We left Florida and arrived in Mobile, Alabama, just before the holidays, so we took in the Christmas Night of Lights in Mobile on Christmas Eve. It's the first drive-through Christmas light display we've ever been to, let alone one choreographed to a Christmas soundtrack on a local radio channel. Check out the video below. There were around 75 to 100 other car loads of visitors during the 45 minutes we were there, it's been open every evening, rain or shine, since November 11 and it will keep going until January 1. That's a lot of Christmas light enthusiasts. Happy holidays everyone!
I made use of my Florida fishing license for the last time in beautiful Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park. I fished in two places there and it is one of the nicest beaches that I have ever fished.
Also, the north end of the peninsula sports the largest coastal sand dunes I’ve seen outside of North Carolina – a great place to fish. I only found a few fishermen along several miles of beach, but the consensus was that whiting were in the surf in good numbers. I asked about catching them with frozen squid, fishing the bottom, and I was told that I surely could. The fish that Yankees refer to as a whiting is not something that would live in the Gulf, and I was further perplexed to be told that they were "good eating,” but I figured I would give this a shot. After all sorts of hi-jinks, including accidentally throwing my filet knife out in the campground dumpster the night before trash pick-up and having to replace it, and twice leaving the tackle shop without bait, I got down to a spot on the beach that I had scouted, and chosen for a sand bar just distant enough (~40 yards away.) There was another fisherman nearby, and I set up with enough space to avoid tangled lines, but just enough.
For my rig this time I used a double hook with a 2 oz. sinker, which was more than sufficient to hold bottom. In the Gulf there was not an intense amount of drift – in the rough surf of the Atlantic, I’m accustomed to using 'Sputnik' sinkers, which have wire feet to keep them from bouncing along the surf.
On the first cast, I caught a fish. It was about 10 inches long and was a fun enough fight on my tackle. I brought it over to the other fisherman and asked if it was a whiting. He said yes and confirmed that there was no size or catch limit. It had enough meat on it to be worthwhile, so I threw it into the cooler I had filled with water. As it turns out, what they call whiting are the fish known back home as kingfish, and called a sea mullet in Hatteras. A few casts later, I caught another, and after a short time I had four. Kathryn was coming to join me on the beach and I texted her to bring a bucket. At the end of a short day, I had caught six whiting but nothing else, so we decided to keep the biggest three (I’d been throwing back the smaller ones) and make a meal.
A few days later, still in St Joseph's Peninsula State Park, I fished from breakwater rocks near a beach named Stump Hole. The only thing that I caught there were two more small whitefish, but a man from Michigan was there fishing with his dog. Almost as soon as he told us that he’d had no success all day, he lost a nice looking amber jack that spit the hook while he was hoisting it over the rocks. Within minutes, we saw him catch a fat keeper black drum – a fine fish. He told the dog he’d caught their dinner, and packed up.
As happens with all journeys, a few hours into the very beginning of our road trip, I realized what I had forgotten to bring. In this case, it was my fishing rod, which I had been talking with my father about for a week but never packed. Fortunately, he was able to mail it to our friends' house in Jacksonville, so that I could pick it up at Thanksgiving. Buying another rod en route was not an option, it would be like a Jedi who left his light saber behind just 'picking up another sword'. It was built custom by my father, for me, and bears an inscription to prove it. A Sesta fishing rod is not just gear, it is an artifact of deep personal attachment, and great ancestral power. Thanks to Dad for sending it and our friends for signing for an 8- foot PVC tube!
.My first chance to fish was the Florida Keys. Florida has separate fishing licenses for fresh and salt water, and they are not cheap for non-residents, so I intend to get some use out of it. After perusing YouTube videos by Keys pier fishermen, I stopped by a few tackle shops. The best place I found was Big Time Tackle. I went in, told them the rod, line, and amount of time that I had, and they recommended different rigs for several types of fish, with tips on where and when and how to fish for them.
That night I put together three rigs:
1) Snapper rig with bait - basically just a standard surf rig with sinker above the hook. To be fished on the bottom but pulled up and down to attract various snapper, amber jack, and reef fish.
2) "Gotcha" lure to jig from the pier for a wide variety of fish including mackerel in season and, with extreme luck, tarpon or permit.
3) Weighted lure with bucktail to jig on the flats for snook and bonefish.
For rigs 2 and 3, I used 25 lb florocarbon line as leader, as it had been suggested to me that some of what I was after "won't hit a wire leader". The bait rig came leadered with thin steel.
Many of the bridges between the Keys are equipped with piers running along the length of the bridge. From these, fishermen drop lines right in among the supports and fish deeper water usually only accessible by boat. I was anxious to try this out, so based on a tip from Big Time, I headed to Tom's Harbot Cut Fishing Pier.
I had been warned that unless the tides are very slack, the fishing can be difficult due to the very fast rush of water under the bridge. There are sites for tracking the relevant factors that I would recommend to anyone doing this seriously, but I tried out the Gotcha lure without any luck. One interesting moment was when I cursed myself for getting snagged beneath the bridge, but ended up dislodging my lure along with an octopus, who luckily shook free once out of the water. I didn't want to harm it by hauling it to the top of the bridge, but I was happy to see it.
Next, I moved an area below the pier, among some of the area's famous mangroves.
I switched to the bait rig, with frozen shrimp, and amost immediately caught the small but pretty Lane Snapper, pictured below. In all, I caught four various snapper, all too small to keep, and one or two unidentified fish of similar size.
I tried my luck on the pier, where the water was still flowing fairly quickly, but a few other fishermen had started to gather. I met a nice couple from Vermont who were fishing with enormous bait and rigs, and caught a small skinny fish that looked to be a Spanish mackerel. I brought it over to my camerawoman for the photo below, quickly snapped as I hurried to free it from the Gotcha's nasty treble hooks and return it to the water.
The fish below was sort of light brown on top, and my photographer wasn't able to get a side view photo before I helped it flip and flop back into the water. Anyone have any ideas?
Also, stay tuned for part two: fishing the Gulf Coast!
We've been clocking up a lot of miles traveling all around the coast of Florida recently – about 1,400 so far! After we left Miami, we headed south to the Florida Keys, where we stayed in Grassy Key RV Park and Resort, the amazing campground pictured above near Marathon Key, which is located about half way between Key Largo and Key West. We had two days of torrential rain while we were here and I got bitten all over by an unidentified insect and looked like I had the measles, but whatever. It was pretty amazing to wake up to this view every day and incredible 80F weather and jump in the pool, even when we had clouds – and insect bites.
It was on the marina wall at our campground that we saw the iguana in the gallery below, which was over three foot long from his head to his tail. Crazy. Apparently they are not native to Florida and have become a pest that are a hassle to locals, who do not want their gardens dug up by critters with no natural predators.
We also saw our first manatee in the Keys, green sea turtles, sharks, grouper and jelly fish (the last four, all while we were in a glass-bottomed boat in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park) and of course 50-odd polydactyl cats (cats with extra toes) at Hemingway's former house in Key West. Another highlight for this new driver was driving over the Seven Mile Bridge to get to Key West – Shane has a video of this that we will upload.
Shane went fishing, we had drinks in the campground with our new friend Buzz, who is spending several months down here, Sonny developed a liking for climbing palm trees and we all developed a taste for the amazing shrimp, crab and other seafood in this area, not to mention fantastic Key Lime Pie. We thought the best we had was at Brutus Seafood and Eatery in Marathon. We must also give a shout out to Sparky's Landing in Key Colony Beach, home of the $0.30 fresh ready-to-peel shrimp and $0.30 chicken wings during happy hour, where you can sit outside by the marina and watch the pelicans swoop by.
Then we left the aquamarine waters of the beautiful Keys and drove to the Everglades, subtropical wetlands which cover over 1.5 million acres of South Florida, which as well as containing a national park, are a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. There are an estimated 1.3 million alligators in Florida and we've decided most of them live here. They were everywhere – basking in the sun all along The Tamiami Trail (Highway 41), along Highway 84, also known as Alligator Alley, and all along the walkways we explored in Shark Valley, part of Everglades National Park. There were also alligators in the lake in our campground, so we couldn't let out Sonny for a couple of days.
We did an airboat ride into the Everglades with Tigertail Airboat Tours, which operates on the Miccosukee Reservation on the Tamiami Trail. Our guide told us that gators grow all their lives, and as they can live to be 100 years old, they can grow up to 15 feet. However, the biggest around there were 12 feet long and around 60 to 70 years old. The Everglades, and the adjacent Big Cypress National Preserve, which is another 729,000 acres, are also habitats for the Florida Panther. Sadly, these endangered big cats are often struck by speeding cars in this area, which is why panther crossing zones, complete with tunnels underneath roadways, have been set up around here. The population is beginning to grow again, but there are only an estimated 100 to 180 panthers in this area, so it's no surprise that we didn't see one. We had to make do with own trailer panther instead.
Earlier this month we stopped for a few days outside of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and visited the Kennedy Space Center. After spending around seven hours there, we could have spent another day. If you are planning a visit, we'd recommend either knowing what you won’t mind missing or spending two days – there is too much to see in one. The huge spacecraft on exhibit and the bus tour of the buildings and launchpads made big impressions, but most memorable was the presentation of the inspiring and emotional historical content.
One moment we'll never forget was the presentation of the prep and launch of the Apollo 8 mission, which sent the first humans out of earth’s orbit, into moon orbit, and back safely. The video above captures some of it. Even today, it sounds like a Hollywood script, more science fiction than history. What made the experience incredible was the presentation of this real-life drama.
We were seated in bleachers overlooking the actual Apollo control center equipment in the configuration from launch day. A video presentation on the monitors showed footage and information from Russia’s post-Sputnik period of space superiority, bringing the audience into the anxiety of that moment. We then re-lived actual footage of the series of explosions and failures that made President Kennedy’s dream of a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s seem impossible.
Information was provided about the preposterously large Saturn rockets, so much bigger and more complex than the previous vehicles that only had to reach low orbit, but with so many additional points of failure and fewer test opportunities. We were shown the preparations made by the hundreds of thousands of people who worked on millions of parts and plans, under time pressure, cost and safety constraints, knowing each piece could decide success or failure.
The presentation culminated in a description of what was expected to happen at each stage of the launch, followed by a countdown in the control room in front of us, and footage from the launch countdown. Forty-eight years later, it still evoked a spine-tingling tension. A roaring sound system amplified the excitement. The reactions of relief and celebration caught on the control room footage were enough to make anyone proud not just of NASA and the USA, but of humanity. Proud that whatever else we have done, or will do, as a species or a people, we have also done this.
There are innumerable other highlights which make Kennedy Center worth visiting. The space shuttle Atlantis is hanging from the ceiling in a building dedicated in tribute to the shuttle program. Visitors can get hands-on time in a cockpit, experience a launch, and offer respect to those who lost their lives aboard Challenger and Columbia. A gigantic Saturn rocket is hanging from the ceiling in another vast museum dedicated to the Apollo program, where visitors can see real suits and gear that were used on the moon, and even touch a moon rock.
We were also lucky enough to visit soon after the opening of the new Heroes and Legends exhibit, which commemorates all of the astronauts in the center’s history, including John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth, who died this month at the age of 95. It was a very fine museum, but in the context of the whole experience, it left us thinking of all of the other, less visible heroes, scientists and civilians, who have made the space program successful.
There are also exhibits about Mars. The focus of funds and research at Kennedy Space Center now is clearly to ignite the public’s interest in the next phase of human space exploration and Mars in particular. Maybe it was some of the inspiration from the Apollo exhibits spilling over, but I really want to believe that we are still capable as a species of caring about pushing beyond our limits in space and buckling down to make it happen.
The new vehicle under development, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV,) is scheduled to be launched from one of the pads that we got to visit. It is a modular design, and like the Apollo program, the general plan is to build and test components in a series of missions, which ultimately produce an interplanetary vehicle. The current mission schedule includes extraordinary plans – including this gem:
"Send an Orion capsule in 2026 with four crew members to an asteroid that had been robotically captured and placed in lunar orbit in late 2025.”
Of course in today’s world these plans will require working public/private partnerships, international collaboration and reliable funding. In my opinion, the audacity and grandiosity of our plans for the stars is a measure of humanity. Big goals are not cheap, although NASA has done incredible things on budget. Something like $1 billion - $1.5 billion per year has been spent on Orion so far; roughly $14 billion in the last decade.
At the center, you see the engineering that goes into producing zero-fail systems with many redundant parts, which have to fit into absurd spaces, and weigh as little as possible. It is a marvel that these custom jobs can be done and work together at any price. Often on the first try. In space.
The Kennedy Space Center is a place that is well worth a visit, to see what hundreds of thousands of dreamers have been able to achieve, and to be inspired about the future. The facilities, rockets and treasures there are the property of all Americans. The achievements realized and honored there belong to all of humanity. It is impossible to visit without feeling very humbled, and very proud.
I don't know this for sure, but I seriously doubt that any of the 77,000 people who flocked to Art Basel Miami Beach or the many more that attended the hundreds of satellite events in Miami last week spent the whole time camping in a trailer in a former avocado orchard. At first, it seemed like a great idea. I'm working all year on the road after all, so why not rock up at a gathering of the art world's one percenters that I need to cover for work in our travel trailer? What fun! One friend even suggested that we could pass off our rather dowdy and extremely beige Keystone Bullet as a public art installation and give people tours.
This didn't take into account that the closest campground we could find in Miami was an hour's drive away from South Beach, even without the Art Basel traffic. Once we actually made it into the city, we had to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the causeway over to South Beach, navigate gridlocked streets once we got there and then find a parking spot that was large enough for The Beast in all the mayhem. Thank goodness Shane offered to drive. Still, repeating that process at the end of each day meant a total of three or more hours of driving on top of eight or nine hours of running around various art fairs reporting, which meant the whole thing was pretty full on for both of us.
It was also weird to be staying in a campground surrounded by fruit farms in the same city, but in a different world to South Beach, with its VIP receptions, rope lines, slinky dresses and celebrity parties. The Beast looked pretty conspicuous and in dire need of a wash in the valet parking pick up line outside the main fair, wedged in among the gleaming BMWs and Ferarris. Again, thank goodness Shane was driving. We also found that trying to appear like people who are not actually permanently living in a field and emptying a trailer's sewer tank every few days is a bit of a challenge when that's actually what you are doing. At one point, we had to conduct an emergency change into evening clothes out of the back of The Beast in the underground parking deck at our friends Vic and Tom's place.
Thankfully, we both got to see some fantastic art last week (see photos and captions for some of the most talked about pieces) and have a lovely dinner with Vic and Tom one evening. Artists Tomas Vu and Rirkrit Tiravanija also had an installation at Untitled fair, held in a massive tent on the actual beach, which encouraged visitors to take surfboards with Pussy Riot-inspired designs out into the waves, so I made it onto the sand too, albeit very briefly. (Incidentally, although everyone who had a go a surfing deserves a high five (unlike me), the only person who actually managed to get up on a board was a lifeguard, who walked over to have a go and blew the competition out of the water, so to speak. I immediately thought that our surfing friend Riva should have been there!)
Thanksgiving, preparations for Miami and a lot of moves over the last few weeks mean that we have some gaps to fill in on this blog. Shane has posted about Charleston, South Carolina, but we were there just before our stay at Fort McCallister State Park in Georgia. Since then we've been to Savannah and Jekyll Island, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida, where we spent Thanksgiving with our amazing hosts Michele and Spencer and family. Before we arrived in Miami, we made a day trip to St Augustine and then stayed near Cape Canaveral, Florida. There we visited the Kennedy Space Center and had an equally inspirational time with our friend Sally's trailblaizing mother, who from her first job heading up the crew systems lab during the Apollo missions, spent an amazing career at NASA. So we are playing catch up. Watch this space for more!
While touring the charming and expectations-exceeding city of Charleston, South Carolina in November, we saw old stand oak trees, the greatest concentration of antebellum houses in the country, and dolphins feeding and playing a few feet from the seawall.
I was very impressed and hopeful to see that the event was packed. Everywhere, young people were pushing around with bags full of newly purchased hardcovers, rushing to stand in line to hear authors and participate in signings.
The age of the the attendees ranged from 12 to 17, and one immediately obvious demographic was that, by my statistically irrelevant count of about 20 people, about 80% of the attendees were young women.
It was gratifying to see that there was a voracious appetite for a diverse set of work, by a very established cast of authors that I had never heard of (there were about 65 at the fair). Also, seeing the excitement and energy of these young people reminded me of a Wired magazine article that I read years ago. The article discussed an interesting analysis and discussion paper from of a series of experiments in over 200 urban schools to study the effectiveness of various incentive programs on student performance. These studies asked the question – what if we spend money directly on incentivizing students? The studies were scientific in that they included control groups, were normalized for a number of socio-economic factors, and there were two general types of student incentives studied. (Teacher incentives were also studied in a limited way – read the report if interested!)
Some students were given performance-based cash incentives, such as money for grades on their report card or for higher standardized test scores. Others were given behavior-based incentives for attending class or reading books. The reason that I remembered this study in Charlotte was that to the surprise of many, by many metrics, the test scores for the students who were paid to read books improved the most. Even more surprisingly, it wasn’t just their verbal scores that increased – some improvement appeared to be seen in math as well.
That said, I actually did my own reading of the source paper/data for a subset of the studies, and I don’t think that enough attention was paid to several skew/weighting factors in the study, specifically that certain incentives were tested only on certain age groups and that the data suggest that bilingual students may have accounted for an oversized amount of the “book reader” numbers from the portion of the study conducted in Dallas. Also, the authors of the studies and the analysts who have looked at these since made it quite clear that more investigation is required to confirm any statistically significant results.
Still, whenever I see kids reading on the subway, I feel hopeful. And YALLFEST makes me believe that just maybe we can improve US skill levels by giving children the love and confidence for reading that opens the doors to learning everything else in the universe.
Finally, I need to give a shout out to our friends who hosted us for a wonderful evening in Charleston and provided critical tips for our South Carolina and Georgia experience.
And also to an epic food idea perfectly executed. Excellent cookies, plus ice cream plus pie. Please open these across the country – I need to try all of the flavors.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.