They wanted in.
The trucks idled in the long line on the dirt road leading to this place called the Redneck Yacht Club. The Turbo Diesels and the Power Strokes rumbled while waiting. Big trucks pulled trailers with even bigger trucks. This started on Friday morning of Memorial Day weekend, and continued into Friday night, and on into Saturday morning, and still on Saturday night.
They had come to put their four-wheelers, their swamp buggies and their jacked-up trucks into 800 out-of-the-way acres of muddy, goopy, chocolatey slop.
The signs on the roadside were rules. No littering. No underage drinking. No burning tires.
The fee was 30 bucks for one day or 40 for the weekend. The people had to sign a form saying they wouldn't sue if they got hurt or maimed or killed.
A security guard, black shades, black pants, black boots, approached.
"Can I get y'all to step out of the car for a sec? We're just looking for glass bottles, firearms, chain saws, hand grenades . . . "
The people in the trucks were mechanics, roofers, wrecker drivers, current and former military men. Inside, they parked RVs, pitched tents, hammered in horseshoe pits and pulled the tabs on the tops of beers. They said they were here for the competition, the camaraderie, the feeling of freedom, the smiles on the faces of kids, the . . .
Two ATVs zipped by with girls in tank tops and short shorts, riding on the backs with their legs spread, their thighs jiggling and their breasts bouncing with the bumps of the land.
The 21-year-old son of a 40-year-old divorced dad shook his head and took a sip of his Natural Ice.
"Can't get enough of that," he said.
A silver V-8 Nissan Titan with shiny rims moved slowly through the campsites being set up. Standing in the back were three blonds in bikinis. The rear of one girl's bikini said DIRTY GIRL, and the rear of another girl's bikini said MUD HUNNY.
The truck rolled past RVs with GET-ER-DONE flags, rows of merchandise trailers from companies like Horny Hunter, and trucks with names like F-BOMB and MY VIAGRA.
The Titan stopped in front of a camper called Conquest.
Across the way a handful of guys pulled up with a trailer. On the trailer was a gazebo, inside the gazebo were speakers and strobe lights, and from the gazebo they pulled a gray-carpeted platform. Onto the platform they attached two silver metal poles, mounted skyward, 10 to 12 feet tall.
• • •
This is as much a part of Florida as white-sand beaches and Mickey Mouse ears. Mud bogging, mud running, just muddin' — it happens all over the country, has for a long time, but its cultural home is the South. Especially the swamps of the Sunshine State. For Memorial Day weekend, if the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office is to be believed, 10,000 people showed up. Read stories about this, and they always talk about the mud, the sun, the trucks, the family-friendly fun. They never talk about the stripper poles.
• • •
At the Conquest, two guys from Bradenton — Rowland Shannon, 25, and Chuck Woodson, 21 — stepped out of the Titan. The three blonds in bikinis jumped down from the back: Shanna Solohub, 22, from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Sammy Jo Whitehead, 21, from Avon Park, and Taylor Bixby, 19, from Bradenton. The guys and girls posed for pictures in front of an '83 Chevy set on 44-inch tires labeled NATURALLY HIGH while holding a bottle of Crown Royal.
"I like coming out here," Taylor said, "because I like getting dirty."
An '81 Jeep pickup pulled up. It had no windows and 38-inch wheels.
Out stepped a man named Cornbread. His given name is Richard Wilson. No one calls him Richard Wilson.
Cornbread is 35. He's from the mountains of western North Carolina and drove 13 hours to get here. He has a bald head, a bushy goatee and a tattoo on his shoulder that says he CAN'T GET RIGHT.
"Do the girls want to go for a ride?" he asked.
Cornbread's friend from North Carolina, Tim Phillips, 28, got in the passenger seat. Shanna climbed in the back, and Taylor did, too.
In the metal-bottomed bed of Cornbread's truck was a blue cooler next to a coiled wet rope as fat as a python. The truck dipped into a soupy mud hole like an animal going for a bath. A Mason jar skittered around with a dozen or so Bud Light empties.
Then Cornbread hit the gas.
The engine inside the '81 Jeep roared, those knobby 38-inchers grabbed the ground, and Cornbread, Tim and the girls careened around the tire-tracked ruts wrenched from the subtropical thickets, past the diesel trucks coughing black smoke, past the pickup with the sticker that said HONK IF I MAKE YOU HORNY.
Spouts of mud shot high in the sky and seemed to hang there before falling back down in clumps.
Cornbread shifted gears, all know-how and moonshine, and splashed into the swirl of the hole and jerked around in the mire, and then climbed onto higher ground, and then darted back into the wetness, the ride so rough that the girls grunted and squealed and hung in the air like the mud.
He pulled off to the side. Taylor caught her breath. Her tiny jean shorts were unbuttoned to show her bikini bottoms that were low enough to show the end of her tan. The tattooed ink on her trim, taut abs said FAITH. Shanna caught her breath. She took a finger on her right hand and flicked a slug of mud off the top of her left.
From the cab, the smell of marijuana floated through the air.
"Weed?" Shanna said.
Tim turned around.
"How bad do you want to smoke some weed?" he asked.
Cornbread turned, and grinned.
"How bad?" Cornbread said.
• • •
There's something about mud. Some people say it has therapeutic powers. John Lennon called it an aphrodisiac.
Muddin' used to happen in small, informal gatherings. Someone had some land. His buddies came over with their trucks and drove them into wet spots. The buddies brought buddies. Word spread. Over time, though, some of those mud holes turned into stucco subdivisions. Heightened environmental concerns shut down others.
What's left, then, are these bigger, more organized mud holes. In Florida, that means places like Bubba's Mud Ranch in Auburndale, Muddi Gras in Kenansville, Horse Hole Creek in Inglis. The once-diffuse community has concentrated. Maybe that's why these days it feels like muddin' is more popular than ever. It's tough to say. Nobody's counting heads or tracking trends.
But Paula Vogel knows. The 33-year-old from Myakka City started an apparel company not quite two years ago. She went to the Okeechobee Mud Fest that summer. What she saw, she said, was an underserved market. Now she sells the DIRTY GIRL and DIRTY DIVA lines of clothing. She goes to events 30 weekends a year.
"This whole muddin' community," she said, "is definitely just spawning."
A 23-year-old from Ocala named Anthony Perera started Mud Life magazine last year. It's distributed nationally and also in bases in Iraq. The readership is 95 percent male.
"The mud lifestyle," he said, "is a combination of a football tailgating party, NASCAR and a weekend in Key Largo."
That's part of it but not all of it. This is the dirty pursuit of a communal hormonal surge. The sexual tension here is like the rank smell of a teenage boy's room: If you stay in there long enough it starts to feel normal.
The Redneck Yacht Club is the creation of the son of a potato farmer. Danny Kelly is a longtime marine contractor in Fort Myers. He's 57, short and fit, and builds marinas and bridges along the gulf coast. The land his family used to farm, he thought, would be a good place for mud.
The first event was in February. There were two in March and two more in April. Then came Memorial Day weekend.
Late afternoon now.
James Cain, 44, from LaBelle, was over at the mud hole called Pine Island Sound riding around in an old Ford pickup with a dune buggy body.
"Bunch of rednecks getting stuck in the mud, then pulling each other out," Cain said. "Someone you don't even know, stopping to pull you out — that's what it's all about right there."
A party had formed around the hole. The sounds of motors. Trucks everywhere. All of them were watching each other and watching the hole.
Old Broncos, Jeeps, F-250s, rigged up with horsepower and tractor tires — they dove into the mud and tried to make it across, but seldom did, and everybody cheered.
"If there's ever a revolution," Cain said, "these are the people you want to be with."
There was a man running around in the mud dressed in a costume made to look like a dirty maxi pad.
"Well, maybe not," Cain said. "But they're good ol' boys!"
• • •
It got dark. It got more quiet.
Back at the Conquest, three waifish girls stood under the dim orange porch light. They all had on bikini bottoms. Two were wearing T-shirts. The other had on a hoodie. Two were wearing camouflage caps. The other had a green John Deere cap that was too big for her head.
A rain shower came and went.
Those stripper poles across the way hadn't gotten here by accident. Nick Miller is 22, and so is his friend Joey Clark, and they come from the Fort Lauderdale area to these events, but not so much for the mud.
"Hey, yo, for real," Miller said, "we come here with the stripper poles, and that's what we come for. Girls."
The bright white lights by the poles flicked on. Strobe flashes and music rolled from the tent.
You spin my head right round, right round
A song from a rapper who goes by Flo Rida.
When you go down, when you go down down . . .
The first girl on the pole was one of the girls from under the porch light. Lindsay Hopewell, 20, Bradenton. Pink top. Black bottoms. Camo cap.
The second, too. Courtney Lange, 19, Bradenton. John Deere.
And the third. Sheena Louth, 19, Bradenton. Camo cap.
They started slow, their petite, flexible bodies moving around the poles and brushing against each other. The crowd was still small. Lindsay slapped Courtney's butt. The crowd started to grow. Then Lindsay started kissing Courtney, and the music seemed to speed up, and their bodies, all three of them, were touching, grinding. The crowd was larger, and now it was surging forward, and behind the people standing were swamp buggies that had pulled up and were ringing the area, and men were on the decks and looking down, and there were video cameras being held high and cell phone shots being taken, and at some point a shirtless man appeared on stage with a jug of rum and dumped some down the throats of the girls wearing plastic bracelets that said they were under 21.
Def Leppard now.
Pour your sugar on me
An older man in a cowboy hat snapped dollar bills in between the girls' bikini straps and the skin on their backs.
"Take it off!" someone yelled.
Beads started landing at the girls' feet. Lindsay's belly-button ring glistened under the lights. A siren on someone's truck wailed.
"Take it off!"
Behind the crowd, standing on a trailer, Taylor watched the wild, noisy, sweaty scene. A small boy with blond hair walked up to her. It was after 11. She leaned down to hear what he had to say.
He asked her to lift up her shirt.
Taylor's mouth opened, and hung there.
"No!" she said.
The boy scrunched his face and balled his fists and stomped the ground with both his feet.
Then he asked again.
"How old are you?!" Taylor said.
The boy grinned and held up his left hand.
Times photojournalist John Pendygraft and Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.