It’s a 2.5 hour flight from Chicago to Tampa. Far shorter than the drive through Kentucky and all parts in between. My fiance and her family drove the distance. I waited until Wednesday to fly. That’s called the Rosie Ruiz. Look it up.
It rained so hard and the lightning was so perilous the airport closed down the tarmac where incoming were forced to sit lonely and forlorn until our baggage could be rescued from the guts of the aircraft.
Such are the vagaries of the Sunshine State, where promises of eternal sunshine are often met with vicious rains that rise in a constant cycle of humidity and sun. The process will only stop when Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico decide the gig’s up and cover the state with rising seawater. Already the Mayor of Miami is in a state of panic about that pending event, and Tampa can’t be too comfortable either.
Until then, Florida seems uncomfortably content to serve as the main haven for millions of retirees and the likes of former pro wrestling star Hulk Hogan, who strolls around Clearwater on hot days hoping no one is looking for a fake fight anymore.
The Hulkster can relax. He fits right in with Surf Life clutter that includes the worst commercial zoning practices invented by the human race. Drive any main strip in Florida and you’ll find what amounts to a low-slung apocalypse of retail and service businesses. The mind grows easily confused in such circumstances. Drive-through liposuction centers give way to Adult Bookstores selling crab cakes and fireworks. It’s all an ugly mix of human enterprise framed by an angry background of thunderheads in the distance.
With all that crazed commerce going on, you simply don’t go running or riding along the commercial strips. Fortunately, there is a long, straight strip of bike trail east of Tampa-St. Petersberg. Cyclists and runners alike funnel themselves onto this safe passage that runs 50 miles up to some other Florida city along the state highway. It is the long unwinding road of which Paul McCartney never sings because it is not so much romantic as it is practical and safe. And those are its virtues. A straight, long vacation from reality. Sometimes we take our joys where we can find them.
Sure, there are bike lanes along some of the main roads. Most glimmer with broken glass and torn up soda cans. So you ride at your own risk.
Middle of the road
Wanting to avoid such detritus and disturbance during our fartlek run, my fiance Sue and I decided to seek refuge on a middle school track in New Port Richey. We walked in the back gate after her sister dropped us off and found a gym class starting a soccer game. Two teachers gave us the evil eye and we asked politely: “Is it okay if we run?”
“You need to check in at the office,” they both told us.
We walked between the concrete brick wall and found a janitor who ushered us to the office. The woman behind the desk looked at us incredulously. “How did you get on campus?” she demanded to know.
“We walked in by the track,” we admitted.
This fact appeared to astound her. “No one is allowed on campus when school is in session,” she said in a statement of breathless fury. “You need to go out the front door,” she pointed.
So we left as instructed, and jogged a mile over to the rec center where her sister was doing a weight workout. We dumped our stuff inside and did a fartlek workout on the half mile loop around the building. It turned out to be a quite charming way to spend an hour.
Back to the future
On the drive back to our rental house I tried to pick our the real Florida peeking out between the retail chaos the state seems to adore. There were lines of palm trees and pine plantations. A Parula warbler sang from the tree next to our pools. Fish crows and boat-tailed grackles argued over palm fruits. And come evening we drove to Green Key Preserve to watch the sun set. Beneath the boardwalk, a herd of crabs was wandering over the mangrove and palm little. A Tricolored heron fished near shore. The sun sank in its westerly way and we all smacked n0-see-ums until it was time to go home.
On the path back along the boardwalk a pair of young women approached. One wore a cat costume and the other, only body paint over her tiny breasts. The girls appeared to be just past legal age for such costumes, whatever that might be. Florida is full of such surprises.
And why not?The female mannequins at the Clearwater surf shop had breasts the size of watermelons. Whether this was an ad for the swimsuit that adorned them or the breast enhancement required to achieve such proportions was never explained. Half the state at any moment in time is basically naked except for strips of thin material covering genitals, nipples and nuts. The human buttock is now legal for full display and really, why not? The ocean is eternally patient and cares not what we wear while wading in its salty murk. The human bloodstream is similar in salt content to that of the Gulf. If you go for a run and work up a salty sweat, the trip into the equally salty water is not even a transition. You trade sweat for saltwater in Florida, and all is good.
Perhaps that is why so many people feel at home in Florida. Surrounded by ocean on all side but one, Florida is a geological anomaly, flat and not very high above sea level. The Everglades used to be one wide, shallow river delivering rains froms interior to the sea. Hurricanes occasionally rip across the state leveling trees and houses alike. It seems as if nature is perpetually trying to cleanse the state.
Yet there are those who belong here. Who live here. Who evolved here in concert with wave and wind and weather. Sit still and you’ll be greeted by a species of lizard called the green anole, which are native to the Florida landscape, and give it character. Here’s how Floridiannature.com describes the Green Anole–
“The green anole is by far the most common anole in the state of Florida. Sometimes called chameleons, these anoles change from green to brown to blend into the environment. Although the green anole is the only anole species native to the U.S., several other species have been introduced in Florida and are expanding their ranges northward. Green Anoles are generally arboreal (living in trees) but can be found almost anywhere. Anoles are commonly found in suburban or even urban areas and can often be seen perched on fences and rooftops. Green Anoles are active by day in warm weather and often bask in vegetation, occasionally charging away from a basking spot to grab and inset or chase off a rival anole. During cool weather anoles are often found hiding under tree bark, shingles, or in rotten logs. Sometimes many anoles can be found taking refuge in one spot. Green Anoles eat a wide variety of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates.
There’s one fact about the anole this description does not address specifically. Anoles are cold-blooded. That means they love hot weather, bask in the sun for energy and thrive on days when people who run and ride are forced inside to avoid sweating to death. It’s fascinating to realize how opposite the anole is from a human being. We assume that we own and rule this place called Florida. Yet we can swim and run and ride and never be as well-adapted, agile and evolved as a simply little green anole.
That should make you think. And if it doesn’t, go out and sit in the Florida sun a little longer. Then consider who really owsn the place. The answer is hot and surreal.