Posts tagged florida

Levelling Up in Florida

While taking a mini vacation from driving in Largo, Florida, we invested in some serious upgrades for Clementine: a new starter and a full solar system. We also hit up Siesta Key and drank from the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. Will confirm the effectiveness in 10 years time.

Our mission now was to reach Largo, just a short drive from St. Petersburg, to recharge a bit at Justin’s parents’ snowbird condo. One thing we’ve learned along the way is that we seem to get along quite well with retired people – they’re finally doing what they want to do after years of slaving away at work and we’re also doing what we want to do, just without being retired. Now that we had reached the Gulf side of Florida, we had some time to kill one afternoon and decided to see what Siesta Key was all about. A word to the wise, don’t bother going at mid-day and expect to find a parking spot. In true Florida February fashion, the place was PACKED. I still have to keep reminding myself that this is high season here – actually, the congested roads and closed off parking lots do a pretty good job at it. We’ve got snowbirds, vacationing families and partying spring breakers all being sucked in by the Florida sunshine’s magnetism. Us included, of course.

Generic Van Life - Florida Siesta Key
I want a boat!!

Anyway, after observing “America’s #1 Beach” from the windows of the van, we stopped alongside a drawbridge to make some lunch and enjoy the seaside views. In this case, that meant big yachts and even bigger mansions. This side of town was a little calmer and was lined with happy families spending the afternoon collecting cast nets full of fish. There’s a park area on either side of the bridge and I’ve heard of people boondocking on the western side in Nora Patterson Park – a good spot to keep in mind if you’re ever in the Sarasota area. When we were ready to go, surprise surprise, the van wouldn’t start. We did our tried and true “wait it out” method and she still wasn’t turning over, even a half hour later. As always, we met lots of friendly people while waiting who helped distract us and offered tips for places to check out all over the country. There definitely is a silver lining to our constant starting struggles since whenever we’re in a parking lot with the hood up, some wonderful humans come by to try and help or just chat. We’ve been blown away by the responsiveness and hospitality of some of the folks we’ve met and for that, will be forever grateful. In this case, we were exceptionally grateful when Clementine finally fired up about an hour later.

Generic Van Life - Florida Sarasota
Here’s the little park area on Bay Island in Sarasota, minutes from Siesta Key

We spent the night at the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve and finally enjoyed some quiet, secluded “wild camping” in Florida. Similar to the DuPuis WMA we visited a couple weeks prior, you can make a free reservation on the Florida Water Management website and small campers like ours can use the equestrian designated campsites or any other non-backcountry primitive camping zones for up to 7 days. We stayed at the Ashley campground on Green Swamp’s West Tract mainly because it was one of the only ones not full or not closed for a hunt. Even though these WMAs are similar to BLMs, they require a lot more planning which makes me miss the west coast. In any case, this is a great spot with picnic tables, fire rings and even orange trees scattered around. Sadly all of the edible looking oranges were out of reach but I’m sure they’d be tasty if you had a ladder. And good enough balance that you wouldn’t fall off of it with the gazillion bugs flying around.

Generic Van Life - Florida Green Swamp WMA
Finally some wild camping in Florida! With only two other campers there, Green Swamp was quiet and secluded (and riddled with mosquitoes)

Arriving at the condo meant having air conditioning, wifi & TV and showering every day just because we could. As much as we love our little home on wheels, we can’t deny that the modern conveniences of a house are quite nice. We also realize that we’ve come to appreciate these little things a lot more – before, we thought it was just “normal” to have a flushing toilet and running water, pft what snobs! Because we’d be staying in one spot for two weeks, we were able to save on all of our expenses that weren’t food so we thought it would be a good time to take the plunge and invest in a solar system. We already had a deep cycle marine battery that our DC appliances ran off of (fridge, lights, etc.) that was just getting its charge from the alternator as we drove. The battery is old and has been drained many times (which is a no-no for AGM and other lead-acid batteries) so we really wanted to make sure it could keep a charge when we weren’t driving until we can afford to buy a new one. I’m going to make an in-depth post about our solar setup soon so stay tuned for that. We did a lot of research before committing to anything because it is a little pricey but according to our calculations, we’ll break even in 6 weeks since we won’t have to stay at RV Parks anymore for shore power while we’re working. That was our ultimate goal so we’re super pumped to start saving money and are eager to share some awesome products we found and hopefully make the solar installation a little less intimidating.

Generic Van Life - Florida Solar
Workin hard or hardly workin?

Our other order of business was finally getting our starting issue sorted out once and for all. We’ve had several people look at it and they all stand perplexed stating that there is nothing wrong. As we suspected, it would be a bit of (expensive) trial and error replacing things one at a time and hoping that we fixed it. We had already replaced the battery, the alternator and a few other potential culprits but it seemed to be happening more than ever. We found a great shop in Pinellas Park and decided to replace the starter. After removing the centre console covering the engine in the cab area, he also said we needed a tune-up ASAP. Turns out that our spark plugs were originals (from 1984…) and he was more shocked that we were ever able to get it started than he was by our original issue. It’s possible that the new spark plugs might have done the trick but we figured we might as well just do the starter too to hopefully prevent it from happening again. Little by little, Clemmie’s getting a lot of shiny new parts under her hood! We are so pleased with how quickly she fires up now and feel pretty confident that we can start to be normal people who can turn their car off multiple times a day. Before, we would strategically plan errands to avoid turning the van off in fear that it wouldn’t start – this upgrade should definitely help with our fuel costs.

Generic Van Life - Florida Engine
If it wasn’t so loud and unsafe, I think it would be pretty badass to leave the cover off

Relaxing and getting a chance to spend time with family was great BUT we were anxious to hit the road again. As lovely of a view as we had, having a cool new one every morning is unquestionably better. We boogied back northeast, boondocked a night in Orlando and decided to visit America’s oldest city, St. Augustine. Following Ponce de Léon’s quest, we were in search of the mythical – or not so mythical – Fountain of Youth. I think our journey was a little easier with all the road signs and all, but that’s neither here nor there. They’ve basically turned this zone where the longest continuously inhabited settlement is into an archaeological park centred around a stream of magnesium-heavy water that claims some Tuck Everlasting-like effects. Truthfully, it tasted the way my water bottle does when it’s been sitting too long but who am I to judge. Around the rest of the park, there are blacksmiths clankin’ away, presentations on weaponry & canons and peacocks showing off how beautiful they are. Not sure if it was period consistent but we also had a bite at the BBQ joint at the end of the park and it was way tastier than we would have expected.

Generic Van Life - Florida Fountain of Youth
Cheers to probably aging normally!

From there we cruised through Jacksonville Beach and are finally back to crossing state lines and checking out some new scenery. Next stop, Georgia!

Generic Van Life - Florida Hanna Park
On the rooooad again 🎶

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.