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 to the east.
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. The latest census (2010) counted 240 residents scattered around.
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. Rooms are $45 a night (subject to change). Nothing fancy, so don’t expect much. The proprietors promise “clean rooms with showers.” Reservations are not accepted, so don’t bother looking on hotels.com.
I stopped there occasionally for lunch when traveling across the state on State Road 60, which makes a beeline to Tampa Bay. 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.
On a recent visit, there were no printed menus: “It’s raht behind ya on the board, honey.”
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. A trio of chickens hangs out around the picnic tables outside.
If you look at the ceiling, you’ll notice snakeskins attached to the beams and dollar bills thumbtacked to the ceiling with messages from customers. There were also some taxidermied animals, including some frankensteined thing that looked like an otter with tiny deer horns on it — perhaps an attempt to convince tourists of a local mythological creature.
Cowboys who 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 decent.
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, although most of those old billboards along the Turnpike are long gone. The only other businesses are a truck stop and a gas station with a convenience store, so alternatives for lunch are meager.
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 burger or fish and chips and a travel back in time. Gas is available nearby.
More about the Desert Inn:
If you’ve visited the Desert Inn and would like to comment on this article, feel free to leave a comment below.