By 5 p.m., with several hours left to go, I decided to treat the kids to ice cream at a truck stop.
Go ahead, kids--get yourself some while I run to the restroom. Just go easy on the toppings, ok?
Coming back to find they had just a little too much fun with the topping bar. Yes, there is actually ice cream under that pile of candy.
Literally kids in a candy store.
So, I called it dinner.
But once we actually made it down to the campground in the Everglades, we experienced a dramatic difference in congestion:
A view from our campsite.
Look closely, and there's us.
We knew it was off-season--one of the things I've been purposefully timing around this whole trip, to avoid crowds, tourist traffic, booked campgrounds and higher fees--but didn't expect this complete lack of people. Each of the two nights we stayed there we did see one other person tent camping, but we definitely had all the quiet and privacy we could want.
That first morning we awoke in that still campground I hailed a passing ranger to chat about the area. He said that down there at the tip of Florida the season was truly a season, and most people just don't venture down until the heat and bugs and hurricanes are over. (We had researched and also tried to time our visit to avoid hurricanes, and we succeeded--the weather was hot but really beautiful the whole time we were there. And what's hot? It would have been just as hot staying back at my parents' in Alabama. But not nearly as adventuresome.) Then the ranger told me that usually that time of year (August) we could not even be standing there having that conversation--that the mosquitoes would normally be horrendous, even in the sun, even in the middle of the morning. But he said this year for some reason they were much less prevalent. I know the reason--because God is merciful. Hey, no swarms of blood-thirsty mosquitoes when & where there usually are? That's a Blessing and I'm thanking the Good Lord.
Trying out the "beach" there at the very tip of Florida. Eh. Seemed a little smelly and foam-slimy. The kids ventured in but nobody had an urge to swim.
So we spent that day seeing what there was to see at the Everglades National Park. Which, turns out, wasn't much. I had gone to that park with visions of creepily beautiful mangrove swamp tours and alligators lurking everywhere. Turns out the boat tours were not running, not just because of it being the off-season but because the park has not finished repairing after Hurricane Irma, when all their boats apparently ended up in the parking lot. So our views of the Everglades were relegated to the much less wild sides visible from the visitor centers and the roads.
Being a huge wetland, it looks like a giant, peaceful prairie. Beautiful, but not particularly memorable.
(Embiggen to see the sign that hints of all the wildness that must have been all around us but was eluding us.)
Turns out the animals were having their off season too. Even after walking around the nature viewing areas, the only exotic creatures we had seen that entire first day were beautifully bright grasshoppers:
The swamp tour started with a wildlife show. Finally, alligators! And American crocodiles! Did you know we actually have both in the US? I didn't! And the Everglades is the only place where those animals share an environment (alligators live mainly in fresh water and crocodiles mainly in salt, but this unique ecosystem has both).
Yay for alligators! Even if in cages.
A view of the airboats they use, which are very loud but which will not endanger wildlife, esp. manatees.
The kids really enjoyed the boat ride, especially Smiley and Happy--the guide really did a good job of making it feel like an adventure, revving up the engine once we were out in the open and racing through the sea grass, intentionally giving his riders salt spray and thrills.
The boat "path" to and from the open, grassy waterways had a little the beautiful creepy going on. This was the slow, quiet nature-watching part of the boat ride.
The only creature we saw was a turtle swimming under the water. But still, the whole ride was great for the kids understanding the waterways and natural ecosystem, so they could picture the animals in their habitats even if nobody was home when we stopped by.
The whole "gator park" experience was definitely the high point of the day, even without any wild gators. A second highlight was stopping for dinner at a local Cuban restaurant--not a fancy gourmet restaurant, but very "home-style" feeling.
I don't remember what all we ate, but I tried to order things that seemed fairly authentic. I know the dish on the right there was fried cassava (yucca), which we all really liked.
And Cuban black bean soup. Yummy.
Day Two there in the Everglades National Park we spent time learning at the different welcome centers. I really appreciated this display, that discussed water issues in the state of Florida and gave voice to the different perspectives involved, such as farmers, developers, tourists, environmentalists, fishermen, etc.
The kids and I also took a short hike on a trail specifically designed for viewing Everglades "jungle" and the beautiful snails that live there.
They are Liggus snails and they were intriguing enough to prompt additional research when we got back to AL. Anyone studying genetics in populations might find this article interesting!
So the first half of our Florida trip was not quite what I had expected--but it was still fun and interesting, and we were all eagerly anticipating what would come next.