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Exploring Florida's Everglades

An airboat guide just outside of Everglades City.

Photo: Blasius Erlinger

From the Fakahatchee, it’s a 10-minute drive to Everglades City, roughly 30 miles southeast of Naples. The town is the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the nearby Ten Thousand Islands, a dense, mangrove-filled archipelago along the coast. The islands have always been manna to the locals, who segued from fishing and stone-crabbing in the 1800’s to rum-running and drug smuggling in the 20th century. Indeed, the DEA arrested nearly the entire adult male population back in 1983. These days, the mostly reformed city is the unofficial capital of the Glades and is recasting itself as the next Key West, with winks to its tumultuous past. The island retreat of Totch Brown—the late pioneer Gladesman, media darling, and pot smuggler—is now a featured attraction on airboat tours, as is the island of Edgar “Bloody” Watson, a sugarcane farmer turned alleged murderer from the 1800’s who was immortalized in Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson. In 1910, a mob gunned Watson down at Ted Smallwood’s store, on nearby Chokoloskee Island; the spot is now the Ole Indian Trading Post & Museum.

Then again, the working dock of City Seafood is still authentic and funky as hell, filled with patrons chucking the shells of just-eaten stone crabs into the water. And at the Camellia Street Grill, the down-home dishes are made with homegrown herbs and Willie Nelson wannabes saw away at “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Crabbers” during dinner. Down the road, Ivey House hotel has a modern, eco-lodge vibe with guided kayaking tours and membership to the Society for Ethical Ecotourism, but the 1864 Rod & Gun Club nearby is still the hotel that time and tourism forgot. It’s an Everglades remake of The Shining with hanging alligator skins, stuffed bobcats, and narcoleptic front desk clerks.

On or off the Tamiami Trail, the Everglades have remained wild at heart. Florida was the last state to get fences: cattle were controlled with dogs and cracking whips, the genesis of the term Florida Cracker. In Indiantown, a half-hour drive from Lake Okeechobee, the 80-year-old Iris Wall, a fifth-generation Cracker, runs the curious Seminole Inn and a nearby ranch with cattle, horses, and a restaurant featuring tasty frog’s legs and fried green tomatoes. The hotel was built, along with most of Indiantown, by Solomon Davies Warfield: part of the lobby is dedicated to his iconic niece, Wallis Warfield, who hosted the opening night gala in 1926, a decade or so before becoming the Duchess of Windsor.

And yet, this is also a land of old-line Gladesmen, attuned, like snail kites, to the natural rhythms of swamps. For feasts, they chop down sabal palm trees and cut out the heart for “swamp cabbage,” fresh hearts of palm that are boiled or sautéed. Hunting is often done at night, a tribal rite that can always go wrong, especially when dealing with wild boars and vengeful alligators.

Every moment of primal joy the Glades brought me as a kid comes flooding back at the Swamp Buggy Races outside Naples, a ceremonial ritual of mud and supercharged engines. Swamp buggies are cheap, jury-rigged affairs of old truck parts and giant tractor tires that have been used for hunting for years. On the racing circuit, they morph into bellowing dinosaurs charging down the straightaway. At the end of the day, the anointed Swamp Buggy Queen, dressed in a gown and tiara, jumps into the cold, muddy water. It’s a splendidly absurd finale to the rich terrain that is the Glades. “This is swamp culture,” one contented fan says. “This is the real America.”

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