American Culture

A Florida roadtrip tale of family, work, fun, and friends

by Chip Ainsworth

Where’s Waldo? Ask Brad Scudder, and the 29-year-old Conway resident will pinpoint it on Google Earth. The hamlet of 821 residents in northern Florida was named for Dr. Benjamin Waldo, a physician from nearby Ocala. A long-ago plantation village, Waldo is onRoute 301 and is 12 miles south of the Florida State Prison in Starke. There, 72 inmates have been executed since 1979, done in by a private citizen who’s paid $150 to perform the grisly task.

It’s where Scudder and his business partner, Rob Dickens, were prepping for last Saturday’s Rugged Maniac 5K, an obstacle race that involves mud, music, and beer. Lots of beer. Scudder relied on a work crew comprised of his parents, Kim and Dean, girlfriend Christin Young and hometown friends — Christopher and Christian Melnik, Kip Komosa and my son Mat. “An amazing crew,” said Kim. “How lucky to work with all your buddies.”

Scudder and the gang flew into Jacksonville seven days before the race, holed up in a Gainesville motel and worked from sunrise until nightfall, transforming a motocross track into mud-strewn labyrinths of underground tunnels, cargo nets, eight-foot walls, fire jumps, water slides, a murky pond “filled with some pretty weird fish,” and other obstacles meant to impede the progress of 2,500 contestants who would be lured by the prospect of beer, music and camaraderie.

“We’re like a circus,” said Scudder. “We ship in and throw it up, break it down and get ready for the next stop. I work endlessly. I never stop working.”

I was up for the 285-mile road trip from Palm Beach County, so I hopped in the car and drove north. The late commentator Charles Kuralt said that with today’s interstates, “You can drive coast to coast without seeing anything.” That’s why I chose the inland roads, west through Indiantown past Okeechobee and onto Route 27 past Lake Placid, the “Caladium Capital of the World” — flowering plants — toward Lake Wales and Haines City, the one-time spring training home of the Kansas City Royals.

The scenic trip of years ago had vanished. The citrus groves and Brahma bull pastures were gone, replaced by an ugly entanglement of stoplights, strip malls, high-tension wires, and sprawling housing developments.

Forsaking expectations of a scenic country ride I opted for the turnpike and somewhere past the Okahumpa Travel Plaza a Mustang blew past me and veered into my lane. A chunk of retread flew up and slammed into the grill of my Toyota 4Runner.

Steam wasn’t pouring out of the radiator so I waited until the Ocala exit to pull over. The license plate frame was broken and the plate was dented and smudged, but that was the extent of the damage.

Ocala is a city of 325,000 and its main thoroughfare is Route 40. Many drivers simply want to get through town. It’s home of the Casket Outlet Center, Petal Pusher Florists, and billboards that reflect the high crime rate: “Foxy’s Bail Bonds. Don’t let your tail sit in jail. Let my Daddy get your bail.”

Silver Springs was directly east, on the outskirts of a state forest. The previous night I’d booked a room for two nights at a Days Inn. I’d hoped that the exorbitant rate of $211 was reflective of the quality, but alas there’s no such place as an upscale Days Inn. The lobby was attached to a Denny’s Restaurant, and a bar called Riley’s was on the other side.

The faded marquee on Route 40 enticed travelers to bunk up with offers of 10 percent off dinner, a free pitcher of beer and two nights for $149.

“I have no idea,” the wide-eyed desk clerk said of the discrepancy between the two-night deal and my rate. “I don’t know.”

Early the next morning the manager agreed to let me check out a day early for a flat rate of $75. Back on the highway, farm stands along Route 301 sold strawberries, tomatoes, and hot green boiled peanuts. Beyond them, horse farms stabled thoroughbreds being conditioned for racetracks.

Shortly past a clapboard structure called the Jesus Deliverance Tabernacle, Scudder and his crew were transforming the Waldo Motocross Track into the Rugged Maniac 5K. Mat drove up in a Ram pickup, his face sunburned, eyes framed by sunglasses, and a Bruins hat declaring his loyalty to the team. He drove me over to meet Scudder, who explained why prepping a godforsaken patch of drought-plagued earth into a swampy running course was more rewarding than being a lawyer.

“I got tired of being between people’s problems,” said Scudder, a 1999 Frontier grad who attended Stonehill College and UConn law school. “There’s a lot of paperwork and writing and there’s not a lot of glamour to it. I wasn’t dealing with constitutional issues and I wasn’t changing the world. I wanted to get out.”

His first Rugged Maniac was two years ago in Southwick, Mass., and has expanded the unique brand across the country. Some races, he said, go off better than others.

“Weather’s a big problem,” he said. “In Phoenix we got hit by a huge sandstorm on the eve of the race. We were out at 4 a.m. with flashlights on our helmets repairing the course.”

The demographic is young, able-bodied men and women “who are out of school with disposable income and who are bored.”

Not bothering to stick around for the mud and the blood and the beer, I drove east on Route 20. Outside Interlachen I noticed a billboard for an exterminating company that deserved a “Mad Men” award for bad ad copy: “Roaches might cry for mercy but we can’t hear their tiny voices.”

The road intersected with Route 100 in Palatka, the former home of a Milwaukee Braves farm team memorialized in Pat Jordan’s book “A False Spring.” A one-time phenom who never made it to the big leagues, Jordan wrote of his minor-league experiences in Palatka, like the time a player sprinted in, grabbed a bat, clubbed a snake and threw it over the outfield fence.

Shortly past Angel’s—“Florida’s Oldest Diner” — and on the other side of the St. John’s River Bridge, two men were waving and holding signs: “Repent, Seek Jesus for Salvation.”

I waved back, remembering a sign that Mat might’ve appreciated from 30 years ago: “God saves, Esposito on the rebound.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning New England sportswriter.