Day 8 – Florida Roadtrip – Homestead, FL

God’s miracles come in different shapes and sizes. When we returned from our 50 mile one way trip to get some fire wood, guess what we found? A pile of wood – enough to burn all evening. Apparently the park rangers were doing some work in the woods and though they were not very friendly when we asked them where one gets some wood here, they remembered and brought us some. We were all set with vegetables for dinner and fire wood for warmth.

I was worried for a second about our new neighbors last night when it was clueless teenage girls, but this next night it was a wholesome American family with three teenage girls. It went well though, all things considered. The next morning after we had our breakfast and packed, we were on a trail by 10:30am. We took an easy half a mile loop around a pond. There was a lot of butterflies and some beautiful birds. Though it was short, it still took some convincing for our kids to move forward.

Next on our program was the alligator farm in Homestead, FL. I generally don’t think of alligators as cute but the new hatchlings were just that, very cute.

We went to this same farm 10 years ago with Renzo. It was really nice to return there with kids. At Renzo’s insistence we sat on the first row of a air boat ride and got predictably wet. Timofei loved it, Yelisei not so much.

Next was lunch. On our way we saw a small shack that said: you have seen the alligators, now you can eat them. Lured by an Italian flag outside we went for it. That was THE BEST alligator meat I have ever tried. Very nice!

Now we only had an hour and a half drive to Key Largo and we would possibly be swimming in the ocean!

A word of advice from the BIGGEST losers yours truly: Make reservations for a state park in the Florida Keys on an Easter weekend! What we missed out completely is that today was Friday. What were we thinking?? Frantically we started calling all campgrounds in the Keys. Private and not. On Reserve America they said that Bahia Honda had the last two spots available, but they are walk in and you can not make a reservation. Also, you can not make reservation on the same day at all.

So we took off to Bahia Honda State Park to try our luck. After an 1 1/2 hr drive it was full and we were the 30th campers coming to this bitch with a burned nose with that question. We started frantically calling again. By now it is 5:30 and the kids are hungry and both of them want to poop. As Renzo is making phone calls, I went to ask the burned nose for the bathroom. She asked us to pay $9 to enter the park. Luckily we had a portable potty that Yelisei used. Now what to do with the bag of poop? I had to force myself not to leave it with Mrs. Burned Nose at her door.

Finally we got lucky. A campground that had one free space! For $80! I thought that $30 was expensive. It turned out to be $60 when we came there. Maybe some consider that a bargain but it’s still a rip-off for what you get: about 12 square meters of space with neighbors so close, you can hear them breathe. We actually didn’t quite know how to fit our car and our tent into the space, it was ridiculous.

To top it off, our neighbors arrived at midnight, talking and laughing loudly as they set up their tent and them some crazy rooster started calling his hens at 4 am every few seconds untill 6 am. What a night!

And yet… after all this punishment and torture, the next day made up for it all!

Day 7 – Florida Roadtrip – Everglades National Park, FL

We got to the Everglades last night early enough to be done with dinner and all packed up by 8 pm. Unfortunately we could not enjoy sitting by the fire since there was no firewood for sale anywhere. There were many campers searching the woods for fallen branches so there was none left by the time we got around to it. It was an early night.

When we woke up it was just as cold as in Ocala but it warmed up very fast when the sun came up. This is my least favorite campground. You are camping in an open field. There are trees here and there but you can see and hear everyone. I could see the teenage girl in her leopard print FOOTED PJs and hear a four year old girl crying and calling Mommy! Mommy! Every 5 minutes. She was camping with her dad and three siblings! That dad wins a medal for patience in my book. We were done with breakfast by 9:30 and were on a boat tour by 10 am. I love the mangrove forest. I think it will be nice to go on a canoe trip here in five years.

The bad: all the food in the cafe is deep fried, there is no coal or wood for sale except at the marina store where you can get three logs for $6! So we decided to go 50 miles to the nearest store instead…

Day 6 – Florida Roadtrip – Highlands Hammock State Park, FL

We felt warm in our tent all night. Yelisei had some sniffles the day before and I was starting to be worried that he was getting sick from all this cold. I got the kids some vitamins and I guess that helped. Yelisei was waking up much less at night. So when I was unzipping our tent I realized that the inside of our rain fly was covered with a sheet of ice!! We are in Florida and it is the end of March! Our car and picnic table and our chairs were all in ice. The sun was out though and soon it melted. I started cooking breakfast in two sweaters and a down jacket and by the end I was wearing just a t-shirt.

This morning breakfast was a long forgotten Russian staple: last night’s dinner leftovers fried with eggs. It was a first time my kids seen anything like this for breakfast and it took some convincing to make them eat it. They could not believe that it was legitimate food to eat in the morning.

We picked this park because on the pictures it had lush tropical forests and lots of trails. By 10:30 we were at the head of a 20 minute swamp trail that promised alligator sightings. Just as we got out of our car a school bus full of children pulled in and went down the same trail. I thought we will never see alligators. To my surprise we did see some animals on that trail. They were a flock of beautiful birds that were having lunch in the shallow waters of the swamp. They were duck size birds with long flamingo like legs and a thin long beak that was curved down. I was very impressed. Our children were not impressed. Yelisei wanted to poop. People in front of us and people behind. It reminded me of me wanting to pee when we were hiking in Machupichu on a trail three feet wide with a wall to the left and a cliff to the right with 50 people in front and 50 in the back, all walking as fast as they can.

In any case, if you smell poop when walking down that trail, it was Yelisei.

After having lunch in the park we are on the road again to the Everglades.

Day 5 – Florida Roadtrip – Ocala National Park, FL

We have arrived at my favorite campground ever! In the Ocala National Park, Florida, Fore Lake campground. It has completely private sites along the circle drive. It has warm showers, clean white sand and a swimmable beach. We could not enjoy any of it though, because Mother Nature decided it was time for record low temperatures in Florida again! Second time!! I can not believe that we travelled five days to be in Florida and the temperature is the same as in NYC!!

We have gotten used to the new routine and cooking does not annoy me any more. After Renzo reorganized everything in our car the loading in goes much smoother. Now that we got the material stuff down it is time to smell the roses.

When you drive for a long time on a highway I often find a car that is driving with just the right speed and follow it. It takes a while to find it. Some cars drive annoyingly slow, some are too fast and some are just right. My question is: do I have anything in common with that driver whose car I am following or not? Is our common sense of how fast the car should go on a highway the only thing that connects us? Traveling on the highway is a very lonely experience. Unlike traveling on Russian long distance trains where you eat and drink with strangers who tell you their innermost secrets. There is no sharing on the interstate highway.

To my disappointment we had to leave Ocala as fast as we could because it was too cold. We decided to change our plans yet again and go further south and find a campground that was half way between Ocala and the Everglades. Again, the iPhone came in handy. The weather was checked, campgrounds rated. We picked Highlands Hammock State Park.

On the way there a few exiting things happened. Renzo forgot a fuel cap at a gas station and we went to a Walmart to get me a car key. In Walmart our children had a meltdown of gigantic proportions. Yelisei was clutching a set of Hot Wheels that he already has and demanded that we get it. Timofei was crying that we don’t have space for a superhero in our car. We did not make a copy of my car key but we found a fuel cap replacement. Also we replaced the rear windshield wiper and got a ratchet cord to close our roof box because we realized yesterday that the locks pop open as you hit potholes. It is so difficult to stay on track and stop improvements!

When we arrived at Highlands Hammock State Park, it was cold and windy. In Ocala it was not windy, it was just cold. So we drove 3 hrs to be in a less pretty spot and have wind and cold. I was very disappointed and was ready to cry. The spot we were in was called wilderness camping: there was no water, bathroom, or trees. There were picnic tables, a fire ring, and 5′ tall palm trees that went as far as you can see. Every 50 yards or so there was a pine tree. There was a road nearby so you could see and hear cars and power lines going along the road. And did I mention WIND and COLD? And then I thought since there is no clouds and no trees then maybe it will be the most beautiful sky we have ever seen. After having shrimp for dinner that we got at a farmers market on our way, we sat by the fire and drank some wine. The stars were shining and the moon was full.

The wind and the cars stopped when the sun went down and by the fire we had the most peaceful evening yet. The moon was so bright that we did not use our flashlights to get around our campground. In the morning everything was covered with ice! But that happened on day six.

Day 4 – Florida Roadtrip – Cordele, GA

Something magical happens with kids when you keep them outside. They eat everything on their plate no matter what it is. And they go to sleep on their own at a reasonable time. Must be the fresh air.
We arrived to Georgia Veterans Memorial State Park near Cordele, GA last night at 7 pm and the gate to the campground was closed and the office was also locked. Renzo was very sad and disappointed. I took Yelisei on my hip and went over the fence to look for people to open the gate for us. I think cute children are the ice breakers for a conversation with strangers. Soon we found the campground host who told us the gate code and we were off picking a campground spot in no time. This park has a fishing lake, swimming beach, golf course and lots of camping sites with hookups and some of them on the waterfront. We picked one under pine trees that had the least amount of neighbors. Then we cooked, pitched our tent, had a fight about this or that (mostly about packing and the order of doing things), ate, put the children to bed, washed the dishes and finally sat by the fire and looked at the bright moon and fast moving clouds with a bottle of red wine. It is not easy to relax and enjoy yourself! By the time I was relaxed it was 11:30 pm so it was time to go to bed.

The next morning was cold in the low 40s F. Renzo was freezing again and the children were dressed in long johns and ski hats with gloves. You could not believe that just last night it was in the upper 60s F. Luckily, the children know now that they can hide in the car if they are very cold.

Since our next destination is only three hours away, Renzo took this opportunity to organize our crap. He is cursing me for taking so much stuff with us. So by noon our car was packed to perfection. Renzo is the king of organization! I bow my head to the king!

The park that we stayed in had an open museum of death machines. WW2 tanks, planes, Vietnam war helicopters, and large guns. I went with our boys to look at them up close. Yelisei wanted to touch the helicopter that was behind the fence and Timofei was picking up flowers for me and did not want to see anything. I was the one who was the most excited about the military might.