This must be the place: ‘Walkin’ in the starlight place in my mind, walkin’ on moonlight in the day’
Hello from Room 202 at the Holiday Inn Express on the outskirts of the small town of Lake Wales, Florida.
It’s late Sunday morning. Sarah and I will have to check out soon and steadily make our way back to Haywood County in the coming hours.
This past weekend was the annual Orange Blossom Revue music festival. And this was my third year being the stage emcee. Jump onstage, grab the microphone and rile up the anxious audience in anticipation for one of their favorite bands to appear, this music soon to be played that resides at the core of their absolute being,
Heading down to Polk County, Florida, it was the usual trek of Interstate 40 East to I-26 East to I-95 South to I-4 West. A whirlwind journey of about 10 or 11 hours, give or take the incessant traffic of Orlando and nearby Disney World. But, not before a late lunch in St. Augustine, a city long-held in my heart for its architectural charm and vibrant nature.
Leaving the humble abode in downtown Waynesville, the temperature was in the high 20s, with rumblings in town about snowflakes witnessed first-hand on the mountain ridges surrounding Maggie Valley. A few hours into the drive south, the air reached the high 50s, the truck windows slightly cracked, where 50s seems balmy and dearly missed already in our autumn hearts.
Rolling into Lake Wales on Thursday evening, the evening temperature was still around 70 when we checked into the hotel and then immediately swung over to the G-Spot, a beloved dive bar where bikers and Dead Heads comingle. Ceilings covered in crumbled dollar bills and dusty brassieres. Cold suds and hearty laughter. Newcomers always welcomed, so long as you play nice and tip your bartender. My kind of place, truth-be-told.
It’s funny how this random community smack dab in the middle of rural farm and swamp country in Central Florida can become a place familiar and cherished. Situated between Orlando and Tampa, there isn’t much ‘round here, save for citrus fields and long stretches of hot pavement in any direction heading elsewhere.
But, in the last three years, Lake Wales has grown on me. Of course, there’s Rabbit, the owner/bartender at the G-Spot. A little gruff on the edges. But, don’t let that fool you. Kindness breeds kindness, a smile quickly emerging on his face when you waltz in and say you “heard the coldest beer in town was here.”
Then, there’s the kind staff at the neighborhood Chili’s. It’s seemingly the only actual restaurant within vicinity of the Holiday Inn Expres. In all actuality, I only go to Chili’s three times a year, all of which when I’m in Lake Wales for the first weekend in December pilgrimage.
Wander in and grab a seat at the counter. It’s the same bartender from last year. She even remembers you and is pleased to meet your girlfriend. Small talk ensues, but it’s sincere and genuine. You overhear conversations down the line of the counter about the local basketball team, this year’s citrus crops and what Florida State University’s prospects are for the upcoming College Football Playoff.
During the mornings here in Lake Wales, it’s trying to get down to Holiday Inn Express dining room in time for breakfast. It ends at 10 a.m. on weekends. Rush to the elevator and squeeze in line at 9:51 a.m. to get the biscuits and gravy, oatmeal, apple juice and coffee before the locks are put on the kitchen area. Don’t forget the banana.
It’s late morning. Try and find a place to go for a run, more so a jog in the hot late fall sunshine of this region of the country. There’s not much to trot along within a short drive. Most of the time, it’s some unkempt trail off some sketchy backroad or a greenway that’s seen better days in a town that seen better years. Other times, I’ll just default to jogging along the bustling U.S. 27 highway corridor.
Run against the U.S. 27 traffic as six lanes of vehicular chaos rockets by your slowly-moving position, the hot air swirling around you from countless tractor-trailers. The shoulder of the highway covered in tiny broken pieces of other cars, tire shreds and roadkill. You find yourself wondering where everyone is going and why in such a hurry?
Friday and Saturday afternoons are spent cruising over to the festival grounds on Lake Shore Boulevard. Under centuries-old mossy oak trees, thousands of music freaks congregate to immerse themselves in the sounds of The Wood Brothers, JJ Grey & Mofro, Brent Cobb, Kaitlin Butts, Mike & The Moonpies and more.
By Sunday, it’s packing up the travel luggage and start mapping out the route back to Haywood County and greater Western North Carolina. It’s 12:39 p.m. and 82 degrees currently in Lake Wales. Waynesville states it’s 59 degrees, with snow showers on Wednesday (high of 39, low of 26).
Might as well delay the inevitability of an impending winter by finding an inexpensive hotel in Tybee Island this evening — one more day of warm sun for the road, eh? Crosshairs on St. Augustine for another late lunch, maybe hit the beach. Throw the truck in four-wheel-drive and coast along the sands. Dip your toes in the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Until next time, Lake Wales. Another year in the books. See you down the road Rabbit and those kind faces behind the counter at Chili’s. For now, it’s the windows rolled down and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers greatest hits on the stereo. Soak it in. Onward.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.