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Keeping Score

By land or air

Good morning!

Early last February I purchased a new Subaru Legacy that gets roughly twice the gas mileage as my trade-in, a Toyota 4Runner. In four months I’ve put over 18,000 miles on the odometer. See the world today in my Subaru. Three times I’ve been to Florida, all by car. Taking Amtrak would be fun, but it cost $1,926 for a sleeper car round trip from New York City to Miami.

Airplane travel is quickest but there’s no enjoyment to flying. It’s a cattle call, people lunging for overhead luggage, babies screaming and flights delayed. Last year my son Mat was at Bradley Airport to take a flight to Philly and a connecting flight to Kansas City. “There was an enormous line. My flight was cancelled till the next day. I got a refund and drove to Kansas City.”

The apple doesn’t fall from the tree.

Two weeks ago a jetBlue flight from Boston to Palm Beach was struck by lightning and made an emergency landing in Newark, of all places. “The crew kept us so calm,” a passenger told The Palm Beach Post, “I didn’t hear one scream.”

On a recent 108-degree day in Las Vegas, an Allegiant Airlines plane was stuck on the tarmac for two hours without air conditioning. According to the Huffington Post, one passenger got a bloody nose, another vomited on her way to the bathroom and a third passed out.

A few years ago I was aboard a flight from Palm Beach to Tampa when a passenger complained of a strange odor. The flight attendant speculated it was emanating from the cargo hold. “Somebody that died on vacation,” she guessed. “It happens.”

Traveling by car means plenty of room for suitcases, coolers, foldout chairs, and smelly running shoes. I’m the pilot. I can stop and go and change my route however I like.

After I arrived in Florida a Philadelphian asked why I would be down south in June. “Some people go to Cape Cod in the winter,” I shrugged.

But here’s why. In June the hotel rates are low, the traffic is light and the restaurants are empty. And I like Florida, just not the way most people like it.

The Gallery Grille in Tequesta has become one of my favorite lunchtime haunts. One afternoon I was enjoying an iced tea and corned beef on rye next to the maitre d’ stand where owner Bruce Nierman was handing out menus. “I opened on a shoestring,” he told me. “Nobody would give me a loan, including my own brother and he’s well off.”

Restaurants are notoriously volatile businesses but Nierman’s eatery has been open 12 years and been written up as one of the 25 best in Palm Beach County. Prior to going it alone he had partnered at the same location with actor Burt Reynolds. “I had to entertain his friends and keep them happy. It wasn’t fun.”

Today the 77-year-old Reynolds is in bad health and bankrupt. “He opened a restaurant chain but never incorporated. It folded and he lost $30 million,” said Nierman. “To make money he had to take roles in bad movies.”

In 1972 Reynolds starred in “Deliverance” based on the book by James Dickey. It was a man’s man of a movie about surviving a wilderness trip gone awry. The canoe that was used during filming is in the Burt Reynolds Museum off Route 1 in Jupiter, but there’s no remembrances of his 1993 role in “Cop and a Half” for which he got the Razzie Award for Worst Actor.

“It’s sad, comparing his downward career to Clint Eastwood’s success,” said Nierman. “He’s broke. His house in Hobe Sound has three mortgages on it. They’d kick him out if he wasn’t who he is.”

Shortly after I arrived Tropical Storm Andrea formed in the Gulf of Mexico and swept over Palm Beach County, leaving a half-foot of rain and tornado damage. “Welcome to sunny Florida,” joked my cousin Pete Weiss who lives in Vero.

During my entire stay I never saw the ocean, instead opting for long, solitary trail runs in Jonathan Dickinson State Park where there are deer, raccoons, feral hogs, red cardinals, green snakes, black snakes and Florida scrub jays, a rarer and mellower version of the blue jay. The swamps and ponds teemed with the noise of frogs croaking, peepers peeping and hogs snorting.

“It energizes them,” park ranger Barry Richardson said of the tropical rains’ effect on wildlife. “Yesterday turkeys got in front of a car and pecked on the grill. The driver blew the horn and they’d jump straight up and start pecking again. It was crazy, like a monkey ripping off a wiper blade over at the Lion (Country) Safari.”

The wet weather has wakened the dormant eggs of the dreaded gallinipper, also called the hairy-legged zebra, a quarter-sized mosquito with a bite described as like “pulling a hook out of skin.” They’ve yet to invade South Florida, but the Jonathan Dickinson wetlands will be a prime habitat for these dreaded mutant insects.

The rains moved northward and the Florida State League baseball games resumed at Roger dean Stadium. Tickets cost $8.50 and programs were two bucks. Attendance numbered in the hundreds inside the 8,000-seat stadium and I had an entire section to myself behind third base.

It was dollar hot dog night but I opted for a hot sausage grinder topped with onions and red peppers. “That should be nice and gooey and messy, just the way we like it,” said the vendor.

In the men’s room a message on a urinal said, “Bud Selig Memorial Fountain.” Underneath the grandstand a father and his two sons pored over an all-star ballot. In a box seat behind the Palm Beach Cardinals’ dugout the team mascot sat legs crossed, wing splayed and its bright red head and large yellow beak pointed toward the baseball diamond, taking a break between posing for photos.

The roster was composed mostly of second- and third-year players. The lone exception was Giancarlo Stanton, the mighty Marlins slugger who was on his last day of rehab. He batted leadoff and grounded out to the pitcher, walked and popped to first base. The games went fast. The pitchers worked quickly and the batters went to the plate swinging.

I began my trip home at 10 a.m. on a weekday morning. The coffee was working and I thought I could go nonstop. Easily. I wanted to outrun the severe weather moving into the northeast from the Ohio Valley.

At a gas stop in Beaufort, South Carolina, I bought two ripe peaches at a roadside stand. The farmer picked both up with one hand and tossed them into a paper bag.

“Hundred degrees,” I said.

“Ninety-five in the shade,” he replied.

In the summer, late night driving on the Interstates isn’t any easier than during the day. The New Jersey Turnpike at 2 a.m. was a trip through the Twilight Zone. Work crews toiled under the blinding glare of construction lights. At the George Washington Bridge, the lower deck was closed. Hapless two-axle motorists like myself fended for existence between gridlocked tractor-trailer rigs.

Desperate to escape them I exited onto the Henry Hudson Parkway to the Sawmill River Parkway to the Taconic Parkway and eventually onto Interstate 84 toward Hartford. It was sunrise and the early commuters were driving like maniacs trying to get to their jobs on time.

On I-91 in Springfield electronic messaging boards warned that the northbound lane was closed in Holyoke because of a truck rollover. After 1,400 miles of continuous driving the last leg would be through South Hadley and Amherst. It was 8 a.m. when I turned off the car in Northfield.

The trip back had taken 22 hours. Next time I think I’ll fly down.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.

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