The Zipcar is dirty. Again.
Its seats are stained and you sit down uneasily. The windshield reluctantly shows you the world through a slightly foggy film embedded with fingerprints, the ghost of multiple GPS-mount suction bites and nicotine. But behind you is a full load of camera gear and picnic goodies in an open handbag. Thinks could be worse.
Google Maps plots and suggests a route taking into account distance, speed limit, tolls, construction, accidents, traffic—and probably a set of hidden variables known to itself alone, such as the viability of channeling you past a superstore for which it served you an ad through a related product recently—and you accept, starting navigation. An ETA is displayed, the arrow begins tracking your progress, talking to orbiting triangulators, and the journey begins.
It is mid-morning on this fall Sunday and a crisp blue sky welcomes you to the road, so perfect and featureless it seems as though the top half of reality was carefully peeled off, removing all depth of field and revealing the substrate, a backing of some sort onto which our daily world is crafted for the benefit of our weak perspective—and texture-hungry senses.
A direct way is worked towards the nearest, west-facing release off the Manhattan Island as you are headed towards the Delaware Water Gap. Under elevated subway tracks, a sneaky red light is caught late and deliciously fried chip-like mushrooms leave the picnic bag in a haste while the brakes perform their duty. Disturbed and saddened by your lovely passenger’s obvious distress at losing such delicacies, you miss the on-ramp to the highway and have to circle back. After quickly stopping along a soiled sidewalk to ditch the escapees—three lonely chips are left—and avoid compounding the car’s state of decay, a second attempt lets you hoist yourselves up to fast lanes leading to the double-level bridge and flatly spread beyond it, Jersey.
Why two levels, and how one chooses between them, you are not too sure. Instinctively, you opt for topside, more of a view even though there is no margin for your eyes to leave the immediate three-dimensional environment of flowing traffic. New Yorkers drive like rabid monkeys, grinning, frowning, shrieking and biting, unfortunately granted enough motor skills to mimic the gestures of a Schumacher who’s talented genius they cannot ever grasp. So defensive driving is skewed into a last-minute avoidance dance, a tug of war where pushing counts as much as pulling, people seemingly trusting their horn to flush danger away and aggressive defiance to subdue weaker wheels.
Landing on the continent and scurrying through sub-ordinary suburbs, you wind your day through New York approaches in reverse, gradually putting miles between the City and your bumpers while attempting to maintain enough space from those of others, the sacrosanct two-second rule duly inflated to reflect reality. Pit-stopping somewhere in the no man’s land that buffers the transition from urbanity to sanity, you top up the hybrid vehicle’s tank and while you are at it, grab a coffee and a doughnut each for the first time in years. Pit stop food is to the road what rock is to music; nothing fancy, often messy, but a quick, easy and powerful way to lift your spirits.
Eventually, one ugly building at a time, strip mall after gas station, concrete recedes and vegetation takes over the way an ambitious vine would, climbing horizontally towards you and blanketing the world in a fuzzy layer of softness. You are driving west, that day, in hopes of finding that newly warmed up sleeker foliage has replaced the lush greenery of summertime exuberance.Vegetation takes over, like an ambitious vine climbing horizontally towards you and blanketing the world in a fuzzy layer of softness
Aiming up towards the northern end of the Gap, you arrive in a little over an hour and a half just below the town of Milford, where you cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, thinking about prior incursions to the area and how they compare in terms of weather, season and mindset. This being a single-day outing, you will be forced to pack inside of a few hours what normally happens over a full weekend. The sights, the smells, the stops, the photos, deep breaths and slow sighs, stretching one’s legs and stretches of quietly winding forest roads must all be crammed into barely a few long instants, the way a sleeping bag is packed forcefully back into its impossibly narrow camping pouch, to be carried somewhere else and spread out again.
Your first stop, having turned south after crossing the river and entered the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, happens right by the unattended gate. Tall trees have donned autumn robes of bright yellows and you flex the camera’s muscles a bit by splashing the trees against deep blue skies. Your passenger ventures into the shade looking for mushrooms, Hobbit-like in her love for the fungi and her communion with nature.
Then you drive on and unsuccessfully try to find an old spot where you had long ago discovered beautiful orange salamanders in the leaf litter. Days long gone, rare sightings are always tricky to duplicate. The woods are silent. She looks about apprehensively, scanning for bears, listening for hints of an ambush, to the beat of her heart. You feel confident. A bear is just a big raccoon, you think. Show it who is the boss, bravado over instinct. You are glad your silly confidence is not tested.
The next stop is a waterfall, besieged by weekend warriors. You try your luck at some exposure fusion and neutral density filter stacks but these usually require concentration and time, both of which seem to be lacking.
Further down along the park road, hunger having peaked, you seek a picnic location along the river and find it at the foot of a small metal bridge funnily called Dingmans Choice. A large parking lot is almost deserted but a few people have brought canoes and small boats they are launching into a shallow bend of the river. The Delaware flows lazily between banks of rather shy fall tones. You have undershot the color peak by weeks but pristine water and sprinkles of sunshine on the mirror-like surface make up for it.
Late afternoon light keeps you warm while you eat lunch on a large rock bathing directly in the riverbed. Truffle cheese, a saucisson coated with herbs and delicious homemade sandwiches appear out of the bag. Your passenger affords a glass of Kir but still, as she chews on one of the rescued mushroom chips, her smile is stiff. The loss of most her chips is not the true culprit, though. The real, throbbing, deeply-rooted sadness lives deep in both your hearts and involves a big black cat who clings to life despite a run of bad luck confirming the myth of its feline color, struggling to eat and walk and live normally, wobbly in a skeletal body only a shadow of what it once was, a mere spirit at times, and yet untiredly bouncing back, one life at a time.
So you hit the road again, parental instincts flaring, bound for home, to feed and care for the furry friend. Looking for the many pumpkin stalls that had lined the way in, each more abundant than the previous, you find none. The GPS locks onto its satellites but for lack of data network reception, Google refuses to plot a route and tentative ETA. You figure that once out of the mountains, the network will reappear. Despite the late hour and alarmingly near return time for the Zipcar, you decide to wait and see.
Miles fly by, and time, too. Traffic picks up. It is Sunday night and the million weekend adventurers who had fled the city return as one. The volume of cars increases and illogically, so does speed. Horses have smelled the stables. As if carried by a wild river picking up momentum as it approaches the falls, you feel a bit out of control but, boxed in and barely spaced out, all you can do is match and watch the flow, and let go.
About two thirds of the way into town, Google Maps has finally given you a heads up and you know that things are slowing down. While your passenger dozes off in the right seat, you are left to look into inbound options, in a slightly surreal attempt at selecting the less costly mistake. Suddenly, a double panel over the highway warns you of a forty-five minute delay on both the Upper and Lower George Washington Bridge levels.
As your heart skips a bit, you glance at the lane moving away to the right. You just branched into the upper-bridge-only way, a bypass and truck-free solution probably long ago proven useless, and you are now locked in. Whatever escape options remained, as far away as the Holland Tunnel, they were available through the lower bridge lanes and are now as inaccessible as the top of Everest to a wanderer in flip-flops.
Google sees red. There is, up ahead, a jam. Miles of pure standstill. It is just past six o’clock. The sun is sinking into oblivion through your rear-view mirror. You slow down, increase your following distance and prepare to stop. There it is. Brake lights come to life like as many candles being lit after a power outage, hesitantly at first, then gathering numbers and gaining strength. You grab your phone and push the car reservation back.
Brake lights come to life like as many candles being lit after a power outtage, hesitantly at first, then gathering numbers and gaining strengthA desperate search on the map reveals zero options. Your are stuck on a stretch of highway inexorably leading to the bridge with no exits other than a useless local dump into nothingness. A deep breath. This might take a while.
Your passenger gets on her phone and scans the web and Facebook, searching for national news, Reuters or the BBC reporting such a nightmare. But nothing. The AFP has gone to bed, AP is busy somewhere else, Pravda is in Ukraine. Our little choke point will not even make the tabloids, the jam would be spread over too much bread to make a story. This, after all, is routine.
You pick a lane, knowing that such a choice is usually wrong. A large semi-trailer truck tries for the longest time to merge from your right, and slowing down, you let it pull in front of you. Following a truck in such molasses-thick traffic is much easier as most truck drivers actually know how to drive and rather than reacting to the never-ending accordion effect that makes cars suddenly speed up a few dozen feet and brake hard again—creating long undulating wave patterns of frustrating irregularity—they keep a very slow, steady pace, in the lowest possible gear, and you can then do the same.
Frequent looks at the watch reveal a staggering lack of progress of anything but time. Darkness is falling faster than you’d wish. A snake-like procession of light sets spreads fore and aft into the night. Regularly, an idiot comes rushing by in the emergency lane, unavoidably followed by a few more drivers whose own idiocy is triggered by example.
You’ve been there for what seems forever and you have not even traveled half the distance to the bridge. Patience is wearing thin. Many sardines around the can are losing their cool, and start changing lanes in futile attempts at shaving moments off an eternity. Some play loud music trying to shake the frustration loose, heavy bass distortion against idling engines. Feet are sticking out of rolled down windows. Dogs, missing the wind on their face, fall asleep. You inch forward. Again, and again.
When the toll booths are reached, multiple lanes merge then spread out into a wider array of options for cash or EZ Pass. A police officer is walking through the stalled cars, staring at their occupants, looking for something or someone. Beyond the booths, the array is again squeezed mercilessly into four lanes, causing added chaos. But by then your nerves are numb.
You slowly work your way to the southern lane, your exit in mind if not yet in sight. Finally reaching the Manhattan side, you veer right, rolling smoothly into the tight curve and finally accelerating, thrilled by speed as your dashboard reads an amazing forty-five, then fifty miles per hour.
You look at your passenger. She looks at you. Neither knows whether to laugh or cry. A quick mental calculation leaves you speechless. It has taken over two hours to cover five miles.
Dinner will have to be quick. Tomorrow is a work day all over again. Stress will shift from the road to the phone, from car traffic to commuting crowds.
The cat is glad you are back. Requests attention. It is given gladly. You are both exhausted from sitting for so long.
Just another night in the city.