Monday, March 23, 2015

Back roads yield surprises

You never know what you'll find when you take back roads

When I drive to my daughter Amber’s house in Winter Garden, I do my best to avoid busy roads. Instead of taking Florida’s Turnpike to State Road 429 to save 10 minutes, I take my time meandering along twisty two-lane roads up and down hills, through tree-lined hamlets and along sections of untamed woods that — at least for the moment — have eluded a developer’s eye.

It’s a pretty ride filled with peacefulness and possibilities. Before ending at Amber’s house, my 30-minute trip takes me through the outskirts of four towns — Clermont, Minneola, Montverde and Oakland.

My drive through Clermont is on unpaved roads through a rural area at the north end of town. The clay roads are bumpy and give my car a perpetually dirty face, but they force me to slow down and in this too-much-to-do-and-not-enough-time world, that’s an important reminder.

Sharing clay roads with horseback riders 

On the back roads of Minneola, I pass a peach orchard where I’ve gotten in the habit of monitoring the progression of the trees from bare branch to blossom to young fruit to harvest.

Peaches just beginning to ripen

From there, it’s a short trip to scrub jay territory, where I often pause in my travels to photograph Florida’s only endemic bird.

A Florida scrub jay with nesting material in its beak

My trip through Montverde is brief, paralleling the highway, but it leads me to Oakland where I travel beneath an impressive tunnel of ancient oaks and pass by an encouraging mix of older wood-frame homes. 

A tunnel of oaks welcomes drivers entering the aptly named town of Oakland, FL

On this stretch of road — in refreshing contrast to many new subdivisions — no two houses are alike. Steeped in character and rich in history, each home reflects the personality of its owner. While driving through Oakland, it’s easy to forget it’s the 21st century. It sends me back in time to the mid-1900s.

A yellow tabebuia tree stands alongside one of the beautiful old wooden home in Oakland

Oakland gives way to Winter Garden overflowing with downtown charm. Although I usually go directly to my daughter’s house, on the trip back home, I often do more meandering, taking even smaller, less traveled side roads along the way.

I have a strong belief in the importance of taking time, slowing down and observing my surroundings. Recently, that belief was reinforced when I decided to turn onto some previously unexplored side roads in Oakland. As I rambled along the narrow dirt roads on the north side of town, I came upon an unusually tall field fence encircling many acres of well-trimmed lawn scattered with trees.

In the distance, I saw large, black-and-white striped animals grazing. I pulled over for a better look. Could they possibly be what I thought they were? Zebras? In a field next to a dirt road in the little town of Oakland? I reached for my camera to zoom in for a closer look.

A zebra?  In Oakland?  Yes!

Sure enough, a herd of zebras was grazing in the field. I’d stumbled upon Briley Farm, a privately owned exotic animal ranch where zebras, miniature donkeys, peacocks, wildebeest and a majestic-horned, ancient breed of African Watusi cattle are among the many animals roaming the manicured acreage between Lake Apopka and the Oakland Nature Preserve.

Although the only other critter I saw besides the zebras was a brightly feathered male peacock strutting his stuff behind a ‘Peacock Crossing’ sign, I had no reason to complain. Seeing the zebras — zebras! — was more than enough to make my day.

A peacock perched in a tree behind a 'Peacock Crossing' sign on a back road in Oakland

There are times when the need to get somewhere in a hurry is paramount. There are times when it’s important to stay on schedule. But there are also times when throwing the timetable away makes the most sense of all. My no-hurry route home yielded an extraordinary discovery — proof that you never know what treasures await around the next bend.

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