I spent three academic years, but more specifically, 24 months enrolled and on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville. To have known me then is to know why the specificity is so incredibly important. Each moment in North Central Florida, Alachua County, the Swamp, after Labor Day Weekend, 2005, felt like molasses mixed with rocks being pushed through the head of a sewing needle. Heartbreak can warp time, memory, sanity, thought. In that 24 months, I attempted to dull the pain in many different ways: I smoked like three times (hookah, a cigar, and a poorly-executed blunt situation; none of these were successful or remotely fun, probably because every single person I was smoking with also had no idea what the fuck they were doing), engaged in some weird hookups (thank God for grace), and running across campus (I learned in college that when I'm really, really upset, I need speed, and when I was smaller and younger, that kinetic energy manifested through the occasional run), but the most effective method I found was driving.
Sometimes I wouldn't have anything on my schedule--no RA meeting, no class, no social activity (of which are few when you allow yourself to become a martyr of your pain)--and I'd get in the car and just drive. I'd let all my windows down and head out without a direction in mind, just moving however my spirit directed me to--into the sun shining through the trees in the late afternoon, creating hazy lines of pollen and dust dancing in the sun rays on a back road near someone's farm, or to spend a sunset photographing the blazing sunset over Payne's Prairie, the sun the same color as the laces from my L.A. Gears from the 90s. Sometimes I flew through the night toward Williston while a bright red moon hung low and heavy over miles and miles of fields, or drove through the lonely hours of an aimless Saturday afternoon on county roads away from the main highway until I hit the outskirts of Saint Augustine. I leaned into the curves around the many lakes hidden in the trees through Interlachen, and drove through flat, seemingly deserted country, pulling over at the historical road marker for Rosewood on State Road 24, continuing on until the coast stopped me at Cedar Key. Oftentimes during these drives I'd talk out loud to God and myself, cry, and let the wind whip my thoughts around with my hair.
I stopped using driving as a way to settle myself, though I never stopped being drawn to it. But with being stuck inside during quarantine, and having nowhere to go thanks to a statewide stay-at-home order (plus, not wanting shit to do with #TheRona), I've taken to the car once again. Gas is cheaper than it's been in years, anyway. Sunday, I played passenger as we traveled south from Orlando through Kissimmee and down Highway 17, eventually reaching Winter Haven (hey, closed Legoland) before heading back. Monday, I took the wheel and traveled west on Highway 50 (Colonial Drive, to Orlandoans) until I hit the edge of the state. I drove through three unfamiliar counties (Lake, Sumter, and Hernando) and back, and I started keeping track of my thoughts to expand later. Wanna hear it? Here it go:
I know to slow down when you get to small towns, trained by years of driving through the Floridian and Georgian forests of saw palmettos and pine trees and small towns to reach my grandmother's house. A car floors the accelerator and speeds around a slower-moving vehicle on the two-lane road, and I realize it's been so long since I've been on a road where you had to pass around another car. Even now, years after the first time I passed, the thrill of flooring the accelerator is always met with the fear that the quick eyeing of the road ahead was not thorough enough; that a car will appear from nowhere and slam me into oblivion.
Flying on curves always makes me think of my grandmother's town. I'm a city girl, but this is part of me too, the woosh of 18-wheelers driving by in the opposite direction, shaking my car with their weight; in Georgia, usually carrying lumber, and in Florida, carrying concrete pipes. The road curves, and curves, and curves.
I'm always fascinated by the many Native names here, and I usually look them up later. I'm in the Withlacoochee ("little big water," "crooked river") State Forest, passing over the river of the same name, there's a sign for Lacoochee ("shortened from Withlacoochee," or maybe "where cane is broken to make arrows" according to a book from 1917). I pass a sign for a town that has 5,078 people in it. My high school graduating class had about 4,000. I think of the Black people, always of the Black people, past, present, and future. What is life like for them? I can imagine what it was like. What a privilege that I can dip into their woods, and wonder what life is like, never having to stop and see.
I wonder about the price of land here (note: I looked, of course, and a dream home in the neighboring county that is, predictably, 95% white, is under $200K. A home like that an hour away in Orlando would cost likely over $600K, and that's certainly underestimating) though, that's a shadow life. What would my Black ass do out here? (After seeing that dream home for a steal on almost an acre... I can figure it out.)
A truck has two calves being carted in a cattle trailer; both of them have sweet faces and are covered in downy hair. Later, a septic truck's slogan: "We're filled with political promises" (that's actually really clever).
A group of egrets walk along the side of the road, unfazed by passing cars, and they remind me of deer on the side of the highway in winter dusk.
My internet cuts out as I pass Weeki Wachee Springs ("little spring," "winding river,") and my Spotify stops. I see a sign that says the beach at Pine Island is closed, but I keep going. Hopefully I can at least see it. Spotify comes back, and "If I Can't Have You" by Yvonne Elliman begins to play (me, to the ocean: If I can't have you, I don't want nobody, baby...) Finally, I am surrounded by marsh, and in the distance, water. Highway 50 (in these parts, Cortez Boulevard) takes me directly to a park, where the water is quietly lapping, and the horizon is a navy blue line. I think that I've hit my destination (loosely, the coast; more specifically, a Gulf beach), without realizing that I've stopped at Historic Bayport Park on the Weeki Wachee River where a boat floats by and a man sits down in a little clearing playing music so soft it sounds like it's just a part of the air. The Gulf is just beyond Rock Island Bay, and if I'd stayed north instead of veering south, I may have gotten a look at a beach from my car window, closures thanks to COVID-19. I take the kids for a brief walk along a looped bridge, and then get back in the car. As I head back the 77 miles to Orlando, I pass the highway that could take me to Hernando Beach. Who knows whether it's also closed or not. I almost stop the car and turn around to find out, but with two kids who have been merciful during the two hour journey thus far, I decided against it. (I later learn that there's only one public beach in Hernando Beach, so it's good I didn't make the extra trip. This part of the state is more saltwater marsh than pristine coastline.)
This drive was a break from being at home, a way to not think about the reasons we're at home, but, reminders abound: Spotify advertisements about COIVD-19 (Spotify, please), and on my return, a church sign in Mascotte: "COVID-19 is temporary but hell is eternal." Thanks, random church sign.