Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Livin' it up in the Florida Keys

I'm sure I've said it before, but my favorite traveling companions are my two sisters. This time around, I journeyed all the way to the southernmost point of the United States with my older sister. It was her last big hurrah before moving overseas to Germany, so we made a day of it, and it was fun and special. 

We made an early start -- before dawn -- and made it to Key Largo just as the sun began to rise. The sky was a dusky pink-purple-blue and the weather was perfect.

We stopped at Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key to dip our toes in the Gulf and Atlantic waters. It's funny to think about that now, and it reminds me of when I was walking the jetty in Washington state, looking at the wide Columbia River spilling into the Pacific Ocean. 

I digress.

We started on the Atlantic Ocean side, where we were greeted by dozens of seagulls and pelicans haunting a shoal of bait fish that was swimming just offshore... and also by a vast, smelly swath of dead sea grass. 

Walking along that decaying carpet of sea grass is not for the faint of heart, let me assure you. But, for the steadfast explorer, curious treasures can be found among the... fragrant vegetation. 

Once we'd had enough of the sights, sounds, and smells of the oceanic side of the park, we took a short hike over to the idyllic Gulf side of Bahia Honda. Much better!

We settled down on the beach and went snorkeling in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There we witnessed a number of the ubiquitous tropical fish that inhabit Florida's coastline. Periodically, we pointed out strange findings to one another -- a dead crab or lobster here, a piece of washed-up coral there. It was fun.

That's my sister in the photo above, posing artfully in front of the Bahia Honda Rail Bridge - a relic from the Keys's railroad past. Look at that gorgeous Florida sky!

And here's an obligatory shot of yours truly -- or at least my feet and my Chacos.

After one more blissful glance over our shoulders, my sister and I headed back to the car and headed south once more. Destination: Key West.

After we arrived, we stopped at a little cafe called Croissants de France for some cheap, yummy breakfast cuisine. It was good - the atmosphere was nice, and it wasn't too hot in the outdoor seating area. A resident anole lizard kept a watchful eye on me as I ate my meal.

After our "brunch," we wandered around Key West, taking in the sights and sounds, and poking our heads into shops here and there. We also visited the Hemingway House -- home of Ernest Hemingway during his Key West days, and also home to a gang of his famous polydactyl cats.

I loved walking around the airy home, with its creaky floorboards and antique furnishings. My sister and I started pointing out all of the cats to each other. It seemed that every room in the house had a snoozing feline in it.

We walked around the perimeter of the house, where we played with an adorable six-toed kitten on the walkway, and finally exited the grounds through the front gate. It was a lot of fun. There is a bookshop on premises if you find yourself in need of a copy of any of his books (they carry his full writing catalogue -- or a gaudy, touristy rendering of one of the cats.

We stopped at a nearby, hole-in-the-wall cafe called The Six-Toed Cat, where I had the single most amazing piece of Key Lime Pie I've ever had in my life. It was so good, I ordered a second slice. Literally nothing compares. Find that cafe, go inside, and order a whole pie. It's so delicious. 

After that culinary experience, we wandered around some more, heading down Duval Street and its little tributaries until we arrived at the southernmost point. There was a queue of people waiting to pose by the colorful concrete buoy, so we joined the queue, and I took a photo of my sister in front of it, then took one more photo of the buoy itself. 

After that, we decided to visit the Pirate Museum, which is staffed by a silly, jovial, boisterous group of people. We took the last tour of the day, so the staff was in a more relaxed, easy mood. It was a lot of fun and a surprising learning experience, as well. You can climb to the top of the museum's tower and take in a nice view of the nearby Maritime museum, with its big coast guard ship at the dock.

Oh! How could I forget? There is a thriving population of feral chickens in Key West. This particular rooster decided that he hated my sister, and began following her around, jumping into the air, and clawing at her as she ran away. Hahaha! I was literally no help to her; I could only stand and laugh as she was victimized by this ridiculous bird.

The keys are a lot of fun at any time of year -- there's always something going on. I encourage you to visit if you ever make your way to Florida. Forget the theme parks. You don't need packaged entertainment shoved down your throat to have a good time. Create your own experience. Learn a few things. Eat cheap, delicious, locally-sourced foods. Have fun.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Birds, butterflies, and buds at Mount Rainier

 I am what I like to call an "Accidental Birder." I never set out to be any sort of avian afficionado, but every time I see a bird, I feel compelled to stop and observe its behavior and physiology. During my time at Mount Rainier National Park, I was gifted with many opportunities to see birds that I've never before witnessed, either in the wild or in captivity. Naturally, I was thrilled.

 Grey Jay - I had heard that these birds are essentially fearless, and would land on your hand to feed out of it. The rumors are true! I spotted this one perched on a tree top, so I pulled over to take a photo from inside my van. I rolled down the window, stuck out my camera, and snapped a few shots. The jay spotted me and took flight -- directly towards me. It swooped down in front of me and touched down near my windshield to get a better view. It flew off again before I could get a close-up shot, but I was absolutely tickled by the bird's curiosity just the same.

Sooty grouse - This tough customer was loitering around the parking lot near the Nisqually Glacier trail head. He was in full display, making his deep "popping" calls every so often. I followed him around for a bit, and even got a video of him strutting across the pavement. I spotted him again later near the trail head. Aren't his eyebrows fabulous?

Western tanager - I had to do a little research to figure out what this pretty bird was. Look at those colors! There were a few of these birds hanging out near the Box Canyon loop trail. I didn't see them anywhere else in the park.

Aside from the birds, I got some nice, up-close looks at many other species of fauna and flora. I couldn't get enough of all of the wildlife in this park.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mount Rainier snow day

On one of the days I spent at Mount Rainier National Park, I ended up near what I think was Tipsoo Lake - it was difficult to tell because it was under a layer of snow and ice. I decided to get out of the van and play in the snow. 

The temperatures were actually quite pleasant despite the heavy blanket of snow, and before long, I was actually sweating in my T-shirt from the exertion of moving through all of that hard-packed snow. It was ridiculously fun.

The melting ice at this elevation had a ghostly blue tint to it that was pleasing to behold. The sky above was a darker mirror of the water below - a rich, deep blue, accented here and there by wispy clouds and the omnipresence of Mount Rainier. I swear, every time I turned a corner, it was there, and it was surprisingly massive.

This park is so great. Get yourself a National Parks Pass and visit it was much as you can. Explore the trails, marvel at the sights, and be still and observe. The experience is priceless.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Grove of The Patriarchs

I spent a lot of time wandering Mount Rainier National Park in June. I would be hard-pressed to name a favorite place or moment during the trip, but my stroll through the Grove of The Patriarchs was certainly a highlight. If you visit, take this walk as early as you can in the morning: 5-8 A.M. during the summer is a nice time. Everything looks magical in the morning light.

The Ohanapecosh River (pictured above) was a clear, crystalline green; the water was so inviting that I ended up relaxing on its shore for almost an hour before continuing through the grove. It was so peaceful.

Remember what I told you about visiting in the early morning? I don't know if you can tell from the photo above, but the redwoods in the grove gave off this steam that the morning light refracted off of, making everything look ethereal. It made me think of the morning mists that blanket the mountains around there. 

There was a fun swinging bridge over the Ohanapecosh River - from the center of the bridge, you can look straight down to the bottom of the river and observe all of the smooth river rocks below.

I loved walking through this grove. It's quietude and beauty rekindled a sense of peace within me and reminded me to take the time to be still and to observe the world around me.