This felt strange; new territory. Not the plane on which I found myself but the significance of where I was heading. Ask any of my fellow passengers onboard that late-afternoon flight out of London Gatwick and they would have told you that our destination was Orlando, Florida. I, on the other hand, would have given a different response: I had no idea of where I was going. That flight was the first of many to come and I was barely able to contain my excitement as I sat and wondered where the journey would take me.
I had booked that particular flight on a whim when, having joked with a friend about joining them at the Daytona 500, I learnt that the seat next to them remained unsold. It suddenly became obvious what I should do and, within an hour, I had paid for the ticket and held reservations with Virgin Atlantic and Hertz. The remainder of the plans had come together much later and almost by accident. All I wanted was a flight to Singapore but it was cheaper to book a Round the World ticket; it seemed silly to waste an opportunity!
Although I have yet to give notice at work, speeding down the runway and taking to the air felt as if it marked the true beginning of my adventure. I finished my complimentary Jack Daniels and Coke and pulled the huge printed itinerary from my jacket pocket; glancing down the list of destinations left my head in a spin. I clicked the button above my head for an attendant and ordered another drink to help me get to grips with where I was heading. As I opened the packet of pretzels and popped one of the freakishly hard pastries into my mouth I couldn’t help but wonder if it was symbolic: had I bitten off more than I could chew?
Taking twelve months off to go travelling isn’t unheard of but the truth of the matter is that it is usually the domain of students or those in their twenties. Up until two of years ago I had made just one return journey on a commercial airline, I had only been out of work for six weeks of my life and, frankly, I was no longer in my twenties. I knew that it would see quite a change in my life - why else would I have finally decided to follow a long-held dream to travel - but perhaps I had underestimated how big a test it would put me to. Still, as a good friend always tells me, everything happens for a reason.
Ten hours after leaving the cold of the British winter, I found myself at the wheel of a white convertible Ford Mustang; I sported a big grin as I sped across the state on Interstate. Was it the comfortable heat of a Florida evening, the beautiful moonlit sky all around or the fact that I was heading to meet up with an old friend that left me with such a feeling of contentment? It was likely to have been a mix of all three.
Tired from the long day I was relieved when, after a couple of hours behind the wheel, I finally pulled to a stop in the parking lot off University Parkway, Sarasota. I closed the roof of the car and made my way to the Coach and Horses bar where Kate and her husband, Nick, were hard at work. The bar had always offered a great atmosphere - especially the welcome I would receive from Kate and Nick - but this evening there was a very special atmosphere. It was quite obvious that the two of them would soon be joined by a new addition and I don’t mean a new member of bar staff.
I have been lucky enough to have known Kate for several years but at no point during that time have I ever looked at her as someone who could keep quiet. So it would come as quite a shock to walk inside and see her grinning back at me from behind the bar: five-months pregnant. Although I had been awake for well over 24-hours by the time that it finally drew to a close, it would be quite an evening: helped along nicely by their refusal to accept me settling my bar bill.
Any hopes of an early recovery from my jetlag were dashed when I was woken early the next morning for our drive to SeaWorld. I really didn’t want to appear ungrateful for our planned day out but, as we retraced my route of the previous evening, it struck me that perhaps I should have spent the night in an Orlando motel and, fresh from a good nights sleep, met up with the pair at the breakfast table. In the end, whatever the logistics of my arrival, we enjoyed a great day out and I gleefully grabbed the opportunity to wander around in shorts and T-shirt with both hands. As we sat down to eat later that evening it was very nearly Kate who was grabbing something with both hands: the neck of our server. Thankfully she refrained. She really was a changed woman!
I would spend the next three days lounging around the apartment, catching up with Kate, drinking the profits of the Coach and Horses and generally being lazy. Having spent every spare hour of the past month planning for my big trip it was great to find myself forced to slow down and take stock of the situation that I had been rushing headlong into. I showed Kate my itinerary and she seemed somehow more excited about it than I did; it still felt a little surreal. By my third day in Sarasota it felt like time to give my hosts some space so I woke early and hopped into the car for a day trip down to Sanibel Island. By the end of the day, as I sat and watched the sun set over the 14-miles of shell-strewn beach, it was finally sinking in: this would be my life for the next year. It was a path that I had chosen to go down and to sit around feeling nervous about it and worrying about what might or might not happen was plain stupid. All of a sudden I had dispensed with the doubts and couldn’t wait to get on with my travels.
After a final night in Sarasota it was time to leave one final time and, after breakfast at the ‘Broken Egg’, I found myself crossing the state on Interstate 4 once more. I soon arrived back in Orlando but, unlike most of my compatriots who flock to the area, I had no intention of visiting any of the sprawling theme parks which dot the area. My aim was to take advantage of the strength of the Pound and stock up with the outdoor clothes and camping supplies that I would need over the coming months. My first stop would be the huge International Drive outlet mall where I enjoyed some success but it wasn’t until I arrived at the huge outdoor store in Altamonte Springs that I really struck gold. I spent less than two-hundred Dollars but emerged, a full hour later, with armfuls of bargains and a feeling of contentment.
Time was pressing on so I checked myself into the nearby Holiday Inn for the night. It was here that all the planning and booking of the past month finally started to come together. Having booked my flights several weeks ago, it came as something of a relief when I was finally able to get the event website to work long enough for me to lay my hands on some very good tickets for the Singapore Grand Prix. As I clicked on the confirm button I could feel eyes on me and looked around to find the desk clerk grinning at me across the hotel lobby. He apologised for staring and went on to explain how he was a huge race fan and, being a native Singaporean himself, was desperate to return home for the race himself.
It should have felt odd that a stranger was taking such an interest in my plans but we were soon chatting away about the race, his family and his reasons for leaving the country. When I joked that I might just have to go and stay with his family, due to the lack of sensibly priced hotel rooms, he smiled and beckoned me over to his desk. With the click of a few keys he managed to achieve what I had spent a month failing to do. Initially the cost for three nights in the Atrium SIngapore were coming back at the same rates as I had been quoted previously but, when he suddenly entered his staff discount code, the cost plummeted from 4,000 Singapore Dollars to less than half that figure. As he turned to me with a knowing smile I could have kissed the man but, although it was Valentines Day, I resisted the temptation which was probably a good thing as he might not have gone on to give me a voucher for a free breakfast in the hotel restaurant. It had been a very fruitful evening and the relief to finally have my plans for that leg of the trip finalised set me up nicely for the final few days in Florida.
I followed a long lie-in with a huge complimentary breakfast before making my way towards Titusville. I had previously arranged to meet up with Simon and Tabby at the Manatee Hammock Campground on the outskirts of town where we planned to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle from just across the Indian River. Unfortunately, thanks mechanical gremlins, our plans had been thwarted so I spent the afternoon exploring the nearby Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum instead. I found the ten-acres of old warplanes a fascinating stop but was particularly fascinated by the restoration area where volunteers were working to restore a WW II bomber.
I kept half an eye on the time and, aware that we had agreed to meet at 3pm, soon found myself having to leave a museum that is so unfairly overlooked thanks to its far better known neighbour: the Kennedy Space Center. I checked in at the campground and put my tent up but, when I returned from a walk through the area, there was still no sign of the others so I decided instead to go in search of a grocery store. When I returned - the back seat of the car loaded with barbeque food and beer - I found that I still alone so I took myself down the street to the nearby American Police Hall of Fame. I hadn’t expected to be very interested - it just seemed a good way to kill time whilst I waited for the others - but was surprised to discover a fascinating museum lurking behind those inauspicious doors. I was even more surprised to be ushered out of the doors as it closed three hours later.
On my arrival back at the campground I finally met up with Simon and Tabby. They had been joined by Tabby’s mum and boyfriend so it was quite a party and it wasn’t altogether a surprise when a park ranger stopped by around 9pm and invited us to be quiet. What did come as something more of a surprise was, having turned in for an early night shortly afterwards, I was woken by a commotion outside a couple of hours later. I unzipped the door of my tent and peered outside to see a police cruiser parked outside and Simon discussing the situation loudly with a particularly vociferous Sheriff. Thinking (hoping) that I was imagining things I closed the door and went back to sleep.
When I emerged from my tent this morning it was, with the exception of a few sickly looking faces, as if nothing at all had happened the previous evening. It took a whole ten minutes before I finally asked, “Simon? Was the Sheriff here last night?” His response confirmed that I hadn’t been imagining things: it seems that they have a somewhat less relaxed view to people enjoying themselves in Florida than they do in the rest of the civilised world. I can’t be certain how close we all came to being dragged from our tents to spend the night in a cell - knowing Simon, it was pretty close - but thankfully we retained our liberty long enough for all five of us to squeeze into their rental car and tackle the drive north to Daytona Beach.
The three of us who had eaten the fried chicken last night were looking a little worse for wear this morning and were rather less keen on a breakfast stop than the two who had eaten the salad. I feel bad now that we condemned them to a sandwich from the nearby Exxon gas station but I guess that we made up for it when we made our way to the Italian restaurant opposite Daytona International Speedway this afternoon. Having shared a huge meal we were ready to face the 190,000 sell-out crowd who had assembled for the 50th running of the ‘Great American Race’ as the Daytona 500 is now promoted.
We made our way through the trade stands towards the crowds who were forming to watch sculptors putting the finishing touches to a huge multi-coloured sand sculpture. I bought a programme and, still feeling a little under the weather thanks to the dodgy chicken, decided to walk by the various bars as we made our way, soaking up the atmosphere as we walked, towards our seats alongside the safety fence at the bottom of the front stretch grandstand.
Nice as it was to sit and soak up the sun it was a relief when, at 3.30pm, the race finally got underway. The colour and noise of the crowd at the start was almost enough to outdo the cars screaming past just inches away from us at speeds of 200mph. But not even the large group of Dale Jr fans beside us could outdo the drama and excitement of the next 3 hours and 16 minutes of action on the track. All too soon the race was over and, far worse than that, Kurt Busch had managed to push his teammate into the lead just as the chequered flag fell. After three hours of cheering on Tony Stewart -demoted to third place by that late manoeuvre - I couldn’t help but feel robbed: I hadn’t come all this way to see Ryan Newman win.
On any other trip you approach the last night with dread: it is always an anti-climax as you come to terms with having to return to your everyday life back home. However this felt different: as we made our way back towards the campground I couldn’t help smile. I may be returning home tomorrow but I will only be there long enough to make final plans for the remainder of my year off. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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