story and photos by Dorothy K. Fletcher
[Florida Motorcycle Rides: A Cross Creek Adventure was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the November 2007 issue of Rider magazine]
“We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion. And while this can be found in other places, Cross Creek offers it with such beauty and grace that once entangled with it, no other place seems possible to us….”
— Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
As an English major and then an English teacher for 35 years, I have spent much of my life reading. Thankfully, my husband, Hardy, also an English major and educator, has seen to it that we do more than just read. He provides adventures to the places we’ve encountered in books. That’s what we were doing when we went on my favorite ride. Our Florida motorcycle ride to Cross Creek–the homestead of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling and Cross Creek–was our virgin voyage aboard Hardy’s new-to-him Kawasaki Drifter 800. This bike was not as comfortable as other bikes I have shared with my husband, but it made for an intimate ride through breathtaking scenery.
We set out from Jacksonville on a beautiful spring morning, rode through the lemony sunrays down State Road 13, and soon found ourselves on the William Bartram Nature Trail. This stretch of highway, named for the great 18th-century naturalist, is the very essence of backwoods Florida–great overhanging oaks covered in Spanish moss, cypress tree swampland and pristine green beauty. The air was cool and refreshing at this time of day, and the smell of pine and emerging wildflowers filled the space that we sped through.
It wasn’t long before we had reached the turn for the Shands Bridge leading to Green Cove Springs on SR 16. As we passed over the bridge, we could see a picture-perfect Chamber-of-Commerce moment–countless people holding fishing poles and lining the sides of the old bridge.
By now, the sun was beginning to warm us comfortably. Once we had passed through Green Cove Springs, we met with David, our St. Augustine friend, right outside of Palatka. He was joining us for our ride on his 2004 Honda Gold Wing. We stopped briefly to consult maps and have a cola. Then we headed south on Highway 17, which would carry us through spectacular horse country to SR 19. This brought us to Orange Springs on U.S. 310. Of course, it was along this stretch that we stopped to photograph boat fishermen in a marshy expanse of typical Florida postcard scenery. We rode through Reddick on SR 318 which led us to CR 301, and this took us to Island Grove. Here we branched off to CR 325 and Cross Creek.
We arrived in Cross Creek at lunchtime and stopped at The Yearling Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge, an unimposing building located on the banks of Cross Creek itself. Numerous bikes lined the front parking lot, so we knew we were among friends. We parked and entered the building only to be caught up in the essence of old Florida.
The restaurant, which opened in 1952, had a long hiatus from 1992 until 2002. According to Robert Blauer, the present owner, he had planned to reopen with recipes from Rawlings’ famous cookbook Cross Creek Cookery, but most of her cooking was too rich for the type of country theme that Blauer was promoting. Thankfully, Chef J.R. Jenkins, the original cook, arrived on opening day. For three years in a row The Yearling has been listed by Florida Trend Magazine as one of the best Florida restaurants.
We were refreshed as we made our way out into the beautiful day and back down CR 325 to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, less than a mile away. Along with being a powerful writer, Rawlings was a powerful, hard-living woman. She may not have ridden motorcycles, but she hunted, fished, crabbed, drank and rode horses. She never allowed her gender to prevent her from doing whatever she wanted.
Buying her Cross Creek home was her attempt at becoming an orange grower. The property had 40 acres of orange trees. The original trees were destroyed by cold weather in 1957, but several new orange trees provide shade for the property. Rawlings willed this land to the University of Florida, and the university used it as a writers’ retreat until the property fell into disrepair. It then passed to the State Park Service. Since then, the house has been restored to its former glory, which is still modest–a true cracker home. The white, wooden shotgun house may have electricity and indoor plumbing, luxuries for the 1930’s Florida lifestyle, but even now it has no air conditioning. I was glad we were there midspring and not mid-August.
We took the $3 tour with a ranger who was dressed in typical attire of the 1930s. She told us stories about the life of this remarkable writer; how Gregory Peck–who came to star in The Yearling, a movie based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel–had slept on the floor in the guest bedroom because the bed was too small. Or how Rawlings drank and played cards all night with Ernest Hemingway when they met in Crescent Beach. Throughout our tour, I felt transported to a totally different reality. This was especially true when I looked at Rawlings’ typewriter still set up on the porch where she always wrote. What a wonderful place to create literature!
Since Hardy, David and I could see thunderheads banking to the north, we didn’t dally long after the tour. We quickly set out north on U.S. 301, hoping that the dark clouds would miss us. They did, with the winds being favorable and with us going in a different direction. We made it successfully through the speed trap of Waldo to Starke, where we reconnected with SR 16. This took us back to Green Cove Springs, then the Shands Bridge and finally SR13. This time we got to enjoy the William Bartram Nature Trail in reverse–with the sun coming though the magnificent emerald tree canopy from the west.
As Hardy and I sped toward home, I was grateful to have a treasured memory of our trip to Cross Creek, Florida. Rawlings was so right–”once entangled” in its beauty and grace, “no other place seems possible.”
For more information: www.floridasecrets.com/Restaurants/ENW/Yearling.htm and www.floridastateparks.org/marjoriekinnanrawlings