A fog-shrouded moon hangs low over the trees as I turn the Jeep Liberty onto Sandy Flats Road at 3:15 a.m. Fog here means more fog on Bent Mountain. Figures. Darkness and fog to start a four-and-a-half hour drive to Washington.
Havenâ€™t made one of these day trips to and from the National Capital Region in a while. Been able to avoid most reasons to go but this one is a keeper â€“ my annual sojourn to Washington to speak to interns at the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism.
Patches of fog envelop U.S. 221 towards Roanoke. Not as heavy as feared but enough to abort my plans to take the Blue Ridge Parkway down the mountain for the quickest route to U.S. 220 and on to Interstate 581. Fewer stoplights that way.
Roy Orbisonâ€™s Pretty Woman pours out of the radio speakers as I head down Bent Mountain. The music disappears halfway down the mountain, a dead spot where the bluffs block out the signal from XM satellite radio. By the time the signal returns, Four Jacks and Jill sing Master Jack. Too bad. Orbison was better.
At exactly 4 a.m., make the right turn off 581 onto Interstate 81 north. Light traffic. Trucks mainly. Typical for I-81. Set the cruise control on 72 and let the Liberty eat up the miles. Time to think about what to say in todayâ€™s talk.
Started doing this gig at WCPJ several years ago in a session on political campaign management to explain to the journalism interns how campaign managers operate and how they deal with the press. As a journalist who took a sabbatical from the Fourth Estate to dabble in politics, the topic became a good fit. Terry teamed me with Steve Jarding, a Democratic political operative who ran Mark Warnerâ€™s successful campaign for Governor. The chemistry worked. We became a team who returned each fall.
Traffic slowed at Lexington. Work zone. Even though work had not yet begun on the site, a Virginia State Trooper sat alongside the road, running radar. I dropped the Libertyâ€™s speed to 55. A $500.00 ticket was not in todayâ€™s plans.
Reset the cruise control to 72 just past the intersection with I-64 westbound. Never touched the brake until the Woodstock exit. Gas ($1.64 a gallon), refill on coffee, bathroom break and back on the road, heading for the I-66 intersection at mile marker 300. Head East for Washington, well ahead of schedule.
Until mile marker 9 on I-66. Traffic comes to a sudden stop, then starts again, crawling along at 15 miles per hour. At mile marker 11 a tractor-trailer lies on its side on the shoulder, sprawled out like a drunken dinosaur. Figures. Most accidents along that stretch of road involve one of the many trucks that clog the road.
Back up to speed until Gainsville, 30 miles out of D.C. Rush hour traffic, even at 6:45 a.m. Crawl along at 25 miles per hour for 10 miles until the Nutley Road exit. Enough of this. Pull into the Metro parking lot and catch the Orange Line. Twenty-five minutes later, I emerge from the Foggy Bottom station for a five-block walk to the Watergate and the WCPJ offices.
The humidity hits with a wall of oppressive heat. After a year away Washington, I forgot just how miserable the heat is, even in September. Iâ€™m soaked with sweat by the time I arrive. Thankfully, the air conditioning â€“ in true Washington fashion â€“ is cranked up to quick freeze levels.
Steve arrives shortly afterwards. He teaches at Harvard now and came down from Boston. We swap stories until the students appear. We do our gig for the next 110 minutes before Terry calls a halt and sends everyone to their next stops. I head back to the subway. More heat, more sweat. The air conditioning on the train is not working that well. By the time I locate the Liberty in the parking lot at the Vienna Metro station, sweat flows off my face like a waterfall. I fire up the Jeep and turn the air up full blast, sitting until the heat dissipates from the body. The sudden temperature changes may lead to a cold later on but at this point I donâ€™t care.
I head for Micro Center nearby to pick up large format paper for my digital printers. Canâ€™t find this stuff in Roanoke so I stock up while I have the chance. A stop for lunch and I wheel back onto I-66 westbound shortly before 1 p.m. As usual, traffic clogs the road until well past Gainesville. I donâ€™t even bother with cruise control until I hit I-81 south.
But 81 is also filled with traffic. Not just trucks, but lots of cars, campers and SUVs, most with Virginia Tech decals and flags. Or course. Saturday is Techâ€™s football home opener and the faithful head for Blacksburg for tailgate parties and the annual fall rites in the new Lane Stadium. I click off cruise control and go with the ebb and flow at speeds ranging from 45 to 75.
South of Harrisonburg fatigue sets in and I pull off at a rest area to walk around, splash water on my face and find energy with fresh coffee and a Snickers bar. Back on the road to find pockets of rain all the way to Roanoke.
At the Exxon station on U.S. 220 just south of Roanoke I stop for refills of gas for the Liberty and coffee for my cup. Rain pelts the windshield as I turn onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and head up the mountain, crossing over to U.S. 221 north of Copper Hill.
More rain for the last 18 miles but traffic is light. I pull into the driveway at 5:05 p.m. The trip odometer shows 629 miles covered since leaving that driveway 13 hours and 50 minutes earlier. Nine cups of coffee, one banana muffin, one Snickers bar and one Arthur Treacherâ€™s fish and chips lunch later, the day trip ends with a shower, bed and 12 hours sleep.