Traveling opens your eyes to realities other than your own. You expect culture shock to come with different customs, dialects, foods and behaviors, so it’s easy to overlook some of the simpler disparities.
Coming from the Pacific Northwest to the swampy collective known as Florida this summer, all five senses realized one glaring difference: water.
The Pacific Northwest gets a reputation for being a perpetually soaked rainforest, but that’s not the case for most of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. In reality, most of these states are comprised of savannah and high desert where water is precious.
Even the deserts host rivers and streams, fed by snowmelt, springs or both, these waterways are flowing, clear, clean and — whether or not it’s always the case — seem like a testament to the purity of the wild.
Water may be hard to find in parts of the PNW, but it’s typically quite palatable. The Columbia drainage may flow through cities and wend through civilization, but it’s still fairly clean.
You look at it and instantly want to wet wade, swim or float in it.
This is a stark contrast to Florida. Though water is everywhere, the ponds, canals, channelized rivers and ocean itself are gross. The agricultural runoff, high mineral content, tannic coloration and swill of garbage from the burgeoning population make Florida water that much less appealing.
Though you usually see the water in Florida first, on occasion, you follow your nose. The high sulfur content in Florida’s waterways is natural, but the human-assisted smells are not.
Few things smell worse than the Florida swamp, and with each breath I take, I long for the crisp mountain air and water that doesn’t take on the smell of its impurities.
Just this week I snagged a floating diaper while throwing topwater for bass. I dry heaved but realized it was a new normal, and I’d have to go with the flow.
After all, flowing water is the norm back home. Sure, there are lakes, but rivers and streams support our hydrology in the PNW. Rainwater is the driver in Florida, where a vicious cycle of heat and thunderstorms keep the ground saturated and the ponds and canals full of water.
Much of this water flows at the speed of government, but the silent swill makes me long for the babbling brooks of my home.
The sound, ambient in some of my best memories, has raw emotional power.
As a kid, I saw “The Miracle Worker” for the first time. The gripping scene in which Annie Sullivan repeatedly places Helen Keller’s hands in the water and says “Water. It has a name,” stayed with me. It, too, had raw emotional power.
Water is supposed to feel a certain way. It’s supposed to be fluid with no residue and a texture all its own.
This is the water I’m used to.
The water in Florida is so often polluted, brackish and full of whatever soluble debris is carried in from the gutters that it doesn’t feel like water. It’s sticky, it’s thicker than it should be and, so often, it’s soft.
I hate soft water, and the feeling you get when you wash yourself but don’t feel clean? That is quintessential Florida.
The artesian wells, springs and snowmelt we drink is delightful. Water doesn’t have a taste, not really, but it certainly shouldn’t be bitter or sour or taste like sweat. Unfortunately, nobody told that to Florida, where the tap water is — at best — terrible.
People buy half a dozen cases of water at a time, and I’ve bought more plastic bottled water this summer than in 5 years prior. I’m used to refilling a water bottle for weeks at a time, but it’s just not a viable option here. Even the Florida brand of bottled water, Zephyrhill’s, itself bottled in Florida, is foul.
Further, recycling is limited, and there is no deposit, so that same plastic we drink because the water is bad ends up floating in that same water we don’t drink, making it just that much worse.
The bottles float by, a visual reminder of how it smells and tastes, the tacky feeling it leaves on your skin, and the only sound you hear near the water is trash scraping against the culvert on its way to my watershed moment in which I realize I miss my water.