Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Keys, Kayaks, Gators and Good Intentions

1/21/12 Key West, FL

A somewhat repetitive, cliche refrain that runs through the progressive, idealistic youth of the America is “make a difference; change the world.” The truth is that change occurs whether we direct it or not. The world will change without you or I doing anything. It will be so very different 20 years from now than it is today, simply because it cannot stay the same. And if people do not direct the change, we may end up somewhere we don't want to be. If we go with the flow and let it happen, (as I am inclined to do much of the time) focusing instead on our own lives, putting food on the table, accumulating material wealth, providing an education and travel experiences for ourselves and our children, then who will help push change in the right direction?

What will continue to change, if we get stuck in our current paradigm, are the ways and rates at which we use technology, resources and human labor. The trend of computers getting better, faster, smaller is not going to stop. The ways in which we interact with computers will continue to expand and take a greater role in our everyday interactions. Just a few days ago, I went to the dentist, and for the first time, all of my X-rays were taken with a digital camera, using an electronic plate wrapped in plastic behind my teeth to help capture the images. A flat-screen TV hung over my face while I was having my gums probed, with a daytime talk show blabbing at me about something I can't remember. All of my personal information was recorded onto computers, with hardly anything actually being written on paper. When I went to pay, even my signature was captured electronically after several attempts with a fancy electronic clip-board. And then they wanted me to get an electric toothbrush. Craziness. I immediately had an image of myself in the middle of nowhere in the woods, breaking out my electric toothbrush to scrub my molars. It just seems silly. But it is a great example of how dependent upon electric and electronic devices we have become. With the touch-screen takeover occurring right now, I predict that input devices will become easier to use, more prevalent, and more integrated into our homes and businesses. New cars are a great example of the amount of electronic interaction and integration that is trending.

Changes like this will happen, whether or not any one person makes it their goal or mission. People are fascinated by the abilities of these tiny new computers to simplify, integrate or combine activities which used to be separate and less convenient. I just heard a news article about how Apple wants to make iPads replace text-books in schools. Instead of carrying around a bag full of heavy books and getting some actual exercise, students would instead carry an iPad, containing all of their books, and have a $500 instrument to worry about damaging. This demonstrates another continuing trend of modern times; the continual search for ease and convenience. Is it instinctual for us to seek out easier and more convenient ways of doing things? Instead of walking or biking, we get in the car. Instead of having a face-to-face conversation with someone, even if they work in the same building, we text or chat or e-mail. Instead of growing our own food, we buy it all at one location. Instead of making our clothes, we have children in poor countries make them, and then simply pick them up at the store. We use central heating, so we don't have to chop wood. We use the remote control so we don't have to stand up to change the channel. We use a toaster so we don't have to pay attention to the bread. I can only see this trend leading to poorer health due to less exercise, less creativity, and less natural movement incorporated into our everyday lives. Not only that, but with every new innovation comes more resource extraction to produce these new products. And all of the machines that extract, ship, manufacture and modify run on fossil fuels. I don't want life to be easy, I want it to be real.

Are these new technologies the types of changes that we want people to be focused on? Are these the efforts that we want to employ tens of millions of people in working toward? Are these the products that we want our limited natural resources being used up to build and power? Do we want our social world to continue growing more screen-centric, our physical world to continue pumping out new products of convenience so that we can exercise less? If not, then we had better say, “no thank you,” and start a different trend instead. Changing the world and making a difference occurs each time we take a breath, each time we take a step, with each decision to purchase, consume, drive, e-mail or pay. We all make a difference, all the time. It takes intention, however, to make change occur toward common goals. If we continue making a difference without intention, then the world will change in ways that we do not expect, or do not want. Let us work together to set the intention for the future of our planet. Lets set some goals as a species for how we want our lives to be. I think we can find lots of common ground without too much trouble. Here's some quick thoughts on what I'd love for the human species:
  1. Health – physical, mental, emotional & spiritual. Love from a community.
  2. Understanding – through education, cultural sharing, open minded conversation
  3. Opportunity – freedom to pursue creative endeavors, daring adventure, dreams & goals

What are your goals for the human species? Where are we headed? What should we be spending our time creating, supporting and building? Lets make some steps in the right direction!


SO much has happened! Several days ago, I arrived on Pine Island (city of Bokeelia, FL) at the home of Nancy Boyd, the aunt of my good friend Greg Petry. Greg had insisted that I go stay with her, and its a very good thing that I did. Upon my arrival, Nancy took me out to lunch while giving me a short tour of the island. She has been in the area since before it was developed, and now, it is all houses and golf courses. Nancy and I talked about spiritual paths, and found out that she is going on a retreat at the conference center in North Carolina which also runs the outdoor school where I just got a job. Soon after, Nancy dropped me off at her house and went out of town for the remainder of my stay. Nancy's house sits on a canal with immediate access to mangrove forest. While I was there, I took out one of her kayaks for a couple of hours, swam in her pool, did laundry, cooked several amazing meals and relaxed in the sun. It was quite nice.

The morning I left Nancy's, I woke up at 4:45 am and was on the road by 5:30. I then pedaled 30 miles in the dark to Fort Myer's beach, where I caught the Key West ferry. The Key west ferry is the nicest ferry I've ever been on. Cloth, reclining seats, similar to an airplane, filled the 2 story vessel. Tables with padded chairs, walls lined with flat-screen TVs, a full bar and snack bar all fit on the boat. This ferry was a pedestrian only (plus bikes, but no cars) ferry, and so it was filled top to bottom with people. 3.5 hours across the ocean at a rapid pace put us in Key West.

Key West reminds me of Venice, CA combined with Disneyland. Funky, tiny houses line the streets in the older districts, including the house of Ernest Hemingway, and the house where Harry S. Truman spent 8 months of his presidency. People on bikes are everywhere, cruising down the narrow streets in seeming harmony with the light but constant car traffic. It was the first place in a long while that I felt welcome and at ease on my bicycle on every road. The Disney part comes into play with the amount of hokey commercial venues that constitute the “Harbor Walk,” a pedestrian path over the water which winds between a harbor filled with yachts and racing boats on one side, and bar/restaurants on the other. Aside from this area and the main street, Duval, running north/south through town, the rest of Key West was refreshingly relaxed and aesthetically pleasing. Some of the Caribbean island vibe definitely penetrates the city that was, at different times in the past, the cigar-rolling capital of the world and the shrimp-fishing capital of the world. Now, the main industry is certainly tourism, catering to snorkelers and scuba divers, but also to retirees wanting to escape the cold north in the winter.

I somewhat regret that I did not jump on a snorkeling tour while I was there. These days, I feel silly paying someone else to guide me on a recreational activity that I am more than comfortable doing on my own, or leading others to do. But Key West snorkeling requires a boat in order to get out to the reef (the 3rd largest in the world), and so it costs money. I only had a couple of days, and decided, as I have been doing more and more lately, to spend it with good people, rather than worrying about the specific attractions of the location.

My hosts in Key West were Adam and Erin. Adam and I worked at Redcliff Ascent together in 2006-2007, and haven't seen each other since until now. Erin grew up in Key West, and has moved back to be closer to her family, and live in a really fun place. The house I stayed in used to belong to Erin's grandfather, and now the two of them share it with 3 cats. It is a small, funky island house with tons of character and custom everything. The walls were lined with full bookshelves and local art. It was a creative, cozy atmosphere. Adam took me on a short walking tour of Key West. The city is so small that nearly everything is walking distance if you aren't on a tight schedule. That night, we met some of their friends for a drink, and then Adam and I ended up having dinner with Erin's family while Erin went to a going-away dinner for a co-worker. The next day, Adam led the Key West Homebrew club in a beer-making session, which I attended and mingled with good beer-making folks. For dinner, Adam cooked up some awesome beans and rice with skirt steak, and I threw a salad together. It was the best dinner I'd had in quite some time.

Yesterday, after a quick stop at the southernmost point in the continental US, I pedaled 112 miles from Key West to Key Largo. The distance should have been only 103 miles, but I accidentally rode past my destination, and had to backtrack (oops). My favorite photographs of the keys were of a canal at sunset, and I wouldn't have captured them if I hadn't accidentally overshot, so I felt OK about it. Along the ride, I stopped and jumped into the sea at a little park where there was a shower to rinse off. Salt and bike shorts are not good companions, so I have been avoiding swimming in the salt water on biking days. Florida is in the middle of a long process of developing the Florida Overseas Heritage Trail, a continuous bike path running the length of the keys. Right now, it is probably around 50% complete, but not in one go. So I switched on and off the highway, taking the path when it was available, and riding the shoulder when it wasn't. The bridges for the path used to support on old railroad, and many are in good condition, but some have been seriously damaged from hurricanes in recent years, and were closed. A second use for the functioning bridges is as a platform to fish from, and they are used quite prolifically. I rode through on a Sunday, which I imagine is a high-use day, but some of the bridges were totally full of people for several hundred yards, often with multiple poles each. I only saw one fish being pulled out of the water as I rode past, and it was a poisonous lionfish. I'm not sure how they deal with that, since you can't touch the fish!

Today, I am in Everglades National Park. One of my main goals for entering the park was to see Alligators in the wild, and today I certainly did. My first stop was the Royal Palms area, which had a ¾ mile hike on a boardwalk through prime gator territory, and they were plenitful. The birds in the area also seemed totally accustomed to humans, and did not fly away even when approached at distances of only 2-3 feet. I took lots of pictures, and a few videos of gators swimming. I find them fascinating! They are so old and scary looking. Relics of the time when dinosaurs ruled the earth, their design is ancient and effective. Later on, as I rode deeper into the park, I passed a gator lounging by a pool next to the road. It was about 15 feet off the road, but only 4-5 feet away from the edge of the mowed area on the side of the road. I parked my bike near it and took several pictures. This was what I was really looking forward to.


This morning I hopped into a rented Kayak in Flamingo, FL (not a real town, but a tourist support outpost) and paddled through Buttonwood canal to Coot Bay. Along the way I saw thousands of spider webs strung up in the mangrove lining the canal. Though they seemed to fill every open space, I did not see one with an insect being caught. Most of the webs were in perfect condition, with their maker sitting right in the middle, waiting for lunch. I also saw 3 American Crocodiles, an endangered species, as well as the rubbery tail of a manatee right underneath my kayak. Crocodiles and Alligators still look very similar to me. The easiest way to tell them apart is that Alligators have a much darker hide (near black) and Crocodiles are more of a grey-green on top. Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where Alligators and Crocodiles live side by side. Alligators generally prefer fresh water, and Crocodiles live in salt water, but the line between fresh and salty blurs immensely in the everglades. Also, Crocodiles are found mostly in tropical climates, and the everglades is so close to tropical that the crocs have historically done well here.

I learned that 70% of the plant species in the park are tropical species, meaning that the other 30% are more common in temperate climates. The mix of the two, as well as the vast fields of water, make for a biodiversity hotspot unlike any other. All of Florida was at one point a shallow sea. This is evident by the ground – pure sand in most of northern Florida, and limestone nearly to the surface in the everglades. Limestone is the result of ancient shells of marine life building up and being compressed over hundreds of thousands of years, and the everglades sits entirely on limestone, with either a very thin (less than 6” in most places) soil layer on top, or just plain water. Tree islands called hammocks provide shelter for animals needing dry land, as well as for trees that need dry roots, but most of the everglades is just as its name implies – never ending fields of sawgrass sitting in a wide, slow moving river less than one foot deep. The mangrove covered islands don't begin until the huge delta of this river starts to hit the salt water of the coast, but these also make up a large part of the park.


This morning I pedaled out of the everglades after one more stop at Royal Palms to catch some last glimpses of Gators. To my luck, I watched one munch a big fish just as I walked by. I also got some good videos of gators swimming, and some great pictures of the plethora of birds flapping around the area.

The wind was against me as I left the park, but thankfully I planned a short day. Pedaling through the urban sprawl of western Miami has not been a fun activity. I was on a fairly decent bike path paralleling a busway for a portion of the ride, but there were so many stop lights along the way that I'm burning through my break-pads faster here than I did in the mountains.

Tonight, I will stay with another couchsurfer, Maria, and her 10 year old son in one of the many suburbs of Miami. I look forward to a shower and a bed after a couple of sweaty days in the humid wilderness of the everglades.   

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