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Snowbirds in Florida: Follow the quintessential Canadian trip south

For 18 years, Debbi Garrett has left the cold Canadian winter behind for warmer days down south. The adventure comes from driving through seven states, dealing with snowstorms, tornado warnings and diners with dangerous amounts of cheese and gravy. Photographer Sarah Palmer joins the ride for the annual pilgrimage
Photography and writing by Sarah Palmer

I am sooooo out of here! I don’t care if I have to pull the van, I am going!” Debbi Garrett said to me when I asked if we should wait for the snowstorm to pass before leaving for Destin, Fla. in the state’s Panhandle. After spending eight months of the year in Tiny, Ont., there is no kind of storm that would stop her from leaving for warmer weather.

theglobeandmail.comDebbi and Margaret Garrett joined by photographer Sarah Palmer in a selfie at the end of their trip in Destin, Fla.After 18 years of snowbirding in Florida, Debbi has the route, the hours driven in a day and the packing down to a science. On the road in the morning and off of it by dark makes for a five-day journey to Florida. By Debbi’s side are her sister-in-law, Margaret Garrett, who has been travelling to Florida for 50 years, and Max, Debbi’s cat. Born in the U.S, “Max is a Florida boy; he comes back to Florida every winter because he hates the snow,” she says. “And of course, where I go, Max goes.”

Over three million Canadians migrate to the Sunshine State every year. Driving to Florida is long and unforgiving, but after you’ve done it many times, it becomes routine, almost something to look forward to. The budget hotels are for kicking back, watching American TV and taking advantage of free WiFi. The chain restaurants along the highway are for ordering giant bowls of pasta and deep-fried cheese. Stopping at casinos occupies some time at night, and, to break up the day, there’s shopping at Target, the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala. or the Cracker Barrel gift store, where you can find, for example, a pink shirt with flamingos wearing Santa hats on it or fun snacks for the road.

Debbi is the president of the Fort Walton Beach Snowbird Club, which keeps their social calendars busy during their four months down there. “You make good friends with people and when you come back the following year, it’s like family. We’re always happy to see one another because we’re sort of all the same – we’ve left our home, our natural places, and it’s just nice to be able to come back and have them as sort of an extended family and go and play darts and cards,” she says. “You walk the beach, shop...I think what you find down here is that nothing matters. Down here, we’re all retired and just out to have a good time.”

After one province, seven states, two snowstorms, buckets of rain and tornado warnings, on her first sunny day in Florida, Debbi says to me over a glass of bottomless mimosas and 18-cent soup, “the key ingredients for snowbirds are good food, cheap prices, early bird specials, cheap liquor, and half decent weather.”

Follow the journey

(L-R): Max roams freely in the van for the road trip. Debbi has to ensure she takes her keys with her, as Max is known to lock the doors. Last year they had to call a locksmith because Max had locked the doors with the keys in the van. Debbi brings out Margaret Garrett’s bags at her home in Penetanguishene, Ont., on Nov. 27, 2018. Margaret loves tea and brings down her favourite kind with her this year. Last year, she forgot and had to have some sent down to her, as she couldn’t find a worthy replacement in Florida. After 18 years of snowbirding, Debbi’s packing of the van is precise and organized and she insists she do it all herself, as she has a place for everything.
(L-R): The Rainbow Bridge border crossing in Niagara Falls. There are on average more than 1.2 million crossings into the United States at this site alone every year. The women stop at the Pennsylvania Welcome Center off the highway. Debbi likes to stop at these information centres on the way, as they have good suggestions for pet-friendly hotels.
(L-R): Debbi cleans the snow off her van in Erie, Penn., during a snowstorm. Souvenirs at a gas station in Ohio on Nov. 28.
Debbi and Margaret eat breakfast at a Waffle House in Dry Ridge, Ky., on Nov. 29. They were excited that one was near the hotel, as the breakfasts are one of their favourites. A hotel attendant heard they were going there and said, “When you go over to Waffle House, you need to order the scattered, smothered and covered, with coffee on the side … just sayin', and maybe an orange juice.” The women opted for grits instead of the recommended hash brown order.
(L-R): A covered pool at a Super 8 hotel in Cleveland, Tenn. Margaret and Debbi walk into the Olive Garden for dinner on Nov. 29. They love this restaurant for its unlimited soups and salads. Debbi walks Max before getting into the car on Nov. 30. Max is leash trained, and Debbi tries to take him for a little walk before getting in the car for the long driving days. She often gets comments from strangers: “Is that a cat on a leash?!”
(L-R): Margaret shopping at Target in Cleveland. At 82, Margaret has had two open heart surgeries, is blind in one eye and has a bad back, but you’d never know it. She tries to get exercise however she can, even if it’s just walking around a store after dinner. Debbi does all the driving and looks forward to getting changed and relaxing in the room after a long day of driving. Margaret seen through the hotel room window, taking off her shoes.
(L-R) Debbi, Margaret and Max on the side of the highway outside Scottsboro, Ala. Debbi fills up on Nov. 30.
From unforgiving snowstorms to torrential rains that bring tornado and flash flood warnings, a road trip through the United States offers every surprise you can think of, and sometimes even the sun shows up, such as here, in northern Pennsylvania.
(L-R): Debbi brings their overnight bags and Max into the hotel. Margaret takes the elevator up to their room in Montgomery, Ala., on Nov. 30.
(L-R): Debbi unpacks her suitcase at the condo they rent in Destin, Fla. The fridge shows last year’s snowbird schedule and numbers of friends in their snowbird community. A local beach near their condo on Dec. 1.
Debbi and Margaret’s neighbourhood in Destin, Fla.
Debbi and Margaret go to the beach for the first time since arriving in Florida, on Dec. 2. A storm surge washed away the rails to the stairs leading to the beach last year, so Margaret won’t venture down to the beach any more, as she doesn’t have anything to steady her balance. That doesn’t stop her from enjoying herself, as she fondly says of her time in Florida, “This is Marg time.”