After some concern about my safety after this post I would like to assure my followers, especially Bulldog, that I am not about to do anything stupid. That alligator was long dead and posing for the kiddies and their parents in the museum at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park:
Surf walking for exercise in the Florida Keys, I missed the opportunity to snap “piggy-backing” crabs as I’d left my camera behind. Mr. Crab, in six inches of water, reared up on his hind legs, claws thrust aggressively at me, while another set of legs clamped Mrs. to his undercarriage. He must have been all of four inches across to my five-and-a-half feet, but he was ready to take me on to defend his wife. While I was deciding whether to laugh or back off, he took the initiative and scuttled away, still in position with Mrs., possibly to get it on with her under cover of the sea grasses.
The camp site at Long Key afforded many of these marine life views as the ocean bottom sloped off so shallowly. Other people waded out several hundred yards to waist depth but I would only go to a depth where I could still see my feet clearly. Stepping on something bitey or squishy or stubbing my toe on a rock or coral is not my idea of fun. And why bother when I could amuse myself for hours in shin deep water?
I would pass the same people each day and smile and wave, or stop to chat. As I passed a mangrove tree I was called back to it with, “Did you see the frog?” A frankly artificial looking frog was sunning himself on a limb. “I’ve seen you with your camera. I thought you might like to take his picture.” Indeed I would. Not until I looked at the picture on the computer screen days later did I notice that the tiny frog, perhaps an inch and a half long, was wearing weeny “black rubber gloves.”
Moments after the rubber-clad frog encounter, I turned to see a snipe in stealthy pursuit of lunch. Wading slowly through the shallow water, he would plunge his head in, come up and Gulp! What was it? Too quick for me. I snap, snap, snapped with little hope of getting a decent shot as I was shooting into the sun but with the potential to take hundreds of photos and the delete function to get rid of my duds I carried on. What I caught was Mr. Snipe dangling a little crab in his long beak, the sunlight shining right through it, twinkling like a tragic Christmas tree ornament.
Squadrons of pelicans flying overhead became “5 3 2 squadron” or “5 4 2 squadron”
to denote their formation and numbers or “Oh, look!” when there are too many to count. A single flying pelican was a “squadron leader.”
“Please tell me you are not going to take another picture of a pelican (or heron, parrot, cormorant, egret or ibis),” himself begged. I couldn’t help myself.
Several hideously large insects and spiders we were unable to identify were captured from a safe distance with a zoom lens.
Alligators were photographed in the same way. You can count their teeth in the photo knowing I haven’t knelt down in front of them as it appears, but was standing on a boardwalk, behind a railing, six feet up and twenty feet away.
My followers are discriminating.
One could almost say they were hating,
All ‘gators and snakes.
Slimy things from a lake,
Score low on their animal rating.
* * * *
To die at the hand of a bear,
Or anything else with hair,
Is a preferable fate,
So strong is their hate.
They’d happily hide in his lair.
I introduce Harvey my friend.
He’s cuddly and docile to tend.
I liked him on sight.
He wouldn’t dare bite.
Do you think that I am ‘round the bend?
After completing 5/8 of a life on the edge of each other’s nerves – we had towed the trailer 11,654 miles and put 20,122 miles on the odometer in the car. In a country that is 3,000 miles wide by 2,000 miles top to bottom that’s pretty good going. We’d drawn a very drunken diagonal line down across the U.S. map from Washington State to Florida and back along the southern border and west coast. A two-year-old with a crayon could have scrawled a tidier route. But in the process we perused 26 of the 48 states on our agenda of looking for the perfect place to live in the continental U.S.A.
Some states only merited a quick drive straight through to the next state. I won’t tell you which ones as all us patriotic Americans are proud of and proprietorial about our own states and I am sure we didn’t do them justice by not stopping to poke around. Other states kept us fascinated for days, sometimes weeks. But we were just tourists. Visiting The Everglades, Monument Valley, Mount Rushmore or San Francisco for the first time is a real kick but they are not areas we would consider living due to weather, remoteness or cost of living. And we were just so enthralled with the sight-seeing sights in this diverse and stunning country, we often didn’t bother to do our homework on towns as potential homesteaders.
The next stage of the route would take us east across the top of the country, up into New England and down the east coast with a bit of the inevitable to-ing and fro-ing. Getting in the way of the search was a spacious apartment in sunny and probably-too-expensive California that was calling us.
I was longing to get our furniture out of storage and put my underwear in a drawer instead of having it stuffed in a shoe box and to hang up my clothes instead of playing lucky dip in a jam packed locker. Jewelry was tangled up in a box and fine chains and long necklaces formed a monkey’s fist of silver and gold, beads and crystals. I doubted I would ever wear them again. I wore the same jeans and hoody for days out of sheer inertia.
The same rotation of clean clothes came off the top of the stack day after day rather than create an avalanche of tee shirts to put together a new look. We dressed, hobo unchic, in cotton clothes that were washer/dryer-ready-to-wear. And I’ll let you in on a little secret. Unmentionable articles of underclothing aside, we sometimes scrutinized and sniffed our outerwear for an extra day’s service before consigning it to the laundry bag. My prissy nature came out when faced with dirty laundramat machines that may have seen dog blankets, greasy overalls, muddy trousers and almost certainly much worse.
Books and files were hidden deep within a hell hole under the bed instead of being to hand on a bookshelf. Wrenching my right shoulder to lift the mattress and locker lid and hold it up, I then wrenched my left shoulder to haul out the printer, two sleeping bags and a bag of wrapping paper and ribbon (yes, of course ribbon is essential on an RV) to gaze at a cardboard box of books through a gap just big enough for my head. As I grunted and strained with the weight of the mattress and locker lid on my shoulders himself would ask, “Can I help you with that?”
“NO!” I would bellow in frustration and risked decapitating myself with the trap door of the dungeon. A feeble flashlight that doubled as the oven light barely glowed much less illuminated the book titles so reading choices were often made by feel. Sometimes I thought oh stuff it and lay on the bed listening to my iPod until whatever inkling of motivation to do something creative or productive or even vaguely educational passed.
Should we stop somewhere to live in an apartment and try to regain our sanity or continue to play happy trails?
We set off on foot on the nature trail at Magnolia Plantation to hunt ‘gators after a wasted boat trip where the captain/guide nudged all the alligators into the water rather than slowing down for a viewing. “Do you think we’ll see any alligators this early in the day? It isn’t very hot yet.” Alligators, being cold-blooded, don’t hibernate but aestivate, or lie in a state of torpor during extreme heat. Jimmy and I aestivate after lunch most days.
“Do you really think this is safe?” The impatient tour guide had informed us that alligators can swim at 15 mph, run on their little stumpy legs at 35 mph and using their tails, jump up to five feet. So once you’ve upset them . . . hmmm . . . rip and swallow, rip and swallow we’d been told. If a turtle can satisfy them for a month, a human “bean” must be good tucker for at least six months. “I wonder how recently they’ve eaten?”
The day before, I had seen a man gamely striding around the Plantation on two artificial legs. The image of him and the size of the alligators’ toothy, bone-crushing jaws played on my mind. Being one of the oldest reptiles on the planet, alligators are certainly survivors and I didn’t fancy my chances in a face off. “Do you think we’ll see ‘Big Red October’?” He’s the 50 year old resident of the estate measuring 14 feet long and weighing 800 pounds. “They told us there’s never been an alligator fatality in South Carolina.”
Beginning to jabber with nerves, I distracted myself by photographing egrets, herons, turtles, coots and moorhens, having completely forgotten that snakes were known to nest in logs near the trail – some of them, like the cottonmouth, being poisonous – until Jimmy reminded me. I then tiptoed prissily down the center of the wide, well-trodden path.
As we walked the nature trail alongside the pond, all the strategically placed basking planks in the pond were empty except for the tantalizing snacks of turtle perched on the ends. Having taken a particularly pleasing photo of a cormorant with his wings outstretched, drying them ready for his next fishing expedition, I began telling myself that all was not lost; it was a lovely day for a walk and I had some good photos to show for it.
I was just beginning to stroll as we rounded the bend onto the straight piece of trail where the camera battery had died. This, it suddenly occurred to me, was where we had seen most of the alligators the day before. The basking planks, like little ski jumps, were aimed towards us so we were unable to see anything until we walked further and alongside them.
“LOOK!” and I throttled Jimmy as I grabbed the binoculars hanging around his neck. The telltale triangular ridges of the ‘gator’s back were just discernable to the naked eye, but I wanted to be sure so squinted through the binocs. “There’s one! There’s one!” but Jimmy was snugged up too close to me, tethered as he was by the binoculars’ strap, to see anything but my ear.
As we hustled along the path, two alligators were clearly visible on planks erected 30 to 40 yards out in the pond. “The light’s wrong. The sun is shining into my lens. I need to walk further down and shoot back at them.” But I fired off a couple of “rounds” at them anyway in my excitement.
Jimmy paused while I took the photos and then began to stride off when I snagged his arm and sank my fingernails into it. “Lo-o-ok,” I barely said on a breath, and Jimmy followed my gaze with his eyes. No more than three paces ahead lay a 10 foot alligator dozing happily in the mud beside the path. Had Jimmy walked on, she (well she reposed in a languidly female way) could have taken his leg off at the knee with hardly a twitch.
Jimmy reviewed the situation while I snapped a few more pics using my zoom lens. My feet were rooted to the spot. Caution held me back but stupidity kept me there. “We can get back to the plantation house this way can’t we?” asked Jimmy, indicating the path past Ms. Jaws.
“I’m not walking past her.”
“She’s asleep. She won’t bother you.”
“Nope. I’m not getting any closer.” After a close encounter with a buffalo at Yellowstone, I’d become a little more wary, although at 35 mph neither of us had a chance even now if Ms. J. had decided it was lunch time. She was sleeping prettily with her mouth closed but I knew 70 some teeth lurked inside her enormous head so I zoomed in on it for one last shot, then backed prudently away and Jimmy followed suit.
As we retreated, we passed several smiling hikers, cameras in hand, striking out on the nature trail. I had thought to warn them of the alligators but then thought heck, let them make their own fun!
“On your left, ladies and gentlemen, is the Ashley River. We often have dolphins come up from the river mouth in Charleston and put on a display for us. On the right side of the dyke is fresh water. I’ve seen several alligators already today in this pond and if we’re lucky they’ll still be there dozing in the sun. Please don’t stand up now or point or shout. You’ll startle them.”
We were at Magnolia Plantation and Swamp Garden and had been expecting a colorless, autumn garden with a few tired buildings. What we got was a spectacular water landscape reflecting golden foliage, artfully constructed bridges and wildlife. The autumn flowering camellia was in bloom as well as many azaleas. There were thousands of autumn and winter flowering camellias, twenty thousand, in fact. I was entranced.
Click on pic to enlarge.
Spanish moss hung dreamily from live oaks, sweet bay magnolias and bald cypresses – the latter with its knees, or breathing roots, poking up from its base like little gopher statues. Great blue herons, large and little egrets, lizards and turtles posed for my camera.
We were on a “train” trip – a tractor pulling two open carriages with canopies – around the Swamp Garden. Jimmy had been enjoying a cup of tea whilst sitting on a swing seat in dappled shade under a wisteria-covered trellis. When the “train” pulled up I rushed him so that we could have the first choice of seats. We sat next to a loose strut that banged every time the wheel under us hit a rut. Of course we only realized this after the train had filled up and moved off.
But right now the train was creeping quietly up to an alligator.
“My camera’s just died,” I whispered to Jimmy.
“The battery is dead.”
“I can’t believe you!” he hissed at me. “How many pictures of flowers have you taken?”
I hung my head in answer and in doing so saw down on the bank, just beside the train, no more than ten feet away, an eight foot ‘gator.
Seeing it too and thinking on his feet, Jimmy whipped his phone out of his pocket and started clicking away. As I did the same we looked like a couple of accidental tourists, phones on outstretched arms, taking poor quality photos on our must-have technology instead of using a decent camera like seasoned travelers. All I have to show for this exciting brush with the wild is new wallpaper on my cell phone.
We saw baby ‘gators, big “Bubba” and all sizes in between sunning themselves on planks in the pond put there for that purpose. They dosed next to turtles that were apparently unaware that if chomped for dinner (alligators don’t chew – they rip and swallow we learned) they could satisfy an alligator’s appetite for an entire month.
The whole wildlife encounter left us so ridiculously pleased with ourselves that the dead battery incident, though not quite forgotten, was not the major irritant that it might have been. Better still, Jimmy had noticed earlier in the day on our entrance ticket that we could come back to the plantation for free once within a week.
“We could come back tomorrow!” I suddenly realized. “I’ll charge the battery tonight, we’ll come back, take the boat ride and then if we don’t see any alligators from the boat, we could walk back along the train trail and see them. It’s not far if we walk from the wildlife observation tower.” Jimmy gave me one of his looks. How shall I describe it? Pained and dubious. “I’ll pay for the boat ride,” I enthused and settled the deal.
If you live in Florida you’ll think me silly, but I could hardly sleep for excitement.