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Geography of nowhere

Interstate 4 defines and divides Central Florida

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Beltways like I-4 can be dividers or uniters, and this one is both and neither at the same time. East of Tampa, it makes little difference which side of I-4 you reside on; north of I-4 is Temple Terrace and the University of South Florida, and south of I-4 lies Brandon, an unincorporated town. Interstate 4 presents no barrier between the two sides, with fluid movement suggesting that in this section, I-4 presents no obstacle or defining boundary.

Further east, however, one encounters the city of Lakeland, the agro-industrial capital of Central Florida, hanging like a pendulous fruit just south of the freeway. Rich with phosphate, one of Florida's only natural resources, Lakeland mines and processes this mineral for fertilizer and soap additives. It sends the phosphate by truck and by rail to the Port of Tampa for export. Lakeland also processes orange juice and a variety of Florida's agricultural products, and has clusters of food-packaging industries to support this activity. Lakeland, in the heart of what locals call "Florida Cracker country," works hard and is definitively blue collar.

North of I-4, Lakeland quickly fades into suburbs and ranchlands. Here, one passes through the Green Swamp, a wetlands that remains undeveloped and remote. An aviation museum reminds you that you are in Central Florida indeed, but little else of man's handiwork is evident until US 27, an old prewar highway running along a nice high ridge that brought many people to Florida before the interstates came.

As a boundary, I-4 here is still largely symbolic, with a truck-stop cluster of gas stations and fast-food restaurants eking out a living. On either side, however, the population remains rural and at this juncture, US 27 unites both sides of I-4, negating its myth as a boundary between red and blue Florida. By now, the alert traveler may have noticed that he is trending more northerly than easterly, and indeed I-4 is slowly turning one to the north into the fringes of greater Orlando.

At one time, I-4 had seasonally fluctuating traffic. In the late summer heat, one could hit stretches of I-4 where no other cars could be seen on the horizon. Today, however, it frequently slows to a parking-lot crawl on the outskirts of Lake Buena Vista. For this is the pleasantly named region in which Disney resides, and I-4 straddles this region. On the left side, Walt Disney World. On the right side, Celebration: Disney's tribute to high-design community living. Both sides lie within the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a self-governing singularity cleverly established by Walt Disney to prevent annoying regulation.

The first time one arrives to this section of I-4, no matter what age, is special. Little things like the power line pole artfully shaped like a Mickey Mouse or the words "Magic Kingdom" on the big green signboards intrigue visitors. Here, I-4 is a conduit of anticipation, a rim from which one anxiously departs to plunge into a fantasy world.

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