Florida, USA: Hunting Reserve
"Travel doesn't become adventure until you leave yourself behind." Marty Rubin
Brad was a friend of a friend with a hunting lodge out near Cypress Ridge Hunting Reserve., an area similar to the everglades, and invited us to join him for the weekend. The lodge was often cut off by surface water so we couldn’t drive our hire car there, we had to meet Brad a few miles away. He arrived in an enormous home-made vehicle the likes of which I’d never seen before, the industrial wheels were 6 feet tall on top of which was a wooden platform with car seats bolted to it, a steering wheel and a gear stick and that was about it, it was open to the elements.
We climbed aboard and Brad took us off towards his lodge. We ambled over deeply rutted mud tracks and through deep puddles which would have flooded our car in seconds. There were no roads, just the odd path here and there, some of which we followed but mostly we drove across unmarked.
Every now and then we’d pass small wooden shacks that were little more than sheds, cobbled together with wood and corrugated iron, there were no visible fences or boundaries of any kind, this was proper off-grid living.
After half an hour we arrived at Brad’s lodge which was quite sophisticated compared to the others we’d passed. He’d built it by hand and done a fantastic job. It had a huge double height lounge/dining area with a big stone fireplace that was the main source of heating, three bedrooms, a fully functional kitchen and bathroom and hot running water, all serviced by a rainwater tank and generator. Given what we’d passed on the way here I was pleasantly surprised and relieved we’d be warm during these unseasonably cold evenings.
We were introduced to five men who were there for the weekend and it was immediately clear I wasn’t welcome. The men stared at me as though I was Medusa and then clustered together in a couple of groups, chatting in hushed tones.
Apparently women rarely visited, had I known I wouldn’t have come, I didn’t want to impose. I was cross with Ian for not telling me I wouldn’t really be welcome, but then I suspected Ian hadn’t said anything because he didn’t like me being out of his sight. I wondered what else I was in for that he hadn’t told me about.
Although the fire was warm elsewhere was chilly so I was loaned a big camouflage jacket which became my best friend, I also then blended in – they were all wearing camouflage jackets. I put my essentials in the jacket pocket – cigarettes which I would liberally smoke to fit in with the boys and lip balm which I would only use when they weren’t looking.
I tried to blend into the background and be as amiable as I could. Basically I sat on the sofa on my own while the lads chatted. I plastered a smile on my face and tried not to be an imposition. After a while one of the guys came and sat with me to chat, he was friendly and polite I was pathetically grateful.
Beers were plentiful and we all took the edge off the situation by drinking plenty. Dinner was venison stew – venison they had caught on their last trip. As a vegetarian I hated the thought of shooting, skinning and eating meat, but ethically if you’re going to shoot it, then at least eat it so it’s not wasted. However the very fact I was vegetarian clearly wasn’t going to do me any favours. Brad kindly offered me spaghetti shapes and crackers, I was really grateful he had something for me to eat and as it happened I love spaghetti shapes! I had no desire to enter into a debate about vegetarianism with this crowd and mercifully no-one questioned me about it.
After dinner and several more beers everyone seemed to relax, we all gathered around the fire and I listened to the boys chat about their various escapades over the years. Brad’s son Eric was early twenties, he’d been bitten by a crocodile while trespassing and diving for golf balls on a golf course at night. Apparently he could collect $200 of balls a night. One night an alligator appeared out of the water and grabbed his arm. His friend grabbed Eric’s legs and so ensued a tug of war, shredding Eric’s arm in the process. Eventually the alligator gave up and Eric was rushed to hospital. He amazingly had the majority of use in his arm back, but it would never be the same. By the end of the story a couple of others were listening, and from then on, the beer and conversation flowed. I knew I’d never be accepted there but I’d made it half way through the door of acceptance and I was grateful for that.
The next morning I threw on trousers and a shirt before heading to the shower – this was not a place to wear skimpy clothing, even if only darting from the room to the shower. I kitted up in my camouflage jacket ready for a day out, and then someone mentioned hunting. Hunting – what?! I hadn’t been told there would be hunting. But of course there would be hunting, Christ, what had Ian signed me up for. My first infraction was that I was there at all, the second was that I was vegetarian, if I said I couldn’t stomach hunting we’d be in for an awkward evening so I smiled sweetly and climbed up onto Brad’s tractor/ATV creation and sat sandwiched between two burly guys with shotguns as we headed out looking for deer.
Every now and then a sapling crossed our path and was soon flattened by our vehicle. I didn’t see why they couldn’t drive around it but I was hardly going to say anything. Next, a spider crawled across my lap, one of those with a huge bulbous back, it took everything I had not to scream and I gently brushed it away with the sleeve of my jacket while shivers shot down my spine, still smiling sweetly.
Luckily we didn’t find any deer that day, but on the way home we passed a lodge with a skinned pig hanging by its hind legs from a tree, this place was like something out of the movie Deliverance.
Back at the lodge the boys clearly wanted to put their shotguns to use so they set up the clay pigeon shooter for target practice. they offered me a go and I hit the target first time, I’d been to a shooting range years before and I happen to be a good shot, a useful skill to have, some might say. We settled in for more venison stew (spaghetti shapes and crackers for me) and beer in front of the fire. More war stories were shared (I had none to add that were anywhere close to the context), and so we wrapped up our stay at the lodge.
It wasn’t the most comfortable couple of days I’d spent in my life, but what an experience! I’d been somewhere many would never see and shared company and a weekend lifestyle many would never know existed, I was grateful for it. Brad dropped us back at our comfortable, enclosed, heated sporty hire car and we said our goodbyes as we headed off to the Florida Keys.