It was somewhere around the Springfield interchange yesterday when Faith Hutcherson started the dreamy talk about moving back to her girlhood home, a Pennsylvania coal-mining hamlet called Bobtown with not one traffic light. "It's so nice back there -- the air is clear, and when you go out at night you can see the stars," she said wistfully.
Then she slammed on the brakes. And she focused on the road ahead, which was choked as far as she could see with thousands of idling cars and trucks. This was it. A moment of clarity. The drive from her Oxon Hill office to her Centreville home was eroding into the worst trip she would know in 32 years of commuting, and Hutcherson could feel it. This is one woman's struggle to get home on the day that the major commuting artery in the Washington area collapsed.
When she left her job yesterday at the Internal Revenue Service in Oxon Hill, where she works as a contracting officer, Hutcherson knew about the problem on the Capital Beltway. She had grappled with it in the morning, when it took her three hours to get to work instead of the usual 45 minutes. But she had hoped that by 5 p.m., the traffic would have cleared. Hutcherson, 49, climbed into her teal 1998 Acura Integra and hit the road.
Normally, Hutcherson takes Interstate 495 to Interstate 95 at the Springfield interchange and follows that to the Fairfax County Parkway. But nothing about yesterday was normal.
Trouble erupted seven miles into the trip, about 5:16 p.m., when Hutcherson rolled to a dead stop on the Beltway at the exit for the Eisenhower Connector. "You don't realize how many trucks are on the road until you stop like this," she said, looking at the conga line of tractor-trailers in the right lane towering over the cars. "I didn't think it would be this bad. I thought they'd have cleaned it up by now."
She looked at her dashboard and nervously eyed the indicator that showed a quarter of a tank of gas. "Geez," she said, her pink polished fingernails tapping the steering wheel. "I may have to turn off the air conditioning." Hutcherson pulled out her favorite CD, a Reba McEntire album, and popped it in the player. "Reba keeps me company," she said, tuning it to the second song, "A Sunday Kind of Love." "I love this song about Sunday."
At 5:50 p.m., her black car phone rang. "Hello? Oh my God, no way! Four to six hours? You've got to be kidding me," she said. It was her neighbor, Tom Phillips, calling with a traffic report he had heard on the news. "A Sunday Kind of Love" came around on the CD player for the second time.
Inching her car forward near the Van Dorn exit, Hutcherson tried to stay calm. "I try to take it in stride, probably because I've been dealing with this for a long time," she said. "I try to appreciate what's around me like the clouds and the way the trees move. Everything has a purpose, you know."
As she eased toward the exit ramp, Hutcherson called her daughter-in-law to plan a family beach vacation they're taking next week in North Carolina. The beach never seemed so far away.
It was stop-and-go near Van Dorn, and Hutcherson turned on Franconia Road and pulled into the first gas station. It was a Shell station, crowded with other motorists poring over maps and trying to figure out alternate routes. Hutcherson bought $9.67 worth of gas and a diet cola before she used the bathroom. She told Rick Romano, the manager, that she was trying to get to Centreville. He laughed.
At 7:11 p.m, she was back on the road, 11.5 miles into the trip and near Springfield Mall, when she started dreaming about moving back to her home town in Pennsylvania. "You want to leave when you sit in traffic for two hours and get nowhere," she said. "You wonder, `Is it worth it?' You think, `Yeah, well, this is a rare occurrence.' But it's happening more often because traffic is getting worse here."
By 7:33 p.m., Hutcherson's commute had turned the corner. She was on the Fairfax County Parkway and she was moving fast, up to 60 mph. "This is what it should be," she said. "A Sunday Kind of Love" was playing for the third time.
At 7:59 p.m., three hours after she left her office 31 miles away, Hutcherson pulled into the parking space in front of her neat beige town house. Although her morning commute had taken about as long, her evening drive left her more drained and would go down in her personal record book as the worst ever. She had spent eight hours at her desk, and six hours on the road yesterday. She turned off the engine, pulled up the emergency brake and let out a deep sigh. "I made it," she said.