American Impressions, Chapter 51: Florida
End to End
But is it home? The surprising thing about Juan Ponce de Leon’s landing near St. Augustine during snowbird season in 1513 is not that he found the alleged fountain of youth there, or that his trip turned into an unwitting discovery of the Gulf Stream, or that—as some historians now contend—he initially didn’t even make landfall near St. Augustine but rather just south of Cape Canaveral, then an undisturbed launching pad for seagulls. The surprising thing is that, wherever he hit on La Florida’s coastline, he was not greeted by billboards, four shopping centers cardinally-positioned to maximize consumer traffic, and I-95.
What Ponce saw, as far as we can know, is based on 17 th century historian Antonio de Herrera’s account: “And thinking that this land was an island, they called it La Florida, because it was very pretty to behold with many and refreshing trees, and it was flat, and even: and also because they discovered it in the time of Flowery Easter, Juan Ponce wanted to agree in the name, with these two reasons.”
Ponce wasn’t looking for home—explorers have none—but for the usual travel trinkets of the day: gold, slaves, glory. And a little eternal extra. The king of Spain never mentioned the fountain of youth in his detailed charter to Ponce, once the exploration of the “land to the north” was approved. But Herrera writes that Ponce went looking for “that celebrated fountain which the Indians said turned men from old men (into) youths.”
Florida had no gold. But legend—or at least tourist literature—has it that Ponce found the fountain of youth near St. Augustine and filled his boats with barrels of it.
Whatever the effects of the water on his kidneys, it seems not to have helped his longevity. He was killed in an Indian ambush on a colonizing trip to Florida in 1521, near Tampa. He was 61. But he’d had his time on the peninsula, sailing from St. Augustine to Key West on his first trip, and pretty much setting the thematic course of subsequent Florida-bound colonists and immigrants. The place’s selling point to this day has something to do with images of delaying death, be it with fountains of margueritas or in the shade of palm trees.
I remember former columnist Russell Baker once dubbing Florida “the road to extinction,” which doesn’t sound appealing to those of us who live here for reasons other than retirement. But I felt as if I were on that road last week, finally home after playing Ponce with pen and pad in 49 other states. I was looking for an end—to this series, anyway—and wondering if, indeed, this is home. The natural starting point was Ponce’s own in St. Augustine, whether it was his real starting point or not (he left a cross up there, and there are cases when convenience should trump historical revisionism). The final stop, paralleling Ponce’s first trip, would be Key West. Somewhere long the way the end should, I thought, appear, and with it maybe answers to that question about home.
St. Augustine wasn’t the place.
I was looking for the famous cross of stone Ponce had put down there to symbolize Spain’s claim on the land, new to it (to Spain) but not to the Indian villagers who lived in the vicinity. What I found was the “Fountain of Youth National Archeological Park,” an enclosure of small buildings built around a vaguely classical garden, a planetarium, handsome birds too heavy to fly but not to duck around, and the Spanish equivalent of John Philip Sousa music coming out of public address speakers that hung from the property’s trees. It was raining. A guide with an English accent apologized for the weather, as only Englishmen can, and showed me the way to a small house where something was dripping and another guide was talking about Ponce to a small group of visitors. And there was the Landmark Cross -- 15 stones down and 13 across to represent the year it was put down. It is considered to be the oldest surviving European “structure” on the continent, the guide was saying.
The dripping sound was actually that fountain of youth. It’s enclosed in a small stone alcove, presumably to prevent prospective bathers from taking the legend too seriously and making the fountain their Ganges. On a ledge nearby tiny plastic cups half-filled with water are arranged in a triangle—samples of youth for passing visitors. Some of us try a cup and look as foolish as at a wine tasting, minus the eventual buzz. When the guide starts speaking of Ponce’s 14-year-old lover and talks of the fountain by way of Viagra jokes, it is time to go. Ponce himself only hung around six days (the actual town was founded by Pedro Menendez in 1565), then pulled anchor and headed south.
The small town of Palm Coast is 25 miles south of St. Augustine. It is one of those corporate developments that got platted and sold to buyers, sight often unseen, by ITT beginning around a quarter century ago. Buyers have been mostly revolving sets of retirees from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, who like living within sight of their golf course, and on streets conveniently named in alphabetical order, in case they get lost. Lately, Russians with bags-full of money have joined the influx. In four days the development will become an official town, incorporated and with its own city council. ITT is moving out. Palm Coast is celebrating its birth as a “real” town in conjunction with the millennium, calling itself—what else—the city of the future.
We don’t think twice about a real estate company or an individual developer building a whole town and selling it in pieces as if homes were merchandise on a shelf. The making of towns—the way they’re built in a matter of months, marketed, then put on the map by earnest boosters who have as much geographic or sentimental attachment to the place as the wind—is an American invention. It would baffle anyone else. The rest of the world doesn’t create town. It fills up and spills over what’s already there, sprawling upward, outward, sometimes slum-ward. Moving is comparatively rare and home ownership—when it exists—is more a matter of patrimony than an investment, as it is here. Town-making may have peaked in the 19 th century, when America had to be filled up, but suburban sprawl aside, it is experiencing a mini-boom now largely on the strength of a generation of Americans who consider it unthinkable to retire in the same place where they’ve worked. So they move to new towns like Palm Coast, where they can feel less old a little longer.
I mention this because Palm Coast was my St. Augustine in Florida—the first place where I made landfall in the state nearly five years ago, when I was getting ready to move here. My aunt and uncle had moved from New Jersey several years earlier. Always warm and effusive, they’d put up a few banners welcoming me as much to their home as to the state, diffusing some of the culture shock I was about to face. Palm Coast proved to be an acclimatization capsule, with my aunt and uncle a link to my recent past in the more familiar Northeast and a bridge to that strange Floridian world ahead—a world so new even by New World standards. The morning I pulled out of their driveway to head for Lakeland in my moving truck, we saw a space shuttle shooting into the sky, an awesome sight I took to mean that I was on the right road. And I was.
But let’s face it: Florida, which once lived up to the name Ponce gave it, is getting wrecked from the outside in. The coast is a rim of concrete and asphalt slowly invading the interior, with help from overdeveloped agglomerations such as Orlando expanding from the inside out. The distance from Jacksonville to Miami could be marketed as the nation’s longest strip-mall, and I-95 as its conveyor belt. Beaches are thin strips of sandy havens between the ocean and that Atlantic wall of rooms with a view on the ocean.
It was not very long ago that Florida was “very pretty to behold with many and refreshing trees,” and in many places it still is. The state is too big to lose its beauty and diversity. One only has to glide through the Everglades to be brought back into reverence. But it is harder to reach those places without first navigating the consequence of too much of a good thing, and too little care about what happens next. The shock of Florida when I arrived five years ago was not really a matter of culture; the state is a compendium of all the states above it, a re-melting pot of what may have melted and solidified a bit up north. Rather, it was more a matter of reckoning with detachment. Rootedness in Florida is the exception. Almost everyone knows what it’s like to be from somewhere else, because so many Floridians are from somewhere else, and many are looking to get somewhere else eventually—the great number of elderly retirees first among them. So the long view is absent, or weak, and what matters most is the here and now. Other states— Alaska, West Virginia, Kentucky—feel like colonies plundered by outsiders for their raw materials and left with the crumbs. Florida is in the odd position of being colonized by its own people, sustaining a measure of plunder by resident-transients who know that sooner rather than later they’ll either be dead or gone, that investing much care, let alone emotion, in La Florida would be a waste. It is Ponce’s conquistador mentality applied to the modern age: Claim what you can as your own, then leave. Native Americans have felt the consequences of such treatment for centuries. Native Floridians are feeling it now, albeit to a much lesser extent.
I had to return to Palm Coast last week, see my aunt and uncle, talk about the good old days (of five years ago). It was much less of a strange place than it had been in 1995. It even felt like a town, if not a community, its alphabetical street-signs useful to my memory on the verge of failure. It still didn’t feel like home—that feeling of home I was looking for all over the state—but Palm Coast has grown on me. Maybe it’s because I’ve become a resident-transient, grabbing at temporary attachments while they last. Or maybe I just like the place for what it is—a city of the future.
On Key West, I parked the car in a quiet part of Duval Street, rented a bicycle, and rode around. It was my first time there, so I came to the island with a good share of preconceptions, most of them wrong. I thought the place would be about the size of an atoll. It’s actually a good size town with dead ends to spare. I thought it would be jammed with traffic and people, Hong Kong style. It was more like a provincial Chinese town on a Sunday afternoon, busy enough with pedestrians and the occasional car, but never cramped. I thought I could just get to any old spot on the shore and take a dip in the ocean, to get my baptism at the edge of the continent. But the only public beach I spotted was a few square feet of sand at the south end of the island, half of it covered by dunes of seaweed and the other half by a few courageous bathers. I expected to see the ghost of Hemingway—and this, I did. Every third middle aged man, it seemed, favored the thinnish white beard and the paunch (although the resemblance could have just as well been with the ghost of Jordan’s King Hussein). I expected to be robbed blind every time I tried to buy something, and this, too, proved correct (glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice at roadside stand: $3.50; weathered hardbound edition of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”: $75). Anywhere else in America the “Fast Cash” option at an ATM ranges between $40 and $60. On Key West, it’s $100.
The island is full of vantage points where people walk or bike, then stop to look at the ocean for long periods of time. I took the picture of an older white man on his motorcycle, looking out to the sea, then approached him to ask his name. “No name,” he said in Odyssean fashion. “It’s not worth it.” But he was willing to talk. He was not happy. He’d spent 20 years on Key West but was about to leave for Central Florida, maybe Orlando—anyway, somewhere cheaper, more clement to locals. Key West, he said, is driving them all out. Gays, too: Key West used to be their hang-out, Duval Street as safe as Christopher Street in Manhattan. No longer. No Name described how, a few days before, a bunch of thugs painted hateful graffiti all over town, and how gay couples are likely to get insulted by drive-by screamers. This in a town that has its own separate gay Chamber of Commerce and its own separate gay visitors’ center (“Parental advisory: some adult material,” warns a notice on the storefront).
At another vantage point I stopped next to an older black man on his bike. He was smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer out of a paper bag and looking at the ocean with tired eyes, although it was just past noon. He’d been on Key West 20 years, too. He was not about to leave. “I like it,” he said, “because of the diversity of the people and how they get along.” I dropped my line of inquiry with men looking at the ocean and resumed biking around.
The Hemingway House, literature’s Graceland, appealed to me less than the real Graceland in Memphis (Elvis will endure longer than Papa anyway). I passed it by, passed by the Southernmost Hotel, the Southernmost Candle Factory, and Southernmost Sportswear, and headed for the symbolic end-point of the continent, still looking for my own end. The point was marked by what looked like a warhead painted in bright, happy colors—not the sort of thing you’d expect at America’s closest proximity with Cuba. Visitors milled about, taking pictures around the warhead, touching the water with their toes, reading two plaques—one dedicated to the warhead, the other to the “thousands of Cubans that (sic.) have lost their lives at sea, looking for freedom and justice in this great melting pot, America, the leader in democracy.” The self-congratulatory plaque was dated 1993. A Christmas tree almost as high as the warhead had been left next to it, with best wishes “from the Marc Family.”
I’d waited for this moment all year. I knew that by reaching this point, I would have reached the end of my journey—literally, the end, for me, of America. Surely I would find something here, a conclusion written in the sea for lack of more ground to cover. The water was warm, gentle, lapping at a rock smoothed by a billion lappings. The sky was clear and with binoculars powerful enough I might have seen Cuba. But I didn’t see the end. I didn’t see anything more than a calm sea glimmering under the sun, and that multicolor warhead pointing at the sky.
I’d made two small miscalculations. Home was seven hours away, in Lakeland. And the end was, thank heavens, nowhere in sight.
FLORIDA IN BRIEF
Total area: 59,928 sq. miles (rank: 23)
Population (1997): 14,653,945 (rank: 4)
State capital: Tallahassee
Economy: Agriculture, tourism, manufacturing
Nickname & Motto: Sunshine State; In God we trust.
Entered union: March 3, 1845 (27 th)
Florida in quotes: Here has my salient faith annealed me.
Out of the valley, past the ample crib To skies impartial, that do not disown me Nor claim me, either, by Adam’s spine—nor rib.
The oar plash, and the meteorite’s white arch Concur with wrist and bicep. In the moon That now has sunk I strike a single march To heaven or hades—to an equally frugal noon.
Because these millions reap a dead conclusion Need I presume the same fruit of my bone As draws them towards a doubly mocked confusion Of apish nightmares into steel-strung stones? O, steel and stone! But gold was, scarcity before.
And here is water, and a little wind . . .
There is no breath of friends and no more shore Where gold has not been sold and conscience tinned.—“Key West,” by Hart Crane
Historian Michael Gannon is the author and editor, respectively, of two valuable books on Florida history: “Florida: A Short History” (University Press of Florida paperback, 1993, $9.95), and “A New History of Florida” (UPF, hardcover, $34.95).
For Key West fans, “The Key West Reader,” edited by George Murphy (Tortugas, $14.95) assembles the usual suspects—Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Wallace Stevens, John Hersey—in a collection of novel excerpts, stories, poems and letters written from and about Key West.
* St. Augustine: www.ci.st-augustine.fl.us
* Key West: www.fla-keys.com
* Florida tourism: www.flausa.com