Road Trips, Expected and Otherwise

This is long.  I don’t even know why, but it was fun to write.

Normally, the girl and i do not put a lot of mileage on our car.  Neither of us drive to work, and our routine activities don’t really add up to all that much.  So it’s been a fun month for the car in that we took two ~2000-mile trips up and down the eastern seaboard.  For reasons.

One of these was planned a long time ago, the new and improved summer version of my side of the family’s every-two-years Thanksgiving conclave.  A giant house with everything you could want, with the Outer Banks beaches as its backyard beckoned for a week of slacking off and drinking a ton of beer.  With enough beer, even i probably would like the beach more.

To North Carolina

We set off from Boston on a Friday afternoon and made fine time toward our halfway point in coastal Delaware.  Somewhere near the ironically named Walt Whitman service area on the New Jersey Turnpike, texts start flooding in.  About this.  First we figure we’ll just improvise, as it’s just a power outage.  Buy a lot of ice, plan on perspiring more and altering our grocery plans.  My mom, already in a motel for the night, stocked up on flashlights, because dealing with situations like this is her superpower.  A half-hour further down the road, and the text messages changed further.  Now it was an evacuation, destined to be a long one.  Now my mom’s working magic on her iPad, and suddenly several cars worth of us are all making a right turn and heading west.  As shown.

There’s no booking alternate accommodations on the beach in the summer for 14 people on zero notice, probably not for any amount of money.  Thus did we find ourselves still in North Carolina, but in the mountains of Asheville.  Specifically in a golf/aviation (yes, really) resort on top of a mountain.  So anyway, this is a change of plans, and we packed wrong for it, bought the wrong liquor for it, etc., but we are resourceful people.

Some things we learned:

  • Fuck golf resorts.  We rented a nice house in a nice, but not busy golf resort, with a clubhouse on top of the mountain with gobsmackingly nice views.  It even had a bar!  An empty bar with reasonably priced drinks!  Seemingly begging for well-behaved lushes like ourselves to exchange money for said drinks!  But they don’t take money, they start by asking for a $25 resort fee.  Per day.  Per adult.  Then you can pay for your drinks.  Perfectly engineered to keep the merely comfortable away from the actual 1%, ’cause while i can afford that, fuck you for asking.  Also golf, as typically practiced, is dumb and a waste of human effort.
  • There must be something in the water (or the tax breaks) in Asheville, as three different west coast breweries have branches in the area, as well as numerous homegrown ones.  So much cheap beer to drink in so many places.
  • The fact that there’s a US Forest Service-run natural rock waterslide that you can go play on for $2 is kind of amazing.
  • The Biltmore Estate is pretty cool (once we realized it was a thing you might go see in the area).  It is impressively large, but it’s telling that the thing that’s most often mentioned is how many rooms it has, it’s so impressively subdivided.  As the girl noted, it’s almost like it’s half mansion, half hotel.  And more than half park.
  • This part of North Carolina somehow has butterflies like we have mosquitoes.

To the Middle of Nowhere

After that (also, quality family time, including indoctrinating both my octogenarian great-aunt and my six-year-old nephew into playing ruthless games of Asshole), the girl had another quest for the ride home.  There’s a state park in northern Pennsylvania renowned for the darkest night skies east of the Mississippi, so she figured we should go chase the Milky Way.

One corollary to there being dark skies, which we quickly picked up upon, is remoteness.  Cherry Springs State Park is something like ninety minutes north of I-80.  About 20 minutes into that, we began to appreciate that there would be many closed gas stations between us and our destination, but maybe no open ones.  We backtracked and filled up, and were proven right.

This is well and truly Real America we’re driving through now; ‘towns’ that consist of six ramshackle houses, maybe three with any signs of life, but most with at least four cars (or what used to be cars).  Windy, narrow roads with no speed limit posted.  A burbling stream out our window.  Bugs pelting the windshield like driving through a snow squall.  Progressively smaller roads pointed further from civilization.

Finally we find it, and sure enough, it’s plenty full, with lots of people looking up.  Unfortunately they’re looking up at a full moon (which we knew about, and knew it would set later), and a persistent haze.  We pitched the tent in the dark easily enough, and sat and had a dinner of leftover Chips Ahoy and a beer.  After nearly half a dozen times taking the girl camping, i’ve still yet to actually do it well.  Maybe it pours rain, maybe it’s cold, or maybe we’re just half-assing it on the way somewhere else.  But i swear, you can get good at it, sleep well and warm, eat good food, and enjoy a fire all night.

So we get up several times through the night and look up.  Now there are a lot of stars, far more than we city dwellers are used to.  But we also know it’s not enough.  The just-set Moon is lighting the haze enough to hide a lot of the stars. It’s still nice, though.

The next day, it’s a further 90 minutes on back roads in the middle of nowhere until we get to I-86 in New York.  Through all this, i remain suspicious at Apple Maps’ decision making, but not once is she wrong.  More on this later.

To the Beach, For Real This Time

The girl was, to put it mildly, disappointed to have missed out on a week on the Outer Banks, as she does love the beach so.  Since we were already going to quest toward the totality of the eclipse, and this meant a lengthy drive in one or more directions, it made sense to at least rig it to stop somewhere near the water.  Thus:

As we drove south on Saturday morning, the girl was entertained in the car by play-by-play of Boston vs. Internet Nazis; even though it wasn’t a very close game, we regretted missing it.

So here’s where we started to appreciate, if not trust our telephone copilot.  Traffic bit us hard on this trip.  First, she routed us around a stopped bridge through scenic Chester, PA. Later, back roads in Delaware instead of the highways.  Sometimes it was a break-even, sometimes it was a huge savings, but we started to notice that if nothing else, these alternate routes were taking us places we maybe wouldn’t see otherwise.  Boring places, crappy places, beautiful places, but at the very least, parts of part of the country we wouldn’t have seen.  Considering how i lament road-tripping with no time to take side trips, having a computer there to generate advantageous detours really changes the experience.

In any event, we arrived at the Bay Bridge/Tunnel at sunset, which is a good time to arrive there.

So i hadn’t been back to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area since i was in NROTC as a college sophomore; i spent a month there in the summer of 1995 doing push-ups and learning about the Navy and the Marines.  Anyway, not a lot of time at the beach.  Which is nice, if you’re into beaches, but even nicer if you like seeing F-18s taking off constantly or SH-60s buzzing the coast.  The beach was just teeming with people, lounging immersed in the shallows at low tide on a hot day.  And even i like playing in the waves.

But time for business.  The eclipse being a rather fixed deadline, we needed to get within shouting distance of it that night.  This is where we started running into the fun of lane closures on weeknights on two-lane interstates.  Watching the arrival time tick up on the phone, and debating back-roads-at-night versus actual stopped traffic.

This is also where we tried Bojangles.  Listen, i am a Popeye’s devotee, having spent formative years in New Orleans, but there are people who will try to tell you Bojangles is better.  This is untrue.  Chicken’s different.  Spicier at first, maybe, and with a good flavor, but less crispy and not as much like crack.  The sides are quite good, but really my quarrel here is with the biscuits, my good sir.  i say, suh, these biscuits are not up to any comparison <slaps them with a glove>.

To the End of the World

Anyway, the following morning we get up and bounce early and start heading south.  Traffic is heavy, and frequently stopped, but not the sort of thing that will prevent us from getting to our destination.  But, as my wife the weather person reports, our intended destination of Columbia is due for 47% cloud cover.  90 minutes west, Greenville has 25%.  We ask the phone lady nicely, she refers us promptly to a narrow side road with no yellow line and no cars, and we set off west, confidently.  It wasn’t scenic, but it was easy.  We even stopped for gas and what, judging by the line, was the only convenience store with a bathroom for miles.  Maybe i made some rash decisions there.

Emerging from the woods, it turned out Greenville is a nice little college town.  We immediately take the girl to a cocktail bar with a roof deck (full, sadly) and drink a little.  Perusing the map a little showed two parks, one along the river and promising a waterfall.  And sure enough it’s just covered with people, some sitting in the water, others walking around, plenty of nerds with telescopes and shadowboxes, and high-end cameras.

This is the part where we stress heavily: There is no substitute for the actual totality of an eclipse.  

It’s impossible to describe sufficiently or do justice to with bad photos.  It looks like something you’ve seen before, but only in movies or science fiction.  Like some malevolent force has covered it over.  Or like the sun is the malevolent force just barely being held back, with the wispy, fingery corona spilling out.  It feels like a dark amusement park ride when someone accidentally turns the lights on, ironically, like some mechanism behind every day of your life has suddenly been exposed.  The two minutes passes quickly, and light spills out the other side like molten metal.

Staying in a Motel Would Be Too Easy

Now we had a day and a half to drive back to Boston, and obviously we wanted to make headway that afternoon.  The highways out of Greenville were clogged, so we got routed on surface roads, to suburban roads, to rural roads to get around them.  It wasn’t the massive gridlock that people thought might happen, but it was a big, significant movement of people the whole day.  We could tell because we were following this crazy backroads route with other cars from northern states (and in heavy traffic once we returned to the interstate, again, all people like us returning north).  Amusingly, we got within an hour of where we were in Asheville two weeks earlier.

So the plan was to camp the night in Shenandoah and close the loop by getting to see the Milky Way in the sky.  Conditions were perfect for it, but traffic meant that we reached Skyline Drive at midnight, with 25 miles to drive at 35mph, with presumed furry creatures waiting to jump in front of us at all times.  It was not awesome.

But the skies were perfect.  A nice band of the Milky Way (you know you’re looking at the right thing when you have to spend time deciding if it’s a cloud), and many orders of magnitude more stars than we get at home.  A trickle of shooting stars, even.  Getting up to take a leak at three in the morning becomes the greatest thing.

Other Stuff

  • Between the two trips we maybe ate at McDonald’s eight times, which is like, half a year’s worth for me.  It was glorious.  We also went to a Wendy’s, a Burger King, an Arby’s (not just for Jon Stewart), a Bojangles, a Dairy Queen.  No Chick-Fil-A or Hardees, obviously.
  • The girl continues to profess her love of Circle Ks, and their still-100% record on clean bathrooms.
  • Does anyone know why abandoned cars and road debris proliferate like mad as soon as you cross the Mason-Dixon line?
  • Similarly, why do people pull over into the left-side breakdown lane down there?  This is dangerous madness.
  • The further you get from Boston, the fewer Mini Countrymen you see.
  • The two trips were 4,300 miles in total.
  • There were actually very few Tr*mp stickers and signs out there in Real America.  Plenty of confederate flags, though.
  • In a line at a fast food restaurant, an older gentleman looks at the UHC logo on my Revs jersey and asks if i’m in the healthcare industry.  Polite conversation follows, we northerners squirm and wonder why.
  • After spending $28 in tolls in New Jersey alone, we again decided that Massachusetts needs to toll out-of-state-drivers better.
  • Related: Why does the rest of the country have better roads than the northeast?  Is it the snow, or is this an effect of them getting $1.37 back on their tax dollar and us getting $0.63?
  • Alas, i didn’t get to go to a megachurch this time.  Someday, though.