The drive into Destin was much different than driving down Thirty-A. Destin was very much a developed beach town with block after block of high rise condos and shopping centers. Traffic lights were so regular that only reckless youth could get about the speed limit. The sky was noisy with small planes towing advertising banners and Coast Guard helicopters on the lookout for swimmers in peril or sharks. In the two minutes it took to get to the sign for the Love Light, Debbie counted six motels, three groups of motorcycle clubs, and one pickup with a bed full of boys hooting at any girl that they could make eye contact with.
The Love Light was not so much a beach store as a lifestyle store. Just inside there were two checkout aisles with cashiers in some sort of piercing contest. The girl with the apple red hair seemed to be in the lead. There was a large neon sign on the back wall that said “Tattoos while you wait” and a summer’s worth of beach paraphernalia including swimsuits, towels, Frisbees, kites and coolers. It was as loud as Trojan Artifacts was subdued.
After choosing a bathing suit, Debbie struck up a conversation with one of the cashiers who recommended she try Taka Sushi down in Destin Harbor. Debbie thanked him for the recommendation but headed back down to the beach where she was staying.
Once outside of the gridlock that Destin had become, Debbie sailed down Highway 98, her car practically in cruise control. She flew past the first turnoff for Thirty-A without even noticing the signs. A few miles further down she realized she was in unfamiliar territory and began looking for a turnoff that would get her back to the beach road. She came to a double sign and approaching, read the word “Seagrove” with an arrow pointing right and “Eden State Gardens”, it’s arrow pointing in the opposite direction. She slowed and changed lanes in such a brief distance that she was cursed by an immediate assault from a combination of car horns and obscene gestures from other drivers.
The turn onto the two lane road was rewarded by a lack of competing motorists and the entrance to a tunnel of shade trees, completely changing the atmosphere from a wild rally to a peaceful drive. About a mile down the road there was a small paved drive to the left with a sign that read “Point Washington and Eden State Gardens.” She turned down the drive and stopped at a box, mounted on a mailbox post, requesting a park entrance fee of two dollars. Beyond it, the tree canopy opened to an enormous southern plantation home with a two story porch supported by rows of white columns. She parked her car and walked to the house. Standing on the front porch, leaning against one of the columns was a woman wearing a brown and green uniform with a wide brimmed hat.
“Welcome to Eden,” she said.
“It’s nice to finally be here,” Debbie said stepping on to the porch.
“Did you get lost?”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Where were you?”
“Down in Seagrove.”
“Well, there are certainly worse places to be stuck.”
“That’s the truth,” Debbie replied. “This place is beautiful.”
“Yes it is. Most people around here are real happy to have it.”
“More like others want it for themselves. I imagine they weren’t taught to share growing up,” the park ranger said.
“Shame on them,” Debbie replied. “What’s going on over there under those trees?”
She pointed over, down a long lawn, to the side of the house, about a hundred yards away. About two dozen people were unloading a large truck filled with chairs and tables.
“Oh, some folks from Fort Walton getting ready for a wedding.”
“You can get married here?”
“Honey, you can do just about anything you want to here, ‘cept for drink and shoot guns. People use it for all sorts of events: weddings, family reunions, picnics, you know good times.”
“A real paradise.”
“It’s Eden. I’d be happy to show you around if you’d like.”
“No, I’m sure you’ve got other things to do.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“Ok,” Debbie replied.
“Let’s go look around the grounds first. That’s the real treasure here.”
They walked off the porch up the front walk to where the cars were parked.
“This place was the site of a timber mill built in the late nineteenth century by one Mr. William Henry Wesley. He first built a complete timber processing facility: trees in one end, finished lumber out the other. In 1897, Mr. Wesley decided to move his family down here, so he built the main house that you see today. Of course, there were other buildings for the workers who also lived here, but over the years they either burned down or were torn down.”
They followed the drive towards the truck and past massive live oaks each of whose canopies could have covered the area of an Olympic sized pool. The road ended at a pier on a seawall bordering the Choctawhatchee Bay. They walked down the pier as the ranger continued.
“From this location, the finished timber could be barged out to the Gulf through Destin or across the Bay and via railroad inland.”
Out in the bay, a tug boat pushing several low barges slowly cut its way across the horizon.
“You can see it’s still used for transportation today as a part of the intercoastal waterway.”
“It’s so quiet here, seems impossible that we’re this close to the beach,” Debbie said.
“It’s quiet alrighty. You can almost hear the mosquitoes sucking your blood, but most people don’t seem to want quiet on vacation anymore. I find it strange that they’d prefer their lives to be as hectic at rest as they are at work.”
“Yes, but I think that it’s an American thing that people here don’t feel like they are getting their money’s worth if they are not constantly in motion. The easiest way to tell the difference between an American tourist and one from another country is their shoes. Americans always wear running shoes while foreign tourists choose comfortable walking shoes,” Debbie said as they both stared out at the slow ripples of bay waves that pulsed to the seawall.
The ranger bobbed her head in agreement as if she were floating in the water, then turned and continued, “Anyway, most all the visitors we get are here for an event.”
“I read about this place getting a lot of late night visitors, something about swimming in the reflecting pond?”
“Crazy fools if you ask me. Those hippies usually show up during full moons and lunar eclipses, skinny dipping in the pool up there,” pointing towards the house.
“The way I read it, people believe there’s some kind of curing power in the water. Is that true?” Debbie asked.
“If it is, you can get just as much curing in a bath tub down here, and you’re going to be a lot more safe from cottonmouths. We’ve been using county water to fill that pool for years, though it was at one time spring fed.” Then the ranger stopped and asked her with a sharp eye, “You ain’t one of them, are you?”
“One of who?” Debbie asked.
“One of them midnight hippies. It don’t matter to me if you are, but, I wouldn’t bother if I were you. Those people sneak in here, jump in the pools and then go back home saying they’re transformed. But they have it all wrong, it’s not that water that does it to them” the lady said to Debbie, “it’s the Gulf.”
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