Dodging ‘alligators’ and other dangers of the interstate on a road trip


A close up look of the phlox growing in front of John Kelly's house. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 4

When the cat’s away, the mice will . . . go to North Carolina to visit their parents.

That’s what I did, anyway. Last week, My Lovely Wife jetted off to Europe for a business trip, and I decided to throw — well, lovingly place — our dog, Charlie, in the back of the car and head south.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

I’ve spent so much time on I-95 that I think I could drive it in my sleep, and from the things I’ve seen on that highway over the years, some people do.

I-95 kills your soul. When it’s good — when traffic is light — it’s only to set you up for a knockdown. I actually had a fairly easy drive south after leaving last Monday morning. Friday’s return trip was going well, too, until I hit the Beltway. I always take the Inner Loop when I get to Springfield, but I’d be entering that zone around 5 p.m., when the Beltway is clogged from Tysons to the I-270 split. Bob Marbourg said the Outer Loop was in better shape, just “the typical volume delays around Branch Avenue.”

It’s amazing how much can change in the 10 minutes between the 8’s. By the time I’d committed to the Outer Loop, it was as if a switch had been thrown, reducing traffic between Telegraph Road and Route 4 to a sclerotic crawl.

Ah, Washington traffic. It was nice to be home.

If you vacation by car anywhere along the well-traveled byways of the East Coast, traffic becomes part of your getaway. Some of the most vivid memories of Kelly family trips are of things that happened while we were driving the car, not after we’d parked it. On this trip I witnessed something I’d always wondered about: the birth of an alligator.

An alligator — also known as a “road gator” — is that fragment of truck tire you see when you drive our interstates. These chunks of rubber — from fist-size balls to entire treads — are scattered across the landscape. But in all my years of driving, I’d never seen one created, just the aftermath — until last week.

I was on I-85 near Kerr Lake, N.C., when I saw a cloud of brown smoke erupt from underneath an 18-wheeler in the right lane ahead of me. I knew instantly what had happened: A tire had blown. I think the brown cloud was dirt from underneath the trailer that had been instantly atomized by the force of the explosion.

With one of its tires in shreds, the rig lurched to the left, causing nearby cars to swerve. I hit my brakes and passed the trucker as he nursed his behemoth to the median.

The incident certainly woke me up. I drove the rest of the way to Cary, N.C., my first destination, in a state of hyper-awareness, scanning tractor-trailers for the next one that would blow.

After two days with Mom in Cary, it was on to Dad’s in Wilmington, N.C. I spent that two-hour drive similarly adrenalized.

The weather forecast called for storms, but the sky was fairly clear as I left, and I thought I might luck out. But once I was on I-40, the sky to the southwest darkened.

The rain came in bands, great lashings of it. Things would be fine for a while, and then it would be as if someone was aiming a fire hose at my windshield. Luckily, there weren’t too many people on the road, and those of us who were drove sensibly. (Still, it surprises me how many drivers refuse to turn their headlights on in the rain. Do they think they’re saving energy?)

This had been going on for a while — no rain, rain; no rain, rain — when I remembered that tornadoes had devastated Arkansas and Florida the day before. I switched on the radio, hoping I’d get some heads-up if a twister was headed my way. Suddenly, there was an ear-splitting squawk followed by the sober voice of a man listing two dozen North Carolina counties under a tornado warning.

I had no idea what county I was in, so I kept my eyes on the heavens. Well, on the heavens and the road. On the heavens, the road and my dog, who snoozed soundly in the back, oblivious to the Sturm und Drang all around us.

Flower power

One drawback of leaving your house for a spring vacation is that you risk missing your plants blooming. I was afraid that would happen to me, but when I returned to Silver Spring Friday, I was delighted to see the azaleas had just started. Better yet, the phlox was still out.

My Lovely Wife and I are suckers for the casual profusion of phlox, its intense color and the way it cascades over rocks and walls. But we’ve never been able to grow it. We plant it. It lasts a year. It dies. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This spring, though, last year’s phlox came back! Warmed by the sun, nourished by the soil, our little darlings have exploded. I took a picture for my wife. She’s still in the land of the tulips.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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