Learning to Hate the Interstate

“…The road didn’t cut through land like that Interstate. It moved with the land, you know? It rose, it fell, it curved.”

-Disney/PIXAR’s Cars

I’m learning to hate the Interstate. The older I get, the less concerned I am with the quickness with which I arrive – and the more concerned I am with the experience of the drive itself. Yet, when someone asks, “How was your drive?” what they really mean is, “How long did it take?” To paraphrase PIXAR’s Cars, before the Interstates, people didn’t drive to make great time. They drove to have a great time.

Drive any Interstate highway and what you’ll see (save the occasional city center) are either vast distances of nothingness – with the wilderness kept at a safe distance from the pavement – or carbon-copy strip malls with the same retailers in South Carolina as in South Dakota. Interstates are as complicit in the homogenization of America as anyone or anything.

Space Shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad...not launching

Recently, my family and I took a much-needed vacation to Florida’s Space Coast, in hopes of seeing the launch of the penultimate shuttle mission. The launch was scrubbed, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have memorable experiences. We just had to slow down and allow them to happen.

The first came after the cancellation of the launch. Rather than taking I-95 back to our condo, we drove along A1A. Just north of Titusville, we spotted a ramshackle concrete block building serving as a fruit stand. The sign declaring that we could bag our own fruit is what grabbed our attention. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure my wife would’ve bypassed the place based on appearance alone.

Unlike the ubiquitous blue-roofed Florida citrus stands designed to lure in tourists and their wallets, this place was unassuming. In fact, I could never even find the name of the store. Based on the weathering of the painted sign out front and the low-slung roof atop cinder block walls, I dated the place to at least the 1950s. That would make it “Old Florida,” and that’s just the kind of place I was looking for.

Old Florida is a term referring to the pre-Interstate, pre-Disney version of the Sunshine State. It was a landscape speckled with quaint motels, hand-painted billboards, family-owned tourist attractions and a multitude of roadside diversions. Then the Mouse showed up. And Interstates and toll roads sped tourists to his doorstep, bypassing the odd, the curious and the simple, leaving them to be forsaken and forgotten.

Upon entering, we received fresh slices of orange from the owner. No older than his mid-40s, he was a sturdy, balding man with a ready smile. He asked if we’d come for the launch. I replied that we had and mentioned something about having driven from Alabama. This was only two days after the deadly April 27 tornadoes, and our conversation quickly veered in that direction. I offhandedly remarked that the devastation in Tuscaloosa was particularly hard for me, as an Alabama grad.

“What’s the matter?” he asked with a smirk, “Weren’t you smart enough to get into Auburn?”

When it comes to organic citrus, beauty is tasted, not beheld.

It turned out that he, Barry – we didn’t bother with the formality of surnames – was an Auburn grad. I mentioned to him that I had directed Auburn’s halftime commercials for many years, and he pretended to know my work.

His wife had graduated from Montevallo in the Birmingham area. For a time, they had considered staying in Alabama to open a Chick-Fil-A franchise. When that fell through, he returned home to the Florida coast and went into the family citrus business. The store had, as I suspected, been there since the 50s. The groves surrounding it, however, had been planted in the 30s. From what I gathered, he was only the fourth owner in its history.

While we chatted, my wife and daughter busied themselves filling a large plastic bag with oranges. That was the deal: fill a large bag with as many oranges, tangerines and Ruby Red grapefruits as it would hold for just four bucks. The oranges weren’t much to look at – slightly dull in color with ruddy brown spots on their peels. That was the beauty of them, though. Barry’s was an organic citrus farm. The lack of physical perfection was an indicator of a purer fruit, an apt metaphor for his entire operation.

I asked if we could show the kids some of the orange trees out back. Rather than simply walk us out the back door to the closest tree, Barry told us to take any of the golf carts he had lined up for sale out by the highway and help ourselves to a tour. So we piled into the cart and bounced through the unmowed and unkempt grove of juice orange trees – through ruts, over discarded fruit and around an array of beehives. We stopped for a few minutes and allowed the kids to do a simple something I hoped would linger in their memories forever: pick oranges straight from the trees. I don’t know if everyone gets that same privilege, but we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t simply slowed down and talked to Barry.

Looking down Dixie Way

Once we had settled up, we loaded our booty into the van and rolled off toward Daytona. With the victory of the orange grove under our belts, we veered even further off the beaten path and drove unpaved white sand roads for miles. We weaved through groves and horse farms with the windows down. Coastal breezes carried an intermingled scent of sea salt and citrus, whipping it through the van, teasing us with its complex sweetness. Our children, five and nine, never complained or grew bored. Rather, they were enthralled with the unique sights and sounds of Old Florida.

There, driving north along Dixie Way, we saw the South as it once was, as it still is in places … and as we would never have seen it from the Interstate.

(Check in tomorrow to read more about Wayne’s Old Florida adventures…)

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