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Does This Outfit Match My Canoe?

How a Miami Fashionista found her park while camping in Everglades National Park

By Zoraida Pastor

I am a city girl and one of the most feminine women you will ever meet. I was born in heels. In high school, I was Madame Popular. Highly perfumed and accessorized, I’d walk the halls like a queen bee. I rarely left the city for the quiet of nature. Why bother? It’s too hot; I’d mess up my pristine loafers that I got on sale at Macy’s.

That was me not long ago. But just a few years later, as a senior at Florida International University, I made one simple decision that had a profound effect on my life.

At the time, I was working toward completing my degrees in psychology and journalism when I heard about the Everglades Wilderness Writing Expedition. This four-day paddling trip would connect me with a group of other aspiring writers while we explored some of the wildest land in the country.

Something clicked. I discovered that I really wanted to go. It might seem surprising that I would apply to a program like this. Perhaps I was inspired by the poetry of one of my favorite authors, Walt Whitman, whose words left a deep impression on me and made me want to connect with the outdoors. As a budding writer myself, I definitely wanted to hone my skills and find new material to write about. Plus, the Everglades was right in my back yard, and though my mother had taken me to Shark Valley once as a child, I had never visited this world-famous place as an adult. A friend finally convinced me to apply, and we both got in.

I felt so lucky to be chosen—though at first I didn’t fully grasp the reality of what it meant to camp in the backcountry. This became especially clear right before we left, when I saw the immense amount of unpacking I had to do. Our trip leaders saw my gigantic pack and asked me to leave behind at least half of what I was planning to bring.

Out went six outfits and my concealer and mascara. How can a city girl survive without those essentials? Turns out you can! Four days paddling a three-person canoe swept those trivial things far from my mind as I kept myself calm against the swelling tide.

From day one, as we took off in our boat from Everglades City, with the wind gusting at 20 MPH, I had a whole new perspective. My arms felt like useless twigs as my partner and I worked our way through the water. Strangely, my makeup bag was the furthest thing from my mind.

After a grueling day of paddling, we were unable to make it to our original destination, the waves too choppy to allow us passage. We had to adjust and sleep atop six muddy boards tied together by our sweat and love. I am sure if you asked any one of us, we would do it again, especially after seeing a pod of dolphins that cheered our spirits.

Before we even went to the Ten Thousand Islands, we learned valuable lessons about the different types of wilderness: proposed, submerged, and actual wilderness. We studied different attitudes toward wilderness, from hatred to draining it to preserving it.

Those four days in the Ten Thousand Islands area of Everglades National Park were a guidebook to the rest of my life. In addition to paddling, our expedition included day trips where we learned more about the story of the Everglades.

We took a long bike ride to a remote area where farmers had once planted Brazilian peppers, which reminded them of mistletoe. The invasive crop had begun harming the native plants, and now officials at the park were working to eradicate the pepper plants by burning and burying them in a huge mound. We got to the top of the mound, to a vine bed of violet morning glories, and grass tall and free, reaching my knees.

I had an epiphany: Was I really here? I stopped in my tracks, as though in a dream. In the end, that awakening is what I took away from the experience. The program introduced us to ourselves. I believe that in wilderness, we find who are meant to be. It touched me, and I am changed. Sharing this experience with people is inevitable.

Now as a writer and journalist, I want to explore more of these wild places—and I want them preserved for future generations. Through this program, I have become a powerful hybrid—city girl, wilderness woman. My true nature.

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