A return to the Florida road trip…
Last week on Twitter, someone posed the question, “What small decision did you make last February that brought *all this* about?”
With a shocking disregard for karma, I did two things: I announced I would visit a different state park at least once a month, and, in looking at the freelance writing and speaking gigs I had lined up for the coming year, told my husband I was confident 2020 would be my best year, financially speaking, since I started freelancing in 2003.
Shortly thereafter, the Florida State Park system closed all the parks for about six weeks (the parks closed on March 23 and reopened May 4) and most of my speaking gigs evaporated. I spent most of March, April, and May taking long walks, making hand sanitizer, and, yes, baking. I also made my own ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, pressure washed the house, reorganized the back porch, made a 12-foot valance for the bedroom window, and spent a lot of time in the pool. I dipped my toes into World of Warcraft. Oh, and my husband and I – with the help of our community – bought a newspaper.
Here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t write or speak about Florida. Somewhere towards June, some of my talks rematerialized as Zoom talks. I did finish a draft of my next Florida book for my editor, who has the patience of… well, someone editing a writer, and I plodded along on my fiction series.
But man, I missed my road trips. In late September, I wanted to see a different part of Florida, and the world started to realize we could navigate the pandemic somewhat safely, so we packed the car and headed for a long weekend in Ormond Beach. We carefully chose a hotel with separate a/c units for each room, packed hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes, and headed for the east coast.
I tried not to take it as an omen that a tropical storm formed over the state as we crossed Florida. We spent a delightfully cozy, wet days on the Atlantic, but hey, we’d arrived in a different part of the state, with a different body of water, and our room had a balcony fronting it.
In October, we tried again, for our anniversary. We chose an Air B&B above a barn, packed groceries, and looked forward to two nights on a farm in Vero Beach.
When our newspaper delivery driver called us in the middle of the night to tell us she’d had an accident in the delivery van, well, it wasn’t an omen, exactly… more par for the course for 2020.
When the calendar flipped to 2021, I wasn’t about to declare that 2021 would be better, or my year to travel, or any of those other karma-tempting, pandemic-inducing sentiments. But, slowly, the freelance assignments have started to return. In January, USA Today asked me to write about Florida road trips for their 10 Best website.
While I technically didn’t need to re-create my first assignment (Anna Maria Island to Fort Pierce, A1A north to Vero Beach, back to Clearwater, and through Pinellas to return to AMI), I think most people can understand the strong desire to get out of the house in 2021. An overnight bag went into the car, just in case we needed to spend the night somewhere, along with the (by now) standard sanitizer/masks/wipes combo pack.
I say “just in case” but I wasn’t kidding anyone: Once I had a paying reason to drive across Florida, I was getting a full road trip out of the deal. I saw scrub jays at Lake June-in-Winter, and not just a couple – for the first time in my life, I saw a sentinel scrub jay, which is exactly what it sounds like. I watched two osprey build a nest atop a colossal pineapple at Shonda’s Souvenirs. I soaked in every salty and oak-covered scrap of the innards of Florida.
That was day one. Day two brought me back to Lake Kissimmee State Park, where I once spent a petrified night convinced a serial killer was lurking outside my tent (spoiler alert: it was a family of sandhill cranes.) On this trip, I visited the 1876 cow camp exhibit, where volunteers re-enact life at a 19th-century Florida cow camp.
I normally don’t love re-enactments, but, again, this was for an assignment, and I felt duty-bound to check out the cow camp. We plodded along a serene, wooded trail to the camp, and I’m so glad we did.
The Florida cowboy – and Florida cattle – aren’t quite like Old West cowboys. They crack whips to control cattle, hence the “cracker” moniker. And Florida cows – the original Florida cows – have the honor of being the first cows in North America, brought her by Spanish conquistadors and raised by the ancestors of the Seminole Indians and early Euro-American settlers. The breed, Andalusian, still exists, and at Lake Kissimmee State Park you can visit their descendants, which, you have to admit, is pretty damn cool.
For a first road trip of the year, it served two purposes: One, I had the pleasure of traveling the backroads of Florida again, and two, those cows reminded me that, despite a pandemic and what amounted to a year off from Florida for me, Florida endures.
I can’t wait to get back on the road again.