Everglades Adventure

Charleine Sell

© Copyright 2019 by Charleine Sell

Sudan photo. Sudan pic 2.

The 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.

The 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.

We 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.

Most 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.

The 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.

The 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’.

We 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.

Yes, 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 in heaven!

Without 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.

The 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.

Eventually, 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.

Sometime 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 three.

Even 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’.

Years 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.

Contact Charleine

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Charleine's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher