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Follow the Cheese

Herald columnist Jim DeFede's odyssey across the United States as he delivers the Virgin Mary cheese sandwich to Las Vegas.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

And so it begins 

Snapshots from my first day on the road with the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich:

We leave Miami later than I had hoped.

Initially we head north on Interstate 95, before jumping over to the Florida Turnpike. Inside the Cadillac's CD player, Gillian Welch's haunting "Revival" album sets the tone for the trip.

"I am an orphan," she sings, "on God's highway."

My plan is to take the turnpike -- The Ronald Reagan Turnpike as it was renamed not long ago -- to I-75 and cut across the Everglades through what is commonly referred to as Alligator Alley. I then want to shoot north as quickly as possible and make Georgia by nightfall. Florida holds little mystery to me. I want out of this state. But halfway across the Everglades, I see the sign for Everglades City and I know where the VMGCS's first stop must be.

Off the main blacktop through town, there's a dirt road that leads to the Chickee Bar -- an open air dive on the water with cold beer, a pool table and decent juke box. In the distance, the sound of airboats -- loud and obnoxious and filled with tourists -- is unmistakable.

"I'll be right back, I just have to get some change," the bartender yells as she rushes by me in the parking lot.

As she passes me, she stops, turns and looks at the large, metal briefcase I'm carrying.

"Just make yourself at home," she adds before sprinting off.

Inside, the regulars sip their beers. "The bartender will be back in a minute," one of them, shirtless, says, without even looking at me.

When the bartender returns I order a coke and grouper sandwich. Before it arrives, I plop the VMGCS briefcase on the bar and ask: "Anyone here heard of the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich?"

Several of them nod.

"I've got it right here," I said. "Want to see it?"

Before I could finish snapping open the latches, a crowd started to form.

"Look at that, there really is a face in it," the bartender said.

"I never thought I'd come to a bar in the Everglades and see the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich," added Ann Rodenbeck, who along with her husband Pat, and their three kids were camping on nearby Chokoluskee Island.

"Yeah, but I don't know if it looks like the Virgin Mary," offered Vic Colemire. "I've never seen the Virgin Mary before. I mean who knows what she really looks like? Let's face it, people will believe just about anything."

I explain that I am driving the VMGCS to Las Vegas. Vic tell me that is where he is from. He drove to Florida. I ask him if he has any suggestion on where I should stop with the VMGCS.

He suggests Beaumont, Texas.

"Heart of the bible belt," he said.

"Strong moral values," I said. "That's what the Red States are all about I guess."

"God bless the Red States," declared Pat, who voted for Bush.

"I don't understand what that whole morality thing and the election was all about," said Vic, who voted for Kerry.

"Who used to have the conservative values in the South 50 years ago? The Democrats," Pat said. "Who has them now? The Republicans. The Democrats lost their base and they will never get them back. Look at the rest of the country. Who controlled the Northeast 50 years ago? The rich elites. And that used to be the Republican base. Now that's who makes up the Democratic party."

By the time my grouper arrived, Pat and Vic were arguing about Iraq and the Middle East. Meanwhile, a steady line of people came by to see the VMGCS.

"You know when you first came in here with that briefcase," Vic tells me. "I thought you might be a terrorist and that there was a bomb in that thing."

From Everglades City I drove to the west coast of Florida and up to Clearwater where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared on the windows of a bank. In the eight years since the image first appeared, thousands of people have come to see it and pray. So many people, in fact, that the bank finally closed its doors.

The land is now occupied by a group called Shepherds of Christ Ministries, an Ohio-based religious order. And while you might think that the women who tend to this land would be inclined to accept the VMGCS, they actually had a fairly negative response when I showed up and announced that I was indeed carrying the VMGCS.

"You can't bring that in here," Shepherd Rosie Reed told me. "This is holy ground."

More about my visit to Clearwater later. It's almost 3 a.m. and I'm beat.

posted by Jim DeFede at 3:10 AM

Jim DeFede and Cheese

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