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.