Thursday, October 28, 2021

Moochdocking In St Pete

There are different ways to park your camper for the night, you may be surprised to learn. The proper and sensible way is to find a campground, make a reservation and hand over a sum of money usually between say $30 and $60 for one night. You get to plug in your power cord, a water hose and most likely a cable TV cord into your camper parked on a neat pad equipped with a picnic table and neighbors equally equipped sitting right alongside you. We try to avoid this sort of camping. Paying to sleep in a crowd seems a bit daft. It can be useful if we need to stop for a few days and need lots of electricity to run the air conditioning for several nights in a row.

There are paying camping spots that are quite appealing and you find those courtesy of the government in parks of various sorts, not excluding national forests. Formal organized national parks are fabulous and we have the seniors parks pass which is all to the good. The downside is they don't like Rusty. Essentially a dog can only go where vehicles go in National Parks, and you can see why. Inconsiderate owners, people who don't pick up after or control their dogs spoil the situation for the rest of us as usual so I'm not going to run down the national parks service for their policy but it does mean we can't do much more than drive through National Parks. Bummer. 

State and National Parks, and I'm generalizing, tend to offer cheaper and more rustic sites which need to be reserved usually. Some have plug-ins others offer only a picnic table and communal loo of the basic pit toilet type, but they generally have bigger spots with more trees and less emphasis on packing the site with as many paying customers as possible. Florida has some excellent state parks, well worth visiting. Water management districts in Florida have some great camping possibilities too. Even the Army Corps of Engineers offers places to park for the night.

Then you get to dispersed or wild camping, also known as boondocking which is usually found in Bureau of Land Management Lands, mostly in the west and National Forest lands scattered all over the place. Rules vary and the most popular spots are being trampled to death of course, but in these places you park for free for up to 14 days before you have to move (at least 25 miles) and you are supposed to leave no trace and not expect any facilities at all. Find your spot within the local rules and set up camp undisturbed. More our speed.

Then there are approved parking lots where you can stay, with an understanding that you will buy some stuff perhaps. We do Harvest Hosts and have visited wineries breweries distilleries farms and so forth that allow you to park, offer no facilities expect no payment and allow but one night. Other places include the parking lots at Walmart and Cracker Barrel. These places have been disturbed lately by overnighters being rowdy, pulling out chairs and tables and leaving trash. These socially stupid moves have shut down many Walmart lots for casual overnight camping. We haven't yet bothered with these types of store parking lot stops.

Freeway and roadside rest areas are our preferred quick stops. Some people are fearful of the evil that lurks within but Eileen Wuornos has long since been executed and we find rest stops to be quick easy and reliable. We park in the car lots to avoid the comings and goings and overnight rumblings of 18 wheelers.

Finally there is wild camping, stealth parking or street docking. We do this when all else fails or if there is a nearby attraction or if we are tired and need to stop. Arrive late, leave early, is our mantra and we typically stop between 11pm and 5 am. We are discreet, leave no trace and don't even walk Rusty.  We first stop nearby and I walk Rusty and we prepare for bed. Then we drive till we find our spot, go straight to bed and I get up at five and move the van at least a few blocks before I walk Rusty.

In St Petersburg we have stopped to see Dale, Layne's college friend and he has a spot for us to park the van, so you could call this moochdocking, which is one way of describing parking your van in a friend's driveway. He actually has a pool house so we are living in his home essentially and the van is parked in his alleyway. Sort of moochdocking.

When we do visit friends we prefer to stop half a day away at a truck stop (another noisy location for free overnight parking) where we buy showers for $15 to $25 (for both of us), do laundry if we need to and freshen the van up. Then we arrive at our friend's place not demanding to use their facilities as if we really were mooching. Sometimes we spend a night at a hotel, usually on credit card points and complete our ablutions there before showing up fresh as daisies at our friends' place. I find it rather objectionable to appear and immediately demand to use the facilities as though we are seeking a freebie.

So having settled in for a few days I have been walking Rusty, Layne the former lawyer has been transferring the title of the Fiat 500 to Dale who went for a drive and came home grinning ear to ear. He even got a second glance from a passing blonde totty he said, suddenly feeling full of himself and dropping the years with all his middle aged cares. I never thought of my commute car as a tool of seduction but there we are.

I like Dale's upper class neighborhood with lots of sidewalks and alleys and varied architecture so I like to photograph this area around 22nd Avenue as we walk.

Romantic seating tête à tête with security fencing:

I see faces:

Rusty is adapting to houselessness. He is feeling his way as he always does, so even though he is now an old hand at van travel and will sleep in his bed on our bed underway, he has suddenly developed a certain nervousness when away from the van and the familiar. I encourage him to walk as normal but we are confident that after a while he will learn to trust the process and enjoy the road with us. After five years together we have come to learn his patterns, Layne learns his ways faster than I do. This time I'm not worrying about him adapting.
He looked pretty relaxed in the sun while we cleaned up and sorted out Dale's van for him with some ideas we have learned to improve our home on wheels. Dale's van is his tool to visit his sons at college and to see his friends along the east coast so he is a mooch docker par excellence you might say. Over grilled salmon last night he introduced me to Anna Akhmatova a Soviet refusenik poet. Luckily there is Kindle or the van would be sunk as we pick up bits and pieces as we mooch our way along.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Swimming With Leaves

I am the navigator. I'm not in the league of Ferdinand Magellan of Vasco da Gama but I do pride myself on enjoying mapping and studying places to visit and backroads and so forth so I decide the route. That is a blue job aboard Gannet 2. I wash up, I navigate ...
I proposed a backroad drive to St Petersburg from our I-75 overnight stop and the admiral agreed so I led off in the van and she followed in (Dale's) Fiat 500. My first target was a Mexican store south of LaBelle, a place known to us where we got an early lunch, barbecued ribs rice beans a giant hot pepper and grilled onions with more corn tortillas than you can eat. Oh yes, I thought, I remember why we are going to Mexico. I took Rusty for a walk and if you have watched the Walking Dead, a series that held my interest for a while, you will know why I found the tin fence so fascinating. It didn't look "walker" proof to me.

Florida back roads are long and straight and boring except when they aren't. If you only know the state from I-95, The Turnpike or I-75 you really don't know Florida at all. This is cowboy country, fields dotted with huge spreading oaks, clumps of cows lounging in the shade, orange groves and small towns lived in by proper Southerners. You may have heard the joke about the further south you go in Florida the further north you arrive. My neighbors on Cudjoe were from Connecticut...

Orange crates piled high on a trailer. Orange season is when you want to be traveling as you can smell orange cakes being baked at the various processing just smells like that to my sweet obsessed mind. The prance stands open and you should stop and buy the sort of Florida orange juice your grandparents stopped for when they took winter breaks. Or you can stick to I-95.

Rusty cares not one jot for any of this, so while Layne was exercising her Mexican Spanish ordering lunch he took me on the scenic route behind the Azteca market.

We took our lunches back to the air conditioned van where Rusty was lying in State. 

Then we collapsed into a carb coma. ice you have traveled with a motorhome, be it ever so small going back to a car without a bed or a toilet or a comfortable place to sit becomes a hardship. Layne asked me if I had any twinges when we passed motorcyclists droning the long straight road and I could say without doubt, none whatsoever. I do think I'd like to settle some where rideable if I am still active after this journey. I'd like to ride back roads to lunch or perhaps to a friends place but I think motorcycle touring has been superseded in my life by the comfort of parking and sleeping wherever I want.

Layne took her Fiat (now Dale's Fiat) by the direct route while I meandered across Florida, driving roads familiar to me as we have explored the state in all directions, but lovely nonetheless. Finally I had to get on I-75 to cross the Sunshine Skyway bridge to St Pete. Layne called and said she was off to Trader Joe's to buy more coffee to replace the stuff I accidentally threw out in my frenzy of stuff anti-gravity and I got to stop and sit. After I walked Rusty.

There is a bike path from St Petersburg and happily we walked the trail before the afterwork crowd slipped into their spandex and rode with concentrated ferocity down the trail. And then up the trail as my walked dog and I sat and did some more thinking.

There were no No Overnight Parking signs here as it is a basic rest stop and scenic area. Actually I have slept at the main rest stops either side of the bridge but this little pullout was a new find, all to ourselves.

Inevitably I got the call and had to move on.

There was a northwest breeze produced by the tiny cold front that reached this far south so I pulled out my Pico chair and sat in the shade with the breeze and caught up with my correspondence.

Rusty at home.

I didn't say it wasn't hot work walking in the blazing sun, I just said the breeze was nice and cool...

Rusty was ready to sit and think as he so often does. We sat and thought in companionable silence watching the occasional mad cyclist steaming by, and I could have sat till dinner time followed by bed followed by a night of uninterrupted repose. However...

We got to Dale's where he grilled grouper and we asked about the pool in front of the pool house where we are staying. He said its got a few leaves in it that fell from the tree. He sounded dubious about the whole thing. We said we swam all the time in the canal behind our house. No one else on our canal did. One neighbor wittered on about alligators as though having missed their chance for the past six years they were about to invade the canal and drown us for dinner. Another neighbor went on about barracuda as though we were swimming with deadly missiles but I got used to barracuda swimming alongside when we were snorkeling in the Bahamas years ago. I never saw any in the canal and I suspect their reputation comes from James Bond movies not real life, as usual. The waters looked green and unappetizing on windy days and the implication was there might be bubonic plague in the canal, but despite all those holy terrors we swam every opportunity we got and were none the worse for it.

There really weren't very many leaves in the pool and we enjoyed the cool refreshing waters a great deal. Obsessive me swept up the easy to catch leaves but swimming back and forth with not an alligator in sight was very relaxing.

Dale is a good man, smart, funny to talk to, eccentric and wide awake to the ways of the world. He made his life in technology and now he's retired he sits and thinks and he doesn't even need a van to do it.

A few leaves in, a swimming pool, a long silent alley to walk Rusty along, pretty homes, big oak trees and no deadline to go home and start work. I think Layne and I have stumbled on something good here. For now.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Arm Wrestling Stuff

 Alligator Alley at dawn.

Layne is sleeping, Rusty is walked and Gannet 2 is covered in dew. It is hot sticky and humid and weirdly enough this is a place we have stopped before, it is familiar and known and at the same time the circumstances make it as strange as the proverbial dark side of the moon.

The background is a symphony of truck engines and swooshing vehicles on the freeway, the light is flat and gray and my choices are a small plastic toilet in a broom closet or shared institutional facilities, clean but reminiscent of a prison or my English boarding school of fond memory. Life on the road, why did we do this?

Were we being sensible in our former home on the canal on Cudjoe Key we'd be shuffling around our own spaces, planning a day which in this age of plague was not quite the retirement one might have hoped for. Ironically enough it was easier to deal with coronavirus at work, head down, routines, no expectations for shared entertainment or intimate gatherings. On a day off one expects to gather and share and be together. As a houseless nomad on the road one is glad to be able to be isolated.
I got the last load of stuff dropped off last night near the Miami airport.  I hate stuff more passionately than ever especially after humping tons of crap everywhere. I've put it in strangers' cars (after they gave me money for it!), I've watched my wife press it on friends embarrassed by their desire, I've offloaded a ton of it at the smelly slimy dump, I've made repeated trips up the Accursed Highway to Miami to drop piles of it off. But stuff got its revenge. I arrived at the storage locker to a cheerful greeting.
How's it going the clerk asked as I stopped by to get a key for the carts they keep locked to the walls. Great I said, in Spanish and English. How I didn't get lost I don't know but I piled the last load on their cart, hauled it for miles through creepy dark corridors of lockers and got back to Rusty snoring under the air conditioning vent, with myself in a lather of sweat. No more stuff I swore to myself as I wrung out my sweat soaked shirt.

We ate ribs for dinner and watched an episode, the last available until they release the next episode, of the Great British Bake Off wherein Giuseppe the Italian beat his good buddy Jürgen the German and got Star Baker on German Week. Excellent. My Italian half brushed his teeth with extra vigor. Rusty snored from his bed in a dark recess of the van.
I slept long and hard from 10 till 5 hence my ability to put this page together with I think reasonable coherence. Honestly it was a day like yours, chores and duties and obligations, the passing of time all followed by unconsciousness. I will say I look forward to breaking away after we say goodbyes to friends and the familiar places to being alone and discovering roads and towns not before seen. But all in all what we did in 72 square feet you did in a proper space. We are just like you.
Except it turns out we accidentally threw out Layne's coffee with all the unwanted stuff, so that was another case of stuff having the last laugh. Layne's not laughing but I'm pretty sure Rusty is.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Don't Forget Your Keys

Monday 25th October 8:00pm 
Rest Area in Alligator Alley I-75
As you read this I have left the Florida Keys and Van Life begins. I am happy about this change in my life, this page therefore is no longer a diary about a place or fulfilling other people's fantasies but a true record of where we go and when and how we make the journey. I used to laugh as I slipped under the toll booth awning at Alabama Jack's, in the days before they automated the Sunpass toll into the Keys.  The Keys I shouldn't forget! It will be difficult to do that.
I prefer Card Sound Road to the idiocy of the two lane Stretch between Homestead and Key Largo. The state decided to keep The Stretch down to two lanes in order to lengthen potential hurricane evacuation times. This would supposedly hold back development as the Keys have to able to be evacuated in 36 hours  under threat of hurricanes. By creating a no passing two lane road the idea was evacuation times would take longer and fewer homes could be built.  The net effect is road rage, illegal passing and tail gating as cars hurry to get to the next passing zone as quickly as possible. My last piece of Keys advice? Take Card Sound Road and pay the Sunpass Toll around a buck and enjoy a laid back drive.

The Seven Mile Bridge, my wife's commute for many years, is the goal of anyone who drives the Keys, and you can wave at Fred the wild tree still flourishing on the old bridge. I shan't see the Christmas decorations this year but I am fairly certain a boatload of pirates will sail to Fred and light the lights.

I hate to say it but at this point it can be said: Highway One has become over trafficked and is struggling to handle too much traffic. The new road has served since 1982 but the Internet allows anyone to work from home, to live where they want and everyone with money wants a slice of the safe tropics. That means too many people which means slower travel times which is okay if you are new because your expectations are what you find. Year round tourism is new and tiring.

Our escape pod is a slow moving box that will take the right lane and pull over for following cars. No schedule, destination uncertain, speed not fast, 60 miles per hour to save gas and wear and tear.  Frequent stops, so we step aside to allow those with deadlines to get where they are going. In Michigan this had the unfortunate effect of nice people pulling alongside instead of passing and asking us if we were okay! Dirt roads are in our future, lots of exploration, wild camping, street parking, boondocking in the manner of 21st century nomads.

Young Rusty has new horizons and a familiar home. I can't wait to share it all with him and with you, if horizons beyond the Keys hold any interest. Many of you have said they do! I promise frequent updates, lots of pictures and places you've never heard of. I told you of my former neighbor who wrinkled his nose when he asked where we were going and I said Patagonia. Where's that? he said. I've never heard of it. He'll see it in glorious technicolor if he stumbles across this page. Fingers crossed and off we go. First stop: unglamorous St Petersburg  for the first of some non Keys goodbyes (Webb will be next).  Rusty is enjoying van life, new smells on new horizons.

I stopped this Monday afternoon briefly to take a couple of pictures, my last in the Keys. Layne was driving the Fiat 500 to it's new owner in St Petersburg so Rusty and I were alone, and he took the co-pilot's seat.
"Thanks for Visiting the Florida Keys" the sign says nowadays but still I promise not to forget my Keys. They were a good time, a special time filled with friends and things to see and photograph. Like one reader said this stage of my life resembles the last frame in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strips of very fond memory. This is cheerio, not goodbye for ever. Lots to see in the meantime.

I hope one day to see the Registan of Samarkand too but that will be a much later story. 

We travel not for trade alone
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what ought not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand
James Flecker