For a moment let me turn this into a "travel blog!" Everyone loves reading about the awesome things other people are getting to do and eat and see and meet... So I'll try my hand at it too but instead of talking about the culture, food, and beautiful sites, I'll tell this all from the perspective of road trip vehicle maintenance! Sweet right?! Sort of "Rick Steves" joins hotrod's "Roadkill."
Lindsay just recently got her certificate in Geospatial Information System, (GIS) and is now looking for a job in that field. One of the places she has been considering moving to practice the dark arts of GIS is south Florida and the Keys. Never having been there, she wanted to visit down there to if she could imagine living there. I had some leave, and it is always a good idea to bring your mechanic on a road trip... so here we are, perimeter checking the state of Florida. Besides, driving around in Florida always makes me feel like I am in a Carl Hiaasan novel for some reason.
I was advocating the vehicle for this to be the great blue Buick. Trusty steed now with wonderfully working fuel injection and computer controlled spark advance. Or maybe the convertible Eldorado, with dodgy brakes and now manual operated automatic top. All of those fine cars got vetoed in the name of working air-conditioning. So we ended up taking her 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The first stop, was intended to be Tampa Bay. About 3 hours into the drive, just far enough that it wasn't reasonable to turn around and get a different car, there was a thump, the engine stuttered, and then continued to run a little rough. The check engine light came on as well. To my well trained eye, this seemed exactly like the kind of problem that should be ignored. These modern cars do this kind of thing all the time. Probably it will just go away.
We stopped at a parts store anyway, just to you know... have the code read and stuff. I mean, it isn't like the they would have a code for "valve broke free and dropped into the cylinder" right? Also, I had my money on "Crank Shaft Sensor." The code came back, "#2 Injector Circuit" The men at the parts store were very willing to sell me a new injector and a new connector.
One look at the fuel rail and I knew there was no way that was going successfully replace only one fuel injector. All the delicate tubing and fittings were rusted from decades in Michigan in just the way that one twist of the wrench and the tubes would sacrifice themselves in protection of their rusty connection to the cruddy injectors. So I did what ever woman suspects men do when they look under the hood of a car...
I jiggled the wires on the injector.
It was still running rough so I did the next step in the trouble shooting tree... I poured a bottle of snake oil (Sea Foam injector cleaner) into the fuel tank.
Then with a, “should be good now," and a slam of the hood closed, I hopped back into the car.
The check engine light was still on, and it was still a little rough but I figured as the cleaner went through it would clean the injectors and then it would all be fine. It couldn't still be the circuit... as I had jiggled that connector.
About two hours later, the check engine light went out, and it smoothed itself nicely! Sweet! It worked! This trip's major vehicle problem was already solved and it was only day one! Perfect!
We got to Tampa Bay without incident.
Turns out in Tampa, there is a big cat rescue place. Not, like a big place for rescuing cats... but like large cats being rescued. We went there... and it actually seemed really well run. It didn't feel exploitive of the cats, and they really did seem as well cared for as a large cat could be. Probably a place worthy of your time and money. None of the pictures turned out there... but just imagine tigers lounging about in Florida underbrush.
Next stop was the original Hooters restaurant! (This fine franchise was started in Clearwater, Florida) I'll give this company one thing... they are consistent. Same cruddy food the world over for the last ten years. (I think about ten years ago they used to be better and have now gone downhill but it also could be that I have had better wings in the last ten years)
Shamefully I have no pictures of the hooters...
Shamefully I have no pictures of the hooters...
Anyways, as we are going down a causeway toward Clearwater, FL. Obviously Lindsay is driving... wait let me describe her driving first... Have you ever been passed in heavy traffic by a suped up rice rocket weaving through traffic? You probably said to yourself, "dude... were does that guy think he is going?" Well that guy is her driving. She drives like that at all time in every vehicle. I think we had just passed a van full of nuns, an old man driving himself to the hospital for his own coronary, and an F-1 driver in a rental car... all while flipping them birds and pointing at the slow lane where she thinks they should be driving so she doesn't have to pass them on the right. Basically she drives at all times like she is in a roller-derby jam. (Thank god the back windows are tinted so dark so that half her bird flipping can't be seen or in there would be bullet holes in the back of her car… Also she reserves her horn AND bird-flip combo for people she spots littering out their car windows.)
During a hard swerving deceleration, “BANG! clunk clunk clunk clunk…." Like the sound of a steam roller driving over regularly spaced running outboard motors. At slower speeds it was a more manageable crunching of metal sound... like if you were rolling a manhole cover through a field of broken garden gnomes and empty soup cans.
The only place to pull over was the side of the causeway, where I crawled under the car again. It wasn't completely obvious what was broken as everything looked fine. I started grabbing things and jiggling them again... hoping that the sound of shaking it would be similar enough to what it does while driving that it be obvious what was broken. This is another expert only technique not to be tried by noobs. Speaking of noob moves, I touched the brake rotor and burned the shit out of my finger tips. SLOJ. Still nothing seemed to be loose at all until I grabbed the front driveshaft and shook it.
Now if I were wishing for something to fail on a car on a road trip… first choice might be a light of some sort, second might be a belt, the AC not the alternator… and though I had never thought about it, the drive shaft really isn’t a bad one assuming it doesn’t break at the front joint and pole-vault you into the obituaries.
Actually now that I think about it, a broken drive shaft is bad only if you don’t have four wheel drive vehicle… otherwise a drive shaft failure is fairly show stopping. This was my second of such drive shaft failures. The first one was my favorite road side fix ever… It up in Houghton in the snow with Andrew against my greatest vehicle challenger ever… Phoebe’s Ford explorer. (That car challenged me with a seized accessory belt while outrunning hurricane Katrina, a terminally leaking transmission across the length of the UP, and a shattered u-joint in Houghton… as well as some problem in Norman, Oklahoma that finally forced us to abandon it in Kate and Joel’s driveway. I have now forgotten what exactly that problem was… electrical I think. It is the only car I can think of that I didn’t complete a trip with.) The front U-joint of the rear driveshaft shattered and Andy and I kept that car rolling as a front wheel drive truck using a mountain dew bottle as a bearing and looped clothesline through the doors a suspension bracket.
Anyways, this week we limped the jeep to Hooters… man’s got to eat after all. Besides, I do my best mechanicing with a few beers in me. The food was still terrible. It is like they have some sort of subliminal trick to make me always think it is going to be good. Remember this is a Florida road trip so The Original Hooters Restaurant is acceptable as a destination eatery. Next we limped it to the auto parts store, ordered a new CV jointed drive shaft, then waited till the next day at 11 o’clock when the delivery truck dropped it off.
Always check to make sure they sold yo the right part.
I am not above doing work on a car in the auto parts store parking lot… but a drive shaft is a little more than wipers or adding oil. So instead of changing a driveshaft in front of the sign that says, “NO WORKING ON CARS IN PARKING LOT” we went one store over and did it behind a Chinese restaurant. I wanted to be close enough that I could walk back to the parts store to get extra parts or tools if needed.
Though I know the Amateur-Sophist loves to do major engine work with a crescent wrench, I only used mine as a caliper to know that I needed to buy an 8mm box wrench… the only additional tool I needed on this trip!
The drive shaft swap went without incident... though I did smash my finger when it finally became unstuck.
The drive shaft swap went without incident... though I did smash my finger when it finally became unstuck.
Day - A few days later… probably the next day.
Since one or both of us may be leaving Florida soon, we went to the Everglades and at the southwest edge of the park did the tourist thing and took an airboat ride through mangroves.
Holy shit! It was like the Star Wars canyon run through the death star but instead of a jedi driving it was a big bubba Florida guy named Captain Hoss. The hanging mangrove branches were so close to his head I thought they were going to knock the cigarette out of his mouth! It was so fast and so close that i found myself unconsciencely sliding myself award the center of the boat. Short story… take an airboat ride through mangroves if you get the chance!
The plan had always been to camp in the Everglades park. Following the logic that the big open area in the back of an SUV is very tent like and easier to set up than a tent we had planned to just put our sleeping bags in the back and sleep inside the car.
Now, before I get into why I should have known this was a bad idea, let me reminisce for a second about growing up in the UP. You see, sometimes you just want to get away from parents for a while. The usual teenager way was to go park overlooking the bay or somewhere that the cops won't move you along. In the winter this works great as you can just dress warm and turn on the car every 15-20 minutes to run the heater. In the summer, different story. The summer presents you a dilemma… you can either sit there with the windows rolled up and sweat in the stale hot air inside the car, or you can roll down the windows for a nice breeze… where your mosquito-raisinified corpses will be found by a family on their way to church the next morning.
Let’s get back to the great idea of car-camping in the everglades. Yep… that age old choice of hot stale air inside the car, or becoming rasinified corpses. The difference is that it is reasonable to talk or watch submarine races in a hot stuffy car, it is not reasonable to try to sleep. So with the world’s largest wetlands worth of mosquitos swarming outside waiting for us to succumb to the heat and open a window, we did not sleep.
By morning, everyone was in a stupendous mood.
Day - 4ish
At the Shark Valley Visitor Center they give ranger led programs and talks. The only one that worked out timing wise for us was a “Bird Walk.” I imagined this was going to be us and some kids doing their junior ranger coloring books on a casual walk with veneer level discussion about birds. Like… “birds are neat, that is a green one… it has a beak and eats fish.”
So wrong… This was my first encounter with bird watchers. It was immediately obvious that we were not really prepared to look at birds the way the rest of the crowd was. First of all, we didn’t have binoculars, let alone the NASA-grade optics everyone else seemed to have at the ready on single point M4 slings. Turns out the everglades is the place where all the world’s birders come to look at the birds that were drawn by Dr Seuss. If you have ever wanted to see old people carrying tripods and howitzer sized cameras through a swamp, the everglades is for you!
Lindsay, myself, and a bird drawn by Dr. Seuss on the 15 mile bike path through the center of the Everglades.
Put it this way, the sound of a big alligator growling makes your soft frail mammalian body know to the core that you are food.
When I go places, I often think... "would this be a good place to have to crash a plane or to get rid of a body?" (this falls solidly on the get rid of a body list) There is nothing like being food for large nearby predators that tunes a man to the idea that in an environment like this every living thing could be only moments from being killed and eaten by something else.
I have heard that in a foot race, alligators are faster than you for the first 15 feet… it is a good thing they seem to be lazy. Actually, I am still surprised that on this path we don’t loose more birders and Dutch toddlers.
Me standing 16 feet from what turned out to be a medium sized alligator. (Probably a ten footer...)
At the end of this bike path there is an observation tower right in the middle of the park. I’ll let the pictures talk. Probably the most awesome place I have been in the last few years.
We drove around the park a few more hours, fed more mosquitos, then continued down to the Keys.
Again, car camping was the plan. Learning from our previous night’s mistake… We got some mosquito netting from the Key Largo Kmart. The idea was that we were going to roll down the windows and tape the netting over the open windows so we could have both breeze and get to keep our blood. That scheme worked great! Unfortunately, all the campgrounds through all the keys were full… Well, plan B.
Plans B it turns out was to just park somewhere, roll down the netted windows and roll out the sleeping bags… and wake up in the Keys!
The “somewhere” I was advocating was the parking lot of a dive bar! A cinderblock hut with a gravel parking lot that sold beer in cans. We could go in, push it up, then walk right out to the car and right to sleep! The perfect campsite as far as I could imagine. Who would bother us there right? Very Keys I thought.
Well, Lindsay’s counter “somewhere” was the dark back lot behind a Starbucks. The advantages being they open early with bathrooms and coffee, and probably have free wifi from the parking lot. Not selling cheap beer till two AM was not one of her criteria apparently…
We were not the only ones with this great plan. Also in the dark behind the Starbucks was a complete creeper conversion van and a chevy suburban. Not as dark and quite as we had expected! It was like there was a tractor trailer truck meet back there ALL NIGHT! About every hour a truck would come in, park right in the middle of all of us, then rev their engine for half an hour to run its lift gate. I guess it makes sense that all the trucking deliveries out to the keys would have to be done at night or they would never make it through the traffic. About the time the deliveries stopped, the garbage trucks started coming. Apparently this was a nice out of the way place for them to run their compactor without bothering taxpayers. They would go out, collect a load of trash, then come back to this back lot, rev their engine up to about 3k RPM, and run the compactor for ten minutes. After that they would co out collect more, then repeat…
At this point, not sleeping was starting to be funny to me. Each truck would pull up a few feet from our now wide OPEN window, rev it’s engine to decibel level “Roar,” then profanity would slowly start oozing out from under the blanket next to me.
How can’t you laugh! And no sleeping was had by anyone… again.
Day - Number enough that the drive shaft seemed like another life.
Speaking of classic odd couple journeys and steam engines… I present you, The African Queen! Draw any parallels you want on your own…
Turns out the boat is still putting along. Now no longer in Africa, but around the canals of Key Largo. I have come to the conclusion I need to get more into steam powered machines. What I found interesting was that the smell of the engine, reminded me of the smell inside some of my dad’s coast guard ships from when I was a kid. I’ll have to ask if any were steam… I can’t imagine… Maybe.
Why is the Gin always gone!?!?
On a completely unrelated note, Key West is a rooster sanctuary! Seriously… a cockadoodledoooing type rooster sanctuary. The story goes that cock fighting was getting really big down there in the eighties, so the city passed an ordinance that it was against the law to have a rooster in a cage. Naturally everyone just released their roosters out of the cages. There are now wild warrior chickens everywhere…. though mostly roosters. It seems like most of the hens still live in back yards and make eggs for the man… but the roosters get to have one cock parades all over town all the time.
As a real observation of chicken culture, the older and bigger roosters really do have better and longer calls with more notes and doodle doos. You could see a big proud rooster and know it had a good call, and if you heard a good call you knew it was coming from a bad ass bird! Basically what I am saying is that you could judge a cock by it’s size…
Luckily I speak chicken! This is the transcript I recorded one morning at about 04:15 am.
Rooster #1 “Rooper doo” (Hey fellas, who wants to practice our pick up lines?”)
Rooster #4“ROOOPER ROOPER ROOPER DOO!!!” (Listen noobs, I got that shit covered the chicks are mine.)
Rooster #1 “Rooper DOO!” (Hey Fellas! I think I am getting better!)
Rooster #4 “ROOOPER ROOPER ROOPER DOO!!!” (Do you not hear the throaty roar of my doodle do? Your practice is futile!!!)
Rooster #2 “Rooper DOoOo” (Ned, you’re such an asshole…)
Rooster #3 “Dododdododo Roper DO!” (Hey fellas… come on over to this open window, it seems like a good place to learn some new doodle doos notes for the ladies)
Rooster #4 “ROOOPER ROOPER ROOPER DOO!!!” (I am king of this island! Keep practicing you wannabe chicken fuckers, I am gong to go walk back and fourth in an intersection and make a traffic jam.)
How many roosters can you spot here?
This rooster don't take shit from no dog!
And so it goes… circle of life and stuff.
Speaking of loud annoying sounds of Key West, sea shells can be made into musical horns! Even better than that fact, I still have enough chops left from college and high school that I can honk a conch with no problem at all! I tested out a few and picked out the best sounding one that I could find with the reasonable plans to practice more during the eight hour drive up the coast to St Augustine.
Besides talking to chickens, there are many great things to do in Key West. I honestly recommend the butterfly conservancy. A thousand butterflies floating around you is kind of magical. Also, if you like cats… go see Hemingway’s old house too. The house is neat and the cats are resigned to being petted by all the visiting cat lady Hemingway fans.
Butterfly house. If it had it's wings open it would be iridescent blue.
So would this one...
The best way to get around Key West by far is bicycle! You can get everywhere as fast as a car or scooter but with no parking problems. In keeping with the vehicle maintenance theme, the gremlins some how got to my rear bike tire. One day it holds 90 psi no problem, the next day flat with a hole in the tube. How did that happen…? I got to use a crescent wrench for one of its few other correct purpose which was turning it around and using the round handle to flip the tire bead over the rim without snagging or cutting the tube.
Also, if you stay on base you will have to either bring a helmet or walk your bike back and forth from the gate. Don’t bother writing that down though, the base cops will be happy to remind you.
The day of departure from Key West was mostly a day in the car. Conch blowing practice as it turns out is not authorized in the car… though there seemed to be a lot of motorcycles on the road. Anyways, the plan was to drive up the Atlantic coast through Daytona Beach to spend the evening in old town St. Augustine and…
“Damn there seems to be a lot of motorcycles on the road.”
Anyways, we got to the motel. A legit regular motel type establishment with an Indian lady running it and everything. Lot of motorcycles in the parking lot though…
As we went into the room, the unmistakeable sound of live music being performed in a bar intruded it’s way in from behind the back wall. The back wall of the motel butted up against the back of a biker bar…
“Oh hell no! I am going to need you to go over there and tell them they need to keep it down!”
(I decided I liked mediocre rock covers instead.)
Ah… well, that explains it. We had stumbled accidentally into Daytona Beach Bike Week!
Someday I plan to come back to Daytona Beach Bike Week with a flying motorcycle of my own design, but as for that night… well, you can trust that the cinderblock walls and motel issue blackout curtains muffled the sound of Harley straight pipes adequately for everyone involved.
That’s all folks. Back to work tomorrow.