Loop Road: A Last Stand Journey

 

By Peter B. Gallagher



 

                BIG CYPRESS SWAMP -- The most remote road in Florida is actually a battleground.

            For 26 steel belt-crunching miles, the legendary Loop Road meanders through Florida’s last frontier: a gurgling water soaked nether world between the civilization of cars and commerce along the Tamiami Trail and the jungle-jabbered southern edge of mainland Florida. Battle scars of conflict haunt every godforsaken mile.

Blazed as a hunting path by hardy pioneers more than 75 years ago, the Loop Road begins and ends on the Trail (U.S. 41), looping through the darkest fragment of the historic Big Cypress basin. Sometimes gravel, sometimes asphalt, most of the Loop is maintained by the National Park Service as part of its 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve – watershed for next-door Everglades National Park.

 And therein lies the main conflict:

The feds, as the Loop Road locals call the Park Service, are locked in a war of “rights” with a vanishing breed of rugged individualists making a last defiant stand in these holiest of wilderness lands. Thirty years of environmental regulations, watershed protection, wildlife laws and the like have stalled their swamp buggies, silenced their hunting rifles, opened their secret world to outsiders and so tamed their traditions, the last stand is kicking and fighting to survive.

“Lousy government intervention so folks from Michigan can see the swamp without getting wet,” is the way a swamp bard named Joe Lord once described the “cleaned up” Loop Road. “Next thing you know they’ll put a Grand Canyon in here like they did in Colorado.”

            The Loop Road wanders through an area once so foreboding, it’s on the list of places where Jimmy Hoffa might be buried. Al Capone had a speakeasy and hunting camp out here during prohibition. You can still see the steps leading up to the front door. Miami fiddler Erwin T. Rouse wrote the “Orange Blossom Special” out here at a joint called Gator Hook Saloon reachable only by airboat. You can still see those steps, too, among hundreds of empty whiskey and beer bottles roasting in the muck.

Elaborate hunting camps – some four-bedroom concrete blockhouses – required fat-wheeled swamp buggies to visit. Settlers were scattered like shotgun shot all through the area. There were lumber camps, cattle pastures, vegetable farms, grass airstrips and oil explorations. Tough women vied for the coveted “Miss Wild Hog” title at an annual festival.

This was your classic lawless Florida wilderness, an area where even Big Foot just wanted to be left alone. Dead gators on the road covered with vultures. Drive around them; they ain’t movin’. Dead gators hanging from hooks baited with meat the poachers’ hung over canals. Huge potholes of washed-out lime rock, three feet deep. With alligator garfish swimming in them.  Abandoned burnt-out cars in the middle of the road. Rumors of black jaguarondis escaped from the circus. Flying saucer sightings. The sound of gunshots and the occasional woman’s scream. Or was that the wail of a limpkin? 

Today, however, Loop Road is relatively safe for pantywaist tourists to transverse, or stop to picnic, or snap digitals of raccoons. Shorty-short joggers run this road, now, for God’s sake! European bicyclists zoom past cypress domes where Florida panthers, commonly sighted, peer from the brush. It remains one of the least-traveled designated scenic routes in the National Park System. The Florida (hiking) Trail begins here – at the Loop Road’s southernmost point -- and zigzags north through the “ Unit” -- up the old Sawmill Road tracks and through Roberts Lake Strand to the Oasis Visitor Station on U.S. 41. An 8.3-mile (six-eight hour) trip considered the scariest sector of the 1300-mile state Trail.

“I think its because you’re in calf deep water most of the way. It’s hard to see what you’re stepping on.  One or two places it’s hip deep,” says Chuck Wilson, with the Florida Trail Association. “Personally I don’t think it’s too dangerous. I’m very comfortable out there. The gators and snakes have hundreds of square miles to roam around in; they stay away from people if they can. ”

Loop Road was originally named Chevalier Road after an early pioneer Frenchman; local rednecks quickly chose to call it Chevrolet Road, a name still preferred by old-timers to this day.  Ivory-billed woodpeckers were seen more often than tourists in those days. But today the Loop Road has been genteeled. Park rangers patrol the road, keep the brush from growing out to car-scratch length, keep all terrain vehicles in designated areas and generally maintain control in a lawandordered way the folks who first settled these parts were desperately trying to avoid. 

 When the Big Cypress Preserve was first established in the early 70s, the government went about the transition with a particularly heavy hand: pushed by environmentalists worried about the panther and other endangered species, the feds cleaned house: they burned out historic hunting camps, arrested drug smuggling good ole boys and gave petty “no license” tickets to old folks fishing the clear tea-stained water for gar, bass, cichlid, oscar and mudfish. Other than a few homesteads exempted by the new law, most private property was condemned and reclaimed.

Tragically rent asunder was a unique Florida cultural lifestyle still smoldering in ruins today. A trip along the Loop Road carries one through the sadness of the pioneer’s loss. Yes, it appears unspoiled, but gone is the “edge” – the special network of backwoods Florida humanity that flourished in these parts. Locals describe a bucolic world against the harsh swamp backdrop: the beauty of a clear Big Cypress night, the purple petals of a swamp sabatia, the Thanksgiving family reunions, the thrill of the gator, deer and bear hunts, that earthy smell missing in town. Several tiny thriving communities – there were even school bus stops on the Loop Road – all memories now. 

Best place to start a trip on the Loop Road is from the west end, about a half hour from the far outskirts of Naples. Look for the Monroe Station road sign, just up the road from the world’s smallest post office in Ochopee. At the entrance stands a ghostly whitewashed building, windows boarded up -- the legendary Lord’s Station, where Joe Lord and his wife operated the only place to get gas, food, or use a telephone between Naples and Miami. With his battered cowboy hat and bantam rooster ways, Joe articulated the anger of the swamp pioneers to all who cared to listen.

Then the feds came in, closed down Joe’s gas pumps in the early 80s (pollution) and the Lords left town, never to be heard from again. Deemed too termite ridden to preserve, the Park Service seems uninterested in the historic way station. Boat trailers, port-o-potties and dump trucks are unceremoniously stored there. “ I talked to one of the rangers about Monroe Station and he said they are waiting for a hurricane to come along and blow it down so they can get rid of it,” says Big Cypress historian Jack Moller. “They spent your tax dollars buying it and let it get into this condition, now they just want to get rid of it. The Big Cypress Swamp will lose more of its traditional use and history when it goes.”

As you turn south onto the Loop Road, your cell phone suddenly won’t work. You begin in Collier County, ride through a portion of Monroe County, skirt the edge of the Miccosukee Indian reservation and emerge back onto US 41 in Dade County. The speed limit is 25 for most of the trip. To go much faster can ruin the underpinnings of your vehicle and the ability to see wildlife. About 16 gravel miles into the trip, the road suddenly becomes asphalt for the last ten miles. One lane means you hug the side, tighten butt muscles and squint when approached by a vehicle from the other direction.

 Peer through the fussy edge growth at postcard dwarf cypress prairies, covered by yellow wildflowers in spring. Fabulous pine ridges, eerie buttonwood swamps and the deep bald cypress strands that cover one-third of the preserve all flash by your window. Sandy slash pine islands, mixed hardwood hammocks, wet and dry prairies, brackish estuarine mangrove forests. Hawks, owls, tree snails and bromeliads in the trees.  Broad sweeping, limitless horizons.  Mysterious enveloping jungle swamps. It is, of course, the slightly raised terrain, and requisite standing water, that separates the Big Cypress Swamp from the Everglades and its constantly flowing river of grass.

Birds are everywhere, especially in the winter months (January – March) when Loop Road is an international destination for bird watchers. Egrets, herons, wood storks, eagles, warblers, kingfishers, ibis, pileated woodpeckers, spoonbills, purple gallinules, anhingas, limpkin and all manner of birds of prey -- even a large crow that will fly behind your car for half a mile waiting for something edible or shiny to fly out the window. This is a photographer’s paradise.

You can see the Loop Road Education Center, walk the Tree Snail Hammock Nature Trail and witness what’s left of the tiny community of Pinecrest, stuck in time. You’ll probably see folks cane pole fishing waving at you to slow down, so the lime-dust won’t blotz them. “If I was wet, I’d be concrete,” yelled one character. You might stop the car to watch a great blue heron waltz miraculously through a maze of cypress knees. Shut off the engine and you are struck by the quiet. It’s an uncommon quiet that hangs on the Loop Road -- the sort of lonesome quiet that comes over a man just prior to a surprise bear attack. In fact, the largest black bear in the country was killed not far from here.

You get back in the car. You don’t come through here at night.

The last two miles of the eastern Loop Road skirts along a Miccosukee Indian residential area. It looks like some sort of bizarre sports neighborhood. Many of the cookie-cutter HUD-designed homes carry a definite Miami Dolphin/Miami Hurricane football team flair. Team colors -- green and orange -- and team jersey numbers are everywhere; one access road is even named Ricky Williams Dr. after the popular Dolphins running back. Long garfish gigs poke out the back of  $50,000 pickups. The casino responsible all of this is a few miles east, its rooftop visible in the far distance, over the stunning, endless, river of grass view visible from most of their back windows.

This area is heavily patrolled by Miccosukee Indian Police, who proudly operate a well-known speed trap here. Though it is an actual County Road (C. R. 94), the Miccosukee often pull over drivers – mostly at night – and interrogate them for “security” reasons.  The Tribe believes the Loop Road presents an opportunity for terrorists to set up surface-to-air missile launchers aimed toward jets approaching Miami International Airport. They are doing their part for homeland security.

Locals, including residents who live on the Loop Road, are often detained on their way home from the store. Most, like Eric Kimmel, consider the Miccosukee actions “harassment” and “a civil rights violation.” Kimmel has complained to Miami-Dade Police, the Park Service, and the Attorney General of Florida. Commissioners, representatives, Congressmen . . . to no avail:

“I know of no other police department in Florida allowed to practice these tactics. Much like the ‘no African Americans in town after dark’ laws of the past, this is extremely prejudicial and wrong. This is America.  I believe that we are supposed to be free to travel on any public road without being subject to unreasonable stops and interrogation regardless of race, creed or culture much less time of day or night.”

The Indians don’t care. Along with their Seminole cousins to the north, these people never signed a peace treaty. They have expensive lawyers and do not hesitate to wield Supreme Court style battles in defense of their sovereignty. Government is wary of spending a lot of money to sooth the irritations of a few Loop Roaders they really don’t want living out there, anyway.

Conflict. The operative word in the taming of South Florida. Man versus nature. Nature versus nature. Man versus man. The grading of a road. The end of an era.

A non-stop Loop Road trip will take you about a leisurely hour. On the east end, you will emerge at Forty mile Bend, where the Tamiami Trail takes a near 90-degree turn directly east, about four miles west of Everglades National Park’s Shark Valley Visitor Center.

Just try to make it out by dark.