It's been a few fortnights since the last Firmament, and since I spent most of that time driving (5,400 miles worth), it's only natural for my first post-road-trip list to stay on the road. As we confirmed on this trip, I like to drive more than my wife does, which helps explain why, through our entire relationship, whenever we've driven the same route in separate cars she has always beaten me. (Until this year, when, oddly, I always win--we can't explain it.) One reason (besides that she's just a better driver than me and also in a bit more of a rush in general) is that I try to enjoy the drive, while she wants to get it over with. She'll focus like a laser on the most efficient route, while I'll drift toward one that is a little prettier, often involving curves, views, and lower speed limits: the scenic route.
In most places I've lived, I've developed a deep affection for a few such meandering routes, usually leading to or from my house. The love affair started in high school in the Maryland suburbs, when my friends and I would drive out into the country in the middle of the night, driving and talking and getting lost until we hit a road we knew. And then it really took hold when I moved back home a year after college, when I got to know the endless diagonal avenues and drives snaking through the District of Columbia.
The ideal meandering drive has two lanes, few traffic lights, and curve after curve after curve, and it carries you through a variety of neighborhoods, through commercial and residential territory as well as parkland. It doesn't only meander--it does get you someplace useful, but it's almost never the fastest way to get there. It's often best driven at night, but even during the day it has some of the solitary pleasure of night driving. And what are those pleasures? I think they lie in the balance between variety and single-mindedness. You don't have to think or decide--you just keep your headlights on the right side of the yellow line--but you float in a constant state of reactive awareness, with each turn presenting a new prospect. It's a lovely time for thinking, or for reflecting somewhere just under the surface of thought, which is why the meandering drive is best taken at the end of an evening, when the events of the day can fizz and flicker in your mind.
Not all of these routes feature all of those ideal elements, but they all meet the spirit of the meandering drive. And of course, because the true meandering drive does depend on a destination (it's not all about the journey), my choices are entirely driven by my personal geography. Your mileage may vary.
- Bradley Boulevard, Bethesda and Potomac, Md. This is really the template for me, the two-lane suburban drive I imprinted on as a baby driver. Beginning when it narrows to two lanes (soon after you pass Bradley Shopping Center, home of the untouched-by-time Bruce Variety), it's the last big leg from the city toward my old house, but if you keep going it's also the route out to a web of similar lanes (Seven Locks, Falls Road, River Road) that are by day golf-and-horse-country-and-orthodontist arterials but by night are (at least in my memory) a map of teenage aimless curiosity.
- Chuckanut Drive, Bellingham, Wash. The immediate inspiration for this list, which I started to put together as I navigated the Chuckanut hairpins earlier this week (just after visiting Eclipse and Village Books). Chuckanut is a local legend, a winding coastal drive along the bluffs south of Bellingham that is so relentlessly gorgeous that it makes me laugh out loud every time. No doubt there are drives all along the Pacific that rival it, but Chuckanut's particular beauty--especially at sunset--comes from the gentle coastal views across Bellingham and Samish bays to the dotted humps of the San Juan Islands. When I'm at the end of my yearly all-day drive home from central B.C. (see #5 below), I usually reward myself with a dinner stop in Bellingham and a Chuckanut detour from the speedier monotony of I-5.
- Route 6A, Cape Cod, Mass. Route 6A, known intimately to nearly all Cape Cod regulars, can be infuriating or ingratiating. Quaint almost to a fault, and slow-moving if you catch it at the wrong time, 6A is the old Main Street for town after town on the Upper and Mid Cape. If you like weathered shingles and carved wooden signs, it's for you. What I like is the variety within that narrowly zoned typology, whose changes from turn to turn and town to town can hardly be called surprises, but are just varied enough to keep you at that level of slightly heightened awareness. But such a lengthly tour needs a central dramatic focus (aside from making it to Logan in time for our plane), and for me that's the crammed shelves of the Parnassus Book Service in Yarmouthport. I never know just which curve it will be on the other side of, which keeps me guessing for miles.
- Foxhall Road, Washington, D.C. It may say something about my two years living at home in Maryland after college that my fondest memory is of the drives I would take alone at the end of the evening. After seeing a movie in Georgetown or visiting friends in Capitol Hill, I would set out onto the arterials of Northwest Washington and find my way home, never looking at a map. Only rarely (and early on) did I end up in Virginia by mistake. Usually, if I didn't take the wide and familiar Connecticut or Massachusetts or Wisconsin avenues, I'd nose toward the narrower arterials and link some combination of them together in an inefficient path out of the city: Canal Road, MacArthur Boulevard, Dalecarlia Parkway, Beach Drive, River Road, and this short route through some of the priciest real estate in the city limits, Foxhall Road, which will stand for the rest on this list, since it wasn't a particular route I loved, but all of them, any as good as the other and none of them direct enough to be the obvious choice.
- Route 5A, between Merritt and Kamloops, B.C. Every summer my wife and I make a full-day drive from Seattle to a cabin in south central British Columbia where her mom spends the warm half of the year. We usually drive separately, since Laura spends more time there than I do, and for Laura, who stops only for the barest of necessities, it's a nine-hour drive (if she times the ferry across Arrow Lake right). For me, with full meal stops (and, on the way back, a Bellingham-Chuckanut detour) it can last twelve hours or more. I'm more likely to freelance, and for one stretch of the trip, between the high desert towns of Merritt and Kamloops, I always take a scenic route she finds unbearably slow. While she's on route 5, pushing 120 km/hr, I'm on 5A through the Nicola Valley, lucky to hit 90 if I'm not stuck behind a truck on a road too curvy to allow passing for most of its mileage (kilometerage?). But my route links from lake after lake, both long ones and pocket ponds (some dried up this dry summer), through some of the prettiest country in what is a very pretty twelve- (or nine-) hour drive.
- Beach Drive, Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland. I feel almost obligated to include Beach Drive on the list--it's the most meandering and lovely of urban drives, a quintessential narrow parkway through the Rock Creek ravine that cuts north through Northwest D.C. And it ends up closer to my usual destination than the routes in #4 do. So why did I almost never take it home? Well, for one thing, it's just too damn long and indirect--even I, apparently, have a limit to my taste for meandering. And it was also prey to evening or weekend closures I could never keep track of that would spit me out on some side street halfway up the ravine from which I would end up driving in circles before finally, shamefully, surfacing on some colossal avenue like Connecticut. Nevertheless, Beach is lovely, and I have a very fond memory of taking the long way home on it from Capitol Hill and listening to the postgame show after what may well be the Redskins' final Super Bowl victory (and, no matter what happens, the last one I'll care much about).
- Interlaken Drive, Seattle, Wa. Seattle, despite its beautiful views and route-deforming topography, has surprisingly few classic meanders among its roads, but this, easily the shortest route on the list, is my favorite. Off and on during the past decade I've had a regular basketball game on Capitol Hill (the Seattle version, though Seattle's not the capital of anything), and my favorite way to head home is via Interlaken, a bendy wooded drive through a park that, if not exactly a short cut, still brings me, with a surprising directness that's still a bit of a thrill to complete, to I-5 heading north toward home. Other Seattle contenders: East Green Lake Way, NE Pacific St., Beacon Ave. S, 3rd Ave. NW, and oddly enough Aurora Ave., the old multilane highway going north through the city, which at least at midnight can feel a little like a secret country drive out of town.
- Route 340, Lancaster County, Pa. The two grandparent poles of my youth were in Pennsylvania: Mt. Joy in Lancaster County and Wayne in the Philadelphia suburbs. We rarely went directly from one to the other (or at least I didn't pay much attention to the drive when we did), but this year I've had reason to do so a few times. You can probably make better time by going up to the turnpike (as Google recommends), but any time I can I'll take state route 340 instead, which heads east from Lancaster through some of the towns with the double- (or in some cases single-) entendre names--Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand--that make up the heart of Lancaster's Amish country. There is, of course, something unsettling about motorized rubbernecking at the buggies and scooters and brightly colored laundry lines of America's favorite antimodernists, but nevertheless the Amish do carry it off with great style, and even for a city-loving modern like me there are few vistas lovelier than rolling hills sectioned off into family farms.
- Sheridan Road, Chicago and the North Shore, Ill. After living in Chicago for a year after college my main complaints were "too cold and too flat." But perhaps, much as I love the El and its ilk, what I missed was not having a car, and therefore no access to motorized meandering. Nevertheless, Sheridan Road, the lakeside avenue that connects northern Chicago to the suburbs of the North Shore, had some of the flavor of my favored routes, wider than most of them but similarly varied, with a different story around each turn. On the days I wasn't temping I would walk north along Sheridan Road (no one ever just says "Sheridan," as far as I can remember--they always include "Road") to the library at Loyola University or take the El to Northwestern (one time at least I walked the whole way to Evanston). I must have had access to a car at some point, because I remember ticking off the towns as we drove north--Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, Lake Forest--each more preposterously prosperous than the last.
- Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Los Angeles, Ca. As the last entry makes clearest of all, one other element that links many of these routes is wealth. Is it that their loveliness makes them desirable real estate, or is the wealthiness itself part of what makes them lovely (to me). I'm afraid it's a bit of both--I think I must like seeing houses bigger than mine, at least in the right setting. Speaking of which, I've never lived in LA and don't have much of a personal connection to Laurel Canyon (aside from loving the underadored Lisa Cholodenko movie of the same name), but on one recent visit when I was alone with a car I turned off Sunset to see what this famous street was all about. I didn't have much time to wander and didn't get far into the hills, but before I turned around I fell almost breathlessly in love with the twisty, vertical, and, yes, wealthy bohemianism of it--and at the same time felt a sort of shame about my crush--"Really--how predictable..."--the same sort you might feel when looking at, say, Kate Beckinsale.
(Thanks to ehpien for the Flickr shot of Bradley Blvd.)