Friday, March 30, 2007

Micanopy and Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park

Old Florida is alive and well and living in Micanopy. After a tiring two weeks in a festival site we came to loathe, we drove to Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park and checked in, quite dispirited because we had been sideswiped on I-75 while heading south. Fortunately, while there was small damage to our trailer, no one was injured. Like other Florida state parks we have visited, Payne’s Prairie campground is located toward the center of the park, far removed from road noise and bother. The park has 50 campsites with fifteen reserved for tenters. The campsites are separated by walls of palmetto, live oaks, and heavy brush allowing a lot of privacy. Toilet and shower facilities are centrally located, clean, and pleasant. While there are no sewer connections, the water and electric hookups are well-located and provide all that’s needed. The park is located about ten miles south of Gainesville along U.S. route 441 and perhaps five miles east of I-75. In late March, it is nearly completely full. We hooked up, showered, and took off to explore the village of Micanopy, looking for a place to access the Internet. That’s where the real surprises occurred.

We drove about a mile south and turned right into the village of Micanopy. Low houses from the early twentieth century with tin roofs and lots of shade which were built in the years before air conditioning saved or ruined the south, depending on your point of view. We drove down the main street, divided by a median strip with lovely trees and plantings on it. We stopped in front of a little shop called Coffee and Cream, part of a two story building with an antique shop attached. Inside a lone employee was sampling some of his own ice cream. He told us that the whole building was a Wi-Fi hot spot, so we gave up our hunt for the library, bought some ice cream and sat down at the comfortable sofa at the end of the room. Soon, Cliff Harris, proprietor of the shop when he’s not on the road in the dangerous job of rodeo clown, dashed in, welcomed us to Micanopy, asked our names, told us what was for lunch the next day, and invited us for ride on his boat on the lake on Wednesday. He’s a human dynamo with the energy of one of the bulls he risks his life to protect rodeo cowboys from.

The next day, one of Cliff’s employees, Tony, a refugee from north Jersey, filled us in with local history as he prepared corn bread muffins for lunch. Miconopy is the oldest town in Florida not on water. It was once a thriving town, but pretty much died when the nearby lake suffered a sink hole and almost completely emptied itself, leaving the swamp that is Payne’s Prairie. In recent years it has rebounded as a lovely stopping place for touridsts seeking some antiquing, good food, and a stroll around this lovely small town. Cliff has create a friendly, welcoming environment. He is much helped by Katie and Kayla, his two very pleasant counter and service people. The food is simple, tasty, and reasonably priced. A rotating group of local people, aspiring writers, and a busking guitar player, who plays and sings at lunch, make Coffee and Cream the sort of place a funny and touching situation comedy could be located. The film “Dr. Hollywood” with Michael J. Fox was filmed in Micanopy. Nearby, the Old Florida Café serves lunches and dinners on the porch and indoors. A lovely looking mansion offer bed and breakfast accommodations, and there’s a local history museum that should be visited. People looking for a taste of old Florida should be sure to take a leisurely day to stop and visit in Micanopy.

For RVers this stop should be combined with a stop at Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park. The park is a 21,000 acre preserve partly a large swamp with abundant wildlife and partly a heavily forested area. The campground, while small, is spacious and very pleasant. On Wednesday afternoon we drove to the visitor center, which unfortunately closed at 4:00 PM, a modern looking building with a balcony overlooking the prairie. We took a short walk to a tower with good views of the Prairie, which was discovered in 1774 and continues to be a marshy, nearly treeless area with low wetlands, lots of water birds, and recently introduced bison. The surrounding woods contain huge live oaks dripping Spanish moss, providing a cooling shade that was lovely on this hot spring afternoon.

Other local attractions are the towns of Evinston and Macintosh, which we did not have time to visit, and the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park where the author’s restored home is located and which was the setting for several of her books, including the noted children’s Pulitzer prize winning novel The Yearling. Payne’s Priaire is about ten miles south of Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, where there is lots to do, good restaurants, and good shopping.