|Undulating hills in shades of green highlight a stretch of Florida's Turnpike a few miles south of Exit 285|
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 20, 2011)
A stretch of Florida's Turnpike is especially striking this time of year. When I drive through it, I am awestruck. For just a moment, I gasp. It's that lovely.
The section I'm referring to is only a few miles from my home. I see it shortly after I get on the turnpike at Exit 285. About five miles south — still in Lake County — the road snakes its way over and around a series of hills.
In flat Florida, it's unusual to chance upon a vista with such contour-rich terrain, but this area is the exception. Gentle curves and slopes dominate, and the road follows their lead. The engineers who designed the road could have taken a different approach. In 1964, when that segment of the turnpike was built, they could have sliced through the hills with straight-line efficiency. Fortunately, they chose not to.
Although topography makes this spot special, it's only one reason why I find it so attractive. Trees are the other. This is especially true during springtime, when new leaves have formed and the land is greening up after months of brown.
Two types of trees cover the hills — pine and deciduous. The pines are about 20 years old, tall, straight and orderly. Like many local pinewoods, this is an intentional forest. The trees grow in rows with even spacing. Citrus growers probably planted them. After several severe freezes in the late 1980s, many grove owners turned to pines to maintain the land's agricultural status.
If scrub pines were the only trees covering this stretch, the landscape would be pretty but not exceptional. What makes it extraordinarily beautiful are the deciduous trees that have sprung up between the pines. They're mainly chokecherries, planted not by man but by birds and squirrels. Over the years, the chokecherry trees have flourished, growing as tall and broad — if not more so — than the planted-by-man conifers.
When I drive this part of the turnpike, I feel like I'm back in Pennsylvania or traveling through North Carolina. It's that different from the Florida I'm used to seeing from behind the wheel. It's as if I've entered a landscape painting. Shades of green are dazzling. Light greens and dark greens blanket the hills. No houses are in sight. A jewel-like lake shimmers in a hollow. A curving road weaves through the hillocks. It's a portrait of serenity, peacefulness and springtime.
And then it's over.
About a mile after it begins, the landscape returns to Florida highway normal. Hills give way to flat terrain. Straight passageways predominate. The tree line diminishes until only a few scattered evergreens border the road. Homes begin to appear. Many homes. So many houses bank the turnpike that the developments require concrete walls to buffer road noises. Welcome to the Sunshine State Parkway.
No matter where you live, there are bound to be things you love about your chosen home and things you dislike. I'm not wild about massive developments, and I hate seeing trees cut down and hillsides carved up to make way for ticky-tacky, zero-lot-line homes. I especially dislike seeing such things happen to landscapes as beautiful as this one.
For now, this acreage remains undeveloped, but if the past is any indication, it won't stay that way long. At some point, trees will give way to home sites. Hills will be paved over, and lights will brighten land that's illuminated now by the sun, moon and stars.
That's why, whenever I drive this stretch of the turnpike, I take in the view. I savor the moment and appreciate the scenery because beauty is that most fleeting of intangibles. It's as transitory as cars passing on the highway.