South Florida and Back

Sometime during the Winter of 2009/2010 I was on the phone with my brother Mike from Missouri. He mentioned getting a couple of weeks off work in the Spring and I suggested I pick him up for a trip to Florida. Over the coming months we solidified our plans, ticking off the places we should visit: Big Cypress Nature Preserve, Everglades National Park, and Key West came quickly to mind, as well as a visit with our old friend, Jay.

Shorebirds are numerous in South Florida     From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

By the most direct route, Key West is 3200 miles (5200 km) from my house, and I wasn’t going the direct route. While it was still a bit early in the year, I decided to take the Northern route to Missouri as the weather looked good for the next few days.
I had a rider from Craigslist set up to go, but I was getting weird vibes from him…so I backed out. Then, as luck would have it, I was unable to line up another rider.
So after a long work day, I threw the dogs in the van and we pulled out of Berkeley at 10 PM. We made it as far as Fernley NV that night where I had to stop for a four hour nap and we were on our way again. Driving across I-80, Eastern Nevada was as picturesque as I have ever seen it. Eighteen inches of snow on the ground in the high desert gave me an intimation of what we would see once we got into the Rockies. We stopped shortly before the Utah border to let the dogs play in the snow, which they enjoyed as usual. Then across Utah and into Wyoming. When we were about half way across Wyoming the wind picked up and started blowing the snow. Traffic would run over the blowing snow flattening it into black ice. It was dark and going was slow. There were numerous wrecks, mostly trucks, two spun out in front of me. A hundred miles took over 3 hours, still we managed to make it a 1000 miles in 20 hours (including our nap). We took another nap somewhere near Cheyenne. After this 4 hour nap we were on the road long before sun up. Driving through the dark with the wind and sliver moon was a really nice experience. We eventually left Wyoming behind as we entered Nebraska. Nebraska is long and it took most of the day. As we were leaving I-80 to drop south toward I-70 it started to rain. The rain would be our companion for three days, and i find it tiring to drive in the rain.
We got to Columbia in time for dinner Friday March 12. I had driven 2000 miles in 40 hours by myself. I was tired when I left home and still managed to pull it off. I find it to be a good feeling to push the limits of endurance and win.
Spent the evening with the Popster and left for the South the following morning. Mike seemed happy to hit the road and we accepted the rain, as what else can you do?
We made it as far as Murfreesboro Tennesee that night where we got a room and relaxed. Two nights sleep had me feeling almost normal again. We got up the next morning and continued South. We decided to drive straight through the night to get to our destination rather than set up camp in the rain.

Alligators were numerous in the canal         From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

Arriving in South Florida without much of a clue as to what to expect, we headed down Hwy 41 out of Naples towards Big Cypress Nature Preserve. Most of our time in Big Cypress was spent along route 41. We started at the visitor center where we found that Big Cypress contained not a single big cypress, they had all been cut down at some point in the past, leaving only smaller trees for present times. We headed to Monument Lake campground where we set up camp. Most of the hiking trails in the area are through the muck, with the exception of a few short boardwalk trails. So we did our hiking on a dirt road, Loop Road. We drove to a wide spot and set out hiking. As we hiked the road, impenetrable swamp on either side, we could hear crashing as wildlife took flight or splashes as alligators slid into the water. Walking along knowing that alligators were only feet away added to the sense of excitement of the hike. Back on 41, the canal to the north of the road was filled with alligators gathering up the warmth of the sun. There was an alligator about every 50 feet along the canal, this went on for miles and miles. There were also numerous shore birds…herons, egrets, anhingas, etc… My favorite was the Wood Storks, the US’s only native stork.

Wood Stork       From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

We spent two days there then headed over to Cutler Bay (south Miami) to get a room so we could get an early start on our way to the Keys the next day. We got busted taking two dogs up to our room, this forced us to pay for another room as only one dog per room was allowed, so we forked over $75 for a room that we never ventured into.
The next day we checked out and headed down HWY 1. It was raining but warm. It is about 130 miles of bridges and islands to get to Key West. Along the way we took a couple of small walks and did some window shopping. As we got near Key West the rain let up and we started running into a lot of traffic. We made our way to the ‘old down town” area which is the heart of the tourist section. Since it was Spring Break the area seemed geared to drinking and the youth. not wanting to shop, we went to the iconic Smokey Joe’s saloon where we found out the original Smokey Joe’s was at the location of Captain Tony’s. Since this was where Hemingway hung out we went over there, but couldn’t get a drink as the bartender was less-than efficient. We took a stroll past Hemingway’s house and packed back into the car for the return trip.

Hemingway’s favorite hangout       From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

The drive back north was much better, no rain and less traffic. We stopped a few times along the way to play and walk the dogs. In Key Largo we stopped and had a fancy meal at a place I believe was called Ballyhoos. I had shrimp with crab stuffing and it was very tasty. We finished off the meal with a generous piece of Key Lime pie, which was amongst the best pie that I have ever had.
We finished the drive off the Keys and got a room in Homestead, a small dumpy sort of place, but they took dogs.
The four days spent at Everglades National Park is really the heart of the trip. We entered the park near Coe Visitor Center and headed up the main park road toward Flamingo camp. The terrain was flat and featureless, there were saw grass (actually a sedge) seas stretching into the distance. Most of the elevation is less than 5 feet and it stretches 40 miles from Coe Visitor Center to the built up area of Flamingo (store, visitor center, marina, campground) which is located near the southerly tip of continental Florida.

Can it really be called a pass?       From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

As we drove in we saw a sign stating that the vultures would eat the rubber off of your car if given the opportunity. We stopped alongside a small lake and sure enough there were vultures eating the rubber coating off a SUVs luggage rack. We drove on into the heart of the park with the hope of seeing manatees, crocodiles, and whatever else we could see in our brief stay.
Flamingo campground was huge and we had no problem finding a spot to set up a couple of tents and tie up a couple of dogs. Since dogs are not allowed on trails we decided that we would do our hiking early in the morning and late in the afternoon when it is cool enough to leave the dogs in the car. During the day we would hang out in camp or do car touring of the park. Near Flamingo campground was a marina where we learned there were frequent sitings of both manatees and crocodiles. Daily, or sometimes more often, we would trek over to the marina to look for wildlife. On one of our early visits we saw an osprey fly by with a fish, it landed in a tree and we set and watch it eat the fish and interact with other osprey. It was surely one of the most Wild Kingdom like experience I have ever experienced.

Osprey with fish        From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

We found that osprey were more than common around the marina and it was nothing to see 10 of them with half a dozen nesting sites easily found. There were also red-shouldered hawks, swallow-tailed kites, and other birds of prey which made regular appearances.
Added to the raptors, there were also numerous shore birds that would make regular appearances. A flock of ibis’s would regularly walk through camp looking for whatever it is that ibis’s eat in the grass. Black vultures would also come through camp looking for garbage to pick through.
Daily we would make a pilgrimage up to the marina to look for manatees and/or crocodiles. On our third day we were rewarded with a visit by a manatee (sea cow) and her calf. They are large gentle seeming creatures and we felt fortunate to experience them up close.

Manatee and calf      From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

We visited most of the boardwalk trails and even hiked a canal near bear lake, taking the dogs on an illegal hike into the swamp. At one point a ranger came and lectured me about the importance of keeping the dogs on leash, so their running free ended up being quite limited. I don’t know about Mike, but I felt that I got to see the vast majority of what there is to see before we left.

Swallow tailed kite       From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

When we packed and left the Everglades we went back up to Big Cypress to spend a few hours checking out the alligators and hiking the loop road again. It was on this hike that I spied two alligators on the side of the road and decided to introduce the dogs to them. I hopped out of the van and ventured up as close as I dare to the alligators, probably about 10 feet behind them. The dogs were oblivious to them. I think that alligators are so far removed from my dogs’ experience that they were unable to even comprehend them, let alone see them right there in front of them.

Introducing the dogs to alligators       From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

By this time, there wasn’t much else to do but point the car north and begin our journey homeward.
Soon we were watching Big Cypress disappear in the review mirror. Back through Naples and North on 75 to visit Jay and Cecie at their Winter home in St. James (on Pine Island in the Gulf of Mexico).
Leaving the lushness of far Southern Florida was a shock. There was no buffer zone, it went from tropical rain forest to a desert like mono-cultured dead zone in the space of only a couple of miles.
We spent the night in a motel in Ft.Myers, a bustling modern city. Early the next afternoon we we drove over to St. James on Pine Island to visit Jay and Cecie. They have a nice place right on a canal. They loaded us all up in their boat and we went putting around the canals. Even here there was much wildlife and we saw eagles, storks, numerous other birds, and even dolphins leaping from the water behind us. When we stopped to fuel the boat, Smokey fell off and I had to fish her out of the canal. Then we took a quick spin out into the Gulf and around a small mangrove island. Back on dry land our hosts took us to check out an eagles nest. We watched the eagles fly from the nest making eagle calls…the first time I had heard them.

Eagle with nest       From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

After this we went back to Jay and Cecie’s place where we were served a nice dinner and spent a while chatting it up before heading back to our room in Ft. Myers.
The next day we headed North. We stopped and hiked a fire trail in the Osceola National Forest in North Florida. The area we hiked was farmed long leaf pine, sandy soil and devoid of wildlife. We finished the day by driving to Tallahassee in the pan handle and getting another room.

Smokey fetches in North Florida      From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

We had to two days of driving to get Mike back to Missouri and it was a two day drive to do it. We decided to enjoy the day along the northern Gulf coast and drive through the night to make up the lost time. After check out we dropped South to the coast and spent a big part of the day enjoying the scenery as we drove leisurely. We found some beaches that were barren except for us and did some hiking and playing with the dogs. Having a nice sandy white beach to ourselves was extremely pleasant. These same beaches were wrecked by the BP Horizon disaster about 2 months later.

Mike and the dogs play on the beach       From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

After a short hike in the national forest, we pointed the car North and West and drove on back to Columbia, Mo, where we arrived early Thursday morning. Spent most of Thursday lounging and napping. Then a long weekend eating good and catching up with the Popster.
Soon enough came Tuesday night and I loaded the dogs up in the van and left Missouri. As I pulled away from the curb, I noted the big beautiful moon and thought it brought warm bodings for the trip. Leaving Columbia I dropped down 63 to 58 West.
Generally, when I start a trip I leave at night. To me it is bonus miles. I find that I can drive all night and all day, but if I leave in the morning I find that I am ready for bed as soon as dark rolls around. Since there was still too much snow in the mountains for the most direct route of I-70, I was heading South and West to pick up I-40.
When I got down to 58 I started seeing dogs crossing the road. This was about midnight and they were crossing in twos and threes. We had just watched Stephen King’s Desperation a few nights earlier and it was weird…I must have seen 15 dogs in a 70 mile stretch, they appeared out of the dark like ghosts and vanished as the headlights moved on. The rest of Missouri was hilly, curvy, and dark. We followed 58 through the night and napped about 100 miles East of Wichita Kansas. The next day we drove across Kansas endlessly…it did finally end at Oklahoma. We only caught about 30 miles of Oklahoma, still I managed to get pulled over for speeding.
Leaving a small town, I accelerated too fast out of town and was pulled over doing 44 in a 35. It was one of the better experiences I have had with a cop. He was friendly, we chatted about life the economy and everything, and he let me go with a warning. Luckily the state takes all of the ticket money so there is no pressure on the local cops to write more tickets to help with the budget. We ended up shaking hands before I drove off and surprisingly it felt very genuine. I guess I have to take back all the bad things I thought about the Oklahoma police, of course the outcome would have been very different had I been burning when he pulled me over.
In Texas, still on 58, we passed the largest feed lot I have ever seen. It went on for miles and miles. As I drove past I saw a sign saying “Bio secure area”, thinking that strange I went back to take a picture of it and the feed lot. I jumped out of the van with my camera, then stopped to read the rest of the sign: BIO SECURE AREA, NO ADMITTANCE, NO PHOTOGRAPHS. Oops… I jumped back in the van and left. We made it to Tucumcari New Mexico and got a motel.
I had made good time thus far, so the next day I took it easy. I stopped and browsed the roadside stores, took in the sites and followed some of Old Route 66. Often 66 would be just the business loop off of I-40…other times it would be a 100 mile loop that paralleled the freeway.

If daisies are your favorite flower, keep pushing up those miles per hour      From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

It was fun to imagine what Route 66 was like in the days before the interstate. Instead of the direct Chicago to LA at 65+ MPH that I know, it was a much longer trip. Where they moved mountains to create the modern interstate, the old route would have wound its way around and over them. Where every exit along the interstate are interchangeable the old route would have gone through every town along the way, big and small. Route 66 was a time when we still had regional cultures in the US, now our culture is flat and varies little from place to place, like one giant field of corn where small diverse farms once stood. I imagine that if one travelled back 50 years in time, returning would have given the same shock that I felt upon leaving the diversity of the Everglades and entering the desert-like mega farms of central Florida.
In Gallup, I stopped to look at some pottery (starting price $1000), as I got back on the freeway I stopped for a hitch hiker. It was a young (18 or 20 year old) Navajo. He had hitch hiked into Gallup to see a relative in the hospital. I drove him into Arizona about 30 miles off the freeway to get him home. We had some interesting conversation, the most notable thing was his absolute faith in nothing positive happening in his life. He had recently lost his job and had no prospects or hope of getting another…hunting antelope and worrying about mountain lions seemed to be his main joys.
In Arizona I stopped at Ofelia’s knife store, where I met Ofelia and discussed the finer points of various switch blades (I bought a set of pairing knives). Ofelia used to run her business out of Modesto California, but the tightening restrictions and stress caused by further prospective restrictions caused her to pack up and move it to Arizona. It was interesting finding an educated person in the desert selling knives at the end of 100 miles of bill boards. Between Albuquerque and Flagstaff it was cloudy, cool, and snow flurries. I liked it as I could leave the dogs in the car without guilt. I did a lot of stopping along the way. Flagstaff was cold with a lot of snow on the ground, I found a warm motel and snuggled in early.
The next day we played in the snow for a while in the Kaibab National Forest, the dogs loved the snow and I loved the trees, the first since Missouri. Then we did a large loop (130 miles) of historic route 66 between Seligman and Kingman. It was beautiful high plains, complete with Burma Shave signs. In Kingman I picked up another hitch hiker, this one a 50′ish ne’er-do-well. I ended up giving him $25 for a pair of work boots that I really didn’t need, and with his attitude he really had no use for either. The boots are actually pretty nice, new, and just a bit wide for my foot. I dropped him off in Needles where he no doubt found a liquor store to trade his cash for something more useful.
Then we were into California. Needles to Barstow used to be the long stretch of desert, at least 100 miles of dry hot road without water or gas. Now, you don’t need to travel further than 40 miles to find gas and the stretch is not much different from any other stretch of highway. I remember when I was a kid and saw this stretch of highway for the first time. My father had been talking about the upcoming desert, and I had child-like ideas of what a desert should be…sand dunes, oases with palms, maybe a camel…I was disappointed that it was scrub and had no blowing drifting sand.
We stopped in the high desert West of Boron to let the dogs run around and chase sticks and made a short day of it by getting a room in Mojave about half way up Tehachepi Pass.

Shadow enjoys the high desert       From 2010 Everglades NP, Big Cypress Reserve

Early the next morning, Saturday, we took off for the final 6 hours home. Driving down the hill into Bakersfield I noted the moon off to the West…a quarter moon descending to the West, it really helped to put the 4 day jaunt into perspective. Driving North in the central valley the coastal range off to the left was as pretty as I have ever seen it. Green with the recent rains and colored with vast patches of orange (poppies) and yellow (mustard?), I am sure I have seen prettier landscapes, I just don’t remember when. We pulled into our home driveway early in the afternoon still relatively fresh. Of course the dogs were happy to be home and warm hellos were given all around. Vacation is always a pleasure, and spending this one with family made it particularly so…but the pleasures of returning home after a long trip are also to be treasured.

A few more pictures can be found here.

Note: I stole the idea of mentioning the shock of running into the monoculture farms after the Everglades from Mike, it tied nicely with what I wanted to say later about the culture-less interstate system.


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