PALM BEACH, Fla. "Red Navels and Hot Nuts" read a big handwritten sign by a roadside stand out in the middle of nowhere on a lonely stretch of a two-lane road in central Florida.
"Gator Jerkies and Boiled Peanuts" read the next sign.
The only other signs of life were some "No Trespassing" and "Ron Paul" posters nailed to trees.
Central Florida with its sagebrush and wide, empty landscapes is the kind of lonesome place that gives you the willies, reminiscent of Joan Didion’s description of a place she called "a senseless killing neighborhood."
We rode for hours and saw nothing but burned-out sugar cane fields and a maximum security prison, the kind of foreboding structure that housed Ted Bundy.
No wonder Walt Disney was inspired by the empty (and cheap) land to create his escapist fantasy world — Cinderella’s Castle, a Magic Kingdom and midnight fireworks.
A Marxist literature professor I knew in the 1970s believed that the whole Disney empire was a capitalist plot to undermine the revolutionary consciousness of the poor. Lovable Mickey Mouse was created, she argued, to make the downtrodden more accepting of rats in their dilapidated surroundings.
Not exactly pioneering in terms of radical thought, her Mickey analysis was actually just a variation of Marx’s portrayal of religion as a giant pacifier, myths created by the oppressor class to keep the subjugated ones focused on the hope of pie-in-the-sky in the hereafter, lest they revolt to improve their condition here on earth.
Down the beach at the Harbour Beach Marriot in Fort Lauderdale, we saw an elegant outdoor wedding where the bridal party and the hundred or so guests were eating in the dark on a patio by the water. I asked our waiter why they were dining with all the lights turned off, their only light coming from some small candles on the tables, most of which were flickering and repeatedly blowing out in the sea breeze.
"We have to turn off all outside lights from March through October because light confuses the turtles during breeding season," he explained. "The newborns are fooled into thinking the outdoor lights are moonlight. Even the TV screens in the bar have to be turned around so they can’t be seen from the beach. The save-the-turtles people sit on the beaches sometimes until four a.m. and report us if they see any lights."
The long brownout begins when female turtles make their way onto the beach to dig holes in the sand with their back flippers, laying about 100 eggs each, and then covering them over with sand.
It then takes about 60 days before the hatchlings break out of their shells and head for the ocean at night, attracted by the moonlight on the water.
Going on for eons, this whole design of nature goes off track if bar TVs or lit-up weddings cause the hatchlings to head in the wrong direction.
The darkened beach towns are following the national turtle guidelines issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. What the coastal hospital industry needs is a turtle that can tell the difference between a TV and the moon.
Our trip ended as it began — putting our car on the longest passenger train in the world, Amtrak’s AutoTrain.
The roundtrip price: $334.80 for two rail tickets, $360 for the car, and $830 for a "large" bedroom (still small, with bunk beds — me on top, squeezed like Charlie the Tuna).
Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics and the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.
Ralph R. Reiland
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