Each year, as we travel to and from our vacation at Ocean Isle Beach, I muse extensively on the vagaries of driving in the state of North Carolina, where the mere act of getting on a highway requires courage, attentiveness, and a dash of insanity. NC is the heart of NASCAR Nation, and a large portion of the drivers there seems to think that hidden cameras are not just for police espionage, but that the video will also provide evidence that could be used to build a résumé for one’s future NASCAR-driver application. Proving yourself capable of navigating those 5-lane speedways around Greensboro and Raleigh while passing the maximum number of fellow motorists per mile must be the best way to prepare for the rigors of Daytona. Truth be told, most of them are more like Danica Patrick than Jimmy Johnson, all style and no substance.
As a “semi-professional” driver myself, I am continually amazed by the illogical things I see on NC highways. In just one trip, I witnessed the following (no exaggerations): several illogical car crashes (one can understand the wrecks that come from such insane driving, but a guy on an open road who hits the right rear corner of another car or a guy who runs off the left side of the road and into a light post?); two cars at 70+ mph side-by-side, windows rolled down, exchanging cigarettes and a lighter; and numerous cars racing around a child’s car seat in the middle of the road (kid probably figured it was safer than whoever he was riding with).
In considering the subject, I cannot help but think of Jay Bennett, who wrote a column once about the proper use of the center turning lane - one of his pet driving grievances. He caught all kinds of hell from people who couldn’t figure out why anyone would turn to the sports pages to read someone’s opinion on their driving foibles. That’s the nice part about journals – you never really expect anyone else to read them, and if they do, any offense is their own fault for snooping. In deference to Jay, I will avoid my usual complaints (poor signaling, non-90 degree left turns, etc.) to focus just on this particular situation.
One of my mind games while driving in NC (since my wife and mother-in-law both read and are thus poor conversational company, causing me to consider dozing off from time to time) is to make up slogans for NC license plates. Every state has its pithy quote to paint a picture of the character of the area or people, but it strikes me that NC needs a special plate for victims, I mean veterans, of its highway wars. Therefore, here are some of my proposals for said plates.
North Carolina Highways…
…where those little white number signs are called “speed suggestions” (for wimps).
…where the State Police never set their radar less than triple digits.
…where those ramps for entering the highway are known as “launching pads”.
…where more lanes means more ways to pass.
…where the minimum following distance is officially measured at the thickness of a dollar bill.
…where NC State has a specious major in “underwater traffic weaving”.
…where signal lights are considered a character weakness.
…where the dotted line serves as a braille guide.
…where cruise control would prevent us from randomly speeding up and slowing down.
…where that berm area off the edges of the road is referred to as “pit row”.
…where, if your gas pedal isn’t touching metal, you’re just not trying.
…where everybody knows that race cars have a clutch, but not brakes. (Downshift!)
…where we randomly tap our brakes just to watch traffic halt for 5 miles.
I have a long-standing theory that most NC traffic jams are of unknown origin, because you can be moving slowly in a long line of cars for 5 miles, only to return to “normal” speed without ever have seen any sign of an accident. On Sunday, while traveling near Greensboro, we witnessed an idiot flash past us in the far left lane, then cross four other lanes of traffic, only to bisect the triangle beyond the exit ramp and depart. All this occurred less than 50 yards ahead of us, going at least 75 miles per hour, covering less than another 50 yards. How collisions or even deaths were avoided is unclear, but it was an experience that I really did not need at that stage of our journey. Ironically, it happened so fast that no one had time to hit their brakes, so I assume that we did not generate one of those “mystery” traffic jams.
Colleges dot the NC map like measles, but one wonders whether any of them have a major in Civil Engineering. (I am convinced that they have majors in Uncivil Engineering.) The epitome of poor planning is on display in Winston-Salem, where at least 3 consecutive Exit ramps coincide (by which I mean literally coincide) with the Entry lanes. The planning is bad enough, but is compounded by the fact that this occurs where Rte. 52 (and the perennially-future I-74 corridor) connect to U.S. 40. Thus, numerous vehicles zooming along at 70 mph (or more) are seeking their proper exit at the precise time that equally numerous vehicles are maniacally attempting to enter the highway, and devil take the hindmost. If you’ve ever seen a professional card-shuffler, you have some idea of the level of good fortune it takes for this not to turn into a complete disaster.
I also have to mention my favorite rest stop, which is to say, the one that most resembled Purgatory. Unfortunately, the exit was not labeled “Purgatory” so I cannot remember exactly which one it was, but the discerning traveler will discover that there are numerous such places on I-40. The unwary traveller who stops here is in for quite a sojourn. My wife and mother-in-law felt the need to stop here once, so while they were in line for the facilities I (a) went to the restroom, (b) returned to the car and read a chapter of my book, (c) thought it wise to add a top-off to the gas tank to forestall a later stop, (d) washed the car windows, (e) moved the car to a out-of-the-way spot, (f) purchased a bag of potato chips, (g) returned to the car and consumed said potato chips, (h) read another chapter in my book, and (i) pounded the steering wheel in agony. Safe to say, they were in no mood to see the humor in all this when they returned to the vehicle.
Anyone who spends too much time with these budding Richard Pettys (or more accurately, Ricky Bobbys) will eventually lose a portion of his sanity. Most of mine remains, but it’s a good thing that this trip only occurs once a year.