2020 – ‘Escape from Florida’…our version


The best of times became the worst of times.

We never thought we would ever see the day when we were faced with a global epidemic as we are now.

Here we were, record breaking heat in southwest Florida, each day a couple of degrees warmer than previous records. It made us appreciative of the sunshine and warmth so lacking back home in Canada at this time of the year.

Then the news began its decline increasing our stress, anxieties and fears. Each daily news story seemed to make the previous day’s sound more innocuous. Then the American president cut into regular evening TV broadcasting a lengthy speech trying to reassure Americans that there was nothing to worry about: “American ingenuity, technological prowess and power would defeat this virus very soon.” Hearing that White House message triggered alarms. We knew it was time to worry. Every message Trump delivers must be taken with a grain of salt, this one maybe a pound.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government was instilling the seriousness of the pandemic situation, calling all its citizens around the world, to come back home immediately.

A cursory exploration of the Internet confirmed the global situation was deepening. We feared what would happen in the USA when its own leader would not acknowledge the full seriousness of the situation. The global case numbers were increasing alarmingly. North American numbers were rising also, the US shockingly, Canada not so much, very likely because of a smaller populatin.

With each increase in numbers in the US, our anxiety and stress levels rose respectively. Once the governor of New York, Cuomo, announced how distressful things were becoming in his state, we recognized it was time to ‘leave Dodge.’

Who knew what was in store ahead? Rumours added to the fear. ‘The National Guard would be shutting all interstate traffic.” When the Canadian-American border was closed, our panic hit the roof. What if they wouldn’t let us cross the border? What if we needed medical help in the US? Canadians, back of the line. Americans first? What if we had to sequester ourselves in Buffalo for who knows how long? Buffalo – eeyikes ! That was the clincher.

Words to the wife went along the lines “How long will it take for us to pack?” which was a rephrasing of our actual words, “I’m scared as hell. Let’s get out of here. Now.” Even Fermo tail-down slouching and gutteral growl which sounded like, “Things are gonna get much ruffer, a lot ruffer, ruff, ruff.” That did it. We started packin’ but the siren song of one more beach day was irresistible. How can one resist paradise!

We headed to the beach at first warmth, a failed trek. Every beach entrance was blocked, yellow taped with that ‘police no entry tape.’ Either we had missed the news announcements or hoped their broadcasts referred to ‘other’ beaches, not our special “doggies allowed” one. Wrong! Our doggies beach was shut down. Homeward bound folks!

The rest of the day was packin’ time and we aren’t talking the kind of packin’ many Americans do, with great pride. Ours was vehicular rather than armamental.

Bright and early next morning, our letter came back…oops wrong song. Bright and early next morning, we were off. Dark, no sunrise yet, but the roadways were busy with northbound traffic. We entertained ourselves with the license plate game…oh, another one from Ontario, another and another. Stress rose again. Rats escaping from a sinking ship!

Hitting pouring rain and thick fog just past the state’s northern border didn’t slow us down at all…nothng was stopping this Noah’s ark.

Tampa, Ocala, Lake City…Georgia next…Valdosta, Tifton, Macon…under normal circumstances a scenic route worth exploring and enjoying but not in this surreal time. Atlanta next and then early in the afternoon we arrived, Marietta, Georgia.

The record setting pace wasn’t worry free. Horror stories abound about speeding violators and their encounters with infamous southern sherrifs, Sherriff Billy Bob, Sheriff Bobby Joe. Visions of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s squalid prisoner tent cities nightmarishly dancing in our heads. Hence, keen eyes were glued, one on the speedometer, the other on the smartphone as it blurted out sporadic warnings about ‘smokies’ ahead. We saw them, more frequently than we would have liked but thankfully no first hand encounters of any kind.

We camouflaged ourselves in the traffic caravan hoping other vehicles would absorb any smoky detection before we might. Our strategy seemed to work. Marrietta…Smokies, 0; Florida escapees, 1. Another day tomorrow, another day of dodging the big bad bears.

The Piqua, Ohio jaunt was a breeze.

But our hotel looked abandoned. Parking lot completely empty. No lights on, notices on the front doors but the doors were unlocked. The lobby was empty. Nobody at the reception desk. Lobby and restaurant chairs upside down on the table tops. Things did not augur well.

“Hello! Hello!” eventually got a response as a teenager came out from a corridor.

“Is the place open? We have reservations,” as if these were Aladdin’s magic words, ‘Open sesame.’

“Somebody will be right with you,” the reply.

The lobby was cold, maybe we were just too acclimatized to Florida warmth. A middle aged man in a winter jacket appeared. Receptionist? Manager? He checked us in. All was in order. We needed to rest and re-energizing for the next leg of our escape from Florida. Detroit and the Canadian border.

The resident navigator played down the bigger bites she was assigning to each day’s trek. Bigger and bigger chunks to be met by designated driver’s torrid pace. Record setting!

Supper was ‘motel room cordon bleu.’ No risky encounters at local eateries, but none could be had anyway. The Cracker Barrel adjacent to the motel was ‘take out only.’ We opted for peanut brittle, double sealed, a foil bag inside a box. Early to bed, early to rise again, packing again and departure. Macdonald’s in true capitalist colours, was open, drive through only. So coffees and Mcmuffins in hand, Canada keyed in as the next destination. What would happen at the border was anybody’s guess!

About noon, we pulled into the lanes for cutoms inspection at the Detroit and Windsor Ambassador bridge border crossing. The customs officer, youngish, polite asked his allotted questions:

“Anything to declare? Where you coming from? How long have you been away?”

All answered with great politeness and courtesy. No way did we want our car inspected, not so much for any contraband but because any door, trunk lid, opened could mean articles falling out. The packing was so tight.

Handed a precautionary advisory sheet published by Health Canada, we were told no stops, no exiting the car, just drive home.

“What about gas?” we asked.

“They may not be open.”

“What if we have to pee?”

“Old fashion way, au naturel, roadside,” his response.

Oh Canada!

One thing we like about driving in Canada, distances are shorter. OK, OK….distances are distances…but travel times are faster in Canada. How’s that?

As we got on to the national roadway, Highway 401, we were shocked. We may have driven into the Twilight Zone or a Stephen King novel about the apocalypse. Not a single private car on the roadway, only commercial transport trucks after we left the Ambassador Bridge. Many times, nothing at all. Just empty road. It was eerie. It could have been mistaken for the Daytona raceway or the Indianapolis speedway except that it was straight. Straight, unending grey paved roadway without a single vehicle in sight.

The grey, overcast skies added to the gloom. No sunny glare, no sun in the eyes. Just an eerie empty highway, every lane in every direction, empty, nothing, not a vehicle in sight. Have we been apocalypsed? Has the world ended? The gas gauge blinked its warning. Another impending problem. We started to look out for gas stations. Soon the hoped-for-salvation, an OnRoute stop. No cars at the fuel pumps, bad sign number one. Just two cars at the eatery, bad sign number two.

Drive up to the pump. The first one has taped with an ‘out of service’ label on it. Second pump, the directive ‘Go inside’ on it. Not good but the pump clerk helped us prepay for a designated amount. $25. If it didn’t sync with our needs, we were prepared to bite the bullet with any monetary loss.

Gassed and ready but wait. The body needs refueling too, coffee, maybe a Timbit from Tim Horton’s.

Proffering the cash to the clerk for our purchases, she announced, “No cash. Credit card only.” We would like to say no physical contact was made with the clerk in any way but she did select our croissant and crueller with her hand. Thankfully, it was sheathed inside a plastic baggy.

Back on the road. Canada, different, comfy in some sort of way. Different in that our roadways are not running gamuts of capitalist forays into giant commercial signage atop of lofty iron poles which could be used as plane guidance systems in emergency times, not medical ones though.

Canadians are more conservative, more subdued in announcing Duchene’s winery just ahead or Smith’s fruit orchards just down the road. Our signage is discreet single lines on blue billboards, the kind the Ontario government uses. Nothing blaring out there’s a Denny’s ahead, or a Macdonald’s, a Burger King, a Marathon, an Exxon. Mind you, we kind of missed the circus kaleidoscope of colours seen on American highways. And with so many of the commercial erections, one easily finds relief for the physical needs of hunger, refuelling and rest. In Canada not so easily.

A few more hours, less than expected as it was Canadian distances, we entered our biggest city’s highways, usually jammed. At any time of the day, traversing Toronto is a serious test of patience and endurance. The city is expansive when it takes nearly an hour to cross it on a multi-lanes highway? The number of cars is the problem. At any time of the day or night, Toronto’s crossing highway is bumper to bumper traffic. Five o’clock is a funereal procession. Not this time. There were cars, to be expected in a city of more than 3 million people but not bumper to bumper. The emptiness shocked every driver who in turn took it to mean ‘no speed limit’ and began channeling a Daytona raceway driver. Every driver became a Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel of current Formula One fame.

‘Enzo,…oops, I mean Fermo,’ mistakenly calling him the name of the dog in the Racing in the Rain novel. Ears perked, and tail up as if signalling me that the flag was up for the run for the pole position. We were on the last lag.

Minutes later, we pulled into our street, then our driveway and sighed, “Home at last.”

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