Words and photos by Andrea Willingham
For the first 22 years of my life, Florida was home. Its swamps and beaches were my playgrounds; the trails of the nature preserves where my mother volunteered were well-explored by me and my siblings. When we got older, we volunteered as well.
I loved those days.
And yet, while Florida was home, it was also a place from where I wanted to get away.
As I aged, I felt increasingly confined by what I perceived were limitations when it came to Florida’s outdoor opportunities: no mountains to climb, no whitewater to paddle, no snowy slopes to ski. I set my sights on Alaska, the furthest and most different landscape from where I grew up.
I made it to Alaska a month after I graduated college, taking a media internship with the National Park Service. I spent nine months on the remote Alaskan tundra, which tested my outdoor skills. I took my first backcountry trips and caught, filleted, cooked, and ate my first wild salmon. When winter came, I found myself snowshoeing in whiteout conditions, sledding for the first time in my life, and traversing the tundra to photograph the desolate beauty of the frozen north.
Here, every day was an adventure. Living in a place where I had no choice but to rise to the challenges this Alaskan landscape presented was the most empowering feeling I ever experienced.
In trying to get away from home, I was beginning to feel more at home than ever before.
I became a seasonal park ranger in Alaska, avoiding my home state because I felt I didn’t belong. Florida’s summers were too hot, the outdoor opportunities too limited, and most of the wild places had been paved over to make way for condos and shopping malls. Instead, I lived for the berry-picking, wilderness-frolicking days of 24-hour sunlight of the *“Last Frontier”.
But then I was thrown back to my home state by a series of inconsequential events. At first I wanted to be anywhere else but there.
Then I had a realization: If I hadn’t experienced growing up outdoors in Florida, I may have never learned to appreciate my time in Alaska. The contrast between the two regions — culture, environment, and community — was striking. Gradually, I saw how fortunate I was to belong to both.
What Florida may lack in breadth of outdoor recreation opportunities, it makes up for in depth: 1,260 miles of coastline, 161 state parks, 11 national parks, 10 state trails, and dozens of caves, forests, and waterways make up my home state. I began to understand that the only reason I wasn’t finding things to do was because I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Florida had endless opportunities, I just had to see it in its own light.
While there is beauty in making a home of your own, there is also importance in remembering your roots. Florida’s outdoor community influenced my early years and ultimately shaped my life. As I set out on my own, I unwittingly kept close to the familiarity of the outdoor community. And since community is what ties people and places together, those Florida roots helped me find home all the way across the country.
So what is home? Home is Florida and home is Alaska. Home is a state of mind and a state of belonging. In the end, home is not only where you make it, it’s where you come from and to where you return.
About the Author
Andrea Willingham says, “My sense of adventure was born from my desire to live a story worth telling, and so far that story has continued to take me to more incredible places than I ever could have imagined. By summer, I work as a park ranger for Alaska’s National Parks, and during the winters I follow my wanderlust and travel as much as I can.
“As a writer and photographer, I try to share the beauty and insights of the incredible places I go and the people I meet along the way. I have found that the world reflects back what you shine upon it, and so I hope to inspire others with my writing, stories, and photographs, to seek out their own adventures, find their passions, and challenge themselves to accomplish amazing things in their own lives. Every experience is what you make it, so make it great!”