Monday, February 18, 2008

Connecting With Old Friends and New Trails

We left you last in Sebring, visiting Gary and Carol Speary. The next morning we had a tandem escort out of town, and Carol operated the "stoker cam" to get these two pictures of us in action.
We had a fast ride on back roads through orange groves to the none-too-subtly-named town of Frostproof, where the Spearys headed back and we kept on to the town of Lake Wales, which sits on the shores of Lake Wailes (go figure -- that's not a typo, folks!). Since we had blazed a fast pace to beat a front of thunderstorms moving in, and perhaps look good to the Spearys, we had done our miles before lunchtime.
The next day threatened thunderstorms all day, so we stayed put for a day and a half and explored the town on foot, with raingear in our backpacks. We stopped at the town library both days, but having just written a blog entry, we found ourselves actually reading books there -- you know, those VCR-tape-sized things with paper inside that libraries stick on the shelves around the public-use computer terminals?

Once the storms moved on, our next challenge was to get across the fairly urban landscape around Winter Haven and its neighbors, which run together for many miles of congestion. A detailed AAA map worked wonders, and we somehow got all the way through, riding either on shoulders of (just) adequate width, or on back roads with little or no traffic. Our goal was to reach the Auburndale Municipal Bike Trail and the Van Fleet State Bike Trail, which uses the same abandoned rail corridor but doesn't yet quite connect. The internet helped us find Lake Juliana Fishing and Lodging, a collection of mobile homes rented out usually to fishermen. Forewarned, we had picked up supper and breakfast items, and cooked a terrific sea scallop dinner with all the fixin's, and enjoyed 3-egg omelets for breakfast. The only downside was that the clothes we wore there smelled of cigarette smoke for a few days afterwards -- a small price to pay for the chance to cook our own dinner for a change.

The two bike trails were terrific: smooth-surfaced, wide, extremely rural and totally flat. With a light tailwind pushing through the trees, we averaged 18 while still getting a good view of the Green Swamp that the trail runs through, headwaters of several important Florida rivers. After 20 miles on the Van Fleet
we took a back road off to the northeast which brought us to Groveland, and then had a short ride from there to Clermont, where we put up at the "Old Bicycle Inn." A Google search showed a few places to stay in town, but of course we checked that one first, and it worked out quite well for us. The owner was so impressed with our adventure, he arranged an interview with a reporter from the local paper. We hope to have more info and perhaps a URL to the article, which we have not yet seen, next time.

When preparing for the trip, Jeff had gone through the online alumni directory for his high school to see if there were any classmates living near our route. Turns out one of them, John Gmuer and his wife Doris, retired to Clermont.
Now Regis is not your ordinary high school. It's in the heart of New York City, a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum, but is fairly small, about 550 students in 4 grades. It was established by an anonymous "benefactress" some 95 years ago, and is the only private school in America that has never charged tuition -- admission is by academic scholarship only. One of its early alums became the incredibly gutsy priest who took on the Mafia on the Brooklyn waterfront, a struggle dramatised in On the Waterfront with Karl Malden playing "Father Barry." More recently, Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor who won a conviction against Scooter Libby, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, perhaps the most famous leader of the fight against AIDS, have brought fame to Regis.

The alums are quite loyal, both emotionally and financially.
The reality is that the endowment only covers part of the cost, about $19,000 per student, and alumni donations are now a major part of what keeps this school going. Jeff went back for his 40th reunion, and found that it is still as academically challenging as when he went. Indeed, he considers his third year Homeric Greek class at Regis the toughest but most rewarding course he ever took. In any event, Jeff and John had a good time recalling their days at Regis and in gauging how each had changed in the subsequent 43 years since they last saw each other!

Our original plan had been to bike in one day from Clermont to Mount Dora, but by the time we looked for rooms, there were none to be had there, in part due to the running of the Daytona 500 some 60 miles from Mt. Dora -- that's how far the housing crunch spreads! This turned out to be a boon for us. We tracked down a B&B in Winter Garden, only 15 miles from Clermont, and thoroughly enjoyed riding the 50 miles to Mt. Dora over two days. In the past year the county has extended a 3-mile bike trail in Clermont another 8 miles to connect with the West Orange Trail, and
we ended up riding every one of the 36 miles of connected trails. The Clermont Trail was not a railtrail, and proved to be remarkably hilly but wonderful, as it is one of the best-built trails we have ever been on. We really liked their way of handling street crossings, seen in this photo.
We saw numerous cyclists, including this tandem couple whose names we did not get, and many walkers and bladers as well. When we came into Winter Garden,
we found that the trail, like the rail line it replaced, went right down the middle of the main street. You can see in the photos how that potential lemon was turned into lemonade.

Our B&B, the Historic Edgewater Hotel, is actually an old hotel, solid as a rock -- it's survived 5 hurricanes and a near miss from a tornado -- and is run as much to help enliven the town as to make a profit. We had a room with a private bath, a twin bed and a double bed, for $75, and that included the best B&B breakfast we've had in months. The trail, the reopening of the hotel, and much more can be traced to civic activism that has turned a town that was dismissed as "Winter Garbage" by some into perhaps the most charming small town we've seen in Florida. That evening, we went across the street to a theater that dimmed its movie projector about the same time Jeff graduated from high school -- in 1965 -- to see the first production in its reincarnation as a home to live theater. We hadn't heard of The Musical of Musicals before, but enjoyed the idea of seeing a musical produced in the style of 5 great musical comedy writers and composers, such as Rogers and Hammerstein, Jule Styne and Andrew Lloyd Weber, and indeed we saw a great show.

But that's jumping ahead a little. We arrived in Winter Garden at lunchtime, and found a delightful pizza place in the ground floor of the Edgewater, with outdoor tables facing the bike trail. However, there were no vacant tables. Seeing this, a couple waiting for their lunch to arrive invited us to sit down and join them, moving their bike helmets off two empty seats for us. Roger and Jean proved delightful meal companions, and we learned how they had recently been transferred by Roger's company from central New Jersey to Orlando . We talked about our bike trip, and mentioned that we had just met up earlier that day with one of Jeff's classmates from a small high school in New York City. "Which one?" asked Roger, his eyebrows arching with interest. "Oh, it's called Regis -- have you ever heard of it?" replied Jeff. "Class of 1962" said Roger, grinning from ear to ear!
And so we resumed reminiscing about dear old alma mater for a second time that day! Such a small world!

We're almost done with central Florida. We saw the rest of the West Orange Trail, another top-notch bike trail,
then found reasonably low-traffic roads to Mt. Dora. They were narrow, shoulderless and hilly, but the relatively few cars that passed did so with lots of room for us, and the scenery was more like that of the Northeast than anywhere else we've been to in Florida. Indeed, John Gmuer told us back in Clermont that it's that resemblance to the Northeast that has made the Clermont area the fastest-growing part of Florida in recent years, and what brought them there as well.

Though we missed seeing any, we've heard of t-shirts saying "I climbed Mt. Dora." It's a local joke. There's nowhere around there that's even 300 feet above sea level. Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, for comparison, is over 400' high. It was billed as quaint in some guidebooks, but that's probably stretching things a bit. It does have the 125-year-old Lakeside Inn, where we stayed, and we enjoyed reading our novels after dinner sitting in the lobby of this grand old wooden hotel. Tonight we're in DeLand, home of Stetson University (yup, their nickname is the "Stetson Hatters"). In less than 30 miles or riding tomorrow, we'll be back on the ocean. More about that next time.

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