Jan and I had talked about this trip since last semester. He was thinking of going to Florida, and I was interested because I had not been there before. He had several conditions that I needed to agree upon, which were too easy for me to comply because they were: 1) budget travel, 2) no theme parks, and 3) nature oriented. If I would like to go to Florida, Disneyworld would be REALLY secondary. The Everglades and Key West were the more important places to go. Therefore, we had consensus quickly. The trip was decided at the time before he left the U.S.
In addition, I expected I would almost finish my prelim final draft around that time. The period of trip overlapped with Chinese New Year and Jan’s birthday. Therefore, there were quite a lot of celebrations. Yet, this was also a trip of farewell. He helped me a lot with the orienteering club in UIUC.
Therefore, during the winter break, where we experienced the coldest temperature that I had ever seen in Illinois, we planned our flight, car rental, and places to go. Jan, a fan of orienteering, asked the orienteering club in Florida to leave us an orienteering course. The trip was set, and I skipped a week of classes for that.
On Thursday, I had the large backpack with me that contained the stuff that I would use for the entire trip. Before leaving, there was actually another farewell. Recently, there were just so many people leaving for good. Life is really impermanent.
The trip to the airport went smoothly. It was not as cold as the other days, but the snow was still everywhere. The flight also went well. Jan and I arrived at Fort Myers separately. When I arrived at midnight, there was rain. Temperature was probably on the cool side, in Florida standard (~50F, 10C), so I did not need to change to shorts immediately in the airport.
There were some troubles with the car rental company. I knew about the toll roads in Miami, and I had plans to avoid them. However, the person on the counter really wanted to persuade me to pay for the electronic toll sensor. I really found shady for the people who work in car rental companies now. In the future, I needed to do all research about the terms in rental car and be doubtful with the person in the counter.
I chose a rental car that appeared to have the largest trunk, and tested its lights. After that, I went to the hotel. Jan was already sleeping when I arrived.
On Friday, we first drove south for ~20 miles and went to Walmart to buy camping gears and food. Although I had never done so, we were going to use the camping gears for a few days, and then returned them to another Walmart. This was necessary because camping gears would be too large to fit in our luggage that we brought on the plane. I knew it was sort of bad to “rent” stuff from Walmart, but this seemed like the best option for this trip.
After that, we began to stay in the wilderness for two days, which I think it was the best part of the trip. We drove on US-41 that at some point goes east, which led us into a large piece of marshland. We went to the NW Everglades National Park entrance to obtain some information. Then, we drove ourselves deeper into the Everglades.
To be exact, although we were in the Everglades, the area that we went into is called Big Cypress National Preserve. Still, it is a large piece of flatland, with some scattered trees around. Was the drive boring? Maybe, but certainly not like Illinois, which is just flat farms with few trees. Moreover, we stopped at many places along the route that I am going to write below:
The first place was the smallest post office in the U.S. How did we know? We stopped there to find a geocache. The post office is as small as your bedroom, or maybe smaller. There were some signs that described the history of this post office. We each bought a postcard from the post office and sent to our Urbana address.
Then, we stopped for lunch at H.P. Williams Roadside Park. We were also there to see our first group of alligators, birds, and a few snakes. Because of the Everglades trip, I brought a binocular and a bird book so that I could learn some more birds in the southern U.S.
Another place that we stopped had an elevated walkway that led to large trees that grow under water. Now I knew from the later part of the trip that these are cypress trees.
When we got close to Miami metro area, the sky began to go dark. We did not get into the city, but we only drove on the west outskirt of the metro area. I was quite tired and needed some music. The radio station that broadcasts salsa music caught me, so we played the radio station for the rest of the trip. Jan and I had some discussions about Spanish in the U.S. If Jan would like to practice Spanish, Miami is a good place to be at.
We got fast food at Homestead, the southernmost part of Miami metro. Then, we drove back into the wilderness, the east entrance of the Everglades National Park. Inside the park, we drove 50 miles to get to our campsite in Flamingo. This campsite had so little light pollution that one could see many stars in the sky. I did not have a star book, but I had a Google Sky in the phone. Yet, I was tired. We also needed to wake up at 6 am to begin our next day of activities.
Saturday morning came. After packing the camping gears haphazardly into the car trunk and agonizing with the mosquitoes, we drove to see boats unloaded onto water and have breakfast. Then, we went to another place to start our canoeing trip. In this trip, a group of people paddled through red mangroves. There was a park ranger explaining the ecosystem and the wildlife along the paddling route. There were a few alligators along this route. Besides alligator, we also had a chance to see a crocodile. After this trip, I learned how alligators and crocodiles are different. For example, alligators in the U.S. are common along the shore of Gulf of Mexico and many southern states, but American crocodiles are endangered and can only be found in the Everglades. Alligators are adapted to live only in freshwater, while crocodiles live only in seawater. Since water in some part of the Everglades is brackish (i.e. between fresh and salty), alligators and crocodiles can live together in this area. To identify between them, crocodiles are much larger and their mouths are broad, while alligators are smaller and have pointed mouths. Both alligators and crocodiles in America are not too dangerous. As long as we do not provoke them, they will not treat us as prey. There are signs around the parks that tell people to keep certain distance away from the alligators.
In the afternoon, we went for a short hiking tour to learn about the cypress trees that grow in the water. For most part we were wading in the water. Some part of the water can be higher than our knees. Another park ranger introduced the cypress dome. What I remembered the most was that the cypress tree is the tallest when the water is the deepest. We spotted a woodpecker and an owl in this cypress dome.
In the evening, we went to another tour on the Anhinga Trail, where the ranger explained how alligators adapt in the night environment. There were also explanations about alligators bellowing, which relates to mating. There was also a talk about the most dangerous animals that can be found in this park, which are Burmese Pythons. This python is of course a foreign species. It possibly came from accidental releases from zoos or from people that treat it as a pet. This snake is still rare in this park, but the park management is concerned that the pythons will consume many animals in the park, so the park personnel had planned to eliminate them. Another dangerous animal, but to a lesser extent, is Florida Panther. They are also rare, and they try to avoid humans.
During these three tours of the day, we heard about their jobs as park rangers. They seemed to have something in common: they move to different national parks seasonally. Two of them worked in Alaska during summer. It seems to me that being a park ranger is a nice job! (Yet, I am not a U.S. citizen, so there is no reason to continue thinking.)
We slept in another campsite in the Everglades. This campsite is closer to the entrance and has more light pollution from Miami.
On Sunday, before we left the Everglades, we went to the Anhinga Trail again to watch more wildlife. We noticed that there were many vultures around, pecking the top of a few cars around. There were some blue plastic sheets on top of these cars for protection, and could be found at a building nearby. We followed what other people did and covered the car. When we came back from the trail, we found that the vultures still managed to damage the rim of a car door, since we used the car door to fasten the protection sheets. Fortunately, we did not need to pay for the damage of the car in the end.
Along this trail, we spotted more birds. Anhinga is a bird name, and only be found in southern states. There were more herons and egrets, and more alligators in the water. Some people brought their sophisticated cameras and tripods to take pictures of these birds. I also had pictures of these birds using my camera.
Before we left the Everglades, we went to the visitor center. There were some exhibits, and one fact that I could remember there was that Everglades National Park is the first national park that was established to protect wildlife. There was also a gift shop that sold some typical souvenirs.
We got a picture of us at the entrance sign. Then, we left the park. I hope I can visit this place again.
The Florida Keys
We left the Everglades and went south to the Keys. It was about 3-4 hour drive along US-1 to the Key West. We stopped at several places for blue sea, for beaches, for lunch, for geocaches, and for driving breaks. Along the drive, I learn the names of the keys. Of course, you won’t find Kokomo in the Florida Keys. It is just a fictional place in the song. However, Key Largo is a real island in the Florida Keys. There was nothing much special for the small towns along the Keys, but whenever we crossed bridges to another key, the view was excellent.
We arrived at an urban campground very close to Key West in the late afternoon, where we will stay for a night. After taking a short break, we drove to Key West.
On the map, Key West looks small. Yet, it is a good town to walk for a while. The sun was almost setting. On the west side of this town, many people gathered to watch for the sunset. After watching the sunset, people focused on the tricks that performers did around the plaza.
Many gift shops are around, as well as bars. These are the gift shops that I can stay for a couple of hours. While I may get bored on other kinds of shopping, gift shops are usually an exception. The notable gifts in Key West are arts on coconut shells. In terms of food gift, Key lime products are what make Key West special. Bars are everywhere, and there were more people than the other nights, since it was a Superbowl Sunday. My friend Jan supported with Denver Broncos, although by half time, I did not think the team stood a chance against the Seattle Seahawks. The game was just so lopsided that I would like to walk around the town.
On the next day, after a night of low-drama Superbowl, we drove back to Key West against to walk around the town more, and find many geocaches. This included the southernmost point of the United States (except Hawaii), which is ~ 92 miles from Cuba. There was a short discussion on whether we should swim to Cuba. Another notable place was Hemmingway’s house. We did not enter because of ~$10 entrance fee, but I could see the house was quite large. Like some other beautiful towns/cities in the south (e.g. New Orleans French Quarter, Old San Juan in Puerto Rico), many houses are colorful, and balconies can be found. Perhaps this is because of Spanish influence?
We got a final chance to shop for gifts. I got a final chance to taste a Key lime pie, a signature Florida dessert that I found I like. Then, we backtracked for 3-4 hours to Miami. On the way back, we learned about Key Deer, which is very small and endangered. How did we learn it? We stopped at a place for geocache.
Back the Miami metro, we needed to avoid many toll roads around here. Most of the toll roads here require payment through electronic passes only and not though stationed booths. Using the electronic pass in the car will incur additional $40-$50 charge in the trip. Therefore, I planned the route carefully, and we did not use any toll roads.
We stopped for dinner with my cousin in the University of Miami. Then, we drove to Miami Beach in which we stayed in a hostel. By the way, Miami Beach is east of Miami and should be considered as a suburb of Miami. Miami Beach is where the beaches and upper-tiered residential buildings are located. It was dark when we arrived at the hostel, but we got a chance to walk around the beach. I was very tired after the long drive.
On Tuesday morning, we went to the beach again to watch the sun rose. We noticed that people gathered in the morning to do yoga on the beach. Then, we left Miami Beach early. After all, visiting bars was not part of the plan in this trip.
We drove north for more than 3 hours to get to Cape Canaveral, where Kennedy Space Center is located. Once again, there are many toll roads to avoid in Miami, so we took a detour a bit. The admission ticket for the space center was $50 each person, which was the biggest admission expense of the trip. Yet, I still think this place is worth going once. One can easily spend an entire day inside this place. There are shuttle buses that bring tourists close to the rocket launching station. Then, there are full-scale exhibits of the rocket used in the Apollo Missions to the Moon, and the space shuttle used in the near-Earth orbit missions. They even have “Angry Birds in Space” room for the kids to have fun. There are of course other typical exhibits that show the history of the American space travel development.
We left the Kennedy Space Center when the sun was setting. Basically, this day was only for the Space Center trip. After finding a very big geocache near a geocaching store, we drove to Orlando and slept there for a night. We also “returned” all the camping gears in another Walmart. It would be a waste to throw them away, right?
After we woke up and had breakfast, we left Orlando immediately (no Disney World for us!). Wednesday was the last day of the trip. From the TV in the hotel, the forecast high on that day was 82F (28C) and was warmer than average! Good that we stayed out of Illinois for a week. We continued to go west, passed through Tampa, and went south to Sarasota, which is a small west shore city in Florida and famous for Siesta Beach. The sand in this beach is exceptionally white and fine, and the water is quite blue. Once again, we saw a group of people doing yoga on the beach. It looked like yoga on the beach is a common activity for Florida people. Jan got a chance to swim a bit. I just walked around the beach. Some sand castles were found around the beach.
Our last stop of this trip is Oscar Scherer State Park. We went there because Jan was very into orienteering. He asked the Florida orienteering club to leave a streamer course for us. Therefore, we got a chance to run an orienteering course in Florida before flying back to Chicago. I am not going to talk much about the orienteering course here. I would just say that I saw many snakes when I tackled this course. It was quite scary to go off trail.
We drove for another hour to get back to Fort Myers, return the car, and catch the flight. I took an earlier flight, but there was one connection in Charlotte, NC. Jan’s flight was a direct flight, but it was heavily delayed because of the snow in Chicago.
On the plane to Charlotte, in the sky, I was looking at the sun shining on the clouds. In Charlotte, I changed from shorts back to winter clothes. In Chicago, I was back to snow, and back to the cold winter, at about 10 pm.
I stayed a night in a friend’s place and took a bus back to Champaign in the next morning. Jan’s flight did not arrive until 1 am in the morning. On the next day, we still got a chance to exchange our pictures. After that, we went to the Greyhound bus station, and half-hugged for another farewell. He flew back to Europe on that evening.
This trip was quite similar to the Puerto Rico trip that was done quite long ago. Both trips were like winter escapes. Both trips had emphasis with nature (e.g. Everglades vs. El Yunque National Forest), but there were also elements of city architecture (e.g. Key West vs. Old San Juan) and science museum (e.g. Kennedy Space Center vs. Arecibo Observatory). Of course, there were many islands and beaches!
Will I visit Florida again? Perhaps. I still think that I am indifferent to Disney World or other theme parks in Orlando. The old town of St. Augustine in NE Florida may also be a good place to stop by. I also do not mind visiting the Everglades again.
Farewell to many of you! (or adios, sayonara, whatever…)