Monday, February 27, 2012

Sebastian Inlet and the Disco Torture Chamber

I could’ve sworn A1A went all the way down the east coast of Florida. If you wanted to, you could drive it all the way from Jacksonville to Key West; a long, scenic drive, perched above the dunes, with marsh, river and bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other. I thought you could cruise almost endlessly from the Georgia state line to the Southernmost point of the U.S.

Well, friends, it really doesn't work that way.

Shortly after leaving Melbourne, we hopped back on the not-so-endless-after-all coastal highway. With really no plan at all, short of “we need to keep going southward," we headed, uh … southward.

One of the things I eagerly anticipated on this trip was the chance to see – and hopefully fish – some of the places I’d read about (maybe even dreamed about) for years. Sebastian Inlet was one of those places, and it was directly in our path.

We cruised into the state park, paid our fee for the day, then made our way through the short, winding road to the parking area. It was unusually cold for mid-Florida, chilled even further by a howling northeast wind. The sun tried hard to peak out amidst the clouds, but pale grayish blue was about the best hue it could produce.

Betsy and I sat in our car and gazed at the sight in front of us. It was epic. The inlet cut through the sand; unnatural, yet grand in its design and scope. The tide was coming in, pushed forward by the wind and crashing through the concrete supports of a long jetty on the north side of the cut. Sea birds of all types – gulls, terns, pelicans, herons – swooped, swarmed and dove into the roiling water below, almost always finding a bait fish dinner. A handful of dedicated, if not crazy, fishermen lobbed baits into the maelstrom from the end of a long, concrete and steel pier.

We pushed open the doors of our vehicle and reactively shivered from the brisk, 25 m.p.h. wind. The sound – the vibrating wind, the roar of the tide and high-pitched shrieking of the birds – was a fitting soundtrack to the scene that played out in front of us. As we walked to the water, we passed a smiling fisherman making his way back to the parking lot. Betsy asked if he caught anything. “Trout. Big ones. And, a couple of sheepshead.”

This was my kind of place.

While tempted to grab my 12-foot surf rod and sprint to the end of the jetty to hurl metal into the seething surf, I hesitated, deterred by the gale and cold. As I rationalized the opportunity, I also realized I’d have to dig through a heavily-packed back seat, including removing a lead-heavy ice-and-drink-filled cooler, in order to retrieve my surf gear. That uncomfortable thought, along with the miserable elements, the unfamiliarity with the surroundings, the fact we were actually on a journey and time was finally becoming of the essence, and the reality that I’d be asking my wife to be a spectator to my near-freezing fishing folly, made me realize that fishing was a bad idea.
As we walked towards the jetty, waves crashed over the handful of idiots risking hypothermia in order to fish for whatever swam in the inlet. Betsy and I snapped a few photos of a flock of terns gathered near the seawall, grouped closely together like Emperor penguins braving an Antarctic blizzard. While we never braved the end of the jetty, we could also see that nobody was catching fish. Mr. Big Trout and Sheepshead was obviously out of his mind … probably as a result of a severe drop in internal body temperature.

While I never cast a line into the miraculous and famous inlet, we did have a blast walking around and enjoying the sights and sounds of the place. Afterwards, we drove a short distance down A1A to a nature preserve known for its giant white pelicans. While we only saw one bird – it looked just like the one on the pickle bottles; it even had a little hat on, no lie (I know it's a stork, just roll with it) – we encountered numerous osprey, a bald eagle and tons of ibises. Or Ibis. Ibi. Whatever.

After our nature walk, we toured the fishing museum next to the inlet before knocking back a late lunch in the parking lot overlooking the water (turkey roll-ups, served on paper towels and eaten from the relative warmth of the inside of our car). As we ate, we watched young loggerhead turtles bob up and down in the current, grabbing quick gulps of air before sounding once again. It was yet another cool scene for us.

As the sun dropped into the inland horizon, we continued to go south. After realizing that A1A was about to come to an abrupt halt at the Fort Pierce Inlet (it "ends" as it joins 1A ... before beginning yet again on the other side of the inlet), we chose the interstate in order to make up some time. Betsy was behind the wheel as I did my best to both navigate and find a place to stay the night. We eventually chose a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, far from the beach and tucked into a relatively quiet business park. It was a perfect place to rest on the eve before our last push to Islamorada.

After dropping our bags in our room, we found a nearby sports bar and grabbed a quick burger. It was the only downer meal of the trip. The cheeseburgers were fine, and the onion rings weren’t bad, but Betsy hated the bar. Dance music blasted through the sound system, neon lights flashed everywhere and we were literally surrounded by hundreds of TVs, all of which featured crappy NBA games (ed. note: all NBA games are crappy; except for those shown on the NBA Classic channel, particularly games from 1996 and back, preferably involving Jordan 23 or Magic or Bird). Betsy called it a “disco torture chamber sports bar.” I admit, the atmosphere was challenging. But, the beer was good.

We fell asleep in our fourth hotel in four nights. Since leaving Murfreesboro, we’d had lunch with a famous transvestite in Savannah, trespassed on a vacant oceanfront lot in St. Augustine (the oldest city in the country), gawked at manatees in the Indian River, ate Irish food in Melbourne, spent two hours trying to look at one damn pelican in Sebastian and enjoyed lunch in our car overlooking the most epic looking fishing spot I’d ever seen. And, really, our adventure really hadn’t even begun. The next day, we’d navigate Miami and then head to the purple islands for a three-day break from travel. We were ready to relax.

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