When you see this sign of splatter,
You all had better scatter.
The hippo they call Lu,
Flicks his tail to . . . .
Make everybody scream!
Lu is in the hippopotamus equivalent of an old people’s home. He will celebrate his 54th birthday this month and hippos generally only live to 30. He was at the park when it was taken over by Florida State Parks and given leave to stay. He even has his own Florida State citizenship!
Visit Lu at https://www.facebook.com/LuTheHippopotamus
Such fun to watch pelicans fishing. Here they are scanning the sea before takeoff:
Cruising for victims:
Lift-off for a better view:
Then something inexplicable happens. Pelicans become so excited on spotting their prey that they lose control of their wings and fall out of the sky like they’ve been shot. Splash!
It’s amazing they ever catch anything.
Mallory Square on the western tip of Key West is the place to take sunset photos and the jetty can be six people deep on a busy night. Photography is guesswork with camera held high or you can just take a nice orangey picture with a stranger’s head in the foreground.
The first night produced the aforementioned head silhouettes. The second night we arrived half an hour before sunset and waited as people queued behind us to take pictures of the backs of our heads.
Sloops, catamarans, trimarans and schooners sailed back and forth on the shimmering sea as the sun descended and the blue sky transformed to peach and violet.
The sea lost its twinkle as the light faded and the sky intensified to gold, then a deep burnt sienna. Disappointingly, there no clouds to create a dramatic effect.
As the sun touched the horizon, the color was rich but uninteresting until, exactly on cue, a flock of pigeons took off from the shore filling the bold, but plain, sun and sky scene.
Perfect picture opportunities abound in the Keys.
I took a series of boring photos of geckos,
just because they were there, my camera was in my hand and any wildlife makes my shutter finger twitch. There is ‘G’ on the campfire ring, ‘G’ on the fence, ‘G’ on a post, a close up of ‘G’ showing his lizard skin and long lizard toes and a digital close up of ‘G’ showing his yellow-rimmed black lizard eye. One little ‘g’ ventured onto the picnic table next to me. With my eye to the viewfinder I pressed the shutter button, but when I lowered the camera, he was gone. Missed him. A quick glance at the small camera screen confirmed it.
When I downloaded the pics to the laptop Leaping Lizards! there he was in full stretch – legs thrust back and tail up for balance – halfway between the picnic table and the fence. On our way to visit a wildlife reserve, we pulled off the road to stretch our legs and admire a wide expanse of water with its birdlife. It was windy but the water was calm, just right for a novice windsurfer. Dazed from the heat I didn’t realize at first that the tentative windsurfer had a passenger.
The board sailed smoothly out to sea, the ‘captain’ tacked ever so carefully edging his way around the mast and then sailed smoothly back to shore. The little guy at the front of the board, no wait, he has four legs, I thought. It was a dog – a black Labrador! He stood stiffly balanced on the ‘bow’ and as the sail filled with the wind bringing the board up to speed after the tack, his tongue lolled out and flapped pinkly in the wind. He was having a whale of a time. You would think this is one tall tale too far without the photographs.
Capturing these photos takes no particular talent, just a camera to hand with the lens cap off. Cute and crazy photo ops are everywhere in tropical Florida. And if I’d been quick enough I would now have evidence to prove why the chicken crossed the road.
Of the thousands of photos on my hard drive, that is the one I really wished I’d taken.
Oh, and how do you teach a dog to surf? I have absolutely no idea.
“I’ve never seen a chicken cross the road before.”
Sitting at an outdoor margarita bar and lulled by tequila and palm fronds floating in a warm tropical breeze, I wasn’t expecting one of the great mysteries of the universe to be solved before my eyes, much less be given the opportunity to capture it on film, or in megapixels, or however you express it these days.
As I looked up, a rooster escorted his missus across a busy (or what passes for busy in Key West) intersection while traffic screeched to a halt in all four directions. The perfect picture opportunity passed so quickly I didn’t even have time to reach for the camera case.
“So he did want to get to the other side.” And I’d only had one drink. Or was it two?
Thus was our Florida Keys experience typified in one small incident. The tornado watch and hearing tales of alligator-swallowing pythons on our way south weren’t the half of it. Driving off the southern tip of mainland Florida onto Key Largo begins a journey into never never land.
a flying spider (his fine web disguised by the bright blue sky), a snowy egret waiting patiently for a haircut as he poses on a barber’s chair,a great egret waiting patiently for lunch standing on a railing outside his favorite restaurant. Click to enlarge pics. He’s in all three:
“And he’s real picky,” I heard the waitress say. “He likes shrimp. He won’t eat clams or anything fried.”
We watched a pelican swallow a whole crab but it wouldn’t go down his gullet. He ucked it up a couple of times and attempted to re-swallow it, but without success. The outline of the hapless crab shows clearly in the photograph in a bulge in his neck.
A cormorant, balanced on a stake with his wings held out to dry, dropped his head at the last moment as I snapped, looking shy as though I’d caught him just stepping out of the shower.
Great egrets stalking their dinner are bathed in evening sunlight, turning their feathers flamingo pink.White ibises flocked in a dead tree at sunset formed a brown and gold sculpture.The bald eagle, perched in a distant cell phone tower next to its nest, waited for me to go back to the trailer and read my camera instruction book so I could return and zoom in on it digitally.
Even sea life was considerate enough to swim into shallow water to be photographed clearly from above – blue fin crabs in attack posture,
Come back soon! There’s more!
N.B. If you recognize that restaurant please allow me some artistic license. It’s on the Gulf coast, not in the Keys.
“You must be Jimmy!”
What a cheery and welcome greeting at the end of a truly awful trip. We drove from Ocala, Florida through teeming rain missing the view of Lake Okeechobee altogether, along mile upon dead straight mile of road through sugar cane groves in the
Everglades (and past the curiously out-of-place-looking Domino Sugar refinery, puffing and stinking on the horizon) and arrived on the Interstate in Fort Lauderdale in time for a frenzied rush hour on Thanksgiving Eve.An RV blocking the drive of the city campground – forcing us to stop in the middle of a busy road, left turn indicator blinking – had been turned away. The driver slunk from the gate and gave us a desultory shrug as if to say you’ll be lucky before he climbed back in his camper to drive off. We had reservations.
The campground gate commandant smiled, moved two traffic cones and waved us in from across the road. “Washington! What a beautiful state! Do you live there?” He’d spotted our license plates. Thus began a lengthy question and answer session about how we arrived in the United States, why we lived in Washington for a time and why we now have no home.
“That’s fantastic! What’s your favorite place?” and he and Jimmy discussed the merits of Utah, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Montana, California, Washington, Colorado and just about every other state and landmark west of the Mississippi.
The park ranger was either very friendly or just having a slow day and needed some company. His peaked cap tried to hold down an explosion of grey curls. The smile on his weathered face was genuine.
“We’re a bit surprised by the heat and humidity this late in the year. Is that common this far south?” I asked him.
“Nah. It’s pretty unusual. We’ve usually had a cold snap by now. It would wipe out the mosquitoes but they’re still around.”
“Oh great. They’ll come after me. They love me,” groaned Jimmy.
“Yeah, me too,” he commiserated.
Excellent, I thought. Two deterrents for me.
“We saw our first iguana here about this time last year,” Jimmy told the chatty ranger.
“Yeah, they’re getting to be real nuisance.”
“Are you allowed to control them?” I asked. That’s squeamish speak for kill them.
“No, but they did take an eight foot alligator out of the pond two months ago.”
“Eight feet. That’s pretty big,” I said faintly. A glance at the map we’d been given showed that the pond referred to was only yards away from our campsite.
“We noticed that the ducks were disappearing and wondered why, then somebody saw the alligator. When they caught it they had to kill it. It would come back you know. What with the duck banquet.” Jimmy and I were grimacing at this point and unable to think of a suitable reply. “It’s bound to happen. The park is surrounded by water and they come down the canal.”
We’d just driven the length of the North New River Canal, or alligator speedway it would seem, that drains south from the Everglades and feeds into Fort Lauderdale.
“Then there are the snakes.”
My mouth dropped open. “What kind of snakes?”
“Oh people have them as pets and they get too big.”
“What kind of snakes?”
“Then they flush them down the toilet or just throw them in the waterways.”
“What kind of snakes?”
“They’re not native to here.”
“WHAT KIND OF SNAKES?”
“Now here’s a story they will tell around here for years to come,” he continued gleefully, his grey ringlets springing out madly. “Did you hear about the python that fought the alligator in the Everglades? A 13 foot python and a six-foot alligator. They say they were pretty evenly matched. The python swallowed the alligator whole then exploded.”
We laughed just to humor him and drove off to find our campsite. We questioned being back in Ft. Lauderdale where the wild life had proliferated so and the ground rumbled underfoot like an earthquake every time the main line Amtrak train passed 50 feet away.
But if you put your fingers in your ears to drown out the traffic noise from the busy road into the city center, choose a moment between the frequent trains thundering past and looked in a direction so as not to see the many RVs, the tarmac road and the plumbing and electrical hookups, you could imagine that you were in the deepest jungle. Palm trees and palmettos, lizards and parrots lent the site a tropical feel.
It was quite magical in the middle of a city.
Thanksgiving Day’s excitement was a massive explosion that seemed to be within feet of us. The shock wave went right through me, reverberating in my chest cavity. I thought we were under attack.
A few minutes later, a helpful neighboring camper saw us looking around and cycled up to us to explain. “The electricity will be on in about half an hour. I work for the electricity company. I called my friend and he’ll be right out. A squirrel took out the transformer.”
They have commando squirrels as well?
Convenient that an electricity trouble-shooter was on the campsite. Not so handy for the squirrel.
That python did swallow that alligator whole. It happened in 2005. There are estimated to
be 100,000 giant Burmese pythons in the Everglades. At an average length of 15 feet there were 284 miles of big nasty snakes with easy access to our trailer.
That particular python did explode. The duel-to-the-death details make gruesome reading.
“Are you enjoying this weather?”
My first thought was that she was being sarcastic, but her sweet open face and tidy grandmotherly hairdo belied that notion. “Well, no,” I replied cautiously. “I’d like it to be a bit warmer.”
“Are you from here?”
“Well we just love it here. We’re from Georgia and it’s so hot there.”
“Oh, that explains it. You must be enjoying the cool weather.” We were camped just south of Duluth. It was a 60° and cloudy in July – not the best summer weather in my view, and in winter five feet of snow can arrive all at once, all in one day. Sorry, Duluth. Can’t say I’ll be exploring your charms any further.
And that, my friends, is a perfect example of why we have been on a wild goose chase looking for a perfect place to live.
Because we’ve been talking to people.
What you already have – curly hair, skinny legs, a home in the South – is not necessarily what you want. What someone else wants – straight hair, big boobs, a home where it snows in winter – isn’t necessarily what you want.
What Jimmy thinks he wants is not necessarily what I want. And what we both think we want or someone else thinks we‘d like, we don’t want when we get there and see it. It’s too congested or too rural, too busy or too slow, too tired and seedy or too brand new and characterless. I despair.
So let’s review that list of requirements for a perfect place again:
- somewhere not too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry
- no spiders, no mosquitoes or other hideous insects
- no snakes, no bears
- no tornadoes
- no hurricanes
- no floods
- no earthquakes
- no tsunamis
- no volcanoes
- no deep snow
- no humidity
- no wild fires
- a low cost of living
- an ocean or gulf view (yes, realize that eliminates all but 21 states)
- a mountain view would be nice, too
To this list I’ll now add:
- no cattle grids on the interstate ramps (too high chaparral)
- nowhere that traffic on the interstate is the main topic on the local news
- not on a road called Skunk Hollow
- no mudslides
- on second thought, no spiders (above) would certainly eliminate all 50 states so will modify that to no tarantulas or giant arachnids. That might eliminate Florida so I won’t tell Jimmy if I see one. In fact Florida has all manner of shocking creatures, but humans are probably the worst (humans in general, not Floridians in particular) and we can’t get away from them.
- not in a town where the local library sees fit to display a “No Guns” sign listing the pertinent ordinances in case you want to argue the point
- near a major airport to take a teeny bit of stress off trips back to Blighty
- not where we would ever, ever have to use the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River in New York City ever, ever again. Others shudder when you mention it to them and Jimmy pales and starts to tremble.
- nowhere that you can buy just guns, musical instruments, jewelry and car audio in the same store
- that no hurricane and no tsunami thing might eliminate all the ocean and gulf coasts so I’ll choose to ignore the discrepancy for now.
- I’d like to say not within 50 miles of a taxidermist but I don’t think that’s going to happen.
- not in a town where the gun store sells gator meat, hog traps and fresh frogs legs.
- not in a town with a gun store at all. It may be very un-American of me to not want to have anything to do with a gun but I’d like to live somewhere that I don’t feel the need to have one about my person or home.
- nowhere that we’d be dependant on using an Interstate daily as one third of Americans are. They’re a generally a mess – busy and bumpy.
Should we abandon the quest and the list and just live near one of my brothers so we’d at least have family nearby?
That would be Florida which falls foul of many of the items on the above list.
Or under the unending grey skies of Washington State (at least when we lived there) where when Mount Rainier is uncloaked it is event to be remarked upon and pointed out. “Look! Rainier’s out!!”
Fourteen and a half thousand feet of geographical wonder, which when the sky is clear is visible all up and down the Puget Sound, is usually hidden from view under a thick veil of cotton wool. Look at a U.S. weather map and you will invariably see a swirl of muck over the top left corner of Washington. The Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier are under there.
Jimmy is really no help at all. He wants to blow the house fund on a big motorhome.
We were smitten with our first footfall on Florida soil. Okay, our second footfall. Our first footfall was in the company of a State Trooper.
Our first scheduled stop was in St. Augustine which had palm tree sunsets, Spanish architecture in warm tones of terracotta and cream, the ocean in jewel tones of sapphire, aquamarine and diamonds, strolling girls in strappy tops, an ancient fort, sunshine so bright it made you squint, wildlife displays and sultry air. It all breathed paradise to us.
We were thrilled to see the 250,000-seater speedway stadium at Daytona Beach if a little disappointed not to see the Daytona 500. So we went back two years later to hear “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
The Kennedy Space Center kept our jaws on our chins for most of the tour – everything in extra, extra-large – rockets, rocket transporters, buildings. The stars alone on the U.S. flag painted on the side of the rocket-building building each measured six feet across.
Fort Lauderdale had been polished up for the nouveau riche. Its Riverwalk is manicured, not a palm frond out of place – like walking in a postcard. As we sat sipping beers in an Irish pub, cocooned within marine detritus as shabby chic decor, million dollar yachts glided up and down the canal, stopping traffic seemingly on a whim by causing the drawbridges to open, just so they could moor up elsewhere for the spoiled passengers to drink their margaritas. Miles of canals in the city provide slips for the yachts on the doorsteps of the Bentley-driving residents. Miles of wide soft sand beaches insulate the city from the Atlantic.
The art deco buildings of South Beach in Miami have a dreamy quality – geometric designs from a bygone era in yummy pastel colors float on a heat haze behind billowing palm fronds. This backdrop was peopled with stunning women (as well as the formerly stunning women who had visited the plastic surgeon just once too often) and gorgeous, slender boys all paired off together. The scene was completed with Ferraris, Maseratis, Rolls Royces and the ever-present soft sand and deep blue sea.
As we traveled down the east coast of Florida we had our first sight of many exotic animals – roseate spoonbills, armadillos, iguanas, wood storks, the elusive manatee, the venomous Portuguese man o’ war and crocodiles. Pelicans, great egrets, great blue herons, ibises and alligators became commonplace. The most exotic animal of all was a surfing dog.
The Florida Keys, flung out to the southwest from the Florida mainland like skipping stones, drew us right down to Key West. It is 100 miles and a world away from the mainland. As we bounded along the causeways and bridges that connect the Keys, we drove right into the Caribbean. A stay at Long Key was blissful as we backed our trailer right up to the Atlantic and looked due east across the ocean from our bedroom window. In the Everglades, I counted alligators – then cuddled one.Driving through the Everglades on the Tamiami Trail (pronounced tammy-amee, built in the 1920’s, Tampa to Miami) the alligators were lined up on the bank of the roadside canal.
I thoughtfully pointed out the alligators on the canal to my driver who couldn’t take his eyes off the narrow road, and when I tired of, “There’s another one!”, “And another one!” thought I would just count quietly until I got to 50, then I carried on counting to 100. It was too compulsive to give up but thought I might manage to stop after 150. Great egrets, great blue herons and possibly lions, tigers and bears were being overlooked as I obsessed over the ‘gators. Finally I tired of the children’s counting game after 165.
It is a personal best, and tell me – how many people do you know who have seen 165 alligators in one day?
Sarasota seduced us both, with it’s bookshops, bars and restaurants, opera, ballet and orchestra and more beautiful beaches – one in particular at Siesta Key where the sand was 99% finely ground quartz, always cool to the touch and said to have magical healing powers. St. Petersburg has the most beautiful beach of all, we’re told – a beach so wondrous that it has been taken off the Most Beautiful Beaches register, or some such, as it won first place every year and made the competition boring. St. Petersburg also has the most tortuous road system where everyone else knew where they were going and drove so ferociously we weren’t able to get to “the most beautiful beach” to judge for ourselves.
Further north our trailer was nestled in a forest of live oaks; their gnarled limbs dripping with Spanish moss seemed to come straight out of a children’s fairy tale. The impression of the draping moss was cozy when the sun came out, but sinister when it clouded over and the evergreen trees and thick moss would blot out daylight altogether.
I thought that the squirrels were having a little game when the occasional acorn banged off the trailer roof. When the bombardment became more insistent, I realized that acorns dropped whenever the tiniest breeze rustled the treetops. We were strafed by acorns all night on our “tin” roof. It was funny at first.
We so want to fall in love with Florida but the humidity (we call it humdity – one of those funny typos) changed my hairstyle from straight and silky to Betty Boop. This is the humdity that is supposed to only be high in the summer but we found it insufferable and debilitating in December. My ever-present insect repellent, called Jimmy – mosquitoes never bite me, they prefer Jimmy’s flesh – had been driven demented with scratching.
Only his deep tan disguised the red bumps which on closer inspection looked like a nasty case of measles. In a frenzy, he scratched the tops off the bites, “OWWW!!!” then applied his insect “itch eraser.” The pain of ammonia on raw skin, “AARRGGHHH!!” interrupted the crazed raking of fingernails over his ankles, legs, arms and neck for a few seconds before the itch returned . . . . and kept him awake all night. “Get me out of Florida!!” was his refrain. Shame.
That was three years ago. Now we are like sun-dried raisins in arid Arizona and longing for Florida humidity.
You just can’t please some people.
Florida. Love it or hate it? What’s your opinion?
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