OCHOPEE, Fla. -- The tourists in their rental cars creep down the Everglades byway known as Loop Road. Some are searching for alligators, exotic birds or maybe a ghost orchid. But others, tipped off by a guidebook or Internet post, are looking for a colorful, ramshackle spot called Lucky's Place. And when they find the old metal Lucky Strike cigarette sign and grave marker by the side of the road, they hit the brakes and head in.
Some come for a beer or to talk guns. They'll taste the venison chili simmering in a crockpot or the burgers and hot dogs on the barbecue. But others come to see Lucky Cole's collection of hundreds of photos of women in various stages of undress. A few even elect to pay for their own photo session.
Cole, well over 200 pounds and more than 6 feet tall, wearing his trademark cowboy hat and floral shirt, waves `em in. Often visitors offer no pretenses about why they're there: It's like they're teenagers again, sneaking a peek at a centerfold.
"The Germans are fearless," Cole said. "They just drive in and start taking photos."
Cole and his wife Maureen have lived in the Everglades year-round since the mid-1990s. He began his business informally, after hunters and air boaters asked him to store gas and food for them. Some stopped by to scrounge for beer because they'd finished what they brought from Miami and didn't want to make the 40-mile trip back for more.
Then the tourists started coming, and Cole started taking pictures, one of two commercial photo operations in the area. The other, Clyde Butcher, is known for black-and-white shots of the swamp, sunsets and plants. Cole takes photos of what he considers a different kind of natural beauty: the female form, dressed and undressed. Some joke that he got his nickname "Lucky" because he found a way to get women to pay him to take their photos nude.
Cole began his photo career on the other side of the camera, as a boy model modeling for Sears and J.C. Penney. "I was cute as hell," he says, laughing. These days, as the shooter, he averages two or three photo sessions a week. His wife handles the business end of the operation and coaches the models to look their best. During the sessions, the property's 8-foot gates are locked. "It is all very private," he says, describing most of the clients as "the average girl next door."
Allison Sparks, who recently did a photo session with Cole, said she had a baby two years ago and "just needed a boost for my ego." She hadn't planned on a nude session but, while posing, decided to go for it. "Lucky made me feel beautiful," she said, and her husband agrees. She's making one of the pictures into a poster for his "man cave."
Cole's property is a collection of weathered trailers with connecting decks. Statues here and there are used as props for the women to pose with: an old chicken coop, motorcycles, a tub on a platform near a sign that warns against feeding the alligators. A tree grows out of a rusted '61 Chevy, and the buildings are decorated with black and white photos of women wearing little more than cowboy hats. On a recent Sunday afternoon, two men from England stopped in, took pictures, drank a beer, then asked where they could find a gator.
Some tourists buy trinkets; Cole asks for "donations" for the beer and hot dogs. In return he tells stories, most of which, by his own admission, concern women and whiskey. There are also tales of local characters from days gone by – loggers, gangster Al Capone, and the late fiddler Ervin Rouse, who wrote the "Orange Blossom Special" and was a regular at a now-defunct nearby watering hole, the Gator Hook Lodge. "He never made any money off that song," Cole laments. "He sold the rights for pennies."
And should anyone ask why Cole carries a pistol while greeting guests or taking pictures, he doesn't miss a beat.
"It is for the pythons," he says. "They eat my chickens."
If You Go...
LUCKY'S PLACE: Located on Loop Road, off of U.S. 41, about 40 miles west of Miami. Usually open to the public Saturday and Sunday afternoons.