I met Rob and Kate at their home after a particularly rainy drive from Tallahassee into Jacksonville. They had their laptop computers set up on their large dinning room table, and Rob was trying to finish up some work for the next day. Kate gave me the grand tour, which included a completely screened-in backyard with swimming pool. They have a pet bird they keep in a cage on the back porch, and the screened area allows them to set him free to roam around the yard every once in a while. She explained that while the screen does a great job of keeping bad bugs out, it also makes it hard to attract good bugs to help nurture their large garden and plant collection.
Kate’s adventures with butterflies constitute their own arthropodal soap opera.
At one point she managed to capture a monarch butterfly, which lived happily in their fully enclosed backyard for some time. After many months, the butterfly miraculously gave birth to several small caterpillar babies, mystifying Kate as it was the closest she’d ever come to a virgin conception. She knew the new flock wouldn’t be able to sustain themselves with the backyard plants alone, and took it upon herself to move the young-ins to the front yard where they could eat, grow, and eventually fly to nearby plants and feast as they pleased. The caterpillars were all dead within days, and Kate couldn’t figure out why. She had placed them on her newly purchased milkweed plants, which are normally the monarch caterpillar’s favorite snack. To her horror she found out that the nursery sprayed it’s plants with pesticides, and the milkweed she bought was in fact poisonous to the little creatures. She has since bought new, unsprayed milkweed and hopes to get another shot some day.
Rob was planning to attend an Innovator’s Roundtable the evening I arrived, and he asked if I would like to come along. The three of us went to a local brewery where we were met with drinks, a small selection of hors d’oeuvres, and the encouragement to go outside to the convenient food trucks if we needed something more substantial. “Food trucks are big here,” Kate explained. We all received color-coded name tags and instructions to find our matching table. Once you found your group you would listen to the presenter assigned to your table. After the first round the presenters would stay where they were and the table group would slowly move from one presenter to the next. I learned about Rethreaded, an organization that helps women recovering from human trafficking by way of up-cycled t-shirt products. I talked to the organizer of OneSpark, which crowdsources funding for new projects by way of a weekend festival. Not to mention the restaurant that picks a new location for every event and accepts payment without telling people where they’ll be eating, and the chef who is filtering all of his water, including toilet water, just to see what effect it will have on the internal plumbing of his building. Plus the chips and salsa were pretty good.
The next morning Rob had to leave early for a work event a few hours south. Kate and I had a leisurely breakfast and chatted about our lives and our travels. Rob is Kate’s second husband, with her kids belonging to the first. She told me about the time she got mugged in Edinburgh and her days hitchhiking in her 20s. She said she had the whole day free and offered to tour me around. “There’s not much to see in Jacksonville,” she told me, “but we can go down to St. Augustine and you can try some gator tail.”
Kate drove me around Jacksonville first, taking time to get out of the car at the Friendship Fountain and at Treaty Oak. The Oak is a tree straight out of Tolkien, with branches so heavy they sink to the grass and start to grow up again from the floor. I took a lot of pictures but none of them seemed to capture it. It’s called the Treaty Oak because some years back there was a threat to tear it down. An industrious reporter fabricated a tale about the natives and the white settlers signing a treaty under its many branches. There is no reason to believe this actually happened, but the tree was saved and the name stuck.
The drive to St. Augustine took about an hour, and we parked the car at the visitor’s center. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States, founded in 1565 by the Spanish. It served as the region’s capitol for centuries, but is now primarily seen by tourists. We walked down the main pedestrian drag and Kate pointed out the unique construction of the building walls. The oldest structures are built using coquina, a rock formed by compressed seashells. As a rock it is comparatively soft when being quarried, but hardens when it’s left to dry for a year or more. While many of the buildings in St. Augustine now hold jewelry stores and t-shirt shops, they are surrounded by walls dating back hundreds of years.
Kate took me to the Florida Cracker Cafe for some gator tail, which is best described as a plate of chewy chicken nuggets. We wandered into the local Catholic Church and tried to guess which of the statues were supposed to be St. Augustine. As we left the church a few rain drops fell on our skin. Kate looked at the sky and said we needed to duck in somewhere quick. We were at the entrance to the main hall of Flagler College, a building originally intended to be a high-class hotel for the very rich. Apparently they weren’t able to get the sulfur taste out of the water, and the very rich never came. It was turned into a college in 1968, but the Ponce de Leon Hall constructed for the old hotel is still as beautiful as ever. As we were admiring the ceiling work a tour of potential students came through. Kate asked one of the mothers if we could join, and the mother said that she didn’t see why not. We took her acceptance as permission, despite her lack of authority.
In the dining hall, which is normally off-limits to tourists, we learned about the meal plan. Upstairs past the “No Visitors Beyond This Point” sign we got to see a few of the female dorm rooms. Kate asked more questions than any other parent, “Are students allowed to hang things on the walls?” “Do you fire pottery in that art building stove or is it just leftover from the old hotel?” I was worried we’d be found out as frauds, and devised a brilliant story about dropping out of UW three years ago, visiting my Aunt Kate on vacation for a week, and being dragged along to the local college in hopes that I will decide to finish my degree in Florida. Of course, no one ever asked. Our guide took us through some classrooms and into the arts hall before Kate and I snuck away from the Flagler College tour. We saw a beautiful Presbyterian church around the corner and we thought we might be able to look inside.
After determining that the church was both the final resting place of Mr. Flagler himself, and closed after 3PM on weekdays, we headed back to the Visitor’s Center. Kate had us pick up the pace when she spotted some menacing clouds on the way. We had just made it to the gift shop when the downpour began, and it ended just in time for us to walk over to the parking garage. Kate drove us past the very unassuming old French fort, and over the river to the pier. We were speculating about the long term benefits of buying expensive yachts when her daughter Brianna called. Brianna had just gotten off work, and Kate invited her to eat with us at The Conch House down in St. Augustine.
Brianna was about a half hour away, so Kate and I wandered around the restaurant for a while. The Conch House is something of a spectacle on it’s own. Outside are several tables up on pillars, covered with tiki-style thatched roofs. Inside a spiral staircase takes you to the second dinning level, followed by an observation room were you can look out onto the water. We spotted the Roseate Spoonbill, a bird straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It was rapidly skimming the shoreline looking for it’s evening meal, and the kids in the observation area kept calling it a flamingo. In their defense, that’s what we called it at first, too.
I hadn’t met Brianna yet, but the descriptions and stories I’d heard made me think I’d like her. Mostly because she sounded exactly like me. She did drama in high school, started a large shot glass collection at a young age, and painted and decorated her bedroom in a theme (hers was theater, mine was space & sky). She traveled a lot, left her room as a tiny shrine while she was away in college, and came back at her mother’s request to clear it out. By the time Brianna arrived we had already ordered drinks. As she sat down she looked at the beverage in front of her and asked her mom, “What did you get me?”
“Root beer,” said Kate.
Brianna’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of root beer?” Kate shrugged. Brianna gave it a sip, then nodded her head in reserved approval.
I have found Florida Katrina.
The three of us ate dinner, and Kate told stories of her youth and Brianna’s father. Many years ago Kate and her friends were planning to hitchhike from Austin to California. A few days before they intended to leave they ran into the man who would be Brianna’s father. He was planning to drive to California in his car, and Kate asked if he could take the three of them as well. By the end of the trip the two were an item. This was a story Brianna had heard many times before, but she recently came into a bit of information that she couldn’t believe her mother had left out. This chance encounter with a man who happened to be driving to California took place in Hippie Hollow Park. A nude beach.
“So you were naked,” Brianna said with a smirk.
“Look, my friend had been talking with him and said he was driving to California,” Kate began to explain.
“…and you were naked…” Brianna added, trying to embarrass her mother.
“…so I walked over to him…”
“…and you were naked…”
“…and I asked if we could tag along.”
“And you were naked.” Brianna concluded once again.
“Look,” Kate began with a sly smile,” All I can say is I met your father, he looked at me, and he knew what he was getting.”
Kate shot me a big smile and Brianna threw her napkin on the table in disgusted embarrassment. “I’m going to the bathroom,” Brianna declared. Once she was out of earshot Kate leaned toward me and said, “I would have said, ‘He looked at me and he knew what he was getting into‘ but I’m not sure she would have been able to handle it!” Kate and I let out a roar of laughter. We did our best to keep it together when Brianna returned from the bathroom.
As we were finishing up dinner, Rob called to let us know that he and his coworker were on their way home. Kate suggested that we could order something for him to-go and he could get dropped off at The Conch House. He agreed, and after a bit too long the waitress came out with his dinner and three travel sodas. We found a small gazebo outside overlooking the adjacent hotel pool and continued chatting in the warm night air. Brianna was tired and anxious to get home, and ended up leaving right after Rob arrived. Rob, Kate, and I stayed a while longer to allow him time to eat a bit of his dinner, but eventually we all opted to head home. The wind was picking up.
Couchsurfing has allowed me to meet many complete strangers. In everyday life when you meet a new person, you can use the reason for your meeting as a way to get to know them. “So how do you know Sandy and Trevor?” or “How long have you been working for the Park Service?” or “Excuse me, I think you dropped this.” All are acceptable ways into conversation with complete strangers. But in Couchsurfing, your interaction tends to speed right past small talk into deep discussion. I think it must be the inherent intimacy of being near someone else while they sleep. For the short time that I spent with Kate, I feel like I got to know a lot about her, her history, and how she lives her life. Even my dinner with Brianna was insightful. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that we all like to talk about ourselves, and lately I’ve been answering the same questions over and over again, so talking about myself has lost some of its appeal. I suppose that has had the unintended side effect of making me a more enthusiastic listener.
If I were to take one thing away from my time with Kate, it would be that fear does not have to be based in experience. Kate had all of her money, her I.D. and her train pass stolen as a young woman traveling in Scotland. In New Mexico her and her friends nearly found themselves abandoned in the desert with the threat of sexual assault (if not worse) hanging in the air from some truckers they’d encountered. Kate has certainly seen her fair share of danger. But hopping in a car with a stranger is also how she found her first husband, and how she ended up with her wonderful children. And now, at the beginning of her retirement years, she’s still taking in couch surfers and foreign exchange students on a regular basis. I grew up learning about Stranger Danger, but Kate has lived it. And she hasn’t let it change her life. Her home is still open for the young European scholar, the wayward traveler, and the occasional Monarch butterfly.