I’m in Miami at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, and I thought I’d post a few of the places I’m looking forward to revisiting for my SEJ friends and colleagues. The following are excerpts from The Explorer’s Guide to South Florida, which I co-authored with Sandra Friend. Fair warning: if something sounds interesting, please call first – it’s been awhile since I updated this section of the book! Enjoy….
Glittery Cookie Crust
We’ve visited the crème de la crème icing in Palm Beach and the angel cake in Fort Lauderdale, and now we’ve reached Miami, the Magic City, land of glitter and glitz, glamour and mystique. Miami is the crust of the cake, the foundation of south Florida. Here you’ll find everything imaginable and more. It’s called the Magic City thanks to its practically instant development at the turn of the 19th century, and Miami’s magic continues to evolve.
Thanks to pioneers Mary Brickell and Julia Tuttle, Miami is said to be the only city in the nation settled by women. These women invited Henry Flagler to consider bringing his railway to their town after a freeze rendered his resort mecca of Palm Beach too cold for fun. They drove their point home with a gift of fresh citrus blossoms, untainted by the recent freeze that had devastated crops in central Florida and Palm Beach. The train soon was under way, although some early Miami settlers, including Commodore Ralph Munroe of Cocoanut Grove (as it was spelled at the time), were not so excited to see the signs of progress. Munroe understandably preferred to keep his paradise to himself, but progress came to town just the same, and more quickly than Munroe could stop it.
Today Miami is known as the Gateway to the Americas because it serves as an entry point for cargo and immigrants from Cuba and Central and South America. The Latin influence is more than noticeable in Miami—the population is now more than half Hispanic. More than 125 languages are spoken in homes across Miami-Dade County. This is the land of opportunity, and countless thousands of people have risked their lives and disrupted their families for the chance to come here and achieve the American Dream.
This amazing diversity brings many riches to the city. Visitors can sample a huge variety of authentic cuisines, as well as culinary offerings from nationally acclaimed, cutting-edge chefs, many of whom either started here or found their way to this international hot spot. Foodies will love visiting the Homestead farmland during the December–June growing season for fresh strawberries, tomatoes, and a wide variety of tropical fruits.
Shopping opportunities are exceptional here, too, thanks to the fact that our port welcomes goods from worldwide trade markets. Look to South Beach and Lincoln Road for the offbeat, to Bayside for international gifts, to Coral Gables for sophisticated goods, and to Coconut Grove for quirky fun.
Miami’s beaches have garnered some acclaim of late. USA Today rated Miami as the number-one city for “best clothing-optional beach” in 2004. Haulover, North Miami’s beach, has distinctly separate beach areas for nudists, gays, and families.
USA Today also ranked South Beach as the number-one beach for best nightlife, and National Geographic Magazine listed Miami beaches among its top ten favorites. Hispanic Magazine rated Miami as the number-one city for Hispanic living, and Natural Health rated Miami the number-one healthiest city.
In 2003 Miami hosted 10.5 million visitors, with an impact of $15.4 billion on the local economy. Travelers are kings and queens in this town. While the traveling life can often be a little tedious, you can bet that you won’t find the same old shops and the same old restaurants in Miami—there’s nothing humdrum here. Miami has some of the best-known names in retail and cuisine, and the most wonderful corners of this beautiful town can’t be found anywhere else in the universe.
Miami Beach and South Beach: Glamour and Babes
Miami Beach has long been a coveted destination for its sun-drenched beaches and sultry social scene. Soaking up daiquiris by night and rays by day forms the basis of a near-perfect vacation for some. But since you’re here, maybe you’d like to spend a little time learning about the things that set Miami apart from the rest of the world.
The South Beach air is fresh and light in the mornings, and you may see film and photo crews out staging scenes and getting their shots, as well as grading trucks lumbering along the beach, churning and smoothing the sand for a new day of bronzing and castle building. Mornings at South Beach, nicknamed SoBe, are a world apart from the nighttime scene, but the beauty remains, and it’s a great time to take a morning tour of the beach architecture, which is called art deco, although it’s really more closely related to the German Bauhaus design movement—spare, efficient, and sleek.
The facade on Miami’s toniest stretch is ever evolving. Many ocean-gazing retirees were moved out of the stylish buildings in the 1980s to make room for a flashy future, attracting the likes of Madonna and Sly Stallone, who bought homes nearby and frequented the bar scene, as well as investors Cameron Diaz and Michael Caine, whose bars became part of the nightlife. Madonna and Sly have moved on now, but the beach still draws tourists searching for celebrities, and a few can almost always be found. (Ugly secret: Some clubs actually pay dishy celebs to grace their salons.) A younger set has moved in, adding hip-hop and rap to the hottest musical scene in town. Today’s beach is the domain of the very young, hip, and buff, and SoBe continues to be a welcome haven for creative gays, whose imagination and hard work helped transform the aging deco beach into the vibrant, world-class destination that it is today. Although South Beach seems cut out for the young and trendy whose day begins at midnight, it makes a great family vacation destination, too.
Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant
11 Washington Ave., Miami Beach 33139
Joe’s has been serving seafood since its inception in 1913, when Hungarians Joe and Jennie Weiss came to Miami Beach from New York to improve his asthma condition. They served breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the front porch of their home, spilling into their dining room on busy days, without any local competition for the first eight years. When a scientist brought a bag of stone crabs to Joe’s in 1921 and asked them to find a way to cook the crustacean—previously considered to be inedible—history was made. The restaurant still serves the delicacies cold with the same potatoes and slaw that Jennie and Joe offered to famous customers such as Al Capone, J. Edgar Hoover, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Swanson, and Joe Kennedy. The menu also includes a gourmet selection of seafood, beef, and chicken, with premium prices for the crabs, surf and turf, and Alaskan king crab legs. Dinner for two can be purchased online and shipped all over the country, although stone crabs are available only in season, October 15 through May 15. Reservations are not accepted, and the long lines are as legendary as the cuisine and clientele. Open October–May. $$$–$$$$.
1656 Alton Rd., Miami Beach 33139
This market of the stars serves the needs of the most discriminating residents and visitors to the beach. Here you’ll find fall manner of fresh seafood, meats, breads, produce, deli items, flowers, fine wines—the best of everything. It’s a small shop with friendly service. Open daily 10–8.
Miami: The Magic City
The times, they are a-changing in downtown Miami. The city is evolving to accommodate phenomenal growth. With cranes spearing the sky at every turn, there are currently 16,000 condominium units under construction in Miami-Dade County. They are selling quickly, but an estimated half are going to investors whose intention is profit—they hope to sell the units again before they’re even built. Who will live in these units, particularly those whose cost has been driven up into the hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars? Does the nation’s poorest city really have that kind of buying base? Every spectator and even the speculators look at the issue with the caveat that no one knows how it will end. Miami and south Florida have proven to be very lucrative markets for creative financiers. But it’s never been a rocket’s path—it’s a roller coaster. Economic disasters, hurricanes—there’s always something that dulls the shine of the gold, but no one’s ever given up. Progress comes back more vigorously than ever before. Visionaries see the danger looming on the horizon and urge us to take heed and make the right moves now to forge a path into the future that will take Florida to a place we can all enjoy—not to wait until an economic or environmental disaster blows our world out of proportion. If we take care now to preserve the amazing natural treasure that Florida is, perhaps we can continue to live here harmoniously for generations to come.
It is entirely possible that this massive building phase will benefit not only the developers and savvy investors but also the entire city, bringing a fresh, urban livability to downtown that’s been lacking. And why not? Miami is one of the most beautiful cities in the nation, so it should be enjoyed 24/7, not just during business hours or from afar by night. We’ll see. The Magic City in transition is certainly something to keep a bead on.
Bijan’s on the River
64 S.E. Fourth St., Miami 33131
Here you can get seafood specialties at business-lunch prices, but the really cool thing about this place is the fact that it’s located in Fort Dallas Park in a historic building that was part of the estate of Miami pioneer Julia Tuttle, who lived on the river in the early 1930s. $–$$.
1001 S. Miami Ave., Miami 33130
This is my favorite place to go for dinner before attending musical events at nearby Tobacco Road. The authentic French cuisine is delicious, and the patio dining is pleasant. Try the palate-pleasing homemade pâté with vegetable sides and poached salmon in white wine sauce. $$.
626 S. Miami Ave., Miami 33131
Claiming to the be the oldest bar in town, Tobacco Road is said to have been built on the site of an Indian trading post on the Miami River. Today it serves up the best in local music until dawn on week-ends, enriched by a mean Greek salad and steak dinner specials after midnight. Popular with the after-work crowd as well as music lovers and late-nighters, the Road has two indoor bars and a comfortable patio. $.
3458 S.W. Eighth St., Miami 33135
As incongruous as it seems, this authentic Vietnamese restaurant sits right on Callé Ocho, the main drag of Little Havana. Passersby might never guess that in this tiny hole-in-the-wall storefront is the best Vietnamese in town, and thanks to its lack of fluff and puff, it’s extremely reasonably priced. The place has its own little history, even if it’s not about Cuban boat lifts. Owner Kathy Manning, a math teacher, took in a Vietnamese refugee sponsored by her church in 1975, and five years later the pair created the restaurant together. It’s a complete success. Chef Tung Nguyen still cooks in the back, and Kathy is hostess and server. There are only a dozen tables, and they don’t take reservations, so there’s pretty much always a waiting line outside. But the homemade kim chi (an appetizer of fermented cabbage), lettuce rolls, roast duck with black currant sauce and avocado, grouper in mango sauce, and watercress and ripe tomato salad are always worth the effort. There’s an eclectic imported beer list, too. Closed Monday. $–$$.
Coconut Grove: Grave of the Groovy
Site of one of Miami’s earliest settlements, this bayside community’s roads and sites are named after the pioneers who first settled here, such as the Ingraham Highway, named for Flagler Railway scout James Ingraham. Some of the grand homes of the early 20th century still grace the shoreline, from Vizcaya to the Barnacle to the Deering Estate. Affectionately called “the Grove,” the city served as an early Bahamian immigrant community, and in the 1960s it became quite popular with musicians and hipsters. Anyone who was there then will regale listeners with tales of intimate musical gatherings with David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Fred Neil, and Jimmy Buffett. But the popularity of the community seemed to bring its downfall, as so often happens. In an effort to capitalize on the crowds, developers quickly swooped into the community with early versions of festival marketplaces—palaces of retail and restaurant trade designed to woo the music-loving public and to capture their dollars.
As it turned out, there wasn’t a lot of money to be made from the hipsters of the 1960s, and the retail behemoths continue to pose a challenge for the community. But in the process the charming sense of a village atmosphere was lost and has never been fully recovered.
Nonetheless, the Grove maintains a hint of grooviness, and the streets of Coconut Grove still offer a plethora of kinky shops and sidewalk cafés of the sort that the hippies of yesteryear might have found interesting—including head shops and lingerie and sex-toy shops. Designer boutiques also line the streets, and mainstream shopping can be found at the Mayfair and Coco Walk. The Coconut Grove Playhouse is a delightful, small dual-stage theater that draws impressive national touring shows. The Grove may not be the same as wistful natives recall, but it’s still a comfortable, casual place to enjoy an evening.
Organic Farmer’s Market in Coconut Grove
3300 Grand Ave. (at Margaret St.), Coconut Grove 33133
Come hungry to this wide spread of organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, juices, and prepared raw foods such as delicious sun patties (meat-free patties made of raw vegetables such as beets, carrots, and sprouts), fruit pies, kim chi (fermented cabbage), curry-cashew spread, and many more inventive and delicious dishes. Most of the food is grown and prepared by local farmers Tracy and Stan Glaser at their farm in Homestead. They bring it all to market 10–6 every Saturday. Yum.
The Barnacle Historic State Park
3485 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove 33133
A yacht builder, Ralph Munroe bought his 40 acres of bayfront property in 1886 with $400 and a sailboat. The oldest home in its original location in the county, Munroe’s Barnacle was built in 1891, long before air-conditioning relieved Florida’s relentless summer heat. The Barnacle remains a fine example of environmentally friendly design, especially the home’s roofline, which is raised in a cupola and vented in the center, helping to draw heat out of the home and enabling the fresh sea breezes to blow through the home from the many windows, many of which are shaded by an overhang. These were all successful techniques for making the home more livable in the warm summer months. Special events include Barnacle Under Moonlight, musical performances held under the full moon 6–9 monthly. The Barnacle is open 9–4 Friday through Monday; tours are at 10, 11:30, 1, and 2:30. $.
Grove Isle Club and Resort, 4 Grove Isle Dr., Coconut Grove 33133
Gauzy curtains provide privacy when dining in the garden, a piano lends elegance inside, and the outdoor terrace overlooks Biscayne Bay. It’s rich and far removed from Miami proper. Entrées include crab Benedict for breakfast, as well as tuna tataki, thinly sliced and seared, or Roquefort-crusted filet mignon. Happy hour; dog days on Sunday afternoons. $–$$$.
3381 Pan American Dr., Coconut Grove 33133
At this charming local favorite, enjoy live local music (I especially like Valerie Wisecracker and the 18 Wheelers) and fresh seafood on the outdoor patio overlooking the water. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a great place for a sunny afternoon lunch or dinner. $–$$.
Jaguar – Delectable ceviche in Coconut Grove
Ola – Delectable ceviche at the Sanctuary Hotel on South Beach.
Anxious to try (and close to the hotel!): http://www.ceviche105.com/location/
105 NE 3rd Ave
Miami, FL 33132
Cool Cafés and Commerce
Lincoln Road (10 blocks between Washington and Lenox Avenues) is one of Miami Beach’s most enchanting shopping and dining districts. Instead of being torn down and rebuilt, as so many places have been in south Florida, it was refurbished. Two rows of galleries; book, gift, and clothing shops; offices; and small eateries are joined by a wide pedestrian walkway that makes for some very interesting people watching. In-line skaters blast by diners at outdoor cafés, and couples with their pretty pets, young families, hipsters, and happy retirees help create a diverse crowd of sophisticates. On Sunday from 9–6 the mall is home to a farmer’s market, where you can find a bouquet of orchids to grace your hotel suite. From October to May there is a twice-monthly antiques and collectibles market on Sunday also. Coming from a nonshopper: make time to check it out.
Miami River tours begin with Miami Circle (401 Brickell Avenue)—the enigmatic and still unresolved ring of stone unearthed at the mouth of the Miami River where the town’s earliest settlers, the Tequesta Indians, lived for perhaps as long as ten thousand years, followed by Miami pioneers Mary and William Brickell. The circle was discovered in 1998 during excavation in preparation for a new condominium structure, halting the project while archaeologists and authorities attempted to discern its origin, carbon-dated at A.D. 100. Local, state, and federal funds were used to buy the property—at a whopping $23 million—but the 38-foot circle remains a mystery, today shielded by a 6-foot chain- link fence while awaiting its destiny. Will city officials create a monument or a park? What if the circle isn’t of Indian origin at all but is instead a natural stone formation, as some scientists believe? For now the site has simply been covered with soil to await future scientific inquiry. A semipermanent prayer corner—decorated with articles, artifacts, and feathers and beads woven into the fence—has been created at the site by Native American Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez, who claims to be a Caribbean princess of Native American descent. It serves to remind visitors and spectators that this could be the site of an ancient temple.
A Cruise with Dragonfly Expeditions
Dragonfly Expeditions runs a few hundred tours each year, covering points of interest all over Florida and beyond. We joined partner Charles Kropke on a tour of the Miami River, which began at the point where the river meets Biscayne Bay, site of Miami’s earliest settlements. The Tequesta Indians, who lived here about two thousand years ago, are said to have coined the name of the city; Miami is a Tequesta word for “sweet water,” their description for the fresh river water that then flowed from the Everglades, free of industrial pollution and wild with rapids and waterfalls that have since been blasted away by development. Another story says the name came from the word mayaimi, which means “very large lake” and probably refers to Lake Okeechobee, accessible by canoe trail through the Everglades from the Miami River.
Once Flagler’s railroad reached Palm Beach and he successfully established the community as a choice island winter retreat for the nation’s wealthy, he had no interest in extending his railroad farther south, according to Kropke. Then came the freezing winter of 1895, when the citrus crops and tourism satisfaction of central Florida both took a grave hit, as happens on occasion. Julia Tuttle and Mary Brickell, pioneers in Miami who dreamed of creating a new southern metropolis, sent a basket of south Florida citrus blossoms, untouched by the freeze, to Flagler via his scout, James Ingraham. He responded immediately, and, Kropke says, the following week Tuttle gave Flagler some prime real estate at the mouth of the Miami River.
Flagler’s railroad reached Miami in 1896, and the town was incorporated that year with 344 residents. Flagler built the Royal Palm Hotel in 1912, and soon he and his railroad brought the wealthy to Miami, helping to establish the town. Fabulous homes were built on the city’s south side, creating a millionaires’ row now known as Brickell Avenue, the heart of Miami’s financial district, although the original homes are long gone. A great real-estate boom continued for five years, and then fortunes began to plummet. Kropke says it all came to an end with the hurricane of 1926, which killed between 325 and 800 people, with another 800 never found.
An intrepid researcher and well-informed authority on Miami, tour guide Kropke took me from the Miami Circle to the Miami River Inn, and then he suggested we make an impromptu visit to a riverfront shipyard. Founded in Jacksonville in 1885 and moved to Miami in 1923, Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Company (305-324-5211; www.merrill-stevens.com; 1270 NW 11th St., Miami 33125) is the oldest continually operating corporation in the state, we learned from company president Fred Kirtland, who graciously welcomed our unexpected interruption to his day.
A panoramic photo of Miami’s bayfront and river, with Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel still perched on the riverside, taken by Vern Williams in 1925, spreads across Kirtland’s office wall. We all admired the scene, depicting the past we’d been discussing all day during our tour of the river. Our conversation took a surprising turn when we discovered that Kirtland’s personal ancestry is interwoven through the history of south Florida. Kirtland is the great-grandson of Jeptha Vining Harris, a Civil War soldier and surgeon who bought Fort Dallas (the historic property that we saw on the riverfront earlier in the day, which today has a building that was once owned by Julia Tuttle and whose former outbuildings are at Lummus Park) from the U.S. government after the war. Kirtland joked that he rues the day when Harris sold the property and moved to Key West. “So in his infinite wisdom, he sold Fort Dallas to the Biscayne Bay Company, and they later sold it to the Brickells. But for colossal mismanagement, I wouldn’t have to be scraping hulls here today.”
In Key West, Harris built the Southernmost House, the very distinguished Victorian manse built at the southernmost point of the nation that today is an inn and museum of the same name. Harris’s only son married the daughter of Florida’s first millionaire, William Curry, a very successful Federalist who moved from Charleston (or Savannah) to Green Turtle Cay in the Bahamas and then to Key West, where he established a shipyard, built schooners, and had a ships’ chandlery where he held cargo from shipwrecks until its ownership was determined. “He must have been some character,” says his great-grandson, Kirtland. “They tell me he made his money because he kept his assets in pound sterling. The people that did that made a bonanza. He took great pride in the fact he was a millionaire. They tell me he enjoyed hobnobbing with Rockefellers, Morgans, and Astors at gala parties at the Waldorf Astoria. The only difference between us, he’d say, is ‘They’re spending their interest, I’m spending my principal.’”
Kirtland lived with his mother and grandmother in the Southernmost House until he was a third grader, when his mother sold the house. She’d promised her mother, a Christian Scientist, that she’d never sell the family home to anyone who’d serve alcohol, so she passed up offers from hoteliers and sold the home to a private buyer for much less than she might have earned from a commercial concern.
“As usual, some of the wisest decisions weren’t made,” said Kirtland. “But for a little mismanagement . . .”
In spite of a few historic stumbles, Kirtland seems to have achieved an admirable level of success as president of Merrill-Stevens, one of the most important businesses in Miami, a working boatyard on the river for more than 80 years. The company ensured its success against competitors by investing in an elevator lift that can lift 12,000-pound yachts out of the water for maintenance and repair. Today the boatyard stores and services multimillion-dollar luxury yachts as well as working vessels that belong to their neighbors on the Miami River.
Downtown Miami Shopping
You might find bargain fashions or electronics at the rows of stores lining the city blocks in downtown Miami. One outstanding shopping opportunity exists at the Seybold Building at Southeast First Avenue and Flagler Street, home to numerous jewelry importers and wholesalers, where fine diamonds and gems can be found at bargain prices.
Turtle Nesting Season
June is the official start of turtle nesting season on the Gold Coast, when the giant mistresses of the sea lumber ashore under cover of night to deposit their treasured offspring for safekeeping. Florida beaches serve as the largest nesting ground for endangered loggerhead turtles in the Western Hemisphere. While the chance to observe this miracle of nature is rare and exciting, it’s important to remember to protect the turtles as they lay their eggs, and again a few months later when the tiny hatchlings make their way from their nests back to the sea.
Should you encounter a turtle in the process of nesting, do not approach her. Be careful not to frighten or disturb her, or she will abandon the nest. The state of Florida and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 prohibit tampering with sea turtles or their nests. You may, however, wish to join a turtle walk at seaside parks along the coast, which include an educational presentation regarding the sea turtles, followed by a guided walk of the beach in the hope of the chance to quietly watch a turtle climb onto land to dig a nest and drop her eggs. Park staff will either fence off the nests or relocate them to safe areas for incubation. At hatching time, community volunteers can help guide the young turtles back to the sea. They are drawn to the light of the moon reflected off the sea but often are misguided by streetlights and end up on coastal highways instead of where they belong. Ask park or beach personnel about turtle programs all along the coast.
Tips for Safe Sea-Turtle Watching
Miami-Dade Parks Sea Turtle Program director Bill Ahern offers the following tips to remember when you’re sea-turtle watching:
• DO remain quiet at all times.
• DO walk along the shoreline, being careful not to frighten emerging turtles.
• DO wear dark clothing (light clothing may distract the mother, and she may not nest).
• DO NOT walk up to a nesting turtle.
• DO NOT use flashlights or flash photography at any time.
• DO NOT attempt to touch a sea turtle.
• DO NOT touch, handle, or remove eggs from a nest.
• DO NOT attempt to ride the turtle back into the water.
• If you see a turtle that appears to be in trouble, DO NOT attempt to touch or move the turtle. Report the incident to the local park, beach, or police department.
• DO keep plastic bags out of the environment. Marine animals mistake them for a food source: jellyfish.
• DO watch out for and remove fishing line and other pollution hazards.
• DO extinguish city lights near beaches during turtle nesting and hatching season (June–October).
• DO beware of sea life when using motorboats, which cause a lot of damage to turtles and manatees.
The Turtle Awareness Project at Miami-Dade Parks Beach Operations (305-361-5421; 7921 Atlantic Way, where 79th Street meets Collins Avenue on Miami Beach) monitors nests from June through October, with a hatchling-release program in August and September.
Biscayne National Park
I asked park ranger Maria Beotegui what the most pressing environmental concern facing the park was, and she replied, “Oh, do I have to choose just one? Water quality, the coral reef, and overfishing.” What can we do? “Awareness is the key to solving these problems. If people think about where their water comes from and where it goes when it leaves their homes, they might be more careful about how they dispose of wastes and more careful about what goes in the landfills, too. And even in their driveway, the oil from their cars runs into the water supply. Water treatment ends up putting so much excess nutrients in the water, causing an overgrowth of algae.
“People need to make the connection, and when they come to the park and see that there aren’t as many fish here as they remember, or that the coral reefs are dying, then maybe they’ll make the connection and we can begin to change the way we handle our water and natural resources.
“I don’t want to give up hope yet.”
Swamp Walk: Our “Muckabout”
I laid awake all night the night before, worrying about encountering snakes and gators on my walk through the Everglades swamps with Clyde and Niki Butcher, who hold an annual “Muckabout” Swamp Walk, a three-day event held over Labor Day weekend at their Big Cypress Gallery, located about 30 miles west of Miami on the Old Tamiami Trail, US 41. The gallery is set on a 10-acre piece of swamp where the Butchers live and work. Clyde’s black-and-white photos of the Everglades are internationally famous, and he lends them to help raise awareness of the dire environmental issues facing the River of Grass. During the Swamp Walk you venture into water up to your waist or higher, knowing full well that alligators and snakes live in these parts and that you’re invading their territory. It sounds crazy, but the proceeds of the Swamp Walk go to charity. The real purpose, the Butchers say, is to raise awareness of the delicate Everglades ecosystem and to inspire its preservation.
Anxious yet excited, I dressed in jeans and tough old shoes to ward off any sharp teeth, and we—myself; my husband, Jim; and his brother, Gary—were off. After driving for an hour from Fort Lauderdale into the Ever-glades, we found the Butchers’ gallery. A few gators lay placidly in the front-yard pond. We paid the fee, signed a waiver, and set off on the path. We were all issued broomsticks before we set out, and while no one said they were for fending off attacks, what else could they be for?
I didn’t want to end up at the back of the line—or the front—but I ended up third from the back, Jim and Gary behind me. With trepidation, we stepped off the trail and down into the water. I expected to sink into muddy muck, but we didn’t. The water was brown, stained with tannins from the inland pine trees. As we stepped into the murky water, there was no way of knowing whether a snake or gator might lie beneath the surface. But as I looked around at the crowds of happy humans, I realized—and hoped—that most of the wildlife had probably gone on a hike of their own when we came on the scene. If we just kept moving, we’d probably be okay. But we weren’t moving. We were just standing in place waist deep in this impenetrable water, listening to some silly park ranger tell bad jokes about swamp life. (Okay, maybe he was imparting important facts in a humorous way. I was a little nervous and not paying the closest attention.)
Finally we got moving again, and soon Jim was yards ahead of me. I looked back at Gary for protection, but he was way behind, chatting up the lady ranger in the back. At least we were moving. This couldn’t take too long now. With no one to talk with, I began to notice the beauty of the wet woods, and I realized how clean the water felt, even if it was murky from so many hikers. The air was fragrant with orchids and other plants. The sun shone stunningly through the overhead canopy. Other than a few birds and butterflies, there wasn’t a wild creature in sight. I relaxed enough to enjoy the rest of the walk, though I wasn’t disappointed when it came to an end before too long. But by then I’d tasted nuts growing on the trees and tried to take pictures with my underwater camera.
When we got out, I didn’t even care whether we changed from our wet clothes. They felt good somehow. We said hello to Clyde and looked at some books for sale, perused the gallery, ate delicious gator bites and grouper sandwiches, and listened to a little Cracker music performed by lifelong local Valerie Wisecracker. What a wonderful day it turned out to be. Would I do it again? Why tempt fate? But I’m glad I did it once, and I’ll continue to do what I can to help protect this last vestige of the beautiful, mysterious, and essential Everglades.
Have fun in the Magic City!