Vacations are all about getting away from annoying stuff. For B.J. and Meredith Martino, their stuff was a daily barrage of e-mails at work, stress about day care and volunteering at church. Meredith was even happy to escape her book club.
But they couldn't quite leave it all behind. Even as all the regular stresses of life faded as they left Alexandria for the mind-altering Outer Banks, one other loomed ahead: miles and miles of traffic.
Between real life and the easy living of Nags Head lay some 275 miles of pavement, filled with fellow vacationers stuck in one giant, slow roll to freedom.
"It put everybody in a bad mood at the beginning of vacation," Meredith Martino said of the other families who shared a house, all of whom spent the day stuck in traffic. "The first night was a big ventfest to grouse about traffic stories."
When do Washingtonians, who suffer through the third-worst congestion in the nation, ever get to leave traffic behind? When do they ever get a vacation from traffic?
Pretty much never.
"When people go on vacation, they're trying to get away from their day-to-day hassles," said Frank R. Moretti, director of policy and research at TRIP, a Washington-based transportation research group. "Unfortunately, congestion follows people."
The favorite getaway spots for Washingtonians happen to include six of the 10 worst vacation drives in the country, according to a survey by TRIP and other groups that came out this summer: the Williamsburg-Virginia Beach area, the Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish country, the Outer Banks, the Maryland-Delaware shore, the New Jersey shore and Cape Cod.
Travel experts said late July and August are the height of vacation season for Washingtonians. School hasn't started yet, Congress is out of session, the president is biking in Texas for five weeks, and seemingly everyone else has left the swelter of the city for a mountain peak, sandy beach or some other version of paradise.
"It's called the Washington recess because many people who earn their keep and living in Washington go away in August," said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
More than 80,000 cars head out of the area on the southbound lanes of Interstate 95 on Saturdays in July and August, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation. That's about 15,000 to 20,000 more than on an average weekday, or an off-season Saturday, and enough to fill four lanes for nearly three hours.
In North Carolina, record numbers are heading to the Outer Banks. This year, more than 2.4 million motorists have gone through the toll booth at the Chesapeake Expressway, a road at the southern edge of Virginia that leads to the Outer Banks. That's 26,000 more than last year at this time, according to the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
Heather Russell Koenig said she and her family will leave late on a Sunday when they head to the Outer Banks this month to try to stay away from all those other drivers. They've tried other traffic dodges, like taking off from work on Friday and leaving midday. But they got burned two weeks ago on an early-afternoon trip to Philadelphia: They took 21/2 hours just to get from Arlington County to Baltimore. The whole trip took six hours, twice the normal amount, and sent her 1- and 2-year-olds into fits.
"We're going to try to do it in the middle of the night this time," she said, adding that she doesn't expect to get there until 1 or 2 in the morning. "It's the price you have to pay for living in a city," she said.
Vacation is supposed to be a break from everyday hassles. Just the mention of the word conjures images of the ocean, of a chore no more difficult than figuring out how best to top two scoops of ice cream and of rediscovering the joy of reading a book.
But for locals, vacation starts with an almost obligatory fight through traffic. Then they hit crowded highways, and at some point in their trips, usually near the end when they're dog-tired, have to deal with rural roads that are ill-equipped to handle the onslaught of vacationers. Beachgoers also invariably have to cross a bridge, or several bridges, that are guaranteed bottlenecks.
Vacation schedules don't help much, either. Most week-long beach rentals, for instance, run from Saturday to Saturday so workers can maximize their time with their toes in the sand. What's more, check-in times generally coincide around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.
This is all to say nothing of all the days, if not weeks, of planning, plotting, charting and fretting about routes and times that go into getting there. Is the interstate faster than back roads? Where are the rest stops? Is there somewhere to walk the dog? Change the diapers? Eat? When should we go? Is it better to leave after work and deal with traffic or leave at midnight and deal with no sleep?
"There was so much e-mail traffic and conversation leading up to the vacation," Meredith Martino said. "When are we going to leave? Where are we going to stop? Then on the road, we kind of left in waves using cell phones, calling back: 'Whatever you do, do not get on 158.' I don't know, it feels like we're executing some kind of a military mission."
Like many others, O'Brian McKinley maps a route on his computer before he heads on a trip. But he also researches traffic patterns and trends in the region where he's headed and, just for good measure, he takes his computer with him so he can rechart a course if all his best-laid plans flop and he hits monstrous delays.
"Unfortunately, in today's time with traffic, you have to go with the flow," McKinley said.
And sometimes that means going in two cars at odd times to avoid traffic. "Typically, on weekend getaways, my wife leaves very early with the children and I leave very late," McKinley said.
Battles over how to alleviate summer-long jams have popped up in some hot spots.
On the north end of the Outer Banks, there is a fight over building a bridge from the mainland to the fast-developing area of Corolla, where scores of five- and six-bedroom homes are rising. Others think a road-widening project on busy Route 12 would do the trick, while some prefer to keep things just the way they are.
Carolyn McCormick, director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, said the debate centers on those who want to maintain and grow the area's $600 million tourism industry and those who don't want to open up more land to development.
McCormick counts herself among the bridge's supporters, but she also recognizes that there will be a "harsh reality when the bridge comes in: opening the north area to more and more traffic."
Traffic can be a mood-killer once people get to vacation spots, too, as hundreds of cars turning out of surf shops, grocery stores and taffy stands squeeze onto narrow roads. Massachusetts lawmakers have deadlocked over a proposal to limit the number of cars on Nantucket Island.
Ruta Skucas said she and her family have stopped taking summer vacations because of the hassles of getting there and getting around. "I don't do traffic," she said. They like to spend their downtime on Cape Cod. During the summer, Skucas said, there's "traffic to get on, traffic to go anywhere, and you're in traffic forever to get a mile down the road."
Skucas and her family can head to the cape in September because her children aren't in school yet, but she said she really has no idea how they'll deal in a couple of years when that changes.
Maybe they'll just go somewhere where there's "nobody around us and where we can go in the peak season in August," she said.
"It's a vacation," she added. "It's not worth ruining with stress."