Virginia


To celebrate finishing some stressful-but-important writing projects, I zipped off to Tysons Corner Center with my daughter and dear friend yesterday.  Now, Labor Day isn’t the greatest day to browse; there are sales and crowds and hip-hop songs and shrieking teens everywhere in a big, popular mall.  Still, my friend’s here from Indiana and we have a long tradition of shopping together, so we went.

Of course, we had fun.  I started Christmas shopping last month, and yesterday I scored on some gifts and ideas for overseas friends.  I was thrilled; these items need to be mailed early and I’m really, really early this year.  My daughter selected a Halloween costume; now I don’t have to sew her one while on vacation, like I did last October.

The real fun, of course, is the ritual of shopping.  I visit my Indiana friend twice a year, and she visits me once or twice, depending on her work schedule.  Each time we see each other, we head out to a mall and browse, checking out furniture and scarves and books.  We always visit a china department or two to see new patterns (this year’s results: disappointingly boring).  Sometimes it takes us years to find the perfect flatware pattern or bedspread, but we persist in our search for Just the Right Thing.  Now my daughter’s part of the Power Shopping Team…even better.

In another 20 years or so, my daughter will be probably pushing me around the mall in a wheelchair, but I’ll be there.  You’ll find me in the china department.

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I just turned in my rental car.  We were gone for a couple of days on a trip to Tidewater Virginia so my children could visit some friends we don’t see very often.  Things went very well, in spite of the bad traffic on I-95 South when we left home.  (Silly me, listening to WTOP and deciding that the “very light” traffic report would hold true until I, personally, had passed Dale City.)  I saw a lot of silly driving in Tidewater – mostly failure to use what my car aficionado friend calls the “optional turn signal package” – can you tell she’s lived in Tidewater for a while? 

It was so hot in Chesapeake that we didn’t try to do anything outdoors except hang out at the pool.  I really enjoyed seeing my friends and watching our children forge their own friendships.

We came home on Routes 17 and 301; it takes a while longer but it’s less stressful in the long run.  The blistering heat made things a little uncomfortable, but all went according to plan.  The only glitch seemed to be with the electronic road signs at the onramps to I-64 from Greenbrier Parkway and to I-664 from I-64.  I noticed that  today both of them carried information about bridge-tunnel accidents that was not only left over from yesterday but was also inaccurate.  This was frustrating, especially because I diverted to I-664 based on this erroneous data; I didn’t figure out what was going on until I saw the second old message.  By then it was too late to change my driving plan.

Live and learn, I guess.

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.

I mentioned yesterday that the GW Memorial Parkway in Virginia is one of my favorite local roads.  The very first time I drove along the Parkway, it was spring – my first on the east coast.  The Parkway was a wonderland of blossoms in shades of white, pink and purple.  I was enchanted.  Some California trees bloom, of course, but not like this!

We drove all the way from D. C. to Mount Vernon and I just couldn’t stop staring at the flowers.  They were everywhere, cascading from branches and springing up from the roadside.  I’ll never forget that drive.

These days, I spend more time on the northern part of the Parkway, from the Pentagon up to Spout Run.  When it’s been raining, you can see little sparkling waterfalls on the west side of the road.  Green leaves peek out from the most improbable rocky places.  The Potomac River is far below, shaded by the branches.

I love to see people out enjoying their capital city, whether by bicycle or on foot.  Happily, the park areas near the GW Parkway are packed on weekends.  Gravelly Point Park, for example, near (Reagan) National Airport, is full of families flying kites, looking at airplanes and relaxing in the summer sunshine.  It’s a great place to stop and stretch your legs.

I think I’ll go for a drive.

Today my daughter competed in her first feis, or Irish step dance competition.  Before sunrise, I got up and prepared to drive to the Nation’s Capital Feis in Arlington, Va.  The only roads I saw were the Beltway and the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which is one of my favorite local roadways.  At 7:00 A. M., though, with a stage time of 8:30, I wasn’t exactly focusing on the scenery.  Instead, my mind was filled with details like, “I wonder whether we can buy sock glue?”

The world of Irish dance is still new territory for me.  My daughter loves every minute she spends at class.  She practices endlessly.  Competing is tough stuff, though, for a nine-year-old.

We arrived in plenty of time, in spite of my wrong turn onto Route 50, and found the changing room and our stage without difficulty.  I think the hardest part for me was watching all the girls wait…and wait…and wait, lined up to dance, as the judges rotated between stages.  I know how I would have felt, worried about steps and timing and falling and sock glue.  I could see that my daughter was worried and nervous, but she got out there and did her best.  She even remembered to smile.

I’m happy to report that my sweetie placed first in her reel competition!  I know she’s looking forward to sharing her good news with her Irish dance pals.  She spent all afternoon practicing hard shoe steps.

We’re in this for the long haul, I think.  Perhaps, some day, this road will indeed take us all the way to Dublin.

I’m trying to plan my next two road trips, both scheduled soon.  I figured I’d hit some of the big hotel info websites (you probably know a few yourself) and get some quick info.

Things didn’t work out well.  First, I was given a list of hotels miles away from where I want to stay.  Like, tens of miles, and over an hour’s drive.  I used to live in the Tidewater Virginia area and I know all too well how much traffic they have.  I want to sit by my friends’ pool, not sit on the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. 

The next site gave me lots of hotels near my destination, but made me go through this endless gyration of clicking and unscrambling pop-up windows to find each hotel’s rates.

A random Google search yielded lists of hotel review sites and hotel chain home pages.  More hopeless tangles.

I’m waiting to hear back from the Navy Lodge.  They’re not the closest place, but they’re the cheapest, and their website makes perfect sense…what could be easier than “Make A New Reservation Request”?

Last weekend we discovered an alternative to the truck-clogged I-81 corridor between Harrisonburg, Va., and the D. C. Metro area.  I’ve driven I-81 about 200 times, give or take a couple of trips.  It’s more stressful than the D. C. Beltway, in my not-so-humble opinon.  Between the hordes of tourists and herds of big rigs, I-81 can be a very dangerous place.  Oh, and there are deer.  And speed traps.

Then there’s Route 340, which takes you from Massanutten, outside of Harrisonburg, up through Luray to Front Royal and parts north.  No trucks to speak of.  Tiny towns, winding roads, the occasional RV campground.  Best of all, it connects to Route 211.

 If you’re heading toward D. C. from the Shenandoah Valley, Route 211 is probably the least stressful choice, except during wintry weather events.  This well-maintained highway takes you over the Blue Ridge Mountains and past some tempting antique shops to Warrenton.  Once there, you can head north on Route 17 to I-66 or hang on and catch Route 29 north toward Manassas.

 We plan to go back this way and allow time for some stops.  My husband really enjoyed the woodsy scenery near Skyline Drive, and I am sure I’ll find something intriguing in the antique stores.