Malcolm Lightner: Mile O’ Mud
Malcolm Lightner has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a new book, Mile O’ Mud, to be published by Powerhouse Books in 2016. The project traces Malcolm’s growing up in the South with a focus on Florida’s Swamp Buggy races. He captures the culture and the country, the mud and the muscle and shows us a world that celebrates bugs, beer, and boisterous fun.
Malcolm is a fine arts photographer who resides in New York. Born in Naples, Florida, he is a fourth generation native Floridian. Malcolm completed a BFA in Photography from the Savannah College of Art & Design and completed an MFA in Photography at Arizona State University. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants and his work has been featured in a range of exhibitions including Art + Commerce Emerging Photographers and Joint Venture: Selections from the Dr. Barry S. Ramer Collection & Selected Photographs. Malcolm’s photography is included in the permanent photography collections at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Dear Dave Magazine, The Oxford American, Aint-Bad Magazine, and Life. Malcolm is a member of the photography faculty at the School of Visual Arts in New York City since 2002.
After moving to New York in 1999, I began to think about my heritage and the place where I grew up, Naples, Florida. I am a fourth-generation, native Floridian. My mother’s family goes back to the settler days when this region of South Florida was wild and largely uninhabitable swampland. My ancestors mostly farmed, fished and hunted, and eventually they ventured into land development and real estate. My great grandfather Forest Jehu Walker was born in Settler’s Creek (now Bonita Springs) on June 9, 1897. Among other accomplishments, he introduced the now standard waterfront development concept of parking your car in the front yard and your boat in the back. In 1949, he and his sons James Lorenzo and Robert Lewis (“R.L.”) purchased 294 acres for $30,000. It took almost 14 years to build Aqualane Shores and sell all the lots. One of Naples’ first waterfront communities, its homes are now valued at well over a million dollars.
Looking back, I began to reminisce about the landscape that was so familiar to me as a child: the pine and palm trees, the swampland, the alligators, the heat and humidity, and the sunny blue skies and pristine green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I remembered how I used to go on expeditions in search of gopher tortoises in the empty lots of Naples Park, a residential community located in North Naples just a few blocks from the beach. And I recalled the mud racing event that originated in my hometown, Swamp Buggy Racing at the “Mile O’ Mud”. The homespun buggies and their drivers represent a specific Floridian vernacular and play a central role in the cultural identity of Collier County. As a boy, I lived in a trailer park located down the street from the first official swamp buggy track off Radio Road. The track was later relocated to the Florida Sports Park off Rattlesnake Hammock Road at the intersection of Route 951, where it resides today.
My Great-uncle R.L., one of the original swamp buggy drivers, helped to formalize the race into a legitimate sporting event, which officially launched in 1949. In his custom-built buggy Flying Saucer, R.L. was Swamp Buggy King in 1951 and 1952. In 2003, I went to visit my Great-uncle Lorenzo at Naples Community Hospital, shortly before he passed away. He talked about his brother R.L. and the early days of Naples and racing swamp buggies. He told me how he had to ride his bike “real fast” across the dirt road intersection of what is now referred to as Four Corners so the “panthers wouldn’t git ‘im.” He also spoke of the dedication of the Everglades National Park by President Harry S. Truman on December 6, 1947. He said he had film footage of the President cutting the ribbon at the ceremony.
Needless to say, a lot has changed since those pioneer days and my childhood years. Four Corners is no longer a dirt road intersection surrounded by thick subtropical forest, and there are no more empty lots in Naples Park. In Florida, gopher tortoises are on the Endangered Species List categorized as a Threatened Species and are found only within a few designated areas. The small town I once knew is no longer recognizable. The beach access has become largely privatized, and the landscape is marked with condominiums, golf courses, and strip malls. To my surprise, the trailer I once lived in is still there, and the swamp buggy races have endured, despite urban development and political pressure to sell off the desirable acreage owned by Swamp Buggy, Inc.
Before embarking on my “Mile O’ Mud” project in October 2002, my encounters with the races consisted of a few abbreviated visits to the track with my mother, who was not interested in the races but in locating my father, who had gone missing for several days. This frequent occurrence eventually led to their divorce. In the 1970’s, the swamp buggy races were somewhat like the Wild West, where people carried guns in holsters and drank heavily. It was a “locals only” party and not exactly a wholesome family event. Every October, however, my mother took my sister and me to the Swamp Buggy Parade, which marked the opening of hunting season and kicked off the fall racing season. The parade was a community celebration of swamp buggy culture, where drivers could show off the individuality and mechanical ingenuity of their buggy designs. Women donned calico frocks; a Swamp Buggy Queen was crowned, and men sported bushy beards in anticipation of the Swamp Buggy Days beard contest.
I began to photograph swamp buggy racing to pay homage to my family heritage and to document a rare slice of Americana. On my first visit to the track, I drove into the parking lot of the Florida Sports Park, heard the engines of the buggies roar, and witnessed the great plumes of water trailing behind the boat-dragster hybrids. I could feel the vibrations from the raw horsepower pound against my chest, and it almost took my breath away. I thought to myself that this was going to be fun! The races occur three weekends out of the year, and I managed to make the trip at least once a year from 2002 to 2013 except 2005 when the races were canceled due to Hurricane Wilma.
In my own mind, this project felt like time travel. I experienced firsthand the people and culture that were a large part of my parents’ life that I never witnessed, but that felt somehow defining. Initially, it was the buggies themselves that attracted me, but I soon began to discover endless narrative possibilities and connections among the drivers, spectators, and enthusiasts. I unveiled family connections that I did not know existed and heard numerous stories about my father, who had the reputation of a hard worker in the plastering and construction community. He was an all-around tough guy, someone you would not want to mess with. While in Naples, I sometimes stayed with my father and came to realize that beyond the tough exterior is a sociable, giving and sensitive man. He took me to the home of Lonnie Chesser of the legendary Chesser racing family where they talked about the good ol’ days. I will always remember when my father called me “buddy” for the first time and wiped down the early morning condensation on my car’s windshield to assure I would have a safe drive.
I came to understand Swamp Buggy Racing as a metaphor for life’s daily struggles and the innate drive to overcome obstacles against great odds while trying to maintain a sense of humor and grace. The races demonstrated to me the All-American desire to compete to win as well as the power of family and community.
Going to the races has also been a bittersweet experience. While it was exciting and adrenaline-filled at the track, the community, and my family have seen better times. I am reminded that life is indeed short and full of unexpected bumps in the road. All the more reason to let go and enjoy the ride.–Malcolm Lightner, 2013
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