Somewhere in the weeds of college searches and applications, on the route from sunny-side Florida to why-would-you-go-there Jersey, I found Waldo. I-24 runs through Waldo, connecting Gainesville to Route 301 and giving a lackluster tour of what was once an orange grove haven. The first time my dad and I drove through Waldo, I-24 seemed like Main Street, but all the storefronts from a golden age were boarded up, husks of an architecture that my dad found severely lacking in our own small town.
I once thought my hometown of Bradenton was small, but my high school was more than double the size of Waldo’s population of 825. And, really, there’s nothing too remarkable about Waldo. Other than the strings of boarded up blocks, it looked similar to the city of Starke just fifteen minutes away.
Yet, I keep coming back to it. Every year, my road trip back to Princeton has involved a return to Waldo. Anticipation would build as we entered Gainesville and I would take the navigation to map out how much longer until we hit Waldo—we knew that if we blinked at the wrong moment, we would miss it. It’s a town where every business is a “Waldo” business: Waldo Hardware, Waldo fresh market, Waldo Baptist Church, Waldo Supermarket.
The first year my sister joined this adventure, she couldn’t understand why the town was so important. We’d never even stopped in Waldo, just driven through and pitied the tarnishing of a gilded history. I was even disappointed when my road trip this year involved a stop in Atlanta, veering too far west of Gainesville to even consider driving through Waldo once again. My dad and I couldn’t explain why Waldo was so noteworthy—maybe it was because everything on a road trip begins to blur together and we desperately needed to make something interesting, or maybe it’s because nostalgia led us to play a real-life game of Where’s Waldo.
In my mind, Waldo has become a sort of Walden. Without fail, a two letter difference has led me to confuse a literary lake with the run-down town each time I encounter it. But they have their similarities. Both have a history as a peaceful haven, some odd-ball playground to rediscover yourself outside the hustle and bustle of city life. Waldo has its own lake, Lake Alto, which became a tourist attraction in the 1800s where the wealthy would spend their winters lounging on the banks with evening plans at the opera house.
I doubt anyone in Waldo would ever imagine comparing it to Henry David Thoreau’s work—other than maybe the editor of Waldo’s website who outlines the once glamorous images tourists found once stepping off the railroad—however, Waldo is an anchor and a sanctuary for me. Not for naturalism or for poetry, but for my own path of finding myself and the journey from home to home. It’s a pinpoint of the last moments I can remember before hitting campus, almost as if crossing city lines marked a Mina Before and a Mina After. It’s a place of reflection, one of the few spots during the road trip where I really pay attention to details: the red brick building has segmented windows, each piece covered in plywood, the faded bloor double doors are chain-locked, while the building next door still has the blinds up but the sun has bleached its blue to the shade of well-worn blue jeans. My dad would point out which buildings would have been perfect for his train club to build new models in—it helped that Waldo has a monument to the railways once vital to the city.
Waldo should have been a passing moment, but it has taken a life of its own in my imagination. When my friends at University of Florida talk about Gainesville, I ask if they know Waldo. My professor once brought up visiting Walden, and I took a moment to process he meant the pond 1,250 miles north. For a fading town I’ve never set foot in, it seems to be everywhere. Like Walden for Thoreau, Waldo for me has become a state of mind.