Yesterday, I decided that to keep from typing too much, or attempting to pack, I'd go driving to the one last Great Place in Florida I haven't been to--Lake Okochobee. Since I'm leaving the state soon--I'm training myself to say "when," not "if"--the time to explore is running out. (Next week will be serious packing, and I'm expecting I will get the Linvatec position to keep me busy a couple months before heading west.)
In maps of Florida you sometimes see a hole toward the south, right over the Everglades; that's Lake Okochobee. (The Everglades itself can be described as a river flowing from the lake--just a river that's about forty miles wide and two feet deep.) Along with the Middle Keys and the Big Bend region, from Cedar Key on up to Apalachicola, this is one of the remaining bastions of "Old Florida." The temporal line between old and new Florida is usually thought of as pre-Disney and post-Disney, and as brutal as it is for a long-time Disneyphile like myself to face, there's truth to that. It's a half-truth, though: the other half could be called pre-interstate and post-interstate. The roadside attractions that filled 1940s and '50s Florida couldn't compete with Disney, it's true, but they didn't have to--they were never intended to be more than an afternoon's diversion, stops along the way rather than destinations. With the opening of the interstates and the Florida Turnpike, though, those routes were all but abandoned. It gives them both charm and sadness: you think this is what people saw fifty years ago, but it's only a reminder, a faded photograph. The areas have been losing vitality for decades. The roads are haunted by businesses past: restaurants, groceries, gas stations that, when they were open, you suspect were full-service.
Those were the routes I took on the trip--State Road 60 to Yeehaw Junction, south on US 441 to Okochobee and around the lake on SR 78. The lake is a lot like the Everglades, honestly, or the marshes that make up most of Florida's coastline. (Despite what postcards imply, most of Florida isn't volleyball-ready beaches: the shoreline is often marsh or rugged sea oats and dunes.) Then, it was east on US 27, which shortly turns north and heads back up along the Florida Ridge.
Yes, Florida does have a ridge, geologically, even though the difference between high and low rarely exceeds a hundred feet. It's enough to create pleasant low hills, mildly twisty roads and frequent lakes. On my way back up US 27, I passed a sign for "Lake June in Winter State Park" and had to visit. What a marvelous name--full of unexplained history and implied symbolism. A metaphor for the old Florida lifestyle I'd been contemplating. Or on a personal level, for my relationship with the state itself. As different as Florida's regions of marsh and pine forest and oak hammock and dry scrub are ecologically, if you've seen one scrub land, you've seen them all. I'm still friends with Florida, but I'm not in love with it anymore.
As it turns out, Lake June appears to be a "vacation getaway" like some other parts of old Florida--not tourist traps, just quiet weekly and monthly cabin rentals with great views (and probably correspondingly high prices). The state park itself is very wild and feels remote: off US 27, you follow a winding two-lane road to another smaller two-lane road, which becomes an unmarked road, which becomes a gravel road, which becomes a dirt road. After a mile, you hit the state park, whose facilities consist entirely of a boat ramp and an outhouse.
I spent a few minutes looking over Lake June. Rain had been following me and I could see it on the other side of the lake, even though the sun shone where I stood. The wind blew hard enough to create little whitecaps on the lake's surface. This was a very new state park, not yet on maps; I knew it would be developed more, but I hoped not too much more. There's a value in keeping remote places remote.
Even so, I could hear planes, perhaps a boat motor; there were homes across the lake. In the moments the wind was still I could hear cars on a paved road. As remote as the place seemed, it wasn't remote enough.
On my way back from the park to US 27, along the winding road, it rained hard but the sun shone, and a vivid rainbow stood out against dark clouds. As I came around a curve and down a gentle hill, a single tree stood in bright fall color, in defiance of Florida's mandate to always remain green.