That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Gone Walkabout, Day One: In Which Things Go Right For An Entire Three Hours

Posted by kozemp on December 10, 2009

I should have known something was up from the start.

If you’ve never gone for long drives on the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, understand something:  it is a bit like no limit hold’em or working at a city pool. It is long stretches of mind-numbing boredom occasionally punctuated by moments of abject terror. For the most part you’re just sitting there not really working that much; keeping yourself awake and your car on the road is hardly difficult. The terror comes when every now and then you are forced to play dodgeball with 18-wheelers at 70 miles an hour.

Let’s think about the implications of that for a second.

Inasmuch as actual dodgeball is a classic game of physics the version played on the interstate is no less so. It is, in fact, far more dire. Consider you and your car. Together you weigh, at a rough estimate, let’s say 3000 pounds. You are traveling at 70MPH. That gives you a kinetic energy of about 666,141 J. Not too shabby, right? With that much energy you could put an eight pound ham in your microwave and turn it into a smoking brick. The problem is that the 18-wheeler up ahead of you has a kinetic energy of approximately 1.8×10^7 J. With that much energy you could turn that same eight pound ham into a hunk of fissile material so hot it would melt through to the earth’s core.

In a road situation, the truck is the ham and you are the earth. You don’t just lose, you lose spectacularly.

But dodging trucks is a way of life on the highways. This is why, when I was cruising along nicely on a completely empty Pennsylvania turnpike for the better part of an hour this morning, I should have realized something was terribly, terribly wrong. Actually, that was only the FIRST thing that should have tipped me off that something wasn’t right. The second thing was when, for the first time ever, my GPS actually changed its mind.

I was going on the turnpike when, at one point, it suddenly said “recalculating.” It normally does that if you veer off the course it gives you. I’d never heard it recalculate while I was actually driving the prescribed route. Instead of the straight shot all the way to Columbus it had given me, it was now telling me to get off the turnpike at the Gettysburg exit and pull more than 50 miles of Central PA back roads whamma-jamma.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked it. Some people name their GPS units. Talking to it is as far as I’m willing to go, and for a very good reason: my GPS sounds exactly like Claudia Black, and I am fully aware that if I personify it any more than I already have I will start calling it “Aeryn” and that will be the first step down the slope with “full-on crazy” at the bottom.

So, my GPS starts recalculating and I argue with it. The best, and thankfully most non-crazy, thing about this is that it basically was an actual argument. It would say, “recalculating – exit at…” and I would yell, “no! No! I am not getting off there! What the fuck is wrong with you?” Then I would not get off at that exit, and it would say “recalculating – exit at…” again, and I would say, “for the last time, NO! I am NOT FUCKING GOING THAT WAY.”

But then just before the Carlisle exit the lights on the “Emergency Traffic Information – Turn Radio To” sign were flashing, and I turned on the radio to find that, for some reason, a 60-mile stretch of the westbound turnpike was closed and I had to get off the turnpike for a detour.

I looked at the GPS and said, “I’m sorry I doubted you.”

The detour, though, this was another story. The detour that Turnpike Radio suggested was to take I-81 south into Maryland, and then pick up I-70 west to get back into Pennsylvania. Not an earth-shattering extra distance, but by my rough estimates it added about 30 miles to the trip.

Throughout the detour down I-81, though, my GPS kept suggesting that I get off 81 and hack through Pennsylvania. I knew that I couldn’t do that – there was a foot of snow on the ground, the back roads weren’t in great shape, and I couldn’t tell if the new route would put me back on the Turnpike after the closure. I had to stick with the radio detour; eventually my GPS matched up to it.

My trip was three hours old and I was already driving through a state I wasn’t supposed to be in.

Jazz!

So I got on I-70 in Maryland. However, where the nice turnpike radio robot lady said I was supposed to take 70 all the way back to the Pennsie Pike, my GPS said that I should instead get on this road called I-68.

The GPS tried to protect me from the road closure, so how could I doubt it now? Thus, when the time came, I got on I-68 and not I-70.

This was both the best and worst possible decision I could have made.

The reason it was the worst is because…  if you’ve ever made the turnpike shot across Pennsylvania you know that for the most part it is pretty uneventful. A couple tunnels, the occasional slight curve, some minor hills and whatnot, no big deal. It isn’t I-70 through the Great Plains (check back here tomorrow night for that), but its not exactly the Super Fun Happy Slide either. It’s a relatively easy drive.

Interstate-68, though, is NOT EASY. Not even a little bit. I-68 goes through some quality peaks in the Applachians and it DOES NOT FUCK AROUND. It goes up. It goes down. It curves. It switchbacks. It reverse-banks. I-68 is 112.6 miles of serious wartime driving. It’s requires far more effort to drive than the pleasant blandness of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. So, thanks to the problems on the turnpike, what was supposed to be an already-long 479 mile drive ended up being more like a 580 mile drive with a three hour stretch of leg presses in the middle. In my little Cobalt you gotta stomp on the pedal to get up those mountains.

As for why it was the best…

Okay, remember the bit from Star Trek III when David and Saavik are walking around on the Genesis Planet, and there’s just a straight line with a glacier on one side and tropical forest on the other? That’s what I-68 is like. It is the Genesis Planet condensed to a 112-mile road in northwest Maryland and West Virginia. You go through about 12 distinct climates between I-81 and I-79.

The first stretch is your basic mountain-with-evergreens, but today with the twist that about a foot of snow was on the ground. It’s quite beautiful, actually – rolling hills that gradually rise into mountains, all covered with tons of pine trees, and all of that covered with snow. It’s a hell of a vista.

Then you get to the first ridge, and shit starts to get real.

While you’re driving through the early lowland parts of 68 you can see fog on the mountains off to the south. “Oh,” you think, “that’s some very nice fog.” Then you get to the first peak. “Oh,” you think, “the fog seems to be swallowing the world.” The fog comes down on you harder and faster than winter in The Valley. The road just keeps going up and up and your visibility just keeps going down and down.

And then, in an instant, it’s all gone.

As you climb the ridge the fog gets thicker and thicker, but the moment you cross the threshold onto the downside of the mountain the fog just INSTANTLY DISAPPEARS. The first time this happened I went nuts. It’s like a magic trick. One second, fog and visibility to shame Mr. Magoo. The next second, clear skies for miles. It’s fucking amazing. When I mentioned this to my father he started going on about windward and leeward sides and whatnot. He was using geography to take the wonder out of an amazing moment. Not exactly the dark side of the Force, that, but come on – enjoy a natural miracle, for Chrissakes. Even -I- didn’t overanalyze it.

But the best part about the magic disappearing fog is that it happens like TEN TIMES.

Every time you start going up a ridge the fog descends even thicker than the last time, and you think “this is it, it’s not going to go away and I’m going to drive like this all the way to Pittsburgh,” and then BAM! you hit that sweet spot on top of the mountain and it all poofs up into thin air.

Then, just before the border with West Virginia, you get to Keyser’s Ridge. Going up that one I was sure that I was going to die. The fog came down earlier. It was thicker. Visibility was less than a thousand feet. At one point I basically couldn’t tell what direction the road went right in front of my car – I was steering by stealing glances at the GPS and seeing which way the road turned, like a pilot flying a plane on instruments.

“This,” I thought, “is not good.” I seriously considered that I might die on top of a mountain in Maryland.

Then it all changed. And it wasn’t that the fog disappeared. The whole world flipped. All morning I had been driving through various permutations of rain, snow, and grey skies. The weather was never dangerous but it was never good, but once I crossed some magical line on Keyser’s Ridge it was like David and Saavik walking across that line on the Genesis Planet.

Not only did the fog disappear – the entire sky changed color from grey to a stark, blinding blue. It was the bluest goddamn sky I’ve ever seen. The sun, which I hadn’t seen all morning, was suddenly stabbing into my left eye. The ground was dry.  After going over one more ridge I was heading into a giant valley with mountains out west and everything in between covered with green grass and bright green trees. It was the Allegheny version of Monument Valley. I was in a completely different world and the transition took less than a second. My jaw dropped.

I said out loud, “this is SO much fucking better than the turnpike.”

Now one of the neat little features in my car is a thermometer in the dash that tells me the outside temperature. It had hovered in the mid-to-low 30s all day, with one hair-raising stretch on I-81 bottoming out around 33. Once I got over Keyser’s Ridge, though, and started heading into West Virginia, the temperature started to rise. A lot. First 40. Then 50. When it read 60 I opened my windows. By the time I stopped for lunch and gas in Morgantown (home of the West Virginia University Mountaineers) it was 65 degrees and I was walking around in a t-shirt.

Two hours later, as I was crossing the Ohio River, I was once again sure I was going to die.

From Morgantown you take I-79 north up to 70, and you hop on that west all the way out to Columbus (i.e. here). Around about the Pennsylvania side of 79 it started to get windy, and I’m not talking a little bit. An in-dash thermometer and two power outlets are nice features of my car, but one of the less-nice features is that in any wind of more than about 9MPH it is almost impossible to keep the car in one lane. I tapped a few buttons on my phone (keeping my eyes on the road, of course) and learned that the next four hours of my trip were under an advisory predicting 50 mile an hour winds.

O… kay…

Just wind was one thing, but as I approached the Ohio border (on my second leg through West Virginia) it started to rain.

“Eh, a little rain isn’t too bad,” I said. “This fucking wind, though – ”

It was at this point the atmosphere underwent the liquid equivalent of flashover. Everything that was once air became water. Water moving at 50 miles an hour. Again, I had somehow managed to completely change climates over the course of about three-quarters of a second.

(Note to self: could this be another terrible mutant power to go along with “inadvertent electronic breakage” and “meeting celebrities in weird circumstances”? Must investigate.)

Understand that at the moment this happened I was barrelling for the bridge over the Ohio River. I was going down a 5% grade doing about 70 when suddenly giant sheets of solid water the size of the Comcast Tower were flying across the highway at 50MPH.

Remember what we said earlier about kinetic energy?

My reaction to this turn of events was, I thought not unreasonably, to calmly pause my iPod (playing “Fragile” by Kylie Minogue), think that driving my car into the Ohio River in the first ever Allegheny monsoon was probably slightly more survivable than driving my car off of a mountain in the fog, and shout “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST!

Then, once I crossed the bridge and started up the incline into Ohio…

It just stopped.

The rest of the ride was uneventful – I mean, it’s Ohio, for chrissakes. Ohio is the definition of boring driving, at least until tomorrow when I tackle Indiana and Illinois. The mission for tomorrow is to try and find a truck stop restaurant and a small town I stopped in ten years ago without being able to remember where either of them are. That and, you know, not contemplate my own death more than once.

JLK

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