Close Encounters of the Swamp Kind

If the customs and legends of Loop Road seem strange, you probably don't live there

The last of 35 suburban-style houses flashed by as we cruised west through the Everglades. The two lanes of pavement plastered over swamp were still pretty smooth, though miles of gravel lay ahead. On my left I glimpsed a dozen very big, white birds perched in a stand of cypress trees. I slammed on the brakes and pulled over.

We were standing there, my wildlife-spotting friend Greg and I, looking at the strange fowl when Bear, a ponytailed Miccosukee man, appeared from nowhere. "Those are ironheads. I don't know what white people call them," he said. "Know why they call them that? The heads are so strong that if they glide and hit your car window, they break it and just keep on flying."

Bear offered us a Budweiser, but we declined owing to our pending inquiry into the affairs of Loop Road, a 23-mile drive in the southernmost portion of Big Cypress National Preserve at the western edge of Miami-Dade County. I asked Bear whether the road had special significance for the Miccosukees. He looked down the swath of pavement that faded into the haze: "It's like part of life. It's like a story unto itself."

Or maybe a truckload of tales, many difficult if not impossible to prove. Bear had a Rolling Stones concert to attend that night, so we said goodbye. (I never told him that biologists call ironheads wood storks.) Music blasting, he vanished in a pickup truck the color of the silvery light that flickers on Everglades pools in late afternoon.

Greg and I headed west, away from the swampside modern homes toward the vestiges of the long-defunct town of Pinecrest, a place fabled for moonshiners, gamblers, barroom brawlers, and other backcountry renegades. The written history of Loop Road and its metropolis is sketchy, only a few feature articles and brief references in several books. But this much is known: Between its creation in the Twenties and today, a town of at least 200 people had sprung up, thrived for a few decades, then dissolved into a seldom-used public campground and overgrown clusters of dilapidated buildings. Mobster Al Capone and the composer of the bluegrass classic "Orange Blossom Special," fiddler Irvin Rouse, were once among its denizens. In 1974, when the federal government established Big Cypress, most everybody left. Only a few dozen private property owners who refused to sell their land stayed put. Nearly 25 years later there are but two dozen souls with a predilection for fresh air, pure water, peace, fishing, hunting, and mannequins. We'll return to the mannequins later.

Since its beginning Loop Road (or Florida Highway 94) has been characterized by strange customs and mysterious occurrences. The L-shaped route was first supposed to be part of the U.S. Highway 41, according to Big Cypress management assistant Kevin Kacer. Its eastern terminus is located at the 40-mile bend, where the Tamiami Trail curves sharply northwest if you are heading from Miami toward Naples. Work to dig U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail, began in 1915 when crews started breaking ground in both Miami and Fort Myers. The developers employed native Miccosukees to help guide them through the swamp. By 1923 the trailblazers still had 40 miles to go. According to newspaper and historical accounts, they had planned to trace the path of an Indian trail in Monroe County until advertising magnate Barron Collier offered free right-of-way to the north through a chunk of Florida named for him, Collier County.

But the Chevelier Corporation, which owned large parcels of land in the Everglades, continued work on Loop Road as part of a housing development scheme. The Trail was opened to the public in April 1928. Loop Road, also known as Chevelier Road, was finished shortly thereafter.

The housing development never really developed. "The whole Big Cypress area, and hell, all of Florida, is crisscrossed with land development schemes," Kacer observes. "A lot of the areas here [in Big Cypress] were platted out and the little town of Pinecrest on Loop Road was [planned] to have alleys and parks and all that. A lot of people had a lot of dreams."

Big Cypress authorities have gathered little information about the place's history, Kacer says. "We're a young park," he adds. "We're just coming up on 25 years. The first 20 years have been a matter of understaffed and underpaid, and no time to do those nice-to-do things."

And so we had to find out for ourselves.
It's difficult to distinguish fact from fiction on Loop Road. As we continue the drive westward, dense trees and saw grass whir by. Tires slam into potholes. We approach a driveway with a hangman's noose looming above a plank fence and I again slam on the brakes. Pointed planks of wood nailed to a post indicate the directions of Miami, Tampa, and Cuba. According to a clock hanging next to a hog's skull on the right side of the gravel driveway, it's five. A street sign says "Lucky's Place."

We look into the yard, which is packed with two trailers, several old cars, and a tool shed. A man waves. "That must be Lucky," Greg surmises. We exit the car, walk down the drive, and sure enough, it's Lucky Cole, a burly blue-eyed dude, whose heavy upper arms protrude from his sleeveless blue T-shirt; one of his biceps is plastered with an eagle tattoo. Lucky, whose birth name is Louis Cole, is wearing suspenders that look exactly like tape measures.

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