April 14, 2022

BEARD | Heading South: Reflections on the Sunshine State

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Like Canadian geese in the winter, Cornell’s student body shed their thousand dollar Canada Goose jackets and fled south for some vitamin D rehabilitation and much needed rest and relaxation away from prelims, deadlines and CHEM 2090: Engineering General Chemistry. Many decamped to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, California or anywhere that a sunburn would be possible. In a similar vein, my fair skin and I left New York and made for warmer waters in the state of Florida — Tampa specifically. In the space of 10 brief days in the Sunshine State, I saw some things worthy of the famed “Florida Man” headlines, learned a few important life lessons and returned to Ithaca with my skin a few shades redder. 

Our Florida odyssey began as we made our way south on I-75 towards Tampa. When you think of Florida, your mind tends to conjure up images of beaches and sunshine. What you don’t realize is that the interior is mostly cows and mosquitoes. Here’s a question for you: in a state with such an abundance of water, why are so many of its cities inland? Seriously, think about it; Orlando: inland, Tallahassee: middle of nowhere and inland, Tampa: kind of inland and Gainesville: inland and built on a literal swamp. Everything about Florida seems like a mixture of hyperbole and paradox. It is beaches and cows, infrastructure built on top of fragile ecosystems with no rhyme or reason and urban areas that will be underwater before most of us get a chance to sprout any gray hair. 

After eight hours of being passed by land rovers adorned with sorority letters going 20 miles over the speed limit, my friends and I arrived in Tampa. By Tampa of course, I mean St. Petersburg (my apologies to all of the infuriated locals). The sun was shining, the skies were blue, a man at a gas station rebuked me in the name of Satan, etc, etc. Seriously, Tampa is an interesting town. The road into the city was highlighted with various political billboards, one of which even depicted our current president dressed as a Taliban fighter. 

 The waters of Tampa and St. Petersburg are lined with mansions — absolute palaces of opulence with price tags that range in the tens of millions. Banking highrises line the skyline. Government buildings look like a listing out of a Berkshire-Hathaway realty booklet. In near perfect contrast, scores of homeless people slept in the shade of these testaments to wealth. And so the juxtapositions of Florida continued.

Because I was traveling with Cornell’s triathlon team, our foray into the sunshine state was filled with type-two fun. Sure, we tanned, we laughed, swam in the ocean — but we also biked 130 miles. It was a tour de panhandle or maybe simply a tour de force of all that Florida has to offer. Somehow the bike both started and ended with the threat of law enforcement.

Our seven-hour bike ride from Tampa to Gainesville started off with a bang and provided me with my first lesson. Prior to rolling out, in a tucked away parking lot at the University of South Florida with no bathroom in sight, we each sought relief in the bushes. Without a moment to spare, a security guard appeared on the spot and gravely warned us of our arrest should we not leave immediately. Unfortunately for the dictatorial wannabe, we were just making our escape. Regardless, it was a hell-of-a-way to start a bike ride. Which brings me to lesson number one from spring break: if you’re going to pee in public, make sure no one is looking. 

My second life lesson came towards the end of this massive ride. At mile 65 we pulled into the parking lot of one of our “aid stations,” exhausted and drenched in sweat courtesy of the Florida humidity. Immediately, I noticed the lot belonged to a tiki bar with motorcycles taking up the bulk of parking spaces. It was as if we had wandered onto the set of Sons of Anarchy. My teammate prophetically remarked, “Hm, we may need to get out of here in a hurry.” Funnily enough, not even two minutes later, the bar’s proprietor stepped out of the door with a baseball bat and inquired as to why we found ourselves in his parking lot. Now, in all fairness, no threats were uttered, but it was abundantly clear we weren’t welcome at the tiki bar. Sensing this, the five of us scurried off with our tails between our legs, not wanting to challenge the Jason Statham look-alike in the parking lot. Lesson number two: read the room. If you’re staring down the business end of a baseball bat, chances are you shouldn’t stick around. 

Despite the craziness of travel, Tampa and the bike ride, I made it back safe and sound from the Sunshine State. Class has started once more on campus, and sadly, spring break is in the rearview. But there are a few things that linger with me. For one, my sunburn and accompanying risk of skin disease. For two, the lessons I impart to you now. Whether you’re heading south or not, use caution when urinating in public, don’t overstay your welcome at tiki bars and watch out for gators. 

Brenner Beard (he/him) is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached [email protected]. Agree to Disagree runs every other Friday this semester.