I love planning trips. I search the internet and use a few specific apps, but nothing beats sitting down with a book to begin imagining and shaping an itinerary. I’ve read countless travel guides and Brad Bertelli’s Snorkeling the Florida Keys is my new favorite. Published by the University Press of Florida, it is the perfect union of history, nature, and logistics, complete with an enthusiastic tour guide.
The book covers Biscayne National Park, Carysfort Reef, John D. Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Molasses Reef, Pickles Reef, Alligator Reef, Indian Key, Coffins Patch Reef, Sombrero Reef, Bahia Honda State Park, Looe Key, Key West Marine Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park. I’ve snorkeled along the Keys, from Pennekamp to Sand Key Light, and this book gave me so many new places to try. I learned that I’ve snorkeled beaches that had better, hidden sports. Bertelli describes not just the reef locations and structures, but the history behind their names (many are named for shipwrecks). I came for the travel tips, but stayed for the history lessons. For example, I have known the name John Pennekamp since I was a child, but what I didn’t know was that he was personally responsible for protecting huge swaths of Florida’s coral reefs.
There were two sections in particular that endeared me:
“In reality, the reef had been known as Pickle’s Reef for a long time before the barrels ever came to rest at the bottom. In fact, Pickles Reef began to appear in the record books as early as 1828, decades before the first shots of the Civil War were ever fired. The odds must have been astronomical that a load of mortar-filled pickle barrels would sink at a reef already known as Pickles Reef!” It is that kind of geeky enthusiasm that gets me every time.
The second section has Bertelli trashing Peter Benchley and the movie Jaws. “To put the whole shark scare into perspective, statistically speaking it is a far more dangerous proposition to drive a car – for any distance – than to snorkel in Florida waters. In fact, snorkelers are much more likely to be mauled by a dog, swarmed by bees, or win the lottery than have a negative encounter with a shark.
Instead of worrying about sharks, snorkelers would be much better off making sure they have applied a suitable sunscreen to their exposed flesh. While shark attacks are rare events in the Florida Keys, horrible sunburns are not.” He then goes on to warn people about the real bullies of the sea, the wee damselfish. I love this guy.
I plan to use this guide to check out several spots that are accessible from the shoreline, as well as one chartered trip. Whether you are new to snorkeling the Florida Keys or are an old-timer, this book should be essential reading.
Museums to dedicated individuals can be a tricky thing. I remember going to the Ava Gardner Museum and walking away thinking she was even more boring than I suspected, but the idea that there was a museum devoted to her was fascinating. I’ve now walked away from the Edward Gorey House twice and each time I am further intrigued.
Many of us knew of Edward Gorey before we knew who he was. His theme for PBS’s Mystery! was ubiquitous:
His pen and ink drawings are recognizable around the world. The settings are often Victorian and display the dark humor of someone who can’t but help see the ridiculous in the morbid. He illustrated many books, including a well-known edition of Dracula, and published his first book, The Unstrung Harp, in 1953. Graham Greene said of the book, it is “the best novel ever written about a novelist and I ought to know!”
In a New Yorker interview, Gorey said, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.”
It is in the small details of his home that Gorey becomes the person behind the children in peril. He enjoyed cats, which any fan would know, but he also enjoyed Buffy, X-Files, Petticoat Junction, Golden Girls, and Xena. He collected rocks, traveled to Cuba as a child, and often had the exact same breakfast every day. There is a waffle framed in his kitchen. His parents married each other twice and he described himself as asexual. He loved animals and provided for them in his will. He was a child prodigy and one of his first jobs was in the art department at Doubleday, illustrating more than 50 book covers. It is estimated that he illustrated over 300 book covers in his lifetime. He created his own independent press, The Fantod Press, in 1962.
He purchased the home in Yarmouth Port in 1979, which now stands to share his art and life with the public. There are different exhibits, so even if you have gone once, go again.
April 15 – July 3: Thu/Fri/Sat: 11:00am – 4:00pm; Sun: 12:00 – 4:00pm
July 6 – October 9: Wed/Thu/Fri/Sat: 11:00am – 4:00pm; Sun: 12:00 – 4:00pm
October 14 – December 31: Fri/Sat: 11:00am – 4:00pm; Sun: 12:00 – 4:00pm
Students & Seniors (65+): $5.00
Children 6-12 years old: $2.00
Children under 6 are free
PS – To my zine friends who read this, the curator and associate director of The Edward Gorey House is Gregory Hischak, the creator of Farm Pulp, one of my all-time favorite zines. I recognized his name the first time I visited. I suspect from his surprise that few visitors recognize him from Farm Pulp. That or I totally creeped him out.
Work conferences often mean making the most of the spartan free time. I finished up a meeting at El Borracho, a Mexican restaurant near Pikes Place Market, and found myself free for the rest of the day. It was about 2 p.m. I decided to see how far I could explore on foot. I made it fairly far. I took a look at Metsker Maps, a traveler’s dream, Left Bank Books, which seemed out of place being anti-authoritarian and pro-anarchist in the middle of a tourist Mecca, and a few other shops outside the market.
I wandered inside Pikes Place Market. Nope, nope, nope. I’m 5’2” and pressing crowds make me claustrophobic. All I could see were armpits and there were a lot of other unpleasant smells. I left the busy sections of the market as quickly as possible and descended to the lower levels. I remembered a kind of cool store from a prior visit that I wanted to look for.
Inside Orange Dracula, “the dime store for those with unusual tastes,” I found an even larger selection of pop culture and horror kitsch than I remembered. I couldn’t afford the rare Lego Hogwarts set, but I found Italian Harry Potter stickers, swamp soap, vampire incense, and veterinarian warning stickers. I wandered the lower levels for a while, where few tourists seemed to stray. I found a junk shop and left with a $2 scarf. I continued winding my way down through the market and on outside. I walked amid the construction over to the shops and tourist stops down near the water.
I had hoped I would have the time to check out the ferry over to Bainbridge Island. The weather cooperated and I eventually found the ferry terminal. I bought a ticket, just $8.20 roundtrip, and waited for the next crossing. The terminal filled with daily commuters and sightseers. It was a cool, gray crossing, but rather pleasant.
The commuters bolted off the ship and to their cars, bikes, and buses, some actually running down the gangway to the terminal. I wandered into town and along the main street. I found the Eagle Harbor Book Co., which had a decent local section and nature guides. From there I threw myself at Emmy’s Vege House, an all-vegan food kiosk in the center of town. I had a decent lunch but made room for some summer rolls and a Thai ice tea. Refreshed (meaning caffeinated and sugared), I continued exploring. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a custom of finding Garnet stuffed animals when we travel. I hadn’t found one yet, but Calico Toy Shoppe had a perfect stuffed gnome.
At Millstream, I found a gift for one of Garnet’s teachers and about 20 things I wanted but couldn’t justify. Across the street, Backstreet Beat Books and Record offered a small but well-cultivated selection of books. I found Patrick a Graham Green paperback he didn’t have. From there I hit up the local grocery store for snacks. In their parking lot, I found artichokes growing. I saw a sign for a waterfront trail when I got off the ferry and decided to try and find it.
Instead, I found a couple out walking their goats. I asked them about the trail, which was really an excuse to meet the goats. They were young brothers who would butt heads occasionally. They were also working goats and helped clear brush and grass for paying customers. This was the type of commonplace, practical eccentricity that existed in Seattle proper until all the young programmers and online corporations took over. They pointed me toward the trail, where I found two chickens out enjoying a good hunt and peck.
I was thinking about waiting to take the ferry back over to Seattle until sunset, but my legs ached and I was getting tired. I also knew I had a few more uphill miles to walk to get back to the hotel. It was close enough to sunset that I got some good long light.
I remembered that the Seattle Mystery Bookshop was close to where I got off the ferry and walked to the store. They had closed already, but I recommend their selection from a prior visit. I trudged up to the Veggie Grill around the block from the hotel and ordered take-out. I was beat. In what amounted to six hours, I had walked well over five miles, took a ferry, met two goats, and was able to sate my post-conference wanderlust. At least until the next morning.
The reason our anniversary trip is in January is rooted in economics. When Patrick and I decided to take our first trip money and time off from work were major hurdles to travel. We decided to take advantage of MLK Day, as well as off-season lodging and airfare. In the intervening years we learned to go warm places in January, which were more expensive, but they were warm and that was all that mattered. Last year we blew our travel savings on a trip to Ireland, which while off-season was still expensive. We also moved, so between the two things we went back to our roots and looked for a cheap trip we could take over MLK Day weekend.
We opted for a simple road trip. Going north would be colder, so we decided to go south. We hadn’t been to the Outer Banks together in well over a decade. It would be cheap in the off-season, slightly warmer, and the ocean is there, so the decision was made.
There is something to be said for the hearty souls who pronounce “open all year.” For them we are grateful. I do think that traveling in the off-season gives you a chance to experience the place and the local culture in a way that those who arrive and depart the high season would never dream of.
Lodging: In an effort to keep the progeny entertained and fed, as well as ourselves, we looked for local lodgings that had an indoor pool, kitchen, and a view. We found a place that offered all that for a relatively modest sum in the Outer Banks Beach Club Resort. It was cold and blowing much of the time, but we enjoyed DVDs we brought, enjoyable meals, a view of sunrise over the ocean, and a hot tub.
Meals: We cooked most of our meals at the hotel (resort?), but we managed two very memorable meals at two local spots – The Thai Room and Outer Banks Taco Bar. After a long day adventuring in Ocracoke (post forthcoming), we drove straight to the The Thai Room. The service was superb, even after they realized we were not another similar family with the exact same eating habits. Garnet enjoyed the fried tofu so much that he got an order to go. They have many vegetarian options and understand that hot means hot.
On our final day, we waited around Kitty Hawk until The Outer Banks Taco Bar opened. This ranks up there with the best decisions I’ve made in life. We ordered a round of appetizers and the fried tostones were so good that I would have just sat and eaten those until the end of time. Patrick and I polished off the tostones, while Garnet finished the chips and salsa. The homemade corn tortillas were the best I have ever eaten. Seriously. If you can get rice and beans right, you are doing it right, but the tortillas put it over the edge. I sat there wondering of this is what a goldfish thinks as it eats itself to death? I just wish we had eaten there earlier in the trip so I could have had more tostones. TOSTONES!
Entertainment: Driving into Nags Head Woods, the temperature was well below freezing with a bit of a wind. That said, I mused as I looked at the swamps if the bugs would be worse than the cold. And I like bugs. I wanted the ponds to be full of frogs and turtles, but the frost and winter light were beautiful in their own right. If you can enjoy this kind of place in the dead of winter, there is no excuse from missing it in spring when the world is alive.
During the storm that blew in on our second day, we hit the local bookstore before returning to the room to hunker down. Island Books has three locations, but we hit up Kitty Hawk. Patrick found the new Derf Backderf, Garnet found a Star Wars book, and I found an ARC and gift for a friend. A good selection all the way around.
Elizabethan Gardens is a 10.5 acre public garden located within Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo, NC. The gardens are lovely by day, but at night in the winter they come alive with lights, music, and even movies. We wandered around in the dark and came across a campfire and old holiday cartoons being projected. The holiday lights were extended due to inclement weather, but that meant we were able to enjoy them into late January.
While June would offer endless shopping and all sorts of beach-going, there is something about traveling to a shore town in winter. You have to want to be there. There is an appreciation for place that isn’t there when it is an easy landscape. And the year-round shops and restaurants are locals who want you there. Consider some off-season travel and avoid the maddening crowds.
I flew out to Denver for a work conference, assuming the short (just over 50 hour) trip would be too jammed packed to offer enough fodder for a post. I was wrong and found Denver quite enjoyable. After a long cab ride from Denver International Airport (more on that later), I dropped my bags at the hotel and went out in search of food. Denver is amazingly vegan-friendly and had my pick of places. I decided on Watercourse Foods and devoured a plate of homefries, pancakes, scrambled tofu, and tofu bacon. I wandered for a while and eventually found myself at the opulent Brown Palace Hotel and headed into the Ship Tavern. I sipped a pear cocktail, read a zine, and filled out a few postcards. I enjoy these quiet, anonymous moments of solitary travel.
I returned to the hotel for the reception and dinner and decided I would maturely go back to my room and retire for the night. Thankfully a co-worker convinced me that was not in my best interest and cajoled me to go with her to a conference-related gathering. What had I been thinking?!
I’m glad she did, because I was not only treated to a view of Denver at night from the 22nd floor of a clock tower, I got to watch a thunderstorm breaking around the city from that height. One of my travel loves is seeing, hearing, and smelling thunderstorms in different places. We were even allowed to climb the spiral staircase to the very top of the bell tower. Giving people drinks and then sanctioning this activity seemed overly trusting.
Despite the semi-late night, I was up at 6am and exploring the city before a breakfast meeting with a friend who lives in Denver. We met at City O’ City, where I had scrambled tofu smothered in green chile, queso fresco, cilantro, homefries, corn tortillas, and some warm house-made gluten-free bread. Breakfast foods, especially at conference hotels, tend to be very gluten-y and not very vegan-friendly, so this was a huge treat and kept me going all day. So did such a pleasant meeting and good conversation so early in the day.
I was busy with work stuff the rest of the day, but the next morning awoke once again at the crack of dawn. City O’ City’s menu called to me on the 21st floor of my hotel room and I found myself wandering again, this time pondering the waffles I had seen on the menu. They make savory waffles. Waffles as food-food. This is perhaps the best idea ever. I ordered the “waffle of the week”, a tex-mex waffle topped with black beans, spicy peppers and onions, cilantro, a chipotle aioli, and avocado. It was one of the best meals I have ever had. Seriously.
I headed back to the hotel and got caught in the beginnings of the Pride festivities. Areas around the hotel were cordoned off with fences, but I made it back in time for the start of the sessions. I had a break and walked to Tattered Cover, a renowned local bookstore. Across the street is Rockmount, famous for their western wear shirts since 1946. They are well-made and very cool looking, but pricy and I ended up leaving empty- handed.
The airport is fairly far outside of the city, about 25 miles, and by Saturday afternoon we were all conferenced-out. I decided to leave a bit early with my boss and a colleague so I could explore the weird murals in what is a very weird airport. According to conspiracy experts, the airport is everything from a massive underground base providing safety to a new world order to a secret Nazi and/or Freemason site. It would appear there is an entire segment of the internet devoted to the DIA conspiracy (go ahead, Google it!). No matter what tin hat you are wearing, the airport is simply weird. Greeting you as you arrive at DIA is a giant blue horse sculpture with red glowing eyes dubbed Blucifer…that killed the sculptor. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Inside the baggage claim area are four wildly colorful murals by Chicano muralist Leo Tanguma that promote world peace and express fears of mass extinction, but first you have to get past a giant, threatening gas mask-wearing, sword wielding figure and a lot of dead and crying kids to get the message. The images show misery and death, a quote from a child who died at Auschwitz, a dead jaguar, and kids toppling the gas mask figure. I just can’t figure out how this got past a public art planning committee. I wonder what weary travelers make of these scenes? Here are the four murals and some close ups:
Plaque explaining the mural: “Children of the World Dream of Peace is a powerful mural expressing the artist’s desire to abolish violence in society. One section of the piece speaks to the tragedy and devastation of war and its impact on humanity. The mural then moves on to images of smiling children, dressed in traditional folk costumes from around the world, celebrating peace prevailing over war.”
Plaque explaining the mural: “In Peace and Harmony with Nature references the social realist murals of Mexico while addressing a modern theme: the destruction of the environment. The first half of the mural shows children displaying great sadness over the destruction and extinction of life, as the second half of the artwork depicts humanity coming together to rehabilitate and celebrate nature.” Further reading: http://diaconspiracyfiles.com/2009/05/12/more-murals-by-leo-tanguma/ And then there is this part of the train system that looks inspired by ancient ruins.
The airport is HUGE. It takes up 53 square miles and you need to take a train to your gate. There are rumors of underground bunkers and speculation about who really built the airport. The runways are said to be in a deliberate swastika shape. I don’t know about any of that, but I do know they have a TCBY that has vegan soft-serve and that really helped the storm-related delays. Denver is a seemingly unassuming place with unexpected (and often peculiar) treasures.
I’ve been in Denver for a day now and have found myself reminiscing several times about the last time I was here. It was 2009 and I had come out for a work trip with my boss and her counterpart. It was the most amazing 72 hours. But this post isn’t about that trip, it is about my boss, who is now simply my friend, Marianne, who helped expand my world of travel.
There are people who travel and then there are true travelers. Marianne is a true traveler. Thanks to our work trips we’ve hiked the Rockies in the snow, flown to Germany, and tipsily watched fireworks from the lawn of our hotel in Anaheim. She taught me about “doing the Frankfurt Book Fair” and I taught her to look for birds, even in urban areas. At one point we auditioned for The Amazing Race together.
So it was with great joy that I watched her shed her possessions, including her home and job, and fulfill a lifelong dream to travel Europe for a year. A gap year, only not a post-collegial trip, but post-career adventure.
Marianne and her husband, Joe, traveled to France and from there spring-boarded across Europe, with a brief sojourn to Morocco. They experience the highs – literally a hike in the Alps – and the lows – dreary, isolated winter days in medieval towns without wifi. Marianne posted about her trip in a blog and as readers we tasted the wine Italy, felt the sun in Greece, and smelled the fields of flowers in France. We met fellow travelers, helpful innkeepers, and local eccentrics. We got to know Marianne as much as we got to experience new places.
As someone who loves to travel, it was inspiring to see how an actual person I know could explore the world for a full year. I know that careful planning and spreadsheets were involved, but more importantly she made her leap of faith accessible.
“That’s a real writer, with the true comic spirit.”
– James Joyce’s summation of At Swim-Two-Birds
While I respect his rightful post in the pantheon of Irish letters, James Joyce, frankly, never really captured my interest. And to this day, I cannot really say for certain why. Perhaps it’s because so overbearingly much has been made of Joyce over the last century, often at the expense of other Hibernian talents. But the sentiment more likely parallels the way I feel wandering the beer-soaked streets of old Key West: it isn’t Jimmy Buffett himself that I dislike so much as his fans, the lobster-colored “parrotheads” who seldom venture beyond the din and glitter and margarita-puke of Duval Street; in so doing, two centuries of local character eludes them.
Of Irish authors, Flann O’Brien – real name Brian O’Nolan – has long been among my favorites. English novelist Graham Greene (another favorite) praised O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, upon its publication in 1939. And Dylan Thomas famously praised it as “just the book to give your sister, if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl!”
A metaphysical joyride, At Swim-Two-Birds concerns a lazy college student who, rather than go to class, holes up in his uncle’s house and begins work on a novel about an innkeeper named Trellis. Trellis himself is working on a novel that, shirking redundancy by recycling pre-existing literary characters that fit the bill rather than creating new ones, is populated with the likes of the mythological warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the inhabitants of a Western dime novel. To keep this feisty cast in line, Trellis keeps them locked away in his inn. But when they take exception to being written into some rather unsavory situations, they decide to rebel against their would-be author.
Joyce’s influence on the young O’Brien cannot be understated. But O’Brien followed his own postmodern path, and today, more than 70 years later, his debut novel remains not for the faint of mind.
Unfortunately, At-Swim-Two-Birds sold so poorly (about 250 copies) upon its publication that the disheartened O’Brien shelved his next novel, another metaphysical masterpiece called The Third Policeman, altogether; it would not see the light of day until a year after the author’s death. (The Third Policeman, and O’Brien, found an unprecedented surge of interest when the book was featured in an episode of the television series Lost in 2005.)
However, O’Brien’s limited success as a novelist hardly curtailed his writing habit. Indeed, the writer spent the next quarter-century writing a regular column called “Cruiskeen Lawn” for The Irish Times under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen. In this forum, the mild-mannered O’Brien’s talents flourished as he at once celebrated and skewered “The Plain People of Ireland” and all that they held dear – sometimes going so far as to respond to outraged letters to the editor that, in fact, O’Brien had penned himself pseudonymously.
When complications from cancer and decades of alcohol abuse claimed the life of Brian O’Nolan in 1966, they silenced not only a 54-year-old career civil servant, but also a vociferous melange of some of modern literature’s most ignoble, cranky, fantastical, and perversely sanctimonious characters.
* * *
The verdant sprawl of Deans Grange Cemetery lies just across the road from a car dealership in a busy South Dublin suburb in which most tourists would at best find themselves by accident. Its stones, both new and ancient, invite exploration, even in the bitter cold of a January morning.
The woman behind the counter of the little cafe at the cemetery’s main entrance confirmed that Flann O’Brien enjoys the “deeper and more refined sleep” mentioned in the pages of At Swim-Two-Birds within the grounds of Deans Grange. However, precisely where in that 70-acre necropolis he was she wasn’t sure. Then the helpful lady handed over a book from a nearby shelf – a guide to burial sites around Dublin – and welcomed me to try to suss it out myself.
Sure enough, it listed O’Brien among two or three dozen of the cemetery’s most notable decedents, which include the great Irish tenor, John McCormack, the Domingo of his day. (Fans of the Pogues might recall his name from “The Sickbed of Cuchulainn”, the opening track from the band’s 1985 album, Rum, Sodomy & the Lash.) After snapping photos of every page concerning Deans Grange with my smartphone, I returned the book and thanked the woman for her help.
The only problem was the frigid wind, as the guide presented itself as a walking tour of the cemetery (no doubt a pleasant prospect in the warmer months). Compounding this was the fact that directions to each grave began from the previous listing – not easily achieved in the freezing cold, nor from the warmth of a running car. And Flann O’Brien was twenty-third on the list.
After a good deal of fruitless poking about, it was Davida who found the needle in the haystack, using clues derived from the description of the grave that preceded O’Brien’s in the book. She reasoned that that tomb – described as being, with its stone balustrade, “one of the grandest” in the cemetery – would not only be obviously large, but most likely be situated not far from the church; both, we reckoned, would be found among the older grave sites.
Soon, we located the church and, not long thereafter, the stone balustrade (which was grand, indeed). For the first time that morning, we were getting warm, if only in the figurative sense. From there we followed the directions given in the book, and, lo and behold, just a bit farther along, we found the modest stone of one “Brian O Nuallain” (the Irish form of the anglicized O’Nolan).
Flann O’Brien. Myles na gCopaleen. Brother Barnabas. And only he knows how many others, buried there, in the humble southern shadow of the Joycean metropolis.
We lingered a few minutes and snapped a few photos before moving on to our next adventure. I took one final look at the name to which the simple stone paid homage and marveled at how, in a sense, the enigmatic Flann O’Brien had so deftly eluded even Death himself.