Jennifer Graham

A special fondness for an ugly highway

Interstate 95 is a destination all its own

By Jennifer Graham
September 3, 2011

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SOME PEOPLE dream of visiting all the continents, bathing in the Ganges, seeing Golgotha or Mecca. Me, I want to drive all of Interstate 95.

Laugh all you want, but it’s a goal within reach, even with crude at $90 or so a barrel.

When I get to Houlton, Maine - a mere 382 miles from my home - I will have driven all 1,900-plus miles of I-95, albeit over 25 years. This is no big deal for a trucker, but for a confirmed homebody with an empty passport, it is not an insignificant journey. I am Frodo; my Jeep is my Sam. In Houlton, I expect to find a fire-spewing mountain into which I must cast a gold ring.

I didn’t always feel such affinity for I-95. Eleven million vehicles travel on it every year, and most of it is quite ugly. It is the Kmart of interstates: a no-frills means to an end; easy on the purse, hard on the soul. Nat King Cole sang “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.’’ Jimmy Buffett wrote a song about I-95, but its lyrics can’t be printed here.

I have roots well below the Mason-Dixon line, so I always took I-95 south automatically until President Obama’s stimulus package kicked in. Unfortunately, “Putting Americans Back to Work’’ had a corollary: “Keeping Americans from Reaching Their Destinations.’’ With new construction on the interstate and its bridges, 95 shrank from four or six lanes to two in many critical stretches.

After a particularly long, unpleasant stop in Delaware, I sought other ways to get south. I’d had it with the construction, with the tolls, with the George Washington Bridge. Henceforth, I vowed to take the New York parkways and the Tappan Zee, or go I-84 west to Scranton, then hopscotch south on scenic backroads.

But after a while, I grew nostalgic and started to miss the landmarks of I-95: the cone-shaped National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico; the giant cigarette at Philip Morris near Richmond; the jaw-droppingly politically incorrect Pedro on the South of the Border signs.

I missed the skylines of Philadelphia and Baltimore, the faint outline of the Washington Monument from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. I missed the Ben Bernanke Interchange, and the last exits where I knew I could get Bojangles biscuits and Chick-fil-A. Soon, I missed my sanity. The day I found myself thinking wistfully about the New Jersey Turnpike, I knew it was over: both rational thought and alternate routes.

So for this year’s Tour de Grandparents, we returned once again to the Road More Traveled, back to all I-95. While in South Carolina, I picked up a newspaper in which a writer called I-95 “an uninspired trail of blacktop.’’ And she’s right, of course, if you consider I-95 merely a road.

But it’s not. Interstate 95 is a community of travelers: the 18-wheeler first spotted outside Savannah who passes you every fourscore and seven miles; the Impala with the “Jesus Saves’’ bumper sticker who drafts you for most of the Washington Beltway, then disappears, only to pass you seven hours later by the rusty string of boxcars outside Providence.

There is no safety in numbers at 85 mph, but there’s camaraderie in the blacktop and rubber. When a traveling companion departs - the 18-wheeler from Savannah, lost to exit 3 in Rhode Island - there is a fleeting and irrational sense of loss, until a blue Windstar towing four bikes merges flawlessly to take its place.

Interstate 95, too, is a destination all its own: a run-on sentence of a road, punctuated with cities. There are the exclamation marks - Miami, New York, Philadelphia; sturdy, connecting commas in Portsmouth, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville; the curvy, welcoming bracket of Providence. Maybe Boston is an ellipsis - its skyline is implied but absent, just 10 miles away.

It is an imperfect road in an imperfect country, and even when we stop Putting Americans Back to Work, there will still be too many cars, too many blow-outs, too much idling too far from an operational rest stop. But, to quote John Mellencamp, ain’t that America? There’s a place for the scenic route and for high-speed rail. For those of us who just enjoy the ride, there’s still plenty of room on I-95.

Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton.