Friday, June 26, 2009

Road Tripping

We just returned from another road trip. Carol and I like long drives together. This one carried us to Minnesota and back, to spend time with my brother and his family. The trip was a bit over 1200 miles each way. One of the things we like about traveling together this way is that we get to see places we might never otherwise see. We stop in little towns whose names are unfamiliar, except through browsing a AAA Tourbook Guide. Since we now live in a little town, we like to stay in other little towns and then compare. One of the things we discovered on our big road trip, the one that carried us all the way to the west coast and then back over a wandering path, is that some small towns seem to lie mostly in the past, whereas others continue to thrive, with interesting shops and restaurants. The ones that seem barely alive, or always struggling to continue, are often sitting in the shadow of another town or city. Our town, for example, struggles to breathe, because Charlotte sucks the air and much of the money out of the region. Other towns, more distant from large towns or cities, thrive because they need not compete. If people want nice restaurants, or interesting shops, they will have to frequent the small towns that provide them. Thus Bozeman, Montana, a town half the size of ours, looked to be four times as large, mainly because there seemed to be nothing within 100 miles of Bozeman to compete for attention, or money.
So, we drove and observed, spending a night in Tomah, Wisconsin, a town of 8000 citizens, and hosting something close to ten bars. Our little town has no “bars”.
Our trip to Minnesota was uneventful and our stay with family wonderfully rich and fulfilling. Dinners planned well in advance of our arrival were splendid feasts, Italian-style—the food plentiful, rich of flavor, and varied in main and side dishes. All in all, we probably ate too well, but also we consumed each other in conversation. We talked, we laughed and we admired all the beautiful children.
But then it was time to return home. We intended a quick trip, two days instead of the three we used to make the trip out. We envisioned one long day, followed by a relatively short day of driving. We set out early.
Then we encountered what I now call the “Rod Blagoevich memorial pseudo-construction network”. In these networks, little actual road work actually occurs, but it is made to look as though work might someday be done. I named the phenomenon for the past Governor of Illinois, partly because most of the encountered network occurred in Illinois, thus I saw it as a vestige of that gubernatorial malenfant. Approximately every ten miles, we would encounter a five mile stretch of highway where one lane was closed and the allowable highway speed reduced by ten mph, or sometimes 20 mph. Occasionally, a truck or two would be parked alongside the roadway, and sometimes they would tear up a stretch. Often a few “workmen” would be stationed nearby to observe the slowly moving caravan of trucks and cars, perhaps as a suggestion that someday, work might actually happen.
When we finally emerged from the Illinois road silliness, we proceeded more expeditiously for a while, finally arriving at our first day’s stopping point. We expected little difficulty and a relatively short trip on our second day.
Then, while driving somewhere north of Knoxville, traffic ground to a halt. All lanes stopped. After a while, we turned off the engine, I emerged from our car and looked up and down. An endless stretch of trucks and cars forward and behind us. I checked with a trucker—they always know what is happening. Seems a truck ahead of us had burst into flame and was being consumed, thus closing both lanes. So, I returned to our car, and stared at the line of cars and the car in front of us, also licensed in North Carolina. Both the driver, a woman, and her passenger, a man, were smoking. Both apparently thought of the world outside their car as a giant ashtray—maybe their Kia had no ashtray, much as most cars licensed in North Carolina seem to have no turn signaling system. Both people would inhale, blow out smoke and flick their cigarettes outside, then finally both tossed their lit cigarettes outside their car, onto the surrounding highway. I found it a bit ironic that we were being held hostage by a truck in flames ahead of us, while the people in front of us thought nothing of tossing lit cigarettes out the window.

Finally, the traffic began moving, our cigarette-smokers in front took off, and we resumed our journey.
All in all, we returned home more tired than expected, happy to have taken our journey, but happy also to be back home. All in all, a good time was had by all, despite the return trip from hell. Still, road trips always beat traveling by air.
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