Silver Linings in Palatka, Florida

I am the self-declared supreme master of cheap transportation — if it saves me $50 and takes two layovers plus a bus and a 20 minute hike into town, I’ll usually do it. But sometimes my roundabout transportational approach lands me stuck in the middle of nowhere. That’s what happened yesterday morning as I started a three-week trip from St. Louis to Tallahassee and found myself almost instantly stranded in Palatka, Florida.

palatka florida amtrak station

Apparently no one in the Amtrak station is actually employed by Amtrak, so no one felt the need to tell me my train had arrived. But they do carefully tend to this one-room train museum.

My itinerary was supposed to go like this: ride with my grandparents down to Palatka, Amtrak train from Palatka to Orlando, light rail to almost the airport, then Uber the rest of the way to catch my flight to St. Louis. However, a combination of the fact that Palatka is so tiny you could literally miss it if you blink while driving by plus my lackluster observational skills resulted in failure to launch. I missed my train.

There’s not a Greyhound or other bus station in Palatka, and the one rental car agency in town didn’t have anything available until late in the afternoon. Thankfully it was still early morning and my flight wasn’t until early afternoon, so I had some time to problem-solve.

After writing off trying to hitchhike or rescheduling my flight, I called my little brother, who drove an hour to come get me, drove me two hours further to Orlando, and turned around and made the three hour trip back home. Good kid.

A lot of the time I see people get really upset when they hit a logistical bump in the road like I did in Palatka, but it always seems silly to me. I’m guilty of freaking out sometimes too, but I also try to remember it’s usually not the end of the world or even my trip. And sometimes it opens up other opportunities, like it did for me in Palatka that morning.

palatka florida clock tower

The city clock tower in the St. John’s River Park.

Nothing special happened. I walked around the tiny historic ‘downtown’ area and then headed to a pleasant park along the side of the St. Johns river until my brother arrived.

It turned into a sort of stop-and-smell-the-roses moment for me, a reminder that sometimes we get so focused on getting from A to B that we overlook everything in between. I grew up less than an hour from this tiny historic town, and must have incidentally driven through it at least a dozen times in my life, but if I hadn’t been stuck there, passing the time between missing my train and getting rescued, I’d have never noticed its quiet appeal.

palatka florida st johns

Views of the St. John’s River from the park that shares its name.

palatka florida murals

Historic Downtown is full of lively murals like this one.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not planning on moving there, and I’m already preparing dry one-liners about how even Middleburg (my hometown) isn’t as redneck as Palatka — but it was just nice.

It was just nice. Normally you board a plane, train, or automobile with an eye cast ahead for the spectacular, but things that are just nice are also worthy of being a spectacle sometimes. Yesterday morning a missed train led me to a little humble exploration I would’ve probably never done otherwise, and isn’t that why we travel anyway?