It just so happens, I decided to go camping for the first time since being a kid. It also just so happens that I decided to do so alone, by my self. I went to the Everglades, home of alligators, crocodiles, poisonous rattlesnakes and many more. Oh, and some storks. Why the sudden motivation to get out into the wild? Well, in my Vibram FiveFingers booklet, there was a guy jumping over a boulder in a forest. Something triggered that instance. It was like I had been awoken. I had to get out in it!
Back to the Glades, I started late, meaning, it was getting dark when I got to the parking area. That meant that the 4 mile hike, my first backpacking hike EVER, would be in the pitch black surrounded by invisible creatures. Luckily, during registration, I met a couple other guys, Weber and Fred, who were also late and planning on hiking to the MUCH further Old Ingraham back-country site, which was nearly 12 miles down the path.
I was staying in the much closer Ernest Coe camp site so I happily invited them to join me there if they didn’t want to hike that far with all of their gear in no light land. They accepted. I wore the Vibram Five Finger KSOs figuring it was a perfect time for my feet to get used to outdoors type activity. Little did I know, my feet were both not ready at all and more ready than ever.
First Minimalist Hike Awww!
As we headed off into the dusk with all of our camping gear on our backs, under our arms, and in our hands, the path was mostly gravel rocks, at first. This path is called the Old Ingraham Trail naturally. I was walking slow and consciously, which seemed to drag the guys back from their normal shoe speed. Things were still visible but my feet felt like they were, well, walking on a rocky road. And they were sensitive.
Once the darkness took over, I’d really have to pay attention with my flashlight and step. Halfway there I thought the choice in VFFs was a bad one. While it didn’t necessarily hurt to walk, and the path would change every so often from old sharp concrete or mud, to very light gravel and dirt, it did seem to me that the following day my feet would be worthless and tired, halting my plans for further hiking. More on that then. After what seemed like forever in a noise filled black, we finally arrived at the campground, tired and beaten. The journey in the dark had been much more difficult then expected.
The camp site was a simple grass patch to the right of the straightaway path. We barely could see it with the light overcast sky, but the moon did stick out just enough to say “Hello. This is where you are camping.” We then attempted successfully at putting our tents up in the dark while strategically passing our flashlights to each other when needed. Camps up, lets sit on the grass and chat a bit, then sleep.
I have never camped outside in such isolation. I don’t recollect being scared of anything since childhood, but I tell ya, I was scared that night. There were critters walking all over the place. There were all sorts of crazy noises. I felt like Pee-Wee Herman in his first movie after being dropped off by Mickey in the pitch black after the falling car scene.
Every time I would look out the tent to see what it was, there was nothing. It was constant. I even dreamed that I was attacked by an alligator! I found out later that my uncle Mike that I was then living with in Miami had a similar dream, ironically, which actually was similar to what happens, as you will see.
And then it started to rain, which actually put me to sleep like a baby. Thank you rain. When I awoke, the guys were cooking some grub and heading out to trough (look it up). I had decided I was going to hike to the other, further campsite, and see if it offered anything different.
See, I was planning on returning to the Everglades again very soon potentially, as I wanted the isolation for my mind training. Plus, I was beat and had already finished one of my two water jugs the night before. BUT, my feet didn’t hurt at all! And that amazed me. So I figured “hey, I had run 10+ miles every other day the month prior, and have been running more and more in my VFF’s, including off road. Walking an extra 5 miles will be no biggie.” Wrong.
The Long Peaceful One Way Hike
I took with me a 3/4 filled water jug, first aid kit, sun lotion, bug spray and tools. I wore the big hat, like a straw boonie hat kind of, the green KSOs and I started my trek to Old Ingraham. Near the beginning I found a big bowed stick. It was a bit heavy for a walking stick but its shape was amazing. Kind of like a thinned base clef, taller than me. So, I brought it and endured the extra weight, somehow thinking I would need it. Or at least look cool carrying it…even if no one would see me.
I don’t know how long it took me to get to the site. I was still fearful of the rumored alligators and rattle snakes even though I hadn’t seen any. All that I saw and heard were some birds. And some were diving into the water from high up! It was awesome! I believe they are called Anhingas but not sure. They were either scared or hunting. Or maybe just needed a dip.
The sun was out and hot, hot enough that looking ahead I could see the hot road mirage. I had trees and a parallel creek to my right, and long beautiful watered grasslands to my left the entire way. The walking stick came in handy, in muddy areas and also to ward off tree and bush branches.
I was running low on water sooner than expected, and I was walking slowly and stressfully, always thinking something was gonna attack me at any moment for whatever reason. The hike seemed like forever. I wanted to turn around; I was very concerned that there was no end to this and that my water was nearly out. Add the fact that I had no other water back at the tent.
When I finally decided to go no further, I happen to arrive at the campgrounds. Who knows how long it took, but it seemed like near 4 hours, maybe 5. I don’t think the official map was accurate on that distance but who knows.
I took off my gear, laid the stick down, took a drink, laid down on the grass, put my hat over my face and breathed. It was an amazing feeling. No city sound, just wild. It smelled unlike anything I have ever smelt. Such isolation; no people around for miles. Was it worth this trip? Of course, assuming I made it back. You obviously know I made it back.
I’d Like A Side of Where’s Dundee When You Need Him
I looked at the sun, realizing if I was to make it back to camp before sun down, I’d need to leave my new bliss right now. So, I ate what little trail mix I had left, sipped the water, and took off. With the sun behind me, I decided to walk faster when the ground was smoother to speed up the journey. I also held the stick to my side, keeping it off the ground unless needed. Understand I was nearly barefoot, which requires a slightly different walking style that is not necessarily faster. But it was easier to move faster on certain ground surfaces. And it was quieter. MUCH quieter. What I didn’t realize is the quieter walking was actually dooming me for a surprise.
Within a fourth of a mile on my journey back, I rounded past a tall bush, walking silently, and the biggest alligator I have ever seen was just on the other side of it. It didn’t hear me and I DEFINITELY didn’t see him. Well, until it was five feet from me. The guy was easily my size PLUS the tail made it a good 12 feet and I only noticed him when he quickly shot off into a full belly flop in the water.
That made me jump and my heart race like nothing ever before it. I simply could not believe there were alligators this size out there, let alone that close to me right then. Maybe my shoes scared it off? I mean, who knows if he had ever seen a pair of Vibrams Five Fingers before? Joking aside, I needed to calm down or it would make me even thirstier.
I had just seen a monster in my life, not just on a movie screen. But it happens, I guess… I did realize at that instant, though, that it was not only I that was afraid of the animals, it was the animals that were also afraid of me. Even at that size, I scared the bejesus out of a beast that has been around since T Rex days, only the alligator survived when the T-Rex didn’t.
With that thought, I decided to go a little faster. The Five Fingers KSOs made this possible. I noticed that as I started to speed up, that the ground became less sensitive. The previous night and earlier day walk seemed to be a wake up call to my feet’s many nerve endings. They were thanking me for not forgetting them before I died.
The run in all of the uneven ground and different textures was a breeze and very fun. A new experience completely. I was ninja running and it is amazing how quiet this is in comparison to my shoe sounds during the Miami Marathon a few weeks prior: bump, skip, scoot, with thoughts then of “why do my knees hurt, why are my feet and toenails hurting?” There I go again not paying attention to the other things in life. I rounded another tree and BAM: yet another THE biggest alligator I have ever seen appeared out of nowhere, this time it was facing me! I quickly flipped my stick to point towards it like a spear, finishing my breath slowly.
I was surprisingly attentive and calm. The gator similarly turned as quickly as possible and dived into the water (this one did not belly flop; it was more elegant, probably female). What surprised me most about this few minutes later episode was that my heart did NOT start beating more. My alertness became intensely focused. I had realized I had my stick to keep my distance to any possible threat. I had a knife for emergencies. I don’t know if that was considered an emergency, but once again it was I that scared the alligator. I was not scared and in fact, never scared again. Kind of…
I started running with the stick to my side, both hands on it, like a javelin or spear. The ninja sneak of this last alligator incident was simply too quiet. I didn’t want to startle a possible alligator mommy protecting her babies because I was doing the ninja dance.
I also started making a double clicking sound with my mouth anytime I would see a tree opening far ahead or any areas that were not easy to see, as it seemed to give the gators and other wild life a sure warning that I was coming. I would drag my stick and hit it on the ground as well, which altogether scared off at least 30 land bound alligators on my way back. Seems they all came out at the same time that day, all working on their tans, or something.
A weird sensation had come over me being out there all alone. I cannot quite explain it, but I’m sure it had to do with having some fear of the unknown AND known in me, then suddenly becoming free of it, all the while running in complete wild isolation WITH no water. It was pretty amazing. And then I finally reached the camp site with the tents. Well, after this crescendo.
Cheshire Cat Flavored Gatorade
I wasn’t sure how far I had run. I wasn’t thirsty, thankfully. The sun was starting to set and I knew I had to be near the tents, which meant food and water and rest. And a tail. There was a TAIL on the trail. Sticking about 3 feet in on this 10 foot wide trail. What was it attached to? You guessed it, alligator.
I saw only a tail and it had to be a good 6 feet total. Problem was, there was some tall grass and a tree size bush in the way of my view of its body. AND I had already done my noises and dragged the stick and slammed it on the ground to scare off this 33rd alligator of the day. Yet no budge. I wondered if it was dead. Doubtful, but the tail was curved which means it could have been staring at me from through the grass, waiting for me to get closer before it charged, or whatever they do when planning a semi-covert gator attack.
Once I shut up with my successful up until now scare tactics, it was quiet. The alligator hadn’t moved an inch. It was way too quiet. Things had just gotten intense. I didn’t know what to do. And I figured that my little display of “I’m coming through, move it!” crazyman in a hat with a stick and crazy shoes only heightened its stress. And the fact that all of the other gators before it had ran off like scaredy cats, made me especially nervous in making this decision, which really was not a decision at all. I was not going back. Where would I go back to anyways?
The path was about 10 feet wide like I said, with trees on the right side. Gator on the left. It had picked the one place on the trail that had no shoulder. Great. There was only one choice and it was going forward, even if I had to run full speed and vault the tail with my stick.
With the stick ready, and my knife unsnapped, I took my breaths, keeping my entire being calm. I realized there was no need to add anymore to the situation. Animals like calm. That means there is no threat to them. So I started to walk as far right of the tail as I could, which was maybe 7 feet away. Understand that is not very far, like if I laid down and put my arms out.
Always, I walked calmly and normal like, ready for anything as its body slowly became visible. My heart was racing! The gator was lying parallel to the trail, nose facing the opposite of my current direction. As I slowly passed it, it’s face came into view. Its eye black and wide open, staring at me, unblinking. Everything was in slow mo. It’s body was unmoving. All I could hear was my breath, slow and steady. Was it mad? I stepped by with one more passing step, wondering if this was a mirage or a hallucination due to dehydration in the still heat. “We’re all mad here,” I swear it was saying to me. It’s mouth long and turned upwards at its cheek. The alligator was smiling at me.
This final alligator knew something that most did not.
The Everglades are not man’s territory.
The whole world is not man’s territory.
But it is not the animals’ territory either.
It is all of ours.
And that is important to remember.
Thanks for the reminder buddy.
The Never Everglades Serenades
Part 1: The Alligator That Smiled At Me
Part 3: The Peaceful Canoe Trip That Wasn’t: Day 2