Milkshakes and Memories

There is something about farmer’s markets and roadside farm stands that remind me of my grandpa.  Cherry colored tomatoes conjure images of my Grandpa Huke shuffling down the rows of his perfectly manicured garden in our backyard.  Piles of green beans remind me of the time he thought it would be a good idea to sprinkle dog hair around the plants to keep away the rabbits.  I’m not quite sure if the rabbits actually kept their distance, but I know my family kept its distance from hairy green beans that summer.  Rows of sweet corn rouse my memories as I search for that ear of corn that will taste like the fresh picked sweetness of my youth.  So when I walked into Robert is Here, I was transported back in time.

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After a hot bike ride through Shark Valley, the frequent fresh milkshake signs on the highway piqued my interest.  With tropical and traditional fruits, each sign vouched to be the best one around.  If you know me, I’m a planner, so before we journeyed into the Everglades I had already researched one particular farm stand that promised to be well worth a milkshake stop.

When we approached, the parked cars that lined both sides of the street confirmed that this place must be great.  I entered the store and instantly pictured my grandpa selling his crops at the flea market each weekend.

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While our main purpose was milkshakes, this place has a little bit of everything, from fresh veggies and fruits to seashells and a splash pad.  Jars of jams, jellies, dressings, honey, and marinades line the walls.  Below them are bags of jerky–gator or beef.  Behind the store stood an eclectic mix of tortoises, donkeys, ducks, goats, and emus.  Not to mention a pig and a pair of parrots.  It was quite the motley crew, but they provided some entertainment as I waited for our milkshakes to be made.

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35 minutes later it was taste-test time.  Strawberry-key lime for me and strawberry-passion fruit for Geoff.  Both were given an enthusiastic thumbs up.  In fact, they were so delicious that we made a stop on our return home for round two:  mango and strawberry banana this time.

Robert’s story is an endearing one, starting his business selling cucumbers as a six-year-old and buying his first ten acres of land at age fourteen.  You can read the rest of his story here, as he tells it better than I can.  Yes, the milkshakes were delectable, but the long forgotten memories Robert’s store inspired were something that I appreciated even more.   And yes, I did take a few ears of corn to sample.  While tasty, my search continues.

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See Ya Later Alley of Gators

When I booked our camping and kayaking trip to the Everglades a few months ago, the only images in my mind were sitting by a campfire eating smores, floating in my kayak viewing manatees and dolphins, and taking a technology break.  However, in the days before the trip, my romantic camping ideas were replaced by images of giant Burmese pythons–capable of eating small deer–slithering into my tent and asphyxiating me.

These images dominated my brain thanks to recent reports on the news the few days before we left.  And as we explored several regions of the park, the word python was on everyone’s lips.  From the kids biking with us in Shark Valley, to the guide leading our boat ride, everyone had a fun fact about pythons that they clearly thought I wanted to hear.  It’s probably important to mention that my greatest fear in life is seeing snakes in the wild which is ironic since a small ball python lives in the room next to my bedroom.  I would be remiss if I too did not share a fun fact about pythons that I learned on this trip:  It is estimated that nearly 100,000 pythons reside in the River of Grass, but due to their perfectly camouflaged coloring, they are nearly impossible to spot, and on a recent python hunting season only 68 were caught over the course of the nearly month long season.  This ranger-provided information did absolutely nothing to assuage my fears.  So I did my best to ignore the ever-constant snake threat and enjoy my trip.

First stop, Shark Valley.

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Once the ride is over, we are all smiles! Publix subs await.

Located in the northern boundaries of the park, Shark Valley is the place to spot alligators.  Beginning before we even entered the park boundaries, we began spotting our Florida state reptile in the canal that ran parallel to the highway.   The parking lot is small at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, and since we did not arrive until nearly 11 on a Saturday, we were forced to park on US 41 and ride our bikes a little extra.  After ten dollars, a visit to the restroom, and freshly filled water bottles we were on our way for a hellish adventurous  fifteen mile bike ride.

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The never-ending trail of hot asphalt.

 Within a quarter of a mile we were spotting gators every few feet and calling out 8, 9, 10 as each of us saw them.  And of course we had to be those tourists that get as close as possible.  We even made Flat Stanley do the same.  (We took Flat Stanley on our adventure for my cousin that lives in Indiana.)

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Can I get a little closer?

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Flat Stanley loves gators too.

 After a few miles the gators became, dare I say, boring because there were so many of them.  So we began looking for other signs of life.  Turtles abounded, but our coolest spotting was the Purple Gallinule.  Sadly our little purple friend did not want to be photographed, and by the time I was ready to snap his picture, he was hidden in the brush.  We were, however, able to capture a Great Blue Heron hanging out on the banks of the marsh majestically searching for fish.  We also saw two Anhinga fledglings covered in fluffy white feathers, a stark contrast to their black adult counterparts.

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Great Blue Heron

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Baby Anhingas

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, we continued our shadeless ride towards the observation tower.  The concrete monstrosity provided both a rest from riding and some much appreciated shade.  I took comfort in the fact that it was so hot that the pythons has to be seeking shade today–right?

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Observation Tower: mile 7

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Back on our bikes we started the eight mile return trip through what I’d like to call a little taste of hell.  By this point the sun was blazing, my butt hurt from riding, I was starving, and running out of water  I’m pretty sure my whining was getting on Geoff’s nerves as well, but all I wanted was a tree with some shade to rest under.  At this point I was willing to sacrifice a python sighting for a sliver of shade.   Plus our alligator sighting and any wildlife for that matter had dropped to practically nil.

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Gator number 72

 After several rest stops to give my aching butt a minute of relief and finishing off my water bottle and Geoff’s, we pushed on. The promise of Publix subs and air conditioning gave me the energy to finish the last miles.

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I’m smiling, but I’m crying on the inside.

And so we left Shark Valley saying see ya later “Alley of Gators” as we had named it and drove on to the most southern part of the continental US.

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Elevation: 12 feet

Perhaps if I had taken that bike ride in, say…January or perhaps at 8 AM, it would not have been such a miserable experience.  I would not recommend starting at 11, and if you were to arrive to Shark Valley this late in the day, I’d say take the tram instead.  While I’m glad we we went on our bike rides– we did end up seeing 78 alligators–I do not think this is something I would venture to do again.  I am quite happy with the blessedly shaded West Orange Trail that is much closer to home and poses no threat of pythons.