The immense cypress tree at mile marker 54.5 of the Tamiami Trail — the highway that cuts across the Everglades in southern Florida — looks like it belongs in a fairy tale. Draped in robes of Spanish moss, the tree stands above its mirror image, reflected in a pond.
But follow the path beyond the trail, and the water becomes a murky swamp crawling with formidable spiders, a variety of snakes, congregations of alligators and, occasionally, panthers. What counts for land there yields apples that taste like turpentine, and strangler figs that compete so fiercely for light under the forest canopy they sometimes subsume the host tree their branches embrace.
This foreboding world would seem the least appealing of the natural riches in Florida, where white-sand beaches line an immense coastline. Yet every year, tourists venture beyond that cypress to experience one of the most intimate encounters with nature that you can find: a swamp walk. There’s no airboat here. No kayak. No boardwalk. Just old shoes, a walking stick and mucky brown swamp water rising, at times, up to your thighs.