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Florida Road Trip

Florida Road Trip

Skyscanner travel writing competition May 2011: 2nd Place

Florida Road Trip

by Jenny Woolf

Yesterday, Tommy had shown me his favourite gun, ready-loaded in the drawer along with the rattlesnake skeletons and alligator-teeth souvenirs. And now, at 5 a.m, I am lying unprotected in this flimsy place, with my daughter sleeping nearby. Trucks roar incessantly outside. I’ve been woken by a shattering crash.

I slip from my bunk, creep across the splintery floor in the dark. Outside, a lone security light illuminates a tatty ’89 Acura on the asphalt, engine running. Two beer-drinking men lounge nearby.

I check the locks again. They’re like toys. The rattling doors are warped and thin, the wind’s rising, it’s nearly too hot to breathe.

Back in England, a last minute fly-drive in Orlando had seemed like a terrific idea. "Try the other Florida" the ads said. Boiled peanuts by the roadside, alligators in the swamps, real people, sea, sunshine reality beyond Orlando’s suburban plazas.

Hadn’t thought this seaside would be quite so scary, though. Folks really do shoot first here: Bobby’s earlier love rival haunts the local bars in his wheelchair, having lost his legs as well as his girl to Bobby. And nowhere to sleep, cause it’s packed with guests attending the redneck wedding of the century.

No, not quite true. One motel has vacancies. But it resembles a Thai prison with concrete floors and frightening massed locks on battered doors, looks like somewhere people disappear forever. Sleep in the car? Dangerous, around here. Storm-clouds roll across the evening sky, we drive and drive beneath jiving neon signs, my daughter’s face growing ever more apprehensive.

The backpackers’ hostel’s amiable, anyhow. Shabby breezeblock and chipboard with a worn-out, unswept, crunchy floor. Once a motel, its half-derelict wooden cabins stretch to the sea, and the semi-residents hang ragged curtains and fasten huge metal padlocks onto their doors.

It’s frail as a house of cards in the night wind, I’ve never been in a building this rickety. Sullen waves encroach on dark sand.

The men outside are shouting now. Suddenly they dive into the car and drive with a skid and a crunch into the nonstop night stream of highway trucks. They leave behind empty asphalt, pounding ocean, ceaseless traffic, whining wind and mosquitoes.

Next morning I feel dead, more or less. Hardly slept at all, hoping my kid’s okay here and nobody will creep in. Dark grey skies roll with clouds, mirroring a stormy sea. It’s turned very chilly.

We go downstairs. The floor’s littered with a nightmare of smashed crockery. A bum in faded shorts sits amidst the mess, eating a chocolate muffin.

"Hi" he greets cheerfully. "Big storm’s coming!"

“How did this happen?” I ask. But he just stares at the broken crockery, and shrugs.

The fryer’s full of shards, clattering like rattlesnake skeletons. Should I clean up, or just get the hell out?

No, I think, with sudden determination. This is what I came to see. I’m outside the suburban malls and safe Disney stuff, in The Real Florida. Genuine, authentic boiled-peanuts, snake-heaven seaside Florida. This is it.

I throw the broken crocks into the trash, fill the pan with water and carefully measure us some grits from the pack waiting by the stove. It’s a new travelling day.

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