I mentioned in my last post that I would post about my harrowing experience Monday while driving home from my trip to the Tampa Bay area.
Lake Okeechobee is the 7th largest fresh water lake in the United States. It’s about 30 miles wide east-west and 35 miles north-south. I had driven right next to Lake Okeechobee many times but had never actually seen it, the reason being that it is surrounded by a very high levee. Without the levee all of South Florida would be flooded fairly frequently. There are many places around the lake where one can gain access, including several parks and scenic overlooks.
I was in no hurry on my trip home, so I decided to finally check out a scenic overlook near the southernmost tip of the lake that I’ve passed by so often. When I got off US 27 at the scenic overlook sign I saw a paved path a little more than a car width wide going straight up the levee at a fairly steep angle – which I proceeded to take. There were no guardrails to the right, which I thought was rather odd, because it dropped off to the street level at a more and more precipitous level the higher you went on the path. It became obvious that veering off the path to the right just a bit would send one rolling over all the way to the bottom. To the left of the path there appeared enough room to get only partially off the pavement. Because of this I assumed the path was one way. That turned out to be a bad assumption.
About half way up there was a path entering the path I was on, with a “Do Not Enter” sign. Since I assumed I was on a one way path I thought that anyone getting on my path from there would have to continue up in the direction I was driving. Again – a bad assumption. Almost at the top there was a turnoff to the left, at a fairly steep downward angle. I could see at the bottom, maybe only 20 yards below, there was a large level parking area next to the levee which sloped up at an easy walking angle. The path also continued ahead and obviously leveled up at the top of the levee. I turned left and proceeded down to the parking area, parked my car, and clambered up the slope of the levee to the top – where I saw some water in a narrow ditch and something like an island at a higher level directly in front of me. I could see nothing of the lake – rather disappointing.
I went back to my car and proceeded on a looping path back to original path going up, entering where I had seen the “Do Not Enter” sign. I could see off to the right that there was a paved path running along the top of the levee, and felt that I would surely be able to see the lake from there – perhaps find another parking area and overlook. So I passed the turnoff to the parking area and went only a short ways up to level ground at the top of the levee, where my reaction was first ……… WTF! ……… followed shortly by…….. OMG! Right in front of me was a padlocked gate with a sign saying – “Authorized Vehicles Only Beyond This Point”
There I was – I couldn’t go forward – I wasn’t authorized and I didn’t have the key to the lock. I couldn’t turn right – I’d be hurdling down to the bottom where both my vehicle and myself would be totaled. I couldn’t turn left because it was sharply sloping up and thick with shrubs. There was no room to turn around. The only thing I could do was back up. I looked through my back window and all three rear view mirrors and saw nothing but beautiful blue skies and fluffy clouds!
After another round of WTF! and OMG! I got out of the car, walked to the rear and considered my alternatives. One was to back up all the way down, hoping no one was coming up and that I would be able to stay on the path that I now realized was actually two way. I immediately rejected that as dangerous and foolish. Another was to back up on the path just beyond the turnoff to the parking area and then go forward and turn left into the turnoff, proceed looping around to the entry to the original path and turn right to go down. This seemed reasonable. One more was to back up to the turnoff and back into it a full car length, then go forward, turning right onto the path heading down. Despite the fact that it was somewhat riskier I chose the third alternative, for no better reason than I felt confident I could do it. I also wanted to avoid as much backing up on the main path so close to going over the edge.
I walked down to the turnoff to make a mental calculation of how far I had to back up before starting the sharp reverse turn. Because of the heavy shrubbery I wouldn’t be able to see the turnoff until I was past the point where I had to turn. I filed that away in my mind and went back to the car, put it into reverse and slowly began backing up into blue sky. I actually wasn’t looking there though. I was watching the shrubbery to my left hoping I would recognize the ones close to the turnoff. Then, when I thought I was right there I started my sharp turn, telling myself this was really just like parallel parking in England or Australia where they drive on the left. Amazingly I hit the turn perfectly and backed down a full car length. With my foot on the brake I shifted into drive, hoping that the slope wasn’t so steep that gravity would pull me down to the bottom. All I could see ahead was sky. I knew that if I accelerated too much I would go flying off the edge and tumble to the bottom. I started to inch forward. Yeah! I took it very slowly, starting my right turn immediately as the front end of the car touched the original path. In only seconds I was on the path with a clear view to the street level, and shortly I was back on US 27 heading home.
I’m kind of embarrassed that I got myself into that situation, although I think my assumption that the main path was one way was logical. I am still amazed when I realize that even though I was quite frightened I was perfectly calm and able to reason out my alternatives and calm also in executing my choice.