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Finding Florida

Finding Florida: The End of The Chapter
By Mitch Traphagen
May 27, 2004 - 10:05:00 PM

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The sun sets on a fishing boat beached at low tide. There are many people on Cedar Key who still make their living by fishing - just as their parents did before them.
- I am sitting under the shade of a veranda complete with swing benches and a little table I am using to write these words. The ocean breeze is a cool and welcome respite from the hot pre-summer day.

Across the street, perhaps 75 yards away, is a narrow beach. A crabby looking snowy egret is primping himself and two dolphins are lazily swimming just a few yards offshore.

It has been a long time since I've seen dolphins. It is good to be back near the water.

For this, my last Finding Florida article in the Observer News, I've returned to the place where I started. I've put 4,000 miles on my motorcycle crisscrossing the state in my effort to find the Real Florida and in the end, I've simply returned to the place that I liked the most.

I am at the Faraway Inn on Cedar Key.

I made this same trip nearly a year ago. It was my first longer motorcycle ride in many, many years. Although the story was published second, just after one on St. Augustine, it was actually the first Finding Florida article that I had written.

On that trip I began what I called the Road Kill Tally. Seen through the eyes of an armadillo, the scene must have been nightmarish. It was bad enough through the eyes of a human. The road was thick with the carcasses of recently deceased armadillos. It was not something that was easily missed when the bodies passed literally inches beneath my feet on the motorcycle.

This year, the armadillos were few and far between. There was, however, another, even more evil scourge on the highways.

Theories in Road Kill

Note to Self: Do not wear half finger gloves on a motorcycle during lovebug season.

It was bad enough that the windshield of my bike looked like some bug-gut horror movie but what made it even worse was having the inane and highly reproductive lovebugs smash themselves to death on my fingernails. I may never eat again.

Unlike last year, on this trip the lovebugs were the only road carcasses (if you can call the splat of their remains a carcass). Incredibly, I only saw one armadillo snoozing for eternity on the road.

Now I'm no biologist but I have a theory that I think may just be correct. I believe that the armadillos, in their mindless quest to get to a paved road to be run over by passing traffic, encountered wave after wave of lovebugs as they slowly ambled towards the highway. Eventually the seemingly infinite lovebugs asphyxiated the hapless armadillos as they attempted to maintain their slow, doddering pace. If my theory is correct, researchers will find thousands of armadillo carcasses just out of sight of the roadways. And, if my theory is correct, those same researchers will find that the faces of the deceased armadillos will be covered in disgusting, hard to remove lovebug guts.

I really hate lovebugs.

Bike Goes Down Deja Vu

The covered veranda at the Faraway Inn provides shade and funnels in a cool breeze from the Gulf. Pictured above is a PocketPC with a folding keyboard and a glass of iced tea. I can't imagine a better setting for writing.
On the 170 mile ride from Ruskin to Cedar Key I thought about my trip last year. I wondered how much may have changed in that time on the little island. I also thought about my embarrassing moment when I forgot to put the kickstand down and my bike fell over. A tourist walked over and wordlessly (thankfully) helped me get it upright again. I cringed slightly as I thought about my newbie mistake.

Apparently, however, I didn't think enough about it on the way up.

"You are not going to believe this," I told my wife through the static of a weak cell phone call. "I dropped the bike!"

On last year's misadventure I told her that I dropped the bike and then added after the fact that I wasn't moving at the time. Michelle had learned from that. Her first question was, "Were you moving at the time?"

Incredibly enough, this time I actually was moving when the bike went down. I was going maybe four miles per hour when I turned into the driveway leading to my little cottage. I hit a spot of very soft, very deep sand and there was no stopping the evil force known as Gravity from claiming its prize. My bike went over and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

Fortunately, as these things seem to go, it all happened in slow motion so I was able to roll out of the way before Gravity also scrunched my leg.

I tried to pick the loaded beast up by myself but the sand was too loose. I walked over and asked two German tourists for help. Unfortunately my high school German class only prepared me for the useless banalities such as "Hi Anna! How are you?" and did nothing to ready me for the really important stuff like, "Can you help me pick up this 600 pound motorcycle?"

Fortunately the tourists were quick to assess the situation and they helped me get the bike back to where the shiny side was up. In the end, there was no harm done, except to my ego, of course.

I first began riding motorcycles when I was a teenager. In all those years I've only dropped my bike twice. Both of those times were nearly 200 miles from home. Both of those times were within 15 yards of each other. I couldn't believe it.

At this point it is important to note that the Faraway Inn does not have dangerous, motorcycle eating driveways - in neither case was my downed bike their fault. The fault lies, of course, in that I am an idiot.

Finding Florida

Between the months of September and November last year I racked up nearly 4,000 miles on my motorcycle. Between the months of December and May, I racked up all of 300 miles.

Something is seriously wrong there.

And that something was painfully obvious on my trip to Cedar Key. Before I was even out of the Tampa Bay metro area my rear end was beginning to hurt. My arms were getting tired and everything felt out of sync. Coming back from a ride to North Carolina last year the bike felt like an extension of my body. Now it just felt like a sore.

Fortunately I know that will be short-lived. By tomorrow my Suzuki and I will be reacquainted (assuming she forgives me for the dropping incident) and soon she'll be tempting me to continue on this journey of discovery.

Wait a minute. Is that what this is? A journey of discovery? For nearly a year now I've been trying to Find Florida. What exactly is that? What really have I been looking for?

The Real Florida

I've stayed in hotels all over the world and I can't imagine more gracious hosts than those at the Faraway Inn. Doreen, who owns the place with her husband Oliver, stopped by my cottage and handed me a copy of a 20 year old movie titled Cross Creek, the story of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Someone in the office noticed that I shared the same last name with Rawlings mother and Doreen thought I'd like to see the movie. She also brought a key to the Swamp Thing. It is not what it might sound like - the Swamp Thing is a really serious golf cart. Doreen told me to take it out, explore the town and have fun. I did all three.

The Faraway Inn really is far away in many respects. There are no theme parks here and not much in the way of night life. At sunset the quiet moves in and the gentle rhythm of the slow-moving island slows even further. It is paradise.

The resort does have bicycles, canoes, kayaks and a really serious golf cart for the guests to use. But for me, the beauty of the place is that there is simply nothing much to do. It is a place where I am happy. It is a place where people genuinely care about how you are. You can see it in their demeanor - you can even see it in how they decorate the rooms. Someone actually cares. The guest book in each room tells the story: Everyone likes it here, they really like it. And they dream about coming back, just as I did - just as I will again.

Lacking lights, the Swamp Thing expired at sunset. When that time came, I set out on foot. After an hour or more of walking in the still and humid evening I arrived at the Seabreeze Restaurant sweaty and thirsty. I ordered a diet soda and quickly finished it. The waitress noticed and soon stopped by with a small pitcher filled with soda and ice. My dinner was quite good and very reasonably priced and the view was wonderful. The Seabreeze sits out on stilts over the Gulf of Mexico.

What really sets it apart, however, is that the restaurant is part of an increasingly rare fraternity. The restaurant is family owned. There are no corporate goals or mottos here, just the good food and service that you would expect from a family business. It is good and it is comfortable and it is all too rare in today's world.

The Only Thing That Stays The Same is Change

It amazes me to think of my distant relative, Ms. Rawlings, sitting on the porch of her Cracker-style house typing away at her old Royal typewriter. I've stood on that porch, in front of that typewriter and tried to visualize her there writing The Yearling.

What is amazing is that just over a half a century later I am sitting here typing away on a folding keyboard and watching my words appear on the four-inch high resolution color screen of a PocketPC. Both pieces are small enough to fit in my shirt pocket and it weighs only ounces.

Much has changed over the decades. I remember my own father typing on a manual typewriter. What will our children remember about us? How much more can things change?

But in Florida, change is the only constant. It always has been that way. People have been saying "There goes the neighborhood" for more than 400 years in this state. In south Hillsborough County the change is coming on rapidly. In Cedar Key it is coming on more slowly. But it is changing. Someday everything here will be different. You can count on that.

But for today, I watched a fishing boat come in from the Gulf at sunset. It was a small boat no doubt operated by someone who actually made their living by fishing. They weren't taking out tourists, they weren't doing it for fun. They were doing it to put food on the table. Just like their father did before them.

The Adventure Lies In The Journey

A self-portrait of the reporter in the reflections created on the engine of his motorcycle.
There is a trend in this country towards homogenization. The same fast food places and pseudo-hip burger and beer joints are populating every single town in America. Some people would say that is a good thing, that familiarity makes people comfortable and happy. Sure, there is a certain comfort in things familiar but I'm not so sure about happiness.

But on that subject, is that what this has been all about? Has my search to Find Florida really been a search for happiness?

Fortunately no. I found happiness nearly a decade ago in the form of a shrimpy red-haired girl named Michelle. I don't need to search for it. I know where she lives.

Perhaps, then, it has been a search for something else. The adventure lies in the journey, after all.

More than 400 years ago the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon came to Florida looking for the fountain of youth.

I think he found it.

It took me nearly a year to learn what he knew all those centuries ago. The fountain of youth lies in the adventure, in the curiosity, in the journey. Florida is constantly changing, it is hard to find something that is always on the move. But it can be the fountain of youth for those willing to make the journey, for those who are curious and wish to see what is over the horizon. It is an endless quest.

By its nature, traveling is not comfortable. You are out of your element, among strangers and strange places. But that discomfort helps us to be a little better. It helps us to be more polite to the strangers that reach out to us. It reminds us that we are not alone in this world and that people can and will come to our sides.

Comfort and happiness are not necessarily synonymous. Sometimes it is the lack of comfort that drives us to new things, spurs us on to new discoveries. Being slightly on edge reminds us that we are alive. It is all too easy to die comfortable.

End of the Chapter

In the end I guess I never did Find Florida. But I did find what I would like it to be. Cedar Key, for me, for now, is what I had hoped Florida would be. There is a slow pace with a southern gentility that comes straight from my mind's eye.

Looking around my cottage at the Faraway Inn makes me realize that I am now living my dreams from more than a decade ago while I was suffering through the dark Minnesota winters. This is what I thought it would be. I never thought about long stretches of beach and golden tanned blonde girls in bikinis (although that, too, is a nice thought). I thought about this room filled with the touches of love and care and a little town with buildings that beckon one to remember the past. All of that from my mind is still here on this little island.

Is this the Real Florida? I don't know, probably not. I think it is still out there and hopefully it always will be. Finding it is an endless quest that is constantly changing - I will just have to keep looking. At least now I know what I am looking for.

The adventure truly is in the journey and the destination marks the end of a chapter. For now, just for now, I will close the book on this adventure. I'm not finished with the book yet - oh no, I've just finished the chapter.

Sitting here on the veranda feeling the salt air on my face in the quiet of the after sunset hours is a fine way to end a chapter.

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