Sunday, April 29, 2012

Getting Beyond St. Augustine

Perhaps my present journey or maybe every remaining day of my life has something to do with looking for the Fountain of Youth. Therefore I found it apropos that I was now in St.Augustine, the oldest city on the continent, which is mistakenly associated with Ponce de Leon's search for the waters of eternal life. DeLeon had been killed by a poison arrow in Cuba in 1521 and the myth about him started long before St.Augustine had been founded in 1565. I stood at the entrance of Fountain of Youth Park, the grounds of the first settlement where Spaniards began christianizing Natives. A peek through the wrought-iron fence showed me that the ancient village  appeared to have been transformed into a theatrical tourist attraction. I peeked through the wrought iron fence and decided that I would not step through these gates of history but would rather stroll carefree along the waterfront and walk through the narrow streets of the renowned old city.

I parked several blocks away in a neighborhood of stately turn-of-the-century houses adjacent the campus of Flagler University which consisted of some of the most glorious gothic-style buildings and churches I had seen since I had been to Europe.  According to a brochure and map a hotel clerk had thrust in my hand along with a coupon for a discount at some eatery, I had to find a lane which was purported to be lined with authentic buildings dating from the 17th Century. I turned a corner from an alley and found myself on a cobblestone path and was practically swept up by a throng of bodies in gawdy shorts, designer tank tops and t-shirts which touted the importance of various towns and colleges. On both sides of this pedestrian mall, in replicated buildings mimicking the Spanish settlement, were stores selling tourist kitsch from stuffed baby alligator heads to plated silver Mexican jewelry.  Live music of various kinds blared from pirate-themed restaurant courtyards packed with couples and families enjoying tropical drinks, beer, and platters of catchy-named food such as a Captain Morgan Cajun burger. Farther along, beyond replicas of an old schoolhouse and water wheel, I finally spied at the end of the street a genuine vestige of the past with redeeming value, an ancient stone portal, the remnants of the original city wall. To reward myself for this find, I proceeded to buy a slice of Chicago-style pizza from a nearby concession.

I had thought of leaving but decided to make one more pass through this morass of Americana. At the opposite end of the lane, I saw a statue in a grassy courtyard in front of a tastfully-renovated building which turned out to be the city hall.  A sign declared that I was looking at the figure of Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles leaning against his sword. Aviles had been sent by Spain in 1565 to build a new fort to protect his mother-country's riches from French pirates. Aviles sighted land near this spot on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, and as a result named the new territory after this adored Christian icon. Adjacent the monument in the oldest  park of North America, the Plaza de Constitucion, freshly-painted canons and balls from a more recent date were displayed as a reminder that strangers were not always welcome. Now invaders from Disney World or nearby Sea World, mainly barbarians from the North, had descended in droves, overrunning the integrity of the past.

It may sound like I thoroughly disliked the commercialized atmosphere of St. Augustine's Old Town, where authenticity was a scarce commodity.  Even Floridians, like Nevadans on the Las Vegas strip were hard to find. The fact is, I saw happy people enjoying the sun, families relaxed and on vacation. I watched visitors with guide books, cameras, strollers, and colorful bags containing trinkets to preserve fond memories, wander through a honey-colored version of earlier times. There was even a fellow who whizzed by on roller blades. Oddly enough not one policeman was anywhere to be found. There were clean bathrooms, drinking fountains, and benches. It hadn't always been like this.16th and 17th Century St. Augustine had been no picnic. It had had its share of decrepit buildings. It had neither electricity nor running water, had been mired in poor sanitation, and was wracked with disease and racial and class oppression. I knew that my journey would continue to challenge me to have a balanced  perspective between  former times and the present. There is a tendency to cover the blemished past with romantic dust. With that, I clutched my camera tightly and retraced my steps to the car to resume my travel through time and space.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Forging on in Florida

On Saturday I picked up my rental car at the Fort Meyers airport and headed out on the second phase of my adventure, namely to drive north through the South at a leisurely pace at or below the speed limit, and avoid interstate highways and other main roads. I would have10 days to make the trek to my drop-off and end point, Washington Dulles International Airport, a distance of over 1100 miles when using direct routes.  My hope by traveling the backroads was to see a more aesthetic, natural environment  and and to develop a clear impression of life here in Dixie. Also I had specific places and people I intended to visit. Therefore I felt exhilirated when I spread open my map on the passenger seat, turned on the GPS and belted myself in behind the wheel of an oddly rust-colored, strangely truncated, 2012 Suzuki 4x4, which had been called by the clerk "a wonderful upgrade" and began my journey in earnest on U.S 41.

My inclination was to look for vestiges of the South I had marveled at as a child over 50 years ago, but I knew almost immediately that such a goal would bring me only disappointment. Craning my neck left and right, as expected, I saw a neon stream of signs denoting chain stores and strip malls, gaudy new and used car lots, and huge billboards, bearing giant pictures of lawyers in power clothing hawking their skills through catchy phrases such as "Would you want to fight with this woman!" or "Believe me, we'll get you your money."

In order to avoid the big cities of Sarasota and Tampa I veered east onto a more rural route which directed me towards the entrance of Myaka State Park, a renowned Florida wildlife refuge noted for its large lake which I had visited a number of years before. In a matter of moments after leaving the ticket booth, the park lane serpentined under canopies of lucious cypress and pine and coursed through marshes dotted with yellow wildflowers and scraggly reeds among which quiet ibises fed. A bridge crossing a tributary provided my first glimpse of alligators. Several tourists, leaning over the rail, gesturing enthusiatically and snapping pictures, speculated as to the reptiles' lengths. Standing not far from these visitors was a  local fella fishing. For a moment he reminded me of an extra from an old Hollywood  movie. He wore a faded ballcap, a colorful but stained Hawaiian shirt, dirty jeans and  had a container of nightcrawlers at his feet. He was casting a bobber and hook to what I later learned were tilapia. Needless to say I couldn't resist hearing his voice and story.  In a peculiar drawl, one which I had not heard yet when I had been on Sanibel Island, he pointed downward and told me them gators were nothing. I should have seen the large rogue ones of years past which he admitted, grinning mischeviously, ended up in his freezer after they that had come too near the porch of his trailer house.

Later, in the sultry afternoon, I continued to bisect the state, now crossing lonely, barren landscape, heavily degraded by logging and fire and interspersed  by modest mobile homes and frequent eclectically-named evangelical churches. There were no clapboard quaint general stores nor homestyle diners, no handscrawled signs advertising the sale of worms or bait nor architecturally-tasteful barns or farm houses. An occasional gas station and 7-11 type country market seemed to harmonize with this drab, and depressing American dream, which was clearly "God's country" for the locals. I was not from these parts, "passing through", as they say, and was just another hungry, tired traveler. My vision of the countryside became blurry. My ability to observe keenly began to be impacted by ill-temper. Therefore I concluded it was time to pick up my spirits. I would drive only a bit further to spend the night and explore eagerly the next day the oldest city of our continent, St. Augustine.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Life Flight?

I have started the first leg of my trip to the East Coast and am writing today from Sanibel Island, Florida where my friend Stephen lives. We met years ago in the 1980s in Astoria and over the subsequent years have occasionally fished together and, of course, stayed current about seminal personal events. Our conversation has  been overloaded, as expected, with tales of nostalgia about exotic places we visited when we were younger, past mutual acquaintances and various key moments of joy, pain and bravado. Yesterday as we crossed the causeway from the mainland to the island, I said finally what we both knew, namely that most likely we would never see one another again after I depart on Saturday. This circumstance required no explanation since his lack of mobility makes travel almost impossible and my intense desire to visit other places before the sand runs out of the hourglass is overwhelming.

While Stephen is at the doctor, I look out on the street and paths in front of the coffee shop I am sitting, I watch flocks of the residual "snowbirds" and vacationers from the Northeast passing by, who will soon fly north as the heat and quantity of insects begin to intensify. I see many permanent residents, too, tan-skinned and grey-haired, who have now chosen to stay and "tough it out" in the sunshine. They have added up their accumulated wealth and the many days of their lives and deposited their booty here in waterfront homes, boats and golf course memberships. When I am in Bend sitting at the tea shop, which is a hangout for smarter high school kids and college students, there is a hopeful, idealistic and infectious energy. I know clearly I am a ripened apple among these budding flowers, but it rarely matters to me. It may be self-deception, but I sense  my once-bright skin and firm shape and prefer to keep them that way in my imagination.

In contrast, here in Sanibel where the word "senior" pervades the air like the vapors from a skywriter, it is harder for me to forget. Many of these folks appear as a distorted mirror of myself. They bicycle, play tennis, eat right, take their pills and tell yarns of the past. I'm sure they see all the palm trees, tropical plants, azure water and golden yellow warmth as their Eden before the end. I know my friend does. I don't begrudge submission to accept this type of heaven on earth. Yet, I am reminded of animals in a zoo, well- fed, safe, good medical treatment and self-contained in a gated community of others of their species. Maybe I am of a different breed.

I'm not ready to come in out of the cold, am a restless sort and hope to continue seeking adventure for quite some time.  I am crystal clear about the old adage,  "No matter how much you try, no one comes out of life alive." Someday I'll be in my endgame. Years ago I was spellbound by the famous Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, in which Death plays the character of a mischievous  but excellent chess player, I, like the knight who survives the Crusades only to be confronted by the ever-present master and is rewarded with life as long as he stays ahead, consider myself also a formidable opponent to the Reaper. I know some secret moves and I'll share one of them with you today. Vitality can be found on the road. So soon, I'll be outa here.