Long strange (road) trip

Six hundred miles in three days might not be everyone’s idea of a good time. It’s one of mine even if my lower back begs to differ. 

First agenda item: lunch at Mable’s Place Southern Cooking in Okeechobee. Taking backroads costs an hour despite light traffic. But, look: cattle press under the shade of twisting live oaks in still-green pastures; white clouds cluster against turquoise skies. Lunch is stellar. Need an excuse to go again. Gotta try her curry.

Second: I have a spot to see Path of the Panther, which the filmmakers were previewing at every Seminole reservation and hosting talkbacks. Never heard of Brighton, west of Lake Okeechobee and exactly in the middle of nowhere. Sign me up.

Booked at Clewiston Inn, built in 1938 for the visitors and VIPs of US Sugar, the gargantuan private company whose headquarters are a pleasant stroll across a lovely little park between the hotel and the calculators. Faded glory. My kind of place. Bar has jaw-dropping murals on all four walls depicting every animal in the Everglades.

“But why is the bar closed?” I demand, priorities on full display. Lovely clerk who unlocked room at my inquiry shrugs. “Maybe next week, we tender?” Ah. Lynn Waddell told me about the murals. Only reason I knew to ask. Read her book, Fringe Florida, to get the skinny on Florida’s alternative lifestyles.

Should’ve hunted vistas of the lake while I was still in Okeechobee but I wanted to check out the Brighton reservation, then get to Clewiston. While I’m glad I got the lay of the land, I didn’t comprehend the distances. Solid 50 minutes from film site to hotel, then 50 back to film, then 50 back to hotel, nary a streetlight along almost all those miles. 

Path of the Panther comes to Disney+ at the end of April. It makes as a powerful argument for Wildlife Corridors nationwide. I laughed. I cried. I was amazed, horrified, inspired. I cannot wait to see again.

The talkback began with sacredness and extended to many questions for the veterinarian, the camera tech, the guy who helps make things happen, and the Elder. Uncomfortable to admit that I bolted when an earnest young white woman asked, “So, why can’t we just change zoning and density laws?”

I worked for developers in the 80s. I thought I could help change from within. I was naive. Density and zoning are controlled by the people who implant the politicians.

Can’t get the triad celebrated in the film out of my head. Elder Betty Osceola represents – lyrical and steely – the Indigenous perspective on the land, which by definition demands preservation and respect. Their DNA is *in* this land. To respect is sacred duty. My skin crawled with “recognition of truth” as she spoke.

Then there’s National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward and his passionate, dedicated team. Carlton’s camera traps captured nearly all the footage. If not for his singleminded focus and determination, none of this information may have come to light. 

But the perspective of rancher Elton Langford offers an uplifting addition. Elton argues the goals of the Indigenous, the conservationists, the preservationists, the ranchers and the farmers can meld into a viable path. Wildlife Corridors benefit ranchers and farmers as much as wildlife. This message gave a jolt of hope.

Celebrated the day with the best Mexican food of my life at Jalapeños.Worth the trip alone. 

Saturday. I wasn’t very far from the Big Cypress reservation and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. Mostly, I wanted to meander the one mile boardwalk. With extensive annotations, the boardwalk is a living extension of the museum. Good decision. Not another human on the trail. Communed with the wind when it stirred the spirits. Did a lot of breathing/praying. Maybe felt some something start to release. Maybe.

Where next? Last late afternoon awaits. Dammit, I’ve got to see the lake. Best I can find of pitiful information is via Florida Hikes website. Based on breadcrumbs, I command Paddy (what I call my car but in truth, Siri with a British accent) to set a course for Pahokee and cross my fingers. I suddenly realize I’m elated. Joy of solo sojourning is back. Maybe those spirits actually did heal something. Also amazed for wobbly cell service.

A word about GPS in these environs: you might *never* consider the routes it happily delivers. Pic from about a mile in. Only my siblings will understand why I clapped my hands and chirped, “A Daddy Road!” My father always – always – preferred the unmarked, preferably dirt and questionable, option.

But what I saw on the Daddy Road hurt. I’m too informed by maniacal research, a dozen+ visits, not to mention last night’s movie. Hundreds, thousands, of acres of sugarcane waving in the breeze. So much artificial infrastructure: canals, tiny railroads, tiny roads on thin artificial ridges. I know what this land *should* look like: south of the lake – unrestrained by the massive levees – thousands of acres of sawgrass should wave instead. Today, the land is parched and desperate. But this land is owned and controlled by Big Sugar. Government subsidized profits trump the environment, always.

I choose to look up, up to the corduroy clouds, their wales an ombré from white down to the deep gray of promised rain. Paddy climbed onto pavement after 15 dusty miles and headed for Pahokee, a blighted town of about 5,500 on the eastern edge of the lake. Pahokee is what the Seminoles called the Everglades: grassy waters.

I fall in love with the colonnade of towering (i.e., very old) royal palms extending two and a half miles south of the beat up downtown.

Following directions from brown signs I finally get an unimpeded view of Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest covering 734 square miles. A native, it’s my first time not flying over. Too bad the corduroys were beginning to release their misty soft drops. Still magical.

Had more tacos at Jalapeños. Got a drink at Roland Martin’s Tiki Bar. Thought about how this trip turned into a silent retreat. I had nearly no conversations. I saw almost no cars on most of the backroads, down south anyway. And come to think, I was almost always the only or one of few white people. Took me two days to realize. I felt welcome.

Sunday morning, smoking on the stairs outside my hotel room, a young tatted man whose outer pants rode close to his knees called up. “You seen an ugly skinny Puerto Rican kid come through?” I laughed and shook my head. He stopped, pointed, declared, “You’re cute.”

Compliment from someone who could be my child. I’ll take it. Bet he gets nearly any girl his age whom he sets his sights on.

It’s been a long, strange trip. My favorite kind.

Okeechobee: Mable’s Place Southern Cooking
Brighton: Casino
Clewiston: Clewiston Inn; Jalapeno’s; Roland Martin Tiki Bar
Big Cypress Reservation: Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
Pahokee: Lake views

1 Comment

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  1. Bravo! I can see the clouds, feel the breeze. Now I want those tacos!

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