I can’t quite say I miss I-95 and the Jersey Turnpike. And yet…

This is the first Easter since 1999 that hasn’t involved some quality time on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Interstate 95, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. My mom recently moved from northern New Jersey to the suburbs of Boston, and so our holiday pilgrimage took place in the sky instead of on the roads.

NJTP ticket at toll plazaThat is good overall. Those drives from D.C. to Bergen County for Easter and Thanksgiving routinely got bogged down in traffic, prolonging what should have been a four-and-a-half-hour schlep to six, seven, or eight hours. It was maddening, soul-crushing and usually inescapable.

I soon learned to break up the trip by segmenting it according to the sights. Beyond the service areas and the signs counting down the distance to NYC (what ever happened to the 100-mile sign?), my mental mileposts include Ripken Stadium, the Susquehanna River, the Our Lady of the Highways statue of Mary, the Delaware-toll detour (sometimes with a stop at what must have long been the northernmost Waffle House in America), the “Cruiser in a Cornfield” Navy testing facility, the NJTP’s split into car-only and car-and-truck lanes, the handful of crossings above or below Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor line, and the urban gash the Garden State Parkway cuts through the Oranges.

(If none of this description resonates with you, please read Randy Kennedy’s December 2000 New York Times feature on I-95 in the New York Times and Hank Stuever’s fantastic August 2001 Washington Post essay on the Turnpike.)

I also quickly settled on a soundtrack: WRNR’s freeform rock from Baltimore to Delaware, then either Springsteen’s Live: 1975-85 or the first three discs of Tracks.

But even with those mind games and slight improvements over the years–EZ-Pass, highway-speed tolling in Delaware and New Jersey, the widening of the Turnpike between exits 6 and 9, and Google Maps routing us around traffic–the prospect of this trip still filled me with dread.

Departing DCAAnd then my last three trips on this route weren’t all that bad. Hauling some of Mom’s furniture back to D.C. in a rented SUV in November was less punishing than I expected (I outright enjoyed paying my tolls with cash, Tony Soprano-style, to dodge Budget’s EZ-Pass surcharge), and early-morning departures around Thanksgiving allowed for two traffic-light journeys.

In particular, the drive north for the holiday that began when we hit the road around 7 a.m. Wednesday was almost miraculous in its ease. And when Google advised we stay on the Turnpike instead of switching to the Parkway to save a few minutes, the magnificent hellscape of industry and transportation that is the NJTP around Newark Airport led to some unintentional hilarity when my wife asked “What’s that smell? Is it something with our car?”

That’s no longer a possibility, and our holiday travel won’t be the same without it.

Flying is safer and more scenic–especially going in or out of National Airport. But it costs more, and it’s not immune to disruptions of its own. Friday morning, American Airlines canceled our nonstop to Boston and re-routed us that afternoon through LaGuardia. That delay and the unplanned connection at Joe Biden’s favorite airport meant we arrived in Boston some nine hours after we left home, or about what it would have taken us to drive had the traffic gods smiled upon us… which they almost never do.

Springsteen, and the persistence of good art

I saw Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band play Nationals Park last night. Besides being at least the 10th time I’ve seen the poet laureate of New Jersey live (details after the jump), the show also got me to thinking about how long Springsteen’s work has been helping me make sense of my own life.

It started when I was maybe 12 or 13 and began developing my own musical tastes beyond disliking the easy-listening stations Mom and Dad felt compelled to listen to in the car. I can’t think of any other artist whose work has held up for me for so many years. (U2 comes close, but I didn’t get into them until later in high school). Back then, I didn’t know how well and how often Springsteen’s words and music would explain things around me. And that there would be times when I’d need the help.

I thought about quoting “Walk Like A Man” in my father’s eulogy, but I didn’t think I could hold it together while reading those words. “Lonesome Day” and “Empty Sky” still encapsulate what Sept. 12, 2001 felt like better than any story or photo. And I knew I had to marry my wife when I started tearing up listening to a  version of “If I Should Fall Behind.”

I hear many of these songs differently now than when I was an angsty teenager or an underemployed 20-something. I expect that to continue as they and I age in our own ways.

As a writer, I also find it fascinating how Springsteen’s lyrics have evolved from the baroque exuberance of the early ’70s to the sparser language of today (and, along the way, have lent the occasional turn of phrase to my own prose). I try to use fewer words than I once did too; that, and the both of us being born in the Garden State, are about the only parallels I can get away with here.

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