|Sign on east side of Land Bridge, first day|
|On the Land Bridge, second day|
|Riding down off Land Bridge|
|Rock wall on Land Bridge|
|What’s on top of the Interstate!|
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:1-4 (NIV)
When you travel on Interstate 75 through Ocala, Florida, just north of the Dunnellon exit, you see a bridge that crosses the Interstate with no exit or on ramps. While that is not unusual as roads cross the Interstate all the time that are not main arteries and not necessary to connect to the Interstate, this bridge is unusual. From the Interstate, you see vegetation sprouting from the sides and top of the bridge. Its exterior is a solid concrete wall but on the middle of each side is an oval shaped opening punctuated with metal bars. The sign tells you that it is the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Land Bridge. Researching the Greenway, I learned that it is a trail system that crosses Florida along the land purchased for the (thankfully) now defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal, a transportation system that was designed to eliminate the tedious route around the peninsula and connect the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. First proposed as early as the sixteenth century by King Philip II of Spain, land for the project steadily was acquired starting in the 1930s. Eventually, a mile wide stretch of land was set aside for the canal. Portions were constructed beginning in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Interest died with concerns that the project would endanger Florida’s aquifer system. The idea was reborn during World War II and again in the 1960s with President Lyndon Johnson pushing the button for the dynamite that signaled the beginning of modern efforts to dig the canal. The project was famously defeated by environmentalists in the 1970s and officially cancelled in 1991. Seven years later, the land was turned over to the State of Florida and renamed the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway after the woman who led the efforts to stop the canal. Today, hikers, bike riders and equestrians can take advantage of an excellent trail system that includes more than eighty-five miles in the Ocala area alone. Ever since I heard about the opportunity to ride my horse on the Land Bridge, I wanted to do it, and for years, as we crossed underneath the bridge on our travels up and down the Interstate, I said, “Someday, I will ride over that bridge.” Because of the efforts of some of my friends, that someday happened over the weekend. Andrea, my riding buddy, and her husband and friends have ridden over the Land Bridge many times. They camp in Ocala frequently and take advantage of the Greenways’s trail system for horseback riding. I have never been able to go because we don’t have a way to camp, but Andrea found a campground connected to the Greenway that also had a bunkhouse where husband and I could rent a room. This past weekend was set aside for our adventure; we made reservations and left on Friday to travel to Ocala with my horse in the trailer, planning on riding both Saturday and Sunday. The weather was a little iffy, but the clouds cleared and on Saturday morning, we headed out towards the Land Bridge. I was both excited and nervous and had a hard time sleeping the night before but was still up early to get Trucker ready for the ride. From the campground, we made our way through dense forest on a narrow trail until we connected with the Greenway and its wide paths under spreading oaks, tall pines and thick underbrush. Birds were hidden in the trees, but we could hear them clearly and in some cases loudly singing throughout the forest. We took turns leading the group because whoever was in the front had to battle the multitudes of spider webs stretched across the trail. The temperature was much lower than expected because of the tree canopy and damp ground from earlier rains. As we got closer to the Land Bridge, we could hear the Interstate traffic and my stomach flipped a couple of times wondering how Trucker would do. I imagined a concrete bridge much like a roadway, but was surprised to find that the path leading up to the bridge did not change from the sand one we had been following. In fact, the trail remained sand and shell even as it crossed over the Interstate. The bridge itself was lined with a rock wall covered in mold and ferns, vegetation including trees and bushes seemingly transplanted from the forest grew on both sides. Except for the whirr of traffic and two “overlooks”, oval shaped openings, that revealed the traffic flowing underneath us, I would never had known we had left the forest. Trucker plodded up and over the bridge without a care, allowing me to stop him for a photograph at the top. He seemed unconcerned about the view from the overlooks and did not hesitate to do what I asked. I was extremely proud of his behavior. From the bridge, we rode on the other side of the Interstate for a couple of hours. On that side, there were more hills and valleys as in that area a portion of the canal was dug in the 1930s, leaving berms and ridges now covered with vegetation at a higher elevation. Then, we recrossed the Land Bridge to head back to the campground. The next day, we took a different route to the Land Bridge. By then, I knew what to expect and was no longer nervous and concerned. We had another delightful ride through the real Florida which is magical and beautiful. As we ride, while sometimes, we are quiet listening to the birds and the sounds of the wind in the trees, other times, conversations arise and bonds are built between people who shared only the love of horseback riding before our experience together. We talk of horses and dogs, but also deeper issues like finances, retirement, marriage, illness and even death. Something happens on that journey together that creates bonds of friendships. As I listened to one woman tell about her mother’s recent battle with cancer, it occurred to me that the land bridge is symbolic of my beliefs about dying. We worry about death, and we do everything we can to prevent it. No matter how anxious we are though, death is inevitable. No matter whether we are young or old, someday, our bodies will give out. I hope that no matter the process that brings me to death that it will be like riding over the land bridge. A natural progression from one life to the next. Anticipation built as I reached the bridge. I did not know what to expect. Then, I realized it was much like the journey I had been experiencing. The vegetation was the same. Now, I wondered eagerly what the other side would be like. Crossing over, I realized a new adventure to experience awaited me just as beautiful as the first though different. I believe that there is life after death just as there were more forests on the other side of the bridge. While I was nervous the first time I crossed the Land Bridge, because I didn’t know what to expect, I can take comfort in knowing that when I cross from this life to the next, Jesus will be with me, guiding me and making everything complete.