At the Fountain of Youth, irony is an age-defying mineral

     (<a href=Water droplet image courtesy of Shutterstock.com) " title="shutterstock_water-drop_1200x675" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Water droplet image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    My mother never whined about aging. She ignored it when she could and accommodated it when she couldn’t. When asked if a birthday was approaching, she’d reply, “Yes. What did you get me?” And she’d eye wrapped packages like an excited 6-year-old.

    Senior discounts were the gift that kept on giving. My mother accepted them anywhere, anytime, proudly producing proof that she qualified. She really liked riding public transportation for free, and she would race to the nearest El stop to avoid the rush-hour fare, $1. (Mom would be overjoyed to know that as of July 1, 2013, seniors ride free at all times on SEPTA buses, trolleys and subways.) As a teenager in the Great Depression, she had often walked 90 blocks to save a 15-cents car fare. So, riding free just for admitting her age? No problem.

    Her attitude rubbed off. When I turned 40, instead of compiling a myopic list of things I’d failed to do, I organized a trip. As my primary traveling companion, Mom of course was invited, but would she want to go to Florida in late July? She didn’t even hesitate: We were off to see the Fountain of Youth.

    Overshadowed by Columbus

    For 500 years, inaccurate lore has grown like mold around the fountain, a natural spring set in an area inhabited for 3,000 years. As the story goes, the fountain was discovered in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon in what is now St. Augustine, Fla.

    In truth, he may not have come this way, though his 21st century incarnation welcomes visitors to the website, and the location is named Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Rejuvenating waters aside, it is one of the richest regions in Florida for archaeologists, who have been exploring there since 1934.

    As for Ponce de Leon, there is agreement that he was looking for gold, not eternal youth. This much is known: He landed somewhere in the region, named the territory La Florida for its abundant flowers, and thus became the first European to set foot on what would be the continental United States.

    Twenty-one years earlier, Christopher Columbus landed on islands in the Caribbean. Speed trumping accuracy, he went down in history.

    So there’s Ponce de Leon, somewhere in Florida, no gold in sight, and Columbus getting all the glory at home. Suppose he really did find the wet spot in the wilderness and overheard the Timucuan Indians talking about its effects. If Ponce de Leon just decided to make the most of it, maybe he should be honored as an explorer and a marketing genius.

    Mom and I discovered as much as we could about St. Augustine. It is America’s oldest city (founded 1565) and first continuously occupied European settlement. Its streets are filled with establishments claiming to be the oldest of their kind — such as the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S, Castillo de San Marcos (1672 – 1695); and oldest Spanish Catholic mission, Nombre de Dios. The town also claims the oldest store, which operated until 1960; jail, which began incarcerating prisoners in 1890; and port. We absorbed these sights like moisturizer. Then, with tongues planted firmly in cheeks, we headed for the fountain.

    Rejuvenating one drip at a time

    While the Fountain of Youth is located in a legitimately significant archaeological area, most of the tourists we saw headed straight for the spring house, where samples were handed out. As we waited in line, Mom speculated about the lifespan of the inhabitants of the nearby burial ground, not to mention the flora and fauna calmly turning to sediment beneath us. They had to have been nourished by the same water we were about to drink, she reasoned. Simultaneously reaching the logical conclusion, we looked at one another and considered checking the tombstones for expiration dates.

    Instead, we stepped into the spring house. Water from the Fountain of Youth contains more than 30 minerals, which combine for an unforgettable bouquet that rampages up the nostrils. I expected to hear rushing water, but there was only a faint trickle. Trying not to inhale, Mom and I edged forward and arrived in front of a big rock that appeared to be drooling.

    A rail held tourists back. Behind it, attendants filled small cups with the precious liquid. No one refused a sample. We took our little cups outside to drink, the better to observe the results.

    There is no accounting for taste

    One 16th-century Spaniard wrote that water from the spring tasted “good and sweet.” Perhaps he had a severe head cold from the voyage to La Florida. Almost five centuries later, the water we sampled was clear and cool — but smelled like sulfur and tasted like it had been used to wash pirates’ dirty socks. Your results may vary.

    Every intrepid visitor to the Fountain of Youth has to decide, having sipped, whether to swallow. Mom and I had come a long way, so of course we swallowed, but just a little bit. It was enough. Our faces looked different. Not younger, exactly, but as though we had licked a riverbank downstream from a chemical plant. “Aaargh,” my mother said. “That’s awful.”

    Why didn’t I think of that?

    Suddenly aging seemed more palatable. Digging in her handbag for a breath mint, Mom glanced up, pointed to the inevitable gift shop, and said, “Look at that.” Bottles of the odious liquid were selling briskly. She was aghast: “They’re buying it!”

    Since that day, I have often wondered if the bottled water industry was born on that site. It seems Ponce de Leon discovered gold, after all. Imagine an entrepreneur stood where Mom and I stood, saw what we saw, and had a gusher of an idea.

    Years later, people still visit the Fountain of Youth and buy the water, which is presented like fine wine. You have a choice of a clear, cobalt, or emerald bottle, and a colorful or parchment Ponce de Leon label. A 750 ml. bottle costs $3.50. Shipping and tax are extra, but the irony is included.

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