Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Interstates and Airways

Is 1086 miles too far to drive in one day?  It didn't seem too strenuous when I recently zinged along the Interstates en route to Mapleton, Iowa from Raleigh, North Carolina.  I had to pick up something from my friend the mayor of Mapleton that couldn't be shipped, and it's almost 1300 miles from Raleigh.

I left home at 4:55 AM (ET) and was soon on I-40 West, and that evening at 9:25 PM (ET) I pulled off I-80 at Grinnell. Iowa to check in at a Best Western for a few hours of rest, 1086 miles from Raleigh.  Speed limits along the route were mostly 65-70 MPH, and I never pushed more than 6-7 MPH over the limit wherever I was.  Yet I made almost 1100 miles in one day without feeling totally exhausted and spent.

My route took me west to Winston-Salem and then northwest to cross what local radio stations called "Far Western Virginia" (I presume the phrase intended to leave no doubt that the broadcasts emanated from the Commonwealth of Virginia and not that far-off place known as West Virginia).  The Appalachians rose abruptly as the NC-Virginia line approached, and the early November landscape was still gorgeous with autumnal colors.  By the time I reached Princeton, West Virginia, however, the leaves were mostly gone from the trees, and there was a light dusting of snow on the northside shadow areas of the steep mountains.  I joined the WV Turnpike towards Charleston and enjoyed the scenery.

Soon my Toyota Sienna was nosing due west in the direction of Huntington, West Virginia.  As my Charleston NPR station began to fade behind me, I scanned the dial for a substitute.  Suddenly Nat King Cole's voice was crooning "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" through my Bose speakers.  Surely Christmas music was not already on the program!  Halloween was scarcely over.  Nat was followed by Sinatra and then Crosby wailing their own Christmas melodies, and yet, fascinated, I just had to listen.  An announcer came on identifying the stations as Magic 97.9 "All Christmas all the time" and proud of it.  I wondered how this went over in mid-summer and whether their ad revenues dropped between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.  Maybe, I thought, they should play Independence Day Sousa marches in that period.  I admit that I was soon singing along to my favorite Christmas carols.

Farther down the road as I entered Kentucky, Magic 97.9 crackled away into static, and I scanned again, this time picking up a northeastern Kentucky public radio station in the middle of a local news piece on the crowning of Miss Bituminous Coal at some coal festival or other.  Because I missed the opening, I never heard the city, but the the young woman crowned as Miss Bituminous Coal was impressive in the radio interview.  Speaking with a twang, she clearly articulated what a debt her family and her region owed to coal, and she painted a sophisticated, complex picture of the web of business and life that connected remote Appalachia to the world.  The coal industry should hire her as a spokesperson, and I was certain she would go far based on the telling short spiel I was fortunate enough to hear.

It was barely mid-morning, and already I was glad I was driving instead of flying.  On such a road trip, my senses richly benefit from close proximity to what happens in America on the ground.  Flying over is certainly efficient and quick, but it misses everything that's important to connect travelers to life.

West to Lexington, and then to Louisville, I crossed the Ohio River and headed north to Indianapolis.  Skirting the city's southwest corner put me on a path due west to Danville in Illinois, then to Champaign/Urbana, Bloomington/Normal, and Peoria:  American heartland.  By late afternoon I had passed Galesburg and was bearing down on the Quad Cities of Rock Island/Moline (Illinois)/Bettendorf/Davenport (Iowa).  There I joined I-80 for the push across Iowa.

Luck was with me, and I encountered only one serious slowdown, and that was west of Davenport.  It cost me about a half hour.  By nine-thirty I felt it was time to rest, and I chose Grinnell because I like the college.  Also I saw the Best Western sign and figured they'd have room.  I didn't make any reservations in advance because I didn't know how far I'd get.  Sure enough they had a few rooms left.

Best Westerns have been steadily improving their product and image, and their prices, while still modest compared to, say, Hilton's Hampton Inn brand, have risen.  I paid $76 plus tax for a very spacious room with an HD flatscreen and close to 100 TV channels.  The bathroom was first-class, as were all the room's features and amenities, and breakfast the next morning (included) was better than a Hampton's.

Leaving Grinnell at 6:00 AM (CT) the following morning, I recalled that you can't find an Interstate exit in Iowa that doesn't have a really good college or university nearby, and that fact probably tends to keep hotel prices a few dollars higher (parents and alumni, you know) than properties at a run-of-the-mill Interstate exit.

The truckers on I-80, and in fact everywhere, were generally careful and courteous drivers, staying in the right lane except to pass and signaling their intentions (unlike many cars).  My Sienna never gave better miles per gallon, over 23 MPG, because of the steady speeds with cruise control on.  I took in the passing scene while enjoying NPR programs and several traditional jazz CDs.  I departed I-80 at Des Moines, traveling due north to Boone, where I took U.S. 30 (the Lincoln Highway) due west.  I enjoyed watching trains as I closely paralleled the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad (formerly this was the main line of the Chicago & Northwestern) and passed through picture-perfect Great Plains burgs, each one with a distinctive grain elevator near the railroad tracks.  Americana!  You can't get this experience at 30,000 feet.

At the 1278 mile mark I arrived in beautiful Mapleton, which is in northwesten Iowa.  The terrain there is very hilly, with steep ups and downs, sharply different from most of the rest of the state.  After a too-brief visit to load my van, I reluctantly started east again.  I could have stayed for a day to get to know Mapleton, home to 1294 souls.  Recovering well from its encounter last April with a devestating tornado that destroyed or damaged 60% of the town, Mapleton demonstrates the resilience and determination of Midwesterners.

By ten that night I had made my way back to a small town south of Indianapolis about 50 miles short of Louisville, which I knew was only 8 hours driving time from Raleigh.  I slept at a Days Inn where the rate was a mere $59 plus tax, and the room was almost as nice as the Best Western's the night before.  Even the Day's Inn was equipped with a modern flatscreen and offered crystal-clear HD reception.  The hotel also had excellent amenities.  Point being, the gap between the Marriotts and the Hiltons and the Best Westerns and the Days Inns has narrowed considerably.  Aside from points, why stay at a pricey Hilton property now?

Next morning I was off again early, and by 3:00 PM on the third day after leaving Raleigh at 5:00 AM, I was in my driveway: 1278 miles there, and 1267 miles home, for a total of 2545 miles in 58 hours door-to-door.  It was a wonderful experience, marred only by a few traffic snarls (no love lost on drives through Louisville, Indianapolis, or Peoria), yet I made great time and saw the world at eye level.  No wonder Charles Kuralt loved his job.

The very next week I flew to New Orleans and back (via Delta) for a 3-day trip.  Delta treated me well, and the flights were on time.  I was even upgraded on two of the four flights.  Life was good, I thought.  Yet having just made such a memorable cross-country road trip, the contrasts were hard to ignore, as for example:

  • On the road I was, more or less, the master of my own fate.  I could drive as far as I wanted, stopping when I pleased, tailoring the experience to my own liking in unique and unprogrammed existential increments.  Once I passed the TSA security screen at RDU, however, I yielded myself to be herded along on Big Brother's program.  Existential moments vaporized into the X-ray machine like smoke.
  • The connections going and returning were through Atlanta, and it was the same sterile environment it's always been.  "Doors are closing and will not re-open" is the constant refrain of the underground connecting shuttle.  The same tired news stands with the same tired candy bars and magazines.  The same ugly gates.  The soul is soon enough weary.
  • In the fifty-one years that I have been flying, I have always enjoyed looking out the windows of airplanes.  Imprisoned on the aluminum tube as we all are to be sure, it's still a thrill to witness takeoffs defying the laws of gravity.  I never take for granted the beauty of the view from aloft, piercing fluffy clouds and seeing the earth from God's vantage.  Yet more and more I notice that my fellow fliers not only eschew the opportunity to ponder the world from above, but they insist on closing the window shades even before takeoff, pecking away at their Blackberries or laptops, or staring zombie-like at some inane program on tiny seatback screens.  It's not only depressing but positively dehumanizing and more than a wee bit claustraphobic to have the cabin closed up.  I hated it on my recent flights more than ever.
Of course I will fly again, and again and again after that, without regret.  The limits of time and the demands of distance require it.  There won't be so many road trips, but I look to each journey across the face of the earth as a welcome opportunity for my soul's energy enrichment.


Blogger Jim Zurer said...

Enjoyed your posting...we often make the drive from Washington DC to Chicago and back for a long weekend and find it preferable to the plane. Of course, I do love to drive...just like the feeling of being on the road.

11/25/2011 12:30 PM  
Blogger emceemk said...

Sentiments echoed, and well put.

11/25/2011 6:43 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy P said...

Nice post. I enjoy a good road trip as well - especially by myself - because of the control. Being able to stop anytime I want, take side trips anywhere, inconveniencing no one.

On the issue of looking out the window - I share your sentiment. In Australia where I live now, there's a rule that all window shades must be open during takeoff and landing. I think this is so that outside conditions can easily be seen in the event of a crash. It's amazing the number of people that object when the flight attendants come along and require the window shades be raised...but at least I always get a view of takeoff and landing!

12/08/2011 10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post and our recent experiences are much alike. I am a 25 year frequent flyer and just finished up a 2,200 mile car trip over Thanksgiving (Tulsa- NE Ohio). After the media spends the week in advance scaring the heck out of anyone who is going to use any form of transportation, it was good to find my drives quite relaxing. In fact, I chose to make the drive back by myself and did not regret the decision. My son chose to fly home on the Sunday after Thanksgiving (OH NO!!!) and found the CLE airport to be quiet.

Also, I was so glad to see you mention this ever increasing trend of shutting window shades on planes for the entire flight. I am not claustriphobic, but I hate not ever being able to see outside. The airlines preach that during the summer heat while the plane is at the gate. Makes sense. But, now that it is much cooler, the trend persists.

12/16/2011 3:46 PM  

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