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Monday, March 16, 2009

Coastal Tour of Florida 2009

My recent trip to Florida which was intended to be a break from the horrors of living in nasty, corrupt Georgia was instead more reminiscent of a gauntlet from hell. First, I found that it was Bike Week, then Spring Break, and then Gator Nationals. I also learned a little something about South Florida politics; a bit more than I cared to know - even after living there for 10 years and covering every city, park, and beach in the state.

But in the midst of all this the credit card company decided, in all of its Citi wisdom, that gasoline, a motel room, an airboat ride in the headwaters of the St. John's River, and dinner at a Melbourne restaurant was indicative of card theft and left me standing on the dark streets of southern Miami, 900 miles from home, surrounded by crack heads and murderers, with only toll and tip cash to spend for emergency travel home. A trip to a local Kinko's revealed that you now need a charge card to access the Internet, and I ended up in front of a 7-11 on a pay phone at 1:00 in the morning trying to straighten out their errant decision in order to buy gasoline. I bought gas with cash and drove instead to Naples, where imminent death was less probable. This persisted until 5:00AM. I wasn't about to drive back to Skanklanta after having just arrived in South Florida. This from a company who cannot manage their own affairs without holding out their avaricious money-changing hands for taxpayer cash. I don't feel the need to call them before I go on a trip, and they are not my mother or guardian. This was a dangerous occurrence that could have cost someone their life.

So began the long drive from Homestead to Key West. The water was extraordinarily turquoise blue, more so than the other times I visited the keys, and upon arrival I found that Spring Breakers were pouring in. I barely managed to find a motel room, and was exhausted after the ordeal. Nevertheless I showered and drove to Duval Street about 7:00pm and discovered the streets packed with boisterous revelers. Too tired to fight that particular battle, I opted for the Holiday Inn lounge for a bit of conversation. The Mayor of Key West has relatives who apparently like to visit this bar and rudely critique the dental work of its customers; as if it was any of their stinking business unless they were offering to pay for improvements - which of course they were not. After meeting a dozen or so people, I trundled off to the motel room to find that the promised Wi-Fi was dysfunctional, so picked up some food at the Awful House and went to bed.

The next day began with walking the streets to see what had changed since 1998 - not much, overall. Lunch was at Sloppy Joe's for a basket of Conch Fritters, a few beers, and conversation with a myriad of visitors from around the US, including several retired teachers. A sunset cruise on a sailing catamaran into a near storm finished off the daylight hours and a stop for food resulted in plentiful leftovers I decided to give to one of the equally plentiful homeless people. Re-energized after the meal, I headed towards Duval Street, hoping for a more mellow crowd. After listening to a variety of bands from in front of various clubs, I ended up at Durty Harry's, not realizing that this was a spring break hangout. The crowds had apparently not yet arrived, and I found a seat handily. The doormen and bartenders were courteous, even to me, and I listened to the band for a while, intermixed with conversations with a variety of pretty young ladies from around the country who appeared beside me wanting to place their drink orders - Oh, to be 25 again! The band, apparently named Category 5, played a variety of alternative/modern/grunge rock songs - the typical college fare I often listen to. They were an excellent, precise live cover band sporting a singer who hails from NYC. They also went off on a curious rant about the Bush brothers and their likelihood of being re-elected to public office. Then the announcement came that the wet T-Shirt contest was about to begin and I started to leave as the crowd suddenly swelled, but the bartender bought me a drink and not being one to offend a young lady ended up there until 4:00AM. I was a bit surprised at what little I saw of the whole affair, but let's just say that full nudity was involved. Thus the seeds of the misogynists of tomorrow have been planted. And I guess I've attended my very first spring break. The only trouble I saw were fights started by drunk old men gawking at the young girls and picking on the bike-cab drivers. The students were loud but mostly well behaved.

The next day began with a trip to the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden, climbing the 88 stairs of the Key West Lighthouse, the Butterfly and Nature Conservancy - which was pointed out to me by blogger and entomologist Doug Taron of Gossamer Tapestry, a walk through the City Graveyard, and a trip down Duval Street to Mallory Square to visit the Key West Aquarium. Along the way, a disconcerting discovery was made - there had been a raging fire at an art gallery the night before. The noise and crowds of Durty Harry's had drowned out the sounds of at least four fire engine companies from the Key West Fire Department, Naval Air Station Key West, Monroe County and Key West International Airport who responded to a fire that destroyed the $4 million building at 512 Duval St., according to the newspaper report I later read. Then someone stole a pack of smokes and lighter from the bench beside me and a bottle of mouthwash from my travel bag. WTF! Needless to say, considering the noises I've made over the years concerning the GOP and various arsons, cover-ups, and insurance fraud they were involved in, this all creeped me out and I left Key West that evening. I had planned stops along the way at other "Key" islands, but at this point thought better of remaining in the area, just to err on the side of prudence. I would have thought Key West was a liberal stronghold, but a little of teh Google upon my arrival home revealed the mayor Morgan McPherson, a Jeb Bush acquaintance, is a member of the Keys GOP, a group consisting of numerous notable GOP members - Creepier still, especially considering the band's rant the night before. Surely not...

So after a trip through the Everglades, stopping at the Fakahatchee Strand Nature Preserve State Park, Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk and Turner River Canoe Launch, I stopped in Naples and took a tour of the Rookery Bay Estuarine Research Reserve land with a volunteer guide named George, and visited The Naples Preserve where I saw a wild honeybee hive and several gopher tortoises. The motel was across from the Cocohatchee Estuary and I took a pontoon boat trip through the estuaries into the Gulf and later ate dinner at an excellent, albeit pricey, Chinese restaurant next door. The next day began with a quick read of the paper and taking a Kayak onto the Cocohatchee River. I then visited the excellent Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary where I saw a myriad of interesting wildlife and conversed with a number of people, including an interesting young lady and her family I later regretted not knowing better. Alas, Ohio is too far to maintain a relationship, as I've been down that road before. Soon it was time to move on the Bradenton/St. Pete/Tampa area.

The rest of the trip was not worth the trouble. After a long and dusty trip far around Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, I was met with lousy motels filled to capacity, rude people, crazy drivers, and areas that I had lived in 10 years previous which had severely declined, the economy collapsing, and everyone worth knowing from my past in the area of Pinellas and Hillsborough county had since died. The sole redeeming factor of this leg of the journey was Lettuce Lake Park on E. Fletcher in Tampa and an adorable nubile waif spotted at a gas station.

The next stop was to be Gainesville to visit the Museums of Art and Natural History. I was late getting there due to fatigue from leaf blowers in the last motel in Indian Rocks waking me at 5:30AM even thought I went to bed utterly exhausted at 2:30AM, and a police tourist trap run by Sumpter County. I had to leave the balcony door open, which amplified the wretched leaf blowers, and because the idiot who runs the motel had set the thermostat to "morgue" and shutting the vents wouldn't curtail the freezing cold. The deteriorating room had no phone, garbage can, or thermostat, and the elevator sounded like it was possessed. The locals were rude and incapable of maintaining a conversation - a big change from the last time I spent time there. Couldn't get a motel in Gainesville due to something called Gator Nationals, so I gave up and came home. Ugh!

Visitors to the state of Florida should avoid stopping anywhere near Sumpter County, and especially the Wendy's off I-75 and CR-48 at the Bushnell Exit. It is a nasty little engineered traffic trap used by the county to rob unwary tourists of their money in violation of the Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices - 2003 Edition - Revision 2 - Chapter 2B - Section 2B.19. First ticket in 18 years, and a million miles of driving. Watch for it, as they have their own crazed version of Barney Fife who sits all day and issues dozens of tickets for the same infraction to everyone unwary enough to venture into this area. Additionally, this clown peels out after violators like he is pursuing a murdering bank robber, thereby endangering the lives and property of those around with his reckless driving. This place, this trap, and this dangerous cop should be eliminated from public influence. They've even jacked the rates of the tickets for this particular violation WAAY over the top, and would apparently prefer that you run over their kids while boarding the school bus than make a U-turn around a barricade intentionally and unnecessarily placed in front of a Wendy's exit, yet improperly marked with a non-visible and improperly placed no-U-turn sign. FYI, I will never pay the fine, and will opt to take this trap, this county, and this yahoo cop to the State Supreme Court if necessary. Otherwise I'll opt for the jail time. In this economy, 3 hots and a cot paid for by public funding is starting to sound pretty good. Sumpter County and Officer Barney Fife #409 may Bite My Ass! (Obviously, that's not his name but I can't read the chicken scratchings on the ticket - it looks like Howie.)

In conclusion, Georgia sucks, and much of Florida now sucks nearly as much. Not one of the bloggers I know from online, some for years, would reply to a request to meet at a neutral place for a drink or quick howdy while passing through their various towns, but it turns out several had pressing personal issues to contend with and later responded, albeit too late. But if you can avoid the morass of tourists, the horrible traffic, the tailgating, speeding, weaving idiot drivers on cell-phones (all in violation of state traffic laws), the jerk yahoo cops and illegal tourist traffic traps, rip-off run-down motels, gross overdevelopment, the Bush brothers' operatives, and the exceedingly rude yet impeccably dressed pool-gate and room-door slamming right-wingers at the DoubleTree Motel who believe Bernard Madoff is a poor fellow who's getting a bum rap, the scenery and wildlife are well worth seeing.