American Sabattical 77: 3/23/97

DeLeon Springs

3/23-25.. Fountain of Youth.

My lizard is uncurling down here, folks. I'm almost willing to believe I won't be needing those longjohns I've got packed. Maybe go shopping for a pair of shorts and some sandals.

Sunday morning the Owlcrew stuffed their E-mail down the pipe at 9 o’clock and spun rubber for DeLeon Springs. We’d contacted Sheldon by phone late the evening before, and he had a date to meet a ladyfriend at the art show in Winter Park at noon. We’d been yodeling in the wrong crowd yesterday, and now were booked to join him for today’s date. We felt that St. Augustine was a wine barely sniffed, but the mob scene there had diluted the aroma, and Sheldon promised that Winter Park had the vintage stuff.

DeLeon Woods

These are new latitudes for us, south of Ensanada even, and we were beginning to feel the angular acceleration, not to mention the heat. Sunday was gratefully overcast, but we had all the vents and windows wide to blow-dry the occupants. Barreling down old Route 1 we were almost by ourselves, except for churchgoing locals. These superseded throughways don’t disintegrate in the frost-free winters, but the tourist infrastructure has been converted to thrift shops and selfstorage and low income housing, and the grass is creeping out along the seams. Road maintenance isn’t a big item on municipal budgets.

Turning inland south of St. Augustine, the roar of the snowbird corridor fades, and the palms and palmettos run rank under pines and hardwoods of untold varieties, like in a dream by Rousseau. Ranches and orange groves and field crops appear beside us. Approaching DeLeon Springs the pavement actually starts to rise and dip noticeably. Ooo Ooo. Our first hills since we went down into the low country in Virginia. The land lifts to 40 feet above sealevel up here! And down a shady side street off a back road there’s Sheldon’s house, a rosy pink cottage, trimmed in white, neat and trim, finished inside in varnished cypress and pale salmon plaster, the image of a sailor’s roost.

Camp Flamingo

Sheldon has a First Engineer’s ticket in the Merchant Marine, and ships out with SeaLand on the big container ships. A Mainer, he has a house in Portland and a winter home here, and spends 3-6 months a year at sea. We met through mutual friends, and because he’s a lover of the arts (especially dance), we keep bumping together at performances and exhibitions. This chance to get to know him better on his turf was kindly offered, and gladly received. One look at Flamingo Cottage and we know we’re kin.

Prize Winner
Into his Saab (he pranged the Datsun-Z two days ago), and away we whisk to Winter Park and the Orlando orbit. He and Peggy get talking about unions as we break out of the palmetto idyll and upramp onto the highroad. He gets all his assignments through his union (see John McPhee’s Looking For A Ship), and sees the demise of unionization as the deathknell of the American middle class. Unions lifted our grandfathers and fathers into the middle class, and it was a long hard fight for economic equity. Now no one remembers or believes in solidarity, he says. He attributes much of the ship owners’ flight to flags of convenience to a search for cheap labor. Sheldon admits that unions have often been stupid about change, but says his union is still fighting for fair wages alongside automation. When he started shipping out he was crew on 1000 ton vessels with 50 men aboard. Now he ships on 10,000 ton vessels with 20 aboard, and says that arguments about productivity increases cuts no ice with management. He thinks that safety and ship maintenance suffer under flags of convenience.

We Swedished past the half-acre Old Glories fluttering over the auto dealerships, and offramped into stopandgo in Winter Park, gave a kid $3 bucks to park in a shady lot beside the Amtrack, and tripped along the ties into the art show. It was mobbed. Which was the better show, the mob or the art, was a toss-up. It isn’t that fashion is dead in America, it’s that every fashion there ever was is still alive and flaunting here, and some just invented. There seem to be more ways to present protuberances and expose flesh down here in the sultry, and the toos and piercing get a better showing. The crowd was democratic (no gate) so everything from tailored linen to studded biker was strutting up and down. Cowboy costumes with pink frillies and white boots, the Lovecraft Look in black with eyeliner and green hair, elaborate layered vestments that only reach down to mid-pube alongside fanciful silver inlaid trousers and bare torsos, skin-tights and tenting tonights, chunky gold braggadocios and plastic foolery, I was grinning all over.

The art was jes fine, too. This is peak season in FLA, and lots of artists come out of the cold to mix a little business with a thaw. Spending all those years at the Maine Festival, with its provincial bias, I hadn’t been exposed to the full spectrum of gypsy art on grass. But the ambiance was totally familiar. The reek of trodden grass and rented canvas, mixed with scents of tangy grill-smoke and hot dough. The hollow-eyed exhaustion of self-peddling artists on the last day of a fair, and their near catatonic indifference, or frenetic babble. The ebb and flow of blank-eyed tire-kickers murmuring hollow praises, and moving on.


As usual I engaged in shoptalk with some of the obvious old pros and some hot young Turks. The old guard told me this was usually one of the 3 best moneymakers in Florida, but had seemed slow this year, although the dealers had been out in force. The hotshots were hustling new wrinkles and coining money. We were especially taken by the composite photos of a Chicago artist, portraying children looking into fantasy worlds through windows, or adults seeing their dreams. My favorite image was from behind a photographer aiming his camera out a skyscraper window. He has a bunch of gigantic bananas on the sill, and King Kong is peering in the window. There was some powerful representational sculpture in steel, and I spent a while with a clay sculptor who conjures mythic animal crosses in black and white costumes, with red details. She’s right out there on the dream edge and we nodded familiarly. I bought two of her clay mask pins for our hats, and to count coup on Winter Park.

The selection at arts and craft shows goes in cycles. Right now there seem to be more watercolorists getting juried in than anything else. One oil painter, from New York, was in evidence, and he observed that he couldn’t sell a still life to save his soul, but landscapes were hot. An abstract sculptor from New Mexico, whose work was a carnival of colored feathers and quills in vibrant compositions, said that this crowd only wanted representational work, but he was in it to maintain dealer recognition. There was more glasswork than I expected, and the jewelers, as usual, were doing just fine. The food vendors may or may not have been disillusioned artists who saw where all the money gets spent, as is true in Maine, but they were more imaginative in their offerings. There was even a salad vendor. Amazing.

We did bump into a Mainer we knew, who was making his first attempt at selling his photography at this fair. He’d gotten skunked. He’d done a quick mounting job on his less expensive prints the night before the show, and they’d all buckled in the humidity. Not an auspicious beginning to a new career. We told some horror stories of our own, and wished him well. I’m truly glad to have decided that 25 years on the grass was enough. I was tempted to think about sunland shows like this, for about half an hour. Then I heard a hopeful artist make the same polite pitch in answer to the same question for the third time, and my brain began to fog. It was all very familiar, and the hustler’s rush buoyed me around the grounds. Old carneys never die.

They go back to the Fountain of Youth to sell souvenirs. We stopped at a healthfood outlet and got takeout, ate it under sprawling oaks at a theater complex in Winter Park, and Saabed back to DeLeon Springs. Turns out that the springs in question claim to be Ponce’s destination resort, and was once spa of choice for the better sorts.. circa 1900. Now all the traffic is along the coasts, and the springs are closed for renovation. Sorry, folks. The Fountain of Youth is closed for rejuvenation.

After drinking the water

Our sort awoke rejuvenated on Monday, and continued the Sheldon Tour of North Central Florida. Hate to say it, but some of us are going to have to eat serious crow about Florida. Off the tourist track, where it hasn’t been paved over, this is beautiful country.

Our first stop was about a mile from Sheldon’s at the Spring Gardens Ranch, where the trotters are undergoing spring training, and the dressage pros are perfecting their moves. We arrived at the two-mile track around 10AM, with the sun just starting to bite, and the ponies at the peak of their pacing. Spectacular horseflesh in fluid motion. While Peggy and I sketched, Sheldon regaled us with tales about his years sleeping in the barns and working the horses. His knowledge of the intricacies of the sport, and this subculture, brought an unknown world into vivid relief. It also revealed yet another chapter in our host’s story, an odyssey we’re discovering indirectly from this quiet and self-contained man.

We chatted up some of the stable crew, and admired a Maine woman who was working with a big dressage stallion, 17 or 18 hands.. the horse was splendid, too. But the rays were beginning to muddle us, so we ambled back under the oaks, and down back roads to check out the local agribiz. FERNS. This is the fern capitol of the nation. Traditionally raised under canopies of live oaks, the maidenhair and other decorative ferns you get from your florist mostly come from DeLeon Springs and environs. Now they tend to be grown under shadecloth. We drove past acres of understory in tents, and stopped to ease our eyes at an old style fernery, shady and cool. This is Sheldon’s cycling turf, and I’m envious. Too many untimely frosts have made havoc of the citrus business up here, but we did see some orange groves, and got our teeth into some fresh fruit. Better than crow, by far.


Next up was a visit to DeLeon Springs Park where the bulldozers are arguing with mythology. Our guide contends that the springs were a place where the Indians came for healing, and they certainly are a balm to roadweary spirits. When Ponce asked what they had of value, he was brought to this magic curative spot, and translated the shamanic handbills as “the fountain of youth.” Then Europeans and natives spilled blood over ownership for a few hundred years, followed by the spa developers. Now Sheldon gets to bike over to this backwater refuge and take the cure daily, when it’s open.

The pool was closed, but the Old Sugar Mill was open, where the Spaniards once crushed cane, and you can now enjoy an organic repast looking out on the lake. The unique speciality of this house was a room full of grill-tables where you could make do-it-yourself pancakes. Electric grills set into the middle of four-man tables seemed more apt for March in Maine than this sunny place, but the griddlecakes were as hot as you could stand them, and delicious, too.


And another
After filling corners we didn’t know we had, we decided to walk the nature trails in the park to counteract the effects. Sheldon had arranged for a full show. A skink danced out into our path as we entered the shady groves of pine and palmetto, magnolia and palm, pignut and gum. The lizards are finally revealing themselves to me, whatever that means. There were strange ferns fronding up along the path and climbing on the live oaks. Suddenly a wild pig trotted into the path behind us. A solid black porker, who busily went about his business in the undergrowth, and disappeared. We were charmed.

The spell wasn’t broken all afternoon. Sheldon picked up one of his swimming buddies, Chuckie, and they toured us through DeLand, the county seat, which has added a stage theater and a library to the local amenities in recent years, indicating a dangerous decline in cultural values. Our destination was yet another park, Blue Springs, where we could rejuvenate without impediment.

William Bartram positively bubbled in his description of the huge freshwater springs which boil up out of the limestone strata in Northern Florida. How you can look down into their crystal waters and see wildlife rising and falling from subterranean rivers, unknown to man. Blue Springs is one of those fonts, gushing thousands of gallons a minute into the St. John’s watershed, and our guides had brought us to swim up into the boiling outlet.

A lifelong hydrophobe until Bagel taught me how to swim in Merrymeeting Bay, I’m hardly a strong swimmer, or an eager one. But this sweaty afternoon I was hot for the game, and Peggy, of course, is part seal. We climbed down into the chilly waters (76 degrees year-round) a hundred and fifty yards or so below the springs, and began breasting the current. You could hardly make headway. Chuckie and Sheldon kept churning steadily, as did Peggy, but I got pooped quickly and made for the shallows where I could thrash upstream shanksmare. The bottom was fine sand, embedded tree trunks, and coarse limestone fragments, alternately. After a while Peggy joined me on the hike, and we’d swim a dozen yards or so, then struggle forward afoot. Tall palms towered straight above us, while drooping hardwoods leaned over to touch the water. Palmettos did their fandance to the river’s edge, and pushing through the sparkling fresh current, around the baroque green bends, was romantic to the Nth.

Spring Water

(Sheldon Skofield Photo)

Surprisingly few of the bathers who got in at the access points actually struggled up to the springs, and we felt like superior beings when we could finally dive into the upwelling fountain and look down into the distant depths, like into a Jules Verne scenario. Maybe 20 yards across, surrounded by limestone walls 30 feet high, this is a bubbling spring to beat all imaginings.

Floating and swimming downstream was a glorious reward, and we fetched up at the entry steps thoroughly doused and completely wrung out. Do this every day and you’ll prove old Ponce’s promise. We all hummed home, concocted a tasty feast, and fell on our faces.

Tuesday we lay around the shanty and pounded on puter until we were up to date. A first for this outing. Tomorrow it’s back out into the weather, if we can stand it.

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