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As soon as I leave the major roads outside of New Smyrna Beach, I turn my motorcycle onto the quiet, windy back roads that lead to Cassadaga, a tiny, sleepy, inland town between Orlando and Deland. Most people don’t even know it exists unless they see a sign for it on I-4, and then they quickly forget about it as they continue toward the Magic Kingdom or the beach. I encounter very little traffic on this weekday, passing old pines and sweet water oaks hung with Spanish moss.
Cassadaga, known internationally as the Psychic Capital of the World, is a cross between Mayberry and The Twilight Zone, with a dash of Old West ghost town. Steven King would love this place. The town came into existence in 1894 when George P. Colby, a member of the spiritualist movement near Cassadaga, New York, was directed to establish the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association in Florida. The town has existed ever since.
As I pass the Cassadaga Hotel—the town’s only hotel—and see its wraparound porch lined with rocking chairs and potted palms, I decide to pull over. The façade is Mediterranean Bates motel—appropriate since the hotel is purported to be haunted. The interior reminds me of the Roaring ‘20s with Tuscan-style furniture and a speakeasy feel. The hotel’s Italian restaurant, bar and piano player keep the corporeal visitors fed and entertained. I wonder briefly how the non-corporeal visitors feel about it?
While my own artsy beach town is known for its numerous galleries and artists, Cassadaga is choc-o-block full of psychics and readers of all kinds. Want your tarot cards read? No problem. Want to speak to Aunt Tilly who passed on? No sweat. Want to know when tall, dark and handsome is going to show up? For a small fee, anything is possible.
Though not advertised to outsiders, a Hatfields and McCoys sort of feud is apparently going on in little Cassadaga—kind of a psychic gunfight. The warring parties are the “New Agers” who hang out mostly at the hotel, and the members of the Spiritualist community. Sometimes, while crossing the street, members of opposing sides stare each other down like alley cats ready for a fight. I wonder if I’d be associated with the Spiritualists, since I own a guitar handmade from some of the original wood of the Colby Memorial Temple?
The rest of the village seems like a hangout for Southern cousins of Salem witches. Signs swing gently in warm breezes advertising Money Draw oils and Love potions. Residences and business owners pour a line of salt across almost every doorway—to repel negative energy from entering the home or office.
Once, long ago, I had my cards read in Cassadaga. The reader told me I would go away to college “up North” and love it. I’m not sure Maryland really counts as “up North” since it is south of the Mason-Dixon line, but it was north of Florida and I did love it.
Today, instead of investing in readings or oils, I’m content to “people watch.” A tour guide leading a group of devout and/or curious visitors around the town catches my eye. I hear the guide explain Cassadaga’s history, architecture and practices as they begin their walk down the main street toward Colby Memorial Temple.
Dangling from a tiny wood house across from the hotel is a sign advertising tarot card readings. Tourists come and go from there. A few pass me on the porch to enter the hotel for palm readings and when they come back out, I try to read their faces to guess what they heard. Promises of riches? Promises of love? Dark prophecies that will send them home to hide under the bed?
Rocking on the hotel porch, I recall attending a conference where someone from Harvard or one of the Ivy League schools was commenting on Southern literature and writers, and, as always, the issue of the weird and “grotesque” in Southern literature came up—how all things Southern have this underpinning of the grotesque. I wanted to take off my shoe and throw it at him. The grotesque is not limited to the South; the difference is Southerners, especially writers, embrace the weird and the strange. We revel in it. Hell, a Festivus pole made out of beer cans is on display in our state Capitol and a homeowners association has a no-swimming-as-a-mermaid rule. We embrace the weird and strange, create it and park it out on the front porch as an art installation.
As the winter sun starts to slide from its zenith behind the palmetto bushes and the sable palms and the temperature start to drop, I pull on my jacket, gloves and helmet. I can smell the faint aroma of incense from one of the shops. I crank my bike and weave past the psychic reading bungalows and spiritualist camp to head back to my beach. I didn’t realize I was in search of anything in when I pulled on my motorcycle gear that morning, but in Cassadaga I found something. I found how much I love this weird, grotesque South that I call home.
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