“Sunday after Thanksgiving – Busiest Traffic Day of Year”
I scoff at the newspaper headline and finish packing the car. That headline doesn’t scare me – I’ve been a commuter on the Garden State Parkway.
After scraping ice and snow from the car’s windows, we leave Ohio with a honk and a wave to the family and begin our nine-hour drive back to warm, sunny South Carolina. Our short holiday stay has reminded me how much I hate that horrid three-headed hydra – ice, snow and the wind chill factor. Wind chill doesn’t mean too much when you’re living in South Carolina, but in Ohio, after whipping over Lake Erie, the wind has the sharpest teeth of the hydra.
I’m pleased to see the temperature rising as the miles flow by. The much ballyhooed traffic doesn’t seem to matter much. There are indeed a lot of cars on the road but they are all bookin’. I’m forced to ride in the slow lane and I’m doing eighty.
Traffic slows to seventy as we near major cities but that doesn’t last.
The wild charge south continues.
‘Asheville – 67 Miles.’ The sign pops a smile onto my face. I do a quick calculation and announce with a grin, “We should be home before six.”
Fate hates me.
The red ribbon of lights on the closely packed cars up ahead deflates my elation with the finality of a lit Panetella jammed into a child’s balloon. The traffic slows, then stops.
I wait patiently for a minute but nothing moves. Craning my neck out the window just reveals more red lights trailing off into the distance, not the cause of the stoppage.
As a distraction I read the bumper stickers on the cars near me. This only kills a minute. I re-read them, trying to see if the sticker’s statement matches the type of car and its driver.
‘Love animals, don’t eat them’ is plastered on the maroon Volvo. The sticker on the rusty pickup next to the Volvo states its message with perfect dichotomy. ‘Possum – the other white meat.’ Further ahead, the sticker on the back of an SUV reads, ‘My Son is an Honor Student at Ridgewood Elementary.’ The ’73 Oldsmobile on their left merely has a small understated ‘AARP’ sticker affixed to the bumper.
Traffic begins to move and my excitement ebbs and flows with my speed. Zero, five, ten, fifteen, twenty! Fifteen, ten, five, zero. Minutes pass. No forward motion.
I resume my game. The Volvo’s occupants are staring straight ahead, not talking. They are about thirty years of age. The man is on the thin side as is his hair. The woman’s hair is pulled so tightly into a bun that I wonder if she can blink.
From the pickup truck a cowboy hatted head emerges and tries to look around the line of cars. The cowboy shakes his head and tosses his cigarette into the concrete divider. I can see what looks to be a naked lady tattooed onto his left forearm.
A rocking motion brings my attention to the brawl ensuing in the back seat of the SUV. Arms and legs flash around the interior and I catch a glimpse of the mother screaming at her brood. Her unheeded appeals pour soundlessly from her mouth. I wonder if the winner of the melee will be the Honor Student.
Traffic accelerates and I eagerly drive forward only to resume our inert position after twenty seconds. I glance at the ‘AARP’ stickered Oldsmobile. Two gray heads are visible in the vehicle. The man is in the passenger seat and the woman is driving. At least I assume it’s a woman. All I can see is gray hair barely poking over the steering wheel.
I nod. The bumper stickers fit the cars, and the cars fit their occupants. My game is over.
The world has shown itself again to be as I have presumed.
We have traveled only nine miles on I-40 in the last two hours and my patience is gone. “See if there is a way around this,” I command.
My wifely navigator pulls out the map and with much flapping and unfolding, focuses on my request. She shakes her head. “Nope. We are in the Smoky Mountains. This is the only way through.”
I nod as I glance at the road. The mountains rise on either side of us and I feel like sausage meat being squeezed into a casing. “Any exits near?”
More folding, flapping and head shaking. “Nope. Only one and it doesn’t go anywhere we want to go.”
I nervously tap my fingers on the steering wheel and curse the sixteen-ounce Coke I had at lunch. “Any rest stops?”
This time I am rewarded with a positive nod. “Yes. Just past exit seven.” She does a quick calculation. “About eight miles away.”
I do my quick calculation – at this rate that’s almost two more hours. I bite back the groan that tries to escape my lips. We inch forward.
Frustrated horns honk as a red Honda races by on the narrow shoulder attempting to pass the traffic. A semi pulls halfway onto the shoulder and blocks the Honda. The scofflaw tries to pull back onto the road but the cars tighten together, not allowing him entrance. When the shoulder narrows, he is stopped. No one will let him in. He vanishes rearward. People wave thumbs up to the semi driver who smiles and salutes.
It is dark now as we crawl forward. We’ve gone fifteen miles in four hours. Abandoned cars litter the shoulder. I wonder how many are out of gas. I feel lucky that I filled the tank just before hitting this mess. I just wish I hadn’t filled up with Coke.
The blessed signed appears – ‘Next Rest Stop 1 Mile – Right Lane.’ The left lane is moving faster now as cars are sliding into the right lane. It has been a long ride for all of us.
We pull into the rest area. It is chaos. There are no parking spaces. Cars are on the grass, doors left wide open and occupants nowhere to be seen. People are running in all directions, mostly toward the woods. It resembles a panic scene from a Godzilla movie. I slam the car into park and hurriedly walk to the rest room.
The doors are locked.
A hastily scrawled sign blares the dreadful words, “Out of order.”
That explains the rush of people to the woods. I curse the hundred-yard lighted area around the parking lot and run into the darkness.
I cannot see. I blunder into an older gentleman as I approach a tree. With a quick ‘Sorry,’ I rush to the next tree to find it occupied as well.
My eyes adjust to the dark. There are people everywhere. If there is a tree or a bush there are people. The bigger the tree, the more people. In the dark, folks stumble over bushes and the people near them. There are more than a few cries of, “Watch what you’re doing!” I happily find a vacant bush and my sighs of relief joins others wafting into the night.
We drive on, our speed slowly increasing. Finally, we find the cause of the delay. It seems the North Carolina Department of Transportation, in a careful study of traffic flow, decided to close all but one lane of I-40 for ten miles on the busiest weekend of the year. There was no cut-up road, no damaged bridge; they just closed the lane in preparation for work Monday morning. I shake my head. Government bureaucracies never fail to astound me.
We are home. It is almost midnight. The nine-hour trip has taken fifteen. As I prepare for sleep, I move the suitcases away from the bed. I want an unimpeded, fifty-five mph lane to the bathroom.
I settle in bed knowing that now all is now right with the world.
As I drift off to sleep, I hear the faint chuckle of Fate.