Good Times in South Florida

Last week, before the unmentionable college football game, I got back from a fantastic family vacation (with Elke and the kids) to various locales across sunny South Florida — our first full family vacation with all four of us along in three years. With a midlevel ridge parked nearby for most of the time, and only weak frontal passages, the weather was outstanding. We had some fine photographic opportunities at every stop, and those shown here are but a very few of dozens that I am amidst unloading, processing and uploading. [I’ll post the URL here when that process is done.]

Unlike past vacations, where we would roam to a new spot or area every 2-3 days, we decided to really relax for a long time on this trip, staying in one place (Sanibel Island) for a week. Much can be said, all of it good and true, about hanging out the same uncrowded beach, day after day, at various times of the day, with no particular place to go, doing as much or as little as we wanted. We stayed in a neighborhood cottage on the quiet (west) side of the island and spent most of our time on the sand, by the surf, except for short excursions into the town of Sanibel or into the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. While we had a great time in the refuge viewing and photographing birds, my best shot of an ibis revealed itself right outside our bedroom window…

Those beaches are absolutely outstanding — wide, great expanses of sand, shallow surf that’s easy for kids to play in, and tons of beautiful seashells to choose from every morning. Sanibel lacks monotonous walls of high-rises too, as is so common elsewhere in Florida. Our time there was peaceful, quiet, easygoing, hours and hours spent on that beach doing essentially nothing but occasional shell collecting, sunrise or sunset photography or wading about, and lots of lying in beach chairs listening to the gentle surf.

Sanibel Island is a world-renowned shelling beach, and we saw why — conchs, cowries, auger snails, scallops of all sizes and colors, cone shells, whelks, starfish, urchins…you name it. About all that was missing were the sand dollars, which apparently are more of a summer item in those parts. We even went to the only seashell museum in the world there, which exhibited specimens from around the island and around the globe. We must have brought back 30 pounds of shells just from that beach, not counting what Elke bought at Shell World in the Keys later on. Fortunately those were distributed among our four pieces of luggage, such that none exceeded the weight limit. We’ve got so many beautiful shells that we don’t know where to put them all. I like such a dilemma.

We did visit neighboring Captiva Island briefly. The Captiva beaches, however, weren’t as good as those right by our place on Sanibel, so we didn’t hang out much there. Our cottage was a 2-bedroom unit with a kitchen and Weber kettle grill just like mine at home, so we consumed groceries for most meals, fired up the grill early and often, and only ate out three times that week. For the first time ever, i rang in a new year away from where I live, our first experience of 2009 being a sunrise on a warm beach. Much of the time, we didn’t know or care what time it was, just vaguely aware that, as the song goes, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

It was just an amazing, stress-free, easy time. We didn’t want to leave.

But leave we did, for 3 nights in the Miami (Homestead) area and two in the Keys. On the way from Sanibel to Homestead, we toured the Big Cypress National Preserve, briefly visited the Shark Valley Trail of Everglades National Park, and stumbled upon a big multi-tribal Indian cultural festival and powwow at the Miccosukee Village beside US-41. The kids and I witnessed a crazy gator-wrestling demonstration while Elke (who long has admired American Indian art and culture) watched a tribal dance competition. While based out of Homestead, we went to the Miami Seaquarium to watch dolphin and killer whale shows, visited NHC, and were treated to a fantastic home-cooked dinner and hours of great company by Max and Linda Mayfield.

We also did a day-long driving and walking tour of the southern part of Everglades National Park, from Homestead to Flamingo and back — an old and familiar haunt of mine never before seen by Elke or the kids. During part of that, we joined a most fascinating tour of an old, Cuban Missile Crisis era nuclear missile facility located deep in the glades (HM-69 Nike-Hercules, a.k.a. Hole-in-the-Donut). We fortuitously joined in the first-ever public tour of it, and as such, were the first non-NPS civilians ever to see the formerly top-secret missile facility. [I had driven to its gates a couple years before, but it was a weed-covered, hidden area behind lots of fencing and some razor wire, despite being in NPS hands for 15-20 years.] Now the site is fully owned by NPS and cleaned up a good deal (but not completely yet!), and as of the day we were there, open to the public via guided tour and legal for photography. With a quick camera trigger finger, I’m confident I snapped the first close-up photo of the missile assembly building ever taken by a civilian, and maybe the first shot of the actual launch site (which had missiles ready to fire, but of course never actually launched).

The HM-69 interceptors were tipped with nuclear warheads in a variable yield system, offering 2, 20 or 40 kiloton payloads boosted by a series of Ajax stages that had to be manually assembled and pushed down a rail to the launch pad. Imagine doing that in the blistering summer sun down there with clouds of mosquitoes dense enough to slice with a sword. Before the site HQ building was erected about a mile away from the launch pad, those guys stayed in tents!

The last part of the vacation was a couple of nights we spent in the Keys, specifically Key West, where Matt and Sherry Strahan extended their fine hospitality. While down in the Keys, we spent time with my old friend Jim Leonard (longtime storm chaser who lives in the Keys), and Elke’s maid-of-honor Cheryl Chang, who drove down from central Florida to spend some time with us. We toured Civil War era Fort Zachary Taylor, then David and I went snorkeling while the ladies shopped, then we all took in a fantastic sunset with old-style sailing ships crisscrossing the waters in the foreground (above).

Our last day there, driving back up through the Keys to Ft. Lauderdale, we had the ideal Keys experience — a nice, long, leisurely seafood lunch with family and friends under a big tiki hut, palm fronds rustling in the warm breeze, sky studded with puffy white cumulus clouds, huge tarpon swimming by in the bay, and Jimmy Buffet music playing over some loudspeakers. It was the perfect ending to what had been a great time down there. Changes in latitudes, indeed!

This trip came at a perfect time for me personally also. Various personal and professional irritants had been jabbing me, burs and thorns and prickles of various sorts poking here and there, for several months, and this trip put all that ultimately minuscule crap into a tidy little lock box to be stashed away in a dim attic corner of my existence. Mere images and memories of the trip serve to re-close the box tightly again should it begin to release its contents. The ocean has a way of releasing all tension and worry, of recalibrating the stress meter to zero and keeping it there. It was that way for me when I lived down in those parts, and so remains the maritime catharsis today. Give me the sand, sea and breezes through palms, a cool beverage in hand, and all is well.


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