She’s a shimmering bit of Heaven here on Earth. A beguiling beauty cloaked in her morasses and marshy soils. A fortunate few of us see through the disguise realizing that all of it only adds to her charm and we fall hard for her, captivated and spellbound. This temptress is My Florida, My Love.
So many other people, most of whom have only gazed upon, objectified, and yearned her from afar, see an idealized vision of her in the same manner which they falsely assume to intimately know distant celebrities whom they’ve never met. And predictably, they succumb to their curiosity and craving for the misguided mental image flocking to her like swarming locusts. Upon reaching her and eventually discerning her true subtropical nature, they promptly set about trying to mold and shape her into something altogether different and unrecognizable; a tropical paradise, because damn it that’s what the developers and tourism industry said she was, right?
How naive, how sadly mistaken and shallow-minded these lovers nouveau are to those of us who have seen her true essence and courted her as we found her, taking the bitter with the sweet.
I’m part of the eighth generation among my family to be ranching here on the Florida peninsula, and therefore it’s likely to be fairly obvious that I’m most enamored and enthralled with the interior portions of our lovely state. Our ranch lands are some of the last remaining places to find wide prairie vistas dotted with scattered oak and cabbage palm hammocks, vast skies, dense stands of pine flat woods, cypress domes, and backcountry marshlands teeming with roseate spoonbills, egrets, storks and herons of all sorts. My Florida is this unpretentious, subdued place where cattle and wildlife thrive side by side on the last remaining landscapes capturing and filtering water as nature intended. She brings me dewy mornings horseback, the silence only broken by calves bawling while mama cows low back to them amid the cadence of horse hooves stomping in and out of the soggy soil. She’s given me childhood memories of skinning out of my clothes to cool off in the deep pool below an artesian flowing well, and countless winter sunsets where the hackberry trees and others loomed as stark silhouettes against the blazing western skyline.
My endearing Florida has given, and continues to give me each year, unforgettable memories of sporting adventures in her backcountry. I recall my first deer hunting trip to our close friends, the Carlton’s Bull Hammock Ranch where at 13 years old I soaked up experiences every young man should come to know, from sitting around a fire pit grilling steaks while listening to the tales of men who were larger than life in your eyes to taking your first pull of moonshine from an old Mason jar beneath an inky sky filled with stars just to kill the curiosity and make you respect it. Softly, the breeze caressed the cabbage fronds overhead, as the embers grew dim and we retreated into the camp house to bed down and rest.
The morning sun was just highlighting the trees in the citrus grove on the ranch when I took my first buck with the gun my dad had given me – an early 1900’s Remington pump action .25-20 rifle with the original peep sights. He was beaming with pride then, just as I did when first my daughter and then my son, both took their first deer with the same rifle. Prior to that hunt, I’d honed my hunting skills with my brothers chasing Bob White quail with a Red Ryder BB gun (back when they still packed a punch) in another Carlton family orange grove next to our house. Even now I can smell those intoxicating orange blossoms and taste those quail mama would fry up for us. That’s my dear Florida…
Since then I’ve spent sweat-soaked afternoons with my Hoyt bow in hand stalking deer and swatting at mosquitoes to start deer season followed by a shift to brisk mornings cradling a cold rifle in the crease of my elbow as my warm breath hit the cold air and evaporated into the Spanish moss draping from ancient live oaks. I’ve thrilled at playing cat and mouse with Osceola turkeys alongside my brothers, friends, my wife and kids, and often right by myself. And then there were those early mornings spent listening to old men telling jokes over breakfast at the Red Rooster in Okeechobee before draining the dregs from the bottom of their coffee cup and running south of town to the ranch where we’d disperse to various sloughs and ponds lying in wait for daylight and the ducks all the other hunters were certain to scatter off Lake Okeechobee. The duck hunting on private ranch lands was splendid then; a great way to get a young boy hooked on the Southern tradition of water fowl hunting, but that was back before all the government built all the STA’s (water treatment areas).
All of this is Old Florida…rural Florida… the Florida I love strongest and deepest. But, it’s not the only part of Florida that I love.
The Florida I love also involves summers spent on the lake – Lake Placid specifically – and an old Flare boat. Those boats were made for towing water skiers and for the wonderfully winding Kissimmee River before they gutted her with dredges… back when she was crooked and clear. The boat was mostly white with red down the side rails and over the bow with a solid piece windshield and a 85 horsepower Mercury mounted on the transom. If we weren’t sitting in that boat watching my dad stand on the bow while popping a Heddon Tiny Torpedo lure over the lake’s surface awaiting the frenzied strike of a largemouth, we were on a tractor inner tube from the local service station behind that boat while my granddaddy did his level best to skip us across the lake like a rock.
My Florida is open jalousie windows on a sticky summer night, allowing you to hear the chorus of crickets and frogs in spite of the constant humming from an oscillating table fan. It’s shelling peas with your grandparents – ones he planted in the pasture while you were planting grass earlier that summer – as The Lawrence Welk show rolls on the TV with just 4 channels and no remote control. The Florida I love and long for is an old shell road or one-lane paved roads where opposing vehicles each got half off the road without much deceleration so as to pass each other with a wave and smile; it’s learning to peel an orange in the grove while keeping the peel in one long, unbroken spiral, smoked or fried mullet, and swamp cabbage.
These are not the only special characteristics that make up my love affair with Florida. We may live out here between the beaches, but that certainly doesn’t rule out us making a run to the coast whenever we get the chance. In fact, one of the great advantages for us is that we can be to the Atlantic coast in an hour and the Gulf in one and a half hours for offshore fishing or backwater action. Arts, entertainment, culture, and fun are just as accessible there too in places like the Kravis Center in Palm Beach or the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Lee County so that we can soak it up at will and then retreat back to the ranch and small town solitude. The Keys, and the quirkiness of Key West proper, are a reasonable drive away from the ranch. These are the little things that make my Florida so special; simple things that so many overlook. I grew up on the Treasure Coast and Florida’s Indian River where everyone in high school went to “pay beach” at the inlet jetty, Dynamite Point, and Little Jim Bridge, before congregating with their vehicles to circle the Searstown Plaza parking lot later that night. Small town Florida. Small town America.
From fence lines to shore lines, my Florida is still a place of chivalry and graceful Southern Belles with all their endearing charm though admittedly that way of life is increasingly being pushed into more isolated pockets everyday. The Florida I love is a shaded front porch with a creaky wooden screen door on an old cracker house and generational roots in the same place, she’s SEC football and tailgating on Saturdays in the Fall, and she’s equal parts Tom Petty and Mel Tillis. Old salties on the coasts, my Seminole and Miccosukee brethren, my cowhunting comrades, and anyone else who loves and respects her wild, native ways is what Florida is to me and why I cherish her so. She’s complex yet simple like the rich cultural amalgamation resulting from the five flags which have flown over her through the centuries.
My Florida can be soft and gentle like an evening rain, but she can just as easily turn around and hammer you like a hurricane. It matters not for I take her as she is and I adore her in every way…and everyone would be well served to give her a deeper look and do the same.
Brad Phares is an 8th generation Floridian and cattle rancher. He’s also an accomplished artist, be it by word or by brush, and hosts our other favorite Florida podcast, Between the Beaches. You can find his work at Cowhunters Unlimited, where you can also buy the best salsa, hot sauce, and pineapple preserves on the planet!