My uncle’s been in town for the holidays, and he’s an avid bird watcher and photographer. As in, can identify a speckled marsh grouse on the wing, and owns seriously heavy lenses that he can afix to his massive, matte black camera. So it was a natural move to take him down to the Everglades National Park and walk around.
That happened today.
We piled into the car and roared south on the Turnpike, leaving behind the glittering towers of South Beach and the golden sands for the Homestead area. This was the part of Florida that got torn to pieces by Hurricane Andrew in ’93. Think massive, open fields of strawberries and beans. Think roadside fruit stands, houses with huge compounds around them. Big sky country, pick up trucks and gas stations. We drove right through it and West to the entrance to the park, and then eased on in.
It was an overcast day. We’d hidden around 1pm in a Mexican restaurant hidden in a strip mall, sipping orchata and eating fajitas as we waited for a shower to pass. I burned my mouth with truly hot salsa, the kind of burn you can ameliorate for a few moments with a mouthful of something cool, but which comes smoldering back as soon as you swallow. The food was pretty good though.
Into the park we went, to the Anhinga Trail. Cameras and binoculars around our necks, we set off, walking on a raised boardwalk above the dark waters and vegetation. The water was absolutely clear, but like tea it seemed opaque till something swam into view just below you. Green Herons, Anhingas, alligators, turtles and an endless variety of fish were everywhere. We wandered, lost behind our cameras, splitting up early on. If you paused and closed your eyes, you could hear the silence disolve into a muted and distant cacophony of bird calls, splashes, wind passing through the sawgrass and plops of water. Distant, ragged storm clouds dragged their way restlessly before the horizon, and though it threatened rain it never fell.
Several hours later, eyes strained from manually focusing my camera for so long, we convened and stretched our backs, laughed and compared notes. Had I seen the alligator, posed as if aware of the photographers who gawked and pointed at it, perched up high on that hummock? Had he seen that anhinga battering the gare fish to death for five minutes and then flipping it high into the air to swallow, velociraptor style?
We piled back into the car. Drove off, and stopped at Robert Was Here, a covered fruit market just by the park’s entrance which a friend had demanded I stop at in order to try their juices. While we waited in line, a old man of particular gentleness struck up a tune on his guitar and harmonica, and began to play before a microphone. A couple, passing by, paused, and I saw that he was blind, and she was tender and held him close. Together, as one, they began to dance, slow dancing by themselves, their faces suffused with a quiet joy, cane held to one side, shuffling in gradual circles as the man sang his quiet tunes. They’re in love, I remembered thinking.
Leaning against the car hood later, downing our fruit smoothies (that were indeed incredibly, startlingly delicious – I had strawberry/passion fruit) we saw a Model T parked to one side, with an realistic dummy seated behind the wheel. It was an old, old man, asleep with his mouth comically open, a tiny radio pressed to his ear despite the live music. People were gathered about the Model T, taking pictures of him. We chuckled.
“A wax dummy,” said my uncle.
“Yep,” I said.
The dummy lifted its arm and scratched mechanically at its faded, synthetic looking cheek.
“Ah,” said my uncle with calm assurance. “An advanced model. Animatronics.”
I nodded, increasingly uncertain. A pause, and then the dummy shifted the radio to the other hand, scratched its cheek, yawned, and returned to its former position. My uncle and I stared at each other, and then piled back into the car, and fled the dusk, back north, towards the city, the glittering towers of South beach and the golden sands.
(Click here to see a handful of the photographs I took today. And yeah, that’s an alligator tail in the photograph up top.)