Jim Heffernan column: Gulf trip full of surprises

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist.

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Jim Heffernan
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DULUTH — Travel. So broadening, as they say (sometimes across the beam).

I recently got back from a car trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast up on the state’s panhandle and border with Alabama. Great weather, beautiful beaches, fine accommodations, good food, heavy traffic.

In fact the traffic was heavy almost all the way from Duluth to the Pensacola, Fla., area, near our destination. Maybe it’s COVID relief, but it’s almost bumper-to-bumper even on the many interstate freeways between here and there. Blame spring break.

Three days on the road (each way) gives you lots of time to contemplate things as you weave in and out of traffic, often surrounded by semitrucks — 18 wheelers that proliferate in some places.

Besides those huge trucks, the roads are filled with travelers in motor coaches or travel trailers, some pulling boats. Many of these are pretty elaborate. You get the feeling that if they could, some travelers would put wheels on Glensheen Mansion and attach the Titanic to the back.


Not us. Compact SUV — a rather recent model with all kinds of features I do not understand, especially a screen on the dashboard that allows travelers to do just about everything except vote for Supreme Court justices. My wife is much better at this tech stuff.

There was a slight problem with our dashboard gizmo though (aside from not understanding much of how it works). We did manage to hook up a smart phone to the GPS to guide us in our travels. For anyone not in the know, GPS stands for Global Positioning System in which a cadre of women in outer space tells everyone where to go. Not to hell in a handbasket, thank heaven.

Put in your destination and a space woman will tell you every highway to traverse, every turn to take. We call her Marika, and I want to thank her from the bottom of my tank (at these gas prices, that bottom is plenty ominous). I have known only one other Marika in my long life whom I suspect was pretty good at giving directions too.

But back to our slight problem. Every time we activated the GPS, the Count Basie orchestra would suddenly blare Christmas carols over the car’s speaker. It was usually “Good King Wenceslas.”

I have nothing against Count Basie or Good King Wenceslas, but you don’t exactly want to travel 1,500 miles with them. Some readers might not remember Count Basie, the famous and revered big band leader of the past. Good King Wenceslas, of course, looked out on the Feast of Stephen, when the snow was all about, deep and crisp and even. Like it was when we got back to Duluth just over a week ago. Ah, spring in the Northland.

Still, riding along with royalty — a count and a king — can get a little tiring pounding down the miles between Minnesota and Florida. They didn’t interrupt all the time, though. We figured out how to stop the music and still hear Marika bawl us out every time we veered from the highway to grab a bite of lunch. She got us back on track, though, every time.

While we were there we had our daughter and her children (AKA our grandchildren) join us for frolicking on the sandy beach and wading into the sometimes turbulent Gulf. (They frolic, I watch.) To their eternal credit, they flew to Pensacola, so we met them at the airport.

As everyone knows, waiting around airports these days can be challenging, even disconcerting. I always get the same feeling when I’m at an airport: It seems like everybody else here — travelers leaving or arriving, staff, of course — knows exactly what to do, where to go at all times and I am a befuddled fool who can’t even find a bathroom in my stocking feet.


Why is that? Did I miss something in my education-courses in Airport Navigation and Procedures 101? I have flown to Europe a few times, and never failed to feel like a dumbbell in the airports while Albert Einstein’s nephew and his friends confidently work their way through the maze, warmly greeting Madame Curie’s descendants along the way.

Fortunately, I wasn’t flying this time, just meeting travelers. But I never did figure out which gate they would be coming out of until there they were, all smiles and excited to hit the beach.

Well, anyway, we’re safely back in Duluth and that’s fine. Our arrival home was greeted with a thick Twin Ports fog. We could barely see our home community. So as the sun set foggily in the west, we bade farewell to Count Basie and Good King Wenceslas as well as the reliable Marika. I think I’ll miss them. Just a bit.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at and can be reached by email at .

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Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at and can be reached by email at
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