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Elbow Deep in the Florida Muck ... and Better for It

Published Sunday, July 27, 2014 12:10 am
Dennis_Maley_Image

Seeing as we're about to enter another nasty Florida electoral season, I figured mid July would be a good time to get out on the road and remind myself of all the things I love about this state that I've called home for the last 13 years, so that I might recall them as answers when I inevitably ask myself what the hell I'm doing here amid the absurdity that is sure to precede November 4.

 

In actuality, the idea of an All-Florida road trip had a more simple genesis. Sometime around March it occurred to me for the first time that my 10-year old son was and forever would be a native Floridian. It's one of those things so obvious that it can easily escape consideration, but following one of the seemingly endless Pennsylvania responses that I find myself answering to our state's favorite question – where are you from? (because none of us seem to be from here) – it finally dawned on me that whatever he might do, or wherever he might put down roots, he will forever be a Floridian.

 

Our annual summer road trips, which began when he was two, have taken us all over the country – Washington D.C., New York City, Baltimore, Memphis, New Orleans, Dallas, Denver and many points in between, so I figured why not confine this year's adventure to the Sunshine State and take in all of the points of interest he'd yet to see.

 

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We saw this attached to a trailer, seemingly

abandoned on the side of the road in the Keys

I'm not sure if our 7-9 day jaunts would be considered vacations or feats of endurance, but they're among my favorite memories, and I look forward to them above all else each year. Imagine two best buds packing up a well-worn Honda Civic with camping gear, all manners of clothing and recreation, food and other supplies and then just hitting the road with no DVD player, no hand-held video games, no iPods or iPads, just some road music and good company.

 

We rarely spend two nights in the same spot and never pass up a chance to see some mysterious roadside attraction we encounter, whether it's the world's largest armadillo or the weird little Superman Museum in the tiny town of Metropolis, IL. It's high adventure from start to finish.

 

Florida actually made for one of the best trips of all. Heading down the west coast from St. Pete Beach, we skipped Alligator Alley for the slightly longer but infinitely more interesting drive across old 41. It was raining heavily for most of the drive across the Glades, so we had to skip the airboat ride I'd planned, but a peek at the smallest post office in the United States, a stop at the Skunk Ape Research Center and an encounter with a 14-foot python saved the day.

 

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The roadside BBQ shacks complimented the gorgeous drive across the swamp. The kitschy Indian depots and gas stations with grab-your-ankles pricing made you laugh until you couldn't help but grit your teeth. It all reminded me that Floridians have long made due with what they've had, rather than obsessing over what they've lacked. This state is built on the ideas of people who saw opportunity where others might see little to salvage.

 

Some foiled plans saw us land in a Homestead motor lodge on our second night, but we scored some great Cuban food and met a Puerto Rican family from South Carolina who were down for some work with Duke Energy and invited us to a BBQ at the pool. In an increasingly virtual world, taking to the road almost forces you to engage and in my experience, you're almost always better off for it.

 

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Ernest Hemingway's Key West Home

By day three we'd made it to the Keys. People thought we were insane to be tent camping in the brutal heat of July and they were probably right, but there's a point when you're out in the muckity-muck long enough that you simply surrender to the thick air and tropical mist. Once you've sweated through your clothes several times over and can smell little more than the pungent, chemical citrus scent of bug spray mixed with sweat and the fish guts whose scents are wafting through the heavy and still air, you get to a point where it becomes your new normal – and that actually feels like a good thing.

 

It reminded me very much of my Army days, especially the late August afternoons at Ft. Benning during jump school or in Alabama for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons training with the added torture of MOPP-4. Suddenly, the breathable Bimini Bay gear seemed downright comfortable and the incomparable satisfaction of pulling an ice cold Coors Original from the cooler reminded me again of the luxuries that civilian life can bestow on such an occasion. Lesson learned: if you don't like it hot, move someplace else.

 

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By the time we hit Key West, however, we were grateful for our air-conditioned bungalow and a couple of eponymous Sloppy Joes. We took in the Hemingway Home, and I was reminded that some of the very best work in the canon of American literature (about two-thirds of Papa's published material) had been put to paper in the heavy air of this very same Florida heat. 

 

Exploring the Truman Little White House, you could almost feel the ghosts who'd walked across the very same floor boards, and though my son and I have twice been told the White House couldn't accommodate our requests for tour tickets, getting to see the place where "The Buck Stops Here" Harry would drink bourbon and play poker with some of the most powerful men in the country was a serviceable substitute.

 

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Where America begins (or ends) Mile Marker 0 on U.S. 1 in Key West, which runs all the way to Maine.

More cafe Cubano, the melt-in-your-mouth Cuban mix from 5 Brothers Grocery, some giant Key West shrimp at Pepe's (just as good as Blue Heaven with shorter wait time) and finally a slice of key lime pie – only a previous trip that included both Memphis and New Orleans made for greater gastronomic delight.

 

We made the whole wondrous drive back to Homestead in the sunshine, and it only rained during the cut across to Miami Beach, with the skies clearing up in time for an oceanfront sunset. Exotic architecture, exotic food, exotic cars, exotic women – South Beach is an experience like few others. Florida can indeed seem a little backwater sometimes, so I've always found this cosmopolitan city quite invigorating. 

 

Up the coast in Daytona we pulled up for a slightly longer stay, taking advantage of perfect weather in a modest motel with an oceanfront pool. It was a short walk to the boardwalk where the illuminated Ferris wheel, with the sound of the rickety roller coaster and familiar arcade noises, called to mind the summer trips to Wildwood, NJ and and Ocean City, MD of my youth. It reminded me that a state so laden with outsiders couldn't help but provide doses of both home and afar for everyone. One man's nostalgia is another man's circus attraction I suppose.

 

The last day saw us in the small town of Clermont to visit the Presidents Hall of Fame, the sort of only-in-Florida spectacle that defies description or explanation, as if someone could ever properly explain how an unthinkable collection of First Lady gowns and authentic White House artifacts, along with a painstakingly scaled and incredibly detailed miniature White House could come to reside inside a small, somewhat ramshackle building while the actual Presidential Limousine used by three administrations (Nixon through Carter) literally rots in place out front near a dilapidated representation of Mt. Rushmore.

 

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I don't describe it this way to demean it – in fact, I wouldn't have it any other way and together with the Truman Little White House, the two attractions make a vital argument that you can see more of the interesting parts of D.C. here in Florida than in D.C. itself.

 

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Next door, we coughed up a few bucks to ride up the “World Famous Citrus Tower,” which was our state's highest observation deck when it was built back in 1957. At the time, it was a way to survey the area's vast and seemingly endless citrus groves. Though there's not an orange dot to be found these days, it still boasts a view of no less than eight counties, every inch of which attests to the fact that not all of our state's beauty exists on its shorelines.

 

The charming and friendly woman who sold us our tickets – and gave us a number to call should the somewhat temperamental elevator resist our return trip – also let us know where we could get some good local orange juice, and the sweet, savory refreshment of Uncle Matt's Organic was just what we needed on a hot and humid Florida afternoon.

 

Being a political pundit in Florida is not usually the best way to feel good about the state of our state. But hitting the less-traveled roads and getting to know your fellow Floridians is a good cure for the election year blues. We all came here for a reason, and there's no shame in every once in a while needing to seek out a reminder as to what that might have been. For the young Floridians like my son who've had no say in the matter, it certainly can't hurt to show them that we're more than a state of strip malls, theme parks and cookie-cutter McMansions on the coast.

 

Similar columns by Dennis Maley

 

Lessons From the Open Road

 

Let Us Alone: Why Florida is the Perfect Place to Celebrate Independence Day

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