What can I say about the Everglades National Park? It looks like it was deserted over a hundred years ago and hasn’t been thought about since. Although a portion of this sweeping landscape is designed to accommodate rv’ers, campers, boaters and fisherman, no life seems to exist beyond what’s in the swamp and the enormous, prehistoric-like, biting insects that will make you regret your decision to ever visit. Of course, we knew none of this before we arrived.
The first sign that something was wrong should have been the unmanned pay station at the entrance gate. The only thing we were met with there was a sign thanking us for visiting and instructing us to enter at no charge. Although our Access Pass would have gained us free entrance anyway, we still wondered why the booth was vacant. Nevertheless, we passed through and began the slow journey on the long stretch of road tucked narrowly between the marsh. A very slow speed limit, and forty miles of a repetitive view, made the trip a rather boring one. The only break in scenery was a dead alligator here and there alongside the road, which became more frequent as we got deeper and deeper into the Everglades. It took over an hour to cover the desolate two-lane road, and although we didn’t give it much thought at the time, we never saw another vehicle while driving.
We finally reached our campground destination, after following a few arrows and making a few turns, and it, much like the road we had just traversed, was empty. There sat acres upon acres of loneliness. Hundreds of unused, unoccupied campsites surrounded by overgrown grass, rusty fire pits and dirty picnic tables was all we saw. It was deserted. And with the exception of the “Camp Host”, we were the only human life there. Although we initially thought we had found our way to the wrong campground, the Host assured us that not only were we at the right one, but the only one. He took our thirty-dollars (discounted from sixty with the Access Pass) for a two night stay and politely informed us there was no cable, internet or cell phone service, and the water was on a “boil alert”. As it was explained, we could shower with the water, but we couldn’t drink it. Luckily, we always travel with a full tank of our own.
Unlike the typical check-in process where the Host escorts visitors to an assigned site, we were told to “park it” anywhere we liked. We, and our friend, Jack, who was visiting the Everglades with us, chose two sites next to each other and in close proximity to the Camp Host. Normally we wouldn’t do that, but considering the uneasy vibe this place was giving off, we probably all secretly thought there was safety in numbers.
Not completely satisfied with our new accommodations for the next two nights, we unhooked our trailer anyway and got set-up for our stay. Our short-term home wasn’t exactly what we had in mind, but we planned on making the best of it. With several hours of day light left, I grabbed my camera and the bike and headed out to explore beyond our little cement pad. And just in case I found myself lost, or being hunted by some crazed swamp-guy living amongst the gators, I was sure to bring along a few survival essentials.
Starting to see some advantages in being the only visitors to such a vast area of nothingness, I envisioned my bike ride as quiet and peaceful, able to go wherever I wanted, and free of traffic and other pedestrians. But this vision didn’t play out in reality quite the same as it did in my mind. After biking only a few hundred yards from our site, I rolled directly into a sea of hissing cockroaches, crickets, and other unidentifiable crawlers. Out of nowhere there were thousands of them, if not millions, and inches deep. The gray path I was once biking could no longer be seen. It had turned dark, and it was very much alive and vocal. It was a living, breathing blanket of most people’s worst nightmare, certainly mine.
The sound of the hissing was much louder and more piercing than you would think. And instead of these creatures scurrying away from my rolling tires, they hovered stationary as if they couldn’t be bothered. Maybe there were too many of them to get out-of-the-way, or maybe they were feeding on something beneath them.
The distinct sound of their crunching bodies as my tires rolled over them made my skin crawl, and I could smell the guts and puss as they were smashed beneath me. With each pedal, I felt the warm splatter of body parts and half-living sludge smack against my shins, and then the occasional twitch of detached legs trying to hold on. I feared they would retaliate for killing them off, and start jumping and flying on to the bike, and then me, until I was covered and eaten alive. With the swamp on my right and literally feet of mud and slush to my left, there was no stopping or changing directions on the narrow path, as that would surely require the use of a foot to turn around. I could only move forward through the pool of pulsating bodies and hope the nightmare would end as suddenly as it started.
With my eyes squinted and mouth clinched shut, I pushed through what seemed like miles of horror, although I know it was much less. And with only a smidgen of my composure still intact, the nightmare had come to an end. I swiftly made my way back to camp with a look upon my face Hakam had never seen. Worried the creatures, or their parts, were hidden on me or somewhere in my clothes, Hakam would have to wait for an explanation. Needless to say, I called it a night!
Speaking of night-time in the Everglades…. Once we settled in and the sun went down, the only light available in this vast area was coming from right inside of our little home. Without it, we would be surrounded by complete blackness. As Hakam and I sat at the dining table talking about the eeriness of the place, we heard the familiar sound of rain drops pelting our tin can. It started out slowly, more like a sporadic sprinkle, but quickly turned into a steady rain. As we always do, we threw on our shoes and hurried outside to cover our bikes. It took mere seconds to make our way to the picnic table where they were leaning, and just about the same amount of time to realize the beating against our bodies, from what we thought was rain, was actually a swarm of flying insects attacking us. The stinging sensation we felt on our faces, and other areas of exposed skin, was really the Everglades’ residents dining on us. And a glimpse into the light streaming from our dining room windows confirmed it. We were nothing more than an edible obstacle standing between our home and the flesh-eating monsters trying to penetrate it. Without a word, we darted back inside.
Making our way to shelter didn’t assure the safety we hoped for, however. We were forced to quickly turn our attention to the soldiers who made their way inside. Clearly determined to finish what they started, not even a wildly swinging flyswatter, our flailing bodies or my high-pitched screams slowed them down. They were relentless. They had only one thing on their minds, and that was to take over The Willy Wagon. We were just as determined, however, and after an hour or so of clumsy tactical maneuvers and sheer luck, we were victorious! The urge to gloat was strong, but the fear we had missed even one was stronger. If my first run-in with the crawling occupants of the land didn’t send a clear enough message, these flying terrorists did. We were being warned to leave.
Morning broke, and the sound of silence and a peek out the window confirmed it was safe to venture outside, at least for now. Still shaken from the previous night’s attack, but unwilling to remain captive in our home for another twenty-four hours, we grabbed the camera and a book bag and headed out in search of something interesting. This time we would leave the bike behind and explore on foot. It’s easier to see what’s in front of you when you’re covering ground at a slower pace. And of course, we knew to be back well before dark. Welcomed or not, we wouldn’t be deterred.
We headed toward the water near a clearing designated for tents. Another mass of land lacking any semblance of life, even the hissing crawling kind living amongst us. As far as the eye could see, one site after another sat alone and starved of company. The sunlight deprived picnic tables beneath overbearing and unsympathetic trees were gray and dingy; a seemingly appropriate hue for a state of oppression. And those not surrounded by suffocating limbs sat unprotected and washed-out from the sun’s constant beating rays. Warped bodies and thirsty souls is all that was left. The numerous trees were in varying stages of life; some nearing the end and begging for another shot, while others missing limbs just wanted to be whole. Some showed incredible signs of past beauty. I’m sure they were once admired, even revered, but now stood ashamed and not wanting to be seen. Some trees were even beheaded. All that remained was an elongated stump with nothing to meet at the top. They were dead. And then there were the young ones, the children. Some had parents and some did not, but none of it mattered because they’re all doomed. This dark depressing place is all they will ever know, and they’ll most likely die of a broken heart long before they reach maturity.
The picnic tables longed for rear-ends and elbows to rest on their wooden planks, and the trees pleaded for grasping hands and climbing feet. The fire pits wished for one more flame, and the stale air begged for the aroma of grilled hotdogs and hamburgers to penetrate it. It’s a pathetic place barely alive, but it maintains just enough hope to know it wants to live. And contrary to our site just a few campgrounds away, where we were unwelcome and warned to leave, this place was begging us to stay.
Unable to ignore the pleas for help, we walked the landscape and talked to the desperate space. We took in its weak air and exhaled our life. We sat at the tables and touched the trees. And since strength and identity starts first with a name, we gave them that, too. Everything requires attention in order to thrive. Before we ventured out against the wishes of our sharp-toothed neighbors, we never would have thought about revisiting this land of contradiction…. but now I think we just might.
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