Blue Highways

June 14, 2008 at 10:52 am Leave a comment

As a response to the traffic and congestion I encountered on my last swing around the DC Metro area I determined to vary my route back to the Piedmont. My route has always taken me on a 70-mile stretch of non-interstate highway — making a shortcut from I-270 at Frederick, MD to I-83 at Harrisburg, PA. Over time, I’ve come to regard that as the most pleasant and relaxing part of my drive. So, in planning my latest route I decided to drive directly South from Frederick rather than jogging East and then jogging back West. I had been, in other words, going out of my way geographically for the pleasure of embroiling myself in DC traffic. Stupid. Or was the geographic sacrifice worth it to avoid the stoplights and hassles of small-town Maryland-Virginia-North Carolina? Yesterday, I aimed to find out.

It was a good time to experiment as the timing of my departure pretty much guaranteed that I would have hit the DC area at the height of a Friday afternoon rush hour going the wrong way. Even the route south from Frederick and parallel to the interstate as far as Fredericksburg was packed with what I had to assume were DC commuters. The roads didn’t entirely clear until about 7pm. But there were no back-ups — just steadily moving streams of cars closer, one hopes, to their ultimate destination.

The suburban sprawl of by-pass highways, shopping malls and their attendant traffic lights were with me until I passed Richmond. The experience made me question whether altering my route had really been such a great idea as I seemed to spend a lot of time waiting for red lights and behind slow traffic.

But once I got within hailing distance of Petersburg things started to open up. The towns became fewer and smaller, the bugs much more numerous. There were lots and lots of recently harvested hayfields. Every drive seemed to let onto a farm and every farm proudly proclaimed it’s identity with a handsome wood or metal sign. They were named farms, loved, expensive. Miles on miles of the wooden fences that denote horse pasture.

The route undulated so much that I couldn’t exceed the speed limit by much without inducing motion sickness. And I once again wondered at the efficiency of choosing this route. But I was relaxed and happy. I was listening to a great old novel on the CD player. It got darker and later, but the turns of the road, having to pay close attention to signposts, moving onto smaller and smaller roads as I got closer to my destination. These things kept me awake and engaged as I pulled closer to the piedmont. There was none of that dragging feeling of the last hour of a long drive where all I’m thinking about is my bed.

Overall, the route took me 1.5 hours over my optimal transit time. Since I surely would have hit DC at the worst possible moment, it’s likely that this represented a flat-out increase in efficiency over my usual route. But more importantly, I got back feeling calm. I was tired but just it was just the normal tiredness of the end-of-day. I didn’t feel that road-jaggled sense of unreality when my feet hit solid ground again. Now that I’m typing I think the difference may be that on my route last night I was constantly varying my speed and direction. Stupidly, it never occurred to me until just this minute that driving like an automoton at a non-varying speed for hours on end might be….unnatural and stressful in it’s own right.

I came back to weather cool enough to sleep with windows open — not something one expects in June in the piedmont — a happy dog, and squash blossoms!

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Entry filed under: Comparisons, Transit.

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