By DAVE BARTLETT
© St. Petersburg Times,
As the old saying goes, anything is within walking distance, if you have the time.
So, too, it could be said, for driving, which is how I went from from coast to coast on a recent vacation.
For those who have not made one, a drive across the southern half of North America involves two distinct landmasses: the United States, of course, and the Country of Texas.
There are also five distinct cultural regions when going from St. Petersburg, our starting point, to San Diego, our destination.
This particular trip allowed precious little time to pull off the interstates and meander. But, for views, it sure beat flying.
Region One: North Florida
It has been a few years since I headed this way, so I am a little shocked at the "development" that has taken place along U.S. 19 from New Port Richey north for 40 or 50 miles.
I used to take this drive just for day-trip getaways from the bustle of city life, and now I search for the giant dinosaur gas station that at one time was the demarcation point between the "city" and the countryside of northern Florida. I cannot find the dinosaur. It has been swallowed by a condominium complex, banished into extinction by Super Wal-Mart.
North of State Road 52 I did spot something else I'd been searching for, a "Bear Crossing" sign. At this point, I distinctly remember, were gently rolling hills of slash pine and sandy side roads. Now, the sign seems ridiculously out of place among the strip centers, condos and theme restaurants. If, by some miracle, a bear should actually survive this gantlet and actually reach U.S. 19, I hope it has the sense to use the nearest crosswalk.
Finally, there are the twin stacks of the Crystal River nuclear power station. And so, finally, do we leave the Tampa Bay "metro area."
Topographically speaking, you could almost be back "up north": By turns reminiscent of Pennsylvania hill country, Wisconsin dairyland and Vermont, each bend in the road brings a pleasant surprise. This stretch has to be one of the most beautiful regions of the entire trip -- certainly of Florida. Up here in autumn, the leaves actually change color.
Region Two: The South
Alabama. Mississippi. Louisiana. Interstate 10 runs right through the heart of Dixie. Mobile, Biloxi, New Orleans pass by quickly under the steamy Southern sun.
Unlike Florida, this is the Deep South. It is 101 degrees this particular July day, another 10 or 15 degrees hotter when you factor in the ephemeral "feels like" quotient.
In Florida we like to complain that it's the darn humidity that makes our summers miserable. We do not know what humidity is. Pumping gas for two minutes in Baton Rouge nearly required a change of clothing afterwards.
Beginning along about Pensacola, the motorist is seduced by billboards promising untold wealth at the new casinos of Biloxi and Mobile. We ignore these entreaties but do leave the interstate for a quick tour of Avery Island, La., south of Lafayette. This is Tabasco country, home of the McIlhenny family, which has been bottling the sauce for more than 125 years.
Here "down South," folks go through their Tabasco: They put it on ice cream. They put it in coffee. They baptize their children with it.
Region Three: Texas
There is big, there is biggest, and then there is Texas.
To loosely paraphrase Mark Twain, let me say that the longest year I ever spent was the three days it took to drive across Texas. The highway here is so endless the police don't patrol it by aircraft, they do it by satellite.
The Lone Star State may be best known for NASA, the Alamo, and the J.R. Ewing clan, but for me the real highlight was seeing a lone sheep grazing dangerously close to traffic on the shoulder next to the interstate.
Thinking myself a good Samaritan, I drove on to the nearest exit, from which point I might backtrack to a ranch to seek help for the wayward sheep. I drove, and I drove some more.
Many miles later I came to an exit, pulled into a gas station and informed the clerk of the lost lamb's predicament. To my surprise, she knew who owned the sheep, needing only to hear the approximate mile marker -- about 20 miles back!
Another Texas surprise: The discovery of a vineyard and winery deep in the heart of the desert outside of El Paso. The lush green of the vineyard appeared as if in a mirage, shimmering out of the sun in a bit of Daliesque surrealism.
Another Texas surprise? The stars at night do shine big and bright. So much so that one night, while driving the hill country northwest of San Antonio, we turned the car headlights off and drove for a half-mile by starlight and moonlight. I have never seen a nighttime sky like that anywhere else.
Region Four: The Desert Southwest
New Mexico, Arizona -- this is it. This is the desert.
The gradual flattening of the land that begins a little bit east of El Paso has fully formed into a sparse, flat, endless expanse of sand, scrub and saguaro cactus, punctuated by the occasional mountain range or butte. It is so arid that on the rare occasion that it rains, the raindrops often evaporate before they reach the ground.
We were fortunate to witness a rare thunderstorm while heading down a mountainside, with 40 or 50 miles of desert floor stretched out in panorama before us. From that height we could take in the massive storm cloud and the fullness of its shadow as it crept along the desert floor. Falling from the cloud were streaks of charcoal gray rain, like pencil scratchings on paper, fading ragged-edged into thin air long before hitting the ground.
Region Five: California
Everything in California appears to be a part of show business, whether intentionally or not.
Due to the proximity to Hollywood, seemingly every square acre of California has at one time or another been the locale for one television or film production shoot or another. That stretch of boulder-strewn highway? Maybe it was the site for some long-ago movie or car commercial. Those hillside, LaLa land homes perched on stilts? Featured in countless films.
That beach with the boardwalk? That pier with the amusement park on top? It gives one the eerie impression of instant familiarity with the region. New York City has that same effect upon the first-time visitor.
Even the air here is different. It creates California light, which casts a glamorous glow that cannot be found elsewhere. And, of course, there are the freeways. Cars are to Californians what Tabasco sauce is to Southerners -- a religious experience.
I enjoyed one such "religious" experience when I prayed that my car would make it to the top of a particularly steep stretch of mountainous interstate east of San Diego, a stone's throw from the Mexican border but miles from nowhere.
There is nothing like driving a wheezing automobile, watching the needle on the engine-temperature gauge inch its way into the red and hoping that you reach the crest of a mountain before the radiator hits meltdown status.
We did, thank goodness.
A trunk filled with Tabasco and Texas wine later, I am now back in St. Petersburg with wonderful memories of the road. Instead of being herded like cattle onto an airplane, knees up to my chin and my seat firmly in the upright position, I like to think that maybe I helped save a sheep's life, too.
- Dave Bartlett lives in St. Petersburg.
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