Date Archives February 2018

Keys and Glades

Highway 1 took us from Fort Lauderdale to the southernmost point in the United States. We had a blast in Key West before boating through gator land in the Florida Everglades.

After the rocket launch madness, we were stoked to head toward a BLM-style camping spot like those in the west, which are hard to come by in Florida. Over here, there are Water Management Areas where camping is permitted in designated areas by making a free reservation. That being said, they can get booked up quick – especially with February being the peak of high season in Florida. We arrived at DuPuis WMA after nightfall expecting a quiet forested area but soon realized it was basically an RV Park without hookups. I’m sure it’s not always like that but it was comical how jampacked it was. Granted it was a Friday and this place boasts amenities like bathrooms, hot showers and garbage disposal (a euphemism for dumpsters), which are all rare to find on free public land. This particular area is considered an equestrian campground but accommodates non-equestrian campers with RVs as well. As someone from the city, it was pretty cool to wake up to horses walking by the van despite them having to trot through a maze of RVs. When navigating which WMA you can camp at based on your camping equipment, the lady I spoke with on the phone clarified that a small camper like ours can fit at any of the sites, except backcountry. Larger RVs are generally best suited for the equestrian grounds and tents are good to go anywhere. Depending on the time of year, I’d suggest preemptively making some reservations along the way and cancelling them ahead of time (be nice) if need be – easier than scrambling last minute and toying with the idea of pitching a tent in a Walmart parking lot (don’t do this).

Generic Van Life - Key West DuPuis
This is the DuPuis WMA after some people had cleared out in the morning. Still lots of folks but plenty of green space to go around

Fort Lauderdale awaited us with friends, an air conditioned apartment and even colder beer. We spent the weekend catching up with an old friend of Justin’s and enjoying the luxury of having a flushing toilet at our disposal. With our streak of abnormally low temperatures hitting every town on our path, Fort Lauderdale shook things up and hit some seasonal highs. After months of acquiring extra blankets and making sure our propane is topped up to run the furnace, we had to go out and buy a fan. Boohoo, I know, but keep in mind we have a Canadian van aka great furnace but no a/c. Needless to say, we received no sympathy from people back home as they scrape ice off their cars and moustaches. Anyway, we set up for the work week at a county park called Easterlin Park in the Oakland Park neighbourhood (how many times can I say park in one sentence?). This was a really cool spot that even our Florida native friends didn’t know existed. It’s a lovely green space in the middle of an urban area that felt secluded and lush – well, until the blaring train went by. It’s part of a group of 5 parks scattered across Broward County that all offer different types of camping (and wifi!) with nice facilities. We just so happened to be there when the Parkland shooting happened and received alerts on our phones when the shooter was still at large. We were about 25 minutes away, so that was a little scary. Not gonna get into it, but here’s to sincerely hoping that no such emergency alert has to be issued again.

Generic Van Life - Key West Easterlin Park
Easterlin Park made for some jungle-like camping minutes from Fort Lauderdale

With the drive down the Keys on our agenda the next morning, we took the 1 all the way through Miami to Homestead. Of course this wasn’t until after making an important stop at Le Tub in Hollywood Beach to eat burgers bigger than our heads. I’ve heard Miami traffic is crazy and we can now attest that that is certainly true. At least there were trippy lightshows of dancing people on the sides of buildings to keep the drive interesting. We eventually parked up in Homestead and stayed the night in a Home Depot parking lot about 40 min north of Key Largo.

Generic Van Life - Key West Le Tub Welcome
Bathtub shop? Nope, burger joint. And we’re talking 16 oz patties

The much-anticipated drive down the Keys was well worth the excitement. Gorgeous views from every angle made it hard to not daydream about spending the day boating to a far out sand dune to have lunch like many of these boaters seemed to be doing. Even with the beautiful turquoise waters glistening in the sun, it was evident that hurricane Irma made a lasting impression on several of the Keys, especially Islamorada and Marathon. Piles of debris lined the highway and left behind not-so-distant memories of beautiful beach homes and pristine beaches. In fact, we drove past to see that even the KOA was closed for reconstruction. It’s clear that, similar to Texas, some areas have more money than others to clean up and rebuild, leaving virtually no trace of disaster. That being said, we drove out of the Keys on a Saturday and saw groups of people scattered around working together to clean up. As unfortunate as these things may be, the community coming together to help each other is always a good aspect of the outcome.

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Even our broken mirror looked gorgeous in the Keys!

Reaching Key West, we were on a mission to find a private parking lot that we could pay to park in for the night, as per advice from other vanners. Camping in Key West is known to be next to impossible unless you’re cool spending over $100+ a night and booking a campsite months in advance. After passing by several parking lots with blatantly posted signs stating “No RVs, trailers or campers” or simply, “overnight parking prohibited”, we went to a hotel to ask to park in their parking lot. The guy at the front desk said they don’t allow that but there’s no need anyway because in Old Town, you can freely park on the street. In his words, as long as you’re not in front of someone’s house, on the yellow lines or parked “backwards” (backed in) then you’ll be fine. He assured me that there’d be no trouble and that he had my back if the police had anything to say about it. Of course I left out the minor detail that we’d be sleeping in the van, but at least I made a new friend. We parked not far from the hotel in an area with a bunch of other cars, away from any main streets. We closed all the curtains, put our sun shade in the windshield and walked into all the tourist action to load ourselves with beverages.

Generic Van Life - Key West Roosters
Street parking meant we had some rowdy neighbours. They were roosters.

A must-see on our short trip was the Hemingway Home; a gorgeously preserved home filled with polydactyl cats, what’s more to love? Go on the tour and hear the facts and stories for yourself but I’ll just tell ya that this house is lovely and complete with every creative’s dream, a private studio. Walking around the property was surreal, especially for me as my 17 year old self got a quote from The Old Man and the Sea as my first tattoo (yes, I thought I was cool). After spending some quality time with the kitties, we had some delicious food at Santiago’s Bodega before eventually ending up at the tastefully divey Whistle Bar on Duval. A second-floor bar with a wrap around patio was a perfect choice for observing a night in Key West in full swing. Bonus, the third floor of this place is a clothing optional bar called Garden of Eden if that strikes your fancy ;). We stumbled back to the van and discreetly climbed in for the night. Stealth camping is always a gamble so be cautious to not let residents see you and of course, be as quiet and unobtrusive as you can be. From what I’ve read, sleeping in your vehicle is harshly punishable there and the police like to throw out the jail card. With looming paranoia and incredibly vocal roosters going all night long, it wasn’t the most peaceful sleep but a free stay in Key West nonetheless!

Generic Van Life - Key West Hemingway Pool
Hemingway’s backyard with the first (and most expensive) pool in Key West

The drive out was somehow even more beautiful and we made sure to stop on a couple other keys to take it all in. The only thing that would have made our stay better would have been seeing a key deer but we can’t have it all can we. We had our mid-day breakfast on Coco Plum Beach, near Marathon Key, before heading to the Everglades for an airboat tour that we scored a wicked deal on (thanks Groupon). We went to Coopertown, a town with a posted population of a whopping 8 people, for the “original” airboat tour. If you do click this link to go to their website, please enjoy as much as I did that their official video is a clip from Bridget’s Sexiest Beaches, a travel show by Playboy Playmates. Unfortunately there weren’t any Playmates present when we went but we did see 3 gators! This was so satisfying since our eyes were peeled whenever we were by a swamp in Louisiana, to no avail. Riding the gator high after the tour, I spotted at least 10 more gators hanging out along the banks and swimming in the swamps on our drive west out of the Glades along Big Cypress Preserve. Wildlife was the name of the game with several signs warning of panther crossings but like the key deer, they remained a mystery.

Generic Van Life - Key West Gator
Gator patrol

Click away for some more photos from lovely southeastern Florida:

Been to the Everglades? Done some stealthy boondocking in the Keys? We wanna hear about it!

Danger! High Voltage

Power surges and rocket launches in Navarre and Cape Canaveral, FL

Tropical rain and free OJ – we must be in Florida! Although we weren’t quite at the ocean yet, arriving in Florida was a big milestone for us: we had made it to the complete opposite side of the country from where we started and this marked the 10th state on our journey so far. Over the past few months we’ve seen so much different scenery and interacted with so many different types of folks that we were kind of excited to go somewhere where we had been before and see it from a different perspective. That being said, northwestern Florida was still new to both of us – although I just found out that Jaws II was filmed there (!!).

Generic Van Life - Navarre New Smyrna Beach
Gotcha! Not the jungle, just North Florida

From Pensacola, we took the scenic highway 98 so we could soak in all that sweet coastline before planning to make the brief overnight stop at a boat ramp in Navarre when everything exploded. Ok, some context would be helpful. It all started when we innocently tried to charge our laptops through our 12V cigarette lighter inverter. We charge our phones and small things like flashlights all the time without worry and have even brought my 60w laptop to full power from the grave without a hiccup. However, Justin’s 85w laptop gave our 120w inverter a bit more than it bargained for. The little indicator light went red and it stopped charging. It’s a dud, we thought, until we couldn’t shake this nauseating rotten egg smell. We checked on the battery and it was definitely hot and sizzly but we only had 20 minutes left on our drive so we took it slow and cautiously coasted through what turned out to be more like a 40 minute drive because of a nearby car accident. If you’ve ever crossed from Navarre to Navarre Beach then you know that the skinny single-lane bridge is exactly that, skinny. And that’s when things started smoking. Did I mention that it was raining? Well, our windshield wipers started going so fast that they looked like they were about to fly off and slice someone’s head off like a katana (too much?). Seeing as there was no shoulder to pull over on, we parked at the first possible place – which was luckily a gas station just one lot over from where we were planning to stay – and turned everything off. After opening the hood and seeing steaming hot battery acid spewing out, we knew this baby needed some time to cool down. It appeared as though our voltage regulator (which we just replaced in November 2017) was shot so the alternator was working at breakneck speed and in turn, majorly overcharging the battery to a slow and stinky death.

Generic Van Life - Navarre Parking Lot
Calm before the storm. Unbeknownst to us, we happened to arrive with the keeners

We gave it two hours to cool down before trying to start it again so we could pull into the other lot to sleep and deal with the repairs in the morning. Wishful thinking I guess because as soon as we turned the key, this awful noise that sounded like a machine gun became deafening. Boost time! With the condition that our battery seemed to be in, we didn’t want to subject anyone else’s vehicle to possible risks so we phoned AAA and had a professional handle it. We got it started no problem but despite the cool down sesh, our battery immediately resumed sizzling and sent his voltmeter through the roof. Luckily it was about a 30-second drive to get to where we needed to be. This spot was one of those places where it didn’t say no overnight parking so it’s a gamble if someone will tell you to move or not. Our uncertainty quickly disappeared when we saw numerous RVs and campers lined up with crazy set-ups like propane firepits, outdoor big screen TVs and surround sound systems blaring ZZ Top (classic lullaby). Now, this is just a public parking lot but we soon learned that with a Mardi Gras Parade on the horizon, this place becomes a giant party for anyone who’s lucky enough to find a spot.

Generic Van Life - Navarre Float
Just one of the lovely floats ready to hit the parade. This one even had a bathroom in it

Long story short, Justin took a lyft early the next morning to buy a new battery and regulator with the intention of replacing it himself – which he successfully did. As we rejoiced and beamed with pride, we were ready to take off when we realized the blinkers didn’t work. This enlightened us to the fact that nothing worked because it all exploded from the power surge so we spent the morning replacing every light bulb, motor and flasher we could. We also decided it was necessary to order in a new alternator so another night at the boat ramp it was! We actually ended up meeting a lot of nice people and having a fun time in the midst of all of our mechanical troubles. Once the new alternator was ready for business, we waved goodbye to Navarre and continued on the 98 through the sandy beaches of Destin and Panama City and moved inland toward Ocala.

Generic Van Life - Navarre Big Gus
Meet Big Gus. Get acquainted with this 20,000 lb steer in Panama City Beach

Free camping isn’t as accessible in Florida as it has been in other states so we were happy to park up at a Walmart and recharge. The next day, however, we got to our spot early and looked around for something to do when there it was, BOWLING! It just so happened to be the weekend of a Florida State Seniors Bowling Tournament, which filled the place up with pros. Once they cleared out and it was safe to show off our shoddy amateur skills, we bowled the evening away and had a wicked time. With all the driving we do, it was nice to hangout for a while and forget where we were.

Generic Van Life - Navarre Bowling
That form alone would have had the seniors shaking in their boots. Good thing we waited til they cleared out. Wouldn’t have wanted to intimidate them

Making our way toward the coast, we drove down from Daytona Beach to New Smyrna Beach where we’d be staying for a few days to be close to the rocket launch (launch who? Everything you need to know about it here). We were hard pressed to find somewhere to stay for the work week since Florida snowbirds are in full swing and these launches bring in tons of tourists. We had been psyching ourselves out reading all the tips on Reddit to arrive in the middle of the night and how people were coming from all over the country to find a spot in the morning. With that, we woke up stupid early and headed toward Playalinda Beach on the Canaveral National Seashore. By 8AM, people had already set up shop at multiple viewing areas with huge cameras and telescopes. After a slow roll in, we got a spot in parking area 8 and realized that the view from the roof of the van was actually better than the view from the edge of the beach – and it had a stocked fridge.

Generic Van Life - Navarre Playalinda
The edge of Playalinda Beach is as close as you can get to the launch pad without being at the Space Centre (~3.5 miles). Stop looking at that kid’s butt, you weirdo!
Generic Van Life - Navarre Falcon Heavy Launch II
Gotta love a rooftop view!

Alternating between sitting on the beach, the roof and inside, the launch got delayed multiple times and anxiety was rising. The latest update was for a 3:45 PM launch, with 4PM being the cut-off time. A lot of people thought it was going to be a scrub and left to livestream in air conditioning at home. Low and behold, 3:45 rolled around and crowds of silent people watched in awe as the Falcon Heavy blasted into the sky. It was insanely cool and something we never thought we’d get a chance to see in real life. One of the craziest aspects was the delay in sound – we watched it quietly blast off only to hear the giant boom a good 30 seconds later as the van shook uncontrollably. We couldn’t help but take note of how many different types of folks were there with license plates from all over and think of how positive of a thing this was to bring people together. Undeniably history-making in the most wonderful way possible. But, with all these folks came immense traffic. To be expected, of course, which made it extra entertaining to watch people decide to turn around and angrily mouth off about how outrageous it is to not move an inch in 15 minutes. What was a 20 minute drive over the bridge to get in became a 3 hour drive to get out. Again, that stocked fridge thing comes in handy.

Here’s what our view looked like in motion:

With the rocket launch over, it‘s time to start heading down the coast toward the Keys. It’s February and we just put all of our winter gear away and don’t mind it one bit.

Born on the Bayou

Getting our share of flooding and crawfish in Southern LA before chooglin’ on down to New Orleans, Louisiana.

Our journey from the Great White North has opened our eyes to a lot of different landscapes but this was our first time venturing into full-on wetlands. Louisiana was also such a good host and gave us the full experience by flooding on our first morning, causing everything to become a wetland. It all started when we set up for the night in a light rain at Rutherford Beach, south of the town of Creole. With only two fishermen on the beach, we had the whole stretch to choose where we were going to set up shop. We had been warned that the sand was very soft in areas so as expected, we got stuck. We were able to dig ourselves out fairly easily but it was comedic nonetheless.

Generic Van Life - Louisiana Rutherford Beach
Favourable beach conditions as always
Generic Van Life - Louisiana Warning
Well that’s no fun

With our streak of grey weather, we were checking the forecast constantly in hopes of sunnier days. This time, we were promised a bit of rain in the night and a thunderstorm by early afternoon the next day – not great but no big deal. What actually happened was rain so heavy in night that I could barely sleep and waking up to flash flood warnings. We groggily started getting ready to move during a brief lull in the rain to avoid having to deal with mud-like sand if it got any worse. By the time we got back to paved road, we got emergency alerts from Apple so it seemed this was going to be more than a regular thunderstorm. Most of the roads weren’t too bad since they had banks alongside where water was pooling like it was its job. Keeping a slow pace, we sloshed around a bit but were happy to reach the Interstate that had much better drainage. Flash floods aren’t really things we’re used to dealing with so it was crazy to see peoples’ front yards as ponds instead of grass. Of course this wasn’t a flood of much grandeur but people living in these areas must just have to get used to it. I guess they’d be equally as shocked if they saw how our houses get half covered in snow and we barely bat an eye.

Generic Van Life - Louisiana Flooding
No shortage of water here

Being such a gross day, it was a good opportunity to run some errands around the Lafayette area and catch up on a couple home projects. The main one being replacing our sink faucet since our old one (probably the original) kept breaking and then started to leak. Thinking about modernizing and bringing ourselves into the 21st century, we browsed for some electric pumps to have normal water flow but were discouraged by how powerful even the weakest ones were – if 2.5 gallons of water could be pushed through our plumbing in a minute then probably burst. We stuck with a new version of what we had before, a manual hand pump. It’s not ideal when you want to give your hands a good scrub or rinse out a sponge but it does the trick and saves a lot of water. Maybe we’ll look into getting a fish tank pump to give us that gentle flow we need. Any suggestions?

Generic Van Life - Louisiana Clean Stove
Rainy days = time to clean 30 years of grease off the stove! Look at that sparkle!

When the rain finally subsided, we ended our day at the Atchafalaya Welcome Centre between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. Beyond just being a free, safe spot to sleep for the night, the welcome centre boasts free coffee, lots of helpful tourist info and even a little museum of sorts all about Cajun culture and heritage. The ladies that worked there were total sweethearts and were eager to give us some good food recommendations and of course, speak French! I went to French school and even studied Franco-Caribbean literature (don’t ask) so I’m quite familiar with Creole and was disappointed to hear that learning French isn’t part of regular schooling anymore. Although, it’s not surprising since Spanish is evidently much more prevalent in the US. Anyway, we popped in the next morning to grab another cup of that sweet java and a different lady at the desk insisted that we get some authentic Cajun food before heading to New Orleans. She directed us to Lake Martin in Breaux Bridge to check out some of the real deal swamps and maybe even see an alligator. Believe me, we looked for them but those fellas are so good at blending in that we didn’t see any. In any case, the area was super cool and home to so many interesting birds and other wildlife that rely on the disappearing wetland areas to survive. After driving on the stretch of the I-10 that is basically one big bridge over a swamp, it was interesting to walk on the boardwalk and see the green waters up-close. We didn’t do a swamp tour but perhaps we would have been more successful with gator patrol had we done one. Next time! After the swamp, we went to a small café called Chez Jacqueline, run by a French lady cooking up tasty Cajun food. As per the welcome centre lady’s recommendation, I tried the crawfish bisque and it was ridiculously good. Like better than I would have ever expected. We’d never tried crawfish before so were shocked by how much texture it had before just melting in your mouth. Everything we ate was delicious, probably because as Jacqueline insisted, always use butter and never margarine.

Generic Van Life - Louisiana Lake Martin
Boardwalk through the swamplands surrounding Lake Martin by the bird rookery

As any tourist in Louisiana does, we made our way to New Orleans. We managed to find a parking lot in the French Quarter that has a $50 RV rate so you can sleep in your car. It’s good for 24 hours so you’re free to roam around a bunch and be comfortably hungover the next day since you’re not in a rush to check out by 11AM and face the judgment of a hotel front desk person. The first thing we noticed were the somewhat gaudy cemeteries with large concrete tombs similar to those that I’ve seen in France. These seemed to show their age a bit more than those of Père Lachaise but still set the tone for the European influence on the architecture and style of the city – or, the French Quarter at least. We walked around and explored a bit before having dinner at Cochon in the Lower Garden District on a street with a name so long I’ll probably exceed my character limit. We heard it gets quite busy and we’re not big fans of waiting in lines so we were prepared to have to go somewhere else (can anyone say Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant down the street?!? Sarcasm.) but we seemed to get there right as a two-top was leaving so we were able to snag a spot in no time. It’s hard for me to even articulate how delicious everything was. It’s a very pork-centric menu (yum) with roots in Southern comfort food. We had the gator, the rabbit & dumplings and pork ribs with pickled watermelon and it was the best I’ve ever had in each category. Prior to this, I didn’t even think I liked gator since I’d only had botched probably Sysco-supplied bites, but I could have eaten these bites by the dozen. From the delicious cocktails to the impressive whiskey list, we cannot recommend this place enough. Without turning this into an unwarranted Yelp review, we’ll just leave it as a must-visit if you’re ever in New Orleans.

Generic Van Life - Louisiana Cochon
Follow the neon lights!

Obligatorily (very surprised that’s actually a word), we did the Bourbon street crawl and admired and cringed at the same time. This was the weekend before Mardi Gras kicked off so the bars were treating it as a calm before the storm but that sure didn’t stop people from decking themselves out in beads and slamming back slushy daiquiris. NOLA has obviously earned its stripes as a party city but it wasn’t really our scene. As similar to Vegas as it was, there was a clear distinction that I can’t quite put my finger on aside from it being a bit overkill and a bit less tacky-on-purpose. In any case, we had a good time checking out some other bars on the outskirts before eventually retiring to our lovely parking lot hotel. Not only did this parking lot provide accommodation, but there was also no shortage of entertainment. Shortly after we returned, a couple of guys got into a fight directly beside the van before renewing their ultimate bromance by telling each other they’re the bestest friends they could ask for and everyone lived happily ever after. With our minds at ease knowing that these guys are forever buds, we passed out and were abruptly awoken by the loudest Christian music around 4 AM. It was way too loud to be coming from a car and sounded like it was coming from a PA system or even a live concert that magically began and completely shut down when the song was over. We have no clue where it came from or what it was all about and we’re just gonna continue to leave it that way.

Generic Van Life - Louisiana NOLA
The French Quarter makes you feel like you’ve taken a trip out of America

We got ourselves up in the morning to see how it all looked in the daytime and enjoy a beignet (or three) at Café du Monde. It was lovely to have breakfast outside while jazzy musicians played some tunes and tourists emerged from every crevice of the city. We walked through Jackson Square and around a bunch of small streets with musicians set up and countless crews of people doing repairs on buildings to prepare for the madness that is Mardi Gras.

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St. Louis Cathedral from Jackson Square
Generic Van Life - Louisiana Street Musicians
Music so good it puts dogs to sleep

After skipping town, we continued along the Gulf Coast, taking the scenic highway 90, and were blown away by how pristine and pretty the coast of Mississippi is. White sandy beaches and plantation-style homes with mature trees lined the highway the whole way until Biloxi’s hotels and casinos hit. We had no idea that this vacation destination existed but we’ve clearly been left in the dark because it even had a Golden Nugget! I’m not sure that that’s a unit of measurement per se, but let’s just leave it at Biloxi being a bigger city than we thought. There’s clearly a lot of money in this zone so we can see why it would attract people wanting luxurious vacations that they can’t get in other parts of Mississippi. We stayed the work week in Gautier in a more forest-y area that was generally pretty quiet until there was a police chase on our last night. No clue what was going on but I’d like to think it was juicy. Maybe I watch too much TV.

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Pier in Gulfport, MS

After Mississippi came the blink of an eye stretch that was Alabama. We decided to get groceries in Mobile just so we could say we spent more than 40 minutes in the state. We ended up talking to a guy in a Starbucks parking lot as we were stealing wifi who told us that Mardi Gras actually originated in Mobile and not New Orleans, despite their ubiquitous association with it. CNN fact checked this and it’s apparently true so there’s a good trivia question for ya. In addition to enlightening us about Mardi Gras, we also learned that it’s pronounced mo-beel and not mo-bull like we had been saying it. In our memories, Mobile will just be full of fun facts! Anyway, these were all just rest stops as we make our way to the east coast of Florida to watch the Falcon Heavy Launch. Something we both never thought we’d be able to do so living the van life definitely has its perks!

West Third Coast Best Coast

We never knew Texan beach vacations were a thing until we had one. Cruising through America’s third coast in Corpus Christi and Galveston, TX.

On a lovely grey day, we made our way down toward Corpus Christi to do some beach camping on Padre Island. We would have loved to go all the way to South Padre, which is right on the Mexican border, but it was a little out of the way and we weren’t convinced that the heavy rainclouds would magically transform into clear blue skies just a couple hours down the coast. Weather aside, it was super rad to be able to drive right onto the sand and set up shop. The park ranger told us that the first 5 miles of the beach are hard-packed sand that’s easy enough for any vehicle to drive on, whereas after the 5 mile marker, things get a little softer and 4×4 is probably wise. I’m sure the distant miles of the beach are quiet and secluded but Clementine doesn’t have the best track record with driving through soft sand.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Padre Island
Room with a view

The next day promised warmer temperatures and a clear sky but in the time we got to the beach and lost cell service, the weather forecast must have changed significantly because all the day brought was fog so thick you could cut it with a knife. In fact, the fog was so damp that after sitting outside for a couple hours, we were soaking wet. It was hilarious to have to dry your hair with a towel when it wasn’t even raining – you could see the fog travelling through the air like thick clouds at eye level. Despite being such a blah day, there was a lot of traffic passing by our spot with all varieties of vehicles looking for a place to camp, or perhaps ambitiously thinking the fog might clear if they just trekked on a little further. It created a very mystical backdrop for the day’s activity since cars only came into view when they were about 250 metres away; it seemed as if at any moment, the Black Pearl would approach the shore to steal all of our rations.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Padre Island Fog
Foggy days. Note the windows

We stayed two nights on Padre Island before giving Clemmie a much needed bath and moving onto the next beach (get a car wash after staying on the island. The salty air creates such a thick film on the windows and body that becomes a rust magnet. Even if you don’t feel like it, just do it). Our drive took us back through Corpus and seemingly every oil refinery in Texas. It’s not exactly the nicest view to look out on from your million dollar beach home but a nice waterside drive nonetheless. Another landscape this drive brought us through was the heart-wrenching state of Port Aransas and its surrounding areas. With Hurricane Harvey only a few months behind us, the debris and remnants of very tough times were still quite apparent. We first saw a bunch of collapsed trees and fences and thought that was bad until we reached the “heavy debris area” where the city had created landfills essentially in the area between the split highway. Mountains of furniture, clothing and building materials were piled one after the other. Looking at this stuff was like looking at parts of peoples’ lives destroyed and accumulated with no hope of being salvaged. It was clear that relief efforts were slowly helping to rebuild local businesses and homes but it was shocking to see the state of this part of the coast some four months after the hurricane while fancy beach homes and chain restaurants closer to Corpus showed no signs of damage. I think that instead of avoiding these areas, we should be encouraged to visit them and support the local businesses so they can get back on their feet.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Galveston Homes
Pastel mega beach houses looked pristine four months after flooding

Our next stop yielded harder sand and calmer waters. Magnolia Beach is situated in Lavaca Bay so worries of the tide coming up to the van in the middle of the night were non-existent in comparison to the rough waters at Padre. With a thunderstorm looming, the air was warm and humid and left us with perfect sleeping temperatures and a mellow soundtrack of calm waves hitting the shore. We were parked about 2 feet away from the water and couldn’t have asked for a better spot. The beach is a shell beach so it’s easy to drive on and there were even some big rigs parked further down – an A+ spot to check out if you’re in South Texas.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Magnolia Beach
Magnolia Beach was calm and peaceful. Waking up to this was perfect

Further down the coast, we took the Bluewater Highway from Surfside Beach to Galveston. There’s a $2 fee to use the San Luis Pass that connects the lower island to Galveston Island but it was well worth it for us to cut down on the driving time and to give us a much more scenic journey. Said scenery also made one thing quite clear: this is rich people territory. Colourful beach houses on stilts lined both sides of the road with towering palm trees and perfectly manicured lawns. From what I’m used to in Toronto, homes that big would generally be 2 or 3 separate apartments but Justin reminded me that these were single family homes. And not just homes, vacation homes.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Jamaica Beach
Because why not have a mini-putt beside your pond?

We stayed in Jamaica Beach, about 20 minutes away from the town of Galveston. As lovely as the area was, it was an abnormally cold week yet again so we didn’t get a chance to do much outdoors. We went into downtown Galveston on our way out and grabbed our share of the golden food group at one of the many deep-fried seafood joints before scoping out what I was most excited for, serial killer Robert Durst’s house!! He lived in Galveston for a little while, disguised as a mute old woman, before slaughtering his neighbour and throwing his remains into Galveston Bay. Now that’s a tourist attraction! If you’re into true crime then…this probably still isn’t worth the stop since someone seems to live here and either isn’t bothered by it or got a really good deal from their real estate agent.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Robert Durst House
This is “the chop house” where Robert Durst resided in Galveston as “Dorothy”
Generic Van Life - Third Coast Galveston Pier
Galveston Pier has a little amusement park on it but to our (mostly Justin’s) chagrin, it was closed

To leave Galveston, we took the free ferry to the Bolivar Peninsula. This is about a 20 minute ride across Galveston Bay where you can either stay in your car or step outside to let the wind blow through your hair and the seagulls fly alarmingly close to your head. The lady beside us was throwing Ritz crackers at them so they continuously hovered along the edge of the boat, just plotting whom they were going to poop on. Luckily we made it out untarnished and continued on about 10 minutes down the road to the Bolivar Flats. This is a mud flats meets beach area with a designated zone that you can camp for free in. From the highway, you’ll turn down Rettilon Road and see a big ol’ sign welcoming you to the beach at the end of the road. It’s full of confusing rules and arrows pointing in misleading directions so if you find yourself standing there a bit confused like we did, stand looking at the sign and everything to the left of it until the wash is free reign. To the right of the sign and past the wash requires a permit that’s like 10 bucks and lasts you a week. There appeared to be virtually no difference in beach quality and both sides have access to a portapotty and garbage bins, which is pretty handy. Sadly, the winds picked up and the temperature seemed to plummet when we got there so we stayed inside but we certainly could not complain when the Gulf of Mexico was in our backyard.

Generic Van Life - Third Coast Ferry
Look at these things. You can see the evil poo-plotting in their eyes
Generic Van Life - Third Coast Bolivar Flats
Once you see these signs at Bolivar Flats you’re in the clear. But I probably didn’t have to tell you that

Despite not having very beachy weather, we had a wicked time driving and camping along Texas’ Gulf Coast. It was nice to do this in the off-season because I’m sure it gets pretty busy down there in the summer. What’s your favourite third coast spot?

Greetings from Austin

West Texas was all cotton and roadkill but we discovered a home away from home in Austin, TX.

There are few big cities that we are actually excited to pass through among our drives through weird small towns and Austin was definitely one of them. Coming from the Roswell, NM area, we broke up our drive a little bit by staying one night in a town called San Angelo. A major thing we noticed after crossing the state line was how much better kept these small towns looked compared to those of New Mexico. It’s quite unfortunate really that there can be such a visible wealth gap between two neighbouring states in towns just miles apart. That being said, we entered Texas through a small town called Plains, where the first thing we saw was a dead chocolate lab in the middle of the road. It was awful and had obviously happened quite recently judging by the folks on the side of the road. Little did we know, this would set the tone for the rest of our drive that day. Setting an all-time record for both of us (probably combined), we counted 38 dead deer on our 90 mile drive along highway 87 from Big Spring to San Angelo. That’s nuts! And that doesn’t include the multitude of smaller animals we lost count of. It’s clear that some of them were fresher than others, so the city/county/state/whoever must not collect them like they do back home and in (I assume) other states. When I googled briefly to see how that all works, all I could find were threads about if it’s ok to harvest the animal if you hit it…but that’s a different story.

Generic Van Life - Austin Foster Park
Tom Green makes good parks

Aside from the plethora of dead animals strewn on either side of the road, the rest of the landscape was pretty much cotton field after cotton field. Most people don’t really consider how much cotton we consume but seeing the giant bales lined up by the dozen was pretty eye opening. Clothing is one thing but then there’s cotton balls, cotton swabs, tampons! It’s crazy to see the raw materials in such high volume when we’re so used to focusing on obtaining the end product. Anyway, if textiles are as interesting to you as they are to me, here’s some further reading about the current cotton industry and how insane in the membrane our consumption habits are. On that note, our camping spot for the night was in a nice little park in Tom Green County (lol) called Foster Park. It was picturesque with big pecan trees, a pond and lots of very talkative residents – ducks. Two of them were especially outgoing and walked right up to us and quacked away as if politely asking for food. They looked like a cross between a duck and a turkey, which we later learned were called Muscovy ducks. In the morning, we opened the curtains and they were camped outside our window waiting for us to wake up so they could politely ask us for food again. I say “politely” because they didn’t blatantly attack us but they definitely walked away with quite a bit of sass when we politely denied them.

Generic Van Life - Austin Muscovy Ducks
These Muscovy ducks were keen for anything we could give them – here they are trying to bum a smoke

We were lucky enough to score a spot at Pecan Grove RV Park in the Barton Springs area of Austin. When looking for a park to stay at for the work week, we realized that this is THE spot to stay at cause it’s smack in the middle of everything. It’s Airstream central and apparently has a 2+ year waiting list for permanent residence, which leaves very few overnight spots. The park itself is nothing to write home about but it’s walking distance to tons of bars, restaurants and parks and is coveted by travellers and locals alike (don’t even think about trying to get a spot during ACL) so we were stoked to be able to stay there. The week was mostly comprised of eating and drinking as hard as we were working, but that’s our kind of party.

Generic Van Life - Austin Pecan Grove
Pecan Grove RV Park is nestled amongst tons of bars and restaurants. The patio of that restaurant with the string lights is basically on-site

In addition to being spoiled with our location, I have a friend in Austin that showered us in delicious food and drink (not literally – we’re not that gangster) and made sure that we checked out all the different neighbourhoods to get a feel for all that makes Austin the bustling place that it is. We had a good time checking out the endless food trucks and eating our bodyweight in melty brisket and cornbread. Justin even paid homage to our friends from Foster Park by having Muscovy duck for dinner one night. We had never heard of these things and then they pop up on a menu the next day – serendipitous some (non-vegetarians) might say!

Generic Van Life - Austin BBQ
Didn’t have a spare 6 hours to wait in line at Franklin’s so we had some BBQ at Terry Black’s which was delish

As our luck would have it, the week we were in Austin was the coldest they’ve had all season and even shut the city down one day. As Canadians, it felt like a nice fall day to have a high of 1°C (34°F) in January but for Texans, this meant cancelled school, closed businesses and no driving. As comical as it was, we had to remind ourselves that this barely ever happens there so it can actually be a big safety concern since Austinites already seem to suck at driving, even in good weather. Before the freezing rain storm hit, it was a decently warm day that we spent walking along the river to the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue. Amid all the cute dogs, there were so many people running, rollerblading and biking. We sat on a park bench, tired and hungover, as people of all ages continuously zoomed past us and made us feel pretty lazy. It was exhausting to watch how active these people were. Wasn’t enough to make us do anything else but indulge in more food and drink that night though.

Generic Van Life - Austin Stevie Ray
Gonna assume the statue isn’t true to life size (but hoping that it is)

Before leaving town, we loaded up on Topo Chicos and spent a night in Round Rock, just north of Austin, crashing in our friend’s driveway. This is a cool little town that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise checked out but we’re glad we did. Despite being just 20 minutes away from downtown Austin, Round Rock is doing its own thing and doesn’t fall into the typical neighbouring city-suburb category. Even on a weeknight, the town was alive and had lots of shops and restaurants in old timey buildings with lots of character – contrary to the very young feel that Austin has.

Generic Van Life - Austin Round Rock
Just so we’re on the same page, that is indeed a skeleton riding a bear with antlers. Bar decor at its finest

Our next stop was the “third coast”, as the Texans like to call it, to get out of the city and into some free beach camping (music to my ears). The weather forecast wasn’t promising but still beat the 20+ cm of snow Toronto was getting. It just so happened to be torrential rain the day we left, which is everyone’s favourite beach conditions, right?! To make our rainy drive more bearable, we stopped in to try Whataburger for the first time after seeing so many of them in Texas (this is worth clicking). Some context behind why this is noteworthy: we had been raving about how much we loved In-N-Out when we got challenged by friends saying that Whataburger is way better. My verdict still has to go to In-N-Out cause Whataburger was just too big and too mustardy (weird complaints to have, I know) but once we throw Shake Shack into the mix, it’s anyone’s game. Let’s get into the hard-hitting stuff now, which American burger chain has your vote?

Generic Van Life - Austin Whataburger
What a burger indeed