Florida – Days 1-15: Beaches and Relaxation, Sunsets and Revelations

Brittany Swanson   January 6, 2016   Comments Off on Florida – Days 1-15: Beaches and Relaxation, Sunsets and Revelations

Appropriately, I spent my first full day in Florida at the beach. I was in Jacksonville, and it was a sunny 81°. My hosts from the previous night insisted on taking me to the beach and as I had no other plans, I agreed. I worked out and we had breakfast and ran a few errands and then made our way to the beach. The water was still a bit chilly, but I did splash around up to my thighs before heading back to the sand to lay out and read my book. Just as I was about to take a beach nap it was time to leave and go get some food.

Beautiful beach weather in Jacksonville, FL.

Beautiful beach weather in Jacksonville, FL.

After leaving my beach hosts I tried going to a museum, which, of course, was closed by the time I got there. Instead I found a park and wandered around and read for a bit, but then it started raining, so I headed to the Chamblin Bookmine. Whoa. In case you haven’t noticed, or if this is the first post you’ve read, I go to a lot of bookstores. A lot. As in, I’ve probably been to a bookstore in every state so far, or at least I’ve come close to being in a bookstore in every state.

Chamblin Bookmine is a whole different kind of bookstore. It was like being in a library. An overcrowded, overflowing with books, kind of library. The first ten seemingly endless rows baffled me, the ten adjacent, equally never-ending rows, caused my mouth to drop, and then there were the next twenty and then thirty and forty slightly smaller rows. Every time I thought I must have reached the end of the building an annex appeared and, turning the corner, I found more and more rows of books. All stacked precariously high, some even strewn about on the floor, having found their way out of their home on the shelf and unable to find it again.

This is the bookstore that never ends...yes it goes on and on my friend...Chamblin Bookmine, Jacksonville, FL.

This is the bookstore that never ends…yes it goes on and on my friend…Chamblin Bookmine, Jacksonville, FL.

My second day in Florida I headed to St. Augustine, the oldest city in America. I started my adventure in St. Augustine with a trip to the Bastillo de San Marcos, free with my National Parks Interagency Pass. It was a pretty cool fort. Apparently it’s, one of the most indestructible forts in the world because it’s building material, which is porous, when struck by a bomb compresses down on itself rather than breaking apart. Nifty.

View of the Bastillo de San Marcos from on top overlooking the water, St. Augustine, FL.

View of the Bastillo de San Marcos from on top overlooking the water, St. Augustine, FL.

Next I wandered around through the shops and touristy part of St. Augustine and then, exhausted, made my way back to the car for a cat nap. It was almost time to go see my mom and hunker down for the holidays, but first I made a pit stop to work on the blog, and ended up sitting and reading The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared instead. A good read. I recommend it, especially if you’re into history and things that are funny.

The next week sort of blended together in a mix of relaxation, errand running, blog writing, movie watching, and eating. The first few days, my mom and I watched multiple Christmas Hallmark movies. One day we went and got manicures and pedicures. That same day, we watched a parade of boats lit up for the holidays on the St. John’s River and ended up getting a free dinner at Olive Garden. Our dinner was free because all our meals were crappy and when I told the manager that I was traveling across the country and that that was the worst Olive Garden I’d ever been to, she comp’ed our whole meal. Didn’t expect that, but I’ll take it.

One day that week we had brunch and took a trip to the Farmer’s Market. We also watched a few football games, and had a Frozen movie night. I worked on the blog for a couple of days and on a trip to the post office I found out I had a flat tire, so I spent a morning getting that fixed. I also spent an evening decorating Christmas stockings for my mom’s neighbor.

Then it was Christmas Eve and I slept in. It was a holiday after all. My mom made my Grandma Nancy’s famous Seafood a la Nancy for dinner and I ate it, for the first time in six years. (I’ve been a little lax on being a vegetarian since starting the trip…I still haven’t had beef, but free chicken or fish is better than not eating…and I knew having Seafood a la Nancy would make my mom happy so I agreed to try it.) It was delicious and I’m so glad I made another exception to my vegetarianism. Yum.

Seafood a la Nancy, a secret Swanson family Christmas dinner tradition.

Seafood a la Nancy, a secret Swanson family Christmas dinner tradition.

Christmas Day was like Thanksgiving part two. My mom brined a turkey for the four days leading up to Christmas and we had mashed potatoes and stuffing and green bean casserole and sweet potato casserole and of course pumpkin and pecan pies. I overloaded my plate and yet somehow my stomach expanded enough to make room for all of it without leaving me feeling completely stuffed and disgusting. I think my body knew that I wouldn’t be eating this well again for a while and thus did whatever it took to make it all fit without making me sick.

My mom and I spent Christmas day with her friend Janelle and Janelle’s family. After dinner I chatted with Janelle’s mom Cherrie and learned about her experiences growing up in the 1960’s. It was fascinating. Then we all gathered together and played a round of Catch Phrase: boys v. girls. I’m proud to say the girls won. Enjoying the jovial atmosphere of game playing, I busted out my phone and introduced the group to the game Heads Up. At first they didn’t want to play the Act It Out deck, which is usually the only one I play, but after numerous rounds of Animals Gone Wild, a few rounds of Blockbuster Movies, a few rounds of Icons, Legends, and Stars, a round or two of Accents, a couple miserable attempts at Hey Mr. DJ, and a few rounds of Superstars, we made it back to Act It Out and hilarity ensued. Like, drop on the floor laughing, people running-to-the-bathroom-having-to-pee hilarity. You might have had to be there, but my favorite moment was stepping in as a pole as Janelle’s sister-in-law acted out being a stripper… Needless to say this was, by far, one of the funniest Christmases I’ve ever had.

The day after Christmas we went to see the new Star Wars movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, do so now. It’s good, and even if you don’t know the storyline super well, or at all, I’m pretty sure it was still easy enough to follow. Then there was another blog day and another football game.

On my twelfth day in Florida my Mom and I went canoeing down the Chassahowitzka River and I got to pet a wild manatee! It was really freaking cool. The manatee was a baby, but was still about four feet long and probably a couple hundred pounds. When I put my hand in the water it swam right up to me and blew air out its nose onto my hand and then swam under my hand, letting my hand float along across it’s back. Manatees feel weird. They’re simultaneously rubbery and hairy and a little slimy. It was cool though. Later that night we met up with some of my mom’s friends and played darts at a bar. Apparently, I’m pretty good at darts, who knew?

The following day we wanted to go on an excursion to hang out with more manatees, but since it was in the middle of the holidays every place we looked was booked. So instead we drove down to Cedar Key. When we got into town my Mom was super hungry so we stopped at the first cafe we passed. It was awful. I ordered lima beans and, true to the South, they came with hunks of some unidentifiable meat and in soup form. Yeah, no thank you.

Lima bean soup maybe, but these don't even look like lima beans... Annie's Cafe, Cedar Key, FL.

Lima bean soup maybe, but these don’t even look like lima beans… Annie’s Cafe, Cedar Key, FL.

After lunch we wandered into an art gallery and after looking around swung into a bar called Black Dog Bar & Tables to use the restroom. Black Dog Bar had a pretty neat set up. They had a plethora of craft beers to choose from and there was a section with a couch and tv and another with darts and corn hole. They also had an outdoor porch that overlooked the water. A nice mix for whatever you happen to be in the mood for. On our way out of town we stopped at AdaBlue Cafe, a place that had free fudge samples. They only had one type of fudge to sample though which I thought was pretty lame…since when are you not allowed to sample whichever fudge you’d like to buy?!

Day fourteen my mom, her friend Janelle, and I drove to Tampa. We started our adventures in the Ybor historic district. First, we saw chickens roaming around the square, giving me a whole new understanding of the term “free range”. Then we wandered around for a bit and went to Tampa Bay Brewing Company for lunch. Next we drove further into downtown Tampa and went to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. It wasn’t that big and some of the images were pretty poor quality, so I’m glad I got in for free with my North American Reciprocal Museum pass and didn’t have to pay the $10 entry fee. Also, apparently I get other people in for free with my pass too, because my mom got in for free on my pass too. Sweet!

After the museum, we walked along the Riverwalk until we got really hot in the sun and decided to go to the beach. We drove to St. Pete’s Beach and I walked around and found a nice spot on the beach to watch the sunset while the ladies rehydrated. I’ve come to really appreciate my moments of solitude in nature. Nothing makes me quite as happy as being alone and enjoying the beauty of the world around me. I quieted my mind and then scooted closer to the waterfront to make sure I had a good spot to take pictures from.

Shortly after I arrived at the beach I noticed this really handsome tall muscular black man by himself taking pictures. I looked around and was not surprised to see we were surrounded by predominantly white people. The handsome man and I made eye contact a couple times and I smiled. Then he walked over to me and asked if I would take a picture of him with the sunset in the background. I said sure and took a few and when he saw them he said, “Wow, I’m a professional photographer and this picture is perfect. Totally worth the wait. Thank you.” You, sir, are welcome and thank you for making my day with such an awesome compliment. To the sunset’s credit, it was amazing. As I sat there and watched it progress I thought, I just want to lay down and float away on the waves, that’s how perfect this sunset is.

Really though, this sunset makes me want to float away on a wave, St. Petes Beach, FL.

Really though, this sunset makes me want to float away on a wave, St. Petes Beach, FL.

New Year’s Eve I spent the day working on the blog. That evening I tagged along to a party at my mom’s friend’s house. I learned a very valuable lesson that last day of 2015: Sometimes what we say we want and what we actually want are at odds with each other and we may not even know it. Allow me to illustrate, I’ve always said, albeit half-jokingly, as I’m sure many others have, that I want to marry rich. While I don’t really believe in marriage as an institution, the dream remains: find a partner who’s financially stable so everything else becomes easier. Yeah, I can now say that unless my partner fulfills my very specific requirements of being rich, but having grown up poor, I’d rather have a poor partner, because I doubt I would last very long with a rich one.

Here’s why: on this particular New Year’s Eve day I sat in a room of “my peers,” if I could stomach calling white twenty-somethings with plush corporate jobs bragging about their business class international travel while being blissfully unaware of anything beyond themselves and their most recent trip to Starbucks peers, which I can’t.

Pause. Let me first say that the vast majority of the people I have interacted with on my trip so far have been Couchsurfers, people, on the whole, dedicated to the ideas of sharing and giving back, respecting diversity and creating a more harmonious world.

Ok, that being said, this New Year’s Eve day foray into the lives of young corporate Americans shocked me and caught me off guard. I learned in middle school not to force my friendship on people. I learned in high school not to care what other people thought of me. But it wasn’t until college that I learned the importance of surrounding myself with positive, like-minded people. In my New York and Arkansas bubbles I was fortunate enough to be surrounded with such people and until this moment, my road trip had likewise provided me a safety net of people who shared my core values. 

So at this New Year’s Eve party when I found myself listening to conversations founded on one privilege after another, by people completely and utterly blind to their privilege, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t sit there and engage in their conversation. I couldn’t smile and nod and pretend I knew what they were talking about. I couldn’t accept their ignorance by playing along and applauding the “hard work” that got them to where they were. I just couldn’t.

I sat there silently, in utter disbelief, trying to wrap my head around the idea that these people actually existed. I couldn’t believe, with everything else going on in the world, that their biggest concern could be how many new people were going to show up at their gym on Monday. Here sat some of the “best” and “brightest” in America, and true to other countries perceptions of us, they were only concerned with themselves. 

In that moment I fully realized, how much I’ve changed over the past few years. Since school, since New York, since Arkansas, since I started my road trip. It really hit me how much I no longer put stock in America’s capitalistic consumerism. Sitting there I became overwhelmed with gratitude. Gratitude for the money I saved in Arkansas that allowed me to quit my job and take this trip. Gratitude for the opportunity I have to see my home country before I take my leave of her and discover what else the world has to offer. In that moment I couldn’t wait to get back on the road with my Couchsurfing community and once again surround myself with people who actually see the world outside themselves and are actively doing something to make it a better place. So, thank you, to all of you who have encouraged me to follow my dreams, take a chance, and go on this trip. Thank you to everyone who has helped me along the way and to everyone who will and thank you to everyone who is working tirelessly to make the world a better place – you rock! 

2016: Here. We. Come!