Story by Jeff Klinkenberg
Photos by Scott Keeler

Jeff Klinkenberg talks about the good luck he and Scott had working on this story
Jeff Klinkenberg talks about fishing at the Miccosukee Reservation as a child
Interactive photo gallery
photo
Click here for an interactive photo gallery on Big Cypress and Miccosukee Reservation with music.
You will need the free Flash player to view this interactive graphic.

There are two ways to cross the wilderness of Southern Florida: the fast and dull route or the slow and interesting way. I-75, completed in 1993, is the so-called Alligator Alley superhighway taken by about 21,000 motorists a day. The speed limit is 70 mph, but don't stop to gawk. The speed limit on the two-lane Tamiami Trail ranges from 35 mph to 65. About 3,000 cars and trucks travel the Trail daily. Sometimes they have to brake for alligators.

The Trail cuts through the most beautiful section of the Big Cypress. The Big Cypress gets its name not from the size of the trees but a million-acre forest that is dark, foreboding and beautiful. Along the Trail rare ghost orchids cling to sturdy tree limbs while elusive Florida panthers ambush otters, hogs and deer.

The country is also habitat for crusty old-time hunters who have shacks hidden in the deepest woods and more sociable younger folks who live along the road. They include the dwellings of a scattering of eccentrics such as campground owner David Shealy, a darling of tabloid America and tireless promoter of the existence of Florida's version of Bigfoot, the Swamp Ape.

"I've seen him twice," he says.

Even without monsters, the Tamiami Trail can be a mighty exciting place. Just ask Michelle Daniels Smith. At 42, she manages the post office in the community known as Ochopee, a Miccosukee word meaning "Big Field." There is no Big Field in the vicinity anymore, just the post office, which happens to be the smallest in North America.

Smith's building is 8 feet 4 inches deep and 7 feet 3 inches wide. It serves more than 400 people who live along the Trail and thousands of tourists who stop to mail cards that carry the Ochopee postmark.

"The only time this post office seems small is when I have a snake in here with me," drawls Smith, who grew up in the Everglades but never got used to sharing space with pygmy rattlesnakes and their ilk. "I'm probably the only post office in the United States that has a special stick for catching snakes."

They squeeze under the door and slither through cracks in the roof. An alligator has not found a way to join her indoors, though a 12-footer occasionally sunbathes in the parking lot. "It's never boring around here," Smith says.

In late afternoon, after checking for critters, she saunters out of her building and takes down the American flag for the day.

"Oops!" she yells, suddenly pointing. "Lookie over there!"

On the other side of the Tamiami Trail, grazing for seed on the edge of a cypress swamp, is a hungry black bear.

Black bears never have hurt anybody in Florida, but lots of people got nervous in the company of the late Leon Whilden, the Tamiami Trail curmudgeon who operated a plant exhibit known as Orchid Isles. Waving his shotgun or machete, he ran off customers unlucky enough to have facial hair, children in tow or New York accents.

"He'd also get naked, jump in the canal, swim under water and come to the surface under tourists who were fishing," says Trail resident Niki Butcher. "He'd jump out of the water, pull out his false teeth, get them clacking and chase people down the Trail."

Butcher and her husband, noted landscape photographer Clyde Butcher, bought Whilden's property and have tried to be more accommodating to tourists, shaven and unshaven, at their art studio. Clyde, all 300 pounds of him, often is seen making photographs with his giant camera along the Trail.

"Hey, Niki," he calls as he sets up a shot in a swamp. "Keep your eye on those alligators, will you?"

The Miccosukee Reservation sits in the heart of what author Marjory Stoneman Douglas called "The River of Grass." It's a shallow, 70-mile-wide river that flows from Lake Okeechobee through Everglades National Park to Florida Bay. Like other parts of the Everglades, the river is in trouble.

"It's you white-skinned people who did this."

Heenehatche, known to white people as Buffalo Tiger, was born in the Everglades in 1919 when the great swamp was still unspoiled. He was a boy when the Trail crossed Miccosukee land.

The Miccosukees had fled to the Everglades in the 19th century after years of warfare with the U.S. government, when their people were routinely deported to Oklahoma reservations. Later, it was common for Indian children to be taken from their parents and "reprogrammed" at boarding schools.

"The old people told us to be careful of the white people," Tiger says. "We hid in the bushes and watched them build the road."

Miccosukees worshiped what they called the Feshahkee-ommehche, the Great Breathmaker who kept life in balance. They renewed vows to the Earth during the annual Green Corn Dance and hunted their food. Buffalo lived with his family in a chickee and went to sleep under mosquito netting while listening to elders tell ancient stories meant to instruct the young. "Everything we needed," he says, "we had right here in the Everglades."

Yet in some ways the new road made life easier. No longer was a trip to Miami a three-day ordeal by dugout canoe. A Miccosukee could ride for free on Barron Collier's Trailways Bus Lines.

The new road made it just as easy for Miamians to visit the Everglades. Suddenly the Miccosukees were in the tourist business. Buffalo Tiger wrestled alligators and sold crafts. He learned English, represented his tribe in dealings with the whites and was elected chairman, or chief. In two decades he helped bring modernity to his people, including medicine, education and money from legal gambling.

The most traditional Miccosukees, who preferred isolation, looked askance at his three marriages to non-Miccosukee women, his fancy cars and his desire to live in Miami. He was voted out of office in 1985. "I always had a Miccosukee heart," he says. "That was the important thing. I never stopped honoring the Breathmaker."

Every day he drives his Ford Explorer from Miami to his business, Buffalo Tiger's Airboat Tour. He's 83 but still physically strong enough to take tourists out to see what remains of the Everglades.

Long ago the Everglades system was turned topsy-turvy. Many native animals, once the food of the Miccosukees, struggle for survival because of development, pollution and inadequate water. They have been replaced by animals from other lands that escaped from Miami pet owners and thrived.

Canals are filled with former pet-store fauna such as walking catfish and oscars. Up and down the Trail tourists and Miccosukees catch and eat them. They shouldn't: The fish are tainted by mercury.

Now there is a $7.8-billion plan to fix the Everglades and correct water flow problems created by the Tamiami Trail. One proposal calls for tearing up an 11-mile road section and replacing it with the world's longest bridge. Another involves additional pumping stations and a short bridge to allow a more natural flow of water. While all this is going on, Miami is marching west along the Trail. Even the Miccosukees are acquiring property near their Krome Avenue gambling palace on the edge of Miami.

Although he was called too modern, Buffalo Tiger blazed a path others followed. Gambling profits helped lift Miccosukees out of poverty and bought them a better school, their own police force and lawyers. The reservation has a medical clinic, a gym and even a fitness center to combat the growing problems of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes that were never a problem in the old days.

"I hate to say this," Tiger says, "but a lot of our younger people have difficulty with alcohol and with drugs. It's very hard when you have feet in two different worlds."

Yet after three centuries, three wars, countless racist deportations, efforts to eradicate their culture and the near destruction of their Everglades habitat, they remain. It's the 21st century, and the Miccosukee people still stand tall on the Tamiami Trail. Chapter 5

MICCOSUKEE RESERVATION
Gator bait
Sam Osceola Jr. stares down an enraged 8-foot alligator. Show time at the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. At 22, he has spent his life around alligators. Now he wrestles them for tourists.

"You can't lose your focus," he says. "We had a guy here who got himself bitten on the head, and I would like to avoid it."

He straddles the gator and teases it, tucking the business end of the riled animal under his chin. Itzhak Perlman never played such a Stradivarius.

After work, Osceola drives home to Miami. He likes rock 'n' roll, but his girlfriend drives him crazy playing Eminem. Osceola, named after a ferocious warrior, wonders how a celebrity rapper might enjoy tangling with an alligator.

navalone