The most exciting place to pedal a bicycle in Florida, if not the galaxy, is in Everglades National Park on the Shark Valley Loop. A bike path, it begins off the Tamiami Trail, halfway between Miami and Naples, and slithers 7 1/2 miles into the heart of the River of Grass. Then it circles back to where it began.
Naturalists from all over the planet descend on Shark Valley during cold weather to watch the beautiful wading birds. I go for the alligators. They're in ponds, sloughs, strands, creeks and sawgrass prairies. They also sprawl across the bike path to get warm. Nothing gets my heart thumping like whipping past a too-close-for-comfort 12-foot dinosaur on my space-age bicycle.
• • •
Gator on the road. This time I stop for a close look. I grab my camera and begin snapping pictures with a loopy grin.
For an instant I'm not the gray-haired guy whose past sometimes feels like ancient history. Suddenly I am the boy I used to be — the nerd who loved creeping uncomfortably close to wild critters.
There were a number boys like me in the South Florida of my youth, boys who preferred fish and reptiles to warm-blooded Homo sapiens of the female persuasion. We were the boys who never had dates.
Most of us didn't drive — we were too backward to ask our dads if we could get licenses. Boys without dates pedaled bicycles everywhere. We built tree houses. We built rafts for drifting down the canals to look for cold-blooded creatures with big teeth.
We almost never saw alligators in the 1950s. We saw more alligators, but not many, in the 1960s. Hunting, legal and illegal, had decimated the population. When we encountered a gator, it was a big deal, not to girls, but at least to other boys without dates.
I had friends, popular boys, who drove flashy cars and went out with cheerleaders on Friday night. They stayed out late and slept past noon on Saturday. The boys without dates woke before dawn to fish for bass. Then we looked for snakes. Dreams of girls in tight sweaters never crossed our minds.
Though a couple of us acquired cars as high school seniors, going on a date still wasn't an option, not with the Everglades calling. One boy drove on a remote road, the other two sat on the hood with pillowcases for carrying snakes we caught by hand.
Of course, our parents didn't actually allow us to bring snakes home. No matter. Boys without dates love their reptiles. The fun was in the catching and the brief possession before letting them go.
We never messed with venomous snakes, but even the so-called harmless snakes bit in defense. Some sprayed foul-smelling musk on their tormentors.
Step back in time for a moment, if you will. It is 10 a.m. on a suffocating August morning, in the Everglades, about 1966. The boys without dates are driving through a humid swamp in a car without air conditioning. Our personal hygiene is poor to begin with. Our hands drip blood from encounters with snake teeth. We stink of snake musk.
Hey, baby! Want to go to the sock hop?
• • •
At Shark Valley, my wife and I stop to watch a small alligator creep across the path.
"I hope the mother gator is not around,'' my wife says. She is a New Yorker. One time, as we crossed Madison Avenue with a thousand other pedestrians, a grand Manhattanite dame who wore a feathered hat and expensive jewelry gazed into the eyes of my wife and snapped, "Out of my way, Gawjus!'' as if she owned the street, and my wife didn't blink, she kept walking straight ahead. My wife wasn't petrified of Cruella, but a former boy without a date was.
Alligators are my world, but I do shower more now than I did as a boy without a date.
On our first date more than a decade ago, we went for a sit-down supper of some kind of potato pancakes at a nice restaurant.
On our second date, I drove her to Myakka River State Park to look at alligators.
On our third date, we looked at more alligators at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. We ate cold chicken on a picnic. The highlight was the moment we saw a frantic frog being chased by a hungry black snake.
"Don't worry," I tell my wife on the Shark Valley Loop. "If we see a big one we'll kind of veer around it on our bikes.''
• • •
Only one person has been attacked by an alligator in the years since the Everglades became a national park in 1947. A kid fell off his bike onto an alligator while riding in Shark Valley in 1996. The gator grabbed the boy and tried to haul him into the water. The boy's parents jumped on the alligator. The alligator let go. The boy survived to tell the tale.
I always bring my own bike, though the park concessionaire rents them by the hour. For folks without an ounce of boys-without-dates blood flowing through their veins, there is always a guided tour on the park tram. Of course, tram passengers lack the opportunity to experience a very close encounter with a dinosaur.
I have never been chased, never felt endangered. Usually the gators act as if they have overdosed on Ambien.
Usually I pedal along the opposite edge of the road, about 10 feet away, just in case. If I cross the invisible boundary, the alligator crashes into the water with an impressive splash. I am always amazed and a little disconcerted about how fast an alligator can move for a short distance.
Former boys without dates love the drama when a big alligator blocks the entire path.
I clutch the brakes and dismount. Standing 20 feet away, I wait to see if the alligator will move from the path on its own volition. Often it doesn't. I grab the handlebars and lift the front tire high above my head. To the alligator, I must look like a giant.
Next I let the front tire bounce off the pavement.
I don't know why, but it almost always freaks out even the largest gator. Gargantua hisses, rises on those stubby legs and creeps in dismay toward the nearest water.
Of course I grin. I grin like a boy without a date who will have something to talk about in homeroom tomorrow. The exotic blond with the big hair and the short skirt will completely ignore him.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.