I looked around the honeymoon cabin, taking in the flat screen TV that hung over the bed, the fireplace that warmed the bedroom and the bathroom at the same time, the gift basket waiting for me on the pillow of the luxurious king-sized bed. Since when has traveling ever been this easy? I’m usually sleeping in my car or the Super 8 on the corner across from a massage parlor…Yep, this was my dream job all right. I had my deserved rewards for barreling through college and taking no prisoners. Well, for a little while anyway—until I got fired a few weeks later. But that’s a totally different story.
The cabin, sexily named April Showers, was just for me, which was also a sweet deal. I prefer to travel alone a lot of the time. Even better that it was the honeymoon suite, the irony of which was okay with me. Irony is one of my favorite spices in the kitchen of life. I’d been sent by the evil-bitch-I-won’t-deign-to-name, who’d also sent me just a few weeks back to Montreal for another kick-ass press trip. I was working as a travel writer and editor, which had been my goal for as long as I could remember. Things couldn’t get any better.
I’d rolled into Steinhatchee, Florida, for my four-day vacation during which all I had to buy was a few bottles of wine. I was trying hard not to look like a giddy little shit, acting like a hard-core travel reporter who just might ruin all your future customer flow if you didn’t treat her right. I was having a hard time not breaking out into my happy dance most of the trip. Steinhatchee Landing Resort is right on the Steinhatchee River, three miles inland of the Gulf and a couple of hours south of Tallahassee. Nobody from Florida has even heard of the place, and the locals like to keep it that way. The swamps are thick around these parts, and everything has a damp and tropic air. The Bush signs were running rampant through everybody’s yards and the churches cropping up thicker than I was used to, so I was keeping a low profile and watching to see how many people had teeth.
The resort was hidden away from everything, so it turned out there was no need to worry. Not just yet, anyway. Imagine the cash it would cost to build your own town—that’s what the owner of this place did. The Landing really is his own village, complete with a chapel, street signs, dock and store. He says he built the place for his wife, Loretta, who thought he was bat-shit crazy for the whole idea in the first place. Dean Fowler is a soft-spoken Southern gentleman with blue eyes and a shock of white hair. We found out we’re related way back from William Penn himself—you know, the guy on the Quaker Oats box. I got the feeling the whole time he had a private joke running around in his head, the little half-smile and crinkles at the corners of his eyes only giving it away once in a while. He’d been inspired by the movie Cross Creek, which apparently was filmed in the 80s and set in the wild serene beauty of Florida’s bayous. I’d never heard of it, but I’m inspired by shitty movies myself on occasion.
This guy had built around 50 Victorian and Cracker-style cabins on about 40 acres of prime Florida swamp. Well, it’s not actually swamp but to a desert rat like me the moisture level is amazing. I canoed through the ice-tea-colored river with Dean and his dog during my stay, through cypress trees and mysterious quiet waterways. I stuck my hand in up to the wrist and couldn’t see my fingers. Dean said the roots dye the water that color. All I knew is I was not about to stick any more body parts into it if they disappeared so quickly.
The place was all about serenity. You never feel like you have to be anywhere or do anything, and the days seem to roll by in a quiet, drowsy kind of bliss. My vacation felt like a week or two, and I was in no hurry to do anything. Every night I drank a bottle of wine or less, read some, and listened to the frogs out on the dock.
On the last night of my stay, after a day of touring a local winery and strolling leisurely around the grounds doing some “reporting,” I decided to go find a bar. I borrowed the rental car the resort had used to shuttle us around and headed into Steinhatchee. I found a bar with a fish on the door outside and determined that this was the place. And boy was it. I walked right into a bachelor party drinking out of a bull’s balls. I don’t think they knew what their funny little cup actually was, so I had a private laugh to myself. I also met a mad drunk woman who kept trying to take off her clothes. I gathered she was a regular because the bartender just told her to keep her shirt on, with a smile that meant “Hey, it’s no big deal if it comes off again, but you hafta remember this is a family place.”
Then, the fun got started. By then everyone had bought me one free beer—they’re real friendly out in the swamps. The bartender was getting a little red-faced himself, I think he was sneaking shots out of the bachelor party’s stash. He pulled out an assortment of things that turned out to be musical instruments, though if I’d seen them on the street I wouldn’t have guessed. I ended up with a contraption called the gut bucket. It’s basically a piece of a string, a broom handle and a washtub turned upside down. This thing makes beautiful music, and we had ourselves a gutbucket band. Right about then I saw why people live out in this country. I’ve lived in my share of strange small towns, but this place was pretty cool. I think it took the gutbucket to win me over, but I would like to go back to Steinhatchee during oyster season. That’s when they say it gets REALLY crazy.
Overall, I guess I learned that Florida is a place where you can have some good times. If you’re actually going to live there, it’s better when you can build your own town.