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Joshua Tree

It was a lone tree burning on the desert. A heraldic tree that the passing storm had left afire – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

US 10 leaves Tuscon, Arizona heading north until it collides with Phoenix, where it suddenly points west toward California. As you cross the border, landscapes change in a blink. Broken neighborhoods of the Colorado River Reservation, patches of green in the brown desert, dispel any notion of a modern Tom Joad odyssey into a land of milk and honey. The visible indigence and all its accompaniments, stay with me as the broken thin green belt falls behind. Ahead lies the San Andreas Fault, straddled by the shallow endorheic rift known as the Salton Sea. To the north, imperially looking down, is a place where mountains hover and the Mojave and Colorado deserts merge. A mystical land of boulders and trees seemingly sprung from the imagination of Dr. Seuss.

Joshua Tree National Park presents itself as two uniquely different visual experiences. Entering the park from the south, you are met with boulders and brown drapery fold canyons. To the east, below 3,000, the Colorado desert. As you travel northwest and gain elevation, the Colorado meets the Mojave and the transition is abrupt. Cholla cactus gardens fill the Pinto Basin. Otherworldly black stemmed, yellow-green bursts as far as the eye can see. Flatland spreads, bordered by the Pinto Mountains to the northeast and Little San Bernardino range to the northwest. As you enter Wilson Canyon, the giant oddly branching yuccas begin to appear. A single tree here, followed by a grouping there, before filling the desert floor. A forest of randomly spaced, graceful awkwardly branched Joshua Trees. My first thought was wondering how they escaped from Whoville.

This was a glorious sight of texture and color, seemingly at odds with everything around them.

This was a glorious sight of texture and color, seemingly at odds with everything around them.

A forest of Joshua trees, dwarfed by the Little San Bernardino range. Mormons thought the tree looked like Joshua, with his arms raised in prayer, because Dr. Suess wasn’t born yet

A forest of Joshua trees, dwarfed by the Little San Bernardino range. Mormons thought the tree looked like Joshua, with his arms raised in prayer, because Dr. Suess wasn’t born yet

The trail to Mastodon Peak begins at Cottonwood Springs, in the southern reaches of the park, my home base for the first two days. Hiking through white cindered arroyos and bone dry rolling hills the trail begins innocently enough, before rising steadily. Mojave yucca, dollarjoint prickly pear and skinny ocotillo dominate the landscape. A steady two mile climb leads to the remains of an old gold mine. A dark hole covered by menacing metal bars and the order to keep out. Standing next to the mine were five young people. Two young ladies, Maggie and Cindy and three young men. They struck me as a group that had been in the wilderness before and I introduced myself. Hi I’m Smitty.

I am always curious as to what brought someone to the park. In particular what brought young people to the park. I am also struck by the similarity of answers and this was to be no exception. “We’re here to see nature. I mean what’s better than this,” with the flick of a hand. It’s not a bad place to be, I replied. We talked for several minutes about various parks they had been to and why. They lit up when talking about the parks and wanted to know about every park I had explored. We agreed that Carlsbad Caverns was as bizarre a place as you will ever find. I outlined TheMountCo Project and told them how encouraging it was to bump into a group of millennials at the bottom of Mastodon Peak. “Dude, I love what you’re doing.” Then a chorus of approval. The word dude was bandied about. I was slightly embarrassed. So did you guys scramble to the top? “Totally. You gotta go. The view is spectacular. Check it out.” Okay. I’ll give it a shot. We all shook hands and I gave them each a Bearded Man business card which I keep in my backpack. As I made my way to the top, one boulder at a time, I regretted not talking to them longer. By the time I reached the peak, a storm moved across the low Salton Sea in the distance. I looked down the trail, but the group was nowhere to be seen.

Looking southwest toward the Salton Sea from the top of Mastodon Peak. You can see the winding trail in the distance.

Looking southwest toward the Salton Sea from the top of Mastodon Peak. You can see the winding trail in the distance.

This is Mastodon Peak. You just take it one boulder at a time and hope you don’t slip. That little dot in the middle of the photo is someone sitting at the peak.

This is Mastodon Peak. You just take it one boulder at a time and hope you don’t slip. That little dot in the middle of the photo is someone sitting at the peak.

On day three I woke to a low, dense fog. The remnants of a steady rain during the night. My plan had been to drive north, through the boulders, to the northern entrance near Twenty Nine Palms. Branching out into Hidden Valley and up to Keys View at 5,185 ft. would make a full day. Mother nature had other plans. Desperately needed rain changes the very essence of the park. Roads quickly flood. Brief rivers appear where dry gullies sat listless the day before. Entire sections of the park become impassable. Time to execute Plan B.

During the course of this trip, my luck with the weather has been beyond fortunate. I’ve driven over 15,000 miles and less than two hours have been spent driving in the rain. Inevitably in very park I visit, I hear this sentence, “Man, you’re timing is great.” Followed by either, “Last week was rough” or “Next week is supposed to be bad.” Obviously I have no control over the weather, so I study weather charts like a fledgling weatherman. Unlike the east, when you get to this part of the country, parks are numerous and typically only 300-500 miles apart. Which means you can make contingency plans if a front is moving through. My simple point is two-fold. I am lucky and I am now in a part of the country where I can be flexible.

Stephen Hawking I do not profess to be, so Plan B was not complex. Execute Plan A as much as possible, given the road closures and fog. First stop, after navigating several flooded roads, was Hidden Valley. A warm-up hike of slightly over a mile, the shrouded trail leads through massive boulders to what was once a hiding place for cattle rustlers. As I’m walking through boulders the size of a Buick Vista Cruiser, scenes from John Houston movies dance in my head. I’m waiting for Glenn Ford to come around the corner, face covered by a red bandanna, guns blazing. Rustlers scramble to their feet, but it’s too late. The very traits that made this a perfect hiding place, make it a trap. Ford lassos the bunch and ties off the rope to his saddle horn. I have to sit to get the images out of my head. Someone once told me I read too much as a kid. But it wasn’t the books that did this to me, it was the movies.

First I thought of two rocks in love. Then a larger, weaker rock, leaning on a smaller, stronger rock. Then I saw the side of my head leaning against a fish.

First I thought of two rocks in love. Then a larger, weaker rock, leaning on a smaller, stronger rock. Then I saw the side of my head leaning against a fish.

Forty Nine Palms oasis is a tough three mile hike, south into the hills. At the end, magnificent California fan palms mark a fissure in the earth’s crust. When water hits a fault plane, it rises. Suddenly, the dusty rock filled path becomes lush. Cottonwoods and mesquites contentedly lounge in the giant palm’s shade. Small orioles rest on branches, lulled by the smooth sound of water. I sat on a rock, in the shade, watching the orioles hop sideways along scaly limbs. Rested, I hiked back to the beginning, with large black ravens for company.

Heading west across the park, many of the canyons and folded hills still draped in fog, I decided to drive up to Keys View as planned. My hope was that at 5,185 ft. the outlook would be above the clouds. Just the opposite proved to be true. The higher I climbed the thicker the fog. By the time I got to the top, visibility was nearly zero. Oddly, I was the only one with the ‘above the clouds’ theory. As soon as I opened the door, a cool grayish mist sat on my coat. Everything was damp as I peered into shadows, seeing only outlines, my imagination filling in the blank. The wind picked up and the mist began to sting my eyes. In photos the panorama from Keys View was breathtaking. On this day, it did not exist. So I made my way north to my home for the next two nights, Black Rock Campground.

Near the top of Keys View. Visibility about 10 yards. Countless petty crimes being committed in the shadows.

Near the top of Keys View. Visibility about 10 yards. Countless petty crimes being committed in the shadows.

It’s difficult to tell, but these fan palms are over sixty feet tall. So beautifully out of place

It’s difficult to tell, but these fan palms are over sixty feet tall. So beautifully out of place

Black Rock Campground occupies the northwest tip of the park, about a twenty minute drive from the town of Joshua Tree. A small town with the basics, Joshua Tree has the look and feel of a place that was happy to cease all growth after 1968. Old and new hippies roam freely here. Natural food stores mingle with liquor and used clothing outlets. Faded wooden and neon signs announce saloons and trading posts. With my long hair, scraggly beard and general ratty look, I instantly became a local. I walked the streets for a few hours taking photographs of interesting signs and buildings. Had a slice at Pizza For The People, before heading back to camp. I had a full day ahead and I wanted to map it out. I was also leaving the following morning at 4:30 AM to catch a boat to the Channel Islands, two hundred miles due west.

This sign was actually in the neighboring town of Yucca Valley. When I saw the drive-in sign I got all excited. Not to be, just a large flea market selling plastic cowboy boots.

This sign was actually in the neighboring town of Yucca Valley. When I saw the drive-in sign I got all excited. Not to be, just a large flea market selling plastic cowboy boots.

After a pure night’s sky of white stars against an ink blue backdrop, the next morning’s sun rose in a dazzling display of color. Neon orange melted into lavender hued pinks under empty bright white clouds. Silly limbed trees stood contrasted against a high deep blue sky. The air smelled of freshly turned dirt. The heavens were apologizing for yesterday and I graciously accepted.

Lost Horse Mine sits two miles from the trail-head, snuggled among the dust and boulders. The path once used to haul ore and and supplies is worn and leads through a forest of Joshua trees and cholla, before dipping into a dry wash. Rivulets scrawled in the sand, leave evidence of yesterday’s rain. Hard-pack sits dark stained with water still near the surface, not yet extracted by the sun. As the trail narrows into a rocky sunken path, a rusted car, stripped to the metal, sits silently. Up a small rise sits what was once one of the most prosperous gold mines in the park. Much of the equipment, including the conveyor, remains intact. Behind the mine lies the shell of a pick-up, waiting for its Christine moment. I circled the mine, thinking of a prospector’s life. The hardships that had to be endured. As I hiked back out, I wondered what in today’s world would be the equivalent. All I could come up with was a shoe salesman.

In 1890, in this barren land, Johnny Lang and his father drove their herd of cattle into the Lost Horse Valley. They discovered gold. They bought a gaudy house in the Hamptons.

In 1890, in this barren land, Johnny Lang and his father drove their herd of cattle into the Lost Horse Valley. They discovered gold. They bought a gaudy house in the Hamptons.

On this pristine afternoon, Keys View, unleashed from heaven’s hazy grasp, tested the limits of what my brain can process. To the south, the farmlands of Coachella Valley lean against the Salton Sea and the Sonoran Desert Mountains in Mexico. Across the valley stands 10,804 ft Mt. Jacinto, protecting Palms Springs below her snowy crown. The San Andreas fault carves its path into the sunken floor. I have a fleeting thought of looking out of an airplane. The view is panoramic and staggering. Crests of the Little San Bernadino range, sit one in front of the other. Blue pocked clouds resting on smoothly curved dominoes. Browns melding into deep valleys before finding their way to the blue and white sky. To think that this was all in front of me, covered in clouds a few days ago. Right in front of me. Something of beauty. Something humbling. And yet I could not see.

Keys View looking toward Palm Springs. I could see Bob Hope.

Keys View looking toward Palm Springs. I could see Bob Hope.

Keys View looking south toward Mexico. On a clear day you can see forever. A small town in California, Forever has a population of 241.

Keys View looking south toward Mexico. On a clear day you can see forever. A small town in California, Forever has a population of 241.

I asked her to please flutter her wings. She did and then tried to nest in my hair.

I asked her to please flutter her wings. She did and then tried to nest in my hair.

A Mojave yucca. Lime green perfection, dipped in chocolate.

A Mojave yucca. Lime green perfection, dipped in chocolate.

Was paid $1,000 to be an extra in the movie Horton Hears A Who. Has his own IMDb listing

Was paid $1,000 to be an extra in the movie Horton Hears A Who. Has his own IMDb listing

On a walk through the high desert I spotted Lin. She is beautiful. Pretty. An introverted extrovert.

On a walk through the high desert I spotted Lin. She is beautiful. Pretty. An introverted extrovert.

They followed me the entire time I was in the park. Their leader is Satch. Used to drop on homes in Brooklyn, before joining the High Wire Amigos and hopping a train west

They followed me the entire time I was in the park. Their leader is Satch. Used to drop on homes in Brooklyn, before joining the High Wire Amigos and hopping a train west

NOTE: For more information on Joshua Tree National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.

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Saguaro

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Saguaro

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes – Walt Whitman

Before turning west to El Paso and the far reaches of Texas, route 62 drops south from New Mexico, hugging an eastern edge of Guadalupe Mountains and the looming El Capitan. As if lost, the highway leads back into New Mexico and Las Cruces, before smoothly tracing a path westward into the sweeping vistas of Arizona. Chiricahua and Dos Cabezas Peak keep me company as a warm cinder wind gathers on the desert floor. To the south, Apache Peak fades from view, hidden by dustbin colored clouds. As I turn north toward Saguaro National Park, Rincon Mountain bathes shamelessly in sunlight, lording over the land of shrugging giants.

Saguaro National Park is bisected by Tuscon, Arizona. To the east is Rincon Mountain District, 67,000 acres of high desert. Virtually inaccessible, except on foot or horseback, Rincon District rests in the Sonoran Desert, gradually sloping up to meet the Rincon Mountains. To the west, separated by thirty miles of Tucson and its tentacled suburbs, the 24,000 acre Tucson Mountain District sits low and dry. Both Districts share the Sonoran Desert, but at differing elevations. Each giving life to its own ecosystem of plants and animals.

Carnegiea gigantea. A forest of saguaro cacti fills the Sonoran Desert

Carnegiea gigantea. A forest of saguaro cacti fills the Sonoran Desert

Cactus Forest Loop is eight miles of unpaved road into the skin of the Rincon District. Twisting and dipping, the dusty road leads past some of the tallest saguaro in the park. Reaching heights of 30-40 feet, with outstretched or upturned arms of 10-15 feet, these regal plants lend themselves to countless interpretations. Some seem to be saying, ‘I have no idea.’ Others, ‘I give up.’ I saw one that looked exactly like a third base coach waving a runner home. Several looked depressed, arms at their side. A few shorter ones had a smile on their face. Then of course there are the monolithics. Interpret them at your own peril.

The Desert Ecology Trail extends outward from the loop, leading into a dazzling display of life supporting plants, illustrating the role saguaros play in creating a wildly diverse, perfectly disguised ecosystem where nothing is wasted or without purpose. The Gila woodpecker and gilded flickers shelter and raise families in saguaros. Other birds compete for apartments in the suguaro, where winter temperatures are 20 degrees warmer inside the cactus wall. In summer months, saguaro fruit ripens, with each sugary pulp containing as many as 2,000 seeds. Foxes, squirrels, javelinas and a host of other birds and animals feast on the seeds before redepositing them into the soil as nutrients. Long-nosed bats and honeybees feed on the saguaro’s spring blossoms. I could start singing ‘The Circle of Life’, but I won’t. I am humming it.

When I spoke to ranger Barb, she said they are still discovering saguaro with unique top-growths, known as Crested Saguaro. “We have people who actively hunt for one of a kind saguaro. They are obsessed.” Well, Barb, I hate to brag, but here you go

When I spoke to ranger Barb, she said they are still discovering saguaro with unique top-growths, known as Crested Saguaro. “We have people who actively hunt for one of a kind saguaro. They are obsessed.” Well, Barb, I hate to brag, but here you go

ith elevations ranging from 2,670 to 8,666 Rincon District also contains six biotic communities. Desert scrub, which I am hiking through at the moment, desert grassland, which I am approaching, oak woodland, which I can see up ahead, pine-oak woodland, pine forest and mixed conifer. Because of the varying elevation, plant and animal diversity follows. Black bear, Arizona mountain king snake (it’s difficult to just type the name), Mexican spotted owl, mountain lions and white-tailed deer, call the Rincon district home. It is comforting to know that at lower elevations the most dangerous animal I’m likely to run across in the daylight is a crazed jack-rabbit. And as if on cue, there goes a large jack-rabbit. Light as a feather through the yellow grass, without so much as a hello. For the record, theses are not your cuddly small bunny rabbits. They look more like a cross between the Easter bunny and a kangaroo. I’m taking no chances. I’ve seen far too many Bug Bunny cartoons. And just like that, another muted grey jack-rabbit scurries into the brush.

I wasn’t quick enough to get a shot of the jack-rabbit, but somehow this lizard stood still long enough for me to get a shot. He also gave me the stink eye. It’s a reoccurring theme.

I wasn’t quick enough to get a shot of the jack-rabbit, but somehow this lizard stood still long enough for me to get a shot. He also gave me the stink eye. It’s a reoccurring theme.

I spent five days in the Oro Valley that lies between the eastern and western districts of Saguaro. Five days to get caught up on writing and other business obligations. Between driving, hiking, photography, posting and logistical planning, the days get eaten away. At one point I looked up and had been to three parks without writing about them. Simply no time. So I gathered up my notes and literature from the various parks and headed to the Oro Valley library. I was going to carve out time.

Culling through the hundreds of photos I take at each park, is a time consuming task. I try to narrow them down to about a dozen, but many times fail. I want to try and convey what I’m seeing and the right photos are critical. And I’m picky, but don’t tell anyone. Writing a piece takes about 8-12 hours, so at least one secluded day. Everything that is stored in my notes and head, have to find a place on the page and I am well aware that each piece can not be a novel unto itself. So I carefully (not necessarily skillfully) create sentences and photos and place them on a page. It’s what I love to do. But it does take time

Beautiful metal sculpture outside the Oro Valley library – my home for several days.

Beautiful metal sculpture outside the Oro Valley library – my home for several days.

Cutting into Baja Loop Drive in the Tuscon Western District of the park, Signal Hill Trail leads past a series of shelters built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s. Small structures of stone with wooden cross-joints, they look as if they were finished yesterday. As in many of our National Parks, evidence of the Corps works are present throughout. In Saguaro, another example lies only two miles away on Valley View Trail, where the trail itself was cut out of the desert floor by the Corps. Our parks as we know them today, do not exist without the labor and skill of the Civilian Conservation Corps. They were paid $1 a day and given food and shelter. For more than a few, this represented a chance to regain a level of dignity, lost during the depression. A change to contribute to something larger than themselves. I am constantly amazed by their works

Civilian Conservation Corps built this shelter in 1934. Note to self: The best drive of this trip was on a road built by the CCC. Nothing else has come close

Civilian Conservation Corps built this shelter in 1934. Note to self: The best drive of this trip was on a road built by the CCC. Nothing else has come close

Just beyond the stone shelters, the trail begins to climb a series of stone steps before warning me that I am in an active rattlesnake area and curving behind a large outcropping of rocks. At the peak of Signal Hill, etched in stone by Hohokam Indians over 800 years ago, sits a jumble of rocks with primitive chalk-like markings. Archaeologists believe the symbols may have signified territorial claims or clan migrations. Others believe some of the symbols, chipped through a brown patina of iron-magnesium oxide, are personal works of art or ‘artistic whimsy’. I thought of them as Snapchat postings that have lasted 800 years.

An amazing display of ancient Hohocam art in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

An amazing display of ancient Hohocam art in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

Leading archaeologists believe this says, ‘Keep your Scottish Terrier on a leash. He keeps chasing my horse with horns.’  The figure on the right apparently has 3 legs

Leading archaeologists believe this says, ‘Keep your Scottish Terrier on a leash. He keeps chasing my horse with horns.’  The figure on the right apparently has 3 legs

Camping on the westward edge of Mountain Time Zone, it begins to get dark by 5:00. Soon the moon lifts its round face above the Santa Catalina Mountains, darkening the soaring 9,159 ft Mt. Lemmon. Lying on my back, I wait patiently as stars begin to emerge, individually hand placed on black felt. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, constellations materialize. Cassiopeia, Ursa Minor. Perseus emerges above low hanging Neptune. Thousands of pinhole lights begin to blink on. Then millions. A child’s nightlight made of punctured tin and spun bedside. Small red lights float silently across the sky at 30,000 feet. Movement of a single white speck draws my attention to another muted traveler and I begin to trace a satellite’s eastward glide. Off in the distance, wolves begin their nightly conversations. Howls, punctuated by staccato yips, followed by low murmurs. A black night’s soundtrack. I close my eyes and once again think about how lucky I am.

The beautiful, green skinned Paloverde tree.

The beautiful, green skinned Paloverde tree.

A close-up of the mighty, prickly saguaro, which can live well over 150 years.

A close-up of the mighty, prickly saguaro, which can live well over 150 years.

I found this fellow rather stylish, but lonely. Not sure why he is so isolated. It’s not like having six arms is odd in this part of the world.

I found this fellow rather stylish, but lonely. Not sure why he is so isolated. It’s not like having six arms is odd in this part of the world.

As voted by the ‘Desert Inhabitants Club,’ the 2018 award for best dreadlocks once again goes to Irving ‘3 head’ Fitzman

As voted by the ‘Desert Inhabitants Club,’ the 2018 award for best dreadlocks once again goes to Irving ‘3 head’ Fitzman

This cactus was about 40 feet tall. He had rather short arms, was a bachelor and considered odd by his neighbors.

This cactus was about 40 feet tall. He had rather short arms, was a bachelor and considered odd by his neighbors.

God damn it kids. One more time. Patty, picked a pack of pickled peppers. Now get it right.

God damn it kids. One more time. Patty, picked a pack of pickled peppers. Now get it right.

NOTE: For more information on Saguaro National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service

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Carlsbad Caverns

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Carlsbad Caverns

Little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous – Willy Wonka

The Grand Canyon with a roof on it – Will Rogers

Whites City and the twisting road that leads into Carlsbad Caverns National Park lies just across the Texas border in New Mexico, thirty two miles north of Guadalupe Mountains. Route 62 splits Capitan Reef, a black ribbon across the brown desert floor. To the west, the reef rises up, dragon’s teeth smoothed by time. To the east, the reef remains hidden under the Pecos River, waiting for the earth to shift and expose her fossil encrusted crown. Ahead, there is a place where the ground opens. In this place of silent darkness, a marriage of water and sulfuric acid has endured millions of years to create some of the most eerily beautiful structures on earth.

Amphitheater at the mouth of the natural entrance to the cave. During summer months, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerge each evening to hunt.

Amphitheater at the mouth of the natural entrance to the cave. During summer months, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats emerge each evening to hunt.

The steep switch-back trail into cave drops over 200 feet before you enter. A heard a young man in front of me tell his girlfriend he was dizzy. She called him a name that began with ‘p’ and he kept walking.

The steep switch-back trail into cave drops over 200 feet before you enter. A heard a young man in front of me tell his girlfriend he was dizzy. She called him a name that began with ‘p’ and he kept walking.

The parking lot is almost full when I arrive on a cool morning. People hurry from their cars to the visitors center, bundled as if an ice age had descended over southern New Mexico. Winter hats, gloves, puffy jackets. A few grown men actually jogging while yelling over their shoulder, “I’ll meet you inside.” Having learned from my visit to Mammoth Cave, that temperatures in the cave will be a balmy 55-56 degrees (thank you Kim), I am in shorts.

So what’s the best way to see the caves? “That depends on how ambitious you are,” says Ranger Pam. I’m ambitious Pam. “Are you in good physical condition?” I simply wave my hand vertically from the top of my head down to my knees. Next question Pam. “How much time do you have?” Are you trying to pick me up Pam? “No sir. The entire cave system is approximately three miles. If you want to see it all I would suggest you do the self-guided tour. It starts at the natural entrance and leads down the main corridor. At that point you will be over 800 feet beneath the surface.” Okay, that’s what I’ll do. “Plan on spending several hours underground.” As long as I can resurface at some point. “One last item. Have you been in a cave during the last six months?” Yes. Mammoth Cave a couple of months ago. “Please see a Ranger at the information desk before entering the cave.” Okay. Thank you Pam. You’ve been most helpful. “You’re welcome sir. Enjoy your visit.” You bet. “Nice shorts.”

It’s difficult to give these stalagmites perspective in a photograph. This is ‘Giant Dome’ which stands over 60 feet. His flanking ‘Deputy’ is 42 feet. I am 6′ 4″ on a bad hair day.

It’s difficult to give these stalagmites perspective in a photograph. This is ‘Giant Dome’ which stands over 60 feet. His flanking ‘Deputy’ is 42 feet. I am 6′ 4″ on a bad hair day.

I know you’re thinking it. You can’t help it.

I know you’re thinking it. You can’t help it.

Hi Phil. Ranger Pam said I should stop by before beginning my hike into the cave, because I’ve been in a cave within the last six months. “Thank you. Are you wearing the same boots or clothing?” Same boots. I’ve changed clothes a couple of times since then. “Are you familiar with white-nose syndrome in bats?” Somewhat, yes. They were very careful about decontaminating our boots when we left Mammoth Cave. Then without inhaling once. “White-nose syndrome is an emergent disease of hibernating bats that has spread from the northeastern to the central United States at an alarming rate. As of September 2017, millions of insect-eating bats in 31 states and five Canadian provinces have died from this devastating disease. It is caused by a fungus that infects skin of the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bats. It can be carried on boots from one cave to the next. Any questions?” Have you said that before? “Yes.” Can humans get white-nose syndrome? “No.” Would you bet your hat? “Yes sir. Please use these wipes to thoroughly disinfect your boots. Thank you for telling us you have been in a cave.” I have nothing to hide. “Have a nice day.” I have since learned that Phil is also a ventriloquist.

Entering the cave, you are immediately overwhelmed by it’s size and grandeur. Razor edged stalactites hang 200 feet above, as spiraled shapes rise up from the moonscape floor. Passing ‘Devils Spring’ (who named these places?) a plaque explains how water from rain and snow percolates through the reef, forming carbonic acid, which slowly dissolves the limestone. As it reaches the cave it releases calcite, dripping on the floor, creating stalagmites. When the calcite stays on the ceiling it forms a stalactite. I vaguely remember this science from Dondero High School, where I still hold the record for fewest classes attended during a four year period. But I digress.

Cave dwellers mnemonic – Stalactites hang tight to the ceiling, while stalagmites might touch the ceiling.

Cave dwellers mnemonic – Stalactites hang tight to the ceiling, while stalagmites might touch the ceiling.

These are called ‘Draperies’ and hang from the ceiling. They are about 10 feet in length. Forgive me, but I see something other than drapes. I am not well.

These are called ‘Draperies’ and hang from the ceiling. They are about 10 feet in length. Forgive me, but I see something other than drapes. I am not well.

Further down, the path ambles around what another plaque says is a 200,000 ton boulder that broke loose from the ceiling thousands of years ago. It’s massive. Looking up at the ceiling you can see the concave space it left behind. Immediately I am looking for other 200,000 ton boulders above me. Their are cracks and fissures everywhere. Exactly how random is mother nature feeling this afternoon? Perhaps a plaque in 2218 will read, “You are standing on the exact spot where a 200,000 ton boulder fell on a man named Smitty. We were able to identify him by the single strand of hair that shot skyward as he was crushed.” Am I that far off base to think that everyone down here is having the same thoughts? I think not.

After passing the ‘Boneyard’, a scene of indescribably diverse formations, the path forks. Left leads to an elevator and blue sky, while the other leads to an additional 1 1/2 mile loop. The ‘Big Room’ is ahead and there is no way I’m shuffling through this Freudian fun house without seeing the majestic ‘Big Room’. I turn right and march on, but nothing prepares you for what you are about to see. At 1,800 feet long and 1,100 feet wide, this is the single largest underground room outside of Borneo. I am awestruck. An 8.2 acre cavern. Sound carries in caves and I am muttering to myself. I can’t say what I was muttering, but mothers were seen covering their children’s ears.

As you walk around the edge of the ‘Big Room’, your brain tries to process what it’s seeing. I have a rather small brain and it simply can’t comprehend what it is being presented. Dozens of 40 foot columns merge into sloping flowstone. Helicites poke Medusa-like through the floor, a maze of spiraling white. Argonite crystals shimmer. Cave pearls dazzle. Stalactites and stalagmites reach for each other, almost one after millions of years of trying.  Flat black stares back at you from an opening in the wall. Small pools of clear green water, rippled by droplets from above, produce perfectly patterned movement. At any moment I think the Oompa Loompas are going to show up and start dancing.

Ladder left in place from an early cave explorer. Passed multiple inspections.

Ladder left in place from an early cave explorer. Passed multiple inspections.

One of many side caves leading to either hell or the gift shop.

One of many side caves leading to either hell or the gift shop.

Water rippling through a small passage. So beautifully out of context.

Water rippling through a small passage. So beautifully out of context.

Once you circle the ‘Big Room’, the path brings you to ‘Top of the Cross’, where two passages meet and the ceiling soars 225 feet. Further, the ‘Bottomless Pit’, yawns open and black. Once thought to be a thousand feet deep, it has since been measured at a depth of 140 feet. I felt this should have prompted a name change, but I was not consulted. Around a corner, just when you think you’ve seen everything the caverns have to offer, ‘Crystal Spring Dome’, the cave’s largest active stalagmite stands directly in front of you. Well hello. At this point my mind is numb. I should have taken the elevator, watched a cartoon and ventured back down. It is simply so much to take in all at once. Finally I begin to hear other people muttering. Apparently I am an early adapter.

Another set of more elaborate ‘Draperies.’  These were at least 20-30 feet tall.

Another set of more elaborate ‘Draperies.’  These were at least 20-30 feet tall.

On the elevator back to the surface, a guy turns to me and asks,  “Are you the guy on the van?” Yep. Smitty. We shake hands. “Keith. That’s pretty cool man. How long have you been on the road?” About 14,000 miles worth. “Cool. Where to next?” Joshua Tree in California. “Cool. Solo?” Yep, just me. “Cool. Well good luck man.” Thanks Keith. Hey before you go, what did you think about the cave? “I loved it. Freaked me out, like seriously freaked me out, but I loved it.” Yeah, me too. Take care. As I walked over to the gift shop to get my book and a single piece of paper stamped with the date and name of the park, I couldn’t get his comment out of my mind. ‘Freaked me out, but I loved it.’ I couldn’t agree more. It was staggeringly and uniquely beautiful. But I’m still waiting for something to fall from the ceiling – and I’m in a library.

I love this shot because it at least tries to provide some perspective. That tiny speck by the blue light is another human.

I love this shot because it at least tries to provide some perspective. That tiny speck by the blue light is another human.

This is Fred and Ethel.  He waited 2,343,112 years to ask her out. She said she needed more time.

This is Fred and Ethel.  He waited 2,343,112 years to ask her out. She said she needed more time.

I couldn’t decide if this was Salvador Dali on acid or Johnny Depp’s version of Willy Wonka.

I couldn’t decide if this was Salvador Dali on acid or Johnny Depp’s version of Willy Wonka.

On the outskirts of Carlsbad, New Mexico I found this culinary gem.  I had the wings and the thangs. I probably should have asked what the thangs were.

On the outskirts of Carlsbad, New Mexico I found this culinary gem.  I had the wings and the thangs. I probably should have asked what the thangs were.

The road leading into Carlsbad Cavern. It was easy to get a shot of an empty road once that 200,000 ton boulder fell

The road leading into Carlsbad Cavern. It was easy to get a shot of an empty road once that 200,000 ton boulder fell

NOTE: For more information on Carlsbad Caverns National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.

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Guadalupe Mountains

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Guadalupe Mountains

Had them East Texas blues
And them West Texas too
I’ve done all I know to do
Tryin’ to lose these lone star blues – Delbert McClinton

The road from Big Bend to Guadalupe Mountains National Park folds back into the Chisos, passing Mule Ears Peak and Sotol Vista, before finding Santa Elena Junction and Route 118 north. In early morning fog, the Christmas Mountains sit patiently beneath a silent milky shroud, their majestic peaks laid upon by indifferent clouds. For one hundred miles, summits and crests become ghosts, reduced to something visually meager. Hidden, they wait. Knowing their grandeur has outlasted the ethereal remnants of heaven for millions of years.

Once past Alpine, Texas, Route 90 leads steadily northwest, black asphalt humming as I pass through wide open spaces. Wooden windmills, empty homes and black oval-headed oil rigs attempt to lend dimension and movement to the flat mesa landscape. You are deep in the high desert of the Trans-Pecos in west Texas. Large ranches with ornate logos begin to dot the landscape. Long horn steers sit in the sun, legs tucked, heads erect. Echos of Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens ‘Giant’ run through my head as the Davis Mountains spring up in the east. Ahead lies the imposing El Capitan and mountains that once grew beneath an ancient inland sea.

El Capitan from the northeast. A massive wall looming over the desert.

El Capitan from the northeast. A massive wall looming over the desert.

Between Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains I fell in love.  I offered him the van and $20 for the Hombres mobile.  He laughed and crushed my dreams

Between Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains I fell in love.  I offered him the van and $20 for the Hombres mobile.  He laughed and crushed my dreams

As part of the 400 mile long, horseshoe shaped Capitan Reef, Guadalupe Mountains National Park protects one of three exposed sections of the world’s most extensive Permian fossil reef. Apache Mountains to the south and Glass Mountains to the southeast are also exposed sections of this 270 million year old marine fossil reef. Algae, calcareous sponges and a variety of lime-secreting organisms extracted from the sea to form the reef. For millions of years it lay beneath the ancient Delaware Sea. Only to be exposed after the waters receded and tectonic compression along the western margin of North America caused the region encompassing west Texas and southern New Mexico to be raised skyward. Today, the reef looms above the desert floor as it once towered above the bottom of the Delaware Sea.

One of the first things I noticed as the ranger spread out a trail map, was the complete absence of roads inside the park. A few make a small dent, but are short lived and merely act as access to trail-heads. Route 180 runs north south, skimming the eastern edge of the park and provides entry to the park headquarters and visitor center, but never enters the park. “If you want to explore the park,” says a young ranger by the name of Evan, “you have to hike in. A vehicle will not help you here, unless you simply want to drive around the fringe of the mountains.” I’ve already made that drive. Let’s look at some of the more interesting trails in the park. “My man” says Evan. I’m your man Evan.

Directly behind the visitors center, a trail leads to ruins of the 1858 Pinery Station, a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail Line, precursor to the Pony Express. At the beginning of the trail there is a sign that reads ‘This is rattlesnake country. If you see a rattlesnake, give it a wide berth. Do not throw objects or harm rattlesnakes.’ Damn it! Don’t these people know I hate snakes? Why haven’t they cleared the park prior to my arrival? I tell myself to man up and off into the brush I go. I am a fearless explorer. I am a man. I built the railroad, I am dancing in place, hands waving on either side of my head as the rattlesnake moves away from the trail. Somewhere in the distance I hear a high pitched scream. Actually, it’s more like a squeal. My first thought is that a little girl is in trouble. Then I realize the squeal is coming from me. I look around to see if anyone else is dancing and trying out for the Vienna Boys Choir. Nope. Apparently I was the only one invited to audition. To my credit, I didn’t run – I am a man damn it – I didn’t pass out – I am a fearless explorer – and I finished the trail – I am a marvelous dancer.

Remnants of the Butterfield Overland Mail Line. This photo was taken approximately 1/4 mile from the site of the incident.

Remnants of the Butterfield Overland Mail Line. This photo was taken approximately 1/4 mile from the site of the incident.

Still recovering from my near fatal encounter that would have silenced lesser men, I drove a few miles north to the Frijole Ranch entrance and the Manzanita and Smith Spring trail-head.

After pushing out the Mescalero Apaches, who had called the Guadalupes home for centuries, settlers moved in and attempted to farm this remote land. Virtually all failed. One of the few that survived and prospered was the Smith family, who planted a wide variety of orchards and crops for nearly 40 years. Apples, peaches, apricots, plums, pears, figs, pecans, blackberries, strawberries, currants, and some corn. Walking around the property, with house and out-buildings, including a small red schoolhouse still intact, I am struck by the peaceful isolation. I try to image the effort it took to simply survive. What it took to load up their wagons in the evening, covering the fresh produce with wet paper and linen, then travel for two days to Van Horn (65 miles south) where they would sell their goods. I can’t image what what drove John and Nella May. Whatever it was, it kept them together for 63 years. An accomplishment at least on par with growing apples in the desert.

The Smith’s had 10 children. So I guess we know what they did with some of their time.

The Smith’s had 10 children. So I guess we know what they did with some of their time.

Virtually every park I visit has the remnants of remote homesteads. I am constantly amazed at how far people will go to remove themselves from other people. Choosing nature over mankind.

Virtually every park I visit has the remnants of remote homesteads. I am constantly amazed at how far people will go to remove themselves from other people. Choosing nature over mankind.

A natural spring in the middle of an otherwise rocky arid environment presents an odd sight. Like a swimming pool in the middle of a highway. So as I happen upon the first of two springs on my loop, I’m amazed. This small body of water gave life to Indians and settlers and continues to provide life for mule deer, coyote and grey fox. It also allows for a suite of plants and trees to thrive. Bamboo, wild ferns and honey mesquite. Surrounded by white rock, desert floor-clinging cacti and shrubs, this small oasis brings life to a delicately balanced ecosystem. It’s a small piece of natural art. Beautifully framed and matted for our enjoyment.

A small life giving oasis in the desert with the ever present El Capitan in the distance.

A small life giving oasis in the desert with the ever present El Capitan in the distance.

Higher up the narrow white trail, Frijole Ridge with its imposing 8,000 foot peaks, rises up directly in front of me. As far as I can see the terrain is brownish grey with snippets of green. Short plants hug the ground, roots digging deep and wide for a drop of precious water. Rabbits bounce between rocks, skittish and quick. Four mule deer catch my scent. Their ears move toward me before their heads. Then in one smooth but jerky motion, they face me before effortlessly gliding into the distance. There’s barely a cloud in the sky. The rustling wind, missing trees, branches and leaves, moves low along my legs, stirring the parched grass. My camera strap makes a hissing sound as it moves through the brush. Each step takes me higher and with a single curve in the path, everything around me changes.

The trail leading to Smith spring.

The trail leading to Smith spring.

Directly in front of me alligator junipers twist into Texas madrones shedding their paper thin bark. Small leaf oaks stand next to maples, surrounded by a garden of maidenhair ferns. The sound of water moving over rocks leads to small, clear pools of water resting at the end of a flowing stream. Here the winds plays in the trees, moving through the leaves, each providing their own pitch. I had passed through a keyhole and walked into a glade of heaven. And after a moment, Lance and Walter stepped through the pearly gates. Lacking any self control, Big Lebowski jokes fill my brain and I have to stifle a laugh as I shake Walter’s hand.

For twenty minutes or so, we swapped stories. Lance has on a Mount Union cap, so we discuss what makes them the greatest DIII football program of all time. (My son Preston at Capital University kicks their ass in baseball each year.) Why the Indians failed to beat the Yankees (one word Kluber). Then we discussed our favorite parks and what makes them special. When I spoke about TheMountCo Project, Walter looked me directly in the eye and said “Smitty, that’s a noble cause.” Noble? “Yes. Bringing awareness of these places to people is a noble undertaking.” Walter, I’ve been associated with many things in my life, but never have any of them been described as noble. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe my name and the word noble have ever been used in the same sentence. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” And so I will Walter. (That rug really tied the room together.)

A small pool of clear water with small oak leaves.

A small pool of clear water with small oak leaves.

For the record Lance, I would go ahead and get the tattoo that says 2018 World Series Champs underneath the Indians logo.  What could possibly go wrong?  I mean they won it all in 1948.

For the record Lance, I would go ahead and get the tattoo that says 2018 World Series Champs underneath the Indians logo.  What could possibly go wrong?  I mean they won it all in 1948.

McKittrick Canyon is a 7.8 mile hike that leads you through a series of seeps and white arroyos filled with large boulders, scattered across dry flats rock like marbles dropped from a hand. As you walk into the canyon you are entering Capitan Reef on the seaward side. Layers of the exposed reef mark the steep edges of McKittrick Creek. Deeper in the canyon the landscape turns lush and most traces of the desert fall away. Birds move in an out of trees lining the trail. Sounds move in the underbrush and I turn to see the back half and large bushy tail of a grey fox before it silently vanishes. As I turn up a trail marked by two stone-stacked pillars, a woodpecker begins a fresh mark.

Two pillars announced the entrance To Wallace Pratt’s stone cabin.

Two pillars announced the entrance To Wallace Pratt’s stone cabin.

n 1921, a young geologist named Wallace E. Pratt came to McKittrick Canyon. There is a video interview at the visitors center where he says, “I fell in love with it now.” I love that quote. Captivated by its beauty and geology, he knew what he wanted. In 1932 he completed a stone cabin at the confluence of north and south McKittrick. This isolated structure served as his part-time home and retreat. It’s a magnificent cabin and as I rested in one of the many rocking chairs on the stone porch, I tried to imagine the effort and skill that went into its making. Cowboys on horseback pulling rocks from the washes, Pratt’s vision directing their ropes. Rough plank chairs carved from trees felled by hand. The stone cabin remains as a testament to his spirit and I didn’t want to leave. But slowly I did rise and made my way back down the trail, led by a silver moon against a brilliant blue sky.

Hiking into McKittrick Canyon. There are 1,434 rattlesnakes in this photo

Hiking into McKittrick Canyon. There are 1,434 rattlesnakes in this photo

A stream moves down from the canyon.

A stream moves down from the canyon.

Where the landscape turns lush. It is an amazing transformation over the course of a few short hours walk.

Where the landscape turns lush. It is an amazing transformation over the course of a few short hours walk.

In 1957, Wallace Pratt donated 5,632 acres of his beloved property to the U.S. Government for the creation of a national park.

In 1957, Wallace Pratt donated 5,632 acres of his beloved property to the U.S. Government for the creation of a national park.

Leaving McKittrick Canyon.  I kept thinking of Tim Burton.

Leaving McKittrick Canyon.  I kept thinking of Tim Burton.

For some reason I like to put my hand on trees. I’m thinking about seeing someone for it

For some reason I like to put my hand on trees. I’m thinking about seeing someone for it

I tried to find the technical name for this pyramid shaped mountain and all I could find was pyramid shaped mountain.

I tried to find the technical name for this pyramid shaped mountain and all I could find was pyramid shaped mountain.

Two mule deer giving me the stink eye.  We had a staring contest and they won. They always do.

Two mule deer giving me the stink eye.  We had a staring contest and they won. They always do.

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Big Bend

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Big Bend

There is a young cowboy he lives on the range
His horse and his cattle are his only companions
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons
Waiting for summer, his pastures to change – James Taylor

In the quiet of Christmas morning, I left Austin, Texas, heading west along pencil straight Route 290. Passing silent cattle ranches, where Black Angus stood ghostly in their stillness and stance, waiting for sun to erase the night’s cool mist. Out into chalky hill country with wineries lining the two lane highway. Kuhlman Cellars, Hye Meadow Winery, Becker Vineyards. Each one unique, yet similar in their brittle rows and winter bare. Each waiting for spring and the promise of a new vintage.

At Fort Stockton, Route 385 plunges due south and the terrain begins to shift. Chalkiness takes on a brownish hue and the land begins to rise in distant pockets. The scale of the landscape becomes difficult to measure, as mile after mile of Chihuahuan Desert sprawls on either side. Bumps, once in the distance, suddenly become thousand foot plateaus. Flat topped as if modeled in clay and finished with a smooth stroke from the artist’s hand, they spring from the earth and dominate the periphery. Driven by unseen forces over millions of years, the panting land swells and undulates as ridges rise and fall. Mountains appear to sink into the ground only to burst upward again. Great humpbacked serpents, moving along the desert floor. Funneling me into Panther Junction, the Chisos Mountains and the twisting Rio Grande below.

The sun hitting rock turning it to gold.

The sun hitting rock turning it to gold.

After descending 2,000 feet from Panther Junction, the three mile gravel road into Boquillas Canyon meanders in all directions. Captive to the surrounding terrain, it bottoms out and rises, before ending above a steep drop to the Rio Grande River below and the Sierra Del Carmen above. As I stood looking at the limestone layered face of the canyon, I was startled by what I thought was a grunting sound behind me, over the edge of the bluff leading down to the river. Warning signs for javelinas, wild boar-like animals with long jaw protruding teeth, are scattered throughout the park. Naturally, I did what any sane person would do, I raised my camera. If I’m going to be attacked by a wild animal I should at least get a photo, so they can see what left me limbless. Again the noise. I move slowly to the edge and looked down at the river. To my surprise, across the river, I see a young shoeless boy on horseback with a rope tied around the horn of his saddle. He is dragging a canoe out of the Rio Grande and up onto the steep rocky shore. Each time his horse moved forward, the canoe scraped the rocks and made a deep sound that carried on the water. I stood alone and watched him struggle up a dirt worn path and disappear into the pinon pines of Mexico.

Sierra Del Carmen from a distance of approximately 20 miles. Not until you stand directly in front of these canyon walls can you appreciate their sheer scale. Same logic applies to looking at my head.

Sierra Del Carmen from a distance of approximately 20 miles. Not until you stand directly in front of these canyon walls can you appreciate their sheer scale. Same logic applies to looking at my head.

The magnificent cliff walls of the Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico at dusk.

The magnificent cliff walls of the Sierra Del Carmen in Mexico at dusk.

Big Bend is a land of extreme landscapes. Author Fredrick Gelbach beautifully describes these borderlands as “a carpet of interacting plants and animals deftly woven on a geologic loom.” Thorns below, ascending to evergreen, oak and aspen above. A dry hot, seemingly foreboding desert, surrounded by the diversity of high cool peaks and a river caressing it all. It is a harsh, tender union that began millions of years ago when the sea covered the land. Today, the diversity of plant and animal life is staggering and a study in contrasts. Roadrunners dart across roads and disappear into yellow grass. Coyotes roam the desert floor looking for prey. Plants that have adapted to their dry surroundings flourish. Bluebonnets, yucca blossoms. All perfectly choreographed by the architect of the desert, water. Who’s presence or absence determines the course of all life in the park. It is precisely these extreme cycles of wet and dry, that make Big Bend the vibrant ecosystem it is today.

Voted best looking cactus in the park three years running, Rhonda has taken on a certain form of vanity. Insists on being referred to as temperamental instead of prickly.

Voted best looking cactus in the park three years running, Rhonda has taken on a certain form of vanity. Insists on being referred to as temperamental instead of prickly.

Rio Grande Village Campgrounds sits in a large grove of cottonwoods at 1,850 feet. From here the drive northwest to Hot Springs Road is only a few miles. As I turn onto the uneven gravel road, I am met with a sign announcing that vehicles over 20 feet, due to the curving nature of the road, should not attempt to drive the several miles back into Hot Springs. Oh, this sounds fun. And it was. Curves so sharp I could see my rear end in my rear view. Drops so precipitous and close, I had that standing on the roof of a building without a railing feeling. I put all the windows down, letting the dust from the road hit my face as I leaned out to see below. When I arrived at the small parking area, there were four other vehicles. Not an RV in sight. I grabbed my backpack and started walking to the spring.

The one mile hike passes remnants of an old homestead and resort. Indian pictographs drawn high on overhanging cliffs and fields of bamboo, seemingly so in-congruent with the dry desert surroundings. Then you hear the sound of rushing water. As you step into a clearing on a hard-packed dirt shore, the clear hot spring lies nestled into the bank of the green tinged Rio Grande. Stone walls separate the warm spring from the cold churning waters. A stone’s throw away lies another country.

Two young people – Zach and Courtney – sit on the stone ledge, backs to the river. I introduce myself – Hi my name is Jeff Bridges – and we strike up a conversation. As we are discussing Zach’s leaving a Wisconsin newspaper to work at Big Bend and Courtney saying she wants to contribute to my blog, a large smiling gentleman in striped bathing shorts approaches. “Vill you take picture?” he asks Courtney in broken English. “Of course.” He wades into the warm water and begins to pose. Like a body builder pose. Like he’s on stage at the finals of Mr. Universe pose. I, of course, start laughing and tell him to ‘show me love’. He moves to the back of the spring and begins to now pose as if he’s in a 1950’s Hollywood movie. One leg out of the water. Floating on his stomach with his held tilted back out of the water. This guy is dead serious. I am mesmerized. I take a few photos which I knew would be blurry since I was shaking with laughter. Feeling his photo shoot is now complete, he says “Thank you” and begins to idly float. As Zach, Courtney and I turn to head back down the trail, I know that I have just witnessed greatness.

Warm versus cold. Rushing versus still. Green versus clear. Batman versus Superman. You get what I’m going for here.

Warm versus cold. Rushing versus still. Green versus clear. Batman versus Superman. You get what I’m going for here.

I’m not sure where this man is from. He had a natural reddish glow about his skin and spoke broken English. He is my hero and I hope one day to be like him.

I’m not sure where this man is from. He had a natural reddish glow about his skin and spoke broken English. He is my hero and I hope one day to be like him.

To the southwest of Panther Junction, lies Chisos Basin and the jagged peaks of the Chisos Mountains, the southernmost range in the continental United States. As the road climbs through Green Gulch to the basin, vegetation changes from bushing creosote and grassland, to pine and finally juniper and oak. About five miles up the road hits its highest peak (5,770), before spiraling downward in a series of hairpin turns. Chisos Basin is a three-mile wide depression in the mountains, carved by wind and rain. Many of the park’s trail-heads lead from the basin and on this day I was heading to the Chisos Basin Loop Trail which connects Pinnacles and Laguna Meadow trails.

Climbing steadily through the shade of Mexican pine, mountains surrounding the basin rise and spread out in front of you. As I walk along a well carved trail, I’m certain the vegetation rich arroyos are hiding mountain lions waiting for me to come whistling by. I can’t shake the feeling, courtesy of all the western novels laying around my house when I was a kid – my dad loved Zane Grey. And I think one of the Hardy Boy books actually had a mountain lion jumping down onto the boys on its cover! (Andy, remember when you, Obs and I volunteered to hike an extra five miles for provisions at Philmont? We walked though the narrow canyons and just knew a mountain lion was stalking us from above.) Since I’m writing this, plainly I was spared yet again. I was not pounced on by a large cat. I didn’t even see a tabby. But I had my head on a swivel the entire hike.

I can say with complete certainty that there is a mountain lion in this photo.

I can say with complete certainty that there is a mountain lion in this photo.

Ross Maxwell Scenic drive – looking at the western side of the Chisos Mountains.

Ross Maxwell Scenic drive – looking at the western side of the Chisos Mountains.

The drive south from Santa Elena Junction to Castolon Visitor Center is named after Ross Maxwell, the park’s first superintendent, from 1944 through 1952. This from NPS.gov – “When he arrived on the job in July 1945, he supervised four employees and had an annual operating budget of $15,000. At the time, the park had no paved roads, no electricity, and the nearest telephone was 100 miles away. While superintendent, Maxwell laid out the route of the road today named in his honor to highlight the more spectacular geologic features on the west side of the park.” As I drove his namesake road, I couldn’t help but reflect on what it took to develop these parks into the magnificent protected shrines they are today. Dedicated people like Maxwell are to be held in the highest esteem. Without them, their vision and dedication to a higher principal, we would be a far less wealthy people.

Cottonwood Campground sits at 2,169 feet, a small, quiet, cottonwood shaded oasis. My home for a few nights while I explore the western edge of the park and Santa Elena Canyon. The narrow road to the canyon mirrors the Rio Grande for about eight miles before turning out to an overlook. From here you can see the canyon opening several miles further south. Even from this distance you can sense the grandeur of the canyon walls. A park ranger told me that if you were lucky and time it just right, you can see the sun hitting the far wall of the canyon as it lowers behind the walls. And just like that, I formulated a perfectly timed plan for the following afternoon.

A bluff overlooking the Rio Grande with Santa Elena Canyon in the distance. I stood up here for about 30 minutes throwing rocks into the river. I also threw several across the river into Mexico.  My arm is still impressive. NOTE: If this is illegal I will deny ever being in Texas.

A bluff overlooking the Rio Grande with Santa Elena Canyon in the distance. I stood up here for about 30 minutes throwing rocks into the river. I also threw several across the river into Mexico.  My arm is still impressive. NOTE: If this is illegal I will deny ever being in Texas.

The mighty 1,500 foot walls of Santa Elena Canyon.

The mighty 1,500 foot walls of Santa Elena Canyon.

The guidebook said to put on some old shoes to wade Terlingua Creek, before starting a hike into the canyon. I was in luck, because I only own old shoes. As it turns out, someone had built a small bridge of sticks across the shallow Terlingua, so I crossed in dry old shoes. To access the trail, you have to navigate a series of switchbacks that lead high above the river. By the time I reached the top and began hiking along the western wall, the sun was ducking behind billowing yellow clouds. There would be no display of the sun bouncing off canyon walls on this day. The best laid plans of mice and Smitty.

The trail twists in and out of cream colored high grass, in places a few feet from the edge and a long – and in my case, high pitched scream – fall into the river. At one point I came to a large boulder in the middle of the path. Certain it was only there for those who stop at large objects, I walked around. The deeper into the canyon I walked, the darker it became – walls blocking the sun. Wind came into the canyon from the south. A warm gentle wind riding the length of the walls. Below the water moved languidly along its path, endlessly carving. Looking straight up, I could see the pin light of the night’s first stars. By the end of the trail it was difficult to see deeper into the canyon. As the walls curved away from the light, I turned and headed back to camp.

Emerging from the canyon, the day’s final light reflected red off the river and onto the valley below.

Emerging from the canyon, the day’s final light reflected red off the river and onto the valley below.

Sunset over a gap in the Chisos.

Sunset over a gap in the Chisos.

A two foot high tunnel through bamboo grass, made by small animals to reach the river. Or the mountain lion that followed me the entire time I was in Big Bend.

A two foot high tunnel through bamboo grass, made by small animals to reach the river. Or the mountain lion that followed me the entire time I was in Big Bend.

High cliff Indian pictographs on the trail to the hot springs. This one says Sitting Bear Was Here.

High cliff Indian pictographs on the trail to the hot springs. This one says Sitting Bear Was Here.

My hero in the background after his photo shoot. In the photo I’m still laughing. As I write this I’m still laughing.

My hero in the background after his photo shoot. In the photo I’m still laughing. As I write this I’m still laughing.

NOTE: For more information on Big Bend National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.

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Hot Springs

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Hot Springs

And we’ll walk down the avenue again
And we’ll sing all the songs from way back when
And we’ll walk down the avenue again and the healing has begun – Van Morrison

I left Florida in predawn darkness, enveloped by milky fog that stubbornly floated two feet off the ground. Following the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, it clung to the highway until I crossed over into Alabama two hours later. As the sun slowly slipped above muted panhandle farmland, I turned north toward Mobile, Yazoo and the Mississippi delta –  cradle of the blues. John Lee Hooker, Billy Boyd Arnold and Johnny Winter jumped out of the radio. Their voices grabbing me by the collar, shaking me awake.

Born under a bad sign
I been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck
I wouldn’t have no luck at all – Booker T. Jones

After a steady northwest march across vast bottom lands, where rich brown-ribbed soil sits patiently waiting for water to find its way beneath, US 65 crosses the Mississippi south of Greenville. Captive of the mighty river’s whims, the delta sprawls in endless change, servant to the muddy water. On this day, the sun shone brightly on wet soil, reflecting sharply off tin roofs, rusted cars and tractors sitting idly in the fields. On this day, the Mississippi delta was shining like a silver paten, held out for my salvation. I accepted its visual gift and several hours later on a rainy night in late December, I slipped unnoticed into Hot Springs, exhausted, praying for dreamless sleep.

One of only two fully operating bath houses remain. $71 gets you a whirlpool mineral bath, loofa mitt and a 20-minute full body massage. I just wanted my feet rubbed.

One of only two fully operating bath houses remain. $71 gets you a whirlpool mineral bath, loofa mitt and a 20-minute full body massage. I just wanted my feet rubbed.

Artist Giuseppe Percivati, of Turin, Italy painted this mural depicting a member of the Quapaw tribe, covering the entire side of a building – about 40 feet high.

Artist Giuseppe Percivati, of Turin, Italy painted this mural depicting a member of the Quapaw tribe, covering the entire side of a building – about 40 feet high.

Hot Springs National Park dovetails into the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. They are inseparable. To walk down the magnificent magnolia tree-lined bathhouse row, a National Historic Landmark District which is in essence the National Park, is to walk down main street. This creates one of the more unique strolls in America. The grandest collection of bathhouses of its kind in North America, including many outstanding examples of Gilded Age architecture protected by congressional decree on one side, commercialism of all stripes on the other. Of course the now protected hot springs have a long history of being a commercial enterprise. Although on a reservation, the town became a world famous resort, nicknamed The American Spa. Over the years, wealthy Europeans, Hollywood’s finest, Major League Baseball, gangsters and the ailing have flocked to Hot Springs to bathe in the healing waters. Keep in mind they also let me in so the bar has now been completely lowered.

Decades old magnolia trees hang protectively over the walkway along bath house row.

Decades old magnolia trees hang protectively over the walkway along bath house row.

As you turn onto bath house row for the first time, the stunning array of architectural diversity catches you off guard. Flourishes and styles compete for your attention. Quapaw’s Spanish Colonial Revival style, topped by a large central dome covered with brilliantly colored tiles and capped with a small copper cupola. Superior’s Classical Revival, with green tile paterae centered over the pilasters in the friezes below the first and second story cornices. The Ozark, with its twin towers composed of three-tiered setbacks flanking the main entrance and windows featuring decorative cartouches. The Maurice, designed in an eclectic combination of Renaissance Revival and Mediterranean styles, with its five-bay enclosed sun porch set back between the north-and south-end wings. Or the Neoclassical cream-colored brick Buckstaff, with the base, spandrels, friezes, cornices and the parapet finished in white stucco. It’s dazzling and transportive.

Fordyce bath house, the most ornate of the bath houses. A Renaissance Revival structure, with both Spanish and Italian elements, it now serves as the park’s visitor center.

Fordyce bath house, the most ornate of the bath houses. A Renaissance Revival structure, with both Spanish and Italian elements, it now serves as the park’s visitor center.

The Maurice. I sat in the chair on the left and contemplated the fate of the modern world. I decided the chair was comfortable.

The Maurice. I sat in the chair on the left and contemplated the fate of the modern world. I decided the chair was comfortable.

Touring a bath house is to step back in time through multiple portals. A feeling of being whisked to a more glamorous age, when men wore white linen suits and boaters, while women wore elaborate gowns with hair pinned up under the plumage of an elegant hat. Then there’s the internal whispering in my ear, insisting Chief from One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest is going to walk in the room any moment now and remove the marble sink. It’s an odd dichotomy, but that’s what I’m thinking as I walk from one grey-white marble room to the next.

I would like to be placed in a box please. I would like my head to remain outside the box. Now fire up the heat Connie and let’s see what happens. I can see why these flourished.

I would like to be placed in a box please. I would like my head to remain outside the box. Now fire up the heat Connie and let’s see what happens. I can see why these flourished.

This is called a ‘spike’ shower. In some cultures this is also known as torture.

This is called a ‘spike’ shower. In some cultures this is also known as torture.

Part of TheMountCo Project’s task is to raise awareness of the steep decline in people under the age of 25 visiting our National Parks. Competition for the attention of millennials grows as we speak. Reality is now found via a variety of electronic devices. Blah, blah, you’ve heard me say this before. But here’s a twist. If I’m an 18 year old, visiting the parks for the first time, what do I expect? Better yet, what do I take for granted? Cell service. I expect to be able to communicate, because I don’t know any other type of world. So what do our parks woefully lack? Correct – cell service. Now I know this seems somewhat at odds with a message that says you should separate yourself from the electronic and wireless tether and experience nature. And to some degree it is because we want millennials to do exactly that. However, if we expect future generations to embrace and become the caretakers of our great natural treasures, we have to understand and adapt to their realities. They will not adapt to ours, just like we didn’t adapt to our parents reality. We created our own. And driven by the technology of the day, so have they.

Case in point. Attendance at state parks across the nation in 2017 will be approximately 740 million and is trending upward. Attendance in our national parks for the year 2017 will be approximately 340 million and also trending up. Granted, there are hundreds more state parks than our 59 national parks. But since I have experienced several of each during the past 100 days, I can tell you with confidence that national parks are virtual black holes, while all of the state parks where I’ve stayed have embraced the wireless world. But let’s be clear. I’m not advocating putting up cell towers throughout the national parks. On the contrary. I think the park interiors should remain, for the most part – dark. I am advocating for cell service in all campgrounds. So after a day of hiking and exploring nature I can communicate – if I so chose – with the outside world. I can share my experiences or seek out helpful information, exactly as I normally would. This does nothing to detract from the overall experience. I would argue that it serves to enhance and improves the odds of a young visitor not only finding the overall experience more satisfying, but sharing that experience as well. We can’t ignore their reality. We can only find ways to integrate that reality into the overall park experience.

Even Bailey’s has wifi.

Even Bailey’s has wifi.

And Park Avenue Hair!

And Park Avenue Hair!

From the promenade that runs behind the length of bath house row, there are several trails leading up the slopes of Hot Springs Mountain, part of the Ouachita Range. Hot Springs Mountain Trail leads past the observation tower, then circles back into Peak and Honeysuckle Trails. All told about a three mile hike to a view that lays out the less glamorous side of Hot Springs, with Indian Mountain brooding in the distance. I am certain that people do not come to Hot Spring National Park for the trails. Perhaps in the summer months when foliage is abundant, the well kept trails would offer more visual displays of oak and hickory. On this cold, rainy December day, the woods were monotone in color, with short-leaf pine insisting on adding green. Mostly silent save for the patter of rain falling on the rocks and the fluttering of omnipresent birds, I encountered no one. I had the pathways to myself. Yet even on the most drab day, there is solace and unexpected beauty in the woods.

Scattered along bathhouse row are natural hot springs, emerging from faults in the mountain. This one was 140 degrees. I was only told afterward that I wasn’t supposed to bathe in it

Scattered along bathhouse row are natural hot springs, emerging from faults in the mountain. This one was 140 degrees. I was only told afterward that I wasn’t supposed to bathe in it

While hiking up to the observation tower, I saw this piece of wood. As someone who reads a lot of maps I was amazed at how similar this looked to a topographical map. I lost you, didn’t I?

While hiking up to the observation tower, I saw this piece of wood. As someone who reads a lot of maps I was amazed at how similar this looked to a topographical map. I lost you, didn’t I?

The trail consisted primarily of rocks and various minerals. My feet still hurt.

The trail consisted primarily of rocks and various minerals. My feet still hurt.

Those of you who know me, understand that baseball is considered a religion in the Smith family. It runs deep. An unfailing love affair, it permeates who we are and the terms with which we view the world. (Only 45 days until pitchers and catchers report!) So to my delight I discovered that Hot Springs is rich in baseball history and lore. This from http://www.hotspringsbaseballtrail.com – “The health benefits of “taking the baths” were a primary reason for baseball coming to Hot Springs. The players tended to drink heavily, and believed they could “boil out” the impurities in their system. The Buckstaff, still in use as a bathhouse today, was built in 1912, and hosted many prominent players. The Fordyce Bathhouse, built in 1915, houses the gym where many players trained.” Babe Ruth trained there nine times and was a local fixture. In 1952, a 19 year old hank Aaron played in Hot Springs. Jackie Robinson and Sam ‘Wahoo’ Crawford played there as well. It’s an amazing history and was a wonderful surprise. A Christmas gift to me from Hot Springs.

Little known fact: I came to Hot Springs during my senior year of high school ball. I bathed in the waters. Went 0 for 21 and broke my collarbone during the next 6 games.

Little known fact: I came to Hot Springs during my senior year of high school ball. I bathed in the waters. Went 0 for 21 and broke my collarbone during the next 6 games.

NOTE: For more information on Hot Springs National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service. 

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Dry Tortugas

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Dry Tortugas

 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

VIEW FROM THE TOP OF FORT JEFFERSON. I COULD SEE RUSSIA.

VIEW FROM THE TOP OF FORT JEFFERSON. I COULD SEE RUSSIA.

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.

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.

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

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.

SOMEONE TOOK THE TIME TO GATHER THESE SHELLS AND PLACE THEM ON A PIECE OF DRIFTWOOD. 

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Biscayne

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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.

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.

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.

THE BOARDWALK ADJACENT TO BISCAYNE’S VISITOR CENTER WEAVES IN AND OUT OF MANGROVE STANDS.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sir Woody to his friends.

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

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.

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.

STAIRCASE LEADING TO THE LIGHTHOUSE OBSERVATION TOWER.  CANT’T CLIMB WITHOUT THINKING OF A BUTTON SEA SHELL. OR ALFRED HITCHCOCK.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

I’VE MADE THEM AN OFFER.  SHOULD GET THE RETURN PHONE CALL ANY DAY.

I’VE MADE THEM AN OFFER.  SHOULD GET THE RETURN PHONE CALL ANY DAY.

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.

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.

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Everglades

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A SECTION OF BOARDWALK TWISTED INTO THE DARK BROWN WATERS.

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.

ROSEATE SPOONBILLS FEAST IN THE SLOWLY MOVING WATER.  THIS PARTICULAR GROUP HAD JUST RETURNED FROM A VERY COMPETITIVE GAME OF SHUFFLEBOARD.

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.

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 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.

THE DEEP BLUE WATER OF A LILY POND, FLOWS INTO THE GRASSY WETLANDS.

THE DEEP BLUE WATER OF A LILY POND, FLOWS INTO THE GRASSY WETLANDS.

WHITE WATER LILY.

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.

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?

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.

THIS JUST CRACKED ME UP.  I KEPT WRITING CAPTIONS AND LAUGHING TO MYSELF – WHICH FOR SOME REASON PEOPLE FIND ODD. FINALLY SETTLED ON, “MOM?”

THIS JUST CRACKED ME UP.  I KEPT WRITING CAPTIONS AND LAUGHING TO MYSELF – WHICH FOR SOME REASON PEOPLE FIND ODD. FINALLY SETTLED ON, “MOM?”

A HERON DESPERATELY TRYING TO BLEND INTO THE BACKGROUND IN ORDER TO AVOID BEING JUST ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPH.

A HERON DESPERATELY TRYING TO BLEND INTO THE BACKGROUND IN ORDER TO AVOID BEING JUST ANOTHER PHOTOGRAPH.

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

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

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.

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.

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Congaree

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

THIS IS A CHAMPION LOBLOLLY PINE – OVER 150 FEET TALL. I JUST WANTED TO SAY HELLO.

THIS IS A CHAMPION LOBLOLLY PINE – OVER 150 FEET TALL. I JUST WANTED TO SAY HELLO.

STANDING AT THE BASE OF THE CHAMPION LOBLOLLY PINE. WHEN I SAID HELLO SHE GRACEFULLY CURTSIED.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Great Smoky Mountains

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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.

THE EVER HYPNOTIZING LITTLE RIVER. I STILL SEE THIS RIVER IN MY DREAMS.

THE EVER HYPNOTIZING LITTLE RIVER. I STILL SEE THIS RIVER IN MY DREAMS.

 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. 

 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.”

PRIMITIVE BAPTIST CHURCH, ESTABLISHED 1827, REBUILT IN 1887. THE CHURCH WAS CLOSED DURING THE CIVIL WAR, “ON ACCOUNT OF THOSE NO GOOD REBELS.”

PRIMITIVE BAPTIST CHURCH, ESTABLISHED 1827, REBUILT IN 1887. THE CHURCH WAS CLOSED DURING THE CIVIL WAR, “ON ACCOUNT OF THOSE NO GOOD REBELS.”

MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH, ESTABLISHED IN 1839. REBUILT IN 1915, IT REMAINED OPEN UNTIL 1944.

MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH, ESTABLISHED IN 1839. REBUILT IN 1915, IT REMAINED OPEN UNTIL 1944.

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.

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.

RAY AND KAY. GOOD PEOPLE. I SURE HOPE I RUN INTO YOU GUYS OUT WEST.

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.

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.

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.

ON THIS DAY, THE SUN WAS PLAYING HIDE AND SEEK BEHIND THE CLOUDS.  YOU COULD HEAR THE TREES COUNTING TO 100.

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.

THIS IS THE SECOND ANIMAL ON MY TRIP THAT HAS GIVEN ME THE STINK EYE

THIS IS THE SECOND ANIMAL ON MY TRIP THAT HAS GIVEN ME THE STINK EYE

IN THE SMOKIES, SOMETIMES YOU JUST TURN A CORNER AND THIS IS STARING AT YOU. A GREAT MOUNTAIN WITH SLOPING SHOULDERS FOLDING INTO THEMSELVES.

IN THE SMOKIES, SOMETIMES YOU JUST TURN A CORNER AND THIS IS STARING AT YOU. A GREAT MOUNTAIN WITH SLOPING SHOULDERS FOLDING INTO THEMSELVES.

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.

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.

PIGEON FORGE IN ONE PHOTO.  I HAD THEM MAKE ME A TSHIRT WITH BUTTERFLIES ON IT THAT SAYS ‘I LIKE DOLPHINS’.

PIGEON FORGE IN ONE PHOTO.  I HAD THEM MAKE ME A TSHIRT WITH BUTTERFLIES ON IT THAT SAYS ‘I LIKE DOLPHINS’.

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.

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.

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Mammoth Cave

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

SORRY. WHITE CASTLE.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

WE WERE GOING TO EAT AT POP’S BUT IT WAS CLOSED.  I HOPE I GET ANOTHER CHANCE.

WE WERE GOING TO EAT AT POP’S BUT IT WAS CLOSED.  I HOPE I GET ANOTHER CHANCE.

A NATURAL SPRING, FLOWING THROUGH ROCK AND WINDING ITS WAY ALONG A NARROW STREAM TO THE GREEN RIVER BELOW.

A NATURAL SPRING, FLOWING THROUGH ROCK AND WINDING ITS WAY ALONG A NARROW STREAM TO THE GREEN RIVER BELOW.

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.

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.

Nut Mammoth Cave.jpg

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Shenandoah

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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 forecasted. 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 across 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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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 distance 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.

EARTH AND SKY – WITH APOLOGIES TO BOB DYLAN – TANGLED UP IN BLUE.

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

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.

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 black rock 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.

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.

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 four 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 him 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.

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.

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.

RUSHING WATER IS FOUND ALL THROUGHOUT SHENANDOAH. THE STILLNESS OF A DOWNED BRANCH AND WHAT IT HAD CARELESSLY GATHERED CAUGHT MY EYE. 

RUSHING WATER IS FOUND ALL THROUGHOUT SHENANDOAH. THE STILLNESS OF A DOWNED BRANCH AND WHAT IT HAD CARELESSLY GATHERED CAUGHT MY EYE. 

ALL ALONG THE ROSE RIVER ARE POOLS THAT WOULD MAKE GREAT SWIMMING HOLES. HUCK FINN KIND OF SWIMMING HOLES. 

ALL ALONG THE ROSE RIVER ARE POOLS THAT WOULD MAKE GREAT SWIMMING HOLES. HUCK FINN KIND OF SWIMMING HOLES. 

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?”

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?”

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.

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.

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park

American Indians, the original inhabitants, called the Cuyahoga River “Ka-ih-ogh-ha”, meaning crooked. In the early 1700’s, waves of various European immigrants looking to settle on the fringe of the ever-moving west, began establishing trading posts and homes in the valley. Later, settlers from New England began to populate the valley, developing small towns along the river. Insert into this mix the grand idea of building a canal connecting Lake Erie and the Ohio River. As the hand dug canal became a reality, followed by the railroad and 20th century paved roads, the valley communities changed forever. What remains, along with scattered remnants of these bygone eras, is a unique magnificent valley perfectly serving the needs of the urban areas that make up her borders.

REGARDLESS OF WHERE YOU ARE IN THE PARK, EVIDENCE OF THE PROXIMITY TO CLEVELAND AND AKRON IS ALWAYS PRESENT. ODDLY, I NEVER HEARD A PLANE. ONLY SAW THEIR TRAILS.

REGARDLESS OF WHERE YOU ARE IN THE PARK, EVIDENCE OF THE PROXIMITY TO CLEVELAND AND AKRON IS ALWAYS PRESENT. ODDLY, I NEVER HEARD A PLANE. ONLY SAW THEIR TRAILS.

Most National Parks have a road that loops around or runs down its center. A main pathway that allows visitors to see much of the park. Cuyahoga Valley has an 85 mile towpath running north-south along its spine, mirroring the Cuyahoga River and a canal that once brought prosperity and connection to the rest of the world. In its heyday, horses slowly marched the towpath, leading boats along the canal and through its multiple locks. Today the easily accessible, spacious towpath winds its way through the park, home to hikers, joggers, bikers and people out for a leisurely stroll. Pick any section of the towpath on any given day and you will find people on that stretch. A green wooded slice of nature minutes away from the bustle of an urban pace, it is a haven for over two million visitors each year.  I was visitor 1,989,001.

RARE SIGHT ON THE TOWPATH.  IMMEDIATELY AFTER I SNAPPED THIS PHOTO, A COUPLE ON BIKES AND A JOGGER PASSED BY.  HOWEVER, I DID NOT SEE A SINGLE UNICYCLE.

RARE SIGHT ON THE TOWPATH.  IMMEDIATELY AFTER I SNAPPED THIS PHOTO, A COUPLE ON BIKES AND A JOGGER PASSED BY.  HOWEVER, I DID NOT SEE A SINGLE UNICYCLE.

I met Park Ranger Lidia at The Boston Store Visitors Center. As with most National Park Service employees that find out about TheMountCo Project, they enjoy having a conversation with someone who is trying to help the parks.  Lidia told me that her love of nature was passed on to her by her father, who immigrated to the United States many years ago. She beamed with pride when she spoke of her dad and what he had overcome during his life. We discussed several topics related to the NPS, but one topic caught my ear, because I have heard this from multiple rangers. There are myriad issue to tackle when it comes to the future of our National Parks – funding and the steep decline in visitors under the age of 25 are two that we want to create a dialog around. But a third issue that should be placed on the table is the homogeneous makeup of NPS employees. I have mentioned this before and it is not intended as a knock on anyone. However, we can’t look away from the reality and avoid this question: If the next generation continues to fail to see themselves reflected in the people that care for our parks, will their numbers continue to decline? I don’t have the answer and Lidia admits she doesn’t either, but we both know that it must become part of the larger discussion.

HI LIDIA. THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR STORY, THOUGHTS AND IDEAS.  IF EVERYONE HAD AS MUCH PASSION FOR WHAT THEY DO, WE WOULD BE IN PRETTY GOOD SHAPE.  THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.

HI LIDIA. THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR STORY, THOUGHTS AND IDEAS.  IF EVERYONE HAD AS MUCH PASSION FOR WHAT THEY DO, WE WOULD BE IN PRETTY GOOD SHAPE.  THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.

Hiking from the old Boston store to Brandywine Falls leads you past Stanford House, with its stately barn and curving landscape, before settling into a series of tree encircled meadows. About a half mile before the falls, the path follows a shale strewn stream, winding its way to the crest. As with all falling water, you hear it before you see it. You also hear the sound of traffic running along I-271, only steps from where the trails guides you across the top of the falls. Again I am reminded of the fact that this park has been carved out of a large populated area. The integration of national, state and local parks have been brilliantly woven together and seeing I-271 only steps from Brandywine Falls is a sharp reminder.

IT’S HARD FOR ME TO PASS AN OLD BARN WITHOUT TAKING A PHOTO.  MUST BE MY CHILDHOOD DAYS UP ON CHRISTY CREEK. (SHE SENDS ME, IF I SPRING A LEAK, SHE MENDS ME.)

IT’S HARD FOR ME TO PASS AN OLD BARN WITHOUT TAKING A PHOTO.  MUST BE MY CHILDHOOD DAYS UP ON CHRISTY CREEK. (SHE SENDS ME, IF I SPRING A LEAK, SHE MENDS ME.)

TUMBLING 65 FT, BRANDYWINE FALLS HAS SEEN ITS SHARE OF JUMPERS. FUNNY THING IS, THERE’S NOT REALLY A GOOD DEEP PLACE TO LAND.  OTHERWISE I MAY HAVE GIVEN IT A TRY.

TUMBLING 65 FT, BRANDYWINE FALLS HAS SEEN ITS SHARE OF JUMPERS. FUNNY THING IS, THERE’S NOT REALLY A GOOD DEEP PLACE TO LAND.  OTHERWISE I MAY HAVE GIVEN IT A TRY.

When I was in high school, my closest friend was Robin Alexander. He was intelligent, funny, athletic and had the worse hairdo on the planet (I’ve gotta find a photo). We used to hitchhike all over the place. Have a week off school – great – let’s walk over to I-75, put out our thumbs and see how far south we can go. We would get in the car with anyone who would stop. Sounds rational, right? Of the dozens of rides we had, only one proved to be a mistake. But that’s a story for another time. Today’s story is this. I’m walking down an isolated trail in Cuyahoga Valley – haven’t seen another person in about an hour. Suddenly my phone starts vibrating. My first inclination is to ignore, but instead I look at the screen. Facetime – Robin Alexander. WTF! I answer immediately and there’s Robin! WTF! Before I can tell him how odd and wonderful it is to hear from him he says, “Sorry, it was an accident.” Pffffffftttt. That took a bit of the air of of my excited balloon. Hey, Robin. That’s okay. It’s great to see your shiny face. “How are you?” I’m good – followed by a conversation that was as awkward as you may have guessed. But somehow as comfortable as an old pair of shoes. The next day I got a text that said “Send me the link to your website.” I hope you see this Robin. My dear friend.

I COULDN’T FIND A PHOTO OF ROBIN (I WILL) BUT HERE’S ONE OF YOURS TRULY. GOOD LUCK PICKING ME OUT OF THIS FINE LINEUP OF CHAMPIONS. ONE HINT: I’M NOT THE GUY LOOKING OVER COACH’S SHOULDER.

I COULDN’T FIND A PHOTO OF ROBIN (I WILL) BUT HERE’S ONE OF YOURS TRULY. GOOD LUCK PICKING ME OUT OF THIS FINE LINEUP OF CHAMPIONS. ONE HINT: I’M NOT THE GUY LOOKING OVER COACH’S SHOULDER.

My strategy on exploring a National Park is as follows. 1. Study history and layout of park. 2. Find a base camp. 3. Find closest bathroom and laundry. 4. Map out a driving route through the park. 5. Decide which trails to hike – ones that will take me into the heart of the park and provide a true sense of the park. 6. Write about what I find. 7. Rinse and repeat.

The hike around Kendall Lake, snakes through the woods on a well worn path, without much change in elevation. In short, it’s a great hike that doesn’t make you break a sweat. But let’s talk about what constitutes a lake, say, versus a pond. I noticed in Maine, many large bodies of water were referred to as ponds. In Ohio, several small bodies of water are referred to as lakes. Kendall Lake being a prime example. Let’s be honest, it’s a pond. A lovely pond, with lily pads, swaying reeds and more ducks than I could count. But in size, it’s a pond. I will be petitioning The National Park Service to have Kendall Lake re-designated as a pond. I do this with no malice in my heart.

IF I CAN THROW A ROCK ACROSS, IT’S NOT A LAKE. ACCORDING TO THE NEW WEBSTERS DICTIONARY, THIS IS THE NEW DEFINITION OF A POND.

IF I CAN THROW A ROCK ACROSS, IT’S NOT A LAKE. ACCORDING TO THE NEW WEBSTERS DICTIONARY, THIS IS THE NEW DEFINITION OF A POND.

At the northern tip of the park is the Canal Exploration Center. Opened in 2014, it is a storehouse of park history. There are several photos of the valley as it was in the days of the early settlers, including several structures that remain in use today. You can listen to John Malvin, a free African American, recall his experiences as a canal boat captain and watch an actual film clip of a horse towing a boat along the canal. As with every information center in a National Park, you’ll also find more literature than you can possibly digest in several sittings. Outside the center is an actual working lock – I think it’s #38 – the only functioning lock of the 44 locks that were once part of the canal. When they were built, the sides of the locks were built with stones, cut at local quarries and hauled into place, mostly by Irish and German workers. The white oak wooden gates held back the water of the 90 foot long and 15 feet wide locks. In its day many considered it one of the great wonders of the engineering world. Today, the towpath that led countless boats through the canal continues to thrive.

ONE OF THE 44 LOCKS THAT MADE UP THE OHIO ERIE CANAL THAT RAN THROUGH WHAT IS NOW CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK.  THE RAILROAD MADE THE CANAL OBSOLETE, BUT MANY OF THE PEOPLE THAT LIVED ALONG ITS ROUTE REMAINED.

ONE OF THE 44 LOCKS THAT MADE UP THE OHIO ERIE CANAL THAT RAN THROUGH WHAT IS NOW CUYAHOGA VALLEY NATIONAL PARK.  THE RAILROAD MADE THE CANAL OBSOLETE, BUT MANY OF THE PEOPLE THAT LIVED ALONG ITS ROUTE REMAINED.

Bridal Veil Falls is a short hike, but filled with all kinds of wonder. Slow moving water over rippled sheets of shale, light bouncing on the many leveled stream. Small ferns hiding in billion year old rock, while mosses clinging to the edge of a piece of granite put in place by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1030’s. Sometimes you don’t have to venture too far off the beaten path to see nature showing off. But you do have to venture off the beaten path.

SOMETIMES IT’S DIFFICULT TO SHOW DEPTH IN A PHOTOGRAPH.  I CALCULATED THAT THE STREAM WAS APPROXIMATELY 3,421 FEET BELOW ME.  OR AT LEAST 95.

SOMETIMES IT’S DIFFICULT TO SHOW DEPTH IN A PHOTOGRAPH.  I CALCULATED THAT THE STREAM WAS APPROXIMATELY 3,421 FEET BELOW ME.  OR AT LEAST 95.

DOES ANYONE ELSE SEE A BACKWARD AMPERSAND? A CATERPILLAR WITH TENNIS SHOES?

DOES ANYONE ELSE SEE A BACKWARD AMPERSAND? A CATERPILLAR WITH TENNIS SHOES?

I RAN ACROSS THESE ‘PODS’ IN VARIOUS PARTS OF THE PARK.  I’VE WATCHED FAR TOO MANY BODY-SNATCHER MOVIES TO OPEN ONE. I THINK I SAW ONE MOVE.

I RAN ACROSS THESE ‘PODS’ IN VARIOUS PARTS OF THE PARK.  I’VE WATCHED FAR TOO MANY BODY-SNATCHER MOVIES TO OPEN ONE. I THINK I SAW ONE MOVE.

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The Mundane Life of Trees

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The Mundane Life of Trees

BECAUSE HE CAN’T SWIM, MILTON LIVES IN CONSTANT FEAR OF BEING PUSHED INTO THE WATER BY HIS BUDDIES. 

BECAUSE HE CAN’T SWIM, MILTON LIVES IN CONSTANT FEAR OF BEING PUSHED INTO THE WATER BY HIS BUDDIES. 

IT WAS DURING COLLEGE THAT CAROL’S POLITICAL BELIEFS TOOK A DRAMATIC TURN TO THE LEFT.

IT WAS DURING COLLEGE THAT CAROL’S POLITICAL BELIEFS TOOK A DRAMATIC TURN TO THE LEFT.

DONNIE SWORE IF ONE MORE PERSON ASKED WHAT WAS EATING HIM, HE WAS GOING TO LOSE IT.

DONNIE SWORE IF ONE MORE PERSON ASKED WHAT WAS EATING HIM, HE WAS GOING TO LOSE IT.

IT’S GETTING HARDER AND HARDER TO FIND A STRAIGHT TREE AROUND HERE ANYMORE, THOUGHT LINDA.

IT’S GETTING HARDER AND HARDER TO FIND A STRAIGHT TREE AROUND HERE ANYMORE, THOUGHT LINDA.

SEPARATED SHORTLY AFTER BIRTH, FRANK WAS STILL ANGRY THAT BOB COULD GROW BRANCHES AND HE COULDN’T. TO COMPENSATE, FRANK CONSTANTLY REMINDED HIMSELF THAT HE WAS THINNER THAN BOB.

SEPARATED SHORTLY AFTER BIRTH, FRANK WAS STILL ANGRY THAT BOB COULD GROW BRANCHES AND HE COULDN’T. TO COMPENSATE, FRANK CONSTANTLY REMINDED HIMSELF THAT HE WAS THINNER THAN BOB.

JIM WAS PLEASED THAT MOST OF THE OTHER TREES ACCEPTED THE FACT THAT HE OPENLY PRACTICED HIS RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

JIM WAS PLEASED THAT MOST OF THE OTHER TREES ACCEPTED THE FACT THAT HE OPENLY PRACTICED HIS RELIGIOUS BELIEFS.

AROUND 1 AM EACH NIGHT, THE BEARS SECRETLY PLAYED TOUCH FOOTBALL. FRED DIDN’T DARE OBJECT WHEN THEY TOLD HIM HE WAS GOING TO BE THE GOAL POSTS.

AROUND 1 AM EACH NIGHT, THE BEARS SECRETLY PLAYED TOUCH FOOTBALL. FRED DIDN’T DARE OBJECT WHEN THEY TOLD HIM HE WAS GOING TO BE THE GOAL POSTS.

CONNIE HAS BEEN WAITING 56 YEARS FOR SOMEONE TO HANG A SWING FROM HER PERFECTLY FORMED BRANCH. SHE NEVER SAID A WORD, BUT WONDERED WHAT LIFE WOULD HAVE BEEN LIKE IF SHE HAD BEEN RAISED IN THE SUBURBS.

CONNIE HAS BEEN WAITING 56 YEARS FOR SOMEONE TO HANG A SWING FROM HER PERFECTLY FORMED BRANCH. SHE NEVER SAID A WORD, BUT WONDERED WHAT LIFE WOULD HAVE BEEN LIKE IF SHE HAD BEEN RAISED IN THE SUBURBS.

IRWIN KNEW HE WASN’T LIKE THE OTHER TREES.

IRWIN KNEW HE WASN’T LIKE THE OTHER TREES.

SARAH STAYED GREEN ALL YEAR. SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS BETTER THAN HER NEIGHBORS, WHOM SHE CONSIDERED FLIGHTY.

SARAH STAYED GREEN ALL YEAR. SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS BETTER THAN HER NEIGHBORS, WHOM SHE CONSIDERED FLIGHTY.

‘AT LEAST I’M NOT EDGAR’, THOUGHT BIG BALLS BILLY.

‘AT LEAST I’M NOT EDGAR’, THOUGHT BIG BALLS BILLY.

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Acadia

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Acadia

Southwest Harbor was asleep when I arrived, so I quietly found a spot, curled up and began dreaming. My iPhone started jumping at 5:00 AM. If I wanted to see dawn from the top of Cadillac Mountain I had to hustle, even though it’s a relatively short drive from Smugglers Den Campground. Slipping into last night’s clothes and grabbing a hat, so as not to scare small children, I started the 18-mile drive to Cadillac. For the record, there are a few ways to get to the top of Cadillac Mountain. 1. Walk. 2. Bicycle. 3. Drive. I concluded the night before that anyone choosing options 1 or 2, at 5 AM, should be immediately treated for a multitude of brain disorders. As it was, driving to the top in the dark was a test of cornering skills. Skills I began acquiring at the age of 12. But I digress.

Several people beat me to the parking lot near the summit of Cadillac, apparently shunning sleep for fear of missing an opportunity to be the first person on the east coast to see the sun rise. Considering the sun rises at a particular time regardless of who’s watching, I didn’t mind being an also-ran. After bundling up and exchanging slippers for hiking boots, I made my way to the top and tried to shelter from the wind. The horizon appeared to be back-lit from across the Atlantic, presenting graying light along its rim. As my eyes adjusted, stars twinkled atop islands as they slipped from darkness and began to take shape. Slowly the distant sky began to take on color, pushing the gray upward and replacing it with shades of yellow, orange, red. Then, as if hung from a heavenly string around the finger of God, a tiny blazing sun rose from the ocean, sat on the edge of the earth and stared back at all of us gathered to see its arrival. Flat clouds skittered along the horizon and I wondered if they were as mesmerized by this display as was I. Then I remembered they see this every day and haven’t once had to drive to see it.

SUNRISE FROM ATOP CADILLAC MOUNTAIN, ACADIA NATIONAL PARK. GOES WELL WITH COFFEE.

SUNRISE FROM ATOP CADILLAC MOUNTAIN, ACADIA NATIONAL PARK. GOES WELL WITH COFFEE.

An odd thing happens five minutes after the sun has fully risen. The top of Cadillac Mountain turns into a ghost town. If you booted myself and a couple other folks taking photos, Cadillac would be void of people. Apparently the enchantment of a big orange ball in the distance fades quickly. When I eventually walked back down to my van, with the exception of a few people who had obviously continued to hit snooze on their iPhone, I was alone.

PIKACHU WAS LESS THAN IMPRESSED WITH THE FIRST RAYS OF SUN.

PIKACHU WAS LESS THAN IMPRESSED WITH THE FIRST RAYS OF SUN.

To fully experience a National Park, you have to hike. Find a trail and begin to explore what prompted individuals to petition our government to protect this land. Discover the physical traits that make an area special and worth preserving for future generations. Acadia begs to be explored. Countless miles of trails guide you to mountain tops and lead you back to its craggy coastline. In between, timeless forests thrive, hiding their treasures from those who only dabble on the edges. On the way down Cadillac, I stopped at Bubble Mt trailhead and started hiking. In the wrong direction. I wasn’t lost, it’s just that there is usually more than one trail leading to the summit and I had not chosen wisely. Or, I had deliberately chosen one of the only trails in the park that was ‘natural’. I will allow the reader to decide which, but suffice it to say the trail was made up exclusively of boulders. Ever rising boulders of every size imaginable. And since boulders by definition are not flat, this made for two-hours of climbing that I will not soon forget. Boulder by boulder I inched my way to the top. Sometimes the crevices were so thin that I had to turn sideways and shimmy upward by pressing my knees against the wall in front of me and pulling myself up. Stopping several times on the way up to see an ever expanding view of the Atlantic and lakes below – and more than a few times to catch my breath and rub my knuckles – there was no way in hell I was turning back until I set foot at the summit. Which eventually I did, only to meet a wonderful couple that had hiked up the other side and said it was “a piece of cake.” I described the route I had taken and when they finished laughing, we all agreed it was well worth the effort. The Atlantic and her distant islands, lakes surrounded by sloping trees and massive rock outcroppings, all laid at our feet. Stubbornly, I finally turned and hiked back down the way I came.

AFTERWARD I CONSULTED A TRAIL GUIDE AND THIS PARTICULAR TRAIL WAS MARKED AS STRENUOUS. SUCH A POLITE WORD FOR LAUGHTER.

AFTERWARD I CONSULTED A TRAIL GUIDE AND THIS PARTICULAR TRAIL WAS MARKED AS STRENUOUS. SUCH A POLITE WORD FOR LAUGHTER.

Jordan Pond is a glacier formed tarn with clear water to a depth of nearly 50 feet. (Author’s Note: Tarn is a fancy word that I only recently discovered. It means small mountain lake, which moving forward I will probably stick with.) Hving sharply rising bluffs on two sides, it is a lovely oasis on Mt Desert Island. With trails branching out from the pond, I made an afternoon of finding my way around much of the shore. Each turn putting a new view of the pond on display. Afterward, I spoke with a Park Ranger at Jordan House who said, “About 95% of our visitors drive the park loop and leave. They may pull over a few times and take a picture or two. But for the most part they drive and leave. A nice day trip.” After walking the trails around Jordan Pond, I found this inconceivable. Given its breathtaking vistas, with countless photo ops, the Acadia park loop is unquestionably one of the great National Park drives. But to experience the heart and soul of the park, you have to venture inside – if even for a few moments.

JORDAN POND. THE SOUND OF SOFT CLEAR WAVES TUMBLING OVER SMALL ROCKS BEFORE GREETING THE SHORE OF THE SMALL MOUNTAIN LAKE. ALSO KNOWN AS A TARN.

JORDAN POND. THE SOUND OF SOFT CLEAR WAVES TUMBLING OVER SMALL ROCKS BEFORE GREETING THE SHORE OF THE SMALL MOUNTAIN LAKE. ALSO KNOWN AS A TARN.

eturning to Smugglers Cove (I just like saying Smugglers Cove. Makes it sound like a dangerous place instead of a campground nestled into the woods with rather large RV’s and a great bank of showers) I decided to circle through the seaside village of Northeast Harbor. With magisterial homes leaning out over the water, or tucked into the woods only to be seen by those sailing by, this area has long been known as an enclave of wealthy summertime residents. Secluded with architectural styles and materials that blend into the landscape, I was tempted to meander up one of the lengthy driveways and see if perhaps the occupants were looking for an older gentleman to adopt. One can always dream.

Hulls Cove Visitors Center is a beautiful building, set high above the parking area. Ascending the 50+ steps, you take note of how carefully the man-made structures blend seamlessly into the natural environment. A deliberate attempt to meld into what was there long before man set foot on Mt Desert Island. Inside, as in most National Park visitor centers, rooms are open and high ceilinged. On this warm day, even late in the season, several people waited in line to ask questions of a Park Ranger. This is where I met Ranger Emily. We began talking about the various trails in the park and she asked if I had had the opportunity to hike during my visit. Yes, quite a bit – and I mentioned the trails. She smiled. “I see you managed to find one of our only natural trails over by Bubble. How was it?” Hard. Still smiling. “Yep, that’s a hard one.” And to make it worse added, “You know the other side up is much easier.” Yes. I’ve been told I’m not very bright.

When I informed Emily about TheMountCo Project she opened up about funding and what it takes to “keep a park running smoothly.” She mentioned something in a context that I hadn’t considered. “People think we just set aside land and that in itself makes up a National Park. What they don’t realize is that it takes enormous resources to develop access to these pristine pieces of land. And once access is developed it requires enormous funding and manpower to maintain that access and all the attendant services.” She spoke with conviction. “I wish we could make people understand that a National Park, in particular one such as Acadia that presents unique geological challenges, is a living breathing space that must be tended to. Constantly nurtured, while integrating spaces for the public. It’s much more complex than simply setting aside a piece of land.” Well stated. I can’t improve upon Emily’s assessment.

ACADIA HAS HUNDREDS OF MILES OF TRAILS. SOME MORE DIFFICULT THAN OTHERS, BUT ALL MAINTAINED BEAUTIFULLY.

ACADIA HAS HUNDREDS OF MILES OF TRAILS. SOME MORE DIFFICULT THAN OTHERS, BUT ALL MAINTAINED BEAUTIFULLY.

The following day, I decided to give my legs a morning of rest and drive up to Elsbury for an oil change since I was over 4,000 miles into the trip. During the drive, my battery light came on, so while at Route 2 Oil Shop, I asked them what they thought the problem was. “Could be a low baaattary. Or the altanataaa.” I think it’s the alternator. “You a mechanic?” Nope. Hardly. “Yep. Could be the altanataaa.” Oil changed, heading back to Bar Harbor to take some photographs, every indicator light on the dash comes to life. Then she dies. No warning, just dies. But with good fortune I coast into a gas station. AAA informs me that I have used up my free services (doesn’t everyone lock their keys in the car at least 3-4 times a year?) and a tow truck would be out for the small fee of $60. And my choices are? Eddie pulls up about 45 minutes later and we head to Skip’s Auto Repair, where it’s confirmed, “The altanataaa is bad,” as he hands me the large metal part. $500 later, thanks to Shaun staying late – with his young daughter Katie watching his every move – and a paaaats store next door, I’m back on the road. Could have been worse. Could have decided to quit on the back-roads of Canada. I’d still be sitting there waiting for AAA to deliver an altarnataaa.

BAR HARBOR CAN BE A SCARY PLACE THIS TIME OF YEAR. RANDOM PUMPKIN PLACEMENTS AND ALL THAT WACKINESS.

BAR HARBOR CAN BE A SCARY PLACE THIS TIME OF YEAR. RANDOM PUMPKIN PLACEMENTS AND ALL THAT WACKINESS.

Before heading down to Uncle Mike and Aunt Amy’s blueberry farm in Alna, Maine for a couple days of apple picking, good laughs and good food, I needed one more hike. I wanted a few more views from above the treeline. Beech Mountain, at a little under a thousand feet and its fire tower at the summit looked like a good choice. And in one of my rare moments, I was correct. The trail leads up through trees still bristling with color, shoulder to should with pines and evergreens. Along the way there are large slabs of rock, perfectly placed millennia ago by mother nature in anticipation of mere mortals sitting and viewing her work. Which I did several times before reaching the top,  climbing the fire tower, taking in every inch of the view and reluctantly heading back down.

VIEW OF LONG POND FROM THE FIRE TOWER ATOP BEECH MOUNTAIN. IF LOOSE METAL STEPS THAT YOU CAN SEE THROUGH ARE AN ISSUE, AVOID CLIMBING THE TOWER.

VIEW OF LONG POND FROM THE FIRE TOWER ATOP BEECH MOUNTAIN. IF LOOSE METAL STEPS THAT YOU CAN SEE THROUGH ARE AN ISSUE, AVOID CLIMBING THE TOWER.

On my way out of Acadia, I stopped for one last meal. I had another long drive in front of me and was starved after hiking all morning on a few scoops of peanut butter and a mug of coffee. Luckily, the Lobster Pound & Real Pit BBQ on Bar Harbor road had yet to close for the season. I ordered a bowl of clam chowder and a BBQ pulled pork sandwich. Oh my. Oh my. I kept biting into clams that were only slightly smaller than my head. Fresh, meaty clams in the perfect blend of potatoes, celery, pepper and melted butter. I thought I might cry, so I ate with my sunglasses on. Then I took a bite of the BBQ pulled pork and I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from making that Mmmmmm sound too loud. Topping it off was a side of creamy homemade potato salad and a glass of freshly brewed iced tea. Days later I still drool just a touch when thinking of this meal.

LOBSTER POND & REAL PIT BBQ, TRENTON, MAINE. I ASKED MY SERVER TO WRITE THE COOK’S NAME AS WELL AS HIS OWN ON THE BACK OF A CARD. HE WROTE MATT AND ORION. OKAY – ONE OF YOU CAN REALLY COOK AND THE OTHER PROVIDED GREAT, FRIENDLY SERVICE. I’LL LEAVE IT TO YOU GUYS TO FIGURE OUT WHICH IS WHICH

LOBSTER POND & REAL PIT BBQ, TRENTON, MAINE. I ASKED MY SERVER TO WRITE THE COOK’S NAME AS WELL AS HIS OWN ON THE BACK OF A CARD. HE WROTE MATT AND ORION. OKAY – ONE OF YOU CAN REALLY COOK AND THE OTHER PROVIDED GREAT, FRIENDLY SERVICE. I’LL LEAVE IT TO YOU GUYS TO FIGURE OUT WHICH IS WHICH

ONE OF ACADIA’S SIGNATURE CARRIAGE ROAD BRIDGES. JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, JR. BUILT THE 45 MILES OF CRUSHED STONE ROADS BETWEEN 1913 AND 1940. THANKS JOHN.

ONE OF ACADIA’S SIGNATURE CARRIAGE ROAD BRIDGES. JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER, JR. BUILT THE 45 MILES OF CRUSHED STONE ROADS BETWEEN 1913 AND 1940. THANKS JOHN.

ROOT STREWN FOREST FLOOR ALONG ONE OF ACADIA’S MANY TRAILS. PRETTY SURE I TRIPPED ON THAT LARGE BIRCH ROOT.

ROOT STREWN FOREST FLOOR ALONG ONE OF ACADIA’S MANY TRAILS. PRETTY SURE I TRIPPED ON THAT LARGE BIRCH ROOT.

FINDING A SMALL SQUIRREL IN MY BEARD SHORTLY AFTER THIS PHOTO, I HAVE SINCE TRIMMED IT A BIT. THE SQUIRREL WAS UNHARMED, BUT HAS LODGED A FORMAL COMPLAINT WITH THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE ABOUT BEING DISPLACED.

FINDING A SMALL SQUIRREL IN MY BEARD SHORTLY AFTER THIS PHOTO, I HAVE SINCE TRIMMED IT A BIT. THE SQUIRREL WAS UNHARMED, BUT HAS LODGED A FORMAL COMPLAINT WITH THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE ABOUT BEING DISPLACED.

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Cape Breton Island

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Cape Breton Island

Mainland Trans-Canada Highway 104 intersects with Nova Scotia Highway 105 as you cross the Strait of Canso onto Cape Breton Island. The August 1955 opening of the two lane causeway of stone and blacktop, was attended by thousands and 100 bagpipers were scheduled to march and play. In what still remains a mystery, only 99 bagpipers showed up. Unconfirmed rumors had Angus MacFee refusing to play with Tommy McDonald. Angus was quoted in the local pub as saying, “Tommy’s a poser. Ask his mum. I won’t pipe with a poser.”

I was scheduled to meet Peg and Duncan MacEachern in Baddeck, a small town on Bras d’Or Lake, an hour and a half north of Port Hawkesbury. They had gotten me a ticket for a Celtic Colours concert featuring Rhiannon Giddens, along with two groups of local artists. When I arrived at The Inverary Resort, we were joined by Uncle Mike and Aunt Amy. Like me, they were also staying at Duncan’s family’s place over in Judique on the other side of the island. But tonight, we were staying in Baddeck to listen to some music.

FROM THE WEB SITE – “CELTIC COLOURS IS AN EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER. FOR NINE DAYS IN OCTOBER, CAPE BRETON ISLAND IS ALIVE WITH MUSIC, ENERGY AND EXCITEMENT AS PEOPLE COME FROM FAR AND WIDE TO CELEBRATE OUR RICH CULTURE. FROM CONCERTS TO DANCES AND WORKSHOPS TO COMMUNITY SUPPERS, WE OFFER A FULL RANGE OF EVENTS AGAINST A GORGEOUS BACKDROP OF AUTUMN COLOURS.”

FROM THE WEB SITE – “CELTIC COLOURS IS AN EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER. FOR NINE DAYS IN OCTOBER, CAPE BRETON ISLAND IS ALIVE WITH MUSIC, ENERGY AND EXCITEMENT AS PEOPLE COME FROM FAR AND WIDE TO CELEBRATE OUR RICH CULTURE. FROM CONCERTS TO DANCES AND WORKSHOPS TO COMMUNITY SUPPERS, WE OFFER A FULL RANGE OF EVENTS AGAINST A GORGEOUS BACKDROP OF AUTUMN COLOURS.”

MacAulay Conference Centre is about 100 yards behind the resort and seats about 200 people. As we sat down Mike ordered a bucket of beers and we settled in. The night’s performers included, Ben Miller and Anita MacDonald, “blending the rich traditional sound of the Cape Breton fiddle, with the fiery edge of the Scottish Border pipes.” Along with The Hanneke Cassel Trio, featuring Mike Block on cello and guitarist Keith Murphy,  “fusing influences from the Isle of Skye and Cape Breton with Americana grooves and musical innovations, this group creates a cutting-edge acoustic sound that retains the integrity and spirit of the Scottish tradition.” But the headliners were  Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, “with roots in North Carolina and Kentucky, their musical heritage springs from places where the mix is particularly potent. Rhiannon brought African-American string-band traditions a new and beautiful vitality through The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and has launched a versatile solo career that confirms her status as a major American artist for this day and age.” Got all that? We were in for a unique evening of music, performed in a small intimate setting. Woo.

While I do not profess to be anything approaching an expert on music – in particular Celtic, Gaelic and Scottish music – I do have a pretty good ear. During the next hour, Ben Miller, Anita MacDonald and The Hanneke Cassel Trio, treated my ears to a joyous, raucous tour of fiddle, pipes and guitar playing. The best of which was done, so I’m told, in traditional Cape Breton style. Which to my untrained ear sounds a lot like the fiddle players my parents listened to on The Grand Ole Opry radio show when I was a boy. But the headliners…oh my. If you do nothing else after reading this, Google Rhiannon Giddens and find out were she’s playing, buy a ticket and send me a thank you letter the next day. She and Dirk Powell were beyond that good. It’s seldom that a performer can reduce an audience to complete silence in anticipation of a note. But she did. It is a rare performer that can hold an audience in the palm of her hand and coyly toy with them at will. But she can and did. Her version of the Patsy Cline standard, ‘She’s Got You’ moved every person in the room to the edge of their seat and then as if willed to levitate, gave her the standing ovation she deserved. It was a stunning display of stage presence, raw talent polished until gleaming with confidence and a voice that hit notes from the deepest bottom to the highest reaches. She was something to behold.

The following morning, Duncan and I drove across the island to the inn his father, Duncan Sr. had designed and built by hand, over a period of three years between 2000 and 2003. I had heard about the Inn on the Intervale for several years and it did not in any way disappoint. Carved out of the woods on a sloping bank of the Intervale River and built with the downed timbers, the 15 bedroom, 17 bathroom inn is a work of art, by a man who loved his home of Cape Breton Island. When I walked in the front door I instantly felt comfortable – at home. Duncan gave me a tour and you can’t help but come away impressed with Duncan Sr’s vision, skill and drive. He created a home for his large family of boys (8, 9, 10 – I forget how many Mac boys there are) and a family that extends in a thousand directions through aunts, uncles, wives, children, grandchildren and friends. It’s a masterpiece matched only by the hospitality of the innkeepers.

THIS IS VERY SELFISH ON MY PART, HAVING ONLY BEEN THERE ONCE AND NOT HAVING TO SHOULDER ANY OF THE PROBLEMS THAT ARISE FROM RUNNING A LARGE INN, BUT I HOPE NO ONE BUYS IT, JUST SO I CAN RETURN.

THIS IS VERY SELFISH ON MY PART, HAVING ONLY BEEN THERE ONCE AND NOT HAVING TO SHOULDER ANY OF THE PROBLEMS THAT ARISE FROM RUNNING A LARGE INN, BUT I HOPE NO ONE BUYS IT, JUST SO I CAN RETURN.

Most of the day was spent walking around the grounds, exploring the great barn, fishing hut and listening to stories. Peg and Dunc, along with Mike and Amy and their friends Connie and Gary from Alna, Maine who were also staying at the inn. Gary had pinched something in his back on a hike earlier in the week and had spent several days lying on his back in pain. Of course being an outdoorsman from Maine, Gary shrugged off the pain as a city dweller may offhandedly wave at a pigeon. It was impressive Gary. When I first heard of your plight I sloughed into the closest bathroom and cried.

UMA AND JULIA WERE PLAYING WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED AT THE INN. ALONG WITH THEIR PARENTS, YOUNGER SISTER AND DOG, THEY ARE TRAVELING FROM BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA TO A DESTINATION AS YET UNKNOWN. COULDN’T BE SWEETER PEOPLE. I HOPE THEY FIND WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR.

UMA AND JULIA WERE PLAYING WHEN I FIRST ARRIVED AT THE INN. ALONG WITH THEIR PARENTS, YOUNGER SISTER AND DOG, THEY ARE TRAVELING FROM BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA TO A DESTINATION AS YET UNKNOWN. COULDN’T BE SWEETER PEOPLE. I HOPE THEY FIND WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR.

As the end of daylight approached, Duncan asked if I was interested in taking a hike along a trail that borders the Gulf of St Lawrence – the body of water on the western side of Cape Breton. Of course. He said that the trail ran along the back of a few properties where the two women that take care of the inn, also are caretakers. Marie and Little Marie. “You’ll love em. Marie doesn’t say much, but Little Marie doesn’t stop talking. She has a story for everything.” So at dusk, we hopped into two vehicles and made the 15 minute drive with Gary laying down in the backseat of his truck. We were going to lead Connie to a point on the hill where she and Gary could watch the sunset without having to get out and walk. The rest of the group drove over to meet Marie and Little Marie.

We were met by two women and a friendly golden dog. The women looked like a textbook page labeled ‘mismatched clones’. Marie wore blue jeans, a blue beanie, a hoodie under a navy jacket and big rubber boots. She also carried a large walking stick and had a ready smile. Little Marie was, well…little. She also wore blue jeans, a blue jacket, rubber boots and carried a walking stick. Her cheeks were as red as a freshly picked rose. You got the sense that one was a no nonsense type of gal, while the other never met a joke she didn’t repeat. I immediately liked them both and when we shook hands I knew I was being led by two Cape Bretoners. You could feel it in their hands.

LEFT TO RIGHT: DUNCAN, LITTLE MARIE, AMY, MARIE, THE DOG WHO’S NAME I CAN’T REMEMBER, MIKE, PEGGY (YOU CAN OPEN YOUR EYES NOW).

LEFT TO RIGHT: DUNCAN, LITTLE MARIE, AMY, MARIE, THE DOG WHO’S NAME I CAN’T REMEMBER, MIKE, PEGGY (YOU CAN OPEN YOUR EYES NOW).

LEFT TO RIGHT: MIKE, MARIE, LITTLE MARIE, AMY, GARY, PEGGY, DUNCAN, THE DOG WHO’S NAME I CAN’T REMEMBER AND CONNIE.

LEFT TO RIGHT: MIKE, MARIE, LITTLE MARIE, AMY, GARY, PEGGY, DUNCAN, THE DOG WHO’S NAME I CAN’T REMEMBER AND CONNIE.

We walked along a trail that curved above the open water a hundred feet below, never more than a few paces from the edge. Then through a brief stand of pines before opening once again to the sea. The sun was beginning to dip, yet on this mostly cloud covered night, still managed to throw light on its decent. As we made our way back along the trail, Duncan turned to me and said, “Where else can you walk along a stretch like this on private land, where the owners encourage people to take in the view? Not many.” I would agree Duncan. It was a remarkable stroll.

REMNANTS OF A WEATHERVANE NEAR THE WATERS EDGE, ALONG THE PATH BEHIND THE MACDONALD HOME.

REMNANTS OF A WEATHERVANE NEAR THE WATERS EDGE, ALONG THE PATH BEHIND THE MACDONALD HOME.

The next day was moving day. Mike, Amy, Connie and Gary left before dawn. They had about a 12 hour trip south to Alna, Maine and wanted to get an early jump. When I woke up an hour or so after they left, my first thought was we hadn’t really said a proper goodbye. My second thought was hoping Gary could get comfortable on what was to be a long day. Peggy and Duncan were also leaving to begin their journey back to Michigan, the inn was closing for the season and it was time for Marie and Little Marie to begin care-taking duties in earnest. My plan was to head up to the Cabot Trail, eventually making it to the northern tip of Cape Breton and spend the night in Meat Cove. So after the pumpkin tossing ceremony, I said goodbye to Peggy and Duncan, thanked them for their warm welcome and hit the road. Meat Cove was a long drive and I knew there would be countless stops along the way.

NOTICE THE PERFECT PUMPKIN TOSSING FORM. WEIGHT ON THE BACK ARM, ELBOWS AT 90 DEGREE ANGLES, FINGERS SPLAYED, EYES ON THE RIVER BELOW. PERFECT I TELL YOU.

NOTICE THE PERFECT PUMPKIN TOSSING FORM. WEIGHT ON THE BACK ARM, ELBOWS AT 90 DEGREE ANGLES, FINGERS SPLAYED, EYES ON THE RIVER BELOW. PERFECT I TELL YOU.

Virtually every year, the Cabot Trail, named after the explorer John Cabot, is voted one of the world’s most beautiful drives. Whether winding along both raggedy coasts, dipping to the sea, following the Margaree River or turning inland to cross the spectacular rugged highlands of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the Cabot Trail endlessly amazes. My journey took me up the west coast of the island, before leaving the trail at Cape North, heading northwest to remote Meat Cove. My plan was to spend the night in Meat Cove and then finish the rest of the Cabot Trial on the eastern side of the island the following day. So onward and upward I traveled. Until all semblance of a normal road ended. But just as suddenly as it ended, pavement began again. Then stopped. Then magically appeared again….You get the picture. Where there was road it was decent blacktop. Where there was no pavement, it was a rutted dirt, rock strewn, narrow, cliff hanging 5 miles per hour test of will. The good folks of Meat Cove know how to keep people out. But when I arrived at the top, a saw that a few of us had made it through. Two RVs to be exact. One which was mysteriously on the other side of the rope in the Meat Cove Campground, obviously and unfortuntely closed for the season. Undaunted, I walked over to the one fellow traveler parked next to me and told him I had planned on spending the night. “Me too.” Not much separating us from a spot to park. Just that rope. I say we take it down. “Tell you what. You take it down and I’ll put it back after we park on the other side. That way we are both complicit.” I walked over to the rope, clicked the carabiner and he drove in. I followed suit and he returned the rope. Co-conspirators at the top of Cape Breton.

MY VIEW FROM MEAT COVE. THE WINDS WERE SO STRONG THE VAN WAS LITERALLY MOVING ALL NIGHT. AT ONE POINT I SWEAR A GUST LIFTED US OFF THE GROUND. I DID NOT SLEEP WELL.

MY VIEW FROM MEAT COVE. THE WINDS WERE SO STRONG THE VAN WAS LITERALLY MOVING ALL NIGHT. AT ONE POINT I SWEAR A GUST LIFTED US OFF THE GROUND. I DID NOT SLEEP WELL.

The next morning my fellow camper – from Rhode Island – and I repeated the rope removal process and were on our way. I was heading to Ingonish Beach, historic Keltic Lodge and the trail leading to a point jutting into the sea behind the lodge. Ingonish Beach is made up of two distinct materials, one following the other, but rarely overlapping. When you first approach the beach through the sea grass, you are greeted by smooth rocks of all shapes and sizes. Literally a beach made of stones. As you walk further toward the sea, a great mixture of surfaces and textures on your feet, the rocks give way to perfect golden sand, stretching down and into the water. It’s as if the ocean has pushed the rocks back so that the sand can flourish. And I appreciated that.

INGONISH BEACH WITH THE KELTIC LODGE ACROSS THE BAY. I ONLY STUBBED MY TOES 3 TIMES BEFORE REACHING THE SAND. DIDN’T MATTER. I COULDN’T FEEL MY TOES AFTER DIPPING IN THE ATLANTIC.

INGONISH BEACH WITH THE KELTIC LODGE ACROSS THE BAY. I ONLY STUBBED MY TOES 3 TIMES BEFORE REACHING THE SAND. DIDN’T MATTER. I COULDN’T FEEL MY TOES AFTER DIPPING IN THE ATLANTIC.

A short drive around the bay – I think the drive up the property is longer – the Keltic Lodge regally sits, flouting her elegance and dominance over Middlehead Peninsula. Built on land that was expropriated from Thomas Edison’s good friends Henry and Julia Corson of Akron, Ohio, the Keltic Lodge was in operation for two seasons, before the government closed the hotel in 1942. In 1946, after the end of the war, the hotel reopened and has been a landmark destination ever since. Tucked behind the lodge is the trail-head that leads you to the end of Middlehead Peninsula. About a two mile walk through posted coyote country – pardon? – the trail leads through pristine forest that teases you with small glimpses of the ocean between their branches. This day was sunny and uncommonly warm and by the time I reached the point I had shed my coat and shirt – down to just a tee shirt. The roar of the surf, taking out the end of its thousands mile journey on the rocks, was deafening. The wind added its vocals to the symphony and I sat for a long time listening, before rising and heading back up the trail. I was off to Bay of Fundy and Maine below.

WHERE MIDDLEHEAD TRAIL MEETS THE OCEAN. A STUNNING SETTING THAT WAS ALL MINE FOR AS LONG AS I SAT.

WHERE MIDDLEHEAD TRAIL MEETS THE OCEAN. A STUNNING SETTING THAT WAS ALL MINE FOR AS LONG AS I SAT.

ABOUT 10 FEET BEHIND THE VAN IS A SHEER CLIFF. PEOPLE HAVE WEIGHED IN ON STUPIDITY VERSUS DARING MY ENTIRE LIFE. TYPICALLY THE SCALE TIPS TOWARD STUPIDITY.

ABOUT 10 FEET BEHIND THE VAN IS A SHEER CLIFF. PEOPLE HAVE WEIGHED IN ON STUPIDITY VERSUS DARING MY ENTIRE LIFE. TYPICALLY THE SCALE TIPS TOWARD STUPIDITY.

WALKING OUT TO THE END OF MIDDLEHEAD. NOT A COYOTE IN SITE. I MIGHT ADD THAT I’VE NOW TRAVELED OVER 5,000 MILES THROUGH MOOSE COUNTRY AND HAVE YET TO SEE A LIVE MOOSE. IF IT’S POSTED IT’S GUARANTEED I WON’T SEE IT. HOPING FOR LOTS OF BEAR POSTINGS AS I HEAD SOUTH.

WALKING OUT TO THE END OF MIDDLEHEAD. NOT A COYOTE IN SITE. I MIGHT ADD THAT I’VE NOW TRAVELED OVER 5,000 MILES THROUGH MOOSE COUNTRY AND HAVE YET TO SEE A LIVE MOOSE. IF IT’S POSTED IT’S GUARANTEED I WON’T SEE IT. HOPING FOR LOTS OF BEAR POSTINGS AS I HEAD SOUTH.

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Crossing Canada

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Crossing Canada

The border crossing at International Falls, Minnesota is about as inconspicuous as an international crossroads can get. Nestled into a series of industrial buildings and a web of railroad sidings, the small booth seems right at home. The border guard, who was just a little to perky for 6:00 AM, smiled and asked me where I was headed. I said I was going to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. “Geez, Louise, what for?” It’s a rather long story, but I’m traveling to all 59 National Parks in the United States and I’m on my way to Acadia National Park, via Cape Breton. “Holy smokes. Hey are you the bearded guy on the van?” In a sense, yes. “You got room in there for one more?” Uh….stammer, stammer. “Just kiddin, eh. But I’m jealous. Now git.” Living in Michigan, I have crossed into Canada many times. I’ve never been told to ‘git’.

The first thing you notice when you enter Canada, is well, nothing. A few different stores, the traffic lights seem to be a different shade of red and green and the speed limit is so slow you just accept that at some point you will end up in jail. Then there’s that whole miles versus kilometers nonsense that any speedometer can translate. But for the most part – at least on the surface – it’s the USA with more Tim Hortons.

ANOTHER SUBTLE CLUE THAT YOU’VE ENTERED CANADA. CURLING CLUBS. I JOINED THIS ONE. THEY SAID I COULD USE ALL THE CURLING FACILITIES IN THE US FOR FREE.

ANOTHER SUBTLE CLUE THAT YOU’VE ENTERED CANADA. CURLING CLUBS. I JOINED THIS ONE. THEY SAID I COULD USE ALL THE CURLING FACILITIES IN THE US FOR FREE.

For those of you who have never driven across the top of Lake Superior, from Ft. Francis to Thunder Bay, to Ste Sault Marie, I can sum up the overall experience in a few words. A glorious time-warp. A combination of being off the grid, obviously at peace with nature – or at least you’ve called a truce – and not having more than a single Walmart for every million square miles of population. I passed billboards that were last changed when Kennedy was President. I drove through small towns and villages with people that looked at me as if I was one of the first settlers. But across that mighty stretch, there was beauty everywhere. At times what I was seeing around each bend was more magnificent than the last. A seemingly unending string of postcards waiting to be captured and sold at the local Circle K. The beauty was relentless and I found myself stopping every ten minutes, turning my drive into an all day meander and a bit of the night affair.

WATER, LIGHT AND LAND ON A FOGGY MORNING ABOVE LAKE SUPERIOR.

WATER, LIGHT AND LAND ON A FOGGY MORNING ABOVE LAKE SUPERIOR.

As I rolled into Pukaskwa National Park on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior, it was pitch black. No lights, the dead of night. For just a moment I stopped on the narrow blacktop road leading into the campground and turned off my headlights. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me. While I don’t mind the dark, I do like my hands and this was a darkness that you rarely encounter, so the headlights returned. Five minutes later, I spotted something about fifty yards ahead in the middle of the road. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it was sauntering down the middle stripe like it owned the damn thing. Finally, it was close enough to recognize as a wolf. A wolf was walking the yellow line directly in front of my now stopped van. In shock I watched as it hesitated in front of my vehicle for a moment and then passed within foot of my window and disappeared into the inky black night. If the window had been down I could have pet him. But then the hand I professed affection for a few sentences ago may well have been eaten. Or at best nibbled. I still can’t believe a wolf strolled by my door. That’s going to leave an indelible impression.

OLD WOMAN BAY. I GUESSING THE GUY WHO NAMED IT IS EITHER DIVORCED OR UNHAPPILY MARRIED. I WOULD HAVE OPTED FOR YOUNG MAIDEN COVE.

OLD WOMAN BAY. I GUESSING THE GUY WHO NAMED IT IS EITHER DIVORCED OR UNHAPPILY MARRIED. I WOULD HAVE OPTED FOR YOUNG MAIDEN COVE.

Camping in parks, as I have been doing, requires you to occasionally interact with fellow travelers. For the most part – and this is my own assumption – people in parks tend to share a few traits. For instance they like being outdoors. They like to travel. They appear to be rather fond of large pickup trucks and Subarus, which seem diametrically opposed. They like bonfires. And in this particular campground, they like weed. Unknowingly into this cannabis-fest I drove, finding its source parked but two small spaces to my left in the form of a minivan and two young French Canadians. This is the exact transcript of our conversation, which took place with headlamps glaring into my eyes, temporarily blinding me, but causing no concern from the headlamp’s baked owners. Hi guys, how’s it going? “English…no…French…oui…oui…uuuuhhhh…errrrrr…hahahahahah…sorry, must we goodnight.” As my eyes began to water and Snoop Dog lyrics suddenly rambled through my head, I bid them a fine evening and walked back to my van. I slept like a baby.

DAN AND HIS WIFE TIPPIE, COULDN’T DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THE RV AFTER THEIR LAST TRIP TO WINNIPEG. EVENTUALLY THEY LANDED ON A SOLUTION.

DAN AND HIS WIFE TIPPIE, COULDN’T DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THE RV AFTER THEIR LAST TRIP TO WINNIPEG. EVENTUALLY THEY LANDED ON A SOLUTION.

For the next fours days I traveled across Canada, passing through Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, North Bay, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, Riviere du-Loup, Grand Falls, Fredericton, Moncton and New Glasgow. Every day was filed with grand vistas, tiny diners with great food, great weather and good people – like Reny. When I stopped for gas and coffee early one morning, I asked the young ladies behind the counter where I could find a good breakfast. It was Thanksgiving in Canada and the chances of finding something open were slim. Both answered in unison, “Across the street, eh.” Canadians really do say eh by the way. A lot. “Our aunt owns it. Tell her we sent you, eh. Maybe we’ll get a referral fee.” This followed by laughter. I paid my tab and drove across the street to a tiny little, unassuming building – more like an old house – and waked in. The dark haired, ruddy faced gentleman who handed me the menu reminded me of an old, scarred hockey player. I asked him what a Denver omelette was. “It’s when we use bacon instead of ham, eh. I make a good Denver omelette. Two cheeses for you.” And off he went. His only customer was happy. When he returned a while later with what looked to be a perfect omelette, we struck up a conversation. Have you lived here all your life? “Oh yeah. I’m French Canadian. Born and bred.” Is there weed in the back? This is what I thought but didn’t say. “Where you heading? Is that you on the van?” I explain my journey and what we hope to accomplish and he says, “I was a scout, yeah. We had a great scout leader here. Took us camping all the time, eh. One time a snow hut collapsed on a guy. Almost killed him. Dug him out with shovels.” As it so happens, that actually happened to me about ten years ago. When I told him the story he just kept shaking his head. “Could have died, yeah. You could have died, yeah.” Reny was a good man and I was lucky to meet him.

THAT’S RENY ON THE LEFT. I’M THE GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE HE’S DOING A POOR IMITATION OF CASTRO.

THAT’S RENY ON THE LEFT. I’M THE GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE HE’S DOING A POOR IMITATION OF CASTRO.

Five days and about three thousand miles later, I crossed over onto Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. If I had to make that same drive across Canada tomorrow I wouldn’t hesitate. I saw more beautiful landscapes than I could describe in a dozen posts. I was fortunate to meet wonderful people at virtually every turn – and a few of them even spoke English. I discovered why Tim Hortons is an institution and had my coffee cup rinsed by a gal in Moncton, without even asking her to do so. “Oh just doing my part to make your day a little better. Yeah.” That kind of sums it up.

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Voyageurs National Park

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Voyageurs National Park

Although not an island, think of Voyageurs National Park as Isle Royale multiplied a thousand times. A vast stretch of land nestled against the Canadian border at the northern tip of Minnesota, Voyageurs is home to four large inland lakes – Rainy, Namakan, Sand Point and Kabetogama – countless small islands and webs of waterways. This complex network of land and water is home to myriad animals and plant life. The marriage of land and water in it’s most glorious form.

TINY ISLANDS SPROUT FROM THE LAKES. IF GOFUNDME WORKS I MIGHT RENT ONE AND DEVELOP AN UNDERGROUND LAIR.

TINY ISLANDS SPROUT FROM THE LAKES. IF GOFUNDME WORKS I MIGHT RENT ONE AND DEVELOP AN UNDERGROUND LAIR.

The drive from Grand Portage, Minnesota to Voyageurs takes about five hours and passes through Superior and Katetogama National Forests. Colors are peaking, so around every corner nature tries to one-up herself with gaudy displays. Of course the occasional human display crops up, but somehow manages to always feel small in her shadow. Then there was the Ron Paul sign. The owner of the gas station displaying this work of art, told me they understood the election of 2012 was over, but they just loved the sign. For what it’s worth Connie, so did I.

BEST DRAWING OF RON PAUL, AS VOTED BY THE ROYAL ORDER OF MOOSE – DULUTH, MINNESOTA.

BEST DRAWING OF RON PAUL, AS VOTED BY THE ROYAL ORDER OF MOOSE – DULUTH, MINNESOTA.

I arrived at Voyageurs Headquarters just prior to closing, so that I could get my bearings for hiking the next day. It was a lucky stop, because I happened to meet Voyageur’s Chief Park Ranger, Ben Welch. Like most people who find out what I’m doing, Ben takes an interest and the conversation is always pleasant and informative, with me gaining much more insight than I provide. In Ben’s case, he was generous with his time, staying well past closing while outlining some of the challenges facing the Park Service. In particular we talked about the homogeneous makeup of most National Park Service employees and how this may be a contributing factor to various young ethnic groups not attending the parks in greater numbers. If everyone you see is different than you, it may be difficult to relate to the experiences they offer. Conversely, when a young person sees someone they identify with relating an experience, the impact is far greater. When I asked Ben if I could take his photo, he said, “Should I get my flat hat?” Yep – grab your hat. And he did.

THANKS FOR SPEAKING FRANKLY WITH ME BEN. IT WAS A PLEASURE. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.

THANKS FOR SPEAKING FRANKLY WITH ME BEN. IT WAS A PLEASURE. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK.

Unless you are backpacking into the wild after crossing a body of water, there are no campgrounds available within Voyageurs. So Arnold’s RV Park and Beef Jerky Emporium, which borders the park, became home for the next few nights. This is where I quickly realized that each time I would call a campground and asked if they had a vacancy, they would try to stifle their laughter before saying “yes, we have a few.” Of course they have a few. Who goes camping in northern Minnesota in October? Answer – with few exceptions – no one. On my first night at Arnold’s I met an exception. Five of them to be exact.

Where are you fellas from? “Wisconsin.” “Minnesota. We work at da paper mill and dey send us wherever dey need us, eh. You?” Michigan. “Whatcha doin ear?” I proceed to tell them about TheMountCo Project and to my great surprise, they are captivated. Near the end of my explanation, the burliest of the group – and decidedly the drunkest – appears to be weeping. Not sobbing, just a bit of a tear in the eye as he approaches me. “Ear – take dis,” and he shoves money into my hand. I can’t take this. But thank you. “Take it. Fer da voyagers you know.” Jesus, this guy is pie faced. “Put it in da collection box over der.” And with that he pushes the bills into my coat pocket. “Oh yeah…have a brat. They’re good and hot.” The next day I reached into my pocket and pulled out three $20 bills. Fer da voyagers don’t cha know. And the brat was delicious.

I spent two days hiking various trails throughout Voyageurs, crossing creeks, ponds and rivers. Trying to capture the essence of a place so vast and as old as time itself is difficult. Each trail offers a new path into water and tree filled landscapes, one more beautiful than the next. It can begin to overload your senses unless you relax, sit and take in one vista before venturing to the next. Much easier said than done. Both days were perfect October weather, with blue skies, mild temperatures and clear, star scattered nights.

FOREST FLOORS ARE ALWAYS ALIVE WITH NEW GROWTH. KIND OF REMINDS ME OF NATURE’S HAIR CLUB FOR MEN.

FOREST FLOORS ARE ALWAYS ALIVE WITH NEW GROWTH. KIND OF REMINDS ME OF NATURE’S HAIR CLUB FOR MEN.

SMALL EMPTY DOCKS ARE EVERYWHERE. MOST OF THE BOATERS TAKE THEIR BOATS OUT IN EARLY OCTOBER. EXCEPT FOR BUD. NO ONE TALKS TO BUD.

SMALL EMPTY DOCKS ARE EVERYWHERE. MOST OF THE BOATERS TAKE THEIR BOATS OUT IN EARLY OCTOBER. EXCEPT FOR BUD. NO ONE TALKS TO BUD.


Along the way I met a few people. Like the gentleman from New Hampshire, I met at the Rainy Lake Visitors Center. Last year he spent several months in Alaska. He described his experience with much detail and at the end added, “My fear is that they are going to begin drilling up by the Arctic Circle. That could be disastrous for The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For forty years they’ve been trying to drill and they might just get it done this time. Sad.” Afterward he smiled – kind of a forlorn look – and walked away. Then there was the mysterious ‘couple’ I encountered on a remote trail by Kategama Lake. He was around 55, she was maybe 19. He introduced her as his daughter. Now, perhaps I was thinking of Nabokov, when I should have been thinking adventurous father/daughter trip. Perhaps I was thinking Lolita, when I should have been thinking…forget it. Perhaps I should stop reading for a few weeks. In any case, they couldn’t have been friendlier. They wanted to discuss all the parks they have been to and the ones I have visited. It was an interesting, lively conversation and I can’t wait to visit Big Bend National Park after they’re glowing review. (Authors private note: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.)

I FOUND THESE SMALL LEAVES TRYING TO ESCAPE THE LAKE. THEIR PLAN WAS TO FORM A CHAIN AND ONE BY ONE CLIMB ONTO THE DOCK. BEYOND THAT, THEIR PLAN WASN’T FULLY DEVELOPED.

I FOUND THESE SMALL LEAVES TRYING TO ESCAPE THE LAKE. THEIR PLAN WAS TO FORM A CHAIN AND ONE BY ONE CLIMB ONTO THE DOCK. BEYOND THAT, THEIR PLAN WASN’T FULLY DEVELOPED.

On the day of departure I was up at the crack of dawn. Ahead of me was a five day, 2,150 mile crossing of Canada, with Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia as my destination. It was 6:30 AM, I had a fresh cup of coffee and the lady in the customs booth was smiling. Good to go.

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Heading North

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Heading North

As you travel up north from southern Michigan, things change. Somewhere around Standish or West Branch. Everything falls away except trees and small breaks into open landscapes. You know you are up north. But when you cross the Mackinac Bridge and enter the Upper Peninsula - the U P - that's where true north begins. This is remote, hardscrabble country, filled with hardy souls that relish the cold and scoff at many of the hardships that come from this type of living. It takes a certain daring to live in this part of the country. Or maybe just the desire to be left alone. 

Nestled into this landscape is Marquette, Michigan, a postcard pretty town on the shores of Lake Superior and home of Northern Michigan University. If you plucked it up and plopped it down in southern California, people would flock to Marquette. But it's on the north reaches of the U P and you have to enjoy winter if you're going to live or be a student here. If you don't ski - or snowshoe, or ride a snowmobile, or dogsled - I think your sanity would be questioned. Skiing is a religion and that's why my brother from another mother - Cambo - chose to attend NMU. Cambo worships at the foot of the mountain.

After a chilly night and visits to numerous waterfront parks to introduce myself to Lake Superior, I met Cambo and we drove out to Presque Isle. About a ten minute drive from campus, Presque Isle is home to Black Rock, an outcropping of rocks that jut into Lake Superior. Perfect for jumping about twenty feet into ice cold water. Who wouldn't want to do that on a beautiful fall day? Certainly Cambo and I would. So we parked, walked the mile or so to the rocks and climbed to the edge. We hemmed and hawed for a moment and then one after the other - Cambo first - jumped into the frigid water. My initial reaction was 'Dear God, my lungs have frozen.' My second thought was 'Dear God, my lungs have frozen.' But we survived. After our walk back to the car, which was filled with warm conversation and plenty of laughs, I said goodbye to Cambo. I thanked him for skipping class to join me at Black Rock and hoped he wouldn't tell his parents. Then I proceeded to post it on Twitter. Sorry Cambo.

Hiking up to Black Rock on Lake Superior. Please note the serious hiking shoes.

Hiking up to Black Rock on Lake Superior. Please note the serious hiking shoes.

Cambo - Your parents called and they want tuition back.

Cambo - Your parents called and they want tuition back.

The drive from Marquette to Grand Portage, Minnesota and the ferry that would take me to Isle Royale National Park, is about eight hours. Eight hours of breathtaking landscapes, closed mom and pop hotels, Betty's Pies, Bingo Hotel, dazzling trees and water. Always water.

How can you not pull into Bingo's? They have TV.

How can you not pull into Bingo's? They have TV.

The morning of the Isle Royale ferry, a pink-hued sky broke over the Grand Portage Casino / Marina / Lodge / RV Park where I had spent the night. When traveling to Isle Royale this time of year, you take it with you or you're out of luck. I had to scramble to assemble my pack before the 7:15 AM departure, so naturally I took too much, giving me a pack that weighed about 35-40 pounds, with much of that being water. So be it. I climbed aboard the Voyager II with six other men that were catching the last ferry of the season. One last shot at the wilderness before the season ends. One more chance to feel removed from everything and everyone.

On the bumpy ride over, I met Mitch Mitchell. Twenty two, from Atlanta and high-pointing all of the national parks in the lower 48. Isle Royale was his 38th since the beginning of June. I asked Mitch what was driving him. "There are only a few times in life when you have this opportunity. School can wait. Career and money can wait. I thought I should experience a bit of life first." I told him how much I admire his attitude and asked why the majority of twenty-somethings didn't seem to share his sense of adventure. His answer was short, but direct. "Way to busy chasing the dollar. Afraid of falling behind." Except for the fact that he smelled like a goat, I liked everything about Mitch.

We were met at the Windigo dock by Park Ranger Kaitlyn Knick, who gave us a few tips. Most notably, she informed us that it was rutting season for the roughly 1,600 moose on the island. Her exact words were, "Moose can be very aggressive during this season. If you see a moose, your best course of action is to hide. If you hear a moose nearby, hide. Do not confront a moose." And with those words ringing in my ears I set off for my 4.1 mile hike to Hugginnin Cove. About 100 yards from the dock I saw my first moose track.

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I would like to make a general disclaimer at the outset of what will be a rather lengthy set of blogs over the next 12-15 moths. I am not young. Please bear this in mind when I am describing certain events - such as hiking 4.1 miles over soggy, rugged terrain. If I were to tell you that this was an easy task, I would be lying. At least the initial mile. It takes me about a mile to catch stride, then the weight and uphill, downhill struggles lessen. But that first mile - whew - that was tough.

Other than your own footsteps, the first thing you notice on a wilderness trail, is the absolute absence of any sound except the wind. The wind across the forest floor, lifting leaves and scooting them along. The wind high in the trees, gentle in perfect pitch. It is your constant, unbroken companion. Several times along the trail I would sit and listen to the wind. Such a foreign sound to someone accustomed to the noise of daily life.

Over ninety-eight percent of Isle Royale is designated as wilderness. A mile into the hike I realize I could be a thousand miles from anyone and the effects would be the same. Surrounded by northern white cedar, red rooted black spruce, tamarack, red maple, and black ash, you are alone. As the trail begins to spiral upward, leading through moose tracked marshes, before descending back to the rocky shoreline, I was aware of being alone in a great forest - on an island - in the middle of a great lake.

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My campsite was right out of a travel brochure. On the edge of Lake Superior, the sound of waves hitting the rocks below, mingled with a rushing brook finding its way down from the hills. I set up camp, got out of my boots and promptly fell asleep. It was dusk when I awoke and decided to walk a few trails, take a few photos. The sky was bluing with steely dancing clouds and the waves were louder than earlier in the day. In time a full moon slid from behind the eastern cliffs and the night was never fully dark. Or silent.

After a pretty good sleep, considering the full moon was like a headlamp gazing cyclops-like into my tent all night, the first thought I had the next morning was uh-oh, my muscles are stiff as a broom. And they were. A few laps around the campsite loosened things up a bit. I threw on my pack and headed back to the boat, completing the second half of the 9.5 mile Hugginnin Trail loop in about two and a half hours. Along the way I heard the longing moans of a moose - where are you my love - but none crossed my path. Only the wind and the ever present rustling of leaves.

Shed of my pack I headed up to the Windigo camp store to see if they had the retro poster for Isle Royale. Being the last day of the season, the store was essentially empty, except for NP Ranger Valerie Martin, so we struck up a conversation. She wanted to know what I was doing on Isle Royale and I explained TheMountCo Project. Valerie immediately perked up and began telling me about northern Minnesota school programs that bring kids to the island, untethered from electronics and how that was having a positive effect on the kids. "I tell them they own the island. This is their land, their responsibility. And they respond well to the challenge of preserving the land when they understand that it belongs to them." She also added, "And I've never had one student tell me they missed having their phone while they were here. Not one." I think northern Minnesota schools and Valarie are on to something.

Isle Royale National Park Rangers Valerie and Kaitlyn. Thank you for sharing your stories and ideas. I hope to see you again.

Isle Royale National Park Rangers Valerie and Kaitlyn. Thank you for sharing your stories and ideas. I hope to see you again.

As the Voyager II pulled up to the dock and we handed up our gear, I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay a few more days. Explore more of this vast island, home to  sixteen hundred moose and two lone wolves. Sit by mighty Lake Superior and listen to her roar as she slaps the ageless rocks. But October 5 is the last boat off the island and as much as I wanted to stay, I didn't want to miss that boat. So as we pulled away from the dock, Valerie and Kaitlyn waved goodbye to the last visitors of the season. Gliding past Beaver Island and into the rough waters of Superior, I knew I would be back. But for today, I was heading to the tip of Minnesota on the Canadian border. Voyagers National Park.


 

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