A petite woman in a 19th century dress, light white cotton from her neck to her ankles, a heavy skirt, apron and a scarf on her head, sat in a rough-hewn wood chair inside a log cabin and greeted visitors.
"Please take in every nook and cranny," she said pleasantly. "And you have to see my kitchen before you go."
A year ago, living 2,500 miles away in Los Angeles, Laura Scarborough never imagined this life. Yet here she was over the weekend, volunteering at something called the Fort Dade Mountain Man Rendezvous at Withlacoochee River Park in Dade City, an event aimed at teaching people what it was like living in the 1800s - a strawberry blond city girl, wearing moccasins and surrounded by grizzled men smelling like a campfire, throwing knives, selling fur pelts and animal teeth and animal heads, and shooting cannons.
Not only that - she lives here, on these 610 acres with little paths with names like Big Ma's Way. The dirt road to the park entrance has pillows of sand, making cars careen like they're driving on snow.
Laura wakes up to feral boars munching in her back yard. In this new world, she and her husband have people named White Bear and Lady Kay over for dinner at their house. And instead of bringing a fine wine, guests give presents of hand-stitched leather pouches.
"This is so you," her daughter said, without sarcasm, on a trip during Christmas.
It all started last May.
Laura grew up in Los Angeles, used to the drumbeat of traffic and sirens, and was a nurse at a hospital. She liked the outdoors, but never lived in it. She had been married and divorced and had two grown daughters.
One daughter, Ashley, was in the Army and had begun dating another soldier named Sam. Both were stationed in Arizona. Ashley told her mother that she should look up Sam's dad, a park ranger in Dade City also named Sam Scarborough, during a trip Laura took to the Tampa Bay area to visit her mother.
"Sure," Laura said, never intending to call him.
At that time, Laura was fed up with dating. Women at work kept pushing her to get out there, but Laura was disgusted with most of the men she met.
They were too forward too soon and had so much baggage. Laura was content with her life: her work, her cat, her daughters and family.
She was in the Tampa area for three weeks and scheduled to fly back to Los Angeles on a Sunday. Her mom kept bugging her: "Are you going to call Sam?"
"No, he's a stranger," Laura said. "I'm not calling."
But her mom kept pressing and Laura caved. So, on the Friday before her flight, Laura called him. They agreed to have breakfast on Sunday and they met near the Flying J truck stop in San Antonio.
It was like something out of a movie. Neither of them were looking for love. But when they saw each other, it was like they were supposed to be together.
Sam lost his wife to cancer four years ago and, after a few dates in the following years, he resigned himself to being a bachelor forever and was okay with that. He is 6 feet 1 inch tall, with broad shoulders, and has the aura some men do of being a rock - stable, sure, certain - making him seem bigger and broader than he actually is.
He spent more than two decades as a carpenter before finding his dream job as a ranger at the Withlacoochee River Park about eight years ago. He and his wife and son moved into a cabin there in the woods. Then she died, and their son grew up and left, and Sam was there alone, but content.
"You're gorgeous," Sam told Laura.
And she thought he was, too, even if he was all woodsy and dressed in mismatched clothes.
They went to his cabin and talked for two hours. She had to leave so she could catch her flight. Sam asked if it would be too presumptuous to ask if he could kiss her.
"And I said, 'As long as you don't mind me kissing you back,' " Laura said. "And that was it. We knew."
Sam can't get Internet access out there in the woods, so he wrote her letters every day. He went out west to visit in June and met her 86-year-old father. Sam wrote her father letters, too. Laura came to visit in July and that's when Sam proposed. They were married in October, at the Army base in Arizona so their kids could be there. And then Sam and Laura drove the trailer packed with things from her urban loft apartment across the country to Sam's cabin in the forest. And when they woke up that next morning, to the faint sounds of birds and trees, Laura said to Sam, "Listen. Do you hear that?"
"No," he said. "I don't hear anything."
And Laura smiled, comfy, cozy, taking in this new life.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.
Withlacoochee River Park
12449 Withlacoochee Blvd., Dade City
Open from dawn to dusk
The pioneer cabins are locked, but if you go to the office and ask, a staffer will be glad to take you on a tour.
The next event there will be the Withlachoochee River Park Knap-In on Feb. 15-17, a weekend event open to the public featuring the art of making ancient tools. There will be vendors, demonstrations, food and more. For information, call Betty Walters at (727) 856-7506 or call the park office.