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)_/¯