Down home at the Mile O' Mud
A Brooklyn-based photographer explores his Floridian roots by way of a decidedly unique swampland sport
Fine arts photographer Malcolm Lightner, 45, didn't contemplate his homeland much as a child. Like most adolescents, the fourth-generation Floridian had other, far more important things on his mind than stuffy stories of ancestry or only-in-our-hometown traditions.
But later, when Lightner grew up and flew away to New York City, he found himself reminiscing about the sprawling southern landscape of his youth: the pine and palm trees, the sunny blue skies reflected in green waters, even the swampland's humidity and alligators. One particularly Floridian spectacle wormed its way so far into Lightner's daydreams that it eventually inspired a decade-long, creative endeavor: Swamp buggy racing at the "Mile O' Mud."
The unique sporting event — soon to be commemorated by Lightner in a book entitled Mile O' Mud — originated in the photographer's backyard of Collier County, Florida. In the 1970s, the young Lightner lived in a trailer park just down the street from the first official swamp buggy track. For three weekends each year, daredevils in homemade, wild contraptions wheeled around a waterlogged course, spewing up water, and occasionally flipping right into the muck. The noise, the adrenaline — it was exhilarating.
Despite his proximity, Lightner's childhood experiences at the track were abbreviated — "the races were somewhat like the Wild West, where people carried guns in holsters and drank heavily," he recalls.
In short: Swamp buggy tracks were no place for children.
The "no kids allowed" mentality relaxed a little each October, when Lightner's mother would take him and his sister to the local Swamp Buggy parade, which marked the opening of both the hunting and racing seasons.
"The parade was a community celebration of swamp buggy culture, where drivers could show off the individuality and mechanical ingenuity of their buggy designs," Lightner says. "Women donned calico frocks, a Swamp Buggy Queen was crowned, and men sported bushy beards in anticipation of the Swamp Buggy Days beard contest."
The New York city transplant couldn't shake the memories of his time spent at the track, and so he was delighted to discover that, all these years later, the swamp buggy racing community was still alive. In 2002, Lightner headed to Naples to begin documenting the subculture, and continued to make an annual pilgrimage until 2013.
"On my first visit to the track, I drove into the parking lot, heard the engines of the buggies roar, and witnessed the great plumes of water trailing behind the boat-dragster hybrids," Lightner says. "I could feel the vibrations from the raw horsepower pound against my chest, and it almost took my breath away. I thought to myself, 'this is going to be fun!'"
While Lightner initially focused on the boat-dragster buggies themselves, he quickly became more fascinated by the web of relationships in the community, and his own connections to the place and the sport.
Lightner's great-uncle R.L. Walker was one of the first swamp-buggy drivers, and he helped 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 my own mind, this project felt like time travel," Lightner says. "I unveiled family connections that I did not know existed."
But Lightner notes that his project is tinged with bittersweet feelings.
"The community and my family have seen better times," he says. "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."