When I went swimming earlier this afternoon, the water was less pleasant than in the Florida Keys — in fact, it was full of algae. The nice German couple I spoke to explained that this part of the Gulf of Mexico is not really optimal for swimming. The beaches are beautiful for walking, but if you want to swim you have to go further north. But as Floridians have an iconic affection for the sunset, the folks in Fort Myers Beach enjoy the nightly beach ritual. As I walked up the beach towards Downtown, hotels and bars had live music entertainers — playing Jimmy Buffet standards. Families were on the beach playing voleyball, as the great ball of fire made its exit to the West.
Of course, I had barely driven up the Gulf Coast … and had a hostel reservation that night in Tampa (more than 150 miles away.) It was 6:30 p.m., traffic in Fort Myers Beach was still disastrous, and I knew I just couldn’t keep ditching the Interstate. It has always been a mantra of mine on these road trips to avoid Interstates like the plague … taking scenic, two-lane roads where you truly appreciate the country and enjoy the culture. It’s not just for aesthetic reasons … it’s for spiritual reasons. The most eloquent explanation for that was in the Disney-Pixar cartoon “Cars.”
But night had already fallen — even by 7:00 p.m., it was pitch black. So there was no purpose behind taking the “scenic route” if it was too dark to see anything. I reluctantly drove towards I-75, and put in the soundtrack of one my favorite movies, The Commitments, whose Irish soul rythmn kept me in a good mood.
One thing I underestimated about this trip is you can’t just take the “scenic route” along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Unlike the California and Oregon coast (or even Florida’s Altantic coast), you don’t have a single main highway that hugs the beachfront for hundreds of miles. There is Route 41, which follows the coast from Naples to Tampa, but even that stays more inland … and you have to take side roads to experience the beach. People don’t take the beach roads to do a long trip along the Gulf Coast … they’re just trying to go sit at the beach. Hence, the traffic.
As night falls, I get off the Interstate in Charlotte County to grab a quick dinner at (gasp!) McDonalds, as well as a cup of coffee to keep me going. While ordering food, I strike up a conversation with Frank — who kindly gives me the best directions for where to get off the Interstate to where I’m going in Tampa. Frank is enthused about my road trip, and says I’ll be driving through his hometown (i.e., Old Town, Florida) tomorrow on my way to Panama City. He assures me that Route 19 north of Tampa is beautiful, so I shouldn’t have the same problem tomorrow.
Back on the Interstate, I need music I can sing along to that keeps me focused … so I throw in the CD from an old college acappella group I know and love: University of Oregon “On the Rocks.” I was a choir boy in college at UC-Berkeley, and they would come down to Cal to perform quite frequently. I sing along to the melody of all their songs … except for Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time,” where I sing the first tenor harmony. After all, they used the same arrangement that my choir used!
When the Interstate merges in two — west for St. Petersburg, east for Tampa — I decide to get off. Tampa is only about 40 miles away, and it’s 9:00 p.m. I take Route 41 (as Frank had suggested), which has no traffic at this hour and the speed limit is almost as high as the Interstate. “On the Rocks” have finished their songs, so I throw in the last CD for the night: Moxy Fruvous, the quirky Canadian rock band with awesome vocal harmonies that one of my acappella groups at Berkeley used to sing a few songs. I get to the Hostel at 10:00 p.m., ready to call it a night.