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.

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