Blue skies, blue water: the beauty of a hike at Blue Run Park in Dunnellon is in the glimpses of blue amid the supersaturated greens that provide deep shade along its trails.
Blue Run itself is the Rainbow River under its oldest of names. It, too, was Blue Spring, like many found across Florida, named for its most obvious asset, a bounty of blue pouring forth from the earth. In those days, exploitation was the norm in Florida, the forests in every direction stripped of their most ancient cypresses and pines, the earth rent asunder by the discovery of phosphate just a little ways down the Withlacoochee River. Towns sprung up to house the miners, and vanished back into the earth after they’d exhausted the resources around them.
The main trail at Blue Run, the one that parallels the river, is now paved. It wasn’t so when I first poked around these woods, where you could find old railroad ties and spikes. The railroad connected the mining towns so the bounty of phosphate could be shipped south for processing. While the rails are long gone, the causeway left behind in the floodplain forest between the Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers makes a fine place to hike or bike.
And so it was today. It had been a month since my last hike, which is rare for me, but the intervening month was one of the hardest of my life, watching my mother’s life slip away. She and Dad brought us to this river often as small children, entranced by the beautiful gardens planted around the old phosphate pits in the 1930s, an early Florida attraction dubbed Rainbow Springs. By the time we discovered the gardens in the 1960s, they were lush and enticing.
By the late 1970s, they gave me a reason to care. Shut down due to plummeting ticket sales in the wake of Walt Disney World drawing tourists away from simpler pleasures along Florida’s byways, the gardens were at risk of becoming a subdivision. It angered my teenage sensibilities. As part of a class project I wrote an epic poem about the park and my teacher helped me get it published as an opinion piece in the Ocala Star Banner.
Marion County eventually bought the land and donated it to the state. It became Rainbow Springs State Park. I like to think I played a small part in that saga. It protects the beginning of the Rainbow River.
Blue Run Park, preserved by the City of Dunnellon, protects the end. The Rainbow River is only 6 miles long. From the Dunnellon Trail, the paved path used by the statewide Florida Trail to cross the north-flowing Withlacoochee River, you can see the rivers merge, with the shores of Dunnellon Beach in view across the river.
I walked with my sister Sally and her kids. We encountered many people on the trail this beautiful day, immersed in the leafy greens of spring and standing on the big bridge to marvel at the river panorama below.
The park’s natural surface trails shouldn’t be missed. One focuses on the upland sandhill forest, while the other circles the pond. Poison ivy grows profusely in the deep shade, with poison oak within view. The trails are wide, so it’s easy to avoid these natural perils by not stepping off the footpath.
Sally showed me her secret spot, a cove nearly obscured by man made structures. Along its edge, a fringe of one of my favorite Florida wildflowers, the blue flag iris. It’s always found in wetlands, and starts blooming around my birthday, a reminder of rebirth in spring.
Mom died on my birthday. It was a harrowing reality to face until another woman at hospice, who’d soon be the matriarch of her Native American clan, came over and gave me a hug and said she was expecting the same of her mother, who was there too. “What greater gift could she give you, to complete the circle?”
It’s still a hard fact to face that I’m now an orphan and the eldest of our line. But walking along the river where memories of our family flow made me remember the solace I’ve always found in nature. As I sit here at sunrise listening to the birdsong echo through the forest, the Chuck’s-wills-widow calling and first light seeping through the spring’s new growth on the live oaks, I know I’ll heal. Eventually.