When I was 15 years old, my dad, my stepmother, and I moved from Orange County, California, to Florida. My siblings were already out of the house and living on their own. One might think that trading California for Florida wouldn’t be much of a change. I grew up in a land of palm trees, Mickey Mouse, and beaches. Florida is known for: palm trees, Mickey Mouse, and beaches. But we didn’t move to the Florida you see on brochures. We moved to Suwannee County, which is closer to Georgia than it is to salt water. Live Oak is the county seat and the population has hovered between 6,000 and 7,000 for the past sixty years. Yet, we didn’t even live in Live Oak; we moved to a place along the Suwannee River, 18 miles out of town where my dad ran the finances for a retirement community, population about 800 (smaller than the middle school I went to). I lived there for three years, and my dad still lives there, and all this time I never knew that Florida’s most beautiful State Park was 10 minutes from our house.
I’m talking about Suwannee River State Park. Am I being hyperbolic in saying it’s the most beautiful? Not really. I haven’t been to every state park, so I reserve the right to change my mind. But a book of Florida hiking trails also hangs this compliment on the park, so I’m going to stand by my assessment. We booked the park so that we could do a “drive by” visit with my dad to deliver his Christmas present (we stood in the yard and chatted for a bit). Suwannee River State Park is an embarrassingly short drive from his house – I’m really ashamed I never went there. The hiking was phenomenal, the sites have full hookups (unheard of in state parks), and there was lots of history.
You can see why they call it living “out in the sticks.” The road he lives on wasn’t paved back in my day (the asphalt ends in the background and I think he actually had to stroke a check for his portion.)
Just a few shots from our hike. Truly stunning. Lots of exposed limestone formations, cypress knees taller than me, springs spilling water into the river and topography you don’t expect in Florida. In summer I’m sure much of the “sink” would have been filled with mosquito larvae-infested water and alligators, so visit in the cooler months.
Suwannee River State Park is famous for a few things: It’s the confluence of the Withlacoochee and the Suwannee Rivers (Fun fact: Whirlin’ Down the Withlacoochee was the B-Side to Old Folks At Home). The park also used to boast a really big piece of limestone balanced over the edge of the river – until it fell a few years back. There’s also the remnants of an old town called Columbus, that disappeared more than a century ago. Next time we go, we’ll be sure to have enough time to take a canoe trip.
With the holidays behind us, our lives settled back into homeschooling the kids and Monica’s training for her next big marathon (find out how she did in the next post). We made return trips to Chasshowtizka and Naples. Run – school – run – school.
Hitting the beach is a New Year’s Day tradition for us and the weather was perfect. Looking like a bunch of Canadians, Monica’s running group took a chilly plunge after the morning run. I had the RV on site to whip up eggs afterward (commonly referred to as “second breakfast” in our house).
We returned to Chassahowitzka for the cold weather. The year-round 72 degree springs make it the winter home to manatees who go there to warm up. Rather than don wet suits we opted to visit them from the surface. And the kids caught about 50 fish (some more than once).
We also mixed in a visit to the Crystal River Indian Mounds for a homeschool field trip. The “Nature Coast” of Florida is uniquely under-developed by Florida standards. Yes, US-19 through Crystal River and Homosassa Springs is a long string of strip malls and motels, but the condo developers haven’t found it. Naturally, everywhere we go, Monica is running.
We went back to Collier-Seminole State Park, which proved to be far more interesting the daylight. There is an interesting piece of old machinery there called The Walking Dredge, which was used to excavate the Tamiami Trail almost 100 years ago. And this being Florida, when the dredge was retired, it stayed. Monica had a not-as-great half-marathon in Naples, where we decided the water is bad (gotta blame something).
To get the bad taste out of her mouth from Naples, Monica registered for a 5K in Lake Louisa State Park. Billed as “Florida’s Fastest 5K” because of its lost of 80 feet in elevation, she ran a P.R. and won the Masters Division (over 40 – yeah she’s over 40!). Her cactus boat was the biggest prize they gave out – including the plant they gave to the guy who set the Puerto Rican 5K record. The 3.1 mile race was just the start of her day as she ran – and we biked – back to the campground – in a downpour.
Lest you think all we did was return to places we’d already been, after the Lake Louisa race we took a side trip to Bok Tower. Bok Tower sits on a high point outside of Lake Wales, FL. It was built by Dutch immigrant, Edward Bok, a self made millionaire who was a writer and editor. He commissioned Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. to design the gardens (son of the famous landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York.) The town nearby had some charm too – even if just about every shop was (bizarrely) a salon. Seriously – someone explain why Lake Wales is all hair salons and barber shops.
All this running was prelude to a marathon on Oak Island in North Carolina – a small race where Monica hoped to improve on her race in Albany, GA. Every minute she can take off her time is important because when they finally get around to having the next Boston Marathon, she wants to be on the right side of the qualifying bubble for her age group. She’s physically prepared, but COVID has made races a moving target and the smaller races tend to have a better chance of happening. Check out our next post to see if the Oak Island race happens, and how Monica’s preparation pays off. Until then – go visit a state park.
“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at email@example.com. Monica is a non-profit consultant, grant writer, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker. Also, don’t forget to follow our Instagram feed for stuff that doesn’t make the blog.