The Florida Panhandle's remote Torreya State Park near Bristol offers more than adventure and wilderness exploration. When I visit, I am a pilgrim drawn to the sacred. The bluffs and ravines within and around this north Florida gem are so unique that some local residents had gone so far as to claim it was the original Garden of Eden, the one where Adam romped with Eve in a natural paradise until lured by Satan to bite the forbidden apple.
Almost every family of fruit tree is represented in the 2,500 plus-acre preserve, from pear to fig. Even the apple--Southern crabapple to be exact--can be found in hollows and deep ravines, along the shores of gold-tinted creeks. Only don't try eating this fruit straight from the branch. Its bitterness will long linger on the palate, and pucker the lips.
On my visits to Eden, I am always astounded by the abrupt change in scenery and topography when I near Torreya's gates. Miles of rolling pine farms, where planted sand pines grow in monotonous, even rows, give way to expansive arms of moss-bearded live oaks. I drive around a bend and sharply descend, experiencing a rare if not imagined taste of Florida mountain driving.
At road's end, a reconstructed antebellum plantation house right out of Gone With the Wind stands atop a tall bluff overlooking the wide Apalachicola River. Touring the structure, I often marvel at the rich river history depicted by drawings and photographs-Indian renegades, riverboat pirates, "Mississippi" gamblers, paddlewheelers and Civil War.
More than fifteen miles of hiking trails wind along the Apalachicola River and interior ravines, and newly acquired adjacent lands will likely open up new hiking opportunities. The terrain is surprisingly steep and the day hiker has the choice of taking one of two seven-mile loop trails-both if one seeks a strenuous challenge. Three backcountry campsites have been strategically placed for those seeking to stretch out the experience.
I often hike the river loop. I usually begin at the mansion and soon descend the bluff past sites of Civil War battery placements once geared for shooting Union boats. The guns never saw action. The raptor's view of this valley remained peaceful during the war years.
Moving onward, the terrain becomes steep. Large roots finger over the trail, having created earthen steps in angled hillsides. Broad-headed skinks scurry through brown leaf mold. If it is spring, they move through fallen blossoms of dogwood and flame azalea. Large white atamasco lilies and trillium flowers sometimes fringe the trail along with bright red carpets of Indian pink. Needle palm, river cane and the taller oak leaf hydrangea dominate the larger understory of flora. Overhead, huge magnolia, beech, white oak and sweetgum trees form lush, shaded canopies.
Deep in the ravines, amid tiny fingerlings of cascading water, is where I usually find the torreya tree, otherwise known as "stinking cedar." Its dark green, waxy needles fan symmetrically on either side of a spindly trunk. This was the famous gopherwood that built the ark, Calloway maintained. The wood's resin has a pungent odor, thus the "stinking cedar" moniker, something Noah would surely have found repulsive when mixed with other smells in an animal-packed ark. The torreya, along with the similar looking Florida yew, grows naturally nowhere else in the world. Once cut for fence posts, a fungal blight now strikes down each torreya tree before they reach maturity, threatening this rare species with extinction in the wild.
Torreya Park is where I often stretch my botanical knowledge. If this area is not the biblical Eden, then it surely is a botanical one. There is Appalachian mountain laurel, Carolina poplar, ashe magnolia, bloodroot and downy rattlesnake plantain, all species more commonly found in Southern Appalachia. Several seed varieties may have floated down the Apalachicola, the river being the only Florida watercourse with mountain origins. Not surprisingly, in the year 2000, the Nature Conservancy highlighted the Apalachicola River bluffs and ravines as a major reason north Florida was selected as one of six regions in the United States having the highest levels of biodiversity.
Eden is best enjoyed with a slight nip in the air, when all-encompassing breezes sweep across the bluffs as if sent by gods.
Some day, when I am completely gray-haired and in the autumn of life, I will visit Torreya to hike the same trails and touch the same trees of my youth. I will smell flowers of a new spring, sense the alpha and omega of my bodily existence, and grasp the unceasing life force. Isn't that what an Eden is for-a barometer of existence, a place for searching and finding, a place to jump off from?
Torreya is Eden. It is completely unique, and yet, there are a thousand more like it, in forests and rivers, coastlines, swamps, mountains and deserts. It is found in small nooks of greenery, whether a city park or backyard, porch or rooftop garden. It is anywhere people have yearned for the natural, and have found it. It is, simply, Eden.