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Observations: Happy to be from Ruskin

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image For my first several years here, Ruskin was all about boats, as illustrated in this 2000 photo of the old Bahia Beach Marina. To me, it still is — and so much more. Mitch Traphagen Photo (2000)

“If I look out of the corner of my eyes, this could be 15 years ago.”

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

In 1994, I was an executive with a major corporation in Minneapolis, but I had a dream to sail the ocean one day. Later that year I helped a friend move her sailboat from Minnesota to Ft. Myers Beach.  That friend had stolen my dream. 
In the 49-story skyscraper that housed the corporate headquarters, there were untold numbers of political skirmishes every day. In order to smooth some of the feathers ruffled in one such skirmish, my boss suggested that I take the people from another department out for lunch. A day or so later, I received an email from someone in that department who wrote, “Hi, my name is Michelle and I’d like to meet you.”

During the lunch with Michelle, I somehow managed to blurt out my plan to continue working hard for the company for a few more years, save as much money as possible, and then buy a boat in California and sail across the Pacific Ocean. In the meantime, I’d continue to build experience by sailing my small boat on Lake Superior during Minnesota’s very short summer season. Michelle had never been on a sailboat, but she gave me her full attention and at the time I thought that she was either truly interested in what I was saying or she was extraordinarily polite.

A few months later, she was at my marina outside of Duluth buying her own boat. I watched as she backed it out of the slip by herself, brushed up against another boat, and took off. Borrowing a quote from the 1992 movie Captain Ron: “If anything is going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.” Michelle was teaching herself how to sail.

Winter comes early to Duluth and by the beginning of October; the boats were coming out of the water to avoid the oncoming ice. Michelle had quit her job, and her boat was loaded onto a truck, bound for the sunshine and palm trees of Ft. Myers Beach. She sold everything she owned, including her car, and needed a ride to Florida (the truck driver’s wife wasn’t too keen on her riding along with him). We drove straight through from Minneapolis to Ft. Myers Beach and arrived just as her boat was pulling into the marina. I spent a few days helping to get her boat ready and then, reluctantly, returned to the cold reality of life back in Minnesota. But before the drive back to Minneapolis was halfway over, I had made my decision — I would take my boat to Florida, too.

I scrambled to arrange for a leave of absence from work and a truck to haul my boat. Within weeks,  I had arrived in the land of eternal summer. My life had changed unexpectedly and very suddenly.

After a month in a backwater marina in Ft. Myers Beach, Michelle and I knew that we had to move to a place that actually had employment opportunities. We had met well-known boating author Claiborne Young, who suggested that we move our boats to Ruskin, a place we had never heard of. “It’s a great place,” he said. “Very quiet and boater-friendly.”

Sixteen years ago, almost to this day, we sailed into Bahia Del Sol marina in Ruskin. And except for an 18-month “vacation” in Iowa, we have never left. Ruskin is the only place in Florida I have lived and the only place in the world where I feel at home. These have been the best years of our lives.

Yet after all these years in Ruskin, I find it surprising that a community more than a century old could have an identity problem. Eleven years ago, after returning to Florida from a six-month hiatus cruising through the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic, I had decided to open a small boating store. I did a lot of research and talked to many people about it. I had originally planned to open the store in Ruskin given that there were four marinas and hundreds of boats (and, of course, hundreds of boat owners always in need of boat stuff) in the community. In talking to people, that idea was quickly shot down. I was told repeatedly that: “No one from Apollo Beach or Sun City Center will ever go to Ruskin to shop for anything.”

I ended up opening the store in Apollo Beach and, as suggested, it worked out well.

And then, a few years later, came the building boom. Developments involving hundreds of millions of dollars came to town, but they apparently didn’t want to be associated with Ruskin and thus, the name “South Shore” came into being, despite the fact that the actual south shore of Tampa Bay is several miles further down the road. One company even tried to use South Shore as its mailing address; an idea that was nixed by the post office, certainly much to the developer’s chagrin.

On one hand, I can understand it all — I have a marketing degree and I realize that “Ruskin” does little to suggest palm trees, beaches, warm ocean breezes and pseudo-traditional-Florida-tropical-strip-mall-development at which buyers from the frozen north would love to throw money. But on the other hand, I like living in a town named for a poet-philosopher-artist-architect-genius who may well have gone insane.

This past weekend, Ruskin was alive. People streamed in by the thousands for the Seafood Festival, while very cool classic cars cruised the streets in search of the “Cruise-In” at a local restaurant. Everywhere in town, the beautiful fall weather seemed to bring people out. On seeing it all, it felt great to be here.

On a Friday night a few weeks ago, the South Shore Arts Council and the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce held an event at the new Firehouse Cultural Center. It was so cool to see so many people out enjoying themselves on a weekend night in the middle of Ruskin. I think it showed the tremendous potential in this town.

Ruskin resident Frank Garcia, a renowned paleontologist and philosopher/song writer to boot, once told me the story of a man from Ruskin who was so curious after meeting so many people from the north that he decided to see what it was like up there. He traveled as far north as he had ever been, making it all the way to Zephyrhills before deciding he’d seen enough and turned around to go home.

Last weekend as Michelle (the same Michelle from the beginning of this story who is now my wife) and I were walking down the dock to our boat at what is now Little Harbor Resort, she said, “If I look out of the corner of my eyes, this could be 15 years ago.”  She was right. Much has changed, but much remains the same. We could easily have ended up anywhere — Apollo Beach, Riverview, Gibsonton — but we landed here, and this is home. I’m happy to be from Ruskin.

This is the annual “Welcome Back” edition of The Observer News. Wherever you journeyed from, wherever you landed, be it Sun City Center, Apollo Beach, Riverview or Ruskin, I say to you, “Welcome home.”  It’s good to be from here, isn’t it?

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