Cincinnati, Part 1

Cincinnati

Heading back south was the only logical step.  It was freezing in Chicago.  I’ll head back through Wisconsin and the UP when its warmer.  Besides, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana are new states for me.  I probably won’t hit WV.  It’s a little too far out of my way.  Hopefully later.  I hear its beautiful.  When I leave hear, I’ll head towards St. Louis and then likely southwest from there.  I stayed in Chicago for an extra day after the friends left.  Veronica’s parents took good care of me while I got things in order.  I had hit it off with someone while up there, but I felt called south to see Emily, another important factor in my decision.

I came down on Monday, April 11.  I had made arrangements to stay at a Harvest Host winery on the northeast side of Cincinnati, but changed my mind.  It would be easier to de-winterize my trailer at a campground, and there is one closer to the Kentucky boarder, where Emily is from.  We ended up getting together on Monday night for a low key hang out.  We actually spent the evening at a grocery store, but not just any grocery store.  Jungle Jim’s is such an experience that it actually appears on Trip Advisor as a thing to do.  Now, I know that a grocery store on trip advisor may imply that there isn’t much to do here.  Let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth.  First of all, Jungle Jim’s is indeed an experience. I could happily have spent hours in there.  It’s got so much great stuff to pick through!  I was in heaven.  And its super cheap!  I got so much stuff for half the price of Whole Foods, the real brands I typically buy there too.  The scratch and dent section is a steal.  I’m currently making mashed potatoes from perfectly good spuds, the whole bag for $1.50.  Need your organic tempeh, bulk nuts, nutritional yeast?  Look no further.  I particularly enjoyed the giant decorations, the airplane, the huge weight lifter by the vitamins, etc.

On Tuesday, I visited Emily at her job at Water Balls and took a spin, literally.  You get in a giant clear ball and with comedic futility, try to move around the surface of a pool.  Hilarious is an understatement.  We walked across the plaza to the aquarium.  Yes, not vegan, I know.  I’ve mentioned previously my conflicted feelings.  They are not all created equally and some do great work.  This housed no captive marine mammals save a few sea otters in an elaborate enclosure.  I’m not going to lie.  I loved it.  It was so cool!  They had, are the called ray sharks?  I’ve never seen anything like them!  Emily knows so much about everything there.  There’s a giant boss of a sea turtle who picks on the divers, a monster alligator, a sheep’s head fish and a wolf eel if I remember correctly.  So many things I had never seen and got to learn about!  We grabbed a quick pizza and beer at Mellow Mushroom before parting ways for a bit.  I took Peggy to Tower Park, a beautiful park with trails overlooking the river on the Kentucky side.  We ended the night hanging out at Emily’s house.  I also met her parents, both of whom I enjoyed speaking with very much.

Wednesday, I brought Peggy over to Emily’s.  We introduced the dogs, and I met her snake, rabbit, and lizards.  They were all so cool!  Peggy learned an important lesson, too.  Don’t step on stranger dogs.  I pet Willie and she got jealous and tried to climb me to get my attention.  I’m trying to break her of this habit, but have been slow to adopt the firmness that seems to be required to get through to her.  She’s coming along, but after Willies reaction, I think she got it.  There was no blood or harm, but he very clearly put her in her place.  They were fine afterwards though.  I had bought tickets to a band I like, Murder By Death.  I saw them when they were a new band many years ago, and then again more recently last year, both times in Boston.  It was cool to see them in a new venue.  The Southgate House Revival is an old church.  I’ve been to venues like that before, but I particularly enjoyed this one.  Seeing them gave me an excuse to reach out to my friend, Tina, who introduced them to me back in college.  I’ve largely lost touch with Tina, but I value her friendship and I hope to keep in touch to whatever extent our lives allow.  It was great to reconnect with her.

Thursday, Peggy and I met Emily her dog Willie for a quick tour of part of Cincinnatti.  We walked through a park and did a short driving tour before taking the pouches to the vet for shots.  They were troopers and appeared to be well passed their conflict.  Later, we stopped at the local grocery for stir fry ingredients, and it wasn’t even Stir Friday!  Archer?  Anyone?  I doubt it.  Check it out if you like off color cartoons for not so grown ups.  It was great.  We stayed in and watched a movie on HBO called Anomalisa.  It had a distinctly independent film feel to it.  It was a quirky animated film following a day in the life of an older man, dissatisfied with life, and suffering a breakdown.  I absolutely adored it.

Emily was busy with work and life commitments on Friday and Saturday, so I had some time for solo adventures.  On Friday, I went for casual 20 mile bike ride around the area of East Fork State Park.  I did a bunch of chores, cooked a delicious dinner of heavily spiced cashew potatoes, BBQ beans, and steamed spinach.  Then I went out to 50 West, a popular local brew pub.  I sampled 12 of their beers and was pleased with them all.  It was nice to come across some types that I find less often at places like this such as the California Common.  I’ve had trouble NOT sleeping in here.  It’s been very relaxing.  Burning the candle at both ends seems to be in my nature, and I’ve needed some rest.  Cincinnati has provided me with both adventure and rest.  It’s been great.  Saturday morning, I slept in once again and was finally able to begin my day in the city after 1 PM.  In my defense, it takes a while to take care of my neurotic “kids”.  If they don’t get enough love, they let me know.  Peggy tries to climb me like a tree, and Hank wakes me at 6 AM crying for attention.  Who am I kidding, they do this even when smothered with love.  It’s a good thing I care about them so much.  I just wish Peggy wasn’t learning so many bad habits from Hank.  Now she leaps over the table seats, climbs on the table, and scoots past me as I come in and out of the trailer.  I finally had to get quite stern with her and she’s backed off a bit.  Not to worry, no matter what our day consists of, we always start and end with family snuggle time.

Anyway, Saturday.  I decided to visit the Contemporary Art Center.  It’s a small museum.  You can see it all fairly thoroughly in an hour or 2.  Just one exhibit filled the 3 open floors, but despite its small size, it was perhaps the most relevant exhibit to my life I’ve encountered so far.  The artist was from Seoul, Korea, but had later moved to other cities like Berlin and NYC.  In their mind, the perfect home was half way between NYC and Seoul, about 3500 miles from both, smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  The individual works were all around finding a place to call home, and creating the perfect home there.  What a perfect exhibit for me!  At first, as I just casually took it all in, I was casually pleased with the interesting and varied pieces.  Once I realized what the theme was, I was down right giddy.  The artist used so many different media to convey the nuances and complexities of his concepts.  There were paintings, small and large scale wood and fabric models, video works, and an entire interactive floor.  I particularly loved the travel trailer decked out in flames.  I could have spent a long time with each piece, but I wanted to get to a vegan lunch place called Park and Vine which closed at 3.  Its one of those small alternative shops / grocery stores with an attached café, but what a café!  The extensive fully vegan menu was a little overwhelming.  I went with some fresh kombucha, a toonah melt, and a reuben since I couldn’t pick just one thing.  After that, I was a little lost for what to do with myself.  I reviewed my options and found some great choices.  That night, I could have seen Shakespear, the symphony, a play, a variety of interesting independent films, but instead, I went to a themed sketch comedy performance that makes fun of 20 and 30 something bar flies and the wait staff who serve them.  I’m super classy.  I found it pretty funny, but the room was pretty dead.  It was filled with 2 bachelorette parties, and lets be honest.  Is there anything more annoying than a bachelorette party?  We get it.  Nice blow job bib and penis straw.  You’re so playful and cute!  Sorry, not sorry.  It’s not cute, or original, or funny, or creative, or anything.  The ironic thing is that this performance is off color, so much so that the reviews warn you not to go if you’re sensitive to that.  These girls were clearly in the wrong place.  The performance is interactive and there were drinking games.  At one point, we played a game where you had to choose between two horrible options and people drank if they picked the wrong thing based on what a randomly selected patron picked.  A girl was asked if she would rather have her grandmother walk in or a puppy die every time she masturbated.  She was not amused.  I couldn’t tell what was funnier, the question or her indignant disgust.  What did you expect lady?!  Take another sip from your penis straw you hypocrite!  Ha!  While I was a little disappointed in the crowd for the most part, I had a great time sitting next to Lisa and Steph, the perfect married couple.  One was reserved and the other was the loudest person in the room.  They were great and we got along famously and enjoyed the show very much.  After that I wandered around some popular nightlife areas of the city until I found a bar with good atmosphere and live music.  The Tin Roof down by the ball parks fit the bill.  It was totally generic and the cover band played everything you’d expect, but it was fun.  I stayed for a couple of hours.  They were pretty good!  As the night passed, though, the music turned more towards club music, the patrons all suddenly looked like children, and the dance floor was packed.  I like dancing to music I like, but I’m all set with dancing for the sake of dancing in a club environment.  In the prime of their club days, people like to pretend its all fun, but in my experience, people start being more honest about it in their later 30s.  There’s a lot of standard behavior in those settings that I find distasteful.  I don’t care that people hook up or whatever.  I more mean that competitive and unfriendly behaviors that people like to pretend aren’t really there, but they totally are.  I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, but once I saw that stuff starting to dominate, I decided to take my 39 year old butt home to bed!  I’m often pretty social, but that night I had really felt just like being around people, not so much directly engaging, and it was time to engage or leave anyway.  I happily went home to family snuggle time.

Sunday, April 17, I met Emily for a 4 hour horseback ride.  It was just the two of us on horses and trails that she knows well.  What a beautiful day!  In fact, the weather here has been spectacular, each day better than the last!  The horses were well behaved if a little antsy.  Willie joined us.  He apparently gained a lot of weight over the winter.  He runs along the horse trails with her when she rides, and it was good for him to get some exercise.  He kept up well.  We forded a stream, went up and down some steep hills, and covered a comfortable miles, maybe 13 or so?  We didn’t want to overwork the dog or the horses, but they all still had some time to run.  When we got back, the horse I had ridden, Jo Jo, was so happy that he began prancing all over!  His tail was straight up in the air, head held high, and he trotted happily along like his body was lighter than air.  I’ve never seen a horse look so happy!  It was enough that other people commented on it to Emily later!  He was horse dancing!  After we cleaned up and went out to dinner at one of Emily’s old haunts.  This restaurant and bar has clearly kept up with the times!  It had a large number of vegan items along side its traditional offerings.  We had vegan jambalaya, chili, and a chili dog.  Then we just relaxed at her house for a while before I headed home.

I’m writing this now sitting in a trendy coffee shop, Rohs Street Café, after getting my first hair cut since leaving Boston!  Man, I was shaggy.  I think I lost 10 pounds!  I like this collegy part of town.  My hair stylist was covered in tattoos and would have happily given me a blue Mohawk if I wanted it.  That’s the kind of place I like to go.  I wasn’t looking for a blue Mohawk, but I like places in touch with style enough to keep me looking good with my abysmal sense of style and dislike of cookie cutter military cuts.  I literally gave her free license to do anything, and sure enough, it looks great!  Anyway, I’m off to see Emily now.  We’re going to some parks and museums this afternoon.  All in all, I love Cincinnati and have decided to stay another week or so.  I want to see a Reds game.  They’re playing the Cubs later this week.  There are a number of other things to do as well.  So far, I’ve seen live music, both a band I specifically sought out and a decent cover band, interesting art, good food, a dynamic city, and peaceful countryside.  It’s cheap and a great size.  There is a diverse culture here.  The city is big enough to be interesting, liberal, and current, and small enough to be totally accessible, and as I mentioned, the traffic is a joke.  It’s great!  I’ll write more about the rest of my stay in my next post.  I’m providing this intermediate update since I got a request for more frequent updates to make it easier to read, shorter updates and all.  Ok everyone, have a great day!

North(ish) to Chicago

The Natchez Trace

I have continued north along the Natchez Trace Parkway, and I’m loving every minute of it.  This place is beautiful and a great place to find the solitude I’ve been craving.  There are still plenty of opportunities for human interaction with fellow travelers, but I spent so much time in cities and surrounded by people that some peace and quiet is appealing, even for this massive extrovert.  I’m writing today from the Jeff Busby Park along the Trace.  I could move on today, but I’m taking another day of rest and low key activity.  When I last wrote, I was staying at the Natchez Trace State Park near Natchez, MS.  There were many wonderful sights to see in Natchez and along the trail near the southern terminus.  Remember, the rail is about 440 miles long, and that campground is at about mile 10.  I stayed there for several days, but finally decided to move on.  As with so many places, I’d have been happy to stay there much longer.  I expected to like MS, but I’m really falling in love with this place.  It seems that happens a lot with me, though.  My original plan was to drive straight up to the Jeff Busby Park where there is free camping, but that’s at mile 193.  That’s far enough to skip a lot of the trace as well as Jackson, which I wanted to see, so I decided to have a short travel day and spend 1 night at the Rocky Springs Park.  That was enough to see both the park and the city.  Rocky Springs was huge in its day with a peak population over 2600, now 0.  Evidence of the old town is visible along certain trails.  There are sisterns, safes that were too heavy to move, and erosion that is evidence of poor farming practice.  They cleared the land to plant cotton and didn’t manage it. well.  I wasn’t surprised to see references to slaves, but I was surprised to see there were over 2000 of them.  That’s more than 3:1!  Some historical signs pointed to the civil war as a contributor of the town’s demise and also included a quote from a local land owner lamenting the loss of his livelihood.  I might have been reading into it, but it looked to me to say “This area would still be prosperous if we had just been left alone”.  By now we all know my feelings on this topic so I’ll leave it alone.  I might have been mistaken about the intent as well, but it did come close enough to make me wonder.  I have yet to hear a reference to the “war of northern aggression”.  I’ll have to bite my tongue if I come across that one.  Like seemingly every town and city down here, they also suffered massive losses to yellow fever.  It’s amazing anyone survived it.  I get the impression that it was every bit as bad as the bubonic plague.  Mobile, New Orleans, here, everywhere I visit in the south has had multiple mass casualty events that sometimes doomed entire towns and cities.  Whole armies abandoned certain regions instead of fighting for the territory they wanted when they just couldn’t take it anymore.  Local descendants of Rocky Springs’ original residents have maintained and still use the church and cemetery.  It’s small, but nice.  It’s private property, but a sign invites you to tour respectfully.  The door is open and you can go in and pray or meditate or whatever works for you.  It’s very peaceful.

Jackson seemed nice enough, but I didn’t feel called to explore it that much.  I’m sure it has a lot to offer, but I got the impression it was more of a Framingham than a Boston for you MA readers, a city that is more focused on function than culture.  Don’t take that to the bank though.  It was just my impression.  My entire stay consisted of going to a food coop with a restaurant inside.  However, I stayed for hours because both were so good!  The food at the coop was stellar.  I particularly enjoyed the quesadilla, but the chili with jalapeno corn bread, cake, and macro-bowl were also great.  I spent double what I had intended.  Prices may have been a little high, but I also bought expensive things like a big bag of nutritional yeast, goji berries, and the biggest jug of apple cider vinegar I’ve ever seen.  I use that for my acid reflux and in my hair.  Incidentally, I’ve got terrible acid reflux if it’s not managed.  I have a leaky valve near the top of my esophagus.  I also can’t burp properly.  How’s that for too much info?  Well, I share this in case you have acid reflux, too.  I used to take medication once or twice a day with extra for acute situations.  I now take nothing, and I don’t have to avoid coffee or alcohol which are both triggers for me.  I simply add 2 table spoons of ACV to a glass of water and drink that once a day.  It completely manages my heartburn.  Now, it takes a few days to really take effect, and the taste takes getting used to.  I also did this twice a day at first, but once is good for maintenance.  Now, no medication is necessary whatsoever.  Low acidity diets are also key.  All meat and all dairy are acid forming in your body.  That’s yet another reason the vegan thing works for me.

At night, I decided to build a fire.  The campground was well picked over, but on my walk around the town site, I saw that there were tons of down and dry wood away from the camping area that people hadn’t bothered to plunder.  Thank god for laziness?  I decided to take two trips dragging large branches behind me, the largest I felt I’d be able to break down into firewood by hand.  Fortunately, someone had left a few larger logs in my campsite.  I’m guessing its wood that they hadn’t gotten to, but now I wonder if someone left it on purpose.  I wish I had thought of that and left some for the next guest.  Once and engineer, always an engineer, I’m coming to believe.  You can’t really turn it off.  After making a spectacle of myself loudly dragging 12 foot long branches down the paved road through the camp site, I proceeded to break them down and pile them by size, twigs, a little larger twigs but still maybe under 1 inch, and things 1 inch and over where I either couldn’t break them or it took a lot of effort.  I wondered what to use to start the fire.  The twigs were nearly small and dry enough.  Patience with a lighter might work.  Gas is always an option, but oof, I hate to go down that road, and I was out of paper and cardboard.  Then I realized I had a half used roll of paper towel.  I considered making some carefully constructed structure, but it was now late.  Beautiful moonlight now lit the campsite, and I was eager to get the fire started.  I lit the paper towel roll and heaped half the small twigs on top of it.  It caught quickly so I heaped the other half on.  As the fire grew, I added half the larger twigs, and then the rest.  I started to worry that my fire would be out in 10 minutes!  Oh well, it wouldn’t have bothered me if it had.  The fire was perhaps 4 feet high at this point and I was satisfied.  I kept laughing at myself as I worked through the best way build up and sustain the fire.  Any normal person would have just sat and enjoyed it like, well, like a normal person.  Still, it was fun for me and the fire did end up lasting hours.

The next morning I proceeded to Jeff Busby, home of Mississippi’s highest point.  As I write this, I arrived yesterday and will be leaving tomorrow, Thursday March 24.  Yesterday, Tuesday, I had a little cooking party for one.  I love to cook.  It brings me peace and this campground is even quieter than Rocky Springs was.  I made green smoothies to last 2 days, a cashew cream salad dressing with lemon, black pepper, dill, and fresh garlic.  I’m a slow chopper, so salads take forever, but it’s fine.  This salad was huge.  It filled my largest pot and my largest salad bowl, but as was remarked on my Facebook post about buying all of those groceries, I’ll still mow through it pretty quickly.  After that, I walked Peggy up Little Mountain to watch the sunset.  It was beautiful.  I also interrupted Wanda and Dub’s sunset picnic celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary.  I was apologetic, but they insisted it was fine and we had a great conversation as we watched the sun go down.  They live in Houston, MS, not too far from here, and offered me a spot to park, a home cooked meal, and a place to do laundry.  That’s so nice!  I’ll have to see if that fits my travel plans.  I’d like to see them again.  It was great to share some time with them.  Just back from a cruise to Cozumel with 23 of their closest relatives, they decided to keep their anniversary simple.  They road up to the mountain with their nearly brand new 3 wheeled motorcycle, a sharp looking machine.  Wanda worked at the post office, and Dub on oil rigs.  They had interesting stories and were curious about my background as well.  What a great couple.  We parted as the moon was coming up, and Peggy and I came back down to relax and finish up House of Cards on Netflix.  This was a pretty good season by the way, but I won’t spoil it for you here.

Wanda had recommended getting up for sunrise and moon set the next morning.  I kept waking up last night, and happened to feel wide awake in time, so Peggy and I walked up the hiking trail.  I’m glad we did.  The morning was perfectly still in the dim predawn light.  Hiking trails are generally places of pure tranquility for me, but this was especially so.  As we climbed the short trail, the clouds burst forth with purple, then pink, then a fiery orange.  We reached the summit in plenty of time.  The moon was enormous as it sat low in the sky directly opposite the ascending morning.  It was fading as the sky brightened, and in fact, it disappeared from view just before touching the horizon as the sky became too bright.  Almost simultaneously, the sun peaked up from the other side of the Earth, a glorious moment that sent shivers down my spine.  This was perhaps the best and most peaceful moment of my journey thus far.  It’s what compelled me to sit down and write right away.  I didn’t take pictures as my phone had died.  Thank you House of Cards.  However, I’m glad I didn’t.  It was nice to be entirely present in the moment.  Pictures wouldn’t have come out anyway.

An important dream

Ok, so I find I need to write about something I said I wouldn’t, something I have been avoiding.  As I’ve travelled, though, I find it’s been weighing on my mind and I’m not sharing completely if I don’t.  I’m choosing now to unpack it a little because it’s the reason I didn’t sleep well last night.  It’s hard to say how long my last relationship lasted.  It depends what you count.  We were on and off, and sometimes even when we were on we were off.  It’s safe to say that she was emotionally important to me for about 4 years.  I’ve thought of her a lot as I’ve traveled.  I left Boston in mid-January, only about a month after it ended for this most recent time.  We definitely loved each other a great deal.  For my part, I always will.  There are people who remain important to you long after they permanently leave your life.  We started from impossible circumstances.  She was not actually available when I fell for her, and I was freshly divorced and not well positioned to begin something meaningful.  The early times were filled with longing, broken promises, and hurt.  It was not an ideal place to build trust from.  We would stop talking from time to time and the universe would bring us back together.  I would see other people in the meantime, but could never get her out of my mind.  We’d start up again, but things would quickly go bad.  It was rocky, a wonderful, magical, hellish roller coaster ride sometimes.  The other day, my iPhone memory reached capacity.  I literally couldn’t take a single picture without deleting one for one.  I spent a couple of hours removing all pictures from my phone.  Many if not most of the pictures were of her and good times we shared together.  It made me very sad, but I was finally ready to not have them at my fingertips.  We were supposed to take this trip together.  Costa Rica was booked with the intention of us traveling together.  This entire journey has been one of healing in that respect.  I’m genuinely looking forward, and it does continuously get easier, but so many experiences take me back and remind me of her.  There are times when it hurts badly, and all I want to do is reach out to her, but I don’t.  I know that it was not good or healthy for me overall.  As she was breaking up with me, she admitted that she has so much love to give, and for some reason, cannot consistently give it to me.  There are times I’m all she wants, and yet it’s not enough.  It’s more complicated than that, but I’d like to avoid sharing her personal details here and focus on my own experience.  I loved her so much that I was trying to overlook all of that, but I wasn’t always happy.  Neither of us were our best selves around each other.  Sometimes yes, but the result was that we would hurt each other, badly at times.  Last night I had a dream that I felt was a milestone.  It’s the reason I’m sharing this now.  I dreamt that I bumped into her.  She told me what she’s been up to and said that she’s still working through things, but that she’d like me back in her life in the meantime.  I told her what I’ve been up to, about meeting other people, people who treat me the way I want to be treated and with whom I am closer to my best self as it seems are they.  We talked it over in some detail.  It was a vivid dream, the kind where you wonder if the other person is really dreaming it too, at the same time.  I ultimately said no.  I can’t go into it further without really oversharing.  However, it seemed important to share this personal story.  I don’t necessarily need to find a relationship on this trip.  I’m open, but have never been specifically looking.  It’s more about looking back at some of my patterns and trends, and giving some thought to the type of relationship that will be healthiest for me.  For those of you keeping score, I haven’t seen Emily in a while now, but we’re still in touch, and I’m excited to see what might become of that down the line.

Back to the Trace

On Wednesday, I took a day trip up the Trace from Jeff Busby Park.  I brought Peggy as I usually do.  By this point, I’ve seen each type of site on the Trace.  It continues to be interesting, but now it’s just variations on a theme.  I’m enjoying learning bits of information that are starting to fit together.  Out at historical sites, they try not to overwhelm you with information all at once.  If you go to enough sites, you end up collecting a level of knowledge that begins to feel like inside information.  For instance, at first I learned that the Lousiana area was traded back and forth a couple of times.  The French were at war with the British, so rather than let the Native Americans have it back, the French sold it back to the Spanish before they were defeated on the condition that the Spanish not sell it to the British … which they promptly did 10 days later.  There’s always the superficial story, but it always gets juicier if you dig deeper.  Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame may have committed suicide, but he may also have been murdered.  He had been called to DC to explain his illegal misappropriation of government funds to his private business and died of gun shot wounds on the way.  Did he shoot himself in the chest and then also in the head as is the going theory?  That sounds implausible to me, but perhaps.  As I’ve learned more about our history, I’ve gotten emotionally invested at times as described above.  However, the more I learn, the more I’m beginning to look at it as a continuous saga that never ends, one that you can step back from and see as a spectator.  We tend to get very passionate about the issues of today, but I suspect that most of us fail to see that these same issues have come up time and time again in one form or another for all of US history and often beyond.  Furthermore, the specific circumstances around today’s issues did not occur in a vacuum.  They are the culmination of years, decades, and centuries of events, all building on one another.  US history starts to look like a very short story in the grand scheme of things where the 1700s are relatively recent, and our current situation is not really that far removed from then.  It makes me wonder how we’d all feel about politics today if we were better informed about US and world history.  I know many highschools require these topics, but how many of us got into very much detail then, or bothered to remember it as adults?

I’m writing this section on Friday, and rather than recount all of the individual sites I’ve continued to see along the Trace, I’ll just direct you to my Facebook page.  The Trace, as I’ve mentioned, is well worth a visit.  There have continued to be additional experiences though, that I haven’t put on Facebook, unexpected personal experiences that I’ll share now.  At one site, I came across James from Tupelo, MS.  James was resting at a Trace site I stopped at, sitting on a short wall next to his bicycle.  He was in jeans with a studded black leather belt, a gray t-shirt, a thick chain with a cross around his neck.  He struck me as probably not that old, but perhaps a man who had seen some rough times, with bright eyes and a weathered face.  The bicycle, an orange mongoose, is a perfectly fine machine, but not one known for performance or quality.  It’s designed for function and cost.  I stood near James, reading some of the materials.  We were quiet at first, probably each wondering if the other wanted to talk.  I said hello, and he piped right up.  James ended up sharing a lot with me, and I with him over what became a relatively extended conversation.  Here was a man who I’ll suggest that a mother with small children might have avoided.  He didn’t look at all sinister to me, but I would guess that more timid people might have avoided him.  I was thoroughly rewarded for my curiosity.  James had indeed seen some rough times.  There had been several deaths in his family, infighting amongst the rest, financial set backs, a car fire, a motorcycle accident (James was rehabbing his leg on the bicycle), and yet here before me was a man with a positive attitude.  He wasn’t shy about some of his political beliefs.  For instance, that Obama has done nothing right, save for somehow being responsible for the cell phone currently in James’ hand, and that he was a Muslim.  He also felt that the terrorist situation had been handled all wrong.  I listened intently as I’m genuinely interested in the different perspectives found across America.  However, after sharing all of that, he described an almost zen-like perspective.  He felt that people need to stop hating, all hating, everywhere.  We didn’t drill down into that too deeply, but he has totally forgiven his family, and doesn’t dwell on his misfortunes.  His eyes are on the future, and he is optimistic about his prospects.  It was a real pleasure speaking with James.  I’m not sure we have much in common in day to day life, and we did not exchange information.  However, he enriched my life that day by showing me that, despite our significant differences in background and opinions, that indeed all you need is love.

James said one other thing that stuck with me.  He had no knowledge of my current minimalist attitudes when he said this.  Honestly, I don’t even really know what prompted it.  It seemed a little out of the blue, but he said something to the effect of “those who say money isn’t everything should try living without any”.  I’ve had a couple of days to think about that now.  It’s relevant to my current musings.  I have explained how I felt that my possessions owned me and that by getting rid of them, I have found greater happiness.  It now occurs to me that what I’ve done is not just downsize, but rather, change the ratio of assets to debts or financial liabilities.  I am not wealthy in the traditional sense of the word, but relative to my meager expenses, I am.  The point is that it’s really about spending much less than you make or have.  In this context, James’ point really seems to be that there’s a floor to living expenses in America.  If you want food, clothing, shelter, and transportation, you can’t get lower than monthly expenses of X, whatever X is.  For those that make less than X, life is very stressful.  It’s probably pretty stressful even for those who make a little more, but not much more.  This one seemingly random comment of his helped me connect my life experience with that of those who have been much less fortunate than I.  This is an important consideration as I ponder what career to embark on or perhaps continue with next.  I am very grateful for my interaction with James.

For what it’s worth, I’ve not gone into my interactions with other people that I’ve met on this trip, but with whom I shared similarly unexpected encounters.  Just today I met two men on a brief walk at one of the Trace sites.  Keith and his friend whose name I did not get did not immediately strike me as friendly, and were perhaps people I might not want to approach.  Keith was dressed head to toe in camo, and for some reason I found this disconcerting.  Clearly I’m still working on non-judgment.  It’s important to me, and it does seem like practice makes perfect there.  Sure, keeping an eye on safety is key, but every time I’ve pressed my luck, it’s been fine / interesting.  In this case, Keith and his friend were locals who gave me some additional information on the site I was visiting and tips on other local sites.  By talking to them, I ended up meeting two cyclists who were biking all 444 miles of the Trace.  This is all just reinforcing my attitude that people are people.  We are all the same with the same core.  Our experiences change us and morph us into a wide range of people, but we’ve all got the same core, and that seems to be the key to all communication, compromise, and compassion.

Hank

While at the Jeff Busby campground, a black cat approached me.  It was clearly in desperate need of both food and affection.  I was confused, because this cat was familiar with people and its fur was in good condition, but it acted like a stray.  I asked around the campground to see if it belonged to anyone, and finally someone pointed out a sign on the billboard.  Officials are aware of a large number of feral cats.  They’re trying to round them up and rehome them.  Please do not feed them.  Well, too late.  This cat was already fed.  The cat had already come in the trailer and socialized with Peggy.  I began to consider taking the cat on my trip with me.  I’d get it checked out and could see if it would be a good fit on the road and with the dog.  If it didn’t, what would be the harm in finding it a no kill shelter, or better yet, directly finding it another home?  I left it out at night since I didn’t have a litter box, and sure enough, it was waiting outside the next morning.  I brought it with me when I left.  However, at the local(ish) vet, I discovered that the poor thing was chipped and already had an owner!  It was a neutered male, not a young non-spayed female.  This cat had strayed more than 10 miles from home and had been missing for an unspecified time.  He was a relatively recent rescue from a shelter, but the woman didn’t really like him.  He was too needy.  In her words, he kept mounting her older female cat.  Now that I have seen his behavior, I see that it’s not sexual mounting.  He “mounts” Peggy, but not how you might think.  He is just a little aggressive about his snuggling.  He likes to lay right on top of Peggy if he can, across her body, or even on her face.  I don’t think it’s a dominance thing.  He also lays at her butt and spoons with her.  He’s an opportunist snuggler.  For her part, Peggy seems to have mixed feelings about this.  At first she had a deer in the headlights look about it.  The more I pet her while he’s snuggling with her, the more she gets accustomed to it.  She seems to like it generally speaking, but late at night when she’s trying to sleep, she get’s up and moves if he’s too much.  I have caught them snuggling a bunch now, though, and it’s going well.  The owner did not want him back.  If I didn’t take him, he was going back to the shelter she had gotten him from.  I guess I can’t judge.  I don’t know the details.  It’s just hard for me to relate to.  It would take a lot for me to return a rescued animal, and I can’t imagine being indifferent towards any animal’s whereabouts or safety.  Anyway, now I have cat!  It’s going well, and I’m optimistic about it.

Nashville

On Saturday, finally having completed touring the Trace, I took a day trip to Nashville.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, or what I was even looking for.  I’m not a huge fan of country music.  I don’t hate it I guess.  I like good music, but I don’t gravitate towards country, especially the popular radio stuff.  I had skimmed a pamphlet, but it was packed with things I wasn’t interested.  I’ve seen my fill of museums and historical landmarks for the time being, and despite my time on the Trace, I wasn’t in a rush to head back into crowded cities.  I did a little internet searching, and started to get some information that worked for me.  First, I found a vegan place for lunch out near Vanderbilt University.  There’s a large city park and some music venues out that way.  Then I went downtown and checked out the Bourbon Street of Nashville.  It was fine, but I wasn’t immediately in love.  Then I started to make this area my own as well.  I passed by several bars until I found one with some decent live country music and a good beer selection.  Next I upgraded to a venue called the Listening Room where there was a scheduled show of 3 artists playing together.  They were all fantastic, one from Carlisle, MA, right near where I lived most recently.  The $7 cover was totally reasonable, and my day was definitely improving.  Like so many cities, I’m discovering that you can find what you are looking for if you scratch beneath the surface.  This was pretty good music!  It was not at all like the mainstream country that is so popular, and yet it was clearly still country.  It was nice to hear innovative music in this genre.  They call Nashville “Music City”, so I figured I’d continue my evening with a trip over to the Exit / In to see 2 more bands.  They were fine, but honestly, I liked the stuff at The Listening Room better.  Exit / In, though, has an impressive list of bands that have played there posted on their wall above the bar.  I’ve seen several, but so many more are on my to see list.

There is so much more to see and do in Nashville.  Now that I’ve gotten the lay of the land, I’d love to see more of it.  However, I find I’m feeling restless.  I’ve seen several cities already, and while my time on the Trace did have me outside and in nature more, I’m craving some serious outdoor activities.  It’s so challenging to keep everything in balance!  There are so many things I enjoy and want to include in my trip!  It’s a constant but pleasant struggle.  I have tickets to the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville.  It starts Thursday.  Today, Sunday, I relaxed with a movie and did some chores.  Tomorrow, I’ll head east in advance of the festival.  I’ll be able to have 2 or even 3 days of real hiking in the Smoky Mountains with Peggy.  I didn’t expect to be making a loop this early in the trip, but Knoxville is very close to
Asheville, NC.  Dedicated readers may remember my failed attempt to visit Asheville on my way out of Boston early in the trip.  I may hit that after the festival.

Knoxville, Big Ears

Ok, so I definitely should have posted what I’ve written up to this point instead of waiting.  As I write this portion, I’ve now been to the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville, hiked Mt Camerer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hiked Mt Mitchel in the Black Mountains National Forest, visited Asheville, driven to Chicago, and spent a weekend here visiting friends.  As with everything, I’ll have to hit just the high points, so here goes!

Maybe the first thing I’ll mention is that, since taking that down day, it’s been literally two weeks of non-stop activity.  Sympathy is not warranted or deserved, but I’m feeling a little wiped out!  Driving with Hank at first was horrible.  He barfed within the first 15 minutes, then would poop on the floor.  I started crating him, but that only served to keep the car clean.  He quickly coated the inside of the crate and himself in filth.  However, in desperation, I picked up some supplies in Asheville, and the drive to Chicago went much more smoothly!  He still cried, but fell asleep more quickly and did not have any “accidents”.  The trick was a liberal application of cat nip and pheromone spray.  We still took breaks, but he basically held himself together for a 14 hour day!

In Knoxville, or rather Maryville, I found a “Boondockers Welcome” home to stay at.  What an amazing and welcoming family!  The mom, Barbara, homeschools her two kids, and is a wonderful person.  They invited me in for dinner the first night, and we shared food, watched an episode of Heroes, and generally chatted for a while.  The topic of ice wine came up.  Since I was staying there for so long, about 5 nights, I went out and picked up a bottle for them as a thank you.  They in turn shared it with me on a separate night.  It was such a pleasure meeting them.

There driveway was my launch pad for all things Knoxvillian.  I started with a pretty substantial hike up a 5000 foot peek (3000 foot ascent).  Peggy and I ended up on a 16 mile loop covering about 5 miles of the Appalachian trail.  We hiked with Rachael, a through hiker who had started 3 weeks earlier and was covering 18 miles that day.  Meeting through hikers is just about the best thing that can possibly happen on a hike in my opinion.  They are super heroes, and they all have amazing stories.  Rachael was just finishing her work with the National Guard and this was her break before taking her life in a new direction.  She hopes to complete the route in about 5 months.  It normally takes 6 to 8, but she knew a trail runner who did it in under 5.  Good luck Rachael!  Peggy wants to do whatever I’m doing, and she can hike big mountains like a champ.  She took one power nap, but spent the rest of the time hurrying me along, that is, when she wasn’t pulling my arm off to sniff something … like what was most likely a bear cub.  I figured pulling her head off with the leash was better than being eaten by a mama bear, so I had no problem pulling hard against her unyielding and strenuous objections to moving on.  It was a beautiful day, but I was glad to be down.  My hiking boots feel more like light hikers than light back packers.  I’m used to a more rigid boot and my feet were feeling it.  I decided I wanted pizza and saw that there was a Mellow Mushroom nearby.  Imagine my horror when Gatlinburg punched me in the face.  Gatlinburg is a carnival, one big carnival of a town, and it appears magically, abruptly, and without warning, like an eruption of crassness from an otherwise pristine landscape.  I’m not knocking carnivals or people who like them, but this was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise given my day of peace and relative solitude in nature.  Still, I made the best of it.  Plus, I love the pizza at MM.

Big Ears is an entirely different music festival than Okeechobee.  Both were tons of fun with high quality acts, but Big Ears felt like a lot more adult of a festival.  I liked referring to it as the fine dining of music festivals.  Okeechobee felt more like a party.  At Big Ears, I went to see the symphony perform music by artists like Bryce Dessner.  I am a huge fan of Bryce’s work.  He and his brother play in a band called the National that I like a lot.  They are also heavily involved in the Boston music and art scene.  Big Ears is a city music festival where shows are spread across 8 venues that span about a mile.  Walking between them one night, I overheard an older couple talking about Bryce.  One said something like “Well, Bryce is …”.  During their pause, I blurted out “ … a genius?”.  They laughed and asked if I knew him.  I said no but mentioned some of his work that I liked, particularly an evening of performance art at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.  They knew exactly what I meant and then told me that they were his parents.  I couldn’t believe it!  We were headed towards the same venue and we talked the whole way there.  It was great.  I offered to buy them a drink when we got there, but they declined and we parted ways.  They seemed pleased to meet a real fan.  Big Ears also included performances by Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo, and Angel Olsen, a few of the main artists I went to see.  There were instrument specific performances like guitar, percussion, harp, etc. from big name and extremely talented musicians.  Often musicians would play collaboratively with each other.  For instance, Bryce played with Yo La Tengo, the conductor from the symphony, one of the harpists, and the a saxiphone player unexpectedly.  Lamb Chop played as a super group with Yo La Tengo as well.  Some bands played traditional sets of their own music.  Others played totally non-traditional more experimental sounding music.  There was trance inducing “drone” music, high energy music to dance to.  I loved every second of this festival and wish I could have bottled it up to take it with me.  I even bumped into people I knew there.  A friend from Chicago had come down to the festival.  I hung out with him and some of his friends at different sets and joined them for the free festival BBQ meal.  It included vegan food!  Knoxville is cool.  There are lots of great bars.  One in particular, not a Big Ears venue, did have live music similar to the festival music.  I wandered in there and was pleasantly surprised by an excellent local artist called Hudson K.  I visited a winery that I kept parking near as well.  It was perhaps the best wine I’ve tried on this trip!  The venues for the festival were interesting.  One was brand new.  Another was a church.  Two others were theaters with individual seats, one of which you were issued an assigned seat for.  This was a perfect festival for me, and it makes me excited just to think of it now.  I saw very few traditional performances.  There were so many different kinds of instruments integrated into the vast majority of the performances, sax, flute, and sooooo many different string instruments!  I saw almost no basic band set ups with a guitar, bass, drums, and singer.  Come to think of it, over the 3 day festival, only 1 comes to mind.  I enthusiastically endorse this festival.  I could happily write extensively about it, but I’ll move on now.

Asheville

Big Ears included a number of interesting film exhibitions, but sadly I made it to none of them.  I had every intention of it and a strong interest, but something always seemed to stand in the way.  There were actually a few films showing on Sunday.  The festival primarily ran Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  Sunday was a bit of an add on, or so it felt to me.  I wanted to see the Sunday offerings, but decided to move on.  I figured that if I headed straight to Asheville, I could have two non-travel days there, one to see the city, and one to hike.  I’d have a rushed and long drive to Chicago, but it seemed worth it, and it turns out I was right.  Monday, April 4, was my birthday.  I spent that wandering around Asheville with Peggy.  I found a vegan restaurant and a separate donut shop.  I had intended to head down to the River Arts District, but I never made it.  I also intended to hit several breweries to try the local offerings.  Clearly I need to go back to Asheville.  Peggy and I met so many friends at the first brew pub we went to, Wicked Weed, that we never made it to any others.  I spent hours sampling the beer and talking to a few different groups of people while Tame Impala played in the background.  I left there and found a new place for dinner, another vegan place recommended by Casey, the friend from the 311 shows in Nola.  The friends from the bar invited me out, but I was tired and wanted to get Peggy back to the campground.  It was very near town and super convenient.  When I had arrived on Sunday the 3rd, I had thought of heading into Asheville then, but I ended up hanging out with the group of campers next to me from the mid afternoon until late evening.  We played cards against humanity and a similar game involving ridiculous accents.  Then we had a camp fire, roasted marshmallows, and watched the walking dead outside in the dark.  It was kind of perfect actually.  I continue to be thrilled with the people I am meeting on this trip.  This continues to be such a rich, dense, and positive experience.  There is nothing I could possibly write that would even begin to convey the experience, but I hope you’re getting the gist from these ramblings.

On Tuesday, April 5, I hiked Mt. Mitchel, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.  Peggy and I took an 11 mile route that was largely up and back, but with an alternate path to make it vaguely into a loop.  The peak is also accessible via auto road off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Closed in winter, it had just opened on the first.  There were few people there.  I mostly had the mountain to myself.  The large parking lot was nearly empty and I was able to have a reasonably solitary summit experience.  Clearly this would not have been possible in the height of summer.  It reminded me of the summit of Mt Washington in NH which has both an auto road, the cog railway, and a large weatherstation with cafeteria on it.  You hike for hours and come out to senior citizens with walkers.  I’m glad its accessible to everyone.  It’s just a surprise when you come out of a trail to civilization unexpectedly, just like Gadlinburg.  I found the first third of the hike a little annoying, just a bunch of switchbacks up a rather steep hill.  However, the majority of the hike is beautiful.  They are having trouble with insects killing many of the trees, but it’s still a great hike with amazing views.  After I returned to the base, I drove down the parkway and went back up the mountain via auto road to get pictures in the near sunset light.  I could have done without the dude and his drone, but that’s fine.  Then I drove down the parkway to the closed end to see the sunset fully over the mountains.  I had hoped it would be open all the way back to Asheville, but it was not.  It was still too early in the season.  It appeared they need to clear the fallen rocks from the road.  The drive down to the parkway and down the mountain road back to the city was challenging in the dark, but manageable.  I made it back to camp and prepared for my 700 mile drive to Chicago the next day.

Chicago

Winterizing the trailer took longer than expected, so I got a late start to Chicago, leaving at 1 PM from south of Asheville.  Still, the drive was nice.  The ride through the mountains is breathtaking, but it takes a lot of focus.  The highway winds through up and down narrow passes and through tunnels appearing in quick succession, better than an amusement park ride.  I was due in Chicago by 7:30 AM on Thursday morning, but my late start meant that I only covered 500 miles by the time the animals and I were spent.  We pulled into a truck stop just north of Indianapolis and got 4 hours of sleep before getting up early to complete the drive.  At least we had the time change on our side!

I made it to Veronica’s parents’ house on time, but they live on a busy street.  I was able to back into their driveway successfully, but not on the first try.  I blocked traffic twice for a couple of minutes.  It was a challenging procedure and the added pressure didn’t help.  I backed the trailer into the neighbor’s mailbox and knocked it over.  I didn’t even know it was there!  Veronica’s dad, Carlos and I easily repaired it later that day.  By 8 AM, I was parked and we were on our way to pick up my friends Veronica and Meredith at the airport, just coming in on their flight from Boston.  We went out to breakfast and had a nice reunion.  Thursday was a pretty low key day.  We were all pretty tired.  Later that day, we met up with our friend Mike and went to a local bar. Sleep deprived and stuffed full of home cooking, I drank half a beer and promptly fell asleep at the bar.  Well, I was in and out.  We still had fun but called it an early night.  I slept in the next morning, sadly missing out on yoga with the friends.  I figured I’d have more opportunities to go with them, but I did not.  Friday we joined Veronica as she met a local friend for coffee.  There, we bumped into a highschool acquaintance of hers who suggested a different bar that night.  Mike and another friend of Veronica’s, Fouzia, joined us that night.  We all had a great time.  There was live music and a DJ who promptly ignored most of our requests, but not all.  This time, I had all of the energy.  We packed it in as the others got tired.  I was ready for yoga bright and early, but the others were feeling relaxed and sleepy, so we had a peaceful and quiet morning at home.  No complaints here!  Veronica’s mom had made delicious vegan scones, perhaps the best I’ve ever had!  It’s such a pleasure staying with her parents.  We’ve visited before, and they are always so welcoming and accommodating.  Her mom made sure to have ample vegan food on hand all weekend.  She cooked for us on Saturday night when we decided to stay in, and even after Meredith and Veronica left early on Sunday, they continued to invite me in all day.  I’m writing this Sunday night, and I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.  By the way, her mom’s mushrooms are quality.  My mouth is watering just thinking about them now.  I spent hours today hanging out with Carlos and Debbie.  They are so easy to talk to for hours.  As we had all weekend, we covered all manner of topics such as family, politics, my trip, their trips, etc.  During this weekend, we barely visited Chicago at all.  I don’t mind.  I’ve been here numerous times.  I love it, but was happy to hang out with my Boston friends and Veronica’s local friends and family.  Her sister even came down from Madison, WI to visit us as well.  We did head into the city briefly to check out an art museum that was having a Van Gogh exhibit, but we didn’t realize that it closed so early.  We had less than an hour there.  It was till fun.  We saw some really interesting things, although they don’t let you into the Van Gogh area that late in the day.  I did get to see the Ferris Beuler painting and American Gothic amongst other things.  We had a good time and were glad we went.

There were a number of “small world” connections this weekend.  We went to lunch on Saturday with another of Veronica’s friends.  Meredith also has a friend from college who lives in Chicago.  It turns out that this friend, Margarete, works at a hospital and is involved with a clinical trial being run by the company I just left.  She knows many of my old coworkers … including my ex, the one who would have been at that very lunch if we hadn’t broken up and she had come on this trip.  Weird.

I’ve been torn about what to do next when I leave the area.  There are many things I want to do in this region, but it’s cold.  It has rained and snowed while I’ve been up here.  As I mentioned, it was necessary to winterize my trailer just to come.  I’ll come back through when it’s nicer.  I think I’ll start heading towards Austin ultimately, but with many stops along the way.  I’ve made arrangements to hit stay at a winery outside of Cincinnati for the next few days.  This will give me a chance to see some of Ohio and Kentucky, two states I’ve never really seen as well as an opportunity to visit Emily.  I’m looking forward to that.  After that, I’ll probably head across to the west side of the Mississippi to hit new states, but we’ll see.  This past two weeks has been pretty agenda driven.  It’s been wonderful, but it’s taken me out of my blissful drifting through life place.  I want to slow down a little again and get back to that time and space for contemplation that I’ve talked so much about.  It’s true that I’ve begun to mull over what might come next career-wise, but there’s no rush on that.  I’m not done with the focus on personal growth that I consider so important, and I’m very happy that I have no further commitments of any kind for the duration of my trip at this point.

Leaving Florida & The Gulf Coast

Leaving Florida

It was finally time to start making my way out of Florida, but as the state is huge, and I hate missing out on anything, it has proved to take a while.  After leaving the Keys, I found a few nights of free lodging at a Christmas Tree Farm / Santa’s Village type of place with animals and a zip line.  There was even a fire pit I was invited to use.  I mostly just pet the petable animals and spent some time introducing Peggy to these strange new creatures.  She was all set with them, all except the rabbits.  I had to keep her away from those.  She wanted into their enclosure so badly!  She did sniff the adorable baby goats.  They cried out to me whenever I was in sight and I was happy to oblige with affection.  I don’t think they can accommodate guests in season, or at least not where I was parked, right in the middle of what would normally be the center of their operation.  The owner, Jack, said they get 5000 guests a day during those times.  He is exceedingly nice.  I found him through Boondockers Welcome.  I had power, water, and use of their public bathroom during my stay.  Jack refused to take any money in return.  I really enjoyed his facility and speaking with him.  It turned out to be a great launching pad (pun intended) for my central Florida activities on my way out.

The first order of business was to complete the truck repairs.  The windows for the cap had come in while I was in Costa Rica.  The guy at Cap World, also super nice, took $100 off for the delays in getting them in.  I am seriously meeting such wonderful people out here.  It’s amazing.  After that, I found my way to the Kennedy Space Flight Center, a more impactful experience than I expected.  The National Air and Space Museum in DC had been exhilarating, but at the KSFC, I found myself having a strong emotional reaction.  There was something more real about this.  This is where the work really happens.  Also, this visitor complex is dedicated exclusively to space flight, unlike the museum which is largely focused on earthbound flight.  Space flight is the work that I found most rewarding during my aerospace engineering tenure.  At the KSFC, you are immersed in the experience.  You see the actual launch pads, the crawlers, the astronauts!  It reminded me why I became an engineer.  It is often stressful and frustrating, but you can make such great things.  I still don’t know if I’ll go back to engineering.  I can’t imagine sitting in an office right now.  I’m typing this from the parking lot of a winery.  However, I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities and experiences I had.  I am tempted to describe in great detail all of the attractions of the center.  However, I would rather focus on the depth of my reaction to the place rather than the individual experiences of the day.  I will say that you should definitely bring your children here if you are at all interested in getting them into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

The next day I decided to finally take some time to volunteer.  I want to do more of that as I travel, but it’s hard.  I want to do so many things that even getting to each activity once takes ages.  Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary is worth a visit.  I loved it there.  I think the owner said she is in her 80s and that she converted the home she lived in with her husband, possibly now deceased, into this sanctuary.  It’s different than the other sanctuaries I’ve visited.  This one is much more focused on disabled dogs and cats.  There are farm animals too, but fewer of them.  I’m having difficulty remembering the owner’s name, but it is something like Fiona and so that’s what I’ll call her for this blog.  Fiona has been vegan since 1964, and she is amazing.  She has traveled the world extensively and lived in different countries.  She is well versed in different cultures and philosophies.  I think she could tell that I was not her typical volunteer and so she opened up to me a lot, I gather more than typical.  She mentioned that I remind her of her son.  I happily worked sweeping, mopping, mucking stalls, washing dishes, and moving horses, but I found that a lot of my service came in alternative forms as well.  Why not leverage my social skills?  I chatted with Fiona and the rest of the staff at length.  I think they get a lot of regular volunteers, so it seemed like a welcome breath of fresh air to get in a new volunteer with interesting stories.  This was great for me as well since I crave meeting people and hearing their stories.  That’s a big part of this trip for me, and the staff and volunteers there are so interesting.  Fiona says that helping people is as important to her as helping the animals.  She clearly has made an effort to provide employment and volunteer opportunities to people who might be in need for one reason or another (e.g. alcoholics, homeless, court ordered community service workers, etc.).  Not everyone is down on their luck, but they are all kind and work hard.  It was an absolute pleasure meeting them and being immersed in that environment.  I would go back in a heartbeat and I recommend that you do as well if you get the chance.  This operation is clearly a labor of love for Fiona.  She has given up a lot to be permanently situated and give so selflessly to the animals and people around her.  There is clearly a cost, but it seems like a decision she is happy with.  The needy animals do not get adopted out.  They live there until they pass, under constant care with volunteer veterinary support and other donations to help.  The animals are separated as necessary.  Cats are largely separated from dogs, and even certain types and demeanors of cats and dogs are separated from each other.  I found them all wonderful though.  I helped buddy get up from his bed when his hip dysplasia was acting up.  I also helped keep the beagles calm as one got laser treatment for his, was it arthritis?  I’m not entirely certain of that.  Regardless, I pet many things, talked to many people, helped a lot, and had a blast doing it.  It’s called Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary.  Please consider making a donation.

It took me a while to decide what to do next.  I got very into my head over analyzing my options, something I’m great at.  It’s simultaneously, perhaps, my greatest strength and weakness.  I could make my way quickly to South By Southwest, a bucket list music festival in Austin, not rush and spend time in the gulf, or attend the Okeechobee music festival just 2 hours away.  I finally recognized this as a growth opportunity, got out of my head, and followed my heart.  What I wanted in that moment was to go to Okeechobee, so I did.  It had a variety of advantages as well.  There was a lot of yoga and a spiritual element to it that blended nicely with my Costa Rican experience, it was close, I could camp there unlikely SXSW, and it was way cheaper than SXSW.  It also allowed for the option of at least one or the other, dawdling on the gulf coast or still attending SXSW.  I left Jack’s place and headed back south.  I know!  The wrong direction!  I dropped Peggy off with Phaedra in Vero Beach, another Dog Vacay house.  This one, by the way, was incredible.  Phaedra is a professional.  Her house and yard are immaculate and set in a nice neighborhood.  She’s clearly a dog expert.  I received many updates and Peggy was very happy.  On pick up, Phaedra gave me a care package for Peggy along with a letter that she helped Peggy write.  I particularly enjoyed hearing about Peggy’s first experience with ceiling fans.  I wish you could all meet Peggy.  She’s so sweet and adorable and capable of such apoplectic seizures when she sees something new and scary.

Okeechobee proved to be the perfect festival experience for me.  It was magical, and I didn’t want it to end.  City festivals are fun, but I prefer the outdoor middle of nowhere ones better.  I spent the night in a nearby truck stop so I could get there early on Friday, March 4.  The schedule was jam packed.  It just wasn’t possible to do everything, but I saw tons of bands, did a bunch of yoga, met amazing people.  I was tired for 2 days afterwards.  There were activities 24 hours a day, although I typically put myself to bed by 3.  I particularly enjoyed the giant bouncy fire breathing monster guy and the parachute we all hot boxed in.  Here again, it’s just not possible to share how wonderful it all was.  I wish it was.  I met a fellow traveler, AJ, who had spent a long time traveling the US and is planning a European backpacking trip this summer with his girlfriend.  He tried to keep a journal and always found that he was unable to convey the weight of his experiences no matter how much detail he included.  I very much enjoyed our brief talk on life, travel, and truly opening your mind to new possibilities.  It’s interactions like that that made the weekend special for me.  It wasn’t just the Kirtan, it was meeting the group after, down from Burlington VT and buying their CD.  It was going to acro-yoga, befriending a group from UCF, and then joining in an impromptu after class session where I learned to do a head stand, a real head stand!  I’m not even mis-using hand stand.  So cool.  It was going to Mumford and Sons, expecting to close out the festival on Sunday night at the reasonable hour of midnight, and instead going to the DJ section and giving a swing dance “lesson” and hanging out with new friends until much later.  It was going to the quiet “tea” area, passing out against a tree briefly only to wake up to a singer beginning an unexpected and wonderful set!  It was meeting Chase from Nahko’s band!  When I needed time and space to myself, I found it.  When I wanted time with others, they found me.  Honestly, I think most of my interactions with others were initiated by them.  It was as though I manifested comradery when I needed it, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of it.  I found spirituality, quiet reflection, loud music from a wide variety of genres, and good festival friends.  I do recommend checking out APigeon, a new artist I hadn’t even heard of.  Her performance commanded my attention and drew me in totally unexpectedly as I passed on my way to the bathroom.  It’s worth a listen.

 

The Gulf

Ok, now it’s time to leave Florida for reals.  I dragged myself out of bed on 4 hours of sleep, picked up Peggy, and drove out to the Florida pan handle.  It was a long drive.  Stopping for meals, adventures in searching for diesel fuel (fill early, fill often folks), and walking Peggy meant that it was after 9 by the time I covered the more than 400 miles that day, well, after 8 considering that I crossed a time zone.  My sister-in-law’s uncle is a park ranger there.  I was able to score a couple of free nights there along with a private tour of the cavern!  There were no other tours then either.  We had the cavern to ourselves.  It was beautiful.  Her uncle, Robert, is a super cool guy.  He greeted me when I arrived Monday night, and we took our tour at the end of the next day when there were no more tours waiting to go.  This was exactly the peace and quiet I needed following my crazy festival weekend.  By now I’ve decided not to go to SXSW.  It’s far, expensive, and encourages me to skip over too many sights too quickly.  I was glad to rest at the park, and even go hiking with Peggy.  Really, it was wading as the river had overflowed onto the river trail.  I had a very grounding barefoot hiking for a good part of it.  There’s so much joy in squishing mud between your toes.  I just made sure to keep an eye out for scary animals.  I also enjoyed my first camp fire of the road trip while at the park.  That realization surprised me, but it makes sense all things considered.  I called it a night as the fire burned low, and Peggy began to bark into the dark woods.  Peggy never barks, ever.  I took that as a sign that it was time to go inside.

I’ve decided to spend some time on the gulf coast.  There’s a conveniently located Boondockers Welcome location, but they didn’t respond to my e-mail.  The next best thing was a Harvest Host location, a winery only about an hour down the road from the caverns.  It was worth the stop.  This makes a better location to see the gulf beaches from.  Byron has some great wines and good advice on the area.  Both he and Robert suggested Falling Waters State Park, so I checked that out.  It’s small, but has interesting sink holes and a small waterfall that is apparently the biggest one in Florida.  By the way, I can’t wait to leave Florida if only for the small reason that I’m tired of typing Floriday all the time.  Why do I keep doing that???

Byron let me stay long enough to have a couple of non-travel days.  Those are so valuable since uprooting and moving even a short distance can eat valuable time.  I followed his advice and headed to the shore.  He recommended that I check out the beach in a less crowded location, so I headed down HWY 331, about half way between Panama City and Pensacola to Santa Rosa Beach.  The surf was crazy, so I was only able to go in up to my waste.  There were people on the beach, and a small area of shops, but it was clearly a smaller area.  It was a cloudy day, but the sun came out enough to enjoy the beach and a walk with Peggy.  I continued for a drive along the scenic HWY 98 along the gulf coast, headed towards a delicious vegan meal in Destin.  This was a fairly new establishment that I thoroughly enjoyed.  The food was great, décor to my liking, and owners I could really identify with.  I did pass through Pensacola just to see it, and ended up having a great time at a dog friendly brew pub!  Peggy sat in her bed next to my bar stool while I tasted a flight of beers and people fed her dog treats and love.  I met many people there and spent a long time talking to locals and fellow travelers.  Everyone was very interesting.  It was a varied group.  Carly came in with her dog Hank.  We talked for a bit too, and then I left.  There was another fantastic vegan place walking distance, Sluggo’s, that was great.  They have live music there, but nothing much going on that night, or at least that early.  After a great day, I headed back to the winery for the night.

I try to keep an eye on the weather as I travel.  Serious storms could destroy my trailer and end my trip in a heartbeat.  The high surf was an indicator of strong storms in the area.  As it turned out, there was a massive storm to the west covering several states and causing severe flooding.  Lousiana was hit hardest and many parishes were under a state of emergency.  I was torn between a need to flee and a desire to help with rescue and support activities.  I called the New Orleans emergency management office and left a message volunteering to help, but I never heard back.  I took that as a sign that I should stay clear of the storms.  I proceeded west, finally actually leaving Florida, but only as far as Mobile, AL, Spanish Fort to be specific.  I didn’t want to skip over AL and MS anyway.  I moved on Friday, March 10, but ended up waiting until Monday to see Mobile.  Casey, a friend from MA, texted to let me know that he was coming down to New Orleans on Saturday for 311 Day, a bi-annual 2 day festival of sorts.  The band 311 was big in the 90s, but has kept active and retained a strong following that gathers every other year, alternating between Las Vegas and New Orleans.  Casey came down for both days, and when he saw my posts on being in the area, he offered me his extra ticket for Saturday night.  I took Peggy with me and drove the 2 hours from Spanish fort to NO.  I had time to walk Peggy around the city for a bit before meeting up with Casey, as well as a couple of times after.  The rest of the time she slept in her bed in the back seat of my truck.  Casey and I caught up as we walked around the French Quarter and found still more amazing vegan food for dinner as well as a vegan hot dog place, food to go for after the show.  I am shocked how much delicious plant based food is out there across America.  I can’t wait for omnivores to try these places.  They’re delicious!  I have friends and family, omnivores, who love the places I’ve taken them.  Casey and I were in separate areas during the show, but it was tons of fun all the same.  We met up briefly afterwards, and I drove back to Spanish Fort that night.  I was tired, maybe even pushing the limits of safety, but made it home without incident.  I was due to make it back by 3 AM, that is until daylight savings time hit at 2 AM and Waze suddenly corrected my arrival time to 4 AM.  That suddenly felt so much worse!  I enjoyed my day in Nola.  It was overwhelming at first.  The main streets were mobbed with people and some of the vendors were pushy and unfriendly, but I quickly found joy in the city and decided to return in a few days.

The next day, Sunday, was beautiful.  I decided to go to brunch at the other vegan place in Pensacola, a place that Slugo’s had recommended.  They are also dog friendly.  The outdoor seating area was very peaceful, and the meal was great.  Carly was able to join me as well, which was nice.  I love meeting new friends and including them in my experiences.  After that, I went to Pensacola beach by myself.  Carly had other plans.  I was also pretty tired after a short night’s sleep, so I wasn’t planning on staying long.  I ended up staying for a few hours.  The beach is beautiful, and though the water was still rough, it was very nice.  The sand is white and smooth, the sun was shining, and spring breakers were everywhere.  I was never a beach spring break kind of guy, but it was nice to be able to visit it briefly, soak up some of the positive energy, and move along.  I napped on the beach, and even had a beer from the beach bar, a special treat.  After that, I returned to Meaher State Park at Spanish Fort.  The park, by the way is very small, but right on the water.  It was a great board walk with a nice view of the sunset over the Florida Keys like bridges of I-10.  It’s pleasant, to be sure, except that you really do need to spray around your trailer for ants while you’re there.  Do follow that guidance.  Fortunately, I wasn’t there long enough to pick up too many hitch hikers, and they don’t seem to have come along with me.

Finally, on Monday, I made my way into Mobile.  They have a museum that is an interesting combination of local art, a slavery / civil rights exhibit, other local history, and a rotating gallery which currently includes a King Tut exhibit.  The slavery exhibit is fantastic and horrible.  I was pleased to see that a southern state like Alabama had not white washed this atrocity.  It shines a spot light on the horrors and describes the city and state’s arduous struggle towards equal rights.  I was moved to such strong anger that I had to sit down and meditate to clear my head.  Racism is evil.  The era doesn’t matter.  The race doesn’t matter.  The reason doesn’t matter.  It’s evil, always and forever.  It is incompatible with love, compassion, and kindness.  We, as a species, continue to struggle with this concept.  The lighter portions of the museum helped calm me down, and I continued on enjoying my day.  Mobile isn’t a super trendy city, but it definitely still has some cool areas.  I found great street art, government sanctioned and clearly otherwise.  There was a wall with paintings of several famous musicians who have passed that I liked very much.  There was also a bar that was my speed with page after page of local beers on tap.  I tried a couple which I spoke with a guy named Challo, a mechanical engineer in the power plant industry.  He had amazing stories!  He has traveled the world for work, often spending long periods abroad.  He was down from Memphis, but I’d never have been able to guess where he might’ve been from.  It’s amazing how similar and yet completely different our lives have been.  I regret not getting his contact information.  What a cool guy.

Having no plan has really been working for me, and at this point, I really didn’t know what I’d be doing by the end of the week.  I did know, however, that I’d want to start heading north sooner rather than later.  I plan to visit my friends in Chicago in early April and wanted to get there slowly, savoring the trip.  I figured that I’d like no less than 3 weeks to get there, and there was a list of cities and other areas that I’d like to hit on the way up.  This gave me time to spend a couple of days in Nola, but I decided to leave the trailer in Mobile and just sleep in the truck.  I was beginning to think of traveling through Montgomery to get more of the AL flavor before heading north.  With the truck packed up Tuesday morning, Peggy and I headed back to New Orleans.  This time, I took a bus tour and got some advice from a friend who went to Tulane on what to do and see.  The tour ended up being informative and fun.  I learned a lot and saw parts of the city I wouldn’t have otherwise, the 9th Ward in particular.  There are still signs of Huricane Katrina there.  The city is beautiful.  I could live there.  Sure, the main drag is full of drunk tourists, myself included, but the architecture, art, music, and history run deep here.  I took a guided ghost tour, saw live jazz, and visited our country’s premier WWII exhibit.  Once again, I had a strong emotional reaction to the WWII museum.  This time, instead of fury at the oppression our country committed, it was sorrow for the total devastation brought about by the entire experience.  65 million people died, countless more were injured, cities and cultures were destroyed, and atomic bombs were dropped.  I had to fight back tears in their 4D movie, narrated by Tom Hanks.  This museum makes the war real and present in a way I didn’t think possible.  WWII was a horror show.  It damaged humanity permanently, in my opinion.  We’ll never fully recover from that wound.  In 10,000 years, it will still haunt us.  War is pure hell.  You can’t win a war.  You can only lose less than your opponent.  It’s clearly sometimes necessary, but it’s never good.  Much like in Mobile, I was able to find much cause to be cheerful in Nola after leaving the museum, and my good spirits returned.  On my drive back to Mobile, I decided to stop at the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi.  I’m not much of a gambler, but I enjoy the slot machines and also low pressure table games where you can meet people and socialize.  I played roulette and met more great people, a father and son on vacation together and a young couple.  We played together and all seemed to go up and down together.  Every time I gamble, I follow the same pattern.  Step 1, set a dollar amount up front.  Step 2, lose half.  Step 3, win some back so that you’re slightly up.  Step 4, gradually lose it all.  Step 5, leave satisfied.  This night was no exception, but I’m glad I stopped in.  It’s been about 10 years or so since I last gambled, and it was a fun night.

Sleeping in the truck proved to be very comfortable as well, and Peggy seemed very happy with the whole experience.  However, I think both she and I were craving some country time.  We’ve spent a lot of time in cities, and even our nature time hasn’t been very solitary.  Peggy is a trooper in the city, but she thrives in the country.  On the way to Nola on Tuesday morning, I had stopped in at a MS visitor center.  There I learned of the Natchez Trace Trail and Parkway.  It is a 440 mile parkway with all sorts of historical and nature sites off of it.  Merchants used to send their cargo to Nola on the Mississippi River, but then have to travel back north by land.  They used the Trace to get from Natchez to Nashville.  I decided to follow this exact route.  Natchez wasn’t entirely on the way, being 2 hours north of Baton Rouge, but it accomplished what I wanted.  I’d get to drive across rural MS and AL and end up in Nashville.  The drive to Natchez across MS was beautiful for the most part.  I passed through a national forest and other scenic areas.  MS has lush green rolling hills, trees like New England, large plots of land with mansions, regular homes, farms, and depressed areas of the kind you’d find in many states.  Peggy and I made this drive on Thursday, March 17, and we settled right in.  I’m realizing how active I’ve been.  I’m a driven person and get antsy when idle for too long, but I do find myself feeling a little worn out and needing to slow down for a bit.  Friday was meant to be total down time, but I found I needed to run some errands.  It was still a light day.  I made breakfast, and lunch.  Cooking has been a lot of fun for me on this trip.  A batch of vegan burgers I whipped up the other day has lasted for days, and adding new veggies and spices to left over beans and rice brought about delicious curry!  Then I found my way into Natchez with Peggy.  It’s right on the Mississippi river.  Peggy and I walked along it for a while.  We also checked out the town.  It’s a sweet place.  There are colorful buildings, historical landmarks, mansions, a nearby plantation, important cemetery and all manner of shops.  There’s a coffee shop and local brewery in town as well.  I enjoyed my visit and might find my way back in there for live music on Saturday night.

Incidentally, I’m all set with plantation tours.  I’ve seen them before.  As far as I’m concerned, they celebrate a dark period and upsell the glory and grandeur while downplaying the purchase and sale of human beings, tribal prisoners of war from another country.  I’ve heard the whole “Jefferson was nice to his slaves” thing and I’m not buying it.  I don’t care what else you may have accomplished, how great or nice you might have been.  If you owned slaves, ever, you’re a bad person.  How nice you were to them only makes you slightly less bad than a monster who abused them.  That being said, I do like the south.  It’s a beautiful and culturally rich place full of nice people.  As long as we all agree that slavery and racism was and are crimes against humanity that we’re all permanently sorry for, we’re fine.  Geez guys, sorry for the strong messages!  I’m leaving them in though.  These were my thoughts and reactions, so they’re very relevant to my trip.

Saturday, I began exploring the Natchez Trace.  I visited several local sites as a day trip.  I had intended to make it out further, but I stayed too long at the sites I visited.  Also, a park ranger gave me tips on local sites that are not directly on the parkway.  As a result, I saw more local to me here.  I think that I may add a stop along the way north to see more that the guide recommended.  Also, the Natchez visitor center had great guidance and information on the Trace.  I’ve got a pretty good idea of where I’ll be stopping and how long it will take me to get to Nashville.  It’s tentatively planned for next Sunday, about 9 days from now.  That gives me 9 or 10 days to get from there to Chicago which sounds reasonable to me.  Today I visited the second largest Native American ceremonial mound in the country.  It was huge!  Peggy and I sprinted around on top of it for a while before moving on.  Our next stop was a Trace Inn called Mt. Locust.  It had everything you’d expect, but I loved seeing it up close and personal.  I guess it’s the only intact one!  After that, I stopped at the Windsor Ruins, the largest antebellum home in MS I gather.  That is, until it burned down 120 years ago.  All that are left now are Roman looking columns.  It’s eerie and awesome.  The next stop was an abandoned town called Rodney.  It thrived for about 100 years, but then a variety of circumstances, not least of which being the route of the Mississippi River changing, caused the town to become abandoned.  There are people living there now, and the buildings are not in great repair.  The only thing that I was sure was part of the abandoned town was an old church and cemetery with signs all over it.  I wasn’t so sure about the rest of the area.  I did get to drive down some muddy dirt roads.  It’s fun to drive really fast on roads like that, but I kept it under control … mostly.  Other than the sites, I also took 3 hours or so to hike the Trace itself with Peggy.  We were situated on an out of the way stream relaxing when I realized we might have strayed into hunting territory.  In short order, a faint curious sound became hunting dogs barking and getting very close.  I threw my shoes back on and headed back to the Trace.  I had planned on going further, but I figured we had had enough and should move on.  I met Steve and Anne, down from Maine as I headed back towards the car.  We talked for a bit and I warned them about the hunter.  The Trace is beautiful.  I love how it has sunk due to weather and wear.  It’s such a great hike even though there’s no real elevation gain.  The last noteworthy thing from today was just the landscape I was driving through.  With the lush green grass, rolling hills, and even small ravines, I wondered in places if I was in MS or New Zealand!  I love the land here.  I can’t get enough of it.

During my hike today, I continued grappling with something that’s been on my mind, one of the primary areas of contemplation for me as I travel.  I have very much enjoyed my engineering career.  You’ll also remember how frustrated I’ve mentioned it being.  I took a step forward in my thinking on this, and I’d like to share it briefly here.  When you incentivize people to compete with each other, it creates an adversarial relationship instead of a collaborative one.  Different incentive structures can promote more or less collaboration, but in your typical office environment, regardless of company or industry, you often win when your coworker loses.  There are only so many promotions, raises, career opportunities, and general accolades.  This promotes negative behaviors.  Additionally, some people who aren’t even attempting to attain such rewards also bring in their own negativity.  For instance, I have seen a sensitive person use aggression as a defense mechanism and then react badly to far less aggression than they themselves employ.  Some people are simply very negative.  In the offices I’ve worked in, I’ve witnessed some great behavior and collaborative teams, but I’ve seen the negative side of things as well.  None of this is a surprise to you, I’m sure.  What did strike me was the realization that the amount of negativity I’ve been exposed to is neither generally acceptable or unacceptable.  There’s no global standard on such things.  It’s really a personal decision whether or not what you’re exposed to is ok or not, within reason anyway.  I have the option of using my new emphasis on compassion and empathy to discourage unhealthy behavior and promote healthy behavior.  I can also lessen the degree to which I am affected by another’s bad behavior by realizing that it’s about them, not me.  However, the thing that struck me most was the thought that its better to place yourself in a healthy environment than to find coping mechanisms for an unhealthy one, and you get to personally decide what’s healthy for you.  All of this is to say that I’m beginning to think that, while I am a good engineer, I may not be well suited for a standard office environment.  I am too affected by the negativity, and I don’t think it brings out the best in me.  This is something I will continue to think over.  More time and space might bring me to a place where I am well equipped to handle any such negativity.  However, in this moment, I want to find a way to move in a direction of increased peace and love and less thinly veiled hostility.

I always hate wrapping up a blog post.  It’s difficult leaving out so much important detail, experiences, and lessons learned along the way.  I hope you’re all enjoying this and I welcome your critical feedback if you have any.

 

To Costa Rica & Back

Costa Rica

It’s taken some time to be ready to write about Costa Rica.  I’ve decided I can’t write about it in my typical style.  For it to make sense, I’ve got to unpack a little of my philosophy.  Bear with me and you’ll find all of the normal light and care free accounts of adventure that you might have already become accustomed to.

I’m on this journey for several reasons.  I’ve mentioned some already, but here’s a more comprehensive list of what it is and is not.  For starters, I am not lost.  I know who I am and am happy with myself.  I’m not in crisis.  This has been a long time coming.  However, this trip is much deeper than simply an extended sight seeing vacation.  I went to school for mechanical engineering, starting 20 years ago.  I gave myself permission then to stop and re-evaluate my life when I approached 40.  I’m not quite there yet, but I’m close.  One big aspect of this trip is giving myself time and space for life to present me with options for me to choose from or for me to be inspired to go start something new.  My work has always been impactful and positive.  I need the next thing I do to be as well which brings me to the next big thing.  I am motivated to be my best self, and to help others do the same.  I come from a perfectly reasonable background.  I’m not seeking redemption, but I realize that I am further from perfect than I need to be.  I care deeply for my fellow man and dislike a survival of the fittest approach.  I think that almost every global problem could be solved or at least improved by a large scale increase in compassion.  This trip provides me with time and space for reflection on this topic.  It’s important to note that this is strongly related to my first point on my next career.  Whether or not I return to engineering or I leverage my skills in some other way, I want the output to be truly helpful, perhaps to those most in need.  Even if I’m wrong, the world can only be improved by increased compassion.  Perhaps equally entwined in this is contemplation on what type of relationship I’m looking for.  I’m not specifically looking for anyone, but I want to be sure that whoever I’m with helps me be my best self.  They need to be their own person, but it would be great if they helped bring out characteristics of kindness, lack of judgement internally or externally, tolerance, patience, and love.  This extends to friendships and other types of relationships.  Do they bring out the best in me or do they take me backwards?  Lastly, and also somewhat related, where do I want to live?  How long do I want to stay in one place?  Do I want to go back to home ownership or is something simpler for me?  Basically, I’m reevaluating everything.  This entire trip is about adventure and excitement, but it is much more about a journey of personal growth and exploration.  It’s very personal and specific to my circumstances.  Perhaps most people never need to go on or seek out such a journey, but I do and am.

Costa Rica was so difficult to write about originally because it was a flood of experiences on all levels I just described.  The staff was a group of professionals with deep and long term personal and business connections.  They were formally trained experts in nutrition, yoga, spirituality, and more.  They were inspirational, living as a group the kind of life that I aspire to live.  I rapidly formed strong bonds with all of them.  I wish strongly to tell you all about each one, but I tried, and it’s beyond my writing skill to do so in a reasonable number of pages.  Let’s just summarize by calling them amazing.  The retreat attendees were mostly hand picked and also had long term personal relationships with the staff, and I bonded equally well with them.  I think I was the newest kid on the block, and they accepted me in and made me feel right at home.

The retreat was just one week.  It was a lifestyle retreat with cooking classes, lectures on various related topics, frequent yoga and meditation.  We were walking distance to a magnificent beach, and to a street full of shops including a surf shop, smoothie bar, cold pressed juice truck, open air market, and a few bars.  Our own facility was gated and included a pretty large pool.  Our open air yoga studio was set one flight up in the trees.  We ate on a large porch.  Bugs were at a minimum due to the unusually strong wind that howled for days and may also have churned up whatever we all got, possibly shigella.  Half the group was taken fully out of commission with extreme digestive distress, and half the group was only in relatively minor discomfort.  I missed was in the latter group, missing only a single yoga class.  I consider myself lucky.  We all took the challenges in stride, even the power and water outages.  Sure there were struggles and some low points, but everyone seemed very glad to have attended the retreat and had gotten a lot out of it.  We had so much fun together.  There was a group trip to Samara, a town about 40 minutes drive from Nossara where there was a restaurant with a mouth watering vegan burger.  They also had a beautiful beach and many shops to visit.  We did QiGong on the beach at sunset.  Paddle boarding was another fun group activity.  One of the staffers, Jess, was trained in African dance, so we had a dance class on the beach to drums we brought down.  I have to say that I’m an amazing African dancer which would be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt if there were video.  Too bad for you that there’s not!  I approached everything at this retreat with childlike enthusiasm, which is how I approach most things if I’m honest, and the dancing was the same.  I had gone for a long solitary walk down the beach.  It didn’t stay solitary for long as I met a local American expat and chatted with her for quite a while.  When I realized what time it was, I made my way towards where the dancing was scheduled to be.  I sprinted towards the group when I heard the drums and joined them just as they were starting.  I’m not sure if anyone was surprised as I leapt out of nowhere into the group and picked up like I had been there all along.  There was so much more to this first week, but I find this the best place to move on.  I will mention that Ila, the massage therapist, has magical hands and a sharp mind and kind heart.  My session with her was perfect.  Kendra is a yoga master given that she was able to get me into some challenging arm balance postures in our one on one session as well.  I hear I was catching the attention of other retreat attendees!  Ok ok, moving on.

I was having tons of fun in Costa Rica, but more importantly, I was getting a lot out of it.  I felt I was really connecting with my sense of possibility and purpose on this trip, that the staff had created a safe place for me, a place where I truly could be my best self now and see the even better self that I strive to be.  Instead of baby steps, it seemed as though I was taking giant leaps forward in my journey of personal growth.  I didn’t want to leave, and it turned out that I didn’t have to.  There had been a cancellation for the second week.  The staff was running two retreats back to back at the same facility, and the new spot was up for grabs.  After a couple of quick phone calls and e-mails, mostly to make sure Peggy would be all set, I confirmed my spot.  This was perfect!  The plan on this trip is to have no plan.  When opportunities arise, I intend to take them, as often as possible anyway.  That expat, Alison, told me about an additional certification program at Nossara Yoga Institute later in March.  I very much want to go back for that, but I feel I must move on with my US road trip instead of going back to Costa Rica.  It’s a shame though, because that program does sound perfect for me.  Maybe I’ll change my mind last minute and go!

The second retreat was different by design.  It allowed for much more R&R.  It was still catered with vegan food, but mostly did not include the cooking class or lectures.  There was plenty of yoga and meditation.  I had Thai body work with Jamie which was amazing.  I felt it synced up perfectly with my yoga practice and with the retreat.  I also got to spend more time with Jason who had some truly engaging spiritual perspectives.  This was a more diverse group of attendees.  Some were very engaged with their yoga practice and were very mindful while others were just there with spouses, friends, or family.  It was still a fun group though.  Penny has amazing stories and her daughters Sela and Leah are wonderful.  Rick is an extrovert’s extrovert and is awesome.  There were so many others I want to write about, but I’ll have to save that for another time.  I still bonded strongly with everyone, but I took more personal space.  I rented a motorcycle, or was it a dirt bike?  Based on the roads there and the fact that it was just a 125cc Honda, it was kind of a cross between the two.  I took an all day beach tour along the road to the north of Playa Guiones making it most of the way to Santa Cruz.  I got to keep practicing my Spanish with Claudia, one of the retreat center workers, I took a surfing lesson and rented a board for the week.  It turns out that I can surf!  A lot of my experience carries over (e.g. snow boarding, water skiing, boogie boarding, etc.).  However, I was till humbled.  I think I need another lesson or a lot of practice.  I bury the nose of the board on bigger waves because I don’t pop up quickly enough.  This results in a flip and sinuses full of salt water.  Guess what.  You don’t always know when you’ve got sinuses full of salt water.  Want to know a good trick to find out?  Go into downward dog.  Oh, and don’t try this in class!  I should have known.  It was just like when I went snorkeling with Emily and didn’t seal up my beard from the goggles.  No one got sick the second week and the weather improved significantly.  However, this also meant more bug bites.  I’m pretty sure I’m a carrier for all possible mosquito borne illnesses.  I can already feel my head shrinking.  Zika works that way, right?

A reduced staff was necessary for this week, so fewer were around at the center.  Luckily I was invited to visit them at their off-site house as they had all stayed local.  They’re a great group and I hope to stay in contact with them long term.  There were also opportunities to hang out with them at the beach or to grab a drink with them.  I also did more with the new retreat attendees.  We all went horseback riding.  The front of the pack had a great time, the back of the pack had trouble with inexperienced riders on rowdy horses.  More experience, calmer horses, or better supervision would have solved the problem.  However, as it was, there was an … unplanned dismount.  All’s well that ends well though.  Most people enjoyed the ride none the less.  I was thoroughly enjoyed my ride at the front having had years of riding lessons and a well behaved horse.  I have so much more to share, but I’ve got to move on in order to avoid writing a book.

Back to the Keys

You might expect that returning to my road trip would feel strange after my time in Costa Rica, but I settled right back in.  However, I do feel as though I’ve been able to carry a lot of my experience with me, and that the progress I made on my path was real and permanent.  It has been a great week back.  I’m writing this portion on Sunday morning, a full week after returning.  Tomorrow I will leave the Keys.  I have a few more things to do in Florida.  I have to complete the service on my truck, I’d like to see the Kennedy Space Center, and volunteer at Journey’s End Animal Sanctuary.  If possible, I might try to see more caverns in north Florida as well before heading west.  I plan to hit Mobile, see family in Mississippi if they’re free, see New Orleans, and move on to the South by South West Festival in Austin.  I scored a camp site a little far from the city but not too bad.  It’s cheap and will be a great place for Peggy.  I’ll be able to escape the crowds there too.  I plan to arrive on March 14th.  After the festival, I’ll start heading towards Chicago to visit friends in early April.  It would be cool to head through Nashville, TN and Kentucky on the way.  It’s much of a detour.  I don’t like having too much of a plan though, so we’ll see what happens.  That all just happens to fit well I think.  I feel a little intimidated by SXSW, but I’ve always wanted to see Austin, and I’m excited to see some of the bands.  I’m sure I’ll meet tons of people.  I do everywhere I go, even in this past week, so back to that.

Much like with my Costa Rica account, I’m going to summarize and hit the high points.  It’s been another jam packed week full of technology beyond our comprehension (inside joke, you who get it know who you are.  I think they may need a laugh today).  This week I’m pretty sure I was approached by a prostitute, either that or the most forward woman I’ve ever met.  I respectfully declined.  Peggy had many swimming lessons which always ended with a happy wagging tail.  I visited several beaches in the Keys and was pleased to finally start finding them.  On one day, I decided to swim out to an island off the beach.  It was diagonally away from the beach, towards one of those channels that run under the long bridges.  I was warned about the strong current, but am a strong swimmer and an optimist, so I went for it.  I’m glad I did.  It was super cool.  There was a dead (and stinky) shark, several bird bones including intact wings, hermit crabs climbing a tree which also had a comical carving in it “so and so f***ed here”, some interesting shells, and just some peace and quiet.  The swim back was the real challenge.  It was necessary to follow two sides of a triangle, like a sail boat tacking, to get back.  It was fine, but I had to swim harder than expected to make headway.  I could have gone longer, but I was glad when I made it back.  In calmer waters I could have swam for much longer a distance.  As it was, I was glad not to find myself in the gulf of Mexico.

I left the keys on two different day trips as well, one was to the Everglades which included a soaking airboat ride.  We got back wetter than other boats.  The driver seemed to know we were loving it.  It reminded me of the jet boat ride I took in New Zealand.  It was a little cold for the gators to be out, but I enjoyed the birds and varying landscape.  How much muddy glades water is it safe to ingest?  I’m counting on my amped up Costa Rican immune system to kill all the germs.  There were plenty of gators in the zoo portion of the park.  I have a complicated relationship with zoos of all kinds.  They do great work of educating, take in and care for wounded animals, and generally do some great work.  Animals are often well cared for.  However, they’re still in confinement and not free to live as they normally would.  I guess they’re not all created equally.  Some go to great lengths to provide large open spaces that mimic their natural habitat.  Regardless, this was a really cool place.  They had alligators and crocodiles of all sizes along with lots of birds, turtles, tortoises, and various other critters.  While out and about, I visited a farm stand called Robert Is Here which had amazing guacamole.  Additionally, a tour of a nearby garden was really quite stunning.  They had a poisonous plants section as well as other plants from all over the world, grouped geographically in large part.  Visitors are encouraged to eat the ripe fruits that fall, but not much was in season.  I did get to try various bananas and a few fruits I can’t remember the names of.  Jack fruit is huge!  It makes a great vegan pulled pork equivalent by the way.  There were some very interesting people who had fangs and crazy tattoos, one from Salem, MA, the other from Queens.  They were very nice and fun to talk to.  One had been raw vegan for some time.  There was just time at the end of this day to squeeze in a visit to an orchid farm in the area.  The grounds there are breath taking.  They tolerated my visit as they were closing which was kind.

My second day trip out of the Keys included a visit to the Perez Art Museum in Miami.  I want to live there.  That is EXACTLY my kind of art.  There were big installations, deep dark powerful messages and experiences communicated in intriguing ways by the artists, and light and playful experiments with shape, colors, and concepts.  I’m always drawn to the dark and intriguing stuff most though.  It always seems the carry the most weight, most important messages, and be the most intriguing.  Sometimes I like to learn about the artist and their intent, and sometimes I just like to absorb it at face value.  A potter made beautiful works until he learned he was dying of AIDS in the early 90s, his work got very dark after that.  Another artist was in a car accident as a child.  She told the story to small children and asked them to recount the story on video sometime later.  Losing her mother in that accident and her personal experiences with the hospital were gripping.  Still another artist was motivated by oppression and had strong messages of revolt and uprising.  Then there was a wall of beautiful sunrises and a variety of joy inspiring paintings.  I let some videos speak for themselves like the one with a Haitian man recounting dreams and his path towards belief in vodou and a much less straight forward one that defies explanation.  I could have sat and enjoyed many of these works for hours on its own.

After leaving the museum, I decided to drive down the main drag of Miami Beach.  I had a feeling that it might not be my scene and that I might not go there again, so I made a pass through.  I’m working on letting go of old patterns of judgment and just accepting things and people for what / who they are which also goes for myself.  I can say this for the strip.  People all seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I am happy for that.  However, I was not motivated to find parking to check it out further.  There was a time in my past where I would have been excited by this place.  There were numerous bars, bright shinny shops, various retail offerings, smoke shops, restaurants, etc.  What’s wrong with that?  For me, though, it all just seemed a little too polished and fake.  It was designed to be overstimulating and to help you escape and disconnect from reality.  I cannot imagine feeling calm, grounded, and in touch with nature in that environment.  It makes me think of a highly refined and processed food.  It may taste good, but it’s not the experience I’m looking for right now.  Give me open spaces and real, grounded people.  A trip to India right might be more my speed.  I know it’s crowded, but a friend of mine has invited me to visit his home at some point, and I intend to take him up on it.  He says that it’s not glitzy at all, perhaps the kind of place that occasionally lacks doors and windows but has wonderful people and culture.  That sounds perfect.

During this week I’ve cooked, made smoothies, and eaten well as inspired by my Costa Rican experience.  I’ve also tried a handful of new restaurants too.  The one I tried last night after the museum was great.  It was near Miami Beach in a hotel and was pretty classy, but I sat at the bar in my flip flops, baseball had, ripped jeans and T-shirt and was accepted instantly.  It turns out that the owners share my outlook on life almost identically.  I talked with them and their staff for my entire meal.  I would have stayed longer, but needed to get back to Peggy.  They want to start a sustainable community somewhere and are considering Costa Rica.  They are very well informed and were curious about my trip overall and my recent retreat experiences.  The food was also fantastic.  You should go there if you’re ever in Miami.  It’s called Full Bloom.

Ok, well I’ve got to bring this to a close.  I wish you could all be on this trip with me, and I hope you’re enjoying my account of it.  I miss you all, whether I’ve known you for a long or short time, but I’m safe and happy and doing very well.  Peace and love!

South Florida, pre-Costa Rica

Key Largo – Still

I continue to thoroughly enjoy the Keys.  Spending time with Emily is great, and I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of what the Keys and southern Florida have to offer.  Thursday ended up being a good and generally low key (badumdum) day with Emily.  We enjoyed some quiet private time together relaxing, walking Peggy, going back to the Mindful Mermaid for delicious vegan lunch and smoothies.  We also fed the birds at the camp site.  Emily have given them all names like white bird, brown bird, and skinny neck.  She knows their breads, but these names are more individual and more fun.  They’ve all got unique personalities.  Brown bird is a punk, for instance.  He’s even got the “hair” to match.  Feeding them isn’t entirely vegan, but I figure it’s not a common activity for me, they’re going to eat fish whether or not I feed them, and they’re just so adorable!  The seagulls are able to fly as a flock, appearing to hover in place thanks to the wind.  It was a masters class in areal combat.  Pelicans of different colors just walked under them to get their meal.  If you hold a small fish out, you might get lucky enough to get accidentally “bitten” by one.  It’s hilarious!  It feels weird and doesn’t hurt at all.  I think it startled them as much as me.

 

Key West

On Friday, I took a road trip to Key West, the southernmost point in the US apparently.  The drive down the keys is beautiful.  I love long bridges and high places.  Shades of light blue and turquois surrounded me as far as the eye could see.  There were many places to stop and take in the scenery.  Peggy and I walked along a bike path for a bit and then onto the shore near 7 mile bridge.  She loved the smells, and decided to roll in the seaweed.  Oh well.  She cleans up nicely.  A lot has been going on for me lately, and I really needed to clear my head.  I decided to go for a run.  It would tire Peggy out and she’d sleep more soundly for whatever periods I might need to leave her in the truck in Key West.  The truck is an extended cab model with a large sunroof.  I leave her in her comfy bed with food, water, and toys when I leave her inside.  She sleeps quietly and peacefully in there.  We ended up running 4 miles along an old vehicle bridge that is now closed to traffic.  It must have looked funny, because I hadn’t planned on running and was in jeans.  The sun was strong and felt wonderful, and it was neither in my eyes nor directly bearing down on my back tattoo, fortunate since I wasn’t wearing sunscreen.  I took my shirt off and just enjoyed the warmth.

Key Largo reminds me a lot of mainland Florida, but the lower keys are less developed.  They’re more nature focused with snorkeling, biking, scuba diving, etc.  That’s more my speed.  I was just passing through and it was already getting late in the day, so I wasn’t able to check it out in detail.  I’ll definitely head back there though.  Key West is a strange place.  It’s an odd mashup of Martha’s Vineyard, New Orleans, and Las Vegas.  There are low end touristy t-shirt shops, a bazillian bars, tattoo parlors, strip clubs, and I’m told an all male private nude swimming pool.  There is also fine dining, breathtaking art galleries, yachts, family trolley tours and upscale boutique shops.  Most of this is all on Duval St.  It was fun to visit.  I was all about the art galleries, and also the adorable wild chickens.  I followed a mother and her several chicks down a sidewalk for a bit.  The whole thing is a bit of sensory overload for me, and definitely for Peggy.  I walked with her for a while, but it was clear she was glad when we made it back to the truck.

I walked the full length of Duval St. from the southernmost pole to the plaza where everyone gathers to watch the sunset.  There, I met a family from Worcester, MA, about 30 or 40 minutes drive from my home town.  They had friends up from southern Jersey.  Liz was from Brooklyn and knew all my favorite vegan places there.  They were all pretty cool.  John and I talked motorcycles for a bit, and I stayed with them to have a drink or two.  They were down to celebrate Liz’s mom’s 50th birthday.  They invited me out to dinner with them, but it was getting late, and I wanted to get back to Key Largo before it got too terribly late.  I also didn’t want to leave Peggy in the truck for too long alone, although she didn’t seem bothered when I got back.  I decided to walk for a bit longer and have some water just to be sure I was entirely clear headed for the drive back.  Along the way, I saw people taking pictures of the end of Rt 1 sign.  Someone offered to take a picture of me next to the sign.  I stood on the street side of the sign, but the photographer suggested I stand on the other side so I’d look taller given the slight incline of the sidewalk.  I had a better idea.  I climbed to up the pole creating a much better picture in my opinion.  I headed back to Key Largo and was there by a reasonable time, but I am sorry that I didn’t go to the birthday dinner.  I really liked that whole family.

 

Katie’s Wedding Reception & Clearwater

On Saturday, I left for my sister’s wedding reception in Clearwater.  I did manage to back down the causeway successfully.  I’m at the point where I can make the right moves to back up the trailer, but the moves I make are big and clumsy.  It’s coming along though.  Katie’s reception was perfect.  My mom and John were there and I liked Steve’s family and their friends.  It was nice to relax with familiar faces.  I love meeting people, but even for an extrovert like me, constantly meeting new people and getting excited about it can be a bit tiring.  Katie invited exactly the right number of people to comfortably fill her house and yard.  We played Cards Against Humanity later, “a card game for horrible people” according to the box.  It was this group’s first time playing, and it was awesome.  If you’ve never heard of it, there are black cards that the dealer reads out.  You use the white cards to fill in the blanks on the black cards and the dealer picks the best one.  The cards are written to comically bring out your dark side.  We all had fun.  Katie’s friends are fantastic.  I like them all.  Apparently she and I both have a British friend named Paul.  Karla knows all about great music, and her other friends are just plain cool.

I spent the night parked in front of Katie’s house.  The truck bed cap needs service, and I scheduled the work up near Orlando when I was visiting my mom.  Heading back to the Keys has to wait until that is done.  Katie suggested I park in her yard and stay until I’m ready to head back south.  So sweet!  I decided to spend Sunday taking Peggy to Clearwater beach and down the coast from there to St. Pete’s.  Vida De Café is a vegan restaurant I wanted to try there.  I visited a few of the beaches along the way, but never for long.  None seemed to be dog friendly.  I found places to walk Peggy though and she had a good day.  I walked along one of the beaches for a bit and saw several pretty shells.  No one was in the water.  It was cold, and the beaches smelled a little fishy.  There were no lifeguards.  I’m glad I went though.  St. Pete’s was cool.  I hope I get to go back there for the other vegan options and juice bars.  They have a rescue dog at Vida, Roxy, that is a different bread than Peggy, but very similar in temperament.  She’s super cool, and the food was amazing.  I had some lettuce wrap tacos, sushi, and key lime cheesecake with strawberry topping.  I loved every bite.  I met Shelby there, currently a local.  I enjoyed talking to her.  I also met a guy just outside who plans to open his own coffee shop.  He’s passionate about it and really into the science of it.  Being as into brewing as I am, I got where he was coming from.  I headed back to Katie’s for a low key evening.  My timing was good as I dropped in on Katie’s Facetime conversation with our sister Michelle.  It was good to catch up with her since she is likely moving to Missouri soon.  That’s great as far as I’m concerned.  It’s one more place I can visit and rest!  All in all it was a big family weekend and I loved every minute of it.

 

Cap Repairs

On Monday morning I headed up to Cap World for service.  They were able to fix the brake light and tail gate, but the windows didn’t come in.  I’ll have to come back later.  I’ll be in FL for a bit longer due to regional weather, spending time with Emily, and logistics around my trip to Costa Rica, so it should work out.  The drive through Tampa traffic was intense, and there were a few minor adventures.  Sonic seemed a reasonable place for a bathroom break.  It was occupied, so I waited.  It was quiet in there for a while and I started to wonder.  Then a couple came out.  He didn’t make eye contact, but the look on her face was priceless.  Her head was tipped slightly back, and her mouth hung open a bit.  Her eyes were half closed.  I’m not sure if I was looking at afterglow or some kind of faux and poorly executed snootiness as if to say “I’m above judgement on this matter”, but what do I know?  Maybe they just needed a quiet place to prepare their taxes.  Either way, good for you guys.  It was before 10:30 on a Monday morning and here you are making the most of life.  Just next time, not when I have to pee so badly!

 

Winter Park

After the work on the cap was finished, I headed up to Winter Park.  There’s a vegan restaurant called Daya there.  It was delicious.  I got the buffalo seitan with blue cheese, a portabella burger, truffle fries, and kombucha.  The weather was perfect for sitting outside under the Seadog Brewery umbrella.  I found this odd since Seadog is headquartered in Maine.  They have other brewpubs in New England, but I had no idea they had locations as far as FL.  Sure enough, they have at least 2 in FL.  After my meal, I walked around Winter Park.  It’s a nice place.  Well manicured with numerous shops and restaurants along the main street.  It’s much quieter than Key West, a totally different vibe.  There were no visible tattoo shops or low end shot glass displays.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my tattoo and do think about getting another inspired by this trip.  I’m just saying this place was more country club and less Bourbon Street.  In fact, as I walked, I passed their golf course, gated school, and beautiful houses guarded by tall shrubs.  This place has money.  A long strip of park runs parallel to the main street, and it is filled with interesting art.  I love big weird art.  Installations are my favorite.  This park included not one buy two pillow sculptures, a large white sphere, a few fountains, and a standing structure that sheltered ornate cylinders with embedded brightly colored glass.  This park was wonderful, yet another example of the random awesomeness I’m seeking to encounter on my trip.  Rather than loiter here all day, I decided to move on.

 

Cigar City Brewery

Home brewing is a hobby of mine.  I’ve done it extensively making beers like a vanilla bourbon oak stout, strawberry blonde, and clones like Anchor Steam and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. I love visiting breweries and intend to hit several on my trip.  On a tip from a friend, I headed from Winter Park back towards Katie’s house in Clearwater.  On the way I’d pass several breweries, two in particular being highly rated by Beer Advocate.  If you haven’t heard of them and you’re into craft beers, I recommend checking them out on line.  I first visited Angry Chair, but they are closed on Mondays, so I moved right along to Cigar City.  I was not disappointed.  They have an extensive selection available for tasting.  Unfortunately, they don’t offer tours on Monday, but that was no issue.  I sat at the tasting bar for a long time enjoying 8 samples.  Looking at my 2 tasting boards, it became clear that I was in the mood for dark beers.  I did love the Jai Alai, an IPA, their flagship I gather.  I enjoyed the stout, porter, red, boch, and more.  You’d think that, as much as I love brewing and tasting beers, that I’d have a great knowledge of what’s on the market and memory for what I’ve tasted and not.  In fact, I don’t.  I have a great memory for many things, but high numbers of facts encountered once is not among them.  Therefore, all I can tell you now about the beers I tasted that day is that they were delicious and you should definitely go try them.  I may go back they were so good.  Bring your binoculars though.  The tasting room is awesome, but there are no beer menus.  There is one big screen TV above the bar that lists the beers, but there are so many that the font is very small.  I wasn’t the only one who had to walk up to the bar right in front of it and squint.  The bartender called it a common complaint.

While at Cigar City, I met a guy who works for the FBI investigating white collar crimes.  He told me about some cases, all public information, that were very interesting.  One guy had been defrauding hospitals.  He was arrested on his way to one and wet his scrubs in a spectacular manner when he was arrested.  Other cases involve mortgage fraud, both on the individual and institutional sides.  It’s largely civil as I understand it, but I’m glad that people are being held accountable for their role in the financial crisis.  This guy was really cool.  We talked and compared thoughts on life, ladies, family, and beers for quite a while.  It was nice to meet a Texan who didn’t fit the stereotype.  That’s turning out to be a pleasant surprise on my trip, how wrong stereotypes are.  I’m sure there’s more than one Yosemite Sam in Texas, but it’s nice to see other types well represented as well.

Monday was the first day I experienced proper feelings of homesickness.  I am having a wonderful adventure and I’m nowhere near finished, but I miss my friends and family.  Perhaps it’s because this past weekend was so family focused that it reminded me of home.  I’ve been connecting with friends and family all along, but I do miss them all.  They are all very important to me.  I may be meeting some of them in Chicago in early April, weather permitting and provided I’m not 2000 miles away from there at that point.  I’d like to make that happen.

 

Tuesday, February 2, Travel Day

Tuesday was a pretty low key day.  I got up and prepared to leave Katie’s to head back to the keys.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing Emily again.  We’ve been talking and texting every day since I left the keys, but I can’t wait to go have more adventures with her.  I needed to wait for a package from Amazon which naturally arrived 20 minutes after I decided I couldn’t wait anymore and left.  I got Katie’s message hours later.  Oh well.  I’ll get it later.  It’s an adapter that will let me plug a regular extension cord into an external building outlet and supply that power right to my 30 Amp input on the trailer.  You have to be careful when doing this.  You can’t turn on everything you could normally.  If you try, you could damage your equipment or trip the circuit in the house.  I realized I needed this, though, when Katie offered me power and I couldn’t access it.  It was no big deal at the time, but it is something I’d like to remedy.  I’ve discovered that there are some great ways to find places to stay for free.  So far I’ve found 2 networks.  One connects you with businesses, Harvest Hosts, and one with residences, Boondockers Welcome.   Both are linked below and I recommend them.  They both require a one time annual membership, but it’s cheap.  I signed up yesterday and spent last night in the parking lot of a farm.  I’m about to head up to the store part of the farm and get a bunch of fresh produce, which I am very excited about.  The owners were very pleasant when I called and when I spoke to them this morning.  There was no problem bringing Peggy here or running my generators.  The parking lot is large and there was just one other camper here.  I hooked both generators up to cool the trailer down with the AC, but shut them off at night out of courtesy for the other campers.  If they hadn’t been here, I might’ve just let them run.  I am very pleased with my experience and suspect this is going to save me a lot of money and hassle on my trip. Here’s a link to both services.

 

<a target=”_blank” title=”Harvest Hosts Affiliate Banner” href=”https://harvesthosts.com/oss8/aff_go.php?u=8879&b=1“><img alt=”Harvest Hosts Affiliate Banner” width=”240″ height=”120″ src=”https://harvesthosts.com/oss8/aff_pics/ab2c28f6bc19d9d4205d0941113d1770.png” border=”0″></a>

 

www.boondockerswelcome.com

 

Something occurred to me on Tuesday, weeks into my trip, that really shouldn’t have to “occur” to anyone.  I’ve noticed this previously, but it really hit me while I was cleaning and waiting for the Amazon shipment.  This life on the road is still life.  I still have to do the dishes, laundry, vacuum, clean the bathroom, find a place to spend the night a couple of times a week, driving, etc.  None of this is really a bother, and I don’t mention it to complain.  It’s just that I think I had this vision of constantly having adventures of one sort or another, even if it was a low key day at the beach or whatever.  A substantial part of life is spent on mundane day to day tasks regardless of your lifestyle.  What’s most meaningful to me, here, is that it’s worth enjoying every moment of life, even in executing mundane tasks, rather than lamenting them and pining for what fun thing you’ve got planned next.

 

Return to the Keys

On Wednesday, I visited the farm stand / grocery store first thing.  It was pretty large with a wide variety of products, primarily homegrown vegetables, but also alcohol, dairy, and meat.  I met one of the owners and chatted with him for a while.  He mentioned meeting a Dupont executive in an RV once.  When the owner told the executive that he was waiting to save up enough money to retire comfortably in an RV, the executive told him to lower his expectations and do it now.  Amen to that!  The executive had seen a peer collapse right in front of him, dead before he hit the floor.  The story stuck with the farm owner, and I pass it along because it resonated with me as well.  Get out there and enjoy your life, however you choose to do that, right now, literally right now.

The I bought many veggies at the shop to make breakfast fruit and veggie smoothies with, and for salad later.  I’m pretty sure this arrangement works out well for the business, but it worked out great for me as well.  I got a free spot for the night, protected behind a closed gate, I could run my generators and AC with comfort without bothering anyone, and met great people while having a great shopping experience in the morning.  I even talked politics with the employees, which I do love to do.  Mostly I just listened to them talk.  I have many political beliefs, but on this trip, I’d like to hear what others have to say, whether or not they agree with me.  I sat quietly while they shared their thoughts on Bernie Sanders.  It was great to just take it in.  These guys were typically left leaning New York transplants to Florida, but they didn’t like the idea of socialism and were anti-Bernie.  I didn’t offer an opinion.  It was refreshing to just listen.  I should do that more, a lot more.

One quick note for RV readers:  I have 2 Yamaha 2000 generators.  I can use them individually to power some things or in parallel to power big things like the AC and microwave together.  They did end up working well, but they are not without issues.  The plastic case cracked on one near the handle after riding in the bed of the truck.  It’s not a super smooth ride back there, but I’d expect better durability.  It wasn’t knocking about or anything.  Also, I had to stop and start them several times when joined in parallel before they’d both come on without an overload indicator light warning.  This is with them connected to each other, and both with and without them connected to the trailer.  Eventually they worked as advertised.  I’d only get one generator to work and the other would run but not deliver power owing to the overload warning light.  It was always the second generator to be turned on.  They worked after a bit at night, and came right on normally the next morning.  Whatever.

The trip back down to Key Largo from the farm was pretty short, and I was settled and cleaned up in time to spend most of the afternoon and evening with Emily.  We had some alone time where we walked Peggy around the John Pennekamp state park.  Then I joined her, her mom, and a bunch of people from their campground out for a group dinner.  It was amazing!  I just had pasta.  The food was fine, but what I loved is that they all welcomed me out with them and were happy to see me, asking questions about what Katie’s wedding had been like and what else I had been up to since leaving Key Largo.  I enjoyed meeting them during my stay at their camp, and now I felt like part of the family. Skip and Jill are retired cops from Massachusetts, not all that far from where I grew up.  It’s fun to talk to them about New England politics, ski resorts (Skip was ski patrol), and a variety of other topics.  After dinner we watched movies back at Emily’s place.  Her mom watched with us for part of the evening.  It was a pleasure meeting her.  She’s got a real sense of adventure as well and is down from Kentucky until Friday morning.

Thursday was a chore day, but a relaxing one.  I made 2 days worth of delicious green smoothies with lots of fruit and protein.  I also made an elaborate massaged kale and avocado salad, too much to eat before leaving for Costa Rica on Saturday morning, but so tasty!  Other chores were more mundane like managing retirement accounts, cleaning, and packing.  It was still a fun and peaceful day though.  I’ve got good speakers in the trailer so I listened to Belle & Sebastian for quite a while.  I spent time with Emily in the evening, too.  We talked for a long time and hung out.  It’ll be hard continuing on the trip without her, but we agreed to keep things going as best we can and see what happens.  I’m looking forward to spending time with her for a bit after Costa Rica, and then visiting her in Kentucky.  We also talked about her joining me for a visit at some point, but we both know the trip must go on.  While it’s sad, I remain excited about our potential future together.  Our connection is strong and we have a lot to look forward to together.  We’ll have a little time together on Friday as well.  I’m putting the trailer in storage and camping out in the storage lot for a night before leaving.  The guy was very accommodating.  He didn’t have to be so nice and I sincerely appreciate his help.  I leave very early on Saturday morning.  Fortunately, I found lodging for Peggy through www.dogvacay.com.  I can drop her off on the way to the airport and pick her up on the way back.  I strongly recommend their services.  They take great care of dogs, give lots of personal attention to them, and don’t use crates.  I’m a huge fan and Peggy seems to be too.  So I’m essentially off to Costa Rica for yoga, meditation, a vacation from my vacation, and lots of yummy vegan food.  See you on the flip side!

The first two weeks

Introduction

This blog is a companion account of my trip through the US and Canada during 2016.  See @mountainpeace on Instagram for photos, or feel free to friend me on Facebook, Keith Kearsley, for more day to day updates with additional images.  You’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about me.

 

Three Motivations

For years, I’ve been living in a too big house, the last vestige of a former life.  It was nice, and filled with nice things.  I was comfortable and happy there, and yet I wasn’t.  Engineering pays well and life was sustainable.  Juggling financial daggers is stressful.  Change was becoming progressively more attractive.  I began to think of renting out the house, buying a tiny house, and other options that might relieve that stress.  I’ve always felt that experiences are more important than things, so the idea of leading a less materialistic lifestyle brought me peace.

Work was changing too, and not really for the positive.  I have had a highly successful career, at least in my own way.  I’ve designed various hardware that now resides in space, on commercial and military aircraft, under the ocean, and inside of people, and all at just 2 companies.  The latter of these was growing rapidly.  Now with its flagship product in its third lifecycle, it was attracting attention, first true competition, then acquisition.  What matters is that the culture was changing, not in an altogether bad way, but in a way that did not suit me.  I found myself progressively less happy, and consequently, less successful.  I immediately requested a severance package from my boss and my boss’s boss as soon as they were announced, and two months later, I was granted one.

She and I shared magical times as well as deep, cutting pain.  Several Sasquatch Festival goers decided to camp in their Airstreams, providing all the inspiration I needed.  I am drawn to travel and the outdoors.  While work was always rewarding, my office felt ever more confining.  I’m not sure if getting a window helped or hurt matters.  She felt the same way.  I finally had my conclusion after months of deliberation.  I must leave my job, rid myself of my possessions, and take an extended road trip in an Airstream trailer.  She was thrilled to be invited, but still more tumult awaited us.  She finally convinced me that it wasn’t meant to be.  I was sad, but prepared to accept it at long last.  She is a wonderful person, and I wish her the best.  This is the last I will mention of her.

These three motivators aligned perfectly, so perfectly as to feel fated.  It took a lot of effort, but I was very lucky.  I was completely free of obligations with the means to spend a great length of time traveling, provided that I was reasonably responsible with money.  A variety of safety nets eliminated any need for worry, and re-entering life in whatever way I chose could happen on my terms.  This was exactly what I needed, absolutely no irons in the fire, no ability to predict where I would be or what I would be doing 12 months from now.  I allowed for every eventuality and gave it no more thought than that.  Perhaps I’d return in 3 weeks, homesick for my friends and family.  Perhaps I’d fall in love with a city or person and find myself settling in a new part of the country with a brand new career.  I needed to have no idea whatsoever.  And so begins my trip.

 

Preparation

I relaxed for a while to let the dust settle.  There was no rush.  The original plan was to depart in March of 2016.  Well, the original plan had been September of 2015, but one thing leads to another as you know.  I was spending time with friends and family, but as winter set in, I became worried.  February 2015 brought Boston something like 9 feet of snow.  Such a dumping could trap me and possibly damage my trailer, so on New Years 2016, I came to the conclusion that I should leave as soon as possible.  There was no sense in idling when this grand adventure awaited.  Don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t in a rush to leave my friends and family.  I love you all and am missing you as I write this.  I just needed to go, badly, compulsively, lacking the ability to resist.  I was able to break the lease on my short term apartment, sell, donate, give away, and throw away the last of my belongings, everything except what I would bring on the trip.  Well, that’s a lie.  I couldn’t part with all of my brewing gear, but given its size and the constraints of brewing, it wasn’t feasible to bring it along or to plan on any brewing at all for the foreseeable future.  It took a concerted effort, but I hit the road on January 13, 2016.  Ahead lay art museums, vegan restaurants, music venues, breweries, yoga, meditation, and all the outdoors that North America has to offer.

 

Escape to DC (January 13, 2016)

It turns out I left just in time.  Winter shouted at me as I left, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out!”.  I headed straight south, my goal being to get south of any latitude that might freeze as quickly as possible, but to see as much as I could along the way.  Winterized, the trailer can handle a deep freeze, but I wanted to be able to use the plumbing.  Imagine living in an apartment, moved into hastily, everything in boxes, with no plumbing, and its maybe 300 square feet, maybe … probably not.  Beyond the freeze concern, my sister was getting married in Clearwater at the end of January, and my mother’s birthday happened to be later in January as well.  She lives near Orlando.

I made it to Washington DC in time to see at least some of NPR’s 16th All Songs Considered concert.  I was most interested in seeing Sharon Van Etten and Dan Deacon, very different artists.  I’ve seen both before and loved their shows.  I missed Sharon, but caught Dan.  Again, there was almost a fated element to it.  Sharon’s music might have brought me through a negative space.  It is beautiful but sad.  Dan is straight up dance party.  He closed the show, and it was literally EXACTLY what I needed.  What a great start to the trip.

One obligatory day of unpacking was clearly necessary.  In a trailer of this size, you can fit a lot of stuff, but it’s still like playing Tetris.  It seemed safe to flush the antifreeze out of the lines given the predicted low in the upper 30s and my southbound trajectory.  While that dramatically improved my quality of life, it committed me to 32+ degrees and the feeling of running for my life in the coming days.  I spent one touristy day in DC.  I hit the Air & Space museum seeing some of the very hardware I had worked on.  The science and technology is amazing.  Things are much bigger than I realized.  I could write pages on how fascinating I found each item, but I’ll spare you that.  I would have spent much longer there if I had more time, but there was more I wanted to see before leaving the next morning, and the afternoon was waning.  I left the museum despite a cute blonde’s attempt to chat me up.  She was an engineer from CT and we hit it off briefly, but she was down with her boyfriend, and I wasn’t really looking to meet anyone.  It would have been fun just to chat and spend more time in the museum, but she was coming as I was going and that was that.

It was a cool and cloudy day, nothing budding or growing, but I still wanted to walk the Mall.  I didn’t have time to see other museums or multiple monuments, so I decided to walk towards the Capital Building.  I’ve been to DC briefly on business and seen a smattering of things here and there.  Much like this visit, it was never a comprehensive experience.  The Capital Building is at the opposite end of the mall from the Washington Monument, and closer to the Air & Space Museum.  Since I’ve never been there, it seemed a good destination.  I quickly found that they offered regular tours, and that the duration of the tour should allow me to return to my meter just in time to avoid a parking ticket.  Don’t trust them when they tell you how long the tours are.  They want your $100.  If you attend a 1 hour tour that lasts 90 minutes and return to your meter a sweaty mess from sprinting a mile only to find you’ve been written a ticket 3 minutes earlier, the parking cop 2 cars down will have no sympathy.  They’re getting their money at the last possible minute.  Take that DC!

The tour of the Capital Building was fascinating.  They don’t just hire any old tour guide.  These people have serious credentials.  This woman had multiple relevant master’s degrees and was descended from wealthy 17th century settlers with royal ties.  These same guides perform other diplomatic functions including training politicians new to the city.  I saw many interesting statues.  Every state supplies one and is free to swap it for any other at any time.  Massachusetts’s statue is of Sam Adams.  Some statues are federal, such as that of Rosa Parks.  These people impacted the whole country in such a way as to defy claims by any one state.  Unfortunately, the large central dome was under heavy construction, only due for completion in time for the 2017 inauguration, but there were many other interesting rooms.  The original home of the supreme court, now repurposed chambers, Paul Ryan’s current office … he wasn’t there to flip off.  Too bad.

I made sure to hit Woodland’s Vegan Bistro before leaving.  It was worth the 45 minutes in city traffic with my oversized truck.

 

Ashville, Sort Of

The park I was staying in was expensive, or so I thought until I reached the Florida Keys.  Between that and a worsening forecast including a freeze, I decided to head south.  I’ve been along 95 before and decided to take a more scenic route through the mountains.  I had hoped to reach Ashville, NC and spend some time with Peggy in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Peggy is my rescue dog.  She’s super sweet and up for either a day on the couch or hiking tall mountains.  It’s all good as far as she’s concerned.

There are some beautiful views driving across 66 and down 81.  I wish I could share them with you.  There are rolling hills, farms, mountains.  It was a beautiful sunny day.  Signs for attractions are frequent, and the caverns signs were catching my attention.  Finally, I randomly decided to pull off and check one out, Shenandoah Caverns.  It was right off the highway and I could use a rest anyway.  Peggy enjoyed their field first.  Then I went in to take a tour.  The waiting area was split in two, gift shop and dumbfounding museum of old-timey “window displays”.  These weren’t just any window displays.  These were elaborate, and most were animatronic.  They were mesmerizing and somehow … wrong?  That’s not right.  I don’t know.  They were elaborate, intricate constructions of interesting and bizarre scenes.  It was as though they were looking into my soul.  I loved them and would highly recommend stopping by.

The tour began with a sketchy elevator ride about 20 minutes later.  I’m pretty sure that descending 60 feet using the one long straight flight of stairs would have been safer.  This contraption almost as old as my grandparents.  Various colored lights play on the surfaces of the stalactites and stalagmites.  It’s grand, majestic, and breathtaking.  The path, a significant fraction of a mile, continues to descend to chambers with vaulted ceilings hundreds of feet high.  I could have spent hours there.  Every form was different and complex with unique shapes and textures.  Naturally there were ample conical forms, but there were also ribbons of “bacon”, areas where walls appeared to be melting, reflecting pools, and ridges.  Someone quietly joked that one of the walls had herpes.  I took many pictures, including of herpes wall.

Logan and Trey decided to spend the day together visiting the cavern and then heading down the road to a wine tasting.  They are awesome, nerdy, hilarious, and all around super cool.  I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them in the cavern, and then joining them at the wine tasting.  The winery is really a shop that has some wine for sale, so they ask you to tour the shop first.  Once again I found myself surrounded by all manner of fascinating kitsch.  There were stuffed animals that made their animal noises, replicas of horse drawn carriages, a barber shop scene, a giant ant advertising cigarettes, a creepy elf, a giant butterfly, and a few games.  One was a “Romance Guide”.  For a quarter, you gripped the handle of a wobbly machine and it rated you from something like mild to insane, I don’t recall exactly.  I know that I was sexy, Logan was passionate, and Trey was wild.  It was tons of fun.  I believe Trey is a surveyor and Logan is in school for psychology.  I saw an interesting tattoo poking out of her sleeve, but didn’t ask.  We all had fun, traded information, and agreed that we should hang out if I’m ever back in the area.  What a perfect day!  Random unexpected fun with new friends.  That’s what this trip is all about.

I noticed at this time that the forecast for Ashville was starting to look bleak.  I pressed on for a bit making for a KOA to refill my propane tanks.  It turns out that it lasts longer than I realized.  I was good for a while longer.  KOA was super nice to me.  They stayed open late for me, filled my tanks, and sent me on my way with a word of guidance and warning.  The roads I was planning to travel were about to become impassable.  I might be ok for one night, but I had better get right out of there the next morning.  Thanks winter!  Aren’t I in North Carolina?!  I guess it is the mountains but still.  I bailed and took 77 south towards Savannah.  Surely I’d be safe there, right?  Nope, still a freeze coming.  I grabbed a delicious vegan pizza at Mellow Mushroom and headed towards Jacksonville.  Mellow Mushroom is a cool restaurant.  They’re all different.  I went to the Chapel Hill one on a business trip recently.  It was a very hippy place.  This one was super hero themed.  I had no idea.  They’re all elaborate with fantastic food and a great beer selection.

Was I safe heading to Jacksonville?  Nope.  Still a freeze there, but not as bad.  The nice thing about driving these long distances with a trailer is that every rest stop is home, and its free.  Sometimes I feel like a turtle with my house on my back.  I find that a 6 hour drive is easy, 8 is fine, 10+ starts really feeling like work.  At 6 hours, you can get up, have a leisurely morning, take any number of driving breaks, and be at your destination before too late.  Peggy handles the travel well, but she also seems to handle 6 hours better than longer trips.  The longer I drive, the more attention she needs after and the longer it takes her to completely settle in at our new destination.  It’s never bad.  She’s very happy and well cared for, but she is a rescue dog and I like to keep her stress level low.

I stayed briefly on the GA / FL border near Jacksonville.  There are state parks there that I wanted to explore, and Peggy could’ve had her first canoe trip.  We did get in an extended walk by the river which was nice.  She also discovered that she should jump puddles or test their depth before jumping into them.  Rather than jump over a drainage ditch following rain, she jumped into it and quickly sank to her shoulders.  Her surprise was obvious and hilarious.  She shook it off well.  More recently I’ve seen her step gingerly into mud puddles when she can’t see below the surface.  Smart girl.  The cold kept pressing south, and I left early when they were calling for 27 degrees the next night.

 

Orlando-ish (January 19, 2016)

Would you be surprised to find out that RV spots in Florida in winter are hard to find at the last minute?  A wise person wouldn’t be.  Apparently I am not wise.  I don’t really mind since I seek a certain amount of uncertainty on this trip.  I don’t want a mapped out course with time constraints.  I want to move when I feel like it or when I have to.

I headed towards Orange City, a suburb of Orlando, to visit my mother.  I was very lucky to find a spot at Blue Springs State Park.  It had water, electric, and horrifyingly, a decoy sewage drain.  I arrived with, well not entirely full but certainly not empty, tanks ready to dump.  I hook up to the drain and for a moment all is right with the world.  Then an unfortunate blend of fluids, happily predominantly shower water, spew forth from the ground violently flowing across a decent potion of my site.  I quickly close the valves and hope no one saw.  I don’t need a fine or to be kicked out.  Eventually I realize that no one else is hooked up to their decoy drains, and that only mine is even positioned so that it appears to be mine to use.  Others are placed oddly such that no one would try to use them.  A closer look at the flyer explains that there are no sewer hookups.  I might have hoped for a quick verbal disclosure of that fact upon check-in, but hey, whatever.  I was so happy when it rained the later in my stay.

My mom and her husband John met me at the park entrance.  They helped me back in to the site.  Backing this trailer around corners is challenging.  I’ve done it with assistance three prior times, but I can tell it’s going to take significant practice.  After a couple of false starts, I placed it well.  Later in my stay, I took my trailer to the proper dump station to empty the tanks.  I backed it in myself that time.  It took substantially longer, but I positioned it perfectly and it was extremely valuable practice.  Something clicked.  At my next stay I would find need to back it in straight down a causeway hundreds of feet and did so slowly, but without issue.

Visiting with my mom and John was great.  We spent time relaxing in their apartment watching movies, going out to eat, and spending time outside.  We drove to Daytona Beach where cars are allowed to drive on the sand.  There’s a packed roadway of sorts.  I walked along the beach and even jumped in briefly despite the cold and threat of sharks.  Literally no one else was in the water and there were no lifeguards.  The water was so shallow that I’m surprised I was able to submerge completely.  I’d have stayed in longer, but this wasn’t the time or place for a proper swim.

On a different day, we took a river cruise down the St. John’s River.  It flows through Blue Springs State Park and is teaming with wildlife.  The springs are a natural manatee sanctuary from the cold ocean water.  The water here is brackish owing to salt seeping up from the bed, but it is more fresh than salty.  Manatees need warmer water and the springs provide 72 degree fresh water year round.  On the cruise we saw more birds than anything.  They all exhibited different behaviors that the guide described in detail.  I particularly enjoyed the black ones that lack an under coat of feathers.  The like to dive for their food, but then must stand wings spread with their backs to the sun to dry off.  Otherwise, they’ll sink on their next dive.  We saw a few alligators, but not too many.  It was still too cold.  I figured they’d want to sun themselves, but they stay hidden.  The cold slows down their metabolism so they aren’t hungry.  They just wait for warmer temperatures.

Gemini Springs was a great place to take Peggy.  It was beautiful, in some ways more of the same, but still its own experience.  The sun was shining across the water in such a peaceful way.  Fish, ducks, and other birds were all around.  Peggy chased a few squirrels.  It was hilarious how they climbed just out of reach and then just clung there looking at her.  These are pretty fearless little creatures.

While in the area, I took time for maintenance.  The cap on the bed of my truck needs repairs as did my stuck brake caliper.  I also managed to hit Ethos Vegan Kitchen which I highly recommend.  Try the bbq chickun with collards and potatoes.  I also enjoyed the dancing avocado’s elaborate bean and rice bowl.  I’m pretty sure Kristen Schaal’s sister works there.  I’ll be heading back there early next week since they had to order parts for the cap.  For the time being, I’m enjoying my time on Key Largo.

 

Key Largo (January 23, 2016)

If Florida is challenging last minute in winter, it’s damn near impossible to find an RV spot in the Keys last minute unless you’re super lucky like me.  It just so happens that there’s a place on Key Largo, a marina that just created an oversize and rather extravagant camp site that was available between my arrival date and my sister Katie’s wedding.  I backed most of the way down the causeway to the site and then realized that I need to go in head first so I can access the hook ups.  I’ll have to back my way out of here this coming Saturday.  Wish me luck!

My first night here, I went to a bar that caters to locals.  There was live music and I met many people.  I met Jimmy the roofer and his friend Callum.  It was fun watching then play pool and just talking to them.  Suddenly people are buying each other drinks which always gets me into trouble, but they left early before anyone had too many.  Next I met Lee.  We hung out for a bit.  He’s going through some girlfriend stuff that I can relate to.  He’s super nice and was just fun to hang out with.  He knew the band and the guitarist came off the stage and let Lee strum while he played for a bit.  I met another group, younger, down from Miami.  They were fun to hang out with for a bit, too, and some guys who were looking for a more cosmopolitan experience and had clearly wandered into the wrong place.  All in all it was a great night.

Little did I know that Emily had noticed me when I arrived at the marina / RV park from her site next door.  When she saw airstream, signs of a dog and no female companion, she made sure to introduce herself first thing the next morning.  I was slightly hung over, but it suddenly didn’t matter.  We connected instantly and were both clearly interested.  She’s a semi-vegitarian, yogi, scuba diver, animal lover, horseback rider and general outdoor enthusiast from Kentucky, and she’s almost exactly my age.  She’s super up beat and optimistic with similar outlook and attitudes to my own.  I’m writing this now on Wednesday, January 27th.  We’ve been spending a lot of time together all week.

The first day we took Peggy for a walk and talked a lot.  She showed me a nearby deep underwater hole dug out for construction materials that is now filled with fish.  Despite it being the coldest day of the year here, I suggested we go swimming right then, so we did.  It was invigorating and after the initial temperature shock, it became very comfortable.  We relaxed in her trailer by the fire for a bit to warm up and then went out paddle boarding.  That was it’s own adventure.  There’s a mangrove forest here, and vast stretches of shallow water grass just below the surface.  We got stuck here and there in the grass, and the muddy bottom eliminated the possibility of walking through, but we persevered.   We saw so many fish.  Emily knows so much about all of the different species, and her sense of adventure is impressive.  She is undaunted in the face of adversity.  She collects horseshoe crab shells, and together we were able to scoop one up with our paddles to bring back.  It was pretty challenging given the current we were in, but it was a fun exercise in teamwork.  The day was going well so we decided to continue it into the evening.  We headed south for a beer tasting and to see and feed some large fish off of a local dock.  The first brewery was closing and the fish had gone for the night and to hide from the cold, but no matter.  We saw a beautiful sunset from the road and the second brewery we hit, Florida Keys Brewing Co., was open and had live music.  We got a large beer sampler so that we could try all 10 brews.  They were all fantastic.  They have a perfect sized operation.  It’s industrial gear, but it all fits in one room.  It’s a small operation of the sort I can imagine owning and operating someday.  All of the best beaches in the Keys have been bought up by exclusive expensive resorts, so we poached a beach at The Moorings, right next to the brewery, for a romantic moonlight stroll.  It was stunning and peaceful.  The bright moon shown across the water and through the leaves of the scattered palm trees.  We returned to her trailer to spend the evening together.

The next day we walked Peggy again and she introduced me to most of the residents of the park.  We went to yoga, and grabbed lunch at the Mindful Mermaid Café, so delicious!  We shared a salad and a wrap, and the smoothies and juices are out of this world.  Yesterday was snorkeling for 3 or 4 hours through the mangroves, grass, and some deeper areas.  I pet a nurse shark and we saw tons of fish, some rare speacies as well.  There was a large baracuda, and the ecosystem in the grassy areas is impressive.  There were corals of different colors, upside down jelly fish with blue tenticles, and we even saw a ray in the mangroves.  We came across horseshoe crabs mating.  Go horseshoe crabs!  Later we went to candle light yoga together.  What a perfect end to the day.

Today I cleaned and wrote this, but still walked Peggy before yoga with Emily followed by dinner at Ballyhoo.  The yoga class was great.  It was actually an arm balancing instructional class.  I did poses I never thought I could!  It was clumsy, but with practice I’ll be able to do them better.  Ballyhoo serves meat, but has a great all vegan menu including desserts.  We loved the grilled avocados, curry, and coconut cake.  We’re clearly connecting well.  I’m thoroughly enjoying spending time with her.  It’s exciting to wonder where this could go next.

Peggy loves Emily, and she’s offered to watch her while I’m away in Costa Rica.  I leave Saturday, February 6 for a week long group yoga / meditation / vegan retreat.  Emily’s mom will be in town next week.  I plan to come back to Key Largo after Katie’s wedding and the repair of my truck cap.  I like it here, it’s centrally located to the rest of the keys and to the Everglades which I still have to check out.  They Keys are more Florida and less Hawaii, but that’s no real surprise.  I’d like to meet Emily’s mom, not to mention the weather continues to be iffy everywhere else.  It froze in Tampa and Orlando more than once in the past week.  Everything after that is anyone’s guess.