Leaving Tallahassee and moving south as it continues to cool, I lose track of the month and day, feeling surprised each time I remember it is moving through December. We left Tallahassee to venture to Gainsville Florida, described to us at the chillest city in Florida. Gainesville has over 50,000 college students, about ⅓ of its population. The homes here sit tight to the ground, rarely reaching over two stories and vespa scooters crowd the streets. There is a co-op, a feminist bookstore (one of 13 in the country), and lots of local businesses, restaurants, even two local grocery stores. There are thrift stores on every other block and some great stores that carry name brand rejects. That being said, the “chillest city” vibe is not apparent any more than elsewhere, there is a lot of traffic, and people honk, the city is inundated with strip malls and large parking lots. While it doesn’t feel uptight, its casual persona is not instantly apparent.
Arriving at the Zen Center, we prepared to stay for a week with my grandfather and the residents of the two house communal living space. This is the longest I have ever spent with Tobe, my grandfather, and the first time I have ever been to visit without my mother. Tobe is a cross legged, meditating 79 year old. His bed hangs suspended above the ground on a pulley system, allowing him to create more floor space when the bed is lifted, but mostly he enjoys the ability to rock himself to sleep. A treehouse, woman’s dorm, men’s dorm, private rooms, and a few kitchens are contained in two houses with a shared outdoor space. Oliver, the resident artist, reminds visitors and permanent residents of the joy and abundance that life provides if you are open to receive it. Other full time residents work to create a community through morning meetings. Meetings take a free form, starting with a song, ending with a song, and moving through clockwise, each person sharing whatever they want until the meeting come to a natural conclusion. We enjoyed our time in the hostel and getting to know the permanent and transient residents that move through the space.
While in Gainsville we enjoyed a thriving farmers market with live music, amazing black eyed pea tempeh, ugly but delicious bread (I would include a picture but we ate it too quickly), and vegetables that have been out of season in the north for months. We visited the FSU bat house, where, after sunset each evening, thousands of bats emerge for the night. The musty smell of the bats is noticeable from the parking lot, and we quickly learned that the bats have this distinct smell, not just their poop. As the sun set the bats began flying out one at a time and quickly the air was full. The bats fly straight at the observers, pulling away at the last minute as their tiny chirps alert them to the people standing in their way.
Devils Millhopper is a giant sink hole where you can see the natural springs on the walls feeding the pond. There is great lore around this sinkhole and stories of a Power princess who liberated herself from the Devil’s grip, even when hundreds of warriors failed to do so. We visited the largest live oak in Florida and climbed on its draping branches. Flowing from the sturdy trunk, the branches swoop back into the earth, then reemerge at random from the ground. Spanish moss hangs from the branches, creating a sense of sorrow as the tree hangs like a weeping willow.
Leaving Central Florida we drove to the Tampa for a evening to visit with friends and then headed to the Dali Museum- an excellent stop along the way south.
Then onto the Everglades, camping in a Walmart Parking lot in Homestead FL. We woke early the next morning and drove to Robert is Here, a famous a longstanding fruit stand on the way into the Park. Here we tried Soursop, a fruit flavored like pineapple cotton candy and the consistency of marshmallows. We started each day with fresh fruit smoothies, and sometimes a fruit milkshake.
We entered the Everglades and drove from East to West, stopping at about 8 short paths along the way to experience how a change of 1-2 feet in elevation will entirely change the entire ecosystem. At our first stop we covered the car in tarps, as the vultures will land directly on your car and tear the rubber off of your
We headed through pine forests, and through Mangroves trees, whose fingers reached through the ground, creating a field of ground. A red water swamp surrounds the trees, giving an halloweenish feel. Here we saw manatees, swimming in an inlet near the visitor center. They swirled in the center of the inlet and then swam over to the observers, surfacing as close to the dock as possible.
The next morning we drove to Shark Valley and rented bikes to venture around a paved 15 mile trail, originally built by a company looking for natural resources on the land. Surrounded on both sides by the swamp, alligators, turtles, and all sorts of birds, we biked for a few hours enjoying the view on the easy route. We broke from the wildlife we had been enjoying and headed to Miami Beach for the afternoon.
We spent time on a fairly empty south beach, hopped in the ocean, which was warmer in december than in every gets in Maryland, and ate tacos at an outdoor stand.
worth 15 million, we could only view it from behind a fence with an angry armed guard staring at us.
The next morning we headed to the Keys.