Saturday, January 24, 2009

Loop Road

I last visited Loop Road about three years ago on my Suzuki and I enjoyed exploring the gravel road deep in the Everglades. So when Bruce came visiting from New Mexico with his brand new GS800 BMW in a trailer we decided it might be a good idea to go check out some gravel: Loop Road is a section of roadway about 25 miles long that parallels the middle section of Tamiami Trail. The first five miles are paved, the rest is gravel. The first couple of miles are in Dade County and are part of the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. The last couple are in Collier County, but the bulk of Loop Road, interestingly enough is Monroe County, the county that is best known as the Florida Keys.Our journey from the Lower Keys and back covered almost 340 miles and took us about 12 hours from a rather cool pre-dawn start at 6am to a return just before sunset at 6pm. Indeed we arrived in Homestead a little chilled so a stop to refresh was in order:In due course when we arrived at the Loop Road about an hour later this decision was followed inevitably by another and when Bruce spotted the porta pottie he sighed with relief:Which left me holding my camera. I found an artesian well which seemed to reflect the needs of the moment so I photographed it:I spotted another one of these later on the trip though I had no idea they were so popular in the Everglades. The first part of Loop Road is in the Indian reservation and the Miccosukee section is easily identified by the uniform architectural style adopted by the tribal members living along this section of the road:

The houses look large and comfortable as does the roadway along this section. Don't be fooled, nothing lasts along Loop Road and this level of paving becomes a fondly remembered dream later:

Soon enough the road deteriorates, though it remains paved,and paradoxically the speed limit goes up from 30 to 40 mph (50 to 60kph):

This is where Monroe County begins, and thereby hangs a tale. It seems there is little love lost between the Miccosukee families and the half dozen homes on the Monroe side of the line. The Miccosukee in September 2003 decided to upgrade anti-terrorist security in their neck of the woods and started checking documents of drivers on Loop Road at the Monroe County line. This so enraged the crackers they decided to ignore the tribal police and instead took to driving the long way round to get to Highway 41. Which when you ride the 20 miles of gravel gives you an idea how annoyed those Monroe County residents must have been. The Monroe inhabitants live quiet lives some 40 miles from the outer suburbs of Miami, in homes that exist on the periphery of the services most of us take for granted.This is hunting and fishing and air boat country, outdoorsmen thrive here. I have no idea where these people vote or how they register their vehicles, living as they do along way from such services provided for them in Key Largo a couple of hours south. I have never met nor spoken to one of the reclusive Monroe County residents up here but Bruce and I took a break at Pinecrest, a former community that has become something of a relic:

And you know this is an outpost of Monroe County; the scooter is evidence of that!

Bruce claimed he knew this was a 1954 Desoto, a car apparently purchased by a neighbor during Bruce'schildhood as a status symbol,and then he ended up wrecking it. Something like that I guess imprints itself on the juvenile mind because Bruce remembered the car clearly.

The road meanders on between stands of pine trees,not looking much like Everglades at all. The road passes a few more homes...hidden behind fences decorated in rural style: ...including the residence of the Park Ranger coincidentally and quite nice it looked too. The road stays paved to that point meandering past pine trees and scrub palmettos:A lot of people who bother to think about it at all, get confused by the fact that the county famed for being the Florida Keys, enjoys a larger mainland surface area than all the islands combined.This came about somewhat by accident. In Florida's early days the bulk of the peninsula was uninhabited not least because it was unbearable owing to the excess mosquitoes and filthy humidity. It took a hardy human to live in the south, which was why the capital was stuck safely in the north at Tallahassee. That part of the state which was uninhabitable was unceremoniously dumped in Key West's lap making Monroe by far the largest county in the state. With a tiny population. As humans spread south they started to carve off chunks of vast Monroe County and turned them into their own counties, until in the end only the rump was left. Nowadays mainland Monroe County comprises the "village" of Flamingo in Everglades National Park and half a dozen families on Loop Road. Interesting no?

Finally the asphalt peters out and the gravel begins and pretty soon the Everglades look like they are supposed to: Alongside the cypress trees, we also spotted a six foot gator basking in the weak winter sun:Photographing this brute was an act of sheer madness.I don't know what gripped us but we got off the motorcycles, tiptoed back, remarking on how big and how still he was. "Look at that eye," Bruce whispered over his shoulder to me, as I carefully put him between me and the dinosaur. "He's watching our every move." We were standing (quaking) perhaps 15 feet away in the middle of the roadway with nothing between us but a little fresh air. We turned and scooted back to the motorbikes.I was counting on Bruce's fussiness reassembling his gear to give me enough time to get away first. Gators move very fast on land but not as fast as an 800cc motorcycle. The signposting even along this stretch of road doesn't end and we passed the occasional speed limit sign which looked out of place.Funnily enough 25mph (40kph) was a comfortable speed along much of the road, which did suffer from a few hard to spot spectacularly deep pot holes. And then we came to the more or less mid point of the trip, the Florida Trail marked by a post:And in this case by a cracker mobile, a hunter probably out with an air boat or maybe an all terrain vehicle with huge balloon tires to ride on water:Considering we are in the middle of the dry season the Florida trail was looking pretty damp:The road was getting crowded with holiday cars but we sailed passed them on our way to the next stop at Sweetwater Strand a place of mystical beauty in rainy season, when the trees are leafy and the waters are warm and filled with gators. On the eve of a winter cold front it was a bleak spot indeed:Before we leave Loop Road for the joys of Highway 41 I want to remind myself how delightfully at home my Bonneville looked on the gravel:Eventually the Monroe County section of Loop Road comes to an end, as unceremoniously unmarked at this end as it was at the other. You just have to know:And the countryside starts to change slowly from green shrubbery to leafless cypress trees:A couple of miles before the end of the road there is some open space with parking and a shed housing a couple of composting toilets and very welcome it was too. We got off, stretched and went for a little walk:Finally, running before the threat of rain we reached the Highway which is marked by a tumbling building called Monroe Station:On the way east on the Tampa-Miami Trail we took one last stop at Clyde Butcher's art gallery. A commercial photographer from Southern California Butcher met Ansel Adams and was inspired by his style so he started photographing the American wilderness and apparently made a nice living doing it. His small prints are offered at around $1200 and his wall sized photos go for more than $10,000. Commercial considerations aside Bucther has a lovely eye for Florida's wilderness with extremely evocative pictures of clouds, mangroves and of course The Everglades.Well worth a stop to look at art, or possibly even to buy art, or maybe just to catch dinner:And from there back on the road, the endless road back to the Keys, Tamiami Trail rolls out to the horizon and I enjoy every mile of backwoods Florida, be it ever so straight:Eventually we found hot showers, carry out Cuban dinners ordered by my thoughtful wife and a soft bed. Each.