God's Country

Live alligators. Dead snakes. Howling owls. About the only thing the Everglades doesn't have is a bright future.

To me it was one of the coolest things I'd seen in 30 years of visiting the Everglades, but Lenny is from Queens. He didn't even want to stop the Honda for a closer look. I tried to be understanding of my urbanite pal -- we had been cruising around the Glades for hours, darkness had fallen, and twenty minutes earlier he had come within a foot of stepping on a medium-size alligator....

"Lenny, turn this damn car around right now!"
We were cruising east on the Tamiami Trail, still about 40 or 50 miles from the nearest strip mall, having just left the Oasis Visitor Center in the Big Cypress Preserve; there we had munched picnic-style on crab salad and French bread as the sun set over the vast verdancy. The Oasis, which offers information and a couple of portable toilets for road-weary Trailers, also boasts a large, grassy yard with picnic tables, which is where we sat and ate dinner. About 50 yards away was an elongated and active pond, where two large egrets and one great blue heron danced along the bank, fishing for their dinner, all gawky concentration and gorgeous plumage. Lenny strolled over toward the tall birds. Reaching the bank, he froze, called my name, and began walking backward. I jumped up to see what caused this unusual (even for Lenny) behavior -- shiny black gator lounging on the bank.

Soon after leaving the Oasis we were riding east in the dark. We came up on it too fast to stop. It looked like a water snake, I'd guess a green water snake because that's one of the few species to reach such a large size, about four or five feet long and several inches in girth. The snake was coiled in the center of the lane, and Lenny's Honda passed over it without so much as a squish. "You just went right over a big snake, Len," I mentioned, devoting my attention to the pavement in hopes of seeing more life. Any sighting is encouragement.

Immediately, perhaps 25 yards farther on, I spotted another gargantuan water snake. Stretched out rather than coiled, the snake was clearly more than four feet long. That's two! But Lenny refused to even slow down. I spotted a third, another lunker green water snake. And then another -- four of the biggest snakes you'll see out there, all within about a 100-yard span, all absorbing the sun's warmth held by the asphalt on this chilly December night. That's when I made Lenny turn around and go back for a look.

I wanted to see, I wanted Lenny to see, I want everyone to see what these sons of bitches are destroying, these developers and polluters and poachers and everyone else who treats the closest paradise to me like a sewer. I visit the Glades as often as possible, which isn't all that often any more, but I do so for my own amusement and edification, the thrill I get from experiencing natural life. This time, though, I had a clear mission: Go out there and report back what I saw. What's there now. What won't be there tomorrow. By visiting the River of Grass with a relative neophyte (Lenny), I might get an idea of how outsiders view it, and remind myself again of its value.

As far as the snakes go, I admit I'm into them. I think someone from Queens, anyone from the city, should find it fairly exciting to see a large, live snake in its natural habitat, but then again, people are funny about one of nature's most amazing designs, a type of animal so perfect for its environment it's almost enough to make you believe in a God.

It wasn't some PBS documentary, but the Everglades up close and in person that first let me indulge my fascination for the legless reptiles. Many years ago, I would often travel out the Trail with my friend Daryl Smith, who, unlike me, was old enough to drive. A typical summer afternoon consisted of Daryl and me scrounging up a few dollars for gas money, filling a plastic jug with water in case the car overheated, grabbing a couple of homemade snake sticks (a mop handle with a no-sharp-edges hook attached), and then bolting due west.

Sometimes we'd take a bagload of snakes we'd collected to the old Serpentarium in South Dade as a donation. One time we tussled with a five-foot Florida king snake tangled in a root hole three feet from the hurtling Trail traffic. (The snake won, escaping into a crevice. We would've had to hurt him to get him, and we had too much respect for king snakes, a species prized among collectors, to do that.) Back then you could park your car on the Rinker access road, not too far out at all, and, after sunset, watch foxes in the clearing as they hunted up frogs and lizards.

Twenty years ago Daryl and I found the Glades near Shark Valley and Big Cypress on the Trail to be so populated with snakes we tended to take the common types for granted, even committing stupid, cruel-kid acts against the harmless animals, or at least certain species we considered inferior. One time there was a particular water snake we wanted to catch in the worst way, which is exactly how we caught it. It was out in the middle of a pond, impossible to snag. So Daryl picked up a large rock and chucked it at the water, beaning the hapless reptile and knocking it unconscious. We carried one snake stick we'd fashioned from a ten-foot wooden curtain rod, long enough to reach out and drag in the bewildered beast.

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