I was fourteen, had never been on an airplane and had never been south of New York City. It was winter vacation. Our parents were already in Miami, our designation for the East coast of Florida south of Palm Beach and north of the Keys. My brother and I flew from Logan Airport, Boston, to Florida to join them.
As dawn broke on the left side of the plane, the pilot announced, “We’re passing over the Everglades.” He banked the prop-jet—first to the right and then to the left so we could all look get a good view. Beneath us stretched a vast wilderness. In those days that great swampland was a place of mystery, of unknown dangers, and of lost souls.
Before that morning, the largest swamp I had ever seen was the bit of weeds and muck in which we hunted minnows and bullfrogs on summer evenings in Maine. The vastness left me staring and speechless.
Two weeks later, two friends joined us. Harvey, the older of the two, was into nature. We should go to the Everglades, rent an airboat and see the wildlife.
It was an incredible adventure. Not only because of the actual sights, which were marvelous—especially the flocks of snowy egrets taking off at our approach and the giant trees that seemed to find their own hillocks on which to stand—but also because of the sense of mysterious wilderness. In those days the Everglades stretched most of the way from Miami to St. Petersburg. There was one road along the side of which alligators sunned. No amenities except for the occasional stand offering tours and orange juice. On that airboat, and especially when jumping off it to push past a hummock, there was a sense of danger and of the unknown.
Years later, my wife and I decided to have a very different Everglades experience. For some reason I had always wanted to try living on a houseboat, and my wife wisely suggested that trying a boat experience might be better than buying or even leasing one.
We took the two-night option and set sail from the marina.
There was a narrow passage from the marina into the lakes on which we would spend two romantic, star-studded nights. It was a fascinating passageway. On one side rested alligators; on the other were crocodiles. The difference: whether their teeth went outside their snouts so they could be seen when the animal’s mouth was closed or were inside. Both species carpeted their respective bank. Were they waiting for us foolish tourists to step foot into their feeding trough?
Unlike the airboats of my previous visits, which were piloted by professional tour guides, and could turn on a dime, our houseboat, driven by me, took long sweeping turns. Unfortunately, the passageway was too narrow for my novice steering. Crash into the land of the alligators. Bang into the midst of the crocodiles. Caught in this bush. Stuck between that tree and the bank. Three times we called the dispatcher at the marina, and three times a boat was sent to our rescue. Finally, one of the staff drove us through to the open water.
Ready for two nights of relaxation we headed towards open water.
Let me summarize. I never again wanted to be on a houseboat. Not after having to call a few more times for assistance. Not after the toilet flooding the boat and in the process both making a mess and depleting the water we needed for drinking and continued bathroom use. Not after the mosquitoes feasting as we ate our primus stove cooked supper gazing up at those truly amazing stars.
Bouncing back to the marina, we were happily ready for our next vacation destination, Key West where we made jokes about the people who occupied the array of houseboats moored along the endless docks.
“Maybe that would have been a better plan for us,” my wife answered more than once.
In the years since my first visit, much of the Everglades has been drained; the water supply exhausted by the demands of a growing population, the land filled in to provide a multitude of plots for homes. The alligators now roam golf courses and swim in backyard pools. New species have found their way into the biome and old have been forced to the edge of extinction. Much of the mystery and the incredible sense of wilderness are gone.
It has been years since my last visit to that great swamp, nothing more than a quick drive along the highway that goes east-west across the Florida peninsula. Restaurants, fruit shipping stands, tourist traps at which to see alligator wrestling and wildlife exhibits comprised of endangered species: stop after stop dotted the sides of the road. Still, there was enough left to bring back those earlier memories. The national park’s marina still rents houseboats. Out on the water at night, the mosquitoes and the stars are probably still there. And the sense of mystery and danger is still there in the name, the mention, the idea of the Everglades.
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You can find more of Ken Weene’s writing at http://www.kennethweene.com . You can purchase his books on Amazon and listen to him weekly as he co-hosts It Matters Radio.
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