When I left Wisconsin in February of 2017 I was still debating on which town would be number seven of the This is America Too project. I had recently chosen Florida instead of Tennessee because the weather was still too cold for me that far north. After spending the first half of the winter in the frozen Midwest, I needed warmth and knew Florida could provide it. When I crossed the state-line near Jacksonville I had a few towns in mind with the strongest possibility being Boca Grande located on a small island near Fort Myers and Sarasota. As I made my way down the Atlantic and onto the Keys over several days, I started to question myself. By the time I was through the Everglades and to the region, I had decided to go with my second choice, Crystal River. Before heading there I spent a week at my Uncle Dan’s house in Nokomis, just an hour north of Boca Grande. The two of us visited the town and the trip assured that I made the right choice. It wasn’t the Florida I was in search of; it seemed a bit too uptight, too ritzy. When I finally said my goodbyes to my uncle and started north to Crystal River, I was convinced I had found my spot. Once again I was going to change my mind.
The morning I left for Crystal River everything was set to begin my next visit. I had a meeting arranged with the region’s historical society in the nearby town of Inverness and I found a campground near Crystal River which I called and was told had plenty of room. The day was perfect for a drive and the trip from Nokomis was beautiful. Like most of my drives I went out of my way and nearly doubled it. However, when I finally entered Crystal River I got a sense it too would not work. It seemed more like a suburb than a small town, and the presence of chain-stores like Home Depot made me feel its claim of 3,100 people was grossly under estimated. I didn’t want to be too quick to dismiss it though, especially since I had just traveled through most of the state and didn’t have many options left. I decided to go to the campground, pay for a night, and make a more informed decision after I spent a day there.
When I arrived they told me I had to pay for an RV site even though I was tent camping. The cost was seventy-six dollars a night plus tax; I chuckled and left. Nothing seemed to be going right in Crystal River, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I headed into the downtown and to the visitor center to see if there was a place nearby to set up a tent for the night. The area was quaint and the ladies at the center were helpful. They explained the closest campground was fifteen miles south and gave me directions. I headed to the site still determined to give the place a shot but by the time I set up my tent I knew I would be heading out of town in the morning. Plan C was a tiny island an hour northwest called Cedar Key but I was hesitant because it was only seven hundred people and I feared it would be too small. With no options left, I prepared my following day’s visit the best I could.
Leaving Crystal River the next morning I hoped Cedar Key would be what I was looking for. The previous evening I called a campground five miles from the town and found they had tent sites for twenty dollars a night, already a better start than the day before. As soon as I was outside of the Crystal River area it became much more rural. The last twenty miles from highway 19/98 was nothing but forest. Everything was looking good and when I finally passed over the bridges onto the islands, the quaint, historic downtown put a smile on my face. It was the Florida I wanted to learn more about and I knew it was where I would spend the next five days.
On my way into town I passed an RV campground and thought it couldn’t hurt to see if they had tent sites. The woman working the front desk was kind and explained they only had RV sites. She mentioned that if I headed out fifteen minutes into the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, there was a campground on the water called Shell Mound that was secluded, well maintained, and had sites for a reasonable rate. I got directions and thanked her. The drive wasn’t long and when I arrived there were plenty of spots available. For a site with no water or electricity it was five dollars which included clean bathrooms and hot showers. I set up a stone’s throw from the water and was amazed that there were still grounds like this in the U.S. where one could stay so cheap. With my new home secured I headed back to town to explore and get food.
On the southern edge of Cedar Key is Dock Street, which one might consider the entertainment district. It’s a small tourist trap comprised of souvenir shops and a few restaurants and bars that look out onto the gulf. I headed that way for my first meal and stopped in Steamers, the most established restaurant on the street. It is located upstairs from one of the swag shops and on entering there is a large horseshoe bar that sits in the middle with a few tables on the far end. There is also outside seating along a narrow balcony that I gathered was not ideal for dining as I observed a couple chased inside by tenacious birds after their food. The bartender was very friendly and I ordered a Big Nose IPA from Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville. It’s a nice, drinkable, medium bodied brew that became my go-to IPA on the island. I also ordered a grilled chicken sandwich that was tasty, tender, and juicy. I struck up a conversation with the bartender and learned there were about 800 people in town, less when the snowbirds were not around. The school had just under 300 kids and rest of the population was mostly older folks. She grew up there and explained that while it might seem like paradise, for the younger generation is was quite boring. She also mentioned chain-establishments weren’t allowed to set up shop in town so Cedar Key could keep its old Florida feel.
When I finished eating I took some time to explore with my camera. Zigzagging through the streets nestled around downtown I discovered a mix of pristine homes, dilapidated huts, thriving businesses, and abandoned buildings, all in the setting of a charming fishing village. I wondered what the next days would bring, who I would meet, and what I would discover about the small town whose streets I was traversing with no real understanding of its history. When I grew tired I grabbed some beer and headed back to the campground. I made it before sunset and ended the night with a stroll through the preserve which the grounds were located on. I fell asleep to the sounds of nature around me, excited and nervous about the following days.
When I woke up the next morning I could tell it was going to rain and my site was unprotected from the elements. After coffee the first order of the day was to move my tent to a more protected spot. I was also running out of butane for my stove and needed other supplies so I decided to take advantage of the weather and do some shopping. In town I couldn’t find the canisters for my stove and was told I should to go to Chiefland, the nearest “big” town with a population of just over 2,000 about forty miles away. The drive along the winding back roads was enjoyable, filled with small farms and cattle ranches, trees and cows. In town I first stopped at a Walmart where a disgruntled employee provided as little help as possible. Unsuccessful, I tried a Sears and was told to check a local shop called The Deer Camp. They also didn’t carry it but were extremely amiable and called around till they found what I needed. They sent me to an Ace hardware in Bronson which was another fifteen miles away but in the direction I was headed. Bronson is as small as Cedar Key and located on the cross roads of two highways. It’s the type of town you blink and miss but they had what I needed. With my mission accomplished I headed back understanding how isolated Cedar Key truly was.
Since I hadn’t planned on visiting Cedar Key for the project, I didn’t get a chance to write anyone for help in finding possible interviews. With no time to waste I headed to the Cedar Key Historical Museum hoping they might have some advice. Even after my morning errands, I was still too early and it wasn’t yet opened. There is another museum in town which is also a state park so I made my way to it instead. I wasn’t as hopeful about finding help there because it was a state park and they are usually manned by rangers from out of town. As I suspected, when I talked to the woman working and explained the project she told me she was just a volunteer who wasn’t from the area but that I might want to check the other museum, or visitor center. I thanked her, paid the two dollar entrance fee, and spent a bit of time exploring. It is a small but informative museum with nice grounds and the preserved home of St. Clair Whitman, an important resident from the early 20th century. I spent just under an hour there and as I was leaving the rain really picked up.
By the time I made it back to downtown there was a steady downpour, perfect for being indoors exploring Cedar Key’s past. Inside the museum I introduced myself to the volunteer Pam and explained the project. She was incredibly kind and more than happy to help me. She explained that she wasn’t a good candidate for an interview but that if returned the next day Dr. John Andrews would be volunteering. His father owned Standard Manufacturing Co., a fiber brush factory that was one of the town’s most important industries in the early 20th century, and his childhood house was now a part of the museum. While we were talking a gentleman came in to escape the rain and I could tell he was a local photographer based on the camera he was wielding and his conversation with Pam. I learned his name was Frank Morgan and he had been living in town for half-a-decade. As I guessed he was a talented photographer whose work focuses on birds, won him local awards, and could be found for sale in the museum. Pam told Frank what I was doing and he was very interested. He told me he might know a person or two who would be good to interview so we exchanged numbers. I thanked him before he departed to brave the rain again. In just fifteen minutes I had two solid leads which was so much more than I expected stepping in there. I chatted a bit more with Pam and then started to explore.
It’s a well-curated museum packed with artifacts and in depth explanations of the town’s beginnings. I took my time reading everything I could, even going through the newspaper archives they had displayed. Nothing makes me want to really dig into a museum more than pouring rain outside and well maintained info inside. Just as I had gotten to the second part of it, the childhood home of Dr. Andrews, Pam entered with the doctor and told me she had caught him passing by. I was a little thrown off as he questioned what I was doing, where I earned my degree, and what I wanted from him. I explained the project the best I could and he agreed to sit down with me but said it would have to be that afternoon since after volunteering shift the next day he was leaving town. I was delighted but explained I needed some lunch first so we planned to meet back at the museum in forty-five minutes. Before I left Pam sent me off with some books and other literature on Cedar Key that she bought for me, including a book written by Dr. Andrews himself. I was shocked at her kindness and thought to myself that all I had heard about southern hospitality was legitimate.
I didn’t have much time to waste so I went to Tony’s directly across from the museum. Though they are famous for their clam chowder, I opted for a fried shrimp sandwich. The vibe was laid back, the waitress was friendly, and the sandwich was simple but tasty. I was a little caught off guard and hadn’t expected to be interviewing someone so soon. I ate fast and downed a beer to calm my nerves. I paid and returned to my van to get my stuff for the interview, hoping my recorder was properly charged and that I wouldn’t forget anything.
Back at the museum I was greeted by Dr. Andrews. Pam was leaving for the day and I thanked her again for her kindness. I followed the doctor to the back house and we went upstairs to talk. I wondered if it was weird for him to have his childhood home as a part of the town’s main museum, or to see it filled with random artifacts. I didn’t ask. We sat down at a table in a large room that I learned was once the upstairs dining room. The interview went well. He was very willing to talk and I could tell he enjoyed sharing the stories of his youth and his father’s influence on the town. He explained how Standard Manufacturing Co. provided jobs for nearly a hundred residents which is impressive in a town of less than 1,000. He left Cedar Key in his teens and his father’s business closed while he was away. Although he hadn’t spent his whole life in town, he knew its history and made for a valuable source of information. When we finished I asked him about the house and he showed me where his bedroom used to be. He also showed me a spot on the floor where his father set up a barber’s chair and would practice dentistry, his first occupation, on off days. Eventually I made my way out and thanked him for taking the time to talk with me. I left feeling excited that after just twenty-four hours in Cedar Key I already had one successful interview finished.
By the time I left the rain had ended and it was the last of it I saw on my visit there. Back at the van I called Frank as he had mentioned I should do. He was going to check with his neighbor Burton about sitting down with me and when I called he told me Burton was out for the evening. He would try him later but asked if I wanted to come by for dinner. They had friends over and his wife suggested they invite me. I was surprised but gladly accepted. In minutes I arrived and was greeted on the porch by Frank. Inside I met his wife Ann and their friends Mike and Connie who already had a margarita started for me. It didn’t take long to feel at home.
The group was interested in my project and I told them about it, but I was more interested in their stories. I learned Mike and Connie were originally from Alabama, had been in Cedar Key for a few years, and ran a company called Tidewater Tours doing ecological/historical boat tours of the area. Frank was a retired pilot who once flew for the rich and famous and moved to Cedar Key after discovering it on one of his flights. He shared great stories about his previous work. A favorite was about how once he was picking up Dave Matthews but the musician didn’t have his ID. Frank hadn’t heard of him and although Matthews was understanding and polite, he couldn’t let him on. He was on the phone with his employer who insisted he needed positive identification when he noticed a hotel worker gushing over Matthews. He asked if she knew who he was and she said of course, it’s Dave Matthews. It was positive enough identification for Frank.
For dinner Ann prepared amazing ribs with coleslaw and potato salad. I was still full from lunch but it was so good that I had a big helping. I felt again that I was seeing a bit of southern friendliness which until then I hadn’t noticed in Florida. And if the dinner wasn’t enough to teach me about southern hospitality, Connie and Mike invited me to join one of their tours for free insisting I call in a couple of days to set it up. Even as I write this, now having spent more time in the South, I feel Cedar Key was my first true introduction to that aspect of the southern culture I had always heard so much about. After a lovely evening I thanked Frank and Ann and told Mike and Connie I would be in touch. I drove back to the campground after a very full day and took another stroll through the preserve to calm my mind before going to bed early.
As I was waking up the next day with my coffee, a new neighbor moved in next to me. I learned his name was CJ and sat down with him after he got his camper set up. He was from Bowling Green Kentucky but now lived roughly thirty miles away. He told me about his experience in the area and how Levy County was one of the poorest in Florida. He also shared his story about how he just up and left his job when he was forty-seven. He eluded to having left Kentucky because he was avoiding paying alimony to an ex-wife he didn’t believe deserved it. Now he lived meagerly but was happy. I found his story intriguing but not totally shocking. I could see how someone trying to escape an unhappy past, or the law, might end up in that part of Florida. Like my drive around the region the day before, his story reinforced how secluded Cedar Key was. We only talked for a bit and then I proceeded to finish my morning prep before going into town.
I wanted to get some work done so I stopped at a coffee shop called The Daily Grind. It is a cozy little café that I learned was new in Cedar Key. One of the owners told me they had dealt with a few setbacks including having too many customers. When things were finally normalizing hurricane Hermine hit the town pretty hard, but only half-a-year later and once again they were up and functioning. I ordered a coffee and a breakfast sandwich and sat down to do some writing and editing. I spent over an hour there and just as I was getting ready to leave I struck up a conversation with an older couple next to me. They told me they moved to the states from Europe in the 1960s and lived in California, Colorado, Hawaii, and now Florida. We had a good chat and before they departed they warned me never to have children to which I told them not to worry.
After breakfast I thought it would be nice to take advantage of the literature Pam had given me the day before. I started a walking tour that included a map and description of the older buildings in town. Twenty minutes into the walk I noticed Frank had left a message letting me know he talked to Burton who was willing to sit down with me sometime that day. I left him a voicemail and text telling him I could make it at any time and continued my tour. As I reached the edge of downtown, I found myself outside of what my book explained was once a small market. It looked like it was now an antique shop and although it is not normally my thing, the Yuengling beer sidewalk sign peeked my curiosity and I stepped in. To my surprise, in the back of the shop there was a small bar where the bartender was chatting with the only patron. Intrigued, I decided it was time for a beer. I needed to know more about this hidden little gem.
I sat, ordered a bottle of the Big Nose IPA, and started chatting with the bartender and the other local. I learned Pat and his wife Cindy were from Michigan and had done a similar type of trip across the U.S. in their RV. They shared their four year exploration of the U.S. on a blog they called Every Miles a Memory. Early in the trip they discovered Cedar Key, fell in love, and returned by serendipity when just as they were on their final dollars they received an offer to manage a hotel in town. They eventually bought the place and transformed it into a very popular boutique hotel/tiki-bar. After selling the hotel, they started their present endeavor called Bonish Studios which combines a photo gallery of their amazing work, an antique shop that Cindy cares for, and a full-bar that Pat runs. It became my regular hangout while in town and I found it to be very popular among the locals. I also had a great conversation with Steve the other patron who was from a reservation in New Mexico originally, but lived much of his life in South Chicago. He also spent time in the D.C. area where he edited for the Washington Post before moving to the region. Now he just spends his days writing poetry from the comfort of his front porch.
I told them about my project and Pat suggested he had the perfect person to interview, a man named Mike Davis who had a long family history of fishing in the area and currently owned one of the biggest clam farms in the region. Even better, Mike’s son Heath was the mayor and Mike also once dabbled in Cedar Key politics. Pat told me that if I returned that evening he would be there and likely Heath too. I assured him I would return. I was really enjoying myself and could have stayed for a few more beers but I received a text from Frank telling me I could come over to interview Burton. I was excited to sit down for another interview and made my way to Frank’s.
When I arrived he greeted me and brought me over to his neighbor’s house to introduce us. Burton was sitting out on the porch, we said our hellos and Frank left us to talk. Burton invited me in and we sat down at his kitchen table. He was ninety-three and had moved to town when he was two. His father owned one of five stores in town and after he got out of the service Burton took it over and ran it until the early 80s. The store was still a part of Cedar Key and the story he shared about growing up in town was fascinating. It seemed to me the most memorable parts of his life in Cedar Key were the different hurricanes that had hit the region and I began to understand how influential they were on the town’s past. We talked for nearly an hour and I thanked him for giving me his time. I left excited to have another interview under my belt and walked back by Frank’s where I found him outside chatting with another neighbor. I introduced myself and learned her husband was a pilot like Frank and also just happened to discover Cedar Key on a run and fell in love. I told them about the interview and before leaving I told Frank I would be headed to Pat’s place later that evening and he said he may join.
I went back to Steamers for lunch, sat at nearly the same bar stool, and had basically the same meal except I opted for the fried chicken breast; the grilled was better. After finishing I wandered for a small time, enjoying the beautiful weather and water that sprawled out in front of me. It was hard to get over the beauty of the islands and the nature that surrounded me. I understood why someone like Frank would be attracted to Cedar Key but I questioned what it was like in the dead of summer. I wondered how unbearable the heat must get or aggressive the bugs were. It was getting late and I figured it would be best to head to Pat’s bar so I could find a seat before the evening crowd poured in. I had a mission to meet Mike and if it took hanging and drinking beer while I waited I was up to the task.
When I entered the bar I was greeted by Pat and I told him about my meeting with Burton. I ordered a Yuengling since I wasn’t sure how long I would be there and knew that the IPAs were a bit strong. I took in the scene, already feeling like it was my neighborhood pub. I observed Pat behind the bar, a master at his job, chatting away, keeping the drinks flowing, and as naturally as if it were his home and his closest friends. I talked with a couple from Michigan who visited Cedar Key every winter for a couple of months and a younger couple who were on vacation from central Florida. After an hour or so Mike came in as Pat had expected.
Not long after Mike’s arrival, Pat went over to him and made a point to introduce us. We hit if off right away and proceeded to talk for over an hour. As I sat sipping on my beer and Mike his bourbon on the rocks, both of which seemed to never be empty thanks to Pat, we talked about everything from burial mounds to fishing and airboats. He was especially passionate about the destruction of the commercial fishing industry at the hands of the sport-fishing community. He went into detail about how he and other commercial fishermen organized and put up a valiant fight, which at times was almost pushed to violence, only to lose in the mid-90s when a net-ban was enacted by the state. He explained what the ban meant to the industry and livelihood of many around Cedar Key, how older fishermen with nothing else to turn to were left to waste away. Mike felt fortunate he was able to turn to clam farming which was very lucrative. He ran a company called Cedar Key Seafarms and between himself, wife, and son, they were one of the main suppliers for the ubiquitous grocery-store chain Publix found in the Southeast. His son Heath, mayor of Cedar Key, also showed up and I got a chance to briefly meet him too. As hard as it was to peal myself away, I finally said my goodbyes. I left feeling like Mike and I were old friends and with an invitation to join the crew in a couple of days to see how the clam farming operation worked. He also suggested going on an airboat ride while I was in town, which I said I was dying to do. I drove to the campground content with the day and headed to bed shortly after arriving.
When I woke the next morning I had time to focus on writing and sat down with coffee to work. I checked my phone at one point and saw a missed call from Mike. I returned it, surprised to have service so far from everything. He told me he was out on his airboat and offered to pick me up at the campground’s dock if I wanted join him. Delighted, I told him to give me ten minutes; I put my stuff away quickly and was there in five.
Mike was already waiting and I hopped off the dock and climbed up into the seat. We made some small talk and he told me about the boat and its engine size then he gave me ear mufflers and suggested I hold on. He took me all over the area and the thrill of being on the boat, the speed, the way it turned and glided over water and land, was unlike anything I had experienced. Even as the motor roared and the wind whipped past me, I felt a sense of peace that made me understand why people loved these machines. There was also an element of danger that I recognized and I imagined what could go wrong if the operator was not experienced. As we glided along Mike slowed at points to tell me about the different islands, even stopping on one to show me indigenous pottery that had been uncovered by wind and storms. We eventually returned to the dock and made plans to meet the next morning so I could see the clam farming operation. I thanked him for the experience and returned to my campsite still reeling over the ride. Back at the site I called Connie to see if her tour group was going out that day. She explained there was a wind advisory so they couldn’t take the chance. Unfortunately I never got to go on one of the eco-tours with them.
By late morning I was ready to head into town. The day before I told Steve from Pat’s place that I would meet back there around one that afternoon. I jumped in the van and noticed Bessie’s check engine light was on so naturally I started to freak out. She was running fine but I knew the light didn’t come on for no reason. It was a Saturday and there was nothing I could do so I headed to lunch and figured I could ask Pat and Steve where to get the van checked out. I went to Big Deck for lunch, another spot on Dock Street. I got a pulled pork sandwich that did the job and then headed over to Pat’s to see if Steve showed up. I greeted Pat and sat down for a beer, telling him about my experience with Mike that morning and also about the van. Without hesitation he said that I needed to visit Andy at the only auto shop in town but that he wouldn’t be there until Monday morning. I sat for a couple of beers but eventually decided Steve wasn’t coming and set out to explore.
I had seen that there was an exhibit on the history of railroads and riverboats in Cedar Key and wanted to make it my first stop. It was about five miles outside of town and though I was concerned about the van, I made the drive. The exhibit wasn’t extensive: some blown up photos that had captions explaining their significance, a large model train track set up in the middle of the room, and a bit of history on the importance of trains and riverboats in the region. It didn’t take long to see everything and when I finished I headed back, stopping first at the fishing bridge on the edge of town and then for a hike along the old railroad that has been turned into an interactive trial. Afterwards I headed to the cemetery and took another stroll around the park located there. It consists of a boardwalk along the water, an exercise area, and a frisbee-golf course. With that park exhausted, I finished my exploration by driving around the west part of town where some of the larger, newer, and more private homes were located. I also stopped at the airport, amazed a town of 800 would have one, before returning to downtown.
One of the locations I wanted to visit was the Island Hotel which boasted the title of oldest establishment in town. I had tried to go earlier in the visit but the bar is small and there was not a seat to be found. When I got back downtown I gave it another shot and was able to secure a place. The bartender was a little cranky but the location was beautiful with a great old bar, lovely restaurant, and hotel attached. I was especially interested in the mural of Neptune with topless mermaids that sat behind the bar. Mike mentioned that morning it was painted by a spinster who had become quite infamous in Cedar Key during the mid-20th century. I sipped a beer taking in the ambiance when the gentleman next to me started up a conversation. His name was Tim and he and his wife were visiting from upstate New York. We talked about my project and why I was in town and his family and life in New York. Before leaving I told him about Pat’s place and he said he would try and stop by.
I made my way to Pat’s again and pulled up a seat at what was now like a second home. I wasn’t there long before Tim showed up with his wife. I talked with the two of them for a while as other folks came and went. That night I also met Karen, a snowbird who spent the winters in Cedar Key with her husband to escape the Maine cold and snow. She gave me her info and told me I had to visit them when I was in the region. The long day had worn me out and after a few beers I made my way back to the campground where I crawled into my tent for sleep knowing I would be up early for work.
The next morning I headed down to the docks in town to meet Mike at the hour he told me. On the way in I thought I had time so I stopped to grab a coffee but just as I was arriving to our meeting place the two boats were taking off. Fortunately Mike saw me and came back to get me mentioning later I was close to being left behind. Once aboard I sat and watched as we headed out not too far from the shore to Mike’s leases (the area of water leased from the state of Florida where a farmer can grow clams). As we collected bags of clams, Mike explained the process of how the baby clams were raised in seed plants until they reach the size of four millimeters, then bagged and placed in the ocean, and eventually collected when they are the desired size. Often some clams in a bag aren’t large enough and need to be replanted. Our rig was picking up replanted clam bags and he showed me how you could see the growth on the shells like rings on a tree. The other boat was picking up bags that were started as seedlings over a year earlier and there was a marked difference in the condition of the bags. We hauled in a number of sacks, and based on what Mike told me each was worth I figured it was over two thousand dollars in clams, with the other boat perhaps doubling that.
That morning the crew was collecting clams for an order Publix had in for the following day. When they got what was needed we headed to the shop just outside of town where the clams were cleaned and separated. I learned about the machines they used and how the haul was divided into three sizes before being bagged. I watched for a bit as they went through the routine and realized I hadn’t eaten or paid for my campsite that day. I told Mike I had to leave for a second and quickly went to the campground to pay before grabbing a bite to eat and returning to the shop.
When I got back Mike and I stepped into his office for our interview. I learned a lot about the town and his family. At one point his wife Beth showed up and I got a chance to chat with her as well. When we finished I thanked him for everything he had done and the time he had taken to speak with me and show me his operation. I left feeling grateful that I was able to meet Mike and get a peek into what Cedar Key Seafarms did. Learning about the clam farming operation that is so important to Cedar Key’s livelihood really gave me another view of the town that I feel few people were fortunate enough to experience. It reinforced why I was traveling the country for my project and gave me a sense of excitement for what adventures lay ahead in the towns that would follow. I wondered how many more Mikes I would meet.
After leaving I decided I needed some alone time in nature. Over the previous days I had passed a trail head leading into the Cedar Key Scrub State Preserve and had meant to stop and explore. Now I had the time and took advantage to go on an hour hike. I had fallen in love with the towering pines and plethora of birds around the region and my walk gave me a chance to take both in. The reserve is expansive and it was easy for me to get lost in the nature and peaceful surroundings. Since it was still winter there were no bugs and I didn’t pass another person on my entire hike. When I was content I headed to the van and found that the small snack I had earlier wasn’t enough so I drove back to town for lunch.
I wanted to try something new and stopped into yet another place on Dock Street called Away From the World Burger and Beer. I sat at the bar ordering a beer and their signature burger, the Gravedigger. It was a good size, handmade patty cooked perfectly with lettuce, tomato, and grilled onions. While I ate I sent a text to Frank mentioning I wanted to come and say goodbye. He wrote back and told me he was heading to the Shell Mound campground to meet some friends and invited me to join. I let him know I would come that way after I finished my lunch. Before making the trek back to the campground I stopped into Pat’s place quickly because we had talked about me interviewing him and I wanted to check if he was still up for it. He told me to come back around six since Sundays are usually slow and he would likely close up early. We secured our plans and I headed to the campground.
When I arrived I parked at my site and walked to the other side where Frank and Ann’s friends Ivana and Ted were staying. They had four other people there as well including another couple that was staying on the grounds and had been traveling for several years in their RV, and two older women who lived in Cedar Key. They were all eating and I declined food but took them up on the beer they offered. Everyone was interested in my project, so I did my best to explain it. I got a chance to learn everyone’s story as well and found it was a great bunch. I stayed for a while before I had to head back into town to meet with Pat. When it came time to leave Ivana offered a plate of food to take with me which I gladly accepted. I said my goodbyes and returned to town.
When I got to Pat’s I could tell right away it was a busier Sunday night than usual. I grabbed a seat and decided I would have a few beers and wait to see if it died down. After about thirty minutes Steve came in. I was glad I would get another chance to talk with him and we chatted for a while. The place continued to fill up and never emptied as I was hoping. At one point Mike’s son Heath came in with his wife Joelle. We had met a couple nights before but didn’t get a chance to talk much. He sat down near me and I told him about my morning on the boat and the meeting with his father. That started a great conversation and I found both he and his wife to be fascinating, down to earth people. Our conversation roamed from how they met, to the history of the cattle industry in Florida, a topic Joelle was very familiar with, that and I found extremely interesting. As the night wore on the bar started to clear and eventually it was just Steve and I there. I got the sense it was probably not a good night for an interview so I told Pat I would be in touch in the morning after I brought Bessie to the mechanic. Back at the campground I scarfed down the plate of food Ivana made me earlier and called it a night. As I laid trying to sleep I found myself concerned with the following morning’s visit to the mechanic.
In the A.M. I headed straight to the Napa which is the local’s name for the shop. I was early so I grabbed a coffee and waited for Andy to show up. He was running late and as I sat there others started to show up, I knew Andy would have a busy Monday morning. Finally he pulled up and fortunate for me right next to the van. As he got out of his car he asked me what I was there for and as both Mike and Pat recommended I threw out their names and explained my situation. He returned within ten minutes and ran a code scan. He told me it had something to do with emissions but the problem wouldn’t affect the van’s performance. He didn’t charge me and I thanked him for his help, very relived it was nothing serious.
Knowing I was good to move on I returned to the campground and packed my tent. When I was ready to go I messaged Pat to see if he was free to sit down with me. I got a quick reply and we agreed to meet back at the studio. When I arrived Pat and Cindy hadn’t gotten there. I talked with Karen, my new friend from Maine, who was helping run the store on the one day Cindy took off. The two arrived not long after and Pat and I sat down for a little over thirty minutes. I got a chance to hear more details about their story and the incredible journey the two of them had been on across the U.S. over four years. When we finished I said my goodbyes to him, Cindy, and Karen. I told Pat I had a feeling we would be crossing paths again and reminded Karen that I would be taking her up on the offer to visit her and her husband in Maine.
I jumped in the van and headed out of town, crossing over those familiar bridges for my final time of the visit. Although I had found something special in every town I visited for the project to that point, Cedar Key was the first that I left thinking I could return for a part of my life, maybe a place to retire to. I understood how Pat and Cindy fell in love and wanted to return or how Frank landed in the tiny airport for work one day and decided to move there. In my short visit I made a home, found a local watering hole, and made friends. I left with a heavy heart knowing I would miss it but feeling so lucky I got to know the tiny town of Cedar Key in a way few ever would. I headed north and then west with a plan to make Alabama the next destination of the project and ready to see more of the south.