A Stranger’s Path: Transect Florida

By on August 16, 2011.

Somewhere between the looming exit from my home in the deciduous Florida highlands of Gainesville and my reading of  Landscapes, by J.B. Jackson, I felt the need for a personal conquest.  One that ingrains me in all aspects of Florida, introduces me to natural ecosystems, town planning and the vernacular of small town Florida.

J.B. Jackson was an American geographer and critic. Making observations on past and present, from farms to cities. In Landscapes1957, one particular entry enamored me, titled The Stranger’s Path. Jackson defines “town” as stemming from a Germanic word for “hedge” or “enclosure”. This reflects the current view of a town. Often, functioning solely for its residents, walled in by city limits and local values. The Stranger’s Path attempts to offer another definition of “town”, from the Egyptian suffix meaning, “A place where one arrives at”. Today, The Path is one of transience, where people enter town on foot, in hopes of trade, wage, or entertainment.  It equates to the wayward homeless, the vagrant, destitute and haphazard.  The Path usually begins at the bus depot or train station, often on the outskirts of the town and deploys inward. Along this route, the loud and tawny crowd posses a liveliness that casts them out. They eventually merge into the heart of the city, where a corner or alley awaits, near city hall. Images of The Path are usually found in forlorn novels or depressing faces of citizens and is rarely considered by city planners and developers. It is to be bulldozed and paved into a greenway for yuppies and Sunday strollers.

As a designer, one must understand and empathize with the common man as well as the Rockefeller. Landscape is viewed by the poor and wealthy, touching each intrinsically. This trip would be my looking glass, at man and environment.

After the analysis of The Path, lets reflect on my state’s history. There was a gruesome struggle by early pioneers to domesticate the land of Native Americans, alligators, fickle weather and mosquitoes. Henry Flagler and Henry Plant moved jobs southward and local goods and imports north. Ike brought us the interstate and the baby boomers followed him, toward glistening beaches and third home tax shelters. Tourism became a way of life, Walt Disney World and The Army Corps of Engineers simultaneously exploited the upper and lower Everglades, and Miami became the Ellis Island of the south and the drug mule of America. Healthcare and banking soon becomes the institution of gods and Rick Scott the Zues of Olympus, Oh Florida!

Although the statements above may be convoluted, they hold true to portray the disillusionment of the state that I grasp to comprehend. There is still another place, the forgotten interior, void of the tropical beauty that is expected by most. This must be where the real Florida is hiding. It’s home to 30+ distinct plant communities (The Florida Native Plant Society) and in my humble, native opinion, the country’s most wildlife diversity from sea to sand.  Having seen most of the states splendor at intervals, I wanted to group them all into one Florida vagabond’s manifest destiny! From coast to coast, almost, a 90 mile hike, from Dunnelon to Daytona Beach.

Yes, that sounds preposterous, and it was, once my mid-July proposal surfaced to my hiking companions. Thankfully, a new route was planned and 60-miles seemed attainable. Now from the Ocala National Forest, home of dozens of murders and ancient sandhill islands of the late pliocene when Florida was all but 5% underwater, to New Smyrna Beach, south of Daytona.

While the environment from forest to roadside showed punctuated beauty against a monochrome myrtle green, it was man’s reactions and settlement patterns that surprised us most. Belligerent youths shouting from pickup trucks, woeful pedestrian corridors, and apprehensive eyes were our only friends. As patrons we were welcomed, at the quickie stop and the diner, but from a distance I felt unwanted and untrustworthy.

In the end, it wasn’t that it was too hard, just too impractical. Indians had calluses 3″ thick and eons of evolutionary resistance to gnats and mosquitoes. We only had Camelbaks, brand name hiking equipment, and a few packs of smokes. Once morale faded, the sun began blazing ever-hotter and the prospect of cold beers in town set in, the pick up phone call was made. Deland, Fl became our finish line.

What did I learn? I learned if you look down you find things. Shelter pavilions are imperative for solace. Details are everywhere. Florida roads are not meant to be walked on. Spider webs can turn men into school girls and friends make decent walking mates. Oh, and don’t… ever…. duck tape your blisters.

Once home, the question remained, Is The Path still relevant?

Is there room for a sub-standard status quo that infiltrates our civic zones? And how can we design and plan for the future while keeping our sense of place and people? Do we attempt to create a false vernacular on Main Street, one that continues to draw the wealthy traveler? Or find a way to blend the two and remain grounded in the past?

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