The Phoenix One Journals Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America
Snowbird Motor Speedway
I'm writing this as we bound down Interstate 95, the route that takes Canada to Florida every winter and back every summer. If it weren't paved, the motor homes, travel trailers and big rigs would have carved this corridor into a grand canyon long ago.
We're in North Carolina at the moment, where pine trees line the road, interrupted only by billboards for South of the Border, a tourist mecca just over the southern boundary in Dillon, South Carolina. "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet!" exclaimed the last one in big red and yellow letters at the 103-mile marker. We'll have to stop of course. Mark is able to resist, but I happen to like good tourist traps. In fact, I love them. Where else can you buy paper weights made out of horse manure? Where else are the buildings painted brave colors like hot pink and charteuse? You can bid taste good-bye at South of the Border and shop in the Dirty Old Man's Shop, which stocks just what you'd expect plus a lot of geezer supplies you never even knew existed. Needless to say, it's never short of customers of both sexes and all ages.
Our week began not too far from here, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. We drove north over and through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 17-mile structure that includes four man-made islands, and two underwater tunnels that allow ships to pass through the channel over the road traffic. It's an odd feeling to think that a super-tanker might be floating above you as you drive along at highway speed. A huge project currently underway will double the bridge-tunnel's capacity by creating another set of bridges and tunnels identical to the existing ones.
The Bridge-Tunnel ends at the yellow-green tidal marshes of Cape Charles, where white egrets were fishing in knee deep water. A divided road runs up the middle of the narrow peninsula, allowing great views of enticing billboards for beachfront resorts, but no glimpse of the coastline itself. We had to satisfy ourselves with views of gift shops selling hams, peanuts, bacon, cigarettes, and fireworks. "I guess that sums Virginia up in most people's minds," I said. "Ham, bacon, peanuts and cigarettes. Don't know where the fireworks come in, except that they make sure that every car carrying a teen-age boy screeches to a halt."
We decided to digress from our northerly route to drive through Chincoteague. It's a popular tourist destination on the shore of Assateague Island, clothed now in autumnal quiet. Many of the restaurants were already hibernating, but one called Skipper's had a sign that said "Open Year Round." They got our business, and the resident big black dog tried to hitch a ride with us as we departed. We left her standing in the empty parking lot looking after us with mournful eyes. "She must be a New Yorker," said Mark, "She must know we're headed for Times Square."
We were indeed headed for the crossroads of the world. The third Thursday in November is the Great American Smokeout, the day the American Cancer Society kicks off its annual campaign to encourage people to quit smoking. This year, the focal point was going to be the triangle at the intersection of 44th Street and Broadway, right where the ball comes down at midnight on New Year's Eve.
or not, you can rent Times Square. The city gets $10,000 a day for this
diminutive wedge of concrete and asphalt, but don't start thinking about
having your wedding reception there. The event has to be something civic-minded
in order for the city to think about granting a permit.
Starting after dark on November 19th, workers beavered away all night to construct a raised floor over the famous triangle. We arrived in the NicoVan at about 5 a.m. to assume our designated position as part of the display. "The floor took us a lot longer than we expected to build," said the head honcho. "Can you come back in an hour or so?" We said sure, and headed for Javits Center, New York's major convention center, a few blocks away. If you ever need to park a truck in New York City, Javits Center is the place. Every truck driver knows the secret, and we joined the lineup on 12th Avenue to wait for dawn.
When we returned to Times Square, it was undergoing rapid transformation into the "Commit to Quit" Cafe, complete with yellow umbrellas, a stage, and its own clock tower. We parked, set up in our usual fashion, and watched as the day unfolded.
The NicoVan played host to the sponsors of the event as well as the two celebrity spokespersons for the Smokeout, actress Debi Mazar and model Christy Turlington. This meant that at one point, I counted no less than twenty people crammed inside it, which was twenty people more than we'd been told to expect. "No, the NicoVan won't be used by anyone, the publicity folks had said. Just keep it shut." Fortunately, we guessed better. There's no place to hide in Times Square, no place to sit, and the only rest room was a plastic privy perched on a curb. "Just wait," I said to Mark. "The NicoVan will be a beehive." I bought bagels across the street, made some fresh coffee, and prayed that our water supply would last. Everything went swimmingly, thanks in major degree to my sister Libby, who'd come into the city for the day by train to watch the festivities, and instead found herself in charge of watching a pile of handbags and an endless train of celebrity entourages. Outside, we competed with a jazz band as we talked to people about how to quit smoking. The band was winning by the time three o'clock rolled around. We'd talked to over 400 people.
Exactly at three, the "Commit to Quit" cafe slammed shut, and the same workers who'd slaved all night to construct it immediately began a rapid dismantlement. The NicoVan was soon in the way, and we pulled out to the south, looking for a way to head north to the George Washington Bridge. Yes, the Holland Tunnel would have made more sense, given the fact that we wanted to get to New Jersey, but motor homes aren't allowed there even though eighteen-wheelers are welcome. It's the propane.
It was slow going, but we finally made our way up the Manhattan grid to 168th Street. It was dark as we crossed the bridge, and a sea of taillights preceded us on the New Jersey Turnpike. When we finally arrived at the Liberty Harbor Marina in Jersey City, a quiet oasis with a splendid view of New York's skyline and the Statue of Liberty, we were, as Mark put it, "beat," but the next morning we needed to be in northern New Jersey.
And now we need to be in Orlando by tomorrow. We're closing in on "South of the Border," and the temperature is gradually rising. The trees still have colorful leaves here, and there are no snow fences, no salt domes. I begin to see why the whole Eastern seaboard tilts every October, and everyone who can rolls south. Here I am doing it, too, and it's lovely. Better yet, we're now only four miles from "South of the Border!" Life is good.
I-95, Somewhere in North Carolina
November 23, 1997