Tough lesson from sitting in hours of holiday traffic

November 27, 2003|By KEVIN COWHERD

ONE THING I've learned in 22 years of writing a column: There's nothing like a good travel horror story to brighten a holiday for my readers.

So this one's for you, Mr. or Ms. You'll-Never-Catch-Me-On-The-Roads-For-T hanksgiving.

This one's for you as you turn on the news and see live Sky Eye Chopper 13 shots of bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 and six-mile backups at the toll plaza in Perryville and smugly think: Why would anyone be out there on a day like this?

Yep, you'll love this one.

Two years ago, my family was invited to spend Thanksgiving with my sister-in-law and her family on Long Island.

We decided to leave for Long Island at 10 Thanksgiving morning.

We did this because both my wife and I had to work the day before, and the kids had school.

But mainly we did this because, well, we're stupid.

Sure, we knew the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was the worst travel day of the year.

But we figured if everyone was traveling on Wednesday, how bad could traffic be on Thanksgiving Day?

This, of course, is the kind of seriously flawed reasoning that would cause a kindergartner to smack you over the head and say: "Geez, what were you thinking?"

Anyway, at 10 a.m. we set off. It was my wife and me and three kids in a minivan, along with a dog that has vertigo and has to sit in the lap of whoever is in the front passenger seat or else he starts weirding out and hurling himself against the windows like some canine Charlie Manson.

For the first few minutes, man, it was a great trip. It was clear sailing on the Beltway, and traffic was light when we first hit 95 North.

"See? We're leaving at the perfect time," I said to my wife. "Stick with me, kid, you'll wear diamonds."

Fifteen seconds later, we saw the first brake lights.

Thirty seconds later, we came to a grinding halt.

We hadn't even reached the White Marsh exit and traffic was backed up to Vermont.

We'd been on the road exactly 16 minutes.

Did you ever see the movie The Perfect Storm?

At this point, I felt like the skipper of the Andrea Gail as the wind picks up and the clouds roll in and the first ominous weather reports begin to clatter over the ship's teletype.

Like poor Capt. Billy Tyne, I knew we were riding into almost certain doom, 200 miles of the meanest, traffic-choked, exhaust-filled highway you'll ever see.

I knew we should have turned back.

Yet something - I don't know what - compelled me to press on.

Years from now, I may shell out $200 an hour and lie down on an analyst's couch and find out exactly what that something was. But for now, let's just say the reason we drove on is: I'm not real bright.

Anyway, from that point on, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

It was bumper-to-bumper all the way to the Susquehanna River, bumper-to-bumper through the Perryville toll plaza, bumper-to-bumper all through Delaware.

It took three hours to get to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, a drive that normally takes 75 minutes. Usually, the trip to Long Island takes about 4 1/2 hours. But at this rate, we'd be lucky to get there by Thanksgiving 2006.

Inside the minivan, a state of heightened tension existed. It was like a rolling Gaza Strip.

Oh, the kids were fine, each one cocooned with a Walkman and headphones. And the dog wasn't going Manson on us, either. But to while away the time, I decided to play that favorite game husbands like to play with their wives when they're stuck in traffic over the holidays.

You know the game. It's called "Why Do We Always Have to Visit Your Family?"

As you can imagine, this made for a lively conversation - for about three minutes. Then my wife stopped talking altogether.

Once we reached the New Jersey Turnpike, we stopped at a rest area, which had all the calm of a refugee camp.

Cars screeched through the parking lot looking for spaces. Horns blared. Babies wailed. The lines at Burger King looked like the lines at Disney World, only longer.

I think they were roasting pigs over open fires outside Starbucks. A mob with torches was marching on the gas pumps as we left.

As day slipped into night, we made the long, hard slog over the Outerbridge Crossing and onto the Belt Parkway, which is the single most horrible highway in North America, even on a good day.

This was not a good day. This was hell. Or if it wasn't hell, we were in the same ZIP code. The bumper-to-bumper traffic never let up.

At 6:08, we finally pulled into my sister-in-law's driveway on Long Island, in the town of Brightwaters.

Total time of the trip: 8 hours and 8 minutes.

They were just sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. I was shaking like a guy who just crawled away from a train derailment.

"How was the drive up?" they said.

"Oh, you know," I said. "Is it too late for cocktails?"

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