• J

One Month in Ocala—aka Horse Country, Florida

Updated: May 16

It will come as no surprise to my close friends that I obsessively research travel. I have more Airbnb listings favorited than I can keep track of and receive more flight-deal newsletters than I have time to read. I am often daydreaming—and in many cases, planning—what could be my next trip. But Ocala was a bit of a last-minute booking. Though it may seem like an odd choice, now that I've been in Ocala for a few weeks, I can say it was the perfect choice.

Ocala and its home province, Marion County, are touted as the "Horse Capital of the World." The middle-of-state city is home to about 60,000 people—and about 200,000 horses of all kinds, most notably Thoroughbreds who are often training to race. (There's actually a racetrack in the complex I'm staying. The horses' speed, strength, and beauty up-close is stunning.) To experience Ocala is to experience horse country; to drive its live-oak lined county roads is to awe at its sprawling farms, estates, and verdant pastures, peppered with the curious animals, two eyes and ears alert to passersby. The weather is cooler here, thankfully, and I've trekked more tucked-away trails than I can count. For this, I'm grateful. I love being a beach bum but it's not part of my identity; being on the trail is.

I knew that I wanted to hunker down somewhere quiet for the first month of my new job (yay!). My map-view research landed in the Ocala region for a few reasons: it's driving distance from my mom and other family; closer to my twice-a-week horse lease in Inverness; and rural, which has its own appeal when you want to fill your cup. Ocala is exactly what I hoped it would be: A peaceful place in the countryside where I can focus on work, unwind in nature, and plot my next steps. Ultimately, I'm glad I threw caution to the wind and jumped on the cute Airbnb listing when I did.

Ocala is the first stop on my unnamed journey that is both old and new: to travel while working. My own unique version of the "digital nomad" lifestyle—yes, I know the phrase is tiresome—I'm going to live in a different city every month or so until...Until I'm tired of it. The parameters are loose and I'm going to follow my gut on what feels right. My intuition has always served me well, and I trust it will rightly guide me through this chapter of my life, too. In many ways, this venture is just a new iteration of what I've been doing since I left Colorado in 2019: Living light and on my toes, never planning more than a few months out, and of course being nimble as COVID and related restrictions evolve.

In short, Ocala has been an excellent new beginning. Like many Americans—scratch that, people, regardless of their nationality—my view of Florida was less than desirable. But my time in Horse Country, Florida has showed me that the state is so much more than its reputation for the bizarre and unseemly. Sure, some of the lore is warranted: I see, on average, about an alligator a week. Most restaurant menus list overpriced yet underwhelming dishes and too-sugary drinks that could only entice a frilly vacationer or the diabetic. The streets are filled with elderly in bright pastels and salt-cured locals (often donning their belly button—sometimes because it's a woman in a bikini, but often because it's a beer-bellied man in a too-small T-shirt).

But the Sunshine State is also home to some of the most vibrant, vivid land I've ever seen. It is full of vitality, thick with life, swampy and green and swarming. "Florida is powerfully attractive. It is less like a state than a sponge. People are drawn to it," author Susan Orlean said in her book The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession. (I highly recommend reading this 1998 book if you haven't already. It's not only an excellently written and timelessly engrossing story, it perfectly captures the essence of Florida and the Everglades.)

Just as Florida attracts people like a sponge, it absorbs them like a sponge, too. To be in Florida too long is to feel enveloped by it, like you are on the verge of disappearing into it. I came to know the feeling—a little too well, I might add—when I spent six months and the summer of 2020 (aka "the Great Quar," as comedian Scotty Landes likes to call it) on the beach. I felt myself getting lost in the fever-dream heat, the infinite water-lined horizon, the anything-goes culture.

Florida's "Wild Wild East" identity, as I've been affectionately calling it, is equal parts repellant and appeal. It feels practically lawless—or at least a magnet for people who don't particularly care for rules (this was especially clear during 2020). Forget masks—want to shop Publix in your bathing suit? Drive your motorized wheelchair across a five-lane busy thoroughfare? Wrestle an alligator? You can probably get away with it, no questions asked. Florida is, maybe too literally, intoxicating. Personally, my favorite Florida thing to do is park on the lawn. I don't know why, but this small, red-neck expression of freedom brings me joy. In The Orchid Thief, Orlean also aptly writes: “Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida.”

OCALA Travel Tips:

If you ever find yourself in the Ocala area, I highly recommend that you:

  • Rent a kayak (preferably during off-hours to avoid crowds) to float the crystal-clear waters of Rainbow Springs State Park

  • Cycle the many winding trails in the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway; the Shangri-la section is particularly lovely

  • Hike or mountain bike the marvelous Santos & Vortex trails area

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