Great Drives: A Pilgrimage, Of Sorts Page 2

December 24, 2009

Great Drives: Christmas at Biltmore

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

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