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August 5 1998, Wednesday

For an explanation of the subtitles of this entry, read Wendeee's August 6th entry.

I left Virginia and didn't get arrested on the way.


  awoke fairly early, checking my email in those last few moments before went down for the morning. My Dad came flying up to the Shaque to loudly bitch me out about it, since he was waiting for a possible call from botanical colleague Robert Hunsucker, PhD.

But then he was gone for the day, off doing Biological surveys. Soon I too was gone, but for a much longer time period. I packed up my Dart with essentials necessary for an indeterminate period and set off for Ann Arbor, Michigan, to begin a month-long shacking-up with Kim, the girl who calls me her boyfriend. That was worded in a deliberately-detached manner.

I decided to take the extreme-southern route, which consisted of going as far west as I needed to go via I-64, then heading north on US-23 from the southernmost tip of Ohio. The main reason for going this way was to minimize my time spent in Virginia, where my car's expired rejection sticker could be an issue if I were to be pulled over by jack-booted agents of oppression.

During the whole drive I was constantly on-edge about whether the car was up to the task at hand. It's old, it has rear-axle growl, the front wheels aren't particularly well aligned, it tends to overheat, and I just put in a brand new manifold gasket but don't know if I actually did it right. I kept thinking about what I'd do if it broke down in various places. Would I take the plates off and start hitchhiking? Would I call Kim? I knew that if I was really close to Ann Arbor, I'd probably just get the thing towed.

There were lots of things I chose not to bring because of the possibility of breakdown. I brought the color laptop but left behind more powerful equipment. The guitar and amp stayed behind, as did most of my CDs. It's times like these when you realize what is really important to you. That stuff actually stays behind, along with the stuff you don't need. You end up performing a kind of triage and the fraction you take is the stuff that's both useful and somewhat expendable.

The morning started out fairly cool, and since I was immediately to be heading directly through almost the entire Appalachian mountain chain, temperatures had a chance of staying low for some time. This was good for the Dart, which does not like the heat of summer; when she can't take it she boils over.

The car ran well as I headed west on VA-254 to VA-42, and through the Buffalo Gap (a water gap through little North Mountain) and southward. The entire drive down through Goshen to I-64 is almost entirely flat since all the roads travel at the bottom of valleys that are linked together by gaps of various sorts. Once on I-64, however, I found myself climbing the substantial mountain dividing the Calfpasture River System from the Jackson (both tributaries of the James River, which has its mouth in Virginia Beach). I took it slow and used the L2 gear, and the car did just fine. Soon enough I was passing the industrial towns of Clifton Forge and Covington, with their perpetual unhealthy stink of wet paper towels, the price of having a massive and poorly-regulated Westvaco paper mill nestled between them.

All the counties in this sparsely-populated region have signs at each interstate entrance proclaiming them to be "Certified Business Locations." This curious declaration implies that I, as a prospective businessman, would do well to consider locating my business here. Perhaps other implications are that environmental and labor laws are lax in this region, and that taxes are low. But I'm wondering, since all the counties here are "Certified Business Locations," what does this term really mean? It certainly doesn't mean "exceptional" or "above average." It's like a hippie who loves everyone. What can that "love" really mean? In the end, these "Certified Business Location" signs are just another gimmicky insult on my intelligence, and at taxpayer-expense.

The first real topographic challenge was crossing Allegheny Mountain on the Virginia-West Virginia border. It's a long climb up to a rather high pass, and the place is tainted with my only experience with a road-trip flat tire. I drove extremely slowly, and the temperature gauge crossed into dangerous territory several times, but soon enough the ordeal was over and I was roaring down into the Greenbriar River Valley, a part of the Ohio River watershed.

After that, the ridges came and went without causing much strain. The car would get warm crossing a ridge but would be quickly cooled by the drive down into the next valley.

The amplitude of the ridges grows less and less as you venture farther and farther west, since the rock lies more or less flat in the core of West Virginia's mountains. You're high on a plateau, but there's not much relief until you get near very large rivers. Unfortunately for me, there was a very large river crossing my path: the New River.

I climbed Sandstone Mountain and my car didn't explode.


he name "New River" belies the fact that this river is indeed a very ancient one; perhaps the oldest in North America. It is so old that it has served as a geologic-age-spanning barrier to certain kinds of land animal migrations and plant seed propagations. This makes the biology to the west of the New River markedly different from that to the east. Land snails, slugs, and other land invertebrates are particularly isolated; large land snails cannot be found east of the New River.

The New River Gorge cutting through the high Allegheny Plateau is so wide and deep that it is nearly impossible to span it at plateau-level with a bridge. I-64 languished for a long time because of the challenge presented by the gorge, but sometime during the late 1980s a route was finally constructed. So now I-64 dips dramatically down a New River tributary valley to the floor of the gorge (about 1000 feet above sea level), crosses a bridge, and continues up another steep tributary valley on the other side. Speed limits for trucks are set at 45 miles per hour on both of the downhill grades, and there are several convenient run-away ramps in case the truckers' brakes don't hold. Brakes take some serious abuse; this section of I-64 perpetually reeks of burning brake pads (not just from truckers, but from intrepid grandmothers as well).

For me, the problem was not getting down into the New River gorge (I didn't use my brakes even once), it was climbing back up the other side. I thought about pulling over somewhere along the way to give the car a chance to cool down, but for some reason the engineers who built this technologic marvel never anticipated anyone breaking down. So I cruised along in low gear, sometimes allowing my speed to dip to less than 40 miles per hour. When I made it to the top of Sandstone Mountain (not much less than 3000 feet in elevation), I heaved a massive sigh of relief. I knew I had just passed my single greatest challenge for the entire trip. There is another deep valley to cross just west of Sandstone Mountain, but the high I-64 bridge crosses is at plateau-level.

From there until Charleston, everything was clear sailing. There were no more steep grades to climb, and temperatures stayed somewhere down in the 80s.

I'd never driven on the stretch of I-64 that leads west out of Charleston and had only been through there a few times on a Greyhound bus. I knew it passed through terrain featuring relatively low relief, so I wasn't especially concerned about my car overheating.

The problem now, though, was that the day's temperature had now reached into the 90s. The car did okay, averaging about 60 miles per hour, but I the heat gauge made me jumpy. Roadkill (and there was lots of it) was mostly comprised of butterflies and cats. I picked one large purple butterfly out of my radiator at one point.

I crossed over to Ohio where they call Coke "Pop."


fter I crossed the Ohio River to the southernmost point in the State of Ohio, I drove northwestward on US-52 up to the town of Portsmouth and continued due north on US-23 up the wide Scioto River valley.

The Scioto valley is as flat as any land in northern Ohio, though it's defined by chains of tall, steep-sloped hills on either side. They're similar to the kind of hills to be found throughout southeast Ohio, but elsewhere there are no such vast tracts of flatness running amongst the hills. I thought at first that this was the place where ancient ice-age glaciers had punched all the way down to Kentucky, perhaps gouging out this valley among the hills in the last melting surge southward. From the maps, though, I learn that the glaciers stopped somewhere halfway between Columbus and the Ohio River. What I was seeing was actually a huge sediment plain that had washed out from beneath the ice age glaciers as they'd melted.

Farther to the north, the plain grew wider and wider and the forested hills pulled farther and farther apart and sank lower and lower into the the flatness surrounding them. There's a remarkable region around Chillacothe where the forested hills of southern Ohio seem to interfinger with the vast agricultural plains of northern Ohio. It persists like this for few choice miles, but as you continue north, the agricultural flatness completely takes over, swallowing up all the hills.

Highway construction cropped up often throughout my drive. It crossed my mind (again) that there would surely come a time when there would be too much highway in America to properly maintain. Perhaps that time has already come.

I survived gridlock and rain and somehow the day failed to be a tragedy.


  got on I-270 south of Columbus and headed around the city to the west. I saw traffic slowing to a crawl coming from the other direction and thought, "poor suckers!" since traffic was still moving briskly in the northbound lanes. But I realized something: there were about as many cars around me as there were around the cars stuck in the traffic jam. The only difference was that all of the people around me were actually moving. This brought to mind something I read once about how the behaviour of cars in traffic could be explained by the same principles used to determine the behaviour of water molecules in freezing water. The water can be cooled a way below freezing and still the molecules will be in their liquid form, but if a slight shock is applied to the system, it will freeze in a moment. Suddenly, somewhere, that shock was applied to the traffic around me, and I found myself mired helplessly in a bog of gridlock. There's nothing you can do in such situations except wait for the eventual thaw; you're every bit as helpless as it seemed, mere moments before, your car had made you free. I got off at an exit on the northwest curve of the I-270 loop and went to a Shell station. Gas was ridiculously expensive there, so I only bought a little bit along with a cup of gas station coffee.

A jolly cashier at the Shell station was showing off a silver quarter and an ancient "silver note" from the 1930s, standouts from the thousands of dollars passing through his cash register every day. Later he came out and chatted with me about my Dodge Dart as I let her cool down. He said he used to have a canary yellow 1970 Dodge Dart and that it was one hell of a car until the engine block cracked one fine day. He was delighted to learn I was driving my old heap all the way from Virginia to Detroit.

I rejoined the traffic jam, which crawled gradually eastward through some construction and on to rejoin US-23. As I nudged myself along, I looked with concern at the heat gauge, which kept indicating my car was in the danger zone. But it wasn't boiling over, so I shrugged and continued on. Not far north of Columbus on US 23, the traffic thinned to a handful of cars, and we all spontaneously celebrated our sudden freedom with daring disregard for all posted speed limits.

I'd bought full tanks of gas in Goshen, Virginia and Charleston West Virginia and a partial just now in Columbus. I filled up the Dart completely again near Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Since I'd soon be back in the land of the ten cent container deposit, I thought it prudent to pick up an eighteen pack of Budweiser in cans. Just getting that 18 pack into Michigan would make it suddenly worth $1.80 more. I'm such a sociopath!

I popped open a Budweiser and drank it as I continued up OH 15 and I-75 towards Toledo. Every now and then for the entire journey, I'd stop and tell myself "only 100 miles to go!" no matter how far I really had. Now, for the first time in my journey, I was actually overstating the miles. It felt good to be drinking and driving and getting ever closer to my girl.

Clouds had been building for some time, and soon rain had started falling. It was gentle at first, but then it came down in a biblical deluge. On one hand this pleased me, since my car runs much cooler in the rain. On the other hand, I was terrified. My windshield wipers have terribly worn-out squeegies and my view dissolved into a blur. And this wasn't helped by the two beers I'd just had. I decided it would be best to stop drinking but keep on driving, and soon I found a good person to follow. All I needed was to keep myself behind his two red tail lights and I'd be okay. He led me most of the way up US 23 to Ann Arbor.

The rain thinned out to nothing by the time I'd taken the Plymouth Road exit. I checked for the bike I'd hidden in the bushes near the ramp, but it was gone. Someone had been mowing the grass nearby. These Ann Arbor people are an investigative lot and it seems I can't resort to my age-old practice of hiding my stuff in bushes when I'm in this town.


  found Kim's place without difficulty. As I was parking the Dart behind her white Volvo, she heard the commotion and came down to greet me. She was wearing nothing but a silky black slip.

Since at this point the story does not vary even slightly from the expectations of the audience, I'll leave the details of the next several hours to your imagination. Suffice it to say, a good time was had by all. Kim had bought a few Bass Ales and we drank those in preference to the Budweisers. At a certain point Kim forgot about her bottle and kicked it over in a moment of blissful abandon.

one year ago
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