From Richmond it’s a straight, clean shot down 95. Nine and a half hours after take off, doing 65-80 mph with minimal fill ups, bathroom breaks and fast food drive thrus only, past outlet malls, roadside fireworks stores and about a million red and yellow South of the Border billboards, you’ll cross a pale concrete bridge at the southern end of Georgia where, at the bottom, a full color sign announces that you have landed in a strange, semitropical netherworld.
I started traveling with my parents to Florida in 1971. This was when portions of I-95 were still just glimmers in the minds of the Eisenhower Highway System architects, so we had to take some state routes near the coast of Georgia, then A1A through St. Augustine and southward to Daytona. (Of course, A1A goes all the way through Miami and to the end of the road in Key West — the island my soul calls home — but back then Daytona and my Uncle Joe’s place were as far south as we went.)
We lived in Hampton, and until the early nineties there was only one good way to get to Florida from the Oldest Continuous English-Speaking Settlement in America: drive across the James River Bridge, through Smithfield and Windsor and Franklin, then down Suicide Alley to Emporia and I-95. Nowadays Peninsulars can take the Monitor-Merrimac tunnel and bypass the country, or they can drive to Richmond and get straight on 95.
There was only one benefit to driving through the back roads of southeastern VA: the summer landscape. In the bright blue haze under the summer sun, with the heat shimmering off the two-lane blacktop, the green farms on either side seemed alive, and the old houses of whitewashed clapboard weren’t poverty-stricken — they were picturesque and swollen with history — and definitively Southern.
But every now and then my Dad would have one of his thankfully infrequent brainstorms and decide, “We have to leave at 3 in the morning to get to Florida on time!” On time, of course was relative: relative to Dad’s intentions, relative to how long he parked the white Galaxy 500 and napped at every rest stop between South Carolina and Daytona, and relative to the whims of my mother, who would make him pull over now and then and look for the best roadside peaches in Georgia. (At one of these stops I went to a gas station bathroom and bought my first condom, from a machine for a quarter. It stayed in my wallet for at least a year until I threw it away. But I was ready just in case…)
By 1980 Maria were driving down for vacations on our own — and of course we slept in separate beds, Mom! — or with various family members and friends, and we discovered that driving through the South at night, underneath the summer moon (preferably full) was absolutely wonderful. With the windows open, the smell of the green fields on the warm breeze, and Florida always ahead, beckoning us on. Wonderful isn’t the word. It was magical. There were nights the stars were so bright and clear that they sparkled like jewels. And there were nights in the spring when we took turns driving and we looked up to watch the Perseid meteorites scratch firetails across the sky.
Our destination for most of our trips was Disney World, but in the 30 years we’ve been going, it’s the drives we remember the most, and with the most fondness. As much as we love the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain and all the restaurants and exploring the hotels, and the lifetime it seems we spent in the Adventurers Club with our Florida friends, whenever Maria and I are with the family, our stories always revolve around the trips getting there and coming back (sounds like a Tolkien fantasy to me). Reading bad Star Trek paperbacks aloud in the car; the trip I drove my dad’s Cadillac, and it kept cutting off on us (“Oh yeah,” he said on the phone while I was stopped, scared shitless, at the welcome station in north Georgia, “I guess I forgot to tell you. It does that.”); the exploding Coke can; the trip my mother threw up in the back seat for two hours from Jacksonville to a hospital in Orlando…and then my car got hit in North Carolina; chili dogs with Ken at 3 in the am at South of the Border…and their explosive aftermath a few hours later; playing games to keep us all awake; the unwelcome station in south Georgia; my bro-in-law standing in mud and sinking…sinking…
It was the mysterious night drives through the South — specifically the wide, green farmlands of Smithfield and Windsor — that inspired the locale for my 1996 novella in F&SF, “Puppy Love Land.”
And it was those drives that still inspire me and Maria to eventually take a long road trip through the Panhandle and Alabama and Mississippi to visit as many of the haunted places — and the blues clubs — as we can.
Forget the kids. Plan a Disney World or a Florida beach trip just as a couple, or alone. Leave right after work, and about the time you hit central North Carolina and dusk settles over the horizon, roll down the windows and breathe in the warm air, and watch the moon arc through the sky. The road will roll beneath your wheels like a ribbon of night, and by the time the sun comes up and your stomach tells you it’s time for Cracker Barrel or an Egg McMuffin, that big metal sign will be waiting for you just past the Florida border, and you can pull over at the welcome station and get a free cup of orange juice. They gave ‘em out in the ‘70s, and they’re still doing it today.
And buy a condom out of a machine. Feel young again.