A Good Boy, Part II

Another milestone in my recovery: today I have once again and for the first time risen with the sun and set out to look for birds, greatest of all pastimes. Anthony picked me up at 7:30 and we cruised over to a nature preserve called Castellow Hammock in Homestead. I’d texted him the night before:

Do you want to look for a rare hummingbird at castellow hammock park tomorrow?

His response, seconds later:

Yes, shall we make it an early morn venture?

Of everyone I’ve met, Anthony ranks highest on the adventure readiness index. It is one of my favorite qualities about him. We were once hiking atop a mountain in Montana one summer during college. He asked what I planned to do after graduating, and I replied that I was going to work for awhile, save money, and try and backpack through South and Central America. From behind me on the trail: “Frankie, you have to let me do that with you. I’ll do anything. I’ll be your bodyguard.” “OK,” I said, and a year and a half later we did it.

But today was just us driving half an hour to look for a rufous hummingbird, since they are rare across the Mississippi. I checked the South Florida birdboards to see what exciting species had been spotted recently, and impulsively texted my friend to see if he wanted to look for the rufous. I was very excited to be heading back into Florida nature to do some birding, finally. My Mom warned me on the way out the door to watch for boa constrictors, and that made me feel especially good.

When we arrived we hiked through the hammock, which in Florida is a sort of forest. It was obvious the place didn’t get many visitors. The trail we went down was overgrown and in places almost nonexistant. It was covered in banana spider webs, which I tried to avoid but sometimes inevitably had to brush away with a stick. In places there were nice little limestone crevices, and I thought to myself what nice snake habitat it looked like.

So it wasn’t even a surprise when a moment later, about ten feet up the trail, I spotted the thick, smooth, velvelty gloss of black, red, and yellow. I looked closely: “red meets yellow, dangerous fellow” – it’s a mnemonic device my Mom had made me memorize as a kid. So I knew it was a coral snake, one of Florida’s four venomous snakes and one of the two I’d never seen in the state. I only had in Soberania National Park, a rainforest adjacent to the Panama Canal. A man, a friend, Bosques was his the name, a park ranger who loved the rainforest more than anything, had taken us to an isolated stream he said was great for swimming. As we arrived, a gorgeous little coral snake skimmed across the water and over to the other side of the stream. It was one of my favorite moments in the rainforest.

I showed Anthony our newest coral snake, and we stared. It was thicker than a finger and as long as my arm. It moved very slowly. Its pace said, “I’m leaving, but I’m a coral snake, so I’ll move as slow as I feel like.” We turned around and walked another trail.

We couldn’t find the rufous hummingbird, but I also saw an adult knight anole, my favorite lizard as a child. After a nice morning of hiking and wildlife watching, we drove over to one of those big Homestead plant nurseries so Anthony could buy some small trees for his garden.

It was getting later, so I called my Mom just to check in. No matter how old I get there are still things I get excited to tell her.

“Mom, we couldn’t find the hummingbird, but guess what we saw?”

“A boa,” Mom said.

“Nope. Even more dangerous.”

“Python?”

“Uh-uh.”

Pause on the other end.

“What was it, Frank?”

“A coral snake, a big one, at least two feet long and thicker than my thumb.”

“And you saw the red meets yellow?”

“Yeah.”

“You were sure what it was and stayed away?”

“Yes, Mom,” I said.

“Good boy.”

More Annoyance at the Hands of Eco-illiteracy

Yesterday I went to Fairchild, a botanical garden in Miami. This weekend they had an orchid festival which my parents planned on going to, and they invited me to join them. It was good for me to go get some sunshine, and I happen to be in one of the few places drenched in it while the rest of the country has spent months trying to remember what it’s like. The three of us walked around the grounds for awhile, but eventually I veered off, since I’m not much of an orchid enthusiast anyway.

I sat on a table by one of the garden’s small lagoons. A mother with her daughter, who was probably around 12, came and sat at the next one.

“Ooooohhh, Erica, look at the anhinga!”

There was a double-crested cormorant sunning itself across the lagoon.

“That’s an anhinga, Erica.”

Erica stared at the bird, possibly memorizing the features of double-crested cormorants so she can one day tell her own daughter they’re anhingas.

Then the dad showed up. He sat next to his wife. Erica walked up to the edge of the lagoon. I watched from behind the shield of my dark glasses.

“Oh my God, Mommy! There’s a turtle here!”

Dad got up to have a look.

In a surprisingly nasal voice for an older man, he said, “Oh, Erica, that’s an alligator snapping turtle.”

It was a Florida softshell turtle. There are many of them in Fairchild. They look absolutely nothing like alligator snapping turtles, which to my understanding remain completely hidden at the bottom of muddy waterbodies anyway. The softshell swam over to the edge of the lagoon, just a few feet away from Erica. She studied its features, memorizing them so she could one day pass on the information. Dad continued dropping the knowledge bomb.

“Erica, the alligator snapping turtle is the only turtle, eh, eh, that can, eh, you know, snap its mouth.”

Erica nodded as her father spoke to her.

“They are super, super dangerous.”

It almost seemed like he didn’t actually believe it was an alligator snapping turtle, because why else would he let his daughter stand right next to an animal that was so super, super dangerous? Softshells are completely harmless. Somewhere deep down inside, he must somehow know how much of an idiot he is.

I am of course also ignorant of what many, many animals are, including in my native South Florida. But when I claim to know the identity of an animal – bird, turtle, or anything else – I make sure I’m one hundred percent positive. If I’m not sure, then I say, “I think it’s a such and such. We’ll have to look it up later.”

If we believe ecoliteracy is important, as I assume even these folks do, since they were trying to teach their daughter the names of different animals, we have to treat it like it’s important and not claim to know something unless we are completely sure. There’s no shame in saying you think an animal is something, but are not absolutely positive. Checking the guidebook back home or in the field is gratifying in its own way, not to mention a nice bonding experience between parent and child.

Of course, if I was a true champion of ecoliteracy, I would’ve spoken up.

“Erica, don’t listen to your parents. That’s a cormorant and that’s a softshell. Seems mom and dad are wrong about everything.”

Maybe that would’ve gotten her ready to be a teenager.

About That Title

Welcome to my website, Curious Traveler, which I hope will be just as run-of-the-mill and forgettable as every other homepage designed by a travel writer who thinks he can somehow carve out a niche for himself in an absurdly bloated market. The idea behind Curious Traveler is that travel writers must be curious; that the world is interesting and therefore worth exploring must be a core belief. But almost by definition travel writers end up being just plain curious, by which I mean weird. That’s part of their glory.

I’ve got five basic categories:

“Diatribes” is my rants and raves section, a cocktail of intellectual inquiry, humor, and pretension.

“Mental Mastications” is for ruminations, meditations, contemplations, and stuff like that. The thing is I wanted to use a less commonly seen -tion word, hence mastications. I also like the image it gives me: a travel writer crouching in a pasture like a cow, endlessly chewing grass.

“Perils Averted” is for adventures and other outings. That’s what most travel writing is, I think: just another dangerous situation the writer inserts himself in, like the plucky protagonist he is, only to narrowly escape, totally unscathed.

“Profiles of Interest” is stuff about people whose stories are more interesting to write about than my own. There will be many.

And lastly, “The Catharsis of Wilderness and Corresponding Nonsense” is, of course, nature writing.

I’ll be updating the site a lot. Check back often, or, better yet, subscribe in the lower right corner.