THE ROAD TO FLORIDA – HALF A YEAR LATER…

If you recall, in my blog of July 26th, 2008 – LEAVING I-95 AND LOVIN’ IT… -I stressed the financial chaos experienced, at the time, by the casual automobile traveler to Florida. I referred, at the time, to a quick trip of my own in late June, made from the Endless Mountains, west of Scranton, PA to the Sarasota area. Stressors then had been generally intense traffic flows, especially through the Washington, D.C. area and on down to Fredricksburg, Virginia; erratic and/or deceptive posted gas and motel prices; and the endless spin on every radio station about a recovering economy and “green shoots.”

Last week I took another quick trip to Florida , the object being a speaking and reading engagement at the Tarpon Springs Library. Watercolor artist, Sherri Patterson, had paved the way with The Friends Of the Library and Linda and Jay Linebach (old family friends) were my hosts for the four-day stay. The experience of discussing and reading from my novel, 3 ACES, proved most pleasant, not to mention one wonderful luncheon on the sponge docks, at the Hellas Restaurant. I am pleased to recommend their superb crab-stuffed grouper!

But I must tell you, that in just 7 months, the stressors of June, 2008 have done a mighty flip-flop! No more is there talk of “green shoots.” The high gas prices are now erratic to just plain weak, and traffic in general has thinned out something fierce! What?..all this in just 7 months?

“Job loss” rules! President O’bama has been shaken from his Health Care coddling by the loss of a Democratic Congressional seat in Massachusetts – jolted awake by the jobs situation. The boys and girls of the Labor Department, down there in Foggy Bottom, have shifted into high gear monkeying up the numbers; they’d have you believe things are forever getting better. Their latest computation – 9.7% underemployment.

But add in the 2.5 million people looking for work over the past 12 months, and the Labor Department’s 9.7% grows to 11.3%.  Tacking on 8.3 million  folks forced to take part-time work because they can’t find the full-time version, you arrive at a 16.9% underemployment number.

And, oh yeah – what about the poor devils so discouraged with their search for work that they’ve just given up?… Toss them into the mix, and we’re at 26.7 million – or a total of 17.5% underemployed!

Consider that the American public’s spending accounts for 70% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) under our “capitalistic” economic system, and you find that we are wading in ever deepening doo-doo!

What I saw on my drive down to Florida reflected this distress. I took I-81 to 1-77 and at Columbia, South Carolina I-26 to I-95 in order to bypass Friday traffic around Washington and on into Virginia; both of which take a toll on your patience. Holding to I-95, you can lose up to four hours.

On I-81, rolling past Carlisle, PA, a major transportation hub – a spot from which I often drove long haul while gathering the information to write 3 ACES – I witnessed any number of enormous, new warehouses with no visible activity at their doors or on the loading docks. The vision of inactivity so stark, that I wondered if these structures were not headed toward bankruptcy proceedings. (Further back on I-81, up around Buck Run,  I had caught sight of several huge new plants and warehouse operations that looked underutilized, but witnessed nothing quite that dramatic.)

Then, while on 295 and I-10 in Florida, I sighted any number of dealer lots overloaded with tractors and trailers for sale. Not just one or two, here and there, but dozens – in every lot! When I left long haul work in 1997 to begin my book, you would have been hard pressed to find even a handful of such vehicles for sale in these same lots. Goods not being warehoused; goods not being shipped. Major consumer turndown, anyone?…

Once on 1-95, covering South Carolina on into Florida, from Friday afternoon rush hour to 9:00 that night, the lack of four-wheeler traffic was shocking. Trucks, even with their reduced numbers, were the dominant vehicles. I-95 traffic was a fraction of what I’d experienced last February and June on trips to Sarasota.

Lending substance to the sharp drop-off in automobile traffic was my experience in checking into motels. At Exit 2 – Kingsland, GA – I checked in and out of one low priced motel (their internet connection too weak to get me online) and then tried two other motels nearby. All three had internet systems that proved somehow inoperative, and I rejected the rooms. Two were quick to drop their prices when they saw I was walking. THAT had not been the case the year before! Then it had been a case of landing a room, at any price, before it disappeared. One room clerk admitted their winter tourist traffic was down at least 50%!  The room I took that night in Florida, was at a popular upscale chain, internet functionality guaranteed. Nonetheless, I pulled the walk-away routine and the room price quickly melted 30% – without an argument – the clerk bending over backwards to accommodate me! Bartering is back;customers have the edge.

Gas prices are still sticky, but this year they were rising and dropping with each unpredictable jump or fall of the dollar. I shopped, as time and fuel tank level permited, for the cheapest “regular” fill-ups I could find. Highest price paid: $2.79, on 1-95 in South Carolina…lowest $2.44, off I-95, on Georgia Route 17.

It’s a great time to be on the road. If we have any more financial shocks, it will only be to the traveler’s further advantage.

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