Some Observations From The Road

We were on the great American highway a bit this weekend, traveling to and from a wedding in Pennsylvania. Here are some observations from the first big road trip we’ve taken this year.

• Lots of Americans are on the road this summer. Traffic was heavy on Friday, when we drove to the wedding, and Sunday, when we returned. It was even bumper-to-bumper in Maine. And the traffic wasn’t all semis or FedEx or Amazon delivery trucks, either: we saw lots of passenger vehicles, including many campers and RVs. (You tend to notice those big boys slowing down traffic on the hills.) That meant some long lines and frustrating stop-and-go traffic when we hit road work areas on Friday, so on Sunday we left early enough to breeze through those areas in light traffic. If you’re taking a road trip this weekend, see if you can identify highway work areas and time your travel accordingly.

Gas prices are definitely up, but there is a lot of variance in prices. In case you hadn’t noticed, the price of gas has increased. In some places, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was more than twice as much as it was last fall when we drove from Maine to Columbus. But there’s a big range in prices as you roll from one area to another, whether due to supply problems in some areas, local taxes, or price wars. If you pay attention and are willing to stop before your fuel indicator hits “E,” you can save a few bucks.

Toll booths are an endangered species. Highways in the eastern U.S. used to be riddled with toll booths, and the long lines they caused. Now the toll booths are going the way of the dodo, and many of the toll booths we passed are in the process of being decommissioned and torn down. It’s not because states and highway administrations have given up on tolls, however: they’re just charging through EZ Pass and license plate photos followed by a mailed bills. Privacy advocates must hate this development, because it means detailed photographic records of American travel are being compiled and stored, somewhere. I’m not quite sure how the photo-and-bill approach makes economic sense, given the cost of postage, but I’m sure the tolls have been adjusted to reflect that. And in the meantime, states have cut toll collector salaries and related costs from their payrolls.

•. Gas station coffee quality continues to improve. If, like us, you like to hit the road early, here’s some good news: the coffee quality at the random gas stations you find along the highway is vastly improved. In the past, gas station coffee was either swill that tasted like it was dredged from the local muddy river or a thick, black, metallic-tasting sludge that had boiled down at the bottom of a pot that was kept on the burner too long. Now you can actually get a quality cup of coffee pretty much wherever you go, and all kinds of food and snacks, besides. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station with actual service bays—they’ve all been glassed in and converted to roadside convenience stores. You won’t be able to get your tire fixed or your radiator checked by a guy named Hank wearing a grease-stained shirt, but you can enjoy multiple coffee options and hazelnut- or french vanilla-flavored creamer.

Faithful Steed

We’ve had our Acura SUV for a long time now.  I think it’s a 2011 model, and we bought it new.  We’ve carefully maintained it in conformity with the manufacturer’s instructions, have complied with all dealer notices of needed servicing, have gone through several sets of new tires, and have avoided any major mishaps or accidents aside from a few tiny side door dings.

It’s been a good, reliable car, one that we’ve driven across the country — to Maine and back, and down the east coast, and on a dog delivery trip to Texas, and on other long road trips.  It’s always gotten us to where we want to go, and we use it with confidence.  We’ve gotten attached to it, as people often do with cars.  We haven’t named it, but I’ve enjoyed driving it and how it handles, and I also like the fact that, when I approach the car from the front and see the grillwork, it always looks happy to see me.

But . . . it’s time.  The car has more than 150,000 miles on it, the air conditioning system is on the fritz — which would be a concern if spring and summer ever actually arrive in central Ohio, which admittedly seems unlikely at this point — and when we’ve driven new rental cars we’ve noticed that advances in car technology have left the poor old Acura in the dust.  Whether it’s rear-facing cameras, dashboard computers, or other high-tech gizmos they’re putting into vehicles these days, car companies have made some significant improvements in the last eight years, and we don’t have any of them.

So, it’s time.  Today, we’ll go car shopping for the first time in almost a decade, and take a look at what the auto manufacturers have to offer.  If we find something that strikes our fancy we may trade in Acura for a new model.  But before we do, I want to acknowledge and salute the faithful service of our faithful steed.

Back, Safe And Sound

Yesterday we drove from Columbia, Missouri to Columbus, Ohio.  It’s a straight shot on I-70, and it was one of those journeys that offer the best and worst that the American interstate highway system has to offer.

At first we rolled through the Missouri and Illinois countryside on a sunny Sunday morning.  We racked up the miles and made good time on good roads, listening to the radio and marveling at the freedom of a fun weekend road trip.

DSC04124Then, as traffic picked up, we encountered the road rage crew — hyper-aggressive drivers who can’t stand to wait in the passing lane with everyone else.  If you drive, you know the type.  You first notice them in the rear-view mirror, darting back and forth through the traffic as they come barreling up.  Then they are upon you, passing cars on the right, stupidly flirting with a semi or two, squeezing into a too-small space in the passing lane left by a driver who still adheres to the quaint notion of maintaining an assured clear distance, and leaving the brake lights of law-abiding motorists flashing in their wake.  If they have to wait to pass, they show their impatience by swinging out to the left of the passing lane to see what is keeping them from driving 90.  I always feel safer when the ragers pass by without incident.

At the Indiana-Ohio border we caught up with the western edge of a slow-moving storm.  On a desolate stretch of road, traffic just stopped for no apparent reason.  We were out in the middle of nowhere in the blackness, the rain pelting down and the traffic inching forward, not knowing whether we were dealing with an accident or a road closure.  It was raining so hard that even putting the windshield wipers on rapid speed provided little visibility relief.  There was nothing to do but grit your teeth, stay alert to the traffic flow, and plow through the storm.  After traffic finally picked up again about 20 miles and an hour or so later, we had to deal with interstate truckers driving faster than conditions warranted to make up for lost time and coating our car with road water in the process.

The day ended with a drive down an unlighted country road in the downpour on our way to pick up Penny and Kasey from the kennel.  When we finally pulled into our garage, our dry and snug little house never looked so good.