Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands

In the winter of 1975 I hitchhiked west from Miami Beach along Alligator Alley. Rides weren’t easy, but finally a fruit farmer from Naples gave me a lift through the southern tip of the Everglades.

Nothing, but swamp lined the four-lane highway. No snow birds from the Northeast or Canada wanted to live in these mosquito-ridden boondocks.

The only signs of civilization were the few Indian trading posts promoting alligator wrestling and cold beer. The farmer left me at Everglade City. A sign advertised the Gun and Rod Club. The farmer had mentioned it was worth a visit.

I stuck out my thumb. A GTO took me there.

“Everglade City looks a little beat up.”

There was a wide space between houses and buildings.

“We keep gettin’ hit by hurricanes. They blow everything’ into the Gulf and the Gulf don’t give back what it takes.” The driver introduced himself as ‘Indee’.

“Lands seems high here.”

“All old oyster bars. Indians must of ate billions of them. They wuz here before us and my family been here since right after the Seminole War. Number 2 that is.” The twenty-two year old driver was the epitome of a backwoods greaser; slick hair, greasy jeans, rawhide muscles under the stained Allman Bros. teeshirt, but he had all his teeth and they gleamed like sun-bleached bones. Mine were more yellow.

“Must almost seem like home.”

“Don’t know nowhere else. Just this road and that.” He pointed to the sawgrass Everglades. “Fishin’, hunting’, drinkin’, whatever.”

Whatever encompassed a lot of territory in the Ten Thousands Islands.

The inhabited swamps were ideal for smuggling.

Planes and boats loaded with cocaine and reefer were protected by crackers used to talking to themselves.

“I was thinking of a canoe trip.”

“Good, I got one. We’ll go into the ‘glades.”

“I don’t have much money.” I was heading for San Diego to visit old friends.

“$10/half day. You’ll never see anything’ like it and you’re lucky it’s cold, otherwise the skitters would suck your body dry.”

“Okay. I read this book by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ THE YEARLING.” Two feet off the highway was the setting of her novel about a young boy tragically adopting a deer in Florida.

“I seen the movie. Where Jody has to kill his yearling deer pet. Damn, that mighta been the last time I cried.”

“Ah’ll see you at 6. Sunrise and the swamps.”

The hot rod burned rubber on the dirt and I entered the slightly-musty hunting lodge. It was golden cedar from floor to ceiling. I thought it was out of my price range, but was pleased to hear a room for the night cost $20. I had to sleep someplace and the motels in Everglade City were still recovering from the last hurricane.

After a lovely fish dinner and some cheap wine I stood on the veranda and stared at the darkness of the swamp.

No one lived there.

No one human at least.

I went to sleep dreaming about my canoe ride and woke at 5:50am.

I walked to the observatory at the road’s end. A deep green covered the world of very little dry land. White herons flew with the dawn. A flock of flamingos ferreted through the low tide mud.

The smell of bacon drifted on the light air. Breakfast was ready at the Lodge and I turned from the swamp to walk across the trim lawn. Indee sat on the veranda drinking a beer.

A canoe was tied to the dock.

He wore a wide brimmed hat.

I pulled out a Red Sox baseball cap and upon reaching Indee put it on my head.

“Gonna be a hot one.”

I bet it will be.”

“You know how to canoe?”

“I’m from Maine. I have a Boy Scout merit badge for canoeing and I’ve shot the rapids of the Saco River.”

Mostly as a human log.

“Well, don’t that beat it all. We don’t have any rapids, but we got plenty of ‘gators. The cook made us sandwiches and I got cold beer. You good with that?”

“Very good.”

We got in the canoe and cast off from the dock.

A minute later we were deep in the Everglades.

It was a mirrored sea of grass.

From horizon to horizon.

And there was lots of horizon in the Ten Thousand Islands.

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