Leafless oak trees and rolling hills gave way to flat, sandy pine forests as I headed south, eventually transitioning into palm trees until the road dead-ended into the endless blue expanse of the Gulf Coast. Florida! Panama City Beach! Of all the states I’d experienced so far, this one just has a certain feel to it. Perhaps it was a kind of imprinted familiarity; I was born not too far from Daytona Beach, although we had moved when I was very young. I stepped out into the warm coastal sunshine, inhaled a big breath of salty air, and couldn’t help the huge grin spreading across my face. This is the way to spend a winter.
Although I had practically grown up on the beach, splashing out among the waves almost before I could walk, the panhandle- Gulf Coast beaches were quite different from the Atlantic coasts I was used to. Due in part to quartz crystals eroded into microscopic bits that were flushed from the Appalachian mountains by rivers and creeks into the Gulf during the last Ice Age, the sand is so white and fine it’s like treading through flour. It even makes a satisfying squeaking sound as it sifts around under your feet. The ocean laps gently up on the brilliant white sand with waves reaching only a few inches if there’s no wind; a far cry from the roaring waves on the east coast I used to gleefully dive into to bodysurf as a young kid. Looking out at the brilliant blue water and swaying palm trees, I may as well have been on some Caribbean island.
Over the next few days I picked my way slowly down the Gulf coast, exploring every little isolated beach I could safely access without tromping through miles of forest or getting Turtle stuck in the sand. Whether it was the warm sunny weather, the extra Vitamin D, or just being near the ocean (a couple different studies have shown that being near water actually reduces physiological stress), I was so happy I almost couldn’t contain myself. I was in the tropics, had gigs speaking and planting trees with schools for the next four states on my list, and was running healthily again; after the rough Fall and Winter, I was glad that Green Footprints was finally gaining some traction.
(As I’m writing this, a common rhetorical technique comes to mind; building up a happy, positive picture in order to contrast some dark, unfortunate event that happens next. I’m happy to say that’s not what I’m doing, so if you’re sick of the unicorns and rainbows so far, buckle up 😊 )
I made my way down to Everglade City to meet up with an old friend and spent the next few nights in one of the coolest spots I’ve had the privilege to experience. Cody was working at the NC Outward Bound School’s Everglades base camp, which is located on Sunset Island, and is only accessible via a short canoe trip over from the mainland. Essentially a little clearing cut into the vast mangrove forests that have grown over enormous shell mounds left by ancient Native American tribes, the camp has a few cabins for the crew leaders, a common area, a dock, and enough outdoor gear to outfit a small army. Rather than feeling like an outsider, everyone at the Outward Bound base camp went out of their way to make me feel welcomed (and even gave me my own room!), and in no time I was helping with the general operations around the camp. The tiny island couldn’t have been more picturesque; every evening was marked by an unimpeded view of the sunset as it plummeted out of sight on the western horizon, everything painted by golden rays of light spilling through the slotted palm leaves. Each morning Cody and I would paddle over to the mainland and run through the seemingly endless forests and grassy prairies, oranges and grapefruits hanging from the canopy as we made our way through the tropical landscape. After an especially long run while icing our legs in the cool waters of an old abandoned rock quarry, we were greeted by a juvenile alligator that was curious enough to sidle over until he was only a few feet away, its tiny beady eyes peering just above the waterline. Only about two feet long, it just sat there, pondering these two strange featherless, flightless storks. It was pretty amazing to watch its ruthlessly efficient movement as it slithered through the water without leaving a single ripple in its wake; it’s no wonder they have been around essentially unchanged for nearly 200 million years. Probably best for both parties, it didn’t come any closer.
It was hard to say goodbye to the awesome group working on Sunset Island; huge thanks to the NC Outward Bound School for their hospitality! Continuing my way south, Turtle and I motored across the lower tip of the giant Florida peninsula and down the iconic Highway 1 through the Florida Keys. It’s a pretty interesting route, much different than anything I’ve ever traveled. Every few miles provide the opportunity to stop off at a state park with beautiful beaches and coral reefs, and each bridge crossing brings you to an entirely independent spit of land. Running parallel to the highway to the west lies the ruins of the old Florida Overseas Railroad, now broken through in many places and overgrown with trees and shrubs like something from a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Each Key had its own unique atmosphere: Key Largo a bustling, touristy city; Marathon Key a more laid-back, local-heavy beachfront; Key West a wild, booze-infused party. I met up with Daegel, a friendly local who lived right on one of the main drags down from Mallory Square, where the Sunset Serenade takes place every evening. It was cool to get a local’s perspective on the area, and even cooler when he helped me score a safe parking spot right off Greene Street. On my way out I woke up well before sunrise, heading groggily over to the Southernmost Point Buoy to beat the crowds for a photo of Turtle only 90 miles away from Cuba.
Making my way back to the mainland and up to Boynton Beach, I met with Mrs. Hess at the SouthTech Academy. The students were very engaged and inquisitive, firing off questions left and right after I did my presentation about Green Footprints, and were excited to get involved. We planted fifty Florida Slash Pines on the school grounds, the bushy seedling poking their bright green needles up from the sandy soil as some of the students diligently sprayed each tiny plot to moisten their roots and get them started in their new permanent homes.
My next stop was Cocoa Beach, a spot that, for me, that is brimming with nostalgia more than almost anywhere else in the world. I grew up as a kid visiting my grandparents in their condo, framed by the Atlantic to the east and the Banana River to the west, spending the days splashing around at the beach and the evenings watching the night lit up by the brilliant streaks of space shuttles launching from Cape Canaveral. On a whim I stopped in a local surf shop and rented a surfboard, something I had always wanted to learn to do. A few hours later I flopped down on the sand, gasping for breath but grinning from the effort. Surfing is hard! I spent most of the time getting pounded and flipped around as I tried to paddle out past the break, only once successfully popping up for a few brief moments of salty, frothy ecstasy as I rode the wave to shore (and promptly ate a facefull of sand). I have to say, Turtle looks pretty good with a surfboard fin protruding from the roof rack; kind of like a dorsal fin on a boxy metal shark.
Before leaving the sunny, tropical paradise, I had one more stop: a Volkswagen festival in Lakeland, Florida. I rolled into the event lot and was greeted by rows upon rows of Buses and Beetles as far as they eye could see. The whole spectrum of conditions were on display: rusted, barely-road-worthy Beetles to gleaming, immaculate Split-Window Buses proudly displaying the iconic VW emblem on the front nose. I ambled through a field full of enough miscellaneous parts and pieces that a full vehicle could have been built from scratch right there on the lawn. The community of people I’ve encountered directly as a result of owning this old, finicky, lovable bus have by and large been warm, welcoming and friendlier than I could have ever expected.
As your sustainability challenge for this week, I task you with picking something on your mental list of to-do’s that involves replacing or upgrading something in your home or office, and to instead fix it or make one of your own. Maybe you ‘need’ a new piece of furniture, or your jacket has a few holes in it, or you’d really like a new car so you can have those cool new Bluetooth enabled speakers. Rather than going and buying a new table, jacket or car, instead go to a thrift store or get some wood to make a table; learn to sew, get some fabric from an older piece of clothing and repair your jacket; and rig up your own stereo setup in your car. Send in your photos! We’d love to hear from you. And this week instead of going ‘Green’, you can join me in going Tar Heel baby blue to celebrate our NCAA NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP! Go Heels!