Finding Florida:  Heading Home

By Mitch Traphagen  (mitch@observernews.net)
 

CEDAR KEY - The simple basics of life have been discarded for a more complex 50 varieties-of-breakfast-cereal life that provides virtually unlimited choices but little in the way of happiness. How could we be happy? With 50 varieties of cereal, which is your favorite? It is too complex. Basic happiness, it seems, stems from a more basic existence.

Searching for the REAL Florida was, in essence, a search for that basic existence. The REAL Florida, it seems, is thought of as the Florida of the past - a time before we had 50 varieties of breakfast cereal.

What better way to search for that basic existence than on the most basic of modern transportation - a motorcycle. Admittedly, I could have ridden a horse but that mode of transportation is too slow even for a weekly newspaper. And the most basic transportation of all - walking - would have resulted in a search that terminated in Sun City Center. Even Riverview is probably beyond walking distance for me.

Last week, I searched back in time as far as I could in terms of European habitation of Florida. St. Augustine proved to be a great place to visit but did not offer the impression of being the REAL Florida. It was too far back, too different from almost everything else in the state.

Driving back from that East Coast center of history and tourism, I found a few possibilities that may have lead me to the REAL Florida.

One of those possibilities was the Oldest Diner in Florida. It was a 1940s looking diner near Palatka. I slowed and circled the restaurant looking for signs of a recent kitchen fire. Finding none, I decided to continue on my way.

Why? I believe that a good old fashioned grease fire, assuming no one gets hurt, is not the worst thing in the world that can happen to a restaurant. A fire allows things to start from scratch again - everything is clean and new. Since the Oldest Diner in Florida showed no signs of experiencing that potential for rebirth, that meant that the Oldest Diner in Florida might also have the Oldest Grease Pit in Florida.

I’m not paid enough to experiment with that.

I returned to Ruskin with all body parts intact and no skin grafts and promptly set out on the next leg of the search. This time, my trusty 19-year-old motorcycle pointed north and slightly west.

A Road of My Own

"It was really nice of the state to build this great road just for motorcycles," I thought to myself as I cruised up the Suncoast Parkway north of the metro area.

Except for a fair number of motorcycles, there was almost no one on the road. Even the toll booth attendant seemed happy to see someone when I pulled up.

As with all good things, this one too came to an end just outside of Brooksville. However, the weekday summer traffic was light everywhere as I continued to make my way north to Cedar Key.

The weather was good, the roads were excellent and the carcasses of recently departed armadillos were literally everywhere. If I thought the East Coast armadillos had it bad, it was nothing compared to the ‘Road Kill Tally’ on the Gulf Coast.

I am not morbid enough to count but I can tell you that a whole lot of armadillos meet their end on the roads between Ruskin and Cedar Key. It is a tribute to their reproductive abilities that they are not extinct.

Steel Horsemen

There are always those who seek out differences. They may not actually take part in what they seek but they are nonetheless drawn to things different.

Traveling by motorcycle isn’t altogether unusual but it is different enough to attract people drawn to differences.

At a rest area off I-75 a man stopped and stared at my bike for a while. "What year is it," he asked? "1984," I replied. It is a veritable dinosaur in the motorcycle world. We chatted for a bit and then he told me to drive safe.

At a gas station off a two-lane road, I pulled aside for some shade and a soda. Another biker pulled up and we chatted for a while. I told him that I was just out for a ride. "Yeah, me too. Have a good ride," he said.

Of course not everyone in this world is cool. At another gas station off a rural road, a late-middle age man pulled off into the parking lot on a big Harley look-a-like. His wife went into the convenience store and he ambled by for a chat just as an attractive young women pulled up in her car. "You shouldn’t carry so much stuff," he said looking at my heavily loaded bike. "You could take something like that along," crudely referring to the young woman. "My wife wouldn’t much care for that," I told him. He looked disappointed that I failed to meet his definition of a man always on the prowl. As he walked away, back to his wife who looked sturdy enough to give him a good whooping, he turned and said, ""Yeah, well have a good life."

A good life? Yes, I guess I am having a good life.

A Highway of Contrasts

Highway 24 through Levy County is a study in contrasts. Rolling through little towns like Otter Creek, Rosewood and Sumner cause you to have no doubt that you are in the South. Some buildings are abandoned, some it’s hard to tell but time has moved slowly in this part of the world. The looks appear to be a bit more suspicious but the people seem friendly once the ice is broken, once the first words are spoken.

There is a lot of history here. Much of it is a reminder of the Civil War. I honestly don’t know if the people living here think much about that but the war is a constant reminder in this part of rural Florida. The names of the towns, the businesses and the omnipresent Confederate Flag set that scene. A good bit of that history is proud and good. Some of it is waiting to be forgotten.

The contrast comes where the road ends, just nine miles away in Cedar Key. In that short distance, across a very short bridge, you are suddenly transported from the Old South to Island Time.

The people here refer to it as the island that time forgot. The mid-day, midsummer temperature was hovering in the mid-80s and the pace was slow and friendly. History is embraced in Cedar Key, it is not the shackle that it is just nine miles up the road.

The small town of Sumner was about timber and industry. Cedar Key was about fishing. Sumner is becoming a memory. Cedar Key is still about fishing - whether the catch is clams, oysters or tourists, it seems to be a happy little island, content with its place in the world.

And why not? It is beautiful here. From the eye of a traveler, it is quiet and easy going. If there are political games between the locals, it seems to be kept that way - between the locals.

Non-bikers tend to see motorcycles as death machines. The reality is, however, that in the absence of bad pavement, armadillo carcasses or out of control trucks, a motorcycle in motion is a remarkably stable object. It would take work to put down a bike going 60 miles per hour.

Having said that, however, the potential for disaster is there and even bikers tend to be less than specific when talking about accidents. "Got off the bike" is one phrase. "I got off the bike at 70 mph," would be an example. The word "Dropped" is another example.

So when I called my wife and said that I "dropped my bike," her first thoughts probably involved images of profuse bleeding.

Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for her, the part I neglected to mention was that I wasn’t moving at the time.

When I arrived at my lodging for the evening, I got off the bike as I have thousands of times before. I let it lean over to the point where the kickstand should take over. The bike went past that point and, almost in slow motion, wound up on the ground.

A 40 year old guy is no match for a 580 pound motorcycle loaded with luggage. Try as I might there was no way I was going to pick up that bike. Someone from a nearby cottage wordlessly walked up and helped me get it upright.

It was definitely time to stop for the day.

Now safely on foot and walking the quiet streets of Cedar Key it became clear that this is still a working town. The people who work here actually live here. Few people who work in the shops and restaurants of Sanibel Island can actually afford to live there.

Cedar Key is what Sanibel Island probably wishes it could return to.

My accommodations were in a former fishing camp turned motel named the Faraway Inn. One of the guests commented that it really is far and away - his cell phone didn’t work there.

That alone makes it a paradise for some people.

The Faraway Inn is an oasis in a maddening world. A maddening world that is just across the short bridge to the mainland. The small rooms are neatly decorated without the chintzy tourist motel look. The decor is a quaint tropical look and feel that I can see in my mind’s eye but can’t quite execute in my own home. It is, of course, a mix and match of furnishings but you feel like you’ve entered a room that someone actually cares about.

The overstuffed beds and numerous fluffy pillows combined with the seriously fluffy towels all add to the comfort.

This is a place where you can relax.

Each room has a guest book and a slow reading shows how clearly both the Faraway Inn and Cedar Key have touched their visitors. Many people talk of returning again and again. Many write of their gratitude for the wonderful hospitality of the motel owners and of the town.

Everyone writes about how relaxing it is.

Dogs are welcome in this town and more than a few canine companions somehow managed to leave notes of their own.

The tourist hordes aren’t here yet. According to Oliver Bauer, owner of the Faraway Inn, the town’s revenue is made up of approximately 50 percent tourism and 50 percent clam farming. It is truly a small town. It is truly a real town.

People here use the term "Ma’am" and they mean it. They wave and say hi to you as you walk down the street. They are not yet jaded from the endless demands of tourists, they have not yet been overrun.

I tell Bauer how nice the town is, how nice it is to see a real town. I suggest that as long as he is making a living, then things must be good. He tells me that he’s barely getting by but that he’s never going back.

I assume that he meant going back to the maddening world across the short bridge.

Connecting to the REAL Florida

I took a detour on my ride out of Cedar Key. I continued on beautifully tree lined country roads through the somewhat embattled city of Gainesville to the out of the way town of Cross Creek.

The book worms and the older residents may recognize the name. Cross Creek is where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lived. It is where she wrote her most famous novel, The Yearling.

Her home is now a museum and state park. Tours are offered and a respectable stream of visitors arrived at this very out of the way location.

It turns out that I am related to Rawlings. Her mother’s name was Ida Traphagen-Kinnan. Rawlings even wrote a book about her grandfather Traphagen who lived up north.

Although we have nothing in common other than a name in our family tree, it was interesting, almost familiar walking the beautiful grounds of her home in the quiet little town of Cross Creek.

Children peddled bicycles up and down nearby streets, a sign advertised a bookmobile stop and Rawlings books were offered for sale in the town’s gas station.

I can see why she chose to spend her life here. I can see why she came to dearly love her home in Cross Creek.

"It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. One is now inside the orange grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home." Rawlings wrote that in her book, Cross Creek, in 1942.

Finding Florida

St. Augustine is the REAL Florida. Cedar Key is the REAL Florida. Cross Creek is the REAL Florida. Ruskin, Gibsonton, Apollo Beach, Sun City Center and Riverview are all the REAL Florida.

Migration has been a part of Florida for more than 400 years. The REAL Florida is what it always has been - it is whatever you make it to be. There is no other state in the nation that offers such a broad spectrum of opportunity, such a broad spectrum of environment. People come here looking for their pot of gold. They have always come here looking for that. The pot of gold has changed over the years, but people are still finding it.

The REAL Florida is what you make it to be. It is Island Time, the Old South, con men, crooks and tourist traps, Little Havana, Miami, tourists on the beach and on and on. It is the long-term parking attendant at Tampa International Airport who greeted me years ago after a horrible flight with "Welcome home darling." It is wonderful people, it is all people. Everyone is here.

Florida just is. It is where we live. It is where we work. It is where we play. It just is.

For me, the real Florida is with my wife and daughters. The real Florida is home.

 

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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