Maurice Parker

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.  

IMG 0418IMG 0425IMG 0426

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.

IMG 0427

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.

IMG 0428

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.

App store badge

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.

App store badge

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.

IMG 0252

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.  

IMG 0253

IMG 0254

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.

IMG 0256

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.

50527378 10214534582378437 959775103023841280 o

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.

IMG 0234IMG 0245

They even had a petting zoo for stingrays.

IMG 0250IMG 0251

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.

IMG 0228

IMG 0229

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

IMG 0230

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.

IMG 0231

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.

IMG 0214

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.

IMG 0215

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.

IMG 0217

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.

IMG 0225

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.

IMG 0220

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

IMG 0221

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.

IMG 1844

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.

IMG 0209

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.

IMG 1845

IMG 1847

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.

IMG 0213

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.

IMG 0198IMG 0197IMG 0200

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.

IMG 0204

IMG 0206IMG 0202

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)_/¯

Deer Hunting: Deep South Style

I was working on a program at the picnic table today when the rain kicked up again.  It’s been raining here for about a day and a half and is expected continue for a few more.  We had a break in the rain and I figured that I would get out of the van for a bit, but got caught outside.

IMG 0186

We recently bought a tarp and some poles for our camping gear.  The tarp is mostly to let people know that there is someone already camped in this site when we are in town.  Today it kept my computer and me mostly dry.

You can’t really tell from the photo, but the rain was coming down in buckets.  I was really surprised to see the deer hunters out in this kind of weather.  I suppose they were probably surprised to see some guy working at a computer in it.  I felt sorry for the dogs the most though.  The hunting dogs that is.

This little girl had about had enough of it and was more interested in sniffing the grease drippings in my fire pit.

IMG 0187

One of the things that greatly surprised me was how deer hunting in the deep south was so much different than how we do it in the midwest.  Firstly, they almost completely hunt from their pickup trucks.  It isn’t illegal to shoot across a road down here or to have a loaded gun in the vehicle.  Heck, about half the pickups I see down here have a seat mounted in the bed of the truck to sit on and shoot from.  They look like some kinda 4x4 bass boat or something.  Oh, and everyone uses a high-power rifle.

The other thing they do is use dogs to run the deer.  Some of the more responsible hunters put radio collars on the dogs and track them.  You’ll see them with what look like old TV antenna’s, waiving them around the outside of their pickup trucks trying to track the dogs.  This is the same stuff we used to watch Jim put on a lion in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

IMG 0190

IMG 0191

Some guys don’t use the radio collars.  There are these cages about every other corner on the gravel roads that say “Lost Dogs” in them.  If you find a dog, you’re supposed to put it in the box and hope someone comes along and claims it.

The other thing I found surprising was how small the deer are here.  I hear that if you get one over 100lbs, you got a good one.  Maybe hunting small deer with dogs, pickups, and high-power rifles is more common than I knew about.  It was all new to me and I found it all a little strange.

Charleston and Osceola National Forest

We visited Charleston on our way south into Florida.  It was a beautiful city.  We parked the van in an overnight public parking spot and walked around the downtown area.  It was pricy parking spot at $30, but it is still cheaper than most camping sites, hotel rooms, and police station visits.

Most of you know that Nic and I like to go out and have a good time.  With trying to get into shape we came up with a new regimen that cut beer out of our diet.  Mostly that is.  We allow ourselves a night of drinking every other Saturday.  Our visit to Charleston landed on that.  Since we had permission from ourselves to party and a safe place to sleep, we walked around Charleston and bar hopped.

IMG 0169

IMG 0166

We checkout out the bay and saw the sites.  We didn’t take a carriage ride which seemed to be the big tourist thing to do in Charleston.  The carriages were so prevalent that the parking lot we were parked at reeked of horse piss until they hosed it down at the end of the day.

IMG 0171

No trip for Nic and I would be complete it seems without a stupid sign.  You couldn’t drown in this fountain if you were face down and someone was pushing your head down.

IMG 0168

We rounded out the evening at a fancy restaurant.  We weren’t looking for an upscale restaurant, but pretty much everything in downtown Charleston was.  It had been a while for us so we decided to treat ourselves.  The place we went to was so fancy that they even had their own cookbook.

IMG 0173

Yeah, the restaurant was actually named S.N.O.B. or Slightly North Of Broad.  The food was awesome and well worth busting the budget a little bit.

It seems Nic and I are finally slowing down a bit in our older age.  We were in bed by 10 and on the road the next day by 7.  Next stop, Osceola National Forest.

IMG 0176

We’ve been here for about a week now and really enjoying it.  The campsite is posh for a free one.  We have running water, a flush toilet, garbage pickup, and even an outdoor shower.  The shower is interesting, but we shower at the gym.  The campsite location is another win.  It is only about 25 minutes to the gym and Lake City, FL.  Lake City is big enough that you can get anything you want there.

It also is really quiet here most of the time.  Not on Thanksgiving weekend though.  The campsite filled up with people who brought in SUV’s to ride on the many surrounding off-roading trails.  They (and a bunch of other campers) were up late playing loud music, drinking beer, and shooting of both guns and fireworks.   They kept Nic up late, but I’m had no problem sleeping through everything.  The holiday weekend crowd trashed the place, but the forest service was out promptly and cleaned up the area.  It is back to peace and quiet now.

It looks like we are going to be here for a while.  The location, weather, and amenities are better than we would find anywhere else.  The usual limit for this campsite is 14 days in any given 30 day period.  This time of year it is unlimited days until Jan 6th.  The unlimited time is for hunters, but there aren’t really any of those around.  Until further notice, Osceola National Forest is home-sweet-home.

 IMG 0181

The Strangest of Campsites

Nic and I are still in the Francis Marion National Forest.  We’ve been camping at different campsite than I told you about in my last blog post.  This campsite is closer to town (and Planet Fitness).  It has a through hiking trail that runs along it.  I’ve been told that it goes for 450 miles.  I’ve hiked the trail for a few miles while listening to podcasts and it is very beautiful.  Enjoy this picture of a Smurf house I found along the trail (the house was about 5” tall).

IMG 0159

I think the fact that this place is free to stay at combined with the trail and how close it is to town has made this quite the strange campsite.  The strangeness was almost immediately apparent.  The first thing we saw when we got here was 2 boxes of generic hamburger helper and a package of spaghetti noodles propped up against a log.  There was also this bundle of flowers.  There were also some tents, but no one around.

IMG 0157

The tents themselves weren’t strange at first anyway.  People often put up tents and go do day hikes or visit local attractions.  It wouldn’t be until later that I realized that Nic and I were the only non-permanent residents.  Yeah.  We’ve been at this campsite off and on for almost 2 weeks and the tents don’t move.  At about 8 or 9 at night cars start to show up to spend the night.  Not every night, just most nights.

IMG 0161

Stranger still are the tents I saw when gathering firewood even deeper out into the woods.  Take the one in the next picture for example.  It has porch, laundry lines, and various junk scattered around it.  Hell, it even has a set of golf clubs as you can see in the picture.  The notice on the front is a warning from a forest ranger about it being abandoned, but its date is Sept. 18th.

IMG 0163

The inside was decorated with pallets and wicker furniture.  My guess is that the poor homeless person that lived here got arrested and didn’t have a chance to come back for their golf clubs.

IMG 0164

The strangest thing to me is this table that someone keeps moving around the woods.  We’ll leave and go to another campsite for a day or two and this thing will be in a different place.

IMG 0158

Nicole says she likes this campsite, but she does spend most of her time in the van reading.  The one time she went out walking by herself, she didn’t get out of eyeshot of the van before returning and swearing she wasn’t going out on her own again.

This is our last night here.  I’m not going to miss this place.  Tomorrow (Saturday) we go into Charleston, SC for a date.  The plan is to urban camp in Charleston after we have a night out on the town and then drive to Florida on Sunday.

Francis Marion National Forest

We left Croatan National Forest a couple days ago.  We enjoyed our time there, almost 2 weeks, but it was time to move on.

IMG 0144

We set our sites on South Carolina and hit the road.  Conway, SC looked good on paper.  It had some free camping sites near by and Planet Fitness in town.

Planet Fitness has become something of a requirement for Nicole.  She’s pretty serious about getting in shape and we work our at PF exactly 3 times a week.  I’m enjoying the regular showers and the workouts add some entertainment to our days.  We’ve been going for about 3 weeks now and are beginning to see some results.

But I was talking about Conway, SC.  We got there and checked out the camping site.  It was along another river though not nearly as nice as the White Oak River we had had been living next to.  In fact this place was a little trashy.  Broken beer bottles, cans, and other trash where everywhere.  Heck, one guy even forgot to pick up his boat when he was done with it.

IMG 0146

We decided to stay the night anyway.  It was hardly the worse place we’ve stayed at.  About midnight a pickup with open exhaust roared into the camping area.  They decided it would be funny to do a donut and splatter our van with sand and mud.  The racket they made woke Nicole up in a panic and she wasn’t able to get much sleep the rest of the night.  It was now the worse place we’ve stayed at.

Strangely the pickup got suddenly silent after doing the donut.  Then about a half-hour later it started back up and left quietly.  It wasn’t until the next day that I understood. I went for a short walk and found where they had lost control of the truck and slid off the road and into the surrounding swamp.  It looked to me like they had buried their front tires into about 2 feet of mud and water.  They got the truck out, but given how long it took them to get it into 4WD, I think that they spent some time knee deep in swamp mud getting the front hubs locked in.

This negative experience meant that we were only one night in Conway.  The next day we headed to Francis Marion National Forest where there are almost a half-dozen free campsites.  We’ve been here about 3 days now and are enjoying it.

We have between 25-40 minutes to drive to the Planet Fitness near by, but it seems worth it so far.  The weather is overcast, but it is warm and in the 70’s.  The biggest complaint I have today is that some jackass over the hill is blaring country music and some other jackass is firing off a 22 so fast that there obviously is no aiming involved.  Miles from anywhere and I have this shit to put up with.

In between workouts I’ve been getting some light reading done and quite a bit of coding.  While I consider myself retired, I don’t want to let my skills degrade.  Given the recent uncertainty in the stock market, it isn’t a given that I will never have to get a job again.  Besides, I enjoy programming again and it passes the time.

IMG 0149

56340049866 9108BD2C F937 4368 9F9A BCB1634C7951

Croatan National Forest

We’ve been in the Croatan National Forest for a couple of days now.  Nicole has been doing a bunch of reading and I have been teaching myself the macOS graphical API’s for an open source project I have been contributing to.

We are moving between a series of campsites along the White Oak river trying to see which we like best.  There are 5 of these total, but only 3 are in the national forest.  The 3 in the national forest are the ones we are looking at because they are the ones we can camp for free at.  Most of the sites have launches so that you can canoe down the White Oak and get picked up at one of the downstream sites.  There are also a couple of sites on the other side of the forest we will be getting to next week.

IMG 0137

Nic and I also decided that one of the things we should be doing with our free time is getting into shape.  We’ve started hiking a little more.  Yesterday we went and got a membership to Planet Fitness and did a workout.  We plan on going 3 times a week.  Pricing wasn’t bad.  We got Nic their premium Black Card Membership that allows her to any of their 1500 locations for about $25/month (including annual fees).  It also allows her to bring a guest when ever she wants, so I can get in for free.

Neither of us have done much working out lately, so we’re both pretty sore today.  On top of things it is raining all day and tonight, so today is a hang around inside the van and lick our wounds kinda day.

Wolf Gap, VA

Nic and I considered our time with Lisa and Flash to be a vacation.  We spent more than we usually do on dining, drinks, and gas.  It was time to get back to just living life as simply and as cheaply as possible.

Some of the best places to do that are National Forests.  In this case we went to the George Washington National Forest and a place called Wolf Gap.  This was directly west of Washington, DC and on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.  And I mean on the border.  It was literally a 5 minute walk for me to get from my campsite on the Virginia side to the West Virginia border.

IMG 0134IMG 0133

Dispersed camping often times means you get nothing except a spot to park in the woods.  Wolf Gap had a bunch of nice-to-haves.  Marked and maintained campsites, a pit toilet, picnic tables, fallen dead wood (for campfires), and fire rings were all available.  They even had level tent pads for the tent campers (which was everyone except us).

Here are some close by things that you want when living off the grid and on the road.  It had a public trash facility only 5 minutes away.  Less than 5 minutes was an artisan well that was maintained by the local 4-H with safe drinking water to fill our tanks.  It also had a nearby recreation area (Trout Pond Rec Area) that had cheap showers or if you wanted something nicer there were 2 truck stops just 20 minutes away.  Finally, it was close to a city that had all the shopping you could need.  

Also it had some kick ass views if you were willing to hike a couple miles to see them.IMG 0132

Wolf Gap was about as good as it gets except it was too cold for Nic.  Days were 50-60 degrees with nights getting down to the 30’s.  I put a Webasto heater in the van this year, so it stayed at what ever temperature we wanted day or night.  This made it possible for us to stay a week at Wolf Gap, but it didn’t give Nic a lot of outside time.  She mostly stayed in the van and read.  I was sitting outside enjoying an all day fire either listening to music or reading as well.  The cold doesn’t bother me the same as it does Nic.

The wife wanted something warmer, so we hit I-95 and started heading south into North Carolina and the Croatan National Forest.  We just got here today, 10/23/18, and set up camp.  It is about 20 degrees warmer here.

My blogging station for the night.IMG 0135

Flash and Lisa - Part 3

We had a couple of big items that we wanted to accomplish while being in New England.  We wanted to see the fall colors, lighthouses, eat lobster rolls, and go to Salem, MA.  We got plenty of views of the foliage in Maine and Vermont.  The lighthouses were kind of a bust.   The really nice one we went to, you couldn’t get close to and it was covered in scaffolding.

Salem surprised me by how much fun it was.  This is where we got the lobster rolls (for Nic and Lisa) and did some touristy stuff we hadn’t done for much of the trip.

Parking was a nightmare in Salem.  The public parking garages had 6’ 6” clearances.  We left Flash and Lisa’s RV at a campsite and took the van, but it is still closer to 8’ tall than 7’, so we had to find alternate parking.  We ended up in a private parking lot that cost $30 (which Flash covered for us).  Other than the cost the parking lot worked out well because it was centrally located.

Right away we saw the Witch House.  We plopped down our $8 a piece to tour the place.

 IMG 0120IMG 0121

Inside was a historical look at colonial life.

IMG 0108IMG 0111IMG 0114IMG 0119

Salem itself was interesting this time of year.  Lots of people and kids were dressed up in costumes and walking around long before Halloween.  Sorry, I didn’t get any pictures of them.  We also walked around town, grabbed some coffee, and eventually ate at a really nice restaurant to get the lobster rolls.

IMG 0123

We even checked out an old cemetery.

IMG 0128IMG 0129

At the end of the day, we made our way back to our campsite.  The next day we dropped off Flash and Lisa’s RV at the rental place and took them to the airport.

The airport is in downtown Boston and we dropped our friends off right at 4:00 PM.  Boston rush hour is a real hassle. Nic and I left Boston and headed to Providence, Rhode Island to spend the night.  We rested our heads in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel restaurant.

The drive between Boston and Providence was basically one long traffic night mare.  Nic and I had decided that we’d had enough of cities and decided to head out to the wilderness.  We set our sites on West Virginia and the next morning hit the road.

Lisa and Flash - Part 2

Everyone told us that all the tourist go to Bar Harbor.  So we went.  We just visited the town and missed things like Thunder Hole because we were a bit fatigued from driving that day.IMG 0087IMG 0088

After that we headed to Glen Ellis, Maine.  We got some gloom and rain or this would have been one of our favorite camping sites.

IMG 0092

About 20 minutes away was Glen Ellis Falls where we hiked in to view one of the largest waterfalls locally.

IMG 0097IMG 0096

We spent a lot of time in Maine and it were ready to see some other states.  On our way to Vermont, through New Hampshire, we took the Kangamangus Highway which was very scenic this time of year.

IMG 0102

We ended up in Stowe, Vermont.  One of the first things we did was check out a local maple sugar farmer who sold us some really good maple syrup.  We then headed out to checkout out some local breweries.  One we went to was The Alchemist.  The beer was disappointing, but the architecture was impressive.

IMG 0103

IMG 0104

One common beer theme that we liked about New England was that you could get Shipyard Pumpkin Ale everywhere on tap.  It tastes almost just like a pumpkin pie.  If you want they will coat the rim with a brown sugar mixture.  We found it to be too sweet, but it must be popular because it was always offered to us when ever we ordered a Shipyard Pumpkin Ale.

IMG 0125

More in Part 3...

Flash and Lisa - Part 1

We spent 10 days with our good friends Flash and Lisa.  Nic and I had a great time with them and it was lots of fun sharing the van lifestyle with them.  They had an RV, but it was a Class B and not much bigger than a converted van.  We did stay primarily in campgrounds.  I think they got the good parts of van life and missed out on the scrambling to fill your water tanks and taking daily sponge baths.

The It was pretty cold along the Maine coastline.IMG 0057IMG 0066IMG 0067

Here we are out on a little hike on a small mountain.  There was originally a fire watch station here.  You can start to see some of the famous New England fall color in the landscape.  

IMG 0071IMG 0076IMG 0074

Later we found this awesome lakeside campsite.  The weather was in the 70’s and view was beautiful.

IMG 0052IMG 0077IMG 0079

Here is Mako giving attitude.  She really enjoys being outside and since it was so warm those few days, she got to enjoy the outside.  Flash and Lisa even took her on a leash guided tour of their RV.

IMG 0080

Here is Flash babysitting for us.IMG 0085

After our lake campout in Maine we hit up a an huge antique store on the way to our next destination.  I fully expected Lisa to pack their RV with some finds, but she had lots of self restraint.

IMG 0086

More coming in part 2...

Niagara Falls

On our way to meet up with Lisa and Flash we stopped at Niagara FallsIMG 0032IMG 0037

Yeah, some people are so stupid that we do need signs like these.

IMG 0042

After we left Niagara Falls, we went looking for some free backwoods camping.  We ended up sleeping on a pullout just south of Syracuse, NY.

IMG 0046IMG 0047

Volo Auto Museum

I wanted to stop at the Volo Auto Museum after I saw it on Roadkill.  If you haven’t watched Roadkill, I highly recommend it.  It is car guy reality TV without any faked up drama.

One of the first things you see when entering the museum is their Dusseldorf collection.  Nicole and I both agree that these cars have to be the height of automotive manufacturing and design ever.  We also learned a fun fact.  The phrase, “That’s a doozy” comes from peoples admiration for the car.

IMG 0006IMG 0007IMG 0004

Another cool thing about the Volo Auto Museum is that it is basically the worlds largest hotrod car lot.  You can buy about any tricked out car you can think of.IMG 0010IMG 0009IMG 0008

They also had a ton of movie and TV Show cars.

IMG 0020IMG 0012IMG 0011

We only spent a couple hours there, but had a great time.  I highly recommend it if you are ever in the area.