Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Catastrophe on Route 10

By Claire

The weather has changed—it was 41° and we were still in Florida!  Nobody warned us about that.  But, off we went at 8 am to drive through the Florida Panhandle and Alabama to Mississippi.  It was at the third rest stop for our driver switchover that I discovered my backpack was missing.  I had been to the restroom and, on my way back, noticed something I wanted to take a picture of.  My camera is almost always in my backpack.  Chuck and I tore the car apart but it was nowhere to be seen.  All I could think of was that it held my wallet with my credit cards, about $100 in cash, my driver’s license and my camera!  We were very bummed, but decided that we better start figuring it out; so I called the hotel and they checked our room.  It wasn’t there. 

Then I realized that it was in the car at some point, because my phone was sitting right there playing music for us.  I never put my phone in my pocket.  It’s either in the backpack or in my purse.  Then I recalled writing in the amount for the hotel in my little spiral bound notebook that has all the data from our trip and is housed in my backpack.  So.  It had to be in the car.  Or…could someone have stolen it?  We racked our brains and I decided that maybe we hadn’t locked the car when we left for the restrooms.  Maybe someone saw the backpack and just opened the door and snatched it.  Whatever.  We had to act before this hardened criminal could start charging things on two credit cards and a debit card.  Chuck took back the wheel, even though it was my turn.  

I spent the next hour on the phone talking with our main credit card holder, getting cut off at the last minute just when I had given them the hotel address in Austin to send new ones.  So, back to square one.  Imagine doing this as the car is speeding down the highway, it’s noisy and you have the usual high-pitched person on the line and you can barely hear them, let alone understand them.  I persevered, and eventually everything was taken care of. 

We traded driving after stopping for lunch and I started remembering all the things in my wallet that needed replacement.  Chuck started writing them down.  We do have another camera, my old one that only works intermittently and doesn’t have a back-up battery.  I tried to think positively.  It could have been so much worse.  What if they had taken our “tech” bags with our laptop, iPad, Kindles and more?  We got over it.  But then started questioning ourselves and our inability to be in the moment.  Chuck left a beloved shirt behind in the hotel from the day before.  They are shipping that by UPS to our home.  Unfortunately, he won’t have it for the rest of the trip.  Were we getting careless?  Where are our heads?  I can tell you I was very stressed by this.  But, we gained an hour by entering the Central Time Zone and decided that since we had no plans for Mississippi, we would go to a movie.  Which we did. 

Finding the theatre was another nightmare.  Chuck had found a place playing Argo on his iPhone map and the directions were very clear.  However, the streets had no names.  We almost gave up but decided to circle back to where we had been and found it hidden behind another building—all thanks to his electronic map and the little blue bubble that shows us where we are on which streets.  He could see that we were there, it was just over there--on a new street our map did not have!

The movie was fantastic.  Don’t even read about it, just go.  It was a nice escape from our loss and by the time we left, it was after 4 pm, so we drove the remaining 15 miles in search of gas and our hotel. 

Things were looking up when we spotted the hotel AND a gas station with a price of $3.09, the cheapest we’ve seen on this entire trip.  The lines were somewhat long but we were there so we went for it.  Meanwhile, Chuck couldn’t get the pump to work so while he went into the store to get some help, I started looking for maps and tour books for the next leg of the trip.  And what do you know?  The driver’s seat was pulled up because I had last driven, and there was my backpack!  Somehow, it had slipped down behind the seat and then when Chuck got in and put the seat back, it was completely hidden.  So what’s a few canceled cards? 

I was so grateful to know I have my camera back and my driver’s license.  It also made me start thinking about all the technology we have used on this trip.  Here’s a list:  GPS (aka Vicky), iPhone with a rest area app, Yelp app, Google, National Parks app, Where app, app, Living Earth/Clock app (thanks Steph), Chronicle app, USA today app, NY Times app, and the iPhone timer for switching drivers and remembering to put wet laundry into the dryer.  Could we have done this trip without all these things?  Hard to say.  Oh yeah, I forgot the iPad and our laptop. No, I don't think we could be without them.  No blog?  Come on!

We are 12 days from home but we still have things to do and see.  We’re not completely worn down yet.  In fact, walking into our suite this evening, I was just thinking—hey, I could get used to this!

Yesterday, we stopped at one of the many wonderful rest areas and we were doing a little walk to stretch our legs when we spotted the most amazing creatures.  They were not bothered by the cars and trucks going by or the people walking right next to them.  I had to look them up in Google to find out what they were.  

Sandhill Cranes 

We drove past Ponce de Leon State Park and it reminded me that he finally found the fountain of youth, but, alas, Dick Clark was already there.


Monday, October 29, 2012

River of Grass

By Claire

I must say again that Florida has turned out to be a wonderful surprise.  If you love nature, and especially birds, this is the place for you.  The weather continues to be perfect, and it is fresh and clean.  We have the vultures to thank for the fresh air--nothing dead lasts long around here.  Plus, the local vultures don't just go for road kill, they do some killing themselves.

We kept hearing about the sawgrass prairie and how important the water is; and the more we explored, the more we came to understand.  A slow-moving, shallow (the wet prairies average only 4 inches in depth) river (50 mile wide by 100 mile long) runs through this entire area and the water is in constant movement, about 1/4 mile per day; so it is not a stagnant swamp.  And this is only one-seventh the original Everglades area--Man intervened and developed, dammed and "improved" the rest.  There are currently plans to effect a partial restoration. 

We had a plan for today--head to Shark Valley Visitor Center at the northern part of the Everglades. We decided to go for the 11 am tram tour.  However, not all plans always work out.  And sometimes it's for the best.  You know, that spontaneous, serendipitous style of travel.  We had driven almost an hour when we were stopped by a FHP (Florida Highway Patrolperson) at the beginning of the road leading to Shark Valley.  Apparently there had been a fatal accident up ahead, and he was not letting anyone in unless you were a tribe member.  He advised us to go somewhere until 10 am when the road would be opened again.  Well,  I guess we were not going to be doing the 11 am tram tour after all.  We had no idea where to go, but decided to just turn around and follow the road for a ways and see what we could find.  Chuck had just suggested a McDonalds (horrors!), when I spotted a Starbucks.  Hooray!  So, I pulled out my iPad and he had his Kindle and we spent a pleasant hour with our devices and our lattes.

I guess we were too relaxed, because we didn't get back onto the road until about 10:10 and then found out that about every 5 miles it became a one lane construction zone and we had to sit and wait until it was our turn.  Just after the second lane closure, I noticed a Gator Park advertising Air Boat rides and a gator show.  How could we resist?  There was no chance of making the 11 am tram ride; so, against his better judgment, Chuck pulled in at my urging.  He kept asking me, "are you sure you want to do this?"  I have to admit, it looked kind of cheesy, and I was beginning to think it was going to be really lame. 

But, we had nothing else to do, since the next tram ride was at 1 pm (so we thought).  We went for it.  While waiting for our boat, we watched one come in with a batch of Japanese tourists.  I'm not sure if they just didn't understand English or they weren't listening but it was rather hilarious to hear the boat guide yelling instructions at them repeatedly:  SIT DOWN!  PUT THAT FISH BACK IN THE WATER!  SIT DOWN!  He was completely ignored.  Several of us watched in horror as a few of the tourists jumped out of the boat with fish in their hands.  They thought it was just so funny, and took it as a photo op.  They did finally throw the fish back into the water but by then, they were pretty much goners.

We were handed ear plugs and given instructions, like do not pet the alligators, do not put your child on an alligator.  

Our boat guide, Randy

 Right off the bat, Randy spotted an Alligator.  Cameras began clicking madly.

Our most amazing sight was of a mother alligator and her young.  They were so cute!  Much excitement ensued.

Baby on board

Baby alligators are natural born predators and can swim and hunt fresh out of the egg. They are born with the same amount of teeth as their mother:  40 on top and 40 on the bottom.  However, when they are this young, they are also a natural prey.

A nest of babies--moms can have 40 or more eggs, but only 1 in 5 reach maturity--their eventual prey are their initial predators.

We were advised to insert our ear plugs and then off we went, full throttle!  What a ride!  I was laughing so hard--but with the ear plugs and the noise from the air boat V-8 engine I couldn't even hear myself.  Chuck was grinning from ear to ear and laughing wildly as well.   Randy roared through the glades, fish-tailing through the grass and causing immense glee. 

The fun can only last so long, and now it was time to quietly glide through the water and look for more alligators and birds.  Randy was great at spotting.

Great Blue Heron

Great White Heron

After our wild ride, we found out there was an alligator wrestler waiting for us.  We hurried over to a small stadium seating area.

Tom, the gator wrestler, shoving a scorpion into someone's face as she walked in

The scorpion

Tom trying to get her to kiss the frog and turn him into a prince

Tom demonstrated putting his hand into the alligator's mouth letting us know there was no danger as long as you don't touch him.  He then used a pen to barely touch the bottom inside jaw; it snapped shut instantly.

Tom wrestling a gator

Just a toddler, 3 years old

I have to say: it may have been cheesy, but Tom was a great performer and we were all very entertained.  It really was fun, and we were so glad we took that little detour.

Back on the road again,  we arrived at our destination at 12:30 with plenty of time for the 1 pm tour.  But, the next one wasn't until 2!  We had 90 minutes to kill, but decided to go for it.  We weren't really in any hurry, and we could walk on the trail and see some more wild life.  We also went to the Visitor Center.

 Shark Valley Visitor Center

Poaching was a big problem in the Everglades.  In fact, the Egrets and Great White Herons were endangered because their plumes were used in ladies hats.  In 1903, an ounce of feathers was worth twice as much as an ounce of gold. With feathers so highly valued, you can bet that there was a "gold rush" for plumes. Laws against poaching went into effect, but the game wardens could not stop it and birds continued to be killed.  The power of fashion was too strong, and the destruction of birds ended only when women's tastes changed.  When a new, short hairstyle became the trend, the birds were ultimately saved from extinction.  This new hairstyle could not support the big extravagant hats and the demand for plumes disappeared, forcing plume hunters to abandon their trade.

How about this purse?

We decided to go for a stroll near the Visitor Center and look what we saw!

Alligator length can be estimated converting the distance in inches between their nose and their eyes to feet--if the distance is 12 inches, the length is 12 feet.

Is he smiling?

Female Anhinga drying her wings--males are all black

Little Red-necked Blue Heron

And another

In flight

One of his two lids--an ordinary one for land and a transparent one for under water

Just hanging out

Finally our tram tour began.  Again, I was worried that it would be kind of ho-hum, touristy.  Wrong.  It was a relaxed, fantastic 2-hour ride through Shark Valley.  Oh, and about that name?  There are sharks down in Flamingo and the area (between the coasts) that we were in dips down 4-5 feet, forming a valley.  We rode along with Cynthia as docent and George as driver.  He was uncanny in his ability to spot wildlife and she was full of information and very entertaining.  Half way through the trip, we came to the viewing tower.

Trail through Shark Valley

65 foot viewing tower

Ramp up to the viewing tower

Did we tell you?  Chuck's running for office.

Great Blue Heron--tallest bird in the Park

This one just ate

A Twofer

On our way down the road from Shark Valley, we came upon this post office.  It's the tiniest post office in America.  What better spot than this to mail our ballots?  No, just kidding; we took those to the main post office.  

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Nanette Watson, Postmaster of the “Smallest Post Office in the United States” – the Ochopee Post Office – decided she wanted to paint the 8’4’’ by 7’3’’ building bright pink. “I’ve been wanting to do this for many years,” she explains. “You see, people come here from all over the world to take pictures of the smallest Post Office. So it’s a great way to bring attention to breast cancer research.”

We've noticed a few things about Florida.  Except for Rock Reef Pass--at 3 ft.--it is almost completely flat.  At one point, there was water from a canal lapping at the road we were driving on.  It is the cleanest state we've been in--everything is fresh and sparkling.  I don't know how they do it.  No litter, no graffiti.  I think we'll come back; they say February is the best month.  We only saw hundreds of birds; but in February you will see thousands.

By the time we leave, we will have spent 10 days in Florida--twice the time spent in any other State. 

Glades that go on forever-- Everglades

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Flamingo, Florida

By Claire

We were in the southernmost part of the Everglades today, Flamingo.  Alas, no Flamingos.  Those that are left are in the Caribbean and any that you see in Florida are most likely escaped pets.

We decided on a boat tour, with the hope of seeing more wildlife.  This area is the only place in the world where Alligators and Crocodiles coexist.  Apparently, they live quite well together.  I learned that Alligators live in fresh water but can live in brackish (salty) water for up to three weeks. Crocodiles live in salt water but can exist in brackish water as well.

We stopped at one of the many ponds along the way and came upon hundreds of birds of all kinds.  We also discovered mosquitoes for a brief moment.  Turns out we should stay out of grass and shade. 

First up, the Wood Stork.  They have been on the endangered species list since 1984 so we were lucky to see one.  Walking slowly forward, the stork sweeps its submerged bill from side to side.  Touching its prey, mostly small fish, the bill snaps shut with a 25-millisecond reflex action, the fastest reflex known for vertebrate species.   This guy was beautiful in flight.

An almost bigger thrill was seeing this Roseate Spoonbill. They are gorgeous flying through the air, almost lit from beneath in red.

We arrived at the Marina in Flamingo and were reminded that cars can be damaged by the local thugs in town--Black Vultures.  They even have tarps available to cover your car.  They go for the rubber parts on the car, but I guess the tires are off limits--the tarps do not cover them.

Here's a pack already moving in for the kill.

Our boat for the day.  We had a wonderful guide, Bill, and his assistant Sheena.  It was smooth all the way.

We were lucky that there were only 10 of us--we had front row seats.

I felt as if we were heading into the Amazon--maybe because of reading State of Wonder--a great story that takes place there.

And there he was, right on the river bank sunning himself--an alligator.

There are three kinds of Mangroves:  Red, Black and White.  These are Red Mangroves.  They grow closest to open water and have multiple prop roots, which may help to stabilize the soil around its roots.  Our guide told us that the roots are so strong, they are hurricane proof.


Great Blue Heron.  We saw many of these guys, as well as their younger brothers.  You can spot the young, completely white ones by their lime-colored legs.

After our boat trip, we drove back to visitor center at the park entrance at Royal Palm so we could walk the Gumbo Limbo trail.  These strange things are growing everywhere in this orange soup of detritus that feeds the plants.

This trail is closest to being a jungle.

This is a Gumbo-Limbo tree.  Even its name sounds tropical.   The peeling red bark suggests severe sunburn; no wonder tourist tree is another of its many names.  Central Americans call it Naked Indian.  It has many uses:  planted branches take root and become rot-proof living fences.  The wood was once used to carve merry-go-round horses.  Resin provided medicinal salves, antidotes to poisonwood and bee stings, preservatives for Indian canoes and incense for the Mayas.  Brews from the inner bark may have been the original gumbo soup.

What an interesting, exciting, unexpected place to visit.  I had no idea.  We have been to so many National Parks, from Alaska to the Grand Canyon, and now the Everglades.  How did we get so lucky?

I believe that life should be lived so vividly and so intensely that thoughts of another life, or of a longer life, are not necessary. ~  Marjory Stoneman Douglas, author of The Everglades, River of Grass

[Douglas lived until age 108, working until nearly the end of her life for Everglades restoration. Upon her death, an obituary in The Independent in London stated, "In the history of the American environmental movement, there have been few more remarkable figures than Marjory Stoneman Douglas."]