A Cracker Boy's Visit Home
My Dad's father and his younger brother, Papaw, and Uncle Ralph, had hunted in "the Glades" every hunting season since shortly after they moved to Miami from Virginia sometime around 1920. My Grandfather hated the cold weather and since there was a building boom going on in south Florida at the time and he was a journeyman carpenter, spent a winter working on some of those fancy hotels and railroad stations. After one winter he wrote my Grandmother and told her to pack up the house and kids. They were going to move to Miami. That he had "carried his last scuttle of coal". They ended up in Coconut Grove near the intersection of SW 32 Ave and Dixie Highway (US 1) where my Dad and Uncle Ralph grew up.
They started taking me when I was 8 years old.       
The last time I was in the woods was about 5 years ago when I was traveling. I used to install machinery for the truss business. They sent me to Naples twice for a week long installation that ended up taking 4 days instead of 5. On the first trip, Friday I took off before sunup and thought I'd cruise down "The Trail" toward Monroe station, if I could find it. I hadn't been in the Glades in about 20 years or so and since we always entered the Loop from the 40 mile bend side, I had only been to Monroe Station once before and that was in about '65. I was only about 12 years old. The lore of the time was that it was a place you could buy gas and get a hamburger, but you didn't want to be there late on a weekend night because the place got pretty rowdy. Anyway I did find it, actually drove past it and had to turn around. Now mind you I'm in a rental car. A Thunderbird I think. I turned down the Loop southbound and just took my sweet time. Now I'm wondering, can I find the dike? My Nephew who just about lives at the camp told me, I remembered, that they had filled the dike ("Paces dike", I come to find out is the name of it) back in. I remember when they dug the thing in the early 70's. What a waste of time and money, not to mention the damage to the woods.
My fears were soon put to rest. A blind man could have found it. There was a swath cut out of the cypress about a hundred (NO exaggeration!) feet wide and as far due south as the eye could see. That had to be it. Talk about damaging the ecosystem!  I'll bet the 50 years plus, Uncle Ralph and later on, the rest of us ran the Jeep (that is what we called the little buggy) in those woods never caused that much damage, all the buggy ruts combined.
I got out of the car and looked around taking all the sights and sounds in. There's nothing that smells like the Glades. Honest to God air plants! Then I got to thinking, I wonder if I could find the camp? Surely this was the dike, I've been to camp a hundred times, (20+ years ago), but I'm sure I could find it. Next thing I know I'm writing a note to put on the dashboard of the car should, God forbid, something should happen and off I go. I was wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a t-shirt. Not the best swamp gear but hey, how many times do you get this chance, if you live 1300 miles from there? I'll be careful.
I walked at a leisurely pace due south down the dike or what used to be a dike. It was early summer and the water most places was 6-8 inches deep. Mostly dry in the pine islands, still wetter than I thought should have been for that time if the year. No matter, it was the glades and those that don't like to get their feet wet should find something else to do, than take a stroll through the Everglades. I walked the 2 1/2 miles or so to where the dike makes a 90 degree bend to the east. That was always our jumping-off point. Then it was about 45 degrees southwest across the edge of the prairie and just 400 yards into the pine Island on the left. The Prairie was pretty well still cut up with buggy ruts so I kept looking behind me in order to stay oriented and not follow the wrong ones out. The woods had changed. The cypress had encroached the east side of the prairie some. There seemed to be more of everything. More cypress, more, taller pines, the palmettos were thicker in the pines. Still there was an unmistakable sameness. In the overview, it looked right.
I turned south again and found "the driveway" to camp. Another 200 feet or so I could see it. Tin roof and long jalousie windows on the west side. No doubt...this was it.
Talk about change. In the 20+ years I had been gone, a lot of improvements had been made. An addition to the main part of the "house" that was an enclosed porch. A second bedroom away from the main sleeping/ area kitchen. The place had been wired for 120 and 12 volt lighting. There was a modern generator taking the place of the ancient one Uncle Ralph had carried out there years ago. It was used mostly for powering the power tools we used to build the place.
The water tower we built out of lighter pine logs was still there and functioning as the main source of water. The pitcher pump was still in the kitchen and used for cooking and washing dishes. Since Uncle Ralph didn't like to run the generator for lights we used the butane gas that supplied the stove and refrigerator and piped in with copper tubing to 2 small wall mounted lamps that had a mantle like a Coleman lantern inside a glass globe. The usual drill was as we unloaded the buggy with that trips provisions, someone would go out to the water tower where on a little platform a gas powered pump was mounted. Fill the gas tank up, and fire the pump up and let it run long enough to fill the tank. Gravity would supply enough water flow to use the kitchen sink and fill the commode in the bathroom. The tank was vented on the top and the trick was to shut off the pump as soon as you got the first few sprinkles of water on you just as the vent starts flowing. A second or two too late and the water would start coming out Hell-bent-for-election and you were going to get wet. We later put a short piece of pipe on it and pointed it away from the pump area. As soon as you saw a stream of water coming out, hit the kill switch.
We always left the door unlocked. Our thinking was that a determined thief would get in by force and that it might be a welcome respite to a lost hunter. We always had a pretty good stock of canned food there just for such an occasion.
Sure enough the door was not locked, I went in and found the place to be much larger that it was. The additions really opened the place up. About then I realized that I was pretty thirsty. We always kept a sealed Tupperware container of water under the kitchen sink to prime the pitcher pup with and sure enough it was still there. Some things never change. I poured the water in the pump and worked the handle a few times and water started coming out. It was a little cloudy at first but it cleared up after just a few more strokes. Got a glass down from the shelf and had the first drink of swamp water I had had in a long time. It tasted great. I was thirsty, true, but it was also a part of the fond memory process. I walked around the place some more and thought that since it was already getting to be mid-afternoon I'd better head back toward the road. I wanted to take my time, absorb everything I could before I got on the plane early the next morning.
I walked out the driveway toward the prairie and must have looked over my shoulder a dozen times. I didn't want to leave. If I could have, I'd have changed my reservation to Sunday, stayed the night and walked out the following morning. But alas, I have a wife and kids in Missouri waiting for me at home.
The walk back was uneventful and I got back to the car an hour or so before dark. I drove back toward Monroe Station the same way I drove in, slow and deliberately. Before I knew it, I was back in the "real" world. 


Story by Hugh Mills
March, 2006

(I was born in Doctor's Hospital in Coral Gables in 1953. We lived on the corner of SW 118th Ave and 45th St. (Miami) At that time that was the boonies. Bird Road (SW 40th St.) stopped at the canal that now runs along the Turnpike between it and 117th Ave. You could turn right down a gravel road that was 117th Ave that would take you to "The Trail" (SW 8th St.) or left and after crossing two wooden one-lane bridges into our neighborhood. That's about as far back as I can remember. Bird Road now goes almost to Krome Avenue now, I think. You need to speak Spanish now to talk to anyone in that area these days, from what I have heard.
Back then, although I didn't realize it then, THAT was the eastern edge of the everglades. Nothing but Maiden Cane and saw grass from 127th Ave west. Houses were dotted along the gravel (think Loop Road) roads where we lived, laid out in a grid pattern. Nobody lived on or owned less than 5 acres or so and most of it was vacant land. I thank God that I grew up in the country . My friends and I built tree houses, went swimming and fishing in the canals. Camping out consisted of just going a 1/2 block or so to the nearest vacant land and pitching a tent, building a fire  and roasting hot dogs taken out of someone's Mom's "ice box". )