Our early ancestors made the overland passage in ancient Fords and Chevies, their running boards caked with mud and squirrel and raccoon tails waving from the antennae that were capturing the country sounds of WCKY, Cincinnati One, Ohio, at that time our cultural beacon. We had earlier discovered Ohio, but it was even colder than the mountains in winter, and its post-war factory jobs there were then disappearing. So why not Florida? Employment was uncertain, but the weather was hospitable.
When these pioneers came home after a few weeks, their cars were decorated with brightly colored decals pasted to the wing glasses and back windows, advertising such exotic places as Tarpon Springs and Cypress Gardens. They also brought back gifts that the natives gave them for dollars -- clumps of greying Spanish moss to hang on the front porches, cut cypress knees suitable for making into lamp bases, and wooden cases full of sweet, fresh oranges. But they also told harrowing tales of the lands they traveled through -- the Carolinas and Georgia -- and of feral police cars that pounced from their lairs behind Mail Pouch and Stuckey's billboards and gas-station attendants who could cipher mysterious engine ailments just by raising a car hood.
Although we seldom talk about it among ourselves, those born West Virginian have a desire to some day get into a car and drive to Florida, no matter how far we have flown from our native state, no matter how long ago we shut that door.
Part One: Outward Bound
First Day Out. The lower third of the Delmarva Peninsula dangles south like the nude, tapering tail of a possum escaping up a hickory tree. The land is dead flat, laced with the watery fingers of inlets from the Atlantic Ocean to our left and the Chesapeake Bay to our right that masquerade for a few miles as rivers, their flows dictated not by gravity but by the mysteries of tides. Although the gas stations and convenience stores we pass by are thoroughly modern, the small towns and crossroads are not. There is a siren call of the past here, of a time when farming and fishing were everything to a young country, and it makes you want to stop and linger for a few days -- have a cup of everyday coffee at a small cafe and not read a newspaper, sit in a pasture under a spreading oak tree whose only worry is the occasional passing winds of a hurricane or a fast-moving Nor'easter on its way to Maine, dangle your feet off a decaying dock and look for water halos of fish below. We pass by signs for Assateague (where once I lugged in a half case of wine in my backpack for a weekend alfresco cooking jaunt) and Chincoteague, both barrier islands in the Atlantic. Other signs point to the crabbing and oyster-catching haunts of Crisfield and Smith Island, where the past clings to our consciousness like barnacles that can never be totally scraped away.
Ella and I left Pennsylvania this morning with cups of Starbucks latte nestled in the cup holders between us and a long, unabridged CD of Philip Roth's Exit Ghost nestled in her side pocket to entertain us later and in mine a tin box of curiously refreshing peppermint Altoids to give us quick bursts of fiery energy. We are Florida bound. First, to visit Ella's relatives, an aunt and cousins who went there in the '50s and never returned; second, to visit friends along the way, and, finally, to fulfill that Mountaineer urge to drive south.
The dozens of no-range chicken barns of Perdue and other meat manufacturers are now mercifully behind us as we prepare to traverse the long, beautiful Chespeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel that crosses from Virginia's Eastern Shore at the tip of Delmarva's tail to its Left Bank and the historical, military, and holiday haunts of Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. Unfortunately, Ella and I are the Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat of topographical phobias -- she hates tunnels and all things underground, and I am terrified of high bridges and all things that suddenly drop off. But the tunnels are short, and the bridges don't really soar, so we touch down at the far side virtually unstressed.
By mid-afternoon, we arrive at the Outer Banks, our destination for the night, and are immediately disappointed. Never having been there, we had anticipated something pristine and, well, spirit-soothing. Instead, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head -- such free-sounding names -- turn out to be wall-to-wall beach houses stretching from the inlet up over the primary dune like a wave in reverse. Later, we drive south into the national seashore area, and the houses begin to fade away, so we become somewhat mollified. And we enjoy the Wright flight enclave carved out between beach developments and four-lane highways. Still, what does this place look like in the summer?
In the evening, we have our anticipated seafood dinner at Kelly's at Milepost 10.5. Although it is a sauce, starch, and quantity-driven place, everything is fresh and flavorful, and the wine list is good and fairly reasonably priced. When we return to our motel, there is a wedding party going full bore at a beach house down the dune. We decide to crash -- but not it.
Second Day Out. We stop at Grits Grill on South Croatan Highway barely five minutes after liftoff for a quick, Sunday-morning breakfast. Northern food critics like to fawn over grits, possibly because as children they never had to eat them. But the grill's name proves to be more a paean to the locale than it is to the character of its food. The eggs are fresh, the coffee superb, and the service very attentive for a place that has a takeout counter for Krispy Kreme donuts. You also have to love a restaurant that serves both breakfast and lunch all day.
Sated, if not wiser, we head westward across the Great Dismal Swamp, and here we suddenly have the beauty and solitude -- we seem to be the only car on the road -- that the Banks seem to lack. There are warnings of alligators in the ditches and canals that parallel the highway, then fork off into the woods along desolate dirt paths that promise to lead to remote clearings we've all experienced at arm's length in primal-scream slasher movies and Erskine Caldwell novels.
By midday, we are at our friends' home in the Landfall section of Wilmington, NC. Mike and Patty are former neighbors who, since leaving our docile environs, have dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and barely missed wildfires in the hills of Southern California. Now they are permanently Tarheels, or at least until the next hurricane roars through. We go on a tour of Wilmington, lingering in the old town area along Cape Fear River, where the annual azalea festival is being held. At about every other house, mostly young women dressed up as pre-bellum Azalea Belles give us don't-move-an-elbow waves as we drive by. Beyond the pageantry, though, Wilmington does look like a nice town, the kind of place where you would like to sit down at a small cafe with a cup of coffee and finally read that newspaper.
Mike's and Patty's home is on a golf course -- an early hole -- and I watch Mike hit golf balls with his sand wedge to their young Lab retriever until Patty calls us in for spring lamb chops. As we have packed a few provisions in the car, we play the wine-drinking game of "Raise and Match," as in, "I'll raise your bottle then match it with another."
Third Day Out. We pull up to a motel outside of St. Augustine after a long drive down Interstate 95. It has not exactly been a boring ride, but the highpoint of the day was checking my Blackberry every 15 miles, being sure that the radar-toters hiding in the trees along the medians didn't scan us like a can on a checkout conveyor while I was answering e-mails.
Dinner is a pleasant surprise. Not wanting to overplan (as Ella generally accuses me of doing) or to predetermine how far we would drive each day, we did not consult any travel guides on Great Roadside Restaurants to Eat at While Traveling to Florida. But we did find one -- and a local delicacy as well.
Schooners Seafood on Colon Avenue in St. Augustine looks like the outside of any other 400-mile restaurant, as in, "I've driven 400 miles, and right now this place looks great to me." Inside, it's all booths, lots of local families who seem to know each other, and a menu that has everything from "gator tails" to conch to catch of the day to catfish, all prepared to your specifications, fried or broiled. The surprise is Minorcan datil peppers, which I learn were brought to St. Augustine by settlers from the Greek Islands. Today, a bottle of pepper sauce sits on every table as a condiment along with the mandatory ketchup bottle, and it's also a common ingredient in many dishes -- moderately hot and spicy. Along with some very good calamari, I try the Minorcan clam chowder, and the dish, I decide as I scrape the bowl clean, fits very nicely as the southern terminus of the great American chowder chain -- New England, New York, and, now, Minorcan.
After a Jack Daniels on the rocks in lieu of dessert (life is full of tradeoffs), I call it quits. Tonight, Jack Daniels. Tomorrow, the relatives.
Until the next time....