The city of Homestead turned out to be an ideal base for exploring all three of the National Parks in southern Florida. Biscayne National Park is just nine miles to the east. Everglades National Park is just eight miles to the west. And Highway 1 runs from Homestead all the way down to Key West, where a ferry makes a daily trip to Dry Tortugas National Park.
According to the local meteorologists, however, Hurricane Irene might make it difficult to go anywhere at all. Irene was wreaking havoc in the Caribbean and might hit southern Florida the next day. Knowing that Biscayne National Park was best explored by boat, I decided to go there right away in case the ocean would soon be whipped into a frenzy by 100-mile-an-hour winds.
I was lucky enough to arrive at the Biscayne visitor center just before the afternoon snorkeling boat was scheduled to leave, and less than an hour later I was cruising out to sea with an international group of tourists that included families from India, Slovakia, and (of course) Germany. As our boat passed Adam’s Key, the captain told us it had once been the site of the Cocolobo Club, one of Richard Nixon’s favorite getaways. The captain also pointed to the place where the legendary pirate Black Caesar executed his captives by chaining them to a rock at low tide and then watching as the water gradually rose above their heads. Apparently the area attracts a rough crowd.
Eventually we dropped anchor in shallow water and started snorkeling. The captain warned us that we might run into a few moon jellies (“Using the word ‘jellyfish’ is inaccurate,” a park ranger said during our pre-trip briefing, “because they’re not fish.”), but there were far more than a few. Occasionally I found myself completely surrounded by the ethereally beautiful jellies, translucent with a pink tinge, some of them larger than a basketball.
Several people in our group refused to even get in the water. I had about 45 minutes of snorkeling time before the captain called us back to the boat so that we could try a different location. But, unable to find any jelly-free water, the captain decided to call it a day and return us to the visitor center ahead of schedule.
Having learned my lesson I didn’t leave the car again. But I did continue to drive around the park, and whenever I stopped it only took an instant for a dark swarm of mosquitoes to appear at the windows, each of their tiny bodies slamming repeatedly against the glass in a frantic effort to reach me. I settled for a few more photos from inside the car and then retreated back to Homestead.
The next morning, already irritated by the itchy red welts on my arms and legs, I’d just pulled out of my hotel to make a breakfast run when flashing red lights appeared behind me. A cop, hand on his holster, approached warily and asked for my license, insurance, and registration.
I’d really hoped I could make it through this road trip without getting pulled over. My registration and insurance had both lapsed while I was overseas, but as soon as I got back in the U.S. I’d renewed my insurance and mailed in a check to cover my registration fee (plus the fine for being late). The registration paperwork, however, hadn’t arrived yet, and I’d left the packet containing my new insurance card back in my hotel room. I explained all this to the cop. “Well, according to my system your registration expired in December,” he said.
“Would it make any difference if I showed you on my phone an image of the cancelled check the California DMV just cashed?” I asked.
The cop’s mirrored sunglasses prevented me from seeing his expression. “All I care about is what’s in the system,” he said in a businesslike monotone.
His system was accurate. I found out later that my registration was still invalid because the interruption of my insurance coverage had, without my knowledge, triggered a $14 penalty that remained unpaid. I was in the wrong, but that didn’t make the ticket I received any less frustrating.
Thankfully my luck began to improve. The mid-day sun and a light breeze completely changed the mosquito situation in the Everglades, and I was able to walk around the Anhinga Trail without losing any blood. I hoped to see some wildlife and the Everglades didn’t disappoint – large alligators glided slowly though the water and came very near the path.