida Bay which is again, a shallow water mass with lots of other islands to include my favorite, Joe Kemp Key. And by shallow, there are areas on the park map that show water depth of under 6 feet up to 10 miles south from Flamingo. Due south of us, across the Florida Bay are the well know Florida Keys to include Key West. In short, this is a wild and remote stretch of US National Park.

We quickly set up camp on a nice flat spot. We unpacked the groceries and did a few other things to further clean and dry our gear from the previous camp. There was a snack lunch before we decided to walk over to the amphitheater which overlooks the Florida Bay. The day was sunny with a steady breeze keeping the pesky mozzies (mosquitos in Australian) at bay. We walked through the Eco Tent sites which are elevated on platforms, sort of a yurt feel and with views of the bay. A really nice option for anyone thinking of glamping at Flamingo for a night. We reached the amphitheater and the shore line. The water was somewhat choppy from the wind and murky looking. We both had expected some blue water but maybe the wind and seas had stirred it up. It appeared to be low tide as there was considerable mud between where we stood on grass and the water line. 

From there, we attempted to walk down a narrow path but soon remembered the reviews about hiking and the mozzies so we turned back about the time we started getting bitten. On our return trip we saw a large osprey nest and bird perched near.

We made it back to camp where I decided on a short run to the marina while Lysette and Toohey stayed behind. The sky now cloudy and the wind still kicking gave me the perfect conditions. I ran out the main road passing many campers heading into camp for the night. I passed the large construction project the visitors center being renovated and then to the marina. There was a couple standing on the docks watching a couple of mandates surface and sink, so I stood and watched for a second. Then continued my run along the docks, circling back to the main road and home. 

When I got home, I fed the dog, took him for a walk then decided to shower and prep dinner. Lysette went for a bike ride while all this was going. She returned as I started to cook, we dined on a chicken ginger Thai concoction. After dinner, once dark, we sat outside and enjoyed the brilliant night sky. seeing the stars, the Christmas planets, having us recall the desert sky of the west and it’s brilliance and clarity. Flamingo Campground has a done a great job of keeping the lights down. With cool temperatures and a nice breeze still blowing, we sat, feet up on the picnic table and just stared. I saw a shooting star and we both watched a satellite bounce and bob across the sky. 

Sleep was good with the cooler temperatures and only one mozzie to buzz me all night requiring a light and death wand to permanently remove it. Even with the insect disruption, we woke feeling rested. Lysette scrambled to the amphitheater for the sunrise and I worked on my blog notes. Following that we decided on a bike ride. The ride took us out the main road, where we tried to ride the Rowdy Bend Trail. This took us a short distance before we missed the flooded trail and came to a small opening where buzzards were feasting on the remains of a large manatee, making you realize just how much deeper the water levels can get. We worked back to the main road and pedaled a little further out, stopping only to see views of swamp or wildlife. The most interesting wildlife we saw was when Lysette spotted aa pink bird fly overhead. There are only two pink birds in the area, the Roseate Spoonbill and the Flamingo, apparently the latter isn’t seen much here anymore even though the place is named after it. Apparently a result of water control. We rode on.

We stopped by the marina to check on kayak rentals, the safety of using an inflatable, and the manatees and crocodiles. We counted many more manatees bobbing in the water than the previous day and they are always interesting to see. We rode back into camp to relieve Toohey of his duty to protect the assets. We cooked, ate, and cleaned a good breakfast and started the Tibetan Rites. After the spin move our across the street neighbor wearing Flamingo Adventures volunteer orange t-shirt stopped to mention that there was firewood left by another camper a few sites down. That was great information and all, but what followed was so much richer. He, as it turns out by the orange t-shirt, is a volunteer with the park vendor and had great information on things we should do. He suggested several of the hikes along the road providing varying insight into the swamp region. We decided that today would be a drive and hike afternoon and tomorrow would be the kayak. 

We left camp excited to have a plan of attack and made our way about 15 miles back out the Flamingo Campground gate to the Mahogany Hammock. This was a short interpretive hike that turned out to be perfect. We had a shady spot for Toohey to protect the assets while we walked. The hike takes you along an elevated platform, first across marshy wet lands filled with bladder wort and bladder wort flowers. You then entered an enchanting forested hammock filled with tall slender palms and densely forested hard woods to include a few really old growth mahogany trees. All along these trees played hosts to other organisms such as ferns and air plants, that looked to me like the tops of pineapples with long pointy healthy leaves. Our orange t-shirted neighbor also said we should look for the colorful snails of which we saw a few on the trees. We learned of the Strangling Fig Tree that actually starts as an organism at the top of the tree sending its root winding down, eventually killing the host tree. All this slow violence needed to sustain life in a densely treed forest, a jungle of sorts where sun light is the basic need of life and not available much below the tree top canopy. We spent time watching and photographing it all, enjoying the short quarter of a mile walk.

We left there stopping along the entrance for the Photography Department to grab some images of the white lily looking flowers in the marsh grass. I enjoyed the curves of the distant cypress trees as they replicate the image of the perfect bell curve with the larger ones in the middle and the decrease in elevation to the outside. As you see these forests in the distance you might mistake them for an actual hill or mound in the marsh as they do appear solid. 

We stopped by to view several lakes, West Lake had a boardwalk through the mangrove trees that was shortened by heavy damage from the last major hurricane. The most interesting thing was the school of small fishes that slashed about in he mangrove roots making us stop to look. 

Our drive back would take us past dead mangrove trees from a hurricane that forced all the salt water from the Florida Bay into them driving too much salt water for them to survive. The remaining skeleton does provide a view, sort of like an x-ray of the anatomy of what it looks like inside one of these densely lush style mangrove swamps. The twisted grotesque root structure, not suitable for an upright human to walk along without much effort or broken bones but perfect for young sea life to grow safely. 

We stopped back at the marina where we had been earlier on our bikes to watch a bunch of manatees, a few seeming to be doing some exotic dance. We saw several crocodiles, a small one that Lysette had seen the previous day, just floating in the water by the dam. The other, an 8-foot ghastly beast sunning on the boat ramp. 

We returned to camp, fed our four legged ghastly beast his num nums, I prepared the fire pit for the fire, and started with some chilled adult beverages, all while the temperatures dropped and the wind remained constant, making for a chilly night. Our neighbors from Nevada stopped by to chat a bit about traveling, Ely, Nevada, and crazy little campgrounds they’ve encountered. They were both originally from Ohio, he from Cincinnati. Then our neighbor from Massachusetts stopped over with one of her traveling chickens on her shoulder to say hello. She and her wife apparently leased their farm to travel, she a professor at Boston University, didn’t want the covid exposure that comes with in class teaching, and quite frankly, liked being on the road. We enjoyed seeing their two cats wander the campground, playfully checking stuff out as cats do. 

The night continued with a great fire, gorgeous night sky with planets and stars busting out, and finally sleep in a nice cool bed. 

Our plan for the day was a bike ride to the trail called Snake Bight (not a misuse of the word as a bight is a small bay along the coast) to ride the trail the 2 miles to the area we were told had great bird viewing and likely the pink feathered Roseate Spoon Bill. Our plan after that is to rent the tandem sit on top for the afternoon paddle along the canal running to Coots Lake. With the full day we needed an early start, which we did. 

The Jungle Bike Ride to Paradise – This started as we prepped Toohey for his job of protecting the assets in the Tacoma and pedaled off. The trail was a decent distance from camp so we pressed on. We hit the trailhead, stopped and grabbed a little water. The entrance was shady, wet to muddy surface, narrowing as it extended into the swamp. The path, likely something made by man back in the day, was slightly elevated from the swamp to the left and right. We headed off, taking the right side around the metal barricades constructed to block any motorized traffic. The trail was wide but overgrown with brush and thicket just barely leaving a flat and mostly straight single track path with slight bends from time to time. As we got deeper into the trail we heard the sounds of the flocks of shore birds some 20 feet to our left, squawking, chirping, splashing and thrashing about, just making all kinds of jungle music. They’d flap their large clumsy wings to fly away from us as we approached, but we could only get glimpses of them through the thick mangrove separating us from the life and death that was obviously occurring just to the side of us. There were large fallen trees we stooped beneath as we pedaled slowly and others we’d have to dismount to limbo under and others we’d have to pull the cyclocross manner of bike cross bar on shoulder while throwing a leg over the trunk to advance. There were some small enough for a quick hop over. But it was the sounds of the area, an obvious highly active habitat of wildlife. As we progressed, we realized there was a canal of sorts running along that likely provided a wealth of food for these mass amounts and variety of birds and other wildlife. We stop when we’d see a break in the mangrove and the louder squawks of birds taking off to see what was there. Finally, at one stop and way off in the distance, we saw the pink color that we’d been hoping for all along. It was a Spoonbill flying to the west. This gave us more energy and excitement of what might lie ahead, so we pushed on with greater determination now than ever before. As the overhead cover of the jungle began to reduce allowing more sunlight in, the grasses and thicket began to thicken so we decided to dismount and leave the bikes behind push. The final walk continued through the thicket and grasses until a muddy, possibly quicksand (added for dramatic effect), opening appeared to an elevated boardwalk that appeared to lead out to the Bay of Florida. With quick but steady feet, we crossed this to the boardwalk where we finally felt at ease and safe. Along the walk were the dead carcasses of mangrove trees that failed to survive the last hurricane, still standing as tombstones for what once stood, lush and green, having taking the brunt of mother natures fury, to leave the hardest piece for those passing through to appreciate. The walk led to an overlook where the canal provided drainage through heavy mud to the large mass of shallow water making the Bay of Florida. There, along the bight, about 200 yards off, were flocks of varying migratory coastal birds, whites, grey blues, black, and yes, pink. It was a complete and perfect CBS Sunday Morning moment with the blueist of skies as back drop to the large amounts of birds launching in unison to fly in safety to the next place for food. The “V” formation of Woodstorks as they worked together to draft into the wind, those in the back taking the easy route as those up front clearing a less resistant path forward. It was worth the lack of danger and work for us to see this place, so far one of our favorites here at the Everglades. 

We headed back, found our bikes and now with the sun better positioned to see what was in front of us, headed out. We stopped at one point to watch the back end of a snake slither off the trail, then passed a gentleman on an old School mountain bike, dressed in camouflaged gear to include his mid shin high mud boots with huge camera gear stowed on his back. He was looking for what we had just seen and according to him, his friend and lead Everglades Biologist said this was the place to get the shot. 

We pressed on, next passing a crew from the park service, one in the lead with machete, followed by one with an industrial sized wheeled weed whacker to remove the heavy thickets that lined our trail outbound. We found the main road, turned left, and hauled butt back to our doggy, asset protecting hound, Toohey. We would stop as we passed an alligator sunning in a small water hole off the road but otherwise, made good time.  

Hungry, I cooked a large breakfast feast which we devoured, then cleaned and rested, maybe slept just a bit. With afternoon on, we drove over to the marina to rent the kayaks. While Lysette was off doing that, I walked Toohey, who pee’d, rolled in the grass a bit, and pooped. I then placed him back in his position on duty in the Tacoma to protect the assets, parked under a shady tree where he’d be cool for a few hours. We rented a plastic tandem sit on top kayak and after a few waivers, PFD fitting, we set off. We passed the large 7 or 8 foot long croc sitting in the sun near the boat ramp where we saw him yesterday, tipped our hat and paddled on. The canal was lined with mangroves, straight with slight bends, and seeing an occasional baby croc sunning on the small mangrove roots or dead trees, it was sort of a boring paddle. But the goal for some reason wasn’t to enjoy it, but to make it to Coots Pond, so we forged on with the end in mind. Tired and there, we saw some small ripples in the pond and out of respect for the potential for flipping, we snapped a bad photo and headed back. We made it back but were slightly disappointed in the wasted effort. We should have stayed closer and enjoyed what was there to see. We should have spent time with the few baby crocs, the birds, and as we got closer, the beautiful ospreys. But what was, was, so we gave them their stuff, strolled over the main harbor of the marina to say hello to our manatee friends, and then to the Tacoma where Toohey was resting nicely. 

The night was simple, a quick shower, panned seared chicken, onions and remaining red pepper, doused with a tin of Annies barley vegetable soup and presto, dinner. After dinner we made the short walk to the trash. Looking up at the stars which were brilliant for the 3rd straight night. This day spent here in the Everglades was one to truly remember, one of the best days yet.

The Keys

The keys have always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Sure, a string of islands connected by US 1, lots of bridges off the eastern top of Florida leading to a funky little quaint party town of Key West where Hemingway raised inbred cats with six toes. But I really had no idea of what it all really looked like, the culture of the place from Key Large to Key West, the visuals, food, much of the history, nothing really. 

I was presented the start of my Florida Keys education once we turned on US 1 out of Florida City heading south. We’d pass though the final stretches of the Everglades over a large bridge and land on key 1, Key Largo. Other than the bridge overpass and a few glimpses of light blue at the end of several small roads off to the west, you couldn’t see water. If we didn’t know better we could be Anywhere Highway, Florida. There were roadside restaurants, marinas with boats, but nothing really saying, hey, the keys are cool. We got to our turn, missed it, but had the ability to make a u-turn at the traffic light with a shopping center housing a Publix and a K-Mart. Yup, K-Marts do exist here for some reason. Another right turn, down a narrow road and we found Key Largo Kampground & Marina Condo Association where we were assigned our previously chosen spot of No. 5. (There is a bonus prize of a free full year subscription to Travels With Toohey Blog if you can guess what franchise this kampground was before going independent.) We were told it was a back in site but when arrived we saw the ability to more safely pull through the site which we did. 

The campground is mostly occupied by full time residence as evidenced by the use of “condominiums” in the wording of the information provided. Our site, sat between a vacant site and a full timer trailer and on a loop with mostly full time residence. Full timer units are fitted with skirts to hide the area below, have structures like screen porches attached, small storage sheds, and party lights and yard art proudly displayed. As you move east through the park you quickly see the open air laundry, 2 boat ramps and an inlet waterway creating a U shaped waterway lined with RV sites with small docks covered with palm branches in true tiki style. On either side of the inlet and tiki covered docks at the end are small beaches and kayak put ins. These referred to as north and south beaches. Nice. The waterway outside the inlet is mostly mangrove as far as we could see. 

At this point, we had already opened a cold can of Coors Light and were slowing into the pace of the keys. We tried to sit but Lysette having made eye contact with an empty laundry and us with large and growing dirty laundry, set off to, wash stuff. I gathered mine and as we do, we did laundry. While the dirty stuff was spinning, I drove the walkable distance to the Publix to get some protein for dinner. I found some Red Snapper labeled local Florida and purchased that. I returned where we finished laundry and I prepared dinner. Night came and what I had learned so far about the place was not much. Mostly this was another campground, one of the most expensive we’ve stayed at over $100/night, but otherwise this could be anywhere Florida so maybe we needed to get out of site No. 5 and see stuff.

The next morning the team woke early, dark, and had boiled eggs for breakfast, coffee, and an early departure.  Our destination was 101.5 miles south to mile market 0 on US Highway 1 located in the heart of old town Key West. With excitement buzzing in the Tacoma, we made our way out to US 1, hucked the left turn and proceeded. As with any city on a Friday morning, there were a few slow downs for school crossing, (yes, schools and education even in the keys and I’m certain poling through flats isn’t a subject). We followed large concrete trucks heading to work, other service trucks making their way down, and eventually started to see lots more of blue Florida keys style water off both sides of the highway. We passed one key after another, discussed the varying spelling of key versus cay used to describe these small islands, and pointed out interesting signs, attractions along the way. Lysette talked about wishing she could remember where she stayed in Islamarada, her trips there in past lives, We passed signs on Pine Key for endangered Key Deer wondering where these could hide on this small hammock of an island. We rolled passed Duck Cay, Long Cay making the two words into one for fun, ducky and longy. The two lane, seven mile bridge which makes you worry deeply about any maintenance needed on the Tacoma, checked out the old bridge at Bahia Honda State Park where we’d come back to later. All the bridges required a flexible neck as each had views of both the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Bay of Florida on the west. About 2 hours in we passed over the bridge landing on Key West.  

Still on US 1, we rolled past auto dealerships, a Naval Base, fast food franchises, everything and nothing at all. We’d see a large marina with fancy off shore fishing boats, and lots of cars. Finally, and with no fanfare, we passed into an area with structures from the past, old town Key West. We rolled up to a spot on the street in front of the USPO and a block from mile marker 0. One of the, if not the most famous mile marker anywhere in the USA. As we had planned, we hopped into running gear, leashed up the pooch, and headed for a running tour of the old town. We ran past mile marker 0 for the photo. We continued down this street until we came up on the most famous landmark in the area, the marker of the southernmost point in the USA, 90 miles from Cuba and across the street of lots of business with Southernmost in their name. We snapped a few photos and glad we did as we came back later to find a line of tourist about a block long waiting to take their photo. We made our way down to Dog Beach to let Toohey swim and drink salt water. From there we ran up Simonston Street to a board walk around a marina with restaurants and boat tours galore. One tour operator had a dog bowl of water out which Toohey quickly found, diluted all the salt water in his system by drinking 2 bowls full. The tour operator was kind and shared a few laughs with us.

We rounded the pier jumping back out on Front Street before hooking up with Duvall Street. This is the main drag through Key West with many of the famous bars. It is touristy t-shirt road for those needing some physical memories or are just there to shop. The place was busy but I’m sure not what it could be as there was plenty of free space in most bars and restaurants. 

We made our way back to the truck where we sat a bit in the shade, Lysette mailed some stuff at the USPO and we decided that while in Key West, the Conch Republic, we should eat some conch for lunch. So tossing our good eating habits away, we found DJ’s Conch Shack where we’d learn was a feature on Diners, Drives, and Dives.

We didn’t go steamed as shown in the video but did the fried with fries and they were delicious as most fried foods is. We took our to-go order, made our way back to the shady park by the Tacoma and enjoyed them. With time running out on our 3 hour meter, we decided to slow move our way out of Key West. We drove lots of back roads, stopping at the Key West AIDS Memorial Park with the Edward B Knight Pier extending through the blue waters of the Atlantic for a stroll before hitting it back to US 1 North. 

After spending time on Key West, I had lots of questions requiring some sit down time to investigate. The little town, small island key has an interesting history from Ponce de Leon to the Alabama man named Simonton who purchased the island for $2000 only to have the US assume it with a land deal with the Spanish. Flagler, the rail tycoon brought the initial tourist industry there constructing his railroad over the sea. Prior to that, money was made from salvaging ships wrecked, run aground, or sunk in the shallow waters. Pirates have a huge history there as does the milatary who remains a big part of the economy and land ownership. At one point Key West seceded from the USA establishing the Conch Republic. This gesture was to show political might during an uptick in efforts by the government to stop smuggling which negatively impacted tourism. The place is packed with great stories, one that would seemingly attract first rate authors. Oh wait, Key West was home to lots of those. I can see why as the place is unique and interesting, unleashing the dreamers view of the world in a place where sitting under a shade tree, on a large covered porch beneath the pale blue ceiling in a wooden rocking chair only to come up with the most appropriately colorful ideas, description of plot, character and prose would evolve. 

We left Key West, now with the need for some beach time so we headed from mile marker 0 to somewhere around mile marker 40 to stop at the Bahia Honda State Park. The cover charge was $9 for the lot of us and provided a short hike up to the old bridge and beaches on the bay and Atlantic side. We did the short hike up to and along the concrete bridge that once flowed with automobiles headed south for the rum. Beneath the concrete auto way is the bulky metal structure that once supported the locomotive and rail cars moving the wealth to Key West and Flaglers Resort. Looking down on the cool blue, clear water below, we decided a swim was a must. So we made our way back to the Tacoma, charged Toohey with his duty, slipped into swim wear, and headed for the beach. The beach was a narrow sliver of sand backed by large limestone rocks. We placed our stuff there, my car keys, hat, towel, and phone. Lysette quickly decided it was just too cold for her so I headed into the clear water. It was a bit cold from the start but with the energy of a child, I crashed into it, appreciating the temperature but now dreading the departure as the sun was now hidden by approaching clouds. With goggles on, I swam, waded, and watched for sea life beneath me. Coming up only for quick gasp of air before putting my face back down to watch the world below. I saw small fish, nothing really that colorful, a large fish that I chased for a bit, lots of sea grasses, where that opened up to the sandy floor there was coral, stuff that looked like small sponges, and other interesting stuff reserved for life there. I’d poke around and enjoy the time knowing full well once I left there’d be no return. 

I got out, dried off with the towel, and sat with Lysette on the large rocks to get warm. Noticing the building cloud cover and suspecting rain we decided to move on. I showered off the salt water using the outside showers, changed into dry clothes, grabbed some chips and a can of water from the back for us to snack and we headed on to mile market 101.

We returned to camp finding everything wet from the rain, showered, and stayed in for the night. We had a video call with friends in Golden which is always full of laughs before heading off, tired from the day, to bed. 

The day started with a little more rain then a sky that showed a wet hand most of the day with the potential for on and off showers. Based on this, we chose a bike ride to the John Pennekamp State Park to see what all the fuss was about. We rolled our bikes out of our camp leaving Toohey in the Tacoma to protect the assets. We turned east down the short road to Highway 1 passing a few chickens and then turned right on the bike path. We quickly saw a sign showing the park entrance was 1 mile ahead. Shorter than I thought. We pedaled along the bike path which was covered in large puddles and where not wet, lots of road debris and rock, pot holes and of course, heavy North bound traffic buzzing by on our left. We survived the mile of horrid conditions to make our turn into the park entrance. There we found a queue of cars about 6 deep waiting to enter, so we waited. Once our turn came we learned that the bike entry fee was $2.50 each and the ranger politely said we should come on a weekday to better enjoy the place, meaning the crowds are there today. But we pedaled the short ride into the park. We saw a full parking lot, a beach area getting full, and a store. The water area was surrounded by lush mangroves versus ocean beach. We shrugged it off as simple and crowded. We rode around following the road through the camp sites and then down short gravel road to a picnic area and small paddle boat put in. This was promising. We spoke to a few paddlers as the returned and learned of clear snorkeling and quality water. After considering all this for a moment, we also realized that we have a boat put in in our camp accessing the same waterways.

We set off unimpressed with the park but also acknowledging there is likely some great stuff a short boat ride out to more snorkeling and water fun that we just couldn’t do. We pedaled back to our camp site where we talked to a local who confirmed the access from our camp and also in the same conversation, mentioned the Key Largo Fisherie which is a local favorite sitting on the docks and has the fresh seafood market we’ve been searching. With Toohey still comfortably in the Tacoma, we set off on our bikes to see if we could find it. The route took us south along the US 1 bike path where it was in much better condition than the previous direction. We did, as instructed and turned at the second light which seemed to have never come. From there we got a bit lost and wet from a passing shower, but after engaging another local on a bike for directions, we found the fisheree. The place was a large warehouse with loading dock, sitting next to a marina that appeared active with pleasure and commercial rigs, and had a long line of people waiting to enter the front door. All good signs for quality seafood. We made the decision to come back later for our harvest of crustaceans so we turned the bikes and pedaled home. With the weather still not very motivating we relaxed around camp, read, blogged, napped. Then I decided to inflate all our water toys so we can be ready to go. So we did.

After all the boats were inflated, we carried them to the boat ramp about 100 yards aways and launched for an afternoon paddle through the mangroves. The exit to the mangrove is along the inlet used by those living here, lined with tiki roofed docks, some decorated with lobster buoys, some inflatable Christmas toys, lights and whatnots. We passed through the entrance where they have an aerator of sorts beneath the water creating a line of bubbles, reportedly to keep marsh grass out of their little private channel. We hucked a turn to the port side pointing the bows of our boats north. There were nice water front homes to the left and channel markers to the right. We passed a few idling boats who all commented on our cute dog who in turned barked at them. In fact, there was an echo to his bark so he’d bark, hear his bark, and bark back at himself, being sort of annoyingly cute. We made our way against the in coming tide to the main water channel which was more mangroves but wider waterway allowing boats to travel faster. We decided based on the time that we’d better save the remainder of the exploration for tomorrow when we have more time. The paddle in was much faster as we now had an incoming tide providing current to our stern and easing us along.

We returned to camp, fed the monster, and decided on showers. Afterwards, we spent some time getting our Okefenokee Swamp blog out before Lysette learned that the fish market was closed tomorrow, so we quickly made our way there. The was no queue and without tossing a net we bagged a pound of fresh pink shrimp and never baiting a hook, a slice of grouper. With it all bagged in ice, we left for the drive home. Dinner was a panned seared, shelled shrimp with Old Bay Seasoning, a green pepper, and spinach. It was quite delicious. 

One of the fascinating things about full time travel is the unexpected surprises you find when you least expect it. While driving home from Key West the other day, Lysette got bored with all the pretty gorgeous blue water and carribean scenery to look at her Facebook page. She noticed that friends of ours from Golden had posted photos of swimming with manatees and then pictures of them at John Pennekamp State Park, about a mile from where we are camping. What? She quickly sent them a text suggesting that if there are still here to please let us know.

We met them for breakfast this morning at Hideaways, a local favorite serving breakfast and lunch. Of interest to us was to find out how many times our paths had crossed along their vacation through Florida. First, and if you’ve been reading along and not just looking at Lysette’s amazing photography, they went to Crystal River to swim with the manatees in the same park we visited over the Thanksgiving holiday. Even closer was that they drove from Homestead to the Everglades, driving through Flamingo Campground while we camped. In fact, we hiked the same trail, Snake Bight Trail on the same day. Then, if that isn’t small enough, we were in Key West the same day they were in Key West the day after they were snorkeling at John Pennekamp State Park a mile from our camp in Key Largo. So as the stories all lined up, we ended it all with a great breakfast and conversation with our friends from Golden, Colorado while journeying through the Florida Keys.

We left breakfast with our bellies full of food and souls filled with good friendships. We headed to the grocery store to stock up for our next move then back to camp where we spent the afternoon paddling the mangrove. Because of the sunny day, hot temperatures, and Toohey’s run this morning, we placed in him in the shady cab of the Tacoma to protect the assets. We launched the inflatables, me on the paddle board and Lysette in the kayak, and headed out. We passed by all the tiki covered docks with inflatable Christmas decorations that would make my daughter in law proud. When we got into the main mangrove field we talked to a local who was paddling with her dog in a sit on top plastic kayak. She suggested several options depending on what we wanted. We opted to paddle up the narrow mangrove in search of wildlife. We found lots of fish swimming beneath us in the shallow clear waters, jelly fish lying on the backs looking like large snowflakes with their undersides pointing up, and we event chases a large sting ray as it moved through the shallow grassy areas. We saw a few birds and heard lots of loud obnoxious stereos with passengers on board motor boats shouting to hear each other over the music. Despite them, the day was peaceful though, we enjoyed our time paddling, floating, and just being out there together.

We returned to camp, deflated the water crafts, storing them for our trip tomorrow. We prepared a dinner of grouper that we purchased the previous day from Key Largo Fisheries https://www.keylargofisheries.com, a local dock side establishment recommended by locals. The meal was good and a great ending to our experience in the Florida Keys and our southbound trip through Florida.

Our journey down through Florida was good, giving us a better appreciation for the center, western and southern areas of the state. The western coast that we visited had large areas of uninhabited land to include coastal beaches and hammocks. The center down south provided a glimpse into the large industrial agricultural operations that provide much of the fruits, vegetables, and beef for the country using the migrant workers that is a whole industry in itself. Our enjoyment of it all though came through the natural, the swamps, the wildlife, the cypress trees and air plants, all the foliage and fauna. The birds that migrate here are loud, beautiful, and sometimes quite uncoordinated to watch. The alligators and crocodiles are amazing beast that never really seem to dull when sighting one. We saw bears and panthers but never a single deer. The people that we encountered ranged from the retired, quiet, the full time wanders, to the loud and obnoxious which you likely find anywhere. As we reflect on our once snobbery of the state, we are so happy we made the trip south to gain a better understanding and appreciation for it.

4 thoughts on “Florida: Southbound & Down to Key West

  1. It was so great running into you guys and sharing stories. One thing I have learned is there is so much more to see if you just slow down and participate in the local environment. The stories and pictures are great. Happy travels.

    Pat

  2. Toohey looks like he really likes Florida. This installment and pictures really wants makes me want go see all that Florida wildlife.

  3. Great edition! Reading about (and seeing) your travels, is so much fun! I can remember/feel Florida. Still, my favorite is seeing Toohey’s expressions – especially next to the ‘Swim at your own risk’ sign. Personality plus! Looking forward to what you do and where you go in 2021.

  4. Kemp, Happy to read of your enlightening, learning, and fun-filled journeys. I really love Key West and if, I had a spare $1 million would grab up one of the shacks! Florida is an interesting State-Yes, the Central part is wide open because the ocean isn’t readily commutable-So all that land is sued to graze cattle. And yes, I was shocked too. Interestingly, most of that meat is shipped out of State-Beef in Florida is expensive. Just wanted to reach out and say hello. Stay healthy, stay safe (I received my first dose of covid vaccine). I notice the beard-Not on Lysette, but you! Pat on head to Toohey. Happy New Year! Peter

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