CLEVELAND, Tenn. - The deer stood right on the grassy median of I-75 northbound in central Tennessee, nonchalantly nibbling on foliage as cars and tractor-trailers whizzed past on a cool, gray winter's morning.
The deer was just about where Dave Hunter said it would be. Hunter is the author of Along Interstate 75, a mile-by-mile look at the highway that thousands of snowbirds use to get to sunny Florida and back each winter.
On almost every I-75 drive, we have seen deer feeding in the roadside tree fringe or in the wide median areas - please be careful since they scare easily and may bolt across the road in front of you, he notes in the ninth edition of his travel book.
Our deer decided to stay put for the time being. But it wouldn't be the first time on the 2,200-mile roundtrip journey my wife and I took from Toledo to Orlando, Fla., that Hunter was on target when it came to detailing I-75's finer points.
“I-75 is an interesting route when you sit down and look at the history,” said Hunter, a Briton now living in Mississauga, Ont. “I guess I've fallen in love with I-75.”
He started the book ($19.95, Mile Oak Publishing, Inc.) nearly a decade ago when he found himself out of a job after the hardware/software firm where he was managing director was closed by its U.S. parent firm. His wife, Kathy, who was recovering from leg surgery at the time, suggested they go to Florida.
On the way, he noted that it would be helpful to know in advance what gas stations were ahead and which side of the interstate they were on. The idea was born to sell a travel guide to other Canadian snowbirds, marketing it in places where Canadians had to buy the required out-of-country medical insurance.
“Very quickly, some of the Canadian snowbirds were showing it to their American friends while in Florida,” he said. “I knew I had to put more in it.”
These days, the book is chock-full of information, money-saving tips, and colorful diagrams that let travelers know where they are at any given moment. The northbound and southbound routes are broken up into 25 miles-per-page segments. On the page, each numbered exit is detailed with the names of gasoline stations, lodging, and restaurants - and the listings tell which side of the highway they are on.
The highway is color-coded according to the speed limit, and the number of lanes and merge points are noted. Landmarks are clearly labeled. For instance, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo is noted, near the Perrysburg water tower.
To identify known speed traps, Hunter uses a patrol car logo. If a speed trap is particularly notorious, like the ones in a 31-mile segment of southern Georgia to the Florida border, Hunter adds comments:
The Valdosta (Ga.) area (miles 0 to 31) is one of the most strictly enforced stretches of I-75 between Florida and Michigan. Watch your speed carefully. Patrol cars often sit in the median strip, in the emergency vehicle “U” turn breaks. The police radio bands are always very active here as they communicate back & forth.
Indeed, as we got back on the highway after stopping at the Georgia Welcome Center northbound, a police cruiser darted onto the highway from the median, lights flashing, and apparently in pursuit of a vehicle.
“It's terrible,” Hunter said. “They're pretty aggressive down there.”
In at least six instances during our trip, patrol cars were right where the guide said they would be.
In Ohio, Hunter tells motorists to be wary of Ohio Highway Patrol aerial surveillance between exit 192 in Perrysburg and 187, the Luckey/Haskins exit. Actually, he said, the interstate is patrolled by air for most of its length in Ohio. How does he know so much about speed traps in Ohio?
“In Ohio, I have two deputy sheriffs who are quietly giving me speed trap information,” he said, declining to identify the counties where the deputies work.
But determining where the speed traps are really isn't that hard, he said. Police are limited by safety factors, and they need a place where they won't be seen. The speed trap also has to be clear of any potential interference from fixed objects that may skewer the radar reading and be challenged in court, he said.
“The thing about speed traps is they just can't put them anywhere,” Hunter said.
The guide shows the gas stations and restaurants that are open 24 hours, and the fast-food chains that have a playground for kids.
“Younger families will want to know if the McDonald's has a play area,” he said.
For recreational vehicle drivers and those pulling a trailer, lane changes and changes in the grade of the road are crucial. Some ways to beat rush hours are included, as well as bypass maps for Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Macon, Ga. And radio station numbers for traffic reports are listed.
To update the guide, he and his wife spend a total of 20 days on I-75 each June, noting changes. They use a Global Positioning System and videotape the road, then review it later to be sure they haven't missed anything.
“My wife has a photographic memory,” he said.
Hunter also has a huge network of contacts along the highway who e-mail information to him.
When you reach the Georgia-Florida border, most travelers still have hundreds of miles to go. Hunter says he stopped the mile-by-mile information at the border because adding Florida would have added considerable cost to the book.
There is a coupon in the back of the book for a newsletter that provides tips in the Sunshine State. One tip he has for travelers is to fill their tanks in Georgia, where gasoline in generally cheaper. And beware of the so-called “Florida Welcome Centers” that begin to crop up in southern Georgia. The only official welcome center is in Florida.
“There are several places like that in Georgia,” Hunter said. “They are tourist traps - fronts for property companies.”
For those taking a more leisurely drive, a section of the book is devoted to things to do and places to see along the highway. For instance, in Northwest Ohio, Hunter suggests a side trip to Fort Meigs in Perrysburg. Included are Civil War battle sites, museums, state parks, and scenic drives. The book describes the historical significance or what to do and see at each stop. More importantly, there are 15 maps showing you how to get to there from I-75.
His favorite places along I-75?
The Mayfield Dairy Farms in Athens Tenn., has its self-described “world's best ice cream,” which Hunter says is not an exaggeration. He suggests trying the “Hog Heaven,” a blend of vanilla cream and caramel toffee flavors with dark chocolate chunks.
“It's a wonderful place,” he said.
Another worthwhile stop is the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, which has nearly 300 military aircraft and missiles from a Wright brothers plane from 1909 to F-117 Nighthawks flown in the Gulf War. The museum has the plane that returned John F. Kennedy's body to Washington after his assassination. Hunter said his guide is the first publication to print an actual layout of the plane.
His most maddening area? The Kentucky side of the Ohio River.
“It always seems they will never finish the construction on the other side of the Ohio River.” One of these days, I'll have the shock of my life and won't see [orange construction barrels.]”