Milky Way season runs April through September in Florida but there’s no guarantee that you will be able to photograph it. More often than not, clouds block out most of the night sky. Even when it’s clear the amount of moisture in the air can make the stars look like they’re under a layer of rippling water.
All that being said, one of the best places around here to see and photograph the Milky Way is Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. So, I took a chance and booked two nights over the new moon in May.
We knew that tent-camping with the pups was not an option. So, we agreed that TG would help me set up and drive out for dinners, but otherwise he would stay home with Oscar and Maddie while I camped solo.
When we arrived on Sunday afternoon the clouds to the north looked ominous and we raced to get everything organized before the rains started.
Fortunately, it never did rain and once everything was ready, TG was on his way.
After a quick dinner, I went for a short walk.
I didn’t see much in the heat of the late afternoon but did spy a chatty, red-shouldered hawk,
And iconic Kissimmee white-tailed deer and turkeys!
One of my favorite things to do while camping is a sunset drive through the park. The daytime crowds have gone home and I eagerly look forward to what I might spy as dusk turns to dark.
Over the years I’ve spied everything from alligators to bobcats to (gasp) a 6ft Eastern diamondback rattlesnake slithering across the road.
I headed towards the main entrance around sunset. As I drove along, groups of five or six dark-colored birds kept flushing just ahead of the car. In talking to a park ranger the next morning, we determined that they were common nighthawks. These birds migrate through KPPSP and are only here for a brief time. I was lucky to see them!
By the time I turned around it was almost dark. I counted three different barred owls and a little burrowing owl that fluttered to a fence post for just long enough to snap a quick photo.
Once back at camp, I set up for a star stack but the clouds rolled in so I called it a night.
I was awakened at 3 am by the “who cooks for you” call of a barred owl directly over my tent, and then again at 5:30 when a cacophony of owl calls filled the campground. I was wide awake and decided to take advantage of the cool morning for a hike on the Prairie Loop Trail.
This trail is a 4.6-mile loop and takes you through open prairie and wooded hammocks.
I enjoyed some time with a tom turkey,
Plenty of red-winged blackbirds and Eastern meadowlarks,
A common yellowthroat,
And rare spy: a Bachman’s sparrow!
As I headed towards the hammock, I snapped a photo of a vulture looking quite pretty for once,
And a pair of swallow-tailed kites far off on a tree snag.
By the time I got back to camp, temperatures had soared and I was tired. I rested until TG arrived and then we drove over to check out the alligator pit. At least a couple dozen lay in and around the water, not doing much of anything.
After dinner, TG headed for home and I went for another sunset drive. You can usually spy bobwhites scampering along the side of the park roads but they are skittery and difficult to photograph. I was able to capture one by staying far enough back and zooming in with the long reach of my little Nikon P900.
I scanned the area for deer,
And spotted a wild hog grazing in the meadow, not at all interested in me.
Up ahead I saw the unmistakable shape of a four-footed animal – a bobcat or small coyote – but it vanished into the darkness before I could be sure.
I spied burrowing owls, three more barred owls, and quite a few snakes.
As I turned the corner to head back towards the campground, my headlights picked up a barred owl sitting in the middle of the road. She immediately flew to a nearby pole.
I put the car in Park, lowered my window, and just as I got ready to take a shot, she turned to look at me. Hello, Gorgeous! She was still sitting there as I thanked her and went on my way.
Once back at camp I set up for a star stack. This technique is a composite of 100+ images taken over an hour or more, and then stacked together in a free program called “Star Stax.”
It was wonderful to sit alone in the dark, listening to the night sounds around me. Suddenly out of nowhere, three little furry things came bounding towards me. They were baby raccoons and mama was not far behind! Upon seeing me, they ran across the road but I could still see their black outlines scurrying back and forth beside the scrub palmettos.
I woke during the night to footsteps crunching in the leaves outside my screen window. I grabbed my flashlight and peered out: a little opossum waddled into the woods behind my tent.
Unfortunately, the sky did not give me the Milky Way opportunity I was hoping for this visit. But it’s only May and I have the whole summer ahead of me.
You’ll know where to find me: alone again, nature-ally!
In February 2022 we left sunny, warm Florida for four weeks at the Sax-Zim Bog in Northern Minnesota. We wanted to photograph the legendary great gray owls – which we did and then some! You can read all about it in my blog “28 Days in the Bog.”
In the spirit of “since we’ve already come this far” we added another two weeks in Allouez, (AL-o-way), located in the Keweenaw (KEY-wee-naw) Peninsula, which projects nearly 70 miles into Lake Superior on the northern side of Michigan’s U.P.
When conditions are right, the Aurora Borealis are visible across the open expanse of the Big Lake.
The Northern Lights were high on our bucket list, especially after canceling our trip to Finland at the beginning of the covid pandemic, and we hoped for the best during our two-week stay.
Our Air BNB in Allouez was a palace compared to our tiny basement apartment in Hibbing.
There was a spacious kitchen with a table big enough to spread out two laptops and a lovely view across the backyard.
A separate living room with a comfy wrap-around sofa,
And a flight of stairs leading to two bedrooms and a half bath on the second floor.
Before we arrived, our host had told us to leave the water running in the downstairs bathroom. There was a “Let it Run” order in place due to a deep freeze. I guess when your water comes from the third largest freshwater lake in the world it’s ok to “let it run!”
We couldn’t have asked for a better place to spend the last two weeks of our road trip. You can find the Old Mining House on Air BNB here:
We scouted several locations for our late-night aurora forays,
And settled on the bayfront at Eagle River. The view to the north was unobstructed, and we could wait and watch from the warmth of our car.
Unfortunately, conditions were not favorable for the duration of our stay. Although we had beautiful blue skies on many days,
Evenings turned overcast almost every night.
But we were there for two weeks so we made the best of it. The whole peninsula is an outdoor enthusiast, nature lover’s paradise. Not only is it surrounded on three sides by Lake Superior with its lovely beaches,
It offers hundreds of miles of snowmobile and hiking trails,
State parks, scenic drives,
And beautiful waterfalls.
What we were NOT prepared for was All. The. Snow – especially this late into the season!
Keweenaw averages 208 inches of snow per year, and as of March 9, 2022, they were already at 284.5.
Lake Superior keeps the area warmer than Northern Minnesota but also dumps a lot more snow. Although we had plenty of layers to keep us warm, the amount of snow made it challenging to do many of the outdoor activities.
Most of the area’s attractions were closed for the season, and others were accessible only by snowmobile (above our pay grade) or snowshoes, which we rented from Cross Country Sports in Calumet for $10 a day.
Our neighborhood consisted of a small cluster of houses off US 41, a busy main road, so there was not a lot of opportunity for walking close to home.
We did manage a hike to Hungarian Falls,
Home to five waterfalls with the highest one having a 75-foot drop.
This time of year, everything was frozen, but it was still a lovely hike in the woods. We saw multiple tracks – including some fresh snowshoe hare. The only hare we saw, however, was an illustration in the children’s book “The Cross-Country Cat,” the pages of which were affixed to trees along the trail.
The Keweenaw Peninsula was the site of the first copper boom in the United States, which led to its moniker “Copper Country.”
And we spent a lot of time exploring the quaint little towns that dot the area.
Allouez is about four miles north of Calumet, which boasts a beautiful cathedral and lots of historic architecture.
We also enjoyed lunch at Carmelita’s and sampled their famous Thimbleberry Margarita. Thimbleberries are similar to raspberries and are a favorite among local residents.
Lake Linden has some wonderful old churches,
And fun restaurants.
But it was in Laurium that we were introduced to pasties.
Pronounced “past-ee”, it is a folded pastry case with a savory filling, typically seasoned meat, potatoes, and vegetables. The travel-ready meal came to Keweenaw by way of Cornish miners who migrated to the area to work in the copper mines in the 19th century.
The pasty is a point of pride among the residents of the U.P. and debates range far and wide on which is the best.
Donna at the Visitor’s Center gave us a list of places where we could try this delicacy but added that none would compare with her mother-in-law’s!
There is even a “Keweenaw Pasty Trail” that lists the area’s best locations – each with its own, unique spin on this beloved little pie.
One day we drove up to Copper Harbor, located at the very northern tip of the peninsula.
Most of the shops and restaurants were closed for the season, so we stopped at the Mariner North for lunch.
As we waited for our food, the restaurant gradually filled. It suddenly occurred to us that we were the only – and I do mean ONLY – patrons not dressed in snowmobile attire!
The countryside is full of photographic gems, even in the winter. We found picturesque barns,
Old dams, and historic copper mines – some of which are purported to be haunted!
We had stopped to photograph the abandoned Quincy Dredge #2, currently sunk in the shallow water of Torch Lake. Just as we got out of the car, we spied a little red fox crossing the ice!
In scouting locations for our aurora watching, we stumbled upon two interesting sites in Eagle River. The first was the Church of the Holy Protection, a monastery under the jurisdiction of The Ukrainian Catholic Church.
This stunning piece of architecture sits on the shore of Lake Superior, about five miles outside of town.
The monks devote themselves to a life of prayer, music,
And work, including making jams, coffees, and other baked goods at their sole source of income: the Jampot bakery.
Unfortunately, the Jampot is only open during season, late May through mid-October, but many of their products are available online.
There is no phone listed on either the monastery or Jampot website, but they do have an email. So, we inquired about their Saturday evening Solemn Vespers service and received this reply:
We are not regular church attendees, but in these troubling times we could not pass up an opportunity to pray for peace with Ukrainian monks.
The Solemn Vespers were unlike anything we had ever experienced. The entire 90 minutes was sung – even the chosen scriptures of the day.
The monks sang acapella, in three-part harmony, and their strong voices filled the small sanctuary like a heavenly choir.
TG and I were the only attendees and as we sat listening it occurred to me that this beautiful service would have happened with or without us. We were merely bystanders in one of the most genuine – and profound – acts of worship either of us had ever witnessed.
On another day while driving through Eagle River we noticed a sign for the Emil Dyni Memorial Deer Feeding Park. Whaaat??
In the winter deer travel from miles around to Eagle River where they are fed – by anyone who has brought the proper food.
They flock here by the hundreds and through the years have learned that the yard is a safe place to eat and bed down.
This park was on the same road that led to the Eagle River bayfront, so each evening when we went out aurora-hunting we passed the deer, peeking above the snowdrifts as we drove by.
The two weeks did not give us exactly what we had hoped for, but we were able to explore an area of the country that neither of us had visited before. The more we travel in the U.S.A., the more wonderful places we find to go. The Keweenaw Peninsula is absolutely beautiful and a great place to visit – anytime of the year. Just be sure to pack your snowshoes!
To view more photos from our stay, visit our flickr albums.
In February 2022, we embarked on our most ambitious road trip to date: a journey that would take us as far north as Hibbing, Minnesota for four weeks followed by a stay in Allouez (ALL-oo-way), in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. All in all, we would be away from home for seven weeks.
Most of our Florida friends questioned our sanity traveling to northern Minnesota in the middle of winter but we wanted to photograph the legendary great gray owls. They are one of the largest owls, with a perfectly round head and beautiful circular face. Ever since I first saw a photograph of one, I’ve dreamed of capturing that image for myself.
One of the best places to spot GGOs is about an hour west of Duluth, Minnesota: in the Sax-Zim Bog.
Encompassing more than 300 square miles, SZB is a mix of habitats that attracts not only great grays but a wide variety of owls, other birds, and animals.
The only area we ran into any traffic on our three-day drive north was around Atlanta – a total mess – but otherwise, we drove 70mph the entire way. The roads were clear and judging from the number of wrecked semis in Illinois, it looked like we had missed a bad winter storm by a couple of days.
We arrived in Hibbing late afternoon on Sunday, Feb 6, and spent our first full day stocking up on groceries and getting organized for our upcoming photo safaris.
We had arranged for an Air BNB for the four weeks we would be spending in Hibbing. The 500 sq ft basement apartment was tiny but efficient and proved to be a good base for the duration of our stay.
A fun bit of trivia was that our little apartment was located just a few blocks from Robert Zimmerman’s childhood home. We drove by the house every time we went to and from the Bog.
Sax-Zim Bog is so unique it’s hard to explain. It’s a combination of private land, homes, fields, some government land, and some owned by the non-profit “Friends of SZB” all mixed up next to each other, so you don’t quite know who owns what.
Some private homeowners have set up feeders and/or deer rib cages in their front yards and welcome photographers and birders.
Others have “NO PHOTOS” or “PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING” signs posted.
So, you just drive around on the public roads, looking for interesting things. It’s a lot of being in the right place at the right time.
The roads were icy and covered with snow on every drive we made. There are deep ditches on either side, for where the plows put all the snow that accumulates (and never melts), and you don’t know for sure where the shoulders end and the ditches begin.
And yes, we got stuck one time!
You must watch where you’re driving and where you’re stopping, also watch for the locals, who will drive by you at 50-60mph. It would be very difficult to watch your driving AND animal-spot at the same time! So, if you’re planning a visit, bring along a buddy or hire a guide.
I had done a ton of research in preparing for our trip – if you dig around enough you can find a lot of information about the Bog, such as what is being spied on any given day and at what time, where various locations are in relation to each other, and tips about owl-spotting and driving in general.
Besides the SZB website, there are Flickr albums, Facebook groups, and a Telegram app that all share useful information. The Telegram was especially helpful beforehand in learning the roads, distances between various places, and whether “chasing” a sighting would be possible.
But practically speaking, the app was not much help once we were there: the Bog is too big of an area to get anywhere fast. We barely used it during our four-week visit.
You stay in your car most of the time — we did get out occasionally but not for long, it’s just too cold to be standing or walking in the snow.
We set out for our first visit on Tuesday morning, Feb 8. It is said that in order to see great gray owls at Sax-Zim Bog, you should allow 3 or 4 days for each sighting … we saw two separate owls on our first visit.
By the end of that first week, we had spied multiple GGOs, a snowy owl, a barred owl, a porcupine, plus many of the regular winter birds.
Before we went to bed on Friday night we checked the forecast, so we knew the weekend was going to be brutally cold. We woke to below zero temps and a dead battery, so we relaxed in the morning,
Took a nice walk in the snow,
Lunched at a local pub,
And finally got the car started around 2pm.
The following morning it was so cold we turned the car around and decided to wait until it warmed up a bit to go out – at its coldest, the car thermometer read -38°.
By mid-afternoon, it had warmed up to a balmy 8°. Crazy to have a 46-degree temperature swing and still not hit double digits! We drove to Cloquet, home to the only gas station ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Opened in 1958 as the R.W. Lindholm Service Station, it is still in operation today and is run by a grandson of the original owner.
On Monday, Valentine’s Day, we drove to our porcupine area and were delighted to see him again, this time actively circling the tree, gnawing at the bark like he was in a bark eating contest. Not knowing much about porcupines, we wondered if he stays in one area until he’s eaten all the bark and then will move on.
After our fun time with the porcupine, we stopped to chat for a moment with some nice people. One gentleman told us about a barred owl not too far away.
It turned out the nice gentleman was a guide by the name of Judd Brink. I had communicated with him briefly while planning our trip but had decided against hiring a guide. We felt that given the amount of time we would be spending in the Bog it wouldn’t be necessary. But Judd is as knowledgeable as he is kind and generous. I would recommend him to anyone looking for a guide.
Tuesday ended up being another once-in-a-lifetime day. I had in my head I wanted to find a pine marten and, of course, see owls.
We found a pine marten.
And three great gray owls.
Near the Bog, there is a delightful little restaurant called Wilbert’s Cafe. It’s a great place to warm up with breakfast or a cup of hot chocolate.
Another fun stop is the Victory Coffee House in Meadowlands. It is a community center, and you pay only as much as you feel is fair.
The following Monday, the 21st, winter storm Nancy was headed our way.
TG’s phone died that morning, and we made a quick trip to Grand Rapids to get him set up on an old backup I use as an alarm clock.
But the weather was too dicey to even think about driving out to the Bog.
Finally, on Wednesday it cleared up enough to venture out. St. Louis County takes their plows seriously and although it was still very cold, the roads were driveable.
We wanted to photograph the Iron Man miner’s memorial,
And the mural of Archie “Moonlight” Graham from Field of Dreams, both located in Chisholm.
Afterward, we drove out to the Bog and had another surprise. The conversation in the car went something like this: Me “what’s that running up ahead, a cat?” TG “maybe a dog?” Both of us in unison “OMG it’s a bobcat!”
The following day my phone died. Both of our phones died within a week of each other! Not willing to risk another month with only a single old backup, we drove to Grand Rapids for a second time to take advantage of T-Mobile’s free trade-in program.
It took most of the day, but even so, we were blessed with our best GGO sighting to date.
Besides more owls, by the end of the second week we had spied several new-to-us birds including Canada jays,
A ruffed grouse,
And a boreal chickadee.
That weekend we took a mini road trip north up the Lake Superior coast to Grand Marais for a sunrise drive on the Gunflint Trail. I desperately wanted to see a moose.
We spied a bald eagle pair,
A coyote, and another great gray owl along our way, but no moose.
We also stopped at the Split Rock lighthouse for a quick photo op before returning home to Hibbing.
Tuesday, March 1 ended up being a most extraordinary day. As if playing peek-a-boo with an adorable red fox wasn’t enough to send me over the moon,
We were treated to a great gray owl actively hunting directly in front of us in perfect golden, afternoon light.
She would swoop across the snow, then fly off, then land close, again and again.
At one point she flew directly at me, landed on a signpost no more than 15 feet from where I stood, and looked me square in the eyes. Later someone said it might have been because of the faux fur trim on my jacket’s hood. In any case, to be that close to such a majestic creature took my breath away.
We left after 45 minutes, and she was still entertaining the small group of humans who had gathered with us on the side of the road.
THAT is why we drove 1,900 miles in the middle of winter to the north woods of Minnesota: to have the chance to experience something like that. Truly a “Once in a Lifetime”
There are several different Facebook groups dedicated to SZB, and TG and I had each joined two. Over the four weeks, we had posted “highlight” photos, which might explain what happened the next morning. We were photographing an old barn, and a truck stopped to ask what we were watching.
Seeing our license plate the woman asked, “Are you the Florida People….the famous Tomlins who have been up here for a month???”
We were leaving for Allouez on Sunday and another winter storm threatened. We decided Friday would be our last run out to the Bog. But first, we gave Pepper a much-needed bath and then stuck to the clearest road, Hwy 7.
Even so, we were treated to two more GGOs and the most unexpected sighting of the whole trip: a northern hawk owl!
Our four weeks exceeded all expectations. We saw everything we had hoped for along with quite a few surprises. By giving ourselves so much time, we had built in enough down days due to weather or dead cellphones,
And time to enjoy some of the other sights in the area.
Final count: 25 GGOs, 8 barred owls, 4 snowy owls, one northern hawk owl, 8 bald eagles, two pine martens, multiple porcupine sightings, one bobcat, one red fox, and all the regular winter birds at the Bog.
We also had multiple opportunities to photograph the picturesque freight trains that rumbled along Highway 7 each day,
As well as beautiful old barns and farm scenes,
And breath-taking sunrises and sunsets.
Were we just a little bit crazy to leave sunny, warm Florida and drive 1,900 miles north in the middle of winter? Maybe.
But then again, “to do anything in this world worth doing, we must not stand back, thinking of the cold and danger, but jump in and scramble through as best we can.” (Sydney Smith)
To view all our photos from this extraordinary trip visit our Flickr albums:
Two weeks before Christmas I found myself sitting in the Okeechobee County Courthouse, serving as a juror on a criminal trial. It was a complicated case, with no clear right and wrong, and the only thing that kept me sane was knowing that we had reserved ten nights camping at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.
Dec 23 couldn’t come soon enough. Since we were planning to be there for so long, we set up two tents – one for sleeping and the other as our “commissary.”
We fell asleep that night to the hoot of owls while coyotes howled in the distance.
Christmas Eve morning I went for a bike ride and TG worked on photos.
I was happy to spy a beautiful, black-crowned night heron
And a female northern harrier enjoying the early morning sun.
Later I hiked the Prairie Loop Trail and managed to capture a belted kingfisher, notorious for flying off the moment you even think “camera.”
I was almost to the campgrounds when I came upon an 8-point buck, far more interested in grazing than in me.
One of our favorite things to do while camping is late afternoon drives around the park. The day visitors are mostly gone and the animals are beautiful in the golden light.
This crested caracara loves this spot and more often than not you can find him sitting here in the late afternoon.
That evening I drove the park road again. An owl swooped in front of me, and I spied a second one in the trees, too far away to even think about getting a shot.
Christmas morning, we woke up early to enjoy the peace and quiet before heading back home to Okeechobee.
We were invited to spend Christmas evening with our neighbors and we chose to sleep at home rather than drive back out to camp that night.
We had already noted that the campground was more crowded this year than in the past, and the vibe was different. Oscar and Maddie were stressed, which was stressing us out. We didn’t dare leave them alone in the tent, even inside their kennel, as the park was full, including several loose dogs.
That night we drove to our favorite spot for a star stack. We set up our camp chairs by the car while O and M slept inside and our cameras clicked away. We could hear, but did not spy, barred owls hooting in the trees above us.
On Monday morning we decided that TG should take O & M home while I stayed at the camp. Since we live only 45 minutes away, he would make the drive 2 times a day to spend time with me, enjoy the morning and dinner together, and build a nightly campfire.
As a bonus, my friend Tim and his 7-year-old son were staying two sites away beginning that night. I’ve known Tim for over a decade and we were looking forward to spending time with them.
Later that evening Tim sent me a text “You have a macro lens?”
They had spied a black widow spider in the bathhouse!
TG came back early the next morning and the four of us went for a hike.
We didn’t see a lot, but we did spy a beautiful buck bounding through the prairie
And a big banana spider.
When we got back to camp a large tom turkey was pecking on the hubcap of our car – he could see his reflection in the chrome and was not backing down!
After TG left that evening, I intended to go for a hike but only got as far as the Prairie Loop trailhead when I heard the snuffle-grunting of a wild pig. By the light of my flashlight, I spied a mama with three babies. She snorted at me and I decided it was best if I turned around.
Wednesday morning, we said goodbye to Tim and Carlyle and took a drive with the pups. After TG left that evening, I went looking for owls.
Much to my delight, I found one,
Then his mate.
And they even “bonded” a few times!
Thursday morning TG met me early. We had been contacted by a local rancher to take photos for their new website and we wanted to walk the property together.
That night I shot another star stack at the corner.
Friday morning, I hiked the Prairie Loop Trail again. There was a nest in a tree I wanted a better look at but the fog was so thick I couldn’t see much of anything!
I still managed to spy a grumpy yellow-rumped warbler,
An eastern meadowlark,
Several more deer and some wild turkeys.
Later I went for another bike ride and noticed a huge wolf spider sitting in the middle of the road. When I stopped to move him out of harm’s way, he got mad and charged me! I jumped back and he climbed into the spokes of my bicycle tire. I walked a short distance away and he climbed down and moved off the road. I was only trying to keep you safe, not-so-little guy!
TG returned that afternoon with the pups. We wanted to spend New Year’s Eve together as a family and figured Kissimmee would be far quieter than our neighborhood at home in Okeechobee. We took a short sunset drive around the park
And then enjoyed a quiet dinner while a little owl kept watch from a branch above our heads.
Later we sat by the fire, burning the last of our “lighter wood” – logs from a tree hit by lightning. The crowds had left the park and there were several empty sites. The only sounds we heard were the crackling of the fire and the occasional hoot of an owl. It was the best New Year’s Eve we’ve had in a long time!
Although we had made our reservations through Sunday the 3rd, we decided to pack up Saturday after the tents had dried. Mornings had been so damp and foggy we did not want to pack up wet gear. We took our time breaking down and pulled into our driveway at Casa Mini around 2:30 that afternoon.
We’ve decided that tent camping with the pups must be in measured doses, and only when the campground is relatively empty. But me staying solo, with TG driving out for a few hours each day, proved to be a very workable solution. When all was said and done I was by myself for four of our ten nights, and I can’t wait to do it again!
In October 2021, we embarked on our most ambitious road trip to date: a 7,700-mile journey to New Mexico where we planned to catch the winter bird migration in the Bosque del Apache as well as visit other interesting spots out west. All-in-all we would be gone for 28 days.
During our month-long trip, we would travel through nine states across three time zones, over multiple mountains and rivers, and cross the Continental Divide four times.
We loaded up the pups and pulled out of our driveway at 6am, driving through Florida’s panhandle,
Then Alabama, and spending our first night in Jackson, Mississippi.
The next morning, we crossed the Mississippi River into Louisiana before entering Texas.
We had programmed Siri to avoid tolls and thus far she kept us on interstates with not a whole lot to see.
However, once we arrived in Texas, she took us on country roads which proved much more interesting.
With no traffic and a 75-mph speed limit, we did not lose any time as we continued on our way.
We stopped the second night in Amarillo, Texas.
We had planned to push hard the first two days and we did: putting in back-to-back 13-hour drives. By the time we reached Hyatt Place Amarillo, we were ready to slow down a bit.
We had six more hours to get to our Air BNB in Lemitar, New Mexico and wanted to mosey with multiple stops along the way.
First up: Glenrio. This town was abandoned once the interstate replaced Route 66, but its ghosts remain.
Glenrio straddles TX/NM and the gas station sits just east of the border, proudly claiming to be “the last stop for gas in Texas.”
Once we crossed into New Mexico …
We headed for Tucumcari, another town on the old Route 66. This town has worked hard to preserve the nostalgia of that by-gone era, and we had fun capturing images of the vintage buildings.
You can see more of our photos from Glenrio and Tucumcari here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
We had a four-hour drive ahead of us and we wanted to arrive in enough time to get unpacked and make a grocery run. So after Tucumcari, we headed southwest.
We took the time to marvel at the huge wind farms,
And the mile-long freight trains, loaded with stacks of containers.
The topography of New Mexico is beautiful. Living in flat Florida, we had forgotten how much we love the mountains.
The cottonwood trees were in full bloom, a brilliant gold against the blue sky and reddish-brown mountains.
Casita Del Cranes makes for a comfortable and affordable home-away-from-home with plenty of privacy. It has a big living/dining/kitchen area, one bedroom with a queen bed, and a small bath with hot shower. We had room to spread out as well as set up Oscar and Maddie’s kennel.
It sits on a quiet road – other than the occasional passing car the only sounds are the freight trains that rumble past, something we found charming.
It is located about a 15-minute drive from the town of Socorro, with a large, well-stocked Walmart. And only 45 minutes from the Bosque del Apache where we would be spending most of our time.
We spent our first 2 ½ days checking out the Bosque at both sunrise
The birds had not yet arrived in the 1000’s we expected but we planned to be in this area until mid-November when the migration would be in full swing.
We did manage to spy a coyote sneaking across a field at sunrise, a small bobcat, several mule deer, and a group of javelinas crossing the road ahead of us!
We took a break from the Bosque on Tuesday and drove out to the Very Large Array. The drive through the mountains was breathtaking.
The VLA is a group of huge radio antennas that complement giant, single-dish telescopes for the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. In a nutshell, it creates a telescope many miles across. It is difficult to grasp its massive scale, but we were able to see the large, white dishes from more than 20 miles away.
These huge antennas are on tracks and are repositioned throughout the year – sometimes bunched close together and other times spread far apart.
You can check the VLA website for exactly where they will be at any given time and plan your visit accordingly.
You can see more of our photos from the VLA here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
We continued west over the mountains and, in the process, crossed the Continental Divide.
The following day we drove south to White Sands National Park. This was a 2 ½ hour drive and we wanted to arrive for the early morning light. On our way, we crossed the Rio Grande.
After traveling through the entire state of New Mexico, this grand river becomes the US/Mexico border once it reaches Texas.
By the time we arrived at White Sands National Park it had turned into another sunny, cloudless day and the stunning white sand looked like huge snowdrifts. Driving through the dunes in the early morning quiet, without a single car in sight, was otherworldly.
The sand looked hot to touch (like our Florida beaches), so before we let the pups out of the car I ran a handful through my fingers. It was soft as powered sugar and almost cold! Air temps that day were in the mid-50’s.
We decided to stick around for sunset, so we took a mid-day break to check out McGinn’s Pistachio Land,
Bowlin’s Running Indian Trading Post for refrigerator magnets,
And the famous recycled roadrunner sculpture overlooking the town of Las Cruces.
We arrived back at White Sands around 4 pm and enjoyed a picnic dinner while we waited for the sun to set.
Without a cloud in the sky, the sunset was not as dramatic as it might have been, but we were nonetheless awed by the ethereal beauty of the park.
By the time we pulled into our driveway at Casita Del Cranes, it was after 9pm – 15 hours in the car with Oscar and Maddie! All of us slept well that night!
You can see more of our photos from White Sands here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
And so ended our first week in New Mexico.
Week Two started with another day of brilliant blue sky and plenty of bright sunshine. We chose to stay home – working on photos and getting ready for our upcoming “embedded road trip.”
In addition to our time in Lemitar, we had made reservations to stay in Farmington for three nights, Monument Valley for one night, and the Grand Canyon for another two.
We drove north and west from Albuquerque through the Valles Caldera Mountains, and at over 7,000 feet we could feel our ears popping!
Before checking into our Air BNB in Farmington we first drove to our destination for later that evening: Shiprock.
Like the VLA, it is impossible to show the massive scale of this natural rock formation. It sits in the middle of Navajo Nation land, and you can see it from 30+ miles away. It felt like we drove forever before arriving at our rendezvous spot!
Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí or “rock with wings”) rises 1,600 feet above the plain and is considered a sacred site. As such, you are not permitted to drive close to the monolith without a Navajo guide. We booked our tours with Navajo Tours USA.
We settled into Fairview Hide-Away in Farmington, our home for the next three nights.
And were back at Shiprock by 6pm.
Our guide, Kialo, arrived shortly after, and together we caravanned to the end of the road. Kialo assured us that our VW Jetta could make it “no problem” but it quickly turned into the bumpiest, most nerve-wracking non-road TG had ever driven!
We parked at the base of the monolith and then proceeded to scramble up the side of a sheer cliff to get to our first photo spot. Kialo bounded up like he had been doing this his whole life (he has) while I inched along behind him, not daring to look down and clinging to the rock wall for dear life. A tumble would, at the very least, result in severe injury, and we took our time going up.
But we were rewarded with an incredible bird’s eye view of the monolith, the last of the sunset turning it bright orange.
What goes up must come down, so we inched our way back in the inky blackness and on to our next spot for Milky Way shots. TG set up for a stack,
While I walked back and forth shooting the Milky Way from various angles.
The moonless sky was clear, and the stars were out in such numbers it was difficult to spot individual constellations. The Milky Way was a brilliant, vertical arch that stretched far over our heads into the sky above us.
It was truly a night to remember.
You can see more photos from Shiprock here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
On Saturday we had arranged for two day-hikes into the Bisti (rhymes with “Misty”). The Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness is a rolling landscape of badlands that offers some of the most unusual scenery found in the area.
Time and nature have etched a fantasy world of strange rock formations made of interbedded sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal, and silt.
These hoodoos are in the shapes of pinnacles, spires, capped mushrooms, and other unusual forms.
We met our guide, Gilbert, at the north section rendezvous spot at 7am.
We learned a lot about the Bisti and Navajo culture as he pointed out the various formations.
We also played “What do you see?”
I named this formation “Thirsty Dog.”
TG said, “I see a camel!”
We ended our first hike around 11am and had just enough time to drive home for a quick lunch and spell Oscar and Maddie. The total distance that morning was around four miles.
We were back at the south section parking lot by 3pm and hiked to several well-known spots including the Petrified Logs,
And the famous Egg Hatchery.
We finished our afternoon hike at just over 5 miles and were so tired we could barely make it home. But it was another memorable day.
You can see more photos from the Bisti here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
The next morning, we caught up on photos and took advantage of Fairview Hide-Away’s washer & dryer – an amenity we appreciated being one month on the road!
Later that afternoon we drove back out to Shiprock for one more shot at the night sky and a star stack. Because we were on our own, we stayed in the parking lot. But even so, it made for a special night as the headlights from passing cars illuminated the dike while we took our shots.
On Monday, we said goodbye to Farmington and headed west.
It is difficult to take in the vastness of the southwestern United States. It goes on forever and coming up over a rise you can see for 50 or more miles. It is beautiful and it is spellbinding.
A quick detour took us to Four Corners.
And of course we had to take a selfie standing in the four states: New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado!
We ended the day at Monument Valley. We checked into our room at the Kayenta Valley Inn,
And then drove the twenty-five miles to the monument entrance. Here is TG’s description of our experience:
We visited Monument Valley near Kayenta, AZ yesterday. I must say that despite the monuments themselves being extraordinary in size and beauty, it was a letdown. It was the most controlled, yet uncontrolled, experience I have ever encountered.
For $20, you are issued a permit allowing a timed, 2-hour drive on a marked road that really should not allow any vehicles with moderate to low clearance…
There were many spots that we had to cover at less than 5 MPH and a couple of very steep hills with loose gravel on the way out that we almost could not climb.
Additionally, there is no policing of the drivers once in the park, although there are plenty of rules. Many drivers went well above the 15 MPH limit, kicking up dust, not looking where they were going, driving the wrong way, and stopping in the middle of the road. What we had looked forward to quickly turned into a “let’s get out of here ASAP” moment.
You can see more photos from Monument Valley here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
Our original plan was to go back the following morning for a sunrise drive but based on the previous afternoon experience we nixed that idea and continued west.
Alongside Route 160 there is an interesting rock formation called “Elephant’s Feet” where we stopped to take a few photos and stretch our legs.
We arrived in Cameron around noon – far too early for our 4pm check-in. So, we headed straight to the Grand Canyon National Park, located about a 30-minute drive west of town.
The Grand Canyon was on both of our “Bucket Lists” and our first views did not disappoint.
It truly is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and I found myself in tears, overwhelmed by its awesome beauty.
Since we had all the following day, this afternoon was a scouting mission to get the lay of the land.
Back in town, we checked into the historic Cameron Trading Post, our home for the next two nights.
This charming hotel has gorgeous views, private entries, and well-laid-out rooms. It also has the prettiest, softest baby-blue towels!
We had plenty of space to spread out our laptops and camera gear.
The restaurant serves both American and traditional Navajo food, with convenient curbside pick-up.
We realized that we were woefully unprepared for photographing the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon with its layers of light, shadow, and colors. TG spent some time researching “how-to” techniques for the next morning’s sunrise.
We were back at Lipan Point well before dawn and watched the sun slowly bring the layers of color alive as it rose above the horizon. Once again, a lump formed in my throat as I took in the beauty of it all.
November is a great month to visit the Grand Canyon. It is less crowded – for our sunrise session, we were one of a small handful of people. And although the morning started out quite cool, it warmed up quickly during the day. We were fortunate to have blue skies and bright sunshine for both days.
The roads are free of cars,
And we were able to stop and snap photos of the elk that grazed in the woods on either side.
We even took turns hiking a bit of the Grandview Trail.
With O & M waiting patiently in the car neither of us wanted to be gone for too long, so a trek to the bottom was not an option for this trip.
That afternoon we went back to Lipan Point for the sunset.
Many people had the same idea and the best vantage points were crowded with photographers, picnickers, and folks simply taking in the view.
We took a few photos,
And then moved on to Moran Point, a quieter location to wait for nightfall.
You can see more photos from the Grand Canyon here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
Thursday morning it was time to pack up the car and head back to Casita Del Cranes for the remainder of our trip. We plotted a route south and east, through Winslow, Arizona.
And yes, Eagles Fans, we did stand on the corner.
Driving for hours requires regular pit stops – for both us and the dogs. I do not normally write about these, but the truck stop in Twin Arrows deserves special mention.
Set in the middle of the Arizona desert, the doggie area was a large section of Astroturf, akin to a putting green. Oscar and Maddie found this unacceptable and used the surrounding bushes instead.
And before you were allowed to enter the building, your temperature was taken. The Navajo Nation was hit hard with Covid, and they are doing everything they can to keep it at bay.
They also sold Navajo Blue piñon coffee, which might be some of the best coffee around!
Route 60 goes straight east through a fun little spot called Pie Town, where we stopped for (you guessed it) pie.
The homemade options this day were traditional apple and pecan pie muffins.
Pecan pie muffins!?! They tasted even more delicious than they sound, and my hips are grateful there isn’t a Pie Town back home!
We arrived at Casita Del Cranes late that afternoon, happy to be back at our home-away-from-home. While TG fixed dinner, I took a walk down the dirt road in front of the house to look for roadrunners.
I was happy with this sighting of a Gambel’s quail, a new-to-me bird!
Week Three began with a visit to the Socorro Nature Area, a beautiful little preserve about three miles from Casita.
Most of the birds were TTB’s (tiny twitchy birds) that required much patience to photograph.
TG was able to capture some beautiful landscapes,
On our drive home, we spied a red-tailed hawk
and (much to my delight) beep-beep! a roadrunner!
The VLA is a designated ClearDarkSky site, and the forecast that evening was for clear and dark skies with excellent “seeing.” When away from lights, the night skies in New Mexico are unlike anything we have seen. The Milky Way is incredibly bright and visible, much more so than in Florida. We wanted to try for a star stack with one of the VLA’s massive white dishes in the foreground.
We arrived at the VLA around 7:30pm and the stars were already out in full. We parked in the darkness close to one of the giant antennas and set up for a star stack. It takes about an hour to shoot the 100-200 images needed for a stack. As we waited, we looked for various constellations and watched as stars and satellites shot across the sky while the screeching cries of hunting owls filled the air around us.
By now the birds had arrived in the Bosque del Apache in the thousands we were hoping for, so we spent the last six days of our trip close to home.
We alternated between hikes:
Seven miles of the Chupadera Trail where we climbed up to 1800 ft.
The full trail is 9 1/2 miles, but we turned around at a dry riverbed crossing. The drop down was at least five feet, and we knew the scramble back up would be a challenge!
We spied a few desert cottontails
And a group of Gambel’s quail.
The Marsh Overlook Trail, which has a short but beautiful climb up to a panoramic view of the Bosque,
And the Rio Viejo Trail.
Just as we started down the trail, a couple with a friendly golden retriever was headed to their car. They told us there was a family of javelinas near the back of the loop and TG whispered “not anymore.”
It was still a beautiful walk through the woods and we did manage to spy a group of mule deer.
We drove the “Loop Tour” roads around the refuge multiple times, where we enjoyed encounters with various wildlife such as javelinas,
More mule deer,
A fleeting glimpse of a coyote, a bobcat,
And many beautiful birds.
You can see more photos from our Loop Tour drives and hikes here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
And we spent each sunrise at the “Flight Deck.”
The Flight Deck is a wooden boardwalk that stretches out over the marsh and in the mornings is THE place to watch the birds flying in, out, and overhead.
We arrived each morning before dawn to secure a prime spot. Two dozen or more photogs, each armed with a big-lens camera, vie for the same choice positions at the north and south ends of the deck.
The noise from the birds is quite loud as small groups go through sporadic launches and then settle back down into the flock.
But suddenly, as if on cue, the noise swells to an almost deafening crescendo as they take off and fill the sky.
It is unlike anything we have ever witnessed.
It is spectacular.
You can see more photos from sunrise at the Flight Deck here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
Every day on our way to and from the Bosque we passed the Owl Bar and Cafe. This landmark restaurant has been in business for 76 years and boasts “the world’s best burgers and steaks.” I absolutely love owls, so of course we had to stop in. Being vegetarians we opted for the breakfast burritos — which were also delicious!
One afternoon our host, Steve, drove us out to San Lorenzo Canyon, located about six miles from the Casita. This picturesque canyon is in the middle of the desert and is only accessible in high-clearance or 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Even in Steve’s big truck, it was a bumpy ride! But worth it to climb among the narrow cliffs, arches, hoodoos …
And angular rock formations.
You can see more photos from San Lorenzo Canyon here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
On our last afternoon, Pam joined us for one final Loop Tour drive. On our way out we spied a beautiful female northern harrier, posing perfectly in the golden light. Since this is one of TG’s favorite birds, it seemed only right that she be the one to bid us farewell.
Later that evening, Pam and Steve invited us for prickly pear margaritas. Over our three weeks at Casita, we had occasionally heard the hoot of a great horned owl in the pecan tree outside our front door. One night at 3am I went outside with a flashlight and found him sitting at the top of the tree, just out of range of my light and certainly out of range of a camera.
We sat under the pecan tree, calling for the owl. No owl was seen (or heard) but we enjoyed friendly conversation, a warm fire, and stars twinkling overhead.
It was a fitting end to our time at Casita del Cranes.
My sister lives west of Dallas and we wanted to spend a weekend with her before continuing home to Florida. But it is a nine-hour drive from Lemitar, so we broke up the trip by booking one night at the LaQuinta in Roswell.
We drove east through the lava fields and the spectacular Capitan Mountains.
The town of Roswell was somewhat of a disappointment. It sits in the middle of a vast wasteland, surrounded for miles in all directions by nothing but rolling yellow hills. It is easy to imagine a UFO touching down somewhere in all that nothingness.
But the kitschy part of town is only about three blocks on Main Street, with lots of tacky souvenir shops,
And the UFO museum.
The rest of the town is kind of blah, without a whole lot of personality.
Once you cross the New Mexico/Texas border you come upon hundreds of miles of cotton fields. Many had huge bales bundled up in colorful yellow or pink wrappers.
The landscape changes dramatically as you near the Dallas area – it turns into rolling hills with lots of green trees. We spent a too-short, but delightful visit with J & D in their beautiful home.
We wanted to get a head start on DFW traffic, so we left on Sunday afternoon rather than waiting until Monday morning.
We were glad we did, as even on Sunday the traffic was intense for us country folks!
At the start of our journey, we had passed through the interesting town of Bogata, TX, and promised ourselves we would take time for photos on our way back east.
There are several old garages filled with classic cars and trucks. Many private homes also have vintage cars sitting on their lawns.
Multiple Google searches did not turn up any explanation for all the cool old cars, but it was fun to see and photograph them!
Driving as many hours as we did, we came up with fun games to pass the time. One was “if you could live anywhere based solely on the name, where would it be?” “Baton Rouge” is a fun name to say, as is “Sheboygan.” But then we passed a sign for:
???? HOT COFFEE?!? Seriously, it’s a real town in Mississippi, and on our next trip we will have to check it out!
We spent our last night in Tallahassee. We had a six-hour drive home to Okeechobee and only 30 minutes to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. There had been multiple sightings of a flamingo at the refuge, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.
So, we detoured south to St. Marks early the following morning and were not disappointed. The flamingo was there, looking ever-so-elegant in the early morning light.
We also saw three bald eagles,
Some white-tailed deer,
And were pleasantly surprised to find a few monarch butterflies still fluttering about.
You can see more photos from St. Marks here (click on photo then use the arrow to go through the images):
We were heading home by 9:30am and pulled into our driveway mid-afternoon. It was an amazing trip and of the 17-odd things we wanted to see/photograph we got all but one: a rattlesnake. But it WAS winter after all!
We also learned a lot about how to streamline for our next big adventure. TG and jet (and Oscar & Maddie) are indeed back “On the Road” again!
In conclusion, here are TG’s thoughts on our trip:
This was the longest road trip in distance and duration, and was a test run of sorts for some even longer journeys we have in mind…
Some Pros: JET is the best human road buddy…..we did not kill each other despite being together 24/7 for 28 days straight, much of it in the confines of a 2012 VW Jetta wagon.
Oscar & Maddie are the best non-human road buddies, period.
Driving across TX, in much of NM and a chunk of AZ, 75 MPH speed limits are the norm, even on 2 lane country roads…we liked it, especially with the new set of rubber we installed on Pepper before the trip.
Speaking of Pepper, she ran like a top, only burned a quart of diesel oil, which was expected based on my conversation with the VW dealership where we have her serviced…averaged 33 MPG for the 7,700 miles about 4,000 of which were with a 64 x 40 cargo basket holding a 63x38x18 cargo bag and contents…kind of like driving down the road with a refrigerator on top of your car.
New Mexico is truly The Land of Enchantment.
Taco Bell cheezy bean & rice burritos are the cheapest and best road food.
The Grand Canyon in November is sublime and uncrowded.
Pietown, NM is the only place to get Pecan Pie Muffins….and that is a good thing, because I would weigh 450 lbs in short order if they were in Okeechobee.
Tallahassee, FL is a beautiful little city.
Hyatt Hotels are simply the best for road travel.
SomeCons:Not all Best Westerns are even close to Best.
Monument Valley is not worth the time, unless you enjoy a highly controlled , yet unpoliced experience.
Cigarette smokers congregating near your hotel room.
Cigarette smokers letting their dog run free and straight for Oscar & Maddie.
Roswell, NM is not worth the visit for a few cheap and crappy souvenir shops and a lame UFO museum.
Traveling more than 10 hours in one day is not worth it.
All in all, we can’t wait for the next adventure in 2022.
If you’ve stuck with me this far then a huge Thank You! And if you want to look at all our photos, the links to our Flickr sets are below:
Ever since we sold Terrapin back in June, we’ve been hoping for a tent-only camping trip out at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park over the new moon. But the forecast called for cloudy skies with thunderstorms in July, so we nixed that. The same thing happened in August, so nixed once again! I was beginning to despair we’d never get a clear enough night to shoot the Milky Way this summer.
But we booked three nights over the new moon in September and hoped for the best. This time I was particularly anxious as we had friends also camping at the same time and we had invited them to join us for dinner one night.
Our first night was the Sunday before Labor Day, and the forecast again called for afternoon thunderstorms and cloudy skies overnight. Rather than risk getting rained on our very first night in the new tent, we drove the 45 minutes to the park that afternoon to check in and let the host know that we would be back the following morning to set up.
Monday dawned with a cloudless blue sky and bright sunshine. We left for the park around 8am and planned a couple of photo stops on our way.
Just as we turned onto CR724, we spied a bald eagle on a power pole, beautifully positioned against the blue sky.
A little further along, there was a sunn hemp field in full bloom.
Sunn hemp is a cover crop, used on farmlands during the summer months to rejuvenate the soil with much-needed nutrients, to control weeds, to prevent soil erosion during thunderstorm and hurricane season, and add herbage back into the soil before the next planting.
So not only are they beautiful to look at, but they also provide a valuable service to farmland! I thought the bright yellow flowers against the clear blue sky looked perfect in the eastern morning light.
We arrived at the park a little after 9 am. It took us about an hour to set up our new CRUA Core tent and by then the temps had soared into the low 90’s. For the first time since selling Terrapin, we missed her A/C!
During lunch we were entertained by the cara caras and crows interested in our veggie wraps.
After a short nap, we took a drive to cool off a bit before getting ready for our dinner guests.
Carl and Laura arrived promptly at 5:30 and we enjoyed good conversation and food before heading out for a sunset / evening drive through the park.
You never know what you might spy on a night drive out at Kissimmee. Over the years I’ve seen burrowing, barn, and barred owls, bobcats, wild hogs, alligators, deer, armadillos, raccoons, coyote, snakes (including a huge eastern diamondback), and frogs.
This night did not disappoint: not only were we treated to a glorious sunset, we saw a barred owl, an alligator, a nighthawk, a banded water snake,
And a half dozen burrowing owls flitting from side to side like tiny cherubs.
Much to my delight, by the time I got back to our campsite the skies were clear enough to see the Milky Way. I grabbed my camera and set up for a few shots between the clouds.
Our tent has a vestibule-type opening before the actual zippered doors.
We had set up our commissary in that area and opened all three sides to get as much cross-breeze as possible throughout the tent. Bedtime was uncomfortably hot, and no one was getting much sleep.
Around 3 am we were awakened by Oscar and Maddie nearly bolting through the screen. We had not left any food out, but we did leave a plastic bag with napkins from dinner. Something, most likely a raccoon or opossum, had crept into the commissary, ransacked the garbage bag, and dragged TG’s shoes across the campsite.
We did not see or hear a thing, but Oscar and Maddie were on such high alert we had to put them in the kennel for the rest of the night.
Despite the restless night, we were up before dawn on Tuesday morning.
It looked to be another beautiful day so after our coffee we went for drive. There were coveys of bobwhites running alongside the road,
We also saw caracaras,
Eastern meadowlarks, cattle egrets,
And loggerhead shrikes sitting in their customary spots close to the park entrance.
It was a lovely drive but promised to be another hot day. Rather than suffer through it, we decided to pack up and head home a day early.
We knew switching from Terrapin to tent camping would be a bit of a learning curve. There are things we forgot (clothespins) and things we’ll do differently next time (not leave ANY garbage out at night).
In spite of the heat we had a great time and look forward to our next trip — Kissimmee Prairie is one of our absolute favorite places to visit any time of the year. But maybe we’ll wait to camp again until it’s just a little cooler!
We’ve taken Terrapin out 14 times in the ten months we’ve owned her, giving us almost a full year of fun memories. She kept us sane through COVID and helped shift our travel paradigm.
Who can forget my birthday owl?
Or that spectacular meteor?
Or “Dashboard Jesus”?
International travel is not yet in our future — as of this writing, Japan is considering closing the 2021 Summer Olympics to all spectators due to an increase in COVID cases — and we simply do not have the confidence to board a long-distance flight. So, TG and I have set our sights beyond the borders of Florida and are currently planning multi-week road trips across the USA.
Visiting friends in Tennessee, New Mexico’s big dark skies, Georgia’s waterfalls, Iowa’s covered bridges, and the Northern Lights of Michigan’s U.P. are all on the list. The more we consider our USA travel options, the more places we are finding to go!
We – and the pups – have loved camping in Terrapin. She is everything you need in a compact little package.
But she gets horrible gas mileage: 7 miles to the gallon. Plus, she is not at all nimble for photo safaris. We would either have to tow a car (and further decrease our mileage) or rent once we arrived at our destination. Neither of these options made sense to us.
TG and I are too practical to let her sit in the driveway for the next year while we traveled around the country in our Jetta Sportwagen. It was time to find her a new home. And, surprisingly quick, that’s exactly what we did.
TG always says, “spend your money on experiences, not things,” so I waved good-bye with a bit of sadness and a lot of excitement about what our future might bring.
Going forward we will be tent camping, or staying in hotels and Air BnB’s. TG has managed to procure several credit cards tied to points at pet-friendly hotels. This will make any long-distance trip affordable and comfortable.
In addition to the orange tent with its airy screened roof, we’ve purchased a 4-season CRUA Core tent. Between the two, we will have plenty of room to spread out.
We will be testing our new arrangement soon so stay tuned for continuing adventures on the road with Tall Guy and jet!
Ever since we moved to Florida, I have been enchanted with the Florida Key Deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium). Found only in the Keys, they are a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer, are the smallest of all North American deer, and are classified as endangered.
I saw one years ago on a drive down to Key West but it was just a quick spy along the side of US1 as we zipped by. I’ve always wanted to go back to photograph them but living in Okeechobee, that required at least one overnight somewhere closer than our four-five hour drive away. We finally planned a short trip in June, an optimal time to see both adults and fawns.
Pet-friendly hotels in the Keys are expensive so it made sense to find someplace closer to Miami. We are also in the process of planning a trip out west for sometime next fall. With their affordable room rates and no pet fee, this was the perfect opportunity to check out a LaQuinta Inn. We booked two nights at the property in Cutler Bay.
The suite was spacious and clean, with a fridge and microwave.
The king-size bed was comfortable enough. The hotel is nothing fancy but we will definitely include them as an economical stop on long-distance road trips.
Two-thirds of the key deer population is concentrated on Big Pine Key and a few surrounding islands. This geographical isolation in such a small area is one of the reasons why they are endangered. Since Cutler Bay is a minimum two-hour drive north of Big Pine, we were in bed early so we could be on the road by 5am the next day. We wanted a few hours of good light before the sun got too high and bright for photos.
Unfortunately, our fellow guests were up into the wee hours and it was difficult to keep Oscar quiet. None of us got much sleep that night!
We were wide awake and ready to go by 4:45 and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise as we drove south.
There was virtually no traffic,
And we reached Big Pine Key a little before 7am.
There are a few areas around Big Pine and No Name Key where deer are pretty much guaranteed, but in reality it’s possible to see them grazing along the side of the road just about anywhere.
We headed over the bridge to No Name Key and spied quite a few deer along our way.
The first thing you notice about these deer is their size … they are small. Very small. They are miniature versions of their northern cousins and it’s difficult to grasp their size from photos.
Adult males stand just over two feet at the shoulder and weigh around 70 lbs. The females are slightly smaller, and the fawns weigh only 2-4 lbs. at birth.
When this male approached our car, his head was level with my open window.
Despite all the signage warning against feeding them, it is clear that people still do.
The deer were for the most part very tame and not at all shy about approaching our car.
After leaving No Name Key, we checked out a few other spots – an abandoned limestone quarry called the Blue Hole – where we did not spy any deer but did see a very friendly alligator,
And the neighborhoods at the north end of Big Pine Key where we were captivated by a sweet little fawn.
By now it was getting close to 10am and the light was starting to go. We had more than enough photos, including everything on my wish-list: a buck with antlers and a fawn.
We drove back to No Name Key for one more pass. We’re glad we did as we came upon a small herd of six deer frolicking in the morning sunshine!
Mission accomplished, we decided to drive home to Okeechobee as soon as we returned to the hotel and packed up. There was no point in hanging around the LaQuinta for another night when we could be sleeping in our own bed!
Between our drive south to Big Pine Key, the time we spent photographing the deer, and the drive back north to Okeechobee, we spent over 12 hours in the car that day. Oscar and Maddie did great, even when deer walked right up to our open windows. We are more confident than ever that we – and the pups – are ready for a multi-day cross-country road trip!
The best time to photograph the Milky Way is the spring through fall months – when the galactic center is visible above the horizon. And clear, dark skies are a must for a good photo. Of course, being in Florida “clear, dark skies” are never a given so the best one can do is plan and then hope the weather cooperates!
We’ve found that both Cleardarksky and Accuweather are great tools for helping to plan night sky shots but then you need to find a dark spot with good composition opportunities to make for a truly compelling photo.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is one of only two Dark Sky parks in Florida – and on a clear night the sky is exceptionally dark, making stars, planets, and the Milky Way visible even with the naked eye.
Fortunately for us, Kissimmee is located less than an hour from our home in Okeechobee and our favorite place to camp. We booked three nights over the new moon in June and then hoped the weather would cooperate.
Our plan was to stay up late each night and take it easy during the day.
So, after we set up, I went for a short hike to scout out some potential locations for later that night.
On my walk I saw a beautiful female eastern towhee enjoying a little snack
And a hole I thought might be home to a snake until this little guy popped out!
This scraggly tree looked like it might make for a good composition so I planned to return to this spot later that night.
After dinner we watched a beautiful sunset
And relaxed by the campfire while we waited for nightfall.
The sky was so clear, and the stars so bright that TG set up his tripod around 9pm to start shooting a star stack. A star stack is a series of photos taken over several hours and then stacked together into a single photo using a special (free) program. The rotation of the earth gives the stars a beautiful “pinwheel” effect.
There weren’t a lot of campers that night, and everyone was out with lawn chairs set up to enjoy the cool evening and the brilliant night sky. Suddenly a meteor shot directly over our heads. It was the largest, brightest, most long-lasting meteor I had ever seen as it sailed across the sky and disappeared in a fireball on the horizon. And because TG was already shooting continuous 10-second exposures pointed in that direction, he was able to capture it!
A short time later I heard the unmistakable “squee” of a juvenile barred owl. I followed the sound and found her sitting on a branch directly behind the bath house – in so much light I was able to spot her as soon as I got close.
She was watching an opossum, but must have decided it was too big a meal.
I heard more rustling in the bushes and suddenly out popped three armadillos! Armadillos are nearly blind and this one practically bumped into me as he scurried on his way.
By now it was after 11pm and the Milky Way was rising above the tree line behind the campground. I took a few shots and then hiked to the scraggly tree I had scouted out earlier.
Just as I thought, the tree made for a beautiful composition with the Milky Way rising behind it.
After taking a few shots I headed back to our campsite and set up my tripod for my own star stack. I locked my shutter release for continuous 20-second exposures and went to bed.
TG woke me around 5am. The Milky Way was directly overhead
And we enjoyed the pre-dawn quiet with our morning coffee.
We decided to go for a short drive before the park opened.
The road was quiet this morning but we still managed to capture “iconic Kissimmee.”
We spent most of the day napping. Before dinner, I walked over to the Kilpatrick Hammock trail. This short, 1/2-mile loop is mostly shady, with two pretty wooden bridges.
I saw a black racer sunning on the path
And two lizards in some sort of territorial war on a palm frond.
Night drives at Kissimmee are always interesting and you never know what you might spy. Over the years I’ve seen alligators, wild hogs, coyotes, bobcats, snakes, deer, bullfrogs, and three different species of owls on the road after dark.
I’ve been meaning to do one for a while, so around dusk I drove the five miles to the park entrance. On my way I spied a beautiful red rat snake,
And a half dozen burrowing owls. I have seen these owls before but they usually fly away as soon as my headlights hit them. But this one stayed long enough for me to snap a quick photo.
Unfortunately, just as the Milky Way rose that night black clouds rolled in.
We had planned to stay until Saturday morning but received word that the new tent we ordered was to be delivered and required a signature.
The forecast called for another cloudy evening so we packed up and headed home early.
We are just at the start of Milky Way season. We have already booked dates in July, August, and September so, conditions permitting, we should have a lot more opportunities to see – and photograph – starry nights out at Kissimmee!
When the Covid hit back in early 2020, we thought that by the end of the year we would surely be able to fly international again. But as the months dragged on, we realized we were being overly optimistic and began to re-think our definition of “travel.”
In September of 2020, we bought Terrapin with the intention of exploring Florida for a year or so, driving no further than 2-3 hours away.
We’ve had an incredible time and are absolutely thrilled with how easily Oscar and Maddie have adapted to being happy campers.
We are now almost halfway through 2021, with no more clarity about when we can use our passports again than we had a year ago. Countries that are Covid-safe are either prohibitively expensive or do not want us. Countries that will accept us pose far greater health risks than we face here at home.
And there does not seem to be an end in sight. International travel is off the table for the rest of 2021 and most likely through most of 2022.
So, we have started to look beyond Florida to the rest of the USA. There are plenty of places in this great continent that we have never been and would love to visit.
But as much as we enjoy Terrapin, she only gets seven miles to the gallon. No big deal when driving the 35 miles to our favorite Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. But when planning a 5000-mile road trip, those gallons will add up quickly.
This week we began “Phase II” in re-defining travel. We bought a 10×14 tent and headed to Kissimmee Prairie for three nights.
The tent is big enough for a queen-size futon with plenty of room to spread out. If everyone were comfortable sleeping in the tent (including Oscar and Maddie), we could plan for longer distances in our much more fuel-efficient Jetta Sportwagon.
Because the forecast called for daytime highs in the 90’s, we also drove Terrapin so that we could leave the pups in cool A/C while we hiked during the day. But all of our cooking, washing, and sleeping would be in the tent.
Setting up camp took no time.
Once complete, we took a nap to introduce the pups to our new sleeping arrangement and escape some of the worst of the midday heat.
Later that afternoon we rode our bikes down to “alligator alley” for some fun gator action.
Storm clouds rolled in that evening and we fell asleep to the steady rhythm of the rain beating against the tent roof. Sometime after midnight we were awakened by two barred owls calling from the trees above us. “How wonderful!” I thought as I drifted back to sleep.
I woke long before dawn to find TG already up. The skies had cleared and the stars were shining bright. He had set up the tripod for a star stack, which turned out quite lovely.
While enjoying my first cup of coffee I heard the call of the barred owls again. I found one perched in a tree just a few yards away.
TG wanted to shoot the sunrise, so he took off east on his bike.
I was told about a nesting pair of white-tailed kites near the primitive campsites, about 2 ½ miles west. It was a beautiful morning, cool with a thin layer of mist hanging between the saw palmettos and the treetops.
On my way I saw at least a dozen deer including a shy buck,
Various warblers, ibis, herons, and eastern meadowlarks.
I also saw a large gator in a very small water hole right below the trail!
When I arrived at the nesting area, I spied a pair of swallow-tailed kites but not the promised white-tailed. But the swallow-taileds are also a beautiful bird and I was happy with the sighting.
That afternoon we rode our bikes back to the alligators, many of which were sunning themselves right along the trail!
We were also enchanted by the number of bobwhites out and about.
And I got to play “chicken” with an inquisitive yellow rat snake!
Although there were too many clouds to attempt any star shots that night, we did enjoy “glamping” with a freshly made pizza while listening to the night sounds.
TG was up early again Wednesday morning for another star stack.
I wanted one more chance for the white-tailed kites, so I rode my bike out to the nesting area.
Once there I found the swallow-taileds, a pair of red-shouldered hawks, crows, doves, a pileated woodpecker and even a bobwhite calling from a tree far away. But if there were white-tailed kites around, I did not spy them.
On of ride back, I passed a tiller coming from the opposite direction. He was getting the path ready for a controlled burn – cutting a six-foot wide swath of 3-inch deep furrowed rows in the soft dirt.
Not exactly bikeable, I walked the remainder of the way back to camp.
By the time I got back, TG had already begun to break down our campsite. Rain was in the forecast and we did not fancy packing a wet tent the following morning. We finished up and headed home.
All-in-all, “Phase II” was a success. Oscar only barked twice: once when a critter crunched in the gravel outside the tent, and a second time when noisy people walked by around midnight. If I were more awake, I would have barked, too! The pups did great and TG and I loved falling asleep under the stars, with the sounds of the night singing a sweet lullaby.
Before Covid, I never could have imagined tent camping. But so much has changed over the past fifteen months. And, as time goes on our bucket list has also evolved. Although we would love to see the temples of Nepal, Mt. Everest, or the Northern Lights, those trips are still just a dream. Until we can safely sit on a plane for ten hours, we are content to travel where Terrapin – or the Jetta – can take us.