River of Grass: Three Days in the Everglades

A patch of moonlight, shining through the tent door, falls on my foot. 6:11 am. Last night's star tapestry — a blinking reminder of how far I've come from New York city's reaches — has rolled away, swallowed by the lunar orb. 

I stretch and wince, feeling the usual ache from side-sleeping on a slowly deflating discount air pad. Turning to the other side of the tent, I steal a glimpse through the mesh vent pocket: the Florida Bay shoreline is a slim strip of indigo, broken by a pale lemon slice of the sun's first moments.

Life begins to wake up. The vultures who haunt the hardgrass field come alive, screeching and swooping overhead. I curse their rude interruptions. Waves from the bay break in rushed succession. 

With a long drive ahead, I reluctantly begin to pack up. First, the flimsy sleeping pad, compressed into a neat roll. Next, blanket, rain jacket, hat, and long sleeve shirt stuffed into my backpack. Then flashlight, solar lantern, book, journal, pen, maps, knife. Keys and phone tucked in my pocket.

Daybreak at Flamingo, Everglades National Park.

Daybreak at Flamingo, Everglades National Park.

6:35. At the edge of the bay, a royal palm tree stands in silhouette, black on orange, and in this light, I watch a spider suspend itself on the outside of the tent, working its way up and down invisible thread.

The vultures are now corralling on the picnic tables, searching for food scraps and screeching in increasingly loud decibels. If you're unlucky, you'll find the windshield wipers and siding on your car pecked to death; vultures have an affinity for attacking cars and ripping the black rubber and plastic right off.

Wary of the birds all around, I unzip the tent door, tossing my backpack and sleeping pad outside, then emerge to greet the day. The underbelly of the clouds warms to pink, a slash across sea and sky. I admire it for a moment, but the ever-present buzz of mosquitoes reminds me that not all nature is beautiful.

They are on me instantly, at my ankles, neck, wrists, any thin-skinned place where blood courses close beneath. When I pulled into the Everglades two days ago to secure my campsite— a walk-in spot in an open field adjoining the bay— the camp host cautioned that most people flee after the first night, plagued by bites. Comforted by the powerful bay breezes carrying the flitting, infuriating insects away, I paid it little mind. Now, in the still-damp grasses of dawn, my skin fit for feast, I understand his warning.

I scurry to break down the tent, unclipping the rain fly from the main shell, pulling up stakes, disconnecting the metal skeleton of poles, and vigorously shaking off dew and bugs and dirt from the ground cloth. I stuff the tent loosely in its sack, throw on my pack, and hustle to the car, parked 100 yards away.

7:03. I plop into the drivers' side of the car, slamming the door quickly, but still bringing a few industrious skeeters with me. I spend a few minutes eliminating them, and am on my way. I watch the sun burst into view, commanding the eastern sky and throwing an unexpectedly radiant January light over the sunshine state.

I drive east, then south, for 170 miles, barreling to the end of the country, the southernmost point, as far as you can go with four wheels and two feet.

Day One: Sunday January 15

I begin my south Florida journey not on the bay, but at the Hertz rental car counter at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 1:30 am. I deplane in winter gear, having left the snowy husk of New York after a three hour delay, but when I exit baggage claim and hop the shuttle bus to the rental car area, a humid Florida haze settles around me, making my jacket, sweatshirt, wool hat, and long pants unnecessarily sweat-inducing.

The lights are too bright and the rental car waiting area is maddeningly devoid of white noise. Two Hertz representatives are trying to accommodate the odd-hour influx of car-seekers, so things are moving slowly. My credit card is declined (the joys of forgetting to add a travel notification) but somehow debit passes.

At 2:30, I finally arrive at my AirBnB for the night (now, for the wee hours before dawn) and crash. I wake up a little over six hours later, shower, and take my host up on her offer for coffee. We sit and chat for a bit, but anxious to get on, I pack up the car at 10:00, ready to leave.

But what is a Sunday morning without a dead car battery and a check engine light? I sheepishly trudge back inside and ask if my host's boyfriend will jump it. I call Hertz, they allow me to trade it in, and eventually, long after I'd intended, I'm like a bat out of hell in a red Nissan Altima.

Cruising down the Tamiami Trail, on old Highway 41 that connects the west and east coasts, I settle into a Florida state of mind. I drive past ramshackle tourist traps hawking glass-bottom boat tours and gator wrestling shows. In the tall grasses along the highway, birds crouch unseen before bursting up in a flurry of flight. Windows down, 80 degrees. I finger-tap the steering wheel to delightfully tacky and familiar classic rock.

I cross into Big Cypress National Preserve just before 3:00. Big Cypress, established in 1974, is part of the greater Everglades system. Indeed, almost all of south Florida is part of the Everglades watershed.

Big Cypress is, in fact, quite big: it encompasses 729,000 acres and spans five freshwater ecosystems: hardwood hammocks, pinelands, prairies, cypress swamps, and estuaries. Plenty of animals call it home, including  obvious ones: gators, 200 species of birds, and 20 kinds of snakes (four venomous) and the less obvious, like the black bear, or the elusive and endangered Florida panther. There are an estimated 100-130 remaining panthers, and perhaps 30-35 live in Big Cypress.

I quickly set up camp, and wander about. The presence of gators is immediate along the Florida Scenic Trail, (the southern terminus of the 1,000 mile trail actually ends here, at Big Cypress.) The gators pay me no mind, simply sunning themselves on rocks or the canal shore. Still, I keep one eye on the rows of teeth glinting in the sun.

I wander the trail for about an hour, but decide to tuck in early just after sundown. I read several excerpts from The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2015.

Big Cypress is a certified International Dark Sky Park, and it earns the distinction. I am startled by the clarity, the closeness of the stars. It is a familiar feeling, when you've been city-dwelling for too long. The sky confronts in an awkward way, right against your eyelids. The moon hangs like a stage prop, suspended on a wire. You question what you know to be true, authentic, earthly night.

The bright, revealing corners of New York could not be further away. The only place to find dark there is a movie theater, and even then it is constructed darkness. Temporary absence of light, turn a switch to off-- and then false light is broadcast out of the screen. Blue light is drilled into retinas, flinching, receiving images in still observance next to other silent movie-watchers.

How different it is, here, or really, anywhere I flee. Because I do, flee.

It's not that I run, ragged and spent and desperate for solitude or nature. It is a quiet thing. I feel restless, so I turn feet, eyes, mind to somewhere wild. I go, I do, I breathe, I look, I walk. It is recalibration. A continual baptism. The reason for escape is essential to the process as the escape itself. 

As will become customary in evenings to come, the bugs are relentlessly loud. I sleep poorly, as I always do on my first night camping in a new place.

Day Two: Monday January 16

9:45 am. Ranger Dave leads a gang of thirteen through the Big Cypress swamp. Our long wooden poles squelch into the soggy bottom and our boots plunge into mud. We are suctioned in, lifting one leg out, then the other, with comical force as we try to trudge our way through. We walk deeper, and mud gives way to water.

In the south Florida floodplains, estuaries, and swamps, a difference of a few feet or even a few inches in elevation heralds a change in environment. It occurs to me that this may be more impressive than we give credit. Out west this summer, I gaped at mountains over 10,000 feet, spent weeks at elevations above my accustomed sea-level, and observed dramatic landscape differences over hundreds of miles of trail and road.

Here, the differences are subtle but immediate: a new wildflower appears in slightly drier grasses but a few feet uphill from water tracks; scattered snail shells form a mollusk graveyard in the mud, but are absent in deeper water only moments ahead. To pay attention to small things, to favor simplicity over grandeur, to understand scale and scope— lessons I am learning.

While it feels strange to be voluntarily standing in knee deep water, knowing your shoes and socks will not dry out for days, the water is remarkably clear and refreshingly cool. We observe air-growing plants called bromeliads, which are related to the pineapple. Many of them grow on the surface of other plants, like the big cypress trees themselves, without causing harm. We also spy rare ghost orchids, but no reptiles, thankfully. 

Our swamp walk ends at a deep water basin, almost a pond, that is covered in lily pads. Dave asks us to stand silently for one full minute and identify every sound we can. Cacophony of birds and insects, splashes of frogs. Ripples of water. 

We emerge just before noon, sodden and feeling adventurous. It was certainly unlike any "hike" I've ever done. I rinse my gear of mud and consult my map. Almost a straight shot to my next destination, a little over one hundred miles. Keys in the ignition, I shove beef jerky in my mouth, chomp on an apple, and ramble on.

The Everglades is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and the largest wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River. It is the third largest national park in the Lower 48 (after Death Valley and Yellowstone).

And it is, indisputably, a different kind of park. It was the first park to protect a damaged, endangered ecosystem and specific creatures that inhabit it, not to protect and glorify beautiful mountains or dramatic western landscapes, like many early, iconic national parks. 

It is known as the "river of grass"— an expanse of shifting, savannah-like sawgrass, the slow-moving water rises and falls, day by day, throughout the year.

The drive into the park is flat, which serves to heighten the impact of that now inescapable river of grass. It fans out in all directions, broad and wide, low, seemingly still. Some swaths look like tufted wheat stalks, a prairie vision. Other parts are vibrantly, sickly yellow-green, the way water-born plants appear.

I catch the winter sun at 3:00, when it is still bright but beginning to sink, setting alight the tips of trees and grasses. I've had the windows down each moment I've been in the car, and now I savor it even more, with the warmest air I've felt in months settling on my (heavily sunscreened) skin. I'm calm to the point of lethargy.

This is what restoration feels like. Eyes ahead. All around, the promise of escape.

Everglades National Park was established in 1947. Today, it encompasses 1.5 million acres of wetlands, and is home to both the American crocodile and the American alligator. Indeed, south Florida is the only place in the world where the two co-exist.

I spend some time on the elevated boardwalks on the Anhinga Trail and get a good look at some gators (apparently, Big Cypress had not shown me enough.) There is a nefarious nest of about a dozen, some half-submerged in the water, others sunning themselves on flattened grass, a few touching or laying on top of one another. In the way that all messes do-  tangles and twists and a creeping sense of everything eating itself-  it makes me uncomfortable. But I stand engrossed. The gators, muscular and surprisingly lean, sit unperturbed. 

Toward the end of my walk, I watch a blue heron stalk a fish for nearly five minutes. The heron, perhaps aware of its audience, perhaps not, moved with precision and a beady eye. But he never struck.

Later, I chat with the camp host when I pull into the Flamingo campground. He offers me a spot with more amenities, and apparently, fewer mosquitoes, but I'm set on the bayside.

Flamingo is one of the least-busy areas of Everglades. Most people enjoy Shark Valley, up north, or Gulf Coast, on the western side of the state. Being entirely coastal on Florida's southern tip, Flamingo susceptible to major weather events, and parts that were damaged in Hurricane Katrina were never rebuilt. Earlier structures were totally wipes out in the great storms of the 1930s. The remaining buildings or the ones that were rebuilt include a visitor center, a small cafe, and a marina. Most major national parks have a thriving mini-metropolis, with lodges, multiple food vendors, and dozens of auxiliary buildings to support whatever activities visitors may desire. Not so here. Flamingo's buildings are painted (and peeling) in an on-the-nose shade of pink. I see maybe 20 cars for the duration of my visit. 

It's an ordeal to set up my tent, fighting fierce day's-end winds off the bay. I manage to essentially pole vault the tent into place and chuck some gear inside to weigh it down.  I eye the vultures. They eye me.

Night falls early, 6:30. I read for a few hours, journal, wait for the stars to blink.

One critical, and entirely preventable error, I made in packing: purposefully leaving my sleeping bag at home, and instead bringing only a thin blanket. I reasoned with myself that it would be hot, no need. A 30 degree bag would be unreasonably heavy for the climate. This is true in theory, less so in actuality. A 50 degree night can chill you. Can kill you, actually, if you are wet, unable to dry off or warm yourself. Conditions were not quite that desperate, but I would not say it was my most comfortable camping experience.

Maybe it is that I've been separated from water, from coasts, for so long. I forgot the way the sea forces cold into the bones, unfurling salted air over everything, blotting your skin and every surface with a clammy cold, like a damp cloth applied to feverish forehead. In ink-night, I shiver, mummifying myself in the blanket. I wake every three hours or so to readjust, cover up a bit of exposed ankle, swat an errant mosquito who wormed his way in. 

Day Three: Tuesday January 17

I wake up early and catch my first sunrise on the Florida Bay. It's glorious, but I don't have much time to enjoy it. I secured a spot on a morning canoe trip, and need to hustle to Nine Mile Pond, a twenty-five minute drive away.

Everything is wet. Grass, windshield, feet. Windows down to air out. Dressed in an attractive outfit of synthetic shorts, long sleeve swim top, Tevas, and a wide-brimmed straw hat, I roll up to the launch site a half hour early and am able to catch the last moments of sunrise over the pond.

While I wait, I munch a banana and spoon some peanut butter onto a dry wheat bagel. The other canoers trickle in, and after describing the 3.5 hour paddle we are about to embark on, our guide organizes us into boats.

There are three couples, and one older gentleman, Eric, who is also alone. I recognize him, since we camped in the same field. We are paired up: me in the front of the canoe, Eric in the rear steering position. This arrangement will prove difficult, but having no knowledge of the waterways nor a desire to solo paddle myself into a situation, it's a better option. Our guide, JP, takes a solo kayak, in order to more easily corral straggling paddlers. 

Incredibly clear water, with clumps of periphyton floating. 

Incredibly clear water, with clumps of periphyton floating. 

We launch at 8:30, gliding easily across open water, before entering thick tangles of mangroves. Eric and I struggle with sharp turns, and often nose our canoe into the mangroves' knotted roots that protrude from the water. Eric barely speaks, and I have neither heart nor canoe knowledge to try to correct the situation. Turns out it is hard to captain a canoe with someone you don't know.

Despite our paddling blunders, it's a beautiful time. The sun is warm, but not yet stifling. Large white birds perch on thin branches, masters of the trees. Being off the coast, and therefore safe from tides and fierce wind, Nine Mile Pond is an ideal spot for enjoying a leisurely paddle through the Everglades, and getting up close to the flora and fauna.

We coast through a three mile loop, following markers wedged deep in the muck. Patches of periphyton--  algae-like organic matter crucial to the ecosystem--  shift with the movements of our canoes, revealing shockingly clear, shallow waters beneath. We spy about eight gators along our route. They are often propped up on clumps of grasses, trying to warm their cold-blooded bodies with morning sun. They appear asleep, but I assume they have one eye out. One of them blends in exceptionally well, for algae has grown along his tail, offering a slick disguise.

Nine Mile Pond

Nine Mile Pond

The paddling begins to get tough around 10:30, two hours in. While I love one of the open water stretches through a savannah plain of grasses, I'm fairly exhausted. Around this time we emerge into an open inlet, where we get a good look at "Croczilla," the 13 foot crocodile who calls the pond home. A breeze begins to pick up as we enter his territory, and we are frighteningly blown in toward him, but he pays us no mind.

We return to land right at the three hour mark. My arms are sore, in that good way, when you've worked your body. I grab some lunch and attempt a short hike along the Snake Bight trail, but the mosquitoes are voracious, despite my long pants and top. I abandon the hike, walk some boardwalks, and do a scenic drive.

While buying an ice cream at the marina later in the afternoon, I impulsively sign up for a 4:30 sunset cruise on the bay. Besides camping (and the ice cream) it's the one expense I make in the park. 

To kill time, I pop into the visitor center for a ranger talk on the hurricanes that have destroyed or shaped the park over the years. This explains why Flamingo is so...forgotten. It is more of a relic to what has survived, than thrived.

The sunset cruise is, simply, sublime. I buy two Coronas from the marina (beer on a boat is, perhaps, one of life's best pleasures) and settle in. Another couple, in the midst of a long RV trip, is aboard, as are two foreign tourists.

I chat with the captain and his partner, who actually works at the marina store and sold me the boat ticket earlier. They are seasonal park workers, and just arrived two days prior. We get to talking and discover so much in common. 

We tool around for about 90 minutes, taking an easy sweep of the bay. It's perfectly warm with a good breeze. Dolphins jump out of the water. The beer mixes with the salt and the air and the bug spray and the sunscreen in that deliciously dirty, scrubby way of the beach. How rare it is to feel truly at peace.

Another star-strewn, sleep-deprived night. I wake, Wednesday, to that full sunrise, start to finish, through the mesh of the tent. I rip myself from the river of grass, on the promise of cerulean islands strung together, stones on a necklace, that await me in the southern Keys. I spend the next two days there, beached, buzzed, trying (failing) to approximate Hemingway. And I run into the ocean, buoyant, arms circling, face to sky, mermaid hair.

And I remember why I am an essential creature of water. I am a Pisces. I was the child who was forcibly plucked from the ocean, pruned and waterlogged, at day's end. I am still the first in and out of the water, refusing to be supine on the beach. I jump, never ease in. I cannot resist any shade of blue, and no matter how cold, I always dip more than a toe into pond, lake, ocean, pool, river, swimming hole. It is not platitude. It is observable truth: in the water, I become ebullient. I am elemental, returned to what I am.

The Everglades, too, are defined by water. What part of life isn't? It is a simple thing, one I need reminding of. To feel yourself raw on the earth, cleaved from your own life, beaten by wind, by water. Clean again.

Beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West.

Beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Key West.