By midday, dark clouds had moved across the sky and the trail leading to St. Francis was downright gloomy. It was the perfect mood for searching for a once prosperous little river town that had long since vanished into the densely wooded Florida hammocks on the western shores of the St. Johns.
We had driven west on HW 42 through the Ocala National Forest to get here, far beyond the swarm of Octoberfest bikers and into and out of a rural hamlet named Paisley. I turned soon after, onto a dirt road leading to where we will begin our hike. At the trailhead kiosk, I park next to where a hunter fully outfitted in camo is busy sticking arrows into a quiver attached to his belt.
By the time my friend Michelle and I had loaded and shouldered our backpacks, the guy had pulled out his bow from his truck and disappeared into the forest, vanishing as fully as the little town of St. Francis itself. There were only three vehicles in the lot—the bow hunter’s pickup, mine, and another.
My caution level spiked a bit, and by the time we started walking the trail, I was wary, listening carefully for any unusual sounds, like the zinging of arrows through the leaves. It took me a bit to settle back down and when I did, I was finally able to open myself up to the fine Old Florida landscape that spread out around us. We had been looking for new ways to get down to the river, maybe see some wildlife, and at the very least do a bit of exploring on our own. Michelle brought along her video camera to shoot some b-roll for her independent film and I packed away a digital, along with some trail food—in this case, a half loaf of nut bread from the bakery and a container of crab salad I had spiced up with some sun-dried tomatoes and Old Bay. Both of us had paddled past the site of the ghost town on the river on different sojourns, but had never tried to reach it by land.
We meet two people walking out with a small dog—sort of semi-friendly, just a howdy on the way out for them. That explained the third vehicle in the lot.
The clouds that hid the sun earlier become darker, and with the thick canopy of foliage overhead, it seemed as if it were early evening rather than mid afternoon. We passed the only spur, a little two-mile loop that wrapped around a spring, and we kept moving towards where St. Francis had once existed, at the edge of the St. Johns. Like many river towns, this one was nurtured by the utility of the grand and noble San Juan. Ox-drawn carts would bring lumber and citrus to a landing at a high midden where the “St. Francis Dead River” splayed away from the St. Johns. The village boomed after the Civil War, and by 1888, it had a post office, a hotel, a general store, a newspaper and a “sanitarium”, the later to lure invalid tourists into a faux cure promised by the Florida climate.
The great old folk historian Bill Dreggors, who lives nearby in DeLand, has told of seeing an ancient and heavily overgrown cemetery back in here, a place where some of the Spanish who first settled the high bluff on the river were buried. I met Bill years ago and once wrote of him in a book entitled “River of Lakes”. If Bill said there was a cemetery here full of old Spanish bones, then there’s one here—although few are likely ever to find it without precise directions.
We walk at a good clip through the hammock of live and laurel oak, following it as it falls and rises through the gentle slope of the terrain. A pair of swamp warblers flit nearby, and then all is still. We step over a pile of bear scat, black and thick with berries of some sort. I see palmetto fronds chewed down to the quick, likely by white tail deer. Shoestring ferns, invigorated by the rains, flap out from the smooth trunks of the tall sabal palms, and the young fiddleheads of cinnamon ferns poke up from adult clutches, as if someone has dusted them with the sweetness of spice. I pick up a nut from the trail, recognize it as hickory, and finally see the large and majestic mother tree nearby. Sloughs of a swamp appear and disappear on both sides of the trail.
I think of the old Spanish cemetery and it reminds me of ‘Fodderwing’, the savant-child in Rawlings’ “The Yearling”—a blissful innocent, sort of a Forrest Gump of the Florida scrub. Fodderwing would see “Spainards” behind the trees in the dark hammocks at the edge of the scrub, and his friend Jody would hope in his heart for the same magic.
Lichens of various sorts are everywhere—smooth, ruffled, brown, ghostly white—all sprouting from downed snags, a variety of fungi turned into artwork, just for now. Michelle picks a few, careful not to disturb the individual assemblage too much. I shoot some photos and she holds a pair of them to her ears, pretending they are giant ear lobes, and the sight of it makes me laugh out loud.
The path brightens as if we are approaching the openness of a river. Instead, it’s a high patch of pine flatwoods, the frillier canopy of needles allowing more light to penetrate. And now, the trail begins to fall, ever so gradually, and we cross little bridges from creeks. Most are tea-colored, but a few are clear, and I am figuring, we may be passing the meandering run of a spring or two. We begin to see massive rotted stumps of what must have been giant bald cypress, logged long ago. With the cypress, I figure we’re getting close to water, and just as I do, the swamp that has followed us most of the way now spreads itself out across the trail.
We pick our way around the path for about a half a mile until it finally dead- ends into a massive sheet of tannic water, no good way to go much farther. I figure St. Francis is less than a mile away, but the going would not be good, and it’s getting late. We reluctantly turn and follow the trail back. It’s ever darker around us, and now, there comes a light drizzle.
Still— we are in a place that is extraordinary, one so apart from the domesticated schemes that define the “socialized” and safe Florida that it seems almost sacred.
We remain cheerful, grateful to be alive, to be immersed in a geography that still holds wildness close to its heart.
We’ve had a dense and mysterious hammock to explore—one that both jolts and then, calms, the sensibilities. In doing so, it reaffirms all that is good and righteous about the wilderness that still remains.
Towards the end of our walk, we spot two adolescent whitetails behind a stand of oaks, and they stop far longer than they should to watch us. They are elegant animals, more grace in one movement than most of us humans can hope for in a year’s worth of stumbling through the woods.
I figure if the bow hunter doesn’t get them soon, they’ll likely be toast when the muzzleloading season opens next month. Nonetheless, I admire the hunter for being enough of a sport to take his passion down to a very intimate level. In contrast, using a high powered, computerized scope to fire a bullet seems hopelessly remote— closer to a digitized game than to reality.
Later in the winter, when it’s dry and cool, we can return and likely make it all the way to St. Francis, and once there, re-imagine the glory of a village at the edge of a river that once helped define an entire state. Maybe, if we go right at dawn, we might even see the bear who left the scat behind, maybe see her with her year-old cubs, tucked away in the crook of the large and majestic hickory.
And, if we’re really lucky, we might stumble onto a hidden Spanish cemetery, perhaps even catch a glimpse of a phantom Conquistador hiding in the hammocks around us.
If we do, maybe we can recapture shards of the natural magic that once mattered. It was a magic that, for so many here before us, seemed to be as vital and real as anything else in the whole world.