Sandra Gail Lambert
A ranger in a small hut guards the entrance to the campground. I stop, turn off the engine, and lower the window. The old, Ford van takes a moment to rattle its way quiet. My body continues vibrating. It's been a hard drive, but I've made it to the fabled Everglades. Here I am in the paradise of Marjory Stoneman Douglas—the land of crocodiles and pink birds and mangrove swamps once the haven of smugglers. Maybe they still are. Reading that woman's book has seduced me into a yearlong plan that is now unfolding.
The ranger opens his screen window, and we negotiate on a campsite. He says the two campsites directly overlooking the water are taken and will be for the next week. He notices my manual wheelchair in the back of the van and points out a site near the bathroom. They always want to put me close to a bathroom. He says it has a view of the water, so I agree. He slides a screen closed between us, and while he figures out the bill, I read the notices posted on the wall. Below the tide schedule is a board with a stick-on cartoon mosquito. It's bug-eyed and leers. Right now the long nose is pointed at the "TOLERABLE" level. "TOLERABLE" is below "PLEASANT," but above "ANNOYING." There's a level below "ANNOYING," but a flyer announcing bad drinking water blocks it from view. A breeze curls up the edge of the flyer. "DON'T EVEN ASK" it says underneath.
The ranger opens the screen halfway and angles a handful of maps and regulations through the opening. He says, "A warm front is moving in." There's a warning tone, but I figure he means rain. "No problem," I say, "I'm sleeping in the back of my van." He turns away and shuts the screen tight and then slides a second layer of screen over the first. He becomes a shifting, dark shadow behind them. Already, on the drive through the park, half hidden in the expanses of saw grass that murmured with wind, I saw white lilies and glossy ibis. Woodstorks, with their vulture heads tucked into the white fluff of their necks, perched on the delicate, winter bare branches of pond cypress. Everything was just like in the book. How can I care if it rains?
It doesn't take any time at all before I'm in my barcalounger position with my heels propped up on the picnic table and my back slouched against the wheelchair's backrest. A mostly eaten bowl of packaged macaroni and cheese rests between my breasts. Palm trees sway overhead, and I can smell salt off the Florida Bay. A flock of egrets skim the treetops. I know they are egrets because as part of my preparations, I taught myself that necks curled in flight means egrets. Marjorie's evocation of the Everglades is all around me. Or perhaps I now exist within the covers of a book. Then the bathroom's air dryer roars and the door clangs open and shut. This is why I don't like camping next to the bathhouse.
Three mosquitoes land on my pants leg and hold their own against the gusts of wind rippling the fabric. I brush at them, and when they rise, the wind sucks them away. Between my feet I can see dusk and clouds moving in over the Bay. I'm no expert on South Florida weather, but those don't look like rain clouds to me. I chase the last milky pasta elbow up the side of the bowl. The wind pauses for the first time since I've arrived, and I can hear a hum above me. A single mosquito lands on my fork hand at the base of my thumb. Another one sits at the crook of my elbow. The hum is louder. The winds gust again and the mosquitoes are snatched off my body. The hum retreats. I claw hair off my face and let it blow behind me. The air on my neck is warmer than it was earlier.
There's time for a quick tour before dark, so I clean up from dinner, anchor anything that might blow away, and drive the half mile back to the Marina. I watch birds gather on a sandbar just off shore; snowy and great egrets, little blue herons, all sorts of terns and seagulls. Towering over the gathering are white pelicans. Nine-foot wingspans it says in my South Florida birding book. They, more than anything, remind me that I've made it into the depths of the Everglades. Each species of bird lifts and hovers and takes its turn to arc into the distance, and soon the sandbar is abandoned. Behind me the gift shop lights go on. Perhaps they have a list of guided trips. I give the door my usual strong yank, but it's heavy and closes against a wheel and wedges my wheelchair into the jamb. The cashier rushes over and shoves until I can pop through. The door snaps shut behind me. The cashier murmurs an apology about bugs and wind and returns to her place behind the counter. They don't have any schedules. I have to go to the ranger station on the level above. I buy a holographic turtle bookmark and a strip of postcards. By the register is a display of bug spray. One hundred percent DEET it announces in large neon orange letters. I'd studied all the bug spray offerings at Wal-Mart before I left. DEET had warnings about its ability to dissolve plastics. That seemed too harsh to put on my skin. Wal-Mart also offered a "natural solution." If it'd been in a health food store, I'd have thought it was probably no more than wishful thinking. But Wal-Mart was selling it, so it must have an effective poison of some sort included. I bought that one.
The cashier lets me out past the door and points me at the steepest ramp I've ever seen. I zigzag around the concrete flood pillars hoping for an elevator, but end up back at the bottom of the ramp. It has a railing. It has a landing half way. I back up and rush the ramp. I shove my wheel rims hard and then again and again and feel the blood pump through my muscles as I strain forward. Then my arms yank away from the wheels because of the stabbing. Mosquitoes have swarmed my forearms. I grab the railing to stop my backwards skid, but my momentum is gone. The offices might even be closed already. I let myself roll backwards at a safer pace¸ and swerve from side to side as I take turns releasing a wheel to shake an arm free of the swarm. At the bottom I'm back in the direct path of the wind off the water. The mosquitoes disappear.
At the campground entrance the ranger hut is abandoned for the night. The leering mosquito has been moved down to "annoying." The dusk is taking a long time arriving so I slip the turtle bookmark into a mystery I'm reading and prop my feet back on the table but facing west this time. I'll watch the sun set over the bathhouse. The air is thicker. The wind continues but with less energy, and between each lull, batches of mosquitoes hover close. It's time for the repellant. I dab it on my exposed skin. It smells like oranges. The wind drops, and I hold out my arm for a test. Mosquitoes move in like a crowd at happy hour. I shake my arm until they lift off. The repellant might need time to soak in. While I wait for that to happen, almost without being aware, I develop a steady rhythm of hand motions: brush at ears, flap along neck, rub down arms, pat hips, wave at ankles, and up to the ears again. Waiting doesn't make a difference. There's not much wind now. Despite how warm it's getting, I put on a long-sleeved shirt and am able to delete the rub-down-my-arms part. And I rush the cycle. Wherever my clothing pulls tight over my skin, I feel stings. I pour repellant on my hands and rub it over me as if it were lotion. I increase the speed and forcefulness of my hand motions. While I'm flap, flapping at my shoulders, two parallel lines of stings burn along the top of my feet. I have shoes on. Are these Everglades mosquitoes powerful enough to poke through shoes and the underlying socks? I look at my feet. At each eyelet of my sneakers, a mosquito is curved with her head sunk all the way up to her eyes. That's another fact I learned my preparation. Only female mosquitoes sting. They need blood to reproduce. Right now, I don't care about mosquito babies. I break routine to press the flat of my hand against each shoe, and blood smears over the white laces. I straighten the tongue underneath. Mosquitoes take advantage and swarm my neck. I roll backwards until my feet drop off the table and smack down onto the footrests. I have to make a quick stop to the bathhouse and then I'll shut myself away for the night.
The bathhouse door is as heavy as the gift shop's and the effort of pushing it open keeps my head bent until it has shut behind me. No other person is here. Grey light filters down from the high open spaces between wall and roof. Silhouetted, unmoving, a thousand mosquitoes hang in the air, legs dangling. Another thing I know is that mosquitoes are attracted by the carbon dioxide of exhales. I hold my breath and close myself into a stall. The room starts to vibrate. On the toilet I keep my pants tucked up and my shirt pulled down, but before I can finish peeing, I'm bit in a ring around where butt meets seat. I end up spanking at my own self. Gasping for breath, I snatch my pants back into place and fluff my shirt out away from my body. Brushing my teeth seems foolish, but I'm going to risk a quick hand washing. I lean over the sink and splash water over my face and neck. Mosquitoes are forced up my nose. I snort and rub at my face. I feel little dead bodies on my cheeks. Live ones replace them, and I slap around my head. This protects my face, but means I can't move the chair and a wild claustrophobia rises inside me. After a last flurry of hand motions, I grip my wheels and push out the door like a racehorse.
I bolt for the campsite. The process of opening the doors, unfolding the lift, lowering the lift, getting on the lift, raising the lift, folding the lift and closing the doors is slow. When the last door smacks shut, my accompanying mosquito cloud and I are closed up in the van together. It's hot. I turn on the battery-operated fan. I aim a flashlight beam at the far wall. Some of the mosquitoes follow it. For no good reason that I can think of, I slather repellant over all exposed skin before I slide under the sheet. Mosquitoes buzz at each ear in a range of octaves. They spread down my body. I flap the sheet so they can't poke through to my legs. It's hotter. I pat water over my face and arms and hold the fan close. The mosquitoes retreat. I can't see them, but I know they are close. I'll read to take my mind off things. I hang the flashlight over my head and hold the book in one hand and the fan in another.
A manly firefighter and a smart aleck, yet feminine police detective are standing over grisly remains and discussing splatter patterns when I have a bad feeling. I peer over the top of the book and into the shadows. They are waiting. They clutch to the curtains, the sheet, and the ceiling where their bodies cast elongated shapes in the dome of the flashlight light. One flies at my ear. I hit it away and keep reading while my peripheral vision tracks for any mass mosquito movement. On my next visual sweep I can tell something's wrong. It takes me too long to notice that the entire curtain contingent has disappeared, and I'm not quick enough to prevent a coordinated strike where my toes are pressed against the covers. I snap the sheet and the mosquitoes scatter. I feel stings on my temple and at the base of my thumb. Why there, why always the base of the thumb? I rub the mosquitoes away. I know better than to start slapping myself again. That way lies frenzy. But something has to be done.
I start with the ones on the ceiling. It works best to smack an open palm against the ceiling and pull. It makes bloody streaks. The more I kill, the more of them move out of the shadows to take their place in the light. I smash and smash until only the mosquitoes that huddle in dark corners survive. It reassures me to think I'm smarter than they are. I wet the edge of yesterday's t-shirt and wipe blood off my palms. I shake flattened corpses off the pillows and flip them off the sheet. I know there are more of them, a few at least, but I'm exhausted from the effort, the long day's drive, and repressed panic. I lie down and cocoon the sheet around my face and make sure the fan is blowing over my head. I turn off the light and wait. And think. What if I didn't pack more batteries for the fan? Will these last the whole night? No mosquitoes attack, but I hear a descant tone over the sound of the fan. I track it to the cracked-open windows in the van's back door, beside the bed. I risk turning on the flashlight. Mosquitoes lie like fur over the screen. They test, probe, and search for weakness. One of the windows has a screen that doesn't fit right. I unwrap an arm from the sheets and snap the whole window shut. Then I snap the other one as well. I tell myself that there is plenty of air in the van. I turn away from the windows. The travel clock beside the bed says seven o'clock. That's twelve hours until dawn. I think now about how old the van is and how the rubber around the windows has hardened and crumbled in places. Sometimes water leaks in. Water drops are bigger than mosquitoes. Nevertheless, I fall asleep.
Her gait is rough, something between that of a football player and a toddler. She rocks from side to side as she stomps along the concrete path connecting the marina and the gift shop. The swinging arc of her breasts stirs the air around her. The German tourists with their skim milk skin and the yacht owners in pressed white shorts and leathered faces can't see her as she passes them, yet they pull away, buffeted by the smell of dried-over sweat and swamp water. The uniformed rangers, the older ones, know she's there, but look aside. Her hair is a long tangle of sun-bleached green. Faded rags swirl around her body revealing thick calves and arms layered in loose fat that shudders as she walks. No one sees her face.
She rips open the door of the gift shop and leaves it hanging off a hinge. She's a blur down the aisle toward the counter as customers, for reasons unclear to them, jump for the walls. Stacks of folded t-shirts topple. Pens with alligators painted on the side, panther coloring books, and manatee earrings scatter over the floor. A rack of note cards spins. Over the counter a hand comes into perfect focus. It seizes a tub of the 100% DEET.
I wake up. Sweat is dripping down the sides of my body. The sheet is wet underneath me. A single mosquito buzzes in my one exposed ear. Before opening my eyes, I beg the clock to say five or even six. It's two. I'm not sure there's air here in the van. Is my breathing getting weird? I put my face near the back window, crack it open, and imagine millions of molecules of oxygen rushing in. The waiting hoard becomes agitated as I exhale. I close the window, pause, and repeat. Even with my face pressed to the open window, sweat drips off my temples and into my eyes. It stings. If I make it through to morning, I'm going to find a pay phone, make hotel reservations somewhere, spend the day exploring on the road out and be gone from here before dark. It doesn't matter how much it costs. It doesn't matter all the effort it took for me to get myself here. I'm done with the Everglades. Damn you, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
A lifetime later it's six. Six counts as morning even in the pitch dark. I put on pants and tuck them into my socks. I add a blouse, pull a hat low, and load my pack with binoculars, a bird book, and water. I slide onto the wheelchair and position it in front of the side doors. I press the switch that flips them open. Cool air sweeps over me. The mosquitoes aren't gone but they're less determined. The clouds have passed. I perch on the still-raised lift and look at stars. They are thick in a way that seems like a dream from childhood. My hands sweep the mosquitoes from around my face in a casual way.
Beyond the campground, over the bay, the first bare shades of daylight spread into the sky and blot the stars at the horizon. I lower the lift and roll toward dawn. Checkout isn't until ten so I have this time. My eyes adjust to the intermittent lights of the campground, and I find a path along the shore. It curves back away from the water but I stop and maneuver as close to the edge of land as I can. Mangroves grow out of the tidal muck in front of me. Mosquitoes settle in around me, and my hands splay and twist above and around my body like an Indian dancer. This disturbs the mosquitoes off my skin. Pink and yellow brighten the sky, and a flock of ibis in black silhouette (necks stretched straight out) fly out of the sunrise until they dip and rise across my path. I hear the rush of air over their wings. Another ribbon of birds arrives close behind, and this time they pull me in their wake. I bounce over a rooted trail that leads into a circle of cabins. Here people with blue-black skin unload from a van. They carry buckets and mops and spray bottles. They say good morning to me and then resume their quiet conversations in French. Another rush of wings spreads around us. The birds fly over our heads and then off to the main road. Now that I'm back on pavement, I push hard and fast enough that my front casters rattle. I arrive in time to see a line of white wings dip over the trees and into what I remember is a pond area.
I have to take a more roundabout route than the birds, but I find the opening to a path that circles the pond. On the small island in front of me hundreds of white birds preen, squawk, and negotiate branch position. I've found the ibis. My arms muscles quiver from the chase, so I maneuver down an embankment to a bench where I transfer onto the wood seat, put my feet up on the wheelchair, and settle in with the binoculars around my neck and the bird book on my lap. Other early morning birders appear and climb the stairs to an observation deck. Their conversations drift down along with the smell of coffee.
"Charles and I live south of Corpus Christi."
"Oh, Texas. Bill and I were there last year. We managed a ringed kingfisher sighting. Bill, Bill, turn around. See his t-shirt. I had his life-list printed on it for his birthday. Three hundred seventy-one and counting."
"I'm surprised you didn't see a belted kingfisher too. It and the ring are pretty common in Texas. Now, the green, that's rare. Even Charles and I have only seen it a dozen or so times. Charles?"
"What is your number these days?"
"Eight hundred and twenty-three."
I roll my eyes and shift to the far end of the bench. I have to see what these couples look like. They're white, of course. All four of them have harnesses strapping their binoculars against their chests. The guys are erecting scopes. The second woman is exclaiming on the wonders of Costa Rica when a flock of pink birds fly over. The conversation stops and everyone, including me, lifts their heads to track them. "Flamingos!" "No, no, unlikely. They're roseate spoonbills." I silently vote for the scarlet ibis I've just seen a picture of in the bird book. The angle of the morning light shifts and the birds turn into another batch of ibis. Above me, no one says anything.
The island is in full sun. The grasses directly in front of the bench rumble with croaks. Sections shiver, rattle, and grow still again. I point my binoculars here and there and sometimes catch a glimpse of webbed yellow feet or the bob of white tail feathers retreating. I hunt for birds until my arms won't hold the binoculars up anymore. My eyes adjust to regular vision and right here, on the closest patch of muck, is a tiny brown heron. It extends its body taut and nearly horizontal. It inches one leg forward. I flip through my book, which I thought I had thoroughly studied before I left home, but I don't know this bird. Just as I find the heron section a voice in my ear says, "Least bittern, dark phase."
I hear a swoosh of movement. The whisperer and two other people crowd onto the bench with me. Hushed words float around. "Where." "Oh, I see it." "Show me, show me." "This makes it three hundred and seventy-two for me." I glance behind me. People are four deep and crammed close. Binoculars angle over shoulders.
The furtive bird moves into the underbrush. I follow it, unblinking, with my binoculars and watch it clutch to the side of a grass blade, raise its head to match the angle, and blend into invisibility right in front of my eyes. It's almost embarrassing how excited I am. Perhaps I should start a life list. The crowd moves on, and I pan the other patches of muck looking for what I can't see. A black bird floats out into the open and lets loose with what sounds like the opening guitar licks of "Wipe Out." I open the book again. It stays visible long enough for me to teach myself the difference between immature gallinules and immature coots. It's all in the flank feathers.
I would have stayed on the bench forever, but I'm hungry. I keep the binoculars around my neck just in case something amazing appears. They smack one breast and twist around the other as I shove back up the embankment, and I find myself thinking about a harness. Following the ibis has circled me almost back around to the campground. It's only a short trip on smooth pavement away. A truck towing a boat, another one pulling a collapsed pop-up trailer, and an ancient Volkswagen van are the first in a long line leaving the campground. It's worth checking if the two bay front sites are available, so I rush over the pavement, smacking hard into and over the speed bumps to get a good angle of view across the campground. The sites are empty. I need to grab them before someone else notices. Instead of going to fix breakfast, I add myself to the line. I sit modestly in my wheelchair in front of an RV bigger than my last apartment and behind a Toyota sedan top-heavy with gear. It looks as if they just threw everything up there. The line behind me keeps getting longer. If they have this much turn-over daily, I feel for the rangers. But it's not long before I'm the happy owner of a new, paid out the week, site assignment. I'll move the van and then have breakfast sitting in bed looking out over the bay. The day is mine.
It's as I rise into the air on the lift and look over the campground and see only two other vehicles in that big expanse of flat land, that I remember last night and the reason for this mass exodus. I hesitate. The lift holds mid-air. I shift in my chair to look out over the bay. As if out of a mirage, an ancient pirate ship in full sail skims over the bay. Tourists line the sides. Two roseate spoonbills, actual ones, I can see the splayed shape of their bills, fly above the mast. A raft of black and white birds fly low over the water with their long lower beaks dropped into the surface. From here I can't see the red legs or the orange at the base of their beaks, but I know they're black skimmers from my long preparation for this trip. And then, I kid you not, dolphins curve up into the air. The Everglades is giving me her all. Something inside me wants to match the challenge. The night just can't be that bad again. I won't even look at the leering mosquito chart anymore. I'll buy more batteries. I continue my ascent into the van. A gust of salt and humidity buffets against me, pulls my hair. Eyes behind my eyes blink and I smell muck and armpits. "Yes," I say to my dream. "I won't forget." I add Deet to my list.
Attempts at mosquito management in Florida have a long history. We imagine the early peoples of Florida used smudge fires. White settlers would stuff their clothes with newspaper. Many tons of pesticide have been sprayed to no avail. These days there are salt marsh impoundments that flood breeding areas. Modern Seminoles use netting. The smugglers and poachers who lived in the Everglades did "the dance"—shifting their legs, flapping arms, slapping at their necks and wrists. Since that first trip to the Everglades, I've returned year after year. I have skills now. I know how close I can paddle to a mangroved shoreline before mosquitoes swarm out from the prop roots and cover my kayak. I have white shirts big enough to billow over my skin. I avoid shadows. I carry Deet at all times. Even though I camp in a manicured National Park campground and only stay for ten days and only in the coldest months, I still like to think of myself as part of a long, tough, lineage of "Gladesmen and women."