Once-glistening, but now much-faded, Miami hotels line the street adjacent the international airport. We find ourselves unwillingly listening to “Genie in a Bottle” as our Uber driver Yanzel helps us escape from the city. Soon we’re out of the urban mess and into the glades on the Tamiami Scenic Byway.
Yanzel’s playlist switches to Backstreet Boys as he steers toward the Oasis Visitor Center and the southern terminus of the Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST). Of course, Yanzel has no idea why we’re going there, and we can’t tell him because he doesn’t speak English, so we sit silently listening to horrifying pop music.
Yanzel slows down when his nav announces that we have arrived at our destination. He looks around confused. There’s nothing here but swamp. We gesture to the blue sign ahead “Big Cypress”. He pulls into the lot and jumps out “beautiful! beautiful!”, he exclaims, pointing all around. We smile.
Grabbing our packs, we say goodbye. Turning down the neatly landscaped walk, my heart leaps with excitment having spotted the plaque commerating the start of our hike. The boardwalk adjacent us is filled with tourists gazing at gators.
Soon the nicely mowed Saint Augustine lawn gives way to overgrown shrubs and grasses. The wilderness takes over. We follow the skinny ribbon leading us into the Big Cypress National Preserve. Travel tension begins to melt away and joy overcomes us with the realization that we’re, after nearly four months, back home on the trail.
A fence blocks the way. “Private property” it defensively announces. We veer away and follow the trail, which skirts the gate. Suddenly, I cry out in alarm and jump 12 feet into the air. A large alligator is coming for me. Its mouth hanging agape. I stare at it with my mouth hanging agape. The gator is motionless. Too motionless, in fact. Dammit! Someone has set up a big, fake gator, and I completely fell for it. I know there’s a hidden camera somewhere and a you tube channel.
Orange blazes guide us through pine, cypress, and palmetto. The sunshine state does not disappoint. It’s a lovely day with a cooling breeze. We see birds, bugs, and lizards. The miles fall away, and the sun drops low and disappears just as we arrive at Thirteen Mile Camp, which is actually 17 trail miles. A great-horned owl hoots and fronds crackle in the night wind as we pass into sleep.
Water. Water. Water. The morning mission is to locate water in a cypress dome .1 mi. SW of camp. Here goes nothing. We can see what looks like a dome both south and west, so we make for it. Water plants encourage us but alas it’s mud. Another dome is nearby, so we make for that. I spot the familiar water plants and beeline for them. A murky pond appears. Animal tracks coming and going mark the quagmire surrounding our…water? It looks more like the Bog of Eternal Stench from Labyrinth. We pour the black water through a bandana, then filter it with our Sawyer. Now, this is an adventure.
The dry miles are ending as we approach 20 miles. We are soon struggling through sucking mud and ankle-deep water. The muck relents momentarily at Oak Hill Camp where we lunch on trail butter. Listening to the wind sighing through the palm fronds, we pour ramen packages into Talenti jars and add water. Dinner prep.
The Black Lagoon is not the sinister swamp I imagined. The water is crystal clear until we slog through it, kicking up clouds of tan mud. Ibis and heron perch on cypress limbs high above, making bird talk. Tiny fish flit about among creeping water plants. Cool water bathes our sun-baked skin. What beauty is this? I’ve been sucked into Jumanji.
Black Lagoon leads to Deep Swamp; where this year, the trail is mostly mud. The sun beats down on our tired bodies as we slip and slide down the wilderness noodle. Our legs and arms are covered with scrapes from brittle tree limbs. An enclave on a Pine Island provides a shaded refuge at 26 miles. I feel like a wild animal in its jungle den. We backflush our filters, spitting out black water.
Almost suddenly the mud disappears, we emerge from the swamp to walk across grassy paths. Becoming aware of traffic sounds, we remember the world as it exists out there. Beyond a gate is I-75, we loiter at the EMS station. Partaking of the spigot behind the building, we camel up. A lizard lives in the faucet house. We scrape copious amounts of sand from our shoes, before darting under the freeway to rejoin the trail.
A man in a truck labeled “roadside ranger” gives us ice-cold water. We pass behind the gate to begin a roadwalk parallel to a canal that is teeming with healthy alligators. “Whoa! Look at that one” we say over and over again. The sun is dropping again, and before long we have our flashlights out.
Stars begin to spot the clear night sky and out come the lightening bugs as we pitch our Tarptent in the wide field of the Nobles Campsite. I remember Timon & Pumbaa from The Lion King discussing the stars. Pumbaa: “Ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?” Timon: “They’re fire flies. Fire flies that got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing”. A Barred Owl says “who cooks for you”, and the wind rustles the palm fronds.