The ride up through the center of Florida from the southwest coast is always a journey unto itself. There is no easy road such as an Interstate or the Florida Turnpike where one can drive hypnotically and blissfully ignore the state of the State.
I wrote a column for the Charlotte Sun-Herald years ago advocating a limited access type highway to replace or augment U.S. 17 from Punta Gorda to Kissimmee, but met with wide-spread indifference. The political mood at the time was simply to widen I-75 that runs along Florida's southwest coast. So, U.S. Highway 17 is the only route from the glitter coast of tourism and wealthy winter residents, through third-world America to the conundrum of economic salvation offered by phosphate mining.
I'm sure the majority of travelers headed from Ft. Myers or Naples to the Orlando to see Mickey and his friends would much rather not have to travel all the way to Tampa to pick up I-4. A ride up US-17 knocks almost 70 miles off the trip, but certainly not any time. We recently headed to Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, Florida, towing our 21 foot travel trailer. I was looking for the shortest distance from here to there. Saving 70 miles at ten miles per gallon makes big difference when gas goes from $3.25 to $3.45 in just a single day.
Getting through Lakeland headed north – my alternative to I-75 north out of Tampa – is an ordeal. SR 471 from just north of Lakeland is the absolutely straight shot up through the pretty Withlacoochee State Forest to just outside Wildwood and the I-75/Florida Turnpike junction. Getting to SR 471 is the big aggravation.
If I'm headed north-east, I use SR 659 to bypass downtown Lakeland, then north to SR 33 to Groveland. It is simply the best alternative I've found if I'm trying to bypass the metro Orlando mess. I pick up SR 44 just north and east of Eustis as a pleasant, pretty ride to Deland, bypassing all the traffic in Orlando. I highly recommend SR11 north from Deland to Bunnell if headed for St. Augustine, it is a really pretty ride. It has none of the abject poverty or slovenliness of some of the southwestern counties. If you can't see the real state of America, then we have a very serious problem.
Traveling through the center of the state shows you the where America really is: Revivals, gun shops, churches, empty store fronts, gun shops, Dollar Stores, dilapidated houses and businesses as far as the eye can see. Weed infested parking lots, crumpling curbs and pot- holed streets, barricaded windows and the next town is just as bad as the last. With the exception of Wauchula, of course. They show what can be done.
Perhaps Fox news should actually see what real America looks like. It's easy, just drive the shortest route from here to there.
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