The edge of capacity

Sunset to the west of my campsite

Old Gamble didn’t disappoint. I had a marvelous night on the ocean and slept away all the craziness of the overdeveloped edge of northeast Florida. Good thing, too, because its a long way to Miami and there was lots more craziness, it turns out, to come.

Sunrise through the tent screen at Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area

Since I did make it to Miami, and beyond, it seems only right to spend a little time on the history of Florida — I’ve now traversed its entire eastern edge — sans the broken line of keys I will tackle tomorrow. The reality is, Florida deserves the most improved award in every sense.

A scant 650 million years ago, Florida was at the South Pole. 450 million years later, it was just north of the equator in the middle of the continent Pangea, surrounded by thousands of miles of desert. Pangea broke all to hell 115 million years ago and there was the familiar shape of Florida. It emerged as an island about 30 million years ago, give or take, and when it did, most everything else was frozen, so the sea level was about 330 feet lower than today. So Florida was a lot bigger — space which it could use today, but more on that later. The Paleo-Indians who first made homes in Florida did so 14,000 years ago. They hunkered around sinkholes with fresh water and generally took advantage of the climate and the land and did okay. Around 8000 B.C. things got hotter and the sea levels rose. Being reasonable people, the Paleo-Indians moved when the water came up. In fact, they spread out and started living on the coast and doing things they hadn’t done before. This is good for intellectuals, because now we can discuss how they either disappeared or evolved into a different culture. I think it makes rather more sense to think they said, hey, there’s a coastline! We didn’t know the world more than a several miles from our home before, so we didn’t know there was one. Let’s see what we can do now. And they did.

And, basically, ever since, people have been clamoring to the coast of Florida. Now, to be fair, in the early 16th century, the Spanish showed up and basically upset the apple cart. All that hanging out and doing good got corrected real fast when the right and proper Europeans showed up, and the native people got sick, and the ones that didn’t got converted in Catholic missions — and we all have a story or two about catholic school. It wasn’t smooth going for either group — the Spanish were frustrated that the native people didn’t just go along, and the native people were, well native people, so they were wondering what the hell the Spanish were here for anyway. Soon, the slaves and indentured servants from the British colonies from the north figured out they could escape to Florida (the first snow birds!) and chill out with the native people and upset the Europeans on both sides. Really the only thing that settled all this — to the extent it is settled — is commerce. Once everyone figured out how to make money by being Florida, everyone got on board. I’ve skipped a bunch of stuff that’s important, but people from the north still come to Florida to settle, and people in Florida — including the native people — figured out how to make money on that. Heck, even the great Seminole tribe, nearly rendered extinct by all the European bosses and cross-bred with slaves from the north, are now getting their retribution one chip at a time in the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. God bless them. More power to them. They got jobbed early on and now they’re the ones doing the jobbing. That is America.

And that is Florida from the northeast border to Miami. A place that figured out what a good thing it had and is by God exploiting it to the hilt. I don’t particularly like all the traffic, but I appreciate a good hustle when I see it. And I like seeing a place where the edge was sort of an accident to the culture and became the defining characteristic. Florida didn’t build itself from the edge, it built itself to the edge — at least that’s the case on the east coast. We shall see about the west.

I woke up rested to the glorious sunrise over the Atlantic and spent at least a good 30 minutes or so traveling a pure, delightful edge — rich with nature and sea breeze, nary a condo in sight. Then I got to Ormond Beach, not so bad, still possibly “quaint.” But oh, Daytona. The gloves came off and the towers came up and the commercial catastrophe began. Interrupted only by the Canaveral National Seashore, which is awesome even if it is only to protect the space program, the mayhem continued unabated for the rest of the coast. It changed tax brackets a few times, but the point was still the same. I found one place, only one, that felt calm and original and genuine. Hobe Sound. Now, it takes a dollar or two, but Hobe Sound is old school, not pretentious, and genuinely felt like it had been there for a while. For all I know it is new and pretentious as hell, but the folks I talked to and the scenery I saw eased my mind. I’m fairly sure I can’t afford that sort comfort, however.

Ficus trees over the road at Hobe Sound

At West Palm Beach I simply ran out of capacity to handle more success on the edge. I bailed out to the Florida turnpike and built up my reserves for Miami. Coming of age in the early 80s, I knew Miami. Don Johnson, Scarface, Miami. I think it’s mostly legal now, but it hasn’t veered far from the stereotype. I pried my way out to South Beach where appearance is very important and prices reflect the engineering required to jam that many people into that small a space. The thing is, you can stack people and even cars vertically with a slide rule, but you can’t move people and cars in a stack. You have to line them up.

Miami ranks 5th in one study for worst traffic, behind Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Atlanta. I’ve been to all those ahead of Miami — heck I live in one of them — and I’m telling you, Miami is worse. More interesting than my opinion, however, is the fact that all of the top 5 except one, are on the edge. People want to be on the edge and the edge defines the space left for the roads after the people cram in and up, and well, there you go. Success on the edge, either the west or east coast, comes with a price. The traffic. I see other countries building man-made islands to get more people on the edge than the edge has allotted for. That may be coming here, but for now we have cruise ships.

Happy to have a huge protected National Seashore to guard Kennedy Space Center

At Port Canaveral, fresh off the peaceful emptiness of the Canaveral National Seashore, the condo builders became shipwrights and now you can get beyond the edge with a few thousand of your closest friends. The boats are lined up and the traffic is brimming with enthusiasm to get to the dock.

This is all happening while the central part of the state is, save for Orlando, essentially empty. We can thank the geology for some of that — it’s wet and unstable — but at the rate we are drying it up, that too may change. I’m spending the night in Homestead, on the edge of the Everglades basically, and they have managed to create out of the sand and swamp a gagillion new homes down here.

Tomorrow I’m heading to the keys, where I think the pirates may still have a stronghold and therefore the edge may be a bit less stiff with steel. But who knows. After a couple of days down there, I intend to get right into the Everglades and learn whether Mother Nature can hold all this madness back, or whether someone is going to figure out how to build a mountain with “sea views” in the middle of the state.

I value all of my experiences on the edge. I appreciate the grit of everyone who hustles a way forward in this challenging environment. And regardless of the chaos, I still haven’t had a bad experience when I talk to folks. They are good people, even if they are building horrible buildings with no way to move the people in them around. But I’m hoping to find a different approach in the keys, or on the western edge of “the land of many flowers.” Or maybe a little warmer weather to raise the seas some more so we can start over.

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