My First Road Trip

Dick Miller   

© Copyright 2013 by  Dick Miller

October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.


2013 Travel Nonfiction Winner

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash
Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash

During spring break in 1956, I took my first road trip with my dad in his 1951 MG TD roadster from New York to Florida. It turned out to be quite an adventure, and one I will never forget.

It all started when my mother and sister decided to take a cruise to Bermuda during spring break and dad and I took our road trip at the same time. Dad was a fireman, and was able to apply for vacation early in the year due to his seniority. Spring break fell in April that year, so the weather was very pleasant.

The car

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the MG TD roadster, it is a quite small British sports car, designed for sporting about town. It is not designed for long road trips. The slab attached to the back of the car is the gas tank, not a trunk. There is no trunk. Therefore, we would be traveling very light. We would be allowed one small suitcase each. There was a space behind the two seats into which the suitcases could fit with a bit of maneuvering: the seats would be slid forward, the suitcases installed, and the seats repositioned for travel.

The car is Spartan in other ways as well. There is no glove compartment. There are small pockets inside the doors for holding maps and such. There are no door handles. One opens the doors by pulling down on a cord suspended across the inside of the door at the top of the pocket. There are no windows. Instead, there are side curtains, seemingly cobbled together from canvas, plastic, metal, and nightmares. These are bolted in place onto the doors and attempt with limited success to keep the wind and rain from entering the cockpit in inclement weather. Opening the door while the side curtains are attached is tricky: one must slide the rear portion of the plastic forward, reach through the opening, grope inside the door, find the door opening cord, pull down on it, and swing the door open with one's arm still sticking through the side curtain opening. It sounds like a contortionist’s maneuver, but you get the hang of it after a while.

Getting into the car is different from most other cars. Since it is so low to the ground, and both dad and I are tall (although I was not very tall at age 12), the accepted technique is to insert the inboard foot while seating oneself and then fold up the other leg into the cockpit as you pivot into position. The process is reversed to exit. This is definitely a young, limber person’s vehicle.

British automotive engineers have some very creative ideas about how things should be done. At least this was true in the 1950s when this car was designed. For example, the windshield wiper consisted of a motor mounted directly on the windshield. To start the wipers, the driver reached across to the passenger side where the motor resided and switched it on. The horn button was not on the steering wheel; it was on the dashboard, just a hand span’s reach from the steering wheel. Once you got used to this strange position, it was easy to reach across and tap the horn button while keeping a thumb on the wheel. Turn signals were not mounted on a stalk on the steering column; they were on a ring surrounding the horn button. There was a tab that hung down under the horn button: twist to the left to turn left, twist to the right to turn right. The big difference is that these were not self-canceling signals. After you made your turn they did not automatically turn off. You had to remember to turn them off. However, there was a timer that shut them off automatically after a period of time no matter what. So if you were sitting at a very long left turn light, you had to remember to keep turning the turn signal light on again and again as the timer kept shutting it off.

Well, that gives you some idea of the idiosyncrasies of the vehicle in which we set off on our great adventure. And what a great adventure it was!

Starting off with a burn

Departure day dawned sunny and clear. Mom and sister Marilyn had made arrangements with friends for a ride to their cruise ship departure in Manhattan, so dad and I said our goodbyes and hit the road. Of course, since the weather was so great, and we were “true enthusiasts” (a term known to those in early sports car circles), we had the top down and were enjoying the sunshine and breeze. We drove through familiar territory on Staten Island, across the Outerbridge Crossing to New Jersey, and headed for the New Jersey Turnpike. Dad had taught me how to read maps, so he put me in charge of all the map reading. He was constantly asking me questions about how many miles until this or that or when the next rest stop would be. Now that I look back on it, I suspect he knew all the answers, but was just keeping me busy and giving me practice in my map reading skills.

We soon got into unexplored territory as we entered states I had never experienced: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia. After a long but exciting day, we found a cheap, clean motel and pulled in for the night. As I was getting ready for bed, I washed my face and cried out in pain! My right ear was red as a beet and sore as the devil. Apparently, all that sun and wind had done a number on my fair complexion after a winter spent indoors. We found a drugstore open late and discovered the miracle drug called Solarcaine. Liberal applications of this lotion soothed my ravaged ear, and I was able to continue with the trip, being a lot more careful about how much sun and wind I exposed myself to. Remember, this is the 1950s, before anyone knew what the letters SPF stood for.

Pre-Interstate travel

When we began our trip, Congress had yet to enact the interstate highway system law, which occurred in June of that year. As a result, we traveled on the old US highways, where there were no restrictions on billboards, roadside attractions, and speed traps. This was much more interesting. Here are a few of my remembrances.

Stuckey’s pecan pralines

Northerners are unaware of the proliferation of Stuckey's roadside stands in the South and of the treat known as a pecan praline. I also discovered that they sold useful reference material, such as “How to Speak Southern.” From this document I learned the proper pronunciation of pecan, which does not rhyme with man, and the difference between y'all and all y'all. This stood me in good stead when I attended graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin some years later.

South of the Border

Although it has a Mexican theme, this motel complex is not South of the US border, but just south of the North Carolina border, barely in the state of South Carolina. You would never know it from the advertising signs one sees along the highway, however. They announce, “South of the Border—just 217 miles!” or some such outrageous figure. I actually stopped there on a subsequent trip when I needed a motel room at 3 AM and everything was booked. They were big enough to have one where the previous occupant was just leaving, so they made it up and I was able to get some sleep.

Burma-Shave signs

This is a bit of Americana with which most people are familiar. Since I had not traveled very far outside New York City at the age of 12, I had not seen them. I made up for that deficit on this trip. Both dad and I looked forward to these signs as we approached them on the highway. One of my favorites was this one from 1955:

Within this vale
Of toil and sin
Your head grows bald
But not your chin

Fresh squeezed orange juice

I knew we had arrived in Florida when we encountered roadside stands next to groves of orange trees where freshly squeezed orange juice was sold. After driving for hours in the warm Florida sun, we welcomed an opportunity to stretch our legs, watch them squeeze the juice before our eyes, and down the golden elixir to quench our thirst. It's amazing how a simple pleasure like this can be so enjoyable.

The big attractions

The main point of our trip was to see some sights in Florida, and there was a lot to see in the short time we had. Including travel time, there were only eight days, so we had to choose carefully. We planned to drive south down the Gulf Coast, cross over at Miami, and drive north up the Atlantic Coast to home.

Weeki Wachee Springs

Our first stop was at these crystal-clear fresh water springs, famous for their live underwater mermaid shows. We were there on a weekday in April, when the Florida schools when not on spring break, so the park was pretty empty. We arrived early in the morning and had the swimming area to ourselves. I used my snorkeling gear and was awed by the clarity of the water: it felt like I could see hundreds of yards across the boat basin. We had to wait a while for the mermaid show and the glass bottom boat tours to open. It was quite impressive to look down through the glass of the boat 100 feet to see giant channel catfish feeding on the bottom.

Tarpon Springs

The next stop was at Tarpon Springs, famous for its sponge diving industry. For a few dollars we were able to go on board a working sponge boat after they were done for the day and they demonstrated to us how the sponges were gathered. Dad and I were the only two tourists on the trip. We sat and waited on the boat until we heard a loud clump, clump, clump approaching. It was the diver in his diving suit and boots walking down the pier to the boat. We cast off, motored out a short distance, the diver put on his helmet, the air pumps were started, and over the side he went. He returned a few minutes later with a fresh sponge, which was our souvenir of the trip.

Sanibel Island

This island is positioned in the Gulf of Mexico in such a way that the current drops a wide variety of shells on its beaches. It is known around the world as a prime place for shell hunting. Dad and I found a cheap, clean motel on the beach and, bright and early the next morning, headed out for some shelling. The motel owner’s dog, a friendly Doberman, wanted to tag along. We were a little concerned because we thought the owner might miss him. The owner replied, “Oh no, it's okay, he goes walking with all the guests. He loves it and he always comes home when it's time to eat.” So off we went: dad and I and the dog. We found all sorts of wonderful shells: kinds we had seen only in books. We like to gather shells on the beaches of our home in Staten Island, New York, but there was nowhere near the variety there that we saw this day.

On our walk along the beach we had to cross a small creek at one point to continue up the beach. After another hour or so, it was time to turn around and head home for lunch. When we reached the small creek, it wasn't so small any more. The tide had come in and water that was up to our ankles in the morning was at least up to our waists at noon. Thank goodness the dog knew his way home: he knew exactly where the sandbar was in the river so that we could cross it without having to swim. We came away from this experience with a wonderful collection of shells and a new respect for the wisdom of animals.

The Everglades, the Tamiami Trail, and Miami Beach

It was now time to cut across the state of Florida to the Atlantic Coast and head for home. As I said, the interstate highway system was not in place, so we took a rather narrow, heavily traveled highway called the Tamiami Trail, which cut through the Everglades and wound up in the vicinity of Miami. We made a stop along the way in a rest area for lunch and had a chance to see what the Everglades looked like at something less than 50 mph. When we reached Miami, we headed across the causeway to Miami Beach and ogled the expensive hotels lined up along the beach. Looking is about all we could afford, so we kept on driving and headed north towards home.

Disaster in the boondocks

As I have pointed out several times, we were not traveling on the interstate highways because they had not yet been built. We traveled mostly on US 301 through the southern states. One of the features of this highway that is absent from interstate highways is railroad grade crossings. You can't tell until you're right on top of them just how bumpy they are, so we developed the habit of slowing before we hit them because many of them were pretty bumpy.

These grade crossings were not just uncomfortable; they were hard on the car as well. As I pointed out earlier, British auto engineers have some rather creative ways of designing cars. In the case of the MG TD, this includes an oil filter in a brass container with brass fittings to which rubber tubing is attached. Apparently, the repeated encounters with rough grade crossings cracked one of the brass fittings where it attached to the brass cylinder containing the oil filter. Of course, this happened 13 miles from nowhere. I will give the British auto engineers credit for including a fairly complete set of gauges on the instrument panel: dad noticed the oil pressure dropping to zero as soon as it happened. We pulled over, he analyzed the problem, he put in the spare quart of oil we carried, he taped the fractured joint as much as possible, and we limped to the next gas station.

The next gas station was in a very small town. They had someone who could weld, but was not able to braze bronze. That mechanic was in a town 25 miles farther away. So we taped up the fractured joint again, filled the crankcase with oil, lined up oilcans on the floor between my legs, crossed our fingers, and headed north. We had to make a couple of stops to refill the crankcase with oil, but we made it and the repair was made.

Home again

Well, that was quite an adventure for a 12-year-old kid. I saw a lot of new things, met some interesting people, saw new places, and spent a week of quality time with my dad. What more could a kid want?

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