You’ve seen the signs, baiting you to get off Florida’s Turnpike in the middle of nowhere, a bump in the road at Exit 193, for “Orlando Discounts”
Ever wonder what was there besides a trailer selling discount tickets?
Yeehaw Junction is a busy crossroad of commerce, where 18-wheelers move at a crisp clip through the intersections of the Turnpike, U.S. 441 and State Road 60, linking east and west, north and south, through the heart of an enormous, remote ranching and agricultural area.
And in the middle of it all is the historic Desert Inn, which has guarded this crossing since pioneer days, before there were roads.
The Desert Inn was established in the late 1880s as a trading post. There were no roads, just trails where cowboys working the open range and loggers culling timber would congregate for supplies and entertainment. The current building was constructed in 1898.
After roads were built in the 1930s, the intersection earned the nickname “Jackass Crossing,” a nod to the area’s cowboys and lumbermen who relied on mules for working cattle or hauling timber.
As the roads came, a bordello was established upstairs, where truckers, travelers and cowboys would be, ahem, entertained. A few cabins were built out back as tourists began to trickle westward from Vero Beach, 30 miles away.
In the 1950s, Florida’s Turnpike was being built, but state legislators felt that “Jackass Crossing” would be found offensive by winter tourists, so they changed the name to Yeehaw Junction, tying it into a railroad depot a few miles east. There are two versions about the origin of the new name. One suggests “yeehaw” was chosen because it’s similar to the sound a mule makes, while the other pins it to a Creek Indian word meaning “wolf.”
The Desert Inn thrived through this period of traffic growth and cross-state commerce, although few people actually live there. Confusion during the 2000 census left it unpopulated, although it’s estimated that about 500 people live somewhere nearby.
Today, the original 1898 Desert Inn still stands, continuing to serve as a restaurant and a bar, and there is an 11-unit motel out back for travelers. (Reservations not accepted, but you can almost always count on a room being available for under $60.)
I stopped there recently for lunch while travelling across the state on State Road 60, which makes a beeline across the state to Tampa. The menu choices are designed to stir your yearning for old Florida: Gator burgers, frog legs and turtle burgers. Or you can select from a tamer selection of chow, including one of the juiciest, tastiest hamburgers you’ll find anywhere in Florida.
Little, if anything, has been done to change the atmosphere of the Desert Inn. The horseshoe shaped bar, wooden booths, witty signs and oddball knick-knacks are classic Old Florida. A booth at the rear of the dining room is always occupied by an Indian couple, wooden mannequins.
Cowboys who still work the nearby ranches are regulars, as are truckers, businessmen, blue-color workers, bikers and tourists. One minute the bar can be full, empty the next. The Desert Inn still reigns as a place where locals congregate and travelers are well fed. Prices for food and drinks are modest, and the food is very good. And the old-fashioned jukebox still takes quarters.
Although I haven’t visited any of the rooms, the Desert Inn brags that it always passes health inspections, and reviewers have praised the motel as a throwback to old Florida, but clean and well-kept.
You can still get your discount tickets for Orlando attractions in a roadside trailer about a half-mile east of the Desert Inn on SR 60, near the Turnpike exit. The only other businesses are a truck stop and a gas station with a convenience store.
Turnpike travelers will be well-served by skipping the highway’s sterile Fort Drum Service Plaza and pop off at Exit 193 for a tasty lunch or dinner and a travel back in time. Gas is available nearby.
UPDATE: The Desert Inn was closed for much of 2014 but re-opened in August and is in transition. We haven’t been back, but the Orlando Sentinel reports the new manager wants to open a Wild West show and open the second floor as a museum. Another review reports the prices are low and the food pretty good.
More about the Desert Inn:
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