Dog days of summer got you feeling down? Road trip through Florida’s diverse ecosystems and communities as Birdie Hoffman, a jilted 1950’s housewife, hooks a Shasta camper to the Caddy and leaves her Tallahassee trailer park behind. By the way, Old Florida is still alive if you venture away from the masses …
Sand drifted across Highway 98 by Gulf breezes whispering whims of new beginnings. Birdie had imagined the Cadillac to struggle with the bulk of the matching red and white Shasta. Thankfully, the winged convertible proved competent during that 1957 month of June when society was barely accepting of a woman hitting the road alone. At any rate, Eisenhower was improving the highways and Birdie was looking to improve her mindset. A glamour gypsy hell-bent on discovering her country while discovering herself.
Suddenly, a gust pulled the camper to the right causing her to glance in the rearview mirror – something she had avoided doing since leaving her cheating husband in Tallahassee. Seeing that the trailer was secure, she instead adjusted her white, organza headscarf along with the oversized sunglasses before another gush of wind caused an uptick in nerves and she tightened her grip on the large steering wheel. Mother Nature flaunting her Floridian prowess with harbingers of hurricanes.
“Bring it on,” she silently dared. The thirty-five-year-old blonde had left considerably more trouble inland the moment she had hitched that camper to the Eldorado.
Earlier in the day, ancient oaks draped with long strands of Spanish moss formed canopies over the two-lane road running from the Tallahassee city limits. Congested streets had given way to that shady back road which first calmed her anxious nerves. With those mossy, coaxing branches seemingly entwined in gossipy fashion, the monumental oaks were eager accessories to scandalous departures. Mockingbirds darted to and fro under the cover of greenery, chasing the naughty blackbirds away from nearby nests. It was then, after Birdie’s fret subsided and her future took on new hope, that she had started to see in color. The subtropical portion of America’s prominent peninsula was offering up its sundry charms and luring Birdie away from a life that no longer fit. The sunshine state would have none of Birdie’s downtrodden attitude.
So, she drove on. Little did she know that the impressive oaks had only been a threshold to the open arms of a citrus country abundant with groves of cheerful orange and yellow spheres seemingly painted by Florida’s steadfast sunshine herself. She slowed to take in the full blue-sky scenery with the top down as a farmer tipped his wide-brimmed hat to her from his field. The exchange had made her soul sweeter and crave her home state’s fresh offerings just as a roadside market came into view as an answer to some of her yearnings.
Open spaces were abundant in that part of Florida and Birdie easily navigated her haulage off to the side of the country road. To a city girl from Tallahassee who had rarely left the confines of town, it was all so freeing. She stretched outside of the car and drew in the luscious earth soaked in salt air tinged with berries, pines, grapefruits and oranges. The hem of her pink cotton dress fluttered around her calves, her manicured fingertips fiddling with the fabric belt as she strolled toward the farmer’s teenaged daughters who patiently awaited her order under oversized eaves of the white frame shack. Green trim the color of palm fronds accented the rustic stand that also served as a resting post for a few haggard vultures, one of which spread her wings atop the tin roof. Additional feathered scavengers perched lazily nearby, paying no heed to anything that didn’t matter. For mere pennies, Birdie was provided with a paper bag of oranges, blueberries and neon red strawberries. A sack of Florida gold as far as she was concerned.
Birdie delighted in the juicy bounties while rolling along the backroad peppered with assemblages of crooked palmetto palm trees before farmland serenity was effortlessly exchanged for forested tranquility once the Apalachicola National Forest marched into view with her sentry of tall pines touching the sapphire sky. A different landscape had been introduced and Birdie’s mind changed lanes once more while recounting the diversity existing in a mere thirty miles. The lost soul falling in love with the land’s exquisite distinctiveness.
The woodland’s fir guardians had watched her pass through their emerald estate until Highway 98 took over with endless vistas. The fleeting views tempted with glimpses of illusory turquoise water beyond mushrooming dunes. The sandy shore, however, did its best to compete for attention, often rising to sufficiently block the driver’s view of the brilliant sea and instead boasting tall reeds bending and bobbing gently in the wind amid exotic clumps of sawgrass. Should the sublime coastal shoreline to Birdie’s left be insufficient – which it certainly was not – the heavily forested land of the panhandle’s national and state forests endured to her right. Never intimidated by the sometimes-angry sea, the grand pines often lobbing pine seeds to thrive among dunes. The natural landscape was wildly competing against itself while persisting to overcome the synthetic road dividing it all. Birdie’s eyes grew tired from the never ending photographic distractions and her hands ached from holding the steering wheel firmly to traverse the relatively narrow, sand-covered highway tracing the Gulf of Mexico’s northern Florida shoreline.
The distant view was made hazy with heat, coarse salt air, and the resulting dirty windshield that the Cadillac convertible wore like a vagabond’s badge of honor. Birdie craned her neck to see better then signaled her intentions while slowing to a stop, safely off the two-lane road. Ignition off, head back, eyes closed.
Whether encouragement carried upon the voice of the ocean or her fugitive subconscious speaking out, it made no difference. She obeyed while the gulls cried out for spellbound spirits to join them at the water’s edge. She casually followed their calls across the road with hands tucked in deep pockets buried in pleats. Reaching the dunes, Birdie removed her pastel pumps and thankful feet slid gently into grains of sand. One foot in front of the other – the mantra she had been repeating since deciding it was time to take control of her future; the recent past suddenly lackluster and faded compared to the vibrant trail of treasures discovered along the panhandle’s thoroughfares. Over the dunes, moving forward in wonder and amazement.
Icy water refreshed sore feet finally free of their confines. Shells and sand worked with the salt water to massage them back to life as the sun began its descent. Birdie stood with stoical posture in the late day tide to take in the performance. Streams of pink and purple emerged then burst about until the line between air and water could not be differentiated. The fanciful orb engorged with its evening destiny. Birdie smiled in admiration. The Florida sun flourished gratefully in the moment. So, too, would this Florida girl.
This essay was published in the “Florida” anthology which is available in local bookstores and online. It is based on a chapter from my upcoming novel, West.