Close Encounters of the Swamp Kind

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

In 1974 the U.S. Congress approved the purchase of land from thousands of private property owners to create the Big Cypress National Preserve. The law also protected those who did not want to leave. During the Eighties and Nineties, some landowners sold their lots to the federal government or to other individuals. "As long as [the landowners] maintain themselves in a safe, sanitary, and decent manner there's no problem," says Kevin Kacer, the Big Cypress management assistant.

Lately preserve managers have been more concerned about a different sort of untidiness. A company called Quest Communications, which recently laid miles of cable along the Tamiami Trail and Loop Road, didn't clean up properly, Kacer explains. Dirt has washed into the Everglades, interfering with the natural habitat. "They made kind of a mess out there," Kacer says. Cleanup has already started.

Such important issues would be addressed that night at the town meeting.
Dusk has fallen on Judge Cole's porch and it is just about time for the gathering to commence. Cole and his wife Maureen are lounging on their deck again and the mannequin is still frozen in her timeless position on the metal couch. Soon the Marshal arrives and takes a seat near the stove. The Sheriff is expected, but is late as usual. The Judge starts the meeting without him. "How 'bout a beer?" he asks the Marshal. After a few minutes of small talk, the Judge reiterates Loop Road law: "Trials are on Fridays, hangings are on Saturday, and church is on Sunday. But don't be late to the service, or you'll be on trial Friday."

A young man sporting a black cowboy hat arrives and joins the meeting. The Marshal introduces him as Lizard Wayne. "Everglades Wayne," Wayne corrects. He holds a video camera in his hands and explains that he has been taping plants and animals. Then he shares his new cure for hiccups: salt. The Judge suggests another remedy: "I find that a good kick in the gut works really well." With a laugh he adds that his toes don't bend anymore because he has kicked so many midsections.

"I wonder where the Sheriff is," the Marshal says. "I thought he was going to come."

Instead Kevin Taylor arrives with a hunting buddy named Steve. They've been out stalking turkeys without success. Taylor is the son of local legend Francis Taylor, a hunter and conservationist for whom a wildlife preservation area north of the Tamiami Trail is named.

"How 'bout a beer?" the Judge asks them. They are much obliged. Taylor and the Judge were classmates at Miami Springs High School in the Sixties. Taylor reminisces about an incident many years ago at a Miami Springs bar in which the Judge punched out someone. Everyone chuckles. "Sure am glad we stopped in to see you," Taylor says. The Judge tosses a chunk of wood into the stove.

The next order of business is a wild hog, one the Judge and Maureen have cooked in a smoker. "How 'bout some ribs?" the Judge asks. Taylor repeatedly refuses, but finally consents.

After the ribs are gone, the Judge takes Taylor and his friend on a quick tour of the grounds. Everglades Wayne begins talking about his six encounters with Florida panthers. The Marshal insists Wayne is an expert on Everglades wildlife.

Just then a strange sound like a turkey's gobble emanates from somewhere out in the darkness. Everglades Wayne cocks his head and listens. But it is only Taylor's wooden turkey call drifting in from the driveway. Taylor and his buddy soon depart. "Too bad the Sheriff didn't show up," the Judge laments. He cracks open another can of beer.

And that's just how it happened out on old Loop Road.

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