A Love Letter to Florida

There are so many things I don’t like about Florida. I hate the billboards on the highway. (I am glad the billboard trend has mostly avoided our home state.) I hate the strips and the widespread prevalence of fast fried food. I hate the intersections – many of them make zero logical sense – and the fact that everyone drives like a suicidal maniac. I hate the trash on the roads and the beaches and the despair of locals who have been robbed of their own resources by tourists. I hate the crowds and the smell of the overheated, unwashed masses. And yet, despite all these things… I am unabashedly in love.

For every one thing I dislike about Florida, there are a dozen things I adore. I love the buzzing of electricity from busy transformers. I love the music of the birds and the cicadas. I love the tropical flowers and the draping, spooky Spanish moss. I love that at any given moment you could have a magical, surprise encounter with a beautiful bird or sea creature. (However, I would not enjoy a surprise encounter with a shark or an alligator!) I love the rustling of the palms in the tropical breeze. I love the tiny lizards, bobbing their heads as they scurry over patios and fences. I love that the sea salt is so sticky and bountiful that you can see it dusting your skin. I even love the humidity; the trickle of sweat feels cathartic and cleansing. (But, for the love of God, please wear deodorant!)

When I look in the mirror in Florida, I see the most authentic version of myself. That’s not to say I’m not “me” everywhere else, but the brown skinned, glowing reflection- with her wild, salt laden hair barely contained in a beach-y wrap – is the woman I know I am meant to be.

Needless to say, I am a little bit heartbroken to be back in New England after our incredible trip to St. Augustine. While we were there, my wife noticed that our favorite food truck was hiring. It gave me serious pause. I doubt the pay would be high enough to cover my bills, but I could picture myself freelancing as a web-content writer in the cool shade of the morning and selling locals and savvy tourists fresh vegan-friendly wraps in the afternoon. The girls who took our orders and delivered our lunches were mostly dreadlock adorned young hippies. I imagined falling into the role of Hippie Mother Hen, dispensing peace and love over hummus and avocado.

Clearly, I got a little delusional. Life never turns out the way we picture it in our minds. When we’re lucky, it turns out better. Otherwise, it’s a lot grittier. The trick is to find the gift in the grit.

Another thing that struck me during our trip is how much I would love to be a travel blogger. Yeah, yeah. Wouldn’t everybody? But I don’t want to do it the traditional way. First of all, I could give a hoot about fine dining and fancy hotels. (However, I am VERY picky about where I sleep… but that’s another story.) And I am not particularly interested in international travel (although I do have an international bucket list and I wouldn’t rule it out). What I really want to write about is Americana. I want to see beyond the billboards and the bullshit and discover what lies at the crux of the United States. I also want to write about how it feels to travel as a sober person. For most people, vacation entails a week of uninhibited cocktail consumption. If this definition sums up your travel mindset, all I can say is that you are seriously missing out. Traveling sober means soaking in every last experience with a sharp, clear mind.

I don’t have the means to road trip the U.S. yet, but I can share about the places I do visit in my regular non-travel blog. So, without further ado, here is St. Augustine, FL, according to Autumn:

First of all, I have a confession to make. I didn’t one hundred percent abide by my minimalist and dietary principles on vacation. And that’s okay. I prepared to let loose beforehand. While we did shop for travel memorabilia and check out the local foodie scene, I am happy to report that I stayed well within the budget I set for myself. We also took liberties with dairy consumption, but I am proud to say that J.L. did not consume one ounce of meat. I didn’t quite squeak through as a dutiful vegetarian but I came close. I love that my wife is so excited about ethical eating; she was watching TV and I heard her yell: “Turkeys are our friends!” We ate many vegan meals at our rented beach cottage, including scrumptious grilled vegetables with fragrant rice and whole wheat bagels with tofu cream cheese.

When we did venture out, the food was some of the best I’ve ever eaten. We never had a meal that was less than three stars. I do my foodie research and plan our stops. If you’re looking for a list of delicious vegan/vegetarian eateries in St. Augustine, look no further:

  1. The Kookaburra: I don’t know how the food is at this coffee shop… but I can tell you that the coffee is hands down the best I have ever had in my LIFE. Order an iced Honey Badger or an iced Mocha Nut. Hell, get crazy and order both. Leave me a comment while you’re drinking it so I can weep with jealousy.
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    Kookaburra on the beach
  2. Crave: This food truck has an additional location in the same building as the Kookaburra’s beach shop. Convenience at its finest. Order a Happy Hummus wrap and sub the carrots/cucumbers with avocado. Then write me a thank you card. Again, the BEST wrap I have EVER had in my LIFE. I could eat there every day.
  3. Casa Benedetto’s Ristorante: I couldn’t resist the urge to have a plate of homemade Sicilian Alfredo while gluttonously imbibing dairy – BUT I have to say that it was the cannoli that really got me. My pasta was outrageously good – I would have liked a little more garlic in the sauce – but the cannoli was so cinnamon-y and perfect. J.L. loved her bread pudding, too. It’s a great place for dessert.
  4. Present Moment Cafe – If you’re strictly vegan, this is the place for you. It’s a little pricey, and the service is kind of slow, but the food tastes like the bomb diggity. I never believed in vegan queso – how can you have creamy cheese without the actual CHEESE??? – but I sure as heck do now.
  5. The Back 40 Urban Cafe – I had something called a “wet burrito” for dinner and, after stuffing myself silly, had to go back to our beach cottage and rest. It was a glorious feast.
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    My enormous burrito!
  6. Cousteau’s Waffle and Milkshake Bar – This is the place I was drooling over for months before our trip and it ended up being kind of disappointing. The Belgian waffles are out of this world but the milkshakes could use a little work. Still…it is my kind of bar and it has potential.
  7. Crucial Coffee – This one is last but certainly not least. After watching the sunset (including a manatee spotting), we didn’t want our evening to end. I was super pumped when we tripped over this coffee shack which was wonderfully situated on a garden with twinkling lights and shared table space. I had some kind of minty iced lemonade and J.L. had a crazy blended espresso drink with lots of chocolate and other delightful flavors. It was dreamy and delicious and I would consider selling a body part to go back.

So… I clearly indulged. However, I have to say that eating vegan/vegetarian foods, as well as preparing many meals at home, helped me NOT gain ten pounds like I did on vacation last year. No joke.

I’ve covered what to eat. However, what should you do? We did just about everything.(Well, everything except drink from the dank ass Fountain of Youth. Yuck!) That’s one of the greatest gifts of sobriety: you’re not too hung over to do things…and then you remember them in joyous, vivid detail. We met Maximo the crocodile, climbed to the top of the lighthouse, explored the Castillo de San Marcos, had a blast at the interactive Pirate museum, and walked through the historic downtown multiple times. But what other things did we discover?

  1. The St. Augustine Wild Reserve – We needed GPS navigation to find this place and, when we pulled in, my first impression left me feeling a little nervous. However, we ended up having an experience I will never forget. The St. Augustine Wild Reserve is a non-profit rescue reserve, which means all the animals have been saved from negligence, abandonment, abuse, and death. Unlike a trip to the zoo, you can feel confident that your money is being spent supporting a cruelty-free cause. You also get to watch tigers playing in bubble bath. Oh, and you get to see a thousand pound liger…and a bear who eats peppermints. (The sweet bear was smiling even though he (she?) had previously suffered immensely at the hands of man. His claws were beaten off with a hammer.) It’s pretty amazing to hear a lion and tiger growl in person…and even more amazing that the Wild Reserve is educating people about how wild animals are NOT PETS. Seriously, if you think domesticating any kind of wild cat or dog is okay, we can’t be friends. I don’t say that kind of thing very often, but I have to draw the line somewhere.
  2. Washington Oaks Gardens State Park – This park is an absolute must. It is tied with the St. Augustine Wild Reserve for number one thing to do. The former estate is breathtaking. I guess you’d want to make sure the gardens are in bloom before visiting – I’m not really sure how that works in a sub-tropical climate. Among a plethora of other things, there are citrus trees, roses fit for a queen, and ancient, mossy oaks. The park is situated between the ocean and the Matanzas river and you have access to both while visiting. I was so taken by the landscape that I could have wept. My heart is still bleeding several weeks later. As if the experience wasn’t magical enough on its own, we saw wild dolphins swimming in the Matanzas on our way back to our cottage.
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    Stopping to smell the roses
  3. Basilica Cathedral – I am not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person. There’s a BIG difference. And after watching The Keepers on Netflix, the Catholic church makes me sick. (I wasn’t a particularly huge fan before watching The Keepers, either.) However, this giant cathedral really struck a chord with me. There’s just a feeling in there. I guess that isn’t surprising given that people have been prayerfully visiting the site for four hundred and fifty years. You can sense the history in the air. It felt very meaningful to light a remembrance candle before stepping back out into the sunshine.
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    The Basilica Cathedral
  4. Ghost Tour – Laugh if you want, but a ghost tour is a fun way to get to know the history of an area. When we went on a hearse tour in Savannah, Georgia, it stopped right outside the renovated carriage house we were renting. Talk about exciting! This time, our tour wasn’t just about hearing the stories, it was also about trying to communicate. We even had those electro-magnetic meters. I went in feeling very skeptical…and I have to say that I probably won’t do a “communication” oriented tour ever again. However, that’s because I think a little boy ghost said hello to me before our tour guide even told us about the building or the ghosts. I had the experience all on my own… without the power of suggestion (other than the fact that we were on a damn ghost tour). I’m too much of an empath for paranormal experiences. Sensing energy intensely leaves me feeling vulnerable and drained. We also learned that Henry Flagler, whose buildings are some of the most recognizable in St. Augustine, was a womanizer and, well, kind of a big ol’ jerk. Flagler College is beautiful inside but you could probably skip Lightner Museum. It needs some updating.
  5. The Golden Gypsy & Grace Gallery World Folk Art – If you want something different from the usual tourist kitsch, search out these two fantastic gift shops. Though I consider myself to be a minimalist work-in-progress, my favorite items tend to be souvenirs from our travels. Some of the things I choose might still be kitsch-y, but at least they’re unique. This time, I chose Buddha and Ganesha figurines, a beautiful lantern, colorful flip flops, a bird adorned notebook, and tye dye shorts.

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My Ganesha figurine in its new home
If you had asked me when I was younger, I would have told you I NEVER wanted to visit Florida. In my mind, it was a tourist trap and an overheated snowbird oasis. And, yes, it is, indeed, both of those things. But it is also weird, spooky, and unique. It dances unabashedly to the beat of its own drum. It has its own magic. It jives perfectly with my wild heart.

For now, all I can do is write love letters to the palms and the sand, the cicadas and the birds, and each and every salty, humidity-wrapped surprise. I have to remember that dreams, even when they come true, dissolve into the grit of life. I have to honor that the Universe needs me in my cold New England city. I have work to do here. The gifts are in the grit.

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