Roadtrip Florida

January/February 2019

Our first point of interest on this trip is, unexpectedly, the National Rubber Corporation building in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, just half an hour out.

Hmm…  The National Rubber Corporation, about which I know nothing.  It is the middle word in the name that reminds me of something.  (Everything reminds me of something.)

I used to read the scribblings of Bob Greene who, among other accomplishments, was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.  His articles were light, funny, easy to digest and immensely entertaining.  One column was about his visit to the Trojan factory in New Jersey.

When I was growing up, a mere lad, “Trojan” and “rubber” were words regularly sprinkled about in conversations with other boys, about an activity we only dreamed about.  We all pretended we knew what we were talking about, never admitting that what we said was just mimicking something we heard an older kid say.

For those of you who grew up in a hole (no reference intended,) or in another country, a “Trojan” or a “rubber,” now called a “condom,” is, by a Wiki definition, a “sheath-shaped barrier device, used during sexual intercourse to reduce the probability of pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection.”  There you have it.

So…  In Bob Greene’s column on his visit to the Trojan factory, he was met by one of the vice-presidents who escorted him around the facility, a place where roughly one million, two hundred sixty-nine thousand condoms are manufactured every day.  The place instantly made a particular impression on Greene, so that he had to start his interview with the question, “How do you stand the smell?”

The V-P answered, “What smell?”

Later he was shown the testing line.  This is a room with a countless number of sixty-foot long troughs.  On each side sat women who tested, as they called them, the “goods.”  Their job was to pick a condom out of a bin of such goods, unroll it on to a “form.”  The form was shaped like an average size — you guessed it — an average size penis.  Once the good was in place on the form, she would move a handle which dipped the now clothed form into an electrolyte solution.  If there were any leaks in the good, an electrical current would pass through and trigger an alarm.  This good was no good.  If no alarm sounded, she would roll up the good and pass it along to the next step in the process.

As Greene watched this process taking place hundreds of times in the few minutes he observed, he came to two undeniable conclusions.  First, he thought, this must be one of the most boring jobs in the world.

Second, he thought, each and every one of these women would probably make a great date.

I think this building is in Mount Airy, North Carolina.  I’m just happy to be here.

And then there’s Mayberry.

Even while checking in to our hotel, a display of photographs of movie actors is placed in the lobby.  Closer inspection reveals that all of these thespians played roles in a television series of the 1960s called, “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Over the next two days, the name Mayberry often appears here and there, as if it is the name of a fictional town.  Which it is.

I ask our hotel clerk. “Where is Mayberry?  What’s the connection?”

“Right here,” she says.


“You’re in Mayberry.”  She brings out a map from under the counter and points to about a thousand locations, all named Mayberry.  She says proudly, “Andy Griffith was born here.”

Neither Lisa nor I was ever a great fan of the television show, but we are fans of America, so we drove to downtown Mount Airy and were instantly transported to…  Mayberry.

Andy Griffith was a 20th century actor.  Many people know him from his eponymous award-winning television show.  Andy’s boyhood home is now a bed and breakfast owned and operated by the Hampton Inn of Mount Airy.  It’s called “Andy’s Homeplace.”

Mount Airy, it is suggested, was the template for Mayberry, the town where The Andy Griffith Show took place.  It wasn’t.  Rather it was the nearby town of Pilot Mountain.  And yet, every year, Mount Airy hosts a festival celebrating the sitcom.  It’s called “Mayberry Days.”

Pilot Mountain the town should not be confused with Pilot Mountain the mountain.  This next segment is about the mountain.

I have driven to the South many times usually on Interstate 77 through Virginia for part of the way.  Undulating on the mountain highway through southern Virginia, you can look to the southeast into North Carolina and see a knob-shaped prominence sticking up on the horizon at some distance.

Like a magnet, I was attracted to that knob, so at the end of the year 2000, I went over and climbed it.

This is Pilot Mountain, a metamorphic quartzite monadnock.  But you knew that.  At 2421 feet, it’s not a particularly high mountain, not at all, especially for North Carolina.  But it’s the 1400-foot prominence that makes it compelling.

Trailhead is to the east.  Once hiking, we circle the knob and make the final ascent up Little Pinnacle from the west.  The only way to actually summit Pilot Mountain, the Big Pinnacle, is with a technical climb.  Our feet are not technical, so instead we take some photos of the big knob.

As is the case on many trails, this one has blazes nailed to trees.  The blue ones are imprinted with a mileage designation.  This particular one is “2.3.”  You can count down or count up, depending on which direction you are hiking.  The only thing is, you don’t know what it is counting up from, or to.

Lisa discovers this “rock.”  After checking that there is no body in the sack, I send this photo to my friend Marc, who has lately been bitten with geocaching fever.

The name?  We are here in the Sauratown Mountains.  Originally, the Saura peoples called the mountain “Jomeokee” which means Great Guide or Pilot.  You can see this thing from a hundred miles away.

A little more than a half hour walk from the Andy Griffith Museum is Toast, North Carolina.  Toast, North Carolina is home to a Lion’s Den.  We drive right by it.

N’wait…  Toast?

Yeah.  Toast.  A community of roughly 1900 people in northern North Carolina.

At one time, the town had not yet been given a name, although there were several possibilities that were kicked around.  Here’s the account of the final choice of name as told by a Toast resident named Jerry P Snow.

“One day, in desperation, a gentleman took a shoe box off a shelf, saw the word toast on the box.  Toast was the color of the shoes contained within.  He then said, ‘What the hell, let’s just call it Toast!’”

But hark:  North Carolina has a state toast.  I’m not sure but I believe N C is the only state with an official toast (and with good reason.)  It goes like this…

Here’s to the land of the longleaf pine,
The summer land, where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great…

Here’s to ‘Down Home,’ the Old North State!

Make of this as you will.

Anyway, as I say, Toast has a Lion’s Den.  The Lion’s Den is a chain of stores that specialize in adult merchandise.  Their catchphrase…

Pleasure.  Passion.  Romance.

Better yet is the Motel 6 situated right next door.  Clever thinking, eh?

And whoa!  What’s this?  The Eng & Chang Memorial Bridge in Mount Airy?  Who knew?

Eng and Chang Bunker were twin brothers who were very close to one another.  In fact, when one went anywhere, the other always went too.

You might say that the Bunker brothers were joined at the hip.  Except they weren’t.  They were actually joined at the sternum.  They were Siamese-American and was the first pair to be referred to as Siamese twins.

Why is their memorial bridge in Mount Airy?  This small town is where they chose to settle after years on the road in freak shows, parlor conversations and demonstrations of athleticism.

“Joined at the sternum,” you say?  Yeah, a peculiar flexible structure made of flesh and cartilage connected the twins so they were arranged more or less facing each other while looking ahead at an angle.

“What kind of life is that?” you ask.  “How could they live?”

Pretty darned well.  In fact, the brothers integrated well into their community, became American citizens and businessmen, bought land snug up on Mount Airy, built a house and lived in luxury, married (their wives were sisters) and fathered 21 children between the two of them, so to speak.

A billboard.


In fact, I’ve tried the trout.  I tried the trout in South Carolina.  I tried the trout in the trout capital of the world, which is Alabama.  Or at least that is what I’ve heard.  I tried the trout somewhere else too, I don’t remember where.

At this point — trust me — I do not have to try the trout.

We’re trying to check in to a hotel in Columbia, South Carolina.  The desk jockey says he’s got a few rooms if we don’t mind the “hot water situation.”

“What does that mean, the ‘hot water situation?’”

“The hotel doesn’t have any hot water.  The guy came to fix it on Friday and now some of my guests are saying they have a little hot water, if they take a short lukewarm shower.  Is this okay with you?  Do you still want a room?”


“Um, yes?”

“So, the hot water is gone.  Is it mist?”

Soon they will pave it all, every marsh and fen.  The animals will die and we will die with them.  How much must be destroyed before people are satisfied?

— Adam Haslett

If you’ve been to the eastern coast of Florida, particularly the Gold Coast, you have seen one of America’s most ambitiously developed areas, with high-rises, businesses, resorts and waterfront properties crammed together in a never-ending row of residences, where once was marsh and fen.  This land is on the Atlantic Ocean where beaches are owned and closed.  Most people in the world are not permitted to step on this sand, lie in the sun or soak in the water on these beaches.  They have been here for thousands of years, maybe longer.  They might as well not be here anymore, these spectacular places restricted from use and appreciation by land owners.

Lucky for us tree-huggers, the Nature Conservancy took it upon itself to protect at least some of the land and marsh and fen.  Introducing, in 1969, Blowing Rocks Preserve, an area which now resembles a century-old South Florida barrier island.  Ecosystems, animals and plants are protected and preserved.  It’s an intact Florida dune habitat with beach sunflower, bay cedar, sea grape and sea oats. Yea!

Lisa and I walk out on the boardwalk leading to our sandy hike, and come upon this Eastern Indigo snake, lazing.

We walk under a canopy of Sea Grape parallel to the ocean shoreline, as the ceiling gives way to blue skies.

On the beach are irregularly shaped craggy limestone formations where the waves break, shooting water plumes forty feet into the air.

A fellow named George Bancroft was the U S Secretary of the Navy in the mid-1800s, and founder of the U S Naval Academy.  A particular submarine (SSBN-643) was the fourth ship named after him and was in service from 1965 until 1993.  At the end of its useful life, it was decommissioned and sent to salvage.  Such is the fate of nuclear powered submarines, for the sake of safety.

Not too far off our driving route is the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, on the North River in southeastern Georgia, home for the U S Navy Fleet of ballistic missile nuclear submarines armed with Trident weapons.  Security is tight here.

And yet, this full-sized Navy submarine is surfacing right out of the grass.

Often when crossing state borders on the interstate highway, you find a “Welcome Center” which…  ah, welcomes you to this state.  Driving north on Interstate 95 crossing the border from Florida to Georgia, behold one such welcome center, and behold the torpedo.

Having a few hours left in our day, we choose Bulow Creek State Park, an area lush with Southern live oak, for a short hike.  27% of Bulow is under water.  We don’t hike in any parts of the 27%.

Of all these thousands of acres of oak trees here, one is famous.  It’s called the Fairchild Oak and it is a beast.  An old beast at 400 years of age.  Several mysteries present.

First, an engraved bronze plaque under the tree claims an age of 2000 years.  Ancient or just old, the tree attracts wedding receptions, special events and folks like us.

Okay, it’s a big tree.  What’s the fun in that?  Well, two guys died under the Fairchild Oak.  One guy, James Ormond II, lived in a nearby house but was found dead under the tree.  No one knows why he died.

The second guy, Norman Harwood, bought this property around 1880.  He was a large man, he was a man in debt and from all accounts, he was a first-class prickasaurus.  He too, it is told, was found dead under the tree.  Nobody liked him.  He may have been poisoned.

The tree?  The Fairchild Oak?  Named after renowned botanist David Fairchild.  He was a big deal in the botany world — blah blah — but he is also noted for marrying Alexander Graham Bell’s daughter.  But you knew that.

Nobody dies under the tree while Lisa and I visit.

The Civetas

Four babe statues at the gateway to Mount Airy in North Carolina, and a fifth that stands in the rotunda of City Hall. 

Standing here since 1991, these goddesses are 20 feet tall which, if I have my facts straight, is a standard height for a goddess.

Community leaders interpret the symbols the goddesses hold above their heads as the four drivers of the city’s economy…

  • gears — business and industry
  • flame — knowledge and educational excellence
  • stars — inspiration and creativity
  • lightning bolt — energy for forward propulsion

What’s a “civitas?”  According to Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher 2000 years ago, plus or minus twenty minutes, and startlingly, a guy who looks a lot like Jeffrey Tambor,) the Civitas was the population of citizens united by law.

Okay, but wait.  This is the best part.

When these babes were designed and sculpted (by New York artist Audrey Flack,) they didn’t do too bad for themselves in the looks department.  As my dad used to say, they were quite curvy.  In fact, a bit too curvy for the local religious leaders who insisted that some degree of modesty be applied to their persons.  So they hired a crew of workers to file down their nipples.


Filed and defiled.

The fourth day of our trip.  We choose to feed the mosquitoes at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  This swampy land is snug up between the NASA Shuttle Landing Facility and the Mosquito Lagoon.

Alas, our five-mile loop hike reveals no alligator, no bobcat, no otter, manatee, deer, armadillo, lizard, snake or turtle, all of which, we are told, live here in abundance.  But we do see three raccoons and more bird life than countable.

We are told that Merritt Island is home to more endangered species than anywhere else in America.

One billboard proudly proclaims MEXICAN TACOS.

I wonder, is this to be able to tell them apart from, say, ISRAELI TACOS?  Or NEW HAMPSHIRE TACOS?

And when we get to southern Florida, here is my mother.  And here is my family, all for Mom’s 102nd birthday.

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