Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Getting There: It Really Is Half the Fun

People who love road trips start out with great expectations. The anticipation of an outing, whether it’s just an afternoon jaunt or a weeks-long odyssey, generates excitement. This probably goes back to a fundamental human instinct. Some folks enjoy venturing out to discover what’s over the next hill, whereas others are content to stay close to the familiar confines of their community. I consider myself one of the former. I feel adventurous and want to explore—not necessarily on a grand scale, but simply because I periodically get an itch to wander.
 My latest trip was a perfect example. A couple of months ago I registered for a Mustang show in Jacksonville, about 270 miles east of my home in Lynn Haven, FL. I normally don’t get excited about car shows, namely because they're usually held in unappealing parking lots; but this event would be staged at the Jacksonville Landing, an upscale shopping and dining establishment next to the St. John River. I could also visit relatives and friends who live in the Jacksonville area—the perfect justification for a weekend road trip.
I fired up the Mustang on the morning of Friday, May 18, and headed east across Florida. Sticking with my usual practice of avoiding interstates, I paralleled I-10 for more than an hour on FL 20. Although I’d traveled that portion of the road dozens of times, it was still a pleasant stretch of smooth two-lane. As I got near Tallahassee, however, I decided to hop on the interstate. This allowed me to sail through the city at 70 miles per hour rather than get caught up in the snarl of downtown traffic. East of Tallahassee, I exited the interstate onto U.S. 90, which I followed all the way to Jacksonville.
Many years ago, Route 90 was the main east-west artery across the Deep South. The highway extends from Jacksonville to West Texas and is still mostly two-lane, dissecting numerous small towns. Some are truly picturesque. Passing through the quaint city of Monticello, for example, one is tempted to stop and sip a glass of sweet tea in the shade of the massive live oaks—as townsfolk have been doing on their front porches for generations. More of the moss-laden trees line the rural stretches of Highway 90, which even passes through a town named Live Oak. Other distinctly Southern trees are numerous as well, including crepe myrtles and magnolias.
A real John Denver moment: a lovely two-lane highway in rural Florida.

I had never traveled this stretch of road before and I also had it virtually to myself. So I was already satisfying an important goal of my weekend. It was, for me, the essence of road-tripping. The weather was ideal, with deep blue skies above and lush greenery alongside the country highway. I enjoyed the feel of the Mustang’s nicely balanced suspension, which reacted solidly yet smoothly to the roadway. As a paraplegic I have little sensation in my lower extremities, but I could still feel connected with the car through the seatback and the steering wheel. The ride quality was complemented by the baritone note of the small block, which hummed in my ears about an octave below middle C. It is an altogether pleasing sound, yet never annoying if I want to plug my iPod into the stereo and crank up some rock-n-roll.    
            A few miles east of Lake City, I decided to pause at a gem of a state-maintained picnic area. Olustee Beach lies on the southern shore of Ocean Pond, an oxymoron if ever there was one (it’s actually a large lake). The picnic grounds consist of cool green lawns that sprawl beneath a grove of tall pines—an unexpected oasis in the middle of this sparsely populated region. The setting was so inviting that I found it well worth my time to unload my wheelchair and explore the neatly maintained grounds. Near the main picnic shelter, a large information board got my attention with its repeated warnings to swimmers about alligators. A dip in the lake could be risky; but in all fairness, the gators were here first.
A quiet retreat in the middle of nowhere: Olustee Beach picnic area on Ocean Pond.

I couldn't resist the setting for a telephoto shot of Sweet Chariot in her glory.

            From Olustee, the rest of the journey was less than fifty miles. After a few more small towns with lyrical names like Glen St. Mary and Macclenney, I found myself in the outskirts of Jacksonville. The highway widened to four lanes and traffic moved surprisingly well for a Friday afternoon. In good time my dash-mounted GPS directed me through the glass-tower banking district to the Hyatt Regency Riverfront, located along the north-flowing St. John. So far the trip had been absolutely pleasant, and the Hyatt staff kept the trend going. When the head valet saw that I had a wheelchair in the backseat, he directed me to self-park in the valet lot, mere feet from his booth and the hotel entry.
            The Hyatt was everything you’d expect from the name. After relaxing in my room for a short time, I noticed dark clouds forming outside and went back downstairs to put a lightweight cover on the Mustang. The last thing I wanted was hail damage the night before a show. The head valet helped me fit the cover in place just before a gully-washer pounded the downtown area for twenty minutes.
A worthy destination: the Hyatt Regency (at right), just yards from the St. John River in Jacksonville.

            Knowing the Mustang was safe and sound, it was time for a most excellent bacon cheeseburger and a domestic draft, both of which I found in the sports bar located on the Hyatt’s ground floor. Yep, the road trip was living up to expectations.
If getting to my destination was supposed to be half the fun, then I was in for one great weekend indeed.

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