The Tamiami Trail: Florida’s Bridge Over a River of Grass

Posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2011 in Stories

It’s 1980 and Saturday night in Miami. I have taken time off from my duties as a magazine correspondent in the hard news capital of the nation for an evening of badly needed rest and recuperation. Tired of Coconut Grove’s trendy hangouts and the familiar haunts of Miami Beach, I turn to the west. Soon I find what I’m after just beyond the glow of city lights at an Everglades oasis called Glader Park.

Inside, thirsty workingmen belly up to the bar. Their nerves are still raw from a week of hard labor. A honey-blonde barkeep named Star clad in a halter-top and cutoff jean shorts doesn’t help calm things. One tattooed biker gets a migraine just from staring as the leggy Star pours drinks — mostly tap beer, hard whiskey, and cheap tequila.

Marathon games of eight ball rage at either end of the joint and Hank Williams, Jr. gets a long ride thanks to a semi-intoxicated patron who has fed five bucks in quarters into the tarnished and battered juke box.

Along a wall oozes a man who has tried to drink all the beer in Florida. He gropes for the john door but just as his hand finds the knob a ragtag family resembling the fictional Joads marches in from the darkness. The gaunt mother clutches her purse so tightly it seems to have fused with her body. She stands guard, her hawk eyes dancing, while her two dingy boys scramble by the drunk for the toilet. They slam the door in his face. The drunk grins and pardons them with a belch.

A blend of alcohol, smoke, and sweat fills the air. Some hounds snarl and snap at their master’s feet and the bully of the bunch is pitched outside to bay at a sliver of cold moon. Nearby, under crackling neon lights, a bear-sized fellow wrapped in a blanket gapes at a battery-powered television and waits for gasoline customers who never come.

Past the gas pumps on the edge of the road fading words printed on a fifteen-foot-tall rusting beer can tell everyone that this is Glader Park. A gathering place for hog hunters and frog giggers, out here nervous tourists order mixed drinks to go and Miccosukee Indians sip and dream of times past. Miami tour guides bring people out to gawk and get a taste of the wild side.

It is also a sweet enough place for an overworked reporter, weary of covering cocaine smugglers and Caribbean refugees. Watching the droves of swamp angels who regularly roost at the bar recharges me. They drool over plates of smoked gator meat — Everglade’s caviar — and wash it down with icy suds.

Glader Park was one of my favorite stops — a comfortable spot on a ribbon of road stretching into the dark night. A well-worn path with different names, back in Miami it starts as a city street called Southwest Eighth or Calle Ocho in Little Havana. Snowbirds in their bug-splattered cars know the road as U.S. 41. For the crusty souls who live and play in the lush lands bordering the road there is only one name. For them it is The Trail. The Tamiami Trail.

“Lots of folks come down this road,” Uncle Bernie Freed, an owner of Glader Park told me that Saturday night so long ago. “A good many people drive the Tamiami Trail and they stop here. Even a bunch of wealthy types come out here and you can’t tell them from the poor ones. Everyone looks alike. You see, the Trail and the Glades have a way of equalizing people.”

All these years later Uncle Bernie’s words still ring true.