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BASED IN houston, texas, kimberly meyer IS An independent writer and the author of The Book of Wanderings.

The Fountain of Youth is Within Us

The Fountain of Youth is Within Us

Our Side of Paradise
The Fountain of Youth in Florida

The story of Ponce de León’s mythical quest for the Fountain of Youth appears with some frequency, especially in literature—in plays, in short stories, in long narrative poems, in sonnets, in elegies. The Fountain of Youth has even made its way into the movies. Donald Duck, for instance, stumbles onto the mystical waters while vacationing in Florida and tries to convince Huey, Dewey, and Louie of their rejuvenating effect, regressing in age, or so he tricks his nephews into believing, all the way back to an egg. And in the final scene of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Captain Jack Sparrow heads off in search of the Fountain of Youth, located, according to his map, in Southern Florida. If we are in no small measure the stories we tell about ourselves, whether individually or collectively, whether true or false, what does it mean for us as a nation that we have told the story of the Fountain of Youth over and over again?

“I sometimes think of the United States as a teenager,” my British friend, Georgina, once told me. “It’s young and bold and idealistic, and also very certain of itself, which can be really good.” The Apollo Mission. “Or rather problematic.” Mission Accomplished.

In his poem, “The Fountain of Youth,” Oliver Wendell Holmes writes:

And what are all the prizes won
To youth’s enchanted view?
And what is all the man has done
To what the boy may do? 

Re-reading this un-ironic enshrining of the potentiality of youth, the power of which has not faded in the years since I first read it, I find myself embarrassed and even offended by such an easy disposal of the past and of the hard-won understanding gained by experience. (This is especially true for me as the mother of a teenager whose “enchanted” views—“I don’t understand why we can’t take all the money we’re spending in Iraq and use it to give everyone in Africa malaria shots!”—are both righteously electrifying and utterly naïve.) Perhaps Old Europe feels the same way.

It seduces, though, that optimism for the future. Holmes ends his poem with an invocation to “the sparkling fountain’s tide”:

Flow on with ever-widening stream,
In ever-brightening morn,—
Our story’s pride, our future’s dream,
The hope of times unborn!

Redeemer Nation, a City Upon a Hill, the Hope of Times Unborn—we have, from the beginning, chosen to see this country as a land of salvation, a place where the tired and the poor,the wretched, the huddled masses, tempest-tossed can find haven. In The Fountain of Youth: A Fantasy, a 1915 pageant play produced in the farming communities of the Dakotas and other western states, the Guardian of the Fountain (clad seductively in a Neo-Grecian robe of white charmeuse and strappy silver sandals, purrs to Ponce de León, “The land shall ever be a land of youth / To all nations!”

~

My friend, Joni, who shares my affection for early-twentieth-century roadside attractions, had told me about the Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine. So after a cousin’s graduation, which had brought my husband, Terry, and our three daughters and me to Bonita Springs, Florida, we drove north to St. Augustine, where the park’s owners maintain that Ponce de León came ashore on April 3, 1513, to claim the continent of North America for Spain and where, the legend says, he discovered the Fountain of Youth.

On the grounds of the park, peacocks strutted and mewed among the magnolias dripping with Spanish moss. An emu-like bird called a rhea wandered listlessly along concrete canals and past a faux-Victorian cupid fountain. My husband turned to me and said, “They just don’t make tourist traps like they used to.”

A guide waited for the assembled crowd to quiet down, then she began: “In 1513, the average life span was 35, and the average height was four feet, five inches. When Ponce de León landed on the bay, he was greeted by Oriba, the seven-foot, three hundred-pound Timucuan chief. Ponce noticed that people around here lived a long time. The chief told him about the spring they drank from. So when he left, Ponce had barrels filled with the sulfurous water and placed on his ships. Later he started a settlement and during a battle with the local Indians, he was shot in the thigh with an arrow. He died en route to Cuba at the age of sixty-one. Why did he live so long?” Our guide paused for effect. “He drank the water!”

Until I stood in the presence of the life-sized wax figurines of Ponce and three fellow conquistadors in the Spring House; until I saw a wax chieftain beckoning to them from across a gurgling fountain surrounded by silk flowers and plastic plants, a galLeón bobbing on the Ocean Sea behind them; until I saw embedded in the ground, where it was apparently discovered, a cross of coquina (sedimentary rock composed of compressed seashells and coral)—with fifteen stones laid east to west, thirteen stones laid north to south; until I saw the salt cellar, a replica of the small pewter container supposedly buried near the cross and decorated with an allegory of the Discovery of America by Columbus, which had been sealed with beeswax and which, it was claimed, contained a piece of parchment dated April 1513 and claiming La Florida for Spain; until I’d seen all this, I hadn’t been paying much attention. Before my visit, I held a vague notion, gathered from indeterminate childhood reading, of the legend of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth. I dimly recalled Baroque paintings of a small party of conquistadors, hacking through lush undergrowth and palms, searching for the rejuvenating spring. But had Ponce de León actually found it? I felt disoriented. I suddenly realized that one of those foundational American myths, which I thought I understood, I didn’t know at all.

~

When we got up to the actual Fountain of Youth, which was pouring forth from a spigot in a stone wall, the guide handed us plastic cups filled with the water. It smelled of sulfur. “Healthiest water you’ll ever drink!” she barked. “We purify it and pump it up. Sulfur and all the youth you want! It’s good for your hair, your nails, your complexion! Helps ease the aches and pains from arthritis! Buy yourself a bottle in the gift shop when you leave!” Our girls, who were only barely tolerating the excursion because we’d bribed them with a trip, “if you’re good,” to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum down the street, refused to drink. But Terry and I, having more to gain, took our plastic cups and clinked them together. “Can you tell a difference yet? Do I look any younger?: Terry asked Ellie, our teenager. She, of course, rolled her eyes.

~

This is the story the Fountain of Youth Park tells: that here, on this very spot, in April of 1513, Juan Ponce de León, seeking the Fountain of Youth, came ashore, claimed this land for Spain with a coquina cross and a salt cellar, then drank the rejuvenating waters of the spring that the friendly natives offered up to him. As it happens, only the date is verifiably true.

In 1927, Walter B. Fraser, son of a circuit Methodist minister from Georgia, purchased the St. Augustine estate, known even then as the “Fountain of Youth,” from Dr. Louella Day MacConnell, a physician and surgeon from Alaska, and spent the rest of his life promoting the site as a tourist attraction. According to a booklet I purchased in the gift shop, written by Fraser, John Henry Lee, “a colored workman” hired by Louella MacConnell, removed the stump of a large palmetto palm tree on April 13, 1909, and, lo and behold, uncovered the coquina cross.

Years before, Dr. MacConnell had discovered a small silver container near a spring located on the property. Inside the salt cellar was a piece of parchment. On the parchment, in Spanish, was written:

Be it known by this, that I, Alonzo Soriano, shareholder and resident of Brillar, contributed and certify to the public that I was present at the beginning of the foundations, which is the religion, and is with the rising and setting of the Sun. By order of the Royal Crown of Aragon he made his description at the Fountain which is good and sweet to the taste. It was in the year 1513. 

I can personally certify that the entire narrative of Walter Fraser’s booklet could be discounted with that one statement regarding the taste of the water from the Fountain, which was neither good nor sweet. But just to be sure, I contacted Dr. Kathleen Deegan, an archaeologist with the Florida Museum of Natural History. Her work at the Fountain of Youth Park, she made clear to me, is strictly confined to the Pedro Menendez de Aviles settlement site—the original Spanish encampment of St. Augustine, indeed, of Florida, of North America, for that matter, dating from 1565-66—and the Mission of Nombre de Dios which grew out of that settlement. “No, there is no archaeological evidence that the stones of the cross were placed there in 1513,” she wrote me. “Coquina had not been discovered, let alone quarried at that point. There is a great deal of uncertainty among researchers as to where Ponce de León actually did come ashore in Florida. The stones could have been part of a farming household known to have been in that area in the 1770s, and dug up by Louella Day MacConnell … around the turn of the twentieth century.” Regarding the salt cellar, Dr. Deagan was equally circumspect. She herself had seen the original years before. It was done, she told me, in a Baroque style common to the nineteenth century. Whether or not it was an outright tourist hoax, or an amateurish misinterpretation of discovered materials, Dr. Deagan would not say. It has become, she said, “enshrined in tourist mythology and experience. People love it, but probably don’t really believe it.”

People love it. In an article entitled “Edens, Underworlds, and Shrines: Florida’s Small Tourist Attractions,” Margot Ammidown argues that attractions like the Fountain of Youth Park relied on “the commerce of fantasy.”

From the invention of the automobile in the beginning of this century to the opening of interstate highways in the 1960s,” she says, “small roadside tourist attractions of almost every form were created. In part a response to the popular mythic image of Florida, they were frequently based on the native environment—the springs, the forests, the wildlife—and they were often intertwined with a narrative, extrapolated from Florida history. Small attractions naïvely attempted to create what the tourist or prospective resident surely must have felt lacking: a glimpse of the extraordinary.

 

The salt cellar. The coquina cross. Ponce de León Was Here. We lie to ourselves, hungry to glimpse the extraordinary, thirsty for proof. Because if the extraordinary exists, then perhaps God does, too, And if God exists, then surely an afterlife beyond this sordid and mundane world does as well.

But if there is such a thing as an afterlife, who needs a Fountain of Youth?

~

In what major religion, in what ancient folklore, in what culture on what continent in what epoch is water not a symbol of renewal and rejuvenation?

For Hindu pilgrims, bathing in the River Ganges is a purification rite, and can lead to nirvana. Many believers travel there to scatter the ashes of their kin across the surface. The waters of India are also the source for the Western myth of the Fountain of Youth that eventually led to me sipping from a plastic cup in Florida. The scholar E. Washburn Hopkins, writing at the turn of the last century in the Journal of the American Oriental Society with a Victorian fastidiousness and a fluency with foreign tongues (he assumes a reader to be equally versed in French and German, as well as in ancient Sanskrit and Greek) traces early Eastern fables of rejuvenating rivers and springs and fountains which were eventually picked up by Western travelers and adventurers and transformed. “What we find in Europe in these stories is the fairy-tale residuum not of old lore derived from remote Aryan ancestors,” he explains, “but of an Oriental myth brought to Europe from the Orient.”

These myths date at least as far back as the Greek Alexander Romance, a collection of legends narrating the epic exploits of Alexander the Great, which were recorded sometime in the third century A.D. This would have been hundreds of years after Alexander had actually crossed the Hellespont, conquered Persia, and made his way as far as the Punjab, where the tributaries of the Indus merge. In that early Greek version of the Romance, having burnt the palace at Persepolis, Alexander turns eastward, wanting to see “the end of the world.” He and his troops enter the Land of the Blessed, where the sun does not shine. “We came to a place where there was a clear spring,” he writes, “whose water flashed like lightning, and some other streams besides. The air in this place was very fragrant and less dark than before.” Alexander calls out to his cook, Andreas, and tells him to prepare food. Andreas wades into the water in order to rinse off a dried fish, but as soon as he dips the fish into the spring, it wriggles free, quickened, alive. The prescient Andreas drinks from the stream and then plunges a silver vessel into the water, filling it and hoarding it to himself. “The whole place was abounding in water,” Alexander laments, “and we drank of its various streams. Alas for my misfortune, that it was not fated for me to drink of the spring of immortality, which gives life to what is dead, as my cook was fortunate enough to do.”

In the twelfth century, with the Holy Land passing back and forth between Christians and infidels, or between infidels and Muslims, depending upon the perspective of the believer, tales began filtering into Europe of Prester John, a wealthy and powerful Christian prince, a royal priest descended from one of the Three Magi, who controlled vast territories somewhere in the Far East, and who might (an early and grand instance of wishful thinking) prove to be an ally in the Crusades against the Saracens for control of Jerusalem. Around 1165, copies of the Letter of Prester John—with its wondrous depictions of unicorns, phoenixes, and centaurs; men with horns who ate human flesh; and warrior women of Femnia—became popular throughout. Here there be dragons, or at any rate a serpent who guards a tree of life from which comes the chrism—holy, consecrated oil. Also a type of worm who lives within the fire and from whose skins dresses are made for women and princes. Oh…and a Fountain of Youth. One version of the Letter describes the rejuvenating spring, issuing from the base of a mountain, as:

hot for anyone who drinks from it, and it is scented with all the scents of the world; and that spring is close to paradise, a walk of six days. And whoever is able to drink from that spring instantly six times before eating will never have any illness; and if he drinks from that water up to thirty years—if he manages to live that long—then he will be healthy all his days without any illness…. And whoever is able to wash in this spring will return to his youth, like a man of thirty even if he were a hundred years old; and if he is not yet thirty years old then he will remain in that state of youthfulness until he dies.  

The authority of the Letter of Prester John became widespread, and throughout the Middle Ages versions appeared in Latin and Hebrew as well as the Romance, Teutonic, and Slavonic languages. It is likely that this particular description of the Fountain (and the descriptions of that strange and faraway world in general) influenced the thirteenth-century French version of the Alexander Romance by Alexandre de Bernay, itself a wildly popular epic which continued to help shape the conception of the East in the Western mind. In Bernay’s account, after passing through a land “so hot that they were burnt by their saddles,” Alexander and his men arrive at an elaborate fountain surrounded by majestic trees and sweet-smelling flowers. In front of the fountain is a lion made of gold, the healing waters streaming from its mouth. “The fountain came from a stream from Paradise,” claims Bernay,

from a water of the Euphrates which left the Tigris. It was paved with crystal chased in fine gold and had pillars of white marble. The old warriors entered the fountain; more than forty-six bathed in it and when they came out they were age thirty and like the best knights. Alexander saw them and smiled with happiness.

Sir John Mandeville, who may or may not have been an English knight, who may or may not have traveled through the Holy Land and to Mount Sinai as a pilgrim, who may or may not have visited the lands he describes from the eastern Mediterranean to far-off Cathay (during which journey he may or may not have been lectured to by the Sultan on the hypocrisy of Christians, or seen the sea of Libya where no beast can live because the water is always boiling, or witnessed fish in the islands near Java voluntarily offering themselves to be killed)—may or may not have drunk from a Fountain of Youth. Still, in his The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which first appeared in Europe between 1356 and 1366, Mandeville claims to have partaken of the life-giving waters. The Travels are a seamless synthesis of many other fabulous journeys. Mandeville’s version of the Fountain goes like this:

At the foot of this mountain … is a beautiful well, whose water has a sweet taste and smell, as if of different kinds of spices. Each hour of the day the water changes its smell and taste. And whoever drinks three times of that well on an empty stomach will be healed of whatever malady he has. And therefore those who live near that well drink of it very often, and so they are never ill, but always seem young. I, John Mandeville, saw this well, and drank of it three times, and so did all my companions. Ever since that time I have felt the better and healthier, and I think I shall do until such time as God in his grace causes me to pass out of this mortal life. Some men call that well the fons iuuentutuis, that is, the Well of Youth; for he who drinks of it seems always young. They say this water comes from the Earthly Paradise, it is so full of goodness. 

What I love about this passage in Mandeville is both its audacity and its modesty. “I, John Mandeville, saw this well, and drank of it,” he says, without flinching. But he makes no claims to immortality or to a return to the vitality he possessed at thirty years of age. Merely, “Ever since that time I have felt the better and healthier,” as if he’d taken a multivitamin. At the close of his Travels, Mandeville admits to being neither immortal nor youthful: “I am now come to rest, a man worn out by age and travel and the feebleness of my body, and certain other causes which force me to rest.”

Just for the record, and in case any Immortals are listening, let me state that it’s not never-ending-life that I’m after, myself, unless everyone I love could stay with me. I would not make the mistake that the Sibyl of Cumae made, asking Apollo to grant that she might live as many years as the grains of sand she held in her hand, but forgetting to ask that her body remain young as well, so that year by year she shriveled up and finally longed to die. Neither would I drink the water from the rejuvenating fountain in hopes of returning to my Friday-night-football-in-Texas, life-guarding-in-summer, pine-tree-and-azalea, sure-I-knew-everything youth. I’d be perfectly content to return to the age of thirty, when all of my daughters were still small enough that I could dress them the way I wanted without argument, when our afternoons were spent reading books and taking naps and waking up rosy-cheeked and wild-haired to the late-day sun, when they worshipped me as a goddess, and when I thought of them as happy, round-bellied Buddhas that, when appeased and bathed and fed, clapped their fat little hands.

~

We enter the world from a state of timelessness and we leave it to return to that state. But we are snared in time while we inhabit this earth. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden and landed in the briar patch of mortality. Ever since, their descendants have been trying to figure out a way to get back in. The quest for the Fountain of Youth is the quest for eternal rejuvenation, is the quest for Paradise before the Fall. Once, near the end of my grandfather’s life, my brother walked into my grandfather’s room and found him sitting in an armchair near the window, making a sort of rowing motion with his arms. My brother, seeing that my grandfather was far away, sat quietly beside him for awhile. “How long is this sea?” my grandfather asked my brother.

My brother answered, “I don’t know Grandpa. What is it like?”

“It’s beautiful here,” my grandfather said. A few weeks later, he was gone.

~

“Did you know that sea turtles use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate?” my daughter Sabine had asked me. Too bad Admiral Christopher Columbus wasn’t a sea turtle. Instead, he read Sir John Mandeville, along with Marco Polo and Ptolemy and other ancients and contemporaries, seeking facts about the navigable world. The translator and editor of my Penguin edition of Mandeville’s Travels, Dr. C. W. R. D. Moseley, even suggests that it is possible Columbus sailed west attempting to reach the Indies with Mandeville’s notion of circumnavigation filling his sails. “There are other lands—” Mandeville had claimed, “if anyone wished to travel through them—by which men could travel right round the earth, and return, if they had the grace of God to keep to the right route, to their native countries which they set out from. So, in time, they would girdle the earth.”

And Columbus could have girdled the earth if that otro mundo, as he wrote in his journal of the third voyage in 1498, that Other World hadn’t been in his way. But this Other World, Columbus came to believe was—besides being a source to mine for that unholy triumvirate of Gold, Glory, and God—Paradise. Literally.

Exploring near what is today the Venezuela-Brazil border, Columbus stumbled onto the mouth of the Orinoco River. This river, Columbus told his sovereigns, originated in “Terrestrial Paradise.”

Perhaps not unlike the medieval pilgrims traveling to shrines who, in their fervor to see wonders, saw wonders, Columbus believed he was witnessing the miracle of Eden all around him as he sailed. He saw it in the land, green and fertile, with trees of a thousand kinds, all bearing fruit. He saw it in the creatures, in the “singing of the little birds such that it would seem that man would never wish to leave here.” And he saw it in the people, who always went “naked as their mothers bore them,” innocent of any shame, i.e., Paradise before the Fall. Or, at least, Paradise Regained.

At any rate, if this was, in fact, Paradise, and the Orinoco one of the rivers issuing from the fountain there, and if said fountain was, as legends from Alexander to Prester John to Mandeville had it, a Fountain of Youth, if this otro mundo was a land of tangible marvels, a kingdom where the divine takes on corporal form, then perhaps that rejuvenating fountain, like gold and spices and pearls, could actually be found.

~

The first recorded mention of a Fountain of Youth by Europeans on this side of the Atlantic occurs in Peter Martyr D’Anghiera’s De Orbe Novo in 1514, a year and a half after Ponce de León landed in Florida. Though he never set foot in the New World, as official chronicler for the Council of the Indies, Peter Martyr documented the accounts of returning explorers. In one report, written in December 1514 to Pope Leo X, he described lands discovered by the Spanish hundreds of leagues north of Hispaniola (the island occupied by present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Amongst these countries is an island called by us Boinca, and by others Aganeo; it is celebrated for a spring whose waters restore youth to old men. Let not Your Holiness believe this to be a hasty or foolish opinion, for the story has been most seriously told to all the court, and made such an impression that the entire populace, and even people superior by birth and influence, accepted it as a proven fact. If you ask me my opinion on this matter, I will answer that I do not believe any such power exists in creative nature, for I think that God reserves to himself this prerogative, as well as that of reading the hearts of men, or of granting wealth to those who have nothing.

You’d think that, if Ponce de León had been so recently searching for just such a celebrated spring, the official chronicler of the Council of the Indies might have mentioned that detail. Nor is a rejuvenating spring or a Fountain of Youth mentioned in the contract presented by King Ferdinand to Ponce de León for his voyage of exploration.

Ultimately, the claims made by the Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine, Florida—that the land it encompasses is that which Juan Ponce de León walked upon and marked with a coquina cross and a salt cellar—are based on a few sentences from The General History of the Vast Continent and Islands of America, an account of that voyage written by Antonio de Herrara y Tordesillas in 1601, nearly a century after the voyage itself. By April 2, 1513, the expedition had land (and by the way, there were actually about fifteen miles north of present-day St. Augustine). “They sailed along the coast looking for a harbor,” Herrara writes,

and at night they anchored near this land, in 8 brazas [44 feet] of water. And thinking that this land was an island, they called it La Florida, because it presented a beautiful vista of many blossoming trees and was low and flat; and also because they discovered it during Pascua Florida [the Easter season]. Juan Ponce wanted the name to conform to these two aspects. They went ashore to gather information and to take possession.

So let’s take note, for a moment, of what is not in this description. There is no coquina cross, no salt cellar—though near a river they christen Rio de la Cruz (probably the Saint Lucie River), they “erected a stone monument with an inscription.” There is no three-hundred-pound Timucuan chief named Oriba—though the narrative does include several other encounters with native peoples, most of them hostile. And there is definitely no Fountain of Youth, at least not in Florida.

But late in the account, Herrera does mention the island of Bimini “and especially that singular Fuente [fountain or spring] that the Indians spoke of, that turned men from old men to boys.” This is at the end of the expedition, after Ponce and his crew had spent nearly a month detained on an island because of storms. After an overhaul of his ships, Ponce heads home to San Juan Bautista, but sends one of his captains, a pilot, and two Indian guides to search for Bimini. When this other ship arrives in San Juan Bay the following February, the men report that they had found Bimini, but not the fountain. “It was a large island,” Herrera ends his account, “cool, and with many lakes and trees.”

Because Ponce de León left no written record himself, and because Herrera wrote years and years later, some historians surmise Herrera was drawing on earlier historians who had linked this voyage of exploration with the search for the Fountain of Youth. For example, in 1535, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés had asserted that Ponce de León was seeking that fabulosa fuente out of vanity, hoping to find a cure for his sexual impotence, which makes you wonder more about Oviedo and what axe he had to grind with Ponce that he would libel him so, because by the time of his expedition to Bimini, Ponce de León had fathered four children. And in 1575, Hernando d’Escalante de Fontaneda, writing of his shipwreck on the coast of Florida at the age of thirteen and his captivity for seventeen years among the Calusa Indians, claimed that Ponce de León, heeding a tale of the Indians of Cuba and Santa Domingo, went to Florida seeking the River Jordan so “that he might earn greater fame than he already possessed and … that he might become young from bathing in such a stream.”

~

Seeking and never finding, a kind of failed Romantic quest—this is the element Washington Irving plucks from the historical material and places at the center of his version of the story of Ponce de León. During his long sojourn in England, beginning in 1815, Irving had studied Spanish language, literature, and history, and early in 1826 was invited by the American Minister to Spain, to translate a work on Christopher Columbus. What Irving produced instead was The Life and Voyages of Columbus (1828), a work not so much of history, as the scholar Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky points out, as that of the imagination.

Avoiding complex problems of intention or motive, and eschewing the questions that more serious scholars would likely have asked—those of an economic, political, social, and even an intellectual nature—Irving concentrates his energy on the idealized figure of Columbus; and, even though he does not deviate from the conventional structure of the story, by the time one reaches the end of this massive work it is apparent that Columbus’s journey across the Atlantic is not, as it had once been considered, a renaissance voyage of discovery, but rather a romantic quest for the unattainable. 

The same could be said for Irving’s portrayal of Ponce de León. Perhaps inaugurating the great American tradition of blockbuster sequels, Irving exploited the commercial and critical success he had achieved with The Life and Voyages of Columbus by publishing Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus in 1831. It is in this work that Juan Ponce de León, “Conqueror of Porto Rico, and Discoverer of Florida,” makes an appearance, alongside other heroes with valiant, capitalized titles like Micer Codro, “The Astrologer,” and Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, “Discoverer of the Pacific Ocean.” The Conquistadors’ Greatest Hits. In Irving’s version, Ponce de León, shadowy though he might already have been, leapt into the realm of myth in the guise of a chivalric knight errant in quest of unexplored regions. “The loss of one wild island and wild government was of little moment,” Irving begins, speaking of Ponce’s loss of Puerto Rico, “when there was a new world to be shared out, where a bold soldier like himself, with sword and buckler, might readily carve out new fortunes for himself.” But it’s not merely new fortunes that Ponce de León seeks. He longs, Irving says, to secure renown equal to that of Columbus. And so when, in debating which direction to take, some ancient Indians describe for de León a river in which all who bathed would be restored to youth, he determines to head north in search of the island of Bimini where this river runs.

He was advancing in life, and the ordinary term of existence seemed insufficient for his mighty plans. Could he but plunge into this marvelous fountain or gifted river, and come out with his battered, war-worn body restored to the strength and freshness and suppleness of youth, and his head still retaining the wisdom and knowledge of age, what enterprises might he not accomplish in the additional course of vigorous years insured to him!

But alas, though he drinks of every fountain and river and lake in the archipelago, he finds himself not one whit the younger. Struggling against trade winds and currents and “disheartened at length by the perils and trials with which nature seemed to have beset the approach to Bimini, as to some fairy island in romance,” Ponce gives up the quest and returns to Puerto Rico, “infinitely poorer in purse and wrinkled in brow, by this cruise after inexhaustible riches and perpetual youth.” Still, Irving concludes, though he did not find lasting youth, his pursuit brought him lasting fame, which is, after all, a sort of immortality.

~

We left Fountain of Youth Park and St. Augustine after the consolation trip to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for good behavior. On the highway heading north in the late afternoon, we passed palm trees and saw patches of water like hand mirrors reflecting the pink sky. As Mary Martha and Sabine read their books and Ellie stared out of the window listening to her headphones, Terry and I began talking in that way you do on long drives, when your mind is tranquil and thoughts rise up unexpectedly, like egrets from a marsh. He told me that he’d recently pulled a book off our bookshelf, which his parents had given him at his high school graduation. “We’ve had so much fun this year with you—so many memories,” his mother had written on the inside cover. Terry said, “It’s funny, but I actually don’t remember almost anything from that year.” We drove in silence for a moment. Cypress. Scrub trees. Pines. “Life didn’t really begin for me until I married you,” he said. I thought about that for awhile. Highway interchange. Gas stations and fast food restaurants. Neon signs. Finally, I told him that for me, I supposed, life began when I had Ellie, my first child. “For us,” I said, “our life is our children. They are the center of our existence. But for them, their lives are all out there in the future, waiting to happen. We’re really peripheral.”

I am thinking now about that ancient quest for the Fountain of Youth, about the image, however historically inaccurate, of Ponce de León drinking from every river and stream. And I am thinking about parents and children. How, in a sort of Sisyphean exercise, we are always discarding those who raised us and chasing the generation that comes after us, always longing to hold onto the young that we bear, just as they will their own. Each of us engages in a quest for the unattainable. Longfellow wrote,

Like the Kingdom of Heaven, the Fountain of Youth is within us;
If we seek it elsewhere, old shall we grow in the search. 

And yet, to be still is very hard.

 

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