My 11 year old Dodge Neon starts to vibrate as I hit 80 mph driving through the appropriately named “Alligator Alley,” keeping an eye out for both gators and Highway Patrol. The 86 mile long highway cuts clear across the state of Florida, nearly touching both coasts, and slices right through the heart of the Everglades. So far, I’ve spotted exactly 23 alligators and three speed traps.
I turned 25 yesterday. Several of my female coworkers talk about doing a “spa day” or going to Disney World for their birthdays, so I received a few raised eyebrows when I told them about my weekend plans to go backpacking with my boyfriend, Nicholas, through Collier Seminole State Park, a 7000 acre section of the Everglades with flooded Cypress forests, muddy mangrove swamps, and bushy pine flatland.
Concepts like “winter” don’t really register with most locals, so even though it’s a clear, calm January morning, I’m not too surprised to feel sunshine burning my arm through the open car window. Regardless, I take a moment to appreciate the fact that my birthday doesn’t fall during the summer months. July humidity has a way of enveloping me in a nearly tangible blanket, lingering on my skin and dulling all my senses, then lulling me into a relaxed state of lethargy. Summer is also the rainy season, which translates to swarms of mosquitoes and waist-deep swamp water flooding entire portions of the trails. While mosquitoes are a crucial component of the Everglades ecosystem, providing tasty fare for native fish and, in turn, a variety of birds such as heron, osprey, and spoonbills, we’re not necessarily interested in nourishing the bottom rung of the food chain. Today, the sky radiates a brilliant shade of blue, and the day looks promising.
I exit the highway and take a heading south when, after a while, the road is completely empty. Living on South Florida’s densely populated east coast, it’s hard to believe that just an hour away from the more than five and a half million people going about their lives in the Miami metropolitan area, there are places where you can still be totally alone, even if only briefly.
While the park offers “full-facility” campsites, complete with with showers, electricity, and a “screened-in activity building,” we pull away from the ranger station in search of something a bit more rustic and isolated. Our trail of choice is a 6.5 mile loop with a primitive campsite nestled halfway through. In hindsight, we were lucky to be issued a permit. The site is only big enough to accommodate one small group and, fortunately for us, we were the first to arrive at the station that day. I backtrack to a dusty, unpaved side road that leads us to the trailhead. Nicholas and I scarf down left over pot roast sandwiches, then spend 15 minutes trying to attach his ancient, ten pound tripod to the bottom of his Jansport backpack. My external frame saves the day, and he agrees to carry an extra gallon of drinking water so that I can add his bulky, awkward equipment to my load. Although one-third of Floridians rely on the Everglades as a water source, the swamp itself doesn’t look too appetizing. Since we’re only doing an overnight, we’ll get by without filtering our water directly from the marshland, and instead opt to carry in everything we need.
Taking one last glance at the car before embarking for the trailhead, I can feel my body decompressing as it leaves behind the 9-5 shuffle of my sedentary office job with its fluorescent lighting, daily meetings, and rush hour traffic. I turn away from the hours lost to social networking, TV shows, and other simple distractions, and I’m overwhelmed with the feeling of imminent escape. A recognizable soreness starts to circulate through my shoulders and legs, as my muscles strain to warm up and acclimate to the weight of my bag. Sunshine pours out of the sky onto every surface, making the grasses sharp and brittle. On shadier sections of the trail, the path is flooded with ankle-deep water, and I feel my boots sink into the muddy earth as we create make-shift bridges with fallen branches and palm fronds, attempting to navigate our way across. I’m encompassed with a sense of purpose as I work through the trail, stumbling to find true ground beneath my feet, re-centering myself and my thoughts. Along the way, we find evidence of some of other visitors passing through the park: eagle nests, black bear droppings, and raccoon tracks. The Everglades is the largest sub-tropical wetland ecosystem in North America, and with over 350 kinds of birds and 27 different species of snakes, for instance, there are thousands of animals call this place home. Nicholas is not one to fill spaces with meaningless words, so we hike much of the trail in comfortable silence. Eventually, we find our way to the campsite.
Things start to slow down, and I’m filled with a familiar sense of comfort in the routine of setting up camp. Nicholas and I automatically fall into our respective roles. He gathers fallen branches and logs for an evening fire, while I search for the smoothest ground and assemble our tiny Eureka Solitaire tent which, as the name suggests, is meant to sleep one person. Tonight will be cooler, and the close sleeping arrangement will keep us warm.
There are certain moments on every trail that resonate within me, but the spaces that inevitably weave their way deepest into my psyche and echo loudest in my thoughts, even months later, are the ones like right now. The heat of the afternoon wanes. Pale blue skies fade into the soft hues of dusk, and create a two-dimensional silhouette of pine trees in the distance. Fireflies, in search of a mate, create tiny bursts of light as they dance around our campsite. We brew steaming cups of tea and, with a quiet sense of fulfillment, letting the warmth radiate through my body, I turn my attention to Nicholas, who has decided to start the fire.
I allow myself to become immersed in the process, watching him fret over the fire as if it were a mercurial child. With deliberate, focused movements, he instills the first embers with life and nurses them with the smallest sticks and twigs. I watch him build the flames up, rewarding them with more fuel and energy as they get stronger. He guides and shapes their growth, redirects them when they stray too far from home, and works to ensure they remain well-fed. This dance will last from the earliest signs of dusk until, exhausted and ready for sleep, he allows the white hot glow to flicker erratically and eventually expire. The remaining logs, gray with ash and decay, he smothers with dirt and water.
The magic has passed, and my sunburned shoulders, sore legs, and heavy eyelids collectively sigh with relief as I awkwardly clamber into the tiny tent and collapse on top of a sleeping bag. Nicholas crawls in after and, in the darkness, we’re surrounded by the music of crickets, frogs, and mosquitoes. I fall asleep almost immediately, my brain halfheartedly recalling the events of the day, with images of the Everglades’ unpretentious and subtle beauty.