Getting Dirty in the Florida Keys

Last night, we left Georgia bound for a place that makes me soul feel at rest. The Florida Keys. I grew up in Florida so I’m no stranger to fabulous beaches. I spent a year living within walking distance of Kalathas Beach in Crete, Greece.

Kalathas Beach, Crete, Greece

I I feel alive & reinvigorated on a crisp mountain morning, but I feel a sense of being at home when I’m on a beach.

Caluso Beach, Bahia Honda State Park

Caluso Beach, Bahia Honda State Park

The Florida Keys are different from any other beach or coastal community I have ever been to. Almost everyone has heard that time practically stands still in the Keys. Stress? Not in Monroe County. It could all be one huge, glorious act;however, I’ve never seen anyone who lives here act stressed. They seem to be the happiest, easy going folks EVER. And why wouldn’t they be?!

Bahia Honda State Park

Bahia Honda State Park

This is our second trip to the Keys. We stay Bahia Honda State Park – where we sleep in tents. Our first trip, we stayed in the Bayside campground…. no electricity…. in July. Never again. It was hotter than Hades!

Last August, I reserved our site in the Sandspur campground. Electricity!! You will never appreciate the luxury of a simple fan to circulate air in your tent  until you’ve spent a week in Florida without it!  (I’m actually writing this on my fully charged Kindle Fire on my inflated queen size air mattress with a lovely man-made breeze blowing in my hair. It’s a beautiful thing.) Morning report: excellent sleeping. Bonus points!!

My morning view

I don’t think what we are doing is true camping. This? This is glamping! It’s way too comfortable to be true camping. We even have a table cloth on our table!!

Key Largo Sunrise

Key Largo Sunrise

Anyhow, we left Saturday evening and drove (with Frodo & the Hiking Ninja in our car and the Dirty Diva & her boyfriend following in her car) through the night to get here Sunday morning. We were blessed with a stunning sunrise over Key Largo. It was a lovely welcome “home.”

Our only stressful part of the drive – other than the I95 parking lot through Jacksonville – was my new bike rack. For Mother’s Day, Mr. Dirty and the kids bought me a Yakima Doubledown Ace 4 bike rack for my Subaru, George. It’s one incredible bike rack!! The problem? It rode so low that it appeared to be falling off the car. Initially, Mr. Dirty thought I had incorrectly installed it. A perusal on the internet (what did I ever do without a smart phone?!) and a YouTube video later, and we learned that I did it right. It wasn’t until I found a Subaru forum (yes, they have those…. they have an internet forum to talk about just about anything you could dream of) that I learned you needed a Class II hitch to transport any more than two bikes. I have a Class I. Guess who will be getting a new hitch for their car??

When most people think about the Keys, they think about Key West. With over 660,000 people arriving via cruise ships per year and Jimmy Buffett ‘s Margaritaville, it’s understandable. We spend just a few hours in Key West, and that’s plenty.  There is so much more to do! On a previous trip, we took an eco-kayak tour & snorkled the Looe Key Reef. This year? We’re going to have all sorts of fun!!

(Now that we’re home & the fun is over, I can fill you in on all of the awesomeness that we found in the Keys!)

Pigeon Key
Pigeon Key is located at the mid-point of the 7 Mile Bridge. During the building of the Overseas Highway, Pigeon Key was a camp for the construction crew. Later, it housed the bridge tender and his family. Now, the island is home to a museum that pays tribute to Henry Flagler’s Overseas Highway and the families who sacrificed for the OH. I know, I know… who wants to go to a stinking museum on vacation?! Who cares about the museum?! Not me. But the island (and getting there) is amazing! We rode our bikes across the Old 7 Mile Bridge; it’s only 2 miles to Pigeon Key.

Old 7 Mile Bridge
Old 7 Mile Bridge
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Osprey

The tide was out as we rode the Old 7 so we saw loggerheads and needlefish swimming in the shallows. There is a gorgeous osprey who lives on the bridge; he looked so regal looking over his kingdom.

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Dock at Pigeon Key

On the gulf side of Pigeon Key is a boat dock and small beach where we enjoyed fine cuisine (pb&j from my backpack) and snorkeling. Snorkeling under the dock was pretty awesome. We swam with tons of fish – most notably toothy baracudas and colorfully quilted parrot fish.

Kayaking at Curry Hammock State ParkCurry Hammock State Park is located on Marathon Key (I believe) and has kayak rentals at a reasonable rate ($21 per 2 hours for double kayaks).  CHSP has a small “trail” that you can kayak which takes you through a mangrove (these are trees & not to be confused with the mango which is yummy when ripe) tunnel. Having only skirted the mangroves on our last trip, we were rather excited to go through the tunnel! We were warned the mosquitoes were bad through there there but only the sweet one (Hiking Ninja) from our crew had problems with being tasty. It was pretty surreal paddling through the tunnel:  we weren’t that far from civilization, but it felt like another planet.

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Kayaking the Mangrove Tunnel

Kayaking the Mangrove Tunnel

After the tunnel, we found a small beach that was a breading ground for horseshoe crabs and a sand bar that was teeming with life. It was amazing!
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Turtle Hospital on Marathon – This is the Dirty Diva’s favorite part of the trip. She loves turtles – especially sea turtles.
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The Turtle Hospital takes sick and injured turtles in from all over the US. On our first visit in 2011, we were able to observe a loggerhead by the name of George having tumors surgically removed. On this visit, we were reintroduced to George as Georgette.

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Georgette

Apparently, turtles don’t advertise their gender until they’re adolescents. Ahem. The hospital does amazing things for these turtles & is a highlight of our trip!

Islamorada’s Third Thursday Art Walk – On the third Thursday of every month, the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District sponsors the Third Thursday Art Walk. Local artists & musicians come out for the evening to show off their best work… which was incredible. The best part was meeting the local artists and hearing their stories (I loved talking to the retired teacher who left New York & loves that they know his name in the post office!).

Food? We did quite a bit of eating in camp (thanks to the Winn Dixie on Big Pine Key); however, our restaurant experiences were quite incredible… as always. I am not a seafood eater, but I tried the conch fritters in Key West.

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Conch Fritters on Duval Street

They were really… chewy. We enjoyed the Island Grill in Islamorada and Mangrove Mama’s  on Sugar Loaf Key (although the Island Grill was far superior to the more expensive Mangrove Mamas). Our top rated & most highly recommended eating? The No Name Pub on No Name Key.
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Always awesome. Always fun. Always delicious. The place is covered in dollar bills, one of which advertises for The Dirty Duo… just saying.
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There is so much more adventure to be found in the Florida Keys. We need more time! I’ve tried to convince Mr. Dirty to relocate, but I haven’t had much success. I think he’s scared of a little hurricane 😉

 

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Trials and Tribulations of Trail Transportation

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When I, Mrs. Dirty, was sixteen, I received my driver’s license and the keys to my very own 1970 something Mustang II. It wasn’t shiny and new, but it was transportation! My bestie, BJ, and I drove that little car all over Panama City & Panama City Beach. Transportation provided us with the one thing we craved most: freedom! Of course, within a month of receiving my license, I received a speeding ticket & was in a slight fender bender. I guess I got carried away with the freedom.

As much as I love hiking, getting to and from the trail can sometimes be a challenge. Will your vehicle be safe at the trailhead for days? Weeks? Do you need one vehicle at the starting point and one at your ending point? (It’s for that reason that Mr. Dirty likes hiking loop trails.)

The Appalachian Trail hiking community has pretty much established a solid transportation framework that consists to shuttles – usually run by hostel owners (which means a ride, bed, food, and a shower!). These shuttles can be slightly expensive, thanks to those rising gas prices that I’m not even going to get into! If you came here looking for shuttle information, hold on. I’m getting there!

no fancy sports cars here

no fancy sports cars here

Most trailheads, at least the ones that are the most fun, are found within a maze of forestry service roads (read: dirty, gravel roads that are so washed out that you can’t really see the gravel). The type of vehicle you take (and how you baby it) is as important as having a map to the trail. When you survey the parking lot at the trailhead – especially the trailhead found on one of those long, winding forestry service roads – you don’t see many Mercedes or BMWs. Our outdoor adventures are the main reasons Mr. Dirty drives a truck, and I drive a Subaru (even though my friend Shawn says only hippies drive Subarus…. don’t even get me started on what the boss says about Subies!)

Mr. Dirty and I have had some rather unusual trail transportation trials (I’m sure that simply shocks you, right?). We can never do something the easy way; that would be, well, too easy. Are you ready for the Top 5 Fantastic Failures in Trail Transportation?!

#5: Leave Your Valuables at Home

Mr.B

Mr. B

When you are going to be leaving your vehicle unattended for days or weeks at a time, it makes no sense whatsoever to leave valuable electronics (or wallets, purses, etc.) in the car. On our AT adventure, we prepositioned vehicles at strategic locations along the trail (my Subie at Springer, Hinky Di-Di’s car at Nantahala, and Mr. Dirty’s truck at Fontana). As we were dropping the Subie at Springer, Mr. Dirty’s (autocorrect keeps changing Mr. Dirty to Mr. Society. Ha!!) friend, Mr. B – who we were transporting to Fontana for a section hike through the Smokies – decided to do a “walk around” to make sure the car wasn’t appealing to thieves… for any reason other than it’s an awesome Subie.

Thank God for Mr. B, because Frodo the dirty footed Hobbit had left his iPad, a backpack, and money on the back seat! If the hike would have gone as planned, George (that’s my Subie’s name) would have been sitting at the trailhead for SIXTEEN days. Not everyone who passes through trailhead parking lots are honest people. It is so common for cars to be broken into at trailhead that the Washington Trails Association regularly posts this blog: Keeping Your Car Safe at the Trailhead. Luckily, we had Mr. B along for the ride. George still has all of his Windows, and Frodo still has his iPad (hence the reason this is #5 and not #1).

#4: Shuttles Save Lives!
So. I told you we prepositioned those vehicles strategically along the trail. IF the hike had gone as planned, it would have been fabulous. So much thought and planning went into prepositioning those vehicles. Here is how it was supposed to work: Mr. Dirty would drop us at Fontana then pick up Hinky Di-Di and the Ninja Lumberjack at Nantahala. Together, we would hike the thirty miles from Fontana back to the NOC. The Ninja Lumberjack would shuttle Mr. Dirty back to Fontana to get his truck. Hinky Di-Di & I would continue hiking to George where he was waiting at Springer Mountain. Yeah, right.

We were running slightly behind schedule – which totally freaked out Mr. Dirty. The soldier inside doesn’t like for a schedule to NOT be adhered to. Schedules are made for a reason, right? At around 5am on the third day of hiking, Mr. Dirty scratched on the mosquito netting of my hammock to tell me he was hiking out ahead of us. He wanted to get to the NOC and take a shuttle back to Fontana to get his truck. His goal was to be waiting when we came off the trail at the NOC so that he could hit the highway.

When he reached the NOC, he arranged a shuttle through Jeff Hoch at The Hike Inn. Mr. Dirty has nothing but good stuff to say about Jeff – who, according to Mr. Dirty, knows everyone on the AT and has great stories to share. If you are in need of a shuttle in the Fontana Dam or Nantahala area, give Jeff & Nancy a call at (828-479-3677). Shuttles Save Lives,right? Jeff is probably unaware of the role he played in helping us get Hinky Di-Di off the trail safely!

Oblivious to the day’s drama (if you are unaware of the drama, read Dirty Disappointment), Mr. Dirty sent me a text to inform me that he was at his truck and heading back to Nantahala. According to my little pocket map, we were about two miles to Wright Gap. Luckily, I had purchased the AT Trail1 iPhone app. I highly recommended this app. It has a GPS that shows you where you are on the trail. The mileage wasn’t always correct, and it didn’t always have sufficient signal signal strength to update your location. It WAS only $1. The map on this app showed that there was a road crossing at Wright Gap. This, by the way, wasn’t on my little pocket map (you know, the one that I paid $19.99 for on Amazon).

We were able arrange for Mr. Dirty to meet us at the road crossing in order to get Hinky Di-Di safely off the trail. See? Shuttles Save Lives.

#3: Lead the Way… Don’t LEAVE!

Dirty George after Springer Mt.

Dirty George after Springer Mt.

Our little AT adventure wouldn’t end until we went back to Springer Mountain to rescue a stranded George – the beloved Subie. First, let me say that DRIVING to get George wasn’t part of my plan so it made me a little sad. Mr. Dirty grew up in Washington and is pretty skilled at driving those mountain roads. So skilled that as we drove to the trailhead to get George, I rode with my eyes closed. He was whipping around those twists and flying over those wash outs. Needless to say, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the way we got to the trail. Problem? Nah, I planned to follow Mr. Dirty home. Right? Wrong.

The drive down the mountain was good for a few minutes; those were the few minutes minutes when I could actually see Mr. Dirty’s dust trail. The dust trail didn’t last long, and before long, nothing looked familiar. Nothing. If you’ve been on the forestry service road to Springer, you know that there is a place in the road where you can turn one of four ways. Yeah, I took the wrong one. Smartly, I figured this out, turned around, and took another way. Yup, it was wrong, too. Mr. Dirty, of course, wasn’t answering his cell phone. When I finally reached Frodo, I was a bit hysterical. The boy’s eventually found me sitting at the crossroads acting like a blubbering fool.

Remember, if you are leading the way… don’t leave the way!!

#2: Battery Blunders, aka We’ll leave a light on for ya’

Summer 2004 - Panther Creek

Summer 2004 – Panther Creek

Summer 2012 - Panther Creek

Summer 2012 – Panther Creek

Over Spring Break, we took Frodo to Panther Creek to do a little hiking. We love Panther Creek, because it is such an amazingly beautiful place. It’s a 3.5 mile hike from the parking lot o one of the most breathtaking waterfalls in the state of Georgia. The hike can be nerve racking in spots and the water is frigid… but is so worth it!

Panther Creek Falls

Mr. Dirty at Panther Creek Falls

Mr. Dirty at Panther Creek Falls

On this particular trip, we drove George. The truck is great, because you can load lots of gear in the bed. My Subaru gets much better gas mileage. Much better. George just happens to be an Outback – which means he has a roomy cargo area. This cargo area is large enough to hold at least four fully loaded 65 liter backpacks (3 of which are from the Osprey family, just saying) and is well lit by an over head dome light. This little dome light has one of those nifty little sliding switches that has three settings: on, off, door. The on and off are pretty self-explanatory, right? Door means that the light only comes on when the door is open. Genius. This is where I like to keep it. This is where it makes sense for it to be. Right?

As we were unloading our gear, one of the fully loaded 65 liter bags (probably the non-Osprey variety) brushed against that little sliding switch, putting it into the ON position. For three days. Upon returning from our wonderfully fabulous hike, the key fob wouldn’t open the door. Whatever could be amiss? Hmmmm, why won’t the car start?

If I haven’t mentioned it yet, Panther Creek is a very popular hiking destination in Georgia. The parking lot was packed! Every parking spot as full, and cars were parked along the side of the road. That is typical or this trailhead. That’s what happens and. The destination is that amazing. It makes it rather difficult when trying to jumpstart a dead battery, unless the car parked in front of you happens to have the driver close by…. which was not the case in our situation, of course.

The Dirty Friend, Frodo, and Mr. Dirty at Panther Creek Falls

The Dirty Friend, Frodo, and Mr. Dirty at Panther Creek Falls

We were lucky to have have two very willing young ladies who were eager to exchange a jumpstart for our parking spot, but we had to first push George backwards out of his resting place. Normally, you would put the car in neutral and push. Right? Have you tried this lately? The stinking thing wouldn’t go into neutral. A quick perusal of the Owner’s Manual led to an answer: there is this little circle cover just North of the gear shift that that you have to remove and insert the Subaru screwdriver (which was, thankfully, in my glove box) in order to put the car in neutral. I’m certain this is some kind of safety feature. Mainly because I once had a friend whose son knocked her car into neutral, and it does through the neighbor’s front door.

We, eventually, pushed George to a position where he could get some juice from another vehicle, and we were on our merry way. A lesson was learned: always check to make sure all lights – both interior and exterior – are turned off before leaving the trailhead!

#1: Who Has the Keys??
Yeah, it’s happened… twice.
Our first key trouble was last summer at Panther Creek (our luck tends to not be so good there). We like to mountain bike as well as hike; therefore, I have a handy dandy bike rack attached to the rear of my Subie. It’s the kind that drops down to allow entrance to the roomie cargo area. As we were unloading our gear, someone – I really can’t remember who – sat the keys on top of the bike rack… which has an open, hollow tube that is about three feet long.

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The keys, of course, slid all the way to the bottom of the tube – inside of the bike rack. It took some scientific genius to use a magnet attached to the end of a hiking pole to retrieve the keys. Grrrrrr.

The second key incident was entirely Mr. Dirty’s fault. Really! Mr. Dirty and Frodo went for an overnight hike with our friend Brat and his son, the Ham Man. They prepositioned vehicles: Brat’s truck at Springer and Mr. Dirty’s truck at Three Forks (at least I think it was Three Forks). They set off hiking north in the rain, because it always rains on the AT. When they made it to where Mr.Dirty’s truck was waiting, he realized that his keys were… in Brat’s truck. Oh, Mr. Dirty, you rock.

Frodo, being an adventurous young lad, volunteered to run – literally – back to Springer to retrieve the keys. Along the Way (for some reason autocorrect insists that Way be capital… I guess it’s the Way it’s done), he met some kind hearted folks who shared some snacks with him. Thanks, kind hearted folks, whoever you were.

Shortly after Frodo took off for Springer, the always persuasive smooth talking Brat used his lawyerly skills to CONvince a young couple who were driving a small Yugo-ish vehicle to drive him to the trailhead. Apparently, and I’m going off hearsay on this, the young woman rode in the hatchback with her large dog so that Brat could have her seat. Yes, he’s that persuasive.

When Frodo finally made it to the parking lot to get the keys, Brat was waiting in the warm, dry cab of the truck for him. Now, every trip we take, Frodo carries a spare key to the vehicles. He doesn’t trust his parents to keep the keys!!