Among Alligators and the Ghosts of Mad Men on the Mighty St. Johns.
Late last summer (2009) an email from Editor-in-Chief Richard Thiel pinged into my inbox—“I have something up my sleeve for you”—it read. The editors here were in the midst of planning our trips for the magazine’s annual cruise issue, and my mind began to race. Would I be going to Belize? The Med? Maybe even the South Pacific?
Jump cut, if you will, to Thiel’s office the following day. “How’d you like to cruise the St. Johns River with [Senior Editor] Bill Pike? It runs from Jacksonville into northern central Florida,” Thiel offered, leaning back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head.
“Sounds great,” I said. “The hell is the St. Johns River?” I thought.
A few minutes later I was Googling the river and quickly surmised that not only did it (somewhat mind-bogglingly) occasionally run both north and south, but it was allegedly teeming with alligators. “Nice,” I thought to myself. “I’m definitely going to get eaten.”
After a bumpy flight into Jacksonville, Bill picked me up, and we drove to the Ortega Landing Marina on the Ortega River, also in Jacksonville, where I laid eyes on a vessel I had read much about but never seen, Bill’s beloved trawler, the Betty Jane. At 32 feet, she is, for lack of a better description, a happy little boat—with gleaming brightwork and a sheerline that suggests she is smiling. From some angles, she almost looks like a Disney cartoon version of a boat—which is fitting, because Bill himself, with a bushy beard, ever-present eyeglasses, and a folksy voice drenched in an accent of inscrutable origin, smacks of a Disney character himself. Wise and kind, he brings to mind Geppetto, the unassuming woodworker who, through skill and care and little bit of luck, managed to bring an inanimate object to life.
On the dock at Ortega, there were pressing matters at hand—namely a tropical storm that lurked on the horizon like somebody’s bad dream. Bill wanted to see if we could press upstream and maybe get ahead of it, so after a little provisioning and a quick wipe-down of the boat, we pushed off into the Ortega River around 3 p.m. and chugged towards the nearby Ortega River Bridge, the entrance to the mighty St. Johns.
Bill had been fiddling doggedly with his VHF, determined to get a bead on what the storm might do. As we neared the bridge, it creaked slowly upward, the traffic on the road came to a halt, Bill made some chitchat with the bridge operator, and—boom—there we were, in the wide open gape of the St. Johns. I chuckled remembering something Bill had said moments earlier, “Kevin, we are about to venture up the St. Johns River, amongst the ghosts of mad men and psychopaths.” I was not sure what he had meant.
We made it about 200 yards before it started to rain.
Bill pulled back on the throttle. “Well,” he said, his palms up, feeling for drizzle. “This doesn’t look particularly promising, Kevin.” Our adventure was officially hamstrung. He spun the boat around and hopped back onto the VHF. “Ortega River Bridge, this is the Betty Jane,” he said, a tad sheepishly, “you’re going to think I’m insane, but would you mind if we made another pass through your bridge?” The bridge operator was still so close I could see him with my naked eye.
“No, not at all,” a voice came crackling back, “that’s something any sane person would do. You’re not a lunatic at all, are ya?” A pause. “Ask my wife,” replied Bill. And back to the marina we went.
It stormed all night, and though the morning broke dry, the sky remained a pallid gray. Undaunted, we shoved off again, back down the Ortega, past the bridge, and again into the mouth of the St. Johns. This time the skies held, and a lone dolphin frolicked off of our bow—always a welcome sign at the start of a journey.
We motored steadily upriver—which means south—at about six knots, with our course set for the small town of Palatka, about 50 miles away. Twenty miles in however, a downpour commenced. So much for the “Sunshine” State. Bill and I simply shouldered our rain gear and stayed on the bridge throughout the day’s damp undertakings. (Well, Bill did anyway. I got some reading done down in the saloon.)
Eventually the rain let up and we reached the docks at The Boathouse Marina in Palatka, where we were greeted by Skip, a friendly attendant with skin sun-baked to alligator hide and a voice as Southern fried as a catfish po’ boy. Shortly, Skip would introduce me to one of the dominant forces that shapes the Palatkan paradigm—Harley-Davidson.
When I get to a new place, I always want to get a feel for the local flavor, so I left Bill at the dock and went off to see what I could see. As I left the marina, I bumped into Skip again by the front gate and asked him about a blues bar in the center of town that I had read about before setting out. “Oh yeah,” said Skip, pushing his sun-bleached ball cap back on his head. “I actually have to head over there today to hang up some flyers for a memorial for my buddy.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, man.”
“Yep, he was doin’ somethin’ he shouldn’ta been doin’, screwin’ around on his Harley and he caught a peg . . .,” Skip shrugged, shaking his head and kind of half-smiling.
“Ah geez,” I said, “that’s awful.”
“Yep,” came the matter-of-fact reply, “just messin’ around. Doin’ somethin’ he shouldn’ta.”
Something in his tone told me this wasn’t Skip’s first rodeo and that fatal bike wrecks here aren’t considered unthinkable tragedies, but rather just a bitter fact of life.
When I found Downtown Blues on St. Johns Avenue, it was about as organically honky-tonk as I could have hoped for—showcasing a hard-won patina that some bars spend a lot of money to duplicate (with varying success). And the music rocked. A local biker named Jim Bob, wearing a black cowboy hat and a leather Harley vest with more than one “In Memory of” patch sewn on it, was making like Waylon Jennings onstage, singing original bluesy country songs that dripped with the soul of the river itself. A sample lyric from “St. Johns River Man,” a song Jim Bob wrote earlier that week while fishing off his bass boat: “Got my guitar and a cold beer in my hand/not a day goes by I don’t thank God I’m a St. Johns River man.”
After downing a few obligatory Bud longnecks, I went off to meet Bill at Angel’s Diner—the oldest diner in all of Florida, established in 1932. It looks like it hasn’t changed much since then. The diner is not much more than an old railroad car with a big sign out front that says “Bikers Welcome.” My hopes were not high for the grub. Everyone I’d asked in town had told me to “just get the burger,” generally code for “the food stinks.” But as it turned out, the locals were just being honest. The burgers at Angel’s are little, greasy nuggets of goodness. It’s no surprise the place has shown such staying power.
After a night on the Betty Jane, Bill and I decided to check out another staple of the Palatka-area dining scene—Corky Bell’s. I should mention at this time that my trip had thus far been alligator-less and really, devoid of any wildlife sightings worth mentioning beyond the one dolphin and the small mullet that leapt ceaselessly from the river’s surface for reasons unknown. But on a small beach next to Corky Bell’s, a riverside watering hole known for its “Swamp Platter” (gator tail, whole catfish, soft-shell crab, frog legs, and crawfish), I saw my first gator—just a pup really. It was only about three feet long, but still, it counted.
I saw my second gator just a few minutes later. This time it wasn’t on a beach—it was on my plate. The buffalo-style fried alligator at Corky Bell’s is surprisingly good. (It tastes like chicken! No, really.) If you’ve never had alligator before, you should know that there’s something karmically satisfying about eating an animal that, under different circumstances, would be eating you. Out on the water, I could see Skip buzzing around in his old bass boat that he claimed he could get up to 74 mph. I couldn’t help but smile. There’s no pegs on a bass boat after all.
Sated on gator meat, we left Corky Bell’s and steamed down river (north) back towards Jacksonville. It was a gorgeous day, bright and breezy, and we had the two-mile-wide, tea-colored river all to ourselves. (In fact, oddly, we saw virtually no boat traffic our entire trip.) Bill put the Betty Jane on autopilot and poured over some charts looking for a suitable anchorage for the night while I busied myself with a length of line, learning new knots. At one point I aimlessly draped the rope around the back of my neck. Noticing this, Bill piped up, “Take that rope off your neck, Kevin. Anybody sees that they’re gonna say ‘Boy, three days on a boat with old Bill Pike and that kid tried to hang himself.’” I obliged.
We decided to moor for our last night near Trout Creek, about 25 miles south of Jacksonville, and motored into the cove there near dusk. In the fading light, the mangrove-encrusted banks of the narrow rivulet took on an alchemy of their own: the black water mingling with the growing shadows and the spindly, finger-like extensions of the trees. We were at the edge of the swamp, where land and water mesh into something fully other—an alien universe unto itself. A dead catfish floated by. Around us, the frequency of the mullets’ leaps intensified nearly to a boil as the sun nestled into a pink expanse that was smothering the horizon. The air was thick with buzzing swamp insects and the persistent kerr-splush, kerr-splush, kerr-splush of the jumping fish. In the day’s last gasp of light I leaned on the bowrail and peered back into the swamp, searching for god knows what. Mad men and psychopaths. Suddenly, in the murky darkness 15 feet off our stern, something huge shattered the surface. Instantly I wheeled around, my eyes vainly trying to refocus in the muted light. But I never saw a thing.
As the night bore on, a humbling array of stars revealed itself. Meteors flamed and burst in the perimeters, and the Milky Way hung weightlessly; a golden smear in the deep-navy ink of the sky. But there was no moon. After walking all around the boat to make sure that the moon indeed was not in attendance and not just blocked from my view, I said to Bill, “Hey, uh, there’s no moon up there tonight?” Bill just looked at me earnestly and said “Gee, do you think something happened to it?” before letting slip a Cheshire Cat grin and shuffling off to bed. I stayed up about an hour longer, reclining in the pitch-black cockpit, and soaking in my last night on the St. Johns River. It was stark. It was eerie. It was beautiful.