Deep in the Florida Everglades, so the story goes, a creature exists. Covered in coarse, shaggy hair from head to toe and bipedal, this animal is so shy and rare that hardly anyone has ever to lay eye upon it. Clumped in the locks of its reddish coat are gobs of Everglades muck, rich with sulphur and methane gas, which gives the beast its name.
The Skunk Ape.
Before I moved to Florida, I’d never heard the term much less knew the legends and tales surrounding them were so popular–not only in the Everglades, it turns out, but around the world. The Discovery Channel, the BBC, Finding Bigfoot, and National Geographic have all investigated the mystery of the Everglades Skunk Ape, and most of them have turned to its leading expert, David Shealy, for answers.
I’ve written a lot on this blog about David and his brother, Jack, and, of course, Dave’s son Little Jack, and the whole wonderful roadside attraction that is The Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. My bird boyfriend Dodo The Cockatoo is there, and Rick, who is about as easy to read as Sanskrit, which endears him to me. It’s evolving in my life that the family I’m developing here is the folks along my Everglades tour, since I spend more time with them than I do anybody else. So, it stands to reason that if I wanted to go Skunk Apeing, I’d ask Dave to take me. He said yes, we set the date and Cristina said she’d come along, and for two weeks, Dave ruminated, revised, and set our course for our maiden voyage into the wilds of the backwoods Everglades to look for signs of the Skunk Ape.
Every day I saw Dave, he’d tell me, “this walk is going to be tough. Are you up for it? I mean, grueling. We’ll be walking out there in the open prairie for miles. I mean, can you do that?” First, Dave planned for a “few miles.” Then it became six. Then eight. The “maybe ten. Or so.”
Like I’ve told you, Cristina is so tiny she makes me look big, and for most of our lives people (and men especially) assumed that she and I can’t do anything because we’re small women. It gets aggravating, and I figured Dave was judging two books by their covers. “We can handle it, Dave,” I said. “Don’t take it easy on us because we’re women. Just take us out there like you’d do when you go out in the field getting research. Take us where you’d go and do what you’d do. We can handle it.”
Yesterday morning, at 8:10 sharp, Cris and I pulled into the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters to load up with Dave and get his buddy Kelly to drive us up Donna Road to a drop off point at the head of a swath of prairie. For the rest of the day, we’d be crossing known Skunk Ape territory and some of Dave’s favorite terrain from since he was a troublemaking boy bearing witness to the violent subculture of the Glades people.
It was already hot, and my bottles of water that I’d frozen the night before were beginning to thaw. We all wore long pants tucked into snake boots with light colored long sleeve shirts. Dave and I wore hats and Cris had tucked her ravishingly long hair into what she called her “honey bun.” The term, I noticed, got Dave kind of excited.
When we loaded into Dave’s superhero blue 1991 Chevy Suburban, Kelly cranked the engine and Kim Carnes’s “Bette Davis Eyes” roared out of the speakers. Seemed fitting.
“Is this Rod Stewart?” Dave asked. A fair question.
“No. But I have a Rod Stewart joke,” said Kelly. “Do you want to hear it?”
“Not really,” said Dave. “Is it clean?” Dave said this for our benefit.
“I guess. Here’s my joke. So you know my little dog?” Kelly, who is about six feet tall and 250 pounds, has a male Pomeranian whom he adores. “Well, I been telling you I been playing for him that do-you-want-my-body-my-sexy-body Rod Stewart song for him, you know the one.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“And last night, I put that song on and we’s dancing around you know–do you want my body–and he starts humping my leg.”
Dave turned and stared at him.
“That’s my joke,” Kelly said. “My Rod Stewart joke.”
And so began our adventure.
Now, I want to make it plain, beloveds, that if any of you are considering your own Skunk Ape Expeditions in the Florida Everglades, do not–and I repeat do not–schedule your 10 mile hike, and by that I mean slog, at the end of July. This is a dumb time of year to go unless you enjoy getting hammered by the subtropical sun at the height of day as you trudge through knee-high needle grass, slick sloughs of limestone rock, and the occasional stand of saw grass, so named because one edge is serrated and it cuts like a bread knife. There will also be ticks, small scattered clouds of mosquitos who will zoom into your ear holes and nostrils and crawl behind your ear to puncture you, and there is no guarantee that you’re going to see any wildlife at all because it’s hotter than hell’s frying pan and they’re all smart enough to be out of the open prairie. So, Skunk Ape tracks, scats, trails, signs, and prints are going to be nonexistent. You, however, will have no other option except to keep walking for the next however many miles because you can’t tell where you are, where you’re going, or where it leads to because that stand of pine flats looks exactly like the other stand of pine flats where you just were to have your water break, shoot the shit with Dave, who has removed his shirt and is telling you about life in prison and singing in the Air Force choir, and pick ticks off your sleeves.
However, Cristina and I apparently like all of this stuff because we had a ball, even though I grew quite finished of clomping in water-logged snake boots in 90 degree weather about an hour before Dave’s “Indian Friend” spotted us dragging ourselves home along the Tamiami Trail and gave us a lift for the last 1/2 mile back to Headquarters.
About four hours into the trek, I started to consider the possibility that Dave wasn’t taking us on a real Skunk Ape hunt at all–that what Cris and I were doing was auditioning. Even now, in retrospect, considering the harshness of the elements and the length of the hike, I suspect that what she and I did yesterday wasn’t so much to track Skunk Apes as it was to prove to Dave Shealy that we could handle it. Honestly, I think Dave was testing us, pushing us to see if we’d be able to last a whole day in the Everglades without passing out, complaining, dying, or asking to end it early. We didn’t. We actually had a lot of fun even though it was hard and we sweated so much that none of us had to stop and take a pee all day long after the first water break at 9 a.m.
While we were Out There, we jumped a few whitetail deer, and we had one blow a warning at us when we got too close, and it’s been several years since I’ve heard the sound of a deer blowing, and I’d forgotten how startling it is. When the deer bounded away from us, Dave would throw his walking stick up to his shoulder and pretend it was a rifle, miming the action of taking a shot. In those moments, it was almost as if I could picture him as a little boy. I like Dave Shealy a lot, and if he says okay, one day I’m gonna tell you all the wild stuff he shared with us as we sat under burned out cabbage palms, inspected vines of palm berries for evidence of Skunk Apes, and ate trail mix while he sucked down Cokes and cigarettes and sandwiches of meats and pickles.
When the day was over, and the three of us sat, collapsed as wilted daisies, barefoot with our shriveled toes and shirts soaked with sweat, I told Dave that Cristina and I were planning on doing something nice for him to thank him for taking us on a hike Out There. He had a dead deer fly in his chest hair, and when I pointed this out, he blushed and reached for his shirt, dirty with cabbage palm soot.
“You’re making me self-conscious,” he said, and I think he was blushing although I couldn’t tell because all of us were red from exertion and sun. Up to that point, I had no idea that Dave Shealy even knew how to be self-conscious. It surprised me, especially given the type of information he’d divulged to us out in the glades, but even more to my surprise was how seriously I took his feelings.
“Should I have said something else besides ‘chest hair’?” I asked, thinking that was the indelicate phrase that caused his discomfort. He just giggled a little and put his shirt on, flicking the offending deer fly on the picnic table.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” he said.
Cristina and I got our gear and boots and bottles together and packed to leave. “You know what,” he said. “What you could do is go back out there with me, like in December when the water is down and there ain’t no bugs and it’s a lot cooler. Then we can do some real Skunk Ape stuff. It’d be fun.”
“Yeah,” Cris said. “That would be fun. We’ll do it.” Now the lactic acid was settling in and she and I hobbled to her big pick up truck.
“Yeah!” Dave said, standing up and stretching. “We gotta do it now, now that you’re on the team.”
“Team?” I asked. “What team is that?”
There was a long pause as he thought about it. “Team Skunk Ape,” he said.
“Alright then,” said Cristina.
“Team Skunk Ape,” I said. We got in the car, waved goodbye, and laughed about how alien our own legs felt. Cris put Foo Fighters on the iPod and we drove in silence for awhile up the Tamiami Trail and back to Naples where we were going to stuff ourselves at Cracklin’ Jacks on home cooked fried seafood and turnip greens and mashed potatoes.
“I think we passed,” she said. “The test.”
I nodded. I think we did. “After all, we’re Team Skunk Ape now,” I said. Across those open prairies and in that hardwood swamp, we crossed some ground, some hard ground with Dave Shealy and emerged as a team. We were spent, mentally and physically, and all we could do was nod. I don’t know what we were agreeing to, and my guess is that neither did Cris, but that wasn’t the point. The point was this: sometimes the natural response after a long hard day of trudging through rough weather with people you care about is to simply nod your head as if to say, yeah, I walked with you all day.
And I’d do it again tomorrow.
night, night beloveds.
To you and the people who walk with you. Happy Skunk Apeing.