“Center Hill Ride”
I just worked 96 out of the last 120 hours at the fire department. When I got off work this morning I was in serious need of some two wheeled relaxation therapy. As is often the case I just simply take off with no particular direction or goal in mind. It is all about just going where the road leads you or in the case of a dual sport going past where the road ends. I take random turns and side streets. Something might look interesting so I double back and see where it goes. As often as not those detours just lead to nowhere, but it is the persistence in exploring and being willing to end up at those dead ends that pays off in discovering some new things.
Today’s little adventure found me wandering the back roads of Bushnell, Florida. I have been through Bushnell many times and even fought the biggest fire of my career there as a volunteer firefighter for Tri-County Fire Rescue. That is a story in and of itself for another time. This time I chose roads I had never been down before to see where I would end up. Running through the main corridor of U.S. 301 there are some neighborhoods that border on the historic just off the main drag. One home in particular caught my attention as it was an old cracker house that someone was systematically dismantling. All that is currently left is the frame and roof. I hope they are able to salvage the wood for restoration of other historic homes. Lumber back then was truly two inches by four inches so the dimensions are different than today’s lumber you can buy from Lowe’s.
A block away was a bright yellow 1972 Chevy Nova for sale sitting back in someone’s car port. Growing up that was my dream car. I drove one once and that was what I always dreamed of owning. Fast does not begin to describe that car. Nostalgia was beginning to set in.
It was still foggy out and after making a couple of circles through that neighborhood with old homes. I crossed back over 301 and the railroad tracks to the downtown area. Bushnell is small town USA. There isn’t much going on there, but you can see people trying to make a living. There is no rush hour traffic. No constant honking of horns and blaring of sirens that denote the rat race of metropolitan life. There are a few car lots. One of which had a huge plastic bull out front with their corresponding message that you wouldn’t get any bull from them. A few mechanic shops and produce stands and all the things one would expect to see from a small town. I circled the courthouse which is a large brick building that bears the architecture of a time gone by. There are the foundations of industrial buildings that did not stand the test of time leaving behind only a footprint for one’s imagination to visualize what once was there.
While that was interesting riding, I prefer to get lost on the rural roads so I headed east out of town. A few random, meandering turns later and I found what I was looking for; twisting country roads running through cattle and farm land. Sumter county appears to have built their roads at the borders of existing private property. The property was laid out in squares, rectangles, and straight lines then the roads were built in between resulting in 90 degree turns left and right around property. On a motorcycle that means laying over low and accelerating out of the turns standing the bike up. FUN!!
It also means scenic. The old oak canopy Florida roads with spanish moss hanging down still exist. No cars and no people, add in some left over morning fog and the recipe produces the tranquility I am seeking.
This particular road passed through the oak tree tunnels, then open pasture as far as the eye could see and then would turn back into the oak tree canopies. Eventually I popped out on 48 and found myself on a familiar road again. Not being ready to go home yet I continued east to an even smaller sleepy little town called Center Hill. I have been here before and have been utterly shocked to see the emptiness of this town. It seems to be half ghost town. Their main thoroughfare is currently an empty display of vacant buildings and shops. A jaunt down the side roads reveals that not only are the businesses vacant, but so are the homes. Center Hill is slowly dying.
Even a church appears abandoned. Peering through the dusty windows shows that while the outside looks like a church, the inside no longer sings hymns of praise, but rather sits idle storing someone’s belongings. There is no longer a name on the sign, just faded illegible letters. The rusted church bell is not high up in a steeple, but was built in a small structure on the ground. A few photos of the bell and onward I went.
There is something different about this sparsely populated town. Even though these streets are abandoned it is evident that someone is keeping the streets and vacant lots cleaned up. There are no weeds growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. The vacant lots in between are mowed. A passerby would have to search hard to find litter. It obvious that, though poor and without many resources, the resident’s still have pride in their community.
After getting my fill of these old buildings sitting on paved roads with the old red brick road poking through underneath, I head north through a twisting residential street. This one, however, has cattle grazing on small lots interspersing the homes. Then I run around a bend into this guy.
Well, not literally thank goodness. There is a time and a place for speed and whipping turns on a motorcycle, but a residential neighborhood is not one of them. I was doing the speed limit and received a wave from the officer behind the radar gun. Waving back and looking a little closer I took note of the unusual hat and the face underneath it with the years of experience worn in. I don’t think I have ever seen a hat like that on a city police officer. I turned around and pulled up next to him to ask if he would mind if I took a few pictures of him in that hat. I spent the next forty five minutes chatting with a very interesting man. Through out our conversation he never stopped running his radar and he never stopped smiling and waving at the people passing by.
It started out with small talk. I wanted to know what the story was with the abandoned buildings. It turns out that Center Hill has the distinction of being the string bean capital of the world in its yesteryears. Over time the town succumbed to the lowering aquifer levels. This gentlemen attributed that to the local mining operations. My wife’s grandmother also has said the same thing about the Brooksville area mines being responsible for harming the aquifer. Regardless of the reason, no water means no agriculture. No agriculture means no money. No money means a dying town. Currently there are fewer than nine hundred and fifty residents that claim Center Hill as their home which explains the vacant buildings and homes. The exciting news for them is the newly built Dollar General. The biggest impediment to town growth is the lack of sewage and water. Business won’t move into an area without it.
This gentlemen I am talking to turns out to be the Chief of police and introduced himself as Roger Odom while holding his name plate up for me to read. He tells me with happiness in his voice that he is retiring in a few weeks, but the town has asked him to stay on as a volunteer Chief. After six months as a volunteer he can go back to paid work. His love of this small community is evident. It shows in the way he smiles and waves at folks. It shows in the way he talks about the area. He is torn. He talks about staying on, but I also can’t help but notice how he talks of his children and grandchildren. His son is back from two tours of Afghanistan and is now a minister for a church up north. He has several grandchildren he speaks fondly of and wants to spend more time with them as well.
He also wanted to talk motorcycles, a subject that I certainly enjoy as well. He has had many over the years and is very conversant in the subject. He has owned everything from a Honda XL650 which is similar to my DR650, to a Honda Goldwing which he really misses the creature comforts of, to a Suzuki 1700 that currently needs some repairs, and many more bikes he doesn’t name by model. He talks of wanting to have time to get back out and ride. Soon we find ourselves discussing how fast certain bikes are. One of his sons has a Hayabusa and a good friend of his rides a Ducati. The irony of discussing fast bikes he has owned as well as those of his son and friend while he runs radar is not something I point out.
The conversation then turns to our careers. We of course talk about motorcycle accidents we have worked which naturally stemmed from discussing fast bikes. I had told him I am a paramedic for Hernando Fire Rescue. We share some stories of the more memorable accident scenes and some of the issues that we have had to deal with. He tells me of some of the gory scenes that stick out in his memory, of doing CPR on a dead mother who had her infant on a motorcycle with her and of a decapitated motorcyclist who slammed the back of a semi at high speed going around stopped traffic. I showed him a photo of an x-ray on my phone of a very unlucky 23 year old who severed his spine in Croom motorcycle park two weeks ago and relayed some more stories of my own.
He also tells me some of his career history. Chief Roger Odom may be the top cop of a small town of nine hundred and fifty residents with duties similar to Andy Griffith of Mayberry, but this is not where he spent his career. He says that when he was starting out he had the option of going the firefighter route or law enforcement. He said the decision was made easy for him when a firefighter was killed falling down the shaft of an elevator during a fire. He felt that bad guys were more predictable than fire. Chief Odom has served as an officer in Miami doing undercover narcotics, SWAT, and as a Florida State Trooper. His brother is a recently retired State Trooper. His reward or more appropriately worded, his retribution for fighting drug crimes in Miami was that his daughter was kidnapped, his wife shot, and his home “machine gunned”. This quiet unassuming older gentlemen has seen tragedy in his personal life. Fortunately his wife was not killed and his daughter was safely recovered. Of those responsible, two were sent to prison for a long time and a third was killed when the first two shoved him out of a moving car.
He also did some work as the personal body guard for the professional wrestler Sargent Slaughter and for the hall of fame football player Dan Marino. Interestingly, both those men had confessed to him that being wealthy really may not have been worth it. I think there is a lesson there for us more common folk.
He tells me that Center Hill doesn’t have a full time police force and that the area crime is low. They are even looking to hire another reserve officer. The officers make a point of greeting anyone who is not familiar to them to make sure that newcomers and outsiders know they are being watched, but at the same time they are willing to offer help to those that want to be a part of the community. The town went from an average of twenty five burglaries a month to maybe one every few months, which the Chief attributes to their community involvement. He was also quick to inform me that they aren’t big on writing tickets. Center Hill police department has issued only 18 tickets this month. The last one was given at the spot where we were. Someone was doing 46 mph in a 25 mph residential area and had the wrong attitude when pulled over. In Center Hill you have to earn your tickets. Chief Odom said that years ago a ticket issued would cost a driver his weekend beer money. Nowadays with the cost of a ticket increased to what it is starting at one hundred and thirty dollars and the economy the way it is he feels that issuing a ticket could literally be taking food from some poor guy’s kid’s mouth.
It was also interesting to overhear the radio communication. In my county, communication is short and to the point, almost a language to itself, as in “Rescue 22 in service” or “Engine 22 enroute” or “copy” and that is it. Short and staccato. Center Hill dispatch has enough open air time due to low call volume that they carry on conversations over their radios more like truckers chatting than any radio communication I am familiar with. With that said Chief Odom did receive a call for assistance from another officer and took his leave, but not before extending an invite to stop in their headquarters anytime to chat. I am glad I turned around to ask for his photo. It was time well spent.
Next stop was a convenience store for a gatorade. Two road bicyclists with physiques like they belonged at the Tour de France were stopped as well. One was local and the other from Spain. The local took a look at my bike and told his partner he was tired and wanted to trade my bike with a motor for his. I probably should have taken him up on it. He looked like he was riding a very expensive bike. With thick accent his friend laughed and told him to essentially “man up”. They encouraged me to head out to where they were from 25 miles away in Minneola and Sugar Loaf where I would enjoy curving roads and hills. While I wouldn’t be doing that today the destination will go on my short list of places to visit and explore in the near future. Of course the visit wouldn’t be complete without talking about motorcycles. The athlete from Spain told me about his close friend that is currently number two on the motorcycle circuit. Unfortunately with the accent, I was unable to make out a name, but he wanted me to understand his friend was an accomplished rider.
One of the things I like about motorcycling is how free people seem to feel in approaching you to talk. Even an elderly woman stopping in to the store took time to chat. I don’t get that when I drive my truck.
While I needed some time in the saddle, I also wanted some sleep so I was limiting my time riding today. Center Hill was my turn around point. I headed back West, just not the most direct route home.
I sometimes think that if you were to map my routes they would look like this sign.
I took SR 48 back to Bushnell and across I-75. There is an area between I-75 and the Withlacoochee river that has a unique lay to the land. It is the site of Seminole Indian wars against the United States and of mining. Today it is a lot of woods and cow pastures with the scars of mining still showing. I took some of the side roads which lead to some old communities as well as to new construction. It is common to see one hundred year old cracker homes sitting near brand new high end ranch homes.
I also love seeing old farm implements used as ornaments. These are the tools that someone once used to earn a living and provide food with. They have a story to tell and it only takes imagination to hear them.
I ended up taking a road that started out wide, then narrowed down to the point I was beginning to question if I was on someone’s driveway, but it then opened back up to reveal some expensive homes and barns. It is amazing to me to find people with money tucked away where you would least expect them. There are no fancy restaurants out here, no malls, none of life’s conveniences, but here they are.
Once back out on 48 I turned at the Wood Shed bar. Back in my days of being a volunteer firefighter, this bar was responsible for many drunk drivers that we scraped up off the side of these roads as well as for many injured people from bar fights. I read a ride report recently where the author wrote that the Woodshed was the kind of bar you didn’t go into without a switchblade knife. It seems some things never change. Heading south on CR 575 I passed a couple of large bulls grazing in the swamp and then almost across the street a jacked up mudding truck. These are some of the surest signs that you are in the heart of Florida.
The bull closest to me squared off and got a look in his eye that pretty much told me to get lost. I have seen a bull at a rodeo clear a four foot tall gate, come down on it and crush it in a rage to get to the other side. That thin little piece of barbed wire is only there to persuade him to stay on his side. I took the hint and left.
I can remember running these roads as a volunteer. Back then we responded to emergency calls in our personal trucks. I had a light bar mounted on the roof of my Dodge diesel. Looking back it was pretty dumb how fast we drove, but at the time we thought it was important work to get to a scene fast and it didn’t hurt that it was fun too. I haven’t been on these roads in probably more than ten years. Not much has changed.
A little ways down was a sign for a family grave yard. Anyone who knows me knows that I have an interest in cemeteries. The latest statistic is that 100% of people will at some point in their life die. Cemeteries hold a window into the past.
Note that the headstones and thus the bodies buried are not facing the road. Christian cemeteries are typically laid out with the head stones facing east. It is Christian tradition that Christ will return from the east so they are laid out to rise facing Him when He returns.
A good example of a cattle gate. These are railroad rails cut down to the width of a truck. Cattle and horses won’t cross this because their hooves can’t get grip on it. Sometimes they are made from strong pipe.
Out on 476 is a mural on the side of a church with a sign welcoming bikers. I am sure most folks have seen it if they ride their motorcycles around Brooksville enough. I have been meaning to get a picture of my bike in front of it for a long time. Familiarity breeds contempt as they say. So because it is near where I live, I never have gotten those photos… until today.
Twenty minutes later and I was home peeling off my riding gear. Now that I have slept all day, I am up late finishing this write up. It is cathartic to be able to ride. I only wish I had picked this up years ago.
As a closing statement to all this, I went out today with the hopes of getting a picture for a motorcycle tag game on one of the forums I belong to. Basically, someone gets a photo of their bike in front of the requested item and the person that does that first then chooses the next photo to be taken. The most recent one posted is of your motorcycle in front of a house for sale that has a “sold” sign on it. Shouldn’t be hard, right? In four hours of riding I saw a lot of houses and property for sale, but not a single “sold” sign. That in and of itself is a sign of the economy. I saw a lot of houses and properties falling apart. Some of the older ones are the subject of my photos and interest. I saw a lot of cars that probably shouldn’t be on the road. I saw people living in abject poverty here in America. I can’t do these rides though and see the things that I do without walking away feeling extremely blessed. I don’t have the nicest house or the most expensive vehicles out there. My wife and I don’t go on lavish vacations and we don’t have expensive clothing. What I do have though I am extremely thankful to God for. I have a good job. I have good health. I have a good marriage. I have a roof over my head. I have good friends and a loving family. I even have enough extra money to buy a motorcycle and ride to places that aren’t really necessary for me to go. So while I am not wealthy and even though we sometimes think it would be nice I am thankful for where I am in life today.
Until next time, “keep the rubber side down. It works better that way.”
-Chief Roger Odom