FLORIDA WITHOUT TINSEL

Rather, a scrubby, twiggy, sandy place of empty beaches and pink rain clouds five miles high

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN January 1 1972

FLORIDA WITHOUT TINSEL

Rather, a scrubby, twiggy, sandy place of empty beaches and pink rain clouds five miles high

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN January 1 1972

FLORIDA WITHOUT TINSEL

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

Rather, a scrubby, twiggy, sandy place of empty beaches and pink rain clouds five miles high

Whenever I mention going to Florida, some people look at me as if I’m the typeform of vulgar tourist and ask me how I can stand that crowded place with those jazzy hotels and women wearing mink capes at 90 in the shade, and it always takes me by surprise, because my Florida is a scrubby, twiggy, sandy place of empty beaches, seahawks, pink rain clouds five miles high and the smell of burning palmetto scrub, orange blossoms and sea mist.

I rent a cottage at New Smyrna Beach, a 200-year-old town on the east coast. My place is right on the dunes with weeds growing through the cracks in the front porch and four frayed veranda chairs as bleached as hatch covers, and every morning I arrange them in a kind of nest — one for my books, one for my feet, and one for my coffee — and I sit there reading, everything around me sparkling and dewy, a mockingbird perched on a needle-sharp leaf of a century plant singing in an old Irish joke-book mood; “Bejabers! Jabers! Jabers!” the sea making a muffled crackling sound like a giant walking over thin wooden crates; the pelicans on automatic pilot coasting waves that look as if they were drawn across the sea with a ruler and a felt pencil; and the shore empty as far as I can see in either direction, except for a billion white butterflies floating between the dunes.

Most of the Florida shore is wild. South of my place is a 20-mile isthmus that can be driven only by some vehicle like a jeep or dune buggy. There’s just a track of soft sand through palmetto scrub. The beach is utterly uninhabited and disappears into the mist in both directions. There are great flocks of shore birds: gulls, cormorants and royal terns. There are great blue herons with wingspans of over six feet, and big brown-and-blue snake-necked birds called anhingas. When you see a pelican in the high grass amid all that solitude it makes you jump. It looks like a little man with a round brown head staring at you in silence.

There’s a hot, thorny, secret world between the dunes near my place where I like to go now and then and

build a fire and just sit in the hot sun among the cactus and Spanish bayonet, feeling like a lizard. Occasionally a gopher tortoise brushes through the dry grass and at sight of me pulls in its head with a sound of escaping air, like a leak in an air mattress. A blade of palmetto frond, vibrating in a faint current of air,.heliographs some distant planet, and I get the feeling that everything is waiting patiently for the human phase of creation to come to an end.

I know the other Florida is there, the condominiums, the trailer parks, the highway signs — Steaks! Shakes! Fries! Plaid Stamps! Burger Chef! Guy Lombardo has a Gift for you! Hi Canada! See the Live Alligators! — but it has nothing to do with my Florida, the black creek west of De Land where I watched an otter lope across the highway and disappear into a tangle of reeds; the dry, vine-draped ancient woods at Juniper Springs where armadillos scamper across the dead leaves like rabbits, the green flats of the St. Johns River near Sanford, where a while ago my wife and I watched a Brahman bull slowly cross a creek preceded by three white storks with slate-colored heads, like dark hoods, the four moving in a kind of ecclesiastical procession toward some distant cabbage palms. There’s a lush, dreamy world of lagoons, savannas, mossy old live oaks and towering green forests draped with Tarzan vines in the region of Bulow Plantation, the ruins of an old sugar plantation 15 miles north of Daytona Beach, where at least once a year we have a picnic.

One favorite part of my Florida is 100 miles of prairies south of Kissimmee, where, when the groves of pines open up, you can see across the flat land to distant, isolated sable palms on the horizon like tiny quotation marks against the sky. This is cattle country — Yeehaw Junction and Holopaw and Okeechobee — where you can drive out into the ranges and listen to the meadowlarks and talk to a ranch hand, who is delighted to meet someone who found his way out of the Sans Soucie Hotel. Florida is fifteenth among the cattle-raising states. Brahmans are among the most suc-

cessful breeds, partly because those dewlaps and flopping ears give them extra air-conditioning for the hot Florida summers, and partly because they can wiggle their skin and shake flies off. Florida is classed as a range cattle state. The cattle roam ranges of 30,000 acres and more which, although now fenced, include rugged bush country. Some of the range cattle still show traces of the breeds brought to the mainland by the Spanish explorers and left to roam the jungles. Ranch workers in Florida still have to use horses to herd cattle in this terrain. Being a cowboy in Florida doesn’t mean being in show business; it means having an essential trade, like plumbing.

In Florida the life of birds and animals runs, oddly uninterrupted, parallel to the life of man. One night when I came out of a movie, the cry of a whippoorwill, coming from somewhere over by the Publix Supermarket, created a mysterious swampy night feeling over a shopping plaza, like the sound of a loon on a Canadian lake. At drive-in hamburger stands, boat-tailed grackles drop from the rustling cabbage palms to the hood of your car, skid around a bit in the breeze, and look through the windshield watching you eat. Bonaparte gulls drift with the sand over beach highways and neon pizza signs. There’s a little bay at the end of the causeway near the library where I can always watch a big American egret stalking the tidal flats with that motion of all stalking things, just the necessary parts moving. Down by the sea’s edge on a hot spring Sunday, when the beach blooms for the day with tents, beach umbrellas, floats and surfboards and the ocean breeze is fragrant with suntan lotion, the little colorful clams called coquinas suddenly appear like a rug, then disappear abruptly, each one having dug into the sand between one wave and the next. Fifty feet from where girls bake in bikinis sprawled on their backs on the hoods of cars, like beautiful victims dropped from a 10-story building in Mannix, a flock of sanderlings, reflected in the wet strip of sand left by a wave, races along the spindrift looking as if someone broke

a rack of cue balls. By suppertime when the beach is empty, a snowy egret, which is darting frantically after fish, flaps and flutters in the shallow runoff of the waves, wings drooping, looking like a wounded ballerina down there in the twilight by the lonely boom of the sea.

Man being what he is, all the peace and natural beauty of Florida are eventually going to go. Condominiums are appearing everywhere on the shoreline. Disney World, the ultimate tourist attraction near Orlando, opened last fall. Among 140 folders I picked up in a Florida tourist station, one described a one-man helicopter that was becoming popular on the west coast, beginning with an enraptured: “First you hear the steady whine of a small engine!” (This is at Venice in case you’d like to bypass it.) The west-coast area includes stately old Sanibel Island where people go to collect shells, and a string of long, thin islands called keys, including some very snooty ones, like Longboat Key, where you can’t even see the water for private clubs and houses with walls around them. Yet this is near the Sarasota region, where you can see progress at its worst — beach hotels that block out the ocean, crowds, traffic noises that make you wince, ridiculous prices, like $25 for a motel room. When my wife and I were there last it took us 15 minutes to cross the highway to a pancake house through the Mustangs and Yamahas. Yet next morning just 20 miles south of this, I walked through a grove of palms and came out on a deserted beach, like Robinson Crusoe, the milky green waves of the Gulf of Mexico coming in busily about 15 feet apart, the sun shining right through them like a promise, and a redwing blackbird singing in the reeds of the river behind me. The

only people on earth, apparently, were two girls who had waved to my wife and me from the road, and a couple of youths I spoke to in a car from Waterloo, Ontario.

We visited one fascinating backwater on the west coast — Boca Grande, an island that costs three dollars to get on to. The place has an atmosphere of tennis and bicycles and white shorts, and there’s a waxed and polished old hotel called Gasparilla Inn, with photographs on the corridor walls of girls in middies and long skirts and wide straw hats with the brims turned down on one side standing beside tarpon. You expect to see Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda coming down the steps.

On the Tamiami Trail from the west coast to Miami, people just like the ones who are shattering Canada’s winter woods with snowmobiles are advertising airboat rides in the Everglades. The U.S. National Park Service is trying to preserve this country and the drive down through Everglades National Park to Flamingo is one of the most pleasant in the land. The park goes in for my type of tourist attraction, like raised wooden platforms with no other purpose than to let you listen to the wind in the Australian pines and look out over a vast prairie-like sweep of saw grass that has never been completely explored, even by the Seminole Indians who live here. There are eight sight-seeing points, with nature trails and board walks to alligator ponds, pinewoods, mahogany forests and mangrove swamps. When you turn onto the road into one of these places you sometimes come upon deer, which give you one wild look over their shoulders and disappear into the high grass. There’s a camping area at Flamingo, and the day my wife and I were there it was an exotic sight — a

flat expanse of vivid green grass with about a dozen of those striped Sheik of Araby tents beneath coconut palms and just beyond them, in the serene pale-green Gulf of Mexico, the continent of North America breaking up into mangrove islands.

A man 10 feet tall could walk through the water here over the horizon to the Florida keys, the long string of islands hooking southwest from near Miami to within 100 miles of Cuba. Many keys now have great white scars of bulldozed sand where shopping-housing complexes will ap-

WHERE TO STAY

Florida is now an easy drive from Canada on fast interstate highways. Routes from Winnipeg and Toronto converge on Interstate 75, which crosses the Appalachians far enough south to be usually free of snow. Eastern traffic can come down via Interstate 95 from Washington. Cost of accommodation in Florida varies enormously. The east coast north Cape Kennedy is primarily a summer resort for people from such places as Georgia, Tennessee and inland Florida (a beach apartment that rents for $200 a month in winter rents for $200 week in summer). A housekeeping apartment or cottage on the ocean for a period of three months or more winter averages $200 a month, but the range is $100 to $300 or more. Away from the ocean the rents are much lower. The northwest coast of peninsular Florida is mostly pine forests and fishing camps, and the Gulf beaches of western Florida (the part west of Tallahassee) are becoming popular summer beaches for people from Georgia and Alabama. The southwest coast of peninsular Florida, that is, from the Tampa area south, is a winter resort region. A furnished ocean-front housekeeping cottage on Sanibel Island, for instance, that costs $14.50 a day January 15 to April 1, is nine dollars day May 15 to December 1. At Gasparilla Inn on Boca Grande a single room with three meals costs $24 $30 a day December 1 to January 31; $32 to $38 a day February 1 to April 16, and closes for the summer. Miami, in winter, you can pay $75 day and more for a room in a beach hotel. Yet the Sherwood, which I’m told by people who have stayed there is nice place on the ocean, advertises six dollars a day for a double room from September 1 to October 30, eight dollars May and June, the best times come to Florida. In mid-winter you can strike cold weather. It usually lasts only a day or two, though, and even then the sun has a lot of power and you can still get well roasted if you get out of the wind. ■

pear. But the view of the water from the bridges (one is seven miles long) where the Gulf and the Atlantic meet is still worth the drive to Key West. The water is in greens and blues, aquamarine, cobalt, lime — colors of jewelry and the pulp of fruit. The charter boats’ pier in Key West looks just the way you imagined it in Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not. They put barracuda V/2 feet long out on the sidewalk, to be picked up with the garbage. Last year on an impulse my wife and I took a tour through Ernest Hemingway’s house, a drowsy old frame building surrounded by trees in the old section of town, with a lot of the descendants of Heming-

way’s cats still snoozing in various nooks and corners around the house. I don’t know whether Hemingway was a bathtub reader, as I am, but there was one nice big square bathroom with the sun coming in low over a red tile floor, and when I escaped for a minute from our guide, an elderly woman who was a stickler for everybody seeing things in the right order, and stood looking in the doorway, I pictured Hemingway awash in the big tub composing such lines as “There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights came out.”

There are still some genuinely interesting Florida attractions, like

Owen Godwin’s Gatorland near Kissimmee where you can watch undefused diamondback rattlers that will make your blood run cold when they buzz a warning to some bemused spectator who leans too far over the wall of the pit. But the real shows put on by Florida are produced by nature — the windy days when the crows are doing a kind of airborne dance on top of the slash pines and the mullet are running and the pelicans start diving like stones and the palms are showing bald spots in the wind and there’s a great feeling of excitement in nature, just as if someone dumped a wastepaper basket of $100 bills over Bay Street at noon. ■