Tomorrow I say good-bye to Florida and take the long drive back up Interstate 95 to Maryland. At home I cross a state line several times each week yet for the past five weeks we have never left the confines of the Sunshine State. It is going to be hard to leave, but before I do, here is my last brief dispatch as I say farewell to what the late Al Burt, columnist for the Miami Herald, referred to lovingly as the “Mullet Latitudes.” This Florida sojourn has taken me around the state, to places both familiar and new on the main highways and the blue highways.
I have been coming to Florida regularly for over four decades. My family came here for winter vacations when I was in high school, and then I spent my undergraduate college years here in the late 60s and early 70s. My wife is a native Floridian and lived here her entire life until I married her and whisked her away to Arizona and eventually to Maryland. My parents moved here in retirement in the mid-1980s and my mom is still here as is my mother-in-law. Both of our dad’s are buried here. We may live in and travel to different places, but we always seem to “come home” to Florida. When I do, I am always amazed that I find something new to discover and explore.
This time around I have explored Aripeka, an old haunt along the Gulf Coast. It is a place I first explored over forty years ago and I ask myself why it has taken me so long to come back. I’m glad I did. It is still a backwater but on the fringes of civilization and strip malls are moving ever closer. I have pondered the billboard blight along Florida’s highways which is also creeping ever closer to Aripeka and other small out-of-the way communities. I wonder how much longer they can hold out. Al Burt also wondered about this and I can better understand his concern for the Florida of yesteryear. It is quickly disappearing. I have explored the scrub lands of central Florida where settlers and soldiers fought the Seminole in three wars in the 19th century to establish primacy over this new American territory. I have searched across the state for genuine Cuban sandwiches. Some were better than others but all of them were good. I have considered the plight of the bison herd on Paynes Prairie and explored the cracker haunts about which Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote so eloquently and where I reacquainted myself with the fine cracker cuisine of north central Florida.
Most of all, we return to Florida to visit family and friends living and dead. This is the main reason we keep coming back. Yet, as we look around, we cannot ignore what we see around us. Perhaps Al Burt said it best in an April 27, 2003 editorial in the Tallahassee Democrat. “We common folk see Florida as a place struggling to stay true to itself--struggling to maintain an honest identity. We are people who find significance not only in headlines, and beauty not only in colorful horizons, but also in the small things of Florida--the sights and smells of home that were blooded and boned into our beings as we grew up. These represent heritage and affirming identity. For us they are the true things of Florida.“ Tomorrow we head north and home. We will be back. Of course we will! We can’t help but come back. Florida is in our blood and marrow.