Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cannonball Run

Sally and BurtOn the map, it was a finger-length.

The route strayed in spots, but generally arrowed west along motorways and flat countryside, bypassing cities.  Not that it mattered, I’d likely be on the ring roads before (or after) any commuters were thinking of using them.

In a word, easy.  Just point the car, press the gas, and I’d be in Bristol before I knew it.

The plan hatched over the weekend: a major gathering of investors at a seaside chateau on Tuesday.  We secured a spot midway through the 10-2 meeting, and my CFO worked up some posters so that we’d have a professional appearance.

The problem was that I was in Maastricht, 800 km away.

Planes cost over 600 euro; trains were not much less and took longer.  Travel times were four hours either way anyway; why not just drive it.  Car rental was 132, ferry 30, gas 100: it’s a bargain.

‘even if it’s 1600 km.

2 am:  I crunched through the ice to open the garage and slide my tiny rental car out into the dead winter night.  The engine complained, the tires skidded.  Road spray froze, crusting salt and mud onto the lamps and windscreens.

Empty highways.

South to Luik, east across Belgium, podcasts humming in my ears, the miles melting away.  Brussels is easy at 4 am;  I looped the ring and sprinted towards Dunkirque.  A little gas outside Brugge, breakfast of coffee and Pringles, chasing the 6 am ferry.  It sailed into the docks on-cue, lit like a wedding cake.  A half dozen sleepy cars elbowed among a crowd of eastern European trucks for space.  I celebrated with the 7-item special breakfast and phoned to say I’d be there by 9.

The plan began to dissolve almost immediately.

Traffic thickened, slowed, then stopped before Heathrow.  An ice storm frosted the trees and polished the M4 from Reading out to the coast.  The twisty path from the M5 to Clevedon led to several dead ends; there was the matter of getting suited up in the parking lot on arrival.  In the end, 11 hours rather than the expected 8.

The pitch went well; the investors promised diligence and money.

I scavenged the lunch buffet after they left.

2 pm.  I reined the car back east and pushed through the familiar ice and fog along the M4.  Running counter to the commute, I thought I’d make up time, getting to Dover easily for the 6 pm ferry.

But, again, the M25.  Accidents, fog, random slowing.

I need to do a simulation some day to see if Britain’s ‘Pass only on the right’ rule actually speeds traffic vs. America’s ‘pass on either side’ tradition.  I think it creates bottlenecks, especially when trucks pull into the lane.

5:45 pm: Dover Ferry Docks.  The cars have loaded but the trucks are pulling on.  I leave my lights on and the motor running, smiling hopefully through the dirty windscreen and waiting my turn to squeeze on.  At 6:05, they wave and close the gates, leaving me and one truck on the docks.  The brightly lit ferry sails into the darkness of the Channel. Augh.

My philosophy is that there is always another train, plane, or boat.  But this is bad: it means I’ll be driving across Belgium at midnight.  I slipped into a fast-food outlet and disconsolately nibbled a lukewarm burger and limp fries.  I listened to Adam Curry railing against the TSA. I watched the staff clean the foors.

Wasted time.  I took my frustration out on Twitter, typing, deleting, over and over.

The ferry boarded at 8; I huddled into my winter coat and slept my way across.  Nearly 11 pm on landing: a quick refuel and a bit of water and junk sugar.  The roads were nearly empty again: Orion rose, snow began to fall.  Linear progress takes on a cyclic rhythm:  jumps between rest stops, hops between cities, over and over.  I wonder if people are programmed to turn lines into circles.  I wonder if it’s a sign of mental decay.

Vans and SUVs rushed out of the darkness and around me, vanishing in a spray of road salt.  I kept to a steady 130, channeling my inner Burt Reynolds and wishing for a CB and Sally Fields.  I don’t even stop to consider that this is certainly a marker for mental decay. 

Especially since it’s actually from Smoky and the Bandit and not Cannonball Run.

I pulled into Maastricht around 2:30 am, close the car into the garage, crunch back through the snow.  Didn’t Burt pull into a carnival atmosphere with cheering throngs at the finish?  My run ended in a dark and shuttered Christmas Market, grins of happy faces drawn into the snow on the parked cars.  My public.

24 hours, 1600 km, hopefully 50,000 pounds investment.  Some day, it will make a great war story, certainly ever more embellished.

Two finger-lengths on the map, at the  least, and a heroic Channel crossing.  And Sally.


patti said...

Oh I love this post. I make these kinds of runs to and from Boston. No ferry, but there is a big, high scary bridge over the Hudson River.

Dave Hampton said...

My brother used to be terrified of the big, high bridges: there was one near Duluth that used to scare him lots. The one at Malmo in Denmark is similar here. I'm trying to remember others: Florida, San Diego...