It was somewhere around Holopaw, around the edge of the swamps, when the dung began to take hold. The smell of the reclaimed water hydrating the golf courses and manicured lawns of instant communities with names like Harmony and Lake Nona had given way to the loamy musk of vast cattle ranches and sod farms. In an instant, the cancerous advance of suburbia that marks Central Florida had been halted by wide-open swaths of dry prairie. I was only 20 minutes from my Winter Park house, but, surrounded by scrub palms, shade-seeking cows and an endless blue sky, I had found the Old Florida that so many people mourn.
Those mourners are correct in their judgment that this part of the state is being swallowed up by developers’ greed. It’s shocking that this rough and rustic region not only still exists, but is so tantalizingly close to the awful congested sameness of our area’s exurban blight. So, instead of sitting around wondering what Central Florida looked like before Disney and development, I put aside a few hours to actually find it. It turned out that – whaddaya know? – a day without turnpikes, billboards and stuccoed strip malls is a very good day.
Driving south on U.S. Highway 441, watching the Stepford perfection of Harmony Golf Preserve recede into the rearview, I shook my head in disbelief at the dredging and construction in and around Big Bend Swamp. Is it possible that these builders were – despite the housing slump – encroaching even farther into rural Florida? They appeared to be trying, but soon enough the goat farms, sod farms and cattle ranches asserted their primacy. It’s almost an hour’s drive down 441 going from Holopaw to the next town, Yeehaw Junction. In that time, there are few signs of life to focus upon: a tiny mailbox for the Deseret Ranch, a couple of wildlife management areas, the driveway-topping entry signs for various ranches. Lacking in man-made distractions, the route encourages drivers to relax their eyes in an attempt to take in the broad vista, the sky as limitless as the breadbasket views out west.
My reverie was soon broken, though, by the sight of the busy Florida’s Turnpike. Here it meets 441 and State Road 60, at Yeehaw Junction. Since the late 1800s, “cowmen working the free range cattle on the palmetto prairie and lumber men cutting timber nearby came to the Desert Inn to eat, drink and dance.” There’s not much dancing at the Desert Inn now (though there is a country-heavy jukebox), but even on this midweek afternoon, the bar and kitchen were busy. A very pregnant bartender/waitress served up my ice-cold Budweiser and gator burger in between complaints of hot flashes, and I couldn’t help but notice the sign on the bar that states that this is a “historic landmark, not a fast-food restaurant.” Thus, a quick bite on the road turned into an involuntary leisurely lunch. In this part of Florida it is essential that you slow down and take in the scenery.
From the parking lot of the Desert Inn, you can turn left on State Road 60 and be in Vero Beach in an hour, or you can turn right toward more of the palmetto prairie. I turned right. The dry, expansive vistas continued for nearly an hour, with only the hurried tailgating of trucks laden with orange juice, lumber and chickens reminding me that I wasn’t cruising down a 19th-century wagon trail. Crossing the Kissimmee River into Polk County, the landscape morphed from parched flatness into verdant scenery. By this time, the sight of the Westgate River Ranch – an upscale resort that claims to be “the world’s largest dude ranch” – appeared to be quaintly exploitative. This “1,700-acre ponderosa of winding trails, pristine waters and more” may allow travelers a chance to enjoy a simulacrum of Old Florida, but the real thing had surrounded me all day.
Farther down the road, I could buy “honey by the pound or by the car load” in the tiny town of Hesperides. Upon approaching Lake Wales, I decided to forgo a visit to the Bok Tower Gardens and headed instead to the ridiculous, gravity-defying Spook Hill. Getting on State Road 17 afterward took me along a winding road through rolling hills along the chain of lakes. Produce stands in old citrus towns like Dundee provided nourishment, while bars like Gary’s Liquorup Lounge in downtown Haines City offered cold liquid refreshment. By this time in the journey, though, those cookie-cutter subdivisions started to make themselves known again and it was clear that modern Florida was getting closer and closer. It was time to get back on dreaded I-4 and head home, but not without knowing that an instant oasis still lies just outside of town.