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Millennium Roadtrip: Thirteen Foot Gators and the Pecan Scam

Monday, 2nd July, 2001

Two weeks we'd spent in Florida; two weeks of more relaxed, laid back inactive behaviour than we were used to. Now it was time to hit the road again and set off on our long trek round the country. Just as the first leg had been roughly one straight line south from Detroit to Sarasota, the second had us on another straight line a little east of north on the way up to the Vermont border.

The drive north started with us nigh on broke, and with one of the longest single day's drives ahead of us - 423 miles to Ellabell, on the outskirts of Savannah, GA. We had about enough cash available to put gas in the car but that was it. What money Tracy had was either past history or spent on what hotel rooms we'd already booked in advance. My money was due any moment but we were still waiting.

With three months of travel organised, fate determined that I should stay broke until the very day before I flew out. I was owed large sums of money from various sources but nobody seemed ready to even their balance. Luckily the vast majority reached me on the last possible day and I got it all allocated to bank account or credit card. Now all I had to do was wait for it to clear. Waiting is the worst thing about life and one of the reasons I despise banks.

As a failsafe measure we'd organised a transfer by Western Union. Unfortunately we couldn't pick it up until Daytona Beach, way north of us and on the opposite coast. As befits one of the key locations in American motor sport, the race was on. We had to find our way to the Western Union office in Daytona Beach before we ran out of gas. It all felt like we should expect Burt Reynolds to appear and flash that million dollar grin at us. At least if Jackie Gleason gave us a ticket, we'd get his autograph.

Before we said our farewells to the Sea Castle, I checked home. The news was not good. My father had not been well for some time. He'd survived a stroke with almost no repercussions, but his health was still failing and the doctors were puzzled as to why. I found out why, over the phone from Florida. He'd been diagnosed with cancer. The good news, if the term can apply, was that it was apparently not a problem. They could easily operate, remove the cancer and all would be well in no time. Given this level of confidence, I passed on my best wishes and hit the road.

The trek to Daytona Beach was uneventful. At the gas station we discovered that my money had finally cleared, signalling an end to our dangerous financial situation. We really didn't want to end up stranded in one hundred degree heat: it was hot even for Florida. The search for the Western Union office was more eventful. We phoned the helpline to find the correct location and floundered for some time in finding it. When it finally appeared, we found that they didn't have enough cash to give us, prompting us to ring back the helpline for location number two.

I still don't understand the American building numbering system, which confused us no end. In England buildings start at number one and work upwards, as you travel along a road. Even numbers are on one side and odd numbers are on the other, making it easy to navigate. One is next to three, which is next to five... and the other side of the road will be two, four and six. In the States the only logic I can find is that numbers progress upwards, but in a seemingly random order. 1,024 will be next to 1,101 and next door again will be 1,293. Strange Americans.

Finally however, accompanied by much flustering from the young lady behind the driving wheel who believes that there are only two distinct states of travel location: completely au fait of your exact position and its reference point to everything around you, and totally lost. Amazingly enough for someone who takes wrong turns as a hobby and can get lost in her own hometown, Tracy has a very good navigational sense. She just has to stop panicking to find it and that's not an easy task.

Once we'd crossed Florida from coast to coast and left Daytona Beach behind on our drive north along I-95, we could relax. Our monetary glitches had passed us and we could find a way to enjoy the travel. Unfortunately with 423 miles to pass under our wheels we had no time to stop to check out the locality. This proved to be a shame but needs must. After all, if I could stop to see everything that would prove of interest, it would take years to get one from one state to the next, let alone span the continent in both directions.

Although new by English standards, St Augustine is the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent, founded forty-two years before the Jamestown colony and fifty-five years before the Pilgrim Fathers discovered Plymouth Rock. There is plenty of history here, in a town ruled in its time by three different countries and with its fort that has never fallen.

What we did choose to stop to see was the thirteen foot alligator that seemed to blink at us from successive billboard hoardings. Unfortunately while the flesh was willing the mind was weak, and we couldn't find the damn thing. What made this state of affairs worse was that there seemed to be a preponderance of the creatures all along this particular stretch of I-95 paralleling the Atlantic coastline. Every few miles another billboard would appear and we made a couple of perfunctory efforts to locate the gators advertised, but to consistently no avail. Maybe it was a clever means to heighten awareness of thirteen foot tailgaters instead.

What was meant to be, however, was the pecan scam. Tracy had kept a lookout for pecan prices on the way south, so that she could pick up a hefty bag for a friend back in Michigan, but had refused to buy any on the grounds that there was going to be cheaper still further down the road. After reaching the southernmost tip of our trek and turning back northward, we were running out of opportunities to find a decent price. Somehow the advertised $1.25 for three pounds escalated into $19.95. The advertising standards authorities could have a field day down here.

After St Augustine came Jacksonville, a place that I knew a little about due mostly for its incredible musical heritage but partly because it happens to be the largest city in the entire United States by area, a quiz question that caught me out once but never again.

Almost all of the southern boogie bands of any note seemed to originate from Jacksonville, and with no end of Lynyrd Skynyrd on the numerous classic rock stations of Florida, it seemed quite surreal to cross the St Johns River right in the middle of their hometown listening to disco. I could sing along to 'Freebird' soon enough, however, and Johnny van Zant was still crooning about having to leave when we crossed the city line.

The sign also heralded the arrival of the sun, which was a welcome sight after being stuck in the rain for so long. In two weeks we hadn't managed to catch sight of a single spectacular sunset in Florida, which is rightly known for them, and the rain had followed us north too. Our last night at the Siesta Key was notable for its hour long tidal wave of a downpour which neatly flooded the roads in front of the Sea Castle.

Onward we drove to the state border. If the Sunshine State couldn't provide us with sunshine, maybe Georgia could.

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