Traveling off the beaten path

Published 6:31 am Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It has been a long time since I drove to New Orleans, even before Hurricane Katrina.

With a meeting this week in the Big Easy, I decided to drive down the coast. From Donalsonville, I drove down Florida Route 2 until I could cut down to Florida Route 98. My plan was to drive the entire trip without a single mile on the interstate. That is harder than you might think these days.

Quickly I passed places of interest to me personally. Indigo Pond wasn’t just the place of my first hunt on a baited field; it was where my Dad first told me to run when we saw a game warden, telling me he would catch up with me later.

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Behind the school in Campbellton was where I first planted watermelons; 40 acres to be exact. It would be 10 years before I would learn there was no money to be made in planting this crop, especially with the increasing minimum wage and the decreasing price per pound for the melons.

I crossed the Bay Line Railroad, which kept me awake at Compass Lake many a night. Although it was just across the hill from our cabin, it seemed as if the locomotive was coming right through the back porch where the boys slept.

Coming through Graceville, I passed what was left of Jones Motor Company. It was where we traded what was left of a worn-out Thunderbird. Our daughter, Catherine, was only a year old and was sound asleep. The salesman said he didn’t need to drive the car because he didn’t want to wake the baby up. It was the best trade I ever made.

I also went by the Circle Grill. It was world famous in its time for its delicious shrimp. Our grandfather would take us down for dinner any time we made an “A” on our report card. When Ernest and I got older, we would get three platters to split between the two of us.

The Circle Grill was established in 1948. It is next to Rick’s Exhaust and Bait & Tackle. That is a strange combination if there ever was one.

Graceville was also the home of the world’s largest shelling plant when I was a kid. The Gold Kist plant was later bought out by Golden Peanut Company. The massive structure is being torn down; all eight floors. Even as a shell of its former self, it seems just as imposing as I remember.

Graceville was a town about the size of Donalsonville. It had the dubious honor of having both the Florida Bible Institute and the Chainsaw Corner Bar within its city limits.

Along the way I passed through several small towns, including Noma, Miller’s Cross Roads and Greenhead.

As the miles passed, I saw numerous open pit barbecue restaurants. You can pass from county to county and discover everyone’s secret recipe.

There were dozens, maybe hundreds of For Sale signs, offering up everything from aged trailers to tracts of pine trees.

I passed the “Red Neck Choppers” motorcycle place just before seeing the sign for the “Big Mama Hula Girl Gallery.” Surely these two places must appeal to the same clientele.

Finally I crossed Interstate 10 and went along the famous 30-A, sight of the world-renowned Seaside. Homes stuck up here and there through the wooded areas barely disguised the magnificent structures built in the last 10 years. The garages with the apartments above are as big as most homes in Southwest Georgia.

Seaside and Rosemary Beach are as far removed from the first part of my travels in Northwest Florida as can be imagined. For miles you see architecturally inspired cottages owned by people around the country and rented for huge sums to those just wanting a glimpse of the good life.

Along the way, I saw a Bay Line Railroad freight car that was being used as a pathway across a creek. I saw the Intracoastal Waterway that provides safe passage for boats up and down the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines. The big bridges built in the past few years provide safe passage during hurricanes and rough weather.

As I crossed into Alabama, I marveled that during a period of extraordinarily tight finances, the state had managed to replace the name of the governor on the Welcome Sign in less than two weeks after his inauguration. I guess it is all about priorities.

As I came into Mobile, the fog began to swallow those traveling. All the way into New Orleans, the mist grew thicker making it almost impossible to see the surrounding area.

Despite my goal of traveling all the way to New Orleans on side roads, the weather dictated that I take the interstate for the rest of the way in. There wasn’t much very interesting the rest of the way, even as the traffic moved faster. Billboards lined both sides of the four lanes with restaurants and hotels filling the bigger intersections.

Part of our history is just one exit off an interstate. The challenge we have is taking the time to travel off the beaten path.