Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Maybe Ponce de Leon had it wrong, and the Fountain of Youth was in Wyoming

Which way to the Fountain of Youth -- and the gold! Painting of Agueybana greeting Juan Ponce de León from the U.S. Military 1-295INF/images/MSG%20Pedr... Painting by Puerto Rican artist Agustin Anavitate.

Florida is 500 years old!

Happy birthday, Sunshine State.

This isn’t a real birthday. It marks the year that Juan Ponce de Leon came ashore with his well-armed entourage. So, it celebrates five centuries of conquest. Some 350,000 people were living on the peninsula at the time. They didn’t last long once they were invested with musket balls and European microbes. 

Florida’s peninsula arose from the ancient ocean about 2.5 million years ago. People arrived about 14,000 years ago, riding dinosaurs from Michigan on a spring break trip. Florida was bigger then, as sea levels were lower due to a lot of water being locked up in glaciers. 
Population was 4.9 million in 1960. When our family moved there in 1964, the state probably had more than 5 million souls, making it the 10th most populous state in the U.S.

These days, it boasts almost 20 million souls, most of whom can be found at Disney World the day that I decide to take my family there. It is now the fourth most populous state, right behind California, Texas and New York. I currently live in the least populous state, Wyoming, right behind North Dakota, Alaska and Vermont. 

The New York Times reviewed a new book about Florida by reporter T.D. Allman. It’s called “Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State.” Here’s what one fantastic Florida-based author, Bob Shacochis (“The Immaculate Invasion”), says about the book:

"I loved Allman's extraordinary book. … Almost every county in Florida bears the name of a butcher, a slavedriver, a madman, a scoundrel or a thief, in a state where for half a millennium the governing mandate seems to be Defeat the Truth, Triumph over Reality. T.D. Allman's counter-narrative to all the pretty lies is a scouring hurricane of research, investigation, and soul-cleansing wrath, and I doubt there has ever been a better, or more important, book written about the Sunshine State, the birthplace of imperial hubris, American-style."

And here’s another Florida writer, Les Standiford (“Last Train to Paradise” and the excellent John Deal series):

"Equal parts social analysis, historical review, and jeremiad, Finding Florida is a passionate, often scathing, and remarkably comprehensive encounter with a confounding, contradictory, and ever-elusive place. If your idea of hell is being chained to a galley oar between a politician and a Chamber of Commerce exec, then you are likely to love this book."

Some customer reviews on Amazon weren’t as effusive: 50% Bluster, 50% Politics,” said one. “A tirade masquerading as history,” said another.

Still, I have to put it on my reading list. I lived in Florida from 1964-78 (with time away for two years of college in South Carolina), which were incredible growth years for me and for the state. Those were my formative years, ages 13 to 27. I went to a high school named after a priest who accompanied Ponce de Leon on his strange quest to find the Fountain of Youth. I graduated from a university that trained most of the state’s politicos, the good (Walkin’ Lawton Chiles) and the bad (UF’s massive football stadium is named after Katherine Harris’s grandfather – yes, that Katherine Harris), which makes me wonder what they were teaching in those poli sci classes. Disney World arose from the dense woodlands and swamps of Central Florida. Miami became the capital of vice and cocaine. Millions of northerners moved into massive developments such as Palm Coast and The Villages. 

And I moved West to Denver, my birthplace, and eventually to Wyoming. The state celebrates its quasquicentennial as a state in 2015, although it is quite a bit older to judge by those dino skeletons I keep unearthing in my yard. I recently dug up a skeletal horse-like creature with a horn on his snout. My daughter says it’s a unicorn but I’m skeptical. Didn’t horned creatures roam the Wyoming savannahs way back when?

I’m part southerner and part westerner. Color me confused. Most of my writing used to take place in the South. Now it’s set in Wyoming and Colorado. I’ve been in Wyoming for 22 years (with two years in D.C. in the mid-90s). But it’s all about people, isn’t it? They are incredibly complicated no matter where you go.
As a helpful guide to my readers, I will put two of my stories on this blog's pages section in a few days. One is set in Florida. One is set in Wyoming. Read them and see what you think. Critiques are welcomed. 

Meanwhile, I must get back to my reading. Latest book is the startling memoir, “When Katie Awakes,” by Florida writer Connie May Fowler. Connie will travel to Wyoming in the fall. More about that later. 

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