Destination: Springtime in March

After an 11-hour drive from D.C., the author finds a bit of springtime on South Carolina's Hunting Island.
After an 11-hour drive from D.C., the author finds a bit of springtime on South Carolina's Hunting Island.
By Sally Shivnan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 13, 2005

March: the antsy time between seasons. Observed crocus nearby, but let's face it, crocus small. Detected daffodils swelling; however, swellage inconsistent.

So, resolved, I would seek out spring: Load subsistence gear in truck, secure credit card in wallet and proceed in only logical direction -- south. Because March in Washington is a plate of puny appetizers when you haven't eaten all day.

The confluence of roads leads, inevitably, to Interstate 95. Driving I-95 will provide the fastest transformation of seasons compared with other routes, which is, after all, the goal--to find springtime in a single day's drive, 10 hours or so. Indeed, just a couple hours south I spy a Bradford pear in full, explosive bloom near Richmond--a small tree, size of a Mini Cooper, a perfect oblong in the shape of a giant baked potato, with blossoms so blinding white I want to smear zinc on my nose.

An hour later, near Jarratt, Va., I see an isolated mass of yellow daffodils in true flowering profusion in the middle of a median that looks like a dog with mange--tufty onion grass, scraggly dirt-colored weeds. A little farther, approaching the town of Emporia, Va., along a median that resembles a bad hair transplant that's been grazed by nervous goats, I spy a patchier stretch of daffodils in yellow and cream, the blooms spread out like constellations, all nodding in the wake of the passing tractor trailers.

I am in the land of the Slip-In Restaurant and the Dixie Motel. The idea of the Washington suburbs has become just that, an idea. Tractor trailers and RVs have achieved vehicular dominance--not ordinary RVs either, but the big diesel pushers and the fifth-wheel trailers towed by giant pickup trucks. They roll along, conveyer-belt style, on this road so straight in places that the Romans could have built it, though the Romans would have felt disoriented here. (I imagine a small group of them, standing in the grass verge beyond the shoulder, looking as if they want to cross the road. They're in togas and sandals and I know it's time I took a little break, stretched my legs, had a look around.) At the exits, which roll past with soothing regularity, the towering signs of the Texacos and Citgos, the Wendys and Shoneys and Dennys, loom high and are gone.

When I finally stop, in south-central Virginia, I find myself examining rows of pecan products on a shelf, hearing southern voices all around and I realize: I am somewhere else.

Dense scrambles of brambles mass the banks beside the road, the only things greening up just yet in these parts. There are cedars and pines and the occasional holly and lots of hardwoods, too, none in leaf, though some are in bud--dark red buds I have to strain to see.

Near Skippers, Va., 200 miles from my starting point, I glimpse a tumble of forsythia blooming crazy against a bridge. The pines start to come more thickly, with a nice brown needle litter underneath them. Sometimes I see through the pines to open farm fields, and I notice that the land is truly flat. The highway is laid down over an ancient wedge of sand and gravel, laid down in turn over a base of really old rock. The gravelly stuff settled there in two ways--washed down from the Appalachians, and left behind by the repeated swelling and retreating of prehistoric seas.

These sediments are the reason for the flatness and mind-numbing dullness of this section of I-95. They pass beneath the blur of my wheels, unseen. They yield the soil that invites the farmer to turn the plow. Through the pines, I see fields disced for spring, the earth folded out in long rows beneath the sun.

The road looks level but feels as if it trends downhill--an illusion, caused by two things: the knowledge that I am running, like a river, to the sea; and the fact that every map I have ever seen shows north at the top and south at the bottom.

At the North Carolina Welcome Center, I spot, planted in the grass between the parking lot and the picnic tables, a single pink magnolia, four feet tall, flowering hard as if to make up for its size. And as I cross the state line, the speed limit increases for the first time to 70.

I start to notice billboards for Florida hotel discounts and I begin to understand where the RVs are headed. One billboard advises "Stay near Mickey for a Minnie price," and I smile because I'm not going that far.

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