90 Miles on Highway 65

Interstates may all look alike, but there are subtle differences to let you know you’re not in New York anymore.

Today I drove along I-65 from Montgomery, the sleepy Southern capital where I live, to bustling Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city.  To give you a sense of the difference:  Birmingham has sidewalks.

I had been asked to deliver the keynote address during lunch at an academic conference.  Birmingham’s only 90 miles away, and the audience was mainly professors of education, so I said yes.

For my Northeastern friends and families, brace yourself.  Some aspects of Interstates in the South will make you weep.  No tolls.  And, because we don’t have a freeze-and-thaw cycle, no potholes.  Speed limit is 70, which means you can cruise along between 78 and 80 miles per hour and get where you’re going quickly.

But don’t get too tempted.  A fleet of black high performance Camaros roams the highway.  They’re unmarked police cars, and they stop people all the time. When they do, Alabama’s “move over” law kicks in.  It says that when a police car, emergency vehicle or “wrecker” is parked with lights flashing, drivers are required to “vacate the lane closest to the emergency vehicle.”  It’s fascinating to watch: a cop will have pulled a car onto the broad shoulder, and all the traffic swings into the left lane.  Maddeningly, most Alabama drivers move over whenever anyone is parked on the shoulder.

Like other highways, local stretches have been given additional names.  The 90-mile stretch between Montgomery and Birmingham has at least four: Heroes Highway, Purple Heart Trail, War on Terror Highway, and Hank Williams Memorial Lost Highway.

The stretch also includego to churchs somconfederate flage distinctive roadside features, including the very large sign, “Go to Church, or the Devil Will Get You.” It will take another blog to talk about religion in Alabama. A few miles past that is a huge Confederate battle flag placed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  I don’t imagine any actual sons are still alive, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

As one approaches Birmingham, the road widens to three lanes each way, and other Interstates appear.  If you take a short detour on one — I didn’t this time — you get another roadside treat: a replica (one-fifth size) of the Statue of Liberty.  I gather it was once at a corporate headquarters that has since been torn down and was moved to another headquarters in a corporate park.  It was made by the same company that cast the original.  And, in some eyes at least, it’s better because the flame really lights at night.

Yliberty replicaou can visit it, too.  It’s called The Statue of Liberty Replica at Liberty Park.  It’s #27 on Trip Advisor’s list of 63 Things to Do in Birmingham.   As you regular Staten Island ferry-riding folks can see, the proportions are not quite right.  But, as one approving reviewer wrote, “Staying in the area to get away from Atlanta. Wrapped up the day visiting this great place. Nothing fancy but a great picture stop and great way to celebrate being American.”  I’ll let you be the judge of that.

On the way back, one might be tempted — in season, at least — to stop in Chilton County, known for its peaches.  They are good, and come in different varieties.  Some have yellow flesh, some have white. Some are free stones, others aren’t.  Some are good for eating, some for baking, and some for ice crpeacheam.  Chilton County farmers aren’t about to let traffic just fly by on I-65 either.  Photos of peaches, peach ice cream and not one but three Miss Peaches — or maybe Misses Peach? — are plastered on billboards.  And, just in case you avoid those, you can’t miss the peach water tower in Clanton.

And really, who would want to?



Where is my tether?

I’m referring, of course, to the cord that attaches my Blackberry to my computer and allows me to have Internet access anywhere.  Once we turn in the cable boxes, we’ll need it.  I can’t find it.

This is probably the 10th or 15th item I couldn’t find today.  On the phone, our lawyer asks for the account number of our mortgage and a copy of our latest water bill.  No problem — I put both of these in a package of materials not to be packed.  All of the things not to be packed are on the bed.  Alas, the legal-size manilla envelopes with these papers never made it to the bed.  Mr. NYer remembered that they’d been left on the shelves in the computer room, which were … already packed.

But the moving guys obliged.  One remembered the envelope and gamely proved the rule that it’s always in the last box.

Slowly but surely, other needed items have disappeared. The sugar bowl, the boxes of tea, the lamps.  The movers believe in minimalism, and we will live that way tonight.  They plan to leave us with one lamp, a floor lamp that we can carry around like a candlestick on steroids.

How did I get here?

On a plane, on Saturday night, of course.  The cab driver, in a first for New York City’s fleetest, carried my bag up the twenty-three steps to my front door.  It almost made me sad to be leaving.  I rang the bell to let Mr. NYer know I was home, then opened the door only to have him grab me and, basically, not let go.  “Thank God you’re home,” he said aloud.

To himself, I think he added, “There’s a lot of work to do.”

And work we did.  Sunday and Monday we made arrangements, wrote lists, and cleared out the rest of the stuff that wasn’t coming with us.  You know how the things you least want to do are the ones you put off until the end?  Well, the end has arrived.

Case in point:  Thirty five years ago, I did a college art history project on the architectural history of Staten Island.  My professor encouraged me to try to get a grant to continue the work, and recommended I work with another student who was a photographer.  That student, who subsequently became a boyfriend, borrowed a valuable book on the small houses of Ernest Flagg, a Staten Island architect, from the secretary of the Art Department.  Fast forward a couple of years, and ex-boyfriend, following the lead of his hero John Denver, decides he needs to live in the Rocky Mountains, buys a used VW bus, puts a camera mount on the roof (I hate to think about what that did to his camera lens), and dropped the book off with me to return to its rightful owner.  I think I made one attempt, but she wasn’t at the college when I stopped by.  And then, life happened.  The book has traveled with me out of my parents house and into two apartments and a house.  I had a child.  The woman died and I read her obit in the Advance.

You might think I should just add the book to my own collection, but I couldn’t.  I stored it in the basement (I know), rather than risk thinking of it as mine.  As many of you know, Staten Island is a small world, so I was not entirely surprised when one of the elementary school classmates of the Abandoned One turned out to be the grandson of the woman who owned the book.  I intended to return the book to them, but it was hardly top of mind, nor was it within handy reach.

Until Sunday, when the Men with Truck came to clean out the basement, and I wound up with the book in my hands.  Did I have the heirs’ phone number?  Of course not; nor were they listed.  But Mr. NYer remembered that Mrs. Heir was on Facebook, and I sent a message.  Monday night she called and, like a repentant sinner, I told her the story of the book that had once belonged to her mother-in-law.  This morning I wrapped it in shrink wrap and Mr. NYer left it at their house.

One item off the list.

Originally, we hoped to have another two or three weeks before the closing, and had carefully gauged our consumption of cleaning liquids, wine and other spirits accordingly.  By Monday, though, we needed to deal with the bottles of ammonia, nail polish remover, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, soy sauce, white, cider and rice vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and enough seltzer to start a soda shop.  We counted up nine bottles of champagne or prosecco.  And not bad stuff.  Then there were the odd bottles of hard liquor that we rarely drank but that had somehow accumulated over the years:  vermouth, flavored vodka, rum, Harvey’s Bristol Cream …

None of this can go in the car.  We need room for the cat cage, Mr. NYer’s clothes, and other necessities. These are all contraband items for interstate moves.  We’d already filled dozens of contractors or recycling bags, and were trying hard to lighten the load.  The trusty plumbing system beckoned.  And so I began pouring.   Shortly after the first elixirs from the medicine cabinet went down the tube, I looked out the window to see a large DEP truck stopping on the street.  Seems the sewer was backing up into the houses across the street.  Great.  Imagine not only finding that you’re getting a sewer backing up, but wondering why it smells like ammonia.

In about an hour the DEP let us know that the system was running fine, and we could resume use.  Little did they know …

Two days of final cleaning down.  Day One of the move itself down: the house is 90% packed.  Only one item — a globe from a small Ikea lamp–broken.  Tomorrow is Move Day Two: the Loading of the Truck, then the furious cleaning, and tomorrow night the walk-through.  Thursday the closing.  Friday Mr. NYers retirement party.  And then Saturday, we’re on the road.  Just us and the two cats.

Did we remember to keep the cat sedative unpacked?

Road Trip Day 2

When you take the hypotenuse through Virginia, it’s a long state.  We entered just north of Winchester and traveled I-81 south to Bristol.  That meant we spent about 320 miles in the Commonwealth, or one-third of our total trip.  We followed the spine of the Appalachians through beautiful countryside, but towards the end, I wanted Virginia in the past.

In many ways, Virginia is in the past, with historical stops at every exit.  Past Roanoke it became clear that we were in the South, with a capital S.  Having stoked up on coffee at breakfast, I needed a pit stop so we drove about a mile off one of the exits to a gas station where we saw our first Confederate flag displayed prominently, and proudly, next to the American flag.  From the outside, the U.S. flag was backwards, but I think it was intended to be seen from inside, specifically from the vantage of the cashier.  I’m sure no disrespect was intended.

We expected Civil War and presidential history in Virginia, but I was surprised to pass a sign for the Cyrus McCormack farm as well.  Who would have thought that the father of the mechanical reaper, whose invention made large-scale agriculture possible on the Great Plains, was a son of Virginia? 

As soon as we set off this morning, we saw that there was an Amber Alert; we watched for the white Chevy Blazer on the signs and tuned into the local radio stations for information.  We saw no Chevy Blazers — I wonder if every one in the state was stopped today? — but we did try to tune in to the local media for information.  And thus we had Sign Two that we were in the South:  every other radio station was a Christian station, and more than one mention of the Rapture was heard.

In case any doubt remained about the predominant religious culture, we began to observe the cross/crosses phenomena.   Every thirty miles or so we came upon a huge cross  along the roadside.  By enormous, I mean something that would stand out in Las Vegas.  We’re talking steel-structure crosses towering above the roadside.  The alternate version was a set of three crosses, Calvary-style, with the taller in the middle, and the two shorter ones on the side.  These were generally less substantial than the single crosses, but meaningful in their often-crooked sincerity.   I wondered if there was a schism between trinitarians and unitarians I should know about.

We didn’t see any Stars of David or minarets.

Shortly before we left Virginia I saw my first evidence of tobacco culture.  For miles upon miles we passed pastures, often snow-covered, with grazing cows, mainly black ones.  They were very picturesque against the snow.  At one point I saw a set of structures that looked like elongated saw horses, and upon them I realized, were sheafs of tobacco drying in the sun.   It was in the mid-50s today.

Finally, we left Virginia and entered Tennessee, another state we’d traverse on the diagonal.  The day was warm, and the sun had a glaring quality that made it tough to see and even harder to stay awake.  At some point I suggested stopping for coffee and, since I was driving, did so. 

We stopped at one of those Interstate interchanges populated by chain restaurants, budget motels  and gas stations/mini-marts.  After gassing up the car (more than 36 mpg!), we stopped into the Huddle House, a place that promised Any Meal Any Time.  I thought about having a second breakfast, but opted instead for coffee and sweet potato fries.

The waitress poured the coffee and brought the fries.  “You want some butter to dip those in?” she asked.  I demurred, but realized I was in new territory.  Mr. NYer later said, “Well, you looked like your arteries weren’t sufficiently clogged.”

At the Huddle House we sat at the counter.  The only other counter occupants were two men making small talk.  One was a local guy, the other a long-distance trucker.  They quickly found their common wavelength and entered into one of those political conversations where they agreed completely.  In five short minutes, we overheard three mentions of the word “sovereignty” (the loss of which, at both the state and national level, was lamented), agreement on the existence of an international bankers’ conspiracy (they must have already discussed the Jews before we arrived) resulting in “One World Order,” consensus on illegality of the president unilaterally providing aid to Haiti, an inaccurate statement about Haiti’s history with a conclusion about the attitude of Haitians towards all white people that defied logic, and general denunciation of the federal government and the chief executive in particular.

I very deliberately set my face into a neutral expression and focussed on being friendly toward the waitress.  And I prayed that Mr. NYer would not explode.  When we left, he suggested that we pick up some water at the adjacent mini-mart.  “Would you do it?” I asked.  “I need to make some notes.”

He arrived back at  the car with the water and said, “Why do I have a feeling that conversation is going to make its way into your blog?”

I admitted it was, and added that I suspected it was a conversation we’d hear again and again.  I cautioned Mr. NYer against reacting in the future.  “Me?” Mr. NYer said, “I was just glad that you didn’t decide to take them on, as I’ve seen you do in the past.” 

We agreed that we were both well-behaved, and that we’d continue to practice discretion — and silence — when confronted with more of the same.  But I have to admit that I had a sinking feeling about the world I was entering.

And so on to Knoxville along a not-particularly attractive stretch of road.  But south of Knoxville, before we hit Chattanooga, the land was again lovely.  The Smokies rose in the distance, pines lined the road, and the air was clean.  Approaching Chattanooga, I saw first a Porsche dealer, and then a BMW dealer.  Not guns, not trucks, but signs of affluent civilization.  

I breathed a bit easier.   We’re in a city tonight.  Tomorrow, a brief stint in Georgia and then into Alabama.

Road trip day 1

Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.   Or so they say.

Well, it’s just over a thousand miles from Staten Island to Montgomery, depending on which route you take.  My favorite clocks in at 1,066 — the date of the Norman Conquest of Britain.  That must mean something.

Ours began this morning at about 10:30, about an hour or more after Mr. NYer would have liked to start, but just about right for me.  It gave us time to have some eggs, feed the cats and trim one set of nails, pack up the car and host the appraiser who will, please God, help our buyers get their mortgage loan.

To accommodate my clothes I purchased those “as seen on TV” wonder products, Space Bags.  It’s a marvelous thing.  You pile the soft goods into this plastic bag, zip it closed, attach your vacuüm cleaner hose and, voila! you have a plastic brick.  The largest brick stayed firm; the two smaller ones seemed to gain air during the night, but a quick reapplication of the vacuüm this morning drew them down in size, allowing Mr. NYer to jam them into the trunk of the newly washed Honda Civic. 

On top of that went the boat bag full of shoes, the bag of jeans and the backpack with toiletries, including a year’s worth of 30-day contact lenses.  I had rigged a rope line across the backseat and on that went my suits and blouses on hangars.  Throw in the two traveling bags, the large tote  filled with jewelry (a girl can’t live somewhere for 6 weeks without some pizzazz), my books and laptop, and we were pretty much full.

I tried to have some special time with the cats.  The Mush got some cuddling as well as a last-minute pedicure (I am the designated nail trimmer).  For the Lunatic, the packing of the bags, combined with the general commotion and the appearance of the Appraiser signaled danger; he hunkered down beneath Soon-to-be-Abandoned bed and refused to say goodbye.  I waved instead.

I had a teary moment with Soon-to-be-Abandoned last night, but he assured me that everything would be all right.  I hugged him hard, and said good night.

This morning at 10:30 we pulled away and headed off-Island.   The weather, dry, warm and sunny, would have tempted me to keep driving even if that hadn’t been my intent.  We headed south to the Outerbridge Crossing, through New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. 

Nothing much to report en route except that before noon I dozed on and off.  I’m easily put to sleep by motion, be it of the automotive, train or airplane variety, and not alert enough to operate heavy machiny prior to noon anyway.  I am literally unable to stay awake while driving in the morning for more than 20 minutes.  Fortunately, Mr. NYer is the exact opposite.  He rises around 7:30 am, incapable of returning to sleep once he wakes, and drives alertly as long as it’s before 2 or 3 pm.    

Once the day is half over, however, we switch places.  I wake up and can drive well into the night.  Mr. NYer becomes  drowsy.  We’re perfectly matched and have long since assigned the driving duties accordingly.   

So about halfway though Pennsylvania we shifted seats.   Having stopped and fueled up on some coffee, I was ready to drive, and Mr. NYer was ready to ride shotgun and nod off occasionally.  The thaw we felt on Staten Island affected Pennsylvania too — the outside temperature registered at 49 degrees, and the aroma wafting into the car told us that the cow pastures we passed were warming up as well.

Through Maryland and into West Virginia, and I realized that the remainder of the journey would be through the landscape of the Civil War.  We’d glimpsed it as we passed the exit in Pennsylvania for Gettysburg, the only battle on northern soil, and the bloodiest battle of the war.  Just  before exiting the state, we passed the birthplace of President James Buchanan, one of the sorriest excuses for a chief executive we’ve ever seen.  Soon, every exit evoked the cataclysm: in Maryland, we could  visit Antietam.  The signs for Harper’s Ferry sprung up in West Virginia.  Upon entering Virginia, we were flooded with signage for the multiple Shenandoah campaigns, with battlefields, cemeteries, museums and memorials abounding at each stop. 

The Shenandoah Valley, sandwiched between the Blue Ridge to the east and the Appalachians to the west, is beautiful,  and was the loveliest landscape we passed through today.  They got a lot of snow in that storm just before Christmas, and a layer of the white stuff still iced the fields and pastures we passed.  We decided we’d stop, after 360 miles and one-third down, at Staunton, the birthplace of Woodrow  Wilson and a town that bills itself as both historical and hip.   As we approached, we saw a rainbow in the sky ahead of us.

Oh, one more thing.  We had the iPod on shuffle.  About twenty miles into the Shenandoah Valley up comes Van Morrison singing “Oh Shenandoah.” 

Now, we’re bedded down for the night at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton, having dined at a restaurant that features locally grown food.  We enjoyed a bottle of local wine, too, and can recommend the pinot gris from the Jefferson Vineyards. 

We’ll try to do at least 400 miles tomorrow — unless  we decide to stop midday and explore.  Maybe in the morning we’ll detour over to the Blue Ridge Parkway/Skyline Drive. 

It’s a good trip so far.  Just hope Soon-to-be-Abandoned gets home soon and feeds the cats.