Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Long Drive on a Short Thermometer

Some years ago we were in a truck stop restaurant in the empty Midwest, my dad, my brother and I.  The teenaged waitress was loudly discussing how she had fallen asleep underneath somebody the previous evening, much to her colleague's amusement.  All of my worldly possessions were sitting in a rented truck in the parking lot of the hotel next door, a hotel whom we had forced to open up a bank of long-unused rooms because we were not going to drive any further that evening and that was final, thank you ever so much.  Three plates of heart attacks stared at us from the table.  And my dad looked at the two of us and said, "You know, sometimes you just have to stop and ask yourself, How the hell did I end up here?"

Oddly enough, this is a question I find myself asking a lot when I am with my dad.  I remember one pleasant afternoon, for example, with both of us sitting on somebody's lawn in full firefighter's turnout gear, idly watching the sidewalk buckle because the hydrant we just opened blew out the water main underneath.  But water was flowing toward the house fire down the street, so as far as we were concerned the main was Somebody Else's Problem, freeing us to speculate on the chain of events that had led us to that point.

I thought about this yesterday, as I was driving across the country.

Dad's 70th birthday is Monday, and the party is tomorrow.  For a brief, exciting time we all thought we'd drive out for it, but a combination of too many responsibilities and too little mercury in the thermometer prompted us to decide that it wasn't a trip for children - especially because of the weather, which has been brutal.

I'm expendable, though, so I went.

It was 22 below zero when I got into the car yesterday morning and headed east.  The air was full of steam from the rivers, more than fifty degrees warmer than the surrounding air.  Everything crunched, the way it does when things get that cold.  It was pretty.

Chicago was a slow-motion experience, even at the ungodly early hour that I hit it, but then it always is.  There is no good time to drive in, around, or near Chicago.

Western Indiana was a skating rink of black ice, with dozens of cars in ditches and at least two jacknifed trailers blocking the west-bound lanes completely, some miles apart.  I found a big rig driving sanely and just sat behind it for fifty miles or so, watching people zoom by and then crawling past them when they ended up in ditches later on down the road.  People just refuse to adjust to conditions - you can't drive in January like you can in June.  35mph in a straight line, that's all.  So you're an hour late - it beats sitting in a ditch.  It did make me glad that Kim and the girls were home, though.

New rule:  Road food?  Yes.  Fluffernutters?  No.

The temperature peeked above zero sometime around Harrisburg PA, doubling the number of interesting things about that city.  By the time I hit Philadelphia, it had reached a balmy 8 degrees above.  Today: 22.  It's springtime!

The Pennsylvania Turnpike people are just thrilled about this weekend's football games, and all of their signs now flash the same message:  "Go Steelers!  Go Eagles!  Turnpike Super Bowl!"  Although in eastern PA, the Eagles come first - as well they should.

It was a long drive, but here I am.  More news, and pictures, to follow.

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