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The directions were easy enough. Head west on Tamiami Trail. Two miles past the Miccosukee Indian water tower, make a left onto Loop Road, the scenic 23-mile stretch in the southernmost portion of Big Cypress National Preserve where Miami-Dade, Collier, and Monroe counties converge. Continue west for another seven miles. When you catch sight of the red mailbox with the Harley Davidson sticker, you've reached your destination.
The patchy two-lane asphalt road officially known as U.S. Highway 94 is a place of roadside marshes and dense prairies that are home to deer, bobcats, panthers, wild boars, and a plethora of slithery serpents and elusive birds. Dense trees, overgrown grass, and still waters surround the winding path.
On a recent day, about three miles east of the red mailbox, a wood stork fluttered from one side of the road to the other. A hunter in tan camo gear and a bright orange vest exited a pickup truck parked on the roadside and made his way into the brush.
A few hundred yards down the road was the red mailbox. Next to it on the left-hand side was a fresh grave. Nearby was a gravel driveway protected by a towering wood fence.
Behind the barrier, a rusted metal sculpture of what can only be described as a medieval warrior guarded the entrance. A hangman's noose dangled in the wind behind it. The place looked as if it belonged on the set of The Hills Have Eyes, the Seventies horror flick about a lost family that becomes prey for psychotic killers. At the rear of the property, two trailers were connected to each other via a deck, a covered front porch, and a kitchen made from sturdy wood.
A blue-eyed bear of a man wearing a floral print short-sleeve shirt, black Wrangler jeans, and black cowboy boots sat before two computers inside one of the mobile homes. When he stood to greet me, he looked larger than a Florida black bear romping through Big Cypress. He sported a salt-and-pepper mustache and beard, but had a youthful smile.
Meet renaissance swamp man Lucky Cole. He's a storyteller and torchbearer for the lost generations of Loop Road inhabitants, who once numbered more than 200 but today can be counted on eight fingers. He's the de facto custodian of the area's history as a haven for gamblers, mobsters, and other outlaws who have ventured into the Everglades since the Fifties. He has been living on Loop Road for a decade.
On his front porch, letter-size photos of scantily clad and naked women, including Lucky's wife, Maureen, form a collage inside the panes of a massive window panel taken from an old school house. The pictures are evidence of Lucky's favorite hobby-turned-business: shooting photographs of women of all shapes and sizes in alluring poses throughout his mucky playground. More about that later.
First, Lucky wants to show me my overnight accommodations. We walk around the main mobile home to the northwest corner of the compound, where he points to a two-wheel travel trailer that is usually hitched to the back of a pickup truck. "There it is," Lucky cracks. "We call it a redneck guesthouse."
It's way past sunset during one of those unusual cold spells that hits South Florida in early December. Perfect weather for drinking and sharing stories by the campfire. Lucky, his wife, and I stroll off of his front porch and head to a fire pit he has set up near the entrance to his compound.
The couple takes turns sharing snippets of Loop Road's surreal history. From its beginning, the L-shape route has been the site of strange customs and mysterious occurrences. It all began when early pioneering developers hired native Miccosukees to help guide them through the swamp about a century ago. The trail was opened to the public in April 1928. Loop Road, also known as Chevelier Road, was finished shortly thereafter.
Just 200 yards west and across the street from Lucky's wood fence once stood a one-room schoolhouse that was dedicated on July 4, 1924. All that is left is the flat concrete stone with a hole that served as a base for a flagpole. "It was for the children living in the township of Pinecrest," Lucky explains.
Pinecrest is the long-defunct town that was once the hub of Loop Road's commerce. After a brief period as a logging town in the Thirties, Pinecrest came to depend on hunting, front-gigging, and fishing for its livelihood. At one time, it was a bustling little burg of 200 people. But most of them left in 1974, when the federal government established Big Cypress.
Pinecrest was also a place where Chicago crime boss Al Capone allegedly ran a moonshine and gambling lodge in the Twenties. It was supposedly owned by Capone's cousin and burned down in 1927. All that remains is a set of stairs and a foundation, Maureen says. "When I first saw it, I wondered how many people were shot back there. Only the alligators know."
Over the years, scores of tourists and curiosity-seekers have pulled into the strange place Lucky calls home. Visitors have included songwriter Elizabeth Von Trapp, heir to the family that inspired The Sound of Music; and actress Eva Longoria, long before she became a Desperate Housewife. "She is a sweet, pretty little thing," Lucky says while showing me a picture of Longoria he snapped while she was filming Carlita's Secret on his property in September 2002.