STATE 15: FLORIDA
From Charleston, SC, we continued our way south through Georgia into St. Augustine, FL. We pulled into Anastasia State Park along the Atlantic coast and set-up camp for two nights within a sandy jungle. It’s safe to say that this was our favorite campsite on the tour yet.
Noel agreed. She could spy on birds up-close and even spotted her first little lizard.
Needing a few moments to clean out the truck after a busy few weeks of nonstop travels, we pulled out our 50 States trunk and for the first time were able to admire the growing collection of stickers that have been starting to cover it.
Since we’re limited on space and budget, decals have become our go-to collectors item for each state and place of interest we visit, so this trunk has become our unofficial scrapbook of cross-country journey.
Having just finished our South Carolina project a few days earlier, we were now on “Christmas break,” which was our first stretch of time off since we hit in the road six months earlier. Feeling the warmth of the sun on our backs and being able to walk barefoot in sand for the first time on tour instantly put us in vacation mode. It felt GOOD to finally be in Florida…
The next morning we ventured into St. Augustine that lays claim to being the oldest city in the country. Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, it is the oldest European-established settlement within what we now know as the continental United States.
We started our history lesson at the fort that defended it all, the Castillo de San Marcos. It’s the oldest masonry fort that began being constructed in 1672, and after centuries of battles, it now lives an easier life as a National Monument operated by the National Park Service.
With only one day to experience all that St. Augustine had to offer, we opted to explore outside the exterior walls of the fort. We walked within a dried-up moat that was likely inhabited by alligators that roamed the fort’s perimeter as an extra layer of security against intruders. Imagine that!
We passed through the original city gates and into the heart of St. Augustine. Being a tourist town, it had its fair share of touristy shops and themed restaurants, but we were most interested in walking around the oldest streets and oldest neighborhoods in the country, peeking our heads into the oldest gardens and the oldest alleyways we could find.
One of the sites to see in St. Augustine is the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which is now part of Flagler College. The Ponce was built in 1888 and designed by the same architect firm that built the New York Public Library.
Beyond its size, attention to details, and overall luxuriousness of its time, the “fun fact” that stood out to me the most was that this Spanish Renaissance style hotel was one of the first buildings to be built with electricity — its DC generators were installed by none other than Thomas Edison himself.
We don’t eat out often because of our limited personal budget, but when we do, Kendra is sure to make it worth it by researching and selecting the restaurant most worth it. With a beautiful outdoor area, we enjoyed the Floridian not once, but twice. We went in the evening our first night and then back again for brunch the next day — which is unheard of. That’s just how good it was.
Later in the day, we also treated ourselves to gourmet popsicles courtesy of The Hyypo, which earned its popsicle-shaped decal onto the top of our 50 States trunk. Like I said, we were in vacation mode and enjoying every moment of it…
Having experienced a good share of St. Augustine by the late-afternoon, we decided to enjoy our last evening back home at the campground lounging in the hammock together. Thankfully, our Eno hammock can hold us both :)
On our 15-minute drive back to our home we passed a garden and nursery center that drew us in like moths to a flame. Big fans of having plenty of plants around us, we wanted to take a piece of this tropical life with us on the road and found a bonsai tree that we named Auggie after the place we adopted him: St. Augustine.
The next morning we enjoyed our final coffee on the beach before moving on further into the Sunshine State.
Because of time and budgets, we weren’t able to make it home to Michigan to spend Christmas with our families, but Kendra’s parents were able to fly down and spend the holidays with us in sunny Florida.
With the Airstream in-tow, we left from St. Augustine and squeezed into the “Arrivals” lane at the Orlando airport to picked up Ken and Rossi. We squeezed them and their luggage into the back of our Chevy with Noel and continued to our next destination: Lakeland.
As random as this sounds, the campground we stayed at has a lot of special meaning to me. Decades ago, my late grandparents purchased a small winter home within Sanlan Ranch which doubles as an RV park that also has a golf course, nature trails, three pools, shuffleboard courts, and everything else you could ask for.
As kids growing up, our family would road trip from Michigan down here to Florida every few years. Even in my freshman year in college I drove down here with my aunt, uncle and cousins.
Since then both my Grandpa Dawson and Grandma Jo have passed, but three sets of my aunts and uncles have continued the tradition by purchasing my grandparents’ old place along with a couple others just down the street from each other.
They all returned home to Michigan to spend the holidays with their kids and grandkids, but they generously offered a place for Kendra’s parents to stay for the week just a golf cart ride away from our trailer site, which Noel gave her approval after sticking her head out and scanning the area for any lurking alligators.
Some of my most memorable memories were going on adventures in the trails and swamps behind the park. Before we knew it, a caravan of golf carts and scooters would often gather and venture out to look for ‘gators.
Although bittersweet not having the whole family back together, it was a nice moment for me to act as the local guide to Kendra and her parents as I tried to remember my way around the winding trails and recall the interesting tidbits that Grandpa Dawson had passed down.
We also enjoyed a quiet and warm Christmas that consisted of a bountiful breakfast of fresh fruit and homemade cinnamon rolls, then cheered on LeBron and the Cavs as they battled against the evil Warriors empire, went on an afternoon bike and golf cart ride around the park that was all capped off by a delicious Mexican food feast for Christmas dinner.
With Lakeland located directly in the center of the state, we were only 90-minutes from St. Petersburg on the west and and hour to Orlando in the east. Even though Kendra did REALLY want to go to Harry Potter World in Orlando, we opted for a day-trip to St. Petersburg instead starting with a visit to the Salvador Dalí Museum that houses the largest collection of his artwork outside of Europe.
Our second stop in St. Petersburg was to Sunken Gardens, a lush botanical garden turned living museum that is now over 100 years old. Started by a plumber in 1903 in a drained out pond 10-feet below sea level, his “sunken” gardens has since become home to over 500 different species of tropical and subtropical plants and flowers that add up to total around 50,000 plants and flowers in all.
Exploring St. Petersburg some more, Kendra and her mom splashed each other with the Fountain of Youth, Kendra found a stray black cat and or course fell in love with it, and we climbed around the trunk of giant Banyan trees. That sentence may sound really weird, but it’s all true, and it all happened in St. Petersburg.
Our final stop before driving back to Lakeland was to the St. Pete Beach, which is the self-proclaimed “Sunset Capital of Florida.” Fittingly, we enjoyed snacks on the beach and enjoyed a beautiful sunset overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
We visited the campus of Florida Southern College near downtown Lakeland which doesn’t sound like much until you see their campus.
Featuring a dozen buildings designed by one of my all-time favorite architects Frank Lloyd Wright, this 80-acre campus is the largest collection of FLW buildings in one location. In 1938 the president of the university approached Wright to transform the campus from a large orange grove into a “truly American campus’ which took decades to build but has since become one of the most beautiful campuses in the world.
The rose garden is also worth the visit in its own right, even though it wasn’t in its peak season when we visited.
After a great Christmas week with Kendra’s parents, we dropped them off at the Orlando airport for their flight back to Michigan while we continued south towards Miami in preparation for our Florida state project after the New Year.
The Miami Dolphins were playing on New Years Eve and a mentor of mine happened to be in town for the game to support Ndamukong Suh who I had met at his house years earlier when Suh played for the Detroit Lions (a long story for another time). My mentor set aside a couple tickets for Kendra and I, and thankfully we pulled into the RV parking lot just in time for kick-off.
Not only were we able to watch the game, but we were also able to spend some time with my mentor and his family in addition to former NBA All-Star, Rip Hamilton, who I also knew and worked with during his playing days in Detroit (also a long story for another time).
After the game we drove another hour south to our campsite at Miami Everglades RV Resort. We pulled into the campground and immediately heard parties happening all around us ringing in the New Year. The next morning we were pleased to see that our campsite had some nice outdoor green space with a couple of palm trees blanketing our Airstream.
Once settled, our first thing to do was to meet with Rebecca and Meg of AIGA Miami to help us finalize an artist and any remaining details for the project. We met them for lunch at Joey’s in Wynwood Walls district and then explored the area for the rest of the afternoon.
I first heard about Wynwood Walls years ago online, but it wasn’t until being there that I was able to understand the scale of it and the impact it has in the community. Started in 2009 as a bit of an experiment to open up a warehouse district and its blank box-like buildings to a select group of street artists from around the world that included the likes of Shepard Fairey, Futura 2000, AIKO, Kenny Scharf, and many more. It has since become an sprawling area on the outskirts of Miami that has covered over 80,000sq.ft. of wallspace that is now home to boutiques, galleries, restaurants, coffee shops, and more.
After spending some getting to know Brittany, we explored the iconic South Beach strip, experienced the Miami Mountain Hoodoos by artist Ugo Rondinon, visited theKith Miami shop to see the Daniel Arsham/Snarkitecture designed retail space.
The following day we met with the project Veteran, Darrel Charles for coffee in the Miami Design District, which come to find out is moreso the luxury fashion district with expensive art galleries and high-end restaurants more than anything else. We also found some great streetart and graffiti in the area, but certainly not to the scale of Wynwood.
In her local online research, Kendra heard about Robert Is Here in nearby Homestead, FL. What started off as a simple roadside fruit stand run by a young boy decades ago has gradually grown into its own tourist destination known for its fresh local fruits, vegetables, and ahh-mazing fresh smoothies and milkshakes.
People come from all over by car, truck, four-wheeler, tractor, and RV. Even though it has become a multi-generational family-run business doesn’t mean Robert himself isn’t still checking customers out at the register using old-school math on the back of the paper bags.
With some time yet before our project, we figured this was the closest we might ever be to the Florida Keys so thought it was worth a day trip. Key West was a bit too far for one day, so we made it about halfway down the Keys to Islamorada. We looked up a kayak rental place and mapped directions to it but when we arrived, it was nowhere to be seen.
After walking around for a few minutes making sure we didn’t miss it, we noticed a severely damaged sign with the company’s name on it but there was no building or sign of kayak rentals anywhere to be seen. That’s when we realized that Hurricane Irma got the best of it five months earlier.
On our drive down through the Keys we saw piles upon piles of debris along the roadside, but this moment made it more real for us tourists visiting for the day. Just because the news media has moved on to cover the latest current events doesn’t mean the people and places it has moved on from aren’t still dealing with the aftermath. That wasn’t a new revelation to us, but experiencing first-hand like this, even in such an insignificant way as looking for a kayak rental stand, was still impactful and has stayed with us since.
We ended up going to Robbie’s where we were able to kayak through mangrove tunnels and out into the Florida Bay. Although we looked everywhere, we didn’t see any manatees but did see a bathing alligator on the banks along with plenty of pelicans.
Afterwards, we grabbed a pizza and went to a nearby beach. As we were enjoying our margherita pie, storm clouds came rolling in much faster than it seemed and we soon found ourselves running back to the truck in a failed effort to prevent tomorrow’s leftovers from getting wet.
For the last few days at the RV resort we had to relocate to the overflow area of the park. With more room to stretch our legs outside and without other trailers around, Noel got to experience a bit more freedom than she’s normally given. At first we took her around on her leash, but eventually she got so comfortable enough hanging around that we let her explore nearby (with supervision shadowing her every move).
After our Florida project, we drove west through the Everglades where we could see huge gators along the watersedge and up along the western coast of the Florida peninsula to Chiefland, FL.
We made it to Manatee Springs State Park just in time to rent the last kayak for the day which was also our last chance to see manatees in the wild before leaving the state.
Kendra’s dreams came true because we saw dozens of manatees! Her excitement quickly turned to fear as a couple of them came up close and personal to the kayak. Even though they’re nothing more than gentle sea cows, they’re still very large mammals.
Depending on who you ask, one manatee got so close that it hit us from underneath, rocking the kayak but not enough to tip us. Kendra claims that we hit it, but I maintain that it came up from underneath. Even with video evidence on the GoPro camera she was holding, the jury is still out.
Inspired by the Haitian flag and its message of strength in unity and the intent of dazzle camouflage to stand out rather than blend in, Darrel and Brittany collaborated to create the design “L’Union.” Proud of his Haitian heritage, Darrel shared with Brittany the motto from the country’s coat of arms: “L’union fait la force,” meaning, “unity makes strength.” With a hint of Kintsugi art of repairing broken pottery with gold, they hope to translate the inner peace found through acceptance and healing to those who need it.