Just like old times

Published on: March 24, 2010

By Mitch Traphagen

mitchThe Ruskin I returned to in 2010 is much like the Ruskin I found in 1994. There was no boom back then. Homes were cheap and jobs were hard to find. But in some respects, that is how it should have been. It seems jobs are easier to find in the places few people want to live. Certainly, along the Gulf Coast of Florida, no one expected them to be easy to find. That said, there were jobs for the people who lived here; sometimes it took a little perseverance, but they were there. ‘Layoff’ was a rarely used term and people, by and large, were happy with a reasonably quiet existence in a town known only for growing tomatoes. There were two tack stores in town; there was a somewhat ramshackle, but nonetheless charming place famous for pies; and there was the 2-for-$2 breakfast at the Ruskin Cafe.
To me it was paradise. Eventually, I found a job and then a different one, until I finally found a home at the Observer News. I had never heard of anyone going through a foreclosure back then. There was a lull in the southern part of Hillsborough County and in the relative quiet was a certain peace and a sense of community. Life was good in so many ways. My wife and I lived on our little boat in a quiet marina just off Shell Point Road. It was the very essence of everything we believed Florida should be and I am incredibly grateful for having that time.
Today, much of the news of Florida that is served to the nation is bad news. Stories of foreclosures, unemployment, crime and, of course, the bizarre, always seem to find a place among the wire stories in newspapers and on local television news. But that isn’t the true Florida story.
The boom will be back. That is a certainty. It will be back with all of the madness and optimism and challenges of the last one. I am certain that it will be back sooner rather than later. This past winter was a rough one across the country, but especially up north. I have no doubt that tens of thousands of frost-bitten northerners are deciding right now that life is too short to put up with that much snow and cold. Florida is probably looking pretty good. The truth is that it has always looked pretty good. With a little work and perseverance, anyone can make their dreams come true down here.
Living on a small sailboat provided an endless opportunity for accomplishment. Even the seemingly mundane task of staying in tune with the weather was important. We weren’t firmly fixed to terra firma so even in a marina we were at the mercy of Nature’s whims. We were in sync with the tides; we understood the clocking of storm fronts. Keeping the boat ship-shape, keeping the systems on the ready, just making for a comfortable life aboard was an accomplishment. This little corner of South Hillsborough provided the opportunity for us to live our dreams.
In 2002 we moved into a house. In 2005 we sold it for a healthy profit. There was no sense of accomplishment in that. We didn’t really earn that money – we were just lucky to be in the right place at the right time. In 2008 we lost all of it and more selling our next house. In that case, I felt we were fortunate to have sold it at all, but certainly felt no sense of accomplishment with that, either.
Exactly one year ago, I arrived in a small marina in a small town on the north coast of Cape Cod. My goal was to sail a new-to-me sailboat south. The boat had been neglected for the better part of a decade. I spent a month in that cold, New England boatyard before I even marginally had enough confidence to put her into the water; and when I did it was with serious misgivings and trepidation. That she floated; that the engine ran and the systems worked as expected provided a major sense of accomplishment.
Over the next two months, I had challenges that made me question my sanity in throwing money down the drain known as “an old sailboat.” In the Chesapeake Bay, I was clipped by what appeared to be a tornado. Through years of living on a boat and sailing thousands of miles, I have never felt as afraid for my vessel as I did on that day. But both my boat and I survived the ordeal. It was a sense of accomplishment that I won’t soon forget.
For all the work, all the bloodshed and pain and adventure, my goal was the same. I wanted to sail home to Florida. That goal has yet to be achieved; but it will be. One day. There is something special here. There is something that is found nowhere else. There is magic in the historic neighborhoods and even in the run-down strip malls. You can smell it in the air, see it in the sky and feel it on your skin. Here, if you are willing to work at it; if you are willing to try, you can make your dreams come true. Here, you can accomplish something.
I’m a serious romantic at heart and I quickly form personal attachments to the places I visit around the country. It was a surprise, therefore, to be living on Cape Cod feeling…nothing at all. I spent more than a month there getting the boat ready to sail. I’d met people, visited many businesses and repeatedly drove up and down the streets and avenues in a quest for whatever it was I urgently needed at the moment.
I can see why people love it there, I think. If you look at a map, you’ll see Cape Cod juts way out into the Atlantic Ocean. In reality, it is an island, with the Cape Cod Canal severing the thin wrist; and the land ties to the rest of the nation. All of the madness in the world happens across the two bridges that span the canal. Cape Cod, I would imagine, is a refuge from that madness.
But it wasn’t my home. An almost imperceptible magic, the something in the air – was missing. The people I met were wonderful. Good people, friendly people, always willing to lend a hand to a harried stranger. The boat was splashed and for the first time in many years sailed out of that marina because of them and, more often than not, despite me. Everywhere I went down the coast, I found good, caring people. But nowhere did I find home. Nowhere – not in the beautiful or in the backwater – held the magic, the feeling, the opportunity that is here.
Enjoy the lull while you can. People can actually start businesses now; space is available and rents are certainly more affordable now than a few years ago. The economy is in the tank. People are losing their jobs and their homes. There is nothing wonderful about that. But in that lies the opportunity – the opportunity to find freedom, the opportunity to make your dreams come true. The time is now. This is paradise.