Each year, Bosch offers a home trip to meet with mentors, touch base with former coworkers, and, importantly, see family. Mine happens to coincide with Christmas, so to catch coworkers before the holidays, my first stop was back to Charleston. Due to inclement weather in Chicago forecasted for the day I was supposed to fly in, I ended up changing my flights (courtesy of a United Airliners customer service agent) and in Charleston one day earlier than intended. This allowed me to check out Second Sunday, and after I got over my surprise at the number of changes in the restaurant scene I wandered down King Street. The weather was perfect — sunny and in the 70s. After two winters in Germany, I had begun to forget what attracts so many to Charleston in the winter.
I passed by the gallery of a landscape photographer who shoots exclusively with a large-format camera that requires the use of a tripod. I’ve sometimes muttered about carrying the ten pounds or so of gear that I use up and down mountains, but this blanches in comparison to the nearly 50 pounds Ben totes around on his trips. In a moment of the tourist who sees more than a local, I surmised I had passed his King Street gallery over a dozen times when I lived in Charleston but never recognized it as a gallery.
During the week, I met up with friends and ended up visiting Tradesman for a beer with one of them, also a photographer and one I met through Charleston’s photography meetup. The night we went, Steve Cheeseborough was scheduled to perform. I was using a Canon G7X Mark II — it was my first time traveling without a dSLR as my camera — and forgot about the autofocus lamp, a bright red LED that blinked whenever it was too dark for the sensor itself to focus correctly. It took a sharp rebuke from Steve to bring me to my senses and turn it off!
After my week in Charleston, I flew to Texas to spend time with my parents. Earlier that year, however, one of my cousins came to Oklahoma for her doctorate studies, and we ended up discussing Christmas plans. I had wanted to go to Chicago — I know it better than Dallas, after all — but snow had made an appointment for the week, so I began to chart out warmer waters. The simplest nonstop appeared to be Florida, and after only a week at home I was again headed toward the Atlantic coast.
We began by visiting Everglades National Park. Its ecosystem is incredible; I wouldn’t have imagined anything like it could exist so near to Miami. The sawgrass for which it is famous is not immortal, and seeing it up close was an affirmation of one of the United States’ best ideas.
Some lifeforms, like the alligator, were immediately recognizable.
Others, not so much. These little red bumps weren’t so pleasant looking, and I had no idea what they were. Naturally, the correct response is to assume a distasteful disposition. Nature, so the saying goes, can be scary. Or gross.
As we continued driving toward Flamingo, we pulled over occasionally to walk along the various trails. I can’t imagine trying to do the Everglades backcountry: it looks like an inhospitable mess. As the bounty of edible fruits and wildlife increases, so too does the existence of poisonous plants and predators, I suppose!
After lunch at Flamingo, we took a boat tour that exposed more of the ecosystem than we had been able to see from the trails and road. As we entered Coot Bay, we encountered an osprey resting on a channel marker. Many of us snapped away as the captain pointed out the sitting bird, which flew off in annoyance with its prey still in its claws as we pulled closer.
We headed out toward the Keys the next day, though not before a quick stop at Robert is Here. It’s turned into a tourist spot since its humbler beginnings, but the tropical fruit is no less delicious. We were fortunate to have Robert himself peel the mango we bought! (This is, in case it’s not clear, not my cousin, though I did get permission to grab a picture of her and Robert as she and her friend bought their mango.)
Our destination out among the Keys was Key West. There was plenty of traffic — apparently many had the same thoughts we did for escaping the winter — but after several stops along the way, we arrived at Key West along with a third of the other arrivals at Miami International Airport.
We walked to the infamous buoy the next day, which on search engines seems to be a deserted landmark. Alternative facts, as the line to take a photo next to or on top of it was about a block long. I shook my head and stole a shot from across the road. I didn’t notice the bald guy apparently looking back at us when I took the shot!
In lieu of waiting in the line to selfie with concrete, we headed toward the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. I had seen butterflies before, of course, but seeing them fluttering in my face is another experience altogether.
On the way back to get our car, we stopped at the Hemingway Home. The guy was an shameless womanizer, a trivia point our tour guide gleefully pointed out as we walked around his old house. It’s on impeccable ground: Key West is desirable as it is, and the house is said to be on one of the highest points above sea level on the entire island.
One of his rooms looked like a man-cave of old. I never went hunting when I was in Charleston, but apparently this is an activity I’ll need to pick up if I want to hang any trophies on my walls at this age.
And so the week flew by. To and from Miami, I got to fly on ancient planes in desperate need of upgrades — an American Airlines 767 whose overhead bins along the center seats were too small to stow today’s ballooning carry-ons and a 777 whose seat cushions were in such bad shape two were marked “out of order.” But those impressions were short-lived. One day after leaving the 80s of Miami, I was on my way back toward winter, or Chicago as it’s now known, marveling once again at the impeccable arrangement of streets in my former hometown (or, more precisely, former big-city-near-hometown, as I’m not from Chicago).
A few hours later, I boarded a 777 in slightly better condition to head back to cold Europe. I woke up a few times in the night and pulled up the window shade to peek outside, noticing at one point there was a faint green glow on the horizon. The G7X Mark II struggled a bit with the exposure, but between having seen them for the first time ever and having a pocket-sized camera that could capture them was enough to make the rest of my sleep excitedly fitful.
The flickering green soon turned to black night and yielded to blue dawn. As we overflew Belgium and entered central Germany, I reflected on approaching two years in Germany. I think I’ve been terrifically fortunate: I’ve been able to explore the high Alps, meet up with friends who have come over on their own European adventures, catch up with friends I made when I first started at Bosch, and work in a cutting-edge facility with a brand new product. As I fled skyward over Thanksgiving and darted around the Southeast over the holidays, I began to wonder if I could ever really let my life slow down, let myself take a break. As I looked out over a brightening horizon, I realized I still didn’t have an answer to that. Nevertheless, what I’ve come to appreciate most in the last eighteen months, beyond the traveling and the hiking and the photography, is the value of friends and family. It’s not a reflection I often write about directly, but being independent in what is largely a new country has coincidentally also made me realize that we are not alone on our journeys. I couldn’t ask for a better way to learn that lesson than to experience it abroad, and I can’t thank my family and friends enough for all the support and love they give. Perhaps our journeys are expected, after all; it’s the encouragement of friendship amid our independence and experiential uniqueness that is unexpected but yet most gratifying.
I had hoped to finish this post in 2016, but didn’t manage to get everything tied up quite in time. Happy new year to all my readers and best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2017!