Pay any price, bear any burden, never to go that way again

Posted: Aug 28, 2003 12:00 AM

With summer's last major travel weekend coming up, herewith a story about a seminal experience.

Your correspondent is a rural-dwelling driver, a veteran of long road trips. A recent weekend required a Friday drive up I-95 to a wedding - with a Sunday return. The wedding was marvelous (like babies, what wedding isn't?), but the drive was close to impossible. A trip that usually requires six hours took eight going up and nine and a half coming back. It may have been the last such roadie, ever.

The local habit is to trek fewer than 10 minutes to the interstate, and then 20 minutes to work.

On country roads, one soon gets used to schlepping along behind tractors, horse vans, and biker clutches whose groups have put these roads on scenic biking maps. One frequently slows or brakes for walkers and joggers, for darting bunnies and deer, for even the occasional horse or cow. Six-cylinder baling-wire pickups are common barely making it along on two. And let us not overlook the wandery, blue-haired come-hithers out to gawk at the latest ridiculous la-de-da monster house.

The theory is that out on the interstate highways of life, things are supposed to be different. Everyone is supposed to be able to roll along at 65 mph (or so), except when stuck behind the occasional left-lane squatter who goes 60 while plucking her eyebrows or while romancing his sweetie via cell phone or while taking out a deed on the entire left lane from Portland to Key West.

That weekend, that theory wasn't working.

Miles-long backups had traffic at standstills both ways. Some of the backups your travel consultant found himself in were five to 10 miles long. One for traffic going the opposite way - on everybody's favorite New Jersey Turnpike - was dead-stopped for 25. Yes, it was accident-caused; people likely were maimed or killed; the police, rescue-squadsmen, and tow-truckers were doing the best jobs they could - and they are very good indeed.

In the backed-up traffic, it was a happening. Kids tossed Frisbees. Adonises and damsels who should have known better - who should have spared us - lounged in beach chairs perched atop their conversion vans. Some put up porta-potties and cooked for the adjacent groups on their Webers. Cars overheated. Cell phones and battery TVs were everywhere. Long-lost buddies were rediscovered, babies perhaps conceived.

In my lanes, just about everybody out for cool, relaxed, oh-so-happy drives was hot and POd. Stop-start driving, averaging about 5 mph. Sullen kids in the back out of control and demanding to know when they were going to get there. Discussions, loud at times, between driver and shotgun about the preferred lane to be in - always proving to be the slowest. And always, seemingly, a nearby car with blaring window-rattling sub-woofers bashing the body with every beat.

In front, a truck or big hulking SUV inevitably prevented a clear full view of what was ahead. At toll booths and merger points, jockeys in the left lane ran up fast and then pulled into the next lane, winning the game of chicken and making all the other drivers fume. ΒΆ

Here and there, a fender bender - with the drivers, often feisty and often furious, jumping out of their cars and taking names. Some accidents, yes. Surprisingly, there weren't more. Accidents always slow traffic. Even when accidents occur in the lanes going the opposite direction, rubber-necking drivers in the non-accident lanes frequently slow to just about zero to look - causing what one traffic-copter cop used to call a "gapers block" consisting of gawkers at mayhem.

Accidents and gapers blocks were - and are - only part of the larger problem. Toll booths and lane mergers cause backups, too. And construction, ever construction. And police actions.

But in the opinion of your self-appointed travel adviser, the biggest cause of the problem is sheer congestion - too many people driving too many cars for the allotted highway space. Too much water for the hose to handle, so it overflows and then sits there until eventually it evaporates or trickles away.

In certain areas anyway, the interstate system - marvelous as it is, the eighth wonder of the world - becomes OD'd, maxed out, gridlocked...

...Which sets the mind to hankering to amble and schlep along at 15 behind tractors and horse vans. Come to think of it, isn't that what rural life is supposed to be - slower? Roger that. So take me back, country roads. After that seminal experience on I-95, my way seems vastly better than the highway. Who wouldn't pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, not to do it again - even if it means taking a plane?