Once again taken from Coquina Online, found here.
A short trip down A1A, just 20 miles from downtown St. Augustine, sits a raw cross section of Florida beauty. The drive from St. Augustine is lonely and quiet. A slew of seemingly abandoned condo buildings along the 20-mile stretch of A1A glare at you with solemn eyes. As the road becomes narrower you can hear the ocean whisper to the Intracoastal Waterway. At Matanza’s Inlet, the two reunite in a frothing tussle where fisherman study the fish and surfers, the tide. Not much farther now. A string of houses sit valiantly upon stilts, smirking and open bellied to the ocean, as if to say, “You won’t tear me down.” A brown state park sign squints at you from the shoulder. One mile.
It almost sneaks up on you, raising a discreet hand, like a hitchhiker begging you to stop. So you take the right hand turn. Enter Washington Oaks Garden State Park and Florida accepts you into its womb. Ancient oak trees stand guard along the small road towards the gardens, the wind grooms their blue beards. Now you park your vehicle and the oaks watch you. You will leave behind your machine, but fear not, the forest will veil you with comfort. Into the gardens you descend.
You pass the welcome center. Here, you can decide to learn more about this place through reading history’s scripts. Or, you can simply explore for yourself. You look ahead and spot a small path boring through the foliage. Perhaps modestly, or maybe fearful, you follow it. It is Florida’s winter and an aroma of both decay and rebirth permeates the air. You hear singing, a soft voice. The Intracoastal grins at you through the forest canopy, drawing you in further. As you approach the seawall, you observe the view in front of you. The sun leers over the land; vigilant and warm like a shepherd to his flock. A painter has been here before you and you observe his work. An abstract piece of sorts, purples, oranges, reds, melting with the sun into the horizon. Small islands pepper the waterway and cast shadows resembling massive whales crawling beneath the surface. You continue on along the seawall and head towards a further sector of the gardens.
A set of wooden stairs lead back into the forest. As you ascend, the canopy recaptures you. Light no longer reigns but comfort remains. Continuing on a trail, you stumble upon a pond. Orange trees are plentiful and the scent of citrus tingles in your nose. Peering into the glassy pond, you spot a black carp. Like an old Soviet diesel submarine, it glides camouflaged along the bottom. Just then, two florescent orange carp appear and greet their darker counterpart. They play as if you aren’t there; you are just another organism in the forest.
As you walk along the pond, you spot a bridge leading to a clearing. You nab an orange off a tree, and head towards the bridge. Peeling the fruit, a citrus mist strikes your senses. The fruit is sour when you take it to your mouth. If you are one for sweets, you toss the orange to the ground hoping to cultivate another tree.
The bridge you cross is crafted finely, most likely of redwood descent. In front of you sits a courtyard laced with roses and colorful flowers. Several rock benches stand available for your tired legs. A fellow traveler emerges from the opposite side of the courtyard. You look at each other, but no words are spoken. The person simply observes his surroundings and walks right past you. If you choose, you can be alone in this forest. Walking through the courtyard, an artesian well bubbles and coughs next to you. Forever giving forth water, the wells provide much of the irrigation necessary for the lush vegetation. You see green and white mineral deposits laying around the well. If you look carefully at the deposit patterns, you might see the face of an old man or the tracks of a tiger. You might see anything, perhaps even yourself.
You continue past the courtyard and approach the end of the main trail. Just as you think you will reach the parking lot once more, a circle of oaks greets you with massive, open arms. All of them show great age with their gnarled and expansive limbs. But in the middle of them all sits the forest elder. A colossal monster of a tree. It peers at you from beneath furrowed brows. You approach the elder and are enveloped in its majesty. With keen ears, you might even hear a low hum as the wind howls and ever so slightly shifts the tree’s arms.
ou reach the parking lot and reunite with your vehicle. There is much more to see in the labyrinth at Washington Oaks but you must return to your life. Perhaps you will return at a later date, perhaps not. But as you drive away, you remember what Florida has shown you. Beauty.
By Gian Louis Thompson