Monday, February 16, 2009

A Brutal Road Trip To See My Uncle

My uncle passed away last week in his sleep. It took everyone by surprise, including his family, with whom he was distant and disconnected and had no idea of his health problems. His own family didn't find out until several days later, when his co-workers informed them, and I found out a couple of days later. Consequently, I had to put our lives on hold and make arrangements to get down to Virginia to pay my respects.

It was a difficult situation for everyone for many reasons, but the one thing that really stuck in my mind was how little his own family really knew about him. As his nephew, I accepted the lack of knowing as part of being his extended family, but even his own children saw him as a mystery, and that really came to light when I was down there. I felt bad for his kids, my cousins, because of the pain of not only losing their father, but of never really knowing him and now, with his passing, realizing that there was so much they would never know.

My uncle was a difficult person, and at times I think he was selfish and thoughtless to his own kids, not unlike my father was to us, and how hard it was to learn so much about him after the fact. It was a sad time, but my cousins are fantastic people, they've really done right by themselves, and where he should have been proud of them, he wrestled with feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. And they tried so hard to make him proud.

Anyway, I knew that I had to make it down there, even though there is so much going on here and we'd had so many plans. But I love my cousins, they're great people, and when my father passed away ten years ago, they were there from the get-go, and it was my family. So I had to come up with a plan.

My uncle lived in Alexandria, VA, which is essentially Washington DC, so it was close enough to consider a car trip, yet far enough to warrant a plane trip. I had to decide quickly because my cousins had let me know about two days before they had planned an impromptu memorial in his honor.

I'm ashamed to admit this, but I wrestled with the decision to even go, because the truth was, as much as I love my my cousins and my aunt, we don't keep in touch at all, and my uncle was a difficult and offensive person, and there is so much going on in our lives up here, that to drop everything and go down there would be a challenge, logistically and financially. I know for most people this would not have been an issue, but you have to know what our family is all about, and then maybe, just maybe, you'd understand.

Either way, it became a non-optional situation. I knew I had to go, he was my uncle, and my cousins mean a lot to me, even though they indicated that they understood if I couldn't make it. The problem is, as a family, we are a bunch of flakes, and seem proficient at finding excuses.

I scrambled to look for a way down. I had about two days to find a solution. The first step was to cancel all of our plans for the next two days, and then find transportation. A plane would have been not only a hassle, but expensive. Then again, my cousin had just landed in Paris and had to get back on the plane and fly back home, so I couldn't complain. The trains are a nice way to go, but the scheduling and duration are intolerable, so it boiled down to driving.

So I rented a car, and though I'm not here to plug local businesses, I just wanted to say that Enterprise gave me a great deal on a weekend rental, and the person working there, Kevin, was great to work with. Thanks for that.

I decided to leave Friday morning to be there for the Friday memorial. I woke up at 2:00 AM and hit the road. The drive was actually nice, though I hit a brutal snowstorm just outside of Brattleboro and thought, if this keeps up, I'll never get there. Fortunately, it stopped, and it was clear sailing all the way. Now I'd never driven to DC before, so I was driving unfamiliar highways and trying to read directions while looking at a map, all at the same time. It was rough, and I missed having my trusty navigator, Ruth, there by my side.

One of the things that gave me anxiety was having to pass through New York City. As much as I love the city, driving there is hell, and I was going to hit the George Washington Bridge right at morning rush hour, though it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, maybe because I didn't actually go into the city. Either way, traffic was hell, and the signs are about as challenging as any drive you're going to find. Once you're out of the city's range, you can breathe a sigh of relief and simply head down the Jersey Turnpike.

The drive was pretty straightforward, and basically amounted to a straight shot down the Turnpike. New Jersey is depressing, just a suburban wasteland throughout, though near New York, in Newark and Elizabeth, it more or less resembles an industrial wasteland. It's hard to imagine that it's the Garden State, though I know there are beautiful beaches and lots of farmland.

The tolls will kill you. I spent about $25 in tolls, and I'm not even sure what for. I was stopping for tolls in seemingly random places, and I was glad I went to the ATM. Crossing into Delware was actually nice, the Delaware River is beautiful and bigger than I had imagined, though shortly after that, I entered Maryland, and that's where the difficulties really set in. I don't know much about the state, but from what I could gather, it's been simply destroyed by development. Central Florida came to mind, and wherever I drove, there were construction trucks tearing up the landscape. Consequently, the traffic was hell, and with the economy heading in the direction it is, I kept envisioning this abandoned wasteland of development. Suburban hell, actually, and the price of what some see as progress.

And of course, I got lost several times. The problem with driving it alone is that you can't read a map or directions with much diligence, and the directions don't give enough details to help you find your way out of a tough situation. Fortunately, at that point, I was getting pretty close, and the few times I stopped to ask for directions, the people were able to actually help. Lucky me.

The traffic was terrible, as well. They talk about LA traffic, but it's become a country-wide phenomenom. Cars everywhere, and miserable people driving them, including me. At one point, near the MD/VA border, I was so confused that I had to get off the freeway, drive around the city, and by some twist of fate, found an Enterprise rental office and asked for directions. The dude there knew his stuff, and was even familiar with my uncle's neighborhood.

By the time I landed, eight hours later, I was getting tired and I still had to find my way through the suburban hell that was Alexandria, VA. It's sort of depressing when you see so many stip malls and big stores, a scene played out across so much of America, it's depressing. All this commerce, all geared towards getting people to burn their money and drive the economy. I'll take the countryside of Vermont any day over all that.

My final go at getting lost was in fact in Alexandria. The Mapquest directions, which for the record were RIGHT ON, listed the streets by numbers, and of course, the streets had names. So I had to pull over and ask if anybody knew where #644 was. People looked at me as if I were crazy, or simply gave me the cold shoulder. By some miracle, there was one woman who knew the names and numbers. She worked at a car wash, of all places, and she had a huge map. I found my way to my uncle's condo, and was relieved to finally get out of that car.

That night, I crashed out around 9:00 PM, woke up at 2:00 AM, and drove home. More than anything, I wanted to be home with my family for Valentine's Day, which also happens to be our anniversary. I made it home by 11:00 AM, and that night made it to the Tiki Trek XC ski party. How's that for a mad dash?

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

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