Shark Valley is an observation area in the Everglades thick with wildlife, and on crisp winter weekends, people – on foot, tram or bike – traverse the elevated loop path that parts the whiskers of the Everglades like a raised scar. By day, the Everglades hums in the sun, a quiet exhalation of life, of white birds and iridescent insects and leathery snouts peeking from the muck.
When darkness closes in on the Everglades – enigmatic even under the relentless searchlight of the sun – the mysteries of this place are multiplied. The way to see it is by bicycle. But you must choose the date carefully: It must be the night of a full moon. It must be clear, and it must be dry. If it’s cool, there won’t be bugs.
About an hour before sunset, park the car outside of the entrance to Shark Valley. Take the bikes off the rack and walk them around the closed gate. Ride your bike through the empty parking lot until you find the loop path. The sky will begin its sunset blush and your eyes will feel dusty with pink. Notice this, because by the time you do, it will change. All of it will change, and you will note the changes, but they will be as subtle as if you were riding through a rainbow. All of this will happen on a flat palette of sky and earth, but the sky will fill your vision and the earth will breathe with sound and you will be astonished that this two-dimensional landscape could be filled with such depth and wonder.
Watch the sky. As you ride, the pink will begin to simmer from the hot lead plunge of the sun to the horizon. Soon the whole dome of sky will boil purple and orange and red, and your eyes will hurt with pleasure from the light. The loop path which stretched ahead of you into the vast vat of the Everglades will fuzz over and become indistinct in the shifting waves of color. You will squint into the curve of the trail to plot your course to stay on the asphalt and not veer off into the high grass, now flaming with sunset reflection.
You may catch your breath in a startled spasm but it won’t be from riding, because this 17-mile loop is as flat as the trail of a snail. Your breath could be snagged by the sudden snap of an egret’s wings, by the flashing silhouette of a deer in the distance, by the shriek of an eagle swooping down to its nest. Or your breath might be sucked in a tooth-chilling gasp when you realize that the mound that shifted as you pedaled by was an alligator.
The alligators are all around you. They are the bubbles in the muck. They are the parting of the weeds. They are the snurfing noises that you thought were the sound of your wheels.
And you will say to yourself, I can out-pedal an alligator, but then you will ask yourself, how fast can they run? As you imagine one, horny and crude and lumbering on its belly, fat claw feet scraping the asphalt, chasing you down like a saber tooth tank, round and round the loop. Then you will spy yet another alligator, and it will look so sleepy and lazy and self-absorbed that you will laugh at your foolishness and pedal a little more slowly and remember the sky. When you look up, it is folding in on itself, pulling darkness toward the ruddy west. And the sun is a ball of blood bouncing on the horizon.
Right about now you will reach the lookout tower at the far end of the loop. It spirals up from nowhere, an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence. Park your bike at the bottom. Now run up the spiral, fast, because you don’t want to miss the moment when the earth swallows the sun.
Breathless, you reach the top of the tower. Spread before you is a panorama of such startling stillness that you turn away from the very drama that brought you here. Sunset can wait. The Everglades melts into the distance like burned butter. Animal voices call to one another, whisper the gossip of the grass, tell secrets in song. To the east, the horizon has blurred to a charcoal smudge; to the west, the sun is a neon beanie on the head of the earth. You watch as it disappears.
If you have picked the most perfect night, the moon will rise momentarily with the sinking of the sun, a cosmic fulcrum. If your timing is less than perfect, no matter. You will simply have an interlude of utter dark before the moon can light your way. Watch the sun’s afterglow; listen to the dark as it descends.
Snurf. Snurf snurf. You hear a guttural piggy sound coming from the inky trough of water below the tower. You lean over and look. The ink moves and shifts with dark shapes and you know what they are: the alligators have awakened with the night. You watch and listen and wait for the moon to rise.
The sky is salted with crystal stars, and the air is peppered with sound. Impatient for the moon, you descend the tower to pedal off into ebony, lit only by the pale ribbon from your flashlight. Soon, your shadow twin will ride beneath you as the moon appears over your shoulder, filming the road in silver. Just ahead, you can make out the boardwalk that spans a little inlet. Stop and walk out over the water.
Blinking at you from the distance will be a tiny pair of red stoplights. As if in response, another pair will wink, then another, and another, until they seem to multiply, gliding through the void like some ruby constellation drawn by the gravity of your presence. Then you hear the sound: Snurf. And an echoing reply, snurf snurf, until there is a clamoring chorus with glowing red eyes serenading you from below.
So you continue your journey, studying the tall grass that swims with moving things, listening for the shuffle of a speeding waddle, the distinctive clack of claws, the rasp of cold primordial breath. And as you ride, the moon will rise higher and higher. Soon its luminescence will purge all of the ghosts.
Wildlife and Nature: Florida’s Outdoors Magazine