October 25, 1999

America, America

America, America,
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good
With brotherhood
From sea to shining sea

The alarm went off all too soon, especially since I was at first too cold, and then too hot and hence didn't fall asleep until some time around 4am.

Sabs had finagled a deal with the night clerk since we have a small business American Express Corporate card which was a good thing because otherwise those scant hours of sleep would have cost far too much money.

I took a run through the shower to wake myself up and staggered downstairs with a moderately more well-rested Sabs, who had managed about 5 hours of sleep, whereas I'd only managed about 2, despite being exhausted.

A complimentary breakfast spread, including bagels, cream cheese, yogurt and hot tea went a long way towards raising my spirits and we were on the road by 6:45am. Dawn was only a faint rumor on the horizon as we pointed the car east again, driving towards the sun.

A fog hung over the fields, rimmed with frost that shone and shimmered as the rays of the sun slowly reached over the horizon. The sky shifted gradually from crepuscular blue to periwinkle streaked with pink and gold, to a vivid hue that was almost shocking in its intensity. I donít think I've ever seen a more beautiful sunrise than this one, the sun coming up over the corn fields of southwestern Illinois.

We drove mostly in silence -- I popped in one of the 80s tapes we'd picked up at a truckstop/grocery mart the previous night when we stopped to grab a bite to eat. Sabs said he needed something bouncy to help wake him up and I was more than happy to oblige. Illinois gave way to Indiana, a bit flatter with more of the ubiquitous water wells that reminded me of miniature oil drills.

We reached Louisville, Kentucky around lunchtime and stopped to plot our course from there. I pointed out that there were two possible routes through West Virginia from Charleston. #1: interstate 64, which goes east then south first and then east again to hook up with interstate 81 which takes a diagonal line up along the mountains. #2: 64 to 79 north in West Virginia to the state road 33 to the tiny route 55. The first route was all interstate, meaning high speeds the whole way, but perhaps less scenic. The second looked more direct, heading north and east the entire way, but 55 looked awfully small and was sure to be slow with a speed limit of no more than 55mph at best.

I let Sabs decide and he chose the northern route, stating that he was sick of nothing but expressway and would like to "see more of the country" while he was at it, besides 55 "looks shorter."

We would rue those words later, but in the meantime, we shot through Kentucky like an arrow from a bow, speeding east as fast as we could push it. We had exactly 24 hours from the time we rented the car, plus an hour grace period, hence we needed to have the car last by 9pm Eastern at the very latest.

We reached Charleston without mishap and as we drove through the outskirts of the city, tucked into a fold of the mountains, I pointed out that this was our last chance to decide what route to take. We pushed on to the exit for 79 and Sabs did his best to maintain good speed on the increasingly sloped road.

We'd expected to take no more than an hour to get from Charleston to the exit onto 33, but it took nearly twice that, between a few slow trucks and the strain on the engine from the slopes. Sabs was beginning to get nervous now and that was our undoing on a downward slope right after we picked up gas on route 33.

He was doing about 80mph as he passed another car and out of nowhere a state trooper popped up, coming up the hill. Twenty minutes later we were pulling out again, keeping the speed to a chaste 60-75mph, and the proud bearers of one speeding ticket. Thankfully the guy gave us a break and reduced the speed on the ticket to the minimum fine since Sabs actually had had little clue of how fast he was going, being somewhat dazed and shell-shocked from all the driving. For some odd reason the whole incident upset me greatly and I wound up crying helplessly for about a half hour as the lovely patchwork of red and gold mountains unfolded around us.

I eventually recovered my good mood, but time began to get tight. We'd reached 33 at around 4pm and I expected us to hit 55 before 5pm, but of course we didn't reach it until 5:30pm. Every time we passed through a town, we lost another ten minutes to traffic, or got stuck behind a truck on the one lane highway. It was turning towards twilight, when we passed an old General Store that had been in the same spot since 1902. Inside it smelled of old wood, smoky fires and age. Out in the bathroom, it only smelled of cold and mineral laden, icy water.

We crested two peaks of more than 3000 ft each. On their shoudlers lay a dusting of snow between a half and a whole inch thick. Beyond every shoulder of a mountain was another stunning sight, sheer rock, flaming colors in the leaves, deep valleys and picturesque or dilapidated houses, ranging in age from hundreds of years to new-built.

As night fell, we grew quieter and quieter, feeling the tension of simply trying to get around the next switchlast, across the next ten mile stretch of twisting road and still making it down to route 66 before it was hopelessly too late.

Though the mountains were beautiful and my mind is still full of the stark imagery of that country, we both cried out in relief when we passed the sign welcoming us to Virginia.

We hit 66 at about 7:30. I had to stop to relieve my bladder at the side of the road -- no time for a real pit stop.

Sabs went all out, risking another speeding ticket.

But we got to National Airport in Arlington, VA at 8:58 with a scant two minutes to spare.

There would be no additional $75/hour fees this time.

We were victorious and we hobbled home, weary, but filled with the giddiness of triumph and a ream of memories that made it all worthwhile.

I won't be asking Sabs to make any more long distance drives for a long while yet Ö that cross-country trip to California will just have to wait.

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