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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: Looking Through The Eyes Of A Tourist
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
Aug 4, 2005, 23:48

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The sun rises over the Atlantic Ocean and the wonderful beach at the Sea Aire Motel in Cocoa Beach.
COCOA BEACH, FLA
– I hate hearing my voice on tape. I hate it because I sound like I have a golf ball in my mouth when I talk. Not coincidentally, that is how most people from Minnesota talk. After more than 10 years in Florida, I still haven’t managed to lose the whole golf-ball-in-the-mouth thing.

So, I decided to use that "attribute" for a story. I decided to Find Florida as a visitor from the Midwest would Find Florida. I would look for Florida through the eyes of a tourist.

Minnesotans are not widely known for taking risks. Their food is generally middle-of-the-road – no spices and lots of gravy, their politics are in the middle (most of the time, anyway) and the general culture is kind-of-sort-of trendy – but not too trendy. At the same time, Minnesotans are not stupid. They will tend not to take vacations where simply making momentary eye contact with a dress-to-kill young punk could mean getting shot. Minnesotans will tend to vacation where it is relatively safe, economical and contains something they can tell their snowbound friends and family back home all about while proudly showing off their bright pink "suntan."

Unfortunately, the above criteria pretty much eliminates most of Florida – except, that is, for Cocoa Beach.

Cocoa Beach is, of course, famous. It is the land of Major Nelson, Major Healy and Dr. Bellows. Genies can apparently be found in bottles in Cocoa Beach. And oh, by the way, just up the road is the Kennedy Space Center. Best of all, no one seems to get shot at in Cocoa Beach.

I was in my late 30s when I wrote my first Finding Florida article. Revealing the ignorance of youth, I took off on that first trip on a motorcycle that really had no right to be on the road. Something must have happened when I got into my 40s, however – or perhaps I had just ridden too many hundreds of miles in rain - but the thought of putting on jeans, boots, gloves, an armored jacket and helmet, fighting off heat, death-match traffic and summer thunderstorms suddenly held little appeal.

As opposed to a car, there is something far more romantic about a motorcycle. There is something that calls back to distant memories that are not necessarily my own. The motorcycle is a steel horse, complete with saddle and saddlebags. You are out there on a motorcycle, in the environment, and for me, that makes for a more meaningful adventure.

But it was 92 degrees with 2,000 percent humidity when I was finally able to leave so I loaded up my gear in the old Porsche and turned the air conditioning on full blast. There could still be something of an adventure to it. Given the unknown nature of the 22-year-old car – not to mention the weird and sometimes frightening noises it makes – I decided to join AAA just minutes before I left. I just hoped that I wouldn’t have to test the efficiency of their service in the first few hours of my membership.

I didn’t get far before I realized that although winter may be snowbird season, tourist season is alive and well during the summer in Florida. If you need proof, just pull into any major gas station or truck stop along the freeway. It was madness, complete madness, at the Flying J on I-4. Campers, RVs and tourists were everywhere. I was already worn out from that experience and I hadn’t even gotten out of Tampa Bay yet.

But the true madness was found on I-4 – the very center of madness in the universe. I’ve had pleasant encounters with people in rest areas all across the country. At a rest area on I-4, however, there were no such encounters. Everyone in sight was hot, tired and very stressed out.

Past Orlando on the Beeline Expressway, I was in the left lane directly behind a row of cars driving just at the speed limit. A car zoomed up on me and flashed his headlight – making the signal to pass. I pulled over into the right lane – but it didn’t help him much as there was a car directly ahead of me. As he pulled up alongside, I decided to get a look at the lunatic – just then he tipped his hat and mouthed the words, "Thank you." He might have been a lunatic, but he was a polite lunatic.

But the road adventure wasn’t over yet. As I pulled into a convenience store on A1A, a pickup very abruptly backed into the stall next to me. The driver was – I’m not joking – wearing a mask and a hard hat. He got out of his truck, walked over to the ice machine, grabbed some ice and took off. Apparently I am one of the few witnesses to the fiendish deeds of the "Masked, Hard-Hatted Ice Bandit."

Fortunately the pace seemed to slow down as I neared Cocoa Beach. In the community’s downtown, there is the Diamond Castle Pawn Shop. Which, no surprise, is castle shaped. In fact, it is yellow and castle shaped. It is a big yellow, castle-shaped pawnshop. And just a few blocks down the road is the Sea Aire Motel – my destination for the evening.

Built in 1954, the Sea Aire is an old Florida motel. I had an ocean view room, which means that I had to stand in the corner near the window to view the ocean. But, at least, it is a very nice view. It meets the criteria of being "Old Florida" by having the unnecessary "e" at the end of the word "air." And, Old Florida also means slightly shabby. But it is a charming shabby. The room is very neat and definitely reminds the visitor of an earlier time with wood paneled walls and a tiled floor. There is a covered picnic area with grills and tables and two wooden bench swings for just taking in the ocean that is literally on the doorstep of the motel.

Ron Jon’s Surf Shop is tourist central in Cocoa Beach. In the end I learned that in addition to cheap tourist junk, they also sell memories. (Mitch Traphagen Photos)
The quiet, charming setting would have to wait, however. I was on a mission to be a tourist – and that meant heading for the veritable kingdom of tourist chintz – Ron Jon’s Surf Shop. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that it was not my first visit – years ago, I came as a true tourist on an all too brief escape from a Minnesota winter.

After allowing Ron Jon’s to separate me from $50 in hard earned cash, I had decided that I had seen as much as I needed to see through the eyes of a shopping tourist. Cheap plastic junk mingled with overpriced tourist stuff in an environment where teenage boys prowled for chicks and teenage girls did, well, whatever it is that teenage girls do. In the midst of all that were the completely ignored parents who were searching for the best value in plastic flip-flops.

On the short drive back to the motel I realized that America seems to have lost her fascination with the final frontier. Given that this was the "Space Coast," I fully expected to find the Orbit Hotel and Lounge and other space-named businesses. Other than the Luna-Sea Motel, however, there was primarily an out-of-place Polynesian theme to the place. Unfortunately, it seems the era of space cowboys is already over.

Back at the Sea Aire, I was shooting some parasailing kids with my biggest lens when a young man walked over – he had a striking resemblance to actor Brad Pitt. He smiled a brilliant smile, said hi and then asked what I was shooting. Now most people say, "Wow, nice camera" or something similar but this young man had the air of someone who had seen such cameras before – perhaps all too often. I doubt, however, that the Sea Aire Motel would be the vacation destination of choice for a famous actor. Or perhaps that is what he was counting on.

I decided that dinner would be within walking distance of the motel. On the recommendation of the motel clerk I walked the two blocks to the Slo & Lo Bar-B-Que on A1A. The Slo & Lo has a pig on the sign – it is wearing clothes and appears to be eating chicken. It made me wonder why barbeque places always seem to use animated pigs in their advertising. That just seems kind of twisted.

The Slo & Lo was perfectly adequate with efficient service and large portions. It is, unfortunately, set up to cater to the tourists. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing - but I prefer to find the restaurants the locals choose. I prefer to find a place that is accustomed to having repeat business from people they know. This restaurant is accustomed to serving people only once. They do a fine job at it but there is a certain sterile nature to the experience. This, I believe, is one of the most critical mistakes many tourists make. There is character and depth in Florida - I know because I’ve seen it. Unfortunately it often takes a little digging - and perhaps a willingness to go just a bit out of your way to find it.

When you do find the place, don’t go in expecting fine dining in an elegant setting. But do go in slowly, quietly - allow yourself to become a part of the ambiance and you will have an experience far greater than could possibly be had at a five-star restaurant. You will leave happy and feeling better for having been there.

One of my most endearing memories of traveling to the Dominican Republic involved a simple lunch. We were told by friends that a woman in a blue house operated a small restaurant and serves very good, very inexpensive food. There is no sign, they said, just go to the blue house.

We did - but there was more than one blue house. There were pink houses too, could they have said go to the pink house next to the blue house? Finally, Michelle and I and two of our friends decided on a certain blue house and we bravely walked in. None of us spoke Spanish well enough to explain why we were there but with enough garish pantomime, the woman there seemed to understand that we were hungry. She took us out into the back yard and cleared off a small table and then left. She returned with four plates containing a wonderful chicken and rice lunch. For the four of us, we paid less than $10.

To this day, I still do not know if we found the right house or if the woman in the house we visited just decided to take pity on four hungry and confused North Americans. Oddly, I have the feeling the truth is the latter.

I arrived back at the Sea Aire in time to claim my spot on a wooden swing bench to look out over the ocean as the last remnants of the day raced over my head and to the west. It was something special to be able to watch as God turned on the stars. In my 42 years of life, I’ve never before made a point of doing that.

I watched as the blue sky darkened to indigo - I thought I could see stars but was not completely certain - it was like trying to fix on a fleeting image you see out of the corner of your eye. But finally I did see one. Then another. Then another. I watched as the ancient lights of the heavens came on until I could no longer count them.

Walking to the edge of the ocean in the dark of night can be unnerving. The vast ocean is even more vast in the dark. It is almost hard to walk up to - perhaps it raised some primal fear - like something would pick me up and take me away. But it is beautiful - the ocean is without description. The sound soothes the soul and the occasional whitecap seen in the distance provided depth to the dark horizon. It was slightly frightening and calming at the same time.

I went to sleep that night wondering if I would Dream of Jeannie.

Early the next morning I woke up, walked the 15 steps to the edge of the dune, looked out over the ocean and saw the day begin. The sun was rising behind a bank of storm clouds, painting the edges of those clouds with red, gold and pink. On the horizon, the mysteries of the ocean were shrouded in haze.

There is very little to do in Cocoa Beach - and that is a good thing because it offers more time to spend sitting on a bench swing looking out over the ocean.
As I stood there watching, I noticed there were a few other guests watching it as well. It was a Friday – possibly the day they would have to return to reality in Ohio or Illinois or Michigan. But on this morning, they were here, almost hypnotized by the depth and magnitude of what lay before them. Each of us enjoyed the solitude of
our thoughts as the never-ending waves produced a soothing background theme. At the water’s edge a dolphin slowly swam by as if to remind us of the life and vitality in the ocean before us.

I realized that I was doing what I had come here to do. I realized that I was Finding Florida through the eyes of a tourist. For the few people standing with me on the beach, the cheap Ron Jon trinkets weren’t simply to collect more stuff – they were to remember this moment. When they are back into their lives of bills, deadlines, and daycare they can pull out their hat, flip flops or that gaudy picture frame and remember – they can remember what it was like at exactly this moment. The moment they sat quietly looking out over the beach and into the ocean watching the day begin lost in their own thoughts. Those trinkets are the keys that can open a door, for a moment at least, that can transport them back to paradise.

The Sea Aire Motel is a good place to lose the normal vacation mentality of, "LET’S QUICK HURRY UP AND DO SOMETHING ELSE BEFORE OUR VACATION ENDS!" It’s good because there really isn’t anything to do. You can go to Ron Jon’s - once. You can go to dinner. Or you can kick off your shoes and take just a few steps to reach the beach. You can slow down and sit on a swing bench. You can just kick back and enjoy your surroundings.

The Sea Aire is like the elusive local restaurant. There is a Hilton just up the road for those who want all of the comforts of home. But if you really want all of the comforts of home, why leave home? The Sea Aire offers the ability to do nothing but be lost in your own thoughts while staring out over the ocean. It offers the ability for children to play with abandon while their parents forget - for a little while - the stress associated with all of the comforts of home.

When it came time to go, I lingered. The ocean, apparently, has a magnetic pull and being on the very edge of it that pull is especially strong. I had done everything I needed to do but wasn’t ready to leave yet. I noticed some of the other guests must have felt the same way. One went to check out and then sat down on a bench swing to look out over the ocean for just a bit longer.

The madness of the freeway, the stress of jobs and deadlines and calendars seemed to be very far away from the Sea Aire Motel. And, like the rest of the tourists, I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to it. For me, it was remarkable that I could be transported to such a far, far place in such a short time. Sometimes it is good to be over here when all of my problems and stress are over there.

But finally it was time to leave. Finally, I packed up my plastic flip-flops along with the rest of my memories from Ron Jon’s, got into my car and went home. It occurred to me that I was leaving happier and feeling better for having been there. As a tourist, I had found the Real Florida.

Finding Florida is an occasional series of feature stories with the never-ending quest of finding the Real Florida. For past articles visit www.observernews.net and click on the Finding Florida link.


© Copyright 2007 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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