Miami, The Keys, and the Gulf Coast

Tuesday, 07 January 2014 15:30
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A typical Florida citizenCommuning with the gators and the pelicans in South Florida.


I ended up spending a lot more time in Florida than I originally anticipated. My original route plan actually skipped Florida altogether, but as of this writing, I’ve now been completely down one side of the state and up the other (and it is a really long state.) I had a bit of a tough time getting a grip on Florida, and at first it sort of left me with the same feeling I had coming through the Midwest, where I felt like I had missed some of the key character of the area. Florida gets kind of a bad rap in the media as a place where the fringe of society is the thickest and wildest, and to be honest, it does live up to that reputation on a fairly regular basis. However, after some reflection, I think that my feeling of ‘lack of grip’ on the place may actually be its character; that the place is so good at shrugging off any level of permanence that that’s the characteristic that defines it. It’s flat country with very few of any of the normal “time” cues of landscape like big trees or mountains or similar features. It’s swampy, humid, and wet almost everywhere, and you can almost see cars and buildings and roads dissolving before your eyes. It’s prone to big storms and hurricanes, and often the land is much, much different looking the day after a storm than the day before. Even the critters—and there are a lot of them—all seem to be living season to season, and they’re more than ready to adapt to new landscapes and new realities on a moment’s notice. There’s a very large chunk of the state—Orlando—completely devoted to providing artificial and temporary experiences in a thin veneer over a gigantic swamp. To a certain extent, I think that the type of population that’s able to embrace that weird combination of natural impermanence and artificial attempts at imposing some stability is naturally going to be somewhat of a fringe element, so that may help explain Florida a bit. I think that some of the classic Florida literature also embraces this dynamic—“Killing Mr. Watson” by Peter Matthiessen is storytelling that rides this edginess and uncertainty to great effect, and it’s telling that the Mr. Watson of the book is not fictional, but an actual character of Florida’s western coast. Harry Morgan from Hemmingway’s “To Have and Have Not” is a similarly edgy character of flexible morality—it’s not by accident that these sorts of tales are based in Florida, and those kinds of characters still inhabit the state today. So, in keeping with the Florida tradition of attracting wild characters to odd locales (and no, I don’t mean me), I headed to Miami Beach to check out another one of the strange confluences of road, road trip, and interesting characters.

Miami Beach is a thin strip of land that separates Miami from the Atlantic Ocean. I made my way down Highway A1A to a small motel on the beach, which would serve as home base for a couple of days. My longer-than-usual amount of time in Florida can partially be chalked up to me dawdling a bit to hit certain dates—I wanted to meet my friends at Disney prior to this on specific dates, I was shooting for Christmas in the Keys after Miami, and eventually I’d shoot for Tampa for New Years, all of which got me to space the time out between stops to meet that schedule. Miami Beach was a bit of glitzy craziness that seemed to be mostly populated with German and Chinese tourists. It’s somewhat known for its supermodel population, but it was pretty apparent that they were outnumbered by the hookers by about ten to one, at least at this time of the year. The beach was nice, and all the art deco hotels were pretty cool, but for the most part it was a pretty loud and high pressure tourist experience, only a couple notches up from a Mexican cruise ship port of call. As one might imagine, it’d take a pretty interesting character to think that a thin, swampy strip of land could eventually become a glamorous tourist destination, and luckily for Miami Beach, that’s what it got.

Miami skyline, as seen from Miami Beach

The guy who came up with (and executed) the concept for Miami Beach was one Carl G. Fisher (no relation that I know of.) In addition to putting Miami Beach on the map, Fisher was also a notable and very wealthy automotive entrepreneur. Along with his friend James Allison (yes, for you automotive geeks, the Allison of Allison Transmission and Allison Aircraft, among other ventures), he founded the Prest-O-Lite corporation, which manufactured acetylene-powered headlamps for automobiles before electric lights became viable. (If you go back to some of the posts that have vintage auto museum photos, you can see Prest-O-Lite gas canisters and lights on just about every car.) Their timing was impeccable—they got started just when cars were getting popular, and got out by selling to Union Carbide for many millions of dollars before electric lighting came on the scene. Fisher remained a huge automotive enthusiast, and went on to develop the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he and his partners pioneered improvements in roadway materials and construction. This experience was parlayed into the development and construction of the Lincoln Highway (now US Route 50) that went from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Square in San Francisco, making it the first east-west transcontinental highway in the US. Following that success, he then helped develop the north-south Dixie Highway, which had its southern terminus at Miami, which is where he conceived the notion of making Miami beach a destination resort. Working with John Collins, a 75 year old Quaker avocado grower, he provided the means to complete a 21 mile bridge across Biscayne Bay from Miami, then acquired 400 acres of mangrove and palmetto swamp with a thin strip of beach on its eastern side. His friends thought he was crazy, but he built streets, parks, canals, and four hotels, and then promoted the hell out of it. Just as he was almost completely out of money, the idea caught on, and a real estate boom started on Miami Beach. The value of Fisher’s holdings ballooned to over $100 million dollars  (about $1.3 billion today), people flocked to the resort, and Miami Beach was born. Not being a guy to rest on his laurels, Fisher attempted to repeat that development feat up north at Montauk (which did indeed eventually become a ritzy resort), but luck was not on his side this time. The one-two punch of a 1926 hurricane that flattened a lot of Miami Beach and the stock market crash of 1929 wiped him out financially, and he retired to a small house on Miami Beach until his death in 1939. Fisher Island, just south of Miami, is named for him.

Carl Fisher. No relation. Founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. L to R, Arthur Newby, Frank Wheeler, Carl Fisher, James Allison

So…I thought that was kind of neat. Same last name, big automotive enthusiast, developer of many of the roads I’d been driving on, and developer of the land I was currently sitting on. I don’t think it mattered much to all the Cuban girls trying to get me to come into the nightclubs, but I kind of liked knowing about it.

Hotels on A1A December weather Art deco

Eschewing the nightclub and hooker scene for something a little more native Floridian, I headed down to Biscayne Key to wander around a bit and spend a little time on the beach. There’s a great lighthouse there, and plenty of wildlife, including a pretty big raccoon population that was mostly focused on acquiring whatever the tourists were leaving behind. I checked out some of the birds and fish, took a little nap on the beach, and then headed back into Miami proper to get some dinner in Little Havana. There’s a very large Cuban population in Miami, and with that population comes some really good and authentic Cuban food. I had a Cuban sandwich (sort of a super-duper ham and cheese), tostones (fried plantains), a little ropa vieja (shredded beef), and some moros y cristianos (rice and beans), all of which were very tasty. I spent the evening walking around Miami beach and checking out the neon on the art deco hotels, as well as a pretty spectacular moonrise over the ocean.

Some needlefish hanging out near the surface Looking for some lunch The lighthouse at Biscayne Key
Tubbs and Crockett, eat your hearts out A well-timed drive by Sunset from Biscayne Key
A little moon/sunset action Moon over Miami (Beach) Another look at the moon


The next morning, I headed further south toward the Florida Keys. I had originally planned to do Christmas on Key West, but lodging was pretty hard to find (apparently this is a pretty popular destination this time of year), so I found a place on Little Torch Key instead, about 30 minutes north of Key West. It was a nice little spot on the water, and the room had a little kitchen and everything, so it promised to be a pretty cozy Christmas. On top of that, my nieces and my friend Mary had all sent me some presents to open on Christmas morning, so I was all set up for the holiday.

Once I got settled in, I got into the holiday spirit by decorating the car a bit (some Christmas lights and a bow on the grille), and then headed down to Key West. I wasn’t aware that the downtown area there was quite as extensive as it was, with a center area of shops surrounded by a bunch of historic homes, plus the swankier area around the Truman “Little White House” and old US Naval Station. There was also an even more touristy area around the cruise ship docks, but for the evening I stuck closer to the historic area and stopped in at the Green Parrot for a beer and a snack. This is apparently the oldest bar in Key West, dating back to the late 1800s, and it was appropriately rustic for its age. I met a couple of guys down from Michigan for the holiday, and thanks to my travels up there I was able to converse intelligently on the beauty of western Michigan and the lake, which in turn prompted them to buy me a beer, so it’s possible this whole travel thing is starting to pay off.

I stopped in a mile marker zero for US 1, then went down the street a bit to see the marker for the “Southernmost Point in the Continental US”, which coincidentally also marked the completion of Leg #3 for me (‘down the east coast’) and the start of Leg #4 (‘across the south/southwest and back to home’). It also made for a pretty festive Christmas photo for the car.

Merry Christmas!

It was Christmas Eve the next day, and since walking around the Keys in shorts and flip flops had pretty much destroyed any vestiges of holiday-like atmosphere, I decided to go all the way and drive up the road a bit to Bahia Honda Key and kayak around the place for the day. Practically the whole Key is a state park, and they rented kayaks along the beach, so I grabbed my snorkeling gear (it’s kind of amazing how much junk you can actually get into that car) and waterproof camera housing and got me a kayak. It was really fun—the water was very warm, there were lots of fish around to gawk at, and the weather was cooperative, with pretty calm water and clear skies. From time to time, I tied off the kayak and jumped in to snorkel around a bit, and I got to see a number of underwater critters that way. Not quite as diverse as a full-on scuba trip, but still pretty neat, considering that it was Christmas Eve. On the way back from kayaking, I figured that nobody would be open for dinner that night, so since I had a kitchen in my room, I bought all the fixin’s for a nice pasta dinner and salad and whatnot at the grocery store on Big Pine Key, then had a nice night cooking, eating, and watching Christmas cartoons.

The beach at Bahia Honda, Christmas Eve My ride for the day Getting in a little snorkeling, too
A few of the local fish Two views of the mangrove More fish

I opened the gifts from my Santas the next morning, many of which were edible, relaxed a bit, then thought I’d head back down to Key West to explore in the daylight while it was deserted. That seemed like reasonable logic at the time—that everybody would be staying in with the family for Christmas day—but I did not take the tourist action into account. It turned out that the place was totally packed and busy and full of traffic and people at the bars and restaurants and generally the same kind of scene you’d expect on a summer weekend down there. Still, I made the best of it, and put the top down and the Santa hat on and cruised around for a bit. I tried heading back to the ‘Southernmost’ marker to get a daytime photo, but there was actually a line of people over a block long, all waiting to get a photo with the marker. I went over to the White Street Pier (which was much less crowded) instead, walked out and watched the sun set, then headed back to my place on Little Torch. I had a bunch of photos to go through and plenty of leftovers from my Christmas Eve feast, so I spent a relaxing Christmas night getting some chores done and getting full on pasta. 

Banyan tree on Key West Mile marker zero Inexplicably, there were chickens and roosters wandering everywhere

There’s only one road into and out of the Keys, so to continue on my way through Florida (and into the Everglades, which was the plan for the day), I had to essentially re-trace my steps almost all the way back to Miami before I could cut westward. I did a little fishing in the morning (mostly unsuccessfully), then got the car packed up and pointed in the direction of some alligators. It was still plenty warm enough to have the top down, and it was a really nice drive across the causeways and up to where things started getting a bit swampy. There was really not much out there on the Tamiami Trail across the Everglades, and as the sun set I was able to locate a campground about 50 miles east of Everglades City and set up there for the night, my first camping since Maine. It was actually pretty nice—a little too cool for the mosquitos (which I have no doubt are enormous in the hotter months), but plenty warm enough to sleep comfortably. There were lots of strange animal sounds during the night, but nothing that sounded particularly threatening, so I got some really good sleep. In the morning, the downside of camping in a swamp became apparent, as absolutely everything was soaked with heavy dew. I opted to have a little breakfast and wait for the sun to come up a bit and burn some of it off rather than pack the tent up wet, and surprisingly that worked pretty well. I got everything together, then headed west into the deeper swamps.

Everglades campsite, with festive holiday Roadster

I got to the Big Cypress National Preserve about an hour later and did a bit of hiking. The wildlife was plentiful and highly assorted—many, many alligators, lots of tall wading birds, a lot of different kinds of fish, and a surprising number of deer. The gators were all basically pretty sluggish, but fun to watch, and the birds were industriously going about the process of finding lunch. I had hoped to see some alligators on this swing through the Everglades, and I was not disappointed.

Alligator, not crocodile There was no shortage of gators These are Gar, one of the world's weirder looking fish
Some of them were pretty big Alligator and friends Just coming over to say hello and get a hug

My next stop was Everglades City, where I planned to pick up another kayak and do some exploring on Chokoloskee Bay, previous home of the aforementioned Mr. Watson. This was also a wildlife fest, although there were no alligators due to the salt content of the water. I saw many osprey, both nesting and hunting, dozens of dolphins coming over to check out the kayak, plenty of pelicans and other seabirds, and even an American Bald Eagle nesting near the shoreline. It was pretty great…I also did some hiking along the beaches of some of the little islands scattered around the bay, where there were thousands of really pretty shells washed up. I wouldn’t mind spending a few days on a kayak adventure through this area someday, but for today, I had to return the boat and get on my way up to Fort Meyers, where I had a hotel lined up for the evening.

Osprey, carrying what's left of his lunch Bald Eagle in its nest Frolicking dolphins
More dolphins Shells on the beach Osprey leaving the nest
Yet another osprey Oddly, some old engine blocks dumped near a dock Second largest wingspan in North America: The American White Pelican

Fort Meyers was basically just a pitstop and I didn’t really do much there other than sleep and eat, both of which were unremarkable. I had lined up a two day stay a bit farther north in Sarasota, then I’d found an Airbnb stay in Tampa with a host who was throwing a New Year’s party, so that was my plan: Kill a couple days in Sarasota, head up to Tampa for New Years, then carry on from there. That’s pretty much how it went, too—I actually had a couple of good days fishing from various piers around Sarasota, pulling in some black drum and red snapper  (and one mackerel), then did a little kayaking among the mangroves, then headed up to Tampa.

Paddling through the mangroves This guy followed me around for almost an hour Hanging out on an old shipwreck

My host Danielle had a great little house and a cool story—she needed a roommate to help defray some of her housing costs, but hadn’t had good luck finding them. A friend of hers suggested that she Airbnb instead, and so now she’s pulling in more cash than a roommate would provide, but without the problems associated with roomates. Win/win. I got there on the 30th and did a little life maintenance; getting the car washed, re-organizing the trunk, getting rid of some trash, and stuff like that. Since I had some bait left over from Sarasota, I also took a ride down to DeSoto Park and did some semi-successful fishing from the pier down there, after which I grabbed some dinner and wrapped up my evening.

The next day was New Year’s Eve, and to avoid being a total freeloader, I went out and got some wine and other party supplies for Danielle and her guests. She’d made a bunch tasty hors d’oeuvres and her sister had brought over a large quantity of ribs, so things were all ready when people started coming over. It’s always a little weird not knowing anybody at all in a social situation like that, but it was a great group of people which went a long way toward eliminating any awkwardness. I had a good time, met a lot of new friends, and got lots of advice on things to see and do in Tampa and the rest of Florida.

I had originally planned to travel up to Tallahassee after Tampa, but based on some good Gulf Coast suggestions that I got during the party, I altered my route to hit Cedar Key and Apalachicola instead, both of which were small fishing towns along the Gulf. Before I left Tampa, Danielle invited me over to her sister’s house for some New Years Day brunch, where I saw some of the same folks from the previous evening and had some very tasty food. As has been the trend, I’ve met a lot of very outgoing and generous people along the way on this trip, and Danielle and her friends and family were some of the best.

Cedar Key was pretty far off the beaten path, and about a four hour drive from Tampa. Most of the scenery was pretty normal Florida; lots of scrub pine and palmetto, but even so the drive went pretty quickly. It rained off and on, and by the time I got to Cedar Key, it was coming down pretty good. I had found a little condo to stay in near the water and the downtown area, so I picked up the keys and got settled. It also had a washer/dryer, which was great as I was overdue for some laundry action.

This place is known for its shellfish; mostly for its clams, and to a lesser extent its oysters, and as I hadn’t had dinner yet, I figured I should go check it out. I ran into a bit of the ‘off season’ problem as a lot of the places had closed up shop already, but there was one bar right on the waterfront that was still serving, and the clams definitely lived up to their reputation. With a full belly of clams, I went back to the condo and hit the hay.

I figured I’d try a little more fishing the next day, but I was not nearly as successful. It was raining off and on which was a little annoying, but I also was slowly being surrounded by pelicans, which was kind of interesting. I couldn’t decide whether they were interested in getting some of the bait I was using, or if they were waiting for me to actually pull in a fish so they could have it. As I was not pulling in much of anything, their looks gradually started becoming more judgmental--they said “Dude, if you were a pelican, you would have totally caught, like, WAY more fish by now.” Thinking that perhaps I’d been spending a little too much time among the pelican, I wrapped up my fishing adventures and went on a bit of a photo walkabout instead, which was considerably more successful.

Some of my feathered friends in Cedar Key The view from the balcony Judgmental.

After consuming a not-insignificant number of clams, I got another good night’s rest and then headed up along the coast to Apalachicola. This was another little fishing town, although this one was much better known for its oysters. There’d been some controversy lately over the amount of fresh water coming down the river into the Gulf from Georgia and Alabama, as increased water usage upstream was being pointed at as the culprit in a severe decline in the amount of oysters being harvested. Apparently, they need a mix of fresh and salt water to thrive, which is why they’re mostly found in bays and estuaries, and due to the lack of fresh water they weren’t getting what they needed.

In another example of ‘upstream flow’, the beaches along the way were almost all composed of brilliant white sugary sand. Interestingly, this sand actually comes from the quartz and limestone rich Appalachian Mountains, far to the north. Over the millennia, runoff from these mountains has entered many of the eastern north American rivers, eventually making its way down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it’s eventually washed up on the Gulf Coast beaches having lost almost all of the non-quartz content along the way, which in turn gives you beaches of pure white sand. (And this concludes the obligatory geology sidebar for this post.)

The fine quartz sand made for some neat patterns More sand Even more sand
...and a little more, why not Some neat stuff with old stumps and erosion More stump action

Like the rest of the area, Apalachicola was for the most part in its “off season” mode, with only a few snowbirds wandering around. Luckily, most of the local restaurants stayed open for the snowbirds, so I was able to sample some of the local oysters and other goodies. The oysters were pretty amazing—big and meaty and not too brine-y, so I’m on the side of the locals…if they need to win their water use fight to keep the Apalachicola Bay making some big, fat oysters, they totally deserve to win that one. I also got to sample some alligator sausage, in the form of a sandwich. According to my server at the Owl Café, there’s a guy who comes over from Louisiana a couple times a year with alligator meat, and they trade him for fresh oysters, after which they’ve got alligator on the menu for a little while until they run out. It was pretty good—sort of like a feistier version of pork.

Crab trap floats Colors More colors
Local architecture Pretty depressed fishing economy Vines
Erosion Apalachicola sunset Still setting...

After doing my share of damage to the Florida Gulf Coast shellfisheries, it was finally time to get out of the state. I made a quick stop at Florida Caverns to check out some stalactites, then headed north for the border. For a place that I’d originally planned to skip entirely, I’d had a pretty good adventure. I still don’t feel like I’ve got an entirely clear grip on it, but maybe nobody ever does. 

Inside Florida Caverns More caverns And a little more caverns

Next stop: Alabama and Georgia


#1 laceytrynn 2014-01-07 19:38
love the moon shots and the wildlife (especially the judgmental pelicans!)
#2 FairladySPL 2014-01-08 03:46
Coastal Florida is great for a drop top. We took ours to Key West years ago (on the Amtrak AutoTrain, mind you) and got comments about the "Marylanders" long way from home. For you? I will bet pedestrians who spot your cool car parked at the carb will first say 1. whuh? A "Datsun?" and then, 2. WOW! Nevada license plate! Roll onward, voyager!
#3 Mom 2014-01-08 07:30
Great pictures as always, hoping a zoom lens was used for the alligators !!
#4 lectacave 2014-01-08 09:34
Coming to get a hug indeed... Hahaha! I have to say this is one of my favorite posts, grip or no grip. So informative and insightful in your straightforward way, and with such wonderful photos as always! Love the first 'gator, the birds, the sand, the sunset... great.

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