Random Notes for A Blog
1) The weatherman often mentions Lake Okeechobee, the seventh largest freshwater lake in the United States. The place where so many late afternoon summer storms begin, an hour’s drive from Boynton Beach.
Rich is on board with my latest blog idea. Gas is now cheap. Today’s headline in the N.Y. Times is: Lower Oil Prices Provide Benefits to U.S. Workers. $35 buys us a full tank.
The Day of the Cowboy is the excuse for the road trip. Outside of West Palm Beach, we leave the high rise condominiums and outlet stores to head west along a road lined with scrubby palmetto trees, fields of cows, and swamp land. As always, there are the birds. Florida is a birder’s delight. A scarlet tanager whizzes by, so close he almost flies into the windshield.
2) Family Dollar, McDonalds, Wendy’s, churches, Home Depot, Wells Fargo, more churches. I was expecting something a little more quaint. A large sign with large red letters proclaims Prayer is the Best Way to Meet the Lord. Trespassing is Faster.
The strip mall parking lots are full of people sitting on the hoods of cars or the tailgates of trucks, waiting for the cattle drive through town. We join them and strike up a conversation with a man from North Carolina who has been coming to Okeechobee every winter for the past ten years and in summer visits bike week in Loudon, N.H. His business is making caskets that can be pulled behind motorcycles in funeral processions. “It allows me to travel around the country selling my product. That’s the way I like it,” he tells us.
He tells us Florida has more cattle farms than Texas. He’s never been to today’s rodeo. At ten dollars a ticket, he says it’s expensive, but he’s heard it’s worth it. Three men in cowboy hats and boots are leaning against their truck. We assume they are local ranchers, so Rich walks over to ask them about the rodeo.
The road is now littered with cow shit. The aroma is intense, but a young man with long dreadlocks is riding on the back of a golf cart cleaning up the mess with a long handled pooper scooper.
“Hell of job, isn’t it?” I ask the man from N.C.
“It’s just for one day,” he replies.
Rich reports back. “Those guys aren’t ranchers. They’re lumberjacks from Canada here for the winter. They say it isn’t worth it. It’s not a real rodeo. It’s just a bunch of tutorials and demonstrations. They don’t think there’s any BBQ there, but they do sell belt buckles.”
3) Friends recommended Pogeys Family Restaurant for breakfast. The line is still out the door at 11:45. We are willing to sit at the counter, so we get right in. We both order eggs, hash browns, coffee, and biscuits. Our very friendly young waitress is wearing a Mile High Football T-shirt and we all discuss football. She is disappointed to hear we are Patriots fans. She hates Tom Brady. Why does everyone hate Tom Brady?
When our breakfast arrives, Rich has hash browns and I have home fries. I really wanted hash browns. The waitress checks her slip and apologizes. I have the wrong plate. The man to my left says, “She did it on purpose. She told ya she didn’t like Tom Brady.”
Football and fishing are the topics along the counter. Rich gets advice on the best bait to use for catching bass. “There’s the wild and the farmed shiners. Eighteen dollars a dozen for the wild, but you gotta have ’em. You won’t catch nothin’ using the farmed.”
4) Instead of the rodeo that is not really a rodeo, we stop at the Okeechobee Trading Post/Flea Market before checking out a trail along the lake that one of the guys at Pogeys told us about. Rich has stumbled upon his idea of shopping paradise. For over an hour, I keep losing him in the alleys and warrens of this barn like building where he buys a golf club:
And sunglasses. He spends thirty minutes trying on different pairs and chatting it up with the husband and wife who have worked their booth for twenty years.
I bought six garlic cloves in a net bag.
Lake Okeechobee is larger and more picturesque than we imagined. We walk around a bit, stopping at a mucky pond where two alligators stalk a bird, but one of them ends up with an empty can of Yahoo stuck in his mouth.
Rich makes this observation: “See what pollution is doing to the environment. No one gives a shit. They throw their trash everywhere. This guy is going to swallow that can..”
It did take the gator quite some time and quite a bit of work to get the can out of his mouth. The birds escaped unharmed.
5) We drove home a different route, along the lake through miles of Over 55 trailer parks past more religious signs and crosses, tree farms, and sod farms with acres of beautiful silvery ornamental grass swaying in the breeze. Air boats were in every backyard, like snowmobiles in Maine.
Passing through Pahokee, the population appears to be one hundred percent African American and housing is mainly rows and rows of apartment buildings with laundry hanging on clotheslines. A local boy claimed his fifteen minutes of fame when he asked President Obama to help his community overcome its economic plight. They appear to still be struggling, as witnessed by the numerous buildings that were boarded up.
Outside Pahokee, the road opens up to miles and miles of sugar cane fields which lead us to the opposite end of the American spectrum. The wealthy town of Wellington, where Bruce Springsteen and Tommy Lee Jones own one of the many horse farms here, and people play polo.
6) Rich knows of a little burger joint/dive bar in West Palm where they sell the best burgers in South Florida. He looks at me and asks, “Brass Ring?” Why not. I’m hungry and I’m not sure if I found what I was looking for today.
The Brass Ring is on a section of Dixie Highway lined with car dealerships and furniture stores. It’s a cinder block box with no windows that you can drive by without noticing, unless you know it’s there. The delicious aroma of grilled burgers hits you the minute you open the door. College basketball games are on the multiple TV’s. The A/C is set on high. Pool tables fill the back of the room, and in one corner a group of guys swing a brass ring on a rope toward a hook on the wall.
We take a booth across from the bar, order burgers and wings, and a $5 pitcher of Amber Bock served with a Ziploc baggie of ice floating on top. The mugs are frosted, the burgers are juicy, and the wings are messy. License plates and bumper stickers line the walls made of worn tongue and groove oak boards covered with graffiti. Everyone’s been here, including Alecislicious, Tom & Sue whose names are in a heart with an arrow, and of course, Kilroy.
The guys at the bar discuss the upcoming football games on Sunday. No one likes Tom Brady, but some admit he is formidable. Especially at home, on a cold day.
7) Stepping out of the dark bar into the fading daylight, we squint into the sun sinking to the West. We decide to take the coastal route home. There is very little ocean to see along this route. We pass through the hegemonious hedges of West Palm, wondering which home was owned by the Kennedys, and who else owns these mansions of the 21st century. Are they all Wall Street robber barons? How the hell do they make their money?
Along most of the road the Intracoastal is to our right, but we can’t see that either. Through gated driveways I occasionally catch a glimpse of a postcard perfect sunset, but the view is fleeting. It belongs to someone else, not me.
8) So I have all these notes that I kept throughout the day in my Buddha notebook, which fell out of my purse in Pogey’s, and I quickly shoved back in my pocketbook, because I saw the bumper stickers in the parking lot, echoing the sentiments of the big red sign that greeted us when we arrived in town. I am left wondering what is this mission to find the real Florida? What happened to my country? How did we get here? What am I searching for?
“That was a good day,” Rich said. And yes, I agreed it was, as we settled in to watch Philomena on Showtime, with bowls of chocolate chip ice cream. But I am left without words to explain all that I saw on my road trip through a small part of South Florida in a very large place called America.