Once again Joe, Bryn and I packed lightly, hopped into our van and drove to Florida’s Panhandle, and Panama City Beach. These last three years of intense cold, deep snow and cutting winds, things I normally find invigorating, were becoming too much. For a few days, Florida’s warmth would make a welcome change.
Joe and I enjoyed biking with Bryn-dog all around Conservation Park, located about 12 miles west of Panama City Beach. It provides long wooden elevated paths through extensive wetlands, as well as wide asphalt paths to allow visitors easy access to that fascinating territory. Some of the gorgeous birds there took our breath away.
Sawgrass (which isn’t actually a grass, but a sedge) growing thickly on either side of the paths, is aptly named. If touched, the leaves’ sharp, serrated edges will cut into unprotected legs, arms and hands. Sometimes, in the right conditions (i.e., lots of standing water most of the time) this nasty, attractive, sturdy grass can grow 9 feet tall. Birds enjoy its seeds, and alligators use it to pad their nests. (Of course, their hides are impervious to its sharp blades.) Sawgrass is one of the earth’s oldest plants, and has learned some pretty awesome survival skills over millions of years. It shrugs off fire, intense summer heat, hurricanes- and humans who may try to chop it gone. Its well-established underwater roots quickly grow new blades.
It is always unsettling to note alligators noting us. They’re everywhere. We visited another state park and wisely left Bryn in the car while we strolled 70 feet to the elevated observation deck near a small, quiet sunlit lake. Nearby, three big dinosaur-like beasts just floated, watched, and waited. I saw a little dog bouncing and barking before the annoyed owner shortened the leash so it wouldn’t fall into the water. That cockapoo would have made a quick snack.
We walked some steep, hilly, sandy trails near the small lake that had wild, tangled vegetation on both sides of the paths, which were, by the way, studded with long tree roots half buried in sand. It was easy for walkers to trip. Joe forged ahead, vanishing into narrow side paths, but I was uneasy, and kept to the main one’s exact center. Alligators- and snakes, too- can move at lightning speed, and could easily be parked in amongst the thick sawgrass and vines. Big signs warned that we were in THEIR territory, and to Stay On The Trail. Oh- and report to a ranger any alligator that we might encounter along the way.
Smack in the middle of this little lake (or, more accurately, large pond) sat a small mounded island blanketed with scrub trees that were nearly overwhelmed with giant nesting blue herons, who kept flapping in (after dining in the Gulf) to skim above those naked branches before folding their enormous wings to settle into their big, rough nests. The scene was eerily prehistoric.
Instead of a sandy or stony beach, a wide band of bright green lilypads surrounded the island, barely moving when two large alligators languidly swam through them hoping for a silly birdling to tip out, right into their jaws.
I couldn’t imagine trying to raise a family out there. The enormous herons seemed indifferent to the monsters just below.
After awhile we took down our bikes from the van’s back and I buckled Bryn into the very cool Bike Tow Leash. Off we went on a long, exploratory ride, with Joe leading the way. After about 2 miles he cycled back to me with a suggestion: “Ride closer to the side of the path so Bryn can trot on the sidelines. This asphalt looks rough and can be hard on paws for long distances...”
Good idea, thought I.
GREAT idea, thought the horrid little chollas lurking in the rough winter grass. Three of these tiny burrs made Bryn lame within five minutes. Fortunately, I noticed and stopped right away. Dismounting, I lifted her paws. There, imbedded between her toes, were the wicked little monsters. They’re the very devil to pull out.
She was happy to be free of their painful grasp, and after that I made sure she trotted only on the tarmac. Better the devil you know...
We all moved happily along, enjoying the cool breezes and cloudless sky. The sun made everything green and gleaming, as rain had fallen hours before.
Miles later we finally wound up back at our parking area. Bryn hopped up into her place in the van and we drove to a little place called Fishale, which served the best darn perfectly cooked 8-ounce hamburger (–just that- no bun-) I’ve had in ages. And, the sweet potato fries, cut slim to make them crispy, were to die for. I loved every morsel.
It’s long been a policy of mine to tip a cook who is exceptional. The smiling waitress reported that, astounded, he’d said: “I’ve been cooking meals here for 24 years, and this is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”
He was happy for the positive feedback. (Great word choice, eh?)
I’ve always thought that, besides tipping staff, cooks who produce a particularly yummy meal should be similarly rewarded. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy, just Delicious. Chefs/cooks strive for culinary excellence, but are otherwise ignored by the patrons they work so hard to please. Their reward: people keep coming back. (Fine and dandy. But they never see them; they’re busy slaving over a hot stove.)
It’s fun to thank them another way.
La Quinta hotels welcome dogs (at no extra charge), and when visits pile up, good things happen. As we checked in, the manager smiled and said, “You’ve earned an upgrade; I’ve booked you a suite for the same price as our regular rooms.” We were astounded! We’d forgotten all about La Quinta’s rewards program when we’d signed up at Zion National Park three years ago. Now we had a suite- a big one- for eight days! Awesome!
All in all, every day was wonderful: Sun, Sand, Stars, Music, an Ocean gently lapping a pristine beach- and the three of us snug in our Suite.
Life just doesn’t get much better than this.