Alligator Alley: Florida’s Van Fleet Trail

A rather large alligator along the Van Fleet Trail.

Alligators are about as common in Florida as white-tailed deer in Maryland. But no matter how many times I visit, I’m always thrilled to see one. On my trip to Florida this past March, I saw more—many more—than I ever had before.

I spotted one while bicycling on Jekyll Island in Georgia with Sue. In Florida we saw two more from a lakeside boardwalk in Inverness, one swimming by just below us. I counted five as I bicycled around Chain of Lakes Park in Titusville; three I could have walked up to and touched, had I been so foolish. I saw several—a couple quite large—while cycling through Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. But I lost count of how many I saw while cycling with friends Tad and Lea along the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail in central Florida.

Tad and Lea relaxing in the shade along the trail.

The Van Fleet Trail extends about 29 miles, from Mabel south to Polk City, through a large blank spot in the map west to southwest of Orlando. Smoothly paved and well maintained, it is one of the longest and most secluded rail trails in the state. Only two rural roads cross it, dividing the trail neatly into thirds.

If you could roll a bowling ball straight and far enough from the northern trailhead, it wouldn’t veer off into the grass until it reached the trail’s one and only bend almost two dozen miles away. We joked that we could see oncoming cyclists rising up from the horizon, helmet-first, like the masts of tall ships at sea.

Unlike many rail trails, straight here doesn’t mean boring. After heading south from the parking area at Mabel, we immediately entered a cypress swamp. This northern third of the trail is nicely shaded. To the left you can see fields and farms; to the right, trees with knees poking above dark waters. We passed the relics of an old settlement: two rusted vehicles and the remains of a house. We saw lots of gopher tortoises, large burrowing critters who quickly ducked back into their holes beside the trail or lumbered off into the brush when we drew close. They moved pretty quickly for turtles.

The middle third of the trail, which runs through the Green Swamp, was more open and less shaded. It looked surprisingly less like a swamp than the northern section. Alerted by other cyclists, we soon began spotting alligators resting in the waters and wooded areas beside the trail, and especially below the three bridges the trail crosses over.

At one place, we came across a large alligator and, close by, nine baby alligators, no more than 18 inches long. I had only seen one baby alligator in the wild, years ago, swimming in the Everglades. So to see nine in one spot was quite a thrill.

Unlike their mother, basking nearby in the sun, they crawled around, snapped at tempting snacks hidden in the grasses, and provoked a nearby turtle into sudden escape. They were fun to watch. I even saw one or two seize something and twist into what looked to me like the start of an “alligator roll”—the deadly maneuver by which alligators drown their prey.


Can you spot all nine baby alligators? One is less than a foot long.

Farther along, below one of the bridges, we came across another gator gathering, a mother and babies, a couple of juveniles (3 feet or so long) and a couple of other larger ones nearby. I repeatedly (they kept moving around) counted 13 babies spread through the water and grasses, ranging in size from perhaps 18 inches to less than a foot. There may have been even more hidden from my view.

There are at least a dozen alligators here. How many can you count?

We turned around at the second road crossing, after cycling 19 miles. We didn’t bike down the southern-most third of the trail, the one with that single bend. We had ridden that section a few years ago, and I don’t recall it as being especially interesting.

Other than restrooms at the parking areas, shaded benches, and some bicycle repair stations, there are no other amenities along the trail. Bring plenty of water and some snacks. On many stretches, there is no shelter from the sun. Park rangers do patrol the trail in cars, and cyclists watch out for each other, but it is always a good idea to be prepared with a basic tire repair kit and a pump.

A final word of caution: Some of the parking areas are quite remote, and vehicles have been broken into there. So avoid leaving anything valuable or tempting in your car.

See the TrailLink entry on the Van Fleet Trail for more information and interesting comments from visitors.

Bonus Feature! More Florida Wildlife Photos

David Romanowski, 2018

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“Roadside Attractions” at the U.S. Botanic Garden

For the second year in a row, the “Season’s Greenings” holiday display at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., has a travel theme. Last year it was “National Parks and Historic Places.” This year it is “Roadside Attractions.”

The display contains more than 40 individual structures made of plant materials, ranging from a Route 66 diner to the Corn Palace, Cadillac Ranch, Mount Rushmore, Lucy the Margate Elephant, Niagara Falls and the Maid of the Mist, and many more roadside attractions you may or may not know about.

Applied Imagination, a Kentucky-based firm, has worked with the Botanic Garden to create a new display every year since 2004. On display each year as well are a dozen models of iconic Washington monuments, memorials, museums, and other buildings also crafted from plant materials.

The creativity and detail work evident in these creations is spectacular. So are the conservatory’s poinsettia displays. Visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden on Christmas morning has become a tradition Sue and I look forward to every year.

“Roadside Attractions” opened on Thanksgiving and is on display until New Year’s Day. For more information, visit the U.S. Botanic Garden website.

David Romanowski, 2017

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Washington, D.C., 1969

My First Trip to Washington

When I was a kid, most of my family’s overnight travels involved visiting relatives or attending my father’s annual army reunion, trips within a day’s drive or so from our Western New York home. But my parents believed that introducing their children to our nation’s capital was important enough to merit a special trip.

When my older sister and brother reached their early teens, my father packed up our car and drove them and a cousin of ours to Washington for a visit of several days. A few years later, when I was in ninth grade, it was my turn.

This time, Dad and I flew, a momentous event in itself. I had never flown before. Dad’s first and only flight had been on a troop transport in the Philippines during World War II. Another first: it would just be the two of us on this trip, the predecessor of my travels with Dad decades later.

So one day in April 1969 during Easter break, we packed our suitcases, donned our suits, and headed for the Greater Buffalo International Airport. After kissing Mom goodbye at the gate, we walked down the jetway and boarded our plane for the hour-long flight to Washington, D.C.

I took pictures with this type of camera. Sadly, I lost mine on a trip a few years later. [Photo: Deviant Art]

I took photos below with a Kodak Brownie Camera my mother had handed down to me a couple of years earlier. It had only two controls: a shutter release button and a film advance nob. It took 24- or 36-exposure rolls of film I had to thread onto a take-up spool. It had a detachable flash unit that used disposable flashbulbs. Given these limitations, I took relatively few photos, mostly of buildings and monuments. I no longer have prints of some, although I still have all the negatives. The images below I scanned from some of the remaining prints.

We probably flew on a Boeing 727, with its rear-mounted engines. We sat in the last row, so our view was limited by both the wing and an engine.

As we flew down the Potomac River on our approach to Washington National Airport, we passed over what I now recognize as the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. We were on the wrong side of the plane to see the city. But as our jet turned around on the tarmac after landing, I got my first stirring view: the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument lined up in the distance.

We visited several Smithsonian buildings, including the Museum of Natural History. One notable change on the National Mall since then: the streets running down its center are now graveled pedestrian paths. I took the photo on the right 40 years later at the same time of year.

The Smithsonian Castle, across the Mall from the Natural History Museum, was the institution’s original home. The building was completed in 1855. To the right: the Castle 40 years later. It now houses Smithsonian offices and a visitor center.

I took my only interior photo in what is now called the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. This Apollo capsule was launched into space two years earlier on the first test flight of the giant Saturn V rocket. Four months after my visit to Washington, a similar rocket and spacecraft would carry Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon.

Our most sweeping views were from the top of the Washington Monument. We took the elevator to the observation level. Later we walked down its 898 stairs, something the National Park Service no longer allows.

The monuments on the National Mall were my favorite photographic subjects.

This is me later in 1969 with my younger sisters at Niagara Falls.

I moved to the Washington area almost 15 years later. Although I never planned to stay, after 34 years I’m still here. Sometimes when I’m looking down the National Mall at the Washington Monument or across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial framed in cherry blossoms, some deep memory resurfaces, and for a fleeting moment I can imagine seeing these scenes as I did for the first time. Sometimes I can even recall a scent that I associate with the room at the Hotel Harrington where my father and I stayed.

The prints of the photos I took with my old Brownie Camera have faded, but I still treasure them as my first images of the place I now call home.

David Romanowski, 2017

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Washington, D.C., 1953

A Road Map of the Past

Spread before me is a “Road Map and Visitor’s Guide” to Washington, D.C., and vicinity, published by Esso Standard Oil Company in 1953. Esso and its competitors provided such maps free of charge to travelers who stopped at their gas stations throughout the United States. I bought the map at an antique shop.

In 1953 World War II was only eight years in the past. The Korean War had just ended in a truce. The official launch of the interstate highway system was still three years away. Over the preceding few decades, the city of Washington had grown dramatically as the federal government expanded in response to two world wars and the Great Depression. This map captures that moment in time.

One side of the map shows the entire District of Columbia and surrounding Maryland and Virginia:

The tangle of roads and routes in and around Washington looks quite familiar to me. It took me a moment to realize the key thing missing: the Capital Beltway circling the city. Nor is there an I-95, the main north-south interstate on the East Coast. The Baltimore-Washington Parkway linking those two cities is a double dashed line, a future intention.

No I-66 bisects the neighborhoods of Arlington and Falls Church, Virginia. The future I-395, which angles toward the southeast, is labeled Route 350, Shirley Memorial Highway. The parkway that now extends along the Potomac River north from Mount Vernon and past Washington to the Beltway ends, in 1953, just beyond the Key Bridge near Georgetown.

While there are many other subtle differences between 1953 and now, enough has stayed the same that you could still manage to navigate around the region’s secondary roads today using this map.

The opposite side shows a close-up of the central part of Washington and nearby Virginia:

I immediately notice that the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, one of the major links between Virginia and D.C., is absent. (So too is the footbridge that allows you to walk out to nearby Theodore Roosevelt Island.) Constitution Avenue dead-ends at the Potomac River, where today it leads onto the Roosevelt Bridge. The Arlington Memorial Bridge, designed as a drawbridge, is graphically shown with its center draw span lifted. The draw span was closed for good in 1961.

Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac in Virginia, was much smaller, and the nearby Marine Corps Memorial, featuring its iconic sculpture of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, was yet to be built. Washington National Airport is represented by its original terminal, about which the map text notes, “Visitors observe operations at huge air terminal from glass-enclosed lounge.” Nearby, angling toward the airport for a landing, is a graphic image of a Lockheed Constellation, an iconic passenger airplane from the 1950s.

The focus of the Washington map is the National Mall, the long rectangle of parkland extending from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol. Here the differences between then and now are many.

Immediately obvious is the dual set of buildings—the largest buildings aside from the Pentagon depicted on the map—just north of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, an area now occupied by Constitution Gardens. Built during World War I for use by the Navy and the War Department, these “temporary” buildings remained in use until they were demolished in 1970. The only war memorial on this section of the Mall is the small one commemorating the citizens of the District of Columbia who served in the First World War. The World War II, Korean, and (obviously) Vietnam war memorials have yet to be built.

There are indications of many more “temporary government buildings” dating as far back as World War I shown on the map. They are denoted only by letters—and then numbers when the mapmakers ran out of letters. They dot the Mall from one end to the other.

In 1953 you could still drive on roads circling the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument. Today these roads are closed to traffic.

Today, between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, resides the greatest single concentration of museums in the world, most of them part of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1953 the institution’s presence here consisted only of four buildings: the original Smithsonian Castle; the “Old National Museum,” now the Arts and Industries Building; the “New National Museum,” now the National Museum of Natural History; and the Freer Gallery of Art. Also here is the original National Gallery of Art building, completed in 1941. Eight more museums would be built on this section of the National Mall in the coming decades.

Today, only two streets run the length of the Mall here, Madison and Jefferson drives. Between them lies a broad swath of greenery and a grid of walkways. In 1953 those walkways were streets, including Washington and Adams drives. When these streets were turned into walkways decades later, the pavement was graveled over rather than removed, which is why many of the Mall walkways have such poor drainage and are pocked with puddles after it rains.

Way up 6th Street, NW, near Howard University, is Griffith Stadium, where the American Baseball League’s Washington Senators played. Up Massachusetts Avenue is the Naval Observatory, still open to the public during regular hours in 1953, not yet the residence of the vice president. Farther up Mass Ave at the highest point in the city is Washington Cathedral. Now known as Washington National Cathedral, its cornerstone-laying ceremony was presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. President George H. W. Bush presided over the mounting of its final stone in 1990, an event I attended.

By then, I had lived in the Washington area for seven years. I first visited Washington with my father in 1969, but that’s another story, one I’ll tell next.

David Romanowski, 2017

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Car Gazing at the California Automobile Museum

I don’t know much about cars. But do I enjoy looking at vintage automobiles and learning about their history and design. I marvel at the meticulous work that went into restoring them to pristine condition. And let’s face it: Cars from middle decades of the 20th century are way more stylish and interesting to look at than most cars on the road today.

So, when I had part of a day to kill before heading home from California recently, I decided to spend it at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento.

The warehouse-like building was undergoing a roof replacement, so part of the museum was closed to visitors, exhibits were in disarray, and cars had been moved around to accommodate the ongoing work. Still, about two-thirds of the museum’s collection of some 150 vehicles was on display. Each was beautifully restored, and a docent told me that most are in drivable condition.

If you love old cars or simply love looking at them, the California Automobile Museum is for you. The roof work should be done this year, so the museum soon will be back to normal, with even more to see.

A row of beautiful cars from the Roaring ’20s. Love those running boards!

The 1938 Chrysler Imperial Airflow Sedan (left) was an early attempt to improve automobile aerodynamics. The 1950 Ford Station Wagon was one of the last “Woodie” models designed with real maple and mahogany panels.

This 1953 Bel Air was Chevrolet’s luxury liner. Featured in a national ad campaign around this time, popular singer Dinah Shore was encouraging Americans to “See the USA in your Chevrolet!”

Two classics from the 1960s: a 1965 Ford Mustang and a 1968 Chevrolet Corvette. The latter was repainted in its original “Corvette bronze” color but is otherwise in its original condition.

Now this is a museum shop! If you want to drive home in a beautifully restored vintage car, here’s your chance!

David Romanowski, 2017

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