I stayed in Florida from December 4, 2016 to February 9, 2017, with my friend Kathy, also a solo woman full-timer. These are the Florida Files.

Florida, The (Liquid) Sunshine State

December 4, 2016

The last time I was in Florida, I was nine years old, a mere 39 years ago. My family took a driving vacation to Disney World in Orlando from Mississippi. What a nightmare. There was nothing pleasant about it that I recall. Part of this journey for me is one of self-actualization – seizing opportunities to un-parent and re-parent myself and override sad memories with happy ones. This trip to Florida is one such opportunity.

I crossed the border from Alabama to Florida on Interstate 10, met with a driving rain so strong I was forced to wait it out at the Visitor Center. Real-time roadsigns announced a Silver Alert, probably a lot more common than an Amber Alert in a state full of retirees.

Precipitation pelted again later that afternoon. Visibility was less than six feet, and drivers turned on their emergency flashers. I pulled over on a narrow shoulder and feared being rear-ended by someone who might not be able to see me, despite lighting up both the rig and the toad.

The rain slacked up just a tad, so I crept along to Sherry’s Restaurant in Holt, where Sherry herself was serving up Saturday lunch for the locals. The special was Grouper Fish and Chips. The ranch dressing on the salad was the creamy, buttermilk homemade variety, not that thin, lemony crap out of a jar. I ordered a homemade banana pudding to go, for later. Hearing that I was headed for St. Augustine, two customers, newlyweds, said they considered “St. Aug” for their honeymoon, but were concerned about Hurricane Matthew damage. I told them everything indicated that St. Augustine was back to its former glory, two months post-Matthew. I sure hoped so, anyway.

That night I slumbered in a parking lot at Camping World in Tallahassee, the lights of the Dollar General across the road buzzing intermittently. At times this is such a glamorous lifestyle!

St. Augustine: Ancient City, Crass Commercialism

December 5 – 12, 2016

Checking in at Faver-Dykes State Park 20 miles outside St. Augustine, I was struck by the lush, tropical look of the place, having just come from hard-scrabble central Texas. It was as if we landed in the set of “Land of the Lost,” and a dinosaur was going to lumber out at any moment. Downed trees and cordoned-off areas indicated remnants of Hurricane Matthew; fifteen miles down the road, Fort Matanzas was still closed for repairs.

I dug my mud boots out of the closet, concerned that the entire park had no concrete or pavement of any kind. I asked the Park Ranger if rain was still in the forecast. He replied that it was, and he sure hoped it came; there had been no rain since Hurricane Matthew.

The rain did come, in buckets, that night and the next day, but to my surprise we were not up to our necks in muck; the sand soaked up the rain and was even easier to walk and drive on. It drastically lowered the dust, too.

We didn’t run into any dinosaurs at Faver-Dykes, but there were plenty of white tailed deer, squirrels, and even wild turkeys.

There were also not-so-welcome visitors – ticks! I did my best to keep Rocket and Pinkie from running around in the tall grasses and among the palmettos, but even when they just stuck their heads in for a quick sniff, they ended up with ticks on their heads. Before each walk I sprayed them with an all–natural bug spray for dogs which included citronella and orange rind. It seemed to help.

My first impression of St. Augustine was less than stellar. I had been so excited to see America’s oldest city, founded by the Spanish in the 1500s. I had also heard about St. Augustine’s Nights of Lights, voted one of the Ten Best places in the world for Christmas lights. But instead of finding historic architecture and quaint vistas, we were accosted by several tourist welcome centers and trolley stops on seemingly every corner. Nights of Lights, while lovely, encompassed a small area of downtown, and the 30-minute trolley ride consisted of going around in circles.

I had planned to visit the famed Fountain of Youth, until I saw the neon sign archway over the entrance and read that Ponce de Leon probably landed further south, in Melbourne. Yet another tourist trap in St. Augustine.

The influence of Standard Oil executive, Henry Flagler, is still palpable in St. Augustine today. He is largely responsible for the “look” of the town. In the 1800’s Flagler built two hotels across from one other. These properties became the playgrounds for wealthy East Coast socialites, who came for the warm weather in the winter months. One hotel now houses City Hall and the Lightner Museum,

and the other is Flagler College. Another Standard Oil man built a castle for his winter home, and it is now the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum.

Flagler’s reach is far and wide; we heard stories about the railroad built through the Florida Keys by Flagler, which greatly changed the landscape and added to the lore of the area.

We escaped the town for a day trip when I had a medical appointment in Jacksonville, visiting quaint Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.

It was as if a day away improved our good humor and outlook on St. Augustine. We returned to St. Augustine and explored Castillo de San Marcos, a fort built from coquina in the 1600’s,

Aviles Street,

and the charming shopping district on St. George, including Cuban sandwiches at the famed Columbia restaurant, opened in 1905. We vowed to visit the location in Ybor City outside of Tampa in January and to order the paella.

Things vastly improved once we soaked ourselves in local culture. An old ice warehouse has been transformed into a distillery and bar and restaurant, and we were mesmerized watching the bartenders at The Ice Plant make their tinctures and concoctions.

Brunch at Preserved by James Beard nominee Brian Whittington in the Lincolnville neighborhood lived up to the hype. And, when in St. Aug., it is a must to go to the Tini Martini Bar, for water views and people watching.

We toured the historic inns beds and breakfasts of St. Augustine, all decked out for Christmas.

I came to appreciate St. Augustine. If I was passing through the area I would definitely stop for a couple of days, but I doubt I would make it a destination again.

The Space Coast: Living In A Moonshadow

December 12 – 15, 2016

Manatee Hammock, a Brevard County RV park, sits on the Banana River directly across from the launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center. They are still cleaning up trees and debris in some areas of the park following the hurricane, but they are open and fully operational.

As I exited Nellie to register at the park office, a man was lowering the American flag. He asked, “Does that look half staff to you? I mean, I was a Marine, and I used to do this all the time, but now I can’t tell.” I told him it did, and asked why the flag was flying at half staff. He looked at me, quizzically and incredulously, and replied with disdain, “John Glenn died.” Welcome to the Space Coast.

This is the place where parkways are named for space shuttles. It is the home of Cocoa Beach, playground of the astronauts in the 1960’s, where the Cocoa Beach Pier still stands but the tiki bar at the end was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew.

If you’re looking for mid-century nostalgia, you won’t find it in Cocoa Beach. No great old neon signs, no classic bars or restaurants. What might have been left of that stuff disappeared in the 1990’s. Now, even the shuttle program has been dismantled, leaving little for the locals to crow about. There are the occasional launches of satellites and such, and there are lofty projects in the works, spearheaded by American corporations instead of NASA, but you get the sense on the Space Coast that The Space Age, aged. In town there are bigger monuments built to surfers than astronauts. The great surfer Kelly Slater hails from Cocoa Beach, and the Ron Jon surf shop, open 24 hours a day, is worth a visit.

Down at the Sunset Grill, a sunset celebration occurs nightly, followed by karaoke. Aging baby boomers sing songs of their youth.

We Now Interrupt This Florida Holiday To Remind You Of The Constant Companion

You would think that after over a year on the road I would be better at this. I planned my time in Florida without first determining if Florida nurses may administer my Entyvio infusion based on an order from Seattle doctor. It turns out, no; Florida nurses require a Florida doctor’s order to administer the drug. I researched neighboring states such as Georgia and Alabama, to no avail. Why not just get a local doctor’s order, you ask. No doctor wants to read a stack of medical records, work me up, and write an order, never to see me again.

The closest infusion center to Florida that would honor my order was Meridian, Mississippi, where I infused before my high school reunion in June. I considered hanging out in Mississippi until it was time to infuse, but I didn’t want to miss the first part of the Florida trip. I considered getting the infusion early, then boogying down to Florida, but my doctor advised that while getting the drug early would not be harmful, it was unlikely that insurance would cover a premature visit.

What to do, what to do, what to do? I decided to fly to Meridian, Mississippi from Florida to be infused. On December 13 at 5:00 a.m., I left the RV park in Titusville, Florida; drove 45 minutes to the Orlando airport;

flew from Orlando to Atlanta; took another flight from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi;

rented a car and drove 80 miles to Meridian, Mississippi; got the infusion; then did the trip in reverse. I returned to the campground at 1:00 a.m. My travel buddy, Kathy, watched the critters while I was away. My sister Teresa drove over to Meridian from Union for a visit while I infused, and we exchanged Christmas gifts. She took this photo:

If you don’t know this about me by now, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I refuse to let this disease ruin my life.

Things will be a little better in February, when I will be in New Orleans at the time I need the infusion. Guess what? Louisiana requires a local doctor’s order too, of course. I will drive 3.5 hours each way from New Orleans to Meridian.

As I planned my summer trip to New England next year, I was cognizant not to put the cart before the horse; I researched the states that allow nurses to follow an out-of-state doctor’s order, then planned my trip around that. Thank you, Maine and Massachusetts! I plan to compile a list of states for those who might be in similar circumstances as me.

We capped off our last day on the Space Coast at Kennedy Space Center, which was absolutely spectacular!

To see the space shuttle Atlantis up close was a personal favorite.

The Mercury Mission firing room,

an Apollo Saturn V Rocket,

the actual launch pads by van tour –

the exhibits were so well done. I must admit I tired of the inspirational music playing all around the park after awhile; I felt like I was in the middle of a Ron Howard movie.

Marathon: The Key To Relaxation

December 15 – 20, 2016

It was a long drive from the Space Coast to the middle of the Keys, but we opted to skip Fort Lauderdale and Miami in search of quiet relaxation.

At Homestead, the pace of life slows as you enter the Keys. Even the concrete barriers are painted a pleasant aquamarine blue, and the speed limit, actually (mostly) followed by the locals, drops to between 45 and 55 miles per hour.

We drove straight through Key Largo and Islamorada, knowing we would be staying in Key Largo after the holidays.

We were not disappointed when we arrived at the Jolly Roger RV resort in Marathon, Florida. Situated directly on the Gulf of Mexico, there is nothing to do but float in the water (Gulf or pool), kayak, wind surf, fish, drink a cool libation, and watch the sunset. Temps are in the 80’s.

Catching Up With Henry Flagler

I followed Henry Flagler’s trail to Pigeon Key, the site of a work camp for over 400 men who, in the early 1900’s, built Flagler’s Seven Mile Bridge on the Flagler Railway. Before Flagler’s railroad, The Keys were swamp land. The railroad cost $60 million and took 12 years to complete. Flagler, in his 70s, rode on it only once, in 1912, before he died.

Visitors could take the rail line to Key West, then board steamships for destinations like Cuba and the Bahamas.

In 1935, when a hurricane destroyed only a small portion of the line, it was abandoned. The state of Florida purchased the railway for $160,000 (a bargain yes, but still depression dollars) and converted it to two-lane highway, which if you can believe it operated until 1982, when the modern bridge opened.

Portions of the Old Seven Mile Bridge on both the Marathon side and the Bahia Honda side are open for foot traffic and bicycles. Unfortunately for us, the Marathon side, where a section of the bridge is used as a parking lot, is currently closed for renovations. The only way to Pigeon Key right now is by boat, what you catch at the Pigeon Key Visitors Center.

Many of the original structures on Pigeon Key, such as one of the barracks and the kitchen, still stand.

In the 1950’s, a wood offramp was built from the highway to the key, where visitors could stop for a respite and a dip in the newly-constructed saltwater pool.

When the rail line was converted to a highway, the tracks were used as guard rails.

Several caretakers and researchers live on Pigeon Key, and summer camps are held there for children interested in marine biology. I am so glad I visited and learned more about the history of The Keys.

On our last day in Marathon we toured the Turtle Hospital, where they rescue, rehabilitate, and release (when possible) sea turtles. What magnificent creatures!

How’d You Like To Spend Christmas On Bone Island?

Key West: December 20, 2016 – January 3, 2017

According to our trolley driver, Key West is so close to sea level that native Seminole Indians left their dead above ground. When the Spanish arrived and saw piles of bones, they named the area “Cayo Hueso,” or Bone Island. The Spanish pronunciation was lost over time, eventually morphing into “Key West.”

What can I say about Key West that has not been said? If you’ve been there, you already know what I mean. If you haven’t, words alone simply do not suffice. Key West must be experienced to be understood and appreciated.

I’ve visited my share of beach communities around the world. I lived in Santa Barbara, California for four years. Key West is unique. Maybe it’s the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Gulf of Mexico to the west, and nothing to keep from drowning except a thin strip of land in-between.

Maybe it’s because it is the southernmost point in the continental United States, or because it’s only 90 miles to Cuba.

This is the place that has inspired pirates, naturalists,

writers,

Ernest Hemingway

singers, presidents,

fortune seekers,

and painters. Chickens and roosters roam the streets.

The lush, tropical foliage reminds you that you are somewhere else.

Iguanas slither about at campgrounds and cemeteries.

Cats, some of them six-toed, have the run of the place at Hemingway’s house.

Bartenders long since dead are still revered (RIP, Sloppy Joe!)

Bicyclists and scooter riders dodge daily the thousands of daytrippers vomited from cruise ships onto Key West’s streets.

Pasty, pudgy tourists mingle with eco-tour guides, fishermen, free spirits, retired and active military personnel, artists, restauranteurs and barkeeps. Even in death, citizens of the Conch Republic are eccentric.

True, this is not the Key West of old. Is anything the way it used to be? It is impossible to be both a vacation destination and a quaint, quirky town that hasn’t changed in decades. Parking is expensive and elusive. Seems like every attraction costs 10 bucks to get in.

If you are a foodie, Key West has the restaurants, and it’s not all Cuban sandwiches, hogfish, pink shrimp, Key lime, and Rumrunners. If you are interested in history of any kind, Key West has it in abundance, from the Seminoles to Spanish explorers to slavery

and the Civil War.

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson

West Martello

East Martello

If you want to snorkel or fish or dive or boat or kayak, you got it. A vibrant gay community. Live music. Live theater. Street performers. Sunset celebrations every day.

Dog parks and dog parades and dogs on restaurant patios.

Higgs Beach Dog Park

I thoroughly enjoyed my two weeks in Key West. While I do not see it as a place to put down roots permanently, I could spend Decembers there, when hurricane risk decreases, temperatures are in the 70s and 80s, and the high season beginning in January has not yet started.

Happy New Year!

We Had It All, Just Like Bogey and Bacall

Key Largo: January 3–5, 2017

On the road again …

Pop culture has played it fast and loose when it comes to Key Largo. Yes, there was the 1948 movie, which I watched on New Year’s Day while still in Key West in preparation for the trip north.

But, other than a few aerial shots at the beginning, the entire movie was filmed on a soundstage in Hollywood.

Then, there is that atrocious 1981 song by Bertie Higgins, which has nothing to do with the movie and jumbles in quotes from the movie, “Casablanca.”

To be sure, the ghost of Bogey still lingers in Key Largo. The bar and restaurant at the Holiday Inn is called “Bogey’s.” A local bar, The Caribbean Club, purports to be the inspiration for the interior shots in the movie, which is highly unlikely, yet plenty of Bogart and Bacall memorabilia hangs there.

The best Bogart experience in Key Largo is steaming aboard the African Queen, the actual boat used in the John Huston 1951 movie.

It was a rather circuitous route for the boat to end up in Key Largo, but it did, and it is just as rough and charming as ever.

I just love it when I trust my fortunes to the winds of fate, which for a Type A planner like me occurs very rarely. We did very little research about restaurants before arriving in Key Largo, so we asked the captain of the African Queen. He recommended the Fish House. So did other people. When we arrived we realized the Fish House also came highly recommended by Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri. The fish prepared Matecumbe style, with basil, onion, capers and tomatoes, broiled in a hot oven, was delicious.

We had Mahi Mahi and Hogfish with that same preparation. We noshed first on cold Stone Crab claws and martinis. The people on both sides of the bar were relaxed, talkative, and charming.

The number one thing to do in Key Largo is a trip to John Pennekamp State Park – the third largest coral reef in the world. I am neither a snorkeler nor a scuba diver, so we opted for a trip on a glass-bottomed boat.

That ended up sounding way better than it actually was. I’m the type of person who gets sick while reading in a car, so being on a boat while it is moving, looking down into windows at things also moving, in the other direction, through peoples’ often dirty, calloused, and generally jacked up feet, was not a good combination for me.

I finished out the cruise on the upper deck, focusing on the horizon while a breeze blew in my face.

Give our short time in Key Largo, we spent very little in Islamorada, and I would like to return. I made a special trip to see Betsy, the world’s largest lobster,

and to the hurricane memorial, dedicated to the hundreds of people who lost their lives in the 1935 hurricane on Labor Day.

Three weeks in The Keys was lovely, but I am also ready for new vistas and new adventures. Off to the Everglades!

Panthers And Gators And Bears, Oh My!

The Everglades: January 5 – 10, 2017

Leaving Key Largo headed north, I encountered a roadside checkpoint; since October 2016 the Screwworm is killing Key Deer, so all animals leaving The Keys are checked to prevent the spread of the infection northward. The animal control officer asked me my previous location and destination. “Coming from Key West, headed to Ochopee,” I replied, and he looked at me quizzically, “Where?” “The Everglades,” I said, and only then he nodded understanding.

The animals were showing no signs of sickness, and we were on our way. Driving Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail, so named because it was the first road connecting Tampa and Miami, I knew we were getting close when alligators were sunning themselves on the sides of the road, and sign after sign hawked airboat tours.

Ochopee is literally a spot on the side of the road, but they have a post office.

Checking into the campsite, the camp host advised not to step on any alligators. The brochure warned that gators are capable of sudden bursts of speed, and to keep a distance of at least two car lengths. I decided I would walk the dogs only during daylight hours, as I did not want Pinkie and Rocket to become a Tootsie Roll and a Butterfinger, respectively.

Alligators are not the only wildlife to be found in the Everglades. There black bears too, and panthers!

Bear-proof food locker at the campground

The closest town is Everglades City, population 534, 23 miles away. We went exploring, finding more airboat tours, a small non-chain grocery store, and a few restaurants. Four miles out of town is the Smallwood Store, an old trading post dating back to the early 1900’s that is a museum today. It is just exactly what you would think a swamp trading post should be.

In town, I was thrilled to happen upon the Rod and Gun Club, a hideout of Al Capone, and once-upon-a-time host to presidents and celebrities, like John Wayne.

Unfortunately, the glory days of the Rod and Gun Club are long passed. The hotel rooms upstairs are not in use. Several common rooms downstairs were dark and dusty. There were a total of seven bottles of booze behind the bar.

The small laminated menu listed gator bites as a “Appertizer.”

The property is for sale for $12 million, but it would take at least that much, or more, for repairs and renovations. And then, who would come?

Excited for our airboat tour of the Everglades, we settled upon Wooten’s, a family-owned operation since the 1940s. About 10 years ago I toured the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, and I anticipated a similar experience; in the Okefenokee our captain talked about the flora and fauna, and we saw several types of animals, from gators to birds and snakes.

Our Wooten’s combination ticket bought us an airboat ride, a “swamp buggy” tour, and a tour of the “animal preserve.”

The airboat was like an amusement park novelty. It was more about speed and sudden turns and getting wet and “hot-dogging” than a learning experience. We saw a few gators and some turkey buzzards and that’s about it. The noise-canceling headphones made it difficult for the captain to talk to us, but he didn’t have much to say anyway.

We steeled ourselves for the swamp buggy tour, given our experience on the airboat. The swamp buggy, originally used for hunting, is unique to Wooten’s.

Our spirits lifted when the buggy driver stopped before entering the glades to point out animals and plants.

But alas, once we were in the swamp, it was all Disneyland, with staged vignettes of Native American huts, a moonshine still, and a gator hunting camp on a small piece of property adjacent to the road. The only animals we saw were squirrels. Along the route the driver pointed out bear tracks in the mud, and bear claw marks on the trees. I chuckled to myself, wondering whose turn it was at Wooten’s that morning to stamp tracks in the mud and scratch the trees before the tours began.

I didn’t even bother with the “animal preserve,” where they incarcerate a panther, lion, tiger, and several gators. Why in the world would you cage gators when they can be seen along sides of the road? Oh, I forgot – for the gator wrestling show. (Skipped that too.)

Using Ochopee as our base camp, we daytripped 35 miles to Naples on a Saturday for lunch and an art fair on Fifth Avenue South. Naples is not my cup of tea. It reminds me a lot of Palm Springs – homogenized, privileged, gated – old people, new construction. The following day I ventured to Fort Myers to tour the winter estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and it was worth the 1.5 hour journey each way.

Edison’s lab

Fort Myers is a charming little town, with a vibrant downtown and the Ford and Edison names plastered on everything from apartment buildings to bridges to banks. I think I will spend more time in the Fort Myers area next winter when I return to Florida.

After five days in the Everglades, I’m ready for some big city action. Get ready, Tampa!

Activity-Adjacent

Tampa: January 10 – 24, 2017

Boating along the Hillsborough River, the minarets of the University of Tampa, formerly the Tampa Bay Hotel, rise in the near distance.

This former grand old resort hotel was built by entrepreneur and railroad man Henry Bradley Plant, “The King of a Florida,” in the Moorish/Oriental/Byzantine Revival style, completed in 1891.

The place is steeped in history; for example, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stopped in on their way to Cuba to fight in the Spanish/American War.

A small museum sits at one end of the college administrative offices, which were once a playground to the rich and famous. In an introductory film, an art historian explains that the hotel gave “a sense of place” to a town that did not have one in the 1890s.

In many ways, Tampa still does not have that sense of place. The downtown core feels more like a collection of buildings than a community.

There are no trolley tours, no hop on/hop off buses, because frankly, there’s just not that much to see. Tampa reaches for its relevance in historical events, e.g. re-naming Lafayette Street for JFK because he stopped in Tampa before he met his unexpected, violent end in Dallas.

Hyde Park, considered urban and contemporary, consists of a few bars, restaurants and shops along Howard Street. A drive along water-views-aplenty Bayshore Boulevard (a 4.5 mile stretch uninterrupted by cross streets, earning it the nickname “the world’s longest continuous sidewalk”) will show you how the other two percent lives, until it dead-ends into MacDill Air Force Base.

Perhaps Bayshore Boulevard feels more “alive” during Gasparilla, Tampa’s month-long celebration culminating at the end of January in a “pirate invasion” by water and a parade, celebrating mythical pirate Jose Gaspar. Much like NOLA’s Mardis Gras, krewes prepare all year long for the festival.

Most of the city’s character and flavor is across the freeway in Ybor City, cigar capital of the United States after Mr. Ybor pulled up stakes in Key West and took Henry Plant’s train to Tampa. Ybor City is full of history, red brick warehouses and factories, bars, and restaurants, including Columbia restaurant, a tradition since 1905.

The paella and sangria are not to be missed.

But, locals warned not to stray off 7th Avenue NE for fear of harm. How much that fear is actual versus perceived, I can’t say.

We threw ourselves immediately into Tampa Bay culture, visiting the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg

and the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa.

That’s when we realized the best thing about Tampa was its proximity to other towns and attractions.

Orlando is less than two hours away, but I wasn’t all that interested in theme parks. A little over an hour north found us visiting with long-time blog reader and now friend Jane, who graciously showed us around the Crystal River area by land and water.

Crystal River is known for its manatees, but because we were blessed with warmer than usual weather, they stayed away. Here’s a photo of the ripples made by the one manatee we saw:

And here’s a photo from a few days ago:

We tried, didn’t we Jane? Thank you!

Also about an hour away is Florida Southern College, in Lakeland, Florida. Its historic district, a national historic landmark, has the largest single-site collection of Frank Loyd Wright architecture in the world.

While in Tampa I also took a side trip to Havana, Cuba.

Additional sightseeing plans were foiled by my Benedict Arnold of a body. After a few hours at the Tampa RV show, the largest RV show in the country, the abdominal pain became too much, and I spent seven hours in the emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital.

An Abdominal CT later, showing inflammation of the small intestine, the conclusion was I have a chronic disease, it’s getting worse, and at least there’s nothing else to pile on top of that. Hey, they could’ve told me that I had Crohn’s disease and kidney stones. Or, Crohn’s disease and the need for gallbladder surgery or a radical hysterectomy. You get the idea; I’m choosing to find good news in the message. These findings of course make me worry about the efficacy of Entyvio going forward; it never worked miraculously, but it did help an awful lot. In a month I’ll be back in Seattle to discuss this with my gastroenterologist.

Alas, I did not get to visit Tarpon Springs, an historically Greek community known for sponge diving; Weeki Wachee Springs, a waterpark with the famous mermaids; or Ocala to see my friend Eva. There’s always next year. There’s more to explore in Tampa and the surrounding areas. I’d like to experience Gasparilla at least once, and catch some baseball games during Spring Training with the Grapefruit League in February and March.

Tranquility Base

High Springs: January 24 & 25, 2017

I love how the blog brings me closer to people. Last year in Charleston I met a delightful couple who live in Florida. They kept track of my upcoming travels via the blog, noted I would be in their area, and invited me for a visit, recommending a couple of campgrounds and RV parks near their home.

O’Leno State Park in High Springs is a lovely park with cabins, RV spaces, and a ghost town.

The town was settled in the 1860s and named “Keno,” after the gambling game, telling you all you need to know about the town at that time. In 1876, religious and business pressure resulted in a name change to “Leno,” apparently for no other reason than the unimaginative townsfolk knew that “L” followed “K” in the alphabet.

By the 1890s the railroad bypassed the town. Old Leno (“O’Leno”) was purchased by the state of Florida as a park and forestry station in 1934, and FDR’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps whipped it into the beautiful park you see today. The CCC built eight flagship Florida parks from 1933 to 1942. A statue is erected in their honor.

My visit with Russ and Elayne included dinner in the town of High Springs on the night I arrived, a paddle on the Santa Fe River the next day, and dinner at their home. In many ways I envy Russ and Elayne. Spend just a little time with them and you know, they have found their piece of heaven right here on earth. Russ fell in love with it first, luring Elayne from the DC area to fall in love with it too. She is an artist, perpetually painting the waters and landscapes of her adopted home in her studio on their property. They live on acreage with 350 feet of riverfront off a windy, sandy road. Russ drove the boats and us in the truck to the river down a short lane with Elayne and I on the tailgate, legs dangling. As Gershwin put it, “The livin’ is easy.”

I was more than a little nervous to get in a canoe, given my fear of water and my inability to swim, but Russ donned me with a life jacket and put me immediately at ease.

It didn’t hurt that in a previous life Russ was a river guide. We paddled over deep springs, drank wine, saw lots of turtles and birds, and laughed loud and long with friends.

The Forgotten Coast

Apalachicola: January 25 & 26, 2017

I started eating local oysters the minute I crossed the Florida state line, and that’s when I learned about Apalachicola Bay. Before this trip, I must admit I never heard of the town, or Florida Gulf Coast oysters.

Plotting the course from High Springs to our next planned stop of the beaches in the panhandle, it dawned on me that staying off the interstate and taking scenic Highway 98 would take us right through Oyster Central. Why not? We arrived a day later than expected in the panhandle, and that’s the beauty of flexible plans in the full-time RV lifestyle.

We stayed in Carrabelle, camping overnight, and drove Toad into Apalachicola for a look-see. The route along Highway 98 took us through Tate’s Hell State Forest – a name I assumed came from some battle or another.

Boy, was I wrong.

Those of you who know me well know that I am a sucker for a good story. Perhaps it was my southern upbringing. I am a fan of the oral tradition and storytelling. It’s no wonder, then, that I became a trial lawyer and a standup comedian for a time, and that I prefer lyrics to tune in songs.

Tate’s Hell is a doozy! And, there are several variations. Here’s the gist.

Cebe Tate was a homesteader/farmer in Florida in 1875. One day he went into the swamp with his hunting dogs and a rifle. In one version he was hunting for a wild cow to feed to his German immigrant wife, who was complaining there was no beef. In another version he was hunting a panther that was killing his crops. It all versions, his hunting dogs ran off, and he lost his rifle. In most versions he sat down on a log and got bitten by a snake. He wandered the swamp for seven days with only swamp water to drink. He emerged in Carrabelle, delirious, walked up to the first person he found and said, “I’m Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell,” then dropped dead (which raises the question, how did anyone know about losing the dogs and rifle and the snake bite?). Anyway, I’m not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story. Tate’s Hell is an awesome name for a state forest!

This article by Eater can do a much better job of explaining the current conditions and economy in Apalachicola than I can. Suffice it to say, Apalachicola is a small town that depends on its oystermen, and times are a bit tough right now. We stopped in to savor the local fare at two places – Hole in the Wall, and Boss Oyster.

At Hole in the Wall, the guy who brung ’em is prolly the guy who’s shuckin’ ’em.

Yeah, they have wine – Woodbridge in the tiny bottles. Who needs fancy when you have delicious in the shell? Plump, cold, crisp, salty oysters from Apalachicola Bay. Yum!

Over at Boss Oyster, you can sit outside and watch the oystermen go back-and-forth in their barge-like boats. One even had a vintage travel trailer mounted on it.

Leaving Apalachicola Bay, we set our course for the panhandle. Only two more weeks left to go in Florida!

The Beaches of the Florida Panhandle

Destin & Its Environs: January 26 – February 9, 2017

Continuing along Highway 98 West, we hunkered down for two weeks in the Florida panhandle to wait out the winter weather before heading for Louisiana. It was darned cold when we arrived! The first day topped out at 45 degrees. But, it warmed up reasonably, fairly quickly.

I was a little reluctant to spend a chunk of time in Miramar/Sandestin/Destin/Fort Walton Beach; I can get bored with beach communities fairly quickly.

We were very pleased with the accommodations at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, once a private park, purchased by Florida in 1998. The campgrounds are adjacent to Santa Rosa Beach, and a shuttle runs to and from the beach every two hours.

Topsail park sits at the intersection of Highway 98 and Highway 30A. I had never heard of Highway 30A until the locals mentioned it. At the campground a man said that the community of Seaside was not to be missed. Someone else recommended the farmers’ market at Rosemary Beach.

Consulting a map, we learned that Highway 30A is a 28-mile stretch that connects on both ends to Highway 98. Driving along The Emerald Coast, we were immediately struck by the beautiful, brackish lakes directly adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico.

Known as Coastal Dunes Lakes, they are found only in New Zealand, Madagascar and the South Walton coast. There are 15 named Coastal Dunes Lakes in the area. According to 30A.com, “South Walton’s Coastal Dunes Lakes are said to be as much as 10,000 years old and were formed by winds that redistributed sand and created the shallow basins (with most lakes averaging only about 5 feet deep).” Many of the houses had Gulf views to the front and lake views to the rear.

Seaside, the first community on Highway 30A, was constructed in 1981. It was a planned neighborhood, including housing, community space, shops, and restaurants. Other planned communities followed, with names like WaterColor, Gulf Place and Alys Beach, all in white stucco or charming, muted tones imitating bright colors, long since sun-faded.

The homogenized look of the 30A developments reminded me of the tune that opened the series “Weeds,” except in this case each home would be worth millions, and the lyrics would be, “Big boxes by the seaside, big boxes made of ticky-tacky, big boxes by the seaside, and they all look just the same.” I was not surprised in the least to learn that the 1998 movie, “The Truman Show,” was filmed in Seaside. In that movie, Truman, played by Jim Carrey, was the only one who did not know he was in a reality show. The look of the movie was meant to convey a faux environment, contrived and devoid of human emotion. Here’s a shot from the movie:

An op-ed piece appeared in the local Seaside paper, wherein the male writer derided women for marching on the day after the presidential inauguration, “So they could brag about it at brunch and at book club.”

I must admit I liked a few of the shops and restaurants on Highway 30A. The part of me that enjoys the finer things in life is in conflict with the part of me that longs for more diversity and inclusion and less walls and security gates.

A bucket list item was out of reach in the panhandle; January and February are off season, and there was no parasailing to be had. Many restaurants and seafood markets posted signs: “See you in March.” At least Highway 98 was not clogged with tourists and families and spring breakers. We drove that damned highway every day, and it grew tiresome quickly, even absent heavy traffic. We drove 56 miles to Pensacola one day, taking in the town’s historic district and having lunch before being pushed back to Destin by a driving rainstorm.

Reaching the end of our time in Florida, the extended excursion went out with a bit of a whimper instead of a bang in the panhandle.

Thus ends the Florida files, at least until next winter. Thanks for reading!