The Dinosaur goes to Florida
As with a lot of our trips, this one began at McCarran Airport. Nothing special happened other than we seemed to have timed our trip just right, and we were loading on the plane a half hour after getting to the airport. Since it was such a short flight – the first leg was to Denver – we weren’t given snacks, but we could buy them. No way was I going to pay a couple of bucks for a box of animal crackers, so we delved into our breakfast bars for a snack. The free coffee wasn’t so bad, however.
Denver airport was an interesting place: there are tornado safe areas around the place, and part of the airport looks as though it is made of those high tension white plastic/fabric tent things. Between the safety room and the tents, it felt a little transitory.
Going to Denver, the plane wasn’t full, and I managed to score a couple of seats without a third seat passenger. Patsy’s seat was next to the window, one not over a wing this time, but she had an interesting book, so neither of us looked out much.
On our flight out of Denver, I found that sometimes having a big person sitting on the aisle is not the worst thing in the world: having someone sleeping is worse. I waited until it was uncomfortable before I woke her up so I could go to the restroom. On the other hand, she did not want to stay awake for the warm chocolate chip cookie they passed around for snacks (if the flight is over two hours, they give you something), and she gave me hers. Life has its balances.
We picked up a Mazda SUV at the airport, since five of us were going to ride in it. Whoever the person was that designed the dashboard, should have to drive their creation around for a long, long time. The speedometer is set in some kind of hole, which is supposed to be backlit, but guess what: If I wear my dark glasses, I can’t see how fast I’m going, and if I wear my regular glasses, I can’t read the road signs. On top of that, the GPS unit that came with the car, has got a short in it so that the screen goes blank ever couple of minutes.
After several missed turns because I couldn’t use a map to guide me, and the voice on the GPS would suddenly come out of the void, we finally got to the hotel. One of the first things we noticed was the Spanish moss hanging from the trees around the motel; very Southern.
Our son Morgan, his wife Sandy, and our grandson John joined us for dinner at a Bob Evan’s – a restaurant chain around here. If we had any doubts that we were in the South, they were dispelled by our waitress. We ordered iced tea and remembered at the last moment that we had to specify the tea should not be sweet. Also, when we looked at the menu, we saw more fried things on there than baked. We were able to order some baked fish dishes however, so things weren’t too bad.
Figuring we might have some jet-lag, we decided to keep things low level. The only thing we did was spend the day at the Lowry Park zoo. I don’t think Patsy and I have been to a real zoo since we were in Perth. We spent a lot of time around the primates, I guess visiting family. I mean the alligators are interesting, if somewhat toothy, and the elephants are just grand, but it always seems like you could have a beer with an orangutan. I did notice there were some viewing areas with Plexiglass windows where there were primates; I figured you would stand there when the apes were in a sh***y mood. They do have a reputation of flinging things around.
We also saw the zebras, rhinos, and giraffes. Whenever I see giraffes, I am always amazed to think that they only have seven vertebras like the rest of us mammals. Talk about stretching things!
True to expectations, late in the afternoon, the jet lag set in. That, plus the high humidity knocked the pins out from under me. We headed back to the motel for a nap and an early evening. Dinner was, of course, at Bob Evens. Interestingly enough, the grilled chicken had a tough surface on the bottom side, almost like it had been fried.
We drove to Naples, and I can’t get Dean Martin’s voice out of my head… something about getting hit in the face with a pizza. Anyway, we drove across the Skyway Bridge, which has a really, really, really high arch in the middle. It felt like I was driving on some sort of automobile roller coaster. The bridge is pretty in a way; it has two pilons with cables strung like a monster harp and running down the middle, between the two parts of the highway. Those cables are the supports to the arch, so I guess the rest of the bridge is just resting on concrete struts. Anyway, the Skyway reminded me of the Prince Edward Island Bridge in Canada, but at least the PEI bridge had some advantages. It was as tall as the Skyway, but went on much longer… that was not the advantage. The advantage at PEI was that I could not see the whole bridge at the same time due to the rain and fog. Here, I saw the whole darned thing the whole darned time.
Despite all my concerns, we got over the bridge and were able to continue on. Once we got to Naples and had lunch, we headed off to Captain Doug’s Airboat Rides in the Everglades.
There was a light rain falling, but nothing bad. Amazingly, it stays warm here all the time, even in the rain.
As we drove along, we paid special attention to the kudzu, having heard so much about it. Just about everything is covered with the vine, and I wondered if you could make a stew or something edible out of it. Maybe they could use it for biofuel and turn the corn crop back to food, which is much more needed by the rest of the world.
When we got to Captain Doug’s we were assigned to a particular captain who would take us on our tour. Our boat captain was younger than me, but not by much. He cracked a few jokes for us and gave us ear protectors, because the noise of the airboat engine is really fierce. I also used my ear protectors to help keep my cap in place.
Let me tell you about the part of the Everglades we were in. There was a broad channel of open water leading away from the boat dock and running between heavily forested banks – the mangrove trees. The trees had arching roots dipping down into the water, and grew so close together that it would be difficult trying to walk around in there. The water is very dark and murky, probably from all the alligators doing things in it.
We went out into the channel and managed to locate a nine foot long ‘gator right away. Interestingly, several boats from Cap’n Doug’s went out one after the other, so we had a traffic jam around the ‘gator. Our boat captain was pushy however, and got us within a couple of feet of the reptile. We all looked at the ‘gator and it looked at us until we all got bored and went off to the next thing. The next thing for the alligator was going back into the tree roots.
Further along the channel, we saw a raccoon hanging in a tree. It had draped itself over a branch and was just watching the boats go by. The captain told us the ‘coons were tidal and that they liked low tide for hunting shell fish and other things, so this little guy didn’t have anything to do but look cute for the tourists until the tide changed. The captain had stopped our boat so we could get a good look at the raccoon, when disaster struck: he couldn’t get the boat started again. However, our good captain told us there was nothing to worry about, and that he would just anchor us out in the stream until a rescue boat got there, but when he opened the compartment there was no anchor. We were adrift in the Everglades without an anchor or a paddle!!!!!
We finally drifted into some mangrove trees where we held on to the tree roots until a rescue boat could reach us and pull us out to the middle of the water. A boat wasn’t long in reaching us; good thing too, because the deer flies found us and were braving waves of Deet to get to our warm, succulent bodies.
Once we were back out in mid-channel, we bumped around in a cluster of three airboats until the captain of one stepped into our boat and tinkered around with the engine. Finally, he got the thing started and we were on our way again. There would be no more stopping for us, but our stalwart captain made it up to us by cutting wheelies and 180s in the water. I was enjoying the high-jinks until I thought, ‘This is the real thing. We could fall out of the boat or it could sink. This ain’t a Disney ride.’ Then I relaxed and just enjoyed the fun, I mean, what the hell? Alligators need to make a living too, plus our captain was what you call an expert*
After our boat ride, we drove back and spent the night in Naples, ready to drive to Key West the next morning. The next day would be our longest day, some 6+ hours of driving, but it would also get us down to the furthermost point of our trip. Key West would have to be our turn around point: any further and we’d be in the Gulf.
*Thanks to the Mythbusters for the term.
Off to the Keys! We drove back down the Tamiami Trail, past Captain Doug’s, and on toward Miami. We stopped at an Indian Village, but it was too early for a tour, and we didn’t want to take another boat ride just right now. We would have loved a cup of coffee, but no such luck – there wouldn’t be coffee until we got to Homestead, where we got some Cuban coffee. I wanted my coffee black, but the Abuela made it with milk and sugar. Oh well. We also had some nice guava turnovers, which went well with the sweet coffee.
On the way to Homestead, the sky was dark, but no rain fell until all of a sudden, it dropped by the bucketful. Fortunately, when I tried to find something else the day before, I accidently turned on the windshield wipers, so the rain was no problem. I slowed down to fifty in the heavy rain, but kept getting passed by cars doing seventy or more. Apparently, Floridians do not understand Newton’s Laws, because it didn’t seem to occur to them that once they started to skid, they would most likely keep skidding on the wet surface until something made them stop. That something might have been us.
Once we got to the Keys, we passed through Key Largo and continued on south. As near as I can figure out, the Keys were formed over a long period of time by sand gathering in the roots of mangroves, the same way sand dunes form at the base of mesquites in the desert. There are lots of small islands and clumps of plants out in the water, which by the way, ranges from a dull grey in some places to a bright Caribbean Blue in others.
There are keys of all sizes, some of which are privately owned. Once upon a time, a train ran out to Key West, but apparently the track got torn up in a hurricane and they never rebuilt the line. Some of the smaller Keys relied on the old rail line, but are now cut off if they did not connect somehow with the new highway. The old railroad line runs next to the new road out to the Keys.
Speaking of that, did I mention that I don’t like bridges? I have decided that what they have linking the Keys is a system of causeways, some of which can get very tall in the middle. I can deal with causeways, even the one that is seven miles long and kind of humpy in the middle.
The speed limit to Key West is 45 mph, and the distance is a hundred plus miles. By the time we got out of Key Largo, I was starting to feel like this trip would never end, since we had already been driving four or five hours. We stopped at a place called Whale Harbor and had a nice lunch.
Whale Harbor was where I had my first taste of conch (pronounced ‘konk’ down here). I was a little apprehensive, because I once had a fried oyster sandwich in San Luis Obispo, and it was grim, but this sandwich was a very nice. We learned that they farm conch, because the native Queen conch is a protected species, so I was able to enjoy my lunch without qualms (the qualms cost extra, so I didn’t have them).
The day was marvelously clear after an early morning rain. The dining area at Wahoo was on a second floor deck, so we had some good viewing. We could see big sailing yachts out on the ocean, and a bunch of charter boats in the harbor below us. Ah, the life aquatic.
I forgot to mention the lizards (I have to, it’s in their contract). There are little lizards everywhere; they are as thick as flies… well not quite, but there sure are a lot of them. They dart around at the edge of your view so they catch your eye, but when you turn to look, they are either gone or they freeze and pretend you can’t see them. Most of them are little tiny things, and I think the largest I’ve seen so far was about the size of my finger. The thing is, there has to be a lot of insect life in order to support so many lizards, but once I started to think about it, I don’t remember seeing many dragonflies. Wonder why that is.
Florida is nothing if not green. There is so much green around us, but interestingly enough, the greens are fairly uniform, and there are not forty-nine shades of green like in Ireland. There might be twenty-five shades of green, but even that might be pushing it. What there is here and wasn’t in Ireland is the bright color of flowers like Bougainvillea and Hibiscus or crepe myrtle, so I guess that’s a good trade-off.
Further down, near Parrot Key, part of the old railroad causeway is still standing. People use it to walk around and to fish from, however I have no idea how they do it. There are pieces of the causeway missing, entire arches are gone, and there doesn’t seem to be ladders going from the water to the top of the bridge… causeway. I can’t think these people got stranded after the damage was done and have lived there ever since, but if they did, would they be Bridgetarians?
By the time we hit Key West, I was pretty well beat. Even after the coffee at Homestead and our break at Wahoo, the six hours of driving at between 45 and 55 mph was taking its toll. So when we turned left onto Duval Street in Key West, I was ready for a break. I tried to fake a nap by driving with one eye closed, but it didn’t work.
We stopped at Douglas House, a lodging that combined two or three old houses into one business. Patsy and I had a first floor room, while Morgan, Sandy and John had the upper room, complete with stained glass windows and a balcony that overlooked a rather Faulkneresque garden. There were two different areas, both of which had mossy fountains, but one was dark and mysterious; not a place you’d want to wander around in after dark. There were also some very odd palm trees with trunks that looked much like bamboo, but with fronds that only showed up as top-knots.
Duval Street! What a street! It’s not too long, but you can find almost anything there. You could get hand- made ice cream, an STD, some fine art from a shop beside one that sells tacky tee-shirts, and just about anything in between. There were some great coffee shops as well as places I would think twice about going into. We saw a couple of male strip joints, one of which offered a cabaret show called “Life is a Drag,” and at least two karaoke bars. Now this was all during the day time, at night it really got interesting.
Since it was afternoon, we decided to get some ice cream before stopping at the room for a short nap and then hitting the town. One of the big things is to be down at Sunset Pier at, well, sunset, because they have a celebration every night there. Maybe it’s like “Black Orpheus,” only instead of singing the sun up, they party it down.
The street to the pier was more crowded at night than it was during the day. There were buskers out singing and playing various type instruments. Unfortunately, we stopped at a place called “Overboard Bar and Grill” for dinner. The service was slow and it took a long time to get our food. I ordered the conch fritters, which are basically hush puppies with chopped up conch bits. My fritters were a little over done, but I didn’t realize that until I had the same dish, better done, at another place. After dinner, I wanted a toothpick, only to be told that they were out! How does a restaurant with a bar attached to it run out of toothpicks?
Anyway, by the time we had dinner and got down to the pier, the sun had mostly set, but there were still some bands playing. We listened to a Cuban band play for a while and then wandered back toward the center of town. We passed one busker playing a guitar and singing in a soft voice. I was well past him when the words he was singing made sense to me. He was singing: “I’m invisible to you, and you, and you too.” I don’t think I’ve ever run into a sarcastic busker before, but maybe so. We’ve seen buskers in almost every country we’ve gone to, maybe they were all saying something about us and we just didn’t understand. Maybe the next time we pass a busker singing in a foreign language (that’s foreign to me, not to him or her), I’ll turn around and say “Oh yeah?”
There was one man riding an adult tricycle, the kind us old folks ride to go to the grocery store, and he was peddling it down the street. The tricycle was loaded with so many glo-sticks and light-up toys, the whole display waved like moss in a river. He had his own float in the night’s parade, complete with a boom box (I hope they still call them that) playing music. Apparently, the guy wasn’t looking for spare change or anything like that, he just wanted to be out and to be a little crazy.
We woke up later than usual, and surprisingly, I wasn’t exhausted; tired but not exhausted. We had breakfast down at the Southernmost Café, naturally. We checked out of the hotel and went to see the big red and black buoy that advertises itself as being the southern most point in the United States, which I doubted. The buoy is on dry land and there is some land between it and the gulf; the claim a lie right from the start.
With that, we were back on the road and the return trip to Tampa. I know among other things, it’s a big deal to visit the Hemingway House where Ernest lived and worked, but I didn’t want to do that. I figured he would have hated a bunch of people making a shrine out of his home. He never minded first hand hero worship, but I think he would have thought making his home a museum a step too far.
Anyway, we were back on the road, this time headed north to Ft. Myer. We were part of the way out of town when I got a call on my cell phone. We had forgotten a bag of stuff we’d bought, and the hotel was calling to let us know. Good thing we weren’t too far out of town.
On the way out of the keys, we passed several signs that said we were in Key Deer Habitat. The only way this area could be Deer Habitat is if they lived in condos! There were motels, boat rentals, dive shops and restaurants, all with parking lots. I think the deer must have done some sort of rock-paper-scissors thing on who would live here, and lost out. Eventually, we did come to an area that was undeveloped, so maybe they had to move there, but still I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a “for sale” sign in the middle of the wilderness.
We got to Key Largo in the afternoon, just in time for a short rain. They do that a lot around here – short rains. The rain doesn’t cool off the temperature, just adds to the humidity. We had dinner at a place called “Sharkies” and enjoyed their beer and pulled pork quesadillas. They had some pretty good brews; Patsy had a “Sweaty Betty Blonde,” an American pale wheat ale, and I had a “Monk in the Trunk,” an American red/amber ale. They also had the sneakiest mosquitoes there! I normally don’t get bothered by mosquitoes, but I guess being out next to the water and at night time, the critters take advantage. Anyway, we all had bites on various parts of our anatomies the next morning.
On the way out of town, we stopped at a place called “The Key Largo Conch House,” where among other things, they featured a conch omelet served it with home fries. The menu said that this dish was mentioned in Joel Pierson’s mystery book, “Don’t Kill the Messenger,” so of course I had to try it, and it was delicious! If I ever pass this way again, I will definitely stop for the omelet. Their coffee was pretty good too, and as most of you know, coffee is a very important thing with me.
I thought we would be back-tracking along the route through Naples, but instead, the GPS had us go through Weston and across the Big Cypress area. If we had gone back by the Naples route, we had talked about taking another boat ride, this time across the “River of Grass” rather than the Mangrove swamp. There were miles and miles of nothing but grass – no trees, just grass. However, we did stop at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum at Big Cypress,
However, we did stop at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki museum at Big Cypress, which is a cultural center for the Seminoles. The museum is 18 miles off of I-75, and for a while, I thought it was some sort of joke. I mean, we went for miles with no signs and nothing to indicate that the museum was still in existence. However, once we made it, the museum was worth the drive.
It’s a small place but it still takes a little over two hours to see the whole exhibit, including a boardwalk through a swampy area and a village with docents to explain the Seminole way of life.
When we left the museum, it would have been faster to backtrack the 18 miles, but I did not know that. The GPS took us on a winding tour through slower speed areas until finally, much later, we rejoined the freeway. There had been a hellacious rain while we were in the museum, but that was over by the time we finished the tour. It kept threatening rain for the rest of the drive, but nothing happened, and we made Ft. Myer in good time.
Dinner that night was, well, unexpected. I wanted sea food, since we were still within range of the gulf. We chose a place nearby that also featured crocodile tail, And since we were still near the ‘glades as well, I had that. I don’t know what I expected, but crocodiles do feed on fish among other things, so the tail bits were, well, fishy. That was okay, I made a paste of tartar sauce, ketchup, and hot sauce, so the taste wasn’t too bad. Of course, being here in the South, everything was deep fried except for the green beans.
Since we had stayed in Naples, I wanted to see what the Florida town of Venice looked like. We made a side trip down to a small place that looked like it was equally divided between tourists and retired folks. We stopped at one little café for ice cream, a God-send in this weather, and then headed on to Tampa. That night, we were back at the La Quinta and had dinner at the Bob Evan’s. I was finally starting to get tired and looked forward to being home the next day.
We picked up Morgan, Sandy and John, and headed over to St. Pete’s Beach, where we walked along the water edge, looking for shells. Florida has this really neat small shell they call “Cat Paws.” The shells are smaller than my thumbnail, but look like a giant clam seen through the wrong end of a telescope. We collected several of them, which I stuffed into my pockets. Fortunately TSA didn’t consider them dangerous, because I forgot to take them out of my pocket when we went through security later on that afternoon.
We stopped at a place called Hurricane Seafood, so naturally I ordered a burger and fries. They had really good burgers, and the fries weren’t bad either.
This pretty much wraps up the trip. I guess I got the total body scan, because they put me in this tube-like thing that looked like something out of Star Trek and told me to hold still. I guess it was okay, because they didn’t say anything about the seashells; more importantly, they didn’t giggle.
There was nothing noteworthy about the flight back home. We got here when the night time temperature was a hundred and something, but it was dry! Wow! So we were home and tired. We had seen things we’d heard about, we had spent time with family, and we had done it all in a week; now it was time to recover.
Well, thanks for coming along with us to Florida. Hop