Florida has never been my favorite place, where America seems to drain down, gator farms, and fake mermaids, citrus stands and Anita Bryant, hanging chads back when the 2000 election hung in the balance. The Sunshine State seems to have more than its share of shady business, huckster and con-men, get-rich-quick schemes, dreams of retirement, buying time, cashing in our Golden Years, where we go to wait out death in Amercia.
Down I-95, clogged with RVs and ancient men at the wheel, beyond Disney and its sanitized fairy tales, past the miasma of Miami, driving hard to Homestead, then further down the Florida Turnpike to Highway 1, past the Dade County Correctional Institute, beribboned with razor wire, the washed-up and incarcerated of America’s underclass, the irrigated fields of produce give way to wilderness, you enter the Everglades, the U.S. Largest wild region east of the Rockies. You are in another place - the limestone shelf as Florida’s peninsula turns into the million-acre sponge and land starts drowning.
It’s easy to say there’s nothing here but space and sky and the brown grasses stretching seemingly forever to either horizon. This is salt prairie and if Google Maps hasn’t gulled you completely into a false sense of security, you start thinking Kansas, the fat, flat midsection of America, even as you drive to the end of the East Coast.
The Everglades got its start as a national park in 1947, protected for its ecological importance rather than any striking view. No sublime Grand Canyon, no Old Faithful going off on the hour, no majestic Half-Dome in the distance. Here is water. Water everywhere, flowing a river of grass, always in motion instead of any stagnant swamp. Here is a harsh landscape teeming with life that has learned to take this place on its own terms. Amid the salt prairie, springs up the dwarf cypress forest. Trees that are century old, bonsai’ed, and silvered in the white sun, their roots barely clinging to the limestone shelf that undergirds all of the Everglades, keeping this in the realm of land rather than the Gulf of Mexico.
A roadside sign signals the Park’s 3-foot high mountain, more molehill than any serious peak compared to the Southern Appalachians we’ve driven from, or the younger, rugged peaks out west.
Here, the trees begin cluster into domes out on the prairie, engineered by the alligators. Caught out in the dry season, the reptiles will dig with their front legs and their powerful tails down to the water table to hunker down. Birds come in for a drink and turn into dinner. Trees begin to sprout and take root around the perimeter. An ecosystem takes shape. Trees grow taller around the doughnut while the gator sleeps at the center with dreams of her ancestors, the ancient dinosaurs who swam the shallow sea that once covered this land. Perhaps something deep in the small reptilian brain even remembers the vague age when Florida was a handle to Africa in the supercontinent Pangea, when the Earth was in its infancy.
Our guide Anne said she had started to weep, driving across this landscape for the first time. Perhaps reminded of the marsh land where she had grown up around Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, or the savannahs of Africa, a genetic memory that says you are home, even in a harsh environment where fresh water is at a premium, where hurricanes come to land, and thunderstorms are hatched on the horizon in summer. You are more likely to be eaten alive by mosquitoes at dusk than any alligator.
We have come down to paddle the Glades, four days into the waterways, the mangrove mazes, the bays named and unnamed, to be lost and to lose our civilized shells, to go off the grid. Pioneers had slogged their way here to hunt birds and gators, to fish the ten thousand islands. The Indians before them, Seminole who never signed any peace treaty with the duplicitous United States government, and before them, the midden shells of the Calusa, the fierce people here when the Spanish had washed ashore, sinking into the muck with diseases and epidemics, the ethnic cleansing that had wiped out whole villages, towns, populations and cultures before the white men even came claiming everything for God and greed.
We have come here to lose ourselves, but more of that tale in our next installment.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.