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The new face of travel: by land

Legions of motorists are expected to embrace the open road in the first Thanksgiving season since Sept. 11.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 2001


Legions of motorists are expected to embrace the open road in the first Thanksgiving season since Sept. 11.

WILDWOOD -- The jumble of fast-food joints, gas stations and cheap motels hugs the banks of Interstate 75 at State Road 44 on both sides of the overpass.

This little business district is about two minutes north of the junction of 75 and Florida's Turnpike. It is a good place to stop on a long car trip, but not for much else.

You can get two Whopper value meals for $5.50 at the Burger King, two candy bars for 99 cents at the Speedway and gasoline for $1.09 at three different stations.

Steak n Shake manager Michael J. Brigantic has scheduled extra workers to handle a bigger than usual Thanksgiving rush as people drive instead of fly to visit family members for Thanksgiving this year. Gas is cheap, car loans are free. Brigantic has seen the AAA survey and he agrees with it: After seeing planes hit skyscrapers on purpose, more people will drive.

A man tells Brigantic he has never had faster service. A crispy double burger with cheese slides onto the counter right after being ordered.

"They have to get going," he says of his customers. "We pride ourselves on being fast."

The Florida Highway Patrol is ready to make sure drivers aren't too fast. All troopers who normally work office jobs are being assigned to patrol.

"We think it's going to be a historical day in Florida, one of the highest travel days ever because so many people are opting to drive because of Sept. 11," Maj. Mike Guzman said of the day before Thanksgiving.

Dexter and Shirley Coffey prod Andrea, 6, and Eric, 8, into the Steak n Shake. They carry Amanda, 4, and her teddy bear, Rainbow. They're from Katy, Texas, and they're on their way to Berea, Ky., to visit both sides of the family for Thanksgiving.

Dexter Coffey thought about buying a stack of plane tickets to get the family to Kentucky. Instead, he took a zero percent financing deal on a new, burgundy GMC Safari minivan.

"We just bought it before we took off," he says, scanning the kids menu and ordering for his son. "It's a brand new vehicle."

"Had 6 miles on it when we started out," Shirley adds.

The Coffeys decided to swing by Orlando on the way to Kentucky.

"Disney World," Andrea says, beaming in her new Winnie the Pooh T-shirt and insisting that all the driving is not so bad. "I'm on chapter four," she said of a book about a mischievous kindergartener.

Almost all the drivers you ask in Wildwood say it's not that they're afraid of flying. They always drive. It's too expensive to fly the whole family.

Dave Mullen stopped for gas on the way to Gainesville, Ga., to visit his brother's family. He'd drive no matter what, but his sister Judy Vargas and her husband, Abe, would normally fly. They all live in South Florida. They are all riding together in Mullen's silver Ford Expedition.

"Because of the stuff with Sept. 11 and the increased amount of time you have to be at the airport, it's six of one, half dozen of the other," Judy Vargas says.

And the Expedition is like driving your living room to Georgia, which beats cramped coach seats and snippy flight attendants, the group agrees.

A few pumps away, Eph Bolin of Rankin, Ill., is filling up his Lincoln Town Car. The retired heavy equipment engineer had gotten used to paying $1.70 back home until recently, when the price fell to $1.40.

He nearly fell over when he was able to fill up for 94 cents in Georgia this trip. He and his wife, Doris, stay in Hollywood, Fla., for the winter, and they are on their way there to spend Thanksgiving with their son, who lives there full time, he explains.

"You think I'm afraid of them bombs?" he scoffs, when asked why he didn't fly. "We probably would be if we lived closer to (the attacks)."

America had only one set of twin 110-story towers. But there are hundreds of interstate highway exits like Wildwood, with chain businesses stuffed next to the freeway, powering the American passion of driving a car cross-country on some of the cheapest gasoline in the world.

Business is "about like usual, that's what the boss tells us," says Alma Knowles, who stuffs fresh navel oranges into half-bushel bags at Reed's Groves citrus stand. "Really, Thanksgiving and Christmas is the busiest time. I know they say the economy is slower, but I really don't see it."

-Staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report.

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