Sure, we were only going as far as Cary, N.C., but with the interstate moving at a snail’s pace, that domestic destination suddenly seemed as elusive as the tip of South America.
“We just missed the exit to Route 1,” Ruth said, gazing at her phone.
Four weeks ago I flew to Wilmington, N.C., to visit my father and stepmother. Last week, we drove to Cary to visit my mother and stepfather.
“It should be clearing up beyond Woodbridge,” Ruth said. “Or not.”
The map on her phone rendered the lanes up ahead in a deep crimson: Here be dragons.
We were left to ponder every motorist’s conundrum: stay in the hell we knew — 5 mph on a highway that might suddenly and inexplicably open up to 70 mph, only to just as inexplicably fall back to 5 mph — or bail and head to a road that was studded with traffic lights but capable of providing a reliable 35 mph.
We took the next exit for Jeff Daniels Highway. That’s my new name for Jefferson Davis Highway, a.k.a., what they call Route 1 in much of the commonwealth. Jeff Davis was the first, last and only president of the Confederacy. Not everyone loves him. Jeff Daniels is the amiable actor who rose to fame in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Who doesn’t love Jeff Daniels?
We moved with the plodding traffic through the human landscape of modern America: car dealers, churches, fast-food joints, motels, muffler shops, martial arts studios . . .
“It should be better after Aquia,” Ruth said.
And so it was. When we cut back to the interstate, we were an hour behind schedule but achieving decent highway speeds. The only time traffic slowed was when drivers lifted their feet off their accelerators to carefully read the lighted text on overhead message boards. Every sign was an admonition to secure the loads on our vehicles.
It seemed like good advice. For the rest of the trip, we nervously scrutinized every passing truck bed, shuddering at the ones haphazardly loaded with fence posts, rakes, hoes, shovels, javelins, narwhal tusks or stalactites.
We were somewhere around Petersburg, at the edge of Richmond, when the boredom began to take hold. American drivers used to be entertained by Burma-Shave signs, billboards with clever rhymes that eased the monotony: A shave / That’s real / No cuts to heal / A soothing / Velvet after-feel / Burma-Shave.
Those signs are long gone and so is Burma-Shave. What would the modern equivalent be?
This will help you / Exercise / If your big rear / You do despise / Peloton.
An ear / A brain / With sentient thought / That knows exactly / What you bought / Amazon Alexa.
It sees all / Ain’t that great? / But does it create / A police state? / Ring Video Doorbell.
We’re not podcast people, but desperate times require desperate measures. We’d stopped to switch places in the car and as Ruth steered us onto the featureless ribbon of I-85, I downloaded one.
It was about a murder. A murder is a very sad thing, but there was a sort of glee in the host’s voice. Podcasts need murders just like flowers need bees, and he’d found a good one.
It turned out, though, that the real subject of the podcast wasn’t the murder, but the making of the podcast. The host kept telling us what he was about to do — who he was going to talk to and why — and then he would talk to them, and then he would tell us what talking to them was like.
He kept telling us what he knew and what he didn’t know and what he wanted to know. And then he’d tell us again.
The host made sure to include a lot of environmental sounds: the dialing of telephones, the answering of telephones, the beeps of answering machines, the slam of car doors, the opening of car doors, that ding you hear when the car door is open but the key is still in the ignition. It was like he didn’t know how to use his editing software.
Before an interview the host would say “Do you mind if I record this?” which made us wonder if what he’d really said was: “Do you mind if I record this?” and then turned on the tape recorder and then repeated “Do you mind if I record this?”
Still, the podcast was very more-ish and I clicked “Play next episode” all the way to my mother’s house.
America is back, baby.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.