Friday, April 28, 2006

Another trip to NY - Part 1 (the drive)

Last weekend Chris and I went to NY to visit my parents. Of course, they don't live in the City, that would be too expensive and crazy. Instead, they live in a typical burb in Rockland County, 30 miles away from the excitement.

Now, we decided to drive to NY instead of flying. Flying costs a lot. And even with the gas prices being what they are, driving is still cheaper for us. But between Daytona Beach, FL and New City, NY it's a lot of miles. It was kind of exciting driving there the first time. The second time wasn't too bad either. But after a couple more trips back and forth, one tends to loose any interest in the scenery and attractions along the I-95.

The South-North drive goes something like this:

Florida - we set the car on autopilot and drive with our eyes closed. After all, we drove this portion countless times. We open our eyes only to admire Jacksonville's skyline and its famous blue bridge. It is a very nice skyline that makes you want to move to Jacksonville to work in one of the downtown highrises and after work cross its bridges heading eastward, towards the oceanside neighborhoods. This is very misleading because Jacksonville has very little to offer except for red-necks, heavy traffic, suburban sprawl (it is the largest city in the US by land area) and one of the highest murder rates in the country. Of course, none of this information is listed on the city's website (except for it being the largest city by land area). So just trust me on this - don't move there!

Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina - this is the longest and the most boring part of the drive. I-95 doesn't go through any big cities there and stays mostly uncrowded. It becomes a 4-lane highway with a wide wooded zone separating North and South directions. The roadside is either an endless grassy marsh, easily identifiable by the smell of rotten eggs, or a dense woodline of mostly palmetto bushes and pine trees. The only two things that break the monotony of the drive are the billboards and the road construction. I don't know what the deal is with road construction in these states. I never see anyone actually working there. But the lines of orange and white traffic barrels stretch for miles and sleepy drivers are sure to get a jolt driving at 75mph over the patched roadways. This is a huge distraction to my favorite road game - counting the "South of the Border" billboards. Now, the billboards in this tri-state area are pretty boring. They are very old-fashioned and rarely rise higher than 20 feet or so. They don't show as much color, sprite, or sex appeal as the boards up North. I guess, they are built with a traffic-less highway and a bored driver in mind because they have almost no pictures, but force you to actually read. Most of these billboards advertise chain hotels, endless Cracker Barrells, BBQ restaurants, roadside strip clubs (windowless shacks no bigger than a one-bedroom house that sprout in the middle of nowhere and make one think of scenes from "Deliverance"), and discounted cigarettes. The only exception to this are the "South of the Border" billboards advertising all different ways Pedro can entertain you. At first they appear every 10 miles or so, but soon they are seen more and more often, counting down miles and even fractions of a mile to this Pedroland. It can only be compared to a Ron Jon Surf Shop billboard assault for those driving to Cocoa Beach on I-95 South. And just like the surf shop, the "South of the Border" amusement park/hotel/conference center/restaurant/fireworks store is kitchy, mostly empty, and infinitely disappointing. So just trust me on this - read the billboards (some are pretty clever) and skip the exit!

Virginia - Things start happening here - there are more lanes on the highway, more traffic, more signs to historical attractions, and no palm trees at all. This also marks the half-way point of our trip and unless we drive straight through we stop here for the night. I highly recommend Hampton Inn for its upscale interior design, highspeed Internet, super-comfortable mattresses and the most delicious little omelets that come with a hearty breakfast. In general, driving anywhere in the US makes me very appreciative. I generally love adventure and quirky attractions. But there are some things that I prefer to be as predictable as possible - clean restrooms with unlimited toilet paper along the way or Starbucks coffee, for example. The kind of stuff that most people here take for granted until they end up in another country, desperately looking for a WC only to find out that you have to pay to get in and the only toilet paper available is the used one (yes, it is gross, but I'm keeping it real). Driving also lets one appreciate how many wealthy people are in the US. High gas prices nonwithstanding, they chug along in huge RVs, sometimes towing an SUV or a boat, going South in the winter and North in the summer. And the rest of us shouldn't be jelous because we are reacher than most people on this planet. Otherwise how would one explain huge 18-wheelers rushing at neckbreaking speeds to deliver goodies to Publixes, Wal-Marts, and Home Depots all over the country.

Maryland - One must stay very alert because a lot of things start happening here. First of, the bathrooms at local gas stations stop being predictably nice. Some of them even stop being, period. On the way back we had to stop at a couple of the gas stations off of Baltimore-Washington Parkway before we actually found one that was open, reasonably clean, and could be locked from the inside. But if you stay on the Interstate, things actually improve with appearance of Service Stations, one-stop-shops with large restrooms, a food court, and a gas station or two with their own convenience stores. Imagine - all this and you don't even have to get off the highway! Of course, maitaining services like this costs money. And so tolls are introduced. The first toll on the way up North is around Baltimore. It's $2.00 and you get to drive in a pretty cool-looking tunnel for a minute or two. Another thing that happens in Maryland is highway patrol. I mean, of course, every state has them, but these guys are especially vicious in Maryland. They park the cars in the median, get out and literally flag down speeding cars right out of the left lane. Nobody goes the speed limit on I-95, so they must be making a killing on a traffic-free day. Lesson learned - stay in the middle lane.

Washington, DC - It's like right in the middle of Maryland. More traffic and construction. Don't leave I-95 trying to catch a glimpse of the national monuments - you will see the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument, but would have to pay for it dearly driving through slums for 30 minutes or so. Don't be fooled into taking a scenic ride along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. It starts out innocently enough with tree groves, stone retaining walls, and the complete absence of billboards. But just as you start enjoying the boucolic views while getting all misty-eyed about the glorious job our National Park Service does here, it takes you right into the slums. But then again, we're talking about Washington, DC which is mostly a slum.

Delaware - ok, that's the state that really screws you. You only drive in it for about 18 miles, but you pay 2 (!) substantial tolls (about $3.00 each) for this privelege. Other states have "Welcome!" signs while Delaware has a state-of-the-art toll booth. Of course, the big attraction is to see Wilmington, DE - the town that gets more than half of our paycheck. But they cheat you here too. Of course, plenty of corporations are registered in Delaware, but not that many have headquarters there. Or maybe they try to keep low profile to avoid inevitable retribution from angry credit-card holders. Either way, Wilmington isn't much to look at.

Pennsilvania - ok-ok, we could take New Jersey Turnpike straight from Delaware, but we missed it and ended up stuck in traffic around Philadelphia.

New Jersey - Officially, the most irritating state to drive through. First, you get on New Jersey Turnpike, then - on Garden State Parkway. Either way, you get stuck in traffic. In Florida, if there's traffic it means somewhere out there there's an accident. It might even be clear on the other side of the highway, so everyone is rubber-necking, but it's there. In Jersey, traffic is existential in nature. That's just how things are in this state. Both the Turnpike and the Parkway are toll roads and we end up paying around $7.00 for going less than 200 miles. And they still can't fix their traffic situation?! But at the same time getting gas in New Jersey is a great experience. First of, it's much cheaper than anywhere else. Second, you don't have to get out of the car; an attendant will pump it for you and process the payment. And finally, they have LukOil gas stations and it makes me proud for my Motherland. Also, New Jersey wins a trophy for a state with least diverse license plates. They are all yellow and white and say New Jersey on them. No one tries to save the dolphins or manatees or express pride for being in the Armed Forces, graduating from college, or routing for the winning team. There are almost no plates from other states either, which just proves the point that the only people that find New Jersey tolerable are New Jerseyers themselves (and yes, it's a real word - I looked it up on Google).

New York - my parents live almost right on the border with New Jersey. We only get to drive about 2-3 miles on I-95 in New York. So we get off the highway after almost 17 hours of driving, standing in traffic, driving some more, getting mad, bored, sleepy, and irritated. Only 10-15 more minutes of relatively sane and definitely scenic (spring time in New York State) drive and we arrive to my parents' house!

P.S. To get an idea of what our drive home was like, just read this post from bottom to top.