There’s a stretch of Interstate 75 in north Florida that never fails to give me goose bumps. A few miles north of a small town called Micanopy the highway rises over a small crest and descends into a vast, empty basin called Paines’ Prairie. A hundred years ago it was a large lake. It became a prairie when a big sink hole opened up and gave the water someplace else to go. Truth be told, it’s more swamp than prairie. Not all of the water found someplace else to go. If you take the other major route through the prairie, Highway 441, there’s a small observation deck you can visit right in the middle of the prairie, just off the shoulder on the long, straight stretch of highway. It was the spot where we said farewell to my roommate’s dead pet rabbit, which we fed to the gators that swam those shallow, murky waters. (It didn’t seem that gruesome at the time.) That stretch of 441 was a common route out of town on many bike rides during my UF days.
Ah, but I got sidetracked. Paines Prairie is significant because it’s an unmistakable landmark, one that tells me that I’m almost home. Gainesville, Florida is right on the other side. I don’t live in Gainesville, nor do I live particularly close to Gainesville, but it’s often on my mind. Gainesville is a college town, home to the University of Florida, and my home for four and a half short years in the late 1980s and early 90s. There’s a certain magic to college towns, and I don’t think it’s just because they can be liberal leaning centers of rational thought… although they can be. I don’t think it’s just because of the energy and enthusiasm of so many young adults, freshly weaned from their parents protection… although that’s definitely part of it.
Every time I make the final approach to Gainesville, across the prairie, I get this sense that I’m approaching a special place; not just for me, but for countless others. I imagine generations of kids growing into men and women, leaving behind a little piece of their heart in this place. It’s a place that many have left, some many years ago, but still consider home. I think about the people who make their permanent homes there, and I wonder if they feel any burden of responsibility, being the full-time stewards of this special place… a place that means so much to so many. How can such a place not be special? If I’m typing in circles it’s because it’s difficult to explain.
Why do I feel so much attachment to this place? I wasn’t always particularly happy there. You could say that some of my most miserable moments came there. I was a lonely freshman on my first week, riding my bike around town in a profound depression, dreading the thought of four years of this place. I was a self-loathing, second term freshman, wondering why, oh why I thought an introductory religion class on Judaism would be interesting. Hell, if I was so interested in another piece of “ecumenical pie” I could have just hung out with the Hare Krishnas* on the plaza. (They served a free lunch to students at least once a week. If you want to be technical, they aren’t Christians… neither are followers of the Jewish faith for that matter, but “ecumentical pie” just rolls of the tongue. I simply couldn’t resist.) I was a first term junior sweating out my application to my “upper-division,” degree program. I was a senior gutting out my research, scared to death that those worthless underclassmen wouldn’t show for my dabble with the scientific process. I was a world wary senior worried that my degree in psychology (with honors though it may be), would be almost completely worthless.
Maybe it’s because I had some of the best times of my life there. College football was an orgy of emotional highs, where you could just loose yourself in the indescribable energy. The love of my life dumped the dick and kissed me for the first time, just across the avenue from the U. Some of the best bicycling I’ve ever done came on the surrounding country roads; among the horse farms, live oaks, spanish moss, and small town charm of places like High Springs, Cross Creek, Keystone Heights, and Micanopy. It was the kind of place that was made for bicycling, and where my bike became an extension of me.
It was where Cheryl and I walked the beautiful campus at night, hand in hand, as I learned what it meant to love. It was where we spent those beautiful winter weekends, walking aimlessly through a favored forest of pine. It was where we explored the “Devil’s Mill-hopper,” a really old, really big, really DEEP sink hole that was like climbing down into another world. It was where we drove around in a really old, really rusty, five-speed, stick shift Civic with four working gears – because my car was more reliable. It was where we paid the rent on two leases, but spent most of our time under one roof.
There were a lot of times when it didn’t seem like it could get any worse, but there were just as many times when it didn’t seem like it could get any better.
It gives me goose bumps thinking about it all again, as I drive through the prairie again. It doesn’t matter that we’re not stopping this time. It doesn’t matter that I’m only halfway to Chatahoochee, on my way to visit my mom. Right now I’ve got Gainesville on my mind, and I know life can be really good, even if it isn’t right now.
*When I lived in Gainesville, it was widely believed that Gainesville had the largest concentration of Hare Krishnas in the U.S.