Archive for ‘Observations’

Above Average Rainfall


Rockport ended last year way ahead of average in rainfall and started the new one the same way. The driveway to my little cottage has transmogrified into a swamp which my little car was no match for. It was reminiscent of the car stuck in the mud scene from My Cousin Vinny. (Though I don’t do Marissa Tomei’s character’s accent nearly as well as she does. Funny movie by the way!)

Thankfully, my new neighbors were nice enough to push me out of the mud. After which I imagine they went home for a good laugh while drinking sweet tea to cool off. As my intuitive friend Jeff said, “It would figure that a desert girl would get stuck in the mud.”

Hurricane Harvey Impact


Hurricane Harvey wasn’t the most damaging tropical storm to blow through Rockport (the 1919 hurricane almost wiped the town off the map) but it certainly caused significant damage here. Residents have done a remarkable job rebuilding their community in the days since landfall (August 25, 2017), though about a quarter of the population hasn’t returned due to the housing shortage. Learning that fact, I feel especially fortunate to have found a cute little cottage to rent here.

Last of the Keys

I let out a small sigh as Key West receded in my rearview mirror. I enjoyed my time delving into island life, but it felt like my visit was forty years too late. Though the historic buildings are unchanged, they seem diminished in the shadows of the massive cruise ships. Though the locals are still laid-back, they are incessantly jostled by the throngs of tourists. Is it possible to be nostalgic for something I’ve only read about?

The balmy weather soon brightened my outlook. How could I be surrounded by aquamarine water and swaying palm trees and not be in a good mood? Reaching Big Pine Key I turned off to explore the National Key Deer Refuge. Established in 1957, it is one of the smaller properties in the National Wildlife Refuge system. Perhaps that is fitting since it was set aside to protect the smallest deer in North America.

The Key Deer is a subspecies of White-tailed Deer that is found only in the Florida Keys. These deer are the size of a large dog, with males topping the scale at a whopping 75 pounds. As with other species that evolve on small islands, the Key Deer shrunk in size, a process known as insular dwarfism. Another example is the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth, which once lived off the California coast.

As I roamed the trails I was struck by the similarities of the habitat with the Sonoran Desert one where I grew up. The plants were spaced out; there was very little overlapping vegetation; and some had thorns (or other protective mechanisms, like poisonous sap). In both places, limited fresh water was the responsible mechanism. Comparing the numbers it doesn’t seem possible. After all the Sonoran Desert around Tucson averages twelve inches of rain a year, while the Keys receive over three times that amount. The difference is that the Keys are comprised of fossilized coral reefs where there is very little substrate to retain the rainwater.

It was after noon and I relegated myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing one of the refuge’s namesake animals. Determined to photograph a roadside sign before I left, I drove down a side street behind the Visitor Center. Where, lucky me, I was able to watch one of the diminutive creatures from my car.

After snapping some photos I continued north a few miles to Bahia Honda State Park. The park encompasses the spit at the southern end of Bahia Honda Key and provides excellent views of Hwy 1 as it swoops over Florida Bay as well as foot-access to a portion of the historic Florida Overseas Railroad bridge. I spent the afternoon meandering the white, sandy beach; collecting tiny shells, admiring the translucent claws of Ghost Crabs protruding from their burrows, and watching the water change color as clouds shifted beams of light across the surface. What a picturesque spot to spend the day!

I tore myself away in the late afternoon, continuing north to Islamorada, my home base for the next couple nights. The small town is the polar opposite of Key West. Quaint lodgings hailing from decades past are scattered along the highway in place of new, splashy resorts; hard-working fishing vessels ply the water in lieu of monstrous cruise ships; and sunset celebrations are the highlight of the evening with the party wrapping up by 10pm instead of just getting started. I felt instantly at ease there; it was much more my style.

Everywhere, piles of debris and other visible damage remained from Hurricane Irma which stormed through in September 2017. Islamorada is nothing if not resilient. The town was obliterated by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. People, houses, shops, boats, and even the railroad tracks were torn from the island and scattered over a 40-mile radius by the massive cyclone.

Over 700 people died as a result, many of them WWI veterans who were in the Keys working on the Overseas Highway (a Depression-era program similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps). The rescue and recovery effort was chaotic and poorly organized. Anyone with a working boat volunteered, including Ernest Hemingway. By the third day, the Florida Health Department issued an order to cremate all bodies where they were found after attempting to identify and document them.

Henry Flagler’s precious Florida Overseas Railroad, that connected the Keys to the mainland, was never rebuilt. His $50 million investment, that took seven years to complete, operated for a mere 23 years before being literally blown out of the water. I learned more about Flagler while touring the new Keys History & Discovery Museum.

Flagler, and his business partner John D. Rockefeller, co-founded Standard Oil in 1870. Ruthless in stamping out competitors (earning them the moniker, robber barons), SO quickly expanded into a multinational corporation. Their manipulation of the market and questionable business practices ultimately led to the company’s demise. In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration initiated a case against Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust Act. It culminated in 1911 with a breakup of the company after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was an illegal monopoly. To say Flagler was no fan of Roosevelt’s is an understatement. When told Roosevelt was going on safari, Flagler replied, “I wish the African lions good hunting.”

My last afternoon in the Keys I stopped at Robbie’s, a little marina that has grown into a popular roadside attraction by feeding tarpon. While leading fishing trips is still a part of the business, the spot has morphed into a local artisan market, restaurant, and bar. The main draw are the showy, jumping fish that tourists can feed for couple dollars. I’m glad I stopped to check it out since I finally saw my first manatee!

While the crowd was occupied on the pier I wandered over to the small dock nearby. As I stood there marveling at the hubbub across the way, a large slow-moving blob surfaced in the water. Nostrils poked out for a moment before descending below. I was thrilled! The next time it came up for air, the manatee had a dead fish in its mouth. I watched for the next half hour as my sea cow slowly gummed the flesh off the fish (the herbivorous manatees only have molars). Once again proving that no animal in nature will turn down free nutrients!

Christmas Eve was my last night in Florida and I spent it in Miami’s Little Havana. I was treated to the Cuban celebration of Noche Buena with loud music, laughter, and the smell of roasted pork wafting through the neighborhood. The evening ended with fireworks. It was a cultural experience I wasn’t expecting but what a festive way to wrap up my trip to Southern Florida!

End of the Rainbow

I reached the end of the road in Key West on a balmy December afternoon and headed straight over to the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park for a little exploring. Presumably, the soldiers stationed there during its 100 years (1845-1947) suffered through some hardships but wow – what a location! After touring the fort and admiring the view I wandered over to the beach to dip my toes in the inviting Atlantic Ocean.

Ouch! The beach that looked like soft, white sand is actually comprised of small, angular chunks of decomposing fossilized coral. There is nothing soft about it! If I lived there I’m sure my feet would toughen up and get used to it. Whiling away a warm day; watching turquoise water gently lapping the shore under gently swaying palm trees – not a bad introduction to Key West.

After sunset, the music wafting over from Duval Street enticed me over to Sloppy Joe’s. It seemed fitting to hang out at the bar where Ernest Hemingway spent so much time. It was also a great place to indulge in the endlessly entertaining hobby of people watching. I lost count of all the different languages I overheard.

I didn’t even remotely try to match Hemingway’s drink count (he seemed to treat drinking like an Olympic sport). Joe Russell, the bar’s original owner and namesake, once said that Hemingway bought his house next to the Key West Lighthouse so that he could find his way home after a long night at the bar.

Thanks to the low battery alert on the smoke detector in my room I was up well before dawn the next morning. So, I was showered, breakfasted, and out the door by 7:30am. Which I discovered, in Old Town Key West, is a good two and half hours earlier than everyone else. Old Town retains much of the same anything (and everything) goes attitude that it had during Prohibition. Locals reportedly viewed Prohibition as “an amusing exercise dreamed up by the government”. Their late nights are not conducive to early mornings.

So I meandered through neighborhoods, admiring architecture, random yard art, and recognizing locations mentioned in Jimmy Buffett songs. Next time I hear “Woman Goin’ Crazy on Caroline Street” I’ll know exactly where she lived. I like picking up these tidbits of knowledge about places I’ve visited, connecting these pieces creates a clearer picture. Much like putting together a puzzle.

Needless to say I was one of the first in line at the Ernest Hemingway House. My early morning turned out to be a good thing as I was able to wander the grounds and spend time with the polydactyl cats before the crowd arrived. According to my tour guide, polydactyl (six-toed) cats were considered good luck by ship captains and it was a captain friend of Hemingway’s that gifted Snow White to him. The 56 cats currently residing on the property are all descended from Snow White.

I was pleased to see how well the cats were tended. The specially fenced property is clearly their domain and they roam freely through the house and grounds. Some of the staff even disobeyed evacuation orders during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and stayed with the cats in the home’s basement. They all survived unscathed.

I enjoyed my morning at Hemingway’s and I’m glad that it has been so well-preserved. Though I had to shake my head at the paradox of people getting married there. Yes, it is a beautiful property but I doubt Hemingway’s approach to marriage is what one wants to emulate (he was married four times and cheated on at least three of his wives).

Afterward, I crossed the street and climbed the Key West Lighthouse for a glorious bird’s-eye view of Old Town. Sadly, the tallest nearby point is Mt. Trashmore, the old landfill that dominates the skyline over on Stock Island. My day ended with another dose of toe-tapping live music, this time over at the Green Parrot.

On my final day I stopped in at Truman’s Little White House. It was built in 1890 as the First Officer’s Quarters for the Key West naval station. After WWII the building was vacated. In the fall of 1946 President Harry S. Truman’s physician recommended a relaxing vacation somewhere warm. Unsurprisingly, stepping into the presidency mid-term and wrapping up WWII had strained Truman’s health.

Since the house was not in use and securely located on a naval base it was a perfect choice. Truman and his entourage (staff, Secret Service, and reporters) arrived in November. While he may have been relaxing, Truman was not on vacation. Technological advancements kept him in close contact with Washington D.C. and documents were hand delivered every few days.

The location proved to be quite popular, Truman visited a total of eleven times during and after his presidency. General, and later, President Eisenhower also stayed in the home. President Kennedy visited in 1961 and returned right after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Though the U.S. government deeded the property to the state of Florida for use as a museum in 1987 the house is still occasionally utilized by former Presidents. Carter and his family visited in 1996, Clinton stayed here with his wife, Hilary in 2005.

Key West, the pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow…

Deadly Pacific Storm

It astounds me the conditions that fishermen challenge in order to make a living. Last week, the Dungeness Crab season finally opened so I’ve been watching the boats from my window. At night, and even in the day during the big storms, I can see their lights bobbing on the tumultuous waves. I’m inside where it is peaceful, warm, and dry while they are out on the ocean buffeted by the howling wind, drenched by cold waves (50 degrees F), and soaked by the driving rain.

They are far more daring than I (yep, proud landlubber here). According to a display in the Pacific Maritime and Heritage Center in Newport, “The Oregon Dungeness Crab fishery has almost 2.5 times more fatalities than the commercial fishing average.”


Since many of these captains have been doing this for decades, they obviously have the necessary skills. They know lives are on the line and while they are daring they are not reckless. Which brings to mind that saying about pilots, “There are old pilots. There are bold pilots. But there are no old, bold pilots.” I would argue the same holds true for boat captains.

Sadly, the Newport fishing fleet lost a member last night. The Mary B II was attempting to return to harbor to avoid an incoming storm when a wave broke it apart while crossing the Yaquina Bay Bar. The boat succumbed to one of the big dangers mentioned in the display, “cross(ing) hazardous river bars in rough winter conditions…”

The two crewmen’s bodies were found on nearby beaches, but the captain went down with his boat. The winter storms up here along the Pacific Northwest Coast are ferocious. My heart aches for the families of the men who lost their lives.


Fishermen Memorial, Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Newport, Oregon 2018

Welcome to Southern Florida

I left Homestead on a warm, sunny morning. Palm trees swayed gently in the light breeze. My second day of exploring Southern Florida was off to a marvelous start! As I drove south on the Dixie Highway (also known as U.S. Hwy 1) I flipped through the radio stations, bypassing the myriad of Hispanic and hip hop offerings before settling on an oldies station.

It made me chuckle to hear the announcer proudly proclaim, “We play all your old favorites, from the 70s and 80s.” I remember when the oldies channel used to play songs from the 50s and early 60s. No matter, I can sing along to most of the tunes from any of those decades.

I was belting along with Tom Petty when the solid ground around the road gave way to turquoise water. It was finally happening, I was driving through the Florida Keys! Through isn’t the most accurate term. I was technically driving over a series of bridges that connect the various keys (key is an Anglicized version of the Spanish cayo, meaning small island).

Where the first bridge starts is where the road’s common name appropriately changes from the Dixie to the Overseas Highway. The roadway proceeds to swoop over the water, touching down on roughly twenty small islands along the 113 miles to Key West (the southernmost point of the contiguous United States).

Rolling down my window I was enveloped in the warm, salty air. It was a struggle to keep my eyes on the road as they were drawn to the bright, white beaches and the varying shades of cerulean on either side of me. A convertible would’ve been the only thing to make the drive more enjoyable.

My groovy radio station succumbed to static as I continued south so I scanned through my dwindling options to make a selection. My ears perked up at a fishing report and, since I’m fascinated by local items, I stabbed the button. Hey, don’t mock me, when I’m in rural Ohio visiting family, I listen to the farm report, too.

For the next few minutes I was regaled with details about wave heights, wind speeds, and which boat caught the largest sailfish. I also learned that when the boats return to port they will fly a flag for each sailfish they caught. One lucky boat had eight flags flapping in the breeze the previous day.

The local news started right after the fishing report and it soon had my full attention. According to the announcer, a man in Key West had reported his brother missing two days prior. A day later, the concerned sibling saw his brother’s white Honda Accord driving north on Hwy 1 from the island, so, of course, he followed it. He stayed behind the car for over 100 miles, calling and alerting the police along the way. He tailed the car into the Walmart parking lot in Homestead and waited for the cops.

When the cops arrived they detained the driver and the two people in the back seat (none of whom were the missing brother). Then the officers searched the car. In the glove box they found an unspecified amount of cocaine. Popping open the trunk, they discovered the missing brother’s body. The driver, who was on drugs at the time of his arrest, confessed to getting into a fight with the deceased and then strangling him with his phone cord.

Unbelievable! It sounded like an absurd tale straight out of a Carl Hiaasen crime novel. My dear friend, Karen, got me addicted to his writing a dozen years ago. Hiaasen’s books, while raunchy and prone to violence, always have an environmental slant. The reader can tell that he laments the loss of the natural Florida landscape that is rapidly succumbing to bulldozers and subdivisions. I remember being shocked by some of the deviant crimes until I learned that as a long-time journalist for the Miami Herald, Hiaasen, was often inspired by what he found in the paper’s police report.

To be completely honest, I actually prefer reading his YA novels. They share the same concern for the natural world, but with less crime, no blatant sex, and less profanity. Plus, they feature caring and determined young protagonists. I’m looking forward to reading Squirm, his latest YA offering.

But, back to the incident, which sounded like a drug deal gone bad to me. I kept running through the story in my head. It raised so many questions: Why did the murderer drive the victim’s car? What kind of idiot would travel for hours with a dead body? It doesn’t take that long for corpses to start to smell and ooze. You’re already a criminal, steal a car without a dead body or shove the body in the water somewhere (you’re on an island for god’s sake)! Also, just how unique was that White Honda Accord? There are literally hundreds of them on the road at any given time, how did the brother know that was the right car? Or was the living brother actually in on the drug deal? It sure seemed like he had some inside information. And finally, who has a phone with a cord any more?!


Overseas Highway, Bahia Honda State Park, Bahia Honda, Florida 2018

River of Grass

Shortly before Christmas, I finally had a chance to tour Everglades National Park.* It has been on my list of places to visit ever since I read an article in an issue of National Geographic magazine as a kid. Sunny skies and mid 70s temperatures were a welcome change from the dreary, gray, and cold weather of my Central Oregon Coast home.

Spanning 1.5 million acres, the park is the third largest in the Lower 48 (after Death Valley and Yellowstone). I spent the morning exploring the sawgrass prairie at Shark Valley (in the northern section of the park). Though it was the dry season, I was not disappointed. There were alligator moms protecting their broods, dozens of wading bird species (including the stunning Purple Gallinule – gasp!), turtles, and did I mention gators?

For the afternoon I zipped an hour south into the mangrove swamps along the Florida Bay coastline. I’m glad I made the drive down, the scenery was just that much different. The havoc wreaked by Hurricane Irma in 2017 was obvious – boardwalks were twisted out of shape and the damaged visitor center was still closed.

After all day exploring a tropical wilderness I was grateful to have had only one mosquito encounter! A colorful sunset wrapped up my first full day of exploring Southern Florida. Up next, Key West!

*Pre-government shutdown.


Family Fun

My two favorite cousins came out for a visit over Thanksgiving weekend. It was their first time in the Pacific Northwest so it was a pleasure showing them around. Though the weather was capricious as usual (alternating between sunny and calm one moment and windy and rainy the next) we didn’t let that stop us. At least the mid-50s temperatures were double what their hometowns in Ohio were experiencing!

It was the first time in twenty years that the three of us were alone for a weekend! So we made the most of it. We explored some of my favorite places along the Central Oregon Coast, noshed on fresh seafood, and sipped local brews. We ended with a day meandering around Portland; brunching at Guilder (a wonderful cafe with a Princess Bride theme – which just so happens to be my favorite movie), strolling through the Portland Saturday Market (which needs a new name since it is also open on Sundays), touring the grand Pittock Mansion, and drooling over all the books at Powell’s. All in all, we had a marvelous time.