Our next destination in Florida was Everglades National Park. I had a vision of the Everglades in my mind as being this insanely muggy, swampy, mucky, buggy area where alligators waddle across the streets as commonly as squirrels. Happily the real Everglades were much more pleasant than I expected, although I am sad that we did not see any gators or Florida panthers. Since we visited during the “wet” season, there is more space for the wildlife to disperse and spotting them becomes more difficult. In the dry season there is less water and so the wildlife becomes more concentrated around the small swamps that persist.
The northern edge of the park was very temperate and comfortable, but we decided to drive to the town of Flamingo down at the southern end of the park to check it out. As soon as I stepped out of the truck I was engulfed in mosquitos, and so I begged Andrew to take me back to the first campground at the top of the park. We had a bit of a spat over this, but I was already so covered in itchy bumps that I couldn’t imagine tolerating even one more bite. At this rate I figured I had a higher chance than most of contracting some horrible insect-borne virus, and so I won the argument and back we went to drier land. The campground was under open skies and wasn’t terribly impressive, but as evening rolled in we watched a thunderstorm pass over the southern part of the park, and we were both grateful to be there.
The next morning we did a nature walk around a swamp and spotted tons of Great White Herons or Great Egrets (see photo below) and Anhinga, which are large graceful water birds that thrive in this particular area. The weather was beautiful, and we headed out of the park and north along the Gulf coast appreciative of the cool breeze that followed us. We stopped for the night at a campground called Hog Island, despite the absence of both hogs and a surrounding body of water. It was nice enough for us, and I was able to schmooze the camp hosts into letting us stay there even though dogs are not generally permitted. They were very sweet and accommodating, and we had a quiet night among throngs of deer hunters who were there to take advantage of the last days of “black powder season” in Florida.
We awoke the next morning fully rested after being able to sleep in the teardrop again thanks to the cooler weather. Our next stop was Tallahassee, where we spent a couple hours doing laundry and, in Andrew’s case, enjoying a much-needed haircut and shave. We walked around a small man-made pond and watched various turtles sunbathing amid strange looking ducks. That night we stopped in a random national forest, which was the most unusual “forest” I have ever seen. The pine trees were sparse, skinny, and only had branches at their very tops while the ground was covered in small spikey palms. It was a creepy place, and we spent as little time there as possible. On our way out the next morning we saw bear crossing signs, and I was grateful I wasn’t aware of this native inhabitant the night before!
As we drove along the Gulf coast we spotted a nice rest area at a beach where we cooked breakfast and exercised the dog. This rest area even had free Wi-Fi and electricity, for which I was most grateful. The parking lots of McDonald’s restaurants (my usual Wi-Fi hotspots) are quite dull, and being able to watch my boys play in the waves while I typed away was a treat. After a few more hours of driving we arrived at the Gulf Islands National Seashore outside Pensacola, where we camped for two nights. The beachside campground is on a barrier island, with the Gulf on one side and a bay on the other.
The beaches along this part of Florida are much nicer than those in the southern part of the state, with the softest, whitest sand I have ever seen. The first day we spent a little bit of time at the beach, and were the only ones swimming although there were many sunbathing retirees. Apparently the surf was a bit rough for most, but for we San Diegans it was a lot of fun. We made friends with our neighbors Bob and Martie, who had been married for 60 years. Bob saw Andrew cooking and declared that for the first 30 years of their marriage Martie cooked, for the second 30 he cooked, and for the rest of their years they’re going to eat out. That seems like a good deal, especially since it means I have another 29 ½ years before I have to worry about it.
We soon gained a couple more neighbors, and I could tell right away these girls were going to be fun. They explored the surrounding swampland with beers in hand as I watched bemused from the comfort of my hammock. Eventually they came over and introduced themselves as Aimee and Sarah, a couple from Pensacola who came out to the campground for the fishing. Before long it was declared that shots of liquor were in order. One shot turned into several (as so often happens), and before you know it we were swimming in the Gulf by the light of the waxing moon. It was a memorable night, and I am so glad for the camaraderie we shared with these freewheeling spirits.
The next morning we took one more dip in the Gulf before heading out of the state. With my itching slowly starting to subside, and with new memories of these warm waters and the warm people we met along the way, I can confidently say that Florida and I have come to an understanding. Florida is who she is because of the extremes that she embodies, and visitors would do well to dispel any expectations before they arrive. Finally, I have four pieces of advice to you, dear reader, should you decide to explore this varied state: 1) Buy 100% DEET. I don’t care how natural and hippie-dippie you are. I know it’s toxic. You still need it or you will be miserable. 2) Go in January. Seriously. 3) Don’t bring your dog. 4) Consider staying in a hotel. Otherwise make sure you have a tent with very fine mesh and pray for a cool breeze.