Our odyssey: How one man, one parent and one dog made a drive that normally takes nine-ish hours in half a day

December 17, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Dec. 17, 2013

Sing, O muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after a sojourn in the cradle of Big Tobacco and Duke University. Many roads did he navigate, and many were the highways with whose intersections and traffic he was acquainted. Moreover, he suffered much by the weather while trying to speed his own way and bring his carmates safely home.

I live in Durham, North Carolina, but I grew up in the exurbs of New York City; my parent and the family dog still live in the house where I was raised. Last month, I drove down Parental Unit and Lucky the dog for a week-long visit.

The SUV was packed and loaded and rolling out of my driveway for our northbound return trip around 9 a.m. on Nov. 26, two days before Thanksgiving. I am accustomed to completing the drive between one home and the other — a journey I tend to make at least four or five times a year — in nine or 10 hours. Little did I know that it would be roughly 9 p.m. before we would reach our destination…

The weather was supposed to be rainy all day, and indeed we had not been traveling northeast on Interstate 85 for very long before I had to turn on the windshield wipers.

Our initial bit of drama, however, derived not from the skies but from the game of chicken that I began playing with the fuel gauge on the dashboard. We were about midway between the North Carolina–Virginia line and the I-85/I-95 merge in Petersburg, Va., when I noticed that the indicator was edging toward empty.

My parent noticed it too and called it to my attention. When were we going to stop for gas? I was asked. Um… Up ahead, I replied.

I can be very stubborn at times, and this was one of them. I decided that I wanted to pull off I-85 at the point where it dovetails with U.S. 1 south of Petersburg. I wasn’t very familiar with that interchange, having only used it once or twice, but my understanding was that it afforded quick and easy access to a gas station — unlike some others on that stretch of highway.

The indicator kept sinking lower, and eventually a fuel warning tell-tale lit up. The parent questioned me once, twice, thrice more: When were we going to stop? Soon, I said. Soon.

And not soon enough, there was the interchange I wanted. The person-, dog- and luggage-laden SUV traced the curve the exit ramp. There was a gas station nestled right beside the ramp. I filled up the tank while the parent walked Lucky. It was cold and wet, and I was glad that I could mostly stay out of the rain as I attended to the fueling beneath the gas station canopy.

That out of the way, we made a somewhat tricky left turn back onto U.S. 1 and lo, there was the ramp returning us to northbound I-85…

Things started getting dicey in Northern Virginia, where traffic often snarls I-95. I switched to U.S. 1, where cars must pause every so often for traffic lights, but which tends to flow faster than the interstate when there’s a jam.

Before the endless parade of strip malls drove us mad, I returned the vehicle to a freely moving I-95. Soon afterward, I took the off-ramp for I-495 toward Alexandria and Baltimore. (Years of repeated mistakes have trained me to stay in the left lanes at this junction, even though instinct always prompts me to steer to the right.)

A short time later, we traveled the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge east over the Potomac River. One moment we were in Virginia; the next, we were in the District of Columbia; after that, we were in Maryland; about a minute later, we peeled away onto the turnoff for I-295 north; and a minute or two after that, we had returned to our nation’s capital.

295, which becomes the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, is another place where I frequently run into traffic on my northbound run. As we were approaching the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the traffic started slowing. U.S. 1, which runs in between and roughly parallel to the parkway and I-95, seemed to be relatively unclogged.

It was time to make another detour, I decided. We’d cut over to U.S. 1, proceed north for a bit, and then transfer to I-95. That should bypass a great deal of traffic.

And this was where we ran into our first problem. I accidentally took the exit ramp for an eastbound road when we needed to go west. That led us on a merry detour around part of Fort George Meade; at least 10 minutes were squandered that way.

As we made our way up U.S. 1, we spotted a gas station with a Wendy’s. It was time for lunch, so we decided to take a break. Because of the dog, we couldn’t both eat inside the restaurant at the same time, and because it was cold and rainy, we couldn’t eat outside, either. My parent headed in to grab a meal. I topped off the tank and got Lucky out of the car.

Lucky and I patrolled the grass along edges of the gas station/restaurant’s asphalt lot. The cold rain kept pouring on us, and we kept walking… and walking… and walking. My parent was not hurrying along with lunch.

At long last, the parent emerged — but only after eating; a toilet break was still necessary. So the parent returned indoors for that, at which point I was finally freed to attend to my own needs.

I dashed inside the restaurant and discovered instantly that it…was entirely without doormats. Instead, its floor tiles were wet and slick. I was at once very grateful to be in out of the cold and tremendously anxious about slipping and injuring myself.

Ultimately, of course, I returned to the car and gobbled down a swiftly cooling lunch in the driver’s seat; then the three of us strapped ourselves in and we pulled back onto the road.

Fast forward about two hours, to roughly 4 p.m. We had transited the Baltimore area, and northern Maryland, without difficulty. As we crossed into Delaware on 95, our speed dropped. My mind was somewhat dulled by boredom, and I attributed the slow-moving traffic to tolls.

But when I checked my phone, I saw that I-95 was clogged throughout much of the state. Unfortunately, I did that check right after we passed one of the very few interstate exits in Delaware. I scanned my phone’s maps again and again, but there didn’t seem to be any point in trying local roads; either those routes had traffic woes of their own or they would require long, unwieldy detours before returning us to an open stretch of highway.

Forward we would go. Forward we went. We footed, inched and millimetered along the road as Earth’s rotation moved the Eastern Seaboard of the United States away from the sun’s radiation.

We approached another turnoff for another I-295 spur. This branch leads to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which crosses over the broad Delaware River and into New Jersey, the Garden State.

There was a huge backup for 295, and I made a choice that I regretted almost immediately. I decided to steer to the left, press the accelerator, and cruise toward 495, quickly bypassing the cars that were waiting to take the spur into Jersey.

It felt good to abandon the slow-moving battle to merge with traffic and instead step on the gas. (It usually does, doesn’t it?)

There were two disadvantages to this decision, however. One was that it set us on a route that I was not accustomed to traveling — although I knew it was possible to get where we wanted to go from where we were going. The other disadvantage was that, once the 495 spur merged with 95, traffic was going to be a mess.

Translation: Not only would I have to figure out how to get into New Jersey, I would be doing so while fighting rush-hour traffic just to the south of Philadelphia.

495 was mostly clear. We zipped around Wilmington toward Bellefonte and Claymont, hugging what appeared to be a very industrial stretch of shore along the river. It felt heavenly, in its fashion, after having crawled through Delaware since before dusk fell.

Of course, this idyll had to come to an end. The road was clogged right as it reconnected with I-95. It was stop and go for a while following the merge.

And then, at last, I found an opportunity to flee. My smartphone maps and a half-remembered, long-ago trip indicated that U.S. 322 crossed the Delaware into New Jersey along the Commodore John Barry Bridge. The span was relatively traffic-free, and with a feeling of gratitude, I traveled over it and onto U.S. 295 in New Jersey.

Now, I often take 295 in Southern Jersey to avoid jams on the New Jersey Turnpike. But on this occasion, I didn’t want to take this road. 295 gets funky around Philadelphia, and it was going to be clogged with commuters.

But because the Commodore Barry was moving well, and because my parent — despite being thoroughly wonderful in many ways — is not to be trusted as a navigator, I had trouble figuring out how to get to the turnpike. So I realized only after I’d committed to exiting to 295 that I instead should have gone straight.

And here’s where things really became awkward. I knew I had to change course, but I didn’t know how to go. I took an exit. As I approached the end of the ramp, I steered onto the median. A metal signpost was directly ahead. My parent startled as the wheels left the road, thinking that I’d lost control of the vehicle.

We rolled to a stop without incident, and I grabbed my smartphone again and contemplated the glowing map. There seemed to be a relatively simple route to the turnpike. But — which way to turn?

I puzzled over the matter for a while, and then I turned left. After several seconds, I consulted with my phone again. The map showed me that I’d made the right decision.

Now we were in the remote countryside — not far from Philadelphia, but not near any community of any size. The dark roads we traveled were surrounded by fields. Some stretches seemed to go on for the better part of a mile without any human building being in sight. There were a couple of funky rural intersections.

But then we got close to the turnpike, and instead of seeing a typical country setting, we saw a typical commercial setting: Gas stations, strip malls, the whole nine yards. And there was the highway we wanted…

We went onto the highway and zoomed north again. And our travel was unencumbered by traffic…

…until, of course, we reached Northern New Jersey, sometime after 7 p.m.

The map displayed lots and lots of red. Surely there was a way around it — but how?

One problem I’ve always had navigating Northern New Jersey, regardless of whether I’ve been using a paper map, a website or a smartphone, is that the region has so many major roads that distinguishing amongst them is all but impossible.

I’m not always very decisive, but there comes a time in every drive when a person must commit to a course of action. After we passed Newark Liberty International Airport, I headed west on I-280. We exited onto McCarter Highway/Route 21, a busy street in a commercial area in urban East Orange.

After a mile or so, the road transitioned into a restricted-access highway paralleling the Passaic River. I had once, a few years before, taken this route to my parent’s house from Newark airport, but I didn’t remember exactly which turns to make. Still, I successfully followed signs onto the Garden State Parkway, which is what I’d intended to do. And not long after we got on that toll road, we came upon a familiar sight: the Paramus Park mall. We were less than an hour from home!

We followed the customary routes with ease. We took a short detour to a shopping center to pick up a pizza pie — neither my parent nor I were interested in dining out or cooking — and soon after that, I steered the SUV into its habitual berth inside my childhood hood.

At long last, roughly half a day after it had begun, our harrowing journey had come to a successful conclusion.

And so ends my tale, dear readers! 

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