The Shadow of the Sunshine State

Hello friends and family!

I went swimming in a freshwater spring recently, so remote it was accessed by miles of dirt roads through a longleaf pine forest, followed by a half-mile hike into a swamp. It’s about 30 degrees here in Florida, with the sort of humidity that curls my hair and leaves a permanent film of moisture on all my possessions, so the idea of a watering hole was mouth-watering. In the swamp, foot-high cypress knees stood like wooden stalagmites in the black water, which bubbled with the breath of unseen organisms. The swamp opened to a pool of crystal-blue water, so clear I could see straight down into the mouth of the underwater cave that fed the spring from some deep aquifer. I floated in the cool water as a strange man practiced his free dives into the cave, panting like a hot husky every time he surfaced. When he left, my companion and I skinny-dipped as the sun came out from behind the clouds. It was as close to perfect as a Florida day can be.

Turquoise spring

On the way back to my van, a stout man spitting dip spit into a Dr. Pepper can walked next me and told me that just a few months ago two men had been scuba diving into the cave system when they both ran out of oxygen. One floated to the surface, dead. The other one’s body was found by a rescue team later that day. It chilled me to think that they’d died a few dozen feet below where I had doggy paddled across the pond, thrilling in how dark and deep it was.

That’s Florida for you: all sorts of beauty, but dangerous to enjoy. It turns out that there’s a shadow side to the Sunshine state.


This is, after all, the epicenter of those great American land scams that sold acres of uninhabitable swampland to thousands of people, enticed by promises of orange trees and oceanfront views. There’s the pitch, the shiny promotional brochure, and then there’s the reality of the mosquito-plagued, undrainable swamp. There’s the fantasy of a Disneyworld vacation, and then there’s two-hour lineups and overpriced Cokes and children crying in the oppressive heat. There’s a reason so many hucksters come from or end up in Florida – it’s an easy sell, and the bubble’s hard to burst. Hell, there are still people living in slow-sinking houses in the Everglades, and either they love humidity and alligators, or they’re unable to admit that they bought into a fantasy of Florida living. All that deep south, palm tree, tan lines, land of plenty bullshit. I don’t blame them, though, because I keep falling for it too.

An Everglades alligator

At a Cracker Barrel, an American chain restaurant with $10 steaks and cheesecake pancakes and a gift shop, the peppy waitress calls me honey. She calls me babe, baby, and gorgeous as she drops off plates of biscuits and gravy. It feels so authentic, like the kind of diner waitresses you see in movies set in rural Florida. I get to feeling pretty good about myself, little old gorgeous me, the sole object of her affection, and I get to feeling like she deserves a pretty hefty tip. When I go to the washroom, I pass by a man with no nose, the unnaturally flat plane of his face wrapped in bandages – what’s the story there? – and then I see the waitress, my waitress, approaching a rugged-looking Marine who’d been dining at the next table. In a low voice, she tells him that he is very handsome, and she couldn’t resist telling him. She reaches out to touch his shoulder. The sincerity of her voice in that moment makes all her honeys and sweethearts seem like words read off a script. I’m feeling a little less gorgeous now.

In a thousand ways, big and small, I’m being scammed as badly as a Midwesterner with a deed to a swampfront property. When the clouds roll through the Sunshine state, I can’t help but feel disappointed.

Like, the other day I went to a beautiful beach to hunt for the fossilized teeth of 10-million-year-old sharks. Incredible! And then a red tide washed in. Little silvery fish started leaping out of the water like suicidal jumpers, suffocating as the red-tinted algal bloom ate up all the oxygen in the water, and then the birds descended to feast, and then the edge of the bloom touched my feet and gave me a rash. Hey, that’s just Florida. Sometimes you have high hopes for a beach day and end up applying ointment to your feet in the parking lot. Sometimes you go to the beach to swim and end up leaving because a homeless guy starts chatting you up while wielding a huge axe (for firewood, he says, but I’m not taking any chances).

Everything in Florida wants to kill you: alligators in the swamps, pythons in the Everglades, feral hogs in the woods, plus what I can definitively declare to be the worst drivers in America, who change lanes with the jerkiness of a bronco rider. That’s not to mention the murderous weather. The heat alone is enough to kill anything left in a car with the windows rolled up. Many of the houses in coastal Florida are covered in blue tarps from the damage of Hurricane Ian, while the beach houses stand on high stilts to avoid flooding and storm surges.

Also these people seem dangerous

Florida is a bit of a nightmare in general, but especially for someone living the van life. There’s almost no public land, it’s dangerous to camp in the woods because it’s hunting season in a notoriously trigger-happy state, and the police are especially zealous in enforcing “no camping” ordinances. Campgrounds are expensive and Walmarts have banned boondockers. I’m pretty sick of sleeping illegally in parking lots, or paying $9 plus a non-negotiable $9 reservation fee just to lay my head in some miserable swamp.

But I’m still enjoying myself, despite the stickiness of my skin and the occasional knock from a sheriff telling me to move along. Where else can I watch dolphins play at dusk, and see the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico, and greet a big lump of manatee as it swims past? Where else can I walk through such a jungle, with palms and tupelo trees and Spanish moss hanging from the branches of a live oak? Not to mention, something about the humidity has fried Floridians’ brains, so they’re all incredibly friendly. I feel like a celebrity whenever I walk through a grocery store, and even if all the “hi”s and “honey”s are another bit of Florida fakery, I’m happy to be scammed into thinking I’m popular.


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