The Beltway. It haunts our dreams. It haunts our nightmares.
The Beltway. It's more than just a road. Why else would we check its pulse every 10 minutes -- on the 8's at WTOP radio -- as if it were a sick patient whose vital signs needed constant monitoring?
Dozens of readers wrote in with their Beltway memories. These are some of my favorites.
Katharine Manning of Arlington grew up in New Carrollton and remembers the seemingly virgin woodlands that existed before the Capital Beltway was built. Where today tractor-trailers jackknife, back then kids built forts, collected rocks, played in creeks and warred with other neighborhood kids.
Though her parents knew the big ring road was coming, no one had bothered to tell young Katharine. "The emotional loss of our territory was devastating," she wrote me. "When 'they' began staking out the Beltway grid, my best friend and I ferociously pulled out the ribboned stakes and became 'Beltway guerrillas.' Two pigtailed 11-year-old girls didn't stop progress, but we tried!"
Before the Beltway opened to car traffic, days were designated for locals to use the road as a bike path. "But I wouldn't," Katharine said. "I was so mad at the powers [that] be for destroying our paradise."
Parting the Dread Sea
One day in 1988, Debbie Owen of Charlottesville was crawling in traffic on the outer loop when her little Toyota was rear-ended by a delivery truck. Another motorist pushed her car over to the left shoulder, and Debbie walked through the slow traffic over to the right shoulder, where the truck had stopped.
A policeman pulled up to write a report and asked for Debbie's registration. "When I gestured to the car on the left shoulder," she said, "I discovered that what had been a slow stream of rush-hour traffic had become a rushing torrent of four lanes at full speed. My car was as inaccessible as if it were on an island."
Then another cruiser came up and a policeman in a traffic safety vest started walking into the first lane of traffic, waving his arms for the cars to stop.
"I will never forget the sight of that one lone figure, Moses-like, stopping the cars dead during rush hour on the Beltway. When all four lanes were stopped, they used the cruiser to push my car across to the right shoulder."
Said Debbie: "The feeling of power that comes with seeing the Beltway stopped cold on my behalf is something that I will never forget."
Pantyhose on Parade
Centreville's Mary Brick once stopped traffic on the Beltway and it wasn't because of an accident. In 1980, she was a student at the now-defunct Washington School for Secretaries. A number of out-of-town students lived in an apartment building near Tysons Corner and were bused to and from class by the school.
One morning, the bus broke down on the Beltway. "The bus driver called in for a replacement, which showed up about the same time a police car pulled over next to us," Mary recalled. "The police officer stopped traffic on our side of the Beltway, and about 30 well-dressed soon-to-be secretaries transferred from one bus to the other. I can imagine it was quite a sight and the cause for some interesting water-cooler speculation!"
Next Saturday Night: The Whitehurst Freeway
Iris Hirsch of Columbia tried computer dating when she was in college, back when you didn't have to meet suitors in a public place, she said. One candidate picked up Iris at the house she lived in at the time, in Silver Spring, and proceeded to take her on an entire circuit of the Beltway.
Iris said she tried to make conversation, but every time she asked a question, her date just grunted yes or no or a one-word answer. "After a while, I stopped asking questions and we just drove around the Beltway in silence," she said. "When we had made the full circle, he took me home."
There was no second date.
Don't Drop Your Bread Roll
If that date sounds bad, how about this one: Jim McLuckie of Springfield was driving on the inner loop between Braddock Road and Little River Turnpike, where a pedestrian overpass spans the Beltway.
"We were somewhat taken aback to see a couple seated at a small table with candles in the middle of the overpass. Can you believe it?"
Walk This Way
In January 1986, Edie Huffman of Sterling and a friend were coming back from a Genesis concert at Capital Centre. Traffic slowed near the Wilson Bridge as rubberneckers gawked at an accident on the other loop.
Edie's "poorly maintained" Ford Escort conked out, just barely making it to the right shoulder. A person stopped and called AAA for her, but she and her friend had to wait.
"Of course, with no engine, we have no heat and we are cold," Edie said. That's when she spied an ambulance on the left shoulder of the Beltway across the way.
Edie said that "being young and not all that intelligent," the pair ran across the Beltway in the snow, in the dark, to ask the paramedics if they could wait in the warmth of the ambulance. They said yes. When the tow truck finally came, they ran back across the highway.
"That was one of the most incredible, daring things I have ever done," Edie reported.
Tomorrow: More incredible, daring tales from the Beltway.