Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Last Leg

Florida got more than its fill of hot tropical storm action last summer. I was ordered to evacuate the Keys at least 3 times. I took the government up on that offer only once, in late August. What people don't realize (and won't remember) is that Hurricane Katrina hit south Florida before infamously waterlogging New Orleans.

The trip back to Florida from Arkansas is teeth grinding and less fun than a colonic. Especially when you're alone and Nature wants you to die. The road is hypnotizing, the music is stale and your stomach eats itself. It is a race to get home within 2 days with only some insect casualties obstructing your view.

I wake up early, knowing full well about the arduousity awaiting me. It's 6AM and there's fog when I take the back road across the floodzone of the Ouachita River. I pound through that with the ease of a confident stock car racer. The first part of the trip is the most complex, but easy. It is switching from two lane highways to interstates back to two-lanes. I make it through podunk Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, all the time listening to the solemn radio talk shows hinting of impending doom.

For some reason, I really like Chevron stations and I exclusively seek them out along the way. I must have that wonderful gas, even if it means switching lanes and pulling out in front of a turning Ideal Bread truck. My brakes screech and I lurch across the divided highway. I try to be inconspicuous as I quietly fill up, and make no eye contact with the Ideal man unloading the stuff at the station. Everyone has a Mississippi driving story...

I get past Tallahassee, the normal stopping point for a sane person driving all the way to the end of Florida. I get to Lake City and find a place to stay. The first part is over, but the worst is yet to come. It's going to be all interstate driving in the morning and afternoon, until I get to Naples. I wake up and get right on with the slow torture. It starts raining about an hour south of my resting point... the effects of Katrina are still here. Then I notice my Airbag Warning light is on. This probably means they won't deploy when I fantastically collide headfirst into the jagged metal of a semi and its 25,000 lb payload. But, I must press on.

Interstate 75 from Tampa to Naples is the least sane driving I have ever experienced. I have heard it is equivalent to Miami city driving or the roads of southern California. The license plates and the drivers' minds are usually out of state. No one signals and everyone is pushing 90 to get back to civilization and water their lawns. I take the Naples exit in the afternoon. It is a cold, dreary rain for August. I know the routine through Naples because I lived there very happily for 6 months, but I decide to take a road through the city and test the streetlight timing. At the second stoplight, I apply the brakes when I see the yellow. I slide straight for 5 seconds and finally my brakes catch in the middle of the intersection. I freeze and thankfully have enough room to scoot back into the right place. I am really fucking by tired this point, so I chug down an energy drink to keep my wits for the last 3 hours of this hellish ordeal.

The Last Leg is Highway 41 through the Everglades, then a back way through Homestead to the main drag of US-1. This is where the endangered Florida Panther dies a lot. You can go really fast, so fast that you can hit a gator and think it was just one of the thousands of white egrets along the edge of the highway. I slip through the turns and straightaways of 41, because I've done it so many other times. I get to the Indian Reservation and slow to the speed limit. The police jurisdiction only lasts a few miles, but these Indians pull over anything that doesn't have the Miccosukee decal on the back glass. Finally I resume cruising all the way to the stoplight with the Casino Resort. I can almost feel the sheets of my bed and read the personal emails.

One more little jaunt through back roads and then its US-1 all the way to my trailer. I get through downtown Homestead and throttle up on The Stretch to show the tourists how to properly handle the Overseas Highway. I blow through the passing zones and drawbridge and hit the city limits. I coast at 45 mph to Mile Marker 101. I had done it. I park my car and inspect the damage. My trailer has seen its share of wind and rain. My roommate dug in an stayed there throughout the whole thing. She seemed fine. Nothing horrible there, just some 100 lb limbs and lots of debris. Thank god.

I had taken a gamble and skipped Thursday and Friday work, only to stay in Arkansas for about 30 hours, then head back to be home by Monday night. I said I would never drive that again alone, but I would about 4 months later...

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