Tag Archives: SR 80

Circling the Pond: Top of the Pond

(This is the fifth and final leg of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)

Further north, Pahokee looks poorer still, perhaps because of more of those colonial–styled estates interspersed with even more decrepit housing projects and shuttered businesses. Sugar cane is everywhere. As we drive I try and picture where the bodies of the 1928 storm were buried – not all graves were marked – and in my mind I see a jumble of arms and legs and fire and piles and piles of sugar. There’s a fire in the distance; burning cane crops is part of the farming practice. Burning the fields leaves only the stalk, making it easier for the few remaining workers – machines do most of the work today – to harvest the cane.

Port Myaca is the lone spot along the road where we can see the lake instead of a neatly mowed levee. It is also where we begin to leave the cane fields behind. Between here and the top of the lake, lunkers, not sugar cane, are the order of the day. Lunkers, or largemouth bass, make for big business here. Fishing camps dot the northeast quadrant of the lake between Port Mayaca and Okeechobee. If agriculture has attempted to triumph over the lake and Glades on its south side, fishing has learned to harmonize with both on the north end. It is a wholly more pleasant sight for me; I’ve never caught a hawg, or even tried, but after the desperation of Pahokee and Belle Glade, the unassuming fish camps soothe me with their contrast. There are still farms here (largely palms) but the presence of something at work with the environment instead of against it eases the ache I felt in Belle Glade.Taylor Creek marks the top of the lake and also the least-impoverished city along the pond, although it, like the others, contains a fair share of derelict buildings. It also caters more to tourists, although judging by the wealth of fishing camps and bait shops, visitors here have a different idea of paradise than those flocking to see Mickey Mouse just two hours away.

At the western edge of Taylor Creek we stop and walk out to the levee. I still yearn to see a water moccasin, but after Clewiston I hold little hope. We park, this time taking an antsy Calypso, and walk up the levee.

Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes along the Lake.

Here the lake seems less wild; there are more buildings and boaters and a man collecting trash from the ramp leading up to the levee. A tractor rests on the inside of the levee on a patch of grass, and a blue heron stares at us. East of our vantage point, a chain link fence separates the heron from a neatly mowed backyard. West of us a barge sits unattended, a colorful sign advertising “ICE SNACKS” in hand-painted lavender letters. White marshmallow clouds over the lake begin to lower themselves and darken.

It’s time to go.

Storm a-comin’
On its west side, Okeechobee grows wilder as it seems to spread out. Here we find fewer signs of development, save the odd gas station, house, or government building. Fields of cattle interspersed with cabbage palm line most of the roadway. In Moore Haven, we see a landfill on the lake side of the road, easily the highest point along the route and marked by crows and vultures soaring overhead. Prison inmates help with road construction, holding “STOP” and “SLOW” signs as we chug along the lake’s perimeter. When one of them switches “SLOW” to “STOP” and stop at the front of the line, he pantomimes asking for a cigarette. We shake our heads no and I find myself wondering what one does in this area of Florida to get thrown in jail. The Moore Haven jail offers no more than medium security. It houses fewer than 1,000 inmates, all male.⁠
This young inmate asked for a smoke.  I think the love bug splatter on the windshield adds a gritty realism here.
Once we come full circle around the pond, I am still at a loss to describe the lake. Despite severe alteration to the landscape, it feels like a forgotten and untouched part of the state. It also leaves me with an alternating sense of wonder and melancholy. Part of me looks for a way to empathize with the needs filled by businesses and farms whose owners shaped these tragic decisions, but I cannot find it. Part of me is in awe of the lake and the surrounding communities; earning a living here cannot be easy, even for the wealthier: they battle mosquitoes, snakes, gators, and hurricanes with alarming regularity. This part of Florida, despite our attempt to control it, is still frontier. Despite neat rows of sugar cane and peppers and palms, the lake and the sky still rule this corner of the Sunshine State.
Neatly ordered rows of farmland escort the route east until the Loxahatchee area, where subdivisions, strip malls, and golf courses rise up to meet the road until it ends in West Palm Beach at A1A. From Loxahatchee east, the density of the Palm Beach suburbs are a blur after the wide open rolling green of the southernmost interior, and it is almost a culture shock to see farms pushed up against the rows of development. The homes line up along the road in much the same way, just moments ago, sugar cane and tomatoes and peas did.

Circling the Pond: Clewiston

(This is the third part of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
Forget the First Lady’s battle against childhood obesity. Never mind the alarmingly high rates of adult-onset diabetes. Put it clear out of your mind that the pharmaceutical dollars spent to combat sugar-related health diseases could buy a small island nation several times over. If you want to help Florida, stop eating sugar.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “Big Sugar,” a term generally used derisively, the person likely meant US Sugar or Domino Sugar. Sugar is a huge industry in Florida and a big part of the Everglades’ downfall. Without Big Sugar, some say, there would be no need for the Everglades Restoration program.

While I disagree somewhat – greed and avarice are powerful, potent motivators, and businessmen don’t need sugar cane to buy, drain, raze, and sell to the highest bidder – US Sugar’s impact on Florida profoundly saddens me. The company irrevocably altered one of the sweetest, swampiest places on earth.

Clewiston sits at the southwest lake rim. In 1937, it was a company town, owned by US Sugar. The workers – the black workers – who cut the cane and processed the sugar lived south of Clewiston in Harlem.

In the 1930s the US Sugar Corporation essentially owned Clewiston’s water, power, and phone companies as well as the town hotel. Well, not essentially. They actually did own it. Today, US Sugar dominates still. Clewiston is a sugar town; there is no pretending US Sugar doesn’t have a hand in everything. To the south, the Fanjul Brothers run a similar saccharine empire with Domino Sugar and Florida Crystals. Although Florida Crystals, especially, markets itself as “Carbonfree”and prides itself on dredging “nutrient-rich” out of nearby (man-made) canals and re-using it on the fields, make no mistake: sugar is killing the Everglades.

The muck around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades grows perfect sugar cane. Big Sugar came here, saw, planted, and – with an insane amount of help from government subsidies – grew. They took what water they wanted, and if, during dry spells, they didn’t get enough, they convinced the government to let them divert the massive amounts of water they needed. When they got too much, they flushed it out along the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Rivers. They dammed it up behind a wall in case they needed it.

The result? Sweet, sweet sugar – fantastic news for US Sugar and the Fanjul Brothers, but not so much for lands south of the sugar cane, which includes the ‘Glades. Because of Big Sugar, the government – through the auspices of a state-run water management board called South Florida Water Management District – can, at the governor’s whim, turn Lake Okeechobee on and off like a big faucet. This, as you may well imagine, does not bode well for unique ecosystems accustomed to getting the same amount of water it has received for the past 5,000 years. Without the seasonal, irregular flow, life in the Glades faltered.

In addition, sugar cane is not impervious to bugs and disease, so farmers use pesticides to keep that sugar coming. As with most plants, fertilizer makes sugar cane grow faster, but once they send those green stalks on a growth spurt, those chemicals don’t disappear – the sneak out into the Everglades. Since the first stalk of sugar cane sprouted from the muck, US Sugar and the Fanjul Brothers have steadily and dramatically increased the levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, chemical cocktails that kill bugs, grow big sugar cane, and decimate the Everglades.

In time, and aided by activists like Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, a writer and activist whose father happened to own the Miami Herald and thus gave her a far-reaching platform, people began to understand the significance of the Everglades. Hey, we may not like its razor-sharp sedge, its venomous snakes, or its larger-than-life collection of saurian green predators, but we like even less knowing that we, as a species, drove anything to extinction. With Ms. Douglas’ help – and others – people saw all-too-clearly that was indeed where the ‘Glades were headed. Work began on a “restoration program” to try and keep the Everglades from drying out and dying.

Except, of course, that Big Sugar remains. Death of a one-of-a-kind ecosystem or not, they have to worry about that bottom line, and they will do anything to ensure state and federal laws stay in their favor. While US Sugar has the support of most of Clewiston – without Big Sugar, the best chance a kid has for a future involves the NFL – most everyone else in Florida clucks their tongue and shakes their head when you talk about sugar and the Everglades.

After years of strife between Big Sugar and pretty much anyone else who read a paper in Florida, Governor Charlie Crist came upon a seemingly perfect solution: why not just buy out the company? For under $2 billion, the state could buy 187,000 acres of Big Sugar land, close the refinery, and restore the flow of the Everglades, no easy task after years of soil erosion and degradation courtesy of, of course, Big Sugar.
It sounded like a great, workable solution, so of course it failed in quick stages. The Governor announced the plan in June 2008. By November the plan changed: for $1.34 billion the state could have 181,000 acres but not any of the processing facilities, including the refinery. To make a long story somewhat shorter, the numbers kept shrinking and as of February 2012, US Sugar is still alive and well in Clewiston, much to the relief of its 1,700 employees who depend on America’s sweet tooth to feed their families.

Clewiston’s slogan? “America’s Sweetest City.”

Circling the Pond: West of Okeechobee

(This is the second part of the Lake Okeechobee tour. Read the first part here. New here? Start with What’s this, now?)

 
On the mainland, the route traces the crowded banks of the Caloosahatchee. East of Interstate 75 the buildings grow fewer. In parts, cypress swamps still meet the road, but farms and cattle are more prominent than low-lying swampland. As we pass Buckingham Road the road abandons all pretense of following the twisting river and shoots through the right angles of reclaimed swamp. 
 
This part of Florida is a study in right angles: the road, the crops lining the road, and the drainage canals dug to helpfully dry out the swampland and make the rich muck more useful as soil. Even the Caloosahatchee has succumbed to this idea of order: while the river still curves and bows in places, in parts its lines, too, straighten alongside the neat rows of orange trees, tomatoes, and peppers.
 
Was this the greatest idea? It depends on whom you ask. The farmers and the homes here likely think so; Everglades-huggers likely disagree. The system of drainage canals and pounds of fertilizer and pesticides used on these farms haven’t exactly encouraged the wetland to thrive. It appears that some of the farmers have sold to developers (who, in turn, sell to the unsuspecting folks from out of state), and signs of subdivisions marching south emerge along this road: a supermarket here, a diner there.
 
LaBelle exists at a bend in the Caloosahatchee. It is by no accounts a large city, but it is the main population center between I-75 and Lake Okeechobee along the route. It has not quite 5,000 residents and is the Hendry County seat.

“Cowboys ride into town from the surrounding ranches, wearing broadbrimmed hats, high boots, and other conventional trappings. La Belle’s big event is the Fourth of July rodeo, at which range hands compete in riding Florida broncos and ‘bull-dogging’ steers. Roping and whipcracking contests follow spirited horse races, on which wagering is heavy. A barbecue supper concludes the day, and in the evening square dances are enjoyed in jooks and homes to the music of guitars and fiddles, accented by the thumps of heavy boots.⁠” – GTSS, 1939

Today the rodeo continues in LaBelle, as does the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival. The Festival includes “Grasscar” (a lawnmower race); armadillo races, which are exactly what they sound like; and, of course, the crowning of the Swamp Cabbage Queen.⁠

 
Swamp cabbage, for the uninitiated, comes from the white tender heart of younger cabbage palm trees. When prepared, they look like the logs of string cheese sold in grocery stores, although they taste nothing alike. I can’t get enough of the squishy, sour-ish hearts, but I freely admit they aren’t for everyone. Barry wrinkles his nose at them every time I try and get him to try one, but Florida literature professor Thomas Hallock describes in terms so eloquent I must repeat them:
 
“Ate some in Holopaw,” he says. “What does it taste like? For me, like urine-pickled cauliflower.”
 
Jono Miller, a cabbage palm expert (Seriously, the man wrote a master’s thesis on the cabbage palm. These sorts of things simply do not happen in other states), disagrees. He explains that swamp cabbage is the brand-new part of the tree. Like a brand-new baby, it doesn’t have its own personality yet, so it tastes like whatever you soak it in.

“My suggestion?” he says, “Avoid the urine-pickled swamp cabbage – the ease of preparation is offset by the result.”

Even cabbage palm experts, it seems, have a sense of humor.
In Clewiston I hope to see my first water moccasin as part of my odd love affair with Florida’s legless reptiles. Barry tells stories of crossing the lake on boat deliveries and stopping at the Roland Martin Marine Center for the night. At twilight and after water moccasins would gather on the floating docks, patches of color darker than the dock that looked suspiciously like rope but most definitely were not. A more prevalent but decidedly less deadly evil, the mosquitoes here are so thick that when you sit down to dinner at the marina bar, the server hands you a can of insect repellant.

We stop the van and walk out to the levee, my eyes more focused on the ground than the water. I leave Calypso in the van to keep her safe. Cottonmouth water moccasins are pit vipers with tiny, evil heads and tails but fat, snuggly bodies. Some sick part of me very badly wants to see a one up close. I don’t want to cuddle it, exactly, but I do want to know if they’re as fearsome as my childhood nightmares. I grew up a block away from a creek, and my parents warned me it was chock-full of the dastardly serpents. I never saw one, but odds are if I had seen one, it would have been a common nonvenomous water snake, not a venomous cuddly beast. Brown water snakes are far more populous in Florida, but not as good a deterrent for keeping a curious seven-year-old out of trouble.

At the top of the levee I see a canal with four empty rowboats rafted up to grassy lowland; the lake itself remains mostly out of sight. In the distance I see an empty nesting platform, ready for osprey. I look carefully at the ground and the levee wall. I step carefully. 

I see no snakes. We walk back to the van and commence circling the pond.

Circling the Pond

(New here? Start with What’s this, now?)
“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.⁠” – The Guide to the Southernmost State, 1939
 

Florida cowboys. If you don’t spend time in Florida’s inland areas, that sounds odd. Florida doesn’t have cowboys; the West has cowboys. Florida, by comparison, has beaches and sand and Disney. Somewhere between those beaches and the mighty mouse, though, Florida has cows. Lots and lots of cows. Since Ponce de Leon dropped off the first herd in 1521, Florida’s cattle industry has kept the interior of the state alive: today, Florida ranks 12th in the country for the number of beef cows, with four million acres of pasture and another one million acres of woodland used for grazing.

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 reallymeans 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.⁠”

Sanibel Light
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.