Sunday, October 17, 2010

Flowchart Fondness

Finally, someone has created a book specifically catered to my decision making needs and my love for flowcharts. I totally want this!

Everything Explained Through Flowcharts
by comedian and writer Doogie Horner.

Here's a link to an introduction to the book by the author and some examples of what the pages hold from Wired. This is soooo me!

(and yes, if you must know, I'm procrastinating/taking a break from translating mountain forest ecology articles from German to English)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My Daily Writing

Click on the image above to get a clearer view of my current chaos created with Creately

At this exact moment I am overwhelmed. I am in a wonderful place called Zurich, Switzerland and loving it, but along with this love I am getting a flood of other emotions. I am completely inundated with a sense of "new": new country, new people, new languages, new school, new lifestyle, new transportation, new words, new bed, new home, new family, new climate, new, new, new. Every second of every day is an entirely new experience, which is amazing, but there is no lull in this tsunami of "different." Without sounding ungrateful, dare I say, it's exhausting!?

But as my wonderful sister-in-law warned me, this feeling should last for the first 2 or 3 months until you suddenly start to feel less clobbered with newness and more triumphant over the flood of new information. I'm just getting to the middle of month 2. My absolutely amazingly helpful and supportive mother, Margrit, helped me through the first 2 weeks in Switzerland by flying here with me, staying with me in a hotel while she chauffeured me through red tape and bewildering contracts in German. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I don't know what I would have done here without you Mom! So technically, I calculate that the start of my immersion in Swiss culture began 1 month ago after Mom headed back to her beautiful oasis in the United States. Just yesterday, for the first time in a month, I had my first glimpse of relief. I completed almost all of the things on my to-do list without that feeling of exhaustion or defeat. And I think I even managed to do it without inadvertently offending someone in Swiss-German!! Woohoo!

During my time weaving through the newness of Switzerland, I am also continuing to write for the blog and especially reliving all the amazing adventures of the Treehugger Tour. I am proud to announce that I am in the process of transcribing the notes I recorded on my favorite handy iPod voice recorder while driving (TuneTalk from Belkin), the notes I took sitting in my tent scribbled into a few notebooks, and the great information I gathered via brochures and newspapers along the way. It's all being slowly trickled to you as I get it down in coherent words (thanks for being patient).

Here's a new great tool that I hope will keep me focused and really prompt me to write everyday, even while I'm sorting through my new life in Europe. It is called 750 words and it is a simple and motivating online tool which encourages its users to write at least 750 words a day. Hopefully it'll help me get you all the fun stories faster. Even if you're just thinking of documenting your life more often, as we all should do (I find it spiritual and cleansing), this easy tool may encourage you to write every day. Check it out here: And the creator, Buster Benson, is pretty amazing too. Check out the other things that Buster Benson has done here. Let the words flow!

I discovered 750 words and Creately through one of my favorite new websites called

Let the words flow!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Charlotte, North Carolina

July 7th, 2010
On the morning of July 7, I awoke in Jackie and Mark’s really beautiful home in Charlotte, North Carolina. I lolled in the comfortable guest bed they had set me up in and tried to relax after the demanding drive the day before. Jackie and Mark were both up early and left for their respective jobs while I still stretched and took inventory of what my new life held for me. I took their suddenly sweet, well trained miniature dachshund, Simon, for a walk around the neighborhood just before midday. Although this seemed like a good idea to me at the onset, Simon made it quite clear within 4 steps out the door that he did not agree. The 97º F base temperature plus the extreme humidity gave us a heat index of about 105º F that stood like a wall of invisible concrete just outside the door. After an abbreviated walk, during which Simon continued to look at me with baffled looks concerning my Homo sapien stupidity for leaving a well air-conditioned building, we hurried inside for refreshment, both panting.

Not long after, I vowed to get out of the house on my own and explore the town of Charlotte, NC because I knew I didn’t have long in the area. Knowing the extreme heat that awaited me, I thought that perhaps taking a leisurely biking tour of the city, with the wind in my face, would be more comfortable than a sweaty walking tour. I loaded up my bike once more on the back of my Corolla and followed the GPS directions to the center of town. I was shocked to see that there were brilliantly tall, modern skyscrapers nicely clustered around the center of the town, a convenient beltway around the city epicenter, and great parking and bike lanes everywhere. Wow! This is what a properly planned urban center was supposed to look like; compact (without too much suburban sprawl) and conveniently centralized (which makes it pretty nice for all forms of transportation) with beautiful landscaping and even space for urban trees. I had seen it throughout my schooling on paper, but never in practice. It felt like a tiny, bustling, state-of-the-art utopia. According to Jackie, Charlotte is one of the only cities which is still experiencing a financial upswing even during the economic downtimes of the rest of the country. Construction, scaffolding, and design plans can be seen all over the city. Charlotte was recently awarded the title of the 2nd largest financial center in the US (just after New York City). Did you know that? I certainly had no idea! Banking institutions such as Wachovia (a Wells Fargo subsidiary) and Bank of America have established their headquarters in Charlotte and are prominent developers of and investors in the downtown area. This explains why I was seeing an overwhelming number of what I considered moronically suited, uptight people walking around in sweaters (obviously for their overly cooled office buildings) during a heat index of 105º F!! It all makes sense now.

Side note of interest: According to the World Economic Forum’s ranking of the top 10 global financial centers for 2009, the US ranked 3rd and Switzerland is all the way down at 7th. I’m shocked!
I parked at a pay-meter along the street near the intersection of Trade St. and Tryon St. (the slightly elevated epicenter of the city, which surprisingly also had bike lanes). Again, I was delightfully shocked to find that it wasn’t necessary to find a frighteningly dark parking garage in a booming city like this. Just in front of the centrally located Bank of America high-rise building, I was met by a mid-day farmer’s market where I bought fresh cantaloupe and blackberries to thank Mark and Jackie for having me.
Then, with fruit in tow, I continued to ride my bike around the center of town and found some cute strips of boutiques, barber shops, travel agencies, some surprising multicultural food (Indian and Jamaican), and pubs where the World Cup was in full swing.
Still on island time, I soon realized that the city was not my speed, so I reloaded my bike and drove to another, more calm part of Charlotte, called Midwood (read about this in Design Sponge City Guide). Midwood is a very chill, laid back, somewhat hippie part of the city with a small section of the main road dedicated to stores such as:
  1. Pura Vida - a great world market with fair trade goods. They are moving locations soon, so check them out soon. There, I got a new set of prayer flags for Mom since her squirrels keep taking them for nesting (this is an entirely different and totally hilarious story!).
  2. The High Life Store
  3. Used book store (never found a name, but I picked up some great kid books for my new nephew in spanish and my soon to be favorite travel book - a 1980s road trip guide by Readers Digest)
  4. Reggae music store
  5. Jamaican food
and my favorite:
6. Late Night Pawn - a sketchy narrow backdoor with a neon sign boasting the name
above the locked door.

Later, when I mentioned to her that I had gone to Midwood, Jackie also suggested I check out one of the favorite local food joints there called Penguins on my next visit. Jackie and I took Simon for a late afternoon walk at a local park, where Jackie showed me that there was still some hidden treasures of natural areas even inside the developing area.
That night, Jackie, Mark and I went to dinner at a really classy irish pub/restaurant called the Dandelion Market. The restaurant served irish food in tapas form with a really great selection of draft beers. It was not at all what I expected from an irish pub, but completely awesome and delicious! We had the:
  1. Fried sage leaves (what? These tasted great and were a great conversation piece, but normally no one wants to eat a whole plate of leaves)
  2. Fried pickles (YUM!)
  3. Aged cheddar and ale fondue
  4. Ale simmered sausage bites with hot sweet mustard (that mustard really had a bite!)
  5. Steamed mussels
  6. Baby back ribs
  7. Grilled lamb lollipops (really good...and I love that they added a new dimension of cute to eating lamb by calling them lollipops!)
Then we had an after dinner drink at the EpiCenter (a very posh, upper deck lounge and club with an outdoor movie theater which is most certainly hopping on the weekends). We were all pretty exhausted, so we cut the night a bit short and headed home for some rest. I was thankful for the shut-eye before the long drive that awaited me again the next day. (Thanks again Mark and Jackie!)
All in all, Charlotte, NC is a really great city. Give it a few years to age out of its slightly arrogant, crazy sophomore party years (I’m exaggerating a little here), gain a little culture, and get a little more settled, and it’ll be a perfect town to put roots down in.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Five second rule??

If you didn't know already, I am in love with flow charts. I love the idea of straight forward "if this...then that" statements. And usually they are pretty fun to play with. This one is hilarious! My favorite part being the "bacon = eat it" part of course!

I guess I have food on the mind. Today I went food shopping and my shopping list included the following Swiss essentials:
  1. Cheese (Emmentaler)
  2. Chocolate (a mixture of 3 different bars to compare brands...that's a legitimate reason right?)
  3. Gummy bears
  4. Local specialty lunch meat
  5. Wine (really great wine comes super cheap here!)
  6. Beer
And yes, that was the FULL extent of my shopping list. Not bad! I was in the cheese section for a good 15 minutes. So many amazing mouthwatering choices. The same goes for the meat, wine, and chocolate. The best gummy bears are the standard Haribo kind....yummm!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Savannah, Georgia

Today, from the halls of my new university in Zurich, I will continue recounting the adventures of the Treehugger Tour, my amazing summer roadtrip. The story continues where I left off at the beginning of July. Thanks for being patient to hear the rest of the adventure!

July 5th, 2010
Upon returning to Delray Beach after my amazing bicycle ride through the Florida Keys, I was greeted by the Goodwill furniture pickup truck. I promptly surrendered all of my modest furnishings, hoping that someone in need will get my totally awesome, super comfortable $800 king-sized bed (of the little furniture I have, my bed was certainly my most important and favorite). After cleansing myself of the bulky furniture I have accumulated over the years, I went about cleaning the rest of the apartment. I was living on NE 9th Avenue, just off George Bush Boulevard in Delray Beach. The area is lovely, within 1/4 mile of the beach, 1/2 mile from Atlantic Ave (the shopping/nightlife/artistic area of Delray Beach), and within crawling distance of my favorite dive - the Sail Inn. I have always tried to clear my life of clutter and chaos, but yet, my material possessions are far from simple. Deciding which items are sentimental and which will fit into my tiny Toyota Corolla was difficult and exhausting. At one especially draining point, while sitting on the cold floor of my semi-empty apartment, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was indeed leaving this place I can come to love and the people who mean so much to me here. I was on the verge of breaking down into a warm puddle of sobs. Just in the nick of time, my friend Georgie (or Delray George as I like to call him), pounded on the door, waltzed in, gave me a much appreciated big hug, and dragged me out for some food. No one has ever had better timing, thank you Georgie! The encouraging company and good food lifted my spirits and gave me a second wind to finish the last details of packing and leaving.

On the morning of July 6, 2010, around 9am, I met with my landlord to return my keys and show him the beautifully empty and clean apartment (I'm still fighting with him to get my security deposit back...grrr...landlords!). After loading my bike on the bike rack and waving goodbye to the area, I hit the gas and tried not to look back. I was heading north!

My first stop, Jacksonville, was 5 hours up the road, then on to Savannah, Georgia. I had heard many lovely things about Savannah, but never had the pleasure of seeing it myself. I was originally planning to stop for the evening to see my friend Will who works at a gourmet restaurant adjacent to the Savannah River. I called him as I was getting closer to town, and sadly found out that he had work and sudden family obligations that would prevent us from catching up. I needed a break anyway at this point in the day, so I told him I would swing into town for a stretch, say hello for a few minutes when he could get away from work, and head on my way. It was lovely to see him, even if it was just briefly. I checked out the menu at the restaurant where he works as a chef, the Chart House, and quickly realized that he is much more talented than I ever knew and that I would need to return in about 10 years when I could afford an appetizer on the menu. Well, hopefully it's sooner than 10 years, but wow, that menu is extensive! The wines alone made my mouth water. But I didn't have much time to linger. Before leaving, on Will's much appreciated suggestion, I took a short jaunt along the shores of the graceful Savannah River, saw the riverboats, watched a huge freighter leaving the port, and took pleasure in the old town feeling of the historic downtown and the cobblestone streets (on River Street). I took a mental picture of the area and I know that Savannah is certainly a place I wish to return to sooner than later. It seems like the type of place that would be great to enjoy with a special partner. There is a distinct romantic ambiance about it.

With a renewed motivation to make it north, I called my super supportive friend Jackie in Charlotte, NC and made plans to stay with her. According to my GPS, I only had another 5 hours of driving ahead of me. Little did I know that just before entering Charlotte, NC from the south there would be a terrible RV accident on I-77. As I sat in 4 short miles of traffic for over 2 hours, my thoughts went out to the family and friends of the people who had died in the RV that police were now investigating on the highway on a hazy Tuesday evening. Although, I didn't arrive at Jackie's house until about 1:30am (sorry Jackie!) after a 14.5 hour day of almost non-stop driving, I was happy to make it safely. Thanks Jackie and Mark for having me stay with you! Your home is beautiful, your dog is the best, and your company is always enjoyable!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Willkommen in Switzerland

Yes, these are real alphorn players giving a performance on the street at a market in my Grandma's town (Chur)!! Seriously. You guys asked for alphorns, you get alphorns!

So I have made it to Switzerland! Very exciting! I am working on getting all my ducks in a row for grad school to start in a couple weeks, and it has been somewhat exhausting. Having talked to some foreign exchange students in America, I realize that the process of moving to another country is always a bit difficult, but I never really expected the paper-war that I walked into. Naively thinking that as a person with Swiss citizenship, I shouldn't have a problem with all the visas and foreign paperwork, I guess I imagined I could just bound back into my country and plop myself down somewhere. Not the case! But I think things are finally in order - two temporary homes, one semi-permanent apartment, school identification, transportation, scholarship, accounts, registering my new location, getting birth certificates, etc. Craziness! But, who am I to complain? Life is wonderful! I am now living in lovely Switzerland, soon in Zurich, and very close to my extended family (whom I can't wait to get to know better). The bratwursts, cheese, chocolate, meats and beer are everything I've ever dreamed of.

Beware: I may be twice this size when I get back to the US if I can't find more time for mountain hikes!

I have made a lot of difficult decisions in the last year to change my life for the better, and I really feel like this is where I am supposed to be. The past year has been a sort of metamorphosis, and now I think I have emerged as a happy person, with lots of life, and lots of hope for the future. Thanks to all of you who have been a part of this transformation!

I am secretly a huge fan of flowcharts and I especially love this flowchart for happiness. It pretty much describes my recent decision making process. I find it to be quite straight forward and totally reliable.

And at this point, the flowchart has led me here, to Switzerland, to grad school, and closer to all of this:

Family. This is my grandma and Aunt Monika.

A different habitat. This is a very poisonous and totally perfect fly amanita that I found up in the mountains (Flims). All it needs is a little gnome next to it.

Amazing food and drink. Coffee (real espresso!) at a cafe near Bahnhofstrasse, the most expensive street in Zurich, Switzerland.

Beautiful views. Me next to the Zurisee in Zurich! What a beautiful day!

And great festivals and markets. Mom at the Wednesday Market in the Zurich Hauptbahnhof (main train station). Yummy!

And, just to let you know, I am still going to be posting about the Treehugger Tour. I am currently finishing an article about the trip which will be published in the next edition of American Forests Magazine! This is very exciting! Keep an eye out for it. You can subscribe to the magazine or download it from the website when the next edition comes out. I'll let you know too. I'll get back to blogging some more after the article is complete. Thanks for your patience!

Ciao from Switzerland!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Roadtrip Updates from Nashville, TN

Hello all,

The road trip has almost come to an end. By Sunday, I'll be back in Philadelphia. My awesome brother, Erik, met me in New Orleans on Thursday night and we're driving the last leg together, which is fantastic! We had a great time checking out Bourbon Street on Thursday night and then drove a long long day to Nashville on Friday. We barely made it to Nashville in time to check out a little music cafe that had been highly recommended to me by a couple of folks from Tennessee that I met while viewing prairie dogs in the Badlands of South Dakota. And of course, I took their advice. We were not led astray!! I will need to write out the entire story soon, but let's just say, we heard performances from some of the singer-songwriters that are behind the lyrics of the country songs Erik and I grew up with. AMAZING!

Yesterday morning in Mandeville, LA we saw the largest live oak in the United States...39 feet in!! Then we saw a few awesome trees by twilight in Alabama last night and today we'll be checking out the national champion Atlantic White Cedar in Ohio!! Trees all over the US are feeling loved...lots of hugs have been given.

Toast to the morning with coffee that Erik and I made up:

To the parties in New Orleans
To the Nashville music scene
May we smile some more today
Cuz here we come PA

As I mentioned before, coordinating tree visits, driving long distances, seeing amazing parts of the United States and camping without internet connections make keeping up with the blog very very challenging and I have obviously not been doing well with that. But I figure, I'd rather give you the whole story of the trip in quality rather than quantity, so I will be catching up on the blog steadily once my feet are off the floorboards of trusty ol' Florida (Rudy and I named the Toyota Corolla).

Much Love,

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Lessons from a Bike Ride through the Florida Keys

The bike ride through the Florida keys is complete and it was so much more than I ever expected. Here are a couple of suggestions to remember if you want to do something similar and for me to remind myself when I do this again in the future (because I certainly want to!):
  1. there is a public bus system available from Florida City to Marathon Key (Miami Dade Transit/Monroe Express) and there is another shuttle available from Marathon Key to Key West (Lower Keys Shuttle). So if you need a bus ride for a portion or to retrieve a car on the return, this option is great. It would certainly have been cheaper than renting a car as we did.
  2. Marathon Key and Islamorada have a lot to offer as towns. In between roughing it at the state parks, sweating it out on the bike, and swatting mosquitoes, take some time to enjoy the tiki bars, local artisans, and museums along the route as well. It's a real taste of the Keys. Plus, after all that riding and sweating, you deserve a frosty beer...and it tastes so much sweeter!
Here's a map of the things I saw along the way...amazing! Great stops!

View Florida Keys Bike in a larger map

And here are a few things I learned along the way:
  1. If you look like a hobo, no one will bother you.
  2. Places that look really interesting from a car at 55mph may or may not look as good at 10mph
  3. When the condition of the bike lane begins to rattle the bolts off your bike, give up and ride on the road.
  4. Release your inner child. The excitement, the curiosity, the wonder.
  5. Bandannas double as towels in a pinch (again, hobos really know what they're doing)
  6. I could be like MacGyver given unlimited time. Necessity really does breed creativity.
  7. Chain your bike up everywhere! The 10 pound Mr. T chain scares most people away and it adds to the hobo look.
  8. Marathon Key marks the beginning of the international island time zone. Time to start hitting the tiki bars. Enjoy!
  9. It's nice to have a weight and space restriction, it keeps you from buying random island art and coconuts carved into monkey faces.
  10. Saying goodbye is hard, but leaving is not the end. You can see friends and family even from afar if you try. Only death is final, not goodbye. Miss the ones who have passed, visit the rest.
  11. Things will go wrong on an adventure. They're supposed to, otherwise it wouldn't be an adventure. Relax.
And remember, when you're leaving Key West and driving, slightly hungover, north through the Florida Keys, stop at Baby's Coffee for a little boost. You won't regret it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Independence Day Weekend in the Keys

From Key West

Saturday, I took advantage of being in a real bed and slept in to let my body rest. It was glorious. After getting up late, George and I met up with my friend Anni who was also in Key West for the weekend from Tampa. We drove her to a scooter shop where she rented a scooter to ride around town for the day. Then, we went to an amazing spa where we got the best feeling massages to ease our sore muscles. Although we hadn’t really ridden too hard, the extra special treatment was magnificent. From the resort grounds, we saw a very rusty, previously sunken ship being hauled to land. We found out later that the government offers $3000 for anyone to recover sunken ships. Whoever recovers the ship has to pay to float it and scrap it, but can keep whatever profits are left. What a great program! Perhaps this will be my fallback job if I ever decide to leave the mainland for the island life.
From Key West

Later, we still had our awesome bikes that now felt like home, so George and I decided to ride around town to explore. I am still relatively unfamiliar with Key West, even though this was my third time visiting. There is always something new and fun to see, and riding slowly on bikes is one of the best ways to see the town. Cars are too much of a hassle to park and walking in the heat is exhausting. We found the 0 mile marker which was very exciting for me considering I had started the trip at the 105 mile marker!! The mile marker countdown along the entire ride was very exciting, and I had finally made it to the very last mile.
From Key West

Some other tourist sights we went to see included:(this is a non-native tree, but still interesting)
  1. The Kapok Tree (this is a non-native tree, but still interesting)
  2. Ernest Hemingway’s House
  3. The Southernmost Point in the continental United States
  4. Beach Bocce Ball Courts
  5. and the National Champion Buttonwood (this one isn’t actually a normal tourist attraction, but it really should be!)
From Key West

The national champion buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus) is 207 inches in circumference, 35 feet tall, and has 70 feet of crown spread. It is a magnificent example of the tree that has grown in the shape of a hurricane with its massive shaggy branches twisting toward the sky. It is located on the corner of Washington and Leon Street on the main island of Key West in a residential yard. Buttonwoods are typically found in moist wetland soils, so the fact that this specimen is located on high and dry land is somewhat unusual. If you live in Florida, this tree makes a great landscaping plant because it is native to the state and it can tolerate harsh conditions with sand, salt and full sun. It is one tough tree!
From Key West

Dinner was lovely on the main docks and we noticed that the Keys docks were full of massive yachts and fishing boats, more so than normal. Upon closer inspection, we found that the owners and drivers from the Daytona 500 car races were in town and had all docked here. We kept our eyes peeled for famous drivers.
From Key West

Sunday we explored the beaches on Key West. Please note that the beaches on Key West are not as you might expect them to be. I had assumed that the beaches here would be pristine and gorgeous, but instead they are very rocky, with lots of broken coral and seaweed. The shoreline here is very shallow, so swimming in the ocean is not even an option as the water only comes to thigh deep (even on me!). So remember, the beaches at Long Key State Park and Bahia Honda are the ones to hit before reaching Key West.

In the afternoon we chartered a Dorado fishing boat (Reel Lucky) to go sport fishing. Anni brought her friend Eric along and the four of us had a blast with Captain Cory and his first mate. As it turned out, we were fishing about 200 yards from the Daytona 500 enormous sport fishing boat. But it didn't matter, we still managed to out-fish them from a boat about 3 times smaller than their boat! George and Eric landed two enormous tarpon, the biggest of which was probably almost 80 pounds. George also fought what turned out to be a skate for a while. I hooked up a large tarpon, but lost it on a jump after about 30 minutes of the hardest reeling I’ve ever done. Although I really wanted to land it, I was actually somewhat relieved that this wonderful creature had won the deserved it. I also caught an Atlantic Sharpnose shark! This one was super fun to fight and he was pretty feisty when we got him on the boat. Captain Cory grabbed the fighter and we got pictures before throwing him back in the water and watching him swim away. What a beautiful animal!

Later that evening we finished out our time in the Keys with a visit to Mallory Square to see the famous street performers at sunset (the Cat Man is a staple act and we also saw a new act by an 18 year old local). Then we saw a few acts at a drag show (Key West is also famous for their gay and drag scene. The ladies are all extremely talented here!). We ended the evening at a kickin live performance by the Spam Allstars at The Green Parrot (AJ Hill really rocked out on the sax that night!).
From Key West

It was a fabulous weekend filled with great people in an amazing paradise away from all the stresses of reality. After 100 miles of riding, you can’t help but relax. But it’s a process. Within the first 30 miles, I had shed all my most pressing worries and realized that I was now free of all problems. There was nothing I could control now, I had no technology to bog me down, no way to fix the bigger issues, and I needed to just let go of the things weighing on me. By 60 miles I put my energy into riding and appreciating my life as it was at that moment. Living in the moment has never been my forte. I’m always looking to the future, to my next adventure, and this ride was a great reminder and practice in appreciating the present. By mile 100 I was happy. Smiling and riding, the sun sparkling down on me, the wind in my hair, and sweet sweat squeezing out of every pore. My mind was clear and calm. What a wonderful life.

I recommend this ride to everyone and anyone adventurous enough to try it. You will not regret it! It is simple, easy, and life changing. There is no better way to experience the Keys!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Key West, Florida

Friday morning we woke up early...well, George woke up early and went riding around the park, and I woke up when I woke up (I'm still not a morning person). We packed up, parked his car in the marina parking lot, and headed south. The bike paths from here to big pine were lovely. There were many beautiful fishing bridges and lots of great bike paths. As we were entering Big Pine Key, we began to notice that we were on elevated bike paths. This is because the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key harbors a small population of endangered deer called Key Deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium). They are a subspecies of the common Virginia white tail deer that has become miniaturized due to harsh environmental conditions on the island. The subspecies population in the Florida Keys is estimated to be between 600 and 750 individuals. The highway is elevated along a short stretch of Big Pine Key to allow the deer and other species to move freely in their habitat. Apparently, there are 17 federally listed threatened or endangered species that are protected by the National Key Deer Refuge!
As we rode into Big Pine Key we saw two very tiny key deer fawns curiously eating below us. Like white-tail deer up north, these fawns had small white spots, however they were probably only about 2.5 feet tall. So cute! We later saw two adult key deer that were quite a bit bigger. We learned that the locals and tourists feed the deer and as a result the species is becoming larger. Hmmm...does that mean that someday the population will be considered white-tail deer again rather than a subspecies?

Around 10am, once we had arrived on Big Pine Key, we rode north to find a place that had been recommended to me called “No Name Pub.” Along the ride we rode through beautiful, sparsely developed hardwood hammock habitat where key deer thrive. In northern Big Pine we found the pub, but it wouldn’t open for another hour, so we decided to head on. On the ride back to Route 1, we found the National Key Deer Refuge headquarters and some breakfast at Coco’s Kitchen. While we ate, an ominous thunderstorm rolled in and started to pour. In an optimistic streak, we headed out of the cafe during a lull in the storm and started to ride west again. Within less than a block we were rained out and sought shelter under the awning of a CVS pharmacy. Unlike typical Florida storms that last for 20 minutes, this storm was persistent and we were stranded for about an hour. Under the awning we met several locals who were unemployed due to the economy and down on hard times. Sadly, this area was hit very hard by the recession and business is slow to come back, causing high homelessness among the locals.
Once we got back on the road and started splashing through the foot deep puddles, we were ready for some refreshing beverages. Looe Key Tiki Bar was our first find after Big Pine Key. This stop is located just after Torch Ramrod Channel, my favorite named channel on the ride. For future reference, the Looe Key Resort has a great tiki bar, hotel, restuarant, and a pool for use. Apparently, so of the best snorkeling in the entire continental USA is right at Looe Key. Also, bar patrons can use the refreshing looking pool, which would be perfect during a hot and sweaty bike ride. Mangrove Mama’s, a delicious homey local restaurant in Sugarloaf Key was our second stop where we had fruity cocktails served in mason jars. From there, we hit each interesting looking restaurant, tiki bar, or dive bar along the route. If you are ever considering this ride, a little pub crawl bike-ride into Key West is for certain the best way to enter. It is like a small ceremonial parade welcoming you into a city known for its relaxed, island spirit. We spoke to the locals at each stop and got some great suggestions for local stops. The lovely bartender at Mangrove Mama’s asked us if we’d seen the bat tower as if it was a world renowned monument. She actually said "you haven't seen Key West until you've seen the bat tower." Of course, we hadn’t, but our curiosity got the best of us and we inquired about its history. Supposedly, the bat tower had been constructed in the early 1900s in an attempt to use bats as a biological control for the abundant mosquitoes in the lagoons. Unfortunately, the project failed miserably, and the bat population flew away, leaving the mosquitoes to flourish. We felt a responsibility to check out the flopped project and found it to be a random historical novelty.

Our trail also took us to Bobalu’s Southern Cafe and Hurricane Joe’s Bar and Seafood Grill. By this time, we had ridden about 45 miles and had about 5 more miles to get to the rental car place before they closed. The stretch from Bahia Honda State Park to Key West was the longest (about 50 miles with all the diversions) of the four day bicycle ride, but it felt great and very satisfying. We barely made it to the rental car office before they closed, we locked our bikes to a bike rack, and drove back to Bahia Honda State Park to retrieve George’s car. Yes, I know this sounds funny, but we couldn’t think of a better way to get his car back, and it was cheaper than getting a taxi. We had a late dinner at Hogfish Restaurant (a great restaurant off the beaten path) and made it to downtown Key West for last call. Let’s just say, the people watching at Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Durty Harry’s around 2am are fantastic!

Welcome to Key West!! We made it!! What an accomplishment. This was the best trip I have ever taken! Although lots of people had warned me of potential issues with traffic, camping, and strangers, I never ran into any trouble and had a wonderful time. Besides a little bit of saddle soreness, I felt fantastic. The multiple stops, leisurely pace, and the great campsites spaced at about 30 miles apart, made the trip effortless and relaxing.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bahia Honda State Park, Florida (July 1, 2010)

Bahia Honda State Park is breathtaking. The park has beaches, several campgrounds, concessions, a marina, kayaking, bicycle trails, and many more activities if you're interested. I arrived, checked in, and headed to my campsite...number 79 on the bayside. My friend, George, had left work earlier in the day from Tampa and was heading down to meet me for the last day of riding. He would arrive well after dark, so I decided to wait to set up the campsite until he arrived. He was bringing the air mattress after all, and I was pretty excited to sleep on something a little softer.

So I decided to go exploring. I stashed some of my gear in the mangroves next to the site and rode to the far beach, called Sandspur Beach. It is the most secluded in the park and the most beautiful beach to visit. I was also on a mission to find the two (#1 and #2) national champion silver palms (Coccothrinax argentata) in the park. I felt I was on the right track when I happened upon the Silver Palm Trail. The Florida Silver Palm is, in fact, a Florida threatened plant species. Perfect, I thought, finding a threatened species should be no sweat. How many individuals could there possibly be in this small area if it is threatened. Boy was I wrong again! As it turns out, Bahia Honda is the proud home of one of the largest remaining populations of the silver palm. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a forest of hundreds of gorgeous silver palms all waving their shiny fronds at me in the wind. How glorious! To have such a beautiful and rare tree growing all around me. The champions are 22 inches in circumference and 33 feet tall at their biggest, so finding them was not an easy task. And I doubt I succeeded. I did hug a few of these trees, hoping at least one of them was a national champ. Then again, they all need love, not just the biggest ones, right?

The Silver Palm Trail dumped me out about 1/4 mile north of the parking lot and pavilion on the beach. The sun was just setting, the water was the perfect warm temperature and I was hot, so I eagerly plopped my gear on the beach, stripped down to my bikini and waded into the water. I would have dove in, but this gorgeous beach stays very shallow for about 1/4 mile out. Although you wouldn't think so, it is actually quite rare to find a beautiful sandy beach in the Keys. Most of the beaches have sharp coral fragments and seaweed piled onto the shores. This beach, however, had sugar sand dunes and the coral reef started about 300 feet out, making for some fun finds. After a short period of splashing and playing, I suddenly realized that this was the first time in my entire life that I had been to the beach alone. No, I don't mean that I had come alone, I've done that many times (working near lots of beaches is awesome!). I mean that I've never been at the beach completely alone. There were no people in sight, no silent sunbathers, no screaming kids, no whistling lifeguards. At first, I wondered if I should be concerned, but there were no imminent dangers in this paradise. So I laid back, floated on the salty waves, and reflected on my situation. I was in heaven. Everything felt so right. I was relaxed, calm, and away from all the stresses in my life that I could control. I had no technology, no place to be, and all the time in the world. For a moment, I came back to reality, and reminded myself that I should stay on task and think about what else I needed to do before the sun went down. I pulled up my mental "to-do" list and found it completely blank. I thought a little longer, thinking that there must be something I needed to do that I was forgetting. After a few more seconds of pondering, it occurred to me that I truly had NOTHING to do. I should have been happy, right? But my first reaction was confusion. I always had something to do. Even if it was little or tedious, there is always something to do. But not this time. Another first. For the first time in my grown life, I had absolutely nothing to do, and it was marvelous. I enjoyed every minute of my to-do list prison break.

Later in the evening, once George had arrived and we had set up camp, we did some night exploring. We jumped on our bikes and zoomed through the camp areas like bandits. We ended up at Calusa Beach, a protected beach along the bay/channel side, between the old and the new bridge (see pictures above). Considering it was still pretty sweltering hot and very very humid at this point in the evening, we decided to go for another swim. In the beautiful moonlight, we swam through the seagrasses in the water here. Within a few minutes, we realized that the water had bioluminescence!! If you've never seen this before, it's basically many thousands of tiny living organisms that glow when you disturb the water. So every time you swish your arm through the water, it leaves behind a slowly fading glow on the surface of the water. In Calusa Beach, on this evening, the combination of the bioluminescence and the moon were magical. We even discovered that if you swam underwater with your eyes open (the salt burned a little, but it was worth it), these tiny glowing organisms would stick to your eyeballs and create lingering bright spots on your eyes. Luckily, they also washed off again very easily.

Upon returning to our campsite, the wind had picked up and it had started to rain. After retrieving our tent (no, we didn't tie it down) from the mangroves where it had been blown, we sought shelter within its dry confines and settled in for the night. What a perfect evening. I was relaxed and happy. George was still unwinding from a hard work week and buzzing with excitement to begin his ride on the trip. As much as I enjoy my alone-time, George is one of the best travel partners I have ever had and probably one of the most laid-back, adventurous people I know. His company was welcome, as always. Plus it was nice to have someone to unload all of my random stories and memories on. I was bursting with the traveling fever and I was very happy to be sharing it with someone.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Coming soon...

Sunset from St. Joseph, Michigan over Lake Michigan. Breathtaking! A million thanks to Andy Sawyer.

Hello all! I just wanted to let you know that I made it to Sioux Falls, South Dakota today, July 28 around 5pm. I'm safe and worries.

I've been having such an amazing time, meeting inspiring people, seeing magnificent trees, and visiting parts of the country I've only dreamed of. Because of all the fun I've been having, I haven't been able to keep up with the blog. Tonight, from the confines of my tent in the Badlands National Park, I will be working on writing some updates that I will be able to upload when I get some internet access again. Sorry for the delay and thanks for all of your support! Hopefully, the next blog posts will come in rapid succession, so keep up when you can!

Much Love,

Monday, July 19, 2010

Treehugger Tour

Simpson's grasspink in Big Cypress National Preserve (Calopogon tuberosus)

As you know, I have embarked on a two month long road trip across the United States. If you didn't know that, come catch up with these links:

Treehugger Tour Video
Tour Logistics
Approximate Budget
Map of Approximate Route
Potential Trees to See along the way (ever evolving map)

I just wanted to let you know that I recently made some edits to the Treehugger Tour Route Map to accommodate a trip to the Badlands in South Dakota and a slight dip into Colorado to pick up my traveling buddy, Rudy.

Thank you all for your support! The outpouring of interest in my trip has been amazing!

I am excited to announce that American Forests has agreed to partner with me on this tour to help me to contact the big tree coordinators, find the most interesting trees along the route, and help me to coordinate tree plantings to offset my carbon emissions. If you haven't already, I encourage you to take a look at their website for information about all the amazing things they do. I visited their office in Washington, DC this past week and I was very impressed with the organization. The National Register of Big Trees is only a glimpse of their efforts to "grow a healthier world with trees".

If you'd like to support my trip with care packages, a couch to crash on, or a financial donation, I'd be absolutely delighted! Drop me an email at heartkh at gmail dot com.

Also, if you'd like to be on the postcard list, send me your name and address in an email.

See you all soon!

Marathon Key, Florida

After leaving Long Key State Park on Thursday morning, I was delighted to find that almost all of the bridges crossing channels from Long Key to Marathon Key had beautiful fishing bridges built parallel to the ones for vehicles. It's so convenient and safe. The fishing bridges are built completely separate from the vehicular bridges. If you turn your back to the vehicular bridges and gaze at the water, you almost feel free of the urban life. Although many, many people had warned me of the dangers of riding my bicycle through the Keys, in general, I had found the route to be extremely accommodating to bicyclists and pedestrians and sometimes even luxurious. The fishing bridges were my favorite sections of the path.
Fishing bridge on the right, vehicular bridge on the left.

Here you are, crossing the bluest water you've ever experienced, the sun is beaming down on your back, and you can stop anywhere you wish, peer over the edge of the bridge, see straight to the bottom of the clear blue water to the coral rock below, and dream of jumping in. The water there is just beckoning to you. The colors and clarity of the water in the Keys is so surreal that I wouldn't have been shocked to see a mermaid slowly flow by, cruising the strong current.
And the color and clarity in the sky isn't much different then that of the water. Thursday was another very clear, hot, sweaty, sweltering day. The magnificent frigatebirds were floating high in the sky. My saltwater fishing experience tells me to look for dauphin and other great sportfish when I see these birds. I did not see any big fish, but I'm sure they were hiding in the sparkling water ripping below me.
As I was saying, the bike routes were fantastic so far! Look at the great markings and the beautiful paths. (By the way, since I've ridden on this bike route, I now notice these same bike route signs in all states. It's amazing how many nice bike routes exist. If you start looking for them, you'll notice this too!)
And then, this happened. If you can't see it clearly, click on the photo and you can see a larger version.
Seriously? This amazing bike route suddenly came to an abrupt stop. And I mean ABRUPT. They warn you with a small sign, then before you know it, you're dumped off the pavement, onto a small hill without even a foot path to get you back up to the road. Now, I'm not a bike diva, but if you're going to tease my senses with a posh bike path, can you at least ease me down off extravagance gently? Is it completely unreasonable to suggest that there be a crosswalk to get me back to the right shoulder of the road?

I laughed at this great example of engineering design fail, dragged my bike up the hill to the road, looked both ways before hustling across, and hopped right back on.
I had made it to Marathon Key!

View Florida Keys Bike in a larger map

At this point I had sucked down the last of my water. The hydration bag in my camelbak had created a vacuum and was making sad slurping sounds. I stopped at the first convenience store I found. At least, it was the Keys version of a convenience store. The store/house/marina boasted an extensive inventory of bait, a deli, key lime pie, gas, and fresh fish.
It was painted bright Key West colors and looked to be a great stopping point. I needed water and possibly a little something for breakfast. The sweet dog out front looked at me as if to say "you're crazy. Why would you want to be riding around in the midday sun? Even I know that the shade is the place to be right now."
Upon entering it became clear that this store was by no means a one-stop-shop. There was no key lime pie, barely a fishing hook on the barren walls, a deli which looked like it hadn't seen a sandwich in a decade, and no one inside. But, to my excitement, there was everything I needed in this little oasis. I found a large cold water and even a snickers ice cream bar! Score! I hung out for a few minutes waiting for the shop clerk to come in and take my money. After about 5 minutes, I realized that no one was around and my ice cream was melting. I put the snickers back in the freezer and wandered out back to find someone. After a few inquiring hello yells and no response, I went back in, grabbed my ice cream and water, put a $5 bill on the table and wrote this note:
As I was leaving, a man I presumed was the owner came into the store and we agreed that $5 would cover my purchases.
I soon entered Curry Hammock State Park lands and found another fantastic bike path! This one was isolated from the main road by a wide swath of native vegetation that managed to block much of the sound from the road. This was heaven on wheels! I rode for miles, completely alone and silent in the bright sun, surrounded by beautiful native shrubs, serene open swamps, and the sound of birds and insects. While I peddled along the smooth path, I would occasionally hear small animals jumping back into hiding or rustling the leaves beside the path. Although most of these sounds were most likely the skiddish green and brown anoles, I actually saw three bright green iguanas along this stretch. Although beautiful and exotic, the iguanas and the brown anoles are both invasive species to Florida.
Poisonwood (if you're allergic to poison ivy, this plant is a tree in the same family that will cause a similar, if not worse, skin reaction. And yes, I learned the hard way!)
Back bay swamp in Curry Hammock State Park
With a little more time, this is certainly a park I would love to explore some more. There were several marsh trails that jutted off the bike path that looked interesting. I completely missed the visitor's center as it was on the south side of the road, and I was riding on the north side, hidden from all road signage. But I did find this great little rest stop. There was even a creatively designed bike rack here.
I propped up the camera and got this hot and sweaty shot. This smile doesn't even begin to communicate the joy that I was feeling during this trip! It was seriously the ride of a lifetime!
Once I reached the town of Marathon on Marathon Key, I was ready for a little in-town adventuring. I stopped at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor's Center of Greater Marathon Key and inquired about the best local spots in town. After a little prodding, the sweet lady behind the desk slowly started sharing the best kept secrets in town. Somewhat hesitantly, she marked all of the best tiki bars on the island on my paper map. Score #2 of the day!

As it turns out, Marathon Key is a very interesting, happening town. I could easily spend a full weekend exploring the area. There is a large airport on the island...and look, biplane rides are only $55 for 2 people!

This giant Angelfish was just outside a dive shop.

I recommend Herbie's for a quick, cheap lunch (thanks for the original recommendation George!). It's nothing fancy, but it supports a local business and the food is pretty tasty. I had a simple yummy blackened chicken sandwich. The waitress wore skinny bleached jeans and sported a t-shirt that disclosed that she was "a little bit sneaky!" It made me smile.

One of my favorite, local secrets on the island is the drawbridge to Boot Key (symbolized by a sailboat on my google map):

View Florida Keys Bike in a larger map

According to the lady at the Visitor's Center, this drawbridge was put out of commission several years back. Because the island of Boot Key is only owned by two people and has no permanent homes, funding for the drawbridge was difficult to justify. There is only one building on the island and it is a radio station (the employees now have to take a boat to the island). Since the bridge has been out of working order, the city has tried several ways to get it back up and running. They even tried to sell it on eBay. Can you believe that no one bought it? With the economy in it's current state, you would think there are some trolls out of work that really need a good bridge to terrorize.
The local legend of the bridge was intriguing enough to attract me, and I was eager to check out the unwanted gate to paradise. I dropped my bike at the road closed signs and headed up to see the view of Boot Key Harbor, anchorage point for many beautiful sailboats and houseboats.
The drawbridge now appears to be the home for a small homeless, vagabond community.

Next, I began a short tiki-tour of Marathon Key. Having already passed and explored a few superb looking tiki bars on the island, I was ready to have a cold beverage at one. My first tiki bar was by far the best tiki bar I had seen in the Keys and one of my favorite secrets. You can bet I will always stop here if I'm heading to Key West! It's a great tikibar/restaurant/marina/marina gas station combo called Burdine's in viewing distance of the prettiest abandoned drawbridge.
The road to the tikibar, 15th St., runs through an old Keys-style trailer park and past stacks of lobster traps, back to a marina on the ocean side on the protected harbor.
Here's how I enjoyed Burdine's and how I recommend you do as well if you ever get the opportunity:
  1. prop your bike up on the dock
  2. head up to the second floor tikibar
  3. grab a stool at the bar, sit down, and exhale any lasting stress
  4. observe the local fishermen and discuss the fishing conditions
  5. order a cold domestic beer (they come in a coozie!)
  6. enjoy the awesome breeze that blows through this level
  7. read all the license plates hanging on the walls
  8. marvel at the big boats and yachts that pull up for gas
  9. chat up the great ladies who tend bar
  10. tip as if this will be your last beer in paradise

View from Burdine's across the harbor

Tiki bar #2 on the mini tiki-tour was Sunset Grille and Raw Bar, just before the Seven Mile Bridge. Of all the advice that I was given before my trip, the most urgent warnings were concerning the Seven Mile Bridge. This is because it is the longest bridge (yes, seven miles, captain obvious!) in the Keys, there is no bike route around it, and traffic can be relatively bad at this point. So I was a tad nervous. The Sunset Grille and Raw Bar helped to boost my courage.
Not only does this bar have a great view of the Seven Mile Bridge, but it also has a pool that its patrons can use! Although it feels nothing like an authentic tiki bar, the pool more than made up for that! I cooled off in the water, sipped a beer, and reflected on my seven mile destiny. I drank my second beer and got on the road again quickly after the kids in the pool started splashing and yelling...I'm too old for those shenanigans and plus, I had seven miles before my next home.
See the tiny bump after the electric poles end? That's the elevated part of the bridge and the halfway point.

As it turned out, the Seven Mile Bridge was no problem. I kicked it in gear and made it across in 20 minutes!! That's 21 mph...faster than I've ever ridden on this bike. This was for several reasons:
  1. I had timed it right, and started over the bridge at about 4pm when most of the traffic is heading north rather than south.
  2. There was actually a good size (approx 5 ft) shoulder on the bridge to ride on, so the cars and trucks that passed had lots of clearance
  3. There was no debris on the shoulder to dodge around
  4. There is only approximately 1 mile of the bridge that is elevated, the rest is completely flat
  5. The wind was at my back
That was a satisfying bridge. I took some pictures from the southern end of the bridge.

Then I rode the last three miles to Bahia Honda State Park at my typical 10mph pace. I felt accomplished and empowered.