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    « Jose Baez: Free as a Bird | Main | Odds & Ends and Odd Endings »

    My Trip to Gainesville, Part 1

    This is a story about my trip to Gainesville on February 4. It’s going to have to be split into 2-parts because it is not just about the Gator basketball game I attended, it also encompasses the tragic crash 0n I-75 at the end of January. That’s in this part. The next one will be about Old Florida - Cross Creek and Micanopy. While this will touch briefly on Cross Creek, it won’t say anything about Micanopy, which is the oldest inland settlement in the state. This post will be heavy with photos. Most can be enlarged.


    Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve had a keen interest in history. Growing up in New Jersey, it was impossible to miss because the area is rich with stories of days gone by. Much of the Revolutionary War was fought in my own back yard, for instance, and before that was the French & Indian War of the 1750s.

    While libraries are teeming with books on history, my affection for it lays somewhere else, deep within my mind. I seek the presence of history. I like to sense it all around me. Although not an obsession, I often wonder, as I walk about, who took the same steps one hundred years before me; a thousand and more years earlier, and I yearn to learn, because I can only guess as far back as our history books tell us. I know there’s more than that.

    Growing up, it was easy to explore our heritage. Where I lived was just northwest of Princeton, and that made it somewhat simple to visit historical sites and museums from Philadelphia to New York City and everywhere in between. Every so often, I’d hear news about the skeletal remains of a Redcoat and his musket being discovered in the rafters of an old house while it was being renovated. I lived in several homes that dated back to a generation or two before the Revolutionary War. The church where my late grandfather preached was established in 1733.

    Some of you may find me morbid for this, but I’ve always liked to walk through old cemeteries. I’d look at the names and dates on the tombstones and wonder who they were in life. What did they do? Were they friendly? Who did they leave behind? In my own hometown of Flemington, there is a small tract of land up the street from where I lived known as the Case Family Burial Ground. Several members of the Case family are resting there, along with a Delaware Indian chief named Tuccamirgan, who died in 1750. The grave was dug deep enough for him to be placed in a sitting position, facing east.

    While I am quite intrigued by my humble beginnings, I am just as fascinated with the American Civil War. Of course, being a Yankee and all, I never could get a firm grasp on the Confederacy until I moved to Florida. We were never taught to hate southerners, but we were aware that many southerners were raised to hate northerners — so we thought. It wasn’t all that many years ago when the ‘colored folk’ used separate water fountains and bathrooms in the south. When I moved to the Orlando area in ‘81, I didn’t know what to expect. To me, the Civil War ended over a century ago, so there was nothing more to it than history. Every so often, I’ll hear about how the war has never ended and that the south will one day rise again, but for what reason? To what end? Instead, I like to focus on the rich culture of the south, and that’s something I was never taught in school. It’s not anything that could be taught in school. You must live it in order to feel it.

    I’ve been in central Florida for 31 years now, longer than I lived up north and I’ve got to say, I like it here. No, that doesn’t mean I’d ever give up on my home town or state, and Orlando’s not known as a bastion of Old Florida, but there’s definitely something romantic about pockets of the south. I guess you could say the bug caught me during a screening of Gone With The Wind during my freshman year of high school in, of all places, New Jersey.

    There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the “Old South.” Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…

    - From the opening of the film Gone with the Wind (1939)

    While I don’t sense anything genuinely historical about Orlando, I have found the ‘Deep South’ — through north Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi — to be both mythical and mystical. There’s no way to explain it in a sentence or two. It’s something that has to grow on you. The bug next caught me when I flew to New Orleans on a private jet back in the early 90s. I felt something tragic about the city but I could never pin it on anything. As festive as the place was, an innate sense of sadness always seemed to be right around the corner, on the other side of the wrought iron gate.

    I’ve since been back to New Orleans, but I’ve also traveled to and visited other towns from here to Houston. One of my favorite stops was Natchez, Mississippi, rife with tales of the Civil War. This story, however, is not about the war between the states, this is about one state, and it’s called Old Florida, home of majestic magnolias, stately live oaks and cypress trees jutting up from the water. However, there are two issues to cover first. 

    Many of you are familiar with Nika1. She is a frequent contributor on my blog and a good friend. About a month ago, she asked me if I’d be interested in going to a live Gator (University of Florida) basketball game with her. Yes! Of course I would! I’ve been to several football games, but never basketball, something I’ve always wanted to do. I first went to see Nika1 in late September of 2010, when she invited me up for a football game. While there, she took me around the neighborhood. That included the rural area where she lives, and where her family has lived for many generations. Once again, I sensed the old south, but in this case, it was Old Florida, and its roots were deep in history.

    Three weeks ago, on February 4, I drove up to the house she shares with Ali Rose, her beautiful Australian Shepherd. She had plans for me, too. After the basketball game, we were going to go to Cross Creek, made famous by The Yearling, the 1938 novel written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. She won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1939. Fascinating, I thought. Very much so.


    Almost a week before my drive, a terrible accident happened on I-75, in the middle of Paynes Prairie. 11 people died. To help you understand Paynes Prairie, it is generally a swampy area, but the weather has been exceedingly dry in Florida, and in this state, droughts breed brush fires, and lots of them. Many burn out of control.

    Burned Brush in Background

    On the way up to the game on US-441, Nika1 told me what happened. 441 is east of 75 and they run parallel to each other. The fire started east of 441. The first series of accidents began just before midnight, on January 28. Smoke and fog wafted west across the highways and the first 911 call came in at 11:53:14 from I-75 to report the heavy smoke and fog. Moments later, another 911 caller reported hearing accidents. Then, another one came in saying they saw the accidents. Moments later, all traffic was stopped.

    Those accidents were not fatal, but it prompted the Florida Highway Patrol to shut down the interstate by 12:45 am. At 3:21 am, the decision was made to reopen it, and the rest is history. By 4:00 am, you couldn’t see past your nose. Heading southbound, a semi had stopped in the right lane and a Dodge pickup truck plowed into it, followed by a Ford Expedition. The two Ford occupants were able to escape through the back just before it burst into flames.  The occupants in the pickup truck were on their way to a funeral, but sadly, all three family members perished.

    By now, frantic calls were coming into the Alachua County Communications Center. Of course, when troopers, sheriff’s deputies and emergency vehicles arrived, they couldn’t see, either.

    In the northbound lanes, two church vans were heading to Georgia. One van crashed into the rear corner of a semi stopped in the middle lane and it sliced through the van, killing five family members. One 15-year-old girl survived. The occupants of the other van survived. In front of the semi was a Toyota Matrix sandwiched between that one and one in front of it. The young couple in the Matrix died.

    Meanwhile, another semi had stopped in the middle southbound lane. It was hit by a Dodge pickup and the driver was able to escape with minor injuries. Then, a Pontiac Grand Prix smashed into the back of that pickup and the driver died.

    Had the drivers of those semis pulled off of the road instead of stopping in the lanes, would lives have been saved? You bet, but it will be a long time before the investigation into this tragedy is sorted out. That includes why FHP decided to reopen the interstate after it was closed.

    What surprised me was that the fire burned east of 441. Nika1 told me another person died on that highway, but it didn’t make headlines like the big one.

    The above photo represents what Paynes Prairie would look like during normal weather conditions.


    As much of a horror as the accident was, there was a basketball game to attend, and the Gators intended to win it. This was, after all, why I took the trip to begin with, not including my visit with Nika1. The team was playing Vanderbilt. We had gotten there in plenty of time to nestle into our seats, where brand new t-shirts were nicely folded for spectators. Yes, FREE! Blue in color, the back had the Texaco logo and some type, and the front said “ROWDY yet refined REPTILE” with the Gator green and orange logo. It was a great game to watch and it was made better by the Gator’s victory. The final score was 73-65. The pictures can do the talking…

    The first photo is the University of Florida Century Tower in Gainesville. Begun in 1953, it is 157 feet (48 m) tall.

    Part 2 will come next week and it will take you through Old Florida and a Michael J. Fox movie. Mostly, it will be a selection of photographs I took.

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    Reader Comments (11)

    The fire horrible!

    Nika1 are now fast friends! Good friends are hard to come by, you all are lucky.

    I am a born Southerner. My family has lived in Miss. for many, many generations. (Yeah, I
    love turnip greens and cornbread! lol) Oh, guess where I am going tomorrow? VICKSBURG!
    Going to go to a casino and have a great lunch! Beautiful place to visit. Civil War Memorial is
    beautiful, and sad. Lots of canons all around.

    Hope that you will start blogging again! Come on! We miss you!

    Take care, and hope to hear from you soon.

    p.s. so glad Baez dumped Ca Ca!! (I use CaCa since I heard u use it! Suits her well!)

    Hi Mary Beth - Believe it or not, I am a northerner who was raised on all kinds of greens; turnip, mustard and collard, and I've eaten cornbread all my life. I love it all!

    I hope you enjoy your time in Vicksburg. Next time I head that way, I will go there and spend a night. Lots to see, I'm sure.

    I'm still blogging, just not as often.

    February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary Beth

    We think ALIKE! If only..... trees and walls and the dead, could talk.

    Hi MArch37 - Imagine that! How much we'd learn if trees, walls and the dead could talk. I've heard stories of the dead talking, but I would think that anyone hearing trees and walls would need to visit with a medical specialist.

    February 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMArch37

    Your pictures are really good, Dave. They are so nice and clear. That is so terrible about the accidents. Why didn't those semi drivers have the sense to pull over to the side? Think of how many lives would probably have been saved. It is nice that you and Nika1 have become good friends and that she invited you to see those games and see parts of Florida that you haven't been to. Thanks Nika1! It's nice to be able to meet the people who comment on your blog. I am glad that the Gators won the game. Look forward to reading the second part of your trip and seeing the pictures.

    Thank you, Mary Jo! That camera was a really good investment. The final photograph at Paynes Prairie came from Wikipedia, so it's license-free. All the rest are mine. Yes, it's nice to be able to visit with Nika1. She's a lovely lady with genuine southern hospitality. It's actually great to meet with people I interact with on the blog. That was true during the Anthony motions and trial, as well. Good times indeed!

    When Nika1 told me about the semis stopping in the lanes, I couldn't believe it. I wondered if they were young and relatively new drivers because a seasoned professional would have taken that into account and pulled off the highway no matter what it entailed. It's a real shame. Smashing into the back of a truck at high speeds is a horrible way to die. That fog and smoke came out of nowhere.

    Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the photos.

    February 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterMary Jo

    Great post and a great time-especially with the Gator win. The I 75 accident was horrible and we still don't know why the two semi trucks stopped. It could be they were scared they would pull off too far and drop down into the prairie. That has happened before but not since they redesigned the sides of the road. I can remember the next morning eating breakfast at a little roadside store and the firemen were laughing about one of their members almost stepping on a huge gator. They were so tired from fighting the fire most of the night and after breakfast going right back.
    We have a lot of history in our area but not like Miss. or Louisiana. Ours is mostly indian related but it is fun learning about it.
    I think the No Feeding the Gators sign is a little misleading. We do feed our rivals to the Gators or at least hope to.

    Yes indeedy, that was a great basketball game and, most of all, victory! It was a fun time, too, at the arena everywhere else we went.

    I wonder what the tractor trailer drivers told investigators about why they stopped in the middle of the highway. Common sense dictates that it's the most dangerous place to park anything, let alone many tons of metal. Could it have been that they had no idea that they were still on the road and not on the shoulder? I don't know, but it's still a doggone shame.

    When I left your place, I took another look at the prairie from 441 and walked to the end of the observation walkway. It sure was dry in there and it's no wonder it caught fire. There's a lot more to Paynes Prairie than what I saw, so next time I come up, I'd like to be able to explore it more. I understand there's an observation tower east of 441.

    I am aware of ancient Indian cultures in Florida. I shot a video a couple of years ago that I've yet to do something with. It's about burial mounds. Some are 2-4,000 years old and could be Timucuan. Maybe I can piece it all together one day. Burial and shell mounds are all around us, and today we know that the earliest Paleoindians lived in Florida 12,000 years ago.

    Thanks for a great time, Nika1!

    February 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterNika1

    I really want to go to a game with Nika1 after reading this. Accidents are always awful but the rest of it sounds fun and very interesting. Great photo's too.

    You'd have a great time, Tiffany. Perhaps... you will be able to go to a game one day. I'm glad you like the photos. Wait 'til you read part 2.

    February 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterTiffany

    The mounds on our property are from the Tiimucuan. The two ladies we saw when we left the farm area were looking for the University digging. In my youth I spent many hours looking for arrowheads, pottery etc. I have a nice collection mainly from the pasture in front of the house.
    You are welcome to come to a game Tiffany. Any time I can get the tickets.

    That's right! I had a memory lapse. Yes, you have mounds and we did talk about that and the arrow heads, plus the anthropologists from UF. DUH!

    I should have mentioned that in the post.

    February 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterNika1

    I loved reading this. I was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia. I could never move away because it is so beautiful. We have the Bonaventure cemetery where my mom and dad are buried (it's right on the river) and that's where some of the Garden of Good an Evil was filmed. We also have Paula Deen who is a riot. Have you ever visited Savannah? I think you would love it, if you could. Have a great day. Cindy

    Well, Cindy, I'm very happy to know you thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thank you! I have never been to Savannah, but that city is at the top of my list for places I want to visit, along with Charleston, which is second on the list. I also enjoyed the movie and scenery. Like New Orleans and other southern towns and cities, it's a feeling I get, not just a reaction to the visual beauty of the location. Who knows... perhaps I'll take another road trip this summer, and there's no doubt I would love your home town. You have a great day, too!

    February 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCindy Edenfield

    Thanks Nika1. Would be a pleasure.

    Looking forward to part two Dave.

    I will put part 2 up this week! Thanks, Tiffany.

    February 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterTiffany

    Cindy- I'm so jealous- I LOVE Savannah, although I'm also happy as well visiting Charleston, only a 3-4 hour drive from where we are. I, too, love cemeteries and the older the better. I admire the attention to detail in the stonework, the symbolic meanings and personal stories, the lovely landscaping all about. When living in Plymouth I was very near an old colonial and Victorian burial ground, and came upon some lovely ironwork- bits of it- that were just being tossed away in a corner, having apparently broken off over the winters there. I grabbed as much as I could lug home where they sat propped up on a windowsill - scrolls and finials and such. Very atmospheric.

    Neato, Karen! Now that I have a good camera, I plan on visiting more cemeteries. I especially liked one of the ones in New Orleans. There's an old one in Shiloh, Illinios I went to, too, about 10 years ago. Lots of Union soldiers buried in there. Next time, I'll take pictures.

    February 29, 2012 | Registered CommenterKaren C.

    Dave, I guess you hate to leave fun days like you had there. Now that you have a good camera, so much more the pleasure for you. You are on very near ground to my background, being in the familiarity of Southern locations from where I did leave with some of the favorable hospitality traits. Never got so far down as Florida though, where alligators will eat you up. You have managed so well to find pleasurable days, so much better than two years ago with so many health worries and unfavorable personalities tripping on you. You have accomplished goals and the recognitions you so deserve. Having fulfilled your obligation, the promise to write about the Casey Anthony story on your blog, through to the end, while casting out other thorns in the side, the realities of yesterday, to now draw a breath of freshness, settling into a period in time, where you can write that book while at the same time, spending your personal time and energy on choices most valuable to you.

    Oh, I don't mind leaving the fun times behind, New Puppy, because I know there are more of them ahead. I will say that I'm glad I've spent time in places where you grew up and have fond memories of. I really do enjoy going places and then having the opportunity to write about my trips, which are generally pleasurable. There are still some health issues that keep me from moving around too much, but a few short trips here and there won't hurt. I imagine if I had to go through airport security, I'd be pulled aside and questioned about all the medications I take. Some need refrigeration, too, so they couldn't hold me too long.

    I did promise to cover the Anthony case until the end, and I did just that. I'll bet I have close to a million words written, but I never did count them all. Yes, I fulfilled my obligation and that's one of the reasons why I took a couple of months off when the whole mess ended. It was a much needed break. Today, I'm still in up in the air about which direction I'll go in, but I do want to continue writing about exploited children and the missing. I also want to introduce more personal stories - hence this one about my trip to Gainesville. The next one will explore the area. Right now, I'm still in a lazy phase, but I do need to snap out of it. It still hinges on my health sometimes, but I do enjoy writing tremendously.

    As I start laying out a book, I will probably spend less time on the blog, but there's no way I would ever abandon it. I think I'll have to play it by ear because this is my baby and it's bred into me, all the way back to October of 2004. Gee, I've come a long way since then. We all have, and it's been quite a journey. Thank you for being there. Thank you for being a true and wonderful friend.

    February 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNew Puppy

    Dave, fun times and friends of the past are important to me, because I am forced to know that a tomorrow can bring sadness. Like that of Caylee Marie Anthony, thought to be a handicap to those who wanted to be set free, she was so easily discarded.

    You write saying you will not be on your blog so much, and have said you don't like to email. That leaves no way to communicate, at least not for me. I gather others have already been made aware. Of course, I always wish for you, all the pleasures and fun you desire and hope for.

    It may surprise you that I have ended up having more compassion for Jeff Ashton after finishing most of his book "Imperfect Justice".

    Hopefully, people will enjoy my more personal stories like the trip to Gainesville.

    I didn't really mean that I wouldn't necessarily be on my blog all that much, I meant that writing a book would preoccupy me and that could cut into my time. I don't mind e-mailing, either, but I get lazy sometimes. Let me reassure you, I will always be available here and elsewhere. I'm not going anywhere soon if I can help it. This blog has been a very important part of my life. I mean, look where it's taken me! I'm never going to abandon it. Besides, I'm tinkering around with adding a live chat app somewhere on the main page or on a page of its own. Trust me, New Puppy, the door will always be open for you. ALWAYS!

    You know? I've yet to read Ashton's book, but it's something I'm going to have to do soon. I'm glad you see him from a different perspective. He's a good guy.

    March 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNew Puppy

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