Interstate 4. It is a unique highway which is cursed by many drivers in Central Florida, and many more who come here in search of rest and relaxation. While Californians raise all highways to royal status — Interstate 5, for one, is referred to as "the five", as if it were some kind of important personage — Floridians just call their central artery I-four. My decision to chronicle I-4 was sparked by a recent experience. Along with my family, I was caught in a traffic jam as we headed east on I-4 outside of Disney World. I have been stuck on this very spot many times. But on this trip, as we sat listening to Janis Joplin, something new happened.
Along this stretch, one can take an off-ramp that runs parallel to the interstate, linking it to one of Central Florida’s toll roads. It travels for a couple miles in close proximity, and is elevated along a ridge of grass about 10 feet above the surface of I-4.
A ditch and a grassy embankment separate the off ramp and the interstate. As we watched, a driver in the right lane of I-4 turned off of the interstate, crossed the shoulder, went down into the ditch, and climbed up onto the parallel road, speeding away and out of the traffic jam. At first, one person did it, and then others followed. And then, about 500 feet ahead, we saw another stream of cars doing the exact same thing. And then, ahead of that stream, yet another stream of drivers drove over the embankment. It wasn't one or two cars, it was dozens and dozens; an en masse sheet flow ripping up the grass. People, fed up with the traffic mess, had taken matters into their own hands. And they were speeding away.
That is a phenomenon I haven’t seen before: collective abandonment of a pathway, even one that is highly discouraging. But then, maybe it's nothing new. I-4 has inspired bizarre and unusual behavior for years.
Back in 2012, I shared some highlights of this unique roadbed. For example, a haunted part lies, perhaps not coincidentally, close to the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. Just a couple of weeks ago, a section of the underbrush along the highway's edge was cleared, revealing a hillside cemetery. At the fence line there was newly painted stucco. In this area, I-4 is rumored to have a ghost or two from an early pioneer family that walks along the side of the road. Whether the highway was paved over part of the cemetery or the high-speed rumblings awakened the dead remains to be investigated.
In the 1980s and 1990s, living in Tampa, I actually kept an I-4 log book in the car. Occasionally an incident was worth writing down, but it ended up mostly as an inventory of objects encountered along the interstate:
• About 300 feet ahead of me a cardboard box tumbled off the rear bed of a pickup truck. The rolling, disintegrating contents included a boat chair on a 2 foot tall post and a light with wires flying off of it. I drove right over them. The chair made a very loud clunk.
• In Lakeland, a road crosses over I-4, with a ramp that goes down the embankment and turns abruptly onto I-4, sort of like a driveway. There is no acceleration lane because a railroad bridge abutment is immediately ahead. At this entrance ramp, one late afternoon I was behind a pickup truck without a gate that rolled down the ramp and accelerated quickly to merge into traffic. As it did, a huge, greasy black transmission fell off of the back. The ground shook when it hit, and I heard the thud.
• Malfunction Junction is the intersection of I-4 and I-275 in Tampa. I was travelling south on I-275 heading underneath I-4, driving my parents' 1972 Ford Torino station wagon. This is a tank of a car, all steel with a 302 V-8 engine. I still have dreams about it. I was going perhaps 50 early on a Sunday morning into downtown. Ahead of me by about 6 car lengths was a rusty pickup truck stacked with bales of hay. As the highway ducks under the I-4 bridge, it curves right and it slopes. The pickup was just under the bridge when a bale of hay fell off of it. With no possible reaction time, I plowed right into the hay. The nose of a Torino actually comes to a point, which sliced into the bale of hay, and blew it apart as I drove through, leaving behind a huge, golden-tan cloud. It didn't leave a scratch on the car — only a single hay straw was stuck in the windshield wiper. What stands out about this incident, even today, was that the hay gave no resistance whatsoever: when the car hit it did not shudder or make any noise at all. It was like driving through smoke. Such was the power of the Torino.
These incidents now seem almost archaic; circus sideshows from a bygone era. They are great Florida folk tales, stories of bubbas for after dinner entertainment. The events are faraway both in time and in spirit from the darker forces that haunt our population on the road today.
Those who are here on vacation, trying to relax and enjoy some family time, are tormented by a solid, stopped-up traffic-choked road full of millions of others who have come here to do the exact same thing. People reached a threshold of pain and crossed it, taking matters into their own hands and seeking stress relief during a vacation that was planned as stress relief in the first place. I-4 has become a metaphor for our times.
2009 and 2010 were years that really beat people up. By 2011 and 2012, many had adjusted their expectations and gotten really cynical about the future. Last year, things changed again. For some, the world has gotten worse. For those who were so swiftly unemployed and have become re-employed, the new working conditions are different. They work much harder, for less than before. They face uncertainty every single day, a holdover from the white-knuckled years. The stress wears on the inner compass, and the temptation to cut corners gets greater and greater.
When brazen self-interest spreads like wildfire, a sort of highway mob rule, if you will, I think that we as a society may be on the edge of something new and wild, as if the guardrails of rationality have weakened.
This little incident on Interstate 4 may be isolated, or it might be a symptom of a sea change. People who have been patient and docile have taken a beating over the last several years. We have put up with mental and emotional abuse as we've tried to make the world better for our children. In doing so, we've — mostly — stayed grimly entrenched in the collective good; the shared social values and the rule of law over men.
But when one or two people break off and steer their own course, how quickly many others follow. These are dangerous times, and our inner moral compasses are more important than ever before. We didn't preserve our collective sanity through all of the wicked and sorrowful events of the recent past, only to lose it all now. In the coming year, we must hold on for a little longer, and rebuild moral capital for future generations.
Richard Reep is an architect and artist who has been designing award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects, domestically and internationally, for the last thirty years . He is Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, teaching urban design and sustainable development. His writing has focused on art and architectural criticism, and on localism and its importance in establishing sense of place. He resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.
Flickr photo by Dean Shareski: Traffic on I-4, Orlando.