There are many things my family learns -- about ourselves and the surroundings -- on our annual drive south along Interstate 75, which connects Ontario with Florida. Some of it is helpful, such as how to bypass rush hours in major cities like Atlanta, Ga. Some of it is less helpful but far more titillating, like the fact there's a nude RV park somewhere near I-75 in Florida -- it's true, just consult one of those giant billboards!
Here are some memorable facts we learned along the way:
Fact: Most children' eyes roll back in their heads when parents start with the history lessons. Still, it's probably important to note I-75 was conceived in the 1950s as the first major link between America's northeastern and southeastern states. The highway connects Michigan in the north with five other states: Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.
Fact: Even before I-75 was completed in the 1960s, Canadian families and earlier generations of snowbirds were driving toward Florida's warmth and sun any way they could. A popular route was the single-lane Old Dixie Highway, whose signature DH initials were painted on utility poles along the roadside.
Fact: I-75 is 2,875 km from end to end. We tell our children if we travelled non stop at 100 kph, it would take just about 29 hours to drive the whole thing, but unless you have a really big gas tank, we're not sure that is even possible.
Fact: Our kids always say they want to drive straight through in one shot from Toronto to the beaches of Florida -- until somewhere around Cincinnati, when the roadside motels with heated pools and free waffles for breakfast seem far more appealing.
Fact: There are at least eight Tim Hortons coffee shops along I-75, filled with desperate Canadians and bewildered Americans. Unfortunately the Tims are concentrated in Michigan and Ohio. South of Lexington, it's rough on kids who have to go without their signature road trip food: Sprinkled doughnuts. It can be rough on parents, too.
Fact: Between in-car movies and Nintendo DS Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Winter Games battles, it's fun to actually communicate with the outside world. We do it with poster notes between Florida-bound mini-vans: "We're going to Disney World, how 'bout you?"
Fact: I-75 rest stops -- not necessarily gas stations -- are clean, convenient and well-laid out with pathways for kids whose parents need them to run around. They're also great spots to meet cute dogs.
Fact: The welcome centres near state lines in Florida, Kentucky and Georgia are must-stops if only to pinpoint yourself on a giant map and find out neat stuff like the state flower and the state capital. Bonus: Florida's I-75 Welcome Centre serves fresh orange juice.
Fact: Welcome Centres and rest stops are the best spots to pick up coupon booklets offering discounts on roadside accommodation. Families be warned though: Most deals are for one or two people only. Add a third or fourth to the hotel room and the coupons are worthless. In those case, request a CAA or CARP member discount.
Fact: Some Welcome Centres have hotel representatives on site who are happy to make reservations for you farther down the line. Their rates are likely the best, but don't stress too much about having to secure reservations at a roadside motel -- along I-75 there's at least one inn at practically every exit.
Fact: Tired and hungry, our family stumbled late one afternoon into a roadside Drury Hotel and made this happy discovery: Free food and drinks at 5:30. Nachos, wings, wine, beer, pop, hotdogs -- all of it free with a night's stay, along with wireless Internet, a warm pool and a hot breakfast. Ask for the eSaver rate. See DruryHotels.com.
Fact: If you can rip your kids' away from their beloved Nintendos, there is lots of cool stuff to experience alongside I-75. A fun source is RoadsideAmerica.com (website and app), which bills itself as an online guide to offbeat tourist attractions. For example: Lima, Ohio, is home to a county museum that houses Dillinger's jail cell, Noah's Ark, and a collection of weird objects swallowed by humans.
Fact: Wapakoneta, Ohio, is the hometown of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. The Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum at I-75 exit 111 includes Armstrong's space suits and a moon rock from the Apollo 11. See ArmstrongMuseum.org.
Fact: More legend than fact, young children are fascinated by the story of the princess who was slain soon after her marriage to a handsome prince. Her long golden hair was draped over thousands of oak trees evident along the I-75 roadside in Georgia and Florida. Eventually the hair turned grey, and adults started calling it Spanish Moss.
Fact: Dave Hunter's book, Along I-75, is an addictive resource, full of invaluable tips, maps and interesting facts. It's available for sale at CAA stores, as well as Chapters, Indigo, and some roadside stops along I-75. See I75online.com.