Copyright 2019 by Charleine Sell
year was 1973, and we had just returned home from three years in
Swaziland, a small country in southeast Africa, where we served as
Peace Corps volunteers. We met there and eventually married in
December 1972 in the capital, Mbabane, before completing our service.
Because I was a Florida girl, and Jack was from Whidbey Island in the
Pacific Northwest, we decided to use our meager Peace Corps
readjustment funds to drive from Florida, where my parents lived, to
Washington State. We hoped to find a place to settle and make a home.
whole country was before us. We were children of the 60’s and
‘pretend’ hippies. We looked and dressed like hippies,
but we weren’t. We were college graduates with career plans.
Our idealism about the world came from hearing President Kennedy call
us to Peace Corps service. At that time, we both had long hair, and I
remember the really ugly rust-orange and cream plaid pantsuit I wore
on the plane from Europe to the US. It was right in style, but Jack’s
family, meeting me for the first time, must have gagged when they saw
me in it. I wish now that I had a color photo of that pantsuit, a
truly forgettable classic style of the 60’s and 70’s.
bought a used, red 1970 Volkswagen pop-top camper bus, and after some
frustration over much needed repairs, started our cross-country
journey from my parents’ home in St. Petersburg, Florida. We
bought a camper stove, a lantern, a cooler, a tarp, and two cheap
folding chairs at J.C. Penney’s in St. Pete and hit the road.
Free and very happy with none of life’s pressures yet, we
immediately took a detour and headed south to the Everglades.
people think of Florida as a tourist state, but the northern third of
Florida is hilly, reaches an elevation of 345 feet above sea level,
and is known as Florida’s horse country. While driving through
this countryside, shacks can be seen that look like they are ready to
fall down, next door to expansive ranches with horse paddocks. The
southern two thirds of the state is flat as a pancake. It boasts
beautiful beaches with warm water and fantastic sunsets. In St. Pete
specifically, it is not uncommon to see elderly people riding large
tricycles. Each trike has a swaying caution flag attached to a tall,
flimsy wire pole. These flags alert car drivers to the trikes on the
road. Maybe they should be called ‘permission’ flags,
because the riders seem to ignore all traffic rules. Sometimes the
rider will start peddling vigorously and dart across six-lane
boulevards, causing all traffic to slam on its brakes.
drive to Homestead included crossing the state from west to east
along a famous route called Alligator Alley. The road is as straight
as an arrow with very little taller vegetation. The unobstructed view
allowed us to see the expansive sugarcane fields and even tomato
fields with irrigation systems on reclaimed swampland. In the
drainage ditch along each side of the road, we occasionally noticed
two small lumps above the waterline, alligator eyes, but we never saw
an alligator basking in the sun.
six hour drive passed quickly. Arriving at the Everglades National
Park main gate southwest of Homestead, we asked about campsites for
the night. The man at the gate said there were two campgrounds; one
nearby, and one about 35 miles south down the road that would take us
right to the tip of the Everglades that overlooked Florida Bay. He
suggested that we stay at the closer campground, though, because the
one on the Bay was ‘thick with mosquitoes this time of year’.
grinned at each other. Why, we were just back from Africa! We weren’t
afraid of a few mosquitoes! So, we paid our money and off we went.
From the Visitor Center’s main entrance, we followed highway
9336 through the Everglades. The pop-top camper meandered through
wetlands with clumps of sawgrass, a few palm trees scattered here and
there, cypress trees, scrub grasslands with palmettos, marshes, and
probably plenty of alligators. Numerous long-legged birds stood in
shallow water; herons, egrets, and spoonbills. We imagined there
might be several species of snakes slithering through the grasses,
and mused that we felt right at home, after 3 years in Africa.
we were completely alone, no other campers or vehicles in sight, but
we didn’t think much about it. That is, until the invasion. We
were used to the empty open spaces of Africa. Parked under some
scruffy beach trees right on the bay, around 4:00 in the afternoon,
we positioned the back of the bus toward the beach, because there was
such a nice breeze coming off the water. The back end opened out and
up, and it came with a screen that could be snapped around the inside
edge. Jack snapped on the screen, and I organized food for our
evening meal. Around 5 P.M., another couple arrived and parked
nearby. We sat there eating our dinner at the picnic table while
watching the sun slowly set. A peacefulness settled over us, and
while listening to the waves lapping the beach nearby, we watched the
sun slowly set over a horizon displaying the rich splendor of a paint
box of colors. The real beauty of Florida was revealed, and we were
any warning, the minute the sun dropped below the water, an enormous
cloud of mosquitoes attacked with great ferocity and determination.
We yelled while trying not to swallow too many mosquitoes, grabbed
our stuff, and dashed for the camper bus. It was a huge cloud, and it
filled every space available on that beach! We’d never seen
anything like it; they literally darkened the sky. We slammed the
door shut and hunkered down for the night, carefully exterminating
the few mosquitoes that managed to sneak inside.
couple next door also grabbed as much of their gear as they could and
zipped themselves in their tent. Unfortunately, during the night we
all heard a racket and, looking out, realized they had left their
cooler outside with their food in it. The raccoons were having a
feast, and there was nothing the couple could do about it.
a calm settled over the two campsites as the raccoons finally waddled
away, but not before dragging all the food wrappers and Tupperware
throughout the campsite.
during the night, as we lay in our sleeping bags, feet toward the
screened door, we awakened and realized it was raining. The wonderful
breeze blowing off the bay that we had felt earlier was actually
sending the rain through the screen and onto our sleeping bags. Jack
jumped up, ripped the screen off its snaps, reached out and pulled
the door down and closed it. It was at that moment we realized all
the mosquitoes in the whole world (probably some had even flown in
from Africa!) had clustered under that door to avoid the rain, and he
had brought every one of them into the camper! I dived under my
sleeping bag, and the rest of the night Jack spent squishing
mosquitoes against the camper walls and drinking a beer, or two, or
though we were seasoned Africa Adventurers, we decided one night was
enough. We left the Everglades the next day and drove to Key West.
Before leaving the park, though, we walked one of the trails. The Eco
Pond was nearby and offered an easy circular walk around a small
lake. At one point on this walk, we crossed an elevated pedestrian
bridge and were surprised to discover we had to walk up and over a
‘High’ Pass when we came upon a sign that said ‘Summit
Elevation, 3 feet’.
later when we sold that camper, small red marks still dotted the
interior walls. We knew where they came from, but we didn’t
tell the new owners.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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