Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lake Placid, Florida

The Car Saga, Part 2

Three days later I am in my car again. It's a late start for me--I leave Michael's air conditioned house just after noon--and outside the weather is typically oppressive, in the 90s with high humidity, the type of bright sunlight that bleaches the hair on my arms and legs and enough moisture that the condenser for the air conditioning keeps dripping cool water on my feet as I drive, which would be nice if it didn't make my already-slimy feet just that much more slimier.

I meant to get out much earlier, because even at that point I didn't fully trust my car. Even through the vast empty plains in New Mexico and Texas, and through the empty not-so-plains of Utah, I had tried to drive at dusk or, God forbid, at dawn. Anything to not drive in the worst heat of the day, with a used car that might break down at any time.1

So driving during the hottest time of the day was, perhaps, a mistake. Or perhaps not. In any case, the drive to Solomon's Castle, near the town of Ona, was uneventful. Off of I-75, the roads are long and flat, and while they often sweep to one side or another, there's no real reason for this, because there's absolutely no topography that a road needs to avoid. Also, due to the flatness, there are no landmarks, which I suspect makes driving in Florida more difficult for those with a poor sense of direction.

The turnoff for Solomon's castle is maybe two miles before you come to Ona, but traveling on SR 75, it can be hard to believe that you haven't already passed the turnoff, onto a little road that gives off the impression of a dirt road rutted by tire tracks that has only been recently paved. This road--occasionally covered my a canopy of scrub trees, but mostly open--wends through another vast flat expanse, but with more vegetation, until it takes a sidearm to the left and intersects with the road that takes you to Solomon's Castle.

Solomon's Castle, I've read, is the home of a not-that-eccentric named Howard Solomon, who has been building in since 1972. The exterior is entirely covered in aluminum printing plates, which can make it blinding in the Florida sun. It's more a piece of commercial kitsch than folk art, but even knowing this, I decided to make the journey today.

But I don't actually get to see it. The gates are shut and Solomon's Castle is, well, closed. This is because today is Monday, and Solomon's Castle is closed to visitors on Mondays, which I completely failed to notice in either of the two guidebooks that pointed me here. That sucks, I think, and turn the car around. With nothing left to do, I head back to the main road, to continue on toward Ona.

Ona, it should be said, isn't so much a town as it is a gas station, at least as seen from SR 75. A man drives a riding mower along the edge of the asphalt, clipping the high grasses so that, in the event of car trouble, you can safely and easily drive your car off the road and into the drainage ditch on either side. The gas station doesn't take cards at the pump, which might be an example of good business sense in Ona, since the station has no competition and having to walk inside successfully enticed me to buy a couple Jumex fruit nectars.

The car bucks a couple of times, slightly, on the way out toward Zolfo Springs, which is not far from Ona. Zolfo Springs is home to the Cracker Trail Museum, which I believe celebrates the history of Floridians drving cattle along the Cracker Trail from the east side of Florida to Bradenton on the west. Or perhaps the other direction. It's difficult for me to say; I should know, since I've been to the Cracker Trail Museum, but the museum's closed.

This one is not my fault. On the door of the museum, the sign says open; and according to another sign nearby, I am here during open hours. Everything is empty, and the displays outside the small, squat building all seem to be large items donated by people who no longer had a place to put them. I walk around, get bit by a single fire ant--it hurts, a lot--and, after 15 minutes, make toward Lake Placid.

I'm headed toward Lake Placid because the thing to see there--the murals--can't possibly be closed. They're on public buildings, after all. But Lake Placid is similar to Solomon's Castle, in that the murals aren't so much for their own sake as they are a way to advertise the town as a resort destination throughout the South and Midwest. Indeed, apparently the town used to employ--perhaps still does employ--billboard trucks to brand Lake Placid as the "Town of Murals."

(See part 3, above.)

1 The issue, of course, is really that I don't know anything about cars,and specifically that I don't know how to prevent Bad Things from happening to my car. I consider myself pretty easy on my car--no harsh accelerations unless absolutely necessary (like spontaneously merging lanes on a freeway, something that Utah specializes in), proper tire pressure, regular oil changes, and so on--but I have no idea what is actually necessary and what isn't. And no idea what else I should be doing.

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