Last Saturday morning shortly after dawn this was the L5 Levee at the Rotenberger Wildlife Area. The musical accompaniment was the croaking of alligators seeking mates in the bullrushes. The noise they make is a deep short grunt, the sort of sound a bullfrog would make it if it were a ten foot long dinosaur looking for love. This was the start to a long weekend, by happy coincidence the Fourth of July, Independence by Van Day.
Friday night I got off work at 6:30 after a particularly trying day of fielding calls about holiday activities in Key West. People often seem to confuse police dispatchers with Chamber of Commerce help lines and I could have used Madame Zara's crystal ball last week as people called wanting advance warning of what daily changes might occur thanks to the coronavirus disaster currently sweeping Florida. Will the beaches be open this weekend? NO. Will they re-open by July 11Th? How the #$@! do I know? And in between the usual quota of people not being kind to each other. By 7pm we were in the van and on the road and I didn't have to be nice to strangers for three whole days. We stopped at a park in the Upper Keys where my wife used to nap on her way to see me in the hospital after her work in those dark days of our own hospital misery. She did the kitchen and I walked Rusty while some poor sod got a traffic ticket to the accompaniment of the usual flashing red and blue festival. Some days it feels like I just can't get away from work.
My goal for the night was a spot I had long since wanted to spend the night at when I finally got a van. It's nothing much more than a wide spot in a dirt road that leads deep into the Everglades, the place Marjorie Stoneman Douglas brought to America's attention with the name River of Grass. Most people think the Everglades look like a Hollywood swamp with cypress trees and dark lagoons covered in Spanish Moss. In real life it's a grassy prairie that floats on fresh water that it filters before it reaches the sea.
By ten thirty we had reached the gas station kitty corner to the Miccosukee Casino at the junction of Krome Avenue and Tamiami (Tampa-Miami) Trail. My wife was exhausted but I was on some weird high, perhaps a state of mind known as a second wind rather than some exalted altered state caused by driving a camper van. Rusty, who does have that skid row upbringing reverted to type and enjoyed the smells and the debris of a truck stop. My wife suggested, through drooping eyelids, stopping for the night. I said no, I know a better place which might have sound ominous to an eavesdropper but really did turn out to be a Good Idea.
The van passed its second big test that night. The first was ease of driving and it's really not bad to push down the road. A surprisingly high seating position reminds of driving an eighteen wheeler ( my lesser known career deviation) which makes it easier to see traffic patterns ahead, plus when you miss a turn, which of course I never do, the tight turning radius makes getting out of scrapes a lot simpler than backing up a 48 foot trailer. The second test was could the batteries power the air conditioning all night? South Floridians need to know if they are stupid enough to camp in the hottest June on record. Short answer? Yes. If you have 600 lithium amps and two alternators to fully charge them before you stop for the night. Keeping the air blowing full bore will kill the batteries in three or four hours but setting the air just a degree lower than the cabin temperature when you stop for the night (the dashboard air blows like the Trumpets at Jericho driving all heat and condensation before it) and the air will cycle for seven hours and leave juice in the battery bank. This discovery earned me my wife's admiration and the knowledge we can handle hot overnight spots on our own. The next day we have to drive or let the fridge run out of juice but that's why we're mobile. Without air and with our four solar panels we can operate all conveniences pretty much indefinitely it seems.
I got a bunch of pretty pictures on our walk that I shall post later on this blog page temporarily incorrectly titled "Key West Diary" but Rusty started to see the advantages of van life in a world where things are new and fresh and cars appear every fifteen minutes and only because it's a weekend holiday. Outside hunting season this levee is open to dispersed camping Friday Saturday and Sunday and we didn't have a fishing pole between us. Rusty sat in the grass and took it all in as the heat and humidity increased. I expect he had memories of being abandoned on the edge of the Everglades where he survived by his wits and avoided getting killed by humans and animals and lunch was cold raw iguana if he was lucky. His middle class manners are a veneer and I trust his wildlife skills far more than my own. If there were any alligators around he would have known. We did see two from the comfort of the van, one coming in at night appeared in our headlights on the dirt road. It reared up in surprise and scuttled off into the darkness, while in the morning on our way out a six footer basking in the grass slid quickly off into the water as I fumbled for my camera.
Our lunch stop up Highway 27 was in Sebring home of the race track, a pretty downtown and a whole bunch of lakes. We had all day to ourselves so my wife said drive around till we find some waterfront which eventually we did nestled among the lakeside mansions amid miles of neatly mown lawn. The park was home to Sebring's live theater, library and museum with pleasant lake views under a sweltering sun. A charming lady feeding bread to the ducks unmasked as though in normal times was the epitome of Sebring's inability to come to terms with coronavirus. I walked Rusty, my wife made chicken salad wraps and we stayed close inside in our own cool air far from crowds with nary a mask between them.
I found this sign hugely ironic as Rusty and I walked, me with a mask he without. "It's a social and lawful responsibility." Picking up dog shit is and I do it all the time. I don't park in handicapped spots because I am no longer handicapped. I wear a mask for the same reason to protect me and them, a social responsibility, yet in these communities loaded with elderly infirm we see less sense than the ability to pick up a dog egg. I was on a ventilator for less than a day, the worst experience of my life and I fear for these people who trust to luck and bad politically motivated advice to preserve them from the same fate.
I never had to dig for victory, or be in the first wave over the top, or be like my father in law a Jew who flew bombing raids over a country where even if he parachuted from a wrecked B-17 he knew he would be headed to a concentration camp to starve to death. Now they ask we wear a mask. That is all, but we won't.
Coronavirus has taken away so much of what we see as normal, A walk along the waterfront enjoying Independence Day is impossible among crowds of people in a state where 10,000 people a day are reported to have added their names to the lists of the infected. My wife has no immune system after decades of living with rheumatoid arthritis. If she gets infected she dies. Therefore our cheery neighbors say, she should stay home. Tough titties. She has, since the Ides of March, and now thanks to the Golden Van she can get out and stay away from people. Not every immune deficient American is so lucky and in our Brave New World the Facebook epidemiologists and eugenicists don't much care about the weak the feeble or the poor. If you are too weak to live too bad, the surviving race will be strengthened and purified. However did we get here from the place this country used to be? Given time we will find our way back meanwhile we peons just have to do the best we can while Important People make us look like dolts.
The open road, which from the driver's seat looks like the usual north Florida scene of dips and peaks and orange groves and long straight lines of asphalt. In this part of the world a hill fifty feet tall is a high lookout point and so different to the plains of South Florida. We stopped for gas, cooked in the van, slept in the van and pondered how much we missed traveling the old way, stopping and looking and talking and being carefree. First world problems no doubt.
My second long desired campsite was under the rain and cloudy skies covering the pine forests of the Ocala National Forest. Who needs four wheel drive? Not me but a clearance height of less than ten feet would have been nice.