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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

Washington to Miami: 1968 Style

January 3, 2012 

For those who took to the highways this holiday season its fun to remember another day, another time, when auto travel wasn’t so grueling on boring and sterile highways, but it was an adventure and a real chance to explore the back roads of the country.

Of course, it helped to be young.

I made many round trips to the University of Miami, Fla. where I was a student. Those were the days before the completion of Interstate 95 which now makes an auto trip to Florida nothing more than a series of pit stops at identical looking service plazas in-between long stretches of four lane highway.

Back then one had to actually drive the road and use a map to navigate the many turns and detours. They were legendary journeys for those who made them, all nighters; no stopping, no sleeping. Without fail, each trip contained various elements of laughter, terror, misfortune, good luck, and some version of the antics associated in the cult classic ‘The Breakfast Club’.

There was never any real forethought or preparatory planning that went into making the 1,000 mile expedition. At no time, in all the years of making the trip, did I check the tires, change the oil, or make sure there was water and a blanket on board before leaving. Instead, I just left.

I didn’t always take my own car, a 1966 Pontiac GTO (three deuces and a four-speed and a 389), sometimes I was a passenger, usually with a Miami student I didn’t know but who was going my way and looking for someone to share the cost of the trip.

These were usually the worst trips. Not only was there a “compatibility issue’, but lifestyle and driving skill played into it as well. One such experience resulted in a frightening rear-end collision with an 18-wheeler somewhere in a small North Carolina rural town.

It was only because I had zero money (before any of us carried credit cards) that I mustered the courage to carry on, and did not catch a Greyhound bus for the remainder of the trip home.

Yet there was something romantic about these jaunts. We drove straight-through, switching drivers when someone got tired, stopping only for fast-food and gas, which in those days was 29 cents a gallon. This meant long stretches in all hours of the day and night, and through many changes of the weather.

True enough, as the song went, it was always a rainy, dark, and dangerous night when driving through Georgia.

We laughed and talked all the way, and were consumed with searching the dial to keep our music blasting from the car radio. The only stretch of Interstate 95 completed in those days was a portion in the state of Florida, and in parts of northern Virginia. That meant we traveled long stretches of two-lane roads through farmland which lay in between small villages and towns in the rural South.

Those were the years of the cult classic Easy Rider, thus we kept a keen lookout when traveling through North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia for local police or anyone else, we considered weird. Cops in those states were notorious for harassing students commuting to or from college especially in the early morning or late hours of the day.

The local restaurants were dingy and dirty, and the restroom facilities in the ‘mom and pop’ gas stations along the way weren’t any better. At one such stop, I was in a hurry to leave after washing up; and I inadvertently left my high school graduation ring atop the sink in one of those grimy facilities. We realized it too late to go back.

One trip still brings a smile. A high school friend, Peyton Wells, and his brother Fred, decided during a New Year’s Eve party to make the trip with me the next day. So bright and early on New Years’ Day morning I arrived at their home where I found them just returning from a night of celebration.

They threw a suitcase together, and climbed into the car. Peyton was feeling the worse of the two brothers; actually, he was feeling no pain. He fell asleep quickly in the back of my GTO, and didn’t reawaken until High Point, North Carolina. He only vaguely remembered committing to making the trip.

The journey could also be a teaching moment. It’s hard to forget the sight of the rural southern poverty that was on display so openly along the back roads of the route.

No doubt, the trip from Washington D.C. to Miami, Florida is far different today, and of course, it is shorter, safer, and quicker.

Yet, there was a sense of seeing and understanding that part of the country in traveling what was then considered, for us, uncharted territory of the Deep South.

Still, the memories remain vivid in my mind today.