My good friend Zannah moved down to Gainesville, Florida a few years ago and bought a house and really settled in. Our mutual friend Brittany grew up in Jacksonville, which is not far from Gainesville. I had never been to Florida, and we have a new-ish car, so I planned a road trip. Well, “planned” is a bit of an exaggeration, compared with how I traveled in my twenties.
I co-ordinated with Brittany, who was going to visit her folks, although it wasn’t the ideal time for Zannah. I had hoped to make Brit drive down with me, but she didn’t have the time to dilly dally so she flew.
The furthest South I’d been previously was Savannah, for a film conference. I’d also been to Richmond for the same conference, and Raleigh for a different film thing and to visit friends. Still, they say Florida is a whole different animal: South and Not South, home of the not so elusive Florida Man, God’s Waiting Room.
I gave myself about two weeks, planned to drive not more than 5 hours a day, and researched a bevy of roadside attractions and oddities. I didn’t research places to stay, but brought camping gear and hoped for the best. I planned to go all the way to the start of Route 1 in Key West (and maybe kayak over to Cuba).
Days 1 & 2
I made a few quick stops on my way South. I stopped and stayed with friends in Philly and Raleigh. I left the Berkshires during post/peak leaf peeping season. By the time I got to North Carolina, the foliage was pretty green and the weather was pretty warm. Hello South! We went to some thrift shops and I bought a safety orange vest in case of hunters near campgrounds.
From Raleigh I headed to the South Carolina coast to a campground in Francis Marion National Forest, taking a nice scenic highway. I had a good audio book to keep me company when the radio was offering little besides religious programming and New Country. Across from a beautiful field of ripe cotton,I stopped at an estate sale at a small house. It was the home of a lady who had clearly died of cancer. Wigs, old lady clothes, etc. I bought a tray with a dead butterfly under glass.
I arrived at the state forest park in the early evening. It was a Friday night and I hadn’t reserved a campsite. There was a “campsite manager” RV, with a sign saying “all campsites taken,” and a phone number. I called and asked if they had a place where I could pitch a little tent, and for $10 I got to set up in a mostly empty overflow site. It didn’t have water or electricity, which I didn’t need anyway. I had a picnic by the water and investigated the map to plot the next leg of my journey. I slept well and got up pretty early (for me) and hit the road.
The route out of town was lined with old roadside stands that looked abandoned but according to signage, sold woven baskets in season. Each had the name of the (female) artist and phone number on the sign. Some had email addresses, so seemed up to date. I wonder how different they are from each other, and what the prices are. I wish I’d taken photos but I didn’t. I stopped at a Starbucks, unwilling to go the extra mile to figure out a decent local coffee shop. Also, the area was full of chain stores so… (one demerit point).
I stopped at an African village north of Savannah that had been recommended to me by a few people. I was the only visitor at the time, so I got a private tour by the founder’s grandson, who was in his 20s or so. It started raining lightly. Oyotunji is a village started in the 1970s; a funny mix of the Black Power and Back To Africa movements. The founder was a renaissance man, artist, model, thinker, visionary. He visited Egypt and West Africa where he found inspiration for his utopian community. At its peak, it was home to 100+ people, but now it’s down to seven. Pretty soon into the tour, it started to downpour. We didn’t have umbrellas, but soldiered on.
I booked it down to Jacksonville through the most insane rain storm. I could barely see a foot in front of me, and some drivers didn’t even have their lights on! I put on my flashers and drove behind another flasher, and made it through the rain safely, if white knuckled.
I met up with Brit and her sister and we walked around the hip part of Jax for a while. We visited the legendary Sunray Cinema. Walked down to the river, checked out a neighborhood with beautiful 1920s mansions. At dusk I headed west.
Zannah and her boyfriend have a cute 1960s ranch in Gainesville. Florida, where you can’t drop a seed without starting a lush jungle, is great for Zannah and her green thumb. She’s got a succulent garden, is starting a food forest, and her boyfriend is working on a bamboo garden. Their chickens look very happy. I was psyched to visit with the chickens, since I already missed mine. They also have cats, so I got to hang out with them, too.
After breakfast, we went to an epic library book sale. There was a huge line out the door before they opened. There was a police detail helping people cross the street! Book prices started at a dime, and most were under $2. Do I need to tell you I bought a ton of great books and records?
We spent the rest of the day riding bikes, a great switch from driving. It was pretty hot and sunny out, so we stopped in at Tom Petty Fest and had a Frose (frozen Rose wine) at the bar. So refreshing! Some Parrot Heads sat with us and chit chatted. Then we went to a nature preserve, saw a baby alligator and some cool birds. It was a lovely rail-to-trail ride, downhill both ways. Gainesville is very flat.
Zannah had work to do, so Brittany and I drove out to Saint Augustine and saw The Oldest Everything. We stopped at a thrift store and I bought a bunch of old radios. I should have bought some umbrellas, because later I got absolutely soaked during a quick trip to put money in the meter. We had lunch at a very Florida touristy outdoors spot in the old town.
Some of the sidewalks had cool bricks. We visited a very kitschy museum, in a Moorish building (it’s a theme). The streets were so flooded, we had to wade across the street.