highways


If you live, as I do, Between the Beltways, WTOP rapidly becomes your best friend.  You know, the one who gives you advice during the hard times, the one who has the last-minute scoop, the one who knows, well, everything.

Several moves ago (same house I live in now), I worked at Washington National Airport (now Reagan).  I commuted through some fairly scary areas.  WTOP, then found at 1500 AM, was my favorite station because of the excellent, frequent traffic reports.  Now, I work from home and teach my children here as well.  WTOP – found now at 103.5 FM – is still my best friend. 

Today, for example, I drove to a couple of local wine shops to research an upcoming article on Spanish wine.  Since I was in Annapolis, I hit Trader Joe’s (buffalo burgers needed restocking) and a couple of other errand spots.  As I started my car, I caught the latest traffic report.  WTOP reported a complete closure of  I-97 northbound at Farm Road…second time in a week.  I was able to divert onto Route 50 and take a different road home.

Deciphering traffic reports is a life skill.  I’ve lived in several large cities (I grew up in the Los Angeles area, a real traffic challenge) and learned to translate Italian and German traffic reports, out of necessity.  “Traffic jam” is “Stau” in German and “coda” in Italian, if you’re interesed.  It’s far better to avoid the seven-kilometer Stau than to endure it, trust me.

Last summer, I drove through Chicago en route to my friend’s Wisconsin home.  I had a decent map and a car radio.  I might as well have been in Beijing, really.  I listened to traffic reports that made no sense whatsoever.  If you’re in New York City as a tourist, you’ve at least heard of the Lincoln Tunnel, but Chicago’s landmarks and major traffic arteries were, well, more foreign to me than an Autobahn.  It was downright scary.  After I reached Wisconsin, I dragged out my Chicago maps and memorized the directions of the roadways I’d heard about on traffic reports.  Next time, I’m sure I’ll do better.

Navigating unfamiliar roads is always challenging.  When you’re in a new city, driving while trying to understand roadway slang, avoiding traffic problems is a superhuman feat.  That’s why I’m grateful to traffic reporters everywhere, especially my hometown heroes at WTOP.  You make our lives a little less stressful.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Bruce Wayne, KFI-In-The-Sky, traffic reporter for KFI radio, Los Angeles, who died in a fog-related crash.  He was L. A.’s first true traffic reporting personality.

I lived with my family in Virginia Beach for nearly seven years.  My husband also lived in Chesapeake for nearly a year, and we took turns driving between Maryland and Chesapeake to visit each other.  As a result, I know my way around Interstate 64 between Richmond’s I-295 and the Carolina border pretty darn well.  This time of year, the drive from D. C. south to Hampton Roads can be excruciating.  One accident can cause miles and miles of traffic problems.  The scenery is monotonous.  There aren’t any traffic reports on the radio.

And then there’s the infamous Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.  On a normal summer afternoon (that means between 10:00 A. M. and 2:00 P. M., not Friday, and definitely not a weekend), the delay at the tunnel crossing can be half an hour long.  Taking the Monitor-Merrimac Tunnel doesn’t always help, as you have to drive miles out of your way.

There are a few ways to minimize your stress on I-64.  They’re not foolproof, and there’s no way to avoid those tunnels, but these tips are definitely road-tested.  Here are some of my suggestions for I-64 driving:

Leave early.  This only makes sense.  First, it’s not hideously hot outside, and second, there won’t be as much traffic.  If you leave the D. C. area around 6:30 or 7:00 A. M., you’ll hit the tunnels at a low-volume time.

Don’t travel on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.  By noon on Fridays, both the D. C. roadways and I-64 in Hampton are clogged.  Things just get worse from there.  Saturdays during the summer are also high traffic days because Outer Banks beach house rentals begin and end on Saturdays.  If you must travel on Saturday, get up early and get to the beach while everyone else is still drinking lattes.

Bring an emergency kit and plenty of water.  Some days, your best laid plans aren’t enough.  You or someone else might need those jumper cables or bottles of Aquafina.  A map might come in handy, too.

Consider alternate routes.  We often drive down Maryland Route 301, cross the Nice Bridge, and head south on Virginia Route 17 through Gloucester.  You’ll pay some tolls and hit big traffic in Waldorf, Md., but the rest of the road is wide open.  Don’t speed, though.  Both highways are heavily speedtrapped.

You can also take I-295 south from Richmond around Petersburg, then take Virginia Route 460 in to Suffolk and the Hampton Roads area, but I’d save this route for emergencies only.  It takes a very long time to go that far west and south, then come east again.  However, if I-64 is closed by an accident, Route 460 is a decent alternative.  (Insider tip: Avoid I-95 through Richmond.  It’s another traffic nightmare these days.)

Plan ahead for peaceful family travel.  Bring spare batteries or car chargers for the portable DVD player and the Game Boys.  Pack a picnic unless you know where you’d like to eat; some of the “nearby fast food” off of I-295 and I-64 isn’t nearby at all, but several miles down the road.  Toss in a favorite pillow or stuffed animal if you’ll be driving during nap time.  Try to change diapers when you stop to eat, because there’s only one rest area on I-64 between I-295 and the Atlantic Ocean.

I hope VDOT widens I-64 some day, but I’m not holding my breath.  In the meantime, the best any of us can do is plan ahead, bring along some Gaelic Storm CDs, and think about the fun waiting at the end of the road.

PCH…the Pacific Coast Highway.  I’ve driven the Via Appia, explored Germany’s Rhine River gorge, and crossed the Arizona and New Mexico deserts.  They’re all stunningly beautiful, each in its own way.  Pacific Coast Highway, though, offers one of the most beautiful drives on Earth.

If you can bear to look down.

I’d done the PCH drive from San Diego northward, not all at once but in bits and pieces.  My cousins grew up along the coast, so I’d done the L. A. – Santa Barbara drive so often I could name the state beaches in order.  My family re-created my parents’ honeymoon one year, driving PCH between Santa Barbara and Carmel-by-the-Sea…gorgeous.  So, when my fiancé proposed we head north on PCH for our honeymoon, I agreed.

Little did I know.  North of San Francisco, California Route 1 becomes an alien life form surrounded by fabulous views.  It’s hard to imagine the up-and-down, roller-coaster feel of PCH when you look at a road map.  California hills slope right down to the ocean, and they take PCH with them.  The road twists and turns, crossing gulleys on impossibly high bridges. 

And then there are the log trucks.

Southern California natives don’t think much about industries in the northern part of the state.  Anything beyond Silicon Valley falls into the general categories of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Lake Tahoe.  When they think about trees, they imagine Marin County redwoods.

Sorry, folks, but there’s a bit more to it than that.  Logging and paper milling are still important industries in northern California.  And to get the logs from the forests to the mills, you need log trucks.  Lots and lots of them.  They’re terrifyingly large and incredibly slow.  The giant logs they carry look as though they’ll slide off the truck at any moment and bounce right through your windshield.

I’m sure I don’t need to add that I spent most of this drive – which stretched out over several days – clutching the door handle, chicken handle, and my new husband, in sheer terror.

We did see some wonderful places, such as Mendocino, Fort Bragg, Fort Ross, and the Russian River valley.  It was a great road trip.  I don’t know if I could ever do it again.

Most people I know see driving as a dull chore.  They slog through traffic to work, pick up groceries, retrieve children from daycare, and collapse on the sofa, frozen into a driver’s seat position.

I don’t view driving this way at all.  I suppose it’s because I was born in southern California, where driving is both contact sport and art form.  Perhaps it’s due to the fact that both of my grandfathers loved road trips.  My dad’s father drove from the midwest to California with his buddies, breaking down approximately every half hour, and never forgot the trip or destination.  Many years later, he moved his family to California (hence my native status!).

At any rate, I have loved driving by myself for, well, decades.  As a teenager, my favorite drive was from my hometown to Santa Monica, Calif., the closest beach.  Part of this drive takes you up Pacific Coast Highway, which snakes along the California coastline.  Windows down, radio blasting, sunshine pouring in…total bliss.  Most times, I’d drive up to a rocky spot near Will Rogers State Beach, plop down with my book for an hour, and head home.  I spent more time driving than tanning.

That old ’70’s group, America, captured my feelings about PCH in the song “Ventura Highway.”  Even though the song is about another California road, it’s full of the wind-in-hair, free feeling I experienced long ago on California Route 1.

There’s more to say about PCH, the iconic California highway.  Stay tuned.

I logged 4.5 hours behind the wheel today, all on D. C. metro area roads.  I hit the Beltway, Route 32, Route 29, I-66, Kenilworth Avenue, Route 50 and more.  For what?  Picking up a camera, taking a child to dance camp…that’s pretty much it.  Adding to the thrill was the fact that my first errand of the day, putting my new tire onto the right front wheel, had to be rescheduled, so I did all this with no spare tire.

Ouch.  I think I’m headed for a dose of Vitamin M (that’s Motrin to you and me) before bed, as even the tip of my nose is now aching.  I’m not qualified for the WNBA, but I’m a bit taller than the average bear-ette, and sandwiching myself into a Dodge Stratus for hours isn’t my idea of fun.

On the good side, the car did well in spite of the brutal pre-rush hour traffic, the 90-degree weather and the lack of spare tire.  I completed my errands without major problems.  We have the whole evening free to cuddle kitties and watch Animal Planet.  All’s well that ends well.

The Via Appia Antica’s no exception.  It leads you into the town of Ciampino, just outside Rome’s G. R. A. (like a beltway).  You can drive through the town or get onto the SS-7 past the airport.

I really like Ciampino Airport; it’s small and friendly, with low-cost, safe parking.  The only drawback is the lack of subway service; you have to take a bus into central Rome if you don’t have a car.  (And, trust me, you don’t want a car in central Rome!)

Once past Ciampino and the onramp to the G. R. A., you’re headed into Rome itself.  If you want to get onto the real Roman road, you’ll need to drive up SS-7 to one of the parking areas in the regional park now dedicated to the Via Appia.

Perhaps the most interesting place to stop is near the catacombs, which were ancient meeting places and burial sites for the earliest Christians.  There are a couple of different catacombs you can visit (one’s currently being restored and is closed), and you can also visit the churches of St. Sebastian and Domine Quo Vadis, where Jesus appeared to Peter.  You could spend a couple of days in this regional park, visiting monuments, exploring footpaths and riding bicycles along the Roman roadway.  The Via Appia Antica is closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays, and families come out to hike and bike along Rome’s most famous roadway.

Although the Via Appia originally ended at the Roman Forum, you can’t get to that terminus by car nowadays.  Most people who explore the Via Appia Antica from central Rome out to the countryside begin in or near the Forum’s Palatine Hill, walk down toward the Circus Maximus and the Baths of Caracalla, and head out on Via di Porta San Sebastiano to the Via Appia Antica.

I’m planning to head back to the Via Appia Antica on my next trip to southern Italy.  Although I’ve visited some sections of this famous highway many times, I am endlessly fascinated by the history, technology and natural beauty that surrounds the “Regina Viarum.”  (Yes, the Romans called Via Appia the Queen of Roads.)

I confess to being entirely biased when it comes to travel in Italy’s Lazio region.  Not only does my favorite road, Via Appia Antica, run through Lazio, I lived in southern Lazio for two wonderful years. 

Now that my disclaimer’s out of the way, let’s return to the Via Appia (SS-7).  From Minturno, the road veers inland, away from the ancient cobblestoned street, and into the city of Formia.  Just past downtown Formia, Via Appia passes the tomb of Cicero, ancient Rome’s most famous orator, and heads inland toward Itri.  If you slow down and pay attention, you’ll notice a couple of stone markers along the SS-7.  These are real Roman milestones, built when the Roman soldiers made the road.

Off to the left of the modern paved street, a few stretches of Via Appia Antica’s cobblestoned surface parallel the SS-7.  You can walk along these old roadways, provided you can find a safe place to pull your car off the road.

Itri, where most Gaeta olives are grown, makes a great lunch stop.  Itri’s 9th-century castle perches on the side of the steep valley wall, and the small town below boasts some good restaurants and pizzerias.

Fondi, the next town you’ll pass on the Via Appia Antica, is another interesting town.  Fondi’s 14th-century castle is more substantial (OK, it’s downright bulky) than Itri’s.  Fondi’s weekly market is popular with shoppers from all the neighboring towns.

Terracina is one of my favorite Italian cities.  In ancient times, travelers complained about the incredible traffic jams.  People passing through Terracina usually stopped at the temple of Jupiter Anxur on the hill overlooking the city and sea, and the roadway leading to the summit was, and is, quite steep.  Eventually, things got so bad that the locals built history’s first recorded bypass around the base of the hill.

Nowadays, the Via Appia and Via Flacca (SS-148) converge and then split in Terracina.  From here, Via Appia becomes the straight, flat road of my imaginings.  In fact, it becomes pretty boring.

Via Appia Antica gets interesting again near Albano.  Here, in the hills outside of Rome, lies Lago di Albano (“Lake Albano) and Castel Gandolfo, summer residence of Catholic Popes since the late 1500’s.  It’s easy to see why.  The lake’s surface is incredibly blue, and the local towns sell delicious porchetta (roast pork) in restaurants and from roadside stands.

Via Appia heads downhill from here toward Ciampino Airport.  I’ll write more about Rome and the Via Appia Antica next time.

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