I could've taken the first sign as a sign, but excuse me--this is no mere joy ride, Mister Loeisure-Time Leather Steering Wheel Cover Cherry Lexus with the Stratocumulus Suspension System. I mean, I'm on assignment here, Bud. I have to get to the far edge of Maine--to traverse the nearly 900 miles of Interstate 95 between Washington's Beltway and the Canadian customs checkpoint on the New Brunswick side of Houlton, Maine--in two days. Anyway the sign couldn't possibly be meant for me.

"STAY IN LA," it says, one of those overhead electronic message boards that catch my eye as my rented Chevy dips into Baltimore's Fort McHenry Tunnel. I wonder briefly what Marylanders might have against visiting Los Angelenos. The next one says "STAY IN LAN." Sound advice for any information-technology professionals passing through on this sunny spring Saturday morning, but still an odd thing to be telling drivers. The last overhead sign, apparently the only one fully connected to the tunnel authority's Local Area Network, gets it right.

As if I were going to do anything but STAY IN LANE--with one 18-wheeler in front and another at my side, and my right flank a blur of sooty off-white bathroom tile.

Every time I pass through the Fort McHenry Tunnel (1996 annual traffic: 38 million vehicles) I remember my first time--when it had just opened in November 1985, when these eight underwater lanes were so much cleaner and brighter than my bathroom that I heard myself offering the toll collector an extra dollar. (He declined, smiled uncomfortably and probably made a note of my license number.) This, of course, prompts me to recall the first time I was diverted, along with everyone else taking I-95 through Baltimore back then, through the even dingier four lanes of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. That was in 1977.

You might be too young to remember 1977. Nonetheless: 22 years ago, less than half as many vehicles as today used I-95--America's busiest interstate. Though this average daily usage spans I-95's total of 1,900-plus miles from Maine to Miami (and we already followed I-95's 1,050 miles between D.C. and its southern terminus last fall), my assignment this weekend is to travel I-95's even more heavily trod and--except briefly in Connecticut and permanently in Maine--substantially less pretty northern half. (In some stretches between Boston and Richmond, in fact, I-95 traffic has more than quadrupled in 20 years.)

At least part of this trip, since my family still resides in the New York metropolitan area, is familiar, filled as it is with two decades of high-speed experience. I seem to recall that, in 1977, there were a few people left in the shipping industry who still thought railroads might be a good way to transport freight long distances--as opposed to trucks, which have consequentially multiplied, and grown longer than many livestock trains. In 1977, I also remember being actually disappointed when certain FM radio stations faded (New York's WNEW, Philadelphia's WIOQ, Washington's WHFS)--and even pulling to the shoulder a few times to hear the end of a particularly unexpected or meaningful song or a good long odd segment of NPR's "All Things Considered." ("ATC" still has good long segments, but not too long; the local stations like to able to break in regularly with traffic updates.)

Traffic updates, in any case, are a little like front-door locks. They're helpful. They frequently work. You wish you lived someplace where no one's heard of them.

Aggressive Driver Imaging In Use

We, however, live in Washington, smack in the middle of an East Coast megalopolis that is no longer just a colorful urban-planning theory. And all of it is connected by at least four lanes of blacktop dotted with those distinctive shield-shape red, white and blue signs that say "95."

From Washington to Boston, in fact, the government might consider officially designating I-95 a National Signage Byway. As in: Whether or not there are any actual passable lanes of pavement or perceptible forward movement at any given time, there will always be . . . signage.

When I see the famously cryptic "aggressive driver imaging" sign, I'm still on the Beltway--though technically the eastern half of the Beltway is I-95, renumbered thus back in 1980 when transportation wonks officially gave up on their 30-year-old dream to extend I-95 from College Park through the city and connect it with I-95 in Arlington (which was then renumbered I-395). The sign refers to an experimental Maryland State Police program involving a video- and radar-equipped Bronco, $400,000 in federal funds and automated identification (and, eventually, citation) of the owners of vehicles caught tailgating, speeding or excessively changing lanes.

The jury is still out on whether the computer system works better than, say, actual Maryland State Police troopers. But surely the signs have at least as much effect on driver habits as those "Seat Belts Save Lives" reminders.

I originally fastened my seat belt at 11:15 a.m. Saturday. It is now close to 1, and time for a pit stop at the venerable Maryland House--the always-packed, never disappointing, neo-Colonial Tower of Babel on a man-made hill between the north- and southbound lanes of I-95 in Aberdeen.

At the coffee counter, couples behind and in front of me are speaking in Spanish and (I had to ask) Filipino; both conversations are repeatedly punctuated by the word "Cinnabon." In the restrooms (the line for the women's room starts just inside this two-story mini-mall's front doors), you don't need to touch anything you didn't walk in with; sensors flush, sprinkle and dry automatically. As rest areas go along the northern half of I-95, Maryland House is a class joint.

Outside, beside the plaque dedicated to the seven JFK Memorial Highway maintenance workers who've died in the line of duty since 1965, a tanned, seventyish woman from Southern California sits on a bench in the sun and sighs when you ask where she's headed.

"The bus we were on--brand new, they said it was the bus's first trip--was involved in an accident just up the road, so we're going back to Washington on a different bus and then flying home, a day late," she says. "Three young girls in a Volkswagen, we saw them pass, they were definitely speeding. . . . They caused a chain reaction with two other cars, and our bus. Everyone on the bus was okay, but they made us all get off, and three ambulances came . . . "

Smokers and ladies-room widowers are propped against a red brick retaining wall; travelers with big, cabin-feverish dogs patiently allow themselves to be yanked around the small but hilly front lawn scattered with picnic tables and big shade trees and more than a few low-lying surprises. A New York City cab, its illuminated dome announcing that it is available for hire for the 160-mile return trip, cruises into the parking lot as I head back to the car.

EZ Pass Only

There are no tolls between D.C. and Miami on I-95. In the other direction--if you diverge from I-95 like most people and take the New Jersey Turnpike into New York (more about that down the road)--the northbound trip through Maine will cost you upward of $15.

In income- and sales-tax-free Delaware, the tiny state that long ago realized there was better money (and smarter politics) in taxing passersby than residents, the northbound-only $2 toll plaza is only slightly backed up today. But, acting on a reader tip, I head far right--and am followed immediately by the impatient BMW behind me--to the newish toll-plaza annex otherwise hidden (the annex is slightly beyond the main plaza, and it looks to most like an exit). Sure enough, two lanes are open. I take the one that doesn't say "EZ Pass Only," wherein holders of the computer-read card can have their tolls billed to them at home, and the guy on my tail veers into the unmanned high-tech lane. Apparently didn't see the sign. After my gate lifts, I glance in the mirror to see him waving a couple of dollar bills at the machine.

95 North, Use 295 South

Caution: If you normally read at 65 mph, you are going to miss several exits in this section.

Unlike in Washington, where they fixed the gap in I-95 with signage, the gap in I-95 in New Jersey has yet to be painted over. Many people don't really care--they're the northbounders who know the New Jersey Turnpike starts at the Delaware Memorial Bridge and, for a fair fee ($3.50), will take them to the George Washington Bridge (unfair fee: $4) and I-95 through New York.

Northbound motorists who don't know this--or who are hoping to save some on tolls--need to make a decision as I-95 approaches the Delaware River. The four lanes turn into twin two-lane exits--on the right for I-295 and the Delaware Memorial Bridge (this is the way to the Jersey Turnpike as well as the toll-free, less-congested I-295, which parallels the turnpike as far as Trenton), and on the left for I-95 north and Philadelphia.

I'm trying to be an I-95 purist, so I head left, through Wilmington and into Philadelphia. This Saturday afternoon, it's an uneventful 55-mph-or-better cruise along the eastern edge of the city and suburbs. About 35 miles north of Center City, I-95 veers east and crosses the Delaware on low-rise concrete pillars, passes Ewing and approaches U.S. 1, and there's the sign: "95 North, Use 295 South."

From here, there was once a plan to extend I-95 northeast into the Middlesex County mixing bowl--where the turnpike, the Garden State Parkway and I-287 meet. The plan faltered, stalled, died. To get to I-95 from here, do what the sign says. Within the next 15 miles or so, I-295 south meets I-195 east, which meets the turnpike--officially I-95 from here to the GW Bridge.

Back on the turnpike (1996 annual traffic: 200 million vehicles), thinking I'm following the signs for the Walt Whitman Service Area, I somehow wind up at the Vince Lombardi. (All turnpike rest areas are named for famous New Jerseyans, although many fame-free New Jerseyans, myself included, go through an alarming number of adult years thinking, "Joyce Kilmer, what's she famous for?")

For much of the way through the Meadowlands, the New Jersey Turnpike is at least 10 lanes wide, and if Joyce Kilmer were sitting next to you, he wouldn't be reciting any poems about seeing anything "as lovely as a tree," because there are no trees. As I pass Newark International Airport, the roadway is 14 lanes wide; a Continental Airlines wide-body passes close enough overhead for me to read the tire-changing instructions on the landing gear.

All of this serious pavement is eventually for naught, of course. As I approach the Brendan Byrne Arena--whoops, the Continental Airlines Arena--the seven northbound lanes become four, then two. There's a two-mile backup at the end-of-turnpike toll plaza, where I turn in my ticket and money, and when I ask for a receipt, the toll collector, a likeably scrawny guy with a serious 5-o'clock shadow, says, "Hey, fuh you, anyding."

These Walls Under Video Surveillance

One thing about New Yorkers: They know from merging.

At the GW Bridge toll, the locals drive up to the EZ-Pass Only lanes, which are never backed up, and then assume that whoever's in the next lane, though he or she may have been law-abidingly riding the clutch for the past 20 minutes, will understand their "error" and let them in. If you don't let them in, they aim their hood ornament your way and go for it anyway.

I-95 takes you through the Bronx, one of post-Giuliani New York City's least reconstructed-looking boroughs. At dusk, the rows of sooty-tan brick or faded concrete and steel apartment blocks have an especially gloomy dankness to them, and, just as when I've navigated solo along certain dark winding paths through the Blue Ridge foothills, I'm glad the heat is working and the tires are sound.

As the clearly marked I-95 overhead signs take you from the Cross-Bronx to the Bruckner Expressway, the roadway becomes a wide, busy alley--with high masonry walls and evenly spaced bridges overhead for pedestrians and vehicles. I remember these walls being canvases for vast and cryptic works of spray paint in some distant-past journey. It's just before the exit for Pelham Parkway that I spot the faded white notices stenciled on the brickwork at regular intervals to warn would-be graffitistes that Big Brother is watching.

Leaving Public Water Supply Watershed Area

I freely confess to not really understanding Connecticut, and this sign--near New London on I-95, a k a the Gov. John Davis Lodge Turnpike, one of the few stretches of I-95 that was once a tollway and is now free--confirms my profound lack of Constitution State affinity. What is a public water supply watershed area, and why was I not notified that I was entering one?

In Westport, where I gave up for the night (only 323 miles into the trip, and with more than 600 to go on Sunday!), I had meandered past the carefully landscaped, closed-for-the-night strip malls along U.S. 1 and eventually pulled into the carefully landscaped parking lot of the Westport Inn, took a carefully landscaped room, watched the last 10 minutes of the HBO debut of "Titanic," flipped through the two magazines on the nightstand (This Old House and, um, Polo) and went to sleep thinking of what I'd say if I met famous Westport resident Paul Newman at breakfast the next morning.

Well, it's the next morning, and the in-house restaurant seems to be having staffing problems, and there's no coffee maker in my $115-a-night room, and I'm back in the Gov. John Davis Lodge Turnpike by 7:45 without having had the chance to compliment Mr. Newman on his salsa recipe.

Littering: $500 Fine

Actually, that isn't what it says on the signs that suddenly dot the roadside, as I-95 darts inland and upland before it gets to Providence, R.I. The signs picture an arm throwing trash from a car window--you have to get within 20 yards of the sign to tell--enclosed in the usual red circle with a slash through it. Beneath this is a picture of a raised gavel, and next to this is "$500."

Wouldn't it have been easier to just say . . . oh, never mind. Along the shoulders and road shrubs of interstate Rhode Island, in any case, slackers of many nations have apparently felt free to discard as much rubbish as anywhere else.

Caution: Reduced Salt

Reservoir Area

For many early-adult years I kept trying to find an excuse to live in Boston, and I'm reminded of the city's college-town verve and flat-voweled nerve by the rock and new-music radio station I have turned up loud in the car. But the salt-reservoir caution--I figure that one out after a moment of confusion--reminds me of why I probably never found the excuse: winter in Boston.

On a sunny, cool Sunday in spring, however, Massachusetts drivers just want to have fun, which apparently doesn't occur until the speedometer says 75. (The speed-limit signs say 65.) I almost miss the exit for I-95 north just south of the city; if you miss it, the highway becomes I-93 and goes right through downtown--and Boston's massive, night-and-day midtown interstate reconstruction. I-95/Route 128, on the other hand, smartly skirts the western suburbs and is entirely serene this Sunday midday--though you probably don't want to be part of the four-wheel rugby match on a weekday morning or afternoon, when you'd be competing with Boston area commuters who can effortlessly do 75 and 15 mph in the same 30-second scrum.

Next Exit: Liquor Store

New Hampshire has lower taxes and a more liberal (or is it conservative?) attitude toward the sale of spirits than neighboring Massachusetts or Maine. On I-95, you are only in New Hampshire for about 20 straight minutes. Ten of those minutes you will spend gawking at the one--no, two; wait, no, it's three large overhead exit signs telling motorists they're coming to the turnoff for the state-run New Hampshire Liquor Stores. These are two massive, Cape Cod-style barns, one each for southbounders and northbounders. The vast parking lots are empty, however; it's Sunday. Next Exit: church.

Maine Has a Tough

Drunk-Driving Law

Also, "Fireworks Are Illegal in Maine." Also, right in the middle of Bangor, "Moose (actually, a pictograph of a moose): Next 23 Miles." These signs of the Pine Tree State--erected on pillars of wood, not steel--are your clue that you are getting close to the edge of Interstate America. Other clues include: signs that denote distances now in both miles and kilometers; the helpful diagrammatical signs that explain that, here in Maine, we call this lane (the left lane) the "passing lane," this right lane the "travel lane," and this shoulder the "breakdown lane"; and the elderly couple in the 1980 Ford sedan who have arrived at the 50-cent tollbooth and take a full two minutes to search for the exact change (and no one impatient, or anyone at all, arrives behind to hurry the drama along).

Unlike at the other end of I-95 in Florida, fertile ground for back-seat license-plate tag teams, the license plates of every other car you see on I-95 here, throughout the 300 miles between New Hampshire and Canada, are from . . . Maine. There are no roadside billboards. At the rest areas, where you can buy moose mugs, lobster magnets and miniature fur-trader-like "Maine mosquito traps," the clerks and attendants seem happy to see you. To see anybody.

I stop in Waterville for a late lunch--I'm trying to make Canada before sunset--and call my childhood friend Tony in New Jersey from the car phone. Tony went to Waterville's Colby College a long time ago. "You're where?" he says. I half-seriously ask if he has any recommendations for lunch. He half-seriously recommends a few dangerous-sounding '70s hot spots that surely no longer exist (they don't), and recalls how the football team used to head through the woods onto I-95, the Maine Turnpike, at 9 p.m., for a game of touch uninterrupted by motorized intruders. At least some things haven't changed, I tell him.

"You're going all the way to Houlton?" he says. "When you get there, if anybody asks, tell them you took the airline."

"What airline?"

"The locals call the turnpike north of Bangor the 'airline,' " he says. "I have no idea why."

End I-95

"And the purpose of your trip?" Eight hundred eighty-four miles from home, I have passed the last I-95 sign--a puny little thing in the fenced staging area for the deserted Canadian Customs checkpoint. I have also passed most of the verbal tests (alcohol? tobacco products? firearms?) dispensed with artfully feigned disinterest by this square-jawed, piercingly blue-eyed customs officer.

I start to explain that I drove here because I had to, and so I guess this is technically a business trip, but while I'm here I might have a look around, so I guess it's personal, but--

He is staring at me, expressionless. Another officer at a desk behind him leans to have a better look at me.

I laugh nervously--and then confess my whole assignment, dropping names left and right, mentioning the trip down 95 to Miami in the fall, whatever it takes. At last he smiles.

"Ah," he says, "and you want to see the last 15 kilometers of Route 95!"

Route 95? You mean there's . . . more?

Route 95--the two-lane Canadian provincial highway that undulates over a series of widely spaced ridges before it deposits me gently at a small, clean, family-run motel in Woodstock, New Brunswick--is, thankfully . . . another story entirely.