En La Florida

SunRail in Winter Park

Bathed in light, I watched the cutest little bit of stimulus money creep into the green environs of Winter Park, FL. The station is tiny, and families waited along the palm tree-lined track to catch the three cars of the SunRail train. The destination was Orlando, five miles away. Driving (or even biking) would’ve been faster but this was some cheap fun for bored children a couple days after Christmas.

Kids love trains, as do most adults though they dismiss them as impractical. But if trains ran more often, and to more places, they would be practical.

Instead, we build roads. Near where my parents live, the state built a flyover at a suburban intersection, allowing traffic to soar on a concrete ramp twenty feet in the air, going from Red Bug Road to 436, one of those six-lane highways lined with fast food joints and gas stations that could be anywhere in America. In a car, you wait for the light to change, go under the massive flyover and then run into another traffic light.

After watching the train disappear into the verdant flatness of Florida, I drove to my favorite hipster coffee joint. I love how Orange Avenue meanders between Winter Park and Orlando, winding around lakes and passing lingering bits of Old Florida. Along the way is Foxtail Coffee, which makes a great cappuccino and has an outdoor seating area with fake grass and real palm trees. Next door, there’s a place for tiny, tortured salads and a local brewery. It’s about as Portlandia as Florida gets.

Foxtail is nine miles from parents’ place. Easily bikeable, where it not for the presence of six-lane roads like 436. The Google bike directions send you through the flyover.

In Orlando, people bike in subdivisions or they bike on trails but they don’t bike on roads, especially ones like 436. You don’t even see people walking along these suburban corridors.

There’s a tendency to think that this is the natural state of things, as if God ordained the car and America built a network of highways in response to his word.

I watched¬†Secrets of Spanish Florida¬†with the family. American history doesn’t begin with Jamestown but with St. Augustine in 1565, where Spain established a melting-pot colony of Europeans, Indians and escaped slaves. The first Americans were not Puritans, and the first Thanksgiving was not in Massachusetts. By the time the English got to America, the Spanish had been living here for decades. In La Florida, citizenship was available to all, no matter your race.

Perhaps if the Spanish remained in control, Florida would look like Spain, with high-speed trains and excellent ham.

Florida doesn’t have to be a place where retirees go to escape taxation. It can be different. America can be different, too.

The Joy of (Not) Driving

rental car, AspensFor someone who doesn’t own a car, I do like driving. There’s nothing I like more than a long road trip, especially one out west. Over the summer, I flew out to Colorado and then spent a week driving around, taking in hip Denver neighborhoods, the majesty of Rocky Mountain National Park and the wide open spaces of Wyoming.

The previous summer, I started in Las Vegas and did the drive of a lifetime, cruising down Highway 12 in Utah, enjoying red rock deserts and serpentine descents down black asphalt without another car in sight.

A few years before that, I rented a car in DC, drove over the green Appalachians and kept going, across the deep South, through a Texas blighted by drought and then up through New Mexico before returning via the endless prairies of Kansas.

There is something uniquely American about taking a road trip. It’s the experience of being the only car on the road, two lanes stretching to the horizon under a bright sky empty of clouds. Of driving beyond the FM signal, where you only have scratchy AM radio filled with preachers promising damnation. Of stopping in a small town somewhere, to hear your tires crunching under gravel.


Every year, I drive down to Florida for the holidays. I love it. Thirteen hours of drinking coffee and listening to NPR. I have it down to a science – I leave on Sunday mornings (little traffic) and spend the night at a super-quiet Residence Inn outside Savannah. The next morning, I leave early, get to Florida, detour off I-95 to Jax Beach or Ormond Beach, then head on to my parents place in Orlando.

In Florida, people without cars are regarded as freaks. You assume they’re homeless – why are they walking? Biking is done on trails or sidewalks. Without a car, I wouldn’t even be able to get out of the vast subdivision where my parents live.

Over the Xmas break, I had a ton of fun driving. I went to the beach, explored new neighborhoods and went to my favorite Cuban place (twice).

Cuban sandwich

And seeing how cheap gas was – $1.65 a gallon! – I began to think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a car?”

For someone who doesn't own a car, I do like driving, especially when the gas is this cheap. Was having loads of fun until I entered the leviathan road sprawl of our nation's capital. 60 miles of stop and go traffic on I-95 reminded me how much I hate dri

I thought that way until I reached Richmond on the way back. Sixty miles of stop-and-go traffic, from exit to exit, accelerating and braking, three lanes of cars inching toward DC. An ambulance roared by on the shoulder. WTOP reported a gang of ATV riders terrorizing drivers on the Beltway. They had stopped traffic and were setting fires.

After Springfield, traffic accelerated again, a mad rush into the city, sixty miles an hour, cars on one side, concrete barriers on the other. With a massive thump as I hit a pothole, I crossed the bridge into the city. A homeless man limped toward me at a light. I paused to let pedestrians cross and the driver behind me yelled, “Fuck you!” Ah, yes, the traditional greeting to the city.

I watched the car disappear at Avis, leaving me on the sidewalk with my foldy bike. This feeling of relief as you get rid of a car – there needs to be a word for it. Freedom, I suppose. On the bike, I knew I could cruise up to Whole Foods and get dinner. Or go to the Greek place at Dupont. Or go down to the Mall. In a car, I’d have to navigate one-way streets, traffic and where would I park the damn thing? The ability to go anywhere is why a bike is freedom in DC.

Foldy bike at the Lincoln Memorial

Outside the leviathan sprawl of our nation’s capital, I am happy to drive. Within the DC metro region, however, I bike. It’s fast, easy and fun. Driving is none of those things in DC. I’ll save my driving for the wide open roads of the West.