Monday, November 30, 2020

Big City Streets

Empire State South did not disappoint my wife had was curious to try a restaurant that had made headlines in her reading lists. Run by a Canadian émigré Hugh Acheson has also appeared on television, the medium that provokes comment. So rather than speculate we made Atlanta our goal after socially isolated Thanksgiving plans in Pensacola fell apart. 
I am a man of a feeble palate and I could blame my many years spent at Hogwarts, typical English boarding schools with dubious menus, but I suspect it is simply a defect in my genes. Nevertheless we ate oddly flavorful fried rice, stewed chicken pieces on toast, trout and of course every schoolboy's favorite (where I grew up): trifle in a mason jar. Because of things being the way they are I had to drive through the rain to collect the food in a  touchless transaction which we ate in our bright and cheerful hotel room in a celebration only vaguely reminiscent of Thanksgiving which we celebrated more properly in the woods later. The next morning dawned cool and clear, after the rain and naturally my little brown terrorist was keen to see the world outside.
Leash? Check. Umbrella? Check. Winter vest? Check. Irritation? Left at the pre-dawn door. I actually also left my camera behind which ended up being a stupid choice as the rain stopped the instant I stepped out and to my irritation I had to use my iPhone 8 which for me is not an an enjoyable photographic tool. I know phones are improving by leaps and bounds but I have fun with buttons and dials and making things look the way I want them to look and phones have an unnerving ability to render everything the exact way we see the world. And yes I did find the bottle of hand sanitizer on the rental scooter quite fascinating.
The city was empty of course, like a slow Sunday morning even though it was Thursday, Turkey Day, and we walked an Atlanta fast asleep.
I had no idea what I was looking at when the name of the Italian poet appeared through the sparse tree cover. Wikipedia to the rescue! It appears the Scottish industrialist has left his mark here as well, which is hardly surprising.

The Carnegie Education Pavilion, more often known as the Carnegie Monument, is a marble Beaux-Arts monument located in Atlanta, Georgia. The pavilion was constructed in 1996 from the exterior façade of the Carnegie Library, named after Andrew Carnegie. The monument pays homage to the legacy of Carnegie by serving as a monument to higher education in Atlanta, with the seals of nine local area colleges and universities embedded in the floor of the monument. The monument was commissioned in 1996 by the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta and designed by Henri Jova. The pavilion is located in Downtown's Hardy Ivy Park, at the curve in Peachtree Street where it diverges with West Peachtree Street. The monument's inscription reads: "The Advancement of Learning." It also features the inscriptions of the names of three famous Western poets "Dante", "Milton", and "Aesop", in addition to the library's namesake, "Carnegie".

I guess I walked around a bit with my head in the air, noticing the tall leading lines pointing to the sky and in among those leading lines a few closed circuit cameras monitoring my movements. I wonder who gets paid to watch, my jaded 911 view is that the footage is only ever viewed if something actually happens. I love Rusty but I can't imagine watching him being walked is of much interest to a bored insecurity guard.
Georgia Peaches. They make it seems as though this is all there is in the Peach Tree State.
Florida is the sunshine state and when we finally got to drive south again the dark cloudy skies indeed did open up over Valdosta and gave way to 80 degrees and sunshine at the Florida Stateline. I have found that to be true over the decades and even now I think of those huddled homeless figures chilled in the granite caverns of downtown Atlanta.
I was missing my camera but I found shapes and lights and angles to capture my interest.
"A vision of w hotels." I have no idea what that means and I frankly couldn't be bothered to Google one more corporate slogan. Now you know, feel free to have a go if you want to decipher some fresh marketing gobbledygook. It juts looked like another monumental hotel with funny random lighting.
Rusty did not like these scooters dumped on the sidewalks of steep Atlanta streets. They have apps apparently and each brand offers a quick easy ride, pick it up and abandon it as needed. The wheels are locked when not in use and the battery makes them heavy. I know this as their random parking gave my differently abled dog fits and at one point he spotted a scooter across the wooded sidewalk and refused to advance. I unleashed him and he sat and nervously watched me approach the ambush, only running up to me after I showed him the scooter was harmless and quite possibly deceased as it did not leap out at me as I walked past. 
The pile of fake books on the other hand didn't bother him a bit. I fear my dog may be illiterate.
I remember when Atlanta was defined by Cocoa Cola and CNN. I actually thought of applying to CNN for a job after a  friend was accepted as a news intern. She loved Atlanta in 1990 but common sense struck me in the head after I realized I despised TV, so I went sailing to the Bahamas instead.
I-75 South, home of anti-abortion billboards, confederate battle flags and strip club advertising, all pointing towards Florida and sunshine and the warm embrace of oranges and unreality and alligators. Home!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Atlanta Streets

Getting home from a trip even a van trip requires some adjustment, some time to vacuum the dog hairs, wipe the dead insects off the hood, empty the porta potty (my job) and clear out the van refrigerator (not at the same time) and run the laundry with several loads...and on and on as the reality of back to work takes hold. Our turn around point on the trip was Atlanta and i have to say that was a rather shocking experience to this small town rube. I remember Atlanta as a bustling hub, a symbol of the "New South" industrious modern and integrated. My short stop in the big city was rather different experience and i was shocked in my own provincial way.
As much as one might like to deny it there is a slight sense of being removed from daily reality when one lives in the Keys. Certainly you feel the difference driving through rural America, and a lot of that is quite pleasant if you assume the job losses and medical bills are hidden behind closed doors, but the effects of business closure and failing services becomes stark and obvious in a city where downtown is the gathering place for homeless people and not much else.
We had thought of parking eating and sleeping on the streets but as a pre-Thanksgiving celebration it just didn't feel like much so we used points and took a room at the inn. It was a decision easy to make and it felt as though we had the hotel to ourselves. Certainly the van had the pick of the parking spots. Layne sorted the room and I walked Rusty. Our plan was to order a sort of Thanksgiving dinner from Empire State South a restaurant my wife was keen to try and she was, as usual, right.
Almost everyone I saw who appeared housed and employed was wearing a  mask so I wore mine even though I was pretty much alone. Most of the homeless were black men huddled in doorways avoiding the sprinkles and the cold air which suddenly struck me as cold and wintery. At last I wasn't sweating!

I'm sure on a  sunny day with office workers bustling about downtown would look different  but the city for my brief visit looked defeated by the virus. It was an odd feeling at a time when one is supposed to be thankful. The news from Key West was a mixture of fatal accidents on Highway One and family reports on the struggles of the county commissioner, his wife and daughter, to survive the coronavirus which had laid them low. I saw a lot of prayers offered on Facebook for their recovery but I recall my time in the hospital as a period of much gratitude to the nursing staff who looked after me and I wasn't even infectious. I cannot imagine a hospital ward these days with so many sick, no visitors and the need for universal protective gear. At last report Key West had no available ICU beds available.
I did manage to cheer myself up by getting Rusty to pose with a suitable piece of public art. 
Closed and boarded up. 

This was supposed to be another Rusty pose looking regal  but I found myself accidentally capturing a slice of street life which summed up my rather un-Thanksgiving feelings. I couldn't even frame the picture properly.
All I could think of was the weird bomber story and the security guard who got arrested in some muddled up investigation and a movie Clint Eastwood made..? I/m sure Google has the answers to my muddled train of thought but I focused on following my dog pas the Olympic Park. I did notice how steep Atlanta is, as though built on some very sharp hills set close to one another. We walked up and down a lot.
The American Cancer Society seems to be doing well with a vast spacious shiny building:
Their message was a reminder that colo-rectal cancer is painful and preventable- if you can afford it. Not a day goes by that I don't appreciate my health insurance. Colonoscopies not so much but at least I don't have to do them, just suffer through them once in a  while.
I think I should like to go back to Atlanta in happier times under sunnier skies and get a proper feel for a city that left me feeling excessively grateful that I don't live there. I preferred sweating to unload the van in the familiar heat of the Florida Keys to walking briskly in the cool winter air of a city that gave me a mild case of the blues.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Boondocking Holiday

I admit I am strangely in love with the Florida countryside. It's easy to be astonished by extra long sand beaches, if you like that sort of thing, and the tropical islands of the Keys hold their own obvious fascination if you are into the tropics and not everyone is. I like it, all of it, the cattle country in the center of the state, horse ranches and white post-and-rail fencing around Ocala, the huge live oak trees Up North and the Alabama back country along the panhandle. To me the sandy trails and scrubby pine forests of the national forests are as much worth exploring as the dreary mangrove flats in my own backyard. Rusty? He has mixed feelings, fear of the unknown mixed  with the pleasure he gets at being outdoors on a. sixty degree day.
Florida National Forests
Florida has 175 state parks ranging from Fort Taylor in Key West to every kind of historic site, forested backwater, canoe trails and alligator ponds up and down this most varied and under appreciated of states. Frankly I like living in the state that has given the nation and possibly the world the "Florida Man" memes. If you haven't had the good luck to laugh at Florida Man let me explain a bit. The Internet has given rise to reports of people in Florida doing stupid, preventable, harmful things in ways that are absurd and slapstick. Harold Lloyd made a very good living acting like Florida man in early films. Nowadays it is fashionable to deplore the antics of Florida Man but I enjoy slapstick and eccentricity writ large. Florida is a terrible place to be bored or to be a bore, and my fear for Key West while Layne Rusty and I go traveling for a few years, is that the bores will take over. Already Florida Man is extinct in the Keys. Especially in relation to Key West. So Florida is far from boring and to back that up the State of Florida is doing a surprising job of actually preserving the unique pieces of wilderness it can for future generations. Here Florida people can hunt and screw around in the wilderness. Me with a camera, them with guns. 
Florida National Forests
Sand and mud and water are the obstacles to a deep woods retreat in Florida. Dispersed camping as the National Forest Service describes it allows for lonely campers to hang in the woods for up to two weeks and this form of van life is known as boondocking, ie: parking without outside facilities, a form of vacationing most often enjoyed in the western States, places with scenic vistas, majestic grandeur and fewer people over a larger area.  In those places dusty trails are filled with rocks and slopes and the sort of landscape most often shown in 20th century cowboy flicks. Florida is to all intents and purposes a sandpit with high heat and humidity, insects and great swimming beaches. The bits in the middle belong to people who live here and can't take the time to go rock hopping in Utah but limit themselves to sand spinning on their ATVs in these more modest backwoods.
Layne and I did briefly think about buying a four wheel truck and putting a camper shell on the back but several features of such a vehicle dissuaded us. The cab has no pass through from the truck requiring the campers to walk outside to switch between driving and living. Plus access to the rear always requires several steps as the camper is set high on the truck bed. Against all this you get off road capability. Let's face it: we aren't on going on the road to do deep off-road exploration and we know it. We wanted comfort and simplicity and ultimately we will equip ourselves to risk our home on deserted sandy beaches in remote places but not to drive up cliffs or to ford jungle rivers. I like asphalt roads to be honest. A two wheel drive van works just fine for us.
We don't have hot running water in our bathroom and surprisingly my wife was agreeable with this eccentricity of mine as she found it unnecessary on our boat where we used solar showers. So I designed an outdoor shower with a blanket a couple of clips and the solar shower we carry on the van. We could use it inside but we'd rather be traveling in a climate that allows for outdoor showers.  Two kettles of hot water added to the shower give enough heat to make the shower comfortable we find. All this to not be parked in a campground with electrical outlets and shower blocks and toilets. Worth it? 
In a time of pandemic the isolation of boondocking in a warm winter climate is a great thing. For us a crowded campground is outside our comfort zone at the moment and though we look forward to a vaccinated future we are unwilling to compromise months of isolation and hand wringing by being impatient at this rather unpleasant stage of the pandemic. I am learning to enjoy gravel roads and the van handles them very well. We usually roll around 20 miles an hour and so far we haven't caused furniture to shift at these modest speeds or to spill anything from our locking drawers. 
Thanksgiving should be a time to gather but this year it simply isn't. It is weird parked out in the woods like this but Layne is cooking steak and stuffing and Trader Joe's sold us a pecan pie and Rusty gets his share of protein. 80 degrees, the sounds of the forest and a rising moon.  Not bad.

Testing our MoonShade portable awning...weird fun isn't it?
Happy Thanksgiving wherever you are and stay safe this holiday.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Central Florida

We took a 90 minute walk all round the neighborhood after Rusty woke up. It might have been a tad shorter had I not overridden my dog, convinced I knew the way back and took him off in the wrong direction. After I failed to recognized any landmarks I meekly followed Rusty back to the van. My wife claimed she was awake. 
Van life used to be glamorized before the pandemic forced a lot of youngsters to think twice bout van travel on YouTube but for us old foges used to the vicissitudes of boat life waking up in a van is no big deal. Tooth brushing is pretty much as normal. In the limited privacy of a residential back alley wipes make for adequate shower substitutes. We chose not to install hot running water and a full shower on the principle that time spent in the wilderness would be good enough for outdoor solar showers heated by the sun or by our kettle. Our struggle to keep the van simple for travel to less developed places is an ongoing project. And our ideas are not at all suitable for people who like to spend most of their RV life in parks and campgrounds with full facilities.
The area around Coffeepot Bayou is pretty upmarket and as a result not only is the landscaping impressive but the homes vary wildly in style and decor, and not all of them are palaces by any means. However there are some splendid alleys where I like to walk Rusty with my camera.
Another reason I really like St Pete: an abundance of dog interesting alleys! Dale is not an early riser so we took ourselves off after our morning ablutions and headed to that quintessential symbol of civilization in any American city: Trader Joe's. I sat in the van with Rusty while Layne got in a masked line to shop, which is a rarity for her these days but Trader Joe's takes the pandemic seriously, lines masks and dividers for all. The line actually did move very rapidly and everyone complied according to my wife.
Our plan such as it was included a bit of boondocking, that is to say sleeping in the woods of the national forests of central and northern Florida plus a quick visit to the Custom Coach Creations factory to have our induction stove top looked at. The fan was not turning off whether Herself cooked on it or not and though it heated up just fine something was definitely wrong as the fan never turned off. Custom Coach Creations replaced it with an improved model, and rebuilt the countertop in two hours and sent us cheerfully on our way under warranty and free of charge. Amazing service always from that place. Highly recommended.
Florida Camping
As you can see the overnight spot was not the cleanest and though I left the piece of paper in the picture for effect I did not include the couch with mildew so thick it had grown leaves on the cushions and looked like watercress, nor did I photograph the skeleton of a deer, I think that was what it was, completely picked clean. The signs along the highway warning of bear activity got my wife looking at bear spray offers on Amazon. I laughed and got a glare in return. Rusty was cautious on the trail and crept along like a caricature of a hunting dog and in the end I was proved right. No one and nothing disturbed us, as unarmed as we were, and the night as black as pitch made the cabin all the more snug as we watched Netflix and listened to our exhausted dingo dog snore heavily from our bed. It was a quick overnight stop and free of charge with no neighbors and only the sounds of passing cars nearby on the highway for company. On our morning walk deeper into the forest I found a lovely glade that would have served us better but for a quick overnight this did the job just fine.
There are national forests in Florida suitable for boondocking but I'd rather we preserve the myth that the only places to camp in the wilderness are west of the Mississippi, though those places are a lot more picturesque than the pine scrub and sand of our modest and largely unknown National Forests in Florida and a few points further north.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Road Trip

It seems the sudden demand for campers and RVs has depleted the supply and naturally increased the cost. We took delivery of our custom built Promaster last March just as virus lockdowns were starting and we congratulated ourselves on our totally unplanned great good fortune. Indeed the van, if you can accommodate your sprawling life to 21 feet makes an ideal travel companion in a time of plague. We can go hither and yon and hardly have contact with another human being. Gas stops, 18 miles per gallon at $2:00 a gallon, are affairs of the mask, a quick hand sanitizer, and back to the comfort of our own toilet, our own refrigerator filled with better foods than gas station supplies, and then back on the road in minutes. That's the good news but the bad news is all those attractions, those small pleasures in travel destinations are now closed to mask wearing cautious virus wimps like us.
Florida Keys
Sure we can, and do buy restaurant food to go and eat it in the comfort of our own living-room-on-wheels, but its not quite the same as being spoiled by strangers, especially when you know restaurants are all teetering on the pandemic brink. Museums? Attractions? Shop explorations? Not likely these days and that makes a destination a tough place to select. The paradox of the approaching vaccine counter balanced by 2,000 deaths a day and innumerable more painful side effects, mixed in with crowded hospitals and exhausted medical staff, leaves me wondering how there can still be those who ignore the suffering and shrug off the virus as a hoax. Normally I would question my own choices, second guess myself, wonder if I was worrying too much, a bad habit I am prone to, but for me the modest privations I suffer to avoid viral contact seem not that harsh at all compared to hospitalization, ventilation, and no human contact at all.
 Florida Keys

So when our Thanksgiving plans with socially isolated friends collapsed suddenly and at the last minute there were no hard feelings. First one then the other members of our generation with suitable medical issues for their age, said they were getting spooked by the numbers  and we understood, disappointed that one more modest holiday tradition bit the dust in a year of savage disappointments for some, and far worse for others. So we found ourselves with time off, a packed van and no destination in particular. Well, we said, let's make it up as we go along.

Florida Everglades I-75
Luckily our first planned stop in St Petersburg didn't cancel so we remained motivated to get on the road and we set course for Dale's place seven hours north. Actually we had been wanting to get out on the road for a while so the absence of a destination hadn't really put us off getting behind the wheel. The sun was shining the breeze was blowing and there were big white puffy clouds overhead as we cross the Everglades in the middle of the state. This was going to be our first stab at mooch docking.
I-75 Alligator Alley
The speed limit on the four lane highway across the Everglades is 70 mph and as usual Florida tolerates five miles an hour over and perhaps a little bit more but I, traveling sedately at the speed limit to improve my mileage, spotted one Seminole Tribal Police officer writing a ticket. The Florida Highway Patrol sit in their cream and black Dodge Chargers looking for all the world like alligators waiting for someone foolish to zip by. Then come the blue lights and a burst of acceleration worthy of a hungry dinosaur. The prey never escapes as this highway is a 80 miles long with one set of ess curves on an eighty mile straight roadway. Where the Interstate bends first left then right was where the two halves joined up a few decades ago. I remember when the middle bit was all dirt and construction and you had to pick your way from one finished section to the next across half a mile of off roading. 
St Petersburg Downtown, Florida
St Petersburg on a Friday looked fairly normal. A high percentage of people were wearing masks but enough weren't to make me wonder. My wife went to Publix to get dinner for ourselves and our bachelor host Dale while Rusty and I went exploring.
Florida Streets
I like St Petersburg very much, a great deal more than I did when I lived here thirty years ago. At that time I thought there should be more to this city wedged between two bodies of water and I guess people with more commitment than me decided I was right. There is art and culture, museums and theater, young people and students in a. town that used to be the butt of jokes about being "God's waiting room."
Florida B&W
I can't wait to get back here and enjoy whatever amenities the virus will have left in its wake. I know they keep telling us the world will be different and I suppose it will but people can risk eating out in the middle of a pandemic then I suppose restaurants will be in demand after this is over, and I trust the other cultural amenities will pull through. 
St Petersburg Florida
Our destination was the home of Layne's college friend who lives alone at home and has sporadic contact with his children and who willingly wears a mask and was outfitted with lanai seating so we could sit far apart and talk and eat Publix roast chicken. Dale was so impressed by our camper he ordered on himself from Custom Coach and he said he wanted us to park behind his house to see if the Promaster fit.
Custom Coach Creations
Dale's will be two feet shorter so he will have no trouble parking his in the alley. Mooch-docking is the term used to spoof boondocking, the term used for camping in your vehicle in the wilderness without amenities. We were mooching a free spot at a friend's place and I have to say we slept well there. Rusty even let me sleep in till 6 in the morning. The visit with Dale went on into the night with much to catch up as Dale lived an active life of business and travel which has been curtailed by the pandemic. He is a technology wizard so communicating by computer obviously comes easily but meeting face to face is such a rarity. The absurdity of all his distance meeting, no contact, masks up close and so forth will be a bad memory one day. That will be a decidedly good thing.