Going down to Florida from New England, especially when leaving the north in colder weather, is rather exciting. I think about it — I’m on vacation, the office is left behind, the next two weeks are fun, etc. etc. The thermos is full, the sandwiches are in the bag, cruise control set, shoes off, stretch out, Mapquest and atlas at hand. Two bags. Goodbye Massachusetts, at least for two weeks!
My first night’s goal is Weldon NC. On the first day, I am alert so I find my first four hours – through Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York City to be a bit of a challenge with the traffic. Traffic on the eights on WCBS radio tells me that the “GW”, George Washington Bridge is pretty good, so I make the decision to stay on I-95 and go straight through the Bronx to the New Jersey Pike. I’m also Being VERY careful not to take the wrong turn or I could wind up going to Queens!
New Jersey is boring and also a challenge – as the road splits, merges, cars and trucks going every which way. Forty minutes into the New Jersey Pike , and after stopping for gas, a snack, and whatever else I needed to do, I find myself going through some open farm land. I even see two deer grazing, and the trip starts to lull me a little bit, but the temptation to add another five miles per hour to that speed is avoided when I see the state police car in the median strip.
I pay the tolls at the end of the New Jersey Turnpike and continue on and cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge. I’ve crossed the second world-class bridge in under three hours, and this one is more imposing than the George Washington because the approach to it is viewable for a longer period of time. Yet another toll barrier gets the concentration up. The tip on the Sacajawea dollar coins for change really helped. While stores don’t like them, the toll collectors are used to them. I wish more people would use them as it would cut the toll lines down!
I pay again and find myself being welcomed to Delaware. Let’s not get used to being in Delaware. Two more gold dollar coins and twenty minutes later, we’re in the Free State. Left exit service areas make driving through this state a breeze in one way, but the increased traffic, driving fatigue, and the prospect of what’s ahead give this solo driver a slight feeling of despair. But there is coffee and fast food, and there are plenty of places to stop, stretch, and quickly snooze. Chesapeake House? Maryland House? One of them will do.
No, I don’t want Starbucks Coffee, I want Maxwell House! It’s there, yes, and I’ll take the largest size you have. I’ll fill the tank as well. The late afternoon chill nips at me while I stand at the pump. This isn’t New Jersey, so I have to fill it myself.
Into Baltimore! Pick a tunnel! I’ll take the Fort McHenry. Now – on to Washington. The traffic is urban. Be CAREFUL! Now the (groan) Capital Beltway around Washington — it’s now dark, and the Woodrow Wilson bridge creates the major slowdown. Off the beltway, onto 95 proper, and watch this area because the traffic is heavy and people are playing “which lane” chicanery! But the traffic does not let up for another fifteen miles or so.
Is this worth it? Should I have flown? It’s still cold, even though when I saw the grass in daylight, it looked a little greener than it did in Massachusetts.
Suddenly, I’m going up, uphill and I’m in the Dumfries area. The traffic has let up, and it feels like a great load has been taken off my shoulders. Like blocked sinuses clearing, I can breathe again as I aim toward Richmond. There’s King’s Dominion. And I head into Richmond and see its unique railway station.
It’s funny – but after all of that traffic encountered in Hartford, New Haven, New York, Baltimore, and Washington, the relatively empty highways of Richmond seem surreal. Of course, it’s late at night and as much as I despise cigarette smoking, the Philip Morris plant is a welcome sight as the road levels off.
Flat road down to Petersburg and beyond!!! But be careful, because this is the stretch of the journey in which you are most likely to get a speeding ticket. Forget the traditional five to seven miles-per-hour tolerance. Set the cruise to the posted speed limit signs. Besides, that first night’s rest isn’t that far away. You get a burst of adrenalin – we’ll make it and I won’t doze off!
Emporia. Skippers. Man, I can’t wait to hit the rack! It’s nighttime, so I can hear David Brudnoy on WBZ radio all the way from Boston.
(note : David Brudnoy, the best radio talkmaster in America, passed away in 2004. He kept me awake on many late night drives. Thanks, Dr. B, and RIP. You’ll be missed by many evening drivers on the big road).
“Welcome to North Carolina!”. Weldon, Weldon, that’s where the hotel is… Best Western! That’s it! Off the highway. Let’s fill up now, and I head to the Shell self-serve. It’s 10:30 pm.
The motel has a hand-written sign “No Vacancy” but it doesn’t matter. Through the cashier’s window, the lady asks me if I have a reservation. I spell my last name, and her slight smile makes me feel good as she locates my folder. I inform her I have AAA, and she applies the appropriate discount. Yes, the room is in the back! The trucks roaring by on I-95 won’t be a concern. It’s on the second floor but I still don’t care.
I notice it’s chilly, but surprisingly, not as chilly as it was when I left Massachusetts this morning. Wow – it’s too cold for swimming but even their pool is open!
I take the room key and then retrieve the overnight bag out of the trunk. It has one change of clothing and my necessities in it. I lock the car, and scramble upstairs. The toothbrush is out and I use it to get today’s coffee stains out of my teeth. I check the alarm clock and set it for 7:15 am. It’s now 11. Ernie Banks used to say “Let’s play two”… well, I say, “Let’s sleep eight”….
The covers go over my shoulders. The real world is left behind. I know that I will awaken to sunshine and drive into summer in the morning. That thought excites me, but not enough to prevent me from falling into the deepest sleep I’ve had in months.
END OF DAY 1.
The radio begins blaring some classic country music, and I recognize the peppy song as “I’ll Go to my Grave Loving You” by the Statler Brothers. The lady DJ says “it’s a blast from the past, and it’s seven sixteen! The temperature is 45 degrees, but we expect a high today of around 62.” I stay in bed and doze slightly as she goes to a commercial for a local car dealership. I straggle out of bed, somewhat confused, thinking I have to go to work, but I then look around and see that I’m in a motel room, and it immediately comes to mind that I’m on vacation! I haven’t shaved in a day and a half, and I also feel pretty sweaty – ripe is the word, so I step into the shower and linger. I step out and shave, and usually I am tired when I rise. But not today! Short sleeve shirt and shorts are the uniform for the drive south.
Having dressed, I swing by the office. I notice it’s cold; it’s a little warmer than Massachusetts for this time of year, but not that much warmer. On one side, there’s an Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House. On the nearer side is the complimentary continental breakfast. I load up on cereal, toast, and doughnuts, and gulp down three cups. I’ll stop on the way later and grab a country ham biscuit, and the combination will be filling. On the road again! It isn’t even eight o’clock.
The towns roll by on 95. This is a two-lanes-on-each-side highway, so I have to be careful. The cruise is set to 72, and it’s sunny. The mileages are down in my head – North Carolina is around 180 miles, South Carolina around 192, so it’s going I quickly divide 372 by 70 and figure I’ll be crossing into Georgia at around two-thirty or three o’clock. Ah! The Gold Rock exit is coming up. There’s McDonald’s and there’s a Hardee’s, so I can swing through a drive-up and grab a biscuit. I’m coffeed-out now, but I have little bottles of Poland Spring water so there’s no need to stop for more drinks on the way.
On this part of the trip, I’m pumped. I’ve had a good night’s sleep, and as I drive on through the sun, it becomes a tad warm. Time to hit the AC button, which hasn’t been on since November. Now we see the intersection with I-40, and we have half of the Tarheel state behind us. The mile markers also play into my enthusiasm as their numbers lower — 85 — 84 — 83. And the ubiquitous signs for “South of the Border” appear.
“You never sausage a place”
“Your sheep are all counted at South of the Border”
“Keep Yelling, Kids! They’ll Stop!”
A smile comes to my face as I recall the poster on the I-95 board who replied that she didn’t want to miss SOB, as they call it, so what does she do? Well, I don’t know what she did, but I cross the South Carolina state line and keep on going by it.
As I pass by it. I do have the urge to visit, uh, the convenience, but there is one right on 95 a couple of miles into South Carolina, and so I stop there. The clock says 10:35. Open the door, and it has definitely warmed up. The smell of fresh air and sunshine. I am only at this stop for a few minutes, and I want to hang out in the sun some more, but I also want to get to Florida!
After signing the guest book, and checking the gas gauge, I hunker down. This is the most boring part of the southbound trip. The terrain is similar to North Carolina, but I know I will spend nearly three and a half hours in this state, and will have to stop for lunch.
While South Carolina has its beautiful parts, this part of the drive is one I dread most. To break the boredom, I start flipping the radio dial, and look for little obscure local AM radio stations. Alas, most of them have gone the satellite programming route and there’s nothing local on. This is the point in the trip that I wish I had a second driver.
Florence. Sumter County. I look down at my trip odometer and note that this morning I’ve gone 230 miles. It’s around this point that South Carolina begins to get interesting. Drive on, and on, and on ….as you go through Manning, and beyond, you approach Lake Marion and cross it on what seems to be a mile-long bridge. Also noticable at this part of the trip is the temperature change. It is actually summerlike, and so I decide to stop around Walterboro and chow down again, at Mickey D’s. I see flowers in bloom, and a bit of a rush comes through me. I haven’t seen flowers like that in months.
It’s around 1 o’clock, and I’ve driven 300 miles or so. I won’t fill up, because I know gasoline is cheaper in Georgia, but five gallons in my Saturn will easily get me another 150 miles or more, and I won’t have to scramble later. So back on the road after eating.
Hmm, this took longer than I thought. I stayed too long and enjoyed my first taste of what we would consider summer in New England. I keep seeing signs that say “Savannah” but South Carolina doesn’t seem to want to end. Fatigue is taking its toll on me, as I’ve been solo in the car for six hours. I keep plugging as the mile markers count down – 6 – 5- 4- 3 — and I see that “Georgia is on my mind”.
This is actually one of the more spacious state welcome stations. I realize that I have gone 380 miles thus far today – I’m going to have to stop more, but I don’t mind. The temperature is close to 80 now. I’m going to set my alarm watch for 3:45 and I nod off for a nap…..
BEEP-BEEP BEEP-BEEP BEEP-BEEP – it’s 3:45 pm, and I did doze off a little bit. But I realize that if I’m to make my destination in Kissimmee tonight, I’ve got to get a move on. There are three hundred miles to go. I’m alone, I’m fatigued, and the warm climate is making me sleepy.
One final stretch, as I get out of the car and put my winter jacket in the trunk. I won’t be wearing it for awhile. I also reach for another Coca-Cola – hey, it’s appropriate, I’m in Georgia! Passing by all of the cars, I see some Massachusetts and New Hampshire plates, and even a couple of cars from auto dealers in my neighborhood.
Ah … two hours or so, I’ll be in Florida! I drive and continue and pass Eulonia. The concrete road has a slightly buzzy sound, and I can’t be stopped. Onward and onward, and it gets a bit boring. But I look down at the clock, and it’s nearly five. And I’m approaching Brunswick. THE FIRST PALM TREES IN THE MEDIAN STRIP! But those appear to have been trucked in, and are held up with stilts! I roar by exit 7, knowing that the cheapest gas on the east coast is at the next truck stop. I pull off the road, pull over to the self-serves, and fill it up. One more stretch.
Back up on 95…. more barbecue houses advertised, but I know that there’s a Sonny’s Real Pit at St. Mary’s, just before the small bridge crossing into Florida. Down the road I go, passing some tired over-cautious drivers, while some enthusiastically charged younger ones blast by me.
Six o’clock. Into Sonny’s for a quick bar-b-que pork special platter, which I haven’t had for a year or so. I’m in, I’m out, and then in the car again, back up the ramp, and over the St. Mary’s River -
WELCOME to FLORIDA!
I can’t find the billboard where the little girl greets you that says “You’ve finally arrived!” and inviting you into the welcome center. It may be closed, but I’m now wondering if I should bypass Jacksonville, or go straight through it? Bypass! It’ll add fifteen or twenty miles onto the trip, but it’s getting dark, and I really don’t want to fight traffic. I loop around Jax, cross the Buckman Bridge and rejoin I-95.
At this point in the evening, it’s too dark to see anything much. Still, I head on down to the intersection of I-4 and I-75. The greatest thing — I’m in Florida and it’s dark, but it’s warm. While on 95 , I can’t see it, but I still feel the mildness and calmness of the Atlantic Ocean a few miles to the east. But the big junction comes up — and I take it. Another hour or so – and it starts to rain. I approach Orlando, and look for the John Young Parkway and head south. This seems just endless, but I’m very close to my final destination, I stop into a Winn-Dixie store, purchase my food incidentals, and move on to my rented condo.
It’s warm, and I smell the orange blossoms. It’s stopped raining. The suitcases are removed from the trunk and I go inside. I hang up a few things, and put the perishables in the refrigerator. The long drive has exhausted me and I should head right to sleep, but I am drawn out to the balcony. I open one of the cold beers that I just purchased, sit outside, and enjoy weather that Floridians take for granted, but what seems very tropical to me.
The perfect reward for two days of I-95 endurance!