It’s a standard thing to ask someone when first introduced, often only preceded in the pantheon of awkward, getting-to-know-you inquiries with, “Hey, what’s your name?” and “What do you do?” I always had two standard responses. The first dodged the specifics. “I’m a military brat, so I’m from all over.” If the person persisted, I’d defensively respond,
“Well, I was born in Florida, but we moved away before I turned two.”
Florida is the land of retirees, bad drivers, crooked real estate developers, hurricanes, mosquitos, and alligators. There's something for everyone to dislike. The unrelenting traffic around cities such as Miami, Orlando, and Tampa prove that sitting still on interstates is not a deal breaker though. People obviously spend a lot of time there, and if pressed, might admit that they enjoyed their stay, but only when presented in silhouette and with something to disguise their voices.
I was born in Pensacola where my parents bought a place on the beach. They quickly sold the property when my mother experienced reoccurring dreams of my brother and me wandering down to the shore and drowning in the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t remember this time, and my mom told me the story years later. Like most two-year-olds, I wasn’t storing memories yet.
If I stayed away after that, I might have escaped the gravitational pull of the Sunshine State. But there are plenty of military installations there, so it should surprise no one that periodic intersections with Florida punctuated my school-age years. I spent my first three years of grade school in Fort Walton Beach along what many Floridians not-so-lovingly refer to as the “Redneck Riviera.” It’s called that due to its popularity with the people that come to vacation from the rest of the Southeast. The part of the state west of the Apalachicola River is in the central time zone. This fact seems to be enough for anyone in the rest of Florida to disparage the region as, “Not Florida. More like Southern Alabama.”
My memories of this time are as much tactile as visual: white sand stuck to feet, the palpable slap of humid air when leaving an air-conditioned classroom, a white crust of dried saltwater and sweat on the skin. Here I learned that the thorns in the rose garden weren’t the only way that a plant could hurt you. A story about a six-year-old trying to pull out a handful of Sawgrass is cringe-inducing to anyone familiar with the aptly named plant.
The most vivid visual memory I have from this time is a critter I became enamored with, the antlion. The antlion is an alien looking insect larva that sits hidden under the sand at the base of a cone-shaped pit. The only indication of its presence is a small spray of sand thrown into the air. The spray causes a passing ant to stumble and fall into the base of the pit. The antlion then catches the insect with enormous mandibles and drags it beneath the surface. To a seven-year-old boy, this strange creature was the perfect Sci-Fi monster. Another five years would pass before the Return of the Jedi came out, but in the iconic scene where Luke Skywalker stands on a plank, about to be thrown into the Sarlacc pit, all I could think was,”a giant alien antlion!”
The fine sand of Fort Walton Beach makes a perfect environment for these traps. Entire fields look like the dimpled surface of a golf ball. I’d be lying if I said that as I walked through those fields, I never gave an unsuspecting ant a nudge. I wanted to see the hidden predator do his trick.
I made some friends in those first few years of school, but when I try to remember their faces, they appear in my mind as though through frosted glass, vague features, blurred, and indistinct. That first antlion, however, is crystal clear in my memory. Make of that what you will. Moving to four states in the first five years of my life, as well as the transition to Texas at age seven, seemed perfectly normal. But, Florida was now a place with memories, if not necessarily the usual ones.
Ten years later, I returned to Pensacola. I was a senior in high school, and a lot can happen between ages two and seventeen. In the intervening years, I became aware of Florida’s sketchy reputation. It was in the South but wasn’t Southern in the typical “Grits and Dixie” sense. The Redneck Riviera earned honorary “Southern” designation, but carpetbaggers filled the rest of the state. Florida was where old people went to finish out their days. It was where con men could guarantee easy marks by targeting those same old people. Authors like Carl Hiassen mined the culture and wrote incredible, yet strangely viable stories about the crazy characters that Florida attracted.
I spent my sophomore and junior years in Southern California where I made a few close friends, a rarity in the nomadic life of a military brat. I resented the move away from them, and Florida bore the brunt of my teenaged anger. I didn’t sulk, but I was determined to leave at my earliest opportunity. I did my time and then moved back to Southern California, ostensibly to go to school, but really where I blew through all of my parents’ money, skipped classes, and spent all my time climbing and surfing. Simply, I imploded.
Out of money and failing my classes, I sucked up my pride and moved back in with my parents. This time, in Cocoa Beach on the east coast of the state. I was now in the “Real Florida,” which was supposed to exist in stark relief to the Redneck Riviera. The only real difference I noticed was a decrease in the prevalence of southern accents and an increase in those from New York and New Jersey.
Cocoa Beach is known for two things, the 1960s TV show I Dream of Jeannie, and more importantly to me at the time, a place where there was supposed to be decent surfing. After Southern California and Mexico, I was a bit disappointed. The surf was small and inconsistent. Only an offshore hurricane could hold the promise of “good surf.”
I still wanted to leave, but inertia overcame my drive. While resentment and an unreasonable awareness of Florida’s reputation remained in the back of mind, it was easy for a guy in his late teens to fall into the beach bum lifestyle. Beach volleyball, surfing, and early runs on the sand before the sun got too intense became my morning routine. On these runs, I was occasionally offered a drink out of a thermos to cool off, and there was a fifty-fifty chance that the drink was either water or a Bloody Mary. I worked in a gym as a trainer to make money. Considering that I spent so much time shirtless at the beach, it seemed like the perfect win-win job for a nineteen-year-old. Such was life in a vacation town.
Aside from a brief escape to Texas for a few months, Florida became my place of residence for the next ten years. It was where I resided, but not my home. I bounced around from place to place, job to school, coast to inland and back again.
I escaped when I could. I ran off to the desert and the mountains, anywhere that wasn’t sand and sea. I made an ill-conceived attempt to climb Mt Rainier for the first time. When I failed to make the summit due to poor conditioning and acclimatization, the guide asked me where I was from. When I said Florida, he nodded like it explained everything. At the end of each of these trips I swore that I was going to get out, but then day to day life would resume and “someday” would become the operative word.
I didn’t completely neglect the trails and waterways of my home state. I kayaked freshwater springs filled with manatees. I discovered the joy of riding a bike on the trails in the state parks. To call it “mountain biking” somehow seems disingenuous, and when asked I’d said that I had taken up “trail biking.” But still, a certain perverse pride can come from being able to ride through miles of deep sand. One of those rides also gave me what I still consider my closest call with a wild animal.
Rock Springs Run isn’t the most popular park in Central Florida. The park is far from the beach, and only obliquely contacts one of the popular spring-fed rivers that course through the inland areas. The isolation made a perfect getaway from the suburban sprawl I was living in the north of Orlando. Early morning rides there became my nature therapy. Bear, deer, and bobcat tracks were common, and the exotic calls of birds filled the air. Most of the trails were narrow paths through tall, dense, palmetto scrub. This brush hid a creature that would cause me to end up bloodied but happy to be alive.
I was riding east, the morning sun in my eyes, pedaling hard on a straight section of trail. Through the glare, I saw several animals the size of small terriers charge out of the brush, cross the trail, and dive back into the undergrowth. I slowed to a more moderate pace, both to figure out what the animals were and also to ensure I didn’t accidentally run one over.
Instead one ran over me, a much bigger one.
What I saw was a group of wild piglets. When I slowed down, momma pig assumed I was taking undue interest in her youngsters. As I rode past, she hit my bike just behind the seat sending my rear wheel sliding out and launching me over the handlebars, away from the bike and into the thorny vines and palmetto. Fortunately, the bike became the focus of the swine’s ire. After a couple of passes, mamma realized that her kids were getting too far ahead and she charged off after them.
I carefully picked myself up out of the palmettos, and then carefully picked the palmettos out of me. I looked at the wreck of my bike and realized that I was in for a long walk out. The rear wheel resembled a taco, and the steel frame bent at an odd angle. I was scraped, punctured, and otherwise bloodied from unkind vegetation, but I lacked any pig prints on my body. For that, I still feel fortunate. I shouldered the bent, mangled wreckage and limped back to my car, loudly yelling out “Souu-Eee!” to let Momma know exactly where I was. I hoped that she wouldn't decide that I needed another lesson in minding my own business.
Despite experiences like that I always felt like better adventures existed elsewhere. I wanted mountains. I wanted forests that didn’t consist only of pine and oak. I wanted seasons besides brutally hot and livable. I wanted out.
Two things gave me the push. First, after earning enough credits to get two degrees, I graduated from college. Second, my long-term girlfriend and I broke up. As so often happens, towns, even ones the size of Orlando become too small to avoid running into people that you want to avoid. It finally lit a fire under me. I made way to the Pacific Northwest and swore I would never live in Florida again.
A couple of years before I left Florida, I bought a camera, but it wasn’t until I moved to northeast Georgia that I started taking landscape, wildlife, and nature photography seriously. I worked my way deeper into the Appalachian backcountry in search of waterfalls, mountaintop sunrises, and wildlife. There were times that I was unsure if I was in North Carolina, Georgia, or South Carolina. The mountains didn’t change color when I crossed a state line.
The geopolitical lines that defined states don’t exist through the objective eye of the lens. Sure, I recognized that one side of the Chattooga River defined Georgia and the other South Carolina, but the hemlocks on either side were indistinguishable. The kingfishers didn’t seem to note their interstate transit as they flew from bank to bank. The more I traveled with my camera, the more arbitrary state lines became.
With this new perspective, I turned my thoughts back to Florida. Most of my family lived there, and I missed them. I visited, but there was always an urge to leave as soon as possible. As I drove south to the state line, there seemed to be a resistance, as if a magnetic field was trying to push my car north. Soon, I came to realize the resistance had nothing to do with the state. It had everything to do with memories of bad relationships, the resentment of leaving California, and the prejudices that I bought into about the state without really giving them much thought.
That’s not to say that I stopped noticing Florida’s flaws, I just became aware that the flaws weren’t unique to the state. They exist in almost every part of the country. It’s true that the coasts tend to act as a magnet for those on the tails of the bell curve of society, and Florida has a LOT of coasts. But looking through the lens allowed me to view the state in small, discreet vignettes, and what I saw concerning people differed very little from what I’d seen in California, Washington, Maine, or Texas.
I concluded that Florida is photographically stunning. The humidity that slapped me in the face every time I stepped outside as a child creates amazingly soft ethereal light for early morning scenes. Towering clouds that build before the regular afternoon thunderstorms create drama and reinforce the photographic idiom that, "Bad weather makes for good photography." Even the unbearable heat of midday can create a shimmer that makes an image feel like something out of a dream.
Despite being synonymous with overdevelopment, Florida contains an incredible number of protected wild areas. The physical harshness of much of the state keeps people away. Because people keep away, wildlife thrives. For those willing to get muddy and mosquito-bitten, the opportunity to see bear and bobcats and perhaps a mountain lion is equal to anywhere on the east coast. Animals that don't interest other people fascinate me. Alligators, snakes, armadillos, and spiders draw the focus of my camera as often as their cuter, furrier counterparts.
I also realized that Florida does have seasons punctuated by color, not in the change of foliage, but in the change of plumage on the birds that come south in the winter and nest in the spring. I now look forward to my family trips so I can sneak off pre-dawn to wetlands and photograph colorful wading birds with a wavering yellow-orange sun rising behind them.
Now I spend my days wandering the narrow river gorges lined with rhododendrons and ridgelines punctuated by mountain laurel that define the Appalachians. For the time being, I reside closest to the mountains of the Southeast. I’m not ready to call them home though. The past couple of years the call of the mountain west is growing louder. And to my surprise, the plains of the Dakotas have begun to whisper my name.
Even more surprising is that the polarity has reversed in my relationship with the Sunshine State. There is a pull where there once was resistance. Because of my unwillingness to give the state a chance, much of it remains a mystery. The heat and the humidity will probably be enough to keep me from living there again. But there is a trail, a long trail, the Florida Trail, that entices me now. Until the opportunity arises for me to get there, I'll make do redescovering the state in small bites.
So, Florida, we got off on the wrong foot a long time ago. Do you want to start over? I know this is a shallow way to start things off, but by God you’re beautiful. I’d love to get to know you better.
What do you say?