Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Finding My Florida Cracker Roots

I'm just off the 120-mile Florida Cracker Trail ride: 200-plus horses, riders, mule wagons, and a BBQ truck in a week-long, traveling caravan across mid-Florida. You're supposed to have your own horse, but it's been 35 years since I did ... so a very kind Judge Nelson Bailey and his wife, Carol, saw to it that I shared rides along the way.
When the judge wasn't riding his Paso Fino, Domino, I was. When Domino wasn't available, I hitched on various conveyances: mule wagons; a rig pulled by the Halflinger pair of Heckel and Jekyll; and finally, Carl, a plow horse somebody found for me for the parade in Fort Pierce.
You go, Carl! You're not exactly a Thoroughbred, but we looked pretty damn fine in those final day parade pictures!
I did the ride, camping along the way, because my second mystery novel, "MAMA RIDES SHOTGUN,'' is set on the Cracker Trail. Talk about suffering for your art: It rained sideways, soaking me from winter cap to wool socks. A howling wind collapsed my tent the first night. Frost coated my toothbrush the next, when it hit 28 degrees. In Florida! I had an unexpected encounter with a bull. I slept three nights in a horse stall, and I'm still picking hay from my private parts.
And, finally, I learned that you never pee outside when your boots are downhill.
The annual ride--which just finished its 20th year--honors the early days of Florida's cattle indstury. Cross-state drives took place until the 1940s, traveling east to west. On the Gulf Coast, cattle were loaded onto ships and sent to market in Cuba. Our ride, which started near Bradenton and ended on the Atlantic side at Fort Pierce, reflects the return trips the Florida cowmen made, sans cattle.
Riding the Cracker Trail is really more my main character's thing than it is mine. (A few people looked at me funny when I explained this. "Your 'main character.' Is that like an imaginary friend?'' one rider asked me.)
There was a day when I would have embraced this sort of thing. But that was before bad knees, luxury hotels, and memory-foam mattresses. I'm a long way and a lot of years from my Daddy's Florida Cracker upbringing. He died when I was eight; we lost touch with his family and his country ways. I grew up more Surfer Girl in Fort Lauderdale than Cracker Gal in Davie, Fla. It's kind of hard to excavate your roots when they're dug into decades worth of city-dweller concrete.
Even so, I'm glad I did the ride. That's not to say I'll ever do it again.
I'm just hoping Mace Bauer, the main character in my Mama Mysteries, doesn't ever take it into her head to go work on the pipeline in Alaska.

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