Part of me wants to play this cool and be all, “Yeah, it’s cool, you can pre-order my book” and the rest of me — the real me — has an almost-insurmountable compulsion to run around the house screaming “My book! MY BOOK!”
So severely conflicted on this am I that it took me 19 full days to write this post, which has to be some sort of record for something, even if it’s a record for how batshit crazy things get inside my head.
Forget all that. The post has arrived, as has the book. It feels as though I’ve lived a lifetime since I first had the idea, which I suppose happens to many writers, unless, of course, you happen to be James Patterson, because that man is a machine. And if you are James Patterson, hi. Buy my book, OK?
Technically, the book has not arrived: You can pre-order it now on Amazon (or from the University Press of Florida) and they’ll ship it to you on October 4, the actual release date. Also, if you want it as an ebook, you have to wait — I mean, not much longer, but apparently the something about metadata or other things I don’t understand and don’t you dare pretend you do, either. The takeaway? You will have the chance to buy the ebook and no, I don’t know when but soon.
When UPF offered me a book contract, my editor told me in no uncertain terms to never promise people a publication date (well, until the Press itself released one) so I would make jokes when people asked me. My favorite one?
“Well, I’m not certain but I’m hoping sometime before we elect a new president.”
I made it with a whole month to spare.
As I write my thesis, I realize that El Cap is a bit of a smart ass. Generally, he’s been wonderful and supportive, even going so far as to provide a RoadTrek in which we traveled the state. He was patient when I asked him to stop so I could take a picture of a sign and listened to hours of my diatribes about the state’s water management practices. I guess, really, he’s earned the right to be a smart ass. To wit…
I first realized this when I was writing and he said something. When I realized he’d asked me a question, I apologized and explained. Here’s how that went:
Me: “I’m writing about Okahumpka.”
El Cap: “Aren’t those the people who work in the chocolate factory?”
And then tonight, as I’m (FINALLY!) nearing the end of the epic manuscript…
Me: “I’m at 237 pages, 56,445 words.”
El Cap: “Yeah, but some of those words are duplicated, like ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
He’s considered very funny. In France.
Not too much now, because I’m sitting on the dock of the bay. Well, the inlet. The past two days have been… wonderful and horrible. Wonderful because a leisurely drive down A1A reminded me that not all of our coastlines are 3-for-$10 t-shirt shops and trinket stores; horrible because I can’t believe a few miles inland at Pahokee such poverty exists in stark contrast to the riches funneled out of the town to those who raise cane. Sugarcane, that is.
One more day to go on this pilgrimage into sunshine. I alternately crave my Tempurpedic and regret every little hovel I will not see this trip.
By the way, if you ever camp at Sebastian Inlet State Park, try and get site #14. The view is inspiring.
I haven’t been so in love with a beach since I first laid eyes on the shimmering waters of the Florida Keys, what seems like a million years ago. I was in college, and we were on a field trip (I have a history of taking all the right classes) to Islamorada. I am ashamed, almost 20 years later, to admit that was my first trip to the Keys. As soon as we broke clear of the mangroves and I saw the sparkle on water that was unlike any transparent emerald I had ever seen, there was a sigh in my soul and I felt as though I had come home. I went back again a few months later, with another college class (as I said, I take only the best classes). I came home again, ever more resolute that that green was the color of my blood.
Years pass. Things change. I married someone who hated the beach. We only went to the Keys once. We divorced. These two things, while not the whole story, are more than a little related. No matter; before the judge decreed the divorce final I had packed my kayak and bike and headed for the Keys.
I still loved it. The water still took my breath away as I came over the bridge. But there was so much… crap. Key Largo had started to take on the familiar chain store patina I’ve grown to hate; Islamorada was still a respite, but clearly giving up the ghost. Marathon was nice, but KMart and Publix? No, thank you.
The water, though. Man, that water was still the same. It was ever glassy, eternally aquamarine. It’s the kind of water that makes you yearn for better adjectives. I can write about it a million times over, and if you’ve never seen it, it will be a pale fantasy compared to what I see in my head when I write about it. It is paradise in a thousand shades of an aquamarine rainbow.
That’s how I felt the past few days in the panhandle. The Keys will always, always have that place in my heart, but the placid thrill of finding a slice of paradise where I didn’t expect it flowed over me anew when the sea forest opened up and I saw the beaches just south of US 98 along the panhandle. Glass met pale, luminous green, which met penetrating cerulean. The beaches were windswept sand dunes with sand fences; the sand itself felt like cake flour when I walked on it but sugar when I brushed it off my feet. I found sand dollars no bigger than a pinkie nail. The water was clear, like it wasn’t there at all, and it felt so good to be surrounded by all these glassy green prisms sparkling back up at the sky that I laughed when the waves caught me unaware.
I laughed a lot in Grayton Beach, and I didn’t want to leave. Gulf Beaches National Seashore and Navarre Beach made me want to cry for the sense of longing and realization I felt simultaneously in my soul. I loved Panama City, too, and its chintzy touristana. Apalachicola and her oysters also slurped me in to the unreality of living up here. If not for winters I suspect would be unfailingly cold, I could move here. I could make a life here. I could spend my afternoons on the beach and my mornings and nights trying to write a career for myself. I would never, I told myself, try and write on the beach; not for money.
Grayton Beach was, for a moment, the Florida Keys dream that I held for so long until I realized the dream has vanished under the weight of chain stores and chemical runoff. Will the panhandle meet the same fate?
We left this morning and will spend the night at Falling Waters State Park tonight, in the middle of the panhandle, west of Tallahassee. Monday night will be St. Augustine, and after three days along Florida’s least destroyed beaches, I am anxious to return there. The spaces in between, it seems, are filled with cattle ranches, cotton fields, state forests, and forgotten downtowns begging the world to remember them. I want to race through them and find my way to the sea once again. I want to laugh as the salt water washes over me, and at the day’s end, I want to feel sun soaked and salty sleep.
I fear, though, that it’s the Keys all over again: no beach will ever satisfy unless they are these, the sugar and cake flour beaches of Florida’s panhandle. We are but two hours gone and already I am planning my return, wondering about rental prices, dreaming about a life there.
It’s a dangerous dream, because Florida is fickle. She will give you your dream and then change it on you. After all, look at the Keys. Hell, look at our beaches anywhere. They were all perfect, once. Now? Now popular has replaced perfection.
But still… that green. That perfect, undulating sea of green.
In the 1990s I lived on Morse Boulevard, just outside Orlando, and I loved it. Other than buying groceries I did all my shopping by walking around the corner to Park Avenue. I found birthday gifts at local shop. A local florist make me a Christmas wreath for my front door. I sipped coffee at a non-Seattle-based shop that was neither trendy nor pricey. Friends and neighbors would walk down the street and get sushi at a hole-in-the-wall; the bookstore next door always had a lively game of checkers at its sidewalk table. The Mill restaurant had food for non-sushi lovers and we could walk there in 10 minutes.
Orlando seemed very far away, but it wasn’t. Not really. We’d drive to Church Street to get terrified at Terror on Church Street and marvel at the tourists who’d managed to wander away from the theme parks for an evening. We’d use the parking garage that had flowering bushes on its outside so we didn’t have to fight street traffic, but we’d move the car if we wanted to head down Colonial to Dekko’s to go dancing.
I worked, once or twice, as a stagehand for Orlando Opera Company, and the company shared space with Southern Ballet in a building donated by Florida Power. Before every matinee my friend Angi and I would climb a narrow ladder up to the roof and spread Visqueen over the long, narrow skylight. Lake Ivanhoe curved along the building and, while I hated the climb, I loved the view.
In case it isn’t clear, I loved everything about Orlando and Winter Park. The only thing wrong was that it was way too far from the beach, and I need salt water like beagles need to howl. I moved back to Pinellas county.
At first I visited frequently, but over time the visits grew less frequent. I went back this week, and what I saw shattered my heart.
Dollar General, automotive chain stores, and fast food chains dominate the landscape. My college and early 20s memories are all that remain of a unique, untouched community. I don’t just mean Orlando; Park Boulevard has changed utterly, populated with the smaller chain stores you see in every small town trying to make itself distinctive from the next small town 20 miles over. A few holdouts remain, but the personal feel has disappeared under a cloud of assimilation.
Sadly, this is not confined to Orlando. Over the past few days the joke in our small camper has become “Look – a Dollar General. We must be downtown.” At times I feel adrift in Anytown, USA.
My thesis chair and Florida guru Dr. Gary Mormino wrote an article for the Tampa Tribune years ago. In it he referenced a 1990s postcard of the Orlando skyline. “Welcome to Orlando!” the postcard read. One problem: the skyline didn’t belong to Orlando. When polled, area readers thought it might be Halifax.
“There is no here, here,” Dr. Mormino laments in his article, and as I drove down US17 and 441 through the Orlando area and a dozen other smaller towns, my heart breaks for Orlando, for Winter Park, and for every little town in Florida who has lost its “here.”
Dollar General stores all look the same, whether they’re nestled under live oak trees or set amidst palm trees, and, after eight days of driving Florida’s back roads, those stores symbolize the loss of our “here.”
I see Florida towns as we travel from stoplight to stoplight through sand, forest and lakes, and some of these roads reveal the very worst of Florida: her homogenized outer skin, a veneer that is peeling up like cheap pressboard furniture that’s been through a flood. This is the US 19 through Largo or the Ulmerton Road of the state. This is the worst Gulf or Gulfport Boulevard we could conceive. This is neon and sandy asphalt and Anytown, Anywhere. This is hell.
I believe St. Pete Beach is trying to keep some of its “here”, despite what the people throwing around threats and yelling at commission meetings may say. I believe Gulfport wants that, too. I do not know they have the funding or the leadership, but I hope it finds the former and suspect it may have the latter. I’ll be honest, I’d feel better if the city planners had been more vocal about how to keep our here, here. I’d feel better if Gulfport hadn’t already started the march toward low-budget chain stores along its namesake boulevard. I would feel better if we could at least agree on what our “here” is.
Take a drive yourself and search for the here: some of it remains throughout Florida. It bleeds through in old diners with Cuban coffee and restaurants with frogs legs and catfish. It traces the rolling hills of north Florida and it invites you to roll down your car windows and breath in south Florida’s salt air. It knows who it is and can’t try and pretend differently. Each here has its own identities, filled with its own history and imperfectly beautiful. It has no apologies.
It has no Dollar General stores.
I spent about 20 minutes taking pictures at the Goofy Golf – octopus, dinosaur, Easter Island head (he was my favorite, and also apparently an institution at any Florida minigolf that is not a chain establishment. Only in Florida do we have franchised minigolf.) and the gamut of the sorts of things you would expect to find at a minigolf establishment along Florida’s coast.
Panama City Beach offers untold riches of chintzy touristana. They did it first, and they did it best. Before them there was only gator wrestling and mermaids. Come on Florida, you can do better than that!, Panama City Beach must have said.
Unlike the newer, glitzy flavors of chintzy tourism, the shalmtzy flavor syrups that drizzle throughout the city are more traditional ones: wooden roller coasters, Ripley’s and a more authentic version of International Drive. The gimmicks here hatched I-Drive; the extreme and the overdone cut its teeth on Panama City Beach’s gritty fluffy sugar sand before corrupting our state’s chewy center.
Goofy Golf remains. Established in 1959, it stands in tropical shades of purple, gold and lame´. You do not feed live gators here (as you may at some of the chains); you do not see a plane crashing into a faux mountain. You are surrounded by high rises and planned shopping experiences; nothing is left to chance. The beach, glittering aquamarine against fluffy buff sand, is down there, if you care to look.
It is tourism for tourism’s sake, and the technicolor icons of the minigolf course sum up this pastel tourist life.
I can’t sleep. It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’ve been lying awake for two hours. Even a cheezy dime store romance from the KOA lending library (Why is it that the two times I’ve been in Tallahassee I’ve ended up at the KOA? What’s wrong with me?) didn’t help. The healthy shot of 151 I poured myself didn’t help. If this blog doesn’t put me to sleep I’m heading over to Facebook to play some stupid time wasting game.
Not working. It’s now 5:05 and all I can think about is everything of Florida I am not going to see in the next two weeks. There just isn’t enough time; there’s too much of her and not enough of me.
Picture Florida as a piece of orange slice candy. You know the ones I mean: chewy orange slices with a crusty sugar coating. You can’t eat too many; the flavor will overwhelm after one or two.
I’ve spent the past few days peeling at the state’s chewy orange center, and now I’m worried I won’t have enough time to lick at its sugary outer layers. There’s just so much to see, so many places almost no one knows about that I’ve yet to explore, and I really don’t have enough time to give them the attention they deserve.
Take today: we have a less-than-three-hour drive to Port St. Joe, where we will camp on the beach. Sounds great, right? Yeah, I thought so, too. Then we drove through Monticello yesterday and I realized that I really wanted to walk around the town and explore the idea of poverty juxtaposed with pre-civil-war architecture. I want to spend enough time there to make the place breathe for the people who haven’t been there.
So, OK, add an hour. If we leave our campground at 9 (this has yet to happen but hope springs eternal), we can still be in Port St. Joe by 1, right?
Not so fast, math wizards. Because there is still Natural Bridge Battlefield, which is only important because I just two days ago realized it referred to the river disappearing underground rather than some land formation arching over the river. So, OK, add another 30 minutes.
PLUS there’s Tallahassee, our capital and an awesome town even if it weren’t. We need to take a look there.
Wakulla Springs. That’s where Rico Browning worked his magic with Creature From the Black Lagoon; it’s where Tarzan and Cheetah frolicked. There’s a great boat ride there and a lodge.
Just hell. Oysters. Because we’re going right through Apalachee Bay. And with oysters come beer. It’s the law in Florida, in case you didn’t know. Indian Pass Raw Bar and Moe’s are currently vying for our dinner business, but who knows what we’ll drive by that I don’t already have on my radar?
And then we get to the park. The beach. The panhandle’s diamond gulf coast, except by the time we set up camp we’ll have about an hour to enjoy it. Then it’s sunset, dinner, bed, and time to do this all over again. All the while all I can think about are the people and places I’m missing.
Just bloody hell. These are the places that everyone visits, and I’m going because I want to go there; it’s totally selfish. But what about the other places? What about the Sopchoppy cemetery? What about Double Bayou? What about Blount’s Bay? What about all the little places with real people and real lives who deserve to be seen? They are no less valuable than the hairdresser who bought Moe’s; they are of equal interest as the people who narrate the tour down the Wakulla.
I am failing you, Mr. Kennedy. I am failing and I am sorry. I just don’t have the resources to do this on an extended basis. There’s too much of Florida to see.
Florida has too many riches; she simultaneously has too much chewy orange center and sugar sand coating. I love all of it and wish I could gather it up in my arms, weave it into some great lime and sand afghan, and spread it out over the state for the whole world to grab a corner and snuggle up.
The Florida Sleep. I would love it if everyone could snuggle under the blanket of Florida and rest, knowing that they would all meet at some point. But that won’t happen; the chances of a Miami boy meeting a girl from Panama City are slim, as are the chances of the two respective worlds coming to a mutual place of understanding.
What is my point here, I wonder after a few scant hours or sleep and even more hours of fretting? Do I want everyone to find the best oysters, or am I after something more?
Of course, I am after something more. Florida is more than oysters and sand. She is more than Disney and the Keys. She is salt and sun and citrus and pines, but she is more.
She is sleeping with your windows open in August and feeling like you could disappear in a pool of sweat.
She is watching the sun set over the shallow turquoise Gulf and knowing that you are home.
She is wading through the swamp, knowing that each step could invoke the wrath of a gator or – more realistically – a snake.
She is railing against big sugar and the oil rigs and everything else that threatens what you love, whatever that is.
She is Florida, and she is sunshiney and wonderful and perfect in all her flaws.
If only I could know I could show you all that, I would sleep. It wouldn’t be just any sleep.
It would be the great sleep, the one that bears the weight of our history and our future.
It would be the Florida Sleep.
I just checked in to Highlands Hammock State Park, and there’s a lot on my mind but it’s been a long day involving Gertie The GPSs’ cranky attitude and insistence on taking me an hour out of my way. I am out of the hell that is Orlando and into the woods. I had heard the restaurant here had sour orange pie, and that kind of kept me going, except the restaurant is no more. This makes me sad. Now all I can focus on is the pie I am not eating.
I will find you, sweet pie, and when I do, I will eat you.
I’m going for a walk in the woods. It’s gorgeous here. But then, it’s been gorgeous at every camp site. The state park service knows their shit.
After that, I’ll map out my route and perhaps transcribe my notes. Also, does anyone know anything about a now-closed orange souvenir shop on 27 called Shonda’s Souvenirs? It had a pineapple out front.
Why? Because this is Florida. It’s how we do, people.
If you want to see photos, check out my Picasa gallery.
I really, really wished I had paid more attention in my Nature Writing class with Dr. Hallock, because here in north-ish Florida there’s all this Bartram stuff. We just left Ravine Gardens State Park, pretty in its own right thanks to the last Depression America had, and on the way out – after touring the loop encircling the ravine and enjoying a quiet lunch by the terraced amphitheater – I see a cabin with a sign, “William Bartram Trail.”
For those of you not familiar with early Florida literature (although I’m not certain that Bartram, who wrote shortly before the Revolution), let me put it to you this way: Bartram was a breath of fresh air compared to the flat out lies told to the crowns financing Florida expeditions. See, “early Florida literature” is really just a euphemism for “reports to my boss to justify my large government travel budget.” That’s right, folks, besides from providing graduate students with scads of archaic language to wade through, these writers weren’t writers at all – they were government workers who had to justify their jobs. 500 years and nothing’s changed, except for the lack of brave new lands to visit and irrevocably alter in the name of “keeping your job.”
When you consider this body of – we’ll call it literature just to give it a name, if not an accurate one – literature consists of self-serving accounts of what the king’s money was doing for the home country, you start to realize that these books are aggrandized reports home designed to make the explorers look good (and therefore stay employed, because if your explorers look good, you look good.)
Consider the narrative of LeMoyne, who explored La Florida in the mid 16th century with a group of Frenchmen: the pictures contained in this government report include water dragons and reptiles (I’d guess alligators) with snake-like heads and man-like arms (for those of you not intimate with crocodilians, gators have comically small, useless arms.) There’s also a touching sketch of the Indians (yes, I said it) stabbing a man through the penis (clearly the source of all his power) and sawing off his other extremities with Stryker-like precision.
Fun stuff, good times, but wholly inaccurate as far as I can tell. Of course, that’s just how Europeans described the natives. Couple that with how a few Europeans can beat down limitless earlier Americans (don’t believe me? Read Pizzaro’s account of what he did in Peru) and you’ve got yourself pretty much every exploratory account of the New World.
Enter William Bartram. The guy liked plants, mostly, and as nifty as they are, it’s hard to make plants into man-eating vicious beasts. Well, mostly. It also helped that he explored Florida well after the Spaniards and the British wove themselves along the eastern coastline of America; it’s harder to lie when there isn’t an ocean between you and your boss. They could pop in any old time and see that those dragons were, indeed, tarpon. Fun to work on the end of a line, but not exactly fire-breathing beasts.
I like Bartram. He wrote real words. I mean, he’s no chamber of commerce travel writer, but I like that, too. He wrote about what he saw up and down Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas in what I consider more realistic terms. He loved his birds and plants, so that was a lot of his work, not massacring injuns.
Sunday morning before I left the house I took one last look at my bookshelves. I have great bookshelves in the house I rent: they cover one wall from floor to ceiling. My hand paused over my copy of Bartram’s Travels. I wanted to take it. I knew I would want it; knew I didn’t remember half of his expedition. All the same, I had packed a lot of stuff. I ended up leaving the book.
So, of course, within two days we’re at Manatee Springs State Park, with a spring so blue and encircled with knobby-kneed cypress that I never want to leave the waterside. As I take it all in, I notice a plaque that tells me William Bartram discovered this spring in the late 1700s. The plaque bears a transcription of his notes about the springs, but says nothing of how he happened across the cerulean oasis. I assume he navigated his way down the Suwannee River to find it, but that’s just a guess.
It is also just a guess how today’s lunch stop ended up on the trail. I’m not surprised, mind you, just curious. I can picture my copy of Travels sitting on the top shelf of my bookshelf, right hand side. Taunting me.
What a fun thesis it would have been, following Bartram. Of course, that would have taken me out of Florida, and we all know that I turn to stone if I look directly at another state’s history. Also, I’m having a lot of fun now. After lunch we stopped at Angel’s Diner, Florida’s oldest diner (it opened in 1932), and had milkshakes (pusalows, actually).
Bartram, I would like to note, never stopped there. I’d like to believe either Stetson Kennedy or Zora Neale Hurston did.
The east coast of Florida in Fernandina is simply breathtaking: high coastal dunes and creamy buff sand meets blue over and over again. A1A, a road not included in the original Guide to the Southernmost State because it didn’t exist in one long form yet, is a thin ribbon cutting through the oaks and pines and twisting through beach houses and flats. Florida’s northeast coast of Florida deserves more than what I gave it today on my eager way to my camp site in Little Talbot Island State Park.
The park is one of seven state parks that comprise Talbot Island State Parks, and is a typical Florida state park. By typical I mean well tended with breathtaking vistas. We pulled into our campsite about an hour ago. The sun was just dipping into our line of sight over Myrtle Creek, and I clipped the leash on Calypso so she could stretch her legs after a long day of stops-and-goes in the van. We’re about 150 feet from the water, so I thought she’s enjoy a good roll in the sand.
As she did, I noticed a fishermen crouched by the water’s edge, fiddling with something in the water. Curiosity trumped my disgust at finding people near our camp site (I’m not a chatty camper) so I approached him and asked, “What’d you catch?”
“A snake,” he said. I moved closer (I like snakes) and saw it appeared to be a young rattler. It also appeared that he was holding the snake’s head underwater.
“I caught it with my rod and reel,” he said, then explained how snakes could swim if they wanted to (really, Darwin?) and that the storm made them swim to shore from islands. He intended to drown it.
“But don’t tell no one, ’cause it’s illegal,” he said.
“I know,” I told him. I watched. He was trying to drown the little guy by holding his head in the sand under the water. It didn’t appear to be working.
At this point I walked back to the camper; the snake was gorgeous and it was making me sad to watch this city dweller disguised as a redneck. I told El Cap what I’d seen and he wanted to see the snake, so we walked back down to the water. He talked to the guy and asked why he was killing the snake.
“Well, you wouldn’t want it waiting for you when you walked outside your camper, would you?” he said.
“No, but he wouldn’t want to be there, either,” he said and walked away. You can’t argue with assholes. I didn’t say anything but listened as the guy’s buddy came over and asked him why he didn’t let it loose in the woods surrounding us. I guess the peer pressure was just too much, because the guy finally walked away from the camp sites and water and tossed the snake into the grass. The snake slithered away, I assume, gasping for breath and trying to figure out what just happened.
As I understand it, rattlers can hold their breath for up to 45 minutes, so, you see, you can’t drown a rattlesnake.
Because you can’t drown a rattlesnake, asshole.
After about 10 minutes or so, the snake was holding on to life with a tenacity seen only by overweight men at an all-you-can-eat buffet, so he brought it on land and tried to stuff its head in the sand. Still, no joy.