Road trip to warmer clime: bikers, Birds and lazy gator

The Baltimore Sun

At the end of a long winter, the words "road trip" have a particular appeal, especially if you're headed somewhere that's warm and has listless alligators in fetid pens as a tourist attraction, which we'll get to in a moment.

So with gas cheap and hotels practically giving away rooms, my buddy Ed and I loaded the suitcases and golf clubs in the car and hurtled down Interstate 95 for a week of R&R; in the great state of Florida.

One of the dangers of driving south on 95 is that you'll go insane from the mind-numbing parade of Shoney's and Stuckey's billboards that line the highway, not to mention the 4,000 signs for the ever-tacky Pedro's empire at South of the Border.

It was dusk when we rolled into the Mexican-themed rest stop just over the South Carolina line, with the 200-foot Sombrero Tower rising like a garish, neon-red monument to all that is schlocky.

South of the Border makes Breezewood, the kitschy rest stop off I-70 in Pennsylvania, look like Hyannisport, Mass. So after a quick bathroom break and a tour of a souvenir shop (where the Singing Bass mounted fish is still huge), we hit the road again.

A day later, we cruised down Florida's Highway A1A and into Daytona Beach, only to discover it was the last day of Bike Week.

This meant the streets were jammed with thousands of bikers on big rumbling Harleys. Every restaurant had a "Bikers welcome" sign, which may have been a testament to the sagging economy, because some of these guys didn't exactly look like the type you'd want coming in the door for the seafood buffet.

After arriving in Vero Beach and settling into our hotel, we spent the week watching spring training baseball and hacking around some of Florida's finer golf courses.

We saw the Orioles play the Mets in Port St. Lucie and all I can say is: Pray the O's get some pitching. Because the Mets hit two homers to win the game, and both those balls are still traveling somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

Before a Mets-Nationals game in Viera, we saw something we'd never seen before: a singer blow the words to the national anthem - after just one line.

"O say can you see ... " was all this guy could manage before he lowered the microphone and shook his head sadly.

Then he tried again, made it through another two lines and forgot the words again.

Finally, the crowd couldn't take it anymore. So we all joined in to finish the song.

The singer's name was Bobby something and he was introduced as a "local singing sensation."

"Don't quit your day job!" someone in the crowd yelled when Bobby finished. But if this is his job, maybe he should quit. If you gag on the second line of the anthem, getting through a Neil Diamond cover must be paralyzing.

When we weren't doing anything else, I walked with the geezers in Vero, where walking for exercise is practically mandated by law.

One of the problems with walking down there, though, is that people are so sickeningly friendly.

You basically spend your whole walk smiling and saying hi to other walkers, because they're smiling and saying hi to you. It's like a never-ending parade of Mr. Rogers clones.

One day I passed a guy walking his tiny dog, a teacup Maltese or whatever they call those yappy things.

And just to be different, I said: "I see you've got your bodyguard with you."

Oh, yeah, I come up with that kind of clever stuff all the time. You should see me work the room at a cocktail party. It's magic.

Anyway, the guy's reaction was priceless. He gave me a look and said: "Smart guy, huh?"

So apparently, bodyguard jokes don't go over real well in Florida, and you're better off just smiling and saying hi. Those walkers down there, they're in a rut and they like it.

Still, the week flew by and we were sad to leave. On the way home, we spotted a sign on 95 North advertising "Florida fruit and fireworks - 13-foot gator."

But we'd seen this number before: You pull off at the exit and there are the oranges and skyrockets and blah, blah, blah. And somewhere in the back is the alligator, in a torpor by now from the broiling sun and looking about as fierce as a 15-year-old collie.

No thanks, we said, and continued into the land of pecan log rolls and 200-foot-tall sombrero towers, where the next all-day lunch buffet was just a few miles up the road.

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