Winding Down 2021 – Adventures in a Rooftop Tent

This blog post was supposed to be about our first actual out of the driveway camping experience in our rooftop tent (called a RTT by those in the know). But with 2021 rolling out in as haphazard a manner as it rolled in, this post is similarly going to have to careen across many topics. Think of the ball in a pinball machine going this way and that – perhaps a good analogy for the year.

To go back a few weeks – we did indeed get to adventure for one night at a Hipcamp site on the north shore of Lake Apopka. It was a fairly short drive from Orlando – light industrial areas morphed into light agricultural areas, anchored by what I learned is one of the largest blueberry processing facilities in the country. Who knew.

This particular campsite is notable for its whimsical decorations – LED dinosaur lights adorned our spot, and odd remnants of old vehicles and other objects (like a swan boat!) dotted the landscape.

The RTT experience itself was great. There’s a sense of security in sleeping ten feet above the ground, and the views are magnificent. The campfire was great and dinner would have been also had we remembered any utensils. I found myself googling “how to eat baked beans without silverware.” After rejecting the idea of whittling a fork (we didn’t have a knife either!) we resorted to using the tops of our water bottles as scoops.

The next morning was misty and grey. There was a hiking trail just across the street. Huge elephant ear plants around our tent and gone to the wild citrus made us feel we’d entered a world far from 21st century Florida.

But despite our plans for further adventure in 2021, the world of work kicked in and the next RTT inhabitants were Daughter A and fiancé N – in the driveway! Their sojourn – one night only – was occasioned by a Covid/omicrom outbreak among yours truly, J and daughter S (who we suspect imported this strain from a brief trip to San Francisco). And yes, all of us are fully vaccinated and boosted. We did, however, ultimately manage to cordon off the house so A and N were able to sleep indoors.

Fortunately we have a large porch and the contaminated ones were able to sit at the bottom part while still socializing with the others who held court on the top part. Our kn95 masks were de rigeur. Thank God the weather in Florida was compatible with outdoor living, and thus far we’ve limited the outbreak to the original three. But I must say I have rarely spent this much time outside – even on a camping trip. We spent a lot of time watching TikTok videos of other families in similar straits.

Note the “uppers” and the “downers”

So, J and I will shortly see off the last of our holiday houseguests and plan to spend NYE in our covid imposed bubble instead of at the fancy dinner we’d planned at a local restaurant with M and S.

2021 had its moments – A and N’s engagement, Long’s Peak and Colorado, a family Thanksgiving extravaganza, and some great visits with my parents, among them. And let’s not forget the vaccines! I have a very definite feeling that without them I would be facing something very different than a head cold and fatigue.

Here’s to 2022! And to adventure, whether in a rooftop tent in the driveway or beyond.

Florida by Rooftop Tent

I haven’t mentioned it before on this blog but as of a couple of months ago J and I became the proud parents of a RTT – also known as a rooftop tent. This little dwelling place sits snugly atop our Ford Explorer and provides a safe and comfortable place to sleep with views to boot.

Installation is a bear. Step one involved procuring the proper crossbars – an item I’d never even been aware existed before. But J persevered and after only four trips to Ace Hardware he had the necessary tools to attach said crossbars to the top of the vehicle.

Step two involved the tent itself. Day one of step 2 involved unpacking and ground assembling. The thing arrived in a gigantic box on a solidly constructed pallet (that has turned into an excellent platform for my orchids). With the help of friend S we unpacked it and attached various bits and bobs such that we could get it to pop up on the garage floor. Whew – quite a stench. The smell of new fabric.

Day two of Step 2 involved assembling a crew of four strong friends in addition to assembling the tent. J and I had tried to lift the thing and dead lifting from the ground to above a Ford Explorer was not in the cards. Turned out with the assistance of some of our stronger friends – all fueled by coffee with chicory I bribed them with – the “lift” was quite doable. It was up!!

A little detail. The tent has a hard top and folds down to a thin 4 or so inches. The car still fits in all parking garages even with the tent riding on top. It has screened entrances/windows on each side and on the front. You access whichever entrance you’ve chosen via a telescoping ladder that hooks onto the side. There are various bags you can hang on the outside for storing shoes so you don’t track anything in.

Inside it’s tall enough for me to stand up at the highest point. There’s a four plus inch built in memory foam queen size mattress, with lots of pockets on the sides and ceiling for storage. And, most cool, you can plug a battery pack in and a string of LED lights illuminates the interior.

When you want to put it up, you simply undo the latches and push. Beyond that it’s just a matter of pushing out the awning that shades the entrance on the front. Storing it is a little trickier – one person pulls down, you have to make sure all the fabric is folded in all around, and then you secure the latches. Compared to putting up a ground tent, it’s instantaneous.

Camping trip number one was in the relative safety of our driveway – to the great interest of our neighbors. Based on accounts in all the rooftop tent camping groups I immediately joined on Facebook, apparently that is a time honored tradition.

Camping in the front yard is one thing but camping in the woods another. We just finished our first one, so there’s another story on the horizon. This Thanksgiving giving thanks for the many adventures with friends and family that are yet to come.

12, er, 13 miles….Cady Way Cadences

Beginning the Cady Way

Recent training hikes have exhibited peculiarities just odd enough to suggest the world is out of kilter. Perhaps it’s the general euphoria of creeping out of the slough in which we’ve all been dwelling during the year of Covid.

But a week ago or so, J and I decided it was time to return to the Cady Way Trail for a full 12 miles. After all, June 30 and Colorado is getting ever closer. Encumbered by 30 pound packs, we set off, if not bright and early, at least at the respectable hour of 10 (or so). I had a workshop lined up at 4 that I didn’t want to miss. We knew the weather was going to be relatively cool, so that seemed eminently doable, and we were even ambitiously talking about how we’d fit in a quick lunch at one of our favorite breweries.

But alas, things did not turn out as planned. Turned out my Charge 4 Fitbit lost its GPS Bluetooth connection (who else has this chronic and annoying problem) and was underestimating how far we’d walked. Combine that with the fact that neither of us actually recalled whether the six mile mark was on the other side of the concrete mixing plants or by the little bridge where the two teenagers were murdered. Yes, Cady Way has its own sordid stories, mixed with industrial charm.

Anyway, we plowed along, blisters getting ever worse, when suddenly we realized we were at the Seminole County line, by a new public restroom and trailhead, and about to embark on the Cross Seminole Trail! The mileage marker read 7.2.

At that point we also realized I’d forgotten to pack the plastic bag with the energy bars . We were in good shape for water, but not a bite to eat. Plus there are no shops for miles and J had left his wallet behind anyway.

At that point it was also equally clear that we were going to have to achieve a very rapid pace if I was to have a prayer of attending my workshop on time. We exchanged barely a word on the return trip except for my pointing out that any cyclists (of which there were many) could just go around me as my energies were completely concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Most mysterious was the biking couple who seemed to pass us, only to show up again behind us and pass us yet again. It was as though they knew of some Cady Way Trail wormhole which we certainly could have used by that point.

Fortunately it turned out we hadn’t started at the absolute beginning of the trail and had only walked an extra mile and a half or so, making the total trek somewhere just over 13.

We got back home with no time to spare. I grabbed a yoghurt and attended the workshop while sitting on my yoga mat nursing my blistered feet.

After, I felt I more than deserved a martini while we sat on the porch. Only suddenly to feel a sharp sting on my forehead and realize I’d been bitten by a wasp. Not our most successful training hike. But let’s hope all that bad karma manifests itself now and not at 14000 feet while class III scrambling on the Keyhole Route at Longs Peak. Maybe we will be too high up for wasps.

Only a 20% Chance of Rain – Seminole Wekiva Trail

“So what are the chances of rain?” I politely inquired of S. “Oh, the National Weather Service says only 20%,” was his nonchalant response. He and M apparently took this forecast as gospel truth since neither of them brought any rain gear. Although I didn’t voice them, I had my doubts, so J and I padded our weighted backpacks with raincoats.

My foreboding stemmed from our prior attempt with M and S at this very same trail – a couple of months ago we started it only to encounter a cloudburst within the first ten minutes. Alas, history proved predictive.

We managed the first couple of miles, trying to ignore the increasingly dark clouds. The goal was to reach the art walk portion of the trail – a mile or so of painted fences lining the sides. We’d done this hike back in 2018 (see A New Year, A New Trail – Seminole Wekiva Trail ) and had always wanted to return.

Unfortunately the dark clouds were engaged in a slow motion wind up and just as we reached the fences the sporadic drops had turned into a full fledged fire hose. This is a completely urban, asphalt trail, and we had just crossed a busy suburban boulevard that provided shelter in the form of an overhang of a small office building looking across a parking lot to a dry cleaners and what I would call a kennel but now goes by the much more exotic moniker of “pet spa.”

I have been slightly sidelined for a couple of weeks with a knee injury incurred in a rather embarrassing fall off the bouldering wall at Blue Swan Boulders. This first training hike since then had a similarly ignominious ending. Needless to say, since S is known for initiating the soggiest of hikes the proverbial finger was pointed at him. He, however, noted that he and M had done this same hike recently with no rain and that J and I were the only common denominator in the wet ones.

Nonetheless, we slopped along, and managed six miles. After wringing ourselves out, we felt we more than deserved a nice lunch at Antonio’s.

A Tale of Two Trails – White Sand to Red Clay

Into the Klondike, from Apollo Beach

It was the best of times; it was the worst…well, you know how that goes. While my hiking has been curtailed somewhat over the last couple of weeks due to an over energetic reach at the bouldering gym that resulted in an unfortunate and ungraceful fall, the prior two weeks offered hikes into two of Florida’s most opposite landscapes – some of the few remaining miles of undeveloped beach and a stretch of rural clay roads forming a loop amid Florida’s few hills.

Some of you may remember that shortly before the pandemic started a year ago J and I trekked into the back country of Cape Canaveral National Seashore, improbably named the Klondike. Castaway on Cape Cavaveral National Seashore – Florida Hiking. Then we started from Playalinda Beach, at the south end and hiked north six of the twelve miles of completely undeveloped beach. This time, along with fellow hikers M and S, we started from Apollo Beach on the north side and headed south for six miles, hoping that this means we’ve actually done the whole thing. There may be a gap here or there but it’s close enough, IMO.

To no one’s surprise the north end of this narrow strip of sand wedged between the brackish calm of the Intercoastal and the crashing waves of the mighty Atlantic is remarkably like the south end. Mile upon mile of sand that varies between soft and rock hard, flocks of pelicans, and masses of jellyfish.

There were apparently only two other people with backcountry permits that day but we never encountered them. At some point midway in the hike, however, we could see the silhouette, far in the distance, of a figure holding something scythe shaped and standing atop a dune. It was so isolated that all I could think of was that he was either a yogi communing with nature or else a serial killer who lived in the rough underbrush waiting for victims. It’s easy to let your mind wander on beaches like that and S’s fondness for horror movies doesn’t help. I started to wonder whether the scythe shaped thing could be some sort of garrote.

As we got closer, however, we realized he was a park ranger who had clearly been assigned the task of keeping an eye out to make sure that no overly adventurous hiker was going to be cut off by high tide. And the garrote was the strap to his binoculars.

It was truly a long and arduous 12 miles, especially lugging 30 pounds in my pack. But what really made it worse was that I apparently had forgotten all the lessons I learned on Mt. Elbrus in 2014 (Steps on the Summit) and failed to put sunscreen on my lips. For about two weeks afterwards I looked like I had some horrible communicable disease and was very glad I got to wear a mask.

I think you can see the lip sunburn starting

Anyway, not to be put off by mild injury, and feeling the Long’s Peak adventure ever approaching, the next Saturday I convinced J to go with me to hike the 10 Mile Clay Loop in Clermont. (See The Florida Foothills- 10 Mile Clay Loop). Begrudging is the best way I can describe his agreement.

When I’m out in the Florida rolling plains, I personally find it easy to imagine I’m in Tuscany, surrounded by large vistas of fields, gentle hills, and a dramatic grey sky. The fact I’ve never been to Tuscany may assist in this creative exercise. J, however, saw lots of traffic, trucks that seemed to take pleasure in speeding and kicking up large clay dust clouds in our faces, and something that looks like a large sand pit that is being constructed on one part of the loop. The for sale signs for some promised future development are a little ominous also.

It turned it was pick your own strawberries day at the very large berry farm that occupies much of the interior of the loop; hence the traffic. They’d run out of fruit though and instead people were picking sunflowers from acres of brilliant yellow flowers. The last hilly stretch with the lake on one side was as beautiful as always.

You can focus on the worst – the sunburn, the drudgery of trudging through sand and dust, and the blisters. But the best is out there too – the crashing waves, so loud you can hardly hear, the sunflowers and wildflowers and pelicans. It’s sort of like jellyfish – their stings don’t out shadow their luminous, stained glass like glow.

Lost in Florida – Surprises at Sabal Point and How I Got A New Trail Name

On the trail

It started off as an innocent seven mile hike. S assured us that we wouldn’t have to wade through miles of swamp water, and on that point, at least he was correct.

The Sabal Point trail is a surprising natural gem buried amidst a large conglomeration of apartment buildings, houses, and condos of the same name. It’s hardly the place you’d expect to find an untouched spread of palm hammocks, marshes, and oaks. But there it is: the trail head innocuously placed at the end of a dead end street. You do rather feel as if you’ve been invited over to someone’s house.

Our goal for that Saturday was to work on carrying weight and to that end we’d all loaded our packs. M and S have had the brilliant idea of using bags of charcoal so they can burn it once done with training. Since I believe training should never end I’m carrying around a gallon of water, my old weight vest, and various bits and bobs to add up to 25 pounds. Need to get up to 35.

The trail itself is an old railway bed, elevated a few feet above very swampy forest. We are in Florida spring and the trail was dotted with what looked like bluebells, pink star shaped flowers, and red berry bushes whose Christmasy aspect seemed out of place.

Christmas berries?

One of the things about training is to check out your gear and M quickly realized the Osprey pack she’d bought was not for her – too rigid in the waistband and an odd shape that causes your arms to stick out at the side. Fortunately REI has a good return policy so she’s now trying my fav – a tried and true Gregory (I have 3, in all different sizes).

Enough of the gear talk. How did our hike deteriorate into something more sinister? As I was blithely walking along, chattering away, S suddenly yelled out, “You stepped on a snake.” My immediate reaction was, “Oh no, is it Ok?”, to which S (somewhat insensitively I thought), said, “No, it’s dead; you stepped on its head.” Not sure he realized that sounded like the middle verse of a rap song.

I could barely bring myself to look, but as J and S inspected said creature, S looked more closely – and said, “It’s not just a snake; it’s a water moccasin!”

Water moccasin

At that point my guilt over the execution quickly by evaporated and instead I decided I was the hero of the hike. I mean, perhaps I saved countless lives! I don’t know much about snakes, but even I know water moccasins are BAD.

After the excitement of the snake we were looking forward to reaching the river, promised at 3.5 miles. But after a mere 1.75 (according to my trusty Fitbit) we encountered a forbidding metal gate plastered with no trespassing signs warning of prosecution if violated. Whoever posted them looked like they meant business.

So since training called for more miles we simply turned back, hiked back to the cars, and then hiked the same trail all over again to reach our 7 mile goal. The snake was still there the second time around – not unsurprisingly in the same position as before.

Not quite what we’d expected. But it was a beautiful Florida day, we carried our weight, and I now have a new trail name – Snake Stomper.

Be careful where you tread

Testing, Trails, and Thanksgiving

Excitement was palpable. The goal was within reach. The long hour and a half of inching my way ever forward almost made worth it. And yes, I had finally arrived at the Covid drive through testing tent!

I wasn’t there for any particular reason, except that the numbers are terrible in Orlando and I feel it’s our civic duty to get tested. And as a plug for the folks organizing free testing (rapid, PCR, or both available, no questions asked), the entire process was unbelievably well organized. Nonetheless, Friday’s triumph at a testing sight was not what I had in mind for whatever quasi adventure we can hope for these days.

Friend S has a book entitled 50 Best Hikes in Central Florida (yes, I’m sure many of you are doubtful there are enough to even create a list of 10) and has been methodically working his way through them.

J on one of many “bridges” crossing the swamps

Yesterday’s trail took S, M, J and me about an hour north of Orlando, to the other side of Deland just inside the Ocala National Forest. The plan was to hike the St. Francis Trail, which supposedly would lead us to the remnants of a pre-railroad days logging town on the banks of the St. John’s River. The Yellow Loop Trail on the way back was advertised as including two artesian wells where we could refill water bottles if we so desired. (We were not about to gamble on that and continued to lug our 64 ounces of water apiece).

Although Florida weather has been just cool enough that the summer wildflowers are gone, the cedar and palm filled swamps lining much of the trail make up for it. They’re covered with beds of what I presume is algae – so sleek and smooth that at first blush it looks like a meadow. Move away from the river, though, and you are walking through fields of tall Florida pines, as straight as pencils, with dry meadows of shoulder high brush.

But despite all this natural beauty – an historical adventure this was not. We never did see the remains of the town – when we took a brief detour to the river banks we found an ancient, rusty seat that had once apparently been part of a car and a beer can but that was it. The artesian wells were nowhere to be located. Oh, and the only hint of the logging railroad that was also touted as a feature might have been this bizarre guardrail stuck in the middle of nowhere?

Really? A guardrail?

It’s a beautiful, beautiful hike. As always (and especially with S’s choices!) it was a bit boggy. But by now anything that includes standing water of less than 6 inches seems practically desert like to us. (If we go down this path much longer, waders are going to be in order.)

Who knows. It’s Florida, after all, and nature overtakes man’s footprints in less than a New York minute.

By the way, this hike is advertised as 7.7 miles. It’s 10.3. But as this pandemic drones on, and Thanksgiving approaches, I’m giving thanks for any extra miles that are out there.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.

Returning to Running

Lake Ivanhoe – my regular running route

Among the other things that have taken a pause during the pandemic (this blog included, at times) is my running regime. Mind you, there was never much of a regime there in the first instance – but typically there were one or two 5ks per week on the Y treadmill and a longer weekend run. Just enough to make sure I had some real cardio to accompany yoga and stair climbing for whatever that next big hike/climb might be.

The Y is no more for me, at least until Orlando looks like it’s on the road to recovery. Somehow a gym full of people all breathing deeply on one another just doesn’t make sense. But surely, you say, the wide open spaces are still there for a run?

Well, yes, but I must admit it’s hard to get motivated when when your past plans for adventure (Katahdin in Maine) all fall through and it’s well nigh to impossible to make any plans certain for the future. We were hoping for Bolivia, but now, due to schedules, not to mention an uncertain political situation, that’s not for sure. J dreams of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, as do I, but who knows which countries will even allow us in next summer? You get my point. Normally, by October we’d be booking plane tickets.

The olden days of 2019 – flying over Istanbul

Since running for me is instrumental, lack of a defined goal is hard. But one thing that I have discovered over the last couple of months is audio workouts. Chained to my Fitbit as I am (see Chained To My Fitbit, a post from 2015 when I got my very first one), earlier this year I bought the Premium package, which comes with a steady diet of online workouts for every part of your anatomy, mindfulness and sleep meditations, and yes, audio work outs for running, intervals, and walking. And they work! Even without that defined goal, when a cheery voice in your AirPods tells you there’s just two more minutes at threshold pace – you do it!

So off I toddled this morning to try out a new workout – this time a running meditation. I was doing pretty well with it but for the distraction of a witch paddle board event on Lake Ivanhoe. It’s hard to keep repeating a mantra when you’re being entertained by 50 plus paddle boarding witches! In any event, I’m back at the running. And I’ll just keep dreaming of what next summer could hold. Mountains of the Moon in Uganda? Alaska? Rather than think about the current situation as an absence of a plan, I need to consider it a point of infinite possibility.

Mountain dreaming

Lost in Florida – Staring Down Charles Bronson

So this is the first of my Lost in Florida series since the time of coronavirus. And yes, this particular adventure was designed by our friend S — he of the famous Tosohatchee trail hike where he didn’t bother looking at the reverse side of the map — which was in color and indicated that much of said trail was blue (meaning under water). For that adventure click on The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness.

Now, in fairness, this time he checked both sides of the map and the 9 mile loop in the Charles H. Bronson State Forest (I kid you not about the name) showed not even a tinge of blue. But, what the map didn’t show was that days and days of rain had turned an otherwise well marked trail into canals worthy of Venice. (Apparently Charles H. Bronson was a Florida public official who worked in the department of agriculture.)

Now, when I say canal, I don’t mean that the water was nicely contained like a Netherlands water control situation. No, first you’d encounter just a little bit of a soggy section on a low part of the trail. Then the soggy section would get wetter and deeper until it overflowed its banks into a bayou of 20 or more feet of brown tannic water which you just prayed was not inhabited by snakes.

There were few choices. Try to find some high ground around the sides and risk the thorns and people traps formed by vines, tiptoe through said water hoping it wouldn’t crest the top of your hiking boots, or just tromp the entire thing saying damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After five hours of slogging through I took the third option.

The area surrounding the trail is very beautiful. Of course, we couldn’t see much of the trail itself since it was under water. J and I and our hiking companions in crime, M and S, started just before 10 am at the Joshua Trailhead. After hiking out a short (and dry) spur to the actual loop, we decided to go right. It turned out to be a good choice because the wettest parts were on that side of the loop and I’m not sure we could have conquered them at the end.

The canopy is high and deep. Creamy petals from small magnolia trees sprinkled the first part of the trail, for all the world as if for a wedding procession. Occasional meadows were covered in wildflowers – fields of perky yellow ones, vivid oranges mixed with ornate pinks, tall blooming yuccas like grapes, and purple thistles as high as my head.

Then the water would come. Slightly oily looking in some places, clear in others, but always with a brown tannic look that you could take as mysterious or menacing. At one point we did hear something that could have been a bear or a boar, and raised our voices accordingly.

Interspersed with the jungle were stands of Florida pines with little underbrush, along which were treeless prairies. The trail narrowed so there was barely room for a person to creep between the tall scrub on either side.

The final slog was not wet but unbelievably hot. It was 95 degrees. We had not brought enough water since we usually have too much and were down to our last sips by mile 9. By then the injury count was high. M had impressive scrapes after she encountered a vine trap apparently designed to capture people; I had a great bruise from clamboring over a fallen tree, combined with multiple bites from mosquitoes who were impervious to DEET; and J and S were both dehydrated.

Our pace was slow, and our survival skills would not have earned us an A in any Sierra Club challenge. Anytime you run out of water in 90 plus degree weather you know you’ve done something wrong. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We faced down Charles Bronson and won!

So it took a pandemic…

I’ve been writing this blog for close to six years – which is an eternity in blog world. Can I win a prize, please?

And when all this started I had such grandiose dreams – I wrote about empty Orlando and a follow up; then I was going to write about a hike into the Florida wilderness – and took lots of photos but the post never emerged.

Is it the strange secrecy of working at least half the week in your own little private Idaho – with plenty of communication but all of it virtual? Is there some element of privacy I never experienced before that makes you dole out public viewings in a more abstemious fashion?

Who knows. The world appears to be changing and all I know is I want to see my children and my parents next month. If I need to maintain my semi hermit world to do that – at least for the sake of my parents – it’s worth it.

So, we now have a booking for a cabin (unclear about electricity) that’s a 2.5 mile steep hike up a mountain in NC for three days, followed by a beach week with – I hope – my parents, children, and significant others. Not exactly summits, but in these days of coronavirus I’ll take what I can get.

We were supposed to climb Katahdin in Maine in July. I even have the Baxter State Park permits. But before booking plane tickets I made the sensible decision to check Maine’s visitor rules and discovered we would be subject to a 14 day quarantine. Don’t think that will work.

I have absolutely no idea how that emoji appeared but I can’t erase it without deleting the last paragraph so I guess we are stuck with it. Cheers!