I’ve put 500 miles on the Blackfish this week, just going to meetings. That’ll happen when your meeting on Wednesday morning is just south of Richmond and your meeting Thursday morning is just south of Delaware. Wednesday morning I woke at 0430 and drove to Ft. Lee, VA, meeting the cohort at the predetermined rendezvous point at the appointed time with military precision. It’s the same cohort I usually travel with to Huntsville, and so by meeting at the appointed time with military precision, I mean they were half an hour late. By the predetermined rendezvous point, I mean, of course, Waffle House. There is something greasily satisfying about Waffle House that makes it the perfect road food.
Ft. Lee is just down the way from the Petersburg National Battlefield, where Gen. Ulysses S. Grant cut off Petersburg’s supply lines, leading to the fall of Richmond and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender shortly thereafter. Since the Civil War has come up in about a dozen conversations in the past few months, and I was done studying earned value management and zombies, I decided early this week that I’d finally pick up The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s famous book about the battle of Gettysburg. It had been on my to-read shelf for more than 10 years, but I always assumed it was a somewhat dry rendition of the facts of the battle, and found something else to do.
If you haven’t read it, it’s NOT a dry recitation of facts and history. It’s a well told, well crafted story with engaging, tragic, larger than life characters and fascinating dialogues and internal monologues. Within the first 15 pages, I was hooked, and I asked SOBUMD with her amazing library-foo to see if it was an audiobook somewhere. She brought it home the next day, and I’ve been listening to it for 5 hours to and from Ft. Lee and now today 4 hours to and from Aberdeen, MD. It’s a great story – I can’t wait to see how it ends, so if you’ve read it already, don’t tell me!
This morning I awoke again at 0430 and drove, this time, to Aberdeen, MD, arriving in time to find, no, yes, wait for it – a Waffle House. I can’t get enough of their greasy lovely food, nor into my older pants. Aberdeen is prettier than I expected, and the meetings there went well.
I took I-95 to Aberdeen, but I took the smaller Rt 40 most of the way back, at least into Baltimore. The interstates are fine for getting places quickly, but that’s about the only thing they really have going for them. On the slower, older, blue highways, as William Least Heat-Moon calls them, you can see the older America. It has stoplights. Some of them are at the intersection of the Past and the Future, where a simple car repair shop has a distinct carport right next to the highway and suspiciously Greco-Roman architecture, and you realize that this was once a filling station for highway traffic, 60 years ago, before the interstate came through and left this piece of road as a Left Turn to Nowhere.
The interstate, were you to open your windows while driving it, which is not always a great thing to do at 80 miles an hour, smells of diesel fuel and stress. The 20 miles of Rt. 40 I drove this afternoon smelled predominately of honeysuckle, and I left my windows down for all of it.
On the older roads, too, you can sometimes find those places where men of industry have started businesses next to icons, the features of the landscape that stick in the imagination, natural mnemonics that ensure you’ll remember their restaurant or gas station because it’s next to the Biggest Rock In Town or something. Mind you, once you’ve made that Left Turn to Nowhere, sometimes the true entrepreneur needs to create their own mnemonic, their own unforgettable icon to ensure you come back and tell your friends.
To wit, the Chicken On The Roof Grill. Don’t have a handy natural outcropping or memorable piece of landscape? Put a 20-foot plastic chicken on your roof and name your shop after that!
I didn’t stop. It was on the other side of the road (why did the Chicken On The Roof Grill cross the road?), and I wasn’t hungry. A spot of internet searching reveals that most reviews are along the lines of “take the Beltway, the food sucks,” so perhaps it was for the best.
Arriving home, I found I was in time to pick up the younger of the three lunatic children from school, and so fitting plan to deed I did that. This is always interesting, since right after school is about the only time they’ll both talk about their day. (I think they clear cache after about 10 minutes.) It turned out, on questioning, that the Reigning Queen of Pink had a bad day. This involved food that she’s not allowed to eat being substituted with other food she’s not allowed to eat, plus boys yelling at her. Number One Son asked, “Why were they yelling?”
BUMD: “They’re probably yelling because they’re 3rd grade boys, and 3rd grade boys are stupid.”
Reigning Queen of Pink: “All boys are stupid, and you [Number One Son], meaning no offense, are no exception. No offense, you understand, but you’re one of them.”
Number One Son: “How could I be offended at a true fact?”
These are the future leaders of our country.
Speaking of the future leaders of our country, because driving 500 miles in the last 36 hours wasn’t enough, I then this evening went downtown to Pentagon City Mall for a dinner meeting with a group from my company. The dinner was excellent, but of course the best part was before going in, I took the opportunity to circumnavigate the mall and notice the people, the sounds and the sights and scents and the sense of the place.
I almost wished I hadn’t. There, then, below me, were the quivering masses of humanity, walking and falling and running around in Spring Field Trip Season. Every other person was wearing a school logo or name tee-shirt, I suspect to help identify them to the leaders. It looked like there had been a mass breakout from the Sing Sing or Rikers Island Juvenile Detention Center, and all the escaped juvies had decided to go to the mall, yo. One group stood out in “Class of ” shirts, and instead of the year, they listed the names of everyone in the graduating class – the whole class. (You can do that in a small town. My graduating class would have needed the front and back of Hagrid’s dress robes to fit us all.) Those were the shirts; the young boys were otherwise in their best brown baggies and sporting their Bieber cuts.
The food court at a large mall may be 80 percent of what’s wrong with this country. Starting with the lack of Scotch dispensers. Smoke from the indoor BBQ joint clouded the upper levels, the sweet smell of charcoal, grease, and co-pays pungent in the air. I saw a fat man pay a thin man for a massage, in an open-air massage parlor – very likely the only physical human contact he gets all day.
There are no happy endings here.
Under the roar of it all, the songs of birds, struggling to hear each other inside this glassed-in urban forest they’ve adopted as home. Darwin would be proud; in 10 short years, these sparrows have evolved into flying mall rats, perfectly suited to life under the glass bubble. I noticed that they seem to instinctively flock toward younger children – genetic selection and experience has taught them that a 3-yr-old is more likely to drop the pretzel than an 8-yr-old. Mind you, the kids probably drop the pretzel out of surprise at seeing a bird in the mall. It makes you wonder if the pretzel shop lets the birds in, to drum up business by getting overstressed parents to buy new twisted baked goods to calm irate prepubescent consumers. No happy endings.
Like the like the open-air masseuse, like the Chicken On The Roof, like Longstreet and Lee at Gettysburg, there are no happy endings here. All I can tell you is that if you’re going to put 500 miles on your car in one week, make them good miles. Look out the window. Roll it down if you can. Skip the Interstate, skip the mall. Turn left next to nowhere, and explore the small spaces. You might find something neat, you might wonder how it got there, and you might wonder how the hell you’re going to find your way back to the road, but you’ll be glad you did. Tell ‘em the Big Ugly Man Doll sent you.