Old Florida is Vanishing One Small Town at a Time
One of the biggest things I have learned during this Bay-2-Bay trek is that my late Father was a true road warrior. He would pack our Mom, both of us brats into that old white Pontiac station wagon that featured the rumble seat that had us facing the traffic and motor all around Florida and destinations East of the mighty Mississippi River.
This long road trip had given me a more defined level of respect and admiration for a man who would pack his car, travel night and day to see his kid’s smile, have lifetime moments in the Smokey Mountains or see his children swim with glee in the Pacific Ocean for the first time (even though it was 52 degrees). It kind of made me mad I never did this before, or might never again. but I am doing it now, and it is time to relish these final 500 miles until my St. Petersburg driveway.
It wasn’t until Saturday morning when I crossed the mighty Mississippi in a blinding rain storm that it hit me. The America of my youth, where you could get saltwater taffy or pecan rolls at the Stuckey’s was rapidly disappearing. That America’s main roads of my youth like US Highway 19 also known as the Georgia-Florida Parkway in it’s day is slowly being phased out by the fast paced travel option of the Interstate, and with it, some levels of Americana have been put to sleep.
I decided to take the ” old path” home to Tampa Bay. Bypass the spiff and glamor of the Interstate 10 and 75 to discovering some of the small towns just beyond my Interstate perripherial vision. I exited off I-10 and got lost for a few minutes in the new urban sprawl that has graced the first few miles of the Interstate landscape. You know what I am talking about 2 miles of new accommidations, clean gas stations and multiple food options, most of the fast, quick and fatty versions before revealing the old Florida charm and landscape.
Suddenly, I was back in the old Florida I knew from trips around the state staring out of the back window of that station wagon rear window. Instantly I had the urge to wave, smile and want big trucks to honk their horns as they passed me on that stretch of road. I remember motoring vintage style. But as I went through the first few small towns along this trail, I noticed that the sleek and fine-tuned motoring habits of today had left behind a few unforeseen casualties.
Some of these small towns have seen their hotels, motels and corner gas stations of their youth seem to age before their time. Fall into disrepair or become abandoned as their owners either gave it their all, or threw in that final bath towel. What I visioned that day was the rural decay that the Interstate had left in its wake. Some small towns struggling on their outskirts, but still so proud and standing tall within their cores.
I remember when I was young, I used to hunt with my Father in a pact of land North of Weeki Wachee, Florida. You might know it better as the attraction that was home for many years to a World Famous Mermaid show, then added a water park, then changed hands as the City of St. Petersburg, Florida became it’s landlord. It then went back into private hands, and that owner incorporated the park into his own municipality complete with aquatic and non-aquatic citizens.
It has since been redefined once again as a county park, complete with mermaids, river boats, and even water slides. But this tract of land North has now been mowed down, leveled and converted into the present site of the Weeki Wachee High School. Wonder if the locals know that for years that was a sacred hunting ground for Florida white-tailed deer, complete with 5-8 point horns.
Even some of the roadside icons of my youth have started to disappear, but some have been re-purposed, or re-designated into items that almost made me miss them for their blending into the background now instead of being front and center and popping out at you. Things like the old steel bridge that hung over the Swanee River for so long, now sectioned off in an isolated park along side this famous river. Or Dino the dinosaur that presided over the old Fina station, now repair shop.
Even this river has changed so much just in the last few decades. One of the photos I attached shows the water lines dropping, the huge difference in water levels that can even be seen in the photos of the newer bridge support columns, with no chance of it going back to being the Swanee of my youth. Sure in 1998, after a huge rainy season in that section of Florida, it did rise 20-odd feet, but the pattern of rapid water table drops began again the next season. Now even the water was showing its age.
I guess what I am trying to drive at is that maybe we should take those one tank trips more often off the beaten trail. Have a few home cooked meals in the town that spawned your locale before the fast and furious lifestyle hit us between the eyes. I had the most amazing breakfast this morning at a small Mom & Pop Cafe’ that made daily homemade sausage and gravy, eggs done with the cheese ( old classic Velveeta) churned into them and two strips of bacon so thick I could tie them to my legs and walk across that Swanee River.
That is something I did not do enough of on this cross country trip. I did not go off the beaten trail unless it was for a truly ulterior motive (Tombstone). I still have not stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon, howled at the Moon during a cold desert night, or ate that steak I was dreaming about at K-Bob’s in Fort Stockton, Texas. I cocooned myself within the confines of the Interstate corridor.
I instinctly chose the clean and sparkling, instead of venturing into the unknown paths even for a few miles. I can promise you this, the next time I take a trip to Port Charlotte, Florida to see the Rays this Spring, I will take the “Tamiami Trail” also known as US-41 South and see if any of the sights of my youth besides the Ringling Museum still exist. If I go East, I will venture on SR-60 or SR-50 again sampling Florida like I have not for countless years.
Maybe I am just getting older. Maybe I am just becoming more sentimental as a gracefully ( hopefully) age. But honestly, I am doing it for more than myself. I am doing it for the man who put three other people in a car one stormy night near South Georgia while on vacation and drove for a day and a half with a Hurricane bearing down on us from the rear finally camping out in a hotel room on Virginia Beach as that same storm followed us there.
I am going to go “old school” next time, hitting the highways and byways long forgotten my Map quest, Google Street View or even AAA. I am going to become that quintessential road warrior just like that guy I admire, who never complained, never argued, but seemed content to drive, see and enjoy this great land. I think it is time for all of us to re-institute our own versions of an old family classic….the Sunday drive…..Happy Motoring.