Mission Accomplished

The sun was at our backs, slowly disappearing behind the comfort of Virginia hilltops. We hadn’t said anything to each other in about a half hour. Somehow to talk would slow us down. Laura driving, me in the passenger’s side, messing with my camera gear. We had twenty-five miles to go, and the darkness was already creeping in. I had given up and had my hopes raised three or four times in the past ten minutes. Nagging doubt. I was going to miss out once again.

A week earlier: the opposite direction, another time of day. Morning, 7am. I’m driving, clutching the steering wheel. The sun was reluctant to remove itself from the same Virginia hills. It had been raining since we had left in a crazy fit of vacation-fueled excitement at two in the morning. But now, for the moment, the rain had subsided and there was a chance. Clouds had swallowed the light of the sun and the skies were still practically dark as night.

Three miles from Staunton, Virginia. My goal was Wright’s Dairy-Rite and the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, two terrific landmarks in the same basic neighborhood. Three years before, when my sister-in-law got married and they were to drive down this same highway to get to their eventual home in Texas, I suggested Wright’s as a possible stopping place. Car-hop service. Drive-In. Grand old sign. How road food used to be. I had never been there, but they stopped and enjoyed. Next year, on our way to Florida, I hoped to stop, but time and circumstance had kept me away. Ditto the following year.

I got off I-81 at US 250, despite the darkness. After all, how many times had the darkness been an illusion, and once I had reached my goal, the clouds had parted and the sun was shining bright? This is an act of faith.

By the time I had gotten to the end of the off-ramp, my hopes were already scuttled against the rocks. Rain. Not just rain. A curtain, a wall of rain. Impenetrable. No chance for a good shot. I made it to the next stoplight before I admitted the futility. Wright’s would have to wait another year.

Back to a week later:  going through South Carolina, plans to stop at Bar-B-Q King in Charlotte. Laura driving. She asks me if I’m thinking about Staunton, could we actually get Staunton this time? I shake my head. I was trying not to think about it. I’ve missed out too many times to think about it. But the math works out in my head: Staunton by 5:30. Neon magic hour. Perfection, better than it would have been at 7am. I try not to think about it.

Bar-B-Q King neon sign, Charlotte, NC
Serving You for Ears

Bar-B-Q King. I saw a bit on them on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and knew we’d be hitting Charlotte about lunchtime, so this was ideal. I’m driving and we find it pretty easily. I pull in and everything seems familiar, and I think: my aunt used to live in Charlotte, over 30 years ago, had she taken me here? The place is awfully familiar, too familiar. I figure I’ll ask her later. In the meantime, I’ll have some great old Carolina Barbecue and take a picture or 46 of the sign.

Bar-B-Q King, Charlotte, NCBar-B-Q King neon sign, Charlotte, NC

We drive on. The taste is still in my mouth. That will have to be a regular stop, I say, and Laura agrees. The gradual climb into Virginia begins. I’m thinking about Staunton again and I don’t want to. We made good time in Charlotte and my original estimate of 5:30 has been pushed up to 5. Maybe too early.  It’s going to happen, I think. Clear skies all the way.

The turn off of I-77 to I-81 and Laura’s driving again. I’m distracted from Staunton, thinking we may get there too early. I’m thinking of something else: the previous year I had spotted an abandoned motel nestled off the side of 81. Then it was too late in the day to do it justice, and it came upon us so quickly there was no way to get off the exit in time, but I had bookmarked it in my mind. And just as I think of it, I see it up ahead. It’s early enough that the sun is on it. Laura asks me if I want to go for it and by now I’ve already grabbed my camera from the back seat. “Yesss,” I say, and she pulls off.

To get in position for a shot of this is easier said than done. Although it looked like it was going to be right by the side of the road, we had to go down a hill to get to the entrance and climb back up. The sign was located at the end of a steep, steep road. Laura was nervous. The area looks untouched for a number of years. We make the climb and see that the Motel had an old restaurant attached to it, and that it has a sign, too. I sneak a shot or two before moving on.

Rib and Sirloin Restaurant, Pulaski, VA

And then, our hearts stop.Far in the distance, to the side of the abandoned lot and across from the Motel’s sign, is a pick-up truck. Flanked by another vehicle. A couple of guys milling about suspiciously. Out in the middle of Nowhere, Virginia. Could be innocent but it doesn’t look it. And I’m sitting in a parked car wielding a camera. Laura’s sense of panic hits considerably before mine. But she’s right. I don’t know what was going on but I didn’t think it was a bright idea to find out what it was. We head back down the hill.

Laura’s emotions are churning. She thinks I’m mad at her because we miss out on the Motel sign, but I’m not. I’m still thinking about Staunton but I don’t say anything. I assure her that our safety is more important. I remind her of the end of L.A. Confidential, and although Dudley Smith had it coming I wasn’t about to end up like him. She’s calmed down somewhat. But just below the surface we’re thinking the same thing: that stop may have cost us Staunton. Again.

We carry on in silence. Enter Salem. Leave Salem. Past Roanoke, which hangs us up a little bit but not near as bad as it has in the past. The sun diminishes. Two lanes through this section of I-81 and we’re riding in the fast lane. Laura breaks the silence with many words of scorn directed at the driver of whichever car or truck that gets in front of us. By now I’ve given into my thoughts and I’m looking over my shoulder, watching the sun, and Laura senses it. Still a long way, and I say what I’m thinking: “Not a chance.”

Laura has none of that. She chokes the life out of the wheel and pushes all would-be-obstacle drivers back into the slow lane with the power of her thoughts and her speech. Twenty miles away, ten. The last vestiges of daylight still hanging on. The quest is still alive and I don’t know how, but I believe it can still happen.  She asks me what she needs to do and I give her the directions. We’re on route 11 in a moment and the traffic is thick. The stoplights seem to take forever and Laura is still talking ill of the local drivers.

And then we turn the corner, and a flash of neon hits my eye. We’ve done it. A scrap of light still left in the sky. Laura pulls over and I literally bolt out of the car before the power of the sun completely dies.

Wright's Dairy-Rite neon sign lit up, Staunton, VAWright's Dairy-Rite neon sign lit up, Staunton, VANothing worth doing is easy. And now that I have this shot, it serves as a reminder of what hard work and perseverance means. To anyone else this would mean nothing and perhaps rightfully so, but we know, our eyes are open, and all we have to do is think about a chilly night in Virginia to think of what can be accomplished.

And a bonus: we were just going to head out of town, but I spotted the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in my rear view and I had to turn the car around. It was perhaps too late, and I had to crank the ISO on the K-5 to get the shot I wanted, but when in Staunton, and while the neon is glowing, I figured why not?

The Stonewall Jackson Hotel neon sign lit up, Staunton, VAThe Stonewall Jackson Hotel neon sign lit up, Staunton, VA

A Bit of Old Florida

When my grandparents moved to Florida in the mid-80s, it was inevitable that we would go down to visit them. At the time they had a trailer they had used to take a trip around the United States, and it was just lying around in the parking lot of their housing complex gathering dust. Either my parents put two and two together, or they had two and two together for them, and in the spring of 1986, I went on my first trip to Florida, spending a week in a camper on Flagler Beach.

To date, this is the worst trip I have ever been on.

Day 2: while splashing about in the ocean, a riptide catches my father and sends him out to sea. Only by the grace of God, a past life as a lifeguard, and the ability to wait until the pull of the current subsided before trying to swim back to shore kept him from drowning.

Day 3: I got sick. Scratch that. I became Sickness itself. The collected solids and fluids I had gathered in the previous 15 years decided to vacate my body via any available opening. This continued for a majority of the week. And then we went home.

We never stayed in a trailer again as a family. Not that I have any quarrels with Flagler Beach, which was simply an innocent bystander to my teenage angst, but I have never been back there since.

But the one thing I got to see in my first trip to Florida was the remains of Old Florida. The Non-Condo Version. The Mom-and-Pop-Beach-Motel Version. The Orange-Stand-Off-Every-Exit-of-95 Version. It barely exists on the coast anymore. You have to go searching for it inland.

So, in this most recent trip to Florida, we crossed the Halifax and went searching for Old Florida’s bones. My first stop was an oversight from our 2012 trip: the Hawaii Motel in Daytona. I had gotten good shots of it during the daytime, but I completely missed out on catching it lit at night. We got there a little before sundown, but it was getting quite dark and I figured they would light it up. I was wrong.

We parked along the side. Laura prodded me to go in and ask them to turn it on, so I did. A young Indian man was working that night and when I told him what I was after, he gave me a knowing smile. I was pretty sure I hadn’t been the first to ask.

Hawaii Motel, lit neon sign at night, Daytona Beach, FLThe hula skirt is not animated as it once was, but oh, well…

A couple days later, when the weather was supposed to be iffy at the beach and better inland, we went to see a location I had been scouting out in DeLand, along US 17. There was the Boulevard Motel, the kind Old Florida used to make with a sign to match, and just down the road, the Won Lee Chinese Restaurant, with another classic old sign in front. The sun burned the clouds as we drove, and by the time we got there, the Boulevard was bathed in natural light:

The Boulevard Motel neon sign, DeLand, FloridaHere’s your postcard.

Color TV? Awesome. Hot water heat? Well, I’ll take your word for it. I also love the old Amex sign dangling off the side, which was a first sighting for me. No doubt the old place is a little shaggy around the edges, but you can see what it once was.

The Boulevard Motel neon sign from close up, DeLand, Florida

The next one on my tour was just a few doors down. The Won Lee had at one point been Jack’s Boulevard Diner back in the day, but when it closed, the sign was fortunately kept for the Chinese restaurant when it was re-opened in the late 70s. Thanks to @sunsetmeridian on Instagram for her information on this one:

Won Lee Chinese Restaurant classic neon sign, DeLand, FLI was happy with that much, but US 17 in DeLand had another surprise in store. As we got going south, just to see what we could see before heading back to the beach, Laura’s finger began to point and she began to make noises like a child who knows the answer to the question the teacher just asked. I spotted it, too. I also spotted a problem. The sign, for B&O Cleaners (B&O? Unintentional humor strikes again.), was neon, with peeling paint, and enough character for three signs. That wasn’t the problem. The sun, which was coming directly from the south, wasn’t the problem. The telephone pole that had been placed seven inches away from the sign? Problem.

I got out of the car and pondered. But there was no way around it. I shrugged and took my shots.

B&O Cleaners neon sign, DeLand, FLHey! Down in front!

All in all, a highly successful trip. We even got back in to the hotel later that afternoon and got in the ocean. The ocean was marvelous. No one got carried out to sea. No one lost bodily waste in unusual quantities. Life was good. And we’ll be going back again.

Our Deck Down Under, Daytona Beach Shores, FL

Before we left, we went to Our Deck Down Under in Daytona Beach Shores. For the second time in a week. If you’ve never been, I suggest you go at least once. The restaurant is located underneath the A1A bridge back to the mainland. There’s seating outside on the deck. Dolphins and pelicans are frequent visitors. And the sun goes down in gorgeous hues. I couldn’t resist bringing my camera to gather some of this in. This is my idea of dining paradise:

Sunset at Our Deck Down Under, Daytona Beach Shores, FL


What Is to Come

Daytona BeachIt was windy on the beach at Daytona during the middle of the week. Not nasty enough to pick up the sand and hurl it in your face, but enough to question why you’re walking on the beach in the first place. Laura and I had walked for a good distance, past several mostly-empty hotels until we got to Treasure Island, a behemoth of a hotel that closed down after a hurricane several years ago and never re-opened, making it a Mecca for birds and graffiti artists alike. As were looking this over, seeing the half-collapsed Tiki hut, the cracked concrete, and the sagging metal fence surrounding the area, intended to keep the general public out, I said, “Do you want to turn around and go back?”

She said, “Let’s keep going. Forever.”

And that’s when I lost it.

Daytona Beach SUVIt’s always a long trip down from Pennsylvania, but always well worth it. Even our worst trip, which included blasting in Roanoke, accident delays in Charlotte and Jacksonville, and an incident where several cars were broken into at our hotel in Columbia (but not ours), has been a blessing. I love the road. I love seeing everything along the way. Sure, a plane can get you there faster, but you miss so much.

Hard year. My job is so distant from home and spending three nights apart is painful, no matter how many phone calls and texts you send to the one you love. The first year defined how much we missed each other, the second confirmed it, and third year looms ahead. You start lamenting the loss of a night spent searching through a grocery store, or cleaning the bathroom, or whatever normal people do on a normal Tuesday. This isn’t what it should be, what it could be.

And right there on the beach I lost it. And wondered why there was a good reason why we shouldn’t keep walking. Forever.

Daytona has many things, but classic signs are not one of them. The blasts of heat and the sudden rush of wind  and rain sees to that. In a way, I find that comforting when we go down, because I can truly take the time to relax. Every day, the newspaper showed up at our hotel room, and I read a great deal of it, even the local stories that pretty much have no bearing on my life. I forget how much I enjoy the newspaper. Life has passed the newspaper by in favor of bigger and better things, and some places it’s disappeared completely. But I love a box score. An editorial cartoon. Even the obits are interesting, especially in Florida.

Then there was a story on Sunday in the Local section. A big one, with a big picture to match. And wouldn’t you know, but one of the key players in this picture was the sign at The Desert Inn, a 60s beaut I had yet to get. Three men standing in front of it smiling. The new owners. The paper said the old place was run down. The new owners were going to sink more than 10 million dollars into it. And try to get a national chain to buy in. And change the name.

So no more sign.

I was just in time.

Desert Inn Front Sign, Daytona BeachWe got there just before sundown. I had no idea that the signs would be lit or not, but sure enough they were. I had never examined the place before, but it’s massive, far bigger than most. Three signs, one in the front, one back and in front of a main parking lot, and one great big one at the top, which was not lit. Whatever was next door had been blown down in a storm and was just an empty spot. We slid into a parking lot along the side, vacant as the vacant lot next door, and considered what it must take to rebuild something this large and neglected. I almost couldn’t blame them for renaming the place and getting rid of the old signs, as beautiful as they may be.

Desert Inn Side Sign, Daytona BeachI snapped away for a good while, as I usually do, and in the midst of this, as I thought I had gotten all I could get, the sun blasted out of the clouds in all its golden magic-hour glory. And I had a window of opportunity to get the massive top sign. I sprinted back to the car and fixed my 75-300 lens on to the Pentax K5 and hot-footed back to a better position.

Desert Inn Top Sign, Daytona Beach

A good send-off, I thought.

Laura could see the look on my face when I got back to the car. And she was happy because I was happy. But all of these things serve as a reminder that there is always something greater, far more important. We continue, despite hardships and stresses and failures. In time, things come to us, opportunities, and we take them, because we were meant to. Maybe things change around us and things get in our way, but we walk on together, because this is truly good, hand in hand.