Finding Florida:  Searching From the Beginning

By Mitch Traphagen  (mitch@observernews.net)
 

ST. AUGUSTINE - Iím fairly certain that armadillos are the exception that proves Darwinís Theory of Evolution. The dozens of generations of armadillos that have come and gone since the advent of the automobile havenít evolved one bit. Armadillos, you see, take a nasty beating on the road and they are disproportionately represented among their animal kingdom peers in the ĎRoad Killí tally.

You notice that sort of gruesome thing while traveling on a motorcycle. Itís hard to miss the recently deceased armadillos as they pass just inches below your feet.

Since moving to Florida nearly a decade ago Iíve heard much about the Real Florida or Old Florida. "Donít just hang around here, you have to see the REAL Florida," people say. Even in their spoken words, you can tell that REAL is capitalized.

It must be quite a place if everyone recommends it. Unfortunately the recommendation to see the REAL Florida rarely comes with directions.

So I decided to look for it. I loaded up my mid-80s motorcycle, put on some air mesh body armor, jeans, boots, gloves and an entirely inappropriate black helmet and took off on a search across the state. I was determined to find the REAL Florida.

There are some people that take off on adventures hoping to actually find adventure. There are others that leave on an adventure hoping they wonít. I think that I am in the latter category. I didnít decide to use a motorcycle for this story because of adventure. A motorcycle adventure story usually also includes details about resulting skin grafts and long term hospitalization. No, I wasnít looking for adventure in riding a motorcycle. I chose the bike because I was counting on people reacting differently to me when I pulled up. A guy on an old bike tends to be more welcome in the quieter parts of Florida than a guy in an SUV.

Of course I probably looked like a new wave alien from a low budget science fiction film in my body armor but I wasnít going to do without it (see the previous paragraph about skin grafts). After traveling more than a thousand miles across the state, if anyone thought I looked weird, they were at least polite enough not to mention it to my face.

I decided to begin my search for the REAL Florida in the place where it all began. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States. There were people scratching out a living there decades before the late comers on the Mayflower arrived.

If I couldnít find the REAL Florida there, where else could it be? If nothing else, it was the perfect place to start.

Early on a weekend morning my trusty bike was gassed up, loaded up and ready to hit the road. St. Augustine is about 200 miles away - I just had to figure out how to get there.

Even in the best of circumstances, I-75 is not much fun. It is usually bad in a car, but it can be a nightmare on a motorcycle.

Even the armadillos tend to be smart enough to avoid it. Notice I said Ďtend.í While there are fewer per mile, there is still no shortage of upside down, no-longer-breathing armadillo carcasses on I-75.

The other side of the equation is the afternoon thunderstorms. Along with I-75, rain and storms fall into the Ďbadí category for motorcycle riding.

So driven by a desire to get to St. Augustine alive and dry, the decision was made to shoot up the freeway to Ocala and enjoy a quieter ride through Ocala National Forest, continuing on back roads to my destination.

On a back road of the back roads near the national forest, I came across some road signs standing within a few feet of each other. One sign offered Guns and Gold. The other offered Gospel. Thinking about it, Guns, Gold and Gospel pretty much sums up the early days of what is now Florida. Maybe it is still true today.

The ride through the Ocala National Forest was heaven. At one point, the forest service had conducted controlled burns of the undergrowth. The result was a perfume of loam with a subtle hint of campfire. Excellent roads and shade provided by towering trees made it a ride to remember. You donít just pass through on a motorcycle - you experience everything the environment has to offer.

Unfortunately, the environment offered an inch of rain when I passed through the small and needlessly confusing town of Palatka, but blue skies and sunshine greeted my arrival to the oldest city in America.

I decided on my lodging based on their slogan, "A Taste of Olde Florida." And although I personally believe that adding an Ďeí to words such as Ďoldí should be punishable by jail time, the slogan seemed to fit the story so I took a chance.

Depending on what sign you chose to believe, the motel was called either the Vilano Beach Motel or the Magic Beach Motel. It was built in 1950s art deco style. The people there were friendly and the room was very clean but it was most definitely a tourist motel in a tourist area - you can draw your own conclusions from that.

Upon arriving, I decided to take a quick swing down the main drag before hitting the old center of St. Augustine.

I almost ran screaming. Tourist hell awaits anyone who goes looking for it in that city. Believe it or not, I managed to avoid the temptation offered by establishments such as the Fountain of Youth Tattoo Parlor.

A quick look at some of the summer tourists on the beach, however, suggested that I was one of the few who managed to escape that temptation.

Fighting the urge to flee, I checked into my room and decided to continue with my mission.

I am glad that I did. Despite the massive tourist establishment, St. Augustine is a beautiful city and it probably has been for centuries.

One of the focal points was the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. The fort was completed in 1695 and still stands guard over the cityís entrance to the Atlantic Ocean. The old business district has several buildings from the 1700s and, despite the heavy tourist trappings, it is charming to walk down the narrow streets.

There is an undeniably European feeling to the city. Even the narrow roads that tend to make no sense add to that effect.

If you are a fan of cannons, St. Augustine is full of them. It seems that every corner is adorned with an ancient rusty cannon. The Spanish were, apparently, very well armed.

Speaking of full of it, St. Augustine is lousy with Ghost Tours. In fact, there were more ghost tours than I cared to count. One of them even offered their tour in a hearse with the roof cut out. The tourists sat in the back in plastic chairs with their heads sticking up out of the top of the hearse as the driver narrated about ghosts, mystery and death.

If thatís not fun I donít know what is.

Tourism is not new in St. Augustine. Henry Flagler may have built the railroad and the Flagler Hotel in the late 1800s that ushered in the modern tourist era but the original inhabitants likely felt that it began in 1565 when the Spanish began building the town. Tourism in St. Augustine has been alive and well for more than 400 years.

Unfortunately all of that did nothing for my mission. While St. Augustine may have been the beginning, it literally transports visitors to another place, to another time. As such, how could it be the REAL Florida?

Apparently the search continues and another adventure seems to be in order. The REAL Florida has to be out there - everyone talks about it, after all.

Do you know where the REAL Florida is? Have you been there? Have you heard about it? Please tell us your story about the REAL Florida. Write to us and we may publish your discovery.

Send us an email at realflorida@observernews.net or write or stop by our office at 210 Woodland Estates Ave., Ruskin, 33570.

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