Driving demons

Friday, August 10, 2007

My wife and I had to be in the Big City one day this week. As it turns out, the day we went was the hottest so far this summer. According to the temperature reading on my rearview mirror (a sure sign that machines are way too smart), it was 103 in the shade as we headed home.

Just a few miles south on Interstate 55 we ran into a road jam where traffic was stopped. How many lanes are there? Must be at least six lanes there. And not a car or truck was budging an inch.

We could see about a mile and a half down the highway. Police cars with flashing lights were lined up across all those lanes. We couldn't see beyond the hill where, we assume, an accident had occurred.

I was driving in the leftmost lane but decided to cross those six lanes to take an unfamiliar exit.

Lesson 1: When driving into what appears to be a dire situation, do not take the road less traveled. There's a reason no one goes there.

I headed east (my rearview mirror told me so) and hoped the road would intersect with U.S. 67, which, I reasoned, would take us south around whatever the tie-up was on I-55.

Smart, huh?

Lesson 2: Trying to outsmart traffic snarls in unfamiliar territory is akin to setting off across the Atlantic Ocean for China without a clock.

The first thing we realized after getting onto this two-lane highway was that many of our fellow travelers had the same idea. And two lanes aren't enough to accommodate six lanes of frustrated motorists. So we almost immediately came to a screeching halt, confounded by traffic signals that are not designed to squeeze six lanes of fast-moving traffic through two lanes of gridlock.

When we finally came to a major crossroad, the sign said "Lemay Ferry Road." How was I supposed to know that's the newfangled name for U.S. 67?

See, when I was growing up in the Ozarks over yonder, we made trips two or three times a year to the Big City to visit relatives. U.S. 67 was the big highway in those days. We knew we were getting close when we passed through Kohler City. And we knew we had to turn left at the 905 liquor store.

Perhaps now you see why I get lost while driving. I was brought up in the school of driving by landmarks. I once gave a piano tuner directions to the Killough Valley farm by telling him to cross the river and turn at the dead oak tree. Honest.

My wife -- the only sane person in the car by now -- pulled out the freshly minted Official Map of Missouri that I had picked up at the rest area on the way up to the Big City and which she had been using as a sunscreen. She also ordered me to pull over and look at the map.

Men like to have maps -- lots of maps -- in the car, but it's danged hard to get them to look at one.

Lesson 3: The presence of a map in difficult travel situations is a sure sign from God that you should look at it.

As most of you already know, Lemay Ferry Road is U.S. 67. Bottom line: I had made the right turning decision even before consulting the map. So there.

Since we were traveling at a snail's pace on my detour, I decided to get gas. A gauge indicated the tank was near empty.

When I got out of the car, the ding-ding-ding-ding alarm went off. And I couldn't get it to stop except by closing the door. Fortunately, the car seemed to be operating just fine, and there were no flashing lights on the dash that I could see.

After reaching the safe harbor of our garage, I turned off the motor to complete silence. Maybe the ding-ding-ding-ding demon had disappeared.

As soon as I opened the door, it started up.

I am pleased to report that it only took me an hour or two to determine that somewhere between the I-55 blockade and the gas station on Lemay Ferry Road (formerly U.S. 67), I had turned on the car's lights.

Instead of ding-ding-ding-ding, why didn't automakers invent an alarm that says "Your lights are on, stupid!"

Lesson 4: Men do not like subtlety.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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