“I do not know how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote that to describe her home and farm at Cross Creek, Florida back in the early 1940s. I understand what she meant for I am also drawn to that same swampy backwater with it hammocks of dark, rich soil populated by live oaks, a variety of palms, and the scions of orange trees planted by Miss Rawlings after she purchased the farm 80 years ago. The orange and grapefruit groves were long ago killed off by hard frosts but these legacies remain where the dense hammocks have regained their original foothold. “The hammocks were the same then as now,” Marjorie wrote in Cross Creek (1942), “and will be the same forever if men can be induced to leave them alone.” We can only hope. So each time I return to Florida I try to make time to go to that magical place. And this time is no different.
My son Ian and I drove a grueling 14 hours and 800 miles from Maryland to Gainesville, Florida the day before Thanksgiving. The wife/mom had already been down in Florida for two weeks and so we were anxious for a holiday reunion. We drove it straight through with a couple briefs stops for gas and coffee followed by the attendant pibroch. Luckily, the weather was on our side - sunny, blue skies of a late autumn day. The holiday traffic was pretty thick, as to be expected, and frequently we found ourselves knotted up behind long lines of 18-wheelers moving down along the Eastern Seaboard. There were a few bright spots during an otherwise monotonous drive. Gas at $1.59/gallon in Dillon, South Carolina, near South of the Border. The big decision of the day was where to take a lunch break. The ubiquitous Cracker Barrel restaurant at almost every exit along I-95, or Café Risque, the infamous topless truck stop in North Carolina? The former serves a tastier plate of grits, that’s for certain. Actually, we opted for a favorite pizzeria in Santee, South Carolina only to find that it had been transformed into a nice little Mexican joint with inexpensive but very tasty fare. Later in the evening we safely navigated the notorious speed trap towns of Lawtey and Waldo, on US 301 in north Florida. And it was unsually chilly when we arrived in Gainesville at 8pm
The following day was a big family Thanksgiving feast in Tallahassee which reminded me of the many family Thanksgivings of yore. In more recent years, however, it has just been the three of us eating at a favorite German restaurant in Washington, DC. I have missed the big gatherings and the family camaraderie. Lots of games before dinner with various family factions talking trash about who would win. The important thing is we were all together and we all had fun. Of course, everyone ate much too much. Isn’t that the point in the final analysis?
The weekend after the holiday was spent down in the Tampa Bay area visiting more family. A chance to sneak over to the Gulf of Mexico on a sunny but windy morning, watching the anglers heading off to fish the mangrove swamps along the shoreline, and the shoals and wrecks farther out to sea. There were a couple of afternoons spent on the Sponge Dock at Tarpon Springs, eating some good Greek food in sight of the fishing boats and shrimpers lining the banks of the Anclote River.
Which bring me back to my own “small place of enchantment” in rural Alachua County east of Gainesville. Today is our last day in Florida for this trip and we spend part of it roaming the back roads over by Cross Creek, Micanopy, Island Pond, and Hawthorne. The narrow country roads pass under canopies of live oak festooned with long gray beards of Spanish moss. There is water in Cross Creek and in the River Styx (not always the case), and we observe white herons and egrets wading the sedgy marsh shallows looking for their next meal. We wander around the Rawlings farm and surrounding hammock; we are lucky to have the entire place to ourselves. Again, I am reminded why I like to come back to this special part of Florida. Perhaps Miss Rawlings said it best. “It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home.”
Tomorrow we arise before the sun and head northward toward our own home in Maryland. The time in my enchanted place has been far too short. But I will return again, and sooner rather than later. So stay tuned for more notes from Florida.
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