The Nation's Pulse

Speed Shift

Getting to Seattle in a hurry -- for the best of reasons.

By 5.17.10

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I came to in Wyoming as the car slowed up the off ramp to a complete stop. "What's going on?"

I asked my friend Tim, somewhat groggily, from the passenger seat of his diesel driven blue Jetta. Tim had been lead footing it again. He didn't nail down how fast, exactly. I'm guessing 90. He thought he saw what might have been a cop in his rear view mirror, doing a U-turn into the westbound lanes of I-90. Best to be on the safe side, Tim figured. So we idled the car for a bit at that predawn hour.

We waited but didn't see anything. It was probably a false alarm, a bit of caffeine and five-hour energy drink fueled paranoia near the end of a long journey. After a few minutes, we got back on the freeway and continued on our crazy, breakneck, cross-continent journey from D.C. to Seattle.

That was the closest that we got to a particularly unpleasant run-in with the law. In West Virginia, I figured out how to set the cruise control just in time to blow by a speed trap at an acceptable 7 miles over. Near the University of Chicago, an officer in a police car told us to pull out around a cab that had stopped right in the middle of the road, gave the cabbie hell, and then turned off behind us just in time to miss us running a stop sign.

But mostly the police were simply absent for long stretches. At one point, I drove 500 miles in six hours and didn't pass a single cop car.

There were no real rude awakenings on the trip -- for me. When you are driving through the night, it's best to sleep lightly. I learned a while back that you should occasionally rouse and glance at the guy behind the wheel to see if he's nodding off and it's time for you to take over, if you want to get where you're going in one piece. Another lesson: You can probably stretch out your time as navigator if you put in a Led Zeppelin CD early in the morning, provided that the car has a decent sound system.

Tim didn't have it so quite so easy, because he was driving with the next worst thing to a madman: a student driver. I had driven a stick before, a long-time ago, but VWs handle differently and the car had turbo. It took awhile to get used to shifting up and down the gears and to regulate my speed. Then there was that time in South Dakota when I swerved to avoid hitting a pheasant that ran into the road. Tim told after that he only thought he was going to die a couple of times.

Road conditions didn't help. We drove through heavy rain, sleet, snow, thick fog, and rubbernecking Wisconsin drivers. Thanks to last year's stimulus bill, we had to keep slowing down for phantom road workers. Most of the work sites turned out to be unmanned, once we got to them. Perhaps it was because we drove through on the weekend or perhaps it was simply more economical to set up what seemed like half of I-90 as a future construction zone, and slowly rotate crews from one site to the next.

This was not a sightseeing trip. We didn't stop to smell the roses, we blew by them. And we had no intention of tracking down the world's largest ball of twine, wherever that might be located. The point was speed and delivery. We wanted to get from A to B as fast as we could reasonably manage, with only a few stops to keep our sanity and catch up with old friends and familiars.

Still, there were moments. When we came up over a hill and crossed the Missouri river, say, or when we were driving into a particularly striking sunset or under Montana's starlit sky, I couldn't help but be moved by it. And that look on Debbie Lott's face, when we made it from one coast to the other in just under three days and had lunch with her on Mother's Day? Impossible to forget.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.