If things go as planned, we’ll be departing Fort Myers in a few days, after an unexpected, Covid induced, eight month stay. Yes, eight months in slip H1 – long enough to make friends of some locals, get to know a handful of golf courses, and pick favorite restaurants. Long enough also to enjoy week-long visits by Dawn’s brother Gary, her daughter Kayla and boyfriend Sajid, and my son Ben. Fort Myers has been a great place to be stuck, but we’re anxious to move on, to get our journey underway again.
Before we sail ahead of the story, its worth sharing some of what we’ve learned about South Florida, and specifically, the Everglades. Between Fort Myers and Marco Island to its south, lies a 50 mile expanse of golf courses, 55+ communities, and strip malls. They compete for your 401K dollars by wowing Northerners with palm lined drives, fountains and gaudy stonework. South of Marco, however, in an area called the Ten Thousand Islands, one discovers what South Florida looked like before Thomas Edison invented snowbirding.
We hoped to see the Ten Thousand Islands by boat, on our way to the Florida Keys. Covid forced an audible, so we chose to do our exploring by car. It’s just as well because boating there is probably better in a flat bottom skiff, armed for gator, doused in DEET, and triple wrapped in mosquito netting. Mangrove swamps blur a coastline probably best defined by water salinity, where shallow inlets drain the Everglades.
From South Naples, and Marco Island to the west, the old Tamiami Trail continues into the glades, before intersecting Rt. 29, a secluded two lane that plunges deeper south, to the town of Evergade City. A good friend we’ve made in Ft Myers, Mike Alexander, loaned a piece of classic Florida Literature set in the area, called “Totch, A Life in the Everglades”. Its author, Totch Brown, grew up in and around Everglade City, and his book informed our tourism. Totch grew up fishing mullet, but over his long life, found more lucrative work learning to catch Stone Crab, poach aligators, and smuggle weed. Quite the character, and a great read.
First and foremost, is a place called the Rod and Gun Club. The historic hotel lies on the south bank of the Barron River. Calling it a river would be stretch for some, as it flows in either direction, depending on the tide. You can get there by boat if you don’t draw more than five feet of water, or don’t get lost or eaten by skeeters first. The Rod and Gun Club is a time capsule to the guilded age, when it was built on the original foundation of one of the first white settlers. Five presidents have stayed there as have Hemingway, Connery, Wayne and Jagger. Tarpon, Otter and Osprey fill the walls. Hundred year old Gators and Panthers look down on a gorgeous pool table even older. We ate lunch there twice, the food not much to write home about, but the beer cold and the ambiance unforgettable. If you ever go, try the fish reuben.
Further down and at the end of the road is the village of Chokoloskee. If all you like to do is fish, or perhaps run a meth lab, you might like it. It’s a mobile home on stilts kind of place. No offense to the locals, but I won’t be booking an AirBnB there. At road’s end is a place called the Smallwood Store, now a museum. Totch wrote about it extensively, as it was the only place around to buy supplies, from bullets to tobacco, cornmeal to carburetors. It was the Sears of 1900, at the end of the world. The museum is the store, all the old stuff still filling the shelves.
Going back up Rt 29 and turning right, one enters the Big Cypress National Preserve. A few miles beyond the Indian village of Ochopee, you cane take a turn south on a dirt two track aptly called Loop Road. Ben was with us on this twenty mile journey through the Jurassic, hoping to spot an alligator in the wild. We counted 29 before emerging again on the Tamiami, at the town of Pinecrest. One 15′ grandpa lurched towards us, chasing us back into the car, hearts pounding.
It’s primitive and primordial. Between mosquitos, hurricanes and rising seas, those choosing to live there are hardy souls!