As I drove around collecting pie, wine and flowers to bring to someone else’s Thanksgiving dinner, I happened to cross over Interstate 80 and witness the endless stream of humanity stuck in stop-and-go holiday traffic.
It reminded me that I’d chanced upon a news release from Metro Networks, a traffic reporting company, on the top 10 worst holiday traffic nightmares.
Believe it or not, it actually elicited warm fuzzies as it conjured up some ghosts-of-Christmases-past spent on more than one of the freeways on the list.
Like eggnog or jelly donuts, it seems that holiday traffic jams have become such traditions that the thought of them can actually elicit joy.
My special memory is bumping though the industrial wasteland of New Jersey in my badly timed 1972 VW Superbeetle, listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” I was traveling up I-95 from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Newburgh, New York, to catch a Christmas party hosted by the woman I was to marry a few months later.
Ever since then, when I hear that song and see refineries flaring waste gases, I get a bit misty-eyed.
That holiday route was listed by Metro as the King of Kings on its Top 10 Worst Holiday Traffic Tie-Ups in America:
This corridor is easily the slowest 225 miles of highway during the holidays. The section from the Delaware Memorial Bridge to the George Washington Bridge (i.e., New Jersey) is the worst of it.
Sniff, sniff. I’m having a moment here.
But take heart, this one of the very few traffic “worsts” that the East Coast can steal from our California freeway mythos. As the commuter underworld, Southern California is still tops and the Bay Area is second by several ways of measuring.
And even in the area of non-commute traffic nightmares, we still measure up pretty poorly.
Take the I-5. Please.
According to Metro’s top 10 list, it ranks third, after the Massachusetts Turnpike leading out of Boston:
Both sides of Interstate 5 from the Grapevine through Orange County. Northbound gets tightly congested with holiday travelers heading to San Francisco and beyond, while southbound lanes attract those heading toward San Diego and Tijuana.
And at No. 6 is the very same freeway that caught my eye on Turkey Day:
Eastbound Interstate 80 through Sacramento to Lake Tahoe. San Franciscans (they mean Bay Area residents) seeking “holiday weather” heavily travel this route to the nearby ski resorts and mountains.
It was with a certain sense of smugness that read this and later watched the wretched masses of flesh and steel lined up in Solano County. I had chosen not to travel. I was having dinner at the home of one of my son’s friends and, as it happened, I got to carve the turkey.
I should note that I frequently took the train between New York and the Washington area, although that option isn’t nearly as inviting in the Golden State.
One of this year’s Thanksgiving hostesses had just returned from her freshman year of college at UC Santa Barbara, taking a commuter train to San Luis Obispo, then a bus to San Jose and the Capitol Corridor train from there to her home in the Central Valley. Believe it or not, but that’s much faster than a single Amtrak Coast Starlight train that goes the entire way, in large part because intercity passenger railroads have been so neglected in this country.
Last year, my son and I were up at 5 a.m. to begin our race down I-5 to Thanksgiving dinner in Van Nuys, where my father and sister are on the permanent guest list of an old family friend named Joe. Joe was a young airman far from home in West Germany, where he regularly sat down to holiday dinner at our house in the early 1970s.
It was a lovely dinner, with some 20 guests under citrus trees in Joe’s sunny backyard. I got to see family friends who had known me when I was in grade school and my son got to hear funny stories about his old man.
But this year, I plan to travel all they way to San Diego for Christmas, so I thought two trips down south would be excessive for the holiday season.
Still, when I saw those cars sitting on the freeway, I thought about long-running discussions I’d had with my son as we plodded toward L.A. I thought about pulling onto the median in a shower of tiny rocks as I and a dozen of my fellow travelers nearly avoided a chain reaction. I also thought about arriving in the afternoon, seeing all the smiles, recognizing long-lost faces and drowning in hugs.
Graph of holiday travel volumes from www.bts.gov.