|Take the money and run|
|One of many abandoned developments in CA and FL|
|Where you can live your crazy dream|
That new life on the frontier has been pushed to the continent's shores; the only places where Americans can reinvent themselves, shed their old skins, are Florida and California.
The climate creates a new emotional reality; you feel your feet belonging to the sandy ground and your being is part of the ecosystem of flora and fauna, the gecko and you enjoying the sun and shade as easy partners. Those beautiful dinosaurs, the waterbirds, go about their business as they have for a million years; the fish are plenty and business is good.
You abandon, more quickly than you would have guessed, your usual escapes into television and media, mostly forget the clock (the sun tells you of the day's waxing and waning) and think this is a place where you can actually trade dependence for simplicity...yes, it would work here. Can you ever be a budding Buddhist in Boston? Not-wanting is easy here, impossible there.
Careful -- things are different here, in many ways. Dreamers without scruples have, for over a century, promoted boom and bust, trashing nature and fleecing naive northerners who can't wait to leave those winter coats and boots behind. In the process, Florida went from the least populous Southern state (only a third are natives today) to one of the most populous in the nation. But since the twin terrors of the 2004 hurricanes and the 2007 real-estate bubble-burst, you can see suburban developments of hundreds of acres eerily empty, and like California, people are leaving in increasing numbers. The story of Lehigh Acres, in southwestern Lee County, is of epic, not recent, failure: lots were advertised for only $50 down and $10 a month in faraway places like Detriot beginning in 1954. It is still mostly uninhabited since the promised utilities were never installed; the poor roads the developer slowly put in over 20 years will cost the taxpayers $70 million to rebuild if it is ever done. The chief salesman then shamelessly went on to promote the Jim Walter/Del Webb project, Sun City Center, where my parents live. If you want to pick up a lot or abandoned house cheap, you can actually take a foreclosure boat tour courtesy of a local realtor.
The land is low, within a foot of becoming swampland if sea levels rise (and they will). The retention ponds mandated in modern developments look like a great place to kayak, but any one of them might have an opportunistic alligator in it. Retirees have learned not to let small pets outdoors or to walk within several yards of the deceptively quiet shoreline.
Communities for the more prosperous are gated for a reason: Orlando and Miami are in the top ten most dangerous cities. But if a little humor is needed to diffuse anxiety, contemplate this: the state is listed 47th in intelligence! The goings-on are chronicled in the popular "FloriDUH" column in the Sun-Sentinel and other newspapers -- a tabloid writer would never have to resort to fiction here. Humorists and observers like Dave Barry, John Grogan and Carl Hiassen have more bizarre material to mine than their counterparts a thousand miles north could ever hope for. For instance:
Two teenagers tried to rob the Port St. Lucie police station with a pretend gun. What they hoped to accomplish, no one knows.
James Fuqua sneaked away after his arrest this Fall in Panama City -- then went to Coyote Ugly for a drink with his handcuffs still on.
Traci Batcher, enjoying a few cool drinks in a Sarasota bar, went to the men's room by mistake and returned completely bare. She had no explanation.
Seffner is a small community near Tampa Bay where you would expect nothing much to happen, but recently a swingers' pad, with a spanking table, was shut down after dozens of people a day paid a visit. The owners and operators of the house, in their 50s, were so unattractive it just makes you wonder.
Also in poor Seffner, aggressive Asian cockroaches have multiplied to the point they are swarming in yards and crawling up people's legs; they don't hide and avoid light at all.
Despite all that, while we were very much enjoying walking around the stalled resort development of Little Harbor on the south shores of Tampa Bay where we spent last week, I wondered about small apartment-sized condos that sold in 2004 for a quarter-million dollars and were now listed at $32,000 (four of them!). There are two marinas, with very impressive powered and sail boats bobbing peacefully, and canals and lagoons full of wildlife everywhere. Many waterfront houses with boat docks were for sale; a bargain-hunter's paradise, in paradise.
So, Florida has both Rush Limbaugh and Jimmy Buffett. Nature both beautiful and dangerous. It's extreme, and it's heavenly calm. A dream and a nightmare.