Taking a Turnpike for the Worse

As a driver, one of my main rules of the road is to avoid traffic jams. As a father, this is especially true during toilet training. Tempers can get frayed — especially mine — so this rule is right up there alongside buckling my son into his car seat.

My wife and I broke the rule while on a trip to visit family. Beth and I are usually on the road by 10 a.m. for our traditional drive home from Virginia to New Jersey. We’ve managed to avoid major traffic jams that way for years. But this time, we decided to stay a few hours more on the last day of our long-weekend visit. We wanted to take our three-year-old son, Nicholas, to an aviation museum.

The Udvar-Hazy Center, the annex to the National Air and Space Museum, is a quick drive from my in-laws’ home in a Virginia suburb of Washington. Nicholas had ample time to stare wide-eyed at the planes, too enthralled to think about visiting the men’s room.

After the museum, we ate generous helpings of beef stroganoff back at my in-laws’ house and said our goodbyes. I slid behind the wheel. The drive got off to a good, uneventful start on Interstate 395 in Virginia, with Beth next to me and Nicholas in his car seat behind us. We listened serenely to “Peter and the Wolf” on CD because my son is addicted to it. We turned northbound on Interstate 95 and more or less coasted through Maryland and Delaware. We listened as Peter caught the wolf — again and again.

We crossed the New Jersey state line and soon reached the New Jersey Turnpike. That’s when it hit us: the Great Wall of China, the tsunami wave, the traffic jam.

At first, we saw the typical few hundred yards of bumper-to-bumper traffic ahead of us in the three northbound lanes. To our left, the southbound traffic whizzed by as if on a conveyor belt.

Being strapped down by rows of brake lights is strangely stressful. The pace is languid, but the ordeal demands constant attention, with no indication of when it might end. Patience is tested.

Toilet-training has been a similar experience for us: halting progress, uncertainty, and pleas for it to finally, finally end. On this trip, the training added a level of suspense. Would he stay dry or would he go? I didn’t want any suspense. I just wanted to get home.

The traffic didn’t let up. A road sign urged us to listen to the highway advisory radio station for the local traffic report. We tuned in. Traffic was backed up for 30 miles, it said through the static.

Thirty miles. At first, we refused to believe our ears. It’ll be over in just a few miles, we agreed; we don’t need to pull over by the side of the road for Nicholas.

But 10 miles crawled by, then 15 miles. A half hour, then an hour. All those planes back at the museum had harnessed all that speed and power through the years, and here we were averaging 5 miles an hour. Usually, on this drive we might see one road sign telling us: “Reduce speed, congestion ahead” in garish red neon. But on this day we saw at least a half-dozen of them. We started to believe our ears.

It got dark. I could barely see Nicholas when I checked on him in the rear-view mirror. He sat calmly behind us, like a rudder, and sought comfort in his thumb. Suppertime came and went. We had moved on to other CDs, but played them at very low volume. I sought comfort in The Band’s “The Weight.” My wife and I muttered our disbelief under our breath.

“Would it make sense to get off the Turnpike and cut over to the Garden State Parkway?” I asked Beth.

She looked at our map in the muted glow of the overhead car light. “No, it’s too far to the east. It would take us too far out of our way.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Really sure?”

“Yes,” she said, but her firm tone translated that into, “Yes, I’m sure. I can read a map.” We weren’t familiar with the local roads, and decided it was better to be stuck than to be lost.

There was tension in our car, but no angry outbursts — despite the cliff-hanger in the back seat. “Do you have to pee?” we asked Nicholas repeatedly. “How about now?… What about now?”

“No,” he murmured each time, before slipping his thumb back in.

We crawled past the Trenton exit. Our exit was another 50 miles away. We decided we had held out long enough. I pulled over at the next rest stop, named after Woodrow Wilson (what better way to honor a former president and New Jersey governor than with a Roy Rogers and a Blimpie?).

Beth went inside to brave the restroom lines. I stayed with Nicholas. I placed his portable toilet next to his car seat. He shifted over – not easy in a compact Hyundai Elantra. We’ve gone through three different potty styles to find the right mix of performance and comfort. On this drive, we used the Fisher-Price “Royal” model, which plays jingles each time something hits the bowl. Much to my joy, he went. He had lasted five hours.

Beth returned to the car and smiled as she handed me a turkey sandwich: supper.

“Any luck?” I asked.

“Not a chance,” she said. “The line was too long.” She would have to wait till we got home, whenever that was. I took advantage of a nearby stand of trees.

We hit the road again, although cars were still slogging through the swamp of traffic. We had started our trip basking in the glamour of the Concorde and space shuttle Enterprise. Now, I longed for the gray, industrial, grimy Turnpike sights seen in the opening credits of “The Sopranos”: the refineries, Newark Airport, seven traffic lanes. More down to earth, perhaps, but they meant we were close to home.

I was frustrated by now, and said so: we had started our journey too late, we probably could have taken an alternate route, and we should have had more food in the car. But Beth reined me in.

So did Nicholas. He stayed grounded throughout the drive, not once throwing a tantrum. And he had lasted five hours. My little boy, half as tall as me, taught me again about grace under pressure.

Gradually, traffic speeded up, spaces between cars grew and more lanes appeared. We swerved off the Turnpike near Newark Airport, and pulled into our driveway 20 minutes later. The drive took three hours longer than usual. Instead of being home for dinner, we were home for Nicholas’s bedtime. We skipped his bath.

Image credit: T. Rolf

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