A few months ago, my partner, Brian, and I packed nearly every belonging we had into a giant yellow Penske truck. We left weather cold enough to require puffy down and fleece jackets, warm hats, gloves, and wool scarves. After three brutal days of endless highway and non-stop GPS monitoring—stopping only for fuel, bathroom breaks, roadside food, and nights in off-ramp motels—we arrived in Wakulla County and moved into what had been, during Brian’s childhood, his grandmother’s weekend and vacation cottage on Ochlockonee Bay. This move from the frequently frigid, often crowded, and slightly gritty Waltham, Massachusetts to the predictably warm, sparsely populated, and slightly old-fashioned Wakulla County Florida happened not quite as soon as we had hoped—but a bit sooner than we had planned when we originally departed Seattle, Washington for our stay in my home-state of Massachusetts. A series of chronic health issues for Brian and an unexpected layoff for me pushed up our departure—and while many of the details of our long-range plans remain at least partially unresolved, we decided to put the move behind us, believing—or perhaps hoping—that it would be wise to settle into our new surroundings sooner and figure out the details as we went along.
For Brian, this move has been a coming home. Though he was born and raised in Tallahassee, nearly an hour north of where we are now, he spent much of his childhood here in Wakulla County—fishing, hunting, exploring, and spending time with scores of close and distant relatives. For him to be back on these black-water rivers checking cat lines, listening to frogs in the swamps at night, and spending time with his family and friends has been magical—the biggest issue being that he frequently has to remind himself that he’s not just here for a visit; we’re here to stay—at least for the next couple of years.
Antithetically, for me, moving to this part of north Florida has been like stepping into new and wholly unfamiliar skin. Even the mundane feels new. Growing up in the notoriously frosty Northeast and then living in the damp and often chilly Pacific Northwest makes it hard to understand that I can now step out of the shower without becoming chilled—regardless of how long it takes me to dry off and get dressed. And speaking of clothing, it just feels odd—though in a fun way—that I simply don’t need to wear much of it now. These days, Brian and I commonly start our mornings wrapped in nothing more than a tropical sarong while sitting down to sip our coffee and tea. The once critical process of adding wool, fleece, or down to base layers and then topping off with a waterproof layer before heading outdoors through nearly three fourths of the year is no longer a necessity. Going for a walk on the beach? It’s easy; I need shorts and a top—or a sundress—flip-flops, and a water bottle; that’s it! It’s so endearingly simple. But like a security blanket I just can’t relinquish, I frequently still grab a sweater or a light fleece before leaving the house in the evening—almost always carting it back again unused. Underneath the more flimsy and scant items I tend to be wearing now—even my skin is different. I’m more tan than I’ve been in years—maybe even decades, and I haven’t worn socks in well over six weeks, so my toes are more toast-colored than their typical pasty pink.
One evening a few weeks ago, we were flying up the Ochlockonee river in Brian’s cousin’s fishing boat. The air had cooled slightly, so Brian leaned over to ask me if I was cold since I was still wearing just shorts and a tank top. I looked at him while thinking about how this level of slight coolness compared with the years of frozen fingers and toes of my childhood, and I said, “Darlin, I’ve spent most of my life cold; this really can’t compare.”
Every little detail of existence here—to me—is entirely new and exotic. Even just now, a small green lizard peered up over the top of the deck railing—his tiny face not two feet from mine. Luckily lizards—at least little guys like this one—don’t scare me, so having a little reptile pal pop by to visit me while I’m sitting and writing epitomizes the novelty of this new experience.
Another highly interesting aspect of being a new arrival here in Wakulla County is that right from the start, I’m not a local. I’m a French-Canadian Yankee—an outsider if there ever was one. And as I’ve recently learned, this area is where my partner’s people (kin as they’d say) have lived for generations: Crums, Langstons, and Sanders; though, they’re often loathe to claim this last clan.
I’ve also learned that this is considered the real South—tucked right up against Georgia. It’s not the central or southern Disney-focused, retiree-rich Sunshine State most folks think of first. This is a land where you can still sit by a river and watch fish jump, and it’s a land of churchgoing, fishing, and drinking—not necessarily in that order.
On one of our first nights here, Brian and I ate at the Backwoods Bistro, one of two uncharacteristic and anachronistically hip little venues within Sopchoppy—the sleepiest of sleepy little rural towns. Pulling up in front of the IGA in Sopchoppy doesn’t feel like stepping back in time by 20 years; it feels more like time travelling back by a half-century or more—to a time before my memory.
After our Backwoods Bistro dinner that any yuppie town would have been proud to claim, we wandered down Yellow Jacket Road and then onto Rose and walked right up the middle of the street. The warm night air felt like high summer up north—though it was still mid February. Small houses lined the road; screened-in porches figured prominently.
Near the end of the road, a chorus of dogs started in like they do in movies when the main character heads down a deserted road toward their demise. Brian explained that this house at the end of the road—the one where the canine cacophony had just erupted—was the house where his Aunt Arie and his Uncle Bully had lived, and for years Brian had played on the river behind this very house. Now, Brian had heard from his Mom that his cousin, his cousin’s wife, and their little boy were living in the bigger house, and that Brian’s Aunt Arie was living beside them in the cottage next door.
Just a few weeks later, once we’d settled in a bit, Brian and I returned to the heart of Sopchoppy—this time announced—not as strange out-of-towners, skulking down the road, spooking the dogs. This time we were with Brian’s mom, Susan, so we stopped in to visit Susan’s more than 80-year-old Aunt Arie, Brian’s great aunt, and I also met Arie’s son David, his wife, Lara, and their little boy, John Alex.
Aunt Arie asked me how I liked it in Wakulla County so far and was happy to know I was enjoying myself, but she also warned me about the heat and the bugs, telling me that now that we’re leaving winter behind, “there’s always somethin’ around to bite you.” Arie was both welcoming and kind—as well as delightfully honest—explaining that she can’t hear much and that she wasn’t feeling too well—not that we could tell. She told us that she didn’t like her air conditioner because she doesn’t like asking people for help, and she can’t change the filter by herself. Her voice and speech struck me as strong and clear, yet mellow—reminding me both of the big live oaks full of Spanish moss and of the lazy dark rivers snaking through the woods and swamps all across this region. When we left, Arie urged us to come back—anytime. And as if becoming infected with some sort of southern hospitality myself, I started thinking about making soup and biscuits and bringing them by.
We were also told to stop just next door to say goodbye to Lara, David, and John Alex before heading home, but 40 minutes later, we were nowhere near actually leaving. Lara and David instantly chatted with us like old friends, as they fried—what I think was chicken—in their new fryer. Two-year-old John Alex—whom I accidentally called John—not realizing that he is usually called by either his full name or by his second name, Alex—played and chased after a little grey kitten bravely living amidst all of their dogs.
Lara, who is also a newcomer to this family, showed me their house, which appears to have a rich and colorful history. The old dark wood appeared warm and honeyed—not oppressive despite the dark shade. She told me about members of the family who also live nearby and kept saying, “Oh, you’ll meet them,” and “We’ll invite you . . . .”
Later I said something about having been at the Laundromat, and Brian’s cousin David looked at me seriously and said, “Do me a favor. Don’t go to the Laundromat again. Come here.” He said it so seriously; I feared if he ever found out I’d gone to the Laundromat instead of coming to their place, I’d be in serious trouble.
Nearly everything we said was met with, “Oh, well, let me look into that . . .”—or “I think I might know someone; I’ll talk to them.” Or, “If you need anything, call us; we’re always here.”
By the end of the evening, it was clear; we were no longer in Seattle nor in Boston. This was a different place altogether—with a different ethic. I might be a Damn Yankee from New England, but my partner is part of this family, and therefore, so am I. So in just a few weeks, I went from feeling like a complete outsider—walking down a strange road in a town as familiar to me as a movie set—to feeling as if I would be breaking some time-honored code if I were not to allow these people to embrace me as if I were one of their own. Such has been my welcome to Wakulla.