Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Seeking Utopia

"We should go away this weekend," my wife said. So we did, and we saw the Big Sky country not of Montana:

We went north, as one does from the Keys when traveling by land, and even though some people think I am the very embodiment of spontaneity I'm not actually. I simply prefer not to share my plans, which I work out in advance and prepare for in detail. Then I take off. This time my wife sprang the trip on me on Friday morning so I had no time to do anything. The dog wasn't washed, the car wasn't clean (though I did have the tank full) and we made no route plans except for two destinations with a motel stay in between. Oh and Trader Joe's of course. And Super Target.

I am no fan of Halloween, my birthday, but this year, finding myself on the mainland I was determined my shift would win the Communications Center decorating competition as I fancy free pizza and a work day out of uniform. But first we had to visit the Seminole reservation off Alligator Alley. I told my wife about the Indian village after I rode there on a previous trip by Bonneville through the Everglades. Key West Diary: Rainy Meditation and to think that was more than four years ago! This time I was back with wife and dog on a sunny day.

And Cheyenne was only mildly interested in the place, not as enthusiastic as I'd have expected. My dog never ceases to surprise me.

To get here we took Snake Road off I-75 at the Miccosukee rest stop at Alligator Alley.


This is touted as the best curvy motorcycle road in Florida by some wildly deprived riders. The road is built on a levee above the swamp on either side. Key West Diary: Seminole Country

It does have a few wide radiused bends but with no surprises as you can see right across them and the speed limit is 45mph which makes riding the road on a motorcycle feel like coasting on a bike path. And the Miccosukee Tribal Police love to patrol this road. I've never driven it without at least one sighting of a red-yellow-and-black striped Ford Crown Victoria. We saw one this time as well, so I stuck to 45 religiously.

Which was when we met Mitchell from Plantation. First I drove right by...

...and then turned right around. This I could not pass up. At first I thought maybe he was some Indian kid practicing where he wouldn't aggravate his neighbors. As a former tuba player myself I understood the need for solitude while practicing and I wondered if he might resent the intrusion.

I needn't have worried, Mitchell was having a blast and he was surprised and perhaps a little flattered that he suddenly had an audience. He may have heard John Lennon and Aerosmith through his headphones but I saw a wildly happy banging man, who had abandoned his family obligations for a day and was completely content.

He lives in a suburban agglomeration outside Fort Lauderdale, forty minutes away by car he said, but he is from New York city and his accent gave him away, no chance of hiding that. He told me he likes to play in the open, Central Park his favorite place.

We left him having fun, alone in the swamp under a 93 degree October sun.

And then we entered the sovereign state of Seminole-ness.

From 2009 I remembered riding through a pretty little village of suburban homes, thatched chickee huts and flower beds around coconut palms, an idyllic refuge from suburbia. Now it is a construction zone because they want or need a four lane highway through the middle of the village. Ah, progress.


The gas station had no gas, but there was traffic around, though you'd think even overloaded ATVs don't really need four lanes.

We stopped at the Seminole Museum, perhaps the single greatest attraction of Seminole-ness for outsiders, though in winter the swamp airboat rides might be worth a go. I'll write a tour of the museum later but one big point they make in the presentation is that the Seminoles have never surrendered to the United States. The Indian wars of the late 19th century saw such treaties signed, and then broken by the avaricious settlers seeking more land.

Chief Osceola led his diminished tribe into the swamps of South Florida and made a life for themselves hunting and making the most of what dry land they found. They were also a refuge for American runaway slaves who joined the Indians in their watery refuge. Nowadays gambling, known more euphemistically as "gaming" as though losing money were a sport, has made the tribe wealthy affording them the only independence worth the name, ie: financial. The tribe is a corporation and enjoys tax free status so whe you shop a the gift tore the clerk will tell you the prices sweetly adding "no tax" to the bill.

It is a popular sport to trace one's ancestry down to sixteenths and eights and parts thereof of Native American blood, as though a brush with the hem of a brain-cured leather garment is enough to endow the recipient,brith authenticity, roots and a sense of place. With my limited knowledge of tight knit isolated communities I cannot imagine doing terribly well behind the privacy screens of the Seminole and Miccosukkee villages. Around here if your last name is Billie you run the show though how many non-Billies there may be I don't know, but the name is on everything. The tribe provides rules, health care, special vehicle license plates, work and freedom from American tax hegemony. In return? I don't know what tribe members give except perhaps themsleves to gain an assured place in the order of things. Somehow it seems oddly un-American in a modern America terrified of even the taint of socialism. My wife is planning a return at the end of the month for a Corroboree ( Corroboree - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, though I think of Swallows and Amazons, not the Outback) the Seminoles are putting on.

After the museum we drove an hour on back roads to the new wilderness of the Tamiami Trail corridor, a mess of neon and chain stores and cars dashing hither and yon in great wildebeest clumps controlled by flashing lights, a rodeo of faceless metal and rubber and gasoline I tried to live among a decade ago and failed miserably. On the way to our dog friendly accommodations we passed a sign imploring us to Ave Maria, so when I looked quizzically at my wife she nodded and off we went to the newest attempt to create a New Jersualem in the swamps.

The man who made a fortune selling delivery pizza franchises (thirty minutes or your money back) was adopted and became a rabid Catholic of the traditional school. With his divinely inspired fortune he decided to create a community of fervent Catholics in the swamps outside Naples,Florida, a suburb of well to do winter residents. Hail Mary was supposed to be a enclave of Catholic values, the sort of values that make headlines as they relate to sexual practices not the ones proclaiming poverty and the sharing of wealth and kindness to strangers that the early Church was supposed to espouse. As this place isn't a sovereign nation Florida courts got a bit shirty when Ave Maria wanted to limited the sale of condoms and pornography so the rules had to be relaxed a bit. Key West Diary: Ave Maria .

I don't think this sort of grandiosity built on pizza profits in the middle of nowhere is in line with the thinking of the new pope who is struggling to find a way forward that doesn't marginalize the church by seeking to be hip or hand it over, Republican style, to a small band of closed minded fanatics, but here it is, the Cathedral surrounded by empty store fronts and a university that reinforces belief rather than challenging it. My Jewish wife, who was lost for words, overwhelmed by the sheer size of it, when I took her inside St Peter's in the Vatican, wondered what the point might be of going to university to not be intellectually challenged...

Make no mistake, Ave Maria is a refuge, an escape to a Utopia of conformity and right thinking in a world gone mad outside. In much the same way the Koreshans fled Chicago in the late 19th century to find freedom and happiness south of Fort Myers on the Estero River. I last visited the Koreshan State Park two decades ago and I was struck by their leader's vision of the earth as a sphere with the sun and the moon inside the sphere. It matched rather neatly my vision when as a small child I thought of God as an old man with a long white beard peering at us humans through a hole in the cardboard box that held the Earth and all of us on it. Where I grew out of my childhood fancies Dr Cyrus Reed Teed did not and he convinced a bunch of people to go with him and create Utopia in the bogs of South Florida.

Give him credit they did an admirable job on their three hundred acres, now preserved as a 175 acre state park in the town of Estero, created by the Koreshans. Teed's philosophy was let's say bat shit crazy in a world that already knew quite well the shape of the world and the basic form of the universe, but his social ideas were more radical and well ahead of his time. Seven women ran the organization fronted by seven men for public encounters, each representing one of the known planets. Koreshanity espoused equality of the genders, celibacy and eternal life. They put on plays, had an orchestra and tried to elevate the culture-free rubes scratching a living in the Everglades of the early 20th century.

Teed finally pissed the locals off by getting involved in politics and in a banal fist fight got beaten and arrested such that he never recovered and ended by dying an early death in 1908. Which was when his expectant followers put him in a bathtub for a week, in the south Florida heat! Instead of coming back to life his mortal remains predictably started to putrefy and the local health authorities ordered him planted. His grave was washed out to sea in a hurricane and that was the end of Cyrus "Koreshan" Teed. The disappointment that the non fulfillment of his crazy ideas generated pretty much killed off the Koreshan movement but it lingered on till 1961 when the last four members (celibacy will do that to a movement!) deeded their land to the state. The very last Koreshan, a woman survivor of the Haulocaust died in 1982 protesting to the end that she was by no means the last Koreshan, that they would live forever. Like I said, bat shit crazy. There are no more Koreshans.

The Koreshans are just another one of the stories generated by the weird humors and vapors of the Everglades, at that time a frontier as wild as Alaska and just as impenetrable. To some extent people still do come to South Florida to escape or seek Utopia or find their fortune one way or another. South Florida has always been the land of the scam and the con. The promise of endless summer, gorgeous waters and the foreignness of the landscape have always been the draw. But the interior of the state, the river of grass and the fearsome insects and alligators have reserved that place for the escape artists and those seeking isolation for good or ill. It surprised me how similar all four stories were this trip, the drummer seeking time apart, the Seminoles refusing to surrender, the Catholics demanding uniformity and the Koreshans building Utopia, all in the Everglades trying to escape reality. How different am I in the Fabulous Florida Keys?