Friday, January 29, 2021

Alligator Alley

The two lane highway opened in 1968 to connect Fort Lauderdale to Naples and they called it the Swamp Pike and Alligator Lane, derogatory names for the people stupid enough to risk their lives on a narrow strip of roadway built up on the muck dredged from deep ditches either side. The road was unfenced and patrolled by wildlife which mixed it up with the drunk drivers and the sleepy drivers causing carnage among humans and beasts. It was not an easy 80 mile drive. It became known as Alligator Alley, a romantic alliterative name that has stuck, even unofficially, now that it is part of I-75 from Miami to Sault St Marie, Michigan. I have indeed crossed the Mighty Mac Bridge labelled I-75 so I know it's true. If you ever feel like dumping your snow chains and breaking free this is where I-75 ends, and no you won't see any alligators along the freeway. Sorry about that.
Florida Freeway
People still die here though you have to figure they must work at it because the dead straight road is properly fenced for all 80 miles and the median is huge so all you to do is set the cruise control and stay awake. In summer it is much less trafficked than a normal winter season.
Alligator Alley
In Florida speeding tickets are given out when you drive more than five miles an hour over the limit (cops can always get you for reckless or speed too fast for conditions if you annoy them...) so it is pretty much accepted that you can add five miles an hour to the limit...However if you do make sure you stay in the slow lane. The Miccosukee Tribal Police make a comfortable living pulling people over on the stretch of Alligator Alley that runs through their reservation as the ill informed think long and straight and boring equates to any speed you feel like.
Florida Highways
Alligator AlleyMuch is made of the name Alligator Alley and in myth this is a long hard drive across the southern part of are driving through the mystical Everglades swamp etc. etc...which most people think looks like a cypress swamp with dank Spanish moss hanging off dank dark trees and all that. The Everglades are known as a river of grass because that is what they are, named by a South Florida environmentalist (Marjorie Stoneman Douglas) who wrote about the necessary preservation of the marsh to filter water and maintain wildlife. The Everglades are wide open and flat and may very well surprise you. Even where there are trees, below, there ain't much to see.

Big Cypress is more like it, a relatively small chunk of the Everglades preserved for the trees. If you want to see alligators and dank hanging moss and stuff you need to go further south. Alligator Alley is all business. This is where you drive if you want to cross the state with no fuss and at speed. An hour and fifteen minutes and you are done. Blast the air conditioner, listen to the radio and put your phone down. Cell phones work all across these days so you are never out of touch, lucky you.
There are places to stop along the way. Most of the recreation areas are on the eastern side in Dade County. They offer boat ramps and some picnic tables trash cans as well as  scattered trash and you can launch a boat or an airboat off a trailer or push a kayak into the water and paddle your brains out if you like. I don't know much about fishing but kayaking would be as boring as paddling through a haystack in my opinion. All you'd see from water level would be the stems of river grass, important stuff for the water but not scenic,
There are two rest areas along the way including a fire station, toilets maps and vending machines such as you'd find in any rest area on any freeway.  All the stopping areas are good for a night's sleep especially if - ahem- you have a your own van to sleep in. Do not confuse bridge turn outs with rest areas...this is where the Highway Patrol parks and puts you under the radar gun. "Official Use Only."
This is a recreation area. Open year round in hunting season expect hunters marching off into the swamps. There are no facilities here, just a parking lot but they are great places to walk your dog  or to peer up close at the dreaded swamps.
There is one truck stop along the way, at Mile Marker 49 ( Mile Zero is in Miami, Mile 101 is south of Naples). It is run by the Miccosukee Tribe and offers the usual showers trinkets food and parking. The gas at my most recent visit was 20 cents a gallon above the inflated prices along I-75 in southwest Florida and that wasn't the worst of it. They are building new modern facilities and you can't pay at the pump at the current facilities. I had miscalculated my range and unwilling to pay $2:40 in Naples for regular I pressed on and lost my nerve. I bought $20 of regular at $2:60 a gallon and I had to stand in line inside for the privilege. I was annoyed at myself. You can exit the freeway here and take Snake Road  (a mildly twisting two lane) north to the Seminole Reservation and Immokalee beyond.
At Mile Marker 80 there is one curve in the road. It's actually a 'Z' first left then right. This where I-75 joined up when  they converted the two lane  Swamp Pike into Alligator Alley. I remember the road work in the early 80s when the brand new freeway became a mud pit and you had to pick your way between bulldozers as they joined up the section from the east with the section from the west.
You may think you are lost in the wilderness but there are constant reminders you aren't. This is a modern freeway. There is one intersection near  the Naples end of the Everglades. Highway 29 goes north to Ave Maria, the Catholic town in the swamp. Due south you get to Everglades City, a rustic pretty small town that never developed into a "city" and you also cross Tamiami Trail, Highway 41.
Tamiami Trail is where you want to go if you want to see alligators and the Cypress Swamp and all the rest of it. The speed limit varies between 65 (Collier County) and 60 (Dade County) and it's a two lane highway that was built in the 1920s well before Alligator Alley was completed in 1968. It's scenic and has lots of places to stop, with rustic restaurants and the world's smallest post office. Best of all you can take Loop Road a 24 mile gravel road that actually dips into mainland Monroe County and will take you through actual wilderness guaranteed to see alligators and swamps. If it's your first time in South Florida take Highway 41 and Loop Road.
You might well see cars stopped by the side of the road on I-75  but with cellphones comes rescue.
And soon enough news arrives of the end of the road.  The roadway was built as a toll road and it was completed early and paid for a few years later. The toll persists. For a car its a Sunpass toll of $3 in either direction. If you don't have a Sunpass (why not?)  you have to stop and pay by hand. There are no tolls to pay if you join Alligator Alley from Snake Road or Highway 29. 
When I am in a hurry this is the way home. I-75 goes to the Fort Lauderdale airport via 595 and joins I-95 and the Florida Turnpike so you can turn south and go straight to Homestead. Recently the state has finished building a four lane highway connecting Homestead to Highway 27. Krome Avenue (named for Flagler's railroad engineer) is now a freeway to Homestead, with a few traffic lights. I find it preferable to fighting traffic on the Turnpike through Miami.
The west coast of Florida boasts some of the most horrendous traffic in the state, worse even than Miami's death trap racers. Speeding is endemic which I don't mind so much but when you combine fast driving with undisciplined lane changes, tailgating and impatience  I-75 between Tampa and Naples is a nightmare. I have found that three-laning the whole road has helped and driving a  big box van helps too as people see me coming and stay away even in their over sized trucks. I put cruise control on 65 to save gas and trundle up the slow lane ignoring the chaos. It works for me.
The art of merging with traffic from an on ramp needs to be taught just as learning to pass on a two lane highway would relieve a lot of tailgating stress. The problem is the drivers coming onto the freeway don't achieve escape velocity on the ramp and they combine that with not looking over their shoulders to see what the state of traffic might be. They just blunder on, force you to change lanes and then speed up and away once they have disrupted your zen. Weird. Once again the big box van helps. They can't help but notice it and it does actually convince them to take evasive action. If you are in a  car be warned, driving skills are not practiced here: be extra defensive. 
I really need to go and spend some time on Tamiami Trail, much more scenic, more fun and as I know how to pass on a  two lane highway I can find my own way home without tailgating. For wasting least time the romantically named but decidedly pedestrian Alligator Alley is best.