brick & mortar: fort zachary taylor

mallory square sunset

Every evening in Key West, crowds gather in Mallory Square and sailboats gather on the water to watch the sun go down.  There's usually a whole lot of chaos and a ton of vendors and performers all vying for your attention.  We paused to watch a crazy frenchman and his cats jump through flaming hoops and I was called up to assist at one point.  He kept calling me "Mary," and it took me awhile to realize that he was talking to me. Awkward.

conch house: the architecture of key west

road to nowhere: seven mile bridge

The Florida Keys are a series of islands connected by the Overseas Highway and a number of bridges, the most famous of which is the Old Seven Mile Bridge.  It spanned the gap between Knight's Key and Little Duck Key and only half is safe for pedestrians.  Pigeon Key, a little island resting near the center of the bridge,  served as a home base for the workers who built the bridge and is now a museum, but we didn’t much feel like walking the 3.5 miles in the humidity to get there or pay for a ferry to get out there.  The Old Seven-Mile Bridge has now replaced by a wider, more modern version, impossible for pedestrians to traverse due to the zooming traffic.

long key state park: golden orb trail

Our next stop as we were driving down to Key West was to walk a short trail in Long Key State Park (short only because we were hot, tired, and bored; not necessarily the trail itself).  Though allegedly named for the spiders that live in the area, the only creatures we saw were small crabs that carpeted the trail and would scurry ahead of our footsteps, in search of their hidey-holes.

Mangroves had also completely taken over the area with their stilt-like roots and small spattering of yellow leaves spangled amongst the green.  Because mangroves typically get their water from the ocean, they have to desalinize their water before they can use it.  On their own they can remove about 90% of the salt in their water source; the last ten percent is sent to a “sacrificial” leaf on each branch, which begins to turn yellow and eventually die.  This process allows them to survive without a freshwater source, which would kill any other vegetation.

Their interlocking root systems also allow them to survive extreme weather systems, like hurricanes and small inlets in the mangroves forests, known as “hurricane holes,” are some of the safest places to seek refuge if you ever find yourself outside, near a mangrove forest, during a hurricane.

chum: robbie's marina

On our way down to Key West, we stopped at Robbie's Marina on Islamorada.  For $3 you can buy a bucket of fish to feed to the tarpons, 50lbs scavenger fish that hang out around the marina waiting for any food that may fall into their reach.  They're mostly harmless, but huge; most of them were at least the length of one of my legs.

the river of grass: everglades national park

Due to a series of  unfortunate events, all of my photographs of the Everglades were deleted from my camera three days into our trip, so all I have to share are photographs from my phone.  Missed some major events, but these will have to do.

The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slowly moving, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades.  It is a river of grass.
-Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Big Man, my first alligator.  He was 15 feet long and hissed at me when I got too close.

Our guide for our airboat tour.  Incredibly knowledgeable, slightly crusty from too much sun,  and knew each alligator by sight 

Still, looking back, this moment was the highlight of the trip and the most interesting feeling I've experienced: cool to the touch, yet you can feel the life beating beneath the scales; strong but delicate; and while it was so calm in my hands, you could feel that the alligator could explode with energy at any moment.

Dinner on the dock: frogs legs, clam strips, coleslaw, and cerveza
(if you ever encounter them, you can pass on frogs legs, they were pretty bland).

A 15 mile bike ride through Shark Valley.  There were no sharks.

I had no idea that cicadas (at least I think that is what this is...) were this huge, almost the length of my palm, or this color.  They had just hatched and were everywhere.  The trees were nearly vibrating with their songs.

An observation tower in Shark Valley.  Oddly reminded me of Soviet-Era architecture.

The view from the observation tower.  You can see at least one alligator--it's that log-like figure near the center of the photograph. 

One of the more petite alligators we saw on this trip. Back in the day, tour guides would bring food for the alligators to draw them to the boat.  Since it is now illegal to feed them, our tour guide had a role of biodegradable paper towels that he would bunch up and throw in the water to bring the alligators closer to the boat.  As soon as the towel would hit the water, the gator would make straight for it, thinking that it might be food.  

An anhinga, or snakebird, sunning itself to dry out its feathers:  They're similar to cormorants and, as such, don't produce the waterproofing oils that most other water birds have.  This makes them barely buoyant, but easier for them to dive, so they have to sit in the sun with their wings spread to dry their feathers out between hunting sessions.  These guys dotted the landscape near the water, in trees and along the water's edge.

A younger alligator hiding in the saw grass

Reflections of a great blue heron.

On our second day we kayaked deep into the Everglades to see the swamp and mangrove forests on a more personal level.   I wish I had my photos to better convey this experience (but at least have this short gif). 
Oftentimes we were scraping the bottom of the river or slowly slipping through underwater grasslands.  Alligators were only a few feet from our noses and I found myself drifting through more than a few spiderwebs.  As we passed the reptiles, we had to move as silently as possible because they are more sensitive to sound, rather than sight or smell.  Our guide would point each one out with hand signals and we would silently pass the message down the line of kayaks--until it got to Mom, and then she would holler to the next person about the alligator coming up, five feet to our left.   
Mangrove tunnels often limited the use of our paddles, so we had to store them and crawl hand over hand using branches and roots to maneuver through the passageways.  The limbs of the mangroves were adorned with bromeliads and orchids in the shadows and hanging spanish moss in the sunlight.  
I was able to get a little ahead of the group a few times where the water was perfectly still, the reflections of the roots seemed infinite and the cacophony of birds and bugs hadn't yet been scared into silence.  There is no better way to begin to understand the beating heart and life of the Everglades.