Our autumn in Florida: Still summer

Upon our return home in October, Florida greeted us with sweltering temperatures. Ahh, the cool breezes of fall. Did you know that October is Florida’s hottest month? Of course you didn’t know that. Because it isn’t true. But, for those of us in the southern half of the state, it feels like the hottest month because, mentally, we equate October with the start of autumn and pumpkins and falling leaves. But there’s no fall down here. Jack o’ lanterns rot after a just a few days baking on the porch. And the only reason leaves fall off trees in is when a hurricane removes them. In our case, it was Hurricane Eta that came to town (there were so many storms this year they ran out of names and started using Fraternity names). South of the equator, seasons are reversed, but in Florida, seasons are omitted.

Photo Credit: Christian Collins Flickr via Compfight cc

Good thing we’re not the sort of people who zip out to the waterfront to see the storm make landfall. In fairness, it was only a tropical storm and Jim Cantore was miles away (12 miles to be exact).

I really shouldn’t complain about Florida weather. I feel sorry for people up north who can’t get outdoors during the pandemic. While the first snows hit the midwest, we started planning quick trips to immerse ourselves in tropical waters. We booked a trip to the Florida Keys, to give us something to look forward to while Monica jumped back into her marathon training with both Nikes.

The only problem is, all the marathons she registered for kept getting cancelled or postponed as COVID rates increased. And it’s understandable. Most events involving live humans are getting cancelled; concerts, festivals, spectator sports, etc. But here in Florida, nothing gets cancelled because our Governor hasn’t been seen since November 3rd. So Monica did manage to find a couple of shorter races that were running with capacity and distancing precautions in place.

And I have to say, coming from a family who considers themselves to be “careful,” the races we have attended have been very well handled. A few things stand out:

  1. These are runners. So the events aren’t populated by a “random sampling” of couch-potato Americans. No one who is sick is showing up to run 13 miles as fast as they can.
  2. It’s outdoors. Lots of space to spread out.
  3. They’ve eliminated crowded starting lines, in favor of rolling starts.
  4. No awards ceremonies. They’ve eliminated anything that doesn’t involve the race.
  5. They’re doing “touchless” water stations.
  6. Masks at the start and finish lines.
  7. Smaller fields of runners.

I feel safer at these runs than I do mixing with shoppers at Publix.

Monica’s first race was the 15K Clay Loop Run outside the little town of Clermont, Florida. We arrived a day early – Halloween – where a small street festival greeted us. Yes! A festival during a pandemic! This being rural Florida, the closest thing to someone wearing a mask was a guy dressed as The Mandolorian. We had to navigate the festival so that Monica could pick up her race packet before retreating to the safety of the campground. Against our better judgment, we got barbecue from a food truck. We didn’t catch COVID, but everyone did get Montezouma’s Revenge. Bathroom issues make RV living exciting! And, they make running a race very interesting. We stayed the night at Lake Louisa State Park – a beautiful place that we didn’t get much of a chance to see.

With a special nod to our northern readers, here’s a little pictorial of our fall adventures throughout Florida:

When there isn’t a pandemic, Halloween is a HUGE deal in our neighborhood. No exaggeration: we get close to 2,000 trick-or-treaters. This year, we didn’t even want to be home to see what sort of crowds showed up. So we hit the road and at the last minute we grabbed costumes. My “schmedium” lederhosen did not quite fit properly, but the frau brought her A-game. Someone even offered us candy.

When we arrived at the Clay Loop, there was plenty of space to park, but the organizer was afraid we’d get stuck in the soft sand, so we got the VIP treatment and parked between the start and finish lines. They basically let runners start anytime within a 40 minute period, so there was never a crowd at the starting line. The weather was warm but Monica still got top 3 in her age group, despite the pork debacle.

How’d we get campsites in the Keys in November? I’ll never tell. We visited The Theater of the Seas, which is a cool classic roadside attraction. It occupies the former quarries used during the construction of Flagler’s Folly – the original overseas railroad.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is one of the best. They offer a “beach” with snorkeling to a real (albeit intentionally relocated) shipwreck, and guided snorkeling trips out of the reef (you know the drill: limited capacity, social distancing). And we got to see a guy so protected from the sun, he looked like Darth Maul from Star Wars.

We had to jump around a bit in order to find consecutive days of camping, so we also ended up at Curry Hammock State Park, which is an unsung, underrated park closer to Key West. The first time we were there, we were in our VW and got eaten alive by no-see-ums. In the RV this wasn’t a problem.

It was really interesting to visit Key West in a time with no cruise ships. And a new referendum will mean that the big cruise lines won’t be back. The town had less of a theme park feel to it. Token social-distancing was in effect, with lots of masks hanging around necks and below noses. We booked a tour of Harry Truman’s “Little White House” and got to see where the former President held important meetings in a remarkably casual setting (no photography on the tour, sorry).

Monica survived a bad stomach cramp and won the Masters Division (over 40) at a half marathon in Naples, Florida. We stayed at Collier-Seminole State Park, but never saw it in the daylight.

Another gem of a park is Chassowitzka River Campground about 90 minutes north of St. Petersburg, where we met up with some friend for campfires, canoeing and fishing. The spring flows at a brisk 72 degrees year-round and is the winter home to manatees. In November, the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding rivers were still warm enough that the manatees weren’t in the spring.

Most of Florida is just a giant piece of Swiss cheese limestone. Sometimes you can swim in one hole and come out another.

Prior to another half marathon in Sarasota, we stayed at Oscar Scherer State Park, known as a habitat for the elusive native-only-to-Florida scrub jay. Monica eyed the elusive scrub jay, and we all had no problem spotting several native-to-every-state-except-Hawaii bald eagles.

Monica capped her fall racing season by winning the Master’s Division and bagging another P.R. at a really cool course in Sarasota. Crossing our fingers that one of the many winter marathons she enters actually happens. As a husband, I’m extremely proud of the dedication she has put into her training, and I’m amazed at what she’s capable of doing. It’s truly inspiring and the kids get so excited watching her race.

If things go as planned in the coming weeks and months, Monica will have a chance to run her marathon in the Carolinas and we’ll plan our big 2021 trip while taking more side trips while Florida’s weather is beautiful.

Next time: We head to my old back yard at Suwannee River State Park, a return to Chassahowitzka, and another half marathon tune-up.

“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at jkilewrites@gmail.com. Monica is a non-profit consultant, grant writer, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker. Also, don’t forget to follow our Instagram feed for stuff that doesn’t make the blog.

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