A long drive through Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades

Yes, my friend here allowed me to take this amazing picture.
Before you freak out, there was a short fence between us.

Practically without exception, areas that have been turned over to the Service as national parks have been of superlative value with existing features so outstanding that if the Service were able to merely retain the status quo, the job was a success. This will not be true of the Everglades National Park. The reasons for even considering the lower tip of Florida as a national park are 90 percent biological ones, and hence highly perishable. Primitive conditions have been changed by the hand of man, abundant wildlife resources exploited, woodland and prairie burned and reburned, water levels altered, and all the attendant, less obvious biological conditions disturbed.

Daniel B. Beard, Wildlife Reconnaissance: Everglades National Park Project, 1938

Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country.

President Harry S Truman, address at the Dedication of Everglades National Park, December 6, 1947

Everglades National Park is at once a limited and vast sampling of a region full of contrast…. This park, which is chiefly of biological interest, requires a different perspective on the part of the visitor.

Charles W. Tebeau, Man in the Everglades, 1968

For the past week, my husband has been telling everyone that I made him drive all the way to Miami to get Burger King. The sad thing is, he’s not wrong.

I have been working diligently on putting together our daughter’s homeschool curriculum for the upcoming year. Our “academic year,” such as it is, for homeschooling starts in the spring of each year (as opposed to autumn for public schools). We are going to be doing our last year of Beast Academy math (I cannot recommend this program highly enough for gifted children who are likely headed into STEM careers) before moving on to Pre-Algebra; Traditional Logic; Earth Science with a technical lab aspect; World History; World Geography and Cultures; Literature; Writing and Grammar; First Form Latin; Classical Studies; and a course I am putting together on Classical Music, Opera, and Ballet. It is going to be a great year and I am excited to begin. Not bad for a nine-year-old child. I am so proud of the fact that she can handle all of this challenging material and more.

Anyway, all this is to say that I needed to get out of the house. I started going through trail guides and maps to the various nature preserves around us. South Florida is a delightfully wild place and there are enormous expanses to get out and explore. So last Friday, I proposed driving out to the Everglades and back, taking our little rough coat Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock Holmes, with us (so we could be gone as long as we wanted).

Gar swimming around among the alligators.

We woke up and headed to the car right away. We did not eat breakfast, which turned out to be a colossal mistake. There are not a lot of dog-friendly restaurant options in Naples, and there are not a lot of restaurant options period once you get to the swamps.

Once you get past Naples on the Tamiami, however, the landscape is utterly breathtaking. You pass by the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Collier-Seminole State Park before entering into the Big Cypress National Preserve.

Just another Floridian working on his tan.

Big Cypress and the Everglades are both wetlands, but they are remarkably different ecosystems. This is important knowledge for anyone who is planning a trip to South Florida, I think.

I vaguely feel like I have been deluged with propaganda about the Everglades growing up outside of Florida. I hate to confess this, but it now makes perfect sense to me that no one particularly cared about the land before Marjorie Stoneman Douglas turned it into a personal crusade, and why this land has been the subject of endless political disputes regarding the extent of development.

From pop culture mythology, the Everglades seem like they should be some geographically extravagant place – you know, like the Amazon rain forest. But it’s a vast marl prairie that, visually anyway, is not much different from the South Carolina lowcountry (where we have spent a great deal of time). There is nothing even remotely exotic about the Everglades that would make it an impressive place to visit. There’s burnt yellow sawgrass and intermittent creeks as far as the eye can see. It’s like swooning over Kansas when the Rocky Mountains are right next door. While I personally find the lowcountry aesthetic gorgeous in a Pat Conroy-esque way, mostly everyone I know only sees a wasteland.

That’s the thing about development, however. If you were to ignore the biological value of the Everglades and allow development to encroach further into the area, what would you have to show for it, anyway? A bunch of McMansions with lap pools for Baby Boomer New Yorkers to sun themselves like lizards for four months out of the year? No, thank you, I’ll keep the marl prairie.

But the Big Cypress National Preserve, right next door to the Everglades, is exotic. It has all the biodiversity that the Everglades is associated with. It has tall cypress trees with their feet in the water, tangles of mangroves, thousands of dangling bromeliads. It is a birder’s paradise. There are alligators everywhere. I’m not kidding – if you drive the length of the Tamiami, you will lose count of the alligators you see. Quite a bit of the roadway along the Tamiami and 29 has super tall fencing along the side to keep endangered panthers from entering the roadway. (The leading cause of death for the Florida panther is getting his by cars.) There are also bears.

A patch of Big Cypress National Preserve.

As we ended up unintentionally driving off of Tamiami onto 29 at that junction because I was getting hangry, we joined up with I-75 eastbound – nicknamed “Alligator Alley” – and rode it all the way to Broward County and then down to Miami. Again, we had difficulty finding any place we could eat with a dog, so we sadly ended up passing about a billion restaurants that were probably awesome to get Burger King. Then we turned on to Tamiami and took it all the way back west.

Yep, we made an enormous circle west to east and back west, all in one day, for the giggles. I had never driven this loop before, as we have mainly only gone north and south on the Gulf and Atlantic sides. It was interesting to finally see the southern interior of Florida. It was also interesting to drive through the Miccosukee Reservation, which was the first time our young daughter had seen a Native American reservation and their unique dwellings.

Both paths offer noteworthy tradeoffs for tourists. “Alligator Alley” is not impressive at all, if you are looking for a scenic route. Contrary to what one might guess, you are not going to see any wildlife whatsoever (unless Florida Man counts as wildlife). That is all on the Tamiami to the south.

The Tamiami, however, is a very dangerous road. I cannot emphasize this enough – take it seriously. It’s almost unfair to the driver, to be surrounded by all of this beauty, but not to be able to glance away from traffic for an instant.

I feel like I should preface this with the caveat that I AM A CYCLIST. But roads like the Tamiami really make me loathe other cyclists, whose utter selfishness and bad reasoning give the sport a bad reputation. Floridians spend many millions of dollars building long and amazing bike paths that many cyclists decide not to use against all common sense, thus rendering them just another line of pork spending in state and local budgets. The Tamiami is a fantastic example of this phenomenon. It’s a two-lane road at freeway speeds, and cyclists dot the shoulder, as if a piece of Tupperware strapped to their head is going to save them from cars flying by at 65 mph, and with the full understanding there is not a hospital or rescue team anywhere nearby.

In Naples, where the Tamiami is three lanes each way, we encountered an old man who was riding his bicycle the wrong way down the center lane of traffic, because he decided to swerve across the road and thought differently about halfway through. The Tour de Boomer is a bona fide hazard in South Florida. There are also lots and lots of fishermen that fish in the trench off the side of the road (yes, alongside alligators) and some of them will arbitrarily step directly out into traffic to try their luck on the other side. We are talking hundreds of fishermen bouncing around on the shoulder, with cyclists swerving around them and cars swerving around them. The Tamiami would have been a dangerous road without any of this idiocy, but because of it, I highly recommend pulling off a lot for your sightseeing and trading off who has to drive. The Darwin Award crowd forces this reality upon everyone.

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing the Southern Terminus of the Florida Trail. The Florida Trail is sort of like the state’s version of the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, except it is mostly flat and everything you see wants to devour you. (I was joking that someone could make good money driving a food truck up and down the Tamiami, and my husband quipped that airboats are like food trucks for mosquitoes.) This is at the Oasis Visitor Center in Big Cypress. Almost as a warning for anyone attempting the trail, there is a waterway with a dozen exceptionally large alligators basking nearby. The rangers at Big Cypress were also very nice. One lady ranger came out of the building to chase down our daughter and give her a Junior Ranger handbook.

Fun day, learned a lot, developed a new perspective on our environment.

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