(Story & photo originally published in the Palm Beach Post)
There's a place bordering the western Palm Beach County sugar cane fields known as 20-Mile Bend. It's been there for as long as I can remember, and a good bit longer.
I never measured it, but I’d bet if you started at the Atlantic Ocean and drove 20 miles due west on State Road #80 (Southern Boulevard), then slammed on the brakes like a Sunday fool, you’d be sitting in the middle of 20-Mile Bend. It's actually the first curve on this straight-as-a-line, peddle-to-the-metal, flat-as-the-rest-of-the-state road.
But something else about 20-mile-bend makes it unique; it's where river-like irrigation canals converge, rub banks, mingle then move on in their chosen directions. It's also about the only spot left in the farming district where a thick break of pine trees stand like an oasis.
It used to be a place where folks in these parts would go fishing, usually with those long, bamboo poles attached to little red bobbers, and aluminum chairs set down next to white 5-gallon buckets. Whole families converged there, where they’d catch some catfish or maybe gar, which they say is "one mean mistake ya' better not eat."
Late at night, others came to hunt “big gator.” Why? I really don't know, although it seemed to be directly related to extremely large quantities of beer. I say this because at daybreak, when I would occasionally stop by, the otherwise beautiful area was littered with mashed beer cans, shards of broken beer bottles, floating plastic rings from six-packs and pull-tabs strewn on the banks. It also wasn’t uncommon to find carcasses of lifeless beer-whales – bloated hunters, passed out.
Between the hours of serious fishin’ and huntin’ came the quiet moments of nature. Just before the sun dropped into the western cane fields, wildlife would meet at 20-mile-bend. If you remained perfectly still, out the creatures would come, millions of them it seemed. Then, flying in from the west came the “big boys,” great owls heading for the pine break’s natural rest stop. Watching their effortless approach and smooth landings is an unforgettable experience.
Once, as I sat quietly under those pines, a car pulled over nearby, and the female passenger got out. With a box of Kleenex in hand, she hurried into the pines. Then I heard a hair-raising scream. Apparently, as she squatted down she also looked up. And there they were, dozens of feathered giants perched on bending branches and staring down with those huge glowing night-eyes at this terrified interloper.
Churning dust and pine needles like an industrial leaf blower, she ran back to the car, semi-dressed.
Not too long ago, 20-mile-bend was exactly as I described it above, but no more. Oh, they're still fishing there, though the families have grown smaller and they come less frequently. Don't see near as many Bud cans either, sometimes not a single one.
They've put in a super connector road, one rivaling any interstate highway, right through the middle of the cane fields. Turns out ol’ 80 (now 880 west of the bend) was dangerous, especially from 20-mile Bend into Belle Glade. It ran alongside one of those canals, causing more than a few gator hunters to take a flying dip, pick-up truck and all.
Late one recent afternoon, I drove out to sit under the yet uncut pines. The sun, as before, turned Gulf Coast crimson while traveling down west. But only the crows and a few starlings announced its set.
Didn't see the owls coming from the west to land on their assigned limbs, but the fish were leaping in the canals. As I looked east, I understood clearly that time is passing. Before, the view was green, threaded in the distance by a few power poles. Now there are buildings, not sprawling or big, but there. Earth movers are pushing west.
The 20-mile sunset is still glorious, and the smell of black earth still permeates the spirit. But the shrinking stand of owl-less pines now lean away from the wind.
Along with all that is missing goes a piece of our souls.
© 1999 D.M.Molloy