I am fascinated by all things in nature. And, what better place to see a wide variety than in Florida? My oldest son, Scott, and his wife, Lora, live in Sebring, Florida, so I decided to take off – once again – and do my wandering thing. I would stay with them for a visit and then head to the Everglades. I love driving and just doing what I want to do when I am on the road. A cup of coffee at 6:00 a.m., listening to one of my favorite CDs, and the sun on the horizon give a sense of freedom that is beyond compare.
I dug out my trusty Rand McNally and began scanning the route I would take although I have driven back and forth to Florida so many times I know the route like the back of my hand – including the dreaded trip around or through Atlanta. I have driven every mega-city and metropolitan area from north to south and east to west, but not one has the ability like Atlanta to send me into a full-scale, anxiety-ridden state of mind that doesn’t stop until I see the Atlanta skyline in my rear-view mirror – either way.
I have a plug-in GPS that my youngest son gave me a couple of years ago, but I have only used it a few times. Frankly, I know where I am going 99% of the time, and I get really annoyed at that nagging voice constantly telling me it needs to “recalculate” because I have messed up. I didn’t mess up, and I don’t need to recalculate – I know where I am going, thank you very much! And, with the advent of the Allstate “Mayhem Man” screaming “recalculate” every few seconds, can anyone really trust a GPS anymore?
Comfortable in my travel route, I loaded my truck with my belongings on Saturday morning – satchel of clothes, laptop, camera, CDs, a cooler with some veggies for snacking, and a bag of odds and ends such as a curling iron and make-up. I attended our Third District Democrat Breakfast meeting first, and, once it was over, I hopped into my truck and headed south, all set to wind my way through gloomy northern skies and snow towards the mild breezes of southern Georgia and northern Florida and then into the full warmth of the southern Florida sun.
I headed south on I-69, jumped onto State Road 9 to I-74 to Cincinnati, and then to I-75 to Knoxville, Tennessee. Every so often I would lower my window a tad, stick my fingers out to feel the air, and roll it back up with the thought that, “nope still cold out there.” I looked forward to the next day when I knew somewhere along the route, I would run into that breaking line where the air would change from having a northern chill to a southern warmth.
I always have a debate with myself about whether to drive all night or not. It sounds like a good idea when I first take off, but when I hit the northern border of Georgia, I get discouraged – such a long state. I did not get nearly as far as I had hoped by that Saturday evening – only to Knoxville. I was tired, and it was dark, so I decided to stop for the night. I picked what I thought would be a fairly cheap hotel – I don’t need exercise gyms, pools, saunas, in-house restaurants, or any of the other amenities that drive up the cost of a room.
Give me a bed, a Wi-Fi hookup, and a drive-through to pick up a cheap veggie meal, and I am happy! Knoxville was really cold that evening, and, at 6:00 a.m. the next day, it wasn’t any better. I put on my Green Frog heavy-duty sweatshirt, scraped the truck window, grabbed a cup of coffee when I filled up with gas, and I was on the road again. It was Sunday, so I thought perhaps it wouldn’t be too busy on the interstates. Little did I know what I would encounter on the remainder of my trip. But first, Atlanta, here I come.
I am not sure what it was in the past on one of my journeys that has made me so anxious about Atlanta. It had to be something like a near-death experience, but, honestly, I don’t remember. All I know is that once I hit the outer realm of Atlanta, I can feel myself drawing into a fetal position, which really makes driving difficult. My shoulders hunch, I put a death-grip on the steering wheel with my hands at perfect 10:00 and 2:00 positions, I turn off the music, I stop talking to myself, my eyes start darting left to right to the rear-view mirror on such a frequent basis that I get dizzy, my palms start sweating, I start counting the number of lanes – eight on each side – my God how can they do that to us – and I start sizing up how many maniac drivers are on all sides of me.
I pace my breathing remembering full well my training as an EMT about hyperventilating and passing out – not good with dozens of cars and those monster semis flying by. As I approached the I-285 bypass, I had to make a decision. Did I want to go around or through? Either way, it was a no-win situation for me: it was simply a matter of deciding which avenue of horror I wanted to take. So I gripped the wheel tighter and said to Atlanta, “I’m coming through.”
The first few miles heading into the middle of purgatory were not too bad. I actually felt myself relaxing somewhat, but then the lanes began to multiply like the proverbial “rabbits” and the traffic began to pick up. I found myself thinking, “People go home, it is Sunday, a day of rest.” It takes a long time to get through Atlanta – a long time. The one thing that makes it somewhat worthwhile is the skyline. But who the heck has time to really look at it if you’re worrying about a pile-up and the crazies around you?
One thing I always think about as I pass through Atlanta is the landmark Constitutional law case we studied in law school – Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States – a case where the Supreme Court upheld the authority of Congress to use the Commerce Clause to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and apply it against private businesses. But, I digress!
I kept to my pace of 55 to 60; I am sure the other drivers were ready to climb right over me and be on their way, but the signs give speed limits, and I follow them to the best of my ability. I found myself wondering why on earth this country spends millions of dollars on speed limit signs when no one cares one whit about them. As I drove along, I watched with relief as the lanes dropped from eight to six to four and finally back to two. I was through, finally, and on my way. Nothing to stop me now! Little did I know about the horrific accident that had occurred on I-75 at 3:45 a.m. Sunday morning, taking the lives of 10 people and injuring 18 others.
The rest of my drive into northern Florida was uneventful until I reached Gainesville. As I approached Gainesville on I-75 the traffic slowed to a snail’s pace, and I thought “okay, another tie up – I will be through in a short time.” As the miles drug by, I began to wonder what on earth had happened to slow it down this long. It was about 5:00 p.m. Sunday evening, and I wanted to get to Sebring before dark. I still needed to get onto 27, the four-lane highway that would take me to within a mile of my destination in Sebring.
I called my son, and we talked a minute. He suggested I hop off at an exit and find another way around the traffic jam. I followed his advice, found an exit and headed east toward Gainesville to find a way around. I stopped at a gas station and was told there had been a horrendous accident and the scene was still being cleaned up. I checked my Rand McNally and saw that 441, a four-lane highway to the east, would take me around and actually merge into 27, which is where I needed to be.
With a sigh of relief I headed off toward 441 thinking I was now through the worst. I hadn’t considered that 441 just might be the option every other driver was also taking. The going was slow and then I noticed that a haze was building over the road; it was close to twilight, and I was really tired. It was now about 7:00 p.m., and I had been on the road for 13 hours. Then I saw more red lights stabbing through the haze; fire trucks were lined up on the road and fields were still smoldering. Later I learned that this was what had caused the horrific pileup on I-75. Someone had started a fire and the resulting smoke turned visibility on I-75 to zero causing vehicles to slam into each other like dominoes.
I was terribly discouraged; I was tired; I just wanted to be in Sebring. The going was agonizingly slow, but, as I looked back the next day after learning about the accident, I knew I was blessed to have arrived safely. Ten people left their homes that Sunday morning, never suspecting that it would be their last time to talk to family or to see friends or to open their eyes to another day. After 17 hours on the road, I arrived. It was 11:00 p.m., but, of course, I was so keyed up, we stayed up and talked for quite a while.
My next three days – until I headed to the Everglades – were filled with many conversations with Scott and Lora, poking my head out the door each morning to smell the wonderful softness of the warm breeze, running errands with my son or daughter-in-law, and cooking. I love to cook, so I cooked several meals for them, and I think they got kind of spoiled. It was so relaxing!! On Thursday morning, I loaded up my belongings and headed south towards the Everglades. I would spend two days in the Glades and then head back to Sebring for a day before heading home on Sunday.
Thursday morning was another beautiful morning; I was so excited to be heading into Glades territory. I would stay at a hostel – something I had never done before in my life. But for $22 a night, it was a great way to go. After an easy drive down around Lake Okeechobee and then onto Florida 997, I arrived at my hostel, the Everglades International Hostel, in Florida City. I was in for a pleasant stay although upon arrival I wasn’t quite sure I had made the right choice. This was a new experience for me, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I checked in and went to my room to see what it was like. Six bunks, and I would have two roommates – a park ranger who was recovering from a broken hip, and a photographer.
I was still a little leery since I had never stayed at a hostel before, but I was also tired, so I unloaded my truck, relaxed a few minutes in my room, and walked across the street to a small Mexican restaurant to eat. On my return, I decided to scope out the hostel and its yard. What a beautiful yet simple place! The yard contained stone paths, all manner of small decorations, hammocks strung between palm trees, a detached kitchen for preparing our meals, people seated at long wooden tables chatting, and a wonderful enormous tree that caught my eye immediately.
My concerns allayed, I went inside to take a shower and relax the rest of the evening and plan my next day’s adventure into the Glades.
The next morning I was up early to head to Everglades National Park. The Park was established in 1947 to preserve the largest sub-tropical system in the United States – already well on its way to devastation and ruin by the continuous drainage of the land. The park ranger staying in my room told me I could get a senior life-time pass for $10.00 at the entry point to the park. The road to the Park was nondescript, but I always find things to look at on the way, so the drive went quickly and smoothly. I purchased my senior pass – good for my lifetime and for free entry to all national parks and many national monuments – and headed for the first stop on my lengthy journey – the Anhinga Trail.
The Anhinga is a fairly short trail of about a half mile one-way meandering along a wetland area where birds come up to the path and alligators lie just feet away sunning themselves – motionless and oblivious to the visitors who stand and stare. Mangroves and saw grass and water populate the landscape for as far as the eye can see. Signs are posted along the trail to warn hikers not to feed the animals. Benches are located along the trail for those who may want to rest and enjoy the beauty of the environment. I spied a huge mangrove with a bench in front of it, so I sat down to mull over the way in which all of nature enriches us with its amazing inhabitants – both flora and fauna.
No protective fencing has been placed between the critters and the walkers. As I headed to one of the board walks that lead out into the “river of grass”, I saw several alligators lying in the sun. They didn’t move! They didn’t appear to breathe! I found one I really liked – if that is an option with a toothy, scaly reptile – and I stood and watched and watched, hoping it would move to let me know it was alive. It finally accommodated me with a sluggish lifting of its left “arm” just a few inches off the grassy bed on which it was lying and then dropping it as if it had exerted too much energy just so I could ooh and ah.
The gators were resting, the sun beating down on their dark gray-black skins giving them energy for their later hunt for food – all, that is, but one sneaky gator effortlessly sliding through the water from under the boardwalk. It was slowly approaching “my” gator, and I wondered what would happen as it invaded. The “on-the-move” gator slid up on the grassy plot beside the sleeping gator and lay there for a few minutes. Nothing happened, and it probably sighed and thought “no action here” and left. I can see how gators are hard to distinguish from the water – they are the same color and they truly glide with little disturbance of the surrounding water, their eyes and tops of their heads just barely breaking the surface.
The gators along the Anhinga were not huge – about six to seven feet long – but still scary enough that I found myself wondering how I would escape if a gator charged up the bank after me. Two hikers who had stopped beside me on the boardwalk told me that the gator – the “chasor” – can only run in a straight line – so the “chasee” (me) should run in a zig-zag line. I thanked them for that bit of advice but somehow was not able to see myself trying to calculate the angles and degrees needed to avoid becoming lunch. I felt pretty comfortable on the boardwalk – I mean, really, how high can gators jump? It was the trail itself that posed the problem.
But we had also been assured that we are not the first entrée choice for gators – they really don’t like us and will only eat us if they are desperate. Small birds and animals are their mashed potatoes; we are their broccoli. Again, not terribly comforting. I headed back to my truck to visit my next stop – the Mahogany Hammock. A hammock is a small rise of land surrounded by water and provides shelter for many animals. It was a mass of trees, brush, and vines with a boardwalk circling around the island. Benches sprinkled the hammock so that walkers could rest. Some time ago, I saw a nature show which had pictures of strangler figs. I actually found one in the hammock, and it was doing its “job” entwined around the trunk of a larger tree and strangling it.
From the hammock, I headed to the end of the drive – the Flamingo Trail – almost 40 miles from the beginning of my journey. The area was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and still bears the scars with little rebuilding of what had been destroyed. The Flamingo trail is at the end of the Everglades route and leads to the Florida Bay. Across the Bay lies State highway 1 – the two-lane highway allowing access to the Keys. I snapped my pictures and headed back to Florida City – absolutely enamored of the sights I had seen. Such beauty and wonder in this world!!
I was exhausted – hiking and driving had worn me out, and I was anxious to get back to my room. But, I was also hungry. When I got back to Florida City, I started looking for a good place to eat, and I found one – the Capri Restaurant – a wonderful Italian restaurant with excellent food. And, I might add a crusty bar tender who doubled as the waitress in the lounge area. She was German and still sported a fairly noticeable accent. I had asked to be seated at the bar, and, as I was waiting to be shown my seat, I watched as she confronted another waitress. I heard her snapping that she was overworked; I was seriously considering withdrawing my request when she turned her gaze my way and said, “Sure, I guess I can take one more, no one cares about how hard I work.”
I was feeling like the husband in the Goodwill commercial who is just about to enter the bedroom as the wife is sorting through her clothes and making hostile comments – the husband turns around and silently skitters away. But, I had missed that chance, so I figured I would just make the best of it. Two women who were sitting beside me at the bar must have seen my “deer in the headlights” look and told me she is just that way, and you have to get to know her.
I have to say, I am glad I did not cut and run – throughout my dinner, she and I continued to chat. By the time I had finished eating she had joined me for her break, and we had a great talk. She is my age, and we talked about her home town in Germany and where I had lived in Germany. She is a “staple” at the restaurant, and everyone loves her. You just have to take the time to get to know people! I truly love meeting people. I can’t wait to go back to that restaurant; I just hope she is still there.
Tired, happy, exhilarated, and well-fed, I returned to my room to get ready for my trip back to Sebring for one more day with Scott and Lora. It was still light out, so I scavenged the hostel’s yard for some leaves that I had seen earlier – large, beautiful, plate-shaped leaves with a maroon color. I picked up a few and put them into books to press them flat for their trip home. They will eventually grace my large Syacamore limb in my foyer. I have decided that I will collect leaves, cones, and other wonderful bits of nature when I take trips. They will accompany me home and be added to my branch – a wonderful way to remember my journeys around this great country. In my room, I packed everything up – ready and anxious to head back to Sebring the next morning and then back to the Fort.
But last on my list for this trip was a drive on the Tamiami Trail – called the poor man’s Alligator Alley. Miles and miles of highway cutting through the Glades. The Trail lies south of I-75, and runs almost parallel to I-75 across the lower part of Florida from east to west. I learned on a trip in 2001 not to run low on gas – there are few gas stations in this part of southern Florida.
My last day in Sebring – Saturday – was another wonderful day. My son had made me some signs for my reading room, cleaned my laptop taking it back to its original state so it would run more efficiently, and my daughter-in-law had picked a huge bag of lemons from their tree to send home with me. I bought some fresh – and I mean fresh – vegetables at one of the nearby farmer’s markets to bring home. I fixed one more meal for them, we watched TV that evening and talked, and then it was time to go to bed. I never sleep well the night before I head home; that Saturday night was no different.
Sunday morning was my day to start home. Leaving always triggers alternating states of emotion. I had such a good time, and I was sad to leave, yet I was happy to be on the road heading back to my beloved home. I get so homesick, and I worry about my home. So I hit the road at about 8:00 a.m. with veggies and lemons and with many good memories of a wonderful visit and an amazing opportunity to see an ecosystem beyond compare – thanks to my Everglades Adventure.