I visited Rye Preserve in Parrish, Florida recently and walked along the creek. It was a pretty nice place even if a bit small. There were cicadas, dragonflies, and grasshoppers everywhere but only a very few mosquitoes – and oddly passive ones at that. In one place the trail rose high above the creek and I found a nearly-hidden beach.
The sand was covered with shoeprints and bare human footprints, but no one was there at the time. It seemed like a nice place for sunbathing. I have encountered many creeks that twist out of sight making me wonder what lies around the corner. They are like trails themselves. Many have high banks covered with impenetrable vegetation and I have imagined wading barefoot down the middle of them for miles, but most of them are too deep, too dirty, or are filled with obstacles such as logs. In contrast, this creek was nearly perfect. However, I still wanted to see the rest of the preserve and I had no good way to carry my shoes. I moved on.
I followed the trail across the road to where it met the creek further upstream. It was shadier there. I crawled to the other side of the creek on a log and followed another trail away from the brook. This is where I found a picnic table, a cemetery, a dumping ground for all kinds of garbage, and then the trail kind of dissolved into the forest. I also found some red fungi. I eventually did get my feet wet just for a minute when I returned. The mud sucked – literally. Then I took off my shirt and just sat for a while watching the perpetual ripples before heading back to the car.
I visited Moccasin Lake Park in Clearwater, Florida, in June of 2017. There were spiders everywhere. Huge spiders hung over the trail and on all sides of it. The trees were full of them and their webs at all levels, sometimes layered over each other. I had to be careful to avoid walking into their ground threads and alerting them to my presence. I have never seen so many.
The trail itself passed over several boardwalks and one bridge over a large, dry gulley. There were shelters and bird blinds on the way. It was a good little walk. Gangs of peacocks roamed free. There was a beautiful pond surrounded by trees where I watched many birds and turtles from an observation deck. I also noticed a stone wall running through the woods and another overgrown stone structure depicted below, proving this park was once the home of humans before the spiders invaded.
The trail terminates in a wooden shelter surrounded by trees. I could see nothing but trees in all directions. That was where I found someone had left another magic stone just as at Starkey Park, Eureka Park, and Brooker Park. What does it all mean?
Brooker Creek preserve in Tarpon Springs, Florida offers a nice shady walk any day of the week. There is no admission cost. Thursday through Saturday the educational center and store are open. There are hands-on ecological exhibits, including a tortoise burrow replica big enough to crawl through. From the parking lot there are two ways into the woods:
The boardwalk leads straight to the center after passing under an artistic metal helix. It seems to be several strands of metal woven together. One end terminates in a set of flat rings; the other in glass bulbs. What is it?
Across the small field is the bridge over tiny Brooker Creek where alligators are often seen. From there one can walk a short distance to the bird blind or take the dirt trail around to join the boardwalk near the center. From the center a four-mile loop extends into the woods. I visited in May 2017.
And every park I go to I try to look for a pattern that kind of sums up what the place is about – something that makes it unique from all the other parks. Usually I find one. I don't know whether my observations represent a real pattern or whether seeing one example psychologically primes me to see others. This park had several thin trees bent over into arches, in most cases all the way to the ground. I saw them in several different places.
I also saw clumps of moss around the bases of many thicker trees located as much as twelve inches above the ground. I suspect that most of the park and its trails are underwater during some seasons. Fortunately it had been very dry in Florida this spring. You have to know when to go. The trails run through white sand, grassy areas, pines, palmetto, and more. There is plenty of variety. Different parts of the path have different names such as Flatwoods Trail, Blackwater Cutoff, Pine Needle Path, and Wilderness Trail. There were even trails with whimsical names such as Preserve Staff Only and Trail Closed. Strangely, these were not on the map. I was tired, thirsty, and in a hurry to get back so I didn't have time to check them out. Perhaps another time.
The main trail loop covers only a very tiny portion of the whole park. It makes me wonder what secrets might lurk out among the trees. What are the Rangers hiding from us?
Highlights: I briefly saw a very fast lizard with pale blue sides and black and yellow stripes running down its back. It looked exactly like a southwestern fence lizard, which are more common in New Mexico than Florida. I also found a sensitive-leaf plant. There are cultivated plants you can buy that will close up immediately with the slightest touch but the wild ones are very slow. I also saw an alligator and another painted stone…
3940 Keystone Road, Tarpon Springs, Florida
Lake Park is a fun place where the people of Lutz and Tampa congregate to ride their bikes, race remote-control cars, rent canoes, practice archery, or play volleyball and other games. There is also a playground. This cheery facade hides a dark and deadly past known to only a few.
All around the medium sized ponds among the trees are twisted, bare trunks – but these are no trees and they are not quite dead. These are the petrified hands of the great wizards of Lutz, the most feared beings ever to once walk Florida. What happened to them is the subject of legend and much speculation. Some say that it was Ponce de Leon himself who tricked them into this one location where he had set a trap. Others suggest the wizards turned on each other out of jealousy. However it was done, the wizards will never move again.
There are skeptics that claim these are but ordinary trees that have lost their leaves, not wizard hands at all, but if that were true, where are the leaves now? Leaves don't just get up and walk away. They should still be piled up on the ground. Such foolishness! The sinister origins of the park are obvious to anyone with a map. It is rectangular! What sort of shape is that for a park not tainted by evil magic?
17302 N. Dale Mabry, Lutz, Florida
I love long boardwalks – especially when they run through heavily wooded swamps. In April 2017, everything was green. The water was covered in green. The trunks of trees were covered in green. It was green as far as I could see, which wasn’t too far considering the density of the growth. I heard several birds, but couldn’t find them. Maybe they were green too. Green!
As at Starkey Park, I found this mystical stone, possibly left behind by an ancient race of sorcerers. What nefarious plot might they be up to? How long have they been there? Are they beacons to pave the way for an invasion? Some means of sabotage? Could they be bombs full of germs or evil spirits? Are they spy devices? What do the mysterious markings mean? I must inform the king of this at once!
6400 Eureka Springs Road, Tampa, Florida
On the western edge of Tampa facing Oldsmar is a gem of a park named Upper Tampa Bay Park. Packed into this quiet peninsula on the northern part of the bay is a nature center, three trails, a good playground, water fountains, plenty of parking, and most importantly plenty of restrooms. There are many covered picnic tables and pavilions. You can also rent canoes there.
The trails are wide and come in a variety of surfaces. Some are dirt, some are shell fill, and some are grassy. There are also boardwalks. I first walked along the east side of the park where there was water access, but no swimming allowed. Along the path heading south it seemed much like an ordinary Florida coastal park but as if an artist had added just a few subtle highlights to give it a totally new look. Blackened palms from controlled burns stood out against the surrounding green and brown. Red runners reached across the white sand. One trunk had the most interesting burn design.
I hadn't yet seen any animals. This is because they were all hiding on the second trail. I saw a cardinal, a white butterfly, a yellow butterfly, and was unfortunately seen myself by a deer fly, but I got rid of it. This area was grassy.
I went back to my car and sat in one of the pavilions to write while small grey birds poked through the grass next to me and the breeze caressed my skin. I was impressed with how quiet it was. It's a great place to spend a Friday afternoon in March.
8001 Double Branch Road, Tampa, Florida
Sometimes treasures are hard to find. That is especially the case with Jay B. Starkey Park. It was an epic of frustration trying to find the place this March – a gem only the bravest and most patient of heroes could ever hope to capture.
The first problem getting there was that it's in an area far away from any major roads. Route 75 passes nowhere near it. I couldn’t even find any unpaved back roads that would lead me right to it. This left me with two options: I could first go south several miles, take the Skyway Bridge north to 19, and then take 19 all the way north up the peninsula to Ridge Road or I could instead take 75 north to Route 4, cross busy Tampa, take 275 south, attempt to cross several lanes at the knot of mangled roadways next to the airport, and then take 589 North and hope that a sign would tell me what exit to take since I could find none on my map. Since Pinellas Peninsula is always choked with traffic everywhere and Route 19 is dotted with numerous traffic lights, I chose the second option.
Just as I took the ramp onto 589 I saw that it was a toll road. This was not indicated on any map! Due to the uncertainty of knowing whether there was an exit leading to the east side of the park, I quickly got onto Route 60 and crossed the bay to take 19 instead. I didn't want to have to turn around and pay the toll multiple times trying to figure out where to get off.
That day Route 60 was even more crowded than usual. I was trapped in mind-bogglingly slow stop-and-just-stop traffic that ended up tiring me out. By the time I got to 19 I was exhausted and 19 was similarly slow. I eventually had to stop for lunch instead of eating at the park as originally planned and this delayed me even further. Finally after what seemed like days I reached Ridge Road and then Decubellis road to the west side of the park. The park demons had done their best to defeat me but I was determined to have the treasure for myself! I looked around for a sign.
At last I finally saw a sign for Jay B. Starkey Park. It pointed directly at a driveway to the left of the street where there was an open gate. Someone was just leaving. Behind this was some sort of building I took for a ranger station. I had found the park at last! Entering the driveway, I then saw the signs prohibiting trespassing, solicitation, and warning me I was being watched. This was a private residence! A private residence that looked like a ranger station complete with a park gate! The park demons had tricked me. I had been delayed even further. I was tempted to knock and ask for directions, but instead I turned around and decided to drive further down Decubellis.
I thought that the sign might refer not to the driveway but to the street at the very next traffic light so I took a left there. I drove along looking for a second sign to indicate the park. Finally I saw one but this sign pointed directly at an obvious residential neighborhood. I was on to the demons’ tricks by now; I knew it must refer to the very next street. I kept going. There never was another street. I drove and drove and finally decided that I must've been tricked again and the park was indeed hidden behind the residential neighborhood. I’m sure they must love park goers driving through there all the time (sarcasm). Unfortunately there was nowhere to turn around. I was stuck on a narrow, two-lane road with no breakdown lanes. High curbs prevented me from pulling onto the grass. Traffic both ways prevented me from stopping. I must have driven for three miles before finally stopping in a turning lane next to a gated community. This was where I was finally able to make a U-turn and go back the way I came. The demons would not keep me away forever!
The park entrance was indeed in the back of the residential neighborhood. Entering the park I saw nowhere to pick up maps and there was no one around to ask. That’s okay; surprise is part of the fun. I saw an ominous sign that said “hikers be prepared no water on hiking trails.” My first thought was that law prohibited carrying water bottles with you while hiking. Perhaps too many people had left behind their litter and ruined it for the rest of us. I once visited a restaurant on a beach in a different county where straws and lids were prohibited by county law due to the litter problem. I had to drink my soda awkwardly with ice cubes hitting my face until I was ready to bring back the guillotine. Could that be happening here as well? The park demons were trying to provoke me. I eventually decided that interpretation unlikely and my second thought was that I was being warned that the trails were dry and that there were no streams or mud puddles. In the past I have been warned of wet areas and I know some people enjoy water, so I thought the sign was a way of warning them not to get their hopes up. I eventually decided that interpretation even more unlikely and my third thought was that I was being warned not to expect water fountains or concession stands out in the middle of the woods. Since I have never heard of such a thing and only total fools would expect such a thing, I decided that interpretation the most unlikely of all. What’s next? ATMs out in the middle of the woods?
Now worried that I would be arrested if seen carrying water with me, I drove around looking for a trailhead. Eventually I stopped in a parking lot with a sign that said “trail parking.” The first trail I took simply went from one parking lot to the other. I had made a horseshoe turn driving in and the only trails leading from my lot simply cut across the woods to the road I had entered in on. The space between the roads was a web of interwoven paths. There was also a playground. Was this all there was?
On the north side of the road there were additional trails, but these turned out to be even more frustrating. They would go perhaps 30 or 60 feet into the woods before abruptly ending. Some of them were so unclear they may have been animal trails. Others terminated in clearings containing picnic tables. Others simply looped right back to the road. I went down one after the other. I was becoming increasingly frustrated and thinking the park was a complete waste of my time. Finally I found one trail that ran alongside the road for a long ways without going deeper into the woods. I was very disappointed. The demons had won.
Just as I was thinking of going back to the car to sit and read I found another trailhead that lead deep into the woods towards the south. This area looked promising. I followed the trail deeper and deeper into the woods until I was distracted by a side trail – possibly an animal trail – that led me to a paved trail in turn leading me to a paved road. There was a sign promising a scale model of the solar system a mile long. One sign represented the sun. It was followed by Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and way off in the distance was Jupiter. Across this road is where I picked up yet another dirt trail and then discovered paradise. I had found the treasure at last!
This is quite possibly the best park I have ever been to in Florida. It is my new favorite. The weather was amazing! It was just the right temperature and there was an intermittent breeze. There were stunningly beautiful zones of thin trees that let in much sunlight. In other places the brush was thicker, creating semi-secluded areas. The ground was soft and covered in crushed pine needles in most places. One spot to the side of the trail had pine needles piled up so thick that they made a sort of crunchy mattress. There were also places of white sand. I could not help taking off my shirt and shoes. It was too nice a day not to. I had no choice. The best thing was that there were no flies at all. I saw a couple bees that day but that was it for insects.
I eventually went back the way I came before going down a side Trail. This led to yet another trail that had some brush growing across the entrance. Generally parks don't like you to go off trail much but this very clearly was a true trail. It merely had been a while since someone had checked on it to see if it needed maintenance. I walked in a ways and encountered another barrier. This was followed by another and another. Trees had fallen across the path in different places. The bushes were overgrown. I have heard that snakes sometimes hide in bushes and so I beat each one before pushing through.
Could there be more treasure beyond these barriers? A gem within the gem of a park that this clearly was? Each barrier was easily passable for me but I knew would deter the average hiker. I knew I would not be followed. I hoped that there would be a clearing deep in the woods that would make a nice secluded picnic spot that perhaps I could show to someone else one day. The terrain was such that I put my shoes back on, but the air was so nice that I took off my pants for a moment to let it wash over me. It was too nice a day not to. I had no choice. Unfortunately the barriers began to annoy me and I got dressed again. I eventually gave up without ever finding the end of the path or a good place to stop.
Returning the way I came I went down yet another side trail for a long ways and then returned by a wider, straighter, sandier trail where I had seen people biking before. It was only upon returning to the trailhead that at last I found some maps and realized that I had explored less than 5% of the park! I was extremely surprised. It had felt like I had been out there all day. I was also surprised to find that the trail where I had found the mattress of pine needles was much shorter than the last trail that I took. It had felt like it was the other way around. The trail with all the barriers was not on the map at all.
Another surprise was that the wide, straight, sandy trail where I had seen people biking was labeled as a hiking trail whereas the narrow twisting trails I had explored on foot were labeled as bike trails. This is completely backwards! Bikes go fast and might unexpectedly cross and spook an animal going around those turns. More importantly, who wants to walk in a straight line? The wide hiking trails are incredibly boring in the extreme. If that was all I was expected to walk on it would not have been worth the time to drive there; it would not have been worth it even if I lived next door. It would not have been worth the two dollars I paid to park there; I would have to be paid to show up. It would not be my favorite park in Florida; it would be my most hated park in Florida. Fortunately, unlike at Alafia River State Park, the signs had indicated that hikers were welcome on the bike trails. That’s a relief.
There were all sorts of oddities for me to photograph. There were many live oaks, reminding me of Crews Lake Wilderness Park. I saw a lot of “tree balls,” reminding me of Little Manatee River State Park. I saw a tree with four holes right through it. I also saw this giant lever in the middle of one trail, which I guess must be the switch they use to turn the forest off at night.
I also saw some lichen and some strange roots.
I saw two gopher tortoises and their burrows were everywhere, reminding me of Weedon Preserve, Honeymoon Island, and Alafia River Park combined. As usual, they were very bold. I also saw two armadillos. One ran from me into the bushes just like at Camp Bayou and the other walked right up to me as if I didn’t exist just like at Weedon Preserve. I also saw squirrels, a woodpecker, a bright green lizard, a bright white mushroom, and a small snake.
I came across two mysterious structures in the forest. Could this be where the park demons live?
Then there were these magical gems I found able to grant love, happiness, and…I guess stripes to whoever possesses them. Since I had already found all this by exploring the wilderness, I left them behind for the next hero daring enough to penetrate the moat of frustration surrounding this vast, amazing, and beautiful domain.
Now outside the park again, I again experienced bad luck and frustration. The park was closed for several weeks due to a massive fire. It must be cursed. While posting this story, my browser crashed after every second photo I loaded. Some of the photos uploaded upside-down and I was unable to correct them. If you can brave the terror around it, it's a great place to spend a day.
Pinellas Heritage Village is just that – an entire village of houses built between 1850s and the 1910s all around Pinellas County and carried there in the 70s and 80s. Most of them you can now go inside and see what they were like. They often have interesting artifacts laid out and two of the houses have docent tours. They tell you in detail how people used to live and what all the artifacts do.
The upper classes of the nineteenth century had some pretty neat kitchen gadgets, including the swiveling teapot and the waffle maker. I thought it was strange that the bed was beautifully carved on the side facing the room and plain on the side facing the wall. You’d think they would like to move things around once in a while but I guess people were very stuck in their ways back then. They lived in the same house their entire life. It makes you wonder how much dust is under the bed. Also interesting is that the rich used to have very long curtains that dragged on the floor because they wanted to show everyone that they could afford to waste fabric.
There was also a cabin that used to be out in the middle of the woods. It had no windows and the kids used to have to heat and pour boiling water through the spaces between the floorboards to drive away the animals that would otherwise take up residence underneath. It had two separate rooms connected by a wrap-around deck. It seemed cozy and I think I wouldn’t mind living there except for the mosquitoes.
There was also a train station, a schoolhouse, and a church. The church I had thought had a very interesting story. It was actually picked up and dragged intact by a hurricane at one time and then another storm many years later took its roof off. Later it was fixed up and moved to its present location.
There is a little mini-museum visitor center near the entrance giving a little bit of the history of Pinellas County. It was very big in the sponge business. A sponge press was used to press the air out of the sponges to pack them into bales for shipping. Later it became a prime tourism spot and St. Petersburg was among the first cities to actually have a tourism department the specialized in marketing the city.
I learned a little bit about the parks in Pinellas County and how they began too. People used to just put their dead wherever or else they had a family plot but then when the land changed hands the records were lost so at some point they started to put the dead all together in one place. These first cemeteries were well maintained and in time people began to visit often to get away from the cities. When the first parks were created, they had to put up fences to keep out the chickens and pigs both domesticated and wild that used to roam around all over the place.
I found it very interesting. I like history. I like seeing how the stories of different people and things are all interconnected in subtle hidden ways. This place is just as good as any history museum only much much much bigger because it's like a whole bunch of museums in one – each one a treasure. You can walk around there almost all day. The village is free courtesy the city of Largo, Florida.
11909 125th Street N. Largo, FL 33774
Separated from Honeymoon Island by a monster hurricane in the 1920s, Caladesi is reachable only by boat. I took the ferry over from Honeymoon State Park. Posts mark out a safe pass through the shoals and birds of all kinds sat on these and watched me pass sometimes as close as thirty feet away. After we docked, I ran off into the woods to explore the trails.
There are some decent-length trails that pass through sandy areas of palmetto and cabbage palms. Towards the south, these give way to wooded areas carpeted by pine needles. The trails are intersected by a few service roads leading to restricted areas. What are the authorities hiding there?
Other than the birds on the way in, there were few animals around that day. I did see one large snail in one of the coves. I photographed it through a narrow gap in the brush at the end of one of the short side trails. I also saw the twin pine, which is a large tree with two trunks joined by a saddle-like structure that people apparently like to photograph themselves in.
I walked along the beach on the west side next. Since it was February, it was too cold to go swimming that day. Along with Honeymoon Island, Caladesi is known for the large numbers of beautiful shells that wash up on its shores. On this particular day, the wind and surf were up and most shells were broken. One discovery I made was the squeaking sand. In some areas, the sand would squeak as I stepped on it. This has never happened before. Apparently, this phenomenon occurs under very narrow humidity conditions with very round sand grains and is much more spectacular in other parts of the world. I was lucky to have encountered a weak case of it on Caladesi.
The island is equipped with restrooms, changing stations, and a concession stand as well as some great picnic areas and pavilions.
It may be an art museum, but it’s actually a history museum. There are paintings and sculptures from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas – some over 500 years old. It is impossible to get through it all in only two hours. With its high ceilings, fancy wallpaper and mirrors, and incredibly diverse collection, the museum is a work of art itself.
I have too many favorites. I saw amazing glass work by Richard Ritter and Frederick Carder. I saw a rough-surfaced abstract by Enrico Donati (1909-2008), who is reported to have used coffee grounds, sand, and vacuum debris in his work. I saw masks and figures from Nigeria, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I saw a stone figure of god-of-death Michtlantecuhtli (I love that name!!) from Mexico dated sometime between 1100 and 1500. It had slits to allow incense smoke to rise out of it. There was even a gold bird from Costa Rica. Since many of the artifacts from that area were used to make noise, it is hypothesized that the eyes were originally tiny bells whose clappers have fallen out. I also liked the Jain shrine with its intricate woodwork and tiny figures behind the windows. In the seventeenth century the central doors would have opened to reveal one of the twenty-four holy men in Jainism, but they must have been busy when I went (LOL).
255 Beach Drive NE, Saint Petersburg, Florida
Salvador Dali lived from 1904 to 1989 and is best known for his surreal paintings, many of which have ended up at the Dali Museum in Saint Petersburg. Longtime friends of Salvador and Gala Dali, Reynolds and Eleanor Morse donated their collection to the original museum in Ohio in 1971. It was moved to Florida in 1982. The current building opened in 2011.
Artists often bring a degree of symbolism to their work, though some deny it. Others are mysterious about the meanings or insist that one must find their own meaning. Sometimes the meaning is obvious. Sometimes it is hidden. Dali’s work is overflowing with symbolism and fortunately for us he made much of its meaning known through various writings, such as his 1942 autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. The wealth of information available is staggering; I’m still trying to process it.
Wandering through the nooks of the museum hall, I was able to discern several patterns once they were pointed out to me. Many paintings have layers of detail to them, with foreground and background elements combining to make more subtle images. Many are faces. Images that arise in multiple paintings include grasshoppers, flies, overhead views of the crucifixion, partial images borrowed from other artists, and more than anything else his wife Gala. She ends up in everything. Some symbols are more subtle. It was recently discovered that the shadows in one painting line up reveal the light source not to be the sun, but his wife’s face. Was this intentional? What else might be waiting to be discovered that Dali has not told us? He did once say that when people start seriously studying his work they will realize what is currently known is just the tip of the iceberg.
Dali was influenced by Van Gogh, Picasso, Christianity, twentieth-century discoveries in physics, and especially Freud. His paintings are often adventures in psychoanalysis and his family life gave him plenty of material. His mother was a Catholic and his father was an atheist who thought he was throwing his life away by painting weird stuff. His older brother of the same name died before Salvador was born, making him feel as if he was a replacement and never really his own person. In A Portrait of my Dead Brother, a mixture of light cherries and dark cherries represent the contributions of both Salvadors as they merge to create a single face. I have no idea what that bird is about.
Some of his paintings remind me of dreams in the way that one thing connects to another, which connects to another in a way that doesn’t seem to remain consistent with the first or with the whole. For lack of a better term, they are illogical. The difference is that when I wake up, my conscious mind imposes an order on what little I remember in order to make sense of it, while with the paintings I see the whole all at once and I am not allowed to impose my order on them (it would require a lot of chopping). Overall, I didn’t see one that I can say I really liked, though A Portrait of my Dead Brother was my favorite. Now that I think of it, my second favorite is Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Face of Abraham Lincoln, but I didn’t think to get a picture while I was there. They all lacked a certain balance. If a few of the cherries are linked to show the two Salvadors are the same person, why aren’t they all linked? I find the transitions too abrupt. Still, the more I think about them, the more I see the enormous potential they have if slightly tweaked. I do love symbolic art.
The museum has audio device guide options or you can wait for the next docent. Both are available at no extra charge. There is also a gift shop and café. In addition to Dali, the museum often features other artists on a rotating basis. It also has some interesting architecture and views of the bay. Outside is a cactus garden and hedge maze where people leave their wristband tickets on one of two trees – one at the entrance and one at the center. It’s sort of a way to connect with others that have gone through the same mind-bending experience even if you have never met.
1 Dali Boulevard, Saint Petersburg, Florida
Once upon a time, Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, Florida was known as Hog Island and was owned by a pig farmer. Then a hurricane flooded the land and cut the channel known as Hurricane Pass. The former southern half of the island was renamed Caladesi and the former northern half was developed as a getaway for newlyweds. Honeymoon Island was born. It later became a state park. It is accessed by causeway.
The north of Honeymoon Island is split, forming Pelican Cove between the east and west arms. I first explored the eastern arm, which faces the mainland. I saw several nests in the trees. Ospreys and vultures were all over the place. There were even bald eagles. From October until May that section of the trail is closed so as not to disturb them. I also saw a moth sitting in a bush. It had an iridescent, hairy back that reminded me of a hummingbird.
Returning to the playground parking lot to eat, I saw a tortoise. So did the playground kids. They got enormous pleasure from watching it eat the grass, and I watched them watch it. When I finished, I headed for the west side of the island and walked north along the beach.
I could not find a high tide line and judging by the shells and seaweed strewn everywhere, I suspect that the entire western arm is submerged on a daily basis. The sand was moist and large gullies led into Pelican cove from among the mangroves. I planned on hiking to the northern tip and back, but I found much to distract me and eventually ran out of sunlight. There was a path part of the way between two groves of trees and numerous doorways cut into them leading to some stunningly beautiful places.
The water smelled like eggs. The mud came in hues of purple and green. The nearly bare trees, lack of undergrowth, and bright white sand reminded me very much of a snowy forest up north. It was exciting to find these secluded places that I had to share with no one but a few ibises.
Shells also distracted me. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such variety before. There were some that were quite large and most were unbroken. Many had barnacle shells stuck to them. Some were full of holes. I’m used to seeing holes in shells but usually it’s just one or two. The colors were mind-boggling. It doesn’t take much to boggle my mind, I guess. The photographs barely capture what my eyes saw in direct sunlight. There was a black pen shell with green and purple shine – like oil floating on water. There was a shell boring white on the outside and brilliant purple inside. I like to leave most shells behind for others to find, but this one was too good not to take home and show everybody I knew. Unfortunately, at home it became an ordinary shell. I am used to shells looking different when dry and under artificial light, but I have never seen this great of a difference!
There were also thousands of squishy, pea-sized objects everywhere. I thought at the time that they were seaweed floatation bladders that had broken off, since I sometimes found them among the seaweed, but now I’m not so sure. Do you know what they are?
Eventually the sun went down and I had to leave the beach before I had finished exploring. I was disappointed that I had encountered zero rattlesnakes, which the park signs had promised/warned me about. Passing through the playground back to my car I did see an armadillo digging up the lawn. Here are some other things I saw:
Located on the barrier island of Sand Key is Sand Key Park, which I visited in January. There is a playground, some trees, grassy areas, and a trail, but my visit started out as a bit boring. Finally, I took my chair out on the beach and just sat in the sun and wind. It wasn’t very crowded. I tried to read, but the book I had brought was also boring. I’m horrible at planning. That was when I started to walk around and noticed all the shells. There were a lot of shells both pretty and strange. Some were quite large. There were also numerous sponges and large bits of coral washed up all around me.
Inspiration struck and I started building sand castles. I made one with inner passages hidden by doors made from large shells. The other two castles somehow became sand volcanoes. I used sponges for the central fountains of lava in the craters, and red seaweed for the lava flowing down the sides. Broken red stalks of sea whips became the arcs of hot rocks thrown from the top. I lost all track of time.
While scrounging for more red seaweed to finish my lava flows, I came across the strange crab shown below. The head is at the pointed end. All the spines point this way. There was much animal life about. Sandpipers ran along the water’s edge, running back and forth to keep out of reach of the waves. Gulls flew by carrying tiny fish in their mouths, screeching the whole way.
When I finally left just before sunset, I walked along the beach to see what structures others had built. There were castles and even entire citadels. Somebody had even made a giant turtle covered in shells. All Florida beaches are treasures. How can one be bored at a beach?
1060 Gulf Boulevard, Clearwater, Florida
It showcases and sells art from all over Florida, but Florida Craft Art is headquartered right here in Tampa Bay – on Central Avenue in Saint Petersburg to be precise. This is quite possibly the most interesting gallery I have ever been in, which is really saying something considering how good some of the others are. The pieces are so unique, detailed, and brightly-colored. One can easily lose track of the time and spend two hours there, thinking you are in some emperor’s collection from all over the world.
The mission of the organization is to find great artists and introduce them to the community. All art must be three-dimensional (not paintings) and of very high quality. There are the textile abstracts of Leah Gillette, the furniture of David Calvin, the metal-ceramic pieces of Terry Andrews, and the clay sea life sculptures of William Kidd. It was difficult to find a piece I didn’t love.
It’s amazing how something so simple and ethereal can add so much to a place. This transparent silvery curtain is beset with circular patches of intricate design reminding me of bubbles riding a waterfall. It adds a subtle, calming energy to the exhibition room filled with smaller, harder, more colorful objects, rounding out the already incredible variety and making itself the cornerstone of the whole exhibit. It is very different from anything I have ever seen that would normally be called art, but that is what it is. It quickly became my favorite. I had to know who made it and what they called it, but could not find a label. The lady at the counter told me she and another employee had actually made it and they did not have a title for it, telling me to come up with one. After thinking it over a couple days, I have decided to call it The Ghost Planet 1966. If you think you know why, leave a comment below.
The organization provides studios and classes upstairs from its roomy retail gallery and exhibition gallery. It has existed in its current location since 1995 and in Saint Petersburg since 1986, when it was known as Florida Craftsmen.
501 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, FL
I visited the Showmen’s Museum in Gibsonton, Florida in November 2016 and it was awesome. It isn’t quite as good as the real thing, but with the lights blinking and the music playing it has that fair atmosphere that I miss. It even has a working Ferris wheel indoors. By the time I left, I was almost skipping down the stairs. In the days before television, movies, and video games, traveling fairs and circuses were prime entertainment. People would wait all year or longer for them. Like trains and bookstores, they hold a special place in our cultural history that will likely persist in some form forever. They kept employed many in society that would likely have had a rough time otherwise, such as midgets, giants, and those with extra limbs. They worked, lived, and travelled together. They really understood what made true entertainment in the old days. Before there were internet cat videos, people put monkeys in tiny cars and rolled them down tracks. Now that’s real entertainment!
As chance would have it, I arrived the same time as a man who used to work in the industry back in the seventies. He had driven a long ways to check it out. He told me how he used to set up Ferris wheels without hydraulics and explained how many of the games of skill and chance worked. The place brought back many memories for him. I know how he feels. I can imagine I would feel the same way if someone were to open a fast food museum. When you learn every quirk of the equipment and how to work around the fry vat button that sticks or the freezer door that won’t close, it starts to mean something to you. This is the real good the place does, not just as a location to spend a fun afternoon, but a place that keeps alive the stories of those who worked hard to keep the show going, the dreams of every child visiting a fair for the first time, and the rich and interwoven history of an entire industry.
I visited Robinson Preserve in Bradenton, Florida in October 2016 and was rewarded with beautiful sights of a variety of plants. There are trails for bicycling or hiking across wide fields, marshes, and small wooded areas. There is a quite tall observation tower next to one of the lagoons, which is where I took the photos above from. If you have good eyes, you can see the Skyway Bridge in the distance.
The usual animals were around, including dragonflies, ospreys, ibises, fiddler crabs, and lizards. I also saw a rabbit. Something strange was going on that day with the bees. There were a lot of bees throughout the park everywhere that there were flowers. People say bees around the world are dying out, but I think they have just been hiding in Robinson Preserve. No matter where I went I could hear their distant roar. I did not know what I was hearing at first before I found them. I even saw a hive at the base of Tern Trail. I decided not to go that way.
Another mysterious sound was an occasional bark I would hear throughout the park. It sounded like a cross between a honking goose, a very confused seal, and a human child screaming in mortal terror. I finally discovered that the ibises were making this noise. Every so often they would look up from poking in the mud and bark. I had never heard ibises make noise before. I have not heard them make noise since. This is a strange place.
Along the northern edge of the park there are breaks in the vegetation separating the trail from the bay. These lead to small, secluded beaches. The water remains incredibly shallow far into the bay. I could see ibises and herons walking on the mirror-like surface of the sea as far as a hundred feet from shore. On the southern edge of the trail there is a narrow channel of water that connects the sea to the water bodies inside the park. This runs like a river when the tide comes in or goes out. I could see it branch as it cut through the trees into places where I wasn’t allowed to go. What goes on inside there?
Here are some more pictures from my adventure:
Deep in Lithia, Florida lie the 6312 acres of mostly forest that make up Alafia River State Park. This is a popular place for bicyclists. Off the sides of the mixed-use trail are countless bicycle trails. These trails are narrow, twisted, and very hilly due to the entire place having been used as a phosphate mine in the past. Mountains are a rarity in Florida and this is one place for mountain bikers to get their fix. They are rated as “epic” by the IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association).
I did not know any of this before I went and I don’t have a bike; I went for the extensive walking trails, which are shared by bicycles, horses, and also tortoises. Soon after leaving the trailhead, I rounded a corner and saw a tortoise coming from the other direction at a decent speed. Only when I got close did it take any notice of me and this was just to slow down a bit every time I moved. I also saw a navy-blue dragonfly.
The trails were a bit confusing. Even though they are marked, they are not always marked at every intersection, and there are many side trails not on the map. Most of these are bicycle-only trails, but it is not always easy to tell. After getting lost several times over I found myself near where I started. Since I was more tired than I expected that day, I decided to leave early without seeing most of the park. On the way back to the parking lot, I saw two tortoises where before there had been one. Very cute.
My favorite thing about Hammock Park in Dunedin, Florida is the covered platform I can watch the boardwalk from. There are also several trails, a small playground, a butterfly garden, restrooms, and disk golf available. The day I went to the park the butterfly garden was still flooded from the recent storm so I can’t say much about that, though I did see a couple butterflies elsewhere in the park. From the boardwalk itself one can look down and see fiddler crabs and turtles. The playground features a pyramid of ropes that shifts around as you climb it. You haven’t lived until you’ve climbed something that moves as much as you do. The gravel fill below it I discovered was strangely bouncy. Upon closer examination I determined it was made of little bits of rubber tires. I suppose it makes for a softer landing when you inevitably fall off the ropes.
It seemed boring at first. When I first arrived, I took the trails around the eastern perimeter of the park. There were benches named after various people. There were numerous puddles and muddy spots that slowed me down. These puddles had tiny tadpoles! The larger puddles had larger tadpoles! This redeemed what was otherwise a boring area. A drier trail was completely blocked by fallen trees. I climbed around and over the first two only to be utterly defeated by the third. The only redeeming feature there was the patch of plants I found with touch-sensitive leaves. The sun was hot and there was less shade than I like. I was starting to think the park might be a dud. I was very wrong.
Returning the way I came I saw an egret guarding the dam. While I walked along the brook, two jays shrieked and chased each other at high speed. They did the same when I returned that way later and the same again when I passed a third time. Then I discovered the boardwalk and the platform overlooking it. A short ways along a bridge spans a waterway. A very loud duck-like bird flew over the short bridge just as I passed, clearing the railing by inches. I was very thirsty by this time and thought of returning to the car for my water, crackers, and sunscreen so I could sit there and read (I had a book, too). Unfortunately, there was a trail heading the other way and I had to know where it went. I stood there for almost a minute trying to decide which way to go. The struggle is real!
When I did finally make it back to the platform I ended up talking with a pretty lady who had the same exact idea I did. She soon left and I decided to finish exploring. Beyond the boardwalk were some paved trails and beyond those another boardwalk nestled among tall mangroves. There I saw six mangrove crabs on a trunk facing each other in a circle. Were they having a conference? Was it about me? I’m probably just being paranoid, but they scattered when they saw me coming. I’ve never seen such behavior before. I also saw a dark beetle and later observed a woodpecker from only twelve feet away. It eventually figured out I was behind it and kept turning its head sideways to look at me. I saw so many things I can’t fit them all in one post. Below are only the highlights:
Five Galleries: The Dunedin Fine Art Center boasts five galleries, a gift shop, the Palm Café, and a lounge area in the central lobby complete with art books, couches, and a piano. It is located on Michigan Avenue in Dunedin, Florida. There is good parking. By one entrance is the alien machinery pictured above. By the other entrance is a long tile mural built over the course of several years by many children of different ages from different schools in the area. The center is open seven days a week and paid for by donations.
Thought-Provoking Exhibits: Of course, it’s what’s inside that counts. I caught them on a transition day when only two of the five galleries were open. The Entel Family Gallery hosted an exhibit called Dignity: Tribes In Transition. It was a collection of photographs of indigenous people from around the world, often in a mixture of traditional and modern dress. Pictures of people are interesting because unlike landscapes or abstract sculptures, people have dreams, thoughts, goals, aspirations, and can interact in their environments in complex ways. What were they thinking? I could not tell. There were several plaques on the walls explaining what the project was about. They referenced a UN declaration in the seventies to protect the rights of indigenous people, though I question what else the declaration might have had in it since the four nations to vote against it (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States) are not exactly known for human-rights abuses (relatively speaking). Another plaque stressed the importance of learning the culture of our ancestors. It suggested that in order to know where we are going, we must know where we come from. I’m not sure I buy that argument. Since the past can only influence the future through the present, why isn’t it good enough to just know where we are now? Another plaque suggested that trees feel pain and that Africans have somehow known this all along. Hmmm. The jury is still out on that. The exhibit certainly got me thinking, which I’m guessing was the point.
Pretty Pictures: The second exhibit (Harmonic Divergence) featured works inspired by music. There are two paintings that stand out to me now. At first glance, it looked like a swirl of color probably representing music was escaping from a trumpet or horn of some kind. A drum and harp floated nearby. Upon closer examination, I decided it looked more like the horn was escaping from the swirl. Do instruments make music or does the potential for music encourage the invention of instruments? I’m probably thinking too much. The other painting I liked was a borderline impressionistic scene of a man with a guitar-like object and four women in hats. There were large flowers in the background and fruit on the table. The women appeared to have their eyes closed, probably enjoying the music. It was all very colorful. The instrument itself had several regions of different colors on it. There was just enough consistency in the highlighting to discern the direction of illumination. I liked it.
Just off the Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay are two fishing piers and a park that I had been meaning to check out for a while. First, I stopped at the rest area on the southern side of the bridge. I walked along the water where there was a tiny forest of seaweed just a few feet out. Strange flashes of light beamed out from this mysterious landscape. They turned out to be small fish that were very nearly invisible until they turned at just the right angle to reflect the sun into my face.
Second, I drove along the strip of land that connects the southern pier to the mainland. There were a few vehicles parked in the grass and a few palms, but mostly it was empty, leaving plenty of space to sit and watch the clouds. Of course, being me, the clouds did not satisfy for long. I walked along the cracked concrete at the edge of the water, looking for life among the weathered, hole-riddled rocks on either side. The nearby pavement had large holes in it, too. There were numerous scurrying isopods that were incredibly camera-shy. Finally I managed to photograph one of them. I also saw a pretty snail. It was an incredibly hot day, but there was a strong breeze from the south that kept things tolerable. It was much better than the rest stop side.
Reaching the pier, I walked to the end and back. There were many people fishing and there were many birds fishing. They were of all ages, races, and sexes and mostly friendly. One guy from New York explained how easy it was to get into the hobby. Apparently one only needs a cheap pole from Walmart and some bait and they can have dinner in minutes. I’ve never really had the opportunity to go fishing before. Perhaps I’ll look into it. There is more than enough space for everybody if they don’t want to be too close, and there is also plenty of space if they do want to be close. This also means plenty of space for parking. There are also restrooms and a bait shop. The clerk told me that I’d be surprised how many people show up unprepared without bait, ice, poles, or snacks. As for myself, I forgot to bring water when I left the house and so I bought a coke. God bless capitalism!
Driving to the north end of the bridge, I explored both sides. On the southwestern edge there are numerous shady spots to park and sit by the water. Unfortunately, the ground is rather bumpy here and there are deep puddles. On the northeastern edge there is a large sandy beach. Further down is a walkway leading along the bridge to the city. While I’ve never seen a path that I haven’t wanted to take to see what’s on it, I’ve also never seen a path that I haven’t wanted to leave to see what isn’t on it, so I took a minor detour under the bridge to cross over to the southwestern edge again. The wind on that side was incredibly refreshing as I sat in the shade of the bridge, getting out of the sun for a while. I never did make it to the northern fishing pier. By this time I was tired and thirsty and wanted to head home.
Instead, I made a spontaneous adventure decision (S.A.D.). I stopped at a gas station for water and snacks and returned to the southern park to place my chair on the grass and watch the sunset. I sat and waited and read a little and doodled in the sand with my toes. There was something burning on the horizon sending up a plume of smoke that wrapped around the bay. I thought when the sun went through this that I might get some interesting pictures. Instead, the best pictures were behind me. First there was a rainbow as a cloud went overhead lightly sprinkling on me. Then at sunset there was a cloud whose very top was still in sunlight, reminding me of a stack of pancakes with butter on top. Just before I left, a thunderstorm started in the north, creating a light show better than any fireworks display. This is Tampa Bay.
Have you ever made a spontaneous adventure decision?
I first visited Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa, Florida in July 2015. It is a large place, with a small history museum, a café, a swimming pool, canoe rentals, and many trails. I took the trail along the rapids and saw three small alligators, a hawk, at least six turtles, and many giant cicada-killer wasps. They must have been attracted to all the cicadas heard singing everywhere. I also thought I heard monkeys on a nearby trail, but finally decided they were human children, which are a closely related species. Very strangely, the only mosquito to bother me was the one that greeted me when I first entered the woods. Nothing bothered me after that. That itself is amazing.
I passed by this numbered rock. I surmised it must be one of God’s prototypes. As you can see, he was already fairly good at creating rocks after only three tries. Later, I saw numbers on numerous information placards and on railings. This must be the original park that God modeled all the other parks after! Had I found Eden?
Returning to Eden:
Since I wasn’t able to take all the trails I wanted the first time, I went back in July 2016. I first thought that I would take the Old Fort King Trail south to see the parts of it I missed when I visited John B Sargeant County Park and walked north. I was surprised to find it overgrown with grass and open to the sun. It was very hot. I walked for a ways and passed a sign. I don’t know what the sign said, because as I stopped to read it, a gigantic black fly two inches long landed on it right in front of me. It looked much like a horsefly on steroids. I removed myself from the area very quickly. Looking it up later I believe it must have been a type of Mydas fly, which are harmless and also kind of rare – lucky me! Further down the trail, it was still very hot. I considered turning back, but at that exact moment I saw a patch of flowers. That was when I knew I had to keep going. There were many flies, bees, dragonflies, moths, and beetles in more colors than I could ever name.
Finally I reached the shade of the woods but soon found that it was a mixed blessing. Not five seconds after I stepped under the trees I was assaulted by about fifty mosquitoes. I pushed on for a while, but eventually had to turn back. Why were there so many? Why couldn’t 2016 be like 2015?
The Seminole were patient and clever fighters that used the swampy terrain and subtropical climate to their advantage, but they eventually lost to superior numbers and superior firepower. Also, the Floridians sometimes approached under the guise of truce in order to kidnap chiefs. Of course, the Seminole were no angels either; they even kept slaves.
Simmons Park in Ruskin, Florida has some great views across Tampa Bay. There are tables and shelters throughout offering places to sit in the breeze and watch the boats go by. It has a boat ramp, RV parking, two campgrounds, two playgrounds, and a small beach. Shelters can be reserved for large parties. Many people go there to fish or catch snails. It seems there is something there for everybody.
There are numerous coves and mangroves as well. Along the edge there are breaks in the trees to get down next to the water and look for fiddler crabs, horseshoe crabs, or fish. Beware of sharp oysters! I have been very many times 2013-2017. Every time I go exploring, I see something interesting. I even saw raccoons once. Another time I was able to get close to some pelicans. Another time I saw dolphins! Of course, sometimes I don’t go exploring because it is also a great place to pull my folding chair out of the trunk onto the grass and read (or write) a book.
Not only does the Cider Press Café not use meat, eggs, or dairy, but they don’t even cook! Everything they make themselves is raw and vegan, which might sound like they would only have salads, but they have much more. I ordered the BLT made with eggplant “bacon” strips. They were good – just a bit sweet with a touch of what might have been olive oil. It’s hard to believe they aren’t cooked. One downside is that without cooking, there is no real bread. The shell in the photo is made from mashed seeds and is very fragile. I had to eat it with a fork in order to not look like a toddler. Still, it is no messier than anything at Taco Bell. The guacamole was excellent.
The flavor combinations and the methods they use to make this stuff are fantastic. Besides sandwiches, soups, and salads, they have juices and smoothies they make themselves, and hard cider they ship in from elsewhere. The Winterruption is delicious! It contains vanilla, cinnamon, and maple syrup. They also sell kale chips, pickle chips, and broccoli bites made by Rhythm Superfoods, as well as chocolate and other snacks.
601 Central Avenue, Saint Petersburg, Florida
Sometimes in the middle of the afternoon on a hot day, what one really needs is just a popsicle. That’s all Hyppo has on their menu. The day I visited their Saint Petersburg branch, there were 50 flavors listed on the board (yes, I counted; I’m weird), including flavors such as datil pepper cheesecake, maple pecan, honey grapefruit, cucumber jalapeno, avocado cream, and granny’s apple pie. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans has nothing on these guys! Everything there is made from fresh fruit. My popsicle even had bits of apple skin in it. It was very good – much better than any pie my grandmother ever made. I thought of taking a picture of it to show you, but alas, I found it had already been eaten!
Sometimes treasures are hidden where you don’t expect. I was on my way north on 301 to Hillsborough River State Park in Thonotosassa in May of 2016 when I noticed John B. Sargeant County Park on the left. Since I had been to Hillsborough River once before and had never been to Sargeant Park, I decided to check it out to see if it was worth visiting. At first, it appeared to be nothing more than a very popular canoe-launching site. Not having a canoe, I wasn’t interested at the time (you can rent canoes there, but I didn’t have anyone to go with, either). When I found out there was also a boardwalk that stretched out to the river, I decided to stick around.
It was along the boardwalk as it cut through the cypress that I made my first serendipity. In the shallow pools on one side were many brown fish. Some were up to six inches long. They had black spots on the sides and when their nearly transparent fins caught the light just right, they flashed blue. I watched them lazily swim back and forth for a while. A little further, the boardwalk came to the river. This was the second serendipity. The sun on the trees made a beautiful, calming sight while I was sat on the benches in the shade. Numerous tiny water bugs caught the sun and made it seem as if the river was made of sparkling water. There was a good breeze that day and I was surprised at how few flies I had encountered in the woods. It is also apparently a popular spot to go fishing.
Across the river were several birds: an egret, a great blue heron, and two anhingas in a tree. This would prove to be a portent of things to come when I found my third serendipity. The Old Fort King Trail runs all the way from John B. Sargeant Park to Hillsborough River Park. It is open to hikers, bicyclists, and horses. I only went a third of the way before turning back, but along the brook in the forest I saw a turtle, an alligator, and five different species of large birds (I swear one bird was actually purple!). Unfortunately, my camera then wasn’t worth much and all I got were pictures of what look like blurry amoebas.
Even the most boring stretch of woods can have hidden treasures in it that go unnoticed. If the giant orange butterfly didn’t dive bomb me at just the right moment, I would never have seen the large burrow at the base of the tree next to me. If one grapefruit hadn’t fallen out of the tree on the side of the path, I never would have looked up to see all the other grapefruit still growing. I also saw tangerines! The lesson of the day is that treasures are everywhere if you know where to look, and any outing can turn into an adventure.
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.