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New London, Connecticut, circa early 1900s
Here's an old postcard of New London, Connecticut, in the early 1900s.
Johnna's driving trip begins in Westport. She too is driving a convertible.


Driving the Infamous I-95

By Johnna Kaplan

Illustrations:  another chapter of the 
Phantom's Vintage Postcard tour of the USA


Johnna is a freelance writer and compulsive traveler. Born in New York, she currently lives in St. Louis, MO, and has no idea where she may end up next.


Late one August, in a rare fit of spontaneity, my friend and I drove from Westport, CT to Miami Beach, FL and back in a rented Ford Mustang convertible. 

If by chance you are considering purchasing a Ford Mustang convertible, I can only implore you not to. The outside of the car is just large enough to make parking difficult, yet the inside is surprisingly cramped. The seats are so low that to get out of the car you have to launch yourself upwards while clinging onto the door so you don't overshoot and end up sprawled face-down on the pavement. The cloth top lets in the air, which makes a high-pitched shrieking noise and produces a sail-like effect. The switch for the hazard lights is on the steering column, so you have to awkwardly stick your hand through the wheel to reach it. The headlights are turned on by pulling a knob on the dashboard. The sound system isolates all those hidden hums and whistles in your music and amplifies them. The brake pedal is a good two inches higher than the gas pedal, so braking quickly involves moving your entire right leg in toward your body, then over to the left. The lever that adjusts the driver's seat is on the front of the seat itself, so when moving your entire right leg to brake, it is possible to hit it accidentally and find yourself suddenly sliding forward or back. 

Our particular Mustang boasted an air conditioner that leaked onto the driver's feet and a left turn signal that occasionally emitted an ominous electric buzzing sound, as if preparing to burst into flame. There was something about the Mustang made people stop and stare. They would regard us and our vehicle with a puzzled expression, as if one of us had grown a second head, perhaps, or as if we had decided to nonchalantly make our way down I-95 in a carriage-and-four.  


scenic Jersey turnpike
Here's a postcard of the Jersey Turnpike (1985). Where's the traffic?
(Q: why would anybody actually buy a postcard of a freeway?)

Like all journeys on the Eastern Seaboard, ours included two hours of sitting in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Anyone who has ever been forced to experience the New Jersey Turnpike knows that it’s not exactly a picnic. (Though now that I think about it, it could be a picnic, if everyone got out of their cars and sat down by the side of the road and ate a sandwich. Which they might as well do, since they’re not going anywhere for a while.) 

After driving through the Carolinas and Georgia, however, I do have to commend New Jersey for its rest areas, which have gas stations, clean bathrooms, food that does not come from a vending machine, and even Starbucks. We passed quickly through the drive-thru robbery known as Delaware, and Maryland, which puts its rest areas on the left side, just to keep you on your toes. Then we came to the jumble of highways that make up the "mixing bowl" of DC. 


Little traffic here.
Here's Pennsylvania Ave, DC. at the turn of the 20th century. Note the horses!

I had never been there before, so that was kind of exciting, because, well, I’m easily entertained. This is the part of the country where they keep the military, so we in the Northeast can pretend it doesn't exist. We passed a hearse bearing a coffin draped in an American flag. We passed a military surplus truck with a decal that said "the war store". (Small regional conflicts, only $29.99, get 'em while they last.) The signs changed from, "Please slow down, we enforce our laws" to "Speed limit enforced by aircraft." I think (I hope) they mean monitored by aircraft, as “enforced by aircraft” sounds like a guided missile will strike your car if you go over 55. Eventually the Japanese sedans began to be outnumbered by trucks (and other Ford Mustangs!) The "Darwin" bumper stickers became "Icthus" bumper stickers, or Confederate flag bumper stickers. We had entered the South.

open air market in Richmond, VA
Here's a very old Richmond postcard featuring an open air market.
Notice the cobblestones.

We spent the first night in Richmond, VA, because we knew people there who were willing to let us sleep in their living room. Richmond is a city of hitherto unconsidered real estate possibilities. In Richmond, a couple, one of whom is still a student, can buy a cute two-story house with a front porch on which they can sit on a swing and look at their two cars. We attended a potluck dinner, which differed from the New York variety in that it was called a supper club, and in that no one was assigned a dish, with the result that everyone brought carbs, and in the absence of men in suits who look disparagingly at your outfit while sticking out their hand and saying, "Hi, I'm Bill- and what do you do?"


We drove through North Carolina without incident, except for repeated assaults by Pedro, an annoying little cartoon man in a sombrero who touts the various attractions of South of the Border on innumerable obnoxious billboards. (No, Pedro, I do not want antiques, and what's more, I don't believe those really are antiques.) In South Carolina the highway was under construction, and we were herded into a recklessly narrow lane, segregated from the other lanes for no apparent reason. Yes, I am suspicious, but they're the ones who call it the "War of Northern Aggression.” Also, they don't clean their rest area bathrooms.

All the roadside billboards in the South were about sex, and not just the ones promoting strip clubs. I mean the regular signs, like the furniture store that promised "wicker up the ying yang" and something else (chairs? hat racks?) "up the gazoo". The fast food chain Hardees, at some point in the Carolinas, began calling its hamburgers "thickburgers", and had the nerve to proclaim, "thick tastes better". The products advertised were primarily fireworks, cigarettes, pecans and peaches, all in bulk. After you pass a store selling one of these, there is another billboard that says, "Oops, you missed us!" (Britney’s inspiration, perhaps, for “Oops, I Did It Again?) The Burger Kings put up signs advertising buttermilk biscuits. In Georgia there was a sign for the Smallest Church in America. We did not find it; I guess it was too small. 


Where's the traffic?
Wouldn't it be wonderful if all roads were a beautiful as this one
along the Ashley River outside of Charleston, SC.

Georgia was inexplicably blanketed in smoke. It also smelled terrible, but the reason for that was clear: on both sides of the highway gray trees were drowning in murky, rotting bogs. Their limbs were short and twisted. If trees had voices, these would have been screaming in pain. I remarked that writers who grow up here must produce some pretty disturbing literature. My friend, who’d been an English major, assured me that indeed this is the case.

We drove over a highway bridge and took an exit shaped like a corkscrew that deposited us into Savannah. We were greeted by campaign posters that said, "Elect Dicky Mopper!" I hope he wins, and then I hope something scandalous happens and he has to give a nationally televised press conference, because I want to hear some CNN anchor have to say, "Mayor Dicky Mopper of Savannah..." 

House of "The Book"
This house is now famous for its role in "The Book"


Savannah is an absolutely beautiful city that is obsessed beyond all comprehension with "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." You'd think they would be content with quaint block-sized parks and Greek Revival architecture and picturesque trolleys and brightly colored boats and cobblestone streets, but no. They seem to care for little other than some book someone wrote about them, which from what I hear isn't even that good. They call it The Book, and its film version The Movie, and there is a whole store which sells nothing but Book and Movie paraphernalia. 

We preferred  to spend our days exploring the cute shopping areas and looking at the historical sites, so we managed to entertain ourselves without resorting to any Book-related activities. (But as I said, we’re rather easily entertained anyway. We were also entertained by the cypress trees.) At night, however, the city seemed to completely shut down. I'm sure it's different if you know where to go, but we didn’t and they weren’t about to tell us. 

We went to a bar, where the staff and patrons alike turned and stared at us. We went upstairs and seated ourselves in a lounge area with a comfortable, artsy vibe. We waited. We wondered if anyone would come to take our order, or if we were meant to order downstairs, and if so shouldn’t they have told us that when we came in, and were they sitting down there laughing at us right now, and was it because we were Yankees, and how could they tell we were Yankees anyway, as no one had spoken to us? We went downstairs. They all stared again as we walked out the door. It was 9 pm, and the streets were deserted. Maybe someday I will meet someone from Savannah who can explain all this to me. Also, they can tell me if Dicky Mopper got in.


I got directions to our hotel in Miami from MapQuest. I knew that MapQuest does not really care whether you get there or not, because of this handy travel tip they provide: "...when using any driving directions or map, it's a good idea to do a reality check and make sure the road still exists..." But it was a good thing my friend read the directions over before we left Georgia, because had we followed them, we would have driven to Key Biscayne. (Or maybe, given the nautical properties of our convertible top, we would have sailed there.)

We knew we were somewhere kind of different when we saw the Burger King. It had round windows and an asymmetrical, pointed roof and it was painted pale blue and peach. In South Beach everything is Deco, and everything is pastel, and everything is lined with palm trees. The benches along the beach are painted turquoise. The whimsical lifeguard huts are painted turquoise. I love turquoise, and I love palm trees, so I was pretty much content from the beginning. 

Miami was the opposite of Savannah -- the days were quiet and (it being the off-season) un-populated. We lay on the beach on lounge chairs. We watched birds dive beak first out of the sky, stopping themselves right before they slammed into the sand below. We wandered the streets, smiling at the silliness of the buildings. The weather was steamy, but nice, only once did a little lightning and sand storm force us back into our hotel. 


Miami at sunset
Photographers love to take postcard pictures of Miami sunsets.
Maybe it's all those dark gray clouds and angry skies that make such dramatic photos.


At sundown the people who had been hidden away all day came out and went to dinner and, as far as I could tell, stayed up all night. We sat and watched the sky turn dark and listened to the waves roll in. We drank cocktails from glasses with bright plastic monkeys hanging from their rims. At 10 pm, we browsed in a crowded shoe store across the street from the beach. I carefully stored Miami in that exclusive mental folder, the one marked: must return someday.

In the morning as we were checking out of our hotel, the weather decided to have the last word. Raindrops the size of grapes quickly flooded the road between us and our car. Lightning streaked across the sky and the wind whipped up in several directions. We waited for it to calm down slightly, and we ran. We managed to put our bags in the car, but not before my umbrella heroically sacrificed itself for the cause and had to be abandoned, torn and twisted, on the sidewalk. 

We hurriedly got out of Miami and thought (silly Northerners) that we were safe. We could see the dark clouds lurking, but we thought (silly Northerners) this simply meant it was cloudy. But these were not clouds as we knew them. These were Florida clouds. They hung low in the sky, just above the treetops, like animals waiting to pounce. And they seemed to sense the existence of the highway, taking on a different appearance on either side of it, as if each town had its own weather system. (Or maybe not. We might have been hallucinating because I had stepped in a puddle of gasoline earlier and my contaminated flip-flop was filling the car with fumes.) But we were not hallucinating the cloud just ahead of us: large and dense, with gray tentacles that stretched straight down to meet the road. 

We had no choice, we drove right into it. We were suddenly engulfed in a small but very angry thunderstorm. The car was being pelted with water and my friend, who was driving, couldn’t see the road in front of her. We pulled off the highway and waited while the Floridians sped past, presumably carrying two of each species inside their SUVs. We eventually learned that if you could manage to drive through the downpours, you could outrun them and see them, behind you, threatening in the rearview mirror. We drove through that state as if there was a warrant out for our arrest, stopping only for gas and to look back nervously at the black clouds behind us.

We drove until we got tired and hungry, which happened to be in Fayetteville, NC. I ate my first-ever meal at a Cracker Barrel, which was not as bad as I’d imagined. The portions were surprisingly small, and people really do shop at the store. There was nothing to do in Fayetteville except sit in our hotel and watch the Weather Channel, where we learned that the temperature at Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base is 4 degrees hotter that everywhere else. I am not sure of the reason for this, but I think it’s a little disturbing.


Cracker Barrel postcard
FYI: all you West Coasters, there are no Cracker Barrel Restaurants out west --yet!
It's a chain of home style restaurants (heavy on the calories, fat, cute giftshops, and homespun humor).
Just drive East until you hit Idaho or Arizona, and there you are! 
You won't be able to miss the Cracker Barrels.


The next day we drove to Baltimore, where we stayed at a luxurious hotel in the Inner Harbor because, as my friend explained to me, in Baltimore if you don't stay in a very nice place, very bad things can happen to you. We had to return the Mustang to Connecticut by early afternoon, before the $26/hour late fee took effect. We woke up at 5 in the morning and got straight onto the highway, where we  immediately proceeded to get lost in the only one of our destinations where one of us had actually lived. This resulted in losing a lot of time and having to go through a frightening underwater tunnel not once, but twice, the second time in the right direction. 



Most of the Phantom's postcards of Baltimore are very romantic seascapes.
This is the prettiest of the lot -- a postcard of a painting of the
U.S. Frigate Constellation. Is this the REAL Baltimore?


Not since Washington crossed the Delaware has anyone headed for New Jersey with such determination. (The bridge over the Delaware has a large electronic sign on it, warning everyone to "Stay Alert", but not, sadly, to put on a tri-corn hat and stand up in your car.) All our efforts were to no avail, because we ended up sitting on the Turnpike for a few more hours, with nothing to do but wipe the air-conditioning fluid off our feet and repeatedly turn up the volume on the distorted CD player, saying, “What was that? Did you hear that weird noise?” 

We eventually made it home and got rid of the Mustang. Thankfully we were spared the fee. The car rental people took pity on us when we mentioned New Jersey. And then, as quickly as it had begun, the road trip was over. Normal life, without fits of spontaneity, resumed seamlessly. Oh, and I did eventually read some Faulkner. The only parts I could understand (indeed, the only parts during which I felt able to breathe) were when the one Northeastern character was talking.



Please join the Phantom  as our virtual tour of the US continues. So far, our tour includes the following states:

California, Oregon, Washington,
Alaska, Hawaii
, Montana, Idaho, & Arizona, Canyon Country, Texas, and Massachusetts.

Stay with us as we visit all of the United States, 
and who knows where next...

American Black Bear Postcards
Backs of the postcards
Cruising, 1970s style

Couples: rules to live by
Dangerous postcard animals
Dear Diary: Italy again
Driving the I-95  (text by Johnna Kaplan)
Not sure I'd want to see this
Old Hawaii
Old Motels

Other People's Vacations
Places I'd like to Visit

Postcard recipes
Side trip to Europe!
Spring in the Desert
Ugly Postcard Tour
Where My Friends Went, part 2
World Tour
The 50 State Quick Tour




Diannek, clevermag's editor, 
is affectionately known as
the Phantom to friends and family.

 

 


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