Days 148 to 152: The Rest of Florida

The Keys left us pink and paunchy from days of sun and tourist-trap eating. We packed the car in the sun’s full glory, and drove to get lunch at an authentic French bakery, and rolled back across the long causeway that connects the archipelago to the mainland. The turquoise Caribbean sparkled as we passed people fishing off bridges, pastel beach houses, and innumerable monuments to the unusual wildlife—mostly mailboxes held by friendly cetaceans. 

We had two goals as we meandered our way back to the mainland: first, to replace a punctured tire (miraculously, the only real problem we’ve had with the car in 17,000 miles of driving); and second, to snag a campsite in the Everglades before dark. After a consult, we ordered a pair of neat self-sealing tires, and found a Yelp-recommended Caribbean dinner in sunny, suburban Homestead, FL. The fresh-made food was inedibly hot and perfumed Liz as we pulled up to the campground and got the last available campsite—just in time to pitch our tent as daylight dissolved into mosquito-laden night. 

It felt good to camp again, after almost a month sleeping indoors. Set in a thin pine forest surrounded by the marshy fields of the Glades, we had a good taste of the unique slice of Florida’s wetland heritage preserved at its southeastern tip. Our first morning there, we drove through the swampy park to the mix of mucky beaches and mangroves at the ocean’s edge, and absorbed nature as mosquitoes feasted on us. It came time to bring Liz in for her new tires, and we headed back to Homestead—timed perfectly to encounter an enormous alligator sunning itself by a pond at the roadside. We stopped at Robert Is Here, the “Disney World of fruit stands”, for amazing milkshakes made from fruits we’d never even heard of. G tried the infamous Popeye’s chicken sandwich—tastes as good as factory food can!—and we made camp before too late.

The sun was still low in the sky the next morning as we set out for a delicious diner breakfast and the very long drive up to Tampa, concerned about the burgeoning coronavirus and the treatment of journalists like Mary Louise Kelly. We made our way through the Miccosukee lands at the edge of the Everglades, marvelling at the bromeliads everywhere and the amazing variety of bird life. Soon, we were back in the endless undifferentiated Florida sprawl, rolling past chain stores and palm trees for hundreds of miles to Tampa. The highlight of our brief night there was getting stuck in major traffic due to the Gasparilla, a local (problematic) costume-driven bar crawl that caused us to shift our dinner plans to an Indian spot that quite impressed us. We ordered way too much food and wine, and strategized on Gary’s job offers.

Another long driving day took us the rest of the way up the state, to the Georgia border, before we headed back to the coast and Panama City, a town G’s mom lived in briefly in the eighties (and which has, for G’s whole life, been a source of hilarious secondhand stories about roadside statuary and drive-thru everything). We had a beautiful oceanside Airbnb there, and explored the Southern summer hotspot in the winter offseason. Suffice it to say, the stories of the statues were all true.

But we also caught wind of a nightmare while we were in town. Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida Panhandle in late 2018, devastated the area. It turns out that it was retroactively upgraded to a Category 5 storm landfall, making it only the second since Andrew in 1992. We heard stories from the locals about how the Trump administration had delayed disaster relief funding for almost 10 months because of an insistence on also funding the border “wall”, which meant that people essentially lived in rubble until this fall, and are only now just starting to pick up the pieces and rebuild. A particularly egregious anecdote: large swaths of pine forests were uprooted by the storm, and their lumber could have been salvaged and sold for millions of dollars—but the government dragged its heels long enough that pine beetles destroyed it. We left Panama City grateful for our relative luck, and keenly aware of the threat that both climate and incompetent, malicious government present in our changing world. 

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