There are no winners on the road the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but there are some more experienced losers than others. I knew before we entered the penumbra of Disney World that we would be enjoying a long, slow ramble through old Florida on our way from the Cracker scrub of Highlands county to the Red Hills of sweet Leon.
It had been at least a decade since I drove north of I-4 on U.S. Highway 27, and as we watched the cars pour onto the interstate I knew we were making the right choice. Let me tell you what we saw along the way.
Clermont, FL is a shock to the eyes when you first see the acne of houses blistering across the hills in every direction. This once small town has been subjugated and re-purposed for the Orlando commuter set. In fitness circles it is known as a triathlon mecca for the good weather and stout hills, a rarity in central Florida. It is a community contrived and lacking in soul, much like that enduring fad of the 1980’s, the triathlon.
The Villages, FL- This conglomerate of gated communities, which spans three counties is known as a checkpoint for all conservative politicians seeking to pander to the modern-day carpetbaggers of the 50+ crowd. Billed as Disney World for Adults, snowbirds drive golf carts to the grocery store and enjoy purloining local culture through hostile takeover of county commission boards. The Villages threatens the rural and equine roots of the tri-county area where pastures that produce world class horses in all disciplines are seen as potential golf courses and subdivisions which will one day be named things like Foal Run and Mare’s Crossing. A giant arch over the highway marks the entrance to the kingdom. It is surely made of cinder block and stucco, yet painted faux brick, a testament to the impermanence of this atrocity one can hope.
North of Ocala, FL the road opens up. The traffic is local or heavily laden timber and citrus trucks. Any native Floridian knows the sight of the bobbing tips of pine trees piled and hanging from the end of a logging truck transporting these sad, scrappy pines to slaughter where they will become, what? Particle board for more country club counter-tops? Paper for more of Governor Rick Scott’s failed lawsuit attempts? It doesn’t matter to us because this stretch of highway that cuts through Suwanee River country is gorgeous. The road is as often canopied by leaning Live Oaks as not and the sun is setting through the trees like honey dripping from a fork. I feel the van, a 1998 GMC Safari, lift into the wind and gain momentum. It knows we are now entering north Florida. My mood rises with the waxing gibbous moon. I love my girl, this dog, this van, this cold clear night and this road in that order.
I talk to friends and my brother on the FL Turnpike. It is a parking lot. They are scrambling for alternate routes and soon follow behind us joining our hajj to Tallahassee.
The race against the clock was lost before we started so why not stop in High Springs, FL for dinner at the Great Outdoors? Shrimp and Grits, some ribs, a couple of beers and an acoustic duet playing blues rock to a cozy courtyard of baby boomers contently snuggled in fleece. The credit card machine is down so we take in the lush photographs and paintings of Florida’s springs and waterways, and may they flow forever clear.
Northwest towards Mayo and Perry, perhaps the darkest road in Florida. The starry night interrupted only by the paper mill and the prison, both loom ugly and yellow, a couple of dirty open secrets of Taylor County. We stop between them just to pee on the side of the road and wow at all the stars. Cars blast past and I realize the ugliness one car creates to the eye and the ear. The violence of sound and light and wind, then gone. Then nothing.
Finally, U.S. Highway 19 N from Perry, FL. My home away from home. Every inch my front porch and doorstep. The victory lap.
Then home, and cat, and bed.