This post represents another installment in The Big Switcheroo series – tales from last spring’s epic journey from the northeast to the Florida Keys and back – involving family, friends and an extraordinary range of adventures.
No, I didn’t drop off the face of the earth. Alan and I were camping for a full two weeks at our family favorite, Northampton Beach Campground on Great Lake Sacandaga in central New York. The first week was spent with fellow owners of travel trailers and fifth wheels made by Outdoors RV Manufacturing. The get together – a small gathering of only 7 ORV rigs – was tons of fun, despite being somewhat restricted by current COVID guidelines. I’ll be covering that event in a future post, for sure. The second week was spent with our daughter, son and our son’s girlfriend, and that, too, was absolutely delightful. Now, we need a vacation from the vacation.
In the last installment of this series of posts, I recounted how Alan and I had spent several enjoyable days at Ortona South, an Army Corps of Engineers campground on Florida’s Okeechobee Waterway. Our trip through the mid-Atlantic states and along the east coast was winding down, but we were nowhere near finished with the highlights. Still ahead were Biscayne National Park and the Florida Keys. But first, the Everglades.
Everglades National Park had been on our bucket list for a long time. Due to its location, and the length of time we planned on spending in the Park, it was never a “destination vacation” for us. Instead, we knew we would fit it into the itinerary of one of our trips to Florida to visit Alan’s brother and sister-in-law, play on the gorgeous beaches, or explore Disney World. Last year, the time finally came. Since neither one of us was interested in spending a number of days inside the Park, we decided to stop for a visit on our way from Ortona South to Key Largo.
There are four Visitor Centers within the Everglades, and the type of activities we wanted to enjoy in the Park would dictate which one we would visit. After talking with Tom and Joan (Alan’s brother and sister-in-law), and spending a bit of time on the National Park Service website, we decided that the Shark Valley Visitor Center would be our best bet. Although the mailing address for Shark Valley is a Miami one, the Visitor Center is actually off the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) kinda sorta in the middle of nowhere. In addition to the informative displays in the Visitor Center, there is a wide, paved trail through the Everglades that leads to an observation tower. Tram tours and bicycle rentals are available through Shark Valley Tram Tours, Inc., but, since we were traveling with our own bikes, we had decided to bike the loop that the trams follow, and stop at the observation tower which is located halfway around the loop.
Everglades National Park is unlike any other National Park we had visited. It has a different topography, different features, and it definitely has different inhabitants. The Park is huge – approximately 1.5 million acres of wetland – and all of those acres represent the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Plus, it’s flat. Really flat, and that was rather unnerving for someone who lives in and loves the mountains. We thought the parking lot was small for a Visitor Center in a National Park, and the RV parking was practically non-existent. We were directed by the Park Ranger at the gate to circle around toward the exit and park our rig against the curb and sidewalk. With a length of just over 50’ for the truck and trailer combined, we took up quite a bit of real estate. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be many RVs vying for parking space that day.
The average high temperature in May in the Shark Valley area is 87 degrees, with “average” being the operative word. At the time of our visit, there was a bit of a heat wave going on, and the temps were in the mid- to upper-90’s with what felt like 400% humidity. We are nothing if not intrepid, so we unloaded the bikes to attack the 15 mile loop trail on a hot and humid morning. (Merriam-Webster defines “intrepid” as “characterized by resolute fearlessness, fortitude, and endurance.” I just want to be sure that y’all are completely clear on that.)
I went into the travel trailer to pack up our soft-sided cooler with a shoulder strap, knowing that a steady supply of water would be the only thing that would keep us from becoming casualties of the Florida heat. Because our rig was built for higher ground clearance, we have three steps on our RV entrances. Because we were parked against the curb, we only had room to fold down the first two. So, our bottom step remained folded up onto the middle step. We try not to use the steps in that manner because the bottoms of the steps have some rounded sections, and someone could easily slip and fall. (Do you see where this is going?)
Sure as shootin,’ as I came down the steps, my foot
slipped out from under me, and down I went with my left leg smashing into the
metal step – WHAM! Boy, oh boy, did that
hell heck! Of course, the smart thing to do at that point
would have been to load up the bikes, then buy tickets for the tram tour. So, when Alan asked, “Are you okay?” I, of
course, said, “Sure, let’s go!” (Note to Mike: Please feel free to correct that punctuation because I had no clue
what I was doing!)
The funny thing was, when I was riding the bike I was fine – no pain, full range of motion. It was only when I stopped pedaling and put my foot down that my left knee buckled, unable to support my weight. So, what else to do but keep going, right? Right! We hit the halfway point and the observation tower somewhere around mile seven. My knee and I took one look at the observation tower, how far it was to walk to it, and how far it was to walk up it, and we decided that there was nothing we needed to observe that badly. Alan chose not to exert the additional effort either so, after an extended water break, we continued on around the 15 mile loop.
At this point, I was in pain whenever I stopped pedaling, and figured we were either going to die from dehydration or from drinking boiling water from the bottles in the holders attached to our bikes well before we made it back to the Visitor Center. For those of you with excellent memory skills, let me confirm that you are, indeed, correct. We did have the cooler with extra water with us, and we enjoyed a cool one whenever we took a break. But we were also drinking water on the go from the bottles in the holders attached to the bikes, and it doesn’t take long for that water to lose its chill. Yuck! I guess it’s comparable to taking a cool dip in the hot springs. Not. Exactly. Refreshing.
What else, you ask, could possibly make this National Parks visit even more, uh, interesting, not to mention memorable? The critters! The turtles were adorably amusing! The birds were incredibly fascinating! The alligators and the crocodiles were absolutely frightening! Alan thought I was overreacting. Every time he saw an alligator or crocodile in the wide, watery ditch that ran alongside the trail, he would STOP AND LOOK AT IT. Then try to get me to take pictures of it! You’ll notice that there are not many photos of the alligators or the crocodiles because to get really good ones, you have to get really close and that is really foolish. Plus, the pics tend to come out blurry when you’re already starting to pedal away before the camera shutter is fully released. Do you know that alligators can run up to 20 miles per hour?! And saltwater crocodiles can run, on average, from 15 to 18 miles per hour?! (Please, God, if that thing climbs out of the ditch and makes a run for me, let it be a saltwater croc so that I have half a chance of pedaling fast enough to escape.) Honestly, I don’t know whether we have photos of alligators, crocodiles, or some of each because I surely wasn’t going to take the time to examine them up close and personal. That Alan, he’s a little crazy sometimes.
|Yes, that's an alligator or a crocodile, and, no, we don't need to get any closer.|
Luckily, I didn’t find out until after our visit to the Everglades that more than two dozen species of snakes reside in the “River of Grass.” Two dozen! And that includes the Burmese python, a non-native species that can grow to a length of 23 feet (that’s more than FOUR of me!) and weigh up to 200 pounds (and that’s almost TWO of me!).
But the birds! Oh, the birds were magnificent! Many were much larger than we see back home, and so impressive when they took to the air. This is one of the things I love about traveling: the opportunity to see such an extraordinary array of birds and animals, flowers and trees, and, more than anything else, the unbelievably magnificent scenery that can be found in every corner of this grand and glorious country.
As Alan and I headed into the second half of the 15 mile Shark Valley loop trail, our view of swaying grasses stretched in the distance to the low horizon. It almost felt like we were in another world – on the savannas of Africa, perhaps – in a land that was remote, untamed, haunting and beautiful.
I can’t say that Everglades is one of my favorite National Parks – or anywhere close to it, for that matter. Even though I was happy to place a check mark on our bucket list, as of now, I don’t feel a need to go back again. Although, to be fair, it seems like a visitor’s experience may vary considerably from one area of the Park to another. We biked the complete 15 mile loop in the sweltering Florida heat. We saw a number of amazing birds in flight and at rest. We were not eaten by a crocodile or an alligator. And, mostly importantly, we eluded the stealthy Burmese python, and lived to tell the tale.
Alan and I visited our first National Park more than 40 years ago, and every one of our experiences in the Parks has been educational, enjoyable and memorable. I’ve always said that each National Park has its own character and personality, and the more Parks we visit, the more I believe that to be true. Everglades National Park might not be my favorite, but it provided an enchanting experience that this intrepid explorer will never forget.
For additional information, including info about the two campgrounds in Everglades National Park, just hop on over to the National Park Service website (link HERE). Remember, services are limited due to COVID-19, but they won’t always be, and now is a wonderful time to plan a future visit.
EPILOGUE: Just in case you were wondering, my knee did bother me on and off for the rest of the trip (and a number of weeks thereafter), but not to the extent that we needed to curtail any of our activities. (Luckily, we had no plans for hiking.) I was all set to ask my doctor for help when, one day, my knee suddenly stopped hurting. Just like that, no kidding. I questioned my doctor about it at my annual physical, a few weeks later. At first, Doc couldn’t figure it out. Then she remembered that there is a tiny bone or joint or some other small whatchamacallit in that area of the knee that could have been slightly dislocated and, one day, just popped back in place. That seemed logical, based upon the pain I had been feeling (and suddenly didn’t), and I’m fortunate in that no other medical intervention was needed.