Our Morocco Adventure – Part 3

Erfoud & The Sahara Desert

Thursday morning, after breakfast, we boarded our bus for the long trip south, across the Atlas Mountains, to the town of Erfoud. Along the way, we continued to learn about the country and how it negotiated its independence from France in 1944, but with a number of conditions, including giving France the first option for the country’s contracts and access to its minerals for the next century! As we leave Fes, we begin to see the climate becoming drier, and we spot our first camel herds and see signs for purchase of camel milk. As we climb the Middle Atlas Mountains and pass the town of Seffrou, there are orchards of apples and cherries, and an amazing number of fruits and vegetable being grown, along with the ever-present olive trees. We soon cross over into the National Forest, which is brimming with juniper, pine, oak, and cedar trees. The Park had historically been home to elephants, lions, and gazelles, but today only boasts boar, deer, fox and the seldom seen Barbary apes (monkeys).

The Barbary Apes of the Atlas Mountains
Two Barbary Apes of Morocco

This part of Morocco also serves as its snow-skiing capital with towns of A-frames and chalets. We stop at the center of this activity in the town of Ifrane, where we shop briefly and have a mid-morning coffee. From here, our trip south will take us over a 6000ft-high pass and deeper into the Berber communities. Along the way, we spot a family of traditional nomadic Berber herders and stop to ask them if we can visit briefly. The mother answered our translated questions and gave us a tour of her home – a wood/plastic and dirt hut with separate food preparation buildings. The father was away tending the herd, but mother, Amine, and her 3 children 11, 7, and 2 years of age, and mother-in-law, were very interested in us. We learned of their difficult lives as nomads, and of the importance they ascribed to getting their kids to school. The youngest boy was still dressed from his recent circumcision ceremony, and they were proud to show us their lifetime collection of china, rugs, and blankets.

The Nomadic Home of Berber Nomads

After that we continued to the town of Midelt, the apple capital of the country, to have lunch. Our lunch was farm-raised trout from the Middle Atlas Mountain streams in a restaurant called Kasbah Taddart.

Lunch at Kasbah Taddart

After lunch, we continued our journey over the Atlas Mountains, passing a series of military training bases and a growing number of wind farms. In 2019, Morocco responded to the growing Algerian threat by calling up men aged 17-25 for military service, and optionally taking women, as well.  However, when the women recruits exceeded the men, the 300,000-person goal was easily met. We drove along the Ziz River and through the Ziz valley, widely known for extensive date palm tree groves and saw the devastating effects of the recent fire that had swept the area. This area is particularly known for its Majhoul dates, considered to be the sweetest and best dates of all the varieties. However, the fire completely wiped a significant number of local growers.

The Ziz Valley on Morocco

We continued into the town of Erfoud to walk through the town and to stay the night after our long journey. Exploring the town, we went through the date markets and tasted different types of dates.  After that, we checked into our hotel, the Erg Chergui, which was a huge, 200-room complex with a beautiful, central, outdoor swimming pool, and of which we were the only guests there. The buildings were made conforming to the traditional type of building in the south of Morocco, and modeled after a Kasbah – e.g., a fortified house. As for the name “Erg”, it means the “sand dunes” in Berber, and is very appropriate since Erfoud is situated as the “entrance” to the Sahara Desert. That night we enjoyed salads with a kefta tagine and jawhara dessert before watching the qualifying match between Morocco & Sudan soccer teams on television.

Friday morning, we boarded our bus and traveled a very short distance to the Macro Fossils Kasbah, a local factory of fossils located on the outskirts of Erfoud, where we learned about the Moroccan Fossils and black marble that are mined from the surrounding area

Polloshed Fossils Mined near Erfoud Morocco

Here, we also switched transportation from our bus to two 4-wheel drive SUVs and continued our journey towards the dessert until we came to the small town of Rissani. Here we did a walk around the local market of the area before visiting with Ahmed who runs a shop that sells scarfs and garments for the Sahara. We took the opportunity to purchase traditional desert djellabas (gel-al-bahs – tunic-style outfits that reach the ground) and long Tuareg scarfs that can be hand tied onto our heads in the tradition of Berber Turbans.

Rock & Julie in djellabas & turbins

Then we went through the sand dunes to reach our tented camp where we settled in and had a lunch of barbecued ground beef. Our tents were permanent tent-structures with separate, internal bathroom and shower “pods”, electricity, and a single fan. Rocky took the occasion to wear his new desert attire and explore the dunes near the camp, where he came across a small, irrigated date farm, and a camel herder with his 4 grazing camels.

The Edge of the Sahara near Risanni
Our Tented Camp – Sahara home for 2 nights
The Inside of of Sahara Tent

After a short rest, we traveled to a nearby farm where we met with the owner’s son. He took us around the farm explaining to us how they hand-dug their water wells and showed us their irrigation system that connects a series of pipes and channels to deliver water to their date palm trees. He also explained to us how they pollinate the palm trees by hand to insure the most robust harvests.

Local Date Farm on edge of Sahara

Upon returning to the tented camp, we assembled at the Dining Tent for a demonstration in preparation and cooking of our traditional Friday couscous tagine dinner. We then traveled out onto the dunes and climbed up onto them to gain vantage points to watch the sun set in the West. After a golden sunset and our couscous tagine dinner, we enjoyed the peacefulness of the desert in camp and took pictures of the Milky Way Galaxy displayed clearly in a cloudless dark sky.

The Sahara Sand Dunes at Golden Hour

Saturday was a day to explore the Sahara sand dunes. We got up early to drink our coffee and watch the sun rise over the Eastern dune-line, and then we had breakfast. After breakfast, we climbed into our 4-wheel-drive vehicles and made the brief drive to the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. Here we climbed upon our camels and began a thrilling journey over the endless dunes.  The camels were extremely well behaved, and their ability to balance and remain stable while descending an avalanching sand dune was truly remarkable. Their footpads actually expand out while being placed upon the sand’s surface, giving them a large, stable platform while carrying their load.

On Sahara Safari via Camels

After our 90-minute camel-ride, we got back into our vehicles and drove off into the desert to a remote Berber Nomad’s home. Along the way, we stopped to visit a local Berber cemetery and learn about the Moroccan way of burying people – quickly, unadorned, and with their heads towards Mecca. The nomad, Amar, and his family, lived in a small adobe home with a large tent-tarp propped up for daily life and to receive visitors. He had lived there for 8-years with his son, daughter-in-law, her sister, and his 2-grandchildren, (plus another on-the-way). They entertained us under the tent, (his son was away tending the goat herd), on carpets and rugs, with tea and cookies, while we asked questions about their daily lives.  The oldest grandson was 10 years old and was eligible for free schooling, but the school was so far removed from them, he would have to live at the school during the week to attend. This arrangement was briefly tried but was too disruptive to continue.  Therefore, the family was considering moving closer to town to give him a chance at a better life.  This value placed upon education was universal across the country, and it is driving a rapid urbanization of Morocco, as families flock to cities where education and opportunity are available.

Berber Nomad Amar Serving Tea under his Tent

After we thanked our nomadic hosts, we headed to the town of Khamlia where we visited with the Gnawa musicians who teach and perform Berber music on traditional instruments. Much of this music dates to the 6th-century from Berber nomads in the regions of Mali, Mauritania and Guinea.

The Gnawa Muscisians Perform Berber Music

After the performance, we returned to our tented camp for a lunch of turkey skewers.  After lunch, we relaxed and discussed more about the Islamic Religion, (“Islam” translates to “peace”), and its differences and impacts across the Northern Africa, Middle Eastern, and southern Asia regions. We learned that their teachings of the Koran begin at ~14-years-old, and we learned briefly of the 5-tenants of Islam – Bearing witness to one God, Prayer, Alms to the poor, Fasting at Ramadan, and Pilgrimage to Mecca. We also learned a bit about the differences between Sunni and Shiite sects. That afternoon, the temperature reached 108-degrees Fahrenheit, and we decided to return to a small resort in a nearby town to take advantage of their swimming pool and hospitality. The relaxing afternoon was just what we needed before heading back to our camp for dinner. That night, we dined on a specialty of the Sahara called El Madfouna or the “Berber Pizza”. El Madfouna is stuffed bread with spice and ground beef inside and it was delicious. After dinner, we gathered with the camp’s staff around a campfire playing the drums, dancing, and enjoying the pleasant evening air.

Drumming around the Campfire in Sahara Camp

Our Morocco Adventure -Part 2

Fez

Monday morning, after breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and boarded our bus for the 5-hour trip to the city of Fes (Fez in English). We leave the coast, pass the Palace of Dar es Salaam along with sweeping fields, rolling countryside, and tree-covered slopes, mostly covered with rows of olive trees. We use the time to discuss Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, a relatively young man at 58-years-old, who is not in the best of health. He was educated and holds a PhD in Law from Nice, France, and ascended to the throne upon his father’s, King Hassan II, death in 1999. He holds enormous wealth as the richest king in Africa and the 5th richest king in the world, but in 2004 he led very progressive reforms in the areas of universal health, education, and women’s rights. 

After an hour-and-a-half, we stopped for refreshments at a vegetable market in a city called El Khemisset. Here, we walked through the fresh vegetable market and learned about the Moroccans tradition of having couscous on Fridays. Fruits and vegetables exported to Europe, along with international tourism, provide the country’s main source of income. As we leave El Khemisset, the police have a checkpoint and stop us to ensure we are wearing or face masks, and to check the vehicle’s recorder to make sure that our driver is taking his required breaks, (15-minutes every 2-hours), and that we have not exceeded the speed limit. Every vehicle in Morocco is fitted with a paper-disc chart recorder that is recording the vehicle’s speed continuously. Driver’s must provide these upon request and can be ticketed, or worse, if found to be in violation of traffic laws.

The vehicle’s chart recorder for Authority Inspection.

After another hour’s travel, we enter Fes, a city of over 2-million people and the intellectual, spiritual, and handicraft capital of the country. 60% of Moroccan’s now live in a Moroccan city, and the rural farms and countryside are being rapidly gobbled-up by large, industrial companies. Fes dates to the 9th Century and was built around the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque founded by an Arab woman, Fatima Al-Fihriyy. The Al-Qarawiyyin mosque subsequently developed a teaching institution, which became the University of al-Qarawiyyin in 1963.

After entering the town’s medina, we exit our bus to walk down a maze of small passageways to our accommodations for the next 3 nights – the Riad Palais Marjana. A “riad” is actually the “green-space” within the center of a corresponding residence, and this beautiful Riad, decorated with intricate mosaic tile and detailed plaster carving, has been in the same family for 11 generations and offers only 20 rooms. After checking-in to our modest 2nd-floor room, we met everyone in the riad for lunch – a series of cold salads of beans, carrots, cucumbers, beets, lettuce, and potatoes with rice, with a main course of Kefta Mkaouara – a meatball tagine dish that was delicious – followed by a ktifa – a traditional Moroccan dessert sometimes called “milk bastille”.

The Riad Palais Marjana at which we stayed three nights (note the swimming pool on the main floor) – stunning architecture.

After lunch, we met our local guide – another Mohamed – and went to the “Bori Suud” – the Southern Tower, whose design was inspired by that of Portuguese castles. The fortification dates back to the era of the Saadi state, where Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur ordered its construction in 1582 for defensive military purposes. Later, during French rule, it was used as a prison, and in 1963 it was converted into a weapons museum. It is located south of Fez Al-Bali and was built on a rocky elevation that overlooks the city, called the “Tar Stone”. Facing it on the other side of the city is the corresponding defensive Northern Tower, both offering spectacular panoramic views of the city of Fes! Mohamed then took us to visit a local ceramic manufacturing co-op, and then for a walk along the city’s main street, Hassan II Boulevard. In the center of the boulevard is a popular linear park where stand the symbol and mascot of the country – the Atlas Lion.  Today, the Atlas Lion is extinct in the wild, but is kept protected in the country’s zoos. We then returned to our riad for a brief rest, before the two of us ventured out on our own to explore the local area, visit the famous “Blue Gate”, shop, and eat Italian gelato.

The next morning, after breakfast, we again met up with our local guide, Mohamed, and set off to visit the Royal Palace of Fez, (Dar al-Makhzen), and its seven copper doors.

The Royal Palace of Fes’, (Dar al-Makhzen), and its seven copper doors.

Then we walked through the Jewish quarter of the medina, which is called Mellah, meaning “salt” in Arabic, due to the saline water source and salt warehouse in the area. From there, we began our exploration of the medina’s souks (markets), beginning at the Bad Erracif entrance. We walked through the vegetable, butcher, and fish markets, we dodge donkey carts and motorbikes, making our way along the ~7000 narrow passages, before arriving at the dyers’ market, and then the copper-makers market, (called Esaffarine).

The Bad Erracif Entrance to Fes’ Souks.
The Vegetable & Olive Markets of Fes’ Souks.

At the copper-makers market, we found a small restaurant where we climbed to the second floor for tea and cookies. Then we continued our walk until we came to Nejjarine’s, our restaurant for lunch – a lemon chicken tagine. The restaurant was named for the carpentry activities that are done in that part of the medina. After lunch, we continued our tour by visiting a Koranic school, (Al Atterine Madrassa), that dates back to the 14th century. 

The Koranic school, Al Atterine Madrassa, built in the 14th century.

We also visited the famous Terrase de Tannerie tannery of Fes that day, where we climbed to an overlook of the tanning and dye pots that have been in use for centuries. After learning the differences between cow, sheep, and goat hides, we walked to the Mosque and oldest University in the world that was built by Fatima Al Fihria in 859AD. The University is called “Al Quaraouiyine” and the “hand of Fatima” symbol is revered and reproduced on many entrances all around the country. We then finished our tour by visiting the weavers in the Caravan Serai which in Arabic is called a Fondouk. Fondouk’s were built as rest stops for travelers on journeys and can be found along most well-known ancient trade routes. They provided travelers, traders and missionaries with shelter and supplies and served as platforms for communication and exchange between diverse passersby. They were traditionally built in a square or rectangular shape, around an inner courtyard, and often feature a fountain to shelter guests from the heat.

The Terrase de Tannerie tannery of Fes.
The Oued Bou Khrareb flowing through the middle of Fes.

After our tour, we returned to our riad to prepare to meet our home-hosting family for dinner. 

Our host at Riad Palais Marjana serving tea.

Our hosting began when the family’s 21-year-old daughter, Kawtar, came and walked us a short distance to their home – a spacious 2nd-floor flat where she, her parents and her 16-year-old sister lived. Their 26-year-old brother had already received his degree in France and was working there as an electrical engineer. Dad was a banker who spoke little English, but Kawtar translated easily to French for him. The family’s mother, Fatima, also held a degree, but had given up her career to raise her family.  Little sister, Hiba, is preparing for exams to progress her on a road to a future medical degree. Kawtar was preparing to leave home in a matter of days to follow her brother and travel to France to study for a master’s degree in Finance. Like any family who wants a better life for their children, the parent’s see education as the path to the next generation’s happiness and success. We talked about careers (ours and theirs), the pandemic, travel, and children.  We even talked a little about Moroccan politics since their elections were only a day away.  We all had dinner of harira soup with bread and figs, and a delicious lamb tagine with caramelized prunes. At the end of the night, after heartfelt thanks and goodbyes, we had to hurry back to our riad to beat the 9:00pm curfew.

Wednesday morning the travel group split, and while the other 3 traveled to visit nearby Roman ruins, we took the option to take a cooking class learning to make our own tagine. A young woman, Amine, met us at our riad and took us on an hour-long shopping walk to the local souk located near to the famous “Blue Gate”. Making our way through the bustling market, we purchased eggplants, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, carrots, olives, and everything we would need to cook lunch.

The Blue Gate of Fes.

From there, we returned to nearby Riad Salam where a cooking cart was set up for us next to the pool in the center of the riad. We met our Moroccan instructor, the Riad’s chef, and she took us through the prepping and cooking for making a Lemon Chicken tagine. We used the eggplant to make Zaalaouk, an eggplant & tomato salad, and the peppers to make Taktouka, another tasty salad, and then, while finishing the cooking, we enjoyed mint tea and anise cookies.  After the lunch was completed, we dined at an elegant setting, and finished with a dessert of Jawhara – fried filo pastry stacked with panna cotta.

Shopping in the Souks of Fes.
The Riad Salem where we cooked and prepared lunch.
Chefs Rocky & Julie preparing lunch.

We leisurely returned to our riad by 3:00pm where we met up with our returning tour-mates. From there, we assembled for a short walk to International Institute for Languages and Culture where we met with Women’s Rights Author, Professor Fatima Sadiqui. We engaged in a discussion on her views of the impact of conservative Moroccan culture on women’s rights and discussed changes which are driving the country forward. After our lively conversation, we headed back to our riad for a dinner of chicken pasilla – a sweet & savory chicken filling that is wrapped in layers of very thin dough.

Our Morocco Adventure

Part 1: Rabat & Sale’

August-September 2021

It was Friday when we left our home in Alexandria, Virginia to finally begin our adventure to the exotic land of Morocco. We had originally scheduled this trip in 2019 for travel in 2020, but the Covid-19 Pandemic had deferred the trip until now. We were skeptical up to the last minute that the trip would even “go” as the U.S. Department of State raised the Security Advisory for Morocco to Level 4 just a few days before our departure, and then one person of our travel group was a late cancel, leaving our group size at only 5 individuals. We had spoken to our Moroccan Trip Leader, Mohamed Ait Alla, and he had assured us that all was ready, and so we boarded the D.C. Metro train, transferred to the Silver Line Express, and arrived at Dulles Airport for check-in with Air France. The overnight flight to Paris was smooth and uneventful, and the transfer to an Air France flight to Casablanca at Charles de Gaulle was quick with a minimum or security and vaccination checks. We arrived in Casablanca and met the rest of our group – a couple from Kansas City, (Clark and Jacque), and Clark’s sister from Wisconsin, (Debi). The five of us were greeted by Samir, and we boarded a small bus for the 2-hour ride north up the coast from Casablanca to the city of Rabat, Morocco’s capital since 1913. Here, we checked into Hotel Le Dawliz located on the opposite bank of the Bouregreg River in Rabat’s sister-city, Sale’. There we were met by the Vice-President of the Travel Company from London, and the Moroccan Representatives, as well as Mohamed, to welcome us as one of the first tourists from America since the pandemic began. Our room overlooked the hotel pool and the river, with views of the Hassan Tower, the Royal Mausoleum, and the Grand Theatre located on the opposite bank. The Grand Theatre and Opera House was designed by Zaha Hadid to be in the shape of a cobra with its large flat head readily apparent from above. It is the largest theatre in all of Africa. After freshening-up, we all met for a fish dinner and learned a bit about each other, before retiring to get ready to the next day.

Map of our Moroccan trip.
The Hotel Le Dawliz in Sale’
The Grand Theatre and Opera House in Rabat.
View across the Bouregreg River of The Hassan Tower.

On Sunday, we met for breakfast at 7:30am and then received our trip briefing from Mohamed. After the briefing, we boarded our bus for a quick tour of Rabat. First, we visited Dar al-Makhzen – the Royal Palace in Rabat which is the King’s principal residence. The King, Mohammed VI, however, prefers the smaller and relatively secluded Palace of Dar es Salaam, further out of center of the city, and maintains the Dâr-al-Makhzen only as his official and administrative residence Since he was not there, we were able to walk across the parade grounds, view the extensive gardens, and see the collection of uniformed guards representing each branch of service. The King of Morocco has 12 palaces around the country, all maintained continuously ready for his potential visit.  After that we stopped by Hassan Tower & the Mausoleum for Mohamed V. Then, we drove to Kasbah El Oudayas, built in the 12th-century, which was the capital of the greatly feared Barbary Pirates.

Mohamed VI Tower – to be Tallest Building in Africa
Guard at entrance to Dar al-Makhzen – the Royal Palace in Rabat.
The Historic Hassan Tower in Rabat.
The Royal Mausoleum in Rabat.
The North Beach where the Bouregreg River meets the Atlantic.

A Kasbah is a citadel of a North African city, typically a walled section in the older or native quarter of the city. Kasbah El Oudayas is located at the Atlantic coast where the Bouregreg River meets the ocean. From there, the views of the beaches were fantastic. Inside the Kasbah, residents live in their historic family dwellings with shops and artisans throughout.  We stopped and sampled the local bread as it came out of the brick oven that was on its way to the local market. From there, we went to Pietri Square, to a shop run by refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa and met with Celia Omondiale, a Nigerian victim of human trafficking, left homeless, penniless, pregnant, and unable to speak the language in this foreign country with the broken promise of a better life in France. In Morocco, without proper documentation, she cannot receive any government assistance, and her child cannot attend public school.  They are excluded from Moroccan society and rely on the assistance and generosity of others to survive. Because of its close proximity to Europe, Morocco is a popular place for refugees and immigrants who try to make their way across the Straits of Gibraltar. The influx of sub-Saharan refugees into Morocco, and the stress it is placing on the nation’s already-strained social services is a huge national problem for Morocco. Morocco is a nation of about only 36 million people, but an estimated over 700,000 immigrants currently live in the country.  As the number of undocumented immigrants grows, so does the problem of how to accommodate them in a nation already struggling with poverty and unemployment. In 2020, Morocco’s jobless rate rose to 12.3%—the highest it’s been since 2003—leaving immigrants and citizens alike to compete for limited resources and ratcheting up the tension between the two segments of the population. 

Upon returning to the hotel, we decided to take a walk and explore the medina of Sale’ – a locale that featured traditional shops and families living their everyday lives. From there, we wandered past the local mass-vaccination center to the Bouregreg Marina, where locals were enjoying kayaking and a wide range of water sports. Through financing and by order of the King, Morocco’s Covid vaccination rate exceeded 92% at this time, (and reached over 99% by September 18th)!  Upon returning to our hotel, we enjoyed the pool and prepped for dinner. That night, our “Welcome” dinner was in a restaurant called Dinarjat, located in Rabat’s medina – the traditional, old, non-European part of any North African town. Dinner was a feast starting with seven different salads and meat-filled pastries, followed by rice-stuffed zucchini, green peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes, with a dessert of deep-fried filo-dough, layered with almonds and whipped cream.

Marina Bouregreg
Spices at the Souk.

2021 Western Ohio Bicycle Adventure

June 2021

The year 2020 would have been the 32nd annual riding of The Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure – (GOBA) – a week-long cycling and camping adventure across a varying part of Ohio that our brother-in-law had fully participated in over its entire history, and which we had joined him and his wife for the past decade.  However, the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020-2021 cancelled the 2020 running, and in 2021, a smaller, more conservative running, relabeled WOBA, was offered as a temporary replacement.

This year’s rides would start in the western Ohio town of Sydney on Sunday (Father’s Day) with a 53-mile ride in 93-degree heat. The ride was organized as a looping figure-8 and the heat and hills were wearing on the 350 participants. At the end of the ride, back in Sydney, we showered at the Fairgrounds and drove to the town of Wapakoneta – home to The Neil Armstrong Museum, where we set up our tents for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Monday was a day of strong winds and another 55-miles laid out over a large loop, and Tuesday we cycled 51-miles along country roads surrounded by corn and soybeans. After our rides each day, we would explore local businesses, such as The Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen and Five Vines Winery outside of Wapakoneta. After Tuesday’s ride, we drove to the town of Versailles – home to the annual “Chicken Festival” – where we set up our tents at Heritage Park.

Wednesday, we decided to cut our ride short and stopped for a proper sit-down breakfast at Sideliners after a short 22-miles.  We then used the day to again pack up and move to the town of Troy where we camped near the banks of the Great Miami River and had time to explore their historic downtown, including the local library, bakery, and the Moeller Brewery. Thursday, we rode 45-miles through Piqua and past historic old remnants of the Ohio Canal system. Friday was another 43-miles, partly along River Bike paths.  However, upon returning to camp, an earlier drizzle convinced us to pack up our tents and head to my brother-in-law’s house located only 30-miles away.

Downtown Troy

Saturday, we arose early and biked into the town of Tipp City where we joined the final leg of the adventure and stopped for breakfast at a favorite spot.  After we rode back home, we had put in another 19-miles along the beautiful riverside path along the Great Miami River.

With another weeklong bicycle adventure  “in the books” and nearly 300 miles behind us, we took the occasion to celebrate with a toast and a cold glass of beer.

South Dakota – Part 3

On Wednesday morning, we checked out of our hotel in Custer and began the drive to Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower, (Yes – the Devil’s Tower of “Close Encounters” fame). Along the way we pass Jewel Cave National Monument and small herds of deer and alpaca. As we leave the Black Hills and head into Wyoming, the landscape becomes dotted with old “nodding donkey” oil wells and an isolation of few cars and fewer people.  We arrive at Devil’s Tower National Monument (again, no one at the entrance station), leave our car at the lot located at its base, and begin a 1.3-mile hike that circumnavigates it. The views looking up at the volcanic columnar joints of rock, and then viewing the opposing panoramas make the hike a must-do experience. After our hike, we stop and shop at the local Trading Post and begin our trip back to South Dakota along I-90 East to the town of Spearfish and past the documented Vore Buffalo Jump where buffalo were supposed to have been driven over the cliff to harvest them. We take the recommended drive down Spearfish Valley Scenic Byway stopping to view Bridal Veil Falls and watch the local fly fishermen before continuing our journey into Savoy where we picnicked and hiked 1.1-miles into the river valley to Spearfish Falls.

Then, it was onto the famous “Wild West” town of Deadwood.  Deadwood is well known for its old Western history, and for the fact that “Wild Bill” Hickok was shot dead at a poker game there in 1876. His poker hand, which he supposedly held at the time of his death, has become known as the dead man’s hand: two pairs; black aces and eights. The town was made even more popular after the HBO series, “Deadwood” was aired. In Deadwood, we visited the “Visitor’s Center”, and then toured the Mount Moriah Cemetery where both Hickok and his true love, Martha “Calamity” Jane are buried.  Around their gravestones are an assortment of mementos left by admirers, including bullets, coins, flowers, and painted stones. Next, we checked into our hotel at “The Mineral Palace”, a conglomeration of old buildings located on Main Street and home to one of the many casinos populating the way.  A stroll down Main Street brought us past the old Bullock Hotel, the Gem Saloon, and to Saloon #10 where Hickok was killed. We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping for souvenirs and tasting spirits from the Deadwood Distillery before heading to a fantastic steak dinner at the Gem Restaurant in the Mineral Palace.

Thursday morning, we were up early and headed to the town of Sturgis – home to the world’s largest summer motorcycle rally, and then beyond to Bear Butte State Park.  Bear Butte is a hallowed Native American site, and we took the occasion to hike 1100 feet, (4462 feet elevation) up a 2-mile trail for the awesome 360-degree view.  After hiking back down and visiting with a local chief at the historical center, we drove onto Rapid City where the downtown is populated with life-sized statues of every president of the United States, located on every street corner.  After sightseeing the town, we were back in the car and into the Badlands where we briefly reentered the Park to see bison, bighorn sheep and mountain goats as the sun set on the horizon.  That night, we again stayed in the town of Wall and re-visited Wall Drug for last-minute shopping before enjoying dinner at the Badland’s Saloon.

Friday morning, we made one last drive through Badland’s National Park as the sun came up over the horizon.  The early journey rewarded us with sightings of Pronghorns, Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, Mountain Goats and even a few Bunny Rabbits!  We returned to the Wall hotel for breakfast before checking out and heading east on I-90 back towards Sioux Falls.  Along the way, we made a stop at the Minuteman Delta-01 Missile site, but it was closed.

Further along we stopped in the town of Mitchell, home of the famous Corn Palace.  The Corn Palace hosts ½ million visitors per year, is of a Moorish design with minarets, and is completely covered and decorated with murals made from corn cobs, husks, and stalks of 12 different colors that are changed out annually. The Corn Palace was originally built in 1892, rebuilt in 1905, and remodeled in 1921 and serves as the Region’s premier location for basketball tournaments, graduations, etc. Then, it was onto Sioux City where we went downtown to visit Hotel Phillip – converted from the historical Sioux Falls National Bank built in 1918, with the impressive vault, (complete with its 16-ton doors and 24 x 3-inch bolts), still in place in the hotel’s lobby as an entrance to The Treasury – a modern bar and eatery. Since it was too early for its bar to open, we wandered across the street to the Woodgrain Brewery for lunch before returning to The Treasury for cocktails. The, we returned our car to the airport before checking into our hotel for our last night in South Dakota.

South Dakota – Part 2

The Black Hills represent an uplift and exposure of older, harder sediments to the surface. These exposed granites form the basis for the carvings of Mount Rushmore and The Crazy Horse Monument.  The geographic high caused water runoff to the east to seriously erode the softer, uplifted prairie sediments giving rise to the erosive canyons of the Badlands. A geologic map clearly shows the natural consequence of this uplift. The “Black Hills” get their name from the native Lakota Tribe who referred to the area by its dark appearance due to the tree-covered mountains at a distance.

Early Monday morning, we left the hotel and headed back to Mount Rushmore for a day viewing, only to be met by 31-degree weather and freezing sleet! At Mount Rushmore, we hiked in a cold rain to the base of the rubble pile, referred to as “The President’s Trail.” From there, we could see each President’s carved face up-close.  We then shopped at the Visitor’s Center and reviewed the museum of the memorial’s construction, as the Governor prepared for a Press Conference outside to announce the “Opening of the State” in time for Tourist Season which would begin on Memorial Day! Mount Rushmore was a huge project that began in 1927 and was supposed to take 5-years and $500,000 to complete.  It was proposed by the South Dakota State Historian to include Native Americans and American Frontiersmen, but when it was funded and directed by the Federal Government and they assigned famous sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, to the Project, it was changed to include only the faces of four U.S. Presidents. Controversy and delays plagued the Project which ended up taking 14 years and over $1 million dollar to complete. 400 workers climbed 700 stairs every day to punch in on a time clock before being lowered by cables over the 500-foot face of the mountain to begin work using crude chisels and dynamite. The area below the faces included a camp and power generation for everything that they would need. As defects in the rock were discovered, Borglum would move the faces around and reposition them on a huge scale model that would be updated and used for measurements to guide the carving. Technically, the land belongs to the Native American Indigenous Tribes, however no movement to return it has yet taken place. 

After visiting Mount Rushmore, we drove to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial where we toured the Indian Museum of North America and its huge collection of art and artifacts from more than 300 Native American tribes and took a bus trip to the base of the carving. The memorial, which occupies a 600-foot-tall mountain, commemorates the Lakota leader Crazy Horse, and is dedicated to preserving and sharing the living history and culture of all Native Americans. This incredible memorial, which is still under construction, is 2nd and 3rd Generation family-owned and privately funded and will likely take 100+ years to reach completion. The family of the original sculptor wants to preserve the original intent of the memorial and does not trust allowing it to fall under Government funding or control. 

After visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, we made a short trip to Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave National Park is about 10 miles north of the town of Hot Springs and was made a National Park in 1903 by President Teddy Roosevelt. Wind Cave was the U.S.’s 7th National Park and the first cave in the world to be designated a National Park The dry cave was discovered by the Bingham Brothers in 1881 when they heard wind rushing out from a small hole in the ground. The cave was then opened to visitors in 1892 and tourists explored by candlelight. After we descended ~200ft down roughhewn steps, we observed calcite formations known as “boxwork”, which are extremely rare, as well as “moon’s milk” and “popcorn” formations. We explored a small part of the extensive cave network before we rode an elevator back to the surface.

After returning to the hotel, we took some time to relax in the hot tub before showering and have dinner again at the Buglin’s Bull.

On Tuesday, we drove to Custer State Park, and, as had been the occurrence on most of this trip, there was no one at the open park entrance. We drove along the Wilderness Loop until we came upon a small group of wild burros that had descended from abandoned miners’ stock from over 100 years ago. They were clearly looking for a handout, but we rolled-up our windows and moved slowly along.  Along the journey, we saw baby bison and a herd of pronghorns before we arrived at the Visitor’s Center to register for a Day Pass and collect a few maps.  After stopping for passing groups of Bighorn Sheep, we finally turned onto the 37-mile-long Needles Highway where we came upon several wild Turkeys with a large male spreading his tail feathers for show.  The road grew narrower and twisty and became limited to automobiles and small trucks only.

Eventually, we came upon the Mountain Pinnacles and Iron Rock Tunnel – the first tunnel as one heads northwest through the Pinnacles.  This road was cut and was considered as a possible site for the Mount Rushmore sculpture, but after inspection was deemed too unstable. These tunnels are only fit for 1 vehicle passing through at a time, and the walls miss our car by less than 1-foot!  Next, we reach the famous Needles Eye Tunnel – a narrow crack that has been tunneled at the base that barely fits our Dodge Charger through, and only after we are sure no traffic is approaching from the other direction. After passing through the “eye of the Needle” we come upon Sylvan Lake and stop for a bite of lunch before embarking on a hike around the lake, where snow and ice are still present in the shadows of the granite pillars. We then take the Needles highway back into the center of Custer Park where we explored scenic valleys, seldom traveled dirt roads, and charred hills from recent forest fires. At the edge of the park, we came upon a huge herd of bison (over 1000 head) coming slowly down from the high country heading for the rich valleys of the park, many with young calves in-tow. 

After watching the Bison, we exit Custer Park and head toward the town of Hot Springs – an old 1800’s town with a multitude of natural hot springs, a national cemetery, and the state’s largest Veterans Hospital. A local BBQ stand won over our temptation, and we stopped for a small beef brisket snack and conversation with the owner, before getting back on the road for the trip back to our hotel in Custer.

South Dakota

Part 1

It is April 2021, and the worldwide Covid-19 Pandemic that has kept everyone from traveling is beginning to come under control. Although International travel is still nearly impossible, travel within the United States has become a possibility, especially if one has been vaccinated against the virus, as Julie and Rocky were with 2 Moderna shots in January and February.  Therefore, it seemed appropriate to travel somewhere where we had never gone and where we could enjoy the great outdoors without crowds.  South Dakota seemed to be just the right place.

South Dakota and Eastern Wyoming are parts of the country a bit “off-the-grid” and the home of numerous spectacular landscapes, animals, parks, and attractions. We decided to fly American Airlines from our home in Florida on Saturday, May 1st, 2021, through Charlotte to Sioux Falls, S.D. and pick up a rental car to use for sightseeing. The trip took most of the day, but upon our arrival in Sioux Falls at ~4:00pm, we were pleasantly surprised by 1) 93-degree temperatures, and 2) the Enterprise Car Rental Agent, as we were upgraded at no charge to a Dodge Charger.  We then sought to drive west ~290 miles to the town of Wall where we had motel reservations. Since the speed limit on I-90 is 80 mph, the trip was fast and enjoyable with sightings of deer, pheasants, and extensive prairies (The author of “Little House on the Prairie”, Laura Engels Wilders, home is marked here), giving way to hills, wind farms, and Minuteman silos. After passing the town of “1880” we arrived in Wall and checked into our motel.  Quickly freshening up, we traveled to the old town center for a late dinner but found most shops already closed for the evening. Instead, we grabbed dinner in The Badlands Saloon, where we talked with locals at the bar. After a pleasant evening, we called it night and prepared for exploring the Badlands the next morning.

The famous Wall Drug Store

Sunday morning, the sun came up early, and after getting a “grab-and-go” breakfast from the motel and checking out, we set off for the nearby Pinnacles Gate Entrance to The Badlands National Park. The temperature was now in the 50’s, as we went to the nearby Pinnacles Overlook.  From there we could see a few Bison roaming near the Sage Creek Run Road, so we headed down to look.  After watching the Bison, we traveled further down the Sage Creek Run Road, taking in several overlooks with views into the Badlands, before finally reaching the Robert’s Prairie Dog Town where thousands of Prairie Dogs scurry about chattering and yelping their “all clear” signals. We then returned to the main road stopping to take pictures of Mountain Goats and more Bison.

Upon traveling deeper into the park, we stopped at Ancient Hunter’s Overlook, and then at Yellow Mounds Overlook where the rising sun delivered stunning colors of the geologic layers. Here we saw more Mountain Goats and our first group of Bighorn Sheep. We continued through the park stopping at each overlook and enjoying the variety of park animals until we got to a short hike along the Fossil Exhibit Trail – a boardwalk that highlights fossils derived from different ages of local sediments. 

We then hiked the Saddle Pass Trail through eroded Badlands’ terrain, until we returned to our car and drove to the Cedar Pass Gift Shop and visited the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center.  From here, we hiked the Cliff Shelf Trail and tackled the Notch Trail, which included a somewhat climb and return descent on an unstable trail ladder. After a lunch snack at the car, we hiked the Door Trail and explored the views from the Windows Trail. 

We then exited the park at its eastern end and began the western trip back to the town of Custer. Along the way, we stopped to look at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Visitor Center, but it was closed on Sunday.  Upon traveling back through Wall, we visited the tourist attraction “Wall Drug”, which is a series of stores that sell nearly everything one could think of and also sells 5-cent coffee!  In the back, they have a huge historical collection, and “protect” it with a very realistic T-Rex who comes to animated, mechanical life every hour! After shopping, we continued to the town of Custer, which is located near the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.  After checking in to our motel, we had dinner at the Buglin’ Bull Restaurant before heading over to Mount Rushmore for its evening lighting of the memorial. Every night, the lights illuminate the faces of the four presidents until 11:00pm. We then returned to the motel for a welcomed night’s sleep.

“Yardi” Gras – 2021

February 14 2021

February 2021 found New Orleans still deeply in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic, putting the city in the difficult decision of having to cancel all Mardi Gras Parades, and even closing the downtown’s bars and restricting access to Bourbon Street.  However, in the typical “can do” and forward-looking spirit of New Orleans, Mardi Gras would still be celebrated, and the colorful revelry would simply move to a different forum.  One of the most novel concepts was to replace Mardi Gras Floats with Houses decorated to resemble the colorful, whimsical artistic mobile structures – e.g., “Yardi” Gras.  This concept turned out to be so popular, (over 3000 houses in New Orleans registered to an indexed map), that the idea and celebration has moved across the country – and even the world – and is highly likely to be an annual event with growing recognition and awards.  In fact, it was already apparent in New Orleans this year that paid tours of “Yardi” Gras homes for in-town tourists were already underway. This also had a great knock-on impact on the float-building and decoration Industry, as MG artists and companies were now being employed to design and decorate houses rather that floats.

Since Mardi Gras Day 2021 in New Orleans fell on a day of record low temperatures, (26 degrees F), and dangerous conditions, we ventured out on the milder Sunday before Lundi Gras to capture some of the locally decorated houses and were not disappointed.  Enjoy the small subset of the ~70 houses that we observed pictured here!

Endymeow 2021 – Cat Practice – 1809 Magazine St
MF – Mignon Faget – Butterflies of Winter – House # 7 – 3801 Magazine St
The Night Tripper – House Float 1 – Honoring Dr John – 1834 Toludano St
Dr John – A Mural by Artist MTO – French Graffiti – 1801 Toludano St
The Circus “Animal House” – Kern Studio – 5531 St Charles St
A MUSE-ing Garden – Krewe of Muses – 2800 St Charles St
Queen Jubilee – House Float #5 – Krewe of Red Beans – 2701 St Charles St
Queen Jubilee – House Float #5 – Krewe of Red Beans – 2701 St Charles St
Dr John – Lets Make it a Better World – 1629 Coliseum Dr
Dino Gras – Brontosaurus – Kern Studio – 5809 St Charles St
Dino Gras – Triceratops- Kern Studio – 5809 St Charles St
The Fly – Kern Studios – St Charles & Webster St
The Fly – with Nick Saban – Kern Studios – St Charles & Webster St
Mystic Krewe of Unicorns – 4500 St Charles
Live to Ride – St Charles & 4th St

Exploring the Florida Keys by Bicycle Part 4 – The Dry Tortugas

January 2021

Thursday morning, we rose early and gathered in one car to hear down to the Ferry Terminal to park and check in for our trip on “The Yankee Freedom” – a 250-passenger (but only carries 175) Ferry under contract to the National Park Service to take passengers to the Dry Tortugas located 70 miles west of Key West. Boat or Seaplane is the only way to get to this National Park and the 2-hour Ferry ride offers glimpses of sea turtles grazing and a myriad of sailing vessels.  The Ferry trip includes a breakfast, and a lunch once we arrive at the Island.  It also provides snorkeling gear and serves as the only source of fresh water and for restrooms for the visitors to the island.

The Yankee Freedom Ferry

The Dry Tortugas are a series of small islands (once 11, but today only 7), that has an interesting history starting with their discovery by Ponce De Leon in 1513, and their naming for both the lack of any fresh water and for the large numbers of sea turtles that nested there. The current islands are:

  • Loggerhead Key, which is the largest island, has the highest elevation at 10 ft, and is home to the Dry Tortugas lighthouse.
  • Garden Key, with Fort Jefferson and the (currently missing) Garden Key lighthouse located east of Loggerhead Key and the second largest island.
  • Bush Key, formerly named Hog Island because of the hogs that were raised there to provide fresh meat for the prisoners at Fort Jefferson, and which was currently attached to Garden Key via a sandbar. The island is the third largest and is the site of a large tern rookery, and is off-limits for half of the year.
  • Long Key is located at the eastern end of Bush Key.
  • Hospital Key, so called because a hospital for the inmates of Fort Jefferson during the Yellow Fever epidemics had been built there in the 1870s. The island was formerly called Sand Key. It lies about 1 ½ miles northeast of Garden Key and Bush Key.
  • Middle Key, which lies 1 ½ miles east of Hospital key and is not always above sea level.
  • East Key located a mile east of Middle Key.

The area is known for its treacherous reefs, and in 1825 a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to warn ships and guide them toward safety. At the time shipwrecks were common, and with underwater wrecks dating back to the 1600s, the Dry Tortugas currently possess one of the richest concentrations of shipwrecks in North America. It is also because of these large reefs surrounding the Tortugas that the U.S. was able to establish one of the most strategic harbors in U.S. history, and the largest all-masonry fort in the United States, Fort Jefferson. Construction of the fort began in 1846, and although it was never finished after 30 years, the bastion remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. With its 15-inch Rodman smoothbores guns, weighing 25 tons each, a crew of seven men could fire a 432-pound projectile a distance of three miles. The fort was later was used as a prison until abandoned in 1874, after suffering numerous bouts and high death rates from yellow fever and scurvy. Dr. Samuel Mudd, famous for being the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth for a broken leg in the wake of the Lincoln assassination, was imprisoned here until early 1869. Also imprisoned was a leader of the “Chicago Conspiracy”, Englishman George St. Leger Grenfell, who is supposed to have drowned having escaped in a small boat. During the 1880s, the Navy established a base in the Dry Tortugas, and it subsequently set up a coaling (refueling) and a wireless (radio) station there as well. During World War I, a seaplane base was established in the islands, but it was abandoned soon thereafter.

From 1903 until 1939 the Carnegie Institution of Washington operated the Marine Biology Laboratory on Loggerhead Key. Through the years, over 150 researchers used the facilities to perform a wide range of research. The laboratory operated here, except for World War 1, until its closure in 1939. Fort Jefferson National Monument was designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act on January 4, 1935. The monument was expanded in 1983 and redesignated as Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992 by an act of Congress.

Fort Jefferson Sullyway on Dry Tortugas National Park

After we explored the fort and walked to Bush Island to see the rookery, we went snorkeling in the waters off the southern beach and explored the coral platforms and sea life along the moat wall. After lunch, it soon began time to board the Ferry for the trip back, which was uneventful. That night we picked up salads, but we could not use the hotel’s pool or hot tub, since unbeknownst to us, the night before, at around midnight, a car being chased by the police crashed through the hotel’s fence and pool bar demolishing the gazebo, bar, and part of the hot tub.  Instead, we relaxed with a game of cards before beginning to pack our things for the next day’s long trip home.

15-inch Rodman smoothbores guns
The Jefferson Fort Moat
One of the Two Powder Magazines
6 View of Bush Key and Long Key
Shells on Bush Key
Julie Snorkeling off South Beach
A Two-foot Horse Conch
A Six-inch Sea Biscuit

Friday morning, we checked out of the hotel and drove east an hour to the “Island Fish Company” for breakfast before beginning the additional 5-hour drive to our home in Indialantic.

Exploring the Florida Keys by Bicycle Part 3 – The Lower Keys

January 2021

Tuesday morning, we were up for a hotel bag breakfast in the Hampton’s empty dining area before checking out and continuing our journey south by car to the southern end of Scout Key at Mile Marker 35 where we parked our cars to begin our next biking journey to the southwest.  Unfortunately, it was quickly apparent that Julie’s rear bike tire was flat, so we pumped it up, saw that the leak was “slow” and began our journey anyways. The wind was still 17-20 mph in our faces as we rode over the bridge into Big Pine Key.  Immediately we saw signs saying to “watch for Key Deer” as Big Pine Key serves as a National Wildlife Refuge for them. 

Lower Keys Map

The National Key Deer Refuge was established to protect and preserve the endangered Key Deer and other wildlife resources in the Florida Keys. Although surrounded by salt water, it is the freshwater that helps to determine which species live and thrive in the variety of habitats. The endangered Key Deer is the smallest subspecies of the North American white-tailed deer. Poaching, road-kill, and habitat loss had reduced the number of Key Deer to only a few dozen animals by the 1950’s, but establishment of the Refuge and subsequent listing of the deer as endangered in 1967 has allowed for protection and a dramatic recovery of the species.

We turned our bikes left down Long Beach Road into the Refuge and rode 2.5 miles to the end of the road looking at the wildlife and soon came upon a small herd of 5 Key Deer foraging on the edge of the mangroves. After watching them for a while, we returned to U.S. 1 and stopped at the local marina to air-up Julie’s tire, use the restrooms, and then continue our journey. In this area, we rode on the shoulder of U.S. 1 as the entire route was fenced and every driveway and cross street was “cattle-guarded” to prevent deer from migrating or getting on the road.  Once we entered the center of town on Big Pine Key, we came across Big Pine Bicycle Shop and decided to get Julie’s tire fixed. While they replaced her tube, they gave us a temporary “loaner” bike and we went to the nearby “Keys Café” for coffee.  By the time we finished and returned, the repair was complete, and we resumed our journey – now heading almost due west with the northwest wind on our shoulder. After crossing short bridges to Little Torch Key and Middle Torch Key, we rode over a high-rise bridge onto Summerland Key where the were greeted with a wonderful paved away-from-the-highway bike route along “Old State Road 4A”. 

Key Deer in Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key

State Road 4A was the first Overseas Highway which consisted of two roadway segments (a north segment at Key Largo, and a south segment from No Name Key to Key West) completed in 1928. In the 1930’s, World War I veterans were sent as part of the Emergency Relief Administration to work on new bridges to close all of the gaps that remained between the Keys.  However, the 1935 Labor Day hurricane killed more that 400 of the workers and their families and severely damaged the highway and the Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway. The local county (Monroe) voted to only rebuild a highway, and conversion of the Bahia Honda trestle and building of connecting bridges began again.  In 1938, the last connecting piece – a toll road between Matecumbe Key to Big Pine Key – created the first continuous road from Miami to Key West. During World War II, the Overseas Highway was straightened and moved leaving portions of State Road 4A abandoned, part of the local streets or available as a bicycling route.

This part of the bike path was excellent, quiet, and picturesque, and at the end of Summerland Key, it crossed over onto a dedicated bridge to Cudjoe Key, where it then crossed back to another excellent section of SR 4A.  At the western end of Cudjoe Key one could see the blimp, “Fat Albert”, still tethered off to the north. “Fat Albert” was supposed to be ending its 33-year flight history recently but appears to still be stationed there by popular demand. The blimp is a Tethered Aerostat Radar System, (TARS, in military-speak), and was part of an Air Force’s Drug-interdiction program that monitored the Mexico/U.S. border as well as the Florida Straits. The various “Fat Alberts” have been the subject of many stories in the Florida Keys, including numerous crashes in 1989, 1993 and 1994, and breaking free of its tether, drifting over the Everglades, and crashing there, as well. However, the most incredulous story was in 1991 when the blimp broke free and a fisherman connected the loose end of the tether to his fishing boat thinking he would tow it back to shore.  Instead, he and his mates were taken airborne and dumped into water uninjured near Mud Key.  Only when an Air Force F-4 Fighter shot down the blimp with an air-to-air missile did the boat settle back to the water’s surface, little worse-for-wear, leaving the boat’s captain happy to have gotten it back in one-piece.

The TARS Fat Albert Blimp on Cudjoe Key

West of Cudjoe Key, a dedicated bridge takes us onto Sugarloaf Key and along to Mile Marker 20 where we stopped for lunch at Mangrove Mama’s – a quaint and kitschy mom-and-pop restaurant with an outdoor patio.  After lunch, we began the 15-mile ride back to the car, but this time with a tailwind making the ride much shorter. When we got back to the cars, we loaded up the bike and made the drive to our hotel in Key West – The Hilton Garden Inn (Mile Marker 4) – located at the east end of Key West island, 4-miles from downtown. After checking-in, we caught the hotel shuttle downtown to the front of the Waterfront Brewery and explored downtown and parts of Duval Street. The day’s 36-mile bike ride and the enduring wind chill was rapidly wearing us down, so we ducked onto a restaurant patio with heaters where we had a meal of shrimp and conch fritters and salads.  After eating, we strolled through the shops before returning to the hotel for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Lunch at Mangrove Mama’s
Welcome to Key West Sign
The Old Key West Custom House

Wednesday morning, we rose early and set off east from the hotel on our bikes onto the most completed section of the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. The weather was beautiful and along the way we were “buzzed” by military jets doing “touch-and-go’s” at the adjacent Naval base (Boca Chita Field), and passed many people out for a jog, waiting for the bus, or riding their bikes to work.  We rode to Sugarloaf Key at Mile Marker 15 where “Baby’s Coffee Shop” is located.  This was obviously an immensely popular spot with commuters, and the “socially distanced” ordering line filled the small store.  After getting coffee and bagel meals, we ate outside on picnic tables before beginning our journey back. When we arrived back in Key West, we continued riding our bikes along the southern route around the island next to Roosevelt Boulevard (A1A) and continued along the seawall and historic streets until we came to The Southernmost Point in the United States, which is marked by a large red buoy. Here we joined a short queue to get our pictures taken, and then rode the rest of the way around the northern side of the island until we arrived back at the hotel. We cleaned-up from the day’s 30-mile bike ride and caught the hotel shuttle downtown where we walked the waterfront marinas and shops, stopped for drinks and appetizers, and explored the busy Mallory Square tourists’ area.  That evening, after returning to the hotel by shuttle, we drove to the store for next-day supplies and to pick-up sandwiches for dinner before returning to the hotel bar for drinks and a few games of cards. Today ended of trip’s bicycling part with a total of over 180 miles over 5-days, covering most of the Florida Keys Heritage Trail by bicycle, traveling both north and south!

Breakfast at Babys Coffee
The Southernmost Point in the United States
Harry Trumans Little White House
Former First National Bank Building in Key West