JACKSONVILLE, Fl. - Late Friday morning, we landed in sunny Jacksonville, Florida, after a punctual, uneventful flight from BWI. Even with a 4-year-old along for the trip, we follow our longstanding practice of traveling as lightly as possible, packing everything in carryon luggage. Having no checked bags, we headed straight from the gate to the car rental counter, where, thanks to my lady friend’s online reservation, we were on the road in record time.
The subcompact Ford's exterior thermometer quickly climbed into the 50s – already hell and gone better than Baltimore's subfreezing projected highs – as we left the covered garage for the sun-warmed Interstate. We had arrived in conjunction with a high pressure front, and the temperatures would likely continue to climb.
My special lady friend being vegan, dining options – particularly in some of the farther-flung locales – tend to be few and far between. Consequently, we often stay in efficiencies, or hotel rooms that offer a microwave and mini-fridge, rendering possible at least some rudimentary food preparation. This frequently saves money, too, as dining out for every meal while traveling can get kind of pricey. Same goes for booze: nursing a bottle of the good stuff over the course of several days is a hell of a lot cheaper than drinking at the bar (and, dollar for dollar, a lot better quality).
The previous year, we'd found a good Whole Foods in Jacksonville where we stocked up on supplies at the start of our trip, and though our research had turned up WF locations in Tampa and Orlando, we once again opted to buy what we needed up front. It would also give us an opportunity to stretch our legs after so much sitting.
Forty minutes later we were back on the road, our tentative plan being to follow I-95 south for a hundred-odd miles, where we'd take up overnight residence somewhere in or around Daytona Beach. By then, we figured, we'd all need a break from moving. First thing Saturday morning, we’d head west on I-4, which connects Daytona and Tampa.
But as morning gave way to afternoon, I began to rethink this strategy. The Boy had fallen asleep in the back seat. Traffic was light, and we were making better time than expected. Besides, when it came down to it, I hadn’t turned up anything of genuine interest in Daytona Beach. Neither one of us gives two shits about NASCAR, and there was nothing so unique to the beaches there, so far as I could tell, that we couldn't as easily find elsewhere.
"What do you say we just run the whole way to Tampa?" I asked.
"Fine by me," she said, admitting she'd been thinking along the same lines.
"Plus, it will give us a leg up on Saturday morning as we'll already be there."
"Good idea," she said. "And..." – she nodded toward the back seat – "maybe we can make it past the Mouse before our friend wakes up."
Disney World holds no appeal for either of us. I was there once, when I was 6 or 7, and never have I felt the urge to return. But we hold no illusions: as parents of a small child, we realize it's a matter nearly as inevitable as having to explain the origins of babies. If, someday, he campaigns hard for it...well, we'll burn that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, we'd rather he know that Disney and Florida are not synonymous, that he see the real Sunshine State that exists beyond the make-believe walls of the Magic Kingdom.
The Boy awoke just as the hard-worn stretch of I-4 that cuts through Orlando disappeared in the rear-view mirror. My lady friend and I sighed with relief.
A sign for an upcoming rest area suggested a much-needed break from the road. I took the exit and parked the car. Walking toward the restrooms, I noted several black-and-gold signs that read: CAUTION – VENOMOUS SNAKES IN AREA. Having grown up in Miami, my lady friend wasn't particularly impressed. But for a natural-born Yankee unaccustomed to dodging poisonous reptiles in highway rest stops, the sign demanded photo documentation.
By 3:00 p.m. we had reached the Tampa area. With no particular destination in mind and eager to escape the confines of the Ford, we decided to simply book a basic motel room. With the help of a coupon book acquired from the rest stop we located a nearby Howard Johnson that turned out to be in a somewhat sketchy-looking commercial stretch of pawn shops and fast-food joints. Though not particularly difficult to please, we concluded that in getting enough Baltimore at home we didn’t want to spend our vacation in someone else's.
A few miles down the line we found another HoJo – the classic swimming pool surrounded on three sides by a parking lot and a two-story building. I parked in a space near the office while my lady friend went in to inquire about a room. I killed the engine.
Before long, I noticed a man staring at us from the window of a second-story room. He looked to be about 40. He wore a sleeveless muscle-tee and baseball cap and repeatedly sipped from a ceramic coffee cup. He looked nervous, on edge. Evidently, I wasn't the only one who noticed him.
"Dada," said the Boy, "why does that man keep looking at us?"
"No idea, kiddo. He's probably waiting for someone."
My lady friend returned to the car. "Got us a room," she said, indicating the one at the top of the steps – right next door to Mr. Nervous.
We carried the bags upstairs and took a moment to relax.
"Did you see that guy in the next room?" asked my lady friend.
"The one drinking coffee and staring out the window?"
She nodded. "Yeah, out of a mug that he must have brought with him, since it doesn’t seem these rooms come with them."
We discussed possible scenarios, the most likely being that he was waiting to have a tryst.
"He looks like a Carl Hiaasen character," she said.
"Or Cormac McCarthy," I suggested. "No Country for Old Men. He stumbled on something big, and now he's in over his head, just waiting for the real Bad Guys to arrive."
After our respite, we decided to head out in search of a pizza place she had found online that makes a gluten-free crust (she has an allergy). As I backed the car out, I glanced upward at the window. Sure enough, there was Mr. Nervous, still watching, still sipping.
It had been a long day, and after dinner and a quick drive around Tampa, we decided to call it an early night. It was dark by the time we pulled up to the motel. Outside our door we noticed that the curtain at the window next door was now drawn shut. A DO NOT DISTURB sign hung from the doorknob.
"Guess she finally showed up,” said my lady friend.
"Yeah," I laughed, throwing the bolt on the door behind us. "That, or he's lying dead in the next room."
To be continued...
Read PART ONE