Have pen, will travel
Long highway journeys require something besides staring at mile markers, grumbling at tailgaters and looking at the gas gauge. Experience says to avoid the $3.83 pump prices in the Nutmeg State and fill up when entering and leaving the Palmetto State, where a week ago today a gallon of regular cost $3.09.
Second cheapest is New Jersey, but state law requires that attendants pump the fuel and I always feel obliged to tip a couple of bucks so there goes that savings.
There are peculiar sights that are unique to every 1,390-mile trip from Franklin County to the Palm Beach County. There was the time I saw a circus Tiger caged in the rear of a Jeep Sport Cherokee, and last Saturday when I saw a black high heel shoe plopped right side up on the center stripe of the bustling and bumpy Cross Bronx Expressway. I glanced in the rearview in time to see it be squashed by the left front tire of a tractor-trailer truck that was barreling down on me.
Near the Pennsylvania Avenue exit on I-95 in D.C., I passed a Jeep with Vermont plates and a Brown Motors logo. A few miles past a compact car with the only decent, apolitical bumper stickers worth noting: “Just Be Nice.”
I’d left on a weekend knowing traffic would be tolerable over the George Washington Bridge into a part of New Jersey that leaves travelers with a bad impression of the Garden State. For ten miles it is, quite likely, the bleakest stretch of highway on the entire eastern seaboard, a cluttered cobweb of smokestacks, oil storage tanks, high-tension lines, freight cars, billboards, big box stores and thousands of empty cargo containers unloaded from rail cars and ships.
Aircraft take off and land at Newark Airport and there’s a panoramic view of MetLife Stadium rising from across a reedy swamp, appearing in the distance like an oversized boom box. On the radio was a replay of deposed Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke discussing his unexpected firing. “Sometimes you get fired it’s like walking in the desert,” said the riled up Burke. “You’re not sure you’re going to drop dead but you know it’s going to happen. This, it was like a two-by-four up side the head. The best part is not having to speak to you guys (the media) again.”
I switched to NFL Network, where an irate Cincinnati Bengals fan was railing about the poor play of quarterback Andy Dalton in the AFC Wild Card game. “When I look at Andy Dalton I see Billy Joe Tolliver. … Overthrow Billy Joe,” said the caller, referring to a journeyman quarterback from the 1990s with more interceptions (64) than touchdowns (59).
The advent of satellite radio, which was launched two weeks after 9/11, has been a godsend for long distance travelers. A driver can be in Timbuktu and listen to sports, or Howard Stern or the BBC. Without being hampered by FCC regulations, it has sex channels and Bible channels, rap music and opera.
Other techno-geeks may favor Facebook, Twitter and Tweeting but all I need is my SXM channels to keep me occupied. It is an essential alternative to radius-challenged terrestrial radio.
In Baltimore I drove through the tunnel named after Fort McHenry where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “The Star Spangled Banner” during an attack by the British navy during the War of 1812. Last Saturday the city’s football team was in a gridiron battle in Denver. Drivers can see M&T Bank Stadium from the highway and billboards exhorted the hometown underdogs to beat the Broncos and advance to the AFC Championship game tomorrow in Foxboro.
It kicked off when I was halfway over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting D.C. to Virginia. The Ravens were expected to wither in Colorado’s frigid, high altitude air and I merely hoped they’d keep it interesting for at least part of the game. Instead it went into double overtime and by the time Ravens placekicker Justin Tucker booted the winning field goal I was 98 miles past the Virginia state line, in Selma, N.C.
The Ravens had trailed by a touchdown with 31 seconds left in regulation. It was minus-two degrees and the Ravens’ sideline reporter was hypothermic, sounding drunk and slurring his words. Up in the radio booth, play-by-play broadcaster Gerry Sandusky said to his listeners: “If you have a favorite saint, start praying. If you have a favorite spot in the house, go stand there.”
Prayers were answered when Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco heaved a 70-yard spiral to wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who caught it at the 15-yard line and ran into the end zone for the game-tying touchdown that set up the overtime win. It was the sort of entertainment that made the mile markers go unnoticed.
Soon I was past North Carolina, where a pack of smokes costs less than four bucks and a 16-ounce rib eye cost $9.99 at the Flying J truck stop.
The latter day version of the Mason-Dixon line is a cheesy tourist trap on the North Carolina/South Carolina state line called South of the Border. At night a towering sign topped by a large sombrero lights the sky. There are rides and concession stands, but whenever I drive past it there’s nary a tourist on the midway or car in the parking lot. Yet it eerily survives, like it’s out of some weird episode from the Twilight Zone.
I stopped for the night at a Country Inn in Florence, S.C., had a big breakfast at a Cracker Barrel and resumed my southbound travels past billboards advising motorists that “Our State Is Not an Ashtray. Litter Trashes Everyone.”
It was a quick trip through Georgia and by the time I reached the Florida line I was listening to Atlanta playing Seattle and seeing signs for Ron Jon Surf Shops and enticements for free orange juice at the ubiquitous citrus stands that are off nearly every exit.
At Exit 147, I pulled into a Citgo station near Vero Beach and delivered a stress free chair to a Franklin County resident with a bad back so he could watch the Patriots game in comfort. His cousin, Greenfield handicapper John Dobrydnio, had brokered the deal, which turned out to be a free tank of gas. Dobrydnio also promised to give me a horse to wager. “When you’re at Gulfstream, look for a horse named American Legend.”
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, but the horse hasn’t left the barn.
It’s beautiful down here in January, with flowers blooming and the coconuts ripening and honeybell oranges full of juice. Today I’m driving back to Franklin County with its own beauty, the woods and streams and solitude. Cold, dark solitude until the days become longer and the sap starts flowing, but irresistible nonetheless.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.