A Clear Place in the Sky

by John Messick

“Year after year it grew and was fed by its own brown rotting, taller and denser in the dark soil of its own death.” –Marjory Stoneman Douglas, The Everglades: River of Grass

Along the southern tip of Florida, the concepts of water and land are indistinguishable. Murky backwaters, deserted keys, and alligator-swarmed creeks merge with mangrove tunnels and tidal flats to create the million acre labyrinth of Everglades National Park. Herons and osprey ply the creeks; tarpon and dolphins hunt the bays. The air smells simultaneously like fresh sea and rotting potatoes. Saltwater and freshwater blur, and the ebb and flow of human history in this place is—like the tide—held in check by the vast swamp.

My friend Mollie and I knew the Everglades was deep country. Even its name bears a certain mystery. “Glade” comes from old English–referring to an open area in a forest, or perhaps to stars in a clear sky—but look up the word today, and you will find reference to south Florida. In navigating a 150 mile zigzag through a landscape so dense that in places we would pull our way through by inches, we discovered the hard way how moving water could pull the ground from underneath us, and we would learn that in a saltmarsh, the quest to find equilibrium requires a delicate balance.

*

I first met Mollie in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she had lived in a shack with two sled dogs and a heater that leaked carbon monoxide. We were neighbors. She wrote short stories and kept falling in love with boorish men who she would complain about over drinks at Ivory Jack’s bar. Three months earlier, she had decided to move back to her parents’ house in Georgia.

A month before she left, I mentioned at a party that I’d bought a plane ticket to Florida for Christmas break and wanted to paddle the Everglades. Mollie set down her drink, invited herself along, and spent the rest of the night showing me pictures from a trip she’d taken through the Everglades back in college.

“You should know, I’ll have to paddle in the stern,” she said.

“That’s fine,” I told her, “So long as I can steer from the bow.”

*

Mollie arrived in Miami with a battered canoe strapped to the roof of her Subaru. The boat hadn’t been on water in half a decade, but she had tested it with her parents on the creek behind their home in Savannah. It floated, and that was good enough.

The trip seemed like a great idea: navigate by compass and nautical chart, paddle across sun-kissed bays, camp on sand beaches, and pull into Flamingo—on the east side of Florida— with big grins, toned arms, and tropical tans.

In truth, this trip was a coping mechanism for both of us. I’d just failed at yet another relationship; Mollie had just done the same. We were sorely in need of an adventure, even one through brackish marshland. This far-flung mission to the humid and haunted tip of the continent seemed, in a deluded sort of way, a perfect escape.

On New Year’s Day, nursing hangovers from a concoction of cheap beer, limeade and vodka—called gasolina— we’d drunk at a party the night before, we loaded our tent, lifejackets, paddles, two weeks of food, fourteen gallons of water, fishing gear, and a box of wine into Mollie’s car, and drove with my aunt and uncle to Everglades City. We spent an hour scanning routes on a wall map.  We consulted a ranger, picked campsites, bought an extra bottle of sunscreen, and despite my aunt and uncle’s pleas to try an easier route, we paddled off along the coast.

*

The Chokoloskee marina faded into one of those ocean sunsets that makes the world feel as if it’s stuck inside a furnace. I rigged a fishing lure and tossed it behind the canoe.

In about two seconds, my rod tip doubled. I had a freshwater setup, and I struggled hard with that first fish. I had to look up what I’d caught in the guidebook—Crevalle Jack. It weighed just less than a pound. The silver body and yellow tail flashed neon when I released it. A minute later, I pulled in another, and then a decent sea trout, some red drum, ladyfish, and mackerel. Mollie made me put the rod away because I was catching too many fish. We wouldn’t make it to camp before dark, she said.

We pulled to shore on the Lopez River just as the no-see-ums and mosquitoes swarmed, and here our idyllic dream ended. Mollie and I have both lived through Alaskan summers. We’ve felt the fear that comes on a calm day in the Arctic when the mosquitoes rise off the tundra in swarms thick enough to kill a newborn caribou. We know bugs.

But these no-see-ums were bad. They crawled into my ears, nibbled under my watchband, gnawed my toes and tore at the corners of my eyes. It took hours before we had killed all the insects in the tent. When morning came, my neck was swollen and the screen walls were smeared in blood.

*

I should have known better. This wasn’t my first trip to the Everglades. My junior year in college I’d convinced my friend Alex, a good old boy from the hills south of St. Louis, to head to the wilderness for spring break. I promised him we’d go to South Beach when we got out of the mangroves.

Alex studied German and anthropology because he liked the harshness of the language and because he liked cultures that did hallucinogens as part of their religion. He had a beer belly, a penchant for heavy metal, and every time he took out a new student loan, Alex would go to a crowded bar and buy the entire place a drink.

For our trip, he got it into his head that we could find buried treasure on the shell mounds. To aid in this quest, Alex brought five liters of wine and a gallon of high-proof rum. On the first day, we stopped to put on sunscreen, but there was concern that two young guys so far from civilization might be compromised by touching each other on the back, so we figured we’d just face toward the sun and take our chances.

By mid-afternoon we were halfway through the wine, and when we landed on the beach at Mormon Key, we celebrated with pulls from the jug of rum. I passed out on my belly and Alex stumbled off into the palmetto brush. He awoke in the morning with oozing bug bites and an unexplained gash on his leg.

“Rotten damn rum. Sailor Jerry, man, he shanked me, stole my shoes and left port!”

My back was so sunburned I couldn’t wear a shirt. When I soaked a towel in seawater, the salt twisted into my pores like knives. Two days later, my skin bubbled into liquid filled pustules, which popped and dribbled down my back with every stroke of my paddle. My skin peeled off in sheets. Alex broke the camp stove on the first night, and we hadn’t brought enough water.

“Plenty of booze though,” Alex said. We spent evenings so drunk even the mosquitoes wouldn’t bite us. We chased gators until they charged our boat. We were young, stubborn, and we could still paddle into the wind for twenty miles a day and not have back spasms the next morning.

When we emerged from the swamp a week later, we made a beeline for Miami, where we followed a pair of expatriate spring breakers from club to club until the whole mob of us had passed out against the wall of a public bathroom.

*

I had forgotten about the brutality of the Everglades. I moved to Fairbanks, where in December the temperatures drop to fifty below and if I wait to start my car until daylight, night falls before it warms up. I needed the Vitamin D, and I needed a distraction from the loneliness, a shift in landscape to clear my head of frigid cold and my latest breakup, the one which had led a friend to dub me a “a serial monogamist.”

But you never figure out what you go into the wilderness to learn; and you never find precisely what you set out to discover. It seems that most of us face the wild in order to see our fears more clearly, but in that place beyond the pale of family and bosses peering over our shoulders, it’s not our fears that are looking back at us—it’s our failures.

In coming to the Everglades, I thought that if I could learn to navigate a real maze, maybe I could learn how to navigate the rest of my life. At least that’s what I’d told myself.

*

To conceive of what it is to paddle through the largest contiguous system of mangrove trees in the world, take a piece of paper and give it to a toddler. Let him scribble on it with blue and green and brown crayon until the wax is thick and the colors blur. This will be your map. Here, rivers sprawl into mazes that offer no hilly backdrop, no shade in which to hide from the sun. You can’t see a bay until you are in it, can’t discern peninsula from creek from key until you have paddled miles in the wrong direction. In mangroves, there is no landfall, only tangled roots and graying leaves and muddy bays that froth and whistle when the wind picks up in the afternoon.

Even place names in the Everglades seem sinister. Buzzard Key. Big Lostman’s Bay. Camp Lonesome. Dismal Key. The Labyrinth. The Nightmare.

The Calusa inhabited this coast for generations, unseen on their shell mounds. These were the thickets that Ponce de Leon had believed contained within them a fountain of youth. Out here, the phrase “never find your body” doesn’t seem like a bad line from a movie, but the possible consequence of a stupid mistake.

*

The swamp fluctuates with the tides, and these tides determined how and when we traveled.  They shifted halfway through our second day, as we paddled out of House Hammock Bay, headed toward the Gulf. Each stroke against the incoming tide became a battle against the inland sweep to sawgrass creeks and freshwater. And after six hours, when our shoulders ached and the sun had branded us, the current flipped again, and a receding river spit us into the sea.

From the river mouth, we paddled toward a spit of land our map labeled Mormon Key.

Mollie wasn’t convinced we were headed toward Mormon Key at all.

“There’s another key further out and behind it. That one is Mormon Key.”

“Then what’s this key closest to us?” I asked.

“Not Mormon Key.”

We reached the closest island in an hour. A park service sign announced our arrival at Mormon Key.

“Go fillet your fish,” Mollie said, “And I hope you get eaten by a shark.”

The Calusa had strewn giant conch shells across the beach, where they eroded next to the dead skeletons of horseshoe crabs. We fried fresh sea trout in a mole sauce and ate while jogging up and down the beach to escape the bugs. When it got dark, I used a pocketknife to extract sand spurs from my feet while Mollie smeared mosquitoes along the sides of the tent.

An hour after dark, the raccoons came.

I don’t envy the land animals that live out on the keys. The raccoons on Mormon Key spend their lives thirst-starved, able to reach the mainland only by braving the mud-flats, hopefully avoiding the jaws of tarpon and hungry gators. They eat mullet and pillage the coolers of fishermen, and in the later part of the dry season, the raccoons here will chew through a five-gallon jug just to taste a few drops of fresh water. Even the well-aimed conch shells we threw couldn’t keep them from prying at our food box and spreading our dishes across the camp.

*

Mollie and I rode the crest of high tide back into the swamp and came upon the Watson house around noon on day three. One cannot read about the Everglades for long without finding reference to E.J. Watson, a farmer gunned down a century ago by a lynch mob that suspected him of murder.

In 1910, locals in Chokoloskee had discovered a body in the mouth of Chatham River. They accused Watson. He denied it. When he turned up in town, in the aftermath of one of the worst hurricanes in Florida history, a mob greeted him as he landed his boat, and gunned him down before he could be formally accused.

In the hundred years since, the shell mound plantation has been reclaimed. Sugarcane, run wild, stabs through the cracks in the old cistern. Mangroves have crept in. A few gumbo-limbo trees and a Jamaican dogwood cling to the higher ground along the brackish river banks.

Nobody ever proved that E.J. Watson had actually killed his cane planters. He blamed a worker from his farm.

We do know that E.J. Watson had a past. He tried to slit a man’s throat in Key West, but he also made quality cane syrup. Watson had kept his family here on the Chatham River, planted banana trees and coconut palms and lemon groves. He may have killed a man in North Florida. He may have also murdered a family of squatters camped on Turkey Key. Or maybe he was just a farmer.

The day warmed, cloudless and still as a corpse. Pompano slapped across the Storter Bay flats. Ibis and herons waded along the shores. The tide kept rising, and in the late afternoon calm, we could almost feel the presence of something, like a hot shivering through the bones.

We left the remains of the homestead, buried under a tangle of honeysuckle and wild cucumber, to the ghosts. In this country, it takes a long time before history like that can get inurned.

*

Two fishermen motored up while we lunched at the homestead, but they couldn’t make the afternoon feel less eerie. The air was punctured only by the drone of cicadas. As we paddled deeper into the Glades, not even the blades of our paddles rippled the surface of the river’s rising tide. In such stillness, I had the sensation that the tide was lifting me toward an inescapable radiation.

We steered through islands that manifested only when we paddled upon them, and disappeared into the shoreline when I looked behind. The chart directed us into a narrow channel, reached after paddling through a web of islands where a wrong turn could spit us into enormous bays and leave us lost for hours.

“Are you okay to navigate?” Mollie asked once, before we lapsed back to silence. Even a whisper seemed to disturb the balance.

Swollen with tide, the sun so inescapable that my skin felt translucent, we had to trust that the squiggles of our chart and some guesswork could get us through.

The air changed. We smelled freshwater. The tide kept rising. We reached the end of the estuary, where the river of grass and gator trails drained into the ocean by degrees. The day cooled, the ghosts retreated to the coast, and we spied the pair of palm trees marked on our map.

Night brought bugs, but it also brought relief from the sun. Sweetwater Chickee had a tin roof that gave us our first shade since Watson’s Place, and when we were driven to our tent at dusk by the mosquitoes, their buzz died off early, tempered by a settling fog.

Feeding mullet woke us in the morning, and through the dense air, we watched as a pod of bottlenose dolphins fed just feet from our platform, diving and squeaking and talking.

“Maybe they’re protecting us from the ghosts,” Mollie said.

Across the creek, a solitary alligator kept watch, and I wondered whether the reptile was a guardian or an ominous sign.

*

By the fourth day, we had forgotten there was a world outside the swamp; we fell into a routine: up for coffee, check the map, pack the tent damp with dew and the sleeping bags sticky with sweat, load the boat, check the map, lather sunscreen, check the map, and paddle. A few hours’ work, with careful navigation, put us at our next chickee.

For me, the time when we finished paddling was the hardest. The nearby mangrove, the mangrove everywhere, was an impenetrable thicket of coral snakes and spiders and fiddler crabs. I had an 8 foot by 10 foot platform to walk on, and the smell of the porta-potty bolted to the deck was inescapable. I had nowhere to go, and so I went stir crazy. It drove Mollie crazy too, but for a different reason. Mollie worried about the snakes.

“That looks like a python,” Mollie would say of every gnarled piece of driftwood we passed.

“I don’t see it,” I’d tell her.

“You don’t have any imagination,” she’d say.

This was brackish water. It wasn’t likely we’d see too many snakes. Still, we knew they were out there. A week earlier, an Arkansas family had been picnicking at a rest area outside the park when a 17-foot python slithered into the gathering. A few days before the trip, Florida had announced a month long public python hunt—they offered a cash prize to whoever killed the most pythons.

Pythons are not supposed to be in the Everglades. They aren’t supposed to be in this hemisphere. Some come from people who release their pets into the swamp, and about 900 pythons were blown into the Everglades in 1992, when a Quonset hut full of them disappeared during Hurricane Andrew.

However they arrived, pythons have established themselves by the thousands, decimating native populations of everything, from key deer to alligators.

Mollie and I debated who would win in a contest between a gator and a snake. We’d seen the internet photo in which the alligator had been swallowed by the python before chewing its way out through the gut.

*

Alligators were, for me, scarier. We hadn’t seen many early on, but at the Lostman’s Five campsite on the fourth day, I walked to the edge of the dock for a quick swim, hoping to rinse away the day’s sticky heat. Fortunately I looked before I jumped. An eight foot gator lolled in the mud below me, close enough to see the jagged teeth and empty eyes.

“Mollie…” I said. “You’re not going to like this…”

Neither of us bathed the rest of the trip.

*

I hold a certain respect for gators. I like that they never really bothered with evolution. Sixty-five million years of ice ages and floods, birds and mammals and humanoids, and the crocodilian family has just hung around in the swamps, eating whatever new species happened by, not much concerned with anything beyond staying warm and fed. If a swamp dried up, they took to the sea until land re-emerged a few millennia later.

When Mollie came out to see that gator, the mud swirled and the gator was halfway across the bay in an instant. They can survive in any habitat from mangroves to sewers, can eat anything from snails to black bears.

Much of our route also traversed the last vestige of the American Crocodile. Only a few hundred remain on the continent. The far southern tip of the Everglades is the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles co-exist. And caimans live here now too—like the pythons, they escaped from pet owners, and lurk in the canals south of Miami.

*

By the fifth day, we had moved from the wide bays of the Ten Thousand Islands region, – great currents haunted by Watson and his victims—into the Central Rivers. From days reeling in ladyfish and Crevalle Jack along the bays, we moved into the snarled channels further south, where swamp bore down so close you felt claustrophobic, even during the shade-less noon.

We caught the tide down Rodgers River, and let it pull us toward the coast. We came upon a flock of roseate spoonbills perched in a gumbo limbo tree, their outstretched wings glistening bright pink in the sun. Sixteen foot gators lounged on the bank nearby. In places the river narrowed to 30 feet, and near the mouth, low tide exposed sandbars to the sun. Alligators lolled in giant piles—four deep, five deep in places, climbing over each other, staring and snapping their jaws.

The banks seemed lined with gators, and we argued about the best way to avoid them.

“John, could you not cast your lure toward the gators? Please?” said Mollie.

“I’m not casting toward them. There are gators all over the place.”

“You are.” We paddled on in silence for a half hour. The gators performed belly flops into the muddy water as we passed.

“I didn’t cast toward them,” I said at last.

“I know,” said Mollie. “I wasn’t mad.”

These arguments helped us through the hard parts of the day. We cussed when we paddled against the wind. We panicked whenever an alligator surfaced too close to the canoe. We became passive-aggressive about how to read the map.

“You don’t trust my judgment,” she’d say.

“I just want to see it for myself,” I’d claim.

“I don’t believe you. It’s because you can’t listen to other people.”

“You’re just too sensitive, and you hate to not be in control.”

We were both right.

*

 “What am I going to do with my life?” Mollie asked one night, a cribbage game spread across the tent. She had been living with her parents for three months, and the strain was starting to show.

“Quit looking so hard,” I said. “It’ll figure itself out.”

“That’s not very helpful.” Mollie turned over a jack of hearts.

Outside, the whine of mosquitoes pulsed like the ebb and flow of the tide. A turkey vulture squawked somewhere in the night.

“It’s just…people must think we’re crazy, coming out here to find ourselves,” said Mollie.

When she had moved back to Georgia, to sort through the thesis her advisors had told her was actually four incomplete manuscripts, Mollie had seemed optimistic. Now, she seemed more confused, less confident. She said her friends in Savannah had grown up while she had been in Alaska. They had become doctors or lawyers or accountants, and they appeared to be well-suited to the rigorous demands of an ordered lifestyle. Mollie hadn’t even been able to organize her thesis, and she was thinking about moving back to Alaska.

I knew the feeling. It seemed like every choice I’d made in the past few years had been the wrong one. Wrong job. Wrong city. Wrong relationship. I’d lived for half a decade without a home address, and I was starting to get innuendos from my parents that maybe, since I didn’t have a single publication, I should think about a different line of work.

I was almost thirty, and I should have spent this January writing my own thesis. I should have known I couldn’t stave off loneliness by going on a trip with a woman I only wished I was dating.

We debated our future for hours. Once, fleetingly, as we wrung the last drop of wine from the box, we even considered a future we could share.

“I’m sure people think we’re doing more than paddling out here,” I said.

“You belch in your sleep,” said Mollie. “Don’t get any ideas.”

*

We often woke in the middle of the night for a kind of pillow talk—except that we just shared our sexually frustrated dreams. Mollie described a dream where a wall opened up while she lay in bed with a man. Her parents entered through the wall. She tried to persuade the guy to ignore her parents; they were only trying to thwart her. Then, in a moment of lucidity, she realized that the man was thwarting her too, and that everyone was against her.

“I don’t remember my dream that well. I think it was sexual though,” I told her.

“It was sexual.” Mollie assured me. “You were making kissing noises.”

*

The best part about forgetting the world outside is that you learn to appreciate the present. Like on the Nightmare route eight days in, when fiddler crabs fell into our boat and we spent two hours pinned to the bottom of the canoe, avoiding tentacles of mangrove in our path. Our only concern was that we’d get lost in walls of foliage, that we might be swallowed by the swamp or suffocated by the inescapable humidity. That, and the worry that an alligator would bite the canoe in half.

Fear feels different when getting lost isn’t just the neurotic sense that your life is out of balance, but a hard fact that could leave you stranded in the mud at low tide. That tangible fear is easier to put down. Just keep going; you’ll see if the path is the right one soon enough.

A flock of great white herons exploded from the brush just feet in front of the canoe.

“If only the real world were as simple as out here,” Mollie said.

*

We were lucky to see as many egrets and herons as we did.

A hundred years ago, hunters—known as Gladesmen— hunted for plumes here. They massacred anhinga and cormorants by the hundreds of thousands, killed egrets, herons, storks and spoonbills by the millions, all so ladies in New York and Paris and Havana could wear feathers in their hats. When only corpses remained in the Everglades bird rookeries, competition for the plumes got so bad that hunters killed a local conservationist hired by the Audubon Society to protect the last few birds.

In 1913, when only a few poachers were left to chase the few remaining birds, a pair of wardens described a massacre on Alligator Bay, which we paddled through on our sixth day. “Everywhere in the rookery, which covered several acres, we found the remains of dead long whites and a few of the spoonbills that had been shot,” they wrote to Recreation magazine.  “There were many little long whites that had died in the nests, and their bodies had been eaten by the buzzards. The trees were full of shot from the guns of the murderers, and the sight was the saddest one I have ever seen of the sort.”

By 1900, 95% of Florida’s shorebirds were gone.  The populations today have come back, but not to those levels of long ago. On our journey, we saw only a few snowy egrets and even fewer spoonbills. We did, however, run into plenty of vultures.

*

The Everglades have a way of fighting back. Take the Australian pine—a tree introduced because it could suck water from the land.  It worked wonderfully, and sterilized the soil from Lake Okeechobee out to the coast. Then Hurricane Andrew hit, and nearly all the adult Australian pines were leveled. It turned out Australian pine doesn’t do well in gale force winds.

Of course, in Miami, a group of shade lovers started a Save the Australian Pine movement, and set about reseeding them back into the city parks.

Over a quarter of Florida’s ecosystem is made up of exotic and invasive species. The water hyacinth can suffocate fish. The South American Bufo toad has hallucinogenic toxins on its skin, and can kill small dogs. The nests of Monk Parakeets have brought down power lines in the Dade County suburbs.

There’s more: the suckermouth catfish, the Asiatic clam, the lionfish, the walking catfish, cichlids, tilapia, and purple swamphen. Reptile catchers have found Nile crocodiles in Ft. Lauderdale canals. In the 1940s, melaleuca seedlings were dropped from planes in order to help drain the swamp. Researchers have found deer trapped and killed by the Old World climbing vine.

*

I woke up in the middle of the tenth night chilled, sweating and nauseous, a victim of dehydration and sun exposure. My head pounded, my body racked by feverish aches. Bugs bit into the soles of my feet when I staggered from the tent to dry heave into the river.

“I’m sorry, Mollie,” I said.

“Do you want some medicine?” she asked.

I took a long drink of water and rolled outside to throw up again. Hours passed, and finally I relented and took the pills.

“It’s Pamprin,” she told me.

“Period medicine?”

Mollie laughed.

”Well, it works. Do you have any more?”

When dawn came, Mollie still couldn’t quit giggling.

*

Shark River took us out into the western end of Whitewater Bay, where the Shark River Slough sheeted through the sawgrass into the ocean. Further north, outside the national park, a mile long bridge had been built over the Shark River Slough to allow for the natural flow of water to continue. This was the only part of the waterway that still ran unimpeded from Lake Okeechobee to the ocean in its natural flow.

Most of the swamp has been turned into sugar cane and orange groves. Where once water had run in a great swath across an entire state, dykes now hold that water back for the sake of agriculture.

The Everglades is the largest mangrove forest on the planet, America’s only great subtropical wilderness, and unless we can curb our rampant development, the Everglades may not survive. We have decimated this land—turned the river of grass into orange groves, turned the mangrove coasts into condos. In less than a century, the majority of an essential wilderness has become a metropolis.

As we paddled, I considered what had been lost. On my first trip here back in college, when the mangrove roots had opened to the vastness of Whitewater Bay, it had been as if the world had opened with it. If I could navigate this place, I had understood back then, I could make it anywhere. I never considered what pursuing such dreams might cost.

It took this return journey to discover that shedding your youth is not the same as gaining adulthood. Suddenly, I saw paddling the Everglades as a lesson in exercising caution. When the world opens before us, we must be deliberate in the path we choose, or we might find that the freedom we grant ourselves funnels us back to the same mistakes, again and again.

*

Whitewater Bay stretches across twenty miles of inland coast, and the name fits. A two mile buffer separates the massive shallow expanse of water from the sea. The trees along the shore have been stunted by wind.

Wind opens a landscape. You feel the beckoning of ocean rather than the compression of swamp. We took the north side of the bay, and spent our last days on the water fighting wind. We paddled back to Canepatch, an old farmstead gone wild where freshwater gar swam under the dock and flocks of glossy ibis sailed overhead. That evening, we sweetened our water with wild lemons. Not far away, we spied the bulge of a manatee.

In those moments, I thought I could stay in the wilderness forever.

*

If we timed the tides right, we could make it to our next chickee by early afternoon each day. In the heat of the day, we lounged around, fishing and playing cribbage and watching birds wade along the shore.

On our last full day of paddling, I saw a dolphin surface not far from the boat. We’d seen several pods of them along our route, mostly trolling for mullet along the shorelines, but this dolphin seemed different. I told Mollie, who was busy cussing at the wind in the front of the boat. Mollie loved to cuss at the wind.

“There’s no dolphin,” she snapped.

“I’m sure there was,” I said.

“So where is it?”

It hadn’t surfaced for a while, stayed underwater much longer than any we’d seen before. “…Maybe I was seeing things,” I said.

Then it leapt from the water in a great surge, cleared its tail and gurgled like a child. It leapt clear of the sea two or three more times, maybe fifteen yards from our canoe.

“He’s showing off!” I said.

“She’s beautiful,” Mollie said.

For the rest of the day, Mollie forgot to swear at the breeze.

*

On the last morning, we woke before dawn and paddled eight miles from Hell’s Bay chickee to Flamingo, across a Whitewater Bay calm enough to reflect the sunrise.

We celebrated the end with cold beers and ice cream bars, and took our first showers in almost two weeks. Twelve days of sun, twelve days of wind and arguments and no ground to walk on, and suddenly the trip was over.

We hadn’t thought up the next great American novel, or discovered some important truth on the nature of love. We hadn’t solved the mystery of E.J. Watson or found a way to keep the swamp from being drained and overtaken by invasive beasts. We hadn’t even taken very good pictures.

Mostly we were still directionless, still nearing thirty, still unemployed and still single. We had paddled along the edge of a continent and felt the cusp of an ever-rising sea, but I wasn’t convinced that the trip had restored my sanity.

Calusa and Seminole had poled up these creeks; egrets had once nested by the hundreds of thousands; families had farmed Mormon Key and Gopher Key and Darwin’s Place. A hundred years ago, outpost stores stood on the stilts where remote chickees now serve as campsites.

We had traversed an ancient Florida, a last bastion of wilderness pushing back against the onslaught of Miami and Fort Myers, against the endless condo developments, against an entire continent bent on believing that land is meant to used instead of understood.

If anything, finishing made me feel a sort of kinship with the Gladesmen of long ago. For all their dreams of development, for all their destruction, they knew the power of the mangrove. They poled through these bays for weeks at a time, and when they came to town with their loads of gator skins and plumes, it was only so they could unload and return to the swamp. We suffer such lives in order that those moments away from humanity mean more to us.

“Only when we put the outside world on hold,” Mollie had said, “can we figure out how to keep moving.”

*

When we returned to the city, night had already fallen. The starlit sky we had slept under was replaced by a dim electric haze; waves lapping against our chickee platform became a rush of engines.

The moment we left the national park, the sea of grass turned to fruit fields and traffic lights and highways; but the Everglades felt close until we crossed the causeway into downtown Miami and drove past the Intercontinental Hotel. The entire side of the skyscraper featured a 72-story laser light display of a gyrating woman with caricature big breasts and a butt from a Sir-Mix-a-Lot video. You could see her dancing from the far side of Biscayne Bay.

Our skin had been burned to tomato-red. Our hair was tangled, headed toward dreadlocks. We smelled so bad that my aunt and uncle almost hadn’t let us in the car.

Mollie leaned over to me in the back seat and whispered, “How long do we have to wait before we can go back?”

 

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