One February morning before dawn I woke to find my wife crying in front of her computer. The screen glowed blue in the dark room. Outside, the streets and sidewalks were buried by new snow, and more dumped down out of the sky, turning Boston into a sickly yellow indoor-seeming palace of winter, peculiarly lit by the streetlights and the smothered dawn. A blizzard had swept in to New England overnight, dropping a foot on the city. And, as Sally had discovered, closing the airport.
We were scheduled to depart that morning for a vacation in Florida.
Sally desperately clicked through the flight listings, finding only cancellations, and no prospect of anything flying for at least a day, maybe more, once all the backups were taken into account. We had only eight days.
"Let's drive it," I said.
Sally went into full-power executive mode, invoked her corporate Hertz privileges and found a car at Logan. She bundled up and headed off via the T, the only viable transport. I got Bud, then five, out of bed, fed and dressed him, and organized the luggage in the living room.
In about an hour, Sally returned with the biggest car she could find, some sort of Hyundai, and plowed it into a snowbank in front of our row house in Charlestown. We packed, checked the computer once again for the weather pattern, and headed south as fast as we could.
"Thank you," Sally said, with tears in her eyes. "Thank you."
HIGHWAY 95 STREAMS NORTH-SOUTH like a modern Mississippi of commerce along the Eastern seaboard. As with the mighty river, if you live anywhere near it, you can hear it constantly, even in the deepest hours of night, rushing with travel and trade.
Tributaries pour into it along the way, and, around Woodbridge, New Jersey, it finds its full southbound strength. Jim McGreevey's original claim to fame was as the mayor of this town, one of the biggest and most complicated highway interchanges in the country. If you're not careful, as you shift from the Garden State Parkway to the New Jersey Turnpike (95), you will swear you have been turned back North, and will vainly look for a way to turn around again.
Route 95 stays jammed up in urban commerce till well below Washington, D.C. (where we stopped that year for a quick nap and meal at my sister's place). Once below Richmond, you're in Dixie and the road opens up. You scarcely see a state trooper anymore, and by now, on our trip, it was night, and the trucks, lit up like the riverboats of yore with fantastic glittering masts and outlines, boomed along.
Up ahead some distance in North Carolina I saw what seemed to be a terrible accident scene, ablaze with emergency lights. But we could not seem to draw any closer. Eventually we overtook a giant wrecker flaming with strobe lights, towing a disabled car. I had to speed up to 90 to get past the blinding apparition.
Like the old river, Route 95 has its tough and dangerous parts, too. You do not want to pull over into some tourist mecca in the middle of the night without a careful look. You may find yourself in the middle of a drunken brawl. As well to keep in mind that commerce also means crime. For all that, roadside suspicion seems remarkably low. The most intimidating looking gas station jockey will help you instantly if you have a sick kid, pitching in with a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle.
ABOUT THE WITCHING HOUR of the morning, at perhaps the twentieth hour on the road, we drew along the marshes and sand flats of the Georgia coast. Not long afterward, with Sally and Bud just stirring awake and my body craving coffee, we crossed the Florida border.
"We're here!" I told them, and they cheered, and we began to look for somewhere to eat something and relieve the aching bladders. Picking out a makeshift breakfast from a gas station convenience store, stretching our legs in the blessed moderate temperature and humidity, the realization suddenly hit us. We were going to Port St. Lucie. Florida is a big state. We still had 400 miles to drive.
We did the drive twice more in years after that. We had some advantages. We had moved to New Jersey, so we were 300 miles closer. I had bought an old Cadillac Fleetwood, so we had a big, comfortable car. But we also had a new child, a still un-toilet-trained toddler. And Bud, as he grew older, began to have problems with carsickness.
For a while it was fun. It was an adventure. But it was still a very, very long way. And after that first trip, the one made under the duress of bad weather in a rental car, when we flew back, we found out the one real downside to driving to your vacation.
You have to drive back.