Maurice Parker

I’m trying to get some @NetNewsWire coding done today and my “E” key on my keyboard is sticking. I have to keep prying it back up. This Macbook Pro is going into the shop tomorrow for repairs.

Kearny, AZ

Since we wanted to stay close to Phoenix while we waited for our heater parts to come in, we went to the closest free campsite. Since is was close to the Phoenix suburbs, I expected the campsite to be crowded and it was. The campsite in total was less than the size of a football field and everyone was right on top of each other. The ground was uneven and in the center was pool of rancid water. It turns out this was the trailhead for a popular horse trail, which explained the large piles of horse shit everywhere.

I try to make friends when we are camping around other people. If folks like you, they will look out for your stuff when you aren’t around. They are also much more likely to lend a helping hand if you need it.

We were camped (parked) next to a fellow in a minivan. He had a table set up and was grilling polish sausages on it. I waved to him and he apologized for all the smoke he was creating. I told him that it smelled good and not to worry about it. He offered me a sample and I ate it. He then told me he’d gotten the sausages cheap and that it was dinner for his three dogs. I wondered if I was going to get sick from eating this bargain basement sausage as I looked over this man’s camp. He was clearly wasted, hadn’t washed or changed for at least a week, and there were beer bottles laying every where.

We chatted and I let him know that we had just recently gotten to Arizona. He proceeded to give me tips on the best places to go and when to go there. He’d been living on the road for quite a while and spent a deal of time living cheap in Arizona. His story was one I’d heard before. His motorhome had burned down the year before. Luckily he had been able to get his tow behind car away from the fire so that he could later trade it in on the minivan.

Nic and I only stayed one night there. I decided that while we were waiting for parts in Phoenix, we would wander towards Tucson and see what was around it. A little out of the way and about halfway there is Kearny.

The drive into Kearny is a nice mountain drive that gives way to mountains that have tiers cut into it. The scope of it is truly impressive. We later found out that this is the local copper mine and the reason that Kearny exists. Along the road to town there were groups of picketers at various points. These are the miners who are currently on strike. I found out from a local, who accused me of being a scab since I was from out of town, that the mine was trying to take way the miners health insurance.

Just right outside of Kearny is a lake. It is more of pond, but in the desert, I can forgive them for calling it a lake. There is a free campsite there and to our delight, it had amenities. Free running water, trash pickup, flush toilets and one site even had electric.

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After staying for a couple days in Kearny, we decided to head to Tucson. We didn’t feel like exploring the city, so we just passed through on our way to camping out in the desert south of town. The campsite was just a pullout off of a rarely used highway. There was at least some fallen wood I could use to make a fire and enough flat ground that I could repair the bed.

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Yeah, my luck hadn’t gotten any better on the trip. The last of the two latches on the bed gave way. The bed is a futon-like design. The base you sit on when it is a couch slides forward and the back folds down to make a bed. There are two latches that hold the sliding base in place when it is configured as a couch. The first one broke over a year ago and I had been putting off repairing it. Now I didn’t have any choice but to fix the problem.

I had foreseen this happening and carried two replacement latches with me. I pulled the bed cushions outside and started working. I had to completely remove the sliding platform. This is held in place on the heavy duty sliders with 30 counter sunk screws. I carry a small set of 12v power tools and the drill with the correct bit made this job much faster. After a couple hours I had it repaired and back together.

I grabbed a beer and sat down to enjoy the fire from the wood I had found and to relax.

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It was part bad luck and part stupidity when my camp chair blew into the fire. I was staring off toward the horizon and smelled the chair burning before seeing it. I sat on the edge of my burnt chair and finished my beer. I decided then that we should probably just head back to Kearny. There wasn’t anything out here except rocks and cacti. At least back there, we had a close by town and amenities.

The next morning I got on the internet and ordered a couple new camp chairs. The chairs were almost in need of replacing even before I burned one up. I had them sent to General Delivery in Kearny, AZ.

I got in the driver’s seat and began the drive back to the campsite that we shouldn’t have left in the first place.

It is 50 degrees here in Kearny, AZ. It is also 50 at my home back in Iowa. I’m beginning to wonder why I came here. Hiding from winter isn’t working for me thus far.

This is how I spent my summer. NetNewsWire for iOS testing

Winter in Arizona

It was cold.  Colder then it was supposed to be and Nicole was shaking me awake. I looked at my phone and it was 4 in the morning. The auxiliary heater had stopped working.

I had been concerned about my battery bank even before we had left Iowa. The capacity of the batteries had been declining last year when we came home and I didn’t check the capacity again before we left. I realized I was rolling the dice a little bit, but figured we could make it another 4 months or so on the batteries we had.

My first thought when the heater stopped working was that the batteries had depleted too much and the safety features of the heater had kicked in. If the voltage is too low, it doesn’t want to damage your batteries and will shut itself off and display an error code. I tried starting up the heater again and got the voltage error code.

I started the van to get the alternator recharging the batteries and tried again. The heater still wouldn’t start and instead gave a different error code. This one didn’t make any sense. It was the lack of fuel error code.

I began the heater startup sequence again and went outside to check the heater. It is mounted under the van on the driver side frame rail. I noticed a lot of black material on the ground under the heater exhaust. It was carbon from the heater. My heart sank. Running the heater at too high of an elevation can cause the fuel-air mixture too run too rich and clog up the heater with carbon. I couldn’t understand what went wrong. We were only at 4000 ft and 5000 ft was the where problems were supposed to happen at.

The next morning after a couple of phone calls I found a place in Phoenix that would work on the heater. This is no small accomplishment. The heater is a Wabasto gasoline heater that isn’t even sold in the United States. It is used in Europe, but is uncommon here. Even the diesel version, used in Semi’s and some campers isn’t common.

We immediately left Cottonwood and headed to the repair shop in Phoenix. Once there, we grabbed the cats and headed to a private waiting room. A couple hours later (at their $130/hr shop fee) they came back and and let me know that a sensor had failed and that the heater would have to be disassembled to clean the carbon out of it. The repair estimate was actually more than I had paid for the heater itself.

If I was closer to home, I would have simply ordered a new unit and installed it myself. As it was, I was just happy to find someone who would work on it. I had them order the parts needed and Nic and I headed to a close campsite to wait it out.

I just migrated my personal website to micro.blog and shut down my old AWS/Wordpress site. Now I don’t have to worry about the security concerns that come with hosting your own site. A big bonus is that I now get all micro.blog’s social features.

Verde Valley

After leaving Centerville, we mostly drove straight through to Arizona.  We weren’t in a hurry though, so it took us 3 days to get to Flagstaff, AZ.  Flagstaff is a beautiful city and we have camped in the mountains around it before.  This wasn’t going to be our stop this time.  There was already snow on the ground and the high altitude would have damaged our auxiliary heater in the van.

Instead we just passed through Flagstaff and headed toward Sedona.  The drive down the mountains from Flagstaff to Sedona is very, very scenic.  I didn’t get any photos because it was narrow roads and switchbacks most of the way.  We just passed through Sedona as well because we were headed to a campsite about 8 miles south of there, half way to Cottonwood.

There is a road there that has lots of pullouts that people can camp at for free for 14 days.  It was a very popular spot.  You almost always shared a pullout with 3 or 4 other campers.  And it was muddy.  The mud was everywhere since this is the rainy season in Verde Valley.IMG 0417We settled in and hung out there for a couple of days, only going into Cottonwood to sign up again for Planet Fitness, buy food, and use the internet at the closest Starbuckis.  It was surprisingly rainy for being in the desert and mud got everywhere.  Eventually we learned to live with it.

I had bought some wood when we passed through Sedona and I was determined to have a campfire.  I had no longer got the fire going and a beer opened, when it started sprinkling.  Then it came down a little harder.  Then a little harder.  It was a full rain shower, but my fire was still burning, so I stayed outside partly out of stubborness, partly out of enjoyment.  Nicole wouldn’t have anything to do with it.  Those of you who know her, know how the cold affects her.

Eventually another rubbertramp pulled up in a SUV.  She asked to join me by the fire and I obliged.  We sat around and drank a couple beers while stoking the fire and shivering in the rain.  She was a single mother who’s children had all grown up and moved out.  So she sold her house, bought an SUV, kitted it out, and is driving around the US alone.  Her boyfriend that had planned on traveling with her bailed out on her and left her to go it alone.  She was on her way to North Carolina for Christmas and I imagine she’s doing fine.  She seemed to be dealing with the regular road hardships without problem.  Eventually it got too cold for both of us and we retired to our respective vehicles.  She took off early the next morning, on her way to her next adventure.

One morning, I decided that Nic and I would head into Sedona and have lunch.  The road that we were staying on looped around through the mountains and looked like it would be a scenic route.

As I was having my morning coffee, I noticed a couple of guys who were standing around a sedan staring at it.  Eventually, one of them approached the van, so I got out and asked him if he needed help.  They had a very low tire and no spare.  I have an onboard air compressor, so I helped them out by airing up their tire.  While talking with them, they had mentioned that there was some cave paintings up the road along the route that we were going to take into Sedona.

A short while later, Nicole and I were in a tour group at the Palatki Heritage Site.  It was literally only 10 minutes down the road from where we had been sleeping.  

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The tour lasted a couple hours and was an easy hike.  We really loved learning about these native and prehistoric peoples.  The petroglyphs were very interesting and I found it somewhat amazing that they could last so long exposed to the elements as they were.

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After the tour we drove the rest of the say into Sedona along a the washboard, potholed road that we had been living on for days.  We had some amazing pizza for lunch and headed back to the pullouts for the day.

Back to Vanlife

Wow.  It’s been over 10 months since I’ve done a van life post.  I’ll have to get people caught up and post some stories that I have been meaning to get to.  My last post was about our trip to Padre Island.  We lived in Padre for about 3 weeks.  We then went to Big Bend National Park in Texas and then on home to Iowa.

Nic and I spent Spring, Summer, and Fall at home in Centerville, IA.  Nic took up sewing and I worked on an Open Source project called NetNewsWire.  It was very relaxing being home and around family.  Nic and I found a lot of fulfillment in our hobbies and were very content this year.

But eventually it starts to get cold and wet in Iowa and we did begin to ache for a change of scenery.  We did the usual prep to the van.  In addition to the usual maintenance, I put in a new floor.

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The old floor was made from the rubber matting you often find in gym’s around the weights.  It was a kind of fuzzy version of the 1/4 rubber matting and was difficult to clean. Nic is a very clean person and hated cleaning it.  And she let me now about it.  Every time she cleaned.  She cleaned a lot.  So,. I put in a laminate floor for her.  It is working out pretty well.  The complaining (about the floor) has stopped.

With the van ready to go, we spent the Thanksgiving with friends and family and then took off for Arizona on December, 2.  Our first stop would be Cottonwood, AZ.  As usual, we wanted some free campling close to a Planet Fitness and Cottonwood delivered.  More about our stay in Cottonwood in the next post.

Proposed NetNewsWire Branching Strategy

Branching Strategies are controversial.  Why is that?  Why can’t we just pick a strategy like Git Flow and call it the one true way to do branching?  The answer is that software development is too complicated for a one size fits all approach.  Factors that can impact how you do branching:

  • Is your team remote?
  • Do all contributors have the same level of repository access?
  • Is the project an open source project?
  • Are there multiple products being produced from this repository?
  • Are you doing Agile development?
  • Is there a comprehensive automated test suite?
  • What tools are you using to manage source control?
  • Does your project have core values regarding quality?

NetNewsWire

What I am going to propose in this post is a minimalist branching strategy designed to fit the NetNewsWire project.

NetNewsWire is a small, open source project.  It has a small core team that is trusted with full repository access.  It has additional developers that contribute via repository forks and pull requests.  Everyone is remote.  There are two main products produced, an iOS app and a macOS app.  The two products share code that should be kept in the same repository.  There isn’t a comprehensive automated test suite.  It has a stated project goal of zero known bug releases.  There is a desire to ensure that the release process doesn't impede development.  Source control is done in Git and dependency management is done using Git submodules.

Three-Flow

The branching strategy I am going to recommend is an implementation of Three-Flow, a Trunk Based Development strategy.  Do not read about Three-Flow right now. I’m going to give you an executive summary of Three-Flow and apply it to NetNewsWire. Besides the Three-Flow post has a lot of scary git commands and it specifically says it won’t work for a project like NetNewsWire.  By itself it won’t, but it is a good foundation to start from.

(A lot of NetNewsWire development is done using Git forks and pull requests.  This branching strategy accommodates that workflow, but I won’t be addressing it in this post.  This post will focus on how development is managed for the developers with full repository access.)

Three-Flow uses 3 branches to facilitate development, stabilize a release, and manage production hotfixes.  Development happens on Master and moves to a branch called Candidate when it is ready to be stabilized.  Development continues on Master and bug fixes to the release candidate happen on Candidate.  When the product is released, it is pushed to the Release branch. Hotfixes can happen on the Release branch.  All bugs found and fixed are back merged to Candidate and then Master respectively.

Branching

All arrows going up are promotions (pushes) to the next environment.  All arrows going down are back ports of bugfixes.

That is Three-Flow applied to NetNewsWire.  It would be that simple, but we have two products we are going to deliver from the same repository.  The iOS and the macOS variants of NetNewsWire.  To stabilize and manage both variants, each will need to be given their own Candidate and Release branches.  

Branching Full

Today (6/2/2019) we would need 2 branches, Master and macOS Candidate, in the main repository which will eventually grow to be 5 branches.  There will also be a number of repository forks that NetNewWire developers will create to do bug fixes and implement new features (not shown here).

Tagging

Each release should be tagged using Semantic Versioning.  Candidates will continue to be tagged using the current convention which denotes the difference between developer, alpha and beta releases.  Additionally, we will need to use a convention to avoid tag name collisions between iOS and macOS products.  macOS will use even minor release numbers and iOS will use odd minor release numbers.  (See the above diagram for examples.)

Submodules

NetNewsWire uses Git submodules to manage project dependencies.  All the submodules are under the same project umbrella as NetNewWire and there are no third party dependencies to manage.  These submodules are mostly stable at this point.  For simplicity sake, all development on the submodules will continue on their repository Master branch.  These submodules won’t be managed as separate projects with separate releases/tags at this time.

TL;DR

There are 3 types of branches: Master, Candidate, and Release.  All feature development happens on Master.  Stabilization happens on Candidate.  Hotfixes happen on Release.  Each product gets its own Candidate and Release branches.  All candidates and releases get tagged.

I feel this system is as simple as it can be, but not any simpler.  The complexity built into this system buys us:

  • The ability to release for 2 platforms
  • Shared code stays in the same repository
  • Time to stabilize releases
  • Management of production releases

Feedback is welcome.  We will be discussing this post in the NetNewsWire Slack on the #work channel.

Feed Compass 1.0 Released

I’ve put the finishing touches on Feed Compass 1.0 and uploaded it to the App Store.  Feed Compass makes it easy to find and preview blogs.  If you like the blog you previewed, it makes it simple to subscribe to it in your favorite RSS Reader.  I find it a really useful app, especially if you are an Apple Developer since it has the iOS Dev Directory OPML files in it.

It is a free app, so there is no reason to not check it out.

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Because one of the shortcomings of Feed Compass is the lack of OPML files available on the net, I built a companion application for it, Feed Curator.  Feed Curator makes it easy to create OPML files and publish them for free on the internet.  I wrote about the design behind Feed Curator in Curated Blog Lists.

In the end, the applications had references to each other so I wanted to release them together at the same time.  Feed Curator 1.0 is also available in the App Store and is also free.

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Give these applications a try.  If you read blogs, you should check out Feed Compass.  If you have a collection of blogs you think is special and want to promote, you will want Feed Curator too.  Feed Compass and Feed Curator together make it easy to share blogs with the world.

Algorithmic Blog Lists

In my previous post, I talked about curated listings of blogs.  This time I want to talk a little bit about computer generated lists.

Following

A following list is a staple in social media.  Who you are following and who is following you are very useful pieces of information.  You can tell a lot about a person from who their friends are or who they are interested in.  

If we knew what blogs a person was reading on a regular basis, would could do the same kind of following recommendations that social media platforms do.  For example, if Bob is following Suzy and Suzy is following Karen, then we could recommend Karen’s blog to Bob.

OPML

So how do we get that following information for blogs?  Fortunately a good number of people still rely on RSS and use RSS readers to get their daily blog fix.  The RSS readers themselves know who people are following.  Also fortunately, the various RSS readers all allow you to export this information in a standard format.  

(OPML has many uses besides managing feed subscriptions, but for the this article I am going to focus on subscriptions only.  When I use OPML in this post, just consider it a list of RSS feeds in an open format.)

If we could get people to export their OPML file and upload it to a common database, we could do a simple algorithmic recommendation list.

feedBase

It so happens that this database of OPML files already exists in feedBase.  This is a project that allows you to upload and manage your OPML subscriptions.   It also publishes a Hotlist of the top 100 most popular blogs in feedBase and exports it as OPML.  It will be of no surprise to anyone familiar with RSS and OPML that this is one of Dave Winer’s projects.

Unfortunately, feedBase doesn’t currently do a suggestion list.  feedBase, like all systems of this sort, could also use more data in its database.

Feed Compass Integration

Feed Compass needs more and higher quality OPML lists to make it more useful.  Being able to consume a specialized recommendation list from feedBase is very desirable.  Also, the more data in feedBase the better the lists from feedBase in Feed Compass will be.

I’ve spoken to Brent Simmons, the creator of NetNewsWire about making possible to directly request a users subscription OPML.  This would be of course with the user’s permission.  Feed Compass would pull the OPML from NetNewsWire and upload it to feedBase.  This removes the friction of exporting it and going to the feedBase website to import it.

My hope would be that by making it easier to upload you subscriptions and getting a customized recommendation list for your effort, more people would be inclined to share their subscriptions with feedBase.

How I envision this working:

+----------------+
|    feedBase    |
+----------------+
  |      |     ^
  |      |     |
Hotlist  |     |
  |      |     |
  |  Suggested |
  |      |     |
  |      |     |
  |      |   Subs
  V      V     | 
+----------------+               +----------------+
|  Feed Compass  |  <-- Subs --- | NetNewsWire 5  |
+----------------+               +----------------+

Better Blog Discovery

I don’t think that this idea is going to revolutionize how the web is used or that it's going to take down the social media silos.  I do think it could make blog discovery better which could drive traffic to more blogs.  It may be a small contribution to making blogging more mainstream again, but I think it is a worthwhile one.

Curated Blog Lists

The Problem

I recently wrote app for the Mac called Feed Compass.  It is an app that displays lists of blog feeds, allows you to preview them, and then subscribe to them in your RSS reader.  It is designed to solve the problem of not having enough content in your RSS reader.  The problem I’ve run into is that Feed Compass also has the same problem of not having enough content.  In this case, it is not having enough lists of blogs to show to the user.

One solution to this problem is for users to take their personal listings of blogs from their RSS readers and upload them to a service for aggregation.  The only service I know that does that currently is feedBase.  Feed Compass already utilizes the Hotlist from feedBase.  The Hotlist is the top 100 most subscribed listing.  There are currently plans to do more feedBase integration to get more content from it into Feed Compass.  What I want to talk about to day are curated or custom lists.

More on Curated Lists

Feed Compass already has a small handful of curated lists that provide the majority of the content.  Some of the best ones come from the iOS Dev Directory.  They are awesome if you are an Apple developer.  I think that Feed Compass needs more curated lists like this, but with a wider background of interests.  The problem is that they simply don’t exist.

I think one of the things that makes iOS Dev Directory successful is that it has a process where people can submit blogs to be included in the listings.  This process utilizes Github with forks and pulls for its workflow.  In the end it produces an OPML file that can be used by RSS readers and Feed Compass.

This seems to me like a pretty good way to get a curated listing of technical blogs, but is too complicated for the lay person to use.  I’d like to propose a new application to make it easier for for the average person to curate and publish a listing of blogs.

The New Application

This application would be a Mac app originally, but could be ported to other platforms.  It would be able to create and edit OPML files.  OPML files have entries in them for blogs.  All together the entries comprise a blog listing.  

The application would allow you to drag URL’s from another application, such as a web browser, to it.  It would then produce the correct OPML entry for that page, including finding the RSS feed in the page.  There should also be a Safari plugin so the you can add the blog to the OPML listing without having to drag the URL.

For publishing, it would upload the OPML file to a Github Gist.  It would also be able to edit OPML files stored as Gists.  This gives us a way to distribute the OPML for free.  As a bonus it also provides a full revision history.

It should also have a button to submit the listing to Feed Compass for inclusion which would produce a Github Issue that would be reviewed to see if the feed should be included in Feed Compass.

The application would be Open Source and MIT Licensed the same as Feed Compass.

What I Like About It

This would give us a way to distribute and maintain OPML files without having to set up, pay for, or maintain a centralized server.  As long as Github doesn’t drastically change its business model and start charging for Gists or Open Source projects that is.

If done correctly, it should be easy enough for your average person to add to and maintain the OPML file while they are browsing the internet.  I envision people visiting their daily websites and adding to the OPML as they go.

It provides a workflow for reviewing lists via Github Issues to help prevent Spam from getting into the system.

Discussion

Feel free to leave a comment below.  You can also join the discussion on Github: We Need More Curated Lists.

The Road to Padre Island

One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was figure out where good places for Nic and I to stay weeks on end were.  If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you would know that I am primarily looking for free camping next to a city with a Planet Fitness in it.  Padre Island and Corpus Christi fit that description perfectly so we had that as a destination, but we wanted to find more spots on the way.

Our first stop was to be near the Suwannee River in the Florida panhandle.  It was about a 4 hour drive from Bradenton and the last stretch of road to the campgrounds was the roughest we’ve ever been on.  I really appreciated the offroad suspension and lift.  

One spot in the road looked impassible.  Water covered the entire road and spanned about 20 feet of it.  I dipped the from tires in to see how deep it was and we went for it.  Water came up to the bumpers and the tires spun a little, but we didn’t have any trouble making it through.  We figured we should at least have some privacy if you had to traverse a road like this to get to the campsite.  What we ended up with was a mixed bag.

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The view of the river was pretty nice.  You could tell that campground was beautiful at one time.  The problem was that it had been completely trashed.  The grounds were torn up by 4x4’s and picnic tables burned.  

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Due to the vandalism, the place had a sundown curfew.  Since it was close to sundown by the time we got there and we were tired, we decided to stay anyway.  Besides, the campground was at the end of that crazy road and the government was still shutdown.  Who’s going to bother us?

A state ranger in a 4x4 pulled up right after Nic and I got settled in and started reading our books.  She wasn’t amused to see us after sunset and pointed to the big sign with red lettering that we had chosen to ignore.  I decided to not play dumb and just told her we had been driving a long way and would be gone first thing in the morning.  She wasn’t having any of it and ran our drivers licenses and plates.  In the end she was cool and let us off with just  a warning citation.  According to her, the campgrounds had actually been cleaned up before we got there.  The vandals had also chained up the port-a-potties and dragged them around in addition to all the damage we saw.  I’d like to eventually visit again after they get it straightened out.

With no place to sleep, Nic and I decided to head to Apalachicola National Forest over by Tallahassee, FL.  It was only about another hour drive or so.  The campsites weren’t very nice.  They were basically just open spots in the woods with dumpsters and port-a-potties brought in to support the deer hunters.  The only thing interesting about Apalachicola was that the hunters brought their 4x4’s in on flatbed trailers because they broke them hunting deer so much.

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I wasn’t really impressed with Apalachicola and it wasn’t close enough to Tallahassee to make the trip in town to the Planet Fitness worthwhile, so we left there and headed toward our next prospective campsite.

The next national park in Alabama we went to was closed down due to the government shutdown.  The one we drove to after that didn’t exist anymore.  I’d finally had enough.  Out of the last 4 free campsites we had been to, only one was open and that one sucked.  We decided to drive straight through to Corpus Christi.

Bradenton, FL

Our next stop after the Everglades was Bradenton, FL.  I wanted to stop and visit with some friends that had a winter home there.  Friends is probably not a strong enough word.  Second set of parents would be closer to my relation ship with Chuck and Barb Willkomm.

Throughout High School and College, Chris (their son) and I were pretty much inseparable.  We lived together, partied together, and hung out at each others parents houses.  More often than not it was at Chris’ parents house that we ended up.  If it was late at night and Chris and I (often with other friends in tow) were hungry, we would raid his parent’s kitchen.  Barb, rather than yell at us for waking her up and stealing her food, would visit with us and even cook for us.  I even went with them on a family vacation to Wisconsin once.  I have many fond memories of the Willkomm family.

I hadn’t seen Chuck and Barb in over a decade since Chris and I grew up and moved away from each other.  It was a more emotional reunion than I had prepared my self for.  Barb hugged me and burst into tears.  I got a big lump in my throat and hugged her back.

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The Willkomms have their main home in Branson, MO.  There they see shows daily, even sometimes multiple times, a day.  Barb was bringing a little of that with her to the Bradenton park community they lived in with a Neil Diamond tribute act.  The performance was the same day that Nic and I got there and Barb was busy preparing for it, but not too busy to make us a homemade spaghetti dinner.  It was amazing.

The next day, Barb and Chuck took us to see the manatees at a local power plant spill basin.  The manatees like the warm water coming out of the power plant and it makes for good viewing.

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They even had a petting zoo for stingrays.

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After we saw the manatees, we drove out to Ana Marie Island and had a late lunch at The Rod and Reel Pier.  It was a restaurant at the end of a fishing pier that had an amazing view of Tampa Bay.  The food was awesome.

By the time we got back from Ana Marie Island, we were all wiped out and crashed for the night.  The next morning, Barb was up bright and early and cooking us breakfast.  After breakfast and having some coffee and visiting, Nic and I got ready to leave.

We had an amazing time hanging out with the Willkomms and will be trying to visit them in Branson next time we head that way.  After we left Nicole told me that it felt like she had known Barb and Chuck forever and that we should stay longer next time.  Many thanks to them for hosting us and showing us around Bradenton.

Everglades

We left Key West after only a couple days.  Looking back, there was more we would had liked to done there and probably should have stayed for another couple days.  But, we prefer to camp in the wilderness and so we got back on the road and headed to the Everglades.

When we entered Everglades National Park there was no one at the entrance or the campsite checkin.  It looked to us like it was unmanned because of the government shutdown.  We have an Annual National Park pass, so it didn’t really matter to us.  We wouldn’t have had to pay to get in anyway, though we would have to pay for a camping spot.  We drove around the park and it looked to be in good condition considering the shutdown.

As we made camp someone asked me how to identify the camping spaces (they had the number painted on the slabs) because he had to got back to the checking building and tell them which campsite he was in.  After helping this guy, I walked back to the checkin and paid for the campsite we settled into.  They must have just been away from the desk when we drove through before.

Nicole and I decided to take a hike while we were there.  We only got about a 1/4 mile in before being overwhelmed by mosquitoes.  These suckers where huge.   Like, steal your girl and fly away huge.  Nic wasn’t having any of it so we turned around and went back to the campsite.

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These guys were hanging out in the trees when I got up the next morning.

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We only stayed in Everglades National Park for one day.  It was hot and muggy.  The bugs were crazy ferocious.  I would have liked to do a canoe rental, but Nic was not going to get into a canoe with alligator infested waters.  

So we hit the road with Bradenton as our next destination.  Crossing Florida from Miami to the western side of Florida is a highway nicknamed “Alligator Alley”.  It is well named as it has a canal running next to it that alligators have infested.  I saw one roadkill alligator getting eaten by vultures on the way.

We didn’t make it all the way to Bradenton and stopped for the night at a State Park.  We don’t like to pay for camping and that made two days in a row for me.  Unfortunately, there just isn’t any free camping in the Everglades like you would typically see around a National Park.  One thing that was cool about this campsite was that it had one of the walking dredgers that was used to make Alligator Alley.

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This thing actually drug itself along the ground and scooped out mud and stumps so that the Everglades could be drained enough to build the road.

There isn’t much to say about this campsite.  We just had a peaceful night camping before it was time to move on the next day.

Key West

Parking in Key West was very challenging.  We got there late and there were few parking lots that didn’t have no overnight parking signs.  We did finally find a place close to the beach that had an awesome view of the ocean and settled in for the night.

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The next morning Nicole and I got up and Nicole asked me if I’d heard that bird that sounded just like a rooster this morning?   I told her it was a rooster, but she wouldn’t believe me because the crowing was coming right from beside the van and there was no way that it was someone in town keeping chickens that close to us.  I decided to get up and walk down the street a little and sure enough, roosters everywhere.  They freely roam the streets of Key West scratching and crowing.

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Nic and I spent the day bumming around in the van and at the beach.  That evening we decided to checkout the shops and nightlife.  We saw an original painting that Nic fell in love with.  Thank goodness it was already sold, so there was zero temptation to buy it.  It seems that people Key West really like their chickens.

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The next day we walked to Hemingway’s House/Museum.  One fact that was new to me was that Hemingway married into his money long before he was a successful writer.  In fact, the Hemingway house was where he wrote all his novels.

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The pool his wife put in while he was away corresponding for WWII to spite him.  It really pissed him off because she donated the boxing ring he used to have there to the local brothel and she spent a small fortune building it.  Everything under Key West is coral so digging a hole there is a real enterprise and very expensive.  In the end there wasn’t much he could say about it (although he did) because it was her money.

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This room above the carriage house is where Hemingway did all his writing.

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Everything you see there is actually Hemingway’s possessions.  His family sold the house with the furnishings in tact to the family who currently owns it.  They had the foresight to preserve everything and eventually turn the home into a museum.

We spent the whole morning doing a guided tour and then touring the grounds.  After that, it was time to jump in the van and head towards the Everglades.

Diagon Alley

Universal Studios was directly on our way to Key West.  Since Nic is a huge Harry Potter fan, we thought that we would stop there so that she could see the new Harry Potter World that they put up there.  

They divided the Harry Potter World across two different theme parks, Universal Florida and Islands of Adventure, so that you would have to pay for both worlds to get the full Harry Potter experience.  It didn’t much matter to us, since the Islands of Adventure part of Harry Potter World is a roller coaster.  Nic hates roller coasters, so we opted for just the Universal Studios theme park.  That side has Diagon Alley.

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Diagon Alley is a (I think) full size reproduction from the movies.  It has shops where you can buy wands and use the wands to interact with various bits of scenery throughout the park.  It also has the usual gift and food shops.  You can even get Butter Beer!  To help adults keep their sanity, they also had Wizards Brew, a fairly strong stout and other adult beverages.  Butter Beer tastes like a buttery cream soda.  It is really good and if they don’t bottle it to sell it, they should.  Nic really loved the stuff.

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Gringotts Bank has a cinematic ride inside of it that puts you in the middle of a 3D movie scene with the original Harry Potter actors as holograms.  Escape from Gringotts was impressive and a lot of fun.

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For lunch we ate at a Harry Potter favorite, The Leaky Cauldron.  It served traditional British fare.  I had fish and chips and Nic had a shepard’s pie.  The food was good, but as you might have already guessed, it wasn’t cheap.

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There was a lot more to universal than just Harry Potter world.  I solo rode a couple of roller coasters.  The Fast and Furious made me wish I had my nephews with me.  It was full of fast cars, girls, and explosions.  All the best stuff.

At about 2 in the afternoon, we had seen all of the park that there was to see and so we hopped back in the van and got back on the road toward the Keys.

Osceola National Forest - We're still here

We’re still in the Osceola National Forest at the West Tower Campground.  This is the same campsite that we have been at for over a month now.  Like I mentioned before, this place has basically all you could want in a free campsite.  Our time here is coming to a close however.  General gun season runs out on Jan. 6th.  During general gun you can stay as long as you want (there usually is a 14 day limit), so it is almost time for us to move on.  As for me, I’m good and ready to get on the road again.

Let’s do some catching up on what Nic and I have been doing all this time here.  Our routine has been very consistent for the last month.  We work out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  In between, I code and read.  Nic reads and plays Sims on her computer.  Usually once a day or so I have an overly long conversation about politics and the economy with my neighbor Al.

Al is 75 years old and lives in a tent.  He’s been homeless for over 6 years now.  Before that he lived in a travel trailer that got destroyed in a tropical storm.  He’s in pretty decent shape for his age and has a little pickup to get around in.  He mostly listens to the radio or reads the paper during the day.  He doesn’t have much family except for a couple of older sisters, so he likes to chat a lot.

Al and I couldn’t be more different on our beliefs.  I don’t believe we are being invaded by Mexico, that Jews are trying to destroy our economy, or that there is an imminent race war about to happen.  He probably believes me to be a bit naive because I don’t know about the Illuminati or the shadow government.  Regardless, we do have long conversations and try to understand each other’s differing prospectives.

Our Christmas dinner this year comprised of stuffing, mashed potatoes, ham steaks (cooked on an open fire), and individual pumpkin pies.  We had Al over since he didn’t have any family to spend it with and our family is far, far away.

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All the food turned out really well.  Nic is getting pretty amazing with nothing to work with but a hot plate and some collapsable cookware,

The campsite where we are staying at is an old fire watch station complete with tower.IMG 0201

I got bored and decided that I should climb it.  Don’t worry.  Even though the watch tower was long ago abandoned, it is in great shape.  The steps are newer treated lumber and the whole thing barely swayed as I got towards the top.

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Next Monday Nic and I are heading to the gym first thing in the morning and then driving towards the Florida Keys. We don’t have any plans other than visiting Hemingway’s house/museum.  After that we will be leaving Florida and visiting friends in Bradenton on the way out.  We’ll probably head to Texas after that.  Who knows? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯