I had never been to Florida when I moved here in June of 2008. I’d been to parts of the South–North and South Carolina beaches–but nowhere else. While I didn’t expect that all of Florida would look like a scene from Miami Vice, I did expect that it would look like Orlando. Orlando, with its big suburban sprawl, was how I pictured Florida to be. This assumption was made with the eye of a Californian, since that is how California was for me. California, for those who have not visited, can be one massive residential tract. Los Angeles is like that, and the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are fast becoming one. I’d looked for Orlando rentals while still living in California and the two places looked similar. I thought I had a good handle on Florida…until I crossed the state line.
I quickly learned that Gainesville had little for a downtown and that it served as a hub for a large rural area. Bit by bit, it dawned on me that Gainesville was the “real” Florida and Orlando was not. More of Florida was like Gainesville and its outlying rural or swampy tracts than was not. This was especially true in the North Central part of the state and in the Panhandle. The separation of “real” versus “not real” Florida became more than just “natural” versus “manmade.” It was a cultural distinction, an intellectual distinction, a sociological distinction, and an economic distinction. How you defined Florida depended on what you expected to get from it and whether you lived in it. Florida sold its oranges, its sunshine, and its beaches to the tourist industry long ago; later, it sold its man-made amusements. It did not sell its eye-popping vegetation, its fresh water, and its wildlife. Those became part of the “real” Florida, where most tourists–or at least generic tourism–didn’t venture.
I’ve long maintained that in order to appreciate the part of the state I live in, you have to get outside. This is especially true if you come from a large city and expect to find a similar array of diversions and ways to spend money on luxury items. This part of Florida is full of small towns that don’t look like much and are too small for a Publix, but around the corner from that pokey little local market may be a natural paradise full of bugs, reptiles, flowers, and birds, thriving in the acid-green of a Florida summer. Ravines, a crumbling park that is a fine example of WPA work, is enclosed on all sides by a rundown part of Palatka. Hontoon Island is another case in point: It’s little changed from prehistoric times, although some interesting logging industry scars remain on the trees. Hontoon Island is located near Deland, a visually unexciting place that happens to be located right by the spectacularly beautiful Blue Springs and the St. John’s River. Again, here was the “real” Florida that tourists presumably don’t see and the “real” Florida originally developed by Indians and in some instances hardly touched since that time.
There are amazing places all over Florida, many of them with the same type of inhospitable wildlife one would find in Australia and all the more “real” for the ability to encroach upon its territory. We saw little of peril on the Blue Heron River Tour, but this was largely because of the cold weather. That was fine; I am in danger of falling into the “seen one, seen ’em all” Florida alligator mentality. This mentality coexists with a “mine is bigger than yours” response from people who have walked the La Chua Trail in February.
Here are the remainder of my pictures from the St. John’s River tour.