Life in the complicated lane

Editorial Notebook

December 02, 2006|By Will Englund

People who move to the East Coast are surprised sometimes at how often the talk turns to the question of which is the best way to get from one place to another. In states with wide open spaces, generally, if you're at Point A there's a highway that will take you to Point B, and there's not too much of a discussion you can work up on that particular matter. Around here, with no open spaces, but plenty of mountains and bays and rivers and turn-back-the-bulldozer neighborhoods and venerable deer paths that Indians and colonists and paving contractors have turned into semi-thoroughfares, there are always five possible routes to Point B, not one of which is direct and every one of which has some obvious drawback.

It makes for good conversation.

It might also help to explain why Easterners are more skeptical than other Americans are. The way forward doesn't seem quite so obvious in this neck of the woods, and you can never be sure you're on the right road.

Life, for many people, seems as simple as going to Point B. They head their car in the right direction and they step on the gas. For Marylanders, a lot of life is like trying to get from Hampden to White Marsh. You could go up the JFX and around on the Beltway, or take 33rd Street over toward Pulaski Highway, or go down the JFX to Guilford and Monument, or do Northern Parkway and Belair Road, or go to South Baltimore and take I-95 through the Fort McHenry Tunnel (though there are half a dozen ways to get to South Baltimore from Hampden) - none of these is too satisfactory, and if you're in Hampden are you even sure you want to be in White Marsh? Is it worth it? And how are you going to get home again? It's doable, but worth pondering. This is how Easterners think.

Last week, Michael Dresser of The Sun had a column advocating a detour around Delaware by way of Central Pennsylvania. This is preposterous. Anyone who has gone that way knows that the time you can lose in and around Reading totally wipes out any benefits the route might offer. Taking U.S. 1 straight through to Philly would be - well, can be - better. At least, it worked one year after Thanksgiving. But Reading? This brings up the larger question of Pennsylvania, however: As bad as Delaware is, have you noticed that you can never go into Pennsylvania without spending an inordinately long time getting out of it again? It's just one of those rules.

Of course, as you plot a route and constantly re-plot it on the go, you work with the information you have. You know that Russell Street has all that construction. You know there's a way to skirt the backups in Delaware that only takes a little bit longer than sitting through the backups. You know that New York Avenue in D.C. has its good moments, and you also know that whenever you're on it won't be one of them.

You also know what you don't know (and you drive on the roads you have, not the roads you wish you had). You know that the traffic reports on AM radio in New York offer a mere sampling of what has gone wrong. You know when you see one of those electronic signs warning of delays ahead that it could possibly be right, in some circumstances. You know that because it's been a long time since you last took Route 301 southbound to Virginia instead of I-95, there's no telling how many more traffic lights have been added along the way.

Having six different and not very adequate routes to choose from means that on any trip it's impossible to know if you've taken the best of them. Gnawing uncertainty is a given. This is what sets Easterners apart from the sort of person who, say, currently occupies the White House.

"There's gotta be a better way" - that more or less sums up the blue state mentality. It's not a question of sophistication; it's the bitter experience of having taken too many wrong turns. East of the Appalachians, Americans are wary, nervous, inventive, sometimes ingenious, argumentative (all right - go ahead and try Reading; you'll see), emotional, alert, long-suffering and anything but self-satisfied. It serves them well sometimes, and it's because of the driving.

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