Saturday, April 26, 2014

Miss Tess Rocks Marblehead

More evidence that there's something very wrong: how come only 35 people came out to see Miss Tess and her newest band tear down the UU church in Marblehead??  OK, the traffic was even worse than on a normal Friday night (things get crazy on school vacation week), but besides that small point the stars were aligned and yet no one except a few delighted regulars saw one of the best young female blues singers I know.  And labeling her with a genre is misleading, her new album of covers (including one cover of herself) touches on Ted Hawkins, Randy Newman, Willie, Bonnie, Hank, and Neil Young.  Eclectic yes, but in addition her song on the record is as good as any of theirs.  And she proved that Friday night.

Emily Elbert opened and was pretty hot herself.  She's got great vocal and guitar technique (being a Berklee product), but needs to put the two together a bit better.  She's working hard at it and gave us a well-wrought, professional set, possibly one of the best opening sets I've seen at the Me and Thee Coffeehouse.

After a short break Miss Tess came out with "The Talkbacks," though the band has a new guitarist and bassist in Thomas Eaton and Jeremy McDonald, as well as long-time drummer Matt Meyer.  They were all excellent and I'd have to say that her band is much better than it was last summer.  McDonald alternated between standup and electric bass, and added some sweet baritone vocals.  Eaton played some hot rockabilly licks and this was what was missing to my ear ... Miss Tess did some great jazz-blues-torch stuff earlier in her career but her voice sounds best when she's rocking out and taking names.  I think this was the first drum kit I'd heard at the M&T and Meyer was just fantastic, he could have accompanied her well all by himself.

We were in the first row of course and had a bit of dialog with the band, who must have been dismayed by the small house but were nearing the end of a long tour and seemed to be enjoying a night without a lot of pressure.  They covered almost all of the new record, and then delved into some new songs and some old songs, which to my delight included Adeline, Don't Tell Mama, and People Come Here For Gold.  They encored with Darling Oh Darling and got a standing ovation from the small crowd.

Had a brief chat with Miss Tess and then took off for home after a long week.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bye Bye To Ganesh

Wednesday April 23

All good things come to an end, and this was the end of our Florida vacation.  We’re experienced enough travelers that we could do the final suitcase-stuffing and leaving-stuff-behind that needed to be done without too much trouble.  One last yummy Travelodge breakfast, loaded up on coffee, and then hit the road North on the start of Florida’s Turnpike in Homestead.

We had to leave behind some peanut butter, and I’d schemed to sneak outside in the middle of the night and rub it on Ganesh’s stomach.  I’m sure he would have *loved* it but I think I might have gotten arrested.  In any case, I slept too soundly and missed the opportunity.

It was yet another sunny day but this time we had the top up, and it’s probably good that we did because the turnpike got really full with noisy and crazy traffic quickly.  We stopped in Pembroke Pines to knock down the last beer, to fill up one last time, and to snap a few more pictures, and then braved the last few packed miles to the Fort Lauderdale airport, where we bid a sad farewell to Mustang Sally, who had been an excellent companion and ended up enjoying the trip a lot more than she thought she was going to.

Got some beers and some salads at the now-empty restaurant that had been overflowing when we passed through the Fort Lauderdale airport before, and then caught our planes North.  Air travel can be really not fun, and there were lots of little details not worth mentioning that made it even more tedious.  One good thing was having a short interlude at a Clearwater(!) brewpub in the Atlanta airport.

Made it back to Boston a bit before 9:00 and took a cab home as soon as we could.  Back to the 40’s and 50’s and the middle of a cold Spring, but what the heck, we’d had a great time!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Key West and Beyond!

Tuesday April 22

Back in the Winter I’d mentioned to my friend that we were going to Florida that Spring.  She asked what we were going to do and I told her some of our itinerary, and then said, “And we’ll probably have some time at the end, so we might do stuff like drive out to Key West.”  She gave me the double-take and said, “No, you *are* going to drive out to Key West, you *have* to do that!”

I was glad to hear that.  For years I’d looked at the map of Florida and wondered what it would be like to drive out that long causeway, miles and miles into the ocean.  Now was the time for us to find out!

I actually woke up a little early and we got to breakfast before it became crazy-busy.  The less said about the Travelodge breakfast the better, probably.  I’d realized we hadn’t brought any beach towels and I considered bringing one of the hotel’s towels, but that wouldn’t be cool and we needed to be cool here.  We stopped at a couple of places around Florida City to see if they had towels (every place had souvenirs, so we thought beach towels were not far away).  Sarah was in one place for a while so I figured she’d hit paydirt, and then she came out with tea towels and a sun-dress.  Oh well, there would be places on the way.

The last bit of route 1 South starts in Florida City, and it wasn’t long before we were blasting with the top down on another cool-but-heating-up-quickly morning, down the straight line towards Key Largo, over the marsh, the peninsulas, and then the start of the scattered islands.  “Blasting” is relative of course; we were leading the pack and so doing the speed limit, and the other cars were piling up behind us.  After a while I had to call the 10-car rule on myself and pulled over at Little Blackwater Sound so they could all get by.  I followed and *they* were doing the speed limit and now I was stuck at the end of the pack!  Oh well, that’s human nature and we had a long way to go.  Turned right at Key Largo and headed out the long path to the sea.

The Keys are divided up into 5 chunks: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, the Lower Keys, and Key West.  All of these actually include a lot of smaller islands.  For instance, “Marathon” is not only Marathon Key but also Pigeon Key, Knights Key, Boot Key, Vaca Key, etc.  The first for us was Key Largo (then Rodriguez Key, Tavernier, etc.) and this was pretty well settled.  We found a Dollar Store and got a beach towel, then crawled past massive stretches of construction and ritzy hidden enclaves for a long way.
Probably half the people who visit the Keys stop here and don’t go farther.  As you might imagine, the glaring signs for phony “safaris,” rotting water parks, broken-down airboat rides, tired t-shirt and shell stores, seafood restaurants that were probably pretty bad, etc. proliferated here.

But as we passed into Islamorada after @20 miles there was a definite change.  Unsettled bits of beach started to pop up and the causeway got narrower.  There were places where we could see Florida Bay on the right and the ocean on the left, and then the gaps between the Keys started up and we were definitely out there.

Things got even better as we approached Long Key State Park, in the town of Layton on the last bit of Islamorada.  We had this park on our list of sites to visit but realized that we’d better concentrate on getting out to the universally-recommended Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Keys if we wanted to get everything in that day.  It was here that the archipelago of Florida Bay to the North finally ended and we were officially out in the Gulf of Mexico.  We pulled over before the Long Key Viaduct, snapped a few pictures, and breathed the ocean air.  It was very strange: we were way out in the sea by now, but there was a busy highway balancing on the narrow islands that was just a hundred feet away from us at the most.  Loud, but still beautiful.

Got back in the Mustang and continued cruising, over the viaduct, past Duck Key, Curry Hammock State Park (where we also would have loved to stop), and then into and out of Marathon … more on Marathon later.  After that comes the Seven Mile Bridge.  I was a little nervous if I would freak out driving on a narrow road in the middle of miles of ocean, but the long bridge from Knights Key to Little Duck Key was a piece of cake … in fact it was even better than that!  The sky was blue, the sea was green, the clouds were white, a few boats moved slowly up the ocean on our left, the old, rotting causeway on our right was covered with comical birds and their droppings, and it was pretty noisy but spectacular!  We landed in the Lower Keys and soon turned off to the left into Bahia Honda State Park.

We had to wait in a line to get in, though it turned out we were a few hours ahead of the crowd.  All the other cars turned right toward the concessions and the campground, and we turned left, back to the East along the Atlantic shore.  A few miles later the route we were on diverged from route 1 enough that it became blessedly quiet, and finally there was the end of the road with a few pavilions with picnic tables, a low building with restrooms and showers, and the Silver Palm trail stretching out beyond that.  This was the place we had hoped to visit and it was even prettier than we’d imagined it.

It’s a little laughable to look at the brochures for this park; it seems pedestrian if you read about the details, but when you actually see it then you realize what an incredible place it is.  If you’re ever out in the Keys, go there.

First things first for us: we prepared our pack and then hit the Siler Palm trail.  The beach was pretty deserted at this point and maybe we could have taken advantage of that, but it never got very crowded that deep into the park while we were there.

The Silver Palms you see on the Lower Keys are threatened, because for years people have been digging them up and moving them to their gardens.  The State Park is protected of course, and we saw some lovely specimens of the tall trees.  We also saw Gumbo Limbo trees, Sea Grapes, Poisonwood, a huge orb weaver spider on her web, lots and lots of lichens, all three varieties of mangroves in one small area (black, red, and white), holes all over the place dug by land crabs, sea oats, lots and lots of birds, and many kinds of bushes,  The Silver Palm trail has informational signs every few feet it seems, and we read all of them.  It’s amazing that the undergrowth that we’d been remarking on all along was documented and turned out to be more kinds of different plants than we could imagine.  We saw everything from wild poinsettia to wild bamboo, all crowding around us as we wound through the woods on a suddenly hot, hot day.

The trail wound out to the beach a few times, and finally we returned to the parking lot.  The only others on the trail had been Europeans … where are all the Americans?  Oh there they were, suddenly crowding the beach a bit, though few of them really looked ugly.

It was time!  I changed into my suit and hit the calm water.  Went straight out from the shore into the Atlantic, a few hundred feet or so over sloping sand until it was well over my head, then out past a band of weeds growing on the bottom with transparent jellies hovering over them, and then out further over a vast expanse of sand, now about 20 feet deep and a couple of hundred yards or so off shore.  The water was so clear I had no hesitation about swimming underwater with my eyes open, swooping down to the bottom to pick up a handful of the coarse sand, and then rising up back towards the sun.  The water was so salty it made me tear and blink when I popped back up on the surface and tried to shake it off.

This was a wonderful experience for me.  I swam slowly back to shore, past a few snorkelers busily cruising up and down the beach, and past a small scattering of kids and parents enjoying the beach from a few yards into it.  One father was trying to teach his young daughter how to swim and was terrified when she’d pop off the kick-board and show him with a smile that she could swim on her own.  When he tried to demonstrate the right way, you could tell he really had no idea himself … his daughter had learned more about swimming in the sea in a few minutes than he had in a lifetime.

We sat at a picnic table in a pavilion and ate our daily peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we had prepared that morning … the last of our loaf of bread.  Soon it was time for another quick swim, and then a fresh-water shower and to get saddled up to leave.  We still had many miles to go and the afternoon was getting on.

There’s suddenly lots of land when you get out to the Lower Keys and the Key Deer refuge (we were disappointed not to see one), and it was still @25 miles out to Key West.  But then we were suddenly close to the end, and the traffic, the buildings, and the confusion picked up like it had never been far away.  We had planned for this and turned left on A1A to skirt the downtown area.

There’s a beautiful park/beach/esplanade around the Southern coast of Key West, and we cruised on that for a while.  Suddenly there was nothing left to do but dive into the city, and we didn’t want to do that!  We made a sudden command decision and turned the fuck around.  We’d gone far enough into the ocean, perhaps a half mile and an endless stretch of tourists short of the official “point furthest South in the United States,” but that was close enough for us.

Cruised back up A1A and then we were on the road back.  I’d seen a coffee shop in the Saddlebunch Keys, and we stopped at Baby’s Coffee to load up on iced caffeine.  I ran into a guy from Worcester waiting for coffee.

One more person we wanted to visit … Sarah’s Internet friend Joe is one of the “Cornell hawk” people (long story), and is incongruously based in Marathon.  She’d been in touch with him off and on throughout the last few weeks about meeting up, and the timing was perfect!  We agreed to meet in his local bar, LazyDays on Marathon, and we got there a bit before he did.

What a beautiful place!  It was happy hour and the Clearwater beers were cold and cheap, they had incredible tuna sashimi (with real wasabi) and conch appetizers to die for, and the views from the bar out of Marathon Harbor were beyond fantastic.  They had slips at the bar for nautical visitors.  They had t-shirts saying, “I Wake Up Every Afternoon for Happy Hour.”

Joe is a retired finance guy who loves fishing and now works and recreates on boats out in the ocean, hunting mahi-mahi, sailfish, tuna, and a good time.  He and Sarah were really tickled to see each other, realizing that other virtual Cornell hawk friends would barely be able to believe that they’d finally met.  He showed us the boat at that dock that he worked on sometimes, and then brought us over to his harborside condo, where *his* boat was docked.  He told us tales about the Gulf Stream, what kind of fish they catch, and what kind of life he leads there.  I’ll have to admit that we were almost ready to pitch the workaday life overboard right there and sign on.

What a beautiful place, but we were finally ready to get back on the road around 6:00 or so … we had a long way to go.  The islands and the channels between them rolled by in reverse as we kept the top down, the speed at the limit (there were an incredible number of cops and cowboys on the road, see digression above), and the tunes cranked.  Finally we made it through the long haul of Key Largo, and turned left up to Florida City.

That’s when the really incredible stuff happened.  It was about 7:45 by then and we had a great view of the sun to our left, sinking into the horizon.  It exploded into spheres of color that shot through the whole sky and lit up the clouds, the birds, and the vast blue-gray spaces in shades of pink, purple, yellow, red, and orange.  We were shooting through it in a Mustang convertible, listening to Jerry and the boys turn up the volume and play the songs of ages.

OK, the straight road North through the swamp finally ended and Florida City started up, and we soon pulled into the Travelodge parking lot and Ganesh *knew* about all that we’d experienced.  Sarah was still pretty full from the late appetizer feast, but I was a bit peckish and so went for a sub at the very conveniently-placed Subway.

A French family was ordering from the guy working there, who was saddled with one of the thickest Southern accents I’ve ever heard.  There were some communication difficulties, especially when they were delighted to be asked to pick their rolls, but then puzzled when he told them that no, they could pick the kind but not the roll itself.  I managed to keep a straight face.

Watched a bit of TV and then to bed as soon as we could after a long, lovely day.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Real Everglades (Dry Season)

Monday April 21

Yay!  This was the day we were going to go to Everglades National Park and do it right!!  Well, perhaps we could have done it better but we did pretty well.

We didn’t get up early, and we didn’t get up late, but whichever way it was the crowds at the breakfast room couldn’t be avoided.  The Travelodge had “breakfast” and it was not entirely obnoxious, though nothing about it was above average.  But the room it was served in was half the size needed (even after the high season, it must be awful when the hotel is packed!) and there weren’t enough tables for everyone.  Oh well, we didn’t have kids with us, as opposed to most of the families there, and we managed.

As with some other sites we’ve been at, the international crowd was well represented.  We heard Australian, German, French, Danish, British, Japanese, and many other tongues we couldn’t identify with a small sample.  Everyone in the world wanted to come to South Florida and see the Everglades, and we were right with them.  But we got a good start.

We were deep into vacation rhythm by this time, loaded our packs quickly and got on the twisting road through town and out on route 9336 before the crowds.  This was another pretty, cool morning that showed promise of becoming hot but was bright and windy as we cruised the @20 miles with the top down out through the farms, the car repair lots, the drainage ditches, and the final turnoff into the park with vistas of endless grass stretching out before us.

We’ve been to a lot of National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, etc.  Everglades is not a spectacular one in that it doesn’t have mega-fauna, remarkable geologic features, a stunning variety of plant life, scenic waterfalls, or many of the other things that you associate with the great National Parks of America.  It also has to deal with the number of visitors that you get at a large park, which puts inordinate pressure on it.  But on this visit we found it has the charm of a smaller park, and that if you look closely it’s just as spectacular as the great parks we’ve been at.  And if you seek out the depths of the park, it features serenity and isolation.  It’s way up there with the places you have to go see in America, though it takes some quiet and dedication to see the magic.

Everglades NP is a massive place and there are entrances way West on the Gulf Coast and also North on the Tamiami Trail we traversed the day before, but the heart of the Park is the trail down through the pines and the cypresses to Florida Bay, and that’s the way we were heading.  Much could be written about the natural extent, the history, and the political geography of the Everglades, and how man has fucked up South Florida good in the measly few hundred years he’s been here.  This is a poster child for how the Organic Act represented a change in our national priorities about the precious places of our country, and how important the NPS is to our national heritage.  What we saw is a wounded landscape that’s still beyond glorious and is rebounding.

A visitor asked a Ranger, “But what’s the downside of restoring the natural water cycle to South Florida?”  She didn’t have a (politic) answer.  My answer would have been, “Then you sir, would have nowhere to vacation with your family except on man-made simulations.”  Insert quote from Edward Abbey here.  At the Visitor Center a man was outraged that they did not offer “airboat” rides in the park.  The Ranger told him that he could exit the park and find many options for that.

Whatever … we pulled up to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center at about 9:45 and saw there was a Ranger-guided tour at Long Pine Key at 10:30, perfect!  We chatted with a volunteer about directions and hikes.  When we mentioned the hikes we’d considered he said, “Oh, but it’s an hour drive down the park road just to get there!”  That sounded great to us.

We hit the head, read some exhibits, looked at the gift store, and then hit the road to Long Pine Key.  Signs in their parking lot advised that the vultures would get your car and they had tarps you could use as protection.  We opted not to panic, as a good number of the tourists were doing … must have been a psychology experiment.

It wasn’t long before volunteer Kieran assembled her group and started in on her spiel about what the Everglades is.  Those of us who were there for her “Anhinga Amble” were the choir listening to the preacher and were captivated by her maps and her tips about what we were seeing as she led us over the boardwalk through the swamp.

Anhingas are like cormorants, but have a slightly longer and fuzzier neck and are a little better looking.  Again, the theme of “just like Maine” came through.  We have cormorants in Maine just like in Florida and we have many other of the same flowers and animals, including the black racer that gave Kieran and some of the people in the group a shudder.  There were plenty of gators, and we actually saw not only an anhinga swallowing a fish, but also a gator snapping his jaws and swallowing a fish in the reeds.  We also saw vultures eating a dead alligator … though it was so bloated it may have been a beach toy.

Well that was fun, but that was just the appetizer.  We jumped back in the car, put the top down, and headed into the park, passing the magic boundary that said, “95% of visitors do not go beyond this point.”  We’d considered a few options but decided, especially after our stop at the Visitor Center, that what we really wanted was the Christian Point Trail, about 30 miles down the road.

We almost missed the trailhead because there was no one else there.  It was just a small pull-over on the road, with a small sign.  We’d made sandwiches that morning and so parked the car, put the top up, quickly loaded one pack with sunscreen, bug spray (we put on thick layers of both first), lunch, and water, and headed down the trail.  This was one of the best parts of our Florida vacation, though it required a lot of dedication.

What made us pick that trail was that it was advertised as traversing a number of habitats, and we really liked that.  There were buttonwood forests, meadows of low bushes, dry swamps with twisted branches in the caked mud, hammocks of cypress and mahogany, and finally an end to the 2-mile trail at Florida Bay, where the hard ground became swampy quicksand and the framed view of the blue bay through a window of mangroves was better than any television I’ve ever seen.

And there were bugs.  We stopped twice on the way there and once on the way back to spray ourselves all over.  These flies weren’t biting, but it was still the dry season and at certain times of year I’m sure this place would be impenetrable.  And that’s just on account of the bugs, the dry swamps we circumnavigated would be filled with putrid slime in the summer, I’m sure.

When we got to Florida Bay there was a bench and the bugs were somehow left behind.  The bench was tied down, as I’m sure that at some times of year it would be awash.  We sat there and ate lunch and I’m still there, I can see every detail of it.  We were miles away from the road and many, many miles away from Florida City, from the airport, and from the cares of the world.  We watched fish jumping in the slough in front of us, sat there long enough to tell that the slow tide was going out, and laughed at the subtle interplay between shorebirds staking out the best territory for picking small crustaceans.  We were there for weeks, months, forever.  Then we had to leave.

On the way back we saw a dead tree where an osprey had landed with a huge fish he’d caught.  He couldn’t believe his luck that he’d escaped all alone to eat his fish in peace and was a little concerned that we might give him a problem.  The open spaces through the meadows of brush and the salt pans were remarkably hot, possibly soaring into the 90’s, even on a cool day.  The forests were cooler, and were magical, with the bending trees (mostly buttonwoods but some live oaks) alive with epiphytes of all kinds, mostly bromeliads.

We saw no snakes or gators (way too dry) on this trail, but were very glad that we were wearing our hiking boots.  We’d worn them in the airplane (to save space in our luggage) and earlier in the trip had been wondering if we’d ever use them.  But we put them on that morning and would not have enjoyed the Christian Point trail the way we did if not for them, with the mud, the scratchy bushes we had to walk through, the fear of snakes, the presence of obnoxious plants (including good old poison ivy), and the possibility of fire ants.  And this was another trail with some serious variety of scat.  Some people we saw on the boardwalks were wearing high heels and make-up.  It takes all kinds.

Wow, that was great!  Made it back to the car sooner than we expected; coming back is almost always faster than getting there.  We cranked the air conditioner and drove the few miles further into the Park to the Flamingo Visitor Center.

Flamingo has been decimated by the last two hurricanes to hit that area, and of course the Park Service has not been given the money to restore it to what it used to be.  Over half of Flamingo Visitor Center (including a restaurant) is shuttered.  There were only 10 or so of us visitors hanging around, in their massive, deserted weed-garden of a parking lot.  We recuperated there for a while in the shade of the decayed adobe and flaking pink paint, looking out at the Bay and reading about the Ranger the site was dedicated to, who was murdered by feather hunters 75 years ago.

There was a Ranger on duty and she gave us some good advice about a shorter trail a few miles farther down the road.  We drove down there and started out, but realized that we’d have to traverse a huge campground in the open sun to just get to the trailhead.  There were a handful of tents in the campground (probably Europeans) but it was a sad sight with several hundred sites centered around a closed, deserted recreation area.  We got out of there and hit the road back to the North.

We still wanted to do something else before we left the Park, and so consulted the map and then stopped at the Mahogany Hammock area about half-way back to the entrance.  This was a great choice.  There were two cars when we got there and none when we left.  This was a mile(?)-long walk through a hardwood island on a boardwalk in the middle of the swamp, and we saw some massive trees and more bromeliads, giant ferns, tiny lizards and strangler fig vines than you can imagine.  Some of the mahoganies were incredibly big, and they alternated with other twisting trees and also with straight-as-an-arrow sabal palms and gumbo limbo trees.  This stop would have been worth the journey itself.

At that point we were feeling as if yes, we had successfully seen the Everglades, if only for one day.  We had experienced the hell out of the Park and the only thing that remained was to talk to a focus group of the ubiquitous alligators and get them to hold hands.  We didn’t have time for that though.  We put the top back down, cranked the tunes, and cruised out of there through the early evening sun.  My senses were at their peak and the Sansa did its best to enhance the situation: Janis, Elvis, and Derek and the Dominos, followed by a long jam by the Dead that took us back to Homestead.

We stopped for gas and then made our way back to the hotel, where we gushed to Ganesh, had a beer, and thought about what the heck we were going to do for dinner.

None of the candidate places in Homestead/Florida City had even lukewarm reviews … nothing stood out.  We finally decided to go for convenience and hit Benihana, close to us on route 1.  When we got there we realized it was an even stranger place than we’d anticipated.  The restaurant could have held 50 times the number of people there, and they had various corners incongruously set up with buffet tables.  Dinner was a fixed price … take what looks good!

We ordered Tsing Taos, grabbed plates, and had at it.  Much of what they had was not really appetizing, but they had ok sushi and a few things that looked and tasted good.  The sushi chef was making salmon, but a guy in front of me took every one and the chef saw how disappointed I was.  He had a few pieces of white tuna left but they didn’t look good.  I cruised around and picked up a few things, including a frog leg (tasted like chicken).  When I went back to the sushi bar the chef was waiting for me and had prepared many excellent pieces of salmon and white tuna, though their wasabi was a joke.  And the funny thing was that even though they had good, well-cut fish, the rice was a mess.  Oh well, it was an adventurous dinner but did the trick.

Back to the hotel, watched a bit of TV, and then to bed!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter, Venice, and Big Cypress

Sunday April 20

Happy Easter!  Another fine morning with coffee on the lanai, and then I resumed ripping CDs from Mark’s collection.  I had done a quick survey of it and decided on my rough priorities, and I think I got all the “have to haves” and made a pretty good dent in the “like to haves.”  Mark made some excellent lox and cream cheese onion bagels for us, which tided us over until their German friend Helmtrude came over and we all settled down for a formal Easter breakfast.

Mimosas (Helmtrude brought the champagne), hard-boiled eggs, Pascal bread with fruits in it, nougats from Germany, chocolate-covered Peeps (which I declined), Lindt chocolates, and lots of orange juice made a fine Easter meal.

In the meantime, Sarah had been able to get in touch with her aunt Marilew, who we thought lived in Naples.  As it turned out she lived in Venice, a few miles away from where we were!  Who knew Italy was so small?!?

We re-packed and said sad farewells to Mark and Debbie, whom we hope to see in Massachusetts soon and hope to show just as good a time.  We loved visiting their home in Nokomis and at least making a stab at catching up with how we’d all changed since we used to spend so much time together with our young kids.

We saddled up, put the top down, and headed off down the shortcut to the real 41, passed into Venice, and then turned into Marilew’s neighborhood.  Again, it was fantastic to see someone we hadn’t seen in years!  She’s looking great, has a nice little house in Venice, and was starved for a visit from a family member.  Sarah’s Mom had visited her one time in the 10(?) years since she’s moved from the upstate NY area where the family all lives (except for us!), but besides that she’d been lost on a distant island to the relatives.

It was great to see her; we sat down in her living room and brought her up to date quickly on what Sarah’s generation and offspring has been up to in the last 10 years, including babies and marriages she had no idea about (communication is sometimes lacking).  Marilew’s friend Jan was visiting and we bored her back to sleep, but then we finally got motivated and set out for the shore.

We piled into the Mustang, Marilew and Sarah stuffed themselves into the back; they said it wasn’t too bad, though it looked like there was absolutely no legroom back there.  We headed over to Sharkey’s On the Pier, which is (surprisingly!) right on the pier in Venice.  We had to wait a bit for a table and this gave us a chance to walk out the pier and wish we had our bathing suits so we could play in the waves.  Got a table soon and were luckily seated back in the shady part of the restaurant.  Had a few Yuenglings and a pulled pork sandwich while we continued catching up with Marilew on family gossip.

We toured around Venice a bit after that on a sunny, sunny afternoon and then ended up back at Marilew’s.  We were going to go inside again but realized that it was already 4:00 and that we had many miles to go that day.  Said a quick goodbye … I hope other family visits her soon! … and then got coffee and gas at a nearby station and hit the road for the deep, deep South of Florida.

Quick jag to the Interstate, and then headed down 75 with the pack at 65MPH on yet another gorgeous late afternoon for the @100 miles to Naples.  Interstate 75 turns East there towards Miami and becomes the famous “Alligator Alley” across the Everglades, but we got off the highway and took State route 951 down to the alternate, more Southern way across the Everglades on route 41, the Tamiami Trail (this is a ubiquitous name).

We left the big roads and the big suburbs behind at that point and were soon out on the Florida road of our dreams.  We had the top down, the evening sun was turning shades of gold we’d never seen before in our rear-view mirrors, and the tunes were cranking on the powerful stereo.  The few cars who wanted to go really fast passed us, and we were soon pretty much all alone, watching an endless expanse of green and gold prairie stretching off to our left, spotted with hammocks and threads of oaks winding up into the wilderness.  To our right was a slightly more marshy endless expanse of green and gold, which we knew turned into more and more of a wetland before ending up in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay, miles and miles away.

This was the Big Cypress National Preserve, administered by the Park Service, and it was beautiful.  If we’d had more time we would have loved to hike there, but it was one of those places where you needed to go on a 20-mile hike if you were going to go off-road at all, and besides that we had to go as fast as we could to get to Florida City that night.

We stopped for a quick bathroom break at the deserted Big Cypress Visitor Center, but then got back on the road for the miles and miles to the East, as the sun set behind us and the beautiful brown washes, green trees, and blue sky turned more and more intense colors.  We finally saw a few traces of civilization as engineered canals started up along the road, a few seedy tourist traps and billboards popped up, and then we were suddenly at the end of the wild preserve and turned South on 997 towards Homestead.

There were some aggressive drivers on the 15 miles or so into Homestead (and Florida City beyond that), and this may be a good time for my:

Digression on Traffic and Police
Driving in Florida was perhaps more hairy than any other place I’ve been.  As mentioned, some of the superhighways featured a lot of lanes, and some people used most of them.  There were more people driving at or well below the speed limit than you see in most places (I was among the former, didn’t want to stand out with a hot rental car), but the craziness of the other people more than made up for their proportional paucity.  Some cowboys didn’t hesitate to use the center left-turn lane to try to pass a pack of 15 cars on a “two”-lane road, and some made a habit of flooring it down the baseline on the highway and then edging between other cars when they wanted to get around.  All in all, you needed to keep your head on a swivel in a lot of situations.

And the craziest thing was that there were police everywhere and people still drove like lunatics.  Many people when giving directions warned me about where cops liked to hide out, and there they were … everyone knew they were there.  Cops were also cruising up and down the highways with lights flaring, hanging out in packs at fast food joints, and invading low-scale housing communities with flak jackets on.  I hesitate to mention that guns were for sale everywhere, but I couldn’t help but think there was a vicious circle at work here: more guns, more people misbehaving, more police, causing more tension, causing more guns, causing more police, etc.  Ooops, detoured into sociology there.

And two more things: tires and churches.

  • There were shreds of tires all over the place.  I don’t know if retreads last a shorter amount of time in that temperature, if more retreads were used than in other states, if they never cleaned their highways, or what.  But every road we saw, from superhighway to county road, was littered with mangled rubber.  There must be some explanation.
  • And there was an impossible number of churches!  Even if everybody there went to church 3 times a day there’s no way they could fill that many congregations.  Especially out in the country, it seemed that every tenth building was a church, some of them massive.  Needless to say, these were all Christian churches.

The city sprawl/congestion of Homestead started up very slowly; there were farms up until there weren’t and suddenly we were surrounded by nail salons, dentist offices, and small businesses.  We turned left, then turned right, then got lost, and then found route 1 South (duh!) and pulled into the Travelodge parking lot, which was (literally) shared by a gas station, a Subways, a Dunkin Donuts, a McDonalds, and a rival hotel.

By our research the Travelodge in Florida City (which is a near suburb of Homestead) got some of the best reviews around, but it was not a five-star hotel by any means … two maybe.  But it was clean, the South Asians running it were very courteous and efficient, they had shrines spotted throughout the small grounds (including an excellent shrine to Ganesh right by our door), and they had all the amenities (though on the cheap) and were very well located.  Fine with us!

We were a little hungry when we arrived, after two breakfasts and a very late lunch, and figured we needed to eat some dinner or we’d be sorry.  This was where the Subway came in, an excellent option for filling American stomachs!  We brought *everything* in (we were going to be there for three nights) and stowed it all in their weird furniture, then got subs and settled in front of the TV (which didn’t get many channels well but whatever) for another bit of NHL playoff hockey.  The Bruins weren’t televised there but another game was, and through the check-ins we learned that the Red Wings had been dominated and that everything was ok in the world.

Didn’t take long before we were settled into our new beds and sound asleep once more.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Myakka River and Pop’s

Saturday April 19

I woke up last as always and joined the others on the lanai for coffee on a beautiful day.  The cool spell they were having that early Spring in Florida continued and that was fine with us … it was comfortable.
Mark made some eggs and bacon for breakfast, and we made plans for the day.

As it turned out, the first thing they mentioned was an excursion to Myakka River State Park (that we’d had penciled in to our itinerary but had missed) and we were psyched.  A potential problem was that Rebecca had an appointment in Nokomis that ended at 11:00 … but that was no problem since we were having a lazy morning and it worked fine to delay departure until she was done.

We proceeded to laze around talking and then Rebecca showed up early.  Again, we were so delighted to see her, their daughter whom we’d known as a beautiful and brilliant small girl, and who had recently left the nest and was making her way in the world.  We covered many, many topics in the next hour and felt well caught up on her professional and domestic life in Orlando.  She scurried off to her appointment and we got stuff ready for the expedition.

There were a good number of people at Myakka River on a sunny Saturday, but we got a parking space at the “Nature Trail” and had a nice walk through the flat Florida landscape, dominated by Palmetto Palms, Sabal Palms, Live Oaks and Scrub Oaks, various epiphytes (Butterfly Orchids, Ballmoss, and Cardinal Airplant among others), with Strangler Fig vines and Southern Moss draped over everything.

We climbed up into their Canopy Walkway and after a bit were 74 feet off the ground, high above the forest and with a vista to the horizon in all directions.  When we finally made our way to the ground (the Canopy Walkway was crowded, we had to wait our turn to get to the top and then to descend) we detoured into a small meadow, pockmarked with snake burrows and covered with lush grass.

We drove up to the lake itself after that and eschewed the tawdry airboat ride.  We saw several gators there instantly, as well as a huge fire ant nest that we were glad to miss, and had a fun time wandering around the lakeside and the gift shop.  Then it was time to get out of there and we headed for a more civilized destination: Pop’s Sunset Grill on the intracoastal waterway in Nokomis.

We had more fine conversation and good beer (Jai Alai) there in the shade behind the bar, and then ordered a nice late lunch.  I had the grouper reuben sandwich (they seem to like to make any kind of sandwich into a “reuben” in Florida).  But this reminds me that it’s time for my:

Digression on Beer
Florida was not a beer wasteland, but there weren’t a lot of choices:

  • Sweetwater – Most bars we stopped at had either Sweetwater Pale Ale or their 420 IPA [sic] on tap.  They thought they were serving a local beer, but Sweetwater is brewed in Atlanta.  Their pale ale is nicely balanced and the 420, though sweet, has a good character.  Both were much better on tap than in the bottle.  The Atlanta airport had a Sweetwater pub and I would have liked to sample their other styles, such as their rye IPA, but didn’t have time.  In all, this was good stuff.
  • Jai Alai – We found Jai Alai Pale Ale from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa in a couple of places (and in cans), and I loved that stuff.  It has a great earthy fore-taste and some lasting malt taste.
  • Ranger – Most of the beers I had were Ranger Pale Ale from New Belgium in Colorado, a beer I can’t get in Massachusetts and I love.  This wasn’t exactly Florida beer, but made me feel that I was on vacation.
  • Etc. – The best I could find in some cases was plain vanilla Sierra Nevada, and I have to admit that I delved into Yuengling and Budweiser at times, though those forays were brief.

Left Pop’s after too short a time … I wish we were still sitting by the turquoise intracoastal waterway and watching huge pelicans mill around like they’ve got some kind of agenda.  We drove back to the house and Rebecca visited a neighbor and then took off while I started my assault on Mark’s CD collection.  Debbie made a great rib dinner for us, and then we decided to not watch a movie because we were all too tired!

Went to bed in what used to be Rebecca’s dark, dark bedroom (we appreciated the dark) and instantly fell into another sound sleep … I was amazed by how relaxing our Florida trip was and I was busy burning up the sleep deficit I’d accrued over years in New England.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Back To the Coast

Friday April 18

Woke up to another mellow, soft morning … a bit overcast and a bit cool … after another great sleep.  We had chicken piccata for breakfast of course, and then hung around in the back yard, re-packed, read, and had all morning.  John made us tuna burritos for lunch, but then it was finally time to load the Mustang and hit the road.  We loved Indian Lake Estates and hope to go back there some time.

One problem with being in the middle of nowhere is that it can be complicated to get out of there.  But we had maps and Google directions, had the top down, and had plenty of time to drive from the Lake Wales ridge out to the Gulf Coast.  We exited the Estates to the South onto County Road 630 and cruised at a leisurely 55MPH the 15 miles into Frostproof, where we turned left on County 17, which became 27.  Right on 64 in Avon Park, then left on State 17 in Zolfo Springs.  We finally made it to Arcadia, where we turned right on 70 and then branched left onto 72 for the last stretch of @35 miles to the Interstate near Sarasota.

The forecast was for rain on the Gulf Coast that day, and as we approached we could see a line of black rainclouds on the horizon.  We pulled over just in time to put the top up, and then had some heavy rain for the rest of the way.  We’d thought that we might have time to stop at Myakka River State Park, but the afternoon was slipping by quickly and besides that we would have gotten soaked in an instant if we’d exited the car.

The rain stopped and the sun threatened to poke out by the time we headed South on Interstate 75 and exited after 10 miles or so towards Nokomis.  Another few turns to Mark and Debbie’s and there they were in the doorway waiting for us!  It was so good to see them again, our long-time friends from Massachusetts who’d married just before we did back when we were all young, and then had a kid just before we did (when we were a little bit older), and then re-located to Florida.

Mark and I made a liquor/beer run through the suddenly sunny afternoon, and then we all settled on their lanai and had plenty to talk about.  They have a very nice house, which we’d visited about 15 years ago soon after they moved in.  15 years later of course it was filled with stuff … that’s what happens but it was strange to see.  The stuff includes a 3-seater sit-on-top kayak in their garage that I’d love to take out for a spin.

We got hungry soon and headed for Bonefish Grill, a nice restaurant down the route 41 bypass towards Venice.  We were just in time to grab four of the last open spots, at a high table with stools.  The crowd was right behind us and soon there was a line out the door.  They were very busy on a Friday night, but we managed to talk them into giving us some American lagers, some appetizers, and eventually some fish.  I had grilled Dorado.

Drove back to their house just in time to set up for the evening’s entertainment.  The Bruins were opening their playoff season against the Red Wings and the Red Sox were playing the Orioles.  We got both on TV eventually and switched back and forth.  The Bruins (President Trophy recipients) played a good but perhaps overly cautious first game to a hopefully long playoff run, but the Red Wings looked good too and managed to pull out a 1-0 victory with a few minutes left (the Bruins went on to win the series 4-1).  The Red Sox have had a painful start to their season with a rash of injuries, and played another poor game, losing 8-4.

Oh well, we never stopped talking and then finally went to bed for another sound sleep.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Scenes Around the Lake Wales Ridge

Thursday April 17

I woke up later than Sarah and John, but they had some coffee waiting when I stumbled out of the bedroom, and the bird watch was well under way.  This was the end of the “dry” season in Florida and still a few weeks before the start of the “wet” season.  Though this meant that we’d successfully missed most of the tourists, it also meant that we’d missed most of the birds/bird activity (and most of the mosquitoes).  Even with that proviso, we saw just an amazing number of bird species.  John had a couple of feeders up and we could have stayed on his porch, drinking coffee and watching birds on the “cold” (@60 degrees), overcast morning.  But we finally had some toast and got motivated.

The major planned activity of the day was to go see Bok Tower (ahh, Bok).  We prepared and piled into John’s car for the 20 mile trip into the small city of Lake Wales and then out of town to the North.  We were surrounded by orange groves once more soon after leaving town, but soon a guarded entrance appeared and we paid our dues and then cruised into the tenth-full parking lot at the Bok Tower Gardens.  We went into the main building and had a great conversation with a volunteer guide from Wisconsin (it seems most people in Florida are not from there), and planned our strategy for enjoying the sights.

The Bok Tower Gardens is a singular, weird, arrangement of formal gardens, a 200+ foot tower dedicated by Calvin Coolidge that people are rarely allowed into with a massive carillon (miked throughout the gardens), and the “Pinewood Estates,” which is a robber-baron’s house that’s been preserved for regular people to gawk at.  We toured the gardens, toured the house (it was built in the 1930s so was not unlike something my grandparents would have aspired to), looked over the vista to the South (the 50-foot hill is a rarity in Florida), and then got caught by a rainstorm.

We gathered with some other tourists under a shelter in the lee of the tower, then decided to fuck it when the rain let up a bit and hurried back to the main visitor center, where we hit the bathrooms, looked at a few exhibits, and then took off.  That’s a quick story about Bok Tower, but it was pretty impressive; lots of beautiful flowers and trees there.

By then it was well into the afternoon and we were all psyched for adventure 2 on the agenda: an authentic chicken burrito at La Botana on the Eastern edge of Lake Wales.  There are an incongruous number of Mexicans in Florida, and this was a Mexican grocery supreme that John had stumbled on.  In the back they have a little kitchen and a few tables and you can get a non-corn-syrup soda and order from a small menu of burritos, tongue, tripe, chicken parts you never knew existed, and beans.  We each got a chicken burrito with everything and they were beyond delicious.  We were stuffed for about $20 for the three of us … great stuff!

Another singular sight was the huge orange juice factory on route 60.  Truck after large truck loaded with oranges lined up to get into this place, dumped their oranges into some kind of hopper, and the fruit was stewed in a hulking boiler building and turned into the orange juice all of America drinks.

I have to admit that I nodded off in the car after that.  John took us for a cruise through the historic parts of Fort Wales, around the lake, looking for a house he wanted to point out to us, back to Indian Lake Estates, and up and down the never-developed boulevards, looking for another house.  We finally found it, a Florida McMansion deep into that isolated suburban wasteland that was 90% completed and then abandoned.

After that we picked up Bruce Wayne and took him for a romp over to Lake Weohyakapka.  We would have gone out on the Lake in John’s boat, but it was threatening rain the whole time and was not the right weather for going offshore.  Sandhill cranes were everywhere, haunting the shores of the lake with their babies and popping up on the widely-placed house lots.

What a day!  Finally ended up back at the house and I took a short nap while Sarah documented the endless assortment of birds.  John has a few tales about rednecks (and turtles) stopping by his house uninvited and really, there’s no such thing as pure isolation when you’re hooked to the grid (if only by power lines), but this was pretty close.

Time for adventure 3 of the day, and we went back to Lake Wales to the L’Incontro Italian restaurant.  This was another place John had stumbled on (mostly because Cousin James had to avoid the police).  Had a marvelous Italian dinner, including an eggplant rotini appetizer and a huge dish of chicken piccata with fantastic pasta and sauce on the side.  Sarah and I actually took half of our chicken entrees home for breakfast.

Made it back to the middle of nowhere and stayed up as long as possible so we could stretch out this lovely, mellow experience.  It was the night of the first game of the NHL playoffs and the Blues and Blackhawks played a thrilling game.  It went to triple overtime, but I finally went to bed in the middle of the second OT for another deep, deep sleep accompanied by a chorus of whippoorwills.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral

Wednesday April 16

We woke up on Wednesday and I finally felt cold-free and refreshed.  The breakfast at the Hampton was pretty routine, except they had a fresh fruit platter with papaya to die for.  Really, it was remarkably ripe and tasty … we could have sat there and eaten it all day except we wanted to get outside and get going!

Loaded the Mustang with some difficulty and then got back on 95 North for the few miles up to exit 220 for Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  This is an area shared with the Canaveral National Seashore, on land which is actually part of the Kennedy Space Center, but is granted to the Park Service.

There was a supermarket (Publix) right where we wanted it and we did our first-day-of-vacation thing, loading up the folding cooler with ice, bread, peanut butter, jelly, fruit, chips, beer, cider, cookies, and stuff.  We also got a bottle of bug spray and a bottle of sunscreen (hoping one of each would be enough, it was).  We remembered to pick up a little plastic spatula to make sandwiches with, but again forgot towels and plates!  We’ll get it right someday.

We were going to do the right thing and stop at the Visitor Center after we crossed the Indian River (which is actually not a river, but a sound made by the barrier islands along that part of the coast), but were confused by the fact that there was a Canaveral Seashore one and a Merritt Wildlife Refuge one, and ended up missing both.  Before we knew it we were at the turnoff for the Black Point Wildlife Drive, which is where we were heading anyway … we turned off.  We had the top down, the sun was shining in a mackerel sky, and we cruised along slowly, marveling at the birds, the precious quiet, the wetlands, and of course the flat, flat vistas with the Vehicle Assembly Building to the South by far the largest thing on the horizon.

A comical interlude was that there was a stupid cow egret standing in the middle of the road at one point, and when we approached him cautiously he flew off … only to land another 50 yards down the trail.  We approached him again cautiously and he flew off, and landed 50 yards further down!  This went on for 5 or 6 cycles before he finally took off and we floored it to get ahead so he couldn’t land in front of us.

We fussed around a bit considering earlier trails, but then drove right out onto Black Point and to the parking lot for the Cruickshank Trail, looking for the real Florida and suspecting we were in the right place to find it.  As we learned later, our friend Debbie had grown up on Merritt Island and she could confirm that this was the real stuff.  There was only one other car in the lot for the Cruickshank Trail when we got there, and we jumped right into action, making sandwiches for lunch and loading one pack with water, the bug and sun stuff, and essential supplies.  Then we were off onto the 5-mile trail, out over the dike towards the river.

I forgot to sunscreen up and paid for it later, but this was one of the most magical interludes of the trip.  We passed one other couple after a mile and then paused to talk with a couple from Ohio much later in the circuit, but besides that it was deserted.  A flight of three roseate spoonbills passed overhead soon after we left the parking lot/road/cars and it was such a precious moment, I can still see the details of their wings, flapping unhurriedly in unison with the blue sky behind them.  This was just the start and we saw many other birds, both in flocks and alone, fish and crabs in the dikes, whitecaps on the bay (it was blowing a stiff 25+ knots from the North on the Indian River), cactus hiding among the reeds, small mangroves staking out their spots, and lots and lots of plants we didn’t recognize.

Though much was strange, one of the themes of our hike on Merritt Island … and of other parts of our trip … was how much of the flora and fauna was common to our part of the Eastern seaboard, even as far North as Maine.  An example was the ferns; there were varieties we had never seen before but also ones that looked identical to what we would see in MA or ME.  The herons, the ducks, the terns, and to some degree the kingfishers and woodpeckers were entirely familiar.  Panthers are ubiquitous to North America of course, though with different names.  But this was essentially a new and fascinating ecosystem to us, though the managed, impounded dikes along that part of the Florida coast to control mosquitoes and to encourage migratory birds were also reminiscent of other wildlife refuges, such as Parker River.  Also worth mentioning was the amount of scat on the trail from big and small animals … it was everywhere, some of it very bleached but a good deal of it recent.

No gators on that hike, but lots of good stuff.  We stopped for lunch in a shelter (from the sun) midway through the 5-mile hike and watched the few boats on the wide Indian River.  Finally we got around to the last mile of the trail as it suddenly clouded over and looked like rain.  But then the spoonbills and the vultures really started soaring, the rain clouds passed over, and the day was magnificent again.  We probably saw more vultures on our trip than any other bird, majestic black raptors you would not want to argue with.  We climbed a lookout tower just before we got back to the parking lot and got some kind of a view over the absolutely flat environment.

When we got back to the lot we saw that a vulture(?) had gotten Sally good on the windshield, but this mess was soon cleaned up by the wipers and some rain.  We repacked stuff, getting used to the fact that we had to have the top down to do anything.  And then we meandered down the rest of the Black Point trail, behind some other cars that were going very slowly.  We stopped a couple of times to snap pix of lethargic gators, but soon were out of there.

Turned left on route 406, right on 3, and then left again on 402 over some railroad tracks in the middle of the island, just before the guarded entrance to the Kennedy Space Center.  We were heading for the beach and after waving our Parks pass to the ranger at the entrance, we arrived at Playalinda Beach in the Canaveral National Seashore.  The road turned left up the coast for several miles, and after opting not to stop at the first parking lot (with 20 or so cars in it), we stopped at the fifth parking lot … this one had just three other cars … and headed over the dune to the roaring ocean.

Geez, we’ve seen the Atlantic many times but the thrilling sight once you crested the dune made me imagine what a feast for the senses it would represent to someone from inland America (or Europe etc.).  The sky was aquamarine with streaks of black and white, the rollers were breaking a quarter-mile offshore and then regrouping to assault the beach, the beach itself extended to the horizon to the North and around the bend to the Kennedy complex to the South, flocks of birds were standing, pointing stoically into the wind, the wind was a constant 25+ knots from the North by Northeast, raking foam down the beach.  Some small groups and individuals had set up their umbrellas and towels and were not going to be discouraged by the roaring wind.  The water was warm for us northerners, and I was glad I didn’t have my bathing suit on because if I had I would have dived into those breakers and probably lost my life in a glorious attempt to swim to Spain.

We saw a good number of small shells but not many that were unique or that shouted for us to pick them up.  Again, this was very like the ocean we knew.  That time at the Canaveral National Seashore was another magical little detour, and we easily could have stayed there for longer than we did.  But we sucked it up and tore ourselves away, making our way up the decaying stairway over the dune to the car, where we assessed the time and the distance we had to cover before we could rest.

We called John and got some good tips on driving to his place, which was a few hours away as the Mustang gallops.  Back on the road after a while and made it out of Titusville and away from the Atlantic coast, heading down 95 all the way back to the Vero Beach exit, where we took route 60 West.  We passed miles and miles of orange groves, as the flat land stretched to the horizon on both sides.  We stopped for gas in Yahoo Junction and then hit the last 30 miles or so past fruit fields, gun stands, and not much else towards Indian Lake Estates.  As we approached the Lake Wales ridge the ground finally started to rise up very, very slowly after having been flat as a pancake.

There are stories behind how Indian Lake Estates popped up on the map of central Florida, but it’s basically an American story that perhaps has real characters in it, like Jimmy Hoffa and Henry Flagler, or perhaps just has myth in it.  Somehow, 8000 house lots were marked out in this settlement 20 miles or so East of the railroad in Lake Wales in the boom times of the 1950s.  Someone for some reason built a golf course and a marina on Lake Weohyakapka, and waited for the money to roll in.  It didn’t, and decades later John was able to pick up a sweet house on one of the 400 or so developed lots in this vast wilderness.

He has a neighbor a few lots to the East and then no one at all until you hit the lake to the West.  If you bushwhacked your way North out of his back yard, over the drainage ditch, through the palmetto scrub, and didn’t get massacred by fire ants, waylaid by (native or exotic) snakes, attacked by bees, or devoured by panthers, you would cross 8 or 9 deserted roads before you’d run into another developed lot.  This was the middle of nowhere and was beautiful for that alone, not to mention the graceful long-leaf pines.

We entered the “Estates,” drove a few miles this way, and then stopped at a junction not quite in the middle of nowhere, took a left turn right towards the middle itself, and drove a few miles that way … and there we were!  John was waiting for us, along with Bruce Wayne, his temporary(?) dog guest, who was as enthusiastic as he was small and handsome.  John has a great house, with Queen palms, two adjoining lots tended by Domingo, a water feature watched over by a fish god, an outdoor fireplace, is surrounded by a thousand long-leaf pines, some draped with Spanish moss, has a beautiful indoor-outdoor porch, and you can piss in the front yard with no worry about the neighbors.

When people ask me how the vacation was, the first thing I say is, “By far more relaxing than I’d expected.”  And John’s house set the tone for that theme; this was a little Shangri-La far, far from any trace of the world we’d left.

We yucked it up as you’d expect, got the Ranger IPAs out of the car, delved into his store of PBRs, but by and large were having too much fun to drink that much.  John made a great clam sauce and pasta dinner with sliced jalapenos and an oily salad that couldn’t be beat and then before we knew it it was time for bed and a deep, deep sleep while the birds continued their cacophony, especially the whippoorwills.