Discovering Florida Outdoors

As I mentioned before, meeting Catherine and Eugene was a high point in our move to Orlando as they introduced us to the Florida outdoors.  We joined them on camping trips the usually included kayaking, a past time we took up shortly after arriving.  During my first and Darryl’s second winter in Florida, I was constantly thrilled by the balmy weather.  Over the three years in the Sunshine State I learned that it isn’t always warm in the winter in Florida but the winter of 2006-2007 was glorious.

The following are some shots of our first camping trip with Catherine and Eugene was to Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park.  I still don’t understand that name but it was a really nice introduction to Florida camping, which for sissies like us is done in the Fall, Winter and early-Spring.  Too damn hot to sleep in a tent in the Summer, not to mention being carried away by mosquitoes.  The memories of 10 below temps and shoveling snow for weeks was still fresh in my memory so sitting around a campfire and ushering in the New Year in shorts and a fleece gave me quite a thrill.  The following are some shots from that first camping trip. 

The Crew on our first hike.
Eugene sporting the ‘explorer look’.
Florida flora
Catherine (left) holding class for Megan (middle), Darryl and ‘?’ (can’t remember his name).
Believe it or not, there were wintering Sandhill Cranes out there – they never shut up.
Darryl and the gopher tortoise.
That’s me peaking between Darryl and Megan.
Catherine and Eugene became dear friends in our short time in Florida and leaving was bittersweet.  However, Eugene has a brother in Washington and they both are familiar to the area so we expect to see them for some Pacific Northwest adventures in the near future.  Next will be shots from our kayaking adventures.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures from the trip paddling with the manatees on the Homosassa River when a porpoise surfaced next to Darryl’s kayak within arm’s length.

Apartment Life Again

Megan and I arrived in Oviedo, FL mid-September, 2006 with most of our worldly possession remaining after yard sales, donations, and give-a ways to family and friends.  The rental truck arrived at our apartment covered from bumper to top with smashed  Love Bugs* collected crossing Lake Jessup** during our last 10 miles of the trip.  There to meet us were Darryl, Jim Spence (her business partner) and some of his family members to help schlep furniture up to the second floor apartment.  It was 90 degrees and I was complaining about the heat at which they all laughed and were thankful that the summer heat had just ‘broken’ to Fall temps.  It was going to be a while before I acclimated to the Florida weather.  

This first apartment was rather new and luxurious so we settled into the space, if not the exorbitant rent.  This whole situation was an adjustment for all three of us – apartment living again for Darryl and I, living with Megan and she with us and Darryl and I together again after 9 months apart.  As I recall, all went reasonably well.  I spent my days sightseeing, casually doing a job search and working out in the complex gym while Darryl and Megan went to work at Spence and Vaughn.  Megan and I also bought new cars on the same day from the same guy who sold Darryl her new red Mustang convertible.  That was fun!

I don’t seem to have a picture of Megan’s Ford Focus
By the summer of 2007 the three of us were moving again.  This time to Altamonte Springs and a more affordable apartment.  The new place was in a more scenic location and now we were in a villa-type apartment which means we were on the ground floor.  I was still missing NY, family and friends but we were developing a network of friends around Orlando.  Auditing work was now slowly trickling in and I had secured an ‘on-call’ position with a Florida-based environmental consulting company, ECT and a small local environmental auditing company called Credence Environmental Group.  It was slow but promising and I was becoming a regular at the Orlando airport.
During this time I started attending the many open mic blues jams in the area.  There is a vibrant blues scene in Orlando of welcoming musicians and multiple venues to get on stage.  It is a way to network and find forming bands that might need a singer.  It was during the jams that I met Steve and Jan Dakel.  Jan it turns out was another escapee from Western NY and Steve an accomplished guitarist.  He and bass player Gary Moore were forming a blues band and asked if I’d be interested – sure, why not.  So Swamp Box Willey was born with the addition of Mike Feher on saxophone and Steve Brown on drums.  Yeah, we thought about calling it Steve, Steve, Steve, Gary and Mike but it wouldn’t fit on posters.

Steve Dakel
Gary Moore
Mike Feher
Steve Brown
Swamp Box Willey – Virgin Records Gig at Downtown Disney
These are a great bunch of guys and we rehearsed hard but for whatever reason it just never came together that well.  Next came a call from a band that had just lost their singer to the effects of the 2008 recession  wanting to know if I was interested – sure, why not.  Now I was a member of Catfish Charlie (the band website is long gone but here is a profile I Googled).   This band included another Western NY escapee, Lee Lora (bass, vocals) formerly of Rochester.  Also, in this band were Tim Williams (guitar vocals), Frank Belaska (drums, herder of cats), Bob Markos (harmonica, vocals, comedian) and Perry Heard (keyboard, vocals).  Here are some shots from a benefit gig, Blues Soup 3 in Oviedo, FL.

As my ramblings often go, this really wasn’t so much about apartment living after all.  In May of 2008 we finally bought a place of our own.  Not a house but a townhouse, which is to say a large apartment with a mortgage.  Had we known that another cross-country move was a year away we might have reconsidered this purchase.  We still own it but that topic may be part of  more Florida adventures to come…

*Love Bugs are an invasive species rumored to have escaped from a lab at the University of Florida with no known predators.   They have mating flights in September and May, with the September event being much more prominent.  The name comes from the fact that when they are mating they fly around for some time joined at the posterior.  Unfortunately, they seem to be drawn to roadways in Central Florida so, of course, they are splattered all over vehicles.  This is a problem because, like ants, their bodies contain formic acid and their squished guts will wreck your paint job.  This is a boon to the many car washes in the area.

**Lake Jessup is a very shallow (even by Florida Standards) lake in the St. Johns River system that boasts the highest density of alligators in Florida, so I suppose in the world.

The journey began

As 2006 began our plans were taking shape or more accurately, Darryl’s plans began to gel and I began to grasp the reality of the whole thing.  At the end of January we were packing Darryl’s Ford Escape (how ironic) with all of her possessions that we could cram into it and on top of it in one of those cargo tubs.  Her business, Spence and Vaughn Fine Kitchen & Bath, was now a reality after several trips between Rochester, NY and Orlando, FL by her and her partner, Jim Spence.  It was time for her to get to Florida and start things up, initially working out of Jim’s house.  We left Fairport, NY around the first of February for the long drive through a blizzard in Erie, PA (big surprise), slop in West Virginia and gradually improving weather as we reached the Deep South.  I delivered Darryl and  her SUV at her mother’s house in Inverness, FL and flew back to Rochester out of Orlando.

My list of duties were clear:

  1. Sell our beloved house in Fairport;
  2. Retire from Kodak – or be laid off, whichever came first;
  3. Get our younger daughter, Meredith, settled somewhere;
  4. Pack up whatever I couldn’t dispose of or store at our camp into a U-Haul truck;
  5. Drive to Astoria Queens to pack up our older daughter, Megan’s belongings; and 
  6. Drive (again) to Orlando.

This process took until mid-September – the first of what has become a pattern of long separations in our now 35-year marriage.

Our house in Fairport, NY taken the winter after we moved.
The camp near Canandaigua Lake, NY
Megan with all our ‘stuff’ as we left NJ.
I will forgo the ordeal of cleaning out a house with 32 years of collected ‘stuff’, staging a house for sale in a down market and enduring weeks of torturous boredom as a lame duck employee.  These are suitable topics all on their own, but let me say that except for a few weeks of blissful relaxation at camp this was a LONG nine months.
The next several months I spent enjoying severance pay and exploring Central Florida.  Darryl had made a lot of friends in Orlando before I arrived, including Eugene and Catherine who became our ‘camping buddies’.  Catherine a professional biologist and Eugene an avid birder are a wealth of knowledge helping us identify the Florida flora and fauna that seem quite foreign to us Yankees (actually we were Damn Yankees because we moved there).
Darryl and her first gopher tortoise encounter. January ’07
By early 2007 it was time to start getting my ‘post-Kodak’ career going.  I had been planning on becoming an independent environmental management system (EMS) auditor for 5 years before leaving Kodak, so I set that plan in action.  First, I had to take some training and become certified – by Spring – Done!  Now, I needed to get a contracting gig with a big name registrar, i.e., a company that certifies other companies as conforming with the ISO 14001:2004 Standard.  It took a while but I finally ‘signed on’ with SGS.  A Swiss company that is one of the big players in the business with US Headquarters in NJ.
Well, my ‘research’ into this new career that I was banking on should have included actually speaking with more people in the field.  You see, this whole “ISO registration stuff” had become old news by now and there weren’t a lot of companies jumping on the band wagon.  Therefore, those auditors in the business since the rush to registration in the 90s had enough repeat customers to keep them busy.  So my life was getting to know these folks and encouraging them to include me when they needed help on a registration audit.  Let me sum this all up – I loved the work, the travel wasn’t a deterrent, but there just wasn’t enough of it.  When the 2008 recession hit it all but dried up.  My days were spent at the computer and phone in Florida begging SGS for work.
During this time Darryl and Jim’s work was winning awards in the Orlando Parade of Homes and their customers were raving about them.  As the housing market in Central Florida started to unravel they were surviving on remodeling jobs (their niche) while many of their competitors who depended on new construction went out of business.  So they were doing better than many of their competitors, however when the collapse of the housing market occurred in 2008 everyone was struggling.  It is one thing to be at the top of your game but if the game is not being attended how are you doing?
Why this sad story?  This was the precursor to another job search and the move to Washington before our ends were not being met. This is the skeleton of our story in Florida and it sounds dismal but we met a lot of great people, experienced some really cool things, spent a summer at our camp and I even got back to the music that I love.  Those things and the journey to the Pacific Northwest are coming soon.