Into the woods with you

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”

John Muir

Turns out the social distancing thing is easy to do at Sweetwater Wetlands Preserve.

On Monday my daughter and I must have walked a couple of miles around Gainesville’s wastewater purification facility disguised as a city park…and still didn’t cover all of its vast acreage.

It looked like there were maybe a hundred others present, but the sheer size of the preserve is such that nobody seemed in danger of passing within, um, catching distance.

Keeping six feet between humans? Easy.

But 20 feet from the gators, please. Because this virus is bad enough, losing a few fingers will really ruin your day.

Listen, if you’ve got kids at home, I can’t recommend Sweetwater strongly enough. You’ll walk the energy right out of ‘em.

Only instead of just saying “keep away from the gators, children” throw in “and the people too.”

On Tuesday we practiced our social distancing skills at O’Leno State Park. Crossing the swinging bridge freaked out the dog, but he loved the trail that follows the Santa Fe River through dense woods and palmetto scrubs to that place where the river vanishes underground.

Florida’s state parks have cancelled special events, camping, pavilion rentals and such, but as of this writing they remain open for…let’s just call it wilderness therapy. Likewise some city parks are still open for day use.

Suddenly the way most of us live our daily lives has been seriously disrupted. My son, in San Francisco, is under virtual lockdown, with parole granted only for brief trips to the grocery store.

But keeping our social distance around here doesn’t have to mean 24/7 house arrest. And as it happens, we live a community that has long invested generously in wide open spaces.

If nothing else take frequent walks around your neighborhood to avoid cabin fever.

But go a bit farther afield and you can walk for miles in the San Felasco Hammock without brushing up against another human being. Ditto the Newnans Lake Loop, near Windsor. And the Susan Wright Trail stretches for nearly 5 miles through the Prairie Creek Preserve.

To name just a few local walk-in-the-woods options.

Just remember to take water and wear good shoes.

Oh, and for you gym rats suffering from withdrawal symptoms? Try doing your spinning on a real bicycle for a change.

Gainesville is a bikable city. You can get almost anywhere via mostly neighborhood streets.

And as a side benefit, research shows that cycling can help strengthen your immune system.

I hear you, you’re afraid to share the road with cars. No problem.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail is a world-class, car-free recreational treasure, and it’s more than a 30-mile round trip. If you’ve never been on it you’ve cheated yourself.

Look, we don’t know how long all of this social upending is going to last. And sticking as close to home as much as possible is our best recourse. That is especially true, of course, if you haven’t been feeling well or are starting to show symptoms. Stay home!

But these troubling times also present the opportunity to acquaint yourself with the best our region has to offer – wild spaces and bikable neighborhoods – without breaking the social distancing taboo.

Hey, Alachua County is where nature and culture meet, right? And while our culture may be under some stress right now, our nature beckons still.

Signs are everywhere

Of late I have taken to spending my afternoons wandering aimlessly around Gainesville on my bicycle. It’s just the way I practice my social distancing in the time of Coronavirus. This is my town and I like to keep a eye on it.

Of course these are not normal times. Not even close. So I’ve been stopping on my solitary sojourns to take photographs.

This is the Thomas Center. A previous city manager had this entryway redesigned and called it Gainesville’s “front door.” Which was kind of weird because it’s located in the back. Anyway, the idea was to present a friendly welcoming face to city residents.

But these are not welcoming times.

I stopped by the Duck Pond and learned that the neighborhood’s swans have been faring little better than us humans in this time of calamity. The female died last winter and the male has just come down with bumblefoot and has been taken away for treatment. We are all in this together.

Roper Park is a delightful pocket of green, pastels and primary colors. A place where Duck Pond residents can sit in the shade and watch their kids play. Closed now. But I saw a boy skateboarding in the parking lot of the church across the street.

It’s true. You can’t fight city hall. You can’t even get into it.

A reminder that we have already endured yellow fever epidemics. We can beat this.

On the plus side, we can hang on to those overdue library books as long as we want

Free stuff at Bo Diddley Plaza. But there’s a catch…

We will skip the obvious cliches about death and taxes.

Reminders of better times than these.

The way we were.

The way we are.

As life goes on.

My last stop of the journey: They closed our neighborhood park. Did they put up this sign to keep people out or keep Mother Nature in?

We need a good cleaning

On Tuesday I washed my hands of the Presidential Primary and the Gainesville City Commission elections.

Actually, I did it twice.

Once before I marked my ballot and once immediately after.

My polling place is in a church, but they were apparently fresh out of holy water.

So we all pumped Purell hand sanitizer instead.

This is the way we live our lives now. And while the reason we’re all washing, washing, washing, washing our hands is for fear of the virus, I experienced a visceral joy in ritualistically washing my hands over the candidates of my choice.

I can’t wait to do it again on August 18, whether or not we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

And especially on Nov. 3.

That’s when we all must be resolved to wash a whole bunch of rascals, scoundrels and scallywags right out of our public institutions.

From the White House to the state house.

Don’t look now but our system of representative democracy is on life support.

It’s become a filthy business in this Citizens United gilded age of legislating for, of and by lobbyists.

They who comfort the 1 percent and stick us with the bill have got to go.

And, listen, all the Purell in the world won’t make them come clean.

Only we can do that by voting like America sorely needs a thorough house cleaning.

We are the cure.

So let’s keep washing our hands as we get about putting this dirty business right.

The world moves on

“The need to recreate the myth of coherence may be one of the reasons why history exists in the first place.”

Stephen King: The Dark Tower.

“The world moved on.”

Listen, I’ve been waiting for years to use that line.

It comes from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. About people who are abruptly thrown into a chaotic world that they neither understand or are prepared to cope with.

I’m beginning to understand, Roland.

In the last few days I’ve been in half a dozen counties and one hospital (twice). I’ve stopped for gasoline, for fast food, used some public restrooms and visited frail and/or sick relatives.

Normally this would be just a typical week in the life of a 72-year old retiree with an elderly mother and an ailing sister who happen to live halfway down the state. But these are not normal times. And now we are being obliged to evaluate every one of our actions and movements with an eye toward possibly dire ramifications.

I’ve been shuttling back and forth, avoiding the interstates when I can, taking backroads where possible (just because I prefer that kind of driving) and logging more than the usual hours away from home.


While the world moved on.

Before I left home this last time my wife insisted I take a big pump-bottle of hand sanitizer with me and use it liberally after….well, after virtually every time I get out of the car. Gas pump, hand pump (just don’t) door knob turn. Whatever.

And when I went to the medical center in Sebastian to, at first visit and then pick up, my sister, who had just had a knee operation, I was wary indeed. I shared an elevator ride with a woman who coughed. I tried not to flinch. I tried not to lean on anything. I told my sister she looked fine. From at least six feet away. Because.

And I stayed with my mom and her husband. Who has an upper respiratory thing going on. Which his doctor is fairly sure isn’t….

…Well, you know, “it.”

Long story short, I got home to discover that my Santa Fe College accounting professor wife will henceforth be teaching all of her classes on-line rather than face-to-face.

And that the University of Florida will go entirely on-line. And that it is advising students to leave town and go back to wherever they came from.

This is a college town. Once the students are gone I suppose we townies will all be safer for it – fewer bodies, fewer potential sources of contagions.

But it’s going to play hell with the local economy. Some businesses will go under.

Oh, and no more Gator basketball, baseball, nothing.

And what if it hasn’t blown over by football season? Talk about culture shock!

But the world moved on.

The good news: I already more or less work (as a freelance journalist) at home, although Starbucks is gonna miss me. And our dog will be ecstatic, since his humans will be hanging around much more than they used to.

So there’s that.

Our President says…..well, we really don’t know what the hell he’s saying. Our governor has declared a State Of Emergency, whatever that means.

We’re being told to keep our distances from each other. To self-quarantine if we think we need it. To wash, wash, wash, wash, wash our hands. And that we don’t really need to stockpile toilet paper or face masks.

And that some of us may get “it.”

And that if we do, some of us may suffer more from “it” than will others.

And that for those of us who do suffer more from “it,” there may or may not be enough hospital beds and ventilators available to pull us back from the brink.

Which, I suppose, is the bad news.

Because the world moved on.

I don’t have a p.s. for all of this.

Maybe in a week or two or three this will have all blown over. And we will all feel sort of silly.

Maybe the Prez is right (isn’t he always?). That this is just a liberal conspiracy to get rid of him.

Maybe we will learn that the military has been secretly stockpiling ventilators and hospital beds and secret vaccines and miracle cures with the obscene amounts of money we’ve been shoving at them to pay for super weapons.

Or, maybe the world isn’t nearly done moving on yet.

Maybe a month from now, six months from now, a year from now, the way we lead our daily lives will bear very little resemblance to the way we’ve all been getting by up until…

….oh, I dunno…

….let’s say, two weeks ago.

“This is ridiculous,” Eddie shouted.

“Life is ridiculous.”

Stephen King: The Dark Tower

The world moved on.

We hardly knew ‘em

We’re killing people in our streets

Gregory Branch, William Moore, Denise Griffiths, Dwight Jenkins, D.J. Washington.

And Rose M. McDonald, aka “Granny.”

If those names ring no bells, I’m not surprised. Had they been the victims of, say, Coronavirus, their deaths would be front page news.

But they are just people who have been killed while trying to bike, cross or walk a public street in our county since November.

For the most part their untimely deaths rated only a few paragraphs in print or scant mention on the air. They were a 16-year old boy walking in the bike lane on SW 20th Ave., a UF student killed while crossing University Avenue, a 45-year old man run over by a truck on U.S. 441 near Turkey Creek, a 60-year old Melrose man run down on SR 222, a 45-year old man killed while crossing NW 39th Ave.

And then there was “Granny,” left to die on Waldo Road, on Jan. 30, by a hit-and-run driver.

That their deaths attracted little note is no rap on local news. The sad truth is that we kill so many pedestrians and bicyclists in autoAmerica that any single death by vehicle typically rates brief notice.

“Pedestrian deaths rise more than 50 percent in the U.S.,” a recent story in The Sun was headlined. Just a reminder that, even as traffic related deaths in general have gone down, the number of walkers or cyclists being killed is at a 30-year high.

If you happened to read that story, you may have thought: I’m glad I don’t live in Miami, or Orlando, or Tampa…or any big city where cyclists and pedestrians are at risk.

To which I would respond: Gregory Branch, William Moore, Denise Griffiths, Dwight Jenkins, D.J. Washington.

And Rose M. McDonald.

Rose was the only one of those victims I knew by sight, if not by name.

She was a prominent figure among Gainesville’s downtown homeless community. Small and frail, suffering from multiple emotional and physical maladies, she was nonetheless a relentlessly cheerful woman.

“She was one of the first people I met in Gainesville, as she bummed smokes and change from folks downtown,” says Assistant City Manager Dan Hoffman. “Her story is sad and her fate too common these days. Dangerous roads. A life lived on the margins. She was dealt a really bad hand in life.”

Local playwright Michael Presley Bobbitt also appreciated his exchanges with Granny. She “was as Gainesville as it gets…a relentless source of positivity and encouragement. A bright light in this community has been extinguished by a careless, murderous hit-and-run motorist, and we are all poorer for it.”

Sadly, justice for Granny is unlikely.

Gainesville Police Department just issued a press release asking “witnesses or persons with information about the traffic homicide to please come forward.” That’s a cold trail indeed, the release coming more than a month after she was left for dead.

As a community, we don’t have to accept such deaths with an “Oh well, accidents happen” shrug. We know how to change the autoAmerican status quo. We know how to repurpose our public streets and roads, especially in urban areas, to reduce fatalities.

Call it Vision Zero. Call it traffic calming. Call it Complete Streets. Call it what you will.

The only thing you can honestly call the status quo is unacceptable. That or obscene.

It’s not the spirit that’s lacking, but the communal will.

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at

Rose M. McDonald, aka “Granny.”