SUNNY Florida

Maybe we should just call ourselves the rainmakers.

No, it’s not all like that. We arrived in Jacksonville on a warm and sunny day. We went straight to Blackfly Outfitters. My aunt and uncle, Jean and Vaughn Cochran, own this awesome fly shop, as well as the Blackfly Cafe next door. We met most everybody, including Rapha and Taylor, Jean and Vaughn’s labradoodles.

It was so wonderful to see my Aunt Jean again. She might not know it, but she’s been one of the more influential people in my life. I was pretty young when I learned that Jean backpacked across South America with her first husband, Dan. That trip lasted eight months. It was a light bulb moment for me. I mean, I knew there was a world outside of Franklin Park, of course. But the people exploring it were big names like Jacques Cousteau or Jack Hanna. Travel was something other people did. Not people like me. Then I heard about Jean’s trip. I dunno, maybe it’s hard to explain. But that trip is what made me want to travel.

Jean and Vaughn have lived all over the Carribbean – Mexico, Costa Rica, the Florida Keys. Vaughn is a flyfishing guide and artist (check out his work here).They settled in Jacksonville a few years back, and Blackfly Outfitters has become the premier fly shop for northern Florida.

The cafe is pretty new, but I’ve seen the concept before – a bike shop with an attached bar, for example. Jean and Vaughn treated us to lunch, which was delicious.

The very next night, we were treated to dinner at their other restaurant (yeah – the Cochrans are a busy couple), Blackfly – the Restaurant. And what a treat! All our food was amazing. It was fun to watch Michael talk shop with Jean and Vaughn. It’s been months since he’s worked in a kitchen but he still has that passion for food.

We set up shop on the Cochran’s 2.5 acre property. Bailey had so much fun playing with Rapha and Taylor – it’s like he was in doggie heaven. Elvis was his usual grumpy self, although I did catch him playing with the other dogs a few times.

I scored us a couple of nights at Anastasia State Park, and while paying for camping is generally not in the budget, I was pretty sure this is what would happen in Florida during the height of the tourist season. $28/night is actually quite reasonable, considering that each site has water and electric hookups, and there are bathrooms with running water (and flushing toilets, and showers!) walking distance away.

We knew there was some weather coming in. As in, a 70% chance of rain. But we held out hope for that 30% of not-rain. And it almost worked. The rain held off until we’d finished setting up (including the annex!). And then it was a torrential downpour. We hung out in the tent and watched a movie. The dogs hung out in the annex and slept.

After about 2 hours the rain finally let up. It was 9:30 and I was not ready for bed, and neither was Michael, so we leashed up the dogs and went for a walk.

We walked the entire campsite – every loop. Kinda nice to see other people’s setups. A mix of everything, really. Tents, pop-up campers, fifth wheels, Winnebagos, and even a few camper vans.

The next morning started out sunny, and I thought we were in the clear. But around 9am it started to rain, and that continued, on and off, for about the next six hours. Damn. We hung out at camp, enjoying out time under the Noah’s tarp. It’s hard to complain too much when it’s 70 degrees outside. Still – that afternoon seemed to be the end of it. We went for a walk on the beach. It was windy but beautiful. And that beach goes on for miles.

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It didn’t rain that night, and the next morning was so nice that I was able to take some pictures of our campsite.

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We also took another walk on the beach, this time to the St. Augustine Pier.

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Back at the Cochran’s for the weekend, I started trolling the Florida State Parks website. And it paid off! I was able to get us two nights at Jonathan Dickerson State Park, followed by one night at Bahia Honda State Park, followed by one night at Long Key State Park. I’m not sure which one of the Keys sites I’m more excited about. Bahia Honda is legendary. I mean, just check out these pictures! But then, our site at Long Key State Park is right on the water. Can you believe that? For $38.50 we get to camp right on the water.

I can’t believe how excited I am. And I checked the weather report for next week: so far so good…

 

Warmer Florida

Yeah, I know. I don’t get to complain about cold weather in Florida. But Pensacola was chilly one day, warm the next. So we were pretty happy to see a steady warming trend as we headed east.

Our second night at Basin Bayou, part of Eglin AFB, was a lot warmer than the first. We even got this fabulous sunset:

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Nearby to this site is a Navy Ordinance Disposal Site, and apparently Fridays is the day they blow shit up. While making breakfast the morning of the 17th, we heard this series of thuds – pretty distinctive, you know, not thunder or anything. Michael was the one who put two and two together. It didn’t last long, but was pretty cool.

Have I included any other pictures of this amazing site?

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We even saw an osprey nest.

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I heard these two calling and found their tree right on the water. I took this photo with a 150mm zoom lens…. so they were pretty close.

After breakfast we packed up, leaving a few things behind to mark the site as ours, and headed towards Destin. We actually ended up at Miramar Beach, which was supposedly dog friendly but really wasn’t.

We chatted up a local who told us that in order to have your dog on the beach, you need a special tag. The city issues these tags once a year. In August.

So we walked the dogs for a bit, made sure they had water and the windows on the topper were wide open, and went to the beach. It was a gorgeous day – temps in the low 70’s and sunny. We played frisbee for a while (even with a Walton County Sheriff’s deputy!), took a break by getting in the water (it was cold), took a food break, walked the dogs, and played some more frisbee. Michael called his friend Steve Milligan, and this exchange between them was pure gold:

Milligan: So glad it’s Friday.

Michael: Wait. What day is it?

Milligan: Fuck you.

After our day at the beach (I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that soft, white sand) we made a supply run for dog food. After our experiences in the rural west, it’s a little weird being back in civilization. Things are so spread out in places like Idaho and Utah. Finding dog food was an adventure in and of itself, so when we found what we needed (Elvis is on a limited ingredient diet) we tended to buy as much as we could fit in the truck. Even Moab, one of the biggest towns in southeast Utah, doesn’t have a PetSmart. For the big box stores you generally have to drive 2 hours to Grand Junction.

Seems like there’s a strip mall full of all the big box stores every 50 miles here in Florida. Still, it’s been hard to break that “buy it now!” mentality.

Saturday we continued on east. And Milligan’s taunt kind of came back to haunt us. See, the problem with not remembering what day it is… means that occasionally you’ll turn up at a popular place like Panama City Beach, and not be able to figure out why it’s so damn crowded.

Until you realize its Saturday. On a holiday weekend.

Needless to say we did not stop in PCB, other than to restock at the Wal-Mart. We moved on to a site outside of Apalachicola, in Tate’s Hell WMA. The site was called Cash Creek but I know why they call it Tate’s Hell. Although maybe they should call it Tater’s Hell.

Cash Creek is more of a swamp than a creek. And with all that standing water… yep, it was mosquito city. Too bad – in all other ways, Cash Creek was a nice site. Flat, quiet, with a fire ring and everything. The fire definitely helped keep the skeeters away. But Cash Creek is where we learned that the roof top tent is most definitely not bug proof. Definitely something we need to address, particularly when we get to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska later this year.

Moving on from Tate’s Hell, we discovered a sweet little spot: Carrabelle Beach. More of that soft, white sand. And it seemed dog friendly! We walked Bailey and Elvis down to one end, away from everyone, and let them off leash to play. Once the dogs were worn out, I went for a barefoot run on the beach and Michael went for a sandbag workout. It was a Florida day we had been dreaming of – sunny, a light breeze, and perfect temperatures.

At some point I looked at my watch and saw that it was 1:30. We still had 3 hours to drive to our next site, West Tower, on the edge of Osceola National Forest. Time to get moving.

West Tower is definitely a unique little site. It’s all dispersed camping, and it’s free, but there is a campground host. There’s also a bathroom with a flush toilet and a sink with running water. Even a spigot of potable water, so we could fill up our containers.

Biggest bonus: a shower. Cold water only, but it’s impossible to complain about that on a nice warm day. This was the first time I’ve voluntarily taken a cold shower in… well, ever. Let’s just say it was pretty brisk. But it was lovely to not stink anymore, and to have clean hair.

The downside to this site? Dogs. Hunting dogs, and lots of them. See, across the dirt road from West Tower are three houses, kind of spread out. The campground host told us that between those three houses there were a total of 70 dogs. They didn’t bark all night long – but on those occasions that they got going, well, it was pretty loud.

Next post: we FINALLY reach Jacksonville.

Getting to Florida

Onward towards Florida. After our adventure with the tick we packed up and headed in to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This town is home to the University of Alabama, so Crimson Tide signs were everywhere. We stopped by a cool little coffee shop called Heritage Coffee (which made me love Tuscaloosa immediately) and stocked up at the Winn-Dixie.

Michael plotted that day’s campsite – a place called Silver Creek Park. Another lake maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, like Blue Creek Park. Anyway, we followed Google Maps to get there, and let me tell you it was sketchy AF. Good thing we had 1 bar of service on the phone – it was the only way to tell where we were. Seriously – we were driving down a series of logging roads and none of them were marked. This went on for 14 miles.

Just when I thought we might be totally lost, we popped out onto a paved road, with a big fat sign that said Silver Creek Park.

Silver Creek Park was a really sweet site. Level, with fire rings and trash cans. Quiet and remote – we were near a boat launch and right on the water. The owls and bullfrogs were pretty vocal that night. It was wonderful.

Valentine’s day took us through rural Alabama and into Florida…The Deep South. We crossed the Florida state line without any fanfare and went straight to Pensacola Beach.

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Personally, I love the little sign at the bottom that says, ‘Open for business.’

The sand there is like powdered sugar. So soft and easy on the feet! Dogs were not allowed on the beach, so we walked them around the parking lot before heading out to the sand. We saw a dolphin and an osprey, so that was cool. Then we played a little frisbee before making dinner.

We camped that night at Mystic Springs WMA, which stands for Water Management Area. This was a free site and it was about 40 minutes from Pensacola. It was fairly isolated, although we got 3 bars of cell phone reception there, and dark. It was not very quiet, though.

We seemed to be part of the flight path for helicopters. For a while there they were going directly over Mystic Springs WMA about every 15 minutes. Then there were the trains. Now, the tracks/crossing for the train was a good couple of miles from the campground, but the requisite whistle-blasts at 3am still registered.

February 15th we finally made it to the National Naval Aviation Museum.

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I love places like this and still can’t believe it was free to get in. So many planes!

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I did get a couple of funny looks at the museum, though. See, it wasn’t exactly warm in Pensacola. So I was wearing wool tights, a wool skirt, a t-shirt, and a jacket. Michael started calling me Nanook of the South.

After leaving Pensacola behind we headed east towards Niceville via the outer island. It was a fabulous day – I was finally able to put on shorts! And the beach we randomly stopped at just happened to be dog friendly so the boys got their first taste of the ocean. They did not like the taste of the ocean. (It was like watching a baby try lemon for the first time.) Bailey even found another dog to play with. It was actually pretty nice to get to wear them out a bit. They’ve been spending too much time in the back of the truck.

In Niceville we broke our streak of never paying for a campsite. But – how many people get to say they camped on an active Air Force Base? For just $5 a night?

That’s right, we camped at Eglin AFB, at a site called Basin Bayou. This was an amazing campsite. Right on the water, with moss in the trees, a little breeze each day to keep the bugs away, and no neighbors. I found a couple of new ways to set up the Revel Gear lights.

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Sitting at our Basin Bayou camp, snuggled up next to a campfire, I know that I lead a charmed life. And I am so grateful.

The Deep South

We headed out of our Mississippi campground on Sunday, February 12th. We stopped in Tupelo long enough to go to Starbucks (it was the only coffee shop open, so don’t judge) so that I could work on the blog and Michael could chart our course towards Florida. The place: Blue Creek Park,outside of Windham Springs, Alabama.

Blue Creek Park is part of a big lake created by Bankhead Dam. It’s pretty, and pretty remote. No cell service. There were a few places to camp but we were the only ones here, so we had our choice. We picked a site that was way up above the lake, with a big fire ring.

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We could see the lake and the spillway for the dam from our tent. It was lovely.

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Michael and I made a nice fire, and then we decided to play Scrabble. (We picked up the “travel” version, where the tiles kind of lock onto the board.) We started out pretty even but in the end he annihilated me. Anyway. Maybe 10 minutes into the game, Bailey was getting a little needy so I asked him if he wanted to go to bed. He jumped up into the back of the truck. From where we were sitting, Bailey and the truck were about five feet behind us. (Elvis was asleep under the truck already.)

A little while after Bailey went into the truck, I heard him make this “boof” sound, followed by a low growl. I turned to see what was up, and he was staring intently off into the darkness. I turned my headlamp on in the direction of his stare. I didn’t see anything.

Then I heard it. Something moving on the ground, rustling through the leaves.

Now, at this point I feel the need to mention that I have a tendency to grossly over-estimate the size of an animal I hear rustling through the leaves. While admitting this is somewhat mortifying, I feel it illustrates the rest of the story well.

When we first arrived in Fayetteville and used to go running regularly at Mount Kessler, I’d freak out all the damn time. It went something like this:

me: *running through the woods, trying not to trip*

me: *hears rustling noise in leaves*

me: oh my god is that a mountain li-

me: oh. It’s a squirrel.

So – imagine me at Blue Creek Park, hearing something making its way up the hillside towards us. I was determined not to say that it was a mountain lion. They don’t live in Alabama, anyway. Now, this area we were in was actually on the edge of a steep hillside, so there was a fence that ran along it. I actually took a picture of it the next day just so I could show you what I’m talking about:

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Back to the story. As the rustling noise continued, I got up and walked over towards the fence. I couldn’t see anything but something was indeed walking up that slope towards us at a steady, unhurried pace.

I waited. Watched. Then I saw something emerge through the trees. Grey, small, with the standard beady little eyes. Opossum? I stood up on a little tree stump to get a better view over the fence.

It was an armadillo. I’d never seen a live one before – just as pictures or as roadkill. So I said (to Michael), all excited – “it’s an armadillo!”

And I scared the shit out of that poor thing. It uttered a little squeak and all 4 feet left the ground as it jumped. Then it bolted – and ran headfirst into the fence.

Oops. Sorry, little armadillo.

It was a wonderful night and I slept well. I missed the tent and my sleeping bag. Monday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, I went to change clothes before we broke down the tent. I pulled off my shirt, looked down… and saw this black splotch on my torso, just below my ribcage. Closer examination showed that this splotch looked a lot like a bug, but without a head.

Without a head… because the head was buried in my skin. It was a tick!

Another one that’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I freaked out a little. When I told Michael I had a tick on me, it was all I could do to not holler at him, “get it off get it off get it OFF!” Ticks carry lyme disease and/or other nasty things. And I think they are gross.

A later internet search showed that this was a Lone Star Tick. “Lone Star are aggressive ticks and are known to move long distances in pursuit of the host.” (Source: tickinfo.com.) Not sure if I should be flattered or not.

As usual though, Michael was cool as a cucumber. He found the tweezers and pulled the tick out. There was no blood so it hadn’t even started feeding yet. When we were done and I breathed this huge sigh of relief, Michael said to me “what, you’ve never had a tick on you before?”

Baby, I’m a surburbia kid. We sure as hell didn’t have ticks in Franklin Park, Illinois.

But Michael grew up in northwest Arkansas. He said it was super common to go home after playing in the woods all day and pull off 5 or 6 ticks. NBD, in other words.

Well. At least I know to look for ticks every day now.

Three states in one day?

The south makes some interesting things possible… Like crossing through three states in one day, and still having time to set up camp before dark. Here’s the recap for the weekend of February 10th:

We arrived in Hot Springs, AR on Thursday night, and Aunt Theresa proceeded to thoroughly spoil both dogs. See, Uncle Richard’s brother visits sometimes, and he brings his dogs, so Theresa bought these fleecy rugs for the dogs to lie on. She brought them out for our dogs, and Elvis was just in heaven. Those rugs were his favorite place to sleep. (He’s old, so he sleeps a lot.)

We spent Friday (the 10th) in the town of Hot Springs. After figuring out the max height of the rig (it’s just shy of 8 feet, and we found that out by very slowly driving into the parking garage with an 8 foot clearance), we enjoyed a soak at the Quapaw Baths. This place was really fun. I haven’t been to an indoor hot spring before, and the Quapaw was quite beautiful, with stained glass ceilings and tiled floors. There are a total of four pools, rated at 95, 98, 102, and 104 degrees. We tried them all.

Friendly staff was on hand to give out free spring water, although one woman did give me a hard time about my swim top. It’s an old, stretched out triathlon top, but it’s not a sport bra, I swear!

Anyway. We had a wonderful soak, then collected the dogs to take a walk on The Grand Promenade. Back in the day, people used to get dressed up in their “peacock finery” (NPS’s words, not mine!) to stroll the Promenade in between soaks. Not sure my second-hand jeans and t-shirt count as finery, but whatever. We all enjoyed ourselves. Along the Promenade we got to see the source of all of the baths, where the water comes out of the ground at 140 degrees.

We also checked out the Arlington Hotel, which was apparently Al Capone’s favorite, before going for a short drive along Tower Mountain. At the end we filled our water containers with delicious (and free!) Hot Springs water. Don’t worry, at the filling stations the water’s cold.

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We checked out Bridge Street, one of the shortest streets in America, and home to the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

I know it’s hard to read with the glare, but the poster says that 6:25pm is the official measuring of the parade route… and the parade begins at 6:30.

(Also, Ric Flair is the Parade Starter and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders will be there!)

So what does Bridge Street look like?

Bridge Street

Yep. I’m trying to imagine the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders here.

Anyway. Saturday we got underway towards Florida. Many, many thanks to Richard and Theresa for hosting us during our stay in Hot Springs, feeding us, and shoving food into our hands as we packed up “for the road.” You saved us from an extra trip to the grocery store!

We made it to Memphis around 1pm, and thanks to a recommendation from our friend Barton, we went to Rendezvous for lunch. This cavernous BBQ place has an alley entrance and is a Memphis institution. For good reason – the ribs were delicious, as were the baked beans and the coleslaw. I was so excited to have slaw that’s based in vinegar instead of mayonnaise. Tangy and not too sweet, it was love at first bite.

After polishing off our rib plates, we took a walk down to Beale Street. I somehow expected this area to be… bigger. And while Beale does continue past the entertainment district, the actual entertainment district (with all the bars and BBQ joints) is only about 2 blocks long. It was fun to see, though.

We camped on Saturday at a place called Graham Lake. There were about 6 free sites there, and while it wasn’t the cleanest it was pretty quiet there. We found Graham Lake from a website called FreeCampsites.net, which so far has been one of the most helpful websites ever. All the sites are rated so you can decide for yourself if you want to stay there or not, before driving out. Some of them – like Graham Lake – are actually kind of remote.

Graham Lake Camp

After a quiet night, we packed up camp – it’s like riding a bicycle, it all came back to us quickly, in spite of not setting up the tent in about three months.

It’s nice to be back on the road.

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to this blog. You’ll get an email notification whenever a new post goes up. You can also follow us on Instagram! Michael does most of the posting there, so you can get a little different perspective on things.

Things I will miss about Fayetteville

We closed the door on the house on Township Road for the last time on Tuesday. The junk removal people came around 11 and cleared out what was left in the house. After they pulled away we spent a couple of hours packing up the the truck. You might have seen our post on Instagram – we’re on there as (what else?) gogotaconegro.

After four or five “final sweeps” of the house, we were certain that we had everything and went out the carport door for the last time. I’m not usually sentimental about houses, but I know this was a good house and lots of great memories were created there.

After three months in town, I can share a few things I will miss about Fayetteville:

1. CrossFit Commence. Is this any surprise? I got hooked on Crossfit back in Colorado and I was excited to find a gym here. Little did I know Michael and I joined the best Crossfit box in Northwest Arkansas! I looked forward to every single class – even the ones with burpees. The workouts were constantly varied and always a challenge. I’ll miss coaches Emily and Buster, and I’ll miss all the people I worked out with. Crossfit truly is a community… our next box has a lot to live up to.

In particular I will miss Beth Allison as a coach. I’ve worked out next to her and she’s a pint-sized powerhouse. I aspire to lift as heavy as she does. But as a coach she’s one of the best. I work harder under her watchful eye – and she’s motivational! How to explain it? When I drop the bar after 5 of my ten reps, she’s right there, saying “pick it up. Do three.” Following her advice, I’ve lifted more and worked harder than I thought possible.

I was sad that Wednesday was our last workout at Crossfit Commence. But when we arrived I was delighted to find back squats AND deadlifts on the WOD. Emily suggested Buster had done that on purpose, which is awesome and sweet, because I love deadlifts. It was a great send-off and I’m happy to say I did a few of my DLs at 125 lbs.

2. Onyx Coffee Lab. I have to admit that Red Kite Coffee and Arsaga’s are a close second, and the actual coffee lab (at Township and Gregg) is generally full of hipsters, but Onyx coffee is just plain excellent. They do a cold brew that Michael has been buying by the growler.

Also, Onyx has one of the best signs in Fayetteville.

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Lest you think we will have to suffer coffee withdrawal as we travel, Buster and Emily gave us a pound of Onyx coffee as a going-away present, and my parents are standing by to ship us coffee from a roaster they have up in Michigan.

3. Kessler Mountain. A wonderful trail system that’s great for mountain biking, hiking, and trail running. Before the bad weather of winter set in, we were running there weekly. Although I’ll never understand why the trees removed in the middle of the path weren’t completely removed. There was usually a stump – oh, say, about 4 inches tall – left of the tree. In the middle of the trail. I never saw them, but until I learned to pick up my feet, I found them. Repeatedly.

4. I’ll miss spending time with our friends here, like Barton and Andrea (who generously let us crash at their house after the Township house sold), and Mark and Sherene, who live in a gorgeous cabin in the middle of nowhere (mailing address: Ozone, AR) with their chickens, sheep, dogs, and cats.

5. I will miss sunrises like this:

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But in general I won’t miss the weather, which had a tendency to be “disagreeable,” as my mother-in-law likes to say. I mean, the day of the picture above turned out to be completely overcast and cold. Lots of days were like that here: cloudy, cold, sometimes rainy. But rarely sunny. Of course, now – now that we’re leaving – it’s sunny and warm. The other day it was 75 degrees. Downright agreeable!

But onward we must go. Listen, Fayetteville: it’s been real, it’s been fun… and occasionally, it’s been real fun.