Monday, November 25, 2013

Gratefully Cow Hunting In South Florida

I drove to Sarasota last week, 300 miles to deliver my dog to my wife who was at a teachers' conference there and who had a plan to drive to Pensacola with Cheyenne and spend Thanksgiving week in the panhandle with my dog and her friends, leaving me to cook my own meals and work plenty of overtime in Key West. Which is luckily an interesting place to discuss my favorite holiday of the year.

It started when Noel lamented he has to drive "all the way" to Marathon (50 miles) for a family get together and I happened to know he was getting white people's Thanksgiving food. His Cuban family is breaking out this year and instead of roasting a whole pig in a metal lined "coffin" they are eating turkey and "what do they call it..?" Noel's sister-in-law Belen struggled to remember the name of the critical non-Cuban ingredient...stuffing! I lamented the fact they aren't having a proper Cuban Thanksgiving with the plantains rice and beans and yucca which gives the familiar holiday a tropical twist. Shannon butted in at this point and said sternly that Thanksgiving is all about eating Pilgrim food and that means Turkey with the trimmings just like the first thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock in..where was it? Maine or Massachusetts or somewhere up there. Besides Shannon, a Florida native went on, I have a turkey fryer. Excellent said Fred a man who knows his food, but Fred is also our resident Curmudgeon truth teller, Conch and Contrarian: The first and only Pilgrim thanksgiving was fish, pine nuts squash and boiled turkey he insisted. Gross we all said in unison imagining big pieces of pink slippery turkey thigh glistening with jellied steam. All I hope is the fire department comes through this year and remembers dispatch on the day with plates of everyone's favorite thanksgiving food (the food you didn't have to cook yourself) as I will be sitting at work all day earning holiday pay while my dog plays on the beach on the Florida panhandle, 800 long miles away. I do not plan to spend the overtime money wisely, though my wife will have her say. Another reason to be thankful else I'd be in penury.

I decided that if I was going to Sarasota to have dinner with my wife I would take the back roads and enjoy seeing the fields and farms that make a total contrast to life along the Overseas Highway. It was cane burning season judging by the coils of thick gray smoke that rose above the fields on either side of Highway 27. Southernmost South Florida is all swamps and mangroves and and rivers of grass, but central South Florida is cow hunter country, all fields fences and and isolated farm houses. Lunch time saw me past the Everglades and in Moore Haven a city on the cross state waterway system, wrecked in 1935 by a hurricane that swept across the entire state, and nowadays decrepit in the wake of the 2008 financial tsunami that has destroyed so many ways to make a living. I drove through Burger King, the least likely carrier of botulism I figured in this wreck of a town, and with my chicken sandwich I sat by the Caloosahatchee River wondering how many lives we have to sacrifice to keep the one percent in caviar.

Cheyenne is not a joyful traveler but but she enjoyed a long walk in Dagny Johnson State Park in Key Largo at the start of our trip so I guess she was doing okay out of the involuntary ride, but Moore Haven didn't do much for her digestion. She walked fifty feet and gave up on the city. I'm thankful for the Kindle function on my phone which puts an actual library in my pocket.

I make a point of pointing out when I am in this part of the world that Florida has its own cowboy culture as different from the Western myth portrayed so effectively by Hollywood as the Seminole Indians are from the movie myths of the Plains Indians. Cow hunters in Florida still exist and Arcadia, a small brick town lost in the vast prairies east of Lake Ockechobee is the rodeo home of Florida ranchers.

In making this drive across the state on Highway 27 and then on smaller roads, dead straight tributaries pushing west and north like geometric divisions of this flat land, I decided I wanted to get some pictures of cows. This is cow country and they call cowboys cow hunters because their animals roam at will across these spaces so I figured I could make myself an honorary cow hunter for an afternoon. My pink Crocs were at home safe and sound and my politics were in my hip pocket out of sight so I figured I could navigate my way as an outsider in this world which so strongly resembled the rolling hils and farms where I grew up, occupied by salt of the earth god fearing conservatives. Farmers the world over!

I'm thankful I emigrated out of the world of agriculture that my sisters love so much. They would see no resemblance in this place of extreme flatness to the hills of Central Italy where they live, but I do. I pulled off the highway to let Cheyenne roam under the huge live oaks set in a park-like setting. Cheyenne probably would have preferred downtown Arcadia and it's dumpsters, but I wanted a quiet rural moment. It was warm and the air was thick with the scent of freshly cut grass, a rare and evocative smell hard to find in the pea rock and limestone world of the salty Florida Keys.

A farmer drove by on his tractor, leathery skin, thick stubble and a cap askew on the back of his head. Cheyenne's presence made me respectable, as respectable as I can get, and we exchanged glances the middle class dog walker and the dust covered son of the soil, as he John Deere'd back to the highway. He looked shy and he half smiled at my indolence and I could hear my brother-in-law laughing at the antics of visitors driving past his Italian fields then stopping to take pictures of his rural lifestyle like it was a phenomenon worth recording. This guy went home wondering how and why outsiders think trees and fields and orange groves are worth recording. But they are.

I dare say trees like these might grow in the Keys were there soil enough, but the islands are crowded enough that when trees get too big, our leaders chop them down because they pose a threat to the huddled masses who live and recreate underneath them. Here in the wilderness they are free to flourish. I am grateful they get to live somewhere in Florida, and here they grow too vast for my puny phone camera to grasp them.

I wished I had my Kermit chair to sit and read for a while in the silence, but lacking that I made my dog happy for a few minutes in the sand and grass. All dogs deserve joy, for they are the gods of frolic. I see so many fearful dog owners who act in public as they have leashed a cruise missile. Most dogs will be joyful if you let them be and if they haven't been damaged by human cruelty. I like to think Cheyenne is grateful for me, despite the numerous and endless road trips.

I was fully twenty miles from Sarasota when I finally spotted some cows being cows by the side of the road, which put me in mind of the sainted Gary Larson's Far Side cartoons. This one in particular:

Sarasota is a Florida haven of wealth and education and urbane civility, and to juxtapose New College literature courses and millionaire snowbirds with cow pastures might seem surprising but there is no sign of the beach town this far inland. This is Sarasota County in all it's rural glory:

I suppose its time to reveal something not widely known about me, and as unaccustomed as I am to blowing my own trumpet, I now have to reveal I can reproduce a rather intriguing cow moo. Generally I find cows to be curious animals, and when I was a kid I would break out of my boarding school and go for night time walks, as I was always a traveler and explorer I guess. I do remember those Somerset cows would follow me across their fields and I would get to the exit gate closely resembling a pied piper of ruminants; believe me not a happy position when they are jostling you like anxious beggars who see you as their last best meal ticket. This lot in Sarasota meadows took one look at me and buggered off for the horizon as though they'd seen the anti-Christ of the cow world.

I actually became a bit anxious lest a farmer see me across the cow plain harassing his wealth, and here unlike in Italy, I don't doubt farmers travel armed like war lords of small Third World countries. I tried my famous soothing moo and I got some quizzical looks but these cows are selfish bastards because they abandoned me, one of their own, to my unhappy fate, as exemplified by this faremer's gruesome sense of humor: "Abandon hope all cows who enter..."

Through all this nonsense Cheyenne declined to descend from the comfort of our rented automobile, all walked out and ready for her long delayed daily nap.

I hurriedly got in the car, my cow hunting mission as complete as I could make it without actually trespassing... and off we went to meet my wife at the end of her urban conference. All's well that ends well and no cows were harmed in this expedition.

I greatly admire farmers for their tenacity and love of their land, especially as tenacity is not my strong suit and love of the land is a concept I have read of but have no feeling for at all. Especially if that love is expressed by cultivation. We like to sit and watch, Cheyenne and I, as the world hustles by being tenacious and productive.

That evening back in the world of street lights, strip malls and exotic food my wife the explorer took me to eat Peruvian food. We ordered the oddest dishes we could find, dried beef stew, smokey and tart with heavily spiced rice and beans, while the second dish we shared was a heavy creamy chicken fricassee studded with olives and potato chunks. This was food from Latin America as we had never eaten. I am anxious to fly to Buenos Aires to rent a car and tour Argentina from Cape Horn to the River Plate tasting famous Argentine barbecue along the way. We pondered how to incorporate Peru and it's startling menu into this already ambitious proposed tour.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday in the calendar. It requires no particular zealotry of civic or religious pride, it is a unifying holiday by its very nature. Who among us cannot find elements in their lives for which to give thanks? You can thank your gods or good fortune, you can glorify your life skills or your family, but in the end giving thanks is completely universal. Like all such holidays this one is built on myth and legend and sketchy details (fish? turkey? roast pork?) and commonly held beliefs. I like taking one day in the year to be mindfully mindful. I enjoy Thanksgiving even if I am working.

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