Christmas vacation is about to get truly under way and as much as I’d like to say I’m going to spend the evening warming my toes by a roaring fire, the reality is something more like packing out an expedition from Everest base camp. Between now and the time my head hits the pillow this evening there are hundreds of pounds of equipment and material to be toted, lifted, and strategically placed in the truck to ensure proper load placement and balancing. All of these preparations must be carried out in such a way as to avoid raising the suspicions of either of my canine traveling partners – as that would lead to passing a very uncomfortable night with a dog firmly attached to each hip from fear of being left behind.
This part of the annual rites of winter is not particularly restful or relaxing. By Friday, though, the initial mayhem and chaos should have worn itself down into something a little more manageable. If not, I’m fairly sure there’s a flask or two in one of these bags that will help smooth the way.
As much as I always look forward to the trips back into the beating heart of the little piece of geography that made me, getting there from here (regardless of where in the world “here” technically is at any given moment) always boarders on exhausting. Fortunately a good night or two’s sleep will shake that off.
For all the others out there preparing to do battle with the interstate highway system, good luck and godspeed to your destination of choice… And if slower traffic could go ahead and merge to the right that would be great. Mmmmmkay? Thaaaaaanks.
Ten hours, 500-ish miles, and three states later, I think I could be forgiven for not immediately checking in to the hotel and sitting down at the keyboard… still, that’s exactly what I’m doing – A) Because WAJTW is a weekly standard that is near and dear to my heart and B) The universe doesn’t stop pissing me off just because I’m on the road. Those two feel like reason enough to sit down and get this done. So, as always, in no particular order, here they are:
1. White Marsh. The area at and surrounding the I-95/I-695 interchange has been under construction since just after the earth coalesced from stardust. There are places where the interstate in that area is at least 20 lanes wide. At the same time traffic flow has never actually gotten any better there. I don’t know if it’s crummy engineering, worthless drivers, too many people trying to cram through too little geography or some combination of the three, but the only time I’ve ever had a good experience traversing that mess is between the hours of midnight and 4AM. For some reason, that strikes me as less than ideal for one of nation’s premier north-south arteries. I’d love to offer a brilliant suggestion for making improvements, but I’ll defer to the hundreds of professional engineers who are working on that never-ending project to come up with something in that part of the highway network that doesn’t suck so hard.
2. Interstate 81. I-81 gets bad press because of the heavy volume of truck traffic it carries on a daily basis. My experience is that 81 may just have some of the most disciplined drivers in the nation. The left lane was kept clear except for passing and even with trucks and passenger cars intermingled, the average speed never dropped much below 70. It was one small slice of the American highway where everyone seemed to know what they were supposed to do. Everyone except the asshole in the powder blue Scion who couldn’t for the life of him find the accelerator but insisted for driving for mile after mile in the left lane. People like him are the reason I’ve not put a push bar on the front of the truck. If I wasn’t worried about scuffing the bumper I’d be too sorely tempted not to give them a helpful nudge in the right direction.
3. Glory days. As few as 4 years ago I use to jump in the truck and drive the 14 hour, 800 mile run from Baltimore to Memphis while only making two stops for fuel and to give back the coffee I’d rented earlier in the day. When I got there I was ready to unpack, make dinner, and enjoy the evening. Today I drove a little more than half that distance, took 2/3 the total amount of time, and made three stops. When I arrived at my destination, I limped to the front desk nursing a bum shoulder and a sore knee and utterly unable to stand up straight. Honest to God, if I remember my 30s for anything it’s going to be as the decade when my body started to completely disintegrate before my eyes.
1. Unintended consequences. I read an article this week decrying the fact that so many fuel efficient cars on the road are causing the federal highway trust fund to go broke. All I could do is sit back and wonder if this is something that should have come as a surprise to anyone when they were laying on tax incentives and pushing people towards higher efficiency standards and cute matchbox car looking vehicles. Less fuel used, but definition will lead to lower revenue if all else is held equal. Now of course the writers of this article lead that into the discussion of whether we should raise the national gas tax or lay an entirely new tax based on miles driven or some other calculus. I noted with much annoyance that prioritizing funds and making due with what’s available, leaning out the highway construction and repair process, or privatizing antiquated infrastructure weren’t even part of the discussion. It troubles me to no end that a goodly proportion of people in this country only ever look at the revenue (and how to increase it) side of the equation rather than first looking at how we reduce costs and gain efficiencies using what should be a massive economy of scale that Uncle could generate if he were spending judiciously rather than just chasing the next dollar. If they didn’t think the problem past the “fuel efficiency is good” phase, why on earth should anyone trust them with even more money?
2. Being wrong. Remember back six months ago when I was complaining about the polar vortex? I have a confession to make. I think I may have gotten that one wrong, because quite frankly putting on another layer felt way better than reaching the point where modesty, social convention, and the county sheriff say you can’t take any more layers off. But don’t worry, wait six months and you can be sure I’ll be right back to complaining about being frozen right down to the bones. Wash, rinse, and repeat as needed.
3. The “working lunch.” There’s no such thing. Either I’m working or I’m at lunch. They are, in my mind, mutually exclusive activities that have no business occurring simultaneously. Lunch, for purposes of this discussion is defined as a 30-minute period of not work dividing the four morning hours of work and four afternoon hours of work during a standard business day. Dragooning everyone in the office into a conference room, “asking” them to bring food, and then talking about “work stuff” for an hour is a thinly disguised meeting. The only reason it has a passing resemblance to lunch is that there happened to be food in the room while it happened. As for me, I need my 30 minute break in the middle of the day to help prevent my brain from melting and leaking out my ears. I think we can all agree that’s something we should all try to avoid if we can.
I’ll be logging some miles over the next week. The baseline mileage between now and about this time next week is 664 plus random driving around and at least two days of regular commuting. It would be harder to plan an agenda that would put me in three more far flung parts of the state over a period of a few days. I’m holding my breath because it only seems appropriate that the universe would conspire to have me make some kind of emergency trip to St. Mary’s County and complete the tour of the extreme ends of the State of Maryland.
For a state as dense with highways as Maryland, one of the fun thing you learn when you spend time on the road here is that that there really isn’t a good way to get from one end of the state to the other without first driving around Baltimore. Still, every mile under the wheels this week is 5,280 feet closer to the beach… and that makes a whole lot of road dogging it seem worthwhile.
There are a lot of thing I expect to see lying along the side of a major highway. Mufflers fall off, I understand that. Tractor trailer tires explode and are left where they fall. Occasionally whole bed liners lift out of place and end up on the shoulder. Trash, animal carcasses, all manner of refuse of the civilized world ends up there at one time or another.
What I never expected to see on such a list is an entire steering wheel. Now, I know that the most likely explanation is that it fell of a truck hauling cars to the auto graveyard, but I can’t quite shake the image of a frustrated commuter finally pushed over the edge, pounding on the wheel, tearing it from the column, and flinging it from the car in a fit of traffic-induced rage. I can almost feel the singular moment of ecstasy and freedom just before the car slammed into the guardrail, nearby tree, or under the wheels of the neighboring 18-wheeler. The final scene of Braveheart comes to mind.