After retrieving Sam from the shop, Cami and I stuffed all of our belongings into the various nooks and crannies I had created by reorganizing over the past week. As we packed, the steady rain slowed to a mist. With that pleasant break in the weather, we hit the road. Since time was of the essence and we wanted to avoid much of Joaquin’s wrath, we headed west towards I-95, allowing its wide, fast lanes to lead us through the storm. Pointing south, we drove past the South of the Border complex, numerous turn offs for the beach, and more than a few rest stops. In the middle of a truly epic downpour the hunger pangs started to hit home, so we stopped for a quick bite to eat. As buckets of rain fell around us, we sat on the porch of a decaying wooden building at a South Carolina rest stop. The quinoa, sweet potato, and apple salad I had cooked up before we left filled us quickly, but, sitting on the floor of our porch, we felt no sense of urgency. After dinner, the conversations turned philosophical and the rains slowed. Just after Savannah, we pulled into a rest stop for the night, bedding down with semis and passenger vehicles alike.
Waking with the sun and the noise of morning traffic, our eyes beheld a bustling rest stop. Motorists were walking dogs, repacking, stretching, and exercising before they too hit the road once more. Despite quite a few “No Overnight Parking” signs, it was clear that that felt more like a suggestion than a hard, fast rule. From our rest stop, we continued south, skirting around Jacksonville and turning west towards Tallahassee. By mid-day, we were sitting on the quad of Florida State University with one of Cami’s best friends, Jennah, munching on a delicious (and surprisingly filling) meal from Sweet Pea Cafe. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the campus, checking out the football stadium, and perusing the college store, guided effortlessly by these two passionate alumni who were more than willing to share their stories. Having grown up in a university town, I had some familiarity with the state school living, but I felt really lucky to have gotten such an in depth look at what that lifestyle looks like in Florida, as opposed to Wisconsin. One of the most major differences was the size of the campus. UW-Madison’s research facilities and classrooms span the entire isthmus. FSU has far less land to work with, so it feels like a much more tight knit campus. Both, however, are a far cry from Bates. Go Bobcats!!!
After spending the day enjoying an almost chilly afternoon on campus, we drove back to Jennah’s were decided to give Cami a Mel Brooks-style education. We began with Blazing Saddles, with an intermission filled with a mess of roasted, broiled, and boiled veggies, and ended with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Although I am not sure how I thought the day would go, I can be pretty sure that neither of those films was on any agenda that I had in mind.
We rushed through morning showers, breakfast, and goodbyes and were on the road by 8:00 AM. Aiming to be in Tampa by lunchtime, we started south on 27. On our southward journey, we encountered some of the straightest and flattest roads I have ever seen, a town of maybe a couple hundred people that had at least four Marathon gas stations, and patches of sunshine amidst a thin blanket of cloud. Although parts of the drive were far from exciting, the dense forests of Florida felt undeniably wild and completely impenetrable. Since we had to keep our schedule, we didn’t stop very often.. The playlists faded from alternative folk in the rural areas to classic hip hop as we approached Tampa. By noon, I was getting a run down on the urban sprawl of Tampa and how the areas we were driving through had changed during Cami’s lifetime. Since I lived relatively close to the downtown of Madison, I don’t have much suburban experience. I was struck by the design and implementation of this urban planning. These are the landscapes that need cars. My last two years of bicycle commuting in New Bern would not have worked living in a suburb of Tampa.
After completing the ceremonial introductions at the Stump household, we had lunch and gave grand tours. I use the plural form because I also gave them the tour of Sam, albeit a little less grand… It was, in fact, the most comprehensive tour I have given thus far. Someday soon I will be putting a tour up on here. Stay tuned. After spending the afternoon relaxing, we headed into downtown Tampa for dinner and a trip to the beach. On the drive down to Florida, Cami and I had realized that I have never seen the Gulf of Mexico. I have flown over it, of course, but have never seen it in person. So, after an amazing dinner at Ulele’s in the old Tampa waterworks, we headed for the beach. There, we watched the sky fade from blue to pink as the sun dropped behind clouds. Even though the water was warmer than I had expected, I can’t imagine a better introduction to the Gulf. That isn’t a sunset I will forget anytime soon. From the photo, you won’t be surprised to know that rain followed shortly thereafter.
Retreating home, we stayed up late playing Phase 10 before heading to bed. In my cave-like room, I had one of the most uninterrupted nights of sleep I can remember. Silence.
In the morning, we popped into Tampa for breakfast at a swanky spot called Oxford Exchange. With a wonderful combination of Edison lights, a kick ass bookstore, and delicious chia oats, I was totally content. Afterwards, Cami and I headed south on 41, following as many coastal diversions as possible. Unlike vast sections of Route 1 or many of the coastal roads on the Great Lakes, this road trolled past coastal development after coastal development. Dismayed, I realized that any ocean view was consistently blocked by pastel-painted high rises and chain restaurants. It was not what I had expected, although I think that was largely a function of my own naivety.
A few hours in, we stopped at Tiger Tail Beach on Marco Island, one of Cami’s old coastal haunts. We walked the beach, watching the birds and commenting on definitions of wilderness and nature. For me, it was truly eye opening to see the proximity of the urban to the natural on Florida’s beaches. I realized that my own definitions of wilderness are predicated on some notion of solitude. These beaches, regardless of their wildlife and expansive ocean views, did not feel wild, let alone inviting. The myriad of wild birds were just as captivating as the waves.
As we turned southeast, the sun was dropping behind massive thunderheads. Following 41 across the northern limit of the Everglades, we drove through an empty landscape of expansive plains and low hammocks of trees. The stars shone through the dark sky, but the light pollution over Miami always lay in front of us. After this section, I had to scrub the whole front of the car to remove the hundreds, if not thousands, of insects who had left their mark in the form of body parts and bodily residues. Not wanting to stay in Florida City, we headed for the Keys, driving through the night until we found a big parking lot in Key Largo. It. Was. Hot.
In the morning, we woke up and continued driving south, stopping occasionally to take see the sun rising higher and higher from a few secluded turn offs. Our destination, Key West, was less than a hundred miles away. Our route sliced through the thin Keys like a knife, lifting only briefly to jump over the many canals and channels that separate the land. With names like Torch Channel, Saddlebunch Channels (#1-#5), and Ohio-Missouri Channel, the high-speed highway crossings paralleled outdated and decrepit bridges. From rail bridges, to pedestrian bridges, to old automobile bridges, sections of these old thoroughfares have been removed to prevent modern adventurers from braving the crumbling concrete and twisted metal. Despite their obvious neglect, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued by the inherent solitude of those old ways. The southern terminus of Route 1 has clearly had more than its fair share of renovations and innovations.
As we rolled into Key West, I was once again disappointed by the over-commercialization of this beach-side community. Steeped in history dating from native times, to the Civil War, to Hemingway’s lifetime, Key West has much to explore, but the outlet stores, key lime pie vendors, and artsy boutiques steal the spotlight. Duval Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare was filled with these staple Key attractions. Off on the side streets, we found Hemingway’s house, more than a few Keys roosters, and an abundance of German and/or gay tourists.
By noon, we both knew that we needed to escape the heat, so we made a beeline for the Café. This haven of delicious vegan food turned out to be my highlight of Key West. Unwing Wings, Kung Pao Tofu, Carrot Cake, Key Lime Cheesecake, Curry Chicken Sandwick… Yum. Everything was delicious.
After lunch, we completed our wanderings by touring Fort Zachary Taylor, a Civil War-era fort that had been re-outfitted many times during its history. At one point, they even used Civil War cannons to fill the walls for the Spanish-American War. The tour was far from comprehensive, but the beach outside its walls offered a wonderful view of the mixing Gulf and Atlantic waters. As we sat on the beach, a massive tour boat headed south. The moving city never faded from view.
Hot and sweaty, we returned to the air-conditioned interior of Sam and headed north. For me, just heading north had a calming effect. I knew temperatures would slowly drop and the climate would grow more and more comfortable. The drive, therefore, was quite pleasant. As we drove from the Keys to mainland Florida, a triple rainbow spread across the northern sky. A triple rainbow? Yes. The sky achieved this meteorological phenomenon with a double rainbow arcing in one direction and a single rainbow arcing in the other. At one point, I could’ve sworn I saw a pair of double rainbows, but I couldn’t be sure. Set against the fluorescent-painted shoulders of the highway, the colors in the setting sun were nothing short of spectacular. Next stop the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks.
Our Route South!