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Beauty and the beasts

Published Apr. 20, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

Ambition and sweat tamed the Everglades just enough to bring modern life to Tampa and Miami. Now, 75 years later, we speed along a road where civilization runs wild as the alligator.

Let Us Now Praise A Famous Road: United States 41.

Not the part of U.S. 41 that begins in Copper Harbor, Michigan, and sashays south until it penetrates Tampa. Let us praise the part that starts in Tampa and passes through Gibsonton and Ruskin and Bradenton, creeps through Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples, slithers east into the wilderness of the Big Cypress, Ochopee and the Miccosukee Reservation in the Everglades and blows into Miami, blows into Miami like a hurricane, and congas and rhumbas and sambas through the impossible traffic of Little Havana before petering out a couple miles later at Brickell Avenue, U.S. 1 on your trusty gas station road map.

We call the 275-mile Tampa to Miami stretch of U.S. 41 the Tamiami Trail.

The 75th anniversary of the completion of the Tamiami Trail happens on April 25. It will probably be treated like a local story in much of the United States, though it should be more. The Tamiami Trail, perhaps America's funkiest road, marries shell-lamp Florida with the Florida of pinky rings and dry martinis. It's our version of the famous Route 66, though without the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath or the Bobby Troup song, (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66, which even the Rolling Stones recorded. Who needs Mick Jagger when you got bears and alligators, circus sideshow performers and fine art masterpieces, juicy tomatoes and roasted Cuban pork?

Miami's Capt. James J. Jaudon, who wanted to develop his holdings in the Everglades, thought up the idea of a road linking Florida's coasts in 1916. In Tampa, E.P. Dickey of the Board of Trade seconded the motion and suggested a name, the Tamyami Trail.

"Good heavens," bellowed the editor of the Estero American Eagle. "The name sounds like a bunch of tincans tied to a dog's tail and clattering over cobblestones." But in Miami, William Stewart Hill, a Herald writer, sprinted to his typewriter. Whenever interest waned, he batted out another story.

Barron G. Collier, a Southwest Florida millionaire who amassed a fortune in the New York advertising business, bankrolled Trail construction when the state ran out of money. In return, a county was named for him. Collier wanted more than immortality. From his mansion he looked with envy at all that Henry Flagler money over in Miami and plotted a way to get it flowing in his direction. The Tamiami Trail was the pipeline.

Considered among the world's great engineering feats, the Tamiami Trail took a dozen years of sweaty, buggy, boggy work to complete. It took dreamers and schemers and $8-million. It took a lot of dynamite to blast away stubborn rock. It took oxen, especially an ox named Old Blue, to haul stuff through the Everglades. Paul Bunyan would have been there, but he was scared of mosquitoes.

The mosquitoes still await new blood. They'll get it as an ambitious Everglades Restoration Project picks up steam. An important part of the project involves retooling sections of the Tamiami Trail. Of course, people are arguing about it; people always have argued about getting the Trail right once and for all.

Thousands of workers, as tough as corn cobs, built the road. Only one known member of the crew is alive. He is a fragile 95, but his rich memories are intact. Deep in the Everglades, a Miccosukee Indian elder dwells on his sad memories of how the road altered his culture forever. "Not all changes are good," he says. "It is very hard to live in two worlds."

Turn the page for the tale of the Trail.


It would be nice to begin with a postcard scene of waving palms, a moonlit pond or an orange tree dripping white with blossoms. But the Tamiami Trail starts where U.S. 41 meets State Road 60 in an industrial East Tampa neighborhood occupied by gas stations, high-turnover motels and tire-clogged ditches.

Poverty comes with the scenery.

Jim Carr, Linda Gregory and Darryl Bedell watch from the best seat in a bleak house. Homeless, they pass their days under the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. When they panhandle enough at the traffic light, they can buy a six-pack of Bud and a tin of Bugler Turkish Blended Tobacco with which they roll cigarettes by hand. They're middle-aged but look older, worn out Walker Evans photographs made flesh. Their lives are about hanging on.

They are longtime carnival workers, but the economy is so bad, even carnivals aren't hiring everyone who wants a payday. In a good year, Bedell would be transporting by trailer a Ferris wheel down the Tamiami Trail or to points north along U.S. 41. Carr and Gregory would be running a carnival game called the Rabbit Toss. Instead, they endure.

"We're just like them Injuns on the other end of the Trail, bro," Carr says. "We ain't no different."

Ruskin: JUICED

Bill Butler works the phones at the Ruskin Vegetable Corp. Hungry folks all over the country want to know when he's going to have Ruskin tomatoes to sell.

Ruskin is to tomatoes what the Indian River is to oranges. A Ruskin tomato is not a special variety; it's a tomato grown in a region: the fields adjacent to the Tamiami Trail in southwest Hillsborough County.

"Do you know why Ruskin is a perfect place for growing tomatoes?" asks Butler, who has toiled in the food business for most of his 67 years. "We have two growing seasons, fall and spring. We have loose, sandy soil, which means the plant roots get wet without drowning. Just underneath the sandy soil is good, hard soil, and under the hard pan are a bunch of natural wells. Ruskin does okay in a drought."

Ruskin long has been blessed with hard-working people to grow, nourish and pick the tomatoes. African-Americans and Hispanics do most of the back-breaking work in the fields, loading trucks that rumble up and down the Trail to the packing centers. There, tomatoes are packed into 25-pound boxes and trucked to wholesalers and retailers.

Tomato sandwich season on the Tamiami Trail is just around the corner. Locally, tomato fanciers already are hunting along the Trail for "U-Pick" signs.


In Sarasota, motorists don't brake for tomatoes. They brake for the masterpieces at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on the Tamiami Trail.

John Ringling's first job was as a clown. Later, he and his brothers started the famous circus that still bears the family name. A millionaire, Ringling and his wife, Mable, settled in Florida as the Tamiami Trail was under construction. They built a mansion and filled it with their collection of Baroque and Renaissance paintings.

Today it's the state's art museum and a major tourist attraction. Patrons stand murmuring in front of Peter Paul Rubens paintings tall enough to be movie theater screens. In an atmosphere so hushed and reverent, talking loud would be considered a vulgarity.


A carnival funnel cakes trailer parked next to a tattoo parlor is as reliable as a city limits sign. For much of the year, carnival workers by the hundreds call Gibsonton home. During the season, they pack their trunks and head up the Tamiami Trail to small towns and churches throughout Middle America. Careers over, retired carnies come home to Gibsonton to live out their days.

Al Tomaini and his wife, Jeanie, helped establish Gibsonton nearly six decades ago when the Trail and U.S. 41 beyond was a main route. Al, known as Giant, was nearly 8 feet 5. Jeanie, known as Half Girl, was 2 feet 6. Giant and Half Girl are gone, but the restaurant they started, Giant's Camp, remains a beacon to hungry folks along the Tamiami Trail.

In the steamy kitchen, Margaret Ingram, 74, for three decades an institution here, fries chicken and fixes collards and her famous biscuits. You can joke about her chicken but not her biscuits. "I make them from scratch," she says, eyes blazing behind spectacles.

After supper, business at Gibsonton's other institution, the Showtown Bar & Grill, draws carnival workers for beer, talk and karaoke. Regulars include little person Pete Terhurne, fire-eater Felicity Perez and her husband, sword swallower Matthew Bouvier. Often they are accompanied by their manager, Ward Hall, who has lived in Gibsonton for most of his 73 years.

"If a drunk from Tampa were to wander into Giant's or the Showtown and see all the acts that have been here throughout the years," Ward says, "he'd probably give up booze."


An hour south in Fort Myers, the Shell Factory is a different world. Nearly seven decades old, the tourist attraction is a relic of tacky, pre-Disney Florida. Inside the 17-acre building, good taste has taken a holiday. The previous sentence, by the way, is meant as a compliment.

Once upon a time, there were hundreds of impossibly colorful attractions along Florida roads. Some specialized in shells, but most featured famous Florida megafauna, namely snakes and alligators. Gator pits were as common as parking lots; even gas stations sold live baby alligators.

Now they're gone, victims of political correctness, changing tastes and Interstate 75, which funnels millions of motorists away from the Tamiami Trail. Even so, tourists on the Trail still manage to find Koreshan State Historic Site, Everglades Wonder Gardens and the Shell Factory. A half-million tourists march through the Shell Factory's door annually, drawn like zombies to bins of odoriferous sponges, clam ashtrays and a glowing bank of lights built from scallop shells.

"I'm a barnacle attached to Shell Factory," says Karen Neidigh, who has spent nearly a quarter-century working there. "Sometimes I feel like I'm part of a dying breed, but you know, lots of people enjoy old-fashioned Florida."

She steps aside as a thundering herd of German tourists charges a counter almost sagging from the weight of resplendent coconut-head dolls.


The urban parts of the Tamiami Trail, especially in Naples, could be the urban sections of gazillions of roads. In practically any given mile you can swig a wake-me-up cup at Starbucks, wolf french toast at the International House of Pancakes, buy a hammer at Home Depot, pick up a Barbie at Toys "R" Us, eat a burger at Wendy's, stop at Wal-Mart for paper towels, run into an Eckerd for aspirin, have a nice steak at Outback, then hit the cineplex and watch Jungle Book 2. The Tamiami Trail is as American as a Frisch's Big Boy apple pie.

Roan "Doc" Johnson remembers when there were more mosquitoes and bears than french fries on the Tamiami Trail. He was there when they laid the last inch of tar through the Everglades.

"Everything they tell you about building the Tamiami Trail is true," he says in a weak voice. "It was brutal work, harder than anything I ever done. They always had three crews. One was doin' the work, the one that had had enough was on the way out, and the third crew that didn't know what was ahead of them was comin' in. We had convicts and Indians, black people and white. Everybody was poor back then, and everybody wanted work."

He is 95 and speaks in a magnolia blossom accent grown in Georgia. He and Marie, married 64 years, live in a small bungalow a few blocks off the Trail. Orange and mango trees line the fence; a little cypress swamp, a reminder of the bigger one that Doc endured on the Trail, guards the driveway.

"I was 18 when I come down to Florida," he says. The year was 1926, and the Trail was two years from completion. As the Miami crew inched west, Doc's Naples crew crept east. They're all dead now, the members of those crews, grizzled young men, drunkards some of them, Bible toters, family men, gamblers, lovers of the ladies. Doc reels off their names _ Meece Ellis! Earl Ivey! _ and to him they're alive. Doc has to do the talking for them now.

Doc was a surveyor. He and others waded ahead, hacked their way through the wet thickets and laid out a route, often accompanied by a crack shot who discouraged rambunctious alligators and snakes.

Behind Doc's team waded a larger crew, arranging cypress pole rail tracks in the mud; later, using the tracks, came the ox-pulled carts loaded with men, drills and dynamite. Underneath the mud was solid rock. Drill hole, place dynamite, light fuse, run for safety; such was the routine. Before it was over, the Trail required 2,598,000 sticks of dynamite.

"Men, money and machinery," was the slogan of the dreamers who wanted the Trail built.

"Muck, misery and moccasins," was the credo of the men who did the work.

"The mosquitoes ate you alive," Doc says and automatically scratches the back of his hand. "But the horseflies was worse. They'd take a hunk o' flesh out of you. We slept out in the open, mostly, under netting. That was fine unless it rained. When it rained, you'd hunker under the ox cart to stay dry. Only you never got dry."

The ox cart was pulled by Old Blue. When the ox was supposed to move, he stopped. When he was supposed to go straight, he turned. But he could haul heavy equipment when he had a mind to.

Next came the big dredges to scoop up the loose rock into what became the roadbed. Today, the last of the machinery, the Bay City Walking Dredge, fights rust just inside the entrance of Collier-Seminole State Park on the Tamiami Trail.

"I made $78 a month," Doc says. "Good money then. Sometimes we'd get Saturday night off. We'd get taken back to Everglades City. There was liquor even though Prohibition was going on, and cards and pool."

Sometimes, after the whiskey took hold, men settled grudges with knives and axes.

"They was rough old boys," Doc says. "They was hard on newcomers. On your first day, at breakfast, they'd give you pancakes. They'd watch the new man, but the new man didn't know why until he poured his syrup. That's because they'd put a big old cockroach in the syrup pitcher. If you didn't react too bad, you was considered tough enough to work on the Tamiami Trail. One time I saw this old boy just push the cockroach off his pancake with his fork and keep on eating. He was tough enough, I guess."

By April 25, 1928, the road was paved and ready for traffic. The celebration began in Everglades City with speeches and music and a parade. Stern-faced Miccosukee Indians stood in the crowd; a cavalcade of Model T's lined up, a ribbon was cut. Motorists finally could use the Tamiami Trail. Two hours later a driver fell asleep at the wheel and hit a cypress tree.

Big Cypress: WATCHED

There are two ways to cross the wilderness of Southern Florida: the fast and dull route or the slow and interesting way. I-75, completed in 1993, is the so-called Alligator Alley superhighway taken by about 21,000 motorists a day. The speed limit is 70 mph, but don't stop to gawk. The speed limit on the two-lane Tamiami Trail ranges from 35 mph to 65. About 3,000 cars and trucks travel the Trail daily. Sometimes they have to brake for alligators.

The Trail cuts through the most beautiful section of the Big Cypress. The Big Cypress gets its name not from the size of the trees but a million-acre forest that is dark, foreboding and beautiful. Along the Trail rare ghost orchids cling to sturdy tree limbs while elusive Florida panthers ambush otters, hogs and deer.

The country is also habitat for crusty old-time hunters who have shacks hidden in the deepest woods and more sociable younger folks who live along the road. They include the dwellings of a scattering of eccentrics such as campground owner David Shealy, a darling of tabloid America and tireless promoter of the existence of Florida's version of Bigfoot, the Swamp Ape.

"I've seen him twice," he says.

Even without monsters, the Tamiami Trail can be a mighty exciting place. Just ask Michelle Daniels Smith. At 42, she manages the post office in the community known as Ochopee, a Miccosukee word meaning "Big Field." There is no Big Field in the vicinity anymore, just the post office, which happens to be the smallest in North America.

Smith's building is 8 feet 4 inches deep and 7 feet 3 inches wide. It serves more than 400 people who live along the Trail and thousands of tourists who stop to mail cards that carry the Ochopee postmark.

"The only time this post office seems small is when I have a snake in here with me," drawls Smith, who grew up in the Everglades but never got used to sharing space with pygmy rattlesnakes and their ilk. "I'm probably the only post office in the United States that has a special stick for catching snakes."

They squeeze under the door and slither through cracks in the roof. An alligator has not found a way to join her indoors, though a 12-footer occasionally sunbathes in the parking lot. "It's never boring around here," Smith says.

In late afternoon, after checking for critters, she saunters out of her building and takes down the American flag for the day.

"Oops!" she yells, suddenly pointing. "Lookie over there!"

On the other side of the Tamiami Trail, grazing for seed on the edge of a cypress swamp, is a hungry black bear.

Black bears never have hurt anybody in Florida, but lots of people got nervous in the company of the late Leon Whilden, the Tamiami Trail curmudgeon who operated a plant exhibit known as Orchid Isles. Waving his shotgun or machete, he ran off customers unlucky enough to have facial hair, children in tow or New York accents.

"He'd also get naked, jump in the canal, swim under water and come to the surface under tourists who were fishing," says Trail resident Niki Butcher. "He'd jump out of the water, pull out his false teeth, get them clacking and chase people down the Trail."

Butcher and her husband, noted landscape photographer Clyde Butcher, bought Whilden's property and have tried to be more accommodating to tourists, shaven and unshaven, at their art studio. Clyde, all 300 pounds of him, often is seen making photographs with his giant camera along the Trail.

"Hey, Niki," he calls as he sets up a shot in a swamp. "Keep your eye on those alligators, will you?"

Miccosukee Reservation: BUFFALO TIGER'S RIVER OF GRASS

The Miccosukee Reservation sits in the heart of what author Marjory Stoneman Douglas called "The River of Grass." It's a shallow, 70-mile-wide river that flows from Lake Okeechobee through Everglades National Park to Florida Bay. Like other parts of the Everglades, the river is in trouble.

"It's you white-skinned people who did this."

Heenehatche, known to white people as Buffalo Tiger, was born in the Everglades in 1919 when the great swamp was still unspoiled. He was a boy when the Trail crossed Miccosukee land.

The Miccosukees had fled to the Everglades in the 19th century after years of warfare with the U.S. government, when their people were routinely deported to Oklahoma reservations. Later, it was common for Indian children to be taken from their parents and "reprogrammed" at boarding schools.

"The old people told us to be careful of the white people," Tiger says. "We hid in the bushes and watched them build the road."

Miccosukees worshiped what they called the Feshahkee-ommehche, the Great Breathmaker who kept life in balance. They renewed vows to the Earth during the annual Green Corn Dance and hunted their food. Buffalo lived with his family in a chickee and went to sleep under mosquito netting while listening to elders tell ancient stories meant to instruct the young. "Everything we needed," he says, "we had right here in the Everglades."

Yet in some ways the new road made life easier. No longer was a trip to Miami a three-day ordeal by dugout canoe. A Miccosukee could ride for free on Barron Collier's Trailways Bus Lines.

The new road made it just as easy for Miamians to visit the Everglades. Suddenly the Miccosukees were in the tourist business. Buffalo Tiger wrestled alligators and sold crafts. He learned English, represented his tribe in dealings with the whites and was elected chairman, or chief. In two decades he helped bring modernity to his people, including medicine, education and money from legal gambling.

The most traditional Miccosukees, who preferred isolation, looked askance at his three marriages to non-Miccosukee women, his fancy cars and his desire to live in Miami. He was voted out of office in 1985. "I always had a Miccosukee heart," he says. "That was the important thing. I never stopped honoring the Breathmaker."

Every day he drives his Ford Explorer from Miami to his business, Buffalo Tiger's Airboat Tour. He's 83 but still physically strong enough to take tourists out to see what remains of the Everglades.

Long ago the Everglades system was turned topsy-turvy. Many native animals, once the food of the Miccosukees, struggle for survival because of development, pollution and inadequate water. They have been replaced by animals from other lands that escaped from Miami pet owners and thrived.

Canals are filled with former pet-store fauna such as walking catfish and oscars. Up and down the Trail tourists and Miccosukees catch and eat them. They shouldn't: The fish are tainted by mercury.

Now there is a $7.8-billion plan to fix the Everglades and correct water flow problems created by the Tamiami Trail. One proposal calls for tearing up an 11-mile road section and replacing it with the world's longest bridge. Another involves additional pumping stations and a short bridge to allow a more natural flow of water. While all this is going on, Miami is marching west along the Trail. Even the Miccosukees are acquiring property near their Krome Avenue gambling palace on the edge of Miami.

Although he was called too modern, Buffalo Tiger blazed a path others followed. Gambling profits helped lift Miccosukees out of poverty and bought them a better school, their own police force and lawyers. The reservation has a medical clinic, a gym and even a fitness center to combat the growing problems of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes that were never a problem in the old days.

"I hate to say this," Tiger says, "but a lot of our younger people have difficulty with alcohol and with drugs. It's very hard when you have feet in two different worlds."

Yet after three centuries, three wars, countless racist deportations, efforts to eradicate their culture and the near destruction of their Everglades habitat, they remain. It's the 21st century, and the Miccosukee people still stand tall on the Tamiami Trail.


Sundown. Out on the Trail, the constellation of the hunter, Orion, gleams from the zenith. A shooting star flashes by. Jupiter is rising. But look east and you see the big-city glow ahead.

Old timers call it Miam-muh and remember when they could see the Milky Way from their back yards. No longer. Florida's largest city, Miami is an exciting, frightening, diverse and crowded place, especially along the traffic-clogged Tamiami Trail. Young Hispanic folks fall in love at midnight while sharing a churro at La Palma a few short blocks from where Rory E. Conde, the so-called Tamiami Strangler, murdered six crack-addicted prostitutes between Sept. 17, 1994, and Jan. 12, 1995. Now prisoner M25274 lives out his days on death row.

In Miami the Trail is known first as SW Eighth Street and then Calle Ocho, which is the heart of Little Havana. During the day, Little Havana belongs to old men who sit on benches and argue and drink strong coffee or show up at Maximo Gomez Park to play dominoes and argue and drink strong coffee. Jorge Gonzalez, who moved here from Havana in 1993, waits for a chance at the dominoes table and gulps milk from a fresh coconut. A few feet away, Rodrigo Morejon, born in Matanzas, Cuba, in 1936, smokes a foot-long cigar and contemplates lunch. Anyone who drives into Miami on the Tamiami Trail eventually thinks of his or her stomach.

Comfort food is welcome sustenance for a motorist in a big city such as Miami, where horns are as important as disc brakes. A bus roars by spewing diesel fumes. A siren wails. A passing car's stereo bawls "Boomkatta boomkatta boomkatta." For some Miamians, it's a symphony. For others, perhaps someone who prefers the whistle of ibis wings over the Tamiami Trail, the sound of the city is torture. Time to slow down! Stop and look. Stop and climb out of the car. But not for long.

"Hey, mister! Sir! Sir! Sir! Yes, you!"

It's a Hispanic man, polite but disturbed.

"Don't you know you can't park here?" he asks.

You have left your vehicle on the property of the Northern Trust Bank.

"Please, sir. Move your vehicle now."

You explain your mission.

"Okay. You can park here but just for a minute."

He watches as you walk through a canyon of skyscraping banks over to the sign on Brickell Avenue.

"End," the sign says, "East. 41."

The end of the Tamiami Trail.

To contact Floridian staff writer Jeff Klinkenberg, call (727) 893-8727 or e-mail To contact Times staff photographer Scott Keeler, call (727) 445-4260 or e-mail

Times librarians Mary Mellstrom and Kitty Bennett contributed to this project.

Special thanks to Andy Huse and Gary Mormino at University of South Florida, Collier County Museum, Collier-Seminole State Park, Mary Munson at National Parks Conservation Association, and Buffalo Tiger.


An interactive road trip, with additional photographs and commentaries by writer Jeff Klinkenberg and photographer Scott Keeler.

THE ROAD ROARS ON: A truck loaded with crab traps roars across the Tamiami Trail. Then silence, until an opera of frogs begins its nightly chorus.

LARGER THAN LIFE: The Trail passes through New Florida as well as the Norman Rockwell version. At the Ruskin Drive-In, Jeff Kale, 12, watches from Dad's truck.

FAMILY GATHERING: Broderick and Dursilla Belvin play with daughter Zaria. They are regulars at Palmetto's Pentecostal of Faith Church near the Trail in Palmetto.

ANOTHER WORLD: At the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, a visitor admires a 17th century Peter Paul Rubens masterpiece, The Meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek.

THE SIDE-OF-THE-ROAD SHOW: It's show time for fire-eater Felicity Perez, 21, little person Pete Terhurne, 73, and sword swallower Matthew Bouvier, 30.

VOICE OF THE TRAIL: Doc Johnson, 95, last of the builders.

BIRD'S EYE: The scrub jay, here on its nest at Oscar Scherer State Park on the Tamiami Trail near Osprey, is among Florida's rarest birds.

DRIVE THROUGH: We now declare the Tamiami Trail open. On April 25, 1928, festivities included speeches, parades and a motorcade.

A GLOWING REPUTATION: The Shell Factory in Fort Myers is the king of kitsch along the Trail. Its 17 acres include aisles and aisles of everything from coconut heads to the essential Florida gift: the shell light.

MUSCLING THEIR WAY ACROSS FLORIDA: "They was rough old boys," is Doc Johnson's description of the work crews. They hacked their way through thickets, hauled supplies by man and ox power all the while watching for venomous snakes and cantankerous alligators.

IT'S WHAT'S FOR DINNER: Generations of Floridians fished along the Trail for their supper. In today's Everglades, native fish are being displaced by critters from foreign lands. Here Ron Robinson unhooks a South American species, an oscar, Astronotus ocellatus, which he'll fry for dinner. They're delicious, tainted by mercury, but eaten nevertheless.

OCHOPEE, FL 34141: Michelle Smith, manager of the nation's smallest post office, never feels lonely _ especially when she shares her building with a venomous snake. Late in the afternoon, she takes down the flag.

YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?: Opportunities to see wildlife in the Everglades section of the Tamiami Trail are endless _ yet sometimes surprising. Across the road from the Ochopee Post Office, a black bear raids a bird feeder.

A SHARP TURN: Pre-Trail, Miccosukees were at home in thatched huts; today, the Miccosukee Resort and Gaming Center features luxury rooms and slot machines.

WELCOME TO MY WORLD: A boy when the Trail was built, Buffalo Tiger, 83, takes tourists on airboat tours of the Everglades.

GATOR BAIT: Sam Osceola Jr. stares down an enraged 8-foot alligator. Show time at the Miccosukee Indian Reservation. At 22, he has spent his life around alligators. Now he wrestles them for tourists. "You can't lose your focus," he says. "We had a guy here who got himself bitten on the head, and I would like to avoid it." He straddles the gator and teases it, tucking the business end of the riled animal under his chin. Itzhak Perlman never played such a Stradivarius. After work, Osceola drives home to Miami. He likes rock 'n' roll, but his girlfriend drives him crazy playing Eminem. Osceola, named after a ferocious warrior, wonders how a celebrity rapper might enjoy tangling with an alligator.

FROM THERE TO HERE: "It leaps like a flung lance, blue-black in the blazing distance, shimmering with a mirage, clear and clean against the whole of South Florida." Marjory Stoneman Douglas was writing about the Tamiami Trail in 1947, not the present.

DOMINOES' THEORY: On Calle Ocho _ the Tamiami Trail in Little Havana _ a daily ritual for many elderly Hispanic men is a round of dominoes at Maximo Gomez Park. Left to right: Enrique Rodriguez, Jesus Hernandez, Lauro Jurado, Ramon Muniz and Luis Ibara.

COUNTER CULTURE: After dark, Calle Ocho belongs to the young. At La Palma, an open-air cafe, Lori Chism, 22, and Eddie Zamora, 24, relax.

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