For a kid growing up in the overly manicured Miami suburbs of the 1970’s, the Everglades were a jolt of fear and freedom—a vast expanse of subtropical wetlands made for mischief. It was here I had my first taste of whiskey brewed in backwoods stills, while riding around in an airboat with a half-crazy old-dog Gladesman. Then as now, the Tamiami Trail, a 275-mile road between Miami and Naples and on up to Tampa, offered easy access to this wonderland. Nothing is more freeing than that first glimpse of the Glades along the trail, those endless watery savannas framed by an eternal sky bleached nearly white by the leering sun.
It took 13 years (1915–28) to hack out the almost culvert-free road, which effectively dammed up the sheet of shallow water that had always flowed uninterrupted from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. Overnight, the Glades were thrown into an ecological tailspin: without a flowing stream, the wetlands south of the trail become too dry, and saltwater intrudes and damages the area’s freshwater habitats. To help restore the balance, the National Park Service broke ground last year on a one-mile-long bridging project (that will eventually be supplemented with 5 1/2 more miles). According to Michael Grunwald, a Miami-based Time magazine senior correspondent and author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, the Tamiami Trail bridging project is a start. “Restoring a more natural flow of water will help the Everglades,” he says. The recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill has brought renewed attention to Florida’s natural world, and there’s hope that the U.S. government will now do more for the Glades.
Despite constant threats, the Glades endure and still retain otherworldly tableaux that are as eerily art-directed as the dioramas at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History: crystal-clear eddies flanked by bonsai-like trees appear to have been arranged by fussy landscape architects; egrets and roseate spoonbills stare balefully at one another as if an unfortunate conversational lull had descended upon a cocktail party. Along with being a unesco World Heritage site, the region is as rich, variegated, and weird as America itself—full of eccentric characters and big enough for all manner of dreams.
Driving west along the Tamiami Trail, I come across the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, which is dedicated to the study of a seven-foot-tall swamp creature with an odor problem. At command central, owner David Shealy, who claims to have seen the Skunk Ape three times, points to a blurry 1997 photo of the skulking animal and, hinting at the dark traditions of the Glades, says to me: “There’s lots of things that go on down here that outsiders don’t know about.” To fund his mission, the gift shop sells alligator-foot-shaped back-scratchers and includes an impolitic mini-zoo with Nile monitor lizards and Burmese pythons: monster snakes are often abandoned in the Glades by bored owners; one recently made headlines when it died in an attempt to swallow an alligator.
A few miles up the road is Joanie’s Blue Crab Café, outfitted with rockers and pure charm, and the glorified shed that houses the seven-by-eight-foot Ochopee Post Office—billed as America’s smallest. Nearby, I find the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, featured in Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief and the subsequent movie Adaptation. Throughout the year, biologist Mike Owen conducts guided swamp walks through a 20-mile-long slough filled with a million bald cypress trees, 7,000 royal palms, tropical ferns, bromeliads, otters, Everglades mink, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, the occasional bald eagle, and, of course, delicate ghost orchids. This is a cacophony of natural order and visual chaos, and not a landscape to trifle with: on a recent tour, a sixtysomething woman told a story about how months beforehand she had wandered in alone for a casual stroll in flip-flops and, within minutes, got lost for two days without water, food, or a tent to ward off the mosquitoes.