There was a man and there was a airboat and there was one can of Budweiser and there were two cigarettes and there was a cadre of alligators and there were twelve inches of dead, fraying, sun-bleached hair formed into an absurd ponytail and secured in place by no fewer than a half dozen rubber bands. The man was on the airboat and one cigarette was in his mouth and the other was waiting in his left hand and the can of Budweiser was in his right hand and the absurd ponytail was clinging desperately to his head and the cadre of alligators was lurking in the water next to the boat and there could be no doubt that I was in the Florida Everglades.
Thirty minutes prior, our situation was slightly different: There was no man and no airboat and no cans of Budweiser and no cigarettes and no cadre of alligators and no absurd ponytail but there was a Toyota SUV and one pair of threadbare jean shorts and three pairs of ridiculous, vintage sunglasses and one fully unbuttoned, cut-off flannel shirt and an American flag bandana and two spray painted cowboy boots and a children’s Florida Marlins jersey bursting at the seams and an orange, Hawaiian shirt with no sleeves commemorating Superbowl XLI and a driver and three passengers with Salvation Army thrift-store receipts in their pockets and self-aware grins proportional in size to the one point five million acre National Park they were presently entering.
We pulled in and opened our doors and our first drops of sweat hit the ground seconds after our thrift-store boots did. We grabbed our tickets and met our guide at the same time that we met our cans of Budweiser and the only instructions we received were that the two were not to be mixed.
Our outfits failed to draw the attention that we had expected, which likely reflects their close approximation of the staff uniforms. Sleeves were discouraged and boots required and only if you were lucky would you see a clean-shaven face. Cigarette smoke was your bug spray and sweat was your sunscreen and I’ll be damned if the staff at Gator Park weren’t the most red-blooded, rebel flag-waving, whiskey drinking, salt-of-the-earth Americans east of the Mississippi.
To say that our airboat looked clumsy would be a bit of an understatement. It was nearly twenty feet long and about half as wide with no measurable tapering at the bow or stern. That is to say, it was a flat-bottomed barge made of yellow fiberglass with a six-foot caged fan mounted to the back just in front of the pilot’s seat, which resembled an aluminum lifeguard stand that had been bolted on as an afterthought. There were four rows of bench seats made of the same yellow fiberglass, the first and last of which were occupied by a couple from Colombia and a German photographer, respectively. We boarded as ironically as we dressed, Budweisers in one hand and iPhone cameras in the other and we took our seats between the German and the Colombians and securely plugged our ears with the complimentary, blaze-orange, foam earplugs.
The fan erupted and our guide screeched out some canned lines through his missing front tooth about the flora or fauna or weather or what-have-you in an endearingly exaggerated Cajun accent. The boat splashed and the birds fled but the alligators loitered and we snapped pictures while the fan hummed and the clouds cleared and the sun beat down and we soon found ourselves a considerable distance from civilization and our boat stopped and we looked about and it gave me pause.
The landscape of the Florida Everglades is not much different than what you would imagine if someone drenched the Great Plains in eighteen to thirty-six inches of water. The Sawgrass is tall and golden and it waves in the wind like a Kansas prairie and the sky is bright and blue and spotted with puffy, white cumulus clouds and it can turn from rain to sun and back at the drop of a hat.
Similarly, our guide was not much different than what you would imagine if someone drenched a southern redneck in eighteen to thirty six inches of water. His arms were wiry with waterlogged and sun-tanned skin with deep wrinkles and elevated veins and they were exposed to the sun by his cut-off sleeves. At the end of his wiry and sun-tanned arms were two, short, puffy hands that were crisscrossed with scars from cuts and bites and scratches from plants and animals and machines alike. He wore shorts and no shoes and his legs bowed but he still bounced from the pilot’s chair to the bottom of the boat and back with the energy of a man half of his fifty plus years of age.
Our guide began in on an exposition about the vast expanse in which we found ourselves. He explained how the water began at lake Okeechobee and flowed at about half a mile per day towards the Florida Bay and about how there were alligators and crocodiles and now there were pythons. He spoke about the Sawgrass and its razor-sharp, serrated edge and about how his friend lost his life thanks to the Great Blue Heron and its dagger-like beak. He told us about the Seminoles and how they would wrestle alligators so that they could keep live food in their camp, ready to kill and eat whenever they were hungry.
Our tour ended and we fled the scene as quickly as we arrived, knowing that we had a long weekend ahead of us. We would have less than thirty-six hours between being inundated deep in the Florida Everglades and being inundated in the Miami club scene but we knew that the margin for error would be slim and the transition treacherous.
In between the two lay many obstacles, each waiting its turn to derail our South Florida adventure. There were ten to fourteen games of beach volleyball to be played and three wardrobe changes and a photo-op at the Swimming Hall of Fame and the creation of one sleazy goatee on my face. Once past these we would be faced with a few six-packs of beer and countless iced coffees and some late-night street tacos, then a half dozen Fort Lauderdale bars with their legions of cougars backed up by an army of bros, each of whom took umbrage with our particular brand of irony. We’d get little sleep and have even fewer beds and we would engage in no measurable water intake. Finally, we’d endure a thirty minute car ride south that was teeming with anticipation and somehow we would survive it all to find ourselves in the heart of downtown ready to pack a few weeks worth of shenanigans into one Miami night.
It was certainly a weekend of overcoming obstacles but even more, it was a weekend of constructing obstacles. It was about the mustaches more than the fashion and the pick-up lines about fictional ex-wives more than the bars in which they were uttered and it was the needlessly late-nights rather than the gallons of iced coffee that served to ameliorate their symptoms. The excitement that we felt at engineering a new means of inconveniencing ourselves was superlative and it was infectious and neither time nor lack of sleep managed to temper it. Sometimes a vacation is about the destination and other times it is about the people but more often it is a combination and if the two must be mixed then you might as well make the best of both and we certainly did.