Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Tamiami Trail

You have to drive at least 800 miles from Key West to find a hill, or at least a piece of high ground 500 feet above sea level. Basically go due north, pass Atlanta and get into the Blue Ridge foothills, around Dahlonega. So if your idea of scenic involves winding roads and hills and valleys and Alpine rivers and so forth, Florida may not be the state for you. Tamiami Trail across the Everglades is considered scenic around here.
Fishing is as popular here as it is in the Keys and there is a canal running alongside the road. If you want to see actual Florida alligators you might spot one along here but you need to take Loop Road, a 24 mile dirt road easily driven in a sedan, or you can stop at Clyde Butcher's Gallery where there is a gator in the pool next to the parking lot.
Cell service is mostly available on Verizon though its not as strong as along the freeway to the north. There is a Miccosukee gas station at the eastern end and another gas station at the Naples end of the trail at a junction called Carnestown (no actual town visible!) so this is not desolation in case you were worried.
The Miccosukee Tribe live around here adding a little extra color to the proceedings.  They guard their privacy behind fences along the highway and the road is patrolled by white police cars with the classic red yellow and black stripes of the tribal colors. Speeding is not advised speaking as one who has avoided a ticket here since about 2001 when I got a 60 in a 45 zone at two in the morning when I wasn't paying attention. I've paid attention ever since here and on Alligator Alley.
There are assorted national park and preserves around. here with camping in what are essentially fields in the middle of the cypress forests. They are closed in summer when heat humidity and mosquitoes rule the Everglades.
Monroe Station marks the point where Monroe County extends furthest north onto the mainland. There are half a dozen families that live along Loop Road whose county seat weirdly enough is Key West and their relations with the Miccosukee were highlighted in 2013 when the tribe closed the east end of Loop Road as a "precaution" forcing the families to drive the long way in and out which they did with the sort of airing of grievance you might imagine was clearly reported in the papers.
The Monroe Station, a stop along the road much valued in the mid 20th century has finally been torn down and replaced with a parking lot. I think there was a song written abut such practices but Joni Mitchell isn't around to point it out. The big wooden building, crumbling for decades is gone.
There is a closed off parking lot of some sort but we found room to park the van and air out Rusty. Tamiami Trail was the only road across South Florida for a long time. Alligator Alley was completed as an interstate in the 1980s and I remember the join up of the two halves. The work to build this road was dreadful from Barron Collier's Naples end to Miami through swamps with dredges and wood cutting and fever and all the usual struggle to build in the wetlands of South Florida. But they persisted. 
Hard core off road vehicles crossing the highway to adventures further north. They waved as they went and looked ready for fun. I trust they were covered in deet.
Apparently you can buy a permit to park your tow vehicle here and with the permit comes a gate code. The last person to use the gate followed the instruction to please put the lock in upside down which I suppose makes it easier to read.
A popular spot on a June weekend.
I found the plea in the pit toilet a useful reminder that common sense isn't so common. Pity the person who has the task of removing the trash...
There is an exit only road back to the highway which has not gate but I don't see the pleasure of parking in this desolate spot anyway but we had a good look round as you can see.
Some neighbors waiting for catastrophe to strike along the highway. Someone's road traffic accident is someone else's lunch.
On the road again. Winter travel here opens up dry season trails, restaurants in the small communities around Goodland and Chokoloskee and camping when the heat won't strangle you. Drive it at least once if you are in South Florida and buy a small Clyde Butcher print to remind you of the wonders of the place. You can buy them large enough for the foyer wall in your mansion or small enough to fit in the camper van. Ask and I'll show you mine.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Almuerzo Azteca Style

We were taking ourselves to Tampa in the van for a doctor's appointment for my wife who needed. follow up for her shoulder surgery. I took it upon myself to map the route as I wanted to cruise old roads that we haven't used in a while as we generally follow the dreary freeway paths across Florida.
Krome Avenue from Homestead north has been turned into a four lane highway, the way the 18 mile stretch should have been had politics not intervened which makes for an easy drive direct to Alligator Alley avoiding Miami entirely. On this trip I turned left at the Miccosukee gambling resort and took Tamiami Trail south of I-75. Built as the only route across south Florida in the early 20th century its exotic name comes from the amalgamation of its destinations: Tampa and Miami. It's properly known as Highway 41, nowadays a scenic two lane backroad.
As we droned through the Everglades I suggested Layne look for a lunch stop. We were too close to Immokalee but Arcadia might do and even LaBelle could be a worthy early lunch stop, though I wondered what we might find of interest in tiny LaBelle. My wife is full of surprises. We found a Mexican truck stop.
We blundered in out of the heat and found a vast warehouse of stuff, a buffet lunch counter to the right and an all purpose supermarket to the left. My wife the retired adult ed teacher started asking questions in quick fire Spanish, like any good Mexican housewife on the hunt for lunch (almuerzo). We stood aside for the customer behind us who made a beeline for what he wanted. I had seen the characteristic rubbery skin with check marks all over it. We're too gringo for tripe I told the customer and he laughed. She responded by piling on the menudo for him, a stew of stomach tomatoes and peppers. Yum; I think not.
I like to travel but I am not an adventurous eater. I took a friend to Italy in 2017 (before the virus!) and he had us hunt down a restaurant in Rome famous for its tripe. I admire Michael for his dedication to food but I have lived this long without tasting cow stomach and now the finish line is in sight I intend to stick to my record. Layne wanted the carnitas on the left and I liked the looked of chorizo and potatoes to the right. Severely normal.
The trick was to get a blue square of paper as a receipt. So we took off through the maze of shelves toward a mythical cash desk lurking out of sight.
Dump your trash, please! I hate how the obvious needs to be stated in every culture and every language. Trash in the trash can seems obvious and in a buffet bussing your own plates seems equally obvious.
This was a working man's store and I say that advisedly as they did not seem to carry women's sizes unless they breed Amazons in LaBelle. The shoe sizes seemed enormous.
Layne was having a little flutter in the spice aisle muttering about how she was transported back to Mexico and its been too long. One of these and one of those please. When a Mexican condiment is labeled in English there is room to wonder how autentico it might be but I guess the locals are in the know. We shall see how it tastes.
In Latin America Diet Coke is called "Coca Light" but when you are burning ten thousand calories a day in the fields and you have a sweet tooth you are the kind of customer who pops for the real thing every time. We did manage to scrounge two cans of Diet stuck almost out of sight. I love the neon colored Mexican sodas to look at, but they are so sweet they make your teeth curl, says a man with a sweet tooth already.
Water jugs by the dozen. You'd think employers would provide water but apparently not.
No idea what this stuff is but I am very fond of custard apples so how bad can this concoction be? It's really nice traveling with a fridge. And a trash can should the need arise. 
I am not fond of iPhone photography and here's a case in point. For some reason it went black and white on me at this moment, a detail I missed in the bright sunlight. Rusty was snoring under the cabin air conditioner and when I let him out he turned around and hopped right back in. 95 degrees? No thanks. Lucky he's not baking in the south west these days. I heard of 116 in Las Vegas.
The former stray dog would much rather be inside on his bed looking out than trying to find relief in the shade of a bush at the mercy of passing predators.
My lunch. The refried beans were surprisingly spicy.
Layne's lunch. Two meals from each box made this pretty economical. I can't remember how much everything cost but field hands can afford it, therefore so can we. I hope. May the power of our credit card never grow less.
The tortillas were enough to make you point the van toward the Rio Bravo del Norte. Thick and grilled just enough to taste the sear.  
And for pudding we had paletas de Michocan which you can see for sale everywhere in Mexico under pink and white striped awnings. We got the rice milk flavored ones (horchata) which taste of rice pudding with cinnamon.  I was ready for a nap but we had miles to cover and three hours more driving far from I-75.
El lonche para llevar. A touch of Spanglish to help you navigate your next stop in LaBelle, Florida.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Travel Research

As idiosyncratic as I am you might not be surprised to learn I am not getting on the YouTube bandwagon. There are technical reasons inasmuch as video editing is complex and demands huge amounts of time and bandwidth so were I to make videos The idea of spending ten or more hours creating a twelve minute video with voice over and clean edits is more than I can bear. Obviously the need for strong internet connections becomes paramount for video makers and once on the road I have no intention of spending that much time hunting down secure reliable Wi-Fi and camping outside stores libraries or other publicly accessible facilities to spend hours uploading minutes of video.
The other point to bear in mind is that I have been doing unfashionable written word blog posts since 2007 so whipping out pictures and words is second nature for me. I can create a post in less than an hour, sometimes much less if the pictures and the words line up in my mind. In anticipation of a road trip with uncertain Internet access I have figured out a way to write blog posts off line and then upload them to my Blogger account when I do have a Web connection. Blogger allows me to line up posts for publication at a later date specified by me so I can set up delayed publication one by one even when I am nowhere near the Internet. Pretty handy.
All of which is excellent but it doesn't alter the fact that I have to find a way to express what I see on the road.  Flora put the quandary quite nicely on a previous post pointing out that I know a lot about Key West because I have been here quite a while. On the road I will be just another new face appearing for a short while and then I shall move on. Sounds delightful actually.
Perhaps I have read too many first class travel books over the years, and if you have too you will understand my frustration. Even on my own pages I try to insert some history, some stories, some background and some of my own opinions. In this day and age it's not easy to be first at anything, and when beating a well trodden path the only thing one can do is record one's own impressions of time and place. I am unable to find a  van traveler who chooses to do more than record pretty places and the simple great good fortune of simply being there, on the road. I follow in the steps of great writers, observers and fearless explorers. That requires more of me than a video of how I make breakfast or do my laundry on the road. I want to have a reminder of my emotions on the road, not just the sights. I want to see how history has evolved in a  place, to see how life is and has been.
I am reading even now about the places I want to visit and when I am there I shall share with you in abbreviated form some of what I have learned. My friend Webb who holds several genuine firsts in the world of exploration suggests I should learn about the things that motivate local people to join in conversation with the visiting stranger but I baulk at the thought of studying the football pools. He has a point, most people don't care a jot about their own history. 

If on the subject of road trips you think I am wildly eccentric or unique, you have no idea how many people from all countries are busy driving roads all over the place and in cultures that might make you shudder. If you want to explore YouTube you will see all sorts of youngsters traveling wide eyed and bushy tailed and hopelessly uninformed about any of the cultural facets of countries that interest me. They are doing fine and they don't appear to have a guide book or a history book between them. Here are some examples to ponder.

These German youngsters drove the road that is my highest ambition to drive in Central Asia and they did it in an underpowered diesel Fiat Ducato, the same van I drive except mine is built to North Americans specs. (Use subtitles unless you speak German).
Tell them it can't be done, they've already done it, went on to China India Pakistan and got to Thailand before COVID sent them, and the van, home.

These are my favorites in a  crowded field starting with One Advanture to whom I give five bucks a month (via Patreon) I like their spirit that much. They stick to the US but go off road in their Promaster and they find free camping everywhere.

Dan Grec of The Road Chose Me franchise has written books which are pleasant travel stories,  but his videos are different, being informative and very authoritative. He makes no bones about giving useful information for travelers and his simple direct style is appealing. These videos aren't pretty travelogues, they are "how tos" and I like them. He has turned his travel whims into a business but you can enjoy his videos and learn what is real about traveling the Third World.  I am a Patreon on his page:

I am very fond of this couple from Alaska who drive a 4X4 Winnebago Revel and love their home state summer and winter. Horrific snow doesn't stop them and they really need 4x4 unlike most travelers. They are plain folk but Cynthia is courageous to a degree expressing her feelings in ways I can only admire (but I can't emulate). Their dog Ember is so energetic I expect to be exhausted if  Rusty ever meets her.

Outliers Overland is another video I started watching when Alaska was new to my thought processes. They are businesspeople and can sell you whatever you like from their ample store. They moved from California to Alaska and now drive a 4x4  traditional Overland type truck in California waiting for Covid to loosen its grip to allow them to "go around the world." Useful information from Ben on mechanics but Rebecca talks about history and shamefacedly admits she likes guidebooks. I admire her for speaking up about being interested in the places she visits.

I am on the fence about this next couple but they are heading south in the time of Covid so I am interested in their experiences. They aren't young and by their own admission they need medical help from time to time so they are closer to Layne and I than one might like...However they tend to post videos full of click bait titles - Disaster! The End! Break down!- which annoys me but so far I am hanging in. Their videos are well edited but not profound. Interesting experiences are transmuted into perilous seat of your pants disasters which I find silly. 

The Vandersons I like because they are in a  Promaster, they travel with a cat and a dog and they are an adventurous young couple bound for Argentina. I love seeing Promasters in the dirt. They are young and my hat is off to them for their back road journeys and the limits they push. If they can do it I have no excuse. 

Mathers On The Map are more young people living large in Central America and going south with a dog ( that's helpful for the latest on dog border crossing rules!):

Also rans: Search "Trent and Allie" who made the journey and "The Matneys" who also drove South America but are both back home.

I always hit the like button when I start watching a  video and occasionally I comment to help boost their numbers. If you don't like my choices you can find tons of people overlanding. I will fade into the background when you realize I am only talking about it and others are doing it even in these difficult times of Covid precautions. And they are enjoying it, the ultimate criterion.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

No Change

I am quite fond of the new city manager in Key West whose appointment was announced last week. She used to be the head of Internet Technology when I worked night shift and more than once over the years I have got her out of bed at some ghastly hour to fix a problem. 
She rose through the city ranks over the years and will now end her term as the big kahuna prior to her retirement in two years. I never thought I would beat her to the exit but here we are. Of course she has forty years seniority working for the city where I have barely 18 but still I get to leave with people I know still holding the reins. It makes me feel old.
Her predecessor quit abruptly to take  a position with a  utility company that paid more and the city has decided to keep going with someone in charge who already knows the ropes.
I start to hear people speak nervously about hurricane season as temperatures rise and tropical waves start to form in the Caribbean. I never trust people who know this season will be bad. They usually say it in a hushed voice hinting at disasters yet to come as though they have secret knowledge to interpret the future. When a trainee at work asked me if we should expect a  storm I said someone is going to get hit most likely. I hope it's not us.
Until then life goes on as usual, the wheels of commerce turn and political leaders make their plans. 
Rusty has his hurricane plan though he doesn't know what it is. He's been evacuated previously and will be again if necessary. I am astonished when people leave behind their pets. 
I wander around the city in the middle of the night and I see people carrying out their routines, drunks going home, bakers baking, cyclists bicycling...
La Concha is open to welcome guests but I am alone in the entrance, looking in and seeing no one.
Rusty has Duval to himself for a while...
I came across a man unlocking his bicycle. We said good morning to each other and as he rode off he wished me a blessed day, to which I figured I was off to a good start.