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.