The Everglades

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A brown pelican aloft above Jewell Key in the Florida Everglades

Probably the first thing I ever got serious about was playing the drums. The interest initially came about because of friends; I remember the music teacher visiting our fifth grade classroom, demonstrating various instruments, and while I liked the trumpet, my friends signed up for the drums, so I did, too. I took lessons for one year, then moved from Baltimore to the suburbs of Chicago, starting middle school. The drums were the only interest I really knew how to take with me, and I clung on to them during that difficult social transition (new city, no friends, right at the start of adolescence), so I signed up for band. Within the year I was pretty obsessed. I’ve played the drums ever since, even deep into my thirties, and while I was never dedicated enough to try to make a livelihood of it, playing the drums has been one of my greatest joys in life, and it has definitely had a profound impact on my mind and the way I organize my universe.

Which is to say, it has made me think about nearly everything as bound to a rhythm. This is undoubtedly true about my writing, and the drums are probably the reason I became a poet. But it is also everywhere else. In working life, it defined my daily routines, the process of making coffee and breakfast, of catching certain buses, the flow of emails and reports, of meetings and casual conversations, the rhythms of computers and the dance-like navigation of interfaces, buildings, and streets; it organizes the energy of a week, the goals of a month, and the meaningfulness of a year. An ingrained sense of rhythm is probably why I’ve always felt so comfortable in the Midwest, with its well-defined seasons and associated cultural calendars. Of course, I have no special claim to rhythmic thinking―maybe just that I have been especially sensitive to it―and in fact I think of rhythm, patterning, and beat, with their emphasis on anticipation and memory, as a universal human expression. They are forms of time travel. The next time you listen to your favorite song, feel yourself waiting for the chorus (or simply clap your hands on the downbeats and feel what lapses in between): that held breath, that attendance. You are living in the now, the then, and the will be all at once. You are transcending time in a special way. You are, as many might say, in the groove.

Traveling on this trip has overturned my sense of rhythm. It’s been one of the more surprising elements, even as I have been anticipating its dynamic. I’ve made numerous lists of daily routines to keep me “regular,” and I’ve barely followed them. My waking and sleeping times have been affected by shifting time zones and whatever schedules are dictated by the cities I’ve been in and the people whom I’ve been with. I can go a whole day just eating snacks, or I can have three huge meals, and for the most part it all feels the same. I’ve been undercaffeinated and overcaffeinated; I’ve been hungover, exuberant, or focused seemingly at random. For money and crowd reasons, my wife and I have inverted our weeks, going out on Mondays and Tuesdays and staying in on the weekends (though even that, too, is changing now that we are here in New Orleans, hosting groups of friends every weekend). I feel like my fingernails and beard are growing more quickly, in need of more frequent grooming. I’ve been cycling my clothes differently, more like backpacking, with daytime and nighttime outfits I wear through a succession of days (it’s easier this way living out of a bag), so outfits have started to define little periods of three or four days. Waiting out an additional ten minutes on the clothes dryer in the garage of our rental can feel interminable, and yet days on the road feel like a passing thought, a small dream of podcasts and traffic and variously clouded skies, of gas station picnics and hurried campstove dinners under dusk and then headlamp. I’m a week late in getting to these writings, and even now paused them to talk with some friends for half an hour. New friends arrive in New Orleans tomorrow. Mardi Gras is less than two weeks away. In four days we will have been on the road for two months.

We spent our first few days in Florida staying with my wife’s parents in their new condominium in North Naples. It was great to be there with them in the newness of their retirement winter home in the very midst of its final touches, and while we went out for happy hours, the beach, and even dancing, a lot of our time was sharing in our sort of mutual retirements, getting acquainted with new routines, a new home, really a new sense of living (less new for them, to be sure). I have been thinking a lot about one specific aspect of their renovations: when we first arrived in Naples, they had just put their kitchen shelves up and were frustrated by delays with their counter-top installation, which was supposed to have been complete by our arrival but was not. We spent a few days pretty much without a kitchen, eating sandwiches and washing our dishes in the bathroom sink, then my wife and I left for five days to paddle the Everglades, and when we returned the counter tops had been installed. I felt a domestic meaningfulness to that magical appearance, as though the ability to cook in that kitchen underscored something my wife and have been cultivating for a long time.

We joke, though I think with considerable truth, that we were able to save for this yearlong trip simply by eating-in all the time. Being on the road, we’ve been learning the ropes of our new food routines, and it has felt good being in apartments in Nashville and now New Orleans, not only to be able to cook but to plan a week’s worth of meals, to be more deliberate and joyful about going out to eat and not just needing to grab fast food (though a veggie burger in a brewery you’ve never heard of is often both quite reliable!). I have much more to say about this, about grocery and market shopping across the country, regional cuisine and the way foods signal heritage or gentrification, about our own mobile kitchen and pantry, our evolving cache of homemade dehydrated backpacking food (our food dehydrator rides in the roofbox of our car), and more, all for a different set of posts, and hopefully with input from my wife, the executive chef of our lives. For now just to say that I very much think of our time in Naples with my wife’s folks as characterized by the inability and then ability to use a kitchen.

What I want to talk about now is wilderness. Much of the later months of our trip will be defined by wilderness, and in many ways this is seasonally deliberate. That Carnival takes place in February only helped cement the plan that we would spend our urban time (and accommodations budget) during the winter and spring months (all of February here in New Orleans; all of April in Los Angeles), and when the north (and the mountains) are gradually opened up by warmer weather, we’d shift modes. But we did want to mix this up a little bit, and next month, March, we’ll be almost entirely on the road, heading through wilderness areas in Texas and the southwest, with trips planned for Big Bend and the Grand Canyon, and probably more trips we’ll improvise along the way (we will also spend some time in cities like Austin). And of course one of the main reasons we went to Florida in January, apart from visiting our family, was to paddle the Everglades, a trip we’ve been thinking about for many years now.

I have been bewitched by wilderness for, well, all my life, but especially the last five years or so, right when we started thinking about going to Alaska (which we did in 2016, and we will do again this year). It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to move to Seattle (along with poetry and an incredible opportunity with my favorite press), and during this span of time we’ve gone backpacking at least once a month (during the summer nearly every weekend). My enthusiasm for wilderness during our sabbatical is so great I have to manage it, try not to get obsessed looking at topo maps for a trip four months from now when I should be planning the upcoming week. I had thought of this time in the Everglades as something of a prelude, but I was kind of wrong to think that way. It was itself, it’s own thing, full of surprises, lessons, and other communications, some of which seemed to resonate with the imaginary of our future wilderness trips and others that stood obstinately apart. It forced us to be present to itself as ourselves with an especially demanding attention―not just present to the moment and its qualities (weather, distance, etc) but present to our own assumptions, applicable and nonapplicable knowledge and skills, satisfactory or unsatisfactory research (ask me where Crooked Creek chickee is sometime), our own energy or fatigue.
Coming from Naples, our obvious put-in would be the Gulf Coast side, near Everglades City and Chokoloskee. Permits at Everglades National Park are all first-come, first-served, but the only real anxiety we had was securing chickees―elevated wooden platforms scattered throughout the remote backwater mangrove labyrinths, a unique and wonderful camping experience (and with tight quotas, since you can only fit two parties on each). We had rented a long, aluminum canoe (read: a slow tank) months in advance, but didn’t know what our route would be until the day before, when we woke up early and drove the hour south, watching the primrose sunrise scatter egrets and pelicans across the low-lying swamps of Big Cypress, arriving to a fairly empty backcountry office and our pick of camps. With high winds the first couple of days (and upon the recommendation of the ranger), we opted to start in the backwaters, camping two nights on the chickees as we paddled south along the wilderness waterway, emerging then into the open bay (with now calmer winds) where we paddled out to some of the farther keys to camp on remote beaches nearly to ourselves, slowly heading back north and then east into the passes of the Ten Thousand Islands to complete our loop.

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Our route

Apart from unusually cold weather the first few nights (which we were hardly bothered by given all of our mountain experience) everything went almost 100% to spec. The largest challenge of the trip was marine navigation, which we have pretty much zero experience with. If you can read a USGS topo map then you can read a NOAA chart (swapping out contour lines for water depths), though doing so with a partner while also trying to keep on bearings in high winds and not run a-shoal on low tides in the very shallow Everglades will test any newbie (and any marriage). Not to mention the fact that islands and passages can hide behind each other in ways that mountains have more difficulty with (being so tall and noticeable!), so you really have to navigate by bearing (or GPS location, as we ended up doing). Paddling is also a different kind of exertion than hiking, and in tides, currents, and winds, your sense of progress, pace, and rhythm can get fairly messed up. A head wind, for instance, blowing ripples toward you along the surface of the water, will make it look like you are cruising forward, when in fact you are barely moving. A tailwind, just by virtue of its insistence, will make you feel like you are struggling, when in fact it’s assisting you mightily. Any seasoned paddler has a good feel for these things, but we are not exactly seasoned paddlers. And need I repeat: we were in a canoe, a fact that gave pause to most of the few people we encountered (in fact, we only saw one other group of canoeists the entire time).

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Triple checking the GPS that that is, in fact, Pavilion Key, before we paddle across the open water.

Overall, though, these were enjoyable challenges, and they reminded us helpfully of the fact that, while not tucked high up in mountains, the Everglades are still a remote and rugged place (as it happens, a kayaker got lost and stranded for several days during the same week we were there; he was safely rescued). They are true wilderness, an important and fragile one, home to a wonderful community of alligators, sharks, rays, dolphins, lizards, crabs, raccoon, and especially fish, and especially especially, birds. We encountered all of these creatures almost constantly. The sound of brown pelicans splashing noisily into the waters, or of dolphin exhaling wet gustos of breath, or mullet fish leaping and plopping in goofy rhythms all around our chickees (shining a headlamp on them makes them freak out even more), or the morning cacophony of roosting ibis, became the backdrop noise of our time there, like the sounds of traffic or construction. The diversity reminded us―in a way that the even the dense and lush forest of the Pacific Northwest haven’t quite done―of what is at stake in our changing world. The spirit of a mountain forest surrounds you, but apart from the occasional visit from a jay or a bear or even a herd of elk, the forest feels for the most part only barely populated. A great forest is more like a temple than a city, and in many ways that’s why I love them. But the Everglades, and the transitional marine environment they encompass, is indeed a city, chock full of inhabitants. Every single mullet fish that lept, every gull or pelican that swooped down in front of us, had a remarkably perceptible intentionality, a purpose, a pursuit, a narrative, a life and above all a dignity in that life. Egrets standing tall on the hunt above the shallows in which they wade, leaping sting rays, the arcing paths of sharks’ dorsal fins, dolphins cruising the shorelines in small groups, even lone gators sunning on a haul-out―all of these actions increasingly imparted to me this sense of dignity. And while it felt so abundant, it also felt so fragile, as I know these areas are one of the front-lines of climate change. Traveling from Florida to New Orleans along the gulf, spending time on the thin barrier islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and, just last week, Grand Isle here in Louisiana, that sense of fragility was even more stark. These are places that will be the first to be erased by rising seas. They are extraordinary places, rookeries and harbors, long, singular extensions that bring land and sea together in wild, wind-swept communion. They will be in my imagination, now, forever.

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Entering the backwaters via the Turner River.

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An elegantly preening ibis perched among the mangrove roots.

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Crooked Creek chickee.

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Smiling alligator. Shot from our chickee on Sweetwater Bay.

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How low can this pelican go? Just offshore of Jewell Key.

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One of the more perfect sunsets on remote Pavilion Key.

You can view a full set of our Everglade (with a few other places) photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/YMO-2nYDQ8ymVkN9NYcbNA.AwCXYJMBS3jO3QIDi0c3uG

―February 13, New Orleans, LA

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