Our road trip is well underway and we’ve passed through a total of five states now. Safe to say Abel has seen more of the USA then some Americans. The ambulance is forever a conversation starter and we’ve met all kinds of people. Some sweet, heart-warming souls that really love and appreciate what we’re doing, and then there are the few odd balls. They keep it interesting though and are, unfortunately, the people we’ll remember the most.
Here’s a bit about some of the hot-stops so far and some of the individuals we’ve encountered:
Ocala National Forest, Florida
This was actually our first stop and a very memorable one. We spent two nights at a campground alongside Lake Dorr (not for swimming unfortunately– discovered this after a long, sweaty car trip). That first night we learnt the hard way: the sun went down quickly, just as we had finished cooking and the heat meant that a flock of mosquitos (hundreds, if not thousands) swarmed us and the inside of our ambo. The humidity is absolutely unbearable in that thing and normally, we would open the doors wide, hang up our mossy nets and sleep with a breeze… but, there’s actually bears in Florida. That was a real shock to us. Upon our arrival, the camp host greeted us with an information sheet about how to keep the bears away. Bear proof bins and food containers were provided on site, but since we had an enclosed vehicle that was fine– we just had to put up with a hot box and hope no bears would crawl into our area to give our van a little rumble.
The following day we journeyed further into the national park to Alexander Springs. This was a major highlight, we were ready to dip into some refreshing water. First walking down towards the spring, just to the side of the boat ramp was an “alligator” warning sign. We had been curious about this, but since no one mentioned a thing we figured there would be no large lizards. Immediately, we questioned whether we could swim and our hearts began to sink a little– after that sticky night’s sleep, we needed a dip. Over to the right of the sign and past a little grass patch, we could see some people swimming. Snorkelling, in fact. Just beyond the alligator warning sign, out along the surface of the spring, lay a long rope/net contraption. We assumed this was to keep the alligators away, but how effective and reliable it was, we weren’t too sure. I’d read online that this area was designated for swimming and snorkelling , so with other people frolicking on the netted side, we took the risk.
The phrase “crystal clear” has never really meant anything until now. If an alligator was near or at a distance, you would certainly see it coming. This water was like glass, recently sprayed with windex and wiped away with a clean cloth. Up the back to the far right of the spring, was a large turquoise-coloured area. It stood out like a diamond in the rough. Except the “rough” wasn’t really rough at all. More like, a really large, more-sparkly diamond, among other diamonds. We waded towards it and the temperature and floor dropped simultaneously. A subtle current flowed from the north and flushed throughout the area, a 3-metre crater sprawling below us. It didn’t look that deep, until Abel swam down beneath me and his figure continued to shrink as he kicked further and further.
Kayaks were available for hire and we had a few hours to kill after taking a walk through the woods. To be honest, we reached a landing and saw a few kayakers paddling past. When I asked the woman if they’d seen any alligators she said, “Oh not me, but my husband did. I saw lots of turtles and an otter though.” An otter!!!!! Sold.
We took the double kayak into the “alligator” warning section of the spring (the only section you were allowed to kayak in) and made the paddle up towards the bridge. It was definitely freaky knowing the alligators were somewhere in that water, but our minds were fairly at ease. Abel had asked one of the park rangers and he said they weren’t very big. Plus, if they were a real risk to the people (the sign actually said alligators are scared of “man”) they wouldn’t promote kayaking in those sections of the spring. The lady told us to avoid the reeds, that’s mainly where they hang out. It took a little while and a keen eye, but we eventually saw one, and then another, and a few more after that. I couldn’t help but continue to call them “crocs” and that just makes them sound way more frightening. For the most part, they hung low by the reeds, and you saw their heads and backs protruding through the water’s surface. Once we saw one crossing the spring, a good 10-metres in front of us. Lots of turtles, lots of fish, and even a bear! A baby black bear climbed a tree to our left and we gasped/squealed multiple times in half a minute. It was fleeting though, so no photos captured of that. And no otters. That would’ve made my day.
(look close again– gator on log)
That night back at the campground we met Rich. An older man, I believe in his 70s, who came over to, of course, talk to us about our ambulance. He was staying at the campsite across from his and was visiting his mate in the one adjacent. He kept saying “good for you guys, good for you guys” as his hands patted down the top of his jaundice-grey ponytail. Rich used to work for a big corporate company but made the quit about 30 years ago. His boss offered him a promotion and he told him to go stick it up his ass. You wouldn’t think your boss would be very impressed with that kind of attitude, but they had drinks later that night and his boss told him how envious he was that Rich had the guts to do something like that. Now Rich works as an “art dealer”, per say. He “caught the wanderlust” and moves around the country in his trailer RV, buying cheap antique art from flea markets and re-selling it at flea markets around the country. To be honest, it sounds like he makes a butt-load of money. Turns out most of the people at the campground all knew each other, all here for the local antique fair. Good on ’em.
Pit-stop before our next few destinations was… Disney World, Orlando.
We kind of tossed up going for a little while. Mainly because Abel wasn’t the slightest bit interested, but it has been my dream to go since I was a little girl. I’m a massive Disney fan and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to fulfil my five-year old dreams (let’s be honest, it was still my dream) of meeting Ariel and Minnie Mouse. They were honestly my heroes. I have my baby Minnie Mouse who’s been everywhere with me, to hell and back. She’s had a tough ride; losing a tale, and her hat (Mum sewed that back on, on more than one occasion), and her nose is discoloured, but she’s still a little cutie to me. I dressed up as Minnie on my 4th? birthday, and had a Minnie Mouse cake. I had Minnie Mouse towel. The Little Mermaid… I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that movie. Not only as a little girl, but a lot in my teen years. If I was sad, The Little Mermaid, if I was hungover, The Little Mermaid, if I had my period, The Little Mermaid. And also when I was happy and just felt like it, too. I used to have a Little Mermaid toilet seat, suit case, sleeping bag, and heaps of other stuff. You get the picture.
Abel pretty much knew that, even though I said we didn’t have to go because tickets were $122 each (!!!!) plus we’d spend a lot more, he couldn’t take this away from me. So off we went, we spent the big bucks on tickets, parking, food was actually pretty cheap, and we didn’t buy a lot at the gift shop (The Little Mermaid journal for me, plus we were in need of a new keychain, a simple ‘A’ that has Minnie, Mickey and Goofy on it).
I want to say it was worth it, but… there were things that let me down. Things I probably knew were going to happen, but I’d pushed them to the back of my mind. For one, the lines. Every single ride or attraction had the wait time posted out the front, some saying “90 minutes”. Granted, this wasn’t always the case. Abel agreed to stand in line for me to meet Ariel when the wait time said “55 Minutes”. We waited maybe 20, so not terrible. I giggled like a nervous little girl when I sat next to her. She asked what my sunglasses were because, “we don’t have these under the sea”. Oh, Ariel, you’re hilarious.
The rides were all fairly tame– not that Abel or I can handle intense rides, but I would have tried some riskier ones. I kind of forgot that the entire park is uh, really aimed at little kids.
But the one thing that really disappointed me was the lack of characters roaming the park. I was always under the impression that different characters from all the movies would be wandering around in costume and in character, ready for a chat and photo at a minutes notice. This was not the case. All the major characters had their own attractions that you had to line up in to get your picture taken. Maybe this is only the case at Disney Land in California? Or perhaps the characters were getting swarmed and attacked by small children, I don’t know. But it wasn’t what I was expecting.
We stopped for single nights at a couple places on the way to my Nan’s house in South Carolina. New Smryna Beach, FL (apparently major shark territory, we learned this after the fact that we went swimming at dusk post-Disney World. Woops), St. Augustine, FL, Brunswick, GA.
The only exciting thing to report from this section of the journey, was our encounter with Grizzly in St. Augustine. This place was pretty, on the water, but it was grey and cool when we were there. So, not a lot to do. We decided to spend the night at beach carpark, which is often the safest and easiest option. We had tried to get a site at the state park right near by, but we just missed out. After cooking dinner and doing the washing, the sun had just settled in for the night, so we were getting ready to do the same. A big truck pulls in, with a row of yellow lights on the top. At first, we think this is a cop or a ranger, but it’s not. Just a big man, with a big white beard and a camo bandana tied around his head. He sits in his car for a while, and I’m very aware of his presence. Then he goes for a wander on the beach. On his way back towards his truck, I see him watching us pack our things away. He slowly walks over and starts making conversation, once again, about the ambulance. I start to calm down and think, he looks scary, but I’m sure he’s fine. I’m sitting in the side of the ambulance, blocking the entrance with my legs, as I put the dishes away. Abel stands beside him in the doorframe as he chats with us. The conversation moves from our travels to his former job as tour bus driver. Apparently he toured with Metallica, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones and heaps of other well-known bands. So that’s pretty cool. I notice he’s whacking a long black thing into his right palm. I’m thinking, Fuck, is that a baton? This dude is huge and weird. Abel and I are trying to close the chat and get him away from our van. I only notice that it’s a torch (flashlight), when a helicopter flies over head with a spotlight on the beach, and Grizzly begins yelling at it, flashing his torch in it’s direction. Then he asks us if we’re planning to spend the night here, Abel and I kind of glance at each other, hesitate and say, “Yeeeeeeah, we think so…”
He says, “Ah I don’t know if I would. There’s a lot of weirdos around here. A lot of weird shit happens in this area at night time, like lots of weird shit. Just because it borders on the state park, ya know? I’m a bit of a safety guy. If I was you, I’d head down near the plaza on the main strip and just park near the bank. You shouldn’t have any trouble there.”
This is coming from the guy who just made several racist comments and told us we need to get a gun. I’m thinking the spotlight was searching for him. So, of course we decided not to stay there. But we also didn’t want to go and stay exactly where he told us to. Unfortunately, our ambulance is very recognisable. You can see her from hundreds of yards away. We ended up parking in a public lot on the main street where there were lots of witnesses around. I felt safer. I’m sure Grizzly was harmless, but when he shook our hands and said his name as he departed, I wasn’t so convinced.
Since then, we did a day trip to Savannah, GA on the way to my Nan’s house in Bluffton, SC where we stayed for a few nights. Then we made our way to visit Kelsey in Wilmington, NC with a pit-stop in Charleston, SC.
Savannah is such a beautiful little city. Quaint, old, and jam packed with lots of character. Cobblestone streets and building lining the waterfront. Funky art galleries and the most impressive antique bookshop I’ve ever been to, Books on Bay. This woman’s collection was out of this world. Hundreds of Nancy Drew’s (I couldn’t help myself, I bought some very old, limited-edition “twin” sets, the first four stories in two books). But she had collections worth hundreds of dollars in this store, some thousands. Shakespeare’s dating back to the 1800’s.
It was so lovely to see my Nan after five years, even though so much time passes between our visits, she’s still the same and I’ll forever feel extremely comfortable in her presence. In the earlier years of my life, her and my Grandad lived directly across the road from us. I spent countless hours at their house. Being in her house, that I’ve never been to be for, felt totally familiar– she still has lots of the same furniture and decorations. Even the same dining room chairs.
Nan took us into Beaufort, SC for the day and it was stunning. Right on the water, with huge southern styled houses all around. I forgot how enormous the houses can be here. They’re antiques and have so much character to them.
Our weekend with Kelsey was so special. For Abel especially, I am sure. We’ve spent the past two months hopping around the country and visiting my family, I know he would’ve been missing his own. It was also just comforting to be around an Australian. Although I’m both, I’ve done so much of my developing and growing back in Aus, so that’s what I identify with the most. We had a good laugh talking about things Aussies say vs. the yankee lingo.
(Wilmington has the most incredible sunsets)
Our first night we got unexpectedly drunk. We started the evening with a few wines and nibbles on the beach. We were supposed to mosey into town to get some dinner and drinks, but the first bar we went into had double vodka red-bulls for $10. Say no more. Free buffalo wings with every round too, so we got some food in our bellies. Abel, the man constantly buying rounds (even when no one has finished their previous drink) is the one to blame here, I think. We were pretty dusty the next day, but we had a good explore of Wilmington and their annual Riverfest was on which made the town really light up.
Abel and I headed a bit further north after that to Beaufort, NC where we spent two nights and did a whole lot of nothing. The town was beautiful, quiet, right on the water with lots of boats. All the parking along the main strip at the water front was free and with no “no overnight parking” signs. We felt safe to set up here. I almost didn’t want to leave.
The Outer Banks is made up of a couple of long, thing islands that run parallel with the North Carolina coastline. Scattered with weatherboard houses, towering up to four storeys high. It’s home to the tallest lighthouse in America, at Cape Hatteras, and “arguably the most recognisable”. I’ve been there a couple of times with my family, but not since I was really little. My dad had suggested we go here after Wilmington and it worked out really well. I was pretty unsure of what we were going to do for Thanksgiving or where we were going to be. I was convinced we’d be eating out for the feast, at Denny’s or something. My Nan had told me her brother Bobby, his wife Rosemary, their kids Michele and Nick (my Dad’s cousins), their partners and children all hire a house out every year at the Outer Banks for Thanksgiving. She made a few calls and organised for us to join them so we wouldn’t spend it alone. I’m really so thankful she did, because I haven’t seen this part of my family since I was maybe, nine years old, at my great-grandmother’s 90th birthday (Mimi’s still kicking by the way, 105! Can you believe it?), and that was probably one of the only times I’d ever met them.
They welcomed us into their home with open arms, made us feel so comfortable, allowing us to spend a night inside, use their showers and do some laundry. Plus they put on a damn good feast. We couldn’t have been more grateful for their hospitality, they’re such a lovely bunch of people.
Now we’re spending our second night in Virginia at campground in the First Landing State Park. We washed dishes in a basin with hot water for this first time and cooked our meal over an open fire last night. Great luxuries for us.
I’ll be back to talk more about how we’re travelling van-life wise.
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