It's called the Lakes Region but Florida will always be defined by one coast or the other for me. Yet, I enjoy the lakes, the rivers, and the clusters of various trees that give this area a true southern feeling. The first stop was a drop in for a few days with friends in Leesburg for big food (still pondering the jalapeno cheese pie), some play time (just learned Rummikub), and a trip to Mount Dora, a quaint 100+ year old town that's been on my radar for a long time (they've been holding a multi-day bike festival for 40+ years).
When I rolled into my next destination just two hours south, my eyes bugged out as I saw not one, but two enormous wild boar in rigor mortis by the side of the road. Oh yes, it's rural here in Plant City -- the "winter strawberry capital of the world" -- that holds a 10-day festival every March in honor of this fruit. You may assume, as I did, that Plant City is named for its ag industry, but over 100 years ago, railroad developer Henry Plant settled here and earned the town's renaming as he boosted commerce by merging with the South Florida Railroad.
My draw to Plant City began with a tiny house on a 4+ acre Airbnb. With produce farms, tropical plant nurseries, and ranches, it seemed like a good spot to cruise around on two wheels, and it is. While I landed in the main house, it's been a great visit as my host hails from Bulgaria and is an interesting, hard-working, 52-year old woman who enjoys people and sharing her home (as well as homemade soup and bread). Yes, I do now know of a sweet place in the mountains of Bulgaria to stay in the future, too.
Tomorrow I point further south for a month of holiday cheer with multiple friends, a look back at the ups and downs of 2021, and deep pondering of what's possible to plan for '22.
Halfway into a 6-week sleeping arrangement and I was pretty well ready to go. My work was done here but it was possible to switch gears and simply be an observant tourist.
With time to spare, how happy was I that friend, Scott dropped in from Pittsburgh for 5 days? We rode bikes and ate! It was gumbo at the Seafood Fest, fish & chips at Hudson's (in the family since 1967), grilled redfish from Bluffton Oyster Co (family run since 1899), and spanakopita at the Squat & Gobble. He claims he only came for the pecan sweet potato casserole at Bluffton BBQ (which I skipped), but I don't believe him. I was quite pleased to have conversation with a compadre all day long!
While I've listened to the stories of a few lonely men, I've not made a single connection here. People say 'hello' as a courtesy but that's as far as it goes. These are definitely not my people. I've been living in a comfy room in a lovely house with a family from Indiana, but the neighborhood feels like suburbia. This makes little sense as I'm a mile walk to the heart of Old Town Bluffton in one direction and the same to the Parkway bike paths in the other. But, built in 2016, it has that oh-so-planned feeling -- I've been calling it Pleasantville.
What I do like is the mix of ages which made for a jubilant Halloween season. Houses have been decorated to the max since October 1, and I sat outdoors with my hosts for 3 hours watching a parade of no less than 300 trick-or-treaters of all ages come by. I've had wilder holidays, but this was the most festive Halloween in years. In fact, I forgot to take a photo!
There have also been two more trips to Hilton Head to play and to learn more about the history of the island. Did you know that in 1861 the Union Army found Hilton Head abandoned and established it as their southern headquarters? It's why nearly two-thirds of nearby Bluffton was destroyed, and how millions of slaves were given freedom. Free and former enslaved people in the area served in the Union Army and the US Navy with knowledge that helped to win many battles. Even more surprising to me is that Harriet Tubman was working behind Confederate lines here and led a battle that freed over 800 slaves. She was everywhere! In 1862, the US Army established Mitchelville (see my last post) as a "freed men's village" on Hilton Head; a humanitarian and segregation effort.
What else am I up to? Riding. Walking. Reading. Writing. Working a tad. Pondering seasonal locations. Plotting travel for early 2022. And, in three days, I break my own rule and point south into Florida where I have 3 stops on the itinerary and 5 friends awaiting my arrival. I'm already thinking about eggnog.
Cyclist, writer, teacher, avid reader, bike/ped advocate, nomad, pie lover