My son, at age fifteen and a half, has shown himself for six months on a Learner’s Permit to be a safe and careful driver. That’s mostly around Raleigh, naturally, with few opportunities to get a feel for the open road.
Like me, he is also a jazz fan (though, unlike me, he is extremely proficient on two musical instruments, piano and trumpet). So it was a no-brainer that the two of us would drive rather than fly when we decided to visit friends in New Orleans. While there we would attend the Satchmo Summer Fest at the end of July honoring the jazz legacy of NOLA native son Louis Armstrong. Seemed like a fine package: lots of miles on my son’s driving log, see six or seven states at ground level for a change, hear a lot of great music, catch up with some good friends, eat some fine food, and just chill.
In theory that would give my son 900 miles of Interstate driving experience between Raleigh and the Crescent City, and another 900 home. But yikes! That seemed like a long way to drive. The only real anxiety I harbored was the necessity to traverse Atlanta. Going through Atlanta, with its horrid congestion, cannot be avoided, just as traveling north from Raleigh to the Northeast cannot avoid going through the D.C. metro nightmare.
We set off at midday from Raleigh, starting late owing to a business meeting I was part of until noon, and I calculated we would reach Atlanta around 6:00 PM, the middle of rush hour. Thus going via I-85 was out, because that would necessitate piercing the city north to south at the worst possible evening hour.
Instead, I directed my son to take a slight detour east on I-40 to I-95 south, then I-20 west from Florence, South Carolina in order to attack a mere 14 miles of the SE corner of the I-285 beltline around Atlanta. I steeled myself to suffer the stop-and-go traffic there.
My son did the preponderance of wheel time, and to my astonishment, speeds around that corner of the Atlanta beltway stayed above 50 MPH. South of Atlanta on I-85 we maintained 70 MPH (the posted limit) without trouble and crossed the Chattahoochee River into Alabama by 7:15 PM Eastern (close, but still not in the Central time zone).
In the small town of Lanett, Alabama we stopped to refuel and grab a bite. I spied a Days Inn by the Interstate exit and decided to ask about their rates. $50 including tax for a nonsmoking room with two double beds, I was told. Did they take AARP or AAA cards? I asked. Nope, one rate: $50, including tax, for any room.
I plunked down the money, and we slept soundly that night. The room was clean, quiet, roomy, beds were comfy, good cable TV variety, and the A/C worked well. Okay, the shower pressure was pathetic, but we managed. Nowhere I know of in Raleigh where one can find a room like that for fifty bucks, all in.
Next morning we arose very early and drove across the exit to a Waffle House for–what else?–waffles. Delicious, cheap, and the waitresses all called us “honey.” After leaving and passing through Montgomery to reach I-65 south to I-10, my son asked if we could make a 10 mile detour to Florida since it was so close. He wanted to be able to tell his friends that he’d driven in seven states instead of six (NC, SC, GA, FL, AL, MS, and LA). I accommodated him by navigating off I-65 at Atmore, Alabama to reach the Florida panhandle, and we were soon barreling along I-10 west crossing one bayou after another.
By 1:30 PM we were in New Orleans, well, actually in Harahan, on the Mississippi River levy where some of our friends live. 920 miles from Raleigh, a bit longer than it might have been had we stuck to the more direct I-85 route, but anything to avoid downtown Atlanta.
Over the next few days we dined twice at Bayona in the Quarter (thank you, Susan Spicer, master chef!) and listened to fine jazz performers like Don Vappie and his Creole Jazz Serenaders playing a set on the outdoor stage and Ellis Marsalis performing at Snug Harbor. Early Saturday morning came too quickly, but we were on the road for Raleigh by 6:15 AM Central.
Thirteen hours later we pulled into our driveway at 9:15 PM Eastern. We had driven 861 miles straight through from New Orleans, averaging 66 MPH, stopping only for gasoline, toilet breaks, and food. We mostly set the cruise control at 66 or 71, 1 MPH over the speed limit. Most of the way was at 70 MPH. It was a Saturday, and we lucked out with light traffic everywhere. Never happens over such a long drive, but it did that day. My son came home with 1914 total miles on his log (counting the local mileage in New Orleans while there).
Total gas cost was $281, plus $50 for the one hotel night, equals $331 in direct costs. I didn’t count food because we had to eat whether we flew or drove. Flying would have been over $1000 for the two of us plus parking at RDU airport for six days at $14/day.
The most enjoyable elements of the road trip were time spent alone with my son and seeing the countryside close up. There’s something about covering the earth at ground level that doesn’t leave gaps in my psyche like flying over at 33,000 feet does. There’s a continuity of place, from home to destination and back, on the road that just feels right. It’s impossible, and frankly undesirable, to make trips like this one every time. But once in awhile it is good for the soul.