Pure Americana: From Maine to Miami in a Volkswagen Passat TDI

Travel with Associate Editor Matt Askari as he travels from Portland, Maine to Miami, Florida, in a Volkswagen Passat TDI

By Matthew Askari | Photos By Matthew Askari | September 17, 2012
Fayetteville was not exactly that, but it wasn't too far from that, either. It was a small, quaint town that seemed content with a slower pace to things. There were girls in sundresses, but they were drinking iced coffees and walked with a purpose. I spent a couple hours in the heart of town, walked up and down the main drag, had a coffee, chatted with locals and petted an unreasonably cute dog.
It was pulling out of Fayetteville that proved a little unnerving. I had taken a long route to I-95 and went through a neighborhood where I noticed a man walking in an aggressive manner. He had an open wound, and blood was gushing down his neck. I slowed down, but he seemed to ignore me, and instead started screaming some choice words towards a man who was in the front yard of one of the houses. Things seemed tense. But across the way there were two neighbors, seated on the porch, calm, sodas in hand, just sort of watching, unconcerned. I felt these people were likely best suited to deal with these regional matters and shuttled on...


I don't know what it was about South Carolina, but there sure were a lot of dead animals and road-kill all over the place. I had seen a couple of smaller things that had fallen on poor luck, maybe bad timing when crossing the road. Actually, the night before when I turned off to stop and pick up snacks a deer shot across the street in front of me. My heart was about to explode out of my chest; two or three seconds earlier, or had I been going just a little faster, and I would have had a whole lot of venison on my hands. But there were animals everywhere on and alongside the road in S.C. At one point I drove over an area where some poor thing exploded. There were bits of meat, and pink and red smear all over the place. I couldn't even tell what it was. A couple minutes later, there was a baby deer lying fully intact on the side of the road. I couldn't see any impact or blood or anything, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't napping, either.
I was content to get away from all that.


Before I entered Georgia, and after most of the chaos splattered across the roads in South Carolina, and after fill up number two at mile 1325, was this gem of a BBQ place. It was in the middle of nowhere, it was a Friday night and all the locals were dining on red beans and rice, collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken with smokey BBQ sauces, pulled pork, coleslaw, potato salad, peach cobbler and banana cream pie. There were vats of tea, sweetened and unsweetened. Tables came outfitted with hot sauce and a roll of paper towels. I was happy, things were good. I ate well that night and got in to Savannah full and sleepy, which was nice because I had a full day to check out all the charming, old, well-preserved buildings of a more romantic South, before driving into the strange land of Florida.


If you think Daytona Beach is just aging strippers, meth heads, and Jesus freaks, then clearly you haven't spent more than a night in Daytona. Unfortunately, one night was all I had. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't want to return, or that it wasn't fun. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Daytona is a city steeped in red-neck lore, and it's damn proud of it. Luckily, I was here on a warm, balmy Saturday night. After checking in to my motel, I decided to hit the town. From what I had seen, there was no way to dress-down enough. Anything went here. I tried my best. I went to a place called the Oyster Pub. People in Daytona had all crammed 50 years of sun, booze, and extracurricular activity -- basically living to the fullest -- in their 35 years of life. And they all looked about 45, which meant they were all five years ahead of the game, I guess. I got a couple of tall cold pints of Yuengling and a fried oyster sandwich, which was pretty good. Afterwards I hit a local pub across the street, but not before someone asked me if I had fully accepted Jesus, which happened a couple of times.
In the pub only two things played overhead -- AC/DC and Poison. There are a group of girls and a guy, and the guy does this chicken-dance and the girls all laugh. One of them tells him to do it again and takes out her iPhone to take a picture. He dances and she snaps the pic, but when they inspect it, the response is muted. Apparently, the flash failed to go off. So he does it again, but again this same trouble with the flash. The guy does his chicken dance a third time, and this time the flash goes off, but the others are disinterested, and half-smile and smoke cigarettes. The guy cackles.
I'm on my second Whisky (they don't have Scotch at this place) and watching this game of table-bocce-ball, until a guy spills his beer all over the place and everyone yells and walks away. This maybe-pregnant girl smoking a cigarette keeps looking at me. A guy who looks like Santa Claus--but who is not wearing red and only has a few teeth--is also looking at me. I spent the latter hours of my night sitting on a deck chair by the pool facing the ocean. There was a breeze that felt good and I didn't want to go to my room just yet. I could have fallen asleep right there in the warm, humid Florida night.
The following day I paid homage to Daytona International Speedway. I took the Passat TDI for a little tour just outside the track, which was very much closed as there wasn't a race going on. On my way out of Daytona, I came across a very special intersection. Just down the road from the Steak n' Shake (people either want a steakburger, or a shake -- sell'em both and you've cornered the market), on the one hand, was a gas station that served grits (and fried conch and conch salad). On the other side was a gun store. And this was nice; because there wasn't one intersection in the whole of California I was sure where you could get your grits and your guns without having to run all over the place. And if you were still hungry, there was a Steak n' Shake.


Driving South through Florida, I-95 was distinctly different. It was sunnier; the greenery was more green and wilder. The clouds looked like tufts of cotton, low, puffy and suspended -- in no hurry to go anywhere. When I got to South Beach I was immediately taken aback by the energy -- a lot of attitude and skin -- as I slowly drove through the little island. I looked down at the odometer. I was only a few miles away from the airport where I needed to be tomorrow. I had driven 1,840 miles. To put it in perspective, that's greater than the distance from Amsterdam to the North of Africa. The Passat TDI still had a few gallons of diesel left, too. I had made the entire trip on less than three tanks! I was averaging about 37 mpg, which for a non-hybrid car of this size, was extremely impressive.
I checked in to the Shore Club, my hotel for the night. The girl at the front desk upgraded me for no good reason, and I had a balcony suite on the eighth floor overlooking all of that turquoise water. A steady warm breeze blew. I went for an evening swim in the ocean. I went for a swim in the heated pool, afterwards. Seven cities in seven nights. This was the last stop. But I still had some hours yet, and Washington Avenue and Lincoln Road beckoned...
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