Saturday, February 11, 2012

New Year's Day Road Trips - Part II: The Drive

When you're driving, you can feel the minutes click by with the mile markers.  There's a sense of progress, and for me, serenity.  I left the Kansas City area just before 1:00 heading east.  The drive along I-70 brings back many memories of my college years at the University of Missouri twenty years ago.  Most of the cities and towns along the way have expanded their limits since I graduated, but I-70 remains the same.  It's a ribbon of four lane blacktop that rolls through the hills of central Missouri, with the state's namesake river twisting beside it.

Just before Columbia, MO is the small town of Rocheport, home of Les Bourgeois Vineyards, a number of small bed and breakfast inns, and the Katy Trail, a crushed limestone path stretching across Missouri from Clinton to St. Charles along the old line of the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad.  As you cross the I-70 bridge at Rocheport, you can just make out the Katy Trail at the base of the limestone cliffs.  It's as good of way as any to lose a day, biking along between small towns like Booneville and New Franklin before sharing a bottle of wine at the vineyard and watching the sunset from the cliffs of the Missouri river.  It's not Sonoma or the Loire Valley, but Rocheport and Hermann, another small town about an hour east of Columbia also known for its wines, make a pretty good substitute if you live in the Midwest.

By 4:30 I was in St. Louis and crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois.  I-70 gave way to I-64 and then I-57 as nightfall hit.  Just south of Marion, I picked up I-24 which would take me into Tennessee.  The Kia has proven to be all day comfortable, cruising steadily at 75 miles an hour and returning 22 MPG.  It had an USB port for my i-Pod, and plenty of room for Sonny, my in-law's golden retriever, to stretch out behind me.  Given the choice, I'd drive a Jaguar XK or some other GT car, but compared to the other cars I'd used to make this trip, a Olds Cutlass made during the Reagan Administration, a VW Fox made out of left over Audi parts, and a Penske truck, the Kia was a four-wheeled cloud nine.

South of Nashville, I stopped for the night.  It was close to 10:00 and I was ready to grab some sleep.  I also wanted to make the drive through Chattanooga during the day time.  Eight hours later I was showered, fed, had gassed the Kia, walked Sonny, and tanked up on coffee.  Palm Harbor, FL was 700 miles distant and I wanted to get there before 8:00 PM to look at the Saturn Outlook.

The most scenic part of the drive is around Chattanooga, which lies on the western tip of the Appalachian Mountains.  The area is surrounded by scenic valleys and lakes.  I-24 climbs slowly towards Monteagle before depositing you in the lush green gorges and canyons, dipping into north Georgia, before revealing Chattanooga itself.  I dropped into the city, picked up I-75 and entered Georgia for a second, final time, where the mountains give way to rolling hills of pine.  Atlanta is two hours away at this point, and beyond it is my destination, 450 miles distant.

The drive though Georgia is dispensed in six hours, bookended by potty stops for Sonny and punctuated by a stop near Macon for gas and a quick sandwich.  Progress through Florida is just as brisk, with nightfall coming around Gainesville.  Rather than stop for dinner, I push on.  I want to get to the dealership first.  The Kia stays planted in the left lane of I-75, pacing traffic.  Sonny seems to know we're close to his home and begins to get restless again.  Finally I hit the exit for Wesley Chapel.  My destination is 30 minutes away.

As I turn west on Highway 54 towards Port Richey, I am amazed at how much the area has changed.  What used to be an empty two lane road between Zephyrhills and Tarpon Springs is now developed land.  Strip malls and chain restaurants blanket both sides of the road, with occasional gaps in progress, either with undeveloped land or empty new buildings that were never completed or occupied when the Great Recession hit.  Unlike the greater Kansas City area, which was largely spared, Florida was severely impacted.  Real estate in this area cratered in 2008-2009 and is still 50% off its peak highs.

Finally I hit Highway 19.  The dealership is two blocks away and I can see its sign.  I pull in, park next to the used car lot, get out and walk around.  Even at night, the lot is lit up like daylight with the harsh white light cast from the halogen lights.  There are rows of cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs, but no Saturn Outlook.  

I learn from a salesperson the Outlook sold two hours before I got there.  Defeated, I head to my in-laws house to unpack the Kia, walk Sonny, and grab dinner.

Plan B is to spend Saturday in Florida, run some errands for my in-laws and get their house ready for their arrival, spend some time at the beach, and fly out on Sunday.  I can fly standby, since my wife works as a flight attendant for Continental.  Only when I call my wife, the plan has changed.  All the flights on Sunday are overbooked, so standby on Continental is out of the question.

"I can't get you out," she says.  "The best I can do is an American flight with a layover in Dallas, that leaves first thing in the morning."

Midnight comes before I fall asleep.  At 5:00 I'm up again and heading to the airport.  I've been in Florida for about twelve hours, all of it at night.  The sun rises as the American MD-80 climbs off the tarmac and banks over the Gulf of Mexico.  From above, I can make out Honeymoon Island at the end of the Dunedin Causeway, and lament the Saturn Outlook and lost beach time.

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