I admit it. I love tourist traps. When I moved to Florida as a kid in 1961, I was immediately and forever taken by the roadside attractions I saw everywhere. There was no gator pit, Indian village or animal attraction too cheesy for me. Gatorland, Silver Springs, Potter's Wax Museum, the Serpentarium, Monkey Jungle, Ross Allen's Reptile Institute, Duck Vaudeville, Weeki Wachee; I wanted to see them all.
Unfortunately, in 21st Century Florida, Disneyworld, Busch Gardens, Seaworld and Universal have pushed most of the old attractions out of sight or out of business. The few that are left cling to existence with a desperate need to preserve the old days. What became of the old tourist traps? Where are all the gator pits, jungle gardens and funky museums that I loved so much as a kid? Where could I get a glimpse of the roadside attractions of yesterday's Florida?
This called out for a motorcycle ride. I started with the idea that I would ride my motorcycle to the end of the line, through north, central, south Florida and the Keys, stopping only when I ran out of road. I would seek out the two lane back roads and avoid Interstate Highways and urban areas, all the while searching for those last vestiges of old Florida tourism in towns with names like Eridu, Bevilles Corner, Frostproof, Lorida, Chokoloskee, Ochopee, Yeehaw Junction, Holopaw, Christmas, Bithlo, Mims, Painters Hill, Picolata and Lulu.
So one week in April, my riding buddy Bill and I set out to take a long motorcycle ride back in time. We went in search of the gator pits, citrus fruit stands, greasy spoons, mom and pop stores, 60's motels, fish camps and rural roads that I remembered as a kid. We soon came to think of this motorcycle trip as a pilgrimage and began referring to it as "The Search for the Giant Alligator."
A Motorcycle Trip in Florida: Day One
We meet on our motorcycles at a nearby Tallahassee convenience store at 7:30 AM. I've been up for hours, drinking coffee and waiting for the sunrise. Bill and I ride about fifty miles south on US 27/19 to Perry for breakfast.
We continue south on US 19/98 to the Suwannee River and stop at a wayside park at Fanning Springs for a break, then gassed up in Chiefland and rode on to the Train at Gulf Hammock for a rest stop. The Train is an old logging locomotive that has been preserved as a memorial to the logging of the surrounding land. Millions of cypress and cedar trees were logged in this area in the past century. There is a beautiful little stream behind the train, called Mule Creek.
US 27/19/98 from Tallahassee to Crystal River is a fast four-lane road that runs through one of the least populated parts of the state. The terrain is hilly until you get about 25 miles south of Tallahassee. You ride though old plantation property and pecan groves. South of this point the scenery changes to timberlands and scattered hardwood hammocks. This used to be one of the main north/south roads before the advent of Interstate Highways and you can still find remnants of the roadside attractions of yesterday. In Perry you can see the abandoned remains of an old Stuckey's and a handful of old 1950's motels, now run down and seedy. A little further south near Salem, a junkyard marks the former site of Florida Reptile Land, an old animal attraction that featured a cigarette smoking chimpanzee.
We rode on through Dunellon and Inverness, turning west on Highway 44 and made a much-needed rest stop at a giant fish camp on the western shore of Lake Panasoffkee. The ceiling of the place was hung with dozens of ancient outboard motors covered in decades-old spider webs. The skulls of large gators are nailed to the walls. We never pass by a good fish camp without stopping. They are a magnet to motorcycle travelers like us. They always have a good shade tree to cool off under and they generally sell cold drinks and essential road food such as beef jerky and potted meat.
From Lake Panasoffkee we ride east on County Roads 476, 469 and State Road 50, through Bevilles Corner, Center Hill and Mascotte, stopping at the Citrus Tower in Clermont just in time to hear "Home on the Range" played at full volume on the tower PA system.
The Citrus Tower is a genuine old roadside attraction that still stands and still looks as it did in the 60's. Only the view from the top has changed. Bill and I both recalled a time when you could actually see citrus from the Citrus Tower. After two hard freezes in the 1980's, most of the groves turned into housing developments.
The discerning rider will see many signs advertising fruit and souvenir stands that say "giant gator" or "13 foot alligator". The alert rider will notice that they never mix the words giant and alive. If the sign says giant gator, it's stuffed. If the sign says live gator, they're 12 inches long.
Next, we rode south on scenic highway 561 and State Road 33 through the Green Swamp and across Dean Still Road to US 27. The Green Swamp is the watershed for the Withlachoocee and Hillsborough Rivers. It's also a good place to see Sandhill Cranes and is still relatively unpopulated. From Dean Still Road we turn south on US 27. In the town of Dundee we find a big oak tree in front of a church to eat lunch under and take a break from the traffic.
We took Highway 17 south from Dundee to just north of Avon Park - a curving, two-lane road through citrus groves, lakes and hills. Scores of old abandoned fruit stands litter the roadside. This stretch of road really brought back memories of the central Florida I remembered from my youth; you don't see the usual fast food restaurants, strip malls and 7-11's. It runs through the towns of Babson Park, Frostproof and Hillcrest Heights. Downtown Frostproof still congers up images of small town Florida.
Highway 17 takes you through the heart of Lake Wales, a town that still treasures its old attractions. Street signs guide you to a place called Spook Hill, where your motorcycle will defy gravity and roll backwards, uphill. Masterpiece Gardens, a mosaic of the painting the Last Supper, is still proudly displayed. The Black Hills Passion Play used to spend the winter performing here. (Can you detect a spiritual side to the attractions in Lake Wales?)
We finally stopped for the night at a motel just south of Sebring. In keeping with the spirit of this quest, we chose an old, 1960's looking place with a gravel parking lot and a swimming pool that has been filled with dirt, grassed over and planted with palm trees. The lobby smelled funny, but the rooms were clean and serviceable. Two plastic lawn chairs guarded the door to each room. Several of our neighbors were already sitting out in front of their rooms with cold six-packs. You just can't get this kind of ambience at a Holiday Inn.
We ate dinner at the Watering Hole, a local restaurant just south of Sebring, where we saw Bully, the infamous, serial killing, 14-foot live alligator. He is on display in an enclosure inside the restaurant. Bully turned out to be the largest alligator seen during the entire trip.