Swamp Dreams: How I Nearly Ruined Thanksgiving
You've thrown away the last of the leftovers by now, right? I know they're good. I know. But it's time to say goodbye. I almost doomed myself to a night of leftovers on Thanksgiving itself this year.
My mom and her best friend bought an older condo in Naples, Florida a few years back, and with the aid of much vodka, and slightly less gin, fixed the place up. So we do Thanksgiving down there now. I always bring a bike, and while 80 mile seaside cruises with 6’ of climbing are lovely, I wanted a different kind of ride.
It was already climbing into the 80s when I set out, with Mom telling me to be home for happy hour at 4, with turkey to follow. A little background: Thanksgiving is one of my favorite meals EVER, and my mom goes all out. Everything is made from scratch, and the quantities are insane so I can bring leftovers home. (I promise, mine are long gone!)
I aimed for the Picayune Strand State Forest. A quick glance at the map looked like there was a solid network of hiking trails and a few main roads entering and leaving. As I left the sprawling McMansions of endless Florida country clubs behind, and turned onto the road leading into the forest, I laughed audibly with excitement: a seemingly endless stretch of palm tree-lined gravel road went on further than I could see. Ok, it was ribbon straight, and I wasn't holding out hope for scenic vistas, but this SLAYED a bike lane by the Gulf.
Pausing to check the map, it looked like the road went right through the forest until it intersected with another road. Some trails shot off from both, and I figured I'd enter from the East, wind my way through, and head out the South side into a State Park before mashing back for a quick shower and some extensive gluttony.
That's when I got to the lake. The map had no lake. Thanks, Siri. This wasn't a creek crossing, nor even a big puddle. It was an actual body of water. Standing slack jawed, some off road drivers came around the bend. I asked if the road they came from would get me across the water. They said it would, but that I probably couldn't do it on a bike.
“Can you walk it?”
“Then I'll find a way to ride it.”
The going was tough, but rideable, and soon I was past the water with more gravel road stretching out before me. I planned to head to the center of the forest and then to go South to Collier Seminole State Park before sprinting home to turkey. It didn't quite work out.
I turned off the main road onto what looked like a perfect trail leading into Collier Seminole. It looked perfect on the map. The map hates me.
I bushwhacked, with a Merckx on my shoulder, for a quarter mile before I just couldn't go any further. So I retraced my steps, and headed down another promising road. A snake slithered across the trail; vultures circled above. And then, water. Less than the lake from earlier, but nothing I could traverse. Back to this intersection.
The new plan was to ride East to get out of the forest. I got about half a mile in that direction before I came to a wide, sandy expanse that went on as far as I could see.
There are times when you've played all your hand. No cards left. So I called my dad, and told him to come get me. He asked me if I was really a 45 minute drive, and I knew I was. I'd been riding all day. When we hung up, I checked that DAMN map once more - 13.5 miles to the point I told Dad to meet me. Oops; totally lost a sense of scale. I put my head down, and went full ape mode just in time for him to come to my rescue. I got to the end of the road just as he pulled up in my white Buick rental car.
We stopped for gas and a much needed Busch for me. And we made it back in time for me to wash the swamp off!
Throughout the day, I saw a few faded markers for Golden Gate Estates. It was supposed to have been "the world's largest subdivision." Its 41,000 acres - including 300 miles of roads and 55 miles of dredged canals - were sold in the early 1960s by land-scam artists who drained the wetlands and flew prospective buyers over, pitching the swamp to unsuspecting folks - most of whom saw the land only from the air, if at all. Today, the land is inhabited by rattlesnakes, alligators, vultures, panthers, and precious little else.
Dream peddlers guaranteed its reality by running slideshows and displaying illustrations of a giant golden arch spanning a fountain near a wide boulevard leading to ranch homes, shopping centers and schools. They billed this swamp as "The City of the Future."
It was indeed beautiful, and lonely, and lonesome, and while I was glad to have seen it, I was happier to hop into that Buick.