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Excerpts of Florida Travel Diary
State 45 - FLORIDA 27 MAR 00 - 31 MAR 00


Lower the Volume

We're in Tallahassee today on a beautiful springlike Saturday morning. After touring both the old and the new State Capitols we pass Park Lane where a Farmer's Market and Crafts show is in progress. I need some fresh tomatoes, so we walk on over. My foot is barely on the walkway when, as if reading my mind, a man from the first booth yells to me to buy some of his tomatoes. "Got some tomatoes, here," he yells, holding them up. "Great big tomatoes. Great-tasting, too." He loudly broadcasts. The man is a bona fide salesman, his voice booms. He hooks me and won't let me go, slapping the tomatoes in my hand. Since I want tomatoes, and he's right here, I buy them. But a few steps later I see a quiet farmer sitting in his booth. Not yelling, not collaring people, just smiling pleasantly at people who walk by. Clearly, he's a farmer, not a salesman. His tomatoes are better looking and better priced. And I wince with self-reproach that once again I fell victim to a pushy salesman. I overpaid for lower quality goods from a guy who elbowed his way to the Number One booth and is able to grab people, sell people, before the quiet farmer,in Booth Number Two can ever get a chance. I scold myself because, in my effort to lower the volume in my life, I had made a vow never to do business with loud, pushy people. I want to fill my life with good people, and to do business with people I like. People who look after their souls. Quiet people. Kind people. Admittedly, I failed this time. Once again I let myself be snared in a quick-talking sales spiel. It's only tomatoes, I know, and only a few bucks, it's true, but I hope I've learned to never let someone "sell"me again.

Fountain of Youth

Dawn this morning finds us exploring St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf. Oh! What wild, untamed beauty! Palm trees, bays, canals, flowers, and oh, so many exotic birds. If not for the gnats and alligators, it would be heaven. We embark on a 1-1/2 mile hike that covers all different types of Florida terrain -- woods of live oaks and thick palms, saltwater marshes, freshwater marshes, bays, and canals. One minute you feel like you're in a jungle, the next you feel you're at the end of the earth and about to fall into a pool of eternity. This is a dramatic escape from day-to-day reality. After delighting in St. Marks and visiting it's wildlife museum we leave the area and stop off at Wakulla Springs on the way home. Supposedly these springs are what Ponce de Leon thought to be the Fountain of Youth. It's late afternoon when we arrive so we plan to just walk around, peer into the mystical depth of the water, and go home. We have our swimsuits on hand so we can take a dip in the Fountain of Youth and wash away our wrinkles, but now that we are here we chicken out. It's too cold to plunge in. The water is a perpetual sixty-eight degrees, but I don't want to go in because the air is cool and breezy, and it's too soon in the season for me to bare-down into a swimsuit. After all, it's still March, and where I come from that's midwinter. I feel a tinge of remorse, and a bit of self-reproach at lacking the courage to jump in. But we're both so tired and hungry, we just want to get some supper and rest. On the ride home Ken and I scorn ourselves for not going in the water. "I'm going back tomorrow, and jumping in," Ken resolutely announces. "I can't believe we didn't do it. What wimps! When will we ever get the chance again? Remember, this ain't no dress rehearsal." I agree with him, but not enough to revisit on another day. Yeah, too bad, but so what? Life goes on. No repeats. There's too much more to see. let's move on.

When we return to the trailer I telephone Mums. "Hey! Guess where we were today?" I trumpet. "The Fountain Youth!" I tell Mums all about Wakulla Springs. "Oh, my, really?" She gasps in just the right amount of awe that only mothers can generate. A genuine interest that friends cannot duplicate. "Did you jump in?" She innocently asks. (Ouch. I feel a pinch of guilt) "No. Too cold." I confess. "What! Too cold?" She bridles. "Too cold!" She insists. "My God! I'd get this old body in the Fountain of Youth if I had to CHOP through ICE to get in! I can't believe you didn't go in." Shamefully, I promise Mum that I'll return tomorrow with Ken and jump in -- no matter what.

Cap'n Crunch

At Wakulla Springs again. We decide to explore the grounds further. There's a 1930s hotel still standing, operated by the State Park as a hotel. It's designed in a Spanish Villa style and quite romantic. We walk around the lobby and pretend it's the 1930s, which is easy to do because it appears the place hasn't been modernized at all. I keep expecting a Sidney Greenstreet character or Bogie to stroll in.The richness of the 30s lifestyle permeates every room. Even the air smells 1930s. We leave the hotel and explore the park grounds, paying particular attention to the Fountain of Youth launch pad. Apparently the State Park actually encourages visitors to jump into this indigo abyss, for they have erected a two-story diving platform that taunts and dares everyone to jump in. From the sidelines we watch fearless children take the plunge. I tell myself that they are fearless only because they don't understand the full consequences of their joyful leaps. In a few years they will be more cautious, as we are, I rationalize my cowardice and call it wisdom. For now, we postpone elbowing our way into the crowd of kids to take the plunge, and decide instead to take the boat tour.

The park offers two boat trips: The Jungle Tour and the Glass Bottom Boat Tour. Ken does the Glass Bottom Boat Tour but I decline. I guess I could have gone, but from shore, I heard the tourguide singiing songs and encouraging sing-a-longs from the crowd, while he tries to entertain the group with corny jokes. Normally I can handle it, but from the beach I can hear his spiel and he simply tries too hard to be funny, like guests on the Jay Leno show. When people try too hard to be funny, I get uncomfortable. I become embarrassed for them. I squirm in my seat. I'm awkward. I want them to shut up. It's the eagerness to please that bothers me. Ken thinks me foolih and goes on the sing-along- glass-bottom-boat while I wait safely onshore. Ah, here he comes now. He tells me that I didn't miss much, just the big limestone edge of the huge hole that leads to the 250-foot spring, the "Fountain of Youth." I also missed seeing some mammoth bones, I'm told. But I've seen mammoth bones up close and all assembled, so it's no big deal to see them through the distorted waves, sprawled out all helter skelter. It was worth missing that view to be spared the singing and joking.

Now we'll do the Jungle Tour together. On board we find that "Cap'n Crunch" is our tourguide. According to him, "that's what they call me, cuz I never can maneuver this darned boat very well." --Bump-- "Oops. See? Whad I tell ya?" Cap'n Crunch is funny, without trying. "You know, folks," he begins, "I just love my job. Every morning, why, I wake up and I say to myself, 'How can I make the tour better today for the folks coming to see the gators? Well, today, I got out of bed with a great idea. Yessir. A great idea. To add to your enjoyment, I'm going to let a volunteer get off the boat and wrestle a gator. How bout that? (Pause) Any volunteers?" He looks over the sea of of the upturned faces. "Anybody want to wrestle an alligator?" A boy nudges his father to volunteer. The father cringes. As I write this it sounds corny, but I guess it's all in the delivery. Cap'n Crunch continues, "Up above, ladies and gentlemen, you'll see some buzzards. LOOK ALIVE! C'mon folks, you wanna look ALIVE when those creeps fly overhead. I tell ya, this is NOT the time to nap." Cap'n Crunch is confident in his joking. He adlibs. He teases and jokes with the crowd and pokes fun of himself, too. Hard to explain, but I find myself frequently laughing out loud as he points out wildlife and tells stories about his own personal encounters with each of the species. We see grand sights, such as blue heron, elegant white ibis, tons of lazy, drifting alligators -- even baby alligators -- snakes, fish, and some awfully strange birds with tufts and beards and whiskers. A complete magic show for only four dollars and fifty cents. Just wonderful. Then, as we pass the diving platform into the Fountain of Youth, Cap'n Crunch admits that he's been working here 15 years and he hasn't jumped in yet. "Wha! Jump in!" He says with his nose pinched. "You think I'm crazy or sumthin?" Quietly, I rethink our plans of jumping in later. We had planned to take the plunge after the boat tour, but if Cap'n Crunch won't do it, after 15 years, there must be a good reason. Perhaps I won't jump in after all. Suddenly I visualize the next phone call to Mum and I brace myself. I'd rather jump in the water than confess, once again to her, that I chickened out. So we go to the bathhouse and I reluctantly put my swimsuit on. The sun is going down casting long shadows over the water. (Great. Now I won't even have the sun to warm me.) Little kids are jumping gleefully from the second story platform. We walk to the platform and watch the blissfully ignorant children. Ken takes a few photos of the daredevils before he announces he's next. The plan is for me to situate myself on the lower level to get a shot of him coming down from the upper diving platform. First he makes me practice taking photos of strangers to make sure I can handle the assignment as he's only going to do this once. There are to be no retakes. It must be perfect the first time. After some pointers, more practice shots, Ken feels confident that I will properly document the occasion. Up he goes. I brace myself against a pole to make sure I don't shake the camera. Down he comes . . . SPLASH! Snap! I've got him. I'm sure of it. But my excitement is clouded by my impending doom. For now it's my turn to jump. O! dread upon dread. The moment is here. Ken looks at me expectantly. From the beach a father calls to his son to come in, "Billy. C'mon! They're closing the park." I look at Ken incredulously. It can't be. It's too soon. They're supposed to close at sunset. It's only six o'clock. I'm not ready to jump, but it's now or never. Just then the uniformed Cap'n Crunch approaches us in his official capacity. "The park is closing," he says. "But I haven't jumped in yet," I whimper. "I'm still trying to work up my courage." Cap'n Crunch stops in his tracks, says, "Oh. Okay. Go ahead. I'll wait." Oh, that's just peachy. Now I've got an audience standing there watching, waiting for me to jump so he can close the park and go home. He's standing behind me. Hovering. "Don't push me," I warn. Cap'n assures me he has no intention of pushing me. But why is he standing so close? "Don't worry. I'm not going t push you in," he assures me. To prove it, he leans against a pole, folds his arms, crosses his legs, looks at Ken and winks. "Go on," he grins. Ken urges me to jump as he holds the camera ready. "Jump!" he yells. "Jump?" Cap'n Crunch echoes. I walk to the edge of the platform. Peer down into the clear, bottomless blue water. I walk back. No. I'm not going to do it. Let's go home. "C'mon, jump." Cap'n Crunch cries. Just then I remember something. "Wait a minute," I challenge, "You've been here 15 years and you haven't jumped yet!" He laughs. "Yeah, but I have 15 more years to make up my mind. You've got 15 seconds." That's it. I can't take the pressure any more. I take a few steps back, start running, hold my nose and ---whoosh -- I'm airborne. Everything is moving in slow motion. I feel like I'm frozen in the air for 10 full seconds. Then, BOOM! The break of ice cold water hits my backside. I unleash a piercing scream before I'm silenced underwater and sinking endlessly into the blue abyss. "Oh, no." I worry. "I'm never going to resurface. Can Ken save me if I sink down with the mammoth bones?" It feels as if I'm underwater for hours. "Oh, when, when will I breathe air again?" When will this be over? Dozens of different shades of Blue surrounds me, until -- POOF. Up I go. Here I am. I see the sky. I see Ken smiling. "I've done it and it's all on film!" Cap'n Crunch is laughing. "Okay. You ready to go now so I can have my supper?" Ken and I walk off into the sunset, dripping wet, happy. And, yes, youthful.

Smiling Eyes

Pack up our afternoon tea today and go off to explore the Goodwood Plantation in Tallahassee. It's a gorgeous afternoon, sometimes bright, sometimes dark clouds play across the sky, creating an ever-changing mood across the lawn of this beautiful 1841 plantation. The place seems deserted. Not a single car in the visitor parking lot. We walk around and come upon the Reflecting Pool, covered in slime, "reflecting" years of neglect and disrepair. The place seems half-alive. Some areas seem well-tended, others appear in a state of pathetic neglect. We walk around the grounds into the rose garden and around the beautiful, expansive lawn with its six live oak trees strategically placed to provide constant shade, but also allowing enough sun to create a cool tranquility, without seeming dark and gloomy.The sun touches certain areas of the lawn and garden, like strands of heavenly gold through the tresses of earthly trees. Ken wants to explore further, but I want to pay our entrance fee first so I can feel legitimate. "I'm not sure it's open." I warn, tugging at Ken's elbow. "I think we're trespassing." I say as I glance over my shoulder for a security guard. Ken stops, looks around impatiently. "Well, as long as we're here, let's explore until they throw us out." This, I cannot do. But Ken keeps walking and I keep up with him, looking over my shoulder for some authority to tap us and boot us out. I can't enjoy the garden because I feel like a trespasser. Like I'm stealing the view that others pay a price to see. "Where do you want to have tea?" Ken asks. "How about over there." He continues, pointing to two white Adirondack chairs with a table between them. Our original goal was to have our tea here but I want to leave, now, of my own free will. I don't want to be asked to leave. Ken thinks I'm silly, but agrees to leave and have tea at a nearby park instead. I'm relieved to be walking back to the truck. Just as we're about to make our escape, a car pulls up and a man with silver hair gets out. "Are you here to tour the plantation? he chirps happily, without any tone of scolding in his voice. When we reply that we would, indeed, like to tour the place, he says, "You're free to look around as long as you want, but would you please lock the gate when you leave." Ken shoots me an "I-Told-You So" look. We ask this gentleman about the place and he explains that the state only recently obtained the property and is in the process of restoring it. It will be open next week. This man captivates me. His eyes, a deep blue-jay blue, sparkle with life and merriment. They seem to dance with joy, love and laughter. A philosopher once said "the eyes are the windows of the soul." If this is true, this man is a jolly old soul. Meeting people like him doesn't happen often. He exudes warmth, kindness, acceptance. I want to be like that. I want my eyes to sparkle with love for every stranger I meet, just as his eyes sparkle as he talks to us, perfect strangers who happen to be trespassing on land he's working hard to restore. What a guy! And what a lesson for me. A smile. A truly friendly, loving manner adds so much to the world. I pray to God that I adopt this behavior to my fellow man. But can I change my whole personality, for I am innately melancholy. Psychologists say it can't be done. One can't change one's personality, one can only modify it. Well, modifications begin today.

Safe with Ruby

Ken wants to go back to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge to shoot some evening scenes of this wildly beautiful landscape. But I figure if the bugs are bad in the morning, as they were the last time we were here, they must be really thick and menacing in the evening. Nevertheless I agree to go as long on the conditin that I wait in the truck safe within the closed doors and windows of Ruby's interior. We drive into the area just as the sun dips to make room for the moon. Again I'm startled at the raw beauty of this place. It's emptiness. Its unusual sounds. Ken finds a place to park near a canal. He positions Ruby to give me a good view while I read my Herman Hesse philosophy book. A quick kiss goodbye and he's off. Tripod slung over he shoulder, camera bag tied at his hip, I watch him walk off into the dark sunset before I open my book.

"Patience is the only thing worth learning. And it's the most difficult thing to learn," are the first words I read. So true. I close the book and reflect on this. For about 10 minutes I think about Patience. Will I ever be a patient person? I daydream for a while then pick up the book again." but stop and look out the window for a moment to contemplate his words. Just then I see a cat. A cat? What in the world is a cat doing out here? I mean this place is really wild. Really lonely. Really expansive. There isn't a house or resident area for at least 7 miles. What is a cat doing here? Puzzled, I stare at her. She stares back. Our eyes lock on each other. Oh-oh. Wait a minute, I suddenly realize. That's no cat! It's too big for a cat. What the heck is it? The feline never takes her eyes off me. Slowly,craftily she starts walking toward me. We both stare at each other intently. I now recall an illustration at the Visitor Center of the types of wildlife here. I recall this cat's mug shot. Why she's a Jaguarundi That's what she is! But what is she going to do I wonder. She's out of my view, now, somewhere in front of the truck, I sense, in my blind spot. Oh God I hope she doesn't suddenly leap on the hood and start clawing at the windshield like some kind of Jurassic Park movie scene. It's silent. No movement. Where did that creepy cat go? Ah! Here she is. I spy her as she crawls out from under the truck and now sits on the ground in front of the passenger's side. She just sits and stares at me. Five minutes of silent staring. And I get a good look at her whiskered face, and pale green eyes. Then, as if cats could shrug their shoulders, she shoots me a look of disgustful boredom and in a cat-version of shrugging her shoulders, she marches off to greener pastures. Gracefully she walks away, then stops in her tracks, turns her head around and stares at me again, as if to say, "Lucky for you, you've got Ruby to protect you, lady. Or I'd be at your throat." Then she dashes off in pursuit of some other prey. Her quick, agile legs take her out of view in no time flat. Now that I'm safe, I worry about Ken. I know how engrossed he gets when shooting photos. A sorry vision of him bent over his tripod, engaged in capturing a scene, comes to my mind. In the bushes a Jaguarundi awaits, crouched and ready to pounce on the poor innocent Ken. It's getting dark. Isn't that when all the vicious creatures come out? Isn't' that when alligators stop acting like floating logs and begin attacking? There is no more sunlight. Why is Ken still out there? What can he possibly be shooting? Oh I do wish he'd return. I study the horizon looking for his body. Where is he? Oh, do hurry back, Ken. A shadow is moving out in the distance. Is that Ken or a predator? I squint. Yes, I do believe I see a tripod. Yes. It's Ken. He's here at last. "Hi." He says so happily, so innocently as he opens the door. "Get in here!" I scream panicking. "What?" He asks bewildered. I tell him my episode. "Wow." He says. "I wish I saw it."

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