Published: January 12th 2007January 12th 2007
For sale to a good home (after March)
Motorhome News from North America 32 28th December - 12th January 2007
A winding route up the west coast of Florida - to the Panhandle
North of Florida’s Everglade swamplands, flat fertile fields segment the landscape; market gardens rich with fruit and vegetables: tomatoes, melons, beans, strawberries, mango and citrus, lychee, peppers, aubergines and bananas - and nurseries with row upon row of royal palms, bright orchids and colourful bougainvilleas ready to grace the south’s burgeoning housing estates. White busses were parked on open fields, their passengers amongst the hordes of immigrant agricultural workers from Mexico and Central America, a hundred broad backs bent over endless rows of plants under the relentless sun.
An afternoon drive from the western end of the Everglades took us to Naples, its beautiful homes matching the elegance of the name, its beautiful beaches inaccessible by that time of day - the tiny parking lots brimming over, exclusive designer shops and up-market Italian restaurants draped with the tanned bodies of the smart set and the healthy wallets of the seriously rich - and their gardeners. This is the refined west coast of the Florida peninsular. It could be a million miles from Miami!
There are few large hoardings beside the highway as it approaches Naples, but the creeping hand of the developer is ever present. On the outskirts of town the bulldozers are at work, clearing the land to build miles of new malls to support their new retirement developments - another 1000, one storey identical homes set on a flat one-mile square behind palatial gates, palm lined walls, ornate bridges and landscaped gardens; huddled together around fountain splashed lakes, the greenest of green golfing fairways and glorious parkland - all for a lifelong management fee. The once magical wilderness of southern Florida will soon be lost to these huge bungalow developments, christened with names to tempt the over 55’s from the colder northern states: Heritage Bay, Longshore Lake, Olde Cypress, Golden Pines, Ibis Cove and Country Creek - sweeping ever outwards in all directions like the tentacles of an octopus, across the swamp that is Florida.
Our ‘Satellite Navigation system’ has been playing up since we arrived in Florida. Well, it’s not so much an electronic navigation system - it’s actually a Florida road atlas and a Janice. And it’s not so much a Janice as it is the Florida
road atlas that’s the problem. A few days back, we took to the un-surfaced roads once more along a track recommended both for birds and the scenic drive. It didn’t take long for us to realise our mistake; the potholes and ruts grew deeper and deeper, and the track narrowed through overhanging trees and muddy puddles. With no place to turn and little room for passing vehicles it was tough going. Eleven miles and two hours on, we reached the end of the track and a marginally better road surface, albeit miles from nowhere on long straight single-tracks amidst the marshes. At one point we were less than five miles from our camp as the crow flies, and thirty by the road marked on our map! Weary, but ever hopeful, we followed the road for five miles or so, fingers crossed as the surface deteriorated once again, no words spoken, both anxious, both anticipating better things around the next corner. Our fuel gauge was registering empty.
But around the next corner the road petered out; nothing but a narrow muddy track through the trees - and a farm gate, just wide enough for us to turn around with a
five point turn, with Janice watching our rear end. It was becoming an exhausting journey. Seconds later, a white 4X4 appeared out of nowhere, as they do. ‘Grass Cutting and Tree Felling’ it said on the side. Joe pulled his truck over into the ditch to give us room to pass. He leaned out of the window, his thick lips smiling knowingly under a broad moustache. “Are you lost?” he hollered over the roar of two stainless exhausts.
“Our map shows this road going through to the main road,” our Janice part of the ‘Sat Nav’ replied. “Never has, and likely never will,” he came back quickly. “Your best bet is to go back, take a left to the ‘stop’ and turn right. That’ll put you on the highway.” I’ll bet it’s not every day he sees a big white motorhome in these parts.
The highway turned out to be an Interstate, with no access and a thirty-mile detour on three sides of a square in the wrong direction to reach camp. We eventually arrived another two hours and sixty miles later, somewhat miffed and thoroughly exhausted, still with a little fuel in the tank. The map has since thrown
up incorrectly named roads, non-existent junctions and missing important information. Oh, the joys of travel!
Much of our daylight time is taken up with hiking and birding around the State Parks and Preserves where we camp. Each park has its own character and varied flora and fauna. Corkscrew Swamp, an Audubon preserve, provided more than two miles of boardwalk through dense cypress swamp. It was the last weekend of the school holidays and parents and children were making the most of the winter sunshine. Despite all the people, we saw our first painted bunting there - an incredible sight, a sparrow sized bird, with a bright blue head, a green back and red body! A four-foot yellow rat snake wound its way through the water below us, and a tiny ribbon snake rested on leaves in the undergrowth, its alert beady eyes sparkling in the mellow light of the morning sun. There were tiny green tree frogs little bigger than your thumb- nail hiding on low branches beside us, a racoon climbed onto the boardwalk ahead, seemingly oblivious of our presence, and alligators watched us pass close by - licking their lips. That’s the sort of place that
Koreshan State Park
Planetary Court - home to the governing council of 7 women (the seven known planets of the time)
makes these grey-haired-nomads happy!
Koreshan State Park, near Estero, provided an insight into religious history at the turn of the nineteenth century. It is the site of a religious settlement that aimed to support ten million worshipers. A number of buildings have been preserved showing their industrious efforts to support the community, including an early electricity plant to power the sawmill and laundry, installed by Eddison (before electricity really caught on), a printing works, post office and store. The Koreshan Unity was one of several new religious societies founded in the United States around that time. Based on celibacy and community property, the group moved here under the leadership of one Dr Cyrus (Koresh) Teed in 1894 to build a new Utopian community; a ‘New Jerusalem,’ a life without crime or vice, tobacco or drugs, at the centre of a universe encased in a giant hollow sphere. Despite its early success, membership declined after their leader’s death in 1908 and the site was finally deeded to the Florida State in 1961 when the last four members of the community finally closed the doors. Continuity in a land of celibacy was dependant upon the recruitment of complete families of course,
With Bob and Laura
enjoying the rodeo
and other religious groups with similar creeds have suffered similar fates for the same reasons over the years.
I was taking the evening air around the campsite when a grey bearded young man called to me as I passed. Bob recognised me by my white Canadian socks - the ones with the red maple leaves around the top bought at WalMart for a few bucks.
“I noticed your socks when you were booking in at reception last night. They didn’t go with your English accent,” he told me. We shared a Coke or two with Bob and his lovely American wife Laura later that evening and discovered we had both joined the RAF in the same year, and both been to West Kirby on the Wirral to do our ‘square bashing’. I don’t get to meet too many people as old as me these days! Bob arrived in the USA twelve years ago from Liverpool.
During the evening we discussed our proposed route across the south to Texas. He told us that the best thing to come out of Texas is the I20 Interstate Highway! Has he not heard the one about Liverpool? He also told us about the
Saturday night Rodeo outside of their hometown, Vero Beach, on the east coast of Florida. Janice has done the Rodeo bit before - the real stuff as only Calgary can do it, but somehow we managed to miss the Rodeo season in the west and across Canada and I’ve been complaining. It’s one thing I don’t plan to miss on this trip, so we might just have to head out east once more!
New Year’s Day was celebrated at Ding Darling National Wildlife Reserve, a four-mile drive with spectacular birding, and later, a tour of the miles of malls and housing estates that make up Fort Myers. The ‘Outlet Mall’ was a shopper’s dream; clean and swish in Spanish style, with hundreds of factory outlets, all the big names and tempting ‘New Year Sale’ prices everywhere. Now what do we do? The cupboards are full of new shoes, shirts, shorts and trousers! Time to start throwing the old things out! I can’t remember the last time we stayed up until midnight to see the New Year in - or is it to see the old year out? This year was no exception, but we did get to toast another
‘new year’ later in the week.
Highlands Hammock State Park is densely verdant, on slightly higher ground under a rich canopy of ancient evergreen oaks. Dry leaves rustled underfoot from red oaks and maples, unseen in recent weeks further to the south, and still green with last year’s growth. Palm trees reached for the yellow sunlight above the tall cypress and palmettos and ferns shaded the forest floor, ploughed overnight by the hungry feral pigs abundant in these parts. As we moved north, the flat swamp of palm and cypress was left behind, opening out to forest and open prairie dotted with cattle and horses along narrow straight roads and once again we saw flocks of bluebirds lining the fences, welcoming us as we passed. It was good to break the mould from the monotony of shallow horizons of saw grass and black dykes after many weeks of hugging the coastal marshes. The days continued warm and muggy, forcing us out walking early each morning after breakfast - and reading in the cool of the air conditioned motorhome by mid-afternoon.
Many a good American breakfast comes with Florida Orange Juice on the side, served refreshingly cool. Much of
it comes from the groves on the central plains where the roads rise and fall almost imperceptibly on shallow gentle slopes, and long rows of dark green trees splashed with the bright orange and yellow of ripening fruit. Huge trucks ply the highways trailing long mesh trailers heaped high with oranges, heading for the massive grey processing plant at Lake Wales. We drove around the plant on our search for the local library and the internet; past the ramshackle homes of the underpaid workers that would shame both manufacturer and the whole nation if exposed - and ruin many a genuine ‘Florida Goodness’ breakfast dream. There can be little pride in the company book of culture.
Bob’s recent mention of a Rodeo finally tempted us further east, away from the west coast, across open country into central Florida where beef cattle roam the prairies and cowboys ‘round ‘em up’ on horseback with dogs and cracking whips. (It was this practice that gave them the name ‘crackers’.) On our way we searched for the scarce, Crested Caracara, a vulture sized bird, previously only a picture in a book for both of us, but unmistakeable for its flight and stature -
a short legged secretary bird if you know what one of those looks like! The good book suggested we might see one on a post beside Highway 70, and sure enough there it was, bold as brass, watching us from the top of a telegraph pole. The tyres squealed and we swerved into the entrance of the Circle O Ranch - past the sign ‘Private Property. Keep Out’, binoculars at the ready for a closer look! I can hear you now, “It was stuffed!” you cry. “Oh, no it wasn’t!” I reply. Janice had seen it land as we passed. Two more were sighted over the next 24hours. The Crested Caracara is the National bird of Mexico, by the way. We might just have a picture for you.
Saturday night’s rodeo was at River Ranch, “The biggest dude ranch in the world”, a three-mile drive from the entrance, along a paved road to the security gate. We had telephoned ahead to book a space on their RV site expecting it to be full for the Rodeo, to be told it was $80 per night for a fully serviced pitch. At that price it had better be good, we thought!
River Ranch RV Park
The posh end - note the boat docks
With most of our camping costing little more than $20, it sounded steep to say the least, but we hoped we might do a deal - if we promised to eat in their restaurant, play golf on their nine-hole course, and go to the rodeo on Saturday night. As it happened, they had one spare pitch at $28! “But it’s primitive camping. Only water and electricity on site,” the receptionist said. (That’s deluxe in European terms!)
As you might have gathered, River Ranch is no ordinary Ranch. There were twenty of so light aircraft and a helicopter parked by the end of the airstrip, the control tower sharing space with the Golf Pro shop, busy taking green fees and dishing out buckets of balls for the driving range. “Oscar Foxtrot from tower, runway clear for take-off. That’ll be twenty eight dollars each, Sir, for eighteen holes.”
You can swim in the pool at River Ranch, hire a horse for the day, fish in the river, eat in the café, dine in the restaurant, watch the Rodeo on Saturday nights, overnight in the hotel or a cabin, shoot the ‘trap and skeet’, play tennis, shop at the store, buy your
Misty morning golf
own cowboy outfit, (I had my hat ready and waiting for the big event) camp in your tent or hold your company conference - and it’s miles from anywhere. More than 50 miles from the east coast and double that from the west! By the way, if you really want to live it up, you can indeed pay your $80 and pitch your motorcoach by the marina, moor your boat at your own private dock and watch the sun go down over the Kissimmee River. It must have been my posh English accent that led the receptionist to think I wanted the upmarket resort version! We did get to play golf, bright and early in the misty morning light before the sun popped over the stables.
Loyalty to the flag and devotion to religion play their part in everyday life here, holding together the delicate fabric of an insecure nation. The stars and stripes appear on every government building: in the gardens of many homes and even around our campsites. Churches line every city and touch every town. The Rodeo started with a charge of horses around the ring: out in front the lead rider in full cowboy rig
carried a huge Stars and Stripes - followed closely by four others each with their own flag, GOD, BLESS, THE, USA. The crowd rose in a show of respect, and joined in prayer, heads bowed, for ‘Our Troops’. The process was repeated before we left the arena later that evening. Bob and Laura drove the fifty miles from their home to River Ranch to join us for dinner, and watch the rodeo. It was a great night: the enormous bulls bucked and snorted as they left the gates, the cowboys stuck like rag-dolls with glue for seconds or microseconds, the steers ran and the lariats flew, the whips cracked, the red dust rose, the cowgirls raced around the ring - and the audience clapped and stamped their feet! Yee - Ha!
It was good to see that some of the rodeo contestants had the sense to wear crash helmets in the ring. I don’t know about ‘crackers.’ Personally, I think they’re nuts! (It is also somewhat disconcerting that motorbike riders are not required to wear helmets in many of the States.)
This week we celebrated our 365th day in North America, crossing the estuary of the Suwannee River as
we turned westward - towards Florida’s Panhandle and the next phase of our adventure; the road across the south, to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana - and Texas. See you there!
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads
PS. Were you able to ‘name that tree’? (Newsletter 31) It was a mahogany tree!