Old Rte. 66 in north Texas. (my pic)
Couldn’t get off the American Road…
When I drove to Florida in the summer of 1969, the main north-south route through the Carolinas and Georgia was US 301. It was infamous for its speed traps (especially in Ludowici and Jesup, Georgia), but otherwise it was a pretty road with many hundreds of mom-and-pop motels to choose from along the way. Sunrise Motel. E-Z Rest Motel. Nity-Nyte Motel. Starlite Motel. Or just Motel. And of course the Dew Drop Inn. In the middle of South Carolina as it was getting dark, I drove past a string of these motels engaged in a furious price war, loudly proclaiming ridiculously low room rates, from six or seven dollars down to two dollars a night! The two-dollar place looked pretty ratty, so I opted for a three dollar motel ($20.40 in today’s dollars), with TV, A/C, coffee, a comfy double bed, and a door that opened to the parking lot and easy access to my car. All this for three bucks! Plus a nice lady who welcomed me in, and saw me out the next morning.
If you’re a boomer like me, I know you’ve had your road trips here and there. A few hundred miles, a thousand or three thousand miles — out on the highway, car, RV, motorcycle, Microbus, rubber on pavement — man, woman, teenager needing to rack up miles, see what hasn’t been seen because it’s nearly primal, encoded into our “gotta get outa here” DNA that set us off wandering the world a hundred thousand years ago, and still to this day shoves us out of the house and out of town to be somewhere else.
Now the warriors of winter give a cold triumphant shout.
And all that stays is dying, and all that lives is getting out.
See the geese in chevron flight, flapping and racing on before the snow.
They’ve got the urge for going and they’ve got the wings to go.
— Joni Mitchell’s Urge for Going
Cathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
And I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike —
They’ve all come to look for America.
— Simon and Garfunkel’s America
Since my travels have shown me every state except Alaska, some of them many times over, I feel I’ve done it and don’t need to keep doing it. But recently my wife and I decided we would travel to central Florida to visit two sets of friends In Orlando and Ormond Beach (just north of Daytona). And we’d drive – in our ten-year old Honda Fit, with 137,000 miles on it. Yes, another major league roadie.
We agreed on a few basics:
- take only what we need (i.e., no cooler)
- avoid fast food
- stay in a ground-floor room at motels with outside doors.
- go primitive: no smartphone, no GPS! Just a road atlas and your basic trac phone.
- Avoid the wretchedness of I-95 south of NH through Mass., N.Y., New Jersey, Baltimore and D.C: take 495 to the Mass Pike to 84 west to Scranton, then south on 81 to the middle of Virginia, with a short hop back over to I-95 near Charlottesville.
Massachusetts, Connecticut, southern New York
Acckk! The bridges on 495, in Lawrence and Lowell, are in such wretched shape you can hit a bump and nearly launch your car into the next lane. But then, hey, here comes the Mass Pike! No tolls! They ripped out all the toll booths! What happened? Could it be (gulp) free? No, that would never happen in Massachusetts. Never. They photograph your rear license plate when you enter and leave the Pike and send you a nasty-looking, threatening bill, with plentiful threats of jail time for failure to pay. On to the freshly repaved I-84 in Connecticut through depressingly ugly Hartford sparkly-newness-with-peristent-poverty sprawl west toward Waterbury, where 84 becomes nearly undrivable through miles of construction. Crazy aggressive drivers here. Into New York State, stopping in Poughkeepsie – or actually Fishkill – for the night. Desperate for a motel with outside doors for each room. No such thing here – 7, 8 multistory motels (Hampton Inn, Fairfield, Marriott, Ramada, etc. – you know the drill) with indoor access only. Congested. We picked the Ramada and had multiple schleps from the car through the lobby to a corridor through a heavy, barely openable fire door to our room. Why do they make it so difficult? It’s all about security – forget about convenience for guests. No outside doors, less chance of robbery — or worse. The Dew Drop Inn would have to wait.
Most of rural New England and the Northeast have thousands of independently owned mom-and-pop motels, but you just won’t find them in congested areas, and rarely at Interstate exits, especially down the East Coast. Motel 6, Super 8, and some Days Inns come close to the idea of the Dew Drop Inn, but without any quirky originality or personality. And none of them has chairs or tables outside your door, to sip coffee, relax, and enjoy the morning air.
Pennsylvania and south…
South of Harrisburg, PA the land opens up. Farms, fields, long views. It’s mostly this way through 8 minutes of Maryland, 20 minutes of West Virginia, and down through the western hills (and Blue Ridge Mountains) of Virginia. Heavy truck traffic, but we saw only one truck on the entire trip (out of thousands) that behaved erratically. My experience is: truckers all over the country are the best, safest and most considerate drivers.
If you’re getting a sense of mixed messages here, you’re quite right. I was psyched to see our friends in Florida, and that was the main reason we were doing this. Oh, plus a chance to get back to Jekyll Island one more time, the true jewel in the crown of Georgia’s Golden Isles. The roadie itself sprang up out of necessity, not adventure or wanderlust. I’ve done this trip several times before, solo, and with friends, starting in the mid ’60s. I would see nothing new this time, except new “big box” motels, more Shoney’s, Denny’s, Cracker Barrels. No more Lum’s (actually, there’s just one left in the U.S., in Bellevue, Nebraska), and far fewer Stuckey’s. I miss Lum’s.
Yeah we stopped. Pecans, pralines, peach salsa, much more… somewhere south of Savannah off I-95.
I-95 through the Carolinas and Georgia is a breeze. The pic below tells the whole story.
Middle of NC. My wife driving (which she did for the entire trip, BTW). Nobody home here on this silky-smooth river of dreams.
We had a great time with Daliah – one of my wife’s close buddies from college – and her daughter Lucia in the town of Oviedo (Oh-VEE-doh) next to Orlando, followed by a too-short visit with W and P, our pals from Decatur, GA, in their new digs in Ormond Beach. But either from history or habit, our car in the driveway looked increasingly ready to get moving again. Outward. Northward. Homeward.
The new Jekyll Island
But first, back to The “Rah” Bar on Jekyll Island, Georgia, which I celebrated nearly two years ago for its low country boil. We aimed for a lunchtime arrival from Ormond Beach, nailed it, drove onto the island and straight to the wharf for yet another excursion into gustatory paradise.
Crushing disappointment – the “Rah” Bar was gone! Closed. Wrecked. You may recall Hurricane Matthew from last September 2016 – a Category 5 monster that trashed much of north coastal Florida, coastal Georgie and South Carolina. The hurricane was especially tough on the Intracoastal, demolishing the “Rah” Bar, its sister restaurant Latitude 31, and dozens of yachts tied to the docks on the Jekyll River.
So we ate elsewhere and toasted the bygone “Rah” Bar and our flurry of fine memories being there.
The “Rah” Bar in its prime, c. 2007. It’s just wreckage now. (my pic)
Jekyll’s been transformed, with a new Convention Center, hotels, restaurants and more anchoring the center of the island on the ocean shore. But for all this, it’s still a state park, every acre of it, with every inch of beach open to every one.
Pines at St. Andrew’s Beach, southern tip of Jekyll. Matthew trashed the beach, but the trees survived. I loved the evening light on these trees.
My wife doing her thing at St. Andrew’s Beach, Jekyll, 2007 or so. After Matthew, not many people go there now.
Where had we stayed? They all blurred together. Fishkill, NY. Waynesboro, VA. Waltersboro, SC. With friends in Florida three nights, then Jekyll. Emporia, VA, just north of the North Carolina border. Then a major 500-mile push back up to New York State – this time Binghamton and points east to Albany. We would miss (huzzah!) Connecticut and Massachusetts and their nasty roads and wacko drivers entirely.
And in Bainbridge, NY, a hamlet 30 miles east of Binghamton, we finally found our
closest kin to the “Dew Drop Inn” on the banks of the Susquehanna River.
Metal keys! Credit card swiping machine (1970s style)! AC outlets that didn’t work! A bed 6 inches from the wall! A rocking toilet that had become unhinged at its base! Perfect!! And, in 1969 dollars, all of this and a great night’s sleep for under $8!!
So where are the memorable characters? The illuminating chance encounters? There were many pleasant moments, many perfunctory pleasantries, but overall the voices were flat, the eyes numb, as if the entire East Coast had been aerosoled with novocaine. Acceptance, but no joy. America in 2017 is a different country, and it was showing in people’s eyes. I’m a writer who’s very open to other people’s vibes and stories and personalities, but for the first time ever on a long roadie I got nothing.
This roadie was a mission: to see good friends who happened to live in Florida. Every mile was a part of that mission. In my wife, I had a terrific companion, a great driver, one who thought on the same wavelength. We got hungry, we got tired, we needed to stretch at the same time. And when we pulled into our So. Thomaston driveway at 6 pm last Thursday, we both agreed: we’d finally found the real Dew Drop Inn.
My books here – have a look!