“State 25, the direct route from Palm Beach on the Atlantic to Fort Myers and the Gulf coast, crosses the northern section of the Everglades, America's largest swamp, its 4,000 square miles far exceeding the extent of the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and North Florida. The route follows the shore of Lake Okeechobee, encircled with fertile black fields growing great quantities of winter vegetables and sugar cane. Passing through the open range country of central Florida, reminiscent of the Old West with its cowboys and herds of range cattle, the highway follows the Caloosahatchee River to Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast at Punta Rassa, fringed with sand flats and low-lying keys overgrown with mangroves."
|That's a Florida cow. You can tell because she's a little more laid back than cows from other states.|
As we plod along the lower swampy third of the state, there’s no doubt that Florida’s chief land use has more to do with working the land than sunning oneself upon it: this route has pasture and planted fields in abundance.
And about that route – we added to it. In 1939, the tour ran in a straight line from West Palm Beach to Punta Rassa, but as long as we’re here we’ve decided to make a circle around Lake Okeechobee. Without stops, it should take us just under four hours. Prior to this, the only way I’ve seen Lake Okeechobee is from the right seat of a Grumman Traveler, a low-wing, four-seater prop plane. The pilot indulged me and tree-topped over the lake, swooping down low so I could get a good look at the big water. That day, our little plane followed a series of locks west to the Gulf coast. Beyond that, though, I’ve only read about the lake, heard stories about the lake, wondered about the lake.
Many of the stories come from Barry, who’s a boat captain by trade and used to do quite a few lake deliveries. If you’re trying to get a boat from one side of Florida to the other – and the owner’s paying you a flat rate – you don’t go around Florida’s southern tip. You cut through the lake, using the channelized St. Lucie River on the east and the Caloosahatchee River on the west. On the east, State Road 76 follows the river; State Road 80 more loosely follows the Caloosahatchee on the west.
A series of locks keeps the water where the state water management districts think it should be, which means they keep the lake from flooding sugarcane fields, which really means the locks keep Big Sugar happy – more on that in a bit. For boat deliveries and pleasure cruises, this means captains must time their trips by when they can get through the locks and bridges. Heading towards the lake, the water level rises with each lock. Heading away from the lake, the water level drops. State engineers only allow the lake to touch outside water at roughly twenty fixed points.
Before we reach the lake we must cross State Road 80. We leave our cozy spot at Koreshan State Park (See Tour 4) and move east through the swamp.
Okeechobee drains south into the Everglades, east into the Atlantic, and west into the Gulf of Mexico. On the Caloosahatchee River’s western edge, Sanibel and Captiva Islands are connected to the mainland with a bridge. Motorists pay $6 to cross over into Sanibel, the larger of the two islands at just over 10 miles long. Sanibel is barely a mile wide at most parts, with its widest part stretching maybe three miles across. The island resembles Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and the mainland cities on the other side of the bridge in much the same way a bulldozer resembles a palm tree. Sanibel has one main road, a two-lane affair lined by a bicycle path that seems more crowded than the road. The highest building on the island is the Sanibel Lighthouse, painted a deep brown that contrasts with the color-washed island.
The cottages, homes and shops that pepper the island mimic the colors of the tropical jungle they exist between: shocks of fuchsia bougainvillea explode between coral and lemon cottages, peach hibiscus frame the crosswalks, and orange birds of paradise flower between lime green traveler palms, red Poinciana, and soft green pine trees leading to the beach.
Shells on the beach mirror and mute the colors of the island: pink Florida fighting conch, cerulean lion’s paw, and lavender olive shells blot out the sand. Sanibel’s crescent shape and its position along the edge of Florida make it an ideal landing place for shells getting washed along the sea bed.
“Sanibel Island is notable for the number and variety of sea shells on its beaches. Every tide and storm wash ashore thousands of specimens of some 300 varieties. Among them are the multicolored calico shells, of which the pale lemon-yellow is the rarest; the lion's paw, a dark orange-red; the white, bowl-shaped, yellow-lined buttercup, which comes from deep water and is seldom found in pairs; the delicately scalloped rose cockle, its interior shading from pale salmon pink to deep rose, and often tinged with orange and purple; the large red-brown cockle, used for souvenirs and in the manufacture of trays, lamps, and other objects; the fragile white angel's wing; the Chinese alphabet, a smooth white shell with curious markings; and the slender polished olive, tapering at both ends and shading from dark brown to light tan, also called the Panama shell. Perhaps rarest of all is the junonia, a deep-sea mollusk, its creamy white exterior marked with spiral rows of square brown or orange spots. Perfect junonia specimens have sold for $200. Florida shore life is described in Florida Sea Shells (1936), by B.D.E.Aldrich and E.Snyder. The Sanibel Sea Shell Fair is held annually in February.”
Not much has changed since then. On February 17, the Sanibel Captiva Shell Cub kicked off its seventy-fifth annual shell fair (“Shellabration”) with the Sanibel Stoop. The Sanibel Stoop is named after the stooped over posture of a shell collector as they scour the beach for cockles, sand dollars, and coquina. During the Sanibel Stoop event at the fair, shellers gather along the beach en masse to stoop over as if looking for shells. The fair includes other things – shell lectures, shell salesman, shell books, to name a few – but make no mistake: people come here to hunt for shells. The hunt along the beach, the thrill at finding a perfect Scotch Bonnet, the ache in your lower back at the end of the day – this is Sanibel's allure for shell collectors.
Shellers aside, Sanibel appeals to tourists seeking old Florida, or, at the very least, the picture they keep in their head of old Florida. The island does not disappoint. It has no stop lights, no chain stores (except for one Dairy Queen, grandfathered in when the island enacted tight growth management practices), and Sanibel still looks much as the Guide describes it:
“The island, 2 miles wide and approximately 12 miles long, is a State game preserve; native and migratory birds are plentiful and can be studied at close range; wild flowers grow profusely in spring and summer; the Gulf and bay offer excellent fishing at all seasons.”
|The Sanibel Light, arguably the least colorful thing on the island.|
The Guide makes little mention of development on the island, and that holds true today. While there is no shortage of colorful, quaint beach bungalows, time shares, and inns that will take your money in exchange for a night or two on the island, they come second to the natural splendor. Sanibel seems content to fade behind the brilliant colors of blue wildflowers, roseate spoonbills, and purple donax. The island explodes in a stunning array of color, from fuchsia bougainvillea peeking out from every white picket fence to buttery yellow frangipani lining the bike path that runs the length of the island. This is not an island where you come with a purpose; this is an island where you come to absorb the scents and pace of Florida.