In the grand scheme of things, February in North Carolina is not all that bad. We could ride year round, but few of us choose to do so. Our long, hot summers condition us to opt for the extra two wheels once the leaves take leave. Sure, the daytime highs usually crack 40 degrees, but like many, I use those 12 or so weeks of winter to get reacquainted with my truck. I know what you're thinking, and you're right: I am a wimp.
Sure, I'll occasionally take off for winter rides on those unusually warm days, mainly to keep the bikes' batteries charged. But generally, I prefer the warm confines of my GMC when the air gets frosty. Now that's not to say I don't miss riding, I surely do. Believe me, sojourns to warmer climes for a little two-wheeled frolic are jumped upon with glee, especially when the local weatherman is calling for precipitation that only school kids love.
While perusing the editorial schedule this past winter looking for just such opportunities, two realizations hit me. One was a woefully inadequate supply of scooter tours; the other was the embarrassing admission that I hadn't been to visit my grandma Oodie in a very long time. Distance and schedules are no excuse for the latter. After all, neither of us are getting any younger.
Well, that settles it: Kathy and I were going to visit Oodie in Florida on a scooter. A quick call to Rick Pawelka, Kymco USA's Marketing and Communications Manager, has our ride for the week lined up in no time; Grandma sounds delighted to hear that Kathy and I will be calling; and as usual, the forecast for Florida is sunny and warm. Finally, with one of Kymco's People 250 scooters loaded in the bed of the Sonoma, we escape North Carolina scant hours ahead of an impending rain/sleet/ice event. Oh, how I love it when a plan comes together!
East Of the Gulf
After a long, semi-arduous, 12-hour journey, we arrive unscathed in Largo, just across the bay from Tampa. It could have been 10 hours, but we're suckers for tacky souvenir shops and tourist traps. Needless to say, dear Oodie is tickled to see us and after a day of visiting we decide to set out on our journey. That would leave us with a couple of days for more catching up with kin upon our return. We've toured two-up on a 250cc scooter before, so we're not worried, especially since hills aren't an issue in Florida. Bag stowed securely beneath the seat, we roll out to see what lies behind the beach.
Gingerly making our way through the urban sprawl and seasonally heavy traffic, we immediately discover that everyone else's destination, wherever that may be in the St. Petersburg area, is a lot more important than ours. 'Stay to the right' and 'remain alert' become my mantras for "sprawl-vival." Once we cross the Gandy Bridge into Tampa, things begin to calm down. We continue east until the road ends at the bay and turn left on Bayshore Boulevard, which has to be one of the prettiest roads in Tampa. The old mansions overlooking Tampa Bay are a sight to behold. I'm not sure where these folks got their money, but it probably didn't come from selling gas to scooter riders. I just hope they're putting their tax cuts to good use.
Cruising on through Tampa we find ourselves surrounded by the city's past in Ybor City. Riding amongst the old cigar factories I almost get the urge to Hav-A-Tampa along with a Mojito at one of the trendy bars now occupying many of the old buildings that still ooze Latin charm; but today we find ourselves behind schedule. Sorry, there's no time to enjoy a freshly rolled cigar or any fiery Flamenco dancing - we've got riding to do.
On the outskirts of town on Route 60, the glaring blight of insistent billboards - no credit, no problem, fast food and gentlemen's clubs - regains its stranglehold. Creeping from light to light, we finally locate Route 640 and hang a right. Before long we're in the country and have the road to ourselves. Though it offers little more than a long, straight trail, we find it pleasant to be free of the city's grip. The temperatures are in the low 80s and winter, as we know it, is being erased from our minds by the constant hum of a 250cc motor.
We pass by several orange groves early on and then roll through an area dominated by huge mining operations. We find out at our lunch stop in Bartow that phosphate mines are big business in these parts. In fact, it's the state's third biggest business, after tourism and agriculture. We finally hit citrus country in earnest when we pass through Homeland. Routes 640 and 559 are nothing short of a vitamin-C junkie's dream come true. Orange and grapefruit trees are everywhere and the harvesting is underway. Globes of the same fruit we're grateful to get in the produce section at two-for-a-dollar back home are just lying on the wayside. Obviously these escapees bounced from the fruit wagon aren't destined to become another glass of Minute Maid. On Route 17 we pass by a citrus processing plant in Frostproof, and the wonderful smell permeates the air for blocks. In Sebring, the setting sun, our late start, and the other touring snowbirds seeking shelter conspire to land us in an outrageously priced motel room.