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