I could swear they wanted to tar and feather me, but I wasn't scared. I knew I could outrun the two gas station attendants staring at me like I was a cross between a bug-eyed alien and a Yankee carpetbagger. Neither man could have been a day under 70. They looked mean, but feeble.
The scene was just outside a town called Kissimmee, a region of central Florida where retirement communities sprout as profusely as the palmetto bushes that crowd up against the edges of both rivers and interstates. The time was spring 1982, and although I had lived in the Sunshine State since 1976, I was only then realizing how fundamentally whacked out my adopted state was. In Kissimmee, just being 19 years old was a crime against nature. In this sunny, perfect land, I was an unwanted reminder that youthfulness existed. Get out of town, boy, said the stony faces of the attendants. And don't come back.
I obliged -- and an hour later, I was in Daytona Beach, along with a couple of hundred thousand other 19-year-olds coagulating together for spring break. My own people, so single-mindedly intent on partying down, you might think, would relax me. But then I found myself staring at a vaguely 30-ish local trying to hit on a couple of Midwestern college girls, and I thought, man, that guy looks old and out of place. And I realized that I had completely lost my moorings.
Florida can do that to you. Twenty years later, I'm not surprised at all that an entire national presidential election could hang on whether a couple of thousand befuddled seniors in Florida accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. Sounds crazy, right? So what else is new? Florida is a state with multiple personality disorder -- it's the catch basin into which our national insanity drains.
What is Florida like? Drive down Interstate 75, the artery that splits Florida like the seam of a banana, and you'll begin to get an idea. Start in the north, near the Georgia border, where the Okefenokee Swamp gives birth to the Suwanee River. You're in the Deep South here, surrounded by white crackers and the descendants of slaves who speak in drawls so thick your pulse slows down just listening to them. To the west, there is the Panhandle, home to the Florida State Seminoles and some of the nastiest cases of abortion clinic bombings this great country can lay claim to. To the east you've got Jacksonville, birthplace of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchett. If the South does rise again, Northern Florida will help lead the charge.
Keep going south, though, and you start hitting hippieland -- the environs of Gainesville, my own personal Florida homeland. Some of the finest stoners in America have been raised here, nourished by the relative liberalism of a college town, perfect weather for marijuana cultivation and a terrain of springs and rivers and beaches that invites indolence. You're still never far from cracker territory -- a fact that sets up some glorious opportunities for the kind of culture clashes that Florida raises to an art form. My personal favorite: tribal-drumming acidheads getting up at dawn to raid cow pastures for magic mushrooms. Only problem -- the rednecks who own those pastures like to get up with the sun also, and they love nothing better than chasing scrawny hippies. Gore supporters looking for Naderites to lynch from the nearest tree could do worse than starting their search in Gainesville.
But go farther, through the horse pastures of Ocala and the orange groves of Lakeland. Breathe in the wonder of Florida as pastoral paradise, gentle rolling hills and live oak and scratch pine. But watch out for the bulldozers uprooting that last citrus tree -- because you're not in the Old South anymore, you're in the New. You've hit the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Orlando mega-suburbalopolis, a triumph of modern fast-food franchises and cookie-cutter development that makes Southern California look like amateur hour. Nowhere is entertainment more relentlessly packaged and consumed -- from Disney World to Busch Gardens to the Orlando Magic and boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync -- than here. Blink and you'll miss the spawning of a new chain of premium family restaurants, soon to spread like a virus across the entire world.
Hooters started here. Let's move on.
Keep on driving south. You're barely halfway through the state! Now you're in the retirement heartland, flanked on either side by endless beaches and equally endless resorts. Keep on driving. You're entering the territory of Carl Hiaasen -- the deranged Miami Herald journalist whose novels are considered outlandishly absurd only by people who haven't lived in the state for more than a week. The farther south you get, the harder it is to find a Southern accent. You start running into your Jewish émigrés from New York and Castro haters from Cuba. Finally, you're in Miami, which might as well be the capital of another country altogether. But is it "Miami Vice"-land you've arrived in, or Little Havana? Who calls the cultural tune here? The fading echo of rappers 2 Live Crew, or the ascendant Latin beat of Gloria Estefan?
And you're still not at the end. You've got the whole length and breadth of the Keys, stretching away into the Caribbean. You've got Jimmy Buffett drifting offshore, searching for that lost shaker of salt. You don't have any Florida panthers prowling the swamp anymore, but there's no shortage of armadillos and alligators. And then finally, you can go no further -- you're in Key West, alone at the very southernmost tip, a cultural continent's distance from the edges of the Okefenokee Swamp.
And what do you make of it all, now that you've reached the end of the line? The rest of the United States vents into Florida -- but where does Florida's pent-up craziness escape to?
Nowhere. That's the problem: There's no outlet for Florida's insanity. So Floridians are forced to turn in upon themselves -- to seek their saviors in Mickey Mouse or fundamentalist Christianity or endless surf or coke and dope and heroin. And then, perpetually unsatisfied, they writhe in a never-ending identity crisis. Are they Republicans or Democrats? Culturally conservative or swinging liberals? Environmentalist defenders of the Everglades or the most rapacious developers in the world?
There's no answer for Florida. No wonder its indecisiveness has plunged an entire nation into confusion. And no matter how many times the votes are recounted, they'll never add up to anything that makes any sense.
Maybe instead of calling for that recount, we should just amputate the peninsula and cut our losses, and let the state float away as its own crazy island. Or maybe nature will take care of it for us. Maybe Florida is just killing time while it awaits the mother of all hurricanes, that great final storm that will wash all the madness away.
But that would be a pity. Our national weirdnesses need to go somewhere, so why not someplace warm and, usually, friendly? Florida is whacked out, but you've got to love it for that. You have to respect a state that doesn't know what it is or where it's going.
I know I do. Watching the election returns last night, I realized I've been in California too long. I miss those palmetto bushes, those hippie-chasing rednecks, those clear cold springs and warm, lascivious ocean waves. I even miss the flinty-eyed seniors ready to run me out of town on a rail.
And, boy, do I miss the opportunity to vote in the state that I still think of as home.