Travel notes from the pastel-painted Paradise


Somewhere around New York City on I-95 we started recognizing other vehicles heading south. There was a big RV towing a new Cadillac SUV, and the car-carrier with a new kandy apple red Mercedes sports coupe and…a 1967 Plymouth Valiant.

Despite the fact that there wasn’t another old car on the road, the Valiant itself would have been unremarkable, except for its mottled patchwork of primer paint and faded old blue factory paint. It looked remarkably bad. The driver looked like a nerdy engineer in his mid-40s with a thick head of hair, glasses and a full beard. Every time we intercepted him (this happens with gas stops, food and bathroom breaks) he was slumped into the door.

Call him a foreshadowing. Late in the night we pulled into a service centre in New Jersey for gas. When I got out of the van a woman came up to me asking for money. She was a bit ratty-looking, with skin-tight jeans and long messy hair. She said she and her boyfriend were from Virginia. They’d run out of cash and their Jeep was out of gas. She wanted me to cover highway tolls and gas, I guess. When I wouldn’t she got quite upset. We got the kids back in the van and headed out of the parking lot with her leaning on the horn and hollering at us.

These two people, the Jeep woman and the Valiant guy, stood out from the rest of the travellers. Most people drove new vehicles. There were a lot of slick SUVs, a lot of big pickup trucks and the usual flotilla of tractor trailers. But somehow the two represented what was hiding just off the sanitized Interstate highways in the rest of America.

I read on-line recently that some place in Arizona has an over 24 percent unemployment rate. And that there are a lot of places with unemployment rates over 15 percent.

We were headed south, without a particular destination, just taking some time with the kids over the long Christmas vacation. We hit Jacksonville, Florida, around midnight as the torrential rains broke loose. It rained all the way to Orlando, where we decided to pull in and call it a night. We were pretty much wiped after two days and 30+ hours on the road.

The next day we did the obligatory visit to a theme park. We chose Universal Studios, and spent the day—and about $700 bucks on admission tickets and food. Let’s just say it was a cultural experience. The Harry Potter theme park was state-of-the-art and filled with visitors from around the world—but strangely with relatively few kids, though lots of adults and seniors. And the Jurassic Park exhibit was, ironically, already prehistoric as theme parks go. The old rides were cheesy and under-attended. No waiting in lines there.

It was there, in the Universal park that I tripped across the other Valiant (the non-Plymouth kind) —Prince Valiant, the ancient cartoon strip character written by Hal Foster. Valiant was hiding out in a section with movie oldies including Betty Boop and Popeye and Olive Oyle, who gladly posed for photos with me and the kids. These were clearly the old franchises waiting to be rediscovered, like Spiderman and Green Lantern. In case you don’t know Valiant, it was a wonderfully drawn strip with a great storyline. Here’s the description from Wikipedia:

“Valiant is a Nordic prince from faraway Thule, located near Trondheim on the Norwegian west coast. Early in the story, Valiant arrived at Camelot, where he became friends with Sir Gawain and Sir Tristram. Earning the respect of King Arthur and Merlin, he became a Knight of the Round Table.”

He was like everything else in Florida, a bit out of context and over the top, where it feels like you’re looking through 3D glasses with coral and turquoise lenses.

We finally landed at our most southerly point: a rental cottage on Sanibel Island on the Gulf coast. While the kids played on the beach I got to know the caretaker. He’s a former mechanic from Chicago who used to tour Canada and the U.S. repairing high-end Rockwell printing presses. He’d moved down to Fort Myers to be closer to his aging mother (there are lots of aging mothers down there), and got into the housing construction boom laying ceramic tile. And he was there for the housing bust, one of the first who saw it coming. He managed to sell his house before the market collapsed. The area was one of the worst hit in the sub-prime meltdown.

Now, he and his wife get free rent and a small salary, sorry no health insurance, for their services as caretaker and bookkeeper for the place. It’s not bad, he says, if you don’t mind being “a prisoner in Paradise.” He can’t afford to relocate, and wouldn’t go back to Chicago if he could.

Oddly, that seems to sum up my own impressions of everything. We’re all prisoners in Paradise. And as the kids flip through the channels I learn that U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has been shot in Tuscon, Arizona, and six others killed by a rampaging gunman.

Nothing seems to make sense any more. But then again, maybe it never did.


  1. Haha! We've always been doomed. No one, as they say, gets out of here alive. So we may as well enjoy it!


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