Tacking Through the Tamiami
It's not Spring Break in South Beach at six in the morning. South Beach is a quite, intensely developed island this early- the college crowd deep in sleep on whatever surface caught them just hours earlier. The roads are empty, except for a lone street sweeper sweeper doing, given the circumstances, god's work. First light is slowly overpowering the streetlights as we walk out onto the beach towards the Atlantic to watch the sun rise.
As the sun peaks up above the ocean, ducking behind clouds and a light breeze gains momentum, blowing salty mist onto the beach. I hope the westward wind will join us the rest of the day.
Congested, morning-rush-hour Miami
There are two roads that cross southern Florida. Alligator Alley, a massive interstate, cuts through the northern portions of the Everglades. They had to install electric fences to prevent animals from getting killed by cars while wandering onto the pavement. The alternative, offering far less anxiety, is the Tamiami Trail. Forty years the Alley's senior, the Tamiami is the scenic route and let's folks get a lot closer to the Everglades and all its wonders than a dumb interstate. Also, it's what google maps told us to take.
We pick up the trail where it's still called Calle Ocho. We had this idea, like, yeah just pick up the Tamiami right from downtown. Let's ride the line right through. But, while we're trying to cruise this road like it's trail moniker encourages, rush hour traffic is driving on it like it's other name, Highway 41, demands. It sucks. We give up and jump from one numerical side street to another until we hit the 150s- the edge of Miami, and the beginning of the 'Glades.
"Wait, There's An Actual Trail."
"How Do We Get On It?"
A channel of water separates us from a perfectly fine limestone road. It taunts us with it's proximity to the edges of the Everglades plant life. The tragic irony in our arrival to the beauty and wilderness of the massive, slow-moving river that is the Everglades, lies in the fact that the very road, and it's accompanying, unobtainable trail, act as one huge dam to muck everything up. A dam the entire width of the Florida peninsula, that only in the past few years have people begun to correct its negative influence. Slowly, bridges are replacing key segments of the trail to let the water once again flow freely southward. There's only one right now, and it's only a mile long, but if you look it up conservationists are utterly stoked on the measurable benefits from that one mile stretch of unrestricted flow.
Also, we finally found a way onto that trail.
Off the highway, wind cuts across the sawgrass and we listen to the gravel crunching under our tanwall tires. Tanwalls are a way of signaling to others how cool you are, of course, and the wind has been on our backs the entire time, making the ride on those cool-ass tanwalls look effortless. This is lost on the nearby motorists- their rumble dulled significantly by the channel that separates us. It truly is their loss.
This trail is Levee 29 (L-29) of a series of levees that run around the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area. It runs the western edge of Miami-Dade county, and the levees serve as primary routes for the WMA's vehicles. They don't seem to care we're riding our bikes, which is cool. They slow down far ahead of time to not coat us in limestone dust, which is even cooler.
It's 10am and no longer sweater weather.
We are completely surrounded by water. This narrow strip of built-up land is more of an island than anything else. It's really apparent when we make a snack break, and though we've stopped the water is still running through the main channel to our left, and running through the grasses and trees to our right. The stops you make on bike tour are usually quite grounding. Your momentum halted after hours of moving forward, normally you realize the stillness of everything around you. Normally, but there's nothing normal about the Everglades. We've stopped, but the very "ground" around us continues moving- ambivalent to our existence. The water is only knee-deep, of course, which means I should probably hold off on making observations any deeper than that.
PHOTOGRAPHS OF MEALS INTERRUPTED.
We make it to the entrance to the Everglades & Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area, only to find it's closed. The water is too high. You can't read it in the notice pic below but that's kinda the long and short of it. This area is mainly taken advantage of by hunters, or at least that's the sense I get from the rest of the signage. Does the high water really affect two nature nerds on bikes? Not really, no, but there's plenty more to see and do today that it's not worth being badasses.
The gravel ends. There's a highway crossing at the border of the Miccosukee's land, making it look like the trail continues on the opposite side of the road. We wait for cars to pass. The phone map says it's the Old Tamiami Trail, which sounds rad, and it continues the rest of the way to our first official stop. A gap in cars reveals itself we sprint across real quick to see what all this is about.
Highway it is.
I've read that the term "Tourist Trap" was coined on this road. Granted, we're skipping the airboat rides, the swamp buggies, and yes, the gator nuggets. We're making our first official stop in Everglades National Park. A line of cars runs out the entrance to Shark Valley. Cars are parked along the highway. Cars are just, well, everywhere. The smugness emanating off of us as we pedal by all that nonsense is near palpable.
Shark Valley is a sample, in a lot of ways, of what the Everglades have given to the area. It's a slough, a depression, a spot of deep water. It was a host to hostile wars against indigenous populations. It gives you a glimpse of the crazy biodiversity of the area. Yes, there's alligators.
"Watch Out For Alligators"
I swear, every single person I told about this tour responded with that line. Jana had the same experience. It was like the only thing people could relate to Florida. Alligators. Danger.
2015 was the first year since 2007 when anyone died via alligator. A poor man in Southeast Texas, not even Florida jeez, died after ignoring signs not to swim in a bayou known to have alligators. His last words? "Fuck the alligators."
Now, alligators are cool to look at. They're laying around all over the place in Shark Valley, and don't give a shit about us. We felt safe that if we managed to avoid swimming with them, while insulting them, we would avoid a watery, alligatory grave.
Just two stories up, the view from the tower lets you see for miles. Islands in the wetland grasses hosting trees, hammocks they're called, exist only because the limestone at their base is a foot or two higher than the rest of the ground. From up here, you can appreciate the delicacy of it all.
NOT PICTURED: CROWS WHO SWARMED OUR BIKES
AND CHEWED UP AN EXPOSED PHONE CORD.
IT WAS KINDA AWESOME ACTUALLY.
PHOTOGRAPHS OF ANOTHER MEAL INTERRUPTED.
Only briefly are we back on the Tamiami before we peel off onto Big Cypress National Preserve's loop road- a mostly gravel road with a big history in lumber, real estate scams, and even Al Capone. The loop road was built at the same time by a property developer, hoping to build a new town that would rival Miami. None of that really worked out, but there are folks living along this road who belong to the Miccosuki. It feels almost suburban, though their homes are behind fences to keep out idiot park-goers like myself. Their pride for vehicles with huge tires goes beyond making sure their private property stays private.
Big Cypress is named for the amazing cypress trees that reside in the preserve. Trees, as this website loves to remind everyone, are amazing, old, highly-specialized organisms and cypress is no different. So amazing were they, though, that the giant cypress trees that grew in this area before white pioneers came to southern florida were all cut down. What remains, and is often mistaken for new growth, are the dwarf cypress trees. These little ones are still hundreds of years old, but were too tiny for loggers and thus spared. If you feel like you haven't had a good reason to feel bummed out lately, look up old photos of Big Cypress during its peak logging phase. Once you've done that, feel free to come back here and be in awe of how an area so ravaged can have the beauty it does restored. These stoic, white trees growing out of hard, limestone rock juxtapose the moving water and dark grasses. The crooks of their branches make the perfect homes for air plants, whose spring blooms have just started and of which we took hella photos.
At Mitchell's Landing campground, our host Ray Weaver gives us the real scoop on what all the loop road has to offer. Ray's an interesting guy, at least immediately so to me as he has my mother's maiden name and her stepdad's first name. Crazy, right? Anyway, he lives in that RV and manages the campground during the winter- again, it's March and it's 88º right now. I guess that'd make ol' Ray a snowbird in his own right. The rest of the year he splits between hosting a campground at Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia and some spot in the redwoods in California that he lost his train of thought on when he looked at a trail on the map that lets you see rare tree snails. Ray was an alright guy.
A lone tree snail greets us at our campsite. As do the mosquitos. Im so excited to be in the backcountry that I lose track of time collecting firewood to cook dinner over. Dusk has set in by the time I get pasta cooking and can start tying up my hammock with its desperately-needed bug net.
I listen to thousands of mosquitos desperately trying to penetrate the tube of no-see-um mesh slid around my hammock. My belly is full of pasta and, feeling sated, I lay covered in sweat but completely content. Wind cuts through the slash pine overhead. This alien environment has filled my head with so many new things and Im left feeling exhausted. The last traces of daylight still linger in the sky as I drift off, praying that the night will be breezy.