When I researched for my initial visit to Goethe State Forest located in Dunnellon, Florida, I discovered a specific and unique characteristic about the area that I wanted to experience for myself. I found more. A lot more. This is a two-part story. This first part is about finding what I was not looking for. The second part is about possibly finding what I was looking for. Thanks for tuning in!
I will call my Sunday, 1/10/21 adventure:
“They say first impressions are everything…”
“What’s in a word?”
My morning was a lesson in perception, patience, tolerance, and one of my personal mottos: “Live and Let Live.” This is not the story I was planning to write, so it was also a reminder to continue to be fluid since my plans change often.
I was supposed to visit Goethe State Forest on Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, my car decided that was not going to happen. I finally got my car out of the shop Wednesday. I planned to go Saturday, but something else came up, so I went Sunday. The third time was the charm!
I often say I am going places to “see what I can see.” Since I could not go previously as planned, I do not know what I missed out on seeing. Probably Sasquatch riding a unicorn. What I do know is that all of time and space had been marching up to ensure that I made it specifically when and where I was meant to be.
I saved a map on my phone and let five people know where I would be and when I would be finished. I checked to see about prescribed burns and hunting dates, since parts of Goethe include Wildlife Management Areas. I am glad I checked because Sunday was included as a day for small game hunting. I grabbed my blaze orange and stuffed it in my pack before I left home. I told Gossamer (my beagle-terrier mix, I call him a Berrier) and the cats my usual, “Behave. I love you! Gossamer, stay out of the cat litter and keep the cats off the dining room table.” Do they ever listen though? Negative.
With over 50,000 acres and several entrances to choose from, I wanted to explore at least 2-3 trails. I set my sights to start at the Big Cypress Boardwalk Trail. The morning was overcast and cool so I dressed in layers. It was a 43 minute drive from home, which was a nice test to make sure my car was running better. GPS took me on a route that was different than I expected, but after the drive I was thankful for the direction I traveled. It really is a great feeling to be surrounded by forest.
When I arrived at the turn off from the main road on to a dirt road, a red truck was parked. Perhaps they decided to trek the 4 miles from there to the boardwalk. I considered it, but was not in the mood for 8 miles round trip since I wanted to check out other trails within the forest and only planned to hike 5 miles that day. After bouncing and shaking the 4 miles on the one-way dirt road in my sedan, I reconsidered my decision to drive instead of walk. The man at the car shop told me I was missing 5 lug nuts. I had to put the image out of my mind of my wheel popping off and continuing to roll without me. I will be getting that rectified Friday. I turned down my music and cracked the windows so I could try to listen to Nature despite the noisy drive on the rocky road. I spooked a few wading birds in the creeks nearby and they took flight. I arrived at my destination and turned left to park.
There was a lone empty vehicle, a Jeep: the stuff my dreams are made of! I noticed the bumper stickers. State of Florida flag, Sasquatch, military, and a few others. The usual. I looked around at my surroundings. There was no facility but there was a sitting area. I looked at the density of the trees so I could anticipate what I may encounter in the form of wildlife. There were educational plaques on this short trail but I skipped taking photos of most of them. I have photographed them enough times in the past on other trails. The plaque that stood out though, talked about the coral snake and cottonmouth. Duly noted, I proceeded with additional caution.
The uneventful round trip trek was only about 0.5 miles. With the high-30’s, low-40’s chill in the air, it was eerily quiet. There was not even a breeze in the leaves and only the occasional bird chirped. When I got to the boardwalk, I looked this way and that for snakes (there were none) and in the distance this way and that for a glimpse of deer (also none). I walked slowly. Listening to nothing. No small planes or vehicles on distant roads. Just nothing. I love nothing! It makes it easier to hear if something is coming.
As I approached what I did not realize was already the end of the short boardwalk, still looking to each side, I felt the pull of energy before I saw her. I looked ahead to see what commanded my attention. Oh! The Goethe Giant. I do not think my pictures do her any justice. Being near a 900+ year old being, the moment for me was more about what I felt vs. what I saw. I pondered the things she has observed through her roots and branches and leaves in her lifetime. Someone carved a heart and initials near the base of her trunk. I automatically went to unkind thoughts of a befitting punishment to someone who would deface someone or something that is supposed to be sacred and protected. I let that feeling pass so I could reflect. To the left of the boardwalk there was another giant cypress.
After I made it to the ancient tree and did a pan, once I stopped recording I heard gunshots in the distance. Several, maybe a dozen or more. Someone was hunting small game (I hope). Someone who in my amateur opinion was probably a terrible and wild shot. I made a mental note to make sure to put on my blaze orange before I went to any other trails that morning. I did my usual bow of respect to the tree and to Nature, and slowly walked back along the boardwalk and short trail to my vehicle to head to the next trail.
That’s the end of this adventure, y’all come back now, ya hear?
Now, let the story begin! First a side note that I think is relevant. Something about me: my demeanor is receptive, at least in my opinion. I like to greet people with a smile and a wave. We either strike up a conversation or continue passing. Sometimes people do not respond to my greeting, but I try not to take it personally. I extend my perception outward to “feel” if another person is receptive and try to meet them on the level that their energy exudes. I have been told some people are taken by surprise by my personality, so I try to be cognizant and not overwhelming. I am mostly overly cheerful (especially in the morning), friendly, and open-minded, but I have my moods and moments. I was put to the test on Sunday. I think I passed. Let’s see.
I arrived back at my car. I noticed the Jeep’s passenger side was now occupied by a canine. Next to him was the driver. I was parked next to the Jeep and about a car-width apart. Since I was dressed in layers, it took me a few seconds to slide and shimmy my pack off my back. Out here, I tend to do things with the same rehearsed motions to ensure I am not forgetting anything. I sat my pack on the trunk of my car. I grabbed my car keys and unlocked the doors. I took off my jacket and placed it on the passenger seat. I turned to grab my pack that was sitting on the trunk. Then I heard the words that (in my opinion) no black person (from the north? or anywhere?) ever wants to hear (especially accompanied by a masculine Southern drawl):
“You from around here girl?”
My brain immediately: Oh God(dess), is this it? Is today my turn?
My physical reaction: I jerked my head up and froze. My eyes may or may not have visibly narrowed as my heart pounded and my stomach felt uneasy. Every, and I mean e-v-e-r-y bell, whistle, red alert, imminent “Danger, Will Robinson” alarm was blaring inside of me. All that stuff I said before about me being friendly and cheerful, um, yeah, we can go ahead and set that aside for a while.
I was unaware the man had exited his vehicle. Strike one for me. Or maybe not.
I was still on the passenger side of my car and he was walking around from the driver’s side of the Jeep. I did not budge or answer as I watched him intensely and observed as much as I could.
(As I wrote this I realized: I was actively in the process of experiencing a previously unexperienced trigger. I was showered with an extreme sense of vulnerability. I felt exposed both physically and emotionally, all from five little words.)
I understand that this is the south. That there is a certain way people talk and have talked for many, many years. For you see, it was not the “you from around here” part. It was the “girl” part.
Sadly those words catapulted me to an unexpected place in 2021: the past. The ugly part that I have only seen in movies or TV shows or heard about from news stories. The part where prior to violence, I could hear the words echoing, “You from around here boy?”
At that moment, lives that are not my own were flashing through my brain. Externally, I was calm (I think). I needed to breathe. What was his intention? I saw the Coast Guard hat. Maybe he worked for FWC and he asked me because HELLO, my irresponsible ass still did not have on my blaze orange that I promised myself I would put on.
Me to me: don’t assume he’s racist, don’t assume he’s violent, but don’t trust him either.
At work we take a mandatory, “Managing unconscious bias” course. There is only so much managing I can think to do and be PC when I may need to react.
From there I hoped he was about to chastise me about the need for wearing the proper colors this time of year.
All of this is going on in my head in the span of 3-5 seconds and I realized I never answered his question.
Instead of what I hoped he was going to say, he asked me what I knew about turpentine. I think I blinked.
(I enjoy writing descriptively. Sure I could video more, but where is the fun in that? I get to paint a picture with my words, using my brain and maintaining good grammar. In this story I keep saying “I think” because I was so flustered in that moment, I forgot much of what I was doing to focus on him and every detail I could observe.)
Him: Yes, turpentine. You do know what turpentine is?
Him, clearly exasperated: Girl!
I know how to be quiet, but in the process of finding my own voice, I encourage open dialogue, especially with girls and women, especially lately. Yet this man rendered me speechless, all from his original inquiry.
Me, stumbling over getting my thoughts together to have a logical reply, my brain still searching for words and not just sounds: …
Him: I was wondering if you were from around here and knew the history of the turpentine. They used to harvest sap from these pine trees to make it.
Me, finally breathing: Ohhhh, turpentine (as though it rhymes with any other word in English I could have mistaken it for). The solvent (yes! I finally found more than a one syllable word to utter).
Although I did study a little for the day, it was more about knowing the terrain, trail lengths, and wildlife. I knew I could read about the history later. Oh no, he wanted to talk about everything right now. Everything? Everything!
If you’ve watched Bob’s Burgers, there is a groaning sound Tina makes when she is nervous. During the length of my hour-plus long conversation with him, I mentally and occasionally audibly made this sound several times.
This accounting is about two perspectives: a black woman born and raised in Michigan that dreams of traveling the world, and a white man born and raised in Florida that probably has traveled the world. This is where I should not be too hard on myself for not hearing him exit his vehicle earlier since maybe, just maybe he is used to being stealthy as retired military. Lesson learned.
During the turpentine discussion he brought up a picture on his phone and walked toward me to show me a man from decades ago, harvesting the sap from a pine tree. He indicated this task was delegated to black men in times past. I semi-peek at what he showed me, holding my breath, because social distancing is still in play. He said it is a shame the way blacks in this country have been treated. I am in agreement but still wary and watchful. The dog in the front seat whined.
Me: It’s ok to let the dog out if you want.
Him: Nah, he’s ok.
Darn, I needed that buffer/distraction.
I asked if he was from the area (turnabout is fair play, but I asked nicely!) as I glanced at his license plate. He said yes, he’s a Florida “c” word (more on that later). He talked about the Inglis area and how there is a certain gas station that was built on top of a black cemetery and the lynching tree that still stands there today.
Me: It figures.
He nodded his head in acknowledgement.
He recommended I go to that gas station and order some boiled peanuts (I most certainly will not, I have tried them once and that was one time too many) and sit back and watch the [people] that come in and out of there (he used another word for “people”). In Inglis. The place where just last year I took a photo of the racially charged graffiti. I told him that I would pass. I told him whenever I go to many areas, I have a full tank of gas and am mostly just driving through.
This prompted him to mention the “sundown towns.”
He recalled a story from the 1970’s when he was in uniform. A young black man’s vehicle broke down on his way to Westpoint. The day was progressing into evening. He offered the young man safe harbor, knowing no one would mess with him in uniform. The young man thankfully was able to get someone to come and get him before dark.
At some point early on in the conversation he voluntarily told me his political stance. Then he hesitated when I did not respond. I suppose that was my opening. I held up my hand and said, “Look, I get it. I can have a decent conversation with someone with opposing viewpoints. Most of the people I have met here lean towards a certain political party.” I skirted around the topic of recent events that occurred, just referring to the “violence up north.”
He prodded me directly, asking me what I thought happened.
Me: A lot of bad things.
Him: Who do you think caused it or was behind it? (If he was not already standing I would say he was on the edge of his seat. He looked intently at me, waiting for my answer, and I think it threw him for a loop.)
Me: Humans. Mostly men. Yes, there were women involved. But it was predominantly men. I don’t think this would have happened if more women were in power.
He paused, reflecting. Then he…agreed with me!
He is a Sasquatch hunter and told me of his two prior encounters with the hairy beast. He emphasized the importance of protection because there are a lot of bad things that can happen out here (no kidding!). We talked about the larger cats of Florida and of course my mental nemesis, bears. He told me he was talking to me about safety just like he would talk to his wife or daughter. Yet there were several points in this part of the conversation where he was emphasizing the bad two-legged creatures here, and not just Sasquatch. Based on the context of how he was saying what he was saying, I did not miss his race-themed implications.
We talked about kayaking and he reasoned why he prefers a sturdy canoe, snakes falling from branches, alligators, and bull sharks. He mentioned he caught a bull shark once, but I know how some people can be with their fishing stories. He mentioned he is having a hard time finding a good fishing buddy. Whenever he finds a potential match, he has a coming-to-the-Lord conversation with them about language they can use on and off the boat. Him being a Southern Gentleman and all. Then he indicated Robert E. Lee was a Southern Gentleman.
He happily dominated the conversation, which is fine. He is 63 and has seen much more than me at 39. Although I did not agree with some of what he said, I politely listened. I was not offended by his comments, I just have my own views and opinions. There was nothing I could or even wanted to say to change or influence his opinions. Or was there?
Because his next topic for discussion led him to the Rebel flag and the word heritage.
He motions to the State of Florida flag on the back of his Jeep (Mylanta I am observant! It was uncanny how the things I noticed when I arrived were all coming up in conversation). He asked me what I thought it looked like. I told him I know exactly what it looks like.
This is where he said something a bit refreshing, at least in my opinion. He used to have the Rebel flag on the back of his vehicle. He looked me in the eyes and smiled, but his smile did not reach his eyes. Although his smile was not sinister, it was not particularly kind when he made the statement that he never had a care or concern if ANYONE did not like him displaying his heritage. The key phrase here was he “used to” display it. Until he had an eye-opening conversation with the fine black men of Monticello, Florida. He told me if I ever have the chance, I need to visit there. Whatever conversation he had with these men about their history, it opened his eyes and expanded his perception. Not only did he stop displaying the Rebel flag, he had several hundred bumper stickers made of the State of Florida flag. I should have asked why he ordered so many, but my brain was still a little fried from earlier.
Although the sun was starting to peek, it was getting colder so I grabbed my jacket. He grabbed his jacket a few moments later and let the dog out. When he let him out and the dog curiously investigated me, I let him sniff my hand and he let me pet him. I asked, “Who’s this?” He told me the dog’s name. I told him my name. Then he told me his name. This was a rarity for me that I remembered a person’s name and forgot the dog’s name. The leashed and harnessed pooch went to play, checking on us occasionally. I mirrored the man’s posture, both of us stood facing each other, leaning against our vehicles. I occasionally put my hands in my pockets to warm from the chill, but otherwise I stayed relaxed, transparent, and alert. A short while later he and the dog snacked on boiled eggs that looked green after he removed the shell. I inquired and he told me they were from a specific breed I had to Google after I got home. Ameraucana.
I am going to leave out the more charged statements he made regarding race, religion, and politics. The most I chose to tell him about my stance is I am a tree-hugging, peace-and-love, “why can’t we all just get along” kind of person. It is not that I do not care nor have an opinion about many things, but I come out here to not dwell on it.
Moving right along…
Sometimes the inexperienced get lucky (me). Sometimes the wise get challenged (definitely him, me on occasion).
He rummaged in the back of the Jeep. Something fell to the ground on his side of the open door. For a split second I thought to grab it for him but I decided against it for my own safety. He made that grunting sound people make when bending down, the sound I hope I do not need to make for many years, or preferably never. (Just to be sure, I tested my own flexibility today and yes, I can still silently bend forward, knees straight, palms flat on the ground. Just do not ask me to do squats or it might sound like popcorn).
He pulled out a modified boat hook. He said when walking over logs, he uses it to check for snakes that may be on the other side. He twisted part of it to extend it. If push comes to shove he could use it to keep a potentially striking snake at bay. On one occasion, he was hiking on seemingly dry terrain. After one fateful step, he suddenly found himself chest high in mud or possibly quicksand. With this tool, he was able to use the hook end to grab onto a nearby root and pull himself out. I pictured myself in that situation, with and without the tool. Whew.
Him: Here girl, this is your gift from an “r” word.
(Before I wrote this, I planned to spell out the “c” and “r” word. Then I saw an article the next day about a NASCAR announcer being scrutinized for accidentally using the “r” word on air. Welp! In addition to some other taboo words, maybe it is time to make a new and improved alphabet? But I digress…)
I finally started to see him calling me “girl” as a term of endearment or a colloquialism. This was a welcome realization from how the conversation started. Here, I was dreading the worst. Here, he was speaking to me like normal.
We could have talked longer. There were a few comfortable pauses towards the end of our dialogue. People started to arrive, including a handful of happily energetic, screaming children indicating the time for quiet reflection was over. I bid him a good rest of his day and he went to his vehicle. When I got in my car I realized he came back and was standing outside my window. I let it down slightly.
Him: Here girl, take down my number. The next time you are in this area, if you get into any trouble, you give me a holler. You just make sure it’s a bear or Sasquatch because I’m coming out guns ablazin!
I laughed and thanked him.
From the picture he showed me earlier, he mentioned a historian in Levy County to look up. She has some published books about the black history of the area, and he messaged me two of them to research. I did not know I was going to have homework, but I think I was meant to receive the information I received that day from the person I received it from. He gave me much of his perspective as a Southern Gentleman. I listened to his thoughts as objectively as I could and came to a basic understanding when I tried to see things through his eyes:
I get it.
There are a lot of things I don’t get, especially lately. Yet in being able to have a civil and open discussion where ideas are shared and respected, even where there is disagreement, I get it.
It took me 5 days to write this. Partly because I was considering what to include and what to omit. Partly because my cat takes over my chair after a certain time of day. As I wrapped this up, I felt a lot lighter in spirit than I felt on Sunday. I have my own private questions “to myself, about myself” stemming from the initial encounter, the progression of the conversation, and our chatting over the past few days.
My time is up, Kano is clawing for his evening lounge chair.
I cannot change history. I am not here to change people’s minds or sway their hearts. I am simply here to be the best me that I can be and encourage others to do the same for themselves. I am not here to make history. I am here to write herstory.
Several days later on January 16, the Southern Gentleman gifted me a bouquet of peacock feathers before my trip to another trailhead (Buck Island Pond) at Goethe.
If given the chance, people can be surprising in the best of ways.
I met him at the Crystal River Mall before my drive further north. He was already standing outside his Jeep, wearing bright orange and his Coast Guard hat. I flashed him a Kim-smile before parking. He was walking around to my side of the vehicle and I hopped out. We bid each other good morning.
Him: Here you go.
Me: Thank you. Here you go.
I handed him a palm-sized quartz crystal.
Him: What’s this?
Me: It’s an energy stone. I told you I’m a tree-hugging hippie!
I wanted to find something of sentimental value to gift him, thus the stone. I held it during my drive to him, thinking happy and positive thoughts to pass on without a verbal word. He looked happy to receive it. Now it was time for him to grab feed for his animals and for me to head to an adventure!
Him: Have a good day girl!
Me, giggling inside: you too!
Thank you for reading!
I was so afraid for you I. So many parts of this story! First, the snakes, then the gunshots and then the most obvious greeting from the potentially dangerous stranger. I’m glad you ended up having a good…or useful experience.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you! It was such an extraordinary experience. I’m glad it all worked out. I’m going to record an audio recounting of it either tonight or tomorrow. There’s more to the story 🥰
LikeLiked by 1 person