top of page

'WHY NOT?' / The Path to the Florida Years

From the Writer Formerly Known as "BigBoy"

Art: Dan Hubig © 2019

Yes, I was born on a mountaintop (no longer there) in Santa Anna, Texas. No, I was not ridden out of Odessa on a rail back in the Sixties. I saw attending The University of Texas in Austin as a way to avoid laboring in the oil fields. My first stay in Austin ended, not with a police escort out of town (as some wits have suggested), but with a delightful letter of greetings from President Johnson suggesting I would look stunning wearing olive drab for the next two years. Yes, my visit to Viet Nam was not well received by the Vietnamese, and a misunderstanding caused me to exit sooner than planned. (A local with a hand grenade couldn’t understand why I was traipsing through his country discharging an automatic rifle. Neither could I.) No, my conduct at Bevo’s Westside Tap Room did not end my second stay in Austin. I thought spending time in London would improve my diction. That failed, but it did introduce me to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Yes, I did leave London and return to Austin because my funds were just adequate to live on Portobello Road with a diet consisting exclusively of Jamaican Patties. Yes, I did end my third stay in Austin because Jeff Nightbyrd called me with an offer to move to L.A. and work for Larry Flynt. Hated to leave my friends (fortunately, a bunch of them also headed West), but I was California dreaming.

Question: Why did I leave L.A. after writing for The L.A. Free Press, The L.A. Weekly, several movie studios and a basic cable network founded by Austin’s own Brian Owens? Answer: That adventure was over. I knew it. Lynn knew it. And, I suspect, the entertainment industry knew it.

We hated to leave our friends, but it was off to Silver City, New Mexico, a place just past the turn-off to nowhere — the ultimate contrast to Los Angeles. I have written about Austin, L.A. and our friends there. And I will again. But I may not have said enough about Silver City.

The peaceful isolation of this village on the edge of the Gila Wilderness provided a calming effect on Lynn and me after the hustle and bustle of the big city. The town’s intriguing cast of characters from around the world was sometimes puzzling but always thought-provoking. We met someone who was building computers before I knew what a gigabyte was — not that I do now. We met The Local Genius, who can tell you the history of the planet by looking at a single pebble, and calculate the flow of water through The Big Ditch by studying the flight of ravens. We met an attorney who once had his motel room window blasted out by a shotgun-wielding opponent of civil rights. We met a former winner of the Iditarod. We met as strong, remarkable, spiritually enlightened group of women as I have ever encountered. We met a fellow who played basketball against Laker great, Michael Cooper. We met fiddlers, singers, accordion players, guitar pickers, artists, actors, astronomers, writers, conservationists, horticulturists, philosophers, social workers and other assorted ruffians. Hikers, bikers, union strikers. Members of the bar, bar flies and baristas. We met a U.S. Senator, a future Congresswoman, the editor of the paper, the local “Brain Trust,” the Mayor, the dedicated leaders of the Democratic Party (I also met some local leaders of the Republican Party, but for some reason they didn’t invite me to any gatherings at their houses). We met the organizers and operators of the community radio station. We met teachers of school, ballet, yoga, Pilates, meditation and golf. We had fabulous neighbors. Quail and deer in the backyard. Life was good.

But Lynn longed for something Silver City could never provide — a beach. So after three wonderful years, it was adios Silver City, hello Sarasota!

The journey to Florida was perilous. Most likely Lewis and Clark had it tougher. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Astronaut Laurel Clark certainly did. And, possibly, so did Guy Clark while trying to get off of those L.A. freeways. Never the less, we did have a rough road to hoe. After all, we were often subjected to the eating of fried fast food.

Our first challenge? Getting out of Silver City. We felt confident about leaving town by 10 AM. But though most of our possessions had gone ahead of us in a moving van, we were barely able to squeeze what was left into two cars. Finding room for 25 paintings, a huge chandelier, Baby Doll (our British Staffordshire Bull Terrier) and Cowboy (a 95-pound one-eyed American Bulldog) plus all the personal items we needed for the trip required patience, imagination, brute strength and a bit of magic.

The second challenge? Spending less than three hours picking up coffee for the road at Polly’s Javalina Coffee Shop while saying bye-bye to folks. We failed this challenge.

The third challenge? A two-thousand-mile drive across the Deep South with the dogs and too much stuff crammed into the two vehicles. Due to our late departure, we reached Van Horn, Texas well after dark. Fortunately the restaurant at the El Capitan Hotel was still open. The El Capitan was built in 1930 at the crossroads of the Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe and Big Bend National Parks. One can almost see the ghosts of cattle barons who devoured enormous steaks here, with the carcasses of those bovines long ago rotting into the West Texas sand to, perhaps, create fossil fuel for some future form of humanoid emerging from our ashes many millennia from now to burn them in a hastening repetition of extinction. Such visions form more freely when one is over-tired.

Such visions form more freely when one is over-tired.

Anyway, we enjoyed our meal and Cowboy enjoyed a variety of scents in the vacant lot near the hotel’s parking lot. It was getting late, but we drove on into the heart of darkness, never a brilliant idea. When we finally limped into in Ft. Stockton, Texas, we were too exhausted to notice the dilapidated state of our motel. We discovered the dilapidation the next morning, along with my cell phone, which had been dropped around midnight in the unappealing gutter next to my car.

Eager to make up for lost time, we decided to gas up the cars when we got to the next town, Ozona, 140 miles away. Being such an alert reader, you can probably guess why I mention this seemingly mundane decision. There is much vastness in West Texas. Vastness filled with vastness, surrounded by vastness, leading to a vast amount of more vastness. That’s why the speed limit is 80 mph and everyone seems to drive 92. But it does not explain why there is not a service station between Ft. Stockton and Ozona.

Lynn and Baby Doll drove her Lexus through this vast stretch at around ninety-three mph. Cowboy and I limped along in our Subaru at 75-80. So we quickly lost sight of Lynn’s car. And since my cell phone was still hungover from its night in the gutter, we were incommunicado.

About 20 miles from Ozona, I spotted the Lexus on the side of the highway. By the time I pulled over, I was a good 100 yards past her. Cars were whizzing by at a mile and a half a minute. Walking on the road’s narrow shoulder was perilous.

Lynn was on the phone trying to explain her location to the Auto Club. “O-Z-O-N-A! No, no, not Oxnard, California — Ozona, Texas. What? I didn’t even know there was an Ozona, Florida. Yes, between Ozona and Ft. Stockton. No, not close to Fort Worth. Three hours to send a truck from Ft. Stockton? We’re much closer to Ozona. O-Z-O-N-A.”

Then, literally out of the blue, a Hispanic gentleman in a white pick-up pulled over. He had a can of gasoline in the bed of his truck. He will always be my hero!

Perhaps it was the stress of running out of gas. Or maybe the lack of comfort due to riding next to the chandelier. Or maybe the thought of possibly having to spend time in Ozona. Whatever, this was when Baby Doll, or Dolly as we often call her, first got sick. This probably comes as no surprise, but a puking dog is not the ideal traveling companion.

Since Lynn had never been to the river walk, we had planned on a stopover in San Antonio. Dolly’s condition changed that. Jessica, Lynn’s friend from the world of Dog Lovers, suggested a Vet in Austin, so we left the I-10 and headed toward the state capital.

It was Sunday. We had to spend the night in Austin before we could see the Vet. Our friends, Moon and The Princess Bride, provided us with shelter and comfort.

On Monday, while The P.B. went off to teach and Lynn took Dolly to the Vet, Moon and I conducted extensive experiments to discover the perfect amount of salt and lime to consume with Tecate Beer.

News from the Vet was good. Dolly was okay to travel if we gave her frequent walks and all of her meds on time. But we were encouraged to get her to her Florida Vet as soon as possible.

In only a few hours, and one Dolly puke, we found ourselves in unfamiliar territory. Seafowl stared at us from trees and posts along the road. An air so thick you could hold it in your hand, and maybe even chew it, replaced the dryness of West Texas and New Mexico. My first time in Lake Charles, Louisiana was spent in a two-hour traffic jam with no discernible cause. Our anticipation of Cajun food in Fayetteville was quashed when we wound up in a tourist trap. Lynn’s BBQ shrimp were merely crustaceans soaked in Worchester sauce, and my oyster dish was like something an Army cook might have slapped together from whatever was left over in the officer’s mess. Even Cowboy would have turned up his nose. Well, maybe not. The “band” consisted of a bleater, a groaner and a tweaker.

The “band” consisted of a bleater, a groaner and a tweaker

We headed east. Dolly puked again down around Biloxi. I peed on a Spanish moss-covered oak outside Pascagoula. We failed to find a Starbuck’s in Moss Point. Dolly puked just west of Mobile. At last we spotted the promised land – FLORIDA – the land of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, writer Carl Hiaasen, Disney World and Key Lime Pie! I immediately went into red alert as my eyes searched the canals and streams along the road in search of the dreaded and merciless manatees.

While we were in Austin, Moon had plotted out a route for us with suggested layovers at reasonable intervals. However, I can’t help thinking he picked DeFuniak Springs, FL, just because he liked the name. If you think it is impossible to not locate your motel in a town of 5,000 citizens, we disproved your theory DeFuniak. Instead, we wound up spending the night in a community with the less humorous name of Marianna.

Once again our late arrival limited our dining options. The only open non-drive-through was called “Poor Folks.” Now I don’t know if our fellow diners were actually poor, but they were large. Most of them had the kind of figure one can expect from a steady diet of deep fried meats, non-green vegetables and pie ala mode. Not that I’m judging anyone. My own silhouette has been formed by beer, bacon and barbecue. And I am rather fond of pie.

On the final day of our journey, we discovered that drivers in Northern Florida go just as fast as their counterparts in West Texas. So since Dolly was feeling better we decided to take a break from the speedway with a stop in Micanopy, “The Town That Time Forgot.” If Rhett Butler had been a real person, Micanopy is where he might have gone to detox from mint julep binges. On the other hand, it could also be the place that inspires a mint julep binge. It is the oldest continuously inhabited community in the interior of Florida. I assume that does not include any Seminole settlements in the everglades. Ah swear, just shut mah mouth and call me ah buhl frawg, if mah southern accent did not increase with every breath of that fine magnolia-scented air!

Time warping back to 2019, we were suddenly THERE! Sarasota, Florida. As I pulled into our driveway and stepped out of the car onto the seashells decoratively surrounding the house, a realization wrapped itself around me like a python in the swamp. I was walking into THE FLORIDA YEARS.


James BigBoy Medlin © 2019

James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"


bottom of page