(This one is completely true, folks.)
The Okefenokee Swamp is the darkest place in Georgia. The park is comprised of 438,000 acres of trembling earth, Spanish moss, mosquitoes and of course, alligators. Lots of alligators. At last estimate over 12,000 of the toothy reptiles were thought to be creeping, nesting and swimming around in our local swamp. And I decided to take my kids there, just the three of us, for a surprise spring break trip.
We left home around 10:00 in the morning with three suitcases, a cooler of snacks and some card games because I knew there'd be no WiFi and we'd need something to do after dark. I had reservations for us at an eco-lodge just outside the state park. My husband couldn't go, he had to work, so I thought, easy peasy, the kids and I would drive down together, arrive at the park just in time for a sunset cruise in the swamp and then check in to our cabin in the pines after dark. The next day we'd get up and go canoeing, see if we could spot some gators up close. I figured it wouldn't take more than a tank of gas to reach our destination.
The six-hour drive zipped by as we sang Weird Al and ate beef jerky and wondered if we'd really see some alligators when we got to South Georgia.
Turning off the state highway on to the back roads that led to the park, it was quite obvious we weren't in Atlanta anymore. After leaving the usual interstate exit jumble of fast food restaurants, tire stores and gas stations, civilization quickly faded away to sun-dappled stretches of longleaf pine forest. Here, an overturned boat that had become a nest for creeping kudzu, there, a burnt-out mobile home camouflaged by aggressive underbrush, before us, a foolhardy possum darting across the pavement.
We were in the swamp. There were few cars on the road and live oaks stretched their limbs over the patched asphalt, the leafy canopy giving the claustrophobic impression of driving through an endless tree-lined tunnel. The farther we went, the more spotty my cell reception became but, just before I began to question my sanity, driving down here on a whim with no man and no map, we began to see signs for the state park, big signs with grinning gators, and we all got excited.
Within minutes we made it to the Okefenokee visitor's center. We jumped out of the car and liberally applied bug spray - you would not BELIEVE the variety of bugs that want to dine on you in a swamp - and headed...to the bathroom (Of course, I mean, that's where any road trip with kids inevitably leads, over and over again.) After a stop at the facilities we bumped and jostled into the visitors center like excited puppies and bought our sunset tour tickets.
We had half an hour before we could board the pontoon boat, so we wandered the raised walkway around the cove where the boats were docked and came face to face with our first gator! It was a juvenile, about five feet long, sunning itself in the grass right off the path, and as it heard us approach it took a few rapid steps backward and slithered into the swamp, disappearing for a moment beneath the tannin-stained water and then surfacing, staring right at us with huge, unblinking eyes. Just those calculating eyes and snout poked above the water, the gator sizing us up from a distance, deciding if we were food or foe. It was creepy and unnerving and seriously magnificent! The kids and I fell all over ourselves in excitement, taking photos from the walkway, talking in breathless whispers as we observed this awesome predator in nature from just a few feet away! I tried to text my husband, to show him what fun he was missing, and quickly realized I had about as much of a phone signal as if I was on the bottom of the ocean.
Damn! No service. Of course they don't build cell phone towers in gatorland!
Soon we boarded the boat, one other family out for the twilight trip with us. The guide, a bearded, beer-bellied survivalist-type with a serious Southern drawl motored us deeper into the swamp, Spanish moss swaying from cypress trees and the setting sun glinting off our wake in the dark water. He shared some history - how the swamp had long been inhabited by people that wanted to escape from society - runaway slaves, Civil War deserters and the Seminole Indians to name a few. He talked about how convicts were brought in from the nearest state penitentiary in the late 1800's to clear the canals so people could travel through (Can you imagine being told to just hop down there into that gator-filled swamp with a machete and start clearing, man, cutting cypress roots below the water level, not knowing WHAT you were reaching for?? I cringe.)
We stopped in a large clearing and watched the sun set over the lily pads, a blazing orange ball disappearing into the blackwater like it was being drowned by the swamp itself.
Around us, a thousand frogs peeped and croaked and grunted out a marshland Taps. It was beautiful, in a post-apocalyptic way.
"Day is done, gone the sun..."
On the ride back to docks, the guide gave us flashlights to shine along the shore line. Alligator eyes glow red in the dark and everyone on the boat would squeal when our beams crossed a pair of reptilian pupils, glowing red as coals in the darkness, staring, ever watchful, from the cover of marsh reeds. We got back to the dock and climbed out onto the planks, following close behind our guide and his flashlights until we reached the parking lot.
Did I mention the swamp is dark? In the humid nighttime, it was like walking through a neverending blanket of black fleece. Even the two, small street lamps illuminating the parking spaces seemed to be wrestling with the all-encompassing night, as if their light was desperately holding the darkness back from our vehicles until we could escape it.
The guide had told us that this was a national wildlife refuge, so at 9:00 p.m. they closed the gates and locked them until morning. That was 50 minutes from when we hopped off the boat.He said you wouldn't want to get locked in after closing because the only person who could come get you out was a sheriff from the closest town, thirty minutes away. We all assured him we were heading out of the park and drove off into the pitch black night.
The father driving the other car shot out ahead of me. No way was he getting locked in a swamp park after dark. Behind us, the lights in the parking lot blinked out as our guide headed home, and the visitor's center was devoured by a blackness so complete it was as if it never existed. I drove slowly, knowing pitch black country roads were the perfect cover for wandering animals.A deer could do quite a number to the hood of a car. Soon the other car's taillights were fading from view and we were rolling alone.
The children chattered happily behind me. I came to an intersection.
I didn't remember making any turns when we drove to the visitor's center.
There weren't any signs illuminated in the small circle of brightness my headlights were making to direct me one way or the other. I screwed up my mouth.
Maybe, make a right now? Maybe I did turn when I was heading to the tour? I had been so excited to make it to the swamp I hadn't really been paying attention right then!
I turned right and we drove on. Soon, the open, starry sky above us disappeared and those damned, oppressive oaks were all around us again. The trees looked malevolent in the dark, their black branches reaching toward my car. Was I on the right road? This felt like the right road...
"Hey! Look guys! A bunny!"
A small, brown bunny had hopped to the right side of the road and was nibbling the wild strawberries growing there. It was illuminated briefly in my headlights and the kids offered up some pleased "awwws" and "how adorbs" as we slowly drove past. I passed a picnic shelter made of logs and later, a parking lot with a trash dumpster and it felt like the night was growing even darker.
It had been 15 minutes and now I knew we weren't going in the right direction - and I knew we hadn't made it out of the park. I had just driven us deeper into a pitch-black swamp.
I pulled into the parking lot and turned around.The coolness of the night air was causing a gentle fog to roll in, adding a surreal haze to the scene.
At this point the kids realized something was up too.
'Why are we stopping, mama?" they ask. "Are we lost?" they ask.
Well...no need to panic the kids.
"Nawww, we aren't lost. I think I just took a right turn where I needed to take a left back there. (I hope I hope I hope) I'm just gonna drive us back to the intersection and we'll head on to the eco-lodge."
We drive on through the darkness, my heartrate is picking up a little.
We aren't lost. I'm sure of it, we'll just make a left turn at that intersection and...
"Hey! Look guys! A bunny!"
On our right, a sweet little brown bunny is nibbling wild strawberries.
"Um, mom, I think that's the same bunny. Isn't that the same bunny?"
My breathing is coming a bit faster now.
'How the hell was the bunny in the same place? Weren't we driving in the opposite direction now? Back to the intersection?
I turned the car around back there. We should be going the opposite way!'
In front of me was the parking lot with the trash dumpster again. Holy shit. Ok. Um, ok.
"Mom..." my daughter's voice comes worridly from the back seat. Not a big fan of the dark in a perfectly safe house, I realize this sweeping swamp darkness is getting to her.
"We are lost, aren't we mom?"
"It's ok. I mean, we haven't gone that far. I'll just turn us around. You know, I bet there's a map online..." I pull out my phone and attempt to pull up a map of the park.
There is no service here, just NO SERVICE AT FREAKING ALL. And it is pitch black and I'm all alone with my kids! Maybe there is a map at that picnic shelter...
I drive back in the direction of the picnic shelter. On the way I see the damn rabbit again. Still on the right side of the road. WHAT IN THE ACTUAL HELL??
"Mommm....there's that rabbit again..."
"I know. I KNOW!" A hard edge is creeping into my voice and I attempt to not panic. I pull into the grass by the picnic shelter and get out of the car, using the flashlight on my phone to scan the ground in front of me. The last thing I need right now is to lose my leg to an alligator I trampled accidentally as I wander around in a swamp in my sandals at night. Beneath the picnic shelter there IS an information board...with a bulletin of animal tracks and an ecology of the swamp poster. Shit. SHIT!
I stab accusingly at the screen of my useless phone again and head back to the car. As I slip behind the wheel my daughter leans up through the front seats.
"Mom?" She looks really worried in the green dashboard lights.
"Put your seatbelt back ON!" I yell at her, pulling back on the road.
"Mom...have you looked at the gas?"
I glance down and oh, holy fucking shit, the empty light has come on.
"Oh, wow. Yeah, we are almost out of gas." In my head I am now berating myself. What the hell was I thinking, driving down to this swamp with my kids? And not paying attention to directions? Or the gas gauge?
I am so irresponsible! My husband would never have let this happen! Lost in the Okefenokee in the pitch black night with no gas and no cell and gators everywhere and there's probably freaky swamp people creeping up on us in the blackness...
My son begins to sing quietly to himself "There's a murderer in the woods, a murderer in the woods..."
For a moment I am horrified. Had he read my mind?
"Son! What the hell are you singing?"
He and his sister start giggling and, as we pass the freaking bunny AGAIN I start to wonder if we might not have slipped into a Twilight Zone episode.
I stop the car in the middle of the road.
"Ok. I am done wandering around in the dark. We are getting out of here NOW."
I make a U-turn in the middle of the street and start driving backwards on the wrong side of the road - it's not like there's another SOUL out here to crash into.
I figure, if driving this way got me out into the swamp, it will damn sure get me back, unless I really AM in an episode of The Twilight Zone and if that's the case, we are fucked regardless.
The kids find this mercenary attitude hilarious.
"Whoohoo! Go mom!" they are chanting.
Ahead of me I see a sign, a SIGN!, and slow down. I realize we have been driving on a loop, oh my God, a loop! and there is a little spur that gets us off the loop and back to civilization!
I take the spur, zooming fast in the wrong direction and fly toward the front gate of the park, bursting out from beneath the trees where I can now see the night sky again. Glorious and ten minutes to spare until they will lock the gate!
The gate was locked.
Seriously. I get out of my car, shake the gate. Shining in the highbeams from my car is a big chain looped through the metal slats and padlocked together. I look back at my kids and throw my arms up in the air in a "What can I do?" gesture. I pick up my phone thinking there is no way I'm going to have a signal but somewhere, someone is smiling down at me, because weak though it may be, I have about a bar of service. I quickly call the number on the gate, and inform the Folkston, Ga Sheriff's Department that we have been locked in the Okefenokee Swamp Park after dark and can someone PLEASE come let us out. They tell me they'll send a deputy our way and then there's nothing left to do but sit, and wait. I turn off my car to save my rapidly dwindling gas and we sit in the dark, talking about at what point we all felt the most scared out there in the swamp and laughing like we survived the Titanic disaster.
"It's ok babies, you are safe with me," I tell my kids, at this point not completely believing it myself.
Nearly 45 minutes later we see headlights cracking the darkness. We all cheer, and I flash my headlights to let him know we are still here. Then I see my daughter has put on her best campfire story face.
"Hey...what if that car isn't really the deputy?" she says. "What if it's just some crazy park ranger serial killer? He locks the park gate and comes out here at night to see if he can find hapless tourists to take back to his swamp lair and barbecue them or something?"
We all turn to look back at the car, headlights steadily growing closer, now looking rather more ominous.
This night has been way too much like a scary story.
"Oh, oh! Or what if it turns out we are actually trapped in some kind of time loop?" I ask them. "He'll open the gate and we'll drive off down the road and think we are heading to the eco-lodge and then suddenly...we'll see that brown bunny again!"
The car stops in front of the gate. A kindly looking, white-haired man gets out so I get out to greet him.
"How'd yall get locked in here?" he asks. "The rangers told me they saw two cars leave together after the tour so they closed up early."
"Oh, yeah, no. We got turned around when we left the visitor's center and got a little lost in the swamp."
"Yeah, it's awful dark out here if you don't know where you are goin'" he responds.
"You're telling me!" I cried.
He opened the gate and we all waved and called our thanks to him as we drove on, so relieved to finally be headed to our cabin.
Now, don't ask me how scary it was then, trying to find a gas station that was still open in the hinterlands at 10:00 at night!
Let me tell you, the thrills never cease when you're with mama.