Last Friday I was driving up I-95 to see my daughter and her girls in Virginia. Somewhere south of Savannah a gleaming red Mercedes coupe with New York plates swept by on my left. It was car to remember, even more so because there was an enormous cream-colored cat lounging the back window, calmly observing all the other northbound motorists. It seemed very relaxed for a cat doing around 90 on a freeway crowded with maniacs. My own experience with cats in cars is that they need to be confined and lightly sedated.
Then a few miles down the road I saw a man leaning on the guardrail by the southbound lanes, his hands cuffed behind him. He wore a green sweater and tan pants. He seemed to be appreciating the empty blue sky above the trees. The cop standing with him was smiling for some reason. The door to his cruiser was open but the flashers weren’t on. I thought: there’s a story I will never know. Just like the cat.
Normally you don’t see anything on I-95, beyond the grills of Dodge Ram pickups filling your rearview mirror, or semis hogging both lanes as one tries to pass the other at 67.5 miles per hour. Sometimes you’ll pass an older car in the breakdown lane and feel a twinge of sympathy; sometimes it’s a gigantic RV towing a late-model SUV and you feel a nice frisson of schadenfreude.
The miles pass that way, like days: slowly while you’re doing them, and then all at once in retrospect.
I don’t like I-95. I am on record as having called it the worst stretch of road, mile for mile, in America. And I have driven a great many American roads.
I’m not talking about the pavement itself, although that can be bad in places, particularly in South Carolina where it narrows to four lanes. Mostly it’s the people on it: nearly all denizens of the Eastern Seaboard, nearly all in a blind rush to get to someplace else on the Eastern Seaboard. A lot of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey license plates. Most of these folks have long since squandered whatever meager reserves of patience and serenity they may have once had.
I left the interstate at the junction with Highway 21. I know that road. I’ve done it before. It’s not a shortcut, but it makes the drive north more pleasant. It’s like steering your canoe out of class IV rapids into a gently meandering stream. Suddenly it’s quiet. No cars in front or behind, just sunlight flickering through the trees. You pass cotton fields and cemeteries, leaning barns and weathered mobile homes hunkered at the end of gravel lanes. Someone had nailed a sign saying LIVE BAIT twenty feet up a telephone pole. I spent the next couple of miles wondering why. You do see a few stately brick homes with decorative white columns and three-car garages. But this is a long way from 1-percent country. I saw an old woman with a cane peering into her mailbox at the end of the driveway. I hoped she’d find a personal letter. I am happy to report that I saw only one Trump sign.
You pass a lot of churches on that stretch of two-lane. I counted twenty-seven on the 50-some miles up to Orangeburg. People here don’t like to drive far to worship, evidently, or they congregate according to subtle differences in doctrine. The church signs identify themselves as tabernacles or temples and chapels of praise. Most of the churches are Baptist, but there are varied flavors of Methodist. Some are brick and church-sized; some are wood-frame construction and not much much bigger than a bungalow. I drove by one doublewide with a plywood steeple that had not quite been finished.
I overtook only one vehicle on that stretch of road, an old Chevy pickup sagging under a load of scrap metal; the driver and passenger each had an elbow out the window. I passed one loaded logging truck coming the other way, and behind it four or five other cars that hadn’t yet found a suitable place to pass.
It’s a lovely stretch of road, really. Maybe too short. At Orangeburg I had to steer back to the interstate, this time I-26. I’d drive back roads forever, but I needed to reach Lexington, Va., in one day. Miles to go before I sleep.