The Mangrove Mysteries

Since I’ve been in Naples for eight months already, several people have asked me how I like it. Yet after each query I pause, perhaps too long, in an attempt to dig through my impressions for one that seems fair, truthful and objective. Sometimes, to better understand a place, you leave it. So while I periodically tackle the Naples query, I’ve gotten myself out of it, to get to know a little bit more of Florida.

Assuming the character of a place is founded by its land, by what its rock and soil can offer a man, how the lives of a place acquiesce to weather and water patterns living within its fluidity, it stands to reason that each of its cities on this land carries a distinct personality. Character depends on being able to dig in deeply if there’s enough soil to hold it in place. Florida has a lot of sandy, loose soil yet a lot of water running around it, through it and under it. So if the roots can’t get a hold of the land, they get a hold of the water.

I took a road trip down to the western edge of Everglades National Park, to one of the earliest post civil war trading posts, Everglades City. Here I found some Florida character. Its history, although as elusive and mysterious as the mangrove roots reaching into the abyss of murky, brackish waterways, gives this place a readily palpable identity. An hour’s drive south on US 41, the old Tamiami Trail that was built in the 20s to link Tampa to Miami right through the Everglades, and then south on US 29, Everglades City is an almost neglected fisherman’s haven, far removed from Florida’s other identities of real estate, tourism, and citrus. What draws people to these Floridian outposts may be the lure of wild alligator sighting, exotic bird watching or ten pound marlin fishing – yet the Everglades harbor mysteries from the past: eons of sunken clues to Earth’s past and decades of secrets submerged deep into its waterways by the fingerlike roots of the Mango trees.

Old Tamiami Trail is of course now a paved, two-lane highway, one lane in each direction, its yellow stripe down the center mainly dashed for those needing to get to Miami faster than 60 mph. The land is flat here – from what I’ve read no more than 3 feet above sea level – so that the sky appears to consume you. Along this flat, straight road through scraggy tropical trees and brush and wetland grasses, lone billboards shoot up from the swamps, announcing fishing services, airboat tours, alligator interactives, and cuban food. The warm air finds its way into the car anyway, so I open the windows to let it billow through. and feel the promise of wet heat.

Shortly after the right hand turn onto US 29, heading due south or so it seems, Everglades City announces its welcome. Founded by a civil war veteran in late 1860s or so, I like to imagine what brought him down here, to co exist, peaceably or otherwise, with the Seminole Indians. Perhaps he found exactly what he was looking for: a place to fish, a place to make money, and a place of solitude. Before driving over the causeway to Everglades City proper, I vear right: my first stop is along an embankment from where the air boats depart. I need to get into the thick of things.

Six people to a boat, three up front, three behind, a captain named Bob. But he may have been a Chuck. What was memorable about him was his capacity for narrative. In a one minute introduction that went well beyond safety on board, he infused our intrigue with rapid, spit-fire historical, perhaps factual, factoids about the area and his relationship to it. Bitten by alligators, shot at by drug runners, scars from a stint in prison had us all assured of his credibility as a homegrown Evergladian and not a government sponsored National Park tour operator or a well intentioned foreigner from a student exchange program. Government, in fact, and the very idea it creates is eschewed down here. This becomes evident as Chuck points first to one then another boat moored along the embankment. “That captain went to prison for ten years. Behind him, that captain went for 6 years. Over there, his brother was killed in a drug raid.”

Once cleared from the no wake dock area, Chuck starts up the true engine and the fan sets into motion and begins its bellowing. which assaults more than just our ears – I imagine the very wildlife we are meant to enjoy must scramble for the dark densities below or tangled webs of the mangrove trees when they hear that monster approaching. We enter the maze of what’s known as the Thousand Islands, tunneled through by the waterways whose sign posts are particular branches, certain tree formations, a memorized map in the guides’ minds. Because they have memorized these myriad of turns and twists for decades and centuries, this area has become integrated into their lives, adapting them to one form of activity to another, some legal, some not. Chuck says that at turn of the century, entrepreneurs brought in exotic animals through these waterways. During Prohibition, bootleggers smuggled in rum from Jamaica and Puerto Rico for their journey north. In the 70s and 80s, marijuana made its debut, earning its nickname “square grouper,” referring to the square bales of marijuana that came off of boats that were allegedly fishing for grouper. Smugglers sought out local fishermen who knew these waterways blindfolded under a moonless night and asked them to transfer these bales to offshore drop points. The captains steered their small boats out into the gulf, met up with the larger Mexican fishing boats too loud and cumbersome to navigate the waterways that led inland and to transportation onward. The offer was too great to refuse, as the story goes, for small time fishermen who embarked on a new livelihood: delivering and off-loading a one time run for up to a million dollars. Chuck pulls up to a dilapidated wharf where for years square grouper first met the United States and from where it began its infiltration into American society and its journey towards legalization. It’s like discovering a ground zero of some momentous kind, a very very small point on a map that reverberates outward, affecting lives, habits, policies, protests, changes.

It seemed that overnight lives of these pelagic people were changed by this new business opportunity. Luxury cars pulled into driveways and remodeled one bedroom clapboard houses that ordinarily blew away in a tropical storm now stood out, tall and strong. The government took notice of these quick changes one way or another, especially after passing a law that called a lot of the surrounding fishing waters “protected,” preventing fishermen from even making a meager, rough $17,000 income. How else could they survive but to adapt and conform to the newest form of trade? I like to think about what they talked about around the dinner table on those evenings. Family roots run deep here, and character manifests itself in loyalty. In a small town of 500, the land and sea aren’t the only things that define you. According to one source I read, most of those 500 people are related in one way or another to one of five families. Everyone knows someone who was part of the scheme, and often members of the same family took part in at least one drug run. “Which was kind of hard to do,” Chuck admitted. “They thought, yea, I’ll do it this one time, make a lot of money, and then stop. But few could stop. It became too tempting to do it again if you didn’t get caught.” Eventually, people started getting snagged, but not from snitching. Fathers would sit for years in prison without turning in their sons; friends never violated the honor code. Federal agents had to move in, slowly acclimate as fishermen, get offered a gig or accumulate hard evidence from a disparaging third party. This kind of trust often took years. However, once the evidence was found, according local folklore and our tour guide, the dominoes fell: at one point around 80% of the adult male population was put away for drug smuggling.

Despite Everglades City earning the reputation as the epicenter of illegal activities, I feel it’s a place which harbors more secrets than the dossiers in court cabinets can prove. People can disappear out here. Hermits lived out their years in the Everglades; arriving before the National Park created its boundaries, they were allowed to stay, hidden away from the rest of the world. They granted a few interviews to the senior Everglade City high school students, who put together a booklet on their lives as a final project which can be found in the annals of historical documents. I can also imagine stowaways making the break from ship holds once they came near enough to swim ashore; escaped convicts rattling through the mangroves with chains still tied to their ankles; emancipators turning south instead of north. Who sings out here? What sirens emerge from its dark, green depths below to mesmerize and seduce and to lull us to sleep?

Disembarking the airboat, I make my way back to the car, passing souvenir shops, fishing charters, and a fishmonger. Making a right turn back out onto US 29, I head over the Barron river causeway and into Everglades City. Barron River (named after Barron Collier, A New York real estate tycoon of the 20s who bought large swaths of the land for development) runs along the city’s west side and empties out into the gulf, where not far off shore those “Thousand Islands” – a labyrinth of swamps – act as break waters between the gulf and the land. Simply named “Everglade” in the 1860s, one can see and feel the town’s underlying weight of importance in the role it once had, and now the exhaustion it may feel. A city as we know it it is not. A few bordered up motels, others with full parking lots and “no vacancy” neon signs, manufactured houses, some with foreclosure at the ready; a town grocer, fishing tackle and supplies, a gas station, a large, two story, columned greek revival, pristine white city hall with flags flying in proud perseverance. Once the County Seat of Collier County until the 1960s, it still keeps its pride and tourists, as the motorcycle gang from Quebec demonstrated, lining their bikes and riders up for a group photo. The town is clean and quiet; a palm tree lined medium runs the length of its main street. A wooden barracks on stilts which was the town’s former laundry is now the historical museum. Spending an hour in here will give visitors the low down crash course on the more noble side of Everglades City’s history. It has the expected black and white silver turn-of-the-century enlarged photographs of pioneers and homesteaders, captions and histories, moonshine kettle drums, dredging tools, journals and ledgers. The pioneers envisioned something great and macheted their way through the entangled jungles to lay ground for a railroad which opened up the way for commerce and connection from the north. Livestock was no exception. According to Tampamagazines.com, Andalusian Cattle roaming around freely in Florida, brought over but then abandoned by the Spanish in 1700 when they left for Cuba and beyond, were rounded up by Crackers, whose name was given to the cowboys whose whips slice the air to get the cattle moving. The cowboys “would flail the whips with so much force that the tips would actually break the sound barrier, creating a cracking sound — actually a small sonic boom. Thus, a name for these Florida cowboys was born” (A HIstory of the Florida Cracker Cowboys) Over time, the cattle and cowboys headed and herded out west, creating the images glamorized by movies and recognized today. The railroad was decommissioned in 1957, but tracks of it and the cleared area running along US 29 can still be seen. Leaving the museum, I find the Rod and Gun Club at the end, one of Everglades City’s attractions outside of sport fishing.

The Rod and Gun Club is the oldest establishment here; in fact, it was the original trading post erected by the aforementioned civil war veteran, turned post office, turned hotel, turned restaurant and accomodations. Walk through its doors and be transported to the early 20s. The decor hasn’t changed; the fixtures remain fixed; the mahogany and Floridian Cypress wood paneling and flooring will remain for our lifetimes. Along the walls in the entryway wall, lacquered newspapers articles tell about the drug smuggling years, the Hollywood film stars who came to film, the musicians who came to kick back between gigs. Mick jagger, Sean Connery, John Wayne, Sally Fields and Burt Reynolds; Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon. Walking further into the restaurant, I enter a plush hotel lobby, with upholstered chairs, low coffee tables, a pool table, a mirror-backed solid wooden bar, an enclosed phone booth – probably the only hurricane proof structures within all of Everglades city. Antiques like rifles and guns and heads of wild game adorn the walls, a red carpet leads to the now cordoned off upstairs rooms. The rooms that once were let to seasonal visitors and honeymooners remain closed to the public; now the hotel part of the equation defers to cottages along the Barron River. The dining room remains the attraction though, and seating is offered both inside through double glass doors into an adjoining large, airy room, or outside on the screened-in veranda under the soft revolving whir of long-bladed, low hanging, bamboo bladed fans. The menu is basic and after some post menu research, find that little on it differs than what was offered in previous decades. Fried or grilled meat and fish assortments – yes, mainly grouper, frog legs, cole slaw, seasoned fries and of course key lime pie. It’s the perfect oasis for life on the water, undercover, from the sun or from the law if the need or want arises; for whatever reason life brings one to the Everglades. It’s definitely worth a trip back to ease the disquiet from a hectic week and reminisce the history lessons in a slow afternoon haze, gazing at the river buoying the boats whose lips will never loosen to reveal the trips made under a new moon night.

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