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Lost in Florida: The First City

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image The Miami skyline. Mitch Traphagen Photos

Miami is like a whole 'nother country. Photo gallery below article.


One thing that makes life in Florida so interesting is the sheer quantity of stuff that can kill you here. In that, I’m not even including Eastern European crime syndicates or Caribbean gangs. While both would be perfectly fine with killing you, they probably won’t do it for free. But there is plenty of other stuff that would do it for free and much of it flies, crawls, slithers and drives with no specific animosity towards you, but with lethal indifference nonetheless.

Heading north on U.S. 1 from Key Largo you enter a buffer zone of sorts between the laid back atmosphere of the islands and the hustle of the city, with little but water, mangroves and scrub palms passing outside the window of the car. Apparently, there are also crocodiles, assuming the sign warning “Crocodile Crossing — Next Six Miles” is correct. Upon seeing that sign, something immediately jumps out: crocodiles must literally be hell-bent on wanting to kill you.

Along that six-mile stretch is a high chain-link fence running the outside of the road and concrete barriers in the median. Thus, if crocodiles truly do cross there, they can climb fences and barriers in order to do so. In other words, if you live in that area, you probably don’t want to sleep with the windows open at night. Alligators are fluffy kittens compared to crocodiles and Florida is the only state in the nation with a resident population of the fence- and barrier-climbing beasts, which is actually pretty cool.

The buffer zone quickly gives way to urban madness on approaching the Miami area. Freeways are twisted and tangled here, mostly under construction and all are jam-packed with creatures even more lethal than the crocodiles. At least crocodiles don’t drive one-ton sports utility vehicles at 90 miles-per-hour down the freeway while typing out text messages.

Go to any far corner of the nation or the world and ask anyone you encounter if they’ve heard of Florida. Almost certainly they have and they will likely think of it as one of two things:  Disney/Orlando and Miami. What they think of as Miami is not necessarily the actual city but the enormous megalopolis composed of 5.6 million people and multiple large cities running 110 miles up the coast. It is a metropolis of widely disparate contrasts, cultures and languages, a Mecca for many of those living in colder climes and, arguably, Florida’s first city, despite that its settlement occurred hundreds of years after St. Augustine. You can live anywhere in Florida, but Miami is where you go to make stuff happen.

That is not hyperbole. As proof, perhaps, consider that 46 nations around the world maintain embassies or consulates in Miami. It’s probably not a stretch to assume that Iceland has little difficulty in staffing theirs, with a location on Ocean Drive.

Perhaps the only thing more famous than Miami is the much smaller, distinct city of Miami Beach, and specifically the beaches themselves. Miami Beach is separated by water from its much larger sibling and is, in many respects, a world away. It is a small-scale, tropical version of Manhattan, a playground for the affluent and those who can spend a week away from Wisconsin (or other northern states and nations) pretending to be wealthy. It is a wondrous and unique place in Florida where almost anything you could need is within reach by walking or riding a bike, which is a good thing because the streets are packed with traffic, all with drivers looking for the same thing: a parking spot.

Homeless guys don’t want to kill you. In Florida, by and large, they tend to just want to be left alone. Upon crossing the bridge to Miami Beach, Michelle and I pulled off the freeway to scout out a location for a night photograph of the expansive Miami skyline. We found a suitable location, a post-apocalyptic-looking area of gravel and rusting chain link fences under the bridge, which was also home to a guy who had a pretty good setup, an outdoor home with a footprint the size of a small suburban house, complete with a happy-looking dog snoozing “inside.”

With glittering skyscrapers dominating the background I was saddened to think this guy and the thousands like him had somehow missed out or had been deprived of the gravy train that often ends with a mortgage and a house in the suburbs, but perhaps it was his choice. I hoped it was, anyway. The irrational part of me also hoped that when we returned after dark, loaded down with photography gear, that he wouldn’t turn into a homicidal maniac. My irrational fears were for naught. He had no interest in me or the other five people standing in the dark with cameras.

Just down the road, Ocean Drive is a riot of art deco, neon and outrageously attractive young people, many of whom wearing clothes that cost far more than the homeless guy probably sees in a year. Restaurants with sidewalk seating, glowing blue, green and orange from the neon just above, pack the boulevard so thoroughly that it is sometimes difficult to know where one establishment ends and the other begins.

During daylight hours, South Beach is the ultimate United Nations, a place where thousands of tourists from any given country mingle with tourists from other countries, where topless women co-exist peacefully with college kids from Ohio, and small children wearing puffy sun hats can run with abandon, doing face-plants into the powder-soft sand without risk of serious injury. It is a place to be seen, perhaps, but it is mostly a place to see life in all its vibrancy at the ocean’s edge.

By nightfall, the action simply shifts over a block to the packed-in restaurants, art deco hotels and shops of Ocean Drive, leaving the beach a quiet refuge for those few seeking the solitude found in the whispering waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

The massive development boom in the first years of the 21st century worked to erase much of Florida’s native charm in favor of what out-of-state developers thought Florida should look and sound like. But the native charm, the indefinable “it” that makes Florida unique, can still easily be found in Miami in too many communities and neighborhoods to count.  Be prepared, though; in places like Miami Beach, that charm can be expensive.

Is it worth it? I certainly thought it was after an early morning walk on beautifully quiet South Beach. I thought so when we walked a few blocks to a cool seafood place for a takeout dinner. I thought so when we returned to our art deco hotel room, a cozy room so small that only a foot or so separated the bed from the walls. I thought so while we walked along Ocean Drive during the night hours seeing people have the time of their lives, perhaps on a temporary escape from life in a place that can feel magical.

While we packed up our car, and in the process made the day of one driver searching for a parking spot, I wanted to stay, perhaps longer than just a little bit longer. But soon enough we were crossing the bridge over the homeless guy’s place, approaching the abrupt end of the city, just 20 miles away from where it meets the Everglades, itself a beautiful and unique place that apparently may even have a crocodile or two. Assuming that the enormous Burmese Pythons haven’t eaten them all, that is.

If Miami is Florida’s First City, what about Florida’s Second City?  No, it’s not the Mouse House, it’s our own Tampa Bay Area — a metropolitan area with more people than the entire state of Iowa. Sure, it can be a nice place to live, but would you really want to vacation here? Hop in the car and find out next week in the final installment of Lost in Florida.

050213 Florida Part 4 Miami - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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