From Here to Florida and Back

Last weekend I took a road trip to Jacksonville, Florida (driving time: 8 hours) to spend a few days with my Dad, who moved there earlier this year. The purpose of the trip was many fold: to see family, to take some time off work, to see part of Florida that I had never seen, and also just to have a few days of relative quiet, a break from the hubbub of day-to-day life.

Our family lived in Tampa for two years when I was about ten years old, and much of my Mom’s family lives in the Orlando area, so I have a history with the state of Florida. That said, I don’t have any particular fondness for the state: it’s hot and humid, there are only three seasons (“early summer”, “dear god I am going to die”, and “late summer”), and so much of the state seems, well, artificial.

It’s tough to explain what I mean. When I drive through rural North Carolina, particularly the central and western parts of the state, I pass through series of individual towns and villages, each one with its own character, and each one usually containing a town center with a distinct history. In Florida, each town is indistinguishable from the other (often, it feels like there’s really one city in Florida, just with parts that are more and less dense), and no building that predates 1950, which the exception of certain parts like St. Augustine. In fact, most of rural Florida seems to be frozen in the 1950s, and I can’t help but wonder if most of the people who live there commute to the coastal cities and spend their days selling T-shirts to sunburned tourists and rich elderly retirees.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. But on this most recent trip, these impressions were reinforced when my Dad and I took a day to drive inland along the St. Johns River, to see what we could see. Dad had recently read a book overflowing with ornate language about the beauty and history of the river, and we were excited to explore and see what there was to see. The St. Johns is a massive river, up to three miles wide in places, fed by numerous springs along its length which are in turn fed by the massive underground Floridan Aquifer.

We found one such spring in a little green cove in a town creatively named Green Cove Springs. It flows at a rate of something like 1500 gallons a minute, which sounds impressive until you read the guidebook and discover that it’s less than half of what the rate was when the area was first settled. (Humans, it seems, are taking a toll on the Aquifer.) The water flowed about a hundred feet along a clear, peaceful creek that smelled strongly of natural sulfur, then emptied into the massive river.

Our goal for the day was the town of Welaka, about eighty or ninety miles south of Jacksonville. The guidebook described it as being located on a high bluff which overlooked the river, but when we got there there no evidence of a bluff, except for one place we could see where the ground rose maybe ten feet as it gradually sloped upward away from the river. I suppose ten feet is what counts for a high bluff around here– heck, the highest point in the entire state of Florida is only 345 feet above sea level. Even here, well away from the coast, the river was still a good half-mile wide, and amidst the 1950s architecture and mobile homes were plenty of decaying boats, sitting in old, rusty, broken-down boat docks that had apparently not been visited by humans since Ronald Reagan was president.

Feeling a bit let down, we drove back along the coast road, and consoled ourselves by staring at the miles upon miles of multi-million dollar mansions, immaculately kept but somehow even more devoid of personality that the miles upon miles of identical semi-rural towns that we had passed on the way down. Ah, the two sides of Florida.

Despite our underwhelming attempt at exploration, I still had a good trip. In the evening on the day I arrived, there was a cold snap, which meant the humidity faded and the temperatures were in the upper 70s for the most of the time I was there– perfect weather. I walked along the beach, dipped my feet in the still-cold Atlantic Ocean, had a few days of quiet time, and got to meet my stepsister and her husband, both of whom were great. So all in all, a good trip. I’m even the sort of weird person who can enjoy an 8-hour drive, as long as I have plenty of music and podcasts. But sorry, Florida, I’m still not a fan.