My left hand fell asleep. When I was only forty minutes into driving my portion of our return trip from the beach, my hand went numb. I was gripping the wheel too tightly. They call it white knuckles.
While growing up, my family annually packed up our station wagon and rented a beach house for Columbus Day weekend. Pre-climate change, the weather in mid-October was always iffy. We didn’t go to the beach for an extension of summer—not for tanning and swimming. One year it was so cold we attempted to heat the entire beach house with the gas stove. No, we weren’t there for flipflops and bathing suits. We went to the beach because my father liked to fish.
My family, my parents, my brothers and I, lived in Rockville, MD. The closest beach was on the Delaware coast. Today, if you get an early start, it usually takes about three and a half hours to drive there from the DC suburbs. I don’t remember how long it took in 1972. The roads were smaller, more like country by-ways. And you passed through more towns. The bypasses were yet to be built. There was even a drawbridge you usually had to wait out. Now that same trip is mostly highways, but there’s always gobs of traffic. So, the travel time probably hasn’t changed at all.
My birthday was yesterday. It always falls on or around Columbus Day. For a pre-teen boy, a birthday weekend is a natural time to expect to be the center of attention. As a concession to my sharing every birthday with our frigid family fishing trip, my parents often let me invite someone to come along. Their guilt-driven bribe worked. I felt like the trip was part of my birthday present. Cold or not, at least I was at the beach, plus I got to bring a friend.
Just like my family growing up, Susan and I took our kids to the beach for the three day weekend. Not to fish, but to get a last gasp taste of summer. Monday afternoon, we dragged ourselves off the beach at 3:00. The weather was perfect. No longer battling the chill of autumn in mid-Atlantic October, the long sleeve shirts we brought never came out of the suitcase. This long weekend truly was a summer reprise. The water was warm enough to swim.
After a quick round of shopping—a Rehoboth Beach t-shirt for Sophie, gummy candies for the ride—and a couple of Turkish coffees from Semra’s Mediterranean Grill, we were on the road. Susan drove the first leg of the trip. This is the part of the drive home that most resembles the driving we do in and around our small-town—four-lane highways and two-lane roads. A relaxing drive, a mindless drive, but an alert drive thanks to the Turkish caffeine.
Just before crossing the Chesapeake Bay and entering into eight-lane-highway-hell, we stopped at Taco Bell for dinner. Gettysburg doesn’t have a Taco Bell. There’s one in our closest shopping town, Hanover, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes away, but Hanover is home to an outstanding by-the-slice pizza joint. Whenever we find ourselves in Hanover at meal time, we just grab a slice. My kids, aged 15 and 12, might be the only teenagers in the United States who have never eaten Taco Bell. And the last time Susan and I went was over twenty years ago.
Someday in the future, when I become a documentary film maker, I’m going to film the inaugural trip to a fast food restaurant featuring a close, uninhibited family. This is cluelessness bordering on comedy. The teens taking our order were clearly unaccustomed to people coming in with no Taco Bell experience. We stood consulting the menu with our mouths agape. Discussing among ourselves what might be good to try. Questioning everything on the menu: What comes on a bean burrito? Because no one else was waiting to order, the staff answered our questions with a bemused annoyance. Wondering about these people who had never been in a Taco Bell before.
When we returned to our car, I took over the driving. The sun had just set and traffic picked up during our dinner break. The quickest route home to Gettysburg includes fifty miles on Baltimore highways. Tight, winding, urban beltway roads with the minimum safe speed of 70 MPH. Ninety percent of my driving is in downtown Gettysburg. Popping out to the market, driving my kids to school, that sort of thing. Those trips to Hanover, 45 MPH, represent all of my high-speed driving.
The highway was a sea of headlights. Drivers jockeying for position, weaving between lanes trying to shave seconds off of their evening commute. Every time a driver cut into my lane, I jabbed the brakes, certain I was going to crash. I picked a right-ish lane and tried to keep up with the flow of traffic. Undoubtedly, my Pennsylvania plates confirming all biases against fearful, rural drivers.
Because our cars never travel above 50 MPH, every time we find ourselves on a highway, I’ certain my car is going to fall apart. I always envision a wheel flying off, something important falling out of the engine, or the steering wheel coming loose in my hands. Monday night was no different. For fifty minutes I anticipated instantly losing control and careening into the car next to me. In truth, if I had any trouble with our steering wheel, it would have been due to my vice-like grip that I couldn’t relax.
My driving shift only lasted as long as the highway section around Baltimore. By the time we were back on familiar turf, a commercial shopping strip, I had to cede control to Susan. I was burnt-out, spent.
I love the beach. I find it one of the most relaxing places on earth. But getting home—at night—takes away any lasting calmness carried over from the beach.