Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dispatches from the Sunshine State 2 - Sending In the Clowns

After our long drive down the Eastern Seaboard from Washington, DC, we had a couple of days to decompress in Gainesville before setting off on a ten-day excursion through central Florida and along the southwestern Gulf Coast to the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades (by far the edgiest edge of America I have encountered to date). The first leg of this new journey took us south from Gainesville, across the western edges of the Ocala Scrub, and then down along the central ridge of peninsular Florida to Lakeland. This is, perhaps, my favorite area of Florida. Certainly it is the area I know best. I have been traveling these highways and byways over the past four decades. There have been changes, of course, but for the most part the landscape is as I remember it.

Located approximately half way between Tampa and Orlando in what was once the heart of Florida’s citrus belt, Lakeland is the home of Florida Southern College which my wife and I attended as undergraduates. The first order of business on this road trip was attending the homecoming celebration marking the college’s 125th anniversary. Founded in Orlando as the South Florida Seminary, in 1885, it morphed into Southern College when it moved to Sutherland (now Palm Harbor), and then briefly to Clearwater, both on the Gulf Coast. It finally moved to Lakeland in 1922 and was renamed Florida Southern College in 1925. Frank Lloyd Wright was invited to the campus in 1936 and returned to Taliesin to design his “Child of the Sun,” a complex of eighteen campus buildings, twelve of which were completed before the architect died in 1959. The West Campus of Florida Southern College now constitutes the largest concentration of Wright-designed structures in the world and his only college campus (see my posting of March 28, 2009).

Our visit in Lakeland afforded us an opportunity to spend time with old college chums, some of whom I had not seen since I left Lakeland upon graduation in December 1973. It seems strange to walk around campus now and look at the young students and recall when we wandered these walkways years ago looking at the old folks coming back to visit. I am reminded of Nathaniel Hawthorne returning to Bowdoin College, his alma mater, for a commencement ceremony in 1852. “All my contemporaries have grown into the funniest old men in the world,” he told his wife Sophia. “Am I a funny old man?” I wonder if these kids look at us this way.

Many of us were members of The Vagabonds, the college theater troupe, and this homecoming was particularly bittersweet. We celebrated being together again after all of these years, but we also returned to mark the passing of Mel Wooten, our director and mentor during the beginning of our budding thespian careers. Some of us have continued in the theater and others have chosen different career paths, but we all owe Mel no small measure of thanks for turning out the way we did. There was a brief and touching ceremony dedicating the theater lobby in Mel’s honor after which we all went inside to share recollections of our time on that stage and our fond remembrances of our departed friend. Some of the current Vagabonds were there and treated us to a sampling of their impressive talents as we looked at each other and wondered if we were that good way back when. There was laughter and music and I can’t help but think that Mel was looking down on all of us with a big smile on his face.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the evening - certainly for me - was when Robert MacDonald, a brilliant and gifted concert pianist who has been artist-in-residence at the college since 1963, stepped down to the stage to play Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” from A Little Night Music. I have known Bob and his wife Ingrid, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, since the time I first set foot on campus back in the autumn of 1969. I developed a close and lasting friendship with them and their daughter Sona during the time we spent together in Freiburg, Germany in the early 1970s. Sona is now a wonderfully talented and successful actress in Vienna where her folks first met as students in the late 1950s. I have listened to Bob play this particular song since he and Sondheim first worked together many years ago, and I think of him every time I hear it. It is a song of anger and regret, but not when I hear Bob play it. So, when he sat down to the small upright piano on stage - a far cry from the Bosendorfer grand piano he is accustomed to playing - and his long, graceful fingers tinkled out the first notes, I knew I was going to hear him play it again. I have to admit that my eyes turned a little misty as a flood of memories came rushing back. When I first met Bob he was in his late 30s, a young and vibrant presence . . . a veritable force of nature. Now, having turned 80 just ten days ago (Sondheim turns 80 tomorrow so the song was quite appropriate on that score as well), he seemed much frailer than I remembered from the last time we saw each other six years ago; a reminder that none of us are as young as we used to be. That all changed, however, when he sat down before the keyboard and all the power and muscle of his immense talent overshadowed the passing of so many years.

Today I turn another year older . . . on the cusp of sixty. . .not quite there yet but getting closer every day. It was nice to be able to spend my birthday here in Lakeland among so many fond memories and in the company of friends who figure prominently in them. Thinking of that song as Bob played it last night, I have no regrets about growing older. So what if some look at me as the funniest of old men?

There ought be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dispatches from the Sunshine State 1 - Cruising Interstate 95

Well, I have finally "boned the duck" (see my posting of January 24, 2010) and I am now officially a person of leisure. Therefore I need to find activities and projects to fill my hours and days. I am sure I will sort out all of this over time, but my first priority is some rest and recreation (and, perhaps, a little restoration, too). So, after a few days to run errands and take care of things (at least tentatively) at home, we have set off on a month long sojourn in Florida. After a long and rather intense winter in Maryland, we are in search of warmer climes. With so many friends and family in Florida, I have been going to Florida regularly since the mid-1960s. I attended Florida Southern College, in Lakeland, where I met Sally Ann, my future spouse and a native Floridian who spent her entire life there until we were married in 1974 in Pensacola. So Florida has long been an integral part of our life and who we are.

More often than not, our trips to and from Florida involve a long drive down America’s populous Eastern Seaboard along Interstate 95, the longest north-south interstate passing through 15 states (the most of any in the system) and stretching nearly 2000 miles from northern Maine to southern Florida. I have covered the section between Washington, DC and Jacksonville, Florida more times than I can count on my hands and toes (and those of my wife and son and a couple of close friends). Terra incognita it is not! This trip is no different.

The section of I-95 running between the Washington Beltway and Richmond, Virginia is a section I don’t ever care to drive on again. It’s ugly, overtaxed, and choked with trucks, and I avoid it every chance I get. This trip is no exception. After loading up the car and saying our farewells, we drove down to Upper Marlboro, the county seat of Prince George’s County (established in 1696) where I use to spend a fair amount of time while serving on the county’s Historic Preservation Commission. Here we joined U.S. Route 301 through southern Maryland before it crosses the Potomac River to the Northern Neck of Virginia not far from the birthplaces of two notable Virginians - George Washington and Robert E. Lee. It was near here that John Wilkes Booth and one of his co-conspirators crossed the river as they fled Washington a few days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, in April 1865 and before Booth was shot and killed at the Garrett Farm along what is now Route 301 south west of where it crosses the Rappahanock River near Port Royal, Virginia (I will have more to say about Booth’s escape in a future posting). Once Route 301 reaches Bowling Green, Virginia, it roughly parallels I-95 as they continue south through Virginia and the Carolinas. It would have been easy to jump on the interstate for the rest of the trip down to Richmond, our first short day’s destination, but we chose to remain on 301 as we continued south. On the north side of Richmond we joined the I-295 bypass which sweeps around the eastern edges of the city before rejoining I-95 south of Petersburg. This area has a rich Civil War heritage as we passed near Cold Harbor and the sites of several other smaller battlefields before calling it a day. We often make the roughly 800 mile trip to Florida in one very long day. This time we decided to get a head start - a couple hours and almost 150 miles down the road thinking that the next day would not seem quite as long.

The next morning we arose to a cold and damp day. The skies were heavily overcast but there was only a few light rain showers. After a quick breakfast we were back on I-295 for the 35 mile trip around Richmond and over the James River before rejoining I-95. Not much to see as it passes through pinelands with a few scattered farms. It looks lonely and desolate. Perhaps it is for this reason that the large state prison is located at Jarratt. The only town of any size is Emporia. There was very little traffic in Virginia but I counted over two dozen highway patrol vehicles enforcing 60 mph speed limit.

A few miles later, just past Skippers, I-95 passes out of Virginia and into North Carolina where the highways serve as the informal dividing line between the state’s Piedmont Plateau and Coastal Plain regions. Over the course of the next 200 miles to the South Carolina border, it passes near Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Smithfield (home of the famous ham), and Fayettesville and crosses several of the regions rivers - the Roanoke which flows into Albemarle Sound; the Tar and the Neuse flowing eastward toward Pamlico Sound; and the Cape Fear River which flows southeast from Fayetteville before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean below Wilmington. The landscape here is wide open and flat savanna, and frequently swampy, especially near the rivers, with cypress trees, their branches festooned with gray mosses. The rivers all appeared to be running high and muddy as they are want to do in the early spring. There is very little to look at here since I have seen it all before . . . several times. The roadsides are covered with countless billboards advertising restaurants, truck stops, gas stations, tourist traps, and let us not forget Café Risque - "Topless, Topless, Topless" and "We Dare to Bare" - at Exit 70, and those with a little Mexican named Pedro beckoning one and all to visit South of the Border. There was also one asking Americans to save the seals by boycotting Canadian seafood. I wonder what our neighbors to the north think about this? I did see a fair number of cars from Québec and I know they have a long memory (je me souvien). It is a distance to cover as quickly as possible, and on this trip we make no stops. We departed Richmond at 9am, and at 12:45pm we had arrived at the South Carolina border which represents the half-way point between home and Gainesville, our first destination in the Sunshine State.

It was time to take a breather and to get gas, our first fill-up since leaving home 406 miles ago. I-95 and Route 301 intersect at the border, and it is here that one is confronted with South of the Border, one of the largest (some 70 acres) concentrations of amazing kitsch with its numerous firework emporiums; souvenir shops full of cheaply made trinkets, gimcracks, and other useless (and frequently tasteless) crap; shops of every description selling beachwear, t-shirts, velvet paintings; eating establishments large and small; a hotel complete with pink flamingos and fake palm trees; miniature golf ("The Golf of Mexico"); gas stations (no, we did not fill-up there); and let us not forget the observation tower crowned with a giant sombrero, and a tall water tower painted bright yellow with "S.O.B." in large black letters. I shutter to think what else might be there that I have somehow missed. But it’s like a train wreck; you can’t help but be curious. It’s all familiar, and not a little sad, and we found no reason to stop except to take a couple of photos to share with all of you.

We took a break and got off I-95 and follow 301 as it passes through South of the Border and ten miles to Dillon, South Carolina, a collection of closed and derelict businesses that once flourished on what was, along with U.S. Route One, the main north-south highway along the Eastern Seaboard. The only places we saw that seemed to be doing any business at all was a nondescript storefront advertising "Girls, Girls, Girls" and "Private Dancers, "and nearby the rather garish and tawdry looking Osaka Spa. Once in Dillon, we managed to find a gas station with reasonable prices while visiting a local landmark - the so-called "Dillon Fence" which during its heyday was a long wooden and wire fence decorated with hubcaps, old bicycles and car parts, discarded toys, parts of dolls, wooden penguins, old signs, and whatever else it’s curator chose to attach to it. So well-known was this landmark that a now defunct band out of Chapel Hill chose it as its moniker. Sally Ann has photographed it on more than one occasion and some of these have been on display on our walls at one time or another. Sadly, the Dillon fence has fallen on hard times and has suffered from neglect. Much of what was once there is either gone or ensnared with vines and weeds. This did not stop Sally Ann from spending a few minutes to once again capture it on film. Who knows how much longer it will be there? Just one more landmark disappearing on a forgotten American highway.

We returned to I-95 at Dillon and began to tick off another 180 miles as we crossed South Carolina. Here the interstate is the dividing line between the Coastal Plain and the Red Hills and Sand Hills separating it from the upstate Piedmont Plateau north and west of state capital of Columbia. Here, too, we crossed the Pee Dee River and the Lynches River as they flow to the Atlantic. As we crossed the impounded Santee River which forms Lake Marion, South Carolina looks very much like North Carolina - flat and scrubby pine barrens with swamps covered with the ubiquitous cypress and palmettos, the state tree. After Lake Marion, I-95 shifts from its northeast-southwest orientation and turns south, moving closer to the Atlantic coastline as it transects the Low Country and the coastal islands near Beaufort, between Charleston and the Georgia border near Savannah. Other than a brief stop at Santee, on the southern shore of Lake Marion (a perennial pit-stop for gas, food, and to stretch one’s legs) we continued south without interruption. The overcast skies finally gave way to bright sunshine and temperatures up in the mid 60s.

We crossed the Savannah River into Georgia at 4:30pm. So far we had traveled just over 610 miles since leaving home the previous day (and 469 miles since that morning). Savannah is the largest city we have passed since leaving Richmond, and we noticed that the traffic, which had not been a problem all day, suddenly increased. That said, it did not seem to slow anyone down. Since leaving Virginia, the posted speed limit across the Carolinas was 70 mph, and compared to Virginia I saw relatively few troopers on patrol or lurking surreptitiously behind trees and in median cross-overs. Folks in Georgia seemed to be going considerably faster and so I was curious whether the speed limit had increased. Oddly enough I drove nearly 40 mile (yes, 40 miles!!) before I saw the first speed limit sign announcing that the speed limit was still 70 mph. A couple miles later, I arrived at a road construction zone that ran for the next 30 miles and here the maximum was 60 mph, if you were lucky to do that. Georgia must have passed a rather handsome highway bill a few years back because this construction has been ongoing for at least the past two to three years! For the 106 miles across Georgia, I-95 parallels the coast with its lowland salt marshes and tidal streams and rivers. You definitely feel the presence of the ocean which in most instances is only a dozen or so miles to the east. One can smell the salt breezes, and the acrid fumes given off by nearby paper mills. The construction ended by the time we reached Brunswick, and from there it was only a couple dozen miles to the St. Marys River separating Georgia and Florida. We crossed it at 6:15pm, some nine hours and 580 miles since we set off from Richmond that morning.

Roughly 100 miles left to go before we reached Gainesville. Our route took us down and around Jacksonville on the I-295 bypass before we turned west onto I-10 for a dozen miles before we exited back onto Route 301. There was very little traffic and the speed limit is 65 mph except for the rather notorious speed traps at the small crossroad communities of Lawty and Waldo. One is once again reminded of a roadside America of years pass when 301 was a major route through central Florida. There are motel, souvenir stands and tourist attraction that have all seen better days. We stopped in Starke, the bustling county seat of Bradford County, around 7:30pm to fill up one last time. Two tanks of gas had taken us the 795 miles between Washington DC and Starke. From there it was 30 miles to Gainesville and the end of the first episode of our long Florida sojourn. It was a long and uneventful day. We are happy to be in Florida and look forward to warmer and relaxing days ahead. Stay tuned. We have miles to go and many things to do before we once again head north for another day of cruising Interstate 95.

NEXT: More Dispatches from the Sunshine State

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Wet and Windy Road Trip

Yesterday morning I awoke at daybreak to prepare for a long planned and much anticipated road trip with my good friend Michael Stewart - a day-long romp into south central Pennsylvania to visit a few diners and to attend the annual livestock auction sponsored by the Eastern Bison Association and held at the Pennsylvania Farm Complex, in Harrisburg. When I got up around 6am the rain was falling steady and the wind was gusting up to 35mph. The forecasters were calling for a brutally raw day with a storm sweeping through the Mid-Atlantic states and into New England just a month after this same area was pounded by the worst blizzard in almost a century. Upwards of four inches of rain were predicted with local flooding along the Potomac River and its tributaries large and small. The Ohio River in western Pennsylvania was supposed to reach flood stage - a mix of heavy rain and record snow melt and possibly the worst flooding in that area since Hurricane Ivan swept through the area back in September 2004 - and southern and eastern Pennsylvania were battening down the hatches. And that was right where we were headed . . . but we would not be deterred.

I brewed a large cup of black coffee and was on the road before 7am. The rain was falling steadily and the wind gusting when I picked up Michael at his place in Olney, Maryland some 45 minutes later. The first leg of our trip took us through the rolling farm country west of Baltimore, and the wind and rain continued to buffet us as we made our way north to Interstate 70 and then east to the Baltimore Beltway (I-695). From Timonium we cut due north on Interstate 83 to the Pennsylvania border and through York until we arrived in the environs of Harrisburg. Along the way we took note of a few remaining patches of drifted snow along the highway, the last vestiges of the recent blizzards.

Soon we found ourselves in the rain-swept parking lot of the West Shore Diner, on West State Street in Lemoyne, just across the Susquehanna River from downtown Harrisburg. Michael and his son Spencer, who are diner afficionados of no small repute (see Spencer’s "Dinerman" blog at where he has also commented on his father’s and my road trip), had been here before, and I was told that I was in for a treat. What I found is possibly the last of the Silk City barrel-roof diners originally manufactured in the 1930s. It is slightly altered - a rear addition provides for an enlarged kitchen - but the original diner is a giant step into the past. Michael commented that the food is going to be good, if the waitress called you "honey." She did and it was! A bottomless cup of coffee and a platter (not a plate) of toast and home fries covered with an extremely generous serving of cream chipped beef set me back $5.47 and that was including tax! The rest of the menu seemed to be an interesting coalescence of Greek and Pennsylvania Dutch dishes.

After breakfast we made our way across the Susquehanna to the Pennsylvania Farm Complex located just east of downtown and across the State Street Bridge (the sculptures adorning the two tall concrete pylons bracketing the bridge were designed by Ira Correll, Spencer Stewart’s great grandfather) where Michael and I were able to get up close and personal with approximately five dozen American Bison at the annual bison auction. Sally Ann and I attended the auction last year and I found it sufficiently satisfying to want to return again this year (see my April 12, 2009 posting). And I promised Michael some good photo-ops. We watched the auction and wandered around the pens where these grand and noble beasts awaited their turn on stage. They were fetching a pretty good price this year and buyers and sellers alike seemed to be pleased with the results.

With the lunch hour approaching and a desire to settle the dust, we adjourned to the nearby Appalachian Brewing Company for a bite to eat and to taste the local brews. This brewpub is located in an old factory warehouse on Cameron Avenue, just south of the Farm Complex. I had a large crock of potato leek - the soup de jour - and we shared a sampler of six current offerings (and I followed up with a pint of the Scotch Ale, my favorite of the bunch although they were all extremely good! This is quite a popular place. It was all decked out for St. Patrick’s Day and from the looks and sounds it appeared that the good folks of Harrisburg were getting an early start on the festivities.

Following lunch we continued our explorations, driving through the nearby residential neighborhoods to the American Dream Diner (circa early 1950s) where we figured we would stop in for a cup of coffee at the very least. Michael and Spencer had been here, too, and so I knew from Spencer’s description that the food was good even if we had already eaten. We were disappointed to find it closed (and apparently out of business), but we nevertheless parked and braved the rain and wind to take a few photographs to record our visit. From there we followed State Street across the bridge and around the State Capitol before crossing the Susquehanna again to Lemoyne and Camp Hill in search of US Route 15 which would take us to our next adventure.

We left Harrisburg behind and headed southeast, in the direction of Gettysburg. We soon arrived at Dillsburg and in the parking lot of Wolfe’s Diner, an almost pristine (inside and out) O’Mahony diner manufactured in Elizabeth, New Jersey, probably in the early 1950s. The uninterrupted rain and wind curtailed any extended appraisal of the exterior (just a few quick photos), but the inside was warm, dry, and inviting and so we settled into a front corner booth complete with a Wall-O-Matic table jukebox (also from the mid-1950s) and ordered cups of coffee and generous slices of chocolate cake with scoops of vanilla ice cream served us by our extremely friendly and perky waitress who, we found out, was the creator of the cake which she has just finished baking and icing. Dessert seemed in order.

Between Dillsburg and York Springs are thousands of acres of apple orchards which I have been visiting and exploring for years. This is Latimore Township, the native ground of the paternal ancestors of the American writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). I have driven the many back roads of this section of rural Adams County for the last two decades, in every season, as I have documented Wolfe’s Pennsylvania roots and the impact they had on his life and his literature. I wanted to share some of this with Michael and so we took a detour into these same back roads as we wandered the Gardner Church cemetery where many of these ancestors lie buried under crumbling and deteriorating tombstones. We drove past the old and woefully neglected homestead near where W.O. Wolfe, the writer’s father, encountered Confederate General Fitzhugh Lee and his brigade of J.E.B. Stuart’s calvary as they swept north of the Union positions in Gettysburg on a warm, dry day in early July 1863. Now, almost 147 years later, it was anything but warm and dry. Still, I could almost see those men in butternut as they advanced on the killing fields less than 20 miles to the south. The streams were running high and muddy and water puddled in every rut and depression. Near here are some of the best trout streams - the Yellow Breeches and the Letort to name only a couple - in the East. Not on this day, however. One of these days I will get back up there and that will be another tale to tell.

We passed Gettysburg as we continued on our southbound return journey. The rain poured and the clouds dropped over the Catoctin Mountains of northern Maryland near Thurmont. Dusk added to day’s dark and dreary nature as we journeyed down through Frederick and back to Olney twelve hours and nearly 400 miles after we had set off on our wet and windy road trip. But it was a good day regardless . . . good times (and good food and drink) shared with a good friend.

NEXT: Dispatches from the Sunshine State