In 2013, the Florida of the historical record — from Ponce De Leon onward — turns 500 years old. When you consider that the United States, at 236 years of age and counting, is less than half that, this becomes a birthday that needs a unique celebration.
Of all the episodes within Florida’s five centuries, perhaps the most breathtaking is a walk taken by a pair of Spanish explorers, including one Alvar Nunez, whom his friends teasingly called “Cabeza de Vaca” or cow’s head.
Alvar’s ship sailed from Cuba and landed near Tampa Bay, only six years into Florida’s history. There were problems, their ships wrecked, and so he and a companion had to survive by walking north to what is now Tallahassee, and then west, to Mexico.
They walked, from Tampa to Mexico.
Although the premise is fantastic, it is historically true, and Alvar wrote a book about it, Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, which is still in print.
Florida is the stage-center star of his story.
For next year’s 500th, an intrepid way to cheer, toast, honor, or just learn more about Florida, is to draw inspiration from the way Alvar experienced our Great American Peninsula. Are you active and adventurous? Parts of Alvar’s voyage read like the script of an island survival show. He ran headlong through hardwood forests, fished with his hands in marshes, and waded the Apalachicola River near Chattahoochee.
Have you not yet camped in Florida’s state parks? Alvar did, more or less, spending score upon score of evenings, both humid and cool, sleeping under Florida stars, roasting clams over big bonfires and other times, small pits of softly glowing coals.
Or have you ever wondered what waits to be discovered in Florida’s “breadbox,” that rectangle of territory north of Orlando, south of Gainesville, and inland from Tampa and Daytona? This is a swath of shimmering lakes, curious black bears, pistachio green mosses, and roiling black bass, with much of the landscape left just as it was when Alvar passed through.
If none of these experiences sound quite right, perhaps you are a people person. Alvar was. Along his walk he met hundreds, maybe thousands, of original Floridians – friendly and unfriendly, workers and chiefs alike, meat eaters and fish eaters, and surely clumsy, but lovable types with leftover berry juice on their buckskins. If you enjoy meeting other Floridians and learning whether the same sights, scents and sounds of Florida fascinate them also, then like Alvar, you are an explorer in your own right.
Or, maybe you’ll take it easier, and ring in this biggest birthday Florida has ever seen by reading Alvar’s story, or by reading it aloud to some children you know.
Michael Cavendish, member, Leadership Florida, Jacksonville