I am sure I mentioned in my first post that my dad has always been my inspiration for travel. I am famous for telling the stories of our trips while adding phrases like, “We had the time, so we drove the extra 50 miles to see…” or maybe something like, “Well, flying into Canada was cheaper, so why not enjoy the sites along the way back to the US…” Don’t get me wrong, I love the fullness of these trips and need a nap by the fourth day. My dad has become an expert in maximizing the experience in the limited time we have for vacations. I took a reverse approach on this trip and took that much-needed rest on the first afternoon so that I would survive the rest of the trip without feeling sleepy. I will point out here that I filled my days pretty much from start to finish, in honor of my dad’s teachings, if you will.
The drive from Ocala to Pompano Beach comes out to about four to five hours of driving, depending on stops. The drive from Jacksonville to Pompano Beach is about the same. My “home-body” self was rather disappointed in that point as I sped down the highway. Jacksonville and Pompano Beach are on the East Coast of Florida, whereas Ocala is in the middle of the state. Instead of a straight line down from Jacksonville, I was traveling at a 45-degree angle heading southeast. Now that we got the math and geography out of the way, let me explain this magical invention called the Florida Turnpike.
I exit off of Interstate 75 unto the Turnpike, as I am trying to maximize my visiting time with my South Florida friend. The first thing you notice about this road is that all the signs are about double the size. I am not exaggerating here. The blue exit signs are giant, yet easy to read. After missing the last exit before the toll booth, you observe that your two lanes become about 10 lanes. The privileged few stay on the left to *slowly* drive through the Sunpass lane. I have had my Sunpass since last time I was in the area for my friend’s wedding on the beach. This access token has a chip that is read by overhead scanners and the balance is refilled automatically via your credit card. There are even a few places where you are allowed to fly-by going about 60 mph and it still scans like normal. One of the downsides of this interesting setup is the 10 lanes merging into two lanes again. This creates a place for “over-eager” drivers to stake their claim in race to the next toll booth, about 50 miles down the road. [Insert eye-roll here]
Once everyone has settled back into their places, traveling far past the speed limit, I noticed a red line on my Google Maps app and quickly learned why. Both lanes of this magnificent road, the road that is supposed to save time, were at a dead stop. The traffic was not moving slowly; this was zero moment. The friendly Google Maps voice reminded me that even with the “seven-minute delay”, I was still on the fastest route….thanks Google. After moving over several times in my lane to let the two State Troopers, two Firetrucks, and one ambulance pass by at an alarming speed, I arrived at the scene of the accident. One of these heavy dump trucks that carry sand and rocks had hit the guardrail, bounced off, and landed sideways blocking both travel lanes. Perfect. I was going to take a photo, but there were about 10 State Troopers all directing traffic through the left emergency lane at about 2 mph. I assume the driver was taken to a hospital in that ambulance. So I continued on my way, trying to make up some lost time, as best as I could on the crowded roadway.
The Turnpike is designed to ensure that you stay on for as long as possible. The state makes sure of that by making exits with no return ramp going in the same direction and charging your toll as you exit and enter the roadway. This makes the most sense, financially. So, in an effort to ease the pain of this fact, they have built, what they call, Plazas. I was almost overwhelmed the first time I saw one. These massive center-placed exits included an oversized gas station with at least 30 pumps, a small food store, and a massive food court area that would rival a local mall. The Plazas are placed about 40 or 50 miles apart so you don’t have to wait too long to find another one. Genius. I bought an excellent smoothie for lunch and continued on my way.
The beauty of driving on a road like this is the solitude of the car. Now, I understand not everyone takes a trip by themselves, however, that was how I planned this one. You have your music playing loudly, you are going “more than 70 mph” and really you are only worried about 15 cars at any given time. You have this mental and physical separation from the world and those around you. As you travel further south past the busy Orlando/Tampa area, the scenery becomes more enticing. The swamps go for miles and there are moments where you feel like you are standing still. Only your speedometer proves that you are in fact whizzing by at an “alarming rate”. This is why I chose the Turnpike. It is simply the quickest way to get to where I was going. Unfortunately, this “middle section” of my journey was quickly replaced by South Florida in all its glory (aka traffic). This is where it gets interesting.
I take the exit I am told to take which plants me right in the middle of the industrial district of Pompano Beach. Now, I am sure that most cities have this area of town, usually near the warehouses or the airports, that is home to the low-level income residents. This has always confused me, but then again, I have not done a lot of research on the subject. However, South Florida seems to be an area of extremes (my friend would drive me through the rather expensive neighborhoods near the beach, not five miles away, the next day.) I drove threw one of these neighborhoods as I was trying to get back to the main road in my winding path of slightly-panicked misdirection. During this less-than-enjoyable experience, I observed any number of traffic laws being blatantly broken. The worst item of concern was the person standing on the seat with half his body out of the sunroof. The reason this was concerning to me was that the car was taking turns on these tiny streets at 25 mph and roundabouts even faster. I have to assume this was a younger person, but this is the point. To be fair, I had heard of similar acts happening in areas where there is plenty of income as well. The combination of boredom and perceived invincibility creates this type of problem. I pray for those living in that neighborhood, I really do.
I finally made it to the apartment complex of my friend. This complex is a reasonably priced set of apartments with a small manmade lake in the center. The complex is gated, which you could understand after driving through that “interesting” neighborhood. This complex reminded me of mine back home. Normal hard-working people that were able to get enough together to pay for these modest apartments.
Back in my early days of studying Elementary Education, I would like to say I had several friends, but few stayed in contact with me for various reasons. This friend did and I am very happy of that fact. We both have minds that enjoy discussing the deep matters of the world. We are both explorers, both in thought and in actions. Our conversations have always seemed very natural. In her time since the wedding, she had been working hard and taking care of her son. While it seems only natural for my friends to be married and have small children, it still seems rather foreign for me. This little one was almost a year old and he was walking and almost talking. Having a conversation that wasn’t interrupted by him was difficult, but we persevered. I had driven over 300 miles to see my friend. I was not going to let the one-year-old win! You are right, that was a bit dramatic. I am silly. Get over it. After her husband got home from work, my friend and I went out to dinner at a local hotspot and had a very nice (uninterrupted) conversation. This is what I do. Long conversations with friends is part of who I am. Of my rather small friend group, only my closest few really understand this. I have another friend here in Jacksonville that is like that. We can go on for hours, but don’t, because ya know, we are busy. So back in South Florida, we arrive at this place called the Beehive Kitchen. When you arrive, you pick your choice of Base, Protein, Toppings, and Sauce (something like that.) They layer the items as you go so at the end of the line, you have this bowl of stuff. Also, it is all organic, hormone-free, super awesome for the environment, etc. Naturally, I loaded up on all the expensive stuff. What are vacations for, right? It was the strangest and most delicious combination of food I have had in a long time. The whole experience reminded me of when you are a kid and you just open the fridge and start piling things onto your plate. I love “kid-friendly” ideas turned into “grown-up” businesses. My friend and I compare work stories and catch up on each other’s lives. This is the good stuff. This is what it is all about.
I was excited to find a place to lay my head after all the driving and excitement. When I left my friend’s apartment, I was making my way to my Airbnb and discovered that I was unable to find it. Maybe I should have found the place when it was still daylight. Maybe I should have checked the surrounding area where the place was supposedly located. All I know about that is when Google Maps told me I had arrived, I was not in an area that looked safe and it was not a house, apartment, or townhome that I could see. Once again I drove while trying to figure out what to do. I went to go find a hotel in the area that I could get a good night sleep. Remember people, this is South Florida, on Friday night, after 10:00pm. It is a busy place down there and finding a hotel at that time was interesting. After two places confirm they were full, a local Best Western came to my rescue with rooms available.
Travel Tip: Always book a hotel using a website. The price when booking in-person will be higher, in most cases.
When I arrived, I handed over my credit card and didn’t want to look at the bill as I signed for my keycard. The hotel was clean, quiet, and most importantly, safe. One of the things I actually thought about for my other trips was making sure my Airbnb location was in a safe area according to locals that I know in each location. For some reason, I thought I could do Florida on my own. Wrong. Just wrong. (I get it….chill….geez!) Luckily, I now know where the hotels are in the area and will probably be staying there next time I visit my friend, so it all worked out. Just have to work another holiday to pay off that charge. LOL. I was able to meet-up one last time for lunch before making my way back to Ocala the next day. My friend drove me down to the beach to see the light-blue of the ocean and the numerous condos and beach houses of the “well to do” and such. My visit to the “crazy land” of South Florida was overall, a pleasant one. It reminded me that long-term friendships are important and should be nurtured.