It’s a trip I made over and over again a few years ago, the 8 mile journey from my house to the place where my son’s horse was kept. Usually I’d be running late, trying to get to his riding lesson with a teacher who had little tolerance for tardiness. Rushing down the highway at 65 mph I quickly glanced at the trees of the St Marks National Wildlife Refuge along US 98, hastily appreciated the fact that I live surrounded by one of the last tracts of real longleaf pine forest left in Florida, one not chopped into fragments or totally obliterated by clear-cut logging, and then I’d speed up a little more.
Turning off the main highway onto a back road, I’d check my watch, noticing how the landscape changed from forest to the houses and pastures and woods of a rural human community. I wish I had a decent pasture like the ones I drove past, I’d think idly.
My son and I discussed whatever was on his 12 year old mind, be it school or his horse or the latest squabble with his brother and I’d calculate whether we had enough time to get the horse saddled and him on its back before the lesson was supposed to start. That was the normal trip.
After months of that, we moved the horse back home. I don’t have a trailer so I rode him 8 miles back through the woods. At 4 miles an hour, it was a different trip, a different reality in fact, compared to the usual 65 mph experience.
The first several miles was along a back road with almost no traffic so I stayed on the road shoulder. The sun glittered on chips of mica or glass or something shiny embedded in the asphalt surface of the cracked old pavement and the nondescript country road surface was a field of diamonds in the late morning sun. Even though it was December, the weedy road shoulder was studded with brilliant blue and yellow wildflowers and I met every last dog in every house along that stretch of road.
Then the road turned right to join the main highway for the 6 miles back home. Gentle though this horse was, I didn’t want to ride any horse inches away from the speeding cars of rushed preoccupied drivers like myself so I turned the other way, down a dirt road that I knew would lead to a hiking trail through the wildlife refuge. After winding past cypress swamps and through tall stands of pines, the trail would come out onto a network of grass covered refuge roads and one of those would take me back through the forest and along the coastal marshes to home. I’d emerge from the forest with only one block to go along the highway before picking up the quiet dirt back roads of Panacea.
A quick canter down the dirt road and there was the hiking trail, barely visible in a carpet of wiregrass and wildflowers. Slowing down to a walk, I slipped into a semi meditative state of mind, the warm sun a welcome gift on my face. After a mile or so, the little used trail was invisible on the ground and I followed the widely spaced red Florida Trail blazes on the trees. There weren’t too many, they were placed so that as you passed one you could just barely see the next one way up ahead. Then I couldn’t find one at all. A marked tree must have fallen or something, I guessed. No problem. I knew where I was and cast about to pick up the next blaze, but after making wider and wider circles I still couldn’t find it.
“Oh, well, rats,” I thought and turned the horse back in the general direction of the highway. In a few moments, I picked up the old fence line of the refuge boundary and followed that. It would take me along the same general route, just not so deep in the woods. Pretty soon we were on the back side of a huge junkyard on the highway. Fifty year old junked cars were stacked up in piles 3 high. Human hands probably hadn’t touched them in years. Even on the refuge side of the fence, ancient rusted human artifacts lay scattered everywhere, left from a time 80 years ago, before the refuge was established. I’d passed that junkyard a million times by car just a few feet away and never realized it was such archeological resource.
Eventually, I turned back away from the fence and took off through the woods again. The horse picked his way carefully, the wind sang in the trees and I felt like William Bartram exploring the Florida wilderness of 200 years before.
What is only a barely noticeable little high spot from a speeding car turned out to be a huge sand dune covered with turkey oak scrub that ran for a mile east of the highway and then dropped abruptly off into a series of little ponds circled by dwarf live oak and cypress. One of the prettiest natural spots I’d ever seen, only a little ways from the highway, I’d passed it a million times without a clue that it was there.
All of us race up and down the straight asphalt slashes of our lives at huge speed every day, seeing only the carscape of our immediate concerns. It seems to go on forever but it’s really only the thinnest of strips. Out beyond that strip is the rest of the world, the rest of our lives.