If I had only one day to live, I’d spend it in Florida: riding a bicycle on the Shark Trail in the Everglades. It's a patch of heaven: a timeless expanse of sprawling alligators, preening anhingas, and azure skies. The only drawback is that you have to drive through two days of hell to get there.
Before I write any further, let me get the issue of Florida drivers off my chest. Florida drivers do not bother to show you a blinker or hand signal before they switch lanes. Instead, they honk and give you the finger after they switch lanes.
No one has ever been quite sure who’s in control down there. The land was first inhabited by Native Americans. Then the Spanish took it over. Then the French. Then the Spanish again. Then the English. Then the Spanish, again. Then the United States. Then the Confederacy. Then the United States again. Then Donald Trump. On paper, it is still technically one of the 50 states. But when you go there, it is more a reincarnation of the Wild West: only this time with 21 million residents, 75 million tourists, and twelve lane highways. It's people consist of 25 million self-indulging seniors who have run away from home, 3 million tired kids waiting in lines at Disney, a million undocumented refugees from the Caribbean, and 2 million con artists from the other 49 states lolling around in Florida, just out of reach of the authorities. Everyone between the ages of 16 and 96 has a car and they all drive all day and all night, shouting and honking and making obscene gestures at one another. The Everglades National Park is the only sane refuge in an “interesting” state.
There. I feel better.
Oops, not yet. There’s more.
The state’s Annual Mullet Festival will start April 22. Check the website and you will discover that thousands of half-naked people show up on the state border and throw dead fish at Alabama. Now, I’ll grant you: Alabama isn’t the brightest star in our flag. In fact, they don’t even seem to notice the extra garbage being thrown their way. With Alabama's love of the second amendment, it seems like they would assemble their weapons, marshal the state militia, and blow the mullets out of the sky before they landed on Alabama's sovereign territory. State's rights, you know. Nevertheless, the behavior of the Floridians deserves a whole textbook on socio-psychopathology. Welcome to Florida.
Okay. I think I’m okay now. You’ll have to excuse me. I just spent two weeks in Florida, and am not quite recovered yet. It wasn’t all traumatic, however. I loved the plays at the Straz Center in Tampa, the Florida State Fair, the beaches on the gulf, the 80 degree temperatures in February, and the fresh strawberries.
I’ve been there before and I DO keep going back. In past years there’s been the “Robert Is Here” fruit stand outside Homestead, the free orange juice samples at Sun Harvest Citrus (outside Ft. Myers,) the turquoise ocean waters off Miami Beach, the Kennedy Space Center, U.S. Route 1 stringing the keys together, Cuban food in Little Havana, the Flamingo Garden wildlife preserve, manatee sightings, and spring training baseball. It does have its loveliness, and I’m grateful for the time and means to go there. It’s just that other “stuff” I’m trying to put out of my mind.
The name “Florida” means “land of flowers,” a name given by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. Florida is first in the nation in tornadoes, lightning strikes, hurricanes, per capita old people, auto insurance fraud, and flatness. (As to flatness, Illinois comes in second, followed by North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, Delaware, and Kansas.) Florida is also first in grapefruits, swamps, and golf courses.
It boasts the oldest city in the U.S.: St. Augustine. Actually, that’s not accurate unless we add a string of adjectives and adverbs to align it with the truth. It is the oldest continuously inhabited, European-established town in the contiguous United States. But all those adjectives and adverbs don’t discourage the tourists from flocking in. The town bustles today with over-priced restaurants, artists, galleries, souvenir shops, and beaches.
Before St. Augustine was established, WAY back in the good ole days (650 million years ago) Florida was lallygagging around on the lost continent of Gondwana, down by the south pole. The whole continent suddenly collided with the lost continent of Laurentia. The wreck (a foreshadowing of future Florida drivers) totaled both continents and Florida broke loose, where it drifted northward in a landmass geologists now call “Orange Island.” During a spell of global freezing, when ocean levels declined, the island turned out to be a peninsula attached to the continent of North America.
Paleo-Indians migrated to Florida some 14,000 years ago and settled around its few freshwater sinkholes. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the population had swelled to as many as 700,000.
The Spaniards were the first Caucasians to hit its shores in the early 1500s, leading to a series of disasters. Starvation, war, disease, ship wrecks, and hurricanes made life miserable for everyone: it was not a good place for spring break or tourism.
Persecuted French Protestants tried to settle around what is now Jacksonville. The English tried to take St. Augustine. Everybody was fighting with everybody else. Pirate attacks, along with invasions from colonists in Virginia and North Carolina unsettled Florida villages. There was border conflict with Georgia. King Charles II of Spain offered freedom to any slaves who could escape from the British colonies. In 1763, Spain and England made a swap: Florida to the British and Cuba to Spain.
By the time of the American Revolution, modern day Florida consisted of two colonies: West and East Florida, neither of which joined the Revolution. They stayed loyal to Britain. In the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, the two colonies of Florida were given to Spain in appreciation for its indirect help during the war.
During the last Spanish rule (1783-1821) the area lost population, except for some illegal immigration: white folks leaking down from the backwoods of South Carolina and Georgia. They settled in the northern part of Florida. These folks are the origin of what are now known as “Florida Crackers,” a culture that is growing stronger by the year.
When the two colonies were merged, Tallahassee was the center of the population and became the capitol city, replacing St. Augustine (East Florida) and Pensacola (West Florida.)
While the story of Florida continues, I'm out of time and space. So I'll sign off with this:
Florida is then a story all of its own...
- A story of enslavement and genocide, BUT also a haven of refugees
- A story of violence, BUT also a respite from stresses elsewhere
- A story of political demagoguery, BUT also a place to start a story over
- A story of goodness and grace, BUT also a haunt of demons.
And the sign on I-75 exiting the state says, “Come Visit Again.