Taking Highway 90 Across Florida
by James Glaser
February 19, 2012
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Wanda and I took a nice President's day weekend driving trip and decided to take the old highway and leave the interstate madness and boredom to the hurried crowds that had a deadline to get some place. It was a great weekend, chilly but the sun was out, and the skies were clear.

Highway 90 used to be the only way to get across north Florida, and we start right out on it because Madison is an old town with 90 going right through it. Except for a short stretch through Tallahassee, this old highway stays about ten miles north of the Interstate, and you get to see small town after small town. You drive past horse farms, small single family homes, big aging farm houses, and always a court house in each county seat.

Just about every small town has now expanded their business district toward the freeway, but some like Madison, Chipley, and Marianna appear to have kept their downtowns intact. Many of the towns we went through seem to be thriving, while others are dying in place. I don't know if it is leadership or some anchor business that keeps some towns afloat, while others have empty store-fronts everywhere.

I know slick chain restaurants near the freeway have played a big role in killing off many locally owned eating establishments, which is a shame. So when you do see an old restaurant still open, you want to assume that the food must be great, and the prices must be to the locals' liking. Maybe it's because people are loyal to local businesses and keep going where all their friends are hanging out. We stopped at one restaurant on the way home that looked fairly cheery and inviting. The folks were very nice and accommodating, and the food was tasty—in a Southern sort of way. But a few miles down the road we started "tasting it again" and it wasn't very good the second time around. So, you never know.

In a number of the towns we would see a building that we knew just had to be the former car dealership for that locale. Usually, it had a big front room (showroom) and maybe a curved front wall of windows or really big doors. But rarely was it still an auto store. It seems that if a small rural town on highway 90 had a new car dealer in the past, they are no longer on that old business strip in town, but probably someplace between town and the freeway exit. It's possible too that that little town no longer even has a dealer.

Wanda and I observed something else. A good indicator of a town's prosperity or lack of it is the number of drug stores you see. If a town has a Walgreens on one corner and a CVS on another it is doing pretty well, but if you see no chain drug store at all, things are probably headed in the wrong direction economically.

In our travels Wanda and I have decided it is worth our money to use nice motels, and yes, those are always near the freeway. There are still many quaint-looking motels along the old highway, but we didn't see any that were kept up in pristine condition. Based on past optimistic choices that failed our expectations, we have decided not to ever again take the chance hoping that the insides are much better than their outside appearance.

I like seeing all the things for sale along the way. Tractors, old cars, antiques, and second hand stores abound. You can also see some pretty slick old cars driving around on a chilly spring day, because most older cars never had AC, but they all had heaters. So unlike June through September, this is a wonderful time to take the old cars out for a spin in the Florida sun.

Highway 90 could be called Church Drive. There are so many churches, and I have never seen so many "International Ministries" in my life. Some even advertised their own TV channel. I think we saw every denomination you have ever heard of, although when I think on it, I never did see a Brethren Church or a Mosque.

So, it you have a lazy weekend with nothing important to do, a ride across Florida on Highway 90 is a pretty neat thing to do. You will get a glimpse of what Florida was like back in the 50s and 60s, and the traffic is not bad at all. I bet that, just like those old days, small town people all along the way are interesting, warm, and easy to start a conversation with. When they figure out you are from small town North Florida, all the barriers come down, and you can talk about anything you like.

But come to think of it, I have found that to be true of small towns all over the country. From Minnesota to Arizona and down here in the South, people in small towns are at ease with life and each other, and if you don't give them any reason not to, they will put out the welcome mat and leave a light on for you.

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