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Glimpsing the Everglades [Jan. 21st, 2010|10:02 pm]
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We had a great week in the Florida Keys, despite the cold weather. My aunt and uncle were with us for a few very nice days, and they and MIL took off for their respective homes at the beginning of the weekend. J and I spent the remainder of our time in the Keys hanging out at the RV (Saturday was a marathon laundry session in Marathon, and it rained all day) and doing some light touring.

We went by the Dolphin Research Center. In operation since the 1950’s, when it was Santini’s Porpoise School, it was the home of the dolphin who played Flipper in the eponymous movie. The movie itself was inspired by Mr. Santini’s relationship with his lead dolphin, a female named Mitzi. She also starred in the show, but she wasn’t athletic enough for some of the TV stunts so had stunt dolphins stand in for her. It was a really interesting place. The dolphins watch us as much as we watch them, and signs at all the pens tell you which dolphins are there and how best to get their attention. It was blustery and the wind was cuttingly cold, so I was really glad for my pea coat with the button-up collar!

On our last day in the Keys we returned to Key West and toured the Hemingway house. It’s a lovely house, perfect for the tropics with floor to ceiling windows on all sides, a wide veranda, and beautiful gardens. I was highly amused by the exhibit of women’s photo portraits, labeled with first names and eras: The Cuba years, Idaho years, Key West years. The famous polydactyl cats (60 or so) roam freely, hanging out throughout the house and grounds. There are shelters fenced away from tourists in the gardens so they can escape people if they choose, and I saw one sleeping in the center of the roped off bed (neener-neener you can’t reach me here.) It was a cold day, and when J sat down on a bench near the gift shop, one of the cats stood on his lap for petting and was on the verge of climbing into his coat for a nap when I came out of the shop.

We drank many cups of Cuban coffee; it’s strong sweet coffee with (optionally) hot milk added. I learned that Cuban coffee is like sweet tea: you don’t want to watch them add the sugar! Last year we were at a restaurant in North Carolina and I watched the waitress open a five pound sack of sugar and upend the whole thing into the tea urn; in the Keys, the coffee is sweetened with a casual scoop of sugar, at least two tablespoons per cup.

Our next stop on the way north from Marathon was Sanibel Island, on the west coast of Florida. To get there we had the option of I-75, the fenced-off freeway known as Alligator Alley, or the original two-lane highway further south. With a short distance to go we opted for scenic and drove across the southern end of Florida on the old highway, the Tamiami trail, through the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve.

The road runs along a small canal, or possibly a large drainage ditch, I’m not sure. The birds were everywhere as we drove along: herons, egrets, ibis wading and fishing in the shallow waters and perched in the lower branches of the overhanging trees. We saw lots of wood storks perching higher up; they were ruffled and hunched and had a distinctly grumpy look, each and every one. We figured it was the unseasonal cold, and they were sitting there debating striking out for warmer climes. I thought the black birds we saw drying their wings in the sun and swimming submerged in the canal were all cormorants, but my Uncle clued me in about snake birds, anhinga, who look almost the same except for some lighter feathers in spots and the shape of their bills (straight, versus the cormorant’s hooked bill.)

The birds were beautiful. Most ignored the truck as it roared by, but periodically we’d startle a few, and see flocks of egrets launch themselves in a flurry of white wings to safer perches further away. After a while, the birds thinned out a bit, and when we got to the Oasis Visitor center we saw why. This was alligator country. They were positively thick around the visitor’s center. I was fascinated watching the shiny black bodies lying along the canal, sometimes in heaps of two or three. They looked like nothing so much as lost retreads from a cosmic semi, scattered along the road. I started calling them off to J, who was concentrating on the driving and not the critter watch: small, small, medium, small, medium, small, small, large, medium, small, holy cow! small.. I must have seen a hundred on the rest of the drive through the preserve. Plenty enough alligator for me, you betcha.