Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wildlife sightings are eye-opening antidote to monotony of turnpike travel

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 20, 2008)

In a little less than two hours, I saw a female wild turkey foraging for seeds, a blue heron with a large fish in its mouth, a slow-moving alligator drifting down a narrow canal, two deer grazing on grass and four wild hogs huddled snout to snout in a feeding frenzy.

You might think I was spending time at a nature preserve, public park or wilderness area.

I wasn't.

I was in my car cruising south along Florida's Turnpike in the area surrounding Yeehaw Junction.

If you've spent any time traversing Florida's 460-mile north-south toll road, you're familiar with the straight stretch of multilane macadam that shuttles drivers from Wildwood to Miami. Although I don't do much traveling out of state these days, I frequently make the four-hour trek to South Florida to visit my parents.

It's a long, monotonous drive made more so by the straight cut of the road through mile upon mile of flat, open prairie. It's a land where cattle are more common than people and an expansive skyline seldom is interrupted by signs of civilization.

To break the boredom, I usually turn on the radio or switch to the MP3 player soon after I'm south of St. Cloud. My favorite songs and the programs on NPR help make the hours pass pleasantly.

Music might satisfy my ears, but my eyes still long for excitement.

While staying attuned to passing cars and oncoming traffic, I shift into "animal alert," scanning the roadsides for signs of wildlife. I'm especially likely to enter "wildlife awareness" mode when I find myself behind the wheel during dawn or dusk. Those are the magical hours when nocturnal animals are most likely to be seen.

As much as I dislike the long drive south, I love the opportunity it provides to spot wildlife. No matter when I drive down that lonely stretch of pavement, some natural encounter is bound to occur.

Fascination with wildlife has been a lifelong preoccupation. As a young child, I remember driving with my parents in their tan Rambler station wagon from our home in southeastern Pennsylvania to the Catskill Mountains, where my mother's family lived.

From the back seat, I could look out the window and scan the horizon. It was the perfect perch from which to search the landscape for deer, raccoons and hawks. I spent most of my time on those three-hour treks doing just that -- staring out the window watching the countryside roll by while my mind drifted off into one daydream after another.

During my early parenting years, opportunities to glimpse seldom-seen animals arose whenever our family took a vacation. Back then we had a camper -- a Class C RV -- that we traveled in with the kids. On monthlong excursions across the country, I sat behind the wheel watching the roadside while my husband, who has always disliked driving, contentedly prepared food and helped the children.

"Bighorn sheep off to the left!" I'd call out as we ventured through the rugged peaks of Wyoming.

Or, "Quick!" I'd say as we traveled through the Kansas countryside. "Look at the prairie dogs standing by their mounds!"

It was fun back then to share my observations with Ralph and the children -- exciting to see them get excited by some unexpected spotting. I miss that during my solo runs to South Florida. As thrilling as it was recently to spot wild hogs huddling together over some tasty roadside tidbit, I wish someone had been in the car to see it too.

Someone was with me a few days later when, at 4 a.m., I once again found myself approaching the turnpike on-ramp. With a hot cup of caffeine-laced PG Tips tea in one hand and the steering wheel held firmly in the other, I and my youngest son were just beginning our 45-minute drive to the airport when a doglike animal ran onto the road.

"What's that?" I asked Toby as we simultaneously leaned forward and stared out the window. "Do you think it's a coyote?"

"Definitely," he said as we had a clear image of the critter hesitating for a moment before turning around and returning to the woods.

"Cool!" I replied as the SunPass buzzer beeped, registering our automatic payment.

"Not a bad price to pay for a coyote sighting," I thought to myself as I rounded the entry ramp and merged onto the toll road.

"Not bad at all."

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