Monday, January 15, 2007



"Your family really doesn't think anything of just hitting the road, do they?" my friend Tammy said some time during the last three weeks.

Nope - we sure don't. My mother has driven from New Jersey to Arizona more times than I can count, often on just one or two day's notice. Myfather routinely makes a six-hour round trip between New Jersey and Connecticut. When I was a child, we'd sometimes leave North Carolina for upstate New York on Friday evening, get to Poughkeepsie in the wee hours of Saturday morning, leave again on Sunday afternoon, and get back to North Carolina late Sunday night. I've been making long drives since before I can remember, so it's no big deal for me to hop in the car and just go.

Recently I read an article in which the author wrote that a dying man "finally understood that life is just a collection of things that happen to you." When I read that, I wanted to throw my water bottle at the computer. He got it exactly backwards. That's not how life is - or at least not how it's supposed to be. We are supposed to happen to the world, not the other way around. "Do not go gentle into that good night," and all that. I hope that when my time comes I can die gracefully, but in the meantime, damned if I'll sit around waiting for life to happen to me. Sure, things will happen to me, but I'm going to happen right back.

Live vibrantly, brothers and sisters.

I had plans to leave Norfolk the day after finals. The last day of finals (right in the middle of an exam, in fact) I had a kidney stone attack that sent me to the emergency room, where I have never been so happy to see a needle in my life. Understand, my sister once volunteered to hold my hand when I was having blood drawn and I nearly broke her hand. The doctor had to stop and make me squeeze something inanimate. But when the nurse came in with an injection for the pain (and it wasn't a small needle, either), I was rolling up my sleeve.

Until I was told to drop my pants.

It really was a big needle.

So after being sent home and told, in effect, "drink three liters of water and call me in the morning," (kidney stones can be extremely serious and shouldn't be taken lightly, but thankfully this particular one was more painful than dangerous) I talked to my father in New Jersey. He said, sounding disappointed, that he supposed I wouldn't be coming up now.

"I'm not going to sit around the apartment and wait for the next one," I said. I figured I could scream in pain anywhere. Which, in the event, I didn't end up having to do, but the point was, happen to the world.

So Friday morning, December 15th, me and my trusty Thunderchicken (an old but faithful 1992 Ford Thunderbird) were off and gone from Norfolk, heading into what was for me uncharted territory: the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. This impressive bit of engineering carries US 13 about 20 miles from Norfolk to the Eastern Shore of Virginia across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on a series of trestles interrupted by two bridges and two tunnels spanning (or diving under) the navigational channels into the bay. I'd never had occasion to cross it before, but it was the logical path, and I do like taking the scenic route where possible. There wasn't much to see this day - it was early and there was a thick fog, not yet burned off by the morning sun, covering the bay, but it was a pleasant crossing nonetheless. Then up through the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, much of the route paralleling the Bay Coast Railroad, originally built in 1884 and current operator of one of the last railroad car float operations in the country, and to Wilmington, Delaware and a crossing of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which is actually two suspension bridges connecting Delaware and New Jersey. (I thought about taking the Cape May - Lewes Ferry across Delaware Bay, but decided to save that for another adventure.) I doubt a year of my life has gone by without at least one crossing of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, but it's always an exciting sight. Maybe it's the grace of the twin spans. Maybe it's just that it's an easily-recognizable milestone wherever I'm going. Maybe I just like bridges. Whatever the reason, I always enjoy the crossing.

And so to New Jersey. The next morning my father and I were up and gone well before sunrise, bound first for Newark to pick up a passenger. A sidebar on New Jersey. Between Newark and a search for a diner somewhere around Passaic on the way back a few days later, I spent a lot of time looking at neighborhoods in the old industrial cities of northern New Jersey. "Pathos" is the word that comes to mind. There's a lot of quiet desperation penned up in those endless rows of old wooden frame houses and the tiny apartments that make up Newark's sea of brick. Too much humanity, too many dreams, all pushed on top of each other. I couldn't live there. It's just too much.

Anyway, with our passenger embarked, we went on to East Haven, Connecticut and the Shore Line Trolley Museum, where my father is a frequent volunteer and I'm an occasional volunteer. Mostly I go just to spend time with him. On my last trip I helped rebuild a damaged turnout and replace some worn ties; this time I helped out with Santa Days, which is an annual event in which the kids get to visit Santa Claus on one of the trolley cars, complete with hot chocolate and cookies. We had two days of glorious weather; I wandered around wearing an elf hat (that didn't quite cover my ears, leading one visitor to comment on the "four-eared elf," but anyway) and trying to be generally useful - which meant crowd control, cookie patrol, and the occasional hostling job, complete with learning the tricks of various air brake systems. It was a lot of fun, and the museum railway is a beautiful place - 1.5 miles of former Connecticut Company trackage running through rural terrain including wetlands, an ancient fault line, and even a small farm you'd never guess was in the shadow of industrial New Haven. Besides, there's just something about those big yellow streetcars running over a line that's been in operation for more than 100 years.

Then back to New Jersey and a few days with family, both two- and four-legged, followed by a drive to Washington and a couple days with my newlywed sister and her husband. After that - friends in Richmond following by an entertaining two-car mad dash for home in North Carolina. Christmas and a few days afterward there, and back to Washington for a couple more days. Then the open road called again.

The morning of New Year's Eve and the Thunderchicken was westbound after the open road. Across the Potomac and up into the hills of Maryland, remembering just how close Washington really is to the mountains. Crossing I-81 near Sharpsburg, seeing how the Shenandoah Valley opens out into Maryland, and understanding for the first time why Lee came to this place. To the lightly-travelled National Freeway and into western Maryland, climbing over and around and occasionally through the great ridgelines on the eastern side of the Appalachians. Into West Virginia, northbound again, picking up the Steelers game on the radio as I rolled through southwestern Pennsylvania to a connection with I-70, west again and across that little piece of West Virginia that sticks up between Pennsylvania and Ohio. Through a tunnel at Wheeling, WV, the Ohio River and the flatlands of eastern Ohio lay ahead, the Appalachians but a memory in the rearview mirror. It was a long run to Columbus and Cincinnati in the gathering dark and rain.

Cincinnati. A city I'd never seen before, having passed through only once, and that on Amtrak's Cardinal in the middle of the night. It's a city of many hills and many bridges, I discovered. Hills pushed up by the glaciers as they reached into the heart of North America during the last ice age, bridges spanning the valleys between those hills and the Ohio River, which marks the end of the glacial advance. It's almost as if the great river said to the glacier, "Here you will stop, and go not one step further," but of course the river itself is a child of the glacier and will be waiting for it when next it returns, in due geologic time.

New Year's Eve itself. Indian food, a case of cider, and a party. The most stirring (and, astonishingly, sober) rendition of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" I think I will ever hear. Good times with a good friend and some of the most welcoming people I had never met before. Thanks again, Rob, Jay, Sarah, and all the rest of you.

The tourist highlight of the trip came at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. Like their naval counterpart in Pensacola, the USAF Museum has one of just about everything the USAF and its Army predecessors has ever operated, from a Wright Flyer through a B-2, plus some examples of captured enemy aircraft. One of my favorites was a Spitfire XI painted in the light blue scheme worn by photo-reconnaissance Spitfires operated by both the USAAF and RAF - I think the Spitfire is maybe the most beautiful aircraft ever built, and the clean lines of the unarmed Spit XI in that blue paint turn a war machine into a flying work of art.

My other favorite? The XF-85 Goblin, an experimental jet fighter designed to be carried into combat by B-36 bombers that would release it over enemy territory to attack intercepting fighters. The thing is so tiny and looks so absurd that you can't help but laugh at it. It looks like something your dad might have built, working on it for a few hours after dinner every evening one summer with occasional metallic sounds, dull thuds, and muted curses coming from the garage, until one Saturday morning he rolls it out on a trailer and shows off the gleaming contrivance to his curious children and dubious wife. It's cute. You're not entirely certain it could work, or even what it's for, but it is cute. You get the urge to scratch it behind the cockpit.

After a few days it was time to move on again. Time to head home. I could have taken the interstate all the way, but interstates can wear on you after a time. Instead I headed east along US 52, which hugs the north bank of the Ohio River for many miles. Much of it is two-lane blacktop through rural areas and small towns; I nearly hit two deer a couple hours into the trip, there are many places where, if you run off the road, you'll be in the river. US 52 carried me into West Virginia, where I crossed the river and headed east on I-64, a long but beautiful drive through the New River Gorge (which, although beautiful from the road, is spectacular from the train) and the heart of West Virginia. Eventually the road emerged into Virginia; from Staunton to Norfolk it's one long drop from the mountains to the sea. There was a brief stop in Richmond, and then I had returned.

Until the next time.


Blogger Anon_e_mouse said...

Cincinnati. A city I'd never seen before, having passed through only once, and that on Amtrak's Cardinal in the middle of the night.

I'll forgive you for not remembering... but you were there in the summer of '93, although we didn't stop as we passed through en route to Cleveland, having made the trek northbound through West Virginia and the Fenton Glassworks. One of these days I'd like to go back, armed with a track map of its once-magnificent trolley system (that also crossed the river to serve Covington, Kentucky) and see how many of the barns, terminals, and other features of the system are left.

10:45 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home