Other people vacation in exotic places, but this writer finds much left to explore in her home state
This time of year, when my friends are spread across the U.S. or in more exotic places like Paris, I am still exploring natural Florida.
For most people, Florida is sea and sky. Ninety percent of the population lives within 10 miles of the coast. Some 1,200 miles of coastline wraps the state (the First Coast, Space Coast, Gold Coast, Emerald Coast, Nature Coast, Wilderness Coast and, edging the Panhandle, the Forgotten Coast). But for me, it has always been more than the coast.
Years ago I bought DeLorme’s “big red map book” and worked my way through west central Florida and to the north — Marion, Lake, Alachua, Dixie and Gilchrist counties — and to the northeast — Hampton and St John’s counties (Bartram country). Lately, with sea level rise, I have been going south to Charlotte, Lee, and Collier counties and east to Okeechobee, Palm Beach and Miami/Dade counties. All were once just pages in the map book.
I use Interstate 75 as a point of entry, then branch off on secondary roads as the mood (and the map book) takes me. I keep an eye out for the brown signs that denote public lands. A favorite route is State Road 29 in Collier County, which runs through panther habitat and, at Copeland, leads into the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. It is known as the Amazon of North America. I have seen black bears at the Fakahatchee but never the rare Florida panther.
The southernmost stretch of the Tamiami Trail, State Road 41, turns east at Naples toward Miami. Not the urban version many of us know, it passes through huge open expanses of the Everglades and cypress forests (Big Cypress Preserve). Except for trucks and the occasional commuter, it is quiet. I stop at the Ten Thousand Islands Wildlife Management Area, a watery 435,000-acre preserve where local fishermen drop a line.
In the center of the state, I love driving Routes 27 and 17 north through scrub and sandhills. Polk County has wonderful parks with rare flora and fauna.
From The Sustainable Living Center, where I stay in Hampton County, I drive west on State Road 18 toward the Suwannee River, visiting springs along the way.
Recently, State Road 80 caught my eye. The road runs east of I-75 through Fort Myers Shores into classic rural Florida —pastures with cattle huddled under live oaks, citrus groves and small towns such as LaBelle along the Caloosahatchee River. Some towns are no bigger than a name (Fort DeNaud).
Expeditions are a drive/walk proposition. I stop often to take photographs, parking well out of the way of the Walmart trucks roaring by. I keep an eye on the ground (fire ants) and the sky (thunderstorms).
In parks and preserves, I walk sandhills, pine flatwoods, hammocks and beaches up and down the coast. Sometimes I end up on a figurative page of the map book that is mostly empty and wonder what I am doing out in the middle of nowhere while my friends are sipping an aperitif at a sidewalk café.
Over the years, I have learned to “read the landscape,” picking out cypress domes, rows of trees indicating a creek and the gentle ups and down of sandhills. A dip in the road may mean a bay gall or swamp. With a rise of 30 feet, I can be in scrub.
I photograph changes with the seasons. Summertime is tops for dragonflies, frogs, mushrooms, mosses of strange colors and shapes, lichen, thistle, pickerelweed, tickseed.
Daily I feast on clouds: double and triple layers scudding by. Late afternoon thunderheads punctuated with flashes of lightning drop torrents of rain followed by Cecil B. De Mille sunsets.
On a July day, I discover the “Spirit of the Wild” Wildlife Management Area on Keri Road in Hendry County. I turn onto Thomas Road, a narrow ribbon of sand through wet prairie and flatwoods. Driving even a few feet off the road is inadvisable. Startled by the rare visitor, a large covey of bobwhite quail scurries across the road. Herons, gallinules, plain old buzzards, butterflies and, of course, dragonflies greet me. Native lantana is the “plant of the day.” Eastern meadowlarks and red winged blackbirds provide background music.
On the way home I come through LaBelle, where the bank marquee reads 100 degrees. It was 6 degrees cooler in the park.
Sure Florida has its share of ugliness. Hardee County is mostly a moonscape, thanks to the Mosaic company. Phosphate has been a great moneymaker for the business, but the mining leaves homeowners and farmers with depleted wells and changed hydrology. “Radioactive,” my friend John Beckner would mutter as we hurried past telltale berms hiding reservoirs of polluted water. No deer gamboling among majestic pines here. The pine forests are being decimated in the name of “development.” No human construct can ever replace those majestic trees. Bulldozed lands, disappeared springs and lakes, heat islands, pollution — the destruction of the landscape seems to be unstoppable.
So far Florida has not failed me. The plant list from state parks such as San Felasco Hammock runs well into the hundreds. Pines still are a constant: longleaf, slash and sand pine in scrub and sandhills. Often I visit Big Pine Tract, an old growth remnant of longleaf. Laurel and live oaks are common in many places, as is saw palmetto. Like the bobwhite, most animals (especially snakes) flee when they see me. But they are there. Last week a shy little green heron on the Caloosahatchee River stood patiently by, allowing me to photograph him.
Why do I keep on with this “Green Pilgrimage?” Not for just the thrill of discovery but for the timelessness; a respite from the “bad news”; solitude. No mowers; no bulldozers; no traffic. Above all, an all-encompassing beauty I could never hope to capture in two dimensions. But I keep on trying.