Friday, August 04, 2006

Near Arcadia, Florida

The Car Saga, Part 3

The car bucks a good amount on the way to Lake Placid, rougher and rougher; and then the rain comes. Well, more that the rain comes, and that I drive directly into it.

There is, apparently, a phenomenon that occurs in the middle of Florida, about equidistant from both coasts, in which, because Florida has no elevation, no hills or mountains of any sort,1 moist offshore air from both coasts comes together along the "spine" (if you will) of the peninsula. This combined air is oversaturated with water, and storms result. This is why it rains every afternoon in Orlando, for instance, or so I understand.

Whether I've been misinformed or not—and whether or not I'm misinforming others now—the rain on the way to Lake Placid is torrential. Water covers the road, both puddling in depressions and flowing off to the sides, but I can't see how much because I am, at this point, exceedingly concerned about following the white lines and not driving off the road or into the opposite lane. Still, at 35 mph with the hazards on, I'm being passed by Floridians, mostly in pickups, going 60. In two more minutes the rain comes down so hard that my wipers can barely clear away enough water for me to see anything at all.

After what is assuredly much too much driving without being able to see properly, I pull off of Highway 27 and into a Citgo to wait out the storm. I have company—all the parking spaces by the minimart are now occupied, and a couple of people have parked at the edges of the concrete lot. Hardly anyone gets out of the car. My hope—not knowing anything about cars—is that the rain will help cool the engine and make the car stop bucking.

It's a waiting game, this.

Through the sheets of water flowing over the windshield and the back window and, truth be told, over the side windows as well, I can make out a sign: Welcome to Lake Placid, Town of Murals. Or so I think it says. Or so I want it to say.

After 15 minutes in which the rain has slowed slightly, picked up slightly, and so on in inexorable repetition, I give up. Patience—that is to say, waiting games— have never been a particular strength of mine. Especially when I have nothing to do.

The main road into Lake Placid is no more than two miles farther along Highway 27, though I don't know it at the time. The view along the highway, even in the rain, is a typical Florida jumble of rectangles set back from the road at varying distances, advertising, more than anything else, an incredible surfeit of parking.2 The main road to Lake Placid climbs a small rise to the right, and then descends very gently as you come into town.

And into town I go. After all, it's the one thing that can't possibly be closed, since the murals are outside the buildings. The rain is now intermittent, sometimes a hard spray, sometimes a light sprinkle, and sometimes no more than a faint drizzle that almost evaporates, virga-like, before it reaches the ground, the type of drizzle that you can barely feel on your lips and fingertips but not on your shoulders or the tops of your feet.

I drive slowly, deliberately, through Lake Placid, since I don't really know where I'm going, and the tourist office is closed, since, even though the sun is still high in the sky, it's now after 5 pm. The car is still bucking, the RPMs shooting up and then precipitously dropping, the engine losing torque, but things always seem to recover.

That is, until I have to wait at a stoplight in another downpour. This time, as the car bucks, suddenly the engine goes quiet and all the warning lights—including the seatbelt light—go on. At first I don't really understand what has happened; but then I coast the car around the corner and across four empty parking spaces. I am parked next to the second of the two murals that I see in Lake Placid.

Twenty minutes later, after a call to my mother to ask advice3 and a call to Michael to warn him that I may need him to come get me if the car doesn't make it the two hours back to his house, I am on the road again, following, for some reason, my original plan through Florida rather than the fastest or most populated, and ergo sensible, route. This takes me—or would take me, rather—along Highway 70 to the outskirts of Bradenton, then the last 20 miles north on I-95 to Michael's house in Gibsonton.

But I only make it 20 miles away from Lake Placid. The car is bucking almost constantly, and it makes me sick to my stomach, like being on the world's most uncomfortable roller coaster. The car, now traveling on mostly-dry asphalt in the sunshine, turns itself off at 50 miles per hour. No one is behind me, and cars come so rarely that I think about walking towards Arcadia, the next town. I have no idea how far it is,4 mostly because I have no idea how far I've come from Lake Placid. Soon, however, a police officer rolls up; I am no more than a mile from a Florida State Correctional Institution, so he waits with me for 45 minutes until the tow truck comes to take the car into Arcadia.

This is just the beginning, just one day.

1 Highest point in Florida: Britton Hill, in the panhandle, 345 feet above sea level.

2 The thought occurred to me as I was driving that there may well be more commercial parking spaces in Highlands County, Florida than there are registered vehicles.

3 My parents both read this, which is fine, but it's necessary, I think, to point out the ways in which I unconsciously or semi-consciously try to divvy up calls like this between them. Notice that I called my dad three days earlier with the first bit of car trouble; now I call my mother. Even though I may be, legally, an adult, I'm still trying to triangulate between both parents.

It's possible that I'll always be this way, of course.

4 17 miles.

The view of Florida from my broken-down car.

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.