All the roads that lead you into Okeechobee look the same. Miles and miles of pastures dotted with beef cattle or dairy cows. Gated dirt driveways with houses set back against the horizon blur past the window. There’s a certain poignance in the air. The smell of agriculture mixed with open air and heat. There’s a thickness. A familiarity.
Okeechobee is a town of settling and decay. Abandoned buildings stand with their roofs caved in and their foundation rotting. Duct tape covered broken windows, and plywood boards are still up from the last hurricane season. Faded and paint-chipped buildings shadow over empty parking lots. So many of my high school classmates never left town, as they had no desire or means to continue their education elsewhere.
Okeechobee has no mall, Target, Starbucks, or other seemingly common points of civilization. A Home Depot opened up while I was in high school and the Applebee’s after that. I’d never been to a Chipotle until I was in college. The movie theater is composed of three options, and if you’d like to actually enjoy your movie, I’d pass on going Friday nights when the entirety of Okeechobee’s youth is there.
It’s rare for a new restaurant or business to last a year. My parent’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant closed after two location changes and one year of service. However, there are a plethora of fast food restaurants, bars, steakhouse/seafood restaurants, a few amazing authentic Mexican food spots, and two options for Chinese food.
The epitome of a small, southern town. Cows outnumber people here, and there’s a church on every single corner of town. We have a high migrant and low-income population. Trailer parks are common. Many students are on free and reduced lunch. Parties occur in open pastures on Daddy’s cattle ranch. When I was in high school and even now, an event called “Mz. Senior” occurs where popular football players sign up to cross-dress like women and compete in a pageant. On the night of a senior event at the high school, cars in the parking lot were vandalized, including someone carving the f-word into the hood of my best friend Bradley’s car.
Yet Okeechobee is a town of persistence and repair. Abandoned buildings still stand. Bradley continued to drive that car to school. If you take a drive through town, I guarantee you’ll see a few people riding their bikes or walking to get to work. The sunsets here are unbelievable. This is where I come home for holidays and allow myself to breathe.
Maybe this town breaks my heart and repairs it all at the same time. Maybe it’s caught between the cracks of myself. It will always be my hometown. I could close my eyes and drive anywhere within 20 minutes. The familiarity of turns and speed limit changes committed to memory. It’s full of fond memories of hours spent at the local pool with the swim team or sitting in the park in the middle of town with my best friend contemplating life as we watched the stop lights change. So much of me was made here, yet so much of me feels like it was made elsewhere too.