Notes on Florida
I just returned from a lengthy vacation that I spent in Maine and South Florida with my family.
My parents live in Maine, as does one of my sisters, so I go there with some regularity. But I’ve never been to South Florida, and when my parents asked me and my sisters if we wanted to travel to Key West and the Everglades over Christmas, I was excited. Traveling to a new place is always pretty interesting, and I’ve wanted to go to the Everglades ever since I was a child, mainly because I like alligators.
And there’s no shortage of alligators in the Everglades. I thought we’d see them here and there, but we saw them everywhere — sunning themselves near walking trails, swimming in the river, lying in grassy, watery fields and sleeping by the side of the road. The park rangers advised to stay a good 15 feet away from these creatures, and also informed us that nobody knows how fast they can run. “People say they can run 30 miles, but that’s not true,” one ranger said. Another ranger said, “They may not be able to run that fast, but they can lunge at you with surprising speed.” All in all, we estimate that we saw 200 alligators, which certainly beats the 15 alligators I saw on a swamp tour when I traveled to New Orleans in college. On that tour, our guide, Cyrus the Cajun, threw marshmallows at swimming alligators, to get them to open their mouths and show us their teeth, and he eased his boat along the bank and picked up sleeping alligators with his bare hands. Not surprisingly, the National Park Service frowns upon these sorts of activities.
The Everglades is a subtropical wetlands that is nourished by a constant flow of water that runs from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico. Hence its nickname, “River of Grass,” which was coined by writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas to describe the interconnected network of sawgrass marshes, mangrove forests and cypress swamps that comprise this unique area. We took a tram tour through Shark Valley, the park’s northern section, which resembles a prairie, or even an African savanna. In Shark Valley, we saw an assortment of beautiful birds — egret, ibis, anhinga, spoonbills and herons. But no sharks, which I found disappointing. Apparently, there are no sharks in Shark Valley.
But there are sharks in Everglades City, an old fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico where we took a boat tour through the Ten Thousand Islands — a maze of mangrove islands. “You can swim out here, if you’re not too afraid of sharks,” our guide informed us. “I’ve never encountered them — although I did suffer a stingray bite years ago.” On this tour, we saw a couple new species of birds — pelicans and ospreys — and several dolphins, which came as a total surprise, as it never occurred to me that I would see dolphins on this trip. Dolphins are attracted to currents, and there was a brief spell when a pair of dolphins were leaping in and out of the boat’s wake. It was as magical as anything we saw on the trip, which is saying something.
On our way down to Key West, we went looking for the Key deer, an endangered species of miniature white-tailed deer that live primarily on two islands — Big Pine and No Name Keys. Who knew there was such a thing as miniature deer? Not me. My tour book presents me with this interesting fact: “Once mainland dwellers, the deer were stranded during the formation of the Keys, where they shrank and had single births (as opposed to large litters) to deal with reduced resources.” The speed limit drops significantly when you enter the National Key Deer Refuge Headquarters, and a sign tells you the number of Key deer killed so far to date this year. We stopped at a nature trail, hoping to catch a glimpse of these unusual creatures. But it turned out to be the worst nature trail I’ve ever been on — no signs of life, not even birds. It was approaching dusk, and my sister suggested we’d have better luck driving around a residential neighborhood, looking at peoples’ lawns. Sure enough, we came across five Key deer, munching on grass and flowers, soon after turning into a quiet neighborhood. They were about the size of dogs, and seemed to have no fear of people.
Key West is a pretty neat place, too. There I was able to meet up with my old high school friend Keith, who has lived in Key West for about eight years, and was able to provide us with interesting facts and insights — the type you don’t usually get from tour books. I met Keith at Mallory Square, where people gather every night to watch the sunset, and street performers juggle fire and play with knives. A few years back, Keith briefly left Key West, thinking maybe it would be a good idea to get a career, and moved to Quincy, Mass., which seems about as unlike Key West as you can get, with his wife. But they missed their carefree island existence, and soon tired of grouchy Northeasterners who “complain about everything,” as Keith put it.
Now Keith and his wife are expecting a baby, which means that their child will be a Conch — someone who is born and raised in the Keys. This entitles their child to full burial rights, something Keith and his wife, being from New Hampshire and the Czech Republic, respectively, will never have. Once Keith has lived in the Keys 10 years, he will become a “Freshwater Conch,” although he said there will be some disagreement about when he qualifies for such a title, because of his brief hiatus in Quincy. “Do you get anything when you become a freshwater conch?” I asked. “A lady used to make certificates for people, but she died,” Keith said. (A conch is one of a number of different species of medium-sized to large saltwater snails or their shells. I ate some when I was down there, and it was very tasty.)
Other stops included Hemingway’s house, where 43 cats — the direct descendants of the author’s famous six-toed cats — reside. The tour of Hemingway’s palatial home inspired me to steal “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which Hemingway wrote while he lived in Key West, from my parents’ library. We also visited the Southernmost Point — a giant buoy at the corner of South and Whitehead streets that supposedly marks the southernmost point in the U.S. Though our tour guide informed us that the real southernmost point is the off-limits naval base around the corner, and described the fake southernmost point as “the most overrated attraction in Key West,” we went there anyway, and had our pictures taken. And as fake and silly as it was, it was also kind of fun.
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