Florida: Catching our breath and staying a while
I never thought much about Florida. The only times I have ever been to Florida was when we took the kids to Disney World and on my way back from the Bahamas a few years ago. After a week of yoga training at the Sivananda Ashram in Nassau, Sam and I spent one day touring around Ft. Lauderdale. I loved the beach, especially the soft white sand and the easy roll of the waves across my bare feet. On that day I ate at Bubba Gump’s for the first time. Other than that, Florida was a vast empty space in my head.
This is an appropriate way to end our 2014 trip across the country. We’re in an RV, and lots of people who live in RV’s go to Florida for the winter. You can’t beat the weather. When the rest of the country is digging out of snow and sloshing around in rain, Florida seems to be in a permanent bubble of sunshine and nice temperatures. Staying a while in Florida made sense. Plus, how can I say I grew up on the east coast with any dignity when I have never really explored Florida? I figured it was about time.
We drove into Florida after spending five days in New Orleans. Between there and here, we went through the bottoms of Mississippi and Alabama before entering the Florida panhandle. The landscape had begun to look familiar to me as soon as we entered Mississippi—marsh, creeks, pines, oaks, long, slender white birds—and the air had begun to smell like what I had grown up with—heavy, salty, primitive mud smells. I could feel myself relax. Suddenly, people drove more slowly, as if they really didn’t have to get anywhere anytime soon. And they talked more slowly, and, most likely, thought more slowly. I’m sure they didn’t realize they were in a constant Buddha state, but I did and I clapped a silent applause for the irony of it all.
So Florida was familiar even though I had never really been there. It’s like meeting a new friend who you know you knew before, but also know you couldn’t have known because you’ve never met. In any case, Florida woke me up. I met my old self again and left Interstate 10 behind.
I’ve already written about this next part, but thought a recap might be good since it’s been a while since my last real post…
We had planned to stay in Pensacola for just one night. No real reason to explore, plus we had just played tourists in Nwaulins and that was quite enough for a while. Pensacola is one of those places I had heard about but didn’t really know what to expect. It is the westernmost town on the Florida panhandle. All along the highway there were palm trees and oak trees mixed in together with white sand beneath them. I could smell the ocean finally and I saw signs that Pensacola had “the best” beaches just down the road a bit.
But, unfortunately for us, we arrived during a crippling ice storm. (One of many this year as it turned out.) For three days the whole gulf coast was trapped in an unusual cold weather system that blew in from the west and ground everything to a sudden halt. Highway 10 was shut down because the authorities knew that they didn’t know how else to deal with such an anomaly. It never snowed. It just dumped ice, and the roads became one long thick sheet of frozen accident waiting to happen. The day before it hit we heard some locals joking about the “big storm” and how they would just wait and see. I guess after the parade of hurricanes the last few years, they have a right to wait and see. However, we were cautious enough to just sit still and wait for it to blow over. So, one night turned into three nights, but we were glad to be safe and not stranded. Pensacola is still a bit of a mystery to me even though I spent four days there. Maybe next time I’ll make it to one of those beaches.
The next Florida town we went to was Tallahassee. It was an overnighter in a place called Big Oak RV Park. We weren’t the only ones driving east after being stuck in the ice. The woman at the park office seemed completely overwhelmed by the numbers of people wanting to stay the night. I counted three RV’s in line when I got there. Apparently she’s not used to so many at once. The weather felt more seasonable: 40’s at night and 60’s during the day. But the big story there was the oak trees. And the Spanish moss. I started to feel at home again. I had to take pictures. I just had to.
Tallahassee is the capital of Florida, and if we had had more time we would’ve looked around a little more. Again, maybe next time. One more stop before Orlando…then what? Well, you never know what you will find around the next corner now do you?
Next, we stayed at a cute little Thousand Trails in a town called Wildwood. Now this place left an indelible mark. Really, Wildwood was pretty non-descript, but all along the way we kept seeing signs that said, “The Villages.” We figured it was one of those new shopping malls surrounded by condos and gas stations and grocery stores and restaurants. Well, it was, but it was more like a hundred of them all spread out across eighty square miles. Each little community had a golf course circled by medium sized houses with large screened in porches and little paved roads for the golf carts. There were as many golf carts as cars, and they meant serious business.
We had breakfast at a place called “SonRise Café,” where they are known for their fresh, healthy foods. People were pouring in from church, mostly older folks, but they were all dressed in their Sunday best. And oddly, they all seemed to look the same: men in starched cotton shirts with creases down the front of their khaki pants, women with short, salon styled hair and smart outfits with just enough bling to say they still feel worth it. Of course, they all had perfect tans and teeth. I wondered about peer pressure among today’s grandparents…maybe a topic for a later blog post?
We sat next to an older man with his two daughters who were from New Jersey. They were all very chatty and offered a lot of information. There are indeed about 2500 golf carts in this little town of “The Villages.” From one end to the other it is 14 miles long. People in golf carts really do think they own the place, according to the older gentleman. They don’t use blinkers or hand signals and they take up all the good parking places. He seemed bitter. I asked him if he liked living here and he said it was his wife’s idea…and then he trailed off to somewhere else where I wasn’t invited. I guessed he and his wife lived here a while, then she died and now he’s stuck. His daughters seemed oblivious to his grief, but I didn’t pass judgment since I was just guessing after all.
After breakfast, we drove around and I started to get inspired again for the first time in a long time. No longer are retired people simply tired. They are active, sometimes more active than when they actually worked. I see it every day: people playing tennis, riding bikes, swimming, hanging out, really enjoying their “golden years.”
I realized that I could live in a place like this: dominated by “active adults,” surrounded by swimming pools and golf courses, and clean shopping centers and restaurants, just down the street from anywhere. I saw my future again, teaching yoga, tai chi and meditation to people who could have easily been my parents. And working with people who already know themselves and aren’t afraid to look a little deeper is a gift to any teacher.
Just like the oak trees and the smell of the ocean, this knowledge of what I need to do settled into me and opened my eyes again. This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for….Now all I need to do is find a way to make it happen.
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