Just Two Bros Travel: Going Full Florida
After last years Christmas trip in Utah, JustTwoBros decided to warm it up in bright, sunny Florida. I (Eric A) started planning this December, 2018 trip in January, 2018. Early, I know, but it ended up paying off. Christmas time tends to be a busy time for Everglades, Biscayne & Dry Tortugas based on the location & holiday.
The trip started in Homestead, Florida at Everglades National Park, home of Alligators, Great Egrets & an assortment of other swamp land animals. Our tour guide Josh, through Tour the Everglades educated us on the glades during a short, windy, kayaking trip through his “Floridean Backyard” the swamps.
The Hooseville Hostel, is a local hostel in Homestead Florida. Almost seemingly misplaced, the infrastructure houses local workers, people passing through trying to start anew somewhere else, & a couple of travel bums from Chicago. The place has history or at least that’s the way it seems when you see it for the first time. However, don’t be dissuaded. It holds one of the coolest back patio/ garden common areas of all time. Brushed in old wooden art, a tungsten clad gazebo in the middle & various items that almost seem as if they came from a playground for hippies. If you’re near the Everglades, you need to spend a night here.
Day 2 brought on a scare & a rage only the Incredible Hulk could almost contain. Our President, Donald Trump shut down the Government, & for those of you who don’t know, that includes National Parks. We were really distraught, but we powered forward with our next & probably most adventurous activity yet. We met up with Chris Gillette, Animal Rescue & Alligator trainer of “Everglades Outpost.” Whit found out last second after a joke email I sent her about swimming with gators, that it was actually possible. Casper is an alligator Chris has been with for over 10 years & he also happens to be the guy you get to swim with. I have to say, I know it sounds scary but after spending 45 minutes in the pool with him… all alligators are puppies & I want one! Jokes aside, Casper is a wild but tolerant gator that Chris has years of experience working with. This was a no contact, educational experience. We learned about “nuisance” gators and gained a greater appreciation for the animal. #AFedGatorisaDeadGator
Later on in the day, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that park volunteers decided to stay & work, in spite of the shut down. Such a great group of people including a newbie volunteer named Jimmy that took us under his wing & hooked us up with a last minute slough slogging tour. Our wonderful guide Dan took us out into the swamps with another family… I don’t want to hang on this too long, but this family was terrible. They did everything wrong from the beginning, from asking too many questions as the sun was going down on the hike, fighting with each other, making Dan take a bunch of pictures of them at multiple angles while we stood by & watched. Eventually it was too much for both of us & we left. Don’t let that deter you though, if you want to experience the glades first hand, this is the way to do it.
We wrapped it up in Everglades & headed out to Biscayne National Park, a two key national park off the shore of Eastern Florida. It was a cloudy day & the volunteer boating company had just stopped giving boat rides out to Elliot Key but after having a discussion with the captain decided they would work with us & bring us out.
As we waited for the guys to load the boat another helper, Hans, helped us try on flippers that we could use out on the island & for our “Morning Jones/ Snorkeling” Tour the next day. You’ll never guess what a special moment this was when, no joke, the family from the slogging tour, that caused us to leave shows up! Immediately the dad starts questioning Hans about his families tour, which thankfully was not ours. To our surprise, Hans shut them down & sent them upstairs to wait until the gift shop opened & THEIR tour guide arrived. As we walked down the dock together, he turns & says “So that’s the family from the swamp tour!” No kidding, we died laughing. Apparently Dan, our other guide, had called his buddies in Biscayne & warned him that they had ruined our time & to take care of us. We were whole again.
Elliot Key turned out to be quite the blessing in disguise. As we came to find out, no one was there. We had the whole place to ourselves. You rarely, if at all, get the chance to appreciate a moment like this in a National Park. We pitched our tents, hung our hammocks in the trees & went snorkeling.
There weren’t any facilities on the key, so all we could do is pray for number 1’s only. We were also bound to what food & water we had brought with, which happened to be enough for dinner that night & breakfast the next morning. Our phones were dying & there wasn’t much service. Next the GoPro died & then the Rebel. But just in the knick of time, our savior, Park Ranger Jerry shows up, talks to us a little, realizes were cool & turns the power on in one section of the park building so we can charge up our electronics for the next day. That, ladies & gentleman was a Christmas Eve Christmas Miracle.
We woke up early Christmas morning, ate & packed up camp. The boat comes to pick us up for our tour. It’s windy, as it always seemed to be. Although, according to everyone I talked to on the phone in January, December was their biggest tourism month. Skies grey & waters choppy, we head out to Morning Jones. A little bay south of the key where you can paddle board & watch as some of the ocean creatures come to feed on small fish. We saw jellyfish, Nurse Sharks & Stingrays. Our guide & captain, Harold, from the Biscayne National Park Institute, shamed Eric A in paddle boarding. Some may now know me as noodle legs.
Afterwards Harold had intended to take us to a bay where it was less windy, to snorkel, but I happened to inquire about where we would have gone if it wasn’t windy & low n’ behold, we’re now in the middle of a reef in the Atlantic. Wind blowing through our hair, Whitney’s, not mine, we jumped in. About 6 to 8 feet down are clown fish, parrot fish & an assortment of other salt water fish blowing around in the waves. A last minute save after a simple question, “Where would we have gone,” allowed me to see my first reef.
Key West, oh how we couldn’t wait to see you. Florida, you are every bit what memes make fun of you for. Mullets, Walmarts & creepy hole in the wall bars galore, we were ready for a touristy tropical feel on the gulf.
We headed down late in the evening, the day after Christmas, even in the dark it’s an easy drive. One road takes you all the way from Homestead to Key West. We find parking & head for our safe place, the bar. Corey, our bartender was a girl from Hawaii, who moved to Florida to be with her boyfriend, now Fiancee who’s in the coast guard. We spent most the evening talking smack & telling stories with them. Not a bad way to rediscover civilization.
Later that evening, after we’d had enough we headed back to our “hotel” as we knew it, our car. For those of you who’ve never been to Key West before, during the holidays, it’s very hard to find anywhere that will let you spend a single night there. Tourism is such a cash cow, it’s usually 3 days or more. Our only solution was to camp in the car in a parking garage.
4 hours later, & 3 or 4 days of no showering, we were on a boat to Dry Tortugas National
Park. An old Civil War Era fort in the Gulf of Mexico, now a National Monument & Park of the United States. Home to 1000’s maybe a lot more, I’m not sure, Hermit crabs. There is nothing like setting up camp & watching all the neighbors (crabs) come by to say hello.
In the gift shop, Whitney A meets a couple from the East Coast, that has been stranded in their friends sail boat until the wind subsided. So what else does one do? They invite a few fellow islanders out for drinks & a game of spoons. Kim (the boat captain), Roger (the first mate), & Susan (Muscle Queen of the Sea) were great hosts. The kept us laughing all night long & Kim made sure we got back safe.
We ended up meeting up the next day walking down the shore. All five of us, minus our friend from the park, went looking for conch shells. There’s a ton scattered all over, in trees, in piles on the ground, stacked up as if it were a tribute to some sea bearing God. At one point Whitney finds a Hermit crab with a hole- y worn out shell, finds another one about his, this crab identifies as male, size & gets him to move into a new home! Who does that?
When it’s all said & done, & Florida craziness subsides, there is an allure. From swamp creatures, annoying families from Pittsburgh, to friends on sail boats, take the time to plan your visit & enjoy every second of it.