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On the Road with Frank

Immediately after retiring from the United States Navy Frank started a blog he named On The Road With Frank. The purpose of which was to share the travel experiences he and his wife were to have as they wandered around North America in their motorhome. While On The Road With Frank certainly fulfilled that goal, it also provided a venue to display some of Frank's photography. With the emergence of Frank Madia Photography, it was fitting to move the blog to FrankMadiaPhotography.com.


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The Busy Winter of 2017

As I mentioned in my last post, Connie and I had been planning a road trip to Florida to sort of shake off the winter blues. Connie’s Christmas gift was a shiny new 2017 Subaru Forester that has nearly all the available bells and whistles. Naturally, we wanted to take the new car on the road and what a better time to do it than our already planned trip.

As is our habit, we overpacked for what was to be a month-long adventure. We had anticipated a wide range of weather that drove our packing decisions. Another factor was the fact that part of our plan had us in the field at times and in more civilized locations at other times. Of course, there was all the camera equipment, spotting scopes and binoculars to consider. That said, we could have gotten by with half what we took.

As we backed out of the garage on February 2, the car was completely full. The back seat had all the camera equipment which was blocked from view by all the hanging clothes, most of which never left the garment bags during the entire trip. The rear of the car was packed solid with a suitcase, a large cooler, a small cooler, tripods, spotting scope and myriad other things that were stuffed in crevices. We had an entire large tote that held nothing but shoes. We were prepared for just about anything except maybe a blizzard.

The first few days of driving were uneventful. We had no plans for the making stops along the way outbound for exploration, as we had a date in Florida City, Florida, with our great friends, Pat and Marie McGahan. During the planning of this trip, we felt that there would be some pressure getting to Florida City on time because I had a doctor’s appointment on February 3. So, our original plan had us leaving Kyle in the afternoon of the third. I eventually canceled my doctor’s appointment allowing us to leave a day and a half earlier. We had thought that this earlier departure would allow for a more relaxing drive to Florida City. In fact, we wound up having to kill a day to avoid a too early arrival without a reservation.

We used that extra day by spending two nights in Pensacola, Florida. We arrived at Naval Air Station Pensacola late in the afternoon of our second day on the road. The next day we explored the area and relaxed some. It was a good stop.

We arrived in Florida City about fifteen minutes ahead of Pat and Marie. This is the point in this adventure when the fun truly began. Once we were settled into our adjoining rooms, we began to plan our next two days which were to be spent in Everglades National Park. The planning session, such as is it was, was conducted while enjoying happy hour in the McGahans’ room. It was a little difficult staying focused on the planning.

The McGahans and the Madias have slightly differing approaches to adventure travel. They are avid bicyclers. We travel by car and foot. So, we had to plan how we were to spend the next two days together yet apart as it were. Complicating the matter, Marie was in the recovery mode from a significant sinus infection. The original pre-underway plan had us driving their car into the park making all the stops we wanted to for our purposes while they rode their bicycles. We would meet up at the Visitor Center at Flamingo where we would load the bicycles on the car and make our way back to Florida City. Marie was in no shape for the ride, so that meant Pat would go off on his own. Connie and I took our car and kept an eye out for Pat as we made our way through the park. Marie left the hotel much later and met up with Pat in Flamingo in time for lunch and a short ride in the area before loading the bicycles and returning to Florida City. Connie and I found the McGahans in Flamingo where we compared notes as to what we had seen and where we planned to go next. Then we went our separate ways.

To help one understand our plan, the link below goes to a map of Everglades National Park.

https://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/upload/Everglades-Park-Map-FY10-1-2.pdf

This second link takes you to the official Everglades National Park website where more can be learned about the park.

https://www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm

This plan worked out exceptionally well. As it turned out, we all saw pretty much the same things while both couples enjoyed independent operations. Since my attention was focused on photography, it was good to have the freedom to stop where the opportunities were best and stay as long as needed to achieve my goals. On the other hand, Pat enjoyed a wonderful bicycle ride without having to worry about holding anyone back. Marie got some needed rest, as well as a teaser bike ride that had to help in her recovery. Connie and I got to see and identify a ton of birds. It was a great plan.

The morning did not provide much in the way of photo opportunities for me. There was a pretty stiff breeze blowing that kept most of the small birds down. The larger and easier to photograph birds were for the most part out of sight or at least out of range. So, we spent the drive towards Flamingo spotting potential stopping points for the trip back in the afternoon. We did hike along a few of the boardwalks. We found ourselves making pictures of nearly anything. We tried hard to get good images of some giant spider webs, but in my case, the light was never right, or the wind was moving the webs too much to get sharp images. Here are a few of the images of things that were not affected by the wind.

With the wind was blowing hard enough to keep all the birds down, I found myself trying to make art from boardwalks.

 

I found this section of boardwalk to be a little more interesting. I suspect someone could base a horror story on this path through a dense hammock.

When we arrived at Flamingo, we thought we should drive through the campground to see what it is like. We were impressed with what we saw. However, we also noted that it would be one hot place in the summer as there is little shade for many of the campsites. As we moved from loop to loop I spotted a hawk perched on a signpost. That got things moving in our car for sure. About the time I was getting in position to make what would have been a great photograph, a fellow on a bicycle rode right past us and flushed the hawk. I was eventually able to get a few reasonable shots while the bird was perched high up in a tree. While not the images I wanted, it was still a lot of fun tracking the bird down and making the most of the situation.

This was my initial view of a Cooper’s Hawk at the Flamingo Campground in Everglades National Park. I took this picture from inside the car and had to crop out my outside rearview mirror. Soon after I made this image the gentleman on the bicycle flushed the bird.

 

The hawk didn’t fly far, but when it landed it was severely backlit. I was able to do a good bit of post production in order to bring out the details of this incredible animal. I manipulated this image far more than I normally allow myself to perform.

While I was struggling with this backlit hawk in the tree Connie was working the perimeter and sure enough, a second hawk flew into the area. She called to me and I was able to get in position to get a properly lit hawk in my viewfinder.

This second hawk flew to the top of a dead palm tree and did its best to pose for me. I was out of position to get the sunlight on the correct side of the bird because of my setup for the bird in the tree. I fired off a few shots at this bird, then tried to position myself to get a better lighting situation. I was too close to this bird and it did not tolerate my movement and flew off.

As we were leaving the campground, we decided to stop and talk to the ranger working at the entrance station to get a feel for how busy the campground is and what the seasonal variants are. While talking to him, we learned that he is a veteran and that the campground hosts are all veterans as well. We shared a few non-war stories and then got on our way. By now, it was long past lunchtime and some of us were getting grumpy.

Just a tip for anyone looking to travel to the Everglades and visit Flamingo: take your lunch. There is a dining facility next to the visitor center, but it is not great and for what is served and how it is served the prices are high. In our planning, we had decided to take a lunch, but after learning that there was food at Flamingo we bailed on that plan. We should have stuck to the plan.

That said, the rather long time we spent waiting for our lunch and eating it gave the afternoon light an opportunity to develop making for what would be better photos.
On our outbound leg of the trip, we stopped where we thought there would be more birds. We were not disappointed and I was able to make some good images.

As we arrived at this scene there were several birds in the trees and wading in the shallow swamp below. Something spooked one bird and that set off a moment or two of chaos.

This Wood Stork found itself what must have seemed like a nice perch atop some fairly light branches of one of the trees.

 

Balancing on the tree top was tougher than the bird envisioned. For the next several seconds it struggled to remain perched. I was reminded of my recent physical therapy when I was required to stand on one leg perched on a soft brick that challenged my balance.

 

About the time the Wood Stork found its balance, a Snowy Egret joined in on the fun by landing on the same set of branches.

 

 

 

 

 

Of course, that set off a new balancing dance, but this time with two birds.

 

In the end, both birds had to leave the roost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Further down the road, we stopped to walk along another boardwalk. We came upon this Tri-Colored Heron who was really quite cooperative. The series of images I made of this fellow are among the best images of the entire trip.

 

One more look only out in the open.

By the time we returned to the hotel we were tired and once again hungry. We had a bit of a Happy Hour with the McGahans before striking out for dinner. The term striking out has multiple meanings. In baseball, it means if you get three strikes you are out. It can also mean you set out or left from where you were. In this case, it meant both. We left our location heading for a restaurant we had all agreed looked good. We struck out in that the restaurant we had chosen no longer existed. The building was not only empty, there was not a single hint it had been a restaurant in its past.

We wound up at a delightful Italian restaurant and were served by an equally delightful German immigrant who had been serving there for decades. We enjoyed a great meal while sharing what each had experienced during the day. We also planned our next day, which would include returning to the Everglades to explore a few areas we had skipped on that first day.

Our second day in the Everglades was so different from the first. Not far from the entrance station there is a road that goes south of the main road. From this road, you can go to Royal Palm where there are two hiking trails. The Anhinga Trail is part black top and part boardwalk. This trail offers alligators and most of the large wading birds who make this part of Florida their home. The Gumbo Limbo Trail winds through a dense hardwood hammock where many songbirds can be heard and hopefully seen. This would be our first stop of the day. When we arrived, we were surprised to see that most of the cars were covered with blue tarps. I parked next to Pat and Marie who had gotten there a little ahead of us. Pat was covering his car and had gotten a tarp for me to use on ours. For whatever reason, this parking area and some others in the southern part of Everglades National Park are infamous for what the vultures who inhabit the area do to cars. For reasons I certainly do not understand, the vultures really like to eat the rubber on cars. They have been known to destroy windshield wiper blades, the rubber trim around windshields and the exposed rubber door seals. This fact made us nervous about parking our new car here for an extended period. The park service now provides tarps with bungee cords for securing the tarps so visitors can hide the rubber from the vultures. I made sure to properly secure the tarp over all the exposed rubber on the car before heading off on the trails. Maybe my life didn’t depend on how good a job I did, but my continued happiness certainly did.

For the most part, the light was far too harsh for any great photos. I didn’t carry a tripod with me as there were so many people I felt it would be in the way more than it would help me make sharper images. I did the best I could with the conditions present. Here are a few examples of the morning’s work.

Anhinga warming itself in the morning sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think this is a Red-bellied Cooter Turtle.

 

Great Egret using its wing to shade its view into the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cormorant keeping a watchful eye. Interestingly, this bird was perched atop a video surveillance camera.

When the trails had been hiked and photos were taken, we started our trek to Key West. Once again, we had made the decision that we would travel independently of one another to allow stopping whenever and where ever each of us wanted to without worrying about hampering the other. Our next planned event together would be dinner somewhere in Key West.
Connie and I planned to stop at a place between the Ernest Coe Visitor Center at the southeast entrance to Everglades National Park and Florida City called Robert is Here. Robert is Here is a fruit stand to beat all other fruit stands. They have anything that may be grown in the state of Florida and a few other places. Marie had stopped there on that first day and had gotten some tomatoes that were to die for. So, we had to see what else was good. We sampled a few exotic fruits and a whole lot of different kinds of honey each which had come from bees with remarkably different diets. It was a great experience. Naturally, we bought some fruit to share with the McGahans as payback for Marie’s earlier contribution.

From there we took our time getting down to Key West. Check-in at our accommodations for the next five nights wasn’t until 5 PM. So, no rush. Along the way, we made a Starbucks stop, as it had been days since our last fix. That was nice. Then we later stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things we failed to pack into our overpacked car.

When we arrived in Key West, Pat had already gotten us checked into a rental trailer at Trumbo Field. Trumbo is a Navy and Coast Guard base. Over the years the base has had a variety of missions. For our purposes, it is a relatively inexpensive place to stay while well within walking distance to historic Key West. The base offers three types of rentals for retired military and their families. I would recommend to all eligible military folks, active duty and retired, to consider what the various military bases offer as part of any trip planning activity. We certainly took advantage of this option where appropriate.

We got moved into our temporary home and enjoyed snacks Marie and Pat had prepared and talked about our next few days. Then we made our first walk to historic Key West for dinner and some people watching. We would not be disappointed.

As we got to the waterfront the sun was in the final stages of setting and the sunset sailboat rides were returning to port still under sail. I had not brought my camera along, but I was able to get some neat photos with my phone, like this one.

Our time in Key West was fully loaded with a variety of activities. Pat, Marie, and Connie spent the better part of one day on a snorkeling trip off one of the keys. From stories they told me over dinner that evening, it was obvious they had a great time. As snorkeling is not among my list of interests, I spent that day proofing and sorting photographs from our Everglades adventure. Believe me, that was time well spent. It also gave me a little very much needed down time from all the driving and running around we had been doing.

The next day was spent going to, enjoying and returning from Dry Tortugas National Park. This was a full day to be sure. We had to be at the pier by 7:00 AM to get checked in and briefed on our day. The Dry Tortugas are 70 miles west of Key West. Travel to and from Dry Tortugas is either by boat, Yankee Freedom III is the National Park Service authorized concessioner, or by seaplane. As you can imagine, the seaplane ride is expensive. Our reservations had been made months in advance to ensure we would be able to make the trip. The downside to making reservations so far out is the weather factor. While our day to sail would be a bright sunny day, it also would be a day of high seas and a lot of wind. The trip out to Garden Key was rough. There is no sugar coating it. People were seasick within minutes of leaving the protected harbor at Key West. There was enough motion of the boat that the only safe place to be was inside the boat and seated. We really had to watch where we looked, as at any moment someone nearby could be returning breakfast. No one in our group got sick. None of us felt great for most of the outbound trip, making our arrival at Garden Key and Fort Jefferson a bit of a subdued celebration.

Why go to Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson? A good question for sure. Dry Tortugas is a National Park, so it should be a destination for anyone who is ticking off all or as many of the national parks as they can. It is also a very important area for viewing seabirds that are otherwise very difficult to find. In particular, the Sooty Tern and Magnificent Frigate Bird nest on the keys that make up the park. Historically, this is a wonderful place to visit, as Fort Jefferson served to protect the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico and as a Union military prison for captured deserters. It also held four men convicted of complicity in President Lincoln’s assassination. In the waters surrounding the keys, one can find sea turtles, several species of fish and of course coral reefs. Therefore, snorkeling is a popular activity for many visitors.

The only overnight accommodation is dry camping on the beach of Garden Key. All camping is on a first come first served basis and limited to 14 days at a time with a 30 day per year limit. If I were I to make this trip again, I would possibly opt for a camping trip of one or two nights so I could get some early morning and late afternoon photography done. For day trips, like ours, the time on the island is only 4 ½ hours. While this is plenty of time to tour the fort, walk around the outer perimeter of the fort, take in all the birds near the fort, and even get some snorkeling in if desired, it is not optimal for photography. I spent a great deal of our limited time trying to get the perfect shot of a Magnificent Frigate Bird. I was not happy with most of the nearly 1000 images I made. During that quest, we did see a variety of other birds, so it wasn’t as though the time was wasted. On the other hand, during our tour of Fort Jefferson, I made what I think are quality photographs using the harsh sunlight to my advantage.

Fort Jefferson is surrounded by a moat. Connie and I started our tour with a walk around the exterior. It is quite an impressive structure.

 

The interior of the fort is separated from the exterior by several feet of a double walled structure. On this level of the fort’s walls were gun placements that served to protect the fort from activity in the surrounding waters.

 

This is a typical gun placement. There appears to have been different sized guns on different levels of the fort’s outer wall.  This position housed one of the smaller guns.

 

The wall above the solid portion, two flights of stairs above ground, is made up of a series of arches that serve to support the level above and provide anchor points for the outer wall.

 

This is a walkway that runs along the interior perimeter of the wide wall of the fort.

 

Looking into the interior of the fort from the wall. Little remains of the former structures, however, the domed looking structure upper left is actually a freshwater collection system. Rainwater falls on the curved structure and is collected in below ground cisterns from which it is pumped to provide water for the fort.

 

Here is one of the big guns.

 

I was here to see birds. On our initial walk around the moat, we found this Peregrine Falcon.

 

Flying along the beach were a variety of seabirds. Here are someBlack Skimmers, possibly Royal Terns, and an unidentified gull.

 

I even managed to find a Turkey Vulture way out here.

 

There were several Brown Pelicans. Most of them were fishing just off shore. This one was doing some feather maintenance.

 

My goal was to get good images of the Magnificent Frigatebird.

 

The Frigatebirds nest one key to the north of where we were. Due to the nesting activity that key is closed to the public. Here is a glimpse from atop the fort wall.  All those birds are Magnificent Frigatebirds.

 

Here is a female Frigatebird with a rather large bit of nesting material in her beak.

 

I made nearly 1000 images of Frigatebirds while on the island. This is the only adult male that I witnessed flying over. Most of the others were immature birds who are difficult if not impossible to sex on the fly.

 

The Magnificent Frigatebird has a wingspan of 90 inches (7.5 feet).

 

They are really very graceful flyers and so much fun to watch, even through the eyepiece of a camera.

 

Once in awhile, one of them might even get really close.

For more information about Dry Tortugas National Park go take the link below.  I strongly encourage taking a look at this link.  There are some great photographs, the best of which is an aerial view of Fort Jefferson.

https://www.nps.gov/drto/index.htm

The trip back to Key West was over much calmer water and therefore more enjoyable. Nearly everyone was exhausted from the outbound trip as well as the various activities while on the island. The bar was open for the return trip and a little alcohol added to the tired bodies made for a quiet return.

While waiting for dinner to be served after returning to Key West, I noticed that another great sunset was forming. I left the table with camera and tripod in hand and made my way to one of the finger piers to get these images.

Another beautiful sunset in Key West, Florida

 

Eight minutes later than the first image and from a slightly different location. What a difference.

The rest of our stay in Key West was spent shopping, visiting museums and even a butterfly sanctuary while waiting for our next dining adventures. We really did enjoy our stay and of course the company of our great friends, Pat and Marie.

Our departure from Key West would seem chaotic from an outside observer, while well planned by the four of us. Pat was up and out by about 6:30 AM on his bicycle. Connie and I would get going before nine via car. Marie went out for a run and was returning just as Connie and I were getting in the car. She would shower and then check-out before driving off to meet up with Pat several keys closer to Miami. Connie and I passed Pat several miles up the road and stopped to make sure he was holding up well enough to continue his ride, which he was. We then sent Marie a text letting her know his whereabouts and condition. Marie and Pat met up at their pre-arranged location while Connie and I headed to southwest Florida and Marco Island to begin the next leg of our Florida adventure.

If Key West and all it had to offer was the run, run, run portion of our trip to date, then Marco Island would represent the calm after the storm. We met up there with Gary and Janet Dugan. For those of you who follow this blog, you will remember those names. The Dugan name frequently and happily appears in my writing. Janet and Connie grew up on the same street in Columbus, Ohio, and have remained close for more years than they would like to admit to having been on the planet. Gary and I get to share their space. It is always a treat to get together with the Dugans as we share many common interests.

For the past several years the Dugans have rented a home on Marco Island for a few winter months. Their home away from home is a block inland from the beach, it has a pool and two bedrooms. What more do you need? We spent the better part of four days relaxing and enjoying one another’s company. There were a few things on the agenda other than eating and relaxing that made the highlight reel.

As it turns out, there are other former classmates from Janet and Connie’s high school class who winter on San Marco. So, one day they all got together for a mini-reunion.
Gary and I were not invited, so I made plans to finally meet face to face with Howard Sanders, the person who I have worked with for the last three years in website development. This blog is now housed on the website Howard built for me. Howard brought to the meeting two of his friends and I took Gary with me. The five of us had a great time together. Within minutes of our arrival, you would have thought we had all known one another for years. We enjoyed a great conversation over a wonderful lunch.

For Howard and me it was an important next step in our business relationship. I have already seen many positive outcomes from the stronger bond we now have between us. Hopefully, by working together, we can make my little business a successful one.

Time for a commercial. I am often asked why I started a photography business. There are a few reasons. I believe I am an above average photographer and I enjoy sharing my images. Like all serious enthusiasts, the better you get, the better you want to get. In my case, better may also mean better lenses. Better lenses cost money. So, if I can defray the cost of lenses by selling some of my work here and there, all the better. However, the most important reason I started the business is two-pronged. I am passionate about protecting the environment for the betterment of mankind. That includes that part of mankind who may not fully realize the need for the protection. I believe that the photographs I make can help to reinforce the need for conservation of wildlands and environmental protection. Therefore, as part of my business model, such as it is, I have made the commitment to share my profits with organizations that share my passion for protecting our planet. In my first year in business, I fulfilled that commitment by donating 100% of my gross income from the business to The National Park Foundation. I would like to continue to support that organization and others like it. To do so, I need to sell a lot more images. Therefore, with Howard’s help and my personal persistence, I intend to make this project a success. You can help by sharing this blog and my website with your circle of friends and relatives. I have long ago learned that exposure to a wide audience is vital to my type of photography. Not everyone wants nor needs pictures of bears, birds, mountains, or lakes hanging in their homes. So, by casting a very large net, there is a better chance of finding those who are looking for my product line. For those who have ever clicked on the Purchase Button for any of my portfolio images, you know there are a lot of products available with my images that do not hang on walls. If you are not aware, please take a look. The link below will take you to my page on Pixels.com.  While there, if you click on any image you will see the full line of products available.  Don’t worry, it is impossible to accidently buy something.

Purchase Products

While our visit with the Dugans was a short one, it certainly was a lot of fun and provided us with a period of relaxation that had been earned by the fast pace the trip had seen to that point. While I have been avoiding talking about specific meals this time, I must mention our Valentine’s Day dinner. We ate at a small Italian restaurant in Naples called Pazzo Italian Café. The menu was packed with so many of my personal favorites I had a nearly impossible task of deciding what to get. Since it was Valentine’s Day the management had developed several four-course meals from a subset of the main menu providing early diners to hugely discounted options of the limited offerings. That made the decision process much more manageable. I do believe I could eat at this fine restaurant for a week or two without repeating a menu item. It was a great way for these two long-married couples to celebrate our respective love for one another. Sharing the evening with Dugans made a very special evening that much more special.

The morning we were to leave for our next stop on this seemingly never ending adventure, the Dugans would tag along in their car as we all went to visit Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The plan was to tour the swamp while making a few photos, get some lunch, then the Dugans would head back to Marco Island and Connie and I would head to St. Petersburg, Florida. Corkscrew Sanctuary is an important area for conservation on several fronts. The link below provides the details in a much better way than I can relay them.

http://corkscrew.audubon.org/about/sanctuary

If you clicked on the above link, the first thing you likely noticed was that the sanctuary encompasses some 13,000 acres of swamp. I am not sure how many of those acres can be seen from the boardwalks we ventured along, but I can tell you that we walked a good long way and there were countless photographic opportunities. We really needed a full day at the sanctuary, but I think we did the best with the time we had.

This Pileated Woodpecker was one of the first birds we saw once we entered the swamp. He was reasonably cooperative.

 

What would a visit to a swamp be without at least one sighting of a White Ibis?

 

Pine Warbler or someone will let me know I have erred.

 

Great Egret in breeding plumage.

 

I love reflections. If you look really hard above and to the right of the Egret, you can see the back of an alligator. I wonder if lunch was served once we left the area.

As mentioned above, our next overnight stop was to be in St. Petersburg, Florida. If we made any planning errors in this trip, this would be it. We found ourselves getting to St. Petersburg on a Thursday to visit a couple who work at important jobs. What were we thinking? Our grand-niece Annie Kushner and her fiancé, Calin Noonan, moved to St. Petersburg from New York City late last summer. Annie, a teacher, works in Bradenton, Florida, across Tampa Bay to the south. Calin is a civil engineer working for a very large international construction company. The couple owns a house in St. Petersburg with a bonus room over the garage that they rent as an Airbnb. The main house has two guest bedrooms for friends and family visitors. Annie and Calin were kind enough to invite us to spend an evening with them at their new home. Again, I am not sure how we ended up choosing a worknight for this very upward mobile couple. I really felt bad for them both as they endeavored to make our short visit memorable while both facing significant challenges the next day at their respective jobs.

That said, they did a remarkable job of entertaining us while providing us with a great opportunity to get better acquainted with Calin. While the first hour of our get together was a bit hectic with us arriving at their home just as they were getting home from their respective jobs, we all managed to get ready to go out for dinner with little delay. Annie drove us to downtown St. Petersburg which is quite near to their home. After a short windshield tour of the downtown area, we parked and began to walk while looking for an appropriate restaurant. We eventually settled on The Mill, see the link below.

The Mill

We enjoyed a wonderful dinner that was accompanied by a variety of discussion topics allowing us all to fill gaps in our respective knowledge. One thing we learned that made our Thursday meeting seem even more absurd was that Calin was to deliver a speech at a topping off ceremony for the building he had been working on since his arrival in St. Petersburg. The ceremony is a time-honored tradition in the construction business. The building at the heart of this story is to house the research laboratory for the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Calin was part of the team of construction managers who helped bring joy to the hearts and faces of the patients, nurses, and doctors who occupied the infusion ward directly across the campus from the new building. This was to be an important and emotional event for Calin, yet, he was spending the evening before with us. Annie’s Friday would be no less stressful as I am sure is always the case with teachers. We were pleased to be spending some time with this wonderful couple who will be making the world a better place for the foreseeable future. I only hope we didn’t impose too much.

Within walking distance from Calin and Annie’s home is a diner that was once featured on Diners Dives and Drive-ins, Munch’s Restaurant and Sundries. Calin told us we had to give it a try. So, long after our hosts were off to their respective jobs, Connie and I walked over to Munch’s. We were not disappointed. The place had character and many characters, other than us, were on board to provide entertainment while we enjoyed our breakfast. I think I may still be working mine off.

Our short stop in St. Petersburg was more than pleasant. I am glad m

we made the effort, I just wish we would have been a day or two later.

Our next stop was intended to be a birding and possibly kayaking adventure with our good friend Trish McMillan at St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established in 1931 to provide winter habitat for migratory birds. For more details about St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge see the link below.

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/st_marks/

Our temporary home base for this segment of our trip would be a Best Western Hotel in Crawfordville, Florida. Trish had made reservations for two rooms and we were to meet her there. Upon our arrival, we learned that there had been some sort of mix-up at the hotel and we did not get a room next to Trish’s. In fact, she was on the ground floor and we the second floor across the courtyard. It would have been difficult to be further apart.

We spent the afternoon catching up and deciding on what we wanted to do while in the area. No one was too keen on kayaking as it took too big a bite out of the limited time we would have together. We rested a bit in the afternoon while sharing stories over wine and then we were off to dinner.

The next morning, we were greeted with some of the worst weather we had seen since leaving home. We tried to make the best of it by getting out to the refuge to look for birds. We had a pretty good morning of birdwatching even given that the weather was not wonderful. We decided to leave the refuge for lunch with the option of returning later in the day if conditions improved. Following a so-so lunch at a local restaurant, we drove around the area some more. We eventually made the decision to not return to the refuge for the afternoon and instead returned to the hotel. Later, while waiting to be served dinner at a nearby restaurant which had been overrun that evening, Connie began to feel bad.

I will spare the details. Suffice it to say that she didn’t eat well that night or for the next several days for that matter. The next morning with Connie sick, Trish and I went back to the refuge for the morning. The weather had improved a great deal, but the photographic opportunities were still not wonderful. Being concerned about Connie, we decided to go back to the hotel in the early afternoon. Connie was no better than when we left her in the morning. After an afternoon of milling about and in my case watching Connie sleep, Trish made the decision to head to Pensacola late in the afternoon. We could not blame her as she was in a room that was closing in on her with nothing to do.

Connie and I would leave the next morning with our intended route taking us along the shoreline of Northwestern Florida. We too would end up in Pensacola that evening because Connie just didn’t feel like traveling further. I met up with Trish and a friend of hers for dinner while Connie napped. Connie had told Trish she might be interested in a baked potato, so Trish bought one for me to take back to her. She ate about two bites of the potato, which was two bites more than the soup I had gotten for her before going to dinner.

By the next morning, Connie was at least talking in complete sentences. She was not yet eating much. She even passed on a latte from Starbucks. I did get her a croissant, which she managed to nurse for the next few days. Are you getting the picture here? Connie was sick with some sort of virus, but she refused to allow me to take her to see a doctor. The balance of our planned route was now gone.

While the photographic opportunities were not what I had hoped for, here are some nice memory shots.

Black-crowned Night Heron. The tree where this fine looking bird was perched is apparently a popular place as there were at least three juvenile birds in the same tree.

 

The light was not good for most of our visit at the refuge. I made one absolutely horrible photo of a Vermilion Flycatcher. I tried to get some afternoon reflection images of a Tri-colored Heron and a Great Egret all to no avail. So, here is a long distance shot of a rookery.

One of the things I had really wanted to do on this trip was to stop in at Gulfport, Mississippi to visit another retired Navy friend, Chris. Chris was a Construction Battalion Chief stationed in La Maddalena, Italy, at the same time we were there while I was the Production Officer on USS Simon Lake. Chris and his family were our neighbors in a small apartment building for the first several months we lived there. In the years that followed, Chris had multiple deployments to the Middle East where he witnessed things that just don’t leave one’s mind. His last deployment came after he had made the decision to retire and was subsequently convinced to stay for the deployment. That deployment was the worst and the combination of events spread over all those deployments left him to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the early years following his retirement and diagnosis I could keep a virtual eye on him through his and his wife’s Facebook postings. Sadly, and very unexpectedly, his wife was taken from him by one of the many forms of cancer. Since then, Chris has been an infrequent user of social media and I have felt a growing need to see him and assess for myself how well he is coping with all that life has thrown in his direction.

The travel time between Pensacola and Gulfport was just about all the time Connie wanted to spend in the car at one time, so I made plans with Chris for an early afternoon get together somewhere in Gulfport. In order to respect my friend’s privacy, I will not go into the details of our visit here. Suffice it to say that Chris is doing well and, as much as possible, is moving forward. While he continues to struggle with PTSD, I can see that he has a wonderful support system in place and is thriving once again. It was also great to hear about how his now adult children are doing. When we first met, their son was about four years old and he wanted to be just like his dad. Their daughter was her mother’s best friend in those preteen years and remained so until her untimely death. Both seem to now be finding their individual ways through life. We wish them only the best as they move forward.

We are cautiously optimistic that we will see more of Chris in the future as he now has an Austin connection which brings him here occasionally. Hopefully, his visits will coincide with our being at home.

From Gulfport, we headed for home with no more stops than were necessary. It was my goal by now to get Connie home and comfortable. I am happy to report that she fully recovered within a few days of our return home.  (Editorial comment: I lost 5 pounds so nothing is ALL bad.)

Now, we are planning our route back to Yellowstone for what will be our seventh season working as volunteer campground hosts. In addition to the planning, we have been working out, taking care of the house and yard and having fun with our neighbors.

I made some modifications to our dining table in the motorhome since we returned from Florida. I got some overdue maintenance done on the motorhome chassis and managed to put a rather ugly dent in one of the basement access doors while negotiating a tight corner at our storage location. There is never a dull moment around here, that is for sure.

As I complete this article, we are within six weeks of our departure for points west and north. I am hoping to get out to make some wildflower photos before we leave. I also still have several photographs in the Que to sort from the Florida trip. So, I will remain busy for the foreseeable future.

Frank Madia

About Frank Madia

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8 Comments

  •    Reply

    Wonderful pictures. Thanks for sharing. Hope you will come up this way again some day–would love to see you.

  •    Reply

    My sister lives in Lutz FL. Palmi and I visit there often. Maybe we can hook up if our paths cross. No plans to drive to Spain yet eh?

  •    Reply

    Great photos, as usual, Frank, and undeserved nice words about us and the time we shared on this Deployment! Hope we get to do it again sometime!

  •    Reply

    One small quibble–on the picture of the terns, there are more black skimmers than terns! But generally this is a really good column! Of course, you knew that. I love your writing and your photos.

    •    Reply

      Sure enough, the most prominent birds in that photograph are Black Skimmers. I was so concerned about fixing the quality of the image that I failed to take a close look at the subjects within. Thanks for the catch. I have corrected the caption.

  •    Reply

    Fantastic photos and story. I felt like I was in the car with you! 🙂

  •    Reply

    Always love reading your blogs, Frank. Great photos. Thanks for sharing!

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