Column: When I do this trip again, I’ll take a tank

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 4/23/2019 10:20:16 PM

Well, I won’t do that again. It’s easy, living as we do in the semi-rural bubble of Vermont, to forget that much of the nation south of us is more heavily populated than we, and that navigating it successfully can be a bit challenging, especially for an octogenarian.

At one point, as three full lanes of traffic hurtled along an interstate at 75 mph in fog and pouring rain, my wipers and defroster working as hard as they could, I glimpsed Kiki’s ears in the rear view mirror. She’d obviously sensed my discomfiture, and was sitting up in her crate to check things out. “I’ll tell you what, Keek,” I said. “This just ain’t a whole lot of fun.” The dashboard GPS was showing about two more hours of not-fun to go.

Our long-weekend trip to Gettysburg was supposed to be a bit of a sentimental one on the first anniversary of my wife’s death: I’d drive the route we often took, stay where we’d stayed, and walk again the route of Pickett’s Charge. I’d marvel, as I sat on the rough stone wall at The Angle, at the brilliance of Lincoln’s brief speech at the dedication of the national cemetery, with its underlying theme of nativity: “... brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty ... shall have a new birth of freedom.”

But, as the immortal Robert Burns observes, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley.” And so they did. The internet lists the trip as about 530 miles, and the expected travel time between eight and nine hours. No problem. We’d have a decent breakfast, head down the driveway at eight o’clock, and pull into the Quality Inn — pets welcome — between five and six. Our first stop would be just before 10:22 a.m., the time of Mother’s death, for a few minutes of quiet reflection and thanks for the memories.

At 10:22 exactly I was holding tight to Kiki’s leash in a jammed McDonald’s parking lot somewhere near Saratoga, urging her to pee. But she had to investigate every soggy cigarette butt and candy wrapper in the little patch of grass I’d found her. Jack Lemmon couldn’t have played the scene better.

I’d heard there was an apocalyptic late winter storm blasting across the Dakotas, but it was predicted to swing north above the Saint Lawrence Valley. We’d miss it all right. Wrong again. We didn’t hit snow or damaging winds, but that storm had sent out skirmish lines of heavy rain and thunder. We weren’t going to turn around, so I just kept slogging on, thinking now of Lyndon Johnson’s description of his situation near the end of his presidency: “Like a jackrabbit in a hailstorm, just hunkered down and takin’ it.”

What finally prompted the never-again remark was reaching Harrisburg right at rush hour on Friday afternoon. It was stop-and-go for about an hour, while the GPS steadily predicted a later and later arrival. Could this many people be going to Gettysburg? Turned out that, actually, they could. I’d struck on the first day of spring vacation for schools all over the area. Oh, brother! I paraphrased Longfellow as we finally swung around the familiar free-form rotary onto Baltimore Street: “It was seven by the village clock when he galloped into Gettysburg.”

Let’s try to forget that the motel couldn’t find my reservation; never mind that the local restaurants don’t serve the elixir a weary traveler most needs (they do supply a bottle opener, a glass or a corkscrew if you’ve brought your own elixir); and let’s ignore the $3 gas prices (the Prius sneezes at them). We did, finally, find a room (where I had to shower in the dark because the ceiling light/fan threatened to explode when I turned it on). Saturday morning, after her constitutional, Kiki brightened everything, darting into the motel breakfast room, where she spread joy from table to table.

There followed 24 hours of welcome, if tentative, sunshine; retracing the course of Pickett’s advance and retreat, I even got a little sunburn. The swale beneath my feet left high marks of mud to the ankles of my boots and 8 inches up my cane. Kiki, utterly unaware of the significance of the ground, pounced like a fox on little things hiding in the dry grass and fence lines. We rested for a while in the shade at the Angle, where I had a great conversation with a couple of schoolteachers from Michigan.

We visited the monument to the Vermont volunteer infantry, where Kiki, looking watchful, had her picture taken. We went next morning to the Palm Sunday service at Prince of Peace (risen from ashes after being torched by an arsonist in 1970), and finally started home.

Heavy showers, clouds, and fog chased us all the way to a hotel in Saratoga after dark. Next morning we zoomed east over Mendon Gap, in slowly diminishing traffic and more sunshine at last, downhill past the ominously swollen Tweed and upper White rivers, to just beyond Stockbridge, where two jovial firefighters in yellow coats — uh-oh! — turned us around. Back to Killington and over the hill from Woodstock to Sharon.

Opening my back door has seldom been sweeter. But I’m already making plans to return — in a high-speed battle tank (hybrid drive).

Willem Lange can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.




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