Searching for the Fountain of Youth

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Sam Anderson in the NYT Magazine (photo Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times):

For more than 100 years, Punta Gorda has claimed to have the Fountain of Youth: an artesian well that once drew such long lines of tourists that, according to National Geographic, the fountain’s handle had to be replaced every six months. I walked there as soon as I woke up. I knew I was getting close when I started to see kitschy images of Ponce de León everywhere: murals on the sides of restaurants, fake motorized galleons parked at an Oktoberfest carnival. Ponce: his bulging armor, his pointy beard, the cockatoo crest of his helmet plume. He always seemed to be gesturing at something. “Go over there,” he seemed to be saying. “The important things are just out of the frame.” It was hot; after only a few minutes of walking, my face was pouring sweat. My plan, while I was in Florida, was to drink exclusively out of self-described Fountains of Youth, which meant I was already very thirsty. When I reached the spot where the fountain was supposed to be, it was nowhere. There was just an empty small-town intersection — restaurant, bank, chiropractor, stop sign. No special plaque, no burbling fountain, no crowds of elderly people leaping out of wheelchairs and dancing with joy. I worried, for a minute, that the trip had been a waste.

Then I saw it, and I laughed out loud. The Fountain of Youth was tiny, shabby and neglected: a blocky little drinking fountain, not much bigger than the garbage can it stood next to, covered in green tile that must have been decorative 90 years ago but was now cracked and stained. Today nothing identified it as the Fountain of Youth. In fact, the only sign on it was a warning from the Florida Department of Health: “Use Water at Your Own Risk: The water from this well exceeds the maximum contaminate levels for radioactivity as determined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

I turned the little spigot, and sure enough, water sputtered out. It smelled sulfurous. I bent down and drank. It was not refreshing, not at all. It tasted exactly like hard-boiled eggs. But I was thirsty, so I kept drinking. It seemed to have a little more body than regular water — maybe the high mineral content thickened it, I thought, or the radiation was already warping the nerves on the inside of my cheeks. Every mouthful felt like swallowing a single, liquid hard-boiled egg. I started to feel ill. But I had come all this way, and it was hot, and there was a long day of driving ahead of me, so I kept gulping it down. I filled a few plastic bottles to get me to the next fountain.

More here.

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