A Walk in the Park: Silver Springs State Park

One day, there were two people who wanted to ride on the boat. Their names were Melani and Jillian. When they were rowing everywhere, they saw two baby alligators. One of the mothers of the babies came out with its whole body and it attacked the little girl’s brother. Her friends were up by the bridge, and they saw everything.
— Jillian, age 5

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

OCALA, Fla.
We were in that part of Florida because I was researching the post-sideshow lives of carnival workers. So it was kind of fitting that we stumbled on this old Hollywood starlet, Silver Springs State Park, who has starred in the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and James Bond, and Sea Hunt.

These artesian springs provide fresh water to more than half of Florida. But also, because they are exceptionally clear — you cannot tell whether you are looking six feet down or 65, they are the perfect backdrop for filmmakers who need an underwater stage.

We took the glass-bottom boat tour — designed starting in the 1870s to show off this wonder — and then rented kayaks. 

The wildlife warning “if you see the baby, the momma is nearby” had been impressed upon us by the good folks over at Wildlife Inc. the day before, so we responsibly kept our distance when we twice paddled past young napping gators.

“There’s a big one down there!” hollered someone from the bridge as Melani and 5-year-old Jilly headed toward home base to return their tandem kayak. Twenty-one-year-old Trevor was close behind them, having sped away from me when I told him he looked very redneck-y with his ball cap and a snoozing gator over his left shoulder.

Melani eased the kayak to a safe space to take a look at the sunning eight-footer, and Jilly dropped her paddle into the water to help out. The sound and the sudden jerking motion of the boat made the gator open her eyes and lift her head, which made Jilly scream, which made the gator say, “Nope nope nope damn humans” and slither away through the water, cutting off Trevor’s kayak and slapping the tip of it with her tail.

The little audience at the top of the bridge hollered their approval.

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We’re awarding Silver Springs State Park the ever-elusive yet completely arbitrary five out of five stroller wheels, and not just for alligator sightings. We can’t name all the birds we saw, and there were dozens of turtles and hundreds of fish. The park is rich with history going back thousands of years to when indigenous peoples used this water and harvested the land. The paths are wide and clear — though we only got to walk a bit of them because of time constraints.

The food at the canteen is very well priced, and there are many tables throughout the park to picnic instead. Entrance to the park is only $2. The glass-bottom boat and kayak cost extra (you can launch your own kayak for $4), but the price is reasonable and the experience well worth it. We were on the water for a total of three hours and retreated to our Airbnb exhausted and happy.

Solomon’s Castle, a palace hidden in a Florida swamp

Solomon's Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.
Solomon’s Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.

ONA, Fla.
There are roadside attractions that are centres of power, author Neil Gaiman says. His book American Gods takes us to a few of them, and we’ve visited some ourselves, like the House on the Rock and Rock City, and they are truly powerful in their kitsch.

Then there’s Solomon’s Castle, which isn’t in American Gods, but easily could be.

The silver palace in the middle of a Florida swamp is the brainchild of writer, sculptor, and lifelong eccentric Howard Solomon, who built the castle’s outer walls of old typesetting plates, news-side-in. There are metal-sheathed guards, and a full-size boat in the boggy “moat.” Everything, from the stained glass to the strange menagerie we will encounter inside, was created and installed by Solomon over decades. He died in August at 82, but his wife still lives in the castle.

Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.
Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.

Our tour guide, Ricky, is scripted within an inch of his life, and he spends an hour blasting facts like buckshot. He kind of warns us about the puns.

It seems Solomon was some sort of three-dimensional-word genius, weaving language and sculpture and play to justify his junk collecting.

Ricky shows us a three-foot sculpture of a woman called Busting Out. She’s just been released from prison and she represents freedom, he says. He tells us what old car part and found treasures went into making her, ending with the bicycle chains that are her hair.

“We call this a permanent permanent,” Ricky says with an eyebrow wiggle.

Howard Solomon's garboyle.
Howard Solomon’s garboyle.

Next up is a half-size truck that Solomon let his grandchildren play in. “The fish market truck is covered with the same stuff the castle is built with, only it’s painted black. Howard said it would take three people to operate this thing: Somebody to steer it, another one to push it, another one to run alongside barkin’ at the tires.”

There’s a selection of guns and rifles, each with their own pun. “I asked Howard, how come this rifle’s got a clock in there?” Ricky says. “He said, ‘It’s a Minuteman rifle. … It’s for killin’ time’.”

It would take days to examine the curiosities Solomon created in this sanctuary that he called his time castle, where it’s okay to touch things so long as you’re respectful, and you can get up close to see each piece of flaking rust or to peer more closely at masterful wooden reproductions of classical art.

Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.
Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.

I ask Ricky where Solomon found his material and he laughs. “Anywhere and everywhere. People’ll’d bring him stuff.” Then he’s back on script.

“The garboyle over there, guys, I had not a clue what it was when i got to the castle. The garboyle is 800 pieces of metal. They say it lays eggs, it eats the eggs, and then it becomes … eggstinct.

“Now let me introduce you over here to Lionel.” Without skipping a beat he’s moved on to the life-size metal lion that’s leaning toward us. “Now, if Howard was here, he’d let you know it’s got two glass eyes up front and two steel balls in the back. Then he’d ask you, ‘Know what this is?’ “ He’s holding up a baseball bat that was lying at Lionel’s feet. “No, ladies, it’s not a ball-buster. Howard would let you know.

“That’s the Lion’s Club.”

Lionel, who comes with his own club.
Lionel, who comes with his own club.

The Lion’s Club indeed. If you have the stomach for the puns, Solomon’s Castle is tucked away in the backroads of inland Florida. We had an adventure trying to see this place five years ago and we’ve been wanting to come back ever since. It was absolutely worth the wait.
4533 Solomon Rd., 863-494-6077

Mermaids and chemical warfare at Yeehaw Junction

YEEHAW JUNCTION, Fla.
It was hot as steam pipes outside the car and though we’d just stopped for a pee break, the building-cum-roadside-attraction was so cool I was wandering around taking pictures.

“Mom. Mom. Mom mom mom.” I’ve explained to him for more than 20 years that it just has one syllable. Say it the one time and see what happens. Maybe he’ll get there. In the meantime: “Mom! Did your bathroom have a naked mermaid? Because mine had a naked mermaid.”

It’s what you’d expect an establishment at a crossroads that was in the early 20th century a “supply and recreation centre for cattle drovers,” which is a nice way for a big historical marker to say: “brothel.”

The Desert Inn was a gathering place for local farmers near Yeehaw Junction — also called Jackass Junction because patrons rolled up on their burros — with separate rooms for African Americans and Seminole aboriginals. There are hundreds of crossroads like this in America. A few dozen have historical markers.

I turned to Google for more because I intended to write a fluffy post about the brothel, and discovered that Yeehaw was exposed to a lot more than pioneer-era bosoms. It was exposed to biological warfare.

Secret tests were performed here in the 1960s, and the government would maintain — will maintain — that the chemical agents sprayed on the area were harmless. At least two sets of tests were conducted over Yeehaw during the Cold War, as Project 112 sought to find ways to stunt the growth of Russian wheat. The trials were secret till 2002, when a senator demanded an inquiry into decades of rumour after revelations by CBC Evening News.

Puccinia graminis tritici, or TX, was sprayed from F4 fighter jets over Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of Britain and Canada — off the coast of Newfoundland and “southwestern Canada,” which probably referred to Suffield, Alta. — during the joint U.S., UK and Canadian program. TX is toxic to plants and can spark cancer in animals but the government said it was harmless to humans over the long term. But anyway, the point of the tests was to see whether the chemicals would kill plants, not people. People were secondary, and anyway there have never been more than around 240 in Yeehaw.

TX is wheat rust, “a fungus which kills wheat, and is an offensive test if you want to take the breadbasket away from the enemy,” Michael Kilpatrick, the Pentagon’s director for employment health support, told the Sun-Sentinel soon after the news broke in 2002.

There’s big sky out here on the flat land where a fighter jet would look out of place, now or in the 1960s. It’s incredible to me the testing was kept secret for so long. But I can be naive that way.

You can find food and drink at Yeehaw Junction, which is along old Highway 60 between Orlando and Tampa, but if you find special companionship you’ll have to take them somewhere other than the now-shut-down motel out back.

My bathroom didn’t have a naked mermaid, by the way.

My bathroom mannequin scared me so bad I nearly peed on the floor, which clearly defeats the entire purpose the of thing.

My tribe: On holding tight and letting go

I have written many times and in many different ways about the small group of women with whom I have become close over the past six years. Meeting almost exclusively on Facebook, we laugh or cry or rage in a way we can’t with our day-to-day friends. In December, some of us rushed to the side of one of those women, who was very ill. We have since lost her, but we’ll never completely let her go.

* * *

My tribe is small.

We are a farmer, an immigrant, a journalist, a funeral-home director, a teacher, a former executive, a homeschooler.

We are, before all that, mothers and friends.

We have other tribes. Families, best friends, confidantes with shared history. Yet we hold each other in a special, guarded circle.

We are funny, and smart, and boisterous and loud, though we know when to be quiet. Like when the food arrives.

Or when our heart breaks.

We have our phones with their cameras ready at all times, but we know when to take pictures. Like before we eat.

Or before we cry.

We have secret pacts. Like: everyone has to use the washroom at every stop, even if you think you don’t have to.

Or that we’ll always always be there.

Each of us travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to gather in body, in the shadow of anticipated loss, but with the hope that we weren’t about to lose one of us.

Over and over I caught us trying to hold on to the moments, the phrases and cadences and genesis of in-jokes. But words resist corralling. We won’t remember the words.

We’ll remember the scenes.

Five of us with limbs crossed or bodies tucked up safely on alien yellow furniture with bright red and orange flowers and a crooked middle cushion. Voices rising and colliding, separating in laughter like a wave, then rising one at a time in a fountaining pattern.

Twenty-three seconds of video where we smiled goofily and waved awkwardly while our strongest voice recorded love and laughter in case we didn’t get to see our dear one’s face. Five of us staring into the clear eye of a smartphone, willing all our compassion through it.

In the car, the hollow desperate sound of five women weeping in complete silence.

Connecting with the one of us who couldn’t be there, squeezing in so we could all see her face, sharing our news and letting her cry, because we had all had a turn already. The familiar warmth of tears on cheeks and chins.

Walking into the thin, precious air of the ICU for an unprecedented 58 minutes, surprised by her moon-like and pale face, yet her sudden smile warming each of us from ribcage to throat. Perplexed that we had come just for her (we had come for us), she said: “Thank you. This was on my bucket list.”

Those words we will keep.

My tribe is small.

We are a healer, a pillar, a clown, a helper, a pragmatist, a gentlewoman, a protector.

We are, before all that, friends and mothers.

We have other tribes. But this tribe is knit with confidences and compassions we guard jealously. We are small. Yet we are fierce.

A man with convictions in Florida

NEW ORLEANS, La. – I was walking along the dark streets around our hotel, alone, when I stepped on something that couldn’t have been bigger than a frog but made a sound like a hurt squirrel and then skittered away. Skittered! Like that creature in The Grudge. What does that? Omigod.

Creepy end to a creepy day where we drove in and out of the most intense thunderstorms I’ve experienced. The worst hit us before we were out of Florida and we had to take shelter in a McDonald’s (again). Rain or not, I was headed back outside for a calming smoke – my legs had been shaking for 10 minutes, and that makes it really hard to maintain a safe speed in high winds.

There was a guy out there in a blue scrub-type shirt with something stamped on the left-hand pocket. His grey hair was shaved nearly completely and his eyes were watery blue. His arms were covered in monochrome tattoos, from wrist to shoulder; not one pattern but dozens of separate pieces. There was a large, unevenly ornate cross on the inside of his upper arm.

He bummed a smoke and said, nodding toward the truck, “Are you all really from Quebec? What’re you doing here in sunny Florida?”

I told him we’re on our way to Texas and he shook his head like we’re crazy (I’m beginning to believe he’s on to something there). “I’ve been to Canada,” he told me. “Not Quebec, but lots of other places. Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C., the Yukon.”

“The Yukon? That’s intense.”

He shrugged. “My dad worked there for a year, I was young. I went up later when my cousin moved to Alberta cuz he needed someone to drive the truck. Stayed a while, came home to Texas and Louisiana.”

“We’re spending two days in Louisiana – I can’t wait.”

“You gotta get you a piece of boudin,” he said, meaning a kind of Creole sausage. “Anyone who goes to Louisiana gotta get them some boudin.”

“And gumbo. The real stuff, not like we make at home.”

He licked his lips. “I’m gonna make me a pot of gumbo soon as I get home. I just got … I haven’t been home in a while. Waiting for someone to pick me up. A friend was supposed to take me home, but he just brought me far as his place and I had to call another friend to come pick me up here.”

“Nice friend,” I said.

“Yeah. He was on his way to drinkin’. I just hope the next one shows up soon.” We were nearly finished our cigarettes and he could see I was moving toward the door. The sky was clearing, miraculously. “You have a good rest of your trip, y’hear? Lots to see.”

“Sometimes I think life’s too short to see all the things.”

He laughed. “I dunno ‘bout you, but my life’s feeling shorter every day.”

In which we are nearly led astray by buzzards

CLERMONT & ONA, Fla. – Of all our planned roadside attractions, the monster-truck eco-tour was the one I was most looking forward to: a 45-minute tour of a cattle and citrus farm, seen from the world’s largest 4×4.

I’ll spare you every delightful detail (“We have 350 cows and just seven bulls, each of them named L-L-L-Lucky.”) through mud and sand and across cow paths, past gators and banana spiders and into an angry thunderstorm that nearly drowned out our chipper guide, Chris.

Florida is all about the thunderstorms. As on the Prairies, you can see it coming. You have a few minutes or half an hour to prepare, tighten your seatbelt or take cover. Often you can see patches of lbue sky in the black cloud and you just hold on and hope the wind is in your favour.

* * *

Solomon’s Castle appealed to each of us. Trevor, because he’s pretty much up for anything, Melani because it’s a castle, and me because it’s made from discarded objects including old printing plates.

Our GPS, Alpha, loved it because it meant he could take us on back roads and threaten to get us lost.

The rain tapered off as we pulled away from the monster truck. We drove along the wide highway for a bit, past fruit and gator-meat stands, a gas station and a strip mall before turning left onto a well-maintained side road. Citrus groves were interspersed with fields of cattle. I’d never thought of Florida as cow heavy, but with 1.1 million head of cattle, this is the third-largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi.

Trevor spotted the herd of deer in some scrub on the other side of the ditch. “I bet the citrus farmers love these,” I said sarcastically and wondered whether the fences were good enough to keep them at bay. Moments later a deer with huge black eyes nodded as we went past. She was on the orchard side of the fence. Farther along, two wild boar dodged out of the ditch and into the tall grass.

“Ahead, turn right,” Alpha instructed, putting us on a narrower road where the trees creeped closer to the asphalt. The clouds had somewhat lifted and we couldn’t see lightning any longer, but the low growl of thunder penetrated the closed windows. The car was very quiet.

The trees fell away, opening to an empty field ringed by an uneven fence and more than a dozen dark silhouettes.

“Buzzards,” Melani breathed.

My foot lifted from the gas pedal. The buzzards turned as one to watch us approach. One lifted his head, as though he were about to speak. We were almost past them, my head turned sideways because I would not look away.

“Turn right now!” Alpha commanded and my foot, which had hovered over the gas, came down hard on the brake. The buzzards lifted, disappeared.

“Umn, yeah,” I said as I threw it into reverse. “Let’s go where the buzzards hang out. Because that’s a good idea.”

And, yes, the next road was narrower still, pitted and uneven. Branches hung over us from both sides, Spanish moss reached toward the windshield; the road curved. A faded sign promised Solomon’s Castle just ahead and – here! – the white gates. We finally approached.

Solomon’s Castle. Reopening in October. Bet it’ll be spectacular.