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.

A deeply Southern experience

After school, the road became the Ohio and Pennsvlvania turnpikes, police-littered routes with iffy road quality and even iffier nutritional offerings. Leaving Detroit at two or three in the afternoon, I could pull into my driveway in Maryland just after one in the morning, fueled by Diet Coke and chicken sandwiches and youthful adrenaline. (You and I can both be glad it's gone.)

I must have traveled that way fifty times, only occasionally with co-pilots. On my own one year, I pulled out of a nose-dive caused by the flu (take note: passing out during blood work causes everyone in the doctor's office to move a little faster), and managed to make it home without seeing Abraham Lincoln on the side of the road directing traffic.

The pikes were mildly enervating, but the quickest way to Washington. Before I chose to move south again, I had collected two speeding tickets in one trip, spent hours of my life in some truly insipid cars, and made one spectacular run in a Lincoln Mark VIII in which I averaged 80 mph and made it back to Detroit in eight hours flat. The road may have been awful, but it was empty.

And when I came back South, for a smattering of reasons, the trips home became less like white noise and more like the grating emergency signal on television. In 1996, the year I spent Christmas unemployed (or in freelancer terms, "freelancing"), it got particularly bad, with good friends offering an all-night ride from Alabama to Maryland. My cats packed in the back with an antsy Labrador, I drove bleary-eyed through most of North Carolina. Somehow during the night it melded seamlessly into Maryland. I don't know where. I don't suspect Rand McNally does, either.

Halfway to home

These days the road ahead is an even longer stretch of Interstate 85; the halfway point doesn't even come until Greensboro. It's changing rapidly, too, with the advent of BMW and the hemorrhagic growth of Charlotte. The Royal Ghana Club is long gone, flattened to make room for more lanes, but the giant peach in Gaffney remains, a beacon that lets me know it's just three more hours to Georgia, or an hour to stop and see the twins my friends have brought into the world.

The road bends less, I crawl more and as a result, my pilgrimage home has become more tedious. The number of fellow travelers seems to have quintupled. Sometimes the entire state of North Carolina feels like one solid traffic jam that I've stitched together in a fit of masochism. The perpetual construction along the interstate gets tired as quickly as I do.

It still has its transcendent moments, though. Last year, I sat in awe as an ice storm collected on my headlamps outside a dinner joint in Durham. I pulled into a familiar hotel near my alma mater, and woke inside a crystal cathedral of southern pines coated in an inch of ice. The rhythmic shots of cracking branches echoed like a 21-gun salute for miles through southern Virginia, where just one lane was passable between South Hill and Petersburg. Sixty miles at no more than 20 mph, cars hit by falling branches with every exit, yet I was recharged for the hours ahead.

Still, after that sixteen-hour odyssey, I made a command decision for this year's journey - to endure the horrendous traffic and parking at the airport, to fly into the least convenient of the three Washington airports, to commute home for the holidays like normal people do.

I've begun to reconsider the wisdom of this idea already. I don't think the flying public - scratch that, the airline employees themselves - are ready for a disgruntled car traveler making the big switch, especially at holiday time. Somehow I don't think flying coach will be as comfortable as cruising at 80 mph in an Isuzu Trooper, fighting off flu chills and listening on edge for the abrasive beep of my Valentine.

All I really want for Christmas now is a great car and a long stretch of highway. For certain, next year, I'll be back on the road.

You'll understand if I hope you won't be out there too, right?

Happy holidays.

Originally published ten years ago this week, on TheCarConnection.com.

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