Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Loop Road

 If you want to see alligators mainland Monroe  County is just the spot. Mind you we drive half the 24 mile loop before we got to see any, and this beauty we found almost at the eastern end of the road.
The Loop Road is a mostly gravel road that curves south of Tamiami Trail for 24 miles and is home to Everglades wildlife, Miccosukee Indians. hunters and half a dozen families who technically live in the same county as the other 75,000 residents of Monroe County, which covers the Keys.
 It tends to come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Monroe (named for the distinguished 5th president of the US) covers a portion of the mainland in the Everglades. In the 19th century most of mainland Florida was deemed uninhabitable and the only city of any size in the south was Key West. So Florida south of Tampa was  clumped into Monroe County. Then as railroads, trails and pioneers penetrated the humid south lands the new arrivals created new counties carving pieces off Monroe County as they went. All that's left now is the area south of the red pin in the screen shot below. The National Park headquarters at Flamingo is the largest single settlement but a few families live along the gravel of the Loop Road.
The crumbling building  parked alongside Tamiami Trail, also known as Highway 41, is called Monroe Station as it was the stage for anyone wanting to walk south a couple of miles to the Monroe County line. It is now the abandoned western terminus of the Loop Road.
Loop Road is unlike any other road I have found in the Everglades and I've tried to ride and drive most of them.
The Loop Road is lined with relatively mature trees and shrubbery giving shade across the road in a most beguiling way. Most roads in this area are open, shade free and lacking in any sense of being forested.
Monroe County does not mark it's boundaries in any way whatsoever however Collier County does, so this marker shows where Monroe begins.
Baron Collier was the man who completed the  road from Tampa to Miami, subsequently known as the TAM(pa)-(m)IAMI Trail. It was the sole coast-to-coast connection south of Fort Myers when this road was completed in 1928. In return for bailing out the state, which ran out of funds, Collier got a county named for him. Alligator Alley further north was opened as a two lane road in 1968 when alligators routinely got creamed , hence the nickname.  In 1990 it was opened as a four lane highway as part of the interstate system, I-75. I remember when they were joining up the two halves of the freeway and where there is a big curve it was for a long time a dirt connection between the two halves, a construction site in the middle of the state. It sure seemed desolate.
Loop Road is actually State Road 94, not that anyone calls it that. I doubt many people think of this gravel trail winding through cypress swamps with glimpses of Everglades Prairie much of a state road.

Yesterday it was mostly overcast but temperatures reached 84 degrees on the car's thermometer. Winter is also the time when you will find the most traffic on Loop Road as tourism is hopping this time of year.

I don't think we were alone on any stretch of the roadway. Come back in May and all you will see are the trucks and trailers of hunters who take to the wilderness in fat tired all terrain vehicles. Me? I walk my dog but I keep her strictly on a leash around here and no swimming. That combined with no fast food wrappers makes for a less than stellar walk for Cheyenne.
Curves are not too much in evidence on the road.The surface was quite smooth and 30 miles per hour was a comfortable speed, as we had to get home in time for me to go to work later. Tourists were going slowly admiring birds and looking for dinosaurs.
It is a pleasant and evocative drive as long as they keep the surface graveled and smooth. Each time they pour gravel it tends to take a while for the cars to pound the pebbles into the surface and smooth it out again. 
 And here's one in her famous "alligator pose."
Florida's landscapes are not often appreciated by outsiders but I find a great deal of natural beauty in this flatland.

 And here we see the Monroe County residents behind their stockades in the wilderness.
 I can hardly imagine what its like to live here, buggy humid and filled with water.
 It even started to drizzle as if to make the point.
 This sign I don't remember from previous visits. Half way.
 Then the sun came out for a bit.
 And after all that my wife spotted a lagoon filled with dinosaurs.
Small ones and far away which didn't help me with my phone camera. A group of tourists were watching the alligators lying there watching them. It was rather like watching paint dry until one of them starting barking and grunting at the alligators as though trying to communicate with them.
I jocularly suggested he jump in to liven up the lack of action, and he being young and no doubt hoping to get laid offered to do just that. Cool I thought, I finally get to see someone drowned by an alligator. "They will just swim away," he announced confidently at an awestruck young female. Well yes, I thought to myself, unless mama gator is dozing under the ferns. I forbore from telling him about the two separate Miami housewives who went for a dip in canals behind their suburban homes last year, and got carried away by beasts like these. He didn't jump, more's the pity. We carried on in the car. With seven billion people on the planet all creatures have to do their bit to keep things under control and these alligators weren't helping the problem.
 Finally, after 18 miles of dirt we encountered the last six miles of paved road.
 Florida  curves. Not all roads are dead straight.
More Monroe County residents. After 911 the Miccosukee came up with a cunning plan. Apparently they don't get along all that well with the anglo settlers here because they set up a road block here as part of their support for the national security craze sweeping the nation. In order to avoid showing ID residents prefered to drive the long way round to get to the mian road rather than drive the pavement and show ID. The road block is still being set up apparently at dusk and is of dubious legality and annoys the Monroe County residents no end. It seems like the tribe likes to piss up a rope and they reportedly don't cut law enforcement any breaks either. Now it seems Indian tribes may soon get to grow and sell marijuana legally so I wonder what chaos will ensue. 
Tribal homes are all built to the same design specification which gives them an odd, uniform suburban look. They put them on mounds to keep them dry which seems sensible and they decorate as their tastes dictate.
Miccosukee are notoriously private and their more traditional villages on the Tamiami Tail are out of sight surrounded by tall fences closed to outsiders.
 They share their space with these guys:

And before we left the eastern terminus of the Loop Road we stopped by the artesian well, thoughtfully supplied with a soap bottle. The water smells of sulphur as these things tend to, and Cheyenne wasn't having any. For once she preferred clean filtered water that I offered her.
Back on Tamiami Trail we finally got to drive the new elevated section of roadway which we saw being built a few years ago. It raises the roadway above the grass allowing water to flow more naturally through the Everglades.
It's part of the huge reclamation effort to get fresh water flowing properly through the vast natural filter of south Florida and end the practice of rushing water through canals thus drying up the swamps. Slowly, slowly...
It was a welcome diversion from the usual cross Florida route on Alligator Alley, a very boring freeway that is fast and efficient and has two curves in a hundred miles. Much better to take Tamiami Trail with more time in hand and check out places like the Loop Road.