Ten Days to St. Petersburg

Marian Robertson

© Copyright 2005 by Marian Robertson

 The trip of this story is just one of many grand adventures Marian Robertson has fallen into in her life.  A lover of travel, who has taken travel-by-the book cruises and ordinary tourist type trips, she has a collection of off beat haphazard travels which brighten her memories.  She has had a lifetime of adventures an ordinary person just would not think to order.

In the spring of 1980, my sister’s recently widowed mother-in-law, Kit, who had come to live with her in Colorado wanted to return to her home in St. Petersburg, Florida to see to the sale of her home and have her household goods moved to Fort Morgan.

Before I go any further, I need to tell you about Kit.  She is my sister, Sylvia’s, widowed step-mother-in-law.  After Kit’s husband, John P. Buggle Senior died in January of 1980, she returned to Colorado with Sylvia.  In 1980, we didn’t know her well, having only met her briefly at Sylvia’s husband John’s funeral in 1973 and briefly at Christmastime in 1976 when we went to Florida to spend Christmas with Sylvia.  But when she came to Colorado with Sylvia in January of 1980, we warmed to her as to a special grandmother bestowed upon the whole family.  She is an unusual mother-in-law.  I think of her as my other mother-in-law and she is Gram to my kids also.

Kit is a small, by my standards, woman, maybe five three or five four weighing maybe 100 lbs. if you dipped her full length in a vat of water while she was wearing a heavy coat and boots.   (In her prime, she was 5’5 ½ ” and weighed 120 lbs.  This lady is so thin, I’m not sure she has muscles between her skin and her bones.  She seems so small as to be almost shrinking before your very eyes.  She has a face with character crinkles permanently molded into deep crevices on the kindest countenance you ever saw, set with the twinkling blue eyes of a Leprechaun.  Those blue eyes sparkle interchangeably with orneriness and love.

As I was the only one unemployed at the time, I cheerfully – no eagerly – agreed to accompany her in her nice new blue Thunderbird for an unsupervised un-rushed trip.  I needed to be back in Fort Morgan before May first, ten or twelve days away, but we were only going to have a three day drive to Florida, for Heaven sakes.  I had already learned that I liked Kit.  She had a sparkling sense of humor, was totally un-overbearing, non-manipulative, un-stressed.  You get the picture.  She had already become one of the family.

We packed the car full of a suitcase apiece, plus overnight cases, and two or three boxes of essentials – those things that were going to make this trip totally carefree – a toaster, a coffee pot, bread, butter, bread-n-butter pickles, and the finest in deli-sandwich meats and cheeses.  We didn’t wish to be tied to inconvenient restaurants or eating schedules.

Of course, Kit’s little Chihuahua, Mickey, accompanied us.  He was old and going blind and she wouldn’t have abandoned him even temporarily but he was no disruption during the drive.

Our first stop on day one was in Greeley, fifty miles to the west – the opposite direction from where we were headed, where Kit was scheduled to get her hair cut.  Had we not been going to Greeley on our way out, we would have just dropped south out of Brush and taken Highway 71 to Rocky Ford then headed east.  I was champing at the bit to get on our way, but we would still get out of Greeley around noon.  The day was overcast with maybe a threat of rain – nothing to note.

We left Greeley planning to take I-25 and drop south through Colorado Springs and Pueblo, head east to La Mar then drop south through Boise City, Oklahoma and on down to I-10.  As we headed south, I told her all about the beauty of the Switzerland of America – the mountains around Ouray in Southwestern Colorado.  She had never been into the Rocky Mountains so we enthusiastically decided we could take a little jog in our trip Southeast and headed southwest out of Denver on highway 285 toward Fairplay intending to angle through the Mountains to Durango because it was so beautiful and she needed to se it.

As we headed up Kenosha Pass oohing and aahing over the pristine beauty, it started to snow.  The snow did nothing but cause me to stop more often to get, “one more,” unbelievable picture.  Millions of fat white flakes fell lazily turning the bone thin aspen on the desolate brown/gray mountains into pristine works of art among the geometric frozen rocks.  The snow stacking on their skeletal branches made them look like silhouette etchings.  We didn’t even notice that there was snow on the highway until after I had availed myself of just one more of the plentiful pull-offs.  When I put the car in gear to get back onto the highway, it had no traction.  The mud under the accumulating snow was slick and the tires didn’t want to do anything but spin.  After a little going backwards then going forwards, I finally got enough traction to drive onto the highway.  I was going to be more careful about getting too far from the asphalt in snow-covered mud.  It still didn’t tell us anything.

For those not familiar with Colorado, while it may have been technically spring, there is no springtime in the Rockies as the song says.  While the sub-zero weather is past, winter really isn’t gone.  We take that for granted.  Heavy wet snow in the spring is normal, nothing to get excited about.

By then the snow had accumulated on the highway enough that if I didn’t drive in the existing tracks, I lost control.  I drove along in the tracks going slower and slower, knowing if I slowed down too much, I wouldn’t be able to go at all and that if I drove too fast, I’d lose control.  We were still a few miles east of Fairplay, but figured we could make it that far and get a motel.  I crept along in the ever increasing line of cars creeping along on the increasingly slick road.  By now, it was taking all of my concentration to drive.  Suddenly, I lost control of the car and it was sliding in a spin.  After the second when I was sure that the tail of Kit’s beautiful new Thunderbird was going to clip one of the reflector posts at the side of the road that we referred to as lollypops, we were faced east in the other lane of the highway.  I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t caused damage to her beautiful new car and we had a quick discussion and decided that when we got to Fairplay, we would be stranded so we might as well go back and head down I-25.  We just kept right on going the direction the highway had turned us.  Over the next three to four hours, we had a learning experience.  We learned that if the highway was slick and snow covered going west, it was slick and snow covered going back the way we came – up hill and over the pass, which was a whole lot further than the two miles we would have had to drive to get to Fairplay.  As a matter of fact, by the time we turned around and went back, considering how long it had been snowing, we drove through more snow on the highway going back.

By the time we pulled into a motel in Colorado Springs that night, one hundred forty miles from home, it was late, dark, and we were exhausted.  We made toast and coffee and fell into bed.  We decided to go to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico instead.  The motel we stayed in in Colorado Springs didn’t allow pets so we had to sneak Mickey in.

The next day, we drove in the tracks in the snow on the highway almost all of the way to Santa Fe before running out of it.  We pulled into Albuquerque after dark – dead tired.  Kit had been keeping an eye out for a Best Western Motel because she wanted to stay in motels that were clean.  She spotted a sign that said, “Western Motel,” and pointed me towards it.  When we pulled into the parking space by the office at the almost dark antiquated motel, we knew it wasn’t a Best Western, but we didn’t care.  We were whupped.  The grizzly old man with the Coke bottle glasses who registered us looked like a cranky walrus.  We went to our room immediately checking for cockroaches when we turned on the light.  It was antiquated all right, but looked clean.  We got out our toaster and coffee pot and started our supper in our room which had multiple posted signs, “No cooking in room.”  I went looking for a pop machine because I thought a nice cold soda pop would just hit the spot.  The pop machine I found was also antiquated.  It had eight ounce bottles of Coke – which had dust on them.  It could be wiped off.  The next morning, we slept late and had showered and dressed and packed our suitcases and boxes and were getting ready to carry them out to the car when Mr. Grump came banging on the door to tell us check-out time was in ten minutes.  We explained to him that we knew it was at ten o’clock and showed him our suitcases lined up in front of the door to carry out.  We had on our coats and were obviously in the process of vacating the room.  He wouldn’t quit haranguing us that if we were there after check-out time, he would charge us for another day.  We started to think he was going to keep us there griping at us until after ten o’clock.  He did finally move and allow us to get our stuff out the door and into the car.  To this day, we call that motel Mr. Grump’s place.

We looked on our map and learned that Carlsbad Caverns was not even at Carlsbad New Mexico.  It’s at Whites City.  We headed south relishing the warming weather and oohing and aahing at the wild alyssum.  We pulled into parking lot at Carlsbad Caverns a little after four-thirty, ready to tour the caverns.  When we got to the ticket counter, we learned that the last tour of the day was just coming out.  We could tour tomorrow.  Okay.  They let us walk back into the exit a block or so along the asphalt paths to look at the colorfully lighted formations.  While we were talking to the ranger we learned that they had a tour of “New Cave” going the next day that still has a couple of openings.  That sounded interesting; so, we signed up for it and paid for our tickets and received instructions for what to bring and directions to this cave, which was about twenty miles away.  We got a motel nearby and got a good night’s sleep.  The next morning, we headed of for our exciting adventure, arriving at the parking lot one and one-half hours before the tour as instructed.  It took us the whole hour and a half to hike up the path to the unmarked mouth of an almost invisible cave.  Kit didn’t have the hiking boots they required for the hike because the only thing she wore were cowboy boots.  I had tennis shoes with good soles, but not the nice gripper soles they recommended.  We had one flashlight between us, not the flashlight apiece the instructions called for; but we would stay together and we could share.

We learned that bat guano (manure) is slick when wet, and in caves it is always wet.  We learned that “New Cave,” had no asphalt paths or lights and had been found about twenty years ago.  Our flashlight died before we had been in the cave an hour of the more than three hour tour.  Someone else brought up the rear and we kept a good eye on the guy in front of us.  It was an awesome experience, especially when the guides got us into the big cavern and had everyone turn their flash lights off.  After making sure that we all understood the depths of disorientation with no light – not even ambient light, the guides had everyone with flashlights shine them in the same direction.  It was a maybe thirty foot tall white crystal formation that looked like a perfectly shaped Christmas tree – covered with snow.  The Christmas tree formation was one of the most beautiful formations I’ve ever seen.  Fortunately the strobe on my camera didn’t die and I got some fantastic pictures.  By the time the tour was over around one o’clock., we were almost too tired to hike the mile and a half back down the steep mountain path by which we’d come up.  By the time we got back to the car, everyone else from the tour was long gone.  We made sandwiches and ate alone out there in the desert.  We spent a second night there then headed east through El Paso.

If you’ve never gone from El Paso, Texas to Orange, Texas, leave yourself plenty of time.  It’s eleven hundred miles.  We drove from where we stayed in New Mexico to San Antonio that day – interstate all the way.  Texas interstates have miles and miles of small Texas bluebonnets and red flowers that look like a short clover.  They are beautiful.  We arrived in San Antonio in time to find a restaurant on the River Walk and eat on the patio.  Then we strolled down the river walk drinking pina coladas at each new patio bar we came to.  Pretty soon, we realized we had run out of patio bars and we were in an area that didn’t look too safe.  By the time we realized we were in the wrong place, we realized we didn’t even know how to get back to our hotel.  By very careful, non-excited experimenting down one path then down another, we got back to a commercial looking area again and found our way to the street.  We were still four or five blocks from the hotel.   Then we went to the Space Needle.  We went into the bar and ordered a drink and were thoroughly enjoying the view of San Antonio from such a high vantage point when they suddenly they called last drink and we hurriedly ordered one more and looked at our watches and at each other.  It was only ten o’clock.  Whoever heard of a bar closing at ten in the evening?  As we rode down the elevator, we asked other patrons what time zone we were in.  Most of them didn’t know, but one of the people told us we were in the Central time zone.  That accounted for one hour.  We asked if daylight savings time had started that day.  Nobody knew.  We learned later that daylight savings time had started that day and we had changed time zones.  Oh well, we could use the sleep.   We found a hotel.  It was a beautiful big hotel in downtown San Antonio.  They gave us a break on the price because according to their watches it was the middle of the night.  We thankfully accepted it.  We carted our stuff in.  We had snacks and watched cartoons for two or three hours.  We didn’t even know there were cartoons on television in the middle of the night.

The next morning, we looked for the sunken garden and toured it.  It had been an old rock quarry.  There were plants and flowers growing from every nook and cranny down its rock walls.  They had huge fish that looked like goldfish and some that looked like mottled gold fish.  We learned then it had been opened the evening before.  We had the idea it wouldn’t be open after dark. After enjoying the sunken garden, we headed east on Interstate-10.  We spent the night in some non-memorable town over in east Texas.

The next day, we drove into New Orleans and decided we needed to stay in the French Quarter.  We looked at our map to find its boundaries and then found a quaint hotel surrounding a completely enclosed garden on the edge of the Quarter.  After checking in and carting all of our stuff to our room, we walked out the back gate and up the alley and headed over to Bourbon Street about which we had heard so much.  It was a beautiful early evening – still light out when we went into our first bar.  This bar had a stripper swinging on a trapeze.  As we had our drinks and watched, we figured we could do better.  I had always wanted to try a Singapore Sling mixed drink; so I ordered one when Kit ordered her Scotch and water.  What a nasty drink.  It tasted like mouthwash.  After we left there, we found a little eatery that opened onto the sidewalk so we got Shrimp Tempura on a stick.  It was wonderful.  We looked in all of the shop windows with their brightly colored offerings.  We bought beautiful brightly colored blouses made out of silk scarves – which looked great on the manikins – and made us look like hookers.  I bought Bob suggestive underwear.  We bar hopped looking for the one with the best jazz music.

As we walked along the street it became dark and the crowds grew.  In no time at all, the sidewalks and the street were full of people.  A little Black kid who looked to be ten or twelve years old was dancing in the street outside of one of the bars whose music could be heard outside.  He was fabulous.  He had a cardboard beer flat he would throw on the ground and people would throw money in it.  He could spot a cop car a mile away.  It didn’t take long for us to figure out that if he picked up his box and disappeared a marked patrol car with overheads would appear.  When it would be a block or so past us, the kid would materialize and throw his then empty box on the street and dance some more.  We stood and enjoyed the show for quite a while before we walked on to the next bar.  We found one that had great music and settled into a corner to listen and drink.  They had three bands that would play for an hour or so then trade off.  We had a Black guy who was doing pencil drawings of patrons do one of us.  It took him half an hour or so.  He sat at the table and talked to us as he drew.  As we watched his work upside-down, it looked like a perfect likeness of the two of us.  When we turned it right side up, we could recognize it as us, but it wasn’t as perfect as we thought it could be.  But, we were glad to have it and it was a fun experience.  We stayed there so long the first band that we had heard when we came in was playing again.  When we finally got up to leave, around 0200, the band leader stopped the band and said, “Lets give these ladies a hand.  They’ve stayed with us for the whole night.”  We were embarrassed as everyone clapped for us.

There weren’t nearly as many people out on the street when we headed back toward our hotel.  We only had four or five blocks to walk.  When we got off of Bourbon Street, the streets were pretty much deserted.  As we got to the block our hotel was in, we saw a Black guy and a white guy sitting on the step in front of one of the buildings.  We had to walk past them to get to our hotel.  We just have looked at them a bit askance because the Black guy said as we passed, “Don’t worry ladies.  We’re not going to get up and follow you, (Pause) but we should, because you’re fools for being out this time of night.  (I didn’t learn until in the late 1990’s after I became a law enforcement officer that the crime in the French Quarter is so high that they have two plain clothes officers stationed per block.  We have no doubt they were cops – who thought we were fools.)

The sign on the back of the door in our room said checkout time was 1:00 p.m. which suited us just fine because we slept late.  We were showering and getting ourselves ready to pack up when just before noon the front desk called to find out when we were checking out because check-out time was noon.  They told us the sign on the door is wrong, we needed to look at our check-in papers.  We scrambled.

The rest of our trip to St. Petersburg was just peaceful driving looking at the swamps and the spring flowers.  We spent a night somewhere on the Gulf Coast of Florida then went on to Kit’s house at St. Petersburg.  She had a beautiful little house with a swimming pool, as did just about everyone else in the neighborhood.  They had swimming pools the way the rest of us had back yards.

It was a great trip – I’m sure the most relaxing one I have ever taken in my life.

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