On Tuesday, June 24, I was sitting in the Jackson, Miss., airport, browsing through USA Today. I came across a short story about a small riverfront development in eastern Sarasota County in Florida, where a levee had broken and a river had rampaged through 40 of the 90-some homes.
No name of the river or the development . . . nothing else. I called home. My wife knew nothing about the story but said it was still pouring and that the neighborhood kids were boogie-boarding down the middle of our street. Minutes later she called back, telling me that the ravaged community was Hidden River.
My stomach flew into my throat. Hidden River, on the banks of the Myakka River, was our old neighborhood. My wife told me the tranquil river had become a raging demon, breaking through the levee, rushing the half-mile through the woods, flooding everything in its path. We later learned that our old house was in its path. The river didn't stop at the door; it continued through it, across the two acres in front, over the road and on to our neighbor's cattle pasture. Five to six feet of river rose in our former home and covered the land.
I remembered burying our two pet dogs back in our woods. We had a little funeral for them. I hoped they were OK. Isn't that a crazy thought? I had so lovingly placed them in that big hole I dug. I was enraged at the river for disturbing them. I wondered if all the deer made it to safety. Can wild turkeys fly? What about our neighbor's cows?
My relationship with Hidden River started out innocently enough-a small ad in the paper, "House for Sale." We drove out to see it. It was the second time in my life I experienced love at first sight. (The first time was in freshman English in college, but that's a different story.) Within weeks, 12 acres of the palmy paradise and 300 feet of the river's bank were home.
Much of Hidden River is 19th-century Florida, still wild and still alive. Dirt roads meander through hammocks of cabbage palms and water oaks. Spanish moss, some 15 to 20 feet in length, hangs like angel's hair from hidden branches of ancient oaks. Deer, wild turkeys, bobcat and even the occasional panther prowl the night. The deer have little fear of humans-there are lots of the former and few of the latter. The horizon goes on forever and the sunsets are God's way of bragging, showing off every beautiful color in His palette.
On the edge of it all, the river meanders like a silver serpent. It turns and twists, playing "now you see me, now you don't." You can easily spot alligators sunning on its banks or wild hogs, their eyes searching for big turtles peering up from beneath the water like the silent periscopes of the deep.
The river isn't terribly wide, maybe 24 feet at its broadest. You can still clearly see trails to ancient Calusa Indian fishing camps along its shores. It is everything you envision when you close your eyes and think of the river of grass. It is primal Florida at its finest.
The main road in Hidden River isn't a road at all. It's an FAA taxiway. Cars must give way to planes. The airstrip provides the launching pad for the many small planes owned by residents. "Are you a pilot?" is the first question asked when meeting new residents. I wasn't, so I named my dog, a Great Pyrenees, "Pilot." That made me feel like I belonged.
But it really wasn't that hard to fit in. People from all over the county found a path to Hidden River. Many were retired pilots who brought their single-engine planes or twin-engine Cessnas to the banks of the Myakka; the skies above the community buzzed with the sound of their engines. Residents, many of them successful professionals, tended to be independent and hardy. Encountering wildlife in the garage was a fact of life. Power and phone outages were commonplace. No one lived without a generator and most of my neighbors owned at least one pickup truck and a riding mower. Feisty . . . oh, yes . . . stubborn . . . sometimes . . . big-hearted and joined by a passion for their homes . . . always. What bound us together was our love for the land. Hidden River residents care about their property. Livestock is watched over with great concern. In the rare instances when wild dogs bothered the herds, residents took turns standing guard. Everyone checked on everyone else. No one passes anyone on the road without a wave that often ends up in a chat.
My grasp of English is not adequate to describe how much I loved that place. I knew every massive oak, the thousands of vines that wound their way through the woods and every trail down to the river. Nothing was ever greener, quieter or more romantic than Hidden River.
Of course, nothing ever needed more mowing, either. We spent days, weeks and months trying to keep the Everglades from taking the property back. Everything grew so fast. The drive into town was huge. The maintenance was constant. The expertise needed to maintain it all was sorely lacking in my seminary education. The expenses needed were sorely lacking in our budget.
So we decided to move back into Sarasota. That decision almost did me in. My head knew it was the right thing to do. My heart felt a pull similar to that when I would attach the tractor to a big old vine to yank it out of the trees. Leaving Hidden River was a big yank.
I didn't want to leave. I wanted my company to grow faster so I could afford everything I needed to maintain 12 acres of paradise. It didn't. Not all of life's decisions are pleasant. Some are just plain necessary. Moving back was necessary. We gently closed the gate, peered over our shoulders one last time, and once again became city dwellers.
We moved back into Sarasota late in 2000. It takes me 15 minutes to mow my little yard.
Sometimes people ask us, especially after the flood, if we aren't glad we don't live there any more. My most eloquent answer is a simple sigh. I would move back in a moment. The flood didn't damage the horizon. No amount of water could drown the sunsets. Yes, the Spanish moss weeps for the losses. Yet the land and people of Hidden River are resilient. The river still flows through this hauntingly beautiful place and the people will build again.
Sarasota resident Phil Stover is president of the Portolan Group, an educational consulting firm.