Florida, April 2013
When I told people I’d be spending three weeks in Florida in April, the first thing that 75% of them said to me was some variation of “But doesn’t it have giant flying cockroaches?” I’m sure it does, but it also has flamingoes and turquoise water, amazing seafood, and an incredible diversity of culture and nature.
Planning a three-week trip anywhere is ambitious by any standards, and as tricky to execute as jumping off a boat wearing forty pounds of SCUBA gear. But it was also less exhausting than I expected, more empowering than I imagined, and more emotionally satisfying than I thought possible. If nothing else, it taught me what kind of traveler I am, and helped me refine my photography skills and writing process. I learned I’m not (yet) the type of blogger who’ll be live-tweeting from her geocache check-in point on top of a mangrove in a salt marsh. But I also learned how to take better notes, more contextual pictures, and that I should always carry a tripod.
Pool at the Viceroy, which is not this blurry in real life.
It all started with a wedding that I was privileged to be invited to, which would take place on Santa Rosa Beach, one of the many charming towns along the pearl-strand of white beaches on the Gulf coast of Florida’s panhandle.
Oyster Lake outfall into Gulf of Mexico, Santa Rosa Beach, FL
Then came the opportunity to attend a photography workshop in Miami. My friend Sharon would be going, and, well, it was Miami, where I had a quite memorable trip with my bestie from high school ten-ish years ago. But the workshop was more than two weeks before the wedding. I would either need to fly home and return, or, sigh, spend three weeks in Florida?
Of course, I realized there really was no dilemma at all. Though the circumstances of my liberty were not of my choosing, I was still free to do whatever I wanted to do, be whomever I wanted to be.
You are my MOM is what you are.
So I cast myself as a nomad. I would hit Miami hard, bum around the Keys like a transient, then my fella would join me for a week of beaching and eating oysters in the panhandle, with a joyous social occasion as the climax of the whole adventure.
And so it begins….
The first part of my trip was four days of intensive workshops in downtown Miami, followed by a few days of equally intensive sightseeing throughout the city, beach and bay. The rest of my imagined itinerary had me basking on soft white sand after dipping into emerald waters, and slurping sunset cocktails with my guy. But travel is, after all, a test of our powers of adaptability.
I did take two serious plunges in the ocean (more on that in a subsequent post), but uncooperative weather and my own fear of rip currents and jellyfish (I know what the purple flag stands for, people) meant that most of my tan-time was on the back of a bike or with my butt in a kayak. But who could complain about that?
Salt Lake, No Name Key
Then I learned that my hard-working boyfriend, who owns and runs an oyster business in Washington, lost a key employee at the last minute and would not be able to break away. I tried my best to enjoy the romantic sunsets without him, an effort made much easier in direct proportion to the quantity of mojitos I consumed.
I realized I needed to look at my solitude as just another opportunity — to learn to be alone in beautiful places and have experiences that I’ll only be able to share in the re-telling. And maybe that was the most important lesson of all.
Maison de Pepe’s, Key West
Santa Rosa Beach
Besides, I had found a new love. I’ve always had a crush on Florida but in our three weeks together, I think it might have become the real deal. Its unique peninsular geography has allowed for the creation of such disparate and dramatic environments that I really had three separate trips, any one of which I would have been lucky to experience.
Miami is the U.S.’s only major metropolitan area which is bordered by two state parks (the Everglades and the John Pennekamp Coral Reef); the Florida Keys and its unique inhabitants — both Key Deer and Conch Republicans — should be experienced at least once;and the Florida Panhandle, from the Emerald Coast to the Forgotten, deserves a longer stay, maybe of the permanent kind.
Salinas Park, Cape San Blas
Florida is a celebration of extremes, from the bikini evening wear of Miami, to the Cuban dancers and Conch-blowers of Key West, to the rolling storms off the Gulf and the singing frogs of the panhandle’s Dune Lakes.
One mile and closing….
One inch and almost as loud.
And while I did not see a single flamingo or flying cockroach, I did have encounters with fire coral and fire ants (I’m sure there are more Florida “fire” hazards that I missed out on – next time!). I learned how to NOT inflate a tire and had a Mexican standoff with a surly Pelican. And I returned with a full notebook, two bulging flash memory cards, and an actual hint of a tan. I feared coming home to a truly empty house (the cats having gone to stay with gramma), but that’s when the exhaustion that finally found me had its benefits.
I can’t wait to go back, but next time, I’ll be sure to take my Oysterman so I can share with him the best oysters, the richest waters, the glow of the sunsets and the warmth of the people. And so he can kill the bugs.