Out of a Jam

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)
By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 7, 2006

We visited Miami recently and I almost immediately dragged the kids off to the swamp. In Miami a person must head to the swamp for relief from the urban jangle. Miami is fabulous and fun, but there are too many people crammed into too small a space. Complications ensue. Mutations. Maladaptations.

To be in Miami is like being in the future. But it's a rather mundane future. In science fiction, the future has a kind of throbbing, zooming, whiz-bang, Mad Max quality. But Miami tells us that the future will be nothing more than a traffic jam.

Your destiny will be to find yourself stuck at the exit of a strip shopping center on some generic overpopulated suburban road with a name like 104th Street. You'll be desperately scanning the horizon for a break in the traffic so that you can shoot over to another generic overpopulated suburban road called 117th Avenue. But there will be no break. And you will realize that there never will be a break. They will find your skeletal remains in this very spot, bony fingers still gripping the wheel. The coroner will say, "He never should have tried to turn left."

That's where the Everglades come in. They're the refuge. "Everglades" is surely the best name ever given a marsh. It certainly beats the pants off of, for example, "the Great Dismal Swamp."

"We're going to the Everglades!" I announced to the kids. "There's nothing there! An endless expanse of grass, bugs and invasive weeds!"

They stared at me as though I had suddenly transmogrified -- like the guy at the end of that Edgar Allan Poe story -- into a detestable putrescence. I rummaged in my store of Everglades images for a selling point and found one: "There's gators up the wazoo!"

Off we went, heading west, stopping only for gas, chips, soft drinks, salted peanuts and Dunkin' Donuts (three glazed, three chocolate iced). No one had eaten a vegetable or a piece of fruit in days, and by the minute we were turning into sacks of

synthetic molecules, but it didn't matter: We were going to see Nature in the raw.

The nice thing about Nature in South Florida is that it's cordoned off. The dividing line between civilization and Nature is typically a canal, ruler-straight, a precise little channel with a perfect north-south or east-west orientation and a name like "C-137." The grid of canals and levees gives the terrain the appearance of an unusually large map.

We crossed a final canal and entered Everglades National Park. A drop in elevation of a single foot, imperceptible in the car, will change the landscape from one of pine trees to cypress trees, from upland to marsh. We drove to the Anhinga Trail on Paradise Key, a patch of high ground surrounded by sloughs. Paradise Key was famous for its royal palms, all gone. We got out of the car and within about 30 seconds saw dozens of birds, thousands of fish and, right there next to the main trail -- as advertised! -- an alligator, sleeping in the sun. It was close enough to pet. I scanned the surrounding grass for signs of dismembered hands and feet.

Then we saw another gator, as still as the first. The trail turned into a boardwalk. At the end of the boardwalk we came to a railing, and there, right below, were nine alligators. A veritable flock of gators. A covey. A gaggle. I believe the technical zoological term is a "warren" of gators. The only thing missing from this stunning spectacle was some sign that the gators were alive. These had to be the laziest gators on the planet. They were as inert as lost luggage.

Next to one gator's head was an empty water bottle. Perhaps someone had thrown it at the gators. You can imagine the command: "Do something."

We observed the gators for about 10 minutes, ascertained that they were not going to eat anyone or anything, then wandered around and looked at the birds and fish and turtles, which are animals that have the evolutionary advantage of being, unlike alligators, animate. We saw herons, coots and anhingas. Much merriment ensued from threats to pitch one of the children into the slough. Fear is a form of entertainment for the truly desperate.

We drove another few miles to an observation deck, where we looked upon the endless river of grass. Or at least it looked endless from that one spot. You could imagine it as endless. You could pretend that Nature is still an unbridled force, that this remains a primordial planet, wild, untrammeled, pure.

But of course we were looking into the past. A few minutes later, we piled into the car and drove back to the future -- and by 3 in the afternoon were at the Dadeland Mall.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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