Saturday, December 26, 2020

26 December

Back in the Keys after a week away, back at work. A few pictures to celebrate our cold windy sunny return.
I like the Transit Loop which used to be "Free and Frequent" and was then changed to require a dollar per ride so now the tourist buses traveling in an Old Town loop are simply "...and frequent."  Slightly odd looking.
I hope you will forgive my obsession with giant fronds drooping all over city fences. They are in my face and I cannot resist them, in the style of Edward Weston, an extraordinary photographer. I find myself attracted less to people than to still life pictures. I went the same way on vacation chasing shadows and shapes. Weston was a genius as a quick Google search will reveal.
Weston took pictures of banal objects, fruit, vegetables and still life, not to mention humans too, and rendered them extraordinarily abstract and yet simultaneously dense. I read a biography of Ansel Adams who crossed paths with Weston and ended up supporting him at the end of his life as the genius Weston was a photographer and didn't have the genius for publicity that made Adams a wealthy man and widely known  by the end of his life.
I have no facility for self promotion so I have a rather soft spot for Weston though I am glad my wife pushed me to get properly pensioned for the last stage of my life as living in a  van voluntarily seems infinitely preferable to being forced to do it by dint of circumstances. Not everyone is so lucky in these months of weird. and sudden change.
I wonder how cooks and chefs are making out across the country these days, the artists of the kitchen, many of whom find redemption from a  life of dissipation in cooking commercially. In the usual way our society lurches from fad to fad and for a while there cooking was the highest of social and artistic attainments. Now one has to wonder how the artists of cookery are making out in this viral recession. I can't help but think that losing a generation of chefs would be a huge loss, not just in terms of cooking but in the artistry involved in understanding our tastes pushing boundaries and creating beauty and peace at tables across the country. Well, not right now they aren't. Bummer.
I really like the way Key West looks with all the plant growth brought on by relatively cheap abundant piped water from the mainland. Old photos of Key West show much less ornamental shrubbery as rainwater was too precious to pour onto plants. This is a thoroughly modern scene:
Good to be back and wander.  Rusty is always happy to be home, but there again he doesn't have to go to work the idle bugger.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Aucilla River Pictures

Merry Christmas! 
I'm back at work tomorrow so I'm happy to have some pictures to keep alive the memory of a...memorable week away.
Rusty and I prowled the woods looking for shadows and light and colors as usual. No mangroves here.

St Marks NWR, Florida

Thursday, December 24, 2020

North Florida Winter

Twenty three years ago my wife and I were preparing ourselves, our two large dogs and our Gemini catamaran to take off from San Francisco Bay, our sailing base, and go south to the winter heat of Southern Mexico. It was a weekend much like another, whittling down lists, staring down shrinking storage spaces and struggling to figure out what we might need in an improbable new life in an unlikely new place. All while the Labrador and the Husky sunbathed, oblivious, in the weak California sun. A boat drew in to the slip next door, a small crowd gathered with much cheering. We stood there like the wedding guests with the albatross around our necks peering at the unremarkable boat now next door. One of the invitees took pity on our puzzlement and explained the boat had left a few years ago on a tour of the Pacific and had just returned and had got their exact same old slip back! Lucky them was the sentiment. We bent back to our labors pondering the value of being back where you started after such a journey.
Our odyssey ended up in Key West whence we never left, we sold our Santa Cruz home and settled down boat-free to our new life of earning pensions and all the rest of the daily catastrophe of life. That lesson about ending up where you start has never left us and now we plan a road trip we convince ourselves  will be open ended, we will adapt and remain flexible and use our home's wheels to alter our circumstances as needed. All this by way of explanation to justify our arrival in a place we had never previously heard of...the Aucilla River. I have previously traveled Highway 98 across the Big Bend of Florida but I had never explored any of the estuaries and now that we have made a start on that I want more!
This is depressed Florida, not at all similar to the tropical vibrant south, much more similar to the struggling small towns of nearby Alabama, a land of empty store fronts and highly charged political hopes dashed it seems by every party in Washington. I'm not a Trump supporter but I can see why these people are as they haven't got much help from anybody over the decades and even though he failed to follow through on his promise to bring jobs back to this country hope obviously springs eternal. The next President is going to have to respond to this plea or the switch back will be pretty swift I reckon. We have all had enough of bullshit one way or another.
In the absence of dispersed camping in the national Forest my wife said let's go to Apalachicola and in looking for a place to spend at least a couple of nights I searched my iOverlander app, an excellent tool for the armchair traveler incidentally, and the reviews were in on a wild camping spot or two in the Big Bend area. I picked one spot at random and the photos confirmed it could be what we were looking for, a place to stay for a couple of nights without moving. A boat ramp no less.
Parking is free but the ramp is five bucks for a single boat launch so we trundled  down the packed gravel road and found our free spot in the sun. We chose a corner away from the ramp itself close to the water's edge and as it turned out that was the right choice as the trucks and trailers that poured in during the day radiated from the ramp, lined up like they were at the start of a Le Mans style race. They sure drove the approach road like the fish were going to get away...Rusty and I had to step to the side in a hurry as they rattled their trailers down the hard packed gravel road
I think the Ford dealer in Perry must make a killing as almost every one of the trucks was built Ford tough and by our third day we must have seen fifty or sixty trucks and trailers come in around seven in the morning with the last one leaving by dusk when temperatures dropped and I could see my breath in a huge plume of white smoke that swirled around my head and actually obscured my view in the still night air. You'd think the place would have been chaotic but it wasn't at all. I got up before dawn and patrolled the lot with Rusty all by ourselves. The trucks arrived at first light, launched and were left as silent sentinels neatly lined up across the field. The occupants were almost without exception middle aged white men, no families, no picnics as there were no facilities, no noise, no nothing. It was rather unusual but it worked perfectly for us. Arrive, launch, park, disappear. Over and over again with the reverse procedure in the evening and the rest of the time we were alone.
The spot itself was quite lovely and for me totally different from what I am used to...Spanish moss hung everywhere, trees were changing color, the grasses were thick and wet with dew.  Rusty spent his days between walks into the mysterious woods, laying in the sun alongside the van watching the trucks come and go, sleeping, rolling over and shifting into the shade when needed. Internet access was feeble but our booster gave us occasional access if we sat inside the van and were patient. It was a remote and lovely place where we spoke to no one aside from exchanging cheerful waves from some passersby and with one woman a few words as she showed up at the pier fishing with her family and made friends with Rusty patrolling on his long leash. Masks in west Florida are symbols of slavery apparently and social distancing is part of the plot but after nine months of isolation we gave up none of our cautious approach to coronavirus avoidance. No one gave us a hard time over our  Covid eccentricity.
It was a time to slow down and do not very much. My wife did her water colors, I wandered with the camera behind Rusty who found the trails in the forest fascinating and a little overwhelming. The Aucilla Boat Ramp in the St. Marks Wildlife Nature Reserve we rated a find worth revisiting. I'd like to come back and not stand out by virtue of a mask, or to travel unable to sit down in a diner and shoot the breeze with the waitress in the way one did when traveling before the pandemic.
I don't suppose we will be back here. Let's face it there are a ton more such spots along Florida's remotest coastline and I don't want to be like the guy coming back to his boat slip after years away rejoicing in being back where he started. If we are to explore we have to explore and stay one step ahead of the comfort zone. For that I am grateful to the general Gun Season in the National Forest for pushing us forward and discovering new places to enjoy. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

General Gun Season

I suppose one could argue that the sandy tracks of the Ocala National Forest are as close as a Florida driver might get to snow. However the main tracks, technically National Forest Roads, are firm and easy to drive as quite a few people have been out here and gone pounding sand with their ATVs and four wheel driver monster vehicles. Then along comes a couple of old pansies in a two wheel delivery van trying to get neither lost nor stuck. We did fine in our unsuitable comfortable home on wheels.
Florida woods
We are nether rock hoppers nor skiers so we decided early on we want nothing to do with the extra cost and complexity of four wheel drive. I am of the opinion that four wheel drive is for four wheel drive experts who want to enjoy the excitement of a thrilling drive and then go to home, hotel or the giant RV to sleep the sleep of the just. Trawling your home through motocross tracks is not my idea of fun. Thick soft sand is a problem and we did slip and slide a little but I got the 10,000 pound van through it with a gentle touch. We have the tools to deflate and reflate the tires for real sand driving and in March we have a date to install a proper front winch to help us recover ourselves if we get stuck. Our vision is having the tools to encourage us to visit lonely sand beaches and. not worry if the heffalump gets stuck in a. sand pit. My wife is looking up off-road driving courses for me to take to learn the basics. I prefer asphalt by far to driving in dirt but needs must...from time to time, and I don't want gravel or dirt backroads to stop us exploring. So we practice!

We looked around for a camping spot on the edge of the no hunting Juniper Prairie Wilderness which is open for dispersed camping year round but has no roads to support the wilderness designation and keep vehicles out of the actual wilderness. We found an eminently suitable spot but by some coincidence it was already reserved by the presence of an empty mosquito net tent. It may have been abandoned or not in daily use but we figured it would be mean to park next to it and intimidate the occupants were they to return unexpectedly, so we drove on.
Juniper Prairie Wilderness, Florida
There may have been a second suitable spot and so we drove around looking for a secluded parking place on the edge of the hunt-free wilderness but came up with nothing suitable.  It was mildly annoying as we had been looking forward to stopping in one place for a few days but somehow our vacations end up being more nomadic than even we intend.
Carolina Dog
I study Google street view and satellite views of the roads and wilderness to try to get an idea of what we might find. I am astonished how few people do that when traveling around the Keys. "Where's the police station?" they ask plaintively on their super duper modern cellphones and never think to ask Google maps to locate "police"  or "hospital" for themselves. However satellite views do not show vertical rise and fall on dirt roads which are not covered by street view! Fortunately Florida is quite flat but even so some of the small sandy hills surprised me when we got on the National Forest Roads. Cameras tend to flatten gradients so the huge dip in the photo below is hidden unless you know it's there.
We could hear gunfire in the distance, often ignored by young Rusty but when he realized the distant popping was shooting he ran for the van. Happily Rusty has come to associate us with safety and he is smart enough to run to us when he is afraid. Besides which I am not keen to get killed by accident so we took limited walks and stayed on the main roads. It was not our time to be in the forest. Quite aside from the usual rain showers and gray skies that accompany most of my days off and make the wilderness less appealing then  bright Florida sun... When I retire I expect Florida will go through a cataclysmic period of sunless rain as every day will be a day off for me and the gods will notice and sent rain as punishment. Next weekend I am working so it should be sunny and very pleasant while I am stuck at my desk. Take advantage.
Florida Wilderness
The National Forest threw sand everywhere and as we drove the main road back toward civilization at dusk we passed a lonely car wash in the woods. Okay then, we said to ourselves it's a sign. We are not believers in the "everything happens for a reason" meme as we have seen too much unsolicited useless misery in our travels but clearly this empty car wash was put there at the side of the road for our convenience so we took advantage. This is what you might call a blue job, a term that was coined in our sailing days in a spirit of ironic detachment, so my wife sat inside reading her phone while I wielded the various brushes and unguents to make the van sparkle once more. Rusty sat across the parking lot, front was crossed watching my work with a critical eye. I could hear him beaming "You've missed a spot" as I struggled to cover the leviathan with soap suds. I do often feel like a mahout taking care of his elephant as I work on van chores. Later I got my own back as dinner prep is a pink job. Rusty jobs are mostly to sit and look pretty which seems unfair until you remember he has no rights and has to do as he is told (with limited success by us). Tethered to the van in a freeway rest area:
Florida Interstate
Rusty has got his van legs at last. My wife figured it out but he likes to get out of the van not to get away but just because he likes being outdoors. At home he comes and goes as he pleases with his own door and no fences or limitations. He doesn't stray but he likes having the ability to be alone when he wants. With the van its harder to accomplish which is one reason we stay away from organized camping. Wild camping not only gives us social distancing and peace and quiet but it also allows us to throw open the door and let the hound loose. We do have a long leash to make him legal where needed but on his own he goes a few feet away and sits and watches the world go by. Lunchtime in Orlando, where we bought to go food and parked behind a shopping center next to the grass verge; and there he sat, untethered, while we ate inside:
Slowly slowly we are pulling together the strings that will hopefully lead to a serene and well planned trip in 18 months. Already we look back at our early efforts on the road and are amazed how much we struggled with daily chores. Every trip is a learning curve and our next trick is to figure out how to take truck stop showers and where to camp in Florida’s Big Bend coast. 
Florida Wilderness

Monday, December 21, 2020

Christmas Vacation

The idea had been to drive to St Augustine to meet my sister and brother in law and park the van in their hotel lot, sleep in it and visit the city taking care to eat outdoors and take the normal precautions against the coronavirus. I never thought much of this plan as I considered it highly risky with no certainty of Covid compliance in restaurants where we might end up sitting indoors. My in-laws are in their seventies and my wife has no immune system so I was of the mind that such a plan might end up leaving me as the sole survivor - possibly as coronavirus works in mysterious ways and my wife could easily outlive me...we live in weird times.
Happily the sisters saw sense long after the family eccentric wrote this plan off and they joined me on the sensible side of the coronavirus fence and called off contact for this holiday season. My sister in law sounded genuinely disappointed she wasn't going to see me which is an emotion that fills me with surprise. My unfortunate habit of speaking my mind and only later realizing what stupid shit I said makes me a difficult dinner table companion among polite company that doesn't know, or is not married to, my personality quirks. The van in the company of my ever patient wife and adoring dog is actually quite relaxing for a socially incompetent individual. Coronavirus justifies all sorts of behavior usually considered mildly to severely eccentric among the socially well adjusted. The virus has been great social cover for me at horrible expense to normal people.
Van Life Florida
I asked my wife, who is in constant contact with dozens of people across the country, if I was weird in that I write e-mails to a couple of friends (thank you Webb, thank you Bruce) and feel content. "A bit" she said finally which usually means "a lot." All I can say in my defense is I am harmless even if odd. I got a caller at work asking about Florida's concealed carry laws for out of state visiting hauling armories with them. I haven't a clue about these things so I did what I do and I laboriously opened Google and asked the oracle to tell the caller what to do about carrying guns in Florida. The caller babbled on about needing to drive the length of Florida and " never know." And here we are, unarmed and lost in the middle of the appalling home wild unpredictable violence, which has yet to materialize.
Van Life Central Florida
Our first night on the road we pulled off and slept behind the old Desert Inn at Yeehaw Junction, a place I stopped and ate in decades ago when I lived in Tampa and explored Central Florida on my wy to see friends on the Eats Coast. Nowadays it is a wreck, supplanted by a modern dreary fast food truck stop a quarter of a mile closer to the Turnpike Exit. My wife who in some respects is as eccentric a traveler as am I thought it was a perfect stop, free and private, marred only by passing traffic largely muffled by our well insulated van. I walked Rusty and she made dinner, Instapot beans collards and sausage related in the microwave. 
Florida Road Trip
I dislike how fearful everyone seems to have to be, afraid of the dark, of each other, of rumors and of discomfort.  When people talk about my infamous motorcycle wreck, knocked down by the classic distracted driver, the focus always is on my recovery but only I see it through the lens of 48 years of hospital-free riding. I have taken with me memories of life on the road on two wheels that feed my old age and push me to not sit back in retirement but to make one last effort to get over the horizon. It should be clear by now if this results in death dismemberment or a wheelchair we are both fully aware. Rusty on the other hand may view this simply as a lucky break from a life already filled with trauma loneliness and despair so I guess he has nothing to lose already. 
I would never recommend change and travel and risk to anyone, certainly my three sisters have stayed literally down on the farm their entire lives and are among the crowd of onlookers who view me as living with at least one screw loose, but if you think there is a thing you want to do and can't do it that is an irrevocable loss, whatever that thing may be. And all too often the collective stomps our dreams into dust for some reason I can't quite fathom. Beauty is everywhere and if you have to drive with a gun under the seat to give you the courage to go find it, then I say get on with it, but keep the safety catch on. I rode a lot, but with a helmet on my head that in the end did save my life. Risk assessment is part of the analysis of a sensible risk take.
As we drove my wife and I discussed travel and we came to a conclusion that has always swirled around our heads: we are travelers. We traveled by sailboat when we were younger but as capable as we were we neither of us lived to live on the water. We sailed in the company of a man who lived to sail, and even though his wife reined him in, Bob would have been happy sailing in circles, through the eye of the worst storm he could imagine, at night, in the vicinity of a reef. He was happy pulling up the anchor, where I was happy putting it down and looking at the shore and wondering what we would discover beyond the Customs office of the new culture we had landed upon. Webb Chiles is the same way: he would be just as happy to never stop sailing as he would be to step ashore and see things or places he has already seen ( and he has seen far more than have I). He is a sailor, I am a traveler.
These aren't value judgements, not least because in my eccentricity I don't place value on choices people make. I see the beauty in staying home and the economic value of not moving around. People who stay put end up with more money and more assets than butterflies like me. Some people make money off their obsessions but I have never had much interest in being a businessman. I take photos to please me, to remind me of my past as I took not enough pictures when I was young. I also try to find beauty through the lens because in do doing I find myself looking more closely at the world around me. As my time starts to run out one of the benefits of aging is taking the time to observe more closely in the sure and certain knowledge all of it will end.
"If we weren't practicing for retirement I'm pretty sure this isn't how I'd spend my weekends," I said to my wife as we searched fruitlessly for a wild campground away from General Gun Season in the forest. Rusty knows gunfire and remembers farmers chasing him with homicidal intent in the Redlands of Homestead. He doesn't even much like cameras so I can safely say he is a dog with his own phobias. The restrictions imposed by the virus have cut us off from our preferred explorations, a wide ranging mixture of urban and woodland. We cannot stop to visit museums, we cannot get closer to a restaurant than pre-paid curbside which does work very well with a van to use as a private booth. Visiting the wilderness is no longer part of a balanced mix of destinations, it is the only one at the moment and is another reason I hope the vaccination program is swift and efficient.
That we ordered the van built for us by Custom Coach in DeLand before the virus was pure coincidence but that we have it now is a great good fortune. We are still working out the details, practicing driving on sand, figuring out how to boondock which means camp where we can and leave no trace, learning to move around a small space without treading on each other even as we watch Rusty create his own new routines for a new life.
I want more time in Key West doing what we like to do, music art culture restaurants, sunrises and sunsets and seascapes and heat and humidity and silence and mangroves. I want to travel with both eyes open to any possibility instead of counting masks, checking crowds, pondering the odds and inevitably rejecting them as not worth it. I want the last nine months of isolation and deadening routine to have been worth it. I want people whose jobs depend on interaction and trade and normal patterns of life to be back at work properly. Just like you I want it all, even if in my case I prefer to watch it from the sidelines instead of seeking total immersion.Juniper Prairie Wilderness

For now we have the van, no complaints as it suits us well, and we have limited destinations which remain better than none and we can manage to feel like we are traveling for a little while at a time even if we are not strictly exploring. I read about loneliness and despair and a drive to risky behavior to get past the pandemic and I feel lucky to be weird. I feel lucky my wife and dog indulge me and as we close the year with one last small trip I hope next year, my last full year in the Keys, will do better than this one.