The Journey to Everglades National Park and Florida Keys

The trip started when the semester started. A week had passed and I had just been procrastinating. So, Jitesh was just home in Savannah, newlywed. I decided to give the newlyweds company at this *opportune* moment. So, the trip was planned in one day and executed the next. Well, the planning went something like this. Hmm, I have a week free, what do I do? Look at (national parks service.) The good folks at NPS are always friendly and ready with their website. I looked up places that I could go visit.

While looking, I stumbled across their geological wonders page. Well, for the uninitiated, the geological wonders parks, according to NPS are the national parks that have some sort of special geographical oddity about them. For example, in Kentucky, there is a park where there are a ton of natural caves, over 360 miles in length. I looked closeby and the Kentucky one and Florida Everglades came up. "Well, Kentucky will have to wait, Florida it is", I thought. And so started the journey to Jitesh's place in Savannah.

Florida, hmm, the driving seems fine, how about the stay part you might ask. I had been thinking of this topic for a while and the solution that I came up with was to pick up a tent. A quick chat with Sharath and I was at our local Sports Authority. The first tent I bought turned out to be too small at 6'x4'. Also, in hindsight, it would have probably cooked me up as there were hardly any mesh windows. Good thing I returned it and got another one, a 7'x7' tent with mesh windows on all four sides. Also, there was this cubby hole like window about 6 inches from the ground, so if you sleep in front of it, hopefully, your head will keep getting some cool wind. I also bought a flashlight and aquatic shoes. The whole setup cost me $40 for tent, $6 for flashlight, $5 for the shoes and yeah, I totally forgot, the tarp (a large sheet of plastic to put beneath the tent, so the tent would not get dirty), for $6. Not bad, I thought, and on 12th, about 4:00pm started for Savannah.

Four hours, lots of coffee and bottles of water later, I was knocking at Jitesh's door. Pinky, his wife had cooked some yummy stuff for me and after a quick dinner, Jitesh and I sat down to find out what we could do on Saturday. We looked north and south, east and west and after some discussion, decided on going to St. Augustine beach, in Florida. Some sleep, quick wakeup and hearty breakfast later, we were on way to St. Augustine.

The pictures for this part of the journey are present on this page: St. Augustine, Florida, May 2006

The drive itself was non descript except that we kept making numerous jokes and laughing. I tried to catch up some sleep, but that did not work out and I instead decided to join the conversation. First we reached Valino Beach and went on to the beach. I have been to beaches in various places. I had earlier seen Panama City Beach, Beaches in NJ, the Puri beach in Orissa, Juhu in Mumbai and M in Chennai. This beach was however a bit different. Unlike all other beaches that I had been to, this beach had tons and tons of shells on the beach in a narrow band. The main beach however was sandy and quite shallow. You could go up to 50ft in the water before the water would reach your chest. I roamed around the beach finding things and people to photograph and eventually deciding that the call of the water was unavoidable, I jumped in the water. The water and I fought, we fought tooth and nail, the water would crash against me and I would attempt to thwart many a waves attempt to reach the shore, the unrelenting waves prevailed however and I gave up. I came up to the shore, tired and lay down right where the waves were returning back to the sea. I lay there, the dying waves would hit my feet, reach to my back and sometimes to my head. They would caress me and soothe me. I lay there, resting for a while.

Finally, getting hungry, we decided to go look for food. We found a Mexican Buffet and attacked very vigorously. I must have eaten more than a kilo and half of assorted beans, tortillas and lettuce that day. Well fed, we started back towards the next beach. Finally reaching close to the St. Augustine beach, we parked the car on the beach. Jitesh and Pinky did not seem to be much in mood for the water, just having had lunch were planning to sit down on the beach. The sun was scorching, so I offered to put my tent up on the beach so they could sit inside and enjoy a milder version of sun coming through the mesh of the tent. So, Jitesh and I set up the tent and I heeded the call of the ocean again. I swam, I dipped, I fell, the water went up in my mouth and I spit it out, it went in my eyes and I rubbed it out. It entered my nose and I pushed it out. It was fun. I roamed in the water here and there like a drunk man (ever tried walking in water? Well, if you haven't take it from me, you will walk like a drunk man.)

Seeing that Jitesh and Pinky were still dry, I was appaled at this insult of the ocean. I dragged Jitesh into the ocean and soon he was moving with the waves too. Pinky soon followed suit. We must have spent over 2-3 hours at that beach.

Getting out of the beach we stopped by a lighthouse close to St. Augustine for a quick photo shootout. At a Gas station, we stopped to fill the tank up. Jitesh got us some ice cream and chips. A wierd combo you say. I say naught, it was all good. A lot of driving in the night and we were back home.

Thus endeth the day of May 12.

On Monday morning, it was time to put my plans in action and start for Florida. The good thing about not having plans is that all plans become very fluid. Initially I thought that I would cover the distance between Savannah and Miami in two days. Well, when I started driving, I kept going and going and arrived at Miami at about 7:00pm. So, I thought, well, why stop here, let us go to the Florida Keys. About an hour more of driving and I was feeling very tired and in need of sleep. So, I quit all plans and quickly started looking for a campground. No problems regarding that. While driving on US-1 I found the Larry Thompson and Penny campground in the Miami-Dade county. Actually, the campground, it seems is right in middle of the city. It is just like one of the innumerable number of city parks all over United States, except that for this one, they converted it to a RV/tent park. So, even though it was late and the office was closed, the guard let me in. I quickly pitched my tent and tried to go to sleep.

The bad thing about waking up till late in nights is that if one day you suddenly decide to go to sleep early, it just becomes impossible. I was up till about 2:00am, and when I finally fell asleep, at about 4:00am, it started to rain. No problems, I thought and I put up my rainfly. It rained and it rained and the inside of the tent remained dry. Well, not exactly, just a wee bit of water seeped in at the corners, but it was very easy to ignore. Then the wind started and I thought, uh-O-uh. Earlier, when setting up the tent, I had tried to put the pegs in the ground at each corner of the tent and had not succeeded because the ground was extremely hard. About right now, that decision was about to come back and bite me. The tent started flapping and I tried to hold it in position. For a while I succeeded, but then it started thundering. The bolts of lightining, when you are in a tent among trees, are quite scary. I started remembering all the science I had read. Faraday's cage. Inside a metal box, the potential difference is 0. Thus you are safe in the metal cage. I quickly decided to get in the car. As soon as I was in the car, the tent flopped over. Rats, I thought, now the inside of the tent is going to get wet too. Too late though it was, I took the umbrella out, took out the pegs and went back to the tent. The ground was a lot softer by now and I was able to put the pegs in. The tend stood the rest of the night although, I squirmed and tried to make myself in the car all night.

I woke up groggy and sleepy eyed. It was time to make a move. So, I took off. Where to you might ask. To Everglades, I decided. I called up Sharath and he told me that it was going to rain all day, all night and the next day and next night too. I was fed up with the rain. It had rained when I was driving, it rained when I went to sleep and It started raining when I was driving to Everglades. Rain sucks, I thought. If the rain keeps up, I will just turn back and head back to Atlanta, I thought. Anyway, from the campground, the Everglades were about 45 minutes drive. I reached the intersection of US-1 and Palm drive in Floriday city. A very nice gentleman at the city hall told me to continue on Palm drive until I came across a fruit juice place and then to follow the signs from there.

The fruit juice place, interestingly, was called "Robert is Here". Apparently, a boy named Robert started selling fruits there long back. So, as the pamphlet there said, Robert's dad told the boy to sit by the road and sell the home grown fruits to passerbys. And thus, the store eventually emerged. I bought Mamey juice there. Mamey is an interesting fruit. It is shaped like a Mango, although, the color and firmness would remind you of a coconut.

Continuing on the road I eventually reached the Everglades national forest. By this time, It had started drizzling. Not good, I thought and continued in. The everglades is an interesting forest. Well, it is mostly just a big marsh created by rain water flowing down a large flat area. The whole of the forest has about 14 feet declination.

"The Everglades are dying", said the ranger at one of the stations. It was raining and I decided to stay at one of the shelters and wait the rain out. The ranger was about ready to start a talk on the everglades. He illustrated the difference between a alligator and crocodile. Apparently, the alligator teeth are all well aligned and only the canines show out of the jaw. The crocodile in contrast has weird looking crooked teeth, out of alignation and probably not so sharp either. There are a bunch of interesting things about gators and crocodiles. They don't have tongues, they don't eat a whole lot, and they don't have much strength opening their jaws (i.e. most of their strength is concentrated on clamping the jaw shut.) So, effectively you can easily stop a gator/crocodile from opening its jaw by applying a little force. They don't eat a lot because their digestive system is not much strong. They have to let the meat rot before they can really digest it. So, essentially, they eat a little and let the stuff rot in their bellies. Also, sometimes, they hide the meat in some corner of the swamp where it rots until they see it fit to eat. As the temperature goes down, the meat rots slowly, and hence they eat lesser and lesser. They can go up to six months without eating and they have the patience of a rock i.e. you don't want to play a 'wait' game with a gator. Alligators apparently are found only in two places in the world. In Americas and in China. I made a round along the boardwalks with the umbrella in one hand and handling the camera with the other. The rain was beating really hard. Wet birds sat on the boardwalk waiting for the rain to subside and their wings to dry before they could fly.

I went through the rest of the Everglades somewhat fast. Essentially, the way the national forest is arranged is that there is a single road going through about 45 miles in the forest. There are observation points where you can stop and look at a variety of things. One point I saw hoardes and hoardes of nesting birds. Another place I looked in a mangrove forest and so on. Finally, when I finished the whole thing, I ended up at a campsite. There was exactly one tent in the vast campsite. My tent was wet, I was tired and I needed sleep badly. I parked my car, flattened my seat and dozed off. About an hour later I woke up, completely disoriented. Being disoriented (having lost your bearings; confused as to time or place or personal identity) is a wierd feeling. When I woke up, the first thing that came to my mind was, who am I? What place is this? Why am I here? Then I looked around, the overcast sky made the outlook extremely gloomy. A cold shiver ran down my spine. Then slowly, it started coming back. Oh, I am on a trip in Florida, in the Everglades. As the truth dawned on me and I grasped the cold reality that I need a place to sleep, I drove on, out of the Everglades and towards Florida City and the keys.

I kept driving on US-1 to Florida Keys. The road was cramped, one lane, every now and then converting into a two lane, overtaking zone. Thirteen fatalities this year, driver safe, signs proclaimed every now and then. The road slowly seemed to be entering the ocean. The "drive safe" sign all of a sudden started making sense. I drove for about 2 hours and I entered Key Largo, the first of the keys. "When people are talking about keys, they are usually talking about the lower keys", proclaimed one brochure. Anyway, I was in desperate need of sleep after having a crazy night and driving all day. I tried my luck at the Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park where I had originally planned to pitch my tent. Unlike other state parks that I have originally encountered, they close the doors of the park at about 8:00pm and you can enter using only a key combination. Also, on closer inspection of the entry point, it said, "Sorry, our campground is full tonight." The next campground was about 40-50 miles away. I could try driving there, but I was dead tired. So, I began the hunt for a motel. Finding one, I quickly negotiated the price, brought my luggage in and crashed in the bed.

When I woke up the next day, there was a little bit of sun peering through the window. I looked outside and the clouds were beginning to scatter. I quickly packed up my bags, ate the bagels with the cream cheese that I had picked up from Dunkin Donuts the previous day and started my journey to the Key West. "The afternoon is going to be warm and sunny, although there might be some showers in the morning", the radio went on. Rested and ready to go see Key West, I pushed the pedal and kept driving. I clearly remember thinking, even if I don't see anything else in the keys, the drive to keys itself is worth the journey. The solitary road (US-1) kept going on and on. The ocean sprang on either side of the road. Beautiful, emerald green ocean emerged, from the looks of it, the ocean did not seem to be very deep either. I stopped every now and then and kept driving carefully. Flyovers went over the ocean and as I drove on, the clouds scattered and the sun shone in its full glory.

Reaching Key West, I entered the Key West State Park and parked my car. I took the camera out, took a few pictures, dumped the camera back in the car, put on my shorts, took off my t-shirt, grabbed a towel and ran to the ocean. The Keys, finally, I thought, and stood at the brink of the ocean and admired the beach, the breeze, the crystal clear water and the people basking in the sun. The water was just the right temperature. I swam a bit, just jumped up and down a bit and then headed over to some rocks. I stood on the rocks and looked below them and lo and behold, fish. Beautiful, yellow and black striped fish, crabs and hermit crabs were scuttling everywhere. I ventured further and found another rock. I stood in the water next to the rock and some pin nosed fish came and curiously looked at my legs. Then another school of bigger fish came and looked around. I was just happy being there. I sat on the rock and watched them.

Finally, I started driving back. On the way back, I stopped at a bunch of places now that the weather was even better and took a lot of pictures. Figuring that I wanted to spend another day in the Keys, I stopped by Bahia Honda state park. I took a campsite there, pitched my tent, wiped most of the moisture from the earlier rain from it and went on to walk by the beach and hope that by the time I came back, the tent would be dry.

I spent the night there and in the morning waited for the gift shop to open up. When I went inside, I found that they had snorkeling tours going on. So, I signed up for one. Another hour later, I was on the boat for snorkeling. In my mind, I thought that they would probably take us to some island and ask us to snorkel around the island. But, to my disbelief, they took us right in the middle of the ocean and set the anchor. "You have about 45 minutes to snorkel", said the captain. "I don't want you to go anyplace near the cora where you can stand in the water. Humans touching the corals infectes them and then they die. I am very passionate about the coral and I definitely don't want you killing any coral, so stay close to the boat. Plus, this is a natural sanctuary, this means, you are not allowed to collect any coral, shells or whatsoever from here", the captain further lectured. He took a bit of pretzel, broke it in small pieces and threw it off the boat. Immediately, an assortment of fish swarmed up close. People started getting off the boat. I got off the boat too. I put the snorkel in place and tried swimming. A little water entered my mouth. "Not good", I thought. I stepped back on the boat and the captain showed me how to use the snorkel properly. This time properly equipped, I stepped in the water and started swimming. There were fish around me, there were fish below me and there were fish all over. There was beutiful coral, swaying with the current and fish nibbling at the coral. I tried taking pictures with the cheap waterproof camera that I had earlier bought at the gift shop but the water was treating me like a rag doll and making this very difficult. The funny thing about swimming is that you don't really see what is in front of you. Your eyes are seeing below, in the water, so it is very easy to lose your bearings. I used to jut my eyes out for a second to ensure my bearings with respect to other people and the boat and keep swimming.

All of a sudden I saw a pair of hands and someone tapped me on the shoulders. I looked up and a guy told me, "I just saw a reef shark over there." Good advice I thought and turned back. I swam here and there, admiring some of nature's best handiwork and eventually returned back to the boat.

From there, I just started driving back home. I was planning to go thorough the Florida Turnpike to I-75 which takes me straight back to Atlanta. In the infinite wisdom of my mind, I somehow decided to take another state road FL-27 which would provide a shorter route to I-75. A few miles on FL-27 and I figured pretty quickly that it was going to be a long road. There were innumerable red ights and hence it would take a long long while to get to I-75. So, I quit that plan and finding the section of I-75 (termed gator parkway), cut across florida horizontally. The gator parkway is one of the loneliest drive that I have ever had taken. Nothing for miles and miles. Just you and the road. On the whole parkway, I found maybe one rest-area equipped with restrooms and vending machines. The only way I could keep awake was by listening to the Everglades radio. Great, I thought, "I came through the east coast of Florida, cut across Florida horizontally and will be driving along the west coast back home." Well, what had to be done, had to be done, so I kept driving. Originally, I had planned to stop somewhere on the way and sleep, so as night fell, I looked at the map and figured out one campsite to stay at. I found the directions and started driving towards it. I drove and drove and the darned thing seemed moving away from me. Eventually, I just gave up and started driving back to the interstate. To cut a long story short, I drove until I was way too tired to drive anymore and then I stopped at a rest area where I slept for four hours. I started driving again when I woke up and slept for another hour when I entered Georgia.

As I reached Atlanta, a sigh of relief escaped me. "What a interesting journey!" my mind said as my body finally transported all the stuff from the car inside the house.