Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Bronson: Now is time Florida calls Ohioans south

Click here to e-mail Peter Bronson
On Estero Island in Florida, they have blue roadside signs with little pictures of hurricanes that say, "Evacuation Route.'' We need the same thing on Interstate 75 in Kentucky and Ohio. Just change the hurricanes to snowflakes and call it the "Winter Evacuation Route.''

From what I can tell after driving south, at least half the people in Cincinnati flee to Florida this time of year. Fort Myers has more Ohio license plates than a liquor store in Northern Kentucky. I-75 looks like a parking lot at Argosy Casino.

It also looks like a Whopper cooker conveyor at Burger King. People going south are still raw, fresh from the freezer. Coming back, they're medium-rare to well-done.

On the beach, they sizzle like bacon in a skillet.

Flying down is like stepping into a time machine. You get on a jet in the morning, bundled up in sweat shirts and jackets, and step off into instant summer before noon.

This year we drove, which is more like time-lapse photography of spring, stretched over 1,000 miles of freeways.

You leave under a stainless steel sky, and cross an Ohio River that looks as cold as a tax auditor's handshake. Spiteful Old Man Winter throws a few feeble snow flurries at your back - but in a few hours the trees sprout pale-green newborn leaves. Then dogwoods and redbuds burst out like magenta and ivory explosions in the woods.

By the time you get out and stretch, 10 hours south in Georgia, it's shorts-and-T-shirts weather and the sun is smiling you on to the beach.

Flying is fast-food McTravel. You get the same thing everyone else gets, jammed into cramped seats as close as french fries in a cardboard cup, and you get it right now - if you don't mind waiting in line. But the sudden change of scenery can be as hard to digest as a double-cheese generic gut bomb.

Stepping from a blustery Cincinnati March into a tropical Florida April in a few hours looks real, but it feels as unnatural as wax fruit.

And look at the things you miss:

• The rolling green pastures and white-fenced horse farms of Kentucky.

• The hardscrabble mountains of Tennessee, with the sudden breathtaking views that spring on you as you climb high enough to brush the bottom of a cloud.

• Roadside pines in a chorus line with lavender wisteria, all framed by the brick-red soil of Georgia.

• Southern accents that drawl and dawdle through a simple sentence at a slow stroll. To their ears, I wonder if Yankees all sound like frantic talking hamsters, racing on a wheel to nowhere.

Ponder the flat-out blessings of living in a nation so free and wealthy that just about anyone can climb into a car, set the speed on 70 (in every state but Ohio) and watch the temperature climb 30 degrees in eight hours. Cincinnati families haul more boats, campers, trailers and minivan-loads of stuff to Florida than some nations produce in five years of GNP.

And for all the griping, our interstates are still a marvel. Now that the Carter malaise is just a dim bad memory, people don't even drive 55 on an exit ramp. Traffic cruises at 80 or 85, except for the stubborn left-lane-blocking Buicks - and I don't hear of any states urging a reduction in speed limits for public safety.

We came home to find that spring is still in the mail for Cincinnati, along with some of the postcards we sent home.

But even bare trees look better after a week of Florida therapy at the other end of the Ohio evacuation route.


E-mail pbronson@enquirer.com or call 768-8301.

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