As the caravan of cars snaked along the narrow road, the atmosphere was cheerful as the hikers chatted about what they expected on the slog. I did not feel the anticipation that the others seemed to, instead I felt an underlying tension, and was sure that I was not the only one that noticed it. The chatter suddenly ceased when we came to a stop at an iron gate blocking our way onto the path. The guide in the front car got out and swung it open, telling those in the last car to close it as they went through. The brave adventurers forced themselves to continue their light banter, but, now, I could see that everybody was pondering the significance of the gate, which now caged us in, and permitted anyone else from coming through.
We crept a short distance along the narrow, dusty road (that we were later told was the old highway that the outlaws and murderers used to use), and then abruptly pulled off onto the side in the grass. We all got out of our cars and surveyed the scene. It was a dismal one. The normally sunny, blue sky was an ashy grey, and for as far as the eye could see, we were the only living creatures around. The forced smiles that were on our faces died as we took it all in. The sawgrass spread before us in a great, waving mass, as if trying to entice us to come in. It bent and bowed before us, looking for all the world like it was submitting to us, and taking us in as welcome guests, but we all knew that it was merely mocking us, and our apprehension grew. Once, the wind let out a lonesome moan as it blew past, but then all was still again, a deathly quiet.
We shook off our fear as we listened to our guide tell us some of the dangers to look out for while walking through the swampy prairie - snakes, alligators, deep depressions in the ground that we could fall into, and quicksand. An undercurrent of fear ran through us, but we looked at each other and plucked up our courage. After all, we thought, there's safety in numbers. The guide chose that moment to tell us that we were not allowed to walk together, that we had to spread out and make our own way. The tension rippled through the group again, and we all sucked in our collective breath and stepped off the road and into the wet wilderness.
As we gingerly put our feet into the cold water, we were surprised by the feel of something slippery under the surface. The gunk was soft and squishy, and more than a few of us slipped and almost fell. As we walked slowly into the slough, the strange, unseen ground under our feet sank and pulled at us. With each step we took, we were taken a little further away from the relative safety of the old highway, and our only means of transportation out of the sawgrass prairie, and the water got deeper and deeper, gradually climbing up over the tops of our sneakers and filling them.
As the water got deeper, it got murkier, so that we could not see where we were putting our feet, and all that could be heard was the wet sucking sound of the muck as it pulled at us and tried to hold us. The dead, organic slime we were walking on alternately slipped and held us, making our progress treacherous. Whenever we stopped to get a better ook at something, or to catch our breath, the sludge would slowly collapse under us, making us sink into it. The deeper we sunk, the harder it was to get free and to keep slogging, since it seemed to be sucking the very energy and will out of us.
More frightening even than the sucking, pulling, rotted sludge, was the sudden dips and holes in the underlying limestone, which would make the ground seemingly disappear from under us, until we fell in, and had the slimy muck grab at us again. Periodic shouts and screams would shatter the stillness as someone else found a hole and sank a few feet down. The poles that a few of us carried had at first seemed like tools to help guide our steps, but it was rapidly becoming evident that their real purpose was to fight the wild forces that had surrounded us, or to be more accurate, that we had intruded on. A few times, a fallen adventurer would try to use a pole to try to pull free, only to have the pole itself become stuck too, as the slime grabbed hold of it, willing to put up a fight for the prize.
The sawgrass, too was a malignant force to be reckoned with. It had seemed so gentle and welcoming in the beginning, but we quickly learned that it had a hidden dark side. As we brushed past the slender, flexible strands, the razor edges cut into our flesh, often drawing blood. In the water, too, the blades of grass would tangle and wrap around our ankles, both holding and sawing into us. It was like being shackled with living barbed wire.
As we continued on our sojourn, a few of the explorers fell behind, and when we finally stopped to rest, it was realized that they hadn't followed us. When we could wait no longer, we decided to go on, so that we, at least, would survive. We fought our way back through the wilderness, the landscape never seeming to change, until we made it back to the waiting cars. As we stood on the dry land of the road, we looked back on the undulating sea of grass that we had traversed, and were thankful that we had made it out to the other side. We waited for our lost friends for a while more, but when it became evident that they were not coming back, we all said a prayer for them, and silently accepted the fact that the everglades had claimed victory over another pair of humans foolish enough to try to conquer it. The two that were left behind were never heard from again, although it has been rumored that if you go out slogging on a dark, overcast day, you will see two figures slowly struggling along, never looking up or calling out, but always trying to get back to that old abandoned highway.
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