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ROAD WARRIORS // ALLIGATOR ALLEY

Something funny happened to me on the way to Naples: My rival got there first.

I was Alley Cat Jay, crossing Florida on Alligator Alley, and she was Trail Blazer Jane, heading for the Gulf Coast on the Tamiami Trail.

I thought I had the advantage: A four-lane, limited-access highway most of the way to Naples. My colleague was driving on highway that is mostly two-lane. Surely, I thought, she would get stuck behind some slow pickup hauling chickens or mattresses or something, while I sailed along at maximum speed on the Interstate. I would prevail, even if my route was longer by about 20 miles.

It didn't happen that way.

The Trail Blazer beat my time to Naples by 13 minutes.

All of which may prove to be quite disturbing to the road builders of America: The interstates apparently are not just boring, they may not even be the fastest way to get where you're going.

But all is not lost for Big-Road Buffs:

"I go diving in the Keys," said Sheriff's Deputy Jim Brown of Naples, "and if I see traffic getting heavy on the Trail, I go back on I-75 and Alligator Alley."

More was at stake on our race than portal-to-portal time, however. There is the matter of ambience.

Having traveled on both roads, I knew that the Alley was the less interesting. Actually, Alligator Alley is the most boring road I have ever traveled, and that includes Florida's Turnpike, which is saying a lot.

From the moment I went through the toll gate at the east end to the moment I escaped the Alley at the western end, the scenery was sleep-inducing.

First of all, there was sawgrass to the right of me and sawgrass to the left, as far as the eye could see. Only one place broke up the arterial monotony: The wayside complex at the Miccosukee Reservation at Mile Post 45, about midway in the trip. Even then, there's not much there: a gas station, a food mart offering fried chicken and hot dogs, and, praise be, a rest room _ the only place on Alligator Alley where you can find relief without making a spectacle of yourself. There aren't even any accessible bushes on this sterile road.

The same access road that rewards you with bladder bliss will also take you to Billie's Swamp Safari deep in the Big Cypress Indian Reservation 21 miles north of the Alley. Plenty to do here: airboats, eco tours, wild boar hunts, fishing, swamp buggy rides and the like, if you're so inclined. For information, phone (800) 949-6101.

After Alligator Alley's sole pit stop, the character of the road changed. It entered the domain of the Big Cypress National Preserve, and soon I was passing through stands of cypress _ certainly much prettier than the previous horizon-to-horizon vista of sawgrass, but after a while just as bland.

A couple of times, when passing places labeled "Recreation Areas," I felt a surge of hope that there might actually be something of interest on the Alley. But the "rec areas" turned out to be nothing but boat ramps. No boat, no recreation.

I also wondered why the entire preserve was enclosed in a chain-link fence at least 8 feet high and topped by three strands of barbed wire.

It turns out that the feds are trying to protect humans from falling into canals and doing other dumb stuff, and, more important, to protect the animals.

"We have far fewer road kills now," said Mike Owen, park biologist for the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, which abuts the Alley.

Incidentally, the small bridges over which the Alley passes are there not to carry water from one side of the road to the other, but to provide animals with a safe passage under the highway.

It would've been a thrill to have spotted some of the Everglades' endangered species at one of these wildlife passages, but I saw no panthers, no black bears, Everglades mink or river otters.

They are out there somewhere, I'm sure, but you'll never see them from a car moving at 70 mph. Even the sawgrass and the cypress become a blur at that speed.

So it was with a certain amount of relief that I exited the Alley. The rest of the way to Naples was on U.S. 8 and then the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), which in the Naples area is an overcrowded thoroughfare.

And when the Alley Cat arrived at the finish line, Trail Blazer Jane was already there, sitting on the trunk of her snazzy vehicle, reading a book.

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