Ever since we first started this trip last spring, people have asked us, “What are you going to do at Christmas?” We’ve never had a Christmas without family – first trekking back to Missouri to reunite with my mom and siblings, then shifting to Christmas at home with the kids, later adding Kate’s mom and brother, sometimes our close friends, and as the kids grew up, their partners. Kate and I aren’t Christians, but we’ve always celebrated the Christmas traditions of tree, lights, cooking, presents, and most of all, family. We knew that any Christmas away from family and home would not really be Christmas at all.
My Uncle David has property near Bushnell, Florida, not far from where we were staying at the Orlando RV Park, named “Meyer’s Folly” after my great uncle’s ranch in Missouri (Dewitt’s Folly). It’s 22 acres in the middle of plum nowhere, but it’s beautiful, peaceful property. He’s got a couple of old pasture horses, two dogs, two cats, a koi pond, four wild sand hill cranes that he feeds daily, and at least one alligator in his back pond. He was going back to Missouri for Christmas, but he welcomed us to come park Bessie in his large circular driveway and take advantage of all his empty house had to offer. His neighbor Mae would be coming over twice a day to take care of the animals, so we wouldn’t have to do a thing except enjoy ourselves. We were sorry not to have Dave’s company, but before he left, we drove over for an afternoon to get the lay of the land, introduce Bailey to David’s dogs, and have dinner together.
When we arrived on December 18, Florida was experiencing a cold spell and temperatures dropped to the 40s at night. But after a couple of chilly days, temps were right back up in the 80s and we were grateful for air conditioning. Kate jumped right into sewing projects, thrilled to be able to spread out over Dave’s large dining room table and leave her mess out all week. We did piles of laundry, cleaned Bessie inside and out, and I was happy to cook a few meals in a real kitchen.
Free Range Pets
Bailey had already met David’s dogs, Gee and Hannah, and they got along fine. The property is completely fenced, so Bailey could run unrestrained, and she was downright gleeful about her good fortune. She’s respectful of horses and seemed uninterested in chasing cranes, but the alligator I’d seen in the pond earlier had me worried. We kept a very close eye on her until after a few days, it seemed clear that our water-loving dog didn’t seem at all interested in that pond. Maybe she sensed danger lurking in it.
We kept Gypsy on a leash for the first day or two, and then we started letting her roam under our watchful eyes. At first, she seemed almost disconcerted by the vast freedom. When her little jacket fell off while she was in the bushes, she came trotting back to me with it her mouth and stood still while I put it back on her.
It wasn’t long, though, before Gypsy’s cocky little attitude spread from RV to farm. She approached both dogs with such bold propriety that you’d think she was the pit bull and they were helpless kittens. They were, in fact, intimidated, and Gypsy was so oblivious to their discomfort that we soon kept them inside when Gypsy was out. It’s a good thing the dogs preferred air conditioning and couches, because Gypsy wanted to be out most of the time. We worried about how we would ever contain her again, but she was so happy as a free-wanderer, we couldn’t bear not to give her a little chance to roam. Especially once we realized she generally stayed within a 100-foot radius of Bessie.
Gypsy loved being a farm cat. She patiently stalked the 4-foot sand hill cranes when they came to feed, and she stared down the koi fish in the pond. But it was the horses she fell in love with. We were parked right by the pasture, and she spent hours watching Indy and Khallis graze. Each day, she allowed herself to get a little closer to them, and once I caught her chewing grass, as if to see what the fuss was about. I was glad they were old, slow, and used to cats.
Webster Flea Market
There’s really not much to do in Bushnell. Walmart and McDonald’s offer the biggest excitement of the area. Webster is an even smaller town just 10 miles away, but it has a large flea market every Monday. It’s such a big deal to the locals, there are permanent county road signs pointing the way to it for miles. Uncle Dave had taken my father and me there once, and I remembered it as an oddball, rednecky kind of place, with lots of antiques, including Confederate and slavery memorabilia that made me back away in horror. I warned Kate about the grossly inappropriate collectibles, but we were excited to go to the only event in the area all week.
After all my warnings, the market goods seemed pretty tame. Not a slave shackle or Confederate flag in sight. You can still get all manner of guns, though, no questions asked I presume. It was the closest we would come to festive that week, so we made the most of it and ate hot dogs and caramel corn with the locals. We were also excited to walk away with several pints of fresh local strawberries, as sweet as any you ‘d find only in July in Oregon.
On Christmas Eve, Kate and I had lunch at a nearby place my uncle had suggested. River Ratz is a funky-fun place on the Withlacoochee River that offers canoe trips and karaoke as well as an outside bar and decent Southern food. We sat on the deck over the river and enjoyed their Christmas Eve specials of country fried steak and shredded pork sliders. The Styrofoam and plastic forks only added to the country charm, and the food was actually great.
Christmas Day was a record-breaking 86. Kate had promised me a bike ride, so we got an early start on a nearby rails-to-trails bike path. It was a beautiful ride, and we spotted a distant alligator along the way. But by the end of it, we were a hot, sweaty mess.
I cooked a turkey breast dinner in the house that night, thinking we’d follow one Christmas tradition, but good as it was, it’s just not the same without people to share it with. We made the best of it and watched the full moon rise over the fields and trees in the balmy night and remembered how lucky we are to be here in Florida in shorts and tee shirts, while so much of the country is shivering in cold.