Russ Ringsak

Mowing Grass in a Snowstorm

May 13, 2005

Our show finished its four-week stand in New York and on Wednesday morning, April 20th, I headed our rented semi eastbound from St Paul to pick up the gear at Town Hall and take it down the coast to Norfolk, Virginia. The trip out was not that bad, aside from the usual two-hour coronary clotting in Chicago and the stunning increase in the already outrageous fines they extort at the Illinois, Ohio and New York toll booths, where you get punished both in time and money for trying to sustain civilization’s necessary flow of goods (e.g., the George Washington Bridge went from twenty bucks to thirty, and there was a 90-minute wait in line. Ninety minutes!)

When young people ask me about where the best places are to live in this country, I say the first rule of the good life is that you don’t live within a hundred miles of any toll booth: They are another holdover curse from the European Dark Ages, like syphilis. They are not only a huge pain in the whatchamacallit but they are also a sure sign of weak legislators. The absolute dumbest and most inefficient possible way to collect taxes, short of having troopers wearing coin-change belts going door to door with canvas bags every day. That system actually would be better, because then you wouldn’t have to sit in long lines waiting to get to the extortionists; they’d come to you. Air travel is of course the bane of toll-happy politicians, with all that money flying overhead and them not being able to get up there and grab a piece of the action; they dream of interceptors. But, to tell the truth, not that many young people ask me about where to live. Or anything else.

I parked the rig that Friday night at the Javits Center on 11th Avenue and on Saturday night after the show brought it to the Town Hall, where, in the rain, bigger guys than me pushed our tall and heavy cases up the ramp from the street. There are many wonders in Manhattan: One is the wonder of why they don’t have loading docks, and another is how people ever get used to piling their garbage on the sidewalks because of it.

On Sunday morning bright sunshine broke out and I expected a fairly smooth trip down I-95. Ha. First off, I made the mistake of thinking it would be quicker if I avoided the hundred and thirty-five traffic lights up to the George Washington Bridge, by heading out the south end of the island. Cross the East River on the Manhattan Bridge, connect to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and take the Verrazano Bridge to the mainland. Cab drivers with accents had told me to head south on 3rd Avenue and find the bridge down there by Canal Street. I somehow ended up on the Williamsburg Bridge, which doesn’t directly connect to the westbound BQE, also called I-278. I compounded my blundering and ended up in trucker hell, running underneath a long viaduct in Brooklyn which posted a sign on a low beam near the far end: CLEARANCE 12’-8”.

Our truck is 13’-5” tall. I backed up a good distance in traffic with the help of a lanky Latino teenager, who cleared the way behind the trailer. Backed into a side street, achieved turnaround and eventually found the freeway. The kid didn’t want to take money but I forced ten dollars on him. He got to be boss of the whole street and he got paid besides. I hoped he learned from it, that it’s the people who take charge and solve problems who get paid the big money.

At the west end of the tall, dramatic and beautiful Verrazano-Narrows Bridge awaited a short, dramatic and ugly jolt: the toll was now 48 bucks. And, just as I pulled away from the booth the breeze got a hold of my receipt and took it glimmering off in the mirror.

It wasn’t a good start on the day and that kind of luck held; it took me twelve hours to go 376 miles to downtown Norfolk, and I never stopped for lunch. Spent the major part of the day in third and fourth gear, which is to say under ten miles an hour. This on the big wide multi-lane high-dollar toll road called Interstate 95. Two little southbound fender benders, a barely-visible wreck on the northbound lane and construction at the bridge tunnel leading into Norfolk meant one six-mile backup after another.

Set the rig in a parking lot across from the Chrysler Hall and flew to Minnesota on Monday. Wednesday put on a jacket and cap and fired up the garden tractor to mow the lawn. It was mostly chilly and partly sunny, and the grass was already long in some places. There was the smell of a wood fire in the air. Halfway through the cutting light ash began to fall, soft bits drifting lazily in on a faint westerly breeze. Got to be quite a bit of ash, big white flakes, and I wondered if the fire had gotten out of control. Didn’t hear sirens, but soon the flakes were flying so thick you could barely see the street. I caught one, and as it melted in my hand it dawned on me that I was in the silly situation of mowing grass in a snowstorm.

Flew back to Norfolk on Thursday, loaded in Friday morning, walked around downtown, saw the battleship Wisconsin, loaded out Saturday night and slept in the cab at White’s Truck Stop at the Raphine and Steele’s Tavern exit. Spent a bright spring Sunday cruising wild and free on Interstate 64, as fine a freeway as they ever did build. Sailed between the peaks of Big Butte and Sugarloaf Mountain and across the green-favored ridges of the lower Appalachian and Allegheny ranges, past exits that have come to sound like places where I’ve actually been: Longdale Furnace, Nicely Town, Clifton Forge, Low Moor. The Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and the city of Covington, where the forest opens up to a collection of typical Americana franchise constructions and then closes quickly behind it, as if saying, “Well, that’s enough of that.” You run hard by a whitewater river coming at you and past a sign for the Gathright Dam and Lake Moomaw. You cross the Sergeant James Leroy Biggs Bridge, named for a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, as are a number of others in this part of the nation. The last exit in Virginia is to Jerry’s Run Trail, begging the questions of who was Jerry and why was he running, and was the trail already there and he ran on it and made it famous, or did he run with such intensity that he actually blazed the trail?

(The Internet, which knows many things, later told me it’s a three-mile trail along Jerry’s Run, a stream in a very old and uncut hemlock forest in the Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness of western Virginia. It is an area unspoiled since the retreat of the last ice age, and many of the trees are 470 years old and too large to reach around; the hemlocks are apparently doomed by an oncoming infestation of the woolly adelgid, a small bug first imported from Asia in 1924. The same wilderness contains the Confederate Breastworks Trail and the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, and Hardscrabble Knob and Hiner’s Spring. The beauty of the place, it is written, defies easy description. So a guy shouldn’t be so flip about it. A guy should go there before the hemlocks are gone.)

Crossing into West Virginia brings on steeper grades and an angular landscape with exposed rock, where small waterfalls wet the faces of cuts, sometimes coursing from the woods above and sometimes spouting directly from a seam in the shale. These are old underground creeks, interrupted by the highway department for your viewing pleasure. A sign says you are in the I-64 High-Tech Corridor although nothing you can see gives you a smidgeon of a clue that things are any different; you are left to conclude people must be working on computers back in the dark gullies of the forest.

You traverse the Pfc. Ralph E. Pomeroy bridge, pass the arrow to Sam Black Church, cross the Mary Baker Ingles bridge, climb a long steep grade up Sandstone Mountain and fly the incredible high crossing of the New River Gorge, the world’s largest steel span, where from the cab of a truck you can look straight down 900 feet. The towers of the Golden Gate Bridge would fit underneath it with 20 feet to spare, this including the height of their footings. So would the Verrazano towers. Before 1977 it took 40 minutes to cross the Gorge and now it takes less than a minute. But it’s one of the most exciting minutes on the whole interstate freeway system.

A bit later you cross Skitter Creek and then Paint Creek, both in roaring high spirits. It was a good day for a ride. The traffic was light, the roads smooth, the mountains green in the morning, the hills moody in the late afternoon, the small rivers rushing, the big ones looking up and ready for business. The rail and barge cities of Charleston and Huntington looked gnarly, vigorous, with great piles of coal and crushed rock sitting in flat yards like giant athletic fields along the Kanawha and the Ohio Rivers. The refineries steamed from a hundred lighted pipes, looking like a city on the moon, and then, as if going through a door to a different movie set, you were in the emerald rolling countryside of Kentucky, where the visible enterprise went from the strenuous to the tranquil: From heavy industry to quietly raising horses and making whiskey.

I left I-64 at the great bridges by Louisville and turned north on I-65; slept in the truck, skirted Indianapolis and caught I-74 west to I-39 north, thereby enjoying the great luxury of missing Chicago altogether. Got home Monday and appreciated that the route rotation went the way it did, with all the hassles in the first week and all the sweetness in the second.

So I looked up the New River Gorge Bridge and found it cost a measly 37 million dollars, and it occurred to me that a bridge over the tollbooths at the George Washington Bridge could save 90 minutes per traveler and it wouldn’t have to be more than 20 feet tall. It would be money well spent.

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