"Florida's nice, for sure. The only problem: There's no mountains."
That's what out-of-staters have been telling me for years.
I've got a ready reply: "Just look up."
Florida's clouds are our mountains.
Like the Rockies, they dwarf us. Like the Pyrenees, they frame the landscape. Like the Alps, they block out the sky. Like none other, they cross boundaries of land and water, time and space.
Florida's mountains light up the sky, paint rainbows, forecast, menace, entice, captivate and inspire awe. They stir painters and shutterbugs, transfix sunbathers, bewitch and warn the aquatic adventurers who play beneath them. They line the horizon, predicting weather in a state where rain and sunshine can occupy the same skies, and furnish endless entertainment -- a climactic Disney World towering above us.
"Just look up."
The ethereal majesty of Florida's cloudscapes has captivated my imagination, bowled over our snowbird visitors, and filled my cameras since 1994, when my family settled on Pass-a-Grille, a tiny, palm-studded Gulf Coast community at the southern tip of St. Pete Beach.
Bordered on the east by Tampa Bay, the state's largest open-water estuary spanning 400 square miles, and the vast reaches of the Gulf of Mexico yearning westward from miles of sugary ribbons of sand, Pass-a-Grille Way is a cloud-watchers' paradise.
For thousands of years, beginning with Native Americans who found sustenance in its prairies and waters, the state's coastal beaches have offered inhabitants and visitors an ever-changing display.
"They're just big monsters in the sky," says Logan Owens, a 25-year-old kite surfer from St. Pete Beach. Skimming and skipping Gulf waves perched on his 14-meter Slingshot "is the only way you can release your mind in snow capped peaks, to be just truly in the mountains. It's a magical experience."
At dawn, peach- and rose-tinged powder puffs -- cumulus in cloud speak -- line the horizon; a string of miniature brains. Summer days witness a transformation forged by billions of raindrops, hail and ice crystals. Florida's intense sun paints them milky white; rain adds charcoal brushstrokes heralding blinding showers. By midday, swollen cumulus clouds blot skies of cerulean blue, the Sunshine State's hallmark.
Thunderheads, breeders of torrential rains, cannon-fire thunder and fearsome slashes of lightning, take root. These are Florida's highest mountains, our most dramatic and dangerous clouds -- cumulonimbus, from the Latin for heap and rain. Their base can spread for miles. From origins as low as 500 feet, they can climb 10 miles high. Mushroom caps give way to eerie flat tops -- meteorologists call them anvil clouds.
Nature's fury follows: Streets flood in minutes, windows shake and lightning, often miles from the storm's core, slams down like a heavenly blacksmith's spray of sparks.
An August sunset
On the Gulf, I marvel at jagged purple-gray shapes; the remains of a stormy day that silhouettes the pale rose horizon. Each bears its own stamp: a ragged cliff, a medieval castle, a gigantic top slowly spinning westward. Stare long enough and elephants appear, complete with trunks and tusks. Is that a lion? A riddle?
To Antoinette Falk, Florida's clouds always remind her of a Rorschach test, constant morphing of water, sunlight and air encouraging our minds to imagine stories lurking in the shapes. Her reaction is understandable -- Falk is a St. Petersburg psychiatrist -- and she sees therapeutic value in cloud watching. "People are always looking for a change of scene. All they have to do is look up."
But her perspective is also colored by her days on Tampa Bay, racing Snipes and Thistles with her husband Chris Klotz. On the water, Florida's mountains don't just predict weather; "they evoke a spiritual bond," she says. "It's like being close to God."
But no cloud-watcher I know brings as much passion and perspective to Florida's mountains than the sailor Allison Jolly of St. Petersburg who, at 32, won Olympic gold in the summer 1988 Games racing a two-person 407 to victory in the Sea of Japan. She's never forgotten the weekend afternoons she spent as a girl on St. Petersburg beaches watching the skies as her dad "would point out the clouds that were likely going to bring us rain and lightning. They never cease to amaze me."
A would-be meteorologist who switched to chemistry, Jolly turns poetic when she looks up. "Clouds are a continually changing artist's canvas of colors, shapes, sizes."
Jolly, who has been on the water since the age of 10, grasps the vital connection between clouds and wind that signals when it's time to shift direction, lower the sails, drop anchor or turn tail and run for shore.
Savvy cloud-watchers recognize that heading for safety is the wisest option. From June through mid-September -- Big Cloud season in West Central Florida -- thunderstorms can blitz the landscape with 15,000 lightning strikes an hour.
Earth-bound mountains need eons of tectonic shifts to pierce the planet's crust. The life cycle of clouds is measured in minutes.
An abundance of moisture, unstable air and the collision of cool sea breezes and land-heated air -- what meteorologists call a lifting mechanism -- dab the cloud maker's palette. Moving inward from the coast, cooler air acts like a shovel, feeding cumulus clouds like a stoker shoveling coal into a steam locomotive, creating updrafts that propel the clouds tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere.
"It's like dropping a match on gasoline," explains Dan Noah, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Ruskin. The thunderheads climb skyward, blackened with heavy rain, blasting thunder and lightning and burning off their fuel. Spent, they drift to the earth and, Noah says, "just rain themselves out."
That's why the cooling, pearly sands lure me, camera in hand, as sunset beckons. The day's behemoths drift harmlessly out to sea, their ever-changing scarlet, charcoal and pinks painting mystical shapes that fire the imagination and calm the soul. The show doesn't end as the sun sinks into the horizon. Lingering peaks play hide and seek with the moon.
"Mountains just sit there," Allison Jolly scoffs. "Our clouds change every five minutes."
Just look up.
-- By Chip Scanlan, VISIT FLORIDA