Yes, I did it *again.* This time, right after the Fourth of July. Hurricane Elsa delayed departure by a day. Her winds blew in a bounty of shells that I was happy to squire away because yes, I also took that shell tour *again.*

Since all too often I assume I know everything, I was unprepared for a shuttered Everglades City. Maybe that’s standard post-4th of July in these parts. Maybe I’m in a fractional minority for wanting to visit in summer with the extremes in bugs, storms, and heat. For my romantic notions to be dispelled, surely a visit now should do the trick, right?

Nope. Wrong again.

I bounced out of bed and hit the road early Wednesday after spending obsessive hours the night before checking status of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. High wind alert, cautions and warnings but dammit, no silly hurricane was going to stop me. By the time I reached Naples, the skies were blue and the breeze gentle. I unloaded in Chokoloskee then beat it back to Goodland to first gorge on grouper, then gorge on shells from late afternoon until sunset.

Thursday, what did I do? Floated over miles of potholes thanks to my magic car, Paddy. I’ve never before had all-wheel drive or GPS. Both have made me soft and stupid. So be it. We went east to Shark Valley. I walked down to the solution hole trail and gawked the canal. Didn’t bother to bring water (by my questionable logic, I had plenty in Paddy). The heat and humidity pressed close. A ranger zipped by and rolled down his window. “You call for…,” he started then self-corrected. “Oh, not you.”

Nope. Not I.

Then west to the Loop Road, where I passed a total of two cars in the opposite direction. Dense summer foliage makes for different vistas. Sweetwater Strand is worth the drive alone. Welcome regrading makes the road easier to navigate. For an Act III of more potholes, we headed to Janes Memorial Drive. Again, I marveled at how a change in seasons changes perspective. Still beautiful; just different.

Then came Friday and Friday proved to be one of those days that shines like a Faberge egg. Something multifaceted and beautiful, a collection of images that can be revisited and savored many times for years to come – for me, anyway.

The simple explanation is to say I spent nine hours touring the Wilderness Waterway in a “leaky johnboat” piloted by a 6th (or is it 5th? gets confusing) generation islander. The recovering marketing person in me is frantic for him and his to offer bona fide tours.

So yeah, nine hours tooling around an extremely shallow series of bays laced with hidden oyster beds; through mangrove choked creeks; past Calusa mounds rising above so, so many of the keys, obvious once someone shows you how to see; lingering at the Watson Place (primary goal, initially) for me to “Shadow Country” geek out. By the end of the day he would share a detail of lore and ask, “That in the book?” Inevitably, the answer was, “Yes.” Helps that I’ve read “Shadow Country” twice and the original “Lost Man’s River” an additional twice.

He took me past many of the primitive camping sites. I said in the ForeverGlades post I was too much of a house cat to camp. I now take that back: I’d do it in non-bug season. Because yes, there were a few times when we were exploring something off the boat and they swarmed me but not him. Maybe mosquitoes prefer tourists to locals? (Marty used to swear they love estrogen.)

In one of those mangrove tunnels where he stopped to fish, I was busy ogling when he interrupted. “Hear that?” It was like the quiet roar of a distant jet engine. “Know what it is?” I contemplated then felt my eyes bug. “No! Seriously?!” He laughed and nodded. But he didn’t stop fishing until the snapper (he speculated by the bites) had stolen all the pieces of finger mullet he’d caught and cut for bait. We made it out unmolested.

He took me to Rabbit Key where they towed Edgar Watson’s body and covered it with coral rocks. Then he showed me the beach they like the best and we walked the shore and looked at but didn’t take shells. Really. I rarely tell people, much less take them to my favorite beach. It felt like an honor because I’m stingy. Shame on me.

He insisted I come eat fried mullet with him and his brother and his all-out adorable niece. I’d never had fried mullet and having it once, can’t imagine a smoked one ever comparing. “Why don’t restaurants serve this?” Has to be eaten in hours, they explained. Their word for the flavor was “nutty.” No Top Chef judge could encapsulate better. Here’s a small taste of my picture haul.

This day made me think about the other Faberge eggs in my collection. That Fourth of July we spent at Chaco Canyon leaps readily to the fore. But scratch the surface and so many days line up, competing for memory and reflection.
I am grateful I can now remember the good and the happy.
For those climbing through grief, hear me:
It gets better. Promise and swear. Just keep going.

Gospel According to Laura

Where were we? Ah yes, Saturday. Went to Big Cypress Boardwalk. Hugged two trees (really) because few others were on the boardwalk. Stopped on the Trail by a big sign advertising 1,600 pristine acres for sale. Zoned agricultural. Particularly spectacular tract. Vowed to start buying lottery tickets in case the universe wants me to get it and give it away.

Drove 26 miles, round trip, up to Bear Island Campground where the islander who knows everything told of licensed hunting. The route was, as usual, stunning. Saw turtles and turkeys idling by the side. Strictly for a relaxing drive, I highly recommend. Busy types can find lots to do here, out in the middle of nowhere with dark skies I can’t even begin to imagine. Both here and in the deep wilderness sites south of Chokoloskee Bay, I’m pretty sure you could reach up and grab a piece of the Milky Way some cloudless nights. Okay okay, I really do need to adjust the anti-camping stance.

Tried Deep Lake again. Even though my boots were in Paddy, I set off in sneaks and nearly immediately, the grass grew high and mud bubbled. Since there was absolutely no one else there, I turned back. I have come to love traveling alone; but after the knee misadventure, I get the timids quickly. Since I’m not allowed to ignore impulses, I set back. And (ahem) this time I used the human sized gate to the left of the ridiculous center gate I battled my first visit.

Farewell dinner at Rod and Gun Club, open for the weekend. The typical afternoon storm I’m used to was on steroids down here, a peninsula smaller than mine, a dot of land between crashing bolts. Equal parts spectacular and terrifying. As at home, it raged for maybe half an hour and rushed away, leaving everything clean and fresh and wet. Perfect.

Blues before leaving is getting worse with each visit. Sunday there was no avoiding the inevitable. I reluctantly bid adieu to Chokoloskee and headed for the panther reserve. But again, absolutely no one there. Made me nervous only because I’m solo. Also, I got swarmed barely out of the car.

So I asked Paddy to take us to Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring. Technically the long way home, the route was surprisingly efficient with light traffic. Old Florida pines and scrub giving way to cattle under unspeakably blue skies. And Highlands Hammock Park? Going back ASAP. Reason the word “hammock” is in the name, meaning “shady place” in Indigenous tongues. Get there your ownself and soon.

I’m seriously contemplating a return in October. November is already booked thanks to a trip disrupted by my knee misadventure in 2020. Should I start offering tours?