For my nephew, Fielding…
In March of 2004 I was living out of the cab of my truck on Boot Key, a small undeveloped island in the Florida Keys. It’s connected to Vaca Key and the town of Marathon by a single bridge. Radio Marti broadcasts US news from here to Cuba out of a little concrete building, and somewhere in the bush is a small colony of Vietnam veterans living according to their own rules – but otherwise, the island is wilderness. I had nothing to do, nowhere else to go, and was irritated to say the least.
My plan had been to go to law school after finishing my undergraduate but at the last moment I’d decided against it and enrolled in a dive-school in Marathon, an intensive fourteen-week NAUI instructor course that offered job placement around the world. The program went smoothly until the last week when a sinus infection kept me from taking my open-water exams. It would be another five weeks before the opportunity rolled back around.
Return of the King had opened in theaters that prior Christmas, and I spent those first few days lying around the pool of the adjacent resort and catching up on Tolkien’s books. Then I would drive across the bridge in the evening where I would pull my truck into the mangroves and sleep in the cab. But after a week or two I got bored with this and thought it might be fun to spend a day exploring the surrounding swamp in the kayak I kept chained in the back of the truck.
It was late afternoon when I got in the water, and I managed to get hopelessly lost after several hours of navigating the labyrinthine mangroves. It wasn’t so much panic that set in as aggravation at having to spend the night sitting up and fighting off mosquitoes. I’d just resigned myself to it when I heard voices and the sound of oars bumping against boats, soft at first but unmistakable – cavalry – a group of kayakers led by an outfitter. I paddled into a thicket of mangroves, let them pass, then smoothed my way into the group from behind. No one even noticed.
I was awakened that night by the Coast Guard banging on my windshield. They were looking for castaway Haitians. They told me to beat it after running my license and registration. It wasn’t terribly late, so I drove down to Key West and spent the rest of the night drinking in Sloppy Joe’s with a guy from Indiana who told me about Ten Thousand Islands and the Wilderness Waterway. I retired to the truck sold on the idea, but was awoken again near dawn. This time it was an old black man rifling through the gear in the bed of my truck. I opened the door. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
He jumped. “I was just a-lookin’ at that biiicycle,” he said. “I thought this here truck was abandon.”
“Well the truck’s not abandoned, so why don’t you get the fuuuck away from it.” I started to close the door but he grabbed the handle and pulled it back open. “What do you want?” I asked.
“Throw a brotha a dolla?” he asked – and to get him away from my stuff, I did.
I took a blanket that next morning when the cab of the truck grew warm and spent the rest of the day lying around Smathers Beach before starting north for the glades that evening. I stopped at a Chinese restaurant on the way there just across Seven Mile Bridge. It’s near the scuba dorms, and there was a waitress there that I’d liked. She and her family lived upstairs, but her English was nearly as bad as my Chinese (which was nil) and the relationship never got off the ground. It was dark when I pulled in, and there were no other customers. I sat on a bench by the front door while she went into the back to get my food. I was glancing through a takeout menu when the door creaked open just wide enough for a Hispanic man to stick his head in and look the place over. I’d seen him on several occasions riding an old bicycle around the island and fishing under the bridge. Seeing me, he said something in Spanish. I shrugged my shoulders. Apparently I looked familiar too, and pushing the door open, he walked in with a big lobster, legs writhing and tail flipping in an effort to free itself from his hands. The homeless fish for them using a wad of bacon tied to a string the way I caught crawfish in the creek behind my house when I was a boy. When the girl came out of the kitchen with my food, she saw the lobster and shrieked. Nevertheless, it took only a few minutes of haggling augmented with choppy sign language to strike a deal. She disappeared into the kitchen, and when she came back out a few seconds later, she was holding a big soup-pot out in front of her as far as she could get it. The lobster was dropped in and as soon as the kitchen door slammed shut behind her, the guy sat down and elbowed me in the shoulder. Grinning and nodding toward the kitchen, he pressed his thumbs and index fingers into his best impression of a vagina and said, “tight, tight.”
I shrugged again. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.”
I woke up the next morning in front of the park office at Everglades City and set up camp at the base of a huge midden of oyster shells just inside the swamp. Two days later I had backcountry permits, nautical charts, and the kayak outfitted and ready for the near hundred-mile trek through the swamps.
Everything went smoothly until an hour into the journey when I tried to pass a bridge near Chokoloskee. The tide was going out and sucking the brackish water under the overpass. I found out later that it was the only escape for the water in the whole area. From the time I was caught until the time I capsized might have taken thirty seconds. Nearly everything was lost, including two books from the Marathon Public Library (a big Tolstoy biography and Kayaking the Florida Keys). My food and water were gone too, and although I’d locked my wallet in the truck with a few dollars in it, most of my cash was in a small waterproof container on its way out into the Gulf of Mexico. I’d managed to save the boat though, and after bailing it out I walked bankrupt into Chokoloskee.
Chokoloskee is a small island surrounded by swamp. There’s a little museum there with an old conch shell that the postman used to blow to let people know he was on his way, back when he had to row a boat to the island because no one had come up with the idea of dyking the swamp and building a bridge to it. It’s a warm peaceful place that gave me a good feeling in spite of my sour mood. I remember thinking it was no wonder old people went there to die.
I hitched a ride to my truck and went back to pick up my boat. Then I drove the eighty miles to Homestead where I found a place called Labor Finders. I explained my situation to the manager, José Valdes, and he told me he could get me as much work as I needed.
Everyday brought a new job in a new place with new people. I got paid every afternoon, and it’s nice how quickly money accumulates when you have no bills. Some days I’d stack fruit crates, or put stickers on limes and avocados while Latino girls giggled and tried to teach me Spanish by having me call the different fruits and vegetables by their Spanish names. Other days I’d mow lawns or jackhammer pilings into the soft coral limestone that underlies south Florida.
I’d drive out to Key Biscayne National Park after work to wash off in the ocean and sit on the antique cannons and watch people fish, or I’d walk the boardwalk through the mangroves where old Hispanic men threw bread scraps into the water and caught fish by hurling out round nets that they would then tighten and reel back in once the nets had sunk into the baited water. They’d always have a five-gallon bucket full of mullet or black drum, and I’d offer them a few dollars for some of them – before I found that cigarettes worked even better – and then I’d cook the fish on my Coleman stove in the back of my truck on the Homestead Walmart parking lot where I slept.
Since I was nearly always the person with the vehicle, I’d get paid a little more to pile several people into the back of it for the drive to the worksite. One day we drove just south of Miami to clean up a rental house. The place was trashed, and the neighbors told us that the former tenants had been drug dealers who’d just disappeared one night. We had to cut down a royal palm that was too close to the poolhouse, and one of the guys with me – an excommunicated Cuban named Fernando – said he felt awkward doing it because a person would go to prison for it in Cuba. We cut open the top of the downed tree with machetes and ate the palm heart during break. While we were sitting there he saw that I was reading Islands in the Stream and told me that his sister was still in Cuba, working as a tour guide aboard the Pilar at the Finca Vigía. I asked him what he thought would happen when Fidel died.
“Civil war,” he said. “I am certain of it.”
We rented a pump after break to siphon the green water out of the swimming pool. “You know there’s gonna to be a dead body at the bottom,” I said.
“Christ and Mother Mary,” Fernando replied. “Do not even speak in such a way,” and looking up toward heaven he made the sign of the cross on his chest.
We found the hairless body of a bloated rotting dog when the water was gone. There were five of us, and I briefed everyone in regard to rock-paper-scissors. A skinny black guy named Dante lost the tournament and I thought we’d never get the dead-dog smell off of him.
When I showed up for work early that next morning, Dante was the only other person there, having spent the night in the bushes out front. It was Memorial Day weekend and José needed two of us to drive down to Islamorada for a three-day job picking up the grounds at Holiday Isle Resort during a bartenders’ convention. I asked Dante to come along.
We joined the ranks of the resort ground crew when we got there, an amalgamation of Haitians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, Columbians, and ambassadors of nearly every other Caribbean nation. In a group, their languages and dialects melded into a type of creole that they would shout at each other while they waved their arms around as if they were arguing. The first time I heard them I thought there was going to be a fight, until Dante told me it was just how they communicated.
Seagrass was coming in off the ocean, and we spent that first day scraping thick mats of it from the beach with garden rakes, and then shoveling it into wagons to be hauled off and burnt. The smell of seagrass is disgusting, but the resort had public showers where we could wash off the sulfur-stink. I loaned Dante some clean shorts and a t-shirt that made him look like an Ethiopian in a Sally Struthers commercial. The two of us went to the Cracked Conch for oysters and beer that evening, and from what I could gather, Dante had come from a decent family but had decided that a wandering life was more appealing than a steady job – and there is something alluring about it once you’ve done it a while. He’d been homeless for twenty years and had traveled the country over, but south Florida was his primary stomping ground. He knew the homeless network inside and out. He’d be on the street for months at a time, and once he’d accumulated enough money, he’d buy a case of beer and a carton of cigarettes, then get a hotel room where he’d order pizza, bathe, watch TV, and sleep several days in a clean bed before going back out.
We spent the next couple of days cleaning the grounds, and we got to know the people at the gate well enough that they let us sneak in our own beer after work. We filled a cooler with Corona on the second evening and took a water-taxi out to a crowded sandbar where we watched girls doing things I thought only happened online. We spent the third evening drinking margaritas and smoking cigars in the Jacuzzi by the pool.
When we got back to Homestead we found we’d been making double time because it had been a holiday. It was more money than I needed, so I opted for early retirement and said my goodbyes. I wonder about Dante every time there’s a hurricane down there. What a writer I could be if I had a fraction of his stories.
I stopped at a military surplus store to buy a metal ammo-box and filled it with Honduran cigars from a smoke shop. I also stocked up on used books at Goodwill. Then I bought food and two bottles of rum at Publix before heading back into the glades. I drove down to Flamingo this time, and it didn’t take long to figure out why it’s free to camp there in the summer. I’d spent a semester of college in Africa and the heat was not as merciless. To make matters worse, the park brass had lit their annual burns in expectation of the spring rains but the rains never came, and the fires were out of control. Smoke hung in the air, giving a surreal look to the landscape and making it difficult to breathe. Day-in and day-out choppers dipped baskets into the lake where I camped to fly them out and dump on other parts of the park. Nights and early mornings were the only refuge from the heat. After waking I would have the little air-conditioned park restaurant all to myself where I’d order black coffee and keylime pie and talk with the only waitress there. She told me about a dolphin that swam in every few days to hunt mackerel just off of the beach. I’d been in south Florida for months and had yet to see a wild dolphin, so I’d go outside after breakfast and lay on a sheet under the palms to read while I waited for it to show up, but it never did – not while I was there, anyway. The heat did though, and after an hour even the shade was unbearable. It occurred to me that I’d probably be better off out in the breeze on Cape Sable.
I bought some collapsible water jugs and more brass eyebolts at the park store. It’s surprising how much gear you can strap on and into a kayak with a bit of ingenuity: lanterns, fuel, dry-bags, ammo-boxes, tent, sleeping bag, books, maps, food, rum, and several gallons of water.
After I left Flamingo I paddled west all day following the shore until evening when I found a lagoon near Middle Cape. The sand was soft and white, and there were mangroves for shade. I unpacked and set up camp. When I was finished I took off all my clothes and jumped into the lagoon for a swim. Climbing out the other side I noticed an area of stirred-up sand with unidentifiable tracks where something had dragged itself up out of the water and then back down into it. A big turtle, I thought.
I knew there were loggerheads in glade waters, greens and hawksbills too. At one time or another I’d seen all of them while diving in the Keys, but these tracks were big enough that I thought it could have been a leatherback, one of those monsters I’d waited my whole life to see. Everyone, I think, has a list of things they want to do before they die. I want to touch a whale. I want to stand before the Pietà in Vatican City. I want to buy a candy-apple red Indian Chief motorcycle. I want to go to Cuba before it gets sucked back into the modern world – and, I want to see a leatherback. There’s disagreement as to how many are left, but the consensus is that there aren’t many. Was she nesting? She must be. I’d read somewhere that the males never touch land again once they’ve hatched and crawled into the sea, so it had to be a female. Maybe she’d come back, and if not, perhaps another like her.
I’d been warned about the peninsula raccoons. They lick dew off the mangrove leaves in the mornings, and it’s the only water they get all day. The smell of fresh water will draw them in from a mile, and they’ll stop at little to get at it. When I was sleeping on Boot Key there had been two babies that came to my truck every night and ate Twinkies out of my hand, but I’d never imagined grown coons would be as brazen as I found out that evening. They prowled around my tent from dusk till dawn sniffing at the fabric. Six or seven pair of glowing eyes shone back every time I’d shine my flashlight out the window. I slept each night with my plastic water containers to either side of me, and in the mornings I would pulley them up into the trees as high as I could get them before spending the rest of the day walking the beach and collecting shells.
The thing with the water worked for a while, maybe because raccoons sleep in the day. I’m not sure. But one day I walked out farther than I had before and came across what I assume was an old plantation. It was overgrown with gumbo-limbo, palms, and agaves. I tried to explore it but the mosquitoes were so vicious in the shade that I was forced back out onto the beach where I found a big section of whale vertebra and a dolphin skull half buried in the sand. The bones, along with the destitute farm, brought about one of those reflective moods where the impermanence of everything dawns on a person with perfect clarity.
When I got back, I found that raccoons had climbed up and chewed through all three of my water jugs. My canteen was empty too, so I spent what was left of the day paddling back to Flamingo. When I got there I drove the forty-seven miles to the nearest town where I bought a couple five-gallon metal buckets with metal lids. I spent the night in my truck when I got back to the park.
The radio was calling for storms that next morning, and the sky looked ominous. Worried about my tent, I filled the buckets with water and started for the cape as soon as I’d finished breakfast.
The wind was against me from the start, and by the time I’d made East Cape the rain was coming down in sheets. I was making three feet forward for every two back. I paddled into shore but there was no beach, as the tide was up and the ocean went crashing all the way up into the mangroves. I tried to walk the boat through the murky waist-deep water, but it was littered with trees that had been accumulating an armor of sharp barnacles for the nearly twelve years since they’d been torn down and sunk by Hurricane Andrew. Every few yards I’d get a fresh piece of meat sliced out of my legs or ankles, so I tied the kayak to my waist and swam back out into deeper water. The downpour was turning into a squall, and the swells pulled the boat this way and that, jerking me back and forth with it. I was being knocked around to the point of exhaustion when something big swam by and bumped my leg. Immediate adrenaline – Shit, I thought. Shark, and my legs were still bleeding. I tried to scramble into the boat but slid off, nearly capsizing it. Looking around, I was just able to make out a dorsal fin as it sliced through the water. Then there were more. I’m cooked, I thought. They were circling me. Then one breached and blew water from its head. Dolphins. God and sweet baby Jesus. They’re dolphins. Ten, maybe twelve. They circled and dove and breached and came within a few feet of me. One had a calf alongside it. I reached out and touched one. It was smooth and slick. Then they were gone.
I heard a boat that next morning and crawled out of my tent. I walked down to the water and pulled the hull of an aluminum canoe up onto the beach. There was a middle-aged German in it, the first and only person I would ever see on the peninsula. His English was passable, and he told me over breakfast that he was going up around the cape to fish, then into the swamp at Ponce de Leon Bay to navigate back to Flamingo. I wished him luck without mentioning my failed attempt at the same thing from the other direction. He reached down into his boat before he left and gave me a hammerhead the length of his arm.
After he was gone I was lonely for the first time since I’d been there. I thought of an old man I’d met when I was a boy. My parents and I had been camping. I don’t remember where, but he was camped next to us and was alone. He had a camper shell on his pickup where he slept on an air mattress. I asked him why he slept on it, and he said that when a person got old their bones got brittle. “Even you will get old one day,” he’d said.
I don’t know why I remember this, but I’m sure he’s long dead by now.
The first thing I’d do after waking was to dive into the lagoon for a swim, and there’d always be fresh tracks on the other side. I crawled out of the tent on the morning after the German left and was taking a piss into the sand when I glanced over my shoulder and saw a great big crocodile as it crashed into the lagoon right where my turtle was supposed to have been. I’d not known something that large could move so fast. In one of those peculiar twists of serendipity, I’d picked up a copy of Redmond O’Hanlon’s No Mercy at Goodwill. The book’s about a trip he takes into the Congo to look for the fabled brontosaurus that the pygmies say still lives there. That prior night I’d read the chapter where Redmond, hot, dirty, and exhausted, strips and jumps into Lake Mboukou. His guide starts screaming about a giant crocodile living in the cove, and Redmond said that he was suddenly “conscious of my white, unprotected genitals, dangling like a fish-lure.”
I built a fire that evening to roast the hammerhead, and I sat on the beach eating macaroni and cheese full of shark meat and ashes. I looked out over the Gulf toward Cuba and thought back to a time at Mizzou when I’d been wandering through Ellis Library having happened upon a journal called Past and Present. Flipping through the pages I came across an essay titled “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” It explored different conceptions of time among different cultures, and the article traced our own cultural evolution from time being nothing, to time being equated with money. By examining the change in vernacular from “passing time” to “spending time,” it concluded that our time is now currency. It mentioned in contrast a line from an Algerian peasant’s song – It is useless to pursue the world, for no one will overtake it. Later on, when I was sitting in a sociology class, the professor said something about a Spanish turn of phrase that in English translated roughly into “time walks.” I thought it an interesting contrast with our “time flies,” and thought too that there was something underlying the difference. What exactly that something was I didn’t know, and still don’t – but I think it might have something to do with a change in time-perception as a person or culture nears the equator. The circumstantial evidence is strong between the tropics. We’d called it Africa-time in Ghana because time walks there the same speed for children playing soccer as it does in Havana for ninety year-old fisherman playing dominoes.
Maybe that’s the idea, I thought. Head down to the Yucatan, buy a salvage boat, get it in running-order, and sail it to Cuba – for a while anyway. I’d been obsessed with the whole sailboat thing from the time I’d first read Robert Pirsig’s Lila, and it was because of that book that I’d gone back to school to study philosophy. Few things written before or since have been as important, as clearly written, and as generally scorned by contemporary western philosophy.
The author is stranded at the beginning of the book with several other boats by hurricane debris choking a canal, and he realizes that a window has been created in everyone’s lives. Yachtsmen have nothing to do but sit all day, drink, and talk with bargemen and deckhands – not superficial chats either, but the type of conversations people only have when they can afford the time it takes for actual reflection. “I think what we’re buying with these boats,” he finally says, “is space, nothingness, emptiness … huge sweeps of open water … and sweeps of time with nothing to do … That’s worth a lot of money. You can’t hardly find that stuff anymore.”
David R. Cravens