When Robert Frost wrote about the road not taken, he must have been stuck in traffic on the Garden State Parkway. There’s often that pivotal point when you say, should I take this route or that, and then you wind up in a jam three miles long, kicking yourself for making the wrong decision. Such was the case when we took a trip up to visit my brother and sister in the Finger Lakes this weekend, and, tired of the Parkway traffic going north, I headed onto a road going west that would get us there via Pennsylvania.
Ordinarily, the two routes are similar. The westerly route, through Pennsylvania, is slightly longer but a more pleasant drive because it’s easier. The northerly route, which takes you through the Catskills, has you winding to and fro’ along Route 17, which is pretty during the day but laborious at night because of all the curves. This particular trip, the westerly route turned out to be ghastly.
“I’m never leaving for anywhere during rush hour on a Friday night,” I said. “Never, ever again.”
The traffic inched upward, and then stopped, inched upward, and then stopped. When I sit in traffic, I feel like my life is ticking away, like those moments have been stolen from me, never to be retrieved again. And when I see the line of car break-lights up ahead, going on for miles and miles as far as the eye can see, I feel like I’m suffocating. About 15 minutes later, I again proclaimed how I would never, ever leave for a trip on a Friday evening, as if repeating the fact again and again made our situation better. Or worse, it was as if I was scolding Bruce for suggesting we leave on a Friday evening, despite my protests, when in truth it was my idea entirely.
A couple of minutes later, Bruce said, “I’m going to grandma’s, and I’m bringing an apple.”
“I’m going to grandma’s, and I’m bringing an apple and a banana,” I said.
We went on and on, vowing to bring to grandma a whole host of items, from devil dogs, to Eskimos, frankfurters, gongs, and holograms — each of which began with different letter of the alphabet — as the sun began to set around us.
About 20 minutes later, the traffic finally seemed to ease and soon everyone was moving at a good clip. Life was good. The anger and despair I’d felt 15 minutes earlier all seemed to melt away. I was doing almost 80 mph as we approached the Delaware Water gap when I caught a glimpse of one of those digital road signs. Something about heavy delays near the Delaware Water gap tolls. How much traffic could there be, I thought. This isn’t the Holland Tunnel. I was in denial. The traffic came to a near standstill about two miles before the toll plaza.
Bruce said, “I’m going to grandma’s, and I’m bringing –”
“I can’t,” I said. “I cannot believe I’ve been driving three hours, and I’m still not out of New Jersey.”
About 40 minutes later, we finally emerged from the toll traffic and entered Pennsylvania. I was never so happy to leave the Garden State. And we were moving. Fast. Seventy mph never feels so fast as when you’ve been doing 10 mph. We laughed, we listened to music, I commented on the big white circles painted onto the roadway near Stroudsburg, to warn people they should be at least that far behind the car in front of them.
“They remind me of Mickey Mouse,” I said gayly.
Welcome to the Poconos
And then everything came to a grinding halt. Stopped dead. It made the stop-and-go traffic of New Jersey seem bearable in comparison. No one was moving. And I couldn’t see for how long it went on or what was causing it because there was an SUV in front of me, another one behind me, and a large truck alongside me. I wanted to hang myself. We inched forward, and then would stop. After about 20 minutes of this, my brother called.
“How am I? I’m in hell. I’m at a complete stand still. I’ve been on the road four hours now, and I’m only in the Poconos. And I have no idea why we’ve hit traffic here,” I said.
“I have a traffic app on my iPhone. I’ll check it and let you know what’s going on,” he said.
A few minutes later, he called back and said, “I have no idea what’s going on. You’re in a black hole. I called up the map, and I can see north of you, south of you, I can see most of the eastern seaboard, except that area you’re in right now.”
I wasn’t surprised.
About 10 minutes later, I saw a sign that said “Road Work 3 Miles.” I didn’t know if that mean there would be road work FOR three miles or IN three miles. I hoped the former. At least we’d know for how long the misery would last.
We then passed a sign surrounded by blinking yellow lights that said “Congestion alert when flashing.” The cars around me were virtually at a stand still. Some signs are just asking to be vandalized.
As we approached the work zone, there was a sign that said, “Left lane closed ahead.” It put me in a quandary: when you see a sign like that, do you get out of the lane, or do you take advantage of the fact that everyone else is. I opted for the latter. We passed through the work zone, and I was relieved to hear the jack hammers. If it were New Jersey or New York, one might sit in traffic for road work for an hour and then pass through the job site, and no one would be there.
As we reached the end of the work zone, cars started going faster, almost like they were breaking out of the starting blocks. The cones keeping us out of the left lane had been knocked over, as people drove their cars over them in a break for freedom.
I’d had to pee for about an hour now but didn’t dare get off the road. The line of traffic on the exit ramp was moving as slowly as the line of traffic on the road. And I couldn’t imagine leaving only to come back to this misery. It must be how a prisoner feels on his way back to jail from a furlough. So I waited. By the time we got through the traffic jam, I’d been waiting 45 minutes, and I really had to go.
As we looked for the next exit, the car began to vibrate, and one of the dashboard lights came on –one that has a little horseshoe and an exclamation point and is illuminated yellow. It’s a light that seems to say, “Ignore me, and I’ll fuck you. I promise.” It looked like the light that came on when we drove up to Nantucket last year, when we hit a pothole and blew a tire.
We pulled off at the first exit, which promised a gas station –though the sign should have had a subtitle that said, “Except if it’s night. Because that will mean the gas station is closed, and the nearest one will be three long miles up the road.” We pulled into the dark gas station anyway to check the tire and because I was determined to go to the bathroom at this gas station — even if it meant peeing on the ground outside the bathroom’s locked door. I headed around the side of the building with a dirty napkin I’d found in the car door pocket, but a few steps into the darkness I got spooked and headed back to the car. Bruce couldn’t see the tire or the readings on the tire gauge in the dark so we left the gas station and headed back to the highway, having accomplished nothing. When we got back to the highway entrance, we saw only an entrance for traffic heading south. Those heading north, like us, were directed to the northbound exit ramp through a series of signs spaced so far apart, it left you guessing whether you were still on the designated path or had accidentally strayed off of it on one of the turns.
We finally made it back to the highway and found an open gas station a few miles up the road. It was lit up like an airport, the bathroom — inside a Burger King — was large and bright and had lots of toilet paper. They had five islands with gas pumps and air for the tires. The mini-mart even had blow pops for 35 cents. It was like a little slice of heaven on earth. By the time I got back out to the parking lot, Bruce was testing the tires with the tire gauge and had already lost two of the little caps that cover the tire valves. We filled the tires with air and were soon on our way.
Once back on the highway, we saw more “road work” signs up ahead, but there were so few cars on the road at that point — most of them were stuck in the previous traffic jam — we made it through a lane closure with little delay. As we were approaching our turn-off, I could see more signs in the distance announcing road work in the right lane, though it was unclear whether it was the right lane of the road I was leaving or the one I would soon be on. I try not to think of myself as a mean person, but as we veered off the highway and headed toward Scranton, I was glad to see that any catastrophic traffic jam that loomed ahead was not going to be born by us but by the people on the highway we’d just left.
I also wondered whether all this road work was the result of the federal government’s economic stimulus program, which has been financing road projects across the country in an effort to create jobs. But no one talks about how quadrupling the number of road projects will increase the number of traffic jams. Or perhaps they do. They just read through the bill’s consequences as quickly as the announcers read through a pill’s side effects on the pharmaceutical commercials.
By the time we got to Binghamton, it was about 11:30 p.m. With my brother’s house still another two-and-a-half hour’s drive, we decided to stay for the night. We stopped at a diner and ordered chocolate shakes and Greek salad with peppericini and were thankful for small things.
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