Lost in the Everglades.
If anyone is wondering where I was the last two days, let me tell you the story of my unscheduled adventure. While hiking in the Big Cypress National Preserve on Tuesday with my daughter Alexis, I got lost. We were forced to sleep under the stars, on cold, wet ground, with no provisions.
There will be a literary component to this blog at the end, where I’ll link you up with some excellent books about the Everglades. Oh, and don’t accuse me of child abuse. My daughter is 29 years old, a science teacher at LaSalle High School in Miami, and a few weeks ago she ran a half-marathon.
In fact, Alexis is the hero of the story. She led me out of what seemed the deepest jungle with an unerring sense of direction and a sound knowledge of the various ecosystems we passed through. At one point, as we moved into a dense, wet thicket, she said, “This looks like snake habitat.” Three steps later she pointed to a large brown snake coiled and alert directly in our path. It didn’t look poisonous but we gave it due respect. As Alexis remarked as we altered course, even nonvenomous water snakes will bite if disturbed.
The day started innocently enough, with homemade granola and blueberries at Alexis’ apartment in Coral Gables. By 10 a.m. we turned onto Loop Road, a 25-mile scenic drive through some of the wildest terrain in Big Cypress. Alexis has been here many times since she studied environmental science at Florida International University — where, among other things, she learned the best way to see the Everglades is overland, on foot.
We frequently stopped, splashing through a slough with crystal clear waters that came up to our knees, or trekking a cypress forest while she explained the difference between hardwood hammocks and cypress domes. We saw alligators everywhere, and birds big as dinosaurs.
After a noon picnic — subs and Diet Dr. Pepper, eaten off the dusty trunk of my car–we reached Sweetwater Strand, Alexis’s favorite stop along Loop Road. We looked down into the water at a three-legged alligator, at least eight-feet long, and– careful to give the big guy room –walked out into the water to get a close look at the bromeliads, the water striders, and the birds.
Alexis had planned to stop for lunch at Gator Hook Strand, where there’s picnic tables and a restroom, but we were too hungry to wait. But when we got there we stopped anyway, just to look around. Signs for the Gator Hook Trail got my attention. Described as a six-mile hike through difficult terrain, it warned: “Expect to get wet.” We were already wet.
I convinced Alexis, who normally disdains trails, to give it a try. At Christmas I had taken long hikes in the Virginia mountains — through snow — with her sister Rachel, and I wanted a little more exercise. The trail started off as well-marked as a Roman road, gradually becoming narrower and narrower, but always a clear path leading deeper into the swamp.
After a couple of hours,we passed a spot where gas cans were neatly stacked alongside a chain saw, a ladder and other tools, which led me to think workers were in the process of clearing the trail of seasonal growth. Soon the path disappeared, but orange plastic strips, tied to trees and branches led us dependably onward –until they completely gave way.
Soon we decided our best option was to turn back and retrace our steps, but though we found a few of the orange blazes, they led us in circles. With the sun ever lower in the sky, I warned Alexis we might have to sleep in the woods. Even if we found the trail, it would be impossible to navigate once darkness fell.
After a frustrating hour trying to follow the orange ribbons back to a recognizable trail, we gave up. Alexis suggested we strike out overland. “If we go south, we will have to run into Loop Road,” she reasoned. Remembering stories I’d read about people lost in the woods, I argued we should stop where we were and wait for rescue. But Alexis seemed so sure of herself, I agreed with her plan. Besides, Rachel was the only person who knew even vaguely where we were, and she likely wouldn’t get seriously worried until late the next day.
Orienting herself by the sun, Alexis struck off in what I agreed was a southerly direction, but after only a minute or two we found ourselves up to our hips in a slough, or pond, or creek — I couldn’t tell. It was too deep, Alexis said, the danger of alligators too great.
We backtracked and fought our way east out of an incredibly dense thicket, emerging into an almost park-like prairie, with dry ground underfoot and widely spaced trees. For the next three hours we marched south through every kind of habitat the Everglades has to offer, each with its particular beauty, challenge, dangers –and agony for the poorly prepared.
Did I mention I was wearing gym shorts? After an hour my legs were bruised and striped, ankle to hip, from vines, branches and cypress knees. We fought our way through a thicket I thought would never end. It was especially brutal on my legs. Then came a swamp, followed by a long saw grass prairie, each passing blade like a nail file running up and down my shins.
Alexis, younger and fitter, ranged far ahead, stopping to call out “Marco” whenever she lost sight of me, waiting for my answering “Polo.” The desolate beauty of each new ecosystem made me think of dinosaurs, or Tequesta Indians, or Sam and Frodo slogging their way toward Mordor.
I pushed aside thoughts of cottonmouths or coral snakes or alligators or skunk apes or whatever other dangerous creatures shared the primordial landscape with us. I concentrated on walking, amazed at how much farther the human body can go after reaching a point that feels like exhaustion. Especially when you don’t want to sleep in a swamp.
Eventually we emerged from a saw grass prairie into what seemed an endless plain of dwarf cypress. We were certain that each new stand of tress marked the road, and we were disappointed again and again. Finally, the light failed utterly, just as the earth grew wetter and I arrived, all of a sudden, at a point of physical collapse.
“I don’t mind wading and getting wet, but I do not want to go into water I can’t see,” Alexsis said, adding: “Alligators are nocturnal.”
I was past caring. I’d never been thirstier in my life. I leaned against a tree, like a drunk at a lamp post. Alexis collected vegetation, stripping it out of the ground with her hands, to make a bed so we could lie on the damp ground. Just as I eased my self down at the base of the tree, I felt the air constrict around me.
“On top of everything else, its getting cold.”
We lay there on the cold ground, shivering, hungry, thirsty, bone tired and riddled with aches and pains, mosquitoes attacking nose, ears, back, our only warmth coming from where our bodies touched. One position — on my right side with my back to Alexis — was the warmest and most comfortable and I could almost sleep. But after a while my hips and shoulders seized up, forcing me to change positions.
We looked at the stars, marveling at their clarity and number. We argued about which were actually planets, but in the end I deferred to Alexis, as I always do on matters of science. Alexis, who has ears like a bat, listened for the sound of vehicles on Loop Road. I wavered back and forth between resignation at our situation and disbelief that such a thing could happen to people such as us. We made jokes about how we hated nature. Or maybe those came in the morning. There was too much physical discomfort and misery for much joking — or even talking– during that long, dark, frigid night.
I slept fitfully, Alexis hardly at all. I awoke once in the night to find the stars completely obscured by a dense fog. In the distance what sounded like a hoot owl turned into a monkey’s howl and ended with the grunting sound made by lions and other big cats. Alexis had no idea what it was, either, but agreed we did not want to make its acquaintance, not right then anyway.
I despaired that morning would ever come, waking again and again to darkness, but at last I opened my eyes to find a gray light coalescing around us. We stood, shivering, exhausted, stiff, bitten. “I feel like I’ve been beaten up by guys who knew what they were doing,” I said. Alexis chuckled grimly. And we began walking again.
The endless plain of dwarf cypress stretched on and on. We considered striking west — which we later learned would have been a good idea — but in the end reasoned south the surest thing. “Besides, no matter what direction we go sooner or later we’ll hit the road,” Alexis said. “It’s called Loop Road for a reason.”
About two hours later the dwarf cypress began giving way to thicker vegetation and wetter ground. As we made our way around an impenetrable thicket I look up and there, not 10 feet in front of us, behind a barrier of leaves, lay the road. “Alexis,” I said. That may be the happiest moment of my life. Alexis laughed and clapped her hands and we clambered up out of the swamp and stood in the middle of the dirt road, triumphant.
We grinned at each other. I joked that if we’d been on Oceanic Flight 815, we’d have gotten off that damned island by the end of Season Two. “And we would have taken no crap off of Ben or Locke either one,” Alexis said.
But the ordeal wasn’t over. The road stretched both ways as far as the eye could see and we had no idea where the car was. We picked a direction and started walking. Eventually a construction foreman came by, offering us bottles of water and a ride to the car (which was the other way). His name was Anthony. If I ever have a son, I will name him for this sainted man.
During the long walk, Alexis and I had talked intently about how we planned to sue the National Park Service. We got lost and spent the night in the Everglades — the Everglades! — with no provisions!– because we had used their trail as described. But when we stopped at the Oasis Visitor Center to file a complaint, the ranger, Jill Wilson, was courteous and sympathetic and concerned about our well being. By the time she had taken our information, my litigious spirit had evaporated. Don’t you hate nice people?
Now sitting here at my desk, putting the end to this long blog post, my legs are still leaden, not to mention bruised and scored with deep scratches, but the agony of the walk and the misery of the cold wet night has receded. Now this unintended adventure has started to seem like maybe the greatest experience, the proudest achievement, of my life. “We could have died, you know,” Alexis said when we were finally back to the car.
Not to overstate the case, but neither one of us had been willing to voice the possibility until the ordeal was over. I never felt seriously threatened, but she was right. A bit of bad luck — a snake bite, a gator attack, a twisted ankle — might have been enough to turn a difficult situation into a fatal one. And yet we did not die. I don’t want to make it sound like I think I’m Shackleton or Percy Harrison Fawcett or Edmund Hillary or somebody, but I have a new understanding of why some people like to place themselves into impossibly challenging circumstances.
Maybe it’s true that you only know yourself by testing the limits of your endurance. I’m almost ready to go hiking the swamp again. Only this time I’ll have supplies and a plan and an itinerary on file with the Parks Service so they know where to look if I don’t come back.
And now for the books: Of course we start with Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’s The Everglades, River of Grass. Before this book came out in 1947, the Everglades were considered a worthless swamp. It’s one of the masterpieces of American nature writing.
The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald. An award-winning reporter for the Washington Post, Grunwald covers the history of the last American frontier–how it was almost destroyed in the name of progress and how it may be rescued.
Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen. This epic masterpiece, a novel based on real events in the Everglades at the turn of the 20th century, won a National Book Award in 2008.
Oh, and I highly recommend the National Park Service page on hiking in the Big Cypress National Park. It might help you avoid camping out unless you mean to.