“Happy Anniversary, Babe.” My husband, Ray, says to me as he holds up a spoonful of delicious pecan pie and vanilla ice cream.
We spent the morning shopping at Forest Antiques and are now having lunch next door at The Dixie Grill in Live Oak. I smile knowingly at the ice cream dripping from his spoon. We were 12 years old when our families first met camping in Suwannee County, Florida. The first time I saw him, I tripped and dropped my ice cream cone. He was sweet enough to buy me another one with his allowance, and now a scoop of ice cream has become part of our tradition.
For our 25th anniversary, we have returned to the place we met and are revisiting some of our old stomping grounds. I’m eager to reminisce, but also pleased to see how the area has grown and changed—I’ve already discovered new favorites!
We polish off our dessert then head out for an afternoon of canoeing at Suwannee River State Park. A warm breeze ripples the water and the sun glistens off the gentle waves as we put in. It’s a perfect day to be on the river. I dip my paddle in, and the sound of the water lapping against the side of the boat transports me back to our first canoe ride.
Ray’s older brother was rowing in the back, and Ray and I were sitting in the middle so close I could smell his freshly applied sunscreen. Our hands were resting on the seat of the canoe, pinkies inching closer but never quite touching. I’d had preteen crushes before, but there was something different about this one. I knew it even back then.
The splash of water brings me out of my daydreaming. I turn around and look at Ray, where he’s paddling from the back of the canoe—his face a bit more wrinkled, his hair grayer now. He flashes his lopsided grin, and I melt. Even after 25 years I still get butterflies.
Later, as the sun hovers above the horizon, we head to our campsite in the park, the very Suwannee campground where our families met all those years ago. I inhale deeply, enjoying the sweet scent of grass, trees and water. The campground is well equipped with water, grills, even electricity and centralized showers—just the right amount of modern comforts for me. I’d even spied cabins for rent and a full playground for families, but we’re content to stay at our campsite. After an afternoon paddling, we stretch our arms and backs before pitching the tent—we definitely aren’t as agile as we used to be. Once the campsite is set up, Ray unpacks his guitar and plucks the strings softly as I roast marshmallows over the crackling fire.
I come from a very musical family. One night around the campfire—that summer we met—my dad was playing the guitar, and my sister and I were singing. Ray and his brothers wandered over and asked if they could join us. He says it was my “smooth soprano” that drew him in, but the real reason was that he wanted to learn how to play the guitar. Our families hit it off and spent the rest of that weekend together. Several years (and a couple more shared family vacations) later, my dad gave him that same guitar.
I sink into my camp chair, sun-tired and happy, listening as Ray plays my favorite song.
The next morning, we wake to birds chirping and soft sunlight filtering through the tent. After a hearty breakfast, we drive to Royal Springs and hit the walking trails. There’s nothing quite like stretching your legs and lungs in the great outdoors. And the shade of the tree canopies makes Royal Springs a great area for hiking in Suwannee.
We work up a sweat, but Suwannee County is full of impressive swimming holes and Royal Springs is top among them. Florida caves and springs are the perfect place to cool off and this is a popular option. At a depth of 42 feet, with a large cavern that goes deep below the surface, the clear blue waters and natural shoreline give it a wildness that stirs something inside me, even still.
Maybe that’s why I chose a spot like this one to kiss Ray for the very first time.
He was sitting against a tree taking a break from swimming, his wet hair matted to his forehead. He smiled at me, and my stomach did a flip. I was nervous, but I walked towards him. He stood up. We were so close I could see the water droplets on his eyelashes. I closed my eyes and planted one right on his lips. Then I ran away and jumped back into the water with the other kids.
Years later, he told me that he had been sitting under that tree trying to muster enough courage to tell me he liked me.
We take our picnic lunch over to one of the tables in the sun so we can dry out. As we continue to daydream about that summer, Ray reminds me of something I had almost forgotten. I had wanted so badly to go horseback riding, but our families never managed to make it happen.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” he says with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Finish your lunch. There’s somewhere we need to go.”
I wolf down my sandwich, and we hop in the car. To my great delight, an old college friend of Ray’s who leads guided trail rides, meets us near the banks of the Suwannee River with a couple of horses, saddled and ready to go. My face is plastered with a permanent smile as we ride these majestic beasts on a trail that runs alongside the river. It’s my inner 12-year-old’s dream come true.
That evening, we shower and dress for dinner at The 406 on Duval. Over a delicious plate of crab cakes (my favorite), Ray and I reminisce about the weekend, about how we met, and about how many wonderful activities in Suwannee County there are.
Ray raises his glass. “To 25 years.” He adds a wink.
“To 25 more.” I am filled with absolute joy as I clink my glass to his. “Happy anniversary, Honey.”Build your lifetime of fun in Suwannee County, Florida.