The Florida Trail stretches 500 miles the length of the state from the Everglades to Georgia border. It begins near Alligator Alley that traverses the everglades east-west where motorists currently pay a $3.00 toll for game wardens to remove or sheriffs to shoot up to 13´ gators from State Road 84. I crawl via a gator path under a tremendous 10´ chain link fence built to contain the reptiles, look up and down the road at a couple five-footers sunning on the asphalt, and climb the fence on the other side.My romance with the Alley began years earlier with the mysterious arrival of a package addressed to Philmore Hare, my 7´stuffed rabbit who rode shotgun next to me in a ´74 Chevy van waving down via an invisible fish line attached to its hand passersby in a search for intellectuality. The return address was Linda Smith in Orlando, and the package opened to a sprig of hand-sewn stuffed carrots and a note, ´I read about your owner in Sports Illustrated ( Nov. 19, 1979), and as the Sea World seal handler would like to train him to bark. If interested, meet me at midnight at mile marker #99 of Alligator Alley on New Year´s eve.´ I met and fell in lust with Linda and then her Everglades, and long after an owl came into her camp I returned to near the marker in a sort of memorial hike to her.
The trail proves more dangerous as the days progress to weeks and then after a month´s march north along an unmarked footpath with a sketchy guidebook on the day before reaching the George line I step into a bog that oozes like dark mashed potatoes with no plate. The conventional method to extract from a soft spot is to fall forward into a crawl and swim out, however my boots are entwined below in vines or roots and the pull of the pack straps prevents it. Next the manuals advise scream ´HEEEELP!´ but I haven´t seen anyone ever on trail, and instead while sinking to my navel scan about and think it queer to be missing the lower body half. The vicissitudes of the past month flash before my tearing eyes…
Sleeping with tarantulas in trees above snapping turtles, stepping over 5´ Cottonmouths, monkeying over log bridges, getting shot at by deer hunters, hiking a 20´ wide two-mile levee of a gauntlet of hundreds of alligators 30´away and up to 13 feet long that can sprint faster than a racehorse, hungry and lost dozens of times, and a water experiment designed after John Muir who fell ill with ´swamp fever´ in Florida on a walk down from Ohio…
Unable to afford a water filter, I tested each source with a series of pint plastic bottles from rivers to saw grass marshes by sipping mouthfuls, rolling each around my tongue, drinking a pint from any savory source, and thirty minutes later taking my body temperature with an oral thermometer and recording them in a Francis Galtonian chart. Normal temp is 98.6F, and over the course of a month the generalities proved that flowing streams and saw grass swamps were clean and without a fever; large lakes brought about a degree increase to 99.5F that I easily continue hiking; stagnant ponds or standing water raised to 101F for which I had to stop to let a gutache or headache pass, and only once at 102F did I pass out for a few hours. Fever isn’t a disease but a fighting style, so by the time I sink in the bog on the last day there is probably immunity to everything in it but death.
It is inglorious that after enduring a hundred water tests that I would drown in this bayou. I kick the bottomless mire, give up, shake hands with the phantom of Philmore, sink to the chest, kiss the spirit of Linda goodbye, and open wide for the last gag.
The descent stops, and I look about. Empty water bottles strapped to the outside of the pack are acting as ballast to keep me afloat. With them I´m able to breaststroke to shore and crawl out caked with muck and Spanish moss. A swamp monster appears lost and shambling along a fence line for some hours until the crack of a whip like Rawhide and ´He Haa!´ breaks the air, with the sound of advancing hoof beats. A burly cowboy in a white hat on a black stallion waving a whip above his head gallops along the fence and hard reins the horse that rears pawing the sky like Silver missing my chin by scant inches.
´Mister, I just walked 500 miles and crawled out of a bog or I´d give you a hug.´
´Bud, grouses the cowboy, I smelt you comin´ through the heifers a half-mile back. Follow the horse´s tail to my ranch and we´ll fix you up.´ After a warm meal and bed, the next morning I leave with springs in my feet for the Georgia line thinking anything else will be anticlimactic.
The drone of autos sounds along State Road 301 that parallels Alligator Alley 500 walking miles over my shoulder. A battered Ford sways onto the shoulder and a white gloved thumb jerks me into the back seat, I slam the door, and the driver turns around to show a white beard and red stocking cap. ´Merry Christmas!´ yells the driver swinging the wheeled sleigh onto the road and I Ho Ho Ho into the next county.