About a year and a half ago I dropped two thousand dollars to hit the road for two weeks, drive to the Everglades, and enter a python-hunting contest. At the time this seemed like a sound business decision.
As an author and freelance writer specializing in adventure, invasive species and oddball science, the subject of this trip was a natural fit for me. Other journalists kept asking me about the invasive pythons when they were interviewing me and I figured that I ought to get down there to Florida and find out what was really going on. The tricky thing was getting paid for it.
My target was the magazine, Outdoor Life. In the first place, I knew that they have a healthy budget for features in their print edition. Just as importantly, Outdoor Life has published a lot of other writers who really mattered. Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Zane Gray, Amelia Earhart and Babe Ruth all wrote for Outdoor Life.
After hustling hard to get someone there to pay any attention to me, we settled on a pair of features that the magazine wanted from me. Both were contingent on getting very specific photos to go with them. First, a piece covering the python hunt. That had to include a photo of the stomach contents of a wild, invasive python. Second, I had pitched them a piece about fishing for tarpon from shore on very low budget. Tarpon are usually caught out on the ocean from expensive charter boats. They wanted a photo of a tarpon held up by an angler on shore to go with that piece.
With a car full of rods, nets, guns and various camping gear, I drove south.
Long story short, after a lot of adventures with venomous snake, bikers, gator poachers, drug smugglers and bigfoot hunters, I got my python. But when I finally dissected it, the stomach was empty. The bastard had died hungry. Outdoor Life rejected the photo and the article with it. A similar fate befell the tarpon piece (yes, a tarpon was caught. No, it did not cooperate once on shore).
While I was down there I found another story that I hadn’t been looking for. There is good reason to think that the ecological problems being blamed on the invasive pythons could actually be caused by hybridization of the native Florida panther with western cougars. I even managed to come back with tissue samples that could be run through isotope testing to answer the question for certain.
Still smarting from the two grand I’d poured into the trip and the paycheck jerked out from under me by Outdoor Life, I hustled to pitch a new piece about panthers vs. pythons in the Everglades. Surely a story of this magnitude, combined with incredible photos and brand-new scientific evidence would be in high demand.
I pitched to Mother Jones, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, etc. Many of them were interested, but there was a caveat. I refused to run the isotope samples to prove who had been eating what until the publisher agreed to publish the article either way. Most of the editors were terrified that the tests would show that the endangered panthers were responsible for eating up to 90% of the small to medium mammals in the Glades. I sat on my samples and waited for an editor who was willing to face the truth, whatever it might be.
As it turns out, there is no such editor. The samples remain in a secure lab.
I didn’t know what to do with this story for a long time. It is so sprawling, with science and adventure and investigative work and sex and fishing and music and people confessing to various illegal activities. There didn’t seem to be a way to ever tell all of it.
Then a few weeks ago I picked up a copy of The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson at Kramer Books in DC. I sat at the bar and started reading.
Someone had once told me that I wrote like “the Hunter S. Thompson of meat,” but I didn’t really know what that meant. I had seen some of the films made about him, but hadn’t really read his stuff.
After getting about a third of the way through the collection of Thompson’s work, I had an epiphany. The python story can just be sprawling and messy and that’s ok. Thompson apparently got away with writing these absolute messes of confused narratives with some original concept for an article becoming totally lost in whatever random direction he ended up going in. If he got drunk and ditched the football game that he was supposed to cover, and got into a fight with a coach, and ran out on the tab for his hotel room, that was okay. It all went right into the article.
Hell, I can do that.
So I just started banging it out. I stopped worrying about sticking straight to the python story. I included a subplot about trying to get the damned photos for Outdoor Life. I put in the nights around campfires with stoned bikers. The Swedish photographer I shared a sleeping bag with. The goblin-like man hiding from his estranged family in the campsite behind me. The massive-scale drug smuggling confessions of a swamp ape researcher I went fishing with. To hell with it. Everything goes in.
This will end up at around ten or twelve thousand words. Will anyone publish it? I dunno. Long-form journalism is supposedly back. Maybe VICE or Esquire will take it. If not, maybe I turn it into an e-book. Regardless, I am happier with this piece of writing than I have been with anything else I’ve ever written. Letting go and pounding out something that no sane editor would have thought to ask for in the first place has been a very rewarding experience. Maybe that’s even worth the two grand and the lost publishing paydays that it cost me to get here.
Jackson Landers is the author of several books, including Eating Aliens, an account of 16 months spent traveling around the US and the Caribbean hunting and eating invasive species. He contributes regularly to Slate.com and The Washington Post. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.