It started with a wedding present. That’s how I ended up circumnavigating Lake Okeechobee one weekend. My friend Mike, who lives in New York and is originally from LA, has a fascination with all things Floridian. He’s getting married this month at a small civil ceremony, and when I asked where they were registered he said, “No registry. How about something down-home from Florida?”
Lucky for him, I know down-home well. I remembered a couple I met at the Chalo Nitka festival who sold jams and jellies and all variety of pickled vegetables, and I suspected it was the sort of gift Mike had in mind. So I rummaged through my cabinets until I found an empty jar that once held pickled okra, and I called up the number printed on the faded label. Could I stop by to purchase some of their goods? I asked the woman on the phone.
“Well, certainly,” she said. “But it’s a drive. We’re in Port Mayaca, on the far side of the lake.”
I know the sugar towns south of the Okeechobee well, but in all my years living in this state I’d never taken the northern route around the lake and I’d never completely circled it. I love a good road trip—and, anyway, I needed that wedding present—so I set off on a Saturday morning.
“Okeechobee” means “big water” in Hitchiti, a dialect of Miccosukee, and as I headed through the towns that bordered the lake, the water was a large, invisible presence. In 1937, following the devastation caused by the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the Hoover Dike that encircles the lake today. As I drove through the pasturelands between Moore Haven and Lakeport, the dike was visible to my right, a mound of dirt grown over with grass, and on the other side, somewhere unseen, sat the lake.
I passed through cattle country, spent time ambling behind a truckload of cabbages and saw dirt roads with names like “Tough Luck Lane.” I drove through the home of the Cane Grinding Festival and then the home of the Sour Orange Festival. I drove and I drove, the hill of earth always to my right. In Lakeport, where a large inlet of the Okeechobee shoots west, fish camps and bait and tackle stores lined the road. I stopped to get gas and the air had a light expansive feel, the way it does at the edge of the ocean, and shorebirds cried overhead. Yet the smell was different from the seaside—fresher—and though I could feel the presence of the water, I still couldn’t see it.
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I drove on, past citrus groves and old cracker houses, until finally in Buckhead Ridge the highway crossed a bridge spanning the Kissimissee River where it feeds into the Okeechobee. Traffic had slowed for construction, and as I eased my car to the top of the bridge I glanced to my right, where the lake stretched to the edge of my vision.
“Holy—” I said.
It was immense. Not like a lake at all, but more like the Gulf. Even from that high point on the bridge, I couldn’t see to the end of it. The sky was cloudless and blue, and the Okeechobee’s dark waters went to the horizon. In front of me, the traffic cleared. I drove on, down off the bridge, and the lake was once again swallowed by the dike.
At Port Mayaca, I bought my wedding gift: guava jam and jars of chow chow, plus some mango jam for myself. The couple invited me in to visit for a while, and when we were through they wished me a safe drive. I went south and west, through the towns I know—Clewiston, Belle Glade, Pahoke—past sugarcane fields and orange groves, and all the while that big lake stayed hidden like a secret at the heart of this state.
If You Go
- Jean’s Jams and Jellies, hands down, make the best guava jam in this state. Their chow chow is outstanding, too. Look for them at festivals like Chalo Nitka, or visit them at the Seminole Inn in Indiantown on Sundays between 9 a.m. and noon.
- As you circumnavigate the lake, be alert for brown road signs that designate scenic lookout points where you can pull off the highway and drive to the top of the dike. It’s impossible to imagine the vastness of the Okeechobee until you’re standing at its edge.
- The drive around the lake is scenic, but there aren’t a lot of eateries along the way. Consider packing a lunch. Many of the lookout points have picnic tables, and as for the view over the water—there aren’t many finer.