US 27 travels from glitz to gophers
Part 1 — Miami to Lake Placid
US Highway 27 runs 481 miles from Miami to Monticello, just east of Tallahassee, before veering off into Georgia. It cuts a long diagonal across the state from east to west. Quickly leaving the high-rise beachfront of Miami and Fort Lauderdale behind, 27 heads into the flat green expanse of the Everglades and surrounding area now semi-tamed for farming.
Like the prairies of the Midwest, the green undulating fields stretch out of sight on either side of the yardstick-straight road headed for the southern end of Lake Okeechobee. It’s no surprise that sugarcane calls this home. Gators tiptoe across the road and ospreys nest on utility poles and hang in the thermals looking for fish in the canals.
For a body of water so big and so renowned Okeechobee is darned hard to see. Levees ring the 730 square-mile lake and control its precious flow of water through canals that not only irrigate farmland but furnish water for cities further south. There are scenic turnouts that let one park the car and walk up (literally up the levee) to the water’s edge and of course, plenty of places to launch the bass boat and look for that big lunker. The levee at 20 feet high and 30 feet wide is part of the Florida Trail. It’s open for biking and hiking around most of the perimeter.
Like many large bodies of water, it has it’s own seasons causing almost a fish migration following the angle of the sun that causes areas of the shallow lake to heat up or cool down. Those with local insight say that’s key to understanding how to find the fish.
Most of the towns around the lake have dodged the bullet of overbuilding though tourism is certainly a financial contender as the endless trailer courts can testify. The towns are rough around the edges, especially if fishing is not your thing. (Look for expanded Okeechobee stories in the future.)
Clewiston conjures up the past
Coming up from Miami the first town on the lakeside is South Bay but soon you hit Clewiston, a slowed-down Old Florida kind of place. “Gateway to Lake O” proclaims banners on the streetlights and a downtown historic district beckons. It’s a good place to grab a bite to eat too before 27 turns north and heads for the Lake Wales Ridge, a raised knobby spine that traverses a long section of central Florida. The area north of the lake was and is a big citrus producer and long open-topped semis filled with oranges and grapefruit jockey for lane space.
As you drive north, the sides of the road show sugar-white sand, remnants of an ancient beach when the sea levels were much higher. The area between Clewiston and Lake Placid, 56 miles to the north is largely empty of people. Groves lead away in orderly lines, often with the treetops lopped off like a giant’s collection of hedgerows. “No parking within 25 feet of the pavement” signs warn in the area. Immigrant pickers arrive by the truckload and their presence is felt in all the local towns that now lay claim to mercados and taquieros catering to the latest of a long line of outside folk come to live here and find a better life.
Welcome to Gatorama
As you arrow north from Clewiston you get to Palmdale, the home of the venerable Gatorama, one of the oldest roadside attractions in Florida. For about 55 years folks have by stopping by the see the gators and crocs do their thing in shows that are guaranteed to thrill. Pick up some gator meat or even help hatch a little one.
Read More about Gatorama.
Lake Placid — bulbs and big art
Back on the road it’s a short hop to Lake Placid. There is an annual caladium festival in August to celebrate the wild variety of caladiums grown in the area but it’s the town's murals that catch your eye.
There are over 40 murals done by a variety of artists and they cover everything from the paleo Indians to the history of the area and a giant depiction of the Cracker Trail cattle drive.
Read More about Lake Placid.
On down the road
The whole area around Lake Placid is big cattle country and has been for generations. There’s more about the cowboys and rodeos in the stories to come about the small towns running up along the Peace River just west of Lake Placid.
But for now, we are headed north on 27. In Part II we touch on Sebring with it’s famous races, pass through Lake Wales and the lake country area around Leesburg and then toward Ocala, famous for it’s race horses and horse farms. In Part III US 27 splits and goes north while alternate 27 heads west over for US 19. They come back together in Perry and then loop off to Tallahassee, Havana, Hinson (where I hope to find some distant cousins) and then into Georgia.
© Copyright 2012: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison and Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.