Driving Florida's Memory Lanes

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 11, 2001

Now that you are going to Florida, say to yourselfIm going to enjoy it. Ten thousand miles of good highways invite you . . . get into your car and go!
From a 1958 Gulf gas station road map

When I was a kid, it seemed to me that the perfect vacation would be to do what my friends did, year in and year out: Get in the family car and drive south, stopping at one obscure motel after another until you wound up in a place where palm trees were as common as maples, and where pelicans (or so one friend said) flapped around and dived for fish right by where you swam.

My family never made that longed-for Florida drive. But the idea haunted me. Last summer I began collecting road maps of the pre-interstate north-south routes (U.S. routes 1, 301 and 13/17) with the idea that I would make the drive myself, and in a way that might send me past whatever locally grown motels and diners were still out therethe kinds of places I would have begged to stop at when I was 8 or 9, and that I hoped still had screen doors, swivel stools and Coke machines that drop a cup, set down some crushed ice and then serve you a drink.

My rules were simple:

9 No driving on I-95 or any other interstate, since I wanted to make the road a large part of my vacation and see what was along the route.

9 No stopping at national-chain restaurants or motels, since I didnt want to bite into the same burgers and unwrap identical little cakes of soap all the way down.

I didnt want to overplan and ruin my chances for oddball discoveries en route. I would try to drive about 200 miles each day, spend a night in every state between D.C. and Florida, and see where that got me.

What I hoped was that the older, smaller roads might have a visible life of their own, and, if I was lucky, would let me take part in it in some small way as I passed through. Maybe this was foolish nostalgia. And maybe Id be stuck behind chugging, hay-shedding tractors with nothing at all to look at. But I wanted to see for myself.

So after some jockeying with a Dole banana truck on the Beltway, Im on my way east and south. Its early afternoon, with a milky sun trying to leak through, and traffic is surprisingly speedy. Near Vienna, Md., I stop in at Pop-Pops Produce and Crafts for a break and chat with two men sitting under a canopy for shade. The minute I tell them Im heading for Florida, one asks if he can come too. I say, well, no. (This is my trip, all mine.)

After I hit Route 13, I detour toward Crisfield. Someone has told me there are good crab cakes there, and it looks intriguingly lonely on the map, down at the tail end of a two-lane road. Sure enough, here are the fish restaurants, all in a row, but since its low season, theres an almost echoing quiet on Main Street.

I check into the marsh-surrounded Somers Cove Motel, although the plastic template on my telephone tells me I am, in fact, in Room 258 of the Park Ridge at Valley Forge. For Bell Captain, it announces grandly, Touch 22.

Since I enjoy a good motel pool, Im eager to try the one here. But after diving in, I realize that the water smells faintly of aftershave (not a good sign) and when I find that I am swimming alongside two tadpoles, I get out very quickly and dry off.

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