A traffic jam is never a good way to start a 1,500-mile road trip, but Interstate 91 southbound was backed up two miles around the bend in Holyoke and I opted for the long way out of the Northeast. It was a Friday afternoon, the time when Big Apple traffic reporters warn motorists to stay away from places like the George Washington Bridge where “It’s just gone from bad to worse,” is a popular refrain on the evening traffic reports.
I steered onto I-84 in Hartford and drove through Waterbury and Danbury toward the New York state line. There was no hurry and the extra daylight would provide more scenery through Pennsylvania than during my usual wintertime excursions. The only hindrance would be the lumbering tractor-trailer rigs whose owners were unwilling to pay the hefty tolls on the seacoast thruways.
The hunger pangs started when I reached the Hamilton Fish Newburgh-Beacon Bridge crossing the Hudson River, and I stopped at a Greek diner in Newburgh and ordered dinner and a strawberry frappe. “A smoothie?” asked the waiter.
“A smoothie,” I replied, forgetting how quickly the lingo changes from region to region. I was headed to Florida, where the natives wrestle with terms like grinder and package store.
Seated in the booth across from me were two young lovers, him wearing a Charlie Sheen T-shirt that said, “Winning,” and her in a hot pink T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Sexy and I know it.”
These days a lot of food places call themselves diners, but are poor imitations of the old-time mom-and-pop eateries. Eating their frozen food and trucked-in bakery goods is like listening to Doo-Wop music performed by contemporary musicians. It’s not the same. When John and Linda Carey ran the Shady Glen in Turners Falls, they wanted no leftovers to ensure the next day’s meals were fresh. It was hard work, but it’s what helped make the place special.
In Tequesta, Fla., a place called the “Time to Eat Diner” should be renamed the “Time to Eat Someplace Else Diner.” I’d gone against one of my basic tenets by patronizing a restaurant that put photos of its entrees on its glossy five-page menu. I’d ordered the roast beef presuming I’d be served red meat with au jus, but what the waitress plopped on the counter was tasteless gray meat, covered with plain brown gravy over a bed of gooey turkey stuffing. “Different places serve it differently,” shrugged the waitress.
The food at the New York diner was adequate, filling my stomach for the long ride ahead. I made good time through Scranton and onto I-81 toward Gettysburg. At the 102-mile marker I tuned into the Red Sox-Yankees game on XM radio.
Like any good baseball broadcaster, the Yankees’ John Sterling can spin a yarn, and between pitches he talked of Fenway Park when it was a single-deck stadium and prevailing westerly winds deposited routine fly balls into the netting above the left field wall. Consequently, said Sterling, the Yankees never started lefthanders at Fenway Park. “Casey Stengel would not allow Whitey Ford to pitch at Fenway Park,” he exclaimed.
I measured miles by innings and was on a 180-mile pace when I spotted a plume of ugly black smoke rising against the reddish-blue sunset. Soon traffic was at a standstill and the faint sound of sirens grew louder as a state police cruiser, fire truck and ambulance hurriedly rumbled past us in the breakdown lane.
As the saying goes, “Not going anyplace?” People got out of their vehicles and stretched, others lit cigarettes and craned to see the trouble ahead. I got out of my car and walked between lanes up to an idling tractor-trailer truck and motioned the driver to roll down his window. He was in his 40s, wearing glasses and a baseball cap. “I don’t have a radio,” he said. “I’m a city driver.”
He said to drive across the median strip into the northbound lane and take a right off the first exit, then another right at a Toyota dealership. “That’s old Route 22. It will bring you to the next exit.”
But the alternate route wasn’t necessary. Up ahead the traffic had started moving and I joined the flow up over a hillcrest to where the emergency vehicles were parked on an overpass. A long chunk of tire tread was lying on the side of the road, indicating a blown tire had caused a late model SUV to spin out of control and crash head-on into an abutment and then burst into flames. The front half of the vehicle was charred and demolished, but the driver had apparently escaped unharmed, or we’d have been stuck behind the crash scene for a lot longer than 45 minutes.
I drove through Harrisburg and into southern Pennsylvania where a sign informed me I was entering Franklin County — 460 miles from one Franklin County to another. The game moved into the late innings as I drove through Maryland and sliced through West Virginia into Virginia. Sterling called the final out of the game when I was near the exit for James Madison University in Harrisonburg, a 4-1 win backboned by the six-hit pitching of CC Sabathia and aided by Mariano Rivera’s 627th career save. “Ballgame over!” ranted the bellicose broadcaster. “Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaa Yankees Win! CC pitches a whale of a game!”
My southward trek resumed early the next morning and I was back on I-81 looking at billboards advertising “Best Dan BBQ” in Virginia and enjoying the sights of sloping hillsides, grazing dairy cattle and plantation-style homes surrounded by lush shade trees. West of Danville, I forked onto I-77, a scenic highway with magnificent valley views and steep downhill grades that required truckers to be on the lookout for runaway ramps. This was the Blue Ridge Mountains, the part of the Appalachians where Robert E. Lee kept his troops while he planned his army’s second invasion into Union territory.
I passed signs for Appalachian State University in Boone and the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame near Charlotte, where the clerk inside a Home Run Food Mart told me they didn’t carry Camel unfiltered cigarettes.
“But this is North Carolina,” I protested. “You have all kinds of cigarettes.”
Behind me a voice drawled, “We have moonshine in North Carolina.”
I turned and saw a middle-aged man wearing a Tire Kingdom T-shirt and holding a six-pack of beer. He grinned and said, “That was a great comeback, wasn’t it?”
The map said I’d hit I-26 near Columbia, S.C., which would intersect with I-95 about 100 miles north of Savannah. On the radio, Baltimore broadcaster Fred Manfra excitedly described back-to-back-to-back home runs by Detroit’s Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila. The pitcher, Jason Hammel, ensured there wouldn’t be a fourth home run by plunking the next batter and was quickly ejected by home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt. “After giving up three home runs,” explained Manfra, “the etiquette of baseball demands hitting the next batter.”
The easiest part of the drive came later that night from Georgia to Daytona listening to the Bruins beat the Penguins in the first game of their eventual sweep. An hour later I bedded down for the night at a Country Inn near Vero, and the following day was at my destination in Jupiter.
It rained much of that first week. “Welcome to sunny Florida,” joked my cousin Pete Weiss. “What’ve you been doing down here?”
The answer to that will have to wait till next week.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.