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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Great Floridian Expedition

Well, I'm back from Florida.

Yes, Florida! After scarcely leaving the house for the last three years, I decided to go all out and travel to the opposite side of the country and risk all kinds of complications. Why? Because my one of my former college roommates (and favorite people on the planet) was getting married and of all the things I've missed since the migraines became a full-time disability (several weddings, my grandfather's funeral, trips to Europe and to visit family in California), this was the one I hated to miss the most. So my mother asked me, "What would it take for you to be able to go?"

It's absolutely crucial that I get a lot of sleep and if I don't sleep well, I can't just go on with my day anyway. And I can't deviate from my sleep schedule without consequences. Not only is there a three hour time difference between the West and East Coasts, but the wedding was scheduled to start four hours before I normally woke up. There was no way I could just show up in Florida, power through a couple days of getting up early to reset my clock and then be fine. I knew one of the most important things I would need to do was to shift my sleep schedule over to being in line with Eastern Time. So over the course of two months, I took my nighttime medicine half an hour earlier each week. That meant that in the weeks just before the trip I barely saw my parents at all because I was going to bed right when they came home from work, but it was a huge success in terms of being able to adjust to the three hour time difference without wreaking havoc on my migraines.

Food was another important factor. Florida is a lousy place in general to be a vegetarian and the area where the wedding was taking place, in the rural Panhandle area, was even worse. Eating out is also stressful for me because noise and other stimulation, while deciding where to eat, especially when already hungry or tired, is hard for me even when well. So I packed a lot of food that I could eat in the hotel room. For breakfast I had my usual dry cereal, dried fruit, and nuts. For dinners I packed instant soup cups that I could make by heating water in the hotel coffee maker. When we got to Florida, I supplemented the food I packed with applesauce cups, Triscuits, and grapes. It worked out well to have filling, nutritious food at my disposal so that I didn't have to wake up in time to ponder the items offered by the hotel's complimentary continental breakfast (not likely to be very appetizing) and at the end of the day, when tired, I didn't have to worry about dinner because I knew I had a couscous lentil soup cup that could be ready in five minutes. (My father, meanwhile, got to enjoy some genuine Southern barbecue and local seafood restaurants.) Having sufficient sleep and sufficient food made functioning possible.

Taking my father along was also an important part of the plan. There was no way I could have done all that driving and maneuvering of suitcases (especially since I started out the trip on crutches!) and his presence spared me the necessity of taking care of the mundane details of travel, like checking in and out of the hotels. We had separate rooms so I wouldn't have to contend with his snoring and he wouldn't have to tiptoe around my sleep schedule. His presence made things much easier.

In addition to modifying my sleep schedule, I had worked to build up my physical and social stamina during the months before the wedding. I also purchased several new, cute summer tops (my summer wardrobe had not been updated for several years and a number of my tops were worn out or didn't fit well anymore) and found a clutch I could take to the wedding that I'd be able to fit a pair of sandals inside so I could take off my heels. I covered all the bases I could think of, including scheduling in days for resting during the trip, but there was one big question mark that remained: how I would respond to air travel.

Red stars mark stops during the trip.
We were concerned because I am so sensitive to pressure changes and while they pressurize the cabins of airplanes, there's still enough change on takeoff and landing that your ears pop. It was possible that a flight would be agonizing and here I was, proposing to fly across the country. We decided that a direct flight would be the best way to cope, since it would require only one takeoff and landing, rather than two. The only non-stop flight between Seattle and anywhere in Florida flies into Orlando. The wedding was taking place outside Tallahassee, nearly three hundred miles (and five hours of driving) from Orlando, but we concluded that it was better to drive than have to transfer planes in Texas. We also scheduled a day of total rest following our arrival in Orlando and I prepped for the flight with multiple migraine medications, muscle relaxants, a travel pillow, two different types of earplugs, an eye mask, a iPod loaded with classical cello solos, and easy-to-eat-even-when-queasy snacks, but it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I boarded the plane. So I doped myself up and off we went. The headaches didn't end up being too bad (I think my preventative medication approach really helped), but on flight to Florida I endured some pretty agonizing muscle pain. I'm so thankful I had muscle relaxants to take! The cello music helped, too, because it gave me something to focus on besides the pain. But the five and a half hours did pass, and after I'd taken a very long hot shower upon arriving in Orlando, I was actually okay.

The paradox that is Florida: gorgeous nature and
ugly development
And so there I was in Florida. This was not the first time I found myself in that state. I spent four years attending (and then graduated from) the excellent New College of Florida in Sarasota. My opinion of Florida, formed during my college visit in October of 1998, was that it was one weird state and that opinion never changed. It was the polar opposite of Seattle's brooding landscape of hills and mountains, dark green forests, gray skies, cool temperatures, and dark blue waters. Florida, and especially the southern Gulf Coast around Sarasota, seemed like a land designed and colored by Disney: turquoise water, white sand, pink stucco, palmetto greens, and blue skies with perky, puffy white clouds. Oh, and it was almost comically flat. That goofy, cheerful landscape had a dark underside to it, one of high humidity, zillions of insects, the sharp contrast between the wealthy retirees and impoverished black populations, a desperate lack of decent bread, an alarming number of sex shops and rent-by-the-hour motels, and a general swampy atmosphere of accelerated decay. There were things I loved about Florida--the alligators, the sunsets, my school, the beaches--but I was not the least bit sorry to leave it. Upon arriving in Orlando, I found myself surrounded by Florida's most depressing landscape: mile after flat, desolate mile of strip malls and chain stores, a soul-sucking vision of America at its ugliest. It reinforced my feeling that Florida was a place best left behind.

On the road in the Sunshine State.
Fortunately, after my day of rest following the flight, we hit the road headed toward points north and the scene of many fond memories. During three of my four years in Florida, I dated a native of Gainesville and his wonderful family had always welcomed me into their home with open arms. It meant a lot to me to have this surrogate family to spend breaks and Thanksgiving holidays with when my own family was 3000 miles away. I've remained in touch even after my boyfriend and I parted ways at graduation, so I'd arranged to have lunch with his mother when we passed through Gainesville on our way north. It was lovely to see her again and sit down at the table of the house that I knew so well and remembered so fondly, but the best part of the day was yet to come. My former boyfriend and I had remained very good friends and I was overjoyed when he and my first-year roommate fell in love after graduation--she was a much better match for him than I was! I had the honor of attending their wedding and now I had an opportunity to be present to celebrate another milestone: welcoming their first child!

My friend holding his new baby.
The baby hadn't been in any hurry to make his debut and things had reached the point that his mother was scheduled to have labor induced the day I was passing through Gainesville. Fortunately, he decided it was time to come out on his own and was born the day before the deadline! I was planning on visiting my friends and their new baby on my way back through Gainesville after the wedding, but was delighted (and honored) to learn that they wanted me to come visit them at the hospital! So that is how I found myself on the maternity floor of the UF hospital, cradling the 28-hour-old son of some of my dearest friends in my arms. I've always been intimidated by babies and babies, sensing my discomfort, have always squalled in alarm when placed in my arms, but holding this brand new infant was different experience. He really was amazing, so tiny and warm and vulnerable and alive! Fortunately, he's proved to be a very mellow baby, still spending most of his time sleeping, so he made no protest when he was transferred into my arms, allowing me to marvel at his newness without fear of discomforting him. I've hear people rave about baby feet and toes and hands and now I know why: they are astonishing in how perfectly formed they are, complete with all the creases at the joints and those amazing tiny nails! It was also so special to see my former boyfriend transformed into a father as he held his infant son in his arms! I felt so honored to be invited to share these early moments with them as a family and was really blown away by the experience of meeting a newborn in the flesh! I was feeling much more inclined to view the state of Florida in a positive light when my father and I once again got under way, heading toward the Panhandle.

On the backroads of the Florida Panhandle.
During my college years, I went to Gainesville regularly and visited both Cedar Key (on the Gulf Coast) and St. Augustine (on the Atlantic) several times, stopped off at Dino World in Plant City and had dinner in Orlando on a day-trip, went down to the Everglades on two occasions, and flew in and out of Tampa whenever I went home, but I'd never been to the Florida Panhandle. I knew very little about it, other than that it was considered part of the Deep South (there's the saying that "The farther south you go in Florida, the further north you get"), that many of Bailey White's stories take place nearby, and the highest point in Florida, a laughable 345 ft about sea level, is located in the region. (Did you know that the highest non-nautral point in Florida is the roof of the Four Seasons Hotel Miami, at 789 ft?) I was therefore rather unprepared for how beautiful it was as we left Tallahassee behind us and turned south toward the Gulf, heading toward Wakulla Springs.

The spring-fed Wakulla River
I HAD heard of Wakulla Springs before. Many years ago, while watching TV in the hotel room during a long car trip, my family had viewed a program about the spring, one of the largest and deepest in the world. Divers have found plenty of bones of prehistoric animals in its depths, but the network of underwater caves is so vast (12 miles have been mapped and surveyed so far), that it has yet to be explored in its entirety. I found the program fascinating enough that I've remembered it after all these years and recognized it as the spring in Bailey White's piece "Large and Deep" from Sleeping at the Starlite Motel. I was pleased, therefore, to get a chance to visit in person a place that I'd heard about.

It had been late enough when we finally checked into our hotel in Crawfordville that we put off visiting the springs until the next day. By then, I'd been on crutches for five and a half weeks. I'd gotten quite skilled at getting around with them, but found that using the crutches in the sweaty, humid Florida climate produced some agonizing chaffing under the arms. I'd been doing exercises to strengthen my back and reduce pressure on the nerve and had noticed it was getting easier for me to walk around my hotel room without crutches (or any pain) as long as I wore my shoes with major arch support. I decided to venture out that day without the crutches, and while I had to walk very slowly when I first started out, I haven't used the crutches since! It turns out that improving the nerve signals to my foot by strengthening my back helped the bones in my foot move back into their usual positions so that the bone spur no longer was digging painfully into places where it didn't belong!

I loved this sunlit patch of swamp visible from the road that ran through the park to the lodge!

I had been warned by my friend, the groom-to-be, to watch out for wild hogs because the best man had encountered two on one of the area roads, an incident that resulted in some damage to his car. I was quite delighted to add hogs (pronounced as two-syllable word when spoken by the locals) to my list of animals to keep an eye out for, but when my father and I arrived at the springs, the dominate wildlife on display was several hundred teenagers on a field trip. The cacophony they created was a great incentive for us to quickly hop on a boat for a tour of the Wakulla River, which is created by the 400,000 gallons of water flowing out of the spring every minute. It was a fantastic decision because that beautiful boat ride ranks as one of the greatest outdoor experiences of my life!

The Wakulla River

The river flows through a magnificent landscape of tall cypresses draped with long gray streamers of Spanish moss. The shores are dense with brush and the shallow river is dotted with swaths of pickerel weed and bullrushes. Ibises, anhingas, and egrets abound, as do turtles, common moorhens, and alligators. The very best part of all, however, was the manatees. During my previous years in Florida, the only manatees I saw were those in an aquarium, so seeing them in the wild was such a treat. We must have seen about a dozen of them, including a mother and baby. I was absolutely thrilled when one surfaced right next to where I was sitting in the boat, allowing me to snap several clear photographs! By the time the hour-long trip was over, the buses carrying the hundreds of rowdy teens were pulling away and my opinion of Florida had been vastly improved by the beautiful scenery of the Wakulla River.

Wakulla River views.

An ibis.

A female anhinga.

A close encounter with a manatee.

A small alligator shares a sunning spot with four red-belled turtles.

A larger alligator swimming in the river.

The wedding guest.
I encountered my friend in the lobby of the 1937 lodge on the park grounds where the wedding was to be held, but he was deep in preparations for the wedding and I opted not to take up much of his time. I intended to go to the informal party being held that night, but ended up needing to rest after my first day of walking and the effects of so much scenery. The next morning I dolled myself up for the wedding and headed back to the lodge. It turned out the only person I knew well other than the groom was another one of my former roommates, so I felt a bit awkward. I went to a very small school, so I knew most of the guests by sight and remembered many of their names, but I didn't personally know most of them, especially since they were almost all a year or two behind me. (The groom, also a year behind me, was my roommate my senior year and made friends with most of the guests from our college who were present, as well as the bride, after I graduated.) I also found that while I was able to get around without crutches, my legs were so weak from five and a half weeks of minimal use that I kept having to sit down. But at least I looked fabulous! I also did a great job chatting with the people at my table once we'd sat down for a meal, but ultimately had to leave before the wedding was over. That said, I was there for eight hours! I had only expected to make it through two or three, so this was a triumph.

Egrets wading in a pond in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

Heavy rain falling
on the refuge.
All of the other guests departed the next day, but we had scheduled an extra day in the Wakulla area in case I needed to rest up after the wedding. I arranged to see the groom later in the afternoon and then my father and I set off for the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, comprised of 68,000 acres spread across three counties along the Gulf of Mexico, and only a few miles south of Wakulla Springs. It's a vast system of pine and hardwood hammocks, wetlands, ponds, and estuaries that have been set aside as wintering habitat for migrating birds. Our arrival coincided with that of a heavy downpour, but after a bit of waiting, it moved on and we slowly drove out to the St. Marks lighthouse, stopping now and then so I could photograph various birds and butterflies. The sun was shining--rather thinly--over the choppy, silvery Gulf when we reached the end of the road at the lighthouse. I was thrilled, when looking up into a pine tree next to the lighthouse, to spot an osprey sitting on a branch just above me! I took dozens of photographs and was immensely pleased to have found myself in such close quarters with one of my favorite birds of prey. On our drive back toward the visitor's center, I spotted an even more exciting photographic opportunity: a softshell turtle! I'd never seen such a weird-looking face on a turtle and was delighted that it tolerated my presence as it basked on the road, allowing me to get some extreme close-ups. I also saw a snake sunning on the road as we were driving, but unlike the turtle, it didn't stick around to get its picture taken. Then we took a little walk near the visitor's center where baby alligators had been sighted the day before, but we spotted nary a baby gator. I did get to photograph a colorful grasshopper, though. I was well pleased with my nature photography successes as we went back to the lodge at Wakulla Springs so I could spend a little time with my friend.

A colorful Gulf fritillary.

The St. Marks lighthouse.

An osprey overhead.

A bizarre-looking Florida softshell turtle!

A large and brightly-colored grasshopper.

Here I am with the happy couple.
I was glad to spy him in the lobby and we were able to engage in pleasant conversation for an hour or so, just the kind of talking that we used to do back when we were roommates, the sort that had endeared him to me all those years ago. I was so glad to have a chance to spend some time with him outside the rather stressful setting of the wedding. After my father snapped a photo of me with my friend and his new wife, it was back to the hotel to get some rest ahead of the next day's drive back to Orlando, once again through Gainesville.

We rolled back into Gainesville in the early afternoon with two items on the agenda: to hang out again with my friends and their new baby and also to meet some dogs I met on the internet.

Bug and Pug share some love.
Yes, dogs. Of course, anyone who knows me at all knows that I love dogs and it should be no surprise that I follow quite a few dog rescues and "dogs" on Facebook. One of the pages that makes me laugh the most is the one belonging to Sarge Wolf-Stringer. Sarge himself is now deceased, but I find the antics of the remaining members of his pack, and especially those of elderly Mary Todd Lincoln the Pug and her young boy-toy Junior "Bug" the Pit Bull, to be highly entertaining. Their family had recently moved to Gainesville and I'd sent them a message asking if I could meet the dogs while I was in town, figuring it to be a long shot. But they said yes! So on the first of October, I found myself in the company of their six friendly dogs, distributing petting and being enthusiastically licked in return. It was fun to meet them in the flesh, though they seemed SMALLER in person than they are in their photos and I was reminded that the personalities they assume in cyberspace are, in fact, largely invented by their owners, not that I couldn't project them back on the dogs! It was a lot of fun and a great example of how the internet (and Facebook) can help strangers find common ground and meet, then, in person. I wasn't able to take as many good photos as I would have like (the dogs were far too wiggly!), but I certainly carried away some wonderful memories.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Martha Washington were nearly as happy to see me as I was happy to see them!

Dark clouds and rain move across Paynes Prairie
I should also mention that some scheduling conflicts with squeezing in both the dogs and my friends arose, so my father and I found ourselves with about an hour and a half of spare time. We opted to drive out to Paynes Prairie so I could take more photos of Florida plants and animals, though we once again encountered a Floridian downpour of the sort that makes driving nearly impossible. But like most Floridian downpours, it eventually moved on and we were able to take a walk out onto a viewing platform. We didn't see any alligators, as we had hoped, but the rain ended up giving me the opportunity to photograph dragonflies. With an abundance of mosquitoes and other flying insects to feed on, dragonflies are all over the place in Florida, but they move so quickly and are so easily startled that it was impossible to get a picture of one. As it so happened, the dragonflies needed to stop and sit and dry their wings out after the heavy rain and one opted to do so on the railing of the viewing platform where I was standing. I carefully moved my camera closer and closer, taking picture after picture, knowing it might fly away at any moment, but it never budged! I was able to photograph a few other dragonflies pausing to dry their wings, too, though none nearly as close. I was also extremely excited to spot a pair of yellow garden orbweavers. In my mind, "garden" implies a certain smaller domestic scale as well as an indication of habitat, but these spiders were enormous. The body of the larger was about the size of my thumb! I personally think "huge dramatically-colored orbweavers" would be a better name, though they were surprisingly camouflaged; I'm sure many people walk past without seeing them. I was glad to add their photos to the great shots of a banana spider I'd taken up at Wakulla Springs.

I couldn't believe my luck when this dragonfly remained still long enough for me to photograph it!

The innocently named "yellow garden orbweaver."
It is bigger in real life than it appears on your screen!

And then it was time to see the baby again, now at home and five days old! It also gave me an opportunity to converse more closely with my friends, though make no mistake, I made sure I got to hold their infant again! It was such a pleasure to sit in the pretty sunroom of their apartment, cradling a baby, and having pleasant conversation with longtime friends! It was evening when my father and I finally got on the road again, heading south to Orlando. We were followed into town by yet another downpour, but Florida without storms wouldn't be Florida!

Babies are cool.

Especially this baby.

Baby feet!

Heavy rain in Orlando.

Our plane bound for Seattle didn't depart until evening, so my father and I decided to use our final day in Florida to drive over to the Atlantic coast. We thought about visiting the Kennedy Space Center, but ultimately decided it would be too much walking for me. Instead, we opted to see the ocean and found ourselves in Cocoa Beach. I was surprised by how glad I was to see "my" kind of Florida. Cocoa Beach may be an Atlantic surfer town and Sarasota a artsy/wealthy-retiree Gulf town, but they share the same plants, the same pastel hues, and same cheerful brightness to the light. I hadn't thought I missed Sarasota at all, but I guess part of me HAD developed a fondness for the landscape. But what I really wanted to see was the water, so after passing the Ron Jon surf shop that had been advertised on billboards our entire route, we parked at the end of a side street and made our way over the small dunes and onto the beach.

Yours truly enjoying
the beach.
Boy, was it ever lovely! I love the ocean and of course couldn't resist wading in the water. It was incredibly warm, probably close to eighty degrees. It was the kind of water you could have lingered in all day. I was rather sorry we only had fifteen minutes to spend there. It did my soul a great deal of good to stand on the white sand with warm water swirling around my ankles, gazing out at the blue ocean and the white foam of the breaking waves even for just those few minutes. It was with a light heart that I followed my father back to our car. After lunching on some excellent Thai food (why is Thai food in Florida so good? and furthermore, why was all the Thai food I ever tried in Chicago so mediocre?), we headed inland, back to Orlando, to the miles of chain stores, and toward looming storms. Once we reached the airport, I changed out of my shorts into a pair of soft pants for the plane, but I liked knowing that I carried on my legs the sand and salt of one coast as I journeyed to another.

Cocoa Beach.

Laughing gulls taking it easy.

Warm surf.

All in all, I was gone for eight days, traveled 1,010 miles by car, traveled more than 5,000 miles by plane, and took 927 photos. I saw some of my closest friends from college, encountered wild manatees, finally ate at Waffle House, photographed a softshell turtle, and met my first newborn baby. I discovered I could once again walk without crutches and I could fly on an airplane without too much misery. In other words, the trip was amazing.

A flock of ibises flying over the wetlands in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

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