Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for February, 2007

Hurricane Katrina—We’ll Always Remember

posted: February 28th, 2007 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Yesterday, Janie and I rode through a city still reeling from massive destruction. We were on the Grey Line Hurricane Katrina Tour, and almost everywhere we went there were huge vacant buildings with rubble strewn about. In Saint Bernard Parish, our tour guide pointed out a massive wrecking yard and said that Katrina created more than three years of debris in a few short days. He said that one of the greatest effects were the hundreds of thousands of new cars flood waters destroyed.

NOT ENTERED: “Not all the cars were completely destroyed,” said Brad, our tour guide. “Some still run, but if you’re in the market for a used car, I strongly suggest you ask for documentation on the car’s history. Not all of our used car dealers are above board.”

The bus tour continued and Brad pointed out a number of business still closed, to include a Walmart, Home Depot, Subway, McDonalds—Peppe’s Lounge, and the Chicken Box. Katrina gutted those building and although the hurricane with its Class V surges occurred August 26, 2005, the city has not yet recovered. But I guess the one image that impressed me more than another was the information spray-painted on all-too-many abandoned homes. In bold red Guardsmen had painted the date and time and then the simple notation:

N/E

Together the two letters mean “Not Entered.” And that in turn means that at the time National Guardsmen knocked on the door, no one answered and, so, Guardsmen had NOT ENTERED the premises. In some cases, that meant the occupants were ignoring Mayor Ray Nagin’s orders to evacuate, but in other cases, it meant the occupants were dead.

In fact, lots of people were dead, and when officials had completed the final tally at least 1,836 people lost their lives, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. The storm created $81.2 billion in damage, establishing it as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

JACKSON SQUARE: But the people here in New Orleans have not been idle, and after the bus tour, we wandered to some of the haunts along Bourbon Street I once enjoyed as a young man. Jackson Square was still intact, and in fact, all the French Quarter had been spared much damage as it is one of the few areas in New Orleans actually above sea level.

DOC PAULIN: Jackson Square is typically the place in which a number of street musicians gather, and it is here we met Dwayne Paulin. “Doc” is dedicated to the preservation of New Orleans jazz. Prior to the hurricane he had been a music teacher in one of the local schools, but now, he’s a street musician.

During intermission he visited with us at length and told us that his grandfather, now 98, had survived the storm but that his home had been devastated. “Doc” was not a con man, but a man genuinely hoping to help preserve the art form for which New Orleans may be best known. His Paulin Brothers Brass Band soon launched into their rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” We listened to more of the band’s jazz, and then—and without any arm twisted—we bought one of his CDs.

YOUNG LADY: The music drew a number of young people from the crowd, and one young lady danced before the group, and I photographed her, too, essentially because she had a sense of humor, and because her joy of life represented the hope for the resurgence of a devastated city.

She wore a black tee shirt and on it was printed the inscription:

We Will Always Remember

Other street musicians had also returned, and they were playing on one of the adjacent streets. We passed Antoines, the famous restaurant where my parents and I had once enjoyed the epicurean dinners for which it had established an international reputation.

Just off Bourbon Street, we passed Preservation Hall, famous for the preservation of jazz music, and I was delighted to see it was still operational. Next to it, we passed Pat O’Brian’s, famous for food and music.

FORTUNE TELLER: Then we returned to Jackson Square and watched a fortune teller setting up his business not far from the Doc’s band. Certainly, New Orleans is a liberal and tolerant town, but for all those reasons, it will always be one of my favorite cities in which to hang out for a few days.

That night we returned to our KOA campsite located at the edge of New Orleans. Though there were a few other campers like us, most occupied FEMA trailers, and we’ve become acquainted with a few of the residents.

Next to us was a policeman, while behind us, was a local hospital worker. These people were also displaced—and are still displaced.

Certainly, the occupants of these trailers will always remember Hurricane Katrina, and now, after seeing the devastation and talking to some of the true heroes such as Doc Paulin, a man trying to make a difference, we, too, will always remember.

Happily, however, New Orleans seems poised to regain its prominent place in America, and to me, that in itself is worthy of regaining its reputation as a great travel destination.

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Remember The Alamo

posted: February 26th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: We left Bay Bayou early this morning and are now heading west. The night before departing, we visited at length with friends (Tony, Linda, Bob, Nancy, Cathy, Jim, Myra, Jim (another Jim), Gordy, Rose, John) and compared travel notes. Many were interested in our travels last year in Texas and, specifically, the Alamo—and I promised I’d post a few photographs.

RIVER WALK: The Alamo is located in San Antonio, and for a variety of reason, we highly recommend it. For starters, the old mission is within a ten minute drive of an RV park. For another, it is part of the city’s famous River Walk, so the two should be explored together. But you’ll need several days, at least.

Start with a stroll down the River Walk. Romantics like to believe the Paseo del Rio is like a scene from Hemingway’s book, A Moveable Feast, where the renowned author describes many scenes along the Seine River.

They may be correct, for certainly the walk, with the associated San Antonio River coursing along paths of cobblestones and flagstone—through an assortment of quaint shops, elegant boutiques and elaborate restaurants, deserves comparison to some of Europe’s most picturesque settings.

THE ALAMO: At some point your walk will take you near Crockett Street, and this is the time to climb the stairs and walk to the square where the Alamo is located. Spend hours here! Toward the end of the first day, find a restaurant back along the River Walk, and then in the evening, return to the Alamo, at which time history seems to come alive.

The story, of course, is well known: On March 6, 1836, 189 Texans fought General Santa Anna’s soldiers at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Vastly outnumbered, the defenders fought wildly against over 2,000 Mexican troops—holding out for 13 days. But in the end Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and a host of other American heroes were all killed. But they didn’t die easily, rendering nearly 800 of Santa Anna’s crack troops dead in their determined clash.

BATTLE REENACTMENT: That’s history, but the aftermath has inspired Americans for over 170 years, and the battle cry “Remember the Alamo,” has been repeated over and over, not only by Texans, but by so many Americans, for the phrase has been with us in song and word and in movies and TV serials. Certainly some remember the Davy Crockett TV series from the ‘50s in which actor Fess Parker survives the assault to the end. In the final scene of the several year series we see him as Davy Crockett, swinging his emptied rifle, the last to be killed. Such scenes are replayed each spring, and it is worth timing your visit so it coincides with the play recalling the historic event.

“Remember the Alamo.” At times as children playing soldiers on an Army post in New York the phrase was our rallying cry, but certainly more significant is the fact it has been embraced by real soldiers in many conflicts. The cry has a haunting ring, recalling a time when men truly valued freedom more than life.

Plan to spend a week in San Antonio. Five missions were constructed between 1718 and 1720. Appropriately, the first of these was Mission San Antonio de Valero, later to be known as the Alamo. Other missions along the San Antonio River include Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan, and Espada. Missions were constructed in an effort to help Spain with its desire to create a Spanish America. Essentially, that meant Christianizing the Indians.

At any rate we thoroughly enjoyed San Antonio—and other parts of Texas. Big Bend, for instance, is only a four hour drive from Big Bend National Park, and logically, that should be next on your list.

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A Day In the Life at Bay Bayou RV Resort

posted: February 21st, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Much can happen in a 24-hour period of time, as we’ve just discovered after returning to Bay Bayou, where we’ll be for the upcoming week. We’re back because we have made a number of good friends with whom we want to maintain contact.

RIDING GROUP: We’re also here so I can drive to Orlando to see my uncle, and we’re back so I can write another story for one of the many publications for which I write regularly. We were here between the months of November and February, and during that period I turned out eight stories mostly for the RV crowd, but for other good publications as well.

While here, I joined a bicycle outing organized by the people of Bay Bayou, and while on the trip, invariably gossip flies. We learned that Diane Bludworth had been fired, and the news saddened us. We know little of the specifics, other than her comment to us that the management wanted to take the resort to a new level and didn’t believe she was capable. So now we know that, but we also know that Diane expended much time and energy trying to find us a site with some very short notice. We recall she always greeted us with a smile, and believe her capabilities will land her a new position with a group that appreciates her talents. And we think they are many!

Our group-bicycle trip took us to Dunedin, a small suburb of Tampa that we quickly reached. We lunched at Sea-Sea Riders, and then hopped back on our bikes for the ride back.

MARDI GRAS AT DENEDIN: That night we again returned to Dunedin as it was the last night of Lent, and the town was celebrating its version of Mardi Gras. All streets had been closed, and parking was on the outskirts. Thousands of people assembled, and our group consisted of a few of the many people with whom we can now call friends from our time at Bay Bayou. Like its much larger counterpart in New Orleans, this celebration featured a number of bands, and we listened to an excellent one as it performed its rendition of a Louis Armstrong song, What a Wonderful World.

THE LONG, LONG TRAILER: The next highlight of the day (actually a day and a half) was the arrival of a huge motorhome towing the largest recreational trailer we have ever seen. The trailer was two stories high and carried a boat with a large Yamaha engine, a jeep, and motorcycle.

GEORGE & HOPE: Many had gathered to see the arrival of “the long, long trailer” to include George Hartmann with his dog Hope. I’d seen the picturesque manner in which George transported Hope before, but had never had my camera with me when the two were out and about. But this time, I was ready, and offer my interpretation of the ultimate in dog comfort.

And so ends this entry, but with a closing note to wish Diane the very best.

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Gator Drama In Shark Valley

posted: February 18th, 2007 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Yesterday in Shark Valley, a 15 mile long loop road that can only be explored by bike, foot or the tram, alligators were going berserk. At one particular moment, a 10-foot gator was crossing the road beside us, another was bellowing, while yet another was tossing a recent kill around, trying to soften the carcass to facilitate swallowing.

GATOR CROSSING ROAD: Of course, I realize in my last post that I said we were moving on and that, in fact, was our intention. However, this is the weekend of President’s Day, and all campgrounds we called were full. Midway Campground just north of the Everglades in Big Cypress, which has seldom filled before late afternoon, was full by 1 p.m.

Our friends, Jack and Carla Rupert–campground host and hostess there–suggested we drive another eight miles to the park’s overflow campground, which has no hookups. Because it was almost full as well we could see the handwriting on the wall for this weekend, and so we remained.

But today we do have reservations back at Bay Bayou in Tampa, and we will be staying there for one week, during which time I will make the two hour drive to Orlando to see my uncle. Though Orlando does have camping sites, usually they are full at this time of year because of the Disney World crowd.

And, so, here we are; back in Big Cypress National Preserve. But once again, this is proving to be an incredible base, in part because we are a 25 minute drive from Shark Valley—and all those alligators that seemed to be going berserk. Previous blog readers will recall that Big Cypress is contiguous with the Everglades and serves, in fact, a vital function as both a water source and as a buffer. As well, it also protects the Florida panther.

GATOR BELLOWING: Shark Valley in the Everglades has managed to retain much of its natural environment, which, of course, it should as part of a national park. Here the River of Grass, or the Pa-hay-okee, as the Indians once called it, is still subject to the annual fluctuations brought on by Florida’s two seasons, the wet and the dry season.

Winter is the dry season—a season of plenty because so much life is crammed into smaller spaces. But it’s also the time gators begin making known their desires and intentions.

One hour into our bike ride and the silence that first greeted us was replaced by an alligator bellowing from a substantial gator hole. Now then, when you are less than a hundred feet from the source the sound can be quite disturbing.

Because late February is the start of mating season, the bellowing was apparently predictable. Apparently bulls are establishing their proprietary rights for the lady of their desires. And they don’t want interference from potential competitors. Roaring is a way of reducing fights.

GATOR FEAST: While all this roaring was going on, yet another incident was occurring. Immediately next to us a gator swam into view with its recent kill of what appeared to be a large Wood Stork. Eyeing us with a baleful glare, the gator turned its back and began flinging the carcass into the air while still retaining a hold on one small portion. Then it turned sidewise to us, and that’s when Janie and I began photographing the feast.

After “softening” the carcass, the gator then held it in its mouth for almost an hour. Then it again turned its back, threw the carcass into the air one last time, and then it gulped down a portion of the stork. Storks, of course, are not small birds, but the gator’s loosely hinged jaws allowed the reptile to begin the process of swallowing.

To facilitate the effort, the gator raised its front quarters in the same manner that you or I might perform a pushup, then it raised its head and with a huge effort, tilted it down and then swallowed once again. Over a several minute period the gator repeated the maneuver; then it closed its eyes and settled in for what seemed a long rest. Biologists say that gators eat but once a week and apparently this one was satiated.

Janie and I continued our bike ride, but rather than complete the loop we returned along the first portion of our ride so that we might take another look at all our new gator acquaintances. But now when we passed, the two gators in the first hole seemed asleep, as did the gator that had just finished its feast.

And the gator that had lumbered across the road in front us had disappeared? Perhaps it was now waiting its turn for something to eat. But for the moment—and probably only a moment—peace and quiet seemed to rein over Shark Valley.

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Return To The Everglade’s Anhinga Trail

posted: February 15th, 2007 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Good photography has two maximums: One, visit areas that are highly photogenic; two, be patient.

CORMORANT HABITANT: Firmly believing those two mandates Janie and I once again returned to the Everglades and, specifically, to visit the Anhinga Trail, located about 5 miles from the entrance station and about an equal distance from Long Pine Campground.

Predictably, the settings had changed, and predictably, we were beginning to explore the same features more critically with the lenses of our cameras. In the words, we were applying the maximum of patience, realizing that if we didn’t succeed the first time, try again. In my case, I wanted more portrait and behavior photographs.

In so doing, we also realized that many of our images were being made with one or two lenses, lenses that most travelers often have with them. In our case, the photographs shown here were made with two zoom lenses. One of those lenses ranged from 18 to 70mm, the other from 80 to 400mm.

Our other discovery was that the trail internationally known as the Anhinga Trail might better be called the “Cormorant Trail.” In other postings, I have shown the Anhinga, once with a fish speared in its beak. That photo was also taken from along this boardwalk, and it was also taken with a hand-held camera and the longer of my two zoom lenses.

CORMORANT PORTRAIT: Cormorants and Anhingas are similar in that both species gather their food by swimming underwater. In order to perform that feat, they sacrifice the oil glands inherent to all other birds. As a result, once they have finished their job of gathering food, usually a fish, they must haul ashore and then dry their wings in the warm sun.

Though you’ll see both species along this trail, the cormorant is the one you’ll see most often, and typically, it is the species most tolerant of people. In fact, I made these two photographs with the wide angle zoom set at 18 mm and then moved in until I was just inches away from the bird. This technique created an unusual perspective in both the head portrait and of the photo of the cormorant surveying its habitat, an effect that would have been impossible to achieve with a normal or telephoto lens.

GREAT EGRET: One month ago, the Great Egret did not exhibit its breeding plumage to the same degree it now does. This plumage, of course, is what made the species so highly desirable to plume hunters and that contributed in part to the death of the nation’s first game warden. In 1905 Guy Bradley lost his life to poachers in Florida where he was attempting to protect birds on Pelican Island, our first national wildlife refuge, established under Theodore Roosevelt.

This photo was taken with my zoom lens completely extended to about 70mm. Notice the beautiful plumage in the bird’s tail feathers now starting to develop. Because of these beautiful feathers, several species were almost exterminated.

GATORS GALORE: Again using one month as a comparison, the number of alligators did not appear so abundant—or at any rate, at least so concentrated. Yesterday, however, they had concentrated along the boardwalk and had become more tolerant it seemed of visitors.

Typically, the majority of visitors abide by the signs stipulating that gators and wildlife should not be touched, but invariably, someone chooses to ignore the rules designed to protect gators and humans. In this case, the woman touched the alligator’s tail, and it responded by whipping its tail away. Such irresponsible behavior contributes to the animal’s habituation of humans and one day under different circumstances it might attack. The photo was made with a normal lens.

GATOR FACTS: Gators have concentrated here essentially because of the abundance of water. Typically, this is considered the dry season, and here, water so needed by all species of wildlife is plentiful.

Gators have 70-80 teeth and in this photo taken with my zoom telephoto extended to about 200mm, you can almost count them. The open-mouthed attitude is not a threat display, rather one in which the gator is attempting to cool itself. Muscles that open the jaw are weak, while those that close the jaw are strong enough to exert over 3000 pounds of pressure per square inch—strong enough to crush the shell of a turtle. Their jaws are specially hinged allowing them to open extra wide.

CONICAL TEETH: Gators have teeth that are evenly divided between uppers and lowers. As we could easily see from this photo taken with my zoom telephoto full extended to 400mm, gators have sharp cone-shaped teeth used for grasping and tearing. They swallow their prey whole.

This series of photographs concludes the ones we will be taking in the Everglades. Today, we are departing this wonderful part of our country, and will now be heading back–slowly–to Montana. Before departing, we wanted readers to see what we believe illustrates the results of exhibiting patience—and visiting an area that is extraordinarily photogenic.

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The Dry Tortugas—Islands Washed by the Sea and Sun But Also By Disease and Disaster

posted: February 10th, 2007 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: In 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, then leaped off the balcony and onto the stage below. In the process he broke his leg but managed to hobble to the home of Dr. Mudd, who set the fractured bone. Then Booth hobbled to a barn, where he died in a blazing fire.

Was there a conspiracy?

ESTABLISHING CAMP: At the time everyone thought there was a group effort. In fact, Dr. Mudd was spared the death sentence by just one vote and instead was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in one of the most isolated prisons in the world—the prison at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, located in the Dry Tortugas. The old fort is 90 miles south of Key West, and is reachable only by boat or seaplane.

Today, the 7 islands comprising the Dry Tortugas are a national park, and several days ago Janie and I left our Airstream at a KOA on Sugarloaf Key, drove 15 miles to Key West, and boarded the Yankee Freedom with our backpack gear, intending to stay an extra night at the park’s campground. There is no fresh water, no food—just sand—and people who arrive must be completely self sufficient. Essentially the island’s only visitors are the birds.

We had cruised into an exotic setting, for overhead Frigate birds soared on nine-foot wings, waiting for gulls to catch a fish, at which time they’d swoop down and relieve the gulls of their catch. Waters surrounding us ranged in color from emerald green to a deep blue and into them brown pelicans dove and then gulped down their catches of fish. But in front of us loomed the fort, old and tired but still imposing and covering almost the entire island except for the small campground.

DAVID & KATHY: Grabbing a cart, we joined the only other two people out of the hundred-plus passengers who had opted to camp for the night. In fact, David and Kathy were staying not just one extra night but three. David had once attended the Air Force Academy but had later opted out of the military for a life as an Iowa farmer. Kathy worked as an Elderhostel instructor and we couldn’t have asked for a more delightful couple with whom to share Garden Key. We were all interested in the same types of things, and for starters that included the area’s unique natural history and history.

Ponce De Leon named the Dry Tortugas, and was inspired by the abundant turtles he saw, meaning that, when translated, we were camped in the Dry Turtles. For many years the seven islands were the hangout for pirates, but then about 1840, a young West Point graduate by the name of Robert E. Lee helped survey them and found them appropriate for a fort.

Construction on the fort began in 1846, and was conducted initially with slave labor. Three years later work on the moat began and it was completed in 1849. After that, work was sporadic, but by 1861 the fort was sufficiently complete to serve as a prison—in part for captured Confederates, but mostly for Federal soldiers who had deserted. Then prisoners began to form the work force.

WALKING THE MOAT: Today, as we wandered around the old fort, we were again drawn to the beauty of the seas. Walking the moat, Janie looked into the clear waters near the wall to discover that we were in fact trailing a five-foot shark, one simply looking for food. It was a nurse shark and we were told they are harmless. Still if you’re a novitiate, any shark looks dangerous, but the snorkelers nearby kept snorkeling, despite the shark’s presence. Apparently they knew.

As well as the beautiful shells and beaches and moat, we were also drawn to the boats recently used by Cuban refuges seeking a better life in America. Refuges apparently arrive to the Tortugas at the rate of one boat per week, and we scanned the horizon wondering if today might be the day one of these desperate families hauled ashore. We walked over to several of their vessels and stepped off the sizes, about 18 feet by six feet.

CUBAN REFUGEE BOATS: Hulls came up to just above my hip meaning they were about three and one half feet high, which is fairly deep. Into these boats one of the rangers said families might cram 12 to 20 people, hoping then to reach America. Boats were powered by small Russian two cycle tractor engines.

Whether they remain in the U.S. is part of a policy determined by a “Wet-foot dry-foot policy. If the Coast Guard stops them at sea they are returned to Cuba at night and dropped off at the relative obscurity of Guantanamo Bay.

But if they manage to set foot on any piece of land managed by the United States then the “Dry-foot” policy prevails. According to that policy, refuges are then given $3,000 cash, and three years of subsistence to include full medical benefits.

“Obviously, the policy hasn’t made all American citizens happy,” said one ranger stationed in the Dry Tortugas. “In fact there may be a cash incentive, though perhaps not for all. Cuba is under a repressive regimen, and we have the reputation of being a compassionate country.”

PELICAN GREETS THE SUNRISE: These were subjects that made for good conversation later that evening as the sun began to dip into the western sky. Yet another subject concerned Dr. Mudd, the park’s most famous prisoner. Next morning, we returned to his cell, believing the subliminal impressions of the previous day might have fostered nocturnal insights.

Dr. Mudd began was given a life sentence here in the Tortugas in 1865. He was joined by three other men also believed to have been involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Their involvement was considered peripheral, but sufficient to draw a life sentence, which all began to serve on July 24, 1865.

We visited Dr. Mudd’s old prison cell paying particular attention to the sign over the entrance to his cell.

Who so entereth here leaveth all hope behind.

Apparently conditions were harsh for on September 25th Mudd attempted to escape, but failed. In fact, the doctor might have died in the prison had it not been for an outbreak of yellow fever. Working tirelessly Mudd helped alleviate the suffering and in the process contracted the disease himself, but unlike many, he recovered.

That was in August of 1867, and of the 400 people living on Garden Key, 270 contracted the disease and 38 of those died, to include Dr. Joseph Smith, the post surgeon. That’s when the post commander sought out Doctor Mudd’s services, which he rendered tirelessly. Two years later, President Johnson recognized his efforts and in 1867 pardoned him.

CANNONS RENDERED OBSOLETE: Dr. Samuel Mudd had been a prisoner in the Dry Tortugas for four years, and though free not all believed in his innocence. But his family did, and through the generations all have attempted to clear his name, but none more vigorously than one of his grand children. In the 1970 and ‘80s, Dr. Richard Mudd approached various presidents to include both Carter and Reagan. Both leaders joined Mudd and wrote letters saying they believed Dr. Samuel Mudd had been wrongly jailed. Nevertheless, the Army continues to hold fast to its position, and there is some justification, for there is now proof that Mudd may, in fact, have known Booth.

Twenty-four hours after our arrival, the Yankee Freedom was back reminding us that our time in the Tortugas was growing short, suggesting we had made a mistake by not staying for several nights, for the sights have only whetted our curiosity.

Hurriedly we re-enter the Sally Port and climbed the spiral staircase for one last look over the islands, again stumbling across one of the Rodman smooth bore cannons. The cannon reminded us that the fort was never completed. About 1870 invention of the Parrot Rifle, with its lands and grooves and much greater penetrating power, rendered Fort Jefferson obsolete.

Nevertheless the fort continued operational until 1873 at which time yellow fever struck again followed shortly thereafter by a hurricane. In 1874 the military departed the fort, and because of its almost unparalleled concentrations of bird species (described by John James Audubon who also visited here) the Tortugas became a wildlife sanctuary. Still, it wasn’t until 1935 when its ultimate purpose was officially declared.

On January 4 President Roosevelt established the Dry Tortugas as part of the National Park System, obviously continuing with protection of the many species of birds attracted here. Certainly the park is one of the most remote, but because of that feature, it is also one of the most attractive, and we departed with considerable regret. Although these islands had seen much disease and disaster, now days, they’re washed more by the seas and by the sun, and their primary visitors remain the birds.

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Hemingway’s Urinal

posted: February 4th, 2007 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: We have been traveling in our Airstream now for over seven months, and have parked our trailer in some of the most extreme northern portion of North America. Yesterday, we rode our bicycles to a huge marker in Key West, Florida, that says “90 miles to Cuba,” adding that this is the most “southern point” to which you can drive.

SLOPPY JOES: Janie, who used to be somewhat of a homebody, joined with my great jubilation saying we should probably head to Cuba in our kayaks. To celebrate our far-flung travels and her new free-spirited awakening we journeyed by bike down Duval Street, breaking hard when we came to Sloppy Joe’s Café, once a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemmingway.

For years Hemingway made Key West his home, and we each ordered a Sloppy Joe. Then, like Hemmingway, we ordered several beers, and that act took us immediately to the author’s old home, located on Whitehead Street. Appropriately, the first thing we saw in the beautifully decorated yard was one of the old urinals from Sloppy Joe’s, positioned, in fact, so that it is almost instantly visible. The large oblong trough, its sides decorated with Spanish tiles, is now a huge drinking fountain for the 49 resident cats, most descended from Hemingway’s collection of six-toed felines.

The urinal is adjacent to the swimming pool which Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemmingway’s second wife, had built in 1937 while the by-then-famous author was covering the Spanish Civil War. Upon Hemmingway’s return he was astounded to find the new pool, and as the story goes, he handed her a penny after learning the cost of the pool, saying, “Well, you may as well take my last penny too!”

HEMMINGWAY’S URINAL: Today, the penny is embedded in the concrete next to the pool—and not far from the urinal, “which, emphasized the guide, you may not use.” Hemmingway purchased the urinal from Sloppy Joe Russell because he wanted a reminder (and here the famous author apparently resorted to colloquial wording), “of just how much money I have p—– away.”

The actual tour of the Hemingway home, now on the National Historic Register, begins in the living room where there are copies of many works and a statue of a bullfight, reflecting the man’s great love of the sport. Janie and I agreed that Old Man and the Sea rated high on our list of Hemingway favorite books. For Janie, the only other book that might rate higher is For Whom The Bells Toll. Both of us have read most of his books.

From the living room the tour progressed to the dinning room, and our tour guide pointed out yet another chandelier, which was, once again, one of Pauline’s additions. Again, much to Ernest’s chagrin, Pauline replaced all ceiling fans from the 1851 home with expensive chandeliers, such as a hand-blown glass one in the dinning room that was produced in Venice.

The dinning room also contains photographs of all of the Hemmingway wives, and John, our tour guide, was quick to point out the rapid succession with which they were replaced: Hadley Richardson, 1921 to 1927; Pauline Pfeiffer, 1927 to 1940; Martha Gellhorn, 1940 to 1945; and, Mary Welch, 1946 to 1961.

“There were other women in Hemmingway’s life,” said John, “these are just the ones that became wives.”

HEMMINGWAY STUDIO: The tour continues, progressing through Hemingway’s bedroom and then to his actual studio, which focuses on the author’s discipline as a writer.

“He was up and into his studio by 6 a.m.,” said John, “where he’d work until noon. But then it was fishing, and more fishing until dusk. After dinner he might wander on down to Sloppy Joes.”

The tour ends near a part of the grounds where a number of Hemingway’s famous polydactyl cats are buried—and where a number of descendents still lounge.

“Hemmingway was always fond of cats, and had 50 to 60 in his home in Key West and the same in his home in Cuba. His six-toed cat came from a ship’s captain assigned to Key West, and today, the descendents are many. Some of the cats buried in the Graveyard include pets named for Marilyn Monroe, Willard Scott, Kim Novak, Zsa-Zsa Gabor—and many others.

In his lifetime Hemmingway won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature. Certainly he was a brilliant man but he was also a troubled man, fighting continuously with his greatest demon, which was chronic depression. On July 2, 1962, fearing he was suffering from symptoms similar to Alzheimer disease, he took his own life, ending it in Ketchum, Idaho (his new home) with a single round from a shotgun.

The tour recalls that incident, but tends to focus on his glory years, many of which took place in Key West, Florida; a land of perpetually warm days—and brilliant light offering much illumination in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

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A Letter to Save Everglades National Park

posted: February 2nd, 2007 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: In the late 1960s I wrote a letter to my senator expressing my revulsion to a project that would have destroyed a priceless area not only of America, but of the world. I remember the letter as it was my first-ever such letter. My letter asked Senator Mike Mansfield to vote against construction in Florida of what would have been the world’s largest international airport.

CROCODILE: Certainly I wasn’t alone, and I know that my idea to write was probably generated by others with whom I worked, for at the time I was a seasonal ranger in Glacier National Park, and all of us were environmentally aware.

Some of my ranger friends were working winters in the Everglades, and they described the park’s beauty but also the surrounding threats.My letter of protest—and more significantly—letters that people from around the world wrote, stated that the Everglades with its unparalleled concentrations of birds, alligators and crocodiles was unique—and should be protected. The letters said preservation of the park was of international interest, and they were right, as in 1979 the park was designated a World Heritage Site.

Certainly my letter was no more than a blade in a vast sea of grass, but, today, almost 30-some years later, I am proud that I wrote that letter, particularly now after seeing what must certainly be one of the nation’s most impressive assemblages of wildlife.

Over the past five days, Janie and I have seen literally thousands of birds, hundreds of alligators, and just yesterday, our first crocodile. We saw the crocodile in Florida Bay, which is a salt water environment, and we knew instantly what it was. There’s simply no way you can mistake that assemblage of teeth pointing up with anything else.

Crocodiles are native here, not introduced, though this is the northern extent of their range. Crocodiles, however, are confined to the Flamingo area, the southern-most tip in the park to which you can drive.

ALLIGATOR HOLES: Alligators differ from crocodiles most apparently in their dentition. But they also differ in their habits. In the winter, the dry season, alligators muscle out mud from pockets in the Everglades that can hold water, and in so doing create an environment not only necessary for themselves, but for a host of other species as well.

If the airport had been built in the early 1970s, it would have stopped the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee. In a completely natural world, water once flowed south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades. Over the years waters have been diverted to serve the influx of people, mostly those living in Miami.

Years ago the Army Corps of Engineers substituted culverts and channels for this natural flow to the Everglades.

But with a series of yet more channels they also diverted the majority of the water that flowed naturally through this river of grass to growing communities, such as Miami. Predictably, the Everglades began to dry up and probably would have dried totally, had it not been created a national park, dedicated as such in 1947 by President Harry Truman.

GREAT WHITE EGRET: Everglades National Park was the first such land mass ever established, for unlike its predecessors, the attraction of the park was not grand vistas, such as in Glacier or the Grand Canyon, but rather it was established to protect a biological resource, such as this egret.

Problems, however, for the Everglades were not over. Now developers wanted to create the world’s largest airport with a runway that would stopped virtually all water from reaching this 1,500,000 acre park.

Happily, in 1974 the jetport project died on the desk of Richard Nixon, dramatizing that whatever Nixon’s foibles his environmental achievements rank high. His administration also established Big Cypress National Preserved in 1974, which is contiguous with the Everglades, and today, the Everglades have a modicum of protection.

Saving the Everglades was only one of his achievements, but because of his determination, egrets and herons have rebounded. So, too, have alligator and the incredible holes they muscle out.

ANHINGA TRAIL: In one short walk you can see the effects of gator holes. Here, Taylor Slough is crossed by the Anhinga Trail, and though man-made borrow pits have created in effect a huge gator hole, still the effect is the same.

Like real gator holes, the pits replicate the reservoirs of water so desperately required by fish, birds and alligators. Because Wood Storks feed on fish concentrated in the gator holes, their nesting season is keyed to this time of plenty in the winter. In summer, the rainy season, water floods the gator holes and disperses fish, making it much more difficult to obtain food for the young.

The result is that this short half-mile walk may provide one of the nation’s greatest wildlife spectacles. Sure you can find gator holes throughout the Everglades, but they don’t have elevated walks that take you above all the alligators. What’s more, the walk enables you to approach birds more easily, as Janie has done with this cormorant. Cormorants have a hook on the tip of their beaks and that feature provides the quickest means of differentiating them from Anhingas.

ANHINGA: The trail is named for the Anhinga, a species that has no oil glands. As a result, it can swim under water and with its stiletto-shaped bill, spear small sunfish, one of the three species typically found in gator holes. Watching such birds search out their prey is another of the exhilarating experiences now enjoyed in the Everglades, and I’m delighted I wrote Senator Mike Mansfield so long ago.

Though my one small letter amounted to little, it certainly made me feel as though I have some stake in the future of this incredible biological preserve, and Janie and I both wish we could do a little more.

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