I am driving toward the edge of the known Earth on a remote Franklin County highway. We’re going on vacation, and my old Ford is taking us there.
The speed limit is 65 mph, but we Fords just do the best we can.
I’m a Ford guy. My father and grandfather were Ford men. We Ford patrons have our critics, we’ve heard all the demeaning jokes. But we’re okay with being teased about our vehicles.
You can say what you will about our cars, but I’d rather push a Ford than drive a BMW.
This afternoon, I’m the only vehicle on this chipped, Floridian pavement. Save for a ‘78 Bronco Ranger XLT ahead with a bumper sticker that reads: “That’s not a leak, that’s just my Ford marking its territory.”
I am driving through the real Florida. I roll past Panhandle hamlets and locales the general public rarely hears about.
Port Saint Joe, Apalachicola, Eastpoint, Tate’s Hell State Forest, Carabelle, Saint Teresa, Alligator Point, the Ochlockonee Bay. Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” becomes the “Big Bend” where, mercifully, you often lose cellular service.
I check my phone. No signal. Hallelujah.
The beach house we rented this week is off the map. It’s an outdated shack, built during the Carter Administration. It’s got all the archaic fixtures you don’t see anymore.
The bedrooms are clad in honest-to-goodness shag carpet. In the kitchen is an olive drab rotary phone. They have tube TVs, and a Scrabble game that’s missing all the O’s.
There is a window-unit AC which only works if you slam your beer on it. The water heater is roughly the size of a football; hot showers last 27.3 seconds.
No cable, no internet. I’ll be writing these columns using my trusty 28-year-old portable AlphaSmart word processor—a primitive device that requires nothing but double-A batteries and a few Fonzie-at-the-jukebox slaps.
I’ve almost forgotten how good it feels to be disconnected from a busy world. I’ve forgotten a lot over the past months of pandemic.
Before this pandemic, I was a different guy. I was jovial, talkative, my waistline was smaller, and I was more fun than I am now.
Also, I had a different perspective on my fellow man. This perspective slowly changed once the world got infected and common decency became a precious commodity.
I’ve watched friends disown one another because of nonsensical disagreements. I’ve seen good people—unshakable people—suffer depression.
Not to mention the virus itself. I’ve attended funerals for the parents and grandparents of friends. My buddy, Jason, spent his birthday in the ICU fighting COVID while the man in the bed beside him died from the same. Happy birthday.
This has been, perhaps, the longest season of my life. And the weird thing is, I feel guilty for telling you that.
Because I have no room to complain. I have much to be grateful for. Too much, in fact.
I have my health. I have my family. I have dogs who occasionally behave. And lest we forget, I have a 20-year-old F-150 with 121,902 miles, which has carried me to 40-some states, and died in only 38 of them.
I bring this up merely to say, I’m looking forward to vacation.
Speaking of which…
We’re here. We’ve arrived at our cabin, which sits upon the mud-colored Gulf of Mexico on an overcast day.
These are the backwoods. Our nearest neighbors are doublewides in flood zones, perched 12-blocks high. Beside our cabin is an abandoned horse trailer. A rusted water heater sits dead in the weeds.
The Real Florida.
My wife and I pull into the sandy driveway of the dilapidated rental. The storm shutters are falling off; the porch leans slightly southeast.
My wife leaps from her seat and immediately starts unloading the tonnage of junk, hanging clothes, cosmetic bags, and Coleman coolers we are obligated to travel with because one of us is female.
And I’m watching her in a trance. Because I love this woman, you see.
I throw my gear selector into P. I toss open my doors and turn my dogs loose. Two canines sprint onto the vacant beach, chasing shorebirds. And this year just got a lot better.
For a few minutes, I’m arrested by the view of the big water and my humble family. I am replaying our previous shipwrecked year in my mind.
And I’m ready to move on. I’m ready to be a different, kinder person than I was before coronavirus was a household word. I’m ready to be more compassionate. I’m tired of my own selfishness and narcissism. I want to be a better guy. Maybe this vacation will help me do that.
My wife slips an arm around my shoulder and delivers a kiss on my cheek. We are both watching the Gulf perform for God’s pleasure.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” she says.
“It sure is.”
We fall into silent mode.
If it hadn’t been for this woman, I don’t know whether I would have survived the last year. Furthermore, I don’t know whether I would have wanted to.
She rests a hand upon the warm hood of my truck. The engine is tinking and cooling from its four-hour adventure.
My bride whispers to the old half-ton for my benefit. “Speed kills. Drive a Ford and live forever.”
I don’t have to take this kind of abuse.