I woke up sweating in a truck stop gas station just a mile north of the state line. The overnight temperatures hovered near 80, meaning I had a warm balmy night trying to sleep in the van. Yup, welcome to Florida.
I awoke before sunrise to take Tantor to a vintage Volkswagen mechanic in Jacksonville. The van was running fine, but something had happened to make it sound like a Harley. I dropped it off at the shop and rode my bike 2 miles to the nearest McDonald’s where I could set up my office and get some work done. A few hours, and several hundred dollars later, Tantor was fixed and ready to go.
We headed due east, following the scent of the ocean to the beach. I spent the next two days vagabonding down the A1A, passing through St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Cocoa Beach, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. I stopped off for an afternoon in Daytona to drive Tantor on the sand and enjoy my first beach day since I left the Pacific Ocean nearly two months prior. In Delray Beach I kicked off my shoes and headed out for a 2 hour run in the soft sand, thoroughly enjoying every stride along the salty ocean waves. Just outside of Miami I grabbed dinner and beers with my buddy John Bennett from my days as an Orientation Leader at Ball State.
My next stop was the Florida Keys and I wanted to get as close as possible the night before so I could spend a solid few days on the islands. Just after sunset I reached Homestead, Florida and the southernmost Walmart I could find. When I arrived though, I was bummed to find a security guard making laps around the parking lot, I wouldn’t be allowed to sleep there. I drove around town looking for a stealthy place to sleep and eventually pulled into the back of a Hilton hotel parking lot. Unfortunately, I wasn’t stealthy enough because at 4:00 AM I was startled awake by a knock from a security guard on my window. I was being evicted, time to move on.
I wandered around looking another place to catch a little shuteye and soon enough I found myself driving down and abandoned road. It was deserted, weeds growing through the concrete with unfinished foundations crumbling behind the curbs, so I pulled over to sleep. After a few restless moments I decided that I should listen to the sketchy feeling in my gut and I climbed back into the driver’s seat to move on. As I left a man appeared out of the shadows, flagged me down, and asked me for a ride downtown. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and absentmindedly opened the passenger side door. A few minutes later I pulled up to a stop sign, he said that was as far as he needed to go, jumped out, and disappeared into the darkness once again. I shook my head, wondering what I was thinking picking up a dark stranger in an abandoned neighborhood at 4:30 in the morning, but like the rest of my life, it ends up being a good story! I gave up on trying to get any more sleep, drove back to the Walmart to do my grocery shopping, brewed a cup of coffee, and headed south.
I entered the Florida Keys at sunrise and rolled down my windows, playing the Beach Boys as I passed through Key Largo on the Overseas Highway. I stopped on Marathon Key where my home base would be for the next few days in Curry Hammock State Park. I checked into my campsite, cleared the area of roaming iguanas, and set up my house.
I really wanted to visit Key West, so the next morning I broke camp and drove Tantor the rest of the way south until the highway ran out and I was only 90 miles from Cuba. I reached out to Jenna Stauffer, a friend from high school, and we planned to meet for drinks later in the day. For lunch I attended the Rotary Club of Key West meeting and then parked Tantor, pulled my beach cruiser off the back, and spent the day riding around town, soaking up the sun. Just before dusk I walked down to Sunset Pier and watched the sun drop below the ocean with a few hundred other tourists and then met Jenna at one of her favorite local spots.
I only had 3 days in the Keys before I had to leave, and it wasn’t enough. I watched as boats drifted across the horizon and dreamed of living on a boat soon. Who knows, maybe in the near future I’ll return to Key West, not on 4 wheels, but with sails whipping in the wind.
From The Keys I drove north, back through Homestead and the Everglades National Park. I stopped at Shark Valley to ride my bike along the 15 mile path, looking for alligators. I spotted a few, along with a lot of birds and overly sun-burnt tourists. I took a shower in the visitor’s center parking lot and continued north, stopping in Fort Meyers to try to see a manatee (fail) and have dinner and drinks with Dustin Guthrie, my roommate for a pretty crazy summer in Indianapolis (success). The next day I had lunch with my friend Jason Wolfe and his soon to be bride and then drove inland to Orlando to hang out with Smiling Joe from the Appalachian Trail.
I had only hiked with Smiling Joe a day in Tennessee, and then another 2 days in New Hampshire, but since the AT we have stayed in touch and he and his wife even visited me in Santa Barbara on their honeymoon road trip. I was excited to see Joe and Katie because they are leading an unconventional lifestyle as well, living in a 5th Wheel RV, saving tons of money, traveling around the world on the cheap, and planning to “retire” in their early 30’s.
I spent a few days with Joe and Katie drinking good beer, talking about life and travel, and paddling down the Dora Canal, one of the highlights of my trip! We commandeered a few boats, loaded them on, and in, my van, and dropped them at the canal. We paddled a few hours under towering 2,000 year old cypress trees, watching herons, ospreys, and egrets fly above us, and enjoying the sunset over Lake Dora.
After a few short days I had to move on. I drove west to Crystal River to try to see a manatee before I left Florida but struck out again. I spent the next day and a half driving through the rest of Florida, getting my oil changed at Walmart, and finally making it out of the panhandle and into Alabama, aiming straight west for Arizona. Florida had been fun, and I would like to visit again, hopefully via sailboat, but I was ready for a change of scenery. I starred ahead at the open road, dreaming of the mountain landscapes of the Southwest.