A Walk in the Garden

Leah and I awoke to an overcast day. The forecast promised more of the same, which was fine with me as long as it didn’t rain. We spent the morning searching for a new destination to stretch our legs–maybe find a bike trail, or at the very least, a walking trail not too far from home.

After a late breakfast, we headed south toward Flagler Beach, a salty seaside community with orange sand from crushed coquina…

dunes and beach

midway between St. Augustine and Daytona. We were in search of Betty Steflik Memorial Preserve, a cache of 217 acres of marsh and mangroves tucked beneath the Highway 100 causeway,

causeway

and bordering the Matanzas River.

Matanzas River

A mile or so of boardwalking through the salt marsh was pleasant though unremarkable. However, it offered me time to play with my newly acquired 1.7X tele conversion lens (see Zoom!).

egret takes off

avoiding the wake

Anticipating a loop around the preserve, we were surprised that the trail dropped us at a different parking lot annexed to the town’s public works complex that was surrounded by dilapidated residential trailers planted only blocks from the beach.

cistern1

And so we continued our tour of all things industrial and commercial, until we returned to the preserve entrance.

bridge piers

Feeling underwhelmed by our walk-around, I opted for the slow road home, following A1A North on a prayer that the seaside scenery might somehow improve on a somewhat lackluster afternoon.

We passed through nothing of consequence: nondescript shops and eateries, assorted bungalows, big machines for county road repairs, and mainstream subdivisions along the way. But when we reached Palm Coast, the road opened up to a dense maritime hammock of hardwood trees to our left, and I felt compelled to u-turn for a closer look.

We turned into Washington Oaks Garden State Park,

National Register

and heard from the gate attendant that the azalea blooms had just reached their peak, and that was enough to pique my interest.

gazebo and fountain

As we completed a self-guided tour of the grounds…

Washington Oaks Historic District

I felt relieved, knowing that our Sunday excursion had been rescued.

mask

The formal gardens were beautifully unusual,

live oak

lushly carpeted,

green garden grasses

and precisely manicured.

garden path

We left the area under partly sunny skies…

marshian sunset

knowing that we would return another day to devote more time to the miles of trails through the hammock.

And weather permitting, we will cross the highway to follow the coquina rock formations that line the Atlantic side when the tide is nigh.

The Rocks

 

 

 

 

 

Zoom!

Imagine playing recreational golf with one driver, an iron, and a putter. Accessing the game would be so much easier without the expense of all those clubs. And when playing the course, think how much time could be saved between strokes by not having to decide which club to select for each shot.

While it’s not the perfect metaphor, I’ve approached photography with the same minimalist philosophy. I’ve been photographing with a Panasonic Lumix digital bridge camera (fixed zoom lens) for the past few years instead of lugging around equipment that I might use, but most likely never would.

How do I know this? Despite decades of shooting a variety of photography disciplines (landscape, nature, portrait, street scene, architecture, etc.) that required a variety of prime and telephoto lenses neatly arranged in my equipment bag, I’ve noticed that I’m rarely disappointed by the versatility of the LEICA DC VARIO-ELMARIT 24X optical zoom permanently mounted to my Lumix DMC-FZ300, while also freeing myself of a senseless burden that would invariably sink deeper into my shoulder with every step and slow me down.

It’s truly a remarkable lens for nearly all occasions! The range and reach of the camera’s 25 – 600mm zoom has seldom left me needing more lens, or regretting my camera choice in favor of a full-fledged DSLR…until now…since there are times I’m wishing I could gain greater detail by getting closer to my subject.

For instance, walking across a boardwalk over marshland strictly limits my ability to get closer to wildlife. The following photograph is a hand-held shot of a heron that caught my attention at a scenic overlook while hiking along the Guana Loop of Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM). 

heron on a limb

At 24X zoom, the image is acceptable, but if I choose to isolate the heron by cropping the bird to full frame, the resolution suffers greatly. Ideally, a tripod could have provided better image clarity, but the digital noise would still remain the same.

heron on a limb (4)

However, I discovered another available option that allows me to get a bit closer without relying on the camera’s built-in digital zoom–which I’m inclined to deactivate since I prefer to shoot RAW. Years ago, Lumix created a 1.7X tele conversion lens with adapter, extending the optical zoom to 40.8X, or the equivalent zoom range of 1020mm. But alas, this accessory has been discontinued.

Fortunately there’s a secondary market for almost everything photographic, so after a brief visit to the internet, I found a seller on eBay that offered the requisite 1.7X tele converter, a close-up lens, mount adapter, and tripod mount ring, all for a fraction of the original price of the tele lens.

And I bought it!

extender setHaving traveled to the GTM with my new/used acquisition, and having survived the burden of carrying extra gear, I assembled the lens and carefully threaded it onto the existing camera lens. I planted my feet, braced myself and shot the heron again!

heron on a branch (2)

A side by side comparison tells the story…

The image on the right is noticeably cleaner, even though the focus appears to be a bit soft, informing me that capturing a crisp, hand-held shot at 40.8X is not my specialty, and probably ill-advised.

Ugh! So now I’m forced to carry a tripod or monopod to make better use of the lens extender. Oh, well. There goes the economy of my photography.

marshland (2)

Then again, I could simply stick to the limits of the original lens…

GTM Estruaine (2)

but then again, with an impending trip to photograph big game animals in Africa at the beginning of May, I’m much better off adjusting to three golf clubs instead of one.

The Other Side of Cozumel, Part Dos

You may recall from The Other Side of Cozumel that sometimes vacations don’t always turn out as expected. However, since my first taste of Mexico in 1975, subsequent trips south of the border were much more enjoyable and fulfilling. I returned again and again to celebrate the culture and bask in the balmy weather. I ate my fill of fresh fish, tacos and tamales, and always managed to melt my stress away with the help of good tequila.

My status improved in 1988 when I earned my diver certification at a casual Playa del Carmen resort, and thereafter, got spoiled enjoying the drift dives in Cozumel along Santa Rosa wall, or deep diving Devil’s Throat in Punta Sur, or floating through the aquarium of sea-life that is Palancar Reef.

Past Mexican vacations have been spent exploring neighboring hotspots in the Quintana Roo vicinity:

Holbox to the North …

Holbox tour

Holbox beach

Chaccoben to the South…

Chaccoben temple @ Costa Maya

and Tulum in between…

The Castle ruin

Tulum coastline

But the one thing I never got around to doing over the past 45 years was explore the eastern shore of Cozumel. Not that I was avoiding the prospect; it’s that the opportunity never presented itself…until lately.

Rather than rent scooters for the day–which Leah would have never agreed to–I rented a modest Nissan sedan, and the two of us made a day of it.

We started out in Centro by the Iglesia de San Miguel, a charming Catholic parish…

San Miguel stained glass (3)

that always draws a queue of cruise ship passengers on shore excursion,

San Miguel (2)

to fill out laborious paperwork at a tucked-away Thrifty satelite office across the way, but that was the medicine we were willing to swallow to save nearly 60% from the rental fee quoted by our hotel concessionaire. From there it was a race to escape 1.5 miles of pedestrian madness between the Ferry Pier and the International Pier Cruise Terminal.

As we left city life behind, the jungle returned with thickets of mangroves and saw palmetto. Occasional glimpses of coastline were visible through a string of scattered beach club parking lots that offered access to rows and rows of lounge chairs, palapas, inflatable water slides, and cocktails for all the cruisers fresh from duty-free shopping or the San Miguel Church tour.

We settled on Playa Palancar for its no-fee beach access, tasty tacos and snorkeling activity. Unfortunately, the fish had reservations at a different beach club at the time, so we were forced to relax before moving on to the southern tip of the island, and a stop at the Rasta Bar at Punta Sur…

reggae beach bar

for views of the ocean,

rasta's beach club chairs1

some old-time religion,

jamaican jesus

and window shopping…

rasta's

for Mayan medalians.

masks and medalions

Back in the car, we continued around the horn to the backside of the island…

cozumel map

until we reached Playa San Martin, a cozy outpost with a sparse sandy beach…

wild beach

colorful palapas,

banos (2)

backdoor boutique

and a population of lazy iguanas.

iguana king

blue iguana

iguana (2)

The two-lane road continued North to an island mid-point, where we reached the Transversal crossroad that transported us back to the population center, dodging scooters, trucks and taxis all the way to the leeward side hotels…

north zone sunset

where high above the rooflines,

door to the rooftop

I was just in time for the evening floor show.

sunset (2)

 

 

Flamingo Road

The Vindanta vacation resort in Riviera Maya maintains a habitat for flamingos smack in the middle of their property, and neither Leah or I had any idea that it was even there, despite a sign posting by the iguana-laden boardwalk…

boardwalker (2)

just outside our building.

grand mayan 3

We must have walked past the entrance to the preserve a dozen times or more, oblivious of the signage, probably thinking that Flamencos had more to do with a lounge or restaurant concept than the pink birds that occasionally keep company with gnomes and jockeys on people’s front lawns.

So imagine my surprise after learning of a conversation Leah overheard between two hotel guests who expressed such delight in watching these birds, that we had to see this unexpected treat for ourselves.

A short walk off the beaten path revealed a contained area at the toe of a foot-shaped lagoon,

bay

where a “pat” of flamingos (maybe 20 or more) were cruising around a contoured wading pool surrounding a small island of palms and mangroves.

bevvy of birds

These quirky birds couldn’t stay still for a moment. They mostly followed the leader of the pack–a five foot specimen that often craned its long loopy neck…

black beak

above the preeners,

pretzel neck

wings akimbo

and the feeders–

standing guard

beak dip

as his elongated legs wallowed through the rippled water…

4 birds

while keeping a watchful eye…

one stand out

on the humans who regulary monitor and manage the water conditions.

maintenance

Much of the pat’s time was spent trolling the curve of the pool with their immense beaks fully immersed in water, moving their heads backwards in an inverted position…

trollers and waders

with their beak sharply angled downward from the middle–the narrow upper jaw fitting into the lower jaw–intended for separating mud and silt from the food that they eat.

close-up

The filtering is assisted by hairy structures called lamellae which line the mandible and a large rough-surfaced tongue, helping them extract the brine shrimp that constitutes their main source of food and the reason for the florescent color of their plumes.

Their fingers feature a webbing that prevents them from sinking in the mud they regularly wade through when feeding.

one leg

The Caribbean pink flamingo (American) reproduces on still waters, or on small islands within shallow salt water ponds and lagoons where it builds a mud mound with a small indentation for depositing its single egg (rarely two). The incubation period lasts from 28 to 32 days, and nesting is performed by both parents. Its offspring feed on regurgitated food for 75 days, although they can feed on their own after 30 days or so.

Flamingos reach maturity between two and three years of age, reaching recorded ages of 27 years in the wild and 50 years in captivity.

reflections (3)

No doubt, these fascinating birds have it made in the shade.

pat

Critter Cam

Security at our new house in St. Augustine has been a concern from the beginning. While we truly enjoy our privacy, we are physically isolated from all of our neighbors–alone in an outlying cul-de-sac that so far has eluded the new home construction spike occurring throughout our community.

waterfront

However, it’s not as if we are inherently paranoid, or that we have a bucket full of anecdotal evidence to suggest that we have something to fear in our neighborhood. On the contrary, we’ve found our faraway neighbors to be friendly and caring.

But there are times when it would be nice to have some neighbors around to keep a watchful eye on things. Or have them circle the wagons in the event of an ambush.

Which would lead us to conclude that we are pretty much on our own when it comes to protecting our property.

home exterior

The other day, Leah and I were introduced to a new neighbor for the first time, who asked the all-to-familiar question:

“So which house is yours?”

Which was answered in a patterned response:

“We’re pretty much by ourselves. Just look for the lonesome house with the red truck on the remote cul-de-sac,” I replied.

screenshot (75)
Look for the blue lollipop–bottom left

Our neighbor responded, “I know that house. It’s very pretty and lush by you, but aren’t you scared being all alone? Maybe you should get a dog!”

Well, no! Although we are dog friendly, there’s no plan for a dog in our household. Certainly not while we still intend to travel.

However, we had considered getting an alarm system, which doesn’t require regular walking or a vet. After an exhaustive search on the internet that challenged my inner geek, I opted for the wireless and flexible RING system to best integrate all security components (video doorbell, front door smartlock, cameras, floodlights, sensors, keypad and base station) under one umbrella. And the monitoring system–no contract necessary–was a genuine bargain at only $100 a year, with COSTCO picking up the first year expense.

I hooked everything up over the course of a few days, despite dangling from the top of a 14 foot telescoping extension ladder.

screenshot (78)

With all devices connected and communicating, I believe Alexa was immediately impressed, but Leah, not so much. She was waiting for a sign that the installation was worth all the accompanying chirps, bells, and whistles of every indoor/outdoor motion or open door–all in the name of stranger danger.

And then we discovered the unintended benefits of exterior motion detection: CRITTER CAM!

In addition to raccoon reconnaissance, we’ve also observed possums, bats, feral cats and cougars, which gave us a better perspective of what was digging up our yard since our move.

But then, I wasn’t prepared for the camera-mugging bluejay who seemingly came out of nowhere to find an unexpected perch…

Realizing that the video capture happened in a blur, I dissected the imagery to secure a better understanding of what I was watching…

flight1a

flight2

flight3

flight4

flight5a

flight6

flight7

Again…

Little did I realize–to my surprise–that RING would open up a (w)hole new dimension of peek-a-boo. 

Becoming My Parents

Hiking along New Jersey State and County Park trails the day after Thanksgiving made a lot of sense to Leah, who orchestrated our first return to New Jersey since moving to St. Augustine five months ago. She promised a whirlwind week and a-half of personal appointments and commitments packed with a variety of doctors, friends and family members, all laced with an emphasis on over-eating.

And so, during the course of our visit, as advertised, our food-centric itinerary always included a meal punctuated by scintillating table conversation on family history and folklore–touching on recipes, obituaries, and kin outcasts, with politics and religion occasionally creeping into the dialogue.

But mostly, everybody seemed to be preoccupied with their health. And God help the person who would innocently ask, “So, how are you feeling?” Because this question would open the floodgates for respondents to freely reassign their HIPAA proxy on the spot so they could casually discuss their current condition down to the last agonizing ache and pain, notwithstanding the severity surrounding their prognosis and course(s) of treatments, always followed by a couple of random doctor-horror stories.

It seemed like everyone had a health-related story to tell–whether it was about themselves or someone they knew–not unlike my parents and their friends, who would gather at holiday occasions to compare notes about their medication intake. It was uncanny that the of crux of nearly all of our relationships was now firmly rooted in our faded glory and eventual demise.

Any outsider, after eavesdropping on any of our sessions of non-stop kvetching might be surprised to learn that we are still breathing and have more than one day to live.

And so, it was predictably refreshing to carve out some time to clear our ears of prescription patter, and find an activity that combined friendship and calorie burning. Of course, our opportunity to hike was completely weather-dependent, considering the prior Nor’easter and the Arctic chill that had settled on the Atlantic states.

Like many Northern transplants to Florida, Leah and I had become preoccupied with weather-watching, so we might bask in the warm glow of knowing that we had finally escaped the unfriendly winters by relocating to St. Augustine. But now that we were back in Jersey, it was time to face the hard cold facts of winter; Ramapo Valley Reservation (NYNJTC_RamapoValleyCountyReservationMap-2017) was 18°F at the Reservation trailhead, and expecting to peak at 23°F by the afternoon.

MacMillan Reservoir was partially frozen and dreary…

lake (2)

with the exception of distant water reflections.

frozen reflection

Trails were camouflaged… 

blue trail (2)

by crispy fallen leaves–densely packed and slippery–despite the assortment of Skittles-colored trail blazes nailed to forest saplings.

cut logs

Brooks were running fast and high…

brook flow1 (3)

making each water-crossing challenging and hazardous.

We continued our four-hour excursion with the winds picking up across Campgaw Mountain.

panorama looking east

And it became clear to me that marching through the New Jersey woodlands was not the best birthday present I could have given myself. The cold had already taken its toll on Arlene’s arthritic fingers. Leah, who had recently succumbed to lower back pain and acute Achilles tendonitis was now complaining about her knees.

My knees were also aching from sliding down one too many slippery slopes. Even Doug, the youngest of all of us by at least eleven years had to admit that his right knee was locking up occasionally. The ladies cut their hike short, taking a quick detour to the parking lot, but Doug and I wore our intrepid hats. We continued to the feature waterfall along the Brookside Trail with few delays or complaints…

waterfall

giving us bragging rights to a 7.5 mile accomplishment,

frosty rocks

and leaving me more than ready for my true birthday present to myself: a one-hour Swedish massage at a local day spa, if only to rub my aches and pains away for another day.

 

 

 

 

Nighttime Sun Worshippers

Taking nothing away from Comic Con, the assembly of tailgaters along Florida Route-401 at Port Canaveral was probably one of the largest collection of early morning geeks ever recorded. It was a carnival atmosphere, with fellow space cadets gathered from around the world to witness one of science’s greatest guilty pleasures–a space launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

But this was to be no ordinary launch. This time around, the payload carried atop the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket has been 60 years in the making, named for Eugene N. Parker, a pioneer astrophysicist who predicted the existence of solar winds in a 1958 paper presented to an editorial panel who flatly rejected his claim.

Dr. Parker--Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Photo credit: Joshua Lott for the New York TImes

Four years later, NASA’s Venus probe (Mariner 2) measured interplanetary energy particles that eventually vindicated Dr. Parker’s belief.

The Parker project was conceived for NASA by engineers at John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in 2005, later amounting to costs running $1.5 billion in order to investigate the nature of our star, and gain an up-close understanding of solar winds.

Originally, Leah and I were on the fence about whether we should make the 2-hour trek from St. Augustine for the launch last night. After all, we’d been burned earlier in the year when we attempted to catch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lift-off (T Minus 3 Days and Holding) during January’s Florida freeze-out.

But this time around, it was personal. Leah’s family had traveled to Florida’s Space Coast from Albuquerque last week (Tourist Attractions) with the intention of watching the Parker Solar Probe launch, only to be disappointed when the on-again-off-again mission was scrubbed for the third time on August 4, when a loose piece of foam was discovered inside the fairing. Daniel’s family was to be NASA’s guests to acknowledge SolAero’s design and fabrication of the probe’s photovoltaic assembly. Leah and I were to be tag-alongs.

Although we had no official invitation for this morning’s event, Leah and I were still determined to bear witness as a tribute to Daniel’s work. We departed at 11:30 pm, and made easy time on I-95S, cruising down the interstate to an uncertain destination. NASA had delivered a 65-minute window for the 3:33 a.m. launch, so we would pad our arrival time in anticipation of getting situated.

We knew we had arrived when we discovered a cluttered roadside collection of vehicles illegally parked along a shoreline clearing with an ersatz view of the gantry in the far distance.

Google map.png

The eight miles separating us from the rocket would be as close as we could get, since access to the base was restricted and blockaded by a fleet of sheriff cars.

sheriff patrol (2)

After a couple of runs up and down the strip, I wedged the F-150 into a narrow gap of parked cars, barely touching the inside road line, but nevertheless legitimate enough to get a pass from the deputy.

I found a vacancy among the scores of tripods already populating the tall grass beside the rocky beach, and staked my claim–although I felt totally inadequate and out-classed–while surrounded by all the super-duper telephoto lenses, and suffering from an acute case of optics envy.

In preparation of the big moment, amateurs and pros alike fussed and fawned over their equipment, changing batteries, polishing lenses, accessorizing camera bodies with autodrives and cable releases, and participating in riveting discussions on ISO vs. aperture vs. shutter speed.

Yet nothing could compare to the mobile telescope for astrophotography that occupied the largest footprint of our makeshift parking lot.

electronic camera

Even its imaging display seemed more complicated than it had to be.

monitors

While it was impossible to compete with all the big boys and their toys, I took a practice shot after setting up, although I knew the lighting would never compare to the day for night exposure once the rocket thrusters lit up the sky.

Zoomed to the max at 600mm, the ISO set at 200, the aperture set at ƒ/8, and a 1 second exposure, my Lumix FZ300 captured this shot of the gantry 8 miles away.

Parker Probe

I reckon that if the atmospheric conditions had been less humid, the image would have been crisper-looking.

There was nothing more to do except wait…

The 3:48 am goal had come and passed without results.

The revised launch time was pushed to 3:53 a.m. The countdown resumed at T-minus-four, and again–for some unknown reason–the launch was suspended while engineers determined the fate of the rocket.

When NASA calculated to green-light the launch at 4:28 a.m., the buzz around us was that this would finally be the moment. Nobody would dare admit aloud or to themselves that this was just another dress rehearsal.

We mostly waited in silence for the next half-hour. The sound of jumping fish in the darkness was a pleasant distraction from the drone of distant internet reporting from a fan’s elaborate sound system.

And then the moment all of us dreaded…with under one minute before the serious countdown:

“Hold, hold, hold!” announced an engineer from Launch 37 Command Center.

The rocket’s helium pressure system had tripped an alarm, taking the launch back to T-minus-four. The 65-minute launch window was quickly closing with ten minutes left, leaving insufficient time to troubleshoot the red flag and light this candle.

The mission was aborted and a collective sigh crossed the highway.

Leah and I drove back home with the sun rising over Matanzas River as we approached St. Augustine. My sole consolation was knowing that besides driving roundtrip for a still picture of a rocket strapped to a gantry in the distance, all I had to do was unmount my camera and fold up my tripod, while somebody else had to wrap up and tow away that enormous mobile telescope.

We slept until noon.

Flight officials determined that in 24 hours they would try all over again.

And when that happens, it will be without us. Instead, I’ll be watching NASA’s live stream of the launch at 3:31 a.m. from my armchair:

…maybe…

…if I can keep my eyes open.

Zzzzz…

P.S. The Parker Solar probe successfully launched on time:

https://amp-space-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/amp.space.com/41454-nasa-parker-solar-probe-launches-to-sun.html?amp_js_v=a2&amp_gsa=1&usqp=mq331AQCCAE%3D&jwsource=em

…and I got to see it…

…from my TV monitor!

Tourist Attractions

When showing family the sights of St. Augustine the first time around,

there are so many tried and true options that abound.

Naturally, driving onto Vilano Beach becomes the main outdoor attraction,

where short legs wade long lengths across silky, sandy satisfaction.

wading out

The Alligator Farm is another familiar and likely choice,

where eager grandchildren are apt to rejoice…

Alligator lagoon.jpg

at a place where rescued reptiles and denizens…

Maximo (2).jpg

Galapagos tortoise1.jpg

albino alligator.jpg

savor a seasonal delicacy,

so good!

yum!.jpg

and feathered friends…

heron

are likely to take up full-time residency.

pretty bird

stork

The Castillo de San Marcos gunnery platoon…

soldier and kids.jpg

castillo model

provides a cannon blast from the past very close to high noon.

cannon blast

And Anastasia Beach State Park’s estuarine channel

egret on the shore1.jpg

offers a vigorous workout with a kayak paddle.

Carrie, Devin, Dan and bird

The Aikens, Grammy, and Kayak

Or how ’bout a free ferry crossing Matanzas Bay…

ferry crossing.jpg

to inspect Fort Matanzas,

inside out

and its cannon array.

Fort Matanzas gun station.jpg

Then again, not withstanding the two-hour drive to Kennedy Space Center,

Kennedy wall.jpg

there’s a universe of exhibits to explore,

a walk on the moon

ISS.jpg

and The World’s Largest Space Shop to enter.

spaceman and kids

But when summer’s heat and humidity just…won’t…allow…another…step,

and when it’s subsequently rainy–as most afternoons are likely to get–

the chosen activity must absolutely meet

the standards of two curious kids, and satisfy their sweet teeth.

hairnet family

Happily, such a happening exists for the young and the grown,

and can be found at the artisan chocolatier, Whetstone.

Whetstone greeting.jpg

The tour informs you of its elaborate process and technique…

chocolate process

But realistically, we came for the chocolate samples we could eat.

Yet unlike the follies of Lucy and Ethel…

our guide served five tastings,

and each one was special.

 

For seven days our family wandered throughout St. Augustine town,

with plenty leftover to experience for the next time around.

Moon over Madeira

The tree frogs are out in full force at nightfall.

 

A cacophonous chorus of tens of thousands of croaking creatures bask in the sticky humidity after a brief, familiar rainfall.

They sing a familiar refrain a capella with a delicate vibrato…

To celebrate the moon’s debut over a thick glade of pines, live oaks, and palmetto.

Moon over Madeira

Obscured by Clouds

On a hot and lazy weekend afternoon, a dip in Madeira’s community pool seemed like a winning idea to escape the heat, but to my surprise (and delight), no one else was there to take advantage of the water. Having the pool to myself was a blessing, if only the oncoming clouds that were assembling could keep their distance.

“You’re welcome to join me,” I offered Leah earlier. However, Leah had settled for the comforts of air conditioning and a Kindle moment.

“Y’know, it’s supposed to rain,” she forecasted.

“But it’s a swimming pool, and wet is wet,” I theorized with authority.

The expectation of rain is ever-present during Florida summers, and today was no exception. In the distance, despite the stillness of the air, the clear sky was yielding to a dark mass creeping in my direction and threatening to blanket the sun.

I floated on the water–as if in a trance–listening to the foreboding rumble, and watching the evolving cauliflower clouds occasionally glow with the flickering incandescence of faraway lightning.

In no time, the war clouds were upon me, but the sun would not surrender gently.

clouds and treetops

I cursed my misfortune for not having my camera with me as the billowing thunderhead gradually edged out the sun–it’s luminescence taking on an eerie beauty.

cloudy but colorful

However, my Samsung Galaxy was with me and it would have to suffice.

colors behind the clouds (2)

While it wasn’t my first choice for resolution, the camera phone adeptly managed to capture the nuance of color radiating beyond concealment…

obscured by clouds

until the sun was vanquished and the rainbow had retreated.

Once I managed to locate and retrieve the files uploaded to Google cloud storage, the captured skyscapes were no longer obscured by clouds.

Well Done!

Long before we established Florida residency, our water bills were ridiculously high, averaging $500 per month. Leah and I immediately suspected that during our three-month absence–between closing and occupancy–the irrigation system zoned around our yard was bleeding us dry. Was this truly to be the continuing cost of keeping our flower beds wet and our lawn green? And if so, was this property threatening to become our Waterloo?

No doubt, our water usage was worthy of an investigation, but the city water department was dismissive–offering precise and up-to-date historical data of our consumption–so we turned to our long-distance neighbors for perspective and to the builder for relief, while wondering which direction to go.

A plea for answers and advice via social media prompted a measured response from Lisa and Greg, new community Facebook pals, who offered to monitor the irrigation interface over a time for evidence of any irregularities or abnormalities.

Greg’s systems check of our Rain Bird controller soon revealed a broken drip head now gushing water, and a twice-a-week watering cycle (as planned) irresponsibly programmed to repeat twice a day by the original landscapers.

Rain Bird

Greg recommended shutting down the timer, and offered to manually manage the irrigation zones in accordance with the forecasted rainfall.

We were indebted to Greg and Lisa for their vigilance, and dutifully took over on water watch for the month of June and thereafter. A new appeal to the utility office revealed a literal disconnect between our residential meter and parallel irrigation meter, resulting in unnecessary sewer charges every time we watered our lawn. Yet despite our conservation efforts, our newest utility bill was only reduced by 10%. It was time for a new strategy; we would dig an artesian well, and feed our grass and plants with our own well water.

Of course, the process demanded that we file a permit with the city; petition the architecture committee of our Home Owners Association for permission; find a reputable well digger; wait for the job to be scheduled (weather permitting)…and continue to pay exorbitant water bills in the meantime.

Finally, three months from our earliest consideration, the drilling equipment appeared one late morning in our yard without warning.

preparation

Using the Eenie Meenie Miney Moe method, Robbie determined where to place the wellhead…

drilling site

without benefit of knowing how deep or how difficult the drilling would get, although the placement of other artesian wells within our community (a retired golf course from the 1950s) informed that 250 feet was a worthy depth to plumb before groundwater made its way to the surface.

Once Eric deployed the truck jacks,

about to raise the drilling mast

the drill mast was ready to raise.

raising the drilling mast

Eric and Robbie assembled the debris pump…

evacuation pump

and the mud tub (for lubricating the drill head) was aligned over the designated wellhead…

setting the mud tub

well ahead of tomorrow.

The generator started cranking at 9am. By 11am the drill rod had blazed through 95 feet of clay and sand.

sifting the clay

By the end of the day, the drill had chewed through 14 feet of shell and shale (and probably some shark teeth and fossils) to a depth of 195 feet…

drilling thru cap rock

eventually reaching a ledge of limestone cap rock at 225 feet.

drill rigging

The boring rods were replaced with PVC pipe, and anchored in place with cement.

The next day saw slow but steady progress, as a slimmer rod and bit sank into the hole to chip away at the more resistant stone.

While Eric sat on a 5-gallon bucket monitoring the levels with a cigarette balanced on his lower lip,

setting up the pump.jpg

Robbie pre-wired the pump, and cut off power to the panel at 11:15am to make the connection. I was stepping out of the shower at the time when the lights went dark, the AC had paused, and Agent Strzok’s House Inquisitors were no longer embarrassing themselves on my bedroom TV. It was eerily quiet except for the growl from a nearby generator.

It took me a moment to figure out that this was not part of a rolling blackout to cool down an overloaded town grid. Nor was it the drill guys in the yard, who would have been lit up after accidentally severing my buried power cable.

It would take three additional hours to grind through another 15 feet of compacted limestone until fresh groundwater eventually flowed to the surface. Robbie dug a trench to the pump, and tied into the irrigation backflow, protecting us against future contamination and eliminating our dependence on costly city irrigation water.

ready to pump

All that was left to do was pay the well digger, and put the water to good use.

Although we’ve recently received June’s water bill crediting the city’s bogus charge for superfluous sewer usage, we will anxiously await the next billing cycle, already knowing that the grass is always greener on the other side.

 

Dynamic Panoramics

Every so often, when visiting many of the iconic vistas across America, I’d struggle to capture the overwhelming awesomeness of the landscape around me.

Grand Canyon NP
South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

Framing the image through my viewfinder frequently posed a tremendous challenge to adequately represent the expansive angle of the surrounding landscape.

Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon, TX

That’s when I knew it was time to put down my Lumix and pick up my phone.

Mount Victoria, Banff NP
Lake Louise, Banff National Park

By turning to the panorama feature of my Samsung Galaxy S8,

Johnson Ridge, Mt. St. Helens National Monument
Johnson Ridge, Mt. St. Helens National Monument

I found a tool that brought me closer to recording longer distances.

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

By instantly and seamlessly stitching successive shots with integrated photo-manipulation software,

Iceberg Pass, Rocky Mountain NP
Iceberg Pass, Rocky Mountain National Park

I found another way to express the world around me.

Shenandoah Valley
Blue Ridge Mountains, NC

Panoramas provide an opportunity to share multiple perspectives simultaneously,

Horseshoe Canyon, Drumheller
Horseshoe Canyon, Drumheller, Alberta

gathering as wide an angle as the scene allows–

Watermark Vista, Capital Reef NP
Watermark Vista, Capital Reef National Park

–eliminating the frame lines and expanding the aspect ratio to maximum effect.

Rainbow Trail, Valley of Fire
Rainbow Trail, Valley of Fire, NV

When used appropriately,

High Bluff, Redwoods NP
High Bluff, Redwoods National Park

whether in color…

Great Smoky Mountains NP
atop Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

or black and white…

Mount Rushmore National Monument
Mt. Rushmore National Monument

there is no better way to establish a field of infinite view without sacrificing the integrity of the image.

Badlands NP panorama
Badlands National Park

Conversely,

Bald Butte, Cypress Hills PP
Bald Butte, Cypress Hills Provincial Park, Saskatchewan

a case can be made for showcasing the apparent aberrations and distortions that can arise from difficulty interpolating the multiple parallax points across a scene,

Cinder Cone Crater, Lassen Volcanic NP
Cinder Cone Crater, Lassen Volcanic National Park

thus creating something unique and/or imaginary.

Athabasca River, Jasper NP.jpg
Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

For instance, flattening a circular garden path…

Mable's Rose Garden of Ca'd'zan, Sarasota
Mable’s Rose Garden of Ca’d’Zan, Sarasota, FL

or warping a linear edifice.

Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, AR
Crescent Hotel, Eureka Springs, AR

Additionally,

Cedar Pass, Badlands, NP
Cedar Pass, Badlands National Park

by stepping away from the camera,

Bryce NP, Amphitheater
Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park

and freeing oneself from the single-mindedness of staring,

Bryce NP, Yav Point
Bryce Canyon National Park

focusing,

Bryce NP, Queen's Garden
Queen’s Garden, Bryce Canyon National Park

composing through a viewfinder,

Canyonlands, NP Crater
Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands National Park

a feeling of liberation arises,

El Capitan and Cathedral Mountain, Yosemite NP
El Capitan and Cathedral Rock, Yosemite National Park

which can also deliver a moment of greater clarity of vision…

Waterfowl Lake, Jasper NP
Waterfowl Lake, Jasper National Park

and kinetic connectedness to the photograph,

Grand Tetons NP
Grand Tetons National Park

as the body slowly rotates to encapsulate the scene.

Rainbow Curve, Rocky Mountain NP
Rainbow Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park

What follows is a retrospective of panoramic images of some of my favorite places,

Painted Desert, Petrified Forest NP
Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park

in an attempt to convey the diversity,

panarama scenic canyon (2)
Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park

and beauty of wide-open spaces across America,

Olympia NP, Hood Canal.jpg
Hood Canal, Olympic National Park

albeit,

Athabasca Glacier
Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefield

with a word of advice:

Lake 4, Jasper NP
Lake 4, Jasper National Park

Although this post can be enjoyed on a mobile device,

Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt NP
Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

many of the images are rich in detail,

Olympia NP, Olympic Peninsula
Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park

and are best viewed on a larger screen…

Navajo Knob, Capital Reef NP
Navajo Knob, Capital Reef National Park

to better take advantage of the breadth,

Mt. Edith Cavell, Jasper NP
Mt. Edith Cavell, Jasper National Park

the scope,

Moro Rock, Sequoia NP
Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park

the scale,

Louise Lake, Mt. Ranier NP
Louise Lake, Mt. Ranier National Park

and enormity of the subjects.

Joshua Tree, NP
Joshua Tree National Park

Also,

Bearhat Mountain & Hidden Lake, Glacier NP
Bearhat Mountain & Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park

my apologies in advance to those who are downloading on slow networks,

Gooseneck Overlook, Canyonlands, NP
Gooseneck Overlook, Canyonlands, National Park

for the generous number of photographs with large data files…

Forest Canyon, Rocky Mountain NP
Forest Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park

may make it seem like an eternity before everything eventually loads.

Garden Wall, Glacier NP
Garden Wall, Glacier National Park

But such is the case when shooting a photograph.

Custer Battlefield National Memorial
Custer Battlefield National Memorial

The virtue of patience…

Bryce Canyon
Yav Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

is ultimately rewarded…

Blue Mesa, Petrified Forest NP
Blue Mesa, Petrified Forest National Park

by the satisfaction of knowing that the final image can finally be appreciated.

Brokeoff Mountain, Lassen Volcanic NP
Brokeoff Mountain, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Catch of the Day

Leah and I travelled with fishing rods strapped to the Airstream’s interior for one-year, cross-country. The constant sight of them was a nagging reminder of the possibility of learning a new sport together, and the unrequited taste of something “fresh” to grill, for we never found an opportunity to cast a line. However, now that we’ve become middle-aged Floridians, we felt the timing was right to immerse ourselves–hook, line and sinker.

After closing on our St. Augustine house in February, our realtor presented us with a gift certificate for a half-day charter with Captain Robert, his son, but our date on the water would have to wait four additional months to fulfill until we returned as full-time residents, and eventually settled in.

Leah had two immediate concerns with being out on the water: what to do for her new-founded sea sickness, and what kind of potty provisions would be provided. I, on the other hand just wanted reassurance that there would be space for my son Nate, who was temporarily residing with us in Florida after his apartment lease and job contract in suburban Albany, New York expired at the end of May.

A phone call to Captain Robert two weeks ago reserved our place, and addressed Leah’s anxieties: taking one tablet of Dramamine the night before and the day of the boat ride should allay her nausea; and a toilet seat placed atop a five-gallon Western Marine bucket should provide maximum comfort and embarrassment. And yes, bringing Nate along would be fine.

On the day of our trip, a newish Pathfinder 2500, a true fishing machine was waiting for us dockside…

our ride1 (2)

at the Conch House Marina…

Conch House Marina

at daybreak.

daubreak

We headed out on a picture-perfect morning…

Yamaha 300

with sea swells gently lullaby-rocking us in our search for bait a couple of miles from shore. Robert pulled up near a flock of diving birds in search of breakfast, and cast a net.

casting for bait

Moments later, he emptied a bulging swarm of pogies…

bait for the day

a delicious snack for lurking king mackerel.

bait on deck

We cruised about nine miles out from shore to an area already brimming with half a dozen fishing boats.

neighbors

I wondered about the wisdom of competing with the other boats, but Robert had a hunch. He set up three lines–two shallow, one deep, and we waited…

setting the lines

but not very long. In an hour’s time, we each took turns reeling in our target. First, Leah and me,

our catch

and then Nate,

Nate reels in a king

bringing his trophy home.

Nate with his fish

We pushed out another three miles in hopes of landing a sailfish, or wrangling a redfish, but after a couple of fights, we came up short–minus the bait and hook. Robert postulated that it was probably a shark or a barracuda making a meal of what was already on the line, but we’ll never know.

We trolled around for another hour looking for activity, but the sonar was quiet,

sonar

and Leah was pensive…

Leah on the Atlantic

perhaps wondering how awkward it might be if she needed to use the bucket.

“Do you need to go?” I wondered.

“I can hold it in,” she asserted.

It was decided that we should start back, but stop mid-way and resume our search. Again, the kings were biting, one for me,

reeling in (2)

and one for Leah,

Leah and her 2nd king

but we had already agreed that we had enough meat for the day, so both were released. Nate was determined to even the score by catching his second fish of the day, but his time had run out, and we headed for shore.

safe harbor (2)

Yet there was no need for disappointment, since Nate had reeled in the biggest catch of the day.

Catch of the Day

Robert was equally adept with a knife, making short time of filleting our king mackerels…

making fillets

which generated about 20 pounds of steaks.

Egrets of all sizes were standing by, ready to take advantage of all scraps that might come their way.

waiting for scraps

On Robert’s advice, we ate grilled mackerel that night.

I prepared a marinade made of: ¼ cup orange juice, ¼ cup soy sauce, 2 tbsp. canola oil, 1 tbsp. lemon juice, 1 tbsp. ketchup, 1 clove of garlic, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper and soaked our fillets for 2 hours, which rendered a rich and smoky taste when cooked.

Kudos to our Skipper, and thanks for a meal fit for a king mackerel.

The Denim King

Starting from Shenandoah River State Park…

the Shenandoah

and completing the 105-mile drive through Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive from Front Royal to its southern terminus…

park map (2)

exposed us to more rain in 4 days than we had seen in all of one year on the road. There were moments when the deluge abated long enough to give us broken clouds and glimpses from some of the nearly seventy overlooks of the infinite Piedmont range to the east…

Thorton Hollow Overlook

and the Shenandoah Valley to the west.

green to blue infinity

But mostly, we held our breath as we rolled along the two-lane ribbon of asphalt that wound around the mountains and climbed through a fog and cloud cover so dense at times that Leah and I asked ourselves if our summary road trip on the way to retiring the Airstream could literally be a watershed event.

Our travel plans were non-negotiable, as campgrounds had been prepaid along Skyline Drive and the first 300 miles of the connecting Blue Ridge Parkway before we’d exit eastbound toward Charlotte. We had given ourselves this time aboard the Airstream as a last hurrah–a chance to enjoy one more trip and indulge in driving one of America’s great “scenic” byways.

A moving van brimming with our belongings was awaiting departure from New Jersey to Florida, and slated for delivery by the first Monday in June while we slogged through foul weather on our way to Huntersville, North Carolina where our Airstream was destined for dry dock until the following year, giving us ample time to put our St. Augustine house in order and acclimate to Florida living.

Meanwhile, current weather stats revealed that remnants from Alberto (the first official storm of the 2018 hurricane season) had dumped over eight inches of rain along our travel route, punishing nearby dams and washing out essential bridge footings ahead of us, but we dutifully soldiered on, imagining the glorious views that would be to our left and our right.

Every so often, we’d take a break from our mountain miasma, and venture into the valley to escape the cloudburst and capture some of the local color (see A Touch of Blue and Mount Airy, NC), only to return to the Airstream and listen to the downpour pelting the roof like a torrent of bullets.

At times, we’d have a moment of clarity, like when we reached Mabry Mill at Milepost 176 (see Favoritism) and stopped to gawk at red-tailed hawks as they danced atop the thermals,

dancing hawks (2)

but it would be another hundred miles of slogging through doomsday rain before we’d catch another break from the storm.

Eventually, we disengaged the Airstream at Price Park Campground near Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and backtracked to investigate Flat Top Manor, a 23-room, 13,000 square foot national historic landmark…

porch.jpg

and once the summer home of Moses Cone, son of German Jewish immigrants originally named Kane,

Cone manor.jpg

and aptly nick-named the The Denim King, for Moses and his closest brother Ceasar dominated the textile industry by acquiring and building manufacturing mills throughout the deep South, becoming the world leader in denim, flannel, and corduroy fabric production, and the sole supplier to Levi Strauss for its “501” brand jeans. Moses Cone, entrepeneur, conservationist and philanthropist had led the South to the Promised Land.

Moses and Bertha built their mansion at the turn of the 20th-century for $25,000 with every modern convenience of the time, despite their 20-mile distance from the nearest railhead, and the remoteness of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

storm brewing

The couple (they never had children) enjoyed central heating, indoor plumbing, telephone, and gaslight–for Bertha eschewed electric light–disliking its unnatural glow and how it affected her skin tone. However, years later, after the death of Moses in 1908, she allowed electricity into the house, replacing the blocks of ice once cut and carried from Bass Lake with a food refrigeration system supplemented by one light bulb in the basement pantry.

pantry

The house stands empty, and appears unfinished. No furniture accentuates its over-sized rooms, and cracks have ravaged once-smooth walls.

master bath

closet window

But there are notable wall decorations…

letter

and at one time, a treasure trove of avant-garde art adorned the mansion thanks to lasting friendships and patronage between two unwed Cone sisters, Dr. Claribel and Etta,

Cone sisters (2)
Dr Claribel & Miss Etta (Cone Sisters) by Ronald Brooks Kitaj, c. 1997-2000

and Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Their collection ultimately passed to the Baltimore Museum of Art, now recognized as the Cone Wing, and valued at over $1billion.

Today, the estate–managed by the National Park Service–services over 25 miles of carriage roads and trails.

cone sign

Leah and I dared the rain, and hiked five miles to the Observation Tower at the southeastern edge of the property, where we were rewarded with pastoral guests,

young head old ass

hare

intriguing butterflies feeding on unknown feces,

butterflies

and a breathtaking panorama of nearby Boone–home of Appalachian State University, endowed by Moses Cone–and the neighboring wilderness.

Observation tower view

Upon our return, we stopped to pay respects to Moses and Bertha, buried together under Flat Top Mountain,

grave stone

and overlooking 3,500 acres of his legacy, where an orchard of 35,000 apple trees once produced prized fruit for the gentleman farmer.

grave site

The rain returned during the brief drive back to Price Park, but abated just as quickly to capture a lasting moment of smoke wafting across Sim’s Pond.

smoke on the water

The next morning–our travel day to Charlotte–we awoke to blue skies and sunshine beaming across Grandfather Mountain.

Grandfather Mountain

The run-off from Price Lake was fierce, barreling down Bee Tree Creek.

overflow

Rangers alerted us that the Parkway heading south had been temporarily closed. Flash floods and mudslides had forced a partial shutdown of Interstate 40, necessitating a detour through rural America before we could connect with I-77 S.

Putting our Airstream on blocks in Huntersville was bittersweet. It marked the formal ending of Streaming thru America, but our future holds new surprises.

Already, we’re pre-planning a trip to circumnavigate the Great Lakes during the summer of 2019. Until then, we’ll have to settle for a journey of a different sort, and I hope to keep the world posted.

Favoritism

When I was growing up, I often accused my mother of favoritism–feeling as if she was more devoted to one of my two sisters or other brother than me. Yet today, I can’t recollect a certain situation that gave me the chutzpah to suggest to her that one sibling got preferential treatment over another.

Of course, whenever I raised the indictment, my mother always answered the same way, “How could you say that? I love all my children the same.”

I don’t know. Maybe what she said was true for her. But I was always suspicious of her definition of equality. None of us was the same in our looks, our likes, our talents and abilities. Each of us had something that made us special. So I was never really certain how our individuality and distinctiveness measured against Mom’s distribution of love. To me, she adopted “separate but equal” as a legal family doctrine in order to avoid conflict, but conflict always had a way of showing up.

Later, as a parent, I wrestled with whether one son was better than another. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t love them equally–I loved them differently.

Many years and careers later, when I was in a classroom setting teaching emotionally and learning disabled students, the notion of picking a favorite became a source of reflection. Of course, I was more inclined to curry favor upon students who were better prepared, less of a discipline problem, and willing to try. These were my “go-to” kids who were eager to respond to open academic questions whether they knew the answer or not, and it was hard not to treat them differently.

And so, it’s much the same with determining which is a favorite of the tens of thousands of photographs I’ve snapped since becoming a “serious” photographer. After scanning through archives of images that still thrill me, I’ve decided that I cannot pick one over another, since each “favorite” has a different integrity, or power, or message.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that my favorite photograph is the one I’ve taken last, because it’s in that moment that I’ve given it the most attention, and therefore overshadowing all the other images that have preceded it.

Currently, as I travel south with Leah to meet my new destiny in St. Augustine, I am following a ribbon of asphalt that curls through the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Virginia and North Carolina. And while I’m certain that it’s picturesque, given the large number of overlooks that the 1930’s Conservation Corps has carved out on both sides of the Parkway, the ongoing fog and rain clouds have obscured all sitelines, making this a dissapointing journey.

However, a short break in the weather while passing milepost 176 of Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd County, Virginia gave us a chance to stretch our legs and take a self-guided tour of the mill by the water…

mill in the mill of the mill

built by E.B. Mabry in 1903. Originally, a blacksmith and wheelwright operation,

wheels

drive pulleys

Mabry later added a sawmill,

sawmill1

and seeing the need, added a gristmill as an additional service.

millstones and fences

From all the rain, the scene was eerily green…

aquaduct

water delivery channels

shed and wagon

and serene.

farmhouse with hemlock

And for one precious moment, it became my favorite place to photograph…

The Mill

until the next assignment!