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Remembering Washington to Miami

September 6, 2013 

For those who took to the highways this summer its fun to remember another day, another time, when auto travel wasn’t so grueling, but was an adventure and a chance to explore the back roads.

Of course, it helped to be young.

I made many  trips to the University of Miami, Fla. where I was a student. Those were days before the completion of Interstate 95 which now makes it nothing more than a series of pit stops at identical looking service plazas.

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

There was never any forethought or planning given to making the 1,000 mile expedition. At no time, in all the years of making that trip did I check the tires, change the oil, or make sure I had water and a blanket before leaving. I just left.

I owned a 1966 Pontiac GTO (three deuces with a four-speed and a 389), but sometimes I was a passenger with another student looking to share the cost of the trip. These were usually the worst trips. There were “compatibility issues’ and driving skill played into it as well. One experience resulted in a frightening rear-end collision with an 18-wheeler somewhere in a small North Carolina rural town.

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

As the song says, 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 the music blasting on the radio. The only stretch of Interstate 95 completed was a small portion in the state of Florida, and some parts of  Virginia around Washington DC. We traveled long stretches on two-lane roads through farmland between small villages and towns in the rural South.

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. There were many back roads and we rarely could get over 50 mph.

Local restaurants were dingy and dirty, and the restrooms weren’t any better. At one stop, I was in such a hurry that I inadvertently left my high school graduation ring atop the sink in one of those grimy facilities, realizing it too late to go back.

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

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

The journey could be a teaching moment. It’s hard to forget the sight of 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 is far different today, and shorter, safer, and quicker.

Yet, there was a real sense of seeing and understanding a part of the country on those trips, the uncharted territory of the Deep South.

The memory remains vivid in my mind today.