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Back on the Loop

A 26-mile, forlorn ribbon of dirt road off Tamiami Trail midway between Miami and Naples offers a gritty glimpse into the state's past: a place where the gators and snakes outnumber humans and houses.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published February 12, 2006


photo
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
A 6-foot alligator rests on the bank of the Sweetwater Strand of the Big Cypress National Preserve off Loop Road.
Go to photo gallery with audio

BIG CYPRESS NATIONAL PRESERVE

First I tap the brake. Then step hard. The 11-foot alligator, sprawled across Loop Road, stays put. With no room to turn around and no desire to drive in reverse to the nearest paved road, I honk.

The gator ignores me. Insolent creature! Fighting road rage, I inch close, almost nudging the beast with my front tires. Nothing. Though I have no intention of leaving my truck, I open the door to see what will happen. The ka-chunk must make the vehicle seem menacing. Hissing like a dragon, the great reptile lumbers into the swamp.

As the bubbles dissipate, the swamp once again becomes placid. For an instant I am tempted to visit the bank for a better look. Then I remember the late Clara McKay, the woman everybody called the "Beer-Worm Lady" because that's what she sold at her little store. She knew the Big Cypress, knew the ways of critters, but one day she let her guard down. To hear her tell it, she was dipping water for her beloved pet cats when a big alligator lunged up and tore off her right arm.

I remain securely behind the wheel, nudge the gas pedal and continue my journey down the Loop Road and into my past.

The elusive swamp nymphet

When I was a teenager, the Loop Road was the real Mister Toad's Wild Ride. It was the most untamed place I knew, the most remote, smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em, people-unfriendly byway in Florida. It was 26 hellish miles of moon-crater potholes, gape-jawed alligators, choleric cottonmouths and swamp men who would just as soon spit on your tennies as say hello. The federal government owns it now, in the 700,000 acres of the Big Cypress National Preserve. The potholes are gone and laws are now occasionally enforced, but otherwise the Loop Road remains a marathon of crushed gravel, reptiles and watch-your-back roughnecks.

It begins at Monroe Station on the Tamiami Trail in Collier County, meanders south for a spell, then snakes back north toward the Tamiami Trail at the Miccosukee Indian Reservation in Miami-Dade County. Construction crews built the road in the 1920s but forgot to add civilization.

The uncivilized nature of the Loop Road made it attractive to nature lovers, but also to plume hunters, gator poachers, orchid thieves, moonshiners, pot growers and nonconformists. Many settled along the Loop where it dips, briefly, into Monroe County. The nearest Monroe County sheriff's substation is about 80 miles away, by road, in the Florida Keys.

An hour east of the Loop Road is Florida's gritty urban center, Miami. An hour west is conservative and wealthy Naples. On certain places on the Loop Road, it feels like the 19th century.

When Hurricane Wilma shut down coastal South Florida last fall, the dozen or so full-time residents of the Loop felt only mildly inconvenienced. They are accustomed to wind and flood. They know how to patch a roof and remove a fallen tree from the porch. They are smart enough to store drinking water and to keep their matches dry. About the time Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the Loop Road got electricity. A few residents still think fondly of the days before electricity.

Today, wardens from the National Park Service patrol Loop Road. But it is still the wrong place to lock your keys in the car, run out of gas or suffer a dead battery. Cell phones seldom pick up a signal on the Loop Road, but mosquitoes and horseflies work overtime even on a mild February day. Never leave your vehicle without first checking for snakes.

Stopping my truck, I see no reptiles. As I step onto the road, the swamp grows immediately silent. The crickets, first to recover their wits, commence chirping. Then the red-winged blackbirds pepper me with sardonic screeches. The pig frogs add hearty grunts to the Loop Road cacophony.

I snap photos of the cypress trees, the ferns, the lily pads. I snap a photo of the lonely road. Years ago, everybody felt the need to be armed, but nowadays we tourists tote cameras in case we encounter a panther, bear or swamp nymphet.

The Loop Road is Florida's Garden of Eden - before the serpent tempted Adam and Eve and God shamed them into wearing clothes.

I wouldn't be the first to see somebody sauntering the Loop fashionably naked.

Next stop, Monroe Station

When I was a kid, my dad and I fished on the Tamiami Trail, mostly in the Everglades, though sometimes farther out in the Big Cypress. In 1965, my friends and I began visiting Loop Road on our own. We'd fish for bass at dawn and look for snakes after the sun got up. My friends and I were more comfortable among coldblooded reptiles than warmblooded girls.

One of us would drive. The others would sit on the hood with pillowcases. Spotting a snake, we would leap from the hood, catch the snake with a bare hand and stuff it into the pillowcase. I wish I could say we were gathering snakes for the good of science, but we weren't. We were catching (and later releasing) them for the sheer thrill of messing with something that would bite if given a chance.

After a scintillating morning with the snakes, we'd stop at a place called Monroe Station on the intersection of Loop Road and the Tamiami Trail. Built in 1928, it was originally a gas station and convenience store. By the time I discovered it, Monroe Station was the redneck capital of South Florida.

Big Joe Lord ran the place, helped by his wife, Sweet Sue. Big Joe was always angry, usually at the government, which was poised at the time to buy the Big Cypress Swamp and possibly put him out of business. He was also angry about Vietnam War protesters, men with long hair, pot smokers, forced busing and maybe the direction of the wind. I kept my long hair and opinions under my hat, sat at the counter and ate Sweet Sue's ham steak with red-eye gravy.

Whenever I'm in the Big Cypress, I stop at Monroe Station for old time's sake. It closed in 1987 and is one good hurricane from falling down. Under the dust, among the cobwebs, one old business card still clings to the dining room wall. "T.K. Riggs," it says. "Unemployed." Call the number. Nobody there by that name. I see rusty cans and whiskey bottles through yawning holes in the floorboards. Roach droppings, looking like coffee grounds, blanket Sweet Sue's old luncheon counter.

The park service plans to spend $500,000 to restore the old building. Rangers may use it as an office, a visitor center or a museum. If Big Joe Lord's ghost haunts Monroe Station, maybe he'll stop cussing the government. But probably not.

A forbidden place

When I was a kid, another place to eat on Loop Road was the Gator Hook Lodge in the tiny community of Pinecrest. A sign outside the door warned, "No Guns or Knives Allowed Inside" and was often ignored. A guy named Jack Knight ran Gator Hook. I remember him being rough around the edges, but an okay guy. On Saturday nights, he always hired a band. The fiddler in the Gator Hook band was Ervin Rouse , who had written Orange Blossom Special back in the 1930s. I never heard him play, but he lived out there with his dogs, Butterball and Curly.

Even at lunchtime the Gator Hook Lodge was an uninviting place, which made it attractive to teenage boys hoping for adventure. When the screen door banged shut behind you, every head in the tavern turned to see who had entered. At midmorning, many patrons already staggered around drunk.

Peter Matthiessen set his novel, Lost Man's River, in the Everglades. Perhaps the most menacing scene takes place in the Gator Hook, when a drunk, one-armed gator poacher explains his relationship with park rangers.

"Now I ain't got nothin personal against the ranger," the poacher says. "Might could be a real likable young feller, just a-tryin to get by, same as what I'm doin. Might got him a sweet lovin wife and a couple real cute li'l fellers back home waiting on him, or maybe just the sweetest baby girl - same as what I got! Ain't no difference between him and me at all!

"But if'n that boy tries to take my gators, well, I got my duty to my people, ain't that right? Got my duty to take care of my little girl back home that's waitin on me to put bread on the table! Ain't that only natural? So all I'm sayin - and it would be pathetical, and I am the first one to admit it - all I'm sayin, now, if any such a feller, and I don't care who, tries to keep me from my hard-earned livin I surely would be sorry. 'Cause I reckon I would have to leave him out there."

My dad one time asked how the fishing and snaking had gone. I gave him a report and casually mentioned the interesting eatery on Loop Road. He turned pale. "Not a place for you," he said.

The Gator Hook is gone now, torn down except for steps I have heard about but never can find. Jack Knight is dead. Ervin Rouse is dead. Whenever I drive the Loop Road I adjust my iPod to the play list I call "Country Blues." Sooner or later, Orange Blossom Special comes on.

Like it here? Yep.

Years ago, it took three hours to drive the Loop Road because of potholes. Now it takes about an hour, depending on gator traffic. In some places, the road is straight as a rifle barrel; in other places it curves through the swamp like a Miccosukee's bow. The road is about 12 feet across, narrower at bridges, which, by the way, lack railings.

The Florida panther is the rarest large animal in North America, but I know a guy who has seen three over the years on Loop Road. I know people who have encountered bears. Gators are as common as the lizards in your back yard. Gator in the road! It crashes like a falling piano into the black water. Bromeliad air plants on the high branches drip like icing from a cake. Pretty white ibises hop from log to log. The old-timers ate them. Now the white ibis is threatened and most of the old-timers are extinct.

As I approach Pinecrest, I notice evidence of human habitation. Old cars. Fences. Threatening signs.

My dogs can make it to the fence in three seconds. Can you?

I pull up to a fence and wait. A woman ambles out, gives me the eye. I tell her I have an appointment with Sandy Dayhoff. I'm allowed in.

Sandy Dayhoff, a park ranger for 35 years, represents the only official law and order on the Loop Road. The year she turned 17 - 1962 - she dropped out of Miami High School and married "one of those swamp boys," Fred Dayhoff. They moved to Loop Road.

"We didn't have electricity, running water, phones or even a car for years. We didn't need it or want it," Sandy says. Twice a month her mother drove from Miami with staples. Otherwise the young couple was self-sufficient. Sandy grew vegetables and raised ducks and chickens. Fred was an accomplished hunter, killing deer, hogs and turkeys. On the Loop, he is called "the Invisible Man" because of his shy ways. Sandy is a private person, too. I ask what she does to pass the time. "I stay busy." Read? "Yes." What do you read? "All kinds of things." Listen to music? "I love music." What kind? "All kinds."

She has curly brown hair and eyes like dark pools. She looks sturdy enough to skin a hog, drag a gator out of a hole and put a curious reporter in his place.

"I've never wanted to leave here," she says. "The nights are so beautiful. Years ago the stars were so bright you couldn't believe it. The stars are still pretty, but if you look east now you see this big dome of light coming from Miami. Miami seems to get closer every year."

During rainy season, mosquitoes are fierce. Bobcats eat chickens. One time Sandy's foot encountered the fangs of a snake.

"Pygmy rattler," she says. "I was wearing flip-flops. Somebody should have written D-U-M-B on my forehead."

Was the bite painful?

"Yes."

Go to the hospital in Miami?

"Naw."

An afternoon in Eden

Back on the Loop Road, I stop my car next to a neat grave.

"RIP," the tombstone says. Somebody has placed fresh flowers. Across from the grave is what looks like a fort. A sign on the 8-foot wall says "Lucky's Place." Lucky turns out to be the irrepressible Lucky Cole, age 63, a 250-pounder who wears a cowboy hat and a bandanna. His hair and beard are dyed black. The mat of hair on his muscular arms is so thick it takes a moment to identify a tattoo as a bald eagle.

Lucky grew up in Miami but spent boyhood weekends hunting along Loop Road. After a career in construction, he retired here in 1990. He started out with a modest trailer, then built a house and decks and a greenhouse and bathrooms and even a pool.

Lucky believes he has found heaven. He loves nothing more than sitting on his deck at sundown, talking to Wife No. 3, watching the birds and smoking a big cigar.

He is joyful when a thirsty tourist stops and asks for beer. Lucky doesn't run a store, but he'll provide beer, or a chaw of tobacco, or fuel for an airboat, in exchange for a donation to his retirement fund. He even has a price list.

As the tourist sips his beer and chews the fat, he might ask Lucky about the grave. If the tourist is from Michigan, Lucky might announce that he killed and buried an obnoxious tourist from Michigan. "Actually, nobody's in the grave," he confesses to me. "It's just a conversation piece. I like to have a laugh."

Lucky dislikes rude people. When he asks "Do you have some time?" be prepared to stay a spell. He shows me his antique barber chair, his Coke machine, his neon Budweiser sign, his other doodads and geegaws. "Come over here and check out my bathroom," he calls. I follow him to a door with a sign above that says "The Cat House."

Gulp. A long-dead house cat, stuffed by a hasty taxidermist, decorates the counter by the sink.

I can't focus on the unfortunate cat because every inch of wall and ceiling is covered by photographs of women - not the kind you expect to see on the Loop Road.

Turns out Lucky is a commercial photographer as well as swamp man. He shows off his work on a Web site, naturesexoticbeauty.com. His photos of sunsets and swamps are graced by models who may or may not have remembered to wear a bikini top. "They pay me to make their pictures, that's right," he says. "I give them their pictures, they use them in portfolios or just keep them to remember what they once looked like."

At Lucky's urging I study photos of women straddling motorcycles, women leaning provocatively against the mailbox out on the Loop Road, women wearing cowboy hats and six shooters and little else. I feel like I'm 15 again, sneaking a peak at the centerfold in Cavalier magazine at Park Shore Pharmacy in Miami. If Howard the druggist catches me, he'll tell my mother.

Beacons in the road

Back on the Loop Road, I head toward the Tamiami Trail, toward civilization. Most people hate driving on the Loop at night, but I have never minded, never had an emergency out there. A couple of times I shut down the engine and listen to frogs. A couple of times I stop and call for owls. Alas, they snub me.

Near the bridge across Sweetwater Strand, red eyes glow in my headlights on the road ahead. I'm hoping for a panther, or a bear, or one of Lucky's swamp nymphets.

But it's just an opossum. Dragging its tail on the dusty road, it vanishes into the trees.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com. Times researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this story. Special thanks to Bob DeGross, Big Cypress National Preserve; David Southall, Collier County Museums; Steven DeLine, Everglades Conservation and Sportsman Club.

ON THE WEB

Steve's Big Cypress Swamp: www.bigcypressswamp.com

Big Cypress National Preserve: www.nps.gov/bicy

Clyde Butcher photography: www.clydebutcher.com

Sounds of the swamp: www.sptimes.com/links

[Last modified February 9, 2006, 14:31:27]


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