Sunday, August 26, 2007

(5) The Panhandle of Florida

On the Road again. I love seeing the road stretching out ahead of me, leading me on to new places and destinations I’ve never been to before. Getting up early with the sun rising above the horizon. Meeting fellow travelers, some traveling only for a few days to get away from the grind of work, others like myself, exploring the world fulltime.

Heading north on hwy 19/98, I’m traveling through Dixie County and Perry Fla where I think about my dear friend Dixie Bishop. Imagine, she was named after a county or was it Dixie Crossing. I was named after a hotel, The Douglas Hotel in Northern Michigan. But being named after a county, now that’s something.

In Perry I mistakenly miss the 98 turn off heading west and just as I turn around to go back, I see a sign in front of a Baptist church that says, “If your going in the wrong direction, God permits U-turns”. Now am I being led, or what?

The dogwood trees are all in bloom along with ancient azalea bushes as thick as old dense brush in the woods. The pure white flowers of the dogwood trees stand out from the evergreen trees and new growth of the spring trees. Sometimes, it almost looks like they have light coming from inside the dogwood flowers themselves as the sun catches them and makes them glow.

I head for a state park, Ochlockonee St Pk just south of Soppchoppy. Odd I should end up here, since I remember stopping in Soppchoppy two years ago for a quick bite to eat on the side of the road. I’m back to explore the Wakulla Springs State Park. Soppchoppy is an old southern sleepy town between Tallahassee and the Gulf of Mexico.

Sitting at the campsite, in the quiet of the evening. Kids riding their small bicycles around the park, the sun setting behind the tall stand of pine trees. Many weak from the pine bark beetle over the past couple of years. Campfires blazing as families settle in for the evening. The heat of the day, quickly cooling down as the sun sets. They tell me this park is not a great place to be in the summer as yellow flies have been known to eat a man alive. Before going to bed, I go outside and stare up at the stars. There’s nothing to get in the way of viewing as there are no city lights in this park of north Florida. The stars are brilliant against the black sky boarder by pine trees off on the horizon like black silhouetted sentries.

I’m on the road. Smelling the fresh air again. Feeling the pavement beneath me. Noticing the raw beauty around every bend. Aware of the road. Does it have a shoulder, or does grass meet the pavement, with no room for error. I travel at 55 or 60 mph. Leisurely because I can. Traveling the secondary roads, where often there is little to no traffic. Hard to believe, when you’ve come from a metropolitan area. That there are still quiet roads out there to explore and get you to your destination without the hassle of the super highway. I’ll have to travel on hwy 10 soon, heading out west, but for now, I can still use those byways.

I tour Wakulla Springs which is 15 miles from Tallahassee and 15 miles from the gulf of Mexico. It’s one of the largest springs in the state and has two boat tours. I took the one down river, which was filled with wildlife along the shores. I’ve lived in Florida for over 30 years and have never seen so many alligators in one location in my life. Gators were about every 15 feet in the water and along the banks. Birds were everywhere and we even saw deer along the banks. Swimming in the 68 degree water is sparkling and refreshing, but I was leery of knowing that the gators were on the opposite shore line. Although I was told they’ve never had an incident. Oh and the park has a grand old lodge with a wonderfully painted Cypress beamed ceiling. Get there for Lunch or dinner and feel like royalty or stay the night.

I’ve arrived at my last stop in the state before heading out west. I’m in Defuniak Springs at the Juniper Lake Rv park. The owners are retired Navy and lived in Key West for about 12 years.
A side note, the lake has been drained and will take about a year to fill back up, but I understand they’ll once again have great fishing in the lake, once it comes back.

Defuniak Springs was the headquarters of the southern Chautauqua Movement which had it’s headquarters in upstate New York. It was active in and around 1910-30 era and was a movement for continuing education for adults. By gathering together educators in philosophy, theology, arts and music, elocution, cookery, amusement, instruction, recreation, society, and fellowship, the locals and visitors could expand their knowledge and become better parents and towns folk. What a great concept that could still work today.

The town still contains many historic buildings including the Hall of Brotherhood, with an auditorium that seats 4,000.

An interesting town that has the potential of becoming a center of continuing education and possibly a thriving town if the right people moved in and built it into what it could become once again. And it’s only 30 miles to the gulf of Mexico which is lined with million dollar homes along the pure white sugar sand beaches, old pine forests and lagoons along the gulf. Old Florida and New Florida all within 30 miles of each other.

I head out tomorrow and will probably travel through the southern tip of Alabama and Mississippi before settling in. Wishing you the best that’s out there.

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