In 2006, it had been 30 years since I last set foot in Florida.
Now it was time to go back.
How much had things changed since I lived in Tampa, Florida between 1974 and 1976?
I remember a lot about what is now called "old Florida" from living there, and from visits in 1966, 1969 and 1972 as a teenager. I remember Busch Gardens in Tampa when it was a free brewery tour followed by a free trained parrot show. I remember Disney World when it first opened (my first visit was 10 months, I believe, after its opening) before you needed a bank loan to visit.
So how did I prepare for this nostalgic visit? By researching it to death. I discovered various Tampa landmarks of my years there were gone-Mirabella's, Maas Brothers - and others had been bought up or had name changes. The Tampa skyline definitely was not what it was (or, more like it, what it was not) back in 1976. But absolutely nothing prepared me for what was to come.
And now...how to get to Florida? I am scared of flying (a long story).
I remembered seeing ads for the Auto Train in the early 1970's when I still lived in New York City. It still existed. So we booked it, myself, my spouse and my then-16 year old son, and our car.
|Lorton Auto Train terminal, March 2013|
Here's a post I wrote in 2018 about riding on the Auto Train. It's named the Auto Train, by the way, because you must have a motorized vehicle (which rides in separate cars) to ride on the train.
Once the train pulled out of the station in Lorton, Virginia, there was the amazing sense of getting ready to complete a journey that had started in 1966. Forty years earlier, an Atlantic Coast Line train had brought me home from Tampa, Florida during an airplane strike. Now, in a way, I was taking the return train.
In Fredericksburg, Virginia, we passed near Civil War battlefields we had visited years ago. At Quantico, we went right through the marine base and watched helicopters in flight. We passed over a beautiful lake and had close up views of the countryside. In Richmond, Virginia, we passed so close to a highway we could see the faces of drivers heading in the opposite direction. It was so tempting to wave!
|A train (not the Auto Train, but on the same tracks) traveling through Ashland, VA, April 2017|
We passed people going home for their supper hour. In one town (Ashland, Virginia) we passed right down the middle of their main street, with driveways backing right into the path of the train.
Even after darkness fell, I peered out the window every time lights and the start of whistle blowing announced a town. We passed through southern North Carolina as I fell into a fitful sleep. The train seemed to speed up. When a train passed in another direction it felt as if the train would rock right off its tracks.
Finally, we pulled into a well lit station - our one stop, to change crews and do maintenance only: Florence, South Carolina. We stayed there a while, and then traveled on.
At some point I woke up in time to see a huge, well lit billboard for a Crab Shack on Tybee Island and didn't know if it was part of a dream or not. (It was not a dream).
The next thing I knew, it was 6am and time for breakfast. We were traveling through southern Georgia.
As darkness made way to light, my son and I gazed upon a southern green scape. What a feeling it was to share this with my son, pointing out the southern vegetation and landmarks as we came across them. How awesome is it to share a piece of your life with your teenage son?
The sun was already high in the sky as we crossed over the St. Mary's River into Florida. It glared down with the promise of a broiling August Florida day. After breakfast, we slowly wound through Jacksonville, Florida. Jacksonville is the largest city (in area) in the United States and the Auto Train gives a very good view, taking a good 20 minutes to pass through.
South of Jacksonville, we saw many shade houses on farms, and the conductor announced these were fern growing areas. Certainly nothing you would have seen from the Interstate.
Finally we got to Sanford, and the circle started in 1966 was complete.
It was the last time my spouse, my son and I would take a common vacation until August 2017, when we traveled together (well, in separate cars) to see the total solar eclipse in Columbia, South Carolina. I asked my son if he remembered the trip to Florida. He did, and said he wouldn't mind traveling on the Auto Train again.
I hope he does one day.
Have you ever traveled long distance by train?
Day 5 of the Ultimate Blog Challenge #blogboost