Life on the Edge
“She left the suds in the bucket and the clothes hanging out on the line …”
That country song is running through my head as I clip my freshly washed laundry to the clothesline with my brand new wooden clothespins. Sunshine and gentle breezes are sure to make my towels as soft as a cloud, and oh, so fragrant, just as in the movies.
When I finish this chore, I plan to rescue that abandoned blue crab trap entangled in the morning glory vine, because I envision massive platters of steamed crab and homemade crab cakes. Then I’ll paint the plastic Adirondack chair Caribbean blue to match the antique wrought-iron one in the garden of my little turquoise shack.
Okay, it’s a turquoise trailer, but “shack” sounds more charming. And it’s not exactly a garden. Out-of-control hibiscus fights for space among sharp-pointed snake plants and feathery palmetto fronds. There’s a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-size vine draped with startling, foot-long white flowers. My garden furniture is an old bench that was once painted red, a wrought-iron table with a red-and-white checkered oilcloth and the two soon-to-match chairs.
This season, for the first time ever, I’m a snowbird. My permanent home “up north” in Naples has an actual clothes dryer, mail delivery and people who are paid to square up the corners of ficus hedges. None of this comes with my winter estate here on Chokoloskee Island, where I must stand in the road to pick up a phone signal. But a Key lime tree blooms outside my kitchen window, and the whitewashed church on the corner peals out hymns on the hour. Some of my new best friends are the descendants of island pioneers—stone crabbers, fishermen, the publisher of the local paper, the Mullet Rapper and a lady who makes jewelry out of beach glass. An excellent trade-off.
From the air, Chokoloskee resembles a giant manta ray. Its “tail” is a three-mile causeway built in the mid 1950s, connecting it to the mainland at Everglades City.
Barely one-third of a square mile in area, the tiny island was built entirely of discarded oyster, clam and mussel shells by the prehistoric Calusa Indians. It lies about 40 miles south of Naples—the last chunk of dry land separating the civilization of Collier County from the untamed wilderness of the Everglades.
At the other end of the causeway, Everglades City is the remnant of the first Collier County seat, from the 1920s to the 1960s. There’s an imposing courthouse (now City Hall) and Bank of the Everglades (under renovation, possibly as a bed and breakfast) and the Rod and Gun Club, domain of Barron Collier’s wealthy hunting and fishing crowd. Other historic buildings include the Museum of the Everglades (once the town laundry), the Spanish-style Atlantic Coast Line railroad depot (now a restaurant) and an assortment of weathered seafood restaurants and fishing docks.
Between the disappearance of the Calusas in the 1700s and the completion of the Tamiami Trail in 1928, Chokoloskee and the Ten Thousand Islands were the domain of the Seminole tribe and the militiamen who failed to conquer them. Also, escaped slaves, plantation owners from Georgia and the Carolinas, fishermen, plume hunters, alligator poachers, hermits, moonshiners, drug smugglers and at least one certifiable Spanish pirate.
Near my little shack is the grave of Totch Brown (1920–1996), alligator hunter, storyteller and authentic third-generation frontiersman. Totch wrote a popular song about the Everglades, which he was hired to sing in the 1997 movie Gone Fishin’, starring Danny Glover and Joe Pesci. But his wife passed away at that time, so the producers had to settle for Willie Nelson instead.
The most famous pioneer, Ted Smallwood, opened a store and Seminole trading post at the edge of the island in 1906. It was the setting for one of the best true tales of intrigue and murder in the Everglades, recounted by Peter Mathiesson in his novel, Killing Mister Watson. Legend goes that Edgar Watson was a ruthless killer who hired workers to cut sugar cane on his island, Chatham Bend. The workers mysteriously disappeared just before payday. Accusers pointed to bones dug up around the Watson place. One day in 1910, Watson arrived by boat to trade at Smallwood’s Store. A posse of angry men were lined up on shore with loaded guns. The sheriff couldn’t prove “whodunit,” so no charges were filed.
Tim England, manager of the Museum of the Everglades, sees it differently. Those were centuries-old Calusa bones, he says. Watson had a violent past and a hot temper, for sure, but the rumors were likely started by jealous farmers who couldn’t compete with Watson’s wage scale.
Smallwood’s store was shuttered tight for decades. When a granddaughter reopened it in the 1980s, she found it still stocked with original goods, including hand-written ledgers, medicines and hides. Today it’s one of Southwest Florida’s most fascinating small museums. A life-size figure of Ted still keeps an eye on the inventory from his favorite rocking chair.
Homes on Chokoloskee are an eclectic medley of pioneer homes, fishing marinas, trailers, RVs and an artful variety of 1950s to 1970s domiciles. My closest neighbor is the 19th century wooden house that once served as the office of Barron Gift Collier, back when he was building the Tamiami Trail and carving Collier County out of the wilderness. Currently, it’s home to Capt. Charles Wright’s Everglades Area Tours, where city slickers take naturalist-guided adventures into Florida’s last frontier.
As with my turquoise shack, it looks like a page from a tropical coloring book, surrounded by papaya and banana trees and unique objets d’art. The signs out front still bear the name of the previous occupant, a café/gallery, but nobody’s in any particular hurry to paint them out.
Wright’s broad menu of adventures ranges from three-hour kayak paddles to multi-day camping trips, visiting places once inhabited by those quirky characters of the Everglades. They recently guided National Geographic on a documentary shoot in the wilderness.
The village hub is an outpost of the U.S. Post Office and the Havana Café, an artsy Cuban restaurant renowned for its café con leche and Saturday night paella feasts. The hand-painted sign on the building proclaims it Chokoloskee Mall. Havana Café’s cozy dining room and patio spill over with locals, bikers, adventurers and upscale diners happy to make the pilgrimage from Naples or Miami for Chef/owner Carlos Valdes’ fresh seafood with a Cuban accent. You have to make reservations for the paella. Trust me—if you miss out, too bad for you.
My life as a snowbird is nearly half over, and there’s so much still to do. I’m on a mission to taste-test every Key lime pie within 20 miles. (Seven down, at least seven to go.) There’s talk of a sweet flock of roseate spoonbills in Chokoloskee Bay. Totch Brown’s granddaughter, Martha, and her husband, Craig, offer airboat rides to Totch’s personal island. There’s a salsa-laced gator fajita with my name on it at Camellia Street Grill overlooking the Barron River. And nearby at Triad Seafood, I long for that all-I-can-eat stone crab feast.
I’ve tagged along with my favorite naturalist guide, Ron Wofford, to a rookery where hundreds of snowy egrets, ibis, cormorants, herons and more fly in to roost at sunset, and deep into mangrove tunnels where alligators sleep with one eye open and wild orchids grow. I’ve been swamp buggying in the Big Cypress National Preserve with fifth-generation gladesman Capt. Steve Markley, swamp slogging with Mike Owen, park biologist at Fakahatchee Strand. I stopped into the Skunk Ape Research Station for a copy of David Shealy’s Everglades Skunk Ape Research Field Guide, but I haven’t yet conducted my own investigation. The alleged Skunk Ape is a stinky, elusive Everglades version of Bigfoot.
When no crustaceans find their way into my trap, I drive a few miles up the Tamiami Trail to Joanie’s Blue Crab Café for a garlic-infused feast. Screened porch, wooden picnic tables, a help-yourself cooler and Everglades cowboy Raiford Starke on the guitar ... life can’t possibly get better than this.
If you get down to my personal Calusa shell mound before my snowbird days end, you may find me in a hammock on the porch of Everglades Area Tours with a laptop balanced on my knees, soaking in the tall tales of resident author and fisherman Mike “Stubbs” Stubblefield, sipping a café con leche from Havana Café, and plotting my next adventure.
Hortensia Baldwin, Rod and Gun Club
“You want Key lime pie for breakfast? You don’t want some nice eggs, biscuits and gravy? OK, I will bring you a big slice. Everyone loves our Key lime pie.”
Hortensia Baldwin came to work at the Rod and Gun Club some 30 years ago as a young woman, and she’s as much a part of the fabric of the grand, historic lodge as the carved fisherman on the front porch and hunting trophies on the walls.
“The weather here, and flowers and water feel so much like my home country, Costa Rica.”
Pamela Guidry, Jewelry Artist
“When I was a child here on Chokoloskee, it was so different. All this in front of us was prairie grass–and as far as we can see that way–nothing but grass. Everyone was a fisherman back then. I still love it here. It’s my home. But in a way it’s very sad.”
Pamela’s ancestry dates to three Chokoloskee pioneer families. She and her husband, a former shrimper and fisherman, have raised children and grandchildren here. She is a popular fixture at the Havana Café, where she sells her custom-made silver jewelry set with sea glass, shells and semi-precious stones.
Capt. Steve Markley, Swamp Buggy Adventure Guide
“I never head into the swamp without my jack, shovel, chain saw and axe.”
Capt. Steve is a native Gladesman, whose great grandfather was Lt. FCM Boggess of the First Cavalry under Capt. Hendry in the Confederate army. His deep knowledge of the Everglades comes from a lifetime of experience. After working on the road and trail maintenance crew in the Big Cypress National Preserve, he was among the first guides licensed last year to give swamp buggy tours. He also claims to make the best baked beans on the planet.
“Put a little spoonful on your head, and your tongue will beat your brains out trying to get to it.”
David Shealy, Skunk Ape Research Headquarters
“Why do Skunk Apes smell so bad? They hide in the air pockets of underground alligator dens, and their bodies absorb a lot of stinky methane. It’s hot down here. And the Skunk Ape sweats and it doesn’t bathe.”
Since the 1970s, Shealy has attracted film crews from around the world in search of the alleged Skunk Ape, including National Geo Wild, currently filming a pilot series in Big Cypress and the Ten Thousand Islands. It’s hard to miss the giant fiberglass Florida panther at the entrance to his research station, gift shop and campground on the Tamiami Trail just east of Everglades City. Shealy advises would-be trackers to put out bait sets of the Skunk Ape’s favorite food: lima beans.
“Ed Guthrie,” Hermit
Grizzled and bent, shuffling along using a mangrove root walking stick. He’s 110 years old and, if he lives as long as some of the Ten Thousand Island hermits before him, he may have another decade to go. He’s crabby and tends to fall asleep in mid-sentence, but he has a passion for his land. He carries a sack stuffed with animal skulls, an alligator tooth and the rib of a manatee. Ed tells hilarious stories and reminisces about the famous hermits of the Ten Thousand Islands.
In real life, “Ed” is Lisa Andrews, the outreach and education specialist at Big Cypress National Preserve. She takes old Ed on the road for educational programs.
“I once was asked to speak about saving the Big Cypress ecosystem to a group of teenagers. I thought, ‘What could be more boring for this age than having a talking head lecture at them? How can I make it really fun and educational, too?’ That’s how Ed Guthrie came to life.”
Carlos Valdes, Havana Café
“When you order my paella, you must plan to wait 20 to 30 minutes, because I make it to order just for you. I don’t just make up the rice and stir in the seafood ahead of time. My mussels die in the pan.”
Carlos was a small child when his father, a commercial fisherman, outfitted his boat and braved a hurricane to escape communist Cuba with his family. Before Carlos and his wife, Dulce, opened the Havana Café, he was a fisherman in Everglades City.
“Growing up, our mother had to work and we all had our jobs. Mine was to cook dinner. I would call her up and ask her how to do it and she would tell me, do this, do that, and I would do it.”
If You Go…
Everglades Area Tours
Museum of the Everglades
Skunk Ape Research Headquarters