Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Keys, More Everglades

We had vague plans to meet Peter and Marilyn in the Keys, which remained vague after we left Everglades National Park and tried to catch up on three weeks of email in a parking lot in Homestead. Either way, we were headed to the Keys with no big plans. After spending our first night at John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, we were pulling out onto Route One and noticed a car with kayaks approaching from the north: Peter & Marilyn. We pulled into the parking lot at an adult video store (one of the many fine cultural attractions popular in the Keys) and decided to go for a paddle.

We followed a canoe path from the park out into a channel, where we chatted in between the roar of jetskis and powerboats. We found our way back into the canoe trail, which had the feel of a theme park attraction, busy with kids and families in rented sit-upons. Still, it was fun to follow the narrow paths and see where they brought us, practicing our edging to make tight turns. I found myself wishing we had something like this back home.

In the Keys, we spent only a little time paddling, and were seldom out of earshot of Route One. The State Park campsites, where $43 a night buys you a slot between RVs that run their air conditioners constantly, can be reserved eleven months in advance, so we knew that every park was completely booked before we arrived.

Still, we kept getting lucky when we would inquire about cancellations. $43 is a bargain in the Keys, and the most unspoiled places there seem to be in the parks. If you want to car camp and hang out at the beach, it’s not a bad deal. The water is clear, turquoisey blue, and some of the beaches, like the one at Bahia Honda, are covered with fine sand and only a few Portuguese man of war jellyfish. The sharks don’t eat tourists that often, and there’s more scantily-clad beach babes on almost any stretch of beach than I have ever seen in Maine. Of course, like Maine, Florida is a popular haven for elderly beach babes. Spring break was happening somewhere, but we never did see any of those girls gone wild.

We had been spoiled by the Everglades, and it didn’t take long for us to decide we’d seen enough of the Keys for now. There’s nothing like a visit to the galleries of Key West to reinforce our opinion that the gallery scene is far better in Stonington, Maine. We headed back to the Everglades, where the $16 a night campground with cold showers had begun to feel like home. And people didn’t stare at my bug bite-covered legs.

We took some day trips, hiking and paddling and going to every ranger talk we could. Since it takes some real effort to get out and see the wild areas of the Everglades, many park visitors show up at the Anhinga Trail, the one-stop shopping solution to seeing the Everglades. It’s like a zoo. The alligators stroll onto the wheelchair-accesible paths, and people get their worried-looking kids to pose in front of them, seeming to forget that gators can run as fast as a horse. But the alligators just hang-out, smiling for the camera. After awhile, visitors seem almost bored by it, like something seen on TV.

Before we left, though, we had one last excursion: a couple of nights out at Cape Sable beneath the full moon. For the last month we’d hardly been anywhere for two nights in a row, and we’d loved this beach so much we wanted to go back and just hang-out for a day. Time to finish those Travis McGee novels and vegetate a bit, and go for long, long walks on the beach. Time to break our ‘no shell collecting’ vow, and one last chance to work on that tan before we would fade to our usual pale selves.

Despite a group of “troubled youths” that chose to camp amazingly near us on such a long beach, we put in our beach time as occasional teary youths strolled past with counselors who talked non-stop, using the word “respect” rythmically. Okay, this was surreal, but we just smiled. Thanks to scenes like this, we could confidently skip our visit to the Dali museum. The weird thing was that I kept noticing they were making these kids do exactly what we did as a fantasy vacation. Hey look, now they’re writing in their journals while someone plays flute, now it’s time for a forced march on the beach. Oh my god, not paddling into the wind again!

It made me wish I’d been so lucky as these troubled youths. Then it occured to me that I had been. In high school, I took part in an outdoor education program that got me out canoeing, backpacking and rock climbing, all while practicing lightweight, low-impact camping. It’s hard to imagine what I would have done without it. So, while it would have been nice to be alone, I imagined that for at least one of those kids, this might have been as formative an experience as “Project Exploration” had been for me. If it weren’t for that experience, this blog might be called “Jetski Stonington”.

We had some time after they left, and despite a growing east wind that we’d have to paddle into, we stayed on the beach as long as we could. A large crocodile patrolled the shore, perhaps searching for a place to nest. The growing waves slapped the beach rythmically. We finished our novels, caught-up with the journals and sketchbooks, and finally just stared out at the horizon. We knew the next day would find us on I-95, headed north, that in another week we’d be cleaning the sand out of our gear back home. If bug bites and sunburn helped me hang onto this feeling, well then, bring it on.

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