The Night Sail Back to Marco

We left The Dry Tortugas unexpectedly to avoid any possibility of heavy weather. Can you imagine blasting through enormous waves in inclement weather non stop for twenty four hours?  No thank you.  One of us wanted to wait until the following day  because it was only 32 miles more than crossing Lake Michigan and the higher the seas the better to learn from.   One of us made a suggestion of where the other one could put his “experience” lecture.  Best to play it safe and cheaper to remain married.

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Had we known we were leaving that day we would have done several things a little differently.  For instance, we would have dialed it in the night before and we wouldn’t have swam and hiked most of the day.  We were tired at the start.  However, adrenaline can be your friend.  The seas were calm and the wind was tame.  It made for slow but peaceful sailing.  When we could only reach three knots we motor sailed.  We watched a beautiful sun set together and then began four hour shifts.

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John did the first shift and I set my alarm for midnight.  The winds picked up around midnight so we set both sails and killed the engine for my shift.  John thoughtfully bought me a placard that identifies what certain lights on boats mean.  For example, a commercial fishing vessel has certain light patterns they put on that are different from a sailboat sailing at night.  This way we all can tell who each other is out there, which way they are heading and who has the right of  way.  Sailboats sailing at night, like us, identify themselves by sailing with their anchor light on.  This gives us the right away to any non emergency craft because a sail boat under sail has less ability to change course.  Too bad our anchor light still didn’t work.  John said not to worry.  Just avoid all boats and problem solved.  I studied my placard and had it by me as it is most important to recognize and avoid commercial fishing vessels.  Grouper fisherman drag a three mile line with hooks and bait set every thirty feet or so.  Shrimp boats’ nets can be two miles long.  We had over a hundred feet under us so we didn’t have to worry about grounding.  There were occasional weather towers out there in the middle of no where, some lit, some not, but all were marked on our charts.  It was these and boats I was watching for.

There is something soul stirring about the sea, the sails, the stars and the solitude.  I felt like my reset button had been hit and I was rebooting.  In this new space I could choose to quiet my normally buzzing brain.  All of the endless chatter, much of which you have been privy to, stopped.  I felt in the company of silent, unseen angels.  So this was peace.  I liked it very much and sailed in its magical and magnificent presence.

And then I saw a weird bright light.  It was among two others I could identify on the charts as weather towers but the third wasn’t on the chart and didn’t match anything on my placard.  It was super bright and I, for the life of me, couldn’t tell if it was twenty yards away or five miles away.  I tried the radar to identify its distance but could not get it to work.  I changed course and it seemed to change with me.  I began to worry that I might run right into it.   John told me not to hesitate to wake him for any reason so I prepared to go below and wake him up.  I set my course between the two fixed lights I knew were towers and away from mystery light.  I put the boat on autopilot, slowed way down and went below to get John.  Boy was I surprised when I returned to the cock pit and all three of the lights were gone.  I had set our point of sail off course to slow us down but we slowed so much that the GPS in the autopilot could not find us and turned off.  I got the boat and sails back under control and on course as John came up.  We debated long and hard on the source of the light.  John messed with the radar and again, like in the fog, it failed us.  Apparently it only works during the day when you don’t need it.  In the end, the boat turned out to be a shrimp boat.  So much for my placard.  You couldn’t see the red, green and white patterns.  It was a football field size glowing bright light traveling willy nilly all over the sea.

It was John’s turn to take over.  He, too, had a soul inspiring experience.   He loved watching the sun set over the ocean and then watching it rise again.

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He had visitors.  There was Dolfonzo the dolphin and his family who would dart through the steaming light reflection in the sea.   There was Felix the fearless flying fish who made an untimely landing.

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John motored most of his shift.  We finally saw land in the early afternoon and the wind picked up.  We set sail again slowing us down but it was a great way to end the trip.

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We waved to my folks and tucked in to our dock minutes before a thunder storm.

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What an adventure we have had these last several months.  How grateful we are for the “experience.”  After securing ourselves to our dock I opened a small bottle of sparkling wine to end the adventure like we had begun it.

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I poured a little bubbly into the sea and thanked Neptune, Poseiden and the four wind brothers.

Thank you, oh great gods of sea, for our safe passage and for your generosity.

Chariot of Poseidon | Greco-Roman mosaic | Bardo National Museum, Tunis

And thank you for following along with us.

Until the next adventure….

Candis and John

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The Dry Tortugas, Chapter Three

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There were two things we noticed when we entered the anchorage two days ago.  One, of course, was the massive fort, the other was the crazy amount of birds flying adjacent to the fort on Bird Island.  Twenty thousand Sooty Terns come to this island during the winter, the only place in the U.S., to lay their eggs and raise their young.  Sailors call them “Wide Awakes” because they are very noisy sea birds.  They live their entire lives in the air deep at sea.  They sleep while flying although they do not need deep sleep.

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The sounds and sights of thousands and thousands of Sooty Terns were our constant companion day and night.  They were a ball of energy.  But  birding was the afternoon’s agenda.  In the morning we went snorkeling.  Before we took off with Sea Alice and our snorkel gear we had a visitor at the boat.  This is T.J. the Goliath grouper, also known as a Jew fish.  Goliath groupers can reach over eight feet long and eight hundred pounds.  T.J. was a big boy.

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We listened to our VHF weather report before snorkeling and some weather was coming in a few days so we were going to have to cut our stay shorter than we would have liked.  It was disappointing but not unexpected.

The snorkeling was fun but since we are snobby scuba divers it did not compare to some of our experiences.

Ooo!  Baracuda!

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We returned to Echoes for lunch and to grab my bird books, binoculars and camera.   We took Sea Alice back to the island to walk the perimeter of the fort on the moat and to bird watch.

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There are two hundred and ninety nine kinds of birds on the island.  The vast majority of species are migrants that only stop for a short period of time.  Many of these are sea birds that are rare to see.  It is bird heaven.

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After our perimeter walk and before we did some bird watching we checked the gift shop computer.  The park service is very friendly to boaters and they let us use their computer to look up weather and wind websites that are designed for mariners.  These sites are more detailed and up to date than the VHF weather reports.  We had been checking these websites daily at the gift shop.  We were being especially careful because we planned to sail directly back to Marco, one hundred miles.  This would be our first all night sail.  We checked the weather and all looked well in the Tortugas for the next two days.  We checked the weather on the Marco end and a string of swear words followed.  Very heavy and stormy weather, seas and wind, were predicted for when we were to reach Marco.  Long story short, to miss the Marco weather and to miss the coming Tortuga weather we had to leave immediately.  It was 3:00 pm as we stood mumbling in the gift shop.  By 4:30 we were leaving the anchorage for a twenty four hour sail to Marco.  Bye bye birdies.

 

 

The Dry Tortugas, Chapter Two

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The Dry Tortugas National Park is a one hundred square mile park that is mostly protected sea.  It is rich in marine life, teeming with rare birds and holds a massive fortress,  Fort Jefferson.  We unleashed Sea Alice and took her to the island to explore.

The only way to get to the park is by your own boat, on one of two contracted sea planes or one contracted ferry that comes once a day with about a hundred people.  There are seven campsites on the island, a couple of pit toilets, a National Parks’ office and a small gift store.  The National Park Service has a boat that is often tied up here and the Coast Guard on occasion rafts up to the Park Service boat as this is one of the only deep protected anchorages for many miles.DSC_1739

Anyone is welcome to use the ferry boat’s facilities while it is docked for the five hours a day it is there.  They let us join a guided tour of Fort Jefferson.

Fort Jefferson has a strategic location situated on the main shipping channel between the Gulf of Mexico, the western Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean.  In the mid 1800’s it was built by the U.S. to protect the lucrative channels.  The reefs around it made a “ship trap” and there was one channel entrance that lead to a safe harbor (where we were anchored) for friendly ships.  Fort Jefferson is the largest all masonry fort in the U.S with over sixteen million bricks and eight foot thick brick walls.

Good thing I am so photogenic.

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Fort Jefferson has a mote, is three tiered, six sided, on forty five acres with four hundred and twenty heavy guns and cannons.

If only I had a match.

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Its peak population was about two thousand people.  The fort held prisoners during the Civil War.  The most famous was Dr. Samual Mudd.  He was imprisoned for aiding John Wilkes Booth while Booth was fleeing from soldiers after assassinating Lincoln.  Dr. Mudd treated and saved many soldiers after all of the fort’s nurses and doctors died from yellow fever.  This was his cell.

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We had full reign to explore most of the fort.  There were no guard rails or restrictive rules.  After the ferry left we practically had the fort to ourselves.  I have only skimmed the fort’s fascinating history.  Here are some links if your are interested in learning more:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Jefferson_(Florida)    and   https://www.drytortugas.com/fort-jefferson-history/

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We spent the evening grilling out and celebrating our great fortune of being where we were.  A Bee-on-chee three tiered fishing boat anchored behind us blocking our view of the setting sun.  We took our libations to Echoe’s bow to see if we could catch the sunset from that angle.  I very gracefully slipped and tossed my red wine into the air, all over my face and on the boat.  I want you to know, a lesser woman would have fallen, broken the glass and her arm.

John took to calling me Cinderella again and had many colorful comments about me finding my calling scrubbing decks and other inappropriate suggestions about my bent frame.  He earned himself his second bird of the trip.

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We listened to the upcoming weather on VHF and all was well.  We planned the next day with the birds and the fish.  My kind of day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dry Tortugas, Chapter One

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We left the Marquesas in the morning in a small craft advisory.  We decided we’d give it a try with the idea we would turn around and anchor back at the Marquesas if it was too rough.  The wind direction was favorable as it was at our backs.   The waves and wind were pushing us from behind rather than us trying to push through them.  We put up our jib, which was plenty of sail, and sailed on a run.  There is a formula the National Weather Service uses to estimate wave height.   Basically, they take the average wave height and also a timed swell count to come up with their predictions.  We were in seven foot seas which loosely means that on average the seas were seven feet tall.   The seas could reach up to twenty one feet on rare occasions and heights in between about a third of the time.  I can’t tell you how high the waves were, but they were the highest I’ve ever sailed in.  I’m sure they can get much bigger.  I hope not to “experience” that.  Sometimes we were at the bottom of the trough and there would be walls of waves about two stories high around us.  However, it was more exciting than terrifying, the whoaaaa kind of exciting, not the weeeee kind.   Echoes handled them well.  So we kept going and sailed the gripping forty five miles to the Dry Tortugas.

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Land ho!  We could see Fort Jefferson and the island where we’d be anchoring.   We knew the anchorage was small and we were worried it might be full because boaters probably did not leave that day because of the weather.  We counted masts as we approached knowing it could hold maybe fifteen boats.  We counted twelve masts that we could see on the back side of the fort.  You can anchor in one other place but it was unprotected and we had enough of spin and spank from the night before.

The anchorage was tight and shallow to say the least.  We wedged ourselves between two boats closer than we would have preferred (and I’m sure than they would have) but there was no avoiding it and our neighbors took it in stride.  I was so relieved to be tied up safely in a calm anchorage at the destination we had been talking about for months.  It had been a challenging previous fifteen hours and it was time for a glass of wine.

We watched three more boats arrive after us.  There were very slim pickings left to anchor in.  They all had a hard time finding a spot and all changed their minds at least once and pulled anchor to try another spot.  A large motor boat finally anchored right behind us.  John gave play by play commentary as we watched and he did not like the way they set their anchor.  The boat looked like it left the show room floor the day before.  We watched a funny looking aluminum hulled sail boat named High Maintenance struggle to find his spot.  Finally, the ocean floor found one for him as he grounded himself about five boat lengths away from us.  John made note of how far away our motor neighbors had drifted as we watched some other sailors come to High Maintenance’s aid .  The motor boat drifted even further as they obliviously threw back cocktails on the deck.  John got on the VHF and hailed the “motor vessel anchored at Fort Jefferson” and told them they were dragging.  Without a response, they flew into action and reset their anchor.  Meanwhile, other sailors were in their dinghy and had attached High Maintenance’s halyard to them (the line used to raise the sail) and were motoring the dinghy perpendicular and away from the ground boat in hopes to pull it sideways by the mast and set it free.  They worked at it quite a while but High Maintenance wouldn’t budge.  It sat there all night and until high tide around 2:00 pm the next day when the water lifted it enough for him to motor out of harms way and drop anchor.  It was an entertaining evening and we preferred being the spectators this time.

 

The Marqueasas

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The Marquesas are a group of nine uninhabited islands about twenty two miles west of Key West.  They provide some protection for an anchorage to split up the long sail to The Tortugas.  We exited Key West and through all of the marina canals without incident.  (sigh)  The weather forecast was looking favorable for the next four days at least.  We threw up our sails, or rather John man handled them up while I helmed, and we had a friendly wind pushing us a long.  We checked previously with our cell phone provider, T Mobile, at it appeared we would have service all the way to and including The Tortugas.  I let a couple of early morning hours pass before calling and texting to check in with some of our peeps.  And no service.  I had a good friend who’s dear mother was in her last moments, another friend who was quite ill and my family who didn’t know we had left for The Tortugas.  It didn’t sit well with me.

The sail was enjoyable and we could tell we were in the Atlantic without land protection as the seas were big and beautiful.  We saw very few boats other than shrimping boats.  Anchoring at The Marqueasas was a challenge.  It was so shallow that we could not cozy up to the land.  We ventured closer than I liked as my charts read I was in two feet of water although my depth sounder said I had two and a half under me.  We didn’t dare push our luck any further.  We set anchor about a half mile from the Island in the lee.

The Marquesas are known for great fishing and also as the landing place of many Cuban migrants.  You could see their abandoned boats along the shore.  John got his fishing pole out and caught some fun fish but they were not to limit.  He caught several Mutton Snappers and this guy is a Black Grouper.

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We were discouraged by the wind.  We checked the weather ten more times and it was predicted from the North, North East, which was perfect for the anchorage we chose.  The wind was coming from the West.  We could only hope it would change in the night as this left us with no land protection.  We grilled out and went to bed early because the next day was about a forty five mile sail, or nine plus hours.  We set an anchor alarm.  I know, I know, you are asking why we didn’t do that back on Marathon.  Because the alarm unfailingly goes off at least once a night when it mysteriously loses GPS.  But tonight the winds were whipping up and rocking us rather uncomfortably.  Roly Polys would have been most welcome.  Although there isn’t a name for these types of waves that I know of, I will call them Spin me Spank mes.  It was a rough night.  The anchor alarm did go off but not to the surprise of either of us.  We were half awake anyway.  B.P. held like the B. she is.  We got up as planned in the wee hours.  The wind was howling and the weather not favorable so we thought we’d wait it out a couple more hours.

A small craft advisory from Key West to the Tortugas was declared.  Now we had three options.  We could turn around and go back to Key West and hope to get a slip, or anchor in the Spin me Spank mes.  We could stay put in the Marqueasas but definitely reset anchor in better protection and wait it out.  Or we could go for the forty five miles to The Tortugas in a small craft advisory which is what everyone had warned us not to do.  John made his “experience” lecture.  In the end, we mutually agreed to head to the Tortugas.  We could always turn around and come back to the Marqueasas.  We were going to change our anchorage there anyway.  So off we went in the howling wind and high seas.

Key West Chapter Three

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Janet C. Manatee was a lazy, lazy lady.  She napped where it was sunny.  She napped where it was shady.

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Say seaweed!

Our weather was looking good to leave the following day for the Marquesas, an anchorage part way to the Tortugas.  We spent the morning readying the boat with tons of provisions and all necessities.  The Cruising Guide says, “Do not plan a weekend trip to the Tortugas as weather may keep you there for a week or more.”  Our boat was stocked with plenty of sausage and we were ready to go.

By now we were in love with Key West and wanted to learn more about its history.  So we boarded a cheesy touring choo choo supplied with popcorn, pop and fudge.

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The revelers were still reveling the day after St Patrick’s.  Some of them looked as green as their shirts.

What are a few of my favorite historical facts about Key West?  I’m so glad you asked.

Cayo Hueso (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈkaʝo ˈweso]) is the original Spanish name for Key West.  It means Island of Bones and was named so because the Calusa Indians buried their dead in shell mounds above land.  Key West was full of human bones.  The English mispronounced it and it became Key West.

Key West and the Dry Tortugas were held by the Union during Civil War time because of a Naval base located at Key West.  The rest of Florida receded and joined the Confederates.

Key West became the wealthiest city per capita of its time because of ship wrecks.   There is still only one safe way into the port.  Many ships ran aground or wrecked back when there were no navigational aids .  Key West Wrecking Captians evolved.  They would come to the aid of the sinking ships and negotiate half of the ships treasure in exchange for rescue.  When the Navy put in navigational aids the Wrecking Captains’ lively hood suffered.  So they went out, cut them down and discarded them.   The Navy replaced them.  The Wrecking Captains went out and switched the directional aids so that the ships went the wrong way and wrecked.  One of these Wrecking Captains bought the island of Key West.

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We usually like to try new restaurants but we were so enraptured with some appetizers we had at Charlie Mac’s we went back for the BBQ extravaganza.

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Then we decided to hit the boat early to rest up for the next day’s adventure.  We stopped to use the marina facilities which happened to be shared with the tiki bar associated with the marina and hotel.  My theme song of the trip, I actually downloaded it I sang it so much, is “Tired of Waiting” by the Kinks.  I am always waiting for John.  I don’t know what in the heck he does in the bathroom, or anywhere else for that matter, that takes him so long.  Maybe he is calculating how many tiles they used, I don’t know.   What I do know is that all of his buddies that he travels with are groaning and shaking their heads right now.  So as I was waiting some awesome live music was pulling at me like a magnet closer to the bar.  The sun had just set and the view over the gulf was that beautiful orangey purple and it pulled me even deeper into the bar.  In fact, the magnetic pull was so strong that by the time John came out of the place that was named after him I was sitting at the bar.  I said something I have probably never said before (cough cough), One more last one?

So we stayed until Tony Roberts was done with his set because he was really that good.  We made fast friends with his wife, Brandi, sitting next to us and the bartenders and the fishing captains and the local beer guy and a waitress and a local chiropractor.  Tony was just one of those people you walk away from and know you will never forget.  We shook our heads all the way back to the boat leaden down with free CDs.  Wow, we both remarked, We wish we oozed such generosity, openness and goodness.  What a beautiful, magnificent soul this singing, traveling surfer had.  Please do yourself a favor and check out his music: http://www.tonyrobertsmusic.com/

It really wasn’t that late at the end of the night.  We were in bed by 11:00 and ready for our next day’s blue water adventure.

 

 

Key West, Chapter Two

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Not only were the marinas full because of the rough seas but also because it was St Patrick’s day weekend.  Unbeknownst to us, St Patrick’s is a week long affair.  People were wearing their Irish pride every day we were there.  Chapter Two day was actually St Patrick’s Day.  I had woken up a little crusty but none too worse for the wear.  The night before we had learned how rich in history and fascinating of a place Key West is.  We gathered tons of information on museums, tours, etc.  We decided that we would each pick our favorite thing and the other would go along without complaint.  John picked a tour on Coast Guard Cutter Ingham and I picked the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.  Boats, butterflies and birds.   Nothing like a little variety in our lives.

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We have a love and appreciation for the Coast Guard and those that serve.  What they do on a day to day basis is extraordinary.  All boaters monitor VHF channel 16 when at sea.  This is the station the Coast Guard monitors as well.  It is a hailing and emergency only channel.  I should write a blog post on the stories we have heard play out during our time on the water.  They helped boaters through seizures, heart attacks, accidents, boat fires, groundings, and engine failures in storms.  They put out requests to other boaters to watch for missing boats and the people in them.   What the Coast Guard has done in history is remarkable.  CGC Ingham is the most decorated vessel in the Coast Guard fleet.   She served with distinction in WWII.  She sank a German submarine, saved two hundred fifty (out of one thousand) U.S. soldiers who’s ship was sunk, and protected vital supply ships going to Britain.  She served in Viet Nam and was also the last active warship with a U-boat kill.  I found it interesting that during war times the Coast Guard is controlled by the Navy.  The living and working conditions for these soldiers was eye opening.  This is a very short summary of an incredible history.  Check out this website to learn more:  http://www.uscgcingham.org/

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Next, we wove our way through stumbling green people to the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.

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I will try and control myself because butterflies are amazing.  That curly thing you see on the top of Betty Butterfly’s head?

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That is her tongue.  She unrolls it to eat.   It becomes a long straw that she sticks into flowers to suck out the nectar.

Butterflies taste with their feet.

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Some butterflies travel two thousand miles one way to winter and then return the following spring.

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There are over 24,000 species of butterflies.

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Flamingos get their color from the food they eat, shrimp, plankton, algae and crustaceans.

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Flamingos are monogamous and lay one egg a year.  This handsome guy, whom I called Floyd, was courting his love, Florence.  He made the loudest, craziest, honking, love song I’ve ever heard.

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This pretty lady told me I could use a little makeup.

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.  Chinese Proverb

That St Patrick’s evening we enjoyed people watching, some music at the Green Parrot and awesome BBQ at Charlie Mac’s.  And we met some very entertaining Wisconsinites.

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