One one of my trips back to the van from utilizing the camp facilities last night, I spotted a large owl perched on the edge of a children’s swing set. I said hello to it, and it flew past me and off into the darkness. Was a very cool moment. 🙂

The fabled Coral Castle, meh Monkey Jungle and a Buggy ride through the Swamp

I often frustrate myself with my own internal paradoxes. I am a very social creature, but at the same time am also very fond of being alone.  There have been many times where I’ve wished that I’ve had somebody riding with me on this trip to share the experience directly with somebody that I cared about – and yet, I’m happy that I’m doing this alone. There’s a great deal that I’m learning about myself – what I want, what I need, what I can keep and what I can let go of. This is my walkabout; my time of internal searching and learning, and yet I’m also running around the country taking pictures of enormous man made lobster sculptures and other bizarre tourist trap type things. It’s a fairly bizarre combination of experiences, but hey – it works. I’ve planned things fairly minimally, so the rest is somewhat chaotic, keeping me on my toes and therefore keeping me from getting bored and disappointed.

I’m finding that I need a certain amount of chaos in my life to function without sliding into depression.

In the past, I’ve tried a couple of antidepressants, but they only make me nominal – allowing me to push the button that makes the paycheck come out that I try to keep myself entertained with. I don’t really feel much of anything on them, and it just makes me a good little worker monkey that exists for the sole purpose of working. I got tired of living in a beige box, so I broke out. Although living in the back of a conversion van isn’t easy, it’s been wonderfully liberating and educational.

It definitely ain’t boring. 🙂

Onward to the trip report.

Friday night, I drove out to Fort Lauderdale beach. It was my intention to hook up with a Facebook friend that I hadn’t met yet IRL. He doesn’t get off work until after midnight, so I did a little walking on the beach and in the water before heading back to the van and tucking in to sleep for a few hours in the parking lot so that I wouldn’t beg off again like I did last weekend due to sleepiness. He called at about 12:30, and I suggested that we meet at the Wreck Bar in the Sheraton, not knowing that it closed around 11pm until after I walked over to it. I then suggested another bar nearby and headed over there.

In the makeshift courtyard sat statues of Jake and Elwood Blues, which kinda made me go, “Huh?” I shrugged and headed over to a table in the courtyard where I could be easily seen, and struck up a small conversation with a couple at a table next to me. We chatted a little until my friend showed up, and then he and I started talking about metaphysical stuff. Next thing we know, it’s 4am and starting to get a little cold on the beach (we’d since driven to an awesome pizza place, then taken a walk on the beach). It was a GOOD conversation that completely made my night. Deciding that it was probably time to head off in our respective directions, we parted ways and I ended up back at the 595 Truck Rest Stop at about 4:30.

Once again, great place to sleep, good food, friendly staff. Unfortunately, I could only sleep until about 9:45am until the truck became too hot to sleep in.

I then got some food in me, while watching a show about serial killers. One of the waitresses explained that she turned the show on because it irritated the shit out of the other waitress, then we laughed conspiratorially. They’re all really cool, friendly ladies there. After a couple of trips to find a portable air conditioning unit that got me nowhere, I headed down to Homestead, FL to check out Coral Castle (PICS).

Coral Castle Museum – Homestead, FL

For those unfamiliar, Coral Castle is a stone structure built by diminutive Latvian American eccentric Edward Leedskalnin. It remains a mystery as to exactly how ‘Ed’ got these enormous limestone coral stones into place – much less how he moved them from the original location in Florida City to their current location in Homestead. He refused to let anybody watch him while he did the actual moving and placement of the stones

Coral Castle Museum – Homestead, FL

There are some who claim that Ed used mystical means to move the stones, and others that claim that there is a resonance in the monument itself. The place is peaceful, very relaxing and inviting to look at. The constructed stone furniture is surprisingly comfortable. It has a really neat ‘otherworldly’ feel to it.

Ahh… meeting new friends.

During my walk around the grounds, I encountered two guys that had purchased these rubber horseheads from amazon.com. One had a regular brown horsehead and the other a white unicorn head. They asked me if I’d take pictures of them whilst they cavorted with the heads on, and I agreed, laughing. They explained that they’d been trying to get other people to take pictures of them, but nobody would do it. They figured I’d be up for it, and they were right. 🙂 I did, however, have one condition.

Coral Castle Museum – Homestead, FL

A couple of months ago, I recounted a story on Facebook about how I’d encountered a little girl in a McDonalds at about four in the morning. Being that I was exhausted, I was EXTREMELY punchy – and so when she said that she liked me hair and asked me how I got it that way, I explained, “I ate a unicorn. Yep. Ate him all up.”

The shame…the SHAME of a unicorn trysting with a horse

At first, she had looked confused, then as confusion slowly turned to discomfort, her sister took her hand and led her off to the bathroom. I explained this event to the guys, then said that I wanted a picture of one of them in the unicorn mask looking over at me with a terrified look. After they stopped laughing, they agreed and an indelible moment in trip history was made.

Ah, Coral Castle – what madness hath been wrought? Admission was $15 to get in. WORTH. EVERY. PENNY. Seriously. If you ever get down Miami way and can squeeze in a trip to Coral Castle – DO IT.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Next, as I meandered my way back to Miami, I stopped off at Monkey Jungle – “Where Humans are Caged and Monkeys Run Wild!” Sadly, it was too late to do the Orangutan Hangout. 😦

Monkey Jungle – Miami, FL

If I’m being honest, the entrance fee wasn’t really worth it. Sure, you get to see monkeys running around – but lots of them ARE in cages, as are the birds and other things. The only monkeys running free were small macaques. There were these little steel bowls on chains that you could put food into, and the macaques would pull the food up to them and pick it out of them. I really loved some of the trees, but felt bad for the monkeys that had to endure children yelling at them to do stupid things.

grooming macaques

Still – there are pics and vids.

Sunday afternoon, I took a Swamp Buggy ride, and while it was semi interesting, I think I would have far preferred the airboat ride.

It was a fairly mild weekend, and I’ve relaxed through a lot of it. Next weekend I may look at relocating up in northern florida for the week so that I can get to St. Augustine and Cape Canaveral. We’ll see.

I did do a bit of running around today (yay, Coral Castle!), but haven’t yet gotten around to writing the trip report. I’ll get pics and words up about it later.

I did, however, go ahead and pick up a small, inexpensive 5,000 BTU home/window air conditioner today. The LOWES staff assured me that I would be able to use it in a room without having to actually put it in a window, but I’m dubious. It does come on, and does cool the van, but it also blows out hot air through the back venty thing (that’s a technical term, son), which I figured it would do, and wonder why the sales staff didn’t think it wouldn’t do. I’ve got it on the floor, tilted, and have plastic under it for any condensation runoff – but because heat rises, my upper body stays warm and I have to put a blanket over my legs.
Ah, First World Problems.

I don’t plan on running it for hours at a time, so I’m wondering if the setup will be ok. Only time will tell, I guess. They did say I could return it if it didn’t work out for me…

It got up to 90 today.

I’m guessing that’d be about 5 or 10 degrees hotter in the van.

I’ve been drinking what seems like a metric ton of water, and putting ice on my head on and off throughout the hotter parts of the day. Grueling is the word of the day. If I didn’t have the box fan, I’d be completely screwed.

This weekend, I’m going to price portable AC units. Still, I’d rather be out here doing this than in a cubicle. 😀 Makes life interesting. The plan for this weekend is to hit the Coral Castle, take in a swamp tour and maybe find some more weird shenanigans to get up to via roadsideamerica.com. Meeting up with a Facebook friend in Miami tonight, and will likely stay at the same truck stop that I stayed at last friday night, then I’ll figure out where I’m going from there.

Ah, life. She is exciting, no?

A distinct lack of Mermaids, and – runnin’ around the Florida Keys

Shortly after work on Friday night, I packed up the truck (I have to shift things around so that they don’t slam or crash around the cabin while driving) and got on the road.
Mission: Mermaid Show.

The Wreck Bar – Fort Lauderdale, FL

Apparently, every friday night down at The Wreck Bar in the Sheraton hotel in Fort Lauderdale there is a professional Mermaid show that starts at 6:30 and lasts for a half an hour. Unfortunately, I didn’t get out there until around 7:30, and the 6:30 show is the only one of the week. The only people swimming around in the pool at this point were kids, which was actually kind of creepy.

Thus thwarted in my attempt at mermaid flavored entertainment, I chose to park along the beach. The one thing I really like about Fort Lauderdale is the abundance of public parking along the beach. It’s an long, winding parking lot that spans a couple of blocks that is hourly rate, and you can park up until 2am. I parked and walked out to the ocean, twitching a little as the cold waves touched my feet. The water wasn’t anywhere as cold as I thought it would be, but it was still pretty cold. The night air was warm and there was a lovely breeze on the beach. I stayed for a moment, just contemplating the ocean and the sand, letting myself relax into the moment.

The Spanish Monastery – Miami, FL

I then drove down to Miami to hook up with a Facebook friend that I hadn’t met yet IRL – he’s a professional cook and doesn’t get off until around midnight or 1pm. I had quite a bit of time to kill, so I chose to swing bythe oldest monestary in the US – the Spanish Monastery (http://www.spanishmonastery.com/).

It had been rented out for a wedding reception and was closed to outsiders. The grounds looked pretty nice, so I snapped a couple of shots. then headed out to Miami Beach, checking out the sights. It ended up being a frustrating endeavor because there doesn’t actually seem to be an access point to GET to the beach there. It’s all high rise hotels along the beach, and then the docks.
There was apparently a Yacht show in town, and I drove by several blocks of almost obnoxiously appointed yachts. Bright bling and neon reflected back at the street as tourists walked along, dreaming their happy, impossible fiberglass dreams as they peered at the floating mass of gaudiness. By the time 11:30 rolled around, I was feeling the siren call of the leopard print mattress in the back of the van. I begged off meeting my friend in lieu of finding a place to bed down for the night.
After much driving around, which is what always seems to happen when it’s late at night and I realize that I’m tired and it’s time to rest, I rolled into the Florida 595 Truck Stop (http://www.davietruckandtravel.com/index.html) near Fort Lauderdale at a little after 1:30am. It had a good rating online and seemed like it would be a good place to crash out for the night, and indeed it was. The staff there is very friendly and amenable. It’s $15 to park in the back lot to get a good night’s sleep, and the place is open 24×7. The bathrooms were nice and clean, and the place itself had an ok vibe to it. There were a couple of storefronts where truckers could socialize at night, one of them being a small club that was blasting reggaton with heavy bass. I was told that the music probably wouldn’t stop until 2am, and hoped that I could sleep through it.
I rolled around back and parked, then blinked, astonished. The sound of the music was completely muted at the back of the building. A marvel! I thought to myself as I started prepping the van for sleepytime. Throughout the night I had to get up to use the bathroom inside, and nobody harrassed me or bothered me as I made my way to the main building with the restrooms and back. I slept until about 9:30, then made the van travel ready and headed over to the main building for breakfast.
I sat next to an older biker/trucker guy named Rene from Montreal. We struck up a conversation about living on the road and vehicular air conditioning (like how his rig had four batteries that juiced his AC and heat and appliances like his TV and small refrigerator while he slept) and talked for about two hours. I mentioned that I’d be heading up to Québec to visit a friend, and he told me to look him up when I got there. Really cool, laid back guy. I liked him a lot. 🙂 I learned a lot about the little things you can do to keep things sane on the road.
He also showed me the inside of his rig. I’d always wondered what they looked like the inside, and was really surprised at the amount of space inside the cabin. He could stand up to his full height inside of the little rest area in the back, and there was plenty of room to move around. Although I dearly love my van and current ‘home on the road’ Matilda, it would be really nice not to have to hunch over to get in and out. I think a couple of years down the road, I’m going to look into a full mobile home. We’ll see.

my first view of truly clear water in the Florida Keys

After that, it was time to get on the road again. I was headed for the Florida Keys for the first time in my life, and I wanted to get out to Key West before the sun went down. The Keys themselves are completely amazing. I had never seen water that clear or blue, in real life. It had always been in pictures or movies, and I always figured people were bullshitting me – that it was a trick of the light or the film was altered.

Nope. It’s that frickin’ blue and clear.
Everything is a wonderful collection of emeralds, tans, teal and indigo. It was the loveliest place I’ve visited in my life so far. I’d seen the Keys from a plane on my trip to Cuba back in 2004, but I wasn’t prepared for how overwhelming they are when you’re driving through them. Sure, there’s still kitchy, crappy beach tchotchke shops along the main throughway and almost every building is either a waverunner/parasail rental place or a makeshirt hotel on the beach, but it had an entirely different feel from every beach I’d ever been to. Well, for one, the water in the atlantic is more like brown soup. COLD brown soup. I’d been in the water in Colombia, and it was gorgeous there as well, but nowhere near as jeweltoned as the Keys are.

The Banyan Resort at night – Key West, FL

I stopped off at a couple of places to check out the water, and found a place where I could walk right down to the water. The shoreline consisted of tree roots and lots of dead coral and stones. I found a surprising amount of Holey stones and collected both those and some dead coral as I walked along. I took a couple of pictures there, then headed further south. After a stop at The Island Fish Co. Tiki Bar and Restaurant down in Marathon for food (delicious She Crab soup and Ceasar salad), I then stopped at Gulf Island Strand on Manasota Key to meet a friend at Hurricane Hole before continuing down to my destination.

night in Key West

By the time I started driving through Key West itself, the sun had gone down and all the night lights were on. I found myself wondering if Key West would be one of those places that looked much better in darkness than it did during the day. Key West at night is spectacular. The people are really friendly and laid back, and the banyan trees were magnificent. Again, something I’d only seen in pictures before. They were fascinating.

the hanging tree growing in the middle of Captain Tony’s Saloon – Key West

I wandered over to Captain Tony’s Saloon to check out the vibe in the place. According to historical lore, Captain Tony’s was used as the first morgue on Key West. Apparently the coroner buiried the remains of his daughter under the floor in what’s now used as a pool room. There’s a shiny, gnarled tree growing inside the bar that was the official Key West ‘hanging tree’ from which many crimnals and pirates were hanged.
The entire bar is covered with business cards, women’s undergarments and other odd things, but there’s one section of the wall in the back, next to an area that dips down into an open room with a Galaga machine and a foosball table. This section of wall has a large, circular rusty pipe running along the top of it, and there are several cylindrical spikes that come up out of the pipe. Rusty chains wrap around the pipe and some of the spikes.

the chains and spikes in Captain Tony’s Saloon – Key West

Apparently this is where several people in the building were chained and beaten to death. There are stories that, during the construction excavation, sixteen bodies were found. Tony’s is a fairly raucous place, and while I was walking around, a woman requested that one of the live musicians play a fun, raunchy song. Everybody seemed pretty laid back and happy, for a place with such a dark initial history.

I walked on through the streets and came across a man that had a live rooster perched beside him. It was just hanging out, relaxing. I talked to him about it and he said that he had raised it from chick, so it had bonded to him and followed him everywere. He would pet the rooster and it would ruffle its feathers and look generally happy. It was a very well fed, well treated looking rooster.

pet rooster

I then walked over to Margaritaville. I have a friend that had wanted me to get pictures of the place during my visit, so I took as many as I could and texted them to him. It looked like a fun place, but I’m really not that much of a bar perching or drinking person, so I continued my own little tour through the streets. For the most part, I was fascinated by the architecture of the houses and the tropical flora. I took a great many pictures of houses and places that I just enjoyed the look of. I went by Hemingway’s house, but it’s closed at night, and it looked like they were having a private function inside the grounds, anyway.

Southernmost Point in the Continental USA

I then visited the marker at the point of the Southernmost Point in the continental US. Even late at night, tourists were gathering around this enormous concrete marker, getting their picture taken. From this point in Florida, Cuba is only 90 miles away.

I’d had plans to crash in front of a friend’s house for the night, but that fell through, so again, I was driving late at night trying to find a place to rest. I drove back up the keys and spotted a KOA campground. Usually, I avoid these things like the plague, but this one was really nice. I showed up and asked Tony, the guy on the late shift, if there was any place to park for the night. He said he didn’t have any sites open, and that even if he did they were $87 a night. Eesh. After hearing my plight, and seeing how completely tired I was, he said, “Come with me. We’ll see if we can find you a spot.” He did, and let me park there and sleep for the night, for free.
Tony, wherever you are, again I say that you’re a magnificent human being. 🙂

frog tracks?

Slept soundly through the night, even though the campground was apparently full of very happy drunk people. I woke to find what I assume are frog ass prints from a frog that had hopped across my windshield at some time during the night. Sunrise was fantastic as the first blush of the sun began coloring everything around me.

Smathers Beach – Key West

I headed down to Smathers Beach back down in Key West and collected my Orisha Yemaya, taking her with me out to the ocean where I then sat in the water with her. I really thought I’d start crying when I sat in the clear water of the Keys with my ocean mother, overcome with emotion. Instead, I was filled with this sense of.. rightness. I was exactly in the right place at the right time that I needed to be. I sat in meditation in the water for a little while, just listening to the waves roll in. They would push these large quantities of what looked like sea grass to the edge of the shoreline where they would build up, looking like little hazmat breakers that kept water from going further inland.

Bahia Honda State Park – Florida Keys

After my happy time in the water, I headed to a small harbor cafe for breakfast. The moment you walk in, you’re transfixed by a large painting of a nude woman in the corner. It draws your eyes away from everything else in the room. The food was delicious, and then I was on my way back up to the mainland. I started driving back up the Keys and drove into Bahia Honda State Park. Once again, I found myself overwhelmed by the beauty of the coloring in the.water and the variety of the landscape. I walked up to the old Henry Flagler East Coast Railway bridge, and looking down and out at route 1 and the beach below, took another video. If I wasn’t so completely sun sensitive, I would’ve rented a canoe and paddled out to one of the islands around the area.

the old Henry Flagler East Coast Railway bridge

I found that my best vantage point for viewing the spectacular array of colors is at noon, when the sun is shining straight down on everything.

Back on the road again, I stopped at the Dolphin Research Center, where the remains of TV’s Flipper are buried. I didn’t have time to do the tour, so I just got a pic of the leaping dolphins out front. I then had to stop and get a picture of the ‘infamous giant lobster of Plantation Key’. I had decided to take United States 41 back, otherwise known as the Tamiami trail, but was sad at the dearth of Alligators along the roadside. I had been told that the road was apparently lousy with them. I had to go to an observation area to see them, which in the end was probably the safest way to encounter them, really. I kept seeing signs that said ‘Panther Crossing next # miles’ but no panthers either. I know, nocturnal – and, again.. better not to see them and maybe accidentally hit them with my car.
The Tamiami trail is fantastically creepy – one side of the road is a long canal of swampy water. At the edge of this water are a collection of cypress trees with long drapes of spanish moss waving in the wind. On the other, trees edge the road, and behind that lay large fields of golden praireland type grasses in some parts.

along the Tamiami Trail

Throughout the cypress trees were these large, bushy flowering plants that were growing along the trunks of the trees themselves. The sight from one bridge in particular had me turning the car around to snap pictures of it. It was a small patch of classic swamp, another thing I’d always wanted to see in real life but hadn’t until now. I was happier than I had any right to be about that picture opportunity.

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful – I arrived back at the RV park and settled down for the night, reflecting on all the cool stuff I’d done over the weekend.

Alligators along the Tamiami Trail

Today I put up the small tent I picked up over the weekend and am now using it as a storage space. There’s SO MUCH MORE room in the van now. It’s completely fantastic. I’ll actually have space to move around while I sleep now!
Well, that’s all for now – but, next weekend I’m hoping to take an ATV swamp tour. GLEE. 🙂

Living out of the back of a van only gives you so many food options. At the moment, I’m on day three. Granted, I have a small cooler with grapes, carrots and lunchmeat in it, but I’m now finding myself on a different diet. Mostly fruit, beef jerky and veggies. I’m guessing I’m going to lose weight on this trip, which can’t hurt. 🙂 I’m working my way through a gallon of water and plan on getting a little swimming done tonight. My goal for the rest of the week is not to have to drive the 45 minute into town to pick up supplies again until the weekend.

I wish I had a camera that could capture the amazing night skies out here. There’s something sublime about being able to sit back in a camping chair and just BE with the night.

This friday, I’m thinking of heading out to Miami to check out one of those ‘mermaid’ bars where they have ladies swimming around in a pool that’s reflected behind bubbles behind the bar. Apparently ‘the show’ starts at 6:30. I then want to head out to calle ocho to get me a Cuban Sammich. 🙂 NOM.