A close encounter of the Florida kind


In the 1930s, the Federal Writers Project employed hundreds of writers to compile a series of travel guides to the 48 states. Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, whose contributors included Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy, featured 22 driving tours of the state's roads. 

Gulfport resident Cathy Salustri, who is the arts and entertainment editor at Creative Loafing Tampa, re-created those road trips -- all 5,000 miles -- for her book Backroads of Paradise.  

Here's an excerpt of a strange encounter at Lake Kissimmee State Park, from a chapter on State Road 60.  

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor  

Before we pass through the historic district (of Lake Wales), out the van window I see a different shape, something too large for a great heron or egret: sandhill cranes -- one a fledgling "teenager" who already reaches three or four feet high. It calls to mind a lesson I learned years ago about the power of the Florida nightscape, and I learned it at the next stop on the route: Lake Kissimmee State Park.  

Years ago I took myself camping at Lake Kissimmee State Park. I packed my tent, my kayak, and my camping supplies and headed out. I was not new to Florida but had limited experience with the state's interior, especially solo camping. Inside the park perimeter, I marveled at large -- quite large -- gray squirrels, and when I saw deer I tried to take their picture, capturing only their backsides adorably scampering away.  

When soon thereafter I happened upon a trio of sandhill cranes, I reveled in how they seemed reluctant to leave their spot simply because a human stopped by. I snapped a few photos of the taller-than-me, leggy birds with piercing eyes and scarlet-blazed heads but thought nothing more as I made my way to my campsite, pitched my tent, and took my kayak down to the lake.  

I paddled the edges, watching the reeds and water lilies, and noticed a pair of eyes watching me carefully. Gator. I started to feel distinctly "tracked" as opposed to "watched." I noticed that no matter where I paddled, the eyes and I remained roughly the same distance apart. I was either hallucinating, or the gator was keeping up with me and keeping his eye on me.  

You can tell a gator's length by measuring the distance between its eyes. I took some measure of comfort in noting that his eyes seemed fairly close together. Nevertheless, I gave my saurian friend a wide berth and a small wave, hoisted my lonesome kayak up on the bank, and made my way back to camp and dinner.  

I had fallen restlessly asleep when I heard a hard-edged rustling. I tried to shake it off; in the woods, in the dark, a toad hopping sounds like a hog crashing through the underbrush.  

Years ago, I mocked the movie The Blair Witch Project, taunting co-workers scared by the film, leaving bundles of sticks on piles of rocks in front of their office doors. On this night, scenes from the movie played in my head, and, in my head, they played out just beyond my tent.  

When it's dark in the middle of Florida, it isn't just "lights out in the bedroom" dark. It's swamp black. Before I could talk myself down from the ledge, I grabbed my cell phone, pillow, blanket, and car keys and sprinted to the car. I turned on the headlights.  

I saw nothing.  

I toyed with leaving, but that meant getting out of the car and packing up, and the Blair Witch was out there. I thought about driving to a hotel, but the park lies several miles off 60, and the road isn't exactly lined with Holiday Inns. I recalled a Walmart several miles back, but, really, I probably stood a better chance of getting killed while sleeping in a Walmart parking lot than I did from the Blair Witch.  

Finally, I dozed, albeit fitfully, in the car. In the morning, I stretched my aching neck, cooked breakfast, then started to pack up, convincing myself I'd only heard the horrible crashing noises in my head when, with my back to the trees, I heard the same awful sound. I stiffened; I could feel its presence right behind me. Whatever logic remained after a night spent waiting for death in the front seat of a car fled with its tail between its cowardly legs. Slowly, heart pounding, hands shaking, I turned.  

I came face-to-beak with a sandhill crane and two of his compatriots. He leveled his gaze, then looked imperially down at me. We were inches apart. I tried to breathe and found no air. My mind flew furiously through its memory bank of strange Florida headlines. I had no recollection of "Death by Bird"; this gave me almost immeasurable relief.  

The great beast tilted his tiny, pointed head to the right, then stretched it to look around me. My brain whooshed as air rushed in once I realized he was eyeballing my food.  

"Shoo! Scat! Go on now!" I said. He pulled his head back. He and the other two birds moved to the edge of the campground, watching me thoughtfully as I packed and departed. I finished packing my car, took a shaky breath, and went looking for another put-in to paddle the much-abused Kissimmee River.


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