Great Drives: A Pilgrimage, Of Sorts

December 24, 2009

This holiday season, High Gear Media wants to wish you the best possible end to a difficult year. We're reaching back into the archives and into our own lives for some memorable holiday moments. Tell us your own, and take with this our sincere hopes for a better 2010.

We all make pilgrimages, and most of them aren't religious.

A friend drives out each year to watch the 24-hour races at Nelson Ledges. He says it's good for his budding racing career. If you've seen Nelson Ledges, you might agree, but it's also bad for his general health. (This place practically needs its own set of vaccines.)

I make pilgrimages up and down the East Coast every other month or so, since my family lives some 700 miles away and has since I turned 18. Some pilgrims choose Santiago da Compostela or Jerusalem; I choose La Plata, Maryland, a town with its very own stoplight, one suspect Chinese restaurant, and the ubiquitous CVS Pharmacy, which I imagine even the Eritreans have access to nowadays.

These treks usually revolve around major holidays or hospital stays, this year more of the latter. And since I'm one of millions who have grown hateful and ill-tempered toward the airlines (my carry-on luggage record is 28 feet - kicked across Hartsfield's check-in area), I generally prefer to hijack four wheels. My quasi-spiritual blasts up the Interstate are usually fueled by huge quantities of diet soda, lots of compact discs and a radar detector that has kept me pretty clean for nigh unto five years.

Driving long distances can put the "Zzzzzz..." in Zen, but I've always put them to good use. I clean out my head, play the latest song over and over and hit most of the notes, and tick off the ghosts of my own past at passing exits and mile markers. It was exit 60 in South Carolina where I was run from the road by a Chevy duallie at 80 mph, exit 176 in North Carolina that brought me back about sixty times to school, and exit 104 on I-95 where I make the final turn toward the Potomac and home.

The ice storm

I've never missed Christmas at home. For eleven years now the drives home have been a patchwork of insane driving, semi-patrolled and subpar roads, and the occasional watershed moment.

The shuttling began in Syracuse, New York, where I started college in the fall and left that same winter, after just three months. My parents drove up to retrieve me from a place I'd leave, instead of staying and completing a year abroad, for another school down South where weather meant wearing a light jacket in the middle of January. It wasn't that simple a decision, but that was the most obvious perk.

Typical of that winter, it began to snow as soon as I set foot outside. Dad and I rolled home as it snowed throughout New York state and the central Pennsylvania valley, in flakes as wet and crystalline and numerous as I'd ever seen, each one as evanescent as the faces I saw as I left Shaw Hall a last time. It turned to ice, then the wintry mess stopped abruptly for two weeks, greeting us again as a pelting ice storm that snapped our van's antenna as we made the maiden voyage to Durham.

Exactly a year later, settled in my new school and tooling around town in my beloved Audi GT Coupe in 70-degree sun, I set out for one of the early migrations up Interstate 85. On the way home, that common grey of winter snuffed the blue. And later at home I watched the television dumbfounded as relatives of a score of Syracuse students, returning from study abroad in England, wept and wondered how a trip home could turn tragic over Lockerbie, Scotland.

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