Meandering Along the Old Florida Heritage Highway

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By Rick Sylvain

CROSS CREEK, Fla. — What you first need to know about the Old Florida Heritage Highway: it’s not a highway. map

For sure, signs along busy U.S. 441 between Ocala and Gainesville say it’s the highway. But it’s the lazy backroads that feed off 441 that lead to the Florida you came for. The Florida of quiet pastures, wilderness lakes and towering oaks dripping gray strands of moss.

These winding, country two-lanes are the Old Florida Heritage Highway, too.

Scenic roads like Alachua County 325, 225 and 346 thread among the gentle hills. Lower the windows to hear birds chirping and the rustling of leaves. Along these byways, historic towns like Micanopy, Evinston and Cross Creek call to a simpler time.

Before interstates and spinning teacups. A Florida long forgotten.

Nothing is “highway” about this sleepy patch of Florida. You can:

  • Step back in time to the Cracker-style farmhouse and once-thriving grovelands of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author but locally revered as a hostess and chef, evangelizing on cast-iron as the only way to cook.
  • Brag on strolling Florida’s oldest inland town – and then mispronounce it.
  • Call on the oldest continually operating post office in Florida, still with its original post office boxes from 1882.
  • Have epic barbecue at, of all places, a filling station.
  • Experience the River Styx. And live to tell about it.
  • Immerse yourself in the natural wonderments of a treasured Florida state park.

PAYNES PRAIRIE PRESERVE STATE PARK

Paynes Prairie  is the vast, 21,000-acre home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including birds, wild horses and roaming bison (bison!). Nestled in the heart of Heritage country, Paynes offers hiking, biking, camping, birdwatching, canoeing and horseback riding.

From a 50-foot observation tower in the heart of the Preserve, past a treetop eagle’s nest the size of a garage, downstate campers I ran across were breathlessly taking in the vast plain of the Preserve at sunset, their binoculars and camera lenses trained on a long black line maybe a mile away.

“Bison are out,” said Joanne Neaves of Cooper City, Fla. “To the right of them are some piggies, that’s like their gathering place, and some deer are closer in. This morning we were north in the Preserve along the La Chua Trail, I counted 17 alligators in the water and more all over the banks. Seriously large gators. They were fat and happy.”

“Yeah,” chimed in husband Rick, “if you get too close just bring somebody slower than you.”

Quiet took over the deck in the fading sunlight. “Just sitting here last night, we heard the owls,” added Sherry Shomers of Davie, Fla. “It was just so peaceful.”

Trails that lace through the Preserve and around Alachua Lake are perfect for observing wildlife. Steps from U.S. 441, an over-water boardwalk is the easiest way to take in the panorama of Paynes Prairie. But to really get to know this wilderness oasis and unplug from a stressful world, make time for the short and easily navigable trails that crisscross the Preserve.  Bolen Bluff was a gentle 2.5-mile amble following a wooded slope that opened to sweeping vistas, home to wild Spanish horses and bison. I had grazing horses rustling in the bush for company. In the distance, the bugle call of sandhill cranes was unmistakable.

Nancy and Darrell Mauch of Tampa were planning a day of hiking. Climbing the tower was on their agenda. The night before, they found themselves on the boardwalk, watching the sun set over the amber prairie grasses. “People were just unfurling their blankets to take it all in,” she said. “It was a beautiful scene.”

MICANOPY

Sharon Hope at the Pearl Country Store & Barbecue

What passes for the population center of the region is just past the blinking traffic light. Not only is Micanopy the oldest inland town in Florida, it may also be the most mispronounced. Today’s artist colony of Micanopy (Mick-an-OH-pea), named for a Seminole chief, stays true to its Indian trading post origins. Visitors won’t find what traded back then, but they will find shops and houses brimming in antiques and local art, the town’s main tourist draw.

With its narrow streets and dirt lanes under ancient oaks, Micanopy invites strollers to explore its quiet charms, maybe fortified with a sundae or lemonade from Coffee n’ Cream or a decadent pastry from Mosswood Farm Store and Bakehouse, a few blocks down Cholokka Blvd. Organic breads a specialty.

Old Southern houses with screened front porches – where neighbors used to set awhile and actually talk? – add to the bygone charm of Micanopy. Little wonder this movie set of a town was the backdrop for Doc Hollywood, the 1991 romantic comedy starring Michael J. Fox.

Whether antiquing or soaking in the natural beauty of the Preserve, overnight guests to the Herlong Mansion Bed & Breakfast quickly ease into an unhurried pace. Dating to 1845 this elegant inn is every inch the town heirloom. The broad verandas, set with rocking chairs, invite curling up with a good book or glass of wine. If nightly platters of fresh baked cookies don’t draw you down the wooden staircase to the parlor, morning aromas of a homecooked three-course breakfast will.

It’s a quirky manse. I ponied up $13 to upgrade my room. To one with windows.

Do not miss the barbecue they dish up at the Marathon station and convenience store, at the blinker. Pearl Country Store & Barbecue plates up generous pork sandwiches, tasty baked beans, collards and other fixins – and pies Sharon Hope has been baking for 16 years. Try her Micanopy Mud or Butterfinger pie. “When I see people smile, I know my baking works,” she said.

Motorcyclists George and Susan Wood of Williston summed up Micanopy best. “Pretty and it’s quiet,” Susan said, “preserving what was here, the old Florida.”

Micanopy is truly a town that time forgot.

MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS NATIONAL HISTORIC LANDMARK, CROSS CREEK

From a Remington-Rand typewriter on the screened front porch of her homestead deep in the backwoods of Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953) tapped out Florida novels with rural themes while trying to make a go of a newspaper career. The Yearling, about a boy who adopts an orphaned fawn, won Rawlings the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. When Rawlings wasn’t at her typewriter, the kitchen was her happy place. Hours were spent cooking for company. Favorite recipes found their way into her book, Cross Creek Cookery.

“Writing was her work, but cooking was her passion,” explained Rawlings expert Rick Mulligan. “She believed that only from cast-iron are the flavors of food the best they can be. She cooked for taste.”

Guests to her pine-floor dining room, set with Wedgwood china, would feast on her Southern specialties while Rawlings, ever proper, made certain of her place at the table. She faced the outhouse so guests wouldn’t have to.

On days house tours aren’t offered, the secluded grounds of graceful oaks, roaming ducks and chickens and one humongous house cat named Maggie invite strolling. You are guaranteed to feel the serenity Rawlings knew as she tended her garden, picked from among hundreds of orange trees and worked the farm.

The Yearling

Down the road a spell puts you at The Yearling Restaurant. Ramshackle is too kind a word to describe the outward look of this roadhouse, but once inside, a renowned menu draws locals and visitors alike. Seafood as Southern as Southern gets anchors menu items, and in homage to Marjorie Rawlings, diners save room for dessert. The Sour Orange Pie is her recipe.

WOOD AND SWINK GENERAL STORE & POST OFFICE, EVINSTON – AND THE RIVER STYX

post office

Michael Ballard

Michael Ballard is more than the part-time postmaster in the wide spot in the road called Evinston, he is the keeper of history. Mail has been the business of this one-floor outpost since 1882, making it the oldest continually operating post office in Florida. Sixteen original mailboxes are still in use. Ballard will regale you with stories. How the general store part came along around 1900. How the pine building has been in the same family since H.D. Wood bought it in 1906. How that bullet hole in the ceiling came to be and how resourceful robbers once breached the wood floor from below to pilfer the general store.

Nearby, CR 346 passes beside and over the River Styx. Greek mythology holds that the Styx exists in the Underworld, as a barrier separating the world of the living from the world of the dead. Charon, goes the fable, ferried over the deceased to their destiny.

Florida’s River Styx is well cast. To be sure, there are wilderness scenic parts, but sections of the Styx are desolate and dark with brackish water surrounding overhanging vines, fallen logs, and dead trees. You expect some Swamp Thing to emerge. River Styx drains into the northwest end of picturesque Orange Lake. Bass fishermen flock to Orange Lake while more intrepid kayakers take to the Styx.

It’s a romp in the swamp for the bravest of souls.

FOR MORE: www.VisitFlorida.com; www.FloridaStateParks.com

MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS STATE PARK. Cross Creek. Hours daily 9-5. House tours Thursday through Sunday, October through July. 352.466.3672

HERLONG MANSION B&B. Visit www.herlong.com for rates. Also check Trip Advisor for other B&B options around town.

DINING: The Yearling Restaurant open select days every week, Cross Creek.  In Micanopy, Antonio’s and Blue Highway compete for pizza and pasta supremacy. Coffee n’ Cream packs ‘em in for their chicken salad sandwich. The Depot, in an old train station, offers a sports bar menu. Lunches are the mainstay at the Pearl but Sharon Hope gets in early to cook breakfast.

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