Monday, January 31, 2011

The Lost and Winding Road

Mine was one of the last high school graduating classes in the State of Maryland to take Driver’s Education in the school system. I cringe at the memory of actually liking the Chrysler LeBaron we used for class and wanting to actually own one but that’s another story. I took my driving test in my Dad’s El Dorado which barely fit in the parallel parking slot used for the test but I did pass the first go round and proceeded to dream of wandering roads and other long journeys into the horizon with my newfound freedom. Maryland at the time was blessed with its share of highways and major boulevards but also had a fair measure of winding two-lane country roads. Those were the ones I loved the most!

I felt that I literally and figuratively got up to speed in terms of getting to know the handling characteristics of the family car but also the driving patterns and habits of other drivers around me. What I chose as my personal training platform were the kinds of country roads that most other people avoid even in good weather. What better way to really get to know how a car handles and how I respond to the existing conditions than on roads that twist, wind and cut back with frequent, sudden and unexpected regularity. Call it a very suburban version of running the Grand Prix if you will but I found experiences like that to be educational as well as exciting.

One of my favorites was Maryland #450 leading in to the state capitol of Annapolis. Parts of it traveled along a small river but the more challenging stretches ran up hill and down dale through woods and past colonial farm houses and churches right at the edge of the asphalt. Another was Maryland #32 that my mother expressly forbade me to drive on by myself until she felt I had gained more experience. Trees that probably witnessed the march of Washington grew tall and thick just inches past the yellow safety line. Car killers these trees were and surely each one had stories to tell. Like any headstrong teenager with keys to the car I drove it anyway and, thankfully, never had to explain any damage to me or the car for being over there.

Both of these roads have been significantly “straightened” now thanks to urban development and possibly one too many needless accidents. The new #32 is now a four-lane divided highway powering through Howard and Anne Arundel Counties, carrying commuters back and forth between Columbia, Ft. Meade and Annapolis but the old one still runs right beside it, an old favorite for some locals and traffic relief when the new highway gets locked up with rush hour commuters.

I still look for roads like this every now and then to “keep my skills fresh” but feel they are all ultimately going the way of the dinosaur. In a way this is a good thing as tragedies on roads like these are most often of the avoidable kind. My graduating class lost 8 classmates in one night on a local country road near Odenton, Maryland. The driver of their pick-up was drunk, he allegedly swerved to miss an oncoming car and slammed straight in to a car killer, ejecting many of the kids riding in back on to the road and into the branches, impaling one and embedding the watch of another into the tree trunk.

That was over 30 years ago. I think of that group of kids every time I return to the area. The back roads I used to love are slowly being straightened and they take too much time to remember, find and drive during brief visits with the family. Still, there is one left that works for my family and I. It’s not so bad but time is not on its side for much longer. The McMansions carving up the horse country beside it are seeing to that.

Gotta go.

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