Urban boom reduces magic of rural roads

Published November 27, 2006

Our Pasco County neighborhood was fighting to keep a 24-hour big box store from establishing a beachhead on our western perimeter. We made signs, wore matching T-shirts and marched around in circles chanting. We feared the change to our quiet bird sanctuary environs.

While we were under siege, company reps said they would build whether we wanted them or not. "We don't lose," they said.

Disgusted at the prospect of the inevitable invasion, we thought to abandon the field altogether before the caissons started rolling. But where would we go?

A daughter who lived in Citrus County said we probably wouldn't like it there. Economically, wages were still being paid in sunshine and the weather was a bad 5 degrees colder in winter. She feared the political climate would be frustrating. She wanted us closer, though, and we wanted that, too; so our Citrus County housing search began.

For years, north of Brooksville on U.S. 41, we passed Snow Memorial Highway and thought that's the best thing to do with snow. Memorialize it. Make it a memory only.

In our search we finally took that highway north from Hernando County where it is designated County Road 481. At the Citrus County line it becomes County Road 581. We had no way of knowing how much we would enjoy that highway.

No matter how many times we travel it, up or down, that road reaches into consciousness and communicates. A poem with obscure meaning often leaves a feeling that something profound has been internalized. How can a mere road give that same feeling? A thing that is laid out with measuring tools and smoothed by someone operating heavy yellow equipment? Poets don't write roads.

Most times ours is the only car visible. For the most part, any signs are reminiscent of another century. "Hay for sale." "Fence posts available." "Pigs for sale." "Horses boarded." "Cows and Calves For Sale." Often riders on horseback wave as we pass and once a couple of folks harnessed to motored parachutes drifted silently north over our heads.

How a road can contribute to a feeling of well-being is certainly beyond my understanding, but it works for us. In one place gnarled branches, wrapped in vines and dripping Spanish moss meet above, creating a shadowy mysterious tunnel. Here the only signs of Florida growth are the natural kind: flowering bushes, palmettos. There are wide expanses of sun-struck meadow where cattle or horses nose around, places where the land stretches and meets a line of trees marking some ancient boundary.

Old country roads, developed from rutted paths and wagon trails, often switch back and forth to reach this house or that settlement. There is just enough of that sort of winding along the Hernando County segment to evoke a sense of the past; to lead to thoughts about earlier people and their communities.

For the most part, though, someone looked at here and there and drew a straight line connecting them. The road folds upon itself in the distance like hard ribbon candy from a holiday tin.

How can a road inspire such mental rambling? There is just something about this one. Though it is pleasant enough to take only about 20 minutes to drive from U.S. 41 to where it meets State Road 44 in Inverness, it is possible to enjoy a day or more along its length.

This road is one for the believers in re-creationism. It leads to thoughts about history, natural and man-made. For those 20 minutes, it is not necessary to swerve, merge, toot, scoot or gesture. The arches are nature's. The signs don't pulse. There are no signs for lash extensions.

If you want more than 20 minutes of relief from tumult you can meander down side roads into the Withlacoochee State Forest and find, among other things, hiking trails, camp sites and fishing holes. In Hernando County you can launch a boat or visit a nature center.

You can tour a lovely old Florida home or wander through an old cemetery. You can learn the value of old forests, how to shoot a bow and arrow or join a bird watching group. These lures to leave the road are after your time, not your money. The impression is lasting. It is definitely worth the trip. Take a lunch and spend a morning in a poem.

We found a Citrus County settlement to our liking and travel this road often, but there are numerous other rural roads in the area with lovely scenery, old trees and what can only be an old Florida look. We know it is not possible to protect them all, but we particularly don't want to lose the magical effect of what begins as Snow Memorial Highway and ends in a Pleasant Grove.

A recent letter to the editor suggests the northern part of the road would be the ideal location for the next strip of the Suncoast Parkway.

The writer makes a case for bringing the road east of the original proposals in order to serve a larger county population, but the kind of thinking that believes that a major highway would have little impact on the Withlacoochee State Forest and the adjacent rural properties does not take into consideration that we need our quiet undeveloped spaces at least as much as the gopher tortoises do.

Three years have passed since this piece in praise of a road was begun and it is possibly already too late to save the area. The new signs on the road now mean property is changing hands for new purposes. Traffic is increasing.

The rural ambience will be lost if we fail to exercise due caution in its development.

We hope steps can be taken now to fortify our position before the enemy further develops plans for such a change. Let's not allow the Toll Booth Troops or the Big Box Brigade burn this book of poetry.

Meredith West is an Inverness resident. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects that they choose, which do not necessarily reflect those of this newspaper.