[Looking north from Route 80 toward Lake “O”]
The theme of this post is darker than I would like, given that it’s less than three weeks until the joyful time of Christmas. But, I didn’t have a choice. We just crossed on Route 80 this past weekend when we visited friends in Jupiter, FL. The memories are still fresh. And, given the fact that I still have two other non-holiday posts to publish (one is a brief sketch of Edgar “Bloody” Watson–certainly not something to read while trimming the tree), I have to write what I have time to write about. If that makes any sense. Besides, we are rapidly approaching the January 1 date when we will pull out of the Siesta Bay Resort, leave Florida behind us and head north and west for new adventures. I know something interesting and necessary is awaiting me in the Mojave Desert. You’ll just have to keep up with these posts while the holidays come and go. Put me on your gift list–the one to yourself. Okay? So read on, it really isn’t that sad. Oh, one more thing: My next post will be my 300th blog!!! Please share it. Repost it. Enjoy it.
There is a road between Fort Myers, on the Gulf of Mexico and Palm Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean. On a map, it is Route 80. Around Belle Glade, it splits, Route 80 swings slightly north and Route 27 dips to the south. For miles, this road skirts an impressive levee. This is the Hoover Dike. To the north of this levee lies a very large body of fresh water. Lake Okeechobee. Lake “O”, provides the water for the Big Cypress National Refuge and, further to the south, the Everglades.
On more than one occasion, Lake “O” has broken through its containment wall. Before Herbert Hoover had the present levee built, it was fairly common for the land south of the lake to suffer major destruction from hurricanes–or just heavy rains. Thousands of farmers were drowned since the area became populated by whites late in the 19th century. The Seminoles had been driven south into the ‘glades after years of futile wars were fought to force them to move westward.
Today, it is the center of the sugar empire of central Florida. Today, I drove through Clewiston and Belle Glade. I felt the darkness of the soil begin to permeate my soul. I stood in a small cemetery outside of Belle Glade. There were dozens of graves of those who were drowned in one of the recent storms and floods.
The graves of the children were numerous.
The sky was darkening. I stood by the roadside and looked north toward the lake. I turned and looked south toward Big Cypress. It was a landscape of the most basic of elements–sky and dark earth. I could not feel the flow of the groundwater as it moved, ever so slowly southward, but I knew it was there. I thought about the farm workers, whose fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers, were buried in such cemeteries as Foreverglades or Ridgelawn. I wondered how many graves were destroyed by the floods and lost–forever. Looking north and then south, there was not the slightest of elevations to break the flat horizon. I thought again of the farmers and how unbearably hot it must get in midsummer–out there where no tree provided shade, and only the black earth, the black mucky earth clung to your boots and darkened your sweaty forehead. The ants. The snakes. The mosquitoes. Nature is your enemy out there. If a cloud passed between your shoulders and the fire of the sun, it would give you cause to kneel and pray your Thank-You God prayer.
The spirits of this forsaken land must walk the canals, the small dikes–and Route 80.
At the funerals in the past years, sweat must surely have mixed with tears. If the drop ran down your cheek to your lips, both would be salty.
I got back into my air-conditioned car and drove on. I was depressed, oppressed and distressed by this forbidding soil and linear horizon. I’ve driven through Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Saskatchewan. Nothing had prepared me for the featureless terrain of central Florida.
For all the smiles I encountered at the cafes and diners, I knew they had some kind of links with the sorrow of too much water, and too much sun–and too much black soil.
[Looking south from Route 80 toward Big Cypress]