FLORIDA CITY, Fla. — The night was so dark I couldn't see the boat's bow in front of me.
An orange crescent moon reflected on the surface of the saw-grass lake and the sky glittered with stars, thrown across the darkness like fistfuls of diamonds.
The only sound was the rhythmic motion of the pole as the Indian guide pushed the skiff through the endless Everglades.
Something splashed off the port bow. Then another. And another.
I looked back to the guide but saw nothing. His voice whispered before I asked the question. "Only a garfish," he assured me. "They're jumping tonight."
Nodding in the darkness, I relaxed as if I knew it all the time.
"Probably a gator close about," he added.
Whoa! I sat up straight again and put my ears to the wind, which was as still as a tomb. But the only thing I heard was the motion of the pole in the water and the soft chuckle of the Miccosukee guide.
A True Adventure
Sound like fun? Well, it is. And more. It's a true adventure into the past of perhaps the most colorful (and one of the last) American frontiers.
From the Miami area you can choose a day trip to unusual sites or spend a couple of weeks cavorting with the locals, soaking up the rich ambiance of legends, sea and sun.
This is not a trip for the fainthearted, although there is a luxury class and if you want, you can spend a bundle. But all you really need is a car, a map and some imagination.
My first stop was the Miccosukee Village and Cultural Center, 37 miles west of Miami on U.S. 41, the old Tamiami Trail. The Southern Seminole tribe has re-created a working village that offers beautifully crafted Indian clothes and jewelry, along with guided tours of the grounds. Artisans work silently beneath the palmetto-thatched chickee huts, and there's a small but intriguing museum.
To appreciate the Florida Indians you must be aware of their history. By the 1880s most of the Seminole tribes had been systematically exterminated or "relocated" to the wastelands of western Oklahoma. The remaining 300 Seminoles disappeared into swamps and the Everglades. The Miccosukees of today are the descendants of those 300 people who so valiantly resisted oppression more than a hundred years ago.
Reminders of the Gulf
Even now there are reminders of the gulf between the past and present, like the sign posted at the entrance to the traditional village that requests visitors not to ask the craftspeople questions, as many of them do not speak English.
Yet there are plenty of opportunities to chat with tribe members. One of the best is the $6 airboat ride that takes you to an isolated hammock (island) camp. Our guide was a striking man of 18 who answered all our questions, accenting his replies with a shy, infectious smile.
But if you really want to discover the character of the area, the best way is to be one of the lucky few who can arrange for the overnight camping trips offered occasionally by experienced Indian guides. The solemn beauty of the midnight Glades is unforgettable, as are the legends told around the evening campfires.
For more information: Miccosukee Indian Tribe, P.O. Box 440021, Miami, Fla. 33144; phone (305) 223-8380.
No sortie to the Everglades is complete without a drive down notorious Loop Road. It's not marked, but take the first left after the locks, a short distance west of the village on U.S. 41.
A Swaggering Past
The shacks and "keep out" signs barely hint of the swaggering past. At the broken-down homestead of E. G. Guise, I stopped by a yellow concrete block structure with the words "Cold Drinks" in red letters, a mile or so on the right.
For a buck I sat, sipped an Orange Crush and listened to the stories that made this perhaps "the toughest road in the country."
"Yep," the old man said, lifting his battered hat with one hand and wiping off his round, bald head with the other. "Ain't no doubt it was surely wild in the ol' days. Still is, but not like back then."
The old man smiled and spat on the ground. The topic of conversation swung to how the state is forcing longtime residents out of the Glades. "Used to own over a hundred acres," the old man said with a sigh. "Now I'm down to this." He traced a bent finger around the littered compound.
"Half an acre is all they left me. Gotta lease on this, what they call a grandfather clause. I can stay, but when I'm gone, that's it. Only the Indians will be left.
"Ain't fair," he said. He spat again, then looked up with a faint twinkle in his eyes. "Maybe here, the Indians finally win."
The narrow road swings north toward U.S. 41. On both sides the swamp lay a few inches above sea level. I had the feeling that someone was watching me as a large, almost prehistoric shadow glided over the primeval landscape, then disappeared among the great egrets, the neoned purple gallinules and the other preening cranes and storks.
At the intersection of 41 I stopped at old Monroe Station for a home-cooked country meal and shot a few games of pool with more local characters.