Immersed in Van Gogh

Saturday, March 19, 2022

The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit has been playing in Minneapolis for a few weeks, and will continue into April. It was created and is presented by Lighthouse Immersive. This company is based in Toronto, Ontario, and has venues in several locations. It is an experiential entertainment multi-plex, designed to cultivate community and creativity through large-scale events and exhibitions of all art forms. It was certainly successful with this experience.

A few displays in the lobby greeted us before entering the experience. The first photo highlights the only painting that Van Gogh is known to have sold during his lifetime, for the equivalent of $2,000 in today’s dollars. The most recent sale of one of his paintings went for $90 million in 1990, equal to double that today. The middle photo is a painting of the local Stone Arch Bridge on a starry night. The last speaks to the style of “daubing,” a style favored by the artist, that uses undiluted paint spread thickly, then mixed in with other colors.

I read the Pre-Show Audio Guide, which took me through his short story. He began painting at the age of 27, but was prolific during the remaining 10 years of his life, painting over 2,000 works of art. We were directed into a large room where pictures, paintings, impressions were flowing across the walls and even the floor, accompanied by music that enhanced the experience. The show lasted only about 35 minutes, but we stayed through it 3 times! I say that my heart swelled, I can’t think of any better way to describe what I was feeling.

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Biscayne Bay

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Our last day in Florida! It’s especially hard to go home, where the temperature hovers near zero. The weather here has been beautiful, in the 80s with mostly clear skies. These are the times when we ask ourselves yet again “Why do we live in Minnesota?”

We like to visit National Parks whenever they are close to our travel routes. Biscayne National Park is just south of Miami, and covers 300 square miles, most of which is open water. Established as a National Monument in 1968, it attained National Park status in 1980. The park contains several Keys, of which Elliott Key is the largest in the park, and northernmost of all of the Florida Keys. It also contains the northernmost part of the Florida Reef, the only living barrier coral reef in the continental United States, and the third largest in the world.

Biscayne National Park is home to hundreds of species of fish, as well as manatees, sea turtles, many species of birds, butterflies and both the American Crocodile and the American Alligator. In fact, Florida is the only place where both crocodiles and alligators live.

Since we had not planned ahead to visit the park, we were too late to take any of the boat rides into the bay itself. The shore was not accessible near the park headquarters, and the rangers suggested we drive to the northern edge of the park, where we could actually walk out to the shore. It was hard to believe we were so close to Miami

Tomorrow, we head back to Minnesota. Sigh!

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Leaving Key West

Saturday, February 26, 2022

It turned out that this was not a good day to drive from Key West to Key Largo. Normally, this drive takes about 1.5 hours, and we had plenty of time to take a boat ride that was scheduled for 4:00 in Key Largo.

We stopped in Marathon to revisit a restaurant we had discovered 20 years ago. The Stuffed Pig serves breakfast and lunch, and the food is still excellent. We expected it to be packed, but our wait was short, and well worth it. We were visited by a couple of critters, a curly-tailed lizard and an iguana, but no chickens, for a change.

By the way, there are chickens everywhere in Key West, and they are protected. They were brought to the area hundreds of years ago, for food and cockfighting. Cockfighting was outlawed in 1986 in Florida, and most of the chickens were left to fend for themselves, which they’ve done quite well. A few years ago, the city hired a Chicken Catcher to capture and relocate the chickens, but that upset many of the locals, so he quit and was never replaced. You can hear them crowing at all hours of the day and night, and they do come begging for food at the outdoor cafes. It is illegal to feed them, though, so they must subsist on what accidentally falls to the ground.

Shortly after leaving The Stuffed Pig, we hit a traffic slowdown. After about an hour, during which we advanced less than 10 miles, Mark asked a passerby what was going on. It was a huge Nautical Flea Market, held on Islamorada this weekend. The passerby told us: “You picked the wrong weekend to try to go anywhere!” So true, it took 4 hours to drive 40 miles, as we watched the fuel gauge drop, and felt our bladders fill up. There were over 350 vendors, 13 food trucks, and 18,000 attendees over the two days. No wonder, traffic was at a standstill!

This reminded us of a story that we heard about when Key West “seceded” from the union in 1982, and named themselves The Conch Republic, all because of traffic congestion. Residents were protesting a US Border Patrol roadblock and checkpoint set up that year before entering the Keys. Vehicles were stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants, tying up traffic in and out of the Keys. The city tried to get the roadblock removed by legal means, and when that didn’t work, they used the argument that since they were being treated like a foreign nation, they might as well become one. The Mayor declared war against the United States, then immediately surrendered and applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid – all done facetiously, of course.

The roadblock was removed soon thereafter. Key West celebrates their “Independence” each year in April, with parades and activities like Royal Family elections, Raising the Colors, parades and more. When you fly into the Key West airport, you will be welcomed to The Conch Republic.

We missed our 4:00 boat ride, arriving at Key Largo 30 minutes after it was due to depart. It would have been on the “African Queen,” the boat used in the movie of the same name. Ownership of the boat has changed hands many times, and is now owned and operated by a local hotel. Oh well!

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Tropical Paradise

Friday, February 25, 2022

Every year at this time, the Key West Garden Club hosts a garden tour ”A Stroll Through the Meadows” featured seven gardens in the Old Town area. Each provided a lush escape from the surrounding activities. There were presentations about growing edibles, caring for orchids, and landscape design.

We envy our southern neighbors who live in a climate that supports such tropical gardens. There are so many orchids, and that’s true throughout the keys. Hibiscus and plumeria are abundant as well.

Residents up and down Olivia Street are working to make their gardens butterfly friendly. We did see several monarch butterflies as well as monarch caterpillars.

After touring the gardens, we visited the Key West Aquarium and the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden. The aquarium is not very large, but does a good job of showcasing the marine life here.

The sculpture garden has busts of many of the people who played roles in Key West history, with the largest sculpture being “The Wreckers,” by James Mastin of Miami. This sculpture features “wreckers” salvaging cargo and saving lives from a shipwreck on the reef. At one time, Key West residents were among the richest in the country, with their fortunes coming from salvage. Many ships ran aground on the reef that runs along the coastline. The first person to reach the wreck was named the ”wreck master,” and he would organize other salvagers to do the work. The salvaged cargo was auctioned off on shore, and a judge determined how the proceeds were distributed. The wreck master usually receive 25 percent. ”Wrecking” was a very lucrative business for the residents of Key West until ship captains learned how to avoid the reef.

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Key Deer, Blimps and Wine

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Big Pine Key is known for its Key Deer, a subspecies of the white-tailed deer, that lives only in the Keys. Centuries ago, they migrated to the Florida Keys from the mainland during the most recent glacial period, at least 11,000 years ago. They were a food source for native tribes, sailors and settlers in the Keys. Hunting them was banned in 1939, but they nearly became extinct. The National Key Deer Refuge was established in 1957, when the population plummeted to about 25. Currently, the population is estimated to be between 700 – 800.

Most of the Key Deer are on Big Pine Key, which, unlike the other Keys, has a good natural source of fresh water. Generally, fresh water is brought by pipeline for the residents and visitors. Not all of the deer live within the refuge, they are common in the residential areas as well, and are generally unafraid of humans. The prime human threat comes from car traffic – up to 100 per year are killed by car.

These small deer stand about 28 – 32 inches in height, and weight around 80 pounds. White-tailed deer in Minnesota can be almost 48 inches in height, and weigh up to 150 pounds. To us, they look only a little bigger than fauns.

We walked several paths in the refuge, but had no luck spotting any deer. In hot weather, they prefer to stay in the shade, and venture out in the evening. We walked to the Blue Hole, which is an abandoned limestone quarry. There is plenty of evidence that the deer do come here to drink. Although there were no deer in sight, we did spot an alligator, some birds and butterflies.

Somewhat disappointed, we left the refuge to head back to Key West. Just before we reached the highway, Mark spotted a deer on the side of the road. We pulled over and watched it for a few minutes while it watched us. Mission accomplished!!

There is a white blimp that floats over Cudjoe Key. Called ”Fat Albert” by the locals, it has been in place for 33 years, was put there as part of a low-level surveillance system by the US Army. In 2013, it came under the management of US Customs and Border Protection, which uses it to keep an eye on Cuba, the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico. We drove down Blimp Road, hoping to get closer to the blimp, but the site is closed to the public. Oh well!

This evening, we took a sunset sail, actually a wine-tasting sail, with Danger Charters, that included the sunset over Key West. We sampled eight different wines, and needless to say, the evening was very mellow. Due to clouds, we didn’t actually see the sun set, but the sky was beautiful anyway.

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Dry Tortugas National Park

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

There are only two ways to get to the Dry Tortugas – boat or seaplane. We opted for the Key West Seaplane, which allowed us to see Key West from above, as well as have an opportunity to view sea turtles, sharks, rays and the occasional shipwreck. The turtles were hard to find at first, since their color allows them to blend in so well. We did manage to locate a few, though. Generally, we were passing over them too quickly to get any photos.

Tortugas is Spanish for turtle. The Dry was added because there is no fresh water here. That’s true for just about all of the Keys, fresh water has to be brought in, or collected in cisterns, which the early settlers did.

On the way, we flew over the Marquesas Islands, a coral atoll, where sea life can usually be spotted. After that was an area called the Quicksands, a good spot for sea turtles. The sea bed here is covered with huge sand dunes that move with the strong tidal currents. It’s an active treasure site, and millions of dollars worth of gold and silver have been found over the years.

Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846. The US wanted to control navigation to the Gulf of Mexico and protect the Mississippi River trade. Construction continued for 30 years, but was never completed. The fort was used as a military prison for deserters during the Civil War, and it also held 4 men who were convicted of complicity in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, including Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated John Wilkes Booth after he broke his leg leaping onto the stage at Ford’s Theater.

There were numerous construction problems, and the site was plagued with Yellow Fever. The fort was abandoned in 1874. It was designated a wildlife refuge in 1908, and was named a National Park in 1992 – Dry Tortugas National Park.

The waters around the fort are clear, making for excellent snorkeling. Even just walking around the fort’s moat allowed us to see several fish.

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Exploring Key West

Monday, February 21, 2022

Nothing much planned for today – we had tickets for the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tour, so rode that this morning, and got a feel for some of Key West’s history. We can use the tickets all day today and tomorrow to go to the attractions we find most appealing.

We drove by the southernmost point, only 90 miles from Cuba. The line for photo ops was very long, so we passed on that opportunity. We’d already done this about 20 years ago, so not too disappointed. There was a sign for Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, which was intriguing. The distillery was opened in 2013, and it really is the first. They did give a pretty good tour, and had some interesting flavored rums. Just a block away is the Papa’s Pilar Rum Distillery, also opened in 2013, and owned by Ernest Hemmingway’s son, Patrick, and grandson, John. They offer classes as well as tours.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Today is our 20th anniversary. We were married two decades ago in Belize. When looking for a warm place in the US to celebrate, Key West fit the ticket. No overseas travel, no cruises for us yet, since COVID is still part of our life. Two years is too much!

Anyway, we heard that Latitudes Restaurant is one of the places to dine in Key West. Months ago, we made dinner reservations, but they were cancelled (I guess they had a better offer?) Not one to give up too easily, I then made reservations for lunch. The restaurant is located on Sunset Key, a short ferry ride from Key West. Lunch was delicious, and the setting was even better.

After lunch, we visited the Shipwreck Museum, and concluded that we had wasted our money. It was quite small, and the only real thing of interest was the lookout tower that provided some great views of the town and surrounding waters.

Dinner tonight was at Azur, a Mediterranean restaurant, where we had an excellent anniversary dinner.

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Let’s Go Fly a Kite!

Sunday, Feb 20, 2022

People were taking advantage of the wind today. We were greeted with the sight of two kites flying at our resort. Unfortunately, there was a kite-eating tree that captured one of them for a while.

We enjoyed a leisurely drive to Key West, stopping at a couple of spots along the way. One stop was at Coco Plum Beach, a nice long stretch of white sand. Here, we found several groups of kiteboarders. It was the first time I’ve ever seen the boards and sails up close. It’s a beautiful sport.

Then we came upon the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, a 63 acre park in Marathon, with a bird sanctuary and rehabilitation center, an intact home from an 1800’s Bahamian settlement, as well as the largest tropical hammock in the Middle Keys. Hammock is a term used here to describe a stand of trees that forms an ecological island in a contrasting ecosystem.

At one point, we were able to dip our feet in a lagoon and have tiny fish nibble at our feet – nature’s pedicure! They really liked Mark’s feet.

On to Key West, where we will spend the coming week. After checking into our VRBO, we walked about a mile to Sloppy Joes, which was a favorite hangout for Ernest Hemmingway. The bar has been located here for 85 years, and is on the US National Register of Historic Places. It was packed, but we managed to find a couple open stools at the bar. The sloppy joes were good, the drinks were good and the band was good.

Key West is pretty busy right now, with people having a good time during this long President’s Day weekend.

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Florida Keys

February 19, 2022

In 1513, Ponce de Leon, called the Keys ”Los Matires.” The name means the martyrs, names for the natives which, from a distance, de Leon thought looks like suffering men. Calusa and Tequesta Indians populated the islands at that time. Native peoples have been here for at least 12,000 years. They were living in villages by about 7,000 years ago, and firing pottery 4,000 years ago.

Permanent European settlers arrived about 300 years after de Leon, taking advantage of the fishing as well as the treasures to be reaped from shipwrecks in the area.

We flew into Miami yesterday, leaving below zero temps in Minnesota. What a treat to get off the airplane and find that it was hot! At least, it was to us, definitely in the 80’s. Our dry, scaly skin has begun to soften, and our hair to curl up in the humidity. This is heaven to us.

This morning, we headed to the Keys, driving over the Card Sound Bridge which arrives at Key Largo a few miles east of the Hwy 1 bridge. We were interested in visiting the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.

The park has about 6 miles of hiking trails. We hiked a fraction of the park, but enjoyed being outdoors on this warm, sunny days. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were enjoying it too, especially the fresh blood that I supplied. We spotted a Brown Anole lizard in a tree, puffing up its red dewlap to warn us away. Unfortunately, it ran off before I could get my camera focused on the dewlap. There were several Poisonwood Trees. I asked Mark to touch it and see if he reacted, but he wouldn’t oblige me. Sigh!

Traffic was pretty heavy on US Route 1, as vacationers like us chased the sun. This section of US1 is also called the Overseas Highway, and it was first constructed in the 1920s. Initially, the entire route was not connected; with one segment running from eastern Key Largo to Matecumbe Key, and the other from No Name Key to Key West. If you wanted to connect, you could take a ferry to cover the 41 mile gap. The segments were eventually connected, with the entire route opening for traffic in 1938.

The slow traffic made it easy to take a detour or two along the way. The first, and most fulfilling was at the Key Lime Pie Factory in Tavernier. One of our goals on this trip is to sample as many key lime pies as feasible, so we can assess for ourselves where the best one is made. This was a good start. You could have a slice of pie with whipped cream, with chocolate sauce, or plain. There was even a chocolate dipped frozen key lime pie slice. Fortunately, I didn’t see that until we left, or I would probably have had chocolate all over my shirt. Several people stopped in to buy whole pies for the road.

We enjoyed our pie in their lovely Serenity Garden. If you wanted, you could purchase a love lock to add to their very large collection.

Because of the heavy traffic, we thought it would be wise to continue to our lodging for tonight. We are staying at the Rainbow Bend Resort in Marathon. Right now, I’m sitting on the beach, looking at the many cranes, herons, egrets and other water birds. There is a gentle breeze, which just might lull me into a nap.

Dinner tonight will be at the Hideaway Cafe, located at the Rainbow Bend Resort. We had driven this route about 20 years ago, and stopped here for dinner. We have never forgotten how good it was, so made it a point to stop here.

And it was still good! Mark enjoyed the half duck, and I had the seafood special. Although I wasn’t planning to take my leftovers, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have it wrapped in a swan! Dessert was a carrot cake, with a message for our anniversary coming up on 2/22/22 – 2 decades! After dinner, we went to the beach to view the stars – a clear night with no urban light pollution to spoil the view. Gorgeous!

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Monday, September 21, 2021

We pulled into Gettysburg last night, and are lodging at an inn downtown on Lincoln Square, right next door to the house where President Lincoln stayed the night before giving his Gettysburg Address at the National Cemetery.

Many of the buildings in this area date from before the war, including our inn, built in 1824. One building has a shell casing still embedded in its wall. Buildings that were here at the time are identified by sign, and many have stories of the people who lived or worked in the buildings. In spite of three days of spirited battle, only one civilian was killed during the battle.

Before visiting the park, we had breakfast at Ernie’s Texas Lunch, a diner that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and it was easy to see why it’s survived for so long. The food was good as was the service (our waitress has worked there for 33 years). We’ll probably go back tomorrow.

This is Mark’s first and my third visit to Gettysburg National Military Park. My first visit was in the early 1990s, my second in 2013. Each visit is emotional. Over three days, from July 1 through July 3, 1863, about 50,000 people were killed, injured, captured or missing.

We watched the movie, ”Gettysburg,” based on the novel ”Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara, before coming here. The movie was filmed on location here, so we could get a sense of just how large the scene of battle was, about 18 square miles, and encompassing the town of Gettysburg. We also hired a private guide, well worth the money, only $75 for two hours of driving around the battlefield and telling the story day by day.

Fighting was fierce throughout the campaign. Possibly best known of the various actions, Pickett’s Charge took place on the last day, an infantry assault by the Confederate Forces that cost them 9,000 casualties our of a force of 12,500 infantry. The Union forces lost only 1,500.

Our own state of Minnesota played a role at this battle. The 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment was indeed the very first group of volunteers to the Union. When Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey learned of the attack on Fort Sumter, he immediately volunteered 1,000 men to President Lincoln. Then he went home and recruited the volunteers, who signed up for a five-year commitment. By the time the 1st arrived at Gettysburg, there were only 262 men left. Under orders from General Winifred Scott Hancock, and let by Colonel William J. Colvill, they faced 1,200 men from General James Longstreet’s corps and Richard Anderson’s Division, protecting a vital Union position. Within minutes, 215 of these brave soldiers were wounded or killed. They attacked with bayonets, buying time for more Union forces to be brought up, earning high praise from General Hancock (“there is no more gallant deed recorded in history”) and future President Calvin Coolidge (“Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the First Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.”) Yay for Minnesota!

The State of Minnesota was the first to put up a memorial at Gettysburg Battlefield, a flower urn that resides in the National Cemetery, where 52 Minnesotans are buried.

Instead of advancing further north, Robert E. Lee was forced to withdraw his troops to Maryland. General George Meade halfheartedly pursued, but seems to have squandered the opportunity to quash the rebellion and end the war. Instead, it continued for almost two more years.

States that participated in this battle, from both sides, raised money to build and install monuments here at the park, often in the area where they played the greatest roles. Virginia’s monument has General Robert E. Lee astride his horse, looking across Pickett’s Field to where General Meade looks back.

The Gettysburg National Cemetery holds the graves of more than 3,500 Union soldiers who died on this battlefield. Initially, bodies were buried on the battlefield, in shallow graves. A few months later, a cemetery was created. Mostly Union soldiers were buried here, all but a few of the Confederate soldiers’ bodies were relocated to cemeteries in southern states. The cemetery also has graves of veterans from succeeding wars, and there are now over 6,000 soldiers buried here.

It’s been a wonderful trip, but like all good things, it’s coming to an end. We’ll be heading back to Minnesota where the temps are a bit lower than they are here. Oh well!

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