Category: Travel

Hotel in a Hurry

630 miles and his legs were cramping, his back was getting scoliosis, and his hypnotized eyes were following the dashed lines on the highway into dreamland. But even worse, the bran flakes he had for breakfast were sending musical telegrams through the borborygmus of his bowels. He felt the urge to find a room.

Elroy cranked the steering wheel into the first hotel he found.

Lockdowns and social distancing rules had recently ended, and cabin fever tourists like himself crammed the lobby. He had to wait a long time for his turn at the front desk, while tightening his butt cheeks. “Room for one, just for the night,” he blurted out to the petite young blonde behind the counter.

“Certainly, sir,” she typed something into the keyboard, then looked up from the monitor. “Will that be shitting or non-shitting?”

He was caught a bit off guard by that question, and just stood there staring blankly for a moment. “Excuse me?” he eventually queried.

“Shitting or non-shitting, sir?” the blonde smiled, all business-like, with fingers on her keyboard, poised for a reply.

“Uh, I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

“Well sir, if you choose non-shitting, then you’ll only be able to go #1 in your toilet, and not #2. If you do do a #2, you’ll be charged a $200 room freshening fee.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing before,” Elroy mused, feeling a little flushed with irritation. “But I’ve got to go, so of course I’ll choose shitting.”

“Very good, sir,” the pretty clerk cheerfully offered. “Now let’s see . . .” clackety-clack went her fingers, seemingly forever, as she gazed into the monitor, “ . . . looks like we have one shitting room left. That will be 50 extra dollars, for a total of $140, plus $53.75 in taxes and resort fees. So I’ll charge your card $193.75 for the night.”

This was well above Elroy’s budget. “Look,” Elroy remonstrated, “I’m not even going to get into it with you over the resort fee thing. Been there, done that, with other hotels. It ain’t right, but I know I can’t fight it. But this shitting room charge, this is ridiculous!” his voice rising with every syllable. “Who ever heard of charging someone $50 to take a shit?!!” Now he was kind of shouting. And he shook his fist in the air.

The smile on the pretty blonde’s face evaporated, as her lips pursed in fear. She took a step backward. “Sir . . . sir . . . I’m sorry but I don’t set the rates here,” her voice trembled. “Would . . . would you like . . . like to spe-speak with my supe-supervisor?”

Elroy hated to scare people, and immediately felt horribly ashamed at his outburst. But by-goddamnit, this shitting charge was an outrage! Still, it wasn’t her fault. She was just an employee following her training. He forcibly collected himself. He took inventory of his bowels. And he got an idea. He had noticed a supermarket about a block away, as he was driving to the hotel.

He lowered his voice and tried to reassure her. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he spoke with soothing tones. “It’s not your fault. Tell you what. I just now felt it go back up inside me, so I don’t think I’ll need a shitting room. I’ll take a non-shitter.”

And for a savings of $50, Elroy got himself a room. The first thing he did after he stepped inside, was rush into the bathroom, drop his trousers, and cut about five large loaves into the pellucid waters of the porcelain throne.

Fuck their shitting and non-shitting rooms, Elroy smugly concluded as he gasped with relief. Anyway, how would they know?

By the stink-ass smell, of course. But Elroy had a plan for that. As soon as he finished his business, he planned to walk down to that supermarket and buy a can of air freshener. Then he was going to spray the hell out of the bathroom. And God knows, it needed it. He crinkled his nose.

He stood up, flushed the toilet, and hitched up his pants. But suddenly, as the last gurgling gasps of the plumbing faded away, an alarm went off over his head.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!

It scared the crap out of him. Figuratively, of course, as his cannon had already spent its ammo. He looked up and spied a round device on the ceiling that resembled a smoke detector. He immediately sprang up onto the edge of the tub, in an attempt to reach this tattletale alarm and silence it.

But then came a thundunkerous pounding on his door.

He swung the door open and came face-to-face with the petite, blonde clerk. How the hell was this frail-looking thing able to knock so hard? he wondered.

“Sir, the stink alarm has gone off in your room,” she sternly advised him. “Did you take a shit in there?” Then the effluvium hit her and she twisted her face. “Eww, you did, didn’t you?”

“Please, I was desperate,” he begged. “I’m going to clean it up with air-freshener. I promise!”

But none of poor Elroy’s begging and pleading could sway her. Rules are rules and policies are policies. She was sympathetic but firm. His card would be charged an extra $200.

Learn a lesson from Elroy. Never choose a hotel in a hurry. Take time to check out all their fees and rules before you walk in their door. On top of exorbitant taxes, you may find a nebulous resort fee, an outrageous parking fee, wi-fi fees, early check-in fees, early departure fees, late-arrival lockouts, cancellation fees, minibar charges, extra person fees, fridge fees, linen fees, and yes, even toilet paper fees.

You could even be charged for writing a bad Yelp review.

Elroy’s story is fictional. So far, I’ve never heard of shitting and non-shitting rooms. But I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that is next. And if it should happen to you, my advise is to lay off bran flakes, and all other forms of roughage, for a few days before your trip. You can always have an enema after you return home.

This tip alone could save you hundreds of dollars.

The Swamp Creature

Geologists claim there’s nothing like it anywhere else on Earth. It’s only 5,000 years old, and a baby by geological measures. But its Brobdingnagian size belies its infancy. Technically it’s a river, but not just any kind of river. Geologists describe it as a sheetflow river. And its sheetflow nature has morphed it into a freakishly overgrown swamp creature.

A sky’s-eye view of the sheetflowing swamp creature.

It’s 60 miles wide and a hundred miles long. It flows at the average rate of a half mile a day, though some parts require years to traverse from source to ocean. It’s so large it creates its own ecosystems. These are mostly sawgrass marsh, but there also islands of tropical hardwood hammock, and areas of pineland, cypress, mangrove, and coastal prairie. These ecosystems gradually form, then disappear, then reemerge in different areas, under the control and caprice of the swamp creature.

Nobody knows just what this swamp creature is, but in 1773 a British cartographer named John Gerard de Brahm, gave it the name River Glades. But under the southern drawl way of pronouncing things, this name gradually evolved into Everglades, by 1823.

Mangroves at Coot Bay Pond, Everglades National Park, Florida.

The broad floodplain of the Kissimmee River empties into a vast, nine-foot-deep puddle of water called Lake Okeechobee. At 730 square miles, it dominates south Florida, and is second only to Lake Michigan as the largest natural freshwater lake contained entirely within the contiguous 48 states.

Lake Okeechobee from my United Airlines window seat. Ain’t window seats wonderful?

During south Florida’s wet season, from May to October, the waters of Lake Okeechobee spill over like coffee from a distracted barista. The overflow creeps southward, replenishing the River Glades, and maintaning the life of the swamp creature. Its porous limestone bed absorbs this moisture like a Brawny paper towel, storing it and sustaining the river throughout the dry season.

An egret at Mrazek Pond, Everglades National Park.

A slight rise in the land, called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, protects the Miami area from the flooding fingers of the swamp creature. It forces the River Glades to ooze south and west on its sluggish creep to the ocean.

It terminates reluctantly in the Atlantic waters of Florida Bay, at the murky south and southeastern edges of the Florida peninsula. The brackish water surrounds hundreds of islands, and is drank by thick forests of red, black, and white mangroves. Here, vast beds of turtle grass and algae, feed sea turtles and manatees.

Flamingo Beach, on Florida Bay, Everglades National Park.

This swampy region is so enormous, it generates its own thunderstorms. Hot, moist summer air convects from its middle and moistens its edges with downpours. And so it can be said that the swamp creature has a life of its own.

Believe it or not, before the swamp creature was born, this area was much like a desert. Native Americans settled this arid land, and hunted giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, and spectacled bears. But climate change and overhunting drove these animals to extinction.

Egrets foraging in one of the drier areas of Everglades National Park. Egrets seem to be very common in Florida. About as common as regrets in Nevada.

Around 3,000 BC, shifting weather patterns gave birth to the swamp creature. The natives had to adapt. They formed the Calusa people to the north and west, and the Tequesta people to the south and east. The swamp creature was not friendly to humans, so they lived mainly in coastal villages. Then about 400 years ago an alien invaded, called the Spaniard, and these aliens decimated the two tribes, as well as other tribes in Florida.

Yet another damned egret. But wait? Is that a crocodile in the water, waiting for its meal to come closer? We couldn’t tell, and it appears the egret is also a little uncertain.

After this, the Creek people from the north invaded Florida and assimilated with what remained of the original tribes. They soon became a new tribe, known as the Seminole. Around the same time, escaped slaves and free blacks settled nearby, and intermingled with the Seminole. They became known as Black Seminoles, and to this day claim Native American heritage.

I call this the Purple-People-Eater Bird. But in this case, I think it’s trying to avoid being eaten.

The United States waged three wars against the Seminoles, both red and black. The first two resulted in thousands being removed from Florida and relocated in what is now Oklahoma. But about three to five hundred natives escaped south to the spongy grounds of the Everglades. There they were absorbed by the swamp creature, where they had to learn to adapt to the wet way of life.

The United States fought them again, in the Third Seminole War, which lasted from 1855 to 1859. But the swamp creature protected them, and U.S. forces, weary of slogging through the vast, inhospitable muskeg, finally gave up and left them alone.

These pelicans, in Mrazek Pond, were bullying the egrets, while trying to corner the market on the pond’s fish.

Incredibly, they remained in the Everglades, untouched and wild for the next hundred years. But finally they made peace with the federal government, in 1957. Today the Seminoles occupy a reservation in south Florida, where they mire their invaders in the swampy slough of casino gambling.

The Everglades plays host to a variety of long-necked, long-billed birds. These two are foraging near Flamingo Beach, at Florida Bay.

In the 1900s a determined effort was made by humans to drain the great swamp and develop it into farmland and housing. To some extent this succeeded, and the Everglades began to dry up. But fortunately, some people loved the swamp creature and fought to protect it. The writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas was especially effective, and her efforts at public persuasion helped lead to the dedication of Everglades National Park in 1947.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull stands guard over Florida Bay.

Since that time, billions have been spent restoring the Everglades. Today, the swamp creature is protected by Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area, and other preserves, sanctuaries, state forests, and wildlife management areas.

Nine-Mile Pond, in Everglades National Park, is a beautiful start to a canoe trail. But before plopping your canoe into the water, be sure to scan around for lurking danger.

Yes, the newborn and revivified swamp creature continues to soak the earth in south Florida. Ecotourism, designed to protect the environment while allowing humans to enjoy it, has become a big industry. People can visit this lush, unique, sprawling creature by car, airboat, canoe, and on foot. But I recommend you pack a can of DEET.

And while watching out for alligators, water moccasins, and invasive pythons, tread carefully and treat this land gently. After all, it’s just a baby.

Shh. Don’t disturb this sleeping gator at Nine-Mile Pond.

The Florida Keys

The Florida Keys is an archipelago that descends like stepping stones toward Cuba. I’ve always felt curious about these islands and the viaducts that connect them. So one of my dreams was fulfilled recently when I drove the Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1), from Key Largo to Key West.

On our way down the Keys we stopped at Long Key State Park, at Mile Marker 67.5, and hiked the Golden Orb trail. This trail was named after the Golden Orb spider, which at one time covered this island with millions of webs. But on September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma flooded Long Key with an eight-foot storm surge that wiped out almost all of the arthropods. They’re slowly creeping back, but are still fairly rare.

The Keys were first charted by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. “Key” comes from the Spanish word cayo, meaning small island.

For centuries after de Leon, you had to have a boat or good swimming arms to reach the Keys. But then the United States took Panama from Columbia, and in 1905 began constructing the Panama Canal. This gave an entrepreneur named Henry Flagler an idea. Flagler was filthy rich, having been the founder of Standard Oil. Key West has a deep-water port, and Flagler decided that if he ran a railroad to Key West, he could take advantage of trade coming through the canal from the West Coast.

A creek on the Golden Orb trail.

Four thousand men battled mosquitoes, crocodiles, and hurricanes for seven years, constructing this railroad. It was hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World when it finally opened in 1912. One year later, Flagler fell down a flight of stairs and died at age 83.

Long Key is largely undisturbed by humans (unlike me), and provides an opportunity for hikers to see the Keys in their natural state.

The automobile was gaining in popularity around this time, and in 1921 the Miami Motor Club came up with the zany idea of building a highway to Key West, alongside the railroad. They hoped it would attract tourists, revenue, and growth. They were right.

By 1928 a two segment highway had been constructed. The first segment allowed motorists to drive from Key Largo about 35 miles to Lower Matecumbe Key. Then they had to take a 41-mile ferry ride to No Name Key, which I believe was named after Clint Eastwood. From there they could drive about 35 more miles to Key West.

The forest canopy along Long Key’s Golden Orb trail. The Florida Keys is the northern boundary for many tropical trees common to the Caribbean.

Nobody likes having to take a ferry boat. So impatient motorists pressured the government to connect these two highway segments. But who would do the work? Well, let’s step back to 1924. In that year, Congress passed a bill over President Coolidge’s veto, to pay a bonus to World War I veterans, for their war service. But the catch was, they had to wait until 1945 to cash in these bonuses.

Then the Great Depression hit, and in the early 1930s unemployed veterans laid siege upon Washington D.C., demanding early payment of their bonuses. President Hoover had them driven off with bayonets and tear gas, and the bad press this generated helped cost him his reelection bid against Franklin Roosevelt.

Bahia Honda Bridge, and the beach at Bahia Honda State Park, at Mile Marker 36. “Bahia Honda” means Deep Bay in Spanish. This bridge is part of the original railroad, and was very challenging to build back in the early 1900s, due to its more than 5,000 foot length, and the 30 foot deep channel it spans.

Roosevelt knew what to do about the rebellious veterans. He started the New Deal, and put them to work on the Overseas Highway, promising them an early bonus payment upon completion of their work. This shut them up and got them out of Washington.

By 1935, these veterans were hard at work in the Upper Florida Keys, on bridge construction. But on Labor Day, 1935, a monstrous Category 5 hurricane struck. A train was sent to evacuate the veterans, but was too late. 200 of these vets drowned in an 18-foot storm surge. Altogether, 400 to 700 people in the Florida Keys perished from this natural disaster. To this day it remains the most powerful hurricane on record to make a direct hit on the Keys.

The Bahia Honda bridge was originally for trains. But after the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, a highway was built over the top of the trestles.

The hurricane damaged Flagler’s railroad so badly, it was abandoned. So the government decided to abandon the dead veterans’ work and take over the abandoned railroad. They built the middle connection of the Overseas Highway upon the railroad’s bridge trestles. And by 1938, a fully connected highway allowed automobile travel to Key West without requiring a ferry.

These days the Bahia Honda Bridge is deemed too derelict to safely travel over. But you can still walk it for about 100 yards up and get a nice view of Bahia Honda Key. To the left is the new Overseas Highway that replaced the original highway in the 1970s.

The Overseas Highway starts in Key Largo, at around Mile Marker 113. Mile Markers are used in the Keys to denote addresses. For instance, the first gas station you encounter is a Shell station, with the address 106501 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, FL. This means it’s 106.5 miles from the terminus of the highway in Key West, since Mile Marker 0 is at Key West.

But the Keys extend further west than Key West, speckling the Gulf of Mexico for about 70 more miles out to the Dry Tortugas. However, to get to these islands beyond Mile Marker 0, you must take a boat or plane.

Key West from the end of the White Street pier. A monument at the corner of Whitehead and South St, on Key West, claims to be the southernmost point of the continental United States, but this pier is even further south, by a few hundred feet. The actual southernmost point is probably located on Ballast Key, about 10 miles west of Key West. Key West is 77 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, and 94 miles from Cuba.

Hurricanes seem to pose the greatest danger to residents of the Florida Keys, and I imagine bankruptcy is a close second. Homes are damned expensive there, so I wonder how many residents have gone bankrupt after their life savings have been blown or washed away?

In 1998, Hurricane Georges battered the Lower Keys, causing widespread damage and flooding. In 2005, the Keys were triple-punched by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. They only brushed these islands, but came close enough to cause extensive damage. And on September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key. She destroyed a quarter of the homes on the Keys, and caused major damage to another two-thirds.

The Blue Hole, on Big Pine Key. Looks green to me. This is an abandoned rock quarry that filled with water. Notice the alligator?

Imagine being ordered to leave your home with just a few hours notice to pack whatever you can into your car. And when you return, you don’t know if you’ll find your house intact, in tatters, or in the ocean. Many people retire in the Keys, but the constant worry of hurricanes is not my idea of relaxed living.

An iguana sunning itself on a coral rock, by the beach at Long Key State Park. We were told that Floridians are encouraged to kill iguanas, because they’re an invasive species. But aren’t we humans invasive, too? So since my wife and I were not contemplating suicide, we left the iguanas we encountered, unharmed.

The Keys are flat as pancakes, offering scant high-ground refuge from storm surges. Most Caribbean islands are volcanic, with mountains and hills. But the Keys are made of ancient coral reefs and limestone, which don’t attain high elevations. The highest point in the Florida Keys is just 18 feet above sea level, at Windley Key. That’s not much of a view.

But below sea level the view can be spectacular. The Great Florida Reef is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. And it’s the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef, and the Belize Barrier Reef. The best of it is found off the coast of Key Largo. And scuba divers come from across the globe to enjoy it, making Key Largo the Dive Capitol of the World. Yeah, it’s a real dive.

An osprey at Bahia Honda State Park. This bird was a good fisher. We saw it carrying a big, long fish, but unfortunately my camera was not handy at the time. It’s the photo that got away.

We drove the entire length of the Overseas Highway, and spent four days and nights on Little Torch Key, at Mile Marker 28.5. The balmy February weather was a pleasant change from the cooler climate we came from. And most importantly, it wasn’t hurricane season.

With that fact in mind, we were able to relax and enjoy our stay.

Nap time.

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