This is the second leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here.
Our tour crosses the Suwannee River at Fanning Springs, close to the river’s communion with the Gulf of Mexico at Cedar Key (See Tour Three). One does not come to this area of the state for beaches, though; one comes for the springs. Every hole and dip in Florida’s limestone floor glitters with teal and sapphire sparks of water, and Fanning Springs burns its radiance as brightly as any.
Florida springs burble and prattle along their way, their blues and greens coalescing to the moonless midnight as they traipse through pine flatwoods, swamps, and hardwood hammocks. At the spring heads, though, the halcyon water shimmers in shades of teal sunshine, an aqueous rainbow revealing infinite depths. Fanning Springs State Park fronts the route, offering primitive camping for hikers, bikers and paddlers. Car and camper travelers can opt for a cabin (no pets permitted) or, as we did, head to nearby Manatee Springs State Park (See Tour 3) for RV camping or tent camping. Either spring offers a glimpse into Florida’s depths, and both feed the Suwannee. I do not trust my ability to outswim a gator quite enough to relax in Florida’s blackwater rivers, but I snorkel, swim and dive the springs with abandon. Manatee and Fanning Springs alike allow and encourage these things, their crystalline waters the perfect invitation.
I learned to SCUBA dive after my first trip to the Florida Keys. I wanted to get closer to the rainbow of life on the reefs. My first SCUBA dive, though, took place in a murky, frigid sinkhole south of these springs: Hudson Hole. I had no intention then to dive freshwater, and that morning at the sinkhole cemented that decision.
It was my first for-real dive. It was January. It was not fun. Our dive instructors, clad in snuggly warm dry suits, laughed at us as they dumped hot water down the backs of our wet suits. Their breath made little steam clouds as they smirked and suggested we pee as soon as we hit the water. We entered the sinkhole and snorkeled a circle around the lake, then dropped to a platform 20 feet beneath the dismal, dusky surface. We ran through drills – clearing our mask, recovering our regulators, and clearing them – but the entire time I wasn’t thinking about drowning. No, I was too busy worrying about hypothermia and alligators. At least, I thought to myself at one point, if a gator bites me, I’ll be too numb from the cold to feel it.
Hudson Hole did nothing to entice me out of the saltwater and into the fresh. However, Florida’s first magnitude springs – springs that push over 100 million gallons per day out from the state’s spongy limestone center – have little in common with that dank, creepy place best used to train rescue divers. Manatee Springs is a glorious, serene, and – this is crucial – warm, first magnitude spring. Fanning Springs “only” pumps out 65 million gallons of inner earth water daily, which ranks it a second magnitude spring. Those are just words, though, and don’t truly convey the force of the water out of the earth. It gushes over limestone and out into the sun, tumbling over itself in its rush for the surface. You can’t, in all practicality, dive to the source – the pulse of the water will push you back to the outer edge of the planet. You can, however, often find tiny fissures where infinitesimal jets of water stream upwards, a small but unique delight in a wild aquarium.
Back on dry land, we head south.
At Otter Creek, the route passes State Road 24, the one way in and out of Cedar Key (see Tour 3).
As the road approaches Yankeetown (south of the more populous Chiefland), it turns towards the coast and traces its contours closely for the remaining 137 miles.
In 1962, Elvis came to Yankeetown to make Follow That Dream, a movie about a family that moves to Florida when their car runs out of gas on a deserted stretch of road. The family starts what becomes a thriving fishing business, outsmarts the mob, and befuddles bureaucrats, emerging triumphant at the film’s end. The short story on which it was based, Pioneer Go Home!, sets the stage in New Jersey rather than Florida.
In tribute to the film – and Elvis – the town renamed State Road 40 “Follow That Dream Parkway.” The sign still hangs between the traffic lights as the tour crosses the “Parkway.”