My Florida state of mind

While we’re waiting for The Next Big Thing to happen, lemme brag on my state for a piece.

I’ve cycled it. I’ve driven it. I’ve hoofed it. Now I’m gonna show it off.

But I’m not going to talk about my Florida indiscretions. Some things are best left unspoken.

Rumor has it that Little Marco came here to find out if he was gonna be president.

Take a drive on the wild side why don’t you…just don’t get stuck in the sand.

How can any living creature look so graceful in the air and so ungainly on the ground?

Even with a fat tire bike you can only ride so far north on Anastasia beach before the sand drags you down. And then there’s the guano…

Went through Greenville on a Bike Florida tour once. They put Ray in the town park, right next to a lovely pond.

Took this shot on another Bike Florida ride, this time in Pinellas County. It’s either a stunning sunset or a nuclear explosion…I forget which.

What to say about Floral City? Not much. But it’s got wonderful oak lined streets and really nostalgic graffiti.

This stretch of greenway is midway between Port St. Joe and, sadly, what’s left of Mexico Beach.

As Ponce de Leon said just before they hit him with that poisoned arrow: I’ll be back.

Remember the Forgotten Coast

The latest edition of Armchair Traveling In The Age of Covid takes us to a stretch of Florida that has well and truly been forgotten in an era of urban sprawl and autoAnarchy. And that’s a good thing, friends and neighbors.

Because the thing you have to remember about The Forgotten Coast is that, there, legends are fact and fact is legend. Which is another way of saying that if the Creature of the Black Lagoon and the Wakulla Volcano didn’t exist, we would have to make them up.

What we do not have to make up is The Forgotten Coast’s relationship with the sea. Land and water meet here in perfect harmony.

In point of fact, land and water and light and shadows and reality and illusions all come together in a perfect melding of shapes and colors and illusions.

Until it is barely possible to know what is up and what is down. Not that any of that makes any difference on The Forgotten Coast.

Consider that a St. Marks lighthouse keeper, perched on the edge of the world, worried that he would be slaughtered by marauding Seminoles…who never did find their way to the lighthouse. But just a few miles away, economics and the elements would ultimately make a ghost town out of a boom town.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What I wanted to say is that I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with The Forgotten Coast by virtue of leading bicycle tours along a stretch of Florida that, somehow, had escaped the curse of concrete, condos, asphalt and expansion. God knows how.

It is only by getting out of a car that you really can experience the natural order of things on the Forgotten Coast and appreciate just how liberating being in a forgotten land can be.

It is not for nothing that pirates and vagabonds and adventurers and fugitives have come here to find refuge.

This is where Ed Ball, Florida’s most notorious robber barron, built his Xanadu.

They picked Ball’s estate, where the Wakulla River converges with the Gulf of Mexico, to stand in for the primeval Amazon…where creatures strange and menacing dwelled.

Because, after all, who could possibly tell the difference?

The Unforgettable Coast

Another edition of the Armchair Traveler In The Age of Covid. Let’s take a trip along Florida’s Forgotten Coast. An amazing collection of inlets, bays, rivers and swamps and tiny settlements that extend from the St. Marks National Wildlife Preserve to the bones of old Mexico Beach and beyond.

We’re talking your Creature Of The Black Lagoon, your Wakulla Volcano, and much, much more. Legends and fantasies are born here.

Shrimpers, oystermen, smugglers, pirates and vagabonds all converge on this forgotten shore.

I took this photo on the Ochlockonee River, which winds its way out of Tate’s Hell Swamp and empties into the Gulf, on the first morning of the Biden presidency. It seemed as good an omen as any.

You simply cannot walk the banks of this enchanted river without coming away with a fresh perspective on life, the universe and everything.

The story goes that a St. Marks lighthouse keeper was so terrified of marauding Seminoles that he begged the lighthouse service to build him an escape boat. He was refused, but it turned out the lighthouse was so remote that even the Indians wouldn’t bother with it. Nearby Port Leon also suffered from disinterest.

I fell in love with this exquisite stretch of coast while leading five day bicycle tours that started in Port St. Joe and ended at Tallahassee.

On the first day of our tour we always cycled to Mexico Beach. It was a classic beach town seemingly preserved in its 1950’s-era roots. Unspoiled by modern condos and such. Unfortunately, hurricane Michael came to visit and tore little Mexico Beach to shreds.

Port St. Joseph had ambitions to be Florida’s state capital. But yellow fever and bad weather spoiled everything. Port St. Joe had to settle for the Florida Constitutional Museum as a consolation prize. But this small, lovely port town sheltered from the sea by a long, narrow peninsula is a joy to visit.

The charm of Apalachicola isn’t just that it was once the oyster capital of the world. The oystermen are largely gone now but Apalachicola lives on as a fishing village, culture and arts center, amazing eateries and too much history to recount here. Oh, and somebody invented air conditioning here, which is very cool.

Seriously, if it’s not in Apalachicola you don’t really need it.

If you blink you could miss Eastpoint altogether. But it is a vital Forgotten Coast link. It connects to Apalachicola via a five mile bridge and to St. George Island via a six mile span.

What’s not to like on St. George Island? Miles of pristine white sandy beaches and primeval wetlands on one end, and a classic beach town on the other. A great lighthouse and the Blue Parrot, one of the coolest cafes on the whole coast (great t-shirts too), smack dab in the middle.

Carrabell. A quirky little fishing village with a drinking problem. Also, the world’s smallest police station and a scowling pirate to make sure nobody gets out of hand.

Ochlockonee Bay is destination zero for seafood. Cycle across the long bridge for some amazing views.

You can hike for miles in the wilderness of Ochlockonee River State Park. And you really should. Also great camp sites.

Just up the road a bit is Sopchoppy. Home of the celebrated Worm Gruntin’ Festival. The Sopchoppy River winds right through town, and if that’s not something worth toasting I don’t know what is.

Ed Ball, the last of Florida’s robber barons, built his Xanadu on what is now Wakulla Springs State Park. You can stay in his lodge, swim in the springs (where they filmed the Creature Of The Black Lagoon, Seahunt and other classics)…

…and take a river cruise that’ll make you swear you are on the Amazon.

Every now and then the little town of St. Marks gets flooded out. But these are hardy folks and they don’t discourage easily. You can cycle from Tallahassee to St. Marks via rail-trail. Plus, the River Cafe.

The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge alone is worth the trip. Awesome birding, a lighthouse to die for and thousands of acres of water, swamps, and endless places to get lost in.

“Down the highway south I’ll go
Wewahitchka to Port Saint Joe
I’m gonna walk the beach with a pirate’s ghost
We’ll haunt that old Forgotten Coast.

“No ones gonna find me there
With my steel guitar and my rocking chair
Among the seafood shacks and oyster boats
Hide out on that Forgotten Coast.”

Joe McMurtry

Forgotten Coast

Carbon fever dreams

I drove to St Augustine for the Christmas lights.

I saw a strange lady in my bathroom at the Casa Monica. She was laughing at me.

I looked out my window to see the Christmas lights. I saw cars.

Cars spewing carbon on ancient streets where conquistadors once strode.

I asked Henry Flagler what the hell happened.

He said “You got the wrong Henry, pal. Ask Ford.”

And St. Augustine’s lion scowled.

What damnable infestation is this!

But things forever change.

Eventually the rising sea will claim what Menendez built.

And even the cars, spewing their carbon still, will have to give way.

The future is in the water.

And the past will fade into memory.

And the lady will laugh. And the lion will scowl.

What would Flagler think?

It is a city under the sun. The oldest continually occupied European city in the New World. Ageless.

But if you have ever been to St. Augustine at this time of the year….

You know that when the sun goes down…

Something magical begins to happen.

Everything begins to change in the light and the shadows and the hues.

St. Augustine makes its own sunlight.

From the Matanzas River.

To the town square.

A symphony in black and white.

And, really, it’s something to see.

Like a whole city wrapped up in tinsel and colored bulbs.

Faces fade while facades brighten.

Entire houses come gift wrapped.

And if I you happen to be looking at it all through your hotel window, the reflections themselves are seductive.

As the city rolls slowly by beneath you.

And the creatures of the night come out to play.

And you find yourself wondering: What would Henry Flagler make of all of this?

And indeed, what would the Lion of St. Augustine make of it all?

A poet in Florida

I learned that Shakespeare really lived

so scholars have decided.

Though quite a few have studied me

they’re not as sure that I did.

Peter Meinke

This is a piece I wrote for FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities. It appears in the summer 2020 issue.

Memo to scholars: Peter Meinke lives, thank you very much. And there is an impressive body of work to back up the essential heartbeat of his literary existence.

Start with 18 volumes of poems and short stories produced over the span of half a century. Throw in frequent submissions published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry…and not to forget Creative Loafing, the St. Petersburg leisure magazine for which Meinke writes a column about…well, life, the university and pretty much whatever else pops into his head.

All this followed up by then-Gov. Rick Scott appointing Meinke Florida’s Poet Laurette.

For which appointment, Meink has written, he did not receive the traditional “barrel of sherry the way the English poets did.” But it was quite an honor nonetheless.

Oh, and did we mention that, to top it all off, the Florida Council for The Humanities has selected Meinke as the latest recipient of its Lifetime Literary Award For Writing?

“One of my childish first thoughts was, how happy my mother would have been!,” said Meinke about receiving the news. “She was crazily proud of my being a writer.”

Not bad for a late starter who set out early in life to be a poet but would have settled for a career in baseball.

Poetry won out, as it happens, but his was far from an smooth career trajectory.

In 1950, when he graduated from Mountain Lakes High School, in New Jersey, his school yearbook predicted: “Peter Meinke: Wants to be: Writer. Probably Will be: Censored.”

“That sounded good to me,” he recalls.

Still, 15 years and a decade’s accumulation of rejection slips would grind by before a Meinke poem “In Gentler Times,” would garner first prize in the Olivet Sonnet Competition, which happened to be judged by W. D. Snodgrass.

‘This was inspiring for two reasons,” he recalls. “I loved Snodgrass’s book “April Inventory,” and”I remember feeling that however I’d be judged from then on, I was a writer.”

In 1966, Meinke moved to St. Petersburg to start a creative writing program at Florida Presbyterian College, later to rebrand as Eckerd College. He would remain on faculty for 27 years until his retirement.

And now, 70 years beyond high school, the 87-year-old poet reflects, “there’s something so final about receiving the Florida Humanities Lifetime Literary Award for Writing. I don’t exactly feel finished, but more like having completed a marathon. It’s very satisfying.”

Previous honorees have included such Florida literary luminaries as Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Patrick Smith, Randy White, Mike Gannon, Enid Shomer and Jeff Klinkenberg. “The dignity and reputation of the Council and the quality of the writers chosen over the years, give the award a gravitas that surprised me,” he said.

Steven M. Seibert, executive director of the Humanities Council said that when this year’s selection committee’s discussion “turned to Peter, it grasped how influential his work has been. This influence isn’t just felt on St. Petersburg, where he’s been a longtime resident and an invaluable teacher to innumerable writers, but across and beyond our state.

“Bestowing the Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing is another way to once again remind thousands of Floridians about Peter Meinke’s incredible body of work.”

Meaning (call it M3) is the increasingly invisible

odorless, tasteless element in our universe long ago

slipped by someone’s god into our water…..

Peter Meinke, “M3”

Like most Americans in these perilous times, Meinke greeted the spring by hunkering down in his home, waiting out the coronavirus, with his wife, Jeanne, an artist and frequent collaborator.

“As an older person who happens to be a poet, I am very moved by the number of friends and neighbors who have called to check on how Jeanne and I are doing, asking can they help in any way,” he says. “They think, correctly, that poets and artists aren’t very practical, and haven’t stocked up on anything useful.

Ah, but what a house of refuge his is! Although they have traveled the world, the Meinkes always return to their beloved if aging cottage (“the plumbing system just collapsed”) situated on two-thirds of an acre in the heart of St. Petersburg close to downtown.

“It’s very lush, with five or six live oak trees and a couple of fruit trees, totally shaded,” he said. “We both love this house and the kids (two sons and two daughters, all grown now) would never let us sell it. And we wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

The house provides “a sense of place that is very real. It has roots like a good poem.”

Speaking of which, although Meinke writes frequently about faith, politics, everyday life and so on he has refrained so far from writing about the virus that has been sweeping the world.

Rather, he has spent much of his time reading “The Mirror and the Light,” the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. And he highly recommends it: “The trilogy may carry you all the way through this pandemic.”

He also has been reflecting on the lessons from Daniel Defoe’s “Journal Of The Plague Year.”

“There were some similarities,” he said. “It came over to London from Holland as coronavirus came from China. It was played down by authorities as it swept through one neighborhood after another, and its most awful effects hit the poor, as the rich ran to their country houses, taking their doctors with them.

“Those are some thoughts I’m having,” he continues. “I haven’t written anything about coronavirus really. That will come later, if I’m lucky.”

The apple I see and the apple

I think I see and the apple

I say I see

are at least three

different apples…

Meinke “Apples.”

To be sure these are strange times in which to be a poet. In an era when leaders and celebrities communicate to the world in 280-character tweets, is there still a place for the poet, long-form or short-form?

“Some writers think that Americans no longer can read long books,” he muses. “And because of the tweeting there are poets who sometimes think Americans can’t read long poems.

“I do think that one of the problems with poetry is that even though they are shorter than novels you can’t speed read poems. You’ve got to linger over poems, and people aren’t used to doing that. You have to take a poem bit by bit.”

On the other hand “poetry is the kind of reading that, if you like it. you will always read it more than once. You’ll read it over, and then you read something else into it.

“People always say to poets ‘why didn’t you say what you mean?’ Well, you sort of mean a lot of things. I like the idea that poems have more than one level. It makes more interesting when you read it again.”

And that’s certainly true. Consider Meinke’s poem “Elephant Tusks”…“which we grind down into dice and key, earring and toothpick to capture the spirit of the elephant….” At first blush it reads as a condemnation of our crass consumer-obsessed culture. On further consideration one may read in it an almost spiritual reflection on the sheer weight of everyday living: “the huge stomping of elephant shakes the floor until the roof collapses.”

The trick is to live your days

as if each one may be your last…

…but at the same time, plan long range.

Meinke: Advice To My Son

“They know the poem,” says Meinke of his sons. “They’re good kids doing very well, now in their late fifties. One is the CEO of a chemistry conglomerate and the other works for USAID.

That poem, one of his most popular, “was just common sense. I didn’t start out to write any advice. It took me quite a while, with a lot of rewriting. I often let my poems sit for a while and the next week they always change.”

And that’s the thing about being a working poet that readers may not grasp. “If you want to be a poet you have to like rewriting,” he says. “I don’t think ‘this is finished.’ I think I have to work on it again today.

One definition of poetry, he says, is “The best words in the best order.

“And that’s the perfect advice for a writer…the best words in the best order.”

Looking toward his 88th year, Meinke acknowledges that he has “definitely slowed down…I certainly write less.” Still he has been finishing up another yet volume of poems.

“I believe that poets are citizens. They don’t have to write about everyday events, but over the course of life you ought to see what’s going on. You want people to be able to think big thoughts by reading a little poem.”

Because poetry, like life, ought to be constantly evolving and changing and shifting in previously unimaginable ways.

“Every morning I’ll look at the blank page feeling eager and uncertain,” he says. “Maybe I should start with ‘Hi Mom,’ and begin typing.”

Who’s sick of sonnets?  Iamb  Iamb…

Meinke

A ride on the wild side

Listen, if you want to practice your social distancing on two wheels you could do a lot worse than a nice Sunday morning cycle tour of the Ocala Horse Country just south of Micanopy. Even before the lockdown traffic on these beautiful rural roads, most of them lined with Spainish moss draped oaks, is light to practically nonexistent. The scenery is spectacular as you alternatively roll past small cracker shacks, multi-million dollar horse farms…and at one point a wildlife refuge populated by zebras and other exotic animals. This is a favorite 28-mile route in and out of Micanopy that takes you through Evanston, McIntosh and Flemington. It’s an east ride and that you can do in just about two hours and change.

Here’s a link to the Ride With GPS route. https://ridewithgps.com/routes/32397279

Art and the Anthropocene

Ange can’t sleep. 

She tosses and turns and worries.

About her daughter Lily’s grim future. About the dead chicks they encountered

during a Girl Scout creek cleanup. About an Everglades awash in salt water. 

And the rising sea.

“Poor Florida,” Ange frets.”   

“Boca Raton” is a disturbing new short story by Gainesville author Lauren Groff, who chalks the title down to her own bouts with insomnia. 

“In my night-terrors, when I can’t sleep, I look at maps of sea-level models and Boca is always submerged.”

Her story is part of an Amazon e-book collection called “Warmer.” Short fiction by noted authors focusing on the very non-fictional issue of climate change.

Groff’s contribution is a grim read that had its genesis in a particularly grim image. “I couldn’t exorcise the photograph I’d seen of the outline of dead baby birds whose parents had fed them plastic,” Groff said, “and sometimes I try to put images in fiction to get them out of my head.”

By putting it in our heads.

Artists deal with images in creative ways. And perhaps it says something about the times we live in that while many politicians studiously ignore climate change, artists are taking up the cause. 

Currently at the Harn Museum is an exhibit titled “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene,” the works of 45 international artists keyed on the theory that human-induced alteration of the Earth’s environment is ushering in a new geological epoch.

 “We live in a world of imminent extinctions, runaway climate change and the depletion of biodiversity and resources,” explains the Harn’s web site. “Florida is one of the most environmentally vulnerable locations worldwide, making” the exhibit “especially relevant.”

Artists rush in where politicians fear to tread.

Recently I had a conversation with Xavier Cortada, identified by the New York Times as one of a dozen prominent artists who have taken on climate change.

And for good reason. Cortada lives and works in Miami, the American city most vulnerable to sea rise. 

Cortada came to Gainesville a few years ago with his “Moving Water” exhibit, which called attention to the drastic damage already being done to our very wet state. During a trip to Antarctica, he collected ice samples taken by scientists there and used the melt water to produce a series of paintings about vanishing glaciers.

Back home in Miami, Cortada this week launched his latest climate change awareness project: The Underwater Home Owners Association (HOA).

“We need to stop worrying about the color of our homes or how tall the grass is and instead worry about what’s going to happen once the sea rises,” he said.

Participating residents in the Village of Pinecrest, are displaying watercolor lawn signs painted by Cortada, also using his Antarctic melt water. Every sign depicts precisely how high sea levels must rise before a given yard will be underwater. 

“I wanted the invisible to be visible,” he said. “It’s a way to help us think about and understand our flat topography.

“Miami is a perfect canvas on which to have that conversation,” he said. “Even when the conversation is hard to have.”

Who knows, maybe Miami resident and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio will be sufficiently moved by Underwater HOA (we’re talking real estate values here, after all) to actually have a conversation about climate change. Maybe Rubio will discuss it with Florida’s new junior U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who wouldn’t talk about it during 8 years in the governor’s mansion. Perhaps they’ll even include Florida’s new governor, Rick DeSantis, in the conversation.

Hope springs eternal, as the artists say. And Florida can’t afford many more years of climate change denial in Tallahassee or D.C. 

The arts speak to us. Can they speak to the deniers?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.

Searching for Florida

In April I was all set to give this presentation at a Bike Florida conference on bicycle tourism. But of course it got canceled due to COVID-19.

Still, I’m not one to waste a good speech so……

Could we just take a moment to talk about the real Florida please?

Because Florida is very much a state of mind.

Case in point: In 1980 I was covering the U.S. Senate race in Florida for the New York Times Florida Newspapers.

That year the campaign trail took me from Pensacola to Key West, and in the course of things I got a call from the Great Gray Lady Mother Ship in New York: AKA The New York Times.

They were sending down one of their national political reporters to do a story about the Florida race and asked me to show her around.

So I picked her up in Orlando. I don’t remember her name but right off she assured me that she knew all there was to know about Florida….having spent many a winter in Miami.

We were following Democratic hopeful Bill Gunter and our first stop was in Plant City, strawberry capital of the South.

We stopped at a diner where the produce haulers ate so Bill could press some flesh, and my guest from NY looked around in astonishment.

She said….and I am not making this up.

They’re eating grits!”

Apparently you didn’t get grits with your bagels on South Beach at that time.

Later we were on our way to Tallahassee by way of Perry, and while approaching the Osceola National Forest she was moved to remark

“Look at all those trees!”

I could have told her that developers had cut down all the trees in Miami years ago, but what was the point?

I bring that story up to relate to you Florida’s dilemma, especially but not exclusively when it comes to generating interest in bicycle tourism.

“Everybody” you meet knows all about Florida.

We are the home of Florida man, after all.

The problem is that “Everybody’s” idea of Florida starts with South Beach and ends with Disney.

What we need to do is figure out how to introduce these people to the other Florida.

You know, the real Florida.

Listen, some years ago my wife and I rode the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal trails from Pittsburgh to Georgetown in D.C.

Arriving in Pittsburgh we proceeded to get lost looking for the GAP trailhead. So I stopped a guy on a bicycle and asked directions.

We had a lovely chat and in the course of it I asked him if he had ever done any riding in Florida.

“I’d never ride in Florida,” he scowled. “It’s too damned hot.”

A few months later we had our spring tour in Lake and Polk Counties. And to this day the thing I most remember about our Orange Blossom Express tour is that temperatures were dipping down into the 30s most nights.

And this in March.

One night we ran movies in a middle school auditorium in Clermont all night long because nobody wanted to go back to their tents.

Welcome to too-hot-to-ride Florida pal!

Oh and then there was the time I put up a Bike Florida display tent during the annual Bike Virginia tour, this one in the Shenandoah Mountains.

The most common remark I got was “I won’t ride in Florida….it’s too flat.”

“Listen,” I’d tell them. “We have mountains in Florida….it’s called the wind.”

And here’s the difference between cycling on the Blue Ridge Parkway and heading south on A1A battling a ferocious Atlantic headwind.

Every now and then you get to go downhill on the Parkway,, which is a nice little break. A cruel Atlantic headwind cuts you no such slack.

So here’s the thing I found most frustrating, and most challenging, during my tenure as executive director of Bike Florida.

If you want to convince people that Florida is really a great biking state you better bring your lunch.

I have ridden the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, the southern highlands of Scotland, Ireland’s Cliffs of More and Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands.

I’ve cycled the Rockies and ridden the south rim of the Grand Canyon, toured New York’s Finger Lakes and the Erie Canal Trail.

And I’ve found all of those experiences to be remarkable in their own way.

But I’ve done some of my best and most memorable riright here in the Sunshine State.

We may not have mountains. But as Clyde Butcher will tell you, Florida’s beauty is every bit as exquisite if infinitely more subtle.

We used to have a small group tour we called the Horse Country to the Springs Tour. Through the heart of Florida’s Eden.

We took riders down lovely no-traffic country roads that wound past cracker shacks interspersed with multi-million dollar horse farms – where you’d see a for-sale sign and know that yet another tort lawyer lost his case on appeal.

We passed zebras on our way to Micanopy.

We visited Marjorie Kinnon Rawling’s cracker citrus grove in Cross Creek, where enthusiastic docents filled us in on the nitty gritty of her Bohemian life style.

We stopped outside Gainesville to walk out onto Alachua Sink to get up close and personal with Gators who were well and truly on steroids.

Listen, nothing gets that big on its own.

Arriving in High Springs we pressed on to Oleno State Park – named after a once popular gambling game because this is Florida, after all – got off our bikes, and proceeded to throw ourselves into the gently-flowing, tea-colored water of the Santa Fe River.

And as we floated there a woman from Baltimore asked me, rather nervously,

“Are there any gators in this river?”

Since I cannot tell a lie, I told her, truthfully.

“Why yes there are.”

Then I pointed to the roped line of floatation devices that sectioned off the park’s swimming area and I said.

“But they aren’t allowed to go past that line.”

I dunno, she didn’t seem all that reassured.

I have been telling this remarkable state’s unique stories – some of them near to unbelievable for those of you who may have heard of the Wakulla volcano – for my entire journalistic career.

And when I got the opportunity to be executive director of Bike Florida I thought “This is great. Now I can show cyclists from all over the world my Florida.

That secret Florida.

The Florida that isn’t defined by South Beach and Disney.

I wanted to take my cyclists to Two Egg.

And tell them about that time our Confederate governor fled there to his plantation -lto fatally shoot himself upon hearing that the South had surrendered.

I couldn’t wait to lead tours to Wewahitchka – Tupalo Honey capital of the south – by way of the primeval Dead Lakes.

I wanted to show them Ormond Beach’s Loop, past wetlands that seemed almost primeval in their graceful beauty, and then on through a massive oak-canopied road that abruptly gave way to urban river life Florida style.

I’ve taken them the Old Sugar Mill ruins in New Smyrna Beach, where folks still argue over whether the sugar plantation’s owner was murdered by his slaves or by Indians.

And you know what impressed them most about these historic ruins?

That’s right….the cement dinosaurs that are still there from back when it was called Bongoland.

Yes, another Florida roadside attraction.

We’ve taken cyclists to Bok Tower. And ridden the Canaveral National Seashore.

We’ve cycled the Talbot Islands past great undisturbed stretches of Atlantic coast that still look something like they must have looked when Jean Ribault made landfall there in 1560.

And we’ve taken cyclists to St. Marks, and told them about that time Spanish conquistadors got trapped there by Apalachee Indians

Who were not at all impressed with their muskets and horses.

BTW: That’s one of my all-time favorite Florida stories.

Those conquistadors originally landed in Tampa Bay looking for gold. So they cornered the local indigenous people and demanded “Where’s the gold?”

Whereupon said indigenous people said “We haven’t got the gold. The Apalachee do.”

Which sent the conquistadors scurrying north in the direction of Tallahassee looking for fame and fortune.

Of course the Apalachee didn’t have the gold.

What they had was a reputation for being the nastiest, meanest and most warlike tribe in the entire region.

Thereby proving my longtime contention that Florida has always been a land of confidence men. But that’s another Florida story.

Heck, the Spanish ended up having to eat their horses and cut their hides into leather strips to make rafts and then launch themselves into the Gulf of Mexico…ultimately to end up washed ashore on Galveston Island, where most were either killed or enslaved by other Indians.

Listen, we have ridden through the rabbit warren of million dollar seaside mansions on Casey Key – just to see how the other half live – and then on to Boca Grande….where they told us that we couldn’t use their “private” bike/golf cart trail because they didn’t want “our kind of bikers” in their town.

Like we were the Hell’s Angles or something.

And speaking of which we once took several hundred cyclists to Soloman’s Castle, a big house apparently made of tin foil out in the middle of nowhere Hardee County…and had the great good fortune to arrive at the same time as the Tampa Bay chapter of Dykes On Bikes.

Is this a great state or what?

Listen, I could go on and on about the Florida stories we could tell….and show…to our cyclists.

Watching the sun rise on the St. John’s River in Welaka before heading out to Mud Springs…which isn’t really all that muddy. Some say it’s called that to discourage people from going there.

Like visiting Fernandina Beach so we could sit on a bench with David Yulee the railroad barron and talk to him about that time he had to get out of town real fast in one of his trains just before union troops could nab him.

Or riding to Mexico Beach…at least before it was reduced to rubble…so we could show them what a Florida beach town looked like before the condo kings got ahold of it.

I was brimming over with stories….and places..and I was absolutely certain that cyclists would beat a path to our door for the privilege of seeing My Florida.

And I am sorry to say that, by and large, I was wrong.

I will tell you that to this day I consider my biggest failure as a professional communicator was my inability to figure out how to market the Real Florid to cyclists from up north or from out west or oversees.

I hope that the people in this room will put their heads together and figure out how to do that.

Because Florida isn’t too hot.

And Florida isn’t too flat.

And our best places to ride aren’t South Beach or Disney.

BTW: Have you noticed that Disney packages cruise ship tours with resort visits…all the better to capture a target audience and keep them spending money on Disney enterprises.

Nobody from Disney has asked me, but if they did I’d suggest that they do another kind of packaging to attract people from Germany, Italy, France and other places where cycling is a thing.

Say, five or six days in the resorts followed by a five day guided bicycle tour.

And the beauty of that is – thanks to the commitment Florida is making to connecting greenways – Disney or anybody else will soon be able to offer exclusively on-trail tours of several days length for people who would love to ride a bicycle here but are scared off by Florida’s deplorable record for killing more cyclists and pedestrians than almost any other state.

Which brings me to the other really important message I have to deliver to you who came here today to figure out how to grow bicycle tourism in Florida.

Sorry, but I need to say this because I have been writing about these basic pubic safety issues for far longer than I’ve been interested in bicycle tourism.

Florida has for too many years led the nation in the number of pedestrians and cyclists it kills.

We are killing far too many people who prefer not to drive in order to get from here to there.

On one of my very first Bike Florida tours we lost a very nice man from Arizona after a teenager near Newberry dropped his cell phone, reached down to get it, and veered into the bike lane.

So let me be clear.

Florida desperately needs to take aggressive, corrective action to save the lives of people who don’t care to encase themselves inside multi-ton steel cocoons for the singular privilege of getting from one place to another.

Call it Vision Zero. Call it traffic calming. Call it Complete Streets.

Whatever you want to call the strategy, the only thing we can call the status quo is unacceptable.

If we do not do something about that then we can kiss our bicycle tourism ambitions goodbye.

My bottom line message to all of you is simply this.

We need a strategy, a vision, a plan to get out the message that Florida is open for safe and enjoyable cycling.

We should refuse to take a back seat to corn field-rich Iowa, or lumpy North Carolina or woody Oregon or any other state when it comes to being cycle friendly.

Seriously, folks, it’s time for Florida to grow up and cycle right.

It’s time for all of us to ride our age.

Red and our right to know

J. Emory “Red” Cross was a maverick in the Florida Legislature who believed that his constituents ought to know what their government was doing in their names.

(I wrote this article for the current edition of FORUM, a publication of Florida Humanities)

What’s in a name?

If you had asked J. Emory Cross that question in 1948, he would have said that name recognition counts for a lot.

Cross, Georgia native turned Marianna car salesman turned Gainesville lawyer was running for state prosecutor against two rivals from well-known local families. At campaign functions they liked to brag about just how familiar their names were.

“That was sort of getting to me so finally I began to say,’now you are talking about familiarity of names?’ I believe mine was more familiar than either one of theirs,” he recalled in a 1978 interview with the University of Florida’s Oral History Program.

“My name is Red Cross.

“That might have won me the election.”

Whether it did or not, Red Cross stuck. He of the crimson hair, “ice cream” tropical suits and a penchant for tough causes.

And Red wasn’t even his first nickname. When he ran for student body president at the University of Florida in 1945 – winning by just 15 votes – they jokingly called him “Landslide.”

But the most enduring moniker Cross acquired during a stellar political career was no joke:

Father of Florida’s Sunshine Law.

It took him a decade to do it, beginning in 1957 when he was in the state house. But in his dogged determination to mandate public meetings, Cross more than anyone insured that, in Florida, the people’s business would be done in sight of and with participation from the people.

And getting that done was a lonely business. “I never had a co-introducer on it in all the times that I introduced it,” Pepper would later say of the legislation that finally passed in 1967, when he was a state senate.

In terms of having a lasting impact on everyday lives, J. Emory “Red” Cross may be the most consequential politician that many Floridians have never heard of. If you ever attended a city zoning board hearing to protect your property rights, or weighed in on your neighborhood school’s redistricting, you can thank Red Cross for that right.

Half a century after its passage the Sunshine Law still obliges school board members, city and county commissioners and state officials to hold open meetings and listen to public comments before making decisions.

And it should surprise no one that it is newspeople – who regularly attend public meetings and report on their outcomes – who are most likely to remember and appreciate Red Cross’ legacy.

“There should be a statue of the man in Tallahassee, and his face should be emblazoned on the wall of every county courthouse and city hall in the state,” Craig Pittman, reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and author of “Oh, Florida!” has written.

“Think of how very different our lives would be without the Sunshine Law, and not just here but also others states that have copied us,” Pittman says. “He saw what was happening outside the public view and came up with this thing that we all take for granted today.”

And therein hangs a tale worth telling.

Red Cross, who died in 2004 at the age of 90, was a fixture in north Florida politics through the 1950s and ’60s. First as prosecutor then state representative and senator and, finally, Alachua County judge. And it’s fair to say that he made an impression on folks.

“He always wore white. White suit, white tie, white shoes, white socks,” recalled Gainesville attorney Jonathan Wershow, whose father lost a legislative race to Cross. “I thought he was an excellent politician but from a political standpoint he was a lot more liberal than the area around him.”

Which is to say that Cross was one of those rarest of political animals – the Southern Progressive. Cut from quite the same mold as Florida’s other “Red,” Claude Pepper, and Lawton Chiles, who served with Cross in the legislature and went on to champion the federal version Florida’s Sunshine Law in the U.S. Senate.

“Red was a very colorful, classic Southern good old boy,” recalls Jean Chance, who began teaching journalism at UF in 1956 and often invited Cross to speak to her students. “It was the day of the Pork Choppers but he was smart enough as a lawyer to know how to compromise. He knew how to count the votes and he knew he was in a college town.”

Indeed, Cross himself would admit that key to his political longevity was his liberal college town constituency, which often put him at odds with the rural lawmakers who ran the state well into second half of the 20th century.

“I had a lot of enemies in the legislature,” he said during that 1978 UF interview “but I represented a county that they did not have any strength with. Alachua County was peculiar in that regard.”

How peculiar? Well, consider that Gainesville was the only Florida city that George McGovern carried in 1972.

And it would be short-changing the man’s legacy to imagine that open government was his sole contribution.

Cross himself said his proudest achievement was bringing a medical school to the University of Florida, in 1955. Working with then-Rep. Ralph Turlington and state Sen. William Shands, Cross drove the length of the state to secure legislative votes for the initiative.

“I had broken my arm and had a cast up to my shoulder,” he recalled. “I drove with my left hand from Pensacola to Key West.”

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Cross helped funnel millions of dollars to Florida’s fledgling community college system. He introduced the bill that created Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville (after heated fight with Sen. Charlie Johns, who wanted it in Starke). He also championed better mental health screening and treatment.

Cross began his push for Government In The Sunshine shortly after he was elected to the House, and after meeting with then-UF journalism dean Rae O Weimer and Buddy Davis, Pulitizer Prize winning editorial page editor of The Gainesville Sun.

The ability of elected officials to make decisions in secret had long bothered Cross.

When I-75 was in the planning stage, he once told the Gainesville Sun, “I had a very good friend who was on the road board helping his buddies” buy up land along its future path. “It just wasn’t right.”

Cross said in his oral history interview “I always believed the people had a right to know about what the public officials were doing and how their money was spent.”

That notion of a public right to know didn’t go over well with many lawmakers. Cross remembered one Chiefland representative, Edder Usher, who argued that “down in Levy County we are not for open meetings.”

“And his newspapers all over Levy County wrote editorials against him,” Cross said. “He was sorry he said that.”

What ultimately paved the way for passage of the Sunshine Law was a landmark court-ordered reapportionment that ended the reign of the pork choppers and ushered in new state leadership. Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, signed the bill into law.

Ironically, it was that same reapportionment that ended Cross’ legislative career. After his district was redrawn to include portions of several rural counties, Cross lost his seat to Gainesville oil-gas distributor Bob Saunders.

“Saunders was a handsome businessman and the right people got behind him and funded his campaign,” Jean Chance said. “Red didn’t keep up with his times.”

Fifty two years after its passage, Cross’s Sunshine Law remains durable but vulnerable to changing times. Barbara Peterson, of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, said “there are far fewer exemptions to our right of access (meetings) than to public records. Of 1,100-plus exemptions, maybe 10 to 15 percent have been to Sunshine Law and the remainder to the Public Records Law.”

Which is not to say that the public’s right to know isn’t threatened by fast-changing technology. Increased used of email, text messaging, social media and other forms of instant communication are challenging the very meaning of what exactly constitutes a public meeting or record.

Sandra F. Chance, retired UF journalism professor and co-author of a history of Florida’s open government laws, said “technology is fast outpacing the law’s ability to keep up. It allows us to do more things more remotely, but a lot of people still don’t have access to computers.”

In the end, she cautions, open government “is dependent on the commitment by citizens to protect their democracy and demand access to information. And if the public isn’t paying attention these laws are going to disappear.”