Back home in paradise
The land of the brave and home of the free is such a vast and varied country that it can take years to explore all its different but beautiful nooks and crannies. SHARON SPENCE LIEB visits a forgotten part of America (and Florida for that matter), where the alligators splash and the Tallahassee tall tales spring eternal.
BACK in 1979, I received an unusual writing assignment.
A guidebook publisher asked me to drive the entire state of Florida and write a 70,000 word travel guide. Daunting? I was crazy to say yes. But off I went, on a solo six week road trip through Florida. My book won best travel guide of the year and now my one dusty copy lives on a shelf, a distant happy memory. The last place I visited before flying home: Wakulla Springs Lodge and State Park.
On a recent visit to Tallahassee, Florida I was lucky to visit again. My companion was Katie Kole, who swam at Wakulla Springs as a kid, and now is Marketing Communications Director for Visit Tallahassee.
Wakulla Springs State Park is a 6,000 acre wildlife sanctuary, hidden in Spanish moss-draped Florida woodlands. It’s only 16 miles south of Tallahassee, but it’s a whole other Universe on the Wakulla Riverboat tour.
“Welcome to Wakulla – one of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs,” says Ranger Bob. “I’ve been here ten years, so I have at least ten answers.”
As our boat drifts away from the dock, kids and parents excitedly get out their cameras and hi tech gear.
“Mamma gator with her babies on the right bank,” calls out Ranger Bob. Everyone rushes to the right side of the boat to get a photo. Everyone under thirty instantly emails their photos to Facebook.
“Cooter turtles, stacked like pancakes on cypress trees,” he calls out, as we all rush to the left side for photo opps. Everyone under thirty instantly texts their friends around the world: “Hey, I just photographed wild turtles!”
“Top of that tree, do you see the osprey nest with daddy osprey standing guard? On the bushes, check out that anhinga drying her wings?” Mass hysteria and scrambling to get the perfect close up. The really cool second graders have already edited their photos, downloaded iTune rock songs, and uploaded their productions to YouTube. Ellen DeGeneres has invited one of them on her show. Tomorrow.
This old fashioned riverboat nature tour continues for an hour, a kaleidoscope of slithering ‘gators, shiny turtles, graceful birds, delicate pink swamp roses, and romantic swaying trees.
“Did you know ‘Tarzan’s Secret Treasure’ was filmed here with Johnny Weismuller in 1941? And back in 1953, remember ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ was made at Wakulla?” asks Ranger Bob asks. Nobody knows these movies but us oldsters. We nod to each other, smiling at those silly old movies we adored. One precious golden ponytailed five year old asks “Who is Tarzan???”
“Wakulla means ‘Land of Strange Mysterious Waters’,” Ranger Bob says quietly. “So how about if we have 60 seconds of silence and listen to the river? Can you turn off all your electronics? For just one minute?”
Nature lovers aged three to eighty stop chattering. We hear birds hoot, chirp, caw, tweet. Wind rustles the Spanish moss tangled inside ancient cypress trees.
I can’t take any more pictures. My eyes are tearing. Thirty-two years since I was here? Thank you God, thank you humans, for keeping one ofFlorida’s last pristine places perfect.
“Raise one arm if you feel lucky to be here today,”says Ranger Bob.
Skinny kid arms and wrinkly sausage arms all go up. Both of mine wave, at the alligators, birds, turtles. We’re together again, back in paradise.