Saturday, March 19, 2011

North Florida

If you took Bryce in his salad days and propped him on his Goldwing, gave him his Canadian-in-the-US health care card and told him to ride from Key West to Pensacola, clear across the Sunshine State he would take the better part of a summer day's daylight and 800 miles (1200 kilometers) to get to the Alabama state line on the Gulf Coast. That's a big state.On the other hand Florida is flat, the very tallest spot is less than 300 feet (100 meters) above sea level and that place is in the panhandle. The state isn't very wide and you take a slow drive across in a couple of hours. Britain is one and a half times as big, California is two and a half times as large, yet Florida rates as one of the larger political entities in the US today. It used to be that thousands emigrated daily to the land of perpetual sunshine but since 2008 emigration has plummeted with the housing and foreclosure crisis and lack of jobs. There was even a net outflow of people in this state of more than 20 million inhabitants.Florida, the "flowery place" the Spanish called it, recently made headlines as being the only state in the US with no snow on the ground, unlike Hawaii which hoards a coating year round atop it's highest volcanos, and lives at a considerably lower latitude in the Pacific in the real tropics. In it's history Florida was an anomaly during the English/French struggle to conquer and control the northern colonies of the Americas. Florida was Spanish, stretching to New Orleans (which was much less French than many people imagine) and Mexico and the Far West.
When Spain left the flowery place to the English speaking Americans the shape of the state was cast by the borders of the Spanish administration which is why the northern parts of the state that most resemble Alabama and Georgia in topography and state of mind are instead attached to the tourist and immigrant powered southern tiers of the state that lives up to the Sunshine nickname with a properly sub tropical climate and flora.
Northern Florida lives under a canopy of pine trees, palmettos and Spanish moss and you won't see the tropical cover you might expect until you close in on Lake Okeechobee to the south. This isn't the part of Florida that was sold to highest bidder after the invention of low cost air conditioning after World War Two, this part of Florida sat back and watched with bemusement as they raped the southern sandy beaches of the state into a condition of dazed submission to the bulldozers of development. Northern Florida in the center of the state is connected by temperament to the Southern States.
I really hate the movie Deliverance. Like so many myths promoted by Hollywood that seminal movie has done more to promote a stupid attitude toward the south than any other movie seen by my generation. Traveling through Dixie is delightful to me. Like any part of our blighted nation there are the bits that look as ugly as sin and deserve to be torn down and replaced by primal forests but driving the back roads of the South, be they ever so long and straight is every bit as interesting to me as crossing the high desert of Eastern Oregon or getting lost in the redwoods of Northern California. To travel across the back roads of the South is to see a region that holds on to it's history, even and especially the crappy parts, and because I like to connect the present to the past I find it soothing to know that even though young people the world over are becoming progressively less well schooled in where they are and where they came from there are reminders here that the past did actually exist.
It seems to have escaped many people's notice but food has always been an important theme in the predominantly agricultural south and the Baby Boomers obsessions with food and cooking and (so called) healthy living have had a delightful impact on southern cooking. Chicago has pizza, Maine has lobster with claws, and California has large watery vegetables, but The South has discovered nouvelle cuisine and combined it with traditional ingredients to make soul food something quite interesting for the 21st century. And when all else fails and you come across a truly traditional diner roadside, you can take heart because the thousands of calories you will be piling on with ham flavored greens, richly fried and sauced meats, and gooey mac and cheese, are calories that are firmly rooted in a culture of slow cooking and attention to tradition. Those calories are no better for you than mass produced ones, but they make you feel good in a different and special way.
Northern Florida has it's crappy bits, mouse land in Orlando, proof positive that corporations can take over local government and mold Orange County to it's liking. But give Disney credit; that's a multinational that actually employs Americans (and lots of poofs too, oddly enough) and attracts money to the Sunshine State. Florida isn't home to platoons of Nobel Laureates, because unlike the California I used to know, Florida doesn't really value education. Mind you education has become an obstruction to the oligarchs who no longer need educated workers so money spent on learning is not in our futures as currently envisioned by our leaders. Yet Florida does have a few universities that do okay (name one big school in the Southeast of the state. Odd that isn't it? Miami doesn't rate anything nationally acclaimed...).
Tallahassee, the state capital is a small town Southern personified, the seat of government in a state with a legislature that meets a few weeks in the spring and whose lawmakers are paid $20,000 a year to make sure only the wealthy can participate. The center of government is located a stone's throw from Georgia only because in the 19th century that strip of pine land was the only piece of the Sunshine State that was decently habitable. That and Key West, the state's center of wealth and commerce, alongside Apalachicola which was the cotton outlet for this corner of the south. The peninsula was a bog inhabited by runaway slaves and deposed Seminoles, kicked out of healthier lands to the north and who fought a running battle with encroaching white settlers, people who had something to flee Up North and who came to Florida to make a dubious living, a feature of life here that has persisted to this day. Southern Florida is home to the scam and the development sharks and the shady practices; Northern Florida is a different place.
Oxford, Mississippi celebrates William Faulkner, Miami celebrates Elmore Leonard, two different faces of Southern literary violence. But Northern Florida lives by the in between literature of people frequently named these days by rarely read. Zora Neale Hurston grew up and called home a small community in Northern Florida but made her name in the epicenter of black culture in Harlem. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings created the myth and reality of Cross Creek despite her northern roots and upbringing. Theirs are worlds of violence in some respects but of closely observed habits of a world largely ignored in the rush to make a buck.Nowadays Florida lives by tourism and agriculture and keeps making noises about attracting modern industry but does a better job of attracting pensioners to their low tax havens in the sun. It's no coincidence that alongside the older towns named for frontier forts there are places like Frostproof and Winter Haven scattered about the cheaper land of the center of the state.
On our drive to St Augustine we stopped the car and while my wife nursed her aching ankle with her Kindle (John Grisham's latest at eight bucks a download), Cheyenne and I took off for a walk down a path through the pines.
These are pine plantations nurtured for money, mono cultures of woodlands that defy wild animals to make a living here, in sand rendered acid by pine needles and source of bird food limited to whatever can live off a pine tree. It was hot and silent and unnaturally peaceful.
Give them credit, these aren't the panty waist ten foot tall trees struggling to grow on the Oolite rocks of Big Pine Key. these trees are monstrous huge.
Cheyenne, tired of the car trotted off ahead looking for things to inspect and smell and doing her best to find something of interest in a woodland created for the purpose of profit, instead of by Nature.
For me it was a pleasure to be out and away from sounds. Traffic was sparse and not audible, there were no planes in the air and radioactivity leaking from Japan's disaster was at the back of my mind, not the forefront. This summer we may have our own hurricane disaster to deal with, but for the moment it is not our turn.
I wonder what my dog thinks of these road trips, anticipated by changes in our routines and packing of bags, she knew we were off on the road and perhaps she could look forward to a repeat of last year's western deserts and California redwoods. Perhaps she was content to find herself back home in four short days. Perhaps the future has no meaning to a dog's brain, and perhaps that's why I tend to prefer dogs to people.
Indeed it occurred to me that the reason I do prefer dogs is because with a canine what you see is actually what you get. People's minds are always buzzing and whatever they may be thinking about, whatever crisis afflicts them in that moment, extraneous to their surroundings, is what prompts their behavior. Thus, had someone encountered Cheyenne on this trail they would have met a dog smelling new smells and absorbed by that experience. Had I met a human here, say a man in the process of a nasty divorce I could have found myself facing an unaccountably angry human in such a pretty place. With people, what you see is definitely not what you get.
Besides someone who had recently watched Deliverance might expect to meet mentally challenged southerners with guns and humiliation on their minds. Of course there was nobody there and the worst I might have met could have been some cheerful people out recreating illegally on ATVs on lands closed to motor vehicles. Part of our trouble dealing with each other is the negative expectations drilled into us about each other. I blame television, but there again I blame a lot of our ills on television and the corporate need to advertise.
It was good to be lost on the woods for a while until the cell phone, that other instrument of the devil rang in my pocket and my wife's voice carried through the ether asking plaintively "Did you know you've been gone forty minutes?" Really? That long?
It took us far less time to stump back as I put the camera aside and Cheyenne had sniffed what was there to be sniffed.
With a tour of St Augustine our visit to The North was over all too soon and already I want to go back. Our California friends tend to turn up their noses at Florida, as they are subject to stereotyping of others as much as they are stereotyped themselves, and I have no intention of explaining my fascination with this place to them. Even a superficial and hurried drive like ours awakens the desire in me to spend more time here, not less, always knowing I have my home in the eccentric Florida Keys, to go back to. Chuck on Fleming put it well in a comment yesterday:

The mainland seems hollow and empty to me; holds no attraction. I can't go back - this is as far north as I'm ever going to live from here on out.
But to visit? Oh yes, to visit I am ready to get my passport stamped and cross the Seven Mile Bridge anytime for a southern tour of Up North.