Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.
We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.
It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here and a link to the next post in the series, when it becomes available, below.
I had spent 40 years trying to get away from Florida, with its backward politics, its unrelenting heat, and its cockroaches and snakes and fire ants. And yet, here I was, crossing the state line once again. To say I was triggered is putting it mildly. I was fighting a panic attack.
For most of my time in this particular state, I had been lonely, scared, depressed, and desperately poor. I always felt like I didn’t fit in. I was beat up a lot in school, unsupported at home, and underpaid at work. I didn’t want to feel that way again. Not ever. Even worse, I didn’t want Dear Husband to see the person I was back then. It would scare anyone but the most loyal and devoted human on earth, which, fortunately, he is.
We were here to visit friends and family, so I was doing my best to reign in my attitude and look at the positive things. We had only been back in the South for a few days, and already I had noticed a few of those positives that I had forgotten all about.
There were squirrels. Oh, how I miss those. I’ve only seen about 5 in Washington in the past 7 years. I was also looking forward to seeing lizards (actually, anoles, but nobody calls them that). Some of the roads are sparkly. There’s different and familiar signage. The trees are different. The birdsong is different. The stores are familiar and don’t feel foreign. The parking spaces are actually wide enough to park your car in! There seems to be more space in general. The streets are wider. The highways have wider medians and shoulders. There’s more space between businesses.
There’s kudzu everywhere, and most Americans don’t realize that it’s edible, if not sprayed with pesticides. (Here’s how.) That’s a shame, because no one in the South would ever go hungry again. On the other hand, for some reason Florida DOT seems to delight in using Oleanders in their landscaping. I get it: low maintenance, pretty flowers. But they’re also toxic to the point where you shouldn’t even breathe the air if you burn them, let alone touch the sap or ingest any part of them. And please don’t let your dogs near them, either.
I’d forgotten how many billboards there are. You can’t get away from the ugly things. And there are more junk food chain restaurants than you’d see in the Seattle area in a million years. There’s plenty of opportunity to eat unhealthy food in Florida. Oops. There I go, being negative again.
One of the first things we did was buy bananas. I wanted DH to understand why I find the ones we get in Washington State such a crashing disappointment. They must pick them when they’re dark green to travel to Washington, and the result is that they barely have any flavor at all. When DH ate his first Southern banana, he exclaimed that it tasted like banana candy. We ate a lot of bananas on this trip.
North Florida was bringing back a lot of memories. We passed Blackwater River State Park, where I spent a week in summer camp the one and only time I got to go. We passed Eglin Air Force Base, where my oldest sister was once stationed, and where I saw my first burning cross after Cubans were housed here during the Mariel Boatlift. Scary.
Eglin is also where I worked on the Youth Conservation Corps, which I wrote about here. I couldn’t remember where any of my work sites were, and that’s probably for the best. I was really proud of the work I did, and seeing it after 40 years of wear and tear would most likely be heartbreaking.
The Gulf of Mexico is beautiful. I’d forgotten how nice it is to gaze on a body of water and know it will be warm enough to swim in. I wish we had spent more time doing so. Our hotel was in Destin, and a friend of mine says Destin is the place God goes when God goes to the beach. But we didn’t see her anywhere.
We spent our first evening in Florida having dinner with my dear friend Vicky. It was so good to see her after 9 years! I wanted to introduce DH to grouper cheeks, but sadly that restaurant that serves them had gotten taken out by a hurricane. In fact, a lot had changed on this coast. Nature is never kind to Florida. Instead, we ate at Schooners in Panama City Beach. It was wide open, and we had an excellent view of the sunset over the water. We didn’t warn DH until the last possible moment about the cannon they fire off every night at sunset. We did want him to have the opportunity to brace himself and cover his ears, though.
We visited Seaside, Florida, where The Truman Show was filmed. That’s something I had always been meaning to do but never quite did. Like Celebration, Florida (which I wrote about here), it is a community based on the New Urbanism philosophy. Extremely planned, to the point of feeling a bit Stepford Wife-y. Multi-million dollar homes, immaculate shops with cute names like the Blue Giraffe, the Badass Coffee Company, The Surfing Deer, The Perfect Pig, and Pizza by the Sea. Everywhere you looked there were over-privileged teenagers wandering around with nothing to do. The real world will probably hit these kids hard, if they ever see it. Now there’s another overpriced town adjacent to Seaside called Watercolor. More of the same. Cool name, though.
The next day we visited the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. Think SeaWorld, only smaller. And with an albino alligator! We saw a sea lion show and a dolphin show. It was actually quite crowded, and few people were wearing masks. But it was the ultimate Florida tourism experience.
Then we did something that I’d really been looking forward to for months. We went parasailing! I had done this twice before, once in this very location, and once in Acapulco, so I knew what to expect. It was DH’s first time. We got towed out to the boat on one of those banana boat things. The water was choppy, so I had to cling onto it for dear life with my messed up wrists. That was the only part that scared me.
I highly recommend parasailing. Yes, you’re high up, but you don’t feel like you are. It’s like sitting on a swing. A swing that’s tied to a parachute and 800 feet of line, that’s being towed behind a motor boat, but yeah, a swing. It’s quite peaceful. And of course the views were beautiful. It was wonderful to enjoy the sunshine knowing that we were avoiding two weeks of crappy winter weather in the Pacific Northwest. As he was reeling us in, the captain playfully dunked us in the water as we were nearing the boat. That’s a traditional part of the experience. Refreshing!
We also visited some of the kitschy tourist shops full of plastic sharks and seashells from China. They kind of made me nostalgic, too, oddly enough. Except for the Trump bumper stickers for sale. I could have done without seeing those.
On this Florida leg of our journey, we also got to visit DH’s sisters, who both live in the area with their husbands. It was a pleasure to break bread with them and see their lovely homes. We spent the bulk of our time outside, because we didn’t want to expose anyone to any virus we might have picked up on the airplane.
From there, we went to see one of my oldest, dearest friends, Steve, along with his wife and grandson. I had arranged to meet them at my very favorite place in Florida, Ichetucknee Springs State Park. I wanted to show DH the most beautiful place in the state. That, and I wanted to avoid Jacksonville. I had lived there for 30 years, and for 30 years I struggled to leave. It would be entirely too triggering to go there. Not now. Not yet.
About two hours into our journey, our last hotel called to say that DH had left his laptop behind. Fortunately, his sister was able to pick it up and ship it ahead of us to a FedEx store in Asheville, North Carolina, where we’d be several days later. Crisis averted, but it gives me the opportunity to hit you with a Public Service Announcement: ALWAYS check all the nooks and crannies of your hotel room, even those you think no reasonable person would store stuff in, before checking out!
DH got to meet Steve for the first time as we rafted down the river, past turtles and cranes and cypress knees. The water is not as turquoise blue as it once was, but it did not disappoint. It was a quiet, lazy float. Some of my fondest Florida memories are from this place. Since Ichetucknee is far from the tourist trail, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. (That’s not the case in summer, though, trust me.) Toward the end of our float we punctured our raft on a cypress knee, and I spent the rest of the time trying to hold the hole closed as we slowly sank into the cool spring water. But that, too, is part of the Ichetucknee experience. It kind of made me smile.
Since this bit of paradise is in the middle of nowhere, there weren’t any hotels, so we rented cabins in a campground. Had I known that Steve’s wife is deathly afraid of bugs, I would have made another plan. Not that the cabins were infested, but we were, after all, in the woods. It kind of felt like I was the architect of her torture, and I still feel bad about that. But it was good to have some heart to heart talks with Steve, who gave DH some very high praise, so that made me feel good. His wife liked him, too, and I think that surprised her. Like she herself said, though, she’s seen some of the guys I used to date.
It was sweet, watching DH play with Steve’s 3-year-old grandson. But I’m still glad we don’t have children of our own. It wore me out just watching the little cutie. I don’t know how parents do it. Truly, I don’t.
One of the cool things about my Pokemon Go app is that it shows me nearby points of interest that might otherwise be overlooked. That’s how we came across the very old and neglected Ichetucknee Memorial Cemetery that is right next to the campground, lost in the underbrush. DH and I wandered there, looking at the tragic headstones from the 1800’s. One guy’s tombstone, below, says he was murdered, but I can’t seem to find anything online that describes the circumstances. And there were a lot of babies there who didn’t make it to their first birthday. It was kind of sad, tucking into our cozy cabin for the night, knowing that there were dozens of dead babies out there in the woods. To live in this swampy area of North Florida back then, without air conditioning or medical care, meant you were prone to endless numbers of diseases and viruses. Thank God for vaccinations, sanitation, and civilization.
We slept relatively well, despite the dead babies and the murdered guy and the squeaky, plastic-covered mattresses. We all went to the Waffle House for breakfast the next morning, and then parted ways. I hate saying goodbye to people I care about when I have no idea when I’ll see them again. It chokes me up just thinking about it.
And then, just like that, we left Florida. So simple. Has it always been that simple to leave Florida? No.
And I survived. Well, except for the chigger bites. Weeks later, I’m still trying to heal from them. I definitely do not miss chiggers. That’s what I get for wandering around untended graveyards.
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