April 24 …
A phrase you will never hear uttered in a sentence in any language: “As scenic as an interstate.” Just to show you the sheer ridiculousness of the proposition, here’s the phrase translated into Mongolian: “Харь гаригийнх шиг үзэсгэлэнтэй.”
To illustrate my point: Above is a screenshot from the home page of the PA Turnpike website. There is no photo of anything remotely scenic on this page or any other. The idea of a photo gallery never even occurred to the designers of the site. Why would it? And, to add insult to injury, note that the shape of the logo at the top bears a remarkable semblance to the labeling of the Heinz ketchup bottle. For comparison …
Heinz, of course, is headquartered in Pittsburgh. As a side note, years ago, at a restaurant in Pittsburgh, I once said to the server: “And I’ll have your fine local ketchup.” After the server stopped looking at me funny, I learned that even though Heinz is located in Pittsburgh, they do not manufacture the ketchup there. It makes more sense, instead, to locate the ketchup factories near the actual source. As I now know, ketchup is extracted from the sap of evergreens on plantations just below the permafrost in northern Canada.
The one thing that interstates are good for is getting you from point A to point B at breath-taking speed. This does not apply to CA and urban areas throughout the US, where gridlock is the norm. My journey thus far has been a series of strategic compromises between interstate and back roads. For instance, thanks to I-20, I was able to put a lot of Texas in my rearview mirror. Nothing against Texas, mind you, but I had a schedule to keep.
It was along a stretch of I-20, between Fort Worth and Dallas, by the way, that I had my most terrifying driving moment, ever. Compression is the only word to describe the traffic conditions there – far too many vehicles compressed into far too little space. To extend the comparison, I felt the dread of four or so lanes about to compress into the one I was on. At any moment, I knew, the next ten seconds of my life could involve the sensation of being turned two-dimensional by something out of the Book of Revelation, perhaps the Four Trash-compactors of the Apocalypse.
Furnace heat out of the Book of Daniel was also an option. That nearly happened when an oil truck to my left and a school bus to my right decided to converge on the same square inch of space immediately in front of me. At the very last moment, the two vehicles decided to unconverge. They swerved like constrictors back into their proper lanes.
I cast my mind back to my heart surgery the year before. I’m sure the medical team who labored so hard to restore me to life had no intention of seeing their handiwork being combusted in a 4,000-degree Biblical inferno, Old Testament or New, take your pick. I can see them now, having coffee:
Head surgeon: “My best work. That second artery I stitched together, a masterpiece, an absolute masterpiece. It’s bad enough that we have to close things up so no one can ever view my work. But to have it all go up in a puff of Apocalyptic smoke. For what?”
Nurse: “Shit happens.”
Anesthesiologist: “It is what it is.”
Moving right along …
I had started my day sipping English breakfast tea in an idyllic location along the Potomac at Harpers Ferry, W Va. I had already decided I would be spending the night under a roof in NJ. My daughter and her family live in NYC. The last time I had seen them was in San Diego in late June the year before. They had just flown in from Brisbane, on their way to their new home for a year. We enjoyed a precious three or four days together. Two weeks later, I had my heart attack.
Now, here I was, eight months later, miraculously alive, having driven just about as far as I could longitudinally and a rather impressive distance latitude-wise. The end was virtually in sight. No tarrying, no dawdling. No scenic drives, no more nights out in the open.
Okay, I did stop off at the Gettysburg battlefield (see previous blog post). But just one Civil War battlefield. Antietam, scene of the bloodiest day’s fighting of that war, was just a tantalizing stone’s throw away from Harper’s Ferry. Further south were Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Manassas, and the Wilderness. Ground made holy by the blood of tens of thousands, worthy of a three-day pilgrimage. Alas, no time.
A quick tour of Gettysburg, then north through rolling farm country till at last, my rendezvous with the interstate. After one wrong turn, I was on the PA Turnpike. Instantly, the scenery disappeared and it started raining. To make matters worse, heavy construction closed off at least one line. That dreaded constrictor feeling entered into my psyche. It was like being squeezed through a, through a – I pass a Turnpike marker – through a Heinz ketchup bottle, that’s it.
Fortunately, the Turnpike has decent rest stops. I pull off at one and calculate my miles. I’m now able to give my host in NJ an approximate ETA. I pull off at my second one and treat myself to a meal. My last stop before I reach my destination. I can literally smell it. A home base in NJ. A day or two to recoup, then regular commutes on the train to NYC to be with my daughter.
Days before, at a pull-out along either the Blue Ridge Parkway or Skyline Drive, I had informed her of my imminent arrival. Back in San Diego, I had held three grandkids in my arms. Now, for the first time, I would be holding a fourth.
I’m heading down the last stretch of Turnpike. The signs are getting tantalizing, indicating routes toward Philly and New York and New Jersey. Trenton looms ahead. This is my exit. I have my ticket in hand. I’m guessing the toll will be something like five dollars and forty cents. I have a five and some ones handy. The toll booth operator says sixteen and change.
What?!!! Now I have to pull out my wallet. I sense traffic backed up behind me to Pittsburgh. I have a $100-dollar bill. I hand it over. A wad of bills and some coins come back. I stuff the money into a small space near my cup holder and hit the gas. I’m now winding down a concrete corkscrew, cars dropping into my field of vision from out of the sky. I make my landing in NJ. From here, it’s but a short ride to where I will be spending the next few nights.
I’ve made it. Deliverance ..