The Joy of Road Trips, Redux

Orion's Belt and the Flame Nebula by ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2
Orion’s Belt and the Flame Nebula by ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2

I used to love a good road trip.  I grew up taking family road trips around Virginia visiting relatives.  My group of girlfriends in high school took regular road trips from NoVa to Va Beach for sun and shopping.   Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour was in temporal congruence with my sophomore year at JMU – there were several road trips that year!  Mr. Garner in his stand-up comedy days had regular weekend gigs in the Outer Banks, marred by an untimely appointment with his other employer beginning promptly at 6 am on Sunday mornings.  When #1 Son was young there were regular visits to the Camping Car in Hilton Head (Papa Gene had his RV parked in a resort down there), and many a trip to Middle Ridge.  We just like to drive.

So, the collective groan at the thought of driving #1 Son back to school after Thanksgiving was out of character for all of us. It happens that when Mr. Garner was checking the #1 Son’s car this past week,  he noticed that there was nary a drop of coolant.  He had filled it up last time the Son was home which was as recent as October, so this was ominous at best.  A trip to Firestone was already on the schedule for oil change, but we were somewhat taken aback to hear of a leak in the head gasket. We realized that we would have to drive him back to George Mason. And then turn around, and drive ourselves back home.  (Double sigh.)

Any joy of the road that was part of our family character is squashed by the vagaries of I95.  What used to be a jaunt of a couple hours or so, has recently become a draining bumper to bumper stress laden chore even when it is not a holiday weekend.  Construction abounds at the oddest places.  Gas prices are absurdly atrocious making this road trip an investment out of proportion with the return.  There is no wind in the hair, beautiful scenery, or delightful curve in the road.  Although I confess to enjoying the clouds when making the ascent to Fairfax from our coastal city.

We knew that we should leave early, but it was the first Sunday in Advent, and well, we’re church people.  We would need every bit of Fruit the Holy Spirit could throw us for this trip, and we knew it!  So we went to early church, soaked up the singing, the sermon*, the bread and wine, and the abundant grace then scurried out, picked up Panera and got home to a drowsy son… who had not packed.  (Sigh.) The Daughter and I shoved clean clothes into a duffel, #1 Son had the presence of mind to grab his assortment of electronics and we hit the road, leaving around noon.

Clearly there was no need to rush, because while the tunnel was clear, Newport News was a parking lot.  We ordered coffee and a newspaper and sat back to wait (just kidding).  It was awful, and it never ever got better.   I could tell you each milepost there was a back-up, for how long, and in a few cases, I could even tell you why there was a back up.  But I won’t.

I’m just asking, but isn’t it against the law, really stupid, dangerous to other people, and an enormous inconvenience to fellow travelers, to text while driving?

(Yes, it is illegal to text while driving in Virginia.  Yes it is stupid.  A study by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that drivers typically take their eyes off the forward roadway for an average of four out of six seconds when texting, and an average of 4.6 out of the six seconds surrounding safety-critical events. The study revealed that when traveling at 55 miles per hour (89 km/h), a driver texting for 6 seconds is looking at the phone for 4.6 seconds of that time –  the same as traveling the distance of a football field without their eyes on the road.)  But I digress.

Everyone was relatively cheerful – Mr. Garner caught me up on all of the news and politics of the day, the kids played electronics, and our favorite Christmas CDs were singing.  We took a break at Arby’s a little over halfway.  The Richmond area Arby’s restaurants are serving Grass-Fed Beef!  Still, it was a very long afternoon.  On the final leg of the journey the traffic map app showed that I95 had several fender benders working at our planned exit.  Instead of waiting, we left the interstate in favor of historic Rt 1, choosing to endure the traffic lights and lower speed limit in order to keep moving.

We reached GMU slightly after 6 pm.  Not quite twice the normal trip time.   #1 Son quickly grabbed his belongings out of the back.  As we turned the corner to leave campus we saw him walking jauntily to his dorm, backpack on his back, duffel bag in one hand and a pumpkin pie in the other – wearing shorts and his winter coat.  (Smile.)

We immediately started our return trip home.  Traffic on I95 was at a complete stop southbound.  So, we opted for our longer, slower alternate route and relaxed, agreeing that we would get get home when we get home. We stopped for gas, $3.23.  I teased Mr. Garner all the way home, every time we passed a cheaper gas station.  ($3.17, $3.19 and $3.21 were other options. All odd numbers…) We stopped for dinner at a Mexican restaurant.  We finally turned onto Rt 17 and joined a few other cars traveling south.  By this time we were actually enjoying the road trip.

We were maybe halfway home, and hours past sunset when we stopped in an empty church parking lot somewhere on Rt 17 to switch drivers.  Both of us reluctantly got out of our cozy warm car expecting to jump right back in, but even with the headlights on, the darkness was thick, and glancing around we found ourselves surrounded by layers of shimmering stars.  Jupiter had risen big and bright to the east with Castor and Pollux flanking his north.  Orion sparkled, the belt blazed, the dagger plain.  Betelgeuse and Rigel filled out the figure, and the Milky Way spilled across the sky clear and white.  The Daughter joined us, equally in awe at the sense of being immersed in a sea of stars.  We can see the brighter stars on a clear night at home, but even at Middle Ridge we don’t get the sensation of being encompassed.  I can’t quite express the wonder, the strange and startling beauty.   We sat for a few minutes, caught our spiritual breath, and rested in the evidence of God’s Power and Glory pulsing through the universe.

There are some journeys that you just have to take.  You don’t want to, you dread it, you might even resent it, but you know you have to take the step.  It’s not always a road trip, the metaphor applies to many aspects of life.  God knows when those steps are acts of obedience, and blesses them.

The remainder of the drive was very quiet; very little traffic.  A blanket of mist soon blocked the stars from sight.  There were fewer and fewer cars on the road, I dozed off and on.   Mr. Garner turned our car into the driveway around midnight.

*The sermon text was Philippians 2:1-18 called the Humility of Christ.  This poem by William Drummond 1585-1649 seemed to pull my day’s experience together:

The Wonder of the Incarnation

To spread the azure canopy of heaven,
And make it twinkle with those spangs of gold,
To stay the ponderous globe of earth so even,
That it should all, and nought should it uphold;
To give strange motions to the planets seven,
Or Jove to make so meek, or Mars so bold,
To temper what is moist, dry, hot and cold,
Of all their jars that sweet accords are given:
Lord, to thy wisdom’s nought; nought to thy might.
But that thou shouldst (thy glory laid aside)
Come meanly in mortality to bide,
And die for those deserved eternal plight,
     A wonder is so far above our wit,
That angels stand amazed to muse on it.

This is a great time of year to watch the stars!

Here is a link to a December Star Guide. 

Sky and Telescope has a free PDF Getting Started in Astronomy.

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