Cross Creek is a bend in a country road, by land, and the flowing of Lochloosa Lake into Orange Lake, by water.
Thus author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings introduces readers to a backcountry dot on the Florida map where she spent the most productive years of her literary life. With only a scattering of ramshackle homesteads, and miles from the nearest small town, Cross Creek seems an anomalous spot for an urbane newspaper woman from the north to put down roots and write place-centered classics – most notably her Pulitzer Prize-winner, “The Yearling.” But, as Rawlings puts it in her nonfiction narrative about this small central Florida community, “There is ... an affinity between people and places.” When she came to the creek, she recounts, “I ... knew the old grove and farmhouse at once as home.”
Charlie and I became steeped in the slow and subtle seasonal rhythms of orange and palmetto groves, swamps and hammock, and of the little meandering waterway that joins two broad hyacinth-filled lakes as we read and reread most of Rawlings’ novels over the years (in my case since childhood). Last spring, as we began planning our annual sojourn via Amtrak to points distant from our Indiana farm, the real and literary thread of Cross Creek beckoned with sudden insistence.
And so we booked a route that brought us to the small historic station at Palatka, Fla., as close as we could approach by rail. From there we proceeded down a series of two-lane state roads on rented bicycles to Route 325, the narrow ribbon of sandy tarmac angling between the lakes to the historic Rawlings farm, which is maintained now as a state park. Two-wheeled transport was key to our plan. Not only are we biking enthusiasts, we shrank from the thought of driving a car up those final four miles, terrain Rawlings had come to know intimately and largely by foot. In “Cross Creek” she rejected the word lonely to describe the little-traveled road, explaining, “Because I have walked it so many times ... it seems to me one of the most populous highways of my acquaintance.... Every pine tree, every gallberry bush, every passion vine, every joree rustling in the underbrush is vibrant.”
After a full day of cycling under a surprisingly hot October sun, we had but a two-mile leg north on SR 301 – a divided highway aroar with big rigs – to reach 325. It might have been an entry to the end of the world, so sudden was the hush and deep balm of shade. It was easy to imagine that little had changed since Rawlings had last strolled along the verge, passing one neighbor walking in rubber boots with a wet sack of fish over his shoulder, another with a mule and wagon.
It was almost dark as we glided by the Rawlings farmhouse and orange groves, crossed the tiny bridge over the creek, and turned onto a broad sandy lane to a fish camp where Cross Creek originates. We’d heard about the rental cabins there just that afternoon at a small country store and gas station as Charlie repaired his rear tire – punctured by one of the ubiquitous sandspur thorns Rawlings dubbed “barbed instruments of torture.” The station owner, aware of the scant opportunities for overnighting in the deeply rural area, made it his mission to direct us to shelter for the night. As we pedaled from his welcoming door in the late afternoon, tire patched, he was dubious we’d make Cross Creek and camp – another 18 miles – by dark. With that goal just a few quiet bends away, the final four miles in the gathering dusk and timeless aura of SR 325 were all the sweeter.
A bonus of the camp was use of a canoe the next day to glide back downstream along the creek to the little bridge, a mile-long idyll amid egrets, cormorants, and butterflies. The creek’s quiet shores were draped in mist and Spanish moss and only occasionally punctuated by jutting piers of present-day residents. I felt closer to Rawlings paddling along the verdant waterway that she so richly peopled with characters real and fictional, than during the actual tour of her home. Evocative as it was to see that typewriter on the porch, a sheaf of paper half filled as if she’d just taken a break, and countless other beautifully preserved artifacts and memorabilia of her life, the natural world that surrounds her home, yard, and orange groves in ever-expanding circles was her true muse.
It was not an easy place to pedal away from in the quiet of a very early morning two days later. Inadvertently, Charlie left a cotton handkerchief he’d mopped his sweaty brow with on the clothesline outside the author’s farmhouse, a ragged and somehow apropos farewell to the unpretentious and comfortably inviting aura of Cross Creek. As if anticipating this bit of laundry Rawlings wrote, “I think that the shabbiness of the Creek is a part of its endearing quality.”
In the final chapter of “Cross Creek,” Rawlings addresses the question of who owns such a place, and her answer helps explain our own compulsion to know it, however fleetingly: “Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.”
We didn’t have enough time there this first visit, but what we saw of Cross Creek suggested it will be waiting, much as we found it, when we return.