This lyric from America the Beautiful came to mind today as I walked through the woods. The song was on my mind because a presidential candidate started quoting it recently in order to stir the Passions of the Patriotic Bosom. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a political screed.)
My route traversed a marshy area along Florida’s Shingle Creek, where Palmetto and wiregrass grow among wild grapevines, black gum and bald cypress. Today, the dark water creeps slowly under Kissimmee’s busy Vine Street–part of a network of wide asphalt boulevards that all seem to lead to Disneyworld. Few drivers ever see the creek, and the closest many tourists get is gazing at it from the bridge while walking to the Shingle Creek bus stop.
But not so long ago this creek was itself a thoroughfare on which commerce moved. A chain of rivers, lakes, and creeks allowed a person to travel from Orlando to Miami on water alone. Seminole indians, settlers, traders, hunters, tourists, farmers—all traveled Florida by water long before asphalt was invented. Although many paths and trails were indeed “beat across the wilderness” by wild hogs and scrub cattle, hopeful families and warring armies, the waterways were always there—at least until the great drainage projects of the late 19th century. But that’s another story.
The word “freedom” is politically charged these days with as much freight as the old steamers that used to ply Florida’s waterways once carried. You probably expect a screed about how horrible all the new Disney-driven development is, but that’s not my point. As a culture, we’ve made choices about our thoroughfares of freedom, and I’m not going to judge them here. (I’m in Kissimmee, Florida to work with the Osceola County Historical Society on an outdoor museum project, so you can probably guess whether I prefer the wild kingdom or the Magic Kingdom™.)
Taking the long view, these new developments and roadways and tourist attractions are just new paths beat across the old wilderness. But the wilderness is still there under the Google-mapped grid. The rivers and creeks still flow from Orlando to Miami. You just don’t see them unless you get out of the car and look.
When I left the woods and walked back to my hotel, I noticed how plants decorate the seams in abandoned parking lots and poked through every crack in every curb. Maybe they’re waiting us out, hoping we’ll forget to seal the cracks and repave the roads.
Until then, I want to encourage people to get off the thoroughfare and look at what’s left of the old wilderness. It’s closer than you think.