Thursday, March 23, 2017

#37 - Wednesday, 22 March 2017 - Flamingo, Everglades National Park, Florida

I am actually posting this on Thursday morning, but it was written yesterday. I am again at the Flamingo Visitor Center using the wifi and looking out over Florida Bay toward the Keys and the Caribbean. A dolphin keeps surfacing about 50 yards out and I'm watching a pelican fishing. It is high tide, but numerous sea birds are gathered at the sandbar that becomes exposed at low tide ...

***

Greetings from Everglades National Park. I type this interrupted by scratching at my itchy bites.

It is midday Wednesday (happy hump day) and I just returned from a morning on the trails (see Instagram selfie). The first thing I did when I got back to the Wheelhouse was grab by clippers and buzz all my head and facial hair off. I was long overdue for a haircut and it was almost at a length where I’d need to buy a comb. My chin hairs were getting longer too. Less hair – less sweat and bites and more hot weather comfort. Genetics don’t allow me to wear my hear long anyway.

The mosquitoes are brutal. I wear all Insect Shield impregnated clothing and a Buff Insect Shield/UV protecting face and neck mask beneath an Insect Shield treated mosquito net over my bug spray soaked Tilly hat. That is after drowning myself in a sperm-killing and cancer-inducing amount of deet repellent. If you stand still the buzzing hordes reach cacophony levels and engulf you. I hiked around the Eco Pond (1/2 mile loop) and then hiked out to Christian Point at Snake Bight on Florida Bay (1.8 miles each way). On the latter I collected three species of spider that I am going to photograph in my little studio setup back here at the campsite. My gear keeps away the mosquitoes well, but just opening the doors to the truck or the RV lets some in and those are the buggers that get me, often when I am sleeping or driving into town.

I captured more images of ospreys and red-shouldered hawks today and saw manatees near the Marina Store again. Crocodiles can almost always be sighted near the store and I stop there once or twice a day. Next door is the visitor’s center, which I visit two or three times a day for wifi. Only AT&T users get cell phone signal here. The park entrance to camp at Flamingo is 40 miles. If I drive about two thirds of the way out I get weak signal and by the entrance I have full 4G LTE.

The mosquitoes are driving people away and the campgrounds are increasingly deserted. There are three tent site loops, but they’ve allowed one to grow over in the past year because it is tough to spend time in a tent here and camping numbers haven’t met expectations. The RV loop has over 60 sites. It was perhaps half full when I arrived, but now it is very empty due to ferocious bugs and it being midweek.

I’ve made friends with the ranger at the campground entrance (Joe) and he gave me all the days I paid for even though I arrived one day late. I then extended it by two nights (until Friday morning). I will be back at Kissimmee Prairie on Sunday so I still have to figure out where I will spend Friday and Saturday nights. I may stay at an RV park either on Key Largo or back up at Okeechobee near KPPSP. I’ll give them a call when I go back to wifi to send this. Actually, I may send this and do some other online stuff via cell when I drive north through the park later. I may cruise the roads here after sunset to look for snakes. If I am in my trailer at sunset I tend to just kick back with a beer and a movie and relax and then don’t go back out.

I am looking forward to my return to Kissimmee. I just love it there and its location allows access to some other areas that I will visit this time. I also really need to finish my BTS work and it is a great place to just sit at a picnic table with my laptop. The pest bugs were a non issue in my previous stays and I hope that continues. My final stay there will take me to the end of March and then April will see me point the rig toward Texas.


M

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

#36 - Tuesday, 21 March 2017 - Flamingo, Everglades National Park, Florida

I have extended my stay at Everglades National Park by another two nights. That is evidence of what a strange duck I am since most other campers are leaving early. The mosquitoes are vicious. It is uncommon for them to drive people out this early in the year. I’m enjoying myself, but I feel sorry for the tent campers. The more prepared have enclosed areas over the picnic table, but it is impossible to keep the little bloodsuckers out. When I return to my Wheelhouse after being out on the trails, just opening my door long enough to bring my cameras and other stuff inside allows a dozen of the ferocious biters inside and I have to hunt them down. On the trails I wear my Insect Shield impregnated hiking clothing, including balaclava and a bug net over my hat and head, and first coat myself with a frightening amount of Deet.

I just returned from driving up to the Flamingo Visitor Center to use the wifi to post some more images to Instagram. Please look for photos there. I’ll do an all photo post here soon to highlight a few of my favorites, but I don’t see a reason to post pix here on a regular basis. I recommend following my Snap story (exoticfauna) for snapshots from the road like travel, food, drink, people, etc.

Of course, you won’t find people pix often as I am solitary and not much for selfies. That isn’t to say I don’t have interesting conversations with interesting people along the road. One of my favorite books is Rush drummer Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider [highly recommend this amazing memoir of loss and healing on the road]. After losing both wife and daughter within just over a year of each other, he was broken and in need of healing. He took to the road on a BMW touring motorcycle and drove 40,000 miles. At the time it looked like the Toronto rock megaband Rush was finished. Perhaps I’ll examine the fact that after losing my dear mother and precious dog has also put me on the healing road in a future blog. For now, the comparison I am making is that he wrote of the brief but rewarding friendships he would make along the way. He had the additional problem of being famous, albeit much less recognizable than his bandmates. Like me, he is someone who keeps mostly to himself and immerses himself in books. Stardom isn’t something he is comfortable with so casual conversation is something he sought. I’ve already met all sorts along the road. My preference to wild places and natural and state parks puts me in contact with many birdwatchers and other nature lovers. I just spent about thirty minutes talking about birds, snakes and spiders, travel, life on the road, and more with Joe, the park ranger who mans the campground entrance wearing a bug net.

So, during my conversation with Joe, I booked two more nights and will depart Friday morning. That gives me more time if I do decide to head out to the Keys. It’s a four hour drive each way, plus the time there of course. I can come back at any time as the park entrance is open 24 hours. If I could have booked a site at either Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo or Bahia Honda State Park midway down the Keys, I would stay there for awhile. As it is, snowbirds have everything booked, even expensive RV resorts. It is easier for me to just make a day trip and leave my RV anyway as I get twice the gas mileage without the RV and the Keys aren’t the best place to be driving around a rig with a total length of 53 feet.

I’ve been looking into where to head next, but with limited internet I haven’t spent much time on it. There are some places I still want to explore in central Florida so I decided to return to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. The weather is perfect there, the mosquitoes aren’t severe, and it is a wonderful and centrally located place to camp. So I will return there for another five nights on Sunday and afterward begin heading north. I’ll have some cell signal and be able to research spots as I head north toward the panhandle, perhaps staying in the Appalachicola forest for a few days and then head west. I don’t plan to stop in Alabama, but may stay somewhere in Mississippi for a couple days so I can have dinner with my friend Dr. Brent Hendrixson at Milsaps College in Jackson. I plan to spend some time in the field later this year with him and his students. Then through Louisiana I’ll likely avoid Houston by shunpiking toward Austin. I have a series of six e-books written by an RV boondocker that are directories to places to camp free off the grid in the southwest, and each volume has many recommendations for roads that circumvent more populous areas.

Today I have decided to spend most of the day working on the Journal of the BTS. I have content for two issues and need to get the work done so I don’t have it on my mind any more. I have finished the 2017 Northwest Zoological Supply annual catalog I have been doing the writing, design and layout for. I sent a final draft a couple days ago and am waiting for Alex to tell me if it is good to go.

I think I will have dinner at the Buttonwood Cafe, which is the restaurant at the Flamingo Visitor’s Center. I believe I mentioned it during a blog entry during my mid-January visit here. Hurricane damage closed the original restaurant and the National Park Service seems to be taking its sweet time to spend some money restoring. The current Buttwonwood has screen walls and sits below the closed second level restaurant. The kitchen is an attached trailer like you’d see at a State Fair. I’ll stop by the visitor’s center for wifi to send this and visit social media. Tomorrow I will either spend the day visiting photo spots here one last time or, if I wake ambitious, I will head out to the Keys for the day. Write soon…

Cheers, MJ

Monday, March 20, 2017

#35 - Monday, 20 March 2017 - Florida City, Florida

How far would you drive for a Starbucks? I just drove 50 miles. I recall when my sister Lisa and I were driving across the U.S. and were in the middle of nowhere in the northwest hoping for anything better than gas station and hotel coffee. When we finally found a Starbucks we stocked up on their Via instant coffee so we wouldn't be deprived.

I'm more of a support small business sort of guy, but I've never found espresso I prefer to Starbucks. And it is the best place in the world for free and high speed internet. But what brought me here was a power outage in the southern part of Everglades National Park. Being new to my RV, I at first thought that perhaps I had a problem like a tripped circuit breaker. I didn't notice the lack of power when I first woke because my lights, water heater, water pump and refrigerator were all working. But that was from my dual battery power and converter, not from 120 volt AC. When I went to make coffee I discovered that my outlets had no power. I checked my 30 amp service outside and it was dead. I then saw a man a few campsites away miming no power to me.

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do today and had considered driving out to the Keys. When I woke I was thinking of doing a morning hike and then working on the Journal of the British Tarantula Society. Having no power to make coffee I decided to take a shower and head to the marina store to buy a cup. When I got there I learned that they were also without power. It wasn't just the campground, but also everywhere in the Flamingo area. I bought a Starbucks mocha cappuccino bottle to tide me over, and a package of pop-tarts. No electricity also meant no wifi at the visitor's center that I have been using. So, I decided I'd drive out of the park to Florida City and go to Starbucks. As long as I am here in town I figured I'd type this blog entry and maybe get a few groceries.

Yesterday was a wonderful Sunday Funday. I sat with my coffee yesterday morning along the marina piers and watched two manatees in the murky water. I photographed them – or at least their snouts – when they would grab air. I watched their huge, barnacle-encrusted grayish brown backs break the surface as well. ENP certainly must be the best place to see and photograph ospreys, and I captured a few hundred more osprey images during the day. I hiked the Mahogany Hammock and Pah- Hay- Okee overlook and watched roseate spoonbills and wood storks flying above the rookeries at Paurotis Pond. I found a couple more crocodiles when I visited the marina area at lunch time. 

More soon ...

M

Saturday, March 18, 2017

#34 - Saturday, 18 March 2017 | Flamingo, Everglades National Park, Florida

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I type this from my campsite in the Flamingo Campground at the extreme southwestern tip of Everglades National Park whilst drinking a Jameson’s & ginger ale. Sláinte!

I don’t have any Irish blood. However, I’ve loved my trips to Dublin and I do love Irish lasses, whiskeys and stouts. Since they don’t have any drunken days of celebration for someone whose father was born in the Transylvanian Alps and whose mother’s ancestors came from Sweden and Luxembourg, I am happy to claim Eyre at least one day a year.

I am now along the ocean at the southwestern tip of Everglades National Park. I am sort of “off the grid” here. I still have electricity at my campsite and can power my lights, electronics and use A/C and electric water heater and such, but I had to fill my potable water tank for the first time. There isn’t a water service at the site so I finally am testing the 49 gallon water system I will use off the grid. So far I have been able to hook directly up to a city water spigot. Using the tank means that I have to turn on my water pump to pressurize my lines. The Wheelhouse has a 66 gallon total capacity grey water tank. This is where the sinks and shower empty. I have it split into two separate tanks as the kitchen is in the rear and the bathroom is in the center. I have a 33 gallon black water tank, which is where the toilet drains. I’ve been able to go a week without dumping the tanks, and now that I am not hooked up to unlimited water I am going to practice my real “off the grid” mode. This means taking “military showers”. No luxurious hot water running non-stop. It is get a little wet. Wash completely and rinse as quickly and using as sparing an amount of water as possible.

But the “off the grid” aspect that will be most difficult for me is not having internet. I have Verizon service for my iPhone. It has the most extensive coverage and the LTE is fast. However, it’s very expensive and their data plans suck. That said, I finally realized that I was paying more for 16GB of monthly data than their Unlimited plan. Of course, the thieves don’t tell you that or upgrade you automatically. But after going from 4 to 8 to 16GB of data and then still going over and paying overage charges, I investigated and now have no data worries. However, even with Verizon’s excellent nationwide service, there are places where signal is weak or non-existent. Here at the tip of the Everglades, I have no service at all. The Visitor’s Center has wi-fi so I will use it once a day and have to go cold turkey and suffer withdrawal. That may sound dramatic, but I am a guy who sleeps with his phone – and usually his iPad and MacBook Pro as well! I am online until I pass out and when I wake during the night I check email and social media. Things are going to have to change, and I fully admit that the change will be healthy. I’d love to get to where I only was online while drinking morning coffee or having a nightcap before bed.

As I drove out of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, I encountered about a dozen white-tail deer dispersed over about one mile of the crushed shell entrance road. Most people would name the horse as the most beautiful animal alive, and I’d be hard-pressed to argue against them, but I certainly would rank our ubiquitous deer species among the top ten. Once I hit the paved road I came across a fox trotting across the street. The drive was about five hours with a stop for restroom and takeaway food. Due to staying an extra day at KPPSP I arrived at Everglades National Park a day behind schedule. My five-night campsite reservation was prepaid. I asked if there was any availability if I wished to extend my stay, and the ranger kindly offered to give me five nights so I wouldn’t lose a night or the money. So, now I am here in ENP until midday on Wednesday.

I have nothing planned afterward. I’m going to look at my maps and other references and see if there are any must-see Florida stops. I can’t go any farther south except to explore the Keys. I don’t want to participate in the weekend traffic bustle, so I intend to leave here early Monday morning and drive at least as far the Key Deer Refuge. These dwarf cousins of the white-tail are on my bucket list to photograph. If all goes well I’d like to make it to Key West. I’ve never been there. I just have to see how late I can get back into ENP and the Flamingo Campground. As I’ve written, Flamingo is the southwestern extremity of ENP. The park entrance is 40 miles away. Then you have to go east back toward Florida City and then south to the Keys. Flamingo to Key West is 187 miles that takes almost four hours. When I leave here I am likely to go up the west coast of Florida and camp a couple more places (state parks when possible, but RV sites are fully booked most everywhere …) before I reach the panhandle and my eventual path west.


Check Instagram tomorrow or Monday for crocodile and osprey images ...

All the best, MJ

Thursday, March 16, 2017

#33 - Thursday, 16 March 2017 | Kissimmee Prairie Preserve S.P., Florida

R A N D O M.   R O A D.   T H O U G H T S.

No deadlines, no schedule. The closest thing are campsite reservations.

I "should" be in Everglades National Park right now, for a second visit of 2017, but I'm still camped at KPPSP. Was supposed to receive two packages here yesterday and neither arrived. 

Temperature is a matter of perspective, and it's not always warm in southern Florida.
Woke to 38°F/4°C this morn. Tent campers didn't look like happy campers. Young guys in two tents across the way were bundled up inside their running car.

I don't believe in luck, but sometimes shit works out.
I walked to the camp office when they opened at eight to check on packages. One arrived on schedule after the office closed yesterday. They didn't have it yet but said it would be in shed at the park entrance. A ranger delivered it to my site a couple hours later. The other was a UPS error that caused a day delay. But I was also in need of extending my stay. It turned out that only one site was unreserved, and that was the one I've been on for the past five nights. So not only was I able to stay one more night, but I wouldn't have to move my rig. Keen readers will remember that this already my third campsite here.

Camping experience is also a matter of perspective. I am fascinated by all the different rigs and styles I have encountered already. One woman's glamping is another woman's slumming. One man's roughing it is another man's hell. My perspective is based on my preference for national and state parks, and eventually completely off the grid boondocking. I don't care to experience the RV Park world where people pay more than I like to pay for a one night hotel for a campsite so they have clubhouses to play mahjong, a nice heated swimming pool and 24 hour security. But, in my time on the road thus far, my first night in the Wheelhouse was the day I saw the poshest recreational vehicle. The southern gentleman unabashedly told me that he paid $530,000. It was incredible and a camping version of a rock star's tour bus. Here at the state park there are people in tents and some in trailers that aren't much larger than coffins. One guy has a pop-up tent trailer that is as old and dirty as he is. For one night a guy in a VW bus that I was surprised ran and looked like thirty or so years old junkyard rust camped next to me and wandered about drinking shit beer. When I had my coffee in the morning I watched him emerge from the back of the tiny vehicle in his pajamas and light a cigarette while urinating not one foot from his bus.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

#32 - Tuesday, 14 March 2017 | Okeechobee, Florida

Still loving this location. Not Okeechobee city limits so much, but the south central prairies of Florida and Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. I write this from dinner at Applebee's and on the way here I saw several red-shouldered hawks, a huge osprey, several kites, a caracara, white-tailed deer, sandhill cranes, numerous egrets, black and turkey vultures and ravens. I came into town on impulse. I had been plagued by a headache all day and got a little stir-crazy and felt like taking a ride and having a restaurant dinner. 

Tomorrow will be my last day at KPPSP. Thursday morning I will leave as early as possible to make my way south to Everglades National Park. I have a reservation for the Flamingo Campground at the southern tip of the park, but it isn't a site-specific booking and campsites are allotted first come, first serve after arrival. I've begun to take a look at where to head after the Everglades, but Florida is well booked with snowbirds. The season ends mid-April and then most state parks don't take reservations anymore and everything becomes "walk-in". I've been watching the temperatures in Texas and I really want to be heading that direction by April.

All the best, M

Friday, March 10, 2017

#31 - Friday, 10 March 2017 - Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida

Well, it’s been a minute since I’ve blogged. I don’t even know where to begin a “catch up” so this will be a hyper-abridged Reader’s Digest Cliff Notes recount of life for one dude, one parrot, four tarantulas and 16 wheels.

Borneo and Malaysia was an amazing adventure. I was so happy to spend time with Mark, Kim, Brandon and 14 others. Then again, that’s at least 14 people too many for me. The sweltering heat and humidity was oppressive and I was finally glad to head home to where my clothes wouldn’t be constantly soaked with my salty sweat. The journey home sucked monkey ass. I am far too large and far too incapable of sleeping other than in a dark bed to be confined to a laugh of a seat surrounded by people who have never bought deodorant and their bawling babies. 24 hours in a plane over 36 hours and I arrived back at O’Hare in Chicago a hot mess. I had two days to recover before I would start my drive back to Florida. And, of course, I had things to organize and prepare despite the crushing effects of jet lag, an aching head and body, and fucked up inner ears.

One concern was that this trip would be for an indefinite amount of time. Another was that my crazy parrot Jesse would finally be accompanying me. A last minute challenge was the fact that I was reminded that I still owned four tarantulas and they were hidden away on the top shelf of a closet in Lisa’s house of Plenty.

Fast forward. I drove. I arrived in Chattanooga on the first night and crashed in a hotel. My ears were still buggered and the elevation changes in the mountains of southeastern Tennessee had them popping and stuffed. The next day I drove to pick up my Wheelhouse from storage outside of Ocala. By the time I arrived it was mid afternoon and I discovered the two batteries that power the RV when it isn’t connected to 30 amp service were drained. I should have disconnected before leaving for a month. My truck has a 110V outlet and the connection to the RV is a smart cable that charges batteries while operating the lights and brakes so I could have just connected and waited for hours and hours, but I couldn’t move the RV until I could retract the stabilizers and the tongue jack. So I headed into town and found an auto parts store to buy a battery charger. That is something that was on the list to buy from the start but was overlooked. Back to storage, plug in charger and back to work.

I had no place in mind to overnight and had planned to just crash in a truck stop or Wal-Mart parking lot or something. But after charging the batteries and hitching up and getting underway I was overcome by exhaustion. Jet lag was still in full force and the efforts with the RV had left me dead. I started heading south toward my final destination at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, but soon pulled over and looked for the closest cheap motel. I found a Days Inn at the head of the Florida Turnpike and checked in to die.

The next morning I left early and headed down the turnpike toward the state park. I had loads of time so I stopped at each services and relaxed with a drink and caught up on email and social media. When I finally arrived at the park at lunch time I discovered that I was one day early. My five night reservation didn’t begin until the following day. I got lucky, though, and they had one campsite available. I had to wait until the occupant checked out, so I took a little hike and found a marshy area full of baby alligators.

One night in the Family Campground and then I moved the Wheelhouse to site 32 in the Equestrian Campground. I prefer the latter, although the former has better cell reception. The equestrian is mostly just RVs and tent campers, but it has a few corrals adjacent to it where those who bring horses can let them graze. The trails in this state park are “multi-purpose” and can be used by horses, hikers or bikers.

Last night was the last of my five nights at this site and that means I’ve been here for six nights already. However, I love this park and the weather has been fabulous. Each morning in the equestrian camp I have been visited by wild turkey. The tom is elusive, but I have heard him each morning and one he emerged and displayed. Unfortunately, my images of him are disappointing. As I type this, the group of twelve or so hens and one young male is pecking around my site. I’ve been hiking and photographing, but also just relaxing and reading and watching movies. I finished a catalog I had been designing for my former employer in Seattle. I am now working on the March issue of the Journal of the British Tarantula Society. Today I was supposed to leave Kissimmee Prairie, but I was able to book a site in the family campground for six more nights, which would take me up to my reservation on the 16th in the Flamingo Campground at the southern tip of Everglades National Park. I’ll be there for five nights and then reassess how much time I want to stay in Florida and if I want to visit any other sites. By the month’s end I will head back north to Georgia and then start west.

Jesse is now a pikey too. I left her cage at Joel’s house and she spent the first four days in her travel cage. She only slept inside her big cage and spent all waking hours on the top playground, so I decided to buy her a new play stand for the RV. I finally assembled it a couple days ago and she now has an unconfined space. This morning I woke to a strange sound and found her next to the bed sleeping. The piles of shit around her proved she had been there for some time. She didn’t do that the first couple nights, but I may have to use the enclosure of the travel cage for her to sleep in at night.

All the best, MJ