The Long One
Steel-colored first light above a lengthwise highway, rolling gun-metal hills beyond, a scene set off by a row of spindly and barren trees in crisp black focus. There's something comforting, regular about the standard tableau that I usually wake up to on the road, a simple chalk drawing dashed off by an art student. It could be anywhere in America, but it is one place: the far corner of the truck stop parking lot.
This reverie, or contentment, or whatever you could call it, quickly fades away -- early-morning consciousness gets sharpened against the tall black gas-price digits on the flickering yellow sign. I've known this was coming for several days now, and this is not something I can put it off until tomorrow or the next day. This is what I've slept six grey hours for.
This is the Long One.***
The route between here in Alpharetta, Ga. and home in Pawtucket, R.I. couldn't be easier. Interstate 85, connecting to Interstate 95 at Richmond, then it's a straight shot north. Never mind that it's 1,065 miles -- they're all going down, put behind me in neat 45 to 60-second increments, click click click. And it's all happening today.
There are several Long Ones scheduled for the 2007-08 season, this is the first. Each and every one is a black hole of time when no writing or work is getting done, no games are being watched or analyzed. This one came about because of an open-jawed tournament schedule in my first week on the road: Boston, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Tennessee, Georgia... the loop has to be closed. I'm in the family car, and the wife is going to need it this week.
I've done this kind of thing before, lots of times. There have been cannonballs across the midwest to catch Southwest flights out of Omaha, overnighters up the seaboard to return rental cars before the $80 extra-day charge kicked in. Last season, I covered a Coastal Carolina-Winthrop game in Rock Hill, S.C. on a Saturday afternoon and made it in time for opening tip for a Vermont-Stony Brook game on Long Island the next afternoon. The Long One I'm most proud of, however, was a loop closer I did one November Sunday in 2000: I checked out of a Minneapolis hotel at 6 a.m., sped eastward through rain patches and Chicago and Cleveland at Pittsburgh, and made it back home to Philadelphia before 10 p.m.. That's 1,167 miles, no speeding tickets.
They haven't all been solitary exercises, mind you. There was the time two years ago, the first season I worked for ESPN.com, when I was in the Nashville area on a Saturday night and had to return a car to Providence by noon on Sunday. My wife volunteered to fly down -- just because -- and I picked her up at BNA at 9:30 p.m. Central Time after a Middle Tennessee State game.
In near-silence, we passed shifts, driving and sleeping, stopping at truck stops along the way. There was something about the way she looked in the red stop-light glow of the all-night Pilot station, the way her orange hair shone as she brought coffee back to the car... I knew I'd gone and married the right girl. Together, we piloted the rented Hyundai Sonata back to its home port, with an hour to spare.
I don't consider "midseason form" to have anything to do with sentence structure, or easy jokes, or schedule juggling -- to me, it's my ability to drive extremely long distances in straight shots. This is just another test.***
It doesn't start well. Outside Atlanta, I'm run off the road by a black 3-ton American SUV. The vehicle is gigantic, with massive custom tires. As I'm attempting a merge onto one of the many half-finished highways in the sprawling metro area, the SUV denies me a space in front of it... there's pressure from behind as well, so I tip off the side of the slap-dash asphalt and halfway into a grassy drainage scoop. As I slam on the Honda Civic's horn in protest, it's anything if not pathetic and ineffective and unthreatening. meeeeeep.
When the gesture comes from behind the tinted glass, it's a turkey drumstick of a middle finger, in front of a face like a split-open turducken. Happy holidays, motherf%#$^r. I notice the flapping red-and-black "G" flags above the windshield, G for Georgia. That's the reason for the traffic, there's a game up in Athens today which I later find out is against Kentucky.
As I right the car and navigate back onto the road, I wonder if ESPN.com would have put my obituary on the front door of the site, or just the college basketball page. Kyle Whelliston, college basketball writer, tragically killed by the one thing he spent so much time railing against, SEC football. He died as he lived, never more than 100 feet from a Subway restaurant. He was 35.
The death fantasy doesn't last long enough. Before too long, I'm free of Atlanta and Athens and tailgate traffic, and I'm speeding northeast on I-85. The scorched ground and topless cafÃ©s of Georgia give way to flat South Carolina cities, corporate farm stands and outlet centers. By the noon hour, I've cleared Gaffney's giant peach.
The fall colors are still explosive across Virginia, smearing past the side windows in orange and red and yellow bursts. But this is still not enough stimulus. The ticking mileage on the GPS device counts down too slow through the 600's, the 500's. There's a hockey tripleheader on XM -- the Kings and Coyotes, the Senators and Maple Leafs, and a Battle of Alberta later on... but nobody's scoring any goals. I resist the urge to bored-dial friends, because that's the way friends stop being friends, and talk into a small voice recorder attached to the keychain.
When I retrieve the notes later, they're generally incomprehensible, a frosted-glass window into a mind stuck in a temporary moving jail.
"OK, sock puppet basketball. Can you imagine? They'd dribble by bouncing the ball in their, you know, mouths, then they'd shoot it into a basket that's about a foot tall. And it'd all be on a puppet stage, or a cardboard box, uhhh... or... [click]"
"Remember to soap that thing by Tuesday. [click]"
"I think there's really a town called Sussudio, Virginia. I think that's what the sign back there said. Look it up on Google when I get home. [click]"***
The XM traffic channel says there's moderately heavy congestion in the Tri-State area... the "jam-factor" is "yellowish-green." Just south of the BosWash megalopolis, I make the decision to sidestep the whole thing, all the Saturday night drunk drivers and the $25 in tolls for the privilege of sitting in traffic. I ask the GPS device to figure me a toll-free way around, something I've been meaning to figure out for years. It's 100 miles out of my way, but the gas and time savings make up for it.
That starts just as badly as the day did. The directions throw me headlong into Washington, D.C. traffic, a twisting series of three-digit interstates and Pennsylvania Avenue. In the 6 p.m. darkness, I gaze at the Washington Monument so long I feel like I should leave something in the donation box.
When I wriggle free of the District, I'm spit out onto Interstate 83, hurtling through dark Maryland and even darker Pennsylvania. All of a sudden, the route recalculates, and I'm in a world of keystone-enclosed one-lane highways. Reading, Allentown and Bethlehem tick by, and I'm back on the red-and-blues. I-78 to I-287, and then to the mother road I-95.
But all the twists and turns have taken my last energy from me. It's 1 a.m. on Sunday morning at a Connecticut service area, the one near the King's Highway exit. In the glow of the 24-hour McDonald's, I begin a text message to my wife, 110 miles north of me, back at home. "Stopping 4 a few hou"
I never finish it. I'm out cold.Games: 13