South for the Winter

Hi folks.  I know it’s been a while since my last post and I apologize, but I've been driving a lot this past month – the calluses on my hands prove it!  The last time I wrote, in October, I was at my brother’s house in Connecticut getting ready to head south for the winter. 

As I mentioned in my last entry, I’d been toying with the idea of spending the entire winter in Florida, sitting on a sunny beach and getting my website caught up (sounds nice, huh?)  Well, that was my vision anyway.  It didn’t quite work out that way and for various reasons, I changed my plans after getting down to Florida.  I spent most of November camping in Florida and decided that four weeks in the Sunshine State was enough:  it was time to wrap up my road-trip and head home. 

I love Florida because it’s such a unique state, but as I discovered after spending a month there, it’s not very conducive to long-term camping.  Now, if you have an RV or a travel trailer with air conditioning and shelter from the wind, Florida’s just fine, I’m sure.  But camping in a tent or sleeping in a truck for weeks on end there?  Not so much. 

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Above:  Driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina.

First of all, Florida was really humid and, after a few weeks there, everything in my truck was damp, damp, damp:  my sleeping bag, my pillow, my clothes, my laptop – everything.  Nothing would ever dry out.  I’ve lived in Florida before so I know how humid it can be in the spring and summer, but I didn’t realize the humidity is pretty much a year-round thing.  Lesson learned.

And then there are the bugs.  You need to keep the repellent handy everywhere you go in Florida, even in November, and even then it might not do any good.  The beaches in northern Florida, while stunningly beautiful, were filled with the nastiest biting flies I’ve ever dealt with, even worse than the notorious sand flies of New Zealand or the pesky bush flies I encountered years ago in the Australian Outback.  These voracious Florida flies, which draw blood, didn’t take “no” for an answer and insect repellent is totally useless.  Walking on some of those beaches was like strolling through a forest of hypodermic needles.  Although the beaches are nice to look at in a picture, you don’t want to spend much time there – at least not until the first killing frost hits in late fall.  After that, I guess the bugs disappear and the beaches are really nice for a while.  Another lesson learned.

Sorry if I'm whining too much, but the wind was also a big challenge.  I didn’t realize it when I was planning my trip, but November is Florida’s windiest month.  Again, if you’re in an RV or travel trailer it’s no big deal, but having to constantly fight the wind while setting up a tent or screened shelter, like I did every night, got to be a hassle.  Yep, another lesson learned.  Lots of lessons learned I'm afraid!  

Don’t get me wrong, though:  Florida’s a beautiful state and I visited some amazing places.  But camping there long-term in a pickup truck just doesn’t work too well, even in the winter months.  So after spending most of November in Florida, I hopped in my truck and started heading back to Oregon.  I’d been on the road a long time, I figured, and had visited all 16 extreme geographic compass points.  So with my mission completed, I was ready to head home and dive into my next adventure. 

My Current Plans

I’m driving west and am currently in Austin, Texas visiting my dear old family friend, Joan, and her two kids, who are about my age.  I've known all three for nearly my entire life and we've had a great time here.  I plan to spend Christmas at my sister’s place in Bellingham, Washington, then I’ll move back to Portland.  With my trip completed, I figure it’ll be time to start looking for another job.  As much as I’ve enjoyed this trip, I’ve really missed working in the office and "doing stuff" so it’ll be nice to get back – to some office, somewhere!

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Above:  My cousin Steve (a.k.a., the World's Best Host) and me in Charlotte.  He's the better-looking one.

But don’t worry:  I’m also going to spend time this winter writing more stories about my travels this fall, from Colorado through Florida, so be sure to check back here.  I was planning to do that in sunny Florida this winter but instead I'll do it in rainy Portland!  I’ll be posting tons of photos, several videos, and lots of (hopefully) interesting stories as I describe my travels around the U.S. this fall while I visited all sorts of crazy geographic extreme places.  Good thing I took lots of notes along the way!

And in case you’re wondering, yes I did visit the last three geographic extreme compass points of the United States.  Those sites – the southernmost, southeasternmost, and south-southeasternmost points – were all in Florida and I visited them in late November just before I left.  I believe I’m now the first and only person to visit all 16 extreme geographic compass points of the contiguous United States (literally the 16 corners of the U.S.), which was the main goal of my trip.  I’ll post stories and photos of the last three extreme compass points when I get back to Oregon this winter.  

So with that said, let me update you on my travels from Connecticut down to Florida this fall: 

A Brief Catch-Up

After I left my brother's house in New London, Connecticut in late October, I spent a week traveling down the East Coast to Florida.  During those seven days, I:

  • Visited the mostly densely-populated county in the U.S. (the Manhattan borough in New York City), yet another extreme geographic site.  Manhattan is also the smallest county in the Lower 48 states; only Kalawao County in Hawaii is smaller.  In May, I visited the largest county in the U.S., San Bernardino County in southern California, which is almost twice as large as Maryland.
  • Stopped at the highest point in the lowest state, which is in northern Delaware. Gee, I just might be the only person who’s been to the highest point in the lowest state as well as the lowest point in the highest state (on the Arikaree River on the Colorado/Kansas border).
  • Visited several interesting Civil War battlefields (Antietam, Petersburg and Fort Fisher) in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, respectively.
  • Saw my cousin Gary and his wife Alice in Atlanta. Gary told me some fascinating stories about my Dad, who passed away many years ago.
  • Drove on the glorious Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina when the fall colors were at their peak and hiked up to Mt. Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern U.S.
  • Had a great time in Charlotte one weekend visiting another cousin, Steve, who gave me a nice tour of downtown Charlotte, the banking capital of America. Then we ate ribs.  Lots of ribs.
  • Visited a couple Revolutionary War battlefields in the Carolinas: Cowpens and Kings Mountain.
  • Spent a few hours at the Andersonville Civil War prison site in Georgia, a sobering experience.
  • And I stopped in Plains, Georgia to give my best to Jimmy Carter.

Well no, I didn’t actually see Jimmy – he and Rosalynn were a couple miles away at their house, which is closed to the public – but I visited their high school in Plains, which is now a National Park site.  It was a few days before the November 8 election, so visiting Plains and harkening back to an earlier, more innocent time was a welcome relief from all the craziness of the 2016 campaign.

A November in Florida

   
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Above:  A totally unposed shot at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

I reached Florida on November 1, camped in the panhandle for several days (where I got eaten by the nasty flies described above) and then headed south to the Keys, where I spent the rest of the month.  The farther south you travel in Florida, the warmer it is and the Keys are as far south, and as warm, as you can go.  

The highlight of my four weeks in Florida was camping at Dry Tortugas National Park, a remote island located about 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico and accessible only by boat or seaplane.  The Dry Tortugas are the site of Fort Jefferson, a massive brick fort built in the 1840s and abandoned 30 years later.  It’s a pretty amazing spectacle:  a huge brick fort sitting in the middle of the ocean, miles from anywhere, with sandy beaches and palm trees all around.  I’ll post photos, stories and videos soon, but for now I’ll just say that camping in the tranquil Tortugas was an incredible experience and I highly recommend it.  And best of all, no bugs!

Heading back to Key West on the boat that warm, sunny afternoon, I went right by Ballast Key, which is the southernmost island in the continental United States.  Sorry, but contrary to popular belief, Key West isn’t the southernmost point of the U.S.  In fact, Key West isn’t the southernmost point of anything, so unlike every other tourist who’s ever visited Key West, I didn’t bother stopping at the silly concrete buoy there to have my picture taken.  Heck, that famous buoy isn't even the southernmost point on Key West island, let alone the United States, so I just laugh whenever I see a picture of it.  If you count islands, the southernmost point of the continental United States is Ballast Key (which is privately owned and thus inaccessible), but if you don’t count islands, the southernmost point is near Flamingo in Everglades National Park.  Sorry Jimmy Buffett, but your beloved Key West is nowhere in the picture.

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   Above:  Kicking back in the tranquil Tortugas.

After the Tortugas, I camped for a week at the idyllic Bahia Honda State Park near Key West.  The Sandspur campground at Bahia Honda is, without a doubt, the most beautiful campground in the Florida Keys and is probably the most desirable campground in the entire U.S. during the winter months.  Competition for campsites at tiny Sandspur is downright fierce.  One reason is because it’s one of the few places in the Florida Keys with a sand beach instead of just mangroves and, in fact, it’s considered to have the nicest beach in the Keys. 

Fortunately for me, when I looked online for a spot at Sandspur one night at 11 p.m. someone had just cancelled their reservation so I got the campsite for an entire week.  Folks make their reservations for this campground a full year in advance (to the minute – the earliest it's allowed) and the campground is absolutely packed every night from October until March, so I really lucked out.  It was an awesome campsite, surrounded by palm trees (and giant green iguanas) and right near the beach, and was as close to the phrase "tropical paradise" as you can get in the Lower 48.  I wish I could've stayed there all winter.

After a week at Bahia Honda enjoying the sunshine and watching the iguanas, I dashed up to Everglades National Park.  On the way there, I visited the southeasternmost and south-southeasternmost points of the mainland contiguous United States, both located near Key Largo.  Then the next day near Flamingo in the Everglades, I visited the southernmost point, which was my Point #16 of the 16 extreme geographic compass points. 

That night, with my mission now completed, I went back to the Florida Keys and camped at Long Key State Park, where I watched an old Bogart/Bacall movie on my laptop while sitting on the beach under a palm tree in the blissful moonlight.  I first saw "To Have and Have Not" many years ago in college and, since it was set in the Caribbean, I figured it was an appropriate flick for my last night in the Sunshine State.  I left Florida the next morning bound for Austin and points west.

So that was my Florida experience in a few paragraphs.  Whew!

Heading Home

I have a lot more to say about my Florida adventure, though, so as I mentioned, I’ll write more about it this winter after I get back to Oregon.  And I’ll post more stories about my travels around the U.S., so be sure to check back here in the coming weeks. 

But after driving over 25,000 miles around the U.S. these last seven months, the calluses on my hands are telling me that it’s time to go home.  My work here is done.