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I-95. You 95. We All 95.

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 1998; Page E01


I-95 Guide: From Washington to Miami

  • Survival Guide: A concrete directory to I-95
  • Trip Bits: Things to know before you go
  • Exit 52, Va.: Historic Petersburg
  • Exits 40-56, N.C.: War and more in Fayetteville
  • Exit 176, N.C.: Everyone's favorite barbeque
  • Exit 38, S.C.: Fueling up at Harold's
  • Exit 2, Ga.: Something about St. Mary's
  • Exit 95, Fla.: Beware of the gators
  • Exit 80, Fla.: Rock shrimp served here

  • Here's our guide to driving the Eastern Seaboard's road most taken--where to eat, refuel, spend the night and relieve the tedium along Interstate 95, from Washington to Miami. (We'll handle the route north this spring.) We've been assisted by many readers who sent us their suggestions, which our correspondents--John Briley, Carolyn Spencer Brown and John Deiner-- then checked out and report on throughout this special section. A list of contents is in the box at right.

    Remember the days when your vacation started the moment you eased into one of the wide southbound lanes of Interstate 95, hot coffee in your plaid insulated-glass Thermos jug and a big eight-cylinder smile on your face as you considered the empty pavement ahead?

    Well, good. You can wake up now.

    Here on the eve of a millennium during which cars will learn to levitate and make dinner reservations, and everything in transportation will eventually be run by a single private corporation specializing in fast food and satellite tracking systems (McDonald's-Douglas!), anyone who's recently traveled more than a few of the 1,926 miles of America's busiest interstate highway already knows the real story.

    I-95 is no longer just an adventure: It's a job.

    In the 20 years between 1976 and 1996, I-95 traffic volume between here and Miami has more than doubled, according to Federal Highway Administration statistics and state transportation records. At either end of that route – in Northern Virginia and South Florida – the increase in average daily traffic rose from more than 250 percent (between Richmond and the Potomac River) to 400 percent (from West Palm Beach to Miami). A minority of these vehicles, transportation officials will tell you, are driven by people on vacation. Approximately .000627 percent of them, according to a recent informal survey of my friends and relatives, are not trucks.

    In any case, your job – and mine, as I begin a roughly 2,100-mile round trip from Washington's Beltway to Miami's downtown and back on this warm early fall afternoon – seems to be threefold: The first is to be safe and survive. The second is to risk having some non-freeway fun on the way. The last – and most important – is to pay attention.

    I mean, the center of three lanes – as you and two dozen 18-wheelers approach the capital of the Confederacy at 75 mph – is not a great place to flick on the cruise control and take the rest of the week off. There are plenty of planned communities in Florida specifically designed for this. Please wait till you reach one before retiring.

    To fill your trip south with more benefits, retirement or otherwise, you will find throughout today's Travel section lots of advice on great little places to stop, stay and eat along the interstate route between our good gray nation's capital and the state where the words "pastel" and "high-rise" can legally cohabit and reproduce. In this car, however – a rented white Pontiac Sun-Something with no tape deck or power anything – we'll be making random observations and discussing the physics and sociology of driving down Interstate 95. Actually, we'll be discussing anything that keeps us awake, or amused, or out of the way of hurtling Kenworths or the dreaded Georgia State Patrol.

    Also: The Pontiac has no cruise control, but it does have a trip odometer; it's what provides the numbers preceding each of the following entries in this I-95 Journal.

    0.0 It's 5 p.m. already, and I'm thinking I should just go home and get an early start tomorrow, Tuesday morning, instead of squeezing out four or five hours tonight to reach Wilson, N.C. – where there's a little bed and breakfast with my name on it. It occurs to me that my name is actually on the B&B's reservation book – with my credit card number next to it. I'm going.

    9.1 But not very . . . fast. This famous Springfield, Va., interchange – where I-95, I-395 and I-495 all merge into a wide concrete arena that begs to be ringed by bleachers full of Romans – will be totally redone by the Virginia Department of Transportation over the next eight years, for $350 million. No word on whether bleachers are planned, though skyboxes would definitely be more cost effective. As they say, expect delays. (Today's stop-and-go show lasts about 40 minutes.)

    34.5 Ahh. Traffic has thinned and the speed limit's gone up to 65. This means, as the currently smooth black surface of I-95 follows an ancient path through the low hills of Virginia's Piedmont, that everyone is doing at least 70. I hadn't thought about it, but it occurs to me that long-distance interstate driving has a sort of science to it: The goal – in these less dense stretches, at least – is to find a speed at which you, in the right-hand lane, will have to pass the fewest number of other vehicles. (Go faster and your blood pressure will rise sharply as you change speed and shift lanes every few hundred yards; go slower and you risk being universally scorned, tailgated or, in select areas, shot at.) Tonight in mid-Virginia, this Optimum Cruise Speed (OCS) seems to be about 72.

    Of course, there will always be the occasional law-abiding or over-the-weight-limit laggard, and if you're lax and the left lane's busy, you can always wind up caught in an high-speed pick, just like in the NBA. But when you're really in the OCS zone, it mostly doesn't matter how many leadfoots pass you.

    What matters, and can abruptly turn freeway science into chaos theory, is a laggard in the left lane.

    109.7 Some drivers (you know who you are) are oblivious to both the legal limit and the lesser-known laws of interstate physics. The driver of this massive black Freightliner, definitely the scariest of semis, must either have a radar detector in his cab or a steel plate in his head (only the former is illegal in Virginia), because he's doing at least 85 when he comes upon one of those left-lane laggards – a older couple in a tan Lincoln with Virginia plates. His solution is to pull up to within a yard of their integral, color-coordinated, AAA-decaled rear bumper. Their solution is to ignore him and keep going roughly the speed of the truck on their right. Good plan. Ahead of the Lincoln, and ahead of the truck on its right, I catch occasional glimpses of a roadway completely free of taillights, but ever unattainable. The truck tires screaming three feet from my left ear do not look particularly new. Eventually, our little bad-luck motorcade passes a blue sign denoting food choices at the next exit. Time to eat.

    111.4 I can't help it; I have a soft spot for Cracker Barrel. Their coffee is always fresh, they'll give you the last cup to go, their country-style fare can be heavy but it's cheap and varied, and, once you get away from the hard-pressed hostesses and the occasional cashier with skin-deep Southern charm, their wait staff is uniformly, sincerely friendly. This one outside Richmond is, of course, exactly like the 350-odd other Cracker Barrels along interstates around the United States: a porch full of rockers (all for sale), a forced-entry "country store" lousy with potpourri and packed, pine floor to ceiling, with state-specific T-shirts and travel toys, "antique" porcelain Victorian dolls, blackberry preserves, bayberry votives and books on tape (all for sale except the last, which you can also rent).

    "So, is every Cracker Barrel waitress required to be so nice?" I shamelessly tease mine, as she is solicitous enough to be my grandmother. "Oh!" she says, feigning surprise. She smiles, refills my coffee cup. "Well, you know, they do teach us to make everybody feel at home, just like one of the family, so people will keep on coming back. You all finished? You want me to wrap that up for you?"

    180.1 Whoa: a serious reconstruction project in southernmost Virginia. Traffic is light enough at this hour that the squeeze down to one lane in each direction causes no backups, just a slight slowdown. Big orange signs saying something about all traffic being detoured onto U.S. 301 are partially covered with tarps for the night, and I give thanks for good timing. The project, I find later, will go on through next fall.

    194.5 North Carolina border, 9:45 p.m. Speed limit: 70. OCS: about 77. On the radio, Mary Chapin Carpenter and a seriously heartbroken George Strait are coming to us from an Emporia, Va., country station I pray is not run by a computer. Purring by in the left lane are two of those custom 18-wheel rigs you seem to see only at night: polished, massive cabs with attached bedroom (a good indicator of an owner-operator rather than a contract driver) and long, equally shiny, unmarked trailer – all of it bedecked with what a truck-driving friend once described to me as "neater" lights. ("They don't serve any useful purpose," he said. "You just put 'em on your truck to make it look, y'know, neater.")

    200.3 My first Pedro! I've heard people say the many billboards for the famously tacky, faux-Mexican South of the Border – the 150-acre theme park/shopping center/hotel-restaurant complex still 150 miles away in South Carolina – are the most entertaining thing along I-95. Boy, is that sad. But it's sad because it's true. I mean, Pedro's weather report – "Chili Today, Hot Tamale"? I think I've actually used that at parties.

    250.7 It's 11 p.m.: time to stop and try to decipher some pages of one-handed, 70-mph note-taking before sleep. The small but outgoing town of Wilson, N.C., about 10 miles off the interstate and 20 minutes past Rocky Mount, is known for its East Carolina barbecue, its golf courses and its pleasant Victorian downtown. Near the center of town is Miss Betty's Bed & Breakfast Inn. For those who might want at least one non-Comfort Inn experience on the road, Miss Betty's has a four-poster bed surrounded by antiques in a beautifully decorated 19th-century manse or one of the renovated out buildings, a plentiful if not sumptuous breakfast, a phone, cable TV and central air in every room (and you'll appreciate the latter when the night trains start a-whistling not far away). All this puts a $50 dent in my budget (doubles start at $60). No kids or pets. Co-owner Fred Spitz, who with Miss Betty, his wife, has run and renovated the 14-room inn for nine years now, seems to drawl a little differently than most folks hereabouts. "Yeah," he grins, fessing up. "I'm from New Jersey, y'all."

    270.3 Back on 95 in the morning, traffic is light but it's definitely also different than in New Jersey, where there aren't as many livestock trucks or open trailers with a few tons of full-length pine logs stacked between their huge steel forks. Plus, besides the RVs with Florida and Ontario plates, there are a lot of large shiny white Ford F260s and Expedition XLTs towing big trailers, mostly because – well, because they can.

    370.5 Another construction slowdown, this time around Lumberton, N.C., almost to South Carolina. Both southbound lanes are open, but the shoulders are closed off by those concrete Jersey walls (which, by the way, you also don't see much of in Jersey), and there are empty North Carolina Highway Patrol cruisers parked in the median every few miles, apparently to slow up anyone terrified by the idea of invisible policemen.

    396.8 Even in broad daylight, South of the Border's overwhelming celebration of neon beckons to diversion-hungry travelers on I-95, most of whom are painfully aware that there isn't a whole lot to do between here and Orlando – and that Orlando is still eight hours away. I stop here for gas, which I have done before, gas being almost as cheap in South Carolina as it is in Georgia. I don't stop at Pedro's diner, because I have also done that before and had to stop drinking coffee for a week. South of the Border looks great from the highway and on postcards. Once you get into it, though, you wind up feeling icky and just wrong, kinda like you want to go somewhere and get a tattoo or bust up some mailboxes. This could explain why South of the Border sells so many fireworks.

    414.6 Past South of the Border, and past the exit for Florence, the least-traveled section of I-95 – that is, most of South Carolina – takes on a pretty, least-traveled look: The roadway is loud and jerky – the surface is short slabs of concrete – the shoulder is puny and overgrown with weeds and sprinkled with the universal truck-route topping, the chunks and shreds of black rubber I like to call tread crumbs. South Carolina's statewide speed limit along 95 is 65, but based on the apparent OCS, everyone seems willing to pretend it's still 70.

    493.7 A serendipitous rest stop. Following the billboards and my AAA Road Atlas, I make my way to Santee, S.C., just across the broad flat water and black mud of Army Corps of Engineers-built Lake Marion, to find the famous (at least according to the billboards) Smith's Super Store. Turns out Smith's is just a Chevron station amid the exit-ramp tchotchke festival on Route 6 – but with a large store with a friendly staff, tons of fireworks, a separate clothing shop, a Shoney's and a bingo hall next door, and jar after jar of pickled and/or candied everything scattered around inside. I leave Smith's with a box of Ritz, a jar of Smith's Artichoke Relish and a stained brown paper bag full of boiled peanuts (they're salty and soggy and good, and my brother, a Yankee who lives in Jacksonville, says he avoids them mostly because the way non-Yankees pronounce the term – "bald peenits" – makes it sound like some kind of awful side effect).

    Back across 95, I drive for less than five minutes before I find myself staring at a deer, a large buck, standing in the middle of the road that takes you into Santee National Wildlife Refuge. He takes off, and I don't see any other living creatures but for some far-off hawks soaring above the refuge's 15,000 damp acres this afternoon. But sitting here alone on the hood, looking out on the seemingly endless reeds and cypress bogs of Lake Marion, I figure I'm as far from the freeway as you can get.

    534.0 The blue sign for "Facilities" at Exit 62, about halfway between I-26 and the Georgia line, is blank. This stretch of 95, with its southbound and northbound lanes isolated by a forested median, is lonely and spooky. Here, in fact, I notice the heaviest concentration of death – two dogs, a deer, an axle-less utility trailer and an aged MG flying a white flag from its antenna.

    652.4 My brother had called on the car phone as I'd passed Savannah, and I'd promised to be in Jacksonville by 8 p.m., two hours from now, so I'm really just trying to reel in the miles. I have to stop for gas, though, and while in the euphonious crossroads of Eulonia, Ga., I walk over to the Huddle House for coffee and french fries. Two guys driving a completely rusted-out '73 Buick Skylark come in, both wearing identical red-checked hunters' jackets but different baseball caps, nod hello, and order a bunch of things with bacon in them. They're talking in low tones about 30-30 rifles when I leave. I think they know I'm not from around here.

    679.4 Palm trees! I'm at Exit 6, near Brunswick, Ga., birthplace of the stew, about 40 miles from the Florida line. It's getting dark, but the air is so close and dank I had to turn on the AC to keep the instrument panel from fogging up. Being from New Jersey, I'm sensitive about people who complain that certain stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike smell bad. They do, but at least millions of dollars were spent by multinational petrochemical corporations to make the air smell that way; down here in south Georgia and northern Florida, all they had to do was open a couple of paper mills.

    709.9 Georgia, like Virginia, is also repaving its southernmost miles of 95, but timing again saves the day. The crews are massed on the grass beside the freeway in dozens of pickup trucks, getting ready to go home.

    711.2 Florida! No construction! Speed limit back to 70! Forty-foot white Pace Arrow with a green-orange stripe towing a matching Chevy van doing 65 in the left lane!

    731.9 Pizza with my brother, John, and his wife, Darlene, in Neptune Beach, just outside Jacksonville. They offer me a bed but I tell them I have to keep going, and settle for coffee in an official I {heart} Jacksonville travel mug. I want to get far enough down the coast to reach Miami by late morning Wednesday, I tell them.

    842.0 Okay, so I get as far as Palm Coast. The Hampton Inn has a room and a rate I can't refuse. As if I would, since I can't feel my legs.

    942.4 In the last hundred miles, the billboards have changed from principally being advertisements for places to visit to advertisements for places to never leave. At the moment, the morning sun and passing rain clouds are putting on a fabulous show in the sky, and there are pastures on both sides of this wide-open, flat stretch of I-95. On the right, cattle graze in the distance. On the left, new retirement communities stretch to the horizon. In the median, police and rescue trucks are clustered around a station wagon pulling a U-Haul, which apparently ran off the northbound lanes and came to rest wedged between a cabbage palmetto and a couple of pine trees. Apparently it is hard to try to leave Florida.

    966.0 It's 11 a.m. Wednesday, somewhere along the Space Coast (due east of Orlando, and within shuttle-launch viewing distance of Cape Canaveral and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (another totally transporting detour, by the way, if you're looking for a picnic spot far from the merging crowd). I need fuel, both kinds, and find myself in a Pilot "Travel Center," which is one of those combination stops: part gas station/diner/store open to all, part truck stop (which means the store sells fan belts and O-rings and extra-loud alarm clocks, and the diner has reserved seating "for professional drivers only," with telephones at every other seat and showers upstairs). There's one entrance with its own set of cashiers for us four-wheelers, and across the store another entrance and checkout for the guys in blue (today, a warm day, it's mostly sleeveless denim vests and tattoos), which opens into the vast truck parking lot.

    As long as you don't walk up to a guy who spends nearly all of his waking hours in traffic and say something like "Hey, you guys ought to slow down," you will live long enough to maybe even like being in a place like this. However briefly and tentatively, you feel like you're a part of the road culture, the 24-hour secret world of gears and CB code words and the cars carrying women who visit the rigs parked in the back row of certain truck stops . . .

    "Oh, I've seen everything, I mean everything," says Hubert Walford, a Chattanooga, Tenn., owner-operator who's killing time on the sunny side of the travel center (the four-wheeler side), waiting for a freight shipment to materialize for his trip back to Atlanta. "I've seen people die, I've seen people shoot at one another. I watched one fella get up on some other guy's hood and jump up and down on it, screaming his head off."

    Walford, a bearish, baby-faced guy with a grayish-blond mop of hair, says trucking isn't as easy or profitable as it once was, particularly with the growth of national trucking companies that do everything for less. "I try to be courteous to everybody on the road, and some drivers aren't. But when you're struggling to get up a hill and by the time you've shifted through and you're doing 40 at the top, and then you try to get up enough speed to make the next hill and a policeman pulls you over at the bottom for doing 80, and it's 110 degrees and your air-conditioning's not working . . . yeah, it can be a bitch."

    But when he's on vacation, does Walford get away from the world of trucks and interstates? "Hell, no, I take my truck, and go everywhere," he says. "It's a lot safer than a car."

    987.3-1127.4 For the rest of my drive through South Florida, I feel right at home – because the three lanes of I-95 from Fort Lauderdale through Miami are a solid 50- to 65-mph parade of cars and tractor-trailers (for which I seem to have a new respect and sympathy), Harleys, white sports cars with tinted windows and dump trucks towing huge center-cabin, twin-outboard fishing boats. As you enter Miami, the roadway becomes a series of causeways, and there are causeways over and under this causeway. At Exit 5A, the ramps spiraling and looping overhead are painted eggshell blue. It looks like Disney.

    1128.6 A purple Toyota pickup suddenly appears in the left lane doing at least 100, maybe 120 (I'm in the center lane). It is being pursued by a gold Mustang – in the sense that the Mustang is close enough, at this incredible speed on a crowded mid-city overpass, to be attached to the Toyota's towbar. When the Toyota runs into normal-speed traffic 50 yards ahead in the left lane, he brakes, and the Mustang swerves into the narrow left shoulder, passes him and cuts him off. Life goes on.

    1136.2 I'm there. On the overpass where the overhead sign says "I-95 Ends, 1/2 Mile," I pull over to take a picture – since the afternoon sky is also stunning on this 80-degree day. There isn't much of a shoulder here, and no one seems to want to slow down even though just over this bridge the roadway dips and turns into an exit ramp that dumps all of I-95's traffic volume onto the two lanes and endless traffic lights of U.S. 1, which continues on to Key West. A huge truck barrels past and takes my turned-backward baseball cap off as I'm taking the shot. About a hundred cars run over it. I leave it, kind of as a calling card.

    1136.3-2317.5 After a night's rest in a relatively luxurious $89-a-night Courtyard by Marriott room, I make it back home in 25 hours. You don't want to know.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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