So much more than Disney, Zika, and Alligators – Florida Teaching Tour 2016
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that my only impression of the US State of Florida consisted of overpriced theme parks, hurricanes, terrifying diseases that threaten to wipe out mankind, and caricatures of people shooting and eating crocodiles… I mean alligators, sorry. Up until this year, my only personal experience of Florida was a week-long Disney World trip when I was 9. Besides that, I only ever hear about people moving away from Florida, and have only once or twice heard of people moving to Florida by choice. So naturally, I wouldn’t say that Florida was on the top of my list of states to visit. So when I picked up two gigs to teach at the Wanderlust 108 events in Florida, I was less than enchanted to find they were a month apart. The only options were to either fly down for both of them, or drive my truck down, stay for a month and teach my own independent acro workshops on the side with my good friend and acro partner Jack Carter, and find out what Florida had to offer. I’ve always been more adventure minded than not, so naturally I chose to take my truck Kai all the way down to Florida to nomad around Florida from mid September to mid October.
I’d like to think that as an open-minded traveler, I can find something uniquely wonderful and worthwhile of every place, and Florida was no exception. So without further ado…
What’s cool about Florida (and not cool, at the same time)
I spent most of my time in Jacksonville, because my good friend and acro partner Jack Carter (@cloudbreakacro) was located there, and I was graciously given an empty furnished room to stay in in the heart of town. I have to admit, I’m sorry to those who live there but I didn’t appreciate Jacksonville very much. My experience there featured an extremely racist Uber driver, poor quality and heavily fluoridated tap water, and on the positive end of things, Atlantic Beach is probably one of the most beautiful pristine beaches I’ve ever been to. I have found, in general, that is one positive thing about Florida: The beaches are really quite beautiful, although most of them look roughly the same.
Big Talbot Island – The Driftwood Beach
This is one beach that certainly stands out from the rest by a huge margin. It’s almost a surreal and ephermeral place, a full beach full of massive fallen treets, roots creating a labyrinth of twisted gnarled wood, reposing in fine white sand.
The day I ventured there, My new friend John and I traipsed in past a very blatant “No Metal Detecting” sign (which made us pretty sure there’s Spanish treasure just waiting to be un-earthed all along Florida beaches) through a half mile tunnel of tree branches perfectly filtering the afternoon sun, and emerged in this Dr. Seuss world of massive trees, some fallen and some still standing, their roots resembling hundred-legged spiders with the ends seemingly barely submerged in the sand, with enough space underneath to crawl underneath if one were so inclined. We set up a slackline on a couple standing trees that looked dead but relatively sturdy, as ominous clouds rumbled and piled on each other in the background. The winds and the clouds built into a crescendo of one of the most amazing lightning storms I’ve ever seen, staged over the distant ocean horizon. We made a judgment call to stick out the lightning storm in the distance in hopes that rain wouldn’t spoil our day, a decision that although an outdoor survivalist might scoff at, worked out for us as the clouds passed along ominously in the distance but parted way perfectly for the sun to come back out.
There are a billion things in Florida that want to eat your flesh and suck your blood
At sunset, the rising swarm of noseeums cued us that it was time for our takedown. If you’ve never experienced noseeums before I envy you – itfelt like I was getting tiny electric zaps all over my body, and by that night I had tiny, red, raised pinprick bug-bites all over my body. I stopped counting at 50. Being a Florida native, John’s noseeum bites were gone the next morning, but I had to continue to take at Benadryl for the next 3 consecutive nights to avoid waking up at 2am in a fit of itching.
Later in my Florida trip, one of our Wanderlust Festivals took place on a field full of red ant hills, and I once again was required to take Benadryl for the three subsequent nights to avoid waking up a 2-am in a fit of itching my poor feet.
Mosquitos in Florida are no joke either. While I didn’t manage to avoid the inevitable onslaught of mosquitos everywhere I went, I did seem to manage to avoid Zika. Every Floridian I asked laughed when I asked somberly how worried I should be about Zika, but then avoided answering the question. Reportedly, it doesn’t matter if you’ve lived in Florida for 50 years or even if you’re from there, you never get used to the bugs.
Camping on the Suwannee River with 400-lb belly-flopping men (Just kidding, sort of)
If you can imagine what a 400 pound man belly-flopping in still water sounds like, then you can imagine what it was like to camp on the Suwannee River. The Suwannee River is a massive, smooth river encapsulated on either side by massive cypress trees, which stain the water on the bank of the river a deep earthy red color. The river is populated with tons of sturgeons, a massive fish that likes to breach out of the wide, smooth flowing river. The first night we were there, when Peter and Jack went out on their night kayaking mission to the fresh water spring about a half-mile down the river from our friend’s property, they came back with widely-exaggerated stories of a sturgeon breaching right next to them and almost casting them into the water and ending their lives prematurely. Apparently, it has actually happens that a girl died from a sturgeon jumping in her boat in Lake City, FL.
Jack and his wife Michelle organized the whole affair. We went to stay on his friend’s property, a former pro-skateboarder with a lovely family, including a 15-year old son who drives his boat down the river to his high school in the mornings and built an impressive and terrifying rope swing into the river, and a younger son who spends most of his day now in an impressive all-terrain wheelchair. The younger son, Evan, has Duchenne’s, a rare and poorly understood form of muscular sclerosis.
Entertaining Evan, a sweet 12-year old with a soft voice and big shiny eyes, was the inspiration for our circus field-trip to the Suwannee. There were about 6 of us, and we brought our best acrobatic tricks, our slackline gear, and an aerial silks rig, and spent the days teaching the 15 year old and the young cousins how to play with our various toys. Evan watched on the side lines with his wide eyes, and would beg us one at a time to come up and experience his state of the art virtual reality computer program, which the Make-A-Wish foundation had provided for him. He seemed entertained by all the circus shenanigans to a point, but I couldn’t help but feel that behind his wide eyes, our spectacle only reminded him of all the things he would probably never be able to do. If you want to support Duchenne’s research and this family’s journey towards a cure, click here.
Royal Springs – a freshwater spring and swimming hole
Peter, my physicist/aerial silks/slackline friend and I, capped off our trip to this family’s Suwannee abode by visiting a nearby fresh water spring, Royal Springs, and swimming hole. If you’ve never visiting a fresh water spring in Florida, absolutely do it. If you’re not sure what a spring is, it’s fresh mineral rich water that comes up from a massive cave in the earth, and creates an excellent habitat for not only animals, plants, and trees, but also drunk Floridians.
It was incredibly beautiful from the surface, and I can only imagine what the massive cave below the water surface looks like. Being an experienced free-diver, Peter could submerge himself under water for 2 minutes or longer after completely an interesting and careful series of breathing exercises. I stuck my head under once in an attempt to dive under and confronted by a murky top surface and piercing cold, I immediately panicked… so, I only have Peter’s first hand account and his GoPro images to profess its beauty.
St. Augustine’s Cobblestone Streets and Tourist Culture
Everyone warned me that St. Augustine might not be the best place to visit in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. St. Augustine must value it’s vibrant tourist economy however, because when I visited I couldn’t even tell their was a hurricane there, despite the fact that Hurricane Matthew caused irreparable damage in in the Caribbean and on the East Coast of Florida and I had to literally cover my top box on my truck with a massive tarp to avoid 500lbs of standing water to sneak its way into the cracks.
St. Augustine Florida, founded in 1565, so it is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the United States. It’s definitely really touristy, but it’s really worth the visit, and that’s coming from someone who typically scoffs at things and places that are outright touristy. It’s beautiful, there’s a plethora of good food and cute souvenir and art shops, the history there is interesting and in the tourist district you can almost feel what it would have been like way back when. After walking around the town and avoiding the kitschy tour guide train, I spent most of my day getting work done at a really adorable artistically decorated coffee shop with a snooty barista called Crucial Coffee Café.
Paddling through Mangrove Tunnels in Key West
Reconnecting with friends you’ve met on the road is possibly the most beautiful part of traveling. Sometimes I feel closer to people I’ve hung out with once or twice because we shared a unique and heart opening experience while traveling than people I’ve seen and hung out with many times in Colorado.
I have to admit that I see and keep up with some friends significantly more often now that I am “nomadic” than I did when I lived in one place. Everyone knows how it goes – you get caught up in your job, in your relationship, in your pets, in your life, and you don’t see your friends. When you’re traveling those relationships become ever more important – they become grounding. And when you’re in the same place as a friend either expectedly or unexpectedly, it’s very important to see them, and doing so is a joyous occasion full of love and hugs and interest in catching up. A goal of mine is to be able to maintain that level of interest and joy in my relationships whether I unexpectedly see a friend in Portland one month or see a friend every weekend.
In the couple days before teaching at Wanderlust Miami, I drove all the way down to Key West, the westernmost and furthest island on a chain of islands trailing out from the end of Florida, mostly to check it out and visit a friend named Ren, one of my favorite people. She is a 20-something adventurer in whom I recognize the same desire to explore and affect the world in a positive way. She had just arrived back home after a season of guiding sea kayak trips in Alaska, and reflected the same uncertainty of “What’s next” that I know so well. We paddle boarded through tight mangrove tunnels, and Ren seemed to have X-ray vision as she pointed out a manatee family, a star-fish, a spotted eagle ray, and caressed the mangroves with the kind of familiarity that a mother caresses their child.
We set up a little rodeo slackline in one of the wider channels of mangrove tunnels between two protruding branches. the line was only about 10 feet across, and we had to sort of shimmy our paddle boards underneath the mangrove bushes on the shores so that they wouldn't flow away in the imperceptible current. The line was only about 10 feet across, but was so fun. Falling in the water here felt cleansing and purifying, though pessimistically I'm not sure how many bodies of water I can realistically feel that way about.
Ren tells me that cruise ships are a main factor in destroying Key West’s and surrounding area's underwater ecosystem, including the reefs in the area. She told that one time she stood on the dock, smiling and handing out pamphlets to tourists getting off the ships, which detailed the effects that their vacation were having on the Earth. A policeman told her that she couldn’t hand out those pamphlets, fundamentally violating her right to free speech. As one person behind a cause it can feel overwhelming to actually challenge a person telling you that you can’t do something, even though a court of law (after much ado) would tell them that you could.
Key West was a cute little town, as were most of the places in Florida when it came down to it. I like to think that I can find something positive that can contribute to my life in every place I go. I still have yet to find a place that can’t, in some way. Nonetheless, I was grateful when I was finally driving away. I felt that way about almost everywhere in Florida, whether it was a city or a more rural setting, each place made me feel just a little bit smothered, as I imagined what my life would be like there if I chose to stay. Driving away was a breath of fresh air each time, another roll of the die to select a different path.
Ultimately what struck me most about Florida was the community of people. It could just be the acro and slackline communities that I frequent, but everywhere I go I certainly met no shortage of people who were actively opening their mind to new ideas, activities, places, and were hungry for that kind of stimulus in their life.
When it comes down to it, the reason I travel is to experience the energy of a different place and the people there. Not just the people that I like either. The more I travel, the more I try and pay attention and just listen and experience the different people of a place – what they say, what they do, and how they think. I try to suspend judgment, and I instead prefer to store my experiences in some kind of mental mind bank as an individual set of puzzle pieces with which maybe later, someday, with more pieces, I’ll try to fit together a more holistic and comprehensive picture of the world over time and space.