Yvonne and I slipped away on New Year’s Day for a road trip to Florida to spend a week with her sister, Dolores.
Yvonne’s brother Jim flew in from Boston and her cousin Jean accompanied us, setting the stage for a mini family reunion.
When the Bartley’s and Steele’s get together you can always count on a lot of good food, laughter, and reminiscing about fond memories. But one never knows when trouble may be lurking just around the corner waiting for an opportunity to thrust an unpleasant memory into your life. This trip proved to be just such an occasion.
On Wednesday Jim and I drove over to Blackwater River State Park for a hike. It was a beautiful sunny day so we decided to take the long trail around Oxbow Lake. As we started our three mile trek, I casually mentioned to Jim that this was the same trail on which I had experienced a heart-stopping encounter with a bull alligator just two years ago this very week.
The thought of having such an experience a second time seemed improbable so we dismissed the notion, preferring to focus our attention on the beauty of the river with its white sand beaches, and juniper and holly bushes that lined its banks.
About a mile out, the trail made a hard right turn away from the river leading us into a forest of long-leaf pines interspersed with a few southern magnolias and live oak trees laden with Spanish moss. As we walked along the trail we exchanged stories about retirement until almost unexpectedly we came upon the swampy area where I had tangled with that bull alligator.
Conditions were drier now, clearly exposing the trail, which two years earlier had been hidden by a pool of murky black water that had forced me to leap from log to stump to log, and then by misfortune onto the back of that ill-tempered alligator. The former swamp was now a peat bog covered with large patches of soft brown grass flattened down as though deer had used it for a resting place. A few rotted logs and stumps were all that remained of the swampy conditions I had observed two years earlier.
“No sign of alligators today”, I said to Jim as I confidently led the way.
I was almost to the other side of the bog when I heard Jim call to me with panic in his voice. I spun around to see Jim sinking quickly into a hole in the middle of a large patch of brown grass. He was already knee deep and sinking fast, struggling furiously to save himself.
I didn’t know what to do but realized that whatever it was I’d better do it quickly. “Hang on,” I shouted, as I hurried back to Jim, but now fearing at any moment I might step on a spot that would lead me to the same fate Jim was now experiencing.
I managed to get to Jim just as his waist slipped below the surface of the grass, which at close view revealed a pool of oozing brown mud. Jim’s face was pale white and his eyes were filled with terror as he reached out to me with one hand and clinched a fist full of dry grass with the other, like Ishmael clinging to Queequeg’s coffin.
It was clear that Jim was beyond the reach of my walking stick, and for a brief moment a flush of fear consumed me as I watched the oozing mud reach his armpits, nearly ripping his grip from that clump of grass. Jim opened his mouth to cry for help but no sound came out.
Suddenly, a rush of adrenalin hit me like a bolt of lightning and I felt my body spontaneously spring into action. Without even thinking about what I was doing I ripped my backpack from my shoulder and quickly used a strap to tie it firmly to the end of my walking stick. I lay on my stomach and held the walking stick out to Jim hoping the addition of the backpack would make it long enough for Jim to grab hold.
“Grab my backpack,” I shouted.
I clung to my end of the walking stick as though my life depended on it, and knowing full well that Jim’s did. Now neck deep in the mud, Jim desperately reached for the backpack. Thrashing and lunging, he grasped a loose strap in one hand and then firmly gripped the backpack with the other. He had a death grip on the backpack but was able to let his body relax so I could pull him to safety.
He lay on the ground for several minutes, exhausted from his near death experience.
I stood to my feet and took several long deep breaths. I could feel my heart slowly returning to its normal rhythm. I glanced down at the spot from where Jim’s body had just been removed and was astonished to see that the grass had closed over; hiding the muddy pool that had almost become Jim’s grave, as though the entire experience had never happened.
Then, from the corner of my eye, I spotted it. “Look,” I said to Jim in a whispered voice.
Before I could describe what I was seeing Jim stood to his feet. He was dripping with mud from his neck to the soles of his shoes, and he shook himself like a shivering wet dog before looking in the direction that I was now pointing.
There, not 10 feet from us on the other side of that deathtrap patch of grass, hanging from an old stump was what appeared to be a scrap of material from a backpack. Could it be a scrap of the backpack I was carrying when I passed this way two years earlier; that I had thrown into the jaws of that old bull alligator, barely saving myself from a fate as horrific as the one from which Jim had just been saved?
I studied the scrap of cloth for a moment confirming from its color and faded North Face logo that it indeed was a remnant from my backpack. I wondered aloud if that bull alligator at some point had tried to walk across this patch of grass and was now entombed beneath it. I took solace in the thought of it.
Jim and I stood there for several minutes as though meditating over that alligator’s grave, and in my mind I measured the risk associated with trying to retrieve that scrap of my backpack.
Jim suggested that it was a fitting grave marker for the alligator, and better that it was for the alligator than for him. I had to agree but wished I had at least remembered my camera to take a picture of it.
Thankful to still have my current backpack, I loosened it from the walking stick and returned it to my shoulder. We carefully found our way back onto the trail and walked quietly for a while.
Finally, I paused, and leaning on my walking stick I said, “Jim, I don’t believe I’ll ever hike this trail again.”
George Brown is a freelance writer and lives in Jackson Township.