Lenny’s Happy Place

Bicyclist keeps smiling despite bumps in the road
Steve Bornhoft
Photo by Michael Booini

For years, I had avoided Lenny Zacher but not by design.

We have close personal friends in common. I have known his brother-in-law, Bob, for many years. And Lenny’s chief recreation is bicycling at the City of Panama City Beach’s Conservation Park, a place that I have visited more than a few times.

Lenny, especially in the late afternoon, his preferred riding time, can be hard to avoid at the park. He estimates that he has logged an average of 50 miles a month for 10 years riding the 2,912-acre natural asset’s trails.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, however, that Lenny and I met up and went for a modest, 9-mile spin, primarily along the Longleaf and Baxley Homestead trails. We were joined by Bob and by Webb Burke, who works with Lenny at the Osprey on the Gulf hotel.

The ride was leisurely. We never much got up to speed, and Lenny stopped about every half mile to inspect spots where he had seen gators, hogs, otters and rattlesnakes in the past.

On this cloudy, low-humidity and slightly cool day, wildlife was not visibly about, but Lenny kept things lively by furnishing me with ample stories about critters that growl, snort, cavort and hiss. Early in the ride, he took me by what he calls the Walking Tree, a nod to ents, tree-like beings that inhabit J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth in The Hobbit and fall in behind their leader Treebeard.

The walking tree in Lenny’s world is stationary. It is made up of two cypress trunks that are separated by just a couple of inches for much of their lengths and then fuse together about 15 feet above the ground.

“I love the green of the cypress leaves when they are new,” Lenny said.

And he is fascinated by gators. He recounted having seen seven “baby gators,” no longer hatchlings, but still together on a bank bordering open water. He scrolled through videos on his phone until he found footage of the “congregation,” as groups of gators are called.

“I felt so privileged when I saw them,” Lenny said. “It was as if they had presented themselves just for me.”

I regaled Lenny with a story of my own about gator hunting on Deer Point Lake, a reservoir that serves Bay County as a primary source of drinking water. I described how my guide produced baby gator cries and mating calls that caused a big bull to charge our boat and come within harpoon range.

Lenny didn’t react to my tale much. I think he felt sorry for the gator. In any event, my story was to be topped.

Most of the 24 miles of trails in the park are hardpacked and easily traversed, even following a heavy rain. There are some, though, that flood, and Lenny finds them irresistible when submerged. He’s like a kid who cannot resist hopping into a puddle.

On this day, we passed by Baxley Homestead’s intersection with a trail that leads to Cypress Pond and was underwater owing to a drenching thunderstorm of the night before. Only in deference to me did Lenny not head down the trail turned tributary.

Lenny may be the only park visitor ever to have run into a gator with his bicycle. A dip in a trail was filled with water to a depth of more than a foot. Unfazed, Lenny plowed into the spot and was stopped short by a reptilian obstruction.

“That had my heart going,” he conceded.

I asked Lenny what he would call the park if he had the chance to rename it.

“Ooh, that’s a hard one,” he said.

I suggested Restoration Park as an alternative in that the unspoiled acreage serves Lenny and countless others as a restorative. He liked that all right, also noting efforts at the park to restore a longleaf pine forest.

“Do you notice how everyone here smiles?” Lenny asked a moment after a bicyclist approached us from the opposite direction.

Next to come our way was a father-and-son team. Dad looked like Dick Butkus on a bicycle.

“That guy won’t smile,” I challenged Lenny.

Moments later, I was proven wrong.

Restoration Park? I have thought better of that. Call it the Park of Smiles.

Be well,

Steve Bornhoft, Executive Editor

Categories: Editor’s Letter