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!

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