The Beauty and Strangeness of the Deep South

We’re only an hour outside of the college town of Gainesville, Florida, but it feels like we’re on the moon. This is the Deep South, baby.

We’ve moved away from the pine forests and small, scrubby palmettos of the panhandle into forests of huge live oaks entirely covered in swaying Spanish moss. The ground here is flat, and it’s either slightly damp sand or spongy swampy stuff. It’s quiet and truly gorgeous.

Gornto Springs

Natural springs are everywhere—I think many are sink holes that have fallen into shallow aquifers. In this rural area, the county protects these springs with a fence and builds a park around it all so it becomes a resource for everyone.

The one we’re camped at isn’t super big (not big enough to go scuba diving in, which I’ve seen advertised at others), but I’m looking forward to swimming in it, for sure.

It’s right off the Suwannee River, with a few picnic tables, a bathhouse, and electric poles stuck randomly in the area near the boat ramp, which serve as campsites.

We’re the only campers here, so we picked the pole on the far side of the ramp from all the action.

“Does Mama Drive the Truck?”

When we pulled in, I had a really helpful conversation with Dinah, the camp host. She’s been living here for four years, in a small, green-covered, ancient trailer nestled in the woods near the entrance; it’s the same kind we see parked throughout rural Florida, and it’s hard to tell which have been abandoned. She does live in hers, duh.

First Dinah told me the important info: where the closest Walmart is and where to get the best hamburgers. And she warned me that people will come in late at night to put their boats in, but she says,

I let ‘em. What else are they gonna do?

So this county park is used a ton when you think of how few people probably live around here. They show up to:

  • sit on a picnic table and eat lunch looking out over the Suwannee,
  • throw huge amounts of trash in the dumpster at all hours (you can see the Airstream in the background, right in the dumpster pic below. You know I have a dumpster tag, right?)
  • fish from the docks,
  • make campfires by pulling apart old pallets and by hacking down small trees that happen to be right next to our tent,
  • let their children ride skateboards down the boat ramp so they can fly face-first into the river if they’re lucky; if the skateboard gets caught on debris at the edge of the water, not so lucky with where their faces land.

So, it’s cool to see people outside, using the park, being social. It’s a little unnerving that we’re the only campers here, so we stand out like weird rich Texans with our new license plates. I’d worry but for the friendly kind of Southern culture that reminds me about the best of the South.

Yeah, “Does Mama drive the truck?” was what an old guy asked Tracy as they stood around the boat ramp chatting yesterday morning. He quickly added as I walked up,

I call all women, “Mama.”

Yes, sir, I understand how that works. My own daddy was called “Bubba,” even though his name was Stewart.

And yesterday while the skateboarding boys were trying to hit each other over the head with their boards, Mama promised that “Sissy needs a new diaper and then we’ll go home to the trampoline.”

The man who called me “Mama” turns out to be 80 years old, and he drives around the county but hasn’t driven “over in Gainesville” (a pause before “Gainesville” like he was trying to remember the name) for ten years. We get a detailed and amusing story from him about the last time he drove there and almost turned into the wrong lane in an intersection—told only the way an old southern guy can who’s standing around after breakfast on the edge of a river with nothing else to do.

I like everyone being called family names. Mama. Daddy. Bubba. Sissy. Everyone’s family, whether by blood or not. These guys were doing this way before the hippies with their, “Come on people now, smile on your brother.” In a way.

Banjo Meets Aunt Darci

We planned on being closer to Gainesville so we could visit with Tracy’s sister, Darci, but we got the reservations and dates wrong, so we’re making do by driving that hour in.

We had a relaxing afternoon at her screened-in pool yesterday, eating take-out and swapping stories, and of course giving Banjo quality family time. Thanks for humoring her, Darci!

We hope to go on a hike or two with Darci before we take off on Monday to our final rural spot of 2020, where we can soak up the last of the Deep South before we hit fancy-pants south Florida. We’ve already stopped at trucks selling seafood and boiled peanuts on the roadside; Gulf scallops for lunch today!

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