And The Adventures Just Keep Coming

After all that beach camping in Florida (which you can read about here and here), I was pretty excited at the opportunity to do it in Texas, and for free. I’ve mentioned FreeCampsites.net before, and they haven’t generally steered us wrong.

Well.

Here’s the link so you can read the descriptions for yourself, if you like, but here’s the gist of it:

“Free beach camping on the edge of defunct Texas Highway 87 on the Bolivar Peninsula near High Island, TX Where the road ends. Free, beach camping. From here to Sea Rim State Park, storm surge from Hurricane Jerry destroyed Texas Highway 87 in 1990. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the last time. There are still no plans to rebuild it, ever. The first few miles are driveable in any rig.”

Most people describe this site pretty kick-ass. And when we arrived (on a Friday night), the place was pretty full at the start, but people thinned out fairly quickly. Apparently High Island Beach is also a nudist beach. All the naked people smiled and waved as we passed by.

We did pick a spot eventually, although I was worried about high tide. Like idiots we didn’t consult a tide chart before starting out and I was not convinced that we were parked above the high tide line. Cell service was spotty but eventually I was able to see that we’d arrived at low tide – and the next high tide wasn’t until about 3pm the next afternoon, by which time we planned to be gone.

So we set up as the sun set. The wind off the ocean was really strong and after a while all our stuff was coated in a salt spray. It sure looked cool, though.

GoGoTacoNegro

The craziness started right after sunset. We were fine on the ocean side of the rig, because that’s where the wind was blowing. The leeward side was a whole ‘nuther story: it was covered in mosquitoes. A swarm. A black, moving wall of skeeters. They swarmed inside the cab. They swarmed inside the topper.

I’ve seen less skeeters in a swamp.

We tried to wait it out. Mosquitoes are most active right at dusk, so most of the swarm should have moved off after full dark.

No such luck. At 8:45 – full dark – the swarm was still active and not looking like they were going anywhere anytime soon. We loaded everything we’d need for the night through the tent window on the driver’s side. Then Michael went at the entrance with bug spray, shaking the sides of the tent too, to get the swarm to move on. When the coast was pretty clear I went for it. Michael then repeated the process when loading up the dogs in the back, and one more time for himself.

The miraculous thing: there wasn’t a single skeeter in the tent. And by morning, there were only 4 or 5. Unfortunately, there is no way to keep any bugs out of the topper, so all I could do was feel bad for the dogs.

I slept pretty well and stayed in the tent until well past sunrise. See, that wonderful wind had died off over night, and now there were mosquitoes all over our tent. Amazingly, the dogs seemed no worse for wear, sleeping in a topper full of skeeters.

No breakfast, no coffee. Michael and I doused ourselves in bug spray and then packed up the tent. We drove 10 miles to Winnie, Texas, where we found a car wash to clean that salt water off Taco Negro. Luckily (?) there was a Waffle House right next to the Interstate.

And that was our experience with free beach camping in Texas.

As we headed west on I-10, I talked about letting the visit to Big Bend National Park go. It sounds stupid, but I think I just forgot how HUGE Texas is. Everything is so much further apart than I planned for. Now, the whole reason I wanted to go to Big Bend is because it’s so remote, and it has some of the darkest skies in North America.

But there was no free camping along the way. And driving so much (even with gas around $2/gallon) is destroying the budget. So we were going to go waaay out of our way, to pay to camp, and then drive all the way back to New Mexico.

By the time we reached the outskirts of San Antonio the decision was made: no Big Bend. Maybe next time. We camped that night at a rest stop outside of Kerrville, and it was actually quite nice. On the top of a little hill, we had a pretty view of the sunset. And no mosquitoes.

Apparently it’s a thing to do now, “camp” at rest stops. When I was a kid this was a definite no-no, but if you recall, the 1980’s was the era of the serial killer. Apparently serial killers trolled highway rest stops? My memory’s a little fuzzy on that part. But when I traveled solo back in the mid-90’s, I never once slept at a highway rest stop. My dad would have read me the riot act for even trying.

Now, most of the highway rest stops boast nighttime security. The site outside Kerrville was full by 10pm. RVs, passenger cars, big rigs. We were the only roof-top tent, though, and we did get a lot of stares.

In the morning we had a new goal: getting the hell out of Texas.

Battleships and Southern Cooking

Our first post-Florida destination was actually pretty close by: the USS Alabama, moored at Battleship Park in Mobile, Alabama. I visited here once, a long time back, but Michael has never been on a battleship before.

GoGoTacoNegro

Let’s just say this place was awesome. I especially loved the boiler and engine rooms. Ships like this strike me as a feat of engineering, really.

We also toured their aircraft hanger as well as the submarine USS Drum. Touring the sub was a little harder – it was crowded. Kinda hard to complain though, as when the USS Drum was at sea she had a crew of 75 men.

I had a hard time imagining 75 people crammed into that space.

After all that ship touring, we were starving. So we took a recommendation from our friend Eric Wiggs and headed into Mobile, to Mary’s Southern Cooking. I’d add a link but there is no website to this old-school meat-plus-three, cafeteria-style restaurant. Eric actually sent us this article listing places to eat in Alabama, and the description for Mary’s is pretty spot-on.

We both went for the fried chicken dinner, and I had mine with candied yams, corn on the cob, and red beans that were so creamy I initially thought they were refried beans. The lady behind the counter must’ve thought I was an idiot. The meal included three pieces of fried chicken as well as a piece of cornbread. For $9.

It was enough food for a small army. It was also delicious. I had once piece of fried chicken leftover, which made for a fabulous snack the next day.

We drove on to Mississippi, spending the night in what turned out to be an illegal campsite. We thought it was free, but the friendly law enforcement officer politely told as (as we were packing up the next morning) that we were camped on a Wildlife Management Area, and that you needed a $15 permit just to drive in there. Also, it was turkey hunting season so dogs were not allowed.

Too bad, it was a really great site.

GoGoTacoNegro

Well. We kept to the coast for a while, and I was a little surprised when we passed though Biloxi, MS. I know a lot can change in 20 years (I passed through here last in 1996), but Biloxi is now like Las Vegas on the Gulf Coast. Casinos like Hard Rock, Harrah’s, and more lined the highway.

We passed into Louisiana and drove a lot of the southern part of the state before settling at a visitor’s center along I-10, in the middle of the Atchafalaya Basin. This basin is the largest river swamp in the entire world, and the I-10 bridge across it seems to go on forever.

In the morning we asked the staff at the visitor’s center for help in finding us an authentic Louisana Crawfish Boil. Michael went to one once, in New Orleans, a long time ago. Once we hit Florida he kept bringing up how he wanted to do it again, and we were going to be right there in Louisiana, so….

We were in luck. The staff recommended Steamboat Bill’s in Lake Charles. They also said right now was the peak season for crawfish. Perfect!

I figured we needed to work up an appetite first, so along the way we stopped at Prien Lake Park. I went for a run and Michael went for a ruck. It was really hot and humid, and by the time I finished my third lap by the lake I was ready to jump in. Time for lunch!

I have to admit I was a little worried about this whole crawfish-boil thing. I like to think of myself as an adventuresome person, but I have my limits. Would crawfish be beyond my limits? Michael said to me, “I’ve seen you go to town on peel-and-eat shrimp. You’ll love this.”

GoGoTacoNegro

It was definitely a new experience, peering down at a giant serving tray of full crawfish, with their beady little eyes and everything.

Michael had to give me instructions on how to eat them. After cracking them in half, you toss the head.

Wait, you throw away half of this thing?

Well, apparently you can “suck the head,” Michael said with a smile. “Some people like it.”

I tossed the head.

 

It took a few tries to get my technique down, pulling out that delicious tail meat. I think Michael ate a lot more of our 5-pound plate than I did. That’s OK, because we also shared an order of Boudin Balls as well as an appetizer-sized gumbo with chicken and sausage.

Both of us have said, throughout this trip, that we want to spend our money on experiences and not things.

The crawfish boil was definitely an experience.

 

 

Time for some adventures

After south Florida and the Everglades, our next stop was Bonita Springs. We had a wonderful weekend there with Michael’s Uncle Carl and Aunt Clara, who graciously gave us a place to sleep, fed us delicious food, and even let us do laundry.

On Sunday (March 12th) we decided to take the dogs to the Bonita Springs dog park – the only off-leash dog park in the area. I’d seen a few negative reviews on a site called BringFido.com) but most of the complaints were from people with small dogs, so we decided to go anyway.

Normally you can walk out to this dog beach, which is actually a sandbar, but we arrived at high tide so we had to wade. And it was Sunday, during peak season for the area, so the dog beach was crazy busy. Lots of dogs, lots of people. Some of them arrived by boat.

It was a little too much for Elvis. He spent a lot of time looking lost. And we couldn’t convince him that the sandbar was a thing. As we were wading along the water started to get deeper. We could see that it got shallower after maybe 10 feet, but Elvis didn’t see it that way. He kept turning back for the shore. So we hung out in the shallow water, which was fine. Bailey had an absolute blast. We used the Chuckit and wore him out in about 20 minutes.

Passing back through the beach area of Bonita Springs, we snagged a free, shaded parking spot. So we left the dogs in the back with a bowl of water and went for a walk on the sand. It’s a wonderful beach, too. Goes on for miles. The water was nice and clear and we went for a dip at some point before heading back.

As we entered the parking lot I could see an Animal Control car parked right in front of Taco Negro. The Animal Control officer was standing next to the topper and a Sheriff’s deputy stood right next to her.

Well, shit.

We approached and introduced ourselves. The Animal Control officer said they’d received a complaint about our dogs being in distress. The Sheriff’s Deputy said the person who called said the dogs were “panting heavily” and “drenched in sweat.”

Then the Deputy said, “Look, I know that dogs don’t sweat, so I figured the dogs had just been up to the dog park. Is that right?”

Yes, indeed. The Animal Control officer added that when she arrived, both dogs were asleep.

They had already taken a temperature reading of the inside of the topper – about 75 degrees. So we were assured that we hadn’t done anything wrong, but still received a bit of a lecture about the dangers of leaving a dog in a hot car. Everyone was really quite friendly and polite. Still, it’s always a bad feeling when you find two law enforcement officers standing in front of your vehicle.

Monday the 14th we made our way out of Bonita Springs. Our destination was a paid campsite near Cedar Key, called Shell Mound. Primitive campsites (no water or electricity) were just $5. It was raining when we arrived, so we quickly set up the tent and ate dinner. We climbed up into the tent around 8:30, and I was asleep by 9:30.

I woke up at 3am to a howling wind and rain storm. The first thing I did was peek out the door at the two guylines. See, the way the tent works, those guylines are what keep the tent from accordioning into itself while we’re inside. I found pictures from an older campsite to try and illustrate:

GoGoTacoNegro
Arrow added for emphasis

The guylines attach to the main awning and are staked into the ground. Or, if we’re camped on something like soft sand, we tie the guylines to our handy GoRuck sandbags.

GoGoTacoNegro

Unlike the campground above, Shell Mound had a nice, dirt/grass camping area, so we staked the guylines. During this wind and rain storm I checked those guylines twice and both times they were fine. I may have fallen back asleep – but the next thing I knew I could feel the entire tent shifting, the truck shaking. I haven’t felt wind gusts like this since Moab. I peeked out the door of the tent. Or tried to. The wind was so strong I could barely force that flap open. It was just light enough out there for me to see the awning of the tent flapping in the wind.

At this point I had to wake Michael up. (Have I mentioned that he can sleep through anything?) I told him what was happening. I needed him to sit right inside to the door of the tent, while I went and grabbed the sandbags out of the back of the truck.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t make him go out into the rain and get the sandbags… he weighs more than I do. I zipped up my rain jacket and headed out into the maelstrom. Ooh it was windy. I opened up the back of the truck and pushed our very confused dogs aside. The smaller sandbag weighs 40 lbs so I grabbed it first, then went back for the 60 pounder.

Unfortunately Michael did have to come outside and help. There is a metal stay that keeps the awning taut, and it had popped out of place.

GoGoTacoNegro

It took both of us to wrestle that thing into submission. After snuggling back down into our sleeping bags, Michael went right back to sleep. I read Harry Potter for a while, having just started the first one earlier that day. See, I was out of reading material, and all the Harry Potter books are available on Kindle Unlimited. Any guesses as to how long it will take me to finish all seven? (I read all the Game of Thrones books in three months, if that helps.)

Moving on…

People at Long Key State Park are so friendly. Our neighbor, Patrick, saw our dogs and gave us some great beta: Marathon Key had a dog beach! Cocoa Plum Beach. The dogs had been dealing well with being tied up all the time, but we wanted to give them (Bailey especially) a chance to run.

GoGoTacoNegro

Mission: success.

The next day Michael decided he wanted to go snorkeling. I decided not to join him. Sure, it sounded like fun. But I went on a 3-hour snorkeling trip in the Florida Keys once. I spent about 2+ hours of that trip puking my guts out.

I have some serious motion sickness issues. So I dropped Michael off at the dock on Marathon Key, then I went and did laundry. That didn’t really take all that long (all our clothes fit in one load), so I took the dogs back to Cocoa Plum Beach. The second time around was just as much fun.

When I picked Michael back up, I did get a treat: a manatee! Check that one off the bucket list. But by the time I grabbed my camera, the sea cow was moving on, so all I got was this image of his tail.

GoGoTacoNegro

Friday, March 10th, we finally packed up and left the Keys. It was a sad day. But that morning our neighbor Patrick lent us his kayak. It was low tide, but we both took turns paddling around past the sandbar.

GoGoTacoNegro

Now I can’t decide which I like better, a kayak or a SUP.

Friday afternoon brought us to Michael’s Aunt and Uncle, Clara and Carl, in Bonita Springs. We spent the weekend with them and they spoiled us with great food. We did spend some time in the Everglades, and I can tell you I’d love to come back here and explore this area by kayak or canoe.

But this Everglades adventure involved an airboat. Yep, we went on a Captain Jack’s Airboat Tour, which lasted about an hour. It wasn’t quite what I expected. But then, I’d never been on an airboat before.

GoGoTacoNegro

Those things are loud – some of them really do have an airplane engine on the back, although ours was a car engine. These things are so loud I’m amazed we saw any wildlife at all. Mostly it was a speed tour through a mangrove swamp. It was like speeding through a tunnel.

GoGoTacoNegro

And it was a blast.

Like I said, we did see some wildlife – one gator, and a couple of raccoons.

GoGoTacoNegro

The rest of our boat was filled with German tourists, and they’d never seen a raccoon before. They went on and on about how cute they were. “What do you call them?” they kept asking. I finally answered: “Vermin.”

Our boat captain said that yeah, they’re vermin. But those little hedgehogs that people sometimes keep as pets here in the US? Over in England, hedgehogs are vermin.

Our airboat tour ticket also included admission to this wildlife “sanctuary,” which was actually a small zoo. There were lots of gators, a few crocodiles, as well as a lot of black vultures, although I don’t think they’re part of the sanctuary as they could all fly.

GoGoTacoNegro

I was surprised to see their collection of big cats: a Florida panther, two lions, a tiger, and a Siberian tiger.

I once read this book called The Tiger by John Vaillant, a true story about a man-eating tiger in Russia’s far east, and the men tasking with tracking this tiger down. It’s an excellent read that I recommend highly – Vaillant is a brilliant writer. This book had pictures and while I understood that Siberian tigers were much larger than other tigers, I couldn’t quite grasp just how big they were.

These things are huge.

GoGoTacoNegro

Although, looking at these pictures, I have to admit that something seems a bit off. Like this tiger has been inbred somehow. I mean, he doesn’t look like Kenny (the inbred tiger) but there’s something not quite right in the face.

GoGoTacoNegro

It kind of stands to reason – this is a wildlife sanctuary in Everglades City, Florida. I’m sure these animals were all rescued from some other (worse) situation, not captured from the wild. At least, that’s what I hope.

I would have spent more time with the big cats, but I wanted to see the last alligator show of the day, at 4pm. The show did not disappoint.

GoGoTacoNegro

That’s Levi with Charlie the alligator. Levi told us he was a 9th generation Floridian and had been handling alligators since he was eight years old. “Yes folks,” he told us, “I’ve literally been stupid for my entire life.”

A lot of the stuff he did – like putting his hand inside the gator’s mouth – is possible because of the animal’s narrow field of vision. Charlie couldn’t actually see Levi’s hand, or arm, or even much of Levi. Alligators don’t rely on their eyesight for hunting, instead going by their stronger senses of smell and touch.

GoGoTacoNegro

I didn’t get a picture of the moment he put his face inside the gator’s mouth, but I did watch him wipe the sweat off his face before attempting that move.

Afterward, we got to hold a baby alligator. Well, it was 2 years old, but still. I couldn’t believe how soft it was.

GoGoTacoNegro

My favorite part of this picture is the poster right behind Michael: Hold & Hug an Alligator.

Neither one of us hugged the alligator.

I don’t want to leave.

This recap starts with Sunday, March 5th.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet, but ever since we left Fayetteville I’d been having some problems with my neck and shoulders. As in, I had this giant knot behind my right shoulder blade. I felt it the most then I moved my head up or down. It definitely got worse when we were in St. Augustine and had not improved by the time we hit the Keys.

Michael got online and found me a massage therapist, in Key West, who took appointments on Sundays. We figured we’d spend the rest of the day on Key West. Easy peasy, as the saying goes. My appointment time? 9:30am.

This meant an 8am departure time, which was a little tough, but we made it. Actually we left 10 minutes early. My 60-minute deep tissue massage was wonderful. Painful. Totally worth it. So good, I was kind of out of it for a good 30 minutes afterward.

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t super upset at what happened? As Michael was backing the truck up out of the tiny parking lot and into an alley, he backed up into this hedge, and I heard this horrible sound. I jumped out to see what had happened. Turns out that hedge was hiding a concrete barrier. My bike was the source of that horrible sound. My front wheel now has a broken spoke, plus two bent ones, rendering it unrideable for the time being.

It was an accident, really. How were we to know about that stupid hidden concrete barrier?

Anyway, after that adventure we went for breakfast at Harpoon Harry’s. Cheap and good! Then we checked out the Key West Artist’s market.

GoGoTacoNegro

Lots of jewelry, soaps, woodwork, and handmade chocolate. It was cool. Then we walked around the docks.

GoGoTacoNegro

Michael decided he wanted a Cuban Coffee. These shops are all over the lower Keys – we saw them the whole way down Highway 1. We decided on Cuban Coffee Queen since it was right there on the docks.

GoGoTacoNegro

Michael offered me some. I took one sip and handed it right back. It was soooo sweet! Apparently it’s brewed with sugar. Suffice it to say Michael did not mind not sharing.

We did take a little drive through the rest of the town. We drove past Ernest Hemingway’s house (there was a long line to get in), and the southernmost point bouy (there was an even longer line to get your picture taken with it). We walked the dogs for a bit and then decided to call it a day. We still had that 90-minute drive and we needed to stop at the grocery store along the way.

Back at camp I found another way to set up the Revel Gear lights. Now that we are surrounded by actual trees, there are a lot more possibilities for these solar-powered lights.

GoGoTacoNegro

It was like sitting in a little tree house and this spot became my favorite just about every night. And, as it turned out, we had a lot more nights at Long Key State Park.

Monday morning, we walked the dogs over to the entrance station. When I asked about renewing for site #60, I was asked how many days I wanted. How many can I have? They looked at my paperwork. You’ve been at that site for 2 nights, they said. You can have twelve more. I opened the door to the building, to where Michael stood outside with the dogs (dogs aren’t allowed inside any State Park buildings) and said, we can have 12 days. How many do you want?

All of them, he answered, and the staff couldn’t stop laughing.

We settled on 4 more days, which gave us a departure date of Friday, March 10. Back at camp we got out our receipts and did a little math. See, we have a weekly budget (Sunday through Saturday) that we work very hard to stay on. Generally, we even come under. But between the massage, the day in Key West, groceries, and camping… on Monday we were at 86% of our budget.

Damn.

So like I said, paying for camping is destroying our budget. But we love our site at Long Key. I mean… the views!

GoGoTacoNegro
You could walk out to this sandbar at low tide.

Then there is the wildlife. I’ve seen osprey, egrets, cormorants, stilts, and magnificent frigatebirds. Three bald eagles (one adult and two juveniles). Then there are the lizards. Little geckos are everywhere, but we saw a giant iguana in a tree, too.

Of course, at nights we’ve seen the scavengers – rats and raccoons – but they kind of go with the territory. We’ve dealt with bears, so putting our food away at night just isn’t a big deal.

Other things to love about Long Key: we’re close to a nice grocery story at Marathon Key, and that Marathon also has a nice dog park. We wore the dogs out there the other day.

Monday night we got a special treat: a bluegrass jam!

Well, not really a bluegrass jam, but a music circle all the same. Backing up a step or two: our first night at Long Key, we stayed at site #16. One of our neighbors came over to introduce himself, as he has a red Toyota Tacoma. Tom and his wife Pam spend their winters in southern Florida. Tom was wearing a Telluride Bluegrass Festival t-shirt, and he and Michael got to talking. Turns out Michael knows their son, former daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Further, Tom plays the mandolin.

So we let Tom and Pam know we’d managed to extend our stay, and they told us about a little going-away party for the folks at site #48. They were headed back to Michigan in a few days so they were throwing a pizza party with a music circle afterward.

We skipped the pizza party in favor steak, potatoes, and veggies, but brought our instruments down sometime around 7 or so. The circle was huge! Only about three people were playing. Somebody even found us chairs to sit on. These were all the nicest people. Guitar, mandolin, and ukelele, plus Michael’s mando and my dobro.

After a few songs (mostly country, but I took a few breaks and managed to sound pretty good!), I was asked if I had anything I wanted to sing. I belted out an old Bill Monroe tune called “Can’t You Hear Me Calling.”

Look, I’m not trying to toot my own horn here. I can hold my own as a  singer and I used to sing in a bluegrass band called Steel Pennies. Also, I cut my singing teeth on the Lyons Jam, and that was during that jam’s heydey:

GoGoTacoNegro
This is from an article in the French newspaper LeMonde. I’m in the lower right “corner” of the circle.

So singing and playing in front of this group of strangers was not a big deal. But after my song, there was applause, and somebody actually said: “It takes a lot of guts to sing like that in front of a group of strangers!”

I smiled and said thank you.

More Time in the Keys

We only had one night at Bahia Honda State Park. Friday we were set for Long Key State Park, which is about a 40 minute drive north.

GoGoTacoNegro

That’s the view from Bahia Honda’s Sandspur Beach, where we spent the bulk of our day. The rule here at all the Florida State Parks is that you have to be out of your campsite by 1pm. You don’t have to leave the park until sunset. So we could have stuck around for longer – and wanted to, as this park is gorgeous, and the water was amazing. Around 2:30 or so we headed out north, towards Long Key. This was actually a mistake. We should have headed straight to Key West, and just checked in over the phone at Long Key, which you’re allowed to do.

Hindsight is always 20/20.

Anyway, we checked in at Long Key, spent about 5 minutes there looking over our site, and headed towards Key West at 4pm. It’s a 90-minute drive and we wanted to get there in time for Sunset Celebration, and this was cutting it a bit close, but still workable.

We arrived at Mallory Square at 5:45 (sunset was at 6:30). We walked the area a bit and saw a few buskers, although I did not find the cat wrangler.

GoGoTacoNegri
We did find lots of Key West’s famous chickens.

We ate fresh guacamole (sooo good!) and I was part of the act for a ridiculously funny British magician. Oh, and the sun set and then everyone applauded.

GoGoTacoNegro

Michael had never been to (much less heard of) Sunset Celebration before, and he thought it was awesome.

So there we were, downtown Key West, on a Friday night. Time to check out Duvall Street!

I tell you, I’ve never seen so many drunk middle-aged adults at 7pm before in my life. I’ve seen more sober people at weddings. See, the entertainment district has the same type of booze policy as New Orleans, so you’ll see people walking down the street with beers and mixed drinks in their hands. Maybe the drunks just started a lot earlier? I mean, you can’t drink all day if you don’t start first thing in the morning.

GoGoTaco

 

We didn’t see too many buskers along Duvall, but this van was pretty neat…

 

 

GoGoTacoNegro

 

 

and it’s not every day that you see Darth Banjo.

 

 

 

 

We walked past Sloppy Joes and the Hog’s Breath Saloon. There’s a Hard Rock Cafe, too. We were getting hungry but didn’t want to spend money in any of those tourist traps. Eventually we found a place just a block off Duvall called Amigos Tortilla Bar. They actually make their own corn tortillas (a process I got to watch as I waited for the bathroom). Their tortillas are square so they hold more food, and since they are made fresh throughout the day they are soft and delicious and not crumbly. I wish I could say the food was fantastic. The chorizo/potato taco was amazing, but the fish taco was a little meh (which seems like a pretty big sin. Being right on the ocean and all, your fish tacos should be awesome), and the fried avocado taco used an under-ripe avocado, so that one just wasn’t very good. Michael said his chorizo/potato taco was the best of his three, with the chicken taco and carnitas taco both coming in at “okay.” All in all…. I’d say Amigos was not bad. We sat out on their little patio and the people watching was excellent.

Once we remembered that it’s a 90-minute drive back to Long Key, figured it was time to head out. Most of the middle-aged drunks had disappeared by this time and the younger crowd was showing up. Not that this was actually better. As we walked along Duvall heading back to where we parked the truck, we saw a big SUV stopped at a traffic light ahead. A guy was leaning out the back seat window…. Puking his guts out.

Good times.

Anyway, we got back to our site at Long Key around 11:30. The campground at Long Key State Park is a fairly narrow area. As in, it’s spitting distance from the highway and the traffic is definitely noticeable. There are about 60 campsites here and they are all right on the water, which is amazing. The wind had picked up a bit, and while it didn’t drown out the highway sounds, it made for perfect sleeping weather.

Even better: Elvis slept in the back of the truck. Who knows why he’s okay with it now, all of the sudden, but our theory is that it’s because Elvis doesn’t sleep while the truck is in motion. He’s a nervous and twitchy little dog, even in his old age, and traveling freaks him out. So big driving days tend to exhaust him. Poor Elvis, but lucky us.

After setting up camp, we walked both dogs so they could potty, then loaded them up in the back of the truck. Elvis protested for about 30 seconds before crashing out for the night. Victory! Hopefully this is a trend that will continue.

The next morning we checked out our surroundings. There was this cool cypress tree right in front of our campsite, and I took pictures of it as the tide came in.

GoGoTacoNegro

GoGoTacoNegro

Michael liked that tree too, so he played his mandolin for it.

GoGoTacoNegro

So it was Saturday morning and we’d only managed to reserve one night at Long Key State Park. Now, I’m not exactly sure how this came about – the conversation must have happened when we checked in – but at some point that morning we rode our bikes to the entrance station specifically to ask if there were any cancellations. We were told there was a good chance, just at a different site. No problem. We went back to camp, packed up, and drove back to the entrance station at 1pm. Success! We moved over to site #60, all the way at the end, for at least two nights, possibly three. We were told to come check on Monday before 11am.

At this point Michael and I decided that we’d stay in Long Key as long as we could. Paying for camping is destroying our budget, but both of us had complained about our whirlwind tour of the Keys. We wanted more time here! And now we had it.

While spending so much time in the entrance station, I saw a flyer for a place called Keys Marine Laboratory. They just happened to be holding an open house on Saturday, March 4th, from 1-3pm. We were all set with our accommodations, the truck was loaded up, and it was Saturday, March 4th, at 1:30. We headed over.

Key Marine Laboratory (KML) is an incredibly cool place. It’s an independent research facility that works with various colleges and universities. Researchers come there for their projects – KML can provide boats, dive equipment, holding tanks, as well as a full laboratory and all the equipment. There’s a dormitory too, if people have larger projects.

It was fun to learn all this (it reminded me of why I studied wildlife biology, in all honesty), but the best part was the tidal pool. I’m a hands-on kind of girl, and KML has their own tidal pool with sea cucumbers, sponges, spiny lobsters, conch, and a reclusive stone crab. Staff was on hand to show/teach, and I learned that stone crab have one normal claw and one giant claw. And if you break off the giant claw at a particular place, the claw will grow back.

After a quick trip to the grocery store we headed back to camp to relax and watch the ocean, and the wildlife, and finally the sunset.

GoGoTacoNegro

GoGoTacoNegro

 

We made it to the Keys!

I can’t believe I haven’t posted since Monday!

Wait. Of course I can. It’s been a whirlwind kind of week here in Florida! So let’s start the recap:

After returning back to my Aunt Jean and Uncle Vaughn’s house for the weekend, Michael and I did take the opportunity to discover Castillo de San Marcos, the only 17th century fort in North America (it was built in 1672).

GoGoTacoNegro

We got to see a cannon being fired, and saw dolphins fishing in the bay while we waited. They don’t use live cannonballs, by the way…

GoGoTacoNegro

Here’s the view from the back of the cannon.

GoGoTacoNegro

After checking out the fort, we took the dogs for a walk around St. Augustine’s entertainment district. The dogs needed the exercise, and having them with us prevented us from buying anything. Both dogs were very popular and got lots of attention.

Sunday night (February 26th), Jean and Vaughn had a little dinner party with one of their business partners (Mike), and Michael and I cooked.

GoGoTacoNegro

 

I’m sure you know what this means – it means that Michael did most of the work, although the bacon farotto was my idea, and I did help my Aunt Jean make the dessert, a banana parfait. Mike brought three bottles of lovely Italian wine. Great food, wine, and company – it was a really nice night.

 

 

 

 

We had a hard time leaving the St. Augustine area. We had such a wonderful time with my Aunt Jean and Uncle Vaughn. Plus, we loved their house. But onward we must go. Or southward, as the case may be.

At least I got a picture with my Aunt Jean:

GoGoTacoNegro

So – as we headed south – and inland – we found a free campsite just outside of Ocala National Forest. And it was a pretty site, with gorgeous old trees.

GoGoTacoNegro

But it was fairly dirty, and a few people appeared to be living there. We spent the night and moved on.

At that point I’d been dealing with a pain in my shoulder for a few days. It seemed to be recurring, occasionally, actually, and for about 2 weeks. The day before the dinner party I could barely get dressed. I could feel this giant knot under my shoulder blade, and it seemed to be connected somehow to my neck. As in, when I moved my neck it hurt in my shoulder.

I started on the ibuprofen, although it didn’t make much of a dent. When I woke up in the middle of the night at our Ocala NF site, it was a stabbing pain no matter what position I lay in, and I couldn’t go back to sleep. It’s how I can tell you that the Ocala site was one of the darkest we’ve stayed at.

When we resupplied in Jupiter I broke down and bought Midol because it has a muscle relaxer in it. Michael took things a step further and got me these pain patches. He even picked out the Tiger Balm one with capsaiscin in it (which I know all about from watching the first few episodes of Orange is the New Black).

So Tuesday I was on a combination of Ibu’s and Midol, I was using something called a painball every few hours, and I had Michael put on a pain patch right before I went to bed. Honestly, the patch reeked of Vick’s Vapor Rub, but I was tired so I tried to ignore it.

I haven’t slept that well in days. That pain patch was wonderful! And Wednesday morning – my birthday – I woke up without any stabbing pains. Yay! My neck was still pretty tight, but much improved.

Wednesday and Thursday we camped at Jonathan Dickenson State Park, just north of Jupiter. If you need a bigger reference, that’s north of West Palm Beach. JDSP is great! The campgrounds are clean, as are the bathrooms and showers. There’s a ton of stuff to do here. We went mountain biking (although I use that term loosely, it was still a blast) and stand up paddleboarding in the same day.

GoGoTacoNegro

GoGoTacoNegro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Except for the no-see-ums that were eating me alive, this place was fabulous. I was practically drinking the deet and those little fuckers wouldn’t leave me alone. Now, in case you think I’m being a pansy, let me tell you something.

Ah, you’re probably right. Who am I kidding?

But I’m telling you, I looked around at all the other sites around us. (The campground was full.) At other sites I could see people sitting out in their chairs, drinking coffee, talking with their neighbors, etc. And none of them even so much as swatted at a bug. Around the truck, this was a constant battle. They were landing on the part in my hair, FFS.

As a test I walked both dogs separately that last morning, over to a dog run area. And while I waited for each dog to poop, I didn’t get a single bite. As soon as I got back to our rig I was swarmed. I’m not sure what happened, but I sure hoped those nasty little things wouldn’t follow us to Bahia Honda.

Ah, Bahia Honda State Park. I’ve been there once before. It was about 20 years ago, in fact. You probably don’t know this about me, but in 1996 I packed up a few belongings into my Ford Ranger and hit the road. I left Illinois and went east, through Ohio, upstate New York, and into Maine. I went down the east coast as far as Key West, then turned west, through the Gulf Coast, into Texas, then New Mexico and Arizona. In the end I moved to Colorado to go back to school. Now on this trip I didn’t camp or cook, so my total time on the on road was only a few months, but it got me what I wanted: to get out of Illinois.

Anyway – on my solo trip I spent almost 3 weeks in Florida. A week in the Keys alone. Why? Jean and Vaughn had a house on Cudjoe Key at the time. Hell, I loved Key West so much I was ready to stay. And it was my Aunt Jean who gently told me that the cost of living in the Keys was extremely high… and the payscale exceptionally low. She suggested I keep going.

So part of me was just interested to see how much things have changed in 20 years. I remember white sand and warm water, water that felt like silk.

This time around Bahia Honda State Park did not disappoint. The beaches have a lot more seagrass on them than they used to, but it’s actually more environmentally friendly anyway. The water is still warm and it still feels like silk. We jumped in the water before we even went to our campsite. This is the view I’d been dreaming about in Fayetteville:

GoGoTacoNegro

Once the sun fell towards the horizon I was able to snag a few pictures of the old bridge.

GoGoTacoNegro

GoGoTacoNegro

Our campsite was just across from the water, tucked in to a little grove of trees. No fire ring, but no bugs either, so – score!

GoGoTacoNegro

I found yet another way to use those RevelGear lights…

GoGoTacoNegro
Handy things, these lights. Order yours at revelgear.com