|LOOK AT ME!!!!|
Sigh! I'm a bit melancholy today. Oh! Life is great and this trek is still a magnificent statement about my personal freedom. My melancholy is because, while I generally accept and deal with change very well, there are just those few things that one wants to hold onto.
Let me elaborate a little. I've spent the last few days in the Ocala, Florida area. Nearby are The Villages (about 20 miles south), Silver Springs, the beautiful crystal clear spring fed lake where they have the glass bottom boats and Ocala National Forest. Each of these has some significance to me.
The Villages is the latest thing that has some significance for me. The first time I visited The Villages was in 2005, I believe. I have two friends who moved from Winchester, Virginia, my home area for some 26 or 27 years to The Villages in 2004. My friend Carolyn and I toured The Villages in 2005 and were, like most people from the Baby Boomer and the Greatest Generation, pretty enthralled with what we saw and experienced. It literally is about as close to the perfect hometown as one could want. It has everything anyone might want. It is safe, quiet and clean. There is always something to do. There are all kinds of entertainment, live and movies 365 days a year. It's pretty much perfect. My thought was once one moved to The Villages one wouldn't leave very often, if ever, because everything one could want was there.
It had a population of about 75,000 in 2005. Move forward to 2014, nine years later. The population has now topped 100,000. There is still a substantial amount of room in the more than 550 square miles, by some estimates, including water. Approximately 30 square miles is developed into homes, retail, medical facilities, golf courses and a plethora of other recreational facilities. If, The Villages ever fills out most of the estimated 550 square miles, it will be one of the largest city areas in the United States, beating out New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco.
And there lies the rub for me. While it's nearly perfect with an A rated charter school system, a 200 plus (and doubling) hospital, plus a planned satellite hospital, a 99,000 sq. ft. VA full-service medical clinic, a ridiculously low crime rate and all the shopping and recreation one could want, it's becoming a BIG CITY! A big city means TOO MANY PEOPLE and too many people means TRAFFIC and CONGESTION. So, while, in 2005 I was enthralled and could even see myself living in this place, in 2014, it has bypassed me. It just isn't worth dealing with all the people, traffic and congestion to avail myself of the few amenities I would take advantage of. Alas, it has changed.
Ocala National Forest is one of the oldest national forests in the U.S. My first experience was 49 years ago at the age of 20. Actually, I could even say probably dating back to around 59 years ago, plus or minus a couple years, when my parents brought us kids to Silver Springs on the edge of Ocala National Forest. Some time in the not too distant past Silver Springs was taken over by the Florida State Park system and Ocala National Forest and it's tourist attractions was taken over about 20 years ago by a concessionaire. A lot has changed since my earliest experiences.
Silver Springs is no longer the busy, vibrant tourist attraction it was in the days of my youth. As I said, it was been taken over by the state when the private owners could no longer maintain it as a viable business. Such attractions as Disney World, Epcot Center, Sea World and Universal Studios, to mention a few drew all the tourist and vacation travelers to Orlando and with I-95, I-75 and I-4 making it infinitely easier to get to Orlando, Ocala and Silver Springs were bypassed.
Today, an $8.00 per car pass gets you into the parking lot and the only attractions that are available are a ride on the glass bottom boats on the crystal clear water of the spring fed lake and a restaurant. Everything else is "being renovated" whatever that means. Needless to say, I saved my $8.00 and moved on. Alas, things have changed.
I first visited Juniper Springs 49 years ago this upcoming summer. I was 20 years old and going into my junior year in college in New Jersey. The year before (at 19), I took the last vacation with my family when we all came to Daytona Beach and I met the lovely and cute Jane. Jane was a native born Floridian who grew up in Daytona Beach. She was still in high school when we met, going into her senior year, I believe. Jane and I corresponded (the old fashioned way, by written letters) for the next year. So, the next summer when I was 20, grabbed a couple buddies and off we went to Daytona Beach to meet up with Jane and a couple of her girlfriends. One of the places Jane took us all was Ocala National Forest and, as I remember, Juniper Springs and Alexander Springs. To us Jersey boys, these springs were remarkable.
Well, I visited Juniper Springs a few years ago. And things have changed. As I mentioned, about 20 years ago a concessionaire took over all the tourist attractions in Ocala National Forest including Juniper Springs. When I was there 49 years ago they were free for public use and they were pretty much still in their natural state. Today there is a fee for camping or day use. Albeit, not very much, with my Senior National Park pass, I only paid $2.50, but it wasn't free. There were defined parking areas, signage of all kinds, modern restrooms and change areas (bathing suits) a concession stand and, well, frankly, it didn't seem to resemble what I recalled from 49 years ago. Disappointment!
Yesterday I visited Alexander Springs. Sigh! Once again, it had a fee, defined parking, signage, canoe and kayak rentals, a fee to scuba dive, a day fee, a camping fee, modern restrooms and change areas (a nice improvement) and a concession stand. My recollection of the springs was, again, very different than what I found. I recall there being a hole in the center of the springs I was told went down around 100 feet with caves where scuba divers would go down to and explore the small caves. I was told it was only about 25 or so feet deep where the caves are. It was crystal clear (as was Juniper Springs), but 49 years ago I could see the divers way down at the bottom. Today, I couldn't see anything.
There was also a stream that led off the springs that was a form of wet nature trail and we walked that stream until we reached a sign with a skull and crossbones indicating this was as far as we should go because beyond that point we would encounter alligators and water snakes. And at one point we passed a place where two other streams fed into the main stream and the water from the two other streams were different colors and didn't blend into the water in the main stream bed. I'm guessing, scientifically, that some natural minerals caused the water colors and the density of the water was different than the main streambed, thus, they didn't blend. No stream was apparent any longer. I asked the concession attendant and he indicated there had been a stream off the springs, but it had pretty much dried up and was only apparent as some marshy spots. He said it hadn't been around as long as he had worked there. He was only 47, so he wasn't even born when I first visited the springs.
So, it goes back to what I keep telling people. The only thing that really is ours is our memories. Most things are fleeting and as the world (and this country) keeps growing in population at exponential rates, we're going to find more and more things changing, The Villages, Silver Springs, Alexander Springs and Juniper Springs are only a speck in the overall scheme of things. When I get back up north to my storage unit I'm going to find my "Chest of Life" where I still have pictures of my Juniper and Alexander Springs experience from 49 years ago and see how accurate my memory was as I revisited these places from my past.
Life is short! The older you get the less life there is to experience all the wonders of this world. And, as each passing year goes by, because of the population density, there are more and more restrictions and limitations on so many of the things that were once open and free to experience. I guess the key is to stop putting off life and DO IT NOW!