Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Devil Went Down to Florida

by J.S. Holland

Florida's a land of powerful contradictions, which of course suits me to a T. There's something about the mojo of this peculiar peninsula that attracts both the wealthy and powerful, and the downtrodden and fugitive. It's a land of great natural beauty and profound man-made tackiness.

The earliest known European explorers came with the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who discovered it on April 2, 1513 and named it La Florida. (You thought Cristoforo "Christopher Columbus" Columbo was the first European to set foot in North America? Go to the back of the class. He never actually visited the mainland, and the closest he came was Cuba) And yet, even in Juan's telling of this alleged first contact with Florida, weirdness ensues: he was surprised to find an "indigenous tribesman" here who already spoke Spanish.

Over the subsequent years, Florida became a free-for-all mess. The Spanish, the French, and the English were all mucking around here, trying to take it over. The native Americans were warring with all of them, as well as with each other. Africans who had been brought to America as slaves often sought refuge here. It wasn't until 1845 that the USA managed to fully get their lunch-hooks in Florida and claim it as a state, and we did so as part of an agreement with Spain that we would not seek any claim to Texas in the future. I guess you know how that promise turned out.

Though I shut down almost all my blogs back in July, I knew I'd be back here at the Victorian Squares clubhouse to file the occasional report. Having just returned from the Florida Gulf Coast and, by extension, Interzone, I have much data to relay. Unfortunately almost all of it's classified.

What I can tell you is, I drank a lot of the demon rum. It's really disconcerting for a Kentuckian to find himself in a bar with only seven bourbons but 44 different kinds of rum. I hung out with the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald (and maybe, just maybe, the ghosts of Ernest Hemingway and Joe Strummer as well) on St. Pete's Beach in an old pink palace. Ignoring my own warnings about Corexit, I happily ate fresh-caught mackerel at the Anna Maria Island city pier and went back for seconds.

But did I get any work done? Well, a little bit. I thought this FL trip would give me the setting I needed to finish these still-in-progress novels I've been fiddling with all year, but what it really did was give me inspiration for other novels to write next.

I was constantly reminded of the dialogue from the Naked Lunch movie where Jack Kerouac says, "My novel's all-American as apple pie, Bill. I couldn't finish it here." And Burroughs responds with the bit about how America is not a young country and how before the settlers, before the pirates, even before the Indians, there was something here, something dark and dirty and mysterious.

I defintely felt that indefinable something while creeping around at night in the untamed jungles of Leffis Key. While chatting with an old Haitian voodoo guy who makes masks and sells them to upscale tourists who have no idea what they're bringing into their homes. While sitting on the dock of the bay at Rod & Reel Pier, seeing the enigmatic Egmont Key taunting me just out of reach. My biggest disappointment of this visit is that an expedition to Egmont got scuttled by high winds, storm clouds, and super-choppy waters that prevented our little catamaran from making the journey. Thanks to tropical storm (almost became a hurricane) Phillipe for that.

I was called unexpectedly back to the Commonwealth, alas, and had to cut my visit short. Missed out on the Salvador Dali Museum, as well as the Mote Aquarium. Next time. I got a lot more Floridizin' on the road to my horizon.

To put the gulf area in perspective for my Kentucky readers, think of Tampa as Louisville and Sarasota as Lexington, with Bradenton as the quainter, mellower Frankfort in between. Then you have your islands off to the side - Anna Maria, Perico, Key Royale, Longboat Key, Beer Can Island (pictured above), Leffis Key, Lido Key, Sand Key, Clearwater Beach, Treasure Island, Honeymoon Island, etc. - which mirror the rural-yet-touristy weirdness we have in Midway, Berea, Bowling Green and Cave City. But, you know, with beaches and sharks and dolphins and gators and women walking around in Wicked Weasels.