Fanning Springs Revisited
An Imaginary Return
to a Well-Remembered Place
By Eileen Register
The entrance looks almost the same. The freshly-painted letters on
the "Fanning Springs" sign contrast sharply with the dilapidated old
fence that marks the perimeter of the property. The gate hangs agape,
its far end digging into the soft ground at the edge of the rutted dirt road.
A deep gash cuts across the roadbed. No tire tracks mar the freshly
gouged gate trail...I must be the first visitor today.
To the right of the entrance, the deserted shell of an ancient motel still
stands, its windows boarded up. I can no longer make out the faded
name on the sign that swings loosely from a decrepit, old sign post.
"Lazy Days Motel," I seem to remember. An old oak graces the front of
the decaying structure; one of its massive, moss-draped limbs hangs low over a collapsed section of the roof. Weeds peek out from between the cracks in the walls, and waist-high grass covers what once may have been a well-manicured lawn. A profusion of wild flowers decorates the overgrown rock garden near the highway. The circular drive is all but gone;
only a few broken chunks of asphalt remain. "Why hasn't someone torn this old eyesore down by now?" I question aloud to the emptiness of my car.
My old jalopy lurches and lunges over the bumpy road beyond the gate, curving sharply past the ramshackle trailer that houses the springs' caretaker, meandering toward a cluster of trees. "Damn, I wish I'd fixed my shocks - if this ol' clunker doesn't fall apart, my body might," I mutter under my breath. Dodging as many holes as possible, I finally reach the parking lot.
"Of course, I can't really call this a parking lot," I reflect, "sand pit would be more accurate." The midday sun filters through the branches of pines and scrub oaks scattered around the empty parking area. I appreciate the relative coolness of this late September Sunday, glad I waited until the last days of the summer season to make my sojourn. Still, perspiration beads on my forehead and trails in rivulets down my neck. Too bad I didn't dig out that old bathing suit of mine ...I wonder if it would still fit. Oh, well, this old, pink blouse and cutoff jeans will have to do. Besides, I won't be swimming today.
Pulling up next to the vine-covered fence at the spring entrance, I locate a reasonably hard-packed spot to park. Memories flood my head... the day we got stuck hubcap-deep in this sand and spent half an hour digging out. Four wet, tired, grumpy kids sure didn't make it any easier, did they? "Can't we jump back in the springs just for a little while?" they whined. Give me a break!!!
Pine bark and gravel crunch beneath me as I make my way up the rustic walkway. I offer my fifty cents to the deeply tanned old woman behind the counter of the rough-sawn cypress building that doubles as ticket booth and snack bar. She looks familiar, but I'm not sure. A newly painted sign above the counter proudly announces: "North Florida Association of the Church of the Nazarene: This property is church-owned and operated." Below, the list of rules and regulations hasn't changed...no alcohol, no loud music, etc., etc., etc. At the bottom, however, there is something different: "Admission: $1.00." I reach into my purse to fish out the other two quarters, but the petite, wrinkle-faced woman shakes her head, smiling, and protests, "No, that's okay...enjoy your visit."
From my vantage point at the snack bar, my eyes drink in the beauty spread before me. The entire area sparkles in the brightness; not a single cloud above hinders the sun's brilliant rays. Everything looks very much like it did five summers ago when I last came here. I am thankful that the Nazarenes are protecting this gorgeous jewel of nature.
The hilly land around three sides of the natural pool slopes down sharply as it approaches the water, its southern edge dotted with a few trees. Gnarled roots protrude from the steep embankment. Along the eastern and western extremities, oaks and pines embrace the quiet, glistening spring, thick barriers of trunks and limbs protecting its solitude. The circle of greenery is broken along the eastern half of the northern boundary where the spring run begins its swift journey toward a never-ending rendezvous with the surging waters of the Suwannee River. The run, too, is bordered by trees, a stand of cypress on the east bank testifying to swampy ground along that side.
Stillness intensifies the beauty. Only the chirping of birds and the buzzing of insects break the silence. Even from this distance, I observe playful squirrels flitting among the branches of the trees across the way. I wonder how much time I will be granted to immerse myself in this loveliness before the after-church crowd begins pouring in.
Paying close attention to the rocks, the hollows, the deep grooves dug by rivulets of rain from past storms, I carefully traverse the uneven ground that stretches from the snack bar along the southern border of the pool. I find a shaded outcropping that overhangs the embankment. Absentmindedly slapping at a pesky fly, I breathe in the smell of fresh-mown grass and scattered bunches of wild flowers.
Directly in front of me at the bottom of the embankment, the elliptical pool shimmers in the sun. Pristine white sand rims the shore, forming a small ragged beach and extending a few feet into the clear water. From my perch ten feet above, the sand appears to be smooth, but the bottoms of my feet tingle at the memory of sharp little rocks and half-buried sticks waiting to ravage the soles of the innocent and unsuspecting. A slight grin creases my face at the humor of this inane thought - soles instead of souls...right... uh-huh, I think I'm losing it...
Swaying and tangling in an uneven zigzag pattern at the edge of the sand, river grass blankets the floor of the basin, changing the crystalline appearance of the water to a dark, almost sinister green. I wrinkle my nose unconsciously as the scratchy sandpaper feel of the grass on bare legs creeps unbidden into my mind. A tiny shiver travels down my spine; I remember how I walked so gingerly through the grass, ever-fearful that a snake would dart from the shadows and GET ME! God, that water was cold, too! I recall the first time I carried my youngest child in - how he squealed until he became accustomed to the chill! After that, every trip OUT of the water prompted howls of protest.
At the west end of the basin, the water churns and bubbles beneath the shade of an ageless water oak that reaches high and wide above the pool. The oak's scarred, massive base grips the earth, its roots firmly entrenched in the rocky knoll that marks the beginning of the spring's northern perimeter. A weather-beaten dock juts from the embankment directly across the water from the moss-bearded old tree and soars at least ten feet above the rippling spring. A long, flimsy-looking diving board, bolted securely to the deck of the pier, hangs out over the boiling, tumultuous spot where millions of gallons of fresh, clean water force their way from the depths below, constantly replenishing this idyllic place.
I stifle a giggle. Kids can be so mischievous! In my mind's eye, I relive the way my oldest son delighted in shoving, throwing, or pushing his younger siblings off the edge of that old dock into the surging, freezing water below, his unruly reddish-blonde hair hanging down his neck as he threw back his head to guffaw at the distress he caused. His laughter always died quickly in the face of shouted reprimands from my spot on the sand at the edge of the spring, but I knew he'd do it again at the next tempting opportunity. I remember how grateful I had been that all of my children swam especially well; I hadn't worried too much about the tremendous depth of the water in and around the boil.
In the stillness, the pool reveals rippling traces of the current as the spring water rushes from the boil to the run at the northern-most edge of the pool. A floating wooden dock stretches across the opening, safeguarding swimmers from the rude intrusion of sleek speedboats and pontooned river launches. The dock is deserted, but a ways up the run I spy the day's first boating party, slowly cruising against the current. I resent the chugging motor noise reverberating through the air, the raucous laughter of the people invading my silent and tranquil haven.
Along the boardwalk that trails the east bank of the spring run, a couple of teenagers swagger nonchalantly, sneaking (quite openly) into the spring from the river beyond. The taller of the two boys leaps up onto one of the cypress knees that stick up beside the wooden walkway. Twisting and turning on one leg, he loses his balance and stumbles back onto the walk amid a gale of giggles from his companion. Did they scrabble through the thick brush along the banks of the Suwannee, I muse, or did they brave the swiftly flowing river in a row boat they've tied to a tree somewhere beyond my line of vision? How incongruent it seems - ripping a religious organization off for the sake of a buck! But I understand. They're no different from the adults who have tied their boat up at the dock and now swarm into the spring.
I recall daydreaming the house I'd love to build on the hill just behind me where the sheltered picnic tables stand. Recognizing how selfish it would be to close the springs and build my own private paradise, I admit to myself that I lack the sternness to do so, even if by some miracle I came to own the place. I sympathize to some extent, though, with those who resent paying for the pleasures of this god-given wonder.
Time to go. God, I'd love to scramble down this embankment and plunge, clothes and all, into that icy water...to splash the sweat from my face and neck and revel in the thrill of chill-bumps spreading all over my body...
Bittersweet memories of lazy summer afternoons continue to wash over me, threaten to engulf me. Splashing through the water with my kids and braving the scratchy river grass... climbing up the slippery wooden steps of the diving dock, only to scurry back down because I can't match my kids' courage... dashing around one of the rough, unpainted tables to stow the remnants of our picnic lunch before the ants carry everything away... kissing the knee my little one skinned on the twisted roots that stretch across the steep, narrow path to the bathroom (and that bathroom - how it stank of damp wood, musty mildew and old urine!)... enduring the inevitable whining of exhausted, sunburned children as the sun sinks behind the trees and I bellow "Outta the water...it's time to head home."
Gripping the wheels of my chair, I roll backwards, struggling through a patch of soft sand as I turn to go...
[ I asked myself, "What would it be like to return to a once-familiar place under the new circumstances of my disability?" This story is what evolved from that line of thought.]