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Lost in Florida: Part one in a series

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image A roseate spoonbill takes to the air in Everglades National Park. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Evidence of human presence in the Everglades stretches back 15 millennia, making the relatively recent discovery of Florida significant, but somewhat less impactful.

Photo gallery at end of article

By Mitch Traphagen

We left the comfort of our well-lit hotel in Florida City and drove more than 20 miles into Everglades National Park in pitch darkness, then turned and drove another mile down a road that dead-ended into the wilderness. We shut off the car and lights and were suddenly transported back in time, 500 or perhaps even 15,000, years. The pre-dawn darkness settled in upon Michelle and me, and into our primal minds and imagination.

There was no traffic, there were no other tourists ambling about. Only the occasional unidentified creature moving about accompanied us — heard, but unseen. Although a metropolitan area of more than five million people lay just to the east, we were completely and utterly alone in the Everglades in the inky, moonless darkness. We could feel but could not adequately express the enormity of this place; we could feel the peace and, perhaps, a hint of fear of the unseen that surrounded us. Standing in the darkness, alone in our thoughts, more than anything else, we could feel the magic that exists in the Florida Everglades.

For most people, the Everglades are something to drive through on the way to Miami. From I-75, also known as Alligator Alley, the vista is mostly featureless, an empty land of saw grass marsh pocked with distant stands of cypress, palm and other trees. From the freeway, there is a forbidding character to it. How many people would be brave enough, even in broad daylight, to wade out into the river of grass even a half mile from the manmade comfort of the concrete road that bisects the Everglades? Surely, snakes, alligators and other terrors are merely lying in wait for that hapless tourist.

While dangers certainly exist in the Everglades, they are no more so than in any other of the world’s remaining wild places. Unlike some of our own human brethren, alligators and snakes wouldn’t kill you out of malice, they’d prefer to avoid you as much as we prefer to avoid them, or at least their jaws. The danger that may be found for the careless is easily offset by the peace and tranquility that is found in a unique place in the world. Yet those traveling on I-75 miss the magic that lies just to the south. The first step to see that beauty and uniqueness is to exit off the freeway and take the two-lane U.S. Highway 41, also known as the Tamiami Trail, that snakes through the very heart of the wilderness.

The Miami Metropolitan Area is 110 miles long but averages only 20 miles wide. In some parts, it is only five miles wide. The massive city ends abruptly on the west side and the Everglades begin, with equal abruptness. In some places, it is possible to drive a single block to leave what we’ve come to know as civilization for a world known best to our far distant ancestors. The rapid change is stunning as suddenly you are thrust into an entirely different world.

Vultures fly in large packs, tempting fate as the occasional car hurtles towards them while they stand hunched over an unidentifiable carcass on the two-lane road. Just feet off the road, large alligators bask in the sun, oblivious, or perhaps uncaring, to the occasional human gawker. Birds, beautiful, unique and stately, are omnipresent. Along the highway are signs announcing the presence of an occasional “Indian Village,” mysterious and somehow attractive to some ancient part of the human brain, places where thatched huts may be seen behind closed metal and wooden gates. For how crowded and chaotic the coastal areas of Florida often seem, it is amazing at just how much isolation is possible in the Everglades. This is a place to disappear, for a day or possibly even a lifetime.

Driving along the Tamiami Trail is an intimate experience, with the Everglades growing right up to the road’s edge. The Skunk Ape Research Center and America’s smallest operating post office also line the narrow, sun-baked road. Before I-75 opened, it was once a tourist road, with alligator wrestlers and land sharks hoping to separate winter visitors from their money. There is still a handful of places offering airboat rides and other tourist attractions, but what was once perhaps a carnival atmosphere is no more; it has given way as the thru traffic migrated to the expansive concrete of the freeway to the north. Steadily, quietly, the Everglades have seemingly effortlessly reclaimed anything and everything that may have been lost in those earlier days.

That said there is still steady traffic on the Tamiami Trail, heavy with tourists, many stopping at the Ochopee Post Office, the smallest operating post office in America. It has been in service for more than six decades and it is a working office, primarily serving the Seminole and Miccosukee Indian population, but with much of the mail volume generated by tourists seeking a now-famous postmark from the smallest office in the nation. The postmistress takes time to talk to anyone who cares to strike up a conversation, but she also values the quiet and solitude offered by her post. Currently there is road construction going on out front and she worries more about possible unfortunate meetings of big trucks and small, wayward children piling out of minivans with out-of-state plates than she worries about alligators wandering into her office, an office the size of a small bathroom or a closet.

“I’ll see you on your next trip through,” she called out as we stepped away from the split front door that serves as a counter, giving way to the tourists holding postcards to be mailed to relatives up north or around the world. Indeed, she will.

Approximately halfway between Naples and Miami, photographer Clyde Butcher, widely regarded as Florida’s Ansel Adams, has a studio tucked into the wilderness just off the Tamiami Trail. A visit to his studio provides a calm journey of respite through his photography, stunning enough to soften the most jaded heart. Florida, as captured through Butcher’s eyes and lens, is indeed paradise. A stop at the studio also offers an excellent chance to see an alligator or two (but remember, attempting to feed an alligator is illegal and is also, quite obviously, hazardous).

The Everglades, which begin with the waters from the Kissimmee River near Orlando is a shadow of its former self, but what remains is the world’s most unique wilderness; there is nothing else like it on the planet. While efforts are being made to restore the Everglades, it is impossible to know what a decade or a century may bring. The thirst for water for growing cities and for farming is insatiable and regardless of intentions acted upon or merely spoken, the future of this wild place will likely remain uncertain. While it is powerful enough to act as a retaining wall to the nation’s eighth largest metropolitan area, it is incredibly fragile despite its enormity. It is a land filled with the unintended consequences of past and current actions.

Waiting for the sunrise, our intention was to experience this place as few do and to capture the dawn of a new day in photographs. We arrived early enough to let the feeling of the place soak in, the eeriness of the complete darkness in the wilds of the Everglades soon gave way to a feeling of tranquility, perhaps a hint of something that was merely taken for granted by our forebears of many centuries past.

Florida recently celebrated the 500-year-anniversary of its “discovery” with events in St. Augustine. Evidence of human presence in the Everglades stretches back 15 millennia, making the relatively recent discovery of Florida significant, but somewhat less impactful. This is an ancient land, alternating between foreboding, unforgiving and enchanting — sometimes in the same breath. In the Everglades, time can stand still.

Yet before long, the sunrise I had waited for with cameras at the ready began to lighten the eastern sky, revealing a thick layer of morning clouds that would prevent the stunning imagery I had envisioned from being collected in photographs. Our time in the Everglades wasn’t wasted in the least, but it was, perhaps, lost. Being lost in time in today’s frantic world of technology is a rare pleasure and a privilege. My smart phone was useless, with the words, “No Service” in place of the bars that normally keep me shackled to the world on a 24/7 basis.

For those hours in the beauty and tranquility, I was lost to the natural world, immersed in something I could barely fathom, but could feel softening my very soul.

The sun continued to rise behind the clouds and night brightened into day, but we were in no hurry to leave. Just twenty-some miles away, civilization raced on, frantically, maddeningly with traffic, crime and impatience. We were in no hurry to return to that world. We were alone in this wild place, save for beautiful and now seen creatures that paid little mind to our presence. Finally, we climbed back into the car, drove ten feet and stopped again. The Everglades gave us an opportunity too rare to leave quickly. In some ancient parts of our minds, we knew: we were at home.

Coming up next week: Pack up your flip-flops, a pair of shorts and your best Jimmy Buffett t-shirt! We’re headed to the Conch Republic, a place just a little bit different, even by Florida standards. Get ready for the Duval Crawl.

041113 Florida Part 1 Everglades - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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