About Me

Tired of the mundane and craving an adventure, on Saturday, May 22nd, 2010, I embarked on the ultimate American road trip through all fifty states. After nearly a year and a half on the road, on a budget of less than 50 bucks a day, this is my story...

Florida Keys

A Nice Thing to Wake Up to in Your Room
Everglades International Hostel

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27th
This morning I took more pictures of the hostel, stuffed myself with pancakes and checked out, before excitedly descending into the Florida Keys, "a slender 127-mile chain of 1,700 islands linked by more than 40 bridges, off the southern tip of Florida."  Time slows down as you drive down lazy, scenic Overseas Highway, with its narrow two lanes and maximum speed limit of 55mph (35-45 in commercial areas), passing through diverse communities (where buildings are located by the closest little green mile marker rather than building number), between which "on either side of you, as far as the eye can see, lies nothing but peaceful, emerald waters, chalk-full of 600 species of brilliantly colored tropical fish and 55 types of living coral."  If you're determined to drive straight through to Key West (the end of the line) allow at least 3 1/2 hours, but you should really do it right and linger/explore the different towns along the way.


The Keys Aren't for People Afraid of Water, LOL

My first stop was Key Largo, "the Diving Capital of the World" and the first of the keys as one makes their way south from the mainland, where after checking out of the dollar store with a few cans of tuna and other necessities, I received a call from Xochi, my couchsurfing host for the night, who upon learning I was going snorkeling, put me in touch with her other couchsurfers, Mandy and Matthias, who just happened to be on their way to the snorkel shop as we spoke!  About 15 minutes later I met up with them at Sundiver Station Snorkel Shop, paid $32.20 for my ticket on the 2 1/2-hr noon trip (foregoing the $7 equipment rental fee, since I still had the set I used from the manatee snorkel), then stopped at Walgreens for a couple cheap underwater disposable cameras before meeting them at the harbor docks.


 Matt n' Mandy First Snorkeling Trip!


Laughter ensued as I got acquainted with my new, fun-loving German friends before boarding the Sundiver III, a beautiful 46-foot custom-built snorkeling boat.  Once settled inside, the captain introduced himself and fellow crew member (they both had the same name like Joe or Bob or Dave or something), told us about our snorkel destination (one of the reefs in Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, aka Pennekamp State Park, where the reef averages 6-12 feet deep), and provided instructions for an enjoyable day at sea (like steering clear of the jellyfish we might encounter!).  Picking up anchor and making our way out of the harbor was an experience unto itself, as we oohed and ahhed at the mess of jaw-dropping vacation homes and luxurious sail boats, jet boats and yachts at the docks.


Dreaming of Retirement...


About 30 minutes later we arrived at our snorkel site, threw on our gear and plopped in!  The 90 minutes we spent in the water was amazing!  It's a whole other world below the water's surface; I was a minnow in an endless tropical fish tank!  One filled with a wide abundance of soft and hard corals and many colored tropical fish, including Rainbow Parrotfish, Angelfish, Butterflyfish, Tangs, Wrasses, Brain Coral, Venus Fans and much much more, all gently swaying in the crystal clear water.  Oh and the jellyfish the captain said we "might encounter"?  We saw TONS!  I saw at least 20-30 of the hot pink beauties, and poor Mandy even got stung, though she didn't let it spoil her first-ever snorkeling experience.  She took it like a champ, even declining my offer to pee on her, haha :P  She said it felt like a bee sting, and lasted only about 30-60 minutes.


 No, You Can't Take 'Em Home!


We spent the rest of the day together - an unforgettable lunch at Bayside Grill (mango margaritas, seared tuna, fresh key lime pie, a picture-perfect panoramic view of the Florida Bay... and we had the whole place to ourselves!), picking up and going through our snorkeling photos at CVS, a trip to ISLAMORADA! (we shouted with a southern twang, lol), where a failed attempt to feed the tarpon fish (closed) led to [almost, but not really] being eaten by a giant [fiberglass] great white shark and [very] happy hour at at Uncles, with a final stop at Publix (the main grocery store in The Keys) and turned in for the night at Xochi's for deep discussion over wine and homemade hummus =)


 The Smiles Are All Real =D


WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28th
This morning Matthias & Mandy and I shared the honor of writing in Xochi's book (every couchsurfer she's ever had - a LOT - is required to write something in the book), took a group photo and gave her a big hug before she went to work, then the 3 of us returned to Robbie's in Islamorada to feed the massive tarpon, which can reach up to 8 feet long and weigh up to 280 lbs!  It was a sight to behold as we passed the patient pelican and claimed our spot on the dock, held up our minnows and watched as the massive fish lunged out of the water for their breakfast (Mandy holding back a little, heh heh)!  By the way, as we did indeed discover, they DO have teeth, and we had the marks to prove it, lol.  I wish I could start out every morning like that - god, what a thrill!  After getting up close and personal with a Great White Heron and Snowy Egret (with beautiful plumage displayed), they took me back to Key Largo, where it was time to part ways with my wonderful new friends, as they headed the opposite way, north to Miami.


video
Come n' Get It, Tarpon!


After picking up some breakfast from Publix (hard-boiled eggs and pineapple loaf, lol) I continued southwest on Overseas Highway past the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, on through Marathon ("the Sportfishing Capital of the World"), across Seven-Mile Bridge (the longest segmental bridge in the world when it was completed in 1982, and as seen in True Lies!), past Bahia Honda Rail Bridge, made a quick stop for some info at a Key West Visitor Center (really just a private company trying to sell you vacation packages) at MM (mile marker) 31.2 on Big Pine Key, then hopped back into the car and kept truckin' on beyond the endangered Key Deer caution signs (peculiar surprise) about another 30 miles to literally the end of the road - Key West.  


Dude, Why So CRABBY?!












Rocky shores, weathered homes, hurricane shutters, fried conch, sandy beaches, beautiful sunsets, subtropical climate, lush vegetation, wild roosters, rich pirate history, painters, writers, free spirits, beach bums, drag queens, retirees, honeymooners, cruisers - this tiny island (only 2 x 4 miles), the southernmost point in the continental United States (made famous by Ernest Hemingway), is a quirky atmosphere of Cuba (only 90 miles south!) meets New England, with a live-and-let-live attitude, where everyone's here to relax and enjoy (despite the recent influx of money-hungry developers).


Who's Your Barber, Man?


William, my couchsurfing host for the night, met me at Publix around 2:30.  A mellow retiree and creative artist (he makes really cool wooden cut outs of people) with dreadlocks and a moped, he totally embodies the don't-worry-be-happy spirit of Key West; I was honored to be his guest.  I followed him to his home, he showed me his cool cut outs and where things were, gave me a map, told me to come and go as I pleased, he grabbed his saw and got back to work and that was that!  


William, My Key West Couchsurfing Host =)


My first stop was at another Visitor Center (because there was a FREE souvenir can cozy to be had, lol), then I drove over to the Hemingway Home & Museum, nestled in the heart of Old Town, where Nobel-Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote for more than ten years, during the most prolific period in his career.


Hemingway House 


The $11.50 admission (I got a dollar off with my student ID) included a 30-minute guided tour (they run every 15 minutes 9-5pm 365 days a year), which informed me of the overall life of the late Ernest Hemingway, focusing on the years Hemingway lived in this particular house, built in 1851 in the Spanish Colonial style and restored and remodeled by Hemingway in the early 1930’s.  It was a step back in time as the tour visited the rooms as key artifacts, paintings, trophy mounts and skins, European antiques, furnishings and architectural details were identified.   




Hemingway's Living Room


It was a bit whimsical touring outside, where more than forty living descendents of Hemingway's cats (over half of which are six-toed!) currently live amongst the lush palm gardens (and inside the house too, as they are free to roam wherever they like on the property, just as Hemingway had it).


1, 2, 3, 4, 5, SIX TOES


It was fun listening to the stories about his wives; one of which took place as we were showed the pool, built in 1937-38, at the staggering cost of $20,000. It was the first in-ground pool in Key West, and the only pool within 100 miles!  Our young, annoyingly monotone guide (with a constant motion of his right hand, palm up, back and forth like he was rocking a rattle back and forth, synchronized with the halting rhythm of his speech) told us that the exorbitant construction costs once prompted Hemingway to angrily take a penny from his pocket and throw it at his wife Pauline in the pool, shouting "Here, take the last penny I've got!"  She took it and pressed it into the wet cement of the surrounding patio, and after their divorce (she kept the house) she'd proudly recall that story to her friends, "I took his last cent!"  We all got a glimpse of the penny on our way out; it's still embedded between flagstones at the north end of the pool.




After the tour (my only tip was to speak with a bit of enthusiasm) you are free to wander around at your leisure, however our tour was done just as they were closing at 5.  Luckily one of the other guides was nice enough to allow me a few extra minutes on the grounds (cat cemetary!) and even in the house before locking the doors for the day.


I Found the Easter Bunny's House!


After making a few passes around the the different residential blocks I got lucky and temporarily found a place to park while I took pictures of some of the island-style residences and got some chow.  I heard BO's Fish Wagon was good, so I gave it a try and I'm glad I did!  I was in "Conch Republic," so I ordered conch fritters.  Conch is the snail without its shell.  They were DELICIOUS!  The right amount of grease, crunch, and plenty of flavor (for only $7.75).  The service was great, the rusty piles of junk was fun (ambiance, lol) and good people watching while dining alfresco.  I'll definitely go back!  I walked across the street for some fresh, tart, homemade key lime pie at Pepe's Cafe, "The eldest eating house in the Florida Keys (est. 1909), A fairly good place, for quite a long while, Open under old management" haha!


Nothing Says MMM! Like The Exterior of BO's Fish Wagon HAHA!


After re-parking my car in a [this time] legal spot, I walked around the Historic Seaport/Mallory Square area to check out the beautiful boats and luxurious yachts, partake in the ever-popular "Sunset Celebration," where sunset admirers gather on the dock and watch the jugglers, palm readers, musicians, clowns and other entertainers before seeing the sun go down (gratefully applauding at its end).  Afterward I walked up and down famous Duval Street (the Boubon Street of Key West), lined with motels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, art galleries, cigar shops and the like.  I indulged in a key lime soda from the Key Lime Pie Factory and a scoop of key lime ice cream from Kermit's Key Lime Shoppe around 9:30, before heading back to William's, where I visited with him and a couple of his other friendly couchsurfers for a little bit before getting some shut eye after another long day.  Next time I'm in Key West I'll have to make it a point to hit up the lively bars/clubs/music venues/drag shows!


Conch Fritters w/ Homemade Key Lime Mayo!


THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29th
This morning I left William a thank you note and a bottle of Chardonnay (his fav) in the refrigerator, and spent the rest of the day taking my time driving back through the keys to the mainland, stopping to photograph some of the murals, mailboxes, and large sea life sculptures in front of the many souvenir shops along the way, and having a great lunch at Lazy Days in Islamorada (first person there for lunch, having the whole outdoor, oceanside deck with picture-perfect view all to myself, nice!) - a conch filet, sauteed with Japanese bread crumbs and topped with diced tomatoes, scallions, fresh grated parmesan and key lime butter.  Having it sauteed was a nice departure from the  fritter version (which is blended with batter and fried) in that it allowed me to taste the flavor of the conch more (though I like the fritters better).  Rather than the traditional mint, my Keys-style lunch came complete with a key lime candy, the last "keys thing" I would eat on my trip.

 
All Things Key Lime!


PHOTO ALBUMS
 

Florida Everglades

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25TH
This morning I stocked up on the bare essentials (chips!) when I realized there wouldn't be another convenience store in god-knows-how-far on Highway 41-East, headed to the Everglades, "a natural region of subtropical wetlands in the southern portion of the state; a massive ecosystem of  over 600 species of birds and animals, thousands of plant varieties and several endangered species."  


My First Alligator "Sighting"
Within Only 20 Minutes of Entering The Everglades!


You know you've entered the Everglades when every sign is a billboard for an Airboat Swamp Tour!  Thinking they could tell me where I could find some relatively cheap gas, I stopped into Jungle Erv's, where as soon as I entered they indicated I could check out the big alligator hanging out in back.  It was "hanging out" because they were feeding it chicken bones!  Ugh.  I won't get into that, but anyway, this sucker was HUGE; maybe 11 feet long they said!


 The Nation's Smallest Post Office, Measuring 7 x 8 feet!


Keeping on a sort of schedule (and not wanting to support a business that interferes with the natural diet of wild animals to sell tours), I excitedly hopped in the car and, after getting gas at a place they recommended 5 miles out of the way (which wasn't even a penny cheaper than the station a 1/2 block away lol), continued a whole 200 feet down the road, lol, where I popped into the Big Cypress Welcome Center, (a little gift shop with visitor information on Big Cypress National Preserve - this lush region I was currently traveling through -  and the greater surrounding area; not to be confused with the Big Cypress Visitor Center further up the road!) for information and maps (and maybe some real food - nope!).  They were really helpful in recommending some places to stop on my way to the National Park, such as nation's "smallest post office" and pull-offs for likely wildlife encounters, and unlike so many of its kind, they didn't try to fill my arms with butt-loads of unnecessary brochures and publications.  Getting to the center was easy, but leaving?  Not so much.  Vultures literally crowded the exit of the driveway (and picnic table, you know, anywhere people might want access to, lol) , and they had no intention of budging, with their "We were here first" attitude, lol.


Hounding the Exit of the Big Cypress Welcome Center - Those VULTURES!


Continuing along Hwy 41 East, I made sure not to blink as I watched for the Ochopee Post Office, the smallest post office in the United States, literally a CONVERTED 7' x 8' SHED in Ochopee, said to have a population of 11!  Not eleven thousand.  ELEVEN total, lol!  I couldn't get to peek inside since it was Sunday (closed), but that's okay, there were ants or insects of some kind that were stinging my ankles as I tried to take pictures.  You should've seen me out there, lol; I was literally hopping from one leg to another trying to keep 'em off me - OUCH!




Ice Cream, Alligators and Snakes! reads the sign for the Trail Lakes Campground at Skunk Ape Research Headquarters; I just had to turn around and pay 'em a visit!   It was pretty much a reptile zoo attached to a quirky little gift shop/tourist trap where you can purchase "Skunk Ape" memorabilia, lol, along with blow guns, knives and alligator heads, etc.

I stopped at H.P. Williams Roadside Park, a popular place for wild alligator sightings.  I had no such luck, however I did spot a a couple of Anhinga, a dark-plumaged water bird.  I didn't stay long though, as I was being eaten alive by swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes!


 Bromeliad!


At Kirby Storter Roadside Park, just a short ways up the road, I was able to more immerse myself into the Big Cypress National Preserve ("729,000 acres of vast swamp, containing a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther!"), with a walk along the 1/2-mile elevated boardwalk "winding its way across the sawgrass prairie through a a dwarf cypress forest, into the heart of an impressive Cypress strand (while wearing as much insect-repellent as I could without it dripping off - which still wasn't enough), affording up-close views of mature Cypress trees and peculiar bromeliads (air plants that collect rainwater, plant and animal debris) and GREAT views of GREAT Egrets and other wading birds, as well as some cool lubber grasshoppers, reaching nearly 3 inches in length!  I didn't see any alligators or panthers, however I also didn't stumble across any of the four venomous species of snakes, so I can't complain =)

I took a much-needed break from the killer mosquitoes at the Big Cypress Gallery, displaying (selling! lol) the black-and-white nature photography of Clyde Butcher.




At the Oasis Visitor Center (still on Hwy 41) I had the opportunity to see the endangered Florida Panther (it wasn't alive, and it safely enclosed within plexi-glass just in case, lol).  I'd rather encounter it this way, versus with the front end of my car, which unfortunately is among the leading causes of mortality among this species that is currently at a population of only a hundred in the wild!  It was down to only 30 in the 1990s!  :(




Another big THANK YOU goes out to the helpful staff at the Big Cypress Welcome Center who, when learned I was on a tight budget, turned me onto Miccosukee Indian Airboat Rides, a local tribe (predating Columbus) offering 30-minute rides for only $13 with a $3 off coupon on their brochure, versus the normal $40-50 other places charge - it was a no-brainer!  I simply showed up during regular business hours (it was slow; no reservation was required) and joined a couple other sets of people there for the ride.  While we waited a few minutes for our guide, there was plenty to see - 2 or 3 wild alligators were hangin' out next to the dock, waiting for one of us to take a plunge, lol.


 Crikey, What a WHOPPER!


"The airboat passes through the 'River of Grass' and stops at an authentic, hammock-style Indian Camp that has been owned by the tribe for over 100 years (on a personal note, if that is true, it must have been recently updated, lol)."  At the village we were free to roam around and explore on our own, though it only took a few minutes, not a ton of stuff to see, although there were some pretty cool, big, colorful grasshoppers (some were mating, ooh la la) and some people claimed to see a snake, but our guide showed us a HUGE, old alligator, which he beckoned somehow with a soda can, and actually got him to come out of the water, open his mouth, and snap at us!  INTENSE!


video


On our way back, our very laid-back guide took it up a notch, speeding up and whipping us around the water, doing 360's, it was great - and we got super close to a great blue heron flying nearby.  Beware, the jet engines are LOOOOOUUUUD!  But it was a great experience and since the cashier forgot to give me cotton for my ears, the guide kindly gave me his sweet noise-cancelling headphones! 




By the time I arrived at Everglades National Park, it was raining so much that upon arriving at the Visitor Center, I stepped out of my car into water at least SIX inches deep!  Camping tonight?  Umm...no thank you, lol.  I hustled inside and the fun, friendly (and handsome!) staff directed me to Everglades International Hostel, a funky "urban oasis" with a Tibetan twist, in the heart of nearby Florida City.  For $25 I got a clean dorm bed, free internet access, free pancakes the next morning, and access to lots of unusual outdoor spaces (like a tree fort net, a Tibetan-themed 3-season gazebo, tv room/study/kitchen, spacious 'n cozy rec room tent, waterfall groto fountain...I loved that quirky place and the friendly people made me feel at home =)


The Comfy, Tibetan-Motif Gazebo


MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 26TH
First thing this morning I got dressed and went to Everglades National Park before the afternoon's rain was set to hit.  "Everglades National Park, established in 1947, protects the southern 25 percent of the original Everglades, containing more than 1.5 million acres of natural habitat, half of them water.  It is the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States, a diverse and intricately linked series of plants and animals; more than 300 species of birds, 600 species of fresh and saltwater fish, over 1000 species of plants, along with alligators, snakes, sea turtles, and bottlenose dolphins; many species threatened and endangered, including the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee.  One species that does proliferate is, of course, the mosquito; STRONG insect repellent is recommended all year long, and absolutely necessary May to November!


 Stop for Panthers!Main Park Road 


"The Everglades was originally a slow-moving freshwater river, 50 miles wide and a few inches deep, fed by Lake Okeechobee.  Much of the region is a labyrinth of mangrove waterways and sawgrass marsh, dotted with hammocks ('an island of tropical hardwood trees surrounded by pine or sawgrass') and salt prairies.  The land areas are not more than 8 feet above mean sea level, and bay bottoms are not more than 16 feet below mean sea level.  Except for the pinelands and highest hammocks, any spot can become a swamp in the rainy season (6 months, May thru October).


Is this Covered by Insurance?!
Main Park Road
 

"Trees and flowers are much the same as those found in Cuba and the West Indies.  At least six species of palms (unbranched evergreen trees with a crown of long feathered or fan-shaped leaves) grow within the park, including the stately royal palm.  In addition to the tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs, there are more species belong to the temperate zone and multitudes of ferns, orchids and air plants.  Beware of the sawgrass - its sharp, serrated blades can easily slash bare skin and thin clothing!


 Oh, What Beautiful, Alligator-Infested Waters
Aningha Trail


"The park protects the largest U.S. wilderness area east of the Mississippi River, is the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America, and contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, yet, unfortunately, increased development in southern Florida imperils the area. Canals alternately drain and flood the region so meet the water demands of nearby cities, but in doing so they reverse the natural wet and dry cycles of the Everglades.  Although fires occur naturally in this environment, drought and canal drainage have magnified its destructive impact.  


 G' Mornin' Glory
Aningha Trail


"The park has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, only one of three locations in the world to appear on all three lists."  ~ AAA Florida Tourbook and Wikipedia


  Aningha!
Aningha Trail


Upon arriving at the gate, the cashier informed me that their credit card machine was on the fritz, so my entrance to the park was FREE!  Woo-hoo!  I'll put that $10 savings toward another night at the hostel, since it's supposed to rain again tonight!  Since I already picked up a map and trip planner at the Visitor Center/Park Headquarters last night, I continued on the main park road, a 38-mile scenic drive from the Park Entrance to end of the line at Flamingo Visitor Center/Marina.  


 Great Blue Heron, Batman!
Aningha Trail


At about 8am I arrived at Royal Palm (leaves of which can reach reach 15 feet long!), where I excitedly pulled into the near-empty parking lot (just a ranger and maybe one other vehicle); I pretty much had the quiet park to myself!  I walked the Anhinga Trail first, since wildlife encounters are most frequent early morning and dusk, and because there's a lot of foot traffic later in the day.  The .8 mile (1200 meters) self-guided loop trail winds across a freshwater slough ("a slow-moving channel of water flowing through the sawgrass prairie"), offering one of the best opportunities to view wildlife up close (especially in winter).   This was one of the most exciting wildlife hikes I've ever experiences, as the up-close encounters just kept on coming, right from the get-go! 


video
 Almost Alligator Breakfast!
 Aningha Trail


At close range, I saw brightly-colored wildflowers, herons, egrets, baby alligators, mature alligators (the first one nearly bit my head off before raising its head and wagging its tail, and lunging at me!) lubber grasshoppers, large Florida softshell turtles (snorkel nose!), little Least Killifish (smallest fish in the nation and 7th-smallest fish in the whole world -Wikipedia), Pond Apple trees ("taste like turpentine!"), Florida red-bellied turtles (daringly lays its eggs in the nest mounds of alligators, and is exported by the millions for consumption and the pet trade -Wikipedia), and anhinga.


 I Can Just FEEL the Mosquitoes NOW!
Gumbo Limbo Trail  


After a little break at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, I found myself literally jogging ahead of the dense swarms of killer mosquitoes attacking me as I hustled through dark, damp Gumbo Limbo Trail, "a .4 mile (600 meters) self-guided loop trail meandering through a shaded, jungle-like hammock of gumbo limbo trees, royal palms, ferns, and air plants; a world dramatically different from the wide-open slough, containing such a surprising variety of species, that a botanist exploring the hammock in 1893 suggested the area as a federal park."  I paid the price in multiple mosquito bites for quick photograph stops of exposed bedrock, solution holes (smaller versions of sinkholes), and Gumbo-Limbo trees.


A White Egret, Great...I mean a Great White Egret!
Main Park Road


Back on the main park road, it was a wonderful drive to the multiple turn-offs for the different trails and vistas, with classical music turned on to compliment the graceful flight of beautiful Great White Egrets out the windows.


 Shark River Slough
Pa-hay-okee Overlook Trail


At Pa-hay-okee Overlook, I walked the quarter-mile (400 m) loop boardwalk across the Shark River Slough of sawgrass, past Sweetbay Magnolia and Baldcypress trees, to a raised observation platform, taking in sweeping views of the "river of grass."


Which Do You Think Sounds Better: 
'The Mahagony Strangler' or 'Strangler on Mahagony'?
 Mahogany Hammock Trail 


Next, I briskly walked the Mahogany Hammock Trail (totally jealous of the other guy's mosquito net hat), a half-mile (800 meters) boardwalk wending its way over the shallow, freshwater marl prairie moat of periphyton (soft, spongy mats of algae) into a dense, jungle-like hardwood hammock (tropical tree island) of Florida Strangler Fig (covers the host tree with its own trunk and then strangles it!) and Gumbo-Limbo trees, palms, ferns, air plants, and the largest living mahogany tree in the United States!  *I'll have you know that prior to this starting this trail I thoroughly coated myself yet again with mosquito "repellant," which seemed to act more as a mosquito MAGNET than anything else.  I'm telling you, I have NEVER experienced mosquitoes like this before, and I am from Minnesota for god's sake, where the mosquito is practically the state BIRD!


A man walks into a bar and it hurts.  The bartender looks up and inquires, "Smokin' a seedlin' my good man?"
 
The Man scoffs at the bartender and replies, "Beg your pardon, sir?  I am obviously holding a Red Mangrove Propagule."
~Fictional Anecdotes from a Clever Minnesotan, West Lake Trail, Everglades Nat'l Park, 2011


Further down the road, the rather creepy, half-mile West Lake Trail allowed me to wander part of the largest protected, most extensive mangrove forest in the Northern hemisphere; through a dense tunnel of white mangrove, black mangrove (with finger-like breathing tubes reaching up from under the water), red mangrove (with spider-legged prop roots), and buttonwood trees to the edge of West Lake.  Hydrogen sulfide gas is a natural by-product of decomposition in a water-logged environments, giving the air a slight rotten egg smell, yum!  Green eggs and no ham - perfect for a pesky pescetarian like me! :P


The parched tourist jumps from the boardwalk into the water.  

The cannibalistic park ranger shouts "Put your glass away man, that's NOT sangria!"

The parched tourist looks back at him and replies, "It isn't?"  

The cannibalistic park ranger reassures him, "Why of course not.  Mangroves excrete tannin.  That is tannic acid from their roots, staining the water a dark reddish color.   

The disappointed, parched tourist shouts, "Well that's just bloody great!"

The cannibalistic park ranger smirks sadistically and says, "YOU'RE bloody great..."

The confused, parched tourist replies, "What?"
The cannibalistic park ranger eats the no longer parched and confused tourist.
~ Fictional Anecdotes from A Clever Minnesotan, West Lake Trail, Everglades Nat'l Park, 2011


Pardon me Madam, but I do believe there's an egret on your head.
Flamingo Visitor Center


After seeing no activity at Mrazek Pond, I proceeded to the Flamingo Visitor Center, the end of the line, unless you take watercraft to the numerous islands, where a completely different experience awaits, including camping, canoeing; a whole slew (slew/slough, get it?  play on words? no?  ...sigh) of other water-bound recreational opportunities. Unfortunately I didn't feel comfortable partaking, due to weather forecasts, so that's another trip for another time :)  Anyway, at the visitor center I poked around the different educational displays.  I can now correctly identify a crocodile from an alligator; look at ME Dad!


What a CROC!
Buttonwood Canal


Back outside, I walked over to the Marina next store.  After I bought a mosquito hat, which by the way was of no use the rest of my trip (apparently it's considered a faux pas in Miami, lol), I walked around back to find a couple of manatees happily playing, and even better yet, after an hour of waiting I watched TWO wild American Crocodiles surface in Buttonwood Canal on the other side - it was WOO-HOO!  They mostly hung around under the dock, unhappy I didn't fall in.  And they kind of kept to themselves, preoccupied with the notion of fresh [human] meat.  I also spotted a pretty Green Heron, but big deal, I just saw two crocodiles.  If I had it my way, I'd throw you in and watch, lol.  JK 


 Alright, Fine, Here's the Stupid Green Heron :P
Buttonwood Canal


I stopped at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center just before exiting the park.  I was sort of sopping wet when I picked up my maps last night, so this time I made it a point to walk around and check out the various dioramas, and watch the well-done orientation film.

Back at the hostel I made couch-surfing arrangements for The Keys, before kicking back to some South Park with a couple of fellow hostelers.  GREAT DAY! =D


PHOTO ALBUMS


Florida: Sanibel & Captiva Islands

That's a Funky Chamber of Commerce!


Saturday, September 24th
This afternoon I arrived on lush Sanibel Island, a subtropical barrier island located on the Gulf coast of Florida, just offshore of Fort Myers, which, thanks in part to a new causeway ($6 Toll Fee), is rapidly becoming a popular tourist destination known for its beaches, shelling, and wildlife refuges (more than half of the island is made up of wildlife refuge!).  Just to the north, a short bridge links Sanibel Island to Captiva IslandTogether, the islands provide 15 miles of unspoiled beaches, 22 miles of bike paths, 50 types of fish, 230 types of birds, 250 types of shells and ZERO stop lights.  The Gulf side beaches are excellent on both islands, and are world renowned for their variety of seashells, which include coquinas, scallops, whelks, and sand dollars.  The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel is the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to the study of shells!  The Wall Street Journal selected Sanibel and Captiva Islands as one of the 10 Best Places for Second Homes in 2010.


 Mom, Can I Have a Vacation House, Please?


After picking up a map from the friendly Chamber of Commerce staff on-hand inside the most colorful beach bungalow I've ever seen, I took to the quiet, two-lane road; luxurious vacation properties to the East, beautiful ocean views to the West (marvelous sunsets!).  The closer one gets to Captiva Island, the more upscale, charming, and exclusive the area becomes, without losing the colorful, quirky beach atmosphere.  


 Sending Mail Can Be FUN!


At Alison Hagerup Beach Park, a wide, sandy stretch of beach located at the northern tip of Captiva Island; acclaimed as one of the nation's most romantic beaches for its fabulous sunsets (the best view on Sanibel and Captiva), I found myself happy to be visiting in the off-season, for no way would I have been so lucky to find a space in the tiny parking lot ($2/hr), and I wouldn't have had nearly the whole beach to myself!  I excitedly laid out my beach towel and wasted no time sifting through the sand for shells, before finding contentment with a few keepers, then happily plopped down for some sunny rest 'n relaxation.


 Alison Hagerup Beach Park


Once satisfied, I drove down to Bowman's Beach Park, perhaps the most popular on Sanibel Island.  "Isolated and picturesque, with great amenities and excellent shelling, it's worth the quarter-mile walk from the parking area ($2/hr).  The shoreline at Bowman's Beach has experienced little of the intense development seen on the rest of the islands - no homes, hotels or buildings of any kind here." 


 NOW You Tell Me?!  :P


"Adventurous beachcombers can walk for several miles on unobstructed white sand beaches covered in shells."  And they weren't exaggerating.  I must have filled 3 or 4 zip-lock bags with a variety of beautiful, fully-intact shells (empty of course!).  And I'll never forget diving down below me to grasp something stuck in the earth that was itching the bottom of my foot, and pulling it out of the water to discover a HUGE conche shell (below).  THAT was awesome.  I shouted to the people down the beach from me as I excitedly held up my find; that was certainly a conversation piece the rest of the afternoon as I chatted with them well into the sunset.   

 
 Look What I Got!


On the way back to the parking lot we walked over a small wooden bridge across an area of freshwater, and spotted a moderately-sized, seemingly hungry alligator getting ready for dinner as he patiently swam back and forth underneath us, wishing someone might accidentally take a tumble, maybe?  No such luck for him, thankfully!




I pitched my tent at The Groves RV Resort in Fort Meyers for the night.  I couldn't believe how clean and tidy and SUPER spacious the bathroom was!  I've really come to appreciate these "little things" I took for granted before doing this trip that has come to include so much wilderness camping.  Of course, this was in exchange for completely no privacy, as I was wedged between two giant RVs - no biggy though, since I was only there to sleep, and there was little if any noise or activity around me.



Florida: St. Petersburg Region

Tuesday, ‎September ‎20th
After an unforgettable day of swimming with a family of manatees in Crystal River (previous post), I drove down to St. Petersburg, "the fourth largest city in Florida," located on the peninsula of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, where, after a majorly disappointing photo-flub at Walgreens (none of my photos of the manatees turned out!!!), I met Jessie, my high-energy, free-spirited couch-surfing host.  She greeted me at my car as I pulled up to the beautiful blue craftsman bungalow on the old street of cobblestone.  With a warm hello and hearty hug she excitedly showed me into her home (I was her first couch-surfer!), where I was instantly greeted with a big kiss from Snickers, her dog!  She introduced me to her roommate, then we were off to the grocery store to pick up some grub for dinner.  

From the Pier, Dusk Blankets St. Petersburg

After getting back to Jessie's, I met Rick, her friendly, mellow boyfriend, and the 3 of us took Snickers to the dog park.  A couple of Jessie's friends met us there, too, along with Noaa, another [super friendly] couch-surfing host who was willing to host me if needed (she even gave me coupons to The Dali Museum!).  We all had a great time getting acquainted while Snickers played with the other happy doggies :)  After my new friends took me on a fun little impromptu tour of the city, they sat me down to an amaaaazing home-cooked seafood feast of Cajun-style crab-stuffed oysters, salmon, spinach & shrimp salad, French bread...I ate like a KING! 


My New Friends Jessie & Rick =)

 It was the perfect night after a perfect day, and once again I am left astonished at the incredible generosity of the wonderful people out there - "couchsurfers" - who take travelers they've never even met into their homes and treat them like old friends, just because they can!  The next time I get cut-off in traffic and am feeling cynical about the world, I'll just remember Jessie and Rick, and all the other beautiful souls I've met on my trip! =D


No Need for Napkins, Snickers Has It Covered!

Wednesday, ‎September ‎21st
During a delicious breakfast of biscuits n' gravy, eggs, coffee in a "Princess" cup, lol, I learned about Jessie and Rick's great relationship; how it came to be and what makes it work, then Jessie left for work, leaving Rick and I to get to know each other better, which led to an inspiring conversation about life, family, travel and sacrifices.

I headed 45 minutes south to Siesta Key, a barrier island eight miles long, just offshore of Sarasota.  I stopped at the Sarasota County Visitor Information office on the way, and, in addition to receiving a warm welcome there, I was pleased to find a great little history museum attached, where I gained an appreciation for the area's fossil discoveries (wooly mammoth) and architecture.  




Boasting "the World’s Finest Whitest Sand (best overall sand in 1987's International Sand Contest) Siesta Key Beach is 2011's Nation's Best Beach in an annual nation wide survey - 40 acres of sugary white, 99% pure quartz crystal sand, super soft, and super fine."   Of course, when I eventually arrived at the beach it began to rain, but I didn't let that hamper the experience. I was impressed with the soft, nearly chalk white sand, and fortunately I was able to lie down, relax, and enjoy my surroundings for a good while (okay, like 10 minutes) before the clouds chased everyone away (which was pretty entertaining actually, lol).  It wasn't long before I had the place pretty much to myself; even if in the rain.  And hey, without any beach showers that I could notice, the rain proved quite useful! =D  I wasn't the only one too stubborn to leave right away.  As I let the rain wash the sand from my feet, a car pulled up with a couple guys who didn't let the storm ruin they're chance for a [super fast] Siesta Key beach photo opp!


video
Before the Storm


On the way to meet up with Christina, who I hadn't seen since the "old days" when we were both active members of the Methodist church in the small town where we grew up, my car decided to take a dive when out of nowhere the dashboard lights and dials stopped working!  The next 10 miles were kinda scary as I noticed the car getting worse and worse, but luckily I made it to a Honda.  Say what you will about relying on GPS, but it saved me!  I know I wouldn't have gotten very much farther before being stranded in a place I've never been.  And according to the work order, the car had gotten so bad that the mechanic reported the engine was smoking when he lifted the hood to begin his work!  After hours of sitting there waiting for them to do their thing, they told me I needed a new alternator, and they'd need to have the car overnight to finish it the next day.  Needless to say, it was pretty embarrassing, having to be picked up at a mechanic by a friend I was on the way to see after several years!  She was happy to do it; nonetheless, all the confidence I had placed in my car over the years was shaken.  I had the alternator replaced only a couple years ago :/




After a big hug I hopped into Christina's car and we wasted no time catching up.  There was much to talk about, as we found that both our lives had changed so much over the years, and though time had taken us different places and given us different circumstances, we were still us, laughing, even crying, as we exchanged our stories.

A little while later we arrived at her daughter's daycare provider - she has a daughter now! =D  I'll remember our hilarious, fun-filled evening, complete with our high-energy, anything-goes server, the most interactive [fake birthday] song ever, and waaaayyy too much Italian food at Buca di Beppo's, when I came to know Christina as a mother, and her very outgoing girl Gracie, an entertaining little ham, never shying from the camera, always welcoming a photo opp, heh heh.




Following the best dinner ever, we popped into the mall and I got to see where Christina worked, meet co-workers, etc., then we went to Christina's where we had a good chat on the screened-in deck (it was nice to laugh at the mosquitoes for once) and I spent the night.  What a great day (minus the car repair) =D 

Thursday, ‎September ‎22nd
This morning we all took our time getting up; I also took my time preparing myself for the news I would receive about the cost of the car repair, and I had some of last night's leftovers (Italian's the best for leftovers!) before Christina dropped me off at Honda.  $500 out-of-pocket later (noooooo...!) I was on the road, headed back to St. Petersburg, where I took the advice of my good friend Clarissa back home, and paid a visit to Florida Orange Grove's Winery, "Florida's original tropical fruit winery, family owned and operated for 3 generations, winner of 236 medals to date!"  


 I can make time for that! =D


 The wine attendant and I got along so well and we were laughing so hard and having such a good time together that I received 11 samples (thank god for my high tolerance, and/or it's mostly sugar,):

Tangelo (tangerine and grapefruit)
Key Limen (Key Lime) - Had to buy a bottle, YUM!
Millenium Gold (Strawberry Cream Sherry)
Florida Sunset Pineapple 
 Coco Palada (Coconut)
Flamingo Fling Port (Chocolate and red raspberry)
Mamma Guava 
Midnight Sun (orange and coffee!)
Sinfully Noble (Muscadine Grape)
Orange Cream Smoothie 
Key Limen Smoothie



Proudly sporting the St. Pete Beach shirt my dad gave me years back, I picked up a bottle of sparkling water and some limes and spent the afternoon there; a barrier island located  just off the mainland of Saint Petersburg.  Like the Badlands of South Dakota sweatshirt my bought me, it's much more meaningful to have actually been to the destination on the shirt!  People would ask me, "Oh you've been to the Badlands?  Aren't they just beautiful?!"  I'd reply, "So my dad says..." lol.  The beach was lined with layers upon layers of seashells, so I had some fun picking through 'em and finding a few keepers, before kicking back for a little  R&R.  A little driving tour 'round town to admire the beach-style homes and buildings completed my visit before returning to St. Petersburg.




Located along the waterfront of St. Petersburg, I checked out "the top-rated museum in the American South (Michelin Guide) - the new, $36 million Dalí Museuma 60,000 square-foot state-of-the-art building housing "20,000 sq ft of dedicated gallery space, for viewing the world's most comprehensive collection of oil paintings, drawings, fine prints, photographs, videos and Surreal Objects by Salvador Dalí, the late Spanish surrealist, and one of the most unique personalities and artists in world history."  




After marveling at the geodesic "Glass Enigma" of over a thousand individually-shaped triangular glass panels blobbing their way throughout the concrete ("the panes are cleaned by climbers who can bolt into anchors built into the metal grid holding the glass"), I entered the museum via a floating bridge through the grotto's "Living Wall" of tropical foliage and "Fountain of Youth" (which appears in Dali’s artwork).  




Once inside the museum, I made my way through the gift shop to the "Rainy Rolls," a 1933 Rolls-Royce Sedanca Limousine, "specially restored and outfitted to recreate Dali's 'Rainy Taxi' from the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris.  The car is fully functional, whose mannequin driver, dressed in vintage dive gear, carries a passenger, in this case a mermaid, who is being rained on. (The water is actually coming down between plexiglass panels.)  'It's a metaphysical joke,' explains Dali Museum Director Dr. Hank Hine. 'We take refuge in taxis and cars, we think they're gonna protect us. But you find out the thing that you thought would protect you is the source of all your problems.'"

The Paintings are Great; How Much for the Stairs?


At the ticketing counter I paid the Thursdays-after-5 $10 admission (over half-price off the regular adult admission price of $21, yay!), received a map/visitor guide and audio headset, and ascended the grand, freestanding spiral staircase, "which reaches nearly the full height of the 75-foot-high atrium; an architectural representation of Dali’s fascination with the helix structure of DNA.  

Atop the third floor, which contains the two wings of gallery space, I joined a very informative, 30-minute [FREE!] docent-led group tour, which proved very useful in getting me through Dali's canvas' of holograms and optical illusions, and providing me an understanding of some very bizarre, very involved, TRIPPY dreamlike pieces, such as The Hallucinogenic Toreador (below), wherein Dali "transmits his passion for bullfighting."


Source: Wikipedia


After the tour, I browsed the rest of the two wings at my own pace (while trying my best to avoid a loud, rambunctious French kid who received no supervision at all from his useless mother), which took some time, considering 2000 peculiar items, consisting of 96 oil paintings, 125 drawings and watercolors, 2,500 prints and photographs, and 250 objets d’art, not counting a 5,000 book library, which requires a fee and advance reservation.  I then, in a backwards fashion, lol, took my place in the intimate 90-seat theater to learn about the imaginative man behind the canvas.  


Completed the Labyrinth on My First Attempt! 
It Was, However, Designed for Children, LOL


Outside, I explored the small, carefully manicured, whimsical "Avante-Garden," which includes a spiral labyrinth ("modeled after the Chartres Cathedral in France," made of seven-foot tall pine fern hedges and footpath composed of crushed coquina shells), a "wishing tree" of ribbons, "a bench that morphs into his 'melting pocket watch' motif (a design reference to Dali’s 1931 painting 'The Persistence of Memory' - certainly the most well known surreal painting on the planet)," and examples of the golden rectangle and spiral ("discovered in ancient times and used by artists throughout the centuries as the most perfect of spatial ratios") imbedded in the pavement.


The Outside In


No trip to St. Petersburg is complete without a visit with Jessie and Rick, who, along with Jessie's roomie, awaited my arrival for fun (crude!) conversation and greasy bar food at lively Courigan's Irish Pub (yummy veggie pizza and live music) just a few blocks down from The Dali, followed by a fun sleepover including beer and South Park at their place. 

Friday, ‎September ‎23rd
I said goodbye to Jessie & Rick *so grateful for their friendship* wishing them well and wondering if I'd see them again someday, as I pulled away.


7th Street, Ybor City's Main Drag


Arriving a while later back at my friend Christina's, the four of us (Christina, Gracie, Casey - Gracie's Dad, and I), hopped into their car and headed to Tampa.  After a failed attempt to find the Yeunling beer factory (Google Maps led us to the driveway of a gated residential community, and when we asked the delivery driver ahead of us where it was, he said "What's THAT?!")  we had lunch at Hattrick's Tavern, a fun sports bar with hockey memorabilia covering the dark oak walls, and TVs at every angle, located in a historic 3 story brick building dating back to 1907, in Downtown Tampa.  When the nachos were gone we hit the road and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Ybor City, Tampa's Latin Quarter and National Historic Landmark District, aka "Cigar Capital of the World;" founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers and was populated by thousands of immigrants, mainly from Spain, Cuba, and Italy. 


Don't Do It Christina!


"Walk down Seventh Avenue in Ybor City (now a section of Tampa, Florida) and feel yourself transported to a place in another time. Brick streets are lined with sidewalks of hexagonal concrete pavers and old-fashioned, cast-iron street lamps. Buildings present ornate porticos, decorative brickwork, handmade wrought-iron balconies, and ornamental tile work." 

Today it's in a developmental-restoration phase, mixing old and new - historic landmarks, streetcars, sidewalk cafes, patio bars, restaurants (and souvenir shops of course).  After poking around the little Visitor Center & Museum (designed inside to place the visitor in "the worlds largest cigar box"), I talked Christina out of buying a million hats and dresses at a vintage clothing boutique she "happened" to spot, then we hit up GaYbor, an area centered around 7th Ave and 16th St, featuring many LGBT-friendly establishments; formed in late 2007.


Whuh-PAH!


After returning to Christina's for dinner, she got a babysitter and took me out to a club for a taste of Tampa's nightlife scene; we danced the night away...  Until we meet again, my friend - thanks for everything!  =D


PHOTO ALBUMS