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Wanderlust fed at leisurely pace on road to Nowhere

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Ever thought of tossing a few clothes in the back of the family car and taking off for Nowhere In Particular USA?

It's about as free a feeling as one can have outside of swimming for the first time without a bathing suit.

Peggy, the family navigator, and I are not long back from one such foot-loose expedition in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Put another 3,900 miles on the Volkswagen Golf and made 21 one-night stands in motels.

We like casual car-cruising. How casual? It took us three days to get out of Florida, another to get back in.

Modus operandi on this trek: block out three weeks; Peggy to do the highway navigating on a day-to-day basis with no ultimate turning around point.

I do the driving over terrain new to us, also conduct the motel room and discount negotiations.

We head for the country backroads, generally stay off the interstates unless they take us around cities to turn-offs leading to rural settings where the pace is slow, and green is the natural prevailing color of the landscapes.

Motel reservations are rarely made. Such commitments can apply pressures that have a way of spoiling the late stages of a day's outing.

Granola bar emergency rations, AAA maps and guidebooks, bottled water aboard? Oil level checked, gas tank topped off? Let's go!

In a surprise move, Peggy sends me east, not north, to Fort Pierce and Vero Beach for a drive along the old A1A highway to Mayport and a ferry ride across the St. Johns River and on to Amelia Island.

Most of that coastal area we had paralleled years ago in our boat, but seeing it again by car produced touches of nostalgia. The boat's gone but we are still here.

There were more waves of remembrance when we drove to St. Marys, Ga., an interesting, small waterfront community with many old homes. The ferry to the popular historic island of Cumberland leaves from there.

The St. Marys River separates Georgia from Florida. Seeing the river again evoked a 42-year-old recollection. In the late fall of 1952, Peggy and I were coming down the Intracoastal Waterway in our just-built boat, Sea Scribe, enroute moving to Florida.

Cold, rainy weather had been with us for several days but just as we crossed the St. Marys River, the sun suddenly popped out from behind a deck of clouds as if welcoming us to the Sunshine State.

There's much more to Georgia than Gone With The Wind and Atlanta, the Big A. When you drive the state one tends to agree that Georgia has the best roads in the nation.

We particularly enjoyed driving the "Plains" in the southwest corner of the state, largely farming country and small, quiet towns.

It also brought us to our most emotional day: a visit to the Andersonville National Cemetery, Route 49 out of Americus. Possibly the most beautiful resting place for our soldiers, yet the scene of one of the most painful episodes in our history during which, in 1864, more than 12,900 Union soldiers died there in a Confederate prison.

Had a nice stopover in Cordele, Ga. Stayed at a Holiday Inn, built in 1963, one of the pioneers in that motel chain, still well patronized. Understandably so with its super Sunday buffet billed: "Fresh vegetables and southern cooking made from scratch."

We fared well in our selection of motels, Hampton Inns our choice seven times, their famous free breakfasts going well beyond the "continental breakfasts" others offer.

In a Louisville, Ky., motel the freebie breakfast had an unusual stipulation. You can order up to $6 from the menu but are on your own after that.

Same motel assigned us a room facing an indoor swimming pool perhaps on the theory someone registered from St. Pete Beach, Fla., might like a different view of swimmable water.

While in Louisville, we did perambulate and enjoy Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Had a delightful lunch there but had to skip the mint juleps, being not only the designated driver but the family's only driver.

Driving U.S. 481 in rolling hills country and bound for Anniston, Ala., on our 49th wedding anniversary, we arrived in the town of Wedowee. Shortly before, the local high school had been burned in the wake of a racial incident that drew national attention.

We found Wedowee a lovely, well-groomed town but deep in sorrow. As we drove by the fire scene, Peggy counted 20 floral displays from grieving students, their families and townspeople.

How did our 49th anniversary go?

Went to the most expensive restaurant in Anniston, dined in a Victorian setting amidst abundant pleasant ambiance, sipped fine celebrative wine.

All downhill after that; I was served a steak so tough even the village blacksmith wouldn't tackle it.

Overnighted in Iuka (pronounced ee-oo-kah), Miss., named after a Chickasaw chief. The kind of a community that can spice up a trip.

Lots of local history, battlefield of Shiloh up the road a few miles. Nice old homes with small signs stating year built.

Understand Gen. Ulysses Grant once stopped there on his way to Vicksburg, stayed overnight in a local home. In the morning, he tidied up the room he slept in and left a thank-you note.

We dined at the Country Squire, local steak and fish house serving the finest hush puppies ever. Didn't order the house special, choice ribeye, but saw it wheeled up tableside, ready to be sliced for a customer at so much per ounce.

Much impressed with Kentucky with its charming roads, fabled bluegrass countrysides and, yes, its colorful fields of the about-to-be-harvested no-no stuff called tobacco.

High marks, too, for Bardstown, second-oldest city in the state; Georgian homes, My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Stephen Foster reminders everywhere, old taverns and tours to the decades-old distilleries where there is more whiskey produced per square mile than anywhere else in the world.

Had dinner at an excellent Italian restaurant called Nathan's LaTaberna where we not only dined well but met interesting local couple.

Turned out the woman is the granddaughter of Col. Harland Sanders of KFC fame. Not only that, her mother spends winters here in a Madeira Beach condominium.

You can write to Red Marston c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, 33731.