The Highway Oasis Beckons

Though I never seemed to remember which highway exit lane I was on when I looked down into the shadows of the highway overpasses and got a flashing glimpse of an exotic little pond brimming with waterlilies, I committed to one day finding out how to get down there for a closer look.

This highway interchange is a cloverleaf of exits shared by I-295 and J. Turner Butler Boulevard on the east side of Jacksonville, Florida. It’s a very busy concentration of highway traffic and not exactly the kind of place you would pull off the road and have a look.

When I first saw the pond from a distance several years ago, it struck me as a magical little spot out of sight from the rest of the world. In addition to the water lilies, the pond was lined with palm trees, bald cypress trees, and oaks. It looked like a little oasis. It looked like a perfect place to plein air paint.

But the beauty was offset by nearby construction equipment. Apparently, this little spot was a storage area for bulldozers, backhoes, and concrete beams.  I’ll have to wait until work on the highway is complete, I thought.

Highway construction work never seems to end and every time I passed over the spot, I saw the equipment and materials still there. I decided to make a visit despite.

It’s amazing this place exists in the middle of a highway cloverleaf.

My plan was for my wife drop me off with my gear for a few hours and pick me up at an agreed upon time. Then I thought how even stopping the car to let me out in such a precarious spot could be asking for danger. I abandoned the idea.

The idea of the visit never left my mind…

I imagined shooting a drone video where the shot would start just above my head as I was painting the pond scene and slowly move skyward. I planned to edit in bird/nature sounds that slowly gave way to traffic noice – also edited in. The contrast between the natural setting and the cloverleaf of highway lanes full of traffic was extreme and ironic. This little storyboard remained in my head.

Months, maybe years, passed.

One Saturday morning after my Beginning Watercolor class, I asked several students what they would like to paint in the next class. “I really enjoyed painting the water lilies from the photograph,” one student answered, “I’d like to paint more water lilies.” I told her I would try to find more water lilies to take photographs of and bring them to class.

Ryan Buckley, my framer and also one of my students, spoke up: “I know where some great water lilies are but I am not sure how to get to them.”

“I-295 & J. Turner Butler Boulevard?” I asked. The location popped into our heads simultaneously.

“Yes! I drive by there all of the time and always look down at them in that little pond. They’re really cool!”

Ryan and I decided on a road trip. A safari to find the long, lost water lilies in The Highway Oasis.

One negative element of the journey, beyond the difficult location, was that it was a construction storage site and I was sure neither the police nor the Department of Transportation would appreciate our stop on the Interstate to enjoy the flowers.

We decided to tackle the problem. We met at a nearby gas station at 7:00 am on a Sunday morning. We figured no one would be around to run us off. Ryan volunteered his work van as the official safari vehicle: a 1993 Ford Econoline van he calls “The Road Slug”. I’ve had the horror honor of riding in the road slug. The steering is squirrelly, there’s no A/C, and the passenger side door handle is missing.

“It will fit right into the roadside construction environment. I’ve even got reflector vests and hard hats to look official,” Ryan boasted.

We found a hidden spot off of the highway inside the cloverleaf. We parked and got out. Ryan donned a reflector vest. I opted out on wearing one. We walked the rest of the way towards where we imagined the pond would be.

The American Lotus is a beautiful but invasive aquatic plant. Photo by Ryan Buckley.

We climbed over concrete barricades, waded through wet, knee-high weeds, and negotiated large piles of dirt. Arriving at the pond, the sight of all of the waterlilies was amazing. Large yellow flowers coming up several feet out of the water. They turned out to be American Lotuses (or Loti?), an invasive species of aquatic plants. The flowers grow to up to 10 inches wide – among the largest flowers in North America.

Bullfrogs the size of small chihuahuas barked at us. Not so happy about our presence, they slipped into the water with loud splashes. Given a little time, they came back out of the water and continued their song. Beautiful trees encircled the pond and I noticed they provided privacy from passing traffic. The only way to see the pond is from one of the overpass exits that looks down to the scene.

“This is a perfect spot to plein air paint,” I told Ryan. We returned over the next several Sundays with painting gear and a drone.

“The Highway Oasis” is a beautiful little spot. I contemplated whether or not it was planned or if it was simply nature taking over. After viewing the drone footage, I hypothesized that the pond and the trees were planned. Highway drainage done tastefully. If that is true, my hat goes off to the Florida DOT.



Be sure to watch the video above to see the amazing drone footage shot from 1,000 feet. 


Robert Leedy also teaches a Plein Air Watercolor class. 
Here is his class schedule. Visit the website at

American Lotuses are throughout the pond. There must be hundreds.

The Highway Oasis is a beautiful location. Here’s a drone shot of the lily pads.


“Highway Oasis II”, by Robert Leedy, watercolor on Fabriano Artistico 140 lb. Cold Press paper, 12″ x 18″. This was my first painting on site.

Ryan gathered some pods while not shooting drone footage.

Robert Leedy painting. Working en plein aire is totally relaxing.

“Highway Oasis” by Robert Leedy, watercolor on Fabriano Artistico 140 lb. Cold Press paper, 17 1/2” x 13”. A studio painting completed after my initial visit to that magical little pond.

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