By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
It was clear that this place was supposed to be a ranch, at least in someone's mind. Perhaps it was an attempt to re-create the owner's bucolic past in the midst of the city. The cows and horses looked clean and fairly well fed, but far too cramped in their tiny barn. I hadn't been shot yet, so I figured I wouldn't be. I walked to the front of the lot and found that it faced a residential street. A sandy entrance road had been camouflaged and posted with no-trespassing signs. After poking around near the mobile home a while longer, I returned to the canoe and pushed off.
Further up the canal, near where it passes Miami-Dade Community College's north campus, I met Richard. He told me that the tumble-down ranch was owned by a farmer from Cuba who used it on the weekends as a cookout and cockfighting rendezvous. As he spoke, Richard was showing me around his canalside home. He pointed out the giant timbers of the multilevel teak-and-mahogany sun deck built over the water, explaining that he had salvaged thousands of dollars in unclaimed wood during his work hours at the seaport. He and his teen-age son had built a rope swing over the canal, and his wife had created an amazing rock garden with ballast stones from South American freighters. Richard's younger son had a huge tree house on one side of the deck, outfitted with a stereo system and a rope swing for summer plunges in the canal.
I expected Richard to disapprove of the ranch hidden near his house, but then he took me over to one corner of the immaculately clean and beautifully designed sun deck and introduced me to Cinderella, the family pig. Cinderella had her own spacious pen, and looked quite contented. "Here on the canal things are sort of looser," Richard said later, describing how he left New Jersey nearly twenty years ago and started fixing up the house on the water. "As far as the law's concerned, it's probably illegal for Cinderella to be here. For that matter, some of the changes to the house probably are, too. But things are sort of looser on the canal."
I was back at the Westland Mall next to the Palmetto Expressway in Hialeah, feeling like imps with hammers had beaten me all night while I slept. It was just after dawn. From the edge of the parking lot, I pushed the canoe into the water.
Yesterday around sunset, after crossing the eastern city limits near the Seaboard Coast Line train yards and paddling through what seemed to be an endless series of junkyards, I had finally arrived in the heart of Hialeah, at the intersection of Red Road and West 53rd Street. There I had planned to turn south into a drainage ditch that connects the Little River Canal with the Miami Canal, but the smaller canal was so choked with weeds I could hardly move. Friday-night motorists cackled and honked and hooted at me as they drove up and down Red Road frantically looking for kicks. Pretty soon I turned back and continued further west on the Little River Canal, ghosting along as the moon rose, gazing into bank after bank of high-rise apartments.
I could see girls in party dresses talking on the phone, mothers cooking, lovers having violent arguments on balconies, then stopping suddenly when they saw me gliding past. At one point, when the canal narrowed in a brushy residential section, a hail of coconuts thrown from behind a wooden fence rained down upon the canoe, and I had to paddle hard for safety. In the fading light and traffic noise, the treeless city was hideous and beautiful all at once, and I had no clear idea where I was going. The street map I carried didn't show where or even if the Miami Canal and the Little River Canal eventually intersected; Rand McNally clearly did not consider it a top priority. I had an engineer's map from the late 1940s that showed the Little River Canal stopping at Red Road, and this obviously was not the case, for I had already passed that juncture. With no clear idea where I was headed and with darkness fast approaching, I decided to end the day at the Westland Mall parking lot.
The mystery was resolved the next morning when the canal ended at NW 87th Avenue in Hialeah Gardens. Across the street it appeared to begin again, but then ran through a low culvert that disappeared beneath Okeechobee Road. There was no way I was going to carry the canoe across nine lanes of traffic and two broad medians, yet the culvert seemed far too narrow and low to be navigable. Most of it was filled with water. About two and a half feet of it wasn't.
Huffing and puffing, I struggled across West 28th Avenue and pushed the canoe down a rocky bank, into the short waterway leading to the Tunnel of Doom. I was remembering an afternoon twenty years ago when a playmate dared me to crawl through a clay water pipe beneath a driveway. The dare ended with firemen dragging me out of the pipe with the aid of a rope. Paddling toward the mouth of the culvert, I could see what appeared to be several cocoons or egg sacks hanging from the ridged metal, just inside the rim. I hunched down and peered into the tunnel. Far away at the other end I could see sunlight reflecting off the surface of the Miami Canal.