Mr. Chatterbox

By Robert Plunket July 1, 2009

The times certainly are changing, and these days it’s fashionable to save money and espouse homespun values. Over here at Sarasota Magazine this is causing panic, as so many of our readers were wealthy hedonists, and we were their enablers.

Well, no longer. We have a new mission—to lead our demographic toward redemption. From now on we will give you depth, truth and integrity.

And we might as well start with weekend getaways.

No more wild nights in Key West. No more high-end shopping in Miami. You must now learn to appreciate beauty, and it has to be free. If there’s history involved, even better. And no more luxury hotels or trendy eating spots. From now on it’s fish camps and barbeque.

Fortunately, I know just the perfect place for this sort of thing; and it has become, over 25 years of living in Florida, my favorite part of the state. I’m not even sure it has a name. It’s that area of hills and little towns just west and south of Gainesville, heading down toward Ocala.

This is Americana at its most picturesque. It resembles New England or Northern California. The landscape is green hills dotted with horses, next to deep dark woods. The most common building is a tiny country church. Many of the towns are so small they have no commercial activity, just a one-room post office. And everywhere are lakes and ponds, so hidden by the woods that you never even know they’re there.

How pretty is it? I know this sounds unlikely, but this area inspired one of the great masterpieces of English literature—Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s the poem that begins, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.”

This strange turn of events came about when Coleridge read a famous best seller of the 1700s by American naturalist William Bartram, who explored this area and wrote about it in such baroque and dramatic terms that Coleridge read it, smoked a little opium (for his nerves, he told people) and voilà—the Romantic Movement was born.

That’s a lot of weight to load onto a 40-square mile area of Central Florida, but the place has always been considered special. The Native Americans regarded it as a spiritual center, and today, even though its soul remains rural Southern, there is a counterculture vibe fed by the faculty from the University of Florida in Gainesville, plus artists (the living is cheap) and, increasingly, retired writers and intellectuals.

The area’s capital is Micanopy, population 600, which is famous for being the most picture-postcard-perfect town in the state. It has a one-block main street lined with antique and used-book stores, rickety two-story structures more than 100 years old.

There is the spectacular Greek Revival building (the Herlong Mansion, a bed and breakfast) and a few sandwich shop-type places to eat, and the whole thing is blanketed by oak trees towering six and seven stories, letting the sunlight filter and diffuse so much as it travels through the layers of leaves and Spanish moss that by the time it reaches the ground it has taken on a misty golden glow.

But Micanopy, as wonderful as it is, has been discovered. I prefer some of the other towns, the really tiny ones like Rochelle and Windsor, which have maybe 14 or 15 houses each, or the slightly larger ones, like Orange Lake, Macintosh, and my favorite, Melrose.

Melrose is an example of how the area keeps its charms hidden. As you enter town, it’s nothing much—two highways intersect and the atmosphere is a couple of gas stations and food stores, plus an elementary school built decades ago. But do a little exploring and you’ll find the old part of town, a collection of shabby Victorian mansions that run down to the banks of Lake Santa Fe.

The roads are dusty—many aren’t paved—and the old houses that date back to the last century—excuse me,

the last last century—need a paint job and repairs. One even has a ruined tennis court.

As the sun begins to set you can almost picture Blanche DuBois walking unsteadily down Trout Street, headed for the bar at Blue Water Bay, the town’s one really good restaurant.

And there is also a wonderful art center in Melrose—which I must disclose I am on the board of—called Bellamy Road. They have changing exhibits of all sorts of things (last year they even displayed a Winslow Homer) and they also present rather scholarly lectures

and weekend programs on a variety of topics. My favorite was the Beat Generation Weekend, where famed composer David Amram, one of the original Beats, came in to talk and perform. Afterwards there was a wonderful party out back, complete with a bonfire into which old McCain/Palin lawn signs were tossed.

I wish I knew of quaint inns to stay in, but other than the Herlong Mansion you’re pretty much on your own. There are plenty of fish camps where they’ll rent you a little cabin or a trailer for the night, but something tells me we’d better lead our readers gently into the new poverty, and maybe the fish camps are something we should save for the height of the season.

As far as destination-type sightseeing there is virtually nothing, other than the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in Cross Creek.

Ms. Rawlings wrote The Yearling, the classic about the little boy growing up here back in the early 1900s, and the wild deer he befriends. Her home is now open to the public and worth a visit for showing you the way people used to live back in those days.

There is also a famous old restaurant called The Yearling. It’s set out in the country and specializes in things

like fried gator. It’s certainly worth a visit, but I much prefer the subtlety of Blue Water Bay, where they tenderize their gator.

So what do you do here? You drive around and take it all in. You head down a country road to see where it goes. You marvel at the brightness of the colors, the green of the pasture, the blue of the sky. You revel in the thrill of going up and down real hills; this is the only place in Florida that has them.

And then, just when you think you’ve taken it all in, you turn a corner and suddenly you’re in a tunnel of towering oaks, dripping with Spanish moss. Giant ferns 20 feet high line the sides of the road and strange vines drop down from the trees and it gets so dark that it’s spooky. And you realize—this is it.


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