I am awakened, disoriented, by the sharp turn of the wheel. It is dark and foggy outside the windshield. Ice patches punctuate the streaming monotony of the stark white line on my right. We are somewhere west of Kentucky in southern Indiana, dodging ghosts and phantom animals in the Hoosier National Forest. I have been asleep, fitfully, for only a few hours. It is almost 4:00 in the morning.
We cross the Ohio River about 45 minutes later. I am now awake enough to have a coherent conversation with my wife, who is getting sleepy. After touring the darkened downtown of Louisville, we exchange positions at a rest stop. Now it is my turn to fight the phantoms of fatigue and the ice on the road.
We had been driving east, in a window of clear weather between two storm fronts. The one preceding had left only a few days before, leaving dustings of snow and ice on the ground ahead of us. At every stop tonight, frost-covered door handles greet our arrival. State highway workers huddle in the warmth of their mop closets. Behind us, hundreds of miles to our west, another storm is chasing us. We are thankful to have mostly-dry roads as we speed home.
I stop in Lexington for food and fuel, hoping that some calories and caffeine will make the pre-dawn drive bearable for a few more hours. It doesn't. I have only been at the wheel less than two hours when I have to pull over. I had been fine, alert and lucid, when out of the blue I "head-bobbed". You know what I mean. One second you are looking at the road, the next second you are jerking your head up in a panic, hoping against hope that you are still in your lane and not about to die at 70 miles per hour in the middle of Kentucky. A rest stop looms ahead 2 miles away and I pull in. The sunrise 50 miles west of West Virginia was glorious. I am too tired to appreciate it. My wife has been asleep less than an hour.
We switch places, as she insists that she is good to go. An little less than an hour later, she pulls into a rest stop. We have both hit the wall. It is time for some real sleep for a few hours.
Except I don't really sleep. Oh, I got some. Maybe an uninterrupted hour, not much more. But, now I am alert. The sun is up. The frosted fixtures of the rest stop shimmer and twinkle in the morning sun. The air is cold and my breath fogs as I walk to the restroom to splash water on my face and wash the crust from my eyes. I have decided to press on. It is 10:00 AM.
Crossing into West Virginia begins the final leg of our trip. The route that I-64 takes through the state is a twisting panorama of river valleys, gorges, and passes, punctuated by the last of the fall leaves coloring the forested hills. The road is narrow, and shared with returning vacationers and trucks on deadlines. Everybody is going fast and following closely. The nervousness keeps me edgy and alert. The road's twists finally wake my bride up in Charleston. She feeds me coins for the toll workers so I can focus on the task ahead.
At 12:45 we cross into Virginia. For the past hour she has slept. She finally looks rested and it is time for another change. We trade places in Clifton Forge, after filling up the tank for the final time.
Southwestern Virginia horse country rolls by the window at a steady pace until we connect with I-81. Here, the road construction and the holiday traffic conspire to reduce speeds to a walking pace for nearly 10 miles. Traffic breaks up before we get to Raphine and the drive into Charlottesville goes swiftly. More horse country rolls by. This is the Virginia of Madison and Jefferson. Some of these farms date back to pre-colonial times, passed between the generations as tangible proof of quieter times.
We follow the Virginia byways and back roads through Civil War battlefields until we connect with the busiest route on the east coast, Interstate 95, just 20 miles from home. And it is crawling slowly...we are so close, and we are stuck in traffic again. We've driven 2,700 on the return journey and only the final day presented any traffic difficulties. Go figure. Finally, the road opens up again though, and we finish the final few miles at speed.
As we turn down the drive and park, it hits me. I am home.