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Editor’s note: Last month, journalist and photographer Anthony C. LoBaido toured the Florida Keys and Florida Everglades.
FLAMINGO, Everglades National Park, Fla. – Statistics show that over 900 people move to Florida every day, while up to 30 million people have visited the Sunshine State during the course of a single year. Yet relatively few of those untold millions will make the journey required to understand the remoteness of Flamingo, which lay waiting at the very tip of the Everglades.
Getting to the Everglades today might not seem terribly difficult. But that is only because of the work of a man named Barron Collier. A true genius of business, advertising, land development and later philanthropy, the journey to the Everglades was made possible through the building of Collier’s baby, the “Tamiami Trail.” Stretching from Tampa to Miami and beyond, the road required 2,584,000 sticks of dynamite. Consider that if every stick of dynamite had been lined up next to the another, they would have stretched from Tampa Bay to San Francisco Bay.
Beyond the Everglades, the Florida Keys are magnificent in their own right – a truly unique beach archipelago treasured by distinguished visitors like Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, JFK and Jimmy Carter. This is no doubt because of the Keys’ warm waters, wonderful weather and great fishing. It is believed that Ernest Hemmingway wrote “A Farwell to Arms” while visiting the Keys. Taming the Keys rivaled the building of the Tamiami Trail or the Alcan Highway from Canada on through to Alaska. The railroad from Homestead, Fla., to Key West took 20,000 men and half a billion dollars in today’s money. Men died from snakebites, alligator and crocodile attacks. Hundreds died in a terrible hurricane, which occurred of course before space age weather forecasting. Ironically, the hurricane hit on Labor Day. The railway was augmented and superseded eventually by U.S. Route 1.
So bad were working conditions in building the railroad to Key West that drunks on skid row were literally picked up off the streets of cities in the Northeast and sent down to work on the project. (They received $1.25 per day for their efforts.) So brutal and long was the project that workers at Camp 10 said, “This job is turning into a real marathon.” The name stuck, which is why Marathon, Fla., graces the map today.
Key West is the southernmost city in the continental U.S., a tourist Mecca and the home to an important Navy Air training station. Back in the time of the Spanish-American War, Key West had been the most populated and richest city in all of Florida.
Long Key, Fla. (All photos by Anthony C. LoBaido)
Yet Flamingo was and a remains a very different bird than Key West. It wasn’t that long ago that this region was the consummate “No Man’s Land.” The earliest pioneers of Flamingo had wanted to name the town “The End of the World.” A century ago, Flamingo was a remote outpost featuring the wildest, most rugged of natural beauty on Earth – a place not unlike Djibouti for French Foreign Legionnaires or the South Atlantic island of South Georgia for whale hunters. The town was comprised of outlaws, renegades, madmen and outcasts of every sort.
It is said that if cows and mules were left out at night, the next morning they would be found dead from mosquito bites. On one occasion, 400 cats were brought in from Key West to kill off an exploding rat population. Apparently, the rats had been busy gorging on sugarcane meant for the production of moonshine. The cats killed the rats as required. Then all of them ran off into the brush in a mass suicide.
Indeed, this was a region so rugged that 50,000 hardened U.S. soldiers couldn’t defeat 1,800 American Indian Seminole warriors, who were no doubt aided by their knowledge of their brutal surroundings. In fact, the Seminoles survived three wars against the U.S. government and remain unconquered to this very day. They are best remembered through the great athletic achievements of Florida State University in Tallahassee, which bears the Seminole name with pride. The worst memories, beyond the Indian Wars, are the way the Seminole continue to make headlines in the major newspapers concerning alleged corruption and lavish expenditures from casino revenue. You’ll be criticized for doing the Tomahawk Chop at an Atlanta Braves game, but if you make the same motion at a slot machine, you’ll be more than welcome.
While Key West has kept pace with modern times, including its own international airport, Flamingo still ranks as the ultimate and final outpost of Florida and one of the most secluded destinations still available to American and global tourists.
At night, in Flamingo the stars gleam with archetype Outback clarity. You can actually see the curvature of the Milky Way Galaxy, a plethora of shooting stars, as well as the orbit of various satellites. The Big Dipper seems so close, as if you could just grab the handle and boil a pot of water over your campfire. While camping in the harsh conditions of Flamingo, it’s not hard to see why the ancient Egyptians believed the Milky Way was the reflection of the Nile River in the sky. Unless you’re in the Great Namib Desert of Southwest Africa/Namibia, or the Kalahari or the Gobi, it’s hard to find such elite stargazing potential.
Sunrise at Flamingo
If you’re willing to endure cold showers, brisk winds, vultures, flies, mosquitoes and other insects, you’re sure to be overwhelmed by the sunrises, sunsets, pink flamingos, coastal prairie, pine and dwarf cypress forests, as well as the sight of magnificent hawks flying by with the sound of “whoosh” as they flap their wings. The hiking trails are spectacular, as are the airboat rides. The white, red and black mangroves still inspire special visions of what remains a nearly impenetrable wilderness. The crocodiles are perfect eating machines, and like the shark unchanged through millions of years of so-called “evolution.” (“In the beginning there was nothing … which promptly exploded.”)
Despite its grandeur, the plain truth is that the Everglades are on life support. The natural ecosystem (now claimed by the United Nations as one of its own “Biosphere” crown jewels), which drained south from Lake Okeechobee, has now suffered interference from urban sprawl around the south of the lake. Mercury contamination is a problem, as is an invasive ivy species. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to restore the Everglades has come under fire. Scientists disagree on how best to protect this “River of Grass.”
Pumping in polluted water from the lake is not considered a viable, long-term solution by some of the best scientific minds in the nation. Nevertheless, billions of dollars have been appropriated for the Everglades Restoration Project, and much is riding on its success. Beyond that, Katrina and Wilma did more than just terrify the local population as parts of Flamingo were submerged under eight feet of water. A major hotel project was wiped out, as if the old spirits of the Seminole had cursed the phoenix-like rise of such eyesores and creature comforts. Today, the abandoned hotel project stands terribly out of place as a pink elephant.
Why did the alligator cross the road? It hissed at me before crawling back into the Everglades.
The vast bird, panther and reptile life is now fully and thankfully protected. Not many people know that at the turn of the 20th century, egret plumes were worth more per ounce than gold. This was because they were extremely popular for upscale ladies’ hats. Like the koalas of Australia, the egrets were hunted in such horrendous numbers that one man felt compelled to set up a refuge for them.
Conservation efforts for the Everglades received a boost from the gifted photographer Claude Matlack, who captured the natural beauty in a way that caught the imagination of the public. If the written word is mankind’s greatest invention, then still and motion picture images may rival fire and ice on the list of greatness. From Iwo Jima to Saigon to Abu Ghraib, the past three generations of Americans have seen how a single photograph can influence the destiny of wars, nations and entire regions.
In the Everglades, it’s truly man vs. nature. The custom license plate on your SUV can’t help you. While you can see the aforementioned orbiting satellites at night, there’s no cell phone signal. The material comforts of Miami or Naples won’t be your touchtone.
This spectacular stretch of land is truly the most American of places, rivaling the Canyonlands and Arches of Utah, the Grand Tetons, the northern lights of Alaska and the giant redwoods of California. Along the way you’ll encounter strange sights (alligators on the middle of the road), crocodiles that will hunt and try to eat you, and strange names (Rowdy Bend, Dildo Key Bay, Midway, Monroe Station). Despite the hardships, bumps, scrapes, bites, sunburn and rough nights of fitful sleep you’ll endure along the way, there’s no question that time spent in this region of the world must rank as an indelible imprint upon the human spirit.
Like Nepal, Jordan, Southern Africa and Guatemala, it is a photographer’s paradise. It is my great hope that you will enjoy the photographs I have assembled from the Everglades and the Keys, and that they will inspire you to visit this truly magical place.
Note: To see LoBaido’s photos from this photo shoot go to his blog.