This weekend we were faced with sold out motels and high rates, even though we made reservations more than two weeks in advance. We are proud of our analytical skills -- we correctly attributed the problem to simultaneous home games at Florida and Florida State.
The breakfast room at our Ocala, Florida motel this morning was a burst of orange -- people of all ages and sizes in shirts of the same color; not just orange but a specific shade of orange. They were Tennesee Volunteers fans, staying 50 miles outside of Gainesville because the closer motels were full (probably full of Gator fans who wear red).
As we drove north, the road was already filled with SUVs and pickups and sedans flying little flags, with decals on their doors, hoods and trunks, pompons fluttering from various parts of their vehicles, and chairs and coolers strapped down ready for tailgating. We haven't seen this much football frenzy since we left Baton Rouge in 1970!
All along the way to the freeway entrance, the roadside was spotted with stands selling hot boiled peanuts, one of the few foods we both consider completely inedible. They do seem to be popular, though, since they are now sold in a variety of flavors including Cajun and Barbecue. All the cars with red flags seemed to be making mandatory stops at their favorite peanut stand. Our theory is that boiled peanuts are desirable because they make you want Thoroughbred farm to drink more beer to wash the taste away!
There is another industry in north central Florida that also has significant economic impact -- raising thoroughbreds. Ever since a horse named Needles won the Kentucky Derby, folks have been relocating their thoroughbred farms to Ocala, where the gentle winter weather allows colts and fillies to get out and run soon after birth. Today we read that more than 500 horse farms are located in Marion County, making it second only to Lexington. The big stables and gorgeous green fields surrounded by wooden fences and spotted with clusters of thoroughbreds make an impressive sight driving out of town.
Acting on a tip from cousin Nancy we headed toward Cross Creek, not too far south of Gainesville, but a whole world away from the tailgate parties. Before long we were in the back country of north Florida, where the swamp lies just a few feet from the edge of the road and the live oaks swing Spanish moss in a canopy over our head. A huge buzzard, so heavy from his breakfast he could hardly fly, managed to clear our truck roof by inches.
A tiny rural town next to a lake, Cross Creek was the 1940s home of writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Yearling. She willed her property to the State of Florida, on the condition that it would be maintained as a working orchard and home representative of rural life of the period. The state assigned it to the University of Florida, but over the years the property deteriorated badly. In 1996 it was taken over by the Florida state park system which has undertaken major restoration and preservation efforts.
The backwoods rural people of southern Georgia and northern Florida are nicknamed Crackers -- perhaps some reader knows why. To live and farm in this hot swampy buggy land, Crackers built their wood frame houses up off the ground, with high ceilings, plenty of windows and broad screened verandas. Early Cracker houses were built in several separate sections - living areas separated from kitchen - so that in case of fire they could hitch up the horse and pull the burning part away from the rest of the home.
We had read, and a sign confirmed, that the Rawlings house itself was closed for renovation; but we put our two dollar entrance fee in the envelope at the gate and walked in through the orange trees. Big fat chickens boldly squawked and walked around, pecking at this and that to eat. The family of ducks was quieter. We walked past the weather beaten barn and started to photograph the front of the house. A friendly park ranger came to the door and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home invited us inside - "since you're here and just the two of you and you look trustworthy". The furniture was draped in sheets, and the pictures were down from the walls, which had just been painted. The ranger showed us the various rooms of the house, explaining the architecture. With the proceeds of one of her early books, Rawlings, a transplanted New Yorker, put in the first indoor plumbing in the county, and held a party to celebrate (sodas in the bathtub and a bouquet of roses in the commode). The neighbors were wide-eyed. The big porch was one of her favorite places to sit and type. She installed a lovely polished wood floor in her dining room - her neighbors called it "her Yankee floor". Houseguests included Robert Frost, Thornton Wilder, Margaret Mitchell, Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck.
Our guide, born a Cracker, who happened to be the newly-appointed Park Ranger in charge, specializes in the maintenance of historic properties, and is working hard to improve and maintain the Rawlings home. Although she's not a fan of Rawlings' writing, she will spend the rest of the weekend Cloroxing the outside walls to prevent black mold from staining and rotting the wood. "I'm going to introduce a monthly schedule," she said. "They had been doing it once a quarter but it wasn't often enough."
She told us that Florida has finally begun to realize how important it is to protect and publicize its history; tourists and natives want more than just recreation and theme parks. The state is working from north to south, creating greenways between state parks, while restoring and rehabilitating the parks themselves. She is quite optimistic. We hope she is correct. The record crowd of more than 90,000 fans in Gainesville might think otherwise.