Google puts me twenty-five miles from Miami. I could be there this time tommorrow. But I'm going to bypass it to the west and continue south to the Keys. "Seattle to Miami." That's what it says on my card, and generally it is true. But I've tacked just a bit on at both ends of this trip. I went wide around Seattle too.
There was a beautiful sunrise this morning, all pinks and pastel blues. I was up early and packed up quick. I was trespassing just a bit. In a sort of nature preserve. The world was all my own. And I was pleased to share it with the birds and the beasts and all things slithery.
But I had no desire to get yelled at. That's no way to start a hike. I was up on a dike on a gravel road. I had not slept very well. The ground was hard and I was surrounded by frogs. They'd all come up from the water. To inspect my tent at all angles and growl at me. There was a gator too. And birds making jungle noises, like you hear in the Tarzan films.
I felt strong; my pack was light. I was quite out of water. At some point in my sleep I drank up my last two pints. I was thirsty with thirteen miles to go. I should have brought more but my pack's hard to carry. It's held together with duck tape and spit. And bits of rope I find on the road. And one or two unbelieving prayers.
It was hard; I was drying up fast. My tongue was starting to swell. I couldn't swallow; I was cramping up. I developed a pain in my chest. I had no choice but to take it at a gallop, thirteen miles nonstop. It was not as if I was going to die. It was just so uncomfortable. We rarely get really thirsty these days. It's like not being able to breathe.
And interestingly, do you know what I longed for? Cold beer or CocaCola? A mint julep? Gatorade? No, I wanted water. Things simplify themselves in a crisis. I'm reminded of an interesting fact. The last words of most pilots before they hit the ground? "Mama." That always makes me cry.
Nine miles in I found a fisherman and bummed a bottle of water. I drank it slow and sat a bit. I must say it cheered me up. Thank you, sir, whoever you are. I'm glad you come prepared.
Four easy miles took me to the Sawgrass Recreation Center. They offer airboat rides. Which made me sad because I couldn't afford one. I need to watch my dimes. Which I put to good use at the lunch wagon. I had a sandwich and six cans of Coke. At a steep discount, unasked for. It was awfully decent of them. Good old Chfristian charity. I must have looked like hell.
Or maybe I looked more genuine than the rest of that crowd, more of the earth, as it were. It was a much bigger place than I had expected. There were tourists, busloads of them. Toting cameras and shopping for gifts. Posing for pictures and looking so clean. Frolicking in their silly shorts. I sat in the shade and ate my sandwich, feeling superior.
I'm not an absolute jerk; the feeling passed. I did not let it go to my head. But I have earned Florida. I was happier than anyone to be there. It was a pretty place; I was getting fed. Of course I looked like a hobo. I've walked some three or four thousand miles. I've swallowed a lot of dust.
I eat better than most hoboes. I'm healthier; I drink much less. Nevertheless I feel a kinship. My affinities are with them. And every one I have met has been proud. And every one had the right. So look down your noses. Lock us up, beat us down. Kick us out of your stores. We are brave and strong and free. We don't take our showers for granted.
I met Mike, Big Mike, I want to call him. His family runs the place. "You're the guy walking across America. Do you want a free airboat ride?"
I wanted it as badly as I'd wanted water. I never get to do anything fun. Don't misunderstand me here. This whole adventure has been a blast. But I do miss out on some things. I don't get to drink beer or hear live music. I don't take side trips and scenic tours. I'm always too poor or in too much of a hurry. This was an abslute thrill.
An airboat, I'll remind you, is a flat-bottomed craft. It is powered by a propeller. Which means it can go almost anywhere. It will float in three inches of water. Usually you sit up very high, but this was the tourist model. There were twenty of us. We all had fun, but the biggest smile was mine.
Big Mike took me up and they gave me a ticket, a band strapped around my wrist. And a set of ear plugs. I stood in line. On the way in they took my picture. I couldn't afford to buy a print, but I tell you, I looked good. Bearded and sunburnt and covered in dust. And happy. Life is good.
The Everglades, I knew this once, are not a swamp but a river. They once stretched from Orlando south to the keys, the whole width of Florida. But developers have been filling them in. They saved a few thousand square miles. The water is about two feet deep and flows at one mile/day.
I was the only one by myself. I wedged in on an aluminum bench. Which vibrated most interestingly, like a tickle but more satisfying. If you know what I mean. It goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of airboat rides.
But it wasn't all there was for me. It sure gives you a new perspective. I've been walking past these swamps for days, but it's not a swamp once you get out there. It's pretty. The sky is mirrored in the water. From a low angle it looks like land. With all the grasses and cattails. We skimmed right over them all.
In search of one lonesome gator. For most tourists that is the high point of the trip. But I've seen so many in the last few days, I'd have been glad to give him a pass. He was just sitting there. That's pretty much what they do. In your mind's eye you'd have him thrashing about and snapping his jaws at you. Which I'd have been glad to see from the safety of a boat, but no. He was just sitting there.
The bigger thrill was being out there where only an airboat can go. Or a canoe. Airboats are more fun. We saw an osprey eating a fish. And learned how to make gauze from cat tail pulp. We were attacked by boat-tailed grackels. Clever birds. They behave like seagulls. They've got the tourists wrapped around their fingers. Or talons, as the case may be. Their favourite food is Cheez-Its.
There was a brief question and answer session. I wish it had gone on longer. I had a thousand questions about gators and airboats and the state of the Everglades. Which have suffered some in the last fifty years. The last one-hundred, perhaps. If I were one of those biological types, that is where I'd pursue my studies.
The pilot got on it just a bit on our way back to the dock. The smaller airboats that people have can go 90 mph. We didn't come anywhere close to that, but it was still lots of fun. Especially the turns. My most sincere thanks to the Sawgrass Recreation Center.
Leaving there could see I-75, known as Alligator Alley. Which crosses right across the bottom of the state, another insult to the environment. (As are airboats, I'm all but certain. I'll compromise here and there.) I passed under it and continued south, another ten miles of nothing.
But I was fed and watered. It was not a bad walk. I stopped when I reached a gas station. With a biker bar next door. They were cranking the Jethro Tull. I sat outside and guzzled root beer and felt very good about life.
Two more miles south I put up my tent. I still had plenty of daylight. But it had been a good day. I'd walked far enough. I tucked myself deep in the trees. Figgy-looking something-or-others and evergreens with long wispy needles. And other trees standing tall and quite dead. White. They're all over the place.
I his myself better than I needed to. Someone pulled a knife at the gas station. Not on me. No one was hurt. But I didn't want to be around anyone who expresses their negative emotions that way. I've always done well with sarcasm. I should conduct seminars.
I bought my safety with lumpy ground. It's hotter than holy blazes. I'm covered in sticky sweat and bug bites. Life is good all the same. Goodnight.
"ARE YOU afraid of gators?" the boat pilot asked me. There were twenty other people there. Why pick on me, I wondered. Yes, I said. He was satisfied. He lied and said he was too.