ESCAPE TO THE SUN
Robert Thomas Allen drove from California to Florida just for the fun of it. Here’s his lively guide to the places, prices, and pleasures of the American subtropics
“The Ice Age marked the division: it was the canse of the [an ting of mankind on its journey into two distinct roads: since one body remained in the North and took up the snuggle with harsh conditions, became transformed. grew in humanity inwardly and upwards; while the rest turned aside from adversity and fled instead of growing. ...”
FROM THE NOBEL PRIZE - WINNING
NOVEL. THE LONG JOURNEY, BY JOHANNES V. JENSEN, 1944.
WHILE, EACH WINTER, most Canadians are growing inwardly and upwards coping with snow, fuel bills, comatose carburetors, and icy roads, thousands of others are stagnating happily in subtropical swamps, southwestern deserts and seacoast towns in the horse latitudes. Going south for the winter has become a familiar phenomenon of North American life. Early in the century only rich people, among them Canadians like Sir William Van Horne, did it. They parked their private railway cars at Santa Barbara or Palm Beach and played polo or sailed yachts
until life began to stir again up north. (Though Sir William, no typical tourist, couldn't bear turning aside from adversity for long, even in his private car. and stayed only briefly in both California and Florida.) Now anybody with a couple of weeks off, a car and a credit card can do it. and thousands do. They go chiefly to California. Arizona and Florida. They ride mule trains in the Grand Canyon, fish in the Gulf of Mexico, play golf in Phoenix, shuffleboard in Florida, gather sea shells, rock specimens and Indian pottery, send home postcards of Joshua trees, mesas, Navajos, palms, beaches and big fish, and try to think up little messages to the folks back home that won't sound as if they're gloating.
A while ago I followed the trail of today’s sun-seekers, with my wife and two daughters, on a motor trip that took me from Santa Barbara, California, to the east coast of Florida. 1 revisited some places I’d seen before, and visited a lot I hadn’t. 1 drove 3.671 miles, and I'd start again to-
morrow if I could afford it. A motor trip is like going to sea: you leave behind the spectre of work, ambition, and tangled human relationships. You begin to live from hour to hour, from strip map to strip map. I'll be paying gas bills until 1962 and 1 don’t regret a minute of it. 1 saw things that I’ll be recalling with pleasure when my daughters are wheeling me out on the porch in the morning and bringing me in at night. If you’d like to take the same trip, here’s what to do.
1 don’t know where you’re starting from, but whether you live in western Canada and follow my route (1 had business that took me from Toronto to western Canada first, so 1 came down the U. S. Pacific coast) or in eastern Canada and follow it in reverse, or in the prairies, in which case you can take your choice, take this advice: join a motor club that provides American Automobile Association tour books and have them plot the fastest, safest route to get you below the snowline.
Buy a big thermos for drinking water, and, if you’re like me and want
your breakfast in your room, fit out a separate bag with a single-burner hot plate, a small saucepan, mugs and the makings for a slice of toast and jam and a cup of coffee. You can replenish your groceries on the road. Some motels have signs that say "No cooking in the room,” but 1 don’t call this cooking. All you’re doing is boiling water and making a piece of toast. I never had any trouble. But then 1 made sure all the blinds were drawn.
Figure on averaging about 40 miles an hour for the day if you’re passing through a normal territory of towns and highway speed zones. This is for driving time: it doesn't take into account stops. You'll do more than this, of course (but not as much more as you think), in wide, open stretches. My record for a day's drive was 803 miles, and 1 was spelled at the wheel by my wife. I met one man down near the Grand Canyon who made me look like a quitter. He told me he’d driven 1,100 miles one day by himself. When he arrived home his wife held up a new baby he hadn’t seen yet and said
Escape to the sun continued
proudly, “Well, what (.loes he look like?” He said, “A highway. Where’s the bed?” and flaked out.
Figure on enough cash to cover $13 a day for meals and motels; add another $8 a day for another person; another $7 a day for each additional person. In other words, for an adult family of four, figure on a minimum of $35 a day. This is a very rough estimate, based on $5 per person a day for meals, and a descending rate per person for motels. I’ll go into this matter of motel rates later. Convert your cash to traveler’s cheques, in denominations no bigger than twenties, and you’re ready to go.
Traveling south down U. S. 101 as I did, you'll go through the redwood forests, through and around trees that make you feel like an ant. You’ll pass some spectacular glimpses of the Paci-
fic, and come to Santa Barbara. This is a rather depressingly prim and pretty little coastal town which, in a sense, is where our trip begins, as it’s about as far north as you’d want to stay on the coast if you intend to keep warm. Take a look at a big tig tree down near the railway station and keep on highway 101, and before long you’ll see your first Los Angeles traffic, which will be a highlight of your driving career, particularly if you strike it at rush hours. Try to hit it in midmorning or early afternoon. Los Angeles has a magnificent system of connected elevated highways the Angelenos call freeways. Driving on them is just like being in a stock-car race. Cars travel fifteen feet apart at seventy and eighty miles an hour, sometimes four abreast, close enough that the drivers can lock eyes, with four lanes
going in the other direction and nothing separating the two inside lanes but a hurricane fence and a prayer. Personally, 1 enjoy it. All you have to do is stay in your lane. The one problem is being in the wrong lane when you want to peel off onto another connecting freeway. If you try to get in the right one, Los Angeles characters glare at you and belt past as if they were trying to put you over the parapet. Every now and then, in rush hours, everything comes to a dead stop, and you sit there with miles of immobilized automobiles as if you were all parked waiting to get into heaven.
If you want to see Hollywood, peel off at the sign that says Hollywood and there you are, on a nice, wide, comparatively quiet street, Hollywood Boulevard, just a few blocks from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where
movie people leave their footprints in wet cement, often with little notes telling one another what great guys they are. You might want to look around Los Angeles for a day or two. The American Automobile Association tour book lists 32 hotels and 157 motels in the Los Angeles area.
Some city-haters, including, probably, quite a few natives of Los Angeles, will yelp derisively at this, but I think Los Angeles would be a good place to spend a month or two in the winter, particularly if, like me, you can stand just so much peace and quiet and the postcard prettiness of resort towns. It’s full of junk stores and auctioneers’ rooms and second-hand book shops, probably because it’s the mecca for people who are moving all the time. The last copy of Ernest Thompson CONTINUED ON PAGE 48
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Escape to the sun continued from page 44
I met a movie star by a most ingenious method» S drove up to her house and rang the door bell
Seton’s Woodcraft I ever saw was in Los Angeles. It has a huge central library, a faded old downtown area, and, if you can scrape up an acquaintance with anyone remotely connected with the movie industry and arrange to visit a studio, it’s a lot of fun. I'm a movie fan myself from way back and very naïve about watching for movie stars. It’s all I can do to keep from asking for their autographs. One time a few years ago when I was working on a story, a newspaper columnist, to whom I took an instant dislike, told me I’d be arrested if I tried to see a movie star at home. I chose Jane Russell as a test case and started out cold, without letters or introductions, to see her. I did it by a very ingenious method. I drove up to her house and rang the bell. She came to the door in an old sweatshirt and blue jeans, looking very short. 1 had an affable talk with her and got her to sign my kids' autograph books.
I might as well tell you, right now. how 1 feel about California: 1 mean.
Southern California, which is what most people mean, whether they realize it or not. when they look out the windows of their northern homes at the snowdrifts and socked-in sky and say, “Some day I'm going to California.” The place was summed up once and for all, as far as I'm concerned, by the late Fred Allen when he went there briefly, after a lifetime in New York, and reported on his return: “California is a wonderful place to live, if you're an orange.”
I can’t get used to the people or the way of life, but my reasons are personal and probably offbeat and i wouldn't want to mislead you. California is a beautiful state, with the most comfortable yearround climate in North America. It's warm, sunny and virtually bug-free, with enough zing in the air at night to keep
northerners happy. It’s almost all desert, with an open network of highways and towns near the coast. It offers the greatest variety of scenery of any state (or province). Within a drive of an hour or two from Los Angeles, you can be in desert, in mountains, or on a seacoast so beautiful that it makes you sad; you can pick dates; you can pick up snow, feel it and put it down again; you can camp in lonely canyons that give you the feeling that you’ve gone back to the beginning of the world; you can buy pottery in Mexico; you can watch whales breaching out in the Pacific, white-faced range cattle feeding on burro sage, or sea lions swimming in the kelp close to shore and looking like bald old men. In fact, whenever 1 start to think of California I have to remind myself all over again that I don't like it.
If you decide to keep on through Los Angeles, just stay on the freeway until you come to the signs for the Santa Ana freeway. Veer off on this and you’ll go through a limbo of low-cost houses spreading to the horizon, and finally come to Santa Ana, a melancholy little town in the hills with streets bordered by grey-barked walnut trees. A short drive on State 55 from Santa Ana will bring you out at the ocean again just south of Newport Beach. I drove to the small-boat harbor there, talked to two little girls paddling around on a kind of surfboard, and asked them if they wanted their picture taken. The one in the bow said instinctively, "My hair’s a mess." I convinced her that she looked beautiful, took her picture and headed down U S. 101 for Laguna Beach.
I lived in Laguna Beach once. It's perched on the hills overlooking Catalina Island and is one of the most charming towns on the continent. A lot of C'ana-
Rates were so high Ï stayed in some motels that could have been settings for the movie Psycho
ciians spend their winters there. Be sure to park your car and walk down to the shore. It’s a spectacular stretch of jutting rock cliffs and sandy coves with underwater caves that moan when a big Pacific roller heaves up the cliffs, and little recessions in the surface of the rocks that capture tide water. They're miniature marine worlds with their own sea plants and animal life, and looking into them is like peering into a clear, natural aquarium. Do this before you look for a motel, because that's when you’re going to realize that Laguna Beach is like a high-priced hostess: breathtakingly charming until you're short a buck, then she's suddenly talking to somebody else.
One time my wife asked a friend if a certain house there was for sale. The friend looked at her a bit surprised and said, ‘‘Every house in l aguna is for sale if you have the price.''
On this trip. I talked to a retd-estate woman who said she’ll once had a big four-room occanfront house to rent for the year for $375 a month. But she didn't gel a tenant for a whole year. Instead, she got one for June for $800; another one for July for $1,000: another for August for $1,200: one for September for $700 and another for October for $500. I just mention this as a bit of malicious gossip. Actually you have a fair chance of renting a nice house in Laguna, from October to May. for $100 to $150 a month. Motel rates are high. 1 entered foyers surrounded by green fountains and flaming Torches of Truth and was quoted $25 a night for four people so often that I kept down the highway a few miles to Dana Point. I didn't make a killing there, either. I got two rooms in a second-rate place for $14 and went to sleep trying to remember the Si i 1 saved and forget the worn rug. brown walls and faint smell of mold.
I found motel rates all through the south ridiculously high. 1 was quoted $16. $18 and $25 for four people, and averaged $15 a night only because I took some places that could have been settings for the movie Psycho. Rates are so high, in fact, that I’d suggest doing what other people I know have done, and thoroughly enjoyed: camping in state parks for $1 a night. There are sixty-seven state parks in California alone. I know the motel owners will argue that they have to pay much more than they used to for their supplies and help. They probably do. too. To me, $16 is too much to pay to bed down my family on a highway with transports sounding as if they’re going under my bed, very little service, and often no eating place for a mile or more.
One other thing about motels: try to stop at least an hour before dusk. First, because motels now seem to fill up very early; second, because you can't tell what you’re getting in the dark. You’ll drive into a place with neon signs fifteen feet high, an illuminated swimming pool, palms, and a dolled-up office, and. when you get in the room, gradually begin to notice that the paint is peeling, everything is buckled, bent, soaked and second rate. You can go back to the office and say the place is a dump, of course, and that you want your money back, but you won’t.
Be on the lookout for a type of cottage motel, usually run by the owners and often a bit dated-looking on the outside, but fixed up tastefully inside, kept clean and priced far below the going rates just because it doesn’t look like the Taj Mahal. You won't find many, i can tell you where one is: the Chantilly in Santa Rosa, Cali-
fornia. If you can’t find one of these, stay at a brand-new motel whenever you can. Nobody's had a chance to louse it up yet. And don't be fooled by those gay, dainty strips of paper across the toilet seal assuring you that your health is being scientifically guarded: or wax-paper-covered glasses, or fancy soap wrappers. These things cost about a penny a thousand, and I've seen them in places where I slept on top of the sheets on the theory that it wonkl be easier to spot any predatory wildlife.
From Laguna Beach you can drive another seventy-five miles down the coast. You'll pass the Mission San Juan Capistrano. where you can prowl around pretending you're living in another age before the discovery of transistor radios and power mowers. You’ll come to La Jolla, which has the same spectacular rocky type of shore as Laguna, and finally San Diego. While you're there, if you like zoos, you won't want to miss the one in Balboa Park.
It's so clear you misjudge distance
I drove as far south as Laguna Beach, but I cut back northeast because 1 wanted to go to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. If you want to do this, lake the canyon road out of Laguna to the Santa Ana freeway, north to Fustin, get onto highway 91 to Barstow and Baker and you're well launched into the desert.
The desert, for me. is one of the most fascinating parts of the continent. Desert weather in the winter is much like elear, crisp early autumn weather in Canada. It is perpetually sunny, with a deep blue sky anil air so clear that distances are deceptive. If you throw a pebble at an object twenty or thirty feet away, it will fall quite a bit short, because you're used to judging distances through hazier atmospheres. The air is so dry that a wet sheet hung on a clothesline will be bone dry in ten minutes. On a picnic, by the time you've helped yourself to your second sandwich it will feel like toast. There’s a big difference between day and night temperatures. Nights can be very nippy. You can get sixty degrees in the afternoon and hoar frost in the morning, and when you step out of your motel and
sniff the air. you’ll half expect to smell fallen leaves, but. instead, you’ll get a delicate whiff of sage and sand, which, in great quantities, has its own scent, like the ocean.
There’s nothing much you can do about the desert but look at it. Little of it looks the way deserts are supposed to look, with those rolling dunes that Ronald Colman used to ride around with the Foreign Legion. One of the few places you can see dunes is Yuma, which you go through on U. S. 80 out of San Diego. I've run up and down these dunes with my kills and they're just the way they look—soft, deep sand that flows down behind you like taffy. But most of the desert is a sort of sunbaked rubble of rocks, rimmed by distant blue, bare mountains, furrowed by arroyos, and often deceptively green because you're looking over sparsely spaced scrub at a low angle.
Personally, I could look at the desert for a long time without losing interest. I once lived for a wdiile in a little town in the Mojave Desert called Needles, which I'll always connect with fiercclooking lean-jawed Navajos walking the streets on Saturday night wearing witches' hats and clothbound pigtails. I used to go for walks in the desert, carefully recording my trail, build little fires down in an arroyo and sit there listening to the silence and feeling as if I'd just stepped out of the nose cone of a rocket on the moon. Incidentally, between Needles and Blythe there’s a peculiar, primordial strip of desert where, in the middle of nowhere, you can see one of the huge human figures, scraped out of the surface of the desert, that were recently identified as effigies made by Indians to hex or propitiate a child-eating female monster who apparently caused the boys a lot of sleepless nights.
If you like something active, though, the desert is a great place for riding, which you can do to your heart's content if you're inclined that way, in which case I have nothing more to say to you. I start to tremble with sheer fright just looking at a saddle. Flowever there are many guest ranches in the desert, and a few spots such as Palm Springs, a quiet, expensive ($300 to $400 a month for a housekeeping unit) resort of swimming
pools and branches of Los Angeles stores on smart palm-lined streets, in the midst of a lot of dude ranches where rich people play cowboy.
I stayed overnight in Barstow. Next day I drove to Baker, and turned onto State 127 to Shoshone, which is at the beginning of Death Valley. The route from Baker to Shoshone is through remote. lonely territory. And that reminds me: don't lake shortcuts in the desert. Stay on the routes everyone else uses. Cars will be passing you both ways. You'll pass filling stations, towns and motels and still be in touch with your fellow man. But try taking some fancy shortcut and you'll probably realize with a start, for the first time in your life, what it means to be alone. I know, because I've taken a shortcut in the desert, in the summer. After I'd driven for about ten miles I realized that the desert had changed character, stopped being picturesque and become mean looking, with the sand drifting across the road until in spots the pavement was about five feet wide, and it suddenly struck me that I was out alone on a fifty-nine-mile stretch of nothing.
1 don't mean nothing but a few cabins and Frostee Freeze stands. I mean nothing but hundreds of scorching square miles of sand. I realized with an abruptness that started my knees knocking that if I broke a fan belt, my wife and two daughters, who were the color of tomatoes. couldn't find a patch of shatie bigger than a saucer, unless they crawled under the car, where the state troopers would probably find them sometime around Christmas. It was the longest fifty-nine miles I’ve ever driven and I don't recommend it.
The highway to Shoshone, however, is a main route to Death Valley and in winter you'll have plenty of tourists to keep you company. I talked to an old prospector in Shoshone. I'd heard a lot of theories about the safe way to handle summer thirst in the desert, some of them involving salt tablets and hot tea. He gave me his method, which I'll never forget. He said whenever you get thirsty you should drink water. He also gave me some interesting stories of the desert. He said that one day in town he had seen fifteen Piute Indian women sitting in a row on a bench, all drunk. He also told me that young prospectors weren't what they used to be ami that now they won't prospect anywhere they can’t reach by car.
You'll take the highway going west from Shoshone, begin losing altitude and come out in a bleak, desolate, mountainrimmed trough ten to twenty-five miles wide. 140 miles long, over a sixth of it below sea level. You’ll pass white-rimmed pools of Glauber's salt. Hpsom salts anil common table salt. If you want to appreciate the sight more while you're going through it at sixty or seventy miles an hour, think about the early adventurers who first headed across it on foot without knowing where they were going. The average annual precipitation for fifteen years has been 2.03 inches. Summer temperatures have reached 134 in the shade — a world record until 1922 when Fd Azizia in Libya reported 136.4—-with summer ground temperatures in the sun going up around 180 degrees, or 32 degrees below the water in your kettle when you're ready to make tea.
But from November to March midday temperatures in Death Valley average between 65 to 75, nights 40 to 50. There are four places accommodating winter guests in the valley: Stove Pipe Wells Flotel, Scotty’s Castle, Wild Rose Station
Resort, and Furnace Creek Inn. You'll come to Furnace Creek Inn after driving about fifty miles up the east side of the valley (it's 69 miles from Shoshone). This is a terraced Fred Harvey resort hotel with an enormous swimming pool. The rates are $36 to $45 a day with meals. Guests go on breakfast rides and steak fries accompanied by a band that plays western music, which would send me wandering off into the desert to die. but maybe you like it. At Furnace Creek Ranch nearby, you can stay in a cabin for $5 a day ($7.50 for two people) and eat at the ranch or inn, or take a furnished housekeeping cabin for $10. Either way. I can’t think of a better thing to do while it’s snowing in Canada.
I headed out of the valley on State 190 to Death Valley Junction, then State 29 to Lathrop Wells, and from there took IJ. S. 95 to Las Vegas. This is a highway on which you’ll be tempted to see what your car will do, as it’s like driving over a great bowling alley. 1 reached l.as Vegas at night, was quoted $20 for a family room by a New York woman who never stopped talking from the time she said, “May 1 help you sir?” until she hollered after me, "I’ll rent it in a minute to the next potty.” 1 got a room with two double beds for $16 in a good motel run by an unpleasant woman from Tennessee in hair curlers who, after saying that prices “fluctuate,” stated as flatly as a faro dealer that she charged whatever the traffic would bear. But the place was fronted by a thin, completely charming Mexican girl who chain-smoked thoughtfully and sold us the first room we saw by saying hardly anything.
The environs of Las Vegas are lit up with signs advertising big-name entertainment, but I had no inclination for night clubs. What I wanted was to play the casinos downtown and 1 was there bright and early in the morning losing money. They’re all within a few downtown blocks, they never close, there are no doors on them, the whole front is open to the street and any time I’ve seen them they’ve looked like Eaton's main floor at Christmas time, with the slug machines sounding as if you were standing inside a colossal calculating machine, which, indeed, you are. Wandering around downtown, I came to a place called the Silver Palace, which was up for lease, completely equipped. I was told that you can rent it for $15,000 a month if you’re interest-
ed and have about a quarter of a million dollars.
In Las Vegas you can keep going all night, gamble in bars, grocery stores, coke stands, motel lobbies. The place is given over to gambling. The American Automobile Association tour book says it is “a noted vacation centre of the country” and that within thirty-five miles there are swimming, sunbathing, riding, tennis, golf and mountain climbing in a region of “scenic beauty,” and I’ll take their word for it. I also understand that people stay in Las Vegas itself for a holiday, but for me I can’t imagine anything worse than living there longer than it takes to get over a hangover.
Here’s one you shouldn’t miss
If you feel the same way, take U. S. 95 south. You’ll come to Searchlight. Nevada, an unsponsored, ghastly little ghost town of abandoned shacks and flapping rusted tin. Searchlight is a place you shouldn’t miss, if for no other reason than that you’ll never again complain of the place you live in, wherever it is. I found an old upright piano in an abandoned house, on which I tried out my three chords in C and scintillating right hand, had a malted milk in a big modern bar-restaurant-casino, and drove south to where I could take Nevada State 77 and Arizona State 68 across Davis Dam and the Colorado to U. S. 66 to Kingman, Ash Fork, and Williams, Arizona. At Williams 1 turned north on Arizona State 64 to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon is a national park, it’s primarily a place tourists visit during the summer, but the park is open all year. In winter temperatures are in the fifties in the daytime. They’re cooler at night— so coo! sometimes that you can get a light snowfall, which might make you wonder why I’m telling you to go there. But there’s a big difference between being in, say, Toronto in winter and in a dry, open land of constant sunshine where any snow evaporates like frost and daytime temperatures are like those on a beautiful October day in the north. The hotel, lodges and cabins at the Grand Canyon are run by the Fred Harvey organization and they’re open all year. A single with bath costs $9 at the hotel. The dining room is closed in winter, but there are dining facilities in the nearby lodge. The guest lodges ($8 with bath or shower)
are of log and stone construction and are heated and open all year. One of the activities that continue into the winter is the ride by mule train down into the canyon, restricted to people “physically fit. weighing not more than 200 pounds, and not too advanced in years.” I managed to convince my family that I came within the category of restrictions, much to the disgust of my daughters, who didn’t seem bothered by the idea of being perched on a mide on a three-foot ledge a mile above the Colorado. Don’t let me influence you, though. Thousands of people take these trips and enjoy them. As it was, I enjoyed just looking across the Grand Canyon, an awesome spectacle.
But you’re in for even a better one when you go back to Williams and continue on route 66 to Flagstaff, then follow U. S. Alternate 89 south to Oak Creek Canyon — better in the sense that it’s smaller and easier to take in. You wind down from 1,500 feet to the canyon floor, between brilliantly colored cliffs, pine, cypress and juniper, rocky gorges and buttes and come to State 79. Make a left onto this and in about twentytwo miles you’ll come to one of the most interesting things on the trip — Montezuma Castle National Monument. The “castle” (a silly name, by the way) is the ruins of cliff dwellings built by Pueblo Indians during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. You can climb up a ladder into these ancient apartments. 1 had a special reason for crawling into one of the caves as I arrived at the park in the still of evening at the same time as a completely uncivilized family with one little boy who made more noise than an entire Indian raiding party and who must have had any ghosts of the Pueblos who remained there looking down on him fondly, knowing that at last they'd had their revenge on the white man.
You'll come out on State 69, which you'll follow right to Phoenix, and there I’d just as soon leave you and pick you up farther on. Phoenix is the biggest and best-known place in the desert. It's not only where people go for the winter, but where people go with their possessions prepared to settle down for good without ever having to shovel snow again. After their first summer in Phoenix, which gets as hot as a fried egg, they are back in Canada, and often, after the first winter back in Canada, back in Phoenix. The city is loaded with every kind of accom-
modation. It's the hub of a lot of interesting drives around the desert, including the ones I've been talking about. I just happen to be prejudiced because although I love the desert, a city in the desert looks just like a city anywhere else, with the additional reason, in this case, that Phoenix happens to be a particularly flat, dull city. But maybe you'll want to stay there with the thousands of other visitors who go there for a comfortable, sunny winter climate.
If you don't, take U. S. 70 through Globe to Lordsburg, New Mexico, and on by way of U. S. 80 to El Paso. Texas. In general, what you'll do in Texas is just drive and drive and drive and wonder as you sit behind the wheel how Texas ever managed to peddle itself into such a legend. I branched off U. S. 80 at Van Horn onto U. S. 90 and drove through an agricultural area and finally through green hilly territory I'd never seen before, and on to Del Rio on the Mexican border.
Veteran Mexico travelers will laugh you to scorn if you tell them this, but if you haven't seen Mexico, park your car at the U. S. end of the international bridge that crosses the Rio Grande and take the bus from Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña for thirty-five cents. You can visit Mexico and be out of it again in an hour, without even having to eat a taco (something hot and unpleasant between what tastes like two pieces of unsalted cardboard). If you look as much like a tourist as 1 do you'll be surrounded by a crowd of bright barefooted kids who somehow manage to talk to you although neither of you understands what the other is saying, and who do everything but follow you on their hands and knees trying to shine your shoes. Everybody is trying to sell you something, just as in Canada or the States, but doing it more honestly and openly. You'll see poverty and squalor comparable to nothing you've experienced — bars that look as if they're patronized exclusively by international fugitives, dark, crooked ramshackle streets, rutted mud roads, beautiful haughty-looking girls, poolhalls, wood carvings of meditating monks, jewelry, leatherwork, pottery for a fifth of the price it would cost you in Canada, murky adobe houses that would make the farthest corner in your cellar look as wholesome and hygienic as a milk bar. Yet you'll have the feeling, somehow, that the people there still have hold of something human and merry and valuable that we progressive people are burying under one dull desert of shopping plazas.
When you leave Del Rio. follow U. S. 90 to San Antonio where, if you have kids like mine, you’ll park outside the old mission and fort named the Alamo (by a troop of soldiers after a Mexican town named Alamo del Parras) and go in and read about Davy Crockett. Then stay on U. S. 90 to a town called Scaly, take State 36 and U. S. Alternate 90 to Sugar Land, then State 6 to Galveston. You don’t have to do this, understand. You can stay on U.S. 90 to Houston, but 1 wanted to gel down to the Gulf.
If you follow the route I took, you get a free, refreshing ride on a car ferry that deposits you on State 87. which runs so close to the shore that there's just a dune and a beach between you and the water. I followed this road to a place called Sabine Pass and up to Port Arthur and Orange. I followed it at night through an ugly, fantastic world of oil refineries and petrochemical plants belching lire and looking like the combined preparations of the Martians and Venusians for an invasion of Earth.
The next day I took U.S. 90. 165 and 190 to Baton Rouge and U.S. 61 into New Orleans, which has one of the
world’s biggest bohemias. It's also probably the world’s most dilapidated bohemia, a peeling, moldy old warren of bars, burlesques and nightspots barely kept apart by narrow streets and rusted, rickety balconies. New Orleans has had a long time to figure out how to misbehave itself. I have a friend who went there on an insurance agents’ convention and for weeks after, during his spare moments, he just sat looking aghast at his recollections. If you want to zigzag through some of the classical streets of jazz, turn left off Canal Street onto Basin Street to Congo Square (now Beauregard Square), where jazz began. right on St. Peter, right on North Rampart, left on Iberville, left on Burgundy. right on Esplanade, right on Dauphine, left on Bienville, left on Bourbon, right on Esplanade, right on Royal, right on Canal, where you can keep going up to Broad Avenue, which is U. S. 90 east out of New Orleans. But 1 wouldn't leave right away if I were you. There’s a lot to see in New Orleans if you have the time, including Mardi Gras, which starts two weeks before the beginning of Lent.
I left New Orleans late in the afternoon and followed right along the Gulf shore until it was dark, when I found a nasty little motel outside Bay St. Louis,
Mississippi, near where the pirate Jean Lafitte was supposed to have hung out a hundred and fifty years ago. He could have stayed in the motel 1 stayed at without being found for quite a while, and judging by the shape of the stained rug on the floor I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. I left with a shudder in the morning. followed U. S. 90 through the rest of Mississippi and the short stretch of Alabama that touches the Gulf, crossed the Florida state line and drove into an information booth for free Florida orange juice for the family.
There are a lot of people who don't like Florida. They think it's fiat and uninteresting, and little more than a swamp. I've always liked it. but then I've always liked swamps. I think they're beautiful and interesting and better than tranquilizers for slowing you down to the pace of a form of pond life which, if the theors of evolution is true, you originally were. Around the coastal waterways of Florida you can. and often will, drive past half a dozen or more snowy egrets and American egrets posing on one leg in pink water. You'll see towering cloud formations over the ocean and giant stage-effects of lighting. The state is full of wildlife: armadillos (which can run like rabbits). Florida spotted skunks that do a peculiar little handstand to gel in firing position, raccoons and possum. If you're lucky, although it happens very rarely in winter and hardly oftener in summer, you'll come across a snake. Most of the snakes are harmless, helpful to man. and eager to get away from you as fast as possible. You'll see mockingbirds. Florida jays, flickers, wrens and migrating robins and a big variety of gulis anti terns. You'll see porpoises playing inside translucent
green combers on the Atlantic and coming up^ the inland waterways in schools, surfacing to puff like fat people at the top of the stairs. You'll see seven-foot sharks washed up on shore, three-foot turtles and an almost endless variety of sea life, and watch flotillas of pelicans patrol the beach. They're the supreme soarers of them all. so skilled at using updrafts that sometimes you feel they could stay up there all day without moving a wing.
The coastal part of the state is just about given over to the winter tourist business, with the result that accommodation is plentiful. You can live for very 'little in town apartments and rooms, but for me there's no point in going to Florida if you're not within a couple of minutes' walk of the ocean. To stay anywhere near the shore isn't cheap. To take just one example from the town where I stay. New Smyrna Beach, the San Marino Cottages —which aren't cottages but well-furnished concrete-block units right on the dunes —offers a housekeeping unit for four people, with living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath, for $85 to $150 a week from January 15 to April 20 and from June I to Sept. 10 (35 to 45 percent less in the off seasons).
Winter weather is nearly always sunny. Much of the time it's like a perfect August day in Canada. Much of the time, during the frequent cold spells, it's like a clear, nippy early November day in Canada. with the difference that if you live on the Atlantic coast it may be accompanied by a biting wind from the northeast. But another difference, on the good sitie of the ledger, is that the Florida sunshine remains powerful, and if you get out of the wind and sit in the sun you'll be peeling off the jacket you thought you needed. The west coast is more sheltered from winds. The farther down Florida you go the warmer it gets. Anywhere north of halfway up the peninsula the temperature, in extreme weather, can touch freezing at night. You won't see snow again until you start back for Canada. That’s what Florida winters are like and I don’t want to hear any more about it.
If you haven’t seen Florida before. I'd suggest you make a tour right around the state, which won't take long, as it’s only about 400 miles long and 100 miles wide. You should see Miami Beach, which is the most supercolossal, stupendous, flabbergasting spectacle of Greek statuary, colored fountains and sharp-eyed bellhops in North America, and when you've seen it, you'll probably want to keep going right out of it. Take the trip down to Key West, which is so far from the continental United States that you'll feel as if you’re visiting the West Indies, and you almost are, as you're only about ninety miles north of Havana.
There’s no way to come back from Key West but the way you went there, unless your car is amphibious. When you’re back in Miami, head up the Atlantic coast through Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Take the causeway across to Palm Beach itself and have a look at it. All these east-coast beaches, by the way. are separated from the corresponding town on the highway by the Indian River, an inlet from the ocean, and can be reached only by turning east across a bridge or causeway or both. There is a highway. Al A, that runs up most of the coast right on the shore, but although there are some long stretches of it. it’s not continuous and you have to keep coming back to the mainland and U. S. 1. When you're up near Melbourne you can cross over to Cape Canaveral, but you won't get close enough to see any missiles, unless they happen to fire one when you're in the vicinity.
If you continue up the east coast through Daytona and St. Augustine, you’ve given Florida a pretty good going over except for one part that you should see. either on this trip or on a separate trip later on. That’s the interior of Florida, which takes in such places as Winter Haven and Orlando and Ocala. You'll see citrus groves and cattle ranches, woods and hills, and a country with an entirely diflerent character than the coastal resort areas.
In St. Augustine, you can make up your mind whether you're going to stay for
a while in Florida. If you're wondering where my family and I went after the last time 1 told you where we were, 1 didn't go anywhere. I'm still in Florida and I'm going to stay here until the weather warms up in Canada. Sometimes when 1 sit watching the mockingbirds quarreling in the palmetto scrub and listen to the palm fronds rattle and the lonely sound of the waves. I'm swept with nostalgia for one of those days in Toronto when the snow starts drifting in around four in the afternoon, muffling the sound of the trallic and making the
street lights blurry, and have a sudden longing to return to my own frozen people. Then I pull myself together, go down to the shore and watch the picnickers building flies for beach suppers, maybe stick out the toe of my shoe and do a little sparring with a crab that has wandered up on the shore (I realized the other day why you can never sneak up behind them: their eyes are on the end ot little poles) or gather enough coquinas for some chip-chip soup, look out over the ocean and decide to stay and make the best of it. +