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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: Riding To Christmas Town
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
Dec 22, 2005, 23:18

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Christmas is still magic in Mount Dora. Pictured above, children play on the remnants of a snowbank in a brightly lit town park. Mitch Traphagen Photos
MOUNT DORA, FL
Ė Despite what you may have heard, there is no nightlife in Mabel, Florida. In fact, there really is nothing at all in Mabel. Sure, just down the road in Stuckey there is commerce Ė unfortunately that commerce consists entirely of a septic system company but at least thatís something. But perhaps it was the nothingness that made the trip so pleasant Ė it was in distinct contrast to the hectic pace in Tampa Bay.

Fortunately for me, however, Mabel was just a town I blew through on the way to my real destination. I was on my way to a place where people talk just a bit more slowly and where they take Christmas very seriously.

Every day when I leave home for work, I walk past my motorcycle thinking longingly about how great it would be to just hop on and hit the open road. But when the day finally arrived that I could do just that, I was filled with a weird sort of hesitation and dread. Perhaps the fact that the thermometer had yet to climb into the 50s had something to do with that. Or perhaps it was because I hadnít ridden more than a few miles in months and I worried that I could end up as a hood ornament on a Mack truck.

But in the end it was the temperature. My everyday dreams of hitting the open road included sunshine and feeling caressed by a warm breeze as I tooled down an empty highway. None of my dreams included having my ears go numb as I created a 70-mile-per-hour wind chill in 49-degree weather.

Fortunately, procrastination sometimes pays off - by the time I hit the starter on the bike and rolled down the driveway, friendly Mr. Sun had gained a foothold and the day had warmed considerably. With a leather jacket and chaps, the ride added a wonderful new definition to my dreams.

On a good, two-lane road, such as the one that goes through Mabel, the mechanical beast known as a motorcycle can actually talk to the rider. The hum and mild vibration of the engine just a foot away from your seat, the quick glances at the instruments, the response of a quick flick on the throttle, the smell of the countryside and the fact that you are moving in the environment rather than just through it all combine into a happy synchronicity that serves as a reminder of something so easily forgotten in the routine of everyday life. The reminder is that itís good to be alive.

My early hesitation and dread had long since passed and before I was ready for it to end, the ride was over when I pulled into the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora.

At the dizzying elevation of 184 feet above sea level, Mount Dora is, more or less, aptly named for Florida. There are indeed hills that apparently have formed naturally rather than through some developerís plan. And somewhere between I-75 and this little town, life moved into slow motion.

A sign at the Lakeside Inn advertised a boat ride that includes a tour of the REAL Florida. Iíve searched for the real Florida for years now and canít believe that I could have saved all that trouble by just shelling out a few bucks for a boat ride. But then again, I didnít really believe that sign.

In Mount Dora, the shops are virtually the exclusive domain of women - the men tend to loiter on the benches outside the stores.
But as much as other places Iíve found while traveling the state, Mount Dora could indeed be the REAL Florida. There is an amazing dearth of cell phones here - contrary to the Tampa Bay area where anyone over the age of four with a pulse seems to have one glued to their ear. Things move slowly and there is a very definite friendliness among the people.

I am reasonably certain that at 42 years of age, I am among the youngest guests at the Lakeside Inn. I am almost completely certain that I am the only one who arrived on this day by motorcycle. That became obvious when I walked up to the front desk where my leather jacket and leather chaps - it is, apparently, not the normal tourist attire at the Lakeside Inn. But the questioning looks quickly faded away as I was given an old-fashioned room key and directions to my room. I stayed in the Gables building - it was interesting and old and the hallway declined as the land declined towards the nearby lake. It is immaculately well kept and has a good deal of charm. If anywhere is the REAL Florida, I guess this would be it - a very old and large inn that caters to old and numerous tourists. It is, I guess, the very essence of Florida since shortly after the conquistadors arrived - tourist heaven.

But tourism here is far different that tourism on the coast. This is a slow paced tourism that doesnít seem to completely drive the native inhabitants insane. There is shop upon shop and at least two very fine bakeries. Thatís right - I said bakeries. I have yet to see a Krispy Kreme donut here - this stuff is homemade. They could almost charge admission just to walk into the place - there is nothing like a real bakery and itís been years since Iíve had the pleasure.

As a baby boomer, I grew up in an era of political correctness. Differences arenít something to be celebrated, rather they are things that we donít speak of Ė and everyone is the same. We canít take the risk of offending anyone, after all.

But Iím sorry, thatís bunk. There are differences - and the most basic is that men and women are different. To me, that is most certainly something to be celebrated. I would, after all, hate to be married to someone like me.

And that difference is very apparent in Mount Dora. It seems everywhere you go, you will find the women inside the shops and the men loitering outside. Most shop owners recognize this phenomenon and provide benches outside their stores. In fact, there are an almost infinite number of benches all over this little town. On the rare occasion that you do see men in the stores, they are usually carrying a theatrically pained expression intended to tell anyone who may see them, "Iím just here with the wife."

Younger men tend to go into the shops more than their older counterparts - but the reason for that is simple - they just havenít developed the sense of self-confidence that comes with age. They also havenít developed good, workable excuses, either. "My knee hurts.... honey, Iím having chest pains again - I think Iíll wait here on the bench." Eventually, of course, the younger men will learn. Wisdom takes time.

For those men who prefer not to shop the benches, of course, are a perk. Another perk is a train that is parked right in the middle of town. And, again, this may not be politically correct, but for most men who see a train - whether they want to admit it or not - their first thought is, "Cool! A train!"

Even more cool is that for a mere $10 you can take it for a ride. I walked away wondering how much theyíd charge to let me drive it. Throw in an engineerís hat and I have to think that bunches of members of the Y chromosome group would gladly shell out some serious cash. I know I would.

Watching a sunset over the lake from the Lakeside Inn suggests that perhaps this is the REAL Florida. And as the darkness arrives, the magic begins in Mount Dora.
As charming a town as Mount Dora is during the day, at night, at Christmas, it becomes magic. The incredible Christmas lights, the little shops and the cool December air combined to transport me back 35 years. In the small town that was my home during the weeks before Christmas the stores would change their closing time from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. The little downtown took on a whole new look at night and so did the lunch counter at the Woolworthís and the wooden floors of the Ben Franklin store. Walking the streets of Mount Dora, I could feel what I felt in my childhood walking in on the snow-covered sidewalks with my parents in the magically changed downtown.

And speaking of snow, Mount Dora even had some of that. At one time, shortly before I arrived, an entire hill was covered. On this night, there was just a bit of it left Ė enough for several kids to play in. Most of those children had never seen snow before. The fun they were having was obvious Ė it was fun just watching them play.

And apparently I was wrong about being the youngest person at the inn. As the afternoon gave way to evening, I noticed more and more young couples come out. My guess is that they spent the afternoon napping after being dragged around by their elderly Ė and more physically fit Ė parents.

The next morning I woke up to a brisk 46 degrees. After getting past the unpleasant surprise of a non-functional shower, I made my way over to a bakery across the street. It was heaven.

The shower wasnít a big deal Ė I canít expect perfection from a 120-year-old hotel, after all. But I was worried about the cold. When Michelle and I first moved to Florida what seems like a lifetime ago, we had just barely escaped an oncoming Minnesota winter. We believed that we had the good fortune to have actually arrived in the tropics. Unfortunately, Florida isnít really in the tropics and that fact was pointed out by one of the first people we had met in our little marina in Ft. Myers Beach. That person was a man who bore a striking resemblance to Charles Manson.

"You will need heat in Florida," Charles Manson said.

"No way - this is the tropics!" we replied.

"Iíll bet you fifty cents you get a heater before the end of winter," he said with a grin.

We took that bet and we lost.

I thought about that man as I took off on that cool morning. I hope I paid him his fifty cents - because right then I would have given much to have been able to hit the non-existent heat switch on my motorcycle.

Proof positive that there is nothing going on in Mabel, Florida.
I stopped in at a rest area north of Tampa - I love stopping at rest areas as they offer the opportunity to climb off the bike and to meet people from who knows where. No one that day was in a meeting mood - although I did watch one gentleman a few decades my senior as he gave my bike a very long gaze. Eventually, his wife caught up with him and he tore himself away. I recognized the look on his face - I have that look on those days I have to walk past my bike sitting quietly in the garage. The look on his face said, "I wish I were there."

If this were a calmer, less cynical world I would have gone up to the man and said, "Go - you can be there. Itís not too late but do it now." Unfortunately, in the real world, my words would have been those of an intruder rather than of an unknown friend.

Someday Iíll take my motorcycle back to Mount Dora Ė but next time I wonít be alone. Next time, Iíll join the other non-shopping men on a bench while my wife checks out the shops. Admittedly, that will only last roughly 10 minutes before she joins me on the bench but at least Iíll have had the experience. Next time, perhaps weíll take that boat ride to find the REAL Florida. Iím beginning to believe that it really may be there.


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

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