Dry Torgugas

Charged with protecting a clustered seven-key archipelago, Dry Tortugas National Park lies in the Gulf of Mexico, seventy nautical miles west of Key West, Florida. Six keys sit halo-like above Garden Key, where Fort Jefferson, majestically alone, remains a mulish testament to 19th-century engineering. With ninety-nine percent of the park underwater, the red-bricked, formerly iron shuttered fort dominates, but shares the shimmering green-blue landscape. Magnificent coral reefs ring Garden Key. Fish flit and slice, colors popping against the pot marked backdrop. Above, winged transients forage in the shells, nesting in the scrub. Ponce de Leon discovered Las Tortugas – The Turtles – in 1513. Since then, man has come and gone. Only their works and nature remain.

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It is impossible to see Fort Jefferson on this spit of land seventy miles from civilization and not be humbled by the determination, labor and skill required to construct. In contrast, I lost about 60% of my Lego’s within the first two days.

Yankee Freedom III, the 150 passenger catamaran departs Key West promptly at 8:00 am. Before boarding a young guide instructs us in the ‘do’s’ and don’ts’ of the 2 1/2 hour trip. I’m listening for two vital pieces of information. What time is breakfast served and what time is lunch served. The rest is self explanatory. Don’t fall overboard (wouldn’t have thought of that), don’t put man made items in the toilet (darn, I was looking forward to that) and when returning to the boat for departure, make sure to check-in (I gave them an alias, just to mess up the manifest). As is my custom, I’m the last person to board and by the time I reach the top deck, all the seats are gone. I casually lean against the rail as if I had no intention of sitting. Sitting is for the weak. Standing for 2 1/2 hours on a broncking boat, now that’s for the strong. It’s also for incredibly slow boarding speds.

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Standing in the waaay back of the boat.  Caught a young guy sneaking a smoke. He had quarter size holes in his ears. Why do you want someone to see through your ear lobes? I’m lost.

About 45 minutes into the trip, I’m still leaning against the rail as if I had brought it on-board with me, when a gentleman approaches and says hello. We introduce ourselves. “Greg.” Smitty. Before I tell you what he then asked me, I think it is only fair to issue a disclaimer. Let’s just say I still can’t believe he asked me what he asked me. I wouldn’t believe you if you told me this story. But it’s true. He looks at me with a serious gaze and said, “Are you visiting all 59 National Parks?” I’m stunned. I look around to see if I recognize someone who knows me and of course see no one. I reply, I am. Stuttering now, how did you know that? “You look like a man on a quest.” These are actual quotes dear reader. What does a man on a quest look like? “You.”

Greg and Nikola (I asked if she was a Russian asset) are from Athens, Georgia. For his last birthday, Nikola gave Greg the gift of traveling to National Parks across the country. We sat together for much of the trip over and virtually all the way back. Two intelligent, passionate people. We got to know each other a bit. I was fortunate to have met them and hope our paths cross again. As for how Greg knew I was visiting all 59 parks – I still don’t have a clue how he did that.

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Greg and Nikola. Thank you for your company and conversation. Loved every minute of it. And for those of you wondering – a have on what are commonly called fancy swimming trunks.

Once docked, you have about five hours to explore the 14 acres that make up Garden Key. I had everything I needed in my backpack – camera, water, fancy bathing trunks, a few snacks and bug spray (which I didn’t use and never use, so I have no idea why it is still in my backpack other than to loan to others). Walking the outside perimeter of the fort allows you to get a sense of scale. On one side is the vast Gulf of Mexico, leading into the Straights of Florida. Colored like the waters of an old map, it brushes the pavers as it has done for 150 years. Turning to the fort, surrounded by Coke-bottle green water, lazily resting, contained and waiting. Your eyes move up along the walls until you see the straw grass top that once held gaze over all ships that passed. You are again awed by the mass. By the labor that brought it to be.

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Everyone who visits walks the exterior wall thinking it will lead you around the fort, before reaching the missing section in the back and turning around. I still think I could have jumped the missing 18 feet. They held me back.

Crossing the moat and entering the fort, you are immediately stuck by the open space of the interior grounds and understand how this was once home to hundreds of men, women and children. 62 men of the Second U.S. Artillery Regiment, under the command of Major Lewis Golding Arnold, called the fort home at the beginning of the Civil War. In 1861, the first prisoner soldiers appeared, sentenced to confinement and hard labor for acts such as mutinous conduct. President Lincoln then substituted imprisonment on the Dry Tortugas, in lieu of execution, for those found guilty of desertion. By 1864 the number of military convicts peaked with 882, guarded by only 583 soldiers and several escaped. Not sure where they went.

On July 24, 1865, four civilians who were convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln arrived. They were held in the fort’s dungeon, which carried the words, “Whoso entereth here leaveth all hope behind” (from Canto III of Dante’s Inferno). In 1867, one of the four, Dr. Mudd, cared for several soldiers during an outbreak of yellow fever and was later pardoned by President Andrew Jackson. In 1902 the property was transferred to the Navy Department, but abandoned in 1906. Two years later the archipelago was set aside as a Federal bird reservation and until 1934, Garden Key and the crumbling fort were merely a rendezvous for fishermen and tourists (Fun Fact: jorts hadn’t been invented yet). During WWI,  a wireless station and naval seaplane facility was operational, comprising the last official use of the key.  And now you know more than 99.99% of the US population with respect to Fort Jefferson. You’re welcome.

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An inner corridor of Fort Jefferson. To the left is the outer courtyard.  To the right are fortified gun emplacements.  Straight ahead is our entertainment center and directly behind us is the shuffleboard court.

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View from the top of Fort Jefferson. I could see Russia.

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Looking down into the yard of Fort Jefferson.  This room had a courtyard view and cost less than rooms on the other side.  Neither included breakfast.

A winding stone staircase brings you to the upper floors of the fort. A worn dirt path leads you along the top of the fort where cannons stand ready in the sun, bracketed by wildflowers. Several of the park’s other keys are clearly visible from this height. Small lumps of sand, golden white in the sun. A few sailboats bob in the offshore current, their sails twinkling as if sending Morse code. In the distance the low hum of a seaplane is heard before she comes into view. Gliding effortlessly, she tilts her wings, circles with grace, skimming the tips of playful waves before soundlessly touching down. I wait for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to descend the short ladder. I’m rewarded with a man in jorts and a woman who obviously wasn’t told it may be warm where you’re headed. I really could have used Bogie at that point. Or more precisely – Bacall.

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In my head the soundtrack from Casablanca is playing as I watch a couple deplane. “A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh…”  And then Junior and Daisy appear.  #outlawjorts #hehaw

Over 300 species of birds have been spotted in the Dry Tortugas. At the far tip of Garden Key is a stand of old windswept trees, which from afar appears to be home to all of them. Hundred of birds hover above the trees, still wings gliding on the soft wind. It’s a quiet walk across hard-packed, seaweed specked sand. Just above the narrow beach, sedges and sea grass stand rigid or swaying. The land narrows the closer I get to the end of the key. Small trails lead between the scrub. You can hear waves rolling up on both shores. Along the way, I stop to photograph some of the most beautiful sea shells I’ve ever seen. Large pink conchs. Perfectly shaped and intact whelks. It’s like being in one of those tacky sea shell stores, but without the tacky. Mounds of perfect, unbroken shells. I find a shell with a bluish hue. Paper thin sponges lie next to swirled smooth wood. Orphaned feathers skittle along the sand. When I reach the spot where beach fades back into the sea, the sound of birds competes with the water. Two songs in two distinctly different keys. I sat down on the sand, closed my eyes and selfishly imagined the sweet serenade was just for me.

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Someone took the time to gather these shells and place them on a piece of driftwood. 

Walking back to the boat to pick up snorkeling gear, the skies began to change. Dark clouds lounging on the horizon, sat up and in an act of defiant jealousy, gathered to cover the sun. Like most clouds, they failed to think it through. Instead of blocking the sun, they created a radiating display of color. Again the clouds gathered. We will cry they said. We will overshadow the sun and weep. And for a single moment, I felt their warm tears. The sun laughed. Surely you jest, said the sun. I am a God, you are but mere clouds. Wind, said the sun. Chase these hapless clouds away. A breeze moved across the water, giving the unfurled sailboats hope. Helpless to resist the unseen, the dark clouds began to scatter and retreat. The sun boastfully smiled, not realizing that the clouds had made him more beautiful.

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Sometimes clouds do the sun a favor. They are mindless creatures and don’t know any better. But the sun, he should have figured it out by now.

I can sum up me and snorkeling in one word. Not good. I’m just not an under the water guy. I think it stems back to my childhood. We didn’t have a pool. We never went to the beach. I vaguely remember driving past a lake and wondering what that blue liquid was. So there’s that. When I was finally introduced to water, it was traumatic. Thrown off the diving board as a 9th grader. I played baseball, basketball and football (I was a stud), but suddenly I was the kid in the shallow end. It was humiliating, but I understand it was also wildly entertaining. Then there was the Hawaiian snorkeling incident. They gave us small bags of food to slowly feed and attract fish. As soon as I entered the water I was attacked by thousands of lidless fish, pecking at me with their slippery little fish lips. One even slapped me across the face with his tail and gave me the stink eye. Unbeknownst to be, the bag of food in my pocket had ruptured, turning me into an underwater blob of feeding frenzy. Naturally, my snorkel went underwater and naturally I kept breathing. Naturally everyone around me thought this was the highlight of the day. As for me, I was scarred. I’m fragile.

“What size,” the young lady in the snorkeling booth asks. Eleven. Twelve on a good day. She smiles, hoping I don’t say another word. But I can’t help myself. You know what they say about men with big feet? “No.” A look of horror crosses her face and then I see a distinct look that says, ‘Maybe he will have stroke and go away.’ They wear big socks. She smiles and memorizes my face for the next episode of Cops, before handing my my gear. I tell myself I’m an idiot and hike over to the old ravaged docks to snorkel among the remaining wooden pilings.

The water is clear and I venture out after repeatedly tripping over my fins. Snorkel in place, let’s go. Beautiful fish dart into coral, seemingly at ease moving backward. In my head I’m singing ‘Under the Sea’. Fish with colorful vests stare at me and then smoothly move along. It’s like a Crayola commercial under here. Suddenly several fish that apparently weren’t present when color was passed out, decide to swim along side. One fish, two fish, blowfish, bluefish. I’m relaxed. I’m breathing normally. Ha, ha, no food in my pocket today. A school of deeply marked fish perform what has to have been a choreographed ballet. Then it happens (cue theme from Jaws). As soon as I get near the pilings I see the outline of a large fish. By large I mean roughly the size of me. Breath… breath… breath. I calmly turn around and head for shore. Except I am swimming against the current and staying in place. The large fish gets within about five feet of me and then with a single silent swish, turns and swims away. On the boat I was told that it was a nurse shark. “They rarely attack humans.” And thus ends my snorkeling career.

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Every park I visit has one plant that just refuses to fit in. Individualists. Contrarians. This one told me to move out of way – “You’re blocking my view of the water.”

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This pelican holds the world record for standing on one foot. Two days, eighteen hours and fifty-six minutes. Recently beat the previous record held by Perry ‘Peg-Leg’ Johnson of St. Augustine.

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Two and one half hours across open water, trailed by a gorgeous setting sun. Back to Key West, Mallory Square, fire eaters and a Cuban sandwich.

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My home for a few nights in Key West. I may have angered a few birds who decided to take it out on the van. They were arrested and are required to perform 12 hours of community service.

Conclusion of First Leg Postscript: Ten thousand miles. Over the last two and a half months I have had the great fortune of visiting all 11 National Parks east of the Mississippi. I have also traveled much of the length of Canada, ending up in Meat Cove at the northern tip of Cape Breton Island. I have been awed and stunned silent by nature’s beauty. A wolf walking within arm’s length on a road so black I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. An eagle rising above the van with a freshly caught fish in its talons. Wind high in the trees, speaking with the same voice heard thousands of years ago. Water breaking on rocks carelessly left behind by glacial scrapes in the earth. Morning fog drifting across hollows in the land. Clouds dancing across the sun. I know I’m lucky.

I want to thank everyone that has helped me along the way. There are far too many of you to mention. Thank you for taking me into your homes and feeding me. Thank you for your kind and supportive words. Thank you to all the people I have met along the way. Thank you for opening your hearts and minds to me. Thank you to all the Park Rangers that have graciously given me insight into their joy and problems they face. All of you are deeply appreciated. I can only repay you by sharing my writing. It’s all I have to give and I hope it is enough.

Our National Parks are cathedrals. They show us what we were and remind us who we are. Our nation’s grandest idea. America at her unselfish best.

Nature can’t be experienced on a tablet. You can see it, but you can’t experience it. It’s tactile, it must be felt. Walked through. Waded through. Rested in. Our connection with nature humanizes us, grounds us. She whispers to us and tells us what is real, what matters. It is each generation’s responsibility to protect our National Parks and National Monument Lands. As Baby Boomers age, this responsibility falls to Generation X,  Millennials and generations that follow. It’s up to us to protect these gifts that help define who we are as a people and a nation.

This matters now more than ever. As technology becomes seamlessly integrated into our lives, future generations will need a connection to nature. Please help TheMountCo Project in raising the dialogue. One that will address the complex issues of technology versus reality, funding and declining numbers of young people visiting our parks. Help us facilitate a dialogue that can begin to develop creative solutions. We all have a voice in the matter. We are asking for yours. http://www.gofundme.com/thebeardedman

Above us all is but one moon – Smitty

Biscayne

When these sails go up, mountains fade away. Stars come out, I’m finally free. It’s only the ocean and me – Jack Johnson

A stunted twenty miles. That’s the distance between Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. A thirty-five minute drive that captures the multifarious essence of the southern tip of Florida. Tourist attractions beckon with promises of wildlife and key lime shakes. Small towns offer up homemade pies and tacos, while sprawling shopping malls cling barnacle-like to freeway exits. Broad expanses of open sky meeting farmland, suddenly give way to block cement homes and children playing on thirsty lawns. It’s a dizzying array of people, cars, shops, traffic signals and blacktop. I made this trip three times. Always aware of the incongruence of where I’ve been, where I’m going and where I am.

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View from the small park directly in front of the Biscayne visitor’s center.  I sat here one evening until the sun went down and then made my way back to the everglades.

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The boardwalk adjacent to Biscayne’s visitor center weaves in and out of mangrove stands.

Biscayne National Park sits in the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay south of Miami and marks the northernmost reaches of the Florida Keys. Covering over 172,000 acres, ninety-five percent of which is water, the park protects several distinct ecosystems. Shoreline mangrove swamp, coral limestone keys and the offshore Florida Reef – one of the largest coral reefs in the world. Shoreline swamps act as nurseries, teeming with small fish, mollusks and a variety of crustaceans. Bay waters are home to manatees, seagrass beds and several fish species. Coral keys are covered in tropical vegetation, including endangered cacti and palms, while their beaches provide nesting grounds for sea turtles. Over 200 species of fish, birds and whales call the offshore reefs home. A small number of American crocodiles and alligators also roam Biscayne, providing the park with a hint of unseen danger. And since that’s my middle name, well…

My first trip to the park was simply to get my bearings and see what Biscayne had to offer. Everything is online of course, but at a visitor’s center you can speak to a ranger or volunteer and get the real scoop. What are must do activities and why? What’s open and closed because of Irma? Here are the three things I was told I should do over the course of two days in Biscayne. Kayak along the shoreline mangroves. Walk the boardwalk and adjoining trail. Take a boat and explore Boca Chita Key. Thank you. Have a nice day. Good day sir. I said good day sir! (The last line was inserted for the benefit of every parent who had to watch Willie Wonka 83 times.)

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One of my proudest moments.  They let me wear the Ranger hat.  I asked if I could buy it and they politely told me – in so many words – that I was not that bright and no.

I have a friend that loves to kayak. She has sent me several photos of her feet in a kayak to prove it. No photos of her actually in a kayak mind you – just her feet. Yes, I find it oddly suspicious as well. In any case, I have kayaked many times on the Great Lakes, but this would be a first in the Atlantic. Since I am traveling alone, the thought has occurred to me once or twice, what would happen if I get in trouble? What if the Canadian wolf in Pukaskwa National Park had paid me another visit? (Answer: I would have wrestled him to the ground and he would now be traveling with me as a pet.) What if the wind blew me over the edge at Meat Cove? (Answer: I miraculously would have managed to grab the only branch on the side of the cliff that would hold my weight.) What if I tripped walking into Walgreens? (Answer: I would have broken both hips and my left kneecap.) So on this occasion I wondered what would happen if by some odd occurrence I rolled the kayak and got stuck underwater? (Answer: I envisioned several chubby fish, bubbles frantically reaching for the surface as they gathered to push me upright. “On three…get over here groupers. Bob, get the groupers.”) As it turned out this was needless worry. My ride along the edge of the mangroves was in shallow water. I know this because after 45 minutes of gliding along the bay, my kayak jarringly hit bottom and stayed there. At this point I should have taken a photo of my feet. Instead I stepped out and awkwardly fell in the water. I’m fine.

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Tangled roots of the mangroves. This is pretty close to where I ran aground and teetered for a while before falling.  Not one of my prouder moments.

Heading across SW 344 street, I found Sir Woody. He was standing beside the road in front of a large cast iron double smoker. I pulled over, walked up and asked him what he was cooking. “Ribs. But I’ve been doing turkeys all morning. You need a turkey for tomorrow?” No. I’m good. But I would love some ribs. “Whole slab?” No, just a sandwich. “Sandwich? I don’t make sandwiches. Where you from?” Michigan. “I’m Woody. Sir Woody to my friends.” I’m Smitty. How many turkeys have you smoked for Thanksgiving? “Oh, I got a trailer full. Come on in and take a look.” He turned and opened the door to a small trailer, with barely enough room for two people. But there was room for a chopping block stacked with ribs, a fridge and lots and lots of perfectly smoked turkeys. “I smoked all these for one guy. Come here every year and buys about twenty big birds for his employees. Pickin em up tomorrow.” Damn those look good Woody. “I been smokin meat for most my life. Here, try a piece of these ribs. Just cooked a while ago. You like barbecue sauce?” Before I could answer he picked up an old squeeze bottle and slathered the ribs. “I make this myself. Whatcha think?” I couldn’t speak. I had entered a state of nirvana and my tiny brain collapsed on itself. Somehow I managed to nod and wink without breaking down in tears of joy. Woody just laughed. A good genuine laugh. “Come on back outside and I’ll give you some right out the smoker.” Still speechless I followed – gnawing on a bone as if God had spoken directly to me and said this is your last meal on earth.

As we walked out of the trailer, a woman and two young girls came running up to Woody. “This is my daughter and her two girls. Just out of school for the day. Say hello to Smitty.” I shook the woman’s hand and asked the girls if they liked school. “Yes” they said in unison. That’s good. Stay in school. “Oh, they staying in school” said Woody. “No other way to go. Right girls?” “Right Grandpa.” Well you girls be good. It was nice meeting you ma’am. Woody, I can’t thank you enough for the tour and the ribs. “Sir Woody. My pleasure Smitty.”  As I drove away I knew I had just met a man content with life. Sir Woody. If I ever figure it out – I’m closer today than I was yesterday – I’m going to start calling myself Sir Smitty.

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Sir Woody to his friends

During the 1950’s, as Americans prospered and Florida became a popular destination, more and more northern ‘snowbirds’ flocked to the calm waters of Biscayne. They found tranquil waters, unsoiled by the progress of man. In the 1960’s Biscayne was given a death sentence as developers, kings of discovering the unspoiled, submitted plans to build condominiums and resorts along the bay. The proposal called for the dredging of a 40-foot deep channel through the bay’s clear, shallow waters. Blueprints for Dade County’s ‘New Frontier” included the City of Islandia and Seadade, a major industrial seaport. It was then that a few locals who understood relatively new concepts like ecology and environmental preservation, got involved. And for a while it was ugly.

According to the official Biscayne website, “Lloyd Miller, president of the local Izaak Walton League, said that the opposition poisoned his dog and tried to get him fired from his job because of his support for the park idea.” Herbert Hoover, Jr., the vacuum cleaner magnate, brought officials from Washington down to the bay and gave them blimp rides to help them visualize what was at stake. Not to be outdone, developers on Elliot Key, built a seven mile long, six lanes wide strip down the middle of the key, which is still referred to as “spite highway.” To our good fortune, Congress sided with the conservationists, siting “a rare combination of terrestrial, marine and amphibious life in a tropical setting of great natural beauty.” President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill on October 18, 1968, creating Biscayne National Monument. Completely out of character, Mr. Hoover gave him a free vacuum.

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The infamous lighthouse that Mr. Honeywell built. I am going to continue to work hard, buy a key and invite all of my friends to visit. It will be glorious. You’re all invited.

Twenty five people board the boat for a 45 minute ride across the bay to Boca Chita Key, the northernmost key in the park. I am the last to board and find myself sitting next to the pilot, a woman who has clearly seen the sun on most days. She is weathered, but gracefully so. She is also cheery, a personality type that I struggle with. What do they know that I don’t? Or what don’t they know that I do? In any case, the cheeriness never wears off on me. Not that I’m drab mind you. I dare say most people find me pleasant. Like the guy who sells you a burial plot.

As we slowly glide out into the shimmering turquoise channel, our guide – who is considerably less cheery – begins to tell us about the vast diversity of wildlife in the bay. Over the drone of twin engines, I hear “yellow snapper, Nassau grouper, queen angelfish.” Something about “soft coral.” I am in the wrong seat. “Brown pelicans, pie-billed grebe” (did I hear that right?),  “Audubon’s Shearwater and buffleheads” (now I think he’s just messing with us). “To the right is Elliott Key, the largest key in Biscayne National Park.” We have powered back the engines and are now drifting along the mangrove riddled shoreline. “Black mangroves reside in mostly salty, silty, saturated soils found along the tidal shoreline. It prefers higher and dryer soils than the red mangrove. White mangroves can be found inland.” As we gather speed and return to deeper, darker blue waters, I’m still wondering if a bufflehead is a real bird.

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Staircase leading to the lighthouse observation tower.  Cant’t climb without thinking of a button sea shell. Or Alfred Hitchcock.

While docking, our guide launches into a brief history of the man who built a home and lighthouse on the key. In the 1930’s, Mark Honeywell, founder of Honeywell Corporation, purchased Boca Chita and built several stone structures, including a home and lighthouse. As if buying a key wasn’t extravagant enough, Mr. Honeywell also decided to build his lighthouse on the bay side of the key so that his friends in Miami could see the beacon and know when he and his wife were in residence. Naturally the Coast Guard objected to a lighthouse that would guide ships from the Atlantic into the reef and Mr. Honeywell was not allowed to ever turn it on. This did nothing to deter Carl Fisher, a wealthy entrepreneur, from sailing over to any of several soirees, along with his famous pet elephant, Rosy. The same Rosy who later gained fame for serving as President Herbert Hoover’s golf caddy when he came to Miami. My uncle claims knew the guy that followed the elephant.

As fate would have it, in 1939 Mr. Honeywell’s wife tragically died in what was officially listed as a boating accident. At the time rumors flew that she was pushed overboard by her husband. Regardless of the truth, Mr. Honeywell sold the island claiming that without his true love, the island became a painful reminder of what he had lost. I want to believe it was an accident. Because I believe that true love lost is far worse than never knowing what true love is. For only after knowing the joy of true love – deep, honest, unyeilding, embracing, unconditional, physical gut-punching love – can you experience its bottomless chasm of loss. I would have given it away.

Heading away from the dock, a short trail loops past the old stone ruins of Mr. Honeywell’s dream and into thick vegetation. Two boats lie broken, at rest in the sun. Breaks in the foliage give small glimpses of the bay and the cloud covered waters of ever changing color. As you come to the end of the trail, a small sandy beach lies directly ahead. Standing at the water’s edge, looking out at lonely mangrove stands dotting the sand, I am the only person on earth. I am the only man standing in these waters, eyes fixed on the blue-green stripes of the ocean. I am the only one seeing the African born waves, finding the shore before retreating back to sea. I turn to see if anyone is nearby. I reach for the hand I long to hold and tell myself I am not alone.

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Photo taken by a young park volunteer, originally from Cody, Wyoming. Her husband works as a Park Ranger and was recently transferred from Great Smoky NP.

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Looking northwest from the lighthouse. A series of small islands and Miami, 16.5 miles away on the distant horizon.

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Miami with a long lens from from the lighthouse on Boca Chita Key. It shimmered in the distance Oz-like, radiating a silver tinted blue.  I’m pretty sure I could smell a good Cuban sandwich.

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I’ve made them an offer.  Should get the return phone call any day.

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The eastern edge of Boca Chita Key.  A series of storm clouds brushed up against us, but never opened.  Yet somehow a rainbow appeared. Coincidence? I think not my friend.

 

Everglades

The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father – Chief Seattle

As I entered Everglades National Park from the east, my mind wandered to Peter Matthiessen’s brilliant book, Shadow Country. Set in the late 1800’s on a fringe of the everglades during a period of frontier exploration, Matthiessen describes an other-worldly place of primal brutality. A land of water and sky inhabited by exotic creatures, desperate explorers and those who have come to the end of land seeking refuge from ghosts only they knew were chasing them. As I drove into a broad sun trying to imagine such a place, the great river of grass welcomed me into her arms and I felt strangely at home.

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Driving back to Big Pine Key campground one evening I saw the sky reflected in an exposed pool of water.  Everything else to the horizon was black.

Hurricane Irma took a toll on the Florida Keys. A drive that many consider one of the most beautiful in the country, has become a mile after mile testament to suffering. Spoils of destruction brought into the open along the road’s edge. Boats, RV’s, pieces of homes, pieces of lives, mingle with mighty palms and underbrush. All waiting to be lifted into steel jaws and taken to a final resting place. The drive through the Keys is still beautiful. But you can’t help but be moved by the sadness resting in the sun.

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I only took one photograph of the countess miles of debris along Route 1.  I felt like an intruder into private lives that had been ripped open and put on public display.

Irma also paid a violent visit to the everglades. Two of the three visitors centers and campgrounds are closed. Many of the hiking trails and interior roads are underwater or covered in debris. Great pathways sliced through banyans and pines. Lush thickets cleared, leaving only root systems grounded in sand. To the north, the Kissimmee River runs into an overflowing Lake Okeechobee, traveling south into the Shark River Slough, flooding freshwater prairies. This is a land of water and the fingerprints of Irma smear the landscape.

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A section of boardwalk twisted into the dark brown waters.

When Everglades National Park was dedicated in 1947, it wasn’t to protect its scenic beauty. As a clear victory to conservationists, it was intended to preserve one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. A land charged with the delicate balance of nine distinct habitats and an ecosystem so interwoven into each species that the slightest change in one causes an outward ripple. However, like so many of our greatest natural treasures, this dynamic system, so impenetrable, yet so open and accessible, lies at the mercy of mankind. Just as this park is dedicated to preserving nature’s precarious balance, so should we be ever vigilant in helping her do so.

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Roseate spoonbills feast in the slowly moving water.  This particular group had just returned from a very competitive game of shuffleboard.

Since Everglades and Biscayne National Parks are only twenty six miles apart, Long Pine Key in the everglades was to be my home for several days while I explored each. By the time I left the visitor’s center and set up camp, light was fading. I settled in for the night and quickly fell asleep. Around 1:00 AM, something brushed up against my tent. I lay still and waited for a noise that would tell me what type of animal was on the other side of a thin slice of nylon. Something brushed up against the tent again – above my head. I slowly eased off my cot, trying to be as quiet as possible. More movement as I reached for the hatchet I had used to pound tent stakes a few hours earlier. Standing in the middle of the tent, hatchet raised, heart pounding – another slight brush of the tent. This one about chest high. My mind is jumping through a list of animals tall enough to brush my tent at that height. Deer, bear, panther, human. Humans being the scariest. I turned on my headlamp and shouted, who’s there? Nothing. No movement. After a moment, slow movement away from the tent. I still can’t tell what it is, but I’m certain it’s not human. After about 15 minutes of standing in the middle of the tent, hatchet raised, I ventured outside and looked around. Nothing. It wasn’t damp, so there were no footprints in the thick bladed grass. I lowered the hatchet, walked back into the tent and moved my cot to the middle. I brought my chair next to the cot and placed the hatchet within arm’s length. I fell asleep with my hand resting on the blade.

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A great egret floats above the watery plains. Trying to photograph egrets fell into two distinct categories.  Skittish and posers.  I found this to be in direct correlation with my real life.

A walk along the boardwalk of Anhinga Trail is a microcosm of the park. A proud red-barked gumbo limbo tree stands sunburned at the edge of the trail. Moving toward the boardwalk, long grasses of Taylor Slough sway gracefully beneath the water. Dwarf cypress trees hold soil-less bromeliads in their branches, as bright green ferns lean into the smooth spotted breach of a black mangrove. In the distance, pinelands and hardwood hammocks give height to the flat prairie and marsh. Water lilies bursting in yellow, rest on clear bright blue water, while turtles swim silently beneath. A peregrine falcon drifts on the wind. Somewhere in the mangroves an alligator’s slow guttural moan can be heard, as it slides through the tangled roots. Above it all, an ever-changing sky of white batten clouds resting on a canvas of blue.

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The deep blue water of a lily pond, flows into the grassy wetlands.

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White water lily.

Coastal Prairie Trail leads you west out of the Irma damaged and closed Flamingo Visitor Center and initially hugs the coastline of Florida Bay. As I approached the trail I ran into a park ranger who said the trail was closed. “Most of it is covered with debris from Irma. Some of it is still underwater. It’s also a breeding ground for mosquitoes.” So I can’t access the trail from here? “Well, I can’t tell you not to access the trail. I would just tell you that most of it is not really a hike you want to take.” Thanks for the head’s up. I appreciate it. When do you think Flamingo will be back up and running? “Hard to tell” he says with a slight chuckle. “The funds have been appropriated. Or so we’ve been told. Of course the funds are always appropriated.” And here he makes air quotes with his fingers. “We’ll just have to wait an see.” Times are tough for a new budget. “Yep.” And again he chuckles, shakes his head and walks off. I turn and head to the debris littered trail.

At my age you would think I would be able to know common sense when it rudely slaps me in the forehead. Perhaps it’s more than a slap that is needed. Climbing over debris to get down a pathway partially underwater didn’t do the trick. One billion mosquitoes that suddenly found me attractive and decided to show their love by eating my skin didn’t deter me. Nope. It took a Florida cottonmouth sliding by my leg and off into the brush as I opened my mouth the scream like a 12 year old schoolboy – only to find out that my lungs wouldn’t let air escape. In that moment I kind of wished the ranger had told me the trail was closed and smacked me in the forehead. But I know I would have gone anyway.

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A fish crow hunting in the shallow water covering the road.  Oddly, he had one eye and claimed he could see the future.  As I was walking away I heard him distinctly say, “Who loves ya Smitty?”

Each National Park I visit leaves its mark on me. Most overwhelm you with beauty, while others speak to you in subtle undertones. Everglades is a sly seducer. She unveils the threat of violence, then blankets you with a serene Mediterranean blue sky. One visual discovery quickly opposes the next causing your senses to cautiously react. There a stillness while water moves under and through everything – a subtle grace to her diversity of life. Soundless birds float above the rising chorus of hymns from an earthbound choir. Everything is at odds, yet in complete harmony. Perhaps it was just the constant movement of water that drew me in. Knowing that life flowed under everything I walked upon and touched. Maybe it was just that simple – I don’t know. I do know that something profoundly spiritual happened in the everglades. A small piece of me changed and I will never be the same.

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This just cracked me up.  I kept writing captions and laughing to myself – which for some reason people find odd. Finally settled on, “Mom?”

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A heron desperately trying to blend into the background in order to avoid being just another photograph.

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Nine Mile Pond. The clouds looked like they were lining up into perfect marching band order. I also had the impression that they liked looking at themselves

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You didn’t think I would do a piece on the everglades and not have a photo of a gator did you?  This was taken moments before he bit off the second toe of my left foot.

 

Congaree

Peace is always beautiful – Walt Whitman

After bypassing Columbia, South Carolina on I-77, you pick up Route 48 south and begin a slow drive through sleepy countryside, as if captured in a 1960’s black and white snapshot. Open fields dotted with small homes. An empty shack stands next to a grove of leafless trees draped in Spanish moss. Families sitting in front yards, open cookers lifting smells skyward. In the distance Cedar Creek lopes southward into the park and the floodplain that is Congaree National Park.

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This tree had fallen into Wise Lake, so I walked out a few yards and took this photo. Every time I look at it I have a hard time telling up from down. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

There are no mountain vistas in Congaree. No waterfalls. Your eye is never drawn to where sky meets land. This is flat land – a floodplain forest that welcomes water ten times a year. Home of the largest continuous tract of old-growth bottomland hardwoods in the United States. Home to bobcats, wild boar, the constant tapping of pileated woodpeckers and the sing song of the prothonotary warbler. Congaree is over 22,000 acres of nature at peace with itself. Here she looks at herself and sees exactly what she saw thousands of years ago.

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I hit this leaf with my head.  It moved, but continued to float in mid-air as if by a magician’s slight of hand. Then I saw the single thread of a spider’s web.

There are two ways to explore Congaree – on land and on water. Since all of the boats (kayaks, canoes) were booked the two days I was there, I hiked. Beginning with a 2.4 mile boardwalk trail, where pin straight 160 foot loblolly pines beanstalk skyward and mere 140 foot water hickories jealously pose beneath. Bald cypress trees sit in muddy brown water, their knees peaking out of the tannin. Bell-bottomed water tupelos crouch, while sweetgums riddled with holes from woodpeckers stand martyred, dreaming of a bird-less world. A surreal landscape. An unkempt Zen garden.

Shortly after leaving the visitors center on the boardwalk, you come to a fork in the path. Standing at the fork was a middle-aged couple, staring at their map, obviously trying to figure out which way to go, or if it made a difference. Since I have a beard and look like I may actually live in the park, they asked me if I knew the correct turn. If they had any knowledge of my stubborn refusal to use maps half the time, they would have put their heads down and let me pass. But I think the beard got em. “Any idea which way we should go?” said a nicely dressed man. I don’t think it matters. I believe they both make a loop and end up back here. Where are you folks from? “Charlotte, North Carolina,” said his wife – also nicely dressed. They were a handsome couple and again my heart gave me a quick jab. “You?” Michigan. From there a long and casual conversation ensued. Mr. and Mrs. Elder of Charlotte, if you read this, I can’t tell you what that conversation meant to me on that day, at that time. And I can’t thank you enough.

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I have no idea how old this tree might be. I just marveled at the beauty in the symmetry of her rings.  This is also what you would find if I shaved my head.

The 4.4 mile Weston Lake loop connects to a mile offshoot that drops you off on the muddy banks of Wise Lake. On this day sun sliced through shore-bound cypress trees, mirroring their images in the dark blue-brown waters of the lake. Leaving the trail to take photos, you quickly understand why this place was once a safe haven for slaves venturing north. Terrain becomes hostile. You begin to sink into the muddy earth as vine covered trees try to hold you in place. Only the desperate entered this land. Many died. Some formed small communities and facilitated the move north. Others, beaten by the land, emerged only to be returned. Trees that bore witness still stand in Congaree.

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This is a champion loblolly pine – over 150 feet tall. I just wanted to say hello.

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Standing at the base of the champion loblolly pine. When I said hello she gracefully curtsied.

Hiking back from Wise Lake, the trail wanders through dwarf palmettos and tangled underbrush of hairy vines of poison ivy. The feeling of being in a primeval forest seeps into your mind and settles in. Moss-claimed fallen logs litter the ground. Molted leaves bleed their colors into small motionless pools of water. Birds carry on conversations in a language selfishly all their own. Squirrels rustle dry leaves and claw their way up trees. There are no sounds from the outside world. You are alone in this place and it welcomes you with a lulling breeze through her canopy.

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Black water – stained by water tupelos and cypress roots. I kept waiting for a gnarled hand from the horror movies of my youth to rise up.

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Multi-fluted cypress trees and their knees take life from the waters of the floodplain. Unlike many of the hardwood trees with roots that spread, the cypress uses her root knees to remain stable.

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You didn’t think I was going to drive through South Carolina without a meal like this did you? Thank you to the volunteer at the Congaree Visitors Center who recommended Lizard Thicket. I apologize to all who were offended when after dinner I undid my belt and took a nap.

 

Great Smoky Mountains

Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs. – William Shakespeare

Route 321 brings you south through the highly commercialized towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, prior to reaching Sugerlands Visitor Center on the northern edge of the park. A short distance further south and you arrive at Elkmont Campground, my base camp for the first few days. Snuggled between low swaybacked ridges, Elkmont lies married to a small piece of the Little River. I settled in for the night to the sound of slow moving water.

Cades Cove is a 27 mile drive southwest on a sinuous blacktop road, watched over by prodigious age-grayed trees. Little River Gorge Road traces the Little River, held from the two lane road by a graceful stone retaining wall. As you travel east to west, the river is on your left, a twin to your every movement, a mirror of the road. Your eye is constantly drawn to the water as it languidly drapes over boulders, sliding into dark pools and eddies. You feel the movement of the water. You are pulled into the landscape by the river.

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The ever hypnotizing Little River. I still see this river in my dreams.

Once you pass Metcalf Bottom, the pace of the river changes. Cutting into Little River Gorge the water menacingly cuts between boulders blocking its path before dropping ten feet into The Sinks. There it pools before continuing its steady march southwest along a path of ancient rock, before exiting the park at Tuckaleechee Cove, near Townsend, Tennessee. Laurel Creek Road takes you the final few miles into Cades Cove and the beginning of an 11 mile loop. Every piece of literature says that driving the loop takes half a day. When I reached the first stop on the loop, I was still undecided as to whether or not I should walk or drive the loop. I’ve been in a van for 8,000 miles – I think I’ll walk.

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A sliver of Cades Cove as you walk down from the John Oliver home built in the 1820’s.  I had to wait 20 minutes to get a shot without a car. 

Although my ancestors – the Cherokee – never lived in Cades Cove, they hunted and camped there for hundreds of years. Some of the trails where they came down from the mountains to hunt deer, elk, bison and bear, still exist. There are extremely few stories of encounters between Cherokee hunters and the original settlers of the early 1800’s. Abram Jobe wrote that Indians “could be seen prowling around”, and he believed his uncle was killed by a Cherokee while hunting in the mountains. Once a small population emerged (a handful of families in 1821 grew to 132 families in 1821) and a fledgling economy sprang up (farmers, millers, blacksmiths, distillers), the Cherokee moved westward toward new hunting grounds. Shortly afterward – three generations ago –  Cherokee blood entered the Smith family.

To walk Cades Cove is to step back in time. We were a young nation when people from east Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina found their way into this high meadow of fertile ground to cultivate and grow crops of wheat, corn and barley. Some grew tobacco and others cotton. From the great meadows filled with game, they culled and sustained their families through winter. There was a sense of community. Neighbors helped each other. Churches were the pillars of the community – the center of everything. As park volunteer Tom stated in his 20 minute talk on the churches and people of Cades Cove, “if you didn’t belong to a church, you were not part of the community. And that was not something anyone could afford.”

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Primitive Baptist Church, established 1827, rebuilt in 1887. The church was closed during the Civil War, “on account of those no good rebels.”

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Missionary Baptist Church, established in 1839. Rebuilt in 1915, it remained open until 1944.

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Methodist Church, established in 1820’s, rebuilt in 1902. The Civil War divided the congregation and another church was built on the opposite side of the cove.

My decision to walk the 11 mile loop was one of those rare instances where I chose wisely (I can hear the laughter). Although the park wasn’t as busy as spring and summer, traffic through the cove was still heavy. God forbid someone sees a bear. Traffic backs up for a solid half mile. When all was said and done, I walked the loop in about 7 hours and enjoyed every second.

The drive from Elkmont in the north, to Smokemont in the south, travels along route 441 through Newfoundland Gap. As with virtually every road in the park, 441 closely follows the contours of rivers. West Prong Little Pigeon River in the north and Oconaluftee once you pass through the gap and cross into North Carolina to the south. As I was passing by the turnout for Chimney Tops, I spotted a familiar truck with Kentucky plates. No way. What are the odds of seeing someone that I had met in Shenandoah a few weeks ago? But there they were – Ray and Kay of Flemingsburg and Morehead, Kentucky. I mentioned them in my piece on Shenandoah, because I was struck by their obvious love for what they were doing – 4 years on the road – and for one another. So we stood beside the road for over an hour. Swapping stories under the shadow of a charred Chimney Tops. While I marvel at everything I’ve seen in nature over the past few months, nothing equals the glint of love in someone’s eye.

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Ray and Kay. Good people. I sure hope I run into you guys out west.

There are two ways to get to the top of Clingmans Dome and both include a breathtaking drive that drops you a short distance from the top. One route is via a virtually straight up paved walkway where everyone over 50 wheezes their way to the top. The other is a small trail called Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail. Reached by short stretches on Forney Ridge Trail and the Appalachian Trail, it’s a little over a mile each way, but it takes you into the woods. When the trees part you thank God, Buddha, Zeus and all things holy that you are standing on that trail, at that moment. You also realize you are alone.

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View from Clingmans Dome. If there was an accompanying soundtrack to this photo, it would be me dropping to my bony knees and giving thanks.

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On this day, the sun was playing hide and seek behind the clouds.  You could hear the trees counting to 100.

Smokemont Campground is a short distance from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, which borders an old settlement and a large meadow where elk come to graze each evening. You can also pick up the Fork Trail and hike along the Smokemont Loop, which isn’t a loop, unless you include a portion of the Bradley Fork, which I did not. For some reason in Great Smoky Mountains National Park the term loop is used on maps and on trail signs, when many times a ‘loop’ is made up of several trails combining to form a loop. In any case, the hike took me through a beautiful section of maple, dogwood, and poplar trees, as several switchbacks rose to the northeast slopes of Richland Mountain. This was not an easy climb. But sometimes finding the sound of a river and the wind sneaking through the last of fall’s brittle leaves takes a bit of work.

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This is the second animal on my trip that has given me the stink eye.

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In the Smokies, sometimes you just turn a corner and this is staring at you. A great mountain with sloping shoulders folding into themselves.

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As I was looking down at the water rushing past my feet, a small vortex began. I watched it for several minutes as its center got tighter and tighter. Pure luck I found this. Pure luck.

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Pigeon Forge in one photo.  I had them make me a Tshirt with butterflies on it that says ‘I like dolphins’.

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This is a test. I was taking a photo of one rock in particular. Which one? My email is LCSmith@TheMountCo.com. If you get it right I will send you a prize.

Mammoth Cave

Superman effortlessly flew through the air. As Clark Kent he carried himself with dignity and restraint. Batman lived in a cave. Next question. – L. Bryce Bolger

To get to Mammoth Cave from Shenandoah, you have to pass through a town that has great meaning in my life. Morehead, Kentucky carries the weight of my mother’s history,  the memories of my childhood and where an immature 19 year old kid enrolled as a college freshman in 1974. It’s where my grandfather rode a mule over the ridge to Hogtown and the Louisville & Portsmouth Fire Brick Company and where my mother left home at the age of 13 in search of a tethered lifeline. It’s where we came every summer of my youth. Where I worked in my uncle’s tobacco fields for ten cents an hour and watched my great aunt tenderly braid my grandmother’s hair. Morehead and its people, have always held a large piece of my heart. I thought I could return and reclaim it, but it slipped away in a blink. Stones thrown at my feet for the price of my thoughts.

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This is a photo of my mother’s childhood home up on Christy Creek. No running water, no electricity. When I was recently in Morehead, a friend and I drove from the spot where this house stood, to the elementary school my mother attended. 4.2 miles each way, in shoes stuffed with newspaper for warmth. Emma Lee was the oldest girl in a family of 13 kids.

With perhaps the exception of the Grand Canyon, Mammoth Cave may be the most aptly named National Park. As currently surveyed, Mammoth Cave is an underground system of 390 miles, with the potential to grow in excess of 1,000 miles. On any given day, researchers are crawling into small clefts and crevices in an effort to find and detail additional passages. Over 200 caves, in the form of disconnected fragments of the larger system, dot the park’s 80 square miles of rocky outcrops, yawning valleys and flat ridge tops. Many are associated with local drainage features, known as karst basins, the most thoroughly understood conduit flow aquifer in the world. Or in terms even I understand – water draining through limestone to create magnificent otherworldly caverns that even Dante couldn’t imagine. All made possible by a thick protective cap of shale and sandstone.

There are two ways to explore many of the caves at Mammoth. Since the park is riddled with holes, you can strap on a headlamp and dive into the opening of your choice. (I believe this is frowned upon.) Or you can choose from a variety of ranger guided tours. I opted for the ‘history tour’. A two hour, two mile tour that begins at an opening in the earth discovered by settlers in the 1790’s, but inhabited by Indians thousands of years before their arrival. As you begin the decent, you enter a ghostly world, where the only sound is the echoing of water falling on porous rock. A world void of light, but warmed by the subtle movement of air. You’re lead through roomy passageways that suddenly open to a vaulted space called the ‘Rotunda’. Large relics of the nitrate mines that were instrumental in the making of gunpowder during the war of 1812, still lie intact. Hollowed out logs, hauled into the cave by slaves, were filled with water and sand from the cave floor, producing nitrate crystal laced brine – the residue of which was used to make gun powder. I tried to imagine the electricity-less working conditions of 200 years ago. Where a wind prone lantern was your only source of light in an environment suited for bats and eyeless, colorless amphipods. My imagination, for all its wanderings, failed.

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A ghostly, silent world carved out of earth by water and time. As with all parks I visit, I try to imagine what the people who discovered these places felt. The courage of exploration, born out of curiosity and need.

Leaving the ‘Rotunda’ behind, ever descending, you enter a series of large halls known as ‘Methodist Church’ and ‘Booth’s Amphitheater’. They believe church services may have been held in ‘Methodist Church’ in the 1800’s, and it is said that Edwin Booth, brother of the man who ruined Lincoln’s night out, recited Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in the amphitheater that now bears his name. I can’t help but think that if Edwin’s best known gig was in a cave, be probably wasn’t a great Shakespearean actor.

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In the 1800’s, owners of Mammoth Cave brought in bands to perform for visitors. This band played in 1855. Edwin Booth tap-danced in between numbers.

The most unique part of the tour was following a tall, chubby, gaseous man in jorts through ‘Fat Man’s Misery’. A length of thin, low ceiling passages, rubbed smooth by centuries of hands and bodies, forces you to contort your body. Much to my astonishment and displeasure, with each new distortion Earl would let one squeak out, always followed by an apology. “Sorry. Taco Bell.” Or, “Sorry, too many beans.” Or the forever memorable, “Sorry, blame my wife.” Thanks Earl, you’re a real gem.

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Sorry. White Castle.

A large chamber known as the ‘Great Relief Hall’ marks the end of our descent, 310 feet below the surface. Here we are given a brief talk preparing us for what lies ahead – ‘Mammoth Dome’ and the winding staircase that lifts us from the depths via 150 steep steps. Like we have a choice. (Note to self: Look into viability of starting Uber underground.) The staircase was as advertised. A winding set of seemingly never ending, metal fire escape-like steps that you can look through as you climb. Fortunately, Earl had moved further ahead and the climb was only punctuated by the sounds of panting and puffing, with the occasional ‘sheeeeeit’ thrown in. Along the way, there were several small landings where you could step out of line and look up or down the 192 foot hole, created by water dripping through a sink hole over millions of years. Standing on one such platform, it was easy to think of hellish analogies, and I did. Then I looked up and my mind drifted to a summer’s day on the fire escape overlooking the George Washington Bridge at 181st and Broadway. I smiled and started to climb.

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If an attorney is reading this, please let me know if the statute of limitations has expired for what allegedly happened when we allegedly hit golf balls from our fire escape in the direction of the alleged G W Bridge.

As we were exiting our tour – I am always in the back of every tour I have taken since 4th grade – I struck up a conversation with Park Ranger Abby. When the subject of a decline in young visitors came up, she said something that rang basic and true. “They’ve lost their sense of wonder.” In many respects Abby nailed it.  I believe this ‘loss of wonder’ is an unintended consequence of Al Gore’s internet.  We should remind ourselves that we are only a single generation removed from a time when the great mysteries of earth couldn’t be found and explored in less than 30 seconds. One generation removed from a time where the only form of exploration was exploration itself. Unless they are introduced to nature and experience it in it’s purest form – the very essence of our National Parks – current and future generations are in danger of believing a screen is a viable substitute for the nobility, grace and wonder of life itself.

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Exiting the main entrance to Mammoth Cave. You aren’t allowed to use flash photography at any point in the cave. The official reason given is that it may cause someone to have a seizure. A couple of people tested the theory. Sh Sh Sh Sherry is suing.

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We were going to eat at pop’s but it was closed.  I hope I get another chance.

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A natural spring, flowing through rock and winding its way along a narrow stream to the Green River below.

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I would like you to meet my dear friends of almost 40 years, Keith and Kim Ammeter of Lexington, Kentucky. I spent a few nights with them before heading south to Congaree. I love these guys. True friends are a rarity. Hold them in your heart like sunshine.

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Shenandoah

I was born in a house with the television always on. Guess I grew up to fast and I forgot my name – Talking Heads

After spending a quiet night in Luray, Virginia, home of roadside T-Rex, I drove north along Stonewall Jackson Highway and entered Shenandoah National Park through the Royal Front entrance. My plan was to drive the length of the park on Skyline Drive, then retrace my steps and camp at the park’s only open campground, Big Meadows. I knew I was in trouble when after two hours I had driven roughly ten miles. Shenandoah is not a park to be hurried through. It is a park to be slowly savored and taken in for what it is. A visual feast in blue.

By the time I arrived at Big Meadows and quietly backed into my spot, it was pitch black. I crawled into bed, flipped on my fancy night-lite and managed to read a single page before falling asleep.

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Skyline Drive has a speed limit of 35 MPH. I found myself doing 5 MPH most of the time. When children on small tricycles glide past you, it’s time to pick up the pace.

Less than a mile from the entrance to Big Meadows, is the trail-head of Dark Hollow Falls. How can you not hike a trail with a name so foreboding? My trail guidebook warns that the descending hike to the falls is very steep and some may have trouble hiking back to the top. After walking downhill for about 30 minutes at what seemed to be a 45 degree angle, I tipped my hat to the guidebook. I also decided that I would gladly hike an additional 5 miles to avoid ascending the same trail. They say there is a fine line between determination and stupidity. I tend to err on the side of stupidity.

At the bottom of Dark Hollow Falls, you are rewarded with an uphill view of a series of cascading falls. Water spills gracefully over lime green boulders, pooling for a moment before sliding downward to the next platform of ageless rock. From here the trail branches off onto the Rose River Loop Trail. As my finger traced the loop on the map, it finally came to a fire road and ultimately out to Skyline Drive at Fishers Gap Overlook. Ah ha. I can avoid the steep trail that brought me to the bottom. I congratulated myself for outsmarting the guidebook and set off following the Rose River, heading ever further down into the hollow. Author’s Note: See paragraph above with respect to erring on the side of stupidity. This is called foreshadowing.

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Dark Hollow Falls. There are signs around the falls warning of the dangers from climbing on the rocks that make up the various ledges of the falls. Obviously the family of six from Biloxi, either couldn’t read or had a blatant disregard for conventional wisdom.

Rose Falls is a not quite as high as Dark Hollow falls, but heartier – stronger. It is also the exact spot where the skies decided to open up a few hours earlier than forecast. Tucking my camera inside my jacket, lowering my head against the rain and wind, I turned north and almost immediately slipped over the falls. I caught myself on a perfectly placed birch and pulled myself back from the edge. At this point you may be asking yourself, why is he so close to the edge? Well, that’s how you get a good shot of the falls. (Moving forward, please ask yourself harder questions.) The rain insisted on continuing for the next hour or so, which would have made the hike less than ideal, had I not met a couple that trivialized the rain.

Whenever I see a couple or a few people taking a photo of each other, I always ask if they would like me to take a photo of both of them, or the group. On this occasion, the rain had finally let up and I was crossing a foot bridge on the Rose River. A dark haired couple, speaking a language I didn’t recognize, were taking photos of each other. I asked if they would like me to take a shot of them both. “Yes, please.” They had a genuine smile. A smile that makes you want to smile in return. I took several photos of them and handed back the iPhone. (I was not paid to insert the brand iPhone. However, I would gladly accept their money and insert iPhone several times into each piece I write. I would actively seek out iPhone users and insist I take their photo – wrestling them to the ground in the process if need be.) They asked if I wanted them to take a photo of me and I said yes, handing them my iPhone. As they started to take the photo I took off my hat and said – I hope I don’t scare the small children. They laughed – a belly laugh. Uh oh, I have an audience.

What is that accent I detect? “We are from India.” It’s a beautiful lilting accent. What is your name? “My name is,” and he said something I didn’t understand. “In English it means Song of God. This my wife,” again saying something I didn’t understand, “which means Honey.” I’m sorry, I thought you said Song of God. “Yes,” still smiling, always smiling “we are Sikhs. In our religion you take a new name. I was given,” yet again something I didn’t understand, “which means Song of God.” And your name is Honey? “Yes.” Let’s review. I’m with Song of God and Honey and my name is Smitty. I’m not worthy of your company. At this point I think they are going to wet themselves they are laughing so hard. “You should convert Smitty. You would get a new name.” Can I be He Who Must Not Be Named? More laughter and I’m actually holding up Song of God. “You are a funny guy. What do you do?” What a great audience I’m thinking as Song of God and Honey look at me for my answer. I can sneeze like Donald Duck.

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Every once in a while you meet a lovely couple in the middle of nowhere that touch your heart. My only regret is that I didn’t use my iPhone to take a photo of Song of God and Honey.

After entertaining my new Sikh friends and telling them to try the veal and tip their waiter, I started the climb up River Loop Trail. According to my brilliant map reading skills, the trail would intersect with a fire road and then drop me on Skyline Drive down the road from where I began. Thus skirting the steep path I had originally descended. My arm hurt slightly from patting myself on the back as I rounded the final loop in the trail and found myself staring at the end of the very path that I had worked so hard to avoid. This is a joke right? Who moved the waterfall? In all my effort to eschew the original climb, I had missed a turn in the trail and was now confronted with a mile walk straight uphill. Once again erring on the side of stupidity. Maybe I should convert. I can be Chorus of Calamity.

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Not that difficult to see where Big Meadows got its name. I wish I could have been there in the spring when all of the wildflowers are blooming.

As with many national parks, you can get a broad sense of the land by driving its main artery. Similar to Acadia in that you can visually digest large swaths of the park from your car, or in the case of Shenandoah, from any of the 75 overlooks along Skyline Drive, where each overlook competes with the last. Nature’s one-upmanship. One view shyly permits a glimpse of a distant family of ridges, bathed in blue. Next, an offering of timeless forest, where colors compete for your adoration. All lovingly hovered over by a blanket of ever-changing clouds. Rising from the horizon, using an endless palate of color, a stygian sky may glide into velvet blue in minutes. Deeply bruised storm clouds silently drift between ridges. A breathtaking canvas of heavenly blue, melding into the textured blue of earth.

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Earth and sky – with apologies to Bob Dylan – tangled up in blue.

It’s difficult to explore Shenandoah without recognizing the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office during the depths of the Great Depression. In an effort to restore faith in the economy he created the largest series of public works projects in our history. Young men were given work building roads, bridges and dams across the country. Throughout the national parks, camps were established so that crews could develop trails, build lodging and in the case of Shenandoah, develop the 75 cutouts that allow us to view the park’s beauty from above. Each park owes a debt of gratitude to FDR. Without his foresight in creating the CCC, many of the trails and elements of infrastructure that we now take for granted wouldn’t exist. Here is a link to a brief, but well documented history of the Civilian Conservation Corps work in Shenandoah. https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/ccc.htm

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Many of the trails in Shenandoah intersect the Appalachian Trail.  The Civilian Conservation Corps played a key role in the construction of many sections of the trail.

Hiking to the top of Blackrock is not terribly difficult. The trail is a steady climb – not too steep. But nothing prepares you for what the top of Blackrock presents. Thousands of grey menacing boulders, seemingly pushed up from the earth, piled on top of one another in a truce established thousands of years ago. Sitting at the summit of this great glacial scrape of earth, looking down at the seemingly unending ridges and hollows, you could easily imagine the sense of wonder the early settlers of the valley must have felt. Countless millennia have done little to change what I was seeing. It was a wonderful moment.

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View from Blackrock. Ten minutes after this photo, the valley was filled with clouds and the ridges became invisible. Ten minutes after that I tripped over my walking sticks.

Part of the fun of what I’m doing is meeting people from all over the United States and the world. Like Jeff from California, who had just finished driving from San Francisco in his VW Microbus. He had been on the road for two months, with his puppy and told me he had paid to camp only twice. That is no small feat. Then there’s the couple I met in the laundry, who have been traveling for the last for years. They lit up when telling me about the places they’ve been – the experiences they’ve shared. Each year they return to their hometown in Kentucky for a doctor’s visit and immediately set out on the road again. They struck me as two of the happiest people I’ve ever met and I admit to letting a little envy enter my heart.

I met Earl Varona and his friend Nellie on a turn-out while helping a woman break into her car where she had left her keys. Apparently I look like a seasoned thief. I asked Earl if he had climbed Old Rag Mountain, because due to weather I didn’t get a chance and the view is supposed to be stunning. He said yes, pulled out his phone and showed me a few very cool photos of himself at the summit. I asked him to email a photo so I could post. I think I also asked him to send a photo where hopefully he couldn’t be recognized, so I could say it was me at the summit. Thanks Earl. It was pleasure meeting you and Nellie. Stay in touch.

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Ladies and gentlemen, Earl Varona atop Old Rag Mountain. If you look closely that’s me down in the valley talking to Song of God.

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Rushing water is found all throughout Shenandoah. The stillness of a downed branch and what it had carelessly gathered caught my eye.

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All along the Rose River are pools that would make great swimming holes. Huck Finn kind of swimming holes.

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Deer are like squirrels in Shenandoah, only more indignant.  As I took this photo the deer turned to me and in a rather rude tone asked “What did you call me?”

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Both of you that follow this blog know that I have been relentlessly pursued by pods. Disguised as milkweed, this one continues the stalking.  If I suddenly disappear, question the pods.